Sunday, April 6, 2014

This is a Happy Two-Bit

A few days ago, Ms.Pam demonstrated to us the proper way to tell Ken the deaf kid how to stop touching people.

"It has to be black and white with him," she said. "Very strong. It can't just be-" and then she yelled no! in kind of a quiet little voice, and weakly signed 'stop', which is a karate chop into your flat palm. "Not like that at all, you have to do this." And then she did something unusual.

She began the signing of her 'stop' high in the air, almost on tip-toe, and brought it crashing down, taking her body with her into a full squat, her buttocks just resting on the floor. As she did this, she screamed "STOP! NO! WRONG!" into the crotch of my co-worker seated in front of her. 

Ms.Pam continued to shriek while she pantomimed tearing Ken away from the stranger, like Moses bracing himself against the sides of the Red Sea.

She repeated this demonstration several times. I looked around the room, hoping to catch an eye, just one sane eye, but not a single other person was as much as smiling.

What would be more alarming to a guy on the street, I wondered: a deaf young man coming up to shake his hand, or a frantic lemur of a woman plunging between that hand shake, shooshing and chopping and deep squatting while screaming at everyone to stop.

Several days later, I was fortunate enough to see the scenario play out in real life.

Our class was on its way to a meeting of the "Aktion Club". This is a charity group that, in coordination with the local Kiwanis, does fundraisers for different causes. The smiley, ever-tan host of Aktion Club is an old fella named Ed. He always wears creamy sweaters with animal crests, and looks like the kind of person who drives a golf cart down to get their mail.

When Ken tried to hug Ed, I froze. Could I recreate Ms.Pam's apish display of ground pounding and bellowing? Would it give kindly Ed a heart attack?

Luckily, Ms.Pam never suffers from that disorder known as "hesitation". She was suddenly there, flinging herself quickly around a blind corner and shoving her body between the hug.

"No, no, no!" Her hands worked at Ken's embrace, prying it free and sending him backwards. "It's wrong!" She stared accusingly at me. "Didn't we just talk about this?"

I mumbled something about not realizing it was happening, as if in that narrow corridor I could have possibly missed what was going on directly in front of my face.

Knowing she expects me to be incompetent comes in handy. When caught in the act of doing things differently then she would have it, I can just make this face:

It's one of the few times in life that having crooked front teeth is an advantage. I just curl in my upper lip and twist my jaw so that my wayward left incisor (nicknamed Simple Bill) pops forward, and instantly, people's expectations for what I am capable of drop off drastically.

We squeezed into the Aktion Club board room and all the students took their places around a long wood table. At one end, the club president, a tall black kid in a brown fur coat, lounged in an office chair. There was a large brass bell and wooden hammer in front of him. The president was supposed to use these to call the meeting to order, but he was instead lightly pounding his cheeks with the gavel and clicking his tongue to make a beat.

As with all things, Ms.Pam takes Aktion Club very seriously.

"Call the meeting to order, Mr.President," she hissed.

"What up, ya'll?" he asked, and leaned forward to thump the bell with a finger. She gave him a strained smile, then turned to the table, clearing her throat loudly.

"It's time to say the pledge, everyone. Stand and face the flag."

Seventeen students and eight or so staff stood up, turned to the American flag in one corner, and began the Pledge of Allegiance. We were about half way through when Ms.Pam started shushing us.

"No! That's not right, is it? We're saying it too fast. It's way too fast." She said this for the benefit of Ken's interpreter, who had been frantically signing the pledge in double time. You could see the stress of it in the widening of her eyes.

We muddled through the rest of the pledge, and then sat back down.

Immediately, I heard the clattery ringing of a little bell, just like the kind you might have on your bicycle.

"Benjamin," Ms.Pam said sternly, "It's not time yet." 

A smiling young man at the opposite end of the table from the president apologized. But when she started to talk again, the bell rang another time.

Ms.Pam laid the minutes from last month's meeting down on the table.

"Benjamin, when is it time to ring the bell?"

He brushed his flat brown bangs back from his eyes and looked down at the long stick in front of him. On one end of it was a metal bucket. The other end had a rubber handle, and attached to that was the little bell. He rubbed the button for the ringer with his fingers but then snatched them back as if they were burned.

"Happy Two-Bits," he said. 

When it's Happy Two-Bits, Benjamin goes around the room and shoves the bucket in people's faces. If they have a quarter, they can throw it in and say something they are happy about that day.

"And is right now the time for Happy Two-Bits?"


She began to address all of us.

"Benjamin is our constable, right? And what does the constable do?"

The bell chimed.

"He keep order," said the president. Ms.Pam smiled and patted his shoulder.

"That's right, Mr.President. And what else?"

"HAPPY TWO-BITS!" Benjamin leapt from his seat to yell out. Ms.Pam shushed at him, and made a motion like she was trying to clear the room of cobwebs.

"But not now, Benjamin!"

He muttered Happy Two-Bits again as he sat back down.

The meeting plodded on. I couldn't stop myself from counting the number of times that Ms.Pam said "cha-ching!". She says it a lot, and even does the little downward arm pull with it. My favorite was the time she got it backwards, and said "Chi-chang!" and then corrected herself, saying it again the right way. Or sometimes, she shakes things up and says "Ta-ching!", but I think it kind of confuses her when she does this, because afterwards she stares hard like she's trying to remember something.

I counted up to fifteen, but started feeling guilty. I would not want someone scrutinizing some tic of mine, recording in their little yellow legal pad how many times I furtively cupped a hand to my armpit and then brought it to my nose to sample my own body odor, feeling like I got away with it, or squirmed unsubtly on my chair, in the obvious grips of some kind of anal discomfort.

"Ok, Benjamin-"

"YES! YES!" he shouted, ringing the bell like crazy and almost leaping on the table. He swung the bucket around and around. The students near him had to duck.


Very few people had brought money that day, however. 

Ed was always good for a Two-Bit, but he said the same thing he said every time.

"Just happy to be here today." It always reminded me of AA meetings when he said that.

A stocky guy with Down Syndrome, slumped low in his chair beneath a large camouflage trucker's hat, threw in a Two-Bit and told how he was happy because finally, finally he had a new girlfriend. Without glancing at her, he pointed a finger at one of the college girls who volunteer at the Club. She was checking her phone and didn't seem to notice.

Benjamin returned to his seat. I could tell he was not happy with the day's take.

After the meeting, Amy Ting and I hobbled outside towards the bus station.

"Oh my god, it's raining," she said. Several other people behind us began discussing the rain as well.

The people I work with are obsessed with the weather. Not only do they spend a good twenty minutes of class time on it, they follow that up with staff to staff recaps.

"I like the way Terence chose the word 'cool' instead of 'cold'. Because it's not really cold, is it? It's sweater weather. It's, well, it's what he said. It's cool."

"Supposed to be cold tonight though."

"Is it?"

I've been practicing my weather conversations, and I'm getting better at it. I gained major ground by discovering that, when it comes to weather, it's perfectly acceptable to just look up at the sky and say nothing. I even do this indoors, as if the perforations in the ceiling tiles will tell me the chance of rain.

You just have to squint upwards with sufficient gravity and weather talking people feel certain that you get them.

I looked up at the cloudy sky silently, but Amy was not going to let me off the hook.

"This girl does not like the rain, Savior!" she screamed in my ear. "You think she like the rain?! She does not, she does not."

Amy still insists on calling me Savior. It's getting uncomfortable. The other day, I lightly pressed on her back to inspire her off of a curb.

"BE GENTLE WITH ME, SAVIOR!!!" she had shrieked. People took notice.

I saw our bus up ahead, still a block off. It began to pull away from the curb.

"We have to hurry, Amy."

"This is my hurry," she said. It felt like we were walking on the bottom of the sea.

"So c-c-c-cold, Savior." Amy nuzzled her head into my shoulder. I could just imagine her saying weakly I'm so tired, so very tired as consumption sent her coughing mouth back into a blood-spatted kerchief.

We barely managed to get to the bus on time.

I have been riding the same 11:48 route to Ypsilanti for almost a year now, in this same new classroom, no longer new, with this same Ms.Pam and all that she brings with her.

I'm tired.

There is a small group of high school boys that ride the bus with us every week. They are some kind of jazz combo, shuttling to and from practice. 

So fresh faced they could've walked right out of the 50s, like they should be chewing licorice gum and scouring the railroad tracks for dead bodies instead of cramming onto the city bus and burying their faces in smart phones.

I think this has been a year of change for them, too.

Tod or Taddy or something, hard to hear over all the bus sounds, seems to have drifted from the rest of his bandmates. 

He must have discovered rock 'n' roll; his blond hair has grown long, curling at his shoulders and looking unwashed. He's traded the bright colored sports team sweatshirts of his peers for a black on black ensemble, a ragged suitcoat over a T-shirt. A skull necklace made from colored beads dangles around his neck. On his chin, an embarrassed cough of a beard.

Likely the band is frustrated with him. He's thrown out his Duke Ellington records and keeps bringing an amplifier to practice. None of their instruments can plug in to it, but he turns it on anyway, loud, and gets a faraway look in his eyes. 

I've watched the people at the Fitness Center change through the year as well.

One guy, I think of him as Big Fella, has been steadily losing weight. I envy his success, but I find his regimen to be kind of strange.

He spends his time bouncing a large rubber ball. As he dribbles, he jogs around the main floor, weaving around exercise machines and pausing to make small talk with people who seem unhappy to see him. He talks and bounces and jogs in place. His grey hooded sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves grows dark with cleavage sweat.

Between his booming voice and violent slaps of the ball, Big Fella is easily the loudest person there.

I stare at him a lot, and sometimes my perception blurs: is Big Fella bouncing the ball, or is the ball bouncing him?

I'm finishing this post up at my son's floor hockey game.

I am not a sports dad, yet I find myself yelling things anyways. Safe, non-specific things, because I am uncertain of how the game is played.

I'm selling it, I think. I'm really selling it. Blushing after every expulsion of "Chase it down!" or "Good hustle!" because it's kind of embarrassing to yell those things.

At last week's game, a kid pulled one leg of his shorts up and showed his penis to my boys. He fixed me with a challenging stare, as if to say, go ahead, tell my dad. I dare you. Tell my dad you saw my penis. 

Like I do in so many situations in my life, I froze in place, having no idea of what to do next.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Yes, we are tiny, but we are mighty

Lacking the ability to gussy up the scene, let me just say that the sunrise this morning was real pretty. It was pink and there were birds over it and it was like spying on God through a View-Master.

I don't like being ambushed by beautiful nature because it does that thing, that same stupid thing that tragedy and first love and all that stuff does, where it grabs my brain and screams "OH MAN! YOU'RE TINY AND THE WORLD IS BIG!" and I suddenly hate myself for being excited the night before when I beat my wife's Tetris score while playing Gameboy on the toilet. 

I realize then that I may not really know what excitement is, or what concepts like "personal best" or "fulfillment" could even look like. 

And with that realization, I groan in pain, knowing that some kind of epiphany is probably on its way. Some thought, possibly a life changer, a philosophic doozy, lurches forward to be born.

But at the critical moment, just as the head crowns, there is a sound not unlike stifled flatus, and instead of delivering a baby, I only deliver a deflated, baby shaped balloon, the best of my thoughts diffused back in to synaptic patty cake.

I scramble for my notebook anyway, thinking I better at least pretend that I was going to take seriously whatever it was I almost thought, when I see the little note I have written to myself and my blood freezes and I want to die, just die already.

Now I am not some kind of snob; I enjoy most of the things that the rest of humanity enjoys: rice, Carol Burnett. 

But many modern comedy motion pictures are inaccessible to me. 

I look around at other people laughing and I just feel sad. I want to ask them, what is here? What do I not know that you all do? Give me the secret information so I may laugh at "Here comes the Boom" with you. 

I bury my face in my popcorn and pray that eating and laughing are interchangeably acceptable in the eyes of society. See look, look, I have a soul, I'm eating this popcorn, ain't I?

The thing that worried me about "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" was that lately I have noticed a downward trend in my ability to politely tolerate the majority of situations that constitute "being alive".

Take small talk, for example.

I used to be able to fake it, even get into the act of it a little, but for some reason these days it hurts me physically to do it. 

I wonder if everyone I keep chatting with might be some kind of psychic vampire secretly infiltrating the earth for the sole purpose of telling me tomorrow's forecast and then draining me dry as I stumble over a response. 

If so, then the vampire Queen must be the poor, genuinely good woman who translates for the deaf student in our class. 

I have written of her before; she is the real deal: kind, considerate, respectful. 

I even wrote in her birthday card, "You are the nicest person I have ever worked with" and then I tried to draw something which I was not sure even what it was going to be, and it ended up looking like an anthropomorphic pickle filled with remorse.

As much as I admire this woman, I am unable to have a conversation with her. Something in me starts a little countdown timer that will surely result in my entire head exploding if I do not somehow end the exchange prematurely.

My excuses for getting out of small talk with her have literally been as lame as fakely stammering "I have to-have to" and then slowly walking backwards from her.

She stopped me in the hall to tell me how delicious the school pizza was that day.

"Because it was warm. It was really nice that it was warm, they had it in a box, you see," and she drew the dimensions of the pizza box in the air with her finger. "Normally they have it in one of those serving dishes," her hands shaped the dish,"and its barely covered, so it's cold. But today, it was really nice because it was in the pizza box", she made the box again. "It was nice and soft, you know, not hard and dry, it's nice for the kids to have soft, warm pizza."

I have no idea what my face was doing, but inside, it was taking me all the mental grit I had to stay rooted to the spot and hear her out about the warm pizza. She kept using the word "nice" and it became like profanity; harsh to the ear and kind of tacky.

"I just thought it was really nice to have it like that," box shape again,"I'm going to tell them or you could tell them how nice it was and how much the kids enjoyed the pizza today. They could actually chew it because it was soft, and very flavorful when it's warm." 

Somehow I knew that it could not go on, that I was going to scream uncontrollably and run directly through the big glass windows at the end of the hallway. My eyeballs must be bulging out, I thought, they just have to be.

Let the Rapture come before this woman smiles shyly and speaks the words "soft pizza" one more time.

The primal kernel in my brain that dictates my most basic functions somehow got a word in, and urged my feet backwards.

"I just-just-" There was now a foot between us and a crack of light.

But she is much kinder then me.

"Oh I know you're busy," she said, signing what must have been "busy", but looked like killing flies with maracas. She patted my arm and walked on.

I almost sagged to the floor. What's wrong with me, I wondered. This is what humans do. They talk about things. The littlest of things, even. It's not hard. You just make your mouth say words like 'oh' and 'great'. When in doubt, just smile. You're human, aren't you?

It was the gravity of this question that I carried with me into the screening of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

I came back out, after ninety-two minutes, and was not sure of the answer. My armpits stank and there were bite marks on my thumb from where I'd clamped down on the skin.

Everyone around me was smiling and recalling favorite bits. I had prepared my line already: "I knew Delgado would get his smell back."

Delgado was the disgraced police dog whose failure to protect his human partner had lead to his dismissal from the Mexican police force. The trauma of the experience had left him unable to follow a scent. Only when things are absolutely dire, when Chloe the Beverly Hills Chihuahua is in danger of being lost forever, does Delgado shatter the mental barriers handicapping his nose and redeem himself by saving the day.

"Did you like the movie?"

"I knew Delgado would get his smell back." The person asking me looked confused. Forgot to smile, I thought.

The interpreter approached me hesitantly, signing already as she neared. 

"Did you like the movie?" Her hands dug down in invisible dirt, searching for a lost bone.

I smiled big. 

"I knew Delgado would get his smell back."

"Uh-huh," she said, and patted my back like I was a child. "I liked that part too."

On the bus ride back to school, the ambient conversations around me played tricks on my ears, sounding like thirty quiet voices whispering "Chihuahua."

Ms.Pam greeted us with her usual lunatic electricity. 

She bobbed her head as she counted each student coming through the door, not convinced that we were capable of bringing back the same number of kids that we'd left with.

She grabbed the last guy through the door, and began to interrogate him about the movie.

"Now, was there just one Chihuahua, or a lot of them?"

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I don't willy know," he said, after a moment.

"Oh," she said. "Oh." Her eyes unfocused, and drifted towards the sky outside the window.

Monday, March 3, 2014

This world was never meant for one as beautiful as me

It's pretty obvious by now that I am a "creative" person.

I have all the symptoms:

And yet, I struggle a great deal with abstract thinking.

In my high school art class, our teacher, a crazed ginger by the name of 'Kitty', tasked us with creating a work that reflected our feelings towards the ongoing AIDS crisis.

Everyone took a different approach to the assignment: some people melted things, or appeared to have hurled uncapped markers at paper. The one kid who always made a Confederate flag for everything went ahead and made a Confederate flag.

I was at a loss. This was a time for metaphor, or poetic license, or some act of creativity described by a pretentious French word that for the moment escapes me.

Using a giant sketch pad, I layed out the lines for what I felt was a sincere expression of the horrors of AIDS.

Time has been ruthless to my memory, but my best recollection of the picture is this:

I remember that, not only did I title it "Positive", I wrote "Positive" on it in big red letters.

Each student took a turn showing their piece, talking about their artistic intentions, and then fielding questions from the rest of the class.

Kitty flitted around the room, nervously eating the macaroni from her necklace and cackling about how talented all of us were. 

Except me.

When I stood up and turned my drawing pad around to reveal "Positive" to the class, there was a noticeable shift in the mood. Everyone just seemed sad in their hearts; sad for art maybe, or sad about AIDS.

The great shimmy towards Relativism in our society has no greater proponents then high school art teachers; they simply will not call bad "bad".

I saw this struggle play out on Kitty's face. After clearing her throat and surveying the slumped shoulders of her students, she decided it was time at last to take a stand.

"It's's really quite bad." She looked sick to her stomach.

"There's not much to it," someone offered.

"He looks like he's laughing."

"Why is there smoke underneath the big red plus sign?"

Because it's abstract, you swine.

Kitty approached me, and there was genuine discomfort in her eyes. One of her bony fingers pressed on my picture.

"If you turn this in," she told me,"you'll get an 'F'."

I did not even know she gave letter grades; usually she just glued a word onto your report card from her collection of magnetic poetry. One semester, my friend got "unyielding". Hoping for a word as cool as that one, I flipped over my own evaluation. I got 'lobe'.

Actually, I made that last part up. I am as bad of a liar as I am an abstract thinker.

I want to lie; I mean, I really, really want to deceive people. It seems so exciting.

But right after a lie, I struggle to keep it together.

I live in fear of a scenario like this one:

It took forever to draw that completely exaggerated depiction of a fear I don't even really have.

This lack of abstraction really impacts my attempts to write creatively. 

I've even gone back to some of the old classic writing exercises to get the juices flowing. I've never much cared for the concept of flowing juice as the engine that drives good thinking. Actually, I don't have an opinion on it at all, and simply invented one right this moment because I was typing already and did not know what else to type.

I also don't like it when an author writes Listen:, and then goes on to write whatever they really really want you to pay attention to, like maybe a description of a tree or suspicious mist.

I can't stand that. It's like, oooh looka me, Ahm a story tella. Ahm part of a long tradition of story tellas going back to da dawn of man.
Gimme some candy.

Maybe I'm just jealous because I can't write a book at all.

Maybe I'd kill for the chance to write Listen:. But knowing that I shouldn't be writing a book in the first place, I wouldn't be able to keep it up, and it would become something terribly stupid, like Listen: my stomach is making hungry grumbles, or Listen: the senator farted.

So a classic writing exercise: describe a kitchen as seen by a person who has just suffered a horrible loss, WITHOUT mentioning death or dying.

I can't do it. All I get from my abstract brain is he carefully placed the vegetables on his plate in the shape of a frowny face. Discovering he had no appetite, due to...due to THE THING, he sadly put the food back in the refrigerator, and, with a heavy sigh, patted the mournfully humming appliance.
"At least you're still here, ole fridgy."

Agh, it's just wretched, too literal and unconvincing.

That's one of my problems. 

The stories I write tend to dispense with abstraction, symbolism, and metaphor all together. They read like the book reports of sixth graders:

Carl was a sad white man who was sad for reasons he could not put his finger on. Maybe it was because of the adultery. His brown eyes searched the room. He also had grey hair.  In the last chapter, on the plane home, he sees the sun setting over the clouds and gets a smile on his face that is sad and knowing.

My poetry is even worse. It's basically someone's grocery list.

leeks rhubarb
jelly two kinds
pickles-should we?
not bananas

I get to the part about chicken strips and terrible doubt creeps in. What am I even saying? I feel like all my writing is on the surface; there is nothing underneath, nothing to warrant re-readings and interpretation.

Someday I hope that a college professor will raise his laser pointer to the board and say "Which brings us to Gweenbrick. What did you think of the book?"

A young, hunky college guy will brush his bangs back behind his ear, almost dislodging the marijuana cigarette he has tucked away there.

"Um, I found the narrative to be compelling, and the central metaphor of the dynamo and the moustache to be auspicious," he says.

A pert blond girl asks, "When he speaks about donuts, do you think he's really talking about the futility of hope in the face of modern atrocity?" She has just one piercing too many, so you know there's a dash of arty in her regular.

The professor holds up a finger and looks down at his vibrating cellphone.

"Hold it, hold it...I'm getting a text from one of you now. Remember, you can always text me your question if you feel it's too stupid to ask aloud." He reads the message on his phone and chuckles to himself.

"Yes, yes, a very stupid question indeed," he remarks.

Everyone in the class begins to laugh, except one student who looks down at his phone, red-faced, and quickly conceals it beneath his copy of my book. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Life with Father

I figure my children are at the age now where their linear memory of events is starting to fall into place.

This means they will remember me from here on out, so it's time to start considering my legacy.

The long shadow I cast over their lives should be a smart one, so I let them find me reading tomes or standing around in quiet contemplation.

It's hard to sound much smarter then when you say 'yes' interrogatively. All the embarrassment you should be feeling is just kind of thrown back on the other person when you say, 'yes?' like that.

After writing this down, I felt uncertain  of myself and said 'yes?' to the empty room around me. Far from making me feel smart, it made me feel crazy.

Having spent a life time being mistaken for a deep thinker, I feel I have perfected my stance of quiet contemplation. 

When the weight of my thoughts becomes especially unbearable, it's time to put one hand on the wall for support.

This is how I want my children to remember me when I'm dead.

My wife does some things that really get in the way of my legacy, however.

She is kind of the Biff to my Willie.

Part of the problem is that when she sees a ridiculous dance or facial expression, she insists that I reproduce it for the amusement of the entire family.

Now I am not spineless, or lacking in self-determination, but when someone commands you to make an ass out of yourself, you do it. It's just how I was raised.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Competence Game

It bothers me that I lack competence.

I wish I was one of those guys that could be trusted to draw up blueprints, or could stab a map confidently with one finger and say "There." Then I would double tap the spot to show just how sure I was. 

But instead, I find myself living under a carefully built layer of apparent intelligence.

I know about knowledge, but I don't have knowledge.

I've always managed to fake it somehow, though.

In fact, in many of the classrooms I have worked, I was the go-to guy for all questions requiring a high level of know-how, especially technical know-how.

Sorry guys, I am having some technical issues. I have to use a different, unfamiliar drawing program to finish this post.

Of course, I was a fraud. I had a secret competent friend I would call when no one was looking.

 Like when my poor father always tried to help me with my geometry homework.
He'd walk in the door, barely lay his keys down, and get a greeting of:

I guess I have trouble paying attention to a lot of things in general.

Just the other day, I forgot to pay attention to how much ice was on the sidewalk, and I lost Amy Ting for a second.

She managed to heave herself back to standing by using first my knee, and then one of my belt loops, as anchor points.

It was plain stupid of me to let her walk without support. Amy is unsteady on her feet in good times. When she approaches a curb less then half an inch high, she hesitates forever.

"Do you need some help?" I ask.

"I'm coming, I 'm coming." She waves me away.

But she doesn't move. Minutes pass, and she might even tentatively dip one toe onto the street beneath her, but she quickly pulls it back. "All right," she tells herself, breathing hard. "I can do dis, I can do it." 

The day after she slipped on the ice, Amy came in limping. She saw me down the hall and yelled out, "Hello there, savior! Hello, strong one!"

I was confused.

It turned out that she had dubbed me "Savior" not because I had saved her from falling, because I so obviously hadn't, but because I had written up an accident/incident form for her to take home.

"Thank you so much for the yellow paper, strong one. It was so nice of you."

Now, at the end of every day, I wait just by the door, my arm cocked out expectantly. After a long, long while, she arrives, slips her arm around my own, and says, "ready, savior."

I escort her across the snowy ground to her waiting cab; our steps hesitant, clumsy, like confused and nervous lovers just learning to walk.

Now I do currently know a competent man. Or I guess I should say, I am often summoned by a competent man.

Skip is the dishwasher at the college cafeteria. He is always telling me to c'mere and see things.
Sometimes, it's to c'mere and see the president of the school as she gets into her little Volvo and drives away.

"Guess how old she is?" he always asks me. I don't know. She looks oldish and has heels on. I think there's hair in the equation.

But I never throw out a guess.

"Seventy-five!! You believe that?? Still looking pretty good, huh?" At this point, he usually claps me on the back or just smiles.

He likes to have me c'mere and see the compost bucket, as it gets fuller and smellier. Or a cage down the back hall with a sign on it that says "DON'T BLOCK".

"Shitheads are always blocking it," he tells me with disgust.

When I prepare the student's lunches, I am parked directly outside the door that leads into the kitchen. This gives Skip and I a lot of time together.

One day, Skip called me over to see the garbage disposal nestled at the bottom of a deep steel sink.
"I call it the Terminator," he said proudly. "This thing actually ate the old garbage disposal. Seriously. We had the parts from the old one on the ledge there, and BOOM! They fell right in. The Terminator ground'em up to nothing."

I could tell Skip loved the Terminator and wanted me to say something, but I couldn't think of anything.

If it was a baby, or a new truck, well, then there was a script to work from-'Awww cute' or 'Maaan, horsepower'-but with a garbage disposal, there wasn't a script. It was just two guys staring at a loud hole, one of them smiling.

After awhile, I nervously giggled out, "Man, we don't even have a garbage disposal at our house."

He squinted at me for a long time, taking in the fullness of my measure, eyeballing the cut of my jib.

Several days later, Skip challenged me to produce a better pulled pork then the one being served by the cafeteria that afternoon.

I was smacking the bottom of the ranch dressing to get at least a few gobbets onto a student's salad.

"It's pretty good stuff, is it?" I asked Skip absently.

That was his cue.

"C'mere,just c'mere."

I followed him back through towers of dirty dishes.

Skip pulled a black serving bin off of a cart, reached into the bottom of it, and lifted an orangey red piece of meat up to me.

"Don't believe me? Try it." His hand holding the pulled pork was slick with soap bubbles and dishwater; the many black hairs flattened into wet swirls.

Maybe it was the best pulled pork in the world.

I felt that weakness in me, that instinctive surrender to a competent voice.
Engine flush? Um, sure.
Take these pills? Well, OK.
Eat this pork?
Eat it?

God help me, I did.