Comanche

For whatever reason, Doug didn’t have much luck when it came to pets. The problem was that, whether through illness or accident, they tended to die well before the expiration of their natural life spans. From as early as he could remember, this had been particularly traumatizing.

The first to go had been his Doberman, a good-natured, albeit not terribly bright, dog named Duke. This had occurred at the farmhouse on Garst Road, on the outskirts of the town of Empire in the central valley of California, just before his father had packed up the family and moved to the nearby town of Turlock. Doug was about five or six at the time. Fortunately, he wasn’t present to witness Duke wander into the street that day. Unfortunately, he did arrive at the scene before his parents, having been drawn by the loud screeching of tires and blaring of a horn. He therefore witnessed his beloved Duke gasping for air, blood pouring from his nose, and a sickening gurgling and rattling sound coming from his throat. This continued until his father arrived and ordered Doug inside the house.

At the time, Doug couldn’t understand why animals had to die, especially good ones like dogs, which never hurt anybody. This is not to say he didn’t grasp the concept of death. He knew that things were born, grew old and then died, never to return. It was the finality of it all which caused his childish mind to revolt. He viewed death as a totally unnecessary and cruel phenomenon.

Not too many years later, he had a hamster named Rutherford that, though young, one day just stopped feeding. Doug tried everything in his power to induce him to eat, but to no avail. This was just after his parents had split up, so his mother was still very much adjusting to being on her own and unable to afford a vet bill. It tortured him, watching the little thing waste away and being unable to do anything about it. All he could do was cradle the fuzzy ball of fur in his palms, talk softly to him, try to make him comfortable. 

Then, unexpectedly, Rutherford got his appetite back. He ate voraciously, enough probably for two hamsters. Doug, needless to say, was ecstatic. He spent much more time with him then before the little critter had gotten sick. If anything, this brush with death made him appreciate the tiny life he was responsible for more than ever before.

And it wasn’t just Rutherford’s appetite that improved. He was more alert and physically active as well, putting at least a mile a day on his hamster wheel. He continued to improve. After a week, Doug felt he could breathe again. His tiny pet had fully recovered. 

A day or two later, he was dead in his cage.

Like Duke, the loss of this pet was traumatic, but for different reasons. Unlike the death of Duke, which had been sudden and unexpected, Rutherford’s demise had been slow and anticipated. And, of course, also unlike the previous case, this time Doug had been filled with a momentary sense of false hope, as if God was working himself up to a hilarious punchline, drawing out the joke as long as possible so he might give it a twist ending.  The whole experience filled Doug with self-doubt. Questions remained. Had he done something to get his hamster sick in the first place? Had he been too complacent upon seeing him regain his appetite? Should he have monitored him more closely? Put him on a different diet? Taken him outside more often for fresh air?

These were, of course, fruitless questions forever to remain unanswered. Doug settled into a sad resignation that life was pointless and utterly devoid of any real meaning. Things were born. Things died. There was no reason for it. It just was.

Over the years, inevitably, other deaths followed. One winter morning, his brother-in-law Tim stopped by the house for something or other. While he was inside, Doug’s favorite cat Witten climbed under the hood of his truck to warm itself by the heat of the engine. Ten minutes later, the fan blade made short work of the poor thing, reducing it to a twisted snarl of fur and guts. And, particularly traumatic, was the time his beloved cocker spaniel Charlie had been accidentally run over in the driveway by Doug’s own sister.

Of all the pet deaths he had witnessed, though, perhaps the toughest to bear had been that of his father’s hunting dog, Comanche, who they had raised from a puppy. Since his dad had moved to the country, out by the golf course on the outskirts of Turlock, Doug spent his weekends there with not a single other kid within miles. Naturally, that dog had become his best and only friend. Though he looked rather goofy with his droopy ears and constantly wagging tongue, he was actually quite clever. He’d been bred from a long lineage of bird dogs. 

Sometimes Doug would tag along with his father on pheasant hunts, not to shoot the birds, but to watch Comanche dash into the brush and, upon spotting a pheasant, freeze, snout thrust forward, front left paw bent ever so slightly back. It was clear he thoroughly enjoyed it. Doug, though not a hunter, was nevertheless extremely proud of his dog. They spent hundreds of hours together over the course of the four or five years his father owned him. 

Comanche’s last day on Earth was every bit as much unexpected as it was horrific. In all respects, it had been just another typical Saturday. He and his dog had been running around the property, Comanche taking particular delight in chasing an old stray cat Doug had been leaving cans of tuna on the porch for over the past few months.

The cat was much too fast for the dog. Only once had he been able to catch him, and when he did, the cat threw such a fit that Comanche ran off, tail between his legs and a fresh scratch on his nose. Doug’s dog was too good-hearted to do much of anything else. The joy for him was clearly in the pursuit, not the capture.

   Keeping up with an energetic dog in its prime was, of course, no easy feat, particularly in the triple digit Turlock summer heat. After an hour or so, Doug went inside to watch some TV and left Comanche to continue running around outside. He would invariably show up on the porch, pawing at the screen door around four or so in the afternoon, his unofficial dinnertime. 

   Inside was scarcely better than out when it came to the oppressive heat. The farmhouse apparently predated centralized air conditioning. Energy spent, Doug picked up the remote control and began sifting through the big steaming pile of crap that was daytime television. Finding nothing to keep his attention, he closed his eyes and dozed off.

When he awoke, the sky was a deep crimson. He sat up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. His father had yet to return from town, where he frequently went on weekends. Though he was officially retired, he still spent much of his time down at the station flirting up the pretty secretary who worked the front desk. Doug got up, stretched, and headed toward the porch. His dinner time long past, Comanche had likely given up begging to get in and was probably curled up by the screen door.

Doug stepped outside. It was still quite hot out but not intolerably so. Comanche, though, was nowhere to be seen. He called out to him a few times and, at the risk of letting more flies in, propped open the door with his father’s spittoon. Heading into the kitchen, he made himself a bologna sandwich, fully expecting his dog to come bounding into the house any moment.

It wasn’t until Doug had finished his food and washed the dishes that he realized his dog had still not returned. The first alarm bells began to tinkle ever so lightly in his head. He stepped outside and instinctively looked toward the street. Like any country road, cars treated it like a racetrack but Comanche was well trained and knew better than to wander anywhere near it. 

He took a walk out to the edge of the property, toward a small cluster of dried out and unhealthy looking elm trees. His dog liked to rest in the scant shade there. But not this time. Could he be messing around with that cat again?

Doug walked back toward the house, calling his dog’s name as he went. As he neared the back porch, he saw the cat picking at the remains of that morning’s tuna. The alarm bells rose by a few decibels. He stuck his head in the house for a moment to check if Comanche had made his way in during the few minutes he had been out looking. No luck.

At this point, the idea that something bad may have happened to his dog first began to morph from a vague and unlikely possibility to a concrete and ever more likely certainty. He recalled a game of fetch they had once played, years before, when Comanche was still a pup. Back then, his dad, freshly divorced, had lived in town, out near the high school, with a pool in the backyard. Usually he and his dog would play fetch in a vacant lot nearby where there was plenty of room to run. This day, though, had been a typical Turlock summer one, brutally hot. To avoid wearing Comanche out with the heat, therefore, Doug switched the game to the water, tossing Comanche’s favorite frisbee into the pool.

As always, Comanche did nothing to conceal his excitement once he saw Doug grab the frisbee out of the pantry, where it was stowed alongside the sacks of dry dog food, leashes, and chewed up rawhide. His tongue wagged along with his tail in happy anticipation. They headed out to the pool and, immediately, the game commenced, with Doug tossing the frisbee in the water and Comanche paddling out to the deep end and returning with it gripped tightly in his dripping mouth, ready for another round.

They continued like this for some time, a good thirty minutes at least, before Doug grew bored with the game. He would have stopped it altogether had not his dog been having such a good time. As a compromise, he grabbed a paperback and stretched out on the lawn chair by the water’s edge, his book folded in one hand while he used the other to absently toss the frisbee back in the pool each time it was returned to him.

The book was a good one and it wasn’t long before Doug, absorbed in the story, was no longer paying attention to the game at all. As often happened when he really got into a book, the rest of the world melted away as his imagination transported him into the fictional world of the narrative. His mind barely registered the repeated sounds of his dog splashing in the pool, the scrape of hard claws against the concrete tiles as he pulled himself out, the rattle of the bell on his collar as he shook off the water, and the rapid slapping of wet paws on pavement as he padded over to return the frisbee. Because his mind was so singularly engrossed, his body was essentially on autopilot. Every time Comanche would come back, Doug’s arm stretched itself out until the frisbee was nudged into his open hand. He would then toss it blindly into the pool again, more or less unaware he was even doing so.

Naturally, it never once occurred to him that maybe his dog was not merely tired but utterly exhausted from the non-stop jumping, swimming, climbing, and running that had, by this point, been going on for the better part of an hour.

The truth was, Comanche was well past the point of exhaustion. Ever eager to please, he continued playing the game anyway, perhaps reasoning in his own unique canine fashion that drowning was preferable to letting down who he likely considered the alpha male of his human pack, of his human family: Doug.

Fortunately, Doug’s external senses were dulled but still functioning. The first thing he noticed, something that pulled his mind from the story that had so captivated him, was the complete cessation of sound he had been unconsciously hearing over and over again from his dog for so long.

Doug was up and out of the lawn chair in seconds. He executed a kind of running stumble that ended in a very ungraceful dive into the pool. 

Comanche’s body had gone completely limp. His legs were splayed out to the side and his snout and eyes were underwater, as if he were a snorkeler gazing at the bottom of the pool. His floppy ears stuck straight out from his head, floating lazily in the water, like small furry oars.

Doug pulled the lifeless body of his dog to the edge of the pool and, with a surge of adrenaline, hefted him out of the water.

Seconds later, he was crouched down with his ear to Comanche’s mouth, listening for breath and wondering just how in the hell one goes about performing CPR on a dog. Not knowing if such a thing would even work but also realizing he had no idea what else to do, Doug seized Comanche’s snout, brought it to his mouth, and prepared to blow.

Fortunately, his dog chose this moment to come out of it. He looked around for a moment, as if dazed, briefly stood on shaky legs, and then fell to his side, panting heavily. 

Doug carried him inside and, crying with equal parts relief and shame, sat with him the rest of the afternoon, spoiling him rotten with all his favorite treats, making a silent vow to never again be so careless with his dog.

For weeks afterward, Doug had been riddled with guilt. Comanche had been ready to drown himself rather than, as he apparently perceived it, let his master down. And Doug had been too blind and preoccupied to even realize it until it had been almost too late.

Doug shook off the memory and broke into a jog, circling the property, calling out his dog’s name ever louder as he went. After a couple of circuits around the house, he headed out toward the small barn, which his father had converted into a sort of hobby shack, where he kept his tools, woodwork, homemade fishing lures and whatnot. Now that he had retired, the space was used much more frequently and had become increasingly cluttered with each passing week.

He didn’t really think Comanche would be in there. For one thing, he wasn’t allowed to be and, if nothing else, he was an obedient dog. Yet dogs, like kids, are known to get into mischief when left to themselves, so it was worth a look. 

The first thing he noticed as he approached was the door, which was cracked open about a foot or so. This wasn’t good. It was supposed to be locked shut. He wondered if his dog would take this as an invitation to enter.

He stepped inside and fumbled for the light switch he knew to be somewhere off to his left. He stopped abruptly upon hearing a scuffling sound and, a moment later, the faint jingle of the bell attached to his dog’s collar. An immense wave of relief swept over him as he again groped for the light. Comanche was alright. He had probably kept quiet because he knew this place was off-limits and he might be in trouble.

Doug finally found the switch and the small barn was instantly bathed in a sickly yellow light emanating from a single bulb dangling from a rafter. Thick particles of dust floated in the air like a swarm of flies. Comanche was there, off in the corner, whimpering quietly. As he approached, his dog came forward to greet him. Rather, he attempted to. His legs dragged limply behind him as he tried to pull himself forward, using only his arms for leverage.

Doug quickly squatted down in front of his dog, trying his best to assess whatever injury he had sustained. His first thought was that he had somehow managed to break both his hind legs. Unfortunately, it was nothing so benign. 

With tremendous effort, Comanche managed to drag himself another few inches until his head rested in his master’s lap. Doug reached down and stroked his dog’s cheek and felt something wet and foul on his hand. He instinctively pulled his arm away and, with a shock more intense than any he had ever known, saw his palm smeared with phlegm and blood. Peering down in the dim light, he noticed for the first time the frothy mix of red foam and spittle coating Comanche’s lips. And, much worse, heard the harsh rattle of his labored breath.

Doug didn’t know what was wrong, much less what to do about it. His dad might know what to do but he didn’t know how to reach him. Utterly helpless, he collapsed in the dust, cradled his dog’s head against his chest, and wept.

It wasn’t until a week or so later that he learned Comanche had eaten some pellets of rat poison his father had put out. Apparently the stuff was made to smell good, the better to attract its victims.

Doug buried his dog out near the edge of the property, beneath that old cluster of elm trees, in the spot where he would so often sit to escape the heat of summer, eyes glued to the front porch, patiently waiting to be let in the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Boy Scouts and Bodies

In Doug’s opinion, the Boy Scouts of America was about as lame an organization as one could possibly belong to.  In his father’s opinion, it was the greatest. Thus, regrettably, Doug was an unwilling member for much of his childhood. 

To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. Doug enjoyed camping and loved being out of the city and in the woods. What never sat well with him was the organization’s peculiar emphasis on what it considered outstanding moral behavior and its utter fixation on various merit patches which, upon completion of certain assigned tasks, would be stitched to the uniform of the kid forced to earn them.

Admittedly, some of the patches, such as Archery and Kayaking, were pretty cool. The overwhelming majority, though, were pretty ridiculous. For example, there were such gems as Citizenship in the Community, Personal Fitness, American Heritage, Crime Prevention, and Family Life, among others, that they were all expected to earn. There was even one for playing the bugle. In fact, there were so many patches that, after no more room remained on the shirt itself, they were stitched on a sash the kids had to wear draped across their chests.

Most of the dozen kids of Troop 21 wore their patches with pride, considering them, quite literally, badges of honor. For Nick and a select few others, though, they were a source of considerable embarrassment, signifying nothing more than a willingness to play by the rules and be a good scout. In other words, to be a tremendous dork.

Each troop had at least one designated Scout Leader, usually one of the kids’ dads. In Nick’s case, there were a few fathers who filled this role, one of which was his own. These men, like their kids, had varying degrees of enthusiasm for the organization. Some urged the kids to stick closely to the Official Guidebook and vigorously pursue the merit patches. Others became Scout Leaders simply to take advantage of all-expense paid camping trips where they could get away from their wives, get drunk, and go fishing for a weekend every month. 

Nick’s dad fit somewhere in between the two extremes. He didn’t drink, but he did love to fish and shoot the shit with the other men. An avid outdoorsman, he generally led the kids in acquiring patches for activities like archery, hiking, and canoeing. The less adventurous (and less fit) fathers took the helm when it came to helping the kids earn those patches related to more sedentary pursuits; such as honing the skills it takes to be a good member of the community or developing outstanding penmanship.

Sometimes, though, Doug’s old man enjoyed creating his own unique brand of merit patch, one well beyond the bounds of what the Boy Scouts of America would ever officially sanction. Rather than putting the boys through tests of endurance or feats of strength, what the kids of Troop 21 were subjected to at the hands of Doug’s father generally involved being the subject of a prank of some kind, meant, ostensibly, to teach them a life lesson. So it was that, deep in the woods and repeatedly throughout the night, the scouts would awaken to recorded tapes of wild animals while, simultaneously, their tents might be vigorously shaken, as if by a hungry bear. Doug wasn’t always sure what kind of life lesson such shenanigans were supposed to teach them, other than perhaps how to function on little sleep. 

On one particular trip, though, Doug’s father really outdid himself, orchestrating something that would prove far more instructive, if not outright traumatic, to every single member of Troop 21 than any of his previous efforts had ever been.

The camping trip in question was, from the outset, different than any previous outings. The biggest change was the location itself. The boys had always pitched their tents deep in the woods, off the trails and as far from any people as possible. This time, though, they made camp in the foothills outside the city of Oakdale. At best, it was rural. By no stretch could it be considered wild. Even telephone poles could be seen dotting the horizon in three directions, along with strings of barbed wire fencing and a handful of abandoned mining shacks that had somehow managed to remain standing after weathering the elements for the better part of a century. As far as Doug was concerned, this did not qualify as a legitimate camping spot. According to his strict standards, if any sign of civilization remained visible, no matter how old or modern, it ceased to become a camping trip and became instead nothing more than a glorified overnight picnic.

Even the lake was fake. Rather than being the termination of a network of mountain streams, it had instead been created by a nearby reservoir.  Still, fake or not, due to the intense heat and lack of trees to provide cover from the scorching sun, it had still generated a fair amount of excitement among the kids. Unfortunately, said excitement was quickly extinguished after the boys tramped down to the shore with their swim trunks, fishing poles, and tackle boxes, only to be greeted by a sign jutting out of the yellow grass informing them the water was unsafe to swim or fish in. This meant the rest of the day would be spent divided up into groups earning stupid merit patches. Doug tried not to dwell on how much fun his non-scouting friends were likely having, tearing around the neighborhood on their BMXs while he remained stuck out in a parched and toxic wasteland with nothing to do but stupid group activities. But, alas, such was his fate. He resigned himself to it and spent the better part of the early afternoon working on his knots.

Around lunchtime, after Doug had tied about as many knots as he could tolerate, he became aware his father had run off somewhere. In fact, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d even seen him. Sometime around breakfast, maybe, not too long after he and the other boys had strolled down to the toxic lake. He approached two of the Scout leaders, who were busy playing cards over an ice chest and guzzling beer under the scant shade of a dead tree. He asked the men if they’d seen his dad and received an indifferent shrug in response, followed, strangely, by conspiratorial looks and soft laughter, as if they were in on some private joke Doug wasn’t privy to. Not curious enough to push the issue and see what was so damned funny, he wandered off toward the cluster of tents to retrieve a crossword puzzle he had wisely stowed in his pack in the event of boredom precisely such as this.

About thirty or so minutes later, inside the hot shade of his tent, sprawled out on a sleeping bag, Doug was interrupted from his puzzle by a shirtless man with a jiggling gut who ran into their camp, hollering about some terrible accident he had just witnessed. All the boys, along with the Scout Leaders, dropped whatever it was they had been doing and approached this strange man, clustering around him in a semi-circle. Doug looked around to see if his father had returned but didn’t spot him. Where the hell did he go?

The strange man was doubled over, hands resting on his knees, breath coming out in raspy bursts, as if he’d just finished running a marathon. Though, judging by his flabby belly and stumpy legs, he probably could have traveled as little as a few hundred yards and experienced the same level of fatigue. One of the Scout Leaders, a pale and thin ghost of a man named Craig who seemed to have a perpetual case of the sniffles, stepped forward and rested his bony hand on the man’s thick greasy shoulder and offered him a pull from a canteen. The man snatched it and tipped it up to the sky, letting the cool water splash into his mouth and over his face. His Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down like the head of a little bird as he quenched his thirst. He emptied the last bit all over the sweaty and thinning hair sticking to his scalp. Tossing the canteen on the ground, he shook his head like a dog to get the water from his eyes, his big meaty jowls swinging to and fro, out of sync with the rest of his face. After taking a few more moments to regain his composure, he turned to face the nearest adult, but his eyes seemed to be addressing everybody.

“Been an accident,” he said.

Scout Leader Craig sniffled and asked: “What kind of accident?”

The fat man fingered his hairy belly button and, somewhat dramatically, slowly turned his head, passing his eyes over every last one of them, men and boys alike. “A bad kind,” he said. “Really, really bad.” He then looked pointedly at Craig, as if expecting him to say something. When no reply was forthcoming, he shook his head and snapped: “Found some guy. He was dead as shit.”

A collective gasp erupted from all the scouts. Then, immediately, everyone began to speak at once. Craig tried to maintain order but was largely ignored. Suddenly, Doug’s father returned from wherever he had been, breaking through the circle of boys and stepping straight up to the fat man. Craig, looking mightily relieved, melted back into the crowd.

“This accident, you witnessed it?” demanded Doug’s father, his shiny badge clipped to his belt for all to see.

“I didn’t witness nothin,’ the man replied. “Was just out walkin’ around, came across the body.”

“So you were out and about, minding your business, and just stumble across a corpse. Is that what you’re saying?”

The man lowered his gaze. “I never said nothin’ about stumblin’.”

Doug’s father sighed. “It’s a figure of speech.”

The man knotted his brows. “Figure of what?”

“Never mind about that. Now, are you certain, absolutely certain, that this guy you saw is  dead?” Doug’s father asked.

The man peered at his interrogator with a question in his eyes, as if he thought it might be a trick question or maybe there was a right and wrong answer. “I dunno, he looked dead to me,” he finally mumbled.

“Take me to this man,” Doug’s father demanded.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Turning to Craig, Doug’s father ordered him to gather the boys and make sure their canteens were full, they were all going on an impromptu field trip. This caused considerable excitement among the boys, some of whom were chomping at the bit at the chance to potentially see an actual human corpse, and others who were terrified at the prospect. Doug himself was somewhere in the middle of these extremes; he was curious enough about seeing what this was all about but not terribly enthusiastic about actually looking at a dead man.

Turning to Craig, Doug’s father ordered him to gather the boys and make sure their canteens were full, they were all going on an impromptu field trip. This caused considerable excitement among the boys, some of whom were chomping at the bit at the chance to potentially see an actual human corpse, and others who were terrified at the prospect. Doug himself was somewhere in the middle of these extremes; he was curious enough about seeing what this was all about but not terribly enthusiastic about actually looking at a dead man. 

A few years earlier he had seen a dead person in a funeral home, some old lady, a family friend he hardly knew named Pearl. She had just looked asleep except prettier, without the gaping and snoring mouth, gasping, or drooling old people usually do after they go to bed. He remembered having to suppress the urge to poke her forehead with his finger.

This, though, would be far different than some dolled up old lady. This was an accident. The body would be raw, untouched by anything or anyone except maybe the flies. There might be blood, puke, poop, or whatever kinds of disgusting stuff comes out of a person’s body when they die. None of this was Doug at all interested to see. What he was curious to discover, though, was just how this man had managed to die. From what he could see, there wasn’t much around to cause deadly accidents. But, then again, he wasn’t an expert on such things like his dad was.

Doug’s father insisted they depart immediately. If the man was still alive he might yet be saved. If not, the evidence was deteriorating the longer it was exposed to the elements. Though this meant postponing dinner, nobody dared argue. Canteens strapped across their chests and bouncing on their hips, the group set out at a brisk trot, sun in their eyes, across the hot dead grass.

Within thirty minutes or so, the land began to rise. Cresting a few hills, they descended into a valley that didn’t look like it contained much besides a few head of cattle seeking shelter from the unforgiving sun in the shadow cast by what appeared to be a utility shed of some sort. It was near this that the fat man stopped, wiping the sweat from his brow. “There,” he said, pointing off beyond the shed toward the center of the valley.

Doug squinted against the lowering sun. At first, he could see nothing. The heat made everything in the distance dance and shimmer, making it impossible to see anything clearly. Eventually, though, he was able to make out a small protuberance jutting out of the landscape. As they drew closer, it resolved itself into an old well, cobbled together with old rocks.

When they were within a dozen feet or so Doug’s father instructed the boys to stay back. He approached the lip of the well accompanied only by the sweaty fat man who had led them there. He peered over the edge and, for a few moments that seemed an eternity, finally turned back to face the group.

   “Gather round, boys,” Doug’s father said. A few brave scouts stepped forward. Most, though, primarily the ones who had been so courageous at the beginning, remained where they were, staring at their shoes.

Doug’s father tried again. “Come on, kids. You’re wasting time. This man might still be breathing.”

Most of the kids still hung back but Doug and a few others shuffled forward to the edge of the well and took a peek.  Like everything around this wasteland, the well itself was dry and long abandoned. It took Doug’s eyes a moment to adjust to the deep shadows of the shaft. The first thing he could make out was a bunch of trash. People had apparently been using this hole in the ground as a makeshift garbage dump. It was filled with discarded pieces of lumber of various shapes and sizes, along with several strands of rusty barbed wire and yellowed newspaper. Among all this debris, though, lying face up with his back arched at an unnatural angle, Doug saw a man of about thirty or so wedged in among the scraps of lumber. Coils of barbed wire were wrapped loosely around one arm and an ankle. His neck was craned back so his face angled up in their direction. Though his eyes were closed it still felt as if he were staring at them all, judging them. There was an ample amount of blood streaked on his face and arms. What little clothes he wore were torn to rags and filthy with caked dust.

After the initial horror had passed, one of the boys made a little cough and raised his hand, as if he were back in the classroom with a question. “Yes?” Doug’s father said.

The kid, a usually cocky little bastard named Mario, lowered his arm and, taking a moment to find his voice, asked, “Is he…you know…”

Doug’s father took a step forward. “Dead? Is he dead?”

Mario swallowed, nodded, and then slowly retreated back into the cluster of boys yet to come forward.

“That’s an excellent question,” Doug’s father said. “All of you in the back, step on up here and let’s find out.”

Most of the kids just continued standing there, looking everywhere but at Doug’s father.

“Come on, now. Don’t be chickenshits. It’s not as if he’s gonna hurt you.”

The fear of being pegged as a coward trumped any lingering fear of seeing a dead body. The kids who had yet to do so finally mustered their courage and gathered around to take a look. One of the boys, a timid soft-spoken boy named Geoffrey, placed his hand over his mouth and began rapidly swallowing, clearly suppressing the urge to puke.

Doug’s father looked around at the children and threw up his hands in exasperation. “Well, any ideas?” he asked, as if he were no longer a cop and the kids were the grownups, the ones in charge. As for the other scout leaders, they remained unhelpful, standing mute a few dozen feet away. “Well?” he repeated, “Nobody has anything to say?”

“Maybe we should ask if he’s dead?” ventured Mario.

Doug’s father nodded. “Well, that’s a start,” he said, then stuck his head down into the well. “Can you hear me?” he hollered, his words bouncing eerily off the narrow walls. “If you can hear me, give me a sign. Wiggle a finger, anything.”

The man remained motionless. Doug was no expert, but he was fairly certain the guy was dead. It struck him odd that his father should have failed to also arrive at this conclusion. He was an expert on this stuff. That, combined with his strange behavior, like the way he was asking the kids for advice, was very unlike him.

The man remained motionless. Doug was no expert, but he was fairly certain the guy was dead. It struck him odd that his father should have failed to also arrive at this conclusion. He was an expert on this stuff. That, combined with his strange behavior, like the way he was asking the kids for advice, was very unlike him.

Doug’s father heaved a big sigh and turned to face the scouts. “Well, I guess he’s dead then,” he announced. “Guess there’s nothing left to do but pack it up and head back to camp. No point in letting it ruin our trip, am I right?” After several moments of indecision, the kids turned around and began to head back the way they had come.

“Hold on a second, god-damnit,” Doug’s father said, hands firmly planted on his hips in a gesture Doug knew only too well. “Get over here, boys. All of you.”

The scouts didn’t dare disobey. They all came forward and stood at the lip of the well. A hush descended upon the group. Nobody seemed to know what was expected of them, Doug least of all.

His father, eyes full of disappointment, looked over each one of them. The other Scout leaders, and even the fat man who had led them there, slowly shook their heads with disapproval. Leaning his head into the well, Doug’s father slapped the rocky lip with his palm. “Come on up, Gabe,” he said.

The corpse began to move. He removed the barbed wire from his arm and leg and then, grinning, began to climb up the criss-crossed pieces of lumber which it was now obvious had been wedged there for easy access into and out of the well. He swung a leg over the edge and, a moment later, was standing among them, brushing the dust from his torn jeans. “Well, that was fun,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The fat man glanced at his watch. “Come on, Gabe. If we hurry we’ll catch the ass end of happy hour.” He turned to Doug’s father and clapped him on the shoulder. “You owe us one.” Then, without another word, the two men headed off toward the crest of the next hill, probably where they had parked their cars. 

After they’d gone, Doug’s father sat down on the edge of the well and, for a dramatic minute or so, said nothing. Finally, he looked up at the boys. “Not a single one of you, with the exception of Mario, so much as made a single suggestion.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The man in that well could very well have still been alive. Sure, he didn’t respond to my voice, but neither would you if you were unconscious. Nobody thought to climb down there and check for a pulse, see if there was an open wound in need of attention, any number of things. No one even suggested maybe finding a phone, calling the paramedics. No, you guys were just ready to pack it up and head back to camp, no questions asked.”

Doug thought this more than a little unfair but he kept his mouth shut, as did the other boys. The other scout leaders, now that the ruse was over, were relaxed and smiling as they smoked cigarettes and shared a soft bout of laughter. Obviously, they’d been in on the whole thing.

The troop trudged back to camp, the sun now at their backs. Unlike the trip out, no one spoke much. Doug knew his father had been trying, in his own way, to teach the kids some kind of lesson. But, try as he might, he was damned if he knew what it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Afternoon of Mace and Murder

After his second divorce, Doug’s father had moved out of town, purchasing an old restored farmhouse near the golf club on the outskirts of Turlock. Here he had the space to keep horses, a cow or two, and about a dozen sheep, something he had been unable to do for many years.

At first, Doug was excited to spend his weekends there. Being in the country meant a lot of places to explore. He had the run of a good twenty odd acres, a vast tract of land compared to the boxed in backyards of suburbia he had been accustomed to for half his life. It reminded him of the old house in Empire, the place of his earliest memories, or at least the shadows of those earliest memories. He wasn’t there long enough to form very solid recollections. At six years old, he, his parents, and three sisters had packed up and moved the half dozen miles to Turlock. Now, nearly a teenager, he was revisiting the excitement only a young child with lots of leg room can fully understand.

The only downside was that, when his father divorced his second wife, Doug had lost the company of his stepsister, Jaime. Even though she was a girl and a couple years younger, at least it had been someone to hang around with. Here, the only friend roughly his age was his dad’s black and white springer spaniel, Comanche. Though he loved that dog to death, he wasn’t the best conversationalist.

Perhaps inevitably, the initial excitement of staying out in the country soon began to fade and, after a month or so spent stomping around every last square foot of his father’s property, Doug became increasingly bored. The fact that he was alone most of the time certainly didn’t help. Despite having recently retired from the force, his old man was constantly in town, hanging around the station as if he’d never quit, chatting up the pretty receptionist at the front desk who would, within the year, become his third wife. Naturally, Doug had zero interest in his father’s love life, except for the fact that it took him away from the house, turning the court-ordered ‘weekends with dad’ into excruciatingly long stretches alone at a farmhouse with nothing or no-one to occupy his time.

It was this insufferable lack of something to do that was ultimately responsible for Doug snooping around his father’s things, something he would not have, in ordinary circumstances, dared do. The upside was that, given his old man’s recent profession, the odds were decent that his search would yield something of at least mild interest. The immense gun cabinet, a veritable treasure chest of interesting items, in which his father stored, not just the usual assortment of deer rifles and handguns, but also grenades and an actual machine gun, was, of course, locked up tight. This wasn’t surprising, given his dad’s emphasis on gun safety, but it was disappointing. The sheer amount of firepower, both in kind and quantity, was truly impressive. Running the evidence department at Turlock Police Department for so many years clearly had its perks.

So Doug climbed the chipped and unpainted wooden stairs that terminated at his father’s bedroom and began rifling through the drawers. It wasn’t long before he found a big beefy canister of department issued mace. With great care, he turned the nozzle away from his eyes, held it at arm’s length, and gave the mirror a good dousing. The noxious liquid splattered against the highly reflective glass and a great misty cloud of the stuff promptly returned the way it had come, hitting him squarely in the face.

The pain was immediate, intense, and utterly debilitating. He dropped the can and stumbled blindly around the room with outstretched arms, trying, and failing, to find the bathroom. His body was racked by spasms that jerked him around like a rag doll. He couldn’t manage to stop coughing. Afraid of taking a spill down the steep old staircase which he knew to be just on the other side of the wide open bedroom door, Doug thought it prudent to drop on all fours and crawl around until he could feel cold linoleum under his hands and knees. Eventually, he did, and made it to the bathtub. Cranking the knob all the way to the left, he stuck his face under the tap and tried to flush out the toxins, in between bouts of dry heaving. It didn’t help much. He remembered hearing somewhere that you were supposed to pour milk in your eyes but he had hardly been able to find the master bathroom that was literally connected to his father’s bedroom. Blindly navigating his way downstairs to the kitchen would be impossible. 

After ten excruciating minutes or so, Doug’s vision returned and, about an hour later, his skin ceased to feel like it was on fire. He found the discarded Mace canister where it had rolled under the bed and put it back where he’d found it. He had no intention of letting his dad know what he’d done, more out of embarrassment than fear of punishment. In fact, his father would likely be delighted about his ordeal . The man was gung-ho about learning life lessons through brutal experience. Doug had only to recall the time he pissed on the electric fence surrounding the property to know this was the case. His father had been only a few yards away at the time and could have easily warned him to go somewhere else, anywhere else. But, he hadn’t. And Doug had received the shock of his life, both figuratively and literally.

He headed downstairs and then outside to sit on the porch with Comanche, letting the late afternoon breeze cool his face. The sun was low and the sky ablaze with the orange hue of sunset. He looked down the single road that stretched several miles into town. Not a single car, in either direction. His father apparently planned to stay down at the precinct even longer than usual. With the last of the pain in his eyes and face beginning to recede, the boredom returned and Doug went back inside and resumed snooping around the house.

This time around he avoided private areas such as his father’s bedroom or office. There was no telling what further dangers lurked in such places. Downstairs was far more dull, but at least it was familiar. Better to suffer boredom than some other horrific injury. Knowing his father, there very well could be booby traps up there for potential burglars that he himself had avoided triggering only by sheer luck.

After poking around and finding nothing in the laundry room, kitchen, cellar, and dining room, Doug gave up and resigned himself to a long and uneventful evening. He stretched out on the sofa in front of the TV and flipped through the channels, hoping for an episode of The Fall Guy or A-Team, but found only late afternoon talk shows, soap operas, and infomercials.

His father had recently bought a pretty fancy VCR but only ever used it to watch crap he’d tape off the TV, like football games or car races. As far as Doug was concerned, watching paint dry would be more captivating than staring at a bunch of dudes in tight pants throwing a ball back and forth or a few dozen cars driving in circles for an hour. Still, there remained a chance, however slight, that maybe his dad had gotten a wild hair up his butt and taped something good, like an R-rated movie. 

Doug got up from the sofa and began to sift through the twenty or so videotapes his father kept lined up in a cabinet built into the TV stand. He trailed his finger along the spines of the various titles, all scribbled with a felt marker in his father’s hand. Aside from the racing and football, there were a few Dirty Harry movies Doug had seen a dozen times, a tape about deer hunting, and a do-it-yourself home plumbing instructional video.

Doug resigned himself to watching a soap opera and had almost shut the doors of the cabinet before glimpsing a single tape that had escaped his notice. There was nothing written on the spine so it was likely blank, destined to be the receptacle for the next idiotic game or race. Still, though, it was possible that something was on there and his dad had merely forgotten to label it. 

He plucked it off the shelf, held it near his ear, and gave it a little rattle, as if this might reveal its contents. Acknowledging the stupidity of this, he powered on the VCR and, as it hummed to life, was suddenly seized by a moment of apprehension. Was this a trap? Did his father know exactly where the tape was cued so he’d know if it had been watched? Why did it have no title? And, more importantly: Could it be a porno? Doug shuddered at the thought of being privy to his father’s particular sexual fetishes. In the end, though, he decided it was worth the risk. The last time he recalled being this bored he had counted the flies on the ceiling for over thirty minutes. He preferred not repeat the experience.

Putting his qualms aside, he fed the tape into the slot. The internal gears made their familiar whirring and whizzing sound as the tape was digested and readied for viewing. He pushed play and retreated to the couch to watch.

At first there was only a loud hiss of static and digital popcorn that, after several seconds, began to resolve itself into the semblance of an actual image. Lines of distortion paraded up and down the screen and then the whole picture began to go all squiggly. Doug leaned forward, trying to see through the crappy distortion. He could just make out a pathway that wound up toward a large building which filled most of the upper frame. A small figure near the entrance was sitting, elbows propped on knees, blocking the door. The camera was jerky and there was a time stamp, identifying it as a home video. The cameraman was moving toward the person, who had not budged.

Doug squinted at the bad image, trying to discern any further detail. The video was shot at night, sometime before dawn, which didn’t help. Then, quite suddenly, the picture snapped itself into a clean image. For a moment, though, even without the distortion, he was uncertain what he was looking at.

Then, like a punch in the stomach, he saw. 

Quickly, Doug snatched the remote off the arm of the sofa and paused the video. His mind reeled with shock and disbelief. The person on the path had not been sitting. It was a woman, lying on her back, legs spread and propped up with shoes flat on the concrete path, dress hiked up well above her waist. What he had taken for elbows were in fact her knees. Was this woman passed out? Dead?

Taking a few moments to compose himself, Doug resumed the video. The cameraman moved closer, lens aimed directly up the woman’s dress. She wore no underwear, at least none he could see through the blood smeared up and down her thighs. The shot lingered here for several terrible seconds, finally moving forward and revealing the woman’s face. 

Doug became aware that he was holding his breath. He exhaled noisily and tried to get control of his turbulent emotions. The woman was old, more so than his grandma even. At least seventy, maybe even eighty years. Her eyes stared unblinking at the sky and then, a moment later, with a shift of the camera, into the lens.

Yes, she was dead alright. Most definitely dead.

Here the tape stopped and then cut to the same scene but about forty-five minutes later, according to the time code on the camera. It was now brighter out, just after seven in the morning. Several police officers were milling about and there was yellow tape cordoning off the immediate area. The woman remained, but was mercifully covered by a tarp. Little flags were planted here and there in the grass, marking a footprint perhaps, or a dropped weapon. The camera roved around, seemingly at random. At one point it tilted up, revealing the spire of a church Doug recognized, located just outside town near the flea market.

He stopped the tape and went outside on the porch to sit with Comanche for a bit. He panted and frolicked like always, his canine mind blissfully unaware of the depths of cruelty lurking in the hearts of men. Absently scratching him behind the ears, Doug stared off down the empty road. Something about that horrific scene was familiar. He was certain there was a memory just beyond reach, nagging at him to be recalled.

To clear his head, he set out into the pasture with his dog, tossing a chewed up frisbee for him to fetch. After several dozen rounds, Comanche was panting with exhaustion, clearly ready to call it quits. Doug led him back toward the house to fill up his water bowl. On the way, he remembered.

It hadn’t been that long ago. Less than a year, maybe. The story had been in the paper and all over the news. Some old lady had been raped and killed practically on the doorstep of the church that she had been waking up at the crack of dawn to unlock every Sunday for the past twenty years. It was speculated that the assailant had been familiar with her routine and had been waiting there to ambush the poor woman. Doug couldn’t remember, if he had ever known in the first place, if the killer had been caught.

He went back inside and, against his better judgement, continued the tape where he had left off. The next segment began in the hallway of what appeared to be an office complex. The camera passed a mirror mounted on the hall in which Doug caught a glimpse of his father, the enormous block of a VHS camera balanced on one shoulder. At the end of the hall was an office door which had been propped open with a chair. A man dressed in white coveralls with gloves and a hairnet exited and passed by, giving the camera a courteous nod as he did. Rounding the corner, the image panned across a wall splattered in red. It resembled one of those paintings where the artist just flings pigment at the canvas and calls it art. The camera lingered on this a considerable amount of time before tilting down to reveal a spectacle so grotesque that Doug felt his lunch threatening to rise up his throat.

A man, slightly overweight and wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie, was lying on the carpet, stained red just like the wall. His face appeared to have caved in on itself. The eyes were beaten into the skull, giving the entire visage the vague resemblance of a demon. Rather than a nose and mouth there was instead a chunky mess that looked as if someone had spilt a hefty plate of lasagna. The man’s forearms were destroyed, reduced to ground burger. A hammer lay across his chest where the killer had apparently tossed it.

The camera swung back up to the blood spattered wall and Doug noticed what he had failed to the first time. Superimposed among the gore was the vague silhouette of a person with an arm raised in the air, a negative space created by the killer’s own body as he repeatedly brought the hammer up and down on the victim, painting the wall behind him with each stroke. Judging by the upright posture of the killer’s ghostly imprint, the unfortunate man had almost certainly been sitting at his desk and tumbled onto the floor at some point during or following the attack. The forearms were, of course, defensive wounds, as the man vainly tried to ward off the blows.

He went out and joined Comanche on the porch again, sorely in need of a break before continuing on to the next scene, if there was one. Again he wondered, and even envied, his dog’s ignorance of what human beings were capable of. It occurred to him that the world was probably a much nicer place before people began to crawl across its surface, multiplying like viruses. Of course, there were bad people and there were good people. Fortunately, the latter outnumbered the former. Still, seeing the stuff on that tape made him wonder just how many depraved sickos were out there, going to work every day, paying their taxes, voting, and generally being productive members of society, all while leading double lives alone at night in their basements or attics, undetected. 

Doug suddenly found himself briefly overwhelmed with pride and respect for what his old man did for a living. Or used to, anyway. Though he was now in the habit of referring to himself as a ‘gentleman rancher,’ he would always be a cop. At least on the inside, where it mattered.

He refilled Comanche’s water bowl from the hose and went inside to finish the tape. He really didn’t want to, but at the same time, knew he would forever wonder what else was on there. And, more than likely, there wouldn’t be another chance. The video would soon be returned to the evidence locker, along with several other things stacked and marked in boxes in the foyer that his father had yet to take back. He collapsed on the couch and pushed play, determined to get through the rest before his dad got home.

The next scene wasn’t so much gruesome as disturbing. The camera panned across the burnt shell of a mobile trailer that had clearly exploded for some reason. Two bodies, charred beyond recognition, were lying petrified with limbs raised in seemingly unnatural positions that resembled store mannequins after a warehouse fire.

After this, things once again took a turn for the grotesque. The scene opened on a pickup truck parked on the shoulder a little ways ahead of the camera. Already there were several cops present. As his father neared the vehicle Doug could see the back window behind the driver splashed in red goop. The glass was cracked but unbroken. For a brief moment the camera scanned the bed of the pickup and the asphalt down below. Doug even caught a glimpse of the pointy toes on his dad’s favorite cowboy boots. 

The camera tilted back up and then along the driver’s side where it peered into the rolled down window. A shot gun had been wedged in the steering wheel with the barrel resting on the driver’s chest. His face, if it could be called that, was a gaping wet hole. Flies were already crawling around the wound, no doubt laying eggs. Or eating. The remaining flesh around the side of the head hung in ribbons that Doug, unable to rid his mind of food metaphors, thought looked a bit like raw strips of bacon, marbled with fat and gristle.

He stopped the tape. After rewinding it to the approximate spot where it had started, he returned it to the black plastic case, snapped it shut, and placed it back on the shelf. His curiosity was more than satisfied. He thought maybe he understood now why his father had never really talked about work that much. A job like that must take something from you. He wondered if his old man carried the images of those crime scenes around with him wherever he went. Did they flash into his mind, uninvited, while he was just going about his day, eating lunch, driving his truck, talking to his family?

His thoughts were interrupted by the noisy rumble of his dad’s truck as it swung into the gravel driveway. For a moment, a small and puffy cloud of dust hung in the air behind the rear tires before settling. Doug watched his father climb out of the vehicle, slam the squeaky door, and walk up the path toward the porch, two brown and greasy paper bags dangling from each hand.

He’d brought home burgers for dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little White Hunter

Doug was exhausted. It was hot outside and he had just finished working for the day, digging fence post holes on his father’s ranch in Oregon. For a change of scenery more than anything else, he had come up from California to work and finish the last quarter of his junior year at a shitty little redneck high school in the small town of Dallas. His dad’s ranch was a dozen or so miles in the woods outside town.

Working wasn’t bad. It was hard, sure, but it was also what he had come up there to do. It was going to school during the week that really blew. The Dallas Dragons had gotten its name from some long ago time when the KKK were still roaming the hills burning crosses or whatever the hell they do for a good time. The ‘Dragon,’ so the story went, was not of the J.R.R. Tolkien variety but rather in honor of the high dragon of the local Klan chapter. It was even said that some of the older faculty were once members. Doug wasn’t sure if he believed this or not, but the fact that the nape of every neck he saw was burnt red made it at least plausible. 

Not that it mattered much. He didn’t have any friends there and had no interest in making any. He would be back in Turlock by mid-summer, latest, just as soon as he finished his old man’s fence.  

To fend off boredom during the week, every morning he would sneak whiskey from his dad’s bar into a thermos that he would sip throughout the day, shuffling his way from class to class in an ever increasing stupor.

On weekends, though, he was committed to nothing but work. He toiled not for cash but rather for a 1968 International Scout his old man had picked up somewhere. He was selling it to Doug for the bargain price of $500. At least, it seemed a bargain at the time. It was only later, after returning back home to California that Doug did the math, dividing the actual hours worked by the price of the vehicle that he arrived at the sobering conclusion he had been busting his ass for a little over two dollars an hour at a time when the minimum wage was $4.25.

But, that particular revelation came later. At the time, Doug thoughts strayed no further ahead than the next posthole, focusing all his energy on getting that damned fence up.

The hours were long and the work grueling, yet oddly rewarding. It was gratifying to see the actual fruits of his labor taking shape, one fence post at at time. At any rate, by Sunday afternoon, he was wiped out.

This particular Sunday was no exception. It was twilight, and he had just called it a day. He was sprawled out on the sofa, flipping through the channels, when he heard the hollow echo of a high powered rifle coming from somewhere outside in the large meadow adjacent to the house. He almost peeled his ass off the couch to investigate but thought better of it. It was likely just his dad obliterating some soda cans perched on a log or maybe taking pot shots at a rabbit or something. At any rate, Doug had no inclination to find out. It was getting dark and, as spring crept toward summer, the mosquitoes had lately become a menace. And, more importantly, he was wiped out.

Several minutes passed and he was close to drifting off when his father, out of breath with excitement, burst through the screen door and into the living room, planting himself squarely in front of the TV Doug was trying to watch.

“I shot a buck,” his father said, grinning. “An eight pointer.”

“I can’t see,” Doug said, nodding at the television.

His father cocked his head and frowned. This was clearly not the reaction he was anticipating. “Can’t see what?”

Doug, too lazy to actually get up off the couch, compromised by craning his neck in an attempt to see around the obstruction. Hopefully, that would answer his dad’s question.

His father looked at him for a moment before heaving a dramatic sigh. “Come on out to the meadow,” he said, promptly leaving the way he had come in. A moment later he was back, wedging the screen door open with his boot. “Oh, and grab a rifle from the safe,” he said. “But not the .22. Something bigger.” He drummed his fingers on the doorframe for a moment. “The 243 ought to do the trick.”

Before he could respond, his dad was gone again, the screen door clattering shut behind him.

Doug sat up. What on earth did he need a gun for? His dad had already bagged the thing. He’d heard the gunshot himself. Unless, of course…

Quite suddenly, he understood. His father had said only that he’d shot a deer. He didn’t say that it was dead.

His stomach turned as he realized what his old man was up to.

For as long as Doug could remember, his father had tried, unsuccessfully, to make a man of him. The local deli/gas station, which doubled as a gossip factory and rumor mill for the scattered population of old retirees living in the surrounding hills, had a cork board with over a hundred faded polaroids tacked onto it, pictures of fathers and grandfathers perched on the beds of pickup trucks, gripping the antlers of freshly killed deer, holding the bloodied heads up, directing the vacant glassy eyes at the camera. Supporting the weight on the other side would invariably be some young boy or teenager, proud heirs all, decked out in camo and staring at the lens with comically serious expressions. My father, the tough old retired cop from California, was conspicuously absent from the collection. He wanted his spot on the cork board with all the other old men and their young folk. He wanted his own god-damned Polaroid. 

And this was how he aimed to get it.

Doug refused to grab the rifle but did venture outside, hoping his suspicions were unjustified. It didn’t take him long to see that they most certainly were not. His father was already a good way across the meadow. About twenty yards or so beyond him, Doug spotted a misshapen shape rising just above the tall yellow grass.

He caught up with his old man, who was now standing over the animal, rifle cradled loosely in his arms. He glanced at Doug and shook his head. “Where’s your firearm?” he demanded. “A hunter ought to use his own weapon.”

“I’m not a hunter,” Doug murmured, hardly listening. His attention was on the pathetic creature at his feet.

The deer’s stomach was rapidly rising and falling, each breath clearly an agony of effort. A clean wet hole had pierced its hide just below the heart, the bullet likely lodged in its lungs. Its huge brown eyes gazed up at the two human beings standing over it with what struck Doug as mingled fear and resignation. For a moment it struggled to get to its feet only to collapse again.

His father shrugged. “Well, what the hell, just use mine, nobody’ll know the difference.” He thrust the gun into his son’s limp arms. 

Doug scarcely noticed. It seemed to him that the the world had gone mute. Even the crickets had stopped chirping. The only thing he could hear was the tortured breath of the dying animal. In the absence of all other sound, it was deafening

His father looked at him, eyes squinted from the low hanging sun, perhaps finally realizing that this moment was a proud one for him alone but nonetheless unwilling to surrender it. He grasped the barrel of the rifle still cradled in his son’s arms and gently raised it away from the ground and toward his prize buck.

“It’s suffering,” he said. “Put it out of its misery, son.”

Doug wanted to run away from that meadow, from his father’s ranch, from the entire state. He wanted to forget the fence, the truck, everything. He just wanted to go home. But, at least for now, all of those things were of no consequence. At this awful moment the only thing that mattered was the rapidly fading life paralyzed with fear and pain that was lying before him.

Doug snapped out of it. Any demons he could grapple with later. Right now something needed to be done, and quickly.  He gripped the weapon firmly and shoved the stock hard against his shoulder as his dad had long ago taught him to do. Taking careful aim, he pulled the trigger.

***

The school year eventually ended and Doug finally planted his last fence post. By the beginning of summer, he was behind the wheel of his new truck heading south, toward home. 

His father never did get his god-damned Polaroid.

 

 

 

 

Cuff ’em

Many years would pass before Doug was fully able to comprehend the true implications of what had occurred in his first grade classroom that autumn morning. At the time, he had been blissfully  unaware of any dark motive lurking behind the whole facade. Even the cheerful and big bosomed Miss Reid likely suspected nothing. At least, not at first.

Formally, the event was titled ‘Bring Your Parent to School Day,’ an opportunity for all of the kids to share with their peers what it was their parents did for a living. Informally, at least in part, it was almost certainly a nefarious intel gathering operation undertaken by the Turlock Police Department. Statistically speaking, in a town like Turlock, there was a probable chance that, at the very least, the first grade classroom at Crowell Elementary contained seven or eight future criminals.

But, more on that later.

At any rate, even without considering the sinister angle, the entire event was still a gross display of class inequality, complete with all the stigma and baggage that go along with such distinctions. For example, one kid’s old man might be a highly respected and well-to-do business executive while another’s might be collecting unemployment after being laid off from his latest gig sweating a deep-fryer. Still others were products of broken homes, with single moms struggling to get their child off to school each day with a sack lunch. Kids, even those as young as Doug and his classmates, despite not grasping the underlying causes, were not blind to such blatant inequalities. And because they didn’t understand the subtleties behind them, they could be cruel to their less fortunate peers. The pressure on child and parent alike was, in many cases, simply unfair. Doug, of course, was as ignorant of this socio-economic aspect as he was about the looming preemptive strike by the police department against a class full of unsuspecting children.

But, so it was in those days.

Anyhow, it went something like this: Each student’s father and/or mother would line up in the back of the classroom, awkwardly awaiting their turn, in alphabetical order by last name. The student would be forced to come to the front and announce to the class the name of their parent and what she or he did for a living. A scattering of light applause would follow and said parent would then join their child at the front and briefly tell the students what it meant to be a car salesman, baker, janitor, administrative assistant, whatever. Some, with exotic job titles such as ‘paralegal’ or ‘financial consultant,’ would utilize the chalkboard in a (usually) vain attempt to somehow illustrate what their work entailed. The audience was largely a room full of first-graders, after all.

Doug was excited because, as far as he was concerned, his dad had the coolest job of any parent in the entire school. He certainly wouldn’t need a stupid chalkboard to explain what he did. His old man was a cop, and everybody knew what that was. Even Miss Reid seemed to see things Doug’s way, because, despite his last name occurring very near the beginning of the alphabet, his father’s presentation was slated for last, like a grand finale or something.

Doug tried not to glance over his shoulder too much, lest he betray his excitement. When he did risk a peek, his father would either offer the barest hint of a smile or a conspiratorial wink. For the most part, though, he just stood there still and silent, utterly composed. He was decked out in a crisp and clean blue police uniform, complete with a badge, various patches, and insignia. Only Doug knew that the uniform was on loan and merely for theatrics. Being a detective, his father no longer even owned one. But a little showmanship never hurt anyone. Besides, truth be told, Doug hadn’t the slightest idea what the difference between a regular cop and a detective cop was. And he was reasonably certain none of his classmates did either. So the uniform was a nice and unexpected touch.

Unlike the other parents, Doug’s father did not merely stand there talking about what a day in the life of his job was like. Instead, he gave all the kids a little demonstration. With a well practiced flick of the wrist, he had his cuffs out and secured around Miss Reid’s wrists in a matter of seconds.

The kids, at first startled into silence, suddenly erupted in laughter and applause. Miss Reid turned about as red as her hair and even made a little bow after she was set free. The little smile and nod she gave to her captor told Doug this fake arrest hadn’t been as spontaneous as he had initially believed.

Regardless of its authenticity, the performance was such a hit that a field trip was scheduled soon thereafter. The entire class, permission slips in hand, shuffled onto the school bus and headed down to the Turlock Police Department. Once inside, Doug’s old man made another appearance, showcasing many of the rooms and explaining the function of each.

Most of it Doug had seen before. Over here was the lunch room, over there reception, this is where suspects are asked questions, that’s the evidence room where things taken from criminals like guns, switchblades, throwing stars, drugs, and stuff like that was locked up tight. Finally, though, the class was led to the jail itself, tucked away in the basement out of sight of the more common areas. Doug alone knew it wasn’t the real jail, which was up in Modesto, but rather what his father called a ‘drunk tank.’ But he kept that secret to himself, as it would have only ruined the fun.

Doug noticed Miss Reid give his dad another one of those little smiles, which he acknowledged with a wink. Doug figured, what with all the smiling and winking, the two were probably friends outside of school. That made sense because everyone seemed to like his dad.

Fortunately, the cell was empty, so the kids all got to take turns locking one another inside. After ten or fifteen minutes of this Ms. Reid said they were running short on time and had to wrap it up. As the class all filed up the stairwell, Doug’s dad, who led the group, suddenly stopped and  turned around, announcing that he had forgotten to show them all one of the most important things cops must do when they bring in the bad guys off the streets.

Naturally, a couple students asked what that might be, but Doug’s father would say no more. Even Miss Reid seemed at a loss, tilting her head in apparent confusion. As for Doug himself, he was just as much in the dark as all the rest.

To the disappointment of everyone, they arrived, not in some dark and spooky interrogation room filled with hard shadows and lit by a single swinging bulb, as some of the boys had quietly speculated, but rather at the front reception desk, at the exact spot they had begun.

At a nod from his father, the officer on desk duty produced a stack of rectangular white cards, about half the size of a sheet of paper. Next to these he set a dirty and scuffed up pad of dark ink.

“I’m not sure about this,” Miss Reid said, pressing through the throng of students to make her way to the counter. Doug’s father placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring little squeeze, explaining that it was all part of the demonstration and nothing to be concerned about. After all, was not the whole point of the field trip to show the kids what it was like to be a cop? Well, booking suspects was a big part of that.

Miss Reid frowned but remained silent, slowly melting back into the crowd of students as they pushed forward and around her to get a better view.

“Okay then,” the desk officer said, smiling and rubbing his palms briskly together in a way that seemed rather forced. “Who wants to go first? Any volunteers?”

Jose, a relatively new kid who had transferred from Osborne School over on the west side of town, was volunteered by the boys to either side of him and nudged forward toward the counter. Once there, the desk officer gripped the child’s index finger and firmly rolled the tip back and forth over the cushion of ink and, from there, onto one of five small squared off sections marked on the card. He repeated this with each finger and both thumbs. To make it “official,” Jose was then told to fill out his name and date of birth at the top. Finally, he was given a small hand wipe stinking of  alcohol with which to scrub his purple-black fingers. With a thumbs up and pat on the back from the desk officer, he was promptly returned to the crowd.

This process was repeated until every student had their card printed and filled out. A woman then came forward, grabbed the stack, and disappeared into an adjacent room. Though the blinds were shut, Doug could see the bright band of light flash under the door and hear the clunk and whir of what was clearly a copy machine. After fifteen minutes or so she returned, placing the stack of cards right back where she’d gotten them.

Doug’s father held the cards up and waved them over his head , asking the class if they’d like to take them home as souvenirs. The kids, of course, were delighted. Aside from the prints, each card came with a really cool and official looking Turlock Police Department logo stamped on the lower right corner.

On the way back to the school, many of the kids huddled together at the back of the bus, comparing the whorls and curves of each other’s prints, fruitlessly arguing who had the coolest patterns. The whole experience was all the kids talked about for the next two or three days before interest began to wane. By the end of the week, they had moved on to other things and the entire field trip was more or less forgotten.

Forgotten by the kids, at least. Back at the station, meticulous care was taken to ensure that the events of that day might live on indefinitely. A copy of each child’s card was filed away alphabetically, safe and secure in the basement where such things were kept until, many years hence, they might again see the light of day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stupid, Stupid Soccer

For as long as he could remember, Doug hated organized sports. He hated watching them on TV. He hated playing them. And, for the most part, he hated the boys at school who did.

What Doug preferred, both to watch or participate in, were individual sports, such as swimming, riding his bike, and, especially, skateboarding. Though teams could (and were) formed around these activities, you could just as easily do them on your own. By definition, though, team sports were different. Good luck trying to play a game of football by yourself.

Doug was horrified, therefore, upon learning his father had signed him up for the local soccer league.

As is still the case in many American towns, the teams were sponsored by local business. The merchants would pay for equipment and bankroll practices, games, and whatever else might be required. In return, they got their local brand ironed on the backs of the uniforms worn by the players. Essentially, they got around a dozen or so mobile advertisements for minimal investment. Compared to the cost of running weekly and monthly ads in the Yellow Pages, papers, or billboards, it was one hell of a bargain. As a result, anyone with enough cash to afford the two dollar admission ticket might spend a sweltering Saturday afternoon on the bleachers witnessing heart-pounding displays of raw athletic talent from the likes of Thorsen’s Air Conditioning & Plumbing or Cassioli’s Delicatessen. 

Doug ended up playing for what was, hands down, the worst team on the league: Norton’s Mortuary. In a way, though, it was strangely fitting, given the largely pointless protests he had made to his father that death itself was preferable to playing in some stupid soccer league.

But, join he did. His father, desiring his son to be like all the other boys his age, insisted upon it. As was the case with his earlier forced enrollment in the Boy Scouts, Doug’s objections fell on deaf ears.

The uniforms were baby blue and graced with the name of their kindly sponsor on the back. The large white iron-on letters began to crack and peel after just a couple runs through the wash but were supposed to be at least sturdy enough to last the duration of the season. Doug’s father had signed him up last minute, long after the gear and uniforms had already been assigned to all the other kids. His uniform, therefore, had to be pressed, printed, and ready to go in just two days, in time for the first practice.

For reasons he had never been able to ascertain, the liaison between the team and Norton’s Mortuary, the person responsible for procuring uniforms, never bothered to ask Doug what size he wore. When the blue shirt and black shorts arrived in the mail the day before practice, they were far too large, made for someone at least twice his size. The shirt hung like a sheet on his small frame, flapping around awkwardly just above his knees. The shorts were so baggy and loose that the crotch was located somewhere in the vicinity of his lower thighs. Lacking belt loops, Doug had to improvise a makeshift belt with two intertwined shoelaces and a couple safety pins just to keep his shorts from dropping to his ankles. He felt, and looked, like a clown.

Since the kids were all culled from different school districts, he saw only one or two familiar faces, and even these he knew only in passing and none by name. They, of course, didn’t know his name either. But that didn’t stop them from providing one for him. By the end of the first day, he was known as ‘Droopy Drawers.’

Doug hated every last one of them.

The game itself seemed simple enough. Regardless, he had no desire to excel at it. First of all, he was there against his will and, second, the jocks on the team were a bunch of assholes, as jocks tended to be. When the ball, nearly always by accident, rolled his way, Doug would kick it back the way it had come. That was about the extent of the effort he was willing to put into the game. He flatly refused to spend any energy under that unforgiving California sun running back and forth chasing the damned thing as it bounced and tumbled across the field. 

Things went on like this for awhile until, on the third week, quite inexplicably, he was made goalie. Whether this was because of his refusal to move his legs faster than a brisk trot or just a futile effort on the part of the coach to give him a boost of team spirit, Doug never knew. Whatever the reason, the other players were not pleased. Goalie is arguably the most important position on the field, definitely so when it came to defense.

Though he was as surprised and horrified as his teammates at this promotion, Doug quickly got used to his new role. In fact, after a few practices, he discovered it wasn’t terribly difficult to block a goal. Anticipating when a player was going to feign left or right turned out to be rather easy for him. All that was left was to throw your body in front of the ball. Despite himself, he began to enjoy the game.

The enjoyment, though, didn’t stem from any sense of camaraderie. He still despised his teammates. They were the same bunch of jerkoffs they’d been since day one. No, what he enjoyed was infuriating them when they tried, and failed, to score against him. He, Doug, the same kid they had, only shortly before, unanimously hailed as the worst player on the team, was outperforming them. And this drove them absolutely nuts.

Of course, their collective insecurity only ratcheted up the abuse they heaped on him by an order of magnitude. The names they called him became increasingly vile and inventive. He would frequently find personal items missing from his locker and rumors regarding his sexuality began to make the rounds.

Doug didn’t really care, though, because, by this point, a seed of revenge had found fertile soil in his disaffected mind and was beginning to grow. Before long, the seed had taken root and what had begun as a vague notion of vengeance had blossomed into an actual plan, one that would require a little bit of luck and one hell of a lot of patience.

After seven or eight practices the first game of the season was upon them. All the kids seemed both excited that their hard work would finally be witnessed by hundreds of people and also nervous that they would all get their asses handed to them by the opposing team in front of said hundreds of people. They were up against Turlock Health Foods, a little hippie shop on the west side of town whose entire schtick was peddling herbs and vitamins claiming to cure everything from gout to cancer. From talk around the locker room, Doug gathered the majority of players in both teams were about evenly matched, with one exception; Turlock Health Foods had a valuable asset in Garret McDermott, a kid from his own school who excelled at any sport involving the kicking, tossing, or catching of balls. Regardless, spirits remained high because, though the Nortons players would never admit it, they possessed, in Doug, a star player of their own.

The bleachers were packed to the gills and, after a brief speech by some self-important official from town hall or somewhere, the game commenced. During the first half Norton’s held their own, but not without a level of effort far exceeding that of any practice. The temperature was well into the triple digits and every last kid was drenched with sweat and there was a lot of scowling and cursing on both sides. Doug found himself working his defense game much harder than he was accustomed to, particularly when it was Garret coming at him. Still, by the end of the first half, the two teams were tied. What Turlock Health Foods lacked in defense (at times it seemed their goalie couldn’t block a beachball) they made up for in offense, by way of Garret. The opposite was true of Norton’s Mortuary. 

The second half proceeded much like the first. Both teams were neck in neck, and as the clock wound down, the game seemed destined to go into overtime. A tied score, though nerve-racking for everyone else, was perfect for what Doug had in mind.

When possible, he stole glances at the scoreboard with the big and red blocky digital countdown clicking steadily toward zero. With the two teams still stuck in a stalemate and less than a minute remaining in the game, the watching crowd was either perched on the edge of their seats with expectation or slumped back in bored resignation to the very real possibility the game might drag on for another thirty minutes or so into overtime. 

When the clock was down to ten seconds, Doug was finally ready to execute his plan. Garret was leading the charge, as usual, barreling down the field in his direction, easily outmaneuvering Norton’s clumsy attempts to take back the ball. He didn’t even bother passing it back and forth to his teammates. It was evident he was determined to take all the glory of breaking this stalemate on his own, without assistance, just before the clock ran out. It was such a predictably Garret thing to do. Kids like him weren’t content with simply winning. They had to win big.

As Garret closed in, Doug hopped back and forth like a panicked crab, his oversized jersey billowing about him like a dress. His scrawny arms were stretched wide in an attempt to make his body as wide an obstacle as possible. Norton’s pursuing players, hopelessly left in the dust, slowed to a crawl, panting with exertion and pinning all remaining hope on the one player they despised.

This was it, the defining moment both teams had worked toward during all those grueling weeks of practice. The two teams would either remain tied and be forced into overtime or Norton’s would be defeated.

Garret feigned left, right, left….and kicked for the winning point.

And Doug promptly dropped his arms, calmly stepped aside, and let the ball sail past him and thump into the net.

For several moments there was only silence, both on the field and in the stands. It was as if everyone was trying to work out what had just happened. Then, a moment later, they apparently figured it out. A chorus of boos erupted from the bleachers. Doug smiled. In a sense, he had achieved a double victory. He had secured a loss for his own team and robbed the other of a real victory. Turlock Health Foods had won, it was true, but only because he had allowed them to.

That Saturday afternoon was his last game of soccer. After that performance, his father finally let him quit. In that respect, Doug felt he had actually achieved, not a double victory, but a triple one.

But, as with all victories, this one came at a cost. Doug’s father never really got over it. He had been in the stands that day, cheering on his kid, right along with all the other parents. Then, quite suddenly, he had found himself in the unenviable position of being the father of the boy who had just ruined the entire experience for everyone.

And it was for this reason alone that Doug was afterwards a little bit sad and ashamed of what he had done that Saturday afternoon.

But only a little bit.

 

 

 

 

The Sad Saga of Charlie, the Cocker Spaniel

Doug wasn’t stupid. He knew that dogs, cats, and all manner of household pets got themselves killed by wandering into the road. At only seven years old, he could not have explained the physics involved, but he was smart enough to know that the outcome of a collision between even the smallest vehicle and the largest animal would always have a clear winner and loser. 

Again, he wasn’t stupid.

Yet he never feared for his beloved cocker spaniel’s safety. His house on Bridgeport Court was safely tucked into the corner of, well, a court. Cars didn’t whiz by as they did on the busier roads like Geer or Monte Vista. By the time anyone reached Doug’s house they had effectively reached a dead end. Unless they planned on plowing into the living room of the last house on the street, they would already be traveling at a crawl, ready to park or turn around and leave the way they came in.

On the lazy September day that was to be Charlie’s last, Doug was fooling around the house, in mediocre spirits, making the best of his summer vacation which was, unfortunately, about to end. Third grade would soon begin and, if experience had taught him anything, it was that the overall quality of life decreased dramatically with each successive year. The subjects would be twice as hard and the homework twice as much. To top it all off, he had recently learned he was assigned to the class of Ms. Santiago, a woman rumored to be mean as a witch with a face that every kid in school agreed bore a striking resemblance to an angry horse.

But Doug was quite good at pushing stuff like that out of his mind, focusing on the pressing concerns of the moment, such as what toys to play with, cartoons to watch, or cereal to eat. It was in such a state of mind that his big sister Lisa found him that afternoon.

Twelve years his senior, Lisa was already out of the house. She had a job up in Modesto at Winchell’s Donuts and shared an apartment with her goofy boyfriend Tim. And, of course, like all grownups, she had a car.

The car in question was a dirty yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Presumably because of its color, she always called it a lemon. It was pretty banged up, with dents all along the side and one of the lights in the back had been busted out somehow. It was so loud that, if out in the yard, it would be heard a good ten seconds before it was seen. Doug always thought the rattle of his sister’s car must be what God sounded like if he were to crap his pants.

One time, not long before, it had even caught fire. His other sister Laurie had been in the passenger seat at a gas station smoking a cigarette while Lisa filled up the tank. The fumes somehow leaked into the car and the whole inside went up in flames. The door handles were so hot Laurie couldn’t even open the door. She would’ve cooked like a turkey if the gas station attendant hadn’t got there in time to pull her out.

Lisa, though, handled that situation as she did any other; calmly and without even the hint of panic or distress. So mature was she that sometimes Doug considered her more of a second mom than an older sister. This made it all the more alarming when she walked into the living room with large wet eyes, all red and drippy. “Something terrible happened, Bee,” she said, calling him by her favorite nickname. Nobody else was allowed to call him that. He never did understand what it meant.

As she sat down in the chair opposite, bringing her eyes to his level, Doug suddenly felt himself begin to sweat. It was a sticky and disgusting feeling that came not from being hot but rather from being cold, like a big nest of ice crystals had formed in his stomach and were beginning to spread outwards into his arms and legs. He fought back an inexplicable urge to vomit all over the carpet.

“Terrible?” Doug asked, in the most casual tone he could manage. It had suddenly become extremely important that he remain in control of himself. His sister was already starting to come apart. Therefore, he must not. It was that simple. Whatever awful news she was about to deliver, he would be strong enough for the both of them.

“I…Charlie, he…I didn’t see him and he…” She stopped for a moment and took a breath. “I just didn’t see him.”

Doug stared silently as his sister, trying to process this fragmented bit of information. “Is he hurt?” he asked calmly, yet already knowing the answer. The urge to puke was stronger than ever. Worse, he felt like he was losing his breath, as if an invisible hand was choking the air from his lungs.

Lisa looked down for a moment, a fresh set of tears tumbling down her cheeks. “Not hurt,” she managed. “Dead.”

The self-control Doug had convinced himself he possessed evaporated in an instant. His vision clouded with tears and his small body was wracked with sobs. It took some time before he was calm enough to hear the details. Lisa had wanted to spare him these gruesome particulars but Doug was insistent she tell him. 

Charlie was his best friend, he needed assurance that the final moments of his little black cocker spaniel’s life were at least quick and without too much pain. If the end was not fast and merciful, well, then he would just have to bear that news as well as his seven year old heart could manage. At the end of the day, Doug’s own misery was inconsequential compared to his desire to know the complete and total truth about the terrible fate which had befallen his dog.

For many years afterward, Doug wished his sister would have just lied to him.

 

 

 

 

Boy (doesn’t) Meet Girl

It really wasn’t until the fourth grade at Crowell Elementary that Doug began to pay attention to girls. Until that point they had been more or less something to put up with, if anything. There were always girls his age around the house growing up; his mother, after all, ran a full-time daycare out of their home. And at his father’s place on the weekends he had his stepsister Jaime and her friends to deal with, all just a couple years younger than himself.

Romantically speaking, though, none of these counted. It wasn’t until he laid eyes on the new girl at school, Melissa, that Doug could truthfully tell himself he had found love, at long last. Not that his affections were in any way returned, though. Indeed, he was fairly certain she was unaware of his existence. This inconvenience, though, he was determined to remedy.

For a new kid, Doug marveled at just how quickly Melissa was able to make friends.  It seemed within weeks of her transfer from some town he’d never heard of, she had an entire retinue of girls, not just to play with, but to do her bidding. It wasn’t uncommon to see one of her friends make extra trips to the cafeteria to fetch her whatever entree or dessert she fancied. On more than one occasion, Doug even witnessed a few girls giving up items from their bag lunches. These were usually filled with such coveted items one could never get in the cafeteria; treasures like Pop Tarts and Fruit Rollups. Melissa would take a little of it all. The funny thing was, though, he rarely witnessed her actually eating any of it. She’d stick the booty in her backpack and, as far as he could tell, there it would remain the rest of the day.

Doug was bewitched.

Despite being a Crowell Cougar for only a few short months, Melissa had already far surpassed Doug in popularity. Not that this was a tremendous feat in itself; he was largely considered a nerd among all but a few students who were, naturally, just as (or more so) nerdy than himself. This lowly status was largely because he spent much of his time with his nose stuck in books. The cool kids, such as his nemesis Garret, were good at football, baseball, boring stuff like that. When they’d be out throwing a ball around, he’d be in the library. Needless to say, this situation did not work any wonders for his social life.

So Doug decided, with Melissa as his objective, not to stop reading, but rather to do so on the sly. Going to the library was now out of the question. He needed to be spotted, if not on the field, at least on the playground during recess. It was crucial he at least appear as if he fitted in with the majority of other boys.

This charade turned out to be much easier said than done. For one thing, aside from his own small group of fellow nerds, nobody had any interest in even speaking with him, much less becoming his friend. The sad fact was that nobody had any interest in getting to know anyone who wasn’t considered cool. 

Doug could remember a time when he had been cool. It had been way back in the second grade when his father had visited the school in his police uniform for a demonstration during Bring Your Parent to School Day. In the immediate aftermath of his father’s impressive display, Doug’s star had burned bright but it had also burned brief. Within just two weeks, the kids had more or less forgotten about his dad’s police uniform, gun, and badge. Accordingly, he had been promptly returned to nerd status. Truth be told, though, he hadn’t really enjoyed this newfound esteem, short as it was. He had discovered that being popular involved talking to a lot of people you’d really rather not, being extra attentive about how you looked, taking care about such things as what clothes you wore or how you styled your hair. You even had to be ever conscious about how you talked, what you talked about, who you were seen with, and all kinds of stuff that, as far as Doug was concerned, didn’t really amount to much of a pay off, considering the amount of effort involved. His friends might be dorky but they’d never turn on him over something as stupid as the ever-shifting winds of fads, trends, and overall ranking in popularity among his peers. 

Still, unlike before, he now had a higher purpose, one with beautiful green eyes and long brown hair. So Doug set about trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the girl he was certain he loved. Someday, if all went well, he might even muster enough nerve to actually speak with her. But, before that milestone, he had to first build up his image. He didn’t kid himself that this would in any way be an easy feat. But, if nothing else, he was stubborn.

Unfortunately, Doug had not anticipated the difficulty involved in fooling this girl. It turned out to be an extremely delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had to stand near a group of popular kids, placing himself just near enough to seem as if he were part of the conversation if viewed from a distance but far enough away that the boys would take no notice of his lurking presence. Had anyone taken the time to actually scrutinize his behavior, the entire ruse would crumble and he would  come off a complete and total jackass. Caution and diligence were of utmost importance.

So it was that day after day, during every recess and lunch period, Doug would strategically place himself just close enough to Garret and his friends, all popular boys who, in reality, he had nothing in common with. From what he could tell, the only subjects these buffoons were interested in were sports and girls. Sure, he could relate to the latter (that was, after all, the entire purpose of his charade) but not in the way they did. It was as if every female on the school grounds was only as good as their physical appearance and/or flirtatiousness. If they had too many freckles, or a mouth full of braces, forget about it. If they didn’t blush and giggle when addressed, they were scarcely worth mentioning and, at times, even ridiculed. 

Doug was, of course, not oblivious to the fact that his love for Melissa was based solely on her physical appearance. He had nothing else to go on. She was a grade higher than him and thus, to his profound frustration, not in a single one of his classes. In fact, he’d only heard her speak a small handful of times when he’d ‘happened’ to pass her in the hall. Despite knowing little to nothing about her, though, Doug didn’t regard the girl as simply a pair of legs to be ogled at by the likes of Garret and his pack of cretins. He had genuine curiosity about her as a person. What was her favorite cereal, movie, TV show (was she a Three’s Company kind of girl or did she prefer less risqué fare such as Alf)? There was so much to know, to learn. Sure, he was attracted to her physically, but at the same time was confident there was so much more beneath the surface for anyone possessing the patience and willpower to find out. He knew without a shred of doubt that he was that person. Once she noticed he was more or less a normal kid, maybe even a marginally popular one, all that would be left to do was strike up a conversation.

Simple. In theory, at least.

Doug soon discovered that the single largest obstacle in winning over Melissa was getting her to even look in his general direction. His ruse to appear popular was not having the desired effect. The reason soon became clear. Unlike most other girls at school, she didn’t seem at all impressed with Garret and his circle of dumb friends. Therefore, she wasn’t constantly stealing glimpses of him and his group. This negated Doug’s entire strategy of hanging around on the periphery of their social circle. With no apparent interest in them, he rarely even appeared in her line of sight. Clearly, a new tactic to gain her attention was in order, something bolder.

Soon after abandoning his make-believe friendship scheme with Garret and crew, a new plan began to form in Doug’s mind. His new strategy involved ingratiating himself with those girls he knew to be friends of Melissa. Eventually, if he played his cards right, their paths would cross by way of simply knowing many of the same people. They would be brought together by what would seem, to the outside eye, an inevitable encounter between two people with mutual friends or acquaintances. 

It seemed like a solid enough plan, at least in theory. Unfortunately, though, the execution proved much more problematic. For one thing, all of Melissa’s friends were, of course, girls. This wouldn’t be a major obstacle in and of itself if not for the fact that girls, generally speaking, had no interest in him whatsoever. And, to complicate matters, those girls Melissa did know were among the most obnoxious and snooty of the entire student body at Crowell Elementary.

Regardless, without a better plan, he was determined to see this one through. The first stage would be to cut into the lunch line at an opportune moment, placing himself directly behind a girl he knew to be in Melissa’s circle. Ideally, he would do this toward the end of the line. The reason for this was twofold. First, the line fanned out toward the rear, making it easier to ease himself into position without drawing undue attention. Second, doing so would provide more time to work his charm. This latter point was of particular importance. Once the line reached the point where they retrieved their food trays, all speaking would, by necessity, cease. They would be preoccupied with the lunch lady, choosing their veggies and mystery meat from the limited selection. Once the food had been plopped onto their trays, any social interaction was finished and they would head to their respective tables.

Any attempt to continue the conversation beyond this point would be fruitless. The girl would head to her table and he would head to his. It was that simple. Should he try and sit at the girl’s table, he would make a spectacle of himself, one that would be a terrible blow to the image he was trying to build. Though he was never sure why, a boy sitting alone amongst girls was just something that was just not done. It would be tantamount to social suicide.

This self-imposed segregation of the sexes wasn’t a problem, however, provided the lunch line was long enough to give him the time needed to strike up a friendly conversation, one he could build on over time, ultimately ingratiating himself with Melissa’s different friends, slowly infiltrating her social circle.  Fortunately, the lunch line was always long. Before this Melissa business, this had always been an annoyance. Now, it was an asset.

Or so he believed.

His first mark, a stuck up little blond with enormous hair named Megan, stood, not at the very end of the line, but fairly close. She was one of Melissa’s lesser acquaintances. Admittedly, not ideal. Still, just because she wasn’t privy to the coveted inner circle, she had access to those who did. It would have to do.

He approached at a casual stroll, hands stuffed in his pockets, doing his level best to put on a careless air. Silent as a ninja, he slipped in line behind Megan. Behind him stood Todd, an insecure red head who, like himself, was somewhat of a loner. Doug knew such a kid would be less apt to protest and, fortunately, in this case, he was correct. Aside from a frown and disdainful shake of the head, Todd kept his mouth shut. The few kids further back didn’t seem to notice that their line had just increased by one.

So far, so good. His luck was holding.

Ever aware of his limited time to work, Doug dove right in. “Hey, what’s up Megan,” he began, with a forced nonchalance that made him feel ill.  She looked over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow cocked, as if trying to figure out who was addressing her. He soldiered on. “Fish sticks, again,” he moaned with exaggerated weariness, nodding toward the menu board.

“It’s Mindy, you dork,” she said with a sneer, turning back around.

Doug closed his eyes, silently cursing himself. God damnit, right out of the gate and he was in trouble. He had been certain her name was Megan. He had to think fast. The line was moving right along. Soon they would arrive at the counter.

“Oh, right…Mindy,” he said cooly to the back of her head. “Hi, I’m Mork.” 

Silence. This time she didn’t even bother turning around to acknowledge him. Clearly, his joke had failed to land. Or perhaps this girl simply had no sense of humor. He tried to recall what he had ever overheard her talking about. He was in desperate need of some common ground.

Meanwhile, the line inched ever forward.

Nothing came to him. Screwing up her name had filled him with self doubt. Now he couldn’t even be sure which of Melissa’s friends this was, much less what he might have overheard her speaking about. After all, if this was Mindy, then who was Megan? Or had there never been a Megan in the first place? His new strategy, so brilliant in theory, was already floundering, and only after a single attempt.

Still, he had a few precious moments remaining before they reached the counter. He’d already embarrassed himself so, at this point, there wasn’t a whole lot to lose. Going with the first thing to pop into his head, he found himself telling her a particularly bad joke he’d heard earlier that week.

“What’s green and red and spins around and around all day long?”

Mindy released an unnecessarily loud sigh and turned to face him. Doug cocked his head to one side, confident she’d at least want to know the punchline, however dumb it might be.

She stared at him for an uncomfortably long moment. Her eyes were unblinking and he found himself thinking of a National Geographic article about reptiles he had recently read.  He was just starting to get a little creeped out when she finally broke into a smile. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was rather the kind one might use when addressing a small child. “Kermit the frog in a blender,” she replied. “I have two kid brothers, you know.”

They had arrived at the counter. Mindy grabbed a pastel green plastic tray from the rack and slapped it on the metal runner, waiting for the lunch lady to take her order.

Doug, having humiliated himself for the second time in under a minute, knew he was out of time and, in desperation, determined to take things up a notch. He had recently overheard a sixth-grader telling some of his friends a dirty joke. Though Doug didn’t understand it, the older boys had found it hilarious. He decided to go for it. At least it was one her damned kid brothers weren’t likely to know. “Hey, Mindy,” he said. “What do you call that yellowish-brown crusty stuff smeared all over the crotch of a girl’s panties at the end of a hot day?”

Mindy whirled around to face him, furious before he had even had the opportunity to deliver the punchline. “What did you say?” she sputtered.

Clitty litter,” he said quickly, hoping she would at least find enough humor in the incomprehensible joke that he could avoid being slapped across the face.

For a moment he thought she really was going to smack him. He recalled the time, a few years earlier, when he had learned from some boys at school that women bleed out of their butts once every month. He had gone home and, laughing uncontrollably, informed his mother of this newly acquired nugget of wisdom. She had slapped him across the face; the only time she had ever laid a hand on him, before or since. Standing there looking at him, Mindy had that same sort of look in her eye as his mother had that day. She was harder to read, though. Honestly, it could go either way.

She continued to stare at him with that maddeningly inscrutable expression until, finally, the corner of her lip turned up, and she flashed him a crooked smile. “That’s a good one,” she said. Chuckling lightly, she turned back toward the lunch lady and held out her tray.

Doug was, of course, elated. He had taken a disastrous situation that was quickly going nowhere and turned it around with some dumb joke he didn’t understand, aside from the fact that it was dirty. Mindy got it, though, and that’s all that mattered. Maybe she’d go to her lunch table and retell the joke, letting all her friends know what a funny guy he was. And, who knows, maybe one friend in particular might show a spark of interest in this budding comedian.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. Within the week, girls he didn’t even know began calling him “perv” and “sicko” as they’d pass him in the hall. As for Melissa, she was oblivious to his presence as always.

Only once did they actually make eye contact. It was some weeks following the cafeteria incident. Doug had rounded a corner and, by chance, found himself facing the object of his affections as she walked toward him in the opposite direction. None of her bothersome friends were around. It was just him and her.

They were alone, together.

Realizing at once that such an ideal situation would almost certainly never happen again, he quickly decided he’d toss her a casual ‘hello’ as they passed; not exactly the pickup line of the year but far better than nothing at all, which, up to this point, was all he had achieved toward his goal of winning her heart.

It would have to do.

The hall was not wide. As the distance between them narrowed, Melissa veered to her left. At the same instant, Doug veered to his right. To avoid a potential collision, Melissa then leaned back to her right at the same time that Doug, with the same intention, leaned back to his left. This happened three more times, resulting in what amounted to a ridiculous little shuffle between the two of them. By the time they worked out their respective positions relative to one another, it was too late and she passed him by.

Doug tried to think of something witty to say, some kind of ice breaker to make light of the awkward situation. Before he could do so, though, Melissa muttered something over her shoulder at him that he didn’t quite catch. These were the first words she had ever spoken to him, albeit facing the opposite way. And, just his luck, he’d missed it. Determined not to let this fateful moment slip out of his grasp forever, he turned around and, heart in his throat, asked her what she’d said.

She stopped and turned to face him, wearing a smile so sweet and beautiful it made him feel as if he were made of butter. “You didn’t hear me?” she said.

Doug felt his throat go dry as he dumbly shook his head.

“I said, you walk like a drunken retard.”

She looked at him for a few more agonizing seconds, The smile he had found so endearing just moments before now seemed much more like a malicious grin. Then, without a further word, she turned back around and continued on her way.

Doug stood there in the hall, frozen in place, watching her until she disappeared around the corner. He wasn’t sure how long he remained that way, just standing there like that. For him, time had stopped. The distant ringing of the bell eventually startled him back to the present and he hurried to class.

That night, he didn’t toss and turn, thinking about her, as he had for the past several months. The following morning, he didn’t waste the precious free time between classes or at recess and lunch in a pathetic attempt to attract her eye. He stopped trying to ingratiate himself with her snooty friends.

By the end of the week, he had resumed his long neglected trips to the library. His old friends were happy to see him return, and they asked no questions and made no judgements. Doug was back where he belonged, with his own kind of people, where he could be a nerd, where he could be himself.

Yes, we really did land on the Moon.

The moon landing was faked. Everybody has heard this one. It is arguably the single most popular grand conspiracy ever dreamed up. Let’s take a closer look and see if it holds any water (spoiler: it doesn’t).

From the day in late spring 1961 when President Kennedy announced his goal of landing an American on the Moon within the decade to the day in early summer 1969 when it was accomplished, NASA culled men and women from 20,000 companies and universities to eventually muster a truly astounding 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians for the task. This number doesn’t even include the untold number of support staff; janitors, caterers, couriers, secretaries, and about every other menial position imaginable that would be necessary to support what, at the time, was the single largest feat of engineering in the history of the world.

And, of course, one must not forget the thousands of people who watched the enormous Saturn V rocket blast into the heavens from its pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, followed in a few short days by the estimated 600 million people around the world who watched the actual landing on their television sets.

Yet, there are those who, to this day, insist that the moon landing did not occur, that it was shot in a studio. To accomplish such a massive subterfuge, every single person, from top NASA officials down to the guy scrubbing facility toilets, would necessarily have been an invention. They wouldn’t exist for the simple reason that their jobs would not have.

So, let’s say they did exist but merely went through the motions, showing up to work every day for nearly a decade simply to maintain the appearance of working on this massive project. If that were the case, then every last person involved would have been privy to a hoax staggering in size and complexity. In essence, every high level employee of the 20,000 companies and universities who provided the manpower would necessarily have been sworn to secrecy about said hoax, since they were, quite publicly, alleged to have provided their very best and brightest for the project. And, of course, every last one of these would have had to keep the secret from all of their own families, friends, and loved ones, somehow accounting for their absence during the work week for, in some cases, nearly a decade.

And, oh yes, the film crew, the one that allegedly shot the landing itself (some have pegged Stanley Kubrick as the culprit). In addition, three presidential administrations would have been in on the ruse. First Kennedy, followed by Johnson, and, finally, Nixon. In fact, old Tricky Dick himself was alleged to have spoken to the astronauts themselves while they were on the lunar surface. What a sham!

And, of course, there is the little matter of the cost of the project itself. If there is one thing human beings are sticklers about, it is money. For Christ’s sake, the first writing in known history is thought to be a record of financial transactions. And the Apollo program was hardly a nickel and dime affair. In 1973, the total cost was reported to Congress at a staggering $25.4 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be the 2019 equivalent of roughly $146 billion. If the whole thing was a hoax, where did that money go? To reallocate, launder, or simply make such an amount disappear, every Congressman, Representative, accountant, assemblyman, and, frankly, every last one of the thousands of people involved in allocating the nation’s budget (under three separate administrations, no less) would necessarily be in on the joke as well.

What strikes me as odd is that many of the same people who would likely agree with the premise that a secret shared by 1,000 people is untenable still persist in believing in large-scale conspiracies such as a faked lunar landing which involves more people than this by several orders of magnitude.

I am not suggesting that no conspiracies exist. Smaller and more manageable ones most certainly do. For instance, those types involving the top brass of intelligence agencies, government spy networks, and the like. At most, a few hundred people might be in the know. But even these eventually become exposed by some whistle-blower, and the hard evidence usually is found sooner or later to back up the allegations. Cases such as this include many of the secret CIA missions of past decades that have since come to light, such as the shady support the U.S. gave to right-wing authoritarian regimes over democratically elected leaders. The 1976 coup by the military dictator Jorge Videla against President Isabel Peron of Argentina is an example of this.

The point is this: people just aren’t good at keeping secrets. We are natural storytellers. As a species, keeping our mouths shut is simply not one of our strong suits. Conspiracy theories are fun to believe. Sometimes, even sexy. But none of that makes them true, or, in most cases, even remotely probable.

Conspiratorial thinking is, in fact, the antithesis of critical thinking. We see conspiratorial nonsense spewed upon the masses by relatively unknown schemers from the lowly YouTuber hack all the way up to those holding the highest positions of public office. All one need do is take a look at the digital diarrhea that is the current U.S. President’s Twitter feed to see this unfortunate truth.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, especially in this digital age where everyone has an audience via the internet, which can function as a digital megaphone to convert the gullible.

Like the fake moon landing, many of these conspiracies are mind-numbingly stupid, though relatively harmless. For example, recently the world has witnessed what most would have thought impossible; the resurgence of the flat earth movement. Others believe the condensed water vapor left in the wake of jet engines are actually so-called “chemtrails,” some nefarious and mysterious substance meant to psychologically control the masses and/or control the human population.

Some grand conspiracies are political in nature, such as Donald Trump’s ‘deep state,’ or his evidence-free claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal citizens in California.

Others can actually cause harm, such as (again) Donald Trump’s stated belief that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese government, which lead to delays or actual refusals to enact legislation to address the issue. Far right nut jobs like Alex Jones have promoted the conspiracy that a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre was a false flag operation by the U.S. government, leading to a lawsuit by the grieving parents of the murdered children.  A pizza joint in Washington, D.C. was the target of a gunman who bought into some online rumor that it was the secret base of some pedophile sex ring run by high ranking Democrats. Then, of course, there are the “9/11 truthers,” who never seem to go away and continue to dishonor all who perished in the aftermath of this terrorist attack. Others that fit in this more nefarious category of conspiracy theorists are the “anti-vaxxers,” who shamelessly promote the gibberish of the disgraced (and now unlicensed) British doctor Andrew Wakefield who made the false claim that vaccines are linked to autism (and later went on to cash in on his ill-gotten fame with a few popular films to this effect). As a result, in recent months, measles outbreaks in the United States, formerly almost non-existent, have broken out across the nation in areas where parents refuse to vaccinate their own children.

This list of conspiracy theories is hardly a complete one. In fact, it barely scratches the surface. There are many others and more are thought up every day. The one thing that all conspiracy theories seem to have in common, though, is this: there is never a shred of evidence to support them. Yet millions continue to be converted, sold on this or that bullshit based on nothing more than the homemade video of a YouTube fanatic or the mindless tweet from the most powerful man in the world.

And, of course, their own willingness to embrace what they want to be rather than what actually is.

 

 

Observations of a Cruise Ship Worker

In the spring of 2019 I was hired by a major cruise line as an onboard naturalist. I qualified due to my work experience and, more importantly, my B.S. in Aquatic & Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington. For the previous four years I had not been using my insanely expensive education to make a living. Instead, I had been working at a small independently owned musical instrument shop/school. Though I loved the job (great people, conscientious business, fair treatment and pay), it obviously did not utilize my hard earned knowledge of the natural world.

So when I was offered a job with the cruise line, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, sort of. In truth, I was somewhat reluctant to give up my position with the music shop, where I ran the school in the evenings. I had gotten to know the students and teachers extremely well over the years and thoroughly enjoyed the work. So the decision to leave was not as easy as it might have been otherwise. But the naturalist job, in the end, was simply too good to pass up.

The application process was fairly grueling, but seemed well worth the effort. I had to take an extensive medical exam to prove my fitness for life at sea that put me back nearly $500 (to be partly reimbursed by my employer). I had to renew my expired passport (since we would pass through Canadian waters), fill out countless reams of paperwork,  pass all the background checks, and also write and memorize my own Powerpoint presentations for the season, which ran from mid-May thru the end of September. And, of course, I spent the four months prior to boarding doing extensive research on everything Alaska. This was primarily because, though my education was thorough, it was broad in scope. I needed to familiarize myself with the natural history of very specific regions, both in and out of the water.

The ship, a 900-odd foot long behemoth, was to make bi-weekly runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Glacier Bay, Alaska, stopping at towns like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan along the way. As naturalist, it was my job to give a couple of brief presentations about the local wildlife once or twice a day, covering everything from whales to bears to trees. Sometimes I would be expected to lead wildlife spotting sessions from on deck if we sailed past areas of high animal traffic. The majority of the day, though, I would spend just sort of hanging around the ship, making myself available to answer any questions posed by curious guests, should they have any.

All of these duties, though, were conducted only on “sea days.” When in port, other than performing gangway duty early in the morning, there was nothing to do but go on various land or sea based excursions such as whale watching tours or nature hikes. Even these, which guests would pay anywhere from $100-$800 to book, were, for me, free of charge. Since these excursions were not mandatory, if I was in the mood, I could spend the day alone wandering the towns, entertaining myself at the local taverns or finding my own trail to explore. In short, port days were my own.

The whole gig seemed perfect. It ticked off all the checkboxes of what I considered the perfect  job. As an officer, I received great pay, medical/dental benefits, free room and board, and the chance to wake up somewhere different every morning and see sights in remote areas glimpsed by relatively few people on Earth. And, most importantly, I was able to work in my actual field, something I had not done in years.

The ship itself was an enormous floating luxury hotel. I had access to the same food as the guests, which is to say an assortment of food that rivaled in quality the best I could ever hope to find onshore, even in my own big city of Seattle. And, of course, it was all free, as much as I could eat. To stave off potential obesity, there was a gym for officers to use whenever they wished, as well as two pools (one beneath an enormous retractable roof). For entertainment, there were several hot tubs, saunas, a casino, a varied selection of bars, large theaters with live shows, and even a basketball court. If I wanted to get away from guests, I had access to the Officer’s Bar (OB), which sat directly behind the enormous open bow, a massive uncluttered space with the best view of the whole ship, and, most importantly, was completely off-limits to all guests.

Though my cabin was small and modest, it did have a porthole and I didn’t have to share it with anyone. There was a TV with some free pre-loaded movies on it, along with a tiny desk and nightstand. The bathroom was little more than an indentation in the wall. The toilet was virtually identical to those found in business class airplanes, complete with the deafening roar that accompanied every flush. The shower was a tiny stall. Stepping inside, my face would be inches from the wall and the curtain would be practically sticking to my ass. How anyone over, say, 200 pounds could possibly bathe themselves in such a cramped space remains a mystery to me.

Overall, though, my cabin was a comfortable enough space. Like all crew cabins, it was located belowdecks. In my case, A-Deck. Most of the non-officer crew cabins were below mine on B and C-Deck, and in much smaller spaces than my own, nearly all equipped with bunk beds and without portholes.

The vast majority of the crew, some 900 or so souls as I recall, were, of course, not officers but rather housekeeping, kitchen, servers, and the like. In other words, the most essential part of the ship, at least in terms of making the guests happy. Nearly every last one of them were recruited from the Philippines and a few other areas of Southeast Asia. When interfacing with the guests, they were the picture of hospitality; soft-spoken, extremely polite and deferential, and always eager to be of assistance.

This behavior did not just extend to the guests, however. Quite often I would find myself passing Filipino men or women a good twenty years my senior, calling me “sir,” and treating me with what I began to suspect was caution. I found this to be uncomfortable and would often make a point of calling them by their first names in an attempt to cultivate a sense of familiarity and, more importantly, equality.

There were a couple of the Filipino workers who I ended up getting to know on a first name basis, though. One in particular, I’ll call her Stephanie, was in her forties and was from just outside Manila. She worked longer hours than some commercial fishermen I know. Working as a beverage server, it was her task to  walk around whatever bar she was assigned to for the evening and take drink orders from guests, which would then be charged to their ship accounts (there are no cash transactions onboard).

The hours Stephanie worked were brutal. One night she closed down a bar at 4:00am and was back at work directing disembarking passengers in port just three hours later. Over a two week period she worked approximately 150 hours but made only $360 U.S. dollars for her time. Worked out to an hourly wage, that is a measly $2.40 per hour, a wage that would have been unacceptable to most people even clear back in the 1980s.

But to work it out to an hourly wage would be irrelevant because that wasn’t how she was compensated. Nor was she salaried. Instead, she, and others like her, worked solely on commission, receiving a small percentage of every drink order she took from a guest. With the absence of cash, there were no tips. Even the slip of paper the guest signed authorizing the charges to their ship account had no place for gratuity. To make matters worse, because Stephanie was in her forties, she had to compete against other younger women for drink orders.

She didn’t stand a chance.

This, to me, was shocking. For working a mere fraction of the hours Stephanie did, I received roughly $3,500 per month. And, unlike Stephanie, I wasn’t packed like a sardine with others in a cramped cabin.

The Filipino workers were also not allowed above deck unless they were on duty. If they were caught anywhere above A-Deck, which is where the crew area began, they had better have a good reason. I, on the other hand, was free to wander the ship at will, frequenting any area the guests could, in addition to the aforementioned bar reserved solely for officers.

I was aware beforehand of the segregation onboard between the officers and Filipino crew. What completely took me off guard, though, was just how poorly they were treated. Any notion of ‘separate but equal’ would be an absurdity.

Because most of their positions were service-related (cooks, housekeeping, etc), they rarely got much time, if any, to leave the ship. Though we would dock in some of the larger Alaskan towns such as Juneau for the entire day, most of the Filipino crew could consider themselves lucky if they got an hour or two ashore. If they did, their time was invariably spent making runs to WalMart, purchasing items to send back home to their families in the Philippines, items that were either beyond their financial reach or simply unavailable there.

Whereas I enjoyed a buffet of exquisite and diverse items coupled with a scenic view, their mess hall resembled a dilapidated public school cafeteria. The last time I went down there they had only brown and oily fish heads, rice, and fruit to choose from. And, to spice things up, a vending machine.

Incidentally, it was these same Filipinos who cooked and prepared all the rich and delicious food only one deck above. Yet they were forbidden to eat a single bite, despite a stupendous amount of it ending up as waste at the end of each day.

Sensing a financial opportunity, a number of officers would even smuggle some of this food below deck, selling it to the Filipino crew at 100% profit. This was part of a larger network known, tongue in cheek, as the ‘Filipino Mafia.’ And this particular black market didn’t deal merely in food. Though I never witnessed it directly, I heard rumors of certain services being rendered by some female crew members to those officers with more cash than they knew what to do with.

Even more revolting than the greasy fish heads (which I never saw make it to anybody’s actual plate) was the smoking area for the Filipino crew. Now, I’m not a smoker. Still, it was difficult not to feel a bit of sympathy when observing the striking difference between the designated areas for officers and those of regular crew.

Whenever an officer wanted to light up, they would do so on the open bow, out in the fresh air, free to lean on the rail and gaze out at the picturesque mountains and sea. The Filipinos smoking section, on the other hand, was down below on A-Deck in a cramped room. I only caught a glimpse inside once, as someone opened the door to leave. As he did so, a dense cloud of toxic smoke billowed out into the hall. Whatever fans they had running in that small space were clearly taxed beyond their capacity.

Most egregious of all, though, was the sexual harassment endured by an untold number of female Filipino women at the hands of the officers and/or their superiors. I was aware of at least one case in which Stephanie had reported an incident of sexual harassment on behalf of one of her co-workers who could not speak English very well. Rather than go to her supervisor, however, she chose to go to someone else. Since the complaint was now out of his hands, he could no longer squash it.

Apparently not happy about this, he first tried to tell Stephanie that the incident in question should not in fact be viewed as sexual harassment at all. The woman had simply been embarrassed, he said (clearly a judgement that was not his to make). At any rate, to demonstrate his displeasure with my friend, he began randomly calling her in for what she termed ‘bananas.’ 

A banana, it turns out, is not a delicious fruit, at least in this context. Rather, it is the Filipino term for a reprimand. He began to do this often, and for no apparent reason. It became so commonplace, in fact, that she got called away to one in my presence not long after I first learned what it was. She returned fifteen minutes or so later visibly upset. It was pretty clear his whole aim was to harass her until she quit.

The abuse was not limited to these bananas, either. A day after Stephanie filed her complaint, her cabin was ‘randomly’ searched. Nobody else’s rooms were bothered, just hers. And she was totally and completely powerless to do a thing about it.  For all I know, the abuse continues.

At this point I should be clear about one thing.  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a social justice warrior. In fact, I generally will avoid going out of my way to help a group of people struggling with any type of societal ill-will or abuse, despicable as I find it. I care much more about individuals than humanity writ large. Essentially, I’m a people person that hates people. But that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable surrounding myself with such inequality and injustice on a daily basis. Particularly in the confined space of a ship at sea.

But the human rights abuses were not the only problem I had with my employer.

Another issue, one that was, in my opinion, much more far-reaching and impactful, was the pollution of the air and sea by these behemoth vessels. Soon after boarding I discovered that the company I worked for was actually on probation for illegally dumping over half a million gallons of gray water, sewage, oil, and food waste into the sea and then lying to regulators about it. Later, after some digging, I learned that this was hardly an isolated incident. The company continued to violate the terms of its probation. As a result, a federal judge released to the public a 205-page report detailing over 800 incidents of environmental negligence in the space of a single year (April 2017-April 2018). Even my own ship was on the list of offenders.

I knew none of this going in to the job. I was not so naive, of course, to believe that cruise ships were a green industry. I knew they would have at least some negative impacts on the environment in which they sailed. They are, after all, huge floating luxury hotels. How could they not have an impact? But I didn’t think the company would risk its global reputation by intentionally and systematically polluting the water.

I was hired as a naturalist. My job was to get up in front of large groups of passengers and talk about wildlife and the importance of conservation. For all I knew, while I was standing at the bow reminding folks not to toss their trash or food over the railing, the company I worked for was discharging waste out the stern.

Such hypocrisy was too much, even for me. And that’s saying something.

So, I quit.

I did so not because I disliked the job. On the contrary, I was treated well and the work itself, along with the unparalleled perks that came with it, were second to none. As far as those things are concerned, I will almost certainly never again find their equal in a job.

But, rightly or wrongly, I let my principles get the better of me. This isn’t the first time I have allowed this to happen.

Hopefully, though, it will be the last.