Thursday, January 22, 2009

A bad afternoon

So I'm out and about this afternoon on a little errand and I leave Jared in charge of the shop. His mom wants to boost his confidence or whatnot. That's how it is today, always tryin to boost the confidence of the kids. But in my day, my ol' pappy taught me that confidence ain't gonna get no oil changed and, unless you're some sorta public speaker or carnival barker or somethin, confidence ain't gonna put food on the table. Not that I got anything against carnival barkers. My great uncle Astrid was a carnival barker when he was young, or so the story goes. He was known far and wide for bein able to separate any sortsa penny pincer from the pennies he or she was pinchin. One time, an old lady on a pension came to the carnival to get herself a candy apple and nothin more, but Astrid was havin none of that. He lured her in with every trick in the book, he started out with the 'hear ye, hear ye', then moved smoothly into the 'step right up', then he started convincin the woman of the relative merits of seein the bearded lady and aligator boy, pointin deftly at their pictures with his cane and finally convincin the woman that, if she were to part with her immortal soul that very evenin, she could do so secure in the knowledge that she did not pass up on seein even one of God's miracles of show business. She did not budge, however. So Astrid starts talkin to her about the candy apple she was eatin and was told that she wanted to have just one to remember her dear, departed husband who perished from a military fever those many years ago. Tearin up and sobbin, Astrid explained how his very own pappy had also died of a military fever shortly after defeating the kaiser, leaving him, Astrid, as the sole provider for his bizarrely shaped family, including his unusually hirsute sister and his brother whose eczema was so bad he had to sleep in a tub full of calamine lotion with a straw stickin out of his mouth so as to breathe with. He went so long and so deep into the bait that he may really have believed what he was sayin, despite the fact that he knew his father was alive and well, travelin the rails in order to learn the fine art of whimsy carvin. Well, the old lady begins weepin over her apple and soon they're just collapsed on the ground in each other's arms carryin on and cryin so much they form a lake around them and have to swim to safety. Their tears flowed so profusely that they flooded the entire state of Mississippi in the middle of the dry season and it resulted in the largest bumper crop seen in them parts for 100 years. Afterwards, the old lady was so grateful for the catharsis, that's the word she used (I don't know what it means, but I've always figured it had somethin to do with swimming), that she paid him the nickle without even tryin to see the bearded lady. In the end, Alligator Boy's eczema was completely cured by the flood of tears and he went on to become so successful in business that he cornered the brick market in Peru for 20 years and had himself a palace made out of gold and emu skins. What I'm tryin to say here is that confidence in itself ain't gonna harm a person, unless you're one of the 30 people drowned in a tear flood, but havin some skills to back up that confidence may be better for a lot of people than bein a carnival barker. That bein the case, I figure I'd help Jared get some of the skills he's gonna need before goin off to college along with the healthy dose of confidence he's gonna need if he wants to deal with elderly women carryin candy apples, or if he wanted to be a faith healer. I'm not sayin he does, but I wanna hedge my bets just in case.

With this in mind, I was on my way to the Wal-mart in the next town to pick up some spark plugs, wires, an oil filter, a case of 10w-40, some windshield wiper fluid, toothpaste and a spark plug gapper, all of which I thought I'd use to show Jared how to tune up a car, using the Continental we towed in as an experiment. Well, that's not exactly true. The toothpaste I was gonna use to brush my teeth and I thought I'd pick it up while I was out. For a week or two now I been nearly out of toothpaste, but I never remember when I'm anywhere toothpaste is so every day I gotta squeeze that little tube harder and I get less and less for it, kinda like a boa constrictor tryin to suffocate a troll about sunup time, just as the troll's turnin to stone. This mornin, I had to set up a contraption in my front yard so I could back Mable Lou up over the tube of toothpaste and have a drop no bigger'n a pea forced out onto my brush. That's why I'm finally breakin down and buyin toothpaste. That and I got a cupon in the mail yesterday, which I found in the pocket of my overalls this mornin. Ok, I'll admit it, the trip was largely a ruse in order to convince myself to finally by that toothpaste I needed. There, I said it. In the meantime, though, since I was travellin all that way and risking life and limb on the county roads out here, I thought Jared might as well learn how to tune up a car.

I'm stopped at the side of the road on 15, havin myself a little "me" time. I'd drunk a mess of coffee this mornin and some of it was ready to be released back into the wild, if you know what I mean. So, there I am, enjoyin the outdoors in the way it was meant to be enjoyed (steadily more satisfying), when I see a black figure crawlin up towards me in the grass. Now I figured that it was either a) another robot ninja who just picked the wrong time or b) Hammish's shadow which had torn free from its master and come to seek its revenge on those who did it wrong. With the array of choices before me, I found myself surprised at hoping that I would be fightin a ninja. I wouldn't even begin knowing how to fight a shadow. I suppose you could shine a light on it or somethin, but I don't know if that would be effective at all, not to mention that what I was currently holding in my hand was not a flashlight, nor was it capable of shining light in any way. I highly doubt that a shadow is defeated by spraying it with a little ammonia. Lucky for me, though, it turned out to be a ninja and I didn't have to resolve that particular confuddlement right then. I did have to return to a civilized state before readying myself for some more punching and head popping and possibly fire that seems to happen when I fight these things.

The ninja's just crawling along, trying to be stealthy, so I decide to be helpful by yellin', "I see you there in the grass, you might as well stand up if you're here to fight me."

And he does. He stands up out of the grass like an afternoon shadow gettin longer. For a bit, he tries lookin' around all innocent like, sorta like when a cat runs into a glass door and then pretends to clean itself, hopin you'll just ignore the fact that it walked into a door that's always been there. The only difference is that the ninja in this case does not clean itself. Also, the ninja is not a cat and there's not a door in sight. Another difference is that, after you see a cat run into a door, it rarely jumps at you in a spinning double roundhouse kick aimed at where the coffee goes in and also where the coffee comes out. Rarely, I've noticed, do you have to jump backwards from said kick and then jump forward and, with both fists, punch the cat, or in this case, ninja, directly in the stomach and solar plexus while he or she or it is in the air. It is also very uncommon for the cat, or ninja, to be more yielding than previous robots that you have fought, leading you to the conclusion that this is, in fact, not a robot. Furthermore, cats do not often, in my experience, have small platypus stitched into their chests. So, except for the fact that I was now fighting a real ninja, and a member of clan platypus, it was just like that cat thing.

The ninja was down on his face for a couple of seconds and I took the time to apply my alligator wrestlin skills. I jumped on his back and covered his eyes with my hands. Unlike alligators, ninjas do not fall asleep when you cover their eyes. I learned just today, in fact, that they are far more likely to kick you in the back of the head and then put you in some weird arm-lock while you are down than they are to fall asleep. In my experience, that happens 100% of the time when fighting actual ninjas. Luck, and invisible zeppelins, were on my side, though. Just as it felt like the ninja was ready to turn my arm into several thousand toothpicks, he was attacked by a half dozen or so squimonk. They raced up his back, legs and arms, biting and scratching the entire time. He let go of me to focus on his smaller enemies.

From above, I heard, "Quick, Pat, Run!" And so I turned and headed for the truck. I threw Mable Lou into drive and looked back to see how the fight was coming along. The ninja could barely get his hands on one squimonk when another would stand on his hand and pry his thumb back. He was thrashing around like a bearded lady trying to swim in a newly formed lake of tears, but it didn't seem the squimonk were making any headway. I was gettin ready to drive off when I started thinkin about all the good things them squimonk have done for me in the past couple of months. They're always protectin me and makin donuts for me. They fixed Mable Lou twice. They introduced me to Charles Lindbergh who has always been a hero of mine, even if he is a little nutty and his breath smells like brine. With all of that, I couldn't take the risk that one of those squimonk, one of my friends, could get hurt or killed while I just ran away. Somethin rose up from deep inside me and I yelled out, "No ninja hurts my friends!"

With that, I slammed the truck into reverse and drove it straight at the evil covered in fur in the middle of the road. Just before impact, I yelled "Squimonk, clear out!" They did without a moment's hesitation. It looked as if a yeti had exploded, leaving only a burnt husk behind. Then I hit him. I was goin pretty fast, but he still tried to jump into the bed. He missed the jump by only an inch or so and so he flipped around and landed face first on Mable Lou's heiny. He stood up and I could see that his nose had been bloodied but he was still ready for action. Just as he was pullin his fist back to punch through the glass, I hit the brakes and he was thrown clear. It's a good thing I stopped when I did because he was thrown right back into the black hole that's out there on 15. He got all stretchy for a bit and then just sorta disappeared. I know he's in there right now being all swirled around with the light and the time and all, like when I put my light-up watch in the blender by accident that once.

When he was taken care of, I drove forward to where I left the squimonk. They were dusting themselves off and getting ready to reboard the stealth zeppelin when I pulled up.

"What was that?" I asked.

"I don't know, Pat," said one, "I just don't know. We'll have to check with Alistair to get a full report."

Once I got back to the shop, Alistair started grillin me on what happened. He said he got back this afternoon and the shop was empty except for a Clan Platypus throwing star left blithely on the counter. That and a whole tray of Boston Cremes was missing. I guess ninjas love Boston Creme. Then it struck me.

"Jared," I said, "Where is Jared?"

Alistair looked around but none of the squimonk met his eyes. "None of us have seen him," he said.

His mom called me about an hour ago and I told her that he was out back fixing the car. I don't know what I'm going to tell her next time she calls. Hopefully, by then, we'll have found them. Until then, we're all hoping for the best. Wish us well.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My conversation with Jared, the goth kid who saw me burn up a robotic ninja and then told his mom about it

"Military school!" These were the first two words out of Jared's mouth when I met him yesterday. The next few were, "She's threatening to send me to military school! In Alaska! And it's all your fault!"

"Let's be fair, there, Jared," I responded, "it's not ALL my fault. I didn't build no school and I certainly didn't have anything to do with the purchase and subsequent acquisition of Seward's Folly, so I am not responsible for there being a military school up there in Alaska to which your mom said she'd be sending you."

"But she thinks I've gone crazy!" he belted out. "I went home and told her about you burnin up that guy and she thinks I hallucinated the whole thing because of drugs or video games or something. But I know what I saw."

"Burnin up a guy?" I figured my best move was to redirect. "I didn't burn up no guy yesterday. What you saw was me tryin to dump the donut grease and gettin harassed by a raccoon."

"That wasn't a raccoon," he stated bluntly.

I decided to pile the obfuscation into drifts. "Of course that was a raccoon. Haven't you never heard about the Great Iowan Plains Raccoon? Some of 'em grow up to 10 feet tall. They pretty much only eat fat and sugar, which is why they're drawn to the donut grease. They're pretty rare nowadays, but if you're carryin a big ol' tub of sweetened grease, you just might lure one in by the smell. If I recall, they were gonna be Iowa's state bird until the legislature figured out that the one member of the species was just a clever raccoon that had glued some feathers onto itself in a bid to be on the flag and, therefore, famous. You know that the competition for gettin on the flag is like the bird version of American Idol."

"That's not true," he scoffed, "that wasn't no raccoon. First of all, he was standing on two legs. Second, he was wearing clothes. Plus he was swinging a big stick at you."

"Those are all properties of the Great Iowan Plains Raccoon," I calmly explained, "they have developed the ability to walk upright in order to reach cookies on the top shelf of the supermarket and to have quicker access to the lower branches of trees for when they're being chased by Plains Tigers and things. Also, in the winter, they shed their coat and so have to keep warm by poaching people clothes, usually from hotel lost and found boxes. Plus, they're very advanced for raccoons and have learned to use simple tools, like levers, to open up garbage cans. He prolly just mistook me for a walking garbage can and was tryin to pry me open. Poor little guy, he was just hungry and I prolly spooked him a little when I tipped the can over."

"Look, I'm sixteen, and I've lived in this town all my life," he was getting snippy, "I ain't never heard of no Great Plains Raccoon that walks like a man and fights like a man. Like they always say, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it sure isn't some weird kind of raccoon. Now are you gonna come clean with this or do I have to start an internet campaign against you? I could do it, you know, I have fifty Twitter followers."

"I don't know what that means," I admitted.

He rolled his eyes. "That means that there are fifty people who listen to my opinions and what I say. And if I say to boycott this donut shop until you come out with the truth, they will. Oh, you better believe it."

"Huh," I nodded slowly, "and do any of these people frequent this donut shop?"

He furrowed his brows. "I don't know. It's all anonymous."

"Well, do they live in Iowa?"

"I said it's anonymous!"

"Well, I heard that, but I'm just trying to get a gauge of what kind of power I'm dealing with here. You may not believe me, but I've had some dealing on this internets thingy but I've never really seen a boycott. Also, I may not be totally familiar with this Twitter thing, but I just don't think a bunch of bird watchers are the type to get political. Now, if you don't believe me about the raccoon, that's one thing, but if you come into my shop and start issuing hallow threats, I'll call you on it. Now, we can sit here and speak about our options as adults or you can continue to be a baby about this and see how far it gets you." Sometimes, when dealing with young people, it's really best for the adult to act like and adult so a kid can see how it's done. That's how you learn 'em. If that doesn't work, then military academy in Alaska is a good backup plan.

Jared and I sat there in silence for a bit, just lookin at each other. Then I brought him another bear claw, and that seemed to soften him. Like my mom always used to say, eatin a lot of sweets will make a man soft. I fully agree. I eat plenty of sweets and I got a level, easy goin temperament.

After sippin my coffee a bit, I decided to take another try at this thing. "So what is it you want from me, Jared?"

He continued staring daggers at me for a minute, slumped in his chair with his arms crossed. Then he reached out and poked at the bear claw for a minute, just movin it around on his plate. He pulled his fingers back to his mouth and as soon as he tasted the warm, cinnamon apple goodness that was oozing out the claw parts, he livened up a bit. He picked up the treat and took a big bite out of the pinkie portion. Then, only with his mouth full of food, would he say something. He said, "Mrpmh, hmph mrt fmrlumph."

That coulda been a lot of things, and not all of it flattering. Before I threw him out, though, I thought I'd clarify. "What was that?"

He swallowed heavily and took a drink of his coffee. "I said, 'I need you to tell mom the truth.' You gotta tell her that you really were fighting a guy and that you burned him up. Then she'll know I'm not on drugs and I don't have to move to Alaska."

"What's so wrong with Alaska?" I asked, "It full of wildlife and, um, trees and know...salmon?"

"For starters, it's not about Alaska, it's about my mom thinking I'm some sort of weirdo who's on drugs and who plays so many video games that I can't tell what's real any more. Second, I'm afraid of moose. I saw this special about moose once and it scared the daylights out of me. And one thing Alaska's got in spades is moose."

Well, I can get softened up by donuts as well. I told him, "You know, Jared, you're right. That wasn't a raccoon I was fighting yesterday."

"I knew it!" he yelled.

I put a hand up, "Hear me out. It wasn't a raccoon, but it wasn't a man, either. That was a robotic ninja I was fighting yesterday. I didn't kill nobody."

"That was a...a...a robot?!" he stammered.


"!" he nearly jumped out of his chair. "Did you make that thing? Is it fast? Does it have all its moves programmed in or was someone controlling it? What's it made out of? Is it titanium? I bet it's not titanium because that's got a higher melting point, so it'd have to be steel or something. Was it steel? How much did it cost to build that thing? It looked expensive. Was it expensive? Do you have other robots? Do you have a donut making robot? Is that how your bear claws always turn out so good? Are your robots programmed with the three rules of robotics? Or did you read Asimov and see what happened? Why were you fighting that one? Did it go all crazy and short out and think it was a person or something so you had to kill it to prevent the apocalypse or something like that?"

I've heard machine guns rattle slower than this kid. I put up both my hands, "Woah woah woah! Enough with the questions already! Stop before you give yourself an aneurysm or something."

"I'm sorry," he took a breath, "I just got excited. I've been working on computers and programming for a few years now and I've never even heard of a robot that advanced."

"Alright, Jared. I can't tell you everything that's going on here, but I guess I'll have to let you in on some. But you can't tell anybody, not even your mom."

"But if you don't tell her, she's going to send me away!" His eyes grew to the size of bowling balls and got teary like bowling balls just after the lane's been greased. At the bowling alley here, they grease the lanes on Tuesday mornings to repair the damages of league night on Monday. They apply a little extra grease because kids' league night is on Tuesday and the kids don't really care how much grease there is because they can't throw a curve and they use them bumpers anyways, which always felt to me like teachin kids how to cheat. So if you go bowlin on Tuesday mornings, expect your ball to get all greased up like a pair of sixteen year old eyeballs when the kid attached to them thinks he's gonna be sent to military school, which is what we were discussing in the first place.

"Well, how about we do this," I proposed, "We'll say you saw me fightin a raccoon, but it was dark and I was by a tree, so it just looked like a man. Then, we'll tell your mom that we agreed you need to get out of the house some and so you'll come here three days a week to do some work for me."

"Can you teach me how to build robots like that?" he asked.

"Nah," I admitted, "I don't build 'em. I just have to fight them."

He looked confused, "Why?"

"That's part of what I can't tell you," I explained, "but rest assured, it's for a very good reason."

So, in the end, Jared didn't get sent to Alaska and his mom agreed that he should come work at the shop. He'll be workin here a few times a week sweepin floors and stuff, maybe fixin cars. The squimonk know about this and have promised to stay out of view while Jared's around. Seems to me the problem is solved.