Nineteen Forty Ninety Two

Grandpa swerved through a cloud of whiskey and over the centerline. I sat in the passenger seat, holding a paper grocery bag. Midafternoon sun drifted through the changing maples which lined the back road leading home from the store. Grandpa wore his tweed driver’s cap, a rumpled tan jacket, and driving gloves, his outfit he donned every time he took the car our. We turned onto East Center Street and passed the Federal Medical Center, a prison filled with dangerous sick people.

A crowd of birds startled to flight as Grandpa scraped the curb. One of them missed the memo and fluttered across the road, low enough to meet Grandpa’s Buick head-on. It tumbled up the windshield and over the roof, landing ten feet behind the car. I looked back, my mouth wide, then looked at Grandpa. He hit the brakes and shifted into reverse. I bawled, pleading for him to stop, even though I wasn’t sure what was happening. Grandpa kept backing up, his leather hands guiding the path of the tires. He silently accomplished his mission, shifted into drive, and drove off.

“Nothing deserves to suffer like that, not even a bird,” Grandpa said after I’d calmed down. This was no consolation. He kept that sad, steely combat medic look on his face all the way home. We pulled into the driveway. The bird vanished from my mind as my thoughts returned to the grocery bag on my lap. I was at Grandpa and Grandma’s house now, with dogs and cats and TV and sweet treats awaiting me. Grandpa was somewhere in the South Pacific in 1942, trying to revive a GI who’d taken a bullet to the chest. That man wouldn’t make it back home.

Forever Reruns

Kate roamed the fairgrounds awash in a cottonwood snowstorm. She drifted between past and present as she walked, like hitting the channel recall button on a remote control. The booths and concession stands shifted from sepia to high-contrast and back again. She saw herself as a high-schooler in the livestock barn, drunk on smuggled booze and itching with potential. The young Katie tumbled over a fence and vomited on a blue-ribbon hog. After a sojourn in the beer garden, Kate bought a corn dog and went to the midway. She passed a carnival game, the same one where Jake had won her the gigantic stuffed bear. She had blushed and declined. He’s a doctor now, she’d heard. She approached the ride, and her knees went out. The corn dog fell in the dirt. A ride operator helped her to her feet and asked if she was ok. Kate didn’t answer. She fixed her vision upon the Ferris Wheel. It drew her in.

The ride kicked into gear, carts rising and falling. The rhythm lulled Kate into the past. There was a stirring atop the wheel. A teenager freed himself from his safety belt and stood on the seat. He danced, arms waving about as his friends laughed. Someone on the ground screamed, Kate wasn’t sure if it was her. The young man tumbled off the cart and fell to the ground. She watched, helpless. The channel was stuck, and no amount of button pressing could return her to the present. “Nick,” said Kate, running to the fence around the ride. The operator eyed Kate, then the Ferris Wheel. Blood kissed Kate’s bare legs. She gaped at Nick, his head facing the wrong way, and the bone sticking out of his arm. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. Kate fell to the ground. She held Nick’s hand. “I drank too much, I would’ve gotten sick,” she said. “I should’ve stopped you.”

The ride operator helped her up. “It’s ok,” he said. “Let’s get you some water.”

The Man in Charge

“The test scores leaked, sir,” said the Vice President of Marketing. He slipped a portfolio across the desk and straightened out his coat.

The CEO looked up. “Give it to me straight,” he said.

“Verbal, first grade; reading, first grade; math, did not chart. This company’s if the public finds out.”

“Quote unquote finished,” said the CEO. He colored on his desk with crayons.

“Sir, this is serious. The shareholders will need answers.”

“Ya win some, ya lose some.”

“This could mean billions,” said the Vice President. “Please, think of the employees. We need a contingency plan.”

“The buck stops here. I am the alpha and the omega. It’s my way or the highway.” The CEO drove a tractor back and forth across the desk. The VP lowered his head. “We’re all in this together,” said the CEO. He gazed out the window. “We didn’t get this far to turn back now.”

The Lowest Common Man

“Tweren’t none on my dipstick,” Dirk mugged to his wife, his head popping out from under the car. The studio audience howled. Somebody in the crowd wet their pants. Dirk gave one of those “woah-woah-woah” eye-rolls. His wife smiled and went back inside.

Some of Dirk’s buddies appeared in the driveway. “C’mon, Dirk,” said Unnamed Drinking Buddy with the Exposed Belly. “We’re goin to the Leeann Chin!”

Dirk looked up. “Whatta you said?” The audience roared at the applause sign.

“We’s gonna git sweet and sour dippers,” said the second buddy, maybe Cal? “Remember the last time you had sweet and sour dippers? Remember what you said?”

Dirk’s eyes pleaded with the camera. His collar sent a burst of electricity into his neck. Dirk sighed. “Tweren’t none on my dipstick!”

Someone in the studio audience laughed so hard they had a heart attack and died.

The Next Big Thing

Jerry stood at the Customer Service counter with three bags of merchandise by his feet.

“I have to talk to my manager about a return this big,” said the cashier. He disappeared behind an unmarked door. Jerry looked around and saw the new curved LCD TV in the electronics department. He added it to the list.

The manager came to the counter. “Oh, no, no,” he said. “I told you last month, we’re not taking returns from you anymore. Do you know how much you cost this store in returned merchandise?”

Jerry blinked. The man behind him in line leaned forward.

“Fine,” said Jerry. “Maybe I’ll call the corporate office and ask about this company’s return policy. Or I could write up a nice review on social media.”

The manager coughed. He snatched the receipt out of Jerry’s hand. “Just put the bags on the counter.”

Jerry lifted the bags. An unopened laptop spilled out, along with an assortment of tablets, phones, and even a Wi-Fi-capable toaster. The manager glared at him.

“Just tell me, do you even use any of it? Do you have your own shrink-wrap machine? Does your wife make you bring it all back? Settle a bet.”

“I live alone,” said Jerry.

***

“The resolution on this one is better?” Jerry asked, pointing at a TV. The salesperson looked at Jerry’s hand, instead of the TV.

“Yeah, it does. But I have to be honest, it’s not that different from the one you already bought.”

“But it’s better, right?”

“I guess,” said the employee. “Man, how can you afford all this?”

“I can’t,” said Jerry.

“Oh well, I hear ya. Kids always need the newest model as soon as it comes out.”

“I live alone,” said Jerry.

Simmons Tune Device

“Try it on,” said Dad. “Go ahead.” I stepped forward, and he pounced. He put the helmet on my head and twisted its knobs. “It’s like a radio hat!” he said. I crossed my eyes, trying to see the thing. Dad grabbed his camera. He ambushed me with snaps from all directions. Smooth jazz wafted from my temples.

“I look stupid.”

“Bah,” said Dad. “It looks great. You’re a real radical modern kid with that on, to use the parlance.” No rad person ever said “parlance.” I glanced at the mirror, confirming I looked as dumb as I felt.

“Can’t I get a Walkman?”

“Why be a follower? You can be on the ground floor of the next big thing?” Dad kept taking pictures. I cringed. “All the kids have those Walking-Men. You’re the first to have a Simmons Tune Device!”

“I want a Walkman,” I said. A vein bulged in Dad’s forehead, but he swallowed the anger. “I like this. It’s just weird.”

“Will it be weird when every kid is begging for an S.T.D. for Christmas? And when we’re all living in a villa in Hawaii, as a family again?”

Dad snatched up the helmet and put it on.

“I’m going to Big Buy to get feelers on interest in this thing. You stay put and watch some TV. There’s ten bucks on the table for a pizza.”