“I guess I just don’t know how to deal with loss.”
“No, yeah, me neither.” My date had been crying for most of dinner, and I was kind of getting sick of it. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about we play the Shut Up Game?”
“What?” She looked hurt, but I think there was something in her that liked the idea.
“Yeah. It’s the game we don’t talk or make eye contact and eat our dinners.” To get her started, I took a handful of rigatoni and tried to push it into her mouth.
“Stop! Stop it!” My date screamed and slapped my hand away. Everyone in the restaurant turned to stare at us.
“She lost!” I yelled at the top of my voice, standing up on my chair. “She lost the Shut Up Game! Do you know what that means?!”
“PENALTY ROUND!” everyone in the restaurant cried, picking up the pepper grinders from their tables and surrounding my date. As they pinned her down on the table and just peppered the good gravy out of her, I laughed and laughed, throwing up clumps of pasta and rubbing the complimentary olive oil on myself in unbridled delight. The Penalty Round is my favorite round.
Would tonight be the night I got to second base?, I wondered.
When I turned twelve, Grandpa sat me down to tell me the facts of life.
“You’re fat,” he said, spittle flying from his mouth. “And you’re ugly. You’re impossible to love. Your best bet is to get murdered soon, because you can’t get into Heaven if you take your own life.”
There was a quiet wisdom behind his words, the kind that you don’t find in books or movies or on TV or in newspapers or on the inside of your cat that you vivisected in your backyard because Grandpa told you he’d do it himself if you didn’t.
“I’m cold, Grandpa” I said, “The gravel hurts. Can we go inside?” Grandpa only laughed and pushed my head harder against the driveway.
“Gravel is good for you,” he yelled. “It’s nature’s salt. I put gravel in my food. I’ve been putting gravel in your food for weeks.” It was true. At first I had tried to pick out it, but every day each meal was more gravel and less food. That morning he served me a bowl of gravel with a corn flake on top. I ate the corn flake slowly, to savor it.
“Did you know I was in Korea?” asked Grandpa. He took his knee off of my back and sat down next to me Indian style. “The things I saw. The things I did. They would make your head spin.”
“Grandpa, why did you make me kill Boots?” Grandpa had stuffed my cat full of gravel and sown him back up and nailed him over my bed. He had said it was “a warning.”
Grandpa took the knife out of his boot and started stropping it on a strip of leather. After a long minute, he looked at me and shook his head. “That’s life, kid.”
I didn’t like those summers living with Grandpa, but it was better than the rest of the year, when Grandpa made me live outside.
There was no way out. Jack and I searched every inch of the chamber looking for any crack in the masonry or a grate that we could escape through, but the trap was too well constructed. As the walls continued to close in, I lit a cigarette.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” said Jack.
“Now’s as good a time as any to start.” I took a deep drag and started coughing.
“If you don’t smoke, then why did you bring a pack of cigarettes with us?” I was going to answer, but all of a sudden I started coughing again, much harder.
“Stop fake coughing,” said Jack. “I can tell that it’s fake because I just heard you actually coughing.”
“Look at Doctor Cough over here,” I said, pretending that the cigarette was a microphone. “Where’d you get your degree, Cough State University? I don’t even think that’s a real university.”
“Cut it out,” said Jack, “I didn’t go to college. I’m sensitive about that. You know that.” I was having fun being a comedian, though, so I didn’t stop.
“What was your major? Coughing? That’s not a major with very practical real-world applications. I can’t imagine many grad schools would be interested in coughing majors. I think it would be difficult to interview.”
“Okay, fine. You’ve had your fun.”
“What kind of courses does Cough State University even offer? Coughing 101? Coughing 201? That’s a pretty narrow track to follow. That’s hardly a liberal arts education at all. You should be expanding your horizons during college, and it really doesn’t sound like you took that very seriously, Doctor.”
At this point, the pressing walls were making it really hard to take deep breaths. I had to angle my body and swivel my shoulders so that I wouldn’t be crushed right away. I’d been holding the cigarette like a microphone so long that it had burned down to the filter. I yelped as it burned my fingers, and the burning butt fell into my open mouth, making me cough like you wouldn’t believe. I guess the joke was on me!