Saturday, June 13, 2009


Nothing unravels the fabric of a wholesome family vacation like a little porn. A couple of years ago Mary and I spent a few days in Branson, MO, with my parents and my brother, Steve, and his wife, Wanda, at a very nice condo on the lake. During the day we shopped, checked out local attractions, and found great places to eat. In the evenings we would retire, exhausted, to the condo, some of us playing cards or dominoes while others read or watched television. On one of these nights, as Mary, Mom, Steve, and I sat around the table playing a mindless game of Go Fish, Wanda perused the local newspaper, and Dad flipped through channels on the television. Unfamiliar with the remote, Dad was studying it, tilting his head back to peer down at it through his bifocals, eyebrows raised, mouth moving slightly as he read the labels on the buttons. The television’s volume was low, and as we stared at our cards, the background noise provided by Dad's channel surfing was almost hypnotic. A tiny burst of static, then a short preview of the channel, and then another little burst of static.

PSSHT—where, just last year, Egyptians were struggling just to—PSSHT—would not comment, saying only that House and Senate leaders agreed earlier today on—PSSHT—just a little salt to season. You don't want to add a lot, because the bacon—PSSHHT—these three titanium blades that chop the food while they mix it, giving you the perfect—PSSHT—oooh, that’s right…oooh, I like it when you do that…

This channel selection naturally seized our attention and everyone looked up at each other and then at the television, except for Mom, who was arranging her cards into a neat fan, and Dad, who was still looking down through his bifocals at the remote trying to make sense of the buttons. On the screen were four naked women in a hot tub, writhing and moaning—honestly, there may have been more, but it was difficult to tell, as some of them were partially submerged. Having been raised to be fairly modest, we were initially speechless. Each of us thought—prayed, even—that maybe he would just keep clicking through the channels and away from the virtual slip and slide that was taking place on the screen. When, after a few seconds, we realized that he was unaware of his viewing choice, Mary was the first to speak, but she could only manage one word.
"PORN!" she sputtered, pointing at the television with one hand, and tugging at my shirt sleeve with the other.

Nodding my head but still unable to speak, I reached over to nudge Steve, but because he embarrasses easily, he had quickly left the table to go outside and smoke a cigarette. Wanda, who also is prone to embarrassment, had brought her newspaper up close in front of her face as if she were reading a tiny little article. Mary continued to tug at my sleeve like a child trying to draw someone’s attention to an approaching tidal wave. Or a hot tub full of naked women. “Um, porn! Porn!” she blurted helplessly. Mom looked up and turned to see what was on the screen. She chuckled, and then turned back to her cards. “John, change the channel, honey,” she announced calmly. Dad looked up just in time to see the gals changing position. Like cheerleaders readying themselves for the big finish at the state finals, they clambered over one another, splashing and cooing. Dad immediately went into panic mode and began trying to change the channel, but instead began raising the volume.


Instinctively, we all scrambled towards him to try and silence the television.
“Just turn it off,” my mother instructed Wanda, who was now searching the front of the set for a power button. Or any button.
“There’s no buttons on the front!” Wanda shrieked. “Why aren’t there buttons?!”
Eyeing what I thought might be a button, I asked, “Isn’t that the power button right there, Wanda?”
“Where?!” she cried, her eyes racing over the front panel.


“The little red button on the left!” I snapped. Mary had gone to get Steve, but when he came in and saw what was taking place, he immediately turned and walked right back out, tapping another cigarette out of his pack.
“That’s not even a button, that’s the infrared thingy for the remote!” Wanda snapped back.
“Then just unplug it!” I shouted. “Just make it stop!”


Meanwhile, Mom and Dad, who by this time were in full Hail-Mary mode, began pressing random buttons on the remote in hopes of finding some magic combination that would bring an end to the earsplitting love fest.
“Will you please hand me that?” I said through clenched teeth, extending my hand for the remote. Snatching it away from them, I lowered the volume, changed the channel, and then turned the set off. Everyone was motionless for a moment, steeping in the abrupt quietness of the room. I gently set the remote on top of the television and stood back up, awkwardly stuffing my hands in my pockets. Hearing that the commotion had stopped, Steve wandered back in and was leaning against the refrigerator. We all spoke at once.

“Ok, I’m calling it a night…” “It’s past my bedtime…” “I think I’ll turn in…” “I’m beat…” “I’ve got to get something from the car…” “Is it nine-thirty already?”

We didn’t speak of it again, and the remote remained on top of the television for the rest of the trip.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Re: Hygiene

To: The driver of a red Ford Bronco whom I had the unfortunate experience of being stuck behind

From: Alan Simmons

Date: June 8, 2009

Re: Hygiene

There is no easy or delicate way to say this, sir. You stink. I was northbound on Walton Blvd. today when I let you in front of me as you exited the Radio Shack parking lot. It wasn’t long before I regretted that decision. The weather was nice, so I didn’t need the A/C, but I had my vents open to get a little air. As I rode behind you, a distinctly pungent odor began to creep through my vents and into my vehicle, invading—no, violating my nostrils. That odor? That would be your nasty body, sir. Do you know what it means when your body odor is so powerful that the person in the vehicle behind you can smell it? In the simplest of terms, it means that you need a bath. Not just a bath; you need a scrubbing down that would make the shower scene from Silkwood look like a baby christening. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how you got to your present level of stinkiness without a family member, friend, or—let’s face it—neighbor saying something to you. It’s called soap, sir, and it’s available at most fine retailers. It doesn’t matter what brand or scent you choose (at this point, vinegar would be a step in the right direction). But here’s the trick with soap: you have to use it every day. And be careful; something tells me that you may, at least initially, have an adverse reaction to it. Keep some Benadryl nearby just in case. And let’s not forget deodorant. A couple of quick swipes or sprays will do wonders. I’m tempted to suggest additional methods for you to de-stinkify yourself, e.g., burning your clothes and vehicle, but let’s keep it simple for now. Now go. Buy soap, deodorant, and no fewer than a dozen of those little pine trees to hang in your vehicle. Let Operation Loofah commence! And in the mean time? Roll up your windows, dude. Seriously.

Friday, June 5, 2009

When Nature Calls

When the urge to pee hits, it's an unmistakable feeling. A feeling I recently encountered in a local convenience store. After asking the clerk where the facilities were, I made my way into the back past stacks of boxes and shelves of cleaning supplies to the bathroom. It was a one-seater with a tiny stall next to an out-of-order urinal. Inside the stall, a stainless steel toilet paper dispenser served as a shelf for a tall can of disinfectant spray on one side, and a simple bolt latch locked the stall door. The toilet sat up high, and inside the bowl was an enormous wad of toilet paper floating in what looked like raw sewage. As I began to conduct my business, I found myself absentmindedly humming the Doobie Brothers' Black Water. Moments later, experiencing the complete and total relief that only comes from an empty bladder, I began to put myself back together. I have a rule on flushing. In a public restroom, if I sense a potential overflow situation, I don't flush. And since what I added was significantly less disgusting than what was already in there, I had no intention of flushing. I turned slightly to retuck my shirt, and the toilet flushed.

A wave of terror washed over me as I realized the toilet was an auto flush. As the contents of the bowl began to rise, I began to panic, fumbling with my button and zipper. I turned again to let myself out, and my elbow hit the can of spray on the dispenser, knocking it to the tile floor. The tip of the spray mechanism must have hit at just the right angle, because it snapped off and sent the can into a violent tailspin. I screamed like a girl as disinfectant spray began to fill the stall and the can spun wildly, clattering and clanging against the porcelain base of the toilet and the wall. The rotating evil in the bowl was quickly reaching the point of no return, and I tugged at the latch desperately like the victims you see in horror movies who are trying to escape from the guy with the chainsaw. I grasped clumsily at the tiny metal latch with my now-sweaty hands, but it wasn't budging. The fumes from the spray stung my eyes and left a bitter, chemical taste that burned my mouth and nose. And it was at that moment that I heard the most horrifying sound one can hear in a public restroom: water spilling over the rim of the toilet bowl and onto the floor. I’d been putting it off, but now it was time to bargain with God. I promised a lifetime of servitude in every war-torn and disease-ridden country I could think of, pledging to care for the blind, the deaf, the young, and the old.

I could only imagine what it must have looked and sounded like from outside the stall. A vile pool of murky water seeping out from under the stall, spreading across the tile floor; the frantic prayers of a hysterical man, barely audible over the clanging and hissing of a runaway aerosol can rocketing around the small room like a Jack Russell Terrier; the cloudy haze of disinfectant that hung in the air; the persistent rattling of the stall door, and the violent rocking of the stall itself, which pitched back and forth like a cage containing a wild animal. Giving the latch one final wrench, I heard it snap, and the door swung open. I made my way across the slippery tile floor to the sink, jerking and sliding as if I were taking my first ice-skating lesson. I leaned on the sink and closed my eyes for a moment. What had felt like a half-hour ordeal had taken only about a minute. The spray can was now spent, sputtering its final drops in the corner. Straightening up to regaining my composure, I washed and dried my hands and exited the bathroom, stopping only long enough to flip the switch under the sign that read, “Let Us Know if Restroom Needs Attention.”


Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Wreck

I saw the truck swerve across the highway and plow into the grass median, flipping it and jack-knifing the trailer it towed, sending a splash of sod and grass into the air. As it settled in the fresh dirt, other drivers began pulling over and getting out of their cars, cell phones in hand. As I got closer I noticed one woman with fresh tears streaming down her cheeks, which, for some reason, annoyed me. Unless she knew the driver, why would she cry over a complete stranger in a (most likely) non-fatal accident? The cars lining the sides of the road began to slow traffic, which annoyed me even more. Let's go people, I thought as I tried to maneuver into a different lane to get past the car in front of me, which had slowed to a crawl even though there wasn't car in front of it. Finally free of the cluster of onlookers, I found open road and picked up speed, leaving the now-smoking accident in the rear-view mirror.

As I lay in bed that night, I began to evaluate my actions. Replaying my thoughts from the accident, I began to feel a little ashamed. What happened to me? Have I lost the compassion that I used to have for others? Am I so jaded that I no longer even feel the compulsion to help someone in need? I tried to justify my actions to myself. There were so many people stopped. I would have just been in the way. Someone else helped the driver, I'm sure. Exactly. Someone else. And that bothered me, because not helping people? Is not who I am or what I'm about. I know better than that. I remember a time when I would go out of my way to help someone. In the late eighties I was out one night with one of my best friends from high school, Bobby, when we saw a pickup truck smash into a sedan at an intersection. An explosion of tempered glass and twisted metal littered the rain-soaked street, and while other cars were just starting to slow down, Bobby and I had already pulled over and begun to approach the wreck. We had just returned a few weeks earlier from ten weeks of combat medic training at Fort Sam Houston, and we were prepared. We had even called dibs; I took the pickup and he took the sedan.

The driver of the pickup was bleeding badly. The collision had launched him into the windshield, and now blood was pouring from a hundred little cuts on his forehead like water through a sieve, matting his black hair against his head like a thick red carpet. As I attended to him, the sickly-sweet aroma of alcohol paired with his incessant—and unintelligible—chatter made it obvious that he had passed "drunk" quite some time ago and was now on the cusp of "sloshed". I fashioned a crude cervical collar out of a towel from Bobby's car and secured it around his neck like a long, thick scarf. As I the held the end of the towel against his forehead and tried to keep him from moving, he babbled on incoherently through the blood, which now just trickled from his forehead. He had no idea he had been in an accident. I suppose when you're that inebriated, the brain fills in the blank spots with familiar things, the way you wake up from a dream about a beeping dump truck backing up, only to discover it’s your alarm clock. With the towel, the line of cars, and the falling rain, he apparently thought we were at a car wash and I was the attendant.

The woman driving the sedan, who was wearing her seatbelt, had several cuts on her face as well. And she was furious at the other driver. Her light was green and she was halfway through the intersection when Chatty McDrinksalot t-boned her. He never even hit his brakes. Bobby was trying to hold a t-shirt against her wounds, but she kept yelling around him at the drunken pickup driver. Each time she screamed at him, he would chuckle and, without moving, yell back for her to wait her turn. As the police and ambulance pulled up, Bobby and I, with a few other bystanders who had called 911, explained to them what had happened. We got in the car to leave, sinking down into the seats and exhaling for what felt like the first time in days. Our hands, shirts, jeans, and shoes were covered with streaks and splotches of blood, and the blue and red lights flashing through the rain on the windshield drew strange patterns on top of it. But we wore that blood like a badge of honor, proud that we had helped someone else. I’m still proud to tell that story.

As I lay in the nearly-dark room staring at the ceiling fan rotating slowly above me, I had a sudden moment of clarity; an ironic, sad realization that draped itself over me like a thick, heavy quilt. I still care about what happens to people. I still have compassion for others; I never lost it. I just haven't used it.