Prisoners

Beep. It agitated me. It wouldn’t stop. It didn’t even happen at regular intervals. It happened when I thought it had stopped. Beep. I walked out of my office and noticed my neighbors with their doors closed and their lights on. I walked around the secretary’s desk. She took care of llamas. If I didn’t say “hi” she would lecture me about being more social. But why was it important to be social? Nobody wanted to be friends. They wanted to maintain an air of pleasantness when petty problems made them stressed.

“Can I give you some advice?” The llama lady asked.

“Okay.”

“If you talk to people, it will help your career.”

She found out I was ambitious last week.

I walked by the counselor’s office. “Henry, we learn about health benefits after school today.”

“Benefits?” I asked.

“Haven’t you been reading your email?”

“I try not to trouble myself with email if I can help it,” I said.

“Well, we have a meeting at 2:30.”

“I need to make myself feel better.”

She laughed.

Then I went for coffee.

Dan was hanging around the pot. “Did you have a good summer?”

It was the same question he asked me last year and the year before. “Did you have a good summer?” I asked.

“Oh, I mostly stayed home. Played a round of golf and shot my lowest score in 3 years.”

“That makes a guy want to get out there and play again,” I said.

“No, not me. I don’t have any money after house payments.”

My coffee was done. I drank it and felt better. “I’m going to leave this place.”

“You say that every year, but you’re still here. You can have a good life doing your job.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said.

Dan looked confused.

And I walked back to my office.

Doing

We get ambitious

until we can’t give things up

even though we realize

they aren’t for us.

We have a brain that cries

“I need this…I want that”

But if we stay

in the emptiness

and wait…

Wonderful things will happen

We must think…

What to do?

and do it

At the end

We will know

if we did it

and doing it

is better

than

everything

else

we

could

have

done.

Lady Library

Mari was in the romance isle when she noticed the boy her daughter dated a few months back. They had graduated high school together and went on a few dates after their 10-year reunion. It was meant to be and Mari wanted to complete the story. He dressed like a professional, with starched polo shirts and dress slacks; he was going somewhere in life and Mari wanted to help him. She pushed her cart a bit closer.

She didn’t have a plan. She didn’t even know what to say. She just kept looking at him through her thick glasses. She bit her lower lip covered in red lipstick and watched him scan the dvds. Mari pushed her cart a bit closer. She could sort a few videos into the shelves while she watched him. He hadn’t noticed her yet and he was looking at something inappropriate. Blonde Girls have Fun, but it was carried by the library, so it must okay. Oh, he put it back on the shelf. Mari exhaled.

“Hi Andy,” Mari said shyly.

“Oh hello, it’s so nice to see you.”

“Are you still running?”

“Well… I am, but not as much as I should. How’s your daughter?”

“Oh, she just bought a house and she’s getting comfortable.”

“That’s nice. How’s Peter doing?”

“Oh, he’s recovering from plantar fasciitis. He doesn’t have much chance to take me out anymore; not with his lawyering and health problems.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Well, I’ve got to go check on a few items I have on hold.”

“Nice seeing you Andy.”

“Same here.”

Mari watched him walk away; he was such a good boy. What was wrong with her daughter?

Later that week Mari was shelving books like she always did when she came across Andy’s orders; Satanist literature, improvised explosives, communist propaganda; they couldn’t be right. No, in Mari’s mind Andy read Robert Frost. He was a writer; he didn’t read filth, and he certainly wasn’t an anarchist. No matter how hard she tried to shake the thoughts out of her head, she couldn’t and she was starting to get a migraine.

Mari went back to sorting dvds when she saw Andy again. He was checking out filth, as calm as he pleased, like he was going to read David Copperfield that evening. Maybe she should confront him. She wouldn’t have to be direct. She might mention her book club and ask what he was reading. And then he would have to explain. He was probably just writing a book about deviant personalities. He was a psychologist, after all, and perhaps psychologists have permission to think about those things.

“Hi Andy.”

Hello.”

“You have a lot of books there.”

“Yeah, I’m kind of a reading junky.”

That’s a good thing. What are you reading?” Mari asked.

“Oh, I’ve got some books on the occult and how to make your own explosives. I had to order them from six states away.”

“Why are you reading that stuff?”

“Oh, just curiosity. Deviance interest me.”

Mari didn’t know what to say. “Well… I hope you enjoy reading, but don’t get any ideas.”

Andy smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow Mari.”

He wasn’t completely out of sight when Mari felt comfortable to think there was something wrong with him.

On Sunday, Andy entered the library in camo fatigues and a leather jacket. While he was checking out dangerous books, Mari asked to take a break.

“But you never take a break Mari. Is something wrong?” The librarian asked.

“Oh, no… nothing is wrong.” Mari said nervously. She was a horrible liar.

“You can tell me if something is bothering you.”

No…no, I’m not bothered. I just fancy a cigarette.”

“You smoke?”

“Sure… sure. I like to have a cig or two every once in a while.” Mari couldn’t believe what she was saying, so she turned around and walked out of the library. The librarian looked at Mari as if she was mentally ill. And Mari might’ve agreed with her. She couldn’t decide if Andy was dangerous or simply feeding his unusual imagination with the wrong books. She walked into the parking lot to his pickup truck and noticed a tarp covering something inside. She pried it up with her long fingers and peeked underneath. What she saw took her breath away. There were gas cans and electronic devices everywhere. When she turned around, Andy was staring at her.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, I thought I saw a squirrel jump under the tarp. They get into everything, you know.”

“Oh, thanks. I have some electrical wires in there that I don’t want to get chewed. Is the squirrel still there?”

No…no, I think it jumped out.” Mari said nervously.

“Well… let’s take a look. Andy pulled off the tarp revealing a network of gas cans and wires. “I’ve got a friend who needs these for his landscaping business. I have another friend who is in electrical school. My dad is helping him out and wants me to give him this junk.”

Mari muttered nervously, “Well… I need to get back inside and finish my shift.”

“Okay… see you later Mari.”

She walked straight to the information desk and picked up the phone.

“Operator… get me the FBI. I need to report a terrorist.”

“Will you hold?”

“Yes, but this is a matter of national security.”

On Monday, Andy went to the library after work, but something was different. The old men who drank Scotch looked at him soberly. And the homeschool kids who were always begging their parents for videogames weren’t there. Six arms grabbed him at the same time and he fell to the floor.

“That’s him officers!” Mari yelled. “He has explosives in the back of his truck and he’s been reading communist literature.”

“Son, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I’m attending a communist university, but I’m not a communist, and I would never hurt anybody.”

“We need to question you at the station.”

And Mari watched them take the young man away with a look of satisfaction on her face. She might’ve stopped 9/11 if she’d worked in an airport. Now she was seriously thinking about changing careers.

Golf Course at Night

Silhouetted trees against the pink dark sky

and silver mirrors rippling my reflection

calm waters

taken to heaven

We are the night

the shadows and I

We play the game

between the headlights

and rushing highway noise

Red lights shoot across the damp

sea of green

and droplets land on fallen leaves

Back through the woods

I surprise a pothead

relieving himself

“Ahh!”

Maybe the paranoia has set in

but I’m more real than the river

rushing past

drinking in the smoke

feeling high

above this life.

“Hello!” Torture

“I know people are frustrated by the anonymity they face in modern society, but I love it!”

“Why do you love it?” My mother asks.

“Well, people leave you alone and you don’t have to waste your time with pleasantries.”

“I like it when people say ‘hello’ to me; they’re being friendly.”

“I don’t know about that. I feel like they’re interrupting my day or they’re trying to let me know they’re there.”

“Give me a for instance.”

“Well… I go to the library almost every day. There’s always somebody outside trying to convert me to their religion.”

“I don’t think they’re allowed to do that. All they can say is ‘hello’.”

“They do a lot more than that. Yesterday, I had my hands full of books and the lady asked me if I needed help.”

“Well, that was her being nice.”

“I don’t think so. I think she was trying to get noticed. Like I might read her pamphlets or ask her questions about her religion if she proved she was nice to me. I feel like they are trying to make a statement without making a statement. They’re trying to say, ‘look, we’re good people. If you talk to us, you can become ‘good’ too. Then we’ll all wait outside the library, every single day and hope someone will talk to us so we can share the good news.'”

“Andy, I think you are reading too much into it. They’re just being nice.”

“Well, that’s just what they want you to think. I have half a mind to walk up to them, each and every time I pass a new group and say, ‘I don’t want you to say ‘hello’ to me. I don’t even want you to look at me. Don’t even dare think, that boy is ignoring us because he doesn’t believe what we believe.”

“I think they would think you are crazy.”

“But see… that’s exactly what they want me to think. They want all the sane people, all the readers and thinkers, to think they are the ones with a serious problem.”

“What about Walmart Greeters, Andy? You aren’t bothered by them.”

“That’s true, but that’s also because they do it with lack luster. Greeters at Walmart are honest. It’s a job. They know they should have saved for retirement when they were younger and now, they have to spend their last remaining days at Walmart greeting people. I don’t feel harassed by them. I know where they are coming from.”

“I still think you’re overreacting.”

“Well, maybe you should go to the library every day. Their ‘hellos’ are like Chinese water torture. Each ‘hello’ is like a drip of water on your forehead. I love the library, but now I feel anxious walking towards the entrance. If they say ‘hello’ and I ignore them, they’ll say, ‘What’s wrong with him.’ ‘Well, I can tell you what’s wrong with him, he’s an unbeliever.'”

“God said that we should love our neighbors.”

“Well, I think God wants us to leave our neighbors alone.”

Reeducation Cult Control

Creators of educational curriculum are crazy or they have a sense of humor. -Intellectual Shaman

The Circle of Courage was a place where students provided feedback to each other on their behavior. It was based on the reeducation principles, which sounded a lot like the curriculum a cult might use for brainwashing. Two thumbs up was a great day! And two thumbs down meant you lost your prize money.

“How did Nicholas do today?” I asked. Usually, the first vote was accurate. Everybody spun their hands and offered thumbs. It was two thumbs down. Nicholas screamed, “You bitches; I’ll kill you!” He picked up his chair and threw it through the 2-story window onto the playground. After the incident, the success of our program came into question.

We moved the group next-door and continued. “How did Jason do today?” I asked. Everybody spun their hands and offered thumbs up; that is, except for Nicholas who did thumbs down. “You get to go to the prize box,” I said. Jason was looking for his prize when Nicholas snuck up behind him and upturned the box onto the floor. The bell rang and everybody grabbed a prize and ran for the exit.

“Come back!” I shouted. But they were gone.

Usually, it’s easier to control a group than one person, but I just wasn’t having very good luck. I was teaching the 5th graders how to read and everybody was bored, including myself. It was the workbooks. The questions were about grocery stores and places you didn’t want to go. I was the authority who didn’t want to be the authority and maybe the kids knew it.

“There’s 3 of us and only 1 of him,” they said. Jamal had a mischievous grin on his face. “Let’s go play basketball!”

“You can’t!” I yelled. But maybe they heard the lack of conviction in my voice. I was reading Ayn Rand where she defined the individual. He is someone who is neither a master, nor a slave.

They got up and left.

“Miss Helfrich, the boys took off on me!”

“Why did you let them!” She screamed.

“There was nothing I could do,” I said.

“That’s not true! Now watch the class while I do the job you were supposed to!” She went downstairs and wrangled the boys like they were disobedient sheep. I taught the reading class in the interim. “Great job Gary! You have the first page done!” By giving attention to the results I wanted, everybody in the class competed to get their work finished. I just hoped they wouldn’t run out of work to do until Miss Helfrich came back.

They ran out of work and the natives became restless. “What are we going to do now?” Keith asked. I realized I needed to come up with something fast. “Pictionary!” I said. “Let’s see who can guess what I’m drawing!” I started to make a grasshopper. I got the leg done and it looked like a chainsaw.

“You’re drawing a serial killer!” Skylar yelled. Then the kids started to talk about Freddy vs. Jason and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Things were getting out of hand and Miss Helfrich walked in.

“Mr. Johnson! What are you drawing?”

I quickly completed the grasshopper so she would know I wasn’t drawing a serial killer. Then she breathed a sigh of relief and so did I.

Halloween Hysteria

I can spot a teacher from a mile away. They usually drive Priuses or Honda Rav-4s. They’re timid outside of their classrooms, but inside, they have the power. This increases their enormous egos and stokes their relentless insecurities. It was my job to escort our students to class and wait for them to blow up.

“Jason, join the others at the table,” Miss Shimazoo said.

“I don’t want to.” He looked at me with an angry smile and ran. I got up slowly and walked to the door. I knew most of the fun for him was in the chase, so I decided not to.

“Can I talk to you Mr. Johnson?” Miss Shimazoo said.

“Sure.”

“You really need to control his behavior.”

“Kids are going to do whatever they will do,” I said.

“That’s not true!”

“I’ve got to go.” And sure enough, Jason was waiting for me at the end of the hall. He ran up the stairs and into the EBD classroom.

I was preparing to have the conversation I’d had with him 100s of times. It was almost comical.

“You brought this on yourself,” I said. And he cried. We were both players in a foolish game the government was paying for.

I got his confession and made him write an amends letter. Then we drew pictures for a while.

“Yours look so much better than mine,” he said.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Then Miss Helfrich entered. “What did you say to upset Jason?” She asked.

“Nothing.” And I told her the whole story. Then she noticed my picture of a submarine.

“You’re an artist,” she said. I smiled, but the compliment was followed with responsibility.

“You can draw our new picture schedule on the white board tomorrow.”

The next day was Halloween and I drew Hands, Eyes, Feet, and a Mouth to show how students should pay attention. Without thinking, I gave them monstrous qualities.

The hands were purple with black fingernails. The feet were lizardly and green. The eyes looked evil. And the mouth could swallow a child whole. Miss Helfrich entered the room and stared at the white board in horror. Her jaw dropped to the floor and she looked at me with malice.

“How did that come out of you?” She asked. “There is something dark within you. Do you know how many kids get sacrificed on Halloween as part of Satanic Rituals? I’ll have to contact the principal and you’ll be fired!”

Luckily, the principal was a level-headed man who liked me.

“What seems to be the problem?” He said.

“Our para is possessed!” Miss Helfrich screamed.

“Oh, I don’t know, those drawings are pretty good. Mr. Johnson, why don’t you erase them and give them human qualities.”

“Not a problem, sir!” I said. And when I erased the drawings, something odd happened to Miss Helfrich. She immediately calmed down, like her memory was wiped clean, along with the pictures.

Conversations with Nobody

Most of our anger,

disappointment,

and sadness

comes from expecting what we want

from others.

I’ve been in love before

I kissed her

And I wish I’d known the right things to say

I really cared about her

but now I don’t believe in love.

Happiness stays in our heads or it doesn’t

Not for rational reasons, but for the way things could be

Playing golf in all its glory

or feeling the piano’s emotional tones

You have to do the things that matter

without apology

and refuse to carry burdens,

bad ideas,

and baggage.

You cannot receive purity;

it comes from within.

You won’t find it in women,

expensive nights,

or doing things

the way they ought to be done.

You’ll test the limits of your sanity

and study the nuances of conversation

So much is left unsaid

and so much

will never be

spoken.

Learning the Ropes in the WWE

Getting hired is an artform and to get good at it, it helps to be a horrible employee. That wasn’t me.

The interview panel was asking me questions. “Have you ever had a problem with someone at work?” It was a trick. If I said “no,” they’d think I was lying. If I said “yes,” they’d want me to elaborate. I wasn’t going to tell them about my worst day on the job, so I pretended to think long and hard. I sat there for over 30 seconds.

“Can I come back to the question?”

“Sure… What qualifies you for this position?”

“I have a degree in psychology. If I know one thing, trauma leads to pathology.” They liked fancy words. The skinny teacher kept nodding every time I spoke. She had a grin on her face. I might’ve thought she ate children, if it wasn’t for the fact that she was so skinny, but I knew I was making a favorable impression.

“I know the answer to your first question,” I said. “Would you like me to answer it?”

“Go ahead.”

“I recycled someone’s beer and they got angry.”

“That won’t be a problem here; beer is not permitted on the premises.”

“Okay, we’ll let you know.”

I got hired the next day.

Miss Helfrich pulled me aside. “I just want to let you know; you may have to restrain some kids today. I’ll show you how it’s done. In 20 minutes, I was holding on to them while they threatened to kill me. By the time the school bell rang, I felt like I’d wrestled in the WWE.

“Mr. Johnson, you need to ride the bus today.”

“What?” I asked.

“Yes; I’ll show you how to strap in Nicholas.” She pulled out a harness that looked fitting for Hannibal Lecter.

“If he bites, we have a mask he can wear. Don’t ever let him out of the harness until his stop,” she warned.

Nicholas got onto the bus and followed his routine while I talked to the bus driver. “Back in the 1800s, I’d be nobody,” he said. “No, you wouldn’t; you’d be the stagecoach driver.” That cheered him up a bit.

“You know, I have this girlfriend,” I said.

“Yeah?”

Do you know a good place where I can take her?

“Yeah, there’s a great Vietnamese spot on 4th.” He deviated from his route so he could show me the restaurant. Then he got lost. Nicholas started complaining and he weaseled out of his restraints.

“I’m going to kill you, you bitch!” He screamed. Nicholas had a pencil in his right hand and he tried to stab me with it. I leapt out of the way, while the bus driver tackled him. We got him into his restraints and found the bus stop before anybody got too worried.

“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea,” the bus driver said.

“Well… I have a story to tell my date, anyway.” I replied.

Cafeteria Philosophy

A school runs like a clock. And the people there become predictable, like hour hands, minute hands, and second hands, counting down for retirement. Teachers follow routines and anyone who breaks them is deviant. Most who can’t stand the grind will not allow themselves to be ground, but some need to break the grinder. It may come from sublimated rebellion or the teacher who said, “When you finish a Master’s Degree, you can come back here and tell me how to teach!”

My first day of work started with breakfast. The kids lined up and I walked them to the cafeteria. Jason tried to break for it.

“Watch him Mr. Johnson!” Miss Helfrich yelled. I grabbed him.

“We’ll have to document that restraint!” She watched her students to make sure they were doing everything right. Then she started watching me.

I was watching the janitor. He had slick silver hair and a grey beard. He didn’t look defeated. He didn’t look tired. There was something about him.

“Mr. Johnson, pay attention! Nicholas just spilled his Captain Crunch. Get a towel, will you?!”

I got a towel and cleaned up the spill. Then the janitor noticed me.

“Why are you spending time here?”

“Why do anything?” I asked.

“Ahhh, a philosopher. Now I understand.”

“Kids have what adults lost.”

“What’s that?”

“Spontaneity. I’m trying to get it back.”

“You won’t find it here.”

“Precisely; I need fuel to take me where I need to go; desperation equals escape velocity.”

“You don’t need this job.”

“Mr. Johnson, stop talking. It’s time to line up!” Miss Helfrich yelled.

“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

I went to the staff meeting in the library and the principal introduced us.

“Welcome Mr. Johnson; he has just finished his undergraduate degree in psychology!” I stood up.

“And welcome our custodians; they have been getting our building ready for this school year.” I looked at the head custodian. He took the credit and sat down. I thought about positions, power, and importance. The silver-haired janitor stood in the background. What happens when a philosopher decides to lead? Convention ends. In that moment, I knew my calling.