The Holiday Party
When friends asked me to join them at a Christmas party, I didn't want to go empty-handed, and I had no idea what the host liked or was like. Never met him or any of their new friends in Lake Amnesia, their new hometown, a remote mountain village just over the state line. So, I played it safe and brought a big basket of fruit.
The store had done it up like a work of art. Plenty of apples—ruby, crimson, scarlet—and fat oranges and pears speckled with blueberries and green grapes, draped in bananas, punctuated with cherries, clementines, peaches, and apricots. Exploding with color, it looked like the centerpiece of a children's banquet catered by Julia Child. And did I say 'big'? It sat on my Nissan's passenger seat all those hundred-plus miles, a pyramid bent a couple inches under the roof. The seatbelt failed to reach around it, but it was too wide to fall between the seat and the dashboard, so no matter.
Once there, for all its size and shape, I balanced it up the walkway to the door which I had to bang with my elbow. My friends had an ear out for me and let me in. I had to walk in backwards as they said hello, but when I turned toward them with the basket, they fell silent. From the middle of the room, I heard an indignant "What????"
"Hi, I'm Evan and Helen's friend from their previous life. I thought you and your friends might like fruit."
"No fruit! Apples! In this house we have apples!"
"Good! Look, look, there are plenty of apples! See all the red?"
"But you said 'fruit'!"
"Yes, apples are fruit. You can look it up."
"No! Apples are apples! Call them apples!"
"Um, well, I don't much like grapefruit, and pineapples are a pain in the ass, so I can understand if you don't like grapes or peaches or blue--"
"No! In this house, it's apples!"
"You can have as many as you like! Honey crisp! Maybe your guests would like the other fruit? Healthy fruit?"
"No 'healthy fruit'! Don't say that! It's apples! Happy apples! We say 'Happy Apples'!"
I turned to Helen: "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Joke!" the inhospitable host exploded. "This is no joke! It's a war on apples!"
I turned to Evan, but he grabbed my elbow and turned me around while Helen took my other arm. They told me to take the basket to their new home, giving me a key, where they would join me after they “calmed things down."
Back at the Nissan, I resisted the temptation to send the apples back in. One at a time. Through the front windows. But they were honey crisp, and as we used to say when someone failed to show at a drinking party: "More for us!"
The Wrong Turn
Evan and Helen also gave me directions to the new pad they moved into just weeks ago. Upon arrival, I was more than surprised.
Looked like they were planning to have kids, because it was one of those standard four-bedroom, two-floor, cookie-cutter, middle-class homes in a sub-division with nine other identical structures—though of various colors—lined on both sides of a semi-circular lane, generously spaced from each other and away from the highway. Behind it all gurgled the lovely Fox Run River. Since the trees were all saplings, I could see it all at once.
More surprisingly, one of the other homes was ablaze. Three fire trucks were there and several hoses were aimed at it. I left the Nissan in the driveway of the home with their number and walked over with the basket of fruit, thinking the firefighters should have it when they got the fire under control.
As I arrived, a resident from one of the other eight houses came over and started yelling at the firefighters:
"Hey, what about my house?"
The firefighters were too consumed to pay any attention, but I was too curious not to: "What are you talking about?"
"My house deserves just as much water as this house! Why aren't the hoses on my house, too?"
"Um, because this house is on fire?"
"That's not a good reason! A fire in this house has nothing to do with my house! That's this house's problem!"
"But fire-fighters exist to solve problems, and you don't have one, at least not now."
"I pay just as much taxes as anyone who lives here!"
"Would you like an apple? Here, have one. Honey crisp. In appreciation for your support of your local fire de--"
Before I could finish and before my friends' new neighbor could speak, two more residents approached. Both were carrying signs:
"All Houses Matter!"
"Is this a joke?" I blurted out, vaguely shaken by the echo of my surprise at the party I just left.
"No! Our houses matter just as much as this one!"
"But this house needs attention that yours do not!"
"That's housism in reverse!"
A few more residents approached, all with the same signs. They started chanting: "Stop the Hose Job! Stop the Hose Job!"
Over the noise, I heard a car horn and looked up to see Evan and Helen waving me to return to them. I took the basket and put it on a side of one of the trucks facing the blaze and the firefighters. I caught the eye of one and motioned toward it, and he or she nodded in thanks. I then motioned to the gathering crowd and turned my hands up in question. The firefighter gave a wave of a hand and went back to work.
I went back to Evan and Helen who told me that I had made a wrong turn, and to follow them home.
The Bumper Stickers
When we arrived at their cozy two-bedroom cape, all by itself along a little-traveled back road with a wide view over a long, glacial lake, they apologized for my reception at the party. Turns out that the host had been living at his girlfriend's in a neighborhood where, as rumor had it, the drinking water had been poisoned by toxic waste from a chemical plant two miles upstream on Fox Run.
They knew he was having problems, but they did not know, as the police charged, that he had set a timer that morning in his girlfriend's home that would start a fire, allowing him to use the party as an alibi.
He was easy for the police to find. They put out an all-points bulletin, but all they really had to do was patrol the town for a car with bumper-stickers saying "Happy Apples!" and "All Houses Matter!"
The Forgotten Curb
Evan and Helen invited me to stay a few days, giving me the guest room with its panoramic view over Lake Amnesia. A side window offered a view of several McMansions that lined the shore not far from their relatively modest abode. “We have very rich neighbors,” they liked to say.
One, a talk-show radio host in the mold of Rush Limbaugh, bought a brand new, bumblebee-yellow Hummer just a week before I arrived. My friends say that others in the neighborhood have jokingly tried to hail it as if it were a cab. The Rush-wannabe has taken it well, laughing as he races by. Once, he actually stopped to offer a lift to one elderly gent who had to admit he wasn’t going anywhere.
A day before I arrived, he hired a crew to put some curbing between his spacious driveway and the street, only to forget, two nights later, that the new curb was there when he returned from his late-night show. I heard it all:
Or was it Bang-Bang? Both front tires blew. The impact was so bad that the rims themselves were bent out of shape, but he managed to hit the brakes soon and hard enough that the back tires were spared.
Before long, a large truck arrived to repair the damage. Why they always keep their engines running is beyond me, but whatever, I awoke to the commotion and went to the side window to watch the truck raise the front of the crippled gasguzzler. Clearly, Rush Jr. told the repairman to bring rims, as the new tires were already on them. Didn't take long at all to change the two sides, and I poured myself a tall glass of water to take back to bed. But then I heard more commotion.
Instead of the truck driving off, it lifted the back of the Hummer. Back at the window, I watched the repairman remove the car's rear tires and rims, and replace them with two more out of the truck. I pinched myself. I sniffed my glass. I breathed on the window to see if it fogged. It did. I went back to bed wondering if I was going back to sleep or had been asleep all along.
The Talk Show
Next night, out of pure curiosity, I tuned in to All the Same, my friends’ neighbor's call-in show on the local station to see if he might chat about his mishap and, if so, how he would spin it as a crime committed by liberals—and how his tires were victims of "cancel culture."
Occurred to me that he might prefer to keep the whole thing a secret. After all, if he applied his constant calls for "personal responsibility" to himself as he does to the world at large, then he would likely be embarrassed by his own mistake.
What if I called in and started filling his airwaves with it? My guess is that, since I had to tell him I was awake, I'd be condemned as "woke." Never thought that awareness could possibly be a bad thing in a country founded on the principle of self-governance, but then I still marvel at how the American flag is used to sell beer and automobiles. On one radio station back home, the hometown’s baseball games begin after the announcer tells us that “the National Anthem was brought to you by…..” They never broadcast the song, but that doesn’t stop them from using it as a commercial to plug a regional “financial institution.”
Anyway, what I really wanted to know was why the back tires and rims were also changed. Why did he discard two tires with barely two weeks’ wear on them?
On the slim chance that he would explain it, I tuned in. But it was nothing more than his standard fare. It began with condemnations of "congress," which the first few callers reinforced, several of them spitting out the phrase "all the same," not as the title of the show but as what they think of any and all people in Washington DC.
While doing this, he and each caller complimented each other on how wise they were to have this understanding of how things "really work"—or "don't work" as they seemed to mean. I kept waiting for him or any of them to make distinctions between the branches of government, between the House and Senate, between federal agencies, between federal and state governments, between the two sides in court decisions that uphold or strike down laws. Never happened. It was all a blur for as long as I kept myself awake.
Nor was any distinction ever made between the two parties, much less between those within the parties. This one kept me awake a bit longer, as if against my will, as the callers kept complaining about what wasn't getting done regarding the economy, infrastructure, health care, education, and more.
Every problem mentioned was one that most Democrats are trying to solve, but which all Republicans keep blocking. Regarding the few measures that Democrats have passed—such as unemployment stimulus to offset the pandemic shutdown—Republicans voted unanimously against, but then took credit for benefits received in their districts.
No matter. Neither host nor any caller ever made a distinction.
If I wasn't asleep having a dream, I was awake with the nightmare of All the Same—a term applied as mindlessly to our government as it might be to the tires on a luxury car.
The Border Bridge
When it came time to return home, I thanked my hosts for what was, overall, a pleasant and relaxing stay. But the lingering—or malingering—thoughts of Happy Apples Man, All Houses Matter, and Rush Reincarnate made me crave departure. Evan and Helen have a very nice home, and it will take no effort for them to avoid a crank who is now in jail or the in-your-face neighbors of that subdivision. And they have plenty of other places for their radio dial.
But many of their new neighbors were at that party, and they are surrounded by fans of that station. I wish them well, but I doubt I’ll ever return. I breathed a sigh of relief when I re-crossed the Attention Span Bridge and left Lake Amnesia. So glad to be back here in my home state where such things can never happen.