I'm Andrew McIlvaney. I write this stuff, but never mind that... How are you?
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Phone slipped out of my sunscreen slathered hand while I was aggressively waving to a man in a tiger costume handing out cereal samples and I am extremely pleased that these were the circumstances that led to a shattered cellphone screen.
1. Two Sun-Rype Unsweetened Pure Apple juice boxes with only minor structural damage. I always thought apple juice was the single cold beverage that didn’t decline in taste so much if it became room temperature. Even though the frequency in which I consume “the AJ” has only increased it still feels like I’m drinking 200 millilitres of concentrated youth. Brings me back to the days when I would sell it in front of my house for well above market value. Most of the shrink wrap from its days as a five-pack is still on the final two.
2. A compact disc of Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature. Despite winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001, even dads seem to think it’s only about as good as your third favourite track off Gaucho. Although there’s little more I love than a car talk (it’s like your knees are almost touching no matter what!), my considerable knowledge of midlife crisis rock is a topic best put on ice for now.
3. Two red wool gloves I found in the front closet above the coats. Seemingly worn by everyone in my family at one point or another despite no one having the memory of ever purchasing them. It’s like they just appeared one day, instantly worn-in. I kept them in the glove compartment as a tribute to literalism. The fact that it’s well below freezing outside is purely coincidental.
4. A parking ticket I snagged off of some dude’s windshield whose meter was already expired for a good hour before I saw it. That moment sparked my altruistic phase wherein I vowed to perform as many random acts of kindness as I could. I keep forgetting to pay it.
5. Directions to Steve Wingert’s house, written on the back of a chemistry test. The guy lives in like the boonies of the boonies. He was hosting a Valentine’s Party that wasn’t technically a Valentine’s Party, but it was happening the weekend of so you knew what was really going on. The route I wrote out was slightly longer than it needed to be and went through some back roads I was less than familiar with. Scrawled in another colour were directions to her house as well, although I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was already well aware of where she lived. I couldn’t bear the thought of walking through that door by myself, or her going alone, or Steve giving her like this perfect mix CD or something.
6. Owner’s manual for a 1996 Cutlass Supreme. The prose style of that thing leaves a lot to be desired: Before using the lap-shoulder belt, see the earlier part about the top strap if the lap strap is an insufficient shoulder strap alternative. Flipping through this now, I realize that the high beams don’t come on automatically like every other light.
7. A first-aid kit, apparently. I suppose it was better to be ignorant of its existence than to be aware but unwilling to call another set of skills into question. Who knows the things I could have healed?
8. A cartridge of the beloved NES classic Balloon Fight. She once told me a story about how, when her brothers were still around, she seemed to have the preternatural ability to fix an unresponsive cartridge with a hyper-elegant blow. I was going to get her to “revive” this one for me. There’s a crack right down the middle.
J-Dawg and the Booster broadcast live every fifth block rotation at 10:15 AM. Their postmodern take on the morning announcement format is an evolution of their earlier show Hi this is James and Bryce and Here’s What’s Happening Today. Their show develops slowly throughout September and October, with the Booster citing a well-received moment in which J-Dawg accidentally burps into the microphone as their “early creative breakthrough.” By November, the Booster has perfected his Christopher Walken impression and J-Dawg has settled on his catchphrase: “What’s doggy dizzlin’, y’all?” From their studio at the assistant secretary’s desk they are not privy to audience feedback but claim that working in isolation is good for keeping them humble.
J-Dawg and the Booster’s voices carry through the halls like screams of white noise, heard only by those tuned into their frequency. In December, J-Dawg reads an announcement about food bank donations in a jovial Santa Claus voice and informs the student body that if they don’t donate he will “break into their house, but this time negatively.” One week later J-Dawg and the Booster decide that their announcements warrant a theme song, which comes to fruition as the first 15 seconds of “Back in Black” played through an iPhone speaker. It becomes apparent to some that the quality of a classroom’s speaker system can be determined by whether or not it crackles under J-Dawg’s voluminous barking, although at least one staff member maintains that their show is best heard “with headphones on.”
J-Dawg and the Booster long to be free, free of the restrictions of the PA system, but recognize that this is where their primary audience is. In February J-Dawg comes down with the flu, which the Booster uses as an opportunity to open the announcements by saying “Who let J-Dawg out?” before spending the next two minutes trying to determine the rhythm of working solo. J-Dawg’s continued absences are made into an ongoing “Who Kidnapped J-Dawg?” story arc written largely through a series of text messages and fever dreams. Together they feel like they are getting away with something under the totalitarian rule of Principle Enoch, although they pontificate over a game of Portal 2 what it would be like “to get her on the show someday.”
J-Dawg and the Booster have a brief falling out in May over whether it would be funny or confusing to refer to the field where that week’s staff versus student soccer game is occurring as “the outdoor gym,” but by next week their old dynamic is back and they perform one of their most celebrated shows: J-Dawg’s return as a ludicrously out of season Santa Claus to promote the Spring into Summer Bake Sale. For their final show in June, J-Dawg contemplates farting into the microphone but ultimately opts for the classier farewell: an off mic, barely audible burp as a subtle shout-out to their longtime fans and personal history. One last time they stride down the hall for their post-show fountain debrief, confident they had “made some PA announcements that really meant something.” A janitor gives them a nod.
In retrospect I probably sank $80 into the damn thing. What had started as a lunchtime goof with my grade 9 buddies had mutated into a troubling routine I couldn’t help but continue, much the way my dad one day realized that he and his co-workers had developed into a pretty serviceable bottle orchestra. (Joseph and the Bottles, they were called. Look, it wasn’t about the name — it was about the music.) The retention pond had lost its lustre, the school foyer was descending into a highly politicized hotbed of distrust, and a walk to the grocery store felt like the only way to get away from it all within the 30 minutes we were allotted to get away and back.
I rarely bought anything there, having decided that being a 15-year-old “on kind of a tight budget, boy lemme tell ya” was a quality so endearing that it should be worked into every conversation, hand gesture, and yearbook comment I made. Even if it was endearing, I probably overplayed my hand by purposely crafting terrible lunches. Sure, I developed a taste for the bread sandwich — two pieces of white bread with a piece of raisin bread in the middle — but it’s only recently that I’ve asked myself: Did I need to? I had leftovers in the fridge. I could have easily hammed those sandwiches.
There was never a need for me — so slim, so hoodied, so internally acne crested — to go inside the store. That was rarefied air for the kids with pocket money, the Monster Energy swilling beautiful people. Instead I’d wait for my gang — previously known as “The Jew Crew,” now re-branded “The Rogue Street Bangers” after a furious late-night sleepover debate — out front. While I waited, idle chit-chat (“How ‘bout that existence of weather, eh? I certainly find anticyclonic storms a fascinating meteorological phenomenon”) would be made with whoever else shared my routine before the subject inevitably returned to the evergreen topic of mocking the motorized horse kiddie ride next to the entrance.
The horse ride was a relic of the past. No one knew how long it had been there, its net income, or why it remained in the face of such public scorn and derision. It brought down the property value of the entire township. I had only seen the device in the autumn years of its existence and thus only saw it as a sun-damaged yellow I’m not sure any horse’s coat has ever resembled. If I had to call the colour anything it would be “plaque-laced dogtooth.” It had a jerky movement cycle like a mechanical interpretation of a horse seizure. It would go rrrrrCHUNKrrrrrCHUNKrrrrrCHUNKrrrrrCHUNK for a good 90 seconds and a bad 30. I never checked, but I have little reason to think its underside wasn’t ornamented with used gum and Sharpied scrawlings of “For a good time, call…” provocations from child hookers. Its eyes were black, chipped, and dead, but purposed under a firmly sculpted brow that made it clear that this was a plastic kiddie horse determined to do the same shit day in and day out if it had to. He seemed faithful, and secretly I loved him. “I’m back again, old friend,” is something I wish I had said to it.
One can only mock something for so long before it becomes clear that there’s an underlying salacity for the target. I can’t say whether it was the natural culmination of my ridiculing or an attempt to neuter the popularity I had been garnering throughout the year, but it became abundantly clear to everyone that like it or not someday, probably soon, my faciendum was to ride that damn kiddie horse. For two weeks that spring, whenever my entourage would exit the store, immediately within their peripherals would be me, going about my mechanized ritual of greeting customers as they entered the store. Rarely would I get a reaction other than the occasional furtive glance or bemused head nod, although I got the sense I was responsible for a lot of unanswered questions. Who is this guy? Is he really this excited about this grocery establishment? What’s it going to take to get the management to stop him? The answer to the last question, it turns out, was: one day wear a cowboy hat while shrilly playing the harmonica and improvising blues numbers about why you should shop there.
Something had happened to me on that horse, something that went deeper than I realized irony — if it was even irony anymore — could go. While my lunch period had transformed into something else by the time my unsolicited marketing campaign had been sternly rejected, I found myself going back to the saddle long after the store had closed solely for the relaxation that two minute ride provided me. It was like a protective shell. Consistently in motion yet completely motionless. My sessions on the horse crossed the border between the late PMs and early AMs. The horse had taken on another life: become the place where my deepest, most unconscious thoughts could enter the fray, where I could exclude myself from the world and step towards the porch of enlightenment. Thoughts beyond thoughts I knew not I was capable of sprung forth. I sat in contemplation, periodically dropping quarters into the slot if it felt like I was near a major breakthrough, figuring out who I was and where I was going and trying oh so hard to make it all meaningful. Three revelations I recall having:
1) Even though it looks cool, driving with one hand is probably not going to be for me.
2) It is preferable to take your work seriously, but not yourself.
3) At my funeral miniature coolers containing a sample of my sperm will be distributed to all my female acquaintances, tastefully wrapped in a gift box with a crudely scribbled note reading: Ball’s in your court. Love, Andrew
Months later, whilst at the foot of a personal crisis that would cast a shadow over the rest of my life, I discovered that this mechanical horse — my miglior fabbro — had been removed from the front of the grocery store. I find it difficult to speculate on how my life would be different were my deep realizations allowed to continue unabated, although I suspect I would have stopped eating bread sandwiches a lot sooner. The mechanical kiddie horse ride, in all likelihood, was placed in a secret museum where it will be lovingly restored and presented to me as a gift on my 50th birthday. The plaque I hope it’s marked with: Hello again, old friend.