Tag Archives: fiction

I’ve heard that story a million times already

One night at dinner my dad said, “Did I ever tell you kids about the time I raced your Uncle George when we were little kids?”


And I was being a typical teenaged jerk, and so I said, “Yeah dad, you’ve told us like a million times already.” Even though that wasn’t true. I’d never heard my dad talk about racing, or Uncle George. Uncle George lived in Minnesota somewhere, and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d actually seen him. There was a photo album somewhere around the house, in one of the big bookshelves in my parents’ room. But even that was kind of off-limits. If we ever got caught snooping around upstairs, it was a big deal and it always ended with a lot of yelling.

My dad gave me an annoyed look, and he was just about to open his mouth to say something to put me in my place, when my younger brother Neil said, “Dad, I’ve never heard that story.”

So my dad closed his mouth and smiled a little, and without looking away from where I was sitting, he said, “Well then Neil, you’re in for a treat. Because this is a great story.” And I kind of rolled my eyes really dramatically, like, man, now I have to sit here and listen to a boring story from my dad. “But your brother’s already heard it, so why don’t we get out of here? I’ll tell you in the car.”

And my dad got up and pushed his chair in, walking away from his dinner plate. “Where are you going?” my mom said.

“Neil and I are going out of for a ride,” he said to my mom, and then turning to Neil added, “You want to grab some ice cream?” to which Neil bounced out of his seat and ran to the foyer to get his coat.

I waited until my dad was out of earshot and said in a mock-loud voice, “And who’s going to clear up all of these plates, your mother?” and nobody heard me, not my mom, definitely not my dad. And that was fine, because I didn’t know where I was going with that comment, not really. As soon as I said it, I realized that all I was doing was inviting my mom to make me stick around and help her clean up. The phone rang, my mom went further back into the kitchen, and I disappeared into my room until I was sure everything would have been put away.

And then I went back downstairs, my mom was smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table, I asked her, “Mom?” and she said, “Yeah?” and I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was in an OK mood, like she wasn’t pissed off or anything, and so I said, “What was dad talking about at dinner?”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“That whole race thing, with Uncle George?”

And her forehead got really tight and she said, “Uncle George?”

“Yeah, dad was going to say something about a race?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him when he gets home.”

And just then the driveway lit up as the station wagon pulled in right by the kitchen. My dad and Neil got out of the car, and when they walked into the house, Dad had a pretty big smile on his face. I didn’t really want to stick around and see if he was going to start smiling in my direction, and so I got up to go to my room. As I rounded the corner from the kitchen to the hallway, I could hear my mom say, “You didn’t bring any ice cream home for the rest of us?”

I didn’t say anything that night, and I was pretty good about trying not to think about it for the next couple of days or so. But just when I figured that the thoughts of my dad and my brother and the story about that race were going to fade away for good, they rallied and made a comeback, something like three or four days after that night at dinner. It was all I could think about. What was so important about a dumb race? Why did my dad have to leave the house to tell Neil? Why wasn’t anybody else talking about this?

So I cornered my brother when I got home from school that day. I said, “Neil, what did you and Dad talk about when you went out for ice cream after dinner?” and I was ready, I mean, I wasn’t going to let Neil go without him telling me what happened. If I had to twist his arm behind his back, or threaten to scratch all of his CDs when he wasn’t home, I hadn’t really left anything off the table in terms of forcing him to talk.

But none of that was necessary. Right away, Neil was like, “Dad didn’t say anything. We drove around town for like fifteen minutes in complete silence. It was so weird. I kept thinking, where are we going for ice cream? Why isn’t Dad saying anything? And then finally he talked, he was like, Neil, when we get home, I don’t want you to say anything to your brother. He’s going to ask you about the race between me and Uncle George, and you don’t say anything, got it? And I was like, what are you talking about? And he said, the race story, from dinner. And I said, OK, are we going for ice cream? And he said, no, no ice cream, I think we have ice cream in the freezer. But there wasn’t any ice cream in the freezer. There’s never ice cream in the freezer. And then I said, but dad, what’s the deal with the race story? And he said, what? And I said, the race, you know, with Uncle George? And then he said, shhhh, be quiet, I love this song. It was that song Old Time Rock and Roll. You know that one, right? And that was it. There wasn’t any ice cream.”

My first instinct was that Neil was lying, but after a while he just wouldn’t stop talking and so I left the room, satisfied that nothing had really happened.

And then later that week at dinner, in between bites of meat loaf, my dad said out of nowhere, “So, I bet you’re wondering about that race story between me and your Uncle George.” And he kind of just smiled. I looked down, but he probably gave Neil a wink.

And I didn’t say anything for a second, but then came back with, “Who are you talking to?”

Dad looked pissed off, but pissed off in a way that tried to make it look like he wasn’t pissed off. So he had this kind of half smile, half scowl. And he said, “I’m talking to you. Don’t you want to know about the race?”

And I looked down at my lap and said, “Dad, you’ve already told that story like a million times. You tried to race Uncle George, but he was always a lot faster than you, and so you never beat him. Come on dad, that’s a pretty lame story. I don’t know why you keep telling it.”

Mom started laughing, but it was like she was trying not to laugh, and my dad shot her a nasty look. Everyone was really quiet for a good amount of time, all you could hear were the sounds of forks and knives clinking against plates and teeth. I thought about ratting Neil out, telling everyone about how Neil told me that him and Dad just drove around in circles listening to classic rock. But I didn’t.

And then five more minutes passed, and I opened my mouth and said, “Hey Mom, do we have any ice cream for dessert?”

And my mom looked at me with a really confused face and said, “Ice cream? Dessert?”

I said, “Yeah, Neil, didn’t you say something about ice cream in the freezer?”

“No,” he said, looking down at his lap.

And I said, “Oh, my mistake. I thought you said something about ice cream in the freezer.” And then I looked up at the table and my dad was just staring at Neil with a really pissed off look on his face.

Whistlin’ Pete

High noon, and there he was, just like Whistlin’ Pete told him he’d be. At least, he thought it was Whistlin’ Pete. With the sun directly overhead, he could just barely make out the silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat sitting on top of his horse. The distance between them, it was doing that optical illusion, where the horizon looked like it was made of wavy lines comin’ up from the ground.


He was hoping that nobody’d show up, that the whole, “Meet me out in the desert, high noon,” was more of an intimidation tactic than anything else. But here he was, here they both were. A couple of lizards ran out from behind a rock to his right. Their sandy color made the little animals blend in almost perfectly with the ground. In fact, if it weren’t for their shadows, he wouldn’ta been able to make them out, scuttlin’ across the imaginary line that connected him with Whistlin’ Pete, kickin’ up tiny little lines of dust as their tails dragged along the ground.

The silhouette started moving, the horse’s hooves up and down, comin’ in a little closer. Was there enough time to run? Maybe. But that wouldn’ta settled anything. Whistlin’ Pete’d find him right back at the town, maybe he’d even beat him back to the inn where he was stayin’. And what would he do when he got back, keep runnin’? The only train out of town left hours ago, and his horse wouldn’ta made it too far, not in this heat.

Another three or four lizards ran across, these ones just slightly bigger than the first two. Whistlin’ Pete sure was taking his time making his way over. Was this part of the process? Just prolonging the suspense, makin’ him sweat it out? He thought to himself, well, if it’s all an elaborate scare tactic, maybe that’d mean Whistlin’ Pete’d let him go. Otherwise, what would be the point of putting him through all of this anticipation? Yeah, maybe he’d give him a good old fashioned desert spook, and then he’d let him go, runnin’ away, free to tell his story all across the territories. Maybe that’s what Whistlin’ Pete really wanted, a reputation, a name that’d strike fear anywhere.

Now he was getting close enough that he probably could have called out something that he’d hear, but what could he say? And how did this all get started anyway? Does Whistlin’ Pete really take seats that seriously? “Hey pardner,” he could still hear Pete’s voice in his head, tapping him on the shoulder at the saloon, “That’s my seat.”

And why did he have to be so confrontational? His memory from yesterday was interrupted at the sight of eight or ten more lizards running right in front of him, the same right to left direction as the others, the same color. But these guys were noticeably bigger, maybe the size of squirrels, or small cats. Were he and his horse standin’ on their habitat? Were they tryin’a run away? For the first time all day, his aversion to all of these reptiles caused him to worry about something other than Whistlin’ Pete.

When he looked up, Pete was waving, and it didn’t look like he was tryin’a say hello. “… iza … ey! … own! …” but he was too far away to hear clearly, and Whistlin’ Pete wasn’t exactly known for his enunciation anyway. Even if he had a full set of teeth, even if he didn’t make that whistlin’ sound every time he tried to talk, he couldn’t imagine his words being too much clearer.

But there was something else, though. He couldn’t hear any individual words, but he could definitely make out a sense of … was it panic? That didn’t really mesh with the hardened image he had in his mind of the showdown-challengin’ outlaw. But yeah, Whistlin’ Pete had both of his arms in the air now, so no gun probably, and there was definitely some flailin’ around going on.

Then he noticed that same line of shadows and dust getting kicked up in front of Whistlin’ Pete. Only, from this distance, those lizards must’a been a lot bigger. Now he was really getting a little freaked out. Pete’s horse did one of those moves where it stood up on his hind legs and kicked the front ones in the air. He could make out Pete strugglin’ to hold on, but two or three bucks and he was on the ground. Now there were more lizards running right in front of the both of them, dozens, or hundreds even, several lines running between them and, when he looked behind, there were even more.

And getting bigger, the size of dogs now. The little ones earlier weren’t payin’ any attention, but now some of the bigger ones were stopping for a couple’a seconds, just to kind of eye him down, pay him just a half a minute of consideration. In the distance, Pete looked like he was strugglin’ with something.

And the bigger they got, the more and more time those lizards stopped to look, to make eye contact even. Now he was gettin’ the sense that something progressive was happenin’ here, that this was something primal yet unnatural, a whole line of little lizards runnin’ away from bigger lizards, and they were only gettin’ bigger. One of them had to be the size of a Shetland pony, and when this one stopped to look, he didn’t start runnin’ again, he just stayed and stared.

In the distance, Pete was gone. It was just those shimmering wavy heat lines at the horizon, which was gettin’ increasingly difficult to see anyway, on account of all of those lizards. And to his right he was startin’a hear something like a stampede, and he could sense that his horse was gettin’ pretty spooked. He didn’t want to see how big the biggest of these things got, and he didn’t want to get bucked off of his horse like Whistlin’ Pete did.

And so he let out a big, “Ya!” and steered himself in the only direction he could. Not in front, not behind, because there were lizards as far back in the other direction, but just left, just runnin’ alongside all of the other lizards. He looked back and the big ones that had stopped before were right on his tail. And behind them, there wasn’t even a horizon anymore, it was just shimmering, squirming, dust-brown scales, all of them. And he just hoped that his horse could outrun these things, that maybe he’d find a way out before they got to the canyon’s edge, as long as the big ones didn’t catch up, and as long as he could hold on in case the horse bucked suddenly. He had that feeling like it was right about to buck. Any second now and he’d be on the ground if he couldn’t hold on. “Ya!” he kept screamin’, hopin’a maintain some control, kickin’ the horse in the side, “Ya! Ya!”

Job Assigner

“Listen Rob,” the Job Assigner broke the news to me, “these algorithms don’t lie. All right? So it says here that you’re qualified to go down on this two year deep sea study, I mean, what are you going to do?”


“Come on man,” I tried to beg. I never thought I’d have to beg. Robot Assistant, Human User Interface Relations, even Food Advertiser Specialist … seriously, even if I’d been assigned Food Advertiser Specialist, I wasn’t going to beg. Because I get, all right, not everybody gets assigned a cushy job. We can’t all be assigned Job Assigner. But this? Deep Sea Study Participant?

“You know how it goes. Everything’s optimized.”

“But I don’t even like the beach. I don’t want to live in the ocean.”

“Yeah, well, the computer says you’re a match, so you’re a match. You can’t argue with these things.”

“There’s nobody else that wants to go?” I mean, yeah, I’d heard about people being sent away on studies. But I never knew anybody that actually got shipped away. It was always like tall tales and stuff. I think one of my great uncles told a story about one of his old friends getting shipped out.

“It’s not a matter of want. Do you think I wanted to be Job Assigner?”

“You don’t want to be Job Assigner?”

“Well, I didn’t say that. But do you think that I really saw myself as Job Assigner? Everybody wants to be Job Assigner. But then once you get it … don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful to be here. But I’d be lying if there weren’t that old feeling, like, what’s next? I know what’s next. More jobs. More assigning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No, I’m for real. Person comes in, computer spits out a job, I tell the person the job. Person comes in, person gets a job. Everybody’s getting jobs. Everybody except for me. Obviously I’m only dealing with my point of view here. But just think man, you’re going on an adventure. The deep sea!”

“But what are they going to be doing, testing me? Seeing how I’ll react to different states of pressure and environment and … and they’re probably going to give me one of those controlled diets, probably the same ones they give to the Deep Space Study Participants.”

“Yeah, I doubt it’ll be as bad as you think, but I’m sure it’s going to be a controlled diet.”

“Does it say? Does it mention anything about diet?”

“What are you talking about?”
“That … that screen, whatever it is you’re looking at, the one that told you my job placement. Does it have any sort of details?”

“This screen? Oh jeez, that’s good. No, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to laugh at you. It’s just … here, look at the screen, it’s Internet videos. I’m sorry, I just … the computer just says one thing, for you it said ‘Deep Sea Study Participant’ and that’s it. I just always have Internet videos on in the background. But hey! You’ll have Internet down there. So that’s something. You won’t be completely cut off. Not from the Internet, anyway.”

“And how many people are down there? Is it a big study?”

“Yeah, sorry man, but this is what I’m talking about here. Job Assigner, you’d think there’s more to it than just reading out loud. It’s not even a sentence. ‘Deep Sea Study Participant.’ Who am I kidding? This job’s a joke. I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s so cool. Yes, it’s easy. Yes, I only have to work like two hours a week. But it’s just so … I always thought I would have made a good Quality Control Historical Reenactor.”

“Listen, I would do anything to have your job. Anything. You don’t want to switch?”

“Switch? Ha. Come on man, you’re not dumb, you went through Basic Ed. I get it, I really do. I don’t assign too many Deep Sea Study Participant jobs, but it happens, and everyone’s upset. I get it. But everybody needs a job. You’ve got to have a job, you just have to. But it’s only a two-year gig. You’ll be back! Maybe they’ll give you Job Assigner two years from now!”

“You think?”

“I mean, I have no idea.”

“Well, what did you do before you were a Job Assigner?”

“Me? Nothing. I went through Basic Ed and some Job Assigner assigned me to be Job Assigner, and I was like, all right. And that’s it. I’m here for seventeen more years, and then I think they have me retiring on some moon somewhere.”

“A moon? That’s it?”

“I think it’s a nice moon.”

“Yeah, but still.”

“Yeah well, at least I’m not going to the deep sea.”

And yeah, that’s when it kind of sunk in. The door opened up and a Post-Assigner Assignment Placer came to shuttle me to whichever transport would take me to wherever I’d have to go to get ready for life underwater. I hope at least that it’s like an indoor study, that I’m not just floating around down there, testing out some new long-term oxygen deprivation drug or something. Right as they led me out, I heard the Job Assigner call out to me.

“Hey man, that wasn’t cool, I’m sorry. It won’t be too bad. You’ll be fine!”

I turned around and said, “Really? You think so?”

And he just kind of gave me a thumbs-up and shrugged.