House of Loss

The House of Loss was the most massive structure Renee had ever seen. She stumbled down the aisles of treasure, scarcely aware of herself, stunned silent by the splendor. “Where does it all come from?” she whispered as she browsed. Before her was a peach tree that stretched to the heavens. Its leaves were brilliant green, its branches strong and infinite. A beautifully polished wooden swing hung from perfectly smooth, indestructible ropes, describing lazy arcs from a low branch. Somehow, the tree’s entirety was contained in a tidy display located within a secret storehouse, known only to a few — and now to her.

She looked up to discover her new employers holding her in a doubtful gaze. They had been let down too many times. She would have to earn their respect. 

“This storehouse is where lost items go,” Administrator Grell explained. 

“Are you saying someone lost a tree?” she asked, uncertain what to make of Grell’s statement.

“These items lived in the past, and they persist in the memories of others,” Grell answered. “What is most dearly missed appears on our shelves.” 

“But this tree can’t be real,” she said. “No tree looks like that.”

“Correct,” said Grell. “What you see is the tree as it is remembered by a grown man, from his boyhood. It has since fallen; but in his mind, he remembers it as massive, permanent, and invincible.”

Renee moved down the aisle. A wedding ring was next, with a diamond the size of a fingertip. It glittered and sparkled with brilliance that suggested sunlight in its core. 

“Touch it,” Grell urged her. Renee did, then arched her back in startlement. When her finger made contact with the diamond, someone else’s memories flooded her mind. She saw a broken marriage, forgotten promises, and endless pain. She saw a wife stealing away into the night. She saw the pain of a husband. 

“It wasn’t that big or that brilliant,” said Grell. “But it lives in his memory as a symbol of all he had given her and all that was lost. He was not as generous to her as he thinks. He may not have deserved her. But he clings to this memory and embellishes it, and with each passing year the diamond grows. He would give anything to have it back and put it on a more deserving hand.”

“Why don’t we give it back to him, then?” Renee asked. “Why don’t we give it all back? It could bring back so much happiness!”

“No,” said Grell. “We must never. What you see here is idealization, nothing more. Very little of it matches what really was. What we store here is usually in conflict with the truth. Such conflict must never be encouraged or rewarded. It would only bring greater suffering.”

Renee considered this. She touched the tree, and saw through the eyes of a child. She saw a world of grandeur and immensity, a world of looking upward in hope and wonder. She saw all things as fixed and ageless. She understood the adult man’s nostalgia for the tree; but she also saw that by taking refuge in this memory, he was turning his gaze away from the impermanence and fragility of the real things in his life, things he should be cherishing. 

Grell spoke again. “Return him to this tree as he remembers it, and he will never again fight to preserve what he loves. He’ll let his real world slip away, and despise what is solid for being ephemeral. It must not be condoned. Cruel as it may seem, our job here is to prevent these items from returning to the real world.”

“So these things stay here forever?” she asked.

“Only as long as the memory lives,” Grell answered. “When the one who remembers the object dies, it vanishes from our stores.”

Renee continued to browse. The beauty of the items was heartbreaking. Touching them showed her tales of loss and grief that agonized her. But a great deal of it was imagined and embellished. Much of it was unreal. 

A beautiful woman lay asleep in one display. Renee touched her hand. “She is here through the memory of one who has chronically failed in love,” said Grell. “She was his one success; but she died young, while they were still new to one another. He now remembers her as flawless in all ways. He clings to her as the love of his life, because they never had time to discover the difficulties in loving each other. Had she lived, their romance would have ended as his inevitably do, and she would not be imprisoned in false luster within these shelves.”

Renee’s eyes filled. “Do you see why these objects must never leave here?” Grell asked her.

She could not locate words, so she nodded. She continued to drift through the aisles. Grell saw her understanding, as she touched the different items. Grell’s attention gradually returned to his own daily tasks, and he left her at liberty to explore.

Renee’s heart became heavy as she went. Most of the things she found were burdened with the weight of inconsistency, exaggeration, and in some cases unmixed delusion. 

But some objects appeared simpler and more honest. There were unadorned emblems of peace. There were lost items and people that still bore the idiosyncrasies of identity in real life. There were scenes of laughter with departed loved ones; they carried joy that could only have been genuine. 

And there was the blue bowl.

It was the ugliest, cheapest item in the entire storehouse, neglected behind a pile of expensive stock certificates for a venture that should have paid off. It was a blue plastic cereal bowl. Renee picked it up and held it in her hands, and the memories in it surprised her. It was cherished, but she saw no hint of embellishment in it. It was ugly. It was nicked and scratched, faded, flimsy, cheap. It had belonged to a man who lived a very difficult life. He had owned the bowl since childhood. He had eaten from it every morning of his life for many years, and the solitude of his time with it each morning had steadied him. In this simple, ugly bowl, he had owned a piece of tranquility that helped him through a great deal. Pain, loss, and tragedy had come and gone, but this bowl was his one secure companion. Its routine familiarity had never left him.

Until it left him. It happened while moving, during the dissolution of his family, following the death of his only child. No one meant for it to vanish. No one had thrown it away deliberately. But one way or another, the blue bowl escaped him, and the loss of it ached in a way that combined the pain of every loss into one. In the vanished blue bowl, Renee saw a simple honesty and poignancy that none of the other objects held. She saw no hint of self-deception in it; only awareness of everything that had gone. Renee ached for its owner. And she made a decision.

She noted the bowl’s position in the massive storehouse. At the end of the day, she returned to the same aisle. She took the bowl in her hands and felt its warmth and beauty. Her purse was large enough to conceal it. She left the premises silently.

That night she found the owner. It wasn’t difficult; the memories held in the bowl gave her all the clues she needed. She knocked on the door of the simple blue uptown house. The man who answered looked just as she imagined, neat, open, and solitary. She thrust the bowl toward him without preamble and said, “This is yours. You should have it back.” It trembled at the end of her outstretched arms. 

The man’s face changed. He recognized it. She wasn’t sure if the look on his face expressed joy, acceptance, or horror. He reached out and grasped it, and clutched it to himself. Then his face changed again, as all the memories contained in it flooded back over him, just as they had over Renee when she held the bowl. 

He pushed the bowl back into her arms. With a voice that barely concealed the breakage within him, the man said, “I don’t want it.” He staggered away, not back into his home, but into the adjoining garage, and shut the door behind him. Then, as Renee stood there, paralyzed, she heard a sound that was loud, sharp, and final. 

The bowl vanished from her hands.

The next day, the blue bowl returned to the House of Loss; but it wasn’t the same bowl. It was cured of its imperfections, nicks, and scratches. It shone brightly and flawlessly as the symbol of Renee’s perfect job, a job where she had held the power to heal the losses of others. 

Dumbest Rules in Sports: The NFL Overtime System

This is another article from my time in the Houston sports media. It was meant to kick off a recurring feature with multiple authors, but it looks like it’s all on my shoulders now.

When you introduce a new feature called “The Dumbest Rules in Sports,” it makes sense to kick it off with a look at the NFL, whose rules committee comes from a magical realm of non-Euclidean maps. After only five decades of overtime games, the NFL noticed that it had a problem: an unbalanced overtime system that lets a coin toss directly influence the outcome of a game. Rejecting proven solutions, the rules committee thought and thought, until one of them shouted: “I’ve got it! Let’s replace it with an arbitrary, bureaucratic tangle that still lets a coin toss directly influence the outcome of a game!”

How did it come to this? Let’s take a look.

Continue reading “Dumbest Rules in Sports: The NFL Overtime System”

The dew can kiss my ass, and I can’t defend myself

The dew can kiss my ass, and I can’t defend myself

“The dew has fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”
—Douglas Adams

Today’s science lesson is about dew. I never understood how dew forms; I didn’t really think about it. That is, not until recently, when I got a horrible personal lesson in it. This is the true story of how I acquired a lingering irrational fear of dew. Continue reading “The dew can kiss my ass, and I can’t defend myself”

Smudge

Smudge

Roger entered the lobby in his courier’s uniform, carrying a cardboard package. “I’ve got a parcel for Jacob Ellis. Can you sign?”

Tina the receptionist chirped, “Oh, you can hand it off to him yourself. He’s standing right there. Ivan?” She called out to a tall, pale, white-haired man in a dark suit who stood by the copier.

“Sorry, what? Him?” Roger stared confusedly at the pale man.

“Yes,” Tina confirmed impatiently. “Carlos!” she trilled out. “Come sign for your package.” 

George glided over softly, his shoes making no sound on the hard black tiles. He scribbled on the clipboard, took the package, and disappeared silently around the corner. 

Puzzled, Roger looked down at his itinerary, but couldn’t locate the tall man’s name. He stared after him, wondering how he had vanished so swiftly. Then he looked helplessly to Tina and caught her glaring at him. He opened his mouth to ask a question but found no words for it. Then he opened his mouth to ask what question he should be asking, failing again. He became aware that his hands were moving in awkward directions that he was not choosing.

Tina sighed in a way that expressed contempt of the most professional and courteous kind. The chirping quality was no longer in her voice. “I am aware,” she said, in a tone of deep tolerance being put to the test, “that some people have difficulty in the presence of an albino. Just because Mr. Chen has no skin pigment, it doesn’t mean you have to act like you’ve just arrived from Mars.” 

“But—but—” Roger fumbled for speech. “What was his name?” He looked down at the completely illegible, vaguely symmetrical signature on his clipboard and thought it resembled a butterfly, or possibly a bowl of flowers. “What was his name?” Roger repeated, uncertain whether his voice could be heard.

“Mr. Jackson?” Tina asked. “His name is Christopher Bartle. He’s worked here for years. You really should try to control your reactions. You look ignorant. Albinos are perfectly normal, and he’s probably a lot smarter than you, too. He certainly has better manners.” 

Roger realized his mouth was open again, his tongue and throat squirming but failing to produce words. He pushed his chin up with his hand, then exited as hastily as possible. 

Tina never told Mr. Suarez about the courier’s rude behavior. She took pride in protecting him from such distractions. If a visitor was so poorly raised that he couldn’t act normal in the presence of an albino, then that was his problem alone, and nothing to disturb Mr. Howard’s workday with.

Madden NFL: Geriatric Checkers Edition

I spent a while as a writer and editor at a sports media company down in Houston. Their history is now so complicated that I can’t even say the name, but I still got to have some fun there. Here’s an article that I published in their humor section. 


For the upcoming Texans at Redskins game on Nov. 18, our editors assigned us a challenge: use Madden NFL to simulate the game and attempt to correctly predict the outcome.

It’s a great idea; the game has an excellent record of predicting winners, with correct calls in ten of the last 15 Super Bowls. We leapt at the opportunity, but our XBox is currently having difficulty running Madden, thanks to a minor equipment malfunction.

Continue reading “Madden NFL: Geriatric Checkers Edition”

Reindeer Games

Dasher: All right, Blitzen, you do the antler thing with the mistletoe … Dasher, your turn to spin the bottle. Who has the blindfold? … Shit, here he comes. Hide everything.

Cupid: God, he gets so inappropriate.

Rudolph: Hey everybody! Who wants to play some reindeer games? If you know what I mean.

Vixen: Why are you winking like that?

The most famous reindeer of all
The most famous reindeer of all

Continue reading “Reindeer Games”

The Bad Decisions Club

Room 1 loudspeaker

Welcome to the Bad Decisions Club! Make yourself at home. You’re the latest of countless applicants. Our guided tour will make everything easy for you. Please leave your coat on the shelf beside you; our staff will take care of it. Once you’re unburdened, please proceed through the next door.

Room 2

In this room you’ll find a simple questionnaire. It will ask you to describe the worst and stupidest thing you’ve ever done. Here in the Bad Decisions Club, we accept you as you are. You won’t be rejected or judged. We keep our standards low for your benefit. Please give your completed questionnaire to the man at the desk who looks like a wise old priest. He will absolve you and assure you that you are a good person. You’ll believe him, because absolution feels good. We thank you for trusting us with the content of your conscience. Please proceed through the next door when done.

a_mysterious_door_by_damiengorson-d88j4zt1

Continue reading “The Bad Decisions Club”

Larry the Substitute Oracle

“Everything is relative.”

Larry said this, hoping the woman in front of him wouldn’t know what he meant. It was something others did to Larry a lot, and it always worked. His smart friends could shut him up in a hurry by telling him something was relative; he never had an answer.

Now he sat in a dimly lit marble chamber facing Mrs. Lomax, who thought he was a much smarter man than he actually was. He saw that she expected wisdom from him. She wanted to know what the autumn harvest would bring. So he uttered the magic words that always reduced him to muteness, hoping it would do the same to her. It did not.

She stared back, directly into his shallow eyes. “The harvest is relative?” she asked.

“Um, yes,” Larry answered, knowing he would have to ride this train to its final station.

“Well?” she said from beneath a slanted eyebrow. “Relative to what?”

Continue reading “Larry the Substitute Oracle”

The Gift of the Magi II

To: The Henry family

From: Mr. and Mrs. Emutape

Dear O:

A Merry Christmas to one and all! We hope your holiday season has been as jolly as ours; and I’m about to tell you exactly what I mean by that.

We read your story, The Gift of the Magi, and we said to each other, “What a touching and heartwarming story.” We loved the comic irony when Mrs. Young sells her hair to buy Mr. Young an accessory for his watch, not knowing that he has sold his watch to buy fancy accessories for her hair. They end up destitute with a bunch of useless garbage, but their sacrifice has brought them closer together.

Well, it might interest you to know that we had our own Magi experience for Christmas this year. I wanted Mrs. Emutape to have a new enamel glaze for her dentures, so I sold my wooden leg to pay for it. And wouldn’t you know it: the next night she walked in and handed me a replacement knee for my wooden leg. “I fought you needed vis new knee more van I needed teef,” she said. “So I sold my teef to buy it.”

Continue reading “The Gift of the Magi II”

Pluck Packard Saves the Pacific

The bombing run was going poorly for Lieutenant Pluck Packard.

His B-17 bomber was on a critical mission to destroy a Japanese munitions factory on an island near Korea, but nothing was going right.

He hadn’t realized that the navigation system had failed. “Bearing 5, bearing 5, bearing 5,” another bomber in the squadron had communicated, using the coded signal that told him he was leading the group badly off course. Breaking radio silence was a terrible risk, but he was glad they had done so; otherwise he wouldn’t have realized that anything was wrong. Whether the compass had malfunctioned, or atmospheric conditions were interfering with his navigation, he couldn’t tell. But he was lost, uncertain of what direction he needed to lead his squadron.

Lieutenant Packard sat and fretted indecisively, nervously running his fingers around the collar of his leather bomber jacket; then a series of events began that he had no power to explain. To his astonishment, he found a piece of paper pinned beneath his collar. He pulled it out and found a handwritten note. It said: “Look under your seat, and put what you find on the panel.”

Pluck took his eyes off the horizon and read the note again, unable to believe it. It was in his own handwriting! It was written on personalized stationery that his wife had given him for his letters home. He kept that paper locked in his personal strongbox. No one else had access to it, and he doubted that anyone could forge his handwriting so flawlessly — but he hadn’t written the note!

Continue reading “Pluck Packard Saves the Pacific”