By | March 8, 2018 | 0 Comments

Change-up: An off-speed pitch, thrown to look like a fastball but arriving more slowly at the plate. Its reduced speed and deceptive delivery are intended to confuse the batter.

Author’s Note: Instead of a political column, here is a short story. I hope you enjoy it.

Fred Stocker appeared to be an average man. He was of average height and weight. His face was average, neither handsome nor ugly. He dressed and acted in an average manner. He held an average job that commanded an average salary. He lived in an average apartment and drove an average car. There was nothing whatever exceptional about him.

When Fred was in school, he was utterly unexceptional in classwork, in sports, and in social life ‒ what there was of it. The eyeglasses and unstylish clothing didn’t help. Fred wasn’t exactly a geek. That would imply he was adept at computers or math, which he wasn’t. He was merely geeky.

He was fairly strong for his size, but uncoordinated ‒ his classmates called him “spaz” in physical-education class. Perhaps because of this, Fred worshipped champion athletes. Baseball and boxing were his favorite sports to watch on television. Actually going to the games was too expensive and too much trouble. Watching on the couch, munching snacks, was much easier. And memorizing sports statistics was much safer than actually participating in sports. One could be injured, after all.

Still, since he was a child, Fred believed that there was something special about him. Not believed exactly, which implies something intellectual ‒ more like felt, which implies something emotional. Yes, Fred felt special somehow. Not that he actually was special, you understand. But more like he could be special, given the right circumstances.

The problem was that the right circumstances never seemed to come along. When he was small, Fred imagined that a lightning bolt, or perhaps merely a jolt of electricity, would trigger his transformation into someone really special. As he grew older, this fantasy faded, and Fred’s notion of having special potentialities faded with it. Fred came to realize that being average wasn’t so bad. At least it put him ahead of the half of humanity that was below average.

Still, the idea of special potential remained, buried in Fred’s subconscious. It was buried so deep, in fact, that he was quite unaware of it when that triggering event actually occurred. Fred was in the supermarket picking up groceries. It was late in the evening, but the market was open 24 hours, and he enjoyed shopping when the lines at the checkout stands were shorter.

Fred was in the produce section, buying apples. Fred liked crispy apples, without any blemishes that made them softer. He could be quite fussy about selecting just the right apples ‒ the harder and crunchier the better. Fred was so intent on the apples that it took a few seconds before he looked up at the cashier’s frightened voice saying, “Please, please, take the money and don’t hurt me!”

Fred saw a petite Asian cashier whom he knew handing over cash to a large man in scruffy clothes, with an incongruous red and white bandana pulled over the lower part of his face. But Fred’s eyes locked onto the knife the man was waving at the clerk. It looked like a kitchen knife with at least a six-inch blade.

Part of Fred’s mind wondered whether the man had taken the knife from the housewares section or had brought it with him. But another part of Fred’s mind realized the utter irrelevance of this question ‒ what was shoplifting compared with armed robbery? With his conscious mind occupied with these conflicting but meaningless thoughts, Fred’s subconscious took over.

Fred felt the smooth, round, firmness of the Crip’s Pink apple he was holding. It was a bit unripe, so Fred had been on the verge of putting it back and selecting another. But now it was ideal. Fred said, so softly that no one heard, “Nolan Ryan, 108 miles-per-hour fastball.” Then he reared back, and with impeccable form pitched the apple at the robber’s head. It connected with a satisfying thunk. The robber staggered back a step, dropped the knife, and slowly sank to his knees and then to the floor. Fred just stood there, as if unaware of what he had done.

But by this time one of the other clerks ‒ he happened to be a body builder who was just waiting for an opportunity to show off the results of all those hours in the gym ‒ loped over and sat on the crumpled robber. Then the store security officer, who was overweight and glad to have the body builder’s help, stood by, yammering on his radio, until the police arrived and took the robber, now sitting up and rubbing his temple, into custody.

None of the store employees seemed aware of what had happened. But a gray-haired man in a conservative suit ‒ perhaps a lawyer putting in billable hours ‒ came up to Fred and said, matter-of-factly, “Man, could the Dodgers use you.” The man patted Fred on the arm and turned away, pushing his shopping cart.

After a few seconds, Fred pulled himself together, paid for his groceries, and carried the shopping bag to his car. The parking lot was almost empty at this hour. Fred looked around, saw no one near, then reached into the bag, took out an apple, and attempted to throw it. His form was atrocious, his arm and shoulder out of position, and the throw a sorry excuse. The apple sailed a short distance in a wobbly arc and rolled onto the pavement. Nolan Ryan would have hurt himself laughing.

Fred wondered: Was I imagining the whole thing? But no, that man in the suit must have seen it. Then what’s happening to me? Does this weird transformation just last a few seconds? Or does it last as long as it’s needed?

Fred pondered these questions as he drove home, put away his groceries, and fell into bed. His last thought before going to sleep was whether he should have paid for the apple he threw. He didn’t actually buy it, after all. But neither could the store sell it. Surely it was badly bruised by colliding with the robber’s head.

Even in his half-asleep state, Fred Stocker realized that such thoughts proved he had indeed reverted to his usual unexceptional self.

Fred awoke the next morning, wondering whether he had dreamed the whole incident. But as he climbed out of bed, his stiff, aching right shoulder and elbow told him that it really had happened. Fred realized that, like so many things in life, the exciting time lasted only seconds, but the pain lasted much longer.

Days passed. Weeks passed. The memory of his shining moment faded and was placed on a shelf in his library of memories. In fact, the memory was gathering mental dust. But it was still there, in the subconscious, like the folding knife in his pocket ‒ imperceptible, but there when needed.

Late one afternoon, Fred was driving home from work. Well, driving isn’t quite right ‒ sitting would be more accurate. Fred’s car was creeping forward, stuck in one of the infamous Los Angeles traffic jams. The freeways and streets were designed for a million fewer inhabitants. Like an obese man who had grown too fat for his blood vessels to nourish, the city was slowly succumbing to vehicular thrombosis. And Fred felt that he was in the geometric center of the biggest clot.

So he sat, listening to the car radio droning on, reporting an endless litany of blocked streets and coagulated freeways. Suddenly the lane to his left began to move, and Fred slipped into a space that had opened between cars. The space was a bit narrow for a lane change, so Fred apologized by raising his hand, as if to take an oath. Fred was careful to keep his fingers together, lest anyone mistake his friendly gesture for an extended middle finger.

Nevertheless, Fred’s move was greeted by a series of angry horn blasts from the car behind. To Los Angeles drivers, being “cut off” did not mean having to brake to avoid a car making an unsafe lane change. It meant merely that someone had pulled ahead of me ‒ wonderful, entitled, privileged me. In the land of the entitled, the malignant narcissists are kings.

Fred shrugged his shoulders and stared off into the distance, as if that removed him from the current situation. He had read about Jeff Cooper’s color code. White was unprepared and unaware. Yellow was aware of the surroundings. Orange was focused on a specific threat. And Red was actually engaged in a fight. Fred knew all this, but intellectually. He had not internalized the lesson and put in into practice. So there he sat, placidly in White.

Motion to his left caught his peripheral vision. A large man, at least six feet four inches and a good 260 pounds, came storming out of the car behind and striding up to Fred’s car. The sun just above the horizon illuminated the man’s head clearly, and Fred caught a glimpse of a badly cauliflowered ear and scar tissue in an eyebrow. Oh great, Fred thought, I’ve managed to irritate a cage fighter.

But Fred had no more time to think. The furious man, screaming a long stream of curses without repeating himself, reached into Fred’s half-open window, pulled up the door lock, jerked open the door, grabbed Fred by the collar of his shirt, and dragged him out of his car. The man’s cursing was so loud and so close that Fred could not hear himself as he said, “George Foreman, 81 fights, 76 wins, 68 knockouts.”

Fred could now see that the man had tattoos on both arms and neck. Just then the man threw a murderous, looping left hook aimed at Fred’s head. Fred turned his head and ducked his body just a bit ‒ but enough that the punch sailed by his right ear, so close that he felt the breeze. Fred balled his left fist and threw a hook of his own, but holding back so that his unwrapped, ungloved hand would not be broken. The punch landed squarely on the thug’s jaw. It was just heavy enough to deck the man in a heap, but just light enough to leave Fred’s hand stinging but uninjured.

If Fred had been himself, he would have stood over the fallen thug until the man could stand up, to ensure that thoughtless Los Angeles drivers would not run him over. Instead, Fred got into his car and resumed creeping forward. As far as he could tell, the inattentive drivers around him either had not noticed the confrontation or did not care. As a practical matter, it made no difference.

Fred flexed the fingers of his left hand. Satisfied that it was functional, he put the whole affair out of his mind and switched the radio to a soft rock station. He did not, however, begin considering the relative merits of various barbecue grills. Apparently the transformation was limited in scope as well as in time.

It was now clear that the transformation, whatever it was, could occur to benefit Fred himself, as well as to enable Fred to help others. It was unclear what the limitations of the transformation were. This uncertainty simmered on the back burner of Fred’s mind. But Fred continued his everyday life as if nothing had changed.

And indeed nothing had changed in his everyday life. Fred went to work five days a week, and occasionally six if things got hectic at the office. Fred took papers from his in-basket, processed them, and inserted them into the out-basket. Only rarely did he place them in the hold-basket. Fred had a reputation for being prompt and thorough with paperwork at the central office of Boring International, where he worked. The company supplied equipment for oil drilling and mining, but the name was the source of endless remarks, some humorous, some obscene.

But Fred’s reputation for paperwork was not due to the fact that he liked paperwork. On the contrary, he hated paperwork, so he got rid of it as soon as he could. In fact, he was ready to promulgate Stocker’s Law of Work: If you can’t love your work, at least you can hate it so much that you do it as fast as possible. That pleases the boss and puts food on the table. It doesn’t put satisfaction in the heart, but so what? Happiness should come from sources outside of work. If it did not, it was no one’s concern but Fred’s.

And in reality, it was no one’s concern but Fred’s. It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. Sue Ellen, one of Fred’s coworkers, had been attracting his admiring glances since she started working there just over three months before. Rumor had it that the statuesque brunette had recently escaped from an abusive relationship. Rumor also had it that the boss was coming on to her ‒ with what result even rumor could not say.

Fred had done his best to make Sue Ellen aware of his feelings without being too obvious. But the net result of his efforts was an occasional half-smile and a “Hi, Fred.” Plainly, Sue Ellen didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Fred couldn’t recall seeing Sue Ellen with a real smile. Perhaps she had nothing to smile about.

But his recent experiences gave Fred an idea. He resolved to test the limits of his transformative powers. One day when things were relatively quiet at the office, Fred summoned up the courage to mutter to himself, “Chris Pratt, stud,” and then walk up to Sue Ellen as she stood at the copying machine, making multiple copies of yet another redundant, meaningless document.

“Hey, Sue Ellen, how about dinner and a movie this weekend?” Fred managed to get that out without stammering or otherwise making a mess of things.

But Sue Ellen replied, “Gee, thanks, Fred, but I’m busy this weekend.” There was no suggestion of next weekend, or next month, or next year, or next century.

Fred forced himself to smile and reply, “No problem,” then return to his desk.

The slack work gave Fred time to ponder the possibilities. Those he could come up with were: (1) Fred was so unappealing that even Chris Pratt couldn’t help him. (2) Fred was not allowed to mess with another human being’s emotions. (3) There was no emergency, so the transformation could not take place. (4) Chris Pratt was not as much of a stud as Fred had imagined. Of these possibilities, Fred selected as most desirable number four, with the others in decreasing order. But in his heart, he feared that number one was indeed the truth.

Things continued as they had done, which is to say dull and unexceptional. But Fred’s mind continued in turmoil over what he could and could not do, and what the bizarre transformation was meant to accomplish ‒ assuming it was meant to accomplish anything. Despite these doubts, Fred hoped for an opportunity to do something truly heroic. He fantasized desperate situations that would justify his saying, “Chris Kyle, Special Warfare Operator Chief.” But the situation never presented itself. True, Fred didn’t want to end up dead like Chris Kyle, but he would dearly love to share even a small shred of Kyle’s courage and dedication.

Still, it is possible to have dedication without needing courage ‒ that is, physical courage. There are other forms of courage. There are moral and intellectual courage as well. And so it was when a minor crisis occurred at work. A server went down, and the local intranet ceased to function. Everyone in the office was upset, but Sue Ellen was beside herself. She had an annual report to complete. It was due at the end of the week, but she could do nothing until the computers were back up.

The local Information Technology guy was off at some seminar, and no one knew what to do. Fred sat at his desk, staring at his fingertips for minutes. Finally he mumbled, “Steve Wozniak, computer guy.” Then he pushed back his chair, stood up, and walked over to the closet where the server was kept.

Fred powered down the server, then pulled his Boy Scout knife out of his pocket, the same knife he had carried all through school. He unscrewed the cover, pulled out the small flashlight that was clipped to his keychain and peered into the bowels of the server. He could recognize the hard drive, but otherwise he could make nothing out of the jumble of electronics. But some part of his brain ‒ or perhaps Woz’s brain ‒ knew immediately what the problem was.

A tiny connection had come loose, though only by about a millimeter. It was too tiny for fingers to manipulate. Fred walked over to the nearest desk, rummaged around, picked up a paper clip, walked back to the server, unbent the paperclip, and gently prodded the connector back into its tiny socket. Fred powered the server up, and sure enough, one after another of his office mates shouted that their computers were back up. Smiling, Fred replaced the cover and used the Scout knife to tighten the screws. He barely felt the slaps on the back. He knew he didn’t deserve them.

Fred thought that the computer episode was over. No, it wasn’t a Chris Kyle moment, but it was a victory nevertheless. But the episode wasn’t over at all. Two days later, the boss ‒ that is, the unit director ‒ came storming in and stomped up to Sue Ellen’s desk. She looked up, confusion and anxiety on her face, as the tall, skinny, puffed-up martinet confronted her.

“Where’s that damn report?” he shouted, making no attempt to control himself.

“But Mr. Follinsbee,” Sue Ellen replied, “it’s not due till Friday.”

“No, you idiot, it was due today at 8 a.m.” the boss barked.

“No, sir, you distinctly said it was due Friday,” Sue Ellen said, a bit more firmly. “And besides, the computers were down for part of a day, and I’ll still have it for you the first thing Friday.”

“You’re still a probationary employee, and you’re fired!” the cosmic jerk growled. Sue Ellen turned white, then red, then white again. The color changes were quite impressive. Everyone in the office except Fred looked away, pretending to busy themselves with something or other, but no one said or did anything.

Fred could only imagine what internal stress she was undergoing. A knot in his stomach tightened painfully. Without conscious thought he stood up and said loudly, “Frederick William Stocker, American.”

The boss turned and snarled, “What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy, you fool?”

“Yes, I can see you’re busy ‒ busy harassing a young woman, which you’ve been doing for the six years I’ve been unlucky enough to have worked in this dump. But you’re the fool. While I was working on the server, I skimmed through current e-mails. I saw the e-mail you sent Sue Ellen telling her to have the report in early Friday. And I also saw the e-mail from the CEO telling you to have it ready by today. I guess you forgot to tell Sue Ellen the deadline was brought forward. I guess that makes you the fool. But it didn’t make you an obnoxious bully or a repulsive misogynist ‒ you’ve been both of those for years already.” Fred knew he hadn’t skimmed any e-mails ‒ but the boss couldn’t know that.

The boss seemed to lose his bearings. He grabbed the back of a chair for support. He fumed and sputtered, but emitted not a single intelligible word.

“If Sue Ellen is fired, I quit,” Frederick William Stocker said, very quietly, but with a hint of menace in his voice. “Come on Sue Ellen, gather up your stuff, and be sure to take delete the draft of the report from your computer. El Maximo Jerko here doesn’t want it, do you, borehole?” The double entendre of the insult pleased Fred immensely.

For the first time since he had known her, Sue Ellen smiled radiantly. “That’s the first time anyone ever stood up for me,” she said softly

“It won’t be the last,” Fred added firmly.

Sue Ellen deleted the report, then took an extra minute to overtype it so it could not be recovered. She gathered up her belongings, while Fred gathered up his, and they walked out of the office together, side by side. Fred thought he heard some of his office mates applauding, but it might have been his imagination. He did have a vivid imagination.

Fred had learned that he didn’t have to be a world-record fastball pitcher, or a heavyweight champion boxer, or a famous computer genius, much less a heroic Navy SEAL. He just had to be himself. That was hard enough.

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