The Strange but True Story of the Nuclear Cheese


The block of cheddar cheese had been moved so that it was positioned exactly two inches below the refrigerator light.  Herb saw it when he opened the fridge door, how the light danced off of the pale yellow of the cheese, and he thought nothing off it.  How could he have known that the jar of pickles obscured by the bottles of beer in front of them had been pushed back until it pressed firmly against the sensor that controlled the light, resulting in the light staying on even when the door was shut.

Herb was no scientist. He was an accountant, good with numbers but he struggled with anything that didn’t have credits and debits. It was the pure perfection of the system, that everything had to balance out, that appealed to him. He had no knowledge of the effects cold air had on the ionization properties of light and on the half-life of a block of cheddar cheese that absorbed these rays of gamma radiation.

To put it succinctly, Herb had no idea that there, in his refrigerator, the transformation of the mass of a block of cheddar cheese was complete.  There, in Herb’s refrigerator, nuclear cheese had sprung to life.

The cheese didn’t have to wait long for its opportunity. Herb opened the door and leaned in, looking for a jar of Miracle Whip, when the cheese saw it’s opening and pounced, leaping and springing from the refrigerator shelf at Herb’s face with his pointy end first, striking Herb in the nose. Herb screamed as blood erupted from his face (the cheese was after all a sharp cheddar).  Before Herb could gather his wits and figure out what had just happened, the nuclear cheese was past him and out the door into the street.

To Ron Sirloin, driver of an eighteen wheeler semi-truck, the block of cheese looked like a lifeless yellow triangle laying in the left lane of the freeway.  There was too much traffic for him to swerve and avoid it, so he tried to run it over.  Next thing he knew he was airborne, his truck having been lifted and sent flying backwards through the air, landing across the freeway and causing a chain reaction crash of fifty seven cars.

Herb chased after the cheese, horrified by the carnage it already was responsible for.  The cheese continued on, with Herb in pursuit, until it came to the doors of WGUM, the local radio station.  Herb could only watch helplessly as the cheese ripped open the door and grabbed the host of the midday conservative talk show, Charlie Psycho.  An orange beam emanated from the cheese and instantly vaporized Psycho.  The cheese took the microphone and broadcast to the city.  “I am the Nuclear Cheese,” it intoned, “and you are all my pathetic little subjects. You shall do as I say or else!”

Herb knew what he had to do.  He ran back home, and from the fridge he grabbed a leftover bratwurst.  He found the cheese, still broadcasting from the radio station, talking about a flat tax and complaining about welfare cheaters.  Herb found him and introduced him to the bratwurst. The cheese was instantly smitten, and the two of them fell into a deep love. They were married that afternoon, with the vows of “For Cheddar or Wurst.”

Herb’s instincts proved correct.  The only thing that could balance the Nuclear Cheese, the one credit to its debit, was the love of a good sausage.  Herb moved the jar of pickles so that his fridge light operated correctly, and an unparalleled period of peace and joy spread over the land.

Heart Lessons


I’ve had almost three months now to put my heart issues in perspective, to analyze how the experience has changed me, and to figure out what if anything I’ve learned about myself or anything else. So here’s a quick summary:

  1. I am overwhelmed by feelings of embarrassment and shame for not having taken care of myself. I knew all about heart disease before this happened, heck, I saw my dad through two surgeries before he finally died from congestive heart disease in 2011. Yet I continued eating fast food, ignoring what I knew about its fat content, and I didn’t get enough exercise. As the great Stuart Smalley often said, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”
  2. I’ve led a pretty damned good life. Okay, it’s a little short on adventure and heroism, the kind of things that make one stand out among a crowd, but I’ve been blessed with the love of friends and family, an abundance of laughter and joy, and a minimum of regret. I think, in general terms, I’m a good man, and I’ve tried to learn from the many mistakes I’ve made. I’ve been a good husband and father, and I’ve made more people laugh than I’ve made cry.
  3. I’m not ready for death ….not just yet. There was about a fifteen minute period on a Monday morning in Intensive Care, before the surgery and after my stress test, when it felt like the elephant playing the grand piano on my chest was going to kill me. It was a surreal time, as from my bed I could see the understaffed ICU nurses responding to multiple emergencies, code blues and stats, literally running from one emergency to the next, and I laid there, my light on, waiting for more morphine to ease the pain that was unlike any I’ve known before. And I laid there, my heart about to rip through my chest, thinking, they don’t see me, I could die right in front of them. I began to panic, then, after a minute or two, I started to calm down, not because the pain had lessened at all, but because I’d asked myself, what if I die right now?  And the answer I came back with was as surprising as it is difficult to describe. It wasn’t acceptance, I never came close to that, it was more like resignation. I remember thinking, if I were to die right now, if this all came to an end, there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it. I’d made my bed, it wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own that I found myself in this predicament.
  4. Health care workers are my new heroes. Whenever we talk about heroes, we (rightfully) start with the veterans who have served so bravely and humbly to defend our nation. Well, right behind them are the nurses and doctors and therapists who work around the clock to care for us when we are sick. In addition to the glamorous life-saving surgeries and treatments, there is the dirty and disgusting and thankless work, such as changing my sheets twice within a thirty minute interval after two urinal malfunctions (in my defense, Parkinson’s often makes for slow and uncoordinated movement). They changed my bedding and my gowns and cleaned me up quickly, efficiently, and sensitively, all the while preserving more of my dignity than deserved to be preserved. They are under-paid and overworked, and under-appreciated … until you need them.
  5. Loneliness is an epidemic. Nowhere is lonelier than a hospital at three A.M. One of my night shift nurses was a late twenties, dark haired and bright eyed woman, thin but “plain.” She obviously loved her work and was very good at it, telling me in great detail what to expect in the coming days and weeks (which was incredibly helpful). She was so excited because the next day, a Wednesday, was her birthday, and she had the day off. I asked her what plans she had and she said her father was coming down from Green Bay and taking her out to dinner (he was a big fan of the Golden Corral buffet).  I couldn’t help but fall a little bit in love with her.
  6. Exercise really is the best medicine. I work out three mornings a week at the cardio rehab at the hospital, and I always feel better afterwards.  Even my Parkinson’s symptoms are more under control on the days I work out. Not a big surprise to most people, but for one who used to hate working out, it’s been a major revelation.
  7. I’ve changed my eating habits, cutting way down on the amount of fat I consume. So far, thanks to the new diet plus the exercise, I’m down twenty pounds from what I weighed before the surgery. I weigh less than I have in years, and while I’d like to drop five more pounds, my real goal is permanent changes in diet and activity, not short term weight loss.
  8. I am getting my strength and stamina back, but even better I can feel my energy levels rise.
  9. I am so grateful for my life. The debt I owe Dr. Stone, my heart surgeon, and all the nurse and practitioners who cared for me can never be repaid. Same goes for the love of family and friends. I value you more than words can describe. Above all I am grateful for my wife. She’s made every day in the past thirty four years worth living, and I’m a fulfilled and better man for her love. It’s for her that I pledge however many days I have left.

Sanctuary


Ben Williams found himself in the chilly darkness of an unfamiliar city, off of the main drag, the street dimly lit and the buildings mostly darkened warehouses with empty loading docks dotted with fresh puddles. The night air was heavy. He could smell the salty odor of decay and dampness, like it had just finished raining, but that had happened before, before he found himself in the strange city. In the distance he heard a siren ringing, and he knew with an unmistakable certainty that he was being pursued, that he was in danger, but he had no idea why, or who would be after him, or where he was or how he had ended up there.

He thought he heard the sound of footsteps on the pavement behind him, getting closer.  He found the unmarked door to a darkened building and tried opening it; to his surprise it was unlocked.  He stepped inside to an empty theatre.  It was dark except for the yellow floor lights that lit the aisles that sloped down to the stage. The stage was dark and empty, as were all the seats. It struck him that this was the perfect place to get off the street for a while, to get his bearings.  He sat down in a seat in the back row, furthest from the stage, closest to the door he came in through.

He sat there, thinking hard, trying to find clues that would help him determine where he was, how he got there, and who was pursuing him, but nothing came to mind.  At least it was warm in the theatre.  He was wearing a t-shirt that was inadequate outside in the cool night air.

Ten minutes passed and nothing came to him; at the same time, nobody else entered the theatre.  I must have thrown them off track, he thought, I’m safe in here.  Then a single spot light beamed out of the dark and lit a small circle on the stage. An elderly man, wearing an expensive looking suit and a black fedora, stepped out of the dark into its glow. Ben ducked down in his seat and started crawling towards the aisle, afraid that the man on stage would see him, when the man stared speaking.

“Billy didn’t know where he was,” the man said. “But inside the small auditorium he felt safe. Outside the police were looking for him. They’d found the woman’s body, in an alleyway, carved up and bloodied to the point of being unidentifiable.”

Then the entire stage lit up and the man was gone.  It was empty, there was no set, no props, just two empty kitchen chairs on the far right edge of the stage. A man and a woman entered from the left side of the stage, the man about thirty, thin and muscular, wearing a shirt and tie and dress slacks.  The woman was beautiful, with feathered red hair and piercing blue eyes, wearing a sleeveless blue sweater and tight pants that hugged her hourglass figure.

“Thank God that’s over,” the man said.

“It wasn’t so bad,” the woman said. “I actually had fun.”

“Sure, you did. Flirting with the entire faculty.”

“I wasn’t flirting,” she replied, and Ben realized that he was watching the performance of a play.  He was certain the actors couldn’t see him, crouched down low in his seat in the back row.  If they couldn’t see him, then they were playing to what they had to think was an empty theatre.

“You’re just too hung up to have a little fun, to have a good time,” she said. “It was nice getting out of the house for a change.”

Then the man had a huge knife, a machete, in his hands. He raised it high. The woman screamed, and the man brought it down on her shoulder, gashing it deep, blood flowing bright and red from the wound.  The man took the knife and slit the woman’s throat, ripping apart her jugular vein, blood erupting from her neck and spraying all over the stage, all over the man.  She collapsed in a lifeless heap on the floor, but the man didn’t stop, he continued swinging the machete, cutting her up until she was unrecognizable. The lights went down. The amount of blood on the stage was staggering.

And it was all real.  He’d just witnessed, crouched down low in between the last two rows of seats in the auditorium, a brutal murder.

Then the spotlight came on again, and the elderly man in the fedora returned.  He said, “Billy’s really done it now, hasn’t he? Now, let’s enjoy the comedy of Assault and Battery.”

The sound of canned applause echoed through the auditorium as two men, in old gray vaudeville suits and bow ties, entered from stage right and took their places behind two microphone stands.  The first one said, “Hello, I’m Assault.”

“And I’m Battery,” the second man said. The man claiming to be Battery was the same actor who’d murdered the woman. A pool of her blood was visible on the stage behind the pair.

“Say, Battery,” Assault smiled. He was wearing a black top hat that made Ben think of Fred Astaire.

“Yes, Assault?” Battery replied.

“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”

“That was no lady,” Battery answered, smiling broadly. “That was my no good slut of a wife.”  Canned laughter played through the theatre’s speakers.

“Women,” Assault began. “You can’t live with ‘em …”

“…so you might as well kill ‘em,” Battery inserted with perfect timing. The laugh track played again.

Suddenly Ben felt the presence of someone, some thing, in the seat next to him.  He looked and in the dim light from the stage he could see a man sitting next to him, not moving, stiller than still. He remembered the tiny flashlight he had on the key chain in his pocket, he took it out and shined it in the face of the man next to him. It was the face of a corpse, white and colorless, and he could tell that the theatre, which had been empty just a moment before, was now filled, with every seat except his occupied by a silent and unmoving corpse. They didn’t move as Assault and Battery droned on, the rhythm of their act punctuated by the occasional playing of the laugh track.

Ben ran to the aisle and turned toward the exit when he heard the voice of the old man in the fedora, from the stage, say, “Don’t forget, Billy, the police are outside. It’s not safe for you out there. They’ve found the body and they know you did it.”

“I’m not Billy,” Ben said, turning to face the old man.  He was standing on the stage again, alone in the spotlight.  Assault and Battery were nowhere to be seen.

“Sure you’re not,” the old man smiled.

“And I didn’t kill anybody.”

Then the overhead lights came on, lighting up the entire theatre, momentarily blinding Ben. When his vision recovered he could see the empty stage and the empty seats, and he saw the first police officer enter, his gun drawn and pointed at Ben.

“Freeze,” the office said.

Ben knew that running would be pointless, so he put his arms in the air, and in his mind he saw, he remembered, her in the alleyway in the rain, red and crumpled beneath him, the knife cold and wet in his hand.

Stories of Life and Death


It’s a subject we write about all the time.  Especially fiction. Good fiction always has to have something valuable at stake – and what’s more valuable than life itself?  But what do we really know about death, other than eventually it takes us all?

The thing about death is the older we grow the nearer we get to it. Also, the older we get, the more familiar it becomes, as we experience it through the deaths of friends and family as well as public figures and acquaintances.

We, the living, all look for meaning when somebody dies. Some look for cosmic meaning – where will the deceased end up, is there an afterlife and what does it all mean.  But I think most of us look at the story a given lifetime tells, and like any story, we want to learn from it. Was the life worth living, was it lived well? Did it touch other lives? How was the world changed by its existence? What obstacles was he able to overcome?  Unable to?

Stories are so important to human beings because when you come right down to it they all deal with our awareness of our own mortality. Stories, like a life, have a beginning, middle and end. If we weren’t aware of the inevitability of our own death, stories wouldn’t be so important. People live on in stories after their death – Grandpa used to get up at 4:30 every morning to start the milking, he sure was a hard worker is another way of saying grandpa’s life wasn’t meaningless, and as long as we remember him, he lives on, at least in our memories, like the drawings of hunts on cave walls still tell the stories of our prehistoric ancestors.

So recently, after experiencing chest pains and having emergency heart bypass surgery, the nearest to my own death I’ve been so far, what was the first thing I did when I started recovery? I started working on stories, figuring out what I’d tell people about my experiences, about the anxiety I felt, about the pain, the doctors, the nurses, the pain pills and the hallucinations I experienced under their control, everything.  This is a big deal, I told myself, I could have died. Everybody will want to hear about this.

But now, almost two months later, the experience is already in my rear view mirror and fading. I’ve made changes to my diet and lifestyle that will be permanent, but otherwise, my life has returned to a normalcy and comfort that doesn’t feel much different than before.  And it’s happened much quicker than I thought it would.

Last Friday, a member of the writers group I belong to, a woman named Marguerite McClelland, passed away. I didn’t know her all that well, just what she’d shared with us in her writing.  She was seventy one years old, having been born in the Alsace region on the France-Germany border in 1943, at the epicenter and the height of World War Two.  She never knew her father, who was a casualty of the war.

I know these things about her because of memoirs and poems she’d written and shared. Stories of her life.  Stories that will live on now even though she won’t. Marguerite’s stories will live longer than most because they are so well written, the language is so evocative and beautiful.

It’s estimated that each hour, 6,390 people die.  That’s 153,000 per day, and 56 million per year.  It’s estimated that 107 billion people have lived in the history of the earth, and that 100 billion of them have already died.  Think of the people you’ve know who have died. Maybe there’s fifty people, one hundred if you count famous dead celebrities you’re familiar with. That leaves 99,999,999,900 dead people who you know nothing about.

But each of those 100 billion lives that have begun and ended had their own unique stories and left their own indelible mark on the world. Every life, no matter how short or seemingly inconsequential, impacts other lives, in ways known and unknown.

And when a beautiful soul like Marguerite passes, we who were lucky enough to have known her even for a short time are stronger for the story she told.