It Can’t Get Any More Dumb-Assed Than This (Can It?)


… being an installment on a work in progress tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass

Rock Island, IL

One hopes not.

But to quote Benedick, there’s a double meaning in that. I hope things can’t get any more dumb-assed, but I also hope not—as in I’m not hoping any more. I’m losing hope. Hope is draining out of the world. When St. Paul (or “Paul,” as his modern commentators call him) said, ‘these three things abide—faith, hope, and charity’—he was, I’m certain, being at least one-third ironic.

Or maybe it’s that there is a God and that she’s a member of one of the minority groups about whom I’ve told too many jokes in too many places of too much ill-repute.

But let us step out of the airy regions of theological speculation. Let us leave aside such questions as how many pins can lance the head of an angel. Let us move back a bit—so we can take in the full range of dumb-assedness.

Let us have a panoramic view.

I wrote recently of a little sojourn south of The Mitten to South Bend, a trip taken in the company of one Jeff Polet, who’s excellent piece on propaganda over at Bridge was taken up by mlive, where the comments provide living proof that the propaganda works.

What I didn’t say is that I went east on 80 after exiting US 131, that my companion thought the choice odd, but that he said nothing because of “the supreme confidence” with which I do things.

Turns out neither of us had much experience going to Notre Dame by this route. And I, the driver, never bothered to consult a map.

Hyperspace to real time.

After a certain passage of miles Polet says, “we should be there by now.”

I agree but remain unshaken. I have set my face like a flint. We are going east.

Polet pulls out one of those electronic gizmos you see people with these days and, after consulting it, says: “you were supposed to go west.”

“Are you shitting me?”

“No. And we’re seventy-nine miles from South Bend.”

“You know all that just from looking at that little thing?”

“It also says you’re screwed.”

I look at my watch. I’m supposed to be in the classroom of that on-again-off-again Front Porcher, Patrick Deneen, in exactly one hour.

I break a law and cut across the median. “We’ll make it,” I say in supreme affected confidence. And then thirty miles down the road the truck cuts out. I leave the clutch out to see if the engine will fire. It won’t.

“This dumb-assed thing just cut out on me,” I say.

My companion consults his electronic gizmo, which solves all of life’s problems, except now.

I turn off the key, veer off the toll road, down-shift, switch on the key, and pop the clutch. The engine comes to life, and we’re off again, breaking laws and hastening toward a 9.2 billion-dollar endowment.

I fast-forward through the scenes that involve speed traps and menacing Hoosier State Troopers (Holy Mary, Mother of God, let none of these sonofabitching cops read this) to our entrance onto the campus of Our Lady.

Envision Polet holding up a gate arm that means to prevent my advent; envision me inching under it in an ’04 Ford Ranger. (The whole reason for taking this vehicle instead of, say, a reliable one, is that I mean to stop in Three Rivers on the way back to buy a used rototiller.) Thus we outsmart the Vatican and inaugurate our trespass under the Golden Dome.

I pull up to the building I’m supposed to do a cameo in at precisely two minutes before my starting time. Polet, who’s smart enough to do this whole adventure just for the fun of it, parks the truck while I walk a flight of stairs ticking off one by one my talking points. Prep-time has been truncated by an act of “supreme confidence.”

The academic thing is the least interesting part of this, so I gloss over it as well, save to say that this is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and Irish students prove no different from most others: the empty seats, greater in number than usual, mean that the break starts earlier than what the academic calendar actually gives a man to believe. High ACTs don’t mean that a body need stick around for some no-account bloke from—what is it again?—Augustana College to unburden himself of inconsequential opinions.

No worries. There’s a way of taking yourself so seriously that means you’re not taking yourself seriously enough. I’m okay with that.

And remember: we’re after the panoramic view here.

Now this is where FPR readers expect to be regaled with tales of repairing to a bar, then to dinner, then to another bar, then to another, and so on and so on, und so weiter, until there’s nothing left to remember.

But after Mass, and then Bible study, and then volunteer work at the homeless shelter, three Porchers return to an empty campus parking lot to retrieve the Ford, which starts and moves but then up and dies a block from the host’s house.

For a dumb ass deep in hock this ain’t good, but I and my traveling companion sit in my host’s house, sip warm milk from snifters, and discuss the rhetorical oddity of beginning every essay with the word “so.”

At three a.m. I awake, my head spinning. And it’s not what you think. Either I’m not getting any spark or I’m not getting any fuel. And it’s not me but my truck I’m thinking about. If only this problem is something akin to the coil wire that went out on the old Dodge, all will be well.

When it’s finally light I get up, dress, step over a snoring Polet, who reeks of fumes from the orphanage, and descend the stairs. Coffee first. Then I’m off to look for trouble in the wiring. I don’t need a bad fuel pump. Not here. Not on the day before Thanksgiving.

Snow falls on me as I bend over the engine cavity when Polet and Deneen appear, exchanging jokes about the johnson rod. Polet bets me a martini it’s the fuel pump, whereas I’m still holding out for something like a coil wire. (There’s no coil wire.) I explain to this golf addict the error of his ways. There’s a psychological reason for looking for an errant tee shot in short grass. You look there because you hope your golf ball is there. You have no chance out of the tall grass, so you look in the short grass. You hope. You hope because it’s one of the three abiding things. “You of all people, you who teach at Hope College, should know this.”

I don’t want to replace a fuel pump. I want to replace a plug wire or a fuse or … or, hell, a johnson rod, if there is such a thing.

The truck won’t start.

I scare up a repair shop that is maybe reputable and ask for a tow. Back to Casa Deneen for more coffee and maybe some jokes, because jokes might be useful at this point. At length I will tell one about Doritos that doesn’t disappoint.

And again at length I head back on foot to the truck to meet the driver of the tow truck, who comes fish-tailing in the snow down the road. He rolls down the window and, without any introduction, says, “New tires all the way around, and still I can’t stop this rig for shit!”

“But you’re having a helluva time,” I say. I like this guy already, and already he likes me.

He gets my story—it’s an Illinois plate, but I’m trying to get “home” to Michigan for Thanksgiving—and he tells me that his boss won’t treat me no different than if I was local. “I couldn’t work for him if he was a damned crook!”

And off he goes. This is good. I report to my companions that the driver of the tow truck is exactly the kind of guy I like. He can’t stop his rig for shit, but he’s having a helluva time and won’t work for no crook.

By noon I’m told that it’s probably a fuel pump—so I’m probably down the cost of that plus a martini—and that maybe by two the guys at the shop will know for sure. If it is a fuel pump—and if I do owe the hateful Michigan-Wolverine-Loving Jeff Polet a martini—they should be able to get it done by five.

By two I’m assured it’s a fuel pump and am about to suggest that three derelicts go out for martinis when I’m told that the part won’t be in until Friday.

Remember: we’re trying to get the panoramic view here.

I look up Enterprise in the phone book, whereupon Deneen, good Cafflick that he is, says, “look, my son’s car is in the garage and he’s out of town. Take it. Come back when your truck’s ready.”

This is what we call an elegant solution to a problem that someone who just incurred an $800 repair-and-roadside-assistance bill faces. If I were home, wherever that is in this nutty dumb-assed world of mine, and if I had my tools and my garage and a couple of days to spare, I’d do this damned job myself.

But behold! I’m not home. I’m in South Bend, Indiana, where a bunch of cheaters handed the noble Michigan State Spartans their one loss in football this year and where, good company notwithstanding, I do not wish to be on Thanksgiving. I like Deneen. I like Polet. I have a certain devotion to Our Lady. But this rooster wishes to be with his chicks and their hen tomorrow.

And truly my host’s own longsuffering Chief Eye-Roller might, with good reason, wish to see me depart. Not every man can be a favorite with other men’s wives, and if I’m not mistaken I am a favorite with no man’s.

Off we go, Polet and I, east toward 131, then north to Grand Rapids, then to his dining room, where we enjoy a highland single malt in the presence of his daughters, home for the holiday, where all good folk belong.

But remember: we’re after the panoramic view here.

At length I’m on my way and at greater length still approaching Dumb-Ass Acres from the north, not intending to stop there. The Eye-Roller and urchins are actually living in a house generously offered us by my sister and her husband, who are out of the country until next summer. But something tells me to stop at D-A A.

Which, in the cold and dark, I do. And I smell something burning. I head down to the basement. It appears the boiler pump is warm but the pipe leading out of it is not. I calculate the boiler pump is no good. It burned up for want of water while I was in South Bend racking up an eight-hundred dollar repair bill on a fuel pump that failed for want of fuelpumpedness or fuelpumposity or whatever it is that keeps a fuel pump pumping what little fuel is left to it.

I feed water into the boiler by opening its drain valve, to which is attached a hose coming straight from the well. I’m back-feeding the boiler, or rather I was. The water to the house is not turned on, and a boiler without water is not a boiler, so I have no choice but to feed it this way.

Understand that I’m running only the basement zone. The upper zones can’t be run because their circuits aren’t complete. We’ve cut several radiators out in the renovation. A few weeks ago, when I was here and not running meetings in that other place called home, I said to the builder, “don’t you think we should get these loops closed and get the boiler up and running?”

“We’ve got a few weeks before we’re in trouble.”

Uh-huh. Then an unexpected cold spell hit, and, just before the South Bend fiasco, I was back on the premises looking at an exposed boiler line, one that was supposed to have been moved, and I saw ice cycles hanging from it. Another frozen—that is, broken—line.

Remember: we’re trying to get the panoramic view here.

But let me summarize. I’ve left my Ford in South Bend to get an $800 repair I could do myself if the damned truck had had the good sense to break down near an Orthodox Church in Ingham County rather than near a million Catholic Churches in South Bend. But it didn’t.

To continue: on my way to Michigan to be temporarily reunited with my children and the goddess excellently stressed, I discover that the boiler system that I, a poor country English teacher, suggested be put back together and fired up before the cold spells hit, now needs not only new pipes but a new pump.

I shut down the boiler, fire up a kerosene heater, and head out to our temporary residence.

After much mayhem at this non-home I excuse myself, climb in bed with a book, and commence to read. At length my best girl joins me, opens her book, and then discovers that she needs to “look something up.” Our daughter appears. We instruct her to bring us the lap-top, which the boys are using, probably to watch video clips of Steve Nash.

I approve of none of this, much less instruction in basketball by a Canadian, albeit an extremely talented one.

A fight ensues among the children. The lap-top “gets unplugged,” as we will learn momently. Agency is the first casualty of the passive voice. No one’s to blame. And then at long last we are presented with the computer—and the three distinct versions of the fight that preceded its arrival.

She For Whom Great Deeds Are Done plugs the lap-top in and turns it on, except it won’t turn on, and I, a techno-idiot, know immediately what the problem is: this thing has been improperly shut down for the last time. The hard drive can take it no more.

Remember: we’re trying to get the panoramic view here.

On Thanksgiving I awake with a sore throat that could kill a rhinoceros. Nevertheless I spend the morning sawing up felled trees. I won’t taste anything like food or drink later on, but I’ll eat and drink everything. Today is no time for self-pity and certainly no time not to work.

Thanksgiving comes and goes. I collapse.

On Friday I meet the electrician. I show him what I’ve done to an older part of the house. “This ain’t wired right,” I say. “I piggy-backed that line to the closet. The rest of this is just moving the switch. There’s the junction box. But if the inspector is going to get his boxers in a wad over this, we should dry-wall it now so that he doesn’t see it.”

The electrician assures me that the inspector isn’t interested in the old part of the house. “He’ll be inspecting my work.”

A week later I get a call. The inspector says the wiring I did has to be redone.

Of course it does. It’s not up to code, which is why I suggested covering it with drywall.

To recap: I make two suggestions, one to a builder and one to an electrician. I don’t claim to know more than either of them about their respective trades. But both suggestions go unheeded and successfully invite big repair bills apparently to be paid by me—after I’ve learned that I, a poor country English teacher, need a new fuel pump, a new boiler pump, new boiler lines, and a new hard drive.

I prick myself to see if cash, not blood, flows in my veins. Alas, what’s in there is not green but red—and the one thing the blood tells me is that my cholesterol is through the roof.

Remember: we’re after the panoramic view here.

Can it get any more dumb-assed than this?

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