"RAISING THE FLAG ON IWO JIMA"

My friends and I disliked singing but joined the eighth grade chorus because it assigned no homework. As something called “tenors,” we lurked in the back row of the multi-tiered room, drawing lewd pictures, snickering, and lip-synching our parts when it came time to sing. We were serious about one thing, though: a contest of virility called “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”

Each competitor would place his manila chorus folder on his lap. When the appointed referee said “go,” competitors raced to achieve erection without the aid of manual stimulation. Our chairs angled toward the altos, who provided some visual assistance. Once one’s erection pitched the manila folder so that it no longer touched his thighs, a winner was declared. Many of us maximized lift by remaining in our mesh gym shorts from the previous period.

Anyone could compete in the game, but only I ever won. Awestruck, the others would ask how I did it. With a booming laugh I’d state that there was no trick—my manhood was simply unparalleled.

One day a challenger in a Primus t-shirt approached us. We ridiculed his wan complexion and the spiked leather bracelet dangling from his twiggy forearm. In his debut, he shocked us all by breaking my winning streak. He then won four rematches, each victory quicker than the previous. Our referee probed for signs of cheating but found nothing; the challenger’s prowess was legitimate.

Spellbound, we pressed this new prodigy, desperate to know his secret. Could he see a particularly attractive alto from his seat, one obstructed from our viewpoint? The prodigy smiled sheepishly. The secret lay in plain view, he said. He’d fix his gaze on the chorus instructor, Mrs. Macht, while she conducted. We scoffed at this. Mrs. Macht stood over six feet tall with a bulky frame carved from cookie dough. As an object of allure, she was as good as invisible to us. But then the prodigy breathlessly described her gigantic palms, the way her long wool socks struggled to contain her muscular calves, how her XL cardigan hung off her powerful shoulders, flapping like a windjammer’s sail. Most importantly, he pointed out her unassailable power over us, how she’d tower over even the tallest students, castigating them until they felt no more significant than a dust particle.

From then on we could see Mrs. Macht only through the prodigy’s eyes. The next contest commenced and no one looked at the altos; Mrs. Macht had our undivided attention. Every folder shot up in seconds, too fast for the referee to determine a winner. We tried handicapping ourselves by wearing tight jeans or splashing cold water on ourselves, but it was futile. The game had been broken forever.

"ARCADE'S REVENGE"

For months I had saved up allowance doing chores and other housework. When my savings reached fifty dollars, I begged my mom to drive me to the mall. I knew exactly what I wanted to buy.

It was to be the video game to rule all video games: two of the greatest superhero entities, Spider-Man and the X-Men, teaming up to obliterate any existing forms of entertainment. The back of the box said you could choose to play as five different characters. I had friends who owned a Spider-Man game and friends who owned an X-Men game, but no one I knew owned a game with both. There was also an urgent message in bold: “STOP WASTING TIME READING THE BACK OF THIS BOX!!!” Without another thought I put several months’ worth of allowance on the sales counter and purchased it.

The game had obvious flaws but I initially dismissed them as mere quirks. Eventually, though, they abounded. For one, the levels made little sense in the story’s context, and you could only play as Spider-Man for the first one. Wolverine wore the wrong costume, his old one, and Storm couldn’t fly. Also, the villains were obscure, and even if I had been familiar with them, they would’ve been unrecognizable because of the shoddy graphics. In a few stages you lost health simply by breathing.

Some days later, at the mall, I explained all this to the ponytailed clerk behind the counter, making sure to enunciate my r’s and keep the stuttering problem I had at the time in check. In conclusion, I stated the game was a disgrace to such legendary characters. The clerk looked at the box and shook his head. He said he had no choice but to agree. As I walked out of the mall I avoiding looking at any storefronts, my fifty dollars refunded and firmly secured in a Velcro wallet.

"THE BIG CLUTCH"

“I didn’t vote for him, never cared for his policies or what came out his mouth, but tonight that […] Bush proved himself.” – Thurgood Shenk, political author

The morning of October 30 President Bush stood on his Oval Office desk and, gesturing with a phonebook in his hand, described a motivational speaker-cum-bodybuilder he’d recently seen.

“…it wasn’t just his words. He’d talk, but then hammer the message home like this…” With both hands he gripped the phonebook and torqued it. His face reddened.

A Secret Serviceman sprang, two fingers on his earpiece. “Mr. President…”

“Wait…almost…YARGH!” Something popped. He clutched his shoulder as the yellow tome, barely crinkled, fell to the floor.

***

He was tired of words, those fickle little critters. At times he needed them the most they’d scurry away. Skinny swarthy men with turbans and beards had come into his country and knocked down two of his finest buildings. He countered with words, but it felt like bringing a rolled-up newspaper to a knife fight.

Instead he had faith only in the “Big Clutch,” an entity that aides and interns claimed he’d pray to under his breath. No one dared ask what it was.

He first discovered the “Clutch” riding the John Deere as a boy in Midland, his left foot pressing the pedal that could suddenly stop time and allow for all necessary adjustments. Now the tractor was gone but the “Clutch” survived inside him. When called upon, it’d empty his head, tickle his gut, and suddenly produce…the answer. Operation Frozen Pizza was one such answer.

***

“That saying ‘home of the brave’ that we say…it never meant much to me until tonight.” – “Curtis,” MTA employee

At 35,000 feet, the President lunched while an officer outlined Operation Frozen Pizza.

“We’ll have snipers here and here, Servicemen around the perimeter. A special consultant, code name ‘Mr. November,’ will meet you…Yes, Mr. President? You don’t have to raise your hand.”

“Oops! No question, just testing this darn shoulder. Messed it up real good this morning.

“We’ll alternate hot and cold compresses. Now-“

“A fake…”

“…”

“I bet that motivational strong-fella used a fake, a phony phonebook.”

“Very possible. Now, nota bene, you’ll wear a windbreaker to conceal the Kevlar-”

“Matthews…”

“Sir?”

“Is this whole thing, Frozen Pizza…is it crazy?”

The officer stiffened. “It’s what needs to be done, sir.”

***

Stretching and sweating, the President waited in his holding quarters. An hour earlier he couldn’t raise his right arm without intense pain. He wouldn’t try again until he had to.

Mr. November entered. He was tall and chiseled and his pin-striped attire made the Servicemen look drab.

“I heard the plan, and about the shoulder. Are you really doing this?”

The President snapped the flaps of his Kevlar vest like suspenders. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Alright, but if you come up short they’ll kill ya.”

“Doesn’t matter. I have to send a message to my people, the American people.”

***

 “Good command. Real smooth delivery. What impressed me most was his accuracy.” – Dale Dollar, scout, Arizona Diamondbacks

Over the radio someone said “engage.” The President walked to the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium, a baseball in his left hand. He waved, smiled. He felt no pain, only the “Big Clutch” clanging within.

He looked like a monument of unshakeable strength, one TV commentator noted.

Standing on the mound—not in front of it, as suggested—he fired a strike to the catcher. Fireworks erupted, the crowd boomed.

Mr. November trotted toward him. They shook, embraced, and he whispered into the President’s ear: “Mr. President, that was the bravest thing I ever saw.”

The President beamed. “Thanks. That means a lot coming from Derek Jeter.”

"TRIAGE"

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That afternoon an old man collapsed on the stairs outside his brownstone. He lived in a neighborhood dubbed “Little Estonia,” where the streets intertwined and often failed to appear on GPS devices. Before losing consciousness he dug his phone from his sweatpants pocket and dialed 911, requesting help at 260 Ruby Street. An ambulance was sent.

*****

Arthur Rambam only drove the ambulances. Except for a nearly expired first aid certificate, he had no medical qualification and was strongly discouraged from handling the bodies. His one responsibility was to get the vehicle and crew to the victim.

He said: “All I’m saying is, is if you teleport us back to the Renaissance…”

“Artie.”

“…put us each on a Jet Ski with a shotgun, a rifle, maybe one guy gets a bazooka…”

“Shut up, you’ll miss the turn.”

“…me and a dozen of my VFW buds, armed, on Jet Skis, could take out the entire Spanish Armada, lickety-split.”

“You missed it, Artie. Turn around,” said the paramedic from the passenger’s seat, a hand smushing half his face.

The men could’ve simply asked the dispatcher for specific directions to 260 Ruby Street, where an old man lay clutching his heart, but the paramedic wouldn’t allow it. If he asked for help, the higher-ups would view it as a sign of inadequacy. He had to find the address himself.

Throughout five years on the job he had encountered endless scenes of pain, gore, loss, dismay. Naturally, he picked up an ugly drinking habit. Soon his work performance plunged and he found himself perpetually on the brink of being fired. If they didn’t find this old man at 260 Ruby, he’d most certainly lose his job.

Inside the glove compartment the paramedic found a city map. He unfolded it until it obstructed his half of the windshield. Now if only Rambam would shut up.

But Rambam would not shut up.

When the paramedic turned to punch Rambam’s arm, the map fluttered, blocking the driver’s side of the windshield. Rambam hit the brakes but the ambulance struck something before coming to a complete halt.On the pavement, right below the ambulance bumper, an unconscious old man rested alongside the groceries he had been carrying. Rambam sat very upright at the wheel whispering “oh god” over and over as the paramedic got out to examine the victim.

It wasn’t until the backdoors slammed shut that Rambam moved again. His head jerked around to see the old man on a stretcher, wires and tubes sprouting from his motionless body. The paramedic climbed back into the passenger’s seat and signaled “Go” with two fingers pointed forward.

“H-hey,” Rambam stammered. “This ain’t the guy. We can’t-“

“Is this man not banged up? Is there not blood coming down his face? Does he not need medical help?” The paramedic flicked on the siren. “He’ll do, Artie.”

Rambam’s eyes got soggy. He turned the key, “Yeah, okay. He’ll do.”

At the hospital the old man came to. He couldn’t remember calling 911 or how he lost consciousness. Mild memory loss, they called it. While bandaging the head the doctor discovered a lump on the back of the patient’s neck. A medical staff assembled and removed the mass, which could’ve posed minor problems to the spine had it grown large enough. Hours later the old man returned home good as new.

The doctor praised the ambulance crew’s grace under such duress. To celebrate, the two colleagues decided to grab drinks. At the bar, Rambam prattled on about hypothetically winning the Battle of Hastings with only one M18 Hellcat and ten well-placed landmines. The paramedic said little but listened with a smile. He drank just one beer the entire night, sipping slowly and enjoying flavors he had never before noticed.