Inhuman Swill : December 2010

Under their skirts

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The sidewalk trees drop
their skirts of dirty snow
for a silver-tongued winter rain,
exposing a careless mulch of cigarettes butts,
not to mention the occasional dog turd
and chicken bone.

Nothing better to do, trees,
than eat, shit, and smoke
as you wait at the curb
to be picked up by spring?

Under Their Skirts

The tissue at hand

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Having finished the first draft of a novel a few months back, I am now slowly but surely whittling my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, down to its fighting weight. This means chopping out certain scenes I'm very fond of, but which don't fit the focus and tone of the revised manuscript.

Here's one of those scenes I'm sorry to see go, surgically excised and preserved under glass for your inspection.


October 1986

"You want to see my what?" said Elder Vickers, assuming that expression of shock and disgust he feigned so well.

"Your tonsils," I said. "Come on, Vickers, I know you keep them in your closet."

It was our second full week at the Missionary Training Center. I had accompanied Vickers on his daily trip to the main building for our mail. As district leader he had the only key to the box, and he'd been sorting through the day's haul as we walked. He was a short, barrel-chested young man with freckles, ruddy cheeks, and a crown of unruly blond curls that would have made Norman Rockwell weep.

"What gave you such a ridiculous idea?" he said. From the sharpness in his speeded-up drawl I almost expected him to add "Soldier!"

I gave him a sly grin. "Munoz told me." Elder Munoz was one of Vickers's roommates.

Vickers harrumphed. "He has said this to deceive you, and I would advise you to get out of his employ."

I laughed. The rest of our district seemed to resent Vickers as a drill sergeant with a willfully inflexible stick up his ass. I liked the irreverent humor he dropped into his remarks, though, and when I returned it in kind we'd begun to bond. To us, the pinnacle of drollery was to lard our speech with out-of-context phrases from the temple endowment ceremony, in which we participated once or twice a week as part of the MTC routine. The ceremony, which we attended across the street at the Provo Temple, took the form of an anachronistic mystery play depicting the creation of the earth and the fall of man. Vickers's line was one the Apostle Peter delivered to a Protestant minister who had been preaching false doctrines he learned from Lucifer.

"No, seriously, Elder," I said. "Come on."

Elder Vickers sighed. "Yes, I keep my tonsils in a jar in my closet."

"Wow! Why?"

"I don't know, really," he said, shrugging. "When I had my tonsillectomy, the doctor asked me if I wanted to keep them, and I said yes. That was years ago. I've had that same jar all this time."

"Can I see them?"

He looked at me coldly. "We do not satisfy men's curiosity in that manner." This was Peter's rebuke to the minister when he asked for a sign that Peter was a true messenger from God.

"We commend you for your integrity," I said, like Peter to Adam when he refuses to trade what is sacred for money. "But what's it going to hurt?" I asked. "Elder Munoz saw them."

Vickers sighed. "I see that this must be so." Eve to Lucifer, when presented with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "All right, then. Come on."

It was later that week that I happened to fall in step with an elder named Preston as I walked from the cafeteria back to the dorm after lunch. Preston's district shared our dormitory. They were a week younger than we, but far more unruly. After our district had played a very mild practical joke on them on their second night at the MTC, they had retaliated against us with a full-bore water assault. Preston was the worst of the lot, a tall, porcine, marshmallowy elder with a nasty laugh and a mean streak a mile wide.

Preston and I chatted amiably beneath the brilliant blue sky as we walked. He seemed a nice enough fellow one on one, if a little quick to take offense at innocent statements.

Entering our dorm, Preston turned his moonlike face to me and asked, "What's the deal with that Elder Vickers, anyway? He just won't let up. Why's he such a hardass?"

I almost broke out in a grin. I saw right off what I had to do; my enemy had unwittingly delivered himself into my hands. Silently I thanked God for this marvelous gift. I almost felt bad for what I was about to do, but not quite.

I clapped Preston heartily on the shoulder. His white shirt jiggled. "I know he can be a real pain, Elder," I said, "but you have to cut Vickers some slack. He's been through some traumatic experiences in his day, and they're not the kind of thing you just walk away from smiling."

"Oh, yeah?" said Preston, squinting. "Like what?"

I furrowed my brow. "I . . . I don't know if I should really be telling you about it. I mean, anything that leaves you less a man than you were before—well, that's pretty personal stuff. If Elder Vickers ever found out I said anything, my ass would be grass."

Preston raised his arm to the square. "Oh, I'll never tell. Scout's honor."

"Swear on your life?"

"Swear."

I thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay. Here it is." We had reached the bottom of the stairs, and I held the handle of the door to our corridor without opening it. I lowered my voice, forcing Preston to lean in close. "When Elder Vickers was seventeen, they diagnosed him with testicular cancer."

"Test—" Preston's eyes grew satisfyingly wide. "You mean his balls? He got ball cancer?"

"Shh, keep it down," I said. "Yes, he got cancer of the balls. They tried treating him all kinds of different ways— chemicals, radiation, what have you—but none of it worked. The cancer kept growing, and it spread from one testicle to the other."

Preston shook his head. "Oh, man."

"Yeah. Finally, there was nothing else the doctors could do. They said the testicles had to come out."

"No way!"

"Yep. So Elder Vickers goes under the knife, and when he wakes up again, voilà!—no more cancer. But no more balls, either."

My whopping friend took a deep breath. "Oh, my heck."

"You got that right. It's a miracle Elder Vickers is here on a mission today, but he's still just learning to deal with the fact that he's never going to have some of the experiences the rest of us take for granted—like having children of his own. Never gonna happen."

"Oh, man, that's a rotten deal," said Preston, chewing the inside of his cheek.

"Yeah, so when he starts giving you a hard time, just understand that he's not really mad at you at all, he's just—"

A spitish light dawned in Elder Preston's eyes. "Hey, wait a minute. You're friends with Elder Vickers. How do I know you're telling the truth?"

I shrugged. "I can prove it," I said.

He squinted. "You're not going to try to get me to feel his nads or anything, are you? 'Cause I'm not going to do that."

"Nah, nothing like that," I said. "I'll show you his testicles. Come on." I opened the door from the stairwell.

"Wait wait wait," said Preston, grabbing my arm with a clammy hand. "You'll what?"

"I'll show you his testicles." When he just kept staring at me, I sighed and shut the door again. "Look, he was pretty attached to his nuts. When the operation was over, he asked if he could keep them. So the doctors put them in formaldehyde and gave him the jar. He keeps it with him wherever he goes."

"You're lying."

"I am not. The jar's on a shelf in his closet. Come on, I'll show you."

As I led the somewhat reluctant Elder Preston down the hall, we ran into Elder Munoz. "Hey," I said, "is anyone in your room?"

"No, I just left," said Munoz. "No one's there."

"Could you let us in?" I asked, winking so only Munoz could see. "I've gotta show Vickers's, er, testicles to Elder Preston."

"Oh, yeah, those." He nodded, smiling faintly. "Sure, no problem."

Munoz opened his room for us and stood aside. "Just be sure it's locked when you leave. Enjoy the show."

I flipped on the lights, then positioned Elder Preston in front of Elder Vickers's closet. "You know, Shunn," he said, "I really do believe you." Tiny pearls of sweat stood out on his forehead. "You don't have to—"

"Don't be a pussy, Elder. Think of what Vickers went through. The least you can do is stand there for ten seconds and look at what he faces every day of his life."

I grasped the handle of the closet and slowly, ever so slowly, eased open the door. The crack of light falling inside widened, curving against the glass surface of a regular Mason jar at about chest level. A yellowish fluid filled the jar, and suspended in the fluid like a pair of blind eyes were two lumps of gray tissue, each about the size of a strawberry. Obscene and phlegmy, the tonsils stared out of the closet with mute reproach, devoid of any power but the power to shock, the power to silence.

I looked at Elder Preston. I watched the blood drain from his face. I watched him open his mouth to speak: a fat, wet hole appearing in a face as gray as Elder Vickers's tonsils, making no sound.

He pointed at the jar, and slowly his face turned toward me. "That—" he said. "That—that—that—"

Laughter bubbled up inside me like oil from a highly pressurized deposit far underground. The look on Preston's face had sunk the well, and now I feared that if I opened my mouth I'd release a gusher. "As promised," I said, bowing my head and covering my mouth, but the damage was already done. I wish I could say I kept a straight face, but I didn't. Giggles shook my chest like a California earthquake, and my knees buckled under the recoil of an explosive guffaw.

Preston stared at me, then back at the jar, then back at me again. "Hey, wait a second!" he said, his face turning a mottled red. "Those aren't his balls!"

Sliding down the wall to the floor, I barely managed to squeak out "Tonsils!" between shuddering breaths and debilitating laughter. Elder Preston clenched his fists and stomped out of the room like the Incredible Hulk leaving the scene of his latest misadventure.

When I could finally breathe again, I hauled myself up to my feet and locked the door behind me, happier than I'd felt since coming to the MTC. Revenge is so sweet, if they'd included it on the dessert table in the cafeteria they never could have kept enough on hand to satisfy the demand.


This excerpt can be heard in its original context in Episode 25 of the Accidental Terrorist podcast.

Dear FX Networks:

I've never before been moved to write a television network to express my love for a program that has struggled in its ratings, but that's exactly what I'm doing now. There are few shows I've ever come to love so quickly and fiercely as I love Terriers. I hope you'll renew it and give this compelling, idiosyncratic show a chance to find a wider audience.

You know, of course, that the writing and directing on Terriers is top-notch. The show is brisk and involving, witty and suspenseful. (In what was probably my favorite single episode, "Agua Caliente," the suspense was excruciating.) At the outset of the series, I assumed I was watching nothing more than an unusually good PI drama with snappy dialogue. It wasn't long, though, before I realized how attached I had become to the characters, and what an emotional stake I had in their problems, both personal and professional.

This points out that no matter how good the talent behind the cameras, the show would be nothing without great acting, which is exactly what Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James deliver in every episode. They're tough when they have to be, they desperately try to be as smart as they need to be, but they never fail to exude warmth and charm and vulnerability. Their friendship is one of the most natural-seeming I've seen on television, which only makes the ordeals they endure all the more devastating. Donal Logue, in particular, has never been better.

Maybe the reason I and many other passionate viewers love Hank and Britt so much is because we, like them, are not as smart or tough as we'd like to be, but, like them, we have to muddle through somehow. Whatever the reason, you have a show on your hands that, despite superficial similarities to other drama series, is unlike anything else on television right now.

I'm sad now that I don't have a new episode of Terriers to look forward to next week. If you renew it—and I implore you to—I will keep watching faithfully, and I will keep telling all my friends to watch.

Sincerely,
William Shunn


And to my friends: The first season of Terriers is over, but that doesn't mean you still can't hop on the train if you missed it earlier. Several episodes are still available for free on Hulu—including, for the next five days, Episode 8, "Agua Caliente." That's the first episode I saw, and as good a place as any to start if you're not willing to pay for the iTunes downloads.

In fact, it's a great place to start, chock-full of everything that makes Terriers great, and just to get you started, I'm going to embed it for you here:

But don't just take my word for it. Here are a couple of other defenses of Terriers that you should read:

  • Don't Put This Dog Down: TV Needs FX's 'Terriers'

  • 'Terriers' offers viewers most compelling look at 'real life' on the airways

    And a little clip, too!

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    William Shunn

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