This was the assignment from my favorite college president, Jim Genandt: “So I want you to write a short story and here are the names of the four characters I want you to use: Wangus Farkle, Deeshpot Snickmanf, Horobax Pinkerglot, and Snorban Quiglesblurt. No other characters. I would prefer a sci-fi western campfire setting set in 1900 near Flush, Kansas. Are you up to the challenge?”
Flush, Kansas is in the northeast quadrant of the state; you know, over in Pottawatomie County. The town got its name when Wangus Farkle won it in a poker game back around the turn of the century—not this one, the last one. The winning hand? Five diamonds. Some dang fool claimed that his five cards in a row (8-9-10-Jack-Queen) was a lot harder to get than five of the same suit, so he should win the hand. Wangus showed him the rule book and the unblinking eye of a cocked Colt 45, convincing the dang fool that a flush does indeed beat a straight.
That aforementioned dang fool was Horobax Pinkerglot. You’ve no doubt heard the name if you know a damn thing about the Wild West. Being an outlaw, Pinkerglot never gave two hoots for anybody’s rules. He dedicated himself to seeing to it that Flush, Kansas would never prosper until it changed its name to his. You think paybacks are hell? Horobax is hell and then some. If any business—general store, blacksmith shop, barbershop, or bank—started to show a profit, Pinkerglot would gut it. Rob it then burn it to the ground.
Deeshpot Snickmanf probably created more useful smartphone apps than anyone in the 21st century. When he was ignoring his boring high school classes in favor of pursuing something he was actually interested in, his parents and school counselors kept telling him he needed to get his head out of the clouds and face reality. “Reality?” said Deeshpot. “Before we can discuss it intelligently, you’re going to have to define your terms. Tell me: What is real?”
Real poor: That’s what most folks in Flush, Kansas were. And not just moneywise; they were poor in spirit. A bright lad like Deeshpot could move away, shake the dust from his Adidas and never look back. But Deeshpot believed you should bloom where you’re planted.
The dispirited citizenry had long since resigned themselves to their circumstances. Some said the community was just plain snake bit. Others claimed the town was built on an ancient burial site and was thus cursed. Deeshpot didn’t buy it, any of it. But it was still his birthright, so he owned it. Could he get a refund? No, but maybe…maybe he could swap it for something else? He had no idea what, but he was not going to give up. This was his home; these were his people; he would not let them down.
The Universe honors an unbending intention. The edges of doubt and fear curl and flake in the heat of a burning desire. About 2:23 one morning, Deeshpot’s phone buzzed. A text from…Snorban Quiglesblurt? Who the hell? The message: “Go to Tuttle Creek. Build a fire. Bring a picture of yourself when you were seven years old.” That didn’t make a lick of sense, yet for some reason it seemed important.
Ever do something that didn’t make sense but you did it anyway because you were eat up with curiosity? If so, you know where Deeshpot was an hour later. Flint, steel, kindling, twigs, bigger sticks. He sat cross-legged and gazed into the flames, the glowing coals, the snapping sparks. He heard the wind in the treetops and an occasional owl hoot. He heard the same water the dinosaurs drank singing sea shanties and reciting sacred limericks to ancient rocks. It could have been five minutes or five years.
“Show me the picture.”
Snorban’s voice was not loud, unduly deep, or commanding. It was inviting. He was never obeyed because folks were afraid but because something in his tone and his manner made them want to. People knew he was there to help and add to the fun, not to condemn and dampen—you know, a true leader.
Deeshpot handed Snorban the photo of his grinning seven-year-old self.
Snorban smiled back at the kid in the picture. He raised his eyes to meet Deeshpot’s and asked, “Is this child dead?”
Deeshpot was already off balance from Snorban’s arrival: He was just sitting there on the other side of the fire, like he’d been there all the while. Deeshpot never saw or heard him approach. Now this question. “No, of course not.”
“Where is he?”
“Well, he’s…he’s me. I’m just a grown up him.” (Yeah, that sounded real bright. Sheesh!)
“So, he’s part of you?”
“Yes. That’s a better way to put it.”
Snorban shook his head. “That’s not physically possible. There is not a single cell, not so much as an atom that was contained in that kid that is with you now. That child no longer exists. When someone no longer exists, we commonly refer to them as dead.”
Deeshpot’s brain was not responding. (Try unplugging it then plug it back in.) “No, he’s still there.”
“Here.” He pointed to his head. “I can…”
“Not just remember, actually experience.”
Snorban smiled. “So the trick is to remember, and…?”
Deeshpot jumped—as much as one can while sitting. “Rats?”
“That’s your mnemonic: RATS. It stands for Remember And Then Some.”
Deeshpot grinned. “Yeah…yeah, that fits.”
“So if you wanted to go back to when you were six?”
“Remember And Then Some.”
“I really don’t recall much before—”
“The year before you were born?”
“C’mon, man…you can’t…”
Snorban raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to define reality for me now?”
“Give it a go.”
Deeshpot felt defeated. “Sorry, I just don’t get it.”
“No, no, don’t be sorry.” Snorban raised a halting hand. “If I’m going to pass myself off as a teacher, if you’re not getting it, then it falls to me to find a way to help you get it.” He massaged his chin and pondered. “You’re probably too young to remember videocassette recordings.”
Deeshpot brightened. “No, I’ve read about them. They even let us play with one at the museum.”
Snorban clapped his hands. “Okay, frame of reference, good. If a person wanted to watch one again, he had to what?”
“Exactly. And when did people stop rewinding?”
“When they got to the end of the tape?”
“Yes! And they could have kept on rewinding if they…fill in the blank: if they…”
“Had more tape?”
Deeshpot was still a bit confused. “But it would be blank tape.”
Snorban winked. “Not if you put something on it. RATS backward is STAR. Go back and STAR in your own movie. Put something on it. Rewind that rascal.”
When did the sun come up? The campfire was smoldering, little intermittent wisps of smoke. Deeshpot said it slowly and reverently: “Holy shit.” Then he jumped to his feet and shouted like a tent evangelist: “Holy Shit!”
Snorban placed a gentle hand on Deeshpot’s shoulder. “The app will work, obviously. I think you know that you shouldn’t make it available to just anyone?”
Flush, Kansas is in the northeast quadrant of the state; you know, over in Pottawatomie County. The town got its name when Wangus Farkle won it in a poker game back around the turn of the century—not this one, the last one. The winning hand? Five diamonds. A flush.
Horobax Pinkerglot threw down his cards. “Damn! I almost had a straight. All I ended up with was a lousy pair of tens.”
Farkle eyed the cards. “Hold on, pardner. One of them cards is the ten of diamonds. I’ve got the other ten of diamonds. You dealt this hand.” Wangus pulled his pistol and shot Horobax dead. Them’s the rules.