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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Big Taste

“Get that out of your mouth. You don’t know where it has been,” Devon Guntoe’s mom screamed as she rushed toward him to get the penny out of his mouth. “Devon that is filthy. It is covered in germs.”

“How do you know?” Devon asked.

“It doesn’t matter how I know. I just know. Now go get some mouthwash.”

Devon stumbled up the stairs to the bathroom and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. He was eleven years old and had been putting things in his mouth since as long as he could remember. Now let us be clear. He was not a biter. He was a taster. In fact he was a super taster.

If Devon’s mom had taken the time to ask him where the penny had been instead of assuming he didn’t know, then he could have told her. “It was minted in Denver in 1978.”

Big deal right? You can just read that. But then he would have gone on. It then traveled to the Federal Reserve in Kansas City and stayed there for two weeks until it was purchased by First National Bank. It was in a teller’s drawer along with 49 of its buddies for a while. The teller was a nice lady who loved to eat pickles. Eventually, its roll was purchased by a local gas station and given as change the next day.

Devon could have gone on, but suffice it to say that the penny then spent the next few decades hopping pockets, making several trips back to various reserve banks and eventually finding its way to Devon who got it as change when he bought a package spearmint gum.

“Swish, swish, swish, gargle, swish, spit.”

Devon glanced at the trash. There were three empty bottles of mouthwash, two tubes of toothpaste, and a million gum wrappers. When you can taste everything, you will do anything to cleanse your palate.

“Devon come down for dinner,” his mom yelled up the stairs.

Ugh, dinner. Tonight was hamburgers, which was great for most kids, but Devon could always taste what the cow had eaten for its last meal, corn, field weeds and a little growth hormones. He had learned to cope by drinking gallons of water at every meal.

“I made your favorite,” his mom said as Devon plopped into the chair.

She had no idea what Devon liked. Long ago, Devon had given up trying to explain things to his mom. She just wouldn’t understand. So Devon made up a few “favorites,” and managed to make it through most meals.

She had no idea the explosion of flavors that occurred every time he took a bite. It hadn’t always been a secret. When he was little, he had tried to explain to his mom and dad about the taste. When he ate liver, he would tell them that it tasted like poop.

“Devon, just take one bite. It will make you strong.”

He told them that lima beans tasted like moldy leaves and worm poop.

“Devon, just eat three beans. It will make you smarter.”

He told them that eggs tasted like . . .

“Devon, everything does not taste like poop. Eat all of your eggs or you can’t leave the table.”

Devon became quite skilled at sneaking, subterfuge, and sleight-of-hand. The family dog, whose name used to be Rover, changed to Porky. Devon felt bad when Porky was sent outside for taking food and hiding it in corners, but he couldn’t tell his parents the truth. So he ate what he could, and Porky just kept getting porkier.

There was no dog to slip his food to at school so when students asked why he didn’t eat anything, he explained. Apparently, nobody wanted to know exactly how many fly wings were in each hot dog, or that each chicken nugget is only 5% chicken, or that the sloppy joe was left over meat from last week’s hamburgers. So Devon usually sat in the corner drinking tap water and eating a banana.

“Eeewww gross! That is disgusting.”

Suzie Meddleson was pointing at Devon. He stopped mid-lick. He had an annoying habit of tasting things that most normal people would not put in their mouth. This time he had been licking a library book that someone had left in at the table. Just the quickest taste and he knew the last person to check out the book. He actually could tell you everyone that had ever checked out the book.

In this case it was a copy of Stinky Cheeseman that had been checked out by Eddy Bookman. Devon knew this because he had, quite by accident, tasted Eddy before.

Of course none of this mattered because Suzie had the whole lunchroom chanting, “LICKER, LICKER, LICKER.”

Devon jumped out of his seat and began to run. He didn’t know where to go, and before he could even ponder it, he ran smack in to Mr. Covert.

“Hold on there Devon. Where are you going so fast?”

“I have to get out of here,” Devon gasped.

“Why don’t you come with me? We can finish our lunch in my classroom.”

Happy to have a place to go, Devon walked silently to the classroom.

“So, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Mr. Covert asked.

“The other kids were teasing me because I uh. . . uh.”

“Spit it out, Devon.”

“But I don’t have anything in my mouth,” Devon stammered.

“The words Devon! The words!”

“Oh,” Devon paused, “The other kids call me Licker.”

“Why would they do that?” Mr. Covert asked as he pushed a little red button under his desk.

Devon picked up a pencil off of Mr. Covert’s desk and started chewing nervously. Suddenly Devon saw images of unmarked vans, men in dark suits, and a secret lab in the basement of an old factory. Every taste bud on his tongue screamed, “RUN!”

Mr. Covert glanced out of the corner of his eye. Devon followed his gaze and saw two men in black suits filling the window of the door. One was fat and one was skinny, but they both looked mean.

“I’m sorry Devon, but you are going to have to come with us.”

“Who’s us?” screamed Devon.

“Let’s just say we head up an international team of ice cream makers and private detectives, and we are very interested in you unique abilities.”

“Like my ability to kick your butt?” Devon yelled, charging at Mr. Covert.

As he propelled himself over a student desk, the two men in the hall crashed through the door and snatched him mid-leap. They wrestled him to the ground with minimal effort.

“Please prepare Mr. Guntoe for an E.T.L.”

“Yes sir,” replied the agents.

“What is an E.T.L.?” Devon demanded.

“That is for me to know, and you to find out,” cackled Covert.

The skinny agent whispered in his ear, “It’s an extreme tongue lashing, kid, and you are not going to like it.”

When skinny leaned in, Devon was able to just barely get the tip of his tongue onto the shirt collar. Images flashed through his brain:

A nice house on Maple Dr. with freshly cut grass
the coffee shop at the corner of Broadway and 1st
the dry cleaner on Main
The ice cream shop on Sherman
The post office on the square
ABC Daycare

Wait a minute. Didn’t Covert say that they were ice cream making private detectives? Devon swished the spit around in his mouth a little more and focused on the ice cream shop. That was it. The ice cream shop must be their secret hide-out.

“You get him out of here. I’ll call his mother and tell her that he has detention for not finishing his homework,” Covert said.

“She won’t believe you. She saw me do it last night. Tell her you caught me eating food in class.”

“Whatever, just get him out of here. We need to get the ETL started as soon as possible.”

The two agents hauled Devon out of the school and into a van that was waiting outside. They threw him into the back and drove off.

There were no windows, but Devon knew this van belonged to Skinny. There were three black suits with dry cleaning plastic still on them, a packet of coloring pages from ABC Daycare, and a coffee stirrer that tasted like dark roast and creamer. Devon just hoped his plan would work.

As Devon relaxed he was able to hear the faint sound of The Entertainer by Scott Joplin chimed from a black box in the corner.

“I thought I told you to turn that thing off. It just attracts attention,” the stumpy one said.

“I can’t. The button is broken. Anyway, we are supposed to be an ice cream truck.”

Devon licked the floor. This was an ice cream truck, but it hadn’t been used for that purpose in a long time.

When they yanked him out of the van, they were parked in an alley. They odor of rotten milk and waffle cones filled the air, and the pavement was marbled with a sticky Neapolitan glaze.

The agents lifted a metal door that revealed a service elevator, and Devon was forced in. The whine of the motor and grinding of gears would normally be quite obnoxious, but Devon had the slightly off tune calliope of The Entertainer bouncing around in his skull so he was grateful for the distraction.

The smell of rotten milk became monstrous as they were lowered into the underground factory, and there was no sweet relief of waffle cone to same his senses. As his eyes adjusted to the light Devon saw row upon row of conveyor belts with armies of ice-cream cartons marching towards wide-mouthed trucks.

Near the middle of each line was a dog, or sometimes a cat, held in cage with metal bars and leather straps. Their tongues were held out with a clamp and electrodes placed on either side. Wires ran to a computer with a read out that either said “YUCK” or “YUM.”

The animals looked at Devon mournfully, but he didn’t know if it was because they hated the working conditions or because they knew that he was there to take their jobs away from them.

“You’re not going to strap me into one of those things are you?”

“No, of course not. We’re not monsters. We are just going to take a sliver of your tongue and clone it. It won’t hurt a bit.”

Devon looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, fine. It will hurt a lot, but there won’t be any permanent damage.”

“What do you need my tongue for anyway?”

“Well, as you can see we have an elaborate ice-cream tasting apparatus, and we wish to simplify. And . . . uh . . .we kind of thought we could use your tongue to taste out criminals, spies, and terrorists.”

“I’m pretty sure that would be you guys. You kidnapped me and I am pretty terrified. So mission accomplished. Can I go now?”

“Yeah, no. We got some clonin’ to do”

The two agents drag Devon into the ETL and strap him down, and then they wait, and wait some more, and wait just a little bit more, and after that they waited just the teeniest weeniest bit more. Skinny looked at his watch.

“Where do you think Covert is?”

“I don’t know,” replied Stumpy.

. . .

Meanwhile, back at the school.

“At least tell me what he was eating because he is the pickiest eater on the planet, and I just don’t believe he would be eating in class.”

“Now calm down Mrs. Guntoe. I’m sure Mr. Covert can give a perfectly good explanation. Starting with some information about where Devon is,” said Principal Pavlov.

Mrs. Guntoe turned to glare at Covert.

“Uh, I sent him to the office,” stammered Mr. Covert.

“Well he never made it,” replied Principal Pavlov.

Mrs. Guntoe then grabbed Mr. Covert by the arm and demanded, “You better tell me where my son is right now, or I will give you such a tongue lashing.”

“Well funny you should mention that,” Mr. Covert said as he tried to pull away. “We have been tracking Devon for quite some time because of his special abilities.”

“First of all, who is ‘we’, and second of all what abilities?” Mrs. Guntoe demanded.

“WE are the F.B.I.O.”

“Oh what?”

“No, the F.B.I.O, Flavor Based Information Organization. We are a super secret government organization whose goal is to collect flavor information and develop new ice-cream varieties. We were founded by Burt “Butch” Baskin after he discovered that the Russians were sending secret messages in the Rocky Road ice-cream.”

“So how does this have anything to do with my son?”

“Well, Mrs. Guntoe, Devon is a super-taster.”

“Super what?”

“Super taster. It means that he can taste just about anything. We were going to clone his tongue so that we could use it to find spies and create new flavors.”

“Why didn’t you just ask him for his help?”

“Uh, I said we were super secret. We can’t just tell anyone about our organization.”

“Well you will tell ME where my son is right now.”

. . .

Meanwhile back at the ice-cream factory.

“Maybe we should start without him,” Skinny said.

“I don’t know,” said Stumpy, “maybe we should wait.”

“I'm with him. I think we should wait,” Devon chimed in.

“Be quiet. No one asked you,” squawked Skinny.

“Maybe they should have.”

At that moment there was a loud squeal of tires, and a few seconds later the heavy metal doors clanged open.

“Stop! Let the boy go,” Mr. Covert yelled down the hole. He pushed the button for the elevator.

“Devon are you okay?” Mrs. Guntoe yelled down the hole.

“I’m fine. Just get these goons off me.”

“Let him go,” Mr. Covert said reluctantly.

The elevator had reached the top and was descending again with Mr. Covert, Mrs. Guntoe and Principal Pavlov.

Devon ran to his mother and gave her the biggest hug ever.

Mr. Covert walked over to apologize to Devon. “Your mom says that you probably would have helped us if we had just asked.”

“Yeah, maybe, but you guys totally freaked me out. Let me ask you a question. Can you help me so that I don’t taste everything all of the time?”

“Actually, our scientist accidentally developed taste dulling technology we would be happy to share with you if you help us out.”

“Dude, stop threatening people and just ask.”

“You should talk Devon,” Mrs. Guntoe said. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that you had special powers?”

“You never asked.”

“Devon I am your mother. Sometimes you just need to tell me. I have a giant pile of hamburgers with your name on it.”

“Mom? As long as we are telling each other things, I guess I should mention that I don’t like hamburgers.”

“But Devon, they are you favorite.”

“No. I think they taste like grass and chemicals.”

“Well, what would you like to eat?”

“How about a banana? And just bananas until Mr. Covert can fix my tongue. Oh and Mr. Covert, I would be happy to help you save the planet if you let the dogs and cats go.”

“I would love to, but they don’t have anywhere to stay.”

“I can take them,” said Principal Pavlov, “I have plenty of room and I already own a dinner bell.”

“While I’m at it, here is the taste dulling paste I was telling you about. Just brush onto your tongue before every meal.”

. . .

That night Devon discovered that hamburgers truly were his favorite meal, and Porky realized that it was probably going to be time to change his name again. For now he just sat next to Devin’s chair in a puddle of drool.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Turkey Winner

If last year was any indication, Evan would be eliminated in the first round.

The little man spends at least three days a week flutter, dolphin, and frog kicking his way through swim practice, but ironically when it comes to soccer he does not have a power leg. So quite logically we were not expecting much when it came to the turkey shoot.

As it had been throughout the fall soccer season, the weather was nice. This was the final game of the year, and the high that day had been in the seventies. Since the sun had gone down so had the temperatures, but it was still comfortable with just a light jacket. We were playing under the lights. I used plural because two light standards stood watch, but the field was pocked with dark blemishes and areas of half-light that lent to the feeling that we were all sharing a waking dream. The parents sat on the side line only occasionally looking at the field. Expectations had withered under the barrage of shut-outs and disappointments. We had won exactly one game, and on a regular basis the boys were outscored on average by about four goals. Several of the parents chose to perpetuate the stereotype of Catholics and have a beer to hold back the chill and wash down the taste of defeat. For the most part the players were oblivious. A few of the more mathematically inclined would announce the score, but huge grins of excitement were worn by all as they chased the ball up and down the field.

Our guys scored a goal in the first half, but experience told us that this would not hold up. Evan had not been part of much of the game. He did have one nice break-away and pass, but nothing came of it. Most of us in the crowd were hoping that the clock would run a little faster and preserve our victory. The coaches facetiously promised a party featuring Justin Beiber, who happened to be in town that weekend. I don't know if it was the promise of the Beiber that did it or a lack of faith in the progression of time, but the boys of St. Roch scored a second goal, and the victory held.

The turkey shoot would follow the game, but Colette and I started packing our chairs in anticipation of an early exit. The turkey shoot is not elaborate. The boys line up a random distance from the goal, determined by where the official threw down a jersey, and shoot in a single elimination format. Each successive round the distance from the goal increased. We were so certain of Evan's inevitable elimination that we boasted about it to other parents, but he made through the first round. There was no way that he would continue.

At this point he was just shooting against other players on his team. There are players with much stronger legs. Some of them could kick the ball the entire length of the field, but this was not a game of strength; it was a test of accuracy. At this Evan excelled.

With each round the big kickers would fire rockets, meteors, and other metaphorical projectiles at the goal. Shots that I would not consider standing in front of. Though the currents created by these shots surely resulted in Tsunamis in Japan, one by one they missed. Some by only a fraction of an inch. During the third round Evan was last to go. Every other player had missed. If Evan made this shot, he would move on to the finals. Our excitement was such that we had stopped talking about the event and were watch intently. Our chairs lay on the ground and we started to lament our failure to bring the camera. Evan lined up with the ball, took several steps back, made a running start and missed.

The official recalled all of the kickers from the third round and tried again. Evan went first this time and made it. Every other player repeated their performance and Evan was the last man standing.

Colette and I thought that he had won. Not quite. He now had to face the winners from the other teams in a final shoot-out. There were four players; Evan, the orange guy, the blue guy, and the other blue guy. Those were the descriptions Evan gave later on a phone call to his grandmother.

Honestly, I have no idea why orange guy was in the shoot-out. He was eliminated in the first round. Blue guy went out next. In the third round other blue guy lined up for the kicked. It went wide right. All Evan had to do was make this final shot. The official placed the ball, and before he could remove his hand Evan ran up and kicked it. The official waved it off since the ball had not even stopped moving when Evan kicked it. If this had been an NFL game, I'm sure the opposing team would have asked for a video review, because this shot went left of the goal. However, since this was little league soccer Evan was allowed to kick again.

Evan made the universal sign for "calm the heck down." He placed both hands palm down at about chest level and shoved the anxiety down to his waste. I don't think I had ever seen him this excited. It was like a real life Lego Clone Trooper had shown up to his birthday party.

With the ball in place, Evan took a few steps back to get a running start. One . . . two. . . three, kick. The ball rolled straight on the ground. No lift. No air between ball and turf, and by turf I mean a lumpy, grass clumpy field that threaten to knock Evan's shot off course. But for each hillock and ant hill pushing the ball right there was an equal and opposite clump of soil making a course correction, and the ball trickled into the goal.

I ran over and grabbed Evan hoisting him into the air. A reaction that should be limited to winning the world cup or greeting soldiers returning from war. Feeling a tad embarrassed, I immediately put him down so that he could be swarmed by his teammates who tried unsuccessfully to do some hoisting of their own. And for the next twenty-four hours Evan was known as Turkey-Winner.