Herbert was sitting in a van in the Walmart parking lot, listening to Ira Glass on “This American Life.” He was embroidering a leprechaun on a pillow cover while waiting for the store to open, as one does. The pillow cover was for his niece, and the leprechaun was brandishing a cutlass. His niece was inclined that way and had no use for dolls or decorations unless they were handy with a sword or ax.
He did not like Walmart much, but he needed to buy gift cards for staff at the care facility where he worked, and most recipients shopped there. The gift cards would be duly inserted in holiday greeting cards that were signed by each of the managers, including a personalized message from the associated team lead. It was a nice gesture, and the brainchild of the director of HR, who was full of nice ideas to promote a “supportive and inclusive work environment.” Unfortunately, she seldom had any grasp of the logistical burdens that her nice ideas entailed.
Lance was a lounge lizard, an ingratiating gigolo, a languid Lothario, and an indolent inamorato. He was the marketing manager for the care facility and the progenitor of the fetus currently being carried by his best friend’s girlfriend, who was a nurse at the facility. It had not been a lengthy affair, but quite long enough to pass on a virus, fertilize an ovum, and fill Claire with a sense of shame and regret. Lance got bored with her the moment that the conquest phase of the game was over, and he turned his back on Claire as soon as the relationship grew familiar. Lance made it very clear that he was not going to be a reliable spouse and wasn’t going to accept responsibility for any outcomes.
Claire retreated like millions of people had before her and sought refuge in the comfort and relative security of the slightly boring but predictable relationship with her current boyfriend. Jeff was stunned by her announcement that she was expecting his baby, but eagerly proposed marriage. The logistics of wedding and baby prep were fired up, and the wheels of social norms rolled down well-established paths. The only irritating impediment was Lance’s little wisecracks about her pregnancy not being as clearly attributable to Jeff as anyone might think. Claire countered with affirmations and public displays of affection for Jeff. Privately, she cursed Lance, and muttered to a friend that she “could just kill that sleazy scumbag” when one of his little snide remarks was shared with her.
Since the bride, groom, best man, and many of those in the couple’s social circle worked at the facility, HR made one of those nice social gestures and planned a potluck lunch celebration. The idea was to have a combined celebration for the wedding and a gender reveal at the care facility. As usual, HR had the great idea and a fanciful image of what it should feel like, but scant idea on how to make all the disparate elements come together. Also, as usual, the practicalities, planning, and logistics fell to Herbert.
In his role of concierge, maintenance planner, and general make-stuff-happen go-fer, he was the go-to guy to look after the details. Setting up a venue, seating, and tables would be a cinch, and arranging the food, drinks, and music was complicated but routine. The gender reveal sideshow, however, was something new and complex. HR, in their infinite enthusiasm and vision, had ideas of colored smoke and glitter that were either impractical or impossible. Herbert had patiently explained that fireworks of any description were strictly forbidden on the facility campus. He had also explained, with the utmost patience, that the candy-pink raspberry or blueberry-sheen metallic powder alternatives were also going to run afoul of facility environmental policies. He had even stayed patient while explaining that metallic pink or blue confetti would also be forbidden. Herbert accepted the duty to find an alternative that best approximated their vision, but stayed within policies.
After a lengthy discussion with his friends in Maintenance, Herbert decided that a compressed-air mortar that fired a load of custom-dyed, organic, finely milled flour would do the job. Creating a cloud of colored powder dictated that the event had to be held outdoors, which in turn narrowed the choices of tables and chairs, and necessitated sunshades. When it arrived, he took the mortar behind the workshop, attached the pressure hose of a 20-gallon portable compressor, and successfully launched a small sandbag 40 feet into the air by adjusting a thumbscrew on the side of the 5-inch diameter steel tube. The thumbscrew determined how tightly the plastic cup inside the steel tube would be held before the air pressure released it, and it took him a few tries to get the setting right. Satisfied that the mortar would work, he cleaned the inside of the tube and gave it a liberal lubricating coating of organic sunflower oil. He slid the plastic cup down the tube and locked it into place with the thumbscrew. He mixed and poured in the seven cups of flour, dyed according to the confidential note from HR. After capping the mortar with a second plastic cup that slid into the tube, Herbert wheeled out the compressor, arranged the mortar in a flower bed 20 feet behind the podium, and laid the pipes neatly.
The next day dawned with a rainstorm that washed the paving, requiring a quick mopping of the podium and chairs, but was a welcome break from the summer heat. The air was fragrant with the scent of rich earth from the surrounding flower beds, and it promised to be a clear sunny day without risk of further rain. Herbert gave it all a quick look before going to his office and ran up the compressor a bit because the pressure had dropped overnight. He gave it a little extra in case it dropped again before the ceremony, then unplugged the power and went up to his office.
By noon, a small crowd was seated under the shade canopies, grateful for the protection from the glaring sun. Things got underway as planned with a speech by the director of HR, followed by some sly hints and anecdotes by Lance that Claire found excruciating, and proceedings finally got to the gender reveal. The audience were growing a bit fidgety in the heat, and after Jeff and Claire each gave a brief prologue, all eyes were on the trio at the podium, Claire and Jeff each with a hand on the lever controlling the mortar 20 feet behind them. Claire was irritable because of Lance and his insinuations and sleazy remarks. Jeff felt irritable because he was starting to wonder about some of Lance’s little remarks. Lance was irritable because he was not the center of attention, the whole ceremony was taking too long, and he wanted something to eat and a chance to chat up one of the HR ladies.
The mortar was also feeling irritable. The rain had welled up in the cap and soaked most of the flour. The summer sun had baked it dry for hours, and the oil lining the inside of the tube was fuming as the steel tube soaked up the sun’s rays. Likewise, the compressor had been sunbathing for hours, and the internal pressure that had dropped sharply overnight was now pushing the needle into the red.
At the appropriate moment in the gender reveal speech, a smiling Claire and Jeff jointly pushed the lever and opened the valve. Compressed air surged down the pipe to the mortar. The pipe swelled, flexed, and twisted under the insistent pressure and made the mortar tube tilt slightly in the damp earth. The air rushed into the hot tube, mixing with oil fumes, and with the cap held firmly by the mortar’s thumbscrew, pressure and heat rapidly mounted. The plastic cap melted and the gluten from the flour clung tightly to the sides of the mortar tube, until the combination of pressure, heat, and oil vapor resulted in the hot air and oil igniting. A diesel effect fired the solid plug of flour out of the mortar with a detonation that cracked several windows, made the audience jerk in their seats, and caused more than one bladder accident amongst them. The 2-lb plug of flour, followed by a noticeable puff of pink that billowed from the flowerbed, streaked through the air and hit Lance in the back of his head like a cannonball.
The exact moment of impact was immortalized by the facility photographer, whose digital camera captured an irritable but smiling couple in front of a visible pink cloud, as well as Lance looking vaguely relieved, crowned by a halo of pink dust and red mist that sparkled in the bright sunlight.
Claire and Jeff were married, loved each other, and adored their little girl. Herbert never again participated in a gender reveal party, but his niece was enormously impressed with his story about the one that resulted in death. She shared it and the photo whenever possible, and her only complaint was that no swords or axes were involved.
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