A Real Ham-and-Egger

Submitted into Contest #222 in response to: Write about a mentor whose methods are controversial.... view prompt

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Adventure Fiction Friendship

As a kid I was obsessed with “Macho Man” Randy Savage, but macho I am not. Ever notice how we are all fascinated by stories about our opposite? Take me. I’m a pussy. Not in the sense of being a girly man, but in the sense of being a lazy coward. So, naturally, I am obsessed with Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Pumping Iron, and any narrative involving one very jacked man fighting his way through a sea of enemies, with certainty of purpose, zero fear of death, wearing his weight in ammo, and possessing an uncanny ability to make everyone in their path suddenly lose the ability to shoot straight.


So, I am surfing the subreddits, innocently fantasizing about a bikepacking trip down in Mexico with my wife (something she’d never do). I fantasize about me being the survivalist, keeping us safe in the wilderness, and Jenny being my adoring protectee. That is when I come across a post by Staff Sergeant Gunnar that says, “Bike packing will change your perspective, but if you want to really change your life click the link below and join The Animal Camp.”


What is The Animal Camp? I imagine an underground society of warriors, like in Fight Club. Or could it be a literal camping excursion where you are surrounded by dangerous animals just waiting to kill you? Or is it code? I have to know what it means. I click the link.


The pictures that come up look like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket and Tony Robbins had a baby. And if said baby has grown up sturdy and was nurtured only by the maximum non-fatal dosage of energy drinks. Energy drinks laced with steroids, strychnine, and bronzer.


My wife, Jenny, is a yoga and chai tea enthusiast who calls anyone with five pounds of extra muscle “guerilla boy.” She is always making fun of grown-ass men doing bro-splits at the gym. But whenever Commando is playing on cable, I don’t see her changing the channel—just saying. I laugh, thinking of how she would lay into this The Animal Camp marketing in point-two-seconds and how she would turn the whole self-improvement vibe on its head with jokes about ‘making up for something.’ But it turns out it is no joke.


I enter my e-mail address and instantly get a follow request from “The Animal.” I accept the follow and a blinking light lights up on the message section of the app. The message is from Delta Force Staff Sergeant Gunnar “The Animal” Dennis. The e-mail says, “Welcome to The Animal Camp! I’ve got just one question for you. What are you willing to give for what you want? Unless you are willing to give everything, go back to sleep. If you are truly ready to sack up, give me a call. My number is below the signature. ‘The Animal.’”


What the hell is this? What am I getting myself into? At 2:38 a.m.? Nothing good. I jot down the number. I put the contact in my phone. I send a text message. “The name is Doug Stanhope. I live in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. I’m ready.” And then I crack a Lagunitas IPA and flip on Rocky I.


I fall asleep on the couch in my office and retire to my bed around dawn, just as Rocky is telling the promoter, Mike Jergens, that he is a ‘ham-and-egger.’ I can identify with that. I feel like a ham-and-egger myself, and I certainly am not up to fight for no title.


Maybe once. A long time ago. I had the desire to stretch and imagine the possibility of trying for a dream like that, but life had been a big disappointment for a lot of years. It’s best to set your sights low. I am not looking for a big letdown. A small letdown has a cheaper entry fee and much less chance of landing me dead.


In my dream that night, I dream of Rocky turning down the fight.


I wake up in a fog and forget about the whole thing.


It was all like a dream that faded in the early morning light.


Or so I thought.


* * *


During the 8:00 a.m. staff meeting of the logistics team, we are brainstorming how to fulfill an air freight contract we are bidding on.


Dagmar is leading the meeting. And I am dozing off. For the record, Dagmar’s breath smells like a Little Tree air freshener from hell giving off a mix of dogshit and whipped mayo. It is a combination that could wake up the dead.


“Sorry to disturb your nap, Doug, but we have a quota to hit here,” Dagmar says. He is a close talker and walks halfway around the conference table and puts his face very close to mine when he says this. It is as if he keeps his breath that way on purpose.


As I jolt myself back awake, I see an alert on my iPhone. It is from “The Animal” and it says, “Send address.” Why does he want my address? Maybe he’s sending a press kit.


“333 Spring Song Road, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229,” I write, still thinking this whole thing is a joke.


Then, I turn back to the meeting and give recommendations for the fulfillment plan for our new client, Shipping AI.


* * *


A man who looks suspiciously like Delta Force Staff Sergeant Gunnar “Warrior” Dennis knocks loudly on our front door. He has a green duffle bag hanging from his shoulder and is wearing military combat fatigue pants, black military boots, and a hunter-green T-shirt that says, “The Animal” across the chest. When I go to the door and see him reporting for duty, I am worried. I check my iPhone to check that we are not under attack, which is a real possibility these days. Nope. It’s him. It’s really him.


I look into the man’s eyes. They are black obsidian. Like slate mirrors. They soak up the light. Their gravity is a well of intention and grit. He just continues knocking. Then it dawns on me that this is actually happening. And I feel a lot like Rocky in Mike Jergens’s office. Inside my chest, my heart is saying, “You want me to fight the big fight, yeah; I’ll fight the big fight…” But my brain is saying, tell this fucker you aren’t home. Don’t let him into your house, for God’s sake! Interestingly, my brain and my wife both share the same frequency and have an uncanny ability to repeat the same dialogue.


“Can I help you?” I say, cracking the door a bit.


Edging past me into the foyer, Gunnar says, “It’s me who is here to help you, brother.” Taking a quick look around and giving me a once over, he says, “And boy, do you need it.”


“Ughh, I get that, but why exactly are you here?” I ask, “Physically, here?”


“Understand this. Your methods have got you exactly where you are. You need a change, brother. A drastic change. I am that change.”


“What?”


“Ten. Can you count, seven, eight, nine, fucking-ten. NOW DROP AND GIVE ‘EM TO ME.”


It’s funny. A man tells you to do something with that much authority. Something tells you to listen to him. I drop and give him ten and get up feeling a little flushed.


“You call those push-ups?” he asks.


“Well…” How do you answer something like that? I haven’t done push-ups since gym class in high school, and I already feel sore in my chest. Am I having a heart attack?


“You are only cheating yourself, Dough Boy. Remember that. Now drop and give me TEN, HONEST TO GOD, MAN’S PUSH-UPS. TEN-HUT.”


So, I drop and give him ten more.


“I’m sorry. So, what, exactly, is your expectation here?” I ask, panting. My wife looks on, drinking a chai tea with a look of amused bewilderment, and joy.


“You ever see any videos of basic training or ever play on a sports team that went to camp in the pre-season?”


“I guess so,” I say.


“You guess? Don’t fucking guess. What are you, Gomar-fucking-Pyle? This is life and death, brother man. Let’s show some respect for the process.”


“What process?”


“I’ve got some R&R, LWOP, leave time. I’m staying here for the next three weeks. And we are going to be training. 24/7. We are going to turn you into an animal.”


“What?” I ask.


* * *


Jenny meets me in the kitchen after I get Gunnar Sgt. Dennis set up with his bunk in the guest room.


“What is this man doing in our house?” she asks.


“I have no idea,” I say.


“He’s going to be living with us?” she asks.


“That’s what he says. For three weeks, apparently. You want to tell him he’s got to leave?” I ask.


“What the fuck, Doug?”


“I don’t know. I just responded to some online manly-man thingy. I thought it was like a gimmick or something—sign up to become a warrior—that kind of thing. I thought I’d be sent like a training program or an advert for some supplements—not this.”


“I can’t fucking believe you. I could have given you some passes for hot yoga. You are telling me your lazy ass is going to do basic training from our living room? You haven’t even done a sit-up since before college. You’ll die, Doug.”


“Yeah, this makes zero sense.”

“We never talked about this.”


“I didn’t know he’d come here. I had no idea.”


“This is what you want to do with your life. Become Rambo? This is like a childhood fantasy turned into a nightmare. We don’t even know this guy?”


“No. I mean. I know who he is. He’s Delta Force. Sergeant Gunnar “Warrior” Dennis. I know that.”


“Great. Gunnar. Awesome. He could be a murderer for all you know.”


“Well, he is—a murderer. That’s kind of his job description. But I mean he’s harmless. At least as far as you are concerned. I think.”


“Fuck Dougie. Fuck, fuck, fuck. [Long pause] I’m not gonna lie. This might be the single sexiest thing you’ve ever done.”


“What? I thought you were mad at me.”


“Oh, I am. And there’s gonna be hell to pay.”


“So not sexy, then?”


She shoots a wry smile. “No seriously.” And she gives me that look. I think it’s that look. I haven’t seen it in so long. What has it been? Jesus. “You made your bed, buddy boy. Good luck.”


“Good luck?”


“Yeah, let’s just go with it.” There’s that look again.


“Okay.”


“Now, come with me, follow me into the shower.” Oh, Jesus. It was that look.


And with that, I go fuck my wife. And get changed for dinner.


* * *


We are eating some quinoa burrito bowls, making a plate, and a place setting for Gunnar. We eat quietly, both wondering when he is going to come out from the guest room, barrel in and force me to do more push-ups. But he never does.


“I’m going to tuck in early,” Jenny says, hammering the Pinot Noir.


“And leave me alone with Gunnar?” I ask.


“Uh-huh,” she says. “By the way, Dougie. That was nice earlier. We should do that more often.”


“You don’t have to ask me twice,” I say.


“Actually,” she says, biting her lip, “Usually, I do. And it sucks. Try to read the signs and be like—like a man—and take what you want—once in a while—sometimes.”


“What the fuck? What have you done with my wife? You know, Jenny. The woman who spurns my advances and would rather I play video games than sit too close to her during her shows.”


“You’re an idiot. I meant what I said. And I won’t bring it up again. Maybe try initiating once in a while, you know,” she says, getting up, clearing the table, and putting the dishes in the dishwasher, and then she puts Gunnar’s meal in some Tupperware.


She smiles at me, as she heads to the bedroom. I think it was a smile. I’m pretty sure.


What the fuck is going on? Am I becoming Rambo?


I lie down on the couch, turn back on Rocky I, and crack open a Lagunitas IPA. What the fuck?


I’ve had a day.


* * *


“Get the fuck up, shit for brains,” Gunnar says. Standing over me.


3:48 a.m. That is what the clock on the cable box says.


“You heard me, suit up maggot,” Gunnar says.


Oh, shit! This isn’t a dream. This is really happening.


A shot of adrenaline shoots into my arms and I stand up at attention by the couch.


“Good. You have returned to the land of the living. Welcome back, Doug.”


“What is going on?”


“Lots.”


“What are lots?”


“Lots. Your allotment of pain. Physical exertion. Exerting mastery over your puny maggot brain. We call it—discipline.”


“Discipline?”


“Yeah, fuck-nuts. Discipline. As in cowing weakness into submission. You’ll see.”


Gunnar grabs me by the shoulder and throws sweatpants, sneakers, a backpack, and a gray sweater like the one in Rocky I down on the floor of the living room.


“Suit up,” he says.


Two miles. Doesn’t sound like a lot. In the pitch dark. With a backpack full of my PS2, my dedicated gaming laptop, a six-pack of Lagunitas IPAs, a couple of boxes of Viagra, and a lump of what looks like either lard or a firing range dummy.


“Hut-one, Hut-two. Pick up the pace jelly donut.”


I churn my legs, but I’m moving like a cement mixer. Like my legs are thrashing through quicksand.


I slow to a walk and Gunnar looks over his shoulder and doubles back.


“The pack is heavy,” I say.


“Oh. It’s heavy, is it? Weighing you down? All those comforting items you’ve traded for your manhood.”


“How far are we going?”


“What’s the farthest you’ve ever run?” he asks.


“I don’t know. Five miles. Once. In high school.”


“Then tonight we do eight. Eight miles. Four out. Four back. Halfway to the turnaround.”


“Eight? Are you fucking serious?”


“Serious as a heart attack. Now drop and give me ten.”


“What?”


“Every time you walk, you drop. Got it?”


“Got it,” I say and drop and do four strained push-ups, before crumpling to my stomach.


“Now get up. Let’s keep it moving.”


And Gunnar shuffles off into the dark of the night. The sweat is pouring everywhere. It is cold out, but I am on fire. I have swamp ass, caked sweat under my arms. Chafing in my thighs. I am a puddle of pains and niggles. I close my eyes tight and focus on one step. Then another. I feel blisters in my sneakers. A cut on my ankle. Holy fucking shit, I’m going to die out here, I think.


Walking purposefully and yelling for Gunnar, I look down at my watch. It’s almost five in the morning. Jesus.


Gunnar emerges from down by the river. What the fuck was he doing down there?


“Halfway there. Well done, normie.”


“I don’t think I can make it back,” I say.


“Did I say we were heading back?” Gunnar asks.


“No, but didn’t you say eight miles?” I ask.


“That’s just the running portion of the exercise. But this is the moment of truth.” And he points at a trash can off the side of the towpath. “Empty your backpack.”


“What the fuck?” I ask.


“You have lugged that stupid video game console, those beers, and that wad of lard for four miles. Time to discard your weaknesses. Plus, we don’t want all of that shit getting wet and weighing you down more on the way back.”


I no longer care about anything but making this torture stop. I empty the bag over the trash can and dump the whole thing.


“Good. Good normie. You are starting to get strong. Your mind is starting to get strong. Now follow me down to the river.”


I follow Gunnar like a zombie, trudging through a dream walk.


“You know how to swim?” he asks.


“I guess. It’s been a while.”


“Good. Then you won’t drown. Now into the river.”


“What the fuck?”


“Two minutes in the river, tread water maggot. Then we turn back.”


There is a low mist along the banks of the Lehigh River. In the twilight of the orange morning light, the woods look like they are filtered through a gold and brown haze. Like a scene of battle in a recolored black-and-white movie.


As I walk out into the current, smooth stones are underfoot. The movement of the river is tugging at my legs. It is freezing cold. The railway cars pass. The morning train is headed toward Reading.


“It’s too cold.”


“Keep going normie. Armpit deep. Let’s go.”


I keep walking and wade out and look back at Gunnar.


His eyes are bright and warm. His Delta Force cap looks official. His broad shoulders are cut by the rays of sunlight breaking over the palisade. He looks like an angel.


“Thirty more seconds,” he says.


In that moment all manner of things flash before my mind.


My neglect of my health. My neglect of my wife. My neglect of my dreams. All I see is neglect.


The pain is replaced by yearning. Yearning for discipline and purpose.


Maybe I am just a ham-and-egger. Maybe not.


“You want me to fight the big fight, yeah; I’ll fight the big fight…” I think, and realize I am having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.


“Hooah!” I yell.


“That’s right normie. I can’t hear you!”


“Hooah!” I yell again.


“I can’t hear you!”


“Hooah!” I yell with all my might, and the sound of my voice echoes off the palisades and throughout the river valleys of Old Mauch Chunk, and the hills of Sleeping Bear Mountain.

November 04, 2023 03:14

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