Happy new year

Let's take 2005 as an example. Most Americans are likely to remember that year for the Iraq War or the catastrophic hurricane. Those of you with a head for years will remember it for a personal landmark of some kind, or even for the lack thereof. Me, I remember 2005 as being the year that I achieved a personal high-water mark for extraordinary stupidity. Here's what happened:

A friend of mine purchased a new van and shortly thereafter went on tour. His wife was also away, and I didn't have a car, so when I found that I needed one, I went to their house and let myself in with my key. I could see my friend's new van parked on the street nearby.

I searched the house from top to bottom but couldn't find the keys to this van. Checking the van itself, however, I did find that one of the side windows wasn't completely closed, and I was able to pop it open the rest of the way and unlock a back door. Now I searched the van, and after a few minutes I produced a set of keys from the bottom of the unusually deep glove compartment. I thought about my friend — we'll call him Wagner. What kind of guy leaves his keys in his freaking car?

And then I drove off. For a new van — by which I mean a new used van — this vehicle drove kind of badly, but really anything is better than walking in a city in which no one was ever intended to walk, one without sidewalks and with a blistering sun overhead. I did the things I had to do, but, after being without transportation, driving even this crappy van was elating, and so I did a lot of things I didn't have to do as well.

On the second day that I had the van, I was doing something like that — something completely useless and optional — when I saw another friend of mine out in the street. This second friend is also a friend of Wagner's; I pulled up to him, and he stood at the driver's side window talking to me for quite awhile before asking where I'd gotten the van.

"It's Wagner's new van," I said. I was kind of surprised that he didn't already know.

"No, it isn't," my friend told me. "Wagner is touring in his new van."

This news, as it sank in, transformed the timbre of the afternoon from sunny and carefree to experimental dada horror. I'm still not sure what I said to my friend, but I do know that my heart pounded in my ears as I thought of the thirty-five or more hours I had driven this van — which I had apparently stolen, I'd just learned, from absolute strangers — down any street in the city that I pleased. In my imagination, I had been blowing kisses at uniformed cops the entire time and possibly brandishing firearms as well. Now I fought the impulse to leap from the van right then and run in any direction.

"Oh my goodness," I may have said with imaginary nonchalance to my no-longer-present friend after peeling out mid-sentence. "Look at the time." My eyebrows may have moved around my forehead crazily, like Joan Crawford's, while I spoke; I may have then puked out the driver's window while my friend, now over a block away, looked on. Clear memories return to me of buying gas with whatever cash I had on me at a nearby convenience store and then returning the van to the place where I had found it two days before. I toyed with the idea of leaving a note — good god! What would it have said? — before tucking the keys back into the glove box as though nothing had happened at all.

Of course I categorically deny the truth of the above anecdote, the way Hunter S. Thompson denied the historical accuracy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I offer it only as a spectacular, conjectural example of the kind of event by which I might always disbelievingly recall 2005. By what will I remember its replacement, the just-concluding 2006?

Let's review the year.

"That Thing Is Happening Where I Can Hear Myself Talk"

Let's review the year.

Although typically I myself figure as the idiot or the freak in these stories, my friends sometimes pinch hit, as was the case when a friend of mine called his psychiatrist's office recently to make an appointment. A receptionist answered. "Professional Psychiatric Associates" (or whatever), she said.

"I'd like to make a … " my friend said, then stopped, realizing that the connection was one of those in which his cell phone loudly repeated his words back to him a split second after he had spoken. To test the connection he said buh buh buh and got the buh buh buh back an instant later. Then he said, "That thing is happening where I can hear myself talk. I'll call you right back."

My friend hung up and redialed, and when the same receptionist answered ("Professional Psychiatric Associates," she said again), he said, "I just talked to you a second ago. I need to make an appointment."

"OK," the receptionist said, now suddenly more engaged, "but if you need immediate help, I can get a nurse on the line right away."

In this case a fuller explanation was all that was needed. Another friend picked me up at the airport last summer, though, and in this second case I fear that I won't live long enough to ever comprehend what was going through her mind. This friend got lost on her way to the short-term parking exit and followed an arrow on a sign marked EXIT into a row that was clearly closed for minor construction or repairs. I assumed that she would turn around — wouldn't you? — and it thus surprised me when instead she proceeded over two orange traffic cones and off a one- or two-foot drop, and then drove over more cones coming out of the construction area on the other side. Nothing in my friend's manner indicated that she sensed any problems: she looked kind of serene, in fact, like someone who was about to say, "So tell me all about your trip!" She still maintained a constant speed, as she had right through the construction site, despite the fact that two of the cones were now lodged beneath the car and that we were dragging them along underneath us.

Since my friend didn't bring any of this up, I didn't either; we were like a pair of surrealists playing a variation on Chicken. "What are your plans for later on tonight?" I asked.

One of the cones disengaged itself and spun out from under the back of the car as we approached the attendant's booth.

"I'm not sure," she said.

As my friend began to roll her window down to deal with the worried attendant she pointed in the general direction of the remaining cone and said, "Could you dig that thing out for me?"

"Oh, sure," I said. I did — it was smashed into a kind of comma shape — and that's the only time the topic has ever come up.

Shotgun

Compared with past years in which I inadvertently stole cars, I had a tame 2006. Maybe my worst lapse of judgment was agreeing one night at the Anchor to give a ride home to a woman none of us knew. This woman — we'll call her Dolores — made a hit with us right away by calling shotgun as we walked to my car; once we were driving, she initiated a phone call to her sister so incredible ("I never meant to hit you, woman") that my backseat passenger held a voice recorder a few inches from her face, more or less in plain sight, to capture it.

At the Anchor, Dolores had found me and my friends Sarah and Amy to be "hoity-toity" — she said so is how I know — so when Sarah saw Dolores the next night at Club Indigo, she was compelled to text-message Amy to tell her that she was there. When Sarah sent the message, she accidentally entered Amy's home number rather than her cell number, and her phone responded by saying something like, "Thank you for using Sprint text-to-voice messaging"; "Whatever that means," Sarah thought. Meanwhile Amy, the message's intended recipient, answered her ringing landline at home and was terrified to hear an electronically-generated female voice — one of those scary, weirdly-inflected computer voices — say, as though issuing a warning, "Do-lor-es is here." She looked around the room involuntarily. Dolores is here.

2006 had another fun stranger in store for me. I was waiting for a friend to come down and let me into his apartment building one morning when a voice behind me said, "How're you doing, shit-for-brains?"

I expected that I might at least recognize whoever had addressed me in this way and clearly the man I found when I turned around had expected to recognize me, too. "Do I know you?" I asked.

The guy stuck his hand out for me to shake while scrutinizing me. "I guess not," he said.

He held on to my hand and kept staring into my face as though I might be trying to pull something over on him.

"I thought you were someone else," he said at last.

He stared a minute longer. I wondered if he were somehow drunk already; it was something like ten.

"OK, then," he said. "Good."

An Italian Scapegoat

Which isn't to say that I'm not the occasional shit-for-brains. One 2006 morning my friend Taco the Italian greyhound and I were in bed watching television when I remembered that I needed to place a call. I picked up the remote control for the TV and dialed the number into it; as the stations on the TV changed according to my apparent wishes, I looked disdainfully at Taco. Clearly she was lying on the remote control. "Damn it, Taco," I told her. After the call I would fish around in the blankets, I knew, and Taco would make me feel guilty for disrupting her. She gazed at me the same as always as I put the remote up to my ear.

First Response

Throughout the summer of 2006, a sign on a business on I-135 in north Wichita read HOT FOREMAN WANTED . Heat brings with it dehydration; that, combined with a lack of sleep, was the eventual explanation for the year's most outrageous behavior, perpetrated by a friend whom we'll call Pete.

I visited Pete at his house one day last summer when, unbeknownst to me, he was suffering from the above condition, and my visit was proceeding as normal when Pete suddenly asked if I would mind having a look at one of his trees. Sure, I told him, and he guided me to a window and pointed to a specific spot high in an elm that grows in the little yard between his house and his neighbors'.

This is where it got interesting. "Now, see that head up there?" Pete asked.

"Head?" I said.

"The human head. Right there."

If you could have disregarded the content of what he was saying, Pete looked and acted pretty much as he always does; the problem was that this content was getting harder to disregard by the minute. I asked for more information, and now it all came out. The head, Pete explained, was actually only a holograph ("Look, it's talking and laughing now"), and it was being projected into the treetop by the kid up there with it. He indicated the child's location, not as though he were pointing something out to me but as though we were both looking at the same thing. If you looked hard enough, Pete continued, you found children like this one everywhere.

It was broad daylight, and this was a situation without gray areas of any kind: there were no head and no child in the tree. I tried to play it off as a joke, but Pete was sure of himself; as proof he specified the color of the kids' camouflage: chartreuse.

"When did you last sleep?" I asked him.

"Would you believe me if I went out and talked to him?" he said.

Against my urgent advice, Pete did go out and, in plain sight of the neighbors, looked straight up and directed half a conversation into the tree.

Pete eventually drank a lot of water and got some sleep, and the results of the inevitable CAT-scan and M.R.I. revealed only that the sleep must have been very badly needed. But there was more to come after I left that day, and Pete came clean about this last part only much later.

Who could blame him? It seems that, rather than napping, Pete had been in his backyard monitoring the behavior of a "midget" — his word — later that afternoon, and that this midget was of course using the tunnel that connected Pete's backyard to the one next door. As Pete stood watching, the tunnel collapsed with the midget inside of it, and Pete, horrified, leapt to the rescue; otherwise, he explained, the midget would have suffocated underground.

According to the well-rested Pete, he had at the time believed that everyone knew about this tunnel — and that helps to explain the indignation with which he greeted the policeman, who had pulled up in the alley in a cruiser as Pete stood furiously digging with his hands in the lawn.

"Do you want to come over here and tell me what's going on?" the policeman asked Pete from inside the cruiser once he had gotten Pete's attention.

"Do you want to come help me dig this fucking midget out before he dies? " Pete replied.

I'll always cherish the thought of Pete's conversation with a policeman on that summer afternoon, but then for me all the best conversations spring up out of terrain as uncertain as this: one party literally awestruck by the callousness of law enforcement — because isn't a midget just as valuable as the rest of us? — and the other rendered… what's the word I want here? "quizzical"? by the sight of Pete clawing like a dog at the ground in his own backyard. That's what I'll always remember when I think of 2006.

Happy new year!