The Real Estate Solution

By Zach Coulter

Sometimes being a smart kid can make for being a very stupid adult. When I was 26 I decided to become rich. I was very stupid.

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Stray Cat

Here’s the narrative that I tell every new therapist I’ve ever had in my imagination (I can’t afford therapy) – my childhood was just lovely in a skinned knees with tube socks sorta way. My memories come shoebox-packed, golden-hewed like a stack of aging Polaroids* and so on and so forth. Seriously though, it was good. Mom and Dad loved each other and they loved the kids and they eventually let us keep a stray cat who’s buried in the front garden now. Sure, at times there was a little more month than money, but what did I care as long as Mom could get me a new GI Joe guy every once in awhile?

I was a kid who did well in school and made friends easily. I scored in the 93rd percentile on the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Life was sweet.

SIDE NOTE: A paragraph ago, when I was trying to pull the term “Polaroid” from my temporal lobe it just kept spitting out “Instagram” over and over. There’s a lot of sadness buried in that statement. END SIDE NOTE

And then, when I was 20, my brain broke. Or something. This is where I would go on to tell my imagination therapist that in my sophomore year of college I became extremely depressed. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t think it was appropriate to do anything because only weak people seek help for problems that EXIST ONLY IN THEIR BRAINS (emphasis mine).

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Sad Carpenter

So I started running. I was afraid and broken and I blamed college and ran away from it. Then I blamed a couple more colleges and I ran away from those too. Then I decided the whole concept of “college” was to blame and became a carpenter to do something “real.” Then I was a depressed carpenter for about 5 years.

Here’s where things get dicey. I usually don’t tell imagination therapists this part until our 5th or 6th meeting.

At some point you get better at functioning with a broken brain, right? I mean, I’m no mental health expert but I’m at least an advanced beginner at understanding my own neural bologna and I know that I got better at dealing with depression because I didn’t spend nearly as many days being a depressed carpenter in bed. Things got a little better.

So there I was, a 26 year old journeyman carpenter with depressive tendencies and a metric shit ton to prove. My friends were all going off to law school and starting to get married. I had to start winning blue ribbons again! If I didn’t accomplish something amazing in the next few months/weeks/days/hours I would risk being found out as someone who’d failed at everything, most notably happiness.

There should be some kind of a psych profile required to get a real estate license but there’s not.Image So I got one. This was the tail end of the last boom. Remember booms? They were these neat periods of time when everything increased in value forever until they stopped, reversed, spiralled back to earth and landed with a resounding thwap. Booms are super awesome. The end of booms super suck.

SIDE NOTE: It’s been said that we are in the midst of another comedy boom. Given that I have now cast my lot with the rest of the joke slingers we can be confident that said boom will come to an end sometime VERY soon (certainly before I make it to network television (actually, now that I think about it, the fact that I even want to be on network television is one of the surest signs of network television’s imminent demise)).

“Remember network television?”

“Huh?” END SIDE NOTE.

So I got my license and hung my shingle. My business plan went something like “Hey, I’m a charming fella who knows how to build a 3-season porch, why shouldn’t dozens (or better yet hundreds/thousands!) of people trust me with the biggest financial transaction they’ve ever been a party to? At least that’s how I wrote the business plan in my imagination, it never actually made it onto paper. I was gonna be rich for sure.

To supplement my 90 hours of realtor education I obsessively watched episodes of The Apprentice and learned to spray starch on my JCPenney shirt collars. I yearned to be one of them, one of the shiny, clean, handsome gladiators in Trump’s arena. I wanted to sell the MOST cupcakes to reluctant New Yorkers. I was so, so stupid.

I hung on for about 2 years. In that time I managed to sell a few cupcakes, but not nearly enough to keep pace with my rapidly expanding starch expenses. It started to became clear that I was in over my head. I was like a 90-pound weakling who decides it’s time to get buff, reads a book on weight lifting then struts his way over to the bench, loads 350 pounds on the bar and dies of a crushed windpipe.

It’s super hard to lead a first-time home buyer seminar with a crushed windpipe.

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Underbrush on Fire

The way to think of market corrections is that they are like the forest fires that come through every once in a while to burn off the undergrowth so that the mighty oaks can sell more condos/cupcakes. Or something. I was undergrowth. When the bubble burst I got burned, and so did all of my income and savings. I went broke – and not the fun, romantic kind of broke. I was more, like, repossession and searching in the couch cushions for change to go buy generic pasta for dinner broke. I felt really, really stupid. It sucked.

Sometimes our brains tell us that it’s a great idea to do very stupid things, like sell real estate or perform standup comedy. Sometimes our brains are stupid and we need to find ways to outsmart them, but sometimes we don’t and knowing the difference is the secret to a happy life.

At least that’s what all my therapists have told me.

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Zach Coulter is a standup comedian from Minneapolis. He is also one-half of the comedy hip-hop duo Valley Meadows. His mom has never seen him rap before and he hopes it stays that way.

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Round of Applause

By Patrick Hueller

During the last three or four years of elementary school, I wanted to be a professional clown.

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Pro Clown

You read that right: professional.

My red nose was made of foam, not plastic; it came with a special adhesive. My wig wasn’t one of those cheapo rainbow deals; it was a special type of rubber that blended perfectly with my skin and made me look bald but for the red hair sprouting out the sides. The little hat that fastened on top was yellow and had been molded like a cast; it had a bird perched precariously on the brim.

I don’t really know why I wanted to be a clown, but I know there was some sort of freedom in becoming somebody else. The personal anonymity of clowns made their purpose, to entertain huge crowds of people, somehow more pure. Or something.

In any case, I took clowning around seriously. I was willing to work for it.

I spent an entire Christmas Break learning to juggle (behind the back, between the legs).

I spent an entire Spring Break learning basic magic tricks (vanishing handkerchief, string stratagems, etc.).

One of my favorite “jokes” was to say something deserved a round of applause, then to clap frantically in a circular motion.

If my parents were alarmed by my choice of career, they didn’t show it. In fact, they encouraged me. Maybe this had to do with their faith that this was just a phase—a long phase, to be sure, but in the long run still temporary.

Or maybe their support was founded, at least in part, on pride. After all, as impractical as my career goals were—I fully planned on going to clown college!—I went about achieving them in an altogether practical way. I fully planned on going to clown college! In the meantime, all of my allowance money—for three-plus years—was spent at Twin Cities Magic and Costume Company. For birthdays and Christmases, I asked exclusively for clowning-related items. These gifts were not meant to be extras, add-ons to a “normal” gift list. They were the list.

And for the most part, I was able to check each and every item off said list.

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Flower Squirter

Camera and flower squirters?

Oversize glasses?

Slightly oversize white gloves (but not too oversize because I still needed to be able to juggle)?

Check, check, and check.

The only thing they wouldn’t buy me, or allow me to buy myself, were the leather oversize shoes. Again their reasons had to do with practicality. The shoes cost hundreds of dollars, and I’d grow out of them in a matter of months. Maybe they’d get them for me as a clown college graduation present, I reasoned. By then, my feet would have stopped growing. In any case, I had to make peace with Wal-Mart-bought, one-size-fits-all plastic shoes, which looked cheap and inauthentic to me but which my parents correctly pointed out looked plenty official to my classmates.

At this point you might be thinking that this is a story about childhood social suicide. That kids greeted my round of applause “joke” with insults and the wrong kind of laughter.

But it’s not and they didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think kids were particularly amused by me. To say they accepted my clowning ambitions would be an overstatement.

If anything, they didn’t really care one way or the other.

For one thing, I didn’t actually put on the clown gear all that much. For Halloween, of course, and for a few school sponsored raffle-ticket type events. But that was pretty much it.

Besides, I think adults sometimes forget how weird all kids are—and how unimpressed they can therefore be with other kids’ weirdness. This isn’t always the case, I realize. Some kids have it rough right from the get-go. But many others don’t. And—maybe because I was fairly good at sports, which never in the history of humankind hurt anyone’s social standing—I was one of the kids who had something goofy about them but don’t get called out for it.

Another way of saying this is that kids are often totally indifferent about differences and weirdnesses . . . until they aren’t. At some point, usually when kids stop being kids and start being teenagers, differences become everything.

Which is what I discovered when I wore the clown suit again.

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High School, where this is okay, but not clowns.

In high school.

The day after Halloween.

Which, believe it or not, was intentional. I was a junior, I think, and got the idea to don the costume as I strolled the halls on Halloween. By then, I and most of my classmates didn’t wear Halloween costumes anymore, but there were a handful of kids who did. I remember in particular a guy showing up as former quarterback and current NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw. Along with wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, he had shaved a giant bald spot onto his head. The costume was a hit, and got me thinking about my bald clown wig. That night, I excavated the entire costume from some dusty boxes in the crawl space. 

What I didn’t yet fully appreciate, I realize now, is the difference between a class clown and a real clown.

When I showed up the next day at school, I was under the impression that I was making the same joke as the Terry Bradshaw guy. The fact that it was the day after Halloween, or that the suit itself was way too small and gave me a giant wedgie, just made the punch line that much funnier. Right?

Wrong.

This time, unlike in my childhood, I was razzed and ridiculed. I was avoided and ostracized. Even people who knew me—I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t unpopular—didn’t know what to do with me. They said I looked weird, freaky, even creepy. This reaction had something to do with clown phobia, but it was also a product of my authenticity: there were no visible strings or staples. No matter how poorly they fit, I was dressed head-to-toe in a real clown clothes. The cast-mold had, the rubber bald spot, the foam nose, the oversize-but-not-too-oversize white gloves—they all added up, apparently, to: creeper.

Of course, I wasn’t actually dressed head-to-toe in professional duds. My oversize shoes were made of the same plastic as a party cup. I couldn’t make it two steps without someone “accidentally” stomping on them.

“Sorry, man. By the way, Halloween was yesterday.”        

Every time my shoes got crushed, I’d take them off and carefully un-crush them with my hand. Seconds later, someone else would stomp on them all over again.

I don’t know why I kept un-crushing them, exactly. For some reason, it felt like a point of pride. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so I was stuck as a clown. Fixing those shoes made me feel like I was something more than the butt of the joke—like I was still telling my own joke, even if no one else got the punch line.

Truthfully, I don’t think I got the punch line myself.

Luckily, others did. The guy who wore the Terry Steinbach costume, for instance: I later learned that he thought I and my costume were a laugh riot. It wasn’t just the costume, either. The fact that I had a wedgie, and that I kept fixing those crushed shoes, and that I was doing this the day after Halloween: it was all comedy gold, according to him and his friends. I was introduced to Andy Kaufman’s comedic cons, and Orson Welles’ War of the World radio hoax, and mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap. On the day of the premiere of Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s first mockumentary since Waiting for Guffman, I and my new group of friends showed up at school dressed as Guffman characters, and everyone else at school seemed to agree that we were hilarious.

I’m almost thirty now, and while I no longer have any interest in being a literal clown, a couple days a week I do stand-up comedy. Often, I play a character on stage who’s entirely different from me. He wears glasses—not oversize ones but they are missing their lenses. He’s nervous in a way that I’m not and often breathes heavily into the microphone. Audiences frequently don’t know what to do with this character, but that’s okay.

Someday, I’m certain I’ll get a round of applause.

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Patrick Hueller has an MFA from the University of Minnesota. His short fiction has appeared in such publications as Midwestern Gothic and Blink Again: Sudden Fiction from the Upper Midwest. Some of his humor pieces have been published by Feathertale and The Yellow Ham. Under the pen name Paul Hoblin, he’s written several acclaimed YA books, including Foul, a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and The Beast, a Junior Library Guild Selection (Darby Creek). He’s against instant replay in sports.

Kung Fu Romeo

By Dennis Cass

When I was in fifth grade I had two loves: a girl in my class named Lainee Richards and my Kung Fu lunchbox.

ImageWhy did I love Lainee Richards? I have no idea. I was ten. All I know is that there was something about the way she wore a denim vest over a white turtleneck that made me want to ride my bike back and forth in front her of house again and again and again.

I loved my Kung Fu lunchbox because was it based on the television series Kung Fu.

One day, during lunch, I decided to talk to Lainee. She and her best friend Cheri were hanging out at the edge of the playground. Lainee’s smile seemed to float in air, a radiant crescent of pure effervescence. Cheri was wearing culottes.

I walked up to where they were standing and stood there for a while. Then, with the hope of getting Lainee to like me, I started to tease her best friend. I called Cheri names and made fun of her haircut. Cheri responded by kicking me in the shins. I kicked back. She kicked back. I kicked back. She kicked back. I kicked back. She kicked back and then—much to my surprise—started to mix in some punches. So I hit her in the face with my Kung Fu lunchbox.

That afternoon my teacher sent me home with the following set of instructions:

1. Tell your mother or father what you did wrong and why you’re sorry.

2. Have your mother or father write a note that captures, if not the exact words, then at least the essence of your apology.

3. Sign this newly created document and then have your mother or father countersign.

4. Bring your signed confession back to school the next day for Cheri’s inspection and approval.

That night I presented my mother with a tablet of yellow lined paper and a black ballpoint pen. I told her that we were studying handwriting analysis in class the next day and asked her to please put her signature on the yellow pad. Somewhere in the middle would be best. Or perhaps even a bit lower down on the page in case I decided to gather more samples.

My mother asked me what was going on. I told her nothing was going on. She asked again. This time the tone of her voice suggested that she already knew exactly what was going on. I had better come clean or else.

I broke down crying. In between racking sobs I told her about my fight with Cheri. My mother didn’t seem too concerned about the fight or about Cheri’s face. She was more upset by my attempt to cheat her out of a note from home. Did I not see the ridiculousness of my story about fifth graders studying handwriting analysis? Did I think she was so gullible as to sign a blank piece of paper? Did I not realize my teacher would recognize my handwriting on the forged note?

These were all excellent points, but I was also confused. Was I in trouble for hitting my classmate or for not being better at tricking people?

While my mother waited for my response my thoughts drifted back to what happened on the playground. I remembered:

The hurt look on Cheri’s face when I first called her a name.

Her defiance as she started kicking me in the shins.

Her dawning fear as I retaliated with my own kicks. (Was I was going to beat her up?)

Her shocked expression after being hit in the face with a lunchbox.

I imagined what this whole incident must have been like for Cheri. Having been bullied myself I knew exactly how she felt. I offered an apology to my mother, but it was meant for Cheri. I understood—perhaps for the first time in my life—that I had done something bad, rather than simply having been caught at doing something bad.

After I stopped crying my mom and I sat down and wrote the note. I don’t remember what it said or what happened when I gave the note to Cheri the next day. I only know that my contrition was sincere and that the path forward was clear. In the future I would do my best to be a good boy. I would do my best to be a good boy and I would only use my Kung Fu lunchbox for what it was designed to do: transporting food from home to school and making you feel as if you belonged to something bigger than yourself.

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DENNIS CASS IS A WRITER WHOSE WORK HAS APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, MOTHER JONES AND THE ONLINE JOURNAL SLATE. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF HEAD CASE: HOW I ALMOST LOST MY MIND TRYING TO UNDERSTAND MY BRAIN (HARPERCOLLINS). DENNIS HAS ALSO WORKED AS A LITERARY AGENT, A COPYWRITER, AND ADJUNCT PROFESSOR AT CARLETON COLLEGE, WHERE HE TEACHES CREATIVE NONFICTION. HE LIVES IN MINNEAPOLIS WITH HIS WIFE AND SON AND WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY.