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Tin Can Mental Contagion
Opening the Can: Publishing in 125,000 Easy Steps
by Gene Dillon


“I got ideas … but they’re all bigger than me.”

JB and I are having coffee and hard-boiled eggs in the dining room. I boiled a dozen.  They’re still warm, sitting in a bright red bowl in the center of the table. We have this one thing in common—when we break hard-boiled eggs, we crack them right on the surface of the wood, and then press down and roll them, crunching to loosen up the shells. I try to match him egg for egg, but he peels too fast and doesn’t seem to care if he eats a piece of shell. I worry about cuts and scrapes in my esophagus, especially near the pyloric valve, so my egg’s gotta be pristine.

JB eyes me with a mixture of suspicion and pity. “You haven’t penned anything in over a month. What’s goin’ on in your life?”

“I dunno,” I reply. “My uncle passed away. The first of my nieces and nephews got married. An unusual number of butterflies and moths keep smacking into my windshield.  Really big ones, too... I had to scrape the whole thing with a razor blade last week, it was so disgusting.”

“Oh, well,” he grunts and stretches. “Too bad you got nothin’ to write about. Wanna go for a hike?”

“Sure.” I like to salt my egg and then bite it in half, and then salt it again and finish it. JB doesn’t put anything on his, and he places the entire egg into his mouth and commences to chewing on both sides of his mouth until it’s gone, cracking his next egg while he chews. There’s nothing left to put back into the fridge. He has beaten me, eight to four. Bits of shell, large and small, are strewn all over the table, among a few grains of salt. I should have brought out some plates. I wipe the shells and salt off the edge of the table into the empty bowl with my hand. Michelle wouldn’t like this. But she isn’t here. She took the kids to the pool at the rec-center.

We drain our coffee cups, and refill them for the drive up to the trailhead. I’m adding a lot of soy milk these days. The esophagus… Is it stress? Or too much coffee and eggs? What do I have to be stressed out about? I could stress out about worrying about getting stressed out. I’m not trying that hard to deal with it anymore. And that bothers me. I seem to remember that the solution to all of this is rather simple, and easier than I usually think it is.

JB wants to go to Eldorado Springs, and I can’t talk him out of it. The trail is too steep, and I just ate. Anyway, I’m not going to keep pace with him this time. I like the hiking, but I have no interest in breathing hard and sweating. He likes climbing too, and he likes to mess around without any gear, using nothing but his fingertips and toes. He’s a nut. But he’s in good company out here in Colorado. I’m still getting over a childhood defined not by physical activity, but by shared television experiences with family and friends. The things we watched! Talk about adventure…

As expected, JB moves ahead at a clip about twice that of my own. See ya later, pal. Higher and higher we go, back and forth up the switchbacks, over small boulders and the fat roots of crooked trees. It’s hot and dry, and hotter still. We should have headed up earlier. Blood rushing to my extremities, my face is the color of a freshly cut steak, and I feel steam rising from the roots of my hair. Sweat-rings don’t stand a chance on a shirt out here; not on a day like this. The outer eighth of an inch of my entire body is sublimating gradually up through the dry needles of the ponderosa pines.

JB has been gone from my sight for more than 15 minutes. I don’t even hear his footsteps anymore. Wait, there he is. He’s climbing a massive boulder, some 20 feet in diameter, and very nearly round. He finds his way up its side by the little moss-filled cracks, scaling a section of the rock that is curving backward beyond vertical. I don’t know climbing terminology, nor have I ever had the stomach to watch serious climbers doing what they do, but I had always assumed this particular feat was impossible for, say, humans. I’ve just been struggling up a grade of perhaps seven or eight degrees, in comparison to the 110-degree challenge JB was meeting.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I had to ask.

Of course he was unable to look back or to break his concentration. “Funny thing about a mountain. Sometimes you find yourself strolling on a nice easy stretch of flat ground. Other times you find yourself hanging by your fingertips.” He lets go with his right hand for some sort of literary effect, now dangling and swaying, held aloft by just three remaining fingers of his left hand, as he peers over his right shoulder to look me in the eye. “But the mountain, it’s just there. It’s not going anywhere.”

He’s been talking like this ever since I realized that most of my writing submissions would not receive responses for several months. Ever since “nothing” became the answer to every question people asked me about what is going on in my life. Ever since I entertained my very first thoughts about giving up this whole mess. People say to me, “You’ll always be driven to write. You won’t be able to help yourself. Like John Lee Hooker’s mama tellin’ his papa that the blues is in him, and it’s got to come out.” But I have to be perfectly honest with you. It would be easy… Stopping… I could just stop…

I’m tired of waiting. I feel no sense of worth.

I decide to finish JB’s sermon for him. “And sometimes you walk up that mountain at a steady pace, and sometimes you run like hell, and sometimes, you stop to smell the columbines, or to take on a little challenge along the w—”

Suddenly JB loses his grip on the mossy little crevice in the boulder and falls from about ten feet up, landing flat on his back and hitting the back of his head with a crack on something hard upon the ground.


I rush to his side, “Are you okay? Shit! You’re head’s bleeding. Can you move? Wait, maybe you shouldn’t move. Uh… I’ll run down and get some help. Did you bring your cell? Mine’s in the car. Oh, crap—”

“Carry me,” he winces feebly. “I want … you to … carry … mmmpph … me … up to the top … of this mountain.”

“Dude,” I protest, “You’re gonna die if I do that. Probably me too. I need to get you to a hospital, and if you have a spinal cord injury, I shouldn’t—“

“To the top!” he cries, fighting back tears of pain. “Bring me to the top!

“I can’t do that, man,” I tell him. “Listen, if you really think you’re okay, I can help you walk back down, but I’m not bringing you farther away from medical help. You have to—“

“Aw, forget it,” he says, and he stands up straight and starts dusting himself off, like nothing happened. He’s a tad concerned about the blood soaking his hair and flowing down the back of his neck. “You really think I should get checked out?”

“I don’t know,” I respond. “It’s your head, not mine. Wait. I know how to tell if you have a concussion.” I hold up my two index fingers side by side, and tell him to follow the movements of my fingers with his eyes, without moving his head. I do this for about thirty seconds, moving my fingers in wide circles and figure 8’s. As soon as I’m somewhat satisfied that he’s okay, I move the two fingers right up close to his nose, and then I rip them apart from each other in a quick, violent motion, which nearly causes his eyeballs to pop out of his skull.

JB is impressed.

We hike back down, and drive to Boulder Medical Center, JB in the passenger seat, holding a filthy, greasy, car-trunk towel to the back of his head.

Mental Contagion
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