The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 6, 2011

An Example to Others: A Short Story

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:57 am

Image credit: Flickr user Kol Tregaskes, Creative Commons

It was a lovely summer day as I took my customary stroll through the park.  From the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the weather, as the park was full of people walking around, playing in the grass, or just lying down in the shade of one of the park’s many trees.  For my part, I wasn’t paying much attention to any of it, and I mostly just wandered along the paths that cut through the grassy areas, halfway lost in my own thoughts, occasionally pausing to take notice of something that happened to catch my eye.

Suddenly, I was snapped out of this state by the sudden notice of what appeared to be a commotion around the fountain in the center of the park.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell what was going on, but I could see that a crowd was beginning to gather.  Slowly I approached the scene, not wanting to get involved in anything that could result in trouble, but as I approached, I could see the crowd continuing to gather.  As I got closer to the fountain, I still couldn’t see what was going on, but unless my eyes were deceiving me, it appeared that there was actually someone who was trying to climb up on top of the fountain.  By the time I arrived at the scene, quite the crowd had gathered.

Sure enough, as I looked on the scene, I saw that the man I had seen earlier had now climbed up to the top of the fountain, fully clothed, and was now standing on what was surely a precarious perch at the top, seemingly oblivious to the torrents of flying water splashing around him.  There wasn’t any indication that the man was drunk or otherwise a danger to anyone there, but he also didn’t seem to be up on top of the fountain for any particular reason that anyone could see.  It almost seemed as though he was waiting for the still-increasing crowds to gather before he set out to do…  Well, whatever it is that people standing on the tops of fountains in busy parks do.  Which could be anything really. Clearly nobody here had any idea what was going on, except that there was a man of indeterminate sanity who was  already doing one crazy thing, and seemed to have the potential for more.  For all anyone there knew, that thing could be anything from a sermon to a sales pitch.

It quickly became apparent that we weren’t in for either as suddenly, the man began to lose his balance on the narrow top of the fountain.  His arms flailed in circles as he tried to prevent what now seemed like an inevitable fall, as a collective gasp came up from the accumulated crowd surrounding the fountain.  At least three or four times he seemed to rock back in forth trying to find a balance point, but he soon lost the battle with gravity, and following a short flailing descent he made a thoroughly ungraceful bellyflop into the shallow water below. A number of unwitting spectators now found themselves unexpectedly drenched by the fall, but a couple of the people closest to the landing point quickly looked into the fountain to assess the situation, prepared to administer aid. In spite of this, within a couple of seconds of impact the man began to stand up, and staggered to his feet.  Upon seeing this, the crowd that had gathered around the fountain quickly dispersed, some bemused, some indignant, and others just plain soaked.  The closest onlookers went through the cursory “Are you all right?” routine that generally happens in situations like this, but the man waved them off, and shortly they too dispersed back into their usual sunny day park routine.

With most of the bystanders now dispersed, the man climbed out of the fountain, and casually began to walk away from the scene with just the slightest hint of a limp, his drenched clothing leaving a dripping trail of moisture behind him.  At this point, I had yet to fully comprehend what had just transpired here, other than the fact that someone just climbed up on top of a fountain and promptly managed to fall off of it in less-than-graceful fashion.  And yet, somehow I found myself intrigued by what had just happened.  Following a brief argument in my head between self- preservation and morbid curiosity, I found myself following toward this man and trying to catch up.  After a brief and completely undramatic chase, I caught up to him as he picked up a towel stashed behind a nearby bush next to a pile of dry clothes.  Although I made an effort to try to be discreet, this proved futile as the man quickly noticed my presence. 

Not wanting to make this any more awkward than it had already become, I searched for something to say.  Finding myself short on better ideas, I asked “Are you OK?”

“Oh, nothing that won’t heal eventually,” the man replied as he began to towel off.

“Do you have any idea what you were just doing out there?  You could easily have gotten yourself hurt.”

“Why yes, I am aware of that,” the man replied.  “But I try not to make a habit of it.”

By now, I wasn’t sure whether this guy was trying to be some sort of daredevil, if he was high on something, or if he was just plain out of his mind.  So far, the latter two seemed unlikely, and I wasn’t exactly sure about the first one either.

“Well, maybe if you wouldn’t climb up on top of fountains in the middle of a busy park you’d have an easier time of it.”  I replied.

“Of course,” the man replied.  “But that’s not the point.”  By now, I had no idea at all what was going on here.

“Then what IS the point?  As far as I can tell, all you seem to be doing here is looking for attention.”

“In a sense, yes.  Well, sort of.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.”  For a man who seemed to have no talent for dancing atop a public fountain, he sure seemed to have plenty of skill in dancing around my questions.

“Well then, what exactly are you doing here then?  Are you trying to be some sort of daredevil or something?”

“Of course not.  I’m just trying to be an example to others.”  The answer actually shocked me a bit, and a several seconds of silence ensued before I could respond. 

 “An example?  What are you trying to do, kill someone?”

“I didn’t say I was trying to be a GOOD example,” the man replied.  “Just that I was trying to be an example.”

“So you’re actually TRYING to be a bad example then?”

“Exactly.”

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what kind of answer I had been looking for when I engaged in this ill-advised conversation in the first place, but now that I had it, I was no closer to understanding what was going on in the first place.  Once again, I paused, looking for words that just didn’t seem to be there.

“I suppose I should explain,” the man continued before I could come up with a response.  “It’s not that I’m trying to make people do bad things, it’s that I’m trying to make them NOT do bad things.”

“You mean, you’re doing bad things so other people don’t do them?”

“Yes.”

“Well OK, but that still doesn’t explain why you need to climb up on top of a fountain and fall off in front of a park full of people.”  To be honest, I don’t even know why I was still arguing this point, but something seemed to compel me to try to get to the bottom of this.

“Well look at it this way,” the man continued.  “Let’s say you’re doing something really stupid like climbing up on top of a fountain in the middle of a busy park.  You’re going to get a bunch of people’s attention, and they’re gonna’  want to see something happen.  Maybe they want to see the crazy guy dance around on top of a fountain and generally just act like a fool.  Maybe they want to see the guy fall off and get hurt.  Maybe they want to see the cops show up and arrest the guy.  One way or another, they want to see something happen.  See, if you’re just looking for attention, you get up there, maybe dance around for a bit, maybe try juggling some stuff if you’ve got it, and then you get down and walk off, and maybe a few of them will remember some crazy guy dancing in the fountain at the park one day, but in the end, you end up being just another act, and nobody gives it much thought after that.  You can have the cops show up and drag you off, and that’ll probably get the point across to most people, but then all you’re doing is making a big mess for yourself.  You see, the trick is to go get up on top of the fountain, wait for the crowds to show up, and then when everyone is watching you’ve gotta’ make the whole thing a bad idea, and you’ve gotta’ make it a bad idea in a hurry.  The quickest way to do that is to make it look like you slipped or something, flail around wildly for a bit up there, then fall off.  You’ve gotta’ make it look painful, you’ve gotta’ sell it a bit, but you don’t want to overdo it to the point that you actually hurt yourself.  Ideally, you wanna’ make it look like you got what you deserved for doing stupid stuff, but that you dodged the consequences.  That way you’ll make people think twice about doing the stuff.”  Clearly this guy had put a whole lot more thought into the fine art of fountain-based misadventure than I ever imagined possible.  And still, I couldn’t figure out any of it.

 “OK, that’s all fine and good, but what does falling off of fountains have to do with being an example to others?”

“Think about it,” the man replied without missing a beat.  “Let’s say there were 50 people watching the fountain stunt back there.  After seeing me fall off that fountain and look like a fool in the process, how many of those people do you think are going to want to go climb up on fountains now?”

“Well, none,” I replied.

“Exactly.  And if I just went around all the time and stayed away from fountains, none of those people would be any wiser about the dangers of fountain climbing.  In that case, who’s to say that someone wouldn’t just go merrily climbing up on top of a fountain, falling off and getting themselves killed?  I mean, someone has to think about these things.”  Admittedly, even though his reasoning seemed to be completely nonsensical, I had to admit that I really couldn’t argue with his logic.

“OK, I think I see your point, but isn’t the whole thing just a bit, well…  specific?”

“Well, I am a bit of a specialist in the field.  I tend to stick mostly to pratfall and misadventure these days.  There aren’t a lot of guys working in this area anymore, and to be honest I can’t say I blame ’em.”

“Wait, you mean to say that there’s other people going around doing this stuff too?”

“Well yeah, but most of the guys who get into the field nowdays seem to head straight for drunkenness and debauchery.  They all seem to think it’s the “cool” way to go, but it never ends well.  Most of ’em just end up making a big mess outa’ themselves, which would be bad enough by itself, but then the kids see it, and suddenly they all think it’s cool too and start doing it themselves, which just makes the whole thing pointless.”

“So let me get this straight.  If I’m hearing what you’re saying correctly, then there are people out there who are deliberately setting bad examples out there to try to convince people that it’s a bad idea?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“But what’s the point? Is there some sort of organization or something?”

“Well, it’s not really anything formal, but you might say that.  Mostly it’s just a few guys who get together at the bar every so often and brainstorm to come up with lots of bad ideas.  Most of them end up being either too dangerous or just too off-the-wall, but every so often someone comes up with something that’s just crazy enough to work.”

“And then you go out and put those bad ideas into action?”

“Well, not exactly.  It’s not just a matter of going out and playing in traffic or getting yourself lost in the woods.  It takes all sorts of planning to pull these things off properly.  For example, you can’t just bellyflop into six inches of water without knowing what you’re doing unless you want to earn yourself a trip to the Emergency Room.  And even then, you never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve gotta’ be really careful about this stuff.”

As the conversation continued, I think I finally began to understand, to at least some extent, what was going on here, but still had a lot more questions than I had answers.  After another brief pause, I replied:

“I had no idea that it took so much effort just to be a bad example.  But after all that, wouldn’t it just be easier to be a good example instead?”

The man paused for a second, then glanced down at his watch.  “You know, I’d love to chat a little longer, but I’ve got a fireworks mishap on the other side of town in an hour and a half, and then I’ve gotta’ get ready to go “accidentally” wander into the monkey cage at the zoo tomorrow.  And I still need to change out of these wet clothes too.  Perhaps we can get together sometime next week for a couple of beers and a sucker bet or two?”  As he said this, he fished into his pocket and pulled out a soggy business card, which he handed to me.

 “Um…  Sure.  I’ll call when I get the chance.” I replied, not sure whether or not I actually should.

“OK, sounds good.  Oh, and by the way, I also do parties and weddings.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied as I began to walk away.  On that note, the man quickly disappeared behind the bushes, off to attend to whatever other ill-advised duties he had planned for this day.  Shortly afterward, I once again found myself standing next to the fountain as the people in the park went about their business, most only vaguely aware of the earlier “mishap” that had happened here, or at least not showing any sign of it.  In all the years that I had been coming to this particular park, not once had it ever occurred to me that I’d ever have any reason to climb the fountain in the first place, much less dance around on top of it and make a spectacle of myself in the process.  And even if I had, I’m reasonably certain that I would have just dismissed it as a bad idea and continued on my way.  Suddenly, as I found myself staring at the very same fountain now once again, it wasnt necessarily so clear.  I probably would have figured it to be a bad idea then , and I know for sure that it’s a bad idea now, but suddenly, I found myself almost half-tempted to actually try it, even knowing what the consequences of such behavior were likely to be.  Then again, someone’s got to be an example to others, right?

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