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An earnest diet abruptly canceled 

An earnest diet abruptly canceledDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

It was almost lunchtime. We had just wrapped up a job and were cruising down the highway. 

Crew Leader Carl was driving. I tapped his shoulder. “Are you stopping at McDonald’s today?”

“Not today,” he said, grinning. He motioned to the lunchbox wedged beside him in the seat. “My sweetie got up early this morning and packed me a nutritious lunch.”

“You brought a lunch from home?” I asked. “That’s a first.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been getting a gut from eating fast food all the time,” Carl said, patting his considerable stomach. “My girlfriend wants us to start eating healthier. I get plenty of physical exercise as it is, so I imagine if I simply change my diet, I’ll lose the extra weight in no time.”

“So she’s going to start making you lunches?” I asked. 

Carl nodded. “Yep. Today’s the first day. She got up really early before work to pack it, too. She’s so sweet. I’m really lucky.”

“What do you got?” I asked. “A nice sandwich? Maybe some carrot sticks?”

“I’m not quite sure,” he said. “I was in the shower when she packed it. Let’s see.”

We came to a stoplight. Carl heaved the lunchbox onto his lap and popped off the lid. 

Inside were an ice pack and a Slim Fast.

I craned my neck. “That’s it?”

Carl didn’t say a word. Instead, he chucked the Slim Fast out the window. It slammed onto the highway and exploded. A car honked.

When the light turned, Carl punched the gas, flying past the other cars like a deranged maniac. The rest of us exchanged glances, biting our lips.

A block later, he barreled into the McDonald’s parking lot and came to a violent stop in the drive-through. 

“Apparently, the diet’s been postponed for a while,” I said. 

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No sitting on the job

No sitting on the jobDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

It was late Thursday afternoon, and we were at one of our last accounts for the day. 

I hadn’t felt well when I woke up, and as the day wore on, I started to feel weaker and weaker. I was pretty sure that I was coming down with a cold, or even a flu. I was sweating more than normal, and over the past hour, I’d started to feel feverish.

The guys unloaded the weed-wackers and leaf-blowers from the trailer, then scattered like pigeons to get to work.

As I reached up to unhook a trashcan, a wave of dizziness came over me. I gasped, lowering my head. My mouth felt dry, and I realized that I hadn’t been drinking enough water throughout the afternoon. 

Feeling exhausted, I sat on the trailer’s wheel well, holding my head in my hands. I felt too weak even to move. 

“Hey!” yelled Crew Leader Carl. He came stomping forward. “What the hell is this? Why aren’t you working?”

“Sorry, Boss,” I said. “I got dizzy all of a sudden. I think I might be coming down with something.”

“Then come down with it on your own time, and not the company’s!” Carl said, yelling. “We’re not paying you to loaf. If you want to sit on your dead ass all day, then get an office job! On this crew, we work!”

And with that, he hopped on the ride-on mower and putted away, leaning back in the seat with his left foot propped on the wheel. 

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Old codgers apparently aren’t important enough to poison 

Old codgers apparently aren't important enough to poisonDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

It was a gorgeous Friday morning. We pulled to a stop in front of the Schultz residence. 

Mr. and Mrs. Schultz were an elderly couple who lived in a small house in an older neighborhood. Mr. Schwartz was sickly and often in bed, so we never saw him much.

However, the last time we’d maintained their yard, he’d been sitting on the front porch. He told me that he believed he was sick because somebody was poisoning him.

“I used to be a political activist, so I made a lot of enemies,” he’d said. “I’m positive that somebody is poisoning me, so I told my wife that I would never eat another morsel of food unless she herself prepared it.”

We all unloaded our tools and fanned out across the yard.

As I approached the front porch holding my pruners in one hand and lugging a trashcan with the other, I saw Mrs. Schultz sweeping the front stairs. Just as she finished the bottom step, Juan walked by with the leaf-blower, gusting a bunch of dust and pollen all over the freshly swept stairs.

Mrs. Schultz screamed, waving her broom at him. Juan jumped, startled, then scurried off.

“Stupid moron!” the old woman said, frantically sweeping the bottom step. She was short and wrinkled, with long, gray hair and a dirty apron. The broom she was clutching was taller than she was.

“Good morning, Mrs. Schultz,” I said, approaching her. 

“What do you want?” she snapped, glaring at me. “You looking to track mud all over my stairs with your filthy clodhoppers?”

“No ma’am,” I said. “I just wanted to ask about Mr. Schultz. Has he been feeling any better?”

“Mr. Schultz is where he always is: lying in bed like a useless sack of potatoes.” The old lady turned her back and continued to sweep.

“Well,” I said, “I’m concerned because the last time I saw him, he made this peculiar claim that someone was poisoning him, and that he was counting on you to prepare all his meals.”

“No one’s poisoning the wretched bastard!” Mrs. Schultz said, twisting her broom handle as if to teat it apart. “He’s just using that excuse to lie in bed all day. And now I’m supposed to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for the miserable son of a bitch? You know what kind of a wrench that throws in my day? There goes my afternoon bridge games with the gals, and my evening meetings with the historical society! Besides, he’s an 80-year-old codger living in a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere! He’s a nobody — a nothing! He’s not IMPORTANT enough to poison!”

I stood there, blinking. “So … I take it you don’t subscribe to his poisoning theory?”

“I do not!” Mts. Schultz screamed. “And if *I* were poisoning the geriatric scumbag, then trust me, I’d be doing it a lot more quickly!” 

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Stirring the pot with the conspiratorial Mr. Schultz 

Stirring the pot with the conspiratorial Mr. SchultzDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

It was mid-morning on a Friday, and we were working at the Schultz residence. Mr. and Mrs. Schultz were an elderly couple who lived in a small house in an older neighborhood. Mature trees towered over the property, casting most of the yard in cool shade. Working at their place was always a welcome relief from the brutal heat.

I knew that Mr. Schultz was sickly and bedridden most of the time, so I was surprised to see him sitting in his rocker on the front porch. He was small and shriveled, with large, bulging eyes and a homemade quilt draped across his lap. A tray stood beside him holding a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade.

I tromped up the stairs, holding my pruners with one hand and lugging a trashcan with the other.

“Good morning, Mr. Schultz!” I said, waving. “It’s good to see you out and about.”

Mr. Schultz extended a feeble, trembling hand. I brushed my own hand on my pants and shook it, making sure to be gentle. His hand was cold, and I felt like I could crush it if I gripped too hard.

“I’m not sure you can say I’m out and about,” he said, coughing into his fist. “I only made it as far as the front porch.”

“The front porch is better than bed,” I said. “Besides, it’s a gorgeous day, and I’m sure the fresh air is doing you some good.”

At that moment, Juan stomped by with the leaf blower, stirring up a huge cloud of dust and pollen. It wafted onto the porch, and Mr. Schultz started hacking violently.

I waved Juan away and clasped Mr. Schultz’s shoulder. “Are you all right, sir?”

The old man nodded. “Yeah. It’s just hell getting old. Sometimes I’m too weak to lift my own eyelids.”

He looked me up and down with his wide eyes. “You’re young, though. Barely grown up. I remember being your age. I was quite the rabble rouser.”

I smiled. “No kidding?”

“You bet,” he said. “In fact, I was a political activist most of my life. I contributed a lot of time to grassroots organizations, and I submitted dozens of opinion pieces to the daily paper. I was always up to something — disturbing the status quo.”

He motioned me closer, so I leaned down to his level.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said, his voice growly and breathless. “I have a theory as to why I’m so weak. I made quite a few enemies in my time. I embarrassed local politicians and called out so-called journalists. A lot of people despise me, and I suspect I’m being poisoned.”

I squinted. “Poisoned?”

He nodded solemnly. “Yes, poisoned. In fact, I told my wife recently that I no longer would eat another morsel of food unless she herself prepared it.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said, nodding. “Unless, of course….”

I let my voice trail off. 

He frowned. “Unless what?”

I grinned. “Unless, of course, your wife’s the one poisoning you. Who knows? Maybe one of your enemies finally got to her, or maybe she just wants your Social Security checks. Anything is possible.”

Mr. Schultz’s mouth dropped open, and his face turned white. In an instant, he had heaved himself out of his chair, the quilt toppling to the ground.

“Wait, Mr. Schultz!” I said. “I was only joking!”

He stormed into the house and slammed the door. A moment later, I heard violent screaming and the sound of breaking glass, as if a vase had been thrown against the wall.

I looked around, then started whistling nervously as I retreated down the staircase.

Crew Leader Carl came plodding around the corner, a weed-eater slung over his shoulder.

“What are you up to?” he growled, glaring at me and frowning.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just stirring the pot.” 

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I may not be a doctor, but I’m confident in my diagnosis 

I may not be a doctor, but I'm confident in my diagnosisDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

We were in the maintenance truck, driving to our next job. It was only mid-morning, and it was already scorching. Even with all the windows down, the breeze gushing through did little to cool us off.

Crew Leader Carl was driving. He had one arm draped over the wheel, and the other slung out the window with a cigarette in his hand. He hadn’t talked much all day, and I noticed that his eyes looked red and baggy.

As we cruised along, his head started to dip forward. A string of drool trickled out of his mouth and dribbled onto his lap.

“Carl!” I said. “Wake up!”

“Huh?” Carl’s eyes shot open, and he gripped the wheel with both hands. The truck and trailer both swerved violently. One of the rakes tumbled out and clattered along the side of the highway.

The other guys exchanged worried grimaces.

“Damn,” Carl said, smacking his dry lips. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. 

“You feeling all right, Boss?” I asked.

Carl shook his head. “Not really. I’ve been feeling groggy and headachy all day. My stomach’s also irritated. I keep feeling like I’m going to hurl.”

“You don’t think it’s the flu, do you?” asked Stan, who was sitting beside me in the backseat.

Carl shrugged. “I don’t know. I woke up feeling crummy. It just seemed to come on overnight.”

“Maybe you should take the rest of the day off,” I said. “The rest of us don’t want to get sick.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not contagious,” Carl said. “I can usually tell if I’m catching a cold or the flu, and this doesn’t feel like that.”

He scrunched his lips, as if he were deep in thought. “Although I can’t help wondering if it’s the gin I drank last night.”

“Well, how much did you have?” I asked.

He shrugged. “A bottle.”

“A bottle?” I said, frowning. “Yeah, I’m not a licensed medical professional with the experience or training required to diagnose diseases. But if I were tasked with identifying this bedeviling malady, I’d probably conclude that the gin played a contributing role in the overnight onset of your nettling symptoms.”

Carl glared at me in the rearview mirror, his upper lip curled. “That sounded sarcastic.” 

“You think?!” I yelled.

“Dammit!” Carl winced, massaging his temples. “No loud noises. I told you I have a headache!”

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The only thing I’m looking to enlarge is my audience, thank you

The only thing I'm looking to enlarge is my audience, thank you“So I was reading your blog yesterday,” said my friend, Helen, “and I noticed that the ads were gone. You must have paid extra to have them removed.”

I nodded. “Yeah. They were getting a little intrusive. The final straw was when they posted three penis-enlargement ads on one page. I’m all for free enterprise, but I wish the medical community would focus on curing cancer instead of enlarging penises.”

“You’d think there’d be profit potential in curing cancer,” Helen said. “Right? If I was a venture capitalist, that’s an idea I could get behind. You could save lives, end needless suffering, and make a pile of money doing it.”

“Yeah, but priorities,” I said. “Impotent men need erections. It’s nice to have lofty ideals, but curing cancer apparently takes too much work.”

“Isn’t it a tad insulting that they wallpapered your website with penis-enlargement ads?” Helen asked. “I mean, what does that say about you and your content?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe their adbot read my self-deprecating humor and figured I had an inferiority complex. I may doubt my worth as a human being, but that’s no reason to impugn the length of my penis. They’re two very different things.”

“Right,” Helen said. “And besides that, you don’t even drive a big truck.” 

“I’m not a marketing professional, but I have to wonder what the click-through rate is for those ads,” I said. “I mean, that’s a very specific topic, and it seems more like something you’d search for deliberately, rather than randomly click on. Like when I’m reading a humor blog, I’m there looking for laughs — not for ways to extend my manhood. If one of those ads popped up, I’d have to be easily distracted to click on it. Talk about getting squirreled.” 

Helen laughed. “Exactly. Like, who reads a blog post about traffic, then sees a penis-enlargement ad and says, ‘Well, I guess I never thought about it before, but I do have a minuscule prick. Maybe clicking on this ad can help me.’ That’s more of a product you purposefully seek out, as opposed to an impulse buy.”

“Well, maybe not,” I said. “Maybe they should put those pills at the checkout counter, along with the gum and bottled water. They’re not something you think about when you’re buying groceries, but they could definitely be an afterthought when you’re waiting in line, thumbing through an issue of People. Like, ‘Well, I already got milk and eggs and peanut butter, but what I don’t have is a product that can elongate my johnson. Thank goodness the store thought to put these pills here in plain view.’”

“Well, don’t feel too bad about your website,” Helen said. “When I had a blog, it was covered with wight-loss ads. Apparently, the adbot combed through my content and concluded that I was a monstrous lard ass. Anybody reading my material obviously had to be morbidly obese and in the market for a physical transformation.”

“I just feel better being ad-free,” I said. “I’m tired of commercials telling us we’re too fat, too impotent, too poor, too hairy, too ugly. I don’t need anyone telling me all those things. That’s what my self-deprecating humor is for.” 

Helen smiled. “And the best part is, making yourself feel miserable doesn’t cost you a thing!” 

“Except, of course, for the yearly cost of the ad-free plan,” I said. “After all, when it comes to eliminating penis-enlargement ads, somebody has to get the short end of the stick.” 

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The unsung heroes who add beauty to the world 

The unsung heroes who add beauty to the worldDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

The crew was loading up the truck after finishing a yard. As the other guys climbed into the cab, Crew Leader Carl and I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, admiring our work. 

“You know,” Carl said, taking a deep drag from his cigarette, “I love this job. I really do. I always get such a tremendous sense of accomplishment after sprucing up a yard. We showed up to find the lawn overgrown, with weeds choking the planters and garbage caught in the shrubs. By working together as a cohesive team, we transformed the place from an untidy scrapheap into a verdant paradise.”

He waved his arm. “I mean, look at it. Thanks to us, the homeowners now have this pristine sanctuary in which to seek refuge from the stress of daily life. Tonight after dinner, they can sit outside with a cup of coffee and admire the twilight sky. The wind will rustle through the tree branches above, and off in the distance the crickets will chorus, providing a relaxing atmosphere lit only by the moon and stars.”

He took another long drag from his cigarette and let it out slowly. “Humans are meant to be in nature,” he said, his eyes misting as he gazed into the distance. “We’re meant to be free and roaming; not caged in cubicles like corporate prisoners. And you and I, we’re advocates of nature. We not only beautify people’s yards; we purify their spirits. By enhancing the yards that surround their homes, we’re helping people to find peace and tranquility. We’re not only giving them a space to meditate – we’re giving them a refuge in which to rediscover their souls.”

He wiped a tear from his eye. “We create beauty – that’s what we do. We create beauty.”

As I climbed into the truck, Carl remained outside. I noticed him wipe a tear as he looked at the yard, savoring all the beauty that we’d helped sculpt from the once-messy yard.  

Then he climbed into the cab, sliding behind the wheel. Starting the engine, he took one final drag from his cigarette before flicking it out the window. 

It landed on the front lawn just as we were pulling away.

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It’s always wise to have a backup plan

It's always wise to have a backup planDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

It was a sweltering summer afternoon. I was standing in a hole, digging, while Crew Leader Carl stood over me with his arms crossed, supervising.

“Ugh,” he said, scratching his left inner thigh with the heel of his right boot. “I have the itchies.”

I moved to the far side of the hole.

 “So,” Carl said, scratching his left armpit, “how you liking the job so far?”

I shrugged, tossing a shovelful of dirt. “It’s OK. It wasn’t my first choice.”

Carl quickly sniffed his fingers, then continued to scratch his arms and stomach. “That’s right. You’re going to college to be a reporter or something like that, right?”

I shrugged. “Just something where I can pay off my student loans before I’m seventy-five.”

“If you’re lucky, you won’t make it to seventy-five,” Carl said, reaching into his shorts and scratching furiously. “Then you won’t have to pay nothing back.”

“Sound financial advice,” I said. “Thank you.”

“You should have had a backup plan,” Carl said. He was now scratching his right thigh with the heel of his left foot, balancing precariously on one leg. “You should always have a backup plan.”

“This is my backup plan,” I said. “Digging holes in hundred-degree heat for minimum wage wasn’t my first choice. I’m only here because the temp agency never called back.” 

“Take me, for example,” Carl said, crossing his arms and scratching both his armpits simultaneously, looking a little like Molly Shannon’s Superstar character. “I’ve always got a backup plan. If this landscaping gig doesn’t work out, I can always go back to my previous profession of being a chef.”

I dropped my shovel. “You handled and prepared food?”

He nodded. “For fifteen years, yeah. At restaurants all over town. Who knows — you might have eaten in some of them. I might have prepared your dinner, and you never even knew.”

He checked his watch. “So, how about breaking for lunch?”

I grabbed my shovel and continued to dig. “No thanks.”

He frowned. “No thanks?”

“I don’t have much of an appetite,” I told him. 

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This hardcore gamer doesn’t need cheat codes — or a headset 

This hardcore gamer doesn't need cheat codes — or a headsetIt was a gray, windy Saturday morning. I was sitting on the living-room couch, focused on a life-or-death situation. 

My girlfriend, Ashley, had just gotten out of the shower. She walked into the room wearing a bathrobe, a towel wrapped around her hair.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I bit my lower lip, concentrating. I was too deep in thought to answer.

“Colane,” she said. “What are you doing?”

I sighed, pausing my video game. “If you must know, I’m playing Super Mario Brothers 3.”

Her eyes ran across the tangled cords snaked across the living room. “You hooked up your original Nintendo?”

“Uh-huh.” I un-paused the game and continued playing.

Her eyes narrowed. “So this is how you’re going to spend your weekend? Being a hardcore gamer?”

“In all my childhood, I could never beat this thing,” I said, jumping over a fireball-breathing plant. “My goal is to finally get to the end, without using cheat codes.”

“What happened to your goal of taking out the trash?” Ashley asked.

I shrugged. “This seemed more achievable.”

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A memorable phone number with way too many digits 

A memorable phone number with way too many digitsDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.

This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures: 

We were all the maintenance truck, driving down the highway to our next job. 

Crew Leader Carl had the radio set to a classic-rock station. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was playing. It was the fourth time that day we’d heard it. Next would be a series of commercials, and then “Hotel California” by the Eagles, followed by Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and then a fifth rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.” 

Clearly, I’d listened to this particular station before. 

When the commercials came on, one was for Jefferson Heating and Air Conditioning. 

“Call us for all of your heating and air-conditioning needs!” the announcer screamed. His voice had an auctioneer echo-effect — which made it all the more unbearable. I hated radio commercials more than I hated my job.

The ad continued: “We’re here seven days a week! Call us now at 1-800-555-1776. Again, that’s 1-800-555-1776. Call now! 1-800-555-1776.”

“What was that number again?” I asked out loud. “I didn’t catch it the first 15,000 times.”

“That’s so weird how they got that phone number,” said Stan, one of the younger — and dumber — members of the crew. 

“What do you mean?” Crew Leader Carl asked.

“I mean that their name is Jefferson Air Conditioning, and their number has ‘1776’ in it,” Stan said. “Do you think it’s just a coincidence, or did they plan it that way?”

“You dipstick,” Carl said. “Of course they planned it that way. They called the phone company and requested it. Their number is a big part of their image.” 

“So you can request to have a certain phone number?” Stan asked. “That’s really cool! I never knew you could do that. I’d like to have my own number. I’d choose 1-800-CALL-STAN.”

Carl didn’t take his eyes off the road. “That’s too many digits, numb-nuts. Try again.” 

But Stan didn’t seem to hear him. His eyes had darkened, and he was biting his lip.

“What if the number you want is already taken?” he asked. “What do you do then? Do you have to pick another one?”

“How the hell should I know?” Carl asked, throwing his hands in the air. “What do I look like, a switchboard operator? Why don’t you call the telephone company and ask them?” 

“Maybe I will!” Stan said. “What’s their number? 1-800-TELEPHONE?”

“You lame-brained horse’s ass!” Carl yelled. “That’s too many digits!” 

“You know,” I said, quietly inserting myself into the escalating conversation, “our company needs a memorable phone number. Ours is just standard-issue. It’s painted on the sides of all our trucks, but there’s nothing special about it that stands out. People probably forget it as soon as we drive past.” 

“How about 1-800-LAWNCARE?” Stan asked.

I noticed Crew Leader Carl tightening his grip on the wheel. 

“That’s no good,” I said quickly, before Carl could launch into a tirade. “You can have only seven digits max. It’s a rule.” 

Stan cocked his head. “Seriously? Why?” 

“Because …” I shrugged. “Because that’s how long phone numbers are.”

“Why?”

“You know,” I said, “I honestly don’t know. That would be a good question to ask the phone company.”

“I got it!” Stan exclaimed suddenly, making everyone jump. “How about 1-800-MOW-LAWN? That’s seven digits.”

“How about 1-800-SHUT-THE-HELL-UP-OR-I’LL-KICK-YOUR-SCRAWNY-STUPID-LAME-BRAINED-ASS!” Carl bellowed, swiveling in his seat.

“Nope,” Stan said, shaking his head with a smug smile. “No good. That’s too many digits.”