Conditioned Routine

Gunther stood naked in the searing water flow of his morning shower, staring at a glob of conditioner in his hand. This morning, he had inexplicably screwed up the washing order by squirting out conditioner for application before scrubbing with shampoo. It wasn’t like Gunther to mess up such a simple part of his morning routine.

Gunther was the kind of man who thrived on routine. He was meticulous. He kept a clean home, perhaps to the point of maniacal precision. Everything in his condominium was usually in its designated spot, and he spent four hours every Saturday morning picking up, vacuuming, and inspecting each nook and cranny for dust bunnies and smudge marks. He always purchased the newest appliances and accoutrements to decorate his palace, including such niceties as a single-cup coffee brewer, a three-piece, solid-white leather couch set, and the biggest, most expensive, high-definition plasma TV on the market. He had managed to chase away two perfectly viable female companions who made the mistake of moving into his abode. Gunther didn’t really care much about their departure. He valued the sanctity of his idealistic set-up over the frustration of scattered Vogue magazines and caked make-up on the brim of his bathroom sink.

Gunther was a man that took pride in his appearance. He shopped at the trendiest shops, and his closet was full of posh suits and flashy color. He was on friendly terms with his barber, with whom he made a point of scheduling appointments with every three weeks. Above all, his morning preparatory routine was sacred. He woke up promptly an hour-and-forty-five minutes before work each day to exercise, shower, shave, trim, pluck, brush, floss, eat, make the bed, do the dishes, and replace any item in his home that was out of sorts. An extra ten minutes might be allocated for taking out the garbage or picking up after guests from the night before. Every task was done in its proper order, and he never wavered from their completion. He certainly had never made the mistake of conditioning his hair before shampooing.

Gunther rolled the conditioner about in his palm, analyzing the path the substance took within the canyons of his open hand. The hot shower began to cool to a tepid temperature as he played with the passionfruit-smoothie scented conditioner. Gunther remembered a conversation during a business lunch with a colleague a week before.

“I have absolutely no love for Bush,” the work acquaintance had said. “I certainly didn’t vote for him. I think he should be a man and take his share of the blame.”

Gunther hadn’t been sure how to respond. He had no love for the president, but he was tired of all of the Bush-bashing that his situation seemed to inspire from well-meaning friends. It seemed to be the only way people knew how to reach out.

“I guess we’ll have to let the history books vilify George W.,” Gunther had said, giving his stock reply.

Gunther shook off the memory and returned to his shower where he still had the dilemma of how to rectify the conditioner problem. He prided himself on keeping the level of his bottles of shampoo and conditioner even throughout their life expectancy. If he dumped the conditioner from his hand to the shower bottom, the shampoo-conditioner race would go unevenly in the shampoo’s favor. Heaven forbid that there be a little shampoo left in its bottle when the conditioner’s ran out. If he used the conditioner before shampooing, his normally well-groomed hair would be unthinkably mussed and stiff for the rest of the day…or would it? Did people absent-mindedly condition first, then shampoo? Did it ruin their days if they did? Would the world end if he defied the very specific instructions on every bottle of hair-cleaning muck he had ever read? Could the order that every child inherently learns before the age of three be altered? Wet hair, lather, rinse, repeat. When hair is clean, THEN apply conditioner.

He turned his hand to its side, allowing the conditioner to fall and spatter on the linoleum floor of the shower. He watched the conditioner form and float in the puddle of water at his feet. He followed its journey as it traveled and traced a few monotonous circles around the drain before finally falling to the dingy depths below.

Gunther grabbed the shampoo and squeezed the bottle forcefully, depositing an excessive amount into the pit of his hand. The mass filled his palm and overflowed everywhere. He threw the bottle over the glass shower door, and he heard the half-full bottle land hard on the ceramic tile floor, probably cracking one of the tiles. He vigorously washed his hair with too much shampoo, irritated by his mistakes.

For the past five months, Gunther had been messing up his routine more and more frequently. He sometimes forgot to clean out the sink, leaving pasted whiskers about the basin. He would return home from work and notice that he had neglected to wash the dishes that morning. He left the remnant of a circle on his clear-glass living room table where the sweat from a beer can had accumulated and solidified, inches away from the stack of coasters he vehemently used in the past. His carpeting had wear marks and lint from neglecting to run his vacuum through it. Now he wasn’t even capable of washing his hair correctly.

Eleven months ago, Gunther’s younger brother, Jacob, was on leave. He had made the trip back to Chicago from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, shortly after returning from a year spent in Iraq. Gunther was excited to see his brother after such a long hiatus, but he immediately noticed Jacob had changed when they met at a bar close to their parents’ home. Jacob had a new look to his face that Gunther couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it was maturity, but he thought it was something else.

When the pair met, there was excited hand-shaking and hugging and goofy smiles. Some awkward conversation and catching-up on the events of Gunther’s structured life followed. He made sure to tell Jacob about the 103-inch plasma TV he had purchased. Before Jacob had enlisted, Gunther used to love hanging out with his brother to watch movies and play video games. When he purchased the TV, he had thought about how impressed his brother would be to play Halo or watch The Lord of the Rings on the monster monitor.

“…and the picture!” Gunther had said, “Once you’ve watched a baseball game in high-definition, you’ll never go back to regular screen.”

“Sounds cool,” Jacob responded. Gunther detected his brother’s response might only be feigned excitement. He was disappointed. He thought Jacob would have been delirious about the TV.

Only after sufficient amounts of free-flowing beers and a few lop-sided games of pool in Gunther’s favor did he think about asking Jacob how things were going with him. Gunther remembered the immediate change in Jacob’s eyes.

“It sucks,” Jacob said simply as he jabbed his cue-stick at the white ball.

The air in the bar seemed to thicken and become heavy.

“What, you can’t talk about it?” Gunther pressed.

“No, I can talk about it. I just don’t know what to say. I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Tell me what goes on over there.”

Jacob stood up from the table, his missed bank shot still rolling toward the middle, breaking up a cluster of striped balls. He looked toward Gunther, but he was looking at something a lot further away.

“It’s hot, for one thing,” Jacob said. “It’s hotter than any damn day we’ve ever complained about here in Chicago. And they hate us. Man, they hate Americans.”

“Did anything happen to you? Did you have to shoot anybody?” Gunther asked his brother, suddenly concerned by the change he witnessed in his brother. Gunther never really thought of his brother as a soldier. Being in the army was more of a career choice. Iraq was just an extended business trip.

Jacob continued as if he hadn’t heard Gunther. As if Gunther weren’t even there. Jacob was somewhere else.

“Not all of them hate us. Some of them are really glad we’re there. There was this one guy in their police force I trained that was really cool, but he…,” Jacob trailed off.

Gunther didn’t say anything. He stood by the pool table with his cue at his side and watched his brother’s spirit travel a world away.

“I seen him…His legs landed…There are so many explosions over there. You can’t sleep. There was one time I was in this little traffic booth, and I nodded off for a second…A SECOND…and all of a sudden there were these red-hot tracers as long as my arm just tearing the booth apart all around me. I don’t know how I wasn’t hit, but I was okay. I seen my buddy, though…My buddy, man, he just…”

Gunther grabbed Jacob’s shoulder.

“That’s alright, Jacob, it was a stupid question. Just drop it and play pool.”

Jacob looked Gunther in the eye, returning from the sand and torment to the bar in Chicago.

“…blew up.”

At the end of that evening, after over-medicating on alcohol, they walked out of the bar towards Gunther’s Lexus. Jacob had leaned over to Gunther and asked his brother if maybe they wanted to drive to Canada. Gunther had laughed, assuming it was a joke.

“No, really,” Jacob slurred. “I won’t have to go back.”

Gunther smiled drunkenly at his brother.

“Deserter,” Gunther said and playfully punched Jacob’s arm. Jacob smiled at his brother, and then stared through the windshield at what was ahead of him.

As Gunther turned the keys in the ignition of his luxury car, he asked Jacob if he wanted to check out Gunther’s TV.

“No,” Jacob said. “Just take me back.”

They both rode uncomfortably in silence as Gunther drove his brother back to his parents’ home, from which he would return to Fort Campbell and then transport back to Iraq for a second tour.

Gunther remembered his brother’s funeral, five months ago, as he dried himself off, kicking the discarded shampoo bottle out of his way. He remembered the sheer power of the rifles’ report as the soldiers delivered their twenty-one gun salute. He remembered how he had jumped uncontrollably as the rifles fired each time. He remembered thinking how getting struck by one of those bullets would tear through a man’s flesh, ripping and razing the body’s insides, leaving a hole the size of a basketball in him. He remembered thinking how horrible it must have been for his brother to have been struck by a bullet that way. He remembered thinking how easy it could have been that night to drop everything and kidnap his brother for a road trip to Canada.

Gunther had returned to work the day after Jacob’s funeral. He had convinced himself it was best that way. Others supported him on his decision. Return to his routine. Get back to work. Forget about the grief. Get back on the horse. Move on.

The newspapers had proclaimed Jacob a local hero who had given his life in combat for his country, but only for a day. Gunther’s friends and co-workers had arrived in droves at the funeral to support and comfort him. Jacob was a hero, everyone’s hero. He was their hero. Everyone offered to help Gunther in any way they could at any time.

“It’s just like Vietnam,” one bubble-headed secretary had said to him a week after the funeral. Gunther had just stared blankly at her. She wriggled uncomfortably for a moment, gave a curt smile, and turned away to file some nameless file that needed sorting, scared by his non-response. He frightened her from any further attempts at consolation.

People’s tendency to compare Iraq to Vietnam irritated Gunther. He couldn’t see the connection. It seemed to him that Vietnam was at the forefront of people’s minds during the course of that war. American people cared about Vietnam, whether it was positive support or fervent protest. They paid attention to it. Even the hippie protestors who accused soldiers of baby-killing when they returned from the bloodbath acknowledged that there was a war going on. It didn’t seem to Gunther that anyone wanted to acknowledge that there was a war being fought in Iraq. Just like Gunther himself failed to acknowledge it before his brother was killed.

Gunther found himself at work over the course of those five months thinking about his brother. A few times, he caught himself thinking about what he and his brother would do when Jacob returned. He had been in the army, in Iraq, for so long that it was natural for Gunther to think of his brother as simply misplaced. He was still going to return. He was going to love hanging out in Gunther’s expensive condo and playing games on his costly plasma TV.

His friends quickly abandoned trying to comfort Gunther. It was just too difficult. There wasn’t anything to say to him that was effective, so better to not say anything at all. The best thing for him would be to get over his grief and forget everything as quickly as possible. But Gunther didn’t seem to get with the program. Nothing said to him was right. He moped too much. He fell out of his routine. Functioning properly required getting back to his habitual practice soon.

“The funeral was almost two months ago.” Gunther had heard some whispers a few cubicles down. “Why can’t he just get over it?”

He started to think bad things about his country, his people. If the war ever came up in his presence, people would fidget and change the subject as quickly as possible. The Iraqi war simply interfered with everyone’s tidy, successful, ordered American lives. Gunther understood that interrupting the American workplace with such trivial subject matter was simply unacceptable. He tried. He just couldn’t muster up the willpower to care.

Five months ago, Gunther started neglecting his routine. He stopped socializing. He stopped shopping for new appliances. He went to work and stared at his computer screen for hours before realizing that he had done nothing productive. He discontinued his weekend house-cleanings and let stuff accumulate wherever it landed. Gunther did try to return to the routine he enjoyed before his brother’s death, but he just kept failing. The mistake with his conditioner this morning was just another of a long list of mishaps that had occurred in the last five months. It was another mistake of many attempts to assuage everyone else into believing everything was going to be okay. It was another failure in his performance of pretending to be a good American.

From his bathroom, Gunther dressed himself and trekked through his living room, avoiding the broken glass shards that littered his carpeting. He walked into his kitchen reflexively to continue his former routine. He went into a cabinet and pulled out a coffee filter, stood up and noticed the clock. He was about fifteen minutes behind where he normally would be in his routine. He had not called off over the course of these five months, but the idea entered his mind this morning. If he couldn’t remember to shampoo before conditioning, he would be no good for the rest of the day.

He sighed and threw the coffee filter onto the counter. He moved to his living room and looked at the aluminum baseball bat he had removed from his hall closet the night after his brother’s funeral five months ago. It remained in the same spot on the carpet he had dropped it almost half a year ago, still surrounded by little crystals of glass. He decided he was not going to work today and deliberated on whether he should bother calling in or not. Gunther sat on his white, leather couch for the rest of the day, staring at the spider-web pattern formed in the shattered monitor of his expensive plasma television.

{If you appreciated this writing and want to help support the continuation of this blog, please consider sending a donation to:

Scott C. Guffey
P.O. Box 53
Michigan City, IN 46360

For a full explanation of author impetus, blog mission statement, and donations appeal, click About.}

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