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an excerpt from Conquistador of the Useless
an excerpt from <i>Conquistador of the Useless</i> August 16, 2012

This is an unedited draft. For more on Conquistador of the Useless click here.


My wife and I are on our way to eat dinner with people we donít know. Apparently, this is what happens when you move into an area where houses have lawns. The neighbors see you directing the movers from the truck to your $300,000 storage unit for boxes of stuff you suddenly wish youíd thrown out, and they ask you what youíre doing for dinner that night. Since, you know, your kitchen wonít be set up in the next few hours.

Because youíre civilized, you understand itís unacceptable to answer that youíd be happiest ordering a Papa Johnís and watching your cats find ridiculous new hiding places. So you say, Wow, I hadnít even thought about that, thanks for the offer.

Thatís why weíre strolling down our driveway in whatever outfits were on top of the suitcases we could reach among the boxes. Lisa found a dress that didnít get too wrinkled, and I pulled out a clean polo. We also discovered a bottle of Febreze, which meant I didnít have to change my jeans.

Just food, my wife says, we eat and then weíre gone.

We might like them, I say.

I canít imagine liking the kind of people who would invite us into their home after knowing us for fifteen seconds.

If theyíd spent any more time getting to know us, I say, they wouldnít have invited us over. Besides, it was a nice gesture.

Do you remember, she says, when we were walking down 10th street a little while ago and someone tapped you on the shoulder to tell you that your messenger bagís clasp was unfastened?


Do you remember what you said?


You said, Why the fuck was that dude looking at my bag? Yeah, Nathan, you love nice gestures.

Sheís right about that. What I do like is grass. Grass between the sidewalk and the street, cleanly cut grass on each front lawn. And trees. Our new neighborhoodís at the top of a hill, so when I look down it I see more trees than houses, more trees than streets or cars.

All that civilization is under the canopies somewhere, but from my perspective I canít see much of it.

I can, however, see my next-door neighborís home as I approach it. I see their house-shaped mailbox which looks strikingly similar to their actual house, and which has, The Harrisonís, hand painted on the little front door. Thatís a foreboding misuse of a possessive. But whatever, not a single car has come down the street during our short walk, and thatís a decent trade.


Tom Harrison and I are barbecuing in his back yard while our wives make the pasta salad in the kitchen. Couples, when put together in an uncontrolled environment, split up along the lines of a middle school dance.

As Tom flips burgers I realize how much taller I am than him, mostly because Iím not that tall. Itís rare that I have a head on someone. I stick my hands in my pockets and watch him grill, resist the urge to tell him not to press down on the patties since it dries them out, and also see how much stockier he is than me. I canít tell if heís fat or just bulky. I feel like he and Kristy may have asked us over as much because they think weíre too thin as to be neighborly.

Tom asks me if I barbecue a lot.

I might now, I say, but I couldnít do much of it in our place downtown.

Well you might want to look into one of these bad boys, he says as he steps back and looks over his six burner gas grill. I could cook for the whole block on this thing.

He waves at the machine with an oversized spatula made of industrial strength stainless steel, one with serrated edges that make it look more like a torture device than a utensil.

Cool, I say, but I have an old Weber that ought to do for us.

Yeah, he says, but how many people can you have over with an old Weber?

It seems odd to say that we donít want to have a lot of people over, so I just tell him thatís a good point.

Then he asks me what I do, so I talk about being an office manager for Toaner Optic Networks, and he says he knows the company because his agency found Toaner the real estate for its warehouse.

What a coincidence, he says.

Yeah, I say.

I donít mention that Iíve never been to the warehouse, that I didnít even know we had a new one until I got an email telling me to change some addresses, that what happens there has almost nothing to do with my running the offices. Maybe I should, because as Tom flips the burgers he has a satisfied grin on his face like heís started planning our man dates for the next few months.


We sit down to eat at the table on their patio, and I get to spend time with my wife again on one of the more momentous days of our marriage.

Kristy, you wonít believe it, Tom says, but Nate here works for Toaner, that company I worked on the warehouse deal for a few years ago.

Really, she says. And sheís genuinely surprised, as if she found out I owned the company.

Yeah, I say, itís true.

I put my hand on Lisaís knee, and she smiles, but itís that smile which I know means sheís not at all happy.

So, Kristy says, how long have you been married?

Four years, Lisa answers.

Thatís wonderful, Kristy says, weíve been married almost eight years now.

She says it like theyíd beaten us at some contest.

Tom then picks up the bowl of pasta salad, which I take as a sign that we can all start eating so I pass the little basket of hamburger buns to Lisa. This starts the carousel of plates, and after it circles the table we all have burgers, coleslaw, corn on the cob, and a very spicy pasta salad.

Somebody has to say something at a meal like this, and they usually do when everyone else has their mouth full. So, just as I take a large bite of my burger, and Lisa starts chewing a forkful of coleslaw, Kristy asks us if weíre originally from the area.

Then we have the awkward seconds where Tom and his wife watch us chew, and Lisa and I look at each other to see whoís going to be done first.

Itís me.

Yeah, I say, we both grew up around here. We were actually wondering the other day if we chose this neighborhood because it reminds us of when our biggest concerns were keeping our Nirvana CDs from getting scratched.

Tom asks, Youíre Nirvana fans?

Yeah, I say, who wasnít growing up in the 90s, right?

Remind me to show you something after weíre done with dinner.

All right, I say.

We all resume eating and after a while I feel like itís my responsibility to break the tension of four people trying not to be heard chewing.

I really like the pin oak in your back yard, Tom and Kristy. Itís gorgeous. Must look amazing when the colors change in the fall.

They look at me, a little confused. So does Lisa, actually.

Oh, Tom says, the big one in the middle of the yard?


We were actually thinking about getting rid of that, freeing up some lawn space.

Oh, I say.

But, Kristy says, it is beautiful in the fall.

Now Iím hoping they wait a few years so I can see it change while I sit in my own yard.


After we eat dessert Iím in Tomís home office upstairs while Kristy and Lisa have a cup of tea. Iíd tell Tom that I love relaxing with a cup of tea after dinner, but that might ruin our guy thing happening right now.

He walks me to the back of the room where thereís a white guitar mounted on the wall, behind glass.

This is what I wanted to show you, he says.


Itís a Fender Jaguar. See who signed it?

Some scribbles around the bridge look like they could be words from any western language.

I tell him that I canít make out the signatures.

Itís Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Cobain played this exact guitar during a concert at the Spectrum in 1992.

No fucking way.

Yeah. Kristy got this for me on our anniversary last year. Nirvanaís always meant a lot to me, you know?

I donít, but I let him talk about it.

When Smells Like Teen Spirit came out, he says, I wasnít a popular guy. I wasnít after it came out either, but that song made me realize I wasnít the only one who thought all the cliques and fashion and what not at my school was bullshit.

Yeah, I say. And now, twenty years later, youíve got this.

We can afford it. Kristyís an anesthesiologist, and I already told you Iím in real estate, so this guitar ends up being a nice treat. A little validation, maybe.

Heís definitely bulky, I think to myself, not fat. I can see him at a gym, bench pressing, thinking about all the cool kids who spurned him as he goes for that last rep.

I donít want this to turn into a conversation about how we like Nirvana, because

my favorite one of their songs is Son of a Gun, a nonsense B-side cover.

So I ask, Are you a Pixies fan?

A little, he says.

Itís just, thatís why I got into Nirvana when I was a teenager, because they sounded like Pixies.

Tom doesnít seem impressed. Iím back in high school, trying to be a legit fan, someone who knew about them early, only now I donít have a faded concert t-shirt to prove my point.

Thereís a cool story behind the title, Smells Like Teen Spirit, I say. Kurt Cobainís girlfriend, the singer from Bikini Kill, wrote, Kurt smells like teen spirit! on the wall of his bedroom, and she thought it was funny because Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant for girls.


Shit. He looks like a ten year old who just figured out heís never going to play big league baseball.

Thatís where the title comes from, I say. Just a little trivia.

Interesting, he says.

Conquistador of the Useless
by Joshua Isard
available in paperback Spring 2013

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