The south Jersey shore in the winter is a bleak and barren place—gray, salty, misty, and nearly devoid of human life. All the summer tourists are gone, stranding only the locals who have nowhere else to go and wouldn’t even know how to get there if they did. These aimless townsfolk cling like desperate barnacles to the side of a rusty battleship, holding on to the only life they’ve ever known and will ever know.
Stupid. All of them. At least that’s how Lotus Acorn saw them.
Barely five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds if she’s wearing boots and just ate a burrito, Lotus found herself stuck in this miserable little summer resort in the middle of winter due to a mixture of bad luck and worse decisions. She’s as mean as a scorpion, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. To the naked eye, she appears to be a sweet little thing with strawberry-blonde hair and eyes the size of dinner plates. You’d think those eyes were innocent and trusting if you didn’t know her better.
Lotus wished she’d been born some other place or some other time—preferably both. Then her phone alarm rang and yanked her right back to where she was. She shut it off, threw her phone across the room, sat up, and wiped the gunk from her eyes. She’d been working this job for three months and hated it a little more each day. The owners of this little ratty motel/lounge—which was called “La Conquistador” in screeching neon letters even though she tried explaining to them that it should be “El” rather than “La”—spent every winter down in Florida and hired a new sucker every year to book rooms and serve drinks to the handfuls of losers and drifters who kept the place afloat during the off-season.
She stretched and yawned, which turned into an extended shriek, which then morphed into a loud and prolonged FUUUUUUUUUCK. She didn’t want to be here, surrounded by morons who assailed her with their cretinism as if they were swinging hammers at her. She agreed with those who said that stupidity should be painful—for stupid people. Instead it was painful for her, while they breezed through life obliviously happy. It was like they had the disease, but she was the only one who suffered from it. Or maybe they were more like zombies, but instead of eating her flesh, they’d walk up and say something dumb to her.
Within the span of eight minutes she turned on the Mr. Coffee, hopped in the shower, brushed her teeth, dried her hair, grabbed a mug of coffee, and headed from her tiny, moldy room down the stairs toward the motel office, stubbing her toe on the way down and screaming FUUUUUUUUUCK again.
The owners didn’t even bother to drain the pool after the summer, so she walked past a dark-green algae pit covered in leaves and stray bits of trash. She was barely one minute in the office before the motel’s only other tenant walked in, slapped his electronic key on the counter, and told her he was in a rush to check out. He was friendly—overly so—but covered in a week’s worth of stubble and what smelled like a month’s worth of meth sweat.
“Nice place you got here,” he smiled.
“Thanks,” she said, her back turned to him as she pecked on the old dusty computer keyboard, closing his account.
“I had a question about that swimming pool, Miss—you don’t mind if I call you ‘Miss,’ do you?”
“My name is Lotus.”
“Lotus? Like the car or the flower?”
“So anyway, Miss, I was looking at the swimming pool, and something didn’t make sense.”
She turned and looked at him blankly.
“It says it’s eight feet on one end and three feet on the other end, right?”
“So how come it’s even on top?”
She blinked but otherwise didn’t move.
“Do you know what I mean? If it’s even on top, it should be eight feet on both ends or three feet on both ends, but not both.”
She took a very deep breath, pursed her lips tightly, and said, “The pool is uneven at the bottom. It goes down eight feet on the deep end and three feet on the shallow end.”
“OK,” he said, shifting his feet. “But still—if it’s lopsided on the bottom like you say it is, it should be lopsided on the top, too, to balance it out—right?”
She didn’t have time to answer. To her horror, blood had started pouring out of one nostril, splashing in huge crimson drops onto the counter, onto his receipt, and even onto his electronic room key. She frantically tugged a few tissues out of a nearby tissue box, squirted some antiseptic hand cleanser onto them, and wiped the blood away.
“I’m very sorry,” she whispered to him. “I don’t know why that happened.”
“Huh,” he said. “That’s messed-up! But you know, they say it gets dry in the winter, so maybe you need to drink more water. I’m gonna bounce now. Clean yourself up, Miss—you’re a pretty girl. Too pretty to be alone here. I’d say you’re a solid 8. If you got a boob job, you’d be a 10.”
And with a wink he was out the door. And she was bleeding from her nose again.
The rest of her morning was filled with the typical dreariness—scrubbing, disinfecting, vacuuming, taking out the trash to the dumpster, answering phone calls, and making sure the books were balanced. At 2PM she opened La Conquistador’s lounge—a shoebox-sized bar with poor ventilation where tobacco resin coated everything like a greasy brown film.
By 2:03PM, Jake and Jerry—two war veterans who would drink the Atlantic Ocean if it contained alcohol—had saddled up to the bar and started ordering their usual rounds of boilermakers. She couldn’t tell them apart and had given up on addressing them by name. But they were there every day until one of them passed out and the other one dragged him home.
She was in the kitchen stuffing glasses into the dishwasher when she heard Jake and Jerry begin to argue. She tried ignoring it until it got too loud to ignore.
She emerged from the back, wiping her hands on her apron. “What’s going on here?”
“Listen, Lotush,” Jerry slurred. “You can solve this. This motherfucker here says that Tony Danza never played Batman in the movies. I say he did—and I’m right, right?”
She turned away from the stupidity as if it would blind her, only to realize that her nose was bleeding all over her grimy apron. She quickly wiped her bleeding snout with the apron and told Jake—or was it Jerry?—that there was an emergency in the kitchen.
Again? Twice in one day?
As Jake and Jerry battled it out like brain-damaged stag beetles through the afternoon, a married couple checked into the motel. They hailed from Wisconsin and were en route to Atlantic City for a ceramics convention. They were normal enough—so normal, you hardly even noticed them.
As Lotus rang up their bill, the husband cocked his head with a smile and asked her a question:
“So why do they call it ‘New’ Jersey, anyway?”
“Well, what I mean is, if there’s a New Jersey, there had to be an Old Jersey—or just a plain Jersey, right? So what was the historical event that made it New Jersey?”
She turned away and instinctively touched her nostrils with her fingers. Yes. Bleeding again. She excused herself, pretended to sneeze, and wiped away the blood with a tissue.
Suddenly an idea occurred to her. She spun back around with a smile.
“Well, sir, it’s an old and hallowed story around these parts. You see, about a hundred years ago, the Rutgers University football team was one of the worst in the state. And then someone realized they’d been playing in the same uniforms for years. So at the beginning of the 1917 football season, a private philanthropist purchased all-new uniforms for them. They finished that season undefeated and wound up winning the Rose Bowl. And it was all because of the new jerseys. It was the only team from the state to ever win a national championship. And that’s how we got the name New Jersey.”
“Ha!” the man smiled. “That’s fascinating. Thank you very much!”
“You’re welcome,” she smiled insincerely.
As they walked out of the office toward their room, she realized she didn’t have a nosebleed anymore.
For most of her life, people’s stupidity had given her a headache, but no one could see a headache. Today was the day the dam broke. Today was the day she couldn’t hide it anymore.
If they said something dumb, she started bleeding profusely from her nose. But if she pretended to be just as dumb as them, the bleeding stopped immediately.
At 5PM she locked the office and went for a walk on the cold, windswept beach. Under the boardwalk, a handful of stray cats fought over some chicken bones. Giant ugly brown dead horseshoe crabs littered the beach. Angry seagulls squawked overhead. And it occurred to her that she’d never met a dumb animal in her life. These crabs and gulls and cats may not be able to work a TV remote control or do calculus, but they were perfectly content living their lives without ever wondering whether Tony Danza played Batman or what was so “new” about New Jersey. It was humans, and humans alone, who were uniquely dumb.
A handful of Xanax and a few throatfuls of whiskey finally put her out that night in her chilly little lonely room. And that’s when she had the most beautiful dream. It was summer—and it would always stay summer. Forever. And even better, there were no dummies in her little town. Everyone was bright and engaging and considerate. No one ever said anything that made her cringe, and all the nosebleeds had dried up—forever.
Then the alarm went off again, and she bolted upright. Her nose was gushing blood again. To her dismay, she realized that even she wasn’t immune from the stupidity. To imagine that there would ever be a world where most people weren’t brain-crushingly stupid was the dumbest idea her brain had ever hatched.
She wiped the blood clean, stuffed a tightly wrapped wad of toilet paper up each nostril, and got ready for work again.