The Abbey  |  Alan Catlin



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                    “The dust of years wandering lies on their boots
                    and their faces; their clothes are torn, their sticks 
                    rough and worn. They must have wandered by the 
                    year before reaching this place.”
                                      —Joseph Roth, Hotel Savoy


             You don’t get to see an outfit every day like the one she had on. Especially not for last call in a neighborhood bar. Not that you’d see it anywhere or any time else, either—unless you worked with monks and Discalced Carmelite nuns for a living. You can bet the farm, no Carmelite nun would be ordering firewater served in shot glasses at quarter to four on a Sunday morning, unless she had been held a captive in one of the strictest Catholic orders known to man. Unless, that is, she was making up for lost time in a hurry, spending the rectory’s petty cash collection all at once, in a mad dash to hell and damnation that no bible verses or papal blessings could undo.
             It was amusing, however, to think of her and the cohorts as way-fallen-from-grace—little sinners on parade. I watched as they gathered to form a kind of clique or coven of like-dressed monks and monkettes, as if on some surreal ungodly mission that I could only suspect the purpose of. I guessed, though, there was a more rational explanation for their distinctive duds than my purely imaginative explanations.
             “What’s with the robes?” I asked the sweet, young forerunner of the group.
             “Haven’t you heard?” she replied.
             “This is the Rapture, and I’m not invited?”
             “Good answer, but no. We work at the Abbey. It’s, like, the ‘in’ place to go.”
             “In place to go do what?”
             “Where have you been, dude?”
             “Under a heavy-duty rock, working hard, and getting nowhere fast.”
             “I believe that,” she said. “Really, like, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a cool place. You wouldn’t believe the crowd we’ve been getting for happy hour.”
             “Yes, I would.”
             “There isn’t a happy hour anywhere like ours, though. It’s from eleven at night until one in the morning.”
             “That’s interesting,” I said. “Which one of the twin cities is it in?”
             “Twin cities? You mean, like, Minneapolis and St. Paul?”
             “Sort of like that, yeah, but not really. I mean is it in Sodom or Gomorrah?”
             “You’re a riot. Gomorrah, definitely. Ain’t no sodom going on under these robes.”
             “I believe that. Eleven to one, huh? That’s inspired thinking. Who came up with that strange happy hour idea?”
             “I guess Mr. Walker. He’s the guy who runs the place.”
             “Mr. Walker. What’s he look like?”
             The guy she described sounded suspiciously like someone I’d known from a ways back, an evil genius of the bar-wars trade. He was the kind of guy who would try anything as long as it was outrageous and unconventional, the kind of guy who would come up with a morning happy hour for the third shift. And the kind of guy who would have a happy hour with midnight in the middle of it. That would be a kind of drinker’s paradise for the soak-head crowd that would give Midnight Madness new meaning. It was so clever that it was diabolical and doomed not to last. The kind of carnage something like that could create boggles the mind.
             “So, seriously,” I asked, “where is this place?”
             “About six or seven miles up the road. Just the other side of Guilderland Center.”
             Jesus, that was one warped idea. Guilderland was known as the community with the strictest, most unfeeling, hard-edged, drunk-driver-crucifying police force on earth.
             “What’s the deal with this happy hour?”
             “Rack drinks are a buck. Heineken and Bud bottle a buck, and name cocktails, like Manhattans and martinis, are two for five bucks, your call on the brand. You’ve got to check it out. You wouldn’t believe the money we’re making there.”
             “I think I will. What’s your name? I’ll be sure to look for you.”
             “Amanda. Everyone calls me Mandy, though. If you’re good, I’ll let you call me Mandy.”
             I wondered how much being good cost. Probably five bucks as a tip for a round of drinks, for starters.
             “I guess I’ll have to check it out. One thing I’d really like to know,” I asked.
             “What’s that?”
             “It’s kind of personal.”
             “How personal?”
             “What do you wear under those robes?”
             “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
             “Actually, I would.”
             “Come see us, and maybe you’ll find out.”
             “See you around, Amanda-who-might-be-Mandy.”
             “See you, too.”
             It would have to be soon. That was one happy hour that wasn’t going to last more than a few weeks, no matter who “Mr. Walker” was paying off.


♥♥♥


             I hated to take a Friday night off when the locusts were in session over at the State University. A decent bartender could make as much as the GNP of one or two good-sized Central American banana republics. I was better than half-decent at my job, despite my near-legendary bad attitude. Still, sacrifices had to be made in the name of knowing thine enemy. I had to admit, I was much more interested in knowing Amanda, in all senses of the word, than I was in finding out the skinny on the so-called enemy, this competitor in the trade.
             Besides, I was fairly certain I knew all about Mr. Walker, as he was calling himself these days. We’d done some serious time together in a jamming bar, fighting off the barbarians with sticks and oversized shot glasses. He thought he was in a league all by himself as Primo Supremo Bartender Numero Uno, until he met me. I had some moves he hadn’t even imagined, and I could answer most of the questions he threw at me from the GRE specialized test in Eng Lit he was threatening to take, “One of these days, when it was time to move on, into bigger and better things far removed from bars.”
             Like that would actually happen. Guys like us get stuck in the quicksand of hard cash, fast women, and lightning from the bottom of a bottle of booze. Any intimation to the contrary was just a line of bullshit that smelled so bad, none of us actually believed it, even as we spoke the line. That line was spoken more than a few years ago, now, and neither one of us had moved that much further down the path of getting out than changing addresses and, in his case, a name or two. It would be kind of cool to catch up and trade a few lies and scam a few drinks for old time’s sake.


♥♥♥


             I started out with a quick pint at the joint, knowing one was the limit, lest I got sucked into the black hole of being in the place where you worked on your own time. The one hard and fast rule of business is: Never go to the place where you work on your time because, without fail, some crisis will develop that you will be called upon to rectify. Usually, without recompense.
             Closely following that law is a corollary: If a crisis does not develop, everyone you know, have known, or ever thought of knowing will turn up and insist upon buying you more drinks than any human being has a right to expect to consume in this lifetime or any other lifetime and you, being the complete fool that you are, would feel honor-bound to accept and to drink every last one of these “sociables.” After which, you will be lucky to have been checked out of the hospital in time to make your next shift, a mere seventy-two hours away.
             Still, it was a risk worth taking. There is only one fluid on earth for the all-important first-beer-of-the-day greasing of the wheels, and that would be a pint of God’s own Guinness.
             That, and I needed some all-important jack. You can never have enough jack when embarking on a fact-finding mission like the one I was about to undertake. Facts like young Amanda were bound to have expensive tastes, and who knew exactly what you might run into during the course of your mission?
             Albany and its suburban were a small, self-contained world, and being a high-profile bartender working the circuit meant you were bound to run into more than a few people you knew. Your profile might list to port, but maintaining the buzz and super cool meant lots of hard work and concentration. And jack.
             Lots of jack.


♥♥♥


             My first big mistake was making “one more wee stop, for one more wee pint” along the way. The first pint had been delicious but only suggested that the age-old adage, “you can’t fly with one wing,” was apt yet again. Faced with the daunting knowledge that the Abbey’s bill of fare no doubt extended from the mundane (Budweiser) to the prosaic, albeit skunky, Green Monsters (Heineken, to the uninitiated) and little or nothing in between. As long as the decision had been made to go all out on this fact-finding mission, gargantuan amounts of alcohol, and whatever else came down the pike, would have to be consumed. There was no reason why what was consumed shouldn’t actually be something you liked.
             So, I pulled over at the last-chance-for-Guinness-before-you-leave-Albany-County sign. There was a good crowd inside the saloon, as there always was. It was a long desert without real imported beer and single malts out there, and the serious drinkers knew it. It might be fifty, a hundred miles in land area barely beyond terra incognito on the state maps, and who knew where that next watering hole was?
             Rotten Richie knew, no doubt. He knew every watering hole in a six-county radius, and, in more than one spot, his picture had a prominent place behind the bar with the admonition: “If you speak with this man, if you serve this man alcoholic beverages, what happens after is disavowed by the management and assumed to have been done so at your own risk—.”
             But that was in the sticks. In the city, they had police forces to take care of folks like Richie, and they knew what to do with a problem child when they had one. The police van they used for such purposes was feared by miscreants of all stripes and color; no misdeed went unpunished once you were inside, and no one could prove that you weren’t bruised and beaten when you entered, because you sure as hell would be when you came out. Where you came out didn’t necessarily have anything to do with where the precinct lockups were located, either. It was always a sound idea to avoid finding out what went into the decision-making process that determined where you ended up or how long it took for you to get there.
             Even Richie had a healthy respect for John Law’s good-humor machine.
             “Good-humor machine?” I asked the first time I had heard the expression applied to the infamous Black Maria of Albany.
             “It puts the cops in a very good humor to get to use it to its fullest capacities.”
             He spoke of the van with a kind of reverence that made me wonder if he had firsthand experience inside. Richie was not known for reverence.
             What he was known for was his Bright Green Pleasure Machine, as he called his bug-eyes Triumph convertible he drove around town like he was the pace car in a personal Le Mans race. Small obstacles, like red lights and stop signs, were mere annoyances to be ignored, except under extreme circumstances that made stopping absolutely unavoidable.
             He had a sixth sense about where patrol cars hid and at what times and seemed to be able to moderate his intemperance according to what this sixth sense told him. Countless nights in a row, you could leave the bar where you were employed, riding shot gun in the machine, with half a vat of scotch on the rocks between your legs as you headed downtown for last call somewhere else, a freshly lit fat rollie between your teeth made from some kind of hydroponic death weed. But one of these times, he would kind of sniff the air and say, “Not tonight.”
             And sure as hell, we’d get pulled over, clean and almost sober. There was no other way to explain how anyone who drove as twisted as he was routinely every single day could still hold a valid New York State driver’s license. I’d seen him pull it out often enough and watched it be examined dozens of times, to be fairly certain it was as kosher as anyone else’s. More kosher than mine, that’s for sure.
             Needless to say, seeing R. R. bellied up at the bar, well into a jug of Jameson and pints of mother’s milk, sighting him thus counted as a mixed blessing. Sure, I could have attempted a quick exit before I was seen myself, but I knew that was futile. Richie and I had tended too long together not to have made it an unconscious habit, a reflex, to check out who was walking in the door at our backs in the barroom mirror. You never knew. Especially in this business. Drinking counted as serious business as much as dispensing the stuff did.
             Still, I viewed potentially hooking up with Richie, not so much as a potential liability, but as finding a partner in crime. One thing Richie was good at was low-life crimes against humanity. Especially when that low life involved wine, women, and DWI. There was one drawback: Richie always insisted he would be the driver, no matter how far gone he was or would be getting.
             I decided to avoid mentioning Amanda altogether and focused on the Midnight Madness. The name was a surefire winner, and the prospect of reduced drink prices to go with the chimes of the hour was too appealing for Richie to resist. Men had died for less. And we’d probably been responsible for those deaths on more than one occasion.


♥♥♥


             Richie ordered, “Dos, mas, dos, por favor,” which the bartender translated into two pints of stout and two shots of Jameson; one of each for the both of us. “What brings you out and about on a Friday night? Not like you to take a night off or for your boss to grant one. Some have dreamed of Friday nights out but never in your boss’ employ.”
             “Don’t I know it.”
             “That’s not really an answer to my question,” Richie said.
             “I’m on a mission.”
             “Any place in particular?”
             “The Abbey. Heard of it?”
             “As a matter of fact, I have. I was thinking of heading that way myself.”
             “Since when?”
             “Since about two minutes ago.”
             “When I brought it up.”
             “When you brought it up. What’s the attraction of the Abbey?”
             “Well, for beginners,” I said, “they seem to have a happy hour from eleven to one.”
             “Really!”
             Rich didn’t have to feign interest in discount drink specials, especially at that hour of the quest—the quest being the search for the perfect high. He’d been pursuing the same for as long as I’d known him, some ten years now, and he’d probably been at it a long time prior to that.
             “And you decided that it was incumbent upon yourself to find out if it was true,” Richie said. “In the guise of keeping a close eye on the competition?”
             “Something like that.”
             “Something like that, my ass. No sacrifice too great for the cause. Whatever. Here’s sod in your eye,” Rich said and fired down his Jameson. I was thinking about how long a night could be drinking this way—or how short—when he said, “Feeling unsociable?”
             “How so?”
             “You didn’t join me in the Irish toast. Come on, now; don’t be shy. It’s unlike you. When it comes to good mother’s milk. We’ll just finish the pint, have one more sweetener, light a little spliffy, and life will be good. We’ll ease on down the road so lightly, you’ll think the tires of the car weren’t touching the highway.”
             “That’s what I was afraid of.” But I drank the shot down anyway, ordered two more for the ditch, and wondered how wide it would be when we finally hit it.


♥♥♥


             Richie’s idea of a little spliffy was roughly the size of a hand-rolled Havana Tampa—something that wouldn’t look out of place in Fidel Castro’s mouth when he was denouncing Running Dog Western Imperialist scumbags. What we were smoking was an appropriate tribute to Richie’s favorite two philosophers of the modern age: Cheech and Chong.
             “Those guys, man, know,” Richie said. “I mean, they have captured the essence of Dasein, what it means to be alive in a modern age of technocracy global dehumanization.”
             If my head would slow down from its current orbit around one of the lesser moons of Saturn, I would have observed that Richie was the prime example of how a little learning about a lot of subjects was a dangerous thing. He gave new meaning to the words, General Studies, that no one could ever have expected, when it was conceived.
             It wasn’t likely that my brain was going to enter Earth’s orbit in the foreseeable future. I decided to go with the sucking of the life force right out of my body and the creation of a new, suborbital being that used to be me. The major problem was the body was still functioning and would be legally responsible for whatever happened in the hours I walked about as a living zombie after the last toke. It wouldn’t be the first time.
             Nor, I suspected, the last time.
             “What was that?” I managed.
             “Good shit.”
             There was no arguing that. I could imagine what was about to happen next: The Blues Brothers Take the Abbey, two retro-hippie types stoned out of their gills, wearing definitely uncool wraparound sunglasses to protect their eyes from the glare of cocktail candles on the café tables. It wasn’t all that difficult to imagine how we would look to some straight boozers well on their way to the daily intake of a vat of Canadian Club. They’d cock their heads in our direction, along with their honey-of-the-moment, then visibly recoil from these obvious slimeball deviants, ringers from another planet, seeking Earthling flesh for an unscheduled flight on a UFO.
             Some hip folks might even relate to how we looked, until we opened our mouths and something like alien speech spewed forth. Alien speech was potentially cool, but it was damned hard to follow and made true conversation nigh on to impossible. Sometimes, folks did clue in to the fact that ten minutes of idle chitchat had been conducted in incompatible languages, and nothing of substance had been said. The ones who took the longest to give up trying to relate were usually narcs who thought they had stumbled upon a major connection to the source for all things illegal in the area. Despite their admirable perseverance under adverse circumstances, they would be disappointed in the end. It was part of the price they paid for being narcs, which was the rough equivalent of being an Irish informer during the Troubles.
             One thing for sure, it was going to be difficult to maintain in this hostile environment. But, like the true soldiers of fortune we were, I had an innate, if misguided, faith in our ability to persevere, no matter how fucked up our situation would get. Besides, I was quite certain that our Mr. Walker would find us soon enough and rescue us from a feeding frenzy by the terminally weird. In our current state, we were not likely to be low profile. Besides, subtlety was never one of Richie’s strong points, even when he wasn’t wired to the gills.
             Or, at least, that was how I imagined us making the scene as we sat in back of Polito’s, breathing in the last redolent toxic fumes of the spliff. And then, the top was down on the Bright Green Pleasure Machine, and we were airborne. Yes, we were airborne rangers on patrol, and then, we were inside the Abbey, and it was just as I had imagined it would be. As I imagined, yes, but much, much worse.


♥♥♥


             We could have used a guide dog to help us to a café table in the dark, but there were none available. A small, overhead stage light was the only discernible illumination in the darkness, besides the flickering votive candles in glass casings. There was something moving out there—dark, hideous shadows like evil spirits; spirits that turned out to be the help in their robes.
             One of them approached us and spoke, “Can I help you?”
             “Table for two,” Richie said, then asked, “Don’t you have trouble getting around in those robes?”
             “You get used to it. Here you go. I’ll send someone around for your order.”
             “I’ll bet you will.”
             A female shadow appeared shortly after, holding a waitress pad and a pencil. It was impossible to see her face with the hood up on her robe. The flickering candle flames cast her in an unnatural light. I was beginning to think coming here wasn’t such a good idea. Coming here with Rich, that is. Coming here with Rich, stoned out of my tree. I felt the fear particular to smoking high-test grass taking over.
             “This place is giving me the creeps,” I said.
             “I kind of like it,” Richie replied. “Reminds me of some kind of black magic rite. Devil worshippers and satanic cults. Cool stuff like that. Do you guys serve steak tartare?”
             “No, we don’t,” the waitress said. “All we have is sandwiches and burgers and some basic appetizers. I could get you a menu, if you’d like.”
             “No, that won’t be necessary. We’ll have two Green Monsters and a wine list, if you have one of those.”
             “Green Monsters?”
             “Heinekens, my child. Forget about the wine list. We’ll just have a flagon of your finest Good Mother’s Milk with two glasses. Bring the Monsters first, though.”
             “We sell bottles of wine, although I’m not sure we have anything called Good Mother’s Milk.”
             “Sure you do; just look under your robe.”
             “Excuse me?”
             “Just kidding. A bottle of Liebfraumilch, please.”
             I watched as the waitress disappeared into the darkness. I thought I heard the Chambers Brothers singing “Time Has Come Today” somewhere in the distance. Ah, the Chambers Brothers, the Hallelujah Chorus for the stoned and the damned, sadly forgotten by all but the most dedicated stoners with whom they had an almost reverent place in the heart next to the Beatles’ White Album.
             “I think there is a good chance she is going to report us to the management,” I said.
             “Good. It will save us the trouble of looking for him.”
             “Well, that’s one way of going about it, I guess.”
             “Trust me. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
             “More times than I can count. Who do you think designed this place? Count Dracula?”
             “Could be. It sort of reminds me of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Maybe we’ll see Sharon Tate before we have to leave.”
             “Sharon Tate is dead; you know that.”
             “I meant the Pre-Manson Sharon Tate. I’d settle for a lookalike.”
             “A lookalike is going to have to do,” I said, as the waitress materialized from wherever it was she got the drinks. I wondered if they carried little flashlights like movie ushers used to have, back in the days before Christ was born, when there were such things as movie ushers.
             “Here’s your Heinekens,” she said. “I’ll get the wine now, if you’d like.”
             “Save your beer glasses, honey,” Rich replied. “We’ll slug the Monster right from the bottle. If you wait a second, you can have my empty, and you can bring us a couple of new ones.”
             I had to hand it to Rich; he sure knew how to get a waitress’ attention. Before she scurried to the relative safety of the service bar area, I decided to ask after my little friend. This could very well be the last opportunity before the summoning of the manager. Rich had that kind of effect on people. I wondered what we’d do if Mr. Walker wasn’t who we thought he was, though I could guess.
             “Plan B,” Rich would say. “There’s always a Plan B.”
             It was better not to know what Plan B was in advance. You’d probably chicken out, and the plan, whatever it was, would lose its spontaneity. Besides, I suspected Rich probably didn’t know what Plan B was, himself, until it was well underway. We’d never been arrested during a Plan B, which led me to the mistaken notion that we must be doing something right. There was always a first time. Especially in this uptight community well known to be hostile toward drunken miscreants under the influence of illegal chemicals. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ might not have been their motto in this town, but it was damn close.
             So, I asked our server, “Is Amanda working tonight?”
             “Yes, she is. Amanda is working downstairs in the lounge area.”
             “Lounge area?”
             “By the stage. You’ll see.”
             “I’ll take your word for the seeing part. I haven’t seen anything since I got here, including you.”
             There was no good reply for that observation. Taking Rich’s empty bottle, the waitress once more melted into the darkness.
             Rich smirked. “Amanda, huh? You’ve been holding out on me. I thought you said you’d never been here before.”
             “I haven’t. Unless it was in another life or a separate consciousness. You know how your mind sort of astrally projects out of your body, and stuff happens you can’t really swear to after?”
             “Happens all the time. Look, who’s this Amanda chick, anyway?”
             “A waitress, like she said. I met her at the bar. I thought the outfit she was wearing for her work was eye-catching. And so was she. What I could see of her, which, granted, wasn’t very much.”
             “This bears looking into. You’re lagging behind with the Monsters. The Monsters must not be kept waiting.”
             Just then, the stage lights went up, and we saw the pit. Or, more precisely, the U-shaped sunken area that served as the lounge area: small round tables and captain’s chairs crammed together. A server would have to be lithe and agile to make her way around down there. For a brief moment, I thought I saw monks with pointed metal crosses converging for a kill on an unsuspecting patron flinching, sliding unsuccessfully away from the attack against the curve of the wall. Then, a silent scream and the gushing of blood.
             “Finished with that?” our waitress was asking me, meaning my beer.
             “Oh, sorry, just about. Hold on, and you can have the empty,” I said, polishing off my beer.
             “Where did you go?” Rich asked. “I thought, for a minute, that we’d lost you.”
             “Oh, nowhere. Just a brief cinematic flashback. Amazing the kinds of images that stay with you, isn’t it?”
             “Like a naked woman. That’s what this place needs. More naked women. It’s the perfect setting for something Roman. Something like the Satyricon to an acid rock band soundtrack.”
             “Not likely. Those two singers don’t look as if they’d be able to belt out anything like what you had in mind.”
             We listened as they harmonized, singing “Loving You.”
             “I guess you’re right, there,” Rich agreed.
             “Once upon a time, I struggled to name what my least favorite song was. Now, I could recall what that song was. It was “Loving You.” I thought if I heard one more ‘La La La La—,’ I think I might become violent.”
             “Shitfire, yeah. That would get Mr. Walker’s attention. At least drink the beer before you chuck it at the stage. I would suggest something a little subtler. Like some good, old-fashioned heckling.”
             “You’re good at heckling, so be my guest.”
             “Don’t mind if I do,” Rich said.
             I expected the usual bullshit hecklers specialize in. Something like, “I’ve got something you can love.” But not Richie. No, he was going to do something totally unexpected. Like placing a transistor radio on our table and fiddling with the dial to better tune in an Oldies station.
             “You always carry that with you?” I asked.
             “Just about. You never know when you might need one. Like now.”
             “How come I never saw that with you before?”
             “We’ve never been here before. Besides, I guarantee Mr. Walker will notice.”
             “Oh, I’m sure he will.”
             We got to hear the dying strains of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the comforting refrain of ‘a wing a wup, a wing a wup’ trying to cut through the static. Nothing like those real Golden Oldies.
             “Reception in here really sucks.”
             “Maybe it’s the weather?”
             I heard the opening chords of the Stones singing, “19th Nervous Breakdown”—“You better stop, look around, here it comes—.” I didn’t expect to hear the guitar riff at the end of the tune, and I was right.
             Instead of our waitress, a slender, curly haired man stood stiffly by our table, a bottle of Blue Nun in one hand and a wine opened in the other, saying, “Perhaps, you fellows would care to join me for a drink. Some place a little more private.”
             “Of course, Mr. Walker,” Rich replied. “Whatever you say. Oh, we haven’t paid our check.”
             “Don’t worry about your check. It’s on me.”
             “Don’t forget the tip.”
             “Don’t push it, Rich. I had a feeling the power-drinking madmen the waitress described might be you and someone else. I didn’t expect Mr. Cool, here, to be your date. I thought he had better taste than that.”
             “Just when you thought you knew someone, he surprises the shit out of you. Keeps life interesting.”
             We stood up, and Richie dropped a five-dollar bill on the table.
             “What’s that for?” Walker asked. “I said the drinks were on me. Provided you come quietly to my inner sanctum.”
             “You were going to stiff our waitress. She deserves better. Usually, the waitress skips informing the manager about people like us and just calls the cops.”
             “And normally, she’d be right on. But I have enough problems with cops already without inviting them to the place.”
             “It wouldn’t have something to do with your Midnight Madness, would it?”
             “Might. What’s it to you?”
             Mr. Walker closed the door of the back room he had taken us into and set a couple of glasses on some liquor cases. “Make yourself at home.”
             “Aren’t you going to join us?” Rich asked.
             “I wouldn’t drink that shit with someone else’s mouth. What made you order that stuff?”
             “It was a joke, actually. But as long as its opened, it would be a shame to waste it.”
             “What wouldn’t you drink, Rich?”
             “When I find out, I’ll let you know.”
             “One thing puzzles me,” I said.
             “What’s that?” Walker asked.
             “What made you choose Mr. Walker as your cover name? I thought you’d choose something more esoteric, more poetic. Something from Shakespeare, something like Gloucester or Northumberland or Kent. Edgar Gloucester. Now, there’s a name for you. Very tragic. Like Lear. And suggestive.”
             “How so?”
             “Because it’s so provincial and allusive. Because it suggests your real name, but not really. Instead, you go for a rock-opera name. Tommy Walker. Jesus.”
             “How did you know I chose Tom as a first name?”
             “Well, didn’t you?”
             “So?”
             “I hold these truths to be self evident. Really, now, why the phony name? Are you running from a process server or what?”
             “Not yet.”
             “Not yet, meaning?”
             “I’m still collecting unemployment under my real name. This gig isn’t going to last.”
             “No shit, Sherlock. I’m surprised you lasted this long without a warrant and a fleet of dudes with drawn guns like escapees from an episode of The Untouchables. How long have you been open? Three weeks? A month?”
             “Six weeks, smartass. The cops aren’t happy, though; I’ll admit that. They’ve been pulling over guys leaving here at an astonishing rate. They might even have to take on new guys to write summonses and to take extra day shifts to cover guys in court. They should be grateful instead of pissed off. Look at all the business I’m sending them.”
             “Yeah, but, and here’s a clue for you all, cops don’t think that way. They get tired of cleaning up after all those Woodchucks playing Lumberjacks with their vehicles on the way home from your establishment.”
             “Geez, if they can’t take a joke—”
             “What exactly is the joke about drunk driving?”
             “You guys tell me; you’re the professionals.”
             I had to admit he had me there. Richie must have spent a small fortune on an invisibility cloak for his vehicle. There was no other explanation for how he managed to get around the way he did, one eye closed, focusing on the middle of the three sets of double lines he liked to follow wherever they took him. Sometimes, he even ended up home, though there were rumors that he had a permanent parking spot behind a local Price Chopper, where he slept off the previous night’s debauchery.
             That is, until the produce trucks arrived, and all holy hell broke out as they unloaded their trucks. I was surprised that there never had been a shooting of deliverymen, cut down in the prime of delivery by a mad gunman in an alcoholic rage.
             More disturbing than the image of Rich semi-conscious and armed for bear, was the tune I was hearing as Tommy waited for my snappy reply to his statement of fact. The song was “Hippy Hippy Shake” by the Swinging Blue Jeans, a song that seemed so unlikely to have a place on a loop tape, that I wondered if it hadn’t been dredged from my consciousness as a particularly surreal auditory hallucination. It wouldn’t be the first time I had an auditory hallucination. Maybe not even the first time today. All I knew was they were not cool.
             Visual hallucinations, well, that was a different story altogether. The night was relatively young, so having a few of those wasn’t totally out of the question. If I were patient, who knew what might happen. The music might even improve.
             “So, what brings you guys out here to the wilderness?” Tommy asked. “A bit beyond your normal bailiwick, isn’t it?”
             “I’m here for the pleasant atmosphere and the decor. He’s here to sniff out some waitron named Amanda,” Richie said.
             Good old Richie, the soul of discretion.
             “Why don’t you just announce it over the house intercom, so there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind?” I said.
             “You have an intercom outlet somewhere around here?”
             “If I did,” Tommy said, “I wouldn’t admit it to you. I’m not that crazy.”
             “Oh, yes you are,” Richie replied, “especially if there were a threat of violence involved.”
             “And to think, I was just about to float a money-making proposal in front of you guys. But seeing as you’re not interested—”
             “Who says we’re not interested?” Rich asked.
             “Well, if you’re going to trash the place, you certainly wouldn’t want to have the jobs I was about to offer.”
             “What jobs?”
             “Weekend shifts, ten to close, under the table, and all the tips you can glom. And Amanda’s home phone. What you do with it and how far it goes is up to you. I hear the numbnuts I have working the bar for me right now are making a couple of bucks easy on the happy hour alone, and neither one of them could handle anything more complicated than scotch and water, though you might have to point out that not all liquor that comes in a bottle is scotch.”
             “When do I start?” Rich asked.
             “I was going to fire them both and have you on, starting, like, in ten minutes, but under the present circumstances, I think next week might be a better idea.”
             “I’m on. What about you, Cowboy?”
             “I have a job, as you well know,” I said. “Not about to leave for love or money.”
             “Too bad. That Amanda is a pretty hot piece of work,” Tommy said. “I guess I’ll just have to give this number to Rich.”
             “You do that, and I’ll bite your wrist. I don’t know about you, but my distemper shots are way out of date.”
             “All right, I’ll give you some time to think it over. Another bottle of wine’s worth. But this time, we’ll have something drinkable.”
             “Amen,” Rich added. “Whose idea was it to drink this swill, anyway?”
             “Yours, I think,” Tommy said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back. And don’t even think about opening something else while I’m gone.”
             “Would we do that?”
             “You sure as hell would. So, sit tight and relax. I’ll only be gone a minute. And do me a favor: don’t burn the place down, either.”
             “Jesus, don’t you trust us?”
             “Not for a minute. Not like you are right now, anyway.”
             The door hadn’t been closed more than fifteen seconds before Rich asked, “You think he’s got anything interesting in here worth drinking?”
             “I’m sure he does. I’m also sure that, as your new boss, he might not take kindly to your fucking up completely before you even started working.”
             In my brain-depleted time warp, the Swinging Blue Jeans were replaced by an off-key version of Elton John singing, “Rocket Man.” I’d never quite related to that song previously. It was taking on a new meaning to me, as I drifted in and out of the here and now.
             Not being firmly rooted in time was reflexive for Rich, something that happened all the time for him, but for me, it required some concentration to deal with. Rich’s coping mechanism was to launch into a hypermanic monologue about anything that came to mind. Usually, what that turned out to be defied any kind of sense or logic, but that was of no consequence to him. What mattered to him was the speaking. Having an audience was nice, but it wasn’t essential. I know I routinely tuned him out after the first complex sentence. I mean, if he couldn’t follow what he was saying, who else could?
             I used to try to make some sense of what he was saying, if only to be polite, then, out of some kind of perverse curiosity, then, out of morbid fascination. Eventually, I simply gave up listening. Richie didn’t mind. Everyone gave up listening to him. It was expected.
             As the door closed and our prospective employer—Mr. Walker, looking more and more like Mephistopheles in a white shirt and tie—returned, the loop tape in my head changed from Elton to David Bowie singing about Major Tom and, I thought, Man, am I ever fucked. And then, I was in the lounge, and this voice was speaking to me from beneath this dark-hooded robe. What she was saying had something to do with pentacles and cups and a Hanged Man, and in the woods near a burning vehicle in dark woods, scattered severed heads of goats and slaughtered lambs amid the inverted crosses, and I said, “Sure, but make it a double.”
             A robed monk from some bad dream, some bad place of demons and devils, black magic women and Black Death Plague artists, was reaching out for me with a pale leprous hand, a hand that had touched death in an intimate way and had loved the touching so much, it had joined the cause like a Typhoid Mary with a scotch bottle, everything touched, withered, wasted away, sucked dry all the way to the bones.
             And then, the body from inside the robe was sitting across the table from where I was, a double amber something neat in front of me, empty glasses pushed to one side, a flamed-out candle surrounded by all my empties, and I thought, Not my emptiness. My emptiness is filled. And I saw that it was Amanda. The hood of her robe was pulled down about her shoulders, and she was talking, though I couldn’t figure out about what, as her voice was drowned out by the Rolling Stones singing, “I see a red door, and I want it painted black——I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky. I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black—”
             “No more doubles,” I managed. “What about you? When are you off?”
             And she was saying, “I’m off now. I have a van. In the lot. My ex converted it, customized it: rugs and pillows and wall-to-wall speakers. I could sleep in it, if I wanted to. Have more than once, when the occasion demanded.”
             And I was saying, “Like now?”
             “Maybe. Sure. Like now. Mr. Walker says you’re, like, the major stud bartender for miles around.”
             “Not much competition, especially this time of night or day. Or whatever. Which is it?”
             And she said, “You’re a funny guy; that’s for sure.”
             And I said, “That’s me all over.”
             And then, we were in her van, and the sun was coming up from just beyond the trees, and her lips were on mine, and she was groping in the dark, and so was I. Groping toward what, I wasn’t sure, but we were trying like hell to get somewhere, anywhere at all.
             And I thought I heard Hank Williams singing, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry,” which I thought was more likely than what I had been hearing earlier. I thought, hoped, maybe it was a tape Amanda had put on her deck or maybe, Rich in the parking lot with the Bright Green Pleasure Machine with his tape deck and a not-so-subtle comment about what he thought we were doing inside the van. All I knew was, that what we were doing wasn’t what he thought.
             I hoped someday it would all come back to me. This night. Amanda. Everything. But I also knew that, more than likely, if and when the memory returned, it would be as a haunting more than as a memory, and it would have all kinds of unexpected repercussions I might never be able to undo.


♥ End ♥



Alan Catlin worked at his unchosen profession as a barman for thirty-four years in college bars, banquet houses, hotels, restaurants, a nightclub, and a neighborhood Irish bar, the latter for the last twenty-five years of his so-called career. He has published thousands of poems and stories since the mid-70’s and has over sixty-five chapbooks and full-length books of prose and poetry to his credit. His most recent full-length collection is Alien Nation, a compilation of four thematically interconnected chapbooks. Among his many awards and citations are twenty Pushcart Prize nominations. He is currently the poetry editor of the online journal, Misfit Magazine. [Author photo by and © Valerie Catlin; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Bearings  |  Gary Every















             



             My sister lies awake at night, listening to see if the air conditioning bearings need greasing. All night. Then, she is exhausted during the day. She naps and naps but never seems to catch up. Until the nighttime, when she lies there in the dark and silence, listening to the air conditioning engine, trying to hear if the bearings are whining.
             She hasn’t always done this. She used to be a sound sleeper. Too sound, her husband would joke. My sister used to send the children off to bed with wishes of, “Pleasant dreams,” and a smile that told you she expected to have some herself. Now, she just lies awake and listens to the air conditioning bearings.
             Recently, my sister lost her job of nineteen years. She is a little unsettled. She got the job when she was still a teenager, unmarried and childless. Now that her oldest son is getting ready for high school, she is probably a little closer to grandmotherhood than she is to being a teenager—nineteen years ago. That is a long time.
             She worked for nineteen years as a cashier in a grocery store chain. She told me a story about a thing that happened at her job. It was an extremely hot summer day, in the middle of a heat wave, and a transient walked into the store. Homeless people in the store were nothing new. They came in a lot during the worst of the summer and hung out in the frozen foods section. Some of them smelled so bad that you couldn’t get the stink out all day.
             This particular transient was a regular. He smelled bad, but to tell the truth, not any worse than some of the regular folk. He always bought lots of cat food. One day, the transient walked right up to where my sister was working the cash register and looked her straight in the eye.
             “I need to see the manager.”
             “Look,” my sister replied, “I’m sorry the price of cat food is too high, but there is nothing I can do about it.”
             “No,” the transient said firmly. “This is something else. I need to see a manager urgently.”
             So, my sister got her manager. She didn’t have time for any of this bullshit. The manager asked the transient what the problem was.
             “One of your air conditioning bearings is going out,” he replied. “If you don’t replace it soon, it could do a lot of damage to the motor.”
             The manager paused to ponder his reaction, while my sister listened intently. “And how do you know the air conditioner is about to throw a bearing?”
             “The squeaking is keeping me and my roommate awake at night.”
             “Well, thank you,” the store manager replied, somewhat bewildered, but shaking the homeless man’s hand, “We’ll get someone on that right away.”
             The store manager did what he had promised and made one of the stock boys climb up a long, rickety ladder to the roof. The air conditioning bearing was squeaking loudly. There was more to discover, however—much more. There was a small shack up there, made up of discarded produce boxes. There were empty cat food cans scattered everywhere. In the center of the roof, not far from the air conditioner, was a rock fire ring with burnt charcoal in the center. The fire pit was surrounded by cat skeletons, many of the bones looking thoroughly gnawed. The store manager had the motor repaired, but the two roommates were evicted from their feline palace.
             My sister said she never thought about that incident until the day she lost her job, a victim in the shuffle of corporate takeovers. Nineteen years, and now she has no idea what she will do next. Now, she thinks about that day all the time and all those cat skeletons. She had to climb up the ladder, rung by rung, the smell of barbecue in the air. My sister just had to see for herself what was up on the roof. There was the little shack, the clothesline, milk crate furniture, and there were even more cats than the stock boy had described: skeletons, bones, and skulls everywhere. Suddenly, she remembered all the evenings she had left work for home, and the parking lot had stunk like burning hair. The two roommates were sort of chubby for homeless people, she mused.
             Now, she can’t get the story out of her mind. Ever since she lost her job, it is all she thinks about. She lies awake all night long and listens for the squeaking sounds that would indicate a bearing getting ready to throw. She can’t sleep a wink, just thinking about losing a job after nineteen years, making sure the bearings are still running.


♥ End ♥



Gary Every is the author of nine books, including Shadow of the Ohshad, a compilation of the best of his award-winning newspaper columns concerning Southwestern history, folklore, Native Americans, and the environment. His science fiction novella, The Saint and the Robot, regarding medieval legend the author uncovered about Thomas Aquinas, is also available from Amazon. [Author photo by and © William Cole; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Quiet Room  |  Doug Holder



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             My name is Leon ... Leon Dunn. Most nights, I wake up at eight p.m. or so, still feeling bloated from dinner. Mostly, I have early dinners. Eating makes me sleep. I have to sleep ... I work nights. I go to school at night. For that matter, most of my days are in the dead of night.
             Did I mention that I am thirty-five? I guess I’m young to some, not so young to others. I live in a room. The room is quite small. It’s a walk-up—Bowdoin Street, Beacon Hill—Boston. Eighty bucks a week, can’t beat that. Next door to me is a retired school teacher. She doesn’t say much to me. She watches me pass through the crack of her opened door, then slams it when I am down the stairs. Real friendly joint.
             I keep my life very ordered. Order for me is security. I am sure of some things. Like the fact that I work five nights a week and sleep during the day.
             I don’t have many friends to complicate things. I work a strange schedule anyway. I never gave much thought to working days.
             Any women in my life? I thought you would get around to that. I haven’t been with one in five years. They make me nervous. You know, demands, expectations. Anyway ... I work nights. You know how it is ...
             Tonight, I am going to work as usual. The night shift is ideal for me. I work at a large psychiatric hospital just outside the city: McFallow. At night, there are no messy confrontations with patients. The frenzy of the day shift is a mere echo by now. The dust has settled, and for a good deal of the shift, I am left alone. I read, bide my time. I occupy myself with thoughts of remote possibilities or dead ends. Then, before you know it, morning comes.


♥♥♥


             Tonight is like any other night for me. I wake up slightly bloated, and it’s dark out. The smell in my furnished room is stale. My flat is a study of disrepair with cracked ceilings, leaky faucets, a hot plate … not to mention a view of a back alley and brick wall. Yet, I feel comfortable here. It’s my home. I sleep here. I eat here. And it is mine. This is where I go after work. Simple as that.
             Soon, I am walking down Charles Street. I climb up the stairs to catch the subway to Cambridge. I stand on the platform and let the winter winds whip me across the face. I like the drama here. The expanse of the Charles River, the view of the stars unobstructed. It’s almost like I am emerging from a tunnel of my own making. The air is fresh and bracing ... my life has a horizon.
             The train stops, and then hurdles across the choppy water, only to be sucked up in the bowels of Cambridge. I inhale the vaguely urine-scented air of the subway car. My window seat has a clear view of a passing pristine night sky. It seems like the stars are competing with the skyscrapers for attention ... then, all is a roar and black.
             I check my bag. It contains: The New York Times, A Portrait of a Lady, two magic markers, three yellow legal pads, two packs of Camels, a tube of hemorrhoid cream, and a Valium. Hey ... whatever gets you though the night, right?
             Years ago, I went to work with nothing. Now—I find it necessary to carry things. I have to have them. I find myself anxious without them. I clutch my bag now; before, it was loosely slung across my shoulder. I keep it. The shoulder strap won’t break. It’s so hard to let go of things. I guess working nights will do that to ya.


♥♥♥


             The subway leaves me off in Harvard Square. I walk like a ghost through the crowds of young revelers, celebratory Harvard Students, and street hustlers who line the street. My eyes are fixed on the ground, rushing to catch the 73 bus to McFallow.
             McFallow is on a hill in the town of Beltmore. Beltmore was once voted the most “boring” town in the state by the Boston Globe. But I guess that is a good place for a mental hospital to be located. There is a sort of hush here. The town could be described as “sedate,” and McFallow was in the business of sedation.
             Sybil greets me on the unit I work, Trinap 3. She is the night nurse. She runs the shift. Like many of us, she is a creature of the night. Her face is pale and drawn for lack of sunlight and sleep. Her body is bloated, its bulk sagging, hanging limply from her stooped frame. She seems at times to be in as much acute stress as her patient charges, alternating between agitation and distraction. She often demands my immediate attention and dismisses me in the same breath. But she doesn’t really bother me. Like the contents of my bag, she is a necessity. I like to know what to expect ... no surprises, five nights a week; get my drift?
             Sybil is sitting in her usual spot in the nursing station. She seems to be absorbed totally in her paper work. Her graying beehive hairstyle bouncing up and down, to and fro, behind the fortress of notebooks she is working on.
             “How are you, Sybil?” I ask.
             “Fine dear,” she replies, and then, abruptly, “You are not going to stand there all night, are you!”
             I have to laugh to myself. I find her perversity comical. “Calm down. The shift hasn’t started yet,” I respond.
             “Of course ... We must have lunch one of these days. I know this cute little place in Newton Village ...”
             I usually shut her off by this time. She often babbles on about her niece and her new husband, a “darling” antique store she found in Concord, or the incompetent people the nursing agency sends over.
             She stops her late-night stream of consciousness in mid sentence and says, “You will be specialing a patient tonight.” Sybil then resumes her spiel, something about the lack of morality in young people today.
             I am barely listening. Tonight, I bless my good fortune. To ‘special’ a patient simply means to sit in a comfortable chair and watch an inert, sleeping, or drugged body strapped to a foam mattress for a couple of hours. The patient is almost always asleep, and even if he is awake, he rambles on like Sybil. I just turn him off. I am free to read, work on my thesis, or reflect. I have been relieved from the normal tedious duties of the night shift. The symmetry between the patient and me is perfect. Both of us are in our little, self-contained worlds. We are housed in a hushed and dim ward. I often check on these patients for breathing and vital signs. They are securely restrained by leather straps, and their every need is met by the workers. They usually have been violent, but now they are sedated into a soothing haze. I almost envy them.


♥♥♥


             After pouring a cup of coffee that was consistently polluted by a terminally cheerful day nurse, I went down to check on the patient. He is a man about my age, with the sort of muscular torso that comes with hard labor, rather than the measured repetition of a Nautilus machine. I check to see the restraints are secure. I am on edge with physically imposing clients. I have never been secure with my own physical capabilities. I am an oddly constructed man of narrow stooped shoulder, slightly bulging abdomen, and spindly limbs. This guy could clearly eat me for lunch. Luckily, he is asleep. I have some work I need to do.
             I sit down in the chair, just outside the quiet room. I have to be able to see him breathing. Hours of spot-checking the rise and fall of his chest. Over the years, I’ve seen all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen pigeon chests, barrel chests, concave chests, well-endowed women’s chests rising and falling like slowly bouncing melons. What interests me about this person is his face. He is clearly Boston Irish. The standard package: hard blue eyes, thinning blond hair, the weathered skin of a laborer or someone who has a taste for the libations and smokes. I have a sense of unease about him. Even though he is asleep, I have a sense of a feral, probing intelligence. I feel like the prey before it is eaten by the predator. I probably read too much. Working nights can do that to ya.
             About an hour into my shift, I am totally absorbed in my work; cloistered on the ward, straining to find phallic imagery in the work of Henry James. This arcane study is the “meat” of my thesis. It is something that I have been working on fitfully for years. I feel like a weasel, squirreled away in some remote forest den, greedily digging out bits and pieces of sexual innuendo from the highly refined and mannered work of James.
             “Writing your memoirs, chief?”
             The voice comes as a cold shock. It is thickly accented, with a strong emphasis on the “r’s.” It comes barreling out of the room, derailing my chain of thought, insisting on my attention, intent on confrontation.
             “Cat got your tongue, pal?” the patient speaks a second time.
             “School work,” I reply. I wonder what he is doing up. I remember that Sybil said he can have no more medication. Maybe I can convince him to go to sleep. I don’t want an all-night dialogue. “You really should get some rest. You need it.”
             “Yeah, and what makes you a friggin’ expert? You a head shrink or something?”
             “No, I am a mental health generalist,” I reply.
             The patient snickers to himself. I fumble through my bag. The Valium is gone. I must have dropped it somewhere. I wish they would turn the heat down. It is so damn hot!
             I see Steve come down the hall, checking every room compulsively. He stops at each one, holding the flashlight like a ray gun, shooting a beam of white light at each bed as if to keep aliens at bay. He is a diminutive man of about thirty, has thick blond hair and a baby face—looks like an overgrown choir boy. He is sucking on some breath mints. A necessity, if you make a pit stop at the local watering hole before work. He smiles at me.
             “Looks like you are here for the whole evening, old boy,” he says. “We got a sick call. Sybil asked me to tell you.”
             At another time, I might have been happy with these prospects. But this guy I’m specialing gives me the creeps. I’ll ignore him. I’ll shut him off. I’ll make his words meaningless vibrations from his throat. I’ll maintain my composure, an airtight vacuum. I will be in CONTROL of the situation. I could use a smoke. No hope for that. They have given me the chair ... seven hours sitting here, with a guerilla. I’ll bury my head in the notes. I’m trapped ...


♥♥♥


             “That nurse on the second shift,” the patient says. “Now, I call that filly a fine piece of work. I went out with a chippie like that in Charlestown. She had a body on her that would give a stiff a hard on. What’s her name?”
             “Clovis. Listen, it’s really important that you get some sleep. I really can’t talk about other staff,” I answered.
             “You got a girl, professor?”
             “I don’t think that’s anything we should discuss. Try to sleep.”
             “Even money, you don’t. I figure you for a guy who runs the first time they pull down their pants.” He laughs nefariously.
             I squirm in my seat. The damn heat, can’t they turn it the fuck down? My throat is beginning to tighten. I can’t concentrate. “That’s none of your concern, I’m sure. Please focus on yourself; that’s what you are here for.”
             He laughs again. He seemed to enjoy this interrogation. I continued to plead the fifth to no avail.
             “How old are ya, bud?” he asked.
             “Thirty-five. Are you satisfied? Please, try to calm down. Please, try to calm down.”
             “Working nights, living alone I bet. What do ya do for kicks, stay inside and play with yourself?” the patient sneers.
             “My life is not your concern. I am going to stop this interaction.”
             “‘Stop this interaction’? You talk like you think you’re something. There ain’t much difference between you and me. I’d say I probably should be in the chair watching you.”


♥♥♥


             The time is two-thirty a.m. It seems it will be five hours of torture. I am as much trapped as he. We are in the middle of a strange dance, and he is leading. I wish he could be quiet. Just shut up for a minute.
             “Where do you live, Mac?” he asked.
             “A furnished room in town. Perhaps that fact will put you to sleep.”
             “Suicide suite, huh? Bet you have a few tumblers, shoot your wad, and say woe is me.”
             “My life is not your concern,” I reply.
             “Not that I give a shit. I just make it a hobby to figure out strange birds like you. Funny, me down here and you up there. The only reason your ass ain’t on the line is because of these four straps.”
             I will try to ignore him. I feel like a lab specimen, being dissected. I was trained to refocus the conversation to the patient. He is reducing my life to his pathetic vision. I work hard to keep things in their proper places. It is a precarious balance to maintain, yet I have achieved a fragile stasis. I now feel like a Blanche to this guy’s Stanley.
             “Me, I am married, a few kids,” he continues. “I admit, I hit the juice a little hard. We all have a few skeletons ... know what I am saying? I don’t regret much. I had a good time, bird-dogging chicks, running with the boys playing the dogs at Wonderland. We are about the same age, ain’t we prof? A billiard ball has more hair than you. Got a face that would make Igor look good. You are going nowhere fast, Jack.”
             He seems to have a genius for picking out more sore spots. His perception is fine-tuned, and with laser accuracy, he tears at me. It is a game to him, in which the stakes are higher for me. He has a need to get to me, a focus for his venom. I am his personal toilet bowl.
             “More to life than those books you read, friend,” he says. “Working nights a long time?”
             “Long enough,” I say.
             “World goes by, and you sit in the dark. People make families, take vacations, maybe make some decent change. But you stay in the dark. A cheap room, a hot plate, some old picture of some girl who forgot your ugly mug a long time ago. ... What a waste.”
             “Just shut up. Just shut up!” I was losing my composure.
             He smiles widely. He got a rise from me. It’s as if he smells blood. This is his personal march to the sea. He has momentum on his side.
             “Did I piss you off, pal? Good. Now we are cookin’ with Crisco. That’s what you need. To get good and mad. I know guys like you. Educated, working shit jobs. Think they are better because they read a few books. Sort of keeps them going. They wind up in some fleabag. The big decision in their lives is whether to order the meatloaf or pot roast in the local diner.”
             I think to myself. What was it, five years ago? There was a girl. She used to say I was special. I loved her. She made demands on me. I walked our apartment like a caged animal. There wasn’t any defining incident in our break up. Just a slow fade out, and then, a note: You’re a special person, but it’s over. Don’t call. I never saw her again. I even looked for her for a while. Not anymore, ancient history.
             There was silence now. I looked up from my notes. He’s smiling at me without warmth, without a trace of humor. It is a smile of a man who has the upper hand.
             “So, what is it, Sherlock;” he asks, “you got something to hide?”
             “I really must insist that you focus your energies on yourself. After all, that’s what you are here for.”
             My voice starts to quiver. This makes the patient perk up. He is almost coiled like a cat ready to spring.
             “The question is why are you here?” he says. “They had to drag me here, kicking and screaming. I got a wife and kids to go to after I blow. You are staring at your navel every night. I think you found a rock to crawl under, friend.”
             A decade. A decade of long nights. A long string of darkness. My eyes squinting in the early morning sunlight. The morning commuters and I are always in furious opposition, moving in different directions. The day in progress. I come home every day and fall asleep to the din of talk radio. Disembodied voices that intertwine with my sleep. The night shift has always been my soft cushion to the frenzy of the world.
             I found my eyes swelling with tears. There is a pit in my stomach as empty as my life. I am swaying back and forth in my chair. I hold my sorry body with my thin, inadequate arms. I don’t know how long I stayed this way ...


♥♥♥


             The patient is asleep. He has a contented look on his face, like a baby fed and tucked in. He sleeps soundly. It is seven a.m.
             “You are relieved now,” Steve said, at the end of this long shift.
             I walk down the bright hall. The morning light has generously filtered through the sterile ward. The day shift is in progress. I walk by them like a ghost.
             “Leon, what are you doing?!” a day nurse asked.
             The foam mattress supports my limp body well. My arms and legs are outstretched waiting for the leather straps. The sun shines through the screens illuminating the room, giving it a divine glow.
             “I’ve been relieved now,” I say. “I’ve been relieved.”


♥ End ♥



Doug Holder works at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. He has written a chapbook of poetry about his experiences, Poems of Boston and Just Beyond: From the Back Bay to the Back Ward (Alpha Beat Press, 1998). He is the founder of Ibbetson Street Press and teaches at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. His poetry and prose have appeared in Rattle, Cafe Review, Poiesis, Caesura, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in Literature from Harvard University. This piece was originally published in Wilderness House Literary Review. [Author photo by and © Dianne Robitaille; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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