My Berkeley Sky by Willy
The Berkeley sky looks just like a blister, watery and sad. I like it. It’s my sky. My Berkeley. My home. I know every tone of this sky. I can sit and reflect on it for hours. When it shines, I shine. When it is sad, I am sad. Because the sky today is a blister, I am a blister. This is appropriate. Today I have a hangover and can barely keep my arms from trembling. I know blisters and hangovers are two separate things altogether, but I see their likeness, their fluid kinship. By association they are one and the same. I sit in the Café Roma on College Avenue and give the stink eye to the world. My stink eye is the surface of the blister, the ocular manifestation of a night of poor choices. My body, my arms, my useless legs, are the flesh under the blister. I am now wholly defined. The Berkeley sky and I are complete. I am the angry guy in the wheelchair by the door, the guy you will not stare at for fear of bringing attention to his crippleness. I get it. This goddamned chair sets me apart. Go ahead and stare. I will stare right back. When he is hungover, blister man is not to be fucked with.
A few of my friends come by, ignore my blister state, say, “Hi, Ron, how you doing?” Because I don’t want to be a total jerk, I act happy for a second, give a big wave, say something appropriately upbeat. When they are gone, I go back to my angry blister state.
Cynthia comes by at 10:00 and shares her news. I have now gone from anger to peevishness. I peevishly listen as Cynthia talks about pilates and NGO’s for a while, then mentions that she’s getting divorced, is living now with a broker from the city. I act like this doesn’t bother me, say, “Yo, girl, that’s good news. Glad you got rid of that last fool.” Cynthia pats my hand, says, “Ron, you always could tell what was best for me.” I smile and say, “Just happy you’re happy.” And then I sit there and fume as Cynthia tells me how happy she is. Even though I am no longer with Cynthia, I wish I was. She was with me for almost six months, nearly a record. I did not appreciate her. When she told me she was leaving, it was a big deal for her, lots of tears, lots of explaining the damage the men before me had done, how I had brought out the real Cynthia. I was glad she was leaving. I’m good at bringing the real person out. I am not good with staying with them.
Cynthia takes off when she gets a call from her ex. I go back to watching the sky, see a blue patch opening up over Oakland. My mood changes. I like that patch of blue. I am now a sunny person with a hangover. I order a second cinnamon twist and chill by the door. I know I shouldn’t have the twist, will have to put in extra miles on my chair to work it off, but I stick with my decision. I consume the twist in minutes, just like the bottle of Malbec I drank the night before. Great. The twists means at least a four mile roll up and down the avenue. Not a good idea with the old pair of chair gloves I have. They’re barely hanging together. So I’ll get shredded up on the way home. The sky clouds up again, which makes me angry again. Goddamned world. Goddamned bad luck. Goddamned me. Another shitty morning in October. And me in this fucking chair gaining weight.
I read my news blog on my laptop and worry about getting lonely. This wasn’t always the case. I wasn’t always this pathetic. The first ten years after my accident I got lots of action. There was a certain type of young woman who would see me in the chair and they couldn’t help themselves. They had to care for me, cuddle me, treat me like a little toy. It was the perfect guy in the chair relationship model. After a few months they went off and found regular men that didn’t need chairs to move around in. I was okay with it. I mean it. I did really well. I was the dirty perv in the wheelchair. No one really judged me for it. Because you can be a player in a chair and people will congratulate you for it. They feel you deserve it after all the hell you’ve been through. So you can be kind of a jerk and get a free pass. Every few months I got a new girlfriend, a whole new perspective. It was a great routine. I loved it. Before I was in the chair I dated a lot of girls who thought I was full of myself. But the chair put a stop to that. All was good until my looks started to fade, and I had to do extra time in the gym. I got wrinkled. My hair turned gray. I started going through dry spells, sometimes a week, sometimes a few months. When the women finally came around, they had problems worse then mine, and I was the permanent therapist guy in the wheelchair. I would like to say it’s only been a few weeks in my particular dry spell, but it’s been more like two years. I worry enough to have another twist. I am now a damned loser food sublimator. I eat to forget that Cynthia has reminded me of Alice. And Alice of Sarah. And Sarah of Mercedes. Mercedes of Laney, et cetera, et alia, ad nauseum. My line of saved ones. I look at the sky. It’s turning foggy underneath the clouds. No hope for me today. Not now. I go back to giving the stink eye to the world.
When I see them standing in line, a blonde and a brunette, I turn, stare. Two stunning women around their mid-forties, perfectly made up in alternative East Bay wear, dark clothes, leather boots, alternative poet types, the not quite bad girl look. Used to be I wouldn’t look twice at a woman past thirty, but now I stare all the damned time. At my age my window of criticism is far wider open. I throw the brunette my cool-cripple-from-the-chair grin. She flashes a smile, turns away, says something to the blonde. The blonde checks me out. I raise my espresso cup. She nods. This is good. I have not been acknowledged like this in at least six months. I keep staring. They look away, move along in the line. They have already forgotten about me when they reach the pastry counter. I go back to my blog. At least I’ve given it a try. I’m not out of the game yet. Not a total loss.
A few minutes later I notice a commotion at my side. It’s them. They are carrying plates and coffee cups, trying to navigate the midmorning rush, bumping into people.
“Hey, are these seats taken?” asks the brunette. She is looking at me again. I see her eyes are bright, the make-up around them expertly applied. Perfect. Sophisticated with a hint of exotic.
“I’ve been holding them for you,” I reply coolly.
“Ah, I thought all gentlemen had disappeared in this modern world,” notes the blonde. “Look at this. Now I find a few are still around.”
“I have my moments,” I say. “Though just be warned if you sit here you might have to talk to me.”
“Oh really? You’re one of those types?” asks the brunette.
“Not normally. But after my morning jog I’m usually quite intense,” I say. “You know, the dude really into getting into the gym, sculpting his body, now he can’t stop talking about himself.”
They hesitate for a second, consider not sitting down. I can see their minds working. What’s with the self-deprecating joke? Am I the cool guy in the wheelchair or the angry loner? I shoot them my big grin. It’s my winner grin. I’ve crafted this grin for twenty years. It’s the good guy grin, the guy in the wheelchair who can laugh at himself grin, the funny guy at the party who can make everyone feel comfortable.
“He is one of those types,” says the blonde.
“You bad, bad man,” says the brunette.
“Hey, a second ago I was a gentleman.”
“You bad, bad gentleman,” amends the blonde.
“Come, pretty ladies, have a seat,” I say.
They sit down. We shoot the breeze for the next half hour. I learn the brunette is Shob-nom, the blonde is Payton. I am enchanted. The way they speak sounds like they attended some art institute or college in the East somewhere. I have always been a sucker for east-coasty intellectual women. They have a way of deleting everything in the world around them except their accessories. The sky starts to clear over College Avenue. I feel my old dog ways coming back. I throw out another smile. This is my zone. I can charm them with my infinite knowledge of all things screwed up with Berkeley, tell a few more jokes. I won’t tell any cripple jokes, though. Not for the moment. I have a whole repertoire of really good cripple material. I get can anyone laughing when I need to. But I keep my cripple jokes for social occasions when I can show off what a cool guy I am, how I am good with all the pain that luck has found for me.
Before you get all politically correct on me, don’t get worked up over my use of the C word. I get to use the C word because I am a cripple. It’s like the N word. Certain people have rights to it. They have suffered for it. It is their right. As a guy who’s spent his last twenty years in a chair, I’ve earned my cripple tag a thousand times over. In fact, I like it a lot more than handicapped. I hate that word. It’s a disability euphemism, and I hate disability euphemisms. I hate how I have to fill it in on forms. On my taxes. On my applications for a driver’s license (yes, we cripples can drive too). On my health insurance forms. Hey, I know I’m in a chair. At least I can see it. I am sure as hell not hiding behind it. And where is the “human” box on the form? Can’t we all be just human and stop having to worry about categories we never really fit into?
“What’s with the laptop?” asks Shob-nom. “You keep glancing at it.”
“Whoops, sorry,” I say, fold the top down. “A bad habit. Sometimes I bring my work down here. Can’t stand being trapped at home.”
“You have a job?” asks Payton.
“Well, not every guy in a chair is on disability,” I point out. “Contrary to popular myth, we are not all useless.”
“Oh dear, you’ve offended him,” notes Shob-nom.
“Not at all,” I say. “I’m not your regular guy. I don’t take offense easily.”
“That’s for sure,” says Payton. “What do you do?”
I am about to lie and tell her that I do some kind of meaningful job, you know, like some kind of an outreach for marginalized people, or that I coordinate a cooperative for general assistance adults in West Berkeley. You know the game, the guy who can’t get a “real” job sort of thing, the type that needs to soak the government. I hold back. Enough kidding. I have a great job. I make a good income. “I write code,” I explain. “Right now for a startup. Used to have my own company, sold it a few years back. Now I freelance. I may be in a chair but I work harder than most guys my age.”
“Hence the really nice chair,” says Payton.
“Ah, you noticed,” I say.
“That’s one sharp piece of metal,” notes Shob-nam.
“This is my titanium ride,” I say proudly, giving my chair a tap. “Straight dope. No motor. Super light weight. I can roll fast in this baby. I also have a medical at home. Full blown electrical with an archery rack. Lady Gaga step back. Bitch, my chair is faster than your chair.”
“Dude, he’s so cool,” says Shob-nom, then touches my shoulder lightly.
“You’re not kidding, sister,” says Payton. “Why haven’t we met him before?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re hanging out with the wrong people.”
“You are. It’s evident. I hate to tell you this but I am so the right people,” I say.
“And he’s a terrible flirt,” says Shob-nom.
“Cute,” avers Payton.
“Cripple cute,” I amend.
“Oh my God, you are a bad boy,” says Payton.
We talk more. I learn they live in the hills off Shasta, have houses next to each other. As I too am a North Berkeley home owner, we settle into the common conversation of all Berkeleyites. We complain about our city, the screwed up politics, why our roads are so shitty. I learn that Payton is a financial adviser. Shob-nom has her own clothing company. She manufactures out of Viet Nam, has some light production in Mexico. So we talk the economy, small businesses, venture capital. Things I’m good at. We both agree the American business environment is collapsing upon itself, that drastic change is upon us.
Just as I am explaining why the city won’t allow me to modify the ramp to my front door without a full architectural review, Shob-nom checks her portable phone, stands up abruptly, “We have to run,” she says. “Ron, this has been great, but we need to get to the gym. Personal trainer time. It’s been great talking to you.”
“Is it something I said?” I ask.
“Ron, how do you think we keep these young bodies?” says Shob-nom.
“Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we ask Ron to our party,” suggests Payton. “He seems like he’d fit in with our crowd. I mean, he’s cool. And we really, really, really need new blood. Our last get together was a flop.”
“I didn’t think of that,” says Shob-nom, looking me up and down. “Yes, he’ll fit in nicely.” She reaches into her purse, removes a card. “This is my home address, Ron. We’re having a party tomorrow night. We’d like it if you’d come.”
“Party?” I say. “I love parties.”
“I should warn you, Ron, it’s a Save The Western Mountain Lion theme. To be more succinct, it’s kind of like this new sustainability movement we’re into. I know, totally Berkeley, right?”
“Are you kidding? I love mountain lions,” I aver. Which is true. I’ve written code for a few environmental scientists who work in Panama. It’s a program that tracks the movements of the little known dwarf sloth. They fabricate a collar for the sloths that contains a very small processor and a radio transmitter. My code consolidates vital statistics, allows the scientists to review their data from a research station on Bocas Del Toro. I am somewhat proud of it, have even taken a flight to the archipelago to see the sloths. Wheelchair accessible they are not.
“Good, it’s settled,” says Shob-nom.
“I’m so there,” I reply.
We say good-bye. Payton and Shob-nom give me a hug. The feeling of their hair falling over my face is wonderful. I shiver. How long have I missed that? Two years? I breathe in, suck in their perfume. Lord, they smell good.
Despite what I told you about my four mile ride up the avenues, how it’s going to shred my hands and all, I was exaggerating. My gloves are in not such bad condition. They still have fifty miles left in them. Plus, I’m stoked. Here are prospects at last, beautiful prospects. I feel like I’ve been revitalized. I roll out of the Roma, pop a wheelie, juke my chair over the curb, and go flying up College Avenue.
“Cripple, you’re getting laid,” I tell myself as I pump down on my wheels, take the slow climb to Bancroft. I vary my mantra as I ride to Lou’s house. I sing, “Cripple’s gonna get laid” and “This cripple’s gonna tap those rumps” and things like that. A few people hear me say this and are shocked. I don’t care. I am allowed to be the gritty little perv in the chair. I ignore traffic signs, pop wheelies, rush lights. The Berkeley sky is cool blue with shots of yellow on the hills. The fog has rolled back to University Avenue, is working its way to Richmond. I am in a rocking good mood.
My oldest friend, Lou, lives in a building off Cedar. He comes to the door in his dressing gown, says, “Yo, Ron, let’s get high.”
“Holmes, you said the right thing,” I say.
“My, looks like we are in a good mood,” notes Lou as I roll inside.
I tell Lou about Shob-nom and Payton. We smoke a few hits of Train Wreck. I roll around Lou’s kitchen, popping wheelies in my chair, saying, “Lou, this is it. If you saw these women, I mean, you’d go nuts.”
“A thousand percent, dude.”
“Yo, you want me to do your wing work?” asks Lou. “You know there is nothing better than a guy at your side to read the play.”
“Yes and no,” I say slowly.
Lou frowns. “You’re not saying what I think your are? I mean, you come and tell me about these girls but you don’t really want to share?”
“Sorry, Lou, I got to do it my way,” I say.
Lou makes a what-the-fuck face. I know Lou’s an excellent wing guy but I got the vibe I was supposed to ride solo to this party. I am going to play it safe, have Lou drop me off, act like I’m all alone. It’s an act I’ve played before. You know, the guy in the chair without a ride thing. I know, it’s cliched. But I have to work my angles.
“You running the stranded guy in the chair play?” asks Lou.
“It is that obvious?”
“It’s stamped all over your face. You’re grinning like a fool.”
“If nothing works out, I’ll roll home. They’re way up off Shasta. I thought I’d do a wild ride home.”
Lou thinks about this, says, “You need a driver to get you up there.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Drop me a bottle of that killer Dry Creek pinot and we are even.”
“I get action, I’ll buy you a whole case.”
“Brother, I so have your back.”
I pop another wheelie, say, “This cripple’s gonna get laid.”
“Don’t count your chickens,” warns Lou.
Lou drops me off a few blocks away so I can come rolling down the avenues like a madman. Lou’s helped me clean up the chair. We’ve buffed the rims, shined the leather, and hit the moving parts with biking silicon. I have on a white t-shit, black jeans, black Ferragamo wingtips, new black bike gloves, a blue Hermes scarf, and a black leather jacket. The rebel in the chair look. The Berkeley sky is a red-orange, the fog fighting with the smog on the flats. Later it will push its way up the hills, engorge Tilden with its soft cool. An excellent portent. I turn the corner, bear down on Payton’s big classic Berkeley mansion, a John Hudson Thomas from around 1910, a huge neoclassical landmark on a three acre park. It has expansive Bay and Golden Gate views. A real gem.
Payton is in the front drive in a Versace slash cocktail dress. She is flanked by Shob-nom who is in a vintage Chanel. Even though I try not to look astounded I feel my eyes widening. They are more beautiful than I remember. I tell myself this is not the appropriate time to pop a wheelie. I need to roll down to them with measured speed.
“Ron,” they say in unison as I come down the drive, “you made it.”
They kiss me on the cheek as I arrive. I smell their lovely perfume, Gucci and Chanel. It’s almost so sweet that I think I’m drowning. I hand them the bottle of Veuve Clicquot Exra Brut champagne I’ve brought as a gift.
“Ah, my favorite. How did you know?” says Payton.
“It’s my favorite too.”
“Come inside and meet everyone.”
Payton’s house is decorated in understatement. Nothing flashy. Subdued taste. Antiques next to new items. Oriental carpets. She has a few frat boys in white jackets serving us. A catering table has been set out in the back garden. There’s a bar in the kitchen and one in the main hall. The bartenders are elderly gentleman with dyed black hair. Payton introduces me to Bas Washington, a tall black man in a blazer and khaki jeans. Right off I see Bas is a player like me, is into Payton’s look. He can’t keep his eyes off her.
“Classic babe,” I tell Bas. “All style.”
“Man, you are not kidding. That dress. It’s killing me,” says Bas.
“Dude, you’re going to have to fight me for her,” I inform Bas.
He gives me a look. Most guys don’t realize many of us guys in chairs are veteran horndoggers. It’s always a surprise. Before they know it, we’ve taken their girlfriends away. And we don’t feel at all bad about it.
Bas says, “Oh, Jesus, man, I ain’t fighting you for that. I’ll back off, let you take lead. You get a piece of her, man, you are in another league altogether.”
We sip a cocktail, talk. I learn Bas owns a car dealership downtown, has twenty people working for him.
“Man, I got to keep on their asses. It’s a dog eat dog world. I got to be the big dog. You feel me?”
“Shit, you know I do. I did five years in my own startup. You got to find the right employee, the one that will do anything for the company. The days of the forty hour week and weekends off are over.”
“Then you know.”
“I see that.”
The sky now is a furious red as the sun disappears. It gets me feeling more rebel than usual. “Say, do you smoke dope?” I ask Bas. “I mean, if you don’t I’m cool with it. I just feel like sparking up. This day. This perfect sky. And I feel like a rebel tonight.”
“Shit, do I smoke dope?” says Bas.
We roll out to the back deck and smoke a jay. I feel cool. This is a great party. We’ve got cocktails, reefer, women in great dresses. It’s going to be a night.
Shob-nom comes by and takes a hit off the reefer, says, “Dude, I’ve been dying for some good pot. No one brings pot to parties anymore. It’s like we are supposed to deny that all of America hasn’t been getting high for the last thirty years. Dope at parties went out with Reagan.”
“Little brother sure likes his weed,” says Bas, pointing at me. “Where’d you find him?”
“You know me, I’m always on the prowl for new people,” says Shob-nom.
“Man, this little guy’s a keeper,” says Bas. “Hundred percent.”
I feel my heart swell. I’m included. I’m in. There’s nothing like that feeling. Especially if you’re a guy in a chair and a black man points it out.
Shob-nom pulls out her i-phone, says, “Let me get a picture of you guys. You look like you’ve been friends forever.”
“Sure feels like it,” says Bas.
I make goofy faces. Bas points at me, gives me the you’re-one-cool-cripple look.
“Jesus, stop it, be normal,” says Shob-nom, laughing now.
“Shit, we anything but normal,” says Bas.
We clink glasses.
“What it is,” I say.
“Oh not he didn’t. He’s talking ghetto now,” says Bas.
“It’s all you, brother,” I come back. “You a good influence.”
“Don’t think you can talk black just on account you’re in a chair,” says Bas.
“Shit, I haven’t even started.”
Payton approaches. She has a cocktail in one hand, a young man in another.
“Guys, I want you to meet Xavier Gonzales. He’s a writer for the Chronicle. Does great stuff. You know business page, things of interest. Xavier, this is Bas and Ron. Both have run their own businesses.”
“Great to meet you guys,” says Xavier. He reaches out to shake my hand and Shob-nom takes another picture. Xavier turns to the i-phone, gives her a smile. I am instantly jealous of Xavier’s excellent teeth, his dark hair slicked back like a TV star. Women no doubt find him very attractive.
“Oh my god, look at those teeth,” says Shob-nom.
Xavier smiles even wider. I pass him the roach. He takes a hit.
“Don’t take a picture of me smoking,” warns Xavier. “This can’t go on Facebook. I mean, no traces.”
Shob-nom holds up her i-phone. “You see anything you don’t like, just delete it. These are fun photos.”
“Well, in that case,” says Xavier, pulls his shirt open. I see he is covered in piercings and tattoos. Most of his tattoos are religious, a few are icons of Zapata and Villa. One looks a lot like Cantinflas. Another is a naked man with a snake around his torso as he kisses another man. I realize that I have nothing to fear from Xavier. He is obviously not interested in women.
“Say, did you guys get a raffle ticket?” asks Payton.
“Raffle ticket?” I ask, intrigued. I love raffle tickets and playing the lottery. I know, it’s a cliché, the guy in the chair buying tickets, the hopeless one. But there is always hope in winning something.
“You know, Save the Mountain Lions. We’re selling tickets at a hundred dollars a pop. Winner gets a trip to Colorado,” informs Payton.
“It’s for a totally good cause,” adds Shob-nom.
Bas and I both buy a ticket. Xaxier gets two.
Next I meet Gary, Xavier’s husband. They are your typical Berkeley hills gay couple: witty, politically correct, a little snooty, like to drink. Gary has brought a few friends from the city. They are a mix of cluttered heterosexuals and preppy style gay men, very serious. Everyone buys a raffle ticket. The East Indian couple from Oakland buys ten tickets. They are very well-dressed, not as sharp as Shob-nom and Payton but close. Most of the guests went to Cal, which is no surprise. It’s understandable. Half of Berkeley went to Berkeley. Like half our city’s inhabitants, they came during college, found they could never leave.
“This place, it’s just too much damned culture,” complains Payton after she’s established we all went to Cal. “Too much freaky politics.”
We agree. We all complain about the university controlling the town, which on some evenings can take over the entire conversation.
More photos are taken, more cocktails are drunk. I’m having the very best time I’ve had in a year. It’s a party. New people. New faces. And everyone likes me, comes by, gets a picture taken, talks about saving the mountain lions. Shob-nom makes sure of this. She stops by every few minutes to check on me, runs a delicate arm over my shoulders. And Payton, not to be outdone, makes it by just as often, stops and rests a haunch on the arm of my chair. She clearly likes me. Who else would be daring enough to put a rump on my chair? It takes all my self-control not to grab her and pull her onto my lap.
I hear a muted metallic clang. I glance around Payton’s sculpted back, see one of the bartenders holding a brass dinner bell. Shob-nom is at his side. “Everyone into the main hall,” she announces.
We all head into the main hall. There is a particularly large step down. Bas and Xavier lift my chair as Gary holds the back handles for support. I am wheeled to the front of the crowd so I can see.
“Does everyone have their tickets?” asks Payton.
I am in an expansive mood. There are at least forty people in the front room, all of them very elegantly dressed. The room smells of English furniture polish, perfume, cologne, and Hangar One Vodka. The view out the all glass windows is of the bay, cars, lights on the bridge, the shrouded glow of San Francisco.
“Over the last two weeks we have sold five hundred tickets,” says Payton. “That’s $50,000 towards Save the Mountain Lion.”
There is a long, appreciative applause.
Bas pulls out his ticket. “Man, I sure hope it’s me. I can’t wait to bag me a lion.”
“I’d like a carpet,” adds Xavier.
“Carpet, shit, I want a trophy,” says Bas.
“Whoa, trophy, carpet?” I ask. “You mean kill the lion?”
“No, we mean save the lion,” corrects Bas.
“I don’t know about you,” says Xavier, “but I want a nice lion carpet for my front room.”
“Our front room,” amends Gary.
“So you are saying this is about killing the lion,” I point out.
“We save the lions,” explains Bas. “Cull the herd.”
“It’s a pride. They call it a pride,” I say. “You mean cull the pride.”
“Well, it’s really about applying standard sustainability theory to their population,” replies Xavier. “You need to eliminate the ones putting a strain on the infrastructure.”
The next few minutes are blurry. Like I told you, I am a nature lover. If you are in a chair like mine, nature can be a flirting hope. You feel unnatural in a chair. You dream of running. You watch birds flying. You see animals swimming. You miss nature. In fact, you yearn for it. That’s why I contribute my code to my pals in Panama. So I can feel close to places I can never go. Let me say that again. There are places I can never go. At times like that morning as blister man, it eats me up. I reach up, rub my eyes. I have a difficult time focusing on one thing for more than a second. I see Payton in her exquisite dress bent over the raffle jar. I see guests checking their tickets. I see Shob-nom taking photos with a Nikon D4 Digital Camera. I hear Payton announcing the winning number. I don’t have to look down at my ticket to know it’s me. Number 506778. I have won the right to shoot a Western Mountain Lion on the McCoullough Triple Bar Ranch, a nonprofit 501c3 retreat/hunting lodge whose guests have included five presidents, innumerable senators, several members of Congress, and almost every member of the Bohemian Club. I also learn that the Save The Mountain Lion at McCoullough Fund has earned over $500,000 this year towards further critical habitat acquisition on the northern border of the ranch. By expanding habitat and offering hunts, the group hopes to have a sustainable mountain lion population by 2060. I feel suddenly nauseous. Bas and Xavier push me towards the microphone. They are laughing. I am holding the winning ticket in front of me. I am rereading the number, wondering if I made a mistake. No, it’s the right number. Several cameras are flashing. Payton makes a speech, mentions she is so happy to have me as a guest. Shob-nom explains the importance of growing the party to include all varieties of people, that it’s time for their little group to me more inclusive. The party has gone for too long as monolithic monument of white people. When the mic is pushed in my direction, I babble some useless line about never winning anything. People laugh. I hear a man joking about shooting a high powered rifle from a wheelchair. Someone comments that we all need a gun or two. Payton quips that mine should probably be low caliber.
I take my winning envelope, the one with the details of my lion hunting trip and the fun I am going to have and I push my chair to the front door. I have a difficult time getting the door open because my hands are shaking and I am still confused. Payton finds me pulling open the massive mahogany doors.
“Hey, are you okay?” asks Payton, her voice full of concern.
“What the hell, Payton? A lion hunt? New party members? You didn’t say this was a Republican party mixer,” I point out. “I mean, not once.”
“I… I… thought you knew,” says Payton.
“I thought you were one of us. You know, the self-deprecating handicap jokes, the talk about your own business, your startup, your complaints about Berkeley, the roads, the university. I guess I assumed.”
“I’m good with all that,” I reply. “That’s my fault. I get it. I might look conservative around here. Shit, anyone in Berkeley not way left of centre looks conservative. But the inclusive line speech, about making the party friendlier. I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming. The black man. The gay Latino couple. The East Indian couples. Why didn’t you just say up front you needed a cripple in a chair? The only thing missing is the dwarf.”
“Marty couldn’t make it. She cancelled,” says Payton. “And we don’t call them dwarves. We say little people.”
“Jesus Christ, I thought, you know, like we had something going there… like possibilities. Now I see I was getting played.”
Payton wrinkles her nose. It’s hard for her to hide her disgust. I know the look. It’s the I-would-never-sleep-with-a-creep-like-you-in-a-thousand-years look. In all those years I was getting lots of girls who felt sorry for me, I met a lot more who were repulsed by my useless legs, my helpless body in the chair.
“I’m sorry you got the wrong impression, Ron,” says Payton.
“I know. I’m just another hormonally challenged male. I get a boner at whatever skirt I look at. I guess I should know it by know. But what I’d really like to know without all the bullshit, is why’d you play me like that?” I ask. “I mean, neither of us are kids.”
“It’s the party, Ron. We need people like me. You seemed like a good fit,” Payton explains. “And we really, really need people like you.”
“But god forbid one of us shows interest in you. Thanks for an enlightening time.”
“Please, Ron, I really do think you’re overreacting just a little bit,” states Payton. “You need to calm down.”
“Really? Calm down. I guess I probably could calm down if it weren’t for the gun jokes. What the fuck? I was shot by a couple of fifteen year old dipshits with guns. That’s how I got in this goddamned chair. So you can see how this cripple doesn’t like gun jokes. Maybe I don’t even like what you stand for. So take my small caliber rifle and shove it up your Yankee ass.”
“Oh my God,” says Shob-nom, now standing behind her girlfriend. “Party foul.”
“I guess I just thought it was a car accident or maybe you fell or something,” replies Payton. “So don’t put that on me. It’s your problem.”
“Yeah, I just fell,” I say, pushing my way through the door.
“How are you getting home, Ron?” asks Shob-nom.
“Go back to your party,” I say. “You don’t have to worry about me. We cripples can get around just like you non-cripples. You have your guests waiting.”
They argue with me for a while about getting me a ride home. I explain about ten times I am not a total gimp. They give up after one of the bartenders has wheeled me to the curb and I have made a call for Lou to come and get me.
“And the photographs, I don’t give permission for you to use my image,” I say as they depart.
“Ron, everyone was taking photos. I don’t think I can control that,” Payton replies. “You’re going to have to suck that one up.”
Shob-nom and Payton go back inside. I look at the dark sky and stew. The fog has turned up the hillside, is fighting the warm air from Contra Costa. The moon is full. It divides the sky with light and turmoil. I look down at my hands, see that I am still clutching the envelope with my instructions for my lion hunt. After a few minutes of scanning the turbid horizon, I know what I am supposed to do. It’s as if I’m seeing straight after a long spell of confusion. I wheel my chair up the drive and twist it into a cement curb. I take a breath, consider, then I let loose. The chair hurtles down the drive. I hit the retaining wall, careen to the other side of the drive. What should have come off as an excellent launch and landing is more of a tumble and a roll. I make it down the first brick risers, lose it on the last step by the front steps. I fly onto the tiny circular patch lawn, scrape my chest on a sprinkler head. My chair goes crashing by to the road. As I pull myself up, I scrape my chest again. I give myself a minute to review my condition. Nothing too bad. Just the two jagged scrapes. Some blood. No head injuries. I lie on the lawn and contemplate my condition. After a few seconds, I pull out my phone, call 911. An operator answers on the third ring. She tells me she is dispatching the police and the fire department.
I am on my back now, looking up at the Berkeley sky. I hear the sirens calling, behind them the sound of a person walking her dog, the chain clinking on the ground, the dog wailing with the approaching rescue vehicles.
“Hey, are you okay?” asks a voice.
I push myself up. She is tall, an alternative type of Berkeley woman, the sort that wears hand knit sweaters and drinks fair trade Nicaraguan coffee.
“Are you okay,” she asks again.
“No, I don’t think so… well… I’m not sure.”
The woman approaches. I see when she gets closer that she has wonderful green eyes. Her face is smooth. She’s about forty, very attractive. I check her hand. No rings.
“I really don’t remember the last few minutes,” I say. “So I called for help.”
She sees the scrape on my T-shirt, gasps. I look down. The blood has soaked through my T-shirt. The injury has formed a perfect swastika.
“Who did this to you?” she asks, horrified.
“They’re having a party. Something about guns and hunting mountain lions,” I say with a nod to the door. “I didn’t know it was going to end like this.”
“They had a party? They did this?” she says, her voice going up.
I give her my best I’ve-been-kicked-around-a lot smile, say, “Do you think… um… you can help me back into my chair? I mean, I didn’t expect this sort of welcome. I thought they wanted to be my friend. I didn’t know these kind of people lived up here.”
As she leans over me, I feel the warm touch of her hair on my face, breathe in her soft aroma. My god, she smells wonderful.
Be Careful by William Cass
I’d gotten up early. The trailer was still. I lifted the corner of the curtain with my finger and looked outside: it was snowing again, hard. Only the week after Christmas, and already the heaviest winter snowfall on record. I dressed, then walked down the short hallway, plugged in the Christmas tree lights, and started breakfast.
Austin woke up next. He came in carrying the new stuffed elephant that had been poking out of his stocking, holding it by the ear. He sat on the edge of the couch and looked at the tree, his eyes full of sleep. I poured pancake batter into small circles in the greased skillet.
“Hey, bub,” I said.
He rubbed his nose and asked, “When do we have to take it down?”
“No special time. We usually wait until the first of the year and make a bonfire out back. You remember last year?”
He shook his head and looked for the first time at me. His brown hair was disheveled and his mouth drooped like my wife’s.
“That’s all right,” I said. “You weren’t even three yet. You’ll like it. We can roast marshmallows.”
“Like summertime at the lake?”
“Exactly. Go snuggle your mom. Breakfast’s about ready.”
He padded off in his flannel pajamas. I turned the radio on low. The weather report said that more heavy snow was expected throughout the day across the Inland Northwest. I flipped pancakes with the spatula, then slid them with the rest onto the plate that I was keeping warm in the oven. I poured more batter into the skillet and looked outside again. I watched the snow fall in big flakes over the rusted storage shed out back and breathed as slowly as I could. The snow had almost covered the truck tire rims that I’d left leaning against the shed.
My wife came down the hall holding Austin’s hand. She was a big woman who’d kept getting bigger after giving birth. She wore a plaid bathrobe and her strawberry-blonde hair was tied up in a short ponytail up high on the back of her head. They both sat on stools at the counter where I’d set places. My wife and I looked at each other.
She said, “To what do we owe this honor?”
I was holding the spatula like a baton. “Can’t I make breakfast for my family?”
“Sure,” she nodded. “Sure you can. Absolutely.”
It was the same tone she’d begun using with me shortly after I’d gotten laid off at the mill in August. She’d used it especially and often after we’d begun to rely on her meager weekday lunch shift over at Bishop’s Marina on the lake. She looked outside and said, “See you got your woolies on. Going for a hike?”
“A buddy I was in the service with called yesterday from Spokane. He’s coming up to go snowmobiling. Asked if I might want to go along. I told him I thought it would be all right.”
She was still looking outside. “Called while I was at work yesterday?”
“But you didn’t think to tell me about it until now.”
She shook her head slowly. Without looking at me, she reached across the counter for her cigarettes and lit one. Then she pushed off the stool and said, “I’m going to take a shower. Please call if you’re going to be late for dinner.”
I watched the back of her go down the hall. Then I brought over the pancakes, and Austin and I ate in silence.
I was supposed to meet Danny at the Coolin turnoff on Route 57. I had the truck parked back under some trees. But Danny was late, so I ran the heater every now and
then to try to stay warm but not waste gas. No other cars were in the turnoff; very few vehicles went by at all. It was just too nasty out. I wished I’d brought a thermos of coffee, but in the end, I’d just wanted to get out away from home as quickly as possible.
Danny didn’t show up until almost ten o’clock. He was pulling the snowmobile on a trailer behind his truck. I walked out of the trees and Danny pushed the passenger door open for me. The heat from inside hit me full on, and so did the smell of reefer.
“Man,” Danny said, “I’m sorry. This damn weather. I got stuck behind three wrecks, and I left Spokane before seven.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Well,” Danny asked, “you jacked or what? Could we have picked a better day than this?”
I shook my head. Danny had an old Tom Petty cassette playing in the dashboard. He nodded his head, it seemed to me, to the music. We’d spent some time together at Camp Pendleton, then later at Paris Island, but to say I knew Danny well would have been a stretch.
“All right,” I said and pointed. “If we’re going to do this, let’s go.”
We drove without talking towards Coolin. It seemed funny that we should find nothing to say after so long apart and given what we were planning. Danny drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. We rounded the big curve before the Dickensheet Bridge, crossed over Priest River, passed the landfill, and turned right at Wood’s service station and tavern, which was shut up tight and dark. We passed no one on that leg, or on the
one to the “Y” up above Cavanaugh Bay where we parked up a little dead-end road that I knew about from riding motorbikes as a boy.
We didn’t speak as we unhitched the snowmobile and slid it off the trailer. Danny took a Flexible Flyer sled with wooden slat sides out from the under the shell of his truck and hooked it to the back of the snowmobile. He put a flashlight, a tire iron, a small fishing tackle box of tools, and an empty meal-sized Tupperware container into a burlap sack, wrapped that in a green garbage sack, and bungee-corded the whole thing inside the sled.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Yep,” Danny nodded. “That’s it.”
He took two helmets out of the back of the truck and handed one to me. We pulled them over our knit caps and pulled our ski gloves tight. In a muffled voice, Danny said, “Ready, Red Rider?”
He climbed onto the snowmobile and tried three times to start it with the choke engaged until it finally caught, coughing. I got on behind him, gave directions, and we started on new snow down the unplowed road that passed behind the back of the airstrip to the lake.
Danny couldn’t go very fast because of the swirling snow, but he went more aggressively than was safe. I kept my head turned to the side and watched for the lake. For a while, there were only the trees and bushes fleeing by below Sundance Peak. Then
we crossed Cougar Creek, and the lake awaited, as always, long and still on the left, gray-blue, with the Selkirk Mountains behind it along the western shore.
After we passed the tip of the peninsula at Four Mile, Baretow Island emerged, then the gumdrop shape of Kalispell Island, and beyond it the gray-green foothills that lightened in shades like octaves into the tall distance where they eventually stretched snow-tipped along the Canadian border. A kind of gentle flush passed over me, as it always did, watching it unfold. We passed the little incline where my father and I first put in our little fishing boat when I wasn’t much older than Austin. Then we crossed Roaring Creek and I shivered again for a different reason because I saw the first line of cabins along the little horseshoe bay that fronted Eastshore Road as it straightened towards the upper lake. I looked for smoke from any of the chimneys, but saw none, and I realized suddenly how badly I’d hoped to see some.
Danny slowed the snowmobile to a stop and turned his head back. I couldn’t see his eyes through the cloudy shield, but his mustache was crusted with ice and his mouth was smiling.
Danny said, “This smooth, or what?”
“It’s pretty smooth.”
“We could take a damn chandelier out and not break a crystal, it’s so smooth. Jesus H. Did we pick a perfect day, or what?”
I just nodded.
“So, where do we start?”
“Up past that next creek. There’s a logging road to the right that goes up to Hunt Lake and a long drive to the left that leads down to all these cabins.”
Danny grinned and whistled. I followed his gaze along the shoreline.
“Nice places,” Danny said. “What are there, twenty or so along here?”
“And you’re sure that Captain-guy lives far enough up the road?”
“The Colonel. And yes.” I pointed. “See that island? That’s Eight Mile. He lives way the hell up there.”
I’d worked summers for the Colonel as a pile driver on the lake before getting the mill job a few years back. I knew that only the Colonel wintered along this stretch of shore and that his cabin was well past Indian Creek campground more than two miles away. Plus, he’d never be out on a day like this.
Danny gunned the engine, shifted, and we climbed the rise, rounded the bend across the creek, and turned down the frontage lane between the cabins and the road. I tapped him on the shoulder and gestured to a woodshed along the first drive. Danny pulled under the corrugated tin roof next to a neatly stacked pile of tamarack and turned off the engine. We climbed off the snowmobile and took off our helmets.
Danny looked at me and shook his head. “Hell, we don’t even need the damn tarp. Hell, if we looked a little harder we could probably find a damn garage with a space
heater. This is too damn easy. Even if somebody wanted to follow us, was intent on it, the snow would cover our tracks like that.” He tried to snap his gloved fingers.
I shrugged. “So far, so good, I guess.”
“Jesus H.,” Danny said and unhooked the sled.
We started down between the trees to the first cabin, which was like a small log lodge with dark green shutters. At the back door, Danny didn’t hesitate. He just took out the tire iron, shoved it in the door jam, and pulled hard back and forth until the wood splintered and the lock gave way.
Watching him, I thought of that muggy evening on a bluff near Beaufort, South Carolina, where we’d first talked about this. It was late after a day of daring one another with girls on the beach. We were drinking beer and looking at the stars over the ocean. Danny had told me about how he and a buddy had broken into some places at a resort lake in Minnesota just before they’d graduated from high school and Danny’s dad had moved his family west. Seven little cabins in a row, Danny said, maybe an hour total; they’d only been interested in cash. I’d told Danny about Priest Lake, which Danny had never visited even though he’d lived in Spokane for two years before enlisting and it was only ninety miles away. As we drank more beer, the idea somehow evolved into a winter scheme and Danny said he knew some guys in Portland who’d pay well for jewelry, silverware, credit cards, things like that.
We got sent different places after Paris Island and lost touch. I forgot about our talk, or at least rarely thought about it again, until the day before when, out of the blue and after four years, I answered the telephone and heard Danny’s voice. I’d been out of work going on five months with nothing in sight. And my wife had her attitude. I thought it wouldn’t be hard to dole out any money I got a bit at a time. And if she became curious and started asking questions, I could say I’d won it playing poker with my old pal Danny and some of his cronies after snowmobiling.
So, with my heart hammering, I followed Danny into that empty, cold cabin with its pine walls and its still-new smell and looked through the bathrooms and living room
while Danny searched the bedrooms. I found an old Rolex watch with a chip in the face and Danny found three paper-clipped travelers’ checks for fifty dollars each under some socks. We put both in the Tupperware container and I followed Danny through the snow to the next cabin as he pulled the sled behind him.
After that, it was pretty easy to keep going. Since noise and stealth were not factors, we used the crowbar with regard to neither. Although the electricity was turned off in most of the cabins, there was plenty of natural light from outside to search by. And it was too cold not to wear gloves, so leaving fingerprints was of no concern. We moved through the first few cabins quickly and with some urgency, but gradually slowed our pace and began searching each cabin unhurriedly. In one, I came upon Danny in a bedroom with his face buried in a pair of woman’s underwear; in another, I came downstairs to find him sitting tipped back in a recliner smoking a roach and flipping the pages in a movie magazine. I began to linger over photographs: families on docks, at bar-b-ques, out on boats, couples in embrace at sunset, children growing older on dim hallway walls from one picture to another. I recognized a number of people vaguely from my days working on the pile driver. I came across one snapshot in a standing frame of an older man I’d helped change a tire on the side of the road one early fall evening outside of Priest River. I was almost certain the woman in another had been the valedictorian in my older brother’s high school class.
We did better that we’d hoped finding things of value: several checkbooks and credit cards, a set of antique silver in its original cherry wood box, a laptop computer, and over several hundred dollars in cash, which Danny kept adding to a roll in the zippered pocket of his ski pants. The Tupperware container was better than half-full of jewelry.
We came upon two things at the end that I would later regret. The first was a Husquvarna chainsaw sitting next to the backdoor of the last cabin. It looked as if it had never been used, but when I squatted down next to it, I could see that it had just been extremely well-cared for: cleaned and oiled, and the teeth individually sharpened.
“Boy,” I heard myself say, “that’s something.”
“What?” Danny asked.
“The chainsaw. Mine’s busted to hell. Shot.”
“You want it? We got room. Take it.”
“Hell, man,” Danny said. He lifted the chainsaw himself and slid it into the burlap sack. He crisscrossed the bungee cords over the load on the sled, strapped it tight and we started back up the path on fresh snow, the flurries now blowing into our faces.
The second thing was the scratching at the back of the woodshed after we’d reattached the sled to the snowmobile and were about the leave. We stepped around a
box of cedar kindling and saw the source of the sound: a ground squirrel caught in a trap by its right hind leg. It lay on its side pawing weakly in the sawdust, its mouth yawning slowly, a trickle of blood coming from its ear. My eyes and the small, marble-like, black eyes of the ground squirrel met. I knelt down next to it.
“Let’s go,” Danny said, “Damn thing probably has rabies.” He pulled on his helmet, climbed on the snowmobile, started it the first time, and backed it out of the shed. “Come on, cowboy. Time to hit the trail.”
I stood up and pulled on my own helmet. I looked back at the ground squirrel, then at Danny. “Maybe we should put it out of its misery. Bury it somewhere.”
“Not in this life,” Danny told me and throttled the engine. “Come on.”
It couldn’t have been much past two o’clock and already the light was falling. The snowmobile idled two-stroke oil exhaust into the white snow. The wind had lessened, but the dizzy canopy of fat, slow flakes still tumbled everywhere. I glanced back at the squirrel a last time, got on, and we left.
Back at the truck, Danny first started the truck’s engine and heater. We secured the snowmobile on the trailer and put the sled with its load in the back under the shell. When we got into the cab, it was already warm. Danny took off his coat, gloves, and hat, cranked up the music, and sang with it while we drove back to where I’d left my own rig. Danny pulled in behind it, then put the truck in park, leaving the engine to idle. He put his right arm over the back of the seat and turned to me.
“Well,” he said nodding, “that was sweet.”
I nodded back, I hoped, without apparent reluctance.
Danny asked, “So, how do you want to play this?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the expert.”
“Well, we could do it several ways. Seems to me fifty-fifty’s pretty fair. You found the gig, but it’s my old man’s snowmobile. You’re taking a bigger chance living up here, but I’ve got the contacts to run this stuff.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
“All right. I guess we’re on the same page so far. So we can just split the cash and I can send you a money order or something for half of whatever I get in Portland. Unless you want to drive over with me tomorrow.”
“No,” I shook his head. “I’m not interested in making that trip.”
“Course you could just take the cash we got and I could sell the rest for whatever I can get. Course I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it’ll probably be more than a few hundred smacks. Maybe considerably more.”
“That sounds all right,” I said. “That’d be fine by me.”
“And of course the chainsaw’s yours. I’m thinking of heading down to Palm Springs for a while, get out of this weather. Not much use for a chainsaw there.”
Danny grinned and stuck out his hand. I shook it. Danny took the roll of cash out of his pocket and handed it to me. Then we climbed out of the cab and walked to the back of the truck. I wrapped the chainsaw in the green garbage sack, and Danny followed me with it to my truck. I slid the chainsaw behind the seat, climbed up into the cab, and started my own engine and heater. Danny stood in his plaid workshirt and dark ski pants in the falling snow holding the open door.
He said, “Well, I’ll call you after Portland. Tell you how things turned out.”
I shook his head. “You’d better not. My wife might get suspicious.”
“Okay.” Danny nodded his head. “And I guess we’d better not think about pulling another stunt like this around here anytime soon.”
“So, you know how to get in touch with me in Spokane.”
“Give me a call, we’ll go get a beer.”
Danny was still nodding his head. He looked up the road, then slowly back. “You ever hear from Drexel or Bannister?”
“Nah.” I shook my head.
“Me neither. Peterson get married?”
“I guess. Last I heard, that was the plan.”
“He still in?”
“As far as I know.”
“Those were good times,” Danny said.
“Yes, they were,” I lied.
“Damn straight.” Danny slapped me on the thigh. “Listen, you take care.” He stepped back and started to shut the door. “Drive safe in this mess.”
Danny closed the door and I watched him walk back through the snow to his truck. We both backed out. Danny went south towards Priest River, and I turned up Route 57 towards home. I flipped the headlights on. I wished I had a radio to listen to, but it was broken.
At Nordham, I stopped at the mini-mart for gas. I chose a family comedy to rent from the video rack and bought a frozen pound cake, a package of microwave popcorn,
and two sixteen ounce cans of beer. I talked with the cashier, a guy I’d played junior varsity basketball with in high school, about the snow and logging permits for a few minutes, then walked back outside into the twilight that was wild again with blowing snow.
I drove slowly watching the snowflakes dance in the headlights and finished both beers before I reached the trailer. I turned off the engine and sat for a moment looking at my wife and son through the trailer’s front window. They were taking down ornaments from the tree. I could see the television on behind them. I thought I’d wait until my wife was at work on Monday to move the chainsaw into the shed. I tried not to think about the man who had owned and cared for it. The beers helped a little in that regard. I thought he’d keep the cash in the shoebox with my military memorabilia. I thought that would be
a safe place, but I felt lousy about keeping it there and I hadn’t had enough beer to dull that; I had more in the trailer.
I was sorry to see the Christmas decorations come down. In fact, I felt close to tears. I was becoming cold. I climbed out of the truck and walked inside.
I was able to convince my wife to leave the lights up on the tree. But shortly thereafter, we got in another fight. I hadn’t realized the movie I’d rented was one we’d already seen. And I’d forgotten to get a can of pork and beans.
We watched the movie anyway, and I had a couple more beers. For a while, I could forget about things and focus on the movie. Afterwards, I gave Austin his bath and tucked him in. But that reminded me of my father and then I was in trouble. Because my father had cared for his tools, too. And then there was the fact that he’d been a fly fisherman who was strictly catch and release. I kept thinking of the time that cutthroat had swallowed the hook and got itself tangled in submerged tree roots and by the time my father was able to unsnag it, the fish had fought the life out of itself. I couldn’t forget how grim and quiet he’d become afterwards.
If not for those things, I might have gotten away with it within myself. Instead, I knew as I was toweling off Austin from his bath, and noticed for the first time that his ears were my own and those of my father, that I’d try somehow try to undo things. I didn’t know how, but there was no question in my mind that I would try.
I tucked Austin into bed laid down next to him. I listened to his breathing slow into sleep. Later, I heard my wife turn off the TV, heard her heavy footsteps lumber down the hallway, heard our mattress sag, heard her begin to snore softly herself. In spite of the alcohol, in spite of the things I’d try to do to calm himself, in spite of the perfect stillness, I knew that sleep would be a long time coming for me.
The next morning before dawn, I rose, dressed, put the cash in my pocket, took an apple from the kitchen, and went out to the shed. The snow had lightened, but was still falling. It was dark and very quiet. I found my old pair of cross country skis and a knapsack, stored them in the truck, and drove out to where Danny had parked at the Y above Cavanaugh Bay the day before. I ate the apple while I strapped on the skis and put the chainsaw into the knapsack. I fit the knapsack over my shoulders; the weight was awkward but manageable.
It had been years since I’d used the skis and I knew they weren’t properly waxed. I took a couple of tentative slides and could do little more than lurch and scoot a bit. But it was better than walking. I figured it was two or three miles to the cabins. So much snow had fallen that there was no indication that I could see that the snowmobile had ever been there. The sky above Sundance was just beginning to lighten, like a tiny splash of
cream in black coffee. A small breeze tossed around the few snowflakes that still fell. I started down the road behind the airstrip.
It was slow going and I was badly out of shape. I grew hot inside the jacket, but kept it buttoned. A few times, one of my skis sunk into a drift and I found myself
crotch deep in snow. It was a production to free myself and my breath came in heaves, but none of that really mattered. I plodded on.
At Cougar Creek, I stopped for a drink of water and the first glimpse of the lake, gray and still, the islands to the north just visible in the softening light. I upset a flock of quail a little past Roaring Creek, near the old logging road that headed up to the falls, but that was all. Otherwise, it was just my forced breaths, the stillness, the delicate wisps of snow, and the gathering light of morning until I reached the long drive to the cabins.
I skied down to the last cabin first. I replaced the chain saw carefully where I’d found it. Then I continued along and just divided the money up randomly, setting a portion inside each doorway where we’d been the day before, working my way back hastily to the first log cabin with the green shutters. I didn’t try to figure out what had been taken where; I simply portioned out the money as fairly as I could. I didn’t even get out of the skis, and I didn’t study the damage we’d caused. I just wanted to be done with the whole thing as quickly as possible.
On my way out, I did pause at the woodshed where we’d parked the snow machine. Snow had drifted over all but the squirrel’s head. It was dead now, stiff on the dirt, its black eye still open, the trickle of blood dried and darkened. I brushed away the snow and released its leg from the trap, then brought it behind the wood shed under
the eaves and scooped out a shallow grave in the pine needles and hard dirt there with my gloves. I covered the squirrel with needles and rocks.
I stood for a moment and looked over the tops of the cabins over the lake. I said, “That’s it, then.”
They were the first words I’d spoken that day. I couldn’t tell if I felt better or not. I felt numb, but I always felt similarly when I hadn’t slept. I wished I could do something about the ruined doorways and the other things wed taken, but I couldn’t. And if somehow, Danny got caught, I could only hope it wouldn’t lead to me. A chill tumbled down my neck. I thought, stop it. I thought, that’s all I can do. I blew out a cloud of breath and started back up the frontage road.
I skied steadily, getting into a kind of rhythm without the weight of the chainsaw. I was most of the way down road behind the airstrip when I first heard what sounded like a motorcycle approaching. Blood rose up through my chest, up the sides of my neck, behind my ears. I stopped and turned around. I listened to my own heaving breath slow in short cloud blasts as a headlight neared and I recognized the Colonel on his four-wheeler spraying two feathers of snow behind him. I swallowed.
The Colonel was wearing one of those fleece-lined jumpsuits the old timers at the mill favored in the winter and a fleece-lined, flop-eared cap. He stopped the four-wheeler next to me and pushed his goggles up over the front of the cap.
He squinted and said, “That you, Timmy?”
“What the hell you doing? Out exercising?”
“Getting some fresh air. Cooped up with all this snow, you know. How are you, Colonel?”
The old man just nodded, then said, “Drive all the way over here to ski? That’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it?”
I gestured the way I’d come with a ski pole. “Pretty over here. Quiet.”
“It is that,” the Colonel said.
“My old man and I used to come over here sometimes to do this when I was little.”
The Colonel nodded some more. I looked back up the road. I couldn’t tell to what extent the falling snow had covered my tracks. It was impossible to determine at what point the Colonel had noticed them. I wished it was snowing like the day before, but it wasn’t.
“How is your dad? How’s he feeling?” the Colonel asked.
“I haven’t seen him for a while. I’m glad he’s improving. He’s a good man, your dad.”
I nodded and said, “Yes, he is.”
“And you used to ski together back in the day?”
“Not far. Maybe down to the put-in by the creek.”
“That’s a pretty good fishing spot,” the Colonel said. “You can still catch some there, but too many people know about it now.”
I said. “I guess you’re right.”
“Good memories, though,” the old man said. “All right, then. I saw the tracks back there and wondered, what the hell?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded and stamped snow from my skis. I knew that later on, the whole thing might still blow up, but there was nothing I could do about that. I looked at the Colonel again and thought about the time we’d spent together on the pile driver when I was just an ornery kid that didn’t know squat. The Colonel looked the same as he had then, grizzled and sharp. The snow was beginning to lighten and there were streaks of blue to the west.
The Colonel asked, “Where you parked?”
“Up at the Y.”
The old man grinned. “You almost got her licked.”
I waited for him ask about how far I’d skied, but he didn’t.
Instead he asked, “Any word about the mill rehiring?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
“Maybe down to Priest River?”
I shrugged and said, “Maybe. Have to wait till spring, I guess.”
The Colonel nodded and looked me over. Standing there, and with the snow lessening, it had grown colder.
The Colonel smiled and asked, “Don’t suppose you want a ride the rest of the way.”
I shook his head. “Nah, I’m fine.”
The Colonel nodded some more and throttled the engine a little. “Okay, say hello to your dad for me.”
I nodded and lifted a pole in farewell. It seemed to me a meager gesture. I watched the old man go off up the road. I watched him grow small and listened to the motor die away until I saw his four-wheeler turn left and disappear at the Y.
Maybe the Colonel was going into Coolin for breakfast. Maybe he was just out for a ride. I had no real inkling. All I knew was that it didn’t matter. What was done was done. You broke a glass on the floor, then you swept it up, but it was still broken. That was the thing. Even if I never got caught, that was the thing. Even if I found a way to save some money and get it back to the people in those cabins, even if it was enough to pay for repairs and the other stolen goods and I was never caught and I never heard from Danny again and I went home and hugged my family, even if we went over to my parents’ for Sunday dinner and my dad and I talked about fishing and my dad seemed a little stronger and then the mill called and I got my job back and things got better with my wife, it wouldn’t matter. As far as what I’d done went. As far as what I’d chosen to do. That wouldn’t go away. I could never precisely be the same. Even if I became better somehow, if my character improved, the exact person I’d been when I’d awakened the morning before was irretrievable.
I’d ski up to the truck, then get in it and decide what to do next. But, I thought, what did it matter? Whatever I did yesterday was done, couldn’t be undone, and
whatever I did today would be history tomorrow. That would never change. It was so cold.
I said quietly, “You’d better be careful.”
Pharmaceutical Games by EC Hanlon
There was this one girl. She had rubbed Suzanne the wrong way from day one.
“My doctor called it in,” she’d insisted.
“No,” Suzanne said with emphasis. “He didn’t.”
“Yes, he did. I just spoke to him.”
“There’s nothing here for you.”
“He called it in,” the girl said again. “Check again.”
Suzanne despised being a pharmacist. She hated it all the time, but especially when she had to deal with people like this. There had been this promise, long ago, before she started pharmacy school, that the job paid really well. And it did. But not well enough.
Pawing through the bins of prescriptions again, she found that, of course, there was nothing for the girl.
“He told me he called it in. Check again. The name is Taylor Johnson. That’s T-A-Y-L…”
“I know how to spell it,” Suzanne snapped.
“Check your fax machine,” Taylor Johnson said. “Maybe he faxed it in.”
“Why didn’t you say that before?”
There it was on the fax machine. A prescription written in the usual illegible doctor scrawl, further obscured by the ink from the fax. Seroquel, 900 mgs.
Figures, thought Suzanne. Seroquel, 900 mgs. Powerful anti-psychotic, pretty high dosage.
“It will take a while,” she had told Taylor Johnson. “You’ll have to come back.”
“I need it now.”
“Well, you can’t have it right now.”
Crazy person, Suzanne had thought.
There was nothing about being a pharmacist that Suzanne liked. Dealing with the incompetency of the staffs at doctors’ offices and insurance companies; hostile customers, each whining over the wait, each insisting that their situation was the most pressing. And then there were the pharmacy technicians, the idiots the store hired to “help” her. They were so moronic they couldn’t even count by twos. They always counted out pills slowly by “one, two, three, four…”
“It’s faster and easier if you count by twos,” Suzanne would say to them.
“What?” These were always high school kids or women doing “mothers’ hours.”
“You go, two, four, six eight…” Suzanne would say, showing them how to move two pills at a time.
“Oh, I like to count this way,” they would say, then go back to one at a time. “One, two, three, four…”
“But that’s not efficient.”
“I don’t want to get confused.”
The store manager, Mr. Davis, called Suzanne into his office and to tell her she was putting too much pressure on the pharmacy techs.
“You’re talking to me?” Suzanne had said. “ I’m the pharmacist. I’m in the right.”
Taylor Johnson became a major pain in Suzanne’s ass. Every three days or so, she was in, often demanding some unusual drug that had to be special-ordered and sighing when she couldn’t get it right away. And her doctor never sent paper prescriptions in with her. No, that would have been way too easy. He was always phoning them in, or faxing them in.
Suzanne couldn’t determine if Taylor Johnson was actually a crazy person or just a faker. It seemed very possible that she was playing her doctor to get drugs.
The drugs, Jesus Christ, she took about fifteen prescriptions a day. Some of them were anti-seizure medications, which played against Suzanne’s theory of a drug habit. These were not the kind of pills a person took recreationally. The side effects were pretty terrible; one slip up, one milligram or two extra by mistake and Taylor Johnson would be hunched over the toilet, heaving for hours the next day. Even just the day-to-day side effects were unattractive: dizziness, forgetfulness, clumsiness. Occasionally Taylor Johnson would stumble down an aisle and knock into an endcap, sending a carefully constructed display of hair dye or Metamucil tumbling down.
“Sorry, sorry,” Taylor Johnson would say to the one of the front store employees. “Let me help.”
But she couldn’t help. She dropped things and wobbled and eventually the employee would put a hand on her arm and say that it was all right, that he understood, that he could get the endcap up quickly.
“I’m used to it,” Jose or Jimmy or Frank would say in their soft, teenaged, smitten manner.
Because in addition to everything else, Taylor Johnson was beautiful. She was beautiful in a very specific way, a certain carved from magnificent marble with great precision, perfect bone structure, Venus de Milo with arms way.
“I’m so sorry,” she would say, sometimes placing a plaster-white, delicate hand on the boy’s arm, making him quiver, before continuing down the aisle to torment Suzanne.
It was a busy Saturday morning. Suzanne was slapping a sticker on a pack of birth control pills, thinking to herself that the girl who had brought in the prescription was deluding herself, no one was going to have sex with someone that fat and ugly, when Taylor Johnson arrived at the counter. She handed over a slip of paper to the pharmacy tech.
A paper prescription from Taylor Johnson? Suzanne thought. Did hell freeze over?
“I’ll wait,” she heard Taylor Johnson say before retreating into the maze of aisles in the front of the store.
The young pharmacy tech stood still, looking at the prescription, for a long time. He looked up at Suzanne through his shaggy brown bangs, back at the slip of paper, back at Suzanne.
“What is it, Jesse?” Suzanne said, tossing the birth control pills on the counter in irritation.
“Do you have something you want to tell me? Tell me.”
Jesse paused. He was afraid of Suzanne. But he came close to confer with her.
“This girl brought in this prescription,” he said in a voice that wasn’t sure if it should be heard, and gave it to Suzanne with a shaky hand.
She snatched it from him: Valium. Ten milligram tablets. One hundred count.
I knew it, Suzanne thought with a jolt of victory. She probably endures the anti-seizures just to get the good stuff. No one gets one thousand milligrams of Valium at a time. No one but addicts. And the paper prescription when her doctor always faxes them in? She probably stole his pad and wrote the thing herself.
Suzanne strongarmed her way past Jesse, sending him tripping backward, and grabbed the microphone that would echo her voice over the store’s intercom.
“Taylor Johnson to the pharmacy. Taylor Johnson.”
She came down the feminine hygiene aisle in uneven steps, occasionally touching the shelves for balance, but somehow in her statuesque beauty managed to look graceful.
“You can’t have this much Valium,” Suzanne said in a normal tone of voice, holding up the little white slip, then slamming it to the counter.
“Can we discuss this privately?” Taylor Johnson said in a low voice, glancing side
to side at the elderly people standing around waiting for their blood pressure medication.
She waved her hand to the far end of the counter.
“You can’t have this much Valium,” Suzanne repeated when they were alone.
“You just can’t,” Suzanne said across the counter. Only Taylor Johnson’s head was visible to Suzanne, her perfect skin and blue eyes, her strawberry blond hair hanging evenly and shiny, parted in the middle.
“It’s too much.” Suzanne’s frustration grew; her muscles tightened and her teeth clenched. She hated Taylor Johnson more and more, hated her high cheekbones and her questions. I am the pharmacist, she wanted to say. What I say goes. “What do you need this much Valium for?”
“I don’t think I need to answer that,” the young beauty said, a confrontational tone creeping into her usually even voice. “That’s between my doctor and me.”
“There’s no reason for this much Valium.”
“But, it’s what my doctor prescribed.”
“No doctor would prescribe this.”
Taylor Johnson’s smooth forehead wrinkled and her eyes narrowed.
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“I think you know what I’m saying.”
“Go ahead and call Dr. Hinton.” Taylor Johnson dared her. “It’s what he prescribed.”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
I’ll wait. Suzanne had heard those two words from Taylor Johnson so many times it seemed to be her mantra. She was always waiting for her prescriptions and the subtext always seemed to be, I’m important enough for you to get this prescription done now. I’ll wait because you’ll take care of this right away. You need to take care of this and I’m used to be taken care of because, well, look at me. I’m gorgeous, and the world takes care of the gorgeous people first.
And it wasn’t just that. It was the Seroquel, the psychiatric drugs. Not only was she beautiful, she was crazy. And crazy people need to be dealt with right away or they might start acting nuts. You get them in and out before they start crying or yelling or making some sort of scene. They had the attitude. My medication is more important. If I don’t get it I might go on some sort of spree, something you’ll hear about on the news later and you’ll think, I could have prevented that, if only I had filled that prescription for Halcyon or Lithium or Prozac in a more timely fashion.
The crazy people were the customers Suzanne hated the most.
“Yes,” he said when the secretary finally got him on the line after twenty minutes of muzak.
“He’s with a patient,” the secretary had said. “It will be a while.”
“I’ll wait,” Suzanne had said, aware of the irony, and watched Taylor Johnson flip through a People magazine in the waiting area, still angry but not afraid, which made Suzanne less sure of the necessity of her call.
“Dr. Hinton, this is Suzanne from Conrad Pharmacy. A patient of yours, Taylor Johnson, came in just now with an unusual prescription.”
“Ten milligram Valium, one hundred count.”
Suzanne waited for him to say more, but got nothing but an earful of dead air.
“That’s very unusual.”
“Unusual. Not very unusual.”
“I’ve never seen a prescription for that much Valium. I wanted to verify it.”
“Consider it verified,” Dr. Hinton said with a hint of annoyance.
“Dr. Hinton, why would a patient need that much Valium?”
“That’s between my patient and me. I’m treating an illness. That’s all you have to know.”
After hanging up, Suzanne took down the tub of Valium and started counting by twos. When she got to 98, she stopped and glanced back at Taylor Johnson who looked up from her magazine with what Suzanne took to be a look of self-satisfaction. She was just sitting there with her magazine looking pretty and not at all crazy.
She has got to be playing that doctor, Suzanne thought, her index and middle fingers on the ninety-ninth and hundredth pills. There is nothing wrong with that girl.
Without really thinking about the consequences, without considering the idea that maybe Taylor Johnson was the kind of customer who would go straight home and count the number of pills in the bottle, without the thought of getting caught at all, Suzanne took her middle finger off of the hundredth pill and dropped the ninety-ninth into the bottle before capping it.
“Jesse,” she said, and the boy jumped and turned from the register towards her. She tossed him the bottle. “Ring her up.”
If she noticed the missing pill, Taylor Johnson didn’t complain. She came to the pharmacy every few days as usual, drawing stares from men and picking up one prescription or other. Suzanne figured that Taylor Johnson assumed that she had dropped a pill somewhere, or that she’d accidentally taken an extra one some night.
The thought of it filled Suzanne with a malicious glee, picturing Taylor Johnson’s lovely eyes looking into the clear brown bottle towards the end of the month and her mind coming up blank on why it wasn’t as full as it ought to be. Suzanne pictured those eyes blinking, dark lashes creating tiny disturbances in the air, maybe a shake of the head and a recount.
The Seroquel was a more ambitious game. The pills weren’t like the tiny green tabs of Valium; they were giant white things, solid capsules, “horse pills” some would call them. A missing Seroquel might be obvious. The absence of a pill that size would create a greater well in the bottle. Taylor Johnson would be able to tell that she was low on them sooner than with the Valium.
The anti-seizure meds would have been easier. Tegretols were regular white tablets, Topamax were even smaller, like pinheads. Suzanne could have easily left two, three, maybe even five Topamax out of the bottle and Taylor Johnson wouldn’t notice for weeks. But what fun was there in removing anti-seizure meds? Maybe the girl had epilepsy. That was no fun. The joke was in the psychiatric drugs.
It took about a month for Suzanne to gather the nerve to remove a Seroquel from a bottle that Lucy, one of the techs, had filled for Taylor Johnson. Lucy handed her the bottle to bag and ring up, but Suzanne pretended to see a mistake on the label and backed into one of the aisles that were lined with giant plastic bottles of every medication known to man. Her hands were steady as she unscrewed the top, but started to shake as she poked a finger in to grab one of the pills. In a smooth and rapid movement she dropped the pill into her pocket and turned back to the register.
“There was no mistake,” Suzanne said as she emerged from the aisle. “I was wrong.”
Lucy nodded and looked at the bottle in Suzanne’s hand, then moved to the far end of the pharmacy, glancing back over her shoulder. The defeated look in Lucy’s eyes had said she’d been ready to take the abuse for the mistake, but now she was just confused. Suzanne was admitting to being wrong?
“Thank you.” Taylor Johnson’s words were chilly and clipped, having become hostile since Suzanne’s accusal of forgery. Suzanne didn’t care. Suzanne had always hated Taylor Johnson.
She was laughing inside as the girl walked away one Seroquel short.
Suzanne was enjoying her game, maybe a little too much. But there were few things in life that gave her pleasure. She had nothing but this pharmacy, nothing but her position as “boss.” Having found something that was fun, she was clinging to it; she widened the scope of her game, let it seep into other customers’ prescriptions. One less Zoloft here, two less Ativan there. She considered the fun of replacing some pills with a placebo. That was worth looking into. She would have to check for something that matched the size and construct of an aspirin. Her only rule was that she only played with the psychotropic drugs. She wasn’t going to screw around with heart medications or anything important like that.
The central figure for Suzanne was always Taylor Johnson. The others were playthings to occupy her time on the days Taylor Johnson didn’t come in. Some of the customers did turn out to be the kind to count pills, and they came in, angry, demanding satisfaction. Suzanne had no patience for it. It wasn’t that important for them to play the game. She would have one of the techs calm them down.
“Candace,” she said to the cheerleader-type teenager who worked weekends. Candace was good with the customers, Candace with her fresh-faced good-heartedness. “Deal with this. Give her whatever pills she says were missing.”
“Another one?” the tech said before she could catch herself. Suzanne gave her a lethal look and Candace spun around to make cooing sounds at the customer, patting a hand and counting out three Xanax.
Suzanne made mental notes on who not to play with again, tried to keep track on a database in her mind. Mary Becker counted, but Doug Bradley didn’t notice four missing Klonopin until refill time. It was time to up the ante with Sarah Hart, pull one more Moban from her bottle and see what happened. But she couldn’t mess around with Diane Whitmore or Edna James; they were counters.
Taylor Johnson never counted pills, even as they dwindled. Suzanne gradually gave her fewer and fewer pills. Three fewer Valium, two fewer Seroquel. Five fewer Valium, four fewer Seroquel.
And then Taylor Johnson came in one day and she was slightly less beautiful than usual. Her shiny straight hair was neither shiny nor straight. It was not parted in the middle, or rather, it was parted badly, crookedly. The space between her less-sparkly-than-usual eyes and her well-carved cheekbones was tinged a little with purple. She handed an empty bottle across the counter to Suzanne, saying, “I’d like to refill this.”
Suzanne looked at the date on the label.
“You can’t refill this,” it gave her great delight to say. She tried to hand the bottle back, but Taylor Johnson wouldn’t take it. “You can’t refill it until the twentieth. This is only the fourteenth.”
“But it ran out early,” Taylor Johnson was saying with a strain in her voice. “I can’t understand why.”
“You must have taken too many one night.”
“I didn’t,” she stressed. “I know I didn’t. There weren’t as many pills as there should have been.”
“Our staff is very good,” Suzanne said. “They don’t make mistakes.”
Candace looked up from the computer to glance at Jesse, who returned the look. Did you hear what I heard, the look said. Did Suzanne just call us good? Suzanne pretended not to notice the exchange.
“Please. Can you fill it early?”
“The rules are very strict. Especially when it comes to controlled substances. You’ll have to wait until the twentieth.”
Suzanne dropped the empty bottle and it hit the counter and rolled towards the floor so that Taylor Johnson had to stoop to pick it up. With a little smile, Suzanne turned her back to her.
“Get back to work,” Suzanne told the two techs who had been watching without realizing it.
Within the hour, a call came from Dr. Hinton, ordering the pharmacy to refill the prescription early. Suzanne hung up the phone in disappointment, and to cheer herself up, gave Taylor Johnson even less Valium than usual, bringing the stolen few into the employee bathroom with her and tucking them into her pants pocket to be ground up in the garbage disposal when she got home.
Every time Taylor Johnson came into the pharmacy, she looked a little worse. Her hair got frizzy and dark at the roots; her perfect skin turned out not to be so perfect when she wasn’t wearing make-up. No longer was she wearing her stylish, close-fit clothes; no longer was she drawing stares. Suzanne was thrilled.
“I’d like this refilled,” she would say.
“You’ll have to wait,” Suzanne would tell her.
The calls from Dr. Hinton stopped. He must be thinking that Taylor Johnson was misusing her medication. It had been smart of Suzanne to only attack the attractive medication, she thought. It hadn’t been her intention, but it made Taylor Johnson look bad. It made her look like a drug addict. Her own doctor seemed to be turning against her.
There was the fringe benefit of the other customers’ slow decline, too, but Suzanne did not react to them with the same vigor. Doug Bradley hadn’t been sleeping without all of his Klonopin; that was evident in his zombie-like stumble and his muttered, vague complaints. Sarah Hart had actually told one of the techs (Suzanne had overheard the whispers) that she thought she might be going crazy, having a psychotic break, maybe.
“I don’t know where the pills are going,” Sarah Hart confided to Candace, whose sweetness invited such confessions. “I’m afraid that I’m doing something with them that I can’t remember.”
That was kind of fun, a kind of win.
“I’d like this refilled,” Taylor Johnson said, handing over her empty Valium bottle, and Suzanne was disappointed to see that she could, indeed, have it refilled.
It didn’t matter too much, though, because Taylor Johnson was standing there looking exactly the way Suzanne wanted her to look: dirty hair, hollow space under her eyes that was a deep gray, a thinness that bordered on the anorexic. She was in sweatpants and a huge sweater that looked like it must have belonged to her father or boyfriend, sagging to her knees. And she was crying. Taylor Johnson was reduced to tears. She wasn’t sobbing or heaving, she just had watery eyes that spilled over, her cheeks wet and slippery. Once in a while she would run a hand across her face, but mainly she just sat and let the tears flow all the way down her neck. The collar of her sweater was wet. And she was shivering.
“Taylor Johnson,” Suzanne said, holding up the little paper bag, and the skinny, quivering girl exchanged her co-pay for the eighty-eight pills Suzanne had put in the bottle. It was her most daring feat yet. Eighty-eight out of a hundred. She’d been so excited by the sight of Taylor Johnson defeated and down and out that she’d made a leap. Last time, Suzanne had given her ninety-two. Eighty-eight was pushing it.
Taylor Johnson shuffled out of the store to Suzanne’s delight.
For seven days, Suzanne didn’t see Taylor Johnson. Maybe she was coming in when Suzanne was on her days off; maybe she was going to another pharmacy. Maybe she had killed herself. The thought didn’t create so much of a sense of guilt in Suzanne as a feeling of disappointment. The game could not continue without Taylor Johnson’s participation. Were she at another pharmacy or dead, Suzanne would have to shift her focus on to someone new. No one else ignited hatred in her nearly as much as Taylor Johnson did, but she could work on finding someone. She conjured up image after image of psychiatric patients, but they all seemed dull in comparison.
Then there she was, Taylor Johnson, looking not like her old self, but not like her new self either. Her hair was clean and brushed, but she was still as skinny as a straw. A belt that was pulled tight beyond its capacity cinched her jeans at the middle. Her face was still pasty and shadowed but her eyes were alive. They were gleaming.
And she was not alone.
Walking with her with his hand on her back was a middle-aged man with wire-framed glasses and brown hair that touched his collar. He was wearing a shirt and tie but no jacket, and had three pens in his breast pocket. Suzanne knew the likes of him. She could tell right away: this was a doctor. This was Dr. Hinton.
Dr. Hinton took his hand away from Taylor Johnson and walked directly up to the counter.
“I’d like to see your supervisor,” he said to Suzanne.
“I’m the pharmacist,” she said, crossing her arms. Did he take her for a tech?
“Does that mean you have no supervisor?” the doctor asked, harshness written on his face. He wasn’t interested in Suzanne. “Do you have a store manager?”
With reluctance, Suzanne retrieved Mr. Davis, who took both Dr. Hinton and his patient aside. Suzanne watched as the doctor spoke to Mr. Davis, as the psychiatrist took out several prescription bottles from a briefcase, pointed to the labels, pointed to Taylor Johnson. She could hear only scraps of what was being said, the low grumble of Dr. Hinton, the familiar tone of her own boss, a breathy version of Taylor Johnson’s alto.
“…had her in the hospital for a week trying to get her medication regulated…”
“…must have been a mistake. Our pharmacy staff wouldn’t…”
“…it came up short, when I counted, there were only eighty-eight…”
Dr. Hinton pointed to the label of a final bottle, then spilled the contents into the manager’s hand. Suzanne’s boss began counting the green pills, moving them from one hand to the other.
Suzanne turned away. This was nothing. One crazy customer. Davis would assume that she was an addict who was using her doctor, just as Suzanne had initially, and nothing would come of it.
The three techs were gathered at the far end of the pharmacy, watching the little meeting around the corner, straining to hear.
“Get back to work!” Suzanne shouted at them.
The three of them looked at her, then at each other, back at her, over to where Mr. Davis was conferring with Dr. Hinton.
“Are you deaf? Jesse. Candace. Lucy. Back to work.”
But they didn’t go back to work. They continued watching Taylor Johnson for a couple of minutes, then Lucy, the forty-year-old mother of three said, “I’m going over.” She opened the gate that separated the pharmacy from the store and slipped out from behind the counter.
“Lucy,” Davis said as the woman approached. “Do you know how this…”
“…this wasn’t the first time,” Taylor Johnson was saying, and Lucy nodded.
Jesse and Candace looked at each other, stole a sideways glance at Suzanne, and hurried after Lucy.
Suzanne pretended to be working on the computer but situated herself so that she could watch the growing meeting. Candace spoke, Jesse nodded. Lucy spoke, touched Taylor Johnson’s arm. Mr. Davis shook his head.
Suzanne looked back at the monitor. Davis was on her side. She was the pharmacist after all; who would believe these three idiots who had it in for her anyway? They’d always hated her, always thought she was too strict. She typed in the name of a new customer, then looked back at the group and saw all six heads turned to her.
Automatically, Suzanne’s hand went into the pocket of her white coat and fingered the mélange of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that she’d collected out of the bottles that day. She took two steps in the direction of the employee rest room, and as she did, the group moved as a single unit towards her. Scuttling backwards, she picked up speed. She got to the bathroom and turned the lock before she could be confronted. The pills spilled onto the linoleum when she tried to retrieve them and she dropped to her knees painfully, heart racing, to pick them up one by one.
She was flushing when the knock came on the door. Flushing and flushing and flushing in a panic, damning the unmovable pills as they floated to the bottom of the porcelain well, not disintegrating, just sitting there, sitting there like some irrefutable DNA evidence, evidence that would take her down.
The Experiment with the People by Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury
The day was a Monday. A bird alighted upon the shoulder of the living wonder in the town square and watched the proceedings with a scribe’s grave attention. Around eleven o’ clock in the morning the man began to preach a message. By this time the local rulers who met in the white palace of the town had sent their officials to see what was going on in this location. Besides, the seer who commanded influence both with the rulers and with the people had come to find out for himself what was happening.
The people heard the man speak to them of the need to exchange icons, idols and figurines that were respected daily within every house. These objects were not always the same from one household to another, though they might connote the same personality or the same deed. Since they were deemed more precious than anything else within the domestic sphere, the people hesitated before they could come forward and accept the suggestion to exchange these objects. What decided them in favor was really the consent of the seer, who indicated with the token nod of a bemused face that he saw no objection to the proposal at the current time.
The man urging the exchange emphasized to the people, however, that three conditions had to be met in effecting the present transactions: the relics and representations of family ancestors were to be left untouched; all the exchanged items were to be returned to their original place after twelve hours; and, lastly, people were to sing together, pray together and collectively gather inspiration to create lasting works of art.
When the sun had begun to decline in the sky the presence of this bespectacled man on the low platform of the plaza was graced by the immediate company of a few townsfolk known for their unusual or deviant ways. The rest of the large plaza was now packed to the point of stationary closeness, a little short of the stage when suffocation sets in due to compress upon the lungs even if the nostrils have access to clear air. The porches of the encircling buildings were filled with those who wished to remain for as long as the man could be sighted, while in the square proper a sea of heads seemed to be bobbing and moving in contradictory directions.
People were talking in loud and excited voices; a hubbub rose from every section of the square and carried itself to the sky. This was not so different from the din you heard on the opening day of a fresh market, but it had an unusual mark of gaiety in it that conveyed the relieved mood of a holiday long denied. All that mattered was that the voice of the visionary had to be heard and that what he was saying was the way to go about founding a new kind of living. As the shadows lengthened people desired to stay behind for as long as he was up there; the atmosphere in that place was such that it could not be forsaken even for the familiar comforts of home.
He was merely saying the same words over and over again and there was nothing especially dramatic in his gestures, but the voices of those gathered in the square were taking on the high-pitchedness of hysteria even while speaking of day-to-day matters with familiars and strangers. It was the hysteria that builds on itself, feeds on itself and hurls forth itself along a giddying slope. The people were screaming and beating to a fine point plans on how best, in the wake of the exchange of objects, they could come together to rejoice as the present cynosure of all eyes was encouraging them to do. There was eager expectation of the celebrations that were coming with the happy night. It was now well beyond sunset. The visionary made a wave to the people in a gesture of closure and they in turn started to file out of the square. Fireworks began to burst in anticipation of the merry-making. That night people stayed awake into the morning of the next day, clashing cymbals and beating drums, handing one another their worshipped idols, carousing together, praying together, and belaboring wonderful schemes for artistic works. It was a night unlike any that the town had seen. Quite likely the next working day was going to be spent in larking manner under the bewitching influence of that plaza, a fact that did occasion restless sleep to more than one worried person at the helm of authority in the white palace of the town.
When the following day dawned it was quite plain to the most casual observer that a remarkable change had emerged in the psyche of a habitually sober people given to traditional obedience and self-control. There was an effervescence of temperament that found no precedence in the records of the province. The preacher had asked for no more than the execution of certain transactions and his words did lack purpose and meaning; but the people had leaped to put it into effect as if they had waited for just this opportunity so long. They had swapped cherished objects and idols; they had spent much time together in fraternal bonhomie, discussion of cultural projects and anticipation of what the teacher in the town square had still to say. As if by just these simple actions, they were miraculously endowed with a zest to ascend to heaven and bring it to reign upon their glebe in any way that the master should counsel. The home of the other had become a discovery in domestic comfort though one did not go so far as to make free use of other precincts and property.
On the morning of this next day, most of the folk were singing to the tintinnabulation of their little cymbals attached with silken strings and linking arms comfortably with one another. There were tears in their eyes as each sincerely wished for the wellbeing of the other, tears that also sprung from deep remorse at ever having entertained even the possibility of harm to another fellow creature. As the sun rose over the square the visionary had a sufficient audience already to listen to his next words, but he would not begin until the place was teeming to capacity. In the meantime some of the rulers had decided to come and see for themselves what it was that held such sway over a populace whose everyday work and sleep were thrown into absolute neglect. The overweening exuberance in the town had the tones of riotous disposition to those who were used to facile command after passage into office. At one corner of the square, close to the main street that usually carried vehicles and wares, were stationed for the first time a posse of the local constabulary and four cavalrymen on sable chargers.
When the man began to speak again there was a clamorous section of the crowd who wanted him to hear them first. They had something to say regarding the return of the objects that had been lent for twelve hours. This group, however, was in a minority and the noise they were making was out of proportion to their number. The visionary proceeded with the plan he had made for the town. He called now not for the substitution of material products but of authority: the rulers should offer to exchange positions with the people who usually stayed in their households; in return they would receive rice from the people and have their food cooked for them; after a while they could go back to their rule. Whether a position in authority was taken by a customary ruler or by an ordinary person, each would have the freedom to explore every resource available in his domain to enhance his possessions and his happiness.
Though this part of the proposal was not very lucid at the moment, the whole met with reverberating approval from the crowd, which rushed forward to receive the blessings of the preceptor. He would designate those who would be the first to take the places of the rulers. There was understandable concern written on the visages of the men in authority, who were gathered in a bunch a few feet away from the uniformed officers and cavalry. Much as they would like to intervene and reassure themselves that there was no prospect of the sharing of power, the rulers could not really go against the wishes of the people unless the seer gave his permission. He was present at the mouth of the main street with an air of meditative musing about him.
In the course of an hour the visionary had dispensed his approval to a large number of followers for this latest phase of his project. At the same time the boisterous, aggrieved group in the square had grown in number and was demonstrably drowning out the happy cheers of all the others. He could no longer ignore this brawling mass that had been pushing itself forward impetuously to his feet. This was the annoying black spot that refused to go away in the whole affair—the pertinacious belief of some that they had not been given a fair deal though they had themselves been honest all along. It was a little before midday and many more people were expected to enlist in the experiment before the close of day. Well, it was time to dispose of the matter and, if necessary, admonish the stubborn roistering group for its foolishness.
So the visionary set about the task in right earnest. He set his glasses a little farther on the bridge of his nose. For the time being his pursuit was one of condescension toward some cankered creatures who would not heal unless subjected to persuasion and a measure of ridicule. Once this quite unnecessary diversion had been put aside, he could return to the more serious endeavor in hand. As a matter of fact, the throng that was bounding at the low platform displayed a vehemence and an ardor that, were they not of the species of meteoritic flashes, might well rival the more stable energy and determination that the visionary had succeeded in evoking in a greater number of people for the common good. When with his gestures and adjurations he had brought the noise to a decently susurrating level, one angry charge after another was thrust up against the other side that was party to the round of exchanges. In a number of instances the other side itself was present and had a similar charge to prefer in turn.
It was told how upon their return it was noticed that the revered objects of the prayer room, which had been handed over in such deference, were smeared, faded, defaced, wrinkled, withered, lightened, dampened or corrupted. This horrible fact was apparent from the moment the items came back into the hand from which they had parted. Without the utterance of a single word other members of the family had understood that what had been given back was considerably altered from what they were accustomed to seeing. The dark deed was too arrant to overlook or pardon; surely the master who had come to the town to bring a glorious reign for the people would arraign the wrongdoers and restore the materials to their true worth. These bewailing folk shunned the idea of blaming him directly for what had allegedly taken place; the growing euphoria that was running like a contagion through the town was just too heady to relinquish with a gesture of that kind. The fault for the despicable outcome must lie with minds that were always plotting and scheming rather than the preacher himself.
By now the visionary had caught on to the realization that the path to the resolution of these ruffled tempers lay in the production of the very items that were at the centre of the disputes and that these were indeed in the possession of the yelling mass before him. He shouted a general order to the crowd to yield up the objects for minute objective scrutiny. From little osier baskets with taut, loop handles, a plethora of hands brought out the idols and figurines that had been returned to them under the terms of the exchange. The time had dragged on wearily to mid-afternoon and it was exacting a toll on the progress of the real experiment.
It was easy to dispose of the arguments in those cases distinguished by a unilateral suit, where the partners in the exchange had no ground for a like complaint. The baskets had only to be opened and held out in the sun for all to see that there was nothing really amiss with the contents. The visionary moved along the platform with the open baskets and invited the plaintiffs and anyone else to point out any discrepancy in the appearance, make, volume and composition of the venerated objects. No one really had anything to say on this score and these cases were summarily closed. But the issue could not so speedily be settled in the presence of mutual denouncement. For even when evidence was demanded of ill-use there was persistent gesticulation toward the other side and insistence upon the claim that this side had sullied the objects while holding them for the twelve hours. Matters were not helped by the refusal in this instance to make the least concession that error had been committed in reading the state of the returned items. Among those in the crowd were some who bethought themselves of a grievance even if they could not make any overt accusation.
At this stage of the proceedings a certain blaze was kindled that would always stay in the town. Under the dazzling sun of a cloudless sky on a winter afternoon, the mutually denouncing groups forgot everything they had ever done or had to do and instead gave themselves up to hoarse, sweating denunciation of their fellow citizens, seeing everything in the aspect and comportment of the latter to reiterate their stand that their household objects had forsooth been tarnished. It did not happen all at once but built up in the same manner as substances from the core of the earth jostle themselves implacably and make heated knocks at the crust before bursting forth with such fiery proclamation as to make their presence felt for a long time after.
Beholding any one of that screeching, hysterical mob with its upturned fists, throbbing veins and famished cries, one might have decided that the immediate provocation was the like appearance of the other party in the same mob that was showing its teeth and holding up its fists in turn. To the other party, it went without saying, the fodder for the fire came from the first party. There was nothing to consider but the belief that wrong had been done and that the culprit was before the eyes; the effect was perfectly symmetrical and reciprocal, if not kinetic, in its impulse as the ticking minutes sped away to what was likely to be a consuming detonation.
In the frenzied convulsions of their bodies and the viperish grating of their throats, people found their own clothes pressing on them and buttons and hooks snapping out. They stopped not a whit. They grew dizzy and fell fainting in the midst of their acrimony, their spite and their vituperation; they recovered to resume from where they had broken off. The visionary stood still with a meek air; there was nothing he could do except to hope for an end to it all soon. Those of the discontented who had been put to ease by the efforts of the preacher began to take warmth from the blaring inferno that was burning away in their presence without the help of wind or tinder; they began to believe that after all there might have been something in the notion that they had been duped in the transactions. The same thought came to those who nursed a hurt from a forgotten time although they had no proof of foul play on the other side.
The sun was beginning to go down behind the dipping roofs of the buildings that used to be colonial offices. The seer finally put up his hand and waved it in a gesture of acute deprecation of the disgraceful incidents taking place in the square. But the light that was once shining so prominently in the eyes of the visionary had already been on the wane and for some time now was completely extinguished. He could not be troubled about the behavior he had witnessed if it could be regarded as an isolated affair, but to his mind the strong manners of the minority had serious implications for everybody’s behavior in general if the experiment were to proceed. Even before the men in authority signaled to the uniformed men to move in and empty the square, the preacher and teacher turned away from the people and at the same time the bird on his shoulder rose to depart in the direction it had come. He had a plan to carry a procession through the town in celebration of the order that was to emerge, but instead he would vanish in the night.
For a moment his departure and the accompanying lament from the majority in the square seemed to beat some sense into the rankled minds that had brought him down. It was, however, too late: the constabulary were moving rapidly through the crowds and urging swift dispersion with their batons at the ready, while the horses stood prepared to charge in at the slightest notice. In any event, the brawlers would pause only to take breath and then return to their homes without the least change in the opinions they held of their partners and neighbors.
The people walked back to their homes under a sky that was paling after turning a blazing red. In that sky was impressed, as if indelibly, the image of a departing bird with wide wings. They walked back slowly but they were not thinking of anything. They were just a little uncertain about the immediate future. There would be no celebrations tonight but only perfunctory meals followed by sleep. Even in the middle of their sleep, they were able to make a wish that the coming morning might be different from all other mornings. Yet, when the morning arrived, it was filled with placid sunshine and brought no signs of a departure from the accustomed. Putting on their shirts and buttoning them, the people returned in silence to their usual toil within the confines of the ordinary white walls of their offices.
Book Review by Gretchen VanOstrand – Don’t Forget Me, Bro
Don’t Forget Me, Bro by John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Reviewed by Gretchen A. VanOstrand
The death of a son and brother brings a fractured family together in this powerful and thought-provoking book. Mark Barr, the youngest of three sons, returns to his childhood home in West Virginia to attend the funeral of his oldest brother, Steve, who suffered from schizophrenia. The book is written entirely in first person from Mark’s perspective as the prodigal son who is now a New Yorker. The night before Steve succumbed to his untimely death due to a defect in his aortic valve, Mark reluctantly spoke to Steve and it was then that Steve prophetically expressed the desire to be buried next to his Granddad.
During his stay in West Virginia, an indignant Mark discovers that his parents decided to have Steve cremated. The ensuing battle over Steve’s remains finds Mark and his brother Greg in an awkward and unlikely truce to do right by Steve regardless of their parents’ demands. During the many conversations and altercations that Mark had with his father, it was quite apparent that the relationship he had with his sons was and continued to be very strained. The father was a sarcastic, unfeeling bully who regularly hit his young sons and belittled them whenever he could. Mark’s introspection about his own failings as a man and his relationship difficulties with women directly related to his failed relationship with his father. He also placed the blame on his father for causing Steve’s schizophrenia. During several of their verbal battles, it seemed to me that Mark goaded his father in order to start a fight. In my opinion, Mark did this in order to prove his manhood to a father who viewed him as a failure and a mama’s boy.
While visiting with Whitey, a former neighbor, Mark was given a box of photographs of Steve which were taken by Whitey. Whitey, an aging homosexual who, unbeknownst to Mark, maintained a friendship with Steve even during his worst bouts with mental illness. The photographs showed Steve in all sorts of peculiar settings in various outlandish attire. The photos, initially a source of embarrassment for Mark, eventually became important glimpses into Steve’s life as he and his mother pored over them with a magnifying glass, desperate to gain any insight into Steve’s solitary world. Mark also learned that Steve had a girlfriend, an intellectually disabled young woman. While questioning his brother’s seemingly peculiar choice for a girlfriend, Mark takes the time to get to know her in an attempt to reacquaint himself with Steve. Her memories of Steve helped Mark to see him as more than just a crazy overweight embarrassment, but a man capable of loving and caring who still enjoyed painting and giving trinkets to his girl. The fact that Steve had chosen her to be his companion was a reflection of just how deep in denial Mark was about Steve’s illness. In his mind, Steve was still the track star with a bright future, not a severely mentally ill man.
The middle brother Greg was an interesting character. Like Steve, he was very intelligent and once had a bright future ahead of him. Greg was a maintenance man, a career choice that confused Mark, as Greg always had big ambitions to attend college and have a professional career. It was unclear to me why Greg did not pursue a “better” life, but alcoholism certainly factored into that. The brother’s relationship was strained by Mark’s desertion of the family and Greg’s resentment. Mark; however, relied on Greg to fill him in on Steve’s life. Greg takes Mark to Steve’s apartment and breaks into it so Greg could help Mark understand what Steve’s life was like during his darkest days as a schizophrenic. It was during the apartment break-in that Mark confesses to Greg that he also suffers from mental illness.
Meanwhile, Mark’s mission to have Steve’s ashes scattered directly conflicted with his parents’ wishes for a simple cremation and storing the ashes in an unembellished urn. I often felt that the parents’ struggle with Steve and his illness was downplayed and that Mark, having been gone so long, was desperately trying assuage his own guilt and posthumously show Steve that he did care about him.
Eventually, Greg forges his father’s signature, takes the urn for Steve’s ashes and has it engraved with his name and birth-death dates. The family reluctantly agrees that Steve’s ashes, along with select photographs and memorabilia would adorn the mantle, which Greg and Mark would repair as a final statement of support for their brother and mother.
This story of abuse, mental illness and dysfunction was weighty reading material. I felt that the characters were very well-developed and believable. I wouldn’t say any of them were particularly likeable, but the long-suffering mother who desperately desired family harmony and peace was the most relatable to me.
I could almost feel Mark’s anger rising to the surface and as he and Greg fought. Years of unspoken family secrets and dysfunctional dynamics played out in fistfights and insults while nothing really seemed to get resolved. The story was just starting to come together for me when it ended on a relatively high note. For once, the remaining family unit was actually communicating in an attempt to come to a compromise. The fact that Steve’s ashes were put on the mantle along with pictures and books was such a triumphantant ending to so much conflict that I wanted the family to seek counseling and come to an understanding about their past and move forward. This is not a criticism of the book, merely a personal observation. I especially wanted that for Mark, who seemed so lost and scattered. There was a brief mention of a homosexual liaison that Mark had in the past, but I could not determine if it was an abusive situation or one that Mark sought out as a young adult due to his desire for a “father figure,” which Mark mentioned during his introspection about his failed relationships with women. I wanted to know more about that.
The author did a very good job of describing the West Virginia scenery and lifestyle of the people in Appalachia. As someone who has been in that part of the country often, I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy and attention to detail.
One minor criticism that I have is that the author overused the adjective “bluish”, which was slightly irritating. I also saw a few spelling and grammatical errors, which I hope are corrected before publication. After reading Don’t Forget Me, Bro, I feel that I know the Barr family. They could be any family anywhere or your next door neighbors. As difficult as it was to read, it is my opinion that it is an important read. Mental illness, abuse and dysfunction are topics that affect many of us and are often hard to talk about. A book like this one could be a great conversation starter for many families. I would definitely recommend this book.
He was married; well, so am I.
I pour the last cup, lift it to Elijah
To the elements, to the rain,
Then spill it out onto the earth
Where it lays in brown puddles
On magnolia leaves.
A predictably inadequate sacrifice
(what would you give? Micah rails,
What would your God have you give?
No: there is nothing:
With your god.
I miss the coffee as soon as it’s gone.
As I missed whiskey
As I missed wine
As I missed the clarity of sacrifice
As I missed the dissolution of the whirlwind speaking
In a language that’s never been preserved
Before her radiation, my lover loved tomatoes.
We’d bring them from the garden,
plastic buckets full and eat them
raw in dripping handfuls, warm
like Ella sings tomato: red musky
throated voices, a Carmen in deep orange,
a raucous Patsy Cline. Our wet mouths full
of muscled fruit, of ripe Loretta Lynns –
They watch you without deference.
You could slide across the counter,
as our gods and prophets watch you
fall across the floor –
Oh, the letters they wrote. Dad, I go down on
my knees and pray for you every night, Your
darling daughter Mona. I brought the family
bible and read Thy rod and thy staff they
comfort me. But after all these years I ain’t
told no one this, but you’re all alone in the
Tee-off, says the wife, is in sixteen minutes.
Kick-off, I mean.
I asked Ron what waders were.
Like overalls, he said.
You pull them up past your waist, then
wade through the water dry.