Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Changing the Channel

I ate three powerful mystery brownies I’d copped from Glen and sat watching TV and waiting forever to feel the effects and eventually the remote control began to change. Right there in my hand. I quickly tried talking sense to myself but it was fruitless. The remote kept changing. The buttons were wet and squishy, like Jell-O only warm. And then the next thing I knew they were like ice—hard and cold and slippery on my fingers. Somehow I kept holding onto the thing even as it writhed. It became a clump of dry, unruly hair. It felt like a face. I didn’t dare look at it and kept my eyes peeled on the TV screen that kept flickering through channels at a rapid rate. I was still hitting the buttons with a frantic hand. Only now they were eyeballs. And now they were lactating nipples. And then the very concept of the remote control changed. It was a rainy Sunday morning. It was a speech by Hitler. It was a sour taste, a sharp pain, a dull pain, a Mark Twain witticism, a mailbox on fire, an arc of light on a broken toilet seat. Changing changing, the faces on the screen bleeding into each other through a snowstorm of altered images. Whirling confetti—each tiny paper square an art museum. And it just kept going until I thought my brain would burst from the overload. The pressure kept building. I cursed Glen. I tried, again, to reason with myself, remind myself that it was merely the brownies and that it would wear off and things would return to normal but Lyndon Johnson was whispering warm light into my colon and the fear that my bowels might leak occurred to me and I dropped the remote control into the breathing, tangerine shag at the roots of my feet and the TV screeched to an abrupt halt smack dab in the middle of a prison documentary.
     A guy with tattoos all over his face was complaining about the food. I wished I could give him one of Glen’s infinite brownies. That would also combat the boredom and claustrophobia of the cell.   

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Paralyzed Man-Ape

Joey was the only kid in the neighborhood that had a jungle gym in his yard. If the other kids wanted to climb a jungle gym, they either had to go to the park or the grounds of Herbert Hoover middle school. Or they could climb Joey’s jungle gym in his backyard. But then they had to play Joey’s game. And Joey only played one game.
     The Paralyzed Man-Ape was his game. And it went like this:

     Joey would play a “pre-humanoid anthropoid” (his words) or Man-Ape. Hunched over and chattering and loping across the arid Savanna grassland, he would climb to the top of the jungle gym and the other members of the “tribe” would throw rocks at him. Joey had instructed them to, “Huck `em hard!” and they would, aiming for his face. Pelted with rocks, Joey would topple from the jungle gym, pretending to shatter his spine. He would just lay there, immobile, until the saber-toothed tiger attacked him. Joey’s Man-Ape would release truly blood-curdling screams as he pretended to be ripped to shreds under the tiger’s huge, knife-like teeth. Then he would die. That was the signal for the other kids to drop their rocks and then they were free to climb the jungle gym. Joey would turn back into Joey and go into his house, leaving the other kids to play normal games for the rest of the day. Joey was satisfied with this arrangement. He never got tired of playing the game, bruised as he got.

     But if they could get a ride to the park, they preferred that to playing The Paralyzed Man-Ape. They thought Joey was really weird and sometimes they really hurt him with the rocks. Once they cut open his eye and he had to go to the hospital for stitches. They continued to play on the jungle gym while he went through that. Life in the Paleolithic Age was tough on Joey. He wouldn’t have it any other way.     

Dr. Boots

I call my orthopedic surgeon “Dr. Boots,” because she wears these sexy boots that stand in sharp contrast to the plain white doctor jacket she wears. They’re like biker boots or something, I don’t know. Black leather and high-heels and faux-fur around the tops. I don’t call her “Dr. Boots” out loud. Not to her face. It’s a private joke, just for me and the warm interior of my head.  
     While I’m sitting on the examining table, waiting, I inventory the room.
     A poster that says, Finding Answers so you can Reach Your Full Potential! It shows people jogging, biking, rock climbing, etc. A lot of lens flares. There’s a desk with two chairs, a computer, a third chair that rolls on casters, a telephone, a used-needle receptacle, a hazardous-material hamper, a suture kit, a box of sanitary wipes, Purell hand sanitizer, a sink, a children’s book called Venus and Tara and the Big Game, a Cosmopolitan, a National Geographic, and the examination table adorned with a crisp paper tablecloth. The room smells like cotton and gauze and the ghost of a disinfectant.
     There is no clock as I sit and wait for Dr. Boots. I realize my nickname for her is a lame attempt at control, a way to diminish her status as an authority figure. I need to take these doctors down a peg. I feel ashamed of myself.
     She arrives carrying a clipboard; a list of my secrets. “Hi, sorry to keep you waiting,” she tells me. She gets behind the desk. I take a seat across from her.
     “Oh, that’s okay.”
     “Your blood pressure is a little high. Are you nervous?”
     “Always,” I say, forcing myself.
     She examines my messed-up elbow. In two weeks she will be cutting it apart and operating on my bones.
     You would think I’d have more on my mind than her boots.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

In Haste

So Joyce finally hit her limit and asked herself, Why is that depraved, depressed little weirdo still in my life? It had been twelve everfucking years now. Twelve! Longer than most marriages! Longer than most lozenges. Their relationship should have faded away long ago. Fade away or collapse. Or explode. Or was implode the correct term for the fucked-up situation they had situated themselves in? Their relationship was hard to describe. That sound you get from the bottom of a glass when your straw sucks up the last of the liquid. THAT was the sound of their relationship—a lot of air and a speck of taste. A not-very-satisfying final gurgle from the bottom of the glass.  A flat, tepid death-knell.  
     Flogging the dolphin. All that was left to do was acknowledge that this final (?) ordeal came out of nowhere. Again. Well, in truth there’d been several small skirmishes along the way but Joyce and Walt inevitably teamed up again and cleaned up the caustic, hateful debris they’d hurled at each other like pizza sauce, and returned to the weird relationship that didn’t make sense to either of them but was—for some loony reason--important. But Jesus, sometimes he was just exhausting.
      But they needed each other, right? Christ, maybe not. Walt hated to think it might all come crumbling down due to a ringing phone in the middle of the night.
     Everything was done by telephone. Walter and Joyce had met on an online writing community and their relationship never moved beyond that. At least in a geographical, spatial sense. They were 1,314 miles apart yet obsessively close together. They talked and laughed and wept and fought and fucked and got as close as two people could get without actually meeting. They helped each other through trauma and loss: The death of a pet. That time Walt got cancer. When he lost his job. When Walt was lost in the hospital, arms sore and punctured like a voodoo doll, hers was the number he wanted to call. When Joyce went in for one of her endless arteriograms (Joyce had a blood-sucking hole in her brain) Walt tried his best to make her laugh. Tried to make it seem less frightening. They played like children sometimes to alleviate, if only for a few dewdrops, the horror of existence. They were as close as they wanted to be. Neither one was booking flights or planning a cross-country drive. Their magic moved through the sizzling intimacy of telephone lines.    
     The freakish[1]* magic that held them together was borne out of some mysterious alchemy forged from transmission signals and electronic membranes. Migraine headaches.  Drunken foolery. Frenetic, sugary, disaccharide molecules flavored the air they breathed, air that transmitted delicate personal information. Boy did they know each other. They felt like invisible, forever-babbling entities, and spent hours sharing their lives and analyzing things. It was easy to share long-distance. They didn’t have to look each other in the eye but they could never hold hands. A lot of stuff was made up. They wanted to hire the Banana Splits to play at their wedding. They spent long hours dissecting the behavior of serial killers. The songs on their (imaginary) jukebox would part your hair. They agreed that No Reply by the Beatles was about a creepy, possibly homicidal stalker and not a song about lost love. They quoted lines from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Taxi Driver, (1976) and Goodfellas (1990). They both used the Marx Brothers as directed—to stave off fear and despair. They developed verbal shorthand which started to morph into a new, private language. Sometimes their conversations were so short-handed and kinetic it made their hair stand on end, their compass needles go weird, their bunnies flee, and once, even TIME ITSELF sat down and slowly froze to death like crazy Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980).
     There was power to their friendship. In the early days they’d talk for eight or ten hours. Batteries would die. They couldn’t get enough of each other. They would recite poetry or favorite passages from favorite books and Walt still remembered with fondness their first phone conversation. They talked about A rebours with such giddy, delighted surprise. They felt like they had found someone new and revelatory yet strangely familiar. They were in their 40’s when they “met” but turned into teenagers in each other’s company.
      All over the phone. Give it up for Alexander B.
      But things were different now. The word impasse came to mind and Walt tried to sweep it away. He didn’t want to dwell on his many mistakes, how freaked out he was to talk to her. All the times he tried to run away or push her away, all the times he was weak and pathetic in front of her. The times he confided his darkest impulses...

Joyce was forcing herself to get exercise (for some arcane medical reason) by walking around Lake Walnut. Her doctor—a devout, bald man—recommended she take up jogging. She said, “Okay,” but knew jogging wasn’t in her future. She refused to jog. It was a matter of dignity and self-worth. All those women straining and sweating and struggling up and over endless, merciless hills. And don’t even mention power-walking. Every time a power-walker passed by, Joyce wished for a sniper in the trees, aiming at the walker through the scope of an assault rifle.
     Joyce was the kind of gal that used to sneak a smoke during gym class, hiding on the distant side of the track. Once, in art class, she and her best friend Rita managed to share a joint simply by opening a window (which wasn’t allowed) and releasing the smoke through the screen. It was audacious and scary (if caught they would have been royally screwed) and they got away with it. Of course they did. They were fearless.
     Joyce smiled at the memory, remembering Rita. It was only half a mile around the lake (Lake Walnut should have been called Walnut Pond or, better yet, Walnut Puddle). A gaggle of chatty women ran past her and Joyce remembered the term “runner’s high,” something to do with endorphins producing euphoria.
     Joyce had been addicted to Percocet for several years. She knew all about euphoria and was quite sure she couldn’t achieve it by running around a puddle.
     She walked around the pond once and then bounced. She fled the scene in her red Mazda Miata, tires spewing pebbles and sand behind her. That was enough for today. She wondered if Walt would call. She really read him the riot act. Would he even remember? Everclear abuse had worn holes in his head. They both had holes.

Walt was at work. Walt was hungover. Walt worked at FedEx. The Graveyard Shift. He took packages and moved them around. He placed them according to lettered codes on the labels. For example: JBC went to Franklin. PVD went to Providence. You would think WST would go to Westboro or Worcester but no, it went to Providence too. It was best not to ask too many questions. Walt worked in what was called The Sort.
     The Sort was housed in a big building full of machines growling and grinding. There were conveyor belts and chutes all over the place. Guys drove forklifts, guys handled hazardous stuff, guys stood way up on scaffolds scanning barcodes. “Guys” meant women too. There were a lot of women that worked on The Sort.
     Walt was standing at his spot in front of a conveyor belt and packages going past. Walt stood there and read the codes on each box that glided by. He had three codes that were his responsibility: HYA, BDL and good old JBC. When a package came by with one of those codes, Walt would shove it off the belt and it would slide down a chute and then it was the next guy’s problem.
      There were people that the managers selected to be “team leaders.” They could boss you around. Walt’s immediate team leader was a black, mountain of a man named Jesse. Some of the package handlers hated him, others feared him. Walt was somewhere in the intimidated middle. Jesse always seemed to be under tremendous stress. He could kid around and laugh but mostly he just worried and barked orders. He had to. He was a team leader. One of Walt’s coworkers, a friendly, verbose guy who drove a white panel van, told him that Jesse’s personal life was as miserable and stressful as his job and he spent his off-hours alone, swilling whiskey in the dark. Yeah, but Panel Van Guy’s gossip couldn’t be trusted. He hated Jesse and once confided to Walt that he wanted to stab him in the face, the eyeballs. Like a prison hit. Walt just nodded and eased away.    
     Walt looked at the clock even though it was pointless. The shift ended when all the freight had been sorted and shipped. Walt looked at the clock again anyway. It was two o’clock in the morning and he had never needed a drink more ruthlessly. He needed to talk to Joyce with such desperation he felt embarrassed by himself. But he was afraid to call her. He had seriously fucked things up (again).
     See, Joyce lived with people now. Walt couldn’t just get drunk and call at all hours anymore. People were sleeping. He had become a natural disaster. Unpredictable. A befuddled invader. Joyce was right to be furious. No one needs a screaming phone at two in the morning. And Walt was no help. He couldn’t remember a thing. He looked at the clock again. It was still two o’clock in the morning. Endless packages, endless time.

Joyce couldn’t work because of her condition and passed the time doing scrimshaw. She used bone instead of ivory. She could lose days etching and scribing into the bone. Her current project was carving the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show into a moose hip. Scrimshaw ate hours.  Sometimes her hands hurt from repetitive motion.
     She had left home at 16 and moved in with her pot-dealer boyfriend, still managing to complete her education. Now, at 50 she was living with her parents again. She started to tackle Gavin MacLeod, etching his head into the polished bone.

When Jesse the Team Leader finally yelled, “Third shift all set!” Walt felt close to collapse. Package handling was hard work. It was hard on the body, all that activity and heavy lifting. He punched out and urged his aching form out the door and into the pre-dawn dark. It was three o’clock in the morning. Birds were screeching in the trees. “I hate those fucking birds,” said a disgruntled guy behind him.
     When Walt got home the telephone was sitting there. He cracked open a beer and turned on the TV. Looking at the phone. Calling Joyce was impossible, of course. He wanted to talk to her, tell her about his workday. A new guy had lost three fingers to a conveyor belt. A hazard guy had to clean up after him wearing a spacesuit. It was exciting. The guy who lost his fingers remained eerily calm as he reported the accident to the dispatchers. We figured he was still in shock. That would explain his calm. Three fingers, Jesus. An amputation too mangled to repair. Walt drank his beer, casting an occasional glance at the empty phone.

1,314 miles south, Joyce decided to call it quits. She put away her scrimshaw tools and then hit the hay. She wondered if Walt would call. He didn’t. Neither one of them was reachable anymore.

[1] Freakish here is used as a positive attribute.