I’ve put this off long enough. I’ve enjoyed the fruits and sweetness of a brief entanglement with bliss and despair long enough. It is time that I get down to business, call a spade a spade and then pick up my spade and put it to its intended use. I am done with my creature comforts and of protecting what has yet to be taken, as if what has already been taken has not been egregious enough.
Perhaps I should qualify the comforts I enjoy today, at the edge of this springboard, by mentioning where this journey began for me.
I started out as a child, as Bill Cosby is fond of mentioning, but I mention it with a tone sardonic enough to disturb and shake the palace walls of the most insulated, despicably wealthy generation of feudalists since the Middle Ages. The truth is no child should have to experience pass or fail consequences of a lethal nature before the age of reason. When that age is I will let you know because, for the life of me, it changes every decade.
It is an odd collection of memories, my childhood. What I can recall I would have preferred to forget and what I would like to recall has most often buried itself in the funhouse of a psychological theme park I like to lovingly refer to as my family home. It was the place I ran home to in terror as a white minority kid in a mostly black, mostly poor 1960’s lower middle class community of sweeping, jaw-droppingly gorgeous views of sand and sea. We could not have possibly had a care in the world amidst a backdrop of such beautiful scenery, and so the national guard was never called to our neighborhood when whole cafeterias of young children threw their school lunches at one another, tossed countless bricks through school windows and at each other, overturned principal’s automobiles in parking lots, or failed to call for an ambulance when my Aunt Winnie’s daughter crawled almost a half mile home from middle school with a knife jammed into her upper chest.
Because she was in a position to receive it, I suppose.
Bobby Seale was the reason for the riot, Martin Luther King’s assassination was an ideological position for an angry mob and raping young girls was a passing thought in a town that less than one year and five miles removed heralded the geographic focus for an entire Summer of Love. Imagine that, an entire summer of what I’d only seen on a black and white television screen, not that I could have identified it as such. I see the video recordings of Monterey Pop now and there are young women looking like my elementary school teachers enjoying themselves, but what I saw at the time was trash and garbage strewn everywhere, campers that had opened up their liquid waste tanks into drainage gutters designed for channeling rain and parents who responded with disgust at what had become of our little corner of heaven. “No thank you,” was their gentlest response to a rolling craven caravan of drugs, alcohol, loud music and social chaos that affronted our town at that time.
What was really there, just under the door skins overlooking every welcome mat on every porch in my little town circa 1966 was essentially no different than a drunken invading army showing up for a weekend and emptying its bowels into the same gutters children play in for fun. I could blame the invading army, which would be the cheapest and easiest route to escaping my own guilt and shame, and I did so in the Summer of Love, but my family, almost reflexively, sought for a way out. Towards a Winter of Discontent, one would suppose.
Physical beauty disarms and entices us to live nearby. We may not marry, intermarry or possess physical beauty, but we can always pitch a tent out of sight of the local authorities from which we can plan our socioeconomic assault on what, if given half a chance, everyone would agree is a match in time and space made specifically in heaven for specifically this point in history. And so we visit, revisit, upgrade and coerce and cajole until, finally, we make it to Salinas. From Salinas, social movement is cheap and easy to come by since it lies on a major north to south artery that at one time fed the California Missions, hungry with Roman Catholicism, and fortified them against the heathen paganism of the indigenous culture. That would be the same indigenous culture that continues to enable the agriculture responsible for most of its notoriety even today. Nothing of western civilization has much of a compass for growth without a foundation of slave labor to build upon. Ignoring that fact makes you fast friends with the Junior Chamber of Commerce; recognizing it as John Steinbeck did buys you a plane ticket out of town.
Into this land of deep, rich soil and promise my parents landed as part of their plan of assault. For my mother it was to run from a Depression era experience in California’s Central Valley that was so hideous her life continued to exist in an animation suspended to the point of paralysis by Thorazine, electroconvulsive therapy, cigarettes and Ripple wine. For my father, the Depression era was less harsh but no less challenging as a “son” of seven older sisters none of whom were favorites of their mother. My father’s mother made homemade vodka in the cellar, a characteristic scent left behind in the wood that drew me to that room to play on my infrequent visits to “Galicia” — the name the immigrant eastern Europeans gave in the early days to their neighborhood in west Philadelphia. Of much stronger constitution than anyone known to my mother, eventually my Polish grandmother would lock my drunken Ukrainian grandfather out of the house to experience his death from the cold of a Philadelphia Winter, rather than invite him in to beat her to a bloody pulp, once again. She worked in the Litton factory from age 11 to age 72, a keen eye for detailed machinery and for finding flaws in what others would see as just another piece of metal. Her whole pride and joy seemed to be in her over two dozen grandchildren, of which I was one of two banished to a far western outpost, unable to tolerate the climatic and cultural harshness of the mid-Atlantic seaboard.
So there you have a key piece of information about my character twenty years before I ever had a clue into my own self hatred: women were my only sense of stability and the men who occupied my experience were dependent on them for most everything in their lives. Women were innocent and good while men were stupid, harsh, irresponsible and, in the end, they always left. Matriarchy wasn’t so much a choice as what was left. Trust your father and you could die or at least you would be sorry. Trust your mother and you might have a chance at survival.
As a budding male thrust into this maelstrom of multiple assassinations on key political and social leaders by males for males, dramatic upheavals and social unrest, feminism made a great deal of sense to me. Not because feminism promised any answers so much as they promised that I could ask the questions that needed to be asked. The men in my world – a world fueled by alcohol, tobacco, petroleum and Brylcreem – did not appreciate having to answer questions, and they certainly didn’t need any answers since no one had any questions. Believe what I believe, or disappear, would be the ethos of the 1960’s males I was exposed to; whereas the women seemed much more open to entertaining the novelty of a male in their presence who had any questions to ask in the first place.
I could go into great and humorous detail as to what poverty means in a microcosm of American society set in a backdrop of tremendous physical beauty and a climate that while cold was moderate. I could jest, as Bill Cosby so often does, about what it was like to wear out your childhood sneakers past the point where there was no sole, only to have your father berate you and complain to the heavens about your very existence on the planet under his unfortunate roof. I could paint myself as hero or villain in a neighborhood where the resident eight year old bad-ass threw a bowling ball at the head of his father, taking out the only heater in the house as well as part of the wall going into the bathroom; I could paint myself the victim of abuse from every conceivable direction. I could recall being in what I now know was shock when, at five, my mother was returned to us after three months at Agnews State Hospital in a zombified and overly medicated state. I could tell you what it was like to see my mother beaten and bruised, taking weeks to heal, while I walked several blocks with money and a note for the grocery store, day after day, for bread, milk, cigarettes and Ripple. It was a dangerous time in our neighborhood, but I would have done anything for my mother as she was clearly the only victim of record allowed in our home. My awareness of victimization would have to wait until I could escape from this hell on Earth I seemed to have been dropped into, perhaps as penance for another life where I was the source of agony for innocent children now far removed from me in time and space.
But I am not a victim any longer. I am now and always was a witness to the only terror an American will ever know: abandonment by their one true God.
Whether the abandonment was real or imagined, I believed it. I couldn’t allow the awareness of my belief to become public knowledge, not even to myself. Instead, we would be plucked from poverty by a generous, if brief, period in the oil and gas industry where my father was able to leave his own impoverished Philadelphia past and his own racist inclinations towards the Bill Cosby’s of the world behind. We would land in suburbia and I would be the unfortunate peer to children who would grow up to inherit a world of agribusiness and technology that they were completely unprepared for dealing with. Oh, and did I mention there were no black people in our little suburbia?
There would be the handsome son of a former NFL team and college All Star linebacker who always garnered the positive attention of every female who ever set eyes on him. There was the son of a billionaire farmer and agricultural businessman. There were daughters of military and intelligence officers, boys and girls of upper-middle and upper class distinction. And there I was, the son of a gas station owner who was in the right place at the right time for everything but what he really needed. It is not that I was bad looking; it was that my presence on the planet was mere happenstance to begin with. The State of California had long had a habit of sterilizing women who had crossed the threshold of addiction into madness, then falling into the arms of Agnews State. By the reports of my older half siblings, my mother was too far gone to be helped by Science long before I ever set about the business of trying to repair whom I needed to love me. Surely those kind psychiatrists fresh from their schools of Nazi-inspired wisdom would have seen my mother as a poor candidate for breeding. But they, for some reason, did not. As the eugenicists predicted, however, I was failing at whatever my mission in life was and my new socioeconomic peerage became fond of reporting this fact to me on a regular basis. Even the older vice principal who should have known better joined in on the fun of picking on the only white-black child they’d ever seen rise up from the effluent they all knew was incapable of producing anything of local merit.
By the time I had reached seventh grade, I was ready to end my own life. The feelings I now recognize as anxiety and depression had so dogged me that I felt I would be dead by the age of thirteen. The move up the socioeconomic ladder had triggered a cascade of misery and quirkiness that was easy to notice and only too easy to ridicule. What might have been diagnosed as high-functioning autism in the current psychological models was, for me, a miserable, lonely, misunderstood place where I was filled with a drive to become but possessed almost no confidence from which to draw any strength. I felt my presence on the planet was an accident that was being kept secret, and everyone knew the nature of that secret but me.
And I could and would blame it all on the flagrant interpersonal dishonesty of my uncomfortable peerage with the children of baby-boomer promise. At least in a poor neighborhood, the violence was in your face, honest, direct and to the point. Never was it covert or hidden. Financial success brought with it a certain miserly economy that demanded that, rather than shooting or injuring you, I should, instead, drive you to do my work of violence against you, for me. And so this Jedi Mindfuck, I thought, was the culprit of my anxious despair in the midst of an apparent Eden on Earth, a trick my childhood religion was fond of telling me the Devil often played on God’s chosen people.
I definitely felt chosen.
The ugly truth was that long before I’d ever ascended into the Pastures of Heaven school district where Maggie Morgan’s schoolhouse had grown into a highly state-ranked concern whose principal had literally fathered a psychopathic killer, I had pulled out all the hair from the top of my head. I believe I was the age of six, several years away from reading a compendium of short stories that presaged the inevitable truth that would befall my home, and one year away from the death of the author who wrote those short stories. The diagnosis at that time was psychological trauma, attention was given in the form of a “magic” heat lamp and some soothing words, and I miraculously quit pulling on my hair. And also like magic, or a curse, those tell-tale symptoms of inherited, or magnetizing, mental infirmity kept visiting and revisiting me until, slowly, gradually, madness became a pastime, a hobby, the sharp edges of which I dulled with a variety of alcohol and other substances both legal and illegal.
Nothing helped, however, save a comfortable delusion. The most comfortable was the one I shared with Raymond Carver, the one that suggested I was a connoisseur of fine wine and possessed inexplicably cultured taste the likes of which few, if anyone, possessed. The kind of taste that leads a person to count urinating on their bedroom wall, as opposed to their adult bed, a mark toward positive growth. The kind of acculturated sophistication that leads a man to punch holes through walls so that his wife can know he thinks enough of her to use inanimate objects, rather than her body, as a punching bag. I think Steinbeck possessed the drinking aspect of this delusion as well, though some might disagree owing to his Nobel Prize. What few realize, however, was that Steinbeck’s grandparents were the likely source of his lofty reward as they had both died defending the return of the Jews to Zion from ungrateful Palestinian Arabs – a debt that might have gone unpaid were it not for a few good Jews in positions of influence. Plenty of good writing takes place on any given day in this world; much more of it is pure drivel. Steinbeck, and every writer of note I have ever read, produces both in about the same proportion as the general population. Like my father, the stars aligned for a fortunate few to be lifted from the mire, the payment of which appears to be progeny who suffer and blame them for their ambitious strivings.
I could show, rather than tell you, of all these things, but our time together grows short. Like Raymond Carver, I found release from Bacchus in the evaporation of my favorite delusion and have found many years of swimming in the gravy of the work I have been called to do for fun and for free. No more does violence of any sort hitch an appeal to my waning star. I am living a completely different life where I have a sense of wholeness and purpose which I share with countless others who, like me, feel like aliens cast onto a dying planet by an unloving God with a perverse sense of humor. I could show you my gratitude for my release rather than tell you, but that effort would require a real writer and I am no such thing.
What I am is the deep, rich soil from which I was born and to which I shall one day return. What I am is both sacred and profane, a harlequin placed by fate upon this planet in the unlikely event it might choose to survive its own tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to wrestle its mammalian humanity from the lizard-born jaws of its ancient psychopathy. What I am is every unkind word I ever heard and every heartfelt sentence poured from the mouth of a grateful woman unable to comprehend why or apprehend how I could continue to give of myself past the point where a definable relationship could exist. I am arrogant and I am kind. I am as humble as the dirt beneath your feet, and as regal as the sky that threatens to fall down from high above you. I am you and you are me. We are one, you and I, and what I have refused to give to you I have refused to give to myself.
For good reasons, I thought.
Now it seems that, once again, I am too late to save the ones I love from the fate chosen for them by parents and ancestors who were too ensnared in their own slavery to recognize or acknowledge the chains of responsibility that have bound them to repay every drop of blood spilled in vain, every innocent life extinguished and every trauma left unreconciled. But this morning it appears I am right on time, toilet brush in hand, to focus all of my faculties upon the tasks at hand.
“You’re late again, Meyer,” the manager of the drive-in snorted.
“I try to be fifteen minutes early for everyone on my route,” I reply, “but today I’m only ten minutes early.” I don’t know why I bother defending myself with these people, they pay for a service and it’s in their interest to find fault. “But you’re right, I’m running a little behind. Anything need special attention today, Mr. Ryan?”
“The Friday night crowd took a dump in the urinal and the woman’s restroom on the west end smells awful.”
“I’ll have you ready to open in no time, Burt. No problem,” I say, grasping his outer elbow just briefly. I’ve found that eye contact, quiet confidence and cheerfulness, especially in this business, make for a lighter work load.
People like Burt, people who trade in fantasies or a way of life that they desperately long for, don’t realize that more hard work or effort will not give them what they want if those above them in the social hierarchy don’t want them to have it. Their parents had it because the parents of those presently in charge wanted them to have it, wanted to try sharing some portion of a utopian dream of abundance with everyone, top to bottom. But when the payment for their largesse required them to stomach accepting responsibility for the truth of the matter their response was unequivocal, direct and immediate. And so they took back their support that their own spoiled children – the present crop of world “leaders” – might make better use of their wealth than those whose ingratitude seemed to exceed some subjective sense of couth or good taste.
So I scrub. And grind. And brush. And wash. And shine. And sometimes, I whine. Week after week, day after day, I stare into a bowl of reality and wonder the number and kind of poisons the prior evening’s clientele consumed to cause their exhaust to stick so stubbornly to porcelain and ceramic tile. I know the chemicals with which to abrase these bowls and tiles and I treat a few of the symptoms of nightly excess. But I can’t help but imagine the lack of wonder of a sentient mechanism so beguiled of causality as to believe their egress goes anywhere but back into their own mouths to reconsume.
Things may be thrown out, but never are they thrown away.
Sometimes, when the light is right and my job is well done, I can see my own reflection in the bowl and in the water. I can see my smile, but I cannot see my teeth.
I did not go to college to achieve this enlightenment; such things do not come from without, but within. Learning the labels from without at college I come close in description of the joy that can be found within, but no sooner do I succeed in describing it than I lose the shine at the bottom of the bowl to a ripple or a wave. Back I arrive, on time, to my appointed destination.
“Is that you I hear cryin’ in there, Meyer?”
“No, sir, Mr. Ryan. It’s just these chemicals make my nose run a bit, from time to time,” I say, swabbing my cheeks with my sleeves.
“Well, keep after it, then. You’ve only got another hour and the women’s side still smells like death.”
“You got it, Mr. Ryan.” It must seem odd for an educated man of middle age to be addressing a younger peer like a house negro on a Southern plantation might have addressed their master hundreds of years in the past. But the truth is even that predicament was an improvement over the days when a king, a queen or even a squire could lock away anyone they chose to without recourse or even a charge. All that was needed in those days was permission from a jailer, enough money to sustain a story and everything you ever owned, or ever would own, would be taken from you. Everything human you could ever be disappeared down a cold, dark hole never to be seen or heard from again. Prior to 1215 AD, disappearing human beings was simply the way business was done. Until Pinochet in the 1970’s, or Hitler in the 1930’s, it seemed everyone on the planet thought the days before the Magna Carta were a part of human history never to be repeated.
So I scrub and grind and brush and wash and shine and smile. And sometimes, when I am alone, I weep. Sometimes out of gratitude, sometimes out of despair and sometimes, an odd, mad mixture of the two. Usually when I can see myself in a bowl once made foul by a child of the cosmos unimpressed by their heritage as a comet’s dust or the twinkle of a faraway star, usually then I am overcome with mixed emotions deep enough to sustain my wonder as both a part of it all and as witness to the fate of objects falling from great heights.
I am done with the men’s bathrooms now and I step across the crunching of loose gravel to glance out onto the rows and rows of tiny hills and accessory poles. I have a shadow!
A green garbage truck startles me from behind. The sheer force and violence of it as it lurches into a dumpster, lifts it high and then slams the contents into its seedy abdomen, is shocking, in a prehistoric, primal sort of way. Just as quickly as it gobbles up the contents of one dumpster, it slams its generous container back to Earth like every drunk I ever saw slam their next to last drink down on the bar before asking for another. And another. And another. Four green goblets filled with garbage and solvents designed to erase memories, feelings and thoughts, all disappear into the same bloated, stinking abdomen in a noisy cacophony of low-waged workers driving a gigantic beast before limitations are reached and a trip to the local landfill signals the end of the first shift.
Always left behind is the silence as these ancient relics move out and along with a squeal and a hiss, gears left to grind because old knees have become too tired to engage a clutch for many years and many trips to the dump. A journey not always necessary is too often taken because seagulls need scraps to eat and fresh ocean air needs to be mixed with the stench of rotting cooking oil and excess – and that god-awful silence. The quiet void of is-ness needs to be filled with human activity – some kind of human striving or human becoming – because only then is it possible to deny that we float completely alone amidst the dark silence, circling a yellow hot ball of thermonuclear gas that represents both our promise and our doom.
I wax philosophical because I am bored, but also because I have been compelled to remain awake when I would have preferred to remain asleep along with all my peers. Even the brilliant ones, and there were many, never had to know the terrible silence between unspeakable sights and sounds followed by a void so deep and profound it said everything and nothing all at once. Such tidal waves of Empty sweep young children from their feet and force them to struggle upward for air and for light, to no avail. Only the baptism of panic is possible when water enters nose and mouth, always followed by demands for allegiance and fidelity to those whose job it has been, all along, to drown with awareness so as to interpret all silence, even that of the dead – no matter how dignified, no matter how bone-chillingly banal or flailingly futile and violent.
The renewed silence at the drive-in was broken yet again, this time by Master Sergeant Ryan demonstrating his talent for hanging the American flag from a folded triangle of stars to a hoisted symbol of Old Glory, all without it ever touching the ground. Squealing, pulling, screeching as it rises above the roof over my destination, the women’s restroom. I always save the women’s restroom for last because I am usually running short of disinfectant by the time I am done cleaning the men’s room, and the supply closet is right outside the ladies room.
“Goddammit,” Ryan cursed. Obviously the pulley at the top of the pole has seen better days, needing more oil than elbow grease than in years past. “I can’t even get it back down, now!”
Somehow this will become a job for me and a rented cradle crane before the first show time, so I probably need to focus on getting the rest of my cleaning done.
“Gee-zus christ!” was all I could hear echoing from my destination, along with the kind of god awful exhalation of air and grief that only a man who has known combat could ever replicate, much less hear. A cry out into a vast wilderness sounds like it, right before the source of the wail is thrown off the nearest cliff. Feeling the blood rush from my head to elsewhere, an anxious nausea vied for room in my throat with the air I needed to breathe, but couldn’t. Running to the rendezvous point was all I knew I could do.
I had heard this wailing, the first time, right before after I had thrown a grenade, intended for me, back into a tunnel opening from which I thought it came. What they later pulled out of that tunnel, by long, black hair, separated scalp from skull to reveal a tiny body whose bones had been crushed into gelatin by the concussion of the exploding grenade. I think it was me who made that noise, but I cannot be certain as my ears rang for several hours and the unrelenting torrent of tears landed me in a coward’s unit for a fortnight of observation.
“My God, my God, my God, my god,” was all Ryan’s jaws, opening and closing, could breathlessly utter. In his arms, the yellowed flesh of an infant as he hit the tiled wall with his back and slid to the floor, weeping bitterly. The smell of rust made sweet by the death of innocence hung like a paste in the air while a stall door creaked and creeped open; above it, a large spray of blood and splatter punctuated the hopelessness of the scene. I needed air now, and so jerked my weakened knees back out to the parking lot to lose what little breakfast and coffee I had had that morning. And then I got my air. I couldn’t stand erect yet, but I could begin to breathe through my mouth and nose, still stinging from what had just passed through it. Ryan followed me out, the yellow flesh still in his arms, lifeless and bloodied from a gunshot to its head.
Ryan began to plead in my direction, almost apologetically. “You can’t imagine see what is seen of mother there not shown what has been in stark flowers made muddy by cigarettes and beer. An only child patient child weeping life to Sergeant Smiles not in hope to copy what has come.”
“What are you saying, Ryan?”
“What is said I’m saying not repeating not in silence not with beer but with child patient child waits a weeping life in flowers muddy by the snow.”
“Catch your breath, Burt. C’mon now, get a grip. Take a breath and try again.”
“What I say I said am not insisting but repeating understanding darkest light in muddy snow. Tears trail dripping dragging miles, not repeating, but insisting speaking hammer falls muddy to the snow.”
Ryan held the yellow flesh tighter as I motioned to take it from his arms. “Taken from is taken to and never is sky blue falling muddy dripping dragging dropping to the snow.”
Ryan began weeping more, his knees buckling to the gravel to rock the infant, and himself, to a destination far from this place.
“Kosovo,” I thought. “It might have been Kosovo.”
“Burt,” I started, “are you in Kosovo? Speak to me, man.”
“Oh no,” Ryan began with a hopeful tone, “Dallas now Dallas then muddy in the snow repeating dripping dragging on for miles.”
Dallas? Why Dallas? “Are you coming home, Burt? Are you at DFW?”
“Deep in Love they sigh and sway swaggering slipping by slipping past the speaking hammer falls muddy to the snowy grass.”
“I better call for help,” I thought. “Godot isn’t going to make it to the show tonight.”
When I would run back and forth from the chopper, it was always one motion. There wasn’t time to pause or reflect, just a lot of blood and rust, sometimes blowing into a fine mist right before my eyes. Sometimes it was the smell of pork ribs smoldering in the grass, just follow the smoke and excuse the neighbors for not taking better care of their lawn. In the middle of a sand dune. In the middle of a gust of lead hail whistling and whirring, purring and pinging, ripping from and ripping through. The call is made now so there is only time to wait and sustain, fighting off and fighting for, loosening a tourniquet to send a little blood to what’s left of the drumstick, before cinching it up again and blocking the shrieks of agony rising above the moans. For a while. For a little while.
Red lights appear shining through the gates and here, in this place, that means relief and maybe a short nap. But not before the men in funny hats and badges appear to ask questions. Or their mouths are moving in the form of questions, but not honest ones, because here there are no innocents, only villagers. Some armed, some not. Some young, some old. Any one of them could toss a grenade into your lap at a traffic light and there you would be with nothing left to do but die. So if you want to make it home to your future ex-wife, you have to prosecute the case on your feet, like if the District Attorney were your best friend and you always like giving your best friend a bottle of unblended scotch every chance you get. So, since we’ve only known 21 years of peace in 237, that computes to a 91% chance that everyone you need to close the case of The Dead Baby at the Drive-In is already present.
“Did you know the decedents,” asked the man in the blue hat.
“Not well at all. I didn’t even know there was anyone but the baby,” I replied. Sam I am.
“Okay,” the officer started, visibly irritated, “how well did you know the decedents?”
“I never saw them before in my life.” Which wasn’t entirely true because I’ve lived in this little town a lot of years, so I’m sure I’d run across everyone at some point.
“Look,” the young officer began his lecture, “we can do this here or we can do this downtown.”
“But we have to do it – right, Sherlock?”
“Yes, we do. So, let me ask you again, for the third fucking time, did you know the decedents?”
“It’s actually the fifth time, Officer Nitro, and the answer is still, ‘no.’” I will not sit down in a box. I will not eat them with lox. I will not eat them on a boat. I will not eat them with a goat. I will not eat them with breaded Spam. I will not eat them, Sam I am.
“How did you find the decedents? Where were they?” You fucking oxygen thief, a phrase that passed through the part of his transparent skull not hidden by his blue hat.
“I found them dead. Actually, the owner found them dead in the women’s restroom over there. I came in and he was holding the dead baby in his arms, babbling and sobbing.”
“How well do you know the owner?”
“I met him at a veteran’s meeting. He got me this contract to clean up his place. I’ve known him a few weeks is all.”
“And he trusted you to clean his business?”
“I clean his toilets. I assumed his wife took care of the rest of him.”
The officer shifted in his stance, looking sternly at me with a piercing stare. “Did you know either of the decedents?”
“For the sixth time, man, no, I didn’t. I never saw them before.”
“So you never met the owner’s wife?”
“What does she have to do with anything?”
“She’s the dead body in the stall. The infant was his first born. And you, I take it, were his first asshole in charge of toilet inspections.”
Okay, maybe I deserved that one, but I gasped. I knew Ryan could be a little flaky at times, but I never suspected anything to be wrong at home. He’d been back for years. He was just a kid for crying out loud. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I had no idea. He just started babbling and crying. I couldn’t make any sense of what he was trying to say, so I called for help. I had no idea. He only had an occasional nightmare, he said.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. How often?”
“Maybe a few times a month. Cold sweats, night terrors. Like the rest of us. Pretty common.”
“And he told you this?”
“He told all of us this. It’s how we get through it. It’s how we deal. We can’t talk about this stuff to other people. They look at us like we have three heads and a third eye bouncing out of our foreheads.” This fucking kid with a gun. Some people think a gun makes them a psychoanalyst, cultural minister and final arbiter over human fate. I’ll bet he’s never stared into some unlucky sons a bitches’ eyes and just blammed ‘em because that was some crazy lieutenant’s elegant solution for being in the wrong war at the wrong time.
“So he never said anything about beating up his wife?”
“No. Never. As far as I knew, they were happy. They just had a baby. They bought this old drive-in and as far as I knew, everything was working out. Nothing like some of the other stories we were hearing.”
“Look. I can’t talk about it. It’s anonymous. Just know that Ryan was doing better than most with his recovery.”
“If that’s true, we’re headed for a busy goddamn holiday. How many are in your group?”
“Fuck you,” was all I could think. It’s one thing to accuse somebody of murder and beating their wife. It’s another to start ripping apart an Alcoholics Anonymous group based on shit you know nothing about. “It varies,” was all I said.
“I’m going to need names and dates.”
“Look, pal, “ a.k.a. Sherlock, “you’ve just told me that I’ve lost my only job. If you arrest me, I get food and shelter for as long as I want. Maybe even decent medical care. So fuck you and the horse your mama puts quarters in to make you feel like a real cowboy.” I need to breathe. This asshat has gotten under my skin and that’s not a safe place to be with me, ever. I prefer my alone time unattended by people dressed up in blue or white lab coats. It’s just how I roll. “I need to get the fuck away from here for a minute.”
“Are you refusing to continue?”
I know what happens if I keep trying to reason with uniforms who have no idea where they’ve just sent me, how long ago they sent me, how many times they’ve sent me and how many pieces of people I’ve just met I’ve had to load into bags to be sent off air mail. I’ve lost count and it’s not my judgment that puts people at risk anymore – it’s a force beyond my control. It leaps out of me like a bomb blast and it doesn’t care who lives or who dies as long as it clouds up and rains on somebody who thinks they’re in charge.
I’m not quite sure what happened after that because I came to strapped down to a gurney inside of a diesel, shades and blotches of green floating across my field of view. It was either an ambulance or a garbage truck going to the dump. No siren. “Are we going to the dump,” I asked one of the voices moving around me.
“No. Not today, Mr. Meyer,” a gloved hand moved to open my eyes wider. “He’s coming to. Responsive.”
“Am I going home now? Are they sending me home?” I asked.
“Someday,” the voice replied. “If you want.”