Thursday, December 29, 2016
AT THE THRESHOLD
A few days after the intervention I was on my way to rehab. Saint Mary's Rehabilitation Center (Now Fairview Recovery Services) is in Minneapolis, a longish way from Maine. In interventions it's recommended that the subject be escorted to the treatment facility once he or she has agreed to go. I was sent by myself.
The ninety minute drive from home to the Portland Jetport I only remember in patches. Although I was driving, I was full of tranquilizers and kept passing out. Every now and then I would look at my wife sitting in the passenger seat and I couldn't understand why she looked so terrified.
Once I got on the plane, I popped a few more pills, passed out, and was awakened in Chicago where I had to change planes for Minneapolis. Once on that plane, I passed out again. The next time I regained consciousness I was trying to remember a joke. The saga from my novel Saint Mary Blue continues:
Jacob Randecker was trying to remember a joke. It was very funny, he recalled.
---Very funny, unless you happen to be the joke. But it's all relative. Hell, relativity's relative. Reality is the problem, you see. And if you aren't part of the problem, you're part of the solution.
---God, I feel sick. No. It's more like I'm covered with a thick layer of bread mold.
---What was that Joke?
---Oh, yes. This drunk comes into a bar, see. And he orders a Martini from the bartender. While the bartender is getting the drink, the drunk looks down the bar and notices this little monkey sitting on top of an upright piano.
---Yeah, that's the way it went. And I better keep my eyes shut. I feel like I'm moving, and I can't remember any good reason why I should be moving. But if I push the feeling down, I won't have to deal with it. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow....
He felt for the reassuring lump of the pillbox in the pocket of his sweater vest.
---It's all illusion, anyway. A dream, this day, this life, this nightmare. What was the rest of that dumb joke, anyway?
Something lurched against his shoulder. He nodded to himself as he concluded that he really was moving. He studied the problem of trying to open his eyes.
---First there is the deeper issue to consider: should I open my eyes? You can't ever tell what's going to be there.
---The joke. Concentrate on the joke.
---As soon as the bartender puts down the drink, the little monkey scoots off the piano, runs down the bar, and plants his ass right in the guy's Martini. The drunk bends down, looks through the side of the glass, and sees the monkey's two fuzzy little balls right next to the olive....
Another lurch against his shoulder and a horn honking. He opened his eyes. The world was a blur of grays. He opened his eyes further and saw that he was looking at a pair of gloves. He wiggled the fingers of his left hand and decided that his hands were in the gloves. His head tilted back, and above a red plastic oblong, there was a dark brown melon perched on a dark blue rug....
The world looked very silly. Jacob closed his eyes.
---"Bartender!" says the drunk, "this monkey has his balls in my Martini."
---The bartender checks it out and shrugs. "I'm sorry, mister. The monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey. I'll get you a fresh drink."
Jacob opened his eyes again.
The melon resolved into the back of a head, the rug was a coat, the red plastic oblong was the back of a couch. He looked up and saw a face glowering at him. It was a picture in a plastic holder, the kind they have in taxicabs.
He turned his head to the right and saw men and women moving rapidly past. But they weren't walking. "What in the hell am I doing in a taxi?"
---Where am I? Where am I going? Where was I? Why....
---A taxi? This might be a problem.
As the motion of the cab pushed him against the right-hand door, he wiped his gloved hand over his bearded face, tried to work up enough spit to counter the dryness in his throat, and then let his eyelids fall shut from their own weight.
---I could ask the driver where I am, but I'd sound like a real jerk. What the hell. Look on the sunny side. At least it's not a police cruiser, or an ambulance, or a hearse. Concentrate on the joke.
---As soon as the bartender puts down the second drink, the little monkey scoots off the piano, runs down the bar, and plants his ass right in the fresh Martini. The drunk looks down and sees those two fuzzy little balls....
Jacob saw a face from outside looking back at him. A woman dressed like a blue snowball. Was she laughing? Laughing at him? The face disappeared as sick fear spread through him.
---What is the point? Life. What is the damned bleeding point of it all? I could see going through this pain if I was doing some kind of good somewhere. But what? Where?
---I can't figure out the rules. I just can't. Whatever it is that you have to know to live on this planet, I just can't figure it out.
He fought down the tears as he reached for his little green plastic pillbox. As he placed one of the little white oblongs on his tongue, he teased himself with the memory of the time he had once died. Back-to-back heart attacks. In the hospital's intensive care unit, all feeling, all sensation, all thought leaving him. Absolutely nothing whatever was important or unimportant. No pain, no hurt, no loneliness, no hate, no nothin'. The pleasant neutrality of death. Infinite universes of warm, black cotton.
Jacob Randecker never could understand why people feared death.
"What's so funny?" asked the cabbie.
Jacob looked up and nodded. "Death."
"Death?" The cabbie looked over his right shoulder, his face dark with concern. No, Jacob discovered. He's black. But concerned. "Are you all right, man?"
Jacob waved his hand back and forth, then let it fall to his lap. "Not death. That people are afraid of death."
Jacob managed to focus on a street sign. Hiawatha? He giggled. ---Now I know where I am. By the shores of Gitchee-Goomy....
He looked into the open palm of his right glove. The green plastic pillbox sat there. He enclosed the box with his fist and gently shook it, listening with his sense of touch. There were still a few left.
---Death. Soft, black, nothingness. The ultimate downer. It is such a plus next to the abject negative of my existence, death. It's there: my ticket out, if I want out badly enough....
He rolled his head to the right and looked out the window at the snow, the ice, the huddled masses yearning to be any place except, except ...
---Where in the hell am I? Where are the shores of Gitchee-Goomy?
He closed his eyes. That's right. Who cares? Like that guy in one of his stories. Sitting at a bar putting away his third keg. The bartender points at his glass and says, "You know, buddy, there aren't any answers in there."
The guy looks up at the bartender, then looks back at his glass. "I'm not looking for answers; just less questions."
---Less questions. Let's hear it for less questions. Amen.
---"Mister, the monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey. I'll get you another drink."
---So the bartender pulls the monkey's ass out of the Martini ....
"That's the new stadium. The dome is held up by air pressure."
"What?" Jacob Randecker opened his eyes and leaned forward. "What did you say?"
The taxi driver, his gaze never leaving the icy street, cocked his head toward his left. "That's Minneapolis's new stadium. It's paid for by a nickel-a-drink tax. Isn't that a sonofabitch? I'm getting laid off from work tomorrow, I can't afford the price of a drink, but I got me a brand new stadium, if I can come up with the bread for a ticket...."
The driver kept talking as Jacob rubbed his eyes and tried to squeeze some kind of sense out of existence. ---Minneapolis is in Minnesota. Minnesota is ... somewhere west or south of Michigan. They have iron mines in Minnesota. And Saint Mary's Rehabilitation Center....
Panic edged into his intestines as memory crept through the fog.
---That's how the joke goes.
---"Like I said, mister, the monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey."
---The drunk looks at the monkey, then back at the bartender. "There must be something I can do."
---"Maybe you can talk to the piano player."
The cab lurched and Jacob ate another Ativan. The intervention. Some Christmas Eve. And it's going to be some great New Year, as well, he thought as he stared out of the window at the Minneapolis snowstorm, feeling awfully alone and like he had been talked into something.
He began fishing another Ativan out of his pillbox when the cab driver hit the brakes for a red light. The cab slid on the ice right through the intersection. A red panel truck coming from the right did an end-for-end, just missing the cab's rear bumper. Jacob noted the near disaster as an inconsequential, not too terribly interesting event in the environment, and concentrated on what was important: finding the tablet he had dropped on the floor. He found it in the mud next to a cigarette butt.
He brushed the dirt off, erased where it had been from his memory, tossed it into his mouth, and settled back to watch miles of ugly grain elevators through the grimy window.
"Damn, man!" said the driver. "Sorry about that. The road's like a skating rink."
Jacob nodded and continued looking at the dull, stained, frozen buildings as he spoke. "Do you people really believe that Mary Tyler Moore lived here?"
The cabbie didn't answer. Jacob didn't notice. All he noticed was the color gray. Gray buildings,, gray sky, gray snow, gray people dressed in gray....
Inside there was a feeling. Something that said to Jacob Randecker: you should be crying right now, or cursing, or screaming---not making Jokes.
---Numb jokes, dumb Jokes.
---Oh, yeah. That's how the joke went.
---So the drunk gets off his stool and walks over to the piano. He taps the piano player on the shoulder and says "Do you know your monkey has his balls in my Martini?"
---The piano player shakes his head. "No, man. But hum me a few bars and I'll fake it."
A voice woke him out of his semi-doze. The cab driver was looking back at him. Jacob's lips were numb. An electric tingle skittered across his scalp. "What?"
The cabbie pointed with his finger. "Where to?" Jacob leaned forward, looked out of the windshield, squinted, and saw a chocolate-brown collective sign stacked with the names of several institutions. It identified the mass of snow-covered, red brick buildings beyond it as St. Mary's Hospital. In the center of the aggregate was a specific. Jacob picked it and slumped back in the seat. "The rehab center."
The cabbie raised an eyebrow, then went back to the job. The taxi moved off, turned right, and stopped in front of a five-story building. The fare on the meter was over ten dollars. Jacob handed the driver a twenty and said, "Keep it," as he reached for the door.
"Thanks." The cab driver pointed at the building with his thumb. "What's it like in there?"
Jacob shook his head, got out of the cab, and pulled his bag out after him. "I don't know anything about it." He closed the door and the driver spoke through his open window. "Think it'll do you any good?"
Jacob turned around and looked up at the building. "These people have an impossible task: trying to convince me that there is a good reason for being in this world alive and sober at the same time."
The driver didn't laugh. "I hear you, man. Good luck."
Jacob heard the cab crunch off through the fresh snow, and he lowered his gaze to the building's double glass doors. Icy wetness trickled down the back of his neck. The image blurred.
"Damn. Damn, but I'm scared."
A guy in shirtsleeves was shaking his arm. "Hey! Hey, what's your name?"
Jacob frowned. He was still standing in front of the glass doors. The guy, wide eyes and close-trimmed brown beard, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. "Where did you come from?"
The bearded youth pointed toward the doors. "Are you supposed to be in there?"
"You've been standing out here in the snow for the last twenty minutes." He rubbed his arms, and paused as his face softened. "Look, man, you've come to the right place. But let's get inside. I'm freezing."
The man's image blurred as tears obscured Jacob's vision. "I don't know. I don't know."
The man took Jacob's arm and removed the bag from his stiff fingers. "Let's go." He began pulling Jacob toward the glass doors. "You can make it. You can make it if you can be honest. You know what I mean by honest?"
Jacob smiled, then laughed. "No. man. But hum me a few bars and I'll fake it."
I wrote Saint Mary Blue one year after completing the thirty-day part of treatment at the facility. Putting it down here in Life Sucks Better Clean brings back to mind the terror of standing in front of that building scared that whatever went on in that building wasn't going to work, and equally frightened that it would. What would life be like without drugs? Would there even be a life, or was it all going to be anxiety, fear, shame, pain, and endless disappointment?
It was, as one recovering addict put it, "like being born again, as an adult, through the same-sized hole."