Straight Write

By Paul Handley

Iweb have to write a story.”

“OK. I might take Stanley and stay with my parents until you’re done,” said my wife, Lily.

“Will you come back?” I asked.

“I want to, but it gets complicated losing your husband for a week and then he reappears. I can’t even identify him until he identifies himself.”

“I’m still here,” I said

“OK. I never know. Get published.”

“I’m not going to start this second.” I wrote short stories and I couldn’t get them accepted by journals if I wrote them in a chemically attained straightness. The only way I could overlay my soul onto the framework of a story was to stop taking my anti-depressants, which provided me an advantage in the literary field, if nowhere else. We had done this twice before with success. “Do you and Stanley want to go out for dinner tonight?”

“Have you thought about how confusing this is for him?” she asked.

“We’ve talked about this. It is a lot more confusing if he stayed here and was asking you, ‘Why’s daddy crying?’”

“Stanislaw’s a tough guy. Really. How tough were you at five?” Lily asked.

“Umm, pretty.” I started to tear up thinking about my hardened little son, still inured to a life of which he had no knowledge.

“I guess that answers how tough you were even at fifteen,” observed Lily.

“Maybe, but not at five. My sensitivity was environmentally enhanced betwixt those dates.”

“Whose isn’t? Are you going to work from home?

“As much as I can. I’ll do as much work as possible at the Office while the drugs are wearing off and then cut back. They won’t miss me.

“Yes, they will and so will we and I guess everyone else.”

“I’ll miss you more, but in a needy way.”

“I know you will. I’m sorry. Do what you have to do, but I might not come back here after you return.”

I was pretty sure Lily would come back or there is no way I would have risked it. She was being displaced from her house, even if semi-voluntarily, and was justified in making her objections more expansive. I just needed five to six days for a story and then I could rewrite it straight, with more objectivity since being hopped up on normal feels like editing another person.

Thus, on Monday began my ride in Dante’s carnival. Back in the saddle again. Cue the horse whiny with the hallucinogenic beast clambering through the hallways on cloven hooves. It sounds romantic. So it isn’t. I had to accelerate the process since the lingering cowhands herding serotonin through the brush and river valleys of my brain hadn’t all gone to town yet for whiskey, whores, and poker.

My strategy began after my family left Sunday afternoon with watching a double feature from the miserabalist milieu. I craved pastimes to match my sinking demeanor. I rerealized that entertainment plus gloom equals profundity. Tears and death were all that resonated and all that would soon come out of my fingertips. I poured pestilence, pedophiles, and torture onto the screen.

Winter’s Bone started the feed, which really kicked in after viewing The Cove, about the slaughter of dolphins. I began to feel like Mark Twain must have felt while writing The Mysterious Stranger, of which the bottom line is that humanity is hopeless shit. The other mood dehancer involved chowing on chocolate chip cookies and fried nuts, iced with sugar crystals as I watched the evil unfold.

In bed before going to sleep I started reading The Stranger by Camus. Fingers of bourbon that I had consumed lightly tapped the inside of my skin like a perverse massage. I would continue to read The Stranger during my writing breaks that week until I felt a kinship with Meursault. Don’t think the link between Twain and Camus escaped me; or maybe it did.

I called my brother in arms the next morning; he would have been up for a couple of hours. “Hey Dad, how are you doing?”

“Why are you calling?” he asked in a conversational tone.

“Just to see how you are doing.”

“The usual, let me talk to your beautiful wife or Stanislaw.”

“They are over at Lily’s mom and dad’s.”

“You are lucky to have them. Fine upstanding citizens.” I couldn’t disagree with him about Lily, but I thought he was jumping the gun on Stan.

“I’m getting old. It’s freezing here.”


There was a pause. “I know you. You don’t sound so good. Anything going on?”

“Christ Dad, you’re a voice reader,” I said sarcastically, a language I had mastered by the seventh grade. “Gotta go.”

“People don’t change,” Dad said, and that’s why I called him. Dad was a depressive on my frequency and I knew he would throw me a line. He could never take the “easy way out” and succumb to a chemical regimen. I understood to a degree the burden reliance has on the mythological self-image: Hold on a sec, need to grab my pills. While we’re on our expedition will I be able to get the prescription mailed to me at a drop box in the Arctic?

Dad told me once when I suggested he try a serotonin injector, “I run clean, Rocky Mountain high even in the flatlands.”

After talking with my guru of gloom I had a decent breakfast of eggs over easy, covered with tomato clouds of medium hot salsa, bread toasted an uneven medium (set for four), and two cups of coffee cut with formula straight from the devil’s teat; half and half. I wanted to derail the serotonin, but I didn’t want diabetes.

I took the bus since Lily and Stan had the car. At work I was the unspoken token, my presence light, the keyboard ghosting from an incorrect combination of keys or an unfamiliar pattern. I hardly worked half a day and didn’t speak to anyone. I laid the ground work for sickness by coughing and displaying an unwell expression as I conjured up the thought of a red laser pointer inadvertently left atop a mini-podium shining its beam directly into my eyes as if a bullet point could be found beneath my corneas.

The bus ride home was hellish. It was the worst route in the city. I had the choice of bus lines that ran parallel, separated by only three blocks that might as well have been lines of longitude. One route was a tangle of student, gay, hipster urban dwellers, and those impressed into bill-paying jobs that moonlighted as artists. I chose the other one.

It was hot and crowded at noon. Didn’t anybody work anymore? I lurched to a seat as the driver careened back into traffic. A guy across from me wore a wool hat, wool socks, layered with four shirts and an unzipped canvas jacket. I would have put him in his thirties after subtracting twenty years of rough living. He was looking at me, which couldn’t be helped since our seats were facing each other across the aisle in the accordion compartment where the bus had been joined to add a section. Still, he could avert his eyes. Could that demand ever be made of a person short of protecting the modesty of the fairer sex?

There but for a prescription goes I, the thought making me detest him even more. Maybe he sensed the transitional anxiety coming off me that caused a vibrato of colors to linger in the air easily discernible by the really disturbed that existed in that zone all the time. I noticed he got off at my stop. I kept walking.

At home I was pulling the shades down when I thought I saw the guy from the bus ambling outside my house. I pulled drapes quickly. Had he followed me? The egocentric assumption on my part was he had no life outside my own and he couldn’t have a destination.

Tuesday morning I called in sick as I would the rest of the week. I was sick, but not in an acceptable archetype. It provided me perverse enjoyment. I could curl up with it. My depression took over like the flu. Even the ebb and mostly flow of the sickness felt rejuvenating. I imagined myself as larvae, even pupae, tadpoles growing a lung, hermit crabs checking out of a gastropod and returning to carapace life, a snake evening out its javelin-stuffed belly. Sickness was transformation.

That was the good side. The alternate was the shame and loneliness of my shriek into the cosmos. Losing myself into an abandoned insect hole on earth. The wasted effort of the shriek. Resigning yourself to worthlessness and then despising everyone who doesn’t recognize it in themselves. Stupid bastards. Shallow pricks. I’d like to see a picture of a shallow prick, actually.

Then I did some writing. I sat at the computer with a self-prescribed cocktail of Irish coffee that had the impact of riding a roller coaster on a track composed of short hops of caffeine and alcohol, with a height requirement of only thirty-six inches. It was good.

I stretched after a time and saw a person outside. He was sitting on our rock wall eating sections of an orange. Atomic orange rivulets ran down his chin. He threw the peels onto our front lawn. In the sunlight I could see the rawness of his chapped face as if he wintered on the prow of an ancient seagoing vessel. It was the street guy from yesterday. I was sure of it even though he had removed his hat revealing a peeling, bald pate on top, but long dirty blonde hair on side and back that made him look like a Viking warrior. He looked back at me and grinned, openly mocking me. I pulled the shade and wrote. My story was coming together, sewn with tears and ennui.

Wednesday I checked my work messages. Negative news. I’d lost a day. There was going to be a serotonin test at work Friday that we called Happy Friday. Everybody’s jacked up or hooked up. The employees often took a booster to meet the mark. The Boss always says, “Ask me for a raise on Happy Friday so I can deny it with a smile.”

It was company policy that was threatening to become law to maintain a threshold of serotonin. Many violators went undetected since the test was always announced; the rule was legally murky and sure to be challenged. Even so, its rising popularity due to the increasing incidents of workplace bloodlettings meant that failure or refusal demanded a career change.

I ached for my wife and son, which I recognized as good. I was anxious. My wife and child are my touchstones of normalcy. I couldn’t call Lily and expose her or Stan to this state or they might not return. In theory I believe in Dads’ rights, just not for me. There was not even a question of who Stan was better off with. I continued writing.

It had been a rigorous morning. I ate lunch and took a three hour nap. A sleep like that was escape from anxiety and my obsession with minor incidents for an inordinate amount of time. The bus Viking was becoming a recurring theme. I was getting too low on the depth chart. The clock was ticking. I decided to jog to simultaneously absorb sun rays and encourage serotonin to naturally fire at open gloved synapses.

The doorbell rang. I peered out through the slot provided by the picture window curtains and saw an ear adorned with a sizeable cross, the crucifixion variety, not an X. The person was too forward into the doorway to see much more of the face. A short fir lining the front porch obscured the body. I wouldn’t have opened the door, but I thought it might be a neighbor that I didn’t recognize in my current chemical transition.

If my experiment were to be replicated in a high school science lab, there would be a nerdy girl wearing an apron and protective goggles shaking a test tube in each hand for proper distribution of the elements, and then in a display of showmanship heretofore unknown to her lab partners, she would dramatically raise the tubes as if in offering to the gods of pharmacology, then pop both cork stoppers with her thumbs like champagne. The tube with the re-uptake inhibitor (Prozac) would announce the New Year with a spray and the other tube’s contents would be as still as swamp water. Our budding scientist would release her ponytail, shake her hair out while tossing aside the swamp water and do a sort of jig around the class to the music of the fizz.

I opened the door. It was the street Viking.

“Sir, there’s no need to be wary of me,” he said in a voice roughly an octave higher than a tuba.

“I’m sorry. What?” I replied in confusion.

“I saw you peering out the window at me. I just want to ask you if you know our Lord Jesus?”

“I’m kind of in the middle of something. Could we do this another time?”

“Not a problem, sir. You have a good day.”

I hastened to explain, “I’m fasting so I can’t give you my proper attention.”

“So, you are a man of God?” he asked.

“I’m actually off drugs for a few days.”

“I’ve been there, but I found the answer.”

“That’s great. Look, do you ride the bus at all?”

“I meet a lot of good people there.”

“Is this a recent gig?” He gave me a questioning look. “Did you just start this job? Is this your territory?” I further peppered him in a brain-addled spasm.

“Sir, this isn’t a job, but an avocation. The world is God’s territory.”

“OK, but did you just begin this avocation?”

“This avocation? Sounds like you’re saying ‘you people’. I’m sorry sir if religion is so repugnant to you that you have to be insulting.”

“I just meant that I wonder at what point you ask me for money. Avocation denotes a calling.”

“It’s all for God, but there are administrative costs involved for living in a blessed hood, as the kids’ say, so that those areas don’t fall into lawlessness or disrepair, like to your picture window that you were peeking out of at me, as if someone had dumped an unwanted dog on your porch. A pit-bull too hurt for competition anymore, but can still tear an arm off.”

“I can’t believe you’re shaking me down in the name of religion.” I wouldn’t be able to explain away a Viking breaking our picture window to Lily. She would think I’d done it or had invited the vandalism in my inimitable way. “Look, I’m calling the cops right now.” I pulled a cell phone from my front right pants pocket.

“Sir, please don’t. We are at your house. Look at me. The cops are going to believe you. You can take advantage of this situation, but I beg you not to.”

All of sudden I had turned into the Man. “Here.” I took out my wallet and gave him a ten dollar bill, in what felt like a patronizing manner. “Just don’t break my picture window.”

“You’re insane. I’ll pray for you.” He walked away. The missionaries had reached Norseland. Poor Odin.

I didn’t blame him for getting angry. I could see myself in despair reaching for answers, not quite believing them, but resenting others who didn’t either. Drugs had saved my life. Prior to starting them it was tricky to navigate not getting fired, divorced, alienating friends, family, etc . . . Now the problem is that the glass is three-quarters full. I am nearly impervious to seeing beyond one-quarter empty and must delude myself to move the line to half a shot. Shadows help and luckily the neighborhood trees and houses are set close together.

With my time limits I couldn’t write novels only short stories or essays. Maybe when Stan goes to college? Now, I was too happy. Too satisfied. A lifestyle I would have scoffed at as a teen, but after years of living from crap job to crap job without benefits I was thrilled to have a house. Going out to eat once a week is the height of luxury. I didn’t hate my job, but it was useless, so I relied upon my writing for self-esteem. To forget my Nordic chaperone, I went back to my desk. I alternately love and hate my work. At this moment I detested it and was tempted to delete the whole god damn piece.

*     *     *

Saturday I could hear Lily unlocking the door. I went to her. She offered a sardonic, “Is it safe?”

“Safer than you know,” I said as Lily walked in with Stan. Before I closed the door I saw the street Viking down the block heading for the bus stop.


Paul Handley’s fiction has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, MonkeybicycleGone Lawn, mojo, and Ostrich Review.  Cartoons are in Hobart and Forge.

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