I sit in this monochrome room, nodding into the dusty half-light that filters through air holes in the ceiling. My mind is wrapped in defective daydreams that have become one with the dreamer. My fists are down to the bone from pointless pounding against stone. My heart is wasting away, one burnt-out cell at a time. It continues to beat, only because it can.
Nothing in this gray box is real. Not the bench where I sit. Not the filthy, sweat-stained mattress on the floor. Not the meaningless words of defiance scratched into concrete walls. Rallying cries that once burned blood red—now as cold as the rebels who breathed them.
Somewhere, close by, a steel door slams. The “laughing man” makes his way down the corridor with his “tools of persuasion.”
The revolt has been crushed. My brother has been found and executed. I have nothing else of value to give up. I have become a “lab animal” for the imagineers of torture—twisted men in white collars who stand with the guards and watch as the fat man in the tan uniform puts the puppet through his paces.
When the beam of light is turned on my face, they expect a show. I will not let them down. There are no longer any limits to my capacity for pain.
I have learned to play out the implications of my sacred role in this comedy of suffering. Every inquiry and response from the repetitious interrogation has been burned by time into my brain. When prodded with the electric baton, I ask the standard questions and reply with my usual denying answers. I am both the “inquisitor” and the “accused.”
To carry on with this insanity, I must convince myself that the cause is real. To survive, I have to believe that my brother is still alive. To prove that I exist, I must feel the sting—I must hear the sound of my voice…
“Jose de Rivera, where is your brother, Miguel, the anarchist?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you hidden him in the past?”
“We will free you if you tell us where he is.”
“I do not know where he is.”
Another searing jolt—I do not scream. I begin to cry the idiot tears of a madman. The audience is amused. The fat man howls with derisive laughter.
I am a ghost in revolt, abiding inside a forever-hungry leviathan—a bone-cold manhole where no rebels march—no banners fly—no drums roll—no fires blaze.
There are no dying cries from the martyr. No holy names to invoke.
Sometimes, hurt is just hurt.
Click on photo
I marked the day on my calendar as the first Sunday of the month, the Day of the Dead. It was the pits of summer chronologically but it was a November of the mind inside the bar I was working in. Never work someone else’s shift is a golden rule to live by, especially a Sunday shift. I’d learned from that mistake long ago but do I remember these things when in a moment of weakness or intoxication? No. I most definitely was under the influence of Something when I agreed to work behind the stick.
It wasn’t The War of the Worlds outside that last Sunday I filled in. It was more like Creatures from the Black Lagoon on parade. I swore I saw one of the bozos whip out a copy of War of the Newts for an inspirational reading before the whole sick crew went into a spontaneous scrum in the middle of the barroom. They seemed intent on reenacting their last rugby game inside the Washington Tavern and what followed could be described as free style, indoor, Australian Rules Football using furniture for blocks and the unsuspecting customers for tackling dummies. Even the police were impressed when they finally got enough of them to the bar to quell the disturbance. The whole time they were filling out reports and dragging away screaming Neanderthals tranquilized by well placed nightstick shots, all I could think of was, “What kind of plausible story would explain this?’
I’d learned a long time ago that there are three sides to every story; your version, my version and the truth. No one would believe the truth in this case. At least, not the owner and he was the only one that mattered.
“You allowed what to happen?”
“It looked like a spontaneous indoor rugby game to me.”
“A spontaneous indoor rugby game?”
“That’s what I said.”
He looked incredulous despite the fact that my shifts had a reputation for the unusual, even the spectacular but rarely the impossible. Having a police report to back up my strange tale certainly helped. At least, I wasn’t fired but it was enough to make me swear off Sundays. Until the next time.
That Sunday was almost in the books as just another boring night in jukebox hell when she hit the door. I couldn’t tell how old she was, not that it really mattered. She was into cadging Gin Rickeys from the bar flies by showing way too much of her ample breasts an exuding and icy sexual fire. Her slick body language almost compensated for her washed-out eyes, steely demeanor and a nerve deadening horse laugh that penetrated right to the core of the bar rack Calvert’s Extra Dry.
Looking into her eyes revealed a personality that sucked in souls somewhere beyond the absolute zeros of her mind. Wavering in body but not in spirit she said, with a very determined air, “I ain’t having no welfare baby, dude, that’s for sure so mind your face and shut your trap. Ain’t nobody here gonna be causing you no trouble. Ease up and keep the drinks flowing.”
I watched as she sucked down a handful of different colored pills with the new double ration of gin on the bar. Finishing the whole drink in one swallow, she slid the empty glass across the wood and said,” Make it the same way. And while you’re at it, one for all my friends at the bar.”
“Not ’til I see some long green.”
“No problema.” She said, pulling a rumpled fifty from her too tight pants. “This oughta cover whatever the boys and I are having. Take out for one for yourself.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” I said pouring myself an industrial strength Dewar’s and water, overcharging her five bucks for the tip she would forget to leave at the end of the transaction.
“What this babe really needs is a slim hipped dude for some slow dancing and some under cover work, up close and personal.” She said to no one in particular. I almost pitied the next character who would be coming through the door, the father of her premature child. It would be his own fault for not knowing any better than to mess with a crazy bitch in heat on a Sunday night, acting as if free love in this life were really free. It didn’t take a philosopher or a history major to know:’ain’t nothing free in this life’. Especially not a crazy woman with a tricky drinking problem, an almost endless supply of illegal bad drugs and a tendency for strange accidents.
I sucked on my scotch as she popped quarters in the jukebox selecting tunes that went over the edge after Santana doing “Evil Ways.” I could even see the lucky couple to be, late on a Sunday morning, grinding away in the back room, staring at each other as they sang along to “Bette Davis Eyes”. In my mind, I could see them as silhouettes, limned by a neon jukebox glow, sliding into an endless night toward a fire door that always flashed, No Exit.
“It’s not an ego thing is it? I don’t like thinking it is an ego thing.” I am trying to sit calmly, relaxed. Nicole crosses her arms over her chest, thoughtfully.
“No, I don’t think it is. I really don’t.” She pauses, one of those full, ripe, pregnant psychologist’s pauses. “It’s more of a cognitive distortion.”
“A what? Not sure of ever heard of that one.”
“Also known as an irrational thought.”
“Oh yes, I’m familiar with those,” I quip.
Nicole smiles one of those reserved psychologist’s smiles as if to say, “Here, here, clueless man, this is nothing to be taking lightly.” Then she explains how certain situations or events or even feelings can trigger an automatic irrational thought, a bad memory usually, seemingly from out of nowhere which in turn can trigger fear or anguish or even panic of some kind, the back of your neck getting all cold and sweaty.
“Yes, I see. I can see exactly how that is happening to me.”
“Excellent,” she responds, “So give me an example.”
I stop and think. There are so many examples, or should I say so many situations or events conjuring up the same miserable memory from my past which in turn triggers anxiety or fear in me today. “And it’s always the same cascade of feelings. Something uncomfortable occurs which immediately, in the blink of a moment, flings me back to that time in college when I could have lost my girl, that time she sent me away so she could go on a blind date with another guy. That unforeseen event was quite a shock to my system.”
“Yes, I imagine it could have been. What kind of feeling does it produce in you today?”
I flick through them in my mind. “Rejection, abandonment, betrayal, but mostly fear, the fear of losing her. It overwhelms me like a tsunami. An instantaneous massive depression pulls me right under and I feel the same way I did back then. – confused, shocked, lost, hopeless, helpless, alone, useless, unworthy. I could have lost her, the most beautiful girl I have ever known, I could have lost her.”
Nicole nods her head, “Now the question is, what do you think the probability is that this bad thing, her leaving you, will actually happen? What are the chances that today, after being married to each other for 40 years, she will suddenly pick up and leave you, find some other man and leave you?”
I blow our some air. “Well, she’s the most honest, conscientious and loyal person I’ve ever . . .”
“So what are the odds she would leave you now, today, for another man or for any reason at all?”
I cringe. “Intellectually, I have a hard time imagining her leaving me.”
“OK, so there you have it. Now we just have to get you there emotionally.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. But how do we do that?”
“We start by making another appointment for next week.”
Morgantown, West Virginia
It’s real hot outside. We’re on our way to buy pop for mom when we find this car just sitting by the side of the road. It doesn’t look like much of a car anymore. It’s all beat up like somebody fought with it all night, like something wrong happened. I see glass and a t-shirt. I’m with my little brother. All the windows are rolled down.
Grace makes up for beauty. That was her mother’s motto, one hand pressed firmly against the girl’s back, the other on her already bulging stomach. Her mother’s fingers were cold, always.
Grace makes up for beauty. She would repeat it, her hands held carefully over her head. She kept her eyes trained on the mirror, always at the face, never at the body, never at the ripples, never at the pockets of flesh that started to bubble around the upper thigh, which you could still see through her thick tights.
Grace makes up for beauty. She whispered it, sweeping down one hand, laying it near her thigh. As a reminder, once for her behavior her mother made her do this naked. Now she could never get the image of her fat rippling over her hip as she bent down out of her mind.
Grace makes up for beauty. Smile, her mother said. Smile. You have beautiful teeth. Head back, chin up. Smile. When I was a child, her mother said, I could eat whatever I wanted. Then I became a teenager and turned stocky. You have my genes. We must be careful.
Grace makes up for beauty. Hold your back straight, her mother snapped. She would nod slightly, barely maintaining her balance, and retreat to a place inside her head. Inside there was a story she told herself, about a girl on another planet where it always rained. And the one day it didn’t, the one day the girl predicted it wouldn’t rain, she was locked in the basement. Suffering.
Grace makes up for beauty, she said out loud, the hanger in her shaking hand, the acid eating her throat, the blood in the toilet. Suffering is beautiful she thought, it makes up for humiliation. It makes up for her urgent need. It makes up for sin. It makes up for her sex and the burning need she felt there. Suffering makes up for loss. Her bladder constricted, held for hours too long, strained and released just a bit. Just a small warm amount. She smiled at the warmth. Suffering makes up for beauty too, just like Grace.