the Saint of Silver Dollars

On an empty highway on a Tuesday morning in 1936 a silver dollar fell out of the sky and landed at the feet of Brian Van Bueren. Looking up, he waited for more. But no more fell. So, he bent down and picked it up. It was a miracle. He’d been walking the highway for two days with only dust to eat. A buck meant a seat in a diner, eggs and bacon, all the coffee he could drink and a pack of smokes, besides. There’d even be a few pennies left over, by his reckoning. And by his reckoning, in all of Heaven and Hell, there was no Saint finer than the Saint of Silver Dollars.

In the distance was a sign that claimed a town named Vemiera lay just ahead, and now that he was flush he dropped the silver dollar into his pocket, shouldered his pack and carried on.

At the outskirts of Vemiera he beheld a tarred dirt road, Main Street, running through the town. It was a small commercial centre for loggers and homesteaders, people who might not sneer at an untidy traveller like him.

The Vemiera Diner was next to the Texaco on the corner at the town’s only intersection where a car might turn left and disappear into dense woods dark as a cave or turn right, past a hardware store and end up in the lake. Parked at the curb out front of the diner was a ’29 Ford pickup and a ’31 Chevy coupe. Stepping up onto the porch and through the diner’s door, Van Bueren was struck by the perfume of Orange Crush and Salisbury steak. His stomach howled.

At the counter sat a woman in a pink dime store dress and straw hat drinking a vanilla milkshake and smoking a cigarette. She watched him as he entered. Three other scattered patrons did the same. It was a long moment before anyone spoke, and when someone did it was a portly man behind the counter wearing a stained white shirt and a grubby car hop hat. Cook, counterman and proprietor, Van Bueren’s guessed. “Hello there, stranger,” the man said. A friendly greeting, if slightly cool. “My name’s Puck. Take a seat and I’ll get you a menu.” Van Bueren took the stool nearest the door and looked straight ahead, aware of the milkshake lady’s stare.

“Hey, mister,” she said. “I’m Helena—Helena Jollis. Waddaya know, waddaya say?” She held out her hand for him to shake.

“Hey,” Van Bueren replied quietly, hoping that the single syllable wouldn’t commit him to too much. He left her hand unshook.

“Where you from?” She nodded at his pack next to him on the floor.

“East,” he said. It was as good an answer as any. He really didn’t know anymore. For the longest time it’d only been the highway stinking of distance.

Puck came and poured a cup of coffee, then leaned over the counter and whispered in Van Bueren’s ear, “You got money to pay, right?”

“A dollar, Heaven sent,” Van Bueren said pulling it out of his pocket and laying it on the counter.

“Well that’s just fine,” said Puck. “Have what you want then, within reason.”

“We don’t get many hobos round here,” Helena said. She had the loose curls and apple shaped face of Clara Bow. “Have you seen my cat anywheres? She’s run away.”

“Cats don’t run away,” said Puck. “They wander off to die. That tom of yours was pretty old.”

“Rico ain’t dead,” Helena said. “He’s gone off to run with the coyotes, but I want him back.”

Puck looked at Van Bueren, rolled his eyes and walked away.

“Well, mister? You’ve been walking the highway. Have you seen a fat cranky old Siamese in the company of coyotes?”

“No ma’am.”

“Wanna cigarette?”

“Sure,” Van Bueren said.

She slid a package down the counter. He took one and slid it back. There was a book of matches in an ashtray next to the napkin dispenser. He lit up and inhaled. Nicotine was a firm friend when all others failed.

“I guess you pretty much live on the road, huh? I live at the end of a cut-away off the highway you just walked in on, a half mile down.”

It was more than Van Bueren wanted to know, but reasonable grounds for conversation. In fact Helena Jollis lived in a small cabin left to her sympathetically by an old logger named Simon Ilchman who had died believing, like most residents of Vemiera, that Helena was touched. Before the cabin came into her possession, she’d lived rough out of a lean-to out back of Main Street where she near-froze in the winter, and fed corn to the deer and bannock to the ravens in spring. Some said the cabin saved her.

Now she still fed wild things in the spring, and every night in the warmth and safety of that cabin, she’d lie down in her own bed chanting the words, “No bad dreams, no bad dreams,” then sleepily visit her private warehouse of planets.

“That highway’s a mighty pretty walk though,” Helena said. “Day or night. Just like a line of poetry out of a book, ain’t it mister? Waddaya think?”

“Some hungover Pushkin, maybe,” Van Bueren said looking at the menu.

“Uh-uh! What about the way the wind turns a leaf green to green, every turn’s got rhythm. What about the lake through them trees? It’s just goddam lyrical. You know it’s a tidal lake, don’t you? Comes in and out twice a day ‘cause we’re so close to the ocean. If that ain’t poetry, I don’t know what is. Every day you see what the out-tide reveals, the boats that got sunk over the years, an old rusty car, snags that got sunk too. It’s awful mysterious. Once there was even the body of a woman in the mud.”

“Not now, Helena,” said Puck. “Leave the man in peace.”

“Her name was Agnes Quickley,” Helena said. “Or at least that’s what we figured ‘cause it was the name embroidered on a tag in her dress.  Ain’t that a funny way to know a dead woman’s name? It was a very nice polka dot dress, too. I’d’ve taken it, since she didn’t need it no more, but no one offered. I didn’t get her hat neither, still pinned in her hair with all the gauzy flowers. Just one shoe though.” Helena looked down at her own tattered plimsolls. “But no one knows how she drowned. She looked like she might have been waiting for the bus somewheres. Ain’t no bus stops round here though. The lake’s that way. It grabs hold of you, pulls you under and you drop like a rock. Most people drown out there never get found, but occasionally they’ll come back and that’s a wicked thing.” Helena stopped talking a minute, drank a little more milkshake through the straw then said, “It’s kinda tragic. No one claimed Agnes Quickley while she was laid out in the icehouse. RCMP tried to find someone, but their weren’t no relations come forth. So, they just loaded her onto a refrigerated truck with a bunch of half-butchered pigs and drove her into the city.”

“I’ll have bacon and eggs over easy, bacon not too crisp,” Van Bueren said. “Fried potatoes and toast.” Fifteen cents and comes with coffee. “And a deck of smokes.”

Helena said, “Waddaya think happened to her, mister?”

“Why should I care?”

“’Cause someone had to love her. It’s a shame the way people just vanish. It makes sense in a way that sometimes you disappear and don’t come back, but it’s just calamitous that that’s how it goes.”

He hated those words. He was a disappeared spirit himself, and unproud. He remembered leaving a city long ago and the woman he loved, in full knowledge she’d already removed him from her drawer of trivial things. He knew he’d been an abuser of the word sorry. And sorry had been his last word to her, on a clean city street in the fall, the air smelling like smoky tea, where she had stopped him from saying more by placing a finger on his lips. Then walked away.

The gravity of love breaks you.

Now he knew from the lines round his eyes that all of those departed autumns ago, when joy seemed so plentiful and he’d always a scrap of it in his pocket, he’d miscalculated in a young man’s way, and vanished having made promises.

Puck placed a plate down in front of him, and Van Bueren wondered if it was right to eat after such a recollection. His belly was an empty collection of hungry seconds that might never amount to a minute; perhaps that was justice.

“That’s an awful thoughtful look, mister,” Helena said.

“Look,” he said, nearly shouting, “what is it you find so interesting about a man with nowhere to go?”

The diner patrons became silent, as the neon sign in the window quietly buzzed.

“Golly, I just figured you’d have something to say. You looked a little lonely comin’ in here. I thought maybe a word or two might…. Every word plots a conversation, same as every raindrop does a river.”

Van Bueren shook his head and ate his eggs.

“It’s the small things we can’t forgive ourselves for, ain’t it,” said Helena. “The ones without glamour. A hand reaches up out of a lake and drowns a woman, and no one cares. But a fella walks away from somethin’ unfinished, and he just can’t cut himself no slack.”

“That’s enough, Helena,” Puck said, wiping glasses.

Van Bueren cut his bacon and gulped his coffee. Then he lit a cigarette, and she watched him.

“It’s a nice little cabin I got up the road,” she said.

“Helena,” Puck said in a scolding tone.

“It’s got marigolds roundabouts.”

“Helena.” This time Puck spoke louder.

“Well it does, and I’ve been awful alone for the last ten years. And now my cat’s gone. Ain’t neither one of us special, mister, but I think you get damn lonely too.”

“You’re nuts, lady,” said Van Bueren.

“Well that’s right I am, mister—awful crazy. And I wouldn’t be no goddam good to no one round here if I wasn’t. It makes ‘em feel all uppish and a little less unlucky. They figure it gives ‘em the right to look at me with disappointment. Some even like to pretend they’re scared. I think you know what that’s like. Ain’t that what half a life on the road does to a man?”

He looked at his fried potatoes.

“I ain’t so crazy I’d expect you to stay, though,” Helena said. “But if you did, maybe some of that misery would get up and walk away.”

“Misery,” he said, no rebuttal.

“You got some, don’tcha? Misery and monsters eating misery. You ain’t got nowhere to go. You said so yourself.”

Half a life on the road, he thought. Not quite. Not nearly, but somehow close enough. Gas stations and raggedy towns, bumming pennies and nickels. Railroad cops, and coal smoke he’d be coughing up until the day he died. And maybe the Saint of Silver Dollars couldn’t be relied on for another miracle.

“How far up the highway?” said Van Bueren.

“A half mile,” Helena said. “It ain’t pretty, but there’s an apple tree the old logger planted a long time ago, and a grand old path to the lake out back. It ends at a stony beach where you can sit and watch the moon makin’ the tide high. And in that cabin, if I teach you the right words to say before you go to sleep, there ain’t never no bad dreams.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carlyle Stoke

It wasn’t a very strange first conversation. Not the kind I prefer to have at 3:30 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking. None of the usual human truths filtered through a crank mesh of deliriousness, booze and embellishment. But how do you measure the strangeness of a conversation in the back doorway of a bar at closing time?

I discovered the dense overlapping network of scars on her wrists and forearms during our chat and found it difficult to take my eyes off of it. She noticed and said, “Oh, I cut myself once. Or maybe I mean, once I cut myself. Or maybe it’s, I used to cut myself. It’s something like that. I did it for a long time. It’s kind of hard to look at now. It’s not the sort of thing a good Chinese girl does.”

“Are you a good Chinese girl?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. But I guess I was a teenage masochist. The psychiatrist called it self-harm.”

She had me there, no quick come back. I took the easy way out and said, “What was that like?”

“It was like being alone on a hidden continent where hope and doubt both have sharp edges.”

“And what happened to the teenage masochist?”

“She does bit parts in movies now, and works at Starbucks. And she tries to avoid razorblades, pointy objects and bits of broken glass.”

I knew I had it coming, but I’ve never been a fan of conversations where people portray themselves in the third person. When it’s a woman, I keep waiting for the Audrey Hepburn pout. When it’s a guy, I keep waiting on the commencement of an incoherent personal manifesto. I watched her and waited. She did neither.

“My name’s Virginia Wong,” she said holding out her hand.

“People call me Roscoe,” I said shaking it, seeing a scarred red forearm attached.

I walked her home from the bar that night, no strings attached. We parted at her door with a tame little kiss and I took the long way back to my place.

And I didn’t see Virginia again for a couple of years.

She found me by accident one night in a bar just outside of Gastown. It was a quiet place with an elderly bartender and no cues for the pool table. The clientele was there to drink and to occasionally offend one another. I was reading a two week old copy of the Georgia Straight.

I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, you’re the man people call Roscoe.” I looked up at the mirror behind the bar and there she was.

“Virginia Wong,” I smiled. “Pull up a stool. What’ll it be?”

“Vodka on ice. Nothing Russian.”

The elderly bartender poured.

“How’s show business?” I said.

“It’s slow for a Chinese girl. Movies are for white people.”

“That’s tough.” There were fresh livid cut marks on her wrists, poking out from under her sleeves. I looked at them a second too long and she moved her hands down to her side. “You okay?” I said

She looked down at her drink and sighed deeply. “There’s a demon after me,” she said with absolute conviction.

“What?” She’d done it again. Left me without a quick come back. “You’re being metaphorical, right? Is some guy stalking you?”

She shook her head. “No. It isn’t a stalker; it’s a demon. He doesn’t know I’m here. I gave him the slip but he’ll find me. Always does.” She seemed oddly calm and resigned. “He’s an eerie little bastard. Three feet tall. Wears a black tux. Calls himself Mr Stoke. Big eyes that darken a room – all pupils, no iris, no whites.

“It’s funny how easily a demon can get into your life,” she said. “Walk down the wrong back alley at the wrong dark moment and there it is. Grinning and reciting an inventory of your secrets and lies, past and future.”

“Forgive me for asking, but are you normally on some kind of medication?”

“Medication doesn’t work. Neither does liquor, really.” She gulped her vodka. “But at least with alcohol, you can’t remember in the morning.”

I noticed then how fatigued she looked and reached out to touch her cheek.

“Don’t,” she said, pushing my hand away.

“What don’t you want to remember in the morning?”

“It talks backward to me,” she smiled sadly. “It tells me my life story over and over, only backward. Then it says, ‘cut yourself use the vegetable knife the blunt one feel it burn’. It says, ‘now cut your face bitch cut your face cut your face’. That’s the shit I’d rather not remember.” She was getting loud, sounding a little desperate. The bartender gave us a look.

“Look,” I said. “We can get a cab. I can take you to the Emergency. I can stay with you while you wait to see someone.”

“Fuck the hospital,” she said. “People die there and don’t get out. They just stand around dead in their blue gowns staring at you, like they’re recruiting.”

“I really think you need….”

“Another drink,” she said. “I need another drink. But you don’t have to buy me one. I stole tonight’s take at my Starbucks store. Three thousand bucks. I thought I’d go out big.” She pulled a handful of bills out of her purse and dropped them back in. “I just need to find a happier place than this.”

She slipped off of her stool and straightened her jacket and top. More of the fresh red cut marks were visible on her forearms.

“I haven’t cut my face yet,” she said looking into the mirror behind the bar. “He wants me to real bad but I haven’t done it yet. That really pisses him off. Maybe I will, though.”

“Don’t,” I said and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her I said, “Call if you need to.”

She took it smiling. “That’s risky, Roscoe,” she said. “What if I do?” Then she walked out of the bar.

That’s when the bartender came over. “That the sort of woman you normally attract?” he said. “Girl needs electroshock or something.”

I paid up and followed her out. But she was nowhere on the street when I exited the bar. There was a fog rolling in and I couldn’t see half a block.  She might have been nearby but lost in the mist. There were trains coupling nearby. Someone yelled the name Ruby out of a window of the Hotel Europe.

The next morning I awoke to a rapping on my door. It was a couple plain clothes cops. One was a woman. She said, “You know a Virginia Wong?”

“Not well,” I said. It was 8 a.m. Too early for me.

“Found this on her body last night.” She was holding my business card.

“Body?”

“Body,” said the cop.

“What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell us.”

“I talked to her in a bar. Then she left.”

“Why’d she have your card?”

“Because I gave it to her. She was psychotic. I wanted to help.”

“Psychotic? You a doctor?”

“No, a band promoter. What it says on the card. Do I need a lawyer?”

“Nah,” said her partner. “Probably not. She was known to us. You know a Mr Carlyle Stoke, by the way?” The cop was looking at a notepad. “Little guy. Eccentric. Overdresses. Wears sunglasses. Says he’s blind. Found him sitting next to the body, smokin’ a butt. Creepy bastard. We took him in.”

“No. Don’t know him. Why?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah I’m sure.”

“Says he knows you.”

“Never heard of him.”

 

 

 

 

 

in the alley behind the drop-in

beats being burned at the stake
Tina says of her ECT
and though it’s true that in our age
mad women are not witches
she has nonetheless
been rendered ash

and fuck! I spit

but I need something she says
(her dealer has an office in a hospital)
everything’s so somethingless and
I can still hear black

so, I cover her ears with my hands
—conjurations and orbits—I hear them too
and a voice saying it won’t be pretty
but
she’ll out last you all
she’ll out last you all
she’ll out last you all

 

 

 

 

the photo booth

I wouldn’t recommended it, trying to thumb a ride on the road just out front of the locked gates of a mental hospital. It was cold and white, and there hadn’t been a car by in more than an hour. The two or three that had already passed by, had accelerated as they did. That it was Christmas morning didn’t help, I was sure.

The idea of me, an ex-patient, hitching a ride on a country road out front of the asylum from which I’d just been released, made me smile. But I had my shoes and a donated coat, and my pictures of her and I, and I knew that with these few things, I could wait until spring for a ride, if I had to.

By now she was just a dot on the rise in the road a mile away. We’d never been separated by such a distance before. Maybe I was finally on my own.

It was hard to believe, standing there, under the circumstances, that it had only been days before that Veronica told me that the walls of my room would bleed if I cut them with a razor. She said that the old hospital was dying anyway, and that the room I occupied was its last pulsing organ. Its acre of wooded land was its deathbed, and that I would be its final near-death experience.

So, on a night in late December, I took two hits of my smuggled-in acid and looked out of my second floor window, past the bars, believing that I saw gravity collapse stars into endless heroic outlines. Then I cut and waited to wash in the blood of the ancient hospital. But the walls didn’t bleed, so I had taped my razorblade back onto the underside of my night table drawer, and listened for the rest of the night to Perseus tap on the glass.

Veronica had been wrong. She was unreliable sometimes, too flamboyant, a thespian at heart. She took advantage of my boredom. I was her fond audience, and the dark spilling in through the window was her limelight. She was strong, too. Antipsychotics feared her. They stepped round her, respectfully, and obliterated everything else. And during morning rounds, she would cling to the florescent ceiling like a spider, and look down on me as the horn-rim, herring bone psychiatrist conducted his interrogation.

“Housekeeping says you’re destroying hospital property,” he’d said, the morning after the acid night. He said this tracing the cut lines on the walls with his fingertips. I was still tripping. It was the morning of Christmas Eve.

“So, evict me,” I said.

“Your next stop will be Isolation, Molly.” He paused for effect, still closely examining the wall. He was a thespian, too. “You don’t want to go there again.”

“Release me, then. Give me my shoes.”

“No.” He came and sat near my bed. “You’re still too vulnerable.”

“And the others schizos you cut loose, they aren’t? I’ll get along just fine on the outside, with a few pills.”

“And suicide…?”

“I hardly ever think of it anymore,” I said, “except at moments like these when I’m faced with your mania for it.”

“Are you having ideas? Are there voices encouraging you?”

“No. The voices are gone.” It was a lie, but fuck him. “You killed them all. It was a fucking slaughter. Now I’m stepping over bodies.”

He regarded me sternly for a moment, silent in saying the unsaid things of psychiatry.

Then I said, “It’s a trinket for you, isn’t it? Suicide, I mean. It’s a little paste jewel in your pocket. You finger it all day, worry over it, in with your coins and your keys. You even take it out occasionally, and gloat over it. Take an inventory, as you hold it, of all your patients devoured by the word.”

“Do you still believe in what happened in the photo booth?” he said. It was a quick unexpected thrust. Touché. He even allowed a trace of triumph to escape into the air, through his eyes. “You’ve only told us pieces of that story, but it seems very important to you. Central, even, to your being here.”

“You’ve made up your mind about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I have to say.”

“You still associate the photos with Veronica, don’t you?”

“Leave her out of it.”

“Is she still lurking, a voice that I haven’t yet slaughtered?”

The photographs. Oh how the doctors had smirked when I tried to explain them. Veronica and I, the two us jammed into a midway photo booth and posing for the camera. Photographic evidence of her existence. Two friends at a summer fair. Her smiling, me looking tired and a little hopeless. Four small precious snaps in a strip. I’d kept them safe for so long, fiercely preserving them from the deep hole that inevitably swallows all of the meaningful property of the insane and destitute. But the psychiatrist said that I was imagining Veronica, that only I appeared in the pictures.

Now they were in a file, under lock and key.

“She’s real,” I said, ashamed of the confusion I hoped didn’t show. “You can’t drug-away what’s real.”

“You’ve certainly tried over the years,” he said.

“Yeah well, have a drink on me tonight, doc, and celebrate your reserve and resistance to all that’s mind expanding.”

“Tell me what the photo booth experience means to you right now,” he said. “What happened?”

“It would be impossible to describe to someone whose entire philosophy is based on doubt.”

“Then pretend I’m someone else.”

Veronica floated down now, from the ceiling like a leaf from a tree, and sat next to me.

“I don’t believe in the photos, anymore,” I said.

“You’re lying.”

I felt Veronica stroke my hair. “It’s okay,” she said. “Tell him again. He’s just a failed bully. Tell him ten thousand times, if you must. Destroy him with honesty.”

Outside, crows had noisily descended onto the hospital courtyard. I walked to the window to watch, glossy stones black on the snow. I’d take Veronica’s advice, if only to move another dull morning along.

“It was late August,” I said. The crows fought over something dead. “A Saturday. A crummy little town full of dented pickup trucks and dilapidated tractors. Everything a bit rundown and faded. I’d been hitching. It was where my last ride had dropped me.”

“How old were you?”

“Eighteen,” I said. “There was a fair in town, the kind that comes to a small town late in summer. It was rundown and faded too, but not as much as the town. Especially at night when it lit up.”

“And you were very sad,” said Veronica, putting her hand on my knee.

“Sad.” The word was too small. “I was very sad.”

“You’d raised a little money….”

“I’d begged on the street, and had gotten enough for admission into the fair, and a little besides. Seemed the whole town was there that night. I ate a hotdog, and watched the midway from a corner. Loud out of date music over the PA. Devout born-again farmers playing crown and anchor, and trying to toss dimes into milk jugs. There were rides, too. Nothing too big. Just what could be brought in on the carny trucks. It smelled good, in a greasy smoky sort of way, like childhood.”

“It was already getting dark,” Veronica said.

“It was dark when we went into the photo booth,” I said. “I still had a few coins in my pocket. Veronica asked me to sit on her lap, so we’d both fit, and then she said, ‘Smile’.”

“But you didn’t smile,” said the psychiatrist. He jotted notes.

“No, I didn’t smile. The camera must have been broken. The flash popped four times, without me pushing a button, before I could compose myself.”

“And those are the pictures we have?”

“Give them back.”

“No.”

“But they’re mine.”

“They only reinforce this delusion of yours,” said the psychiatrist. “I think you’re ready now to hear me say that.”

I wanted to be with the crows, to be unrecognisable in their strange order.

“Then the booth spit out the pics through a slot,” Veronica said, “and we stood in your corner on the midway looking at them, for a long time. You wept, a little.”

“Veronica and I looked at them for a long time, until the fair shut down for the night.”

“And the pictures were so beautiful, that you wanted to die,” said Veronica.

“I wanted to die long before we took the pictures.”

“What was that?” the psychiatrist said.

“All of the others,” I said. “The ones who’d followed me, everywhere since I was a kid. The voices and the faces that I couldn’t shake no matter how far I hitchhiked and doubled back. They wanted me dead. They harassed me until I bought the junk, enough to kill three people. I hid it in my backpack with the syringe and the spoon. Then they plagued me even more, to take it. Why aren’t you taking the goddamn heroin? End the pain, the pain. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks, before we got to that shitty little town.

“Tell me more.” The psychiatrist was leaning forward, greedily. “Tell me how they wore you down, how they whispered and tormented, how they surrounded you and made it impossible to escape.”

“They didn’t,” I said. “Not like that.”

“Tell me, every detail.”

“Tell him that I wouldn’t let you take the heroin,” Veronica said. “That you’re too dear to me. That’s all there was to it. I fought the others off. I protected you. That’s what this fool refuses to understand.”

“Veronica saved me.”

“Nonsense!” The psychiatrist began to rapidly tap his pen on his knee.

“He’s fishing for something,” said Veronica.

“She told me to dump the junk down a storm drain, and I did. The others shrieked at me not to do it, but Veronica told me that death always comes on its own to the patient heart. She protected me because she loves me, and I love her.”

“That’s impossible,” the psychiatrist hissed. “No one can love a hallucination. Now don’t you see why it’s our goal to cure you of all your false perceptions? You can’t live a normal life loving something for which there is no actual stimulus.”

“Yes you can,” Veronica said.

“Yes I can.”

“I’m increasing your medication,” said the psychiatrist. “And introducing some others.” He wrote furious notes.

“I won’t take it.”

“Then you’ll be punished.”

“Punished?” said Veronica.

“Punished?” I said. “Did you just say I’d be punished?”

“No. Yes, but I meant placed in isolation, for your own protection.”

“Veronica can walk through walls, doctor. You’re throwing pills at a fortress, and they’re just bouncing off.”

“This is noncompliance.” He spit the word out like a curse. His most dreaded enemy.

On Christmas morning, as the other patients lined up for their medication and Christmas stockings of mean charity, I was escorted, with my backpack, out of the building, through the courtyard and left outside of the gates in the falling snow.

A sour nurse had given me back my strip of photographs, and had me sign my Release. Veronica and I stood together on the road for a moment, and looked at ourselves caught in that long ago August moment; her smiling, and me looking tired and a little hopeless.

Then she stroked my cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I heard her say, as she slipped away.

my cheating psychosis — a hurtin’ poem

lie to me, I have said to the voices
tell me I’m the only one
not that the silent nights come
only when you’ve slipped away
to waltz with other minds

tell me that I’m yours, alone
that in this broken down alleyway
when all night you have surrounded me
and synapsis and neurons
are planets in the sky
and we have clutched and made love
until only the sidewalks of dawn remain
tell me that there is no one else
that each of you speaks
only to me

the pollen eaters

They had come to the point in their conversation where one was supposed to say something hurtful, or at least I know you are but what am I. Surprising himself, he said neither. She, on the other hand, called him an ungrateful bastard, which is not to say that he didn’t appreciate all she had done, or that she was a difficult person. He was grateful enough, and she was normally a very pleasant and intelligent woman. But every romance is born with a stale date, and acknowledging theirs, he had decided to do what others might think unimaginable, and end the liaison rather than face the quiet self-inflicted sorrow of a loveless relationship.

“I truly believe we must depart each other’s company,” Thomas Wilcox said, there in front of the art gallery, where the van Gogh exhibited hung. Then he turned and walked away.

“Real men don’t walk away,” Natalie Bellamy shouted at his back, making small fists at her side.

“Then real men are rare,” he said, without turning round.

Their romance had been a splendid one. Or, at least like most lovers, this is what they believed, and belief is always the sworn enemy of fiction.

And their lives, on the surface, were good, each enjoying personal prosperity and apparent occupational satisfaction.

She was a ghostwriter, creating honoured thespians out of dreadful actors, and admired statesmen out of hated and moronic politicians, by stealthily writing their autobiographies, which otherwise would have been illiterate and delusional.

He was a psychologist, who, thought to have an uncommon tolerance for blood soaked histrionics, specialised in adolescent counselling.

They had met at a lecture entitled The Rise and Long Awaited Fall of Idiot Culture. Afterwards, there was cake and coffee in the lobby, and they chatted over Sachertorte and steaming lattes. As her clients’ conversation-killing need for confidentiality became obvious, he bravely attempted to explain why idiopathic avascular necrosis of the femoral head was still lacking as a clinical entity. And by 11:00 p.m., they were swimming in an ocean of rhapsodic sexual bliss only the truly repressed are capable of, when their moment has finally arrived.

After that, it was all candlelight, dreamy eyed weekends, and journeys out of town to quaint bed-and-breakfasts where they would playfully bicker over the Sunday New York Times crossword, walk hand-in-hand on beaches, and in the spring and summer, do the thing they loved most when in each other’s company. They would watch the bees.

“They’re all dying,” she said grimly one day, on an island in the Gulf. They were standing in a field of sunflowers, watching as a flock of healthy bees flew from one flower to the next. “It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. They’re made by Bayer, the aspirin people.”

“I know,” he said. “I had a patient who committed suicide over it.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, she sent Bayer an email demanding that they stop making the stuff. If they didn’t, she said, she’d cut her wrists. They didn’t stop, and, well, you know. There was more behind it, of course. I’d had her GP prescribe an SSRI, but finding right one before a tragedy occurs is problematic sometimes.”

“That’s terrible.”

It was, and a tear fell.

“How do you cope?” she said.

“Mostly,” he replied, “I try to keep my screams to myself.”

She stopped thinking about bees when she heard him say it, and reached out and touched his cheek.

“You’ve never said anything like that before, Thomas.”

“You’ve never asked. Besides, the fear of an outcome always goes away eventually.”

“What does that mean?” she said.

“It means that you’ll eventually get used to the idea that the bees are doomed, and I’ll ultimately become accustomed to the idea that I lose teenaged clients to suicide.”

“That can’t be true,” she said, and wondered if the comment was made on impulse, or if it originated elsewhere.

“It’s a textbook truth, nothing more.”

“I don’t want to get used to the idea of doomed bees,”

Somehow, the trip lost its magic after that. Things had shifted, something hidden was revealed. They departed early.

On the ferry, they stood together on deck, silently watching the sea. It seemed very still, in spite of the ferry’s pace. He only spoke once, asking her to drive when they docked. They didn’t touch.

He presented her with his silence in the days that followed. There were no more playful work-interrupting phone calls, no more shared coffee bar detective novels. When she called, he wasn’t home; at his office, his receptionist told her that he’d cancelled appointments and would be away until further notice. She sent texts and email, and even knocked on his townhouse door, refusing to use her key to let herself in. It was a timid but necessary knock. But there was no answer, no evidence of a curtain drawn back inches for a reclusive peek. He had disappeared, and she waited for a reason.

Then on the twelfth night of his absence, her telephone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” he said.

She was silent for a moment, wondering if, after all of her anxiety, there was anything to share.

“Where have you been?” she said. “And I don’t mean geographically, I mean in terms of being the other half of this thing we’ve been doing for over a year.”

He was sitting at a desk, in front of a blank computer screen in his home office, surrounded by a debris field of isolation. On the screen were four Post-it notes, each with a name: Janis, Roger, Matthew and Naomi. His four suicides. The clients who, over the years, had slipped out the back door, when no one was watching. Each no older than seventeen years. One, Janis, only fourteen.

“I’ve been thinking about bees.” His voice was different.

“What does that mean?”

“They eat pollen,” he said. “That’s why they go from flower to flower. It’s such a wonderful plan. The pollen sticks to them, and they pass it on, the genetic messages.”

“Please, I just don’t get it.”

“But it’s all so damn brittle, no matter how good the plan, or its righteous intent.” The names on the screen were like eyes. “Bees and people, are so brittle.”

“Where are you?” she said. “Let’s meet.”

“I really don’t know what tortured them. I mean, on the surface there were the obvious problems. But what was underneath? What didn’t I see? It was my job to see it, and I failed. Naomi Oby cut herself vertically, up both of her forearms. What makes a child act so self-destructively? I tried it the other night. I held a blade to my arm, just to see how far I could go, and it made me physically sick.”

“Who’s Naomi Oby?” she asked.

“My bee suicide.”

“It’s a defect in reasoning,” she said. My bee suicide. “A deficit of thought.”

“I’m not looking for gentle answers.”

“You need help.”

He was silent.

“Are you home? I’ll drive over. It’s late, so we’ll go to the emergency.”

“No,” he said.

“Then why are you calling me, goddam it? Is it just to brighten my evening, or are you asking for help?”

“I don’t know. My thoughts right now, they’re…. They’re a little disorganised.”

“What would you tell a client to do?” she said.

She’s an amateur, said an inner voice. It wasn’t her fault, but he still damned her for not knowing that that was the first question a professional asks.

She wondered if four suicides was a high number for a counselling psychologist, practicing for fifteen years. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of clients in that time. What was the acceptable ratio of teenaged suicides to non-suicides?

“Just come over here,” she said. “We’ll talk here.”

He looked round the room, and saw them all. Janis, who had jumped from a fog veiled bridge after texting that her father sexually abused her, stood in the doorway to the living room; Roger, who, exhausted by bullying, had hung himself, sat in an easy chair; Matthew, who was crucified for being gay by his family church and found his father’s handgun, now stood with his back to him, looking out of the large east facing window.

Naomi stood directly in front of him, ashen with her undisguised wounds, staring.

“I shouldn’t have called,” he said, looking into Naomi’s eyes, and rang-off. Then he turned his iPhone off, and put it into his desk drawer.

Within an hour, there was a knock at his door.

“Open, please.” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “This is the police.”

He realised then that he hadn’t moved for hours, or was it days. He was surrounded by empty paper coffee cups and fast food trash.

“Mr Wilcox? Are you in there? We have to enter whether you are or not. Please don’t make this difficult.”

Yes, he thought. He mustn’t make it difficult, unseemly.

“Well?” Naomi said. “Are you going to answer the door?”

“But the bees,” he said, absurdly.

Bang bang bang, “Mr Wilcox? We have to make sure you’re okay.”

“The bees are beside the point,” Naomi said. “They always were, and you know it.”

They always were.

He could hear a muffled conversation at the front door. Then the lock turned. It was Natalie. She followed two police officers into the townhouse.

A walkie-talkie crackled, and a cop answered. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said.

“That’s not necessary,” said Wilcox.

“It’s out of your hands, sir.”

“You have to let us go,” Naomi said. “Go to the damn hospital, and get some fucking help.”

*

Their trip to the van Gogh exhibit was a gift from her, to him for enduring two weeks on a psychiatric ward. She sensed his nervousness as they moved from canvas to canvas, and attributed it to residual anxiety. He took his hand away when she tried to hold it.

“Despairing textures,” he said, wishing he could reach out and touch Sorrowing Old Man. “I’ve touched those textures on my body. I see them in the mirror, in clouds and on billboard signs. This artist and his damn scheming won’t leave me alone.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have come,” she said.

He wanted to wait until that evening to say good-bye. On a stroll after the restaurant. But he confronted her with it as they descended the steps and walked out onto the concourse.

“I’m not here, anymore,” he said. “I no longer occupy space. I’m closing the practice, or an accountant and a lawyer are. And I’m going away, alone.”

“Don’t,” she said. “You can’t make a decision like that now.”

“It’s now or not at all.”

“What about me, us? And don’t say it’s all about you.”

“But you know it is.”

That led to her desperate words, and his walking away, followed by four broken ghosts.

Rosetta

The psychiatrist peered through the lower half of his bifocals, as he turned the pages in the folder. A woman sat across from him, in restraints, adorned in cascading spiralling blue interlaced tattoos, visible from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and extending down to where they disappeared beneath the neckline of her t-shirt.

The psychiatrist was reading her casefile as though it were a grocery store tabloid. His eyebrows raised when he discovered juicy slivers of glib clinical gossip, something the neurologist had added, or a nurse. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encountered less titillating synoptic gibberish.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he said, a fingernail on his left hand having temporarily caught his attention. Then he turned the pages back to a place near the front, and said, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient claims not to have slept since 2001.

“No sleep for three days…; we’ll have to work on that. But you say you haven’t slept since 2001? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

The psychiatrist shifted impatiently in his chair.

“Are you hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”

“I hear your voice,” she said. The psychiatrist shifted in his chair again.

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork,” he turned more pages, “there are reports of observed symptoms of psychosis, perhaps even severe.”

It was the usual line of interrogation. Next, she thought to herself, he’ll ask me if I see things that aren’t there. He’ll without the apostrophe is hell. Then hell will ask me if I smell shit when there is no shit to smell.

“Can you see things that others don’t?” he said.

“Of course.”

“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”

“Because they’re blinded by their mediocrity.”

“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”

“Why?”

It was true, she hadn’t slept in fourteen years, not since 2001, a result of a gravitational collapse, when her life reached a terrifying mass and density. Memories had become dreams and dreams memories, the molecules of each bonding into such close proximity that they were inseparable, perhaps irreversibly.

The cloudiness of childhood had returned, along with a ghost that had sat on her bed and stroked her cheek, saying it loved her. It had become a spider, crawling over her, then a leering thing looking down at her in her childhood bed, in the glow of nightstand lamplight. The doctors had attributed this to childhood sexual abuse. But maybe, she thought, it was just how a ghost loved a child, with grimly curious hands, a taut mouth and wide frenzied eyes. Suddenly, the only thing more frightening than sleep was the thought of awakening.

To fill the sleepless nights, she’d begun playing solitaire and drawing a mural on her walls and ceiling, in colourful pastels, as everything around her rejuvenated in the dark. During the day, she watched the cars on the highway from the window of her room in the boardinghouse, as everything decayed.

She had also begun to keep a journal on her computer, refusing to backspace as she typed. Backspacing was murder. It killed innocent letters, punctuation and numbers that existed only because she’d made typing errors.

At first she did this out of compassion, but then she realised that the protected letters were a code. In the beginning, the code was indecipherable, but then she became its Rosetta Stone. And only by decrypting the decree she had inscribed upon her body, from the top of her head to her toes, could she understand the code that described when and how to take action. She’d etched the decree into her flesh using razorblades and blue pigment. The ghost had tried to stop her, as though the code might reveal something horrible. It had.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” the psychiatrist said.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

As the sleepless years went by, she began to see the mural as an extension of the code, and used the Rosetta to interpret it. In the mural, the ghost had a body and a human face. And an accomplice. They walked confidently through their lives. They had family and security, and were loved and had respect.

“We’re also concerned about your cognitive impairment,” the psychiatrist said — “your decline. Your untreated psychosis is causing a loss of short term memory and other faculties, and it’s going to get worse without therapy. Soon, without medication, you won’t be able to recognise the passage of time, from one moment to the next.”

“Can you assure me that the moment that’s just passed is worth recognising?”

He paused a pause that filled the room, even the filthy corners and the spaces between the bars on the windows. Was he pondering her question, or just planning to retreat?

“Look,” he said. “This isn’t prison, but it is confinement. We want to help, but you can appreciate our need for security and structure. You’ve been found not guilty of a serious crime by reason of insanity. Refusing therapy is not an option here. I’ve asked them to be gentle with you, but that won’t last.”

“I can escape,” she said.

“No one ever has.”

“I can. Now that the work is done, I can finally sleep. That’s how I’ll escape. The dreams and memories have separated. I don’t fear sleep anymore, not since I found the ghosts, the faces in the mural. Fourteen years is a very long time to be awake, so I may never wake up again once I finally lay down.”

It was just the natural order of things. A year was how long it took for a tree to sprout and drop its leaves. It took twenty-five years for Saturn to orbit the Sun. And fourteen sleepless years was what it took to understand and find the ghosts.

She had first encountered them in a foster home a very long time ago, as the trees dropped their leaves and Saturn orbited. She was six years old, a foster child. It was the house of mister and missus ghost. She was a cast-off, and they had taken her in. But they had wanted something from her in return, something she didn’t have to give, something they intended to suck out of her.

They’d called her the girl, refusing to use her name. And they insisted that she call them father and mother, but she had refused, even after the beatings.

She knew these ghosts weren’t her parents, and her obstinacy had earned her a place in the cellar, in the cool dusky light of it, with things that creeped. She’d be left there for a week at a time. Then taken out and asked if she would concede, and call them father and mother. But she would not and, each time, she was returned to the hole beneath the house.

There she ate from shelves, hard to open jars of home-canned peaches and pears, and looked out of a small square window in the wall onto the winter lawn, covered in frost and then in snow.

Before the lady from the foster agency would come round, the girl was brought up, bathed and fed. Then missus ghost took her up to the room that was supposed to be hers, with the warm clean bed and the plush toys and picture books, and missus ghost would lock her in.

But before she did, missus ghost would say, “You tell that agency lady that you love us, dearly. And you tell her that you love your room, and all of the toys, and that we feed you good. You understand?” Then she twisted the little girl’s ear until it felt on fire, and shook her hard by her shoulders.

The girl only stared back in silence, though. And behind her blank stare, disorganised childish thoughts were forming into designs and an awareness of the importance of time. She knew no words for it, but sensed she had time for redress, and an endurance they lacked.

For a few days before the agency lady would arrive, the girl was allowed to sleep in her room to smooth over her gaunt fatigue. And that was when mister ghost came. Late in the night, turning on the lamp. When she awoke from her deep sleep, she saw him and his wide eyes, licking his lips, rubbing his hands together, perhaps to warm them, but they were always cold whenever they touched her.

“I’ve already prescribed a combination of medications,” the psychiatrist said. “I must insist that you take them. They’ll help you to sleep, and have other beneficial effects. But I’ll repeat that you must take them. The nurses and orderlies here follow strict policies of persuasion.”

Mister and missus ghost were surprisingly easy to identify by their mural faces, revealed by the Rosetta, and differentiated from the long strings of approach code in her journal. There were also her compressed memories of location and name.

She’d travelled by train, walked and hitchhiked to the house with the cellar. Then she hunkered down and watched them move through solid objects and conjure abundance. They were old ghosts now.

“I have come for you,” she whispered, on the outside of nighttime windows.

The psychiatrist released her onto the ward. The ghosts there were slouched, long fingered things. The hospital staff cast spells, fear and disunity, the patients shrinking. She took a corner in a threadbare easy chair, and wakefully dreamed of dreaming.

Her vengeance came on a night when the moon was a thin bit of scrap in the sky. She’d costumed herself in darkness, and was a mist that passed through recesses and knots in wood. And when she materialised, she stood above the ghosts in the house as they slept. It was strange that ghosts slept.

Her weapon was a knife that had found her years before, lying in an alley where she often walked before dawn. When it came into her hand, she immediately knew its history, knew why it had been thrown there, shimmering, calling out. There was murder in its blade. It was an experienced killer.

She yawned in her easy chair now, a thing she hadn’t done in fourteen years. The chair was so comfortable, and she was suddenly so drowsy. She closed her eyes, and glimpsed the possibility of dreams.

Soon, the staff would come with their medications, doctors and strong-armed goons. They’d smile and talk to her like she was a child, but would be ready for a struggle, unaware of her Rosetta Stone strength, of the hardness and wisdom, how the blue markings upon her skin would decipher their veiled anxieties, estrangements and hatreds. The staff might even try to strap her down, and inject her with potions. But she would be too powerful.

She’d sat on the edge of the bed, next to mister ghost, and stroked his cheek. He smiled and shifted, half-heartedly clearing his throat, but not waking. Then her hand went lower, as his always had, but she didn’t go nearly as far. It rested upon his chest, and he sighed deeply, his eyes moving rapidly under their lids. Then she ran the blunt edge of the knife along his throat.

When his eyes opened, he saw a woman in the feeble moonlight, behind a curtain of densely configured blue tattoos cascading down her face. He gawked with the once crazed eyes she remembered so well. The ones that had exposed his thirsts and obscene accelerated fascinations. She turned the knife round, so he felt the sharpened edge.

“Those are the eyes,” she said, with quiet satisfaction. “They’re what I’ve come for.”

“Please,” he said, so awake now, not recognising her. “Anything….” He swallowed hard, involuntarily, and it caused a trickle of blood.

“I never said please,” she said. “I never could. You never would have allowed it. You’d have hurt me more. I was powerless. It was rape, and I was so young.”

Missus ghost rolled over now, and her arm fell across her husband’s belly. She was almost snoring.

“You don’t know who I am, do you.”

“No,” he said. She was unrecogniseable behind the Rosetta Decree.

She said her name and he tensed further, but had no words. Then she removed the knife from his throat, and went for his once leering eyes.

His screams were soon accompanied by those of missus ghost, and were enough to fill the neighbourhood. Dogs barked, and a few nearby houselights came on, shining brightly. A man in his robe appeared on his porch across the street, with a cellphone in his hand. She remained sitting on the bed until the police cautiously surrounded her, then she dropped mister ghost’s eyes onto the floor.

Now she sat silently in the chair, surrounded by the team that had come to administer drugs.

“How come she won’t wake up?” said a doctor.

“Weak pulse,” a nurse said, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”

“Forget the cuff. Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Let’s get her up. Call for a gurney.”

She was finally dreaming, and her dream had the mass and density of one that had waited too long to be dreamt. And as her heart gently failed, she was a child once more, but free of interference in the tall grass of a blue sky field surrounded by the buzz of summer insects. There was a tall wooden house nearby, that was a true refuge and that she could call her own. A bright red car motored by on the quiet highway, and someone waved out of the window.

The blue markings were gone. They’d fallen to the floor in a clatter. She was no longer her own Rosetta Stone. There was no need.

Virtue

You will see it, if you care to look, the sign over the broken wrought iron gate to his mind and marrow, that reads, Madness will Set You Free. He didn’t put it there. It just appeared one day, and it’s never gone away. Sometimes he looks up at it, as the crows fly by, listening to the whispered song of his dear choir, the voices holding their glorious, prolonged note that he has heard forever, and he wonders if the sign is true.

“Mr Virtue…?”

The bright white 2×2 metre isolation room had a telephone booth florescent ceiling light, and a yellow tile floor with a drain in the centre. In contrast, he wore a blue hospital gown, smeared with his own blood, and nothing else. They’d probably already burned his clothes, stinking like creation, of shit and sweat, as if he were his own primal season. But they hadn’t yet attended to his cut lip, or the scabbed over blows to his head. Earlier, as they restrained him, as they held him down with a mattress, someone had shone a penlight into each of his eyes, and had said, calmly, everydayishly, no contusion.

No contusion? The cops had tried and failed.

“Mr Virtue?”

It was a tall, obese male nurse, with another standing behind him. Either one would be difficult to move; escape was impossible. The nurse was calling him by his alias, the one he had thought up when he arrived cuffed, in a cop hammerlock — Mr Virtue.

“We need to draw some blood and take your blood pressure, Mr Virtue,” the fat nurse said.

“No more sedation,” Virtue replied, sitting up. “No more goons holding me down.”

“Just try to trust us, and maybe there won’t be any need.”

Trust was a greasy sloping floor he’d skidded down before.

“Fuck you,” he said, spitting up a brown metallic tasting substance, which might have been blood or half-digested Pentecostal soup.

The BP cuff went round his bicep, and was unpleasantly inflated.

“You had no ID when you arrived,” the nurse said. “Where do you live?”

Virtue only shook his head.

“Do you take street drugs?”

“No, but I need a drink. I need a fucking cigarette.”

“Do you have allergies?”

“People,” he said, fists clenching and banging his thighs. “People give me spots, man. I swell up and itch. Sometimes I can’t breathe when they’re around. I go anaphylactic. Especially cops and nurses. Just give me a pill for people.”

“Is there anyone we can contact?”

“No,” he said. “Everyone’s here.” And he knew as the words dissolved into the florescent air, that he’d said the wrong thing.

He looked around the room, and all were present. The bus driver who told him to get off of the bus, even when he wasn’t on the bus; Natasha, who said she loved him, and who had laid her soul upon his cutting board, but who remained untouchable; Raymond, with whom he enjoyed shouting obscenities in public library; Chico, with his bleeding eyes peeking out from between the elastic bands wound tightly round his face, who Virtue had loud quarrels with, who brought his rubber band face so close to his own that Virtue swung his fists wildly at what no one else could see. And the choir, whose members were harder to observe, fading in and out. Infants who never aged and the foul smelling spirits with their backward faces. They never stopped singing their endless note — Ahhhhhhhh — in E-flat major — for forty-five years, never stopping once to take  a breath.

“They’re all here, baby,” he said to no one. “I don’t know how they all fit, but they’re here.”

Shut the fuck up — Chico said — You always tell them too much.

“Kiss my ass,” Virtue yelled, and swung his fists.

The nurses stepped back.

“Have you ever been on medication, Mr Virtue?”

It was a new voice. He stopped swinging and focussed on the door, listening very carefully.

It was a woman’s voice this time. She was a tall one, too. He knew before he even saw her. The tall ones’ voices were as lofty as ceiling beams. He had to look up to see their spoken words melt like lemon drops. She walked into the isolation room, the nurses exiting, but standing nearby.

“Are you in charge round here?” Virtue said.

“My name is Dr Elizabeth Chang,” she said. “I’m a psychiatrist.”

“You say that like it’s Christmas,” Virtue said, running his tongue over his cut lip, “like I’m gonna get presents.”

“What about it?” she said. “Have you ever been on medication? For the voices, the hallucinations, I mean.”

“Hallucinations?” he said, looking round him.

Shit! Fuck! Motherfucker! Shit! Shit! Fuck! — Raymond screamed.

Virtue covered his ears with his too tight fists.

“Mr Virtue…?” Chang said.

“Yeah,” he hollered, banging his ears, gasping, clenching his entire body. Then, quieter, rocking a bit, he said, “Sure, they gave me pills once. Little white and blue things. They crawled around in my mouth like bugs, like beetles with switchblade feet and napalm in their bellies. Like drones looking for a Pakistani wedding party. I spit ‘em out, and the goons put us all in a room just like this.”

“Us? Who is us?”

“Me and the gang,” he said, looking round him. “We played cribbage for three days.” He saw Natasha smile. Maybe she remembered. “They slid my food under the door. I never won a single game. Chico cheats.”

You’re a fucking whiner — Chico said.

“How long ago was that?”

“Several centuries.”

“Well medications have improved since then.” Dr Chang said. “Would you like to try something now? Something that would calm you, take the voices away?”

He frowned at the idea. Was it sloppy disdain in her voice?

Get off the bus — said the bus driver.

“I paid my fare,” Virtue said.

Get off my goddam bus!

“Mr Virtue…?” said Chang.

The choir sang louder.

“Who else have I got?” he said. “If they go away…?”

You’re a pussy — said Chico, bringing his bleeding eyes close, closing them hard so that the blood dripped off of his chin. Virtue could see the outline of a smile beneath the elastic bands around his mouth.

“The police want to take you to the Forensic Unit,” Chang said. “They’ll force you to take medication there, and you’ll be placed in with some very dangerous people. If you consent to treatment here, you’ll be certified, and I can keep you in relative comfort, get you cleaned up, let you stay on the P5 ward.”

“Psyche ward,” Virtue said, repulsed.

“Yes,” said Chang.

“It’s a petting zoo.”

“Will you let a doctor look at your cuts and bruises?”

“You want to kill them with pills,” Virtue said. “Would you take a pill to kill your friends, your family?”

Don’t let her put me in the morgue — cried Natasha.

“They’re obviously causing you distress, Mr Virtue,” Chang said.

“And your family doesn’t cause you distress,” Virtue said. “Occasionally?”

“Yes,” Chang smiled, “of course. But I can take time away from them, when I want to.”

“Ha! No you can’t,” Virtue pounded the floor. “You can’t take time away from them, at all. They’re always in your head, aren’t they? The anxieties they cause, and their smothering conditional love? Don’t lie to me. All of what they’ve said to you, done to you. The passive aggressive acquiescence. The religion. Their platitudes and bizarre poisonous illogic. False memories. The counterfeit Christmases. The viral dysfunction. Their dissatisfaction and mock appreciation. Their doubts, your doubts. Fear for their safety. Your fear of death, of abandonment, of watching them age and perish before your very eyes. The madness children will bring with them out of the womb. How the wealth of generations is redistributed. All of that’s pulsing through you, right now.”

“No, Mr Virtue,” Chang said. She’d hesitated — barely perceptive uncertainty. He’d hit a chord.

Go for it — Chico yelled.

“Oh, I can hear it like a siren,” Virtue said, smiling for the first time since his arrival. “Like someone scratching at the door to a cell she’s wanted to escape from since the moment she first felt the hands grab her round the throat and squeeze. You feel those hands squeezing right now, don’t you! You see their mute faces and their unblinking eyes. Don’t tell me you can take time away from that, and I won’t tell you that it’s easy for me.”

Virtue struggled now, to get to his feet. He’d aimed a communication beam right into the psychiatrist’s brain, and poured on the power. He would draw her in. He would introduce her to Chico. Chico would thank him. Chico was lonely.

A nurse stepped in to hold him down.

“Word salad,” Chang said to the nurse. “Olanzapine, 20 mg intramuscular injection. I’ll draw up the order.”

“Twenty milligrams?” said the nurse. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll be at the desk,” she said, “writing it up. Restraints if necessary. Prepare him, and I’ll arrange for transport to Forensics.” She walked away.

“Sorry, dude,” the nurse said to Virtue. “Things are about to get nasty for you.”

Your body’s a fire, Virtue — Chico said — Let ’em send you into hell.

Virtue looked up and saw the crows fly by. He saw the sign over the broken wrought iron gate, and said, “I’ll burn the whole fucking place down.”

holy day

it is easy to lie about your religion
with hunger in your pockets
people will only look and wonder
how you will be saved from their good gods
will it be pills or e.c.t? or a
disconsolate edict
with new heels on its boots

it’s just that the doctors are crazier
and have their own lunch to consider
and who will cross the Tees
crosses on a hill, yes
there was more than just one
religion again
socks and salty soup
dished out by the stolidly saved

the bust

you the suicide?
says the cop
black in wish and uniform

not yet
I say
bewildered

you better come with us
your psychiatrist called

oh, I say
my psychiatrist
¿the lonesome alcoholic? who
sits in the corner
nodding like a dog
on the dashboard of a vintage Chevrolet

the one with the pink noise
in the waiting room
blunt crayons
and colouring books

that must be her, says the cop

to him, I am torment
he didn’t join up
to scoop forlorn poetasters
with tricksy razor blades
and teary notes good-bye

he’s tragic, I can see
his head imbued with
procedure, heartache
and internet porn
his state granted gun and
the power of arrest

he’s heard of jazz and
thinks it’s the blues

he has parcels coming UPS

and yet
I am to go with him
in the backseat as though
he is the chauffeur
and I am the fiery fine King
of Tuesday Afternoon