the revised Rosetta

The psychiatrist is Dr Slim, turning pages slowly in a folder open on his lap. The woman, sitting across from him in restraints, is Rosetta. Medium in stature, her body is densely draped in narrow streams of blue braiding Code, tattooed in crisp nine point Andalé Mono font, from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and flowing downward to where the code disappears past the neckline of her hospital gown, appearing again on her arms where they emerge from short sleeves, cascading to her fingertips. It has been reported by nurses that the vertical lines of Code cover her entire body. Only the green pupils and whites of her eyes stand out in contrast; even her lips are inked. Her stare is steady.

Slim is reading Rosetta’s case file voyeuristically. His eyebrows raised when he discovers juicy slivers of clinical gossip, something ironic or hostile placed there by another doctor or disgruntled staff. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encounters more relevant clinical notes. He has a lunch date in forty-five minutes, and thinks he’ll have the grilled chicken bruschetta.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he says, about to bite his thumbnail, then changing his mind. Then turning the pages back to a place near the beginning, he says, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient spends the night sitting cross-legged on bed, claims she hasn’t slept since 2010.

“No sleep for three days,” says Slim. “That’s easy to fix. But you say you haven’t slept since 2010? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

Slim shifts in his chair.

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

“I hear your voice.”

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork…,” he turns more pages to be certain, “…there is the diagnosis of schizophrenia. You’ve had bouts of psychosis, and now you’ve committed a very serious crime. Were you commanded to do so?”

Next he’ll ask me if I smell shit, she thinks. He’ll without the apostrophe is Hell. He’s Hell. This prison is Hell. The handcuffs and florescent light. The walls too white. The isolation rooms too small.

“And the tattoos,” he says, “I understand from staff that you’re covered with them, nearly every centimetre of your body.” He considered the alphanumeric chains, and her frank expression behind them. “Done with such precision, too. Do you know what I mean when I say self-harm?”

Rosetta’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you aware of seeing things,” says Slim, “people for instance, you’ve been told others don’t?”

“Of course.”

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

“Because I can’t see what they see. Makes sense, right?”

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

“Why?”

Eight years, sleepless.

“Because this is a clinical assessment.” He says this smiling without rapport, reveling uneven teeth. “I assess, prognosticate and recommend therapy. Not necessarily in that order. And at some point, I make a recommendation as to whether you stay here or return to court for criminal sentencing. To achieve all of that, I ask you questions and, ideally, you answer them honestly.”

There were no answers to such ordinary questions.

Three days awake. The fool had no idea.

She began practicing wakefulness, and forsaking dreams, as a child, out of  a fear of sleep, slowly and carefully at first, counting breaths and heartbeats silently. Clearing her mind of everything else—the sickening touch of hands. Beginning when she was five. One touch, two, three…. The slow impossible wrongness. Ghosts sitting on her bed, stroking her cheek in the nightstand lamplight, speaking musically, slow and backward, saying they loved her. Each time taking on their spider-likeness, because that’s how some ghosts attack.

Her wholly wakeful life began much later, when she was fifteen years old, after escaping the haunted house and running to the slum side of the city. It was there, in a skid-row hotel room, that she first floated over the lawless atoms of night, her fear of sleep eclipsed by a splendid new twenty-four hour consciousness.

And there she began her journal, in pencil at first on the walls of her room, and then the corridors of the decaying hotel, refusing to correct errors as she wrote. Correction was the slaughter of blameless fractions of thought that were becoming the Code. She’d never understand it, she thought at first. But then came the moment of discovery, when she became aware that in order to understand the Code, it must be inked upon her skin.

Awkwardly at first, she used sewing needles and razor blades, and a potion of India ink and cigarette ash, later finding expert and trustworthy artists, who wouldn’t look beneath her surface at the perfect swirling binary as they marked her.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” Dr Slim says.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

She translated ghosts into humans using the Code. Human thirsts were easier to decipher. Slim was with the ghosts.

“We’re also concerned about cognitive impairment,” says Dr Slim—“Your possible premature decline. We’d like to do tests. Untreated psychosis causes neurodegeneration. Left untreated, you may even be left unable to recognise the passage of time.”

“Time or times, Doc?” Rosetta says, finally relaxing in her chair. “Epochs and eras? Or just ticks fucking tocks, spawning hours.” She grins. “Clock guts. The 6am news you wake up to every morning. I know Time. I recognise him just fine. I’ve got his phone number. I call him and laugh whenever he’s late. Time crosses the street when he sees me coming, runs and hides like a coward behind the eyes of old women.”

“That’s very poetic,” Slim says, looking again at his thumbnail.

“Fuck you.”

“Look,” says the doctor, “you’re not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. So, this isn’t prison, but it is confinement and refusing therapy, drug or otherwise, isn’t an option.”

“I’m going to escape,” she says.

“No, you’re not. No one ever has. This place is more secure than a penitentiary, in its own way.” He paused and then said, “We’ve a long list of neuroleptics at hand, each with its own charming set of side-effects. And we always over prescribe. The drug addled never wonder far.”

“I’ll escape. I’ll sleep. It’s finally time, I figure. Just try to catch me then. I’ll sleep where there aren’t any ghosts.”

“There are no ghosts,” Slim says. “There never were.”

“You’re one, you know? I didn’t think so a minute ago, but now it’s obvious.”

“No, Rosetta. I’m not a ghost.”

“You’re challenging me?”

“Yes.”

Ghost facts

  1. Ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts are of the dead, but not the dead. This is obvious to anyone who has seen one.
  3. Rosetta has lived surrounded by ghosts since childhood.
  4. There are castes of ghost.
  5. Rosetta knows each caste by its name—killer, lost, screamers, etc.

Rosetta encountered her first ghosts when she was orphaned at age five, after one parent died of a mysterious violence in the house on 8th Avenue, and the other went to prison.

These first ghosts were named mister and missus shade. They were wanting-ghosts, posing as foster parents. They wanted Rosetta—wanting the things she’d no idea breathed inside of her. And they hated her for it.

Wanting-ghost facts

  1. Wanting-ghosts want.
  2. Wanting-ghosts take.
  3. Wanting-ghosts prefer to remain visible, though they often pass through walls and ceilings when no one is watching.
  4. They’re clever.
  5. Few see them for what they are.
  6. They sulk.
  7. They worry, shout and show their teeth.
  8. Their hands are quick and fierce.
  9. They’re selfish and violent.
  10. Wanting-ghosts hate what they want.

Wanting-ghosts have mural faces—gasoline fire eyes, a cloud of planet gravity discordant orbit phases wheeling round each of them. And when Rosetta refused their raw touch, when she turned her head and cried out, or hid in closets or under her bad, their faces blistered and their fierce hands became claws. And when they failed against her defiance, when they knew she’d never be meek and surrender, they chose loneliness for her instead, locking Rosetta in a basement.

At first she fed herself from the cellar shelves, peaches from mason jars hard to open with small hands. She ate them as she looked out of a small square reinforced window onto the resting winter garden. When the peaches ran out, she starved for a week before a bowl of something began to be left each evening on the uppermost step of the stairs to the kitchen.

Other ghosts came to her in the basement, and Rosetta began to know each kind. The sad, the shining, the watchers who sat very darkly in the corners, the ones that screamed loudly but were never heard, the ghosts of children quietly unable to understand the fact of their own deaths.

Once during an uncounted spring, a little boy, who might have been a ghost, snuck into the garden, hunching down to looked at her through the wire mesh window. He’d a round face and brown eyes, and wore a clean striped tee-shirt. After staring at each other for a minute, the boy ran away and vanished through a hole in a fence, returning later and placing a candy bar and a fistful of caramels on the windowsill. An offering she’d never touch. Then he ran away again, and never came back.

A bath came once a month, the day before the lady from the Foster Agency arrived. After each bath, Rosetta was placed in a room with a warm bed and picture books. And that’s where missus shade would leave her. Each time, before she left, twisting Rosetta’s ear very hard and instructing her to tell the Agency lady that she loved her foster parents. Then missus shade locked the door behind her.

Eventually the lady from the Foster Agency stopped coming. The shades told Rosetta she’d been adopted, and left her in the basement watching from the window as the garden bowed to each season, again and again. She wanted to count each cycle, but hadn’t learned numbers. Time, a thing she discovered later was passing. More ghosts arrived, surrounding her on and on, until one showed her how to escape.

“I’ve already prescribed a new combination of medications,” says Slim. “And you will take them. The staff will make sure. The meds will help you to sleep, among other necessary things. You’ve said you want to sleep. I want you to follow the nurse’s instructions. Is that clear?”

Slim released Rosetta onto the ward, where the ghosts were slouched and long fingered, where the hospital staff cast spells. She took to a corner in a threadbare easy chair, yawning for the first time since childhood, and wondering if dreams were all they were cracked up to be. A grinning posse would arrive soon, with injections and pills.

How to kill a wanting-ghost

  1. Wanting-ghosts aren’t hard to kill.
  2. Most wanting-ghosts choose suicide.
  3. Want-ghosts must sleep, unlike other ghosts.
  4. Most sleep at night, as they did in life. Some, however, sleep during the day and haunt the night.
  5. The shades slept at night, and haunted the day.
  6. Wanting-ghosts fear sleep.
  7. The best time to kill a wanting-ghost is when it sleeps.
  8. They sleep deeply, rarely waking before their time. This makes them vulnerable.
  9. The most effective way to kill a wanting-ghost is by knife and fire.

Her vengeance against mister and missus shade came on a night when the moon was a hung high thin bit of scrap. She’d become mist for the visit. Entering the house by passing through fissures in the outer walls. Coming to float above them as they slept.

Her accomplice was a knife that had found her, where it lay one night in an alley she often walked before dawn. The knife was handsome, with a pearl handle, and she knew its history when she took it into her hand. She knew why it had been dropped there. There was murder in it. It smiled when she held it. It would kill for her, even if she hesitated.

Coming out of the mist, she sat on the edge of the bed, stroking mister shade’s cheek as she ran the knife’s blade lightly across his throat, watching as his eyes moved swiftly to and fro beneath their lids. And when those eyes opened with a start, he saw her silhouette, her posture still familiar after years, and then her face in the dim light of the slice of moon through the window. Her face behind the torrent of Code; the grownup face of the child he’d harmed so completely. She’d a strange expression of sympathy as she held the sharp edge firmly under his chin.

“Oh look,” she whispered, “you’re bleeding.”

A thin current of blood trickled down his neck as his pupils dilated, igniting the orange inferno of his eyes. The room glowed.

“Please,” said mister shade. “Take anything you want.”

“Anything? Then I’ll have grace and vengeance. And those eyes,” she said. “They’re what I came for.” The handsome knife moved quickly and in a second shade’s eyes were in her hand, still burning and too hot to hold. So she threw them against the wall, mister shade screaming as they exploded into flame. The knife moved faster again when it drew the line, deep and true across shade’s throat.

The fire caused by his eyes exploding against the wall was spreading throughout the room, and Rosetta saw missus shade, with her own napalm eyes, sitting up in the bed.

“You?” the missus said.

“Me,” said Rosetta. The knife went in deep, and missus shade’s eyes faded.

Now the fire would finish the job, as the shades lay in their bed.

Knife and fire.

Neighbours in bedclothes gathered on the street to watch the house burn.

Rosetta turned to mist and escaped.

Grace and vengeance.

Days later, the police knocked on her door.

*

Now she sits silently in the hospital ward common room, surrounded by the staff come to cast spells.

“Non-responsive,” a doctor says. “Has she been given anything yet?”

“No.”

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

“Forget that,” the doctor says, listening through a stethoscope. “Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Get a damn gurney.”

She dreamed as her heart gently failed. A good one, as dreams go. She was a girl and she was a woman, sitting on the veranda of a happily aging house in the country. Shade-trees, birdsong and crickets. Blue skies as a bright red roadster motored by on the quiet road beyond the gate, someone waving out the window. The ink was gone, the characters of the Code having flown heavenward like a swarm of blue bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.