Monday, November 30, 2009

The Procedure - 2

I found myself returning to the back of Herkimer's house when I had the time. On my way to or from work sometimes, I'd park my car in a dead end in the woods, creep across the backyard, sit under the window and listen. Men, women, young and old. They paraded through the doctor's practice at one-hour intervals and appeared to all undergo the same extreme catharsis and transformation.

After a few days of eavesdropping I discerned a pattern: Patient enters. Pleasantries exchanged. Doctor invites patient to recite his or her litany of woes: relationship troubles, phobias, lack of self-esteem. All these the doctor acknowledges with a grunt. Finally he asks the patient, Are you ready? Yes is the invariable reply. He murmurs soothing words: Relax. Take a deep breath. You're going to be just fine. Then there follows an eighteen-minute gap of total silence. Always eighteen minutes. Always total silence. It ends with the patient's exclamation of unconstrained exhilaration: a sharp cry or tremulous moan, a stuttering gasp. Then comes the flood of tears. Helpless, quaking sobs as of some primeval bereavement. A total letting go. Eventually the punctuating sighs grow longer and the patient returns to the world of words: The doctor is thanked and praised effusively. Semi-coherent avowals of extreme happiness are made. God is often invoked, both in vain and in earnest, and sometimes in blasphemy: My God! My God! Good God. Oh God! God, oh God. I see God. I feel like God. Am I God?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Procedure - 1

I myself never underwent the Procedure. I tried and I tried. That is, I continually sought out doctors who might give me the necessary referral. None did. For a long time this drove me mad with frustration and chagrin. How could I know how lucky I was?

My original psychiatrist, Dr. Blanchard, was the first to say no.

"What are your symptoms?" he asked. "How do you feel?"

"I feel empty. I feel sad. Purposeless. Depressed," I stated.

The doctor nodded pensively, taking notes. Finally, I summoned the courage to ask.

"Do you think... I could get that, that, you know, that Procedure?"

I felt a pang of shame, asking for what I wanted. As though I were begging for some addictive medication. But is it wrong to ask for what you think you need?

Dr. Blanchard made a wry smile and began tapping the nib of his pen on his pad.

"I'll be honest. I don't think the Procedure is right for you," he said.

I never felt more alone.

"Why not?" I pleaded.

"Because..." He paused and sighed with some exasperation. "Because, Adam – and I know you're not going to want to hear this – because I think you're fabricating symptoms in order to get me to write you a referral to undergo the Procedure. Plain as that."

I was thoroughly embarrassed now. With nothing to lose, I continued to protest.

"But doctor. I know I need it. I know I need the Procedure. I can feel it in my bones. I know my life's not right and it won't be until I get it." I began whimpering now, half in grief and half in humiliation.

"I understand what you're feeling. I understand what you're experiencing," Blanchard continued softly. "But desire for the Procedure does not, in and of itself, constitute a symptom for which the Procedure is indicated. Am I making myself clear?"

I covered my face with my hands and nodded.

"Now, there are plenty of other things we can do for you. I'm thinking Zoloft. Maybe Librium too." He began scrawling on a prescription pad.

"OK," I said, defeated.

"Here, take these and we're going to see how you do. Try to forget about the Procedure. Focus on you for a while. You don't need the Procedure. You just need to stop thinking that you need it. Good?"

I glumly accepted the 'scripts, said goodbye and left.


My obsession had begun one day when I was walking home from town and decided to try a shortcut through the woods. Old paths crisscrossed there; I knew it wouldn't be hard to find my way. I stuck close to the roads for the most part, close to the edges of backyards. This is the anti-street, I thought, glimpsing mirror images of familiar houses through the trees. As I walked by one I heard an arresting sound: a human cry, a wail.

Concerned (and curious), I entered the yard and hid behind a tree. I could hear words now, the voice distinctly female. It seemed to be coming out of the open window to a den or study.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God!" she moaned. "Yes! Yes! Yes! That's it! That's it, please! Oh my God... oh my God... oh my God!" She then burst into a prolonged fit of crying, her sobs punctuated by sighs of deep elation.

I knew she wasn't in danger. She didn't need my help. There was no reason to be there save for voyeurism. Yet she didn't seem to be having a sexual experience, either. It was greater than that somehow; an all-encompassing ecstasy. I was transfixed. I wanted to hear more. I crouched down and scurried to the wall of the house, just below the window.

When her tears abated she began to speak again, still breathless.

"Doctor, my God, doctor, my God, that's so good, that's so good, that's so good!" she said.

"Good," a man replied in a calm voice.

"I... I... I... have never felt this good... I never imagined it was possible to feel this good!"

The doctor chuckled warmly.

"Oh my God, honestly, when you did it, I felt like... like..."

"Yes?"

"Like I was giving birth to God. I don't know. That sounds stupid."

He laughed again. "People have all different ways of describing how it feels. That's a wonderful description."

She squealed, she yelped, she emitted strange, staccato sighs. She remained unable to contain her enormous pleasure.

"Honest to God, doctor. Everything I ever thought was wrong with me has disappeared."

He made a sound of affirmation.

"Everything, I just..." She began to cry again. "I'm sorry!" she gasped.

"It's OK, it's OK."

"It's just that I... I... I'm so, so, so happy, doctor!"

"I see that, Judy."

"You must get this every time. But I can't stop telling you how great I feel. How thankful I am."

"That's quite all right. It never gets old seeing people react positively to my treatment, believe me."

"Will this feeling go away?"

"I have never heard from any patients that it does. In fact, many have reported a deeper, richer experience over time."

She laughed an airy, delightful laugh. The laugh of someone utterly unburdened and joyful. The ultimate laugh.

"Thank you, doctor! Thank you for everything."

I decided I'd better leave before she did and so escaped quickly to the driveway and to the road. I looked back at the doctor's yellow house, a house I'd seen a thousand times without once giving it a thought. I noticed a sign hanging from a post by the flagstone steps to the porch. It read:

Douglas R. Herkimer
           Therapy

Haunted and bewildered, I walked the rest of the way back home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Streak - 57

At the urging of Joe Maines and Matt Gillis, the team's carousing on this road trip was limited to the hotel bar. Even during the day, they were strongly discouraged from exiting the premises. Ordinarily, the guys would go to bars or strip clubs and wander back drunk through high-end shopping districts to buy ritzy gifts for the wife: diamond earrings, crystal tchotchkes, guilt-compensation stuff. Today there was a whole lot of lying around watching TV.

Evan took the opportunity to call home. It was never an easy thing to do. It got harder the longer he waited. It got harder the more he lost.

Denise picked up.

"Hey, it's me," said Evan.

"Hey! All the way from Minnesota." Denise sounded strangely cheery.

"How's everything?"

"Oh, you know. It's a laugh a minute over here."

Somehow Evan knew that in the wording and brisk cadence of that remark there lay the indication that she had found another man.

"Well that's good. I'm happy for you. How's the boy?"

"He's good, lemme get him," she said, then put her hand over the receiver and called out Ryan's name. A few seconds passed. Through her fingers, Evan perceived a sharp phrase she directed at their son. Then there was a moment of silence.

"Evan, I'm sorry. He's being really difficult."

"What's he doing?"

Denise sighed. "He says he doesn't want to talk to you."

Evan felt a burning sensation deep within his chest.

"Put him on," he said angrily, realizing at once the absurdity of his request.

"For chrissakes, Evan. Don't you think I'm trying to put him on?"

"I'm sorry."

More urgent, muffled conversation ensued. Denise imploring sternly. Ryan protesting loudly in the background.

"I'm sorry, Evan. I'm trying. He's having some kind of moment."

"What's he saying?"

"He's saying he doesn't want to talk to you, Evan, what do you want me to –"

"Ask him why."

"Do you really think that's a –"

"Ask him why."

The phone went silent again as Denise complied. Evan could feel his heart pounding, blood pumping through his veins.

Denise began again with another sigh.

"Listen, Evan. You asked."

"Tell me what he said."

"You asked, so don't get mad at me."

"Tell... me... what... he... said."

"He says he hates you, he says you're a loser, he says all the other kids say you're a loser. He says he hates you."

"I see."

"It's just a phase," Denise added helpfully.

Now Evan emitted a deep exhalation.

"Tell him I love him."

"Of course."

"I'll try again tomorrow."

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Subway Drunk

In the 42nd Street subway station on Friday a two-piece band was set up, an old black man sitting down with an electric guitar and a younger, white man standing up with one. There was a banner on the wall behind them that said, "Mississippi Delta blues." A drunk man hovered unsteadily nearby. There seemed to have been an altercation.

"Dunno what he's drinkin'. But it's a bad sip," said the old bluesman.

The drunkard staggered ponderously, like a movie cowboy with an arrow in his back. He was bland, soft-featured, overweight; in his early sixties maybe. His mouth hung slightly open, expressionless. Thick glasses further obscured his personality. A cipher. A zombie.

The old man raised his arm a couple times, as though the drunk were about to topple on him like a building.

"OK, ladies and gentlemen," he finally said, turning on a drum machine. "Here we go."

The machine stopped. There seemed to be a problem with the machine. The drunk man swayed and lurched. He seemed to want to say something.

"OK! Here we go," said the bluesman again. He restarted the drum machine. And then it stopped again.

The drunk was a few feet away now. A ship progressing out of harbor to the sea.

The old man strummed a few sharp chords on his guitar. The drum machine was going good now. He started singing a song about a woman.

The drunk shuffled into a music store. I saw the wary faces of the employees behind the counter as he stood before them, waiting for nothing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

At the Library

At the library today there was a retarded man, maybe in his mid-twenties, sitting on the radiator by the window. His minder, his guardian – maybe his dad? – sat next to him, at the table. Occasionally, the retarded man would exclaim brusquely, and the other man would reflexively shush him. It went like this:

"PolicĂ­a!"

"Shhh."

"Mommy's gone."

"Shhh."

"You OK?"

"Shhh."

"Mommy's gone."

"Shhh."

After a time the minder stood up and his charge did too. Not a word was spoken. They left.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Streak - 56

Evan apologized to Esteban and Esteban immediately reciprocated without reservation; all that mattered was that Evan do so first. In fact, Evan bore no ill will toward his ball-breaking teammate. On the contrary, the episode intensified and justified his self-reproach. He hated himself for losing, of course. He hated himself for fucking up. These emotions extended beyond the playing field: he hated himself for failing as a husband, for failing as a dad. But most of all he hated himself for hating himself. Because he knew this was his only problem, really. If he could liberate himself from it, he was convinced that the rest of his life and whatever lay thereafter would unfold before him as a dream.

Trouble is, Evan didn't want to stop. Self-loathing: this was his addiction. And though he labored to resist, he unfailingly succumbed to its furious and perverse temptations. Is this why he couldn't throw the ball to first? Because he didn't want to? This awful thought spawned two in quick succession: What kind of a cocksucker behaves like that? and I don't deserve to live. There you have it. Exhibits A and B, Benjaminson v. Benjaminson. The prosecution rests.

For it was sin that afflicted him, not mere neurosis. The sin of vanity. And if it's vain to love oneself, it's ten times more to hate. They say that suicide's a sin. Evan didn't give a fuck about religion, but he always understood that. Suicide is a petulant child who breaks his toy. You get a life, a body. Lungfuls of oxygen. And this is what you do? In fact, even in his darkest depths Evan had no urge for it. If worse came to worse, he figured, he'd make of himself a monument to failure, dashed hopes and disappointments; to promises unkept. He'd play the martyr for mankind. I'd be Jesus Christ, how glorious, he thought, laughing darkly in his head. But maybe – maybe – worse wouldn't come to worse.

He was broken. And the more he tried to fix himself, the brokener he got. This maddening conundrum; this damned, intractable reality. Evan knew it so well and so precisely, he could almost hold it in his hands. It was like an object in his brain. Might it be surgically removed? As absurd as it sounded, he believed it maybe could. Sure, there'd be side effects. Like forgetting how to tie his shoes. If they took too much off the margins he might be consigned to a life of happy, drooling idiocy. But the problem would be gone.

Fuck it, thought Evan. That's not what a man does. A man has a simple choice: cast off your burdens by determination or bear them in silence. No crying, no complaints. Fuck it.

Evan fell back into his room while the others hit the bar. He was hungry now. He ordered room service: the Angus strip with fingerling potatoes, a bottle of Cabernet. He flipped through the channels. He watched most of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He brushed his teeth and turned out the lights. There was another game to play tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Streak - 55

After their 27th loss in a row, the Yankees sat mutely in the visitors' clubhouse. Evan, Esteban, Sug and Trainer Mike were gambling their per diems at poker. It was dealer's choice and Esteban called Follow the Queen. There was some grumbling.

"Don't you know any man's games?" Evan asked.

"Eban, Eban. At lease I no strike out three time in one game," Esteban said. "Strike out lookin'."

The others made pained oohs and braced themselves for a scene.

"Twice, goddammit. Not three times," Evan protested sharply.

"Twice lookin'?"

"No! Twice total. Once lookin'," Evan declared. Here he was trying to explain that he only struck out twice. Could God please hurry up and kill him?

"Two time, three time," Esteban said with a shrug. "Three time a lady."

Evan promptly picked up his suited ten-two and tossed it at his teammate's face. Esteban sat rigidly for a moment and no one was really sure what was about to happen.

"Congratulation Eban," he finally said. "You deedn't throw the cards ober my head."

Evan lunged at Esteban and knocked him backwards in his folding chair. The men wrestled awkwardly on the floor, grasping and pawing, Evan trying in vain to free a hand with which to punch.

Sug and Mike hovered above them, enthralled at first but then determined to intervene.

"Guys! Guys! Guys!" they shouted, pulling at Evan's arms and shoulders.

Others hurried over and soon Evan was stood up, still hot, flailing at anyone within reach. Here he was the desperate defeated. The humiliated transgressor. Too proud to concede to foe nor truth.

Jim Bosworth walked over slowly and waited for Evan's spasms to abate. Finally he delivered the third baseman a perfunctory reprimand and levied a $75 fine. But in reality, he was pleased.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Streak - 54

In the bottom of the sixth Evan made another throwing error, floating a ball high over Brendan Terry's head and allowing the go-ahead run into scoring position. When he finally regained the dugout the Yanks were down seven to four. Everybody gave him wide berth and avoided eye contact. Even Jim Bosworth, burning with a rage that now transcended even the profanest outer realms of language, stood stonefaced as Evan skulked by. Only one man would – only one man could – speak to Evan now: Pat O'Rourke. The old timer leaned forward and spat a flurry of sunflower husks between his cleats.

"You got that ol' beast now, kid."

"Don't I know it."

"Don't look good out there, boy. Nervouser'n a cat on a rocking chair."

"It's the truth."

"You know how to catch a ball. You know how to throw a ball."

"Least I thought so."

"Don't doubt it. That knowledge is burned into your soul. Knowing ain't the problem."

"Help me, Pat. For Christ's sake."

Pat peered up at the action on the field, a swing and a miss by catcher Cesar Gutierrez.

"I can tell you're thinking out there. Like a regular fuckin' Socrates."

"I know, I know," Evan said, hanging his head in shame.

"What do you think about? The ball?"

"The ball. My fingers."

"Your fingers... Your arm? Your elbow?"

"All that and more."

The old man shook his head and permitted himself a sigh of dismay.

"You're good and fucked, kid. We're gonna try to untangle the knot."

"What's the process?"

"What else is going on with you, Ev? You can tell ol' Uncle Pat."

"You know, I dunno. Getting a fuckin' divorce."

Pat held his right hand up to Evan without looking. "Stop. Don't tell me nothin' personal. This don't got anything to do with shit like that."

"OK..."

"What's going on in the mind-body-spirit? I'm talkin' the triumvirate."

"Uh, I feel pretty good, I guess."

"You wake up with a boner?"

"Most days."

Pat nodded solemnly. "You eat right? You shit right?"

"I really think so."

"Is there anything else out of the ordinary that you'd like to disclose at this time?"

"Well..."

"That's it. What is it?"

"For a couple days I, uh..."

"This is the beginning and the end of your problem. Go on."

"I uh, I don't think I've been able to smell."

"You can't smell?!"

Evan sniffed the back of his hand by way of illustration and shrugged his shoulders. "I can't smell shit."

Pat removed his cap and buried his face in his hands for a few seconds. When he reemerged, the world-weary creases in his cheeks were deeper still.

"You can't fucking smell? Your nose don't work?"

Evan shook his head.

"Smell is the most important sense in baseball!" hollered Pat, aggrieved.

"Jesus. Really?"

"Nobody knows it but it's true."

The old man began muttering now, mostly to himself, and rocking like an autist. "No smell, no smell... maybe he can hit, maybe he can DH... No he can't, no he can't, Jesus..."

For the first time, Evan was afraid.

"What do I do, Pat?"

"Huh? I'll talk to Trainer Mike I guess," Pat said hollowly. "Maybe it'll just go away."

They sat in silence and watched rookie center fielder Danario Lafell pop up for out number two.

"Meantime, you'll have to sharpen some other sense in compensation."

"Sight?"

"Hearing's better."

"Hearing?"

Pat nodded gravely. "I want you to hear every goddamn thing that happens out there. Let it enter your body and be a part of you."

"OK. Hearing."

"I want you to hear the batter tap the dirt out of his cleats."

"OK."

"I want you to hear Cesar pound his mitt before he sets up for the pitch."

"He pounds it twice."

"He always pounds it twice. I want you to hear the umpire's exclamations through his mask."

"Strike."

"I want you to hear the sound of the bat so well that you know exactly where the ball hit on the grain."

"Wow."

"I want you to hear the ball spinning in the air as it approaches."

"Right."

"The muffled pop when it stops inside your glove."

"I will."

"The crowd, too. The choruses of chants and jeers, the solitary taunts."

"The crowd too?"

"Yes. But remember one thing. This is very important."

"Yes?"

"Hear it all. But don't listen to a thing."

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Streak - 53

Something awful dawned on Evan. He grabbed the nearest thing – his cocktail napkin – and held it to his nose.

"What the fuck are you doing?" asked Kyle.

"I'm trying to see if I can smell anything. I can't fucking smell anything."

"Napkins don't have a smell."

"They're supposed to have a papery smell. Everything has a smell," Evan said, inhaling deeply through his nostrils. "Jesus fuck, I can't smell a thing."

"Calm down. Smell the celery."

Kyle handed Evan the pale green wand from his glass, dripping Bloody Mary on his knee. Evan pressed the leafy end to his face.

"Motherfucker. I got nothin'."

"Celery is a mild vegetable. Or is it a root?"

"I oughta be able to smell somethin'."

"It's a legume or something. A member of the deadly nightshade family."

"Deadly what the fuck ever," Evan said as he snorted along the stalk's fibrous spine. "My olfactory is gone."

"Relax. It'll pass."

"I can't even smell your offensive cologne," Evan said with growing agitation.

"Gimme back my garnish."

They sat mostly in silence as they finished their drinks, each lost in his own universe of dread.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Streak - 52

They landed at Minneapolis/St. Paul at about a quarter past five in the morning and filed groggily out of the plane and onto the bus to the Radisson on Seventh Street, just a few blocks from the Metrodome. Evan fell onto his bed with his shoes still on and awoke again before he knew it, wrenched out of a deep, dark sleep by some godawful disturbance in the room, some vexing presence, what was it? The telephone. And who was he? Some stirring consciousness, apparently. Probably a person. Evan. His name was Evan.

"Yeah?" said Evan.

"Yo," said Kyle.

"Yo."

"Get your ass out of bed and meet me at the bar in fifteen minutes."

"Yup."

Evan brushed his teeth, took a shower, and changed into clean clothes. Then he walked down the carpeted hall to the elevators and pressed the button. Everything he did, he'd done a thousand times before. He tried to tell himself that something new was bound to happen.

On the way from the elevator to the bar he walked past an empty meeting room and peered in. Nine small tables were arrayed in an offset pattern facing the center-rear, where a lectern was positioned beneath a blank projection screen. Each table had two burgundy-upholstered, padded chairs. Each table had a salmon-pink tablecloth, a dewy pitcher of ice water and a stack of plastic cups. A fake ficus stood in back beside the dark green drapes. No one was around. Nothing made a sound. Evan looked up. It was a typical, institutional drop ceiling with vents for air diffusion and return, recessed LED lights, a smoke detector and companion sprinkler. One tile was off-kilter, revealing a shard of darkness from above. He remembered elementary school with a pang of sorrow. The carpet, a tessellated dusty rose, bore the faint stains and smudges of a hundred thousand years of traffic. Evan got a chill. If only he could add this up, he thought. It must all surely mean something.

Evan found Kyle somberly stirring his Bloody Mary by its foot-long celery stalk. Like a witch at her brew.

"Now that's some goddamn celery," said Evan.

"That's not fucking around."

"What are you supposed to do with that fucking thing? Put it in your ass?"

"I think so, Evan. I think so."

"You're in some kind of mood."

"I've just been thinking, is all."

"Never a good sign. Why no whiskey?"

"Didn't sleep too good."

"Too tired for whiskey. If those aren't the saddest words."

"What are you drinking? C'mon," urged Kyle.

The bartender stood at attention, chin up with a clean, Midwestern smile.

"What's the Seventh Street Margarita?" asked Evan.

"Sauza Gold tequila, lime juice and cointreau, sir. Up with a salted rim."

"That's a margarita."

"Yes sir!"

"What makes it a Seventh Street Margarita?"

Kyle theatrically pretended to bang his head against the bar as the bartender stammered, "Well sir, I don't know... It's the margarita we serve here on Seventh..."

"Ignore him. He's a dick," interjected Kyle. "Evan, everybody knows the margarita was invented in Minneapolis. So shut up."

The bartender chuckled.

Evan turned to Kyle to protest. "Hey, maybe it's one of those signature Margaritas. Flavored. I dunno."

"Is that what you want? Really?" Kyle moaned. "A specialty margarita? You–" Kyle mouthed the word "faggot," shielding his mouth from the barkeep's view.

"I'm sorry," said Evan, suddenly cheery. "I'll have a Johnnie Black on the rocks."

"Coming right up!"

Kyle emitted the weary sigh of a miner on a dead vein.

"What's up, kid?" asked Evan.

"I don't wanna lose tonight."

Evan grunted and raised his glass to his lips. He was distressed to find that the amber fluid did not have the expected smoky fragrance. Did that jackass serve him a well drink by mistake? No, Evan recalled seeing the bottle in his hand. Was he getting old already, was everything beginning to fade?