Crazy about Money

Here’s a piece that I wrote some time ago.  No one else seemed to like it or ‘GET IT!’  But I still favor it; I get it.  And so it seems to be a perfect piece for my blog.  But don’t let me prejudice you…CM

Wrapped in a heavy canvas jacket, the woman with the predictably wild hairdo stumbled over the threshold.  The orderly, a man with many years of experience on the psychiatric ward, quickly and deftly captured her under the armpits before the inevitable fall.  Dr. Liam Nestly had seen the same scene played out a thousand times before—different patient, different day—but the same sedated trip, the same last minute save.  He stifled a yawn, until his eyeballs grew moist with the effort.

The woman mumbled a tiny, automatic thank-you. The orderly grunted, in lieu of actual words.  The odd couple slid across the floor, doing their funny Rumba, sans music, all the way to the doctor’s receiving chair.  Nestly could not blame the orderly for taking the rear approach; quite often, vomit and drool covered the front of the patient’s canvas tuxedo.  It was always better to guide them from behind; besides, the backside of a straightjacket sported a heavy belt, buckles and leather straps that were handy things to grab in an emergency.

Nevertheless, Dr. Nestly frowned.  He always frowned at the straightjackets, pretending to disapprove.  But his non-verbal condemnation was really just a bit of theatrics, for the patient’s sake, rather than any real difference of opinion with hospital procedures.

“Is the patient violent?” Nestly asked.

The orderly shook his head, already removing the keys from his pocket.  “No doctor.  Not since we gave her the sedatives.”

Nestly waited, exhibiting all the external body language of a tolerant man, while the orderly unbuckled, unlaced, and unwrapped the woman.  Free of her restraints, but still off balance, the woman threw her arms out wide and carefully two-stepped the last three feet before falling into the chair.  The orderly looked at his boss.

“You may go, Mr. Gunter,” Nestly said.  He prided himself on knowing everyone’s name.  “And close the door behind you, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nestly studied the patient.  Middle aged, white female.  The usual comic hair, mascara streaked across her cheeks, heavily lined lips—probably a smoker.  His eyes skimmed the Admittance Report: panic, unknown paranoia, extreme stress, and suicidal tendency.  Significant findings in the PE:  extremely low B12, hypoglycemia, and elevated BP.  Dr. Nestly tossed the file on his desk; it told him, basically, nothing.

Nestly patted his breast pocket and pulled out a pack of Camels.  He didn’t smoke, but he always kept a pack of cigarettes on him—any brand that was on sale.  Addictions could be very useful tools in psychoanalysis—the giving of said substances or the taking away of any particular drug that the patient was physically or mentally addicted to.  Smokers were especially pliable.  Amazing really, what a person would do or say for a couple of cancer sticks. True to form, the patient’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she recognized what he had in his hand.

“Well, Mrs. Smith.  We’ve had a rough night.  Care for a smoke?”

“God yes,” she said, and he jiggled one white cylinder out of the pack.  He lit her cigarette with a flourish and carefully slid the lighter and the pack back into his pocket.  She inhaled deeply, closed her eyes and slowly cycled the nicotine through her lungs.  Every voluntary muscle in her body sagged.

“Now, why don’t you tell the doctor what the trouble is?”

“They’re after me.”

Twenty-five percent of the time that was a patient’s first statement.  “Who’s after you?” he asked and opened his eyes wide, as if her statement was the most astonishing declaration that he had ever heard.

“Everyone, everywhere.”

Insufficient response.  She was withholding.  He rephrased the question.  “Why are they after you?”

“Well, they’re not really after me.  They’re after my money.”

Nestly nearly laughed out loud.  How much money could she possibly have?  This was a state hospital; people with money did not wind-up in the Sunnyway Sanitarium.

“Everywhere I go; they’re trying to take my money.”  She hit the cigarette hard.  Puckered lips drew in the smoke and held it, relished it.  “I go to the store to buy bread and milk, and I have to circle around the whole damn building just to get to what I want.  Bread and milk should only cost me about six bucks, but I can’t get out of the damn store for less than fifty.  No. No. No.  I can’t.”  The patient began to rock in the chair; soon, she would wander off into some meaningless mantra.  It was time to snap her out of it.

“Go on,” he said, letting his deep baritone voice boom.  Her body jerked up, and he leaned forward, feigning interest.

“I take the children to the doctor.  Just for shots, you know.  The insurance should cover it.  But no, no, no.  The doctor always finds something wrong.  Suzy needs a gastroenterologist.  Billy needs to see an optometrist.  Sara needs braces.  Co-pays, patient-responsibilities, and medicine.  Pretty damn funny for kids that ain’t sick.”  She shook her head and the dollop of fried brown curls fanned over her eyes.

“Go on.”

“I go to the dentist, and the hygienist is digging that metal pick into my teeth like she’s trying to start a hole.  Like she wants me to get a cavity.  I know it.”

“Go on.”

“A leak starts.  I call the toilet man.  Ten minutes of work and he says:  That’ll be one hundred and fifty dollars, ma’am.”

“Go on.”

“I turn on the TV to relax.  But no.  Its one commercial after another.  Tempting, seductive.  Buy this bed, wear this perfume, hydrate your hair.  Get these exercise CDs, and some dude will fall in love with your tight, new ass.”  She fireboxed the smoke and dumped the ashes in her left hand.  “Course, I know its all bullshit, but the kids don’t.  And then its: Momma, buy me this.  Momma, buy me that.”

She puffed the non-filtered cigarette down until the embers had to be burning her lips.  Nestly walked around the desk, caring a tin ashtray that he had snitched from a motel in Portland.  He offered her another smoke.  Of course, she took it, gratefully, hungrily, eyes locked on the white and red pack.

“And when I do buy something, what happens?” the patient continued, without any prompting this time.

“What?” the doctor asked.

“As soon as the warranty wears out, it goes to hell, that’s what.”

“Really?” Nestly said.  If he had been talking to a sane person, he might have agreed, but it was time to dig her out of this hole.

“The kids don’t love me.  I’m just a paycheck.”

Inside his head: a big aha. He tried to jot down some notes in her file, but the pen skipped over the paper, producing nothing but some squiggly dents.  Nothing legible.

“The school calls.  PTA wants cookies and cakes.  ASPCA wants donations, and the animals are so pitiful.  People in Africa are starving.  Well…, if they’re starving, why do they have so many kids that they can’t feed?”  She blinked repeatedly, and a tic started in her right eye.  “Why did I have so many kids?  Oh…, maybe, I can feed my kids, but I can’t give them every single thing they want.”

“Go on.”

“Even the church wants their tithes.  God needs my money, too.  Only it isn’t God that needs my money, is it?”

“No.”

“Fuel went higher, so I drove less.  Electricity went up, so I spent my days tracking the kids around the house, turning off lights, unplugging shit, screaming at them in the shower.  But it didn’t do any good; the bills just went up and up.”

“Go on.”

“So yesterday, I went to the grocery store with my husband’s shot gun and laid it on the counter.”  She stubbed the cigarette out and looked at the crumbled wad.  “First they get me hooked and then they jack the price up.  Not too different from the local drug dealer, hey?  Did you know that a pack of smokes only cost about 65 cents?  The rest is sin-tax.  Sin-tax, my granny’s ass.  Those rich company bastards should be paying a sin-tax.”

The patient was digressing.  “What happened at the store?”

“Oh, they freaked, of course.  They thought I was trying to rob the place.  But no.  I wasn’t after their money; I only wanted to keep my money.  I wanted them to bring the milk and bread up to the front of the store, so that I wouldn’t circle the aisles picking up this and that.”

“Perhaps, you could have found a different way to deal with things, Mrs. Smith.”

“Yes, I suppose,” she agreed, reluctantly.  “Am I crazy?”

“No, not crazy.  Just, well…. Let’s say, you had an inappropriate reaction.”

Dr. Nestly sat back down in his chair.  His argyle sock slipped down into his shoe.  Thirty-five dollars a pair and he was still pulling his socks up like a poor school boy.   What a rip-off.

“So, what’s going to happen to me now?” she asked.  Her eyes were locked on his breast pocket and the square lump of smokes.

“Well, thirty days of observation, Joan.  May I call you Joan?.”  Her head bobbed again.  “Let’s not worry beyond that.  This is just your initial interview.  Tomorrow we will talk some more.”  He wasn’t going to offer her another cigarette.  “Let’s concentrate on how we respond to outside stimuli, shall we?  Tonight, I want you to think about this:  True, there are many temptations, but a merchant can not sell what the buyer will not buy.”

He smiled at her, pleased with his spontaneous attempt at poetry.

***

Dr. Nestly propped his feet on the desk and sat back in his chair.  His eyes scanned the room, the empty chair, the full bookcase, the framed portrait of his brand new wife inside the brand new picture frame, but he did not see any of it.  The soft, gray wool of his right sock drooped over his shoe, obscuring the nice diamond pattern and looking totally nerdy.

His fingers battered the expensive, non-functional pen against his appointment book, tapping out a non-rhythmic beat.  On the second stanza of his drumming, the cap broke off.  Black ink oozed out over his hand, between the thumb and forefinger.  The pen sold for $98.95 and was guaranteed to last a lifetime—a 10k hunk-a-junk.

He lifted the receiver on his phone and dialed his real estate agent, while blotting his hand all over the new and, as yet, unsigned insurance policy.

“Carl?  This is Nestly,” he said into the phone.  “I’ve decided against buying the new house.  There’s nothing wrong with the old one, and I live so close to the hospital that it seems silly to move so far away.  My thinking now is that I wouldn’t enjoy the long commute.”

He listened for a while and wedged the receiver between his ear and his left shoulder.  “Don’t worry about my wife.  I’ll take care of her.  Sometimes I think…  Well, never mind what I think, just cancel the deal.”

Crowd Noises

Saturday night and the scent of skin, freshly washed and sprinkled with expensive, come-hither perfume filled the air.  Amps jiggled in wooden cages, as the steel guitar sent out a vibration that pounded against ribs and made the air hum inside their lungs.  Drums seduced idle feet out from under tables laden with shot glasses.

Dancers jumped to the rhythm of the band, hips complying with the cadence and heads bobbing to the beat.  But the two young lovers swayed to a different tune.  They pressed their bodies together, churning slowly.  He nuzzled her ear.  She turned her head.  Their feet paused, as their bodies rocked—out of sync—to the music.  Their lips melted into a kiss.

“Get a room,” an anonymous heckler hissed and the crowd chuckled.  The two lovers could not or would not hear these sounds.  Their new-found lust overpowered the music, vanquished the dissenting mob, and subdued the entire existence of the world beyond their own corporeal forms.

Sweaty rockers circled the couple, bumped them, mashed them closer together.  The music soared as the drummer’s solo vibrated across the floor.  Feet pounded the blanks, sending echoes up their bones, but the six foot amps and the creaking dance floor were not enough to stir the rocking duo from their dulcet love song.

Exasperated, the crowd sighed and indulged the cuddly pair.  Heads turned toward the lovers, fingers pointed and laughter trailed away, as gyrating dancers eyed them with mounting envy and then quickly looked away.

“Been there, done that,” the crowd said, and their judgment penetrated the music.  “It won’t last,” the jaded ones added with wistful and self-defacing authority.

The couple became a monolith, stalwart and unmovable, as the throng thumped around them.  Buzzing voices added to the lyrics—a busy, frantic noise that moved toward some sexually provocative crescendo.  In this, the lovers complied.

And then she was there like a wasp in the nest, strange and alien and definitely not festive.  She stared at the young couple, locked in their slow two-step and heedless of any danger. The lead singer spotted her first and missed his next stanza, but the drummer, head bent and sweat dripping from his brow, kept going—kept going, even after the steel guitar melted into silence.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” she screamed.  And now she was a counter monolith, challenging the young lovers and disrupting the set.

Someone said, “Oops.”  And someone else said, “Busted.”

The crowd pulled away, making a circle big enough to house the young lovers and this new interloper—this party pooper—but not so far away that they could not witness the impending drama that was about to unfold.  Immediately, the crowd recognized this scene; they understood it completely.  Each, at one time or another, had played one of these roles: the cheater, the cuckolded, or the confused co-defendant.

Finally, the clueless drummer ended his roll, and someone, somewhere behind the bar, flipped a switch.  Light flooded the dance floor.  The scammed wife stood—backbone stiff with resolve, knees wobbling to a beat of their own, and tears trickling down her bloated face—staring at the young lovers.  Over the bulge of her pregnant belly, her hand gripped a gun.  The young couple, captured in tryst and frozen in wordless surprise, blinked in the spotlight.

Female frolickers screeched; males grunted, and the donut hole grew bigger.  Dancers closest to the confrontation moved faster, piercing the circle before word lapped over the mob.

“She’s got a gun,” someone yelled.  The lead singer dropped his mike, and the metal beastie sent its protest through the amps and into the ears of the would-be revelers.  The crowd, fully informed now, rushed outward.  Chairs scraped the floor, tables teetered over, and glass broke like pre-bomb test strikes.  Grumbling, cursing, and wheezing merged into irresolute discord, as bar flies and butt swingers clogged the exit doors, seeking the safety of the parking lot.

A shot rang out, thundering around the acoustic padding.  The double monolith fell as one.  Two more shots—double taps on the sinful pair—just to make sure.  Panic gripped the crowd, and the weakest were squashed against the walls.  Only a few dared to turn their heads and look back at the dance floor.  Most did not want to make eye contact with the Avenger of Broken Vows.  The few, who were brave enough to look back, saw the woman turn the gun on herself.  Saw her shoulders slump over her belly.  Saw her pat the paunch.  Saw her point the short-barreled weapon at the middle of her chest, mid-sternum, and sigh.

Ouch, that’s gon’a hurt,” the crowd whispered to each other. The whisper grew until it was an electric noise itself.

Another boom and she too fell, blooding the floor.  The crowd oohed and halted their stampede.  Voices—braver and louder now—rushed and trebled over the deep base of gunfire.  The squashed and the most diminutive bar patrons took an anxious breath, relieved to gasp one more gulp of air, only to release it again in a post-hysteric and united scream, hiss, grunt, and oh shit.

The young couple lay with their bodies pressed together.  The man moved a little; his blood moved faster:  spurting out, mingling with his lover’s blood, merging toward his wife’s blood.   A moat of blood.

A moment of silence was followed by hushed and indecipherable words, then the hum of  cell phones.

The End

Man in a Box

He wanted to live, and yet he wanted to die.  But most of all he wanted to get away from the hands.  Horrible, knobby hands reached out for him, searched the dark for him.  Evil hands wanted to touch him, save him, wash him, slap him, punch him. Disembodied hands wanted to break his skin, crush his bones, pry his lips open and make him speak.

He didn’t want to speak; he didn’t need the hands.  Wasn’t it enough that he was king of the alley?  He had a cardboard box that was toasty warm, a grocery cart that was well oiled with stolen axle grease, and five pounds of aluminum cans.  Such great wealth made him feel a little smug, as he closed the lid on his box and curled himself into a tight ball.

It snowed all night.  As the snow fell, drifting over the tops of the brick buildings that fenced the alley on three sides, the groans and curses of his neighbors faded away.  Their shuffling feet and frighten whispers were just a memory, now.  Perhaps, some of his neighbors had gone to the shelter; perhaps, some of them had died of exposure.  He wouldn’t know for sure, until he lifted the lid of his box and peeked outside.

He should get up and rake the snow off his box, but he felt lazy this morning and strangely numb.  It was a good feeling, this sleepy malaise that separated him from everything outside the box.

His knees ached from being bent too long inside the box.  He toed the paper door open and stretched his legs outside the box—only for a moment, he told himself—and his joints popped with grateful satisfaction.  Icy water dripped from his roof, and there was a dark brown mountain ranged decorating the sides of his box.  The snow must be three feet deep outside.

He really should get out and brush the snow away, but he felt himself falling asleep again.  The alley was so quiet and peaceful now.  It wasn’t very often that he felt completely secure from the hands.  His luxuries were few, and he couldn’t afford to waste them.

The wind whistled a merry tune and blew through the open door of his shrinking house.  The sound was sweet and crisp, void of human lies, void of curious footsteps, and oh-so lonesome.  Too cold for the wrinkled hands, he thought and smiled.

The box crumbled, until it was nearly touching his nose, and the smell of wet cardboard filled his nose.  He had forgotten about his feet; they were still sticking out of the box, but he couldn’t feel them anymore, so it didn’t matter.

He felt a weird sensation of being lifted up.  His stomach lurched a little in panic, but his mind told it to hush.  Finally, his body stopped shivering, and he was grateful for that.

Below him the hands sank into a barrel of fire.  The hands blackened and curled into smaller and smaller pieces.  Was it a dream?  If so, it was a good dream—the best that he had ever had.  He smiled and closed his eyes….

The end

Game Over

Here’s a story I wrote after a fight with my neighbor.  Writing can be very therapeutic.

 

Game Over

by

C.M. Marcum

The neighborhood kids called him Mr. Ass-crack.  I wasn’t around when he earned his moniker, but I heard stories from whispering neighbors.  Stories that made me blink in disbelief.

His real name was Buttrell Ashcroft—an unfortunate handle, either way.  I knew his name because I lived next door, and on occasions I received his mail by mistake.  The first time it happened, I hand-carried a blue envelope that looked like a birthday card to his front door, and I was about to knock when the door flew open.

“What do you want?” he snarled, blowing droplets of spit on the screen.  The hostile greeting set me back a step or two and the blue card fluttered to the ground.

“I’m your new neighbor and I ….”  The door slammed abruptly.  I bent to pick up the envelope and stuffed it in my jeans.  When I got home, Mr. Ashcroft’s mail went promptly into the trash, and thereafter any other correspondence that came my way.

‘That’s another one you won’t be getting, you old fart,’ I’d say and chunk it in the bin.  Childish of me, I know, but it did put a crooked smile on my lips.

Two weeks after my rude introduction to the infamous Mr. Ashcroft, the young lads in my subdivision hosted a slow pitch soft ball game in the center of our cul-de-sac.  With a ring side seat, I grabbed a beer and sat in my rocker watching the boys play, as the sky faded into a gold and pink ribbon over the pine trees.

The game heated up.  Home team seven: Visitors six.  A few good-natured spats over the rules broke out, as parents drew up their lawn chairs and refused to get involved in the bickering. It was great fun, even the fights.  Taking my cues from the parents, I resisted the urge to offer any advice, and settled down to watch the game for the better or the worse, but naturally I was rooting for the Home team.

The light on Mr. Ashcroft’s porch flickered and popped, dieing a natural death of old age.  The old man immediately appeared, swinging open his spittle covered door, and for a moment everyone paused, even the kid on third base.

“Who knocked out my light?” Ashcroft screamed, casting an evil glare at all the players.

“No one knocked it out.  Leave them alone,” my neighbor across the street said.  Carl Banks rose from his lawn chair.  He was a large man with a barrel chest and a perpetually red face.  His wife placed a hand on his arm and tugged him back down.

The old man tottered out to the edge of his property.  “I’ll leave them in Hell.”

Bank’s face got even redder, but with admirable restraint he turned to the young ball players and calmly said, “Go on boys.”

A dark sultry boy came to bat.  The pitcher threw a high ball, the batter swung a little too hard, and the bat connected at an odd angle.  I held my breath as the ball went up and over the outfielder’s head, landing directly at Ashcroft’s feet.

“Augh shit,” I muttered and sat my beer down.

The old man stooped over and snatched the ball up.  “It’s mine now.  Game over,” he screamed in triumph, practically giggling in delight.  His rheumy laugh snapped off in mid roll.  He clutched his chest and crumbled to the ground.

At that moment the world stopped, freezing us like a snap-shot: boys in the street, parents on the sidelines, and me cemented to my chair.  The street lights flickered, sputter for a while, and then began to hum.  We all stared at Ashcroft as the orange light chased away the early shadows.  An old hand clutched at the air, as if beckoning us.

Banks pulled a cell phone off the clip of his belt and flipped it open.  I could see the blue light reflecting over his face.  Once again his wife’s hand came up and clutched at his arm.  They gazed at each other, communicating that wordless language that only people who have been married for a long time can speak.  His fingers snapped the cell phone closed, and the night grew a little bit darker.

I realized their decision.  Surprised in a way, yet not totally in disagreement.  My ass was still firmly planted in the chair.  Something about it seemed unreal to me, as if I wasn’t really there; like maybe it was a bad program on TV and all I wanted to do was change the channel.

Sure, that’s their decision, I told myself, but what was mine?  I was keenly aware of the seconds ticking by.  Why wasn’t I flying across the yard?  Could I just look the other way?  I knew CPR.  The Red Cross card was tucked in my wallet and it was burning a hole in my ass.

A half-a-dozen of my neighbors picked up their aluminum chairs, called their boys home, and walked back up their driveways.  The dark haired batter spun on his heels and dragged the bat over the asphalt.  It clattered behind him.  He trudged up a slight hill, and then the bat thumped dully over the cement steps to his house.  The bat followed the boy into the house, and then the door closed.  Realizing that I was the last one left outside, I panicked a little.

The old hand flayed the air.  Still alive, I told myself.  Not too late.  But surely someone would call the paramedics after they got inside and thought things over.  Someone would do it, but it wouldn’t be me.  Or maybe it would be me.

I picked up my empty beer can, opened the door, and turned off my porch light.

“Is the game over?” my wife asked.  A better question might have been, ‘Who are you?’  I really didn’t know anymore.  I wasn’t the same man that went out onto the porch to watch an innocent ball game.

“Yeah,” I said.  “The game’s over.”

The End