1. Old News: Syndrome Exists
For some reason I still can’t shake this dream: below me, a huge flock of sheep stampedes, crowding together in the center, frantically hurrying while a shadow covers them and then moves on. Whenever it comes back the problems that came from hitting my head after that last bombing run of Desert Shield come back too, in spades.
But hey—today—seventeen years after the fact, Nofrickingvember 2008 it’s finally official, right there on the front page—“Gulf War Syndrome Is Real”—Oooooeeee! Hey, I coulda tolja so! In fact we tried to all those years. It’s obvious. Before the ground war got underway our pilots bombed Iraqi depots where chemical weapons like sarin gas were stocked up, and the molecules were carried south by winds to areas in Saudi Arabis where our troops, and yours truly, were waiting to be ordered into action. The analysts in their offices can say it was just the stress of war, but we were there. We know. Almost 350,000 service members who were deployed for the Gulf War filed disability claims, and after a lot of arguing, stalling and denying, in some cases for decades, 85% were given benefits. We suffered with memory loss, constant fatrigue, headaches, diarrhea and what I call “feeling shitty syndrome.”
Anyway I’m vindicated, thank you very much. It’s confirmed now—just today, after seventeen years of denial by government officials, that I have an illness that came out of “Desert Storm” and that that syndrome has distorted and almost destroyed me. But I’m still alive. So the game is still on. Still might win something out of this mess.
I remember after the war, I used to say things like, “I hear the embargo is making life miserable for Baghdadians—some are selling their kidneys for a hundred dollars and up, to raise some dinars! Well, maybe it serves their dumb asses right. Their boss man gave us Gulf War syndrome—maybe they should just get themselves another boss man, re-invent Iraq, from top down and bottom up.” Then I’d rub the top of my buzz cut and give a smirk like I was in the know.
Now I see what’s been going on all this time since then. And I wonder about our relations with the Saudis, among other things.
I guess I still think Americans belong up in the sky, sitting on top of the world—barn storming, dog fighting, kite-tail skirmishing, having a high-tech fun-fest full of high spirits. Saudis play it cool. They throw some planes up there ever so often but they won’t take part in our exercises, won’t compete with us, don’t want to lose. They like the status, above it all. We like to compete up there like it’s our natural-born arena. Not them.
Status ain’t shit. Leaves us nothing to strut and boast about. Bored. Out of our frickin’ skulls.
I used to fly my wide-ass ol’ Stratofortress B52 low over big flocks of sheep and camels in the desert—gave me a kick. No buildings for miles around, so on my way out from the base, and on my way back, I’d dip down low, freak ‘em out. To and fro on those reconnaissance flights and bombing runs I’d always do that—couldn’t resist. When you swoop down over camels like that they just stand there. Camels don’t budge, just freeze up. But the spread-out sheep, you buzz ‘em low and it’s like they all run together in the middle, like they’re trying to save each other, and I’m hoping they don’t die from smashing into each other like that. It’s a great surge to the middle, and they really squeeze themselves up. It’s like these guys who comb their hair up from each side to stick up like a wigwam haystack in the middle. Like at idiot’s mohawk squished together on the top of his head. Their little sheep hearts must’ve beat in a panic full of their worst fears when they felt me bearing down on them and they herded together so close. Musta really terrorized them I guess. Their swarming across the sands was so mesmerizing to watch, I can still see it (as I sit here in Colorado) just from talking about it. Hey, they were just sheep and camels. Swooping low left nobody dead. Just somethin’ to do. Desert can be a lonely place, in case you don’t know.
Wanna know somethin’ else? Must admit I don’t like the Saudi people all that whole heckuva lot, thank you very much. Stubborn. Hard to deal with. How long they had cars? Stop sign to them means go, I guess—always drive right through it. Zip. Tailgate, no courtesy, no rules, no concerns like we got. The Bangladeshis on the other hand were awesome. They go to Arabia and work for the Saudis. They’ve got this thing, this drive—they want to serve you. To actually serve you. We had this game. Try to get around them, carrying our own tray to stack it by the kitchen, but they try so hard to take it from you, to save you the trouble. They’d break their necks to serve you, we found that out more than once.
Those Bangladeshis are great cooks. Once a week they grilled steaks for us. Best I ever had. It was dark out and one guy would hold a flashlight for the other one who was out in the courtyard grilling our steaks. They’d cook it exactly like you wanted it—never got it wrong the whole time. They’re out there in the dark with the flashlight, sizzling away. It was crazy how good they were. We don’t know what service is in America. Those Bangladeshis were something else, man. They like to be your servant. It’s like their dream come true.
One of those Bangladeshis, the one who usually held the flashlight, Tahir Khan, had an emergency situation one day. Had to get sixty dollars to send to a family member. Asked to borrow some money from three of us guys. I gave him a twenty, my friend Harper gave him a twenty, and so did another guy, and I never thought another thing about it. He was so grateful. Said it was going to his daughter Zoreena who was studying to be a doctor in England. She was marrying an American, and he had to send her some money and he was short sixty bucks. The Bangladeshis couldn’t get any extra money for a loan out of the Saudis I guess, in fact the Saudis owed them money and were slow to pay it, though with all their money I don’t know why. Maybe it reminded everyone who was the big boss. The Bangladeshis appreciated it when the three of us gave Tahir twenties. They’d do anything for you or die trying. I often wish they were grilling steaks like that at the rodeos here.
But I ain’t gonna to lie to you, the Saudis seemed sorta spoiled, specially moneywise. A Xerox machine would conk out. Their answer: throw it out, buy a new one. Seriously, they’d tell someone to wheel it out, and then have another guy wheel in a new one without skipping a beat. They refused to take part in our exercises, our war games—it was all about ego. They didn’t want to exert themselves and didn’t want to lose face. I don’t care really, because we have all the features, the full complement of all the possible gizmoes available, installed our planes. We sold the Saudis the same planes, but without all the extra instruments, fancy features. See we have more capability, we’re enhanced, their planes are plain and simple—just the basics. Wouldn’t want them to outrank us in technology, would we.
The Beduins are a hoot, actually. Beduins live on camels and in tents, and they were given new apartment buildings by the settled Saudis, royal family I guess—nice apartment buildings. When they tried to sleep in an apartment the Beduins found it too confining, and just gave them up. Went out and slept in the fresh air in a tent like before. US Air Force said, “Hell yes, we’ll take those buildings. Put a fence around ‘em, make it a compound, secure it for a place we can stay in. It was nice, once we hosed it down, got all the sheep shit out. In Arabic they got a saying, “The Beduin is a parasite that lives off the camel.” Hey that’s what they say, the Arabic language, not me, I’m just saying. But the Beduains love the way of life they know. Hate everything else.
The Saudis are so smart about some things, like how to invest in their own future. Investing in New York real estate. Drilling lots of oil wells and capping them. They got that in the bag. Money in the bank. It’s cheap to drill them now. They plan ahead like that, cool and deliberate. Rational. Gold in Fort Knox for ‘em. It will be easy to use ‘em later. America doesn’t seem to care much about tomorrow. Hell with the future—splurge today like drunken sailors. Then one day the bubble pops and places get closed down and left behind like empty candy wrappers and beer cans all over the American landscape.
The Saudis used to give us rental cars to get around in, and support us in other ways, pay for our operating expenses, fuel, maintenance, conveniences, services. Now they still want us there in the desert as a line of defense, but they don’t wanna pay for it. They’re down-budgeting us into being there at our own expense. They got a limited budget now, instead of a free hand. America is very concerned about protecting Arabia from the North. I can tell you that we’re gonna be their buddies and take care of ‘em. They’re not so sure about that.
They want our help but now they don’t want to pay for it, or don’t want to admit they need us, or accept what it means, because it’s incompatible, against their faith, which is so all-encompassing, to be needing us—it means admitting they’re inadequate to defend themselves, or need to cooperate with infidels, unholy outsiders. It detracts from the greatness of Islam, I guess.
We have the assets to do what we need to do there: technology and ability. Their main strength is their money. Oil money. Ours is our ingenuity, industry. Pluck and fighting spirit. Our assets are all of those high-tech weapons and systems to deliver ‘em. Like bombers, which can do just about anything. We got our Fighting Falcons, Wild Weasels, Ravens, Stealth Fighters, Thunderbolts, Eagles and Strike Eagles, not to mention the B52 I fly. It’s the old dude of the bunch—over thirty years old. But the B52 did a lot of work over there—in all B52s flew 1,624 missions. Dropped 72,000 weapons on targets in Kuwait and Southern Iraq, hit airfields, storage places, industrial targets with more than 25,000 tons of bombs.
Not that I’m saying we’re big heroes because we flew bombing missions. No way. To me the real heroes are the guys standing at their posts on guard duty, the gals who set up the whole temporary tent city, organized each unit of those places, assigned 5000 beds, kept in all in order. That’s awesome. And the crew chiefs who kept our planes flying, maintenance crews, quiet unknown busy guys supporting the whole operation. They make us strong. They’re the heroes. Often without any thanks. We flew over targets, pressed the pickle button sticking up off the control stick, pickled off the bombs where we were told to. While the crews on the ground felt the earth shake underneath them and dealt with a million little obstacles and big nagging problems.
The sheikhs maybe are powerless—old men in long robes, impotent. Don’t dirty their hands with work. Why should they. Hire foreigners to run their oil fields. They walk around in the desert heat and stroke their beards. What could they be thinking about all the time, and what would they do without the modern support systems they’re used to?
In Desert Storm I think we had it suitcased smooth as silk, fixed up neat and tight—at least at first—it was like a laser show, beautiful and slick, timed to the second and then a round of applause, thankya very much. As professional as a big Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Just ordinary American ordnance, but it made spectacular splashes, you understand. The pickle switch was something we could handle. I was playing Game Boy and whao! having fun to racking up win after win no sweat, pwning the whole deal.
Half a million Desert Storm troops over there—British, French, Arab, and American. On the ground our troops found Iraqi mines everywhere in some areas, like the top of a skull sticking up out of the earth with spikes poking up out of the dome of it. Half a million troops. Tank battalions. Infantry. Supply troops. Tarmac workers, fuelers, the guys on the ground. They were always getting drenched with spilled fuel, breathing in the fumes. In their tents they sleep near space heaters burning aircraft fuel. It’s always in the air. Chronic breathing problems don’t come from nowhere. Nothing comes from nowhere. Units were fighting off swarms of sand flies. The female of that species causes a debilitating disease. It stays dormant in the bloodstream for years. Causes fever, chills, fatigue. On the ground they were constantly taking in all that smoke, bugs, poisons, diesel exhaust, and shit Saddam put in the air by lighting his oil wells on fire. All that shit gets into your system, messes it up—specially when you’re stressed.
But from far above, and with all the firepower we had, we were in the wild blue yonder mostly. Looking down on it all, seeing everything far below. Like how it was an execution of Saddam’s army on the Highway of Death in February 1991, not a level playing field. A long line of trucks and military vehicles moving along the main highway north of Jahra. I mean if you think of sportsmanship it was no contest. It was a turkey shoot, we all knew that. They didn’t have the firepower, the weaponry, the expertise of the best trained troops. They became a string of burnt-out out wreckage in no time. It went on and on.
Our guys on the ground there showed me their trophy photos of the ones we bombed.
Guess I’m going off the reservation to say this but there isn’t any other way. After it was almost over there was a pilot refused to mow them down on that highway anymore—all those poor bastards trying to get to Basra in trucks and jeeps. This happened near the end and to some of us it felt over the line—too cold-blooded for our tastes, like the Roman empire using Christians for torches. It wasn’t a fight with a sporting chance but a turkey shoot, like I was saying. Colin Powell knew it too, and put a stop to it after a while. But while we were doing it would take a lot more guts to NOT do it than to do it. The courage to tell your commanding officer no, motherfucker, go kill the sitting ducks your fuckin’ self. It’s a real hero, sacrificing his own life because of conscience says that. And one guy did. A tank commander said no, too. Refused to mow down human sitting ducks. They had balls. They didn’t run with the herd, and they didn’t become some kinda Timothy McVeigh the Oklahoma bomber or John Allen Muhammad the Washington sniper either. Didn’t pave over their conscience, and have it grow out between the cracks into crazy shit that has to be stopped somehow.
Flying over Saddam’s army on that road you could see how those roasted sitting ducks were strung out in a long disorderly row, like grotesque stick figure cartoons of crispy critters, frantic matchsticks petrified in the act of dying for Mr. Mustache Saddam Hussein. They sat there in shelled trucks and bombed-out jeeps, eyeless barbecued puppets of that tyrant’s army, stock still. I saw the trophy photos our guys took afterwards.
The scenes seared into our souls weren’t on the refuseniks. They stood up and paid the price. They didn’t cause those charred grimacing cinder men. “Cinderfellas,” I guess Jerry Lewis’d call ‘em. I still see those photos, and I didn’t laugh then and I ain’t laughing now. Victims of pushbutton victors. Crispy-ass poker players. Some troops would stage funny scenes with charred bodies of the enemy. Set them up with cards in their hands like they were barbecued cadavers sittin’ around in a crazy card game. Take a picture to send back to friends. Yuck yuck. Understandable high spirits for nervous kids, and pride of having unbeatable power, but maybe just maybe, made ‘em lose sight of their own honor. But life is a poker game, after all, win a few lose a few, right?
The idea was simple. We could fight a clean war from the air, surgical, with reduced danger to our side. In and out, no fuss no muss. But it turns out dirty and ambiguous at best. Sometimes hit children, women, old people. Stealth bombers attack a bunker, bodies are ignited by heat, burning in their own fat, sizzling bellies. Like you’re God on Judgement Day zapping soulless goats with lightning bolts. Whoopee! Are we eight year olds or what?
A public air raid shelter with two hundred civilians was the only place around with running water and electricity, so it was used by Iraqi intelligence. You’ve seen the bumper stickers on Ford pickup trucks: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” (Along with “Hey Ayatollah, Kiss my ass hole-a!”) Night, night after empty night, our lives went on. And then after one run, dog-tired, getting out of the plane I hit my head, hard, where the front lobe is. Can’t spit the bitterness out of my mouth. Some guy talking about Democracy not being perfect but it’s the best plan we’ve got and it sounded like he said “Doomocracy.” But hey, don’t jump to the wrong concussion—I mean conclusion. I got a whole story to tell, thank you very much, and I’ve got my American birthright which I fought for—freedom of speech. Good old First Amendment. Stick around I’ll give it a shot. Recognition the Syndrome exists is a shot in the arm.
2. Back Home Again in Colorado
For some reason, when I arrived back in my Colorado hometown it felt like there was trouble. Kathleigh, my wife, said she had a doctor’s appointment that day, and she was late in reaching the airport to meet me. Everyone else was hugging and heading home, until the only ones there were Harper and me and a photographer from the paper. I was waiting for her cute face to show up and her blonde hair and her funny voice.
When Kathleigh finally did get there she ran up and jumped and clamped her legs around my hips and her arms around my neck and hugged me so tight I was suffocating. Her hot front pressed against me, breasts and belly. Her thighs felt hot on my sides and her calves on my rear. I stood there feeling empty in my camouflage, balancing the weight of the two of us on the soles and heels of my old combat boots. Self-conscious with her legs clamped around me, I stared off into the parking lot horizon afraid I’d lose balance, tired from the flight, with closed eyes, with sheep swarming, almost dozing off.
When the camera guy from the paper started clicking it pissed me off. I didn’t want him to take my picture. It was like he was taking something from me. I don’t know what. I yelled at him—“You ain’t got my permission to do that!” and it jarred Kathleigh. She lost balance and I tried to keep us upright. We stumbled around. Reedunkulous.
Harper just stood off to one side shaking his fool head, looking away, his lantern jaw grinning, mutterin’ something like, “Pussywhipped much, Clark? Well, you’re a gentleman and a scholar, I don’t care what anyone says, dude!” Harper and me got our wings together—waded through a lotta shit in tandem. Harper’s one of these guys whose arms are as thick as his head. And they’re long—they hang down to his knees. When he wrinkles his forehead and makes his mouth wide it looks like the top half of his head is a reflection of the bottom half.
The photographer said, “Everyone else already got their welcome, I need a picture for the paper.”
I yelled at him, “Get here on time next time!” and he got a strange look on his face and slunk off.
Harper was busting a gut, and I could feel my face getting redder and redder.
Kathleigh said under her breath, “Let’s go, Clark. Don’t argue. Clara’s with my mom, she was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her.” Our daughter Clara was two at the time, and she’s got autism, so, well, there’s not much I can say about her anyway.
I was always on edge from the time I got back home. It was like nothing was happening but also one shock after the other. I started feeling really bad on the inside. Irritable, flashing back, depressed. But at least I was home, right? The land might be flat, but it wasn’t a desert. Right?
They tried to de-brief us. The officer who gave the psych talk was blunt. “Gonna tell you plain as I can. Probably won’t get through. Your soul has absorbed a hammer blow. One of your boots is still over there.” We all looked at our boots. “Takes time to get your whole damn self back. I ain’t gonna lie. You’re gonna be on alert, jumpy. Hair-trigger nerves and the feeling something’s missing, emotions might surprise you, and you wonder why you’re sad or what you’re worried about. You’ll feel like you’re falling out of a plane, or drowning, or buried up to your head in sand.” We laughed.
“You were full of energy over there, but now you might feel tired and dull. You can’t live feeling on edge all the time.” We didn’t laugh at that. We yawned.
“Don’t think you can just blank it out. Part of getting through it is going through it.”
Gulf War syndrome has no diagnosis, no cure. A lot of reservists who served in Desert Storm had symptoms, but the VA basically said: “You’re on your own, buddy, cause it’s all in your head.” Pain during sex. Tired. Bothersome skin rashes. Trouble breathing. Night sweats. Some feel always on the verge of being annoyed, angry. Expecting to be insulted. Defensive. You drive your truck and think of experiences in Iraq and you start speeding. Road rage.
And problems concentrating. Memory loss. Neurological tics and nightmarish troubles. There are articles about it in the newspapers, but really, who read ‘em?
Soon after we got back Harper was driving his truck and a guy wouldn’t let him pass. Stepped on the gas every time Harper speeded up, and slowed down when Harper was behind him. Harper got so furious I thought he’d kill the guy. Pulled up next to him when there was a stoplight and rolled down the window and cleared his throat and spit a gob of snotty phlegm almost as big as the insides of a chicken egg on the guy’s windshield. The guy acted like he didn’t see it splattered right before his eyes. If he’d a batted an eye Harper would’ve killed him.
And before I could say anything Harper said we needed to sign up for the Professional Bull Riders Association and the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association, and so we did. We’d both done some riding and roping in our younger days. As members of PBRA and PRCA we could enter rodeo competitions in Colorado and other places. It was like an insurance policy he said—in case nothing else worked out. It would help us get our feet back on the ground. I agreed with him. I had to prove myself—that I was me. I know it sounds like a rough sort of therapy, but we’re pretty tough guys. So I traded combat boots for cowboy boots.
I always joked that Harper looked a lot like a bigger version of “Whiplash Larue”—the goat-riding cowboy monkey who does intermission stunts on the rodeo circuit. He has a Capuchin sorta face only huge as a lantern, with a pineapple complexion. But it’s no joke to ride a full-grown thousand pound bull. You can get trampled or tossed in a tough luck minute and you’ll remember it—maybe forever, if you end up lame. I thought, hell, who knows, maybe a new knock on the head might cancel out the other one.
Because the adrenaline rush when the chute opens and you go riding that bull up and out, bucking around in the arena for a tilt-awhirl rollercoaster loop-the-loop and holding on for as long as you can as the whole universe tries to get rid of you. It’s Harper I look up to and imitate in his stick-to-it-iveness. Harper’s a nut. Like one Saturday we’re in the holding pen, the chute you go out when your turn to ride comes, and he’s getting on the back of a snorting bull and I say, “I hear you got a girl friend.”
He says, “I’ma workin’ on it. A woman has to be taught how to put out. They don’t seem to come by it naturally. They aren’t born wanting to please a man.” He was straddling that snortin’ bull’s broad back now and the bull started to jerk around and buck. “Gotta teach ‘em each step a the way. Whao! It takes time, y’know?” and with that he was out of the gate, riding for all he was worth, for a good eight seconds. A respectable feat for being on a bull like that one. After eight seconds the bull dropped old Harp on his head.
Afterwards, Harper said, “Damn, I wanted to win the big prize so bad—deed to a ranch at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, out near big Dick Cheney’s old stompin’ grounds in Wyoming. But the bull wouldn’t let me. Oh who cares. I’m used to getting thrown. You know damn good ‘n’ well an angry bull ain’t scary as a pissed-off woman.”
Those bulls got it pretty good—they don’t rile ‘em up like some folks say, by tyin’ peppers to their privates. And most of the bulls I’ve known aren’t really so gung-ho aggressive. Fact, they’re kinda temperamental—lose their appetite if they’re fed hay and water that doesn’t come from their own ranch—they can tell the difference. Maybe they’re spoiled by always getting their own damn way. You don’t watch out they’ll knock you around pretty good. You can break a finger or a toe pretty easy when you’re bouncin’ around and then get tossed way up off the bull’s back. Some folks say that bull riding’s one of the few events of the rodeo that’s gonna survive in the future—cause it’s fast enough to hold audience attention.
I got banged up a few times, won a buckle or two. But it didn’t help me get my feet back on the ground.
I started using more drugs to take the edge off and “soothe my fevered brow,” as Harper puts it, and then I just ended up more paranoid and abusive. Mind moving like a crippled cat.
Took pain killer pills and got muffed up. Doesn’t just muff you up, either, it sets an echo chamber up for everything that you remember—you begin to go buggy. Old self-image long-gone, Kathleigh started complaining that I’d changed. It really sucked.
A company hired me to use insecticide on the carpeted floors of a big old theatre. Now I was a different kind of carpetbomber. Didn’t like the smell—allergic to the insecticide. Made me puke. Quit after three hours.
I did some crop dusting, trained pilots to use B52 equipment. Something to do.
Something about the past was haunting me like a ghost that wasn’t visible. Couldn’t sleep couldn’t sleep couldn’t sleep. My present was in shambles. My future was in doubt. I’m like a pilot in a turboprop jet in totally icy conditions.
Kept going to rodeos, even when I was messed up. I remember once the bull was shifting gears—spinning, stopping, then spinning and stopping again—turning around like that, and I got dizzy but I stayed on, and the clown was trying to distract the bull, but the bull was so serious and focused on sending me flying—“we’re in for it now” I thought—and I got thrown into the fence and felt all busted up, and I passed out. There were two buckle-bunnies waiting to see Harper and me, and I was still out to lunch, but we had some fun. But then my buckle-bunny of the night wanted me to take her home.
Buckle-bunnies are a catch-and-release operation. Or more like the bull rope riders use. If a bull rope is too dry it slips—gotta get it sticky with some wax an’ stuff, so you can get a good grip on it—also so you can let go when you need to. Same with the buckle-bunnies and closing-time cougars. When you just won a prize, you wanna grab hold an’ hold on to ‘em tight, an’ go for a long long ride. But you also wanna be able to let go when you need to. I put the buckle-bunny in a cab and sent her home because she seemed like the kind that might want to stay too attached.
I had to be careful with rodeos and girls. They took my mind off my problems, but was very suspicious. She could catch a little whiff of strange perfume, or a grain of mascara or hint of lipstick and go whole-hog ballistic. She was already pissed off that I went to the rodeo, so after I put the girl in the cab, I went to have one more drink at the Casablanca on the same street. They got a belly dancer there. Quite a belly dancer at that—it was like her hips had a life of their own—like a nudge in the ribs—like some rowdy teasing you, jabbing you in the gut, tousling your hair or goosing you. Or like a snake where you can’t figure out how the hell they move like that—sorta the opposite of a snake charmer. And it seemed like she was looking right at me and smiling.
Her sexy dancing hips moved like a great wheel that got stuck in a rut and had to roll back and forth in the groove again and again to get unstuck, but as I watched them they made me realize I was the one who was stuck in a deep rut. That made me want to let loose and join them in the dance, rock myself free, instead of, you know, spinning my damn wheels for the rest of my life. Her hips kept shifting with so many S curves and teasing nudges in the air—nothing, not even a whip can snap as gracefully as her hips did again and again. At first I thought it was making me dizzy, then I thought it was making me crazy.
The look on her face was like she wanted something but she wasn’t saying what; but her body language was saying, “I bet if I ran now you couldn’t catch me.” And it was like a shadow passed over me and her, a veil. I thought when I shimmied I thought maybe I saw her puffy nipples and I started to get real dizzy. What the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was that all about?
I left that place, and I was clearing my head out in the fresh air, but I fantasized the belly dancer might be following me out, so I turned around to see, and I was all tangle-footed and stumbled like a Christly frickin’ bum! I heard myself yell “Shit!” and it echoes in my ears. Twisted my ankle on that dolphin statue, lost my balance on the curb and was suddenly in great pain, limping.
I was laid up for a while, under the weather—wherever that is, whatever kind of a storm it could be. Remembering things like when I was a kid and my dad took me to a Soap Box Derby, and I first dreamed of driving and being a pilot. But then I got more symptoms.
I had skin rashes and headaches and was tired all the time, and I started to feel a pain like shooting fire when we hooked up together in bed. Never had no problems like this before the war. Toxic chemicals in the desert air had to be part of Gulf War Syndrome. Pesticides and other junk. You could smell it but didn’t know where it came from or what it was. And the precautions we took to protect ourselves, the inoculations—all got thrown into the mix—made complications. Anthrax vaccines. Nerve gas drugs. No wonder we had mystery symptoms and confusion. I guess America sent that nerve-gas and those biological weapons to Saddam from ’85 to ’89 when he was fighting Iran. There was a lot of stress that he was going to use them against us. We supported him, furnished him with nerve weapons. Any sniff of a strange smell made us think that might be it. But our government researchers couldn’t link our problems to the environment of the Gulf War and didn’t give us disability payments. Said we were malingerers.
Didn’t know how to deal with my daughter Clara. She’s a cute little shaver but sorta sleepy. She was in her own world a lot. Do not disturb. My world was full of jarring jolts. I felt like somebody in a movie called “When Worlds Collide.” I thought to myself, how can I protect her from me? Maybe just not be there?
Called my wife Kathleigh “Gashleigh,” “Slitleigh Titleigh,” “Beaverleigh” and “Cooterleigh”—thought it was funny. Tried to use sex as an escape, didn’t mean nothing. Just a dipstick going in. Sometimes it was like piloting a plane so heavy I couldn’t get it up. Next thing I know we’re sleeping in separate beds. “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” She asked me and I didn’t have no kinda answer.
I tried to get back into her good graces by buying her some chocolates and silky Victoria Secret lingerie. Drove all the way to the store to get ‘em and back, picturing her in them at midnight, smiling at me like in the old days.
She opened the package carefully, looked at the red bra and panties and teddy and then neatly packed them back up and handed the box to me and said, “Seriously? Seriously. Thanks but no thanks. You almost had me, but ‘not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent.’ No thanks.” Shook her head, slammed the door on my face.
I began to realize it was serious, real serious. The look on her face was calling me “Prickleigh.” Might as well start calling her “Exleigh.”
But somehow we made up for a little while and I tried to watch my step and keep things on track. But sure enough it all fell apart again, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We yelled a lot, and she complained about everything, saying she was all alone in this world, and I said, “Yeah, poor defenseless you,” and slammed the door goodbye.
I was in a very irritated state after that. Lotsa things griped me.
I got mad at the different minorities for not having any control or sense of responsibility. Hated the gays, pissed off at their always wanting special rights. The fuss about same sex unions. Hated border crossers, tax evaders.
My wife’s a busy woman on a tight schedule. She made too many demands, was never satisfied. Always blaming me. And it looked to me like she was probably sneaking around behind my back. She was smoking and drinking secretly, going places I didn’t know about, “with friends” on Friday night. Covering her tracks. Getting more tattoos, too. I slapped her and she had a black eye. I felt old, and it seemed like she was young and naïve, some dumb teenager again. She stopped smoking and gained weight—which I liked, but she hated. She complained about everything—I was no help, I made the place a pigsty, and on and on.
Basically, Kathleigh said I was deliberately taking a path where I was determining who I was and what I was about--that I was chosing to be the guy who went to war, not being a husband and father. It was an either or thing in her head. She saw it that way because to her it looked like I couldn't get my head into the life I had with her right now. She could see that I wasn't flying a bomber, I was living in the same house with her. But my head wasn't there. The silver cross didn't change all that, my nerves were weird. Live wires. I didn't care about anything. Spent hours and days obsessing over little things. Nothings. A scratch on my truck that no matter what I did still seemed to be there.
I’d come home drunk, she’d slap the shit out of me and there was not a damn thing I could do about it—because she’s a woman. You can’t hit ‘em back. Nope. That’s a crime and a scandal. Hafta let ‘em go ahead an’ slap the shit outta ya if you’re a man. Cowboy up, and say thank you very much.
So, my wife and me, we rejected each other, even more seriously than before. She stood there at the ironing board, pressing her clothes and I knew she was over me when she said I seemed “too precarious.” Hell, maybe I was on the edge, but I thought she was out of touch with where I was at. Which admittedly is no easy deal to know. I started calling her mean names, and got used to hearing her cry. She said she just wasn’t cut out to be some co-dependent enabler type. We tried to talk it through, but words only go so far. Trying to calm down and agreeing to take things slow, but never getting anywhere. Bought herself a fancy vibrator, said she didn’t need me. The female of the species can get your goat, make you doubt your sanity, kill your self-respect and pretty soon you wish you were dead. I’ll vouch for that.
Two years before, when Clara was born, just as Kathleigh’s labor pains were getting worse and then it was actually happening, it was so basic: new life coming out, it meant something, so much, it gave us a lot of happiness. Now…Gray days all winter. A bad scene. I chalked a lot of bad feelings up to SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder for a while there.
Kathleigh’s parents have a Christmas custom, white elephant gift exchange sort a thing, where for a joke they return gifts they got the year before, and give odd gifts no one wants, for laughs. I said no, I didn’t want to. They said I had to. So I said OK, give me an empty jar with a lid and a label. I took the empty jar and wrote “Freedom” on the label and put the lid on and wrapped it up in Christmas gift wrap paper. I gave it to them, and said, “Here, don’t throw it away, don’t lose it, don’t let it get away from you.” Didn’t go over too big, they didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, shit or go blind.
Kathleigh was always complaining to her mother about me, and things went from bad to worse in no time.
My mother-in-law and father-in-law accused me of being a dick-head. Said I’d lost my hearing and was glad to lose it, wanting to hear less and less of what the outside world had to tell me, when something was wrong and I didn’t want to know what was happening. I thought the same thing about them.
Hey I’m not such a bad guy, I have a short fuse, sure, but there are worse things than getting pissed off. I can’t win anyway. I’m always on the defensive. Why even try?
My friend Harper Kidder, who I mentioned when I was explaining about rodeos, is also a pilot and a few years older than me. Originally came here after high school from Cincinnati, learned to use the lariat and ride bulls. He’s also a hotdog-eating contest winner though he’s not fat, and when we go bowling he always jokes I’m in my own soap opera. “Jeezo-Pete! Worst episode evarrr, dude!” He was saying my problems were self-caused, I was too weak. “Don’t be a Sheila, guy! Cowboy up, peckerhead, grow a pair! Carpetbomber syndrome’s all in your head! There’s no place for depression in an American guy’s life, dude. Might as well be a dead man, as a misfit loser crybaby nut. Haven’t you heard? The skies are not cloudy all day. Belly up to the bar and hoist a few till all that bothersome shit goes poof!” I have to laugh along with Harpy when he’s carrying on. He’s healthy as a horse and runs around like Donkey Kong all over the place, and he keeps it up chockablock for the whole time we’re at a bar or bowling alley, and at the end of the night you jump up together and bump your chests together and yell “Hooo-ahhh!” But afterwards it’s all still the same. And that’s depressing.
You wake up sick and sorry. I vowed to change my ways. I meant it.
Dumped bottles down the drain, sit around, then run out to get some more. Who’s to notice anything—aside from the slurred speech and bad moods? Conflicted like a sumbitch. What a mess. It seems all wrong—I mean, anyone who can master the control panels of a Stratofortress should be able to deal with everyday feet-on-the-ground life stuff like it’s a piece of cake, right?
But ever since the bailout, it’s been “All Hands On Deck!” (Bailout as in bailing water or government bailout? No, since I bailed out of the marriage. With Kathleigh it went from bad to worse too fast to stop or change.)
Even after the divorce Kathleigh and I had to stay in the house we mortgaged. If we went total bankrupt, I mean belly-up, barely a blanket, no tail feathers left, what would the future be then? Neither one of us could afford to get a new mortgage. Couldn’t afford foreclosure. We were stuck with each other—divorcees sharing different rooms under the same roof. Even if we can’t stand each other’s guts. I said, “If it gets bad enough I guess I’ll just go live in one of these ‘tent cities’ that I keep hearing about. Or under some frickin’ bridge. There’s one or several in practically every town. Just kidding.” Be it ever so humble.
3. Going to Meet Doc Cartoon
For some reason when several years had gone by since I came home, and I realized for sure that I still wasn’t adjusted and I looked hard at the fix I was in. I knew things were too messed up. Like eventually when we had to move out of that house because of the balloon payment mortgage, something got into me, I don’t know what. Before leaving the house for the last time, I smeared the walls and doorknobs with my own shit. Now I’m not proud of that, and I don’t exactly understand it, but I had to get it off my chest.
I knew I needed something different. Refusing to believe I could be helped with something so personal as my insides I wouldn’t see a therapist when I was told I should. Then it seemed there was no way out—I couldn’t sleep, felt awful. The authorities said I had to if I wanted my driver’s license back. No way out, so what the hey, give ‘er a go.
The night before I went to the therapist I wasn’t watching where I was going and tripped over the dolphin sculpture again, the damn humped thing in the dark there, hard and inert like a dead body on the sidewalk, and I hurt my ankle all over again.
Next day limped in for therapy. I’d tried everydamnthing else. The appointment was with someone named Dr. Zoreena Khatun. A woman psychiatrist. When she introduced herself to me I thought she said “I’m Dr. Cartoon.”
I confess I wondered how I could talk to a girl about anything personal? She’ll just side with my wife, I thought. If I tell my honest feelings, agitations, craziness, I lose all honor in her and everyone’s eyes. If I go there and act nice, won’t she just think I’m trying to get into her pants? If I tell her how I feel—like an invalid—I leave myself open for a sucker punch. If I don’t, what’s the point? That was the fix I was in.
But anyway, just for the fuck of it, I went. Her office is in a brand new plaza near the university. “Renaissance Plaza.” In a big brick building with tall white columns.
In fact I went to see her pretty regularly for a long time.
I’ll put together in one conversation some things we said in many different meetings.
She sorta looked like the Bangladeshi guy who held the flashlight for the cook. Taheer Khan, who still owed me twenty bucks. That guy was the greatest cook and waiter I ever had wait on me. This woman doctor had the same shy smile, same mocha skin, brown eyes, black hair.
I asked if she was Bangladeshi, if Tahir Khan was her father. I was sure it was her. She said no. I still can’t quite believe her, the resemblence was so strong. Could it really just be a coincidence?
“But I am from Bangladesh,” she said. “My mother worked for the Grameen Bank. It’s a wet climate where I’m from—Sylhert region. Bangladesh is very crowded. Two thirds the size of England, but twice as many people. Oh my. What happened to your ankle?”
“They put this stupid dolphin statue in the sidewalk downtown. I guess I was loaded to the gunwales, and in the dark I tripped over it. I did that once before too. They should kill the guy who made it. Anyone who thinks a crouching dolphin statue in the shadows is art—”
“Well, what do you think art is?”
“I don’t know. Useless junk? A painting of Van Gogh cutting off his ear?”
“Just think what it would be like if people in trouble could use a dolphin’s freedom to help them escape the mess they’re drowning in. In old stories boys ride on dolphins, isn’t it. It would be sweet to ride away from troubles like that. Just holding on tight and off you go riding on a dolphin’s back…”
“That frickin’ dolphin’s what made me lame again after my ankle was just about healed, so don’t try to sell me how great the dolphins are.”
She laughed and said, “OK. I’m just saying, if something startled you, maybe it’s trying to tell you something. Dolphins actually are amazing.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Sounds really dumb and New Agey.”
“When people who have chronic pain swim with a few dolphins they report that they feel better. Really. Relaxed and happy.”
“Really?” I was still in disbelief that she would say this. Didn’t sound very scientific or medical.
“Really. They’re smart. Dolphins have a kind of sonar, they can discern different people and chose to play with certain ones. They especially like children. They scan people with sound waves—they’s got a melon-size organ of fatty tissue between their eyes. After children, they like women best. They’re very playful.”
“Well I’m a grown-ass man, mam—and like I told you, the dolphins aren’t there to help me, but just like the dolphins I loves me the sweeties with big melons.”
She looked at me blankly.
I looked at a drawing and a “zen saying” about suffering on the wall. “A world of dew, and within every dewdrop, a world of struggle,” it said. So roll with it, dude, I thought. “Take a joke, why doncha?”
* * *
“So, Clark, how would you sum up your problems?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t. But for you I might try… Ordinary things seem weird and crazy.”
“Little things. Like there’s a newspaper headline I see, and the word ‘moonlight’ looks odd in it. Because naturally serious facts and responsible reporting have nothing to do with moonlight. It’s out of place.”
“I see a frog and remember being a kid. I reach down and catch it and it’s got extra legs—it’s a freak. Or I go into a huge appliance store and it’s just bizarre to see so many dozens of TV screens going, all with the same tired soap opera about a murder. Very depressing. Makes me want to kick in the screens.”
“So it’s only odd little things that are your problem?”
“That, and I can’t get along with my wife. Or with myself. I hurt my ankle, so I haven’t been getting around that much. Laid up I gained weight. I barely recognize myself now when I pass a mirror. I see this potbelly monkey in the reflections of windows. I’m dragging around a big weight. I see spindly kids all over the place and wish I looked like that, all skin and bones—wranglery. But you can never go back—I barely even got a memory of those days. Homecoming turned out different from what I expected.”
“What did you expect, Clark?”
“I don’t know. Thinking about it I was stoked. Seemed like it was gonna be great. Maybe like going to a soapbox derby with my dad. Instead he’s got the Alzheimers and I’m down in the dumps. Getting henpecked. Once a big bubble bursts you find you’re worth lots less. It’s all so depressing.”
“Maybe you could coach some kids. Find that soapbox derby kid inside you again. Vicarious fun. Helping out. Like watching a little bird learning to fly. You have to allow yourself to like yourself. You know the word ‘togetherness’?”
“Huh.” I thought it was funny. I guess I smirked, but at least I didn’t laugh out loud.
She said, “Small wonder. We’ll have to work on this, won’t we? Do you feel you lost your innocence?”
“I don’t even know what innocence is, mam. I’ll level with you. I feel broken, so that I’m fighting against myself, or something.”
“Why are you under a cloud? ‘Struggle with a monster you end up a monster.’”
“It was my job. To do what was in the job description. Orders. I was there. I saw the wounded and burnt. I didn’t think it would get to me. What I saw got under my skin. Like worms in the brain. Can’t sleep at night.”
“Talk. Tell your story. Get it off your chest, there’s no shame in that.”
“There are guys who took such a hit. You wonder how could they still be alive.”
“You can talk about it, Clark.”
“What if I don’t want to? I saw in the news there’s a pill to erase bad memories, they’ve been researching and developing it. They say it seems to work.”
“What memories would you want to use it on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there something that scares you?”
“Pilots don’t do scared.”
“Whatever your experiences were, you have the greatest respect—the American people hold you in the greatest respect.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. Do you even know what a Stratofortress is?”
“I didn’t think so. I never dreamed I’d be listening to some Bangladeshi woman psychiatrist who because I’ve got some kinda ailment wants to put blame on me—y’know what—let’s forget this—because when the choice is between self-respect and contempt—I’m not layin’ down to let people walk all over me.”
“But I’m not blaming you, Clark. Hey. I’m on you side. I want to see you sitting on top of the world.”
“I’d settle for a little self-forgetfulness.”
“Amnesia? Why don’t you go see your father?”
“I don’t have the words to say anything to him. It’s strange, I always thought I knew exactly who my father was. Now that I have—now that he has Alzheimers, he doesn’t recognize me. At all.”
“So what is a Stratofortress?” she smiled.
I thought about showing her the jacket patch I bought for the hell of it, which says “Someone over 30 you can trust—B52 Stratofortress” but decided against it. I said, “It’s a jet designed several decades ago. You can fly so high in the stratosphere you’re under a ceiling of stars, in the sheer crystals falling through space, a fortress on high in the stratosphere. Strategic Air Control. You control the sky, you patrol the earth. You decimate the targets. And sometimes up there we were taking fire. I didn’t know at first what happened when we were hit. The smoothness of the flight was gone. Everything was rough, the controls were off. When I was on the ground again I saw the holes in the wings. Wind was whistling through those like a kid blowing into the neck of an empty bottle. When I know what that’s like, some of the petty stuff makes me crazy. Oops. Guess I shouldn’t say that in a psychiatrist’s office. I’m only joking.”
“And maybe a little defensive?”
“Hey, how you figure I’m the one who made a mistake? I did what I was supposed to.”
“And my job is to ask questions about how you’re doing now.”
“You snoop around enough you’ll probably find an angle that makes my whole life look like a failure. You think that helps? Next thing I know you’ll be trying to put me in a little girl’s dress. I’ll just put an end to this—”
“OK. Let’s change the subject then, Clark. Ever think of harming yourself?”
“Hey! Who needs self-mutilation when you got my wife Exleigh and bronze dolphins to trip over in the dark and break your ankle on, and rodeo riding in the daytime to keep you banged up? I’m all set.”
“Seems like you’ve got a taste for being a daredevil.”
“You want to know what a real daredevil is? I’ll tell you. Harper dared me to go with him to a rodeo and enter into a game of poker-chicken-bullfight.”
“A clown sets up a card table and folding chairs around it in the dirt, middle of the bullfight arena. Cowboys come hustling out, sit down and shuffle a deck of cards, play themselves some high stakes poker, daring the bull that’s released to charge ‘em.”
“That’s crazy. Where di they do that?”
“First time I saw it was at the Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana. We drove all night to get there. First watch the convicts running around a bull with his horns painted bright red, tryin’ to grab the medallion that was tied around his neck with a yellow cord. A rough game, but one guy came out of it holding the prize up to the crowds. Won himself $500. Next event was convict poker. Daredevil prisoners competed sittin’ at a card table, waiting for the bull to come get ‘em. Whoever stays the longest—last gambler sittin’ at that flimsy poker table wins the prize. Some guys laugh hysterical when the bull stamps and charges. Some shit in the seat of their bow-legged jeans. People in the bleachers scream. The bull just keeps comin’ at ‘em. Crowd wants to see blood.”
“Seems like a really wild entertainment.”
“Tell me about it. But a prison official said, “Sure, it’s a rough deal. But from our view these guys have rehabilitated enough that they’re as much cowboys as they are convicts. They can have some thrills, gove a few kicks to the grand stand. And sure, they may wreck a leg or get a head injury, but they can also win $50 or $500 dollars. That can be a life changing event for the right cowboy.”
“Yeah, look on the bright side. Might as well.”
“So my first time, Harp an’ me entered the Mesquite Rodeo in North Texas. They was they did it there was set up two card tables, an’ put three chairs around each. You sit down an’ shuffle the deck an’ deal. They release that sombitch bull an’ he hoofs the dirt, lookin’ at you from under his forehead, an’ you’re watchin’ from the corners of your eyes. When he’s good an’ ready he comes chargin’, gets his horns under a chair an’ flings a guy up in the air—you got a half-ton bull gorin’ at you. That bull scatters the guys at the other table fast. We just sit still, Harp an’ me, keep playin’ poker, or pretendin’ to. That was my first rodeo with Harp, he dared me. One guy at the table got charged, and he was lame in the legs before he got out of the bullpen, and got gored in the stomach, too. Harp and me kept playin’ cards. Bull comes near an’ you move on your chair by reflex when he aims a horn. I got nudged in the side an’ had to run off. Damn, that left Harp the winner. It’s crazy, I know, it’s daredevil. Harp was the last man standing, playing solitaire with the bull. Stubborn bastard. That’s Harp. Clowns had to pull him from the table, escort him outta there. The crowds went wild. He won the prize. That was my intro. After that, I started riding, and falling off of those damn bulls pretty regular.”
“Does it get any harder to get up on a bull? I mean compared to when you do it the first time? Compared to before you got banged up?” She looked at me with lines of curiosity on her forehead. She was sincere, I believed that. She was picturin’ me with a broken arm.
“I dono, doc. I always knew you could break a bronco, but I never thought too much about how you could very easily get broken. You ride bulls a while you see how you can get broke ribs, broke collarbone, and broke anyotherdamnthing. You can even get a broken neck, and then get pneumonia and die from the deal—but them’s the breaks. You can break some bones, but in the long run it’s worse if stress breaks your spirit, makes you want to break off your own life. Break off the future and toss it. Now I know that.”
“You wear protective gear?”
“At first—as little as possible. Lately a little bit more. They got a protective vest, and the chaps with the long fringes—they don’t protect much—nor does your cowboy hat. I wore a kind of face guard once, but didn’t like it. Those rodeo bunnies and cowgirl cougars seem to dig the whole look though. Any of that gear—they like to take it off you at the end of the day, see what they find. And they think a black eye and broken nose is sexy. Love to screw some broken dude, I guess. But next morning the guy who’s broken still feels lonesome and blue.”
“I hear you. But some people say that sorrow is a vitamin that helps the soul grow.”
“You know what Harper says to that nonsense? ‘Pain is just weakness leaving your body. The rest is just psychobabble and smart soundin’ verbage rattlin’ your cage.’”
“Harper’s quite the philosopher, it seems to me. And quite the daredevil.”
“He’s just a high-spirited guy, so people think he’s thumbing his nose, when no, actually he’s not, he’s just bein’ who he is. His dad was quite the hellion in his day too. His dad grew up in Dayton, Ohio, near where the Wright brothers flew the first plane. Now he’s paralyzed in a chair. He was a pioneer in monster motorcycle racing, but got an injured spine for all his troubles. Now he can barely raise a glass to his mouth by himself. But when Harper was a kid his dad was quite a guy. He put all his extra money, what there was of it, into a share in a midget go-kart so Harp could be a little man in a pilot’s suit from the time he was seven or eight. But at twelve Harp was too big—over a hundred and fifty pounds. He’d grown outta that go-kart league. But he was hungry for more and went on to become a jet pilot.
Couple years ago, for his dady’s birthday Harp took him to a casino on a stretcher. His daddy’s a diehard gambler, an inveterate loser. I guess he’s got partial use of his left arm, but that’s about it. And laying there on the stretcher he could reach out with that long long arm and shake hands with the one-armed bandit, drinkin’ tequila through a long straw, and losing his money in slot machine after slot machine. Harper laughed till he cried describin’ it. An’ on the way home Harper’s old man said, ‘Thanks, son. Now I know I’m still alive, by the fact that I care if I win or lose—my pulse goes fast when I hit the jackpot, and my spirits sink when I got no luck. When I lose and lose I get mad as hell; Goddammit, I hate the grinning donkey of losing. When I hear the jackpot sound sayin’ I won! my feelings run high and laugh like an idiot jerkin’ off! Yahoo! I love that happy elephant trumpeting my success! It’s been twenty years since I felt that shit. I was beginnin’ to wonder: maybe I’m dead. Tell you what, son. Next time we come here, bring a gun and shoot me six times in the heart when I win so I can die happy. That’s the ridgy-didgy dinkie die, OK?’”
Harper’s pappy was once quite a guy, I guess. He lost it in stages. When he was a cripple on crutches he’d beat kids with those crutches till they broke—the kids and the crutches both. When he had a fast wheelchair he’d run ’em down on the sidewalk like bowling pins. Now that he’s in a stretcher or a hospital bed or stationary chair most the time all he’s got left is the mean look in his eyes. If that look could kill, the whole world would be a goner. So you can imagine the relief he gets when Harper hauls him down to the casino to gamble.
Harper said at the casino he gets a kick outta watchin’ all the folks coming up the gangplank on wheel chairs, with walkers, and crutches, and canes, leaning on staffs, being carried on stretchers (sometimes with an IV dripping into their veins) and some toolin’ around in motorized chairs, even an old woman in a wheelchair hooked up to oxygen being pushed by an old man with an artificial arm and an artificial leg. “I hope the one with the oxygen tank knows smokin’ is allowed in this casino,” said a guy with a big cigar. They keep comin’ up two by two—hippos and rhinos, whales and sharks, butterflies and birds, elephants and hogs, ostriches and kangaroos—up into the ringing jingling riverboat casino, coming to spread the wealth to the slot machines, blackjack dealers, craps tables and roulette wheels—said he heard some of ‘em whinnee when they laughed, like horses, and others brayed like jackasses when they lost. The place is a regular Noah’s ark for God sake!” Without those riverboat casinos a whole lot of old people would basically just rot away behind locked doors, dyin’ all alone. The casinos give ‘em a reason to go on living.
They come in with freebie coupons to get stuff, it’s like rediscovering hunting and gathering. Think about it—it might be true. With these coupons they gather swag junk, complementary plastic crap with the casino name on it—ball point pens, six-pack coolers, fold-up lawn-chairs, ash trays, mugs, T-shirts—they can’t pass up anything that’s free. It’s cheap junk made in China, which no one will ever use. They stockpile it still in its unopened boxes in their closets, planning to give it to their sons and daughters, and their grandchildren, if they ever visit. They’re rediscovering hunting and gathering. It gives them a project they can do. Go stand in a line, hand over a coupon they got in the mail, receive stuff they don’t really need. They’re very industrious, even obsessive-compulsive about it—gives ‘em a purpose in life. That generation loves the freebies big time.
Anyway. What was I saying? Oh yeah! The casinos fill their golden years, as everything inside shrinks, and everything outside gets noisier as they get deafer. And the TV shows make less and less sense to them, but there are more and more commercials. Actually it’s sort of depressing.
4. Talk About Weak Spots & Harp Too
For some reason Dr. Cartoon was trying to get at my weak spots.
“What’s your own worst fear, Clark?” she asked, like she had a mental checklist she was going through.
“Are you afraid to say?”
“Hell no! Once I felt like doing what some fool I heard about did. Hooked up a JATOU (Jet Assisted Take Off Unit) to his car and blasted himself as fast as he could humanly go straight into a granite cliff. Forgot his brakes wouldn’t hold him back. Experienced for a few seconds the G-forces that usually only dog fight F-14 jocks under full afterburners would have any way of experiencing. Eyelids sag down, you have to tilt your head to see in front of you, blood drains away from your brain, pretty soon you go blank. You feel convulsions. See, one G is a hundred points, so hurtling along pulling over 10 Gs a guy weights a ton. But you go blank, light-headed have these little fantasies that seem so real. You’re floating down the street, then floating over the buildings, over the mountains, someone is signaling you and you waves your arms, but they’re so far away, down on a lake, so blue, it looks like the sky where you’re floating, sailing right into the clouds... That JATOU gives you fast trip alright—the car sails through air like a dart—I can see it now—Wssssh—splat! Holy shit! Up against the solid granite cliff. I can imagine him witnessing himself hurtling himself to sudden death, with a blank mind.”
She looked concerned and said, “There’s not enough counseling for mental health injuries for people who serve in the military. Some injuries come from physical exposure to explosions, but that’s not the only kind. For example, suicides of American soldiers are like IEDs—a sudden blast that takes everyone’s breath away, and takes away their certainties, too.”
“Lady, you don’t have to tell me about that. I’ve known too many guys who’ve killed themselves. Look at the sadistics—I mean statistics. Twenty-two veteran suicides every day. Almost one every hour.”
Dr. Khatun got a strangely serious look in her eyes, very concerned. “You ever think of ending your family’s lives too?”
“No. But I did think of trying the Take-off Unit bit. But that was only once. Only that once. Look. I was in a lot of pain today so I took painkillers for my ankle and… I hope it didn’t soften me up too much. I’m talking too much right now. I’m probably talking like a crazy man.”
“No, no you’re not, Clark. You’re making a lot of sense. What are your nightmares?”
“A bird goes down in bad guy territory… A guy falls out of a plane… A handless footless girl in a balaclava goes down in bad guy territory, I don’t know. Makes me think of my ex-wife—she dropped me like a dud and I haven’t stopped falling yet.”
“You haven’t hit bottom.”
“Whose bottom should I hit? Just a joke.”
“Do you belong to a religion?”
“What did Jesse Ventura say, that ‘religion is for weak-minded people’?”
“Do you have any friends, for support?”
“Harper tries to help. When I complain he’ll try to be funny and say, ‘That’s a pisspoor attitude. It could always be worse, you could have a fungus that makes your fingernails drop off and have hair growing on your tongue! Don’t break down and cry like a dink—unless you wanna get fisted. I know you don’t like superstition but Jesus Christ man, put a horseshoe over your door and move on.’ Harper says it’s all in my head. That’s just the problem—all this is in my head.”
“So he tries to cheer you up?”
“Yah, I guess. Harp’ll say, ‘Don’t go thinking of becoming a malingering girly-man invalid, dude, a chronic complainer grumbling about some imaginary wound—that’s a cop out. I tolja, Pain is weakness leaving the body, you oughta know that, dude. It’s all you need to know if you stub your toe, or if you’re next to death’s door.’ He’s got a philosophy like that, I guess you’d say. Harp got his bell rung a few times when he played football, but he’s a Lone Star State kind a guy—don’t mess with him, ya know? Harper’s all ‘Don’t let them turn you into a wuss, dude.’ He’d laugh at me being here today. Give me a great big belch in the ear. And he tells the same thing to everybody. Like when some big businessmen gave a group of veterans who lost their limbs in the war in Iraq a free all expense paid trip to Las Vegas, and it got ugly, Harper told ‘em, ‘Get on with your life, stop feelin’ sorry for yourself.’”
“Do you and Harper drink much?”
“Oh, we hit the oh-be-joyful on occasion. Yes, mam, sure do, and we both smoke Marlboros. Wouldn’t you? Drink and smoke and listen to late night swamp guitar blues, and Ry Cooder, if you were us, you would too.”
“Yah, and you get Harper good and drunk and you’ll find out he believes that with selective bombing it could be possible to get back to the simpler times, when women obeyed men, and children obeyed women, when father knew best and the government wasn’t so big. It’s a dream that elections don’t seem able to achieve, so pre-emptive strikes just might—that’s his phantasy. He winks about it, thinks it’s funny. I guess it is.”
“Do you really?”
“Now Harper says he’s hit some turbulence in his personal life—says one of these days I’ll be reading about him getting hanged by the ‘noose paper’ or seeing him lynched on the ‘nightly noose.’ Says he’s being investigated for some bogus sexual assaults and rapes of women soldiers from the last few years while he’s been working for Haliburton and Blackwater. He’s under a taint of accusations from bitches, hoes and dykes, and sons a bitches of all types. Multiple charges against him. And some of it’s just misunderstanding, like the time some guy was yelling in the streets that ‘Harper drove his motorcycle over my skull!’ and in the end it turns out Harper drove over the guy’s Skoal! Skoal, it’s a brand of snuff!”
“Sounds like trouble brewing for him.”
“There’s no damn respect. His junk ain’t none a their business—Their complaints are all bunk. Take one of his accusers who came on to him, f’rinstance. When she first met him she told him plain and simple she was a nymphomaniac. Then later, after they get it on, and they’ve been goin’ at it like a couple of horny twins, she changes her story, says she said ‘No, I’m an info-maniac’! He said, she said—it’s all hooie! Believe me, a guy like that who gets rodeo bunnies as easy as 1-2-3 don’t need roofies or anything else. I mean come on, he’s a rogue elephant who can nail a bird in no time without any help from pills. To act like he can’t get it up or something is crazy—that’s just weird bitchin’ from some poor crazy loser girls. Hell, Harp can get as many girls as he wants—like a frog catches a fly, or a cat catches birds—pull their jeans down by the light of the moon like magic. He can peel a girl’s jeans like a stick of beef jerky from its wrapper. Charm the pants off anybody any time he wants to, in fact. And let's just say that with certain kinds of woman he really knows how to totally blow their hair back. He’s not some pervert sits around watching internet porn and whittling his wood all the time. Most girls after having a few sangrias with Harper, whoopin’ it up with him with a lampshade on his cowboy hat, playin’ a wild air guitar while ZZ Topps music is wailing like mutant stallions being thrown off a cliff, even smokin’ hot girls, they’d be down on their knees, laughin’. And if any of those fairies with their bowls-of-spaghetti brains come reaching out to him he’ll break their frickin’ arms. He broke a guy’s jaw once with one punch. He round-house kicked a drunk one night who was pestering him and the guy never came back. Harper wears big boots, thank you very much. He’s in his prime. Don’tchoo worry ‘bout him, he’s gonna be floating around here quite alright for a long long time. He’ll get off easy as lickin’ butter off a knife, mark my words. They’re just blowin’ smoke is all. It burns my hide to hear nonsense about him involved in sexual assaults. He’s a jet pilot for Chrisake. Air Force Top Gun. A hero. Lots of character witnesses and a good lawyer. His family might come out here to help try him. I mean, try to help him.”
“I see. So he doesn’t take advantage of weaker people—like a bully does?”
“My experience is that Harper only likes to get into the panties of girls who are smart and fun and hard to manipulate, not the Dodos or pushovers. It’s no fun to conquer a moron or a weakling. That’s a turkey shoot. Like mowin’ down the forces of Saddam who’ve been weakened by ten years of sanctions. To make it with a hot chick who knows her tricks and likes to outfox her cowboys—now that’s fun. Maybe he did take advantage of girls who felt sorry for him ‘cause he was lonely, but is it his fault they have feelings? Is it his fault regret is something that just isn’t in him? He’s kinda bitter about girls; he calls people ‘brothers and scissors.’ Harper never signed up for years of boredom. So if he even got sentenced and locked up alone, he’d kill himself. I don’t know if that’s right or not. I’m just sayin’. He’s not the kind ends up stuck in a dark hole somewhere.”
“And he had a job with Kellogg, Brown and Root for a while, to be a supervisor for electricians working in Iraq. They’re even trumpin’ up charges on that.”
“Does he know electrical engineering?”
“Well, no. He was managing at KBR, supervising third world guys who are electricians in their own countries, so when you get right down to the brass tacks of it, it was their fault if somebody gets electrocuted when they take a shower. Why the prosecutors are after him is he doesn’t pull any punches.”
“Well I hope it all works out.”
“He’s accused of enhanced interrogation techniques too, from the Blackwater security job in Iraq. They also say he came home with an old artwork of a lioness attacking a young man. They’ll accuse him of anything I guess. Says it’s because he spoke out against the bank bailout as socialism. And because he says there’s no global warming, and says the Washington insiders are a bunch of monkeys, they’re out to get him. They wanna hang an albatross around his neck. But there’s nobody loves freedom as much as Harper. He’s a goddam American hero, believes we can have a utopia here. He spoke out, plus he got in trouble with a car loan, and now they’re trying to crucify him. He says they can’t prove a thing. That there are even people talking about Bush and Cheney being war criminals. Because a few rotten apples tortured and killed prisoners. Says only total nut job leftists who get their news from al Jazeera would say that. But meanwhile, there’s a prosecutor talking about how they’ve got DNA proof tied to him. But he’s going out fighting, not gonna fall on his sword for the higher-ups. He says it’s just blowhards opining, looking for a scapegoat. We live in a time of too many crybabies. Says the commies got one answer—‘soak the fat boy.’ He doesn’t believe in stickin’ it to the man. He’s geared up to defend and protect the fat boy. Liberals want to guilt-trip us with quibbles and whining and body counts. Harper says ‘no regrets.’ He says he’s a big guy like a big truck with big wheels, and the blowhards are wimps and cowards trying to stop him from rolling. They might not like it but that’s just the way he rolls. He always used to like making the spiral-down landing, doin’ that ‘cork-screw’ into Baghdad—vertical so as to avoid insurgents’ artillery—but now he wakes up in the middle of the night, spiraling down in a cold sweat. So, yah, he’s got a tailwind in his face right now. He’s got a constant ringing in his ears these days. That’s all the thanks he gets. A tornado kinda sand storm whirring around inside him. Those people that accuse him are shits—they’d bitch if you hung them with a new rope. Harper rides the mechanical bull every night now. To pass the time. He’s got a feeling they’re really gonna try to hose him—but he says, ‘I don’t give two diddly shits—I’m too big to fail!’ Says he may just end up in the penalty box for a few years. Said ‘Maybe I oughtta get me a teardrop tattoo before the trial.’ Last thing he said to me was ‘Hug the monster, dude, only way to survive. Never take failure layin’ down. That’s what we learned in Air Force training—right?’ He says, ‘80% of all rapes in the military go unreported anyway, and there are 19,000 every year, so why should I be the one reported for it if I didn’t even do it? It’s all pure bull.’”
“No wonder Blackwater had to change its name after a while.”
“He tells me his woes, and asks if I know what he means. ‘Exactly,’ I say. ‘Then pull my thumb, dude,’ he says, and we laugh. He’s bein’ falsely accused, no question. Bastards wailin’ on Harp like all get out. No question they’re out to get him—with attacks beyond the call of duty. But they’re not gonna get rid of him that easy with trumped up charges. He’s gonna be rich some day, I just know it. He’s gone as far as you can up in the sky. He could parachute and land anywhere on earth and survive. This guy’s half bird, half goat and half fish.”
“That only leaves half unaccounted for—just half-joking.”
“Even if he’s starting to get a paunch—it’s the kinda world we live in that does it to ya. And his sleep has been messed up, just like mine, and that makes you gain weight.”
“That’s too bad. I’m sorry.”
“Lady, he doesn’t want your sympathy. Just a little respect. Ya know what—let’s not even talk about him. He’ll be in apple pie order without any doubt.”
“I’m sure your friendship means a lot to him.”
“Yah, I’d never bail out on him. We been through a lot together. He’ll be alright. He can look out for himself. He’s a jet pilot. He’s a regular kayoot, an armadillo, a buckin’ bronco. He can do anything. He says ‘Whatever they say, I don’t care. I’ll just become an Air Show under an assumed name, put on a big hillbilly accent, do stunts like barrel-rolls, land on a moving truck, spiral down with a big smoke trail comin’ outta my rear, make big crowds laugh.’ He’ll always be Harp. I can see him stunt-flyin’ up in the sky full of light, sailing around upside-down, to show he can. I can see him doing an inside humpty-bump, a quarter-roll and a tumble. If that doesn’t work he’ll be a porn star. Harper’s got spirit. Like the power of a Wart-hog to strafe and return in seconds to strafe again. He ain’t never been one to run with his tail tucked between his legs, not him.”
“Harper’s shittin’ a brick, and he oughtta be. He says, ‘Take a good captain cook, mate. I bleed red white and blue. I serve my country to the ends of the earth—and this is how they screw me over! After all those years of service they say I got a personality disorder? I’ll shown ‘em a personality disorder. I’ll tell ‘em all, Eat the apple at the core, I don’t work for you no more!’ He keeps a baseball bat tucked under his seat in his truck. “Never know when you might not need it,” he says, “a vigilante age might just come back if things get much worse. I needs me my bat,” he says and he kisses it, then tucks it back under his seat. He adds the old American warning, but says it funny-sounding: “Don’t turd on me.” Just wants to be left alone. Guess a lotta folks do. I suppose the both of us are getting kinda sick of life in the herd. I mean, I wouldn’t blame him if he got drunk and picked up an 8-ball and hit the giant between the eyes with it.”
5. She Goes & Wraps It Up (Thanks, Mam)
“So what does the future up the road look like to you?”
“Who knows? Probably some ‘nut cuttin’ time in America coming up one of these days. But who can say? Some people are better at thinking ahead than I am. Harper’s been buying guns, for example. Says if he ever does get made a felon it will be harder for him to get the guns afterwards. So why not stock up on ‘em now? And some of these leaders we’ve got now—who knows, they might come around and take everybody’s guns away, make owning guns illegal, to spite the Second Amendment. (That’s why you see sometimes the photo of the president framed by a toilet seat these days—a lotta guys don’t trust him. Let’s face it, there are government forces that want to take all the people’s guns.) And if Harper needs to, he can always go into Juarez and sell his guns. Or else just say the hell with it, good night bitches, hit the pickle switch and take a bunch of idiots with him.”
“That sounds bad,” she said, raising her eyebrow.
“Just jokin’. I guarantee you he won’t flip out, but if he does I’d say it was justified. And by the way, he’s a really good marksman. Says he always shoots between heartbeats, helps with accuracy. He’s right handed, but his left eye is better that his right, so he shoots with his left hand, says it’s more accurate that way. He wants me to go hunting with him, and that day ain’t too far away. Said he’d teach me what it’s like to never have regrets. Harp an’ me have been playin’ ‘Do you trust me?’ for what, six, seven years now?”
“What’s ‘Do you trust me?’”
“It’s where you point an unloaded gun at your friend and say, ‘Do you trust me?’ Maybe we should play it with civilians. So they’ll know what it feels like to have your life on the line. Harp says the time might come for that, one of these days. He’ll show them all something spectacular. Said he’d be sending me a signal about it any time now. Literally, about a big spectacle that’ll pop up on the horizon. That Harp, he’s a force of nature, I’ll tell you that much. Stronger and gutsier than anyone I know. Hell, if he wanted to he could wrestle alligators for a living. I couldn’t. But he could.”
“Well, I hope you’re careful. Sounds kind of risky.”
“Oh hell, taking risks is half the fun, lady. Like goin’ hand fishin’.”
“For guys who got the guts to grab what they want, what’s more primal than hand fishing?”
“What is it?”
“Harper showed me. He’s been hand fishing since he was a kid growing up on Hinter Island in Ohio. They call it noodling: go to a pond, find an old beaver hole, and stick your fist down in and find big old sleepy catfish mouth, pull him out by the jaw. It’s a kick. You crawl around in jeans and old tennis shoes in the mud near the bank. Or you go to a river, reach into the dark water in the muddy caves under the bank and feel around. Find a big fish mouth and then you grab—might lose a finger when you wake him up that way, but that risk is part of the fun. I have to hold Harper’s feet sometimes when he reaches in real far, and his head’s under the water, and a huge fish is pulling him deeper. He has me hold his feet, so I can pull him out. Noodlin’—it’s a blast.”
“So you catch fish that way, and eat them? Seriously.”
“Yah. After hand-fishing once I dreamed we reached into a hole under the riverbank and a jaw clamped onto my arm like a bear trap—when I pulled it out it was a charred body like a roasted turkey from the Highway of Death going north from Jahra. And I dreamed Harper and me had a dream we were both in bucking chutes getting on bulls, and when the gate opened we found out we were on bears, not bulls. Woke up starvin’. Sure work up an appetite, hand-fishing and bull riding both, not to mention dreamin’ your on a bear’s shoulders. You do that for a while and it’s ‘Jimmy Eat World’ time—o yah!”
She just looked at me, not sure if I was kidding her or not. With Harper, people never are sure. I didn’t bother telling her there’s a company named Plateau Landscape Opportunities that wants to hire Harp to help ‘em shear off the tops of mountains to get at the coal. Offering him big bucks, too. Hell for that matter he could get a job driving a humongous dozer anywhere, or operating one of those new big butchering machines. But hey, why should I tell her anything about him anyway? I can tell she just doesn’t get Harper, and never will. So why bother? But in any case, it’s a big clusterfuck (excuse me, I should say flustercluck) with Harp in the hot seat—it is what it is. I told her, “Harper’s the kind of guy who starts with nothing and gets the power to raise big buildings.”
She says, “Raise them up or raze them down?”
See? Harper’s under siege. No question. That’s OK. He can take it. He’s not one to get all mollygrubs and collywobbles. Don’t bother him none. So I zip it.
And she puts her index finger to that little space in the middle of her upper lip lips and looks up and says, “You and Harper seem to do a lot of things in tandem.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I’m sure Harper will straighten up and fly right.”
“You don’t get him at all, do you? It’s so obvious. But that’s alright. Push comes to shove I'm sure Harp has plenty of them big old gobs of yellow egg mucus ready to splat on assholes' windshields. (Pardon my French.) I mean if somebody wants to cross him they better not be faint of heart, 'cause they might end up on a breathing machine, whoever they are, high net worth individuals or not. He can take care of himself.”
“You guys take a lot of risks. Like at the rodeos. Like danger dogs.”
“Harper and me, we don't want to become just some kinda cartoon character nut jobs in people's minds. No. Not after all we've done and seen. That ain't right. We're more than that. Harper is very respected by a lot of respectable people. And he also has a lotta pals who are Vietnam Vets in leather jackets an’ pony tails, Rolling Thunder bikers. They’re pissed off, and they’re ragin’ an’ roarin’ down the Trail of Tears and the Hellbilly Highway. I mean if somebody wants to cross Harp they better not be faint of heart, 'cause they might end up on a breathing machine, whoever they are, high net worth individuals or not. He can take care of himself. What he says is that Vietnam mopped the friggin’ floor with the Dudley Dorights. ‘The true believers came home crippled, depressed to death, or in body bags. The clowns like my dad who were smart asses survived. I’m sure as frick not gonna die for some bunch of craziness in no idiot-ass Iraq. Not my style, bro.’ I’m just telling you what his view on the subject is. He says, ‘Seriously. You got to think, people, real hard, what you’re doin’. The great masquerade of feeding the eagle of liberty the blood it takes to stay alive is the real deal. It’s the leader’s job to call us men of action to join the fray, the great drama of dog-eat-dog war, against the forces that threaten us, our way of life. We wear the uniform, fly the jets, salute the chief, destroy the foe, while cameras are rollin’ so posterity will know we were the heroic few willing to die and kill, that’s right, to shed blood and lose our lives for the great national need, whether deemed a cakewalk turkey-shoot or hand-to-hand self-sacrifice. Our people watch as the bombs go off and hellfire missiles sizzle and pop like July 4. Faded Old Glory billows in the breeze, as the women salute with right hand to left breast, the children with toy guns fire and the confetti falls and decorations shine—gold star, purple heart—on men standing at attention in dignity. But people, you’re making us wonder about the whole calling to order of that great meeting, the calling off of our honor for heroics. What the frick is so glorious if you jam me in the can now? Sure, I been shit-canned before, but to do time for war-related offenses seems silly—that tomfoolery comes with the territory—spilling a little fun in feeding the eagle her necessary blood ain’t no offense—not in the country where I want to live. Shit, we’re an outlaw land—don’t preach about the niceties, just let us be free, let a cowboy be a cowboy. We were ready TO DIE, and now we can’t even get a steady job…’”
“Harper has a lot to say.”
“He sure as hell does. He says, ‘You got your shining flag of freedom held up high by Lady Liberty only because I’m slogging through the swamps of the hell holes, where the tyrants torture in the stinking murk of ruined lives—where you sent me! I got a shadow—so what? Bravery always does. In fact, maybe bravery comes out of that shadow. Something tricky, sketchy, skitzy lives when bravery awakes. You lose your self-preserving head and they put your ego on a pedestal—you finger it out.’ I could go on, but.”
“OK, no buts. If they wanna deal with Harp as a foe that's on them--they're makin' a dumb mistake is all. You treat somebody wrong long enough they just might strike back, even in the neighborhood of the happiest place on earth. Believe me, he's in with some pretty tough-ass dudes, like the Sovereign Citizens. Hell, they don't care, they'll go right after law enforcement, if that's who's messin' with 'em. You get a Sovereign Citizen mad (an' they got plenty a stuff already to be mad about, like no havin' a job an' bein' in debt), an' they'll use force to take back what’s theirs, if you catch my drift. They say the gov'ment has gone way too damn far beyond their limits. They know the law, an' they'll file liens against the arresting policeman, an' the paperwork for all the liens they'll start filin' for millions an' millions of dollars will be a blizzard of legal problems that the law enforcement dudes might never dig themselves out of in their lifetimes. Their grandkids’ll still be sortin’ it out. It’s the Sovereign Citizens and Dominion Movement and other folks gonna make some changes. But anyway, it’s still possible Harp might get a letter of declination any time, too. A letter saying no criminal case was warranted after a thorough review was held, so they are declining any further investigation and prosecution. That can still happen. Even though, most likely, the whole thing’s already fixed.”
“Yeah. It’s rigged. A stacked deck. Predetermined in the program who will win.”
“Yeah, the program of those who’ve amassed the power.”
“Don’t get mad at me, Clark, but I have to ask you this—is Harper a real person? Because—”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Because it could be an alter ego, a part of your own psyche, giving you permission to act out, to let out your own experiences…”
“Oh he’s real alright. As real as you or me. I can’t believe you’d—”
“Well, I had to ask.”
“You think I’d make some guy up to use as an excuse?”
“No, but it wouldn’t be the first time it ever happened.”
“Now that’s what I call weird. Just what do you think Harper is, anyway. It’s obvious that since you never met him you can’t know him.
“Well, Clark, I’ll tell you. One way to put it might be: he’s your collar.”
What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“A person you really get a kick out of, your special someone. Look it up on urban dictionary.”
“A collar. Lady, you got a strange way of talkin’.”
“Let’s do shift gears though, OK? Why do you always have a toothpick in your mouth?” she says, looking at a paper in front of her like maybe she has to fill it out. It pisses me off.
“Why do you sound so generic—no Bangladeshi, no England in your speech,” I answer her back. “You talk and I can’t place you. East, West North, South? Nothin’.”
“I’ve lived in America for some time. How often do you see your daughter?”
“Not so much. She doesn’t have any response. She’s autistic.”
“There’s a new video by someone who works with autistic kids. It helps them recognize their emotions. You might look into it—show it to her.”
“Anything’s worth a try, I guess. When I think of what Kathleigh was like when I met her…”
“There’s nothing quite like being loved, being in love, is there? Once that’s lost—you try a lot to get it back. Some of those things get you farther away.” She said it looking off into the distance. “So what do you really want to see happen, Clark?”
“Let me break it down for you, lady. Basically I’m trying to get home. That’s where I used to be and I liked it. It was nice. At home in bed with Kathleigh, rain pouring down on the roof. I had to leave, and now I can’t get back. How can I find what I lost? I wish I was back there again but I can’t get to it. She knew me then. She doesn’t know me now, and I guess it’s my fault that’s the case. If she doesn’t know me who will? I feel like I’ve been sleeping in an airplane hanger for years, the wind never stops rushing through. And it’s not no Joe the Grinder to blame for stealing her, but myself. Somehow I betrayed me, so I guess it’s up to me. It’s got to be me who’s got to unbetray myself. I had so much success. How did I get to feel so shipwrecked?”
“I don’t know—you’re back with the dolphins again,” she smiled.
“Or with the albatross, hanging around my neck, dragging me down. It’s like some birds got sucked into my engine, or I skipped a cog somewheres I guess. Lost my footing. I just hope I don’t get sucked all the way down into Davy Jones’s locker. Anyhow, I know what Houdini feels like now, hands and feet all chained up in a locked trunk.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m in a bad head. Feel like a bag of nails, messed up about as bad as Job’s turkey.” I knew I could get her to laugh with that one, or at least get a little smile. It confused her, but it did get a giggle. “But I’m working through it, ever since I found you. You give me a happy ending, lady. I leave here feeling like you gave me a hand and really flogged my dolphin.”
She laughed and then smiled, and I felt like a baby looking at her smiling face. I remembered for a minute what it was like to be a baby looking at a face. “Can I see you sometime?” I asked her. Was it the pills or what? I really liked looking at her face.
“No. This is your last visit, Clark,” she said, smiling like a baby and not blushing even a little. WTF?
“No. How’s that? What happened?”
“I’m going to an new practice in another town.”
“How did that happen? Why are you moving.”
“Well, the psychiatrist who started this practice has passed away. The practice is folding up.”
“Did he die of old age? Or a sickness, or an accident?”
“It was an accident. He was an unusual man.”
“How so? A psychiatrist who was eccentric?”
“The head psychiatrist here was Harry Davids. He wanted to be a surgeon, but he didn't have the ability. So he became a psychiatrist who was a frustrated surgeon. He ran a center to handle psychiatric emergencies, and he founded this practice here.”
When she said ‘Harry Davids’ I remembered hearing that name at a rodeo. The announcer there said, ‘The attending physician at this rodeo will be Dr. Harry Davids, to handle all injuries.’ But a strange thing happened there that day. At that rodeo a cowboy got injured real bad and a mad bull kept going after him, and the regular clowns couldn't seem to make things right. Next thing I knew, the announcer was saying that ‘Dr. Harry Davids has now gone into the enclosed rodeo ring dressed as a rodeo clown. He has always wanted to handle emergencies, and he has said that this performance as a rodeo clown is the only way he knows how to save the patient. He will be the chief rodeo clown for the rest of this rodeo. You are now watching an historic event, ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Rodeo Clown, also known as Dr. Harry Davids, is a new hero, saving his patients while dressed like Bozo Bronco or Patch Adams Pinto, running around in the ring to stave off the bulls and save his injured patient. He has true grit, lazy and gemmun. We applaud the good doctor and wish him well. He’s a real cowboy! We should all say a prayer for him, to escape the wrath of the bulls!’” I thought that was an amazing coincidence, that a guy at a rodeo I was in, a hundred miles away from the office where I was meeting the psych doc, was her boss. That was totally crazy redunkulous.
I told Dr. Khatun about that and she said, “Yes, that was Harry. Last week he got into his rodeo clown outfit again, and things went wrong and he got gored by a bull. He didn’t survive those wounds. So this practice is folding up now. I am going elsewhere.”
“But when I’m here it’s OK. When I’m here I’m not riding around on a bull all day, getting thrown off every other minute. It’s like I’m OK. You patch me up, doc.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Clark. I like you too. But this is it. All good things come to an end.”
“Seriously? Seriously. The end. When you’re the one with the key to the lock.”
“Your feeling right now may be the Hawthorne Effect. Change of behavior and mood because you’re here and I’m listening. I want you to feel good wherever you are.”
“Whiskey tango foxtrot?”
“WTF. Wherever I am?”
“Yes, wherever you are, and in any case my husband got word that he is being relocated by his employer, so we’re moving. I can refer you to another counselor. Just let me know. “But for now, your time is up.”
I knew I was already over my hour, and I couldn’t help but try to doorknob her, just to piss her off. “I don’t need you anyway. I’m OK. Let me tell you something, even if my hour is up. OK? See, my grandfather was in World War Two. Stormed the beach at Normandy. He was always a big hero to me. I joined the service because I wanted to be like him. My grandfather had a silver cross on a silver chain, he wore it in the war, and afterward too. I got it when he died, and I wore everyday around my neck, and if you know Monopoly it was a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card--whatever happened, it was a ticket out of the worst crisis, a free pass to staying alive. At least in my mind. In reality it was a lot of little pieces of a mineral. A man made piece of jewelry, that no one can keep forever. It had a charm, but it wasn't as magic as I thought it was. And you ain't no free pass neither. Cowboy philosophy works better than anything you got. You’ll say ‘get down off your high horse,’ but really, it’s smart.”
“Good. Like what? What is it? I guess the only cowboy philosophy I ever heard was ‘There never was a bronco that couldn’t be rode and there never was a cowboy that couldn’t be thrown. What else is there?”
“Oh just stuff like ‘Every trail has some puddles.’ And ‘A closed mouth gathers no boots.’
“That’s very funny. How’s that working for you?”
“Cowboy life at least is a way of dealing with life in the herd.”
“What else is the philosophy about?”
“Well, if you toss your rope before you build your loop you’ll never catch a calf… One you might get is: Life ain’t about how high you climb or fast you run, but how good you bounce. Yeah, that’s just a part of cowboy philosophy. Some more of it is in the Cowboy’s Creed.
Always look upward and on the bright side
Act with courage, be steady, day by day.
Whatever you begin you better complete
You must take pride in your work and your play.
Rely on yourself to do what must be done
If you make a promise it’s a vow to keep.
Those are rules for cowboy living. They’re the Spirit of the West, I think. And the spirit of America. What always made America great. Harper’s all about the American Spirit. He’s the guy who always Rogers up when the chips are down.”
“Very good. You, know, I think Dr. Davids would’ve gotten along well with your friend Harper.”
“Yeah. They both liked to horse around like rodeo clowns. And try to bounce. By the way, is this so-called Dr. Davids a real person, or someone you made up?”
She laughed. I got her to laugh a real laugh, a natural one.
“Did you ever try to record your thoughts, Clark? Like what your first soapbox derby was like?”
“Sometimes your own story helps you see where you are. It can be healing. It can help you, so you don’t crash and burn. I think you’d be good at it.”
“So you crash and bounce instead. Who wouldn’t want that?”
“Write it so someone like me and others can understand what happened to you, what you have found out about your soul, and being a human being. And you and your pirate friend Harper ought to go to some get-togethers for Gold Star Mothers. It would do you good. Them too. Anyway, it’s a suggestion. I wish you well.”
“Well, clear skies and tail winds to you too!” I said, like I might do it. Yah, right.
But hey, I did go home, and I wrote all this down, ready to try just about anything. And I did look up “collar” too, by the way. Here’s what Urban Dictionary gives you when you google it:
"Word used to describe your best friend, fated soul mate, and object of sexual obsession. Usually your feelings about your Collar seem secret and personal, but in reality, are painfully obvious to those around you. A poet, lover, and badass warrior king, your Collar will explosively redefine your fundamental concepts of happiness and fulfillment. He can turn your skin to mercury through the tunes he effortlessly muses at your kitchen table as he lingers over coffee with his guitar, and he can usually school the shit out of you in air hockey. Loving, devoted, and balls out hilarious, your Collar is guilelessly adored everywhere he goes, but will always feel like your own personal rock star."
Yeah, well, that psychobabble lady Dr. Zoreena Khatun is balls out hilarious too. I wanted her to be my Collar, but she bailed.
So here I am now, psychologized out of a friendship, and a marriage, an addiction and a pastime, a set of crutches and attitudes, and even out of the damn psychiatrist. Writing my ass off. Harper says I oughtta write about him and sell the story to Hollywood, get rich. Yah, if all else fails, I’ll write a tell-all and make a million bucks. Or else get a job as a writer for a TV reality show—that stuff can’t just happen, you know. I think something based in Harper would make a good reality TV show. Except who would want the curse of fame, interrogation on TV by talk show clowns? No one sane.
I guess the only thing now is to go back and swim with some dolphins, and then maybe find that belly dancer, let her hips do their thing—jab my ribs with spurs, ride my rocket into the night. I’d like to see her Sunday-face. After that, who knows?
I wonder about a lot of things nobody knows the answer to—like who broke the bank? Who’s to blame—bankers, bundlers, well-dressed con men, crooks in T-shirts, guys dippin’ an’ flippin’, taking out big loans and skippin’ town? What’s dark matter? What the hell, now the paper says scientists can see two black holes orbiting each other in the same galaxy. They dance all the way around each other every hundred years—a slow square dance. Pretty weird. Like two smoke rings jumping back and forth through each other for the hell of it. We live in a weird-ass world, getting’ more wired and weird all the time. What’s the “dark market”? What’s “shadow vehicles” and “black holes” and “zombie banks,” “ghost malls” and “bigbox cadavers”? What’s “Xe,” for that matter? Sounds like a comic book Princess from outer space. In any case Xe’s trademark is the middle finger. Guess we’re all paying for somebody’s bling. Somebody helped themselves to a lotta free lunch. They shit on us and laughed all the way to the Swiss and Cayman Islands banks. And then they do things like put the word “moonlight” into a headline just to distract us. OK, I had my say. Time to quit all this whining.
Otherwise I’ll get tuned out and written off as just another “personality disorder.” Thank you very much, but no thank you.
I close my eyes, see the flocks go swarming, running close together, then spreading out, scattering, getting lost, falling off a cliff. And then the shadow passes, like it always does. And I’m laying there trying to get some sleep, wondering why it’s become so hard to just fall to hell asleep. Should be easy as falling off a log, or making a low pass fly-by, or falling over a sleeping dolphin. Next time you’re in the crowd at an air show, craning your necks this way and then that, watching the Blue Angels zipping around up there, with sounds like they’re tearing pieces of the sky off, ripping the blue to pieces, think of me, trying to get some sleep. Damn, I’m starting to like this writing stuff, even if no one else ever sees it. Even if you’re imaginary people, it feels like more than that to me anyway.
For some reason that’s just the wacked-out way she goes. Seriously.