Plausible Ghosts in Passable Rock Bands
- PART ONE -
Illustrated by Aaron Zonka
To San Francisco: when South City gets absorbed and you’re all living in brand new luxury condos between the expanse of storage facilities and the only people who benefit are Google because the buses they deploy save on gas with the shorter distance; when you are brainwashed into thinking that this is still the San Francisco that brought us the Government subsidized Acid scene in the 1960s, the summer of love, because you can buy into this ‘freeing concept’ for a couple weeks in the desert over the summer and a few free street festivals in the fall; for all of this I ask you: where is the substance? You have rotoscoped a film right out from under you, a film which in itself was just a recreation of a time that may have never been what it seemed. You have rotoscoped that away and now you are just a bunch of pretty paints.
Enjoy the show.
Somehow he knew despite their grief this would break into a Woody Allen routine. It was just a matter of time. This was particularly frustrating because time in those days, the teller of all finalities, the master of order in the universe, was measured for him at twenty dollars an hour to clean the Palace of Fine Arts' tampon bins.
"There was another God though. I know I heard that. There was another God and the Jews changed religions. He was testing them, that's why all the punishment."
"We worship the same God as you, you're thinking of the Pagans." Lisa stared at Ernie as he said this. Her face held no expression. "Baal was one of the rival gods to the Yahweh figure which is perhaps the central protagonist in both our books of the. . ." Lisa was silent. It made Ernie's voice, a separate entity from his body, seem too loud. He already felt bad enough when the volunteer girls moving furniture across the wing looked at him. Their heads disapprovingly shook curly hair from under their white caps. One tried not to look distracted as her hairpins fell and hit the hallway floor. Plink. Were they flirting with him while Squire was under the knife a handful of rooms away? Noticing such things made Ernie sad. Gliding by, the girls pierced Ernie with the gaze of teenage judgment. He was lecturing an older woman on religion after all. They were too far down the hallway to crane their necks. It seemed from their visit the establishment wanted him to lighten the mood. The candystripers were internal emissaries for the giant hospital beast. Ernie had too much riding on this medical behemoth to become unwelcome.
"The whole religion trip gets confusing," he suggested to Lisa. "Come on, the Six O'clock news is about to be on. You ever see People Behaving Badly with Stanley Roberts? Man, if that guy didn't have the cops with him when doing those bits, he'd be-"
"No news. It's all garbage on these stations. I want to get to the bottom of this. You could really help me a lot. There's no way the radio's totally wrong though . . . "
Lisa had been listening to a particular radio show lately on the Evangelical network featuring a convert going by the moniker “Your Little Jewish Buddy in Christ." His show educated Christians who've never seen a Jew before on the finely nuanced religion this guy had just leapt from like a burning plane. So instead of watching reruns while her estranged daughter, a groupie to Ernie's band, was having her spine put back together a few rooms away, Lisa had the drummer fact checking her recently accrued knowledge of Judaic culture.
The whole group would've gotten a much better idea of the 'chosen people' from one of the fifteen different channels syndicating Seinfeld repeats. But Lisa refused, Seinfeld was too racy. Everything was too racy. “All they talk about is you-know-what. It upsets my twelve year old boy here.” “I’m thirteen, Mom!”
Lisa ignored the boy and looked hopefully at Ernie. The boy groaned and turned to his father. The father seemed to share in the frustration but didn't want to encourage his angsty son. The balding forty-something slammed his nose softly back in his gas station paperback, too torn to effectively help anyone. Ernie saw this and felt more empathy than he could ever express. Lisa noticed his far-away eyes and pulled Ernie back to that crude waiting room reality.
"So you really don't worship Baal?" she asked as her fingers ticked away at a rosary.
"The Jews, I mean. Your people. You can't be buried in one of their cemeteries with those tattoos, right? I remember hearing that."
"No, I can't."
"Why would you do that to yourself then?"
Against his better judgment: "Because I don't honestly think that where you're buried affects how your soul spends eternity. Plus my parents would probably rather get a plot in a nice Catholic cemetery, 'St. something-or-other from Somewhere,' with their whole family than decompose in worry surrounded by other Jewish corpses and not their son. The other corpses would just nag at them about it . . . "
"But the Catholics would never let you into their cemetery," Lisa said matter-of-factly. Ernie stared at her. "First of all they're all mafiosos. But more importantly the Jews changed Gods, I was just telling you about that."
"Our people worship the same God, Lisa."
"Excluding the Holy Trinity, whatever that is."
"Well, the radio said that Ba'al . . ."
"No, the Baalites were Pagans . . . but monotheistic because they're obviously named after the one guy. . . so maybe not pagans?" he stared up at the ceiling, genuinely entrenched in academic thought. ". . . I don't know, it's more complicated than that. People never know who to follow, they get antsy, directionless. Just look at the Golden Calf and Moses."
"Oh, wasn't that Charlton Heston movie terrible! So inappropriate, too much you-know-what for a boy like mine!"
"I'm almost an adult, Mom!"
Ernie's bassist Gibson, Squier's other lover, couldn't be there. He couldn't get out of a cooking shift down in Santa Cruz. It was impossibly sunny outside. Gibson would jam his pickup down the dusk drenched highway the moment his chef gave the cue to cut the burners.
Meanwhile, Ernie was grief shift number-one during Squire's gamut of operations. All they knew was her condition stabilized. It'd been stable since very early on; plateaued. It wavered with each operation, but Squire was cursing a blue streak even when she was rent in two on the Santa Cruz street. A girl like that couldn't die.
If anyone, Ernie expecteda group of Eskimos like Squier at the hospital. They would be wearing furs, chanting to the spirits, smoking tobacco pipes spread out on pelts across the waitingroom floor, drinking liquor ceremoniously for Squier; telling parables, understanding Ernie's strange relationship with their injured tribeswoman. But instead it was Squier's mother Lisa, a stout bleached-blonde with a fanny pack, homemade sweater and bermuda shorts. Squier never even spoke about her mother. It made sense instantly. "We haven't spoken in 10 years" the old woman explained.
Lisa's new husband and son kept a steady diet of cornstarch, red meat and processed sugar cloistered in their Northwestern cottage. Ernie never caught the town's name but it reminded him in description of every single woodland town he couldn't wait to get out of while touring. He was from the suburbs, a quiet city kid at heart. Detached, small town people like that scared the shit out of him. Lisa trained this new son of hers, a kid who only knew Squier as a name, to become a missionary like his mother. That's how Lisa met Squier's father thirty years ago and she would make sure no son of hers ever went to Alaska. Too much temptation. Her ex-husband was a Born Again Inuit who took very seriously the questionable legends of Eskimos executing themselves upon realizing their uselessness to their tribe. His executioner was hundred-proof vodka and it worked slower than the unionized earthquakeproofing of the 101. Over a decade later, kept surly by the frigid climes, the codger was alive in a cabin somewhere, executioner by his side; stocked in surplus. Mushroom clouds of liquor fumes jetted out of his mouth, his bed growing salty.
A gurney went by the waiting room and the extended family which sat by the rear window erupted. The grandmother stopped trying to give Lisa's husband a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet. "Truth, truth, truth;” it was uncertain whether this pamphlet chant was a question. Sun beat in from the parking lot behind. Not an ambulance had gone by in hours. A single gurney wheel could be heard coming out of line. Just a quick thwack against the flooring. The fallen boy's mother or aunt or something yelled out his name. She was sweating so hard that only her inflection discerned a woman crying. In the hall her boy's hand dangled rhythmically with each little jump of the gurney wheels, limp as spaghetti. "Why don't they stop? Doesn't he recognize us?"
Amidst it all: "I'm looking for my Tia." A little girl in a pink Dora the Explorer shirt spoke to Ernie, making startling eye contact. She couldn't have been over three feet tall. 1st grade? 2nd grade? She stood right before him in the confusion, her black hair combed with a pink plastic barrette. She was probably just learning how to read. A little belly peeked out from under her shirt. She carried a blanket and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. The rest of her family was screaming, pulling their hair, crying. It woke her up.
"I think your grandmother's over there," Ernie told the little girl. He pointed to the old woman collapsing into a plastic chair with her pamphlets.
"That's not my Tia. You don't know what I mean," the girl looked him over with no resentment. "It's okay." She saw something more than was there. "You can't help anyone." Then she bounced back over to her group.
A woman picked her up. In a flurry of shrill Spanish, some directed at the hospital staff, some into cell phones updating relatives residing god knows where, neutral, oversized white T shirts with colored bandanas in baggy back-pockets poured out into the hallway after the gurney. Tall cans of Chiladas in brown paper bags hit the bottoms of trash bins. It was unclear if the family exiting was the aggressor's or retaliator's in the altercation. Both families had met for the first time in the San Jose waiting room that day.
". . . So you're saying the Baalites were Pagans?" Lisa continued. She smiled at not telling the family to quiet down. Now that ruckus was gone. Her husband hadn't even corrected them on what Jehovah had witnessed.
"Sure why not." Ernie shrugged, "They don't exist anymore so who are they to complain?" His eyes were still on the bandanas. Were they the same up in San Francisco or did the colors switch with the counties? He knew the street names in every single Bay city seemed to be the same. There was always a Mission street, a Powell street, a Union Square because California needed to prove allegiance to America during the Civil War . . .
"Good riddance," Lisa said, "such a dirty lot! I'm glad those heathens were washed away in the Old Testament!" Then she patted her enormous, droopy breasts as though abating heartburn. "God forgive me for pronouncing such hatefulness."
"Amen," whispered her husband quietly. But it was uncertain he was talking about the same thing. He never once looked up from his crosswords. His paperback’s spine bent from use.
Lisa's new husband and son wanted nothing to do with Squier, Ernie or even Lisa in that boiling waiting room. Until a few hours earlier, cozy in their cottage, Lisa's lost daughter was just an abstract figure, a name which occasionally made an otherwise strong woman cry.
Squire's name would come to Lisa as she flitted about the cabin in the morning doing her chores. It would freeze her joints. The watering can would drop and drench her feet inside her Crocs. Lisa would straighten her back and stare off into the sky. 18 years would pass before her eyes. Their turkeys would mimic Lisa’s posture perfectly even though they'd never met Squier. Lisa's husband or son would come home, find the birds and Lisa like this and nag until they were sure she didn't take too much stock in these flashes. They knew these were the brief moments where Lisa awoke from her new life, the only life that they knew with her.
By the kid's eyes and the way he fidgeted, Ernie knew he wished a sister he never wanted a quick death. The boy and his father, completely unaware, hid behind the spines of their books. How much would it convenience them if some clumsy surgeon just missed and sliced into a major artery? These were the types of people who prayed, they were probably asking their God to open up the earth and swallow that operating table. Ernie wished the two would catch fire. Then he realized how paranoid he was being and unclenched his fists. Maybe religious discussion could be a good thing.
He leaned towards Lisa. "The Pagans were washed away by what, exactly?"
"All of it. The Old Testament. You don't see them in the New one! He was testing us. Some just weren't meant to make it."
"Yeesh, glad we survived. What else did Our Little Jewish Buddy in Christ say about Baal?"
"He's called 'Your.'"
Four women in heels clattered across the hall outside, a cadence of horse hooves.
"He's called 'Your Little Jewish Buddy in Christ'" Lisa said.
"Well, he's not my anything!"
The two laughed, unexpected, comfortably. It was a turning point. Things had been tense since meeting a few hours earlier in that very same waiting room: "I'm not family, please, you have to let me wait here though, I need to see Squier, there's not going to be any family, they're all Eskimos up in Alaska, I'm all she's . . . oh, really? Hi. Yes, I know your daughter . . . you're her mother? Hmm . . . well, I'm. . . a close friend." There wasn't much he could say about his relationship with her daughter. The big cross on Lisa's neck, the rosary, the fact that Squier's other 'boyfriend' would be arriving in a few hours . . . "How long have I known Squier? Oh, only a week or so." Even that was an exaggeration. "Gosh! How wonderful you are for only knowing my daughter a week yet being here for the greatest trial of her life!" A blind horse could tell Lisa was suspicious.
But there was too much going on. Everyone in that waiting room was living in dog's age, taking in two years at a time for every antiseptic, hospital breath gasped with uncertainty as Squier's back remained sliced open, picked into. Everyone in there needed something. Halos of sweat lined every conceivable shirt neck and sleeve. Lisa needed a laugh more than her daughter needed a between-operations smoke. A vision of Squier awake, letting the doctors operate so long as she could puff on a Spirit bobbed into Ernie's head. As though psychic, Lisa sighed. "Squier never did know what was good for her."
Squier’s stepdad and their young son slept in the corner beneath the Television, faces still behind books. They would leave soon for their hotel. Attentive gargoyle Lisa would knit, stout and still as a totem pole, in that San Jose waiting room forever if she had to. It would make up for the 10 lost years, give her a chance to sort out what she would say if the surgeons gave her even a moment of her daughter's consciousness. It put her in the right place to see if a family's worth of prayers came unanswered.
Squier’s birth dad, the Eskimo heritage she bragged about, was somewhere in Alaska dying from liver complications and most definitely unaware of the metal support rods being entrusted carefully by gloved hands into the delicate spinal pathway a few minutes of his pleasure once produced.
Lisa's prayers, rattling from her lips like a stock ticker, had been the only thing keeping the woman focused enough to drive down. Not that she would let another soul touch the steering wheel. Driving was a shred of control. Lisa pulled her husband out of work, threw her son in the back of the Subaru and left Washington the minute she heard about Squier's airlift. The accident was in Santa Cruz but San Jose was the only place with a heliport. Thrillseeker Squier got to fly out into the freezing Cali beach night on a stretcher dangling from a helicopter. The professionals were afraid to bring her jigsaw puzzle pieces to the hospital any other way.
And Ernie knew Squier just loved it. She was certainly conscious enough after the accident to soak in the ride. When they pulled her from under the Ford Explorer she was literally cursing the driver to hell and back. Gibson said despite her body being split into two different spots under an SUV tire, Squier made threats so convincing the cops had to calm the driver. "You're going to keep her from doing any of that stuff, right?" "Sir, there's no telling if she'll even live. You just hit her with a car." "Right, I . . ." "Just sit down. We'll be over to get a statement in a moment."
Ernie didn't know why Vic put his name on the list of schoolmates to visit at the hospital. Vic was last seen freaking out on stage and leading their little covergroup to fail the high school battle-of-the-bands. The auditions alone were too much for the guitarist. Twenty seconds into "In The Flesh" by Pink Floyd and Vic attacked the judges for cutting his mic. He was saying terrifying, personal things about the faculty that even angered the band. "So you think you'd like to live without a nose on your face, Mister Karson? No? You look like you do! How bout I get a scissors and . . . Hey, Don't touch my sound!" But he was just a punk kid then. Neither Vic, Ernie nor their bassist Sabian Korg had spoken to each other when six students were pulled from their homerooms and loaded into the varsity softball van.
"Everyone remember Victor probably doesn't want to talk much." Behind the wheel, the principal announced this like the day's cafeteria selections. Her head was a bobbly piece of plastic, nudged by the finger of God himself, keeping time to a song of disbelief. Her eyes were locked to the flashing yellow road lines for the duration of the 5 minute hospital drive. The same ride was worth 500 dollars with insurance. 100 dollars a minute. As they drove, Ernie wondered when hospitals charged families for ambulance fare in last minute suicide backouts like Vic. 'Sorry you wanted to die, here are some stitches and a bunch of bills.' Maybe it was a sliding scale.
At the hospital, students were unloaded from the van by roll call. The principal took attendance and joked about how not knowing the kids' names meant they were staying out of trouble. Except for Ernie. Then she nervously led the minors through the different wards of the hospital. Old men secured by thick straps to gurneys wailed for lost lovers on the roadsides of greying hallways. Nurses complained to each other in thick Trinidadian accents at the side cubicle offices, passing around issues of People or Entertainment and comparing their lives to the photoshopped cellulite tragedies of Kirstie Alley.
Their principal found the room, led the group in and heaved a bag of "Get Well" cards onto the bedside table; a little pants suit Santa Claus. The room was bright and double sized with no second occupant behind the dividing curtain. The six students and middle aged administrator seemed to take up a crucial amount of space, keeping the room from feeling like an utter vacuum. There was a body on the bed covered to the scalp by a fleece blanket. Wires streamed from under it and connected to every conceivable machine in the room; a fly at the center of a gigantic web. From the way their principal addressed the body, the kids were led to believe this was Vic.
"Victor," said the principal, "your friends are here. We want you to know how glad we are that you chose life and . . ." She reached into her pocket for the rest of the speech. It was on a crisp, new sheet. Ernie thought maybe for a second it was a website printout but caught a glimpse of the principal's creased face and decided the speech rather from a yellowed book somewhere, photocopied, left in a manila folder for years, unread until now.
Sabian Korg, up until then silent, whispered "She doesn't realize that's not Firth."
Ernie stared ahead, shivered. It was possible. Everything in the room seemed to disappear then come back into focus, a split second’s fade to white. It was very possible. None of this made any sense to Ernie. And if none of it made any sense then anything was possible. This was Schrödinger's cat. This was Chinatown. He looked back to Sabian and said "stop joking" just to reassure himself.
Sabian shrugged "I wish I could make something this ridiculous up."
The principal, now sitting on the corner of the yellowed bedspread, gave up on the speech and was reading the body under the sheet a smattering of hastily written cards wellwishing Vic's recovery from whatever varying condition the students' homeroom teachers told them. Most of the notes were from people Vic hated, some who didn't even know he existed. Vic hated these semi-strangers based on their concept alone. It was just as well the principal was reading their notes to the wrong person.
Whoever was under that blanket seriously didn't need a big shock. A room full of medical equipment could attest to that. At least that's why Ernie assumed Sabian Korg hadn't corrected the room. Such motives seemed pure, unmuddled as the boys stood watching more hand-drawn cards pile up on the bedside of a stranger with a respirator for lungs.
Sabian was the one who insisted Vic was an asset to Ernie's cover band. "You godda hear this, Vic strategizes guitar like a reclusive Kubla Khan. Brian Wilson meets Steve Vai! He shreds! He can play just about any classic rock song ever. . . in his sleep! He can falsetto like Frankie Vallie. He can be anyone!" This was only two months prior when any guitarist who could play a Ramones song would've filled the gap so close to auditions. Their rhythm section was willing to play anything so long as it meant competing. So it was welcomed coincidence that Pink Floyd happened to be both Vic and Ernie's favorite band.
"So where is he?" Ernie whispered in the wrong hospital room.
Wearing their name stickers and checking their fliphones, none in Vic's commiseration field trip saw the rhythm section leave. The principal read another note which hoped Vic's headaches subsided before graduation.
Korg and Ernie stepped into the rest of the psych ward. Men in hospital gowns, bald men, faces ugly and unshaven careened about the hallway walls like wads of human plastic. There were no windows. Humming overheated machines with no thought or feeling swung windmill arms at the kids; a slow, orbital obstacle course. Plastic bracelets swinging slow enough for the boys to read the diseases, injuries and extenuating conditions off the wrists of flailed arms. Occasionally a nurse followed and chanted "no don'tdothat,nocomebackhere, nodon'tdothat, nocomebackhere." And the poor acoustics said it right back to her. Human hair sat in clumps on the floor, swept to the side but not removed, bright tinted locks faded with dirt like snow at the curbs of the suburbs. Fluorescent blinking. Chintsy bulbs illuminating decades of sad memories. There was a racing stripe along the wall like it would make misery pass more quickly. It was 10 AM but you'd never know it. The very sun had given up on this place.
Vic's Mother paced amidst a crossroad of hallway waiting for the field trip. Signs on the wall everywhere told her where she could have been going. She just glared at her watch. Mrs. Firth glared so hard you'd think that staring was keeping the watch gears wound. She wore a formal pants suit as well as a bunch of gold bracelets, her hair cut short and recently dyed burgundy. One got the impression looking at her that she would be upset to find the principal wearing a similar outfit.
"Hello Mrs. F!" said Korg.
"Sabian," she replied, her face made up and glittering. "Where is Dr. Manitobo and the rest of the class?"
"Class? . . .?"Suddenly a cold part of Ernie sprung to life.
"Yes, there were some students who . . ."
"Class?! What kind of sick class is this?"
Mrs. Firth almost jumped."Who are you anyway? Did Victor ask for you?" The toe of her shoes clanked the linoleum. "Have we met?"
"A class! Like a routine thing. A class! A homeroom, same difference. What the hell! I had no idea up until now, but I guess that makes perfect sense."
Mrs. Firth began to speak but was cut off. Ernie couldn't stop himself. Mrs. Firth stared. Her lips tightened. Old voices down the hall wailed once more. It was as though someone controlled their volume. Maybe that's what all the computers at the nurse's stations were for.
"The bar's pretty low for today's lesson, teach." Ernie menaced the old woman. It was the only bit of control he had on the morning. She didn't budge. He pranced about her trying to illicit a response. "We're ready whenever you are. I'd really appreciate learning whatever this class is about before all this shit actually gets weird or anything!" He was shouting.
Sabian tried to break in but Mrs. Firth glanced back at her watch again, disregarding Ernie, and the drummer became too animated to restrain.
"Nobody will even tell us what he did to himself," young Ernie screamed, hands swinging through the air. A nurse started her approach but Sabian gave her the universal 'no-its-cool-he's-just-freaked-to-be-in-a-hospital' gesture. Such sentiments were luxuries of psych ward visitors and not, of course, patients. Mrs. Firth, who still didn't know Ernie from a snake in her yard, didn't move to stop Sabian. Throughout the whole thing she didn't flinch. She glanced down at her watch again. Ernie deflated, slunk behind Sabian."Go for it" he grumbled to the bassist.
"They think Victor is in that room down the hall, Mrs. F." Sabian pointed it out. "That's where everybody is. That's what Ernie was trying . . . to . . . tell . . . you!" He gave the drummer a few elbows to the ribs.
Looking back at Ernie, Mrs. Firth sighed. She patted this boy on the shoulder, ran her hands for a second through his long brown hair. "It's okay. I can hardly recognize Vic since the accident either." Ernie was panting, overworked, dismayed. He just looked at her weakly. She ran another hand through his hair.
"It was no accident, Mom!" Vic's little brother walked over."Mom! Don't call it that, it was no---"
"Hush," she said. "We promised we wouldn't say anything more than we needed to . . . hey! Look at me. Look over here. Now Joseph, didn't we? DIDN'T WE?"
"But mom," the brother whined.
"Ugh, come along," she grunted, pulling his arm. "Victor's in that room down there, boys. The one with the music coming out." Ms. Firth pointed past the fire doors where the lights didn't seem to work.
No matter how the rest of his body was rearranged, Vic knew immediately where his old band was staring. He looked down at the Roman effigy around his neck and before the two could say anything, before anyone else could come into the room and hear, announced "they think religion is more sane here." He gave his wheelchair a twirl. The wheels squeaked.
Victor wasn't just addressing his companions. Vic Firth spoke to all the dead philosophers whose mixed, contradictory logic ever affected his small, teenage way of thinking. Not that they could hear him if their beliefs in nothingness beyond life were really true.
Vic was saying it because the guy hadn't seen anybody his own age since being admitted. It'd all been a parade of medical attention, stomach pumps, long-needled syringes, blinding lights, stitches, peach-yellow sheet blisters, ointment, bandages and crying family members making him feel less human than the numbers on his charts.
Speaking of charts, Ernie noticed the wrong name in the plastic attachment to Victor's door. It was handwritten; poorly, with weak fingers. The door their principal led them to had a handwritten name as well. The coincidence seemed worth mentioning but, even if he tried, Ernie wouldn't have been heard over Vic's desperate explanations.
Vic picked up the cross and danced it through the air like a toy. "My new necklace here gels well with what my mother thinks, which's perfect because the old bird's become my biggest advocate in getting out of this psychoanalytical Dodge City. So if anyone asks until this whole thing blows over and I get my guitar back, Jesus is quite fucking alright with me. Now listen, you two are my closest friends---"
Moments ago Ernie literally couldn't discern this so-called friend from a bloated vegetable. Not that the drummer could recognize Vic any better now. Looking at the remains of his so-called friend rolling about the room in a wheelchair, Ernie wished he could just run and hide. "Me?" He meant it as an honest question, like Vic would just respond 'no, you're right, Ernie, I don't know why I called you here. We barely know eachother. Just go home, I'll take myself to the freakshow and call you when I need a house band.'
But the guitarist pretended not to hear him. "I want you to remember this. It's me, Vic Firth, really me in here, no matter who I have to become to get out of here. No matter how I look now. Sure, I've done some . . . horrendous . . . things to myself."
"I'll say," Korg blurted. It came from a cold place of disbelief the bassist was having trouble silencing. It was accompanied by a series of uncomfortable, stifled giggles that made the bassist gasp for air. He looked embarrassed. Vic didn't even notice. The psych patient had far too much to share with his companions before anyone else could enter his room.
"I just want you to know I haven't really let them brainwash me. It might seem that way, but I need to act like this to get out of here. Then I'll be back to normal. Then we can play music again. I've got so many new ideas!" He looked at his former band and blinked. ". . . So how've you been?"
"How've we been?" Sabian Korg repeated, puzzled, almost sarcastically. "How've we been?"
Aqualung blared in the background, a racing soundtrack twirling through the empty space of the room. The radio was next to a small table lamp, the rest of the lights in the room had been shut. It was only then that Ernie noticed the second body in its bed. Ernie tapped Sabian's brown wrist to get the bassist's attention. No response. The man in the bed was bald and white, mid-forties, staring with his eyes open at the ceiling. Could he hear them? Did he like Aqualung? A fly landed directly on the man's eyeball, pounced around, and then climbed right into the tear duct.
"They think you're some comatose down the hall" Sabian Korg said.
Vic laughed, threw his whole body back. A couple tears fled from his raw eyelids into the air. "Man, what a bunch of saps! What a buncha ultra maroons! I'll bet they woulda misspoke at my funeral too! That woulda been a blast! Remember that kid last year in that car crash where everyone used his death for an excuse to get outta class?"
"Grief counseling," Korg said, pained by every syllable. The words flowed from a tight, apologetic grin which held back the screams as Victor wheeled himself into the light.
The guitarist's whole body, what could be seen poking out from under his hospital gown, was burned mostly to the bone; pulverized hamburger meat seemed to pour like thick salad dressing from inches-deep fissures in his Swiss cheese skin. His arm was a pork shoulder left in the sun to rot, brown, blackend, shriveled, blackened. The other arm was barely more than a picked-clean chickenbone. Exposed cheekbones, still raw, yellowed, oozing white, formed sheet blisters which just short of overflowed every time his glasses shifted. Purple skin on the lesser burns, the patches of skin stitched back together with thick metal staples, oxidized white and dripped shiny blood. Pockets of pus found any excuse to explode. The single pointed corner of an eyebrow, the part which had always made Vic look contemptuous, miraculously remained. The purple polka dots on his gown danced the rumba with the colorful gore which slopped off his flesh. His feet were in sad, hospital slippers that he'd already bled through. It was hard to tell if the wounds on his body were being aired out or if the nurses rather thought better of wasting clean bandages on a lost cause.
"How did you do it?" Ernie couldn't live without asking. It came up from his belly in a tiny voice, breathlessly. The music from the tinny radio was too loud for conversation. Vic wheeled himself closer. 'Hey Aqualung!' Tubes dug into Vic's arm covered with thin strips of medical tape. Fluids pumped in and out. The skin around the tape had peeled off, dangling. The loose skin was wet with pungent ointment. Vic couldn't get any closer or he'd yank his tubes from the machines. If Vic still cared about all that, that is.
"How did you do this to yourself?" Ernie was unable to move, knees locked. Why was he still asking this? He could smell the thick layers of ointment on Vic's bald, fricasseed skull. If he reached out he could slop off a dollop with one finger. Vic's bloodshot eyes locked on to his.
"How did I do this, you ask?"
"Vic," Korg said, "Neither of us has been---"
"It was simple." The guitarist said. His hands clenched the railing of the wheelchair. "I took every pill in the house. Everything my mother was ever prescribed. Valium, Vicodin, Tylenol 3s, Antidepressants, Barbiturates, the diet pills that she saves in case there's ever some class action law suit . . . Then I drank every bottle of wine in the house . . . I could feel the end approaching but it just didn't hurt. I figured, 'how could this be the end if I feel so fine? Where's the gratification in that?' These were my final sensations, after all! . . . So I filled up one of mother's deep pots and boiled some oil. Then I took that boiling pot to the bathroom downstairs by my bedroom . I took all the chemicals from under every sink and squirted the bottles into that tub, throwing their empties in like toy boats. The basement has the only bathroom with a lock in our whole house but unfortunately it's also the deepest tub and that one pot wasn't enough to fill it." Vic was beginning to sound nonchalant. "I had to keep at it. Same routine. It took an hour to fill it; back and forth, back and forth with that pot!" He was no longer gripping the chair but making gestures. "Up and down the stairs. I was already sweating, tired. Not to mention I had to wait for the water to come to a boil each time. Imagine that, me, sitting there, actually bored. About to die and fucking bored! . . . By the time the tub was even filled halfway my fingers were already gone. See?"
He raised the 10 purple stumps he'd been unbandaging.
"The tub was finally full so I took off my clothes and dove in. But I still couldn't feel a thing. I just watched the bubbles. Saw my skin become every color on the human spectrum. It felt like nothing, meant nothing. Smelled like a broth. I remember that smell. It made me think of Dr. Livingston in the boiling cauldron of some bone-faced natives. What a shitty last thought, you know? I was hoping to get more than that. The emptiness made me cry, but it wasn't regret. Regret implies I wished to act somehow differently. This wasn't that at all . . . It was. . . futility. I was touched by the hand of futility. Then my brother kicked open the door and I was boiling like a lobster. Rocking slowly back and forth; done. So they brought me here. I didn't fight them."
"But why," Sabian Korg said, entranced. He couldn't even pose it as a question.
"Because life and death were just a coin-flip by then." It was a defeated tone compared to Vic's usual cycle between detached calculation and caustic outbursts. His melted head turned along with his body in the rickety chair to look out the door. There was a huge lanced blister the length of the back of his skull drooping dead yellow skin. "Then they brought me here." He tried to smile but it brought about tears so thin only the milky pus in them was noticeable.
The lamp in the room across the hall blinked on, door wide open. A man with a white cowlick jumped back into his bed, erection in hand beneath his thin hospital blanket. He jerked Vic Firth a salute. A fat blonde woman down the hall crouched beneath the muzzle of an antibacterial dispenser and let the motion sensor spew the stuff down her throat. The machine kept going and she didn't move, sounding a bit too pleased with each drop. Squirt. mmmmm. Squirt. mmmmmm.
Sabian tried to change the subject. "How's the food?"
"Everything about this place is quicksand!" Vic hissed. "This place is a way for the state to hide the people who are too wound-up from one kind of chemical or another that's been pushed on them. A rug you're only a few bad decisions away from getting swept under! It's a place where the state can dump all the excess chemicals they needed to buy so those chemical companies can keep sending them the tax bucks." Vic pulled a handful of pills out from his gown like M&Ms and cast them to the ground. "It’s a dumping spot for that pharmacological runoff which will hopefully then kill those with no tolerance for the chemical inundation the state is promoting; a careful societal pruning, forced Darwinism."
Across the hall, the man still stared at Vic as he cranked his Johnson.
Vic kept speaking: "Entombing all this human wreckage instead of rehabilitating them to live on their own creates a permanent class of scrub-wearing zookeeper positions."
A gaggle of nurses walked the hall as though on cue. "Turn your radio down, Firth" one said. None paid attention to the old man beating off even though his bed springs were creaking. Sabian went to close the door but Vic held an arm to stop him. Sabian jumped at the guitarist's touch. "Sorry, I ---"The man across the hall, still jerking his hand under the sheets, kept a rigid eye on Vic. Vic stared right back. A pool of blood formed on the man's blanket just above his waist. The hand kept jerking. The pool grew bigger, taking up more of the white hospital blanket. Ernie and Sabian turned away. Vic just looked on.
"Look at all those useless orderlies circulating dough into the state's veins. Taxes, taxes, taxes! Not to mention the soda companies that stock the vending machines here, the food suppliers who keep any patient who can chew just barely above the line of malnutrition, the magazines for the waitingrooms and anyone who's got so many real-world cares they can escape to someone else's misery for fun. . . there's commerce everywhere, boyos! A bunch of vegetating consumers the state gets to dress and make choices for. A crucial boogeyman propping up the darkened rotting table leg of society, the real life Santa Claus which keeps everyone from expressing their true selves as society's corrupted us."
The antibacterial dispenser woman down the hall began vomiting. As with everything else, Vic ignored it.
"I mean, let's say I actually let them rehabilitate me, told them all my secrets, every dirty little thought I ever had; they'd keep me in a place like this but worse for life! I mean, why give nice things to someone who's proven not to have the cognitive capacity to enjoy them?"
A cockroach scurried from Vic's bedside table. Up the man on the bed's fingers it climbed, across his rumbling chest. Then a cough sent it jumping. The bald man coughed in a single jolt. His body still showed no signs of life. The cockroach, shaking off the human earthquake, crawled into an unflinching mouth. Vic was watching this too.
"They'd carve little Peanuts comic strips into my goddamn brain so some orderlies could get paid to wipe my balls and I wouldn't get an erection! That's how you rake in the tax dollars!"
As he said this, Ernie noticed the scar above the bald man's right eye. Cockroach shell drooled out the side of his lips.
"Get me all hooked on some chemical I'm too sedated to even pronounce. No. I'm going to be out of here in no time thanks to my buddy Jesus H. Krishna over here." He picked up the cross around his neck and kissed it, humming Hava Nagila all the while over Jethro Tull and keeping his eyes directly on his old bandmates. The cross was now covered in ointment from Vic's skin and glistened even in the dim light. Vic cringed to look at it.
"I tell you," he said, "if I had known they woulda put me here I would've just gone to the family piano, popped out that high E string and . . .”
"Look who I found!" said Vic's Mother from the doorway.
"Oh, everyone I asked for made it," Vic said with an entirely new voice.
TUNE IN FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF ILAN MOSKOWITZ'S PLAUSIBLE GHOSTS WITH AARON ZONKA