Choke, p.3

Choke, page 3

 

Choke
 


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  The nurse calls, “Miss Marshall?”

  My job, it’s too hard to explain here. “I just happen to be the backbone of early colonial America.”

  “Which is?” she says.

  “An Irish indentured servant.”

  She just looks at me, nodding her head. Then she looks down at the chart. “It’s either we put a tube into her stomach,” the doctor says. “Or she’ll starve to death.”

  I look into the dark secret insides of her ear and ask if we could maybe explore some other options.

  Down the hall, the nurse stands with her fists planted on her hips and shouts, “Miss Marshall!”

  And the doctor winces. She holds up an index finger to stop me talking, and she says, “Listen.” She says, “I really do have to finish rounds. Let’s talk more on your next visit.”

  Then she turns and walks the ten or twelve steps to where the nurse is waiting and says, “Nurse Gilman.” She says, her voice rushed and the words crushed together, “You can at least pay me the respect of calling me Dr. Marshall.” She says, “Especially in front of a visitor.” She says, “Especially if you’re going to shout down the length of a hallway. It’s a small courtesy, Nurse Gilman, but I think I’ve earned that, and I think if you start behaving like a professional yourself, you’ll find everyone around you will be a great deal more cooperative. …”

  By the time I get the newspaper from the dayroom, my mom’s asleep. Her terrible yellow hands are crossed on her chest, a plastic hospital bracelet heat-sealed around one wrist.

  Chapter 4

  The moment Denny bends over, his wig falls off and lands in the mud and horse poop and about two hundred Japanese tourists giggle and crowd forward to get his shaved head on videotape.

  I go, “Sorry,” and go to pick up the wig. It’s not very white anymore, and it smells bad since, for sure, about a million dogs and chickens take a leak here every day.

  Since he’s bent over, his cravat hangs in his face, blinding him. “Dude,” Denny says, “tell me what’s happening.”

  Here I am, the backbone of early colonial America.

  The stupid shit we do for money.

  From the edge of the town square, His Lord High Charlie, the colonial governor, is watching us, standing with his arms crossed, his feet planted about ten feet apart. Milkmaids carry around buckets of milk. Cobblers hammer on shoes. The blacksmith bangs away on the same piece of metal, pretending the same as everybody else not to be watching Denny bent over in the middle of the town square, getting locked in the stocks again.

  “They caught me chewing gum, dude,” Denny says to my feet.

  Being bent over, his nose starts to run, and he sniffs. “For sure,” he says and sniffs, “His Highness is going to blab to the town council this time.”

  The wooden top half of the stocks swings closed to hold him around the neck, and I snug it down, careful not to pinch his skin. I say, “Sorry, dude, that’s got to be way cold.” Then I do the padlock. Then I fish a rag out of my waistcoat pocket.

  A clear little drop of snot dangles off the tip of Denny’s nose, so I hold the rag against it and say, “Blow, dude.”

  Denny blows a long rattling goob I feel slam into the rag.

  The rag’s pretty nasty and full already, but all I’d have to do is offer him a nice clean facial tissue and I’d be next in line for a disciplinary action. There’s about countless ways you can screw up around here.

  On the back of his head, somebody’s felt-penned “Eat me” in bright red, so I shake out his shitty wig and try to cover the writing, except the wig’s soaked full of nasty brown water that trickles around the shaved sides of his head and drips off the tip of his nose.

  “I’m banished for sure,” he says and sniffs.

  Cold and starting to shake, Denny says, “Dude, I feel air. … I think my shirt’s pulled out of my breeches in back.”

  He’s right, and tourists are shooting his butt crack from every angle. The colonial governor is eyeballing this, and the tourists keep right on taping as I grab Denny’s waistband in both hands and tug it back up.

  Denny says, “The good part about being in the stocks is I’ve racked up three weeks of sobriety.” He says, “At least this way I can’t go in the privy every half hour and, you know, beat off.”

  And I say, “Careful with that recovery stuff, dude. You’re liable to explode.”

  I take his left hand and lock it in place, then his right hand. Denny’s spent so much of this past summer in the stocks he has white rings around his wrists and neck where he never gets any sun.

  “Monday,” he says, “I forgot and wore my wristwatch.”

  The wig slides off again, landing smack wet in the mud. His cravat, soaked in snot and crap, flaps in his face. The Japanese all giggle as if this is a gag we’d rehearsed.

  The colonial governor keeps staring at Denny and me for signs of us being historically inappropriate so he can lobby the town council to banish us to the wilderness, just boot us out the town gate and let the savages shoot arrows and massacre our unemployed butts.

  “Tuesday,” Denny tells my shoes, “His Highness saw I had Chap Stick on my lips.”

  Every time I pick up the stupid wig, it weighs more. This time I slap it against the side of my boot before spreading it over the “Eat me” words.

  “This morning,” Denny says and sniffs. He spits some brown gunk that got in his mouth. “Before lunch, Goodwife Landson caught me smoking a cigarette behind the meetinghouse. Then, while I’m bent over here, somebody’s little shitface fourth-grader grabs my wig off and writes that shit on my head.”

  With my snot rag I wipe the worst of the mess away from his eyes and mouth.

  Some black-and-white chickens, chickens with no eyes or only one leg, these deformed chickens wander over to peck at the shiny buckles on my boots. The blacksmith keeps beating his metal, two fast and then three slow beats, again and again, that you know is the bass line to an old Radiohead song he likes. Of course, he’s ripped out of his mind on ecstasy.

  A little milkmaid I know named Ursula catches my eye, and I shake my fist in front of my crotch, giving her the universal sign language for hand job. Blushing under her starchy white hat, Ursula slips a dainty pale hand out of her apron pocket and gives me the finger. Then she goes to jerk off some lucky cow all afternoon. That, and I know she lets the king’s constable feel her up because one time he let me sniff his fingers.

  Even from here, even over the horse shit, you can smell the reefer coming off her in a fog.

  Milking cows, churning butter, for sure you know milkmaids must give great hand jobs.

  “Goodwife Landson’s a bitch,” I tell Denny. “The minister guy says she gave him a scorching case of herpes.”

  Yeah, she’s a Yankee blue blood from nine to five, but behind her back everybody knows she went to high school in Springburg where the whole football team knew her as Douche Lamprini.

  This time the nasty wig stays in place. The colonial governor gives up glowering at us and goes inside the Customs House. The tourists wander on to other photo opportunities. It starts to rain.

  “It’s okay, dude,” Denny says. “You don’t have to stand out here with me.”

  This is just, for sure, another shitty day in the eighteenth century.

  You wear an earring, you go to jail. Color your hair. Pierce your nose. Put on deodorant. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect jack shit.

  The Lord High Governor bends Denny over at least twice a week, for chewing tobacco, for wearing cologne, shaving his head.

  Nobody in the 1730s had a goatee, His Governess will lecture Denny.

  And Denny will sass him back, “Maybe the real cool colonists did.”

  And it’s back to the stocks for Denny.

  Our joke is Denny and me have been codependent since 1734. That’s how far back we go. Since we met in a sexaholics meeting. Denny showed me an ad in the classifieds, and we both came to the same job interview.

&nb
sp; Just being curious, at the interview, I asked if they’d hired a village whore yet.

  The town council just looks at me. The hiring committee, even where nobody can see them, all six old guys wear those fake colonial wigs. They write everything with feathers, from birds, dipped in ink. The one in the middle, the colonial governor, sighs. He leans back so he can look at me through his wire-framed glasses. “Colonial Dunsboro,” he says, “doesn’t have a village whore.”

  Then I say, “Then how about the village idiot?”

  The governor shakes his head, no.

  “Pickpocket?”

  No.

  “Hangman?”

  Certainly not.

  This is the worst problem with living history museums. They always leave the best parts out. Like typhus. And opium. And scarlet letters. Shunning. Witch-burning.

  “You’ve been warned,” the governor says, “that all aspects of your behavior and appearance must coincide with our official period in history.”

  My job is I’m supposed to be some Irish indentured servant. For six dollars an hour, it’s incredibly realistic.

  The first week I was here, a girl got canned for humming an Erasure song while she was churning butter. It’s like, yeah, Erasure is historic, but not historic enough. Even somebody as ancient as the Beach Boys can get you in trouble. It’s like they don’t even think of their stupid powdered wigs and breeches and buckle shoes as retro.

  His Highness, he forbids tattoos. Nose rings have to stay in your locker while you’re at work. You can’t chew gum. You can’t whistle any songs by the Beatles.

  “Any violation of character,” he says, “and you will be punished.”

  Punished?

  “You’ll be let go,” he says. “Or you can spend two hours in the stocks.”

  Stocks?

  “In the village square,” he says.

  He means bondage. Sadism. Role playing and public humiliation. The governor himself, he makes you wear clocked stockings and tight wool breeches with no underwear and calls this authentic. This is who wants women bent over in the stocks for just wearing nail polish. Either that or you’re fired with no unemployment checks, nothing. And a bad job reference to boot. And for sure, nobody wants it on their résumé that they were a shitty candlemaker.

  Being unmarried twenty-five-year-old guys in the eighteenth century, our options were pretty limited. Footman. Apprentice. Gravedigger. Cooper, whatever that is. Bootblack, whatever that is. Chimneysweep. Farmer. The minute they say town crier, Denny said, “Yeah. Okay. I can do that. Really, I spend half my life crying.”

  His Highness looks at Denny and says, “Those glasses you’re wearing, do you need them?”

  “Only to see with,” Denny says.

  I took the job because there are worse things than working with your best friend.

  Sort-of best friend.

  Still, you’d think this would be more fun, a fun job with a bunch of Drama Club types and community theater folks. Not this chain gang of throwbacks. These Puritan hypocrites.

  If the Ye Old Town Council only knew Mistress Plain, the seamstress, is a needle freak. The miller is cooking crystal meth. The innkeeper deals acid to the busloads of bored teenagers who get dragged here on school field trips. These kids sit in rapt attention watching while Mistress Halloway cards wool and spins it into yarn, the whole time she’s lecturing them on sheep reproduction and eating hashish johnnycake. These people, the potter on methadone, the glassblower on Percodans, and the silversmith popping Vicodins, they’ve found their niche. The stableboy, hiding his headphones under a tricorner hat, plugged in on Special K and twitching to his own private rave, they’re all a bunch of hippie burnouts peddling their agrarian bullshit, but okay, that’s just my opinion.

  Even Farmer Reldon has his plot of primo weed out behind the corn and the pole beans and junk. Only he calls it hemp.

  The only funny part about Colonial Dunsboro is maybe it’s too authentic, but for all the wrong reasons. This whole crowd of losers and nutcases who hide out here because they can’t make it in the real world, in real jobs—isn’t this why we left England in the first place? To establish our own alternate reality. Weren’t the Pilgrims pretty much the crackpots of their time? For sure, instead of just wanting to believe something different about God’s love, the losers I work with want to find salvation through compulsive behaviors.

  Or through little power and humiliation games. Witness His Lord High Charlie behind lace curtains, just some failed drama major. Here, he’s the law, watching whoever gets bent over, yanking his dog with one white-gloved hand. For sure, they don’t teach you this in history class, but in colonial times, the person who got left in the stocks overnight was nothing less than fair game for everybody to nail. Men or women, anybody bent over had no way of knowing who was doing the ram job, and this was the real reason you never wanted to end up here unless you had a family member or a friend who’d stand with you the whole time. To protect you. To watch your ass, for real.

  “Dude,” Denny says. “It’s my pants, again.”

  So I pull them back up.

  The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.

  “Dude,” Denny says, and sniffs. “For serious, you don’t have to stay.”

  From what I remember about physical diagnosis, Denny’s pallor could mean liver tumors.

  See also: Leukemia.

  See also: Pulmonary edema.

  It starts raining harder, from clouds so dark that people start lighting lamps inside. Smoke settles down on us from chimneys. The tourists will all be in the tavern drinking Australian ale out of pewter mugs made in Indonesia. In the woodwright’s shop, the cabinetmaker will be huffing glue out of a paper bag with the blacksmith and the midwife while she talks about fronting the band they dream of putting together but never will.

  We’re all trapped. It’s always 1734. All of us, we’re stuck in the same time capsule, the same as those television shows where the same people are marooned on the same desert island for thirty seasons and never age or escape. They just wear more makeup. In a creepy way, those shows are maybe too authentic.

  In a creepy way, I can see myself standing here for the rest of my life. It’s a comfort, me and Denny complaining about the same shit, forever. In recovery, forever. Sure, I’m standing guard, but if you want to get really authentic about it, I’d rather see Denny locked in the stocks than let him get banished and leave me behind.

  I’m not so much a good friend as I’m the doctor who wants to adjust your spine every week.

  Or the dealer who sells you heroin.

  “Parasite” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

  Denny’s wig flops to the ground, again. The words “Eat me” bleeding red in the rain, running pink down behind his cold, blue ears, trickling pink around his eyes and down his cheeks, dripping pink into the mud.

  All you can hear is the rain, water falling against puddles, against thatched roofs, against us, erosion.

  I’m not so much a good friend as I’m the savior who wants you to worship him forever.

  Denny sneezes, again, a long hank of yellowy goob that snakes out of his nose and lands on the wig in the mud, and he says, “Dude, do not put that nasty rug back on my head, okay?” And he sniffs. Then coughs, and his glasses drop off his face into the mess.

  Nasal discharge means Rubella.

  See also: Whooping cough.

  See also: Pneumonia.

  His glasses remind me of Dr. Marshall, and I say how there’s this new girl in my life, a real doctor, and for serious, worth the effort to bag.

&nbs
p; And Denny says, “You still stuck on doing your fourth step? You need any help remembering stuff to write in your notebook?”

  The complete and relentless story of my sexual addiction. Oh, yeah, that. Every lame, suck-ass moment.

  And I say, “Everything in moderation, dude. Even recovery.”

  I’m not so much a good friend as I’m the parent who never wants you to really grow up.

  And facedown, Denny says, “It helps to remember the first time for everything.” He says, “My first time I jacked off, I thought I’d invented it. I looked down at my sloppy handful of junk and thought, This is going to make me rich.”

  The first time for everything. The incomplete inventory of my crimes. Just another incomplete in my life full of incompletes.

  And still facedown, blind to everything in the world except the mud, Denny says, “Dude, you still there?”

  And I put the rag back around his nose and tell him, “Blow.”

  Chapter 5

  Whatever lighting the photographer used was harsh and made bad shadows on the cement-block wall behind them. Just a painted wall in somebody’s basement. The monkey looked tired and patchy with mange. The guy was in lousy shape, pale with rolls around his middle, but there he was, relaxed and bent over with his hands braced against his knees and his poochy gut hanging down, his face looking back over his shoulder at the camera, smiling away.

  “Beatific” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

  What the little boy first loved about pornography wasn’t the sex part. It wasn’t the pictures of beautiful people dorking each other, their heads thrown back, making those fake orgasm faces. Not at first. He’d found all those pictures on the Internet even before he knew what sex was. They had the Internet in every library. They had it at all the schools.

  The way you can move from city to city and always find a Catholic church, the same Mass said everywhere, no matter what foster place the kid was sent, he could always find the Internet. The truth was, if Christ had laughed on the cross, or spat on the Romans, if he’d done anything more than just suffer, the kid would’ve liked church a lot more.

 
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