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|SAINT MARY BLUE
"A barrel of laughs with a kick in the
a punchline . . . The laughs were good and the tears were better. If
anyone out there whose life isn't affected by a drunk or junkie, he
still read Saint Mary Blue,
just because it's good."
Saint Mary Blue
by Barry B. Longyear
—Very funny, unless you happen to be the joke. But it's all relative. Hell, relativity's relative. Reality is the problem, you see. And if you aren't part of the problem, you're part of the solution.
—God, I feel sick. No. It's more like I'm covered with a thick layer of bread mold.
—What was that joke?
—Oh, yes. This drunk comes into a bar, see. And he orders a Martini from the bartender. While the bartender is getting the drink, the drunk looks down the bar and notices this little monkey sitting on top of an upright piano.
—Yeah, that's the way it went. And I better keep my eyes shut. I feel like I'm moving, and I can't remember any good reason why I should be moving. But if I push the feeling down, I won't have to deal with it. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow....
He felt for the reassuring lump of the pillbox in the pocket of his sweater vest.
—It's all illusion, anyway. A dream, this day, this life, this nightmare. What was the rest of that dumb joke, anyway?
Something lurched against his shoulder. He nodded to himself as he concluded that he really was moving. He studied the problem of trying to open his eyes.
—First there is the deeper issue to consider: should I open my eyes? You can't ever tell what's going to be there.
—The joke. Concentrate on the joke.
—As soon as the bartender puts down the drink, the little monkey scoots off the piano, runs down the bar, and plants his ass right in the guy's Martini. The drunk bends down, looks through the side of the glass, and sees the monkey's two fuzzy little balls right next to the olive....
Another lurch against his shoulder and a horn honking. He opened his eyes. The world was a blur of grays. He opened his eyes further and saw that he was looking at a pair of gloves. He wiggled the fingers of his left hand and decided that his hands were in the gloves. His head tilted back, and above a red plastic oblong, there was a dark brown melon perched on a dark blue rug....
The world looked very silly. Jacob closed his eyes.
—"Bartender!" says the drunk, "this monkey has his balls in my Martini."
—The bartender checks it out and shrugs. "I'm sorry, mister. The monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey. I'll get you a fresh drink."
Jacob opened his eyes again.
The melon resolved into the back of a head, the rug was a coat, the red plastic oblong was the back of a couch. He looked up and saw a face glowering at him. It was a picture in a plastic holder, the kind they have in taxicabs.
He turned his head to the right and saw men and women moving rapidly past. But they weren't walking. "What in the hell am I doing in a taxi?"
—Where am I? Where am I going? Where was I? Why....
—A taxi? This might be a problem.
As the motion of the cab pushed him against the right-hand door, he wiped his gloved hand over his bearded face, tried to work up enough spit to counter the dryness in his throat, and then let his eyelids fall shut from their own weight.
—I could ask the driver where I am, but I'd sound like a real jerk. What the hell. Look on the sunny side. At least it's not a police cruiser, or an ambulance, or a hearse. Concentrate on the joke.
—As soon as the bartender puts down the second drink, the little monkey scoots off the piano, runs down the bar, and plants his ass right in the fresh Martini. The drunk looks down and sees those two fuzzy little balls....
Jacob saw a face from outside looking back at him. A woman dressed like a blue snowball. Was she laughing? Laughing at him? The face disappeared as sick fear spread through him.
—What is the point? Life. What is the damned bleeding point of it all? I could see going through this pain if I was doing some kind of good somewhere. But what? Where?
—I can't figure out the rules. I just can't. Whatever it is that you have to know to live on this planet, I just can't figure it out.
He fought down the tears as he reached for his little green plastic pillbox. As he placed one of the little white oblongs on his tongue, he teased himself with the memory of the time he had once died. Back-to-back heart attacks. In the hospital's intensive care unit, all feeling, all sensation, all thought leaving him. Absolutely nothing whatever was important or unimportant. No pain, no hurt, no loneliness, no hate, no nothin'. The pleasant neutrality of death. Infinite universes of warm, black cotton.
Jacob Randecker never could understand why people feared death.
"What's so funny?" asked the cabbie.
Jacob looked up and nodded. "Death."
"Death?" The cabbie looked over his right shoulder, his face dark with concern. No, Jacob discovered. He's black. But concerned. "Are you all right, man?"
Jacob waved his hand back and forth, then let it fall to his lap. "Not death. That people are afraid of death."
Jacob managed to focus on a street sign. Hiawatha? He giggled. —Now I know where I am. By the shores of Gitchee-Goomy....
He looked into the open palm of his right glove. The green plastic pillbox sat there. He enclosed the box with his fist and gently shook it, listening with his sense of touch. There were still a few left.
—Death. Soft, black, nothingness. The ultimate downer. It is such a plus next to the abject negative of my existence, death. It's there: my ticket out, if I want out badly enough....
He rolled his head to the right and looked out the window at the snow, the ice, the huddled masses yearning to be any place except . . . except . . .
—Where in the hell am I? Where are the shores of Gitchee-Goomy?
He closed his eyes. That's right. Who cares? Like that guy in one of his stories. Sitting at a bar putting away his third keg. The bartender points at his glass and says, "You know, buddy, there aren't any answers in there."
The guy looks up at the bartender, then looks back at his glass. "I'm not looking for answers; just less questions."
—Less questions. Let's hear it for less questions. Amen.
—"Mister, the monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey. I'll get you another drink."
—So the bartender pulls the monkey's ass out of the Martini ....
"That's the new stadium. The dome is held up by air pressure."
"What?" Jacob Randecker opened his eyes and leaned forward. "What did you say?"
The taxi driver, his gaze never leaving the icy street, cocked his head toward his left. "That's Minneapolis's new stadium. It's paid for by a nickel-a-drink tax. Isn't that a sonofabitch? I'm getting laid off from work tomorrow, I can't afford the price of a drink, but I got me a brand new stadium, if I can come up with the bread for a ticket...."
The driver kept talking as Jacob rubbed his eyes and tried to squeeze some kind of sense out of existence. —Minneapolis is in Minnesota. Minnesota is ... somewhere west or south of Michigan. They have iron mines in Minnesota. And Saint Mary's Rehabilitation Center....
Panic edged into his intestines as memory crept through the fog.
Just before Christmas they came to eat dinner. That was the cover story. Ulterior motives were dripping from the rafters. But Jacob hadn't noticed. He had spent the day examining the inside of nothing; exactly as he had spent the previous six days. After the meal, there was some television. They watched a video tape of Apocalypse Now. Talk about your heavy symbolism.
Della, Jacob's part-time secretary, said that they wanted to talk.
"Okay, said he, "let's talk."
The words came through distorted as if they had been reflected from the audio equivalent of funhouse mirrors. He could tell that they were worried.
—But, why? What about? Lay it on good ol', I can fix anything, Jacob. Put down your burden—
"We're worried about you, Jacob."
"Why? What about? I stopped drinking on the seventeenth."
He glanced at Ann, demanding her support, but her eyes were closed, her arms folded, a frown crouching upon her brow. The three friends sat before him like a jury, their accusations couched in phrases of concern. Jacob played with the words, deflecting the concern, trying to keep the subject on anything but Jacob Randecker. But they were persistent.
"Now, listen," said Kate.
Della's hands were occupied with wringing the life out of a scarf. "We have a friend who went through Saint Mary's." The scarf was unwrung and rewrung in the opposite direction. "We've been talking with him, and he says that Saint Mary's is just what you need."
"What for? I said I stopped drinking."
Larry rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "Six days ago?"
Larry smiled. "Seven, then. Why did you stop?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but I made a fool of myself. I went to get my Ativan prescription refilled. I had been up the night before drinking ..." Jacob shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "I smelled bad. The doctor wouldn't write the new prescription."
Della began throttling the opposite end of her scarf. "Jacob, how do you feel?"
"Yes. Happy, sad, mad—"
"—Depressed. Very, very depressed."
"Saint Mary's can show you the way out of that. It's not just stopping drinking. They can show you how to live."
"What kind of program is it, anyway? I don't want to get near any bible-thumping bunch like A.A."
"What do you know about A.A., Jacob?"
"Not a damned thing, and that's the way I want to keep it."
"Saint Mary's isn't a religious program."
"Oh? That's why it's called Saint Mary's? Hmmm?"
"The Catholic Church runs the place, but it isn't a religious program."
"Just think about it," said Larry.
Jacob sat, staring at his friends. They were overreacting. He couldn't just hack a month out of his life on a whim and go to wherever. Minneapolis. Minneapolis is a joke. Mary Tyler Moore, WJM, and Ted Baxter....
"Think about it," Larry repeated. His friends got up to leave.
"I will." He closed the door after them and stood muttering, "Yeah, I'll think about it. I'll think about it a whole bunch. So why don't you go home? Why don't you go the fuck home and mind your own fucking business."
He looked at the couch. Ann was fast asleep. Jacob roused his wife, and they went to bed. "You don't look so good," he said.
Her words were clipped, all emotion ironed out. "Are you going to go to Saint Mary's? What did you tell them?"
"I didn't say yes or no."
"Will you at least see Dr. Hamund, tomorrow?
"Sure. I'll see Don the shrink."
Ann went to bed and Jacob stood in front of the bathroom mirror eating a quadruple dose of Ativan topped off with a Librium. In bed with the lights out, he put his head on his pillow and dropped to sleep through a cloud of quiet tears and silent curses.
It wasn't anyone's business. And they read it all wrong.
—If they could look through my eyes for a second, they'd understand. Talk to the shrink, my ass....
—That's how the joke goes.
—"Like I said, mister, the monkey belongs to the piano player, and the boss likes the piano player, so we have to put up with the monkey."
—The drunk looks at the monkey, then back at the bartender. "There must be something I can do."
"Maybe you can talk to the piano player."
The cab lurched and Jacob ate another Ativan as he thought about Christmas Eve in Don the wigpicker's office.
Sitting in front of the shrink being very confused, talking to himself.
—I don't know what's going on. Why is everybody on my ass?
At some point he thought about what his wife and friends had risked in giving him their little talk, however misguided it might have been. It would have been so much easier in the short run to avoid scenes and confrontations, risking friendships, marriage ... keep ignoring the problem, whatever they thought it was.
They had risked a lot. Jacob couldn't think of a situation that would move him to take a similar risk.
"It also shows a lot of care," said Don the shrink.
Jacob frowned. Don's statement was both true and contradicted one of the laws of the Randecker Reality, one of the supporting structures of the universe. That anyone could care a damn for him was not possible. That's why he cared not a damn for anyone. Driving everyone away, letting no one get close, was his rock.
—If you don't let them get close to you, they can't hurt you. But these people care. They're not stupid or gullible. Is there something about Jacob Randecker worth caring for?
—Questions. Always questions. And no one gives a damn that all of this is embarrassing me.
"Why can't you treat me?"
"Jacob, all I know about alcoholism is that I can't do anything for you."
"Given that I'm an alcoholic."
A smile. "Of course."
"What if I'm not alcoholic?"
"Then, don't you want to find out? There are some other options." Don talked about Antabuse, the puke pill. Makes it impossible to metabolize alcohol. If you take a drink, it won't kill you. Only makes you wish you were dead.
"No. It scares me."
"There's Alcoholics Anonymous."
"Forget it. It can't work for me."
"Separation from Ann."
Suddenly he was wide awake. "Why? What's that have to do with anything?"
"She needs a rest from you, Jacob."
"That—That's a hell of a thing to say!"
"You need a rest, too, Jacob."
"No, I can't agree to that. That won't work."
"It doesn't look as though you've anything left that will work, Jacob."
"Don't play shrinker games with me. Say what you mean."
"For every suggestion, you have an objection." Don's Ticonderoga doodled avant-garde nudes on a prescription form. What was that dumb joke, thought Jacob. I just found out that my analyst wears elevator shoes. How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But the light bulb really has to want to change—
"And there's St. Mary's in Minneapolis."
"Jesus! Can't you people think of anything else? What is this thing with Minneapolis?"
"Do you really want to change, Jacob?"
Panic. "Why me? I mean, why am I the one who has to change?"
"I'm not going to argue with you, Jacob. You can talk circles around me. You need help and I told you where you can get it."
"This is a hell of a thing you people want me to do. What if being without me takes? What if Ann discovers she prefers it?"
"Cross that bridge when you come to it."
Jacob stared, paralyzed, as what he really wanted to say scrolled behind his eyes:
—Gee, I wish I'd said that.
—Did you screw the government out of $150,000 in student loans to learn that?
"Wotthehell." —Jacob Randecker is always good for a grand gesture. "I'll go to St. Mary's. I could use a vacation. It's second on my list to suicide, and I can always exercise that option.
"They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
"Pick that up in the playground at psychiatrist school, did you?"
—And Jacob Randecker doesn't have temporary problems.
Some Christmas Eve. And it's going to be some great New Year, as well, he thought as he stared out of the window at the Minneapolis snowstorm, feeling awfully alone and like he had been talked into something.
He began fishing another Ativan out of his pillbox when the cab driver hit the brakes for a red light. The cab slid on the ice right through the intersection. A red panel truck coming from the right did an end-for-end, just missing the cab's rear bumper. Jacob noted the near disaster as an inconsequential, not too terribly interesting event in the environment, and concentrated on what was important: finding the tablet he had dropped on the floor. He found it in the mud next to a cigarette butt.
He brushed the dirt off, erased where it had been from his memory, tossed it into his mouth, and settled back to watch miles of ugly grain elevators through the grimy window.
"Damn, man!" said the driver. "Sorry about that. The road's like a skating rink."
Jacob nodded and continued looking at the dull, stained, frozen buildings as he spoke. "Do you people really believe that Mary Tyler Moore lived here?"
The cabbie didn't answer. Jacob didn't notice. All he noticed was the color gray. Gray buildings, gray sky, gray snow, gray people dressed in gray....
Inside there was a feeling. Something that said to Jacob Randecker: you should be crying right now, or cursing, or screaming—not making Jokes.
—Numb jokes, dumb Jokes.
—Oh, yeah. That's how the joke went.
—So the drunk gets off his stool and walks over to the piano. He taps the piano player on the shoulder and says "Do you know your monkey has his balls in my Martini?"
—The piano player shakes his head. "No, man. But hum me a few bars and I'll fake it."
A voice woke him out of his semi-doze. The cab driver was looking back at him. Jacob's lips were numb. An electric tingle skittered across his scalp. "What?"
The cabbie pointed with his finger. "Where to?" Jacob leaned forward, looked out of the windshield, squinted, and saw a chocolate-brown collective sign stacked with the names of several institutions. It identified the mass of snow-covered, red brick buildings beyond it as St. Mary's Hospital. In the center of the aggregate was a specific. Jacob picked it and slumped back in the seat. "The rehab center."
The cabbie raised an eyebrow, then went back to the job. The taxi moved off, turned right, and stopped in front of a five-story building. The fare on the meter was over ten dollars. Jacob handed the driver a twenty and said, "Keep it," as he reached for the door.
"Thanks." The cab driver pointed at the building with his thumb. "What's it like in there?"
Jacob shook his head, got out of the cab, and pulled his bag out after him. "I don't know anything about it." He closed the door and the driver spoke through his open window. "Think it'll do you any good?"
Jacob turned around and looked up at the building. "These people have an impossible task: trying to convince me that there is a good reason for being in this world alive and sober at the same time."
The driver didn't laugh. "I hear you, man. Good luck."
Jacob heard the cab crunch off through the fresh snow, and he lowered his gaze to the building's double glass doors. Icy wetness trickled down the back of his neck. The image blurred.
"Damn. Damn, but I'm scared."
A guy in shirtsleeves was shaking his am. "Hey! Hey, what's your name?"
Jacob frowned. He was still standing in front of the glass doors. The guy, wide eyes and close-trimmed brown beard, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. "Where did you come from?"
The bearded youth pointed toward the doors. "Are you supposed to be in there?"
"You've been standing out here in the snow for the last twenty minutes." He rubbed his arms, and paused as his face softened. "Look, man, you've come to the right place. But let's get inside. I'm freezing."
The man's image blurred as tears obscured Jacob's vision. "I don't know. I don't know."
The man took Jacob's arm and removed the bag from his stiff fingers. "Let's go." He began pulling Jacob toward the glass doors. "You can make it. You can make it if you can be honest. You know what I mean by honest?"
Jacob smiled, then laughed. "No. man. But hum me a few bars and I'll fake it." . . . .
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