Saturday, June 1, 2019

Red Light Mama, Red Hot - a short story


Red Light Mama, Red Hot

written by Jason Hillenburg

There ain’t no backin’ out when you’re born to lose.
-          Humble Pie, “Red Light Mama, Red Hot!”

            When Anthony doesn’t find anyone to fuck, he will fuck himself instead.

            He tries to get me to have sex once. It is late at night and we are sitting on a railroad bridge in the middle of the city. We are off on the rocks alongside the track and a quart bottle of vodka stands between us. It is our second in the last six hours but we are still talking and understand what one another is saying. It is a minor miracle. I know him four years then; he is twenty six and I am twenty one. We know each other three years by this time.

            We are talking about a mutual acquaintance going to jail because the cops found three ounces of marijuana in his backpack when he steers the conversation in an one hundred eighty degree direction.

            “Karl, let’s fuck.”

            I burst out laughing and he smiles before dismissing me with a wave of his hand.

            “Don’t lie to Mama, Karl. You know you’d like it.”

            A hard burst of laughter doubles me over. Everyone calls him Mama. I start hearing the nickname a little over a year after first meeting him and it sticks. Few ever call him Anthony anymore. He picks up the moniker because he drinks too much and bellows out Janis Joplin tunes, most of the time “Mercedes Benz” or “Me and Bobby McGee”, when he has the glow. In those days alcohol never slows Mama up. Instead, the liquor charges him and gives him wide-eyed energy.

            “Nah, Mama, I don’t think so. Let’s just be friends and stick with drinking, okay?” I grin. “Besides, I have a headache, bitch.”

            His loud laugh blends with the low watt hum of a small city night. He reaches across and slaps my shoulder. He is still laughing when he says, “Very funny, motherfucker.”

            Those moments are common in those early years of knowing each other. It is the time before rehabs, jail terms, funerals, narcotics and pills stand tall as landmarks in our lives. It is the mid nineteen nineties and I can control my fate. I will do this until I am twenty five, stop on a dime, and turn my world around. I wonder now what went through Mama’s mind.

            I know less and less with every new year. His skill with a tattoo gun and translating his fine freehand artwork from page to skin sets him apart and makes him money. He is never sober long enough to work in an established parlor. He draws a lot and inks many tattoos in that time before rehabs, jail terms, funerals, narcotics and pills, but a television set takes it away from him.

            He finds love after we know each other five years. Bryan is a sinewy eighteen year old with high cheekbones and brown hair running a little long. He has a muscular build despite his delicate features. He is Mama’s type. Mama wears motorcycle bandanas around his head, a leather vest of some sort, a t shirt and jeans with a score of heavy boots over the years. Mama is a slap in the face rebuke of those who picture homosexuals as lisping would-be sirens of the stage. The pock mark scars on his face ages him far more than his twenty eight years. Bryan is the pretty boy he can never be.

            He is also violent. Bryan lives in youth homes throughout much of his teenage years thanks to fights at school and home alike. Mama fights with him as well. One or both of them are sporting some sort of facial bruise, a black eye perhaps, or a swollen purple cheek. Mama likes it. The mutual beatings are foreplay for him. If he has worries, he hides them well.

            He needs to worry. They argue on a Friday night, drunk as usual, fuck, and then pass out together on the floor. Bryan wakes up first on Saturday morning. It is a little after eleven am. I can only picture what happens next. Maybe he is still angry from the night before when he decides to pick up their large television set, raise it above him, and bring it crashing down on Mama’s head.

            Bryan leaves the television sitting on Mama’s head while he calls the police to report what he has done. Maybe he is still angry from the night before, but I know he is out of his mind.

            The call saves Mama’s life however. Skull fracture, check. Brain bleeding, he has that too. He is in a coma while the local hospital treats his skull and stops the bleeding. On the third day he wakes up. His older brother Anton is there. Everyone refers to them as “the twins” though they do not share the same birthday; they share a close resemblance to each other and nothing more. I drink a lot with Anton as well. He has a reputation for hair-trigger violence, roughhousing women, and selling marijuana he claims comes from Fort Shiloh Indian Reservation. I am never clear about what discipline but he has some martial arts training.

            We are standing next to Mama’s hospital bed watching him eat ice cream. “Karl, I’m gonna kill Bryan. He gets out of jail or bonded out, he’s a dead man,” Anton says.

            Mama involves himself before I have a chance to answer. “Anton, shut the fuck up. Bryan is messed up,” Mama says. I remember how he slurs some of his words and sounds a little woozy. He pauses. “Besides, if anyone is gonna do anything to him, it’s going to be me,” he says. His voice softens.

            No one ever kills Bryan. The county sees fit to ship him off to state prison for a long stay and he finds trouble there as well. Wave goodbye to credit for good behavior. He is still talking, breathing, eating, drinking, and sleeping, but Mama dies when the television smashes into his skull. Nothing is ever the same again and everything post-television is anti climax piling on.

            He tosses self regard out the window. The first time we are in country jail together I am twenty three and spending thirty days downtime on the heels of a shoplifting charge. Most of my preceding summer washes away in a tide of stolen Manischewitz wine, but they catch me after drinking too much and stumbling back in for more one hot August night.  He shares the same cell block with me and fourteen other prisoners and guards bring him in on my second day. Police pick him up for public intoxication every other month and he walks the next day, but spitting on a cop this time has him staring down a likely sentence.

            “That’s what they say I did, at least. Fucking pigs,” he says. A sneer curls a corner of his mouth.

            He disappears into his cell for a hour or so the first afternoon and comes out with wet clothes. The county jail’s inmate laundry turns whites into browns and it isn’t outside the lines for inmates to do their own laundry with nothing more than water and jail issued bars of soap. Mama does not care if the county locks him down with a baker’s dozen of homophobes; he is gay, wears lingerie under his street clothes, and wants to dry them out over the rail of the cell block’s second tier.

            Grumbling and an assortment of fuck that shits peppering the cell block do not impress Mama. He arches his eyebrows, bobs his head from side to side, and says nothing. No one gets in his face. Most people know his reputation or don’t know enough to dare try. Mama is a big guy, takes a punch and keeps coming, and will try pulling an eye out if you get too close. So, instead, one of the fuck that shits stands and presses the dayroom call button. 

            “What?”

            The jail guard sounds half asleep. Fuck That Shit says, “Uh, unless the jail wants sued, I think you better get in here ‘cause a fag is gonna get killed.” I remember the guard’s voice booming we’ll be there through the small speaker and can still see Mama walking out of the cell block within ten minutes smirking with lingerie in tow.

            Something about him tells me he wants beaten. Mama wants those angry inmates pummeling him so he can spit blood in their face and ask for more. Most human math is simple and his life is no different. He has an arch macho brother, a rogue gambler for a father, and growing up as an overweight homosexual boy in love with drawing and music doesn’t add up to a happy childhood. His public face to it all is cocking his chin in the air and clenching his fists. I think to this day his private face is a cowing little boy sure he will be whole against once the world exacts its due for his defects.

            He never draws again, retires his tattoo gun, and drinks more than ever before. I never ask about his artwork again. Something new creeps into his voice however. He talks more and more about needing to quit drinking. Anyone capable of coherent thought will agree especially when he lives through days when alcohol shatters his mind to such an extent he walks downtown oblivious he has shit all over himself. When his brother points it out to him in a near whisper, Mama sits down on a bench and stares at him.

            He quits drinking. I remember talking to him after he is two weeks sober and he beams with pride. I see him near the city’s bus stop one day. He is waiting for a ride home.

            “I hadda quit drinking, man. I got sick, went to jail, or both every time I’d get drunk. Fuckin’ shit is evil,” Mama says.

            “I’m glad to hear it,” I say. “You’re crazy on the sauce anyway. Scare-ee. You need to discover calmer recreational pursuits. Smoke an ounce of weed a week.”

            He smirks and waves his hand at me. “Nah. I’m doing about thirty Xanex and Percosets a week though. Makes the not drinking thing a lot easier to do.”

            I roar with laughter. “Mama, you can’t be gobbling thirty pills a week! It isn’t any way to quit anything. You’re gonna kill yourself!”

            He cocks his head backwards taken aback by my response. “Don’t worry, Karl, it’s cool. I’m doing alright,” he says. His voice is relaxed but hushed. Butting heads with his alcohol abstinence plan wounds him a little. You can’t argue against addict logic. It is like persuading a dog to be a cat.

            Hemingway says once that all stories, if continued far enough, end in death. All addicts, if they keep using, die at the feet of their chosen high. He lives another year, another ring of hell, soon dispensing with the pills for outright narcotics and his use picks up even more. I find out about his death in the newspaper. Overdose.

            There’s a post-overdose as well. A city day shelter for the homeless and poor stages a memorial for Mama at a downtown church. I see it then and now as a full on shot of melodramatic grief and know then a chunk of attendees will be those who avoid or laugh at Mama when he is alive. I do not attend. One thing makes me smile. He has a pending court case for a charge of disorderly conduct when he dies and the court dismisses the case. Mama sticks it to The Man one last time.

Something within him wants him to die. I dare not call it a demon. There is nothing mystical about it.  It is a shadow self some wrestle with off and on throughout their lives. Mama wrestles more than most. It is a quaking in our guts when we get what we what we want. It is the darting search for shadows when we hear someone’s laughter. It is the fathers who did not love us enough or never fully understand how. We are broken somehow and do not deserve to be here so, instead, we will pummel our bodies into dust. I don’t know why we ever call it partying. We are celebrating nothing.  

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Variations on a Concussion - a short story

By Jason Hillenburg


Variations on a Concussion


Someone or something is always hitting Robbie in the head.

He is a skillful sketch artist and reads a lot on when I first meet him. Sometimes he sings Uriah Heep’s “Stealin’” in a cracking tenor croon. I am eighteen and he is thirty five hitchhiking around the country. He talks often over the years about the cities he sees but never mentions much about the rides. He lives homeless by choice and his thirst for vodka is double-barreled. Red label Dark Eyes vodka eighty proof is his drink of choice. Robbie, however, relishes days when he has a few extra dollars for its 100 proof blue label counterpart. I never drink vodka until we are hanging out. It tears us both down over time.

He stops drawing by his forty second birthday and doesn’t read much. We are still drinking together after a near decade of him spending more time in county jail than out, but seven years of losses leave notches on our lives we cannot remove. It is the summer his head takes the first of many blows I hear about or see.

I am not there when it happens. I’m walking downtown to meet him and by the time I get there local high school kids, weed smoking skaters, tell me “your buddy took a spill, man”. Our main meeting place is a downtown park, no bigger than a convenience store parking lot, and a downtown outdoor mall sits caddy corner from its borders. The mall has two levels and one of its marquee attractions is a college bar above a Taco Bell. The designers placed a tall limestone pillar at the mall’s entrance and flanking the sidewalk. Over the years I see countless college kids tossing spare change from the bar’s small elevated outdoor balcony. The kids tell me about Robbie climbing the pillar today look for liquor money.

I remember how high they are. One roars with wide-eyed wonder about how Robbie managed to scale the pillar twice before he pushes his luck over the edge. Another says Robbie climbs the pillar the third time, but easing himself back down goes wrong quick. He misses the fourth step down and falls several feet to the concrete below. He takes the bulk of the blow to his back and side, but his skull snaps against the ground on landing. I picture then and now the change spilling from his pockets like air rushing from a balloon puncture.

The fall bruises him black but does not break his back. He spends a week in the hospital with a Grade 3 concussion before he is free to drink and never climbs the pillar again.

The worst is still to come. I spend some extra money I pocket from selling weed on two hits of blotter acid. Robbie declines my offer of a hit. I buy us a half gallon of vodka after recalling a winter night years ago when I ingest four hits of LSD and drink two quarts of tequila without ever feeling it. We trek across the city, through a far flung city park, and plant ourselves on the rocks of a nearby railroad line. I learn early on in my drinking that railroad tracks and surrounding woods are good spots for drinking in public. You never see a cop if you stay smart. We drink thousands of times in this area without incident.

It changes when we hear an oncoming train. We hear its shrill whistle long before the engine car reaches our field of vision. Robbie says he is going to place a penny on the tracks; passing trains flatten them into thin copper ovals. He grins and rewrites his plan. He will not just put a penny on the steel rail, he will do it while the train is moving past them. Even humming from a rising LSD high it makes no sense to me and I say so. He grins again and calls me pussy.

I tell him I can live with that. I do not believe him. He convinces me when the train engine is a few hundred feet away. Robbie fishes a penny from his pocket and starts sliding across the rock towards the rail line. I tell him he is a stupid fuck and he needs to calm the fuck down, but he calls me pussy again and says he will be fine.

I cannot turn away. I watch him timing moving as much as he can and gasp when I see he leans and lands the penny on the rail. Backing out with the same timing does not happen. The train is moving fifteen to twenty miles a hour in the city. It is fast enough for the corner of a service ladder to hit him in the head and close my eyes when I see it coming. It sounds like a battering ram blasting open a locked steel door.

I keep my eyes closed and listen to the train pass. I know he is dead. I am going to open my eyes and see skull splatter covering nearby rocks. I decide on keeping my eyes shut and crawling off so I never have to see his remains. Police are in my future. This may even make the newspaper.
He calls out my name. His voice is weak, but clear. I open my eyes and see him pulling himself along the rocks towards where I sit and his skull is intact. I see no blood. My heart rate explodes and I scamper over to him. He sits up on the rocks and I tell him I cannot believe he is alive.

Robbie nods, looks at me, and blood starts streaming from the crown of his head down the left side of his face. I gasp and take off my shirt. I twist into a near rope and wrap it around Robbie’s head above his eyebrows and tighten it in a thick knot. He bleeds a little more but it soon stops. I do not look at its source. Those handful of minutes are among the most frightening in my life.
I tell him he should go to the hospital and I’ll walk with him. It is not far. He says no, however. He says he needs a drink.

Two of our mutual street drunk friends with a sleeping room give Robbie somewhere to crash when they hear about his injury. He sleeps for four days on their floor, only moving to use the bathroom, and hits the streets collecting aluminum again five days later. We are drinking together again and not far from those railroad tracks. That night we are sitting around a small homeless camp fire in the nearby woods drinking with a few other men. One is a middle aged Harvard graduate everyone calls Professor. He smiles when he hears the nickname, takes gulping shots from any bottle, and exudes a melancholic glow. Another man, Dale, is someone I know for years. He is small and wiry, always looks twenty pounds underweight, and bald across the top of his head. I remember him talking about an army stint ending when they boot him out for dealing cigarettes during basic training.

The last man is Kevin. Kevin is black, a lot older than me, but a few years younger than the other men. Everyone knows him a few years at this point. He pops up selling weed downtown after moving from Indianapolis and builds a lot of quick connections in the city. He loses his job washing dishes at a downtown restaurant and invites himself to sleep in the camp. No one objects. Tonight Robbie objects.

It is all fine for hours. I help kill a fifth of vodka when me and Robbie first walk into the camp and we are deep into a half gallon. It is a hour or so past sundown when I first see how Robbie leers at Kevin anytime he talks. Kevin mixes jokes about pussy and fat girls with brief rants about how no dumbass downtown punks are going to fuck him around. It is a jolt when Robbie says shut the fuck up nigger. No one laughs. I look at Robbie with wide eyes and a slack jaw and glances at me before looking back at Kevin.

Kevin tells him he better keep his mouth shut with that shit. Robbie flutters his lips and says whatever nigger just getting tired of hearing you talk all the time. I glare at Robbie. My stomach tightens with anger, but it feels wrong now. There is not a single day when potential self-harm doesn’t color my choices. I heap punishment upon myself with a spatula. Robbie is far from his right mind even removing his latest head trauma from the record and I cannot judge him for that now. I hate him then.

I hate him because he cannot be normal. I hate him laying a blanket over my buzz. Kevin snaps to his feet, grabs a folded steel chair from the ground, and belts Robbie across the side of his head. The blow slams into the opposite side of his train injury and knocks him onto the ground. I hate him enough to decide he deserves a few shots. Fuck his dumb shit, let him take a couple of belts. He stands over Robbie and wallops him on the top of the head, but the steel chair is not heavy and the second blow glances more than Kevin intends. I am sure. He wants to know what Robbie wants to say now and screams it again and again. Robbie does not answer.

I stop Kevin when he swings back for a third blast. He glares at me when I clutch the chair mid air and tell him no more. His mood passes quick and he nods. He asks me if he is right for beating Robbie’s ass and I nod, say hell yes, and Kevin sits back down. The four of us still upright are drinking again while Robbie moves slow on the ground. He groans for a minute or so before passing out. The Professor says we better make sure he’s breathing and I see his chest rising and falling in rhythm. He starts snoring. Kevin says Robbie is lucky.

Luck has nothing to do with it. He absorbs these blows and more to come. He lives to drink another day. One day I stop drinking with him and treat anyone else the same. I close those days down and move on in many ways, but mingle along the edges of Robbie’s life, keeping tabs, driving him places sometimes, taking his mail from an assortment of county jails and, more than a decade later, a Texas state prison. The last time I see him sweat blurs his red face and tears swell from his eyes. He tells me he is going to die soon. I say that’s defeatist bullshit.

He dies a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday. Some of the local homeless sit on street corner benches across the street from the county library’s rear parking lot. It has an unusual design with a high cobblestone beaded walling squaring around the wooden benches. The downtown drunks call it “The Office”. Robbie stumbles up one day and sits next to an unnamed man who says they talk. He says Robbie falls asleep a few minutes after sitting and slumps over a half hour later. The man sees his sort of thing before and knows Robbie is dead.

I hear someone uses his head for a punching bag two days before he dies. Someone is still hitting him in the head. Robbie goes to the hospital and they perform no scans. They keep him for observation overnight instead, notice nothing wrong, and release him the next day. Nothing is ever off the table for us. Blind chance shapes his life and his days are like variations of a concussion. Luck has nothing to do with it.