bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bipolar Express Chapter 12

Bipolar Express
Chapter 12

            “So, nobody’s in the city?”
            “Nobody worth knowing,” Jack said. “Not until September twelfth, at least. But we got to watch out for the beat cops till then.”
            “You said that earlier. There are still beat cops in the city? I’m surprised with that fire they didn’t—“
            Wes laughed hard enough to get the turkey leg up his nose. “Not real cops,” he said, some of the meat flying through the air when he talked.
            “Just assholes pretending to be the law, some kind of militia,” Jack said.
            “Like Right-wing, racist Nazi’s or union label jackbooted thugs?” My inner dumb-ass was back.
            “Don’t know. Don’t care. Word is they’re slave traders.”
            “Slave traders?” I didn’t believe it.
            “Yeah, we’ve seen a few different packs, two of them leading guys around in chains. One out in the woods when we were making our way through Rockford somewhere. We borrowed their car. There were some others hanging out at the old fire station over on Clark. I’m still not sure whether those guys actually worked for the city or were just pretending, but they did have uniforms on. Tied some guy naked to the fire hydrant out on Waveland. Opened the valve and froze him to death.
            “Damn,” I said.
            “Damn is right. Body’s still frozen out there on the corner. Kind of their version of a No Trespassing sign, I guess.” Jack waved his cigarette at me and pointed. “You see anybody in a uniform or camo gear, you run like hell.
            If this isn’t real…
            “You’re thinking too much, Holt,” Jack said, “‘And when you’re thinking—’”
            “‘—you’re negotiating with an idiot,’” I finished. It was a line we’d learned in therapy. A.A. guys telling us we had diseases where our brain told us the wrong thing.
            Which brings us back to: What is real? The thought must’ve shown on my face.
            “There you go thinking again.”
            “Yeah, I don’t know anything and I can prove it. Look man, the world turned fucking upside down—and I missed it.”
            “Don’t worry about it. You didn’t miss anything. All you got to know is, don’t run into anybody on the street in camo. Some of these people are okay, but you better sniff ‘em out first. You can stick with Wes and me if you want to.”
            All I wanted at that point was another drink. And I couldn’t have it. Or shouldn’t have it—the existential problem of the alcoholic. The answer to which is: So what? Just like everything else. I’d been in more than enough hospitals and bughouses to know that, but it still didn’t help me not want to destroy myself. Jack could tell.
            He topped off the shot.
            This time it came out of a bottle of Skol vodka. I remembered the stuff as being cheap, seven dollars for two-fifths. I’d bought some once, tasted like rubbing alcohol.
            This time, though, it tasted great. I savored it.
            “I might give you something to relax you later, but that’s your last drink for awhile. You still look like shit, Holt.”
            “Yeah, well, veterinary genius like you, I’m sure you’ve treated your share of lab rats.” I sighed and accidentally inhaled my own pungent aroma. “You also left out the fact that I smell like shit, too.” For the first time in a long time I wanted to take a bath.
            “What I mean,” he said, “is if you keep drinking you might have about a week to live. I want to keep you from going nuts, but you’re probably more useful alive. At least your skin’s not yellow anymore. Last guy I saw looked like that was dead a couple weeks later.”
            Great, I hadn’t noticed it before, but I still felt pretty weak. I was jumpy again—panicky. Then a sweat broke out on my forehead, and I had to run to the bathroom and throw up. I’ve been sick enough in my life that I can usually time my puking to when I want. I’d had a lot of Practice.
            Hell, I could practically throw up at will, but not this time. I barely made it over to the toilet, gushed one up, and fell on my knees, dry heaving until even more sweat ran salty, down into my eyes. More weak. The whole time feeling ashamed and worthless. Asking myself what had happened. Why was I so stupid? Maybe this time I really had gone Chock-Full-O’-Crazy. Maybe, Jack and Wes weren’t even here.
            I had only experienced visual hallucinations from the D.T.’s twice before, and they hadn’t seemed this real. But then again, they’d seemed real enough at the time. Maybe this time it was just real enough, just fake enough, just bent enough for me to lose touch with reality. Maybe this was the time I didn’t make it back.
            I wiped the recoil off my glasses and tried to flush the toilet out of reflex, trying to get the puke in the bowl out my face. It actually worked. The toilet flushed and more water rushed in circles down the side. I wretched my way over to the tub and turned the handle.
            Not hot. But it was water.
            I cranked the handle and almost filled the tub. Then I stumbled into the kitchen, trying to smile. I had had something to say but I forgot what it was. Jack and Wes didn’t say a word. I guess they knew how I felt. Maybe had even been there before. I finished the shot. My stomach trembled, my intestines rippled, but I wasn’t going to lose the alcohol. I took my fear and loathing into what had been the living room, and passed out on what had been a couch.
            I shook a lot first.
            When I woke up I was still weak, but somebody was taking care of me because there was a piece of turkey (on a plate!), a jar of water, and some Hostess cupcakes sitting on the table next to me. I ate the sugar first: traditional alcohol substitute for the shakes. I think I might have heard Jack and Wes in the basement knocking around. I tried to eat a little more but couldn’t. Digesting the meat was still a workout.
            I looked up in the hallway, and in front of the bathroom somebody had left a can of Comet cleaner. You may think they were trying to be funny, but that was really how bad I stank. I guess one of them had figured out why I was trying to fill the tub. They were daring me to take a bath. I smiled when I saw it, thinking even my hallucinations had a sense of humor. But it was still a relief when I picked the can up and it actually had substance. I’d never had a tactile hallucination before, so when I felt the plastic in my hand it was like this was real.
            Back when I only suffered from major depression—the good old days—I had a therapist tell me, “For somebody with clinical depression, some days just getting out of bed is a major accomplishment.” Today, my major accomplishment was going to be taking a bath.    
             So I sloughed myself over to the bathroom. My heart felt like I was stroking out as I undressed. Luckily, once I had the overalls past my belly, everything just kind of fell off.
            Have you ever heard of hydro-shock therapy?
            Back in the day, before they had ECT—shock therapy—they used to dump psychotics into tubs full of ice. And this was the ones they liked. Well, I figured this bath would be a lot like that. And if those crazy people could do it, so could I. What I didn’t think about was that those crazy people usually had somebody else holding them down. The other thing I didn’t think about was testing the water. Instead, I sunk my entire body as quick as I could; otherwise I’d never make it. It was like falling through the ice.
            My first reaction was a convulsion from the cold. My head banged off the tile, and my legs and elbows off the inside of the tub. I couldn’t breathe. Then I really shifted into spasm and bolt.  About the time I was going into hypothermia, I was thoroughly convinced Hell was a cold place.
            Determined to at least scrub my armpits, I managed to wipe a fair amount of bleachy grit onto various parts of my body. Anything to keep moving. I sank myself, and thrashed my arms underwater, trying to rinse off. I sat up and dunked myself again. I had to get out before my whole body shut down. My legs didn’t work. Great, I was going to drown in a bathtub accident. Pulling myself over the edge of the tub, I slid onto the cold tile like a fish, wheezing and shaking. The dirty tub water had seemed almost warm compared to the air. Then I realized I’d forgotten a towel.
            Convulsing off the floor, I tore the drapes off the window and started pulling them across my body. It was like rubbing myself with a cheese grater. I wrapped the fabric around me and attempted to find a towel, but my knees were locked frozen. I shook from room to room, cabinet to cabinet, until I found some old clothes in an upstairs closet. Yanking at the coat hangers, I wadded up everything and threw it on the floor, wrapped it around me and rolled around in the pile. I screamed but the only sound that came out was this little death rattle in the back of my throat. My breath came back in spasms. I shoved everything into the closet, and shut the door as I fell to the floor inside. Blanketing the clothes over me, I tried to pull them into an insulated ball, with me in the middle of it. Eventually, I shivered up enough friction to dry off. Then I tore up some loose fabric in the dark and made myself a loincloth out of what I later learned was a dress.
            Brand new underwear.
            I wrapped myself in what looked like and old man’s overcoat and ran back to the bathroom. Still freezing my ass off, I jumped back into the overalls and pulled the rest of my clothes on over that. I put my coat over the old overcoat and told myself I’d accomplished something major by taking a bath. When I finally tried to put my clothes back on in an order that made sense, I noticed my new floral pattern drawers, and even then I was still somewhat secure in my manhood for having survived the ordeal. Plus I had a manly sandpaper finish from the grit on my skin to prove it. For the first time in months I smelled clean. Or at least like bleach instead of bathroom tile.
            I felt good for about five minutes before the feeling that I’d wasted my entire life came back. Big fucking deal. In the last I-don’t-know-how-long I had managed to get some soap on myself.
            Thoughts kept racing. I thought of not having medicine for two or three different mental disorders, and how I was going to have to remember that, double check my thoughts and actions. And that people had had to deal with shit like this for eons—without medication, and that all those people were dead now, and how was I going to make it, and how I wasn’t going to make it.
            I tried to be grateful for having found an extra coat.
            Then I went back into the living room, and ate a mouthful of turkey.
            I didn’t want to die.
            I was still laid out on the couch a little later, when Jack and Wes came up from the basement. They had a blowtorch that might come in handy, if they didn’t set the place on fire first.
            “Damn. You still look like shit, but you smell better,” Jack said. He sat down, and reached behind the chair to get one of his backpacks. He tossed it on the table. “Now that you appear to be at least somewhat simian, let’s see what we got to help you out.” He upended his bag of tricks, and about twenty or thirty prescription medicine bottles rolled around on the table.
            “Holy shit! Where’d you guys get the drugs?” I said, afraid they’d all be the wrong kind.
            Walgreens, America’s family drugstore.” Wes said. He’d probably been rehearsing his snappy comeback for a week.
            “Yeah, in the seasonal aisle.” Jack had that manic, I-know-something-you-don’t-know grin on his face. It was scary and contagious at the same time.
            “Yeah, I bet.” I figured they had either looted a drugstore or traded for it somewhere.
            Wait a minute…
            They had mentioned Rockford. Rockford, Illinois, home of the luxurious Clear Rock Psychiatric Center. The two of them had been hospitalized again—together, at Clear Rock. 
            They must’ve looted the pharmacy at the institution. Probably the first time in the history of the place the patients got their meds on time. That thought led to the question, “So what exactly happened at Clear Rock? Everybody just go kind of nuts?”
            “Woo hoo!” Wes responded, somewhat answering the question.
            “Everybody just sort of didn’t show up for work one day,” Jack said. “TV didn’t work anymore, so we all just took over. Raided the cafeteria first, and then got around to the pharmacy. About half the guys drugged themselves into a stupor before we left. It didn’t look like they where going anywhere. So after we looted the cafeteria, we were the only ones to think about the little store up front by the sign-in office. That kept us in food, drugs, and cigarettes until we got to the city.
            “You guys must’ve had one big party.”
            “Not really. The biggest party we’ve had so far was that little bonfire you witnessed last night,” Jack said. “Everybody didn’t start really going crazy and moving out of the city until a few weeks ago. Most of the meds we grabbed were really just for maintenance. The hard core addicts got most of the good stuff.”
            “Damn, guys. You know I could have used some of this when I was first going into withdrawal?”
            “You did,” Wes said. “You don’t remember?”
            I tried to act like I did. Wes glanced at Jack. They knew better.
            We checked to see if there was any medication I could use besides the downers. Mind you, the downers would be just great while I was all jumpity from the shakes—keep me from stroking out—but at this point I was starting to think about not dying. I thought I might want to worry about getting my strength back and staying sane at the same time. Besides, my mom had been addicted to downers and I wasn’t really that big a fan.
            Turned out there was some Depakene, Depactid, Ambetiquin, some blood pressure medicine that I could definitely use, and some old-school Prozac.
            “We also got some Haldol, Seraquil, and Trokhinan, if you start going psychotic or something,” Jack said.
            “Dementia maybe…” I said. “Psychotic, I don’t think so.”
            “Means the same thing,” Wes said.
            “Dementia just sounds better,” I said. “But, no, save that stuff for an emergency. If I took it now I’d just end up drooling on myself.”
            I took only the meds I needed and nothing else. That was a big deal for me. I knew I’d have to deal with the shakes for a few more days, but I was willing to try to endure it without being completely drugged up. I’d have to just to keep up with Jack and Wes.
            We all started going back through the house, through the closets and boxes, making sure there was nothing else we could use. Jack talked a lot. Turned out he really was one of those fast talking guys. In a way, he seemed to be thriving in this environment.
            “It’s the end of the wooorld,” he yelled upstairs, running around the room in circles, the back of his hand to his forehead in the martyr salute, very melodramatic. He acted like he was going to jump out the window and ran into the wall, very slapstick; one of those you-had-to-be-there moments. Stupid, but I laughed. Laughter about having no hope. Laughter was hope. Then I thought about something Jack had said.
            “Hey, Jack. You said there was nobody worth meeting until September twelfth. What’s that about?”
            Jack pulled his head out of the closet he was searching. “My brother’s going to be in town.”
            “What, he’s just coming down on Amtrak?”
            “No, really, he’s coming down.” Jack pulled a suitcase out of the closet, and started flipping open the latches. “He’s going to meet us at the Art Institute, high noon, September twelfth. He’s got a garage outside Gary. Two chargers connected to two four-wheel drive vehicles. Chains, gas, generator. Everything.” Jack opened the suitcase. There was another suitcase in it.
            “You sure you have a brother?” I said. “And if you do, how do you know he’s going to be here on the twelfth?”
            “When Clear Rock first shut down, Wes and I got a working phone line. Static, but working. Wes didn’t have anybody to call, but I got my brother. He’s about a hundred miles away. He’ll be there, Holt.” There was a shaving kit in the second suitcase.
            “You’re sure,” I said. Like I had a better plan.
            “Positive.” There was a condom in the shaving kit. Jack held it up. “You want to put this on? Might keep you warm.”
            I forgot what I was going to ask next.
            We went downstairs.
            Over the course of the evening I learned that the media had started broadcasting about the whole Polar Shift thing about the same time that I’d moved into that alley.
            I think.
            It sounded like all the big companies had started moving their corporate headquarters south—or north, or wherever the high dollar meteorologists they were paying told them to—at about the same time. People had actually believed the weatherman for once. Magnetic North was bouncing all over the place, but mostly it seemed to be moving over the Americas. I didn’t know exactly what was happening over on the other side of the world because Jack sounded more like a farmer than a scientist. (“Yeah Maw, looks like the magnetic fields are jackin’ up the crops this year.”)
            I talked the both of them into staying in for the rest of the day so we could finish going through the boxes in the basement for supplies. Truth was, I was already exhausted.
            Jack wanted to know how I’d managed to not lose my glasses this time out. Really, he was just making fun of them, because it was pretty obvious. Sometime in one of my saner periods, I’d had the foresight to invest in some big polymer-tempered-plastic-Buddy Holly-construction-worker goggle frames, and strapped them to my head like an old school athleti-nerd. Sure, I looked like a geek. But I hadn’t lost my glasses since the institution.
            Speaking of which, I asked how they’d been lucky enough to wind up back at Clear Rock.
            Jack said he’d been self-medicating. Wes had been shipped from Clear Rock, to the state institution, to the street, and back. Full circle. Turned out there were cracks in the system even big enough for Wes to fall through.
            I didn’t ask any more questions about Jack’s brother. I didn’t want to shatter any illusions.
            So I asked about the beat cops.
            “Why do you call them beat cops, if they’re not real cops?”
            “Because they might be real cops for all we know. And, they’ll beat the shit out of you.”
            Made sense. 
            Later on that afternoon Jack gave me a little white pill I thought might have been an Ativan, to keep me calm. And to help me sleep. I needed it. We all agreed tomorrow would be like a hunting trip, and we’d leave at about four in the morning. Jack and Wes drank to stay warm. I shook a lot. Eventually, I fell asleep.
            Right before I crashed out, Jack said something I just barely caught as I drifted off.
            “…we’re not the only ones that are crazy anymore.”


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