Friday, 4 November 2011

Edin-Burrow by Cassandra Parkin

So tonight, I thought I’d commit career suicide.

Okay, that was an uncomfortable line to open on, wasn’t it? A few of you shuffling in your seats, wondering if this show’s suitable for momma after all...ain’t it strange, suddenly hitting the age where you’re embarrassed for them? Like, when you’re a kid and there’s, you know...adult things...on the TV, it’s your parents pitching the fit and sending you out of the room. And now, suddenly you’re the one diving across the room for the remote, like, “OhmyGod! Filth! Fiiiilth! Kill it! Kill it with hammers and fire....!”

But you thought you’d be safe with me, right? And now there might be...cursing...and adult material...because this guy - the nice one...the non-threatening one...he’s up there on the stage talking about...suicide...

The truth is, I’ve never been nice. Y’all think you like me, but you don’t. That guy you fell for - he’s just an act, based on the boy I used to be. If you knew who I really am, you’d turn on me and rip me to shreds. First rule of Comedy: an audience has no mercy.

So I’m not asking for your compassion tonight. A comic who begs is a comic who deserves to be taken out back and shot. I’m just gonna tell you the story of how it was, and let you make up your own mind.

Okay, let’s begin with a confession. Truth is...I've done a little time.

Ah, not the kind you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the other kind of time. The kind where they tell you it's for your own good, you’ll see your mom when you're doing better, the doctors know best, the pills will help, weave something nice and you'll be out of here in no time, oh, come on now, what’s six months at your age? Nine months? A year? You got your whole life ahead of you...! The kind of time with no defined end, and no appeal, and no escape route.

Okay, a few uncomfortable laughs there...that’s the bad kind of laughter, isn’t it? If I hadn’t arranged for them to lock the doors, you’d be hitting the bar right about now, right...? I know, I know, this stuff’s hard to listen to...being honest, it ain’t easy to talk about either. Not to talk about seriously, anyway. I could joke about it, no problem. Nothing funnier than a mental patient, right? Wind me up, watch me go, I talk real fast, then I talk real slow...my whole life, Comedy’s been my sword and my shield. Hard to put that down and show you the wounds.

Anyway, I'll spare you the details and give you the summary; I was sixteen years old, and I kinda...lost it a little...with this utter asshole of a teacher who just - wouldn't – quit - with the pick-on-the-funny-kid jokes. It got messy. I got sectioned.

Oh, you know? I’ll give you just a coupla details. Truth is, it was actually pretty darn cool. Definitely one of my best performances.

Y’all remember being sixteen, right? Remember the grease? And the body hair, just exploding outta you? So much of it that you’re half-expecting your momma to take you somewhere quiet and say, Son, maybe now’s the time to tell you your daddy’s actually a bear I stole from a circus and shaved...

And the voice?

And the girrrrrrls...?

How about realising you got the Power of Invincibility?

Ye-eah, the Power of Invincibility! You remember that, right? I mean, okay, you got your Kryptonite - you can’t talk to the...girrrrls....but you can drink till you puke! DUI in a car with busted airbags! Live on fat fried in grease! And nothing! Bad! Can possibly happen! Because you’re Invincible, right? You’re the skinny greasy zitty virgin King of the World....!

So, my Invincible Plan went like this. Climb onto this guy’s roof one winter’s night carrying a stereo, a banner reading Congratulations MR SCHNEIDER - FORT WORTH’S ASSHOLE OF THE YEAR!!! and a bunch of fireworks. When he gets home - unfurl the banner, play a fanfare over the stereo, set off the rockets and get down off the roof, all without getting caught. Bada-bing.

(By the way, literally the only part that freaked me out was Getting Caught. Fireworks and a thirty-foot drop – meh. But please God, don’t let me Get Caught...)

You accidentally burn your Physics teacher’s house to the ground, there’s two ways it can play; Mean Little Bastard, or Confused Young Loner. Mean Little Bastard equalled jail-time. Confused Young Loner meant in-patient therapy. I played it as Confused Young Loner, and the play worked. Figured I'd be in and out, no problem. Thirty days vacation someplace interesting, and I'm home free...

Six months later, and I'm palming off my medication because I can't stand the way it makes me drool, and freaking out because all the jigsaws are missing at least one piece and no-one seems to care....I know, I know, but when you live in an institution, these things start to matter. You know you’re acting exactly like a lunatic, but you just can’t help yourself.

See, you start off convinced you’re going to be, like, this Lunatic Anthropologist. Observe the natives, buddy up with the staff, escape with a lifetime of anecdotes. You picture keeping a journal. Day six. Made contact with Silent Guy over game of chess. Think he may speak soon.

Then you get there, and you realise.

Now, here’s an interesting thing about loonies; we don’t really exist. Yeah, seriously. We’re all totally normal. Ask any of us! Truly! I guarantee, you ask, like, Edward Gein what the heck was up with all that flaying shit, and he’ll be, like, “Yeah, you know what? It was just this thing, that got blown out of proportion. I mean, I’m fine, really - it’s just my lawyer told me this was the best way to beat the rap...”

So, you decide you’ll be the Model Patient. Except that human beings ain’t meant to live the way you have to live in a mental institution. Within days, you lose all sense of privacy. You think you won’t, but you do. You can’t not pee. You can’t not take a shit. I’m sure it’s technically possible for a teenage boy to not jack off, but come on, right...? And since you’re under twenty-four-seven supervision, in case you’re off in a corner somewhere, doing looney stuff –

So you wait...and they wait...

And then, finally, you lose it. Scream. Throw a tantrum. Refuse to eat. Happened to me two months in. And Doctor Jones was all like, Now, young man, doesn’t it feel better to finally admit you have a problem?

Then you make the classic error - you beg for mercy. I’m not insane, you sob. I’m only here by mistake!

Bastard didn’t laugh out loud, but I saw it in his eyes.

When you start wearing your bathrobe all day, you know you’re really getting the hang of it. And when you make friends with another inmate -

There was this one other kid on the ward my age. My vibe too, though it took me a while to realise. I’d kinda registered his presence months ago, but at the time I was doing my best to avoid integration, and he left it there.

Then one day, the nurse comes round with the paper cups, and I take my pill and drop it into my mouth, except I don’t because instead I tuck it behind my ear where I’ve got a blob of chewing gum to stick it to, and I glance over, and this guy’s watching me, and he gives me a huge wink.

A few minutes later, he ambled over and sat down next to me - a short, fat, bald kid with pasty white skin. That was the drugs, of course. The fat, anyway. The bald he did himself. Said he liked the feel of the air going past his head.

“What you got?” he whispered.

“Er - ”

“No, not your diagnosis, man. What you got?” I stared. “In your ear. What you packin’?”

“Christ, I don’t know. Something green. Makes me drool.”

“Something green, makes you drool...Risperidone, maybe? They reckon you’re psychotic? Nice. Wanna trade?”

“Why the hell would I want to trade?”

“You got to make your own fun in here,” he said, dry as a prune in the Sahara. A beat, just the right length, then he added, “Besides, you take Escitalopram for long enough, you could end up looking as good as me.”

I broke up, couldn’t help it. His timing was perfect. He laughed too, that chuckle that comes when you’ve got the audience in the palm of your hand.

“So what’s your name, man?” he asked.

I hated that question so much I had a whole routine about it.

“See, what you gotta understand,” I drawled, Bill Hicks-style, “is that my parents spent most of their youth totally fuckin’ stoned. In fact, they both got high actually in the delivery room. Shared with the OB and everything. It’s quite possible I ain’t even their friggin’ kid, that’s how stoned they all were. So when it came time to pick a name that went real God-damned good with our surname...”

The fat guy raised his eyebrows.

“Jack Daniels,” I said, and grinned. This time, he broke up.

“Seriously?” When he laughed, his cheeks wobbled. “High School musta really sucked, man...”

“Could have been worse,” I said. “You hear about that kid called Shithead?”

“Wha-at? Nobody’s called Shithead.”

“Really. Pronounced Shu’teed, but spelt...Shithead. I read it in a book.”

“A book, huh? Must be true.”

“I’m serious, it was about economics...”

His cheeks were wobbling again.

“Michael Jackson,” he said. “I knew a Michael Jackson when I was nine.” He winked. “No wonder I ended up here.”

“Elvis Presley,” I said. “People do that by deed poll. And James Bond. Like the name’s gonna fool people...”

“How about the people who don’t change their names, though?” he said. “Jenny Taylor, I knew a Jenny Taylor once...and a Richard Head...” he watched me working it out, laughed along with me when I got it. “And Adolphus Gobnet. Man, his parents must’ve had a really big fight that day...”

I was crying with laughter.

“Who calls their kid Adolphus? I’d rather be called Judas, you know? At least that’s got historical interest...” I was happy for the first time in six months. “But Adolphus - that’s like calling him Fascist WASP...” The nurses were watching, but I didn’t care. “So what’s your name, man?”

He held out a hand. It was clammy and soft.

“Adolphus Gobnet.”

“Seriously,” I said, wiping tears from my cheeks. “What’s your name?”

“Adolphus Gobnet,” he repeated. I kept laughing, then saw he wasn’t joining in. He was just wearily waiting for me to stop.

“Seriously?”

He nodded.

“Wow,” I said weakly. “That’s...wow, that’s...”

“Painful, man. Want to see?”

“Er - ”

He rolled back the sleeves on his bathrobe, and I took a deep breath. His arms were covered with scars – really, freakin’ laced with them, and these two really thick, red, angry ones from his elbows to his wrists...

He held my gaze, and it was like looking down a well of deep, black water. He looked so lost, so lonely and so heartbroken. I was mortified - I honestly wanted to die right there. Felt like the longest moment of my life.

Then he suddenly started laughing.

“Hey, I’m just messing with you, man,” he said. “I did all that so I could get in here and meet the loonies. Fantastic material for the stand-up act.”

I snorted with terrified laughter.

“Had you going, though, didn’t I? Bet you thought you’d put my recovery back months...”

“You been inside too long, man,” I said, and punched him on the arm.

“I’ll be out before you,” he said with conviction. “I’m gonna make it to Edin-burrow, play the Festival, just like Bill Hicks. But you, my friend...hell, with a name like Jack Daniels, they’ll keep you in just to cheer up the new guys.”

It felt so good to make him laugh. He wasn’t like an audience, all hungry and waiting for me to fuck up. He was more like a friend.

Of course, he wasn’t in there for research, any more than I was. He had major endogenous depression, and there were days when he'd stay in his room and not come out, not eating, not moving, not taking himself to the bathroom, just crying - more like leaking tears, really, snot running outta his nose, mixing with the tears and forming this disgusting grey-green beard on his chin. Even the nurses gagged when they wiped that up. But other days –

Other days, we hung out. We had fun. As much fun as two like-minded souls in a sea of hostiles, making the most of the time before lock-up and lights out, can have.

Some days we’d put on a show for the other patients, which was certainly an experience. You want a truly tough audience, try a bipolar woman your mom’s age, just hitting the downswing, a guy who keeps his back against the wall at all times in case the aliens come after him with the anal probe, four nurses taking notes, and three paranoid schizophrenics. Plus, we weren’t actually very good, which didn’t help. Still, it passed the time.

Other days, we’d just talk. I told him more’n I ever told Doctor Jones about Mr Schneider, those months stalking each other in Physics lessons. Dolph had this whole routine about Gym Class he did for the Ward show - the only thing we did that ever got an encore - and once he told me the serious version of that; enough to make you hate yourself for every fat kid you ever picked on in the locker room.

And we talked about girls...

Oh, God forgive me...

So, there was this one patient, Jennifer O’Hara. She was the real deal, all right; violent, unpredictable, dangerous; a bull-goose looney, a window-licker, and a poor lost soul. She had a thing about hairbrushes - on a bad day she’d hardly let the nurses near her with one - and since she tended to go beserker when they took her off the ward, she didn’t get outside much; so she had that real pale, indoor look. But she was still a beautiful girl in her twenties, and we were a couple of gawky teens, and so –

“So,” I said to Dolph in the garden. “Britney Spears, but your mom’s in the room watching...Jen O’Hara, but you got to put it in her mouth...or that dykey nurse with the moustache, but you got to keep your eyes open.”

“Man, you’re sick. Is that what you think about when you jack off? Your mom, watching you do Britney? You want to watch who you say that shit to, Jack, you’ll end up in a - ”

“Looney bin,” I chorused. We made that joke twenty times a day. Crashed it right through the Overuse barrier and into the far side of Funny. “Call it, man. Who’s it gonna be?”

“I’ve got to put it in her mouth?” he asked.

“Danger’s supposed to heighten the experience.”

“You reckon that’s true?”

“How would I know? Only chick I ever saw naked was my sister’s Barbie.”

“Can I drug her first?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, man...and you’re calling me sick? No you can’t.”

Dolph sighed. His hair was growing back, fuzzy and fair. He’d spent the last week in his room. They’d let him shave his face, supervised, with an electric shaver, but he insisted only a razor would do for the head, and they wouldn’t let him near one even with a nurse standing over him.

“Okay,” he said. “Then it’s Jen. Just.”

“Who was second?”

“The nurse.”

“Not Britney?”

“The Groucho rule,” said Dolph gravely. “If someone as pretty as Britney had the poor judgement to sleep with me, she’d be too stupid for me to be interested.”

“Jen’s pretty.” Understatement. In spite of everything, Jen was gorgeous.

“Jen’s nuts. That’s, like, a huge modifier. Minus several million points for the random acts of extreme violence.”

“But you’re nuts too. And you’re an ugly bastard. And you’re a virgin.”

“Not as nuts as she is.”

“You reckon she’s more nuts than you’re ugly and inexperienced? You’re not good enough for her, man.”

“I know.” He sighed. “On the outside she’d never look at me. Not unless I saved her life or something.”

“You what?”

“Don’t you ever want to be the hero instead of the funny guy? You can be my sidekick if you like.”

I snorted.

“No such thing as a fat ugly hero, Dolph. You gonna get slated by a chick, pick Britney. At least you’d get a good story out of it.”

“That’s the nice thing about loonies,” he said, poker-faced. “Even if they give you a shitty review, nobody believes a word they say.” A beat. “Besides, she’d be tied down, man. She’d never know a thing...”

I pulled a leaf off a bush so I could throw it at him.

Then, one day -

Shit. This is hard.

One day we –

Oh, man.

God help me God help me God help me.

Okay. Here we go.

Half an hour before lights out. Jen had done her thing in Group that morning, one nurse was off sick and Anal Probe Guy was having a meltdown, so supervision was lax. Dolph and I snuck off the ward and down the corridor. We didn’t have anything special in mind – just a couple of kids, taking off simply because we could. Wasn’t like we could get very far. Left to ourselves, we’d have gone to the therapy room, drawn stuff on the pull-down chalkboard to crack everyone up in Group, and come back again.

Every day I wish that’s all we’d done. Every single freakin’ day.

Whole place shoulda been quiet. Headshrinkers gone home, just two duty docs to authorise the elephant tranquillisers if someone got outta hand.

No reason for Doctor Jones to be there. No reason at all.

Except he was.

All these little rooms they had. Some of them hardly used.

We glanced in one. Maybe we heard something. Maybe it was just Fate.

We glanced in.

And we saw –

Oh, man –


She was all...strapped up. What am I saying, she wasn’t strapped up, she was tied down. Tied down and drugged and helpless. And fucking gorgeous.

He was skinny and hairy and middle-aged. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. Dolph insisted I was Doctor Jones’s secret love-child, said he’d get me in his office, look me in the eye and say, Hello, son. In ordinary circumstances, he’d never have got near her. Light-years out of his league.

But like Dolph said, minus several million points for the random acts of extreme violence.

He’d got her gown open, and we could see her tits, pretty and round and firm. Wouldn’t think you’d notice at a time like that, would you? Wish I hadn’t, but I did. And her head was way, way back, like she was trying her damnedest not to see the bastard who had his dick jammed between those pretty little puppies, panting and red-faced, really, you know, lost in it, teeth clenched, eyes glazed...

She saw us. I swear. She was still shot full of dope after that morning; but she saw us. That girl, that girl we’d never have dared speak to if we’d met outside. That girl we’d both masturbated over because, nuts or not, she was just that beautiful. Despite the elephant tranks, that girl saw us seeing her, half-naked and tied to a hospital bed while Doctor Jones had his fun.

She looked at Dolph. Then at me.

She blinked. Just once.

Then he looked up, and the look on his face when he realised we were off the ward and wandering around, free-range and on the loose –

We scurried back to the ward like rabbits after a gunshot. Anal Probe Guy was crying and thrashing around. The nurses looked harassed. No-one seemed to notice we’d been gone.

“What we gonna do, man?” I whispered to Dolph.

“What we gotta,” Dolph whispered back.

Next morning, Dolph isn’t at breakfast. I ask one of the nurses, she sighs and says he didn’t feel like it this morning. I get a little worried, afraid Dolph’s going to pussy out on me and shut himself away for another week-long crying jag. Straight after breakfast, I get the summons. Doctor Jones’s office.

White and sweaty he was, panic in his eyes and trying to hide it. Hoping for mercy.

“I don’t know what you think you saw last night,” he began -

“What I saw was you giving Jen O’Hara a god-damn pearl necklace,” I told him. “And Dolph saw it too. That’s two against one, asshole.”

So, then everyone knew where they were. I waited for his next move.

“Mental patient’s word against a Doctor.” Trying to sneer.

This thought had occurred to me too, but I was ahead of him.

“We’re not delusional,” I said briskly. “He’s depressed, and I had a psychotic break brought on by a difficult adolescence. Psychotic break, singular. I’d say we’re reasonably credible. And two of us, telling the same story...”

He looked at me carefully. I put on a happy face and hummed along to “Hotel California” in my head. For months that bastard had lumbered around in my business, turning over what he found in his damp little paws and sniffing with his hairy little nose, and I had to fucking let him or I’d never get out. Felt pretty sweet to be wearing the jackboots for a change.

“So who do you think you might tell?” he asked.

I hesitated. Dolph and I hadn’t had a chance to talk strategy yet.

“You could tell one of the nurses,” he said, and there was something about his smile I didn’t like.

I kept quiet, waiting to see where he was going. I didn’t recognise the feeling at the time, but it was like when you give the mike to some guy in the audience and he turns out to be a comedy wannabe, and before you know it the whole routine’s slipping away from you, you’re losing the audience and the other guy’s taking control. I couldn’t begin to see how he’d got the upper hand...but I was getting that vibe.

“But they might not be the best people to tell,” he said. “They’re used to patients telling strange stories about the doctors. Andy, for example...you call him Anal Probe Guy...if I had a dollar for every time he’s reported me for, ah, violating him during our therapy sessions...”

“Does Andy have two independent witnesses?” I asked. Making a lunge for the mike, you might say. No luck; he kept hold.

“So maybe,” he continued, “you might tell a doctor, during Ward Rounds. Except they all work for me, don’t they? They’re my little worker-bees, my protégés. Maybe they’ll be on my side rather than yours.”

“Maybe they’d like a turn too?” I suggested. “At raping the patients, I mean.”

He drew nervously on his blotter. I saw his hand shake. He saw it too, and put the pen down hastily.

“What you really need is to get in front of the review board,” he said. “They’re meeting this afternoon.” A beat, perfectly judged; and then the punchline. “I was thinking of recommending you for discharge.”

I swallowed.

“If you drop your story,” he said, leaning forward over the desk, “I’ll advise your immediate release to the care of your family. Plus supervision and out-patient therapy, of course. All you have to do is turn up, smile nicely, act normal and keep your mouth shut. Or, if you prefer, you can make this afternoon all about me and my career. It’s really up to you.”

My throat was dry.

“What about Dolph?” I whispered at last.

“Adolphus is far too sick to even think about going home yet,” he said briskly. “If I discharged him, he’d be dead within three months.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“It’s your decision, Jack,” he said kindly. “Think about it. I’ll give you a few minutes on your own.”

And he walked out and left me alone in his office.

Smart bastard knew what he was doing. He knew moral courage fades fast when the object of your righteous anger ain’t under your nose. He knew that ninety-nine percent of the time, you don’t spend those five minutes making your decision. You spend them justifying the decision you’ve already made.

By the time he came back in, I’d got it all worked out. I don’t belong in here. I only came because it was that or jail. But if I piss him off, he’ll never let me go...

Besides, he’s got a point. Two teenage loonies versus a pdoc? But once I’m out I can go to the cops, think of something, I don’t know what, but oh, my God, to be home again...

“Deal,” I said when he came back in, thinking, If you gloat, I swear I’ll kill you.

But he didn’t gloat. He had a degree in psychiatry. He knew what he was doing.

Three days later, I was home. They all cried. I cried too. My sister hugged me and told me she loved me. I said I was sorry for scalping her Barbie doll when I was six. I was going to go to the cops, I swear I was, but -

And now I’m doing what I swore I wouldn’t. Begging for mercy. But there’s no mercy for the weak, and weak is what I was.

I was scared shitless. I had a record, a record for aberrant behaviour towards authority figures. If I went to the cops, and they called Doctor Jones...Hey, Doc, got a patient of yours...you sure he’s ready for Outside? Cuz he’s down here telling us some crazy-ass story...and then I’d be back inside.

I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t. I just - fucking - couldn’t. I couldn’t go back to the bathrobes and the jigsaws and the medication and the group and the endless observation and the screams...

Mostly, I couldn’t stand to see Dolph again. Christ, the look on his face when I stammered out my excuses, begging him to understand.

Begging for mercy.

I still see that face in my dreams.

And then.

They tried to protect me, but I found out. The page from the paper was in the recycling, at the bottom where I’d never find it, except the other side was the second half of the Don Felder interview, and I went looking.

Juvenile patient kills Doctor, attempts suicide. They say with a good headline, you don’t need to read the story. Dolph’s pudgy, expressionless face stared up at me, smeared with tomato ketchup.

I stared at him for the longest time. Then I put the paper back where I found it, went upstairs, and crawled under the duvet. Then I crawled out again, and went back downstairs. I didn’t want them thinking there was anything wrong with me. I had to pretend everything was okay.

I guess I’ve been pretending that ever since.

Dolph. The fat, funny-looking bald kid. He came through for Jen, all right; he was a hero if ever there was one. How the fuck did he do it? How? How? I’ll never know. But I lie awake nights wondering. Razor? Knife? Glass? Fingernails? Teeth?

Point is, he did it. He slew the dragon. And his trusty sidekick ran and left him all alone.

He'll never get out, of course, and that knowledge is gonna haunt me till the day I die. I swore I'd tell the story one day, own up to what a hero he was and what a pussy I was, like that made up for leaving him with no power and no allies and no way out in a fuckin' looney bin, while I went home and my mum made me my favourite dinner every night for a week and my sister let me watch all the cartoons I wanted without complaining. Like that made up for knowing he's in there for ever now. Never coming home.

And you know what? I still haven’t done it. I’ve made it all the way to Edinburgh – Edin-burrow, he’d remind me to say, you gotta call it Edin-burrow, you can’t mess with the stereotype, man – and I got my own one-man show and it’s a god-damned fucking sell-out, but I still ain’t done what I should. Instead, I’m just doing what I always do, before every show I play. I’m standing in front of the mirror, gabbling out this routine under my breath, and vowing that tonight I’ll do it for real, I’ll go out there and confess and let ‘em fuckin’ crucify me, the way I deserve. Every night, I pussy out. Ethiopian can’t change his skin. Leopard can’t change his spots. But maybe this time...

Maybe here. In Edin-burrow.

Maybe tonight.

So tonight...I thought I’d commit career suicide.

Okay, that was an uncomfortable line to open on, wasn’t it?

Christ, that’s the five-minute call.

Time to get your shit together, Jack.

Maybe tonight.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
Cassandra Parkin has has been writing fiction all her life, mostly as Christmas and birthday presents for friends and family. She is married with two children, has so far resisted her clear destiny to become a mad old cat lady, and lives in a small but perfectly-formed village in East Yorkshire. Her Scott-Prize-winning debut short story collection, “New World Fairy Tales”, launches this month and is available from Salt Publishing. She blogs at www.cassandraparkin.wordpress.com.

PHOTO CREDITS:
Furry by Denaldo
Sugarcrystal on hypodermic needle by Placbo
Theatre Curtain by John Thurm