Sunday, December 12, 2010
Sample Sunday gives authors an opportunity to showcase their writing by posting readings from their published books or works in progress. I've sampled some great books this morning. This is fun. Thank you for reading my sample from Chapter Two of Jobless Recovery.
Joe Tremaine didn’t feel right the morning he went crazy. To begin with, his coffee tasted like sewer run-off and his head ached and throbbed so he could barely see to dump the swamp-colored sludge down the sink. When he picked up the paper and tried to read about Senator Buford Drake’s latest assault on American workers, the rattling of the pages buzzed against his eardrums like a swarm of bees and made him queasy.
He threw the paper down and jammed his hands tight over his ears. It was hot in the living room, so hot that the heat coming off the couch turned his skin red, and hotter yet in the kitchen where the pilot light on the stove waved its blue tongue as if to taunt him. He staggered outside and down the steps to the road. An early autumn frost still lingered on the grass like a veil of white lace. He scraped up a double handful to rub on his burning skin. Then he stood at the curb, his arms held straight out to his sides at shoulder level, and tilted his head back to catch the ghost of a breeze tantalizing his face.
He stood until the fire left him and then he started moving again, separating himself from the house and the source of the heat. The sidewalk started melting as he walked, slipping into liquid under his feet. He ripped his gaze upward and away from the concrete sloshing around his ankles. When had the trees become so shiny? Someone, maybe one of the drug dealers on the corner, had polished the trunks so they shone like mirrors and the glare was coming in through his eyes and setting off fireworks to explode hot and noisy in his brain.
A woman burst out of a house and shimmered in front of him for a few seconds like one of the Star Trek crew beaming down to an alien world. Joe shook his head to clear the sparkles out of his vision and plunged forward, barely able to keep his balance as the earth tilted and spun, trying to shake him loose to send him flying into space. He ended up a block away at Oak Street Park where the air around him shattered without warning into a million pieces of colored glass. The breaking glass tinkled like wind chimes, and then the shrieks of children playing mixed with the chimes and went to maximum volume in his head.
Children. The glass would cut their little bodies.
He flung himself from the pathway onto the grass and hooked one arm around the nearest child, a girl whose eyes had started to ooze down her face like melted ice cream, twin scoops of gooey chocolate.
“Get away. Run, little girl.” The sounds came out in a pig’s grunt and the girl he’d tried to save slipped out of his grasp and ran squealing toward the road.
Three women moved in front of him, positioning themselves to form a curved arc between him and the children. One of the women brandished a piece of wood, waving it like a battle flag. She swung at him, just missing his head. “Get out of here, you sicko.” Dragon’s breath flared out of her mouth.
Joe sank to the ground and curled his body, wrapping his arms around his head. His bad leg went into an agonizing spasm as each blade of grass turned into a tiny spear and the spears probed his flesh, concentrating on the leg. He screamed and rolled onto his back.
Another of the women stepped forward and peered down at him, the skin of her face quivering like Jell-O, so he couldn’t focus. “It’s okay, Sondra. Looks to me like he’s on some kind of drug trip.”
She pulled something out of her purse, something small and silver-gray, a device with a metal stick poking out of the top. Joe couldn’t remember what it was called. She jabbed the front of the thing with her fingers and put it to her ear, where it burst into flames that danced across her hair. Joe scrunched his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see her burn up.
He felt something soft covering his body, lying over him like the lightest cloud. He let the fingers of his left hand glide across the softness. A blanket. His right hand was held tight and warm in someone’s grasp, small fingers pressing into his palm, and he opened his eyes, blinking at the brightness of the light overhead. He made out a dim silhouette to his right and then a familiar face came into focus.
“Lark.” His voice was a dry croak. Thank God, his speech had returned.
“Dad? You’re in the hospital. I’ll get your doctor.” She pulled her hand loose from his and slipped out of the room before he could tell her he just wanted to go home.
He didn’t need a doctor. The whole episode was just caused by stress. And who wouldn’t be stressed if they had to live his nightmare? There was the move from Washington back to North Carolina and his job loss, finding out he wasn’t worth two cents to the government or to anyone else. Lots of things, mitigating circumstances, coming on top of the fractured skull and the banged up leg that had cost him his job to begin with. He’d talk to the doctor, and then Lark could take him home.
Lark returned with an amiable-looking man wearing a lab coat over his street clothes. Mid thirties, maybe. Glasses, balding, about five-ten. Phony kind of smile--too many teeth and not nearly enough eye involvement--but that’s what you got these days when government owned doctors were paid to run as many patients as possible through assembly lines.
“Hello. I’m Dr. Jefferson.” The doctor kept his hands parked in the pockets of his lab coat. “Well, Joe, you had quite an experience.”
Typical response. As if Joe had simply gone for a roller coaster ride to ease the boredom of sitting alone in the house day after day wondering if he’d ever find another job.
“What happened?” Joe sat up. He wanted to raise the head of the bed, but he couldn’t find the controls
“It seems you had a seizure.”
“You mean like epilepsy? I’ve never--”
“A fractured skull can be tricky.” Dr. Jefferson did something to the IV machine, changing the setting so the soft clicks slowed almost to a stop, and giving it his full attention instead of looking Joe in the eye. “A section of your brain must have gotten damaged back when you fractured your skull. If you don’t like calling your experience a seizure, you might say it’s a form of mental illness brought on by the injury.”
Like mental illness was any better than brain seizures. Joe pondered, trying to get used to the idea of having something wrong with his head.
“Will it happen again?” he asked finally.
“Hard to say. I’m putting you on medication to prevent your neurons sparking out of control. The exact dosage may take some adjustment before we get it right, but it’s a good drug, been around a long time. Does the job.”
“How long do I have to be on this stuff?”
“It’s safe to stay on it indefinitely.” Grinning like Joe should be happy with the situation. It wasn’t Dr. Jefferson who had to find a way to pay for a lifetime supply of pills and deal with the inevitable side effects.
Joe had one more seizure before he stabilized. The second was milder than the first, but worse, in a way, because Lark was a witness, and he hated that, would have avoided it at any cost if he’d had a way to know what was coming. He’d gone to the grocery store and he was in the bakery aisle trying to decide if he could afford a cake on sale for three dollars off. It would make a nice treat, and Lark sure deserved something. She’d slipped in ice on the front steps a couple of weeks ago. Cracked her wrist and was all down on herself because she couldn’t work till it healed.
As soon as he tried to figure out how the cost of the cake affected the grocery budget, a voice in his head grabbed the numbers and started reciting a formula, making cash register sounds, sounds that went faster and faster, the figures astronomical. Immediately, he saw the implications.
Adrenaline shot through his system, and it felt like something wet and cold squirted out the top of his head, so he put his hand up to see if his hair was still dry. He had to hurry before someone stole his idea. His heart pounding in overdrive, he abandoned the cart full of groceries, leaving it sideways in front of the freezer section, and went to the front of the store for an empty cart. This he filled with boxes of salt and jars of instant coffee, paying with a check that would overdraw his account, but that didn’t matter because the formula would make him rich. He kept the cart, speeding it home across the bumpy sidewalk and almost ramming a couple of kids on skateboards.
When Lark came home from a doctor appointment, Joe had already dumped all the salt into the kitchen sink and was poised with an open jar of Tasters Choice. His face felt like someone was holding a heating pad against his cheeks and, at the same time, ice water had soaked his clothes, running down his back and his chest, and he didn’t know where it came from.
Lark stood in the doorway, her expression frozen so she looked like a mannequin. “Dad? Why is there a grocery cart on the front lawn?”
He waved her closer. “Sweetheart, you’re just in time. We’re gonna be rich after I get a patent on this invention. We’re moving to a mansion. I’m getting you a new car and a closet full of clothes, anything you want, and I’ll be famous, probably be on TV, all those talk shows, Montel and Jay Leno. Oprah. Just watch, just watch.” He remembered his words had tumbled from his mouth like someone was yanking them out on a string, dragging them up through his throat and past his teeth, so fast he couldn’t stop them.
“What are you doing?” She slung her purse across the room and stared at him like he was someone else, not her dad, and then she grabbed his arm. “Sit down. Please, just sit down while I call Dr. Jefferson.”
“I invented a formula. It’s so simple, I can’t believe I’m the first one smart enough to think of making electricity this way. All those people who didn’t want Joe Tremaine are going to be sorry. Soon’s I add the coffee, the caffeine will react with the salt and the whole mess will start to glow like a Christmas tree, so all I need to do is hook up a wire and run it to the power lines outside the house.”
“Dad, no.” She lunged for the coffee jar.
He lifted it out of her reach and dodged past her, running outside where he pounded down the sidewalk, yelling to everyone he saw about his invention. He crossed the road, hearing brakes squeal, and glimpsed angry eyes staring at him through a bug-spattered windshield. If he could only tell enough people, they’d understand, and Lark would have to let him hook up the power. She’d have to, and then she’d see for herself and she’d be so proud of her dad.
Before the ambulance arrived, half the people in the neighborhood had taken in the freak show. Of course, Lark forgave him, but after that most people on Oak Street called him Crazy Joe.
Maybe six months wasn’t long enough for them to forget he’d ever been anything except what he was now, a useless specimen of humanity, drugged into what passed for sanity on Oak Street, and jobless because employers didn’t even want healthy people, so what chance did he have?