Michael Pulley

 
 

CASTING OFF

He takes his morning coffee on the balcony overlooking the country club practice range. Three floors up, he has a panoramic view of chartreuse balls the rich folks, mostly men, have scattered. At least once a day some guy in a screened-in golf cart drives over the balls carefully picking them up with roller devices then depositing into collection cages.

The five greens, located at different lengths from the wide tee, are artificial so even if someone hits a practice shot to one with plenty of back spin, the ball won’t bite, as a grass green would. He sees in the distance mature trees at eye level. The lush expanse of grass around the greens provides an excellent morning view, with coffee.

He names his apartment “safe house.”

“So how do you like your new place?” his work colleagues will ask.

He thinks of using the “safe house” line, which might sound like a plea for sympathy. He doesn’t want that. Still, he’s learning to be honest and hopes with honesty comes safety.

Colleagues have been good to him and, without mentioning what actually happened, they took up a fund to pay for the apartment’s pet fee that he couldn’t afford when he moved. He’d posted a notice in the workroom, right by the doughnuts, saying he needed a good home for his cat, Smokey. He could live without the nuisance of the hair and litter box, but he took the money, embarrassed—yet happily accepting. They don’t know the whole story.

When he packed up what was left in the house, he shoved off to a new place without the clutter he and his wife had accumulated. He loaded boxes and boxes of items that his trash service wouldn’t pick up and drove around town, tossing into dumpsters. He calls what he did casting off.

She’d left a few times, always returning, saying she needed him after all. Quirky was the way most described her, which is partly what drew him to her. He also thought charming might describe her then, but now he knows that’s not true.

The sex was magnificent and even now he sometimes has an erotic dream with her, and he wakes up aroused, usually panting.

Two Men and a Truck moved him in February, no snow, around 30 degrees. Two strapping young men wrapped the furniture in plastic with one asking about large appliances. “The stove, fridge, washer, and dryer stay for the buyer,” he said.

“Nice neighborhood,” one said. “Cool old houses, lots of trees.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at the pin oak.

She once established some kind of shrine or altar around it, stones and beads forming a circle, and many nights she walked round and round, arms in the air like signaling a touchdown. At first he thought her ritual exquisitely eccentric. She explained it all, his amusement offset by a tenderness and devotion he would abide only from her. Just let anyone dare upbraid her for those peculiar goings-on! He loved her even more—the breezy spontaneity, last minute approach to getting things done, spur-of-the-moment decisions. She wore just enough makeup, donning bracelets and large earrings. People told him she was beautiful. A colleague once said, “You don’t deserve her” then punched him on the arm. “Lucky man.”

But he is now remembering that tree ritual and places it within a much larger circle he’s caught in.

He’s taking some of the blame—how much, he’s yet to determine. He knows it’s a matter of degree, but with her off in California commiserating with friends and family—he can hear them berating him, bastard, prick, asshole—his share of the blame mounts each day, as though he’d tossed her off a cliff and she’d miraculously survived. But he didn’t toss her. On most days he’s pretty certain he’s not to blame.

He remembers his untroubled days, years ago, playing bass guitar as a member of the house band at the Jump Joint, an all-purpose music venue attracting mostly college students. An occasional jazz personality might pass through, but blues and rock held forth, his group playing during the week but never opening for the big names.

Tina Turner’s bus broke down en route—delayed about two hours—before a Friday gig at the Jump Joint. His band was asked to play until the bus was repaired. Possibly their big shot. They nearly stumbled over each other setting up. As the early ticket holders dribbled in before the walk-up tickets went on sale, they told themselves to play it cool, just relax and let the music happen—not too much pot before, just enough.

They killed it for an hour and a half. The magic happened as they hoped it would—the longer they played the more the crowd cut loose. Suddenly he looked into the wings, and there was Tina herself, eyes aglow, legs moving slightly beneath that short skirt, her crew stacked up behind her. His group finished their song, and the curtain closed to the announcer’s “Next up, Tina Turner!” Wild applause.

Before breaking down their set, he walked up to her and extended his hand. “Great to meet you,” he said.

She looked at him sharply. “Don’t quit your day job, kid,” then turned and joined her crew.

Why is he remembering that now?

He told only two people at work, his supervisor and closest colleague—done in confidence—but only now, he realizes, one or both must have spread the word because the supervisor told him gathering the money for Smokey’s deposit was “ridiculously easy.” Everyone in the office probably knew, and knows, but how much? Surely not much, but he remembers the cloying catch in his throat, as though tears had nestled there, and his quivering voice as he told them. How much did he relate? Does stress and pain affect memory?

People always greeted him each morning with the perfunctory, “How you are?” What could he say to something like that? He always wanted to say “better than expected” but, no, in his head he was quaking, tottering along.

It started with her computer, but not really—went farther back, with the evening marches around the pin oak. He regarded it lightly. “Evil spirits,” she’d say and venture off into her personal theology, a mixture of eastern thought and New Age orthodoxy. Soon the charm faded. One neighbor asked him what she was doing each evening, and he had no reasonable answer. He doesn’t recall what he told the neighbor.

His wife didn’t tell him until well into her problems that she’d sold Percocet online.

“Your own?” he asked.

“Yes. Wish I hadn’t. Now they’re after me.”

Since her unfortunate fall in a department store on a slippery floor and ensuing spinal surgery, she’d been collecting monthly disability checks and been supplied plenty of pain killers from two different doctors and a psychiatrist. She spent most of her days in the spare bedroom at her computer, shopping she told him.

“Who’s after you?” he asked.

“People who want to get rid of me. That’s who.”

“What people?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” she said, gazing intently into her monitor, studying, always studying.

Sometimes while he’s having coffee, he lets Smokey out on the balcony with him. She’s safe there while she noses around, smelling the fresh air. The fake practice greens are spaced out, and he’s gauged how far each is from the tee. One day he started counting the balls lying out there but realized that was a useless thing to do, yet somehow he thought he should. He’s becoming aware of his creeping obsessions since all of this started—like counting the balls on the practice range—and the way he counts his steps each time he ascends and descends the stairs. But as he thinks about it, he’s done some of that all his life, just not like now. She never mentioned anything about his obsessions, though. Obsessions? Why is thinking about his obsessions? She wrote the book.

She selected her psychiatrist—he’s forgotten how she came across him—before all the worst began happening, or at least before he started noticing. (He’s aware others noticed long before him, when they labeled her quirky. Perhaps her sheer beauty knocked him out for too long.) After several sessions and after she’d told him about the Percocet, she wondered if he’d like to attend a session with her.

The psychiatrist’s office was in a sprawling office complex, a shiny shingle reading, “Preventative Psychiatry.” The waiting room reminded him of a children’s day care center, small chairs and desks in the middle, colorful blocks, and manipulative puzzles. Adult chairs ringed the room.

“He takes difficult cases,” she whispered.

People waiting looked troubled. Just how bad was she? A TV sat across the room blaring afternoon network talk shows where weird and violent guests encounter other weird and violent guests.

“Should we be watching that?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Can’t you take it?”

They waited thirty minutes for their turn. He was a short man with a desk set on a podium-like affair, three leather chairs facing him.

“My husband,” she said. “He’d like to join us.”

The psychiatrist reached across the desk and shook his hand. “We welcome you.”

Conspiratorial, he thought. The polished concrete floor seemed odd for this setting. Several book shelves behind his desk contained, among other things, framed abstract paintings looking like West African figurines, elongated heads, squatty legs, bulging stomachs. Fearful.

She smiled and began talking about their last session while the psychiatrist listened and typed on his laptop.

“The hacking continues to cause all sorts of problems,” she said. “The weirdest messages flash on my monitor, for just a second.”

He continued typing.

“But I told you about that last time,” she said.

Typing.

“Images appear. Warnings. I told my husband to be careful with his computer. He doesn’t believe me.”

The psychiatrist glanced his way.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

He stopped typing. “How so?”

“The wall outlets,” she said. “That’s what those people do, you know. Come at you from different directions.”

“The same people?” the doctor asked.

“Who else could it be?”

The week before, she’d told an electrician that someone had changed electrical switch plates in her room. “They’re different,” she said. “Just look.” The electrician looked at him. “Did you change these?” the electrician asked him.

“No,” she answered. “He doesn’t know how.”

Later, on the porch, the electrician said, “She may need some help.”

The psychiatrist continued typing then stopped and talked with her about computer hacking and how he didn’t trust the people who work on his office computers.

“But,” he said, “what you’re describing I don’t know anything about.”

She told him what she’d read online about surveillance and how the FBI is going after drug pushers and that she’d sold only once, and why should they come after her?

The psychiatrist was reasonably certain they would not come after her through the wall outlets but he’d known stranger things to happen. Which seemed to please her. They spoke of the drugs he’d prescribed and if she was taking them. She said she knew the drugs were anti-psychotics and she thought she could do without them until, at least, she’d solved all her problems. He wrote a prescription for another drug that would help her feel better.

“And,” he said, “if you feel frightened, have your husband call me and I can give you a shot. Which should help.”

Later, they walked out of the office, and he paid the receptionist (he didn’t know how much longer he could afford this) then walked silently to the car. Once in, she said, “See, he’s on my side. He believes me.”

Her eyes were clear and bright—chilling.

“We’re about out of vodka,” she said. “Let’s stop by and get some.”

That night the brightness would leave her eyes, and the vodka bottle would be only half full. He’d stopped objecting to her drinking—in fact, he came to appreciate it, always putting her to sleep. Giving him rest.

He thinks often about how they met, both coming off divorces—his, amicable; hers, acrimonious and “rowdy” as she described it. They desperately clung to each other after meeting in a supermarket checkout line, she commenting on the fresh bakery bread in his cart—a mere toss-off line she later said, not meant to capture his attention—with the ensuing short conversation dealing with the price of the bread, and wasn’t it worth the extra cost to buy good bread? They pushed their carts to the parking lot together, and he surprised himself by asking if she’d like to have coffee at a nearby diner. Two weeks later they were at his apartment spending hours in bed, leaving only briefly to pop a Totino’s frozen pizza in the oven and eat it while sitting naked on the bed. She always said he was the best. And he couldn’t imagine anything better.

Those and similar thoughts come to him as he walks along the high fence on his side of the country club practice range while he looks for errant balls that breach the chain-link fence, some a result of screaming slices off the tee, others escaping under the wire. He doesn’t know why he’s compelled to collect the balls—he’s gathered a decent stash in a clothes basket—but he wonders if doing this might be his way of collecting safety; the fence protects him from being hit by balls as he ambles freely gathering what is rightfully his—all safely acquired. But he’d be embarrassed to test that assumption with anyone else. Sometimes he thinks too much.

Mostly he remembers the sex as he walks the fence, and how sometimes their escapades tiptoed that narrow line between pleasure and pain—the slappings she was willing to give him only after his urging and the later regrets she would have for doing them. He tries not to recall those times, but he can’t elude them and speculates on why he wanted to be punished.

Dropping the newly collected golf balls into his clothes basket feels worthwhile, honest labor—found objects to be cherished later when times are hard and hope is nearly gone.

His supervisor at work pulled him aside one day and asked how he was doing, this a couple of weeks after telling the story and choking up.

“Do you feel safe?” the supervisor asked.

He must have used the “safe house” line, but he didn’t recall doing it. “Sure, when I get home, I’m just fine.”

“Being attacked isn’t pleasant.”

He must have told him that, too.

“Did I tell you the story,” his supervisor said, “about when I was in Viet Nam, and we were on patrol, and the Cong started firing at us from trees across from a large rice paddy?”

“No.”

“I was leading the patrol, and we’d set up firing stations just beyond the paddy, hunkered down.”

Why was his friend telling this?

“The firing went on for about fifteen minutes then the most amazing thing I’d ever witnessed happened. Four Buddhists monks with their saffron robes and each carrying a bowl walked single file heading right into the line of fire, on the raised portion of the paddy. They looked straight ahead, never once glancing at the Cong or us. And both sides stopped firing—ceased completely, allowing the monks the right of way.”

Something rose in his throat, thick and overpowering, as he pictured the scene.

“Those monks acted like nothing out of the ordinary was happening as they continued their journey, a trek monks had probably made for hundreds of years, same place, same time of day. It was the most complete silence I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

“What happened after they’d gone by?”

“We began firing again. I lost three men. We wiped out the Cong.”

“Thanks for telling me,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

They looked at each other.

“Hang in there,” his supervisor said. “Life’s full of wonders and mysteries. Strange things can happen.”

He hoped he wouldn’t forget that story.

She cut telephone and cable TV wires so “they” couldn’t hear and watch her. On a January morning he woke up freezing, finding wires to the furnace cut. She knew “they” were sneaking into the house at night and performing mischief. His calls to her psychiatrist yielded no help, not having visiting rights in the hospitals.

He feels as alone now as he did then, going to work each day, functioning well, now that she’s in California. He’s safe and doesn’t fear much anymore, once he’s at home and has the panoramic view of the trees, lush grass, and chartreuse balls. He sometimes amuses himself by wondering if his apartment one day might overflow with all the golf balls he’s collected, and the police will find him buried beneath them. He’d be soiled, starving, and barely alive. Half the balls would have cascaded out the door when the police bashed it down—a cataract of chartreuse flowing over the poor cops. He’s laughing more and more at the imagined scene, sometimes while standing on the balcony with Smokey. He’d be buried by gold balls, then resurrected.

He decides to keep a journal of everything that happened, with dates and even the time of day if he can remember. Sure can’t hurt being precise. Like the time she’d been awake all night (sometimes she’d go three days without sleeping) and when he awoke, she’d taken the switch plates off all the wall outlets and, for the second time, cut the internet cable to his computer. She was sitting on the couch with an arsenal of kitchen knives stacked on the coffee table.

“If you think you need to go to work, then be my guest. But I’m prepared. Why, I’ll cut off their balls.”

At his office he called 911 so he could rendezvous with the cops and disarm her, even take her away. But his work place security officers arrived at his office door, wondering why he’d called 911 (he didn’t realize the company monitored calls).

“A mistake,” he said.

“You okay?” one asked.

“Sure.”

He called from his cell phone and later entered his house with the cops. She consented to a hospital psychiatric evaluation. One of many. She appeared more sad and resigned than frightened.

Or the time a neighbor found her beneath the pin oak, bottles of pills by her side, some empty. The neighbor called the cops. Another psych unit stay.

He can’t remember all of what he should be putting in his journal. Memory loss wears him out, and he often falls asleep after work, some weekends without leaving. Usually he forgets to stand on the balcony.

Sometimes he wakes at night and remembers. Like the time she came to bed with him and, in the middle of the night, he reached for her, the place empty. No lights were on—all lights were always on during her marathon days and nights. He found her on the couch lying on her back, naked and masturbating, clearly asleep, the street light shining on her. He called her name.

“Leon,” she whispered.

“What?” he asked.

Again, “Leon.”

He went to bed. Leon, her psychiatrist’s first name.

I’m going shopping at Wal-Mart,” she said at 9:30 one night. Black heels, long red dress, lots of makeup.

“Why?” he asked. She’d been drinking.

“Get some air.”

The next morning at 2:15, the hammer missed his head and pounded the pillow, but he woke immediately before it struck his shoulder.

“If you call the cops, I’ll kill you,” she screamed and ran to her room carrying the hammer, slamming the door. “Don’t you dare open this door!”

He went to the kitchen phone and dialed 911, but before he finished, she unplugged the phone then flung the hammer at him, missing. They tumbled into chairs and lamps, fell to the floor. She bit his hand and an elbow sent his glasses flying, but he subdued her in a bear hug.

“Help police,” she screamed. “He’s killing me.”

He’s trying to write it in his journal, but can’t remember how the cops got there or where they took her. He wonders if he struck her. Something about the cops separating them. Yes, he did hit her, didn’t he?

He walks to the balcony, and thinks he’s making up the part about hitting her. Why would he do that? Certainly he sold the house—probably getting her signature—and gave her half the proceeds, didn’t he?

He wonders what he is not remembering. Was he in jail? Well, that’s a stupid question. He’s never been in jail his entire life.

The balls fill the practice range and he hears a scratching on the French door behind him. Smokey wants out. He pretends she’s five feet tall, and they’re both watching men hit the balls. Smokey laughs with him, he thinks.

“Time to collect,” he tells Smokey and picks her up, going down the stairs, counting each step until he’s standing at the fence. He tells her to come with him to collect balls and puts her down to follow, but she dashes away until he can see her no longer.

“She probably wouldn’t have been much help anyway.”

He walks the fence, listening to the rich men hit the balls—slap, slap. He hopes to find plenty of balls today. He’ll need them when times get hard.

But he wonders if times were ever hard. Then he sees Tina Turner standing in the wings smiling, which frees him of whatever bad times he might have had. Did he forget something about that night? Something unfortunate? And for good measure he sees the monks calmly walking the banks of the rice paddy. He wonders where they’re going, and hopes they’ll be safe.

The balls keep bouncing on the practice range. Head down, he searches and hears the smack of clubs striking the balls. Should be a good day for collecting. They’re hitting lots of balls.

As he strolls, he says, “Hit, hit, hit.” And is only vaguely sure why.
 
 

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