May 18, 2008

Leaving Louisiana

I'm surrounded by aliens. The band at Le Bon Ton Roule gears up about midnight. The crowd thickens in the back bar. Musicians set up their instruments and blast their sound a block down Magazine Street. Tonight it's some pretty good blues, and other nights it's jazz. No rock and roll, thank God. I'm sick of it. Bunch of rich white kids who should have left it in their garages. It's all been done before, and done better. I've gotten to where I can't stand that crap. The "music" is so loud I can't hear the singer, who isn't saying anything, anyway.

Give me Dylan!

I've eaten one piece of this overpriced pizza and nearly choked. My swallowing tube is stretched and narrowed. If I eat too fast, I'll throw up. I'll save the rest for breakfast. Time for my nightly bed ritual: drive to parking lot; put up curtains; lay blanket over plywood compartment covers; take medicine; pee in a plastic jug; blow nose; pray myself to sleep. Wake up tomorrow God-willing, and do it all over again. Coffee and donut at the convenience store; read the New Orleans Times-Picayune (better than it used to be) smoke a cigarette; paint a house or whatever; skip lunch; more coffee at afternoon break; work till I'm tired; clean up surreptitiously at the convenience store; put up curtains again and dress well; bowl of soup at Whole Foods; find a place to write. I drink sodas and write. That's what I do in bars now. I've always written in bars, but usually by this time I was drunk and things made even less sense than this. Noisy bars don't bother me. I hardly notice the people.

Sometimes, another patron will come over to inquire. I'm pleasant, conversational, and maybe, if they ask, I'll read them a passage or two. Sometimes a good conversation ensues. But they are usually drunk or getting there, so most of them leave me unsatisfied but knowing that at least I didn't say anything sarcastic. I'm a master at that. I know when to shut up now. I don't need to talk. There's nothing to prove. No, I tell them, I don't expect to get it published. I've never even sent anything out. I've never been satisfied with anything I've written. I wouldn't know where to start. Send it to a magazine? No respectable mag would publish this stuff and the others can't pay.

I threw fifty pounds of spiral notebooks in the garbage in New Jersey in the late nineties because I couldn't stand to read the stuff and was sick of lugging it around. I'm writing to keep from flying out the window. Finally they go away, and I go back to my blessedly solitary longhand life. Why? Don't ask me. I don't know. What used to be a mission has become a habit. I don't have a mission anymore. But, a man has to do something to make himself feel right and refrain from flooding the neighborhood with puke. And, like Sean Connery's character said in Finding Forester, "A writer writes."

So, now, feeling that my end is near--and not like the last time when I had cancer of the esophagus and knew it was near (it always is) I'm a little confused. Okay, I've always been more or less confused. I admit it. When they wheeled me into that operating room in Togus, ME, a few years ago, I really was ready to die. When a VA doctor told me I had a life-threatening cancer in my swallowing tube, I leaped over denial, anger, and bargaining, and landed square on acceptance. About time, I thought. Bring it on.

I'd accepted my mortality long before. I had my depression managed finally, and I was working on my personality disorders, but there was no urgency about it because I lived alone and who knew or cared? The big surprise for me was that my life had become pretty blah. I was living in an apartment too big for me on the main street of Presque Isle, a fiberboard town in Maine somewhere near the North Pole. The landlord was an outrageous drunk and probably a child molester. The only thing I liked about the town was the old library. I really had no place else I wanted to go. If I hadn't already been there I was sure the first thing I would want to do on arrival was keep on going. Every relationship had gone down the tube, and I felt fat, ugly, old and stupid. A complete failure. It was my time to die. I'd had enough and apparently God had too. Now I had a timeline, almost a date-certain. The doctor said I had a 5% chance of surviving the operation. I said to myself, "Great! I'm going to die on the operating table. I won't even be there." I was thinking about that Woody Allen gag: "I don't mind dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

I gave my 17 cartons of books to the library, took most of my stuff to the Salvation Army for redistribution, and drove my light truck to the VA, where I'd been promised quarters for the chemotherapy and radiation period. On the way there in an awful blizzard, my wheels spun so much something commited suicide in the transmission, and I had to pay a tow truck to drag me the last 150 miles. When I finally got there four hours late the power-mad zombies on duty couldn't find a record of me, and I had to hang by my thumbs until the right doctor came in and signed a form. An armed guard escorted me to the ward of semi-private rooms that would be my home for the last days of my stupid life.

It was boring in that room. The available books were trash, the television was more trash, and I didn't feel like talking to anyone. Everyone else had something as serious as mine, and was in his own world. The one computer available was on dial-up, and I couldn't access my favorite chat room from it. Once a day, I read the news for an hour. To make it worse, it was Christmas--which always had meant loneliness for me--and in the cafeteria they played those crappy Christmas songs at every meal: Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and all that dumbass Santa Claus junk. Kiddie music for grown men who'd been in the Marine Corps. I hated it so much that I complained. Of course, as usual, I was the only one who had ever complained.

But, for a month, I went through the chemo anyway, and got sick only once. Then a month of radiation, which turned me into a zombie, and a month of rest, and finally, in early Spring, the big event: the operation. They were going to try to cut out what remained of the tumor, cut off part of my stomach and esophagus and stretch them both through my lung and staple it all back together. An "esophagogastrectomy," I believe it was named.

I was rolled into the operating room waving goodbye to everybody and laughing. I had the doctors laughing. But obviously, I didn't die. The four-hour operation turned into six-and-one-half hours. They couldn't make me breathe. I heard a voice at one point saying, "BREATHE, MIKE!" And I thought, "Why should I? It's nice here." They'd awakened me with my lungs still exposed (I saw them) in order to tell my conscious self to breathe. Finally, I responded to the insistent voice and tried. I didn't feel it, but I must have breathed, because the last thing I heard was, "You're a real fighter, Mike."

I woke up in Intensive Care in the worst pain. I thought it was torture. I figured the pain was more punishment. I'd thought life was over, and it just kept on truckin'. I thought, here comes more failure, more stupidity, more loneliness, more kicking myself in the butt for past mistakes , more going from place to place trying to make enough money to rent a room, to find another stinking job, to sit in another lousy bar among a bunch of no-talent aliens who haven't read a book since high school. Going from nowhere to nowhere and never getting anywhere. Where did I expect to get, thinking like that? Habits of thought are harder to break than a basketball full of glue.

Intensive Care Units are delicious, aren't they? (If you've ever been there.) They are on it. Any pain, any gripe, any discomfort, one gets immediate attention. ICU workers are top-of-the-heap medical professionals. They totally ignore the abuse your pain makes you vent on them. You are treated like a blameless infant. And the truth is, nobody really wants to leave ICU to lie in a ward or a private room, where nurses ignore you just to wean you away from your dependence, and make you do things that you don't think you can do, like walk, or reach.

Now you may be asking what does this have to do with me being confused? The truth is, that after all the pain and weakness I went through for nearly two years following the operation, I've regained most of my strength, stopped drinking thanks to God and AA, bought an old van and fixed it up, went to Mexico and started writing again, made amends to some people I'd injured in one way or another, and got some stuff off my chest that was suffocating my brain.

Although I'm living the way I've almost always lived for about 30 years--nearly broke, close to a calamitous auto breakdown, no work this week and 12 days before my Social Security pittance gets to the bank, no girlfriend, my few friends as usual hundreds or thousands of miles from here, the cellphone dead, two cans of tuna fish and three gallons of gas and not a dime, not a single dime in my pocket--I feel pretty good. At one time the situation drove me out of the Tinker Street Cafe at 3 a.m. to hang myself from the flagpole in Woodstock. (Don't hang yourself; it hurts.)

The thing is that now I don't want to die. Things are looking up! Don't get me wrong. I'm not afraid to die, not at all, because I believe in God and everything has to die. I'll admit I'm afraid of pain--but not terrified. Only a pervert could welcome pain. And if pain is punishment for a misspent life, I guess I have it coming, plenty of it. But I don't think it is. I think pain is another one of those teachers that I'll talk about if I ever figure it out. What I meant to say was that for the first time since I was chasing butterflies around Lake Charles, La.--no, for the first time since I sailed with my only and long-gone wife around the Windward Islands in a three-masted windjammer--I'm happy.

Well, that's not exactly true. Let's say that I'm not unhappy. But, my old cynical self keeps whispering, "Now that you are happy, you really are going to die."

What does this have to do with Leaving Louisiana? I'll get to that.

1 comment:

Slightly said...

Mr. Mike,

I met you in the bar saturday night and asked you about the play. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your memories...they are very inspiring. I used to live on Hudson St. in NY! for a while... though i imagine your story is from before my time there.
I tried calling your phone to get in touch with you about the play but have not been able to get through. If you still have my number give me a call.

take care and looking forward to working with you.

m

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