The job changed after the Garbage Aberration Act. Any indication of addiction or fixation found in your garbage could lead to mandatory treatment. Nowadays, everyone was in one 12-step program or another. These autonomous programs were now state institutions.
He sits in the truck, killing time reading the newspaper. Max ignores most of his job and really just carries away the garbage. He reads of a new program, Therapy Anon. Not for those in therapy, but for those directly affected by the people in therapy. This causes him to hiss through his teeth.
He mutters, “Garbage.”
Max is 42. He’s thin, dark, stands 6 foot 4 inches. His blue eyes could be called attractive. They are set deep and close together. When his mood turns angry, they can take on a beady quality.
He creases the newspaper and drops it on the empty passenger seat. His partner is out sick again, suffering from the chronic fatigue. It’s a major diagnosis and a certified handicap. Max actually enjoys being alone. Very indicative.
The Wilsons’ is his last house. He attaches the can to a mechanical arm, which drops the contents onto a table. He gives a casual once-over. This is all in case Max may be being watched himself.
The Wilsons’ younger daughter, Nikita, has been leaving notes in her empty medication bottles. Like a message in a bottle cast out to sea. Max discovered this about a month ago. This is behavior that could get them both into trouble. Today’s note reads, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance? William Butler Yeats.”
Max mutters, “She’s a pip.”
He presses a lever and the table drops away, loudly emptying into the bed of the truck. Max drives away.
Nikita exclaims, “Shit!” Lying on the floor of the garage, she unrolls from a large green bedspread. Max woke her. She can’t sleep. Never can. There’s always too much stimulation. The neighbors talking, the garbage man, the heating pipes, everything. At night, she moves about the house like a ghost, smoking one cigarette after another. Last night she smoked in bed and a hot ash hit the mattress. She rubbed and rubbed. Just came short of pouring on water. Instead, she moved to the living room couch. Her mother came out for a bathroom visit and said, “Go back to bed.” Nikita said, “I can’t. It’s smoldering.” Her mom went back to bed.
Now Nikita enters the kitchen through the garage door. She turns on the coffeepot. She turns on the computer and it spits out a quote.
“I am you and you are me and we are all together. The Beatles.”
She says, “Groovy.”
She cools a cup of coffee with half-and-half and drinks it all in one go. During the day she’ll drink five pots. She types into the computer: Search, poetry, William Butler Yeats.
The powers that be are pushing for Nikita to be removed to a group home. Her mother refuses to put her out.
In her seeming isolation, Nikita is never alone. She believes there’s a satellite revolving in outer space, and its only concern is her well-being. The notes in the bottles are associated with this. They also communicate via the radio, TV, and, mostly, the computer.
On the highway, a bumper sticker reads “Honk if you are a friend of Bill’s.” Max beeps. The driver acts startled and cranes his neck around. He changes over to the slower right lane. Max passes. His truck represents authority. He misses the time when his only job was taking away the garbage.
Max stops at the 7-Eleven drive-through. He speaks into the microphone.
“Gimme a Pepsi Big Gulp and a Big Mac.”
Max eats his burger in the parking lot. His wife has him on a low-protein diet. She follows the trends. Not long ago it was the complete opposite: she served him steak with peanut butter and bacon.
Max’s wife mans a self-help hot line. She says, “Switching, hold please.”
She turns from her blue computer screen and enters the kitchen.
She says, “Your dinner is in the microwave. How did you cheat today? What did you eat?”
Max says, “Nothing.”
From the microwave he removes a whole nutty-grain casserole. He goes to the cabinet and takes out a bottle of Tabasco sauce and lays it on heavy.
“What? It’s pepper sauce. Macrobiotic, right?”
Max shovels casserole into his mouth.
“You,” his wife says. She adds, “A profile in excess. Things are gonna change.”
He watches her walk down the hall. How are things gonna change and why does he put up with it? That perfect ass has something to do with it. The professionals would condemn this as objectification. Everyone is an amateur psychologist. He’s tired of it.
Max wakes. He walks down the hallway, bound for the bathroom and a pee. There in the living room are his significant others. Not a big group. His wife, his partner at work, and his boss. And a “certified helper,” a kid 20 years Max’s junior. A stranger really, with a degree and an important title.
The helper speaks. “Hello, Max. I’m a certified helper.”
Max doesn’t respond. He goes to the bathroom and pees. He goes to the bedroom and puts a robe on over his pajamas. He inhales deeply and returns to the living room.
Again, “Hi, Max. I’m a certified helper.”
Max thinks of his deceased father and is glad he isn’t alive to see this. Dad was brilliant. A philosophy professor who experimented in all lifestyles. Today he wouldn’t be distinguished as a genius, but as an addict in need of help.
Max holds his tongue — somewhat. “It’s my house, get the hell out.”
The helper says, “Mr. Wagons, could you start?”
The boss is so old school, Max is surprised to see him here. He’s an elderly, heavyset man. A cigar smoker. He looks tired and put out. He’s here under Max’s wife’s influence. A necessary body to fill out a small intervention. Now he reads from a paper, never once looking Max in the eye.
He says, “Max, you are my worst reporter. You reported whiskey bottles in the Zangles’ garbage. Now the whole family is in A.A. and Al-Anon. That’s good, but there should be much more.”
He gives a nervous look around and says, “That’s it.”
Max didn’t even want to report the Zangles. He took it as a real cry for help. They could have buried those bottles in the backyard, like everyone else does. It’s true, if he cared to, there are plenty more people he could have reported. But by nature Max wasn’t an informant.
Max’s partner is next. He’s a thin, blond, washed-out-looking guy. He occasionally shoots Max a wincing, angry expression.
He says, “I think you lack empathy. I don’t appreciate people making fun of my illness. I’ve been diagnosed. I don’t like being told to take a power nap, and worse. I don’t like being shamed.”
“If I wasn’t sick, and more on the job, there’d be a lot more reports. I spied the Zangles’ bottles. In essence I gave you that.” He ends there with a satisfied, this-is-my-time look. Max thought, maybe I do lack empathy. Or even sympathy. But he can’t help but wonder, where exactly was his addiction?
Now came his wife. “You don’t respect the work I do. You’re an isolator. We don’t have friends. You’re addicted. You want sex too much. You objectify me.”
She goes on and on, indicting him publicly. Max stops listening. Was this going to end in divorce? He could end up one of those guys living in a single room occupancy hotel, attending nightly meetings. “Hello, family, my name is Max and I’m a total loser.”
She ends with, “Aside from it all, I still love you.”
The helper pipes up, “Max, this is your intervention.”
“I know that.”
“I hope you do. You’ll need to attend a garbage man support group. Also Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. And you’ll need to attend Recovery Anon.”
Max wonders, why can’t they say, “We want you to”? What’s with the “You need to”? Who’s this guy to say what I need?
The helper hands Max a small white book.
He says, “Have the leader sign this book every night for 90 days. That’s a mandate. You’ve had an official intervention. Like I say to everybody, I hope you go to meetings till you want to. Good luck.”
He rises, shakes the men’s hands, and says thanks. He hugs Max’s wife, as if now they have a long, intimate history. She sees everyone to the door. Max stays seated, staring dumbly into space.
It’s a big meeting: Recovery Anon in a junior high school cafeteria. There’s over 200 people. Max sits in the farthest-back row, what the old-timers refer to as “relapse alley.”
A young black man shares. “Hello, family. I’m a grateful, blessed recovering addict. As a kid I started drinking wine. The first time I didn’t get enough. The second time I made sure I guzzled. I was small, but I got beer muscles. I’d tell cops where to get off. I got arrested more than once. Like the book says, ‘When I drank I resembled myself little. My behavior became drastically antisocial.’ For a while I dropped one addiction only to pick up another. The people in these rooms saved my life. That’s all I got. Thank you.”
A skinny guy in his 20s with long hair says, “I came to the meeting last night. I have anxiety.” Just to look at him, you’d think the word anxiety.
“I went out to the parking lot,” he said. “I thought, I got to get out of here. Then I thought, and go where?”
The room erupts in laughter.
He chuckles, “So I went back in. You know? I was okay.”
Max finds himself smiling. This is followed by an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. He exits to the parking lot.
Someone yells, “Hey!”
Max doesn’t turn back.
The voice comes again. “Keep coming back!”
Max buys a fifth of whisky. He walks out to the end of the Santa Monica pier. There’s a crowd of Mexicans. Poor people, families fishing out of necessity. They don’t go for programs. At least the ones less Americanized. Max is glad he doesn’t understand a word. There’s a nice hum of Spanish. He watches a man bait his son’s hook. Max rests his back against a wall and drinks. They take no notice of him. He drinks fast and catches a quick buzz. In truth, Max doesn’t remember a single substance he was addicted to. He only drinks now to help him to what he wants.
He rises and walks to the edge of the pier. He removes the cash from his wallet and puts that in his pocket. He pitches in his wallet, with the credit cards and all his ID. He sinks the car keys too. A little unsteady, he walks off.
A Mexican yells, “Goodnight! Poco loco!”
Max knows enough. This means crazy buddy.
Nikita has a realization that her satellite is gone. Somehow it was blown out of the sky. She’s totally alone. She walks naked down the center of the road. The cops stop her.
She says, “Take me to Jesus.”
They throw a blanket over her and put her in the back seat.
Outfitted in a hospital gown and paper slippers, she finds herself in an institution waiting in line for medication.
Max’s shrink, a pudgy old man with thick eyeglasses, waits 48 hours. He types into the computer file:
“Maxwell Behan: missing. Diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenic. He had a narcissistic response to standard recovery. Suffers from a strong antisocial cognitive dissonance. Should be considered dangerous to self and others. I recommend immediate rehabilitation.”
Max sings, “Ain’t life fun, when you’re born with a golden thumb.” He’s bound east for the Atlantic Coast. Then possibly old school Europe.
A car comes to a halt. Max runs to the door. The driver is 70 or so, with a crewcut and an old hangdog army face. He pulls a lapdog away from the passenger seat. Max gets in.
He says, “Nice dog.”
The driver says, “This dog is all I have left in the world.”
Max stares ahead out the windshield. He offers his left profile, like a priest in confession.
Max says, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Then he regrets the remark. It’s one of his wife’s Al-Anon phrases. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Or “You got it wrong.”
Max pets the dog and adds, “He’s a happy little fellow.”
“Why shouldn’t he be? Spoil him rotten. My ex-wife never liked him. She was a self-centered egocentric.”
People will tell a hitchhiker anything. Max does all he can to listen. This one is steeped in self-pity.
The last ride was a coke addict. He was snorting right off the dashboard. Max eventually talked him into throwing away his stash. When he started to jones, he turned nasty. Max lied and told the driver he was now heading south. He waited 20 minutes and returned to the thruway. He walked some, just so he could say he walked most of Arizona. Who would he tell?
Hitching again. A car speeds by, dovetails, and comes to a stop. It was going at least 20 miles over the speed limit. Max wonders, should I take this one? He runs to the door. It’s a gray-haired priest, with a black coat and reversed white collar. The car takes off, throwing Max back against the seat.
Max says, “If we have a car accident, you can give me last rites.”
The priest says, “I’m going as far as Lake Ronkonkoma.”
“Anywhere is good.”
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
He lights up a marijuana cigarette. “The Indians smoked it.”
He offers it to Max. Max declines. When he first started hitching he took whatever was offered, mainly from a desire to break with the norm. But he bugged out on angel dust, spending the better part of a day sitting alone in the woods, praying to come down. Now his policy is to take nothing.
The priest says, “Indians say the first humans rose out of Lake Ronkonkoma. Before that they lived in a separate world, at the center of the earth. I’m gonna swim there.”
“I will too.”
“It’s a holy place.”
“It’s my intention to go many places.”
He turns a moment and looks Max in the eyes. He clips the joint and leaves it half smoked in the ashtray.
He says, “I can tell at least you’re not one of those A.A. Nazis. They got me down as bipolar and alcoholic. They stopped me teaching. Put me in the library shelving books. I got a Ph.D.”
Max remembers way back to parochial school. He was right on the cusp of going totally Catholic. He was attending Mass before homeroom. When a priest or nun was very old, they moved them from teaching and into the library. It was one of those library nuns who turned him on to Herman Hesse, and that changed everything.
Max asks, “Father, can you recommend anything I should read?”
“The Bible, but remember it’s all figurative.”
They ride a while in silence.
The priest says, “She was hot to trot. We were just teenagers. Drinking with an attractive middle-aged woman. One of us was going to sleep with her. In the end, I let my friend have her.”
“Why’d you tell me that?”
“No reason. I just became a priest.”
“Do you regret it?”
You only meet people like this hitching. He read somewhere that manic people say whatever comes to mind. He stops here. He’d made a commitment not to diagnose another man.
The priest cuts the engine. They’re at the edge of Lake Ronkonkoma. To Max it looks like many other lakes he’d seen.
The priest exits the car. Fully dressed he walks into the water. He upends and floats on his back. Ecstasy is written on his face.
Max says, “That water must be cold.”
The priest sets to chanting, “Hoy, yah hoy, yah, hoy yah.”
It’s something you might hear on an old TV western movie. If there’s anything to the lake, Max wants it. He strips down to his underwear and jumps in. Together they chant for a while.
Max stops and adds, “I’m not feeling it.”
On the shore he uses his sweatshirt to dry off. He goes back to the highway and thumbs another ride. Two are up front, so he jumps in the back seat. He notices there’s no inside handle for reopening the door. Two plainclothes cops sit up front. Between them is a computer screen. This scares Max the most.
The driver asks, “Who are you?”
He doesn’t lie. “Maxwell Behan.”
Max doesn’t look right. He’s grown his hair long and stopped grooming his beard. John the Baptist out in the wilderness would have probably looked the same.
The cop in the passenger seat, reading his computer, says, “This one is going to the Garden of Eden.”
This is slang for East Garden Psychiatric Center.
Max’s brain stretches to psychosis, trying to make meaning out of this place. None of the other men seem to want to talk to him. He imagines he’s somewhere in the middle of things. It’s a dormitory filled with beds. Six beds lead down one wall and there are six again on the opposing wall. Max’s bed is in the center of the room. He’s the only one without a gray uniform and sheared head. Everyone has two books. As of yet they’ve given him no meds.
There are two doors. Through these, patients come and go, for what reasons he doesn’t know. There’s a camera in a corner that takes in the whole room.
Days pass. He lies awake many nights thinking.
Eyes teary, he looks into the camera and screams, “I’m only human!”
A therapy aide enters. He goes to Max’s side.
He whispers, “Follow me.”
They go to a bathroom, like you’d see in a private home.
The therapy aide says, “Go ahead and shave your head. Brush your teeth too. Go ahead, shave your head, they all do it.”
Max does. He cries, but doesn’t know why.
They go to another small room with a table and two chairs. The therapy aide opens a Hershey and splits it down the middle. He offers half to Max with a small container of milk. Max sits and eats with this kind stranger.
He says, “Now take these meds and then you’ll sleep. Here are your books.”
He hands Max the “Twelve and Twelve” and the A.A. “Big Book,” and says, “We study the first program here. It’s a ‘we’ program.”
The therapy aide points Max to a clean bed against the wall. Some other scruffy guy occupies the center bed. He looks at Max, Max averts his face and lies down. An hour lapses and the overhead lights snap on.
In the morning, a guy who had avoided Max asks, “I got some instant coffee, you want some?”
They go to the bathroom. They find cups in the garbage. A real veteran rushes cold water over the instant crystals and chugs it all in one go. It’s against the rules, but the therapy aides look the other way. It counteracts the meds. Max, well liked, grows accustomed to 10 to 15 cups a day.
A social worker says, “I’ll be taking you to the group home.”
Max is filled with joyful anticipation. He imagines the normal world and all the abundance of things. Not these blank walls. He waits and waits and drops back into disillusionment. The social worker reappears in the late evening.
The professionals are finishing paperwork in the small office by the front door. Max sits alone in the living room. All the other patients are asleep.
One client, a chubby girl in pink pj’s, comes out. He hasn’t seen a woman in months. There’s a designated smoking area. A love seat, with a small table and ashtray. She lights a cigarette. Max looks away. What could she think of him? She finishes and goes back to bed.
Everything in the lounge looks new and clean. There’s a stereo and TV. Even an encyclopedia set like a real family lives here.
There are smiley faces there for his reinforcement. No bigger than your thumb — one on the lamp, another on the tuner, three on the encyclopedia. He wonders who decided on the placement of the stickers? Or maybe they gave it little thought, and just peppered a roll of them all through the room. His eyes fall on the bookshelf. There’s a row of hardcover A.A. books. Each has a smiley face. Sanctioned literature. He knows he shouldn’t feel that way, but he doesn’t like it.
He stands and mutters, “Stick it up your ass.” He goes out, down the street. Hitches a ride.
The driver, a middle-aged guy with an angry face, says, “I’ll take you as far as I go, under one condition.”
“You don’t talk to me.”
Max says, “You got it.” He rests back in the seat. Right now, if he stayed, he’d be under the covers in a warm bed. With those faces smiling back at him.
Max hitches another ride. The driver pulls aside a small dog. Max pats its head and says, “Nice pup.”
The driver says, “That dog’s all I got left in the world.”
This sounds vaguely familiar.
Going farther east, things seem more old school. This is a phrase Max uses a lot. He means a time before your very personality was on the line. He runs into cops but they don’t bother him. They only inform him that hitching isn’t allowed on the highway, but it’s all right on the ramp or vice versa. He assumes this is indicative of a better place. Indicative is another phrase he uses a lot — as in, all the institutions are very indicative. He’s a little crazy now, from spending too much time alone.
There’s always the possibility of ending up in the blank bed — bed number 13.
Max sits alone on the East Coast. He’s on a beach, on Long Island in the Hamptons. He wonders, will this affluent area be bum friendly?
The wind is kicking up. He weights down his possessions with hands full of sand. He only carries a wool blanket. This works well, ’cause even when wet, wool keeps you warm. He wraps in the blanket a change of clothes and sheets of paper for a journal he’s been keeping. No dates, just a note or two a day. When on the go he ties off the blanket with a rope and slings this over his shoulder.
Now he writes in the journal: “I just made the East Coast earlier today. Europe is hopeless. If I applied for a passport, they’d pick me right up. Maybe out west again. Somebody said people are living in tents up by Berkeley. Gotta watch out with the computers at the library, they could locate me. But I’m so far off the charts, nobody knows where I am. I actually snuck into an A.A. meeting. I was there for the cookies and coffee.”
“Where to go, north, south, east, west. I decide. Homeless, homeless — ”
“If Jesus reappeared he wouldn’t be in the meetings. He’d be like me, one on one, hitching rides. Maybe I could be the next one. But that’s just crazy. People aren’t meant to be alone as I am. But what’s the alternative? Hello family! I’m a grateful, blessed, recovering whatever-you-want.”
Max creases the paper and stacks it with the rest of the loose journal entries.
He throws off the blanket and wades into the surf. He dunks his head in. He rises back up and throws back his long hair. Spray arcs over his shoulders. Just at this moment he could be the only man.
He goes back to the warmth of the blanket. Like a beast he’ll dry in the sun. He’s satisfied with that long vast horizon. That thick curving swell of ocean.
How, he wonders, is there a way over it?
Ben Murphy, a former Water Mill resident, is in search of an agent and a publisher for his novel, “Eight O’Clock Hydrox.”
Ben Murphy, a former Water Mill resident, is in search of an agent and a publisher for his novel, “Eight O’Clock Hydrox.”