Thursday, March 8, 2018


The Amtrak railed through Desoto County with its bells a’ clanging and sirens ‘a blaring, the locomotive leaving a swirl of refuse in its wake, secret pages falling on the sidewalks like the autumn leaves of New England that I missed and that I loved.  I knew that those leaves — crimson, nut brown, russet and lemon — up north fall upon the final resting places of my family only to rot beneath the earth all the slimy gray long crappy winter.  I knew I’d miss New England but my job at the paper grounded me and provided me with a chickenfeed salary.  It didn’t go far.  Every first and third Friday Moose greeted me at the door of the condominium with his hand open and saying, “Push.”  I began looking for affordable housing in the region; until then I forked my half of my paycheck for my room at the dreary rabbit hutch I shared with my father in a gated community off the Kings Highway.
     Joey stayed late at the office to issue directives as he prepared me to cover the Arcadia City Hall meeting for the first time since I began working for the Arcadian.  Meanwhile I was putting the finishing touches on a nasty tale about a middle-school student who dry humped his teacher in a broom closet. 
“Give it up, Royal,” Joey said.  “The publisher won’t print it.  This is a family newspaper.”  
     I grew rigid with strife.  All that work down the drain.
  “So I’ve been told. Then how come the paper advertises brassieres in the Sunday edition?”
“Take it up with the Ombudsman.”  He saw how dejected I was, my lips trembling, sweat drizzling down my forehead, staining my collar.  Son of a bitch.  That article could have gotten me a job on a real newspaper in Sarasota Miami or West Palm Beach.    
     “Tough luck, kid.  You aren’t no Jimmy Breslin.  So much for your major journalism award.”
     “Joey.  I have repeatedly asked you to stop calling me ‘kid’.”
     “Quit your bitching and go do your job.”
      His Puerto Rican bravado rose off his coconut-shaped head like a teakettle boiling over.  His optic white shirt, as blinding as a sunspot, had creases on its creases and his red power tie hung down to the zipper of his black Dockers.  Still he refused to don a sport coat even when I offered him one of mine.   
“Whatever, Royal.  Now grow a pair and bring me back a story!”
The rest of the staff had gone home for the night.  Joey followed me out the door even as I told him I could go to City Hall tomorrow and get the details of the meeting from the City Clerk. 
“The hell you will, Royal.  I want to see holes in the leather soles of your shoes when I inspect them in morning.  Remember a reporter’s only as good as his last story.”
     “Says who?” 
     “Says I. Now vamos!
I left the newsroom and walked several blocks downtown toward City Hall, which stood across from the movie theater and the penny arcade, to listen to the laugh track of the snarky bureaucrats sitting like gods on their mahogany thrones in the Hall of Injustice.  I arrived just in time, despite the squabbling and battle of wills between the editor.  I made it just in time for the Pledge of Allegiance.  The time-honored sound of the Bailiff’s cry brought everybody to their feet.
I realized that I was outnumbered, the only reporter at the meeting.  The pols left me out of the loop; spoke in a language I didn’t understand — governmentalese.  The hacks had adopted the budget prior to the quorum.  In the chamber they discussed items on the agenda in secret with the microphones turned off, the blinds on the windows drawn tight.  All I could do is observe, study their habits carefully, avail myself to the process of covering the miserable screwed up world of local government.  Russell Beatty didn’t teach me this at the Equinox at USNH.  Joey mentioned that the Arcadian might be compelled to slap a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) against the school of small-fish politicians.
“What good’s that gonna do, Joey?” I asked before he shoved me out the door.
“Not a thing.  Those bumpkins probably have no idea what that means, especially that rum hound City Attorney.”   
It wasn’t hard to figure them out, how they worked together for the fulfillment of their diabolical schemes plans and designs.  Joey spoke of malfeasance and skullduggery.  “And oh how they love to break their hands by patting each other on the back even as they hang targets on them,” Joey warned.  “Try not to step in the bullshit, Harding” 
“I’ll be careful.”
As a college dropout I failed to identify.  But I knew megalomaniacs when I encountered them.  These hacks were the distinguished ones who played by the rules — their rules — the ones who played nice in the sandbox, got gold stars for not coloring outside the lines, a rouge’s gallery consisting of a beauty, the beasts, and of mice and the men children.  Had they forgotten “Robert’s Rules,” the universal standard on how to conduct a fair and orderly organization?  I did learn something from my Political Science curriculum...    
Now the beauty, a young lawress and newly elected, clung to her Phi Beta Kappa standard, for she graduated from Ol’ Miss Law School at the top of her class.  She was attractive but no match for my Rapist.  Like Cerise, her skin was too fair for South Florida though she was quite busty, the kind of woman I salivated over.  She crossed her legs, one of her stilettos dangling off her toe. She painted her toenails cornflower blue — a major turn on.  Despite my attachment to the Rapist it was difficult to not stare at the young woman.  She was aware of it, batted her cow’s eyes at me and she had the teats to match those cow’s eyes.  What brand of snake oil did she peddle?
Her partner in crime, the City Attorney, Atticus Montgomery, the one Joey warned me about, was as well heeled as he was well-oiled, wore dusky horn rims on his Henry Kissinger casaba melon-sized head to conceal his stoned, blood-shot eyes from the five Manhattans he downed at dinner prior to the meeting.  Montgomery and I had not formally met yet the sot insisted on purposely mispronouncing my surname — Mr. Hardong, he said, placing the emphasis on the ‘dong.  Perhaps it was the drawl.  Did the whisky impede his speech or did his speech impediment drive him to the whisky?  I wanted to rebuke him for the slight but feared the bailiff would evict me from the meeting and that Montgomery, who left his slug trail on the tiles throughout the building, would indict me on some arcane codicil buried in one of the tomes in his law library.
The City Clerk entered the chamber and passed out copies of the agenda and minutes from the previous meeting.  The minutes were two months old and the council failed to ratify the agenda.  The Clerk, Miss Jenny Rae Corker, was once attractive in a seventies prime-time television star sort of way, a burned out version of one of Charlie’s Angels, Farah Fawcett or Kate Jackson, the wet dreams of every boy in my generation who pinned a poster of their thrilling cleavage on the wall and kept a towel beneath the pillow.  Jenny Rae Corker wore reading glasses from Walgreen that hung off the flailing nostrils that revealed her contempt for her work at City Hall.  She interrupted the Mayor and asked for his signature but the crazy ol’ coot shooed her away like a fly.  The Mayor wore a ten-gallon hat and snakeskin boots with silver spurs. Colorful.  He drove his Cadillac to the diner on the corner each morning, strands of blood vessels mapping the contours of his globular cranium.    
     The Clerk’s ex-husband, Councilman Cash Corker, was a horse breeder and a has-been, nay, a never-was musician who played a Casio synthesizer at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and the rodeo in March and September.  Councilor Corker sported a waxed mustachio and a ponytail that concealed his his plumbers crack.  I imagined the Clerk and the Horse Breeder when they were married.  One calls to mind the drug-addled lost weekend when Cher and Greg Allman got hitched at the old manse among the Wild blue Woodland Phlox with ponies prancing in the paddocks.  During the recess I followed Cash Corker outside on the steps of the municipal building where rolled up Bull Durham tobacco.  He lit up with his triple torch butane lighter.
     “Can I bum one off you, Councilor?”  
“Ain’t you a bit young to be smokin’ son?”  He looked me up and down, sizing me up to determine whether I could take on one of the ranchers working on his land that his family had owned since Ante Bellum years.  
“Jump down turn around pick a bail of cotton, isn’t that so, Councilor?”
“Excuse me sir, but didn’t I see you at a Grateful Dead show in Birmingham in 1992?”
“Hell you did.  Hurry up, damn it.  The meetin’ done about to start up again.”
 “Time to go back to the rattlesnake nest.  Don’t want to be late. Something important might happen.”
“Don’t set your watch by it.”  
In the chamber overhead lights blazed like magic carpets and the corkboard ceiling waxed psychedelic, the images floating across my field of vision sending me into a transom.  Since there was nothing else to talk about, the Mayor, to my profound Fear and Loathing, invited me to ask some questions.
I doubted his sincerity. “Well, I don’t know. I’m kinda new around these parts.”  
“Go on boy, speak up.  We ain’t got all night.”
Every member of the council stared at me as if I was a guilty culprit who hasn’t been told the crimes he’s committed.
“What?  What have I done?” My soul lay bare before the Council Unjustices.  
“I’ll find something on you,” said the City Attorney menacingly. “You bet your ass I will.  Ignorance of the law ain’t any excuse, Mr. Hardong.”  When they were through hazing me I turned on my heels and hurried from the City Council Chamber.     
What the A-List Team failed to notice was that I recorded the entire meeting with my tape recorder — the same one I used to get Bill Clinton on the record when he campaigned in Keene back in ’92.  I brought the transcript back to the office to show Joey but he was gone.  In the dank newsroom I listened to the recording ...
Mayor: Go back home to your mama, ya done hear me now, boy?   
City Attorney: Hey, Mr. Hardong, I don’t like the way you part your hair. Yawl look like one of them thar murals painted on the wall in the alley by the former speakeasy. Tarnation! 
JRH Jr.: I’m not going to dignify that remark with a reply.
Lawress: You look lonely, Mr. Harding.  Are you single?  
Clerk: That boy is a p-i-g pig, a Carpetbagger and a misogynist if ever I saw one.
Cash Corker: I seconded that.  Man, I’d like to get some of my ranch hands and beat the shit outta you.
Mayor: Meeting adjourned. C’mon, Atticus.  Manhattans on me.

The Mayor rapped the gavel.  The meeting lasted about thirty-five minutes, with several motions left on the floor, none resolved but at least I had a story to present to Joey D. in the morning.
Outside I buttonholed the Clerk, who didn’t want to talk to me, tried to brush me off like the horseflies at her ex-husband’s ranch.  Shit on his boots.  Hell, that cowpuncher had shit in his mustache.   
 “Get away,” said the Clerk. “Cain’t ya see I’m busy? Whatta yawl hasslin’ me for?  You reporters are all the same: bunch’ a blood-sucking leeches.  You ain’t no Mark Twain.  You’re worse than that spic editor and there ain’t nobody as bad as him ‘cept you in this here Podunk town.
“You got that right.  Look lady, despite what you think, you’re time is not more important than mine.”   
 “Ya thank so, huh?  Yr outta yr cotton-pickin’ mind.”
“I had a poster of you in my bedroom about the time I hit puberty.”
“Oh, you masher!  You want me to call the police?”
I trailed her a few blocks to the coffee shop, which operated in that pink pig rattrap building across from the Arcadian, the former speakeasy and brothel that Joey told me about when I started at the paper.
     “Now lookie heer, junior.  Git outta my face or I’ll call the sheriff.  Are you deef or somethin’?  Can’t yawl see I gotta get home and rustle up some vittles for my chilluns?  Lawd a mercy.” 

Saturday, March 3, 2018


A few months after the Sun Herald hired me I suffered an unintentional overdose on psychotropic drugs.  It wasn’t my fault.  It was the Rapist’s doing.  She set me up for a fall, had me in her clutches and I knew that I was powerless to resist her feminine charms and her psychiatric proficiency, though it was her scientific methodology that nearly killed me. 
The Rapist, age thirty-three — old enough to be crucified — overmedicated me so that on a Saturday morning while manning the Arcadia bureau by myself I passed out on the boardroom table, frightened the cleaning woman, and nearly got canned.   
Myself a junky, but now clean and sober for six months, I ingested great globs of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, a controversial classification of antidepressants for the treatment of major depressive and anxiety disorders both of which I had, according to Cerise Maulsmy, the Rapist whom I loved move than anyone. More than life.   
We met thrice weekly, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at eleven a.m. in her dusky office.  I lay on the leather sofa while she sat in an armchair facing me.  She leaned back and stretched out her creamy legs, allowing me a view of her silk panties.  Her skin was like ivory, and her red pageboy hairdo shimmered like tinsel.  Her thin lips pursed, she stared lasciviously at my chest, arms, legs, and shoulders, while I sat undressing her with my eyes.  We provided each other with the pleasure of our respective stares.  The Rapist was a serious cocktease.  Our sessions were soothing yet distressing. It felt like we were trying to engrave the periodic table of elements onto a pewter platter while sitting on the boilerplate of a wood-burning stove.  
“These meds, what’re they going to do to me?” I asked the Rapist, who hesitated to respond to my question.
“Not sure. The exact mechanism of action of the method is unknown.”
     “What?  You mean you’re giving me drugs but you don’t know what effects they’ll have on me?”
     She narrowed her eyes.  Don’t you trust me, Royal?”
In an attempt to still my forebodings, the Rapist moved from the chair and sat next to me on the couch.  She placed her hand on my knee.  If a woman touches your knee it means she likes you. I remember thinking; you’re a dead man, Harding.   
“Stay here,” she said.  I’ll be right back.”  She stood and left the room, while I sat dumbfounded with my hands in my lap.
Twenty minutes later the Rapist returned with a synthetic bag manufactured in China packed with boxes full of samples. Then she thrust the bag into my arms (probably to ease her conscience). 
“Do you really think I need all this garbage? I said. “Seems a tad excessive.  I mean, really, Cerise, am I that fucked up?”   
“Read the instructions and be sure to drink lots of water,” she ordered.  “You’ve got my number.  If you need to you can call me.” 
“How about I call you if I don’t need to?” 
“Feel free.  I’ll be up late all night.  My ex-husband’s got the kids in Sarasota this weekend.  We switch off every other weekend.  Maybe you’d like to come down to Fort Myers next weekend and stay with me at my condo.  We can lay out in the sun and use the pool.  Come down on Friday night.  We’ll order pizza and watch a movie.
Our candor and transference bound us like Gorilla Glue, just shy of joining ourselves by our pelvises.  I wanted this to happen.  On her desk was a picture of her when she was a coed at the University of Maryland.  She wore a barrette in her pretty strawberry blonde hair and an earth-tone moleskin blazer.
“Very collegiate,” I said.  “Did you pledge a sorority?”
 “I was a field hockey player.  I would never join one of those whorehouses; they get drunk and piss from the balcony.”
“What about the girls?”
“Those were the girls.  I got married after I graduated to an older man.  He was one of my professors and a family friend.  He’s a good father but he’s old enough to be my father.”  I’ve been a single mom since I divorced him three years ago.”
Her eyes like lizards switched back and forth across the room and honed in on me.  She read my chart and knew my history relative to my drinking and drugging habits in high school and college and chastised me over them.  “Bet you’re sorry about all that damage you’ve done, Royal aren’t you?” she said smarmily.
I shrugged.  “Not really.”
“Do you even remember college?”
“Wouldn’t have been any fun if I did.”
“Ha!  You’ll never know the extent of the harm you caused yourself.  But don’t worry about a thing, darling.  We’re gonna turn you into a pharmacological milkshake.” 
“Will I ever be able to get off these drugs, Cerise?”
     She looked at me from the tops of her solemn eyeglasses.  “Don’t count on it. I hate to tell you but you’re probably going to be on medication for the rest of your life.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that!  I want to stay clean and sober.”
“Would you rather I lie to you, dear?”
“I guess not.”
“Then what do you want from me?”
I swore great oaths of fealty to her, told her that I would do whatever she told me to do, though, to hear her tell it, my condition was pointless and academic. “Hopeless, actually,” she said.
What I didn’t tell her, what I couldn’t tell her, though I’m sure she knew, was that more than anything, more than sobriety, more than sanity, more than life, was that I wanted to put my hands up her skirt then bury my face in her bush.  She sensed this, the way a snake tracks its prey via infrared thermal radiation. 
“Aww, that’s so sweet, Royal.  But now our session is over.  I’ve got another appointment.  Good luck with the meds and have a great weekend.”  She blew a kiss at me then held her hand like a telephone to her ear and mouthed the words ‘call me.’ 
Staggering beneath the weight of the drug bag in my arms I glanced at her desk and noticed there was another small portrait frame, but I couldn’t make out whom or what it was because several other framed pictures surrounded it, though Cerise had told me that she didn’t have a big family.
In the car I rummaged through the bag, snickering like Count Dracula’s Renfield.  The Master has promised to make me immortal.  What a score! I hadn’t had this much of a fix since I lived with Merrill Hazard in New Hampshire.  Who needed pot and LSD?  These were to be my psychotropic days.  And all the dope was free!  The Rapist gave me Lithium, Clonepin, Ambien (sedatives; why both?), Wellbutrin, Paxil, and Prozac — everything but the Thorazine.  I stashed the meds in my golf bag in the trunk of my new Oldsmobile because I was afraid of getting busted if I got pulled over.  How could I properly explain myself to an officer and a drug-sniffing dog?  I had no idea what any of this was or what it would do to me. Neither did the Rapist.  I just wanted get off the roller coaster ride I boarded back up North after I got committed for the first time after J-Day.

On Saturday morning I arrived at the bureau for a half-day of work, nine a.m. to three p.m.  Downtown Arcadia, a hopeless South Florida cow town full of beef ranchers, Mexican day laborers, and carpetbaggers from northern states such as myself, was dead.  I hoped it stayed that way.  I wanted to catch up on my journal, so neglected now that I spent forty hours a week writing about piss-ant politicians, rodeo clowns, citrus packing plant managers, and a police chief, “an ol’ country boy,” whose English was so garbled I had to polish up his quotes otherwise readers wouldn’t understand a word he said.  In his office that morning with the blinds closed his paunch hung over his gun belt while he shoveled fistfuls of corn nuts into the hole in his face.  There he was, a piggy-eyed Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and Boss Hogg rolled into one, a drooling, drawling cretin with a sidearm fastened to one hip and a Taser hanging on the other.  I was Professor Higgins in Pygmalion. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.  Breezes rattled the palms fronds from Palm Beach and across the Everglades to Desoto County and it was mild at seventy-three degrees in mid-March. 
Back at the office I began to eat the pills given to me by the Rapist.  I gobbled them up dry-shod, ground them in my teeth and gagged on the bitter poison.  Three years out of nursing school at the University of South Florida, the Rapist didn’t know what she was doing, I concluded even as I grew queasy and faint.  Was she trying to kill me?  I did everything she told me because I was in love with her and sensed that she had feelings for me too.  We ended each session with protracted embraces, breathing hotly in each other’s ears.
“Would you like polish my knob, Cerise?”
“Yes, she said dejectedly, “but I can’t.  I’m anorexic Have a gag reflex.”
“Too bad.  You said you’re divorced.  When was the last time you had sex?”
“Three years ago — and I’m horny!  She pulled away.  “We’ve got to slow this down. Us, I mean.  If we get caught screwing I could lose my medical license and you could lose your mind again.”  Saying that, she put her arms around my neck and mine around her hips, held each other closely before we said goodbye.   
“Do you love me?” I ventured.  
“I do, but you drive me crazy.”
“Crazy how crazy?  Crazy in love or crazy in lust or crazy as in not playing with a full deck type crazy.  Which?”
“Yes!  Yes!” she squealed.  “All that!”
She broke away and went to her desk where she scribbled something in pencil on a post-it note.  She folded it and put it in the palm of my hand.
“What is it?” I asked. 
“My address.”
“But I thought you said —“ 
She nodded.  “I did, but ...”
“But what?  Cerise, you can’t turn me on that way and then just leave me hanging.”
“I know.  You’ve got to go.  Sorry.  I’m late for my next appointment.  Call me tonight.”
“You sure?”
She kissed me and ushered me out the door into the lobby and the receptionist’s office where I paid my copay and rushed out to my car.    
Driving back to Moose’s condominium I realized that most the conversations between the Rapist and myself, if not all of them, centered not on my mother or my mental illness but on sex.  I wanted her to take me on the leather couch and I now know that she wanted that too.  Digging my fingernails into the arms of my chair I sunk deeper into the leather as the breezes rattled the blinds covering the sliding glass doors leading to the atrium.  
During an earlier session she introduced me to the term “Sport Fucking,” though she declined to define it even as I begged her.  
“What!  You can’t drop something like that in my lap then leave me hanging.”
She snapped her fingers.  “Stay with me now, Royal.  Focus.  Be in Wise Mind, not Emotion Mind.” 
“You think I’m a cocktease.”
“No.  I know you are.  What’s sportfucking mean?  Tell me now.”
She cleared her throat, smoothed out the folds in her miniskirt.  “Extracurricular therapy sessions at a secure, undisclosed location.  I’m not sure we’re ready for that yet.  We’re only just getting to know each other.“
“What better way to get to know each other than spending the weekend together at your condo?  You invited me down there, don’t you remember?”  
Rather than reply she sideswiped the issue and cautioned me against ‘grandiosity and prejudice’. 
“Contempt prior to investigation leaves us in everlasting ignorance,” she said in her breathy voice that exuded succor and desire.   
“Who says that?” I asked.  
“The Philosopher Herbert Spencer.”
“Don’t give me anymore of your psychobabble.”
 Then she shifted gears, urged me to tell her more about my mother, which I did, for, according to the Rapist, all my complexities centering on women, the ones I used, the ones who wrecked my heart (not her yet), were predicated on the relationship I had with Sylvia who, the Rapist said, abandoned me before my eyes with her inexcusable and entirely preventable death in July of 1989.  The session proved to be futile.  As much as I wanted to tell the Rapist about my mother I could not, still felt blocked. 
“If you want to glean from me the truth then Sylvia then you’re going to need to bring out the sodium pentothal.  You’ve put me on every drug known to man since AD 1570.  What’s one more going to hurt?”        

Working alone at the bureau in Arcadia wasn’t so bad. No Joey, Dede, or Lorraine.  I switched off the phone and left my pager in the glove compartment and wrote in my journal.  I had the entire newsroom to myself, was suppose to man the phones and listen to the scanner in case an incident arose, a burglary, a house fire, or some whackjob running amok with an assault rifle. 
When I started at the paper I inquired about suicides.  Wade Beauregard told me that suicides were published only when somebody famous killed himself or herself.  That would make some real news, a feather in my cap if I heard about it before the Sarasota or the Tampa papers.
Joey, that workaholic, wanted me to work seven days a week to gain experience, but Angie, the chain-smoking Staten Islander, advised against it.  “You need time to sleep, kiddo, and to do laundry. And eat!  You’re emaciated.”
Joey blew the old hag off.  “He’s ambitious.  He can hack it, right kid?  Don’t listen to that old battleax.”
The breakdown commenced at about two-thirty, a half-hour from the end of my shift.  I felt faint.  My hands trembled and perspiration dotted my forehead.  Maybe I should take a nap, I thought ... I couldn’t keep my eyes open or my head up.  Something was wrong; I couldn’t remember whether the Rapist told me to take all the dope at once or incrementally.  She didn’t say.  All she said was, “I’m going to churn you into a pharmacological milkshake.”  Instead the medication morphed me into a pile of ectoplasm. Tremors, sweats, and insanity got into my brain.  I called the Rapist but couldn’t get a hold of her ...
In the boardroom was a long mahogany table shaped like a corona cigar surrounded by leather chairs and video screen on the wall for presentations.  Occasionally the publisher, Derek Dunn-Rankin, waddled through the door unannounced and the staffers, eyes all pupils and heebie-jeebies, felt cowed and put on the spot.  “There was a woman outside,” Dunn-Rankin had observed.  “She was smoking in the alley.” 
I decided to lie down on the table with the lights off and the ceiling fan whirling.  Did the Rapist want to get rid of me and look like an intentional overdose?  She would rather kill me than lose her job and possibly go to prison. She was almost as paranoid as I was as I lay in the dark on the table in the conference room spinning up dark scenarios surging through my drug-addled mind.   
Through the dark swirl of my mind I heard a key in the lock of the door and it snapped me from my torpor.  It was la limpiadora, the cleaning woman.  She walked into the office in her blue chiffon uniform but shrieked when she discovered me spread eagle on the table in the dark with the ceiling fan whirring like the blades of a helicopter.         
¡Dios mío! ¿Que pasó?”
“Ayudarme señora, por favor,” I said in my college Spanish.  I rolled off the table onto the sandy carpet covered with dead palmetto bugs and struggled to my feet but the cleaning lady ran from the building.
The telephone rang.  Was it the Rapist?  I wished.  It was the managing editor.  His voice crackled over the phone line.  “Got any stories for me, Harding?”
“There was a drug overdose, possibly an unintentional suicide attempt. I’m not sure which.”
“We don’t publish stories like that unless it’s somebody famous.  What’ve you been doing down there all day?”
“Making phone calls and writing fantasy stories.”
“You what?  You better read the Sun Herald Style Manual if you want to keep working here.  Remember, your still on probation.”