WINE WITHOUT MUSIC - PAUL S. and JOHN H. POWERS
I was over the pneumonia, and except for being a little weak in the legs, I felt fine. Since noon I’d had my clothes on, and time was beginning to drag. I walked back and forth up at the end of E Ward where there were some empty beds. From the windows you could see the traffic rushing by on Potrero Street. I wanted out, and I was getting out. The sooner I got away from that big red pile of bricks the better it would suit me.
Then I saw Doc Wakeman coming up the aisle. My own special doctor, a husky young guy in a white coat and wearing heavy-rimmed glasses, and his listening device like it was a necktie. He grinned at me and held out his hand.
“I hear you’re leaving us, Bill,” he said.
“Yes, I’m signing myself out,” I told him. “Got another hour or so to go. Waiting on a social worker. One of those flat-heeled old gals. I’m getting staked to a ticket to the Valley and a little piece of money. Five bucks, unless I can get her to raise the ante.”
The Doc said, “Don’t go back to Howard Street.”
“No more Howard Street for me. No Howard Street, Doc. I’m through with that stuff for keeps.”
“Got a job over in the Valley?”
“I can get one. I’m a machinist. A good machinist, and when I work I make good dough. You needn’t worry about me. I’m off of it for life.”
“Ever say that before?”
“Plenty of times, I guess. But now I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve never had any pneumonia before. When they were wheeling me down that hall to this place --- hell, that ride is two miles long --- I thought I was gone for sure. Funny, though. I wasn’t scared; I was just mad. Mad at myself for being such a damn fool. ‘This is the end of it, Bill,’ I told myself. ‘This is what you did with yourself and it’s too late to do anything more about it.’ I pretty near died, too, didn’t I, Doc?”
This young Wakeman nodded his head. “You were sick, all right. Next time you sleep in an alley, Bill, you’d better find an ashcan to crawl into.”
“No more alleys. I want to thank you, Doc, for what you did, pulling me through.”
“You don’t need to call me ‘Doc’,” he said. “Not for two years yet. I’m a junior in the Cal School of Medicine. We don’t dare tell the patients that until they’re ready to leave; they’d die on us.”
“I’d have croaked, sure.” I laughed.
“Well, to be serious, Bill, would you mind answering some questions?”
“Fire away. But how about a cigarette?”
He held out his pack, and when I took one he lighted it for me. Then he pulled up a chair and took the notebook out of his back pocket. I sat on the edge of one of those high beds. From there I could look down on him, and it made me feel sort of good to see that he was already getting a bald spot. Me, I’ve got a good head of hair.
“I’ve already worked you up as a pneumonia case, and officially I’m supposed to be through with you. Some of these questions are going to be pretty personal, and of course you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“My hide’s tough. Go ahead,” I said.
“The notes I’m going to make are for my own use. You’ll be helping me a lot. Later, when I’m through medical school, I think I’ll study some more and go into psychiatry.”
I tried to figure that one out. “Do you think I’m nuts?”
“No. Now, let’s see; according to your case history you’re forty-five years old. Born in Iowa? How long have you been on the Coast?”
“Fourteen, fifteen years I’d say.”
“When did you work last? At your regular job, I mean. As a machinist.”
“It’s been ten months. Foreman in a shop up at Martinez, but I got on a bender and came down the bay. I remember hitting Richmond, then Berkeley --- the Berkeley police treat you like you was human, but it’s no town for a wino. Those Oakland waterfront cops are big and mean. They roughed me up some. Soon as I was out of jail I rode the big bridge to Howard Street here.”
Wakeman wrote something down. “Must be hundreds of you fellows there. Whenever I drive through I wonder what can be done to help. If anything.”
“The cops aren’t too bad. We don’t get a rumble unless they see us north of Market.”
“They saved your life with that ambulance ride. How long have you been going on these sprees, Bill? How long do they last?”
“Since prohibition days. Began to do it on bootleg. At first I’d go a couple of weeks, but now it’s months before I can straighten out. And I suffer the agonies of hell doing it. That’s something the doctors don’t know about.”
“What is it you drink?”
“Musky,” I said. “Muscatel. Of course sherry, and port, tokay, all of those fortified wines are about the same. Twenty percent. I drink any of ’em, but musky goes better with me. Got food value.”
“I wouldn’t count on any food value,” Wakeman said. “That’s the trouble with you guys, you don’t eat. I like a drink of wine, myself. With my dinner.”
“You like a drink of wine. A drink, he says. You don’t know anything about it, kid. You’re not old enough.”
“Don’t you like whiskey? Brandy?”
“Sure. But the people that call us winoes don’t savvy the fix we’re in. If we’ve got a buck we can’t throw it away on three or four drinks of booze. With that we can buy a couple of fifths of musky, a lot more kick and something that’ll stay with you. We drink wine because it’s the cheapest alcohol there is. And you spoke about eating. You can’t. It gags you, and you couldn’t poke it down with your finger until you’ve got enough wine in you. By that time it’s night, and then you eat if you’ve got enough dough. Usually you’re out of wine, then, too, and you know you’ll go nuts if you don’t have some for morning. So you don’t eat; you buy a jug.”
“According to your case history you’ve had neuritis. Ever have a convulsion?”
“Fits? Hell, no.”
“Ever have alcoholic auditory hallucinosis?”
“It’s something like the D.T.s, but more serious. Instead of seeing things, you hear them.”
“D.T.s! Man, oh, man, they ought to call ’em the TVs. The things you see. Man!”
“You’ve had them before?”
“About ten years ago, up in Seattle. I was in the clink. Tried to make a rope out of my undershirt and hang myself. I was in such a hurry to hang myself that I botched it.”
“You were developing the delirium tremens the night you came in here from Mission Emergency. We cut them short with a big vitamin cocktail.”
“Well, I was seeing ’em. Didn’t last long, but it was some show while it lasted.”
“If it had been any worse we’d have sent you to Psych Ward. Pneumonia and all,” Wakeman said. “For your sake I wish you’d have gone there. The trouble is, Psych has its hands full with the really badly off mental cases. They’re short of beds, doctors. But that’s the kind of treatment you need, Bill. I’m telling you.”
“I’m perfectly O.K. now. Didn’t I tell you I’m off the stuff for life? I don’t need to go to any Psych ward now.”
“And they couldn’t take you now. But there’s places like Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino. You might possibly get into one of the state hospitals, even though they’re overcrowded, too. Of course you’d have to sign yourself in; you’d be a ward of the court.”
“Nothing doing. I haven’t done anything to be locked up for,” I said. “None of those places for me. Even if I was needing it now.”
“That’s one of the things that make me mad every time I drive through Skid Row. Some of the taxes on that wine ought to be spent to help out fellows like you.”
“The taxes are too damned high already. I used to buy musky for half what it costs now. For a third.”
“Sure, they’re too high. In your time, Bill, you’ve paid a lot of tax. And some of the money ought to be used to take care of you. But we’re not getting anywhere along this line; it’s not my line anyhow. To get back to your D.T.s, what did you see this time?”
“Lots of things. And I mean funny, Doc. When I think of ’em now I could bust out laughing.”
“But at the time, they terrify you. Isn’t that it?”
“You said it, Doc. The thing that scared me the most was an ordinary man standing by the bed looking down at me. Just an average-looking fellow and of course I thought he was real. Then all of a sudden he made a face at me. There’s nothing so awful about it now, but then it was horrible. I’ll bet you could have heard my yell clear out on Potrero.”
“Remember anything more about it?”
“Not important is it?” I asked him.
“Sure it is. Just as the happenings in your ordinary dreams are important,” he said. “Everything has a meaning if we can find out what it is. Not that I’m very sharp yet, Bill.”
“Well, this face, all of a sudden instead of a mouth there was a kind of horrible red triangle where the mouth should have been. What did that mean?”
“I don’t know. Was the tip of the triangle pointing up or pointing down?”
I thought he was kidding me along, but behind the glasses his eyes were serious. So I thought awhile and told him that the triangle was pointing down.
“Are you writing that in your notebook? What difference could it make which way it was posting?”
“Maybe no difference. Only a triangle posting up is a male triangle. One pointing down is female.”
I laughed until my ribs ached. “You guys are screwier than we are. Male and female triangles. You got to study to be one of those psychiatrists? Listen. I went to high school. An old maid taught us geometry. She didn’t know about those triangles.”
Wakeman he laughed, too. Then he began to look like an owl again. “Have you been arrested a lot of times, Bill?”
“For drunk. And I’ve been vagged and picked up for panhandling. Never for more than thirty days. I’ve never stole anything, or hurt anybody but myself.”
“Want to tell me about your last arrest, the time you were picked up here in San Francisco?”
I got a little sore. “Did those jumpin’ cops have my police record pinned to my chest when they dumped me off at this joint?”
“You needn’t talk about it if you don’t feel like it.”
“It was a bum rap. The jumpin’ judge gave me ten days for no reason at all. They charged me with loitering. Tried to stick me for molesting, but they made it loitering in the vicinity of a public school.”
“Was it a high school?”
“Well, no. A grade school. All I was doing was watching the kids play. Just minding my own business, standing outside the fence there. I never made a word or sign to any of ’em. Hell, how did those coppers know but what I was the father of one of ’em?”
“Girls’ or boys’ playground?”
“The girls’. They were playing softball. If there’s one game I like to watch it’s softball.”
“Boys play a better game of softball than girls. Why weren’t you watching the boys?”
I was sore again. “You shouldn’t be studying to be a doctor. You should be a lawyer.”
Wakeman grinned at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to needle you.”
“O.K., Doc. It was a bum rap, that’s all. How about another cigarette?”
He gave me his pack and a book of matches and told me to keep them. “Some of these questions may not make sense to you, but try and answer them. You’ll not only be helping me, but you might be helping others. Thousands of people drink just the way you do.”
“You mean we all do it for the same reasons?”
“No two of you do it for exactly the same reasons. Were you ever married, Bill?”
“No, I never was.”
“Do you feel attracted to other men?”
“I’m not one of those guys. Those guys make me sick. I could beat hell out of ’em.”
He wrote that down. I was glad to see him writing it down.
“You’ve had affairs with lots of women?”
“I’d hate to have to count ’em. Yes, quite a good many.”
“What kind are there? Back in prohibition days, wild parties sometimes. Since then, well, pick-ups, chippies. Prostitutes, I guess. But here lately not at all. What’s all that got to do with my drinking?”
“Were you drinking when you had these relationships?”
“Yes, it was always when I was on a bat.”
“Didn’t you ever have relations with a woman when you were perfectly sober?”
I was a little surprised myself at the answer I had to come up with. “No. Guess I never did. I’ve got kind of interested in a few when I wasn’t drinking, but before there was any kind of showdown I’d have to get lit.”
“In your phantasies --- well, I’ll put it another way: if you could have any woman you wanted, what would she be like? Blonde, or brunette? Slim, or plump? How old? What would be your ideal, physically?”
“I don’t have what you’d call a sex life, Doc,” I told him. “It just doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t think of it.”
“When you’re sober, you mean. But try and answer. What type of female would be most apt to interest you?”
“Oh, she’d have to have a good shape. Not beautiful like a statue, but alive if you get what I mean. Young and pretty.”
“That’s the kind I like, myself. Can’t you be more original than that, Bill? About how young?”
“Well, younger than me. Young, that’s all.”
“I don’t know. Yes, I guess so.”
“Want to tell me about your very first love affair, Bill?”
“You’re sure trying to find out what makes me tick.”
“I want to know what makes you stop ticking.”
“All right. There’s no harm in telling you about it now, because if she’s still living she’s probably fat, and married, with a lot of kids. I was seventeen, back in a little town in Iowa where my father ran a grocery. Baby Belle was twelve or thirteen.”
“Baby Belle,” Wakeman said, when I stopped.
“I called her that. To myself. Her name was Belle. She lived on a farm about five miles out. The first time I ever saw her, or remembered seeing her, was at the picture show. In a little town of seven or eight hundred you know everybody, but Belle had been going to one of those little one-room country schools. When the lights came on, after the show, there she was. We looked at each other. I don’t know how she felt, but to me we were alone in that dingy, cement-floored old building, we were alone in all the world. Just one look it took. One. Well, I guess this sounds like puppy stuff. It’s puppy stuff, but I’m forty-five and I’ve never felt that way again.”
“Keep talking, Bill.”
“Her folks took her home that night, and I walked the streets suffering, but sort of singing inside. Nothing like it. Sunday I went to her church her folks went to, and glimpsed her again. Monday I walked clear out to that country school and back, just to catch sight of her. It was worth it. This was along about nineteen twenty-four, early June. Well, things went on and once or twice I got to talk to Baby Belle. Her mother thought it was quite a joke, and she took pity on me and told Belle I could take her to the street carnival and fair. It was a doings they used to hold every year in that town. That was my first and last date with Baby Belle. Her old lady was jolly and good-natured, but her father got wind of it and raised hell.”
“What happened?” Wakeman asked, when I slowed down.
“Nothing happened. Well, everything, to me. My old man had a pretty-new Model T delivery truck, and he finally let me borrow it after I told him I’d quit my job at the store if he didn’t. I took Baby Belle to the carnival, and like a kid she wanted to spend all our time on the merry-go-round. I won three kewpie dolls for her, throwing baseballs. About ten o’clock we started home, and there was all kind of stars shining and you could smell lilacs everywhere. A mile from the farmhouse I steered into a sideroad and stopped the engine. I left the dashboard light on so I could look at her, just look at her. Then I held her hand, warm, so soft and small. All of a sudden wings seemed to be beating around me and she let me kiss her. Just once I kissed her little girl’s mouth.”
I stopped talking, and after a while Wakeman asked, “That was all?”
“To do anything more would have been like pulling a flower to pieces. I didn’t want to. It was enough. I just wasn’t in this world.”
“Didn’t you see her again?”
I shook my head. “Her father sent Baby Belle to her aunt somewhere in Wisconsin. After awhile I beat it away from home and put a hitch in the Navy. Well, that’s all, Doc. My flat-heeled old gal just came into the ward, and I’m signing myself out of this dump. I hope she can raise the ante. Right now she’s talking to the Mexican. Going to get him a job. She’s a good old sport, at that.”
Wakeman looked at his wrist-watch and stood up. “We’ve hardly scratched the surface,” he said. “In one of the state hospitals they’d work weeks, months with you. They’d help you, maybe clear up your trouble entirely.”
“I’m not an alcoholic, Doc. I’m through with all that. Can’t you get that through your head?”
“Good luck, Bill, I hope you’re right,” he said. “I’m always pretty short at this time of the month, but here.” He took a five-dollar bill from his wallet and handed me a card. “My address is on that. It’s a loan. Write to me as soon as you’ve located. I’ll want to know how you’re getting on.”
“Thanks, Doc. I’m your guinea-pig,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m going to do just fine.”
Two days after I hit Sacramento I had a job in a big garage near the capitol working as a mechanic. I felt better and stronger every day, the guys were a good bunch and the shop foreman could see that I knew my business. I even put in overtime, and first payday I bought myself some clothes and moved to a better room. Also I wrote to Wakeman and sent him a money-order for five. All was rosy, and I was eating steaks.
A couple of weeks more and I began to get restless. I didn’t sleep so well, and sometimes when I went to a movie I’d get up and leave before I’d seen it all. Some bromide I got in a drug-store just made me dull and depressed. I could still eat a steak dinner, but I’d go to sleep right afterward and wake up at two A.M. feeling low and mean. After twenty years of going on sprees I still didn’t know what ailed me, or what it was I wanted.
Then I had an idea that I thought was bright, and absolutely new. I’d take a whisky or two after work. No more than that. I wasn’t going on any bat, come hell or high water. After what had happened to me at the Bay I’d surely have sense enough to handle it.
For more than a week it worked fine. A double highball fixed me up; I felt better in the daytime and I slept well at night. I had it licked. Once I even stepped over my limit, accidently – a guy from the shop came into the bar just as I was leaving; he was a swell egg, and before I knew it I’d had five or six. But not even that started me off. “See here, Bill,” I told myself, “bars are dangerous to you. What you’d better do is buy yourself a little bottle, take it home and measure yourself out a small sup whenever you really need it.” For another week I did all right, except that I always finished up the half-pint before I went to bed.
The week-end of my second pay-day it tore loose. Monday morning I had to have a drink, and after three or four at a bar I was already late for work and didn’t give a damn. When I showed up there in the middle of the next day it was no good.
“We’ve been swamped around here, Bill,” the foreman said. “Why didn’t you phone me yesterday? Why, you’re drunk, right now,” he said, looking at me harder.
“What do you think I am, an Indian? I’ve got as much right to take a drink as anybody else.” And I told him what he could do with his jumpin’ job.
I drew the money they’d held out of my check, and altogether I had about forty dollars. In a couple of days it was half gone, and I rode the cushions down to Fresno, drunk all the way. By that, I don’t mean staggering. Once he gets in the groove, a periodical usually stays on an even keel.
In Fresno I intended to taper off as fast as I could and find another situation. After all, I hadn’t been drinking very long, and I was in good shape. By that time I was back on wine, drinking two fifths a day. I knew that before I could look for work I’d have to get off the stuff, and I had begun to count my dimes.
But it was the old pattern. When you’ve been drinking two fifths and cut it down to one it’s as if you hadn’t had a drink at all. So you keep on drinking two. I rode freight trains to Los Angeles by way of Bakersfield, and if there was any water shortage across that long stretch of Mojave Desert you couldn’t prove it by me. I had plenty of musky.
The Skid in L.A. isn’t just a street or two; it’s a city inside a city, with a population of bums and people that prey on bums. Don’t remind me that there’s lots of cops, too. I mentioned bums, didn’t I?
I lost track of the days, but I must have been in L.A. about a month, and I was down to the place where I was getting along on less wine. Not that I’d tapered; it was just that I was weaker, and it didn’t take quite so much to keep me under. I wasn’t eating much, and some days I didn’t eat at all. I could do with a fifth now, but a fifth I had to have. At this stage you don’t get any lift out of your drinks; you take it because without it you’ll start screaming inside. My nerves got bad, anyway. I got scared of crowds, even of crowds of people like me, so I hopped another train. I was kicked off in Santa Ana.
There was some orange picking going on around there, and I worked at that. For part of one day. Try to pick, sometime, alongside Mexicans who know how. Those trees are worse than cactus, and at the end of an hour I had a pair of bloody hands and half a lug of valencias.
“You’ve been pickin’ too many grapes,” the boss said, sarcastic, when he paid me off.
One night, soon after that, I was in an East Fourth Street bar trying to get a transfusion of wine into me when in came a couple of coppers. There was an empty stool on each side of me, and they sat down and ordered beers.
“Want a ride uptown?” one of them said.
“I haven’t done anything,” I told them.
“That’s just it,” the other one said. “No visible or invisible means of support. But we’ll give you a break. Move on out of town. Right now. The paper here is raising a stink. Too many of you guys.”
“Jim, give the man a drink,” the first cop told the bartender.
“You fellows are all right. Thanks. I’ll shove off right away,” I said, but I got the drink first.
I went to the shed where I’d been sleeping and got my stuff. I had a safety razor, a piece of soap, and some odds and ends folded in a blanket, which was a good one. No more pneumonia for me. At a liquor store near the depot I bought a split bottle of cheap sherry. I didn’t have enough for a fifth, and I knew I was in for trouble.
A police car was standing near the railroad yards. I didn’t wait for a train to come along, but started walking alongside the tracks. Thumbing rides on the highway was too tough, and besides that the traffic made me jittery. So I hit the grit, hoping to wind up, in a day or two, in San Bernardino. During the war I’d worked in aircraft with a fellow who lived there. He’d been my friend, and maybe I could look him up.
There was a bright moon, but after I’d gone beyond the outskirts I did a lot of stumbling. I was kind of confused, and couldn’t be sure which direction I was heading. For a while I thought somebody was following me, but after I got a good slug of brown ink into me I stopped being panicky.
I was dead tired, though. When I came to a railroad bridge two or three miles out of Santa Ana, I left the tracks and went down under, digging my heels hard in the steep embankment. Beneath the end of the bridge was a level, grassy shelf, and I spread out my blanket. After a while I killed the sherry, and I went to sleep.
A train went roaring over me, six feet above my head, and woke me out of a terrible nightmare. My nerves were howling and I was soaked in cold sweat. The sun was halfway up the sky, and I sat up and looked around, trying to figure where I was.
Below me was the creek that the bridge crossed, a little stream a few yards wide and inches deep. On one side it curved away out of sight with tall eucalyptus trees bordering it, and there were some houses beyond, almost hid by orange trees. On the other side the stream ran straight toward a small town about a mile away, and in between were orange and walnut trees, and beehives. I could see some packing houses and, nearer, a big school building. The railroad made a long turn, after crossing the bridge, to get into the town, and I could just make out the yellow depot.
I tried, but couldn’t roll a cigarette. I was shaking too much, inside and out. I was out of stuff, and I had just four cents in my pockets. Something horrible was going to happen to me; I didn’t know what.
A long freight, coming from the direction of Santa Ana and running slow because of the curve, rolled over the bridge just above me and I bit the grass to keep from yelling out. The noise, the clanking and pounding and those awful wheels that could cut you in two without a jar or a bump. In my mind’s eye I was on the track above, seeing those big iron wheels coming at me, and I couldn’t duck between them because of all the guts of the train hanging down, cylinders, rods, hoses like snakes, all coming at me, coming at me. Before the caboose went by I did yell out.
It was more than I could stand. I crawled out, leaving my bed and things right there, and started toward town, following a path that zigzagged through the brush of the dry-wash. When I came to a highway, where a cement bridge crossed, I climbed up to one of the residence streets. It led me into the main stem of the place, whatever it was; I never did find out the name of it. All this time I was panting for breath, sweating in streams, and hearing my heart pumping the blood through my head. Everybody in the town was staring at me, laughing at talking about me. Even the people going by in cars turned to look.
“You’ve got to have something, Bill,” I told myself. “You’ll be O.K. after you’ve had something. Walk. Keep walking.”
Into an alley. There at the rear of a bar I saw a swamper in shirt sleeves and an apron stacking some empty cases. I hit him up for a drink.
“I’ll clean up the back here for you, sir,” I said. “I sure need one. You’ll be saving my life.”
“What makes you think I’d be interested in saving your life?” he comes up with.
I thought he was kidding, so I forced what I hoped was a grin onto my shaking face. He stepped backward into the bar and slammed the door and snapped the lock. He wasn’t kidding. Me, I was too sick to cuss him. The only other liquor dump was across the street, so I went there and stood near the door until two young sailors came out together. They’d had a few. I put the bee on the likeliest for two-bits.
“Tryin’ to get the rest of my bus fare to San Berdoo,” I said.
When the guy gave me a buck I nearly fell over. Then the other sailor pulled his billfold out of the front of his pants. He gave me a dollar, too.
“If he can do that, so can I do that. Where did you say you were going? San Berdoo? Where in hell’s that? Why don’t you go to a good town? Go to Corpus Christi.”
“Yeah, go to Corpus Christi,” the first one said. “Go to a good town.”
Where I went was to a chain grocery where I bought a whole gallon jug of muscatel. I headed back to my bridge then, holding the big sack on both arms like it was a bomb, grinding my jaws for fear I’d drop it. When I got to the side-street I hurried faster. There was a billboard down at the highway and I went behind it. My hands were so jerky it took me an age to unscrew the tin cap, and when I did it rolled away from me and down the bank. I didn’t care. With my elbows braced against my knees, I squatted and drank from the jug. I took it down two inches. Then I waited until it began to get its hooks into me, and when my stomach stopped fluttering I drank again.
When I found the cap and screwed it on I noticed a row of orange trees at the bottom of the bank. I filled my pockets with windfalls, and put some more in the bag on top of the jug. Vitamins. That shows you how different I was feeling. Picking fruit off the ground, even rotten fruit, is worse than stealing money in California. The growers have got an association. But I had musky in me now. Back at the bridge, I took another shot of medicine and stretched out on my blanket in the shade.
It was about two in the afternoon, and hot, when I came to. I went down to the creek and managed to shave, but my blade was dull and I had to fortify myself a couple of times before I could get my whiskers off. Afterward I didn’t feel so good. For some reason I began to feel low in my mind, and the musky didn’t seem to help. When I smoked a cigarette it made me kind of dizzy. I was sitting there, trying to think, when something flew into my right ear.
At first I thought it was a little beetle. The groves were full of all kinds of bugs. I scratched and dug for it with my finger, but it crawled further in and I could feel it moving and tickling. I sharpened a match and prodded, thinking I could at least kill the thing. It had started a high, shrill singing like a mosquito, or some other kind of fly.
Then I got sick all over. It wasn’t any kind of insect at all. It started talking to me.
It was like somebody on the telephone, a man’s voice, far off sounding, and yet it was there deep inside my ear. It got louder and very clear, so that I couldn’t have missed a word if I’d tried.
“What are you doing to do now, Bill?” it asked, repeating it three or four times, as if it expected an answer. Right at first it seemed friendly.
I rolled back and forth on my blanket. This was different than any D.T.s I’d ever known or heard about. My mind was clear as a bell, and I could think straight. There was just that Voice, and it was getting impatient now, more sneering. I knew it wasn’t real, and that if I ever got to thinking it was real I’d be a goner.
Something had gone haywire inside my head, that was all. It would go away, because D.T.s or anything else came to an end sometime. It wouldn’t kill me. I’d just try not to pay attention. Let it talk away, I thought.
“Why don’t you use that razor blade on your throat and wrists?” the Voice said. “You don’t deserve to live. Are you too yellow?” And it laughed and laughed.
It’s just coming from a part of my brain that’s sick, I thought to myself, but the rest of my brain is all right. It’s not real, keep remembering that. It won’t last.
“You’re a degenerate, worse than any the papers tell about,” the Voice said, all the time mocking and jeering. “You’re a pervert. Even the doctor up north knew that.”
“It’s a lie,” I answered out loud. “I’ve never done anything.”
The Voice came back with a lot of low-down abuse. It told me about things I’d done and forgotten about long before, and it accused me of other things I’d never done or even thought of doing. It was all coming from inside my right ear. I pressed it as hard as I could, but it went on just the same, calling me nasty names. On and on.
Some school kids, a couple of boys and a girl, showed up on the footpath. They were taking a short-cut to the houses back of the eucalyptus trees, and they went under the bridge a few yards below where I was sitting. Of course they saw me. After they’d gone a little ways past they stopped, and one of the boys picked up a rock and threw it my way. Then the other one and the girl threw, and ran whooping. Of course they hadn’t come near hitting me, but the Voice made a big thing of it.
“Even the little kids know what you are. The whole world knows what you are. Why don’t you get out of it while the getting’s good? They’ll gang up on you and grab you. Then it will be too late.”
“I’ll fix you. I’ll shut you up.”
The jug was lighter now and I tipped it up and drank and drank. It made the Voice mad, at first, but then it pretended that I was making it drunk. It belched, hiccupped, and sang silly songs. All the time mocking me, of course, but it got so comical that I was laughing, myself, before I passed out.
Next thing I knew it was night. The Voice was gone from my ear. The quart I’d taken had either paralyzed it or killed it, and I was thinking I had everything licked when I heard a train off in the distance. It whistled my name. My first, middle, and last name. Then it was closer and it whistled my name again, loud and clear, filling the whole sky with it.
When the train roared over me it woke up the Voice. It was with me to stay. But there were pauses in it now, and it didn’t jabber all the time. Sometimes it would make up idiotic, nasty rhymes, like it was amusing itself.
I watched the sky get gray. It was foggy and the grass was wet. With the blanket wrapped around me I sat there until the sun came through. The packing house in the town whistled out my name, and I heard a big diesel truck roaring out my name over on the highway.
I ate some oranges, though I wasn’t hungry. And I kept drinking all through the day. The stuff didn’t keep me from hearing things, but the more I took, the less the things worried me. And the Voice didn’t talk so much, or so mean.
The afternoon was hot and still. I was sitting there wondering what I’d do when I got out of wine when I spied somebody skipping along the path toward the bridge. It was the girl I’d seen the day before, and this time the boys weren’t with her. She was alone. I watched her. She was ten or eleven years old, and she was wearing a short, plaid dress, a thin blouse and white shoes and socks. Her hair was like ripe wheat and there was a red ribbon it in.
She got closer. So close I could see the freckles on her impudent face, and my heart began to pound so that I could hardly breathe.
“Bill,” the Voice said, “it’s Baby Belle.”
And now, instead of being insulting, the Voice was soft, and kind, and understanding.
“It’s Baby Belle,” it said again.
The girl was almost under the bridge, and she started to run, as if she knew I was there and wanted to dash past me. Her dress kind of fluttered and I saw how tanned and plump her legs were. She had little pink panties on.
“Hello,” I said. “Don’t be in such a hurry.”
She stopped, and looked at me. I had stood up. The wind seemed to have come up and was making a rushing sound, but the leaves on the trees were still, and the heat waves were dancing in the drywash.
She’d decided not to run from me. Her eyes had wavered, but now they were bold, curious.
“It was Wayne said to throw the rocks. I’m sorry we threw the rocks.”
A freight train was pulling out of the town, and I could hear the exhaust of the big locomotive. “The rocks,” it said. “The rocks --- the knocks --- the box --- the fox --- the box --- the hocks --- the cocks ---- the pox, the jocks, the mocks, the socks, the docks, the locks..” Faster and faster.
“You don’t live up in there under the bridge, do you?” she asked me.
“Sure. Let me show you the house I’ve got fixed up here,” I said, and reached my hand down for hers.
She let me love her I swear she did at first but when she began to cry and wouldn’t stop I pulled her up the embankment while the train was going by and pushed her under and I intended to jump under too like the Voice said but there were those wheels and the iron entrails hanging out and I was scared and ran but at first she had let me love her and it was worth it a thousand times no matter what happens to me now.
That’s the way it happened. That’s the way it was.
BIO: Paul S. Powers was a pulp fiction writer during the 1920s through the 1940s - most of his work was published in Wild West Weekly, a Street & Smith fiction mag. If you want to learn more about him, his granddaughter Laurie keeps a blog and has had published a memoir about being a pulp fiction writer, entitled PULP WRITER. He died in 1971.
John H. Powers helped his father, Paul, write the story, contributing in large part to the Doctor Wakeman character, due to the fact that he was, himself, a doctor. He died in 1964.
From UNDER THE SKIN
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