THEY CAN KILL YOU BUT THEY CAN’T EAT YOU - JONATHAN ASHLEY
The psychiatric ward of Louisville, Kentucky’s Baptist East Hospital is housed on the seventh floor. Also commonly known by those who work there or repeat visitors as Seven East, being as it is on the eastern side of the building, the unit is one of the city’s many acute facilities, meaning that patients are usually there for a short amount of time, three to five days, either to get their meds adjusted or for observation until their socially unacceptable behavior calms or, albeit rarely, completely passes.
This was not Sean McDonough’s first stay in a mental institution. Baptist East was the worst in Louisville. He’d almost forgotten. He was so despondent when the cops had shown up at his apartment that he’d allowed them to take him wherever they thought best.
He’d been sleeping in the hallway in a rickety chair since the second day of his stay.
Dr. Benzenhaver, Sean’s psychiatrist, always showed up on the unit dressed to the nines, Armani double-breasted suits, shiny and spotless Italian loafers. Sean wondered who this prick was trying to impress. Perhaps it was just another way to assert his authority and dominance, wearing clothes that cost more than ninety percent of the people on the unit, staff and patients, made in a month. Benzenhaver was the one who put Sean on eye view when a nurse reported finding the Zippo in Sean’s bathroom where he’d foolishly left it next to the sink. Eye view meant that the patient could never be out of a nurse’s sight. It had been five days and Benzenhaver still refused to let Sean sleep in his own private room. And they would not turn out the horrible fluorescent lights or wheel a bed into the day room so that he’d at least be comfortably deprived of sleep.
Sean felt he was being punished for a bureaucratic misstep: they’d neglected to search him when he was admitted, to find his Zippo and Pal Mals. Therefore, it was the admitting nurses to blame for the possible fire hazard, not Sean. When Sean begged for a bed, his eyes milky and red from tranquilizers and sleep deprivation, the doctor said, “You could’ve set this whole hospital on fire.”
Sean replied, “A lot of things could set this whole hospital on fire.”
The doctor went back to looking at the chart, sighing disapprovingly, as if Sean was in detention for flipping off the teacher instead of in a mental hospital seeking treatment for his paralyzing depression.
“I came here for help.”
The doctor continued examining the file, applying marginalia here and there.
“I can’t sleep like this. And the worst part is I’m tired all the time. I need a good night’s sleep in a real bed. I came here to get better and you people are making me crazier than I was when I showed up.”
They were sitting at a table in the small cafeteria in the back of the unit where the doctor met with his patients every morning at nine AM. Orderlies and nurses paced by the doorway, never straying too far just in case one of Benzenhaver’s patients decided to initiate their own personal coup.
“I need to sleep.”
Sean had never gone five days without any sleep. He’d always get a few hours here and there, even when he was feeling particularly anxious. But his stay at Baptist East marked the first time he went a working week without so much as a snore.
“We’ll increase the Seroquel from fifty to a hundred,” Benzenhaver closed the manila envelope that held Sean's institutional history. “That should help.”
“All that’s going to help is giving me a bed and a dark room.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. You’re the end all, be all as far as decisions go around here. You can take me off of Eye View.”
“You could’ve burned the whole hospital down, Sean.”
“Yeah, you already said that.”
“The one hundred milligrams should do the trick.”
“When can I go home?”
“When you’re stabilized and when you start following your recovery program. So far you haven’t attended group once. You sit in the day room, staring at the T.V. To me, that’s not a sign of someone who wants to get better. This isn’t a motel.”
“No shit. They don’t make you sleep in the hallway at motels. When can I leave?”
“Like I said. start attending the group and we’ll see.”
“I’m never going to be stabilized as long as I can’t sleep.”
“You should’ve thought about all this before you ran around telling everyone you were going to kill yourself.”
“So, I should’ve just done it is what you’re saying.”
“I saw you the last time you were here back in 2002. Do you remember that?”
“You know, Benzie, as fucking tired and horrible as I feel, I could never forget you.”
“According to your file, you wanted to be released to your mother after two days here but during the family session, you two began screaming and throwing things at one another. We realized very quickly that your family life was a disaster. And that was back when you had someone that would allow us to release you into their custody. Your mother is now hospitalized herself. Am I correct? She’s been there since June. Up in Cincinnati. Your father is dead. You don’t have any more cards up your sleeve, Sean. There’s no exit, this time. Not even the possibility of one.”
Sean sat back in his chair, sighing spit onto the cracked Formica table that separated him from Herr Doctor. He placed his face in his hands for a brief moment, and then stared Benzenhaver in the eye.
“Where’d you get your fucking training in psychiatry, Benzenhaver, you kraut bastard? Auschwitz?”
“This conversation is over.”
With that, Sean lunged across the Formica, getting his hands around the doctor’s neck just as two stout nurse’s assistants entered the cafeteria, their lives’ demons fiery in their eyes.
The next morning, after he’d been released from the padded blue room where he still could not sleep, too pumped from adrenaline, Sean sat in the day room watching Dr. Phil on mute. This was his sixth day at Baptist. He was at all times surrounded by deviants, manic-depressives, insomniacs, incest survivors, alcoholics, addicts and other assorted degenerates, the city’s damaged goods. The unit had predominantly the same set up as the half dozen other hospitals in which he’d been a patient. There were of course a few differences; the day room also served as the meeting place for group, the drooling and disheveled gathering around the long mahogany table behind which was the nurse’s station. It was a smaller unit, but not by much. The food was better and Sean could have as many cheeseburgers for lunch and dinner as he pleased.
Sean shifted his gaze from the mind numbing talk show to the young man who had just sat down across from him. Although it was hard to tell because of his receding hairline and yellow teeth showing through the wolfish grin he displayed, Sean figured they were about the same age, early to mid-twenties. He had piercing blue eyes and a scar that interrupted his left eyebrow. He wore dirty jeans and a white Misfits T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It was the only pair of clothes Sean had seen him in. He wondered why this young man was smiling at him like that.
Alex Springer awoke for the fifth time to the sound of his roommate, Wendell, snoring. Wendell had been admitted at seven o’ clock that night. He was a short, bespectacled man, middle-aged, wearing Bermuda shorts and a short-sleeved dress shirt in the dead of winter. He looked to be in his forties and probably hadn’t been laid since Flock of Seagulls was popular. Alex had been in his room all day, reading National Geographics and masturbating, the Zoloft making it impossible for him to climax.
Alex turned in his bed to face the sleeping Wendell.
“Shutup,” Alex said.
Wendell continued snoring.
Alex pushed himself up by his elbows and sat up on the edge of the bed. He stared at his roommate for a moment. He stood, towering above Wendell. He slapped the sleeping man hard across his left cheek. Wendell opened his eyes, grasping the red spot where Alex had assaulted him. Alex slapped him again on the other cheek.
“I said shut up, bitch.”
“What?” Wendell’s voice quivered as he cowered toward the far side of his bed.
“You been keeping me up all night with your goddamned snoring. I am telling you to shut up.”
Alex slapped him again, this time up the side of the head. Wendell covered his face with his forearms, cradling himself in the fetal position. Alex sat back down on the edge of his bed and said, “I told you to shut up. If that means you don’t sleep, that means you don’t sleep. But I am getting some motherfucking rest. You understand me, little man? Just nod. Don’t talk.”
Wendell nodded complacently.
“Another thing. You rat on me, you go crying to one of the nurses about this shit, I’ll find you when I get out. I got a name and a face and that’s all I need. I know people, Wendell, and I’ll find your ass. I’ll creep up behind you with a fucking stiletto while you’re walking out of Wal Mart. You understand me?”
Wendell was still shaking in the fetal position when Alex drifted off.
Alex slept through group, although he was briefly woken by the sound of the rotund nurse Amy opening the door and letting the hallway light in. She fed Wendell and Alex their meds. Alex was on one hundred milligrams of the anti-depressant Zoloft and seventy five of Lamictal, a popular mood stabilizer. The cocktail made him feel tired all the time and dulled his senses and emotions. When the nurse left them, it was eight o’clock in the morning. Alex awoke two hours later, stumbled into the hallway, sleep still thick in his eyes. He gave Wendell the evil eye when he caught his gaze in the day room where he sat dejectedly watching the morning news. He grabbed his tray from the meal cart and took it back to his room with him where he ate breakfast alone.
He sat his tray at the foot of his doorway, closed the door and went back to reading National Geographic until a few minutes before lunch time at which point he sauntered out into the hallway and took a seat across from the quiet kid with the shaved head who always wore a plaid shirt and rarely took off his toboggan. Alex guessed that they were about the same age, mid-twenties. He liked the fact that this one kept his mouth shut, minded his own business. Alex figured this guy would survive at Chilicothe or Lagrange. That’s what you had to do in such places, keep to yourself.
He smiled wolfishly at the young man in the toboggan before he began speaking.
“The doctor say when you’re getting out?” Alex said.
“Tomorrow morning, straggles aside,” Sean murmured.
“Me, too. Of course, I don’t know what I got to look forward to.”
“Me neither. My girl moved out after she called the cops on me.”
“You ever do time?”
“No. Just these places.”
“Lucky you. I’ve done three years total. Eighteen months at Chilicothe in Ohio and another year and a half over at LaGrange.”
“First one was assault. Stupid shit. Second was possession with intent to distribute. I got ratted out and the narcos caught me coming over the bridge with a fuckload of H under the back seat of my Camaro. I’m currently on parole and the only thing saving my ass from going back, since I’m currently unemployed, is the fact that I’m up in this shithole. Once I get out, I gotta get my shit together or they’ll send me back up.”
“What’d the doctor say? What’s your diagnosis?”
“Bi-polar 1. Anti-social. Narcissistic personality. Something like that. That’s not to mention the alcohol and drugs. I got five days without a drink or a needle in my arm as of this morning. What about you?”
“Just bi-polar 1. Although I’ve never shown any symptoms of mania.”
“You just get bummed out, huh.”
“Pretty much. I think they just like stamping us like packages.”
“Me, too. But I know for sure that I’m a drunk and a dope fiend, man. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’m gonna stay kicked once I get out of here.”
A pretty, petite black nurse named Tasha began calling out names as the other patients stood and made their way to the lunch cart parked just in front of the nurse’s station. Alex nodded before answering to his call, coming back with his tray full of chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, chocolate pie and orange juice. The nurse called Sean’s name and he stood, ambling over to the cart and accepting his tray from Tasha. He took his seat back across from Alex and began inhaling one of the three cheeseburgers that lay on the cheap china plate. Soggy fries were piled around the pyramid of sandwiches. While the others at the table ate placidly, their eyes fixed on “The Young and the Restless,” Alex and Sean talked between bites, their mouths full of meshed meat.
“You were here when I checked in,” Alex said. “How long has it been now?”
“Six days? Most people are out in three. The fuck happened?”
“I was playing with a gun. I think that had something to do with it.”
“That’ll do it.”
She’d told him if he didn’t check into a hospital, she was leaving. He promised he’d get better, that as soon as he got another job, everything would be fine. He told her that he just needed something to keep his mind occupied. The money didn’t matter. He still got his check every month and was allowed to make up to a thousand bucks working. He’d been on a steady decline ever since he got laid off from the print shop, sleeping until four P.M. and staying up until six in the morning reading crime novels and crying intermittently. When his medication ran out a month ago, he neglected to get it refilled and, as a result, grew much worse much more quickly.
It came to a head a week ago when she found him in the living room of their shabby apartment in the lower Highlands. He was sobbing, a .38 revolver he’d bought at a pawn shop in the South End sitting on the coffee table before him. She shivered at the sight, tossing her long blonde hair across her back as she began crying with him, asking him what he was planning on doing with the gun. He began laughing as he uncoiled the cylinder, releasing the six bullets. He reloaded one, twirled the cylinder as he snapped it shut and pressed the barrel to his temple. He pulled the trigger. This time, he hit a dry chamber. He unsnapped the roll and twirled again. As he continued playing Russian roulette alone in the living room, she backpedaled into the kitchenette, retrieving her cell phone from her purse which lay on the counter. She dialed 911, told them what was going on, hung up and went back into the living room to watch him.
During his stay in the psychiatric unit, she hadn’t answered her phone once, returned any of his messages or visited him. When he phoned the landlord, a fundamentalist Christian named Matt, he was told that the rent check, which she always sent in, had yet to come and that he had thirty days to either pay the rent and the late fee or vacate. He wasn’t worried. He got a thousand dollars a month from Social Security, survivor’s benefits; his father who shot himself on Sean’s mother’s street in the driver’s bucket seat of his Escalade – the police suspected the old man was on his way to kill her when the car broke down – had never reached retirement age.
The rent was six hundred bucks a month, so Sean would only have four hundred left for bills and food. He’d survived on less.
“Dude,” Alex said. “You okay?”
He couldn’t stop the memories, of her and the bad things he’d done. He had been robbed of the grit needed to suck it up by Benzenhaver, by Seroquel and lack of sleep and back pains.
“I’m gonna come sit next to you,” Alex said, rising and walking slowly around the table, taking the chair between Sean and the nurse’s station, obscuring their view of the patient breaking down.
“Shit,” Sean murmured. “I don’t know you and I’m fucking crying like a little bitch.”
“It’s okay,” Alex ruffled Sean’s hair. “Just try not to weep. You can cry. But don’t let them see it. If you totally fucking lose it, they’ll use it against you and keep you even longer.”
“Thank you.” Sean was able to calm down a little.
“You gotta always remember,” Alex said, “they can kill you, but they can’t fucking eat you.”
“I heard what you said. It just doesn’t make any sense. If they kill you, you’re dead meat.”
“Not you. Not me.”
“Because we’re too tough to eat, son.”
Alex and Sean were released the same day. Waiting to be discharged by Benzenhaver, Sean offered his home phone number – his cell would have to be sacrificed in favor of groceries and gas and heat. Alex told him in whispers that he knew where they could find Benzenhaver and that the prick actually played in a band, a Ted Nugent cover band for which he sung.
“How do you know all this?” Sean said.
“I’ve seen his band. I was drifting along Bardstown Road, drunk and wondered into Bearno’s. Must’ve been fifty people packed into that motherfucker. And who do you think is in the spotlight?”
“That motherfucker. He’s a rock star and a torture artist.”
“Some guys have all the luck.”
Alex had not been mistreated by Benzenhaver, who was also his doctor, but resented the Armani suits and the holier-than-thou attitude.
“We could show up at one of their gigs,” Alex said.
“I just want to sleep for a few days and never hear his name again,” Sean said.
“We got a responsibility. He’s gonna keep abusing his power, keep torturing patients. And most of them are worse off than either of us.”
“Just call me in a few days. I’m gonna turn the phone off and hibernate.”
The apartment was bare. No bed. No TV. No couch. Even the ice cube trays in the refrigerator were gone. He slept on the bare hardwood floor for about a day and woke to a knocking at the door.
“What the fuck?” he yelled, opening the door. In the foyer stood Alex and a girl who couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She had pink hair, a stud in her left nostril, a black motorcycle jacket over a white tank top, and jeans eaten up by patches. She was a foot shorter than Alex and shivered as she blew fog into February’s harsh winds.
Without a word, Sean stood aside and allowed the two to enter.
“Jesus.” Alex examined the apartment. “She showed no mercy on your ass.”
“It beats living on the street.”
“I’ve been down at Wayside Christian Mission on Main Street myself, kinda my home base while I play mastermind. You know, AA ain’t got shit on revenge. I haven’t even wanted to drink or use since they let me out.”
“How did you find out where I lived?”
“Called 411 and gave them your number. Use your head, Sean. You got a home phone and you’re listed. Anyone can find you.”
The girl tugged on Alex’s coat sleeve.
“Oh,” Alex said. “Sorry. This is Bridget. She’s another one of Benzenhaver’s patients. She sees him at his office, though. His private practice in the East End over on New LaGrange Road.”
“Yeah. Didn’t even have to suffer the motherfucker’s singing again to find a way to get us some payback. Just looked him up in the yellow pages, took the bus to the East End and staked him out. Bridget here - her appointment ran two hours rather than one - which I found interesting. So I waited for her in the parking lot. When she came out, mascara was running down her cheeks. She couldn’t stop crying. Thought I was gonna have to shake her to get her to compose herself. So I got in her car and we swapped stories. Turns out Benzenhaver’s been giving her the stiff one eye for over six months. Today – coincidentally the day I decide to stake out the Kraut’s office – he breaks it off with Bridget. Said he didn’t want to risk losing his practice in a lawsuit and everything in a divorce. Bridget don’t need money, but she wants some payback just like we do. Her parents forked over thousands of dollars for Doctor Cocksuck to help Bridget with her depression and what does he do? He gives her even more baggage to carry.”
“How old are you?” Sean asked Bridget.
“Sixteen,” she said.
“And you were having an affair with a married man twice your age?”
“He’s cute,” she shrugged.
“If it was just ‘he’s cute,’ why were you weeping?” Sean said.
“Because no one breaks up with me,” she said. “I’m the one who does the breaking up.”
“I don’t really think, from the story he just told me, that there was anything to break, Bridget. Now, while you put that in your pipe and take a long toke, I’m going to confer with my friend here in the kitchen.”
Sean placed his hand between Alex’s shoulder blades and guided him into the kitchenette. They spoke quietly.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Sean said.
“Think about what you’re asking me, dude. We met in a mental hospital.”
“Don’t say it. If you say it and I hear it and I don’t call the police, it’s accessory to blackmail.”
“Does that even exist?”
“I’m sure there’s something they can nail me with. Don’t you know the cops and the courts would love a reason to get both of us off the streets? And you’re on thin ice as it is, being on parole with no job or place of residence.”
“I got a place of residence, motherfucker.”
“A homeless shelter.”
“Park the high horse, okay?”
“I just need you to do the talking. That’s all.”
“You’re better spoken.”
“Your economy of words will suffice for these purposes.”
“That motherfucker disrespected both of us. No way he walks free. Especially now that we got something real on him.”
“Do we? All we have is her word against his. Doctors have insurance for this kind of shit.”
“We can say she saved one of the condoms. That she’s got his DNA!”
“No. But he doesn’t know that.”
Sean peeked from behind the refrigerator into the narrow living room. Bridget was gazing out the window at the empty playground across the street, compulsively taking draws off a long, thin cigarette, probably a Virginia Slim. She chewed her lower lip nervously between drags.
“He’s gonna ask to see proof,” Sean said, blinking his eyelids, and every time seeing that smug Aryan face, that perfect head of pure blond hair. As angry as the thought of Benzenhaver unmolested made him, he was still unable to believe this stranger standing in his kitchen was starting to have some sway on his decision-making.
Bridget drove a black BMW five series her mom had bought her for her sweet sixteen. Alex was in the passenger seat smoking a Newport, ashing out the window, shaking his leg. Bridget stared with alarming intensity out the windshield, through the droplets of winter rain, at the red door, the entrance to the drab brick building which housed Benzenhaver’s office.
“This does wonders for my self-image,” Sean held up the Ziploc bag with the used Magnum condom.
“You’re not the one who had to jerk off into it,” Alex said.
“You guys want this to work?” Bridget said. “We gotta stick to the details. Now, as much as he himself is a dick, the truth is, he has a huge–”
“That’s enough,” Sean said. “You already told us.”
“And I think you went into more detail than necessary,” Alex said. “About it tearing up your shit and how you liked it. Thanks, Bridget.”
“I was simply trying to explain why I even let him fuck me in the first place. I mean, there’s the fact that he ain’t that hard on the eyes to begin with. But when–”
“Enough,” Sean said again. “I don’t want to hear anymore about it.”
Benzenhaver’s silver Lexus and a red Mercedes convertible with the black canvas top up were the only other cars in the horseshoe-shaped parking lot that wrapped around the office building. After about another fifteen minutes of arguing over Bridget’s insufferable heartthrob pop punk music, a woman in her mid-fifties wearing a cashmere sweater and a pleated skirt spreading open an umbrella walked out of Benzenhaver’s office.
“Wait until she’s out of the parking lot,” Alex said.
“I’m not fucking stupid,” Sean said.
“You’re not a criminal, either.”
The room was paneled in dark oak. A multitude of degrees and certifications, from Centre and U of L and Bellarmine adorned the walls. Sean sat in a leather armchair across from Benzenhaver behind his massive dark oak desk. Sean would’ve thought, had he not known better, that the car, the degrees, the desk, the treatment of his patients, that it all boiled down to compensation for sexual inadequacy. Apparently, Sean thought, just like falling rain, God disperses huge dicks and bedroom prowess to the just and the unjust alike.
“Surprise,” Sean said.
“You’re looking prosperous, Sean,” Benzenhaver said.
Sean had worn the only suit he had, a black one from Von Maur that Laura had given him to wear on their anniversary. He would pay her back with the money they got from Benzenhaver. He would give her half of his cut for being a sport, for putting up with his bullshit all those years.
“I don’t really enjoy our conversations, Krautenhaver,” Sean said, retrieving the Ziploc bag with the cum-filled Magnum from his inner coat pocket. “I’ll just let the Magnum do the talking, big boy.”
He’d never seen the good doctor without that smug, shit-eating grin plastered to his face. He looked almost innocent without the malicious smile. Then his face contorted into something so grotesque, Sean knew he’d see it in his nightmares recurrently.
“Let me ask you something,” Sean said. “I mean she’s cute and all. But was it really worth it? Your family? Your practice? Ever hear the expression... wait... what is it? Yeah, that’s it. ‘Don’t shit where you eat.’”
“She’s very disturbed, you know,” Benzenhaver said. “Her mother is a chronic alcoholic and her birth father, who is wanted by the police, raped her from the time she was six until she was twelve.”
“So, I guess that automatically discredits her. But, what about that awful look you gave me when you saw the raincoat - extra large.”
“Sean, I don’t think–”
“I don’t think you’re listening to me.” Sean rose, replacing the Ziploc bag in his inner coat pocket and pressing his palms into the oak, his knuckles growing white, getting in close to the doctor. “You’re the one with no exit this time, Doctor. How’d you say it? Yeah. There isn’t even a possibility of one. So here’s what you’re gonna do. Me and Alex - you remember Alex – we’ll be your patients on paper. And you will prescribe us both Valium and Xanax, high dosages, too, high enough to where we can sell it on the street. You will do this until we decide you can stop or until you decide to quit practicing psychiatry. Either scenario is amenable as far as we are concerned. We’ll see you every couple of months on different days to get the prescriptions. Also, we’re going to ask that you pay both of our insanely inflated hospital bills. We’ll forward them to this address. I’ll take those first prescriptions now. Unless you want to see me here again tomorrow with the condom. And, tomorrow, I’ll come early so I can show all your patients in the waiting room what a big man you are. Then, if that doesn’t persuade you, I start showing up at your church and your country club and your fucking mansion.”
After a few moments of Benzenhaver staring despondently at the top of his desk, he finally said, “I can just mail you the drugs.”
“No,” Sean said. “I want to see your face.”
It was a good run. Alex got a part time job at a used record store so his parole officer wouldn’t hound him. He also handled the sales and Sean trusted his accounting, collecting half of the cash every week. He allowed Alex to use his beat up Taurus to make runs to the South End, the West End and Portland where most of their customers lived. He even let the criminal stay on his couch since Alex helped him move all his new furniture in once they’d made their first thousand dollars. Bridget would come over and fuck Alex on the couch, the leather squeaking beneath them. Sean could hear it from his bedroom. At first, it irritated him immensely. Then, he came to almost depend on it to get to sleep, like a New Yorker would with horns blaring and car alarms going off.
Alex was somehow able to maintain a healthy, working relationship with alcohol. Maybe it was the satisfaction of success and revenge. He had not yet moved to cocaine or heroin as far as Sean knew. After Bridget left, before Alex moved into his own fully furnished apartment in Old Louisville, they would drink together and talk, Miller Lite and Pappy Van Winkle, Sean of institutions and Alex of prison and his methhead parents in Owensboro who’d put him out when he was thirteen.
“I don’t blame them,” Alex said, taking a long pull from his beer. “They were raised just like I was. Only difference was their parents were drunks and dopers. It’ll go on like that forever. That’s why I ain’t having no kids, dude.”
“Me, either,” Sean said. “We can do that much. That’s something horrible we can actually put a stop to. It’s a little thing. But I guess it’s something.”
“What’re you talking about?” Alex stumbled upright from where he sat on the hardwood floor, gesturing with his beer out the gabled window. “We’re stopping some horrible shit every day. We’re making that cocksucker think twice every time he’s about to disrespect someone or torture another patient.”
“People like him don’t ever stop,” Sean said. “And there’ll just be another in his place, another rich guy from a rich family with a big dick who still, for some reason, has shit to prove. They’ll never stop until everything has been burned, fucked or murdered. The woods are full of Benzenhavers.”
“We don’t have kids, so we stop the cycle. We stop Benzenhaver, so there’s a handful of people out there getting treated better. That’s good enough for me.”
“I guess. I kind of wish we could string them all up.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. Benzenhaver is a good start. And we’re getting rich, too, something no one ever thought two psychopaths like us could pull off.”
They drank in silence for an awkwardly long period of time until Alex finally said, “Sean, tell me something. If you don’t think we’re doing any good, why are you helping me? I know it ain’t the money.”
“I like seeing the look on his face,” Sean said. “I laugh myself to sleep some nights thinking about it.”
Floyd Hansen had killed two men when he was seventeen, men that had raped his mother in an alley in Old Louisville on her drunk walk home from the Magnolia Bar and Grill. They were men she knew from the bar. All he had to do was ask around the neighborhood and he knew exactly what happened – his mother had simply told him she’d been attacked. And he also had their names before the police had even gotten the rape kit back, not that his mother would think enough of herself to testify against them. They both lived within blocks of his mother’s Grand Victorian apartment on South Third Street. He bought a Beretta from a black kid at Central High School. He promised the dumbass his next ten Ritalin prescriptions and gave him the hundred bucks he’d saved from landscaping the summer prior. Floyd stalked the bar until the assailants were together again, followed them down Magnolia toward Third and, when one stopped to puke, the other placing his hand at the small of his sick friend’s back, he opened fire, unloading the entire clip.
Considering the circumstances, Floyd’s defense attorney was able to convince the judge to sentence him to Central State, a mental hospital with a wing reserved for the criminally insane. His doctor was a man named Andrew Benzenhaver, to whom the courts assigned Floyd after he was released. He was allowed to choose another doctor, but Benzenhaver didn’t fuck with him too much as long as he told the blond bastard what he wanted to hear. Since his release, Benzenhaver had quit Central State and had been hired on at Baptist East. Floyd was his last criminal client. The past Monday had been Floyd’s final required visit and the good doctor had given him news that fell on him like a snowfall in June.
“Depending on what I put in my report, Floyd,” Benzenhaver had said, standing behind his desk, facing out the window at the gusted clouds floating effortlessly over the expressway, “you could be a free man by the end of the week or be sent back to Central State indefinitely.”
“I don’t understand,” Floyd had said from the leather armchair, already in his work clothes, his monkey suit, a brown one which he wore over a white dress shirt and loafers he’d found at the Goodwill. He worked at J.C. Penny as a shoe salesman, a cush job with which Benzenhaver had actually hooked him up.
“I’ve done a lot for you, Floyd. I’ve reported to the courts that you’re making good progress even though I don’t believe it. I found you a job that got you out of your mother’s apartment and even helped you find a used car to get you to and from said job. I did this, not out of charity, but because you are an anomaly. You are a lot like me, Floyd. I bet you never thought you’d hear me say that.”
“No,” Floyd said. “Actually, I didn’t.”
“My mother was a drunk, too. Never knew my father. But, we came from money and her family did everything they could to hide the fact that she was a psychotic, lush whore. My grandparents paid for my education and helped minimize the damage that woman did to me. I’ve seen the results of your IQ tests, Floyd. You actually scored higher than me. Can you believe that?”
Yeah, Floyd thought, I can, you pompous prick.
“If I had had your life I probably would have killed those men, too. I may even have turned the gun on my mother. But, I knew that I had a future. That’s the only difference between us. Money. But, I know from experience that the damage done to your psyche can never be repaired. You will always be angry and prone to violence. And it’s my duty to report that to–”
“Wait,” Floyd had said. “I’m self-sufficient. I’ve held onto a job, a good one, for a lot longer than anyone would expect. I even enrolled at JCC for the summer semester. J.C. Penny’s gonna split the bill with me. I was gonna tell you that today.”
“That’s good, Floyd. But, that doesn’t change your nature.”
“Calm down. I have a proposition for you. Something mutually beneficial, you could say. It solves a big problem for me and you get to stay free as long as you don’t get caught or commit any other crimes.”
It had taken Floyd two weeks to catch the three of them together. Benzenhaver had told him to make it look like a drug deal gone bad or some bullshit. They were all eating Chinese take out in the front room of the first floor apartment on Hill, the one rented out by the guy named Alex, only miles away from where Floyd’s mother had been raped. He could see them through the cracks between the blinds, in the light of the lamp that hung from the white ceiling over the long glass dining room table. They were drinking beer with the food and laughing heartily. The girl looked like a baby to him. The other two, he could make up different histories for, justify why they had it coming. But the girl wasn’t old enough to have done any real damage to anyone.
“Fuck you, Benzenhaver,” Floyd said.
He got out of his rusted, silver Dodge Stratus, a model from the mid-eighties, and walked around to the trunk. He popped it, retrieved the sawed-off Ithaca pump shotgun he’d stolen from a pawn shop, breaking in after hours and making the adjustments to the barrel at his apartment. He hid the gun beneath his black raincoat, walking briskly toward the Grand Victorian apartment building, the moonlight cascading through the canopy of trees, casting kaleidoscopic colors on the street through the newly-birthed leaves of spring.
“What’s a Jewish pedophile say to a little kid?” Alex asked his dinner guests who were still rolling with laughter from his last anti-Semitic joke, one that also made fun of the Catholic Church.
He waited a beat before the punch line, allowing Bridget and Sean to gain a bit more composure.
“He says, ‘Want to buy some candy?’”
The explosion of laughter, paralyzing, orgiastic laughter, was interrupted by the loud doorbell, common in Old Louisville homes for their vast size.
“Who the fuck?” Alex said, rising, his laughter curtailed.
“Who is it?” Sean yelled between fits of laughter.
“It’s the LMPD,” a voice said from the other side of the door. “Open up.”
“Shit,” Bridget mouthed, the laughter dead.
“It’s okay,” Alex rose and turned his voice to a whisper. “There ain’t nothing in the apartment. Plus, they gotta have a warrant.”
Alex staggered across the tiled checkerboard floor, almost running into the door, more inebriated than he had at first thought. He peered through the peep hole. Standing in the hallway only lit by two small bulbs flickering from the ceiling was a young man, probably in his early to mid-twenties, tall and clean shaven with his salt and pepper hair cut conservatively short. He wore a black rain coat over a brown suit, a white dress shirt and a bad tie, blue with black sailboats. He looked like a cop.
“One second,” Alex said. He walked back over to the diner table and whispered for Sean to check the bathroom in the medicine cabinet to see if, by chance, there were any pills lying around.
“But the prescriptions are in our names,” Sean whispered back.
“Just do it. They might count how many we got left and match it with the date we filled the script. Flush any pills and scratch out the name on the sticker.”
Sean got up and ran down the hallway to the bathroom without another word.
Alex wiped the sweat from his brow with one of the dirty tablecloth napkins, kissed Bridget on the cheek and went back to the door. He removed the chain, turned the lock and opened the door.
“I’m sorry,” the man with the shotgun said before the thunderous roar echoed across the hallway and through the apartment. The glass table shattered under Alex’s weight as he was flung onto it from the doorway, his entrails ruptured and exposed by the massive hole extending from his nipples to his pelvis. Bridget shot out of her seat, knocking her chair over. Her primal howl was interrupted by the second gunshot.
Sean didn’t find any bottles in the medicine cabinet. The gunfire stopped him from looking under the sink. He peeked out of the bathroom, down the narrow hallway. The air was thick with smoke and cordite and a well-dressed fellow with a shitty tie stood in the dining room, a sawed-off shotgun dangling loosely at his side. He couldn’t see Alex at all from where he stood, but on the ground, the toes of Bridget’s unlaced Doc Marten’s pointed toward the ceiling. He knew they were both dead, or else the young killer wouldn’t be standing off-guard. He let himself drift further into the hallway, the shock overtaking him.
He was hypnotized by the dead girl’s boots, stuck, when the third blast tore away the drywall not inches from where he stood. He still didn’t move. The guy with the bad tie and the overcoat pumped another round into the Ithaca, a sound that snapped Sean out of his trance. He sidestepped into the bathroom, quickly locked the door behind him and slipped out through the gabled window. He had always complained about the window being in the bathroom, that anyone could walk up and see him with his dick out or taking a shit. Tonight, as he sprinted to his car, he was more grateful for it than the thousands of dollars in cash he had buried behind his place between the Highlands and Germantown.
She was late for her ten to eight shift at the nursing home, stepping out the door onto the back porch, rifling through her purse for her keys. She tripped over him but caught herself on the banister. In the light of the street lamp, she could see the trail of blood leading from his Taurus to the steps of the back porch where she stood. He lay on his side cradling a dry and discolored brown paper bag against his breast. His eyes were closed but his stomach extended and retracted with his breathing. His blue button-up dress shirt was torn at the side. The skin beneath was caked in blood and peppered with a dozen or so wounds the size of fingertips.
She couldn’t call the cops or the EMS. If he’d gone to the trouble of finding her and showing up here after all this time, it meant he was in trouble. It was what she should do, but, even as she dialed 911, she knew she wouldn’t hit SEND and clicked her cell back shut. She had a weakness for the wounded and for absconding criminals. It was probably her alcoholic con man of a father who had instilled this in her.
She had no idea how she was going to get him inside.
Crime reporters and homicide detectives made the connection between Bridget and Alex within a matter of days. It was all over the news. Benzenhaver spun it well, too. He told the police that the two had met in his waiting room – Alex, thanks to his own idea, now documented as one of the doctor’s official patients – and had begun an intimate relationship. The psychiatrist told press and police that he had refused to see either of them anymore because he did not approve of the relationship and felt compelled to inform the authorities if it continued with his knowledge. He simply could not abide statutory rape. He told the cops that he knew Alex had been dealing, what he was not sure of, but that he had stopped prescribing refills on Alex’s Xanax as of last week. Small amounts of heroin, crack and cocaine had been found all over the apartment, between the mattress and the box springs, taped under the toilet bowl lid as were some sex videos the couple had made. The murders, despite the high profile and Bridget being a white girl from a good family, were soon buried somewhere on the third page of the Metro section, written off as drug-related.
Sean, reading the paper every day and watching the news religiously, figured her parents would want it that way. The less bad press for families in the east end, the better. They might’ve even had some say in the matter, refusing to talk to reporters anymore, neglecting to hound detectives. Who knew? They’d soon pin it on some poor person who bought the wrong used gun on the street.
“How long were you planning on staying?” Laura said from behind the red vinyl couch on which Sean sat, interrupting his hypnotism by the black homicide cop being interviewed in a half minute segment on WLKY about the murders. His name was Fraction and he had sad and honest, deep sunken eyes. He was telling the buxom blonde reporter that the murders were still considered drug-related, either a deal gone wrong or a robbery committed by a rival kingpin.
“Kingpins,” Sean laughed, hitting the OFF button on the remote with his thumb.
Laura had removed the buckshot Sean’s side, cleaned and stitched the larger of the wounds. She had gone to Target and bought him some new t-shirts, socks, boxers, and a pair of boot cut jeans. She had even let him sleep on her queen-sized bed the first two nights. She politely asked him to move to the couch for the remainder of his stay. It was obvious that he was following the double murder in Old Louisville. She never asked why, though assumed, since the killer had used a shotgun, that he had narrowly escaped the slaying. She also assumed that he was scared that the perpetrator would find him if he went to an emergency room. Something about Sean had changed. His face seemed softer, less furrowing of the brow. He hadn’t taken any meds since he’d been under her care, so she knew it wasn’t that. It was as if he’d made some commitment to himself, the nature of which was so deep and private that to inquire would be in bad taste to say the least.
“I’m leaving tonight,” Sean said.
“I wasn’t saying–”
“I know. I just have to go. It’s too dangerous for you, me being here.”
“Are you gonna be okay?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t want you to worry about me. I’m not gonna say I’m sorry for what I did. That would be a fucking insult to you. But I want you to know that I’m gonna do some good before it’s all said and done. There’s a man out there hurting people. People like me. People like your mother.”
Her mother had been schizophrenic and had died of a heart attack at forty from the attendant stress the condition had put on her body.
“What are you talking about?” she said through tears.
“I’m gonna stop him. He’s never gonna hurt anyone again. Alex was right. That’s enough for this life.”
“I love you.”
She did not say it back and he didn’t care. He just wanted her to know. While she was sleeping, he left her all of his money, what he’d dug up out of his front yard and placed in the brown paper bag he’d found in the backseat of his car. All of it but five hundred which he would need for a decent handgun.
He didn’t have the heart to ask if she still had his .38.
“I don’t understand why you waited a fucking week to contact me,” Benzenhaver said from the driver’s bucket seat of his Lexus. The air conditioner was kicking. It was eighty degrees outside. Summer had come in April.
Floyd was drunk. He’d stopped showing up at work the day after the killings and had not been answering his home phone, which all parolees were required to have in the state of Kentucky. Benzenhaver had already pointed out how bad this looked, him going AWOL the day after the killings, that it was a miracle some reporter or homicide police hadn’t made the connection.
Lucky for the good doctor, though, people skipped parole all the time.
“I’m sorry,” Floyd said.
“You stink, Floyd. When was the last time you showered?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you wearing the same fucking clothes you wore when… when you did it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Get out of the car. This looks bad.”
Benzenhaver had picked his patient up downtown, by Slugger Field and had driven to the old docks in Portland, which were more often than not deserted. They walked along the silt, navigating the dead branches and other river refuse. The doctor allowed the patient to take the lead.
“Look,” Floyd said. “She was just a kid. You didn’t tell me that. You said they were criminals. You said they had it coming. You said–”
The hiss of the silencer, a sound no louder than that of air let out of a tire, quieted the reluctant killer’s reverie.
He collapsed face-first into the dirty river sludge.
Benzenhaver tossed the Glock as far as he could out into the water along with the latex surgical gloves.
Silencers were easier to get in Kentucky than just about any other state.
The Glock he’d bought on the street in the West End from one of his former patients that owed him a favor. It was unregistered and had no serial number.
It was August when he came home from work and found the note from Theresa telling him about the young man who’d stopped by, the tapes he’d played her in which Benzenhaver all but admitted engaging in an affair with an underage girl. In the tapes, Benzenhaver and the young man discussed other patients, namely, the two killed in the “drug related” double murder in March. It was the same one Benzenhaver had gotten so much press over. She said he’d never see their children, Augustus and Trisha, ever again and that she would take her sweet time in deciding whether or not to turn the tapes into the LMPD.
He was still holding the note, handwritten on yellow legal paper, when he heard the familiar sound of a hammer being drawn back.
“Sean,” he said without turning around.
“Benzie,” Sean said.
It was then that the good doctor noticed the two orange pills on the dining room table where he’d found the note, Seroquel, one hundred milligrams each.
“Having trouble sleeping, doctor?”
He awoke to cold water in his face. His eyes fluttered and when they adjusted to the blinding fluorescent lights, he saw Sean standing before him, dressed poorly as usual. The walls were concrete as was the floor. Exposed pipes and ducts ran the length of the ceiling. It was some sort of a warehouse, probably somewhere on the outskirts of the city. That was all the doctor could discern from inside.
He was seated in a swivel chair.
Sean stepped forward, a solid black Colt .45 leveled in his hand. He opened the palm of his free hand in which he held another Seroquel.
“Whoever is able to stay awake,” Sean said, “he gets to kill the other one. Don’t worry. I took one, too. But I’ll warn you. I’ve had a lot of practice.”
BIO: Jonathan Ashley is a reporter and columnist for LEO or Louisville Eccentric Observer. He has worked as a screen printer, a private investigator, a counselor for adolescent orphans and a coffee shop Barista. His stories are soon to appear in PLOTS WITH GUNS and THUGLIT. He has a BA from Indiana University and is currently seeking and MFA from Murray State. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
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