Competence

I was told I had been comatose. Not unconscious. Comatose. For three weeks.

I’m still not sure whether I was in a coma because a lawn tractor had bounced off my head, or because they had pumped me full of industrial-strength dope to keep me from moving around, or both.

I tried to get some specific answers about what had been going on while I was insensate, but it was the same doc-speak every time.

Potentially lethal head trauma. You’re a very lucky man. The surgery went well. No infection. Lucky for you. You were immobilized for your own good for a reasonable period of time. You should anticipate a full recovery. You’re a very lucky person.

The subtext, of course, is that you, the patient, the lucky guy, are much too stupid to understand the answers to any of the questions you are asking. I mean, that’s the vibe I got. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m too sensitive about, you know, almost everything.

I don’t suppose it matters. Everything works fine now.

But here’s the best part, the part I can’t stop thinking about. While I was in the coma I was hanging out with Jim Burkes and Moose Barrett. And we were all 12 years old again.

The accident was like a dictionary example of the correct use of the word stupid. The stupid man drove the lawn tractor straight into a ditch.

Had you seen it happen, you would have thought, “What a dumbass!”

Then the word ambulance would have occurred to you, like it did to the lady from Mountain Star who happened by in time to save my life. Mrs. Sheridan. She came to visit me in the hospital after I woke up. She made two visits, to be precise.

Mrs. Sheridan is a talkative country woman with a deep and abiding faith in Jesus of Nazareth. The visits weren’t too bad, though, because I was zonked on whatever was in the IV drip at the time.

She got a big kick out of saving my life, I could tell. I was fine with her joy over the whole deal, and Jesus this and Jesus that. It evened things out. Maybe I’ll send her a Christmas card.

It’s easy to roll a lawn tractor (Sears Craftsman, twelve hundred bucks slightly used, good mower, still runs like a champ) when you’re not paying the slightest bit of attention to what you’re doing.

I was thinking about cookies. The day before I’d eaten about thirty oatmeal raisin cookies from Food World. They have a pretty good bakery at Food World.

Still, thirty cookies is way too many cookies in one day, or two days, or even a week. One day, yeah, right. It only took me about six hours to polish off the box. They went down like air. Well, air jammed with bran and sugar and raisins and whatever else they dump in there. They were soft and chewy. Man, they were good.

That’s what I was thinking about as I headed for the ditch. Cookies. I felt like a real creep. I’d eaten every last one of those cookies. I was making a promise to myself that I would never again eat that many cookies in one day. I was seriously thinking about giving up cookies forever. I felt that bad about it.

I was also listening to Q107. They were playing “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band and I had it cranked in the earbuds. I’m not a big Steve Miller fan or anything. He’s okay, for classic rock, but they should never play “Jungle Love” again, if you know what I mean. But I can’t hear Q107 over the mower unless I’ve got the volume way up there, and Steve Miller sounded pretty good after a double shot of Styx and four minutes of some grunge-lite atrocity I had, in a strange way, actually enjoyed for its utter lack of feeling and artistry.

But mostly I was thinking, “What kind of insane person eats thirty cookies in six hours?” That sort of thing.

I’m not fat. I used to be fat. By my junior year of high school, my weight was up to 230. Then I fell in love, or whatever it is you fall in when you’re 16, and dropped a hundred pounds in six months.

When I started passing out from doing strenuous things like standing up, I went to see Dr. Scotty. Dr. Scotty was fat, but he wasn’t stupid.

He made me take off my shirt. He listened to my heart, checked out most of my orifices. Then he told me to put my shirt back on.

“Have you changed your eating habits lately?” Dr. Scotty’s voice was a grave rumble. That, coupled with his sheer bulk, inspired truthfulness.

“Yes sir. I’ve been on a diet.”

“Eat more,” he said.

Then he kicked me out of his office.

I increased my caloric intake, and I stopped passing out. Dr. Scotty had probably seen more than his share of lovesick teenagers by that point in his career.

That was also the summer I got laid for the first time. I had a pretty cool senior year. I was suddenly skinny and semi-handsome.

My brother, Kurt, decided he liked shooting guns more than playing Skynyrd covers with his pals. He had a Fender Precision bass guitar and a Peavey head and cabinet. The cab was the size of a refrigerator, minus the freezer part. It was a real pain to move. I think it weighed more than I did.

I started fooling around with the P-bass. I had some basic knowledge from blowing on things in school band. I started on French horn. The school supplied the horns. They were new and gold. You cradled this jewel and, if you pursed your lips in the proper manner and blew, it made astonishing sounds.

Then, in ninth grade, Mr. Cohen moved me over to the tuba section. Fat kid with a tuba. Check it out. But Mr. Cohen was right.

I was a natural on the low end. I had an instinctive grasp of the underbelly, the root, the bottom.

Anyway, soon after I inherited the P-bass I joined my first rock and roll band. It was me and three other hair farmers. And then I went to college for a long time. Whatever “a long time” means to you, triple it. That’s how long I went to college. But I never cared about anything except playing rock and roll, and reading books.

I always had a band or a gig. I was always discovering a writer whose entire body of work had to be read immediately.

If you love playing the bass guitar, and possess a modest understanding of music theory, you will always have a gig. If you love reading, and have an obsessive streak of a certain width, you will always be reading instead of, say, going to class or writing papers or thinking about the future.

I was 29 when they kicked me out of the program for good. I’d started my doctoral coursework.

I won’t say the director’s name, because he’s a well-known guy in his field and all that. I’ll just call him Dr. X.

He’d hauled me in for the meeting. I think I knew what was coming. He pointed at the chair across from his desk. I sat.

“You’ve been hanging around here way too long, Slick.” Dr. X was and is a great writer, teacher and intellect. Definitely the best professor I ever had. Spiffy dresser, too.

He wasn’t one of those profs who try to be cool. He just was. He had actor cool, like Lee Marvin or Donald Sutherland. Bronson. Nicholson. That kind of cool. And he was ten times smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. Well, twice as smart, but ten times faster. He had that lethal smart-fast combination you often find in people at the top of their professions.

“Are you stoned every waking minute of your life?”

I was acutely aware his question did not require an answer from me. He leaned over a little and looked out the window. His office was on the second floor and overlooked a nicely manicured chunk of campus. He rested his elbow on his desk and put his chin in his hand.

I looked around at his stuff. It was all cool, ultramodern stuff. The furniture, the computer gear, the books and journals, everything.

I lived in a terrible place. The house had deteriorated. Inside, a collision of pawnshop and animal shelter.

He was in no hurry. Dr. X was very calm. Pensive, I guess you’d say.

“You’re done, okay? Second chance, third chance, fourth chance, done. Go play your music. You don’t deserve the space you’re taking up in this program. The whole beatnik pose. Come on, Slick. Grow up. It’s not 1968.”

“That was the hippie era,” I said. “The beatnik thing was over by 1968.”

He gave me a look, one of his titanium-melting specials.

“Yeah, I know, because I was there, moron. You think this is a fucking joke? You’re out. You’re done. Adios. No more.”

I held up my hands, as if at gunpoint.

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Things weren’t going well in my life. Things were so shitty there wasn’t even any point bringing it up with Dr. X. My house was known to all the vagrant train. I’d been to class about three times that semester. Oh, I had gigs. I was nation-building with chemicals and electricity. But years had passed, I was still making $50 a night, and now, obviously, I was never going to have a career in academics.

“You know I’m right, right? Why haven’t you quit? I mean, officially. Why are you making me go through this?”

The guilt and self-loathing welled up. I knew if I tried to talk I’d start crying, and I didn’t want to go out that way.

Dr. X squeezed his eyes shut, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. He wanted to be kind about it, bless his heart, but I was hurting his brain. He started again, in a voice that suggested he might be talking to a chimp.

“You’re not dumb,” he said. “You even have some talent. I know it won’t do any good to tell you to quit acting like a dipshit. You know you’re acting like a dipshit. But, hey. I wish you the best. I’m just curious about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, Slick. I mean, I don’t want to offend you or anything, but you’re a fucking mess.”

I nodded some more.

“You’re not as smart as you think you are, okay? You don’t know that now, but you’ll figure it out. If you live long enough.”

Then he kicked me out of his office.

Like Dr. Scotty, Dr. X was a great diagnostician. The next 15 years? I can tell you the names of cities, states, neighborhoods, streets, lovers, friends, singers, guitarists, guitars, amps, drummers, bands, highways, interstates, bars, clubs, dives, festivals, a few jails, hospitals and cemeteries, and every song I’ve ever played.

Given the proper amount of time, I could probably weave all those names together in a way that might convince you I was once a reasonably competent professional musician.

But it wasn’t until one night in Jackson, Mississippi, ten miles from the sleepy suburban town where I grew up, that I finally received the job description that best describes my vocation during those years.

I’d lived all over the country, but Mississippi had been waiting patiently for me to come home.

Mississippi had something for me. Mississippi, lowest of the low.

My native habitat. I’d fallen in a hole and ended up exactly where I began.

I was breaking up with a lovely young woman who had discovered I’d been cheating on her. This lovely young woman and I had moved in together, and her affection for me had been strong.

“You know what you are?” This was the very end. The last 10 seconds. She hit me with it like she was swinging a baseball bat.

“You’re a serial killer.”

For the record, I’ve never killed anybody. But she was right. She’d just left out an adjective or two. So a few months after that, I detoxed, had a bad time, and went back to being a drunk. Back to the life.

The second time I quit drugs and alcohol, I made it. I think I know why. But I’m not telling you.

I don’t remember the rest of the coma accident, the actual mayhem. It’s entirely gone, erased, like some yip of voicemail.

When I was hanging out with Jim and Moose in my coma, it was like one long summer day. Jim was trying to get Moose to do something nuts, maybe steal something. We were down by the creek. The creek was fouled with years of junk. Its pebbled beds sparkled with shards of blue and green glass. Thunderstorms created new channels. The creek was never the same.

Moose would do anything. Once, after a football game, he’d pulled out his pud and waved it at these cheerleaders from Forest Hill, the rival high school. They were chanting fuck you fuck you out the windows of their bus, just being rolling bitches, you know? They’d beaten us by 17 touchdowns or something. So Moose whipped it out. It was a big scandal, but you could get away with shit like that back then. Some apoplectic football coach might beat your ass with a board, but that was usually the worst that happened. Nobody got sent to a psychologist or put on meds.

Moose went to Ole Miss, became a lawyer and made a boatload of money. He owns, like, entire counties.

When he was 26, Jim got two years in federal lockup for dealing pounds of cocaine. In prison, he became a Christian. He was youth minister for ten years at the same church in Missouri, and died of cancer when he was 39.

According to the stories I read online, his death was an event of great sadness in the community. He’d been active in local politics and had belonged to a long list of civic organizations. Wife. Two daughters, eight and nine.

At the time, I didn’t feel much about it one way or the other. That wasn’t anyone I’d ever known.

I was always the one who tried to get Moose not to do whatever it was Jim had in mind, but Jim knew how to shut me up. It was a certain grin he flashed at me at exactly the right moment.

Come on. This will be fun.

And it was.          

Photo credit: bondidwhat

In my coma, the day went on and on. Moose never did anything bad. We went over to Egger’s Pond and shot our pellet guns at the carp. Except for some turtles and minnows, the carp was the only thing in there. Egger’s Pond was shallow to begin with, and the carp was a thousand years old and huge. He couldn’t move an inch without roiling the water. Egger’s Pond was slowly bleeding out. Every year the water level dropped another foot. That poor fucking carp.  He had nowhere to hide from our pellet volleys. One day, some kid hooked him and dragged him up on the bank. The carp was hideous, a flopping nightmare. It was probably the most tortured fish in history. Terry Howell hit it with a log and put it out of its misery.

But that last part really happened. In the coma we rode our bikes down the terraced hills at the park. Coming off the final hill, you had enough speed to get some air. We sat in a booth at the drugstore and listened to Eddy tell stories about Vietnam. He told a long story about a gook sniper. All the gooks were on drugs, Eddy said. You could blow a hole in them big enough to see through and they’d keep coming. The gook sniper was in a tree. He killed a bunch of Eddy’s pals, and then Eddy blew the gook’s head off. The gook’s head fell out of the tree and Eddy walked over to it. He said the gook’s head was still alive and it was trying to bite him.

At the end of the day we went to the ballpark. It was the older kids playing. Pony League. We crunched suicide sno-cones and ran down foul balls and homers. You got a free sno-cone for every ball you turned in. The lights came on. Moths swarmed in and out of the darkness. We prowled under the bleachers, collecting paper cups. Once properly crushed, they made excellent ammo. We had a paper-cup war that lasted several innings.

Then I saw Kurt. He was talking to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I went out again, but Jim and Moose were gone. It was a different kind of unconsciousness. There was nothing. No dreams. Nothing.

The long day was over. I’d never get to be 12 again. But I was 12 when I was in the coma. I know I was. It wasn’t a dream. It was time travel. Don’t ask me how I know. I just know. I was there.

The next day, the nurse, who had clearly been sent over from central casting for the Hot Nurse role, was easier to understand.

“You’ve had an accident, Mr. Martin,” she said. “Do you remember your accident?”

“Nuh,” I said. By the way, coming out of a coma is like waking up with every hangover you’ve ever had rolled into one. Maybe it’s worse for head-trauma victims. You’d think so, right? Ask a doctor.

“Your brother was here yesterday,” she said. “He’s here now, if you’d like to see him.”

I nodded. As she went out, I noticed she had a particularly lovely bottom. A stellar bottom. My tongue was stuck to my upper lip. I pushed it back in my mouth. I looked at my finger. It was vibrating.

I was in a private room. The blinds were closed, but it was daytime. There was a pitcher of water and a plastic cup on the stand next to the bed. I sat up a few inches and reached for the pitcher. I turned it in tiny increments until the handle faced me.

I splashed some of the water into the cup and dropped the pitcher on the stand. It fell over. It made a pretty big mess, but I didn’t care. It was the best water I’d ever had in my life.

Then the nurse returned with Kurt. He towered over the nurse, who said something to him I didn’t catch. Then she left us alone.

He gave a long whistle, shaking his head at me. “I wish I had a fucking camera. You look like shit. I mean, like some horrible new idea of shit.” He noticed the water spill, the empty pitcher on its side.

“Did you do that?”

“Yeee,” I croaked.

“Good,” he said. “You’ll live.”

At the time of the accident, Kurt was in Afghanistan, I think. That’s what he’d told me, anyway.

He’s career military. Kurt’s usually in or near some hellhole where people are firing automatic weapons and RPGs at each other. You know. War. I never know exactly where he is. We’d been emailing just about every day, though. He doesn’t talk about what he does, but I’m pretty sure it involves things that would blow my mind if I heard about them. And I have a wild imagination.

“Why you here?” It took me quite some time to get this out.

“I’m your only living immediate family member, asswipe. Thanks to you, I’ve got six whole weeks to shop at Walmart with the Manson Family and watch fucking TV. Jesus H. Christ. Civilians are the fucking worst.” He crossed his arms. “You owe me one, numbnuts.”

I laughed, but it wasn’t anything you’d recognize as a laugh.

“Sucks,” I said. “Few.”

Kurt found some towels and spruced the place up. He refilled the pitcher with water and poured me a cup. I drank it greedily.

“I’m gonna fuck that nurse,” he said. “She told me she was married. I said, ‘Hell, baby, everybody should get married at least once. I won’t hold it against you.’”

I wanted to tell him about Jim and Moose, but there was no way. I was too muzzy, too weak.

He made a ruminative face, like he was doing arithmetic in his head. His eyes were focused on the ceiling.

“Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You finally get your act together, all clean and sober and gainfully employed and shit, and then you try to commit suicide with a fucking lawnmower.”

He rubbed his beard a few times. Math. Working the problem. Then he smiled down at me.

“Can’t you do anything right?”

He still held the pitcher. His smile was like the sun. I could feel its warmth all over my body. Maybe it was the dope, but I don’t think so. He sloshed the water around in its vessel.

“It ain’t Jim Beam, but I guess you’ve had enough of that to last you. At least until you’re reincarnated as a total fuckup.”

I lifted my cup. I wanted more. Hell yes. I wanted it all.

____________________________________________

When John Hicks writes fiction, he wears socks.

John Hicks lives outside the city limits, where eagles dare.

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