BRAIN WORK

Jim awoke around nine a.m. and found his old lady sprawled on the living room couch, the spike in her arm. He tried to remember the details of last night, but it was a blur. They’d partied, she’d gone on the nod and had drifted off to dreamtown. He’d stayed up a while watching the little TV in the kitchen, but that’s all he remembered. Carefully, he removed the needle. Her skin was damp but her breathing was regular and soft. Under ashy lids, her eyes moved, and he wondered fleetingly where she was. He’d used smack when the occasion demanded, but it wasn’t his high. He set the spike aside and got dressed.

In the kitchen, the cockroaches were finishing the night shift, carrying off whatever crumbs of food remained on the linoleum counter. Unwashed dishes rose in a rickety pagoda from the sink. Careful not to topple them he got water and swallowed a couple Dexies to get his mind tracking straight. He didn’t know yet that the world was going to end that day.

While his old lady went on sleeping—as she would till around noon, when they would go out on the streets to start looking for the day’s adjustments (she needed 50 milligrams per diem)—Jim fixed a cup of instant coffee, then settled at the kitchen table, shut his eyes, and let his fingers hover over the keys of the typewriter, waiting to feel if any vibrations were in the air.

For ten years he’d been a tech writer for a big Cambridge medical devices firm, working long days in an airless cubicle, until the job had all but killed him. Literally. There was some kind of power surge and his desktop computer exploded, fragging him with electronic shrapnel. He’d spent two weeks in the hospital, which is where he developed his addiction. The firm gave him a cash settlement and let him go. He hadn’t minded the work, was actually good at it, with an ability to make the steps of even a complicated process seem logical; but he had never touched a computer keyboard again. And in all his time working he could honestly say he had never once felt a vibration in his fingers, let alone in his soul. No, that hadn’t happened until later, after he’d gotten out of the hospital and had purchased a typewriter and started writing a novel. He was calling it Love & Death in the Land of Medicine Balloons. He had no idea where that title had come from, or what it had to do with anything in the novel so far. Maybe, in time, he would. For now, it was a placeholder.

The novel was about a guy living in Boston, a tech writer who feels himself dying inside. Eventually, in his angst and spiritual emptiness, he becomes addicted to painkillers and is reborn in the persona of Abercrombie N. Fitch, aka The Abster, an urban hunter/gatherer, relentlessly in quest of the next high. Percs, Oxy, Molly, Vikes, Captain Cody, Jack Daniel’s—The Abster is an omnivore. His old lady in the book is just called Old Lady. Jim’s real-life old lady was flattered to be his muse. She called Jim the greatest author she ever knew, said maybe one day he’d win a Nobel Prize. She’d never read a word he’d written.

He had been at the book nearly five years and he still wasn’t sure where he was in it. It felt about half-way done, which is what he told people if they asked, though most of their friends being junkies and winos, so few ever asked. He had over 900 single-space pages so far. There was still a lot of stuff he hadn’t even gotten to in the story yet, and each day brought new stuff, so maybe it wasn’t halfway finished and maybe never would be. If he had known the world was going to end today, he might have made this chapter the finale (which it would be in any case), but he didn’t know that, and he was feeling vibes in his fingers, so he sat with his instant coffee and tap tap tapped away. His old lady needed her 50 mg. a day to feel good; Jim needed a thousand words.

Around noon he cranked the day’s last page out of the typewriter—page 934—and put it face down on top of the stack of pages and squared the edges, allowing his hands to linger there for a moment. All these words, close a half million of them he figured, which now awaited only another mind to give them life. He balanced the empty coffee cup atop the clutter in the sink and went into the front room to check on his old lady. She was still moving through some crawlspace of dreams. He slatted the venetian blinds to let a little more daylight seep in to accelerate her waking.

She had been the wife of a friend of Jim’s, an exotic flower the friend had plucked, a former high-priced escort and junkie who’d cleaned up. The friend—ex-friend, now—had cultivated her like a hothouse orchid, keeping her watered and fed, but clipping what was vital, taking her out, displaying her only when he desired to win some imagined prize. For him it had worked; for her, not so much. In time she began chipping, needing the little bump of coke and speed to sparkle up her day. The guy was furious when he found out. Wasn’t he enough? All he gave her? He’d kicked her sorry ass right the fuck out. So, Jim had taken her in. No ownership; she was free to come and go. And she had been the sparkle in Jim’s life, and for a time they had liked and maybe loved and almost certainly killed each other.

He looked at her lying there in repose and he thought he could see who she had been. He once heard that her ex had laughed at Jim, said Jim might as well have bought a used condom. Jim didn’t care about that. These days he cared mainly about his book and his next high. For his old lady, all there was was the high. Still, gazing at her now, he felt tenderness. She had fought the ravages of time to a precarious draw for several years, such that Jim felt superior in some way to the ex-friend who’d dumped her; but now the other side was growing dangerously strong. Still, in the rare brief moments when the demons were tamed . . .

Once Jim had asked her, “What do you dream when you’re on the nod?” She had shut her eyes and smiled rapturously. “Beautiful things.” But the smile came less and less often, and the teeth behind it had begun to go, another casualty of the poisons. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her smile.

In the kitchen, Jim got a beer out of the fridge (making note to buy more, some food, too). He shook the last Perc out of a plastic bottle, opened the beer and washed the pill down, a little Post Meridian leveler. He turned on the TV.

Which is how he found out the world was in its final hours.

It was all over the news!

A sensation of unreality overtook him. For a disbelieving moment his mind objected—My old lady and I don’t have any enemies! This has got nothing to do with us! But he knew. Some lonely-for-the-cold-war-days dickwad in the Kremlin had launched a battery of ICBMs. What, decently tailored suits for a change weren’t enough? Real cigarettes? Scotch? Evidently not. So, tit for tat, the monkey-see monkey-do guy in the White House launched a battery of ICBMs right back.

This had all happened while Jim was finishing up his day’s work on his novel, and now the missiles were underway, two big restless flocks of death, one flying east, one flying west—and him, blameless, sitting here in the agonized little eye of the cuckoo’s nest. Aw, shit.

He had read somewhere that if you drew a triangle between Harvard, MIT, and Boston University—approximately one square mile in area—it would contain something like forty Nobel Prize winners and all kinds of other smart motherfuckers and constitute the highest concentration of brainpower on the planet. No way that wasn’t a target on some big war map somewhere. And this rent-controlled roach ranch was inside that triangle. Jim chugged the beer.

He looked at the thick stack of pages of his novel, with its placeholder title, Love & Death in the Land of Medicine Balloons, and a deep and aching remorse gripped him. Once upon a time he might’ve been one of the really smart people, a do-er, a shaker; but he’d succumbed to fear and defeat, and for too long now he’d been a veritable Big Game Hunter straight out of Hemingway, blasting away at his brain. If he had a trophy room where he mounted all the neurons and glial cells he’d killed, it would be the size of Fenway Park.

He went into the front room and shook his old lady. She came awake frowning. She wanted coffee but he said they were out, they’d get some on the street. He didn’t tell her about the flights of dark birds winging across the northern face of the world to roost like migratory death. It wasn’t what anyone needed to hear first thing on waking. While she pulled on clothes, he found a plastic bottle with a few more pills and put it and a pad of forged prescriptions slips into his pocket. He checked his cash, not even sure it was still worth anything. The clothes he had on were adequate; it was June. He got his old khaki knapsack and stuffed in some underwear, socks, box of crackers, plastic water bottles, their toothbrushes. For a moment he considered his unfinished novel on the table. It seemed almost to plead to be taken along, as though yearning for some kind of closure. But it would have to stay, his Dear John letter to fortune. He didn’t bother to lock the door. The cockroaches would be okay. Everything else was up for grabs.

Outside, his old lady winced at the raw daylight. “What the hell’s all this?” She meant the panic, the confusion. The street seemed to throb with pedestrians and traffic. She had managed to pull a comb through her hair, which was still thick and lustrous, despite her wasted body. For a moment Jim entertained his familiar fantasy that they could try again, reclaim time, become who they once were, love each other. “I cannot fuckin’ deal with this,” she said and put on sunglasses.

The crowd reminded Jim of days when one or another of the local pro sports teams held a victory parade after winning a championship. But this wasn’t celebratory. No one in Moscow gave a rat’s ass about who won the World Series or the Super Bowl, and folks here didn’t care shit about Dostoevsky or the Kirov Ballet. “We’ll get coffee,” he said, taking her hand.

On Boylston Street people numbering in the hundreds were moving like frightened cattle, many carrying possessions: musical instruments, framed photographs, pets. A man wearing only bathing trunks went past holding an ironing board overhead, like a surfer looking for a wave to launch himself onto. The air was rich with hydrocarbons and the smells of sweat and burnt rubber.

Ahead, the crowd was parting for something. As they neared, Jim saw a dwarf with a shimmering afro standing atop an overturned trash bin. In an evangelist’s voice she was denouncing “the false gods who promise peace, then grin with grim-fanged mouths and give us this! A day heavy and somber as Mussorgsky! Shee-it!” Moving past, Jim gave her thumbs up and momentarily weighed “Heavy and Somber as Mussorgsky” as a possible replacement title for his book. Farther along, the crowd divided to stream around a man clad in denim, bald and sporting an Allen Ginsberg beard, kneeling on the sidewalk. A pavement chalk artist at work. Jim’s spirit rose. People were trying to retrieve some beauty and humanity from the wreckage of the world. But coming alongside, Jim saw what the guy had drawn. A mushroom cloud.

Jim’s idea was to get the hell out of the triangle of sure death by taking a subway train and going north, didn’t matter where, just far enough away from the city to have a fighting chance.

Soon they were approaching the subway entrance at Copley, where the flow began to bunch up, people elbowing and fighting to go in. It was as if a sinkhole had opened in the sidewalk and was swallowing people. “Armageddon Sinkhole” came to Jim, and he weighed its title potential. Thus distracted, he and his old lady were swept past the underground entrance. He tried to struggle back but they were in a buffeting riptide of bodies. Suddenly, his old lady’s hand was gone from his. She had stumbled and fallen. As Jim reached for her, someone stepped on Jim’s heel, tearing off one of his shoes. He managed to pull his old lady to her feet before she got trampled, but she was whimpering, her face a terrified mask buried behind her shades. “What in hell’s goin’ on?” she moaned, which he knew meant Where’s my fix?

“I’m gonna take care of you,” Jim said, but she was hurting.

They moved along in the pummeling crowd, Jim on the lookout for a coffee shop. There were any number of them along here, Bostonians loved their coffee, but many storefronts were locked, some with steel lattice gates shuttering them. The next subway entrance was another long block away. His old lady wasn’t going to make it; she needed chemical help, ASAP. Moving sidewise, using his body as a wedge, oblivious to his unshod foot, Jim led them out of the main flow, over to the buildings and shop fronts at the inner edge of the sidewalk. From his pocket he took out the pill bottle. With effort he popped off the childproof cap. He tipped the meager assortment of pills into his palm. He was thinking maybe a Vicodin or a—

Someone on the rim of the pressing crowd collided with him. The plastic bottle flew from his hand. Jim gaped in dismay as pills bounced across the sidewalk and were instantly pulverized under trampling feet.

“If ya t’rown ‘em away . . . ” said a crackly voice.

Partway down the shadowed mouth of an alley, sitting upright against the scabby brick wall, was a ragged man. He had stringy hair, his face crimson with boils. Nearby stood a grocery cart, stuffed with several large plastic trash bags. He said, “Don’t waste ‘em. I’ll take ‘em.”

Jim’s old lady was sagging.

“Or a ten-spot’ll do,” the man persisted. “Even a fiver. Can yas help me out?”

Jim was pretty sure the man had no idea that very soon the whole city was going to be like those pills—dust. How far was it from Russia to here? How fast were those rockets traveling? Faster than anyone could get through the crush of people moving past.

“Or ya shoes. Hush Puppies?”

Jim blinked at the ragged man. “What?”

“Don’t often see ‘em much no more. Where’s th’other one?”

Jim regarded the current of people pouring past. It occurred to him that here, at the outer edge, it would be possible to make speed if he were alone. But he wasn’t alone. And his old lady was struggling. Going on seemed, all at once, an enormous labor. The futility of everything struck him, a kind of uselessness that even writing those 934 pages of his novel hadn’t been, because somehow he’d felt he was fulfilling some purpose in that, giving life to ideas that had sprung from someplace inside him. Now a different idea came to him. He took out his wad of cash and nodded at the shopping carriage. “I’d like to buy your wheels.”

The man frowned in confusion. “Huh? You want my stuff?”

“This’ll cover it.” Jim offered the money.

The frown went to surprise. The man took the wad of money. “And how about her?” he nodded at Jim’s old lady. “She come in the bargain, too?”

“You couldn’t afford her,” said Jim.

“Well, can’t blame me for tryin’.” He gestured at the shopping cart. “Take it all.”

But Jim wanted only the cart. He lifted out the man’s plastic bags, one stuffed with clothing, the other clinking with bottles and cans, and set them on the ground. He took off his khaki knapsack and put it in the cart. Then, instructing his old lady to hold on, he scooped her up his arms. She was feather light, a bundle of sticks. “What the fuck?” she protested. He set her gently into the cart.

“God bless yas,” the alley man croaked.

With his old lady settled in the cart Jim kicked off his one remaining shoe and wheeled the cart back into the stream of people, which had continued to grow, thousands now. The avenue was gridlocked, vehicle traffic going nowhere. People were abandoning cars, climbing out of buses, joining the pedestrian crush. Pushing along as quickly as the crush would allow, Jim tried to analyze the problem, work out a real plan, the way he’d have done in his tech writer days: step one, step two, everything clear . . . but that was a different guy, before his brain had died. He found himself recalling that old jokey poster you’d see back in the day: FIVE THINGS TO DO IN THE EVENT OF A NUCLEAR ATTACK. It listed four reasonable actions, then number five: “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” It brought him a little smile. But he didn’t have time to dwell on that; there were still several long blocks to the next subway entrance.

The shopping carriage’s wheels were misaligned, and it was a labor just keeping the thing moving ahead. After much struggling, Jim was out of breath, and his socks were worn through. But the Arlington Street subway entrance was just a block away. All the shops they were passing were closed. The banks had steel grilles in place. Jim saw one store which appeared to be open—at least there were lights on inside, no “closed” sign on the door. A CVS pharmacy. He maneuvered the shopping cart over. His old lady sat hunched in it, her arms around her knees, her face ashen. He’d go in and present one of the forged prescription slips, get something quick to hold her till they could get to safety.

The door was locked. He banged on it. He cupped his hands to the glass and peered in, hoping some dedicated employee was still at her post. It was then he saw that the lights were emergency back-up lights; the power was evidently out. He banged again, but no one appeared. What did he expect? They were hourly workers; it was a wonder they’d even bothered to lock up. Useless bastards were probably leading the charge to get out of the city.

Which he and his old lady should right then be doing. Instead of standing there. Instead of . . . what? Some of those Nobel Prizewinners would’ve come up with an answer. Maybe the grand theory that had eluded Einstein. But no, if they were puzzling at anything right now, it was probably to find a different fifth thing to do in the event of a nuclear attack, instead of kissing your ass goodbye. And that too presented itself as title fodder. “The Other Fifth Thing.” Actually, the smart people, the ones with the brainpower who were presumably in the area, were probably sequestered deep beneath the city in secret thermonuclear bomb-proof bunkers. The way, no doubt, the dead minds in Washington would be in their own destiny-proof shelters—fuck everyone else!—intent on surviving to start the whole useless cycle all over again. And now, for the first time, thinking about his book didn’t stir him. Instead, he experienced a near paralytic despair.

A flurry of shadows slipped across him and he looked up, fearful. Pigeons. City birds to the end. Jim felt a grudging respect for them, for all the people pushing past, too.

So, what The Abster—and that was interesting; he was thinking of himself as his character all of a sudden—so what The Abster did was lift Old Lady (hmm . . . she was her character now, too) out of the shopping cart. He set her on her feet close to the front of the store, where she could lean against the wall. She wobbled infirmly and he thought she was going to collapse, or be sick, but she held on. The Abster took hold of the cart’s handle and rammed the cart into the pharmacy door. He did it again, and then again and again, shattering the glass, until most of it was gone. People crushing past on the sidewalk paid no attention. The Abster kicked out the remaining shards and climbed through the broken door frame into the pharmacy, then helped Old Lady in, too.

For the first time he became aware that his socks had shredded away and he was barefoot. Glass cut his feet. He led the way farther into the store.

The emergency lights cast the aisles in a dim, otherworldly light. “A Dim Otherworldly Light.” How would that work as a title for the novel? The Abster wished he could go back to the apartment, back to his story, armed with all this new stuff—the dwarf preacher, the pavement chalk artist, the homeless alley saint, all the scared rushing people, each important, each worthy in his or her way, each part of the brief and bitter ever-unfolding—

Jesus. How long before the warheads fell?

Gripping Old Lady’s hand, The Abster led the way through pharmacy aisles labeled with the names of the items they contained. Panty hose, nasal sprays, sunscreen, candy bars, vitamins, reading glasses, adult diapers—things that a short while ago had meaning but no longer did and probably never would again.

Old Lady was slowing, her steps faltering. It occurred to The Abster that he could leave her here. Better this, out of the fray, than in the mayhem of the streets. On his own, he would be able to move faster out there, despite his bleeding feet. Ahead an overhead sign read FAMILY PLANNING. The row held pregnancy tests, lubricants, contraceptives and . . . . a memory came: of being a child, seven or eight, and his father had taken him fishing. His dad loved to fish, found any opportunity to go, no patch of water too small or unpromising. This day they had gone to a remote place, just a small weed-choked pond in a deserted area of sandpits. While his father cast his line into the water, Young Jim played nearby. The ground was sandy and littered with small brass shell casings from where people sometimes set up old cans against the bank for target shooting. “Oh, boy,” Jim heard his father announce, “I think I’ve hooked something big.” The rod was bending, the line straining as his father worked to reel in the fish.

What emerged from the pond, however, its fist-sized head fringed with water weeds, was a turtle. His father worked it up onto the bank. Jim had never seen one so big. The creature must have weighed forty pounds. It hunkered there, prehistoric-looking in its thick armor plate. Jim squatted near, fascinated. “Careful, Jimmy,” his father warned. “It’s a snapper.” To demonstrate, his father picked up a stick and moved it close to the turtle’s face. With a sudden thrust, the turtle clamped a hooked jaw onto the stick.

“What are you going to do, Dad?”

“Hold this.” His father handed Jim the fishing rod. The turtle had swallowed the hook, the line was inside the turtle’s mouth. “Keep the tip up.” With Jim doing so, his father took out a pocket knife. He was going to cut the line, thought Jim. Instead, gripping the line, his father drew back the turtle’s head and severed its throat.

Jim gasped. He dropped the rod and began crying. As turtle’s blood soaked into the sand, Jim’s father pulled Jim close. “I know, son,” he said. “I know. But he’s the reason there aren’t many fish left here. He’s an old snapper, smart. One that size will clean out a pond—fish, frogs, ducks, even other turtles. I didn’t like doing that. Really.” He seemed downcast. He wiped the knife clean on the sand, then took up the rod, reeling in the slack line. “We’ll stop for ice cream on the way home, how’s that?”

Confused, sad, Jim walked away, his father behind him as they headed back to the car. Underfoot lay the glinting shell casings Jim had seen earlier, but they no longer interested him. Instead, he now saw a number of pale discarded things that he thought might be shed snakeskins. He picked one up. It was a shriveled balloon. Excited, he brought it to his mouth, to inflate it.

No!” his father cried, yanking Jim’s hand away. “Don’t!

Startled, Jim dropped it. And for the second time he burst into tears.

“I’m sorry I yelled. I didn’t mean to frighten you. But those are . . . those are dirty.”

“What are they?” Jim was genuinely puzzled.

“They’re . . . they’re. . . ” His father was struggling for words, no longer the stoic man who’d cut the throat of the turtle and tried to explain why. “They’re . . . medicine balloons.” He seemed to seize at the term, said again: “Medicine balloons.”

Jim tried to imagine that. People driving out to that remote place with small balloons containing medicine. Looking away, his father apologized again. “Come on, son,” he said and took Jim’s hand.

Medicine balloons. And Jim came in time to suppose they were that—medicine for people suffering from love sickness or lust sickness (which can be overlapping maladies, the latter occasionally leading to onset of the former)—getting his first glimmer of understanding from that day’s lessons: picking up the condom, seeing his father’s embarrassment, witnessing the slaughter of the venerable old turtle; a fuller awareness coming only with time, a recognition that there was a flaw in the human heart, a suicidal ignorance that all the brainpower in the world would never really overcome.

Jim—he was that again, not The Abster—wondered how long before the warheads descended. It couldn’t be much longer. From far away outside came a new sound. Sirens wailing. But these thoughts, too, passed. In his imagination, the death missiles became bright yellow birds that flew not to despoil but to float through open windows and gently alight, bringing love and understanding.

He and his old lady found themselves at the back of the pharmacy, away from the entrance, where he’d earlier thought to find a rear exit. They were at the prescriptions counter. Aware that the only audience he would ever have for his actions was himself and the strung-out wreck of a beautiful human being he called his old lady, Jim made a humorous flourish of his arms, like a maître d’ showing a patron an especially good table at a five-star restaurant that features a menu of savory choices. Anne—that was her name, Anne—took off her sunglasses and stood blinking at the shelves and shelves of pharmaceuticals, enough sweet, sustaining illusions to last a lifetime. She looked at him and, though still shaky, for the first time since she awoke, she smiled.

— David Daniel is author of more than a dozen books, including entries in a prize-winning Alex Rasmussen mystery series, as well as a bestselling novel of the late 60s, White Rabbit. His stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. A new book, Beach Town, a collection of stories, will be published in early 2023. He is a contributor to the Boston Globe and the Arts Fuse. Contact him at daviddaniel67@gmail.com.