All Set for Real Life
About The Writer
Paul Luikart is a student at Seattle Pacific University working to earn his MFA in creative writing, focusing on short fiction. His work has appeared previously in Chicago Quarterly Review, Curbside Splendor, and at the Burnside Writers Collective. He was recently honored with a Pushcart Prize nomination.
A broke hand is nothing new. At least it feels and looks broke. Wayne’s familiar with broke hands because he’d busted this one, the right one, before. One night at Leo’s pool hall, 22 years old, opening a beer bottle. He’d set that bottle cap against the metal rim of a corner pocket and whacked it hard. Actually heard the bone pop, loud as a cue ball smacking the eight ball. Not wanting to look foolish in front of his pals though, he didn’t let his face kink up with the pain. Instead, for the rest of the night, he held everything in his left hand and went around declaring, “That’s all for me boys, I’m hustled out.” He did make sure to get good and drunk. In the morning, that right son of a bitch was locked up tight—knuckles, wrist, all the way up to the elbow was numb and wouldn’t move. Almost like he’d been zapped by snake venom. And down by the pinky knuckle, it was near the color of a blueberry. Wayne’d shoved his right hand into a big bag of frozen corn and drove left-handed to the hospital.
That was ten years ago. Now here sits Wayne in a lock up cell. Drunk and not supposed to be. Wayne, the former pizza delivery guy, the body building almost champ, and now just the other side of a pink slip from the graveyard shift at the plastics plant. Nodding on the job one too many times. Wayne the alcoholic. Now, hold on, what is it with that damn old right hand? Little trickles of blood dripping off his knuckles, speckling the floor. It might have been from a haymaker to a fat man’s teeth at Leo’s. Anyway, the hand hangs at the end of his forearm like a robotic claw with screwed up wiring.
“Guard! Guard, I got a wound!”
There’s a long, skinny hall to the right of the cell with dead white light blaring down from glowing tubes.
“Hey, guard, I’m bleeding all over your terrazzo back here!”
Finally here come clicks of stiff-heeled shoes, which become clonks as they get closer and then the guard, a trim old man who looks like the gunney from Full Metal Jacket, is standing right in front of Wayne.
“What’s your problem?”
“This.” Wayne holds up his hand and the little blood river reverses direction, sliding back through the black arm hair, heading for his elbow.
“I can’t open my hand. Can’t close it either. I think it’s broke.”
“And what should I do about it?”
“Don’t you guys know first aid or something?”
“I know first aid.”
“Problem being, you’re in there and I’m out here. You can’t come out here because your ass is under arrest and I sure as hell am not getting in there with you.”
“It looks like we’re at an impasse.”
They stare at each other, hard stares.
“Agreed?” the guard says.
Oh. Okay. Not a word to this dumbfuck now.
“Good,” the guard says, and stomps back down the hall.
Wayne had been at Leo’s watching the league nine-ball players earlier on. He goes there all the time, ever since the end of things at the plastics plant—and yes, it’s a bar, yes, alcoholics shouldn’t go to a bar but Wayne typically orders Diet Pepsi anymore. So the booze tonight was actually just a one-time thing, not like a relapse. Wayne had been talking to Leo, just talking normal talk, when here came this husky stranger, completely interrupting. Made his order with some smart line like, “Make it snappy, barkeep.” Leo can use the business, really NEEDS the business poor guy, so he kept his mouth shut and started pouring. Wayne didn’t like the stranger’s tone though. Didn’t like the stranger. Made a remark of his own. Somebody took a swing. This. Then that. Cops. Jail. That sounds like what probably happened.
Those thoughts go barreling past. Wayne sits on the cot and stares at his boots. Real croc skin, a pair he stole from Uncle Dexter way back in high school, a time in the world’s history when Uncle Dexter was passed out drunk mostly always. Dex is dead now, but the boots still fit. Wayne taps the toes, more click, click, clicking. His hand is turning purple and has swelled up like a toilet tank float ball. Plus, there is some sting seeping into it now. The blood drops look like some kid spilled his penny collection on the floor, except they’d have to be bright red pennies. Bright red plops of pennies. Oh. Blood. Blood, blood, blood. No, no. Here we go. Out go the lights now. Dammit. Out they go.
When Wayne comes to, another guard, a lady, is dabbing his forehead with a wet, white cloth. She’s upside down.
“You passed out, partner.”
She keeps dabbing. It feels cool, nice. Wayne’s eyes flit around. Still in a cell. He looks at the lady guard again. She’s squatting over him, thighs about busting through the polyester deep green of her uni pants.
“What happened to Officer Friendly?”
“Officer Henderson just went off shift and I just come on. I’m Reardon.”
“I want to make my phone call.”
“You didn’t make one yet?”
“On your honor?”
“I wouldn’t fib about my phone call Guard Reardon, honest to God.”
She nods, then says, “You got a banged up flipper there.”
“I knocked somebody out I’m pretty sure.”
“Oh yeah, who?”
“A fat-ass, as I recall. A wise-ass too. And probably a just plain, regular ass.”
She reaches under Wayne’s supine body, worms her hand between his shoulder blades, then with her other hand, clenches Wayne’s left and pulls him up.
“You feel dizzy?”
“Sit there a minute.”
“Am I drunk?”
“You sure are. And that ain’t helping you any.”
“I am not supposed to drink.”
“I am an alcoholic, lady.”
The sound of her shoes as she walks away is different than Henderson’s. More like clapping. She is giving him a round of applause for being honest about his booze problem. Me? For me? He tries to stand, but only gets halfway up before the whole cell melts before his eyes in bright colors like a rainbow dipped in vinegar. He sits. Very gently. Very.
Hours pass, maybe days, maybe weeks. Time spent in more and more pain. The hand is throbbing like a broken heart on a spindly branch stuck in Wayne’s shoulder. Something he could wave around in a crowd, at a ballgame or a concert, something he could stick up in the air to say, “Hello World, remember me? Alcoholic, yes, but now a new man who rose up above his problems with a heart intact. A man all set for real life.”
A shadow slides into the cell. Wayne looks up.
“Hey there, buddy.”
His sponsor, Allen A. from A.A., stands on the other side of the bars, hands stuffed into the pockets of that damn tan windbreaker. The look on Allen A.’s face is like a person at the zoo seeing a big snake for the first time. What is this…thing?
“I got a problem, Allen A.”
“Look here.” Wayne holds up his hand, thick and discolored, immobile.
“Looks bad. What’d you do?”
“I fell down.”
“Fell down? You must have fallen down off a building.”
“Okay, so maybe I think I punched a guy in the mouth.”
“Actually, I heard. They called me down at Leo’s and said you were toasted. Said the cops hauled you out. Who’d you hit?”
“A big-ass turd. Didn’t catch the name. And right now, I’m only a little bit sorry.”
Allen A. looks up and down the empty halls. “Well, it makes even more sense then. They got you for battery. Assault and—”
“They won’t give me any ice for this.”
Allen A. slides the Big Book out of his inside coat pocket, a mini-version of it, a little Big Book, and slips it between the bars of the cell.
“You got some time. Might as well read.”
“Come on, man.”
“No whining. One day at a time.”
“Fine. No whining.”
Allen A. turns to go.
Allen A. stops.
“If you aren’t going my bail, would you at least be so kind as to give my regards to the gang at the Twelve Step House?”
Later, Wayne makes his phone call. Officer Reardon had returned, woken him (because he’d conked out again,) hauled back the cell door, and escorted him up to the front desk, the furthest he had been from the cell in what seemed like hundreds of years. Wayne crash-lands onto the old folding chair next to the desk and Officer Reardon sets the gray push button phone, with a stifled clank, right in front of him.
Wayne lifts the receiver with his left hand. He hefts it a few times like a dumbbell. Meanwhile, Officer Reardon snaps on purple latex exam gloves and Wayne watches her take his right hand in hers and cradle it, then begin working the fingers. He watches her face while she watches his hand. Little wisps of dirty blond hair escape her hat brim and curl around her ears. He watches her touch his hand. It looks like she is forcing the fingers to do sit-ups, as if the fingers have their own sets of ab muscles. What would you call the muscles in fingers’ bellies? There has to be a name for them. Anyway, he can’t feel what she’s doing. It all looks like a little circus act. The Amazing Lock-up Guard and Her Performing Troupe of Fingers.
“Hey,” she says and the receiver in Wayne’s left hand is suddenly hard and heavy.
Wayne shakes his head. “Who would you call if you were me?”
Officer Reardon stops fiddling with his hand. “My husband, Mike the Baker. Best cake-baker in three counties. My opinion, all the counties.”
Wayne blinks. “You’re married?”
“Fifteen years worth.”
“Don’t be so surprised, part-nair-o,” she says.
“I’m not surprised, I’m just, what’s the word—,” and Wayne pauses, then chuckles.
Officer Reardon stops working the fingers and looks Wayne in the eye. “Call whoever you want.”
She squeezes where the pinky meets the palm, a firm squeeze, and pow! High-voltage bolts of pain rip through the hand, pain so great Wayne almost hears it crackling. He leaps to his feet, just instinct, and the chair folds smashing flat to the floor. Officer Reardon, on her feet now too with purple hands up, is shouting, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Five full minutes pass while Wayne jumps and screeches and dances and cusses. When he winds down, he’s sucking air big-time, wheezing really, loud honking breaths in and out and in and out, slowing to normal and finally he ends up doubled over in the corner, clutching his broken hand to his heart.
“You okay?” Officer Reardon approaches him like he might burst into flames.
Wayne straightens. “One time I let a guy kick me in the balls for ten bucks. I’m an alcoholic, remember, so it was for gin money. This was worse than that. By about a billion miles.”
Officer Reardon picks up the chair and sets it up. She brushes the seat off, still wearing the purple gloves. “That hand is broke alright.”
Wayne sits. “It really, really, really, really hurts.”
“Here.” Officer Reardon fills a Styrofoam cup at the drinking fountain and hands him four aspirins. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m drunk anymore either.”
She’s watching Wayne swallow the pills and gulp the water and when the water is gone, she takes the cup from him, throws it away and says, “I am married.”
The number pad of the phone is a bunch of alien bug-eyes ogling him. The phone will open its hidden and hideous alien mouth filled with spikes of teeth and bite him in half and he’ll be dead in a shower of guts and blood having never gotten to be president of anything, never played golf, never owned a Lambo, never found out what his baseball card collection is worth to see if it could put a kid through college, a kid, by the way, he never had. He lifts the receiver and pokes the alien in the eyes. They go, ‘tap, tap, tap…tap, tap, tap, tap.’
“Aunt Stacy, it’s Wayne.”
“I got drunk again, the truth of it. And I think I punched a guy. Right in the face. Bam! This big—”
“Go on Stacy, go on, that’s right, how I’m good for nothing and I really done it this time and all of it, just go on—”
“Well, I was kind of hoping you’d go my bail.”
“It WILL be different this time, Aunt Stacy. I’m gonna honestly try. Honestly. Look, I loved Dex, you loved him, we all loved him, but I don’t want to end up like—ah shit I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“Also, I’m going to need to go to the hospital.”
“My hand is broke.”
“From when I punched that guy.”
“I dunno, I guess he had a hard face.”
“Oh. Also. I’m wearing Dex’s boots. I stole them awhile ago.”
“Just trying to be honest, you know, like in life in general.”
“Starting now, I guess.”
Officer Reardon is standing above Wayne and when he hangs up, she grabs the phone and sticks it in a desk drawer. Wayne stares off. Officer Reardon puts her hands, purple yet, in his armpits and lifts. Wayne stands the rest of the way up, totters in the boots back down the hall to the cell with Officer Reardon trailing behind him, uni pants full of leg swelling with each noisy step. Wayne enters the cell and smudges the blood on the floor with stolen boots heels and behind him the cell door whangs shut.
“Officer Reardon, you won’t be seeing me again,” Wayne says without looking over his shoulder.
“I hope not.”
“I mean, not here. Maybe like at the store or something.”
“I know what you mean.”
She taps back to the desk. Wayne plunks down on the cot to wait for Aunt Stacy. It must be quick-acting aspirin, because the throb is turning his hand loose a little bit. Wayne takes in a breath. Lets it out. One more in. One more out.