At length they stopped, and sat side by side, their backs against a boulder. Both were sweating. ‘If Shagrat himself was to offer me a glass of water, I’d shake his hand,’ said Sam.
‘Don’t say such things!’ said Frodo. ‘It only makes it worse.’
It was July 30 and I was sitting in the basement terminal at Denver International Airport. I was on my way to meet baby Hannah, my perfect sister’s first child. I had a backpack full of vitamins and a drawing board covered in masking tape and T-shirts, protection for the painting I had made to adorn the room of my first niece. My surroundings were as podunk as the city to which I was travelling. The walls were scuffed and scraped, the people were obese and the fashions were decidedly North Dakotan. It made me kind of sad.
As I sat and wrote I thought about a line from an email that had been bothering me for a while.
“I can tell you are not writing as a crazy man anymore, but this adds to the reality of the drama.”
Jordan had written that, and it concerned me. When I wrote Levels 1 through 4 I was cracked out on Prednisone and sleep deprivation, the words spewed out of me like blackened death shit. Level 5 was penned somewhere between madness and sobriety as I struggled through the terrifying weaning process. When I wrote Level 6, I was almost sober. The little pink pill and its attendant demons had fled, the words were my own. Jordan did not know I had stopped taking Prednisone, but he recognized the shift. My biggest fear had come true; I was turning back into an average writer.
Even in the midst of my most psychotic episodes, I was aware that the brilliance –
Aside: Here I used the word “brilliance” to describe my writing. There were other times but I have deleted them. I deleted them because I am no longer on Prednisone and so no longer believe myself brilliant. Prednisone is a steroid the doctors gave me so I would stop throwing up death shit. The little pill completely destroyed me. In the story I haven’t started taking it yet, but when I wrote this Chapter it was still in my system. I thought it was gone, but the use of the word “brilliance” to describe the preceeding Chapters tells me that this wasn’t the case.
In real life I simultaneously believe myself to be brilliant and idiotic, the two sides vie for dominance and create a sort of normal person. Prednisone amped up the cocky, asshole side. It gave me the courage I needed to write. For that I am forever grateful. I am also embarrassed by what the drug revealed about my true character. My apologies to those I offended.
Back to the story.
– of those first pages was due at least in part to the pills coursing through my veins. The swear words and rambling asides, the vistas of philosophical meaning, the rust, duct tape and wires had been conceived and cobbled together by a fractured, wild Gollum of a Nathan. Now he was gone. Could I stand on my own? Tentatively, I wrote Jordan.
“Have I lost it? Is Level 6 a pile of shit?”
He wrote back, assuring me he would rather read Aristotle than Poe. His words did little to ease my fears. Would my readers, those invincible weapons who had been with me when I was down, abandon me now that morning had come? Could I finish on my own and, more importantly, was there any point in trying? The nightmare was over. The strange therapy of confessing my sins to an audience spread across the Internet had sustained me through the darkness, but now I stood in the light. Should I keep writing or stop while I was ahead? Was an unfinished, luminous beginning better than a completed pile of mediocrity?
Then I remembered that this was not the Great American Novel and I was far from the next Salinger, Vonnegut or Borges. At best, Confessions of a Diarrhetic was a book. My readers, such as they were, consisted of family and friends, people who just wanted to know where I had been. No pressure, no need to be afraid.
I fired up my machine and started typing.
The glass of ice water sat on the windowsill behind my bed, slowly driving me insane. I had read Comanche Moon, Larry McMurtry’s lackluster prequel to the astounding Lonesome Dove, so I knew about foundering. In this tale of the old West, Captain Inish Scull was captured by the notorious Mexican bandit Ahumado, and thrown into a pit where dehydration took its toll. As a cruel trick, Ahumado threw Scull a canteen full of water then watched in consternation as he sipped the gift instead of guzzling it down. I had not been abandoned to the desert sun and my eyelids had not been cut from my face, but I was dehydrated and figured the care the captain had taken in rehydrating was one of the factual parts of McMurtry’s fictional tale. I had kept down two scientific sips of water, but it was not yet time to drink an entire glass. A swig here, a swallow there, my cracked throat cried out for gulps of Precious, but I held strong. Foundering was no joke, or so I gathered from the actions of the characters in Comanche Moon.
Tobolowsky played in the background, filling the room with poetry and wisdom, but I wasn’t listening. I was keeping track of the time until my next sip of water.
Fifteen minutes, then you can have another sip.
The number was arbitrary, it seemed like a reasonable span to wait between drinks, but I was only guessing. Nothing like this had ever happened. The circumstances were less than harrowing, but I was still scared. Boy Scout Nathan would have been disappointed. Our one brush with the endless struggle between life and death was taking place in an apartment in downtown Denver, not a mountain covered with dense pine. No enemies hunted us with cunning dogs, no helicopters searched for the giant SOS we had fashioned from stones.
The ice in the glass shifted melodically as the cubes near the top melted, giving way to upward pressure from their impatient brethren. I winced at the sound. My hand struck at the glass like a snake. I stopped it in time.
Fourteen minutes, then you can drink again.
I tried to think about other things, like Frodo and Sam working their way across the mage-blasted plains of Mordor, and the trickle of vile water they found in that hot place. The rangers had warned them not to drink from streams flowing out of the Dark Lord’s realm, but they were desperate and consumed as much as they could before filling their water skins for the final time. Tenderly, I stroked the sides of the glass, like the skin of a perfect, impossible fish. Tobolowsky droned on.
Thirteen minutes, then you can drink. No, not drink. Sip. Like Scull in that pit.
Swollen beads of perfect crystal grew then fell down the sides of the glass, tracing rivers of refreshment through an oasis of condensation. My swollen tongue worked the roof of my mouth like a baby lusting for its mother’s teat.
Ten minutes, my love, then we can taste her again.
I tried to sleep, to shut out the world and drift into oblivion, but the dried mucus lining my throat rattled like a snake in the chaparral near Lonesome Dove. I kicked at them just as Gus had on his way to the whisky jug, “Go on you snakes, git!” But they stared back and shook their tails expectantly.
Seven minutes, just seven minutes and…
The ice shifted again, smacking against itself with a final, perfect crunch. The sound was monumental, insignificant, like a glacier falling into the sea. I grabbed the glass and brought it toward my lips. I had lost. Above me Ahumado laughed. Water poured down my throat, washing away the delighted snakes which burst into my belly with orgasmic glee; Frodo and Sam looked up and welcomed rain falling unexpectedly from the sky; Boy Scout Nathan climbed into a raft, his rescuers had found him at last; but in the pit near the border of Texas and Mexico, Captain Inish Scull shook his head in disappointment. Only he knew what was coming next.
Drunkenly, I waddled into the kitchen, singing to myself with the refreshment of it all. My ancient, filthy Multipure MP400PC countertop model with adjustable hose and easy release valve looked up from the bar and nodded knowingly, “Where you been?”
“There and back again,” I replied. “There and back.”
“I hear you,” said the portable unit. “How about a drink?”
“I’d appreciate it.” I flipped him a coin and held out my glass. He filled it to the rim. I held it to the light and watched crystal shimmers dance across its surface before tipping the cup. It was delicious. Joyous rivulets slurped down the sides of my mouth. I let them fall with delight. MP and I stood in the kitchen talking as he poured round after round, a couple of cowboys in a lonesome bar out West.
“Remember when you drug me to Europe,” asked the filter, “but their faucets were metric so you had to jerry rig a rubber clamp to fit their spigots?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “We soaked a lot of bathrooms in our time. Gimme another.”
“Or how about when we went to Alaska, but your skipper didn’t like me so you had to fill jugs between trips and drink from them instead of hooking me up to the sink!”
“You sure are a pain in the ass,” I chided. “But those guys were literally drinking water with rust floating in it.”
“Well it’s not like they drank much water to begin with,” said MP.
I raised my glass in mock toast to the mates on my ship and yelled, “Red Buuuuuuuuuuull!” just like they used to before we made the final push.
MP and I recounted our adventures long into the night (Poetic Numbering System) before I stumbled out of the kitchen in search of my bed. I wiped the water from my chin and hiccupped while wondering where I had parked my horse. It seemed I could never remember where I’d left her. I stumbled into my bathroom and brushed my teeth. The taste of the minty paste was stronger than usual. My tongue had been asleep for a long time. I thought about the preceding days, thankful it was over. That MP sure was a great – hiccup – guy.
The computer glowed electric, as I went over and paused the Tobolowsky File that was playing. I turned off the monitor and climbed into bed, rubbing a gurgle out of my system. Now that my thirst was sated, I could feel the weariness of the past four days weighing down my limbs. I climbed into bed and – hiccup – closed my eyes. But sleep did not come. Instead I hiccupped – an endless stream of nasty spasms that grew progressively more frequent and intense. In the distance I could hear the faint beat of drums. War was coming.
Like orcs, they marched, down through Ascen Ding and Caecum, past Appen Dix and Ileum. Eventually they reached Sto’ Mach and joined battle with the forces therein. The soldiers of that fair city fought valiantly but there were too – hiccup – many hiccups – hiccup – and it wasn’t long until they broke through and were – hiccup – charging up Oesophagus and barreling – hiccup – out Mou’ th.
It was nothing to worry about, no big deal. Hiccups were easy, especially compared to the trauma of the last few days, no reason to be alarmed. My guts sure did hurt, though, and the hiccups weren’t helping. They would go away soon enough. But they didn’t.
Twenty minutes passed and I started to worry. I got up and paced around my room, making sure to avoid the pink Pepto splatters on the floor. Was this foundering? Had I foundered myself into another situation? Certainly hiccups weren’t enough to scare a brave man like Captain Inish Scull? This couldn’t be what he was afraid of, right?
My abs started to ache as the spasms increased in intensity. What was this? Why wouldn’t it stop? I went to my computer and turned on the screen. I tried to google “terrifying hiccups” but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I lay down, but it was hopeless. Between the pain in Middle Intestines and the orcs hiccupping out of my mouth, there was no chance of sleep. I began to moan as quietly as possible.
For the past four nights I had been groaning in pain. During the lighter moments my cries were unintelligible, but as the agony increased, so did their coherence. “Oh God, no! Please God, yes! No, no, no, yes!”
The floor and ceiling of my apartment were paper thin and it was summer so everyone’s windows were open. There was no doubt my neighbors could hear me crying out; the only question was what they thought I was up to. I hoped they assumed it was sex. Really strange, constant sex for days. All humor is dark humor.
Thirty minutes passed and the hiccups showed no signs of letting up. I began to get nervous. Nerves turned to fear and fear gave way to panic. By the time the first hour rolled around, I was down right terrified. Hiccupping for an hour was like doing anything for an hour, eventually it got painful. My sides ached, my guts hurt and the orcs showed no sign of letting up. I thrashed in my bed, hoping to shake something loose. Eventually, I did.
The green skinned beasts surged forward with an inhuman howl, their final push made way for their dark masters, the Nazgûl. With a screech, the ancient kings of Númenor took to the sky, borne on the backs of their satanic mounts. Something tore inside me. I stumbled to the bathroom, past pink splatters and then green and fell to my knees in a sopping pile of coffee colored blood. The Ringwraiths erupted from my mouth, joining their brethren in the toilet, on the floor.
After the vomit came respite, but this was merely the calm before my next storm. I lay there moaning and massaging my guts, releasing gurgles as best I could, and then the hiccups started again. They built toward crescendo then exploded into violent liquids that spewed from my mouth. This continued through the night.
Eventually, even the dark lord’s vast reserves ran dry and the climax to each assault fizzled with wretched dry heaves. By morning I was too tired to fight. Whatever the Necromancer wanted, he could have. There was no fight left in me. This was how I learned that the power of the Black Riders was rooted in fear.
The weaker I got, the less I threw up. Around 6 a.m. poetic time, I was so docile the hiccups merely faded away, there was no need to tear me apart with screeching riders. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I realized that if I kept my emotions in check the spasms would leave on their own. How perfect that my mother, the Lion-Hearted-Bulldog-of-a-Thousand-Paradoxes, was coming to town to frustrate me back to health.
The morning passed with painful uniformity as I waited for her arrival. I tried to strike a balance between sips of water and hiccups while rubbing away the knife-like pain in my intestines. If I kept myself calm, I didn’t throw up. If I failed, there was hell to pay. By 10 a.m. I was practically a Zen master. With each new attack I strengthened my technique. I still had to endure the agony that was 45 minutes of continuous hiccups, but the horrendous finishing move could be dodged. Small victories were better than none.
My mom said she’d arrive around 11 a.m. and my apartment was a disaster. I didn’t have it in me to wash the dishes or pick up my clothes, but I knew that if she walked in and found vomit everywhere I would never hear the end of it. I grabbed a bunch of old T-shirts I had been saving for painting rags and got to work. It took about two years poetic to sop up the mess, but I finished just in time to answer her call.
“Hi honey, how do you feel?”
“Fine.” I said defiantly.
“Well, I got a late start and I’m running a little behind. I should be there around 3 p.m.”
“You haven’t left yet?” It was 11 a.m. The entire trip took four hours.
“I got in late last night and was exhausted so I waited until this morning to pack.”
“You’re still in Junction?”
“I’m getting in the car right now. I’ve scheduled you an appointment with a NUCCA chiropractor in Boulder. Jackie’s granddaughter went through the same thing a few months back and the doctors couldn’t tell what was going on. She was in pain for three months and had MRI after CT scan after specialist look at her and nothing worked. Then Jackie took her to this guy who fixed her right up. He had her feeling so well that after one session she was eating Toxic Hell (my mom thought it was hilarious to call Taco Bell ‘Toxic Hell’) that night. I told her I couldn’t believe she let her granddaughter eat that crap, but –”
“You haven’t left yet?” I repeated.
“I’m walking out the door right now,” said my mom. She was notoriously late, but this was absurd, even for her.
“I don’t – hiccup – believe you.”
“As soon as the water is heated for my tea I’ll be on my way,” she said without conceding the point. “Do you have any raw pumpkin seeds? Pat thinks you have parasites and says that raw pumpkin seeds will kill the little buggers.”
“Why would I – hiccup – have raw pumpkin seeds?” I asked while rubbing out a gurgle. “Why haven’t you left?”
“Pumpkin is very healing to the digestive system,” my mom continued in typically non-sequitur fashion. “Pat says the husks break apart and shred the parasites to bits.”
“Who is Pat?” She was sucking me in. Hadn’t we been talking about how late she was?
“Pat Gusky, she and Dave came to the house for Christmas dinner.”
That old witch? I thought to myself. She hadn’t come to Christmas dinner, she had ruined it. Well, her and my mom. The two had teamed up in an effort to convince me that I would stop going bald if I rubbed magnesium oil on my head. I told them that was ridiculous and if something so simple cured baldness, no one would be bald. The argument lasted all night. Now my mom’s evil twin wanted to know if I had raw pumpkin seeds.
“What?” I asked. I had disappeared into the dream lands of Christmas Past.
“Do you have any nine volt batteries?” My mom asked again.
“How have you not left yet?” I replied.
“I’m leaving just as soon as I fill the hummingbird feeder. I’ll see you at 3.” She hung up the phone.
“Bye,” I said to no one and shook my head.
That woman could conflict me like no one else. I was simultaneously dreading her arrival and mad because she wasn’t already there. It was like being upset at your executioner for taking an extra coffee break before he cut off your head.
My apartment was still a wreck, but cleaning up the vomit had wiped me out. I knew it would drive my mom crazy but I didn’t have the energy to clean, so instead I shuffled over to my computer and fired up a draft video. I might as well study for the Magic: The Gathering tournament on Friday. I’d be better by then, right?
Wizards of the Coast had just released a new set, which meant there would probably be a ton of people at the event. The competition would be fierce.
Magic: The Gathering was a collectible card game played by nerds all over the world. In the 20 or so years since its inception, gamers had come up with as many ways to play it as there were cards to collect. My favorite was called limited, or draft. Draft was different from most variations in that you didn’t need to own a deck. On Friday nights I would make my way down to the Wizard’s Chest and pay $10 in exchange for three packs of cards. On any given night about 15 other geeks showed up and did the same. Once everyone was there, each player was assigned a seat around one of two tables. This was your pod for the evening. At the sound of the gun, each gamer opened one of his packs, looked through the cards, picked, or “drafted,” the best one and passed the rest. You then took the pack handed to you from your right, picked another card and repeated the process until all the cards were gone. Then you did the same thing for the remaining two packs. By the end of the draft, you had a collection of 45 cards with which to build your deck. Lands, the currency of the game, were provided by the store and you could use as many as you wanted. You were then tasked with constructing a 40-card deck from the pool you created. After your deck was complete, the tournament began. At the end of the night, the person with the best record was declared the winner.
Drafting was hard as rocks and required equal parts skill, empathy and luck. It was like poker in that you were playing the other players as much as the game; but it often felt like chess because there were ever evolving levels of complexity; there were also elements of Settlers of Catan because every time you played, it was a different game. I loved it. I looked forward to Friday nights like a drunken fisherman waiting for his paycheck.
The video I was watching was a good one and I sat there studying while keeping myself calm and tummy rubbing gurgles. The spot where Sauron laired was starting to get tender so I rationed rubs, allowing some cycles to build to Bowie knife proportions and squelching others when I didn’t think I could handle it. Four hours passed. My phone rang.
“Hi, honey, I’m here.” My stomach gurgled angrily.
“Did you find parking?” I asked.
“Yep. Parked right across the street in the pay lot. I only have five hours then I’m headed to Lynn’s for the night.”
I got up and put on my boxers. My hands shook pathetically with the effort. I stood as straight as I could and shuffled to my apartment door. I opened it and looked down the hall. Standing there behind the security door with boxes of herbs and voodoo electronics was the Craterhoof Behemoth of Healing, the Lion-Hearted-Bull-Dog-Of-A-Thousand-Paradoxes, Jesus White Witch and High Priestess of Exalted Medicine. She had recently lost a ton of weight and now looked deflated, but I wasn’t fooled. This woman was leviathan. Her footsteps today formed the lakes of tomorrow. Her face fell when she saw me. I shuffled towards the door.
to be continued
These are the songs that appeared in this week’s podcast.
Good, Good Night
This one was written for anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast, which is everyone at least some of the time.