an excerpt from RUINED FOR LIFE!
On a thick night in June I was waiting to hear from Luke and Crazy Mike. Kitty’d gone to bed, knowing it would be late if they showed up at all. I opened the fridge and stared at the provisions we’d laid in: cold cuts and cheeses, bagged vegetables and fruit, two liters of soda, half-gallon of milk, can of coffee, condiment jars, twelve-pack of beer, as though there were such a thing as normal life. The refrigerator door swung shut as I moved past my reflection in the sink window to the pantry. I pulled the chain, lighting the shelves of seasonings, canned goods, boxes of pasta, an uncracked fifth of Old Crow. The fifth held my gaze. I tugged the light out, sat at the table. I tapped a pen on my thigh, tossed it back on the table. I hated the light of that kitchen. It was all the kitchens I’d lived in: the tired shocking overhead bulb. I’d carried it like a torch from place to place. This wasn’t going to be much of a party. Luke and Mike were leaving Vegas as a last shot at survival, half dead, with no money, in a shit Camaro that just might make it. They were coming to crash and recoup before crawling across the desert to Ohio, where presumably they would hole up and end their days. But first they had to break free of Vegas and cross the miles of open universe between there and here. I was waiting at Mission Control for a collect call from somewhere along the way…
The phone rang around one o’clock. They’d taken a wrong turn off the freeway. Luke put Mike on. His voice was still set for the horizon. I gave him directions. He said “Yuh. Yuh.” It wasn’t the kind of voice I’d become accustomed to. There was no friendliness in it, nor any of what I took for signs of intelligence. It was the voice of a prisoner to a lawyer he couldn’t trust, his only hope. I felt like I was lying.
All I knew about him was that he was called Crazy Mike and he was desperate to leave Las Vegas.
Well, no. I knew a little more about him. Luke once told me about going to the movies with a guy who was just back from LA, where he’d starred in an S&M film. His need and tolerance for punishment were so extreme that he’d exhausted all the money he could make as a cab driver and every dominatrix in Vegas. In the film he was caned until he passed out, and then revived for more. It took him a while to heal from a beating like that, and Luke noticed at the mall that the ass of Mike’s jeans was stained with blood. Since he was driving Luke to Cleveland I assumed he had nowhere else to go and was another of Luke’s Doctor-Frankenstein projects. Having failed to humanize Randy, Luke had taken Mike under his wing.
The doorbell rang——it jarred me out of my seat and down the stairs. Luke was walking back to the Camaro, headlights on the house as he rummaged in the car. There was no “moment.” Life just keeps happening. Kitty got up in her flannel nightshirt, sleepy, to welcome Luke and his friend and sit at the table with the boys. Mike, canine and restless, kept quiet, gazing through his glasses at the table, ill-at-ease in a dynamic including a woman that didn’t involve money.
All I knew about him was that he was called Crazy Mike and he was desperate to leave Las Vegas.
——We’re laughing——Mike’s particular nature——it came out——after an hour of tight-lipped silence. Luke had gone out of the room. When he came back he kicked up the corner of the floormat. He sat down, took a sip of beer. Mike was tense. While we were talking he reached over and flipped the mat down.
I went for a piss, came back, tripped over the mat, opened the fridge. Sat down. There was a lull, it got quiet. Mike seemed to be containing himself. We were all looking at him. He dove over——put the mat down.
Laughter all around. Even Mike: he pitched forward holding his gut. He arched back, reveling in it——“I’m so full of madness!” We were laughing. “What? The carpet’s up? Now the planets aren’t in line, the sun won’t come up!”
It broke the ice.
Luke said they went to somebody’s place in Vegas to watch a video. Luke took one end of the couch, Mike took the other. As the movie started Luke sensed that Mike was uncomfortable.
“Don’t tell me,” he said. “Is this your side of the couch?”
“Oop!” Mike said, found out.
“You can sit here,” Luke said. “Let’s switch.”
“No, forget it——It’s too late! It’s already ruined!”
By four a.m. Mike was laying himself bare. Kitty, who’d been nipping the same shot of whiskey for two hours, was wide awake. She was a good listener. Other people’s troubles put her on the alert, so people opened up to her. Luke and I pushed the bottle back and forth, topping off our shots and smoking cigarettes, and Mike, without a drink, poured forth a self-astonished tale of his search for punishment. He didn’t say anything about childhood abuse, but it seemed obvious. In any case, subsequent years of bondage, paddling, torture, and violent self-abuse had left him scarred and damaged. There was no bottom to any of this, I could see that. He had no code of healthy behavior to rely on. His only way out, as he saw it, was to leave Las Vegas. He said he’d kill himself before going back.
When I got up the next morning he was in the kitchen on the phone to someone named Curly in San Diego. For three years, Kitty’d taken every step to keep our number private. Mike was saying “Yeah I’m up in Frisco, I’m looking for a woman to beat the hell out of me. I’m at 415-648-6417. Give this number to every degenerate you can find.” I sat at the table. “Yeah, every hooker, mistress, pimp, spanker, filmmaker…” Kitty came to the doorway behind me. “Leave it on bathroom walls, payphones, whatever. Have ‘em ask for Mike.” She was still in her nightgown. Her eyes bore into mine.
He didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. Beatings were his only vice.
He said “As far as what I’m into, there ain’t nobody worse. Well. There might be one guy over in England.”
That’s all he talked about: beatings, whippings, spankings. He was the center of attention. He couldn’t relate to any other concern, and he was our guest even more than Luke, who was family. We’d start talking about movies or Vegas or relationships, but all roads led back to punishment. We couldn’t talk about anything but the struggle he was undergoing. He made phonecalls, he tore through the alternative weeklies looking for ads and clubs. It got old quick. One bar advertised a bondage night where men were chained to the rail by their balls and smacked on the ass by strolling mistresses with riding crops. Mike was excited. By nightfall he decided the setup was for amateurs. The women would be holding back, and he’d leave there more frustrated than ever.
“And what if I go down there, and then I get a call to go do a movie? They don’t want me coming in with bruises, open sores. How would it look if this girl hits me for a few minutes and I’m already getting bruised?”
Kitty called me into the other room and expressed her concern about the Oriental rug where Mike was sleeping.
I said “Look, Mike, I don’t want you coming back here and bleeding on the rug.”
He lifted his Cardinals jacket from the back of the chair. “That’s why I got this. I put it under me when I sleep.”
At the supermarket Mike ran around like a dog in a butcher shop. He loaded the cart with packages of meat. That’s all he ate. In the week he was there I didn’t see him eat a fruit or vegetable. When I got up in the morning he was at the table, hours awake, helpless, waiting for someone to feed him. I made coffee.
Finally he spoke up——“Hey, you think you could fix me that ground beef in there?”
I opened the fridge. There were two packages of hamburger meat.
“One of these?”
“Make ‘em both.”
I heated the black skillet and dumped them in.
“Can I cut some onion in, fix it up? Some garlic? Spices?”
“No thanks, just like that.”
I fried it up, two pounds of ground chuck. Scraped it into a big bowl and put it in front of him. It was like having a dog. He looked like a dog, with his close-cropped hair and basic face. He finished the bowl, said thanks, and sat back in his chair, sentient, watching time pass beyond his glasses…
One night I made breaded porkchops with mashed potatoes and green beans. Mike was agitated, he had something on his mind.
He said “You mind cooking me that ground pork?”
I fried it up, one pound, and served it beside his chops. The vegetables he declined.
Since he was such a devout carnivore I told Mike that San Francisco was known for its burritos, the biggest anywhere. He took it into his head there was a particular place. When we were out driving around he’d say “Is this the place you’re talking about? With the biggest burritos?”
“They’re all big. That’s how they make ‘em here.”
“I want to go that place you mentioned.”
It got to be a routine.
I’d pull over, say “Hungry, Mike?”
“Is this the place?”
“That place you said they make the biggest burritos. I wanna go there.”
“There’s no special place. They’re big everywhere. This place is good.”
He’d peer out the window.
“That’s okay. I’ll wait.”
Finally one day he hopped out to get a soda.
Luke said “Look. The next place we go, just tell him that’s the place.”
“But there is no place! I’m tryna get through to him——”
He reached up front and throttled me.
He said “What’re you, nuts? You’re as bad as he is. He wants to know he’s getting the biggest burrito in San Francisco. Pick a place and tell him that’s it. Give us all a break, here.”
Mike got back in the car with a gigantic cup of soda and I pulled away from the curb.
He drank four 64-ounce sodas a day. Fountain drinks only. He kept an eye out for 7-11s and gas stations advertising 64-ounce cups. There weren’t many. When he spotted one he was out of the car before it stopped moving. Usually he was disappointed. It was Mr. Pibb he was after. In a pinch Dr. Pepper would do, but he wasn’t happy about it. When he found Mr. Pibb he carried several half-gallon cups to the car, guarded them in the backseat, and nursed them all night, flat and watery in their waxy cups. He’d heard a rumor about the new gallon cups. He was anxious to get on the road and find them. That’s what he thought of behind his glasses——savage beatings and gallon cups——while Luke decompressed from Vegas and Kitty and Luke and I tried to recognize we were there together.
One day I left work early to spend some time with Luke. It’d been a frustrating week because with Mike around Luke clammed up. Mike insisted on being the maddest, most urgent person in the room. Kitty and I got tangled up in challenging him, agreeing or disagreeing, adding our perspectives. Luke stayed out of it. There was enough talk. Why risk escalating it? So we didn’t interact the way we would have without Mike there. When I got home the two of them were in the livingroom watching a video of Mike being caned and paddled unconscious. Luke was impressed. I watched a few moments of it and started fixing dinner.
Mike had asked me to make him a tuna noodle casserole. He said he’d been thinking about it for two months.
“Sure. No problem.”
“But you gotta make it the way my mother does. Gotta be the white albacore tuna——the fancy white. And you gotta use cream of chicken soup. Not cream of mushroom. It’s gotta be cream of chicken.”
Before Kitty got home I put the casserole together. I used Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup, but it looked so bland that I added a couple jolts of Worcestershire, a dash of Tabasco, parsley, and a small can of peas.
Kitty and Luke didn’t want any part of it. They were unwrapping the foil from gyros they’d ordered in when I took the casserole out of the oven. Mike was all ready for his big dinner.
He said “I saw you snuck some other stuff in there.”
I scooped two steaming platefuls and sat down to join him.
Mike ate ravenously, as though he’d never eat again, and finished his plate before I was half through with mine. He started talking about beatings again. Kitty and Luke pushed their plates away, Kitty from resignation and Luke from lack of interest.
We’d all lit cigarettes when Mike sat back from his second plate. He’d pushed all the peas to one side.
I said “You’re not gonna finish it?”
He said “What. Huh? Oh. I don’t eat the peas.”
I said “Shit,” got up, and scraped his dish into the trash.
Mike said “What? I ate two plates! I told ya I don’t eat anything green.”
“Bet that guy in England woulda polished it off.”
He leapt up in his chair, saying “Whup——Hey, gimme ‘em back!”
“Too late,” I said, handing Kitty the dish to rinse.
He said “Aw, you’re just fucking with me now.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Sure,” Luke said.
Mike sat brooding over his nemesis. Luke leaned forward and began his night’s silent doodling on a sheet of paper.
Will called to say he was in town. He was a movie actor, an old friend from New York. Mike was familiar with him, and while we waited for him to stop over Mike rattled off a list of Will’s roles. He got more and more nervous and talkative until the doorbell rang and Will came up. We’d been sitting at the table for five minutes when I noticed Mike’s absence. I found him sitting in the livingroom with his hands in his lap. He was staring straight ahead.
I said “What’re you doing?”
He said “Ah, nothing, nothing. I don’t——I just didn’t want to——”
I said “Come on out.”
He said “No no no, that’s okay.”
“You guys see your friend, I’ll wait here.”
“Come in the kitchen.”
He said “No, thanks, really, I’ll just——I don’t want to embarrass you.”
I said “What are you talking about? We’re just talking here.”
Finally I convinced him to come into the kitchen. He spent the duration of Will’s visit sitting on his hands in clamped-down silence, afraid to say a word.
Thursday night Kitty read Mike’s tarot cards. After watching her do it for Luke, he’d asked her to do it for him. He was trying to decide whether or not to go looking for a beating that night.
With the reading of the cards a seriousness descended on the room. The cards are a set of potentialities, but people mistake them for hard facts. A change comes over a person when his fate’s on the table. It’s no joke. Suddenly he’s alone with his life, and only the reader can get him through. The shadows on his face deepen. Just perceptibly, his movements drag as though the film has slowed.
We were all quiet, listening to Kitty’s clear explication of the forces at work in Mike’s life. He was being offered the chance to use his intellect and power to change (King of Swords). The worst might have been over (Ten of Swords). Deep inside he had the resources to change the road he was on (Wheel of Fortune). He was deeply afraid of happiness (The Sun). He needed to see past his failures in love and preconceptions about love (Five of Cups). The Tower was in there too: a potential for total hell——self-destruction. The outcome was Ace of Cups, a beginning, crossed by Four of Cups——wariness, hesitation——and Two of Swords: indecision. Mike, with the wide-set gaze of a pitbull, took it all in. Of course this was Luke’s story too, and mine. It was an old story.
Mike had managed to avoid the whip for a nearly a week in San Francisco. He needed a reminder of who he was, so I drove him to North Beach. I pulled over on Columbus and waited while he dashed into adult video stores looking for one of his movies. I waited half an hour, smoking cigarettes in the car and watching the blinking lights against the sunset sky till he came back satisfied. A clerk had pointed him toward a back wall, where he found a tape of himself for eighty bucks. He couldn’t afford it but he was glad to know it was there.
“Drive home,” he said.
Of great concern to Mike was his Camaro. He treated the car with the scared solicitude you’d show an unfaithful girlfriend. From a few feet back, not knowing what to do. Scared to take her anywhere. She was a rusted ‘78 and sounded rough but Mike had paid for a rebuilt engine three months ago. It was like he’d married her in attempt to make things right. She was all he had. His idea of maintenance was to hang a Christmas-tree air freshener from the rearview mirror and check the oil. He personally saw to both these tasks once a day. When it was time to move it for street cleaning he had me parallel park it because he was “no good at reversing.” I had to find a level parking spot because he worried that with the car parked on an incline all the oil would drain out of the engine to another part of the car. He stood on the sidewalk, monitoring the operation. Then he’d ask me repeatedly throughout the day how she felt and whether I’d noticed any signs of trouble.
Mike didn’t know what he was doing. All he knew was to get out of Vegas. He loved his mother but hated his father. They were in Missouri. He’d agreed to drive Luke to Cleveland and he knew he could put up there for a while, but he had no money or ideas. When they got to San Francisco he said he ate only twice a week, Tuesday and Friday. By the time they left he was into a better routine: eating once a day, sleeping a bit. On Saturday afternoon we went to the movies. Mike was easygoing about the movie but he needed for it to be shown in a state-of-the-art theater with a good screen and an abundant selection of snacks. We drove to the Kabuki. Luke was silent, riding the escalator. Mike sprang off to find Snow Caps for the trip to Ohio.
We waited while he examined every Lucite tower and bin of that opulent Candyland.
He couldn’t find the right ones.
“They gotta be the small kind, the little tiny ones. I wanna pop ‘em in my mouth——one by one——real slow——as I drive. One hand on the wheel, and the bag of Snow Caps between the two seats.”
Driving east they stopped for gas on Route 50, The Loneliest Road In America. Mike ran in for a soda. All they had were bottles and cans. A hundred and five Fahrenheit and hundreds of miles of glaring desert in every direction, Mike asked the attendant where the nearest fountain drinks could be found. Luke called later to relate this, disgusted. Mike came out with a dozen Christmas tree air fresheners.
“Two bucks each!” he said, replacing the one hanging from the rearview mirror.
Twenty-five bucks of our survival cash, Luke thought. He’d helped Mike tape up his boxes in Vegas, including a gross of these same air fresheners.
Luke called collect from a phonebooth. Draped over the couch frame was a T-shirt he’d left behind. I could tell Mike was driving him crazy. So far they’d slept only in the car. He had nothing to say so he put Mike on.
“Hello?” Mike said. “Hello?”
I asked how the Camaro was holding up. He said there was a knock in the engine but he’d been checking the oil and she wasn’t losing a drop.
“Where are you now?”
“Huh? Somewhere in Colorado.”
“Okay man. Hang in there.”
“Okay,” he said to the phone. I was an abstraction now: someone who was decent to him once. “Thanks, buddy.”
He hung up and night was restored.
They were halfway across Indiana when the engine blew up. Mike steered the Camaro to the shoulder. He threw up the hood and danced amid black billows of smoke and kicked at the gravel and tore out a roadside weed as trucks shuddered past and Luke sat behind the glass. Mike opened the door on the wow of the outside world and got behind the wheel. It was an hour before dark and they sat waiting to see what would happen next.
A state trooper called a towtruck and they bounced along with the Camaro behind to a mechanic in a one-intersection town. The mechanic pulled the dipstick up dry. No oil in the engine. Mike had been checking the transmission fluid by mistake.
Luke sprang for a room at the town’s one motel. In the morning Mike signed his Camaro over to the mechanic and Luke paid the man $250 to drive them to Cleveland in his old Eldorado.
When the freeways and scenery seemed recognizable to Luke he gave the driver directions. The Southside was familiar without magic or resonance of intervening years. It was dusk when the Cadillac pulled up at the house on Auburn. To Luke it looked the same, and he knew that nothing was waiting for him there.
For weeks after they left I got phonecalls from friends in Cleveland. (I also got calls from The Empress Natalie and Knockout Productions, from Dog magazine and Floating Dungeon Party Services and voices up and down the coast, male and female, some bright and professional and some barely verbal, all of them wanting a piece of Mike’s ass.) Mike made an impression on everyone he met in Cleveland, left them audibly disturbed. At work I got a voicemail: “Yo, this’s Guy. We gotta talk about this Crazy Mike. Call me.” It was like I was responsible for tossing something troubling in their midst.
Finally I got a call from Luke’s brother Ed. I’d never heard him so humbled. He talked about Luke being back, and this and that, and then about Mike. His voice was a mixture of paternal feeling, and awe, and respect, and something else——something meditative. Left upstairs with Ed for half an hour, Mike opened up with a story he’d spared the rest of us. One night he’d soaked a wad of cotton in lighter fluid, stuck it up his ass, and lit it on fire. A minor explosion occurred and he underwent reconstructive surgery. He’d never been the same. Ed was troubled but very impressed and spoke of him, haltingly, searchingly, in heroic terms. He said “I dunno, what it is, but he’s like the greatest guy I ever met.” For once, he sounded unaware of what he was saying, as though he’d felt something new about the world and was thinking out loud…
He took Mike for a ride and pulled into White Castle for a bag of cheeseburgers. Mike handed him a five and Ed said “I got it.” Then he pulled onto Pearl Road.
A few minutes later he noticed Mike was jammed over by the window, covering his face. He realized Mike was sobbing and pulled over.
He said “Mike——what’s the problem?”
Mike said “Nobody ever did nothing like that for me.”
Mike said “Nobody ever did anything like that for me. Not even my own brother.”
Then he took off his glasses and cleaned them on his T-shirt and put them back on.
Ed pulled back into traffic.
Mike said “Okay, so I was crying. Don’t tell anyone. It don’t mean I’m not a man…”
Mike stayed on Auburn for a week.
One morning he asked Ed to drive him to the Greyhound station.
A few days later Luke called him at his folks’ place in Missouri.
Mike’s mother said they’d put him on a bus for Las Vegas that morning.