—for H. B. Mullin
They crept up out of the river like the fulfillment of some threadbare prophesy. The coming of an Old Testament plague. And as they made their way through town on hooked legs and oily, rainbow-colored wings, Roy and me, grinning like the idiots we were, rode out to meet them.
“What do you think about that, boy?” I said, pointing to the bug-en- crusted sign revolving over the drive-in hamburger stand on 6th and Jack- son. “That’s some vile-looking shit, isn’t it? Reminds me of a deep-fried happy face.”
Roy craned his neck for a look. Then he turned back, smiling, and offered a polite nod. They came every year like this, the fish flies, and every year they turned the whole town inside out, giving it the feel of that crazy sculpture I’d seen in New York once when I was a kid. The one with the teacup and spoon covered in fur.
They were everywhere. The trees and houses were filthy with them, and so were the boats, bobbing in the slips down at the marina. Nothing, not even the stone columns of the old courthouse, could shrug them off, and as bad as they were, they’d be even worse by tomorrow morning, the streets so deep in slime and husks the city crews would have to break out the snowplows to deal with them.
“You doing okay, Roy?” I asked, giving his bony knee a happy-go- lucky slap.
He turned to me and smiled.
“It’s gonna get better,” I told him, “a lot better. Wait and see.”
It felt like the old days when he smiled at me like that, his whole heart
backing up into the expression on his face, his eyes filling with a gentle, white light. It reminded me of the times we had when Annie Donovan was still alive, back before he’d lost his marbles and done the things that got everybody at the home fixed on turning him out.
I was going to miss that smile. I was going to miss everything about the guy. But I knew there was no point in getting sentimental about it be- cause they’d made up their minds, and once they made up their minds about you, there was no changing them. Come tomorrow, he was gone. Forever. And we’d never see one another again.
Roy didn’t know it yet, but he’d bought himself a one-way ticket to the State Hospital—Palookaville—the last stop for guys like him, old men who didn’t know when to quit.
I glanced over and asked him if he was having a good time, and he answered me with a soft, bleating noise that came from the back of his throat. I said, “Atta boy, champ!” and fed the car some gas.
When we got to State Street, the cloud of insects turned serious, and we sped headlong into the midst of the swarm taking heavy shots to the grill and windshield, wings snapping, and gobs of thick, yellow goo streaking the hood. It was the perfect night for a farewell drive because nobody in his right mind would take a car out in shit like this—not a decent car any- way—and that meant we’d have the roads all to ourselves for as long as we wanted.
I flicked on the wipers and the blades dug deep with a sick sort of scraping sound. It crossed my mind that Roy might wig out and go for the door latch or the steering wheel if things got too trippy, but the concerns I had turned out to be warrantless. We augured in, and when he caught sight of the dead soldiers going over the side, whizzing past the windows like blinking Christmas lights, he clapped his hands together and let out a long, musical howl. “See there,” I thought as he began to laugh, then snort, then bark through his nose, “you can’t judge a nut by its shell.”
I never could figure out how it happens. How one day you’re a normal human being, strolling down the street in a pair of sunglasses and a sharp- looking Italian suit, and the next you’re insane, decked out asylum-style in a cardigan sweater and Purina checkerboard pants. I don’t know how it happens, but I can tell you this: I see it all the time. The home’s filled with guys like Roy. Old men with their own language, their own rituals, their hardwiring shot. Minds twisted like rusty metal. One day they’re over at the gym doing sit-ups, and a week later they’re palming jelly cups and packets of granulated sugar from the condiment tray at Denny’s.
I used to think I’d live to be a hundred and die in my sleep the same man I am now with maybe a touch of rheumatism or a trick knee as my only complaint. But I see how wrong I was. How nobody gets out of this circus alive, not even the clowns. Either you die, diseased or bloody, be- fore your time, or you hobble into your grave under your own steam, a drooling idiot, the embarrassing little urges you spent a lifetime trying to suppress exposed to the world in all of their agonizing deformity.
So why stick my neck out for a guy who’s as crazy as a shit-house rat? Who looks like he combs his hair with firecrackers? Simple. Once I found out what they had in store for him, that they planned on shipping him off to that quote-unquote hospital in Brighton tomorrow, I knew I’d never be able to look in the mirror again if I sat around and did nothing. I mean, hey, if you’re gonna fuck a guy, you ought to at least buy him a box of candy and a bouquet of flowers, right?
The bug cloud thinned as the Buick climbed out of the flats up toward Hill Street, and for a second or two, you could see the downtown skyline through the grime on Roy’s window. The old Roesheck Building. Woolworth’s. The Second Street Bridge. Each one of them was there for an instant, and then another wave came on and it was pea soup, Roy and me sliding blind into destiny, laughing like imbeciles, each trusting in the other’s nameless desire to see this little joyride to its end.
I glanced over at him, watching his eyes. The guys in the lab coats claim it’s the meds that make them go big and funny like that, all wide and frozen in their sockets. But I’ve got my own ideas. I’m betting a good part of it goes back to his days in the ring when he was a prizefighter, when he was trained not to blink, even while he was taking punches. You can forget a whole lot in this life, good and bad, but I’m pretty sure learning how to eat leather, eyes wide open, isn’t one of them. The old guy’s seen too much, that’s all. He’s taken too many beatings and turned a deaf ear one too many times to the voice in his head that said, “Stay down, stay down.”
I stepped on the gas pedal and the tires slipped a little, and for a split second, the steering wheel went limp in my hand. My heart puckered at the thought of us jumping the curb and getting tacoed on a street lamp, but it settled down again when the tires grabbed a clean patch of asphalt and the wheel came back to life, catapulting us forward into the clicking blizzard.
I said, “Man, this shit’s like ice,” but the comment slid right past him.
I hated to admit it, but whoever said there was no getting through to Roy anymore was right. He was a spent man, a has-been, a shadow of his former self, etc., etc., and everybody knew it. The drugs that worked for him early on had lost their stuff over the past few months, failing him in his hour of need the same way everything else he ever counted on had, and every day that went by you could see him slip further and further away, like the curled shell of a dead leaf blowing across a field.
The doctors knew the score, but they were all too doctorly to admit it. At least to the rank and file. The hoi polloi like me. One of them suggested that a new regimen of pills and therapy might bring Roy around, but you could tell by the expression on his face that he didn’t really believe it. Not deep down where it counts. He knew, like the rest of us, that unless some- body figured out a way to pull off a bona fide miracle and breathe life back into the gentle little soul of Annie Donovan, there was no way Roy was ever going to be a whole man again.
Annie’s death was the last big punch the guy would ever take, and everybody knew it. It put him out on his feet, and all that was left after she was gone was the ten count and the long, dark trip back to the locker room.
“Hey, my man,” I said, forgetting about the road for a second, “relax, why don’t you? You’re not gonna miss anything. These babies’ll be here all night long. I guarantee it.”
He grinned but kept his eyes glued to the window. His dentures had picked up a funny blue glow from the streetlights, and he looked like a neon advertisement for himself. Only what he was selling, nobody wanted.
I said, “You cold, Roy?”
The car was nippy on account of the AC, but with the hot night and the bugs and the fish stink wafting up from the river, I figured we didn’t have much choice except to leave it on. I leaned over and moved the vent a little to his left, to keep the draft out of his face. He didn’t seem to notice. Or if he did, he didn’t seem to care.
When we got to 16th Street, I hung a left and dropped the transmission into low, getting ready for the big finale. The Buick bucked and began inching its way down the hill toward the river, skittishly, like a dog step- ping out onto a frozen pond.
I was feeling better about what I’d done now—that is, about busting him out of the joint—but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, or that a small part of me wasn’t still nervous about what was going to happen when they called me on the carpet about it tomorrow. Disabling a security alarm and sneaking a sick man out the back door of a health care facility for an unauthorized joyride were pretty serious charges, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to muster much of a defense for myself.
I guess I’d have to think on it between now and then. Trust in what I was doing and hope that something came to me. Hell, push to come to shove, I might even tell them the truth. I mean, what did I have to lose, right?
I looked over at him again and thought, so what if the guy doesn’t ever say anything? Who cares? Why should any of us give a rat’s ass whether an old man decides to talk or not? When you’re eighty-one years old and the only thing you’ve ever loved has been taken away from you, what can you say that’s supposed to make any difference? At that point, talking and not talking add up to the same thing, don’t they? So why not just shut up?
If there was ever a beautiful heart in this world, it was Annie Donovan’s. She not only loved Roy for sixty years, she looked after him and kept him out of trouble. They were inseparable, right up to the end, just like in the movies, and they gave you something to hope for when you looked at your own life and wondered whether you could stand the fright and humiliation of old age.
She used to call him Sugar—Sugar Roy—like he was as good as Ray Robinson, or Ray Leonard, or, hell, even Sugar Ray Seals or Sugar Shane Mosely. But how can you criticize that kind of devotion? How can you throw stones at something as simple as that without looking like a bum yourself?
Maybe to her, in his own way, Roy was the best that ever was. And maybe in believing it, she’d found a way to make him believe it too, I don’t know. All I can tell you is, when she was alive, there was more of him than there is now. More than there ever would be again. He used to be some- thing special. Now he’s just an old man with scrambled brains who doesn’t have the sense to blink when he’s swimming through a storm of fish flies.
The decision to move him to the hospital came yesterday afternoon on the heels of one of his “episodes.” Mr. Meeks, the director, called us all into his office and closed the door and told us that as much as he regretted it, the time had come for Roy to be placed in more “capable” hands.
A lot of us had watery eyes following the announcement, and a few mild protestations made their way through the room before the meeting busted up. But there was no going back at that point, and I guess in our minds each of us knew that it was the only decision possible. The home just couldn’t take any more chances with him.
Roy had always been a model resident, that was the saddest and hard- est part about the whole ordeal. He’d never given any of us a lick of trouble before Annie died, but the day they laid her in the ground he changed, plunging into this deep, dark depression that made him unpredictable and angry. The depression and unpredictability didn’t frighten us, particularly, since we deal with depressed and unpredictable people all the time. But the other, the anger, that was worrisome, and as his moods became more and more erratic, talk about what to do with him became commensurately grave.
There was an ebb and flow for a while, a dragging of feet, about what to do. Discussions went back and forth with nobody putting much effort into any suggestion that might hurt Roy’s chances of staying on or getting the help we thought he needed. But then it happened. The thing we all feared, though none of us had spoken of it aloud.
One morning as Ed Forrester our maintenance man dropped by the senior lounge to run a routine check on the cable for the community TV, Roy, who’d been gazing out the bay window with this faraway look in his eyes, spun around like a windup toy and drilled the guy with a vicious right hand.
It might have been Ed’s reflection in the glass that set him off, or maybe the sound of strange footsteps coming up behind him, I don’t know. But he caught Forrester off balance and knocked him to the linoleum.
Imagine! An old man coldcocking a maintenance worker in the com- munity lounge of a nursing home!
The commotion got the attention of the orderlies, but of course it was too late for them to do anything. They threaded their way through a herd of panicked residents pouring out of the room, and when they reached the scene of the altercation, Ed was already on the ground, bleeding from his mouth and nose, and Roy was standing over him, jeering, like he’d just stolen the welterweight title from Roberto Duran. It was awful. They led him away with his fists in the air, jubilant, bouncing on the balls of his feet, while a nurse from the infirmary tended to Ed’s face.
Forrester had to wear bandages and a plastic neck brace for a few days, but even so, we all went out of our way to act as if the incident had been no big deal. As if it hadn’t even happened, really. I guess we were all hoping that with Roy having vented some of his frustration things might improve, even drift back to normal. But it didn’t take us long to see that our optimism had been misplaced.
Within a week, he started taking shots at everybody, staff and resi- dents alike, laying for them in dark rooms or stalking them in the hallways, and when that began, we knew it was only a matter of time before we’d have to do something drastic. As a last-ditch attempt to fix him, we pumped him up with Ativan and strapped him into one of those old wooden desks the parochial school system was always so fond of, to see if maybe we could tire him out and then re-align some of his habits.
The effect was short-lived. As soon as we put him back in circulation, he coldcocked another old guy, Phil Clarkson, who was padding down the hall on his way to breakfast. It was Roy’s first and only knockout in a career so undistinguished he could very easily have fought under the nom de guerre “opponent” and no one would have noticed. But all the same, when we got the news about Mr. Clarkson, nobody was cheering.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mr. Meeks ordered an immediate medical workup after learning about the incident and had us pull all of Roy’s files.
Me and Marty Cohen, another orderly, went along to St. Xavier’s as part of Roy’s entourage. Marty drove the courtesy van, I sat in the back seat with Mr. Meeks, and Roy, quiet as a church mouse, sat sandwiched between us. Marty and I were Mr. Meeks’s two-man insurance policy, I guess, in case Roy started throwing leather.
It turned out to be a perfunctory examination. Standard fare, your ba- sic physical. That was when I knew they’d already turned in the scorecards and that Roy was going down, for good. They were looking for reasons to hospitalize him this time, not ways to fix him, and it wasn’t going to take much to put him away.
“Damage is always a difficult thing to calculate by its outward appear- ance,” the doctor said, running his fingers across Roy’s brow, “because the bruises go deeper than you think. They’re like icebergs.”
He lifted his ophthalmoscope from the pocket of his lab coat and put his hand on Roy’s shoulder. The doctor’s shirt was neatly pressed, and he smelled of expensive cigars. He wore a silk tie held in place by a diamond tack, and his black oxfords had the kind of high-gloss polish that could only come from the skilled hands of a shoeshine boy. “I imagine you gentle- men will find this remarkable,” he said, turning to me and Marty, “but, personally, I have nothing against boxing. In fact, the fights have always been one of my guilty pleasures.”
He smiled, then laughed a little, presumably to curry our sympathy. “Me and Ferdie Pachecho!” he exclaimed. “The only two practicing mem- bers of the AMA who haven’t stood before a senate subcommittee scream- ing to high heaven that the goddamn sport ought to be outlawed.” The smile vanished. “Oh, well,” he said, “I sleep at night.”
Mr. Meeks took the doctor by the arm and, so Roy couldn’t hear, turned the doctor aside and spoke under his breath. He told the doctor that the trouble began when Annie got sick, but the doctor said, “No. It began long before that.”
The doctor sloughed off Mr. Meeks’s hand and put his fingers on Roy’s face, turning it side to side. “If a boxer is repeatedly struck,” he said, part- ing Roy’s eye with his thumb and forefinger, dousing it with light from the ophthalmoscope, “the outcome is almost always predictable.”
He moved the light back and forth so a small circle, like a spotlight on a frozen rink, skated across Roy’s eye. “What happens,” he said, “is that petecchial hemorrhages—or lesions—form on the brain.”
Mr. Meeks leaned in and spoke over the doctor’s shoulder. “Would that account for mood changes?”
“It would account for a great deal of things,” the doctor said, lowering the light, “unsteadiness of gait, loss of memory, mental confusion. They’re all part and parcel of a larger problem.” He clicked the light off and re- turned the instrument to his coat pocket. “What Mr. Landon here has, is, I’m afraid, what’s known as boxer’s encephalopathy. The lay term for it isn’t very elegant, but since I’m in the company of men, and plain language is always best, I’ll give it to you as straightforwardly as I can: Mr. Landon is punch-drunk.
Like I said, the diagnosis was a waste of time. We already knew Roy was punch-drunk. Hell, even Roy knew he was punch-drunk! But Mr. Meeks was a gentle man with refined sensibilities, and having gotten the answers he wanted, he shook the doctor’s hand and thanked him. When the doctor left the room, we waited for Roy to dress, and when he had, the three of us walked out to the courtesy van and drove back to Sunny Acres.
Yeah, they were probably going to fire me for pulling this stupid stunt, but I was beginning not to care.
Roy was an old guy with nothing left and nothing to look forward to— except a one-way trip to the great beyond where, if he was lucky, he might hook up with his dead lady again. So how bad could it be if I walked away from the deal with nothing worse than a pink slip?
Ahead of us, a pair of taillights blinked. I hit the brakes, and the Skylark started to drift, sliding to the right. I spun the wheel in the same direc- tion as the skid, just like you’d do if you hit a patch of ice, and the error corrected itself.
“How you doing, champ?” I said confidently. “You enjoying the ride?” He smiled.
I pointed at the statue of the blindfolded woman on the courthouse lawn and laughed, meanly. She was covered, scales to sandals, with fish flies, and in the glow of the building’s lights, the bugs’ wings blinked like sequins. “There’s justice for you,” I said. “Not a very pretty sight, is she.”
I wished I had a camera so I could send some pictures to my folks back in Wisconsin. But who has a camera when he needs it? I hadn’t seen my mother and father in a long time, and it would have been nice to let them know I was doing okay. That, even though this was where I ended up, I had no complaints. After all these years, a photograph would have been appro- priate. Not as good as a letter, maybe, but still, something to let them know I was thinking of them.
Tomorrow, when I didn’t have a job anymore or a pot to piss in, maybe I’d pick up some film at the drugstore and take a few shots of this crazy mess. Or, even better, maybe I’d ask somebody on the street to take some shots of me, standing in it. My old man would get a charge out of that, I’m sure.
“They’ll have to pull out the snowplows tomorrow,” I told Roy. “It’s the only way to get rid of this shit. Snowplows and street sweepers. What do you think about that, Roy?”
He smiled, nodding.
Sometimes I wonder why he never hung up his gloves. He must have known he wasn’t any good. I guess he loved it, and when you look at it that way, you have to think, what else matters? You’re going to die anyway, aren’t you? Why not go down swinging, doing what makes you happy?
Roy was right to get angry over Annie’s death. That’s what nobody seems to understand. In fact, it was probably natural for him to feel that way. I don’t disagree that they’ve got good cause to keep him from hurting other people, but as far as I’m concerned, nobody’s got the right to strip him of his rage.
I slowed down, easing the car into the big parking lot in front of the Piggly Wiggly. “You ready champ?”
He looked at me.
I pointed the Buick toward the long end of the lot. The asphalt was covered in a blanket of cellophane bug wings that stretched out under the lights like a magic carpet then disappeared little by little into the darkness. I put the accelerator to the floor, felt the tires spin and whine, and smelled the stink of burning bugs just before we rocketed forward into the night. Halfway across the lot, I stomped on the emergency brake and cranked the wheel James Bond style, and the next thing I knew, we were in orbit, doughnutting our way through the universe.
“Hey, Roy,” I yelled, wondering if he’d remember what I’d taught him, “who’s the greatest?”
He turned and, to my utter surprise, said in a quavering voice, “You’re lookin’ at him.”
The car was sliding, gliding.
I laughed and shouted, “How old are you, Roy?”
“Eighty-one!” he shouted back.
“Eighty-one and what?”
“Eighty-one and still sluggin’!”
“Goddamn right, boy,” I said, grinning, fighting back the thing that was swimming up inside me. “And don’t you ever forget it.”
# # #
"Sugar Roy" first appeared in the South Dakota Review.