(Welcome to week six of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-5, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Six. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, February is the cruelest month of the year.)
February is the cruelest month of the year.
February is the month when frost lays waste to motion and darkness comes to haunt; when breezes twist and spin; when winter pipes, they pop and wheeze. February is the season of the witch, when anxiety mounts in layers, casting shadows on all doubts. February is a barren wasteland of skeleton frames and gray skies, where the sun is obscured by clouds and time gets put on hold.
February is the month when gales wrap themselves tightly round the face, and frostbite pricks each finger to the bone; when junkies jimmy cars just to sleep in the backseat; when the homeless hibernate in makeshift cocoons, bracing themselves against the cold; when the recess yards run empty, when power lines buzz and cut in the breeze.
February finds me living alone in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, resigned to seeing my kids twice a month on weekends until the divorce proceedings are complete. February finds me in a tiny railroad apartment where the cold creeps in through tiny cracks and the water never seems to reach a boil; where the thermostat is controlled by neighboring tenants and the lights flicker and dim with the wind.
February finds me in matrimonial purgatory.
I am “going through” a divorce – a misleading phrase which causes people to assume I still have an emotional connection to my wife; that, technically speaking, I’m still a married man, who’s holding out for a happy ending.
To those misguided souls, I can only offer this: Divorce is the happy ending.
It is the months and years leading up to a divorce that are absolute hell, which is all the more reason I simply cannot wait for the whole damned thing to be over.
Going through a divorce is the dating equivalent of leprosy.
One good thing about dating a leper: It’s a pretty safe bet he’ll always leave a tip.
I have been living in a one-bedroom apartment located on the third floor of a converted rowhome that originally belonged to my parents. The rowhome was their first and only real-estate investment, save for the Northeast Philadelphia brownstone the two of them bought a year after they got married.
My father worked as a steamfitter at the Philadelphia Naval Yard – a job that drove him to drink on a daily basis. My father was a grim and abusive man, who regarded my early forays into writing as “the first fucking step toward sucking cock for a living.”
My father never meant to come off as the arrogant asshole he was. He simply grew up in a blue-collar section of a blue-collar town where anything but blue-collar dreams were quickly ground to dust.
The verbal and physical attacks I absorbed as a child were little more than shrapnel compared to what my mother was forced to endure. My mother spent weeks at a time indoors, the side of her face bruised and swollen like a plum, scratches and pressure marks about her arms and neck. The police were called to our house on several occasions, presumably by neighbors who’d never dare admit as much to my father.
When my father grew too fed up or frustrated with his own behavior, he’d pack a bag and disappear to his one-bedroom apartment, where he’d remain for weeks, or perhaps even months, at a time – alone and unhappy, just waiting for the clouds to pass.
A little more than a decade ago, my father died in his one-bedroom apartment – still alone and unhappy, just waiting for the clouds to pass.
A year after my father passed, my mother sold the house that I grew up in, and moved into my father’s one-bedroom apartment. Five years later, she too died here – alone and unhappy, just waiting for the clouds to pass.
When my mother died, the converted rowhome was left to me. I continued to rent out the other four units in the building on a year-to-year basis. But I never rented out my father’s third-floor apartment. Perhaps I figured someday I too might be fortunate enough to die here – alone and unhappy, just waiting for the clouds to pass.
My father’s apartment is located at the intersection of 22nd and Parrish, one block south of Girard College, five blocks north of the Philadelphia Art Museum, two blocks removed from Eastern State Penitentiary – the now-defunct prison I based East End Penitentiary on in Subhuman: Volume One.
Eastern State rises like a gothic castle amidst the red-brick rows and neighborhood shops of Fairmount Avenue – a leftover relic from the Age of Enlightenment, bordered by 40-foot walls, connected by medieval towers. Inside the penitentiary, cell blocks branch out like spokes on a wheel, symbolically meeting at the prison’s core. Each cell is equipped with an inch-wide skylight built into the ceiling, allowing prisoners to read from scripture as a way to pass the time. During the penitentiary’s golden years, the wheels of food carts were covered in leather and prison guards were required to wear socks over their shoes when wandering the corridors – measures taken to preserve the penitentiary’s constant atmosphere of silent reflection and prayer.
Eastern State Penitentiary was conceived in the Quaker tradition of spiritual rebirth.
Quakers are funny people.
Sometimes I trace the city skyline on the windows in my kitchen.
I trace the jagged buildings and the blinking antennae. I trace the outline of William Penn, perched high atop City Hall, his hand extended in blessing to the city below. I trace the whirl of sirens as they speed along Spring Garden, I trace the smell of Sunday omelets. I trace the bells of
St. Francis, as they rise and echo down a thousand dead-end alleys.
I trace the murals and the sculptures, the heroes and the villains. I trace the thin line that separates redemption from ruin. I trace the neighborhoods of a city where the dream is constantly rubbing up against the nightmare, where the pursuit of happiness is beset on all sides by fear and temptation, where even the best of men can – and often do – fall victim to their vices.
I trace the tears of a city so desperately in need of saving, which is precisely why I chose Philadelphia as the inspiration for New London – the semi-fictional metropolis where Subhuman: Volume One takes place.
My agent, Ben Butler, was shrewd enough to recognize my impending divorce for the tremendous business opportunity it was. Claiming I needed a healthy distraction, he booked me on an 11-city, 27-day speaking tour that includes everything from comic book conventions to car dealerships. I suggested promoting these appearances as Bobby Lee’s “Idle Hands” tour, but Ben opted for the more familiar “This is What It’s Like to Be Me” tour – the supreme irony of which would only become apparent shortly after the tour had already begun.
In Pittsburgh, I walk onstage drunk at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, wearing sunglasses and a blue blazer over a black T-shirt with the words “I SHOT J.R.” printed on it. In Milwaukee, I show up two hours late for my appearance, despite the fact I have been sitting on a bench across the street the entire time, sipping rotgut whiskey from a mason jar. In Chicago, I kick Ben Butler out of our hotel room at two o’clock in the morning, so I can have sex with a 19-year old fan who thinks she’s Princess Leia.
Less than two weeks into the tour, my cheeks look pale and haggard. I wear sunglasses to hide the ashen rings around my eyes. I wear a sports coat to disguise my emaciated frame. I am living on a steady diet of Bass Ale and cheese fries. I am staying up through the night. I am sleeping well into the afternoon.
I keep the shades drawn. I keep a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door at all times.
My body clock no longer recognizes the difference between night and day.
I am fooling myself, quite literally.
Ben Butler, on the other hand, is up at dawn, on the treadmill at seven, and well past the most rewarding part of his day by 11 o’clock in the morning. By the time we reach the west coast, Ben’s mission has shifted from trying to reform me to simply propping me up long enough so I can make it through my appearances.
This only fuels my predilection for mischief.
Toward the end of my Q&A session at the San Diego Anime Expo (a session strategically scheduled at 4 PM), I am asked a question by Jeanine Quartersteen – a shift supervisor from
San Diego who’s dressed up as (Anime cult hero) Sazae-san.
Jeanine wants to know if I believe the public’s fascination with comic book heroes is fueled to some degree by the lack of any real-world heroes for people to look up to.
“Well, Jeanine … May I call you Jeanine?” I say, unsure where I might go with this.
Jeanine assures me it’s OK to call her by her first name.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Jeanine … That’s a great question … a really great question, in fact,” I add, still mining for something coherent to say. “And I’d love to answer it in full detail, along with any other questions I haven’t had the opportunity to address. But we seem to have run out of time … And you know what? That’s A-OK with me, because I’m actually much better in a barroom setting.”
“So I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” I continue, rising from my chair to address the audience as a whole. “I’m gonna take it upon myself to officially adjourn today’s proceedings. Then I’m going to ask everyone in the audience to follow me across the street to a fantastic little dive I discovered called Kelly’s Hole. This much I can promise you: The first round’s on me, and I’ll be sure to answer every goddamned question the lot of you can muster, even if it takes me ’til four o’clock in the morning to do so.”
The audience is on its feet now, applauding feverishly.
“Somebody call Guiness!” I say, leaning into my body mic for effect, “We’re about to set the record for the longest happy hour in the history of mankind. Who’s with me?”
I wander back to the San Diego Marquis an hour after last call – bottle of Jameson in one hand, Jeanine Quartersteen in the other.
Ben Butler left Kelly’s Hole around 9 PM. I assume he’s been asleep for hours. Hoping to avoid another incident like Chicago, I lead Jeanine Quartersteen into a side stairwell en route to the hotel roof.
When we reach the fourth floor landing, I stop to take a quick tug of whiskey. I pass the bottle to Jeanine Quartersteen. While she is drinking, I notice a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall.
“Let’s make a rock video,” I say, pulling the extinguisher from its post.
“OK,” Jeanine Quartersteen says, leaning back against a pillar. “Let’s.”
I pull the safety clip from the fire extinguisher and point the nozzle at the ground. I pull the trigger back in quick bursts, spraying tiny clouds of sodium bicarbonate all over the landing. As the vapors rise, shrouding both of us in a chalk-white mist, I start singing in a shrill falsetto, using the extinguisher as a makeshift guitar.
“Here I am! Rock you like a hurricane!” I sing. “Here I aaaaaam! Rock you like a hurricaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaane!”
Jeanine Quartersteen’s silk skirt is swinging back and forth in time. Her fist is in the air, an unlit cigarette poking out between her knuckles. The ruby-red rouge drawn in perfect circles upon her cheeks is moist with sweat now, trickling down in small drops toward her jawline.
It’s a scene, man. And just before I prepare to launch into an explosive, mind-altering air-guitar solo, the bicarbonate vapors hit the ceiling.
Seconds later, the entire stairwell’s booming with fire whistles and bright flashes of light. I spin round, opening the stairwell door, only to find the alarms are booming twice as loud throughout the hallways. Within seconds, the hotel guests will spill into the stairwell, half awake and wholly disoriented.
There is no time to spare.
I look at Jeanine Quartersteen and she looks at me.
Neither of us knows what to do.
I drop the extinguisher. Jeanine tosses me the bottle of Jameson. She runs upstairs and I run down. I scramble toward ground level, then scurry out the side exit and across the parking lot. I have a considerable jump on the hotel guests, none of whom have managed to exit the hotel yet.
I find an El Camino parked beneath a fake palm tree near the southwest corner of the parking lot. I walk around to the back bumper and plant myself on a parking block – breathing heavily between belts of Jameson.
I lean my head against the El Camino’s rear bumper. Then I wait, like a soldier seeking cover – peeking around the corner cautiously to avoid detection.
I wait … And I wait. I wait for the fire marshal to come wandering round the bend and kick the living shit out of me. I wait for one of the hotel guests to lead a torch-happy mob across the parking lot. I wait for someone, anyone, to round the corner and out me for what I’ve done. But the minutes pass, and eventually, the alarms stop whistling.
Shortly after, I glance around the rear bumper to find the hotel guests are filing back inside.
I allow myself to breathe easy, assuming the danger has passed … That is until I hear the sweeping clap of Bruno Maglis approaching from the east.
It would seem Ben Butler has come to collect his investment.
Ben Butler’s investment is a whiskey-soaked puddle of piss, leaning awkwardly against the rear bumper of a jet-black El Camino.
Ben Butler’s investment is a wash.
Ben Butler stands over me for several seconds, a somber silhouette staring down with both hands in its pockets.
He sits next to me on the parking block, tilting his head back against the El Camino’s rear bumper. Ben holds out his hand. I pass him the bottle of Jameson. He takes a healthy swig and passes the bottle back.
“You did this, didn’t you?” Ben says, staring upward at the sky.
“Oh, yeah,” I nod.
“How’d you know?” I ask.
“There was a set of powder-white footprints leading from the back door of the hotel directly to this parking block – Chuck Taylor, size 10,” Ben says. “Figured I’d either find you or Casper the Friendly Ghost hiding back here.”
“Fuck,” I say, inspecting the soles of my sneakers. “We need to get out of here … And I need to get rid of these shoes.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ben says. “I brushed away the tracks on my way across the parking lot. I think you’re in the clear.”
“How ’bout that?” I say, leaning back once more. “Team Lee does it again.”
“I want you to know that I’m done with all of this,” Ben says, clapping the gravel off of his hands.
“It’s cool,” I say. “You head upstairs and get some sleep. I’ll be up in a bit.”
“No, Bobby, I don’t think you understand. I’m done with all of this,” Ben says, making a spinning motion with his index finger. “I’m done with the tour, the games, the endless layers of bullshit. I’m done with all of it. And I’d say it’s nothing personal, but at this point, it kind of is. I’m exhausted, Bobby. I feel like I’ve spent the past five years of my life playing nursemaid to an emotional cripple. This isn’t what I signed up for, y’know? I think it’s time the two of us stop enabling each other and get on with whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing with our lives.”
“What if this is what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives?” I ask.
“Well, then that’s a sad commentary on our lives,” Ben says. “At least it is for me. I mean, I sat at that bar last night and I listened to you tell that would-be-geisha how you were working on a tabloid-style takedown called Bobby Lee’s Big Book of B-List Celebrity Callouts. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ve definitely heard that one before, haven’t I?’
“Look at yourself, Bobby. It’s like you’ve taken your entire life and turned it into some sort of punch line, where you’re the only one who’s in on the joke … or – at the very least – you’re the only one who’s laughing.”
“Oh, c’mon,” I say, dismissing Ben with a shrug. “Go upstairs and get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. I promise.”
“No, I won’t,” Ben says, rising to his feet. “In fact, I’ll feel worse. This isn’t an easy decision for me to make, Bobby. And it won’t be any easier tomorrow when I’m on a six-hour flight back to New York. But it’s what needs to happen. We simply can’t go on treating one another like this.”
“But we’re a team,” I say, beginning to realize the gravity of the situation. “I’m
your all-access pass, right? I mean, what on earth would you do without me?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Ben says. “Maybe go back to working as a literary agent. There’s no doubt this whole experience has helped boost my visibility with publishers. But everything I have right now is tied up in you. And that’s a risky investment, to say the least. I mean, let’s be honest, Bobby. There’s nothing left in that tank of yours but dust and fumes at this point. When the inevitable crash does eventually happen – that is if it hasn’t happened already – I don’t want to be like all the other debris in your life … scattered and useless, waiting to be swept up and tossed aside.”
“OK, knock it off,” I say, rising to my feet. “We’re not making a Lifetime movie here. If this is how you want to characterize the situation, fine. But let’s be honest: In the end, we both know you need me worlds more than I need you.”
“You know what?” Ben says, deadpan. “That might have been true at some point in time, but it’s really not anymore. Unlike you, Bobby Lee, the whole world hasn’t been standing still for me these past 10 years or so. If I was forced to start over tomorrow, it wouldn’t be easy, but I’m pretty sure I’d be OK … more than OK, actually. The weight has kind of shifted, y’know? In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’m the only person you have left. … Well, that is except for your kids, of course, who are still too young to realize what an irresponsible fuck-up you’ve become. When I skip town tomorrow, what are you gonna do? Keep blowing your appearance fees buying drinks for a bar full of people you’ve never even met? Calling your kids drunk and asking them the same stupid questions you asked them the night before? How long is all that really going to last, Bobby? And how long before everyone else starts to see it for the desperate coping mechanism it so obviously is? I mean, you’re at the point now where you’re literally paying complete strangers to sit on a barstool and listen to your bullshit … Kind of has a unique symmetry, don’t you think?”
“Beats being the full-time bitch of a guy who has to pay complete strangers to sit on a barstool and listen to his bullshit,” I say, drunk and desperate.
“Yeah, well, I agree,” Ben says. “Which is exactly why I’m walking away from this before it gets any worse.”
With that Ben Butler turns and walks back toward the hotel. I am left standing under a fake palm tree in the San Diego Marquis parking lot, exhausted and unsure.
When I get back to the hotel room an hour later, Ben Butler is already gone.
I finish my bottle of Jameson in the dark. I look out across the San Diego skyline.
I complete the rest of my speaking tour alone and unhappy.
I am 100% sober.
February is the cruelest month of the year.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Seven)