My feet hurt. The nightmare still in my head, I walk across the cold wood floor, shuffling my feet in the light grit. I’m half-drunk and I have to pee. I’m not sure which woke me, the piss or the nightmare.
My john is just a bit smaller than the average port-o-potty. I sit on the pot and rest my forehead against the opposite wall. I have a pee hard-on and if I try to take a leak standing up, I’ll end up hosing the whole can. I know this from experience. Plus my feet still hurt.
It takes a while. By the time I finish I’m just about asleep again. I get up, flush, and shuffle back to bed. On the way, a last bit of piss dribbles onto my thigh. I pick up a dirty sock from the floor, wipe the urine off and toss the sock in a corner.
I crawl back under the covers and twist around a bit until I’m arranged. I start to drift back asleep and the nightmare begins to rise up again in my mind. I force myself fully awake to keep it from getting back in. I think happy thoughts. I think about a dog I used to have. I think about Yvonne. I think about baseball: long, lazy games of baseball, plastic cups of cold beer between my thighs, peanut shells crunching beneath my sneakers. Fly balls soaring over loping outfielders. The beautiful ease of the long pop fly out . . . No! Wrong! Baseball is a mistake and the nightmare is rushing back in. I think about home. Home does the trick and I start to ease back asleep. And only then as I finally fall asleep do I register the blood I saw on the sock when I wiped my leg, the blood from my piss. I sleep.
* * *
These things are not related: my aching feet, the nightmare, the blood. My feet have hurt for years because of the job. The nightmare has been going on for half my life. The blood in my piss is brand new, but I know exactly where I got that too.
I got the bloody piss from the beating I took from a couple of guys last night. By last night I mean a few long hours before the nightmare woke me up. And when I say I took a beating from these guys, I really mean they gave it to me. Free. I got lucky; they both had small hands. Go figure, two big guys with small hands. It happens. They didn’t want to bust up those little hands working on my face, so they gave it to my body. It didn’t take long. They put some good ones in my gut and ribs and I dropped. Then I took a couple boot shots in the kidneys. That’s where the blood is coming from.
The alarm goes off at 8:00 a.m. Now that the booze has worn off I hurt everywhere, but my feet are what’s really killing me. I go to the can, sure enough: more blood. I brush my teeth and hop in the shower. Bruises are starting to well up all over my torso and the hot water feels good. I leave the shower running and walk dripping to the fridge, grab a cold beer and take it back to the shower. The water feels good, but the beer is better. It takes the edge off my hangover, kicks up the dust of last night’s drunk and gives it life. I take the washcloth from the shower caddie and gently scrub my feet.
Out of the shower now, I finish the last of the beer while trimming my toenails. I clip them very short and even and make sure there is no grit hiding at the edges. I find a clean pair of socks with no holes and get dressed. I head out the front door. There’s time for breakfast.
At the diner I have bacon and eggs and another beer. The first beer was good, but the second is even better. I’m heading into the third week of a pretty good binge and the first couple drinks of the day are always the best. I have to ease into it with beer because my job starts late. If I hit it too early I’ll be drooling by the time the shift begins. I sip the beer, eat my chow, and look over the sports pages.
As a rule, the Daily News consists of equal parts violent sensationalism, feel-good human interest, celebrity gossip and advertising. I read it every day and feel dirty all over. But it’s New York, and everybody gets dirty sooner or later. Today it’s all election coverage and stories about yet more dotcoms biting the dust. I flip past the photos of the interchangeable candidates and get to the important stuff. See, the reason I started buying this rag in the first place is because it’s the only way to get West Coast scores in the morning. Unless you have cable. I can’t afford cable.
Back in California, the Giants are suffering their usual late season collapse. A week ago they were in striking distance of first place. But after a seven-game skid, they’ve been eliminated from contention for the division and are trailing the Mets for the wild card by four games with eight games left in the season. Meanwhile the Dodgers are red hot and have the division clinched after winning twelve of their last fourteen.
I look at my watch and it’s time to go see the doctor.
I hate the Dodgers.
I’ve had this appointment for a week. I’m not here about the blood, I’m here about my feet. I’ve tried every kind of shoe and insert I can find and my feet are still killing me. So now, after years of bitch- ing, I’m finally seeing a doctor. I could ask about the blood while I’m here, but what the hell is he gonna tell me? He’s gonna tell me to go to an emergency room and they’re gonna tell me that it’s not life-threatening. They’re gonna charge me a few thou I don’t have to tell me to rest a bit and not to drink alcohol or caffeine. I don’t drink caffeine. It makes me jittery. I sit in the waiting room and think about that second beer and how good it was.
I’m not worried about the kidney. If the kidney was serious, I’d be unconscious by now. It’s contused: my kidney is scraped and it’s bleeding a bit. Dr. Bob comes out of his office and calls my name.
Dr. Bob is a great guy. He’s an Ivy League med school graduate who came to the Lower East Side and opened a community practice. He’ll take anybody as a patient insurance or no insurance, his rates are as low as they get, and you pay your bills whenever you can. All of which suits my situation. He told me once he didn’t want to make people healthy just to make them poor. Like I said, a great guy.
I told him about the feet a week ago and he sent me out for some X rays. Now, in his tiny office, he turns from where the X rays are clipped to one of those light things on the wall and sits on the stool in front of me. He starts to look at my feet. He really takes his time, inspecting them. He holds each foot, first one and then the other, and kneads a bit, searching for some imperfection. All the while, he directs his eyes upward, as if they might interfere with the examination: a safecracker with his eyes shut.
He squeezes my feet a few more times, then stands up. He’s talking now, but I’m having trouble hearing what he’s saying. He’s gesturing from my feet to the X rays. I’m thinking about getting out of here and drinking my next beer. I’m thinking how I wish I were lying down right now because I feel a little strange. He is looking at me oddly.
The roaring in my ears is not the hangover. I cannot hear over it and it occurs to me that something must be wrong. The examining table spins out from underneath me and I thump to the floor. I try to lift myself up, but I can’t. I feel a warm wetness spreading over my lap and down my legs. I can see the tops of my feet. I can see the tips my three-hundred-dollar sneakers that are supposed to be the most comfortable things that money can buy but are not. And I can see the bloody urine trickling out the cuffs of my jeans. Something is very wrong. I sleep.
This is how life changes.
You’re born in California and raised as an only child in a pleasant suburb a ways east of San Francisco. You have a nice childhood with parents who love you. You play baseball. You are tremendously gifted at the game and you love it. By the time you are seventeen you have a room full of trophies. You have played on two teams that have competed for the Little League World Series and are the star player on your high school’s varsity squad. You’re a four-tool player: bat, glove, arm, and legs. You play center field. You lead the team in homers, ERA, RBI, stolen bases, and have no errors. Pro scouts have been coming to see you play all year and when you graduate, everyone expects you will skip college to be signed for development by a Major League club. At every game you look into the stands and your parents are always there.
In the regional championship game you are caught stealing third. You slide hard into the bag as the third baseman leaps to snare a high throw from the plate. Your cleats dig into the bottom of the base and as you pop up out of your slide, the third baseman is coming down with the ball. He lands on the ankle of your caught foot and, as you continue up, he falls down with his full weight on your lower leg.
The bone sticks straight out from your calf, and you just stare at it.
The pins they stick in your fibula restrict growth in the bone. It will not heal properly and for the rest of your life you have a hard knot of scar and bundled muscle tissue that aches in cold, wet weather. No one even pretends you will play again.
You stay away from the games and don’t see much of your old friends. You have new friends, and you get in a little trouble. You work after school and buy a Mustang and fix it up with your dad, the mechanic. You drive everywhere and drag all the local motor-heads. You always win. When there’s no one around to race, you drive fast on the back roads outside of town and get a rush from the speed. It’s not baseball, but it’s something.
Out by the cattle ranches, after midnight, a calf wanders into the road through a split in the fence. You swerve and pound down on the brake pedal. The wheel crazes out of your hand and the car heels down on the front right tire. The tire explodes. The wheel rim bites into the tarmac and the car flips up and begins to sail end over end. You are suspended in the car, held tight to the seat by the four-point harness your dad insisted you install. The car tumbles through the air and passes harmlessly over the calf. The Ford completes a full revolution, lands on its bottom, careens across the road and slams its front end into an oak.
Your friend Rich does not have his seat belt on. When you first saw the calf and slammed the brakes, Rich was kneeling on his seat, turned around and rummaging in the back for a sweatshirt.
During the flip you are for a moment suspended upside down. Rich bounces around the interior of the car and falls to the roof, sprawled on his back. He is looking at you, into your eyes, his face less than a foot away, inches away. The car flips with sudden violence, Rich disappears from your vision, and as you plow into the tree he appears to leap at the front windshield from somewhere behind you. He launches through the glass and flies the short distance to where the oak catches him brutally.
Lots of people show up at the funeral and cry and hug you. You have a bruised sternum and a cut on your cheek, and you look no one in the eye. Afterward your parents take you home.
In the spring you graduate and in the fall go to college in Northern California. You think about being a physical therapist or an EMT. You think about teaching like your mom. You won’t go to work in your dad’s garage. You don’t want to work on cars anymore. You don’t even drive.
You never graduate. You go to college for six years and study a bit of everything and do well at all of it, but you never graduate. You’re not sure what to do and then you meet a girl. She’s an actress.
You show up in New York with your girl and the two of you stay on the couch at her friend’s place. Two weeks after you get to the city, she gets a job on the road and leaves. The friend tells you that you have to move out.
New York has great public transportation. You never have to drive. You decide to stay. You find an apartment the size of your folks’ kitchen. You get a job tending bar. For the first time in your life you start drinking. You’re good at it.
You live in New York, but you always act like a guy from a small town in California. You help winos out of the gutter, you call an ambulance when you see someone hurt, you loan money to friends who need it and don’t ask for it back, you let folks flop at your pad and you help the blind across the street. One night you go to break up a fight in the bar and get knocked around pretty good, so the next day you start taking boxing classes. You drink too much, but your parents don’t know that.
You’re a good guy, you’re tough and you have a reputation in your neighborhood for helping people out. It’s nice. It’s not the life you expected, but it’s nice enough for you. You feel useful, you have friends and your parents love you. Ten years pass.
One day the guy who lives across the hall from you knocks on your door. He needs a big favor. That’s when life really changes.
When I wake up, the first thing I think about is the fucking cat. I’m looking after this guy’s cat for a couple weeks. God knows how long I’ve been out and if the thing is even alive. Fuck! I knew this would happen. I told the guy I wasn’t good with animals, that I can barely take care of myself, but he was really up against it, so I took the damn cat. Then I see I’m in the hospital and figure out I may have more important things to worry about.
A joke: Guy is born with three testicles and spends his whole life feeling like a freak. Boys make fun of him in gym class, girls laugh at him. Finally, he can’t take it and goes to have one of them lopped off. The doctor takes one look and tells the guy no way, it’s too dangerous, might kill him or something, but he sends him to a shrink who might help out. This counselor or whatever he is tells the guy to take it easy, he should be proud of this third ball, he’s special. I mean, how many guys have three testicles, right? So the guy feels great after that. He leaves the doc’s office, walks into the street, goes up to the first man he sees and says, “Did you know, between you and me we’ve got five balls?” This dude looks at him funny and says, “You mean you only have one?”
First guy I see when I walk out of the hospital I go up to and start talking.
—Did you know, between you and me we only have three kidneys?
He doesn’t say anything, just walks around me like I’m not there.
New York, baby, New York.
I’ve been in the hospital for six days: one unconscious and five conscious. The doctors removed the kidney, which had been nearly ruptured by the two big guys with four small hands and further damaged by my negligence and massive consumption of diuretic liquids. Booze. The kidney was at “four plus” when they took it out. At “five,” they simply explode and kill you. I have been told that I should never again consume alcohol in any amount for the rest of my life on pain of death. Likewise no smoking or caffeine. I don’t smoke and, like I said, caffeine makes me jittery.
After I blacked out, Dr. Bob called the EMTs and had them take me to Beth Israel. He rode with me in the ambulance and when we arrived he got me past all the emergency room crap and directly into an operating room. He saved my life. One of the doctors told me all of this and when Bob showed up I tried to thank him, but he waved it off in a just-doing-my-job kind of way. Then we get to my feet.
—So, your condition is chronic and brought on by the amount of time you spend on your feet at work.
I’m a bartender. I work a ten-hour shift five nights a week. Sometimes six or seven nights.
—You could buy a lifetime supply of Dr. Scholl’s and get your feet massaged every night and it would not help. If you want the pain to go away, you are going to have to get off your feet.
—What if I?—
—Off your feet. You’re like a computer worker with carpal tunnel: if you want it to go away, you are going to have to change your work habits forever.
—Yes, wow. Furthermore, the pain in your feet has been exacerbated by poor circulation, which I would say is related to excessive alcohol consumption.
—Yes. So stop drinking. Period.
—Yeah, sounds good.
And that was that. He told me good luck and was on his way out when I asked about the bill.
—When you get a new job and you’ve paid off your bill here, we’ll talk about money.
A great guy.
Booze and my kidney. Booze and my feet. A pattern emerging.
I called the bar and talked to Edwin, the guy who owns the place. I apologized for the lack of notice, but Edwin was cool and just told me not to be a stranger.
Would I have quit if it was just the booze and the kidney? If someone said, “Get away from the booze and the drinking life or you’re gonna die,” would I have quit? I don’t know, but my feet are killing me and that tears it.
I called my folks, made sure they knew I was OK and told them not to come out or expect me to come home to be nursed. Mom cried a little, but I made her laugh in the end, telling her the testicle joke. Dad asked if I needed money and I said no. We talked about Christmas a bit and how long I’d stay when I come out and then I told them I love them and they told me they love me and we hung up and I just fucking stared at the ceiling for a while.
I called one of the other bartenders from work. Her name is Yvonne, we used to see each other quite a bit, still do from time to time. So she’s a girl I see from time to time. She’s more than that. She’s my best friend. But I also see her from time to time. She has a key to my place, so I told her about the cat and she promised to check on it until I got home. She offered to come by the hospital, but I said no. I want to be alone. I need to figure out what the hell I’m gonna do.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston. Copyright © 2004 by Charlie Huston. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.