IT ONLY HURTS WHEN I LAUGH by Ben Schachtman
I REMEMBER THAT I DID my hair up with Elmer’s and Kool-Aid, some real London-calling shit. Had my own apartment. Fridge full of leftover pizza and beer. I read Burroughs and Stephen Hawkins. I snorted a lot of speed, kicked it without a problem when money ran short. Thought I was really fucking cool. Look you right in the eye, man, look you right in the eye and laugh the laugh of the righteous.
First time I got cuffed, just laughed and laughed and shouted: no future!
I mean it, I really laughed, not even to be a dick, I just really thought it was funny.
Now it hurts when I laugh.
I remember one night this waitress, Rose, she got pissed off, but didn’t lose it. Cool as you please, she took a whole tray of glasses and slung the fuckers into the ice-bin on her way out the back door. The GM, a true brain-stem of a guy, spent the afternoon trying to pick out pieces of glass from the ice and finally gave up, his eyes strained, hands in ribbons. We unplugged the thing and pulled the drain open, watched as a steady trickle of pink ice-water came dripping out onto the white tile underneath the machine. Finally, someone thought to pour hot water into it. Even then, somehow, every once and a while, a customer would get their tongue gouged by a shard of glass in their ice water.
When I think about it now, I feel a little warmth on my cheek, a little warm trickle, down to my neck almost, and I’m wondering if the morphine is wearing off. Yeah. Morphine. The good stuff, professional grade, laboratory stuff. I’ve been to the hospital, this hospital, three times. Once when I switched dealers and twice when I just got stupid and fucked up my dosing. I’ve got a record – I know it says it on my chart. They get people like me in here all the time with mysterious pains and drama-school tears, looking for a state-sponsored fix. They put ‘em through the ringer and if they give ‘em anything before they kick ‘em to the curb, it’s those twenty-dollar Tylenol.
They didn’t even ask me my name before they dosed me. That’s how bad I fucked myself up.
I remember this guy: Marvin. Marvin the Martian. Marvin was our prep cook for a couple weeks. Seemed like a decent guy, had a wife and a couple of kids, he was some kind of preacher-in-training, he would give practice sermons on off-days, like Wednesday and Friday morning. He would always invite us, although we never went to see him. Nice guy. Except, if you stood close to him, you could hear his teeth grind from the meth. You could say I’m not one to judge, but I did. We all did.
Also, I remember that he never labeled things. We thought he was just forgetful or lazy, but then we got a bad Health Department score and the GM cracked down. It was a shitty time. Salaries got cut to help pay the fines. Everyone with hair nets and beard nets – yeah, they exist and yeah, some of us actually shaved rather than wear ‘em. Everyone walking around with three or four different meat thermometers – soups, meats, poultries and seafoods –stuck in their chef’s coats so that we all looked like lab techs. And we had to label everything, date and time, sign our name.
The first day or so after the crack-down, when we pulled a batch of Marvin’s prep, we figured it out – the man couldn’t spell. Probably couldn’t read or write very well at all. We thought he just had the recipe book memorized. But there they were: a hotel pan of rib-eye steaks labeled: “stakes”. There was “chikun” and “skrimp”. And our favorite, a big batch of par-cooked portabella mushrooms labeled: “Protos”
That joke took on a life of its own. We developed a whole back story – the ancient and mighty Protos – Lord of the Underworld, Primal Pagan God of Kitchens. We would sacrifice button mushrooms to him and chant “All Hail Lord Protos!”. We made the best of a lousy time.
Eventually Marvin figured out we were making fun of him and he stabbed Pike in the side with a paring knife. The knife was dull and barely went deep enough to hit a rib. Pike put two of Marvin’s teeth out. When the cops came, Pike wouldn’t press charges. He didn’t even go to the hospital, just wrapped his side in gauze and duct-tape. Marvin signed a police statement with an X. The GM felt too bad to even fire him. Marvin quit on his own. But we joked that Marvin had really just been Lord Protos in disguise the whole time, come to Earth to walk amongst man. We thought it was hysterical, we laughed until we cried, grown men on their knees, crying in the kitchen. Not that Marvin’s family probably found it all that funny. But someone had to laugh.
It still gets half a smile out of me, all I can muster. Any more than that and the doctor will be back in here with a needle and thread and more stern words. Not that he seems all that confident about the skin graft in the first place. If I was a car he wouldn’t pay to have me towed to the junk yard.
I remember my first job. I worked for this prick, smart-ass kid from up North. College grad with no tattoos. He was just slumming it in the kitchen, he wasn’t a lifer. I’ll cop to jealousy, all the waitresses hoping he was their ship come in. Or that’s what I thought. They probably just weren’t bored of him yet, like they were all bored of me and the other guys.
We’d argue about physics, black holes and quasars. One night, a slow fuck-all-to-do night in October, we got to arguing about time travel. I had this theory about time travel, about if you could build a ship or something that got down to absolute zero, then it would travel through time. See, because particles – matter, everything that makes up you and your clothes and shit – are all the same. I mean, they all travel at the same total speed, when you add together how fast they’re moving through space plus how fast they’re moving through time. That’s why at the speed of light, you stop moving through time, because you use up all your speed – because light speed is the maximum speed you can go. So at the speed of light you ain’t got no more speed to go through time. So my theory was, fuck it, go the opposite way. Slow down, get something so cold that it doesn’t even vibrate, which counts as moving, then you’d zip ahead in time. Maybe see if the future is any better.
And me and this prick, we’re working the late shift, and taking turns in the walk-in, crushing up Adderall. We’re high as shit, arguing about time travel. He keeps telling me my whole plan is fucked, cause, even if I’m right – and he’s just got to keep adding that this is a ‘big if’ – that anyone who got inside my theoretical time-travel ship would fucking freeze to death.
So I’m pissed off and railed out of my mind, and I’m up all night, sketching out plans for it, trying to think of ways to keep the ship cold and the time-traveler himself – that is, me –warm enough to survive. About six in the morning I crash and pass out. I forgot to set an alarm, so when I wake up, I’m about five hours late for work. And when I get to work, the fucking prick fires me: No call, no show.
I guess the point is that I can still laugh at myself, a little bit. I can feel a warm trickle of blood on my neck, so I must be laughing. I mean, wow –
Once, they made Johnny get a hair-cut in exchange for a raise. Fucking kid, he was due for a raise anyway. But he went bounding out the door, a ten-dollar bill in his hand. He came back thirty minutes later, clean shorn, clean shaven too. He signed the paperwork and got his raise.
Half-an-hour later he was on the bottom rung of life. Walter gave him hell. Pike gave him extraordinary hell. Even Pilot, who was usually protective of that space cadet, even Pilot gave him hell. Johnny moped around all day and then. Then, out of nowhere, around five or six in the evening, he decided he was going to eat a hundred bucks’ worth of shrimp, a whole ten pound bag. To redeem himself. He started out sautéing a few and tossing them with pasta. We just laughed.
Then Johnny got serious about it. He threw shrimp in the fryer, in the steamer, in the oven, in boiling water, he made ceviche with lemon juice. He opened a gallon jar of cocktail sauce. By nine he put away seven pounds and was still going. We started chanting, two syllable grunts: “John-ny! John-ny!”
By eleven he was down to the last pound, sprawled with his feet in front of him, a bowl of cocktail sauce in his lap, one door of the fridge ajar, his arm hanging inside, his hand resting on the last two dozen shrimp. There were little pink tails all over the kitchen. The fryer stunk like shrimp, covered over with a layer of brown and pink flakes. Johnny’s face was pale and sweaty, his stomach poked out between his chef’s pants and his t-shirt, tight as a helium balloon.
When we closed up, we cleaned around him. He nibbled at the last shrimp, three and four bites per shrimp. Right around midnight, he finished the last one. We offered to carry him down to Aggie’s but he just stood up, very slowly, and shook his head. Then he vomited on the freshly mopped floor, what looked like three gallons of pink mud. We told him we’d take care of it for him. He smiled a little bit and stumbled out of the kitchen.
When the GM stuck his head in, to see what the awful smell was, Walter beamed with pride.
“That’s what Johnny thinks of your fucking raise!”
This one always gets me, maybe most of all. I can tell because I’m clicking away on this little red button in my good hand but, still, I can feel the heat coming up under my cheek and along my jaw, and I can definitely feel a sticky, warm pool forming at my collarbone.
Now the heat has given way to pain, like someone is pulling the flesh up off the bone. I’m trying to hold still but every time the doctor even touches it, it feels like molten steel being poured into my mouth through the hole in my face. I black out from the pain and then the pain wakes me up again. Finally, the nurse shows up and gets this stupid fucking MD out of my face, literally, and I feel the pressure change in the IV line and…
When I come to I’m floating in a bowl of iridescent jelly. My head is attached to my body, which is in another room, by a long, purple rope. The nurse holds the back of my head with her fingers fanned out to support me. I like her face.
“You’re going to be okay,” she smiles, “you just need to rest.”
I nod, my head bobs up and down. She holds a little flash-light. The bulb glows white and it has rings like Saturn, wide, shimmering rainbow rings that slowly spin and flicker. She presses a marker into my hand and props it up against a little dry-erase board, like a kid ready for cursive letters.
She says: “You need to rest, do you need anything else?”
I write: Did she come?
The nurse looks away from me.
I write: Did she call?
She says: “Would you like me to put the television on for you?”
I write: Are you seeing anyone?
She smiles and says: “Give it time. After your surgery, you’ll be able to talk better, you can call her.”
I write: Ugly
She says: “I’ve seen worse.”
I underline the ‘are you seeing anyone’ line and point to it with the marker.
She says: “It’ll get better.”
I chuckle, wince, and try to hold still. I write: Ow! No more jokes.
She laughs a little and says: “There you go, you know, a sense of humor is a good thing, keeps your spirits up. You’ll be okay, trust me, I really have seen much worse.”
I write: you say this to all the guys
She takes out a small syringe and attaches it to the IV line. I try to write something else, but my hand feels heavy and I’m already floating even farther away from my body. As I drift away the nurse tucks my body under the covers, she cleans the blood from my neck and chest. Her movements are gentle but quick, and it’s the quickness that reminds me this is her job. She gently takes the writing-board out from under my hand. She lifts my hand and sets it down at my side. I dream that she’s off the clock. I dream that she kisses my fingers. I dream that she’s somebody else. I dream that I’m somebody else. I dream that someone tells me a joke about the line cook who got a bad dose and passed out on the grill, the guy with half a mouth, I hear the joke and I laugh and it doesn’t rip apart the skin on my face.
I dream she’s kissing my hand. I dream she’s somebody else.
I dream we all are.
BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN performs poorly when it comes to writing about himself in the third person, even when he tries to do so in a mildly clever and self-effacing manner. Often, as in this case, he will panic and present random biographical details: former punk rock bassist, retired chef, occasional line-cook and barista, graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook, lives in Chinatown with his wife Casey and their dog, Bear.