Depression; experience without understanding
Harry Sterling knew he was driving too fast. The narrow road was so black that the white stripe down the center was startling in the dark, bending and straightening as if it was belly dancing in the headlights. Harry had the steering wheel in a sweaty grip, matching the curves turn for turn, but he couldn’t seem to get his right foot to lift up from the gas pedal. It seemed that no part of his body was responding to his wishes. His stomach threatened to eject its contents at any moment, which would be disastrous for both the interior of the car and his own survival. He was singing, loudly and atonally, “Carry On My Wayward Son,” and nothing he could tell himself would make the singing stop. He was drunk, stinking, deadly drunk, and was horrifically aware of it with a tiny, sober part of himself, deep in his brain. It was the part that was trying to get his foot to lighten up on the gas, the part that was so very grateful for the independent intelligence of his hands.
Where am I going again? he asked that sober part for at least the third time. The sober part said, You’re going to a fucking fortune teller. She’s going to predict your future, you worthless, drunken bastard.
He didn’t drink often, but when he did, terrible things happened. He couldn’t stop at one, or even two. It always turned into six or eight or ten, no matter how hard that internal voice screamed at him, no matter how many sympathetic, disapproving looks he got from his companions, no matter how great his mortification from the waitress’s rolling eyes or the contempt of other bar patrons. Most of the time he didn’t even want liquor; he hated wine, and beer rarely called to him at all. But once in a while, something happened, some memory knocked him over or someone put a cocktail in his unresisting hand, bought a round, something, and then there he was, drowning in the pit of his own lack of self-control.
He had been to the Brew House only once before, at the beginning of the fall semester, his first at the university as a visiting professor. Most of the law students gathered there every Friday afternoon during the school year, along with a few of the younger professors. That Friday in September, he’d tried to keep it to one beer, but it turned into two, and then God knew how many. He’d managed to stagger out of the bar without doing anything too awful, although he’d woken up in his backyard wearing only his pants. He had felt as bad as it was possible to feel while still being alive, not only because of the hangover. The mosquitoes that lurked in the grass had feasted on him during the night. When he came to, his left eye refused to open, the numerous bites on his eyelid having caused it to swell to the size of a peach; the ones in his armpits prevented him from being able to fully lower his arms for two days.
That experience had been enough to keep him away from anything alcoholic for six months, until today, another Friday. His best student, a twenty-something second-year named Dan Polti, was going through an acrimonious divorce and wanted a sympathetic and divorced adult to talk to. Dan knew that Harry didn’t usually drink, although he didn’t know why. They’d sat for a while by themselves, Dan’s head occasionally dropping into his hands as he talked while Harry sat helpless, trying to feel more sympathy than he actually did. Most of the other students were sitting at a long wooden table under one of the speakers that hung like huge tumors from the wall. The number of students at the long table had grown until privacy was no longer possible, and Dan had left. Harry had tried to leave as well, but Judd Lippman, another youngish law professor, had corralled Harry into joining the merriment at the long table, and Harry hadn’t had sufficient energy to say no. Judd was one of those professors who preyed on the newest and most toothsome of the female students; he had his arm draped over one now, a slender twenty-four-year-old with the unfortunate name of Veronica Ho. Ronnie, as she was known, was shy and very pretty, a fact that Harry tried to find interesting but only succeeded in finding sad.
He’d tried to say no to the mug of beer that someone poured for him from a giant, sweaty pitcher in the center of the table, but the mug had stayed stubbornly in front of him, only an inch or so from his right hand.
“How’s the book coming, Harry?” Judd hollered. Judd’s hair was receding, and his forehead was shining under faux Tiffany lamps; these hung from what looked like fat, dark cables, but on closer inspection Harry could see they were in fact metal chains. The cobwebs coating them were so thick that they obscured the links. He took a drink. The beer tasted like soap.
“Fine,” he said.
“What’s fine?” said Judd. Judd was already drunk.
“The book,” Harry said. “It’s going fine.”
Julie Canfield, a second-year who Harry had been told had a crush on him, opened soft brown eyes wide and said, “What’s your book going to be about, Dr. Sterling?”
He took another swallow of beer. It still tasted lousy, but he took a third anyway. There was silence at the table. Oh, Jesus Christ, he thought, is every goddamned person here looking at me? Shit, shit, shit. There is no book, his brain screamed. Harry took another slug of beer, which emptied the mug. “Law. Media. Intellectual property.” Sounds fascinating, he thought. Should have said it’s about drying piss. Even more compelling. “Dust in the Wind” was playing through the pendulous speakers at a moderate volume. They would be cranked up when the band started playing, hours from now. Harry hoped he’d be home by then, snug in his bed, propped up by many pillows with the only Robertson Davies book he hadn’t yet read, something cold and nonalcoholic on the nightstand.
“Hey, Harry,” said Judd, his arm tightening around Ronnie Ho. He touches her in public, thought Harry, but he never looks at her. “You’ve been to the purple shrine thing south of town, haven’t you? Crazy cult types. All right up your alley.”
“You mean the Purple Lady’s shrine?” said Julie. “I thought it was a witch coven. I went to the palm reader out there once.”
One of the male students whose haircut and white shirt looked equally crisp said, “That’s the scientist psychic, right?” A few people started laughing as he added, “Try saying that fast three times.” Harry knew he should know the male student’s name even though he hadn’t had him in a class, but he couldn’t think of it. “What are you talking about?” he said, appalled that he had some difficulty getting the sentence out clearly.
Judd said, “You haven’t heard the story? It’s pretty funny. It was Ronnie’s roommate, right, Ronnie? The physics girl?” A rare glance at her face. The beautiful Ronnie nodded but said nothing. Judd went on for her. “This psychic tells her that she was buddies with a scientist who invented something big.”
Ronnie spoke so softly it was hard to hear over the music from the sound system. A new song blared; Harry couldn’t recall the title, but he knew that he hated it. “It was the Ziegart effect.” She looked at Judd, who was looking at Harry, then said, “She said that Ziegart stole it.”
“Didn’t a lot of people say that about Watson and Crick and DNA?” asked the crisp young man.
“They were right, weren’t they?” Julie said. “Allegedly?” she added, law school having taught her caution.
“What is it?” Harry said. The good thing about being drunk, he thought, is that you no longer care if people think you are smart or not.
Judd said, “Something about physics. Or gravity. I don’t know. The witch doctor woman lives in a trailer, so I don’t imagine she’s hanging out with too many Einsteins.”
“Her name is Madame Dupree. She told me that my mother was sick,” said Ronnie. “It was true. She had diverticulitis.”
There was some hooting at the psychic’s name as the crisp boy said, “Anyone over forty probably has something that would show up on an MRI. These gypsy folks learn how to read people and tell them what they want to hear.”
There was agreement and dissent at this comment, and Harry was too bleary to follow the conversation very well. He was only thirty-seven, but the idea of his impending middle age being littered with ailments depressed him so much that he drained his beer and waited patiently for someone to refill his mug.
“She’s not a gypsy,” said Ronnie. “I don’t think so, anyway. And not all gypsies are criminals, you know.”
Judd interrupted. “There’s your book, Harry. It’s got every- thing. Religious weirdos, science, and intellectual property.” Yuk-yuk, thought Harry.
“Madame Dupree has helped my roommate a lot,” said Ronnie, a little louder now, her reticence fading as the alcohol took hold. “I think she’s for real.” Ronnie stopped, looked around, regained her embarrassment, and looked at Judd again. Harry finished his new beer and poured another as someone asked where this psychic could be found. The name of the hated song flung itself at him from the bowels of his unconscious: “Pink Houses.”
Now his sober self realized that he didn’t know what time it was, didn’t know how long it had been since he’d left the Brew House. Eerily, he knew exactly where he was; he had the directions to the psychic’s home clearly in his mind, the mental map distinct and sharp. He’d spent a lot of his free time over the short north Florida winter driving around, getting to know the layout of most of Stowe County. When Ronnie had described the location of Madame Dupree’s trailer, he’d seen the sign in his mind, dredged up from some Saturday ramble through the outskirts of town. A sign shaped like a saluting hand and covered with painted blue stars and the words Psychic Readings in large, curly letters. He had only a hazy recollection of the trailer itself, a double-wide, he thought, placed well back from the road. The hand-shaped sign would have been memorable enough, even if it hadn’t been for the shrine that you passed first, a huge concrete edifice, terraced and topped with a giant purple heart surrounded by lights, some ten feet off the road. The Shrine of the Purple Lady. Given his past, he should have had more interest in it before now, but he hadn’t wanted to ask anyone about it. He was outsider enough.
The road was straighter now, and Harry could see a bright light in the distance, notable because he had long passed all the normal lights of the town; he was out in the true country, where the black was so thick it had a texture, and then he could see the shrine itself, huge and brilliant. His foot finally rose off the accelerator as the thing took real form and he could see that there were spotlights in a semicircle on the ground, feeding it with light, and there were colors around the heart itself, Christmas lights strung insanely around and around the heart and the terraced platforms beneath it. Harry stopped singing.
But the car kept moving, slowly now, thank God, past the great gaudy shrine, and then he could see the hand, dim and small even in the high beams. As it grew, it was as clear to the drunken Harry as anything had ever been, the now-giant hand was signaling Halt.