No Simple Highway

No Simple Highway

by Michael Altman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450259217
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/22/2010
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

No Simple Highway

By Michael Altman

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Michael Altman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-5921-7

Chapter One

The Hood

An early morning mist crept through the streets of Denver, Colorado, and rubbed cold against the dilapidated buildings of the Five Points neighborhood as I parked and locked my car. Here and there, streetlight antennae peered through the smoky vapor, but revealed only an occasional four-wheeled bug groping its way along Twenty-Eighth Street. It was the beginning of autumn, 1972, the Vietnam War was "winding down," and I was starting a new job as a community psychiatrist immediately following my honorable discharge from the Air Force. The sun looked down momentarily from a leaden sky and then disappeared behind its cloudy veil, as if it did not wish to witness the human drama that was about to unfold below.

I was eager to begin my first day of work, yet it was with some trepidation that I started walking through the infamous Five Points area toward the Northside Neighborhood Health Center. This area of Denver, just north of downtown, had been a musical Mecca for Black musicians the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and had nourished the beat soul of Jack Kerouac when he was on the road. However, time and crime, along with the debilitating cycles of lack of economic opportunities and the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol, had made the neighborhood an unhealthy and a dangerous place in which to live.

I had been told when I was hired that it would be safe to work at the health center during the day, and I had accepted that assurance without asking when the day began or ended. Still, I was aware that I was anxious. I was mindful of that, and I was just beginning to process the realization that the anxiety seemed to have more to do with performance expectations than it did with personal safety when a different perceptual awareness ignited inside of me. It was subtle, total body awareness, rooted in the distant past as well as in the here and now. Later, when I had time to reflect, it was fascinating to see that so much information could be experienced and integrated in a moment fraught with danger.

I hadn't seen the gang loitering on the front porch of a boarded up, crumbling, red brick building as I walked toward the clinic, but they must have perceived me as an easy target. As I've mentioned, my physical appearance isn't particularly imposing, especially from a distance, and the briefcase that I was carrying suggested academia rather than athleticism. The hint of wildness, in my full moustache and slightly longer than fashionable hair, would have been easy for them to miss in the lingering haze. Also, I couldn't have known, in that moment, that the gang had been out all night drinking and doing drugs. Yet, I was instantly aware that a malevolent force had entered my energy field. A distinctive voice from the past firmly whispered, "You will be able to feel a destructive influence when it touches your presence, and you will know what to do when that time comes." All of this was happening, and I had taken only fifteen steps from my car.

The hair on the back of my neck actually bristled as I heard a rush of air behind a hurtling, heavy object and the accelerating thumping of multiple footsteps. Instinctively I crouched and pivoted in one swift motion, left hand open in front of my face, right hand open in front of my chest. A baseball bat was revolving horizontally ten feet in front of my eyes! With an instantaneous reflex action I reached out and caught it on the trademark. Visions of catching flies one handed and then releasing them unhurt, an ancient martial arts training technique, flitted into my consciousness, dissipating immediately as I listened intently.

"Watch out, man's got quick hands!" exclaimed one of the shadowy figures.

Another young man, the apparent leader of the emerging gang of five, shouted at me with clearly intended derogatory sting, "What you think you doin' here, boy?"

Through kendo trained eyes I held the gaze of the leader with a riveting focus. He seemed to be a tall, shimmering, finely chiseled ebony statue, except that he had graceful movements, which made him come alive. He was more like a panther, a Black Panther, I thought wryly, flashing on the eponymous name of the militant group. It's odd, isn't it, that even when one feels focused, extraneous bits of information can surface like so much flotsam and jetsam and, at the same time, be amusing despite the gravity of the situation.

I could sense that a frontal attack was imminent and was gauging my assailants with a meticulously ingrained Musashi strategy, but I decided to try a reasonable approach first. "Wait!" I implored. "I'm a new doctor at the health center." That revelation was greeted by impassive silence. Maybe they are listening, I thought. "Do you know James Wander?" James was a Black friend of mine who was the leader of the community mental health team at the center. His name worked no magic either, though the leader's eyes showed a flicker of recognition. Finally, grasping at straws, inappropriately trying to be hip, I said, "Hey, man, I've come here to try to help people in the hood, not fight with you." As if on cue, the gang advanced menacingly, and I took a quick step backward, wondering if I had inadvertently insulted them.

Old pictures fast-forwarded through my mind; the ego in its nervousness couldn't stop the psychologically dynamic history that breached the surface defenses from deep within the unconscious. Déjà vu? I saw myself back on the south side of Chicago at age eight on the way home from Hebrew school. I was crossing a vacant lot when a Black kid demanded the stick that I was carrying. I refused and had to fight for it as a result. I could still feel his left jab flicking my puerile face at will, and the everlasting shame from finally having to leave the stick and run away to protect myself. Then, for months, I lived in terror of being attacked again. I was not going to run from this one, though, because now, in this moment, I had some positive life experience upon which I could draw, and I was no longer an insecure, defenseless little boy.

All five rushed at once, yet two of the youths to my right precipitated the movement by a fraction of a second. I had no choice. I had to fight even though I was out of practice and not in combat shape. I threw myself sideways while swinging the bat low, taking out the legs of the two on my right flank. Bouncing up, I thrust the handle into the epigastric region of the third member producing a satisfying "oooff!" as his diaphragm contracted. The leader and his remaining accomplice were on me then. Reacting without thinking, anxieties and inhibitions evaporating, shouting a powerful blood oath, I went wild. Strength flowed from a hidden reservoir that I had once feared I would never discover, and adrenalin propelled me into the kind of action of which I ordinarily would not have been capable. Set free, the essential flow guided me to repeatedly deflect blows and instantly counterattack—cloud hands warded off fists—parry, thrust, kick were second nature again.

I grabbed the leader by the foot as he jump-kicked and used his momentum to throw him violently to the ground. He was so surprised that I was able to pounce on his chest and hit him in the face with three sharp blows before the fifth gang member tried to drag me off. I was not trying to kill the tall young man; I could have done that, but I just wanted him out of the fray. I controlled my murderous impulse, and had started to shake off the one standing attacker when suddenly I heard again the sound of rushing air. This sound was quieter yet quicker than that of the bat, and had a whirring quality that I had heard years before on a distant continent. I ducked, but not quite fast enough, and was knocked flat by the forceful impact of a glancing blow to the back of my head. As I fought to stay conscious, blinded by the searing pain, I heard one of the young men calling to the leader, "Are you all right, Tony, are you all right, man?"

As my vision cleared I could see that Tony was in better shape than I was, although my punches had cut him in a few places and blood trickled down his face. He laughed derisively and seemed to be debating about how to finish me off. I braced myself for the onslaught and was desperately trying to think about my next move through the fog that was now in my head.

I heard the faint reverberation of shoe leather on pavement before Tony did. Then I saw his facial expression change from animal anticipation to frustration and disgust. "Little man, that's it for now," he said softly, "but I'll find you again. Count on it!"

The members of the gang disappeared as silently as they had appeared, filtering back into the early morning mist. As I lay crumpled up and bleeding on the pavement, I took solace in the fact that all of the gang members would be licking their wounds, too. Then I felt myself slipping slowly again into what seemed like a mental mist, yet at the same time I was dimly aware that the pounding of a single set of footsteps was getting closer to me. The last thing that I remember was realizing that the footsteps had something to do with the gang's precipitous retreat.

When I came to, I was looking into the blue-green eyes of a beautiful café au lait complexioned woman with sensual African-American facial features and wavy reddish-brown hair.

I was groggy, disoriented, and I had a throbbing headache, but her lovely vision was like a siren call to consciousness. I've always been able to kibitz in a friendly, funny way to relieve tension or ease conflict so it seemed natural to banter with this unknown young woman.

"Have I died and gone to heaven?" I managed to say, ending with a crooked grin.

"If you had died, you never would have gotten through the pearly gates lookin' like you do," was her quick rejoinder. "What's your name?"

"Good question," I responded, vaguely cognizant that she was probably doing a mental status on me—a reasonable approach as I was having some difficulty coming up with it. "Oh, Aden Echo," I said with some relief.

"Lord have mercy! Now what did you have to go get yourself beat up for? We need a psychiatrist, not someone who's goin' on sick leave his first day on the job!"

Her chiding humor had its desired effect, and I momentarily forgot both my pain and to ask how I had been brought into what I imagined must be the health center. The muscular middle-aged Black man standing unobtrusively in the back of the room seemed to be part of the answer.

"I'm not about to go on sick leave," I said with what little enthusiasm I could muster. "Who's the first case?"

"You are," she easily retorted, "and we're goin' to attempt to haul your pitiful body back down to the first floor to get some x-rays and medical advice." Then, leveling me with her aquamarine stare to let me know she meant business, she added, "And don't you be sayin' no!" Seamlessly changing gears, she addressed the man in the back of the room, saying, "Hamp, you found Dr. Echo and carried him here; will you carry him back down to the ER?"

"No, that's ok. I can manage myself," I offered woozily, thinking, I've got to impress this beautiful angel. However, as I staggered to my feet I felt Hamp's strong arms propping me up and then draping my arm over his shoulder. I allowed myself to be led out of the room the way a punch-drunk fighter is led from the ring. Halfway down the stairs my legs buckled and I blacked out again.

I awoke an hour later, after drifting in and out of consciousness. The nametag on the immaculately pressed white lab coat read "William Webster, M.D." The officious internist wore his white lab coat as if it were regal ermine and all who were confronted by it should bow down. He greeted me abruptly, sarcastically emphasizing certain words. "You suffered a moderate concussion, DR. ECHO, and now YOU could use a HEADSHRINKER. The only good news is that you don't have a BASILAR SKULL FRACTURE. Here, look at the x-ray."

"Thanks Webster, you sadist,"—although I was thinking, asshole—"haven't you heard of empathy?" I shot back.

"Yes I have MY BOY, that's why I'm admitting you to the HOSPITAL for observation."

As I exhaustedly resigned myself to the wisdom of his authoritarian edict, I thought, this is my first day in community psychiatry, and I didn't—the thought was fading, and instead, flashback images of jungle firefights were superimposed. Then, the words transposed to, have the chance to complete my mission ...

Chapter Two

Visitor of My Dreams

I am running through tangles of backyard bushes, the thin branches mercilessly whip across my face and bare arms leaving red welts that look worse than they hurt. Yet, tears are streaming from my eyes because I am afraid of what's behind me. I am seven years old. In the background I hear eerie music from the Sorcerer's Apprentice becoming louder and more frenetic. A grotesque giant dressed in animal skins is crashing through the underbrush brandishing a huge, spiked club. He has a featureless face and he is relentlessly chasing me. I feel trapped as I seek refuge at the little pond filled with koi in a neighboring yard. Magically, the kindly gardener, who takes care of the yard and the pond, appears from behind a large boulder, but he is not dressed in his work clothes. Instead he is wearing the all black fighting garb of a martial arts master. The clothing is loose fitting black silk, which allows free flowing movements. Suddenly but gracefully, almost as if he were dancing, he thrusts a strong wooden staff in front of the giant's face. The monster shrivels up into a pile of brown leaves that bursts into flames and then disappears into smoke and ash. The master takes my hand and I feel comforted and safe. We sit down beside the pond and meditate.

Tranquility turns into chaos and I find myself running again, this time at age thirty-one, through a mosquito- infested jungle in South Vietnam. There are eight to ten Viet Cong—I can't tell exactly how many—hunting me down, intent on killing me. I am the prey, the odds are against me, and the fear of the hunted is palpable in my chest. I press on through a kaleidoscope of lush green vegetation, clinging vines, and rare orchids. I long to stop and touch their beauty, but time has now become more precious than beauty. A sinking feeling pervades my belly as I realize that even the densest greenery won't protect me from a step-by-step search. I'm running blindly, I can't see a way out; I don't want to die, and I hate the fear that seems to be all I've got to propel me forward. The voice of my teacher forcefully taps me in the middle of my forehead, awakening me from the miasma of anxiety. " Focus Aden! Courage is the antidote for fear. Sense your courage; sense into the red of the heart center." I reconnect with the red and leap forward into the unknown. I hear my pursuers coming closer as I desperately struggle down into a shallow, fern covered ravine. The voice of my teacher comes to me again, arising this time from the ground. " Water is your friend, remember this always when you have to escape." I hear no flowing water, but as I scan the trench-like undulation in the jungle floor I notice wet, muddy ground at the far end of the gully. I hurry toward it and my hopes soar as I see that the ooze is actually seepage from a small swamp. Black water and pond scum never looked so good. There are hundreds of reeds growing in the shallow water, and I hurriedly cut one below the water level so as not to expose its end. As I lift the severed reed out of the water, a seemingly incongruous experience pops into my head. I hear the wailing of Rumi's reed flute as it sings of the separation of the soul from its essence. I stop myself short—no time for musing now—and I ease myself into the warm, brackish water. Fortunately it is stagnant enough that it is murky, so the fact that I have only about three feet of breathing tube is less dangerous than if I were hiding in clearer, moving water. Trying to protect myself further, I slither on my back along the muddy bottom looking upward for a change of clear surface to algae covered surface. I take care to leave only the thinnest reed track in the green surface, and I nestle into a bed of reeds and wait, and pray.


Excerpted from No Simple Highway by Michael Altman Copyright © 2010 by Michael Altman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Simple Highway 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's fast, has interesting characters but not engaging ones. The plot moves forward in several directions and then follows one, dropping the others; maybe that's okay. Many issues come up ranging from PTSD, killing, relationships, work, community and race. It was worth reading for book club beause it gave us a lot to talk about but if I was to pick something just for my own reading, I would not pick this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved it. This is a unique book with an absorbing, imaginative plot enriched by the author's gift for imparting deep psychological and spiritual truths. As a young boy the protagonist undergoes martial arts and meditation training with a mystical teacher. He learns to see beneath the surface of things from the perspective of soul rather than from his ego. But after the teacher leaves him, the ego re-asserts itself and he forgets his training until he has to call upon his fighting skills when he goes MIA during the Vietnam War. He develops PTSD from the experience, which becomes a central theme of the book. Now as a community psychiatrist in Denver he must re-awaken his early training at a deeper level to help himself, his clinic and his community, all of which, as the story unfolds, come under threats of increasingly menacing danger. I enjoyed the love story which also becomes one of the central themes of the book. I found this book entertaining but more importantly, it deepened my self-understanding and my awareness of my own "struggle between the man of spirit who lets things unfold and the man of the world, or ego, who tries to control everything and make things happen." The book opens with the statement, "I am not who I appear to be." Although I don't possess the protagonist's remarkable abilities, reading this book helped me to understand who I truly am as well.