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|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||5.47(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)|
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POCKET KINGSa novel
By Ted Heller
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2012 Ted Heller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWelcome to Purgatory
It is a cold and harrowing morning in the life of a man the day he wakes up, looks at himself in the mirror, and finally realizes that he is not, has never been, nor will ever be George Clooney. A magnificent, eternal ideal had been floating out there; it was a paragon of the perfect human being this man had wanted to become. He wanted to look like him, act like him, talk and think like him. He wanted to be him and shed the creaky body, cranky soul, and unexciting past of the man he was. And now he realizes: it isn't happening and it's not going to — Damn it, I am just going to go on being me.
Perfection will not only forever elude this broken man; it won't even get close enough to tickle his bald spot, pinch his love handles, or tug on his double chin. If he were as much as half-perfect, he wouldn't be here; he wouldn't be looking at his reflection in his smudged bathroom mirror, wishing with all his might that he were someone else. And it's too late: it won't ever happen. He knows it now. Excellence, courage, wit, grace, confidence ... they've all slipped away. The luminous spirit of the ideal man has fled the scene and isn't coming back. It's all over now, Baby Blue. James Bond is long gone, my friend. You will never play centerfield for the Yankees, you will never be Tiger Woods or Spider-Man, you won't win an Oscar and own a large yacht and sleep with famous women. The closest you'll ever get to being Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen is playing Guitar Hero. You've always been you and will always be you and now there's nothing left to do but ride Life's Moving Sidewalk Unto Death.
In these harsh terrible seconds, the truth slowly twists into him like a corkscrew, and in the mirror he sees the lights going out, one by one, on his future.
I have been that man, looking into the mirror. I have heard the strains of "Taps" tooting mournfully out of the bathroom faucet. And in short, I was terrified.
The lights were going out and I had to do something — I had to find something, anything, no matter what — to prevent everything from going dark.
Then I found poker, fortune, glory, and for the first time in my life, self-confidence, and suddenly the world was bright again.
* * *
I want to go home. Where it's warm and cozy and where I am, I hope, still loved.
But I can't. I'm no longer welcome there even though I, of course, was the one who sprang for the fuzzy welcome mat. (How cruel is that?) So here I am in Purgatory.
It has finally stopped snowing, but it's still freezing out, and if the furniture inside the Purgatory Inn had teeth, they would be chattering. In all my life I've never seen so much snow. White as far as the eye can see. Snow covering hills, trees, roads, fields, and whatever the hell else out there that it's covering. Underneath that rolling furry blanket of white and silver are many more sheets of it.
This motel has ten rooms but right now I'm the only guest, so mine is the only light on. From the dark, empty road outside, my one light might make it look as if something nefarious is going on, but inside there's nothing more sinister than a humming laptop, a moldy carpet, a lot of faded plaid, and sitting on the rickety night table alongside a plastic glass ("Sanitized for Your Protection") of Scotch, two autographed paperback books, both written by Frank W. Dixon.
Any minute now Wolverine Mommy, my cherished long-distance friend, will be joining me here. She and I have never met. Not in the flesh at least. She had no idea I was coming out to her frosty Michigan oblivion, but here I am.
I want to go home. I miss my wife and it's killing me and I want her back. With all my heart and soul I do.
This is what all my newfound self-confidence has wrought?
The motel TV is on and I'm flipping between March Madness and the usual catastrophes on CNN and paying no attention to any of it. In two or three days I am planning to drive back down to the Detroit airport, if my rented Hyundai Cilantro doesn't crumble on me, and return to my normal life, which has shattered into, yes ... A Million Little Pieces. Where I'll go from here, nobody has any idea.
It's past six-thirty. Wolve told me she'd be here at six. Her husband teaches history at the local high school and loves to hunt and hopefully he won't pop in on us with an Elmer Fudd cap and a 12-gauge Winchester over/under. (I assume she hasn't told him I'm here.) She has three young boys and sometimes, when I'm playing poker with her on-line, I swear I can hear them running, yowling and knocking over things in the background.
Hell, Michigan, would have been a better name for this desolate place, but that was already taken. Only a person in transit from one nowhere to another would ever find out that such a town even existed. I had to leave New York quickly, and it is a measure of how far America's 711,653rd most popular novelist has fallen that the Purgatory Inn is the best I can do for refuge. But there wasn't anywhere else to go except to a clinic. And I'm not ready for that.
The problem isn't that I've hit rock bottom. The problem is that I haven't.
A few hours ago I turned on my laptop and played poker for about an hour and a half. Thanks to four miracle 3s, I finished ahead. (It was terrific: a cocky guy named Element Lad thought he had a sure winner with a club flush; while he gloated, I quietly showed him my quad 3s ... he was crushed.) Then I saw Wolverine Mommy log on and joined her at her table. "Guess where I am?" I IM'ed her. "Where?" she said. "In Purgatory," I told her, knowing she wouldn't believe me, " just a few miles away at the Purgatory Inn!" She said, "No way ... you're kidding me," and I said: "Wolve, I swear to God I'm really, really here. Any way you could come over soon?" She won $300 with two Jacks and, after I swore on my parents' graves I was actually here, she told me: "Okay, I think I can be there at 6 but this better not be a prank."
There's a knock on the door now ... it could either be the good-natured Sikh proprietor, who has suddenly remembered he owns and operates a motel, or Norman Bates. Or it could be ...
"It's Wolve!" I hear from outside.
I turn off the TV, get up, open the door. I see that she has bright red shoulder-length hair and is wearing a navy goose-down parka and Timberland boots. She's about thirty pounds overweight, and, no, she's not Miss Upper Peninsula but then I'm no Mr. Teaneck, New Jersey, either.
"I can't believe this!" she says, shaking her head of all its disbelief and snow. "You're really you?"
After I assure her that I can't help but be me, I bid her in with a gentlemanly wave of my arm.
She dances a little jig to shake loose the snow from her shoes and pants, and I close the door. Hours and hours online chatting to each other, of winning and losing money to each other, and finally we meet.
"I can't believe this, Chip!"
After a minute of nice-to-finally-meet you pleasantries she sits on the bed and I ask, "So, did you tell your husband you were visiting me?"
"Uh, no. He wouldn't understand."
It isn't hard to see that she also doesn't understand. And I don't know if I do either.
"He doesn't," she says, "get our whole world. He just likes it that I win sometimes."
I tell her that Wifey has thrown me out of the house, although I don't tell her why, and that I had no place to go and so I came here. To no place.
She looks at me and I look away. What am I doing here, she's probably thinking. I know for a fact that I didn't come all the way here to be a cad, and I'm pretty sure she hasn't come to the motel tonight to be an adulteress and has come only as a friend. But still, it's awfully cold out there.
The wind wails and the motel's walls and floorboards shudder when I hand her my two novels, Plague Boy and Love: A Horror Story, neither of which I am able to think about without being overwhelmed with pride, despair, bewilderment, and rage.
She examines the books, reads my brief inscriptions to her, and starts to cry — I've had some negative reactions to my work, but nothing quite like this — then dabs at her eyes with her huge purple faux-shearling mittens.
"I'm really miserable, Chip Zero," she whimpers. "You have no idea."
"But I'm here," I tell her.
She looks up at me ... her big blue eyes are her best feature, other than her chest. Many times over the course of the last year she's told me how lonely she is, and right now, in the same way that some statues are meant to personify Perfect Beauty, Total Victory, or Absolute Piety, this woman represents Abject Loneliness.
"Are you going to leave soon? Any idea how long you'll stay?"
I tell her I have no return ticket and no plans to either go or stay. "Right now I may be the world's wealthiest homeless person," I say.
I join her on the edge of the bed, which sags, exhales, and nearly gives way when I sit. You'd think that beds in motels and hotels in the American Heartland would better tolerate the heft of large people.
"Please stay for a while, Frank," she says. "It would be nice."
It surprises me for a second, her using my real name. Hardly anyone does anymore.
I lie and say, "I don't want to go," and as soon as I hear myself say it, I realize it might not be a lie at all. Maybe, I think, I'll stay here for a week or two. Or three. It's barren, it's freezing, it's on the outermost edge of nowhere, but it's certainly endurable. And right now in my life, "endurable" doesn't sound so bad. I also think: I hope Cynthia doesn't ever find out about this!
She takes off her mittens — one drops to the dismal mintcolored carpet — and holds out a hand and I take it. I expect it to be ice cold but it's very warm.
I can stay here in this frozen-over, snow-domed limbo and start writing again. Yes, that's what I'll do! I'll write! And maybe, just maybe, my wife will take me back! There's hope!
She squeezes my hand and says, "NH."
Ah. I get it now. Nice hand.
I put my arm around her puffy North Face coat. She rests her head on my shoulder and I see a warped, dark gray reflection of us in the TV screen. What are we doing, I wonder, the four of us?
"You have no idea," she says, "how lonely I am. There's no ..." She stops to compose her thoughts. "I really love my husband, my kids are the most precious things to me in the world ... but none of this is any fun."
I squeeze her shoulder tighter and tell her everything will be all right. More than anything I wish I were sitting next to my wife, on my couch, in my apartment.
"Where does your husband think you are now?"
"At the Kohl's."
For a second, before I realize what she means, I imagine Wolverine Mommy warming her hands over a pile of glowing coals in the evening blizzard.
She looks at her watch and says, "I need to be getting back" and then puts her purple mittens back on. They're as big as lion paws. She really does have a nice face, sort of like Ellen Burstyn in her heyday but with a few extra pounds.
She wraps her goose-down arms around my neck and we hug for a half a minute and when we separate her face is quite flushed. No, it can't go any further than this. A hug or two. A kiss on the cheek. That's it. Anything more would be nuts.
I close the door and hear a car drive off, crunching through the choppy sea of snow.
This trip to Michigan — the plane fare, the car rental, the gas, the motel — is costing me about nine hundred dollars. If I stay here for a week or so, I'll be able to afford it. Easily.
All I have to do is log on and play a few hands. That'll take care of it.
Because, despite all my recent losses, somehow I still have to believe I'm a winner.
Excerpted from POCKET KINGS by Ted Heller Copyright © 2012 by Ted Heller. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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