from Long Day, Counting Tomorrow

Peter Krebs, “Prickly Pears,” (2004).

Chapter 1


November 12, 1998



Even if I were an advice giver, I don’t think I’d tell anyone "Begin writing a diary the way I did: You start it on the day you are going to die."



Not that I cracked open the book as I ate my last meal on death row. That would be a little boneheaded, even for me. It’s just that I was almost killed 3 hours ago, and the experience sobered me up. It made me realize it was time to set things straight. But let’s go back to the beginning: my death.



The day started badly. At 10 a.m., I vomited blood in the bathroom of the Social Security Administration. In the afternoon I learned my T cells had dropped below 100. It was downhill from there, capped off when I was pushed in front of the R train at Union Square.



It’s possible the man who knocked me off the platform was one of the cogless homeless who wander the city like hungry ghosts with nothing to do but decapitate citizens; but it’s just as likely it was skullduggery fostered by the people at the Framing Institute, an AIDS hospice where I used to reside and many of whose secrets had come into my possession. If they were out to get me, driven by what would have been (a few hours ago) the groundless idea that I would expose their perfidy, then my best revenge will be to set out an account of their crimes. Their disservice to the PWA community must be revealed, for they have perverted their mission too long. Someone has got to correct this thing. Curse the God who said I, Raskin Hasp, must set it right.



Raskin stopped writing. There were things about today he wanted to add and things about yesterday that had to be brought up. Which should he tackle first?



He sat there stymied. It was a little early to admit defeat at this latest in a long list of aborted writing projects, but he was unsure how to proceed. He ended folding up on his bed, a narrow rollaway with stained sheets and a lumpy mattress. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a small icebox over which he’d built a shelf for his hats.



He had begun writing with high hopes of using this format to flesh out his dark forebodings; but now he realized a diary, because it concentrated on the present, might not be the ideal vehicle for telling a story that would delve so much into the past.



Perhaps he could modify the form. He would simply start the diary a week ago when his roommate died and his suspicions were awakened. It was in this last week that everything relevant had taken place. He could use negative quantities to keep track of things. Taking November 12 as the baseline, he could number the 13th as +2 and November 11 as -1. Thus he could rove freely through time.



Had it only been Monday a week ago (-7) that Yardley died? Like Raskin, Yardley Chu had been a person with AIDS, though having gone through 2 bouts of PCP, considerably the worse for wear. It was hardly a surprise that he never returned from the emergency room.



And yet Raskin felt there had been foul play. Why? Because Yardley, too, kept a diary, hidden under the book jacket of a Western, Hard Dust. After they carted Yardley off, Raskin spent all night paging through it, piercing together Yardley’s paranoid thoughts concerning how the treatment center was covering up deaths.



The notes broke off chillingly with Yardley’s vow to confront the institute’s administration with some computer data that backed up his contentions. What this data was and whether he actually did have a high noon showdown was not recorded, but it certainly was creepy that he died shortly after his scheduled confrontation.



And there was something else. The morning after he’d finished reading Yardley’s diary, Rask demanded an audience with the Institute’s director, the eccentric Dr. Vesuvius. Without mentioning Yardley’s writing, Rask made some accusations.



No comment as his words bounced off the smooth surface of the doctor’s domed forehead. The man quietly fingered the "medicine pouch" he wore around his neck and nodded benignly, promising he would look into Rask’s charges. The next day Rask was discharged. Coincidence or…calculation? True enough, his expulsion didn’t come out of the blue. Because of Rask’s anemia, he hadn’t been able to start on the new drug, and had been told if his condition didn’t improve, he might be shifted out. Face it, he was occupying room others could more profitably use. Thus the catapult had already been primed to eject. Still, he couldn’t help wondering if his inopportune questions hadn’t speeded the process.



He picked up the pen.

Let’s start at the beginning.

At 7:05 a.m., I pulled into "Ringmaster" Donuts, so nicknamed because it’s the haunt of choice for retired circus performers, the ones who form a colony around 23rd and 8th Avenue.

Over the last few months—excluding the 2 weeks in the Framing Institute—I have gotten to know quite a few of these itinerants. It seems every time I turn around nowadays: rushing to the bus stop, buying a Lotto ticket, or entering the library, I’m combing one out of my hair.

I ordered the usual: one large coffee, an Aqua Vita, a bowtie and a large chocolate-covered cream-filled. With the water as booster, I downed vitamins, aspirin, and a fistful of AZT.

My neighbor addressed me with "Do I look like farm material?"

"What?"

"Am I someone who should be farmed out?"

"Listen, fellow," I told him, "I don’t know what your story is, but it’s too early in the morning."

"Hey, Rask, you know me: Jasper. I come in here all the time. I’m usually with my lady, Jackal Rose."

"Jackal? What kind of name is that?"

"She was a main-ring circus attraction. Trained jackals."

"What did these jackals do?"

"Spit fire. That was the big draw."

I coughed up some of my bowtie. "How can an animal spit fire?"

"Take it easy there, boy. It’s just a trick, nothing more."

"How do they do it, though?"

"The trainer does it. The audience loves it. It’s main ring.

"I was never main ring. Just a contortionist. That’s what I was: a contortionist with stiff joints."

He seemed to be depressing himself. Jasper had been speaking expansively, but now he gradually grew distant and distracted as if he’d struck certain memories that, like subwater rocks, caused him to cascade down, a sunken vessel. He lost interest in me and drifted back to his cronies. God, I wish I could remember more about him.

Truth is, though, I was glad he left. He’d killed my day. Night, too. Let me explain. Sick people are dependent on omens. At least this one is. Usually the first unusual thing that happens to me after I get up, I take as symbolical of how the rest of the day will go.

So what kind of sign is a jackal? It’s a vulture on four legs. The rest of the day was going to be bad.

And then there would be the night and my dreams. Before I became ill I had this idealized notion of a sick man’s sleep. I imagined his dreams were terribly vivid and sexy. The idea went back to childhood; the time we were living in Fort Myers, Florida.

Our house was so low-lying instead of having a lawn in our backyard, we had a swamp. And when I was sick, maybe with a fever, I’d lay on the porch on a trundle chair, watching the yard and letting my mom sponge me down. Dreams would come and go, intersecting with and disintegrating the wall between my surroundings and the subconscious. Looking into the house through the screen, I would see cattails growing around the kitchen table and jackdaws perched on cereal boxes. Back and forth I went between dreams and laying wakefulness as if swaying in a drifting dingy.

That was the image of sickness I had in my mind when I found myself HIV positive. It turned out to be a lie. My fever dreams were haunted with scary shards of reality, incidents or objects seen during the day taking flight as nightmares. And the worse the day, the spookier the dreams. This day had started out promising to be a real bell ringer of misery.

Thing is, Jasper says he knows me; we’ve talked before. Since I don’t remember him maybe I also don’t recall something important I said to him concerning Vesuvius’ s operation. Got to check that.

I walked over to SSI. I was already pooped, and had to sit for 10 minutes on the steps of the public library to get my breath.

The walk took longer than planned but eventually I got there. I went up to the clerk, identified myself and asked for Mrs. Saunders.

"She’s not here yet," I was told by a chubby blond woman who had either tinsel or streaks of gray in her hair

"But I had an appointment a half hour ago," I said.

"Then how do you explain coming in so late? You’ll have to reschedule. You can fill out this API to request a new date." She ended, handing me three pages of squares to be inked in.

"What are you a moron? The lady I’m supposed to see is not even here."

"You don’t have to raise your voice, Mr. Hasp." She shook the form at me. "I was going to see about fitting you in today, but why should I do extra work for someone who’s going to rag on me?"

I apologized as best I could, but she wouldn’t relent. Then I had a coughing jag that went on for 2 or 3 minutes.

After I stopped, she said, "You shouldn’t smoke."

I don’t, but I let that go. She took pity on me, and let me have a 1 o’clock.

We settled on a better note than we had begun and I rushed off to the restroom. I had the runs again, what is called "Wet AIDS" Actually "runs" is a better term that "wet," cause when you have that condition, you’re always racing to the nearest facility.

Missing my appointment meant I could go earlier to the Cancer Ward, where I overheard something slip, a definite clue.

Most of my consultation was the usual story of what happened in Deadwood when the Cancer Quacks faced the AIDS Honchos at high noon at the corner of Health and Barely Surviving.

But it hadn’t always been like that. The cancer guys at first convinced everyone I must take chemotherapy. In chemo, they pour red schnapps in you and it circulates through your blood, killing cancer cells. They had everything arranged for my visit, but they overlooked one minor technicality: I don’t have any blood.

That’s an exaggeration. But everyone knows the AZT in the cocktail screws up the tissue in the bone marrow where blood cells are reproduced and results in low blood rates. So, at this meeting the doctors were arguing over the whole thing.

However, the significant thing was what was said, supposedly, out of my hearing.

Let’s get some background.

Back in the good old days, before they found out I had cancer and were only worrying about AIDS, my entourage of physicians, counselors, social workers and so on made shift to all row together in coming to a consensus on how I should live my "life," using that last word loosely. The only disagreement then was on whether I would do better under aggressive or less aggressive therapy.

AIDS is such a favorite subject nowadays that when I tell people about even the more esoteric quirks of my regimen, they pretty much know what I’m talking about. Even you, dear diary, know that aggressive AIDS therapy entails ladling out the drugs to the PWA as soon as there’s any signal of the disease’s presence, even before the glands swell, to try and nip that HIV sucker in the bud.

The problem is, well, 1) that little vitamin cocktail of AZT, ddI or whatever analogs or terminators you prefer itself kills you; slightly slower than the disease, admittedly, but in a way that makes you wish you were dead. Then, 2) there’s the danger that drug resistant strains will arise.

NEWS FLASH! In AIDS, it’s the mutations that kill you! At least that’s current theory. It used to be thought that because there’s a long time between initial infection and crash that HIV was like a winter mammal that laid up in caves (the lymph nodes) for ten years, before it woke up and began marauding. But with more sophisticated tests that could detect smaller concentrations of the retrovirus in the blood tests—the PCR which checks for the existence of viral proteins—it was seen that there was a fluctuating presence of HIV throughout the body during the latency period when it was fighting a generally losing battle against the white blood cells.

If it can’t beat the body for 10 years, you might ask, where does it get its second wind? HIV is a volatile so and so. It keeps altering its genes until it develops a strain that the human antibody system can’t deal with and you go down.

The thing was Vesuvius’s new max-aggressive therapy claims to push back HIV count and hinder its mutation rate.

When I got early to the hospital clinic, I could hear through the dovetail door to the waiting room and they were discussing this very thing. Then, one said this, "But Vesuvius is coming under more and more fire about the reliability of his early studies."

Must have been three physicians talking. Another said, "How’s that? They’re small controls, but—"

A third, "They had to have small controls."

"Yes, but the question is whether he was sloppy."

"Fudging?"

"No, not at all, but sloppy."

A nurse came in and shut down the conversation, but it got me thinking. Was it coming out that he was lying about the efficacy of his whizbang treatment? Did Chu learn something about it?



Raskin had been writing fast, his hand like a shuttle flying over the page, and just as his narrative was beginning to get interesting, he began to deflate. It was part of his condition. He was crisscrossed by these patterns of sudden frenzy and sudden collapse.



He lay back, wilting on his bed, hearing the tin whistle of the radiator in the background. He still had so much to describe: his return to SSI, where’d he heard about the possibility of a one-shot paying gig as a specimen; the writers’ get-together at the Bull and Shamrock, the one where he’d heard more interesting rumors, then gotten drunk and fought with Mac. All events bulging with clues.



"Where will I get the strength to finish this?" he thought. "Maybe if I didn’t go into so many details." But that would more or less annul the very reason for writing this diary.



Rask had a theory about detective stories. He believed the crime emerged as they wrote. Think of Dame Agatha writing the quarry scene in Hall’een Eve. In fleshing out the background, describing the hooded woods, the half-effaced trails, she weighs which landscape features to include. Mentally assaying the possibilities, she sees each in the light of a place to lay a clue. This is how she plotted. Later, she would work backward and revise earlier patches to lead up to this clue.



Rask would do the inverse. He would write down a very circumstantial record of what had been happening to him (what he had seen without noticing while they were plotting against Chu, and now him). Suddenly, jutting out of the material like a red flag tied to a shark fin would be an unmistakable clue. All he needed to go to the police, he calculated, was one shred of evidence.



Rask was going through all this groggily as he slipped near sleep. The pen slipped from between his fingers and dive-bombed to the bed.



But for the present, he still had to create memories: he had to do things that would provoke clues to spring forth. If he still held the pen, he would jot them down, a few that occurred.



1) talk to the ACT UP characters that Yardley always had

visiting around his bed. Perhaps they knew something.

2) read Hard Dust looking for more "dirt"

3) break into the offices of the Framing Institute





On serious reflection, only the last possibility sounded reasonable. Or least would be if he had something he was missing, a tentacle.



The office floor was closed on weekends. Knowing the procedures, he could probably get upstairs and to the entry door. In it, there was a mail slot through which a bone-thin arm might be able to reach and lever it open. There had to be a way, he thought, laying further back so the diary slipped to the floor, uncovering the "Think Positive: Happy Thoughts Calendar for People with AIDS." It was a present from his girlfriend.



He looked at today’s message. "I never knew how much my Father loved me until I read his will…on his face." His father. He thought of him tenderly. That had been the last person in his family Rask had alienated.



His sister had broken contact when he was arrested for drugs. Next went his mother’s affection when he came down with AIDS. He said he was infected via blood transfusion, but she still refused to speak with him. Father drew the line upon learning Rask admitted to a few homosexual dalliances. He was really bisexual, but his family couldn’t grasp the distinction. He wasn’t sure if his father maintained their relationship so long out of love or due to being out of touch, due to his itinerant lifestyle, managing carnivals.



Sprawled on his bed, near the choppy waters of sleep, Rask remembered one spring day when his father happened in town. He woke Rask at 5:30 a.m., saying he was pulling out in an hour. Rask was going to Midlothian College, a small school in a Chicago suburb, where a mildly famous poet he adored was teaching, and Dad was scouting location en route to an Iowa state fair.



Dad and son went down to Lake Michigan to watch the dawn. Pop took the car right down to the beach, driving along the shore where they could watch the water drifting in, its waves as regular as the lines on corrugated cardboard. The tires made a hissing sound and, over the lake, a single bird pitched across the near horizon.



They went to a local diner. He recalled his father, usually a master of inept, impoverished phrases, as if he didn’t have a poetic bone in his body, looking at four or five freshly poured styrofoam cups of coffee, lined up on the counter for a construction crew order, and saying they reminded him of "a row of smudgepots in an orange grove." He was struck and moved by the sense that his father did have some of the feeling for language and metaphor Rask did. Maybe, after all, there was a half-disguised affinity between his rough-housing dad and his lumbering but effete son, that might some day mature into real, mutual, and even family wide, respect.



That never-realized hope, perhaps, was still playing itself out in the background of Raskin’s uncharacteristic foray into crime fighting. He had this uncanny feeling that if he could work out the riddle of Chu’s death, it would be by forming a set of connections linking together all the people he knew, from his friends to the biddies at Social Services to Ringmaster Donut denizen to his family, including those people, like Mac, who said he was a worthless pile. As he was falling asleep, he was thinking, "If I could tie all my friends and enemies into one long link, then a pipeline will exist to a solution and a home."

Contributor

Jim Feast

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