Wrong Turn

By J.D. Kotzman

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If I’d put together that the wormy son of a bitch scarcely met Al’s description of the buyer, probably didn’t have a nickel to his name, and likely was, in truth, a vagrant junkie, maybe I wouldn’t have come to in the basement of an abandoned department store, ass going numb on cold linoleum, arms twisted and bound around a support beam.  Maybe I wouldn’t have Louisville Slugger tattooed to my scalp, the sickening crack of wood against bone still thundering in my ears.  And maybe things wouldn’t have turned into a total clusterfuck.  Too many maybes, I know, I know, I conceded to her.  Her silence belied her disappointment.  Yeah, big surprise, I growled some more, another goddamned wrong turn.  She remained cool, though, impassive.  She’d heard this rant too many times already, possibly.

But I should circle back, back to where all the screw-ups began.

Wrong Turn #1 took place in Harrisburg Hospital on April 13, 1979 (a Friday, as luck would have it), when I, Samuel B. Beckett (B for Brandon, after my granddad), burst in the world as a squalling, underweight infant.  And the way my mother, God rest her soul, used to tell it, I didn’t stop crying until I hit puberty.  I was a sickly kid too, she’d always complained.  If you’d stayed in the oven a little longer, Sammy—she liked to say between swigs of Jameson, a Parliament often dangling in her fingers—maybe you wouldn’t have turned out so damned weak.

Despite my physical inadequacies, I made decent grades in school and, as I got a little older, showed some aptitude for computers (whatever brains I possessed must have come from my father, who’d bailed on us long before I could remember, because my mother, though I loved her, had all the sense of a drug-addled peahen).  As a junior, my teachers—and especially my guidance counselor, Mr. James, who I later suspected had a bit of a crush on me—professed lofty hopes of me winning a scholarship and attending a proper university.  Most of that talk ended, though, when my buddy Freddy and I broke into his dad’s stash of Johnny Walker the night before the SATs (Wrong Turn #13).  I bombed the test, needless to say, and ended up at community college like the rest of the rejects in my class.  If I’d gone to the spring choir concert that evening, like my goody-goody not-quite girlfriend Hannah had begged, maybe I would have aced the exam, gotten into MIT, and become a respectable something or other.

As it happened, though, after three so-so, pot-drenched semesters at HACC, I dropped out of school to join an Internet startup founded by J.P., a sometimes brilliant but less-than-reputable hacker friend (Wrong Turn #29).  The dot-com bubble hadn’t popped yet, and for a blissful while, venture capital showered us like green confetti.  We lived large in those days, often smoking and snorting our way to heights untold.  Funny thing, I got engaged during that stretch, to Simone, a blue-haired, nose-studded girl who hung around with us more often than not (for the free blow, no doubt) (Wrong Turn #37).  Life seemed damn good, but when the money dried up, everything went sideways.  J.P. sold what was left of the company, pretty much shafting me out of my share, I learned too late.  And as for my lovely fiancée, she lost the punk look, shed a little weight, and traded me in for some stockbroker at Bear Stearns.

After that, jobless and desperate for cash, I hooked up with Al, this fat geezer I knew from the neighborhood, and started doing deliveries for him (not drugs, at least I didn’t think so, though I never did figure out what the strange parcels contained).  I spent a lot of solitary time in Al’s Caddy Eldorado, cruising from isolated shithole to isolated shithole, but the work agreed with me—until my last run, anyway.  I could channel Milli Vanilli and blame it on the rain—it fell hard that night, the sky murky and moonless—or maybe, given the wee hour, chalk it up to a sleep-deprived lapse.  Whichever the case, I took the wrong exit off the pike, drove to the wrong Podunk town, and parked in the alley behind the wrong 7-11 (Wrong Turns #41, #42, and #43, respectively).  I never even eyeballed the prick who clubbed me, just that grimy bum in the faded camo jacket and black hoodie.  When he waved, I eased out of the car with the package and took a few timid steps toward him.  The next thing I knew—THWACK, everything went dark.

And then I woke up here, head throbbing, a fresh lump pressing against the steel behind me.  The air reeked of mildew, and the chill in the dank room made me wish for my stolen peacoat, shabby as it was.  Overhead, a small barred window provided the barest hint of light.  Dusk, I guessed, though it didn’t fucking matter.  After night came, I tried to distract myself with mental games.  I made lists.  I dictated letters.  I plotted my escape, my revenge.  I cataloged the passing seconds as they stacked into minutes, then hours.  I even murmured a few prayers I’d dredged up from childhood Sundays at Saint Francis.  Anything, I told myself, to blot out the agony in my skull, the ache in my gut, and the stink of lukewarm piss beneath me—anything to make me sleep.

When dawn broke and pale light began creeping into my cell, I got my first peek at my fellow inmates.  They had me surrounded, I saw, a whole gang of them, a gang of mannequins, naked to a fiberglass man.  Their leader, a regal lady, sat in front of the rest, on a decorative wooden stool.  From her throne, she radiated calm, despite her shitty circumstances.  Her dismembered hand rested beside her on the seat, and her left arm and right leg, both ripped from her statuesque torso, lay before her on the floor.  Next to her missing limbs, I noticed a brown wig, styled in ’70s shag, and imagined she must have worn it with pride atop her shapely head, once upon a time.

I introduced myself.  I told her about my life, my cavalcade of wrong turns.  After a while, I got around to recounting how I found myself stuck with her, and all at once, something inside me blew.  What the fuck did I do to deserve ending up here, blathering my sob story to a broken-down plastic woman?  Tell me, I screamed at her.  And I kept right on screaming—mad as hell, like Peter Finch in that old movie—until the last of the anger leached out of me.  Then I wept.  But not once did she flinch or waiver, not once did she judge.  She offered only quiet confidence, as if to assure me, this too shall pass.

By the next morning, the cloud cover had lifted, and warm yellow sunshine poured through the aperture above me.  The light cast an ethereal glow over her, my angel, my angel of mercy.  She had her wide eyes fixed toward the heavens, a delicate, knowing smile on her sweet face.  At least I had her, I thought, someone to watch over me, listen to me bitch about all my wrong turns.

At least I wouldn’t die alone.

J.D. Kotzman