The Reading Corner and Literary Tips

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chapter 1
“Pain in the Neck”

I opened my eyes and saw nothing. It was pitch black. I was in extreme pain and I had no idea where I was. My heart started racing as panic set in. “Breathe, just breathe, nice and slow, deep breaths,” I said to myself, measuring out the words as I fought against the terror. Okay, I had to start with the basics and work out a solution. “My name, what's my name?” I waited for an answer but none came. “What's my fucking name?” I screamed the words inside my skull and waited. A painfully long moment later the answer came: “Xavier! My name is Xavier.” Damn! I'd been through this before but it never took me this long to remember my name.

I was lying on my back in a narrow space about two feet wide. Using my hands, I could feel broken glass on the bare wood surface I was lying on. Every movement caused extreme hurt everywhere, but the worst pain was in my neck and I had great difficulty moving my head. I had no idea where I was but whenever this happened, I usually woke up in someone else's bed. Several times, I had even woken up in my own room and not recognized where I was. It was always scary but this was infinitely more terrifying. For all I knew, I might be at the bottom of a mineshaft… or worse. Wherever I was, this was very bad. The panic started again as I considered the possibility that I had been buried alive.

“Easy now, slow down, deep breaths.” I had to remain calm. Half expecting to feel the inside of a casket lid I reached up into empty space. That simple movement hurt like hell, but I was relieved to find that I wasn’t in a coffin.

“Okay, so where am I?” Nothing. I had to start with something simpler. “Where do I live?” I fought hard until slowly the pieces of my identity started to fall in place. “I live in New York.” But as I thought about it I realized that was wrong. I hadn’t lived in New York for years. “I live in Haïti.” I fought the pain to gather more memories around myself like a naked refugee covering himself with whatever rags he can find. “I work for The Agency. I'm the M.I.S. Manager for the Haïti mission.” As I lay there in the dark, trying to move my head as little as possible, I started to remember. “I must be in the Flamenco. That's it! I'm behind the bar.” But that realization only led to more questions: How had I gotten there? And more importantly, where was Bryan?

To get myself up, I had to use my hands to keep my head in the least painful alignment. This meant I had to get up very slowly and without using my hands. Once I was standing I tried hard to see, but there was absolutely no light, just pure black. I was in pain, I had broken glass all over me, and I was exhausted from the effort it had taken just to get up. The only logical explanation was that this was a bad dream and I would just have to sleep it off.

After three years of being an almost nightly patron, I knew the layout of the Flamenco as well as anyone. I felt my way slowly from the bar to the restaurant. Following the wall I made my way to a table in the corner, very slowly pulled it away from the wall and lined up three of the chairs to make a bed for myself. Very gently, I sat in the middle chair and prepared myself to lie down. Again, I used my hands to hold my head in alignment to the rest of my body and I used my legs as a counter-weight. Several painful minutes later I was lying across the three chairs. Then I blacked out.

When I regained consciousness, it was morning and Bryan was standing over me. “Xavier, wake up, you have to go home.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don't know,” Bryan said. “I put you to sleep in the spare bedroom and went to bed. When I got up and looked around I found you here.”

That just didn't make any sense. How had I gotten behind the bar? From the persistent pain I knew that was real, definitely not a dream.
Bryan had an unusual urgency about him. “Listen man, I don't mean to rush you but you have to get the hell out of here.” He grabbed my arm to pull me up.

“Wait! I sprained my neck, go slow.” Bryan, the best damn bartender I knew, had also been a medic so I figured I was in good hands as he helped me to my feet.

“Okay buddy,” Bryan said, “all set; now you really have to go.”

“Bryan,” I said, “I hear what you’re saying but I can't go anywhere. My neck is seriously hurt. There's no way I can drive. I have to call home and get picked up.”
Bryan wasn't happy but he could tell I was serious. “Ok, let’s go to the bar and I'll make some coffee.”

I followed him in, walking very slowly. As I sat at the bar, Bryan placed the phone in front of me and went to make coffee. I picked up the receiver, dialed home and when I heard the maid's voice I said, “Mary, where's Nelson?”

“Mr. Pouchon! Where are you?” the maid asked.

“I'm at the Flamenco,” I replied. “I can't drive. Tell Nelson to take a bus and come get me.”
Mary had been our maid for so many years that we considered her family. She was about my age. Nelson, her husband, was our driver and handyman, but more than anything else, he was our bodyguard. Since my stepfather was the one who had introduced them, they had asked him to be the best man at their wedding and he had happily accepted. Now the whole ‘Mr. Pouchon’ thing, that was my mother's idea. She was always big on protocol so from the day we moved from the Long Island suburbs to Haïti, all staff were to refer to me as Mr. Pouchon and my little sister was Miss Poupette. It was all very surreal when I was initially subjected to this at age fifteen, but I eventually got used to it.

Nelson was on his way but it would be a while so I decided to try and figure out what had happened the night before. Bryan came back with coffee and I explained the situation. “My driver’s on his way but I have no idea how long it’ll take him to get here.”

“Don't worry about it,” Bryan said. The urgency was gone. “Anyway, I'm gonna start cleaning up.”

“I'd help you,” I said, “but I can't move my neck.”

“It’s okay,” he replied, “besides, this is my mess.” Bryan turned and went towards the kitchen.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a gold lighter. I put the lighter on the bar, pulled out the last Marlboro and crushed the empty box. Needing a large dose of nicotine, I broke off the filter, dabbed the cut end on the tip of my tongue, and lit up. I inhaled deeply and took a sip of unsweetened black coffee before letting out a cloud of deep blue smoke. The instant buzz was welcome relief to my many aches and pains as I tried to survey the damage. Yes, it certainly was Bryan's mess, and what a mess it was. By the light of day it looked even worse than it had the night before.

The Flamenco was my spot. At least four nights a week I could be found sitting at the bar, playing dominos or dice. I started going there three years earlier when Bryan and Roland, along with their respective mates, Anne-Marie and Sophie, had bought the place. Bryan was a former Navy SEAL from California and his girlfriend Anne-Marie was from France. Roland, also from France, was a retired mercenary and Anne-Marie’s older brother. He had spent many years fighting all over Africa, wherever the money was good. Roland’s wife, Sophie, was from South Africa. I liked them all from the start and soon, Bryan and Roland were my best friends. I'd been there for a lot of stuff. I was there when Sophie left Roland, and I was there for the procession of Dominican girls that Roland claimed were each the love of his life.

More recently, I was living through the unlikely breakup of Bryan and Anne-Marie. I say unlikely because I couldn't believe that Bryan was serious about kicking Anne-Marie out, even though it had been a month already. Wondering if that was where I had gone wrong, I started to review the events of the previous night.
“Run for your lives! He's gone crazy!” Roland was yelling at the top of his lungs, but the patrons and staff needed no urging as they stampeded up the stairs and out into the streets. Roland rushed right past me as I sat calmly at the bar on the stool closest to the stairs. Bryan was still at it, breaking glasses and throwing the Flamenco's extensive CD collection around like so many Frisbees. Then he looked around and realized that he was alone. All alone, except for the fool sitting calmly at the end of the bar. Bryan came around, walked deliberately up to where I was sitting and sat on the stool next to me. Without turning to look at me he said, “What are you still doing here?”

“Well,” I answered slowly, “I haven't finished my drink yet.” After pausing to light a cigarette I added, “And I'll want another one after this, and you know you make the best zombies.”

Bryan let out a heavy sigh of resignation, got up from the stool and went back behind the bar to fix a couple of drinks. Normally there would be music playing, but Bryan had trashed the stereo so the only sounds were the clinks of bottles as he expertly mixed up the drinks and the occasional crunch of glass under his feet. As he came back around I swallowed what was left of the drink in front of me in anticipation of a fresh one. Bryan's zombies were special; nothing at all like the drink of the same name in the official bartender's guide. The legend was that Bryan's secret ingredient was a voodoo spell given to him by a local witch doctor. That bit of lore was, of course, for the tourists, but one thing was certain: despite the drink’s high alcohol content, all you tasted was a rich sweetness. It was like liquid caramel, but it packed a mean punch. When he was done, Bryan took his seat on the neighboring stool, slid the fresh drink in front of me, lit a cigarette and started sipping his own drink.

After a few sips I asked, “So Bryan, wanna talk?” It was obvious that my friend was having a bad night and I wanted him to know that even if everyone else was gone, I was there for him.
Bryan turned to me and I could see the seriousness in his face. “Xavier, I'm angry, very angry. In fact, I haven’t been this angry in a very long time.”
I looked around at all the broken glass then turned back to Bryan. “Well, I definitely see that. What got you so upset?”

Bryan's eyes were cold as steel as he made direct eye contact with me. His nostrils flared slightly, and his face was reddening. To prepare myself to be as supportive as possible, I broke eye contact momentarily to take another sip of my drink. As I did Bryan spoke: “Xavier, you have no idea how much you upset me tonight, do you?”
I almost choked on my drink. In an instant I sobered up as my mind connected the dots. I'd known Bryan for years; he was one of my closest friends. I’d seen him angry many times, but NEVER like this. Apparently, Roland (a hardened killer, Bryan's brother-in-law and business partner) had never seen him this angry either. And there I was, the object of his rage, sitting no more than twelve inches from him. I had no idea what I had done, but I knew I was in big trouble. I swallowed hard then said, “Me!? What the hell are you mad at me for?” I tried to sound calm but it was futile.
Bryan glared at me. “Why did you bring that woman in here?”

Despite my best efforts I couldn’t remember anything between Bryan telling me he was angry and me waking up behind the bar. Earlier that evening, I had run into Bryan's girlfriend, Anne-Marie, and asked her to join me at the Flamenco. She had declined. After all, Bryan had banned her from the restaurant. I insisted because I didn't think it was that big a deal. Besides, Bryan was now fucking my ex-wife, Alice, and I wasn't upset about that. Even when my ex moved in with him and started tending bar I didn’t let it get to me, as long as she kept her distance and didn’t serve me. So why Bryan should be upset if I walked in with his ex-girlfriend didn’t quite make sense to me. I mean it's not like I was fucking her or anything. I just figured if he saw her, he would kick Alice out and patch things up with Anne-Marie. I guess at some point when we were alone Bryan helped me figure it out. So much for playing matchmaker.

I wanted to ask Bryan a few questions but I had a funny feeling about the way he had been trying to rush me out of the place, so I kept them to myself. I'd get his version of the story in a few days when all this blew over.

Eventually Max, the Flamenco's security guard, announced that someone was outside for me. I made my way, very slowly, up the stairs and out to the car. Nelson was inspecting the vehicle. He probably assumed that I’d been in an accident. When he saw me he hurried to my side with a worried look. “Mr. Pouchon! Are you Ok?”

“I'll be all right,” I said, “It’s just my neck. Help me into the car.” I handed him the keys.

Driving home was torture. Nelson's natural impulse was to get me home as quickly as possible. Every bump in the road made me feel as though we had fallen into a ditch. The only thing worse was the curves. I had to order him to go no faster than fifteen miles per hour. When I got home, Mary fussed over me and even Pop, my stepfather, put in his two cents. I spent the rest of the weekend expecting my sprained neck to get better.

By the time Monday morning came around, the pain was simply too much to bear. I called in sick and Nelson took me to the doctor, who decided to take some x-rays of my neck. The x-rays revealed I had fractured two vertebrae in my neck. “When did this happen?” the doctor asked.

“Friday night,” I answered.

“And you waited this long to come in? You’re lucky to be alive.” The doctor had a sad and grave look on his face. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but he didn’t. He put me in a neck brace and ordered me to three weeks of bed-rest, flat on my back. I was to have absolutely no movement for three weeks and even after that I had to take it slow. I thanked the doctor and left, and on the way home, I had Nelson stop by the store to pick up a bottle of rum, a six-pack of Cokes and a pack of Marlboros. The doctor was crazy if he thought a broken neck would keep me in the house for three weeks, much less in bed.

I actually did what the doctor said for a few days, but by day four I was going nuts. I had to get out of the house. I called the Flamenco to find out what was going on, and to my surprise Anne-Marie answered the phone. Apparently, the net result of the Friday night incident was that Bryan ended up asking Alice to leave and taking Anne-Marie back. After telling her as much as I knew of what happened the night Bryan went crazy, and giving her an update on my medical condition, I changed the subject.

“So,” I asked, “what else is going on?”

“Well, actually we have a live band playing tonight,” she answered.
Damn, I didn't want to miss that. “Really? Who's playing?”

“Remember Freddy, my daughter’s boyfriend?” she said, “He worked out a deal with Bryan. He'll be playing every Thursday night.”

“That's pretty cool,” I said. “Okay, Anne-Marie, see you soon.”

“No you will not!” she snapped. “I'm not seeing you for another three weeks. You are staying in bed.”

“Hey! Ease off,” I said.

“Xavier, I'm serious,” she insisted. “I don't want to see you until your neck has healed. Do you hear me?”

“Okay Anne-Marie, good talking to you,” I said as I hung up the phone.

Anne-Marie was a dear friend and I knew she meant well but the last thing I wanted to hear was nagging. I thought about what I should do: stay home, in bed, on my back, moving as little as possible. Then I thought about what I wanted to do: go to the Flamenco, get drunk, bring home a girl and fuck her brains out. Then I thought of a compromise: stay home, get drunk but put as little stress as possible on my neck. The problem with the compromise was that I'd been doing exactly that since leaving the doctor’s office. Fuck it! Compromises were for pussies. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? I would go to the Flamenco, sit at the bar and not move my head. Well, now that the issue was settled I needed to see to my transportation. I called Nelson to my room.

“Nelson,” I said, “we’re going out tonight.”

“What do you mean Mr. Pouchon?” was his startled reply.

“I mean that I’m sick and tired of staying in this house,” I said, articulating every word to emphasize that my mind was made up.

“But Mr. Pouchon,” Nelson pleaded, “the doctor said you have to stay in bed.”

“Screw the fucking doctor!” I shouted. “Now you can drive me or I can take a taxi, but one way or another, I’m going out tonight.”

Nelson sounded desperate. “You can’t be serious, sir.”

I was getting impatient. “How much you wanna bet? And I’ll even let you decide. You gonna drive me or do I take a taxi?”

Nelson looked perplexed. He couldn’t bring himself to take me out against the doctor’s advice, but there was no way he could let me take a taxi either. Finally he chose the lesser of the two evils. “Okay sir, I’ll take you.”

I could see he was conflicted so I tried to make him feel better. “Relax man, it’ll be fine. And you’ll be sitting next to me the whole time. What can possibly go wrong? Besides, we'll only stay out for a couple of hours.”

“Okay sir, if you say so,” Nelson answered.

We left the house around 9:00 and when we got to the Flamenco, the street in front of the restaurant was packed. Nelson double parked at the entrance and let me out. Max, the security guard, was very surprised to see me but he rushed to open my door and helped me out. I’d never seen a crowd like this in front of the restaurant before. Nelson started freaking out and asked me to wait with Max until he could park the car and get back to me.

When Nelson came, Max cleared a path to the head of the line while Nelson covered my back. Half-way down the hallway leading to the stairs that led down to the bar, there was a podium. Anne-Marie’s daughter, Martine, was sitting behind it collecting the cover charge for anyone wanting to go downstairs. Martine, a petite little fox with an angelic face and brownish-blond hair that hung all the way down to her ass, was born and raised in France. She’d only been in Haïti about six months. Freddy, a local artist, was her boyfriend, and his band was scheduled to play that night.

When Martine saw me she said, “Xavier! What the hell are you doing here?”

“Are you kidding?” I said, “You really think I would miss this? I had to come and show my support.” And with that I leaned forward and gave her a kiss and hug. “How much to get in?”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Thanks sweetie.” I pointed to Nelson. “He’s with me. He’s my driver.”

“Okay,” she said, and waved Nelson in.
The show hadn't started yet but the bar was packed. As I entered, I could see a lot of surprised faces looking my way. Bryan was nowhere to be seen, but behind the bar there were three bar maids and Anne-Marie. The girl closest to Anne-Marie tapped her on the shoulder and pointed in my direction. Anne-Marie turned towards me with a distressed look but when she saw the big grin on my face she couldn’t help but smile. Rather than shout above the crowd, she made a sign for me to meet her at the end of the bar. When I got to her, she hugged me and said, “Xavier, you have to go home. You’re gonna fuck up your neck.”

“Listen,” I said, “I’m tired of staying home. Just park me here, keep the beers coming and I’ll stay out of everyone’s way. You can kick me out if you want to but I’ll just go drink somewhere else. I’m not going home.”

She could see it was no use. “Okay, but please just sit here and don’t do anything stupid.” She called one of the girls and gave some instructions. “Jacky, make sure he’s always got a drink in front of him and don’t let him out of your sight.”

“No problem,” Jacky said as she smiled at me. She then put a clean ashtray and a Corona in front of me

I smiled back at her. “Okay sweetie, get me a double-shot of Jack Daniels to go with the beer and a pack of Marlboros,” I pointed to Nelson, “and get him whatever he wants.” With the important stuff out of the way, I turned back to Anne-Marie, “Before I settle in can I at least go look inside the restaurant? I haven’t even said hi to Freddy yet.”

“No!” she said emphatically. “I’ll tell Freddy you’re here.”
I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about Freddy. I just wanted to check out the action in the restaurant but it was early and I’d get my chance soon enough. In the meantime, a few drinks would get me in just the right frame of mind.

I’d been sitting there for twenty or thirty minutes when a young lady climbed up on the stool next to me. “Hi there,” she said, “my name is Pattie.”

I had to turn my entire body to face her. In one glimpse I took her in. She wore a sleeveless t-shirt, tight jeans, and tennis shoes. Underdressed for the occasion, but she was a cute girl with a well-developed chest, a pretty face, and braids down to her shoulders. At most, she was eighteen but probably younger. “My name is Xavier,” I answered.

“I know,” she said, “I know all about you.”
Surprised, I said, “Really, and what do you know about me?”

“Well,” she started, “I know that you’re very nice and charming, that you have a lot of girls after you, and that you’re not with your wife anymore.”

“Ex-wife!” I corrected, “I’m divorced.”

“Sorry,” she said, “ex-wife. And I know that you work for The Agency.”

“Well Pattie, you really do know all about me,” I said sarcastically. “Mind telling me how old you are?”

“Old enough,” she replied defiantly.

“Old enough for what?” I asked.

“Old enough to be your girlfriend, old enough to take care of you, and old enough to satisfy you.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “And who told you I was looking for a girlfriend?”

“Just try me,” she persisted, “and you’ll never want anybody else.”

“Look,” I said, “you seem like a really nice girl, but I’m not looking for a girlfriend.”

“Take me home with you,” she said, “you’ll see.”
I laughed again. “So you want to interview for the position of girlfriend? What kind of experience do you have?”

“Like I said,” she leaned forward, put a hand on each of my knees, and looked up into my eyes with what she probably thought was a seductive look, “take me home and find out for yourself.”
Right about then, Jacky put another beer in front of me and waited for my instructions.

“Get a beer for my new friend Pattie,” I said.
As though she knew what I was going to say, Jacky instantly produced another beer and put it in front of Pattie.

“And make sure my old friend Nelson is in good shape back there,” I added.

“I’m fine sir,” Nelson said as Jacky walked away.
My back was to Nelson as I faced Pattie. “What do you think of this girl Nelson?”

“I don’t know sir,” he said, “she looks awful young.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Pattie said. “I’m all the woman you’ll ever need.”

The words coming out of this little girl were so ridiculous I had to laugh, but her boldness had me fascinated. Against my better judgment I reached for my wallet, pulled out a business card and turned towards the bar to write. “I’ll tell you what Pattie…” I drew a line through my work number and flipped the card over. “…I’ll give you my home number. Call me, but don’t call in the middle of the night and don’t call twenty times a day.”

Pattie had a huge grin on her face. “I won’t, I promise.”
After writing my number, I turned to her. “Don’t call my job and don’t come to my job, EVER. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, “I understand.”

“Now there’s one rule you have to follow if you wanna be my girl,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Under no circumstances are you ever to talk to my ex-wife.” I stared into her eyes with a look of deadly seriousness. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, sure I do,” she started, “but I don’t know her, why would I want to talk to her? She’s not my friend.”

“She’ll come to you,” I explained, “and pump you for information about me. She’s dangerous. Whatever you do, don’t talk to her.”

“I’m not scared of her,” Pattie said. “I can take care of myself.”
This poor little girl didn’t have a clue. If provoked, Alice would just as quickly stab her and feel no remorse. But the real danger was that Alice was as charming as she was violent. She was a master at seduction and bragged no woman had ever been able to resist her. During our three years together, I had several opportunities to see her in action. The woman was ruthless and efficient. But it wasn’t just women who succumbed to her charms. Despite her sixth-grade education, Alice was a social engineer of the highest order who could manipulate her way into just about any place short of a U.S. military base. I knew by the next day, Alice would know this girl had approached me and would start planning her attack. This was fine with me since it would give her something to do and keep her out of my hair.

As the night wore on they kept the drinks coming, but they couldn’t keep me nailed down. I eventually made it into the restaurant. A portion of it had been cleared to make room for the band and make space for a dance floor. I danced a bit with Pattie and some of the other girls. Poor Nelson almost had a heart attack. We ended up staying until the place closed, that much I remember. The ride home, getting into the house, getting into bed, I don’t remember any of that. One thing was for sure: going out had been a bad idea. My stepfather decided that I needed to be watched more closely, so he called his sister for help.

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