Visitor:
Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 8


I woke up at nine, went to the refrigerator and selected an Eskimo Cheese Whip; depression doesn't want wholesome, it wants sugar and fat. I called the hospital--no change, stable but still unconscious.

Mustering what was left of my mental agility, I got the mail--a postcard from my dentist, a polite man who always asks how I've been, reminding me that I haven't accomplished anything in half a year. The most I could point to was a series of failed attempts at advanced education, a Fluke CD still not finished, and a few trial memberships at health clubs.

I settled onto the couch in front of the TV. I'd moved back home with my brother four years ago, just after Mom died, one year after my wife left me, and thirteen years after Dad died. Our home was just outside Celtic City, in the middle of a large tract of three bedroom homes, but clearly distinguished from neighboring homes in that it had a completely different house number.

When I was ten years old, Bill nine, and Corky twelve, our cocker spaniel puppy Kirby ran out into the street. All I could do was shout "No!" and watch as Dad swerved into a utility pole. Car shrapnel hit Kirby.

A vet put Kirby to sleep so he wouldn't suffer. Dad wasn't so lucky. For two weeks the doctors tried to bring his pain under control.

"Son," he choked out one day during visiting hours, "I need rest. Okay?"

"Sure, Dad." But I couldn't leave. Couldn't say good-bye.

His eyes widened and his hand went slack. A tear formed in his eye. Whether because he'd asked me to leave and I hadn't, or because of his physical condition, I never was certain. He slipped into unconsciousness.

Back home, in bed, staring at the opposite wall, I cried, though not for long. Exhaustion dropped me into oblivion. The phone call pulled me out.

Dad had died.

At that moment, time stopped. Jimmy Carter was President, The Official Preppie Handbook was the rage, the question "Who shot J.R.?" had the nation guessing, Mount St. Helens and the Moral Majority were spouting off, and bumper stickers said things like Historians Are a Thing of the Past.

That night I listened to Mama crying to herself in her room, and I cried along with her in mine.

Over the next few years I mostly stayed inside and watched television. Sometimes Mom sat with me, but I could tell she wasn't really interested in the shows. She'd always try to strike up a conversation, first talking about nothing in particular, then asking why I didn't go out and play, and could she do anything to help me in any way.

She couldn't. I'd developed a belief in emotional distance, distance maintained by joking my way through each day, as if life were a sitcom.

Now, Eskimo Cheese Whip in hand, I watched a talk-show host and his audience debating sex-change operations with an intensity that suggested almost everyone might have one.

A commercial came on: a woman washing her hair, hinting your own hair would fall out by the handful if you didn't use Laurel shampoo. It reminded me that Laurel used the Draize Eye Irritancy Test, a national standard since 1944. Cosmetic companies place thousands of rabbits in stocks to prevent them from clawing at their eyes to dislodge toxic substances. Rabbits have no tear ducts and cannot make tears. With only their heads protruding, the lower lid of each rabbit's eye is pulled away from the eyeball to form a small cup. Into that cup a lab worker drops drain cleaner and other harsh chemicals to be tested as the rabbit squirms to break free. The eye is held closed. The rabbits, who vocalize only when in unbearable pain, scream.

I started flipping channels.

I stopped when I saw a reporter standing in front of the charred remains of the Terrig Test Lab interviewing Beezil Terrig and his wife Margo. Beezil had tiny black eyes and the slick sloping forehead of a killer whale. His wife was sobbing into a handkerchief.

"--to my knowledge," Beezil was saying, "our testing was in compliance with all regulations regarding lab animals."

"Your daughter was an animal-rights activist. Why did she burn down your laboratory?"

"Kristin didn't fall for that animal-rights propaganda. We raised her to be smarter than that."

"But our sources say--"

"Your sources are wrong. Besides, animals aren't even the issue, jobs are. Why don't you report the good side of what we do? We perform research for the benefit of all mankind."

Shaving lotion scented like urinal cakes is a giant leap for mankind?

"Your daughter must have believed otherwise."

"Listen! Kristin wasn't a fanatic about animals."

"Then perhaps she was trying to get even with you."

"What the hell for? Listen, you've got a lot of nerve."

"Something you did to her. A family problem?"

Beezil seemed taken aback by a question insinuating a dark side to his personal life. He cleared his throat. "No family problem. If Kristin ever supported animal-rights, she was led astray."

"By whom, Mr. Terrig?"

"I don't know. But I will find out." His nostrils flared into the camera and I felt as though he were looking directly at me.

"Do you feel responsible for her death?"

Beezil's head dropped. His wife stepped forward.

"We haven't been close to her for several years."

I leaned back. Kristin's parents had no idea how she felt. Maybe she'd never had a chance to tell them, or maybe they hadn't listened, but I knew she'd want them to understand her passion.

Hoover snorted, shook himself, padded over to me, and lay down. I brushed him as I waited for the Terrigs to return home. After an hour, I called, not sure if I was calling for Kristin or spoiling for a fight.

"Mrs. Terrig, I was a friend of Kristin's, and I'm very sorry about what happened."

"Thank you. It's a difficult time for us."

"I saw you on television, and if you'll allow me, I'd like to share with you the details of what Kristin believed in. It was an important part of who she was."

"Please excuse me for a moment."

I heard Beezil's angry voice in the background. I caught "animal-rights puke" and "hunting trip" before she picked the phone back up.

"We want to meet with you. There's a lot that doesn't make sense to us, but my husband will be busy for several days. We'd like to invite you to our home."

"Could we set a firm time?"

"Thursday, say at seven?"

"Thank you."

* * *

At dusk, for the first time in hours, my face didn't hurt so much. That was something to be glad about as Bill worked the Ford van through light traffic in Tory Town while baring his firespewing soul about Richard getting shot. When he ran out of words, he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. The glove compartment burst open and a stack of road maps slid against Hoover's legs. This derailed his anger. I arranged the maps in a neat pile and put them back.

Hoover's nose was pushed into the inch of open window I'd cracked for him. He relied on me to describe the sights.

"To our right, all along Constitution Avenue, Christmas lights are blinking off and on. Benches, awnings, telephone booths--everything is decorated with fringes of icicles reflecting the lights."

I didn't tell him the colorful lights couldn't hide the shabbiness of the storefronts, that the streets were infested with pushers, hookers, and reporters, each making a living off the others, or that you could walk ten blocks in any direction without leaving the scene of a crime.

As Bill turned a corner I said, "Has Ann ever mentioned having a boyfriend?"

"I'm not sure she's ever talked with anyone, even Corky, about anything personal."

"No one comes to gigs with her."

"Maybe she's just too busy to have a personal life. I hear it's overrated anyway."

"She spends a lot of time on child-abuse cases."

"There might be a personal reason for that."

"You think?"

"Sure. Wouldn't it be logical--if she was an abused child or something."

My stomach lurched as if Bill had shifted from fourth to reverse accidentally.

"She's never said anything like that."

"Yeah, well, it's not something likely to be real easy to talk about. You know, some psychologists say people who are crazy about animals often are that way because their fellow humans have hurt them badly."

I believed that.

"Why are you asking, anyway?"

"Just wondering."

"You never 'just wondered' anything in your life."

"I think she likes me."

"No offense, Clark, but hasn't she noticed the TV Guide in your back pocket?"

The hidden truth in the remark stung.

"What brought this on?"

"I picked up some blips on my radar screen."

"Such as?"

"She's trying to stop me from eating too much. Seems to want to understand my idiosyncrasies."

"I guess anything is possible," he said, then muttered to himself about there being no accounting for taste.

He parked the van, we locked up, then crossed an icy parking lot to Chez Beagle. Although it looked like a place where you'd rent a donkey, Bill had been eating here over a decade and introduced me to the place after I got Hoover. The food came out of a microwave, but the owner was French and, as in many restaurants in France, dogs were welcome.

When we walked in, dogs shifted restlessly, their tags jingling like sleigh bells. Hoover followed us to our table, which sat, give or take a little, just inside the men's room. I picked up a copy of the local tabloid newspaper, the Beacon Hill Examiner from a nearby table. It would be better, on the whole, than thinking.

Across from us, nursing a bowl of soup, an old man sat in a wrinkled gray suit. On the floor beside him stretched a scruffy bundle of bones lightly sprinkled with brown fur. A tuft of beige fuzz stood up on his head and gave Bones the look of something drawn by Dr. Seuss. Bones slowly chewed on a hard dinner roll while eyeing Hoover.

After the waitress took our orders, I unfolded the Examiner. The headline exploded in front of me: DAUGHTER DIES IN TERRIG FIRE.

My misgivings grew when I noticed Slim Twitchle's byline over the story. While psychologists say you are your own worst critic, in Fluke's case it's always been Slim Twitchle. He reviewed us often, and seemed to take genuine pleasure in tearing us apart. When he referred to our "songs," the quotation marks around "songs" functioned much like the jaws of a Pooper Scooper.

According to Cavalry's Fire Chief, someone had cut open a gas line to a hydrogen furnace, splashed gasoline around the lab and set it on fire. Kristin died when the hydrogen exploded.

At least it must have been quick.

Beezil Terrig disputed the fire chief's explanation, claiming the gas line had burst and ignited on its own, and that he intended to sue the manufacturer.

Well, well. Is Beezil protecting Kristin? Hiding the fact his lab was the target of animal-rights activists? Or trying to make a buck off the manufacturer?

The medical examiner was calling the death accidental. Slim pointed out that a "friend of the victim" had told him that Kristin had been acting on orders from the Animal Liberation Front, connected with the local rock band Fluke. But Beezil Terrig denied that his daughter was ever part of any "animal-rights cult."

"Know anything about Kristin's personal life? Her friends?"

"No," Bill said, unsnaggling the tines of his fork. "Why?"

"Someone told Slim Twitchle that Kristin was killed while working with the A.L.F. and Fluke."

Bill looked as if someone had just crapped inside his Pope John Paul lunch box. "An inside leak would destroy the A.L.F." Bill stopped talking as a waitress passed. "We have to plug it."

I tossed the newspaper onto the seat next to me. "I do believe I'd like to jump down this Slim Twitchle's throat, grab his toes, pull him inside out, and make him swallow himself." Of course, as I had no idea what Slim looked like, it was only an assumption that this hadn't already been done.

"How can we learn more about Kristin if her parents are our only connection?"

I told Bill about Mr. Terrig's upcoming hunting trip.

Bill looked at the tines of his fork, now parallel. He brightened. "That gives me a long shot to seal the leak. If any of the hunting group just bought their license, I can get their name off the register at the local gun shop. I'll say I'm new in town and ask if I can join them."

If anyone could pull it off, my brother could. He was an accomplished member of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. With his hair under a cap, he did a convincing Redneck impersonation, spouting knowledge of Big Time Wrestling and the attributes of the county's best trucking institutes. He even has a Christmas card in his wallet from Red-Man chewing tobacco.

"What do you have in mind?" I asked.

"Maybe a few wisecracks during the hunt about those commie animal-rights activists. Whatever might get Terrig shooting his mouth off if he knows anything."

"You're not afraid he'll recognize you?"

"What, you think he's a fan of ours?"

"No. But Kristin might have had some pictures of Fluke. Beezil could've found them. . . ."

The waitress slid two peanut butter sandwiches in front of us, along with Beagle's special preserves (made fresh each day by pouring jam from a can into a fancy jar) and two cups of coffee.

I was sipping mine, which tasted like something you'd sit in to remove a tattoo, when the door burst open and smashed into a plastic four-foot-high Santa holding a Styrofoam candy cane, bouncing him off the wall. To the barking of a dozen dogs, Lester Gillis, Mungo, and The Rat trampled over Santa Claus as if storming a fortress.

"Don't show any fear," I told Bill. "Try to appear larger than you really are."

Under the table, Hoover growled low in his throat and tensed. I slipped my hand underneath his collar.

The three felons circled us. Mungo moved behind me. Looking up at him I experienced a dizzying sensation as if passing the Statue of Liberty in a rowboat. With one hand on either side of me, he leaned on the table. It sagged. Inside my stomach, half of a peanut butter sandwich did a slow somersault.

The Rat wore a buckskin cowboy jacket and boots with spurs. Before sitting down he took an apple from a bowl on the counter and started peeling it with a knife considerably larger than necessary for the job. Lester sat at the end of our table, snatched the rest of my sandwich, and swallowed it with a sound like a plumber unstopping a toilet.

"First you play your crap at the Lobster, then you steal my customers, and now you brainwash them into screwing with research you're too dumb to understand." His eyes dared me to contradict him.

I did. Perhaps because I was hungry and he ate my sandwich. I raised my voice. "Those animals suffer every day! You want us to sit back and do nothing when there are cruelty free ways of testing products? What about computer simulations? What about cell-culture systems? Don't you tell me I'm too dumb to understand."

He burped. "Who gives a shit."

"What a great philosophy: don't care about things that can't hurt you. Animals get tortured? Can't hurt you. But you know what can hurt you? Your attitude can come back and bite you in the ass. When kids are raised with no compassion, why shouldn't they gun you down as they drive by? Believe me there is a correlation, so wise up. Try reading. It's amazing how sophisticated pop-up books have become."

I looked hard at him, impressed with my courage but appalled by my judgment. It would have been smarter to have offered him a hammer, nails, and a cross, then put my feet together.

Bones stopped chewing his dinner roll and cocked his head as if thinking over what I'd said. Lester didn't bother to.

"Just because I don't shovel it as fast as you do, doesn't mean you're right."

Mungo dope-slapped the back of my head. "Message for you, Baby Cakes. Keep your mouth shut about whatever you imagined you saw in Terrig's lab, and keep your jerkwads away from there unless you want the world to know who's in the A.L.F."

Lester was smiling. "People like Ann Berlin and Corky Baker."

I would have staggered, but I was sitting.

I turned to Bill, whose demeanor was rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, had just caught the Amtrak in the small of the back.

"A.L.F. members don't use their real names," I said.

Mungo rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. "Bullshit, Baby Cakes."

That's a nickname I sure hope doesn't stick.

Lester made a slight upward gesture with his hand and all three felons rose.

As they headed for the door, Bones growled softly. Without breaking stride, Lester kicked him in the head with a sickening thud that sent the dog yelping under his master's chair.

I've learned to live with many of my mistakes--a campaign contribution to Bob Packwood, buying my wife a Dirt Devil for Valentines--but I felt guilty about making Lester mad enough to kick that poor old dog. Bones had abandoned his dinner roll and now seemed afraid of it.

If Lester comes back, I'll stuff that roll so far up his butt that the Donner Party wouldn't reach it on a three day hike.

When my legs were steady, I pushed myself into a standing position, put money on the table, helped Santa to his feet, and went outside into the chilly night, where the clash of Renaissance armies was only sleet beating on the aluminum awnings.

"You know," Bill said, "you haven't heard the last of what happened back there."

"You sound pretty certain."

"I am. If you ever get married again, when the judge asks, 'Is there any reason these two shouldn't be married,' I'm going to say 'Does she know he's insane?' and tell them about this."

The issue of my sanity sounded like dangerous territory, so I declared a personal moratorium on the subject and instead asked, "How did Lester know we were here?"

"You think he's been tailing us?"

"Unless someone at Beagle tipped him off."

"Doubt that. Those people have been my good friends for a very long time."

Lester may have unspeakable ways of persuading them, I thought.

But my worried expression must have confused Bill, because he sounded defensive. "Clark, you're my best friend. You know that, don't you?"

I looked from side to side like a dog who needed to be let out.

"I love you," he said.

Go on. Tell him you love him, too. I started to. I nearly did.

Hatful of Pain    Chapter 9

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer

Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin, annxtberlin@gmail.com