December 24, 2003

The Escape Artist: A Novel Excerpt

By Henry Wasserman © 2003

He woke up feeling the usual morning frustration and immediately looked at the clock in the hope that it was too early for him to be awake. But the fatigue grew heavier when he realized he had slept for 9 hours. Most mornings he felt this way, and always wondered if there was something wrong with him, physically or mentally, or if everybody felt this way. It was like a hangover, an aftertaste of too much frustration and boredom, a losing battle against the hope of fulfilling his potential.

Fortunately there were more pressing matters--the frustration quickly disappeared, as John Henry felt the pain spread out from the base of his neck down to his pelvis. The physical pain was better than the hangover, and he was happy to be distracted by the diagnostic process. Last night's game was a good one-only one mistake, a missed block on a play that didn't much matter, and enough memorable good plays to convince him that he'd play well. He tried to remember what the pain had come from, and mentally cued up the game tape and cycled through the hits. A helmet to helmet smash with the monster defensive end… diving for a poorly thrown ball… a perfectly thrown block to clear a path for the running back. But he couldn't remember feeling any pain on any of these plays, and dismissed the pain in his neck as unimportant.

He'd become an expert at diagnosing the seriousness of injuries: having experienced a variety of serious traumas to his body, he was able to determine if the pain would prevent him from playing for a game, a few weeks or a season. In the rare case that the pain indicated that there was something wrong with the function of his body (such as a torn ligament), some defect that a river of adrenaline could not fix, he knew about it. This morning's pain was the good kind, the kind that told him he had given enough of his body to believe he had played a good game.

He wished he could apply his diagnostic skills to his mental condition as well, but the morning frustration always confused him. He remembered some movie in which the hero is told that the measure of a man is how he feels about himself when he wakes up in the morning, and he wished he could figure out what these morning hangovers really meant. The confused unhappiness upon waking up had become too familiar, almost comfortable.

As he began his morning routine of ingesting the 3 legal painkillers, coffee, ibuprofen, and nicotine, he wondered why he participated in these addictions. Maybe like the pain, it was easier to justify the morning frustration as a physical withdrawal, and it provided him with a distraction from the psychological side of the problem. Maybe it was just an attempt to participate in "the common life," a ritual that renewed his membership in the fraternity of the common person. As each year went by, he felt it harder to understand and identify with people. He couldn't imagine himself contentedly sitting in traffic on the morning commute, sitting at a desk meaninglessly punching numbers into a computer, and coming home to stare at the tv with the wife and kids. He hoped in a perverse way that the cogs of society felt that same morning frustration, but was pretty sure that they didn't.

As the coffee dripped into the pot, John wondered what to do with the 5 minutes it took for the brewing to finish. If he couldn't satisfy himself that he was doing something productive, he immediately became frustrated. If time was not full, it was empty. The idea that a minute could go by in which a person was not somehow doing something to better himself was disgusting to him. He picked up the newspaper, annoyed that he'd gotten into the habit of waiting for the brown liquid.

He drank his coffee and waited for the caffeine and ibuprofen to take the edge off the fatigue, and opened up to the sports page. After scanning the first 3 pages, he found the headline he was looking for at the bottom of page 4: "Hartford QB throws to Victory over New York," accompanied by a smiling picture of his team's idiot quarterback. There were a couple paragraphs describing the game, interspersed with quotes from the quarterback about "the dream of every minor league football player is to get to the pros" and various cliches about winning and "wanting it more." John laughed at the obligatory thanks to God, remembering the look on the quarterback's face as he screwed a couple of groupies in the locker room shower after the game.

He downed the last of his coffee, folded the newspaper, and stuck a wad of chewing tobacco in his lower lip. Bounding out the door of his dirty apartment, he squinted against the blinding sun, feeling invigorated by the pain in his leg muscles that each step triggered. He hated going to "work" on Sunday-it was the players' only day off, and he wished his body was tough enough to survive without the help of ice and whirlpools.

The beat up car went into reverse, and as he turned to look out the back window, the pain shot down his neck, sending nauseating waves of pain throughout his body. He turned his head forward and took a deep breath. The pain subsided to a dull ache, but John felt a hint of worry. An oncoming Lexus nearly smashed into him as he backed out without looking, and the angry yuppie face in the rear view caused him a wry smile of satisfaction.

The highway was a sanctuary for him. Gliding along through space, his racing mind relaxed, overjoyed at the idea that until he reached his destination, there was no choice of action: only the music from the CD player and the nicotine flowing into his bloodstream. He reflected on the game: how alive he felt when he was playing, how dead he felt when he wasn't. He wondered if the reason he felt better after the Sunday sessions with the trainer was because of the highway's ability to calm his thoughts.

The blaring music snapped him back into the car, as the singer belted out the lyrics:

"It's a war on war, it's a war on war
You're gonna lose
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
If you wanna wanna be alive"

The words conjured up images of himself after games, swollen and sore, and thought about being reborn again on the next gameday. A weekly death and rebirth, a distraction from the banality of a life in front of the TV. He pictured Jesus in a football uniform, barking out signals to the apostles before throwing a perfect pass to Peter in the end zone.

Henry Wasserman is a writer from Los Angeles, CA. The Escape Artist is his first novel.

No comments: