No. 30: “The Feeling," a short story
Context and full story below
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Every now and again, I dip back into horror. Thus it was with “The Feeling,” which I wrote a few years ago, between completing “Top Brain, Bottom Brain” and heading into the home stretch on “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy Between Ford and Olds and The Dawn of the Automobile Age” (more on “Car Crazy” tomorrow).
“The Feeling,” as the title suggests, is more atmospheric than graphic, a story about a shy young man living in Boulder, Colorado, who sells the best weed in town and is gifted with the power of premonition. Which comes to him when touching others – a handshake, for example. Which also endows him with the power of life or death.
"The Feeling" was published four years ago in “The Beach That Summer: The Essential G. Wayne Miller Fiction, Vol. 3,” another collection of shorts, some dating back decades, others more recent, from my good friends David Wilson and David Dodd at Crossroad Press. Other titles stories in the collection include the title piece, “The Beach That Summer,” and “Christmas in the Year of Our Lord Ten,” “Brief Encounters with Baby,” “A Proper Burial,” “Elevators,” “Every Step of the Way,” “Time on Charity,” “First Love,” “Labor of Love,” “Trees,” “Momma,” “Something for Heidi,” “The Overseer” and “The Place He Was In.”
I dedicated “The Beach That Summer” to my son, Calvin.
READ “The Beach That Summer”
Adam left his apartment now only after night had fallen. He was no zombie or vampire, just a man in his 20s who had been treated strangely by life and wanted only solitude, which offered him solace, as much as he would ever have, he supposed. He did not view this as sad, only realistic. The word “different” only applied to those who lacked insight.
Of course, he had to eat: food is fuel, as he sometimes put it. They sold food at the 24-hour convenience store four blocks from his apartment, and the clerks always greeted him nicely and never asked probing questions; they were gentle creatures, too, people like him just getting by, living for the moment, knowing, as he did, that the future was always unpredictable and sometimes scary, and in any event, beyond your control. Whatever gets you through the night is all right, as John Lennon sang. Adam liked that old music, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles especially, with their mix of psychedelia and free love and revolution. Tear down the walls, motherfucker, and all that. Those must have been good times. A young man like him would have belonged. Woodstock would have been his kind of thing, for sure.
So there he was, moving toward the checkout counter at 1:33 a.m., his basket filled with cookies, candy bars, beef jerky, chips, Red Bull, Coke and a day-old submarine sandwich that still looked OK. Quite an invention, the convenience store, Adam thought. They certainly are convenient! He laughed silently at his little joke. He could be much funnier. Ironic, too, in an intellectual way. Someday, he’d have to write a clever book or a TV pilot.
As the clerk rang him up, the door opened and a couple about his age burst in, giggling crazily.
Needless to say, they were as high as the snow-capped Rocky Mountains that nestled them here in Boulder: the smell of weed and the dilated pupils confirmed that. And they were very, very hungry, like that caterpillar in the children’s story that Adam’s mother read to him when he was a little kid, before her addictions took over completely, which was the last time he could remember feeling truly contented.
“I want Ben & Jerry’s,” the woman said.
“Who’s Ben? And what’s the deal with Jerry?” said the man, clearly a sarcastic sort. “I mean, those dudes are like 100 years old or something. Probably the only thing they can eat now is ice-cream, the toothless old fucks!”
The couple convulsed in laughter.
“Cherry Garcia, babe,” the woman said.
“Be grateful you’re not dead,” the man said. “Get it?”
The couple laughed again.
The boyfriend headed toward the freezers, in a back corner of the store.
Adam completed his purchase with cash, per usual. He had no credit cards, no bank account; when you sold weed in large volume, dollar bills and bartering were your only currencies. Nothing traceable, so long as you stayed away from the cameras, which were pretty much everywhere these days. Being aware of that, you could take evasive procedures. The only piece he’d yet to figure out were the convenience-store monitors, but he had to eat, didn’t he. He hoped never to reach the point where he needed to wear a disguise. Fake beards looked, well, fake, and ski masks were dead giveaways. Sunglasses didn’t do the job, not with the facial recognition software they now had. Look how quickly they’d found the Boston Marathon bombers.
Nor did Adam have a phone. When he went online, which he did obsessively, he used encryption and other protective technologies that he’d learned from Anonymous and other digital anarchists. He had hacked into Xbox Live and Netflix and Apple and the other places where he hung out, leaving no trace of who and where and what he was. Yes, he was cool with Assange and that Snowden dude, new best buddy of Putin. They were not going to find him: no CIA or FBI or NSA geeks, working in some windowless, softly-lit room in a reinforced-concrete building in remote freaking Utah.
No reporters, either. He hated reporters worst of all. They had the real power to ruin a person, and they used it gleefully. Adam knew this first-hand.
“Hey, there, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?”
The woman was talking to him.
Adam was immediately, instinctively paranoid. Not that he wasn’t good-looking -- truth was, he was better-looking than most, a tall, fit man with thick dark hair, reminiscent of a young Bradley Cooper. And while the woman was too young to remember Roy Orbison when he was alive, Adam suspected she would agree that his music was timeless. He had plenty of Orbison on his iPod, along with The Beatles and Stones, and Jefferson Airplane, and Hendrix, and Ten Years After... the list went on. It could have been his father’s playlist, if his father were alive.
But even the clerk could see that the woman was only happy and high. She had no agenda. No come-on or weird shit, just a high chick in the full bloom of life, in a place where weed greased the wheels of life. Someone’s great mother someday, smoking joints with her kids, but only after they’d reached legal age.
The woman didn’t pick up on his body language.
She took Adam’s right hand and turned it over, revealing his palm. She was silent a moment, her face locked in concentration.
“You have a long life line,” she said. “So you’re going to be with us a while. Decades and decades, maybe you’ll even make one hundred. But I don’t see any happiness here. The joy line ends suddenly. How long have you been, you know, down on things? And what’s your name?”
“Michael,” Adam said.
She was still holding his hand.
They were connected.
And in that instant, he felt and saw it, unmistakably: her future. Her future, which would end in four minutes and 23 seconds.
He began to tremor.
She let go of his hand, the vibes suddenly emanating from him all bad. They cut through the marijuana haze, giving her goose bumps. He didn’t frighten her exactly, but some primal circuit had been activated. Flight, not fight.
“Hey, man, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” she said, slowly backing away. “Like, I don’t even believe in palm-reading, you know? It’s just a silly game. Like Ouija boards and shit like that.”
Two pints of Cherry Garcia in hand, her boyfriend returned.
“What’s going on?” he said. His laughter had turned to stone.
“Nothing,” Adam said. The boyfriend was tattooed, broad-shouldered, no stranger to a gym.
“Don’t look like nothing to me,” he said. “Looks like a shitload of something, you creepy fuck.”
Purchase in hand, Adam walked to the door.
“No worries,” the clerk whispered to the couple. “That’s just Adam. Creature of the night. But he wouldn’t hurt a fly. And FYI, he sells the best weed in Boulder. Don’t smoke it himself, go figure, but trust me: it’s the best.”
Adam paused just outside the door, peeking in.
He looked at the woman more studiously, now that he was unobserved. She had dark hair and chocolate-colored skin, the story of America today. She was wearing black boots, black pants and black top. A petite, dark, and beautiful woman. Only her striking pink lipstick would stand out from the inky night. A speeding drunk driver would not see her until it was too late.
In many of its essential elements, Adam’s story was one of America today, too.
He was the only son of a young waitress and her boyfriend, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and jumped to his death off the Mystic River Bridge, near their home in Charlestown, the summer Adam turned ten. He left only a note that said: “I can’t take the feeling anymore.”
As the years passed, about all Adam would remember was his father’s love of ‘60s music and the story that his much-older brother, the uncle Adam rarely saw, told about how he had been conceived in a muddy tent at Woodstock and correctly predicted a terrible blizzard would strike New England on his ninth birthday, in 1978. That was all Adam could remember -- that and how secure he felt when Daddy hugged him, which was, best he knew, exactly twice.
Mom made ends meet, but at a low-rent level. Literally, low-rent. Before Adam was 18, they had cycled through seven apartments in working-class Boston neighborhoods. That many jobs or more, too. Boyfriends came and went, aunts and uncles drifted in and out, but on one thing, his mother never wavered: She loved her son, and would do anything for him. As much, that is, as a woman who met the federal criteria for poverty and was bent on slowly obliterating herself with drugs and booze could.
Adam first experienced The Feeling six days after his father’s body was fished from Boston Harbor, where it had flushed after his leap, which had been witnessed by hundreds of morning commuters and made the papers and websites and TV news, with a photo of him in freefall, about to hit the water, where his poor tortured head was pulverized on impact.
It was the afternoon of the funeral, when relatives filled the apartment, crying and reminiscing a bit but mostly just getting bad-ass drunk.
Between refills of her Bud Light, Aunt Lilly gave her nephew a hug and spoke comforting words into his ear.
Adam felt it, at that precise moment, a moment he’d never forget: something like low voltage flooding his body. A tingling that, surprisingly in light of what lay ahead, was pleasant.
“You’re going to be very lucky,” he said to his Aunt Lilly.
She looked at him, perplexed.
“Well, I am lucky,” she said. “I have you as my nephew.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
From the kitchen, someone hollered that the beer was running out.
Lilly volunteered to get more.
And when she returned, she held a case of Sam Adams and a fistful of $20 bills.
“Scratch ticket!” she announced. “Beer’s on me!”
The next instance was three years later, the winter of sixth grade.
He was in the basement of middle school with an eighth-grade girl who’d discounted the age difference on account of his looks. The boy was cute. Also, awkward and shy. Had never kissed a girl before, he confided. So she took care of that, there in the basement that January afternoon following last bell.
Adam’s body went electric. He’d never imagined a kiss would be like this, delicious and forbidden and manic, a jumble of sensation. She drew him closer, her lips locked to his, their bodies tight, her arms wrapped around him.
He experienced a sudden surge. Something like pins-and-needles, or banging your funny bone, was the best he could describe it. Low voltage, but intensifying.
This time, it hurt.
He pulled away.
“What, now you don’t like me?” the girl said.
“It’s not that,” Adam said. “I just have a bad feeling.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You need to stay home this weekend. Don’t go near ice.”
“Man, they were right. You are weird.”
“Don’t go near ice,” he repeated. A buzzing that a doctor might have described as concussive tinnitus filled his head. The Full Feeling.
An image of a frozen pond materialized in Adam’s mind. He heard ice cracking, then sirens.
“The ice is not safe,” he said.
The girl stormed off.
She did not fall through ice that weekend. On Saturday afternoon, while skating at the municipal rink, she fell and broke her left leg. The pain was intense. She lay sobbing on the ice as the guard called for an ambulance.
After that, The Feeling intensified, when it came. The accuracy seemingly improved, as well, or perhaps Adam was better able to interpret it; unsafe ice, for example, did not necessarily imply a pond. Whatever, it seemed to correlate with the strength of the physical touch. A brush of the hand or tap on the shoulder brought vague images and barely a trace of voltage. A firm handshake or full-body contact -- on a crowded subway, for example -- brought clarity and power.
But not always. The Feeling was fickle.
As the years passed and he began to realize that it must be some part of him -- or was something that followed him, like karma he couldn’t shake -- he would never fully comprehend what it was, exactly, or where it had come from, or why only he seemed to possess it -- he became acutely aware of every physical encounter with another human being. More often than not, nothing resulted: weeks could pass without The Feeling, and then it might come three times in one day, try as he might to avoid contact with another person. That was impossible for someone who lived in a city, of course. A bubble boy or a hermit in a cave, maybe, but that was not him.
So the feeling was fickle. That’s what ultimately would drive Adam close to madness before he gained control -- that and the belief that somehow he was responsible, that if only he tried to keep it away (and he did try), or reached understanding, The Feeling would pass and never revisit. He researched hours online and in libraries, but all he found was psychic babble and psychobabble and extraterrestrial nonsense and voodoo and the like, of no use to anyone but a lunatic, and he was confident he was not that. He observed his own behavior, obsessively, looking for clues that would presage The Feeling, omens warning of its imminence, changes in mood and temperament that might raise the alarm. But nothing. There were no correlations or indicators or signs; none, at least, that he could discern.
And, yes, more
than once he had the thought: I should run with it, harness it, make a living off it -- potentially, a very big living, as snake charmer or shaman or soothsayer for modern times. Heal the sick. Resurrect the dying. Save the children. Found a religion. Fill a church and the airwaves with supplications of the faithful and money pouring in on a 1-800 line.
But The Feeling was fickle.
And sometimes, of course, it was dramatic.
Thus it was inevitable that Adam eventually would make the news.
And he did, in blockbuster fashion, one summer morning the year he turned 20.
By then, tired of a borderline drunk of a mother who was on her tenth boyfriend or whatever, he had left home. He was renting a furnished room in a triple-decker in Dorchester and taking computer courses at community college, which he afforded with a job at Dunkin’ Donuts. He opened for the store: the early-early shift, on at 3 a.m., off at 11. Made the sandwiches and poured the coffee, but rarely worked the counter or window, where there was high risk of direct physical contact with strangers.
He was finishing his shift that summer morning when a man he hadn’t seen since elementary school walked in. Clete Bernier was athletic and good-natured, if not necessarily the brightest bulb on the tree. Star of their Little League team those years ago, he had earned a reputation as a slugger. Adam vividly recalled the game, last of the season, two men out, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded and their team behind by three runs, and Clete coming to bat.
Adam high-fived him before he stepped to the plate.
The Feeling came.
Clete sent the first pitch over the left-field fence. A photo of their championship team made the papers.
“Well if it isn’t Adam Murkowski!” Clete said, that morning at Dunkin’ Donuts. “My good luck charm from way back when!”
They talked and exchanged phone numbers and the conversation wound down. After the memories, there really wasn’t much to say.
Clete embraced his old teammate with a bear hug.
“Man, it’s been great!” he said. “See you on Facebook.”
Clete held the hug a bit longer. He was that kind of guy: affable and outgoing, a touchy-feely dude, in the best sense of the word.
He did not understand why Adam’s body went rigid, if he even noticed.
Adam was experiencing The Feeling -- but it was no blessed jolt of game-winning good fortune this time. Adam saw the future, 14 hours distant. He heard breaking metal, saw violent motion, smelled gasoline and fire.
“Do you have a car?” he said.
“You bet!” Clete said. “A 2007 Chevy Camaro.”
“Don’t drive tonight,” Adam said.
Clete looked at him quizzically. He remembered now how the kid had always been a beat or two off the score, probably because his father swan-dove off the Mystic River Bridge, when the boy was at an impressionable age. He remembered the story that went around in sixth grade that he had predicted some girl -- he couldn’t recall her name just now -- would break her arm skating. And she did.
The notion occurred to Clete that maybe this was another prediction, but that notion passed. The kid was just weird. Harmless, but not wrapped too tight.
“Well, good to see you,” he said.
“I mean it,” Adam said. “Don’t drive tonight.”
He saw the doubt in Clete’s eyes.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell you if you hadn’t always been nice to me,” Adam said.
Not everyone back then was.
The police would use the word “miracle” in describing how Clete Bernier survived the wreck of his car with only minor injuries. It was a word Clete himself used, in every one of his many interviews.
Crossing the Mystic River Bridge after a night at a bar, Clete had lost control and flipped over twice. His Camaro was totaled. Clete crawled to safety, seconds before it exploded.
The accident might have been just another item on the police log, if Clete hadn’t left the hospital and immediately called The Boston Globe’s sports desk. The reporter who answered knew Clete well: Captain of his high school varsity baseball team who had been scouted by the majors, he had made All-City and All-State and been featured in the paper numerous times. His family, which owned a chain of popular restaurants, was civic-minded and well-respected in the city. Clete was no wack job or bull-shitter.
As he began to lose control of his car, Clete told the reporter, Adam’s words rang in his head. In the micro-moment before he would have slammed into an abutment, Clete cut the wheel. The car rolled. The seatbelt contained him.
“Adam saved my life,” Clete said, in a quote that opened the story. Putting two and two together, he went on to relate the Little League incident, and the girl in sixth grade, and the time , which he remembered only now, when Adam “predicted” -- that was the word Clete used -- where an eighth-grade kid would find his cat, which had run away. That last story was a figment of Clete’s imagination, though he believed it to be true. Memory can be funny sometimes.
In his awkward way, Adam himself confirmed the essentials of the crash story when the reporter and a staff photographer knocked on his door, catching him off guard. Adam’s mother blabbered on some, too, when the reporter called on her. The reporter was good. He tracked down the girl from sixth grade, and the aunt, and the Little League coach and some others who had been changed for better or worse by The Feeling. Once he started, it was easy to connect the dots.
In another era, before TMZ and Perez Hilton and Extra! and all the rest, The Globe probably would not have printed the story. The reporter might have been reprimanded for wasting time on something that could never be proved.
But newspapers were fighting for their lives, the free web sites eating their lunch. The story ran on the front page of teh Sunday edition, highest-circulation paper of the week, with photos of Adam and Clete, and a sprinkling of “allegedly” and “claims” and “could not be independently confirmed” and other such old-fashioned disqualifiers that no one paid much attention to. AP picked up the story and from there, it went international.
Adam’s life descended into hell after that. Answering that knock on his door had been the single biggest mistake he’d ever made.
He answered only the first three of the many knocks that followed, beginning the day the Globe story ran. The first was a woman in a wheelchair begging to be healed. The second was the girl from sixth-grade, who apologized profusely and asked him on a date, which he declined. The third was an agitated and intoxicated man who threatened to kill Adam after blaming him for losing his wife. “You touched me at Dunkin Donuts,” he said. “Making change.” Indeed, there had been a few shifts when Adam had been ordered to work the counter. “I got home and she told me was seeing another guy,” the man went on. “She moved out the next day. You son of a bitch.”
Adam called the police, and never answered his door again.
But the knockings continued. Letters came, too, some with offers of films and books and bookings at Foxwoods and Vegas. A month after the story broke, Adam moved, into the apartment of a shy woman his age who worked the same shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. Shyness was cover for her love of weed. She was into it big-time. Was a major dealer with many tricks of the trade to teach him, as it turned out. The shyness hid her abiding lust for sex, too. They made love the first night, and almost every night through Christmas Eve, almost half a year later. Often, she woke him, ready to go. Not once did he experience The Feeling with her, nor did she ever say much of anything about it, even though she had clipped the Globe story for her scrapbook. Weed can dull certain people like that. And Adam, to his surprise, had become a good lover. He knew the tricks of pleasing a woman.
On Christmas morning, she told him it was over. She’d found another guy. Bu New Year’s Eve, she’d taken her stuff and gone.
The mob had found him again by then. New stories appeared. New strangers and old acquaintances knocked again on his door. Somehow, his cell phone and email address made it onto the Internet. He changed both, and the replacements were published, too. The Snowden revelations made headlines, and Adam began to suspect the NSA and FBI were shadowing him. Maybe they feared him, or perhaps they wanted his secret power, which might be harnessed for the public good. Properly channeled, The Feeling could be a valuable national asset. Adam could not argue with that.
But The Feeling seemed to have left, and Adam was starting to believe life might become manageable again, after all. Nonetheless, he would have to leave Boston, where the masses now considered him a favorite son -- a sort of psychic Tom Brady or David Ortiz. He would have to discard his phone and never go online without serious encryption. Weed would be his income.
Yes, things could work out.
Shortly before leaving for Colorado, he visited his mother to say goodbye. He did not intend to say anything about where he was going or what he would do, only that he’d be OK and be in touch now and then, holidays and her birthday for sure. On hearing that, she broke down and cried, a blubbering inebriated mess. Adam was resolute, but his soul was kind. He hugged her.
The current jolted him nearly off his feet.
“Where are the pills?” he said.
“None of your business,” his mother said, her mood flashing to anger.
They were in the kitchen. A half-empty bottle of cheap vodka sat by the sink.
“I’m pouring this out,” he said. “The pills, too.”
His mother lunged at him.
“Give me them,” she shouted, beating her fists against his chest. “And get the fuck out of my life. Like your father did, you fucking assholes.”
Adam left, and called 911 from the street. He would later learn that by pumping her stomach at the hospital, his mother had lived.
He stood now in the shadows around the convenience store.
A buzzing that a doctor might have called tinnitus on overdrive filled his head. This was The Full Feeling, the worst it could get. The Full Feeling brought startlingly clear images that seemed to burn through his eyes, ears and nose into the frontal lobes of his brain. He saw headlights, lipstick, a tattoo, lips frozen in pain. He heard tires, screams, and something resembling a massive, moist slap. He smelled engine grease. He tasted death. That was the worst sensation of all.
The couple exited the store.
Adam confronted the moral dilemma once again. Wasn’t everyone master of her and his own ship? Where did the line between free will and fate fall? Hadn’t The Feeling proven time and again to be confoundingly fickle?
Hadn’t he learned to keep his mouth shut?
“Don’t cross that street,” Adam said to the woman.
The Feeling had reached critical mass. The taste was burning his tongue.
“Stay here,” Adam said. “For the next minute, that’s all.”
The woman’s tattooed boyfriend snarled in anger.
“How about I cut off your balls, you fucking creep,” he said.
The man took a step toward him. His adrenalin was spiking. All that time in the gym.
The woman restrained him.
“It’s OK,” she said. “The dude’s just weird, that’s all.”
“Please,” Adam said. “You did nothing. You don’t deserve to die.”
The woman pulled her boyfriend and they started across the street, into the path of a Mercedes driven by a woman who, the toxicology reports would later reveal, had a blood-alcohol level of .22, more than twice the legal limit.
Adam’s head cleared. “Whatever gets You Through the Night,” the John Lennon tune, played in his head. He thought of his dad. The things he took with him to the grave. The things Adam would have asked him.
He started home, before the cops and EMTs arrived.
He felt bad, but not guilty.
He’d faced his moral dilemma, done his best.
He was hungry for his submarine sandwich.
|Author photo from "The Beach That Summer"|