[fiction] Manslaughterer by Joe M. McDermott

The floor at my brothers house is all tile throughout. He let me use a pile old towels to put down for a mattress, but waking up still felt like I had been fighting all night with a rock wall. I couldn’t move right for the first few minutes and really needed to stretch it out, and the weekly surgeries weren’t helping me feel like I was put together right. I never complained about the floor, though. I was grateful I had a place to stay. My parole officer wouldn’t have let me out of the halfway house, if my brother hadn’t let me crash in his empty room for free. I had just been released from a halfway house a few weeks ago, where I was crammed into bunk beds with six men in a room, all snoring, all miserable, all pissed off and ready to punch someone. Even with the tile, it was more comfortable there because I could close a door and sleep alone.

“You going to work today, Jason?” My brother was calling from the kitchen. He had been up for hours, already, and I had heard him doing a recording session through the muffled walls of his sound studio. He was a jazz guitarist in the morning. The rest of the day, he was an administrator.

I was the paroled manslaughterer sleeping on old towels in his empty front bedroom, before work. At work, I would be cut open and put back together to pay back society for what I had done and failed to do for it before. I was a career criminal, then, but that just meant I was homeless and stealing to buy whiskey. Then, there was an accident, and two people died because I was drunk. I can say these things, but I don’t think about them. They are just words. I have to wall that off, now. I have to forget it happened. I don’t want to confess to anyone about anything, least of all myself.

I groaned.

“Hey, almost nine. I have to go, and you need to go, too.”

He was an administrator at a community college, so I don’t get why he acted all hot shit. He wouldn’t let me stay in the house by myself. I didn’t

I didn’t have time to shower. I did a bum wash in the bathroom, pits and neck. I got my uniform on and Mark was in the foyer shout in at me with a protein shake help out in my direction.

“Aw, you made me breakfast. Thanks, bro.”

“You are going to make me late again. Let’s see some hustle, here.”

“Community colleges must have some hot some hot pussy, you in such a rush. All those desperate girls, wanting to make good grades…”

“I don’t have time for your shit, Jason. Your parole officer wants to know you made it to work on time. My phone is your contact number. He will call me, and I will tell him everything I know. And if I lose my job because of you, I’m kicking you out of the house and I will tell the PO.”

Outside, he got in his car while I walked to the bus stop. I had three hours to get to work, plenty of time, but I wasn’t allowed in the house if he wasn’t home. I couldn’t ride to a library and chill for a minute somewhere cool until it was time to catch the bus again.

Walking felt good after the hard tile. The beds in the halfway house were better than my brother’s fucking tile floor. I almost had enough saved up to buy a cot. One more week. Maybe two, if I could restrain myself from eating a little bit extra after work.

The bus stop was uncovered. If it rained, I had no umbrella. I was going to need one soon. Maybe that should happen before the cot.

On the bus, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the prison complex. Everyone around me was wearing headphones, reading or watching something, turtled in to themselves, going somewhere they don’t want to be. This was what got me before I killed that kid and his mom by accident. I couldn’t stop seeing how numb everything was.

My throat tickled wanting something cool and cold and burning, and I was starving, but I couldn’t eat, yet. It was better if I didn’t have more than a protein shake, even if they aren’t cutting into my guts at work. God is a whisper in a crowded room. Look at me, cutting my guts open for you, and you won’t even look at me. It’s worse than before the vagrancy, and the thievery, and the manslaughter charge, when they thought I was just a schmuck and they wouldn’t look at me because no one looks at anyone. Now they don’t look at me by choice. It used to be just a habit.

They know I’m an ex-con. They can see the surgical scars and my naked skull. It’s deemed humane, and I guess it is an easy job and I feel only a very little bit of pain. It is harder waking up on the tile at my brother’s house than getting up from the surgical chair.

At the medical school, I went into the back door where other ex-cons were gathering. We started every day with a liter of water and a piss test. After that, we stripped and got hosed down with something that smelled like bleach. Whatever it was, it kept my hair from growing.

There were six of us in the tank, getting hosed. We didn’t really talk to each other. We didn’t even want to look at each other. There was this one guy who was really into Nation of Islam, but nobody else wanted to talk to him. I went out for tea with one of the ex-Cons, early on, and he was cool, but he didn’t make it this far.

They don’t tell us what happens to the ones that don’t make it this far. We do not have rights as citizens. I am meat that pays for sins.

Next we signed a form stating our consent to the procedure. A copy of the form was faxed to our parole officers. It was hard to believe that anyone still used fax machines, but that’s the government.

Then, we were assigned our classrooms.

I didn’t wear clothes. I just sat down in the chair at the front of the class and waited for students to show up. The professor was already there, and nodded at me uncomfortably.

I have stopped trying to make small talk. I am an ex-con. These are doctors and medical students. I am only a body to be picked apart and put back together again.

“Are you feeling all right today, Jason?”

I shrugged. “I’m sore as shit, Doc. I sleep on a tile floor. I don’t have a bed, yet.”

“Still?”

“Most of what you pay me goes back to the victims, man. I got just enough for Mickey D after the procedures. Maybe next week, I get a bed.”

He looked down uncomfortably at his tablet. “I’ll see if we can schedule some joint work in the syllabus next week.”

“Cool, man.”

“Do you want me to plug you in before the students get here?”

I shrug. “Whatever you want, doc. You’re the boss.”

One of the first students arrived for the 11:30 class. She didn’t even seem to notice me. At this point in the semester, everyone was used to it but me.

“I’m going to go ahead and plug you in,” said the doctor.

“Cool, doc.”

He strapped my arms and legs down to the moving joints of the chair, and then placed the mask over my mouth, that would begin pumping me with the stasis materia. I have no fucking clue what goes into that shit. I know that I can’ t move, but I am still conscious. My brain is left alone, just slowed down a lot, during most of the procedures. The worst that happens is the students will practice breaking, attaching, and unattaching my spinal column bones, while avoiding the actual nerves with their tools. They might even unplug my face for a while and try to unattach and reattach my jaw and nose, before the materia wears off, and as it fades, there’s this horrible, horrible feeling way out on the edge of my nerves that starts slowly creeping up into my face, and I can sort of feel it and not feel it at the same time and it’s pretty horrifying. At least I don’t have to see what they do to my face. There aren’t any mirrors in the room.

At the beginning of the semester, there were nine of us. Now, there were six.

Not even my brother, who put me up in his house, thought I deserved any better after what I had done. The worst thing for everyone around me was how little I thought of my bad deeds. I sat on an operating table all day, holding still, with nothing to do but think, and it was the one thing I wouldn’t think about.

I sensed from afar, unable to move my eyes from their unfocused rolling, while latin terms danced around my body in the wind, fluttering voices in deep discussion and none of it real, to me. Nothing is real. There was poking and prodding and markers first. I couldn’t feel that, at all. Then, there was the hum of the equipment. It sounded like a tattoo machine. Then, the cutting came, and I could feel that there was cutting, but I felt no pain. I had no heart beat. Nerves couldn’t process anything. I was utterly still from the face down. They were cutting into my gut, today, and taking cultures from my intestinal lining.

One student after another took turns with the equipment. They cut me open with a precise laser, pulled out different segments of my intestines, and cut them away completely, slicing samples out of the meat itself, and quickly soldering my intestines back together before the stasis wore off. One after another. It sort of tickled a little, honestly, because I was aware enough to know it was happening, but I felt no shooting pains. It was a numb thing.

After class, it was always a question mark what would happen next. I had stopped being afraid. Presumably the doctor checked the students’ work, and repaired any damage before lifting me out of stasis, but there were nine at the beginning of the semester, and now there were seven.

When I began to come up, the nerves freaked out. This is the worst part. My whole body trembled and seized up. I am strapped down and I can’t go anywhere, but I am rattling like electroshock therapy. I am a trembling monster of energy.

Goddamnit, now I can feel my guts been cut into, and it will take a while for the pain to leave. THe nerves are all frazzled, misfiring all over. I dry heave, and what little bile left in my ruined belly comes up. Then, I swallow it back down. They will give me medicine on the way out that will help. It is the least they can do. It will only help a little. I get two days to heal and eat before I have to come back.

“You all right, Jason?”

“Fine, Doc,” I said. I was choking on my little bits of acrid vomit. It left burns on the back of my teeth. At the end of my tenure here, I’d probably need dentures. Everyone I had seen make it through had bad teeth by the end. Mine weren’t so hot to begin with.

After class, when the hallways were clear, I was taken back for a physical. The doctor that gave the physical was an old man, who had said that he was truly horrified what was happening here, but we had all done it to ourselves.

One of the other guys turned to me in the waiting area, where we weren’t even given a magazine, yet. We didn’t even get a towel.

“Hey,” said the Nation of Islam asshole.

“What?”

“Hey, man. Be cool, okay?”

“What the fuck you talking about?”

“I mean, you look like a guy I knew who snapped inside. Get all wound up, and then…” He snapped his fingers. “How much longer you got?”

“Whatever my PO says I got. None of your goddamn.”

“Well, be cool. You can get through this. I’m almost done. I paid off the debt, and started getting paid direct. Last week, I got a big payday, man. Be cool.”

“Mind your own, man. I don’t want to hear any of your shit.”

He smiled and leaned back. “You going anywhere after this?”

“None of your business.”

“Come on, man. I’m just like you. I’m not one of those fucking pigs and whitecoats. I’m just talking.”

“What the fuck you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

“I don’t want to hear any of your Nation of Islam shit.”

“I’m not religious anymore, man. I just hate drinking alone. And you need a drink, right? Look at you.”

“Last time I had a drink, I woke up in prison,” I said.

“Well, I shot up a few liquor stores, and there was some mayhem, but a man’s got to eat, right? Everybody’s got to eat, and there’s only one way to get food. Man…”

Another one of the cons clapped his hands hard. He was a big Indian – real big. When he was dressed, he had the Sikh turban on his head, even though the process meant he’d have no hair. He said, “No more talking,” he said. “That’s enough.”

The Indian, I liked. He was huge, and he had gotten time added after smacking up the Nation of Islam asshole, and another guy who was throwing up in the waiting area and got his vomit on the Indian.

After the physical, I wondered when I would get to a point in my life when I got to decide when a man was going to stick a rubber glove up my ass looking for contraband. Then, I got my uniform back. We all did.

Outside, I turned to the Indian, “Hey, thanks for shutting that asshole up,” I said. “I owe you one.”

He grunted. The asshole could hear us. The Nation of Islam asshole didn’t seem to pay attention.

“I need a warm body for a job to stand and look ominous so I don’t get killed while I’m under. You want to make a little tea money?” said the Indian.

“I got time. P.O. wont see me until tomorrow, and my brother doesn’t care when I get home as long as I leave when he’s not around.”

“Here’s the address. Meet me there at 8 pm.”

He handed me a slip of paper with a number on it. The address was an IP. I didn’t have a tablet, so I’d have to take the bus to the library to log in and check it there.

I waved and walked away. “See you.”

He grunted.

At this point in the day, our bodies are so hungry, we’d eat just about anything, but we’re paid almost nothing, so we go to McDonald’s and stuff ourselves with bargain menu shit.

The music is awful, and the chairs are hard to encourage us to hurry up and eat and leave, but I eat and then go back for more, and then I use the toilet and sit in the toilet for almost fifteen minutes with explosive diarrhea because my guts don’t quite understand what happened to them all afternoon and I lean against the wall and think about drinking some whiskey again. A nice, clean, easy drinking Crown Royal, or a smoky Maker’s Mark, man would just taste like heaven right now. I know it would only fuck up my guts even worse.

If I have one drink, it sets off the monitor in my ankle, and the PO will know right away. He’ll start asking about it and I’ll get watched closer than ever before. I’ll be tagged for entering moving vehicles, and entering school zones.

When I think I’m about to get kicked out of the bathroom, I get a bag of shit food to go and hop a bus to the nearest library.

The IP address is for a tattoo parlor that’s pretty far. By the time I get the bus over there, it will be nearly 8, and I’ll be starving again.

At the tattoo parlor, the Indian is sitting behind the counter in leather pants and a leather vest and a big, yellow turban on his head. He says, “I was worried you wouldn’t show.”

“What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He gestured for me to go into a back room. “All you have to do is watch and hold a bat. If someone goes nuts, take them down. They should be fine. I think he likes to have people watching, is all. Some people are weird like that.

“I’m not gay,” I said.

He shrugged and shook his head. “Neither am I. Who fucking cares if I get paid for it and I can’t feel a thing? Do you want a drink first? Will it set off your ankle monitor? Come on, we were both inside. It happens there, and we aren’t in stasis.”

Now he was pissing me off. I followed him back.

The back room was set up with a full bar. There was a stasis chair there, too, complete with the medical tools for cutting and dismembering.

“Did you eat anything?”

He pointed to the floor, where grates washed down. “The clients like it messy.”

“I’m going to need a fucking drink, then.”

He turned back around to the liquor cabinet, and I didn’t waste any time. I grabbed the medical scalpel and flipped it on fast. I jammed it into the back of the Indian’s legs, right up under the ass where there’s lots of arteries. I slammed it up, right into the Indian’s asshole. I pushed it up there, and he screamed and flailed at me in shock, bucking and bleeding. I kicked him into the cabinet hard, and into the shattering glass and wasted whiskey.

He struggled on the ground, screaming and pulling at the machine that kept cutting.

I grabbed a bottle of Jameson that hadn’t been hit in the crash, and walked for the door.

I saw a medical student there, or someone who looked like one, waiting at the counter all anxious. That much screaming, he should be running for it, right?

He was just a kid, with a face like a polished egg, and he had the white coat on like a doctor, and maybe it was all role play.

“What are you staring at?” I said.

“Is everything all right?”

“Go home,” I said. “Don’t ever come back.”

“What?”

“You heard me!” I pushed him. I pushed him hard. He backed away and he left.

I pulled the cap off the whiskey and took a long, painful, glorious swig. It was like drinking fire. It was a fire that burned down my throat and I was coughing and choking on it, but that heat filled me up. I heard the ankle bracelet beep.

I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared shitless, and I guess my hands were shaking but I was all right.

I stay on the bus a long time.

I ride the bus, and I ride the bus, and I ride the bus. As long as I don’t fall asleep, no one cares if I drink and if my ankle is beeping a little. Everyone is hidden from everyone else, staring into screens and out windows and locked inside themselves.

After midnight, I’m home at my brother’s house, and he’s waiting up for me.

“Hey,” he said. “I was worried about you.”

“I didn’t know you gave a shit about me.”

“Your PO called. He was wondering if you knew about a thing at a tattoo parlor. You were witnessed colluding with someone involved.”

“I know a lot about that, man. You don’t want to know. Do you need me to go?”

“No,” he said. “Do you want to talk to your PO?”

“Don’t get yourself in hot water, man. Don’t lie. No point lying. You’ve got a good job. Call him and tell him where I am. Tell him I will turn myself in in the morning, or they can get me here if they need to come get me.”

My hands were still shaking.

“I barely get by, bro. I barely get by. I borrowed some money from Mom this afternoon.”

“You don’t got my job,” I said. “You don’t do what I do.”

“No,” he said. “I definitely don’t. There’s food in the fridge if you’re hungry. You look like shit, bro. You look like a dog dragged you in. Your ankle bracelet went off. You need to not drink. Okay, listen to me, here: You Need to Not Drink.

“I know that already,” I said. “I have known that. Can I borrow your car?”

“Get some sleep, bro.”

“Seriously, I just need it for a little while.”

“Why?”

“I want to go back to prison. I want to do one thing and get sent back and be done with it.”

“The car won’t unlock for you. You know that,” he said. “You smell like whiskey. Go get some food and calm down. Everything will be fine. You are not in danger here. I will call the PO in the morning. You have time. Just relax, okay? Take some time to get your head together. We’ll call your lawyer again…”

“Fuck that asshole.”

“We’ll call him as soon as we call the PO. We’ll do it together, okay? Mom says ‘Hi’.”

He locked the front door and the back door. He set the electronic lock that was hooked to my ankle bracelet. I couldn’t leave the house without his permission. Parole is worse than fucking prison. At least there, no one pretends you are on the outside.

I ate cold amaranth and beans, and watched late night cable.

I tried not to think about stabbing a man in the ass with a scalpel.

Manslaughtering leads to manslaughtering. I am a career monster. I will be cut up again, and doctors will study the rare topography of the monster.

When I went back to my room, I thought about laying out on towels on that hard tile.

I opened the door, and there was a bed, there, softer than a cot, and it floored me. I ran my hand along the cotton bedspread, the goose-down pillows.

I sat on it and I cried so much, it was like being cut open.

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