A Good Man by Ken Adlum

Ernie shut the door behind them, and began escorting thirty-year-old Mr. Smith toward the exit of the Psychological Services Center in the Memphis Hospital for Veterans. The familiar sound of laughter rose from the receptionist area down the hallway, growing louder as they proceeded. Mr. Smith glanced warily to the right at the two women behind the counter as he and Ernie passed, but Ernie looked to the left, gently encouraging him with his hand to keep moving toward the exit. They finally reached it.

“You can call on me anytime,” Ernie said. “You know that.”

“I…know that,” Mr. Smith stammered, fighting back more tears. “Thank you. You are…helping me.” Ernie beamed and nodded, fighting back tears of his own; to hear those words come from someone as impaired as Mr. Smith buoyed his belief that all people–no matter how mentally ill–were capable of being helped in some way. And it was the precious few comments like this that validated all the struggles and sacrifices on Ernie’s path to earning a doctorate in psychology. His composure returned.

“I wish…I could help you like you help me,” Mr. Smith said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“See you…soon Mr. Russell. I’m…sorry. Are you a doctor yet?”

“With luck,” Ernie replied, “I’ll be Doctor Russell this May.” Mr. Smith smiled. Ernie opened the door for him, said goodbye, and stood motionless, watching Mr. Smith shuffle down the hall of the unit back to his room. More laughter came from the receptionist area.

Martin walked out of the therapist lounge to the edge of the waiting room to see what was going on. To his left were Ms. Gray and her assistant, both smiling, but no longer laughing. To his right was Ernie, still standing at the entrance to the clinic. Ernie wiped tears from his eyes, then spun around and strode past Martin toward Ms. Gray, whose smile vanished as he advanced through the empty waiting room. Ms. Gray’s assistant sprang up and promptly retreated to the file room. Ernie leaned on the counter, staring at Ms. Gray with a deadpan expression.

“Mister,” she said. “Does it bug you when they call you that?”

“Does it bug you,” he snapped back, “that your assistant has to follow you around with a broom because of the dust that falls out of your skirt when you walk?” Ms. Gray didn’t understand this insult, but Martin did. He moved quickly to intervene.

“You know. Ms. Gray,” Ernie continued, “your laughter’s unprofessional.”

“Hey dude,” Martin said, carefully resting his hand on Ernie’s shoulder. “Let me borrow you for a minute. I’ve got a question about one of my clients.” Ernie ignored him and pressed on.

“Because there are people in distress, people in a world of hurt who come here for help, who might think your laughter’s directed at them.”

Ms. Gray was indignant. She stood up. “I don’t need your paranoid crap,” she said. “Get yourself a therapist.” She turned and disappeared. Ernie remained where he was, trembling.

“Come on,” Martin said, gesturing for Ernie to follow him to the therapist lounge.

Ernie turned and saw Martin, shocking him back to reality. He took a deep breath. “OK,” he said, once again struggling to steady himself.

Another burst of laughter followed them as they entered the lounge. Martin closed the door behind them. “Have a seat,” he said. Ernie obliged, drawing another deep breath.

“I’m tired of her,” Ernie said. “She thinks because she’s been here since Vietnam she can do whatever she wants.”

“Probably can,” Martin admitted. “Probably needs to do something pretty outrageous to get the axe.”

“Like getting caught strutting around the waiting room naked, clucking like a chicken?” That was good for a laugh from them both, but Ernie’s was short-lived; he remembered that Mr. Smith used to wander around the hospital unit naked, on one occasion wearing a metal bowl as a hat because a voice told him that certain people and particular governmental institutions were reading his thoughts and also inserting thoughts into his head. By his wife’s and parents’ accounts, Mr. Smith was a good man. He’d been a loving husband and son, until his twenty-seventh birthday back in 2004–the day half of his company was killed by an insurgent ambush while on patrol in Iraq. Mr. Smith, who was seriously wounded in the attack, had become psychotic within days of the trauma and was eventually diagnosed with Schizophrenia–a severe mental illness that had destroyed his life and subsequently the lives of those who loved him. And though the anti-psychotic medication had stopped his walking around the unit naked, diminished the frequency of the voice that spoke to him, and toned-down the delusion that he was a victim of persecution, it also left Mr. Smith perpetually lethargic, requiring great assistance to perform even the most basic self-care tasks. No, Ernie thought, nothing funny about walking around naked.

“Dr. Phalen likes you,” Martin intruded, “and he doesn’t like her, but he’ll have to live with her long after you’re gone. It’s not worth it. We’ve only got two months left here.”

“I know,” Ernie said, still looking at the wall. “It’s just seems that…” He forgot what he was going to say.

It came back to him. “Just because you don’t have a doctorate means therapists who do–and everyone else here–can treat you like dirt.” He reached for his handkerchief, but he forgot it at home again. He unrolled a shirt sleeve, dabbed the sweat from his forehead, and rolled it back up. He glanced at his watch, then looked to the floor. Martin wanted to ask if he needed to borrow an iron, but instead got up to open a window. He returned and sat back down across from Ernie.

“So…where were you and Flo last Friday?” Martin asked. “Everyone was buying me drinks for getting the job at Arkansas University. It was wild.”

“I bet,” Ernie said. He looked like he was about to say something else, but only shook his head, staring at the floor.

“Ernie?”

“Yeah.”

“You OK?”

Ernie returned from wherever he was, eyes wide. “Because of what happened out there?”

“Not just that, though that…anyway. We started grad school together. We’re on internship together. We’ve been tight for five years, but it’s been months since we’ve hung out.”

“I know,” Ernie said. “I’m really sorry. Really. It’s just with all my clients and all the prep time for my sessions, and teaching, and my dissertation…and what not.”

Martin proceeded cautiously. “How’s the dissertation going?”

“I defend Monday.”

Martin wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “You defend this Monday, as in three days from now?”

“Yeah.”

“So you got your final draft to your committee?”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. Two Mondays ago.”

So far so good, Martin thought. “Heard anything from your committee?”

“Just Lenny, but he was raving. You know how it goes: Your mentor approves, everyone else falls in line. Well, after several tries at giving you a panic attack.”

Martin was incredulous. “Dr. Lenny Dickstein was raving?” He felt his concern about Ernie’s dissertation displaced by a different worry that Ernie wouldn’t find work for next semester.

“So come this May, 2007, you’ll have your doctorate.”

“If I don’t kill Gray before then,” Ernie said, looking to the ceiling.

“Right. So, how’s the job search?”

“If I defend Monday, I get the Assistant Professor in Clinical Psychology job at Nashville University.”

Martin stared, mouth agape. Why hadn’t Ernie told him any of this? “You got that job?”

“If Monday goes off.”

“Huh. I applied for that too,” Martin lamented. “Didn’t get an interview. Guess that research grant and four first-author publications didn’t hurt you any.” Ernie didn’t respond. “I thought the ‘successful applicant’ had to have a Ph.D. in hand to get appointed.”

“That’s what the listing said. But they know the only thing left for me to do aside from finishing up here is defend. If they get an e-mail from Lenny saying I defended on Monday, I’m in.”

“What about Flo?”

“She’ll find a nursing gig in Nashville.”

“Your mom?”

“She’ll come with us.”

“Well,” Martin laughed, “I guess short of anything like actually killing Ms. Gray and you’re set.” Again Ernie didn’t say anything.

“Ernie?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why the hell are you so down?”

Ernie took his eyes from the telephone and stared at Martin. “Who says I’m down?”

“You’ve always been serious, but lately…”

“I’m not down,” Ernie interrupted, returning his gaze to the telephone. “Just tired. Tired of all the work. But,” he continued, the anger rising again, “mostly I’m tired of the happy-go-lucky pieces of shit like Ms. Gray who get their kicks by laughing in the faces of people in turmoil. She’s the one who deserves to be screwed,” he snarled. “Not Mr. Smith.”

Martin was stunned by this display, confused by Ernie’s last words. “Who’s Mr. Smith?”

No reply.

“Ernie? Who’s Mr. Smith?”

“A good man.”

That didn’t answer my question, Martin thought. Whatever–he’d had enough of this melancholy. “Duuude,” he said, “you need to lighten up. Let’s go celebrate. It’s Friday, it’s spring, I don’t have any more clients today. You?”

Ernie almost said that he had one more. “No.”

“Sweet. Let’s eat liquor for lunch. It’ll be good for you.”

“I’d love to, but it’s almost one and I’ve got to go home for a while and then meet Flo for dinner after her shift at the cancer hospice.”

“Then it’s liquor for dinner. I’ll grab my girl and we’ll meet you.”

“Let’s do it Monday night instead, after I defend.”

Martin thought about it for a moment. “OK,” he yielded. “But don’t flake.”

“It’s on,” Ernie said, slowly picking himself up to go. He looked around for his briefcase, then remembered he forgot that at home too. “Later,” he said, opening the door to leave.

“Don’t flake,” Martin said.

“OK.”

“I’m serious. And hey.”

“Yes,” Ernie replied, stopping in the doorway, his back to Martin.

“Freshen up for Flo. Shave, too–you missed a couple dozen spots.”

Ernie felt a strong urge to wheel around and shout at Martin to go fuck himself. But he left, quietly closing the door behind him.

Martin sat still, waiting in the silence. After a minute passed he rose, opened the door as wide as it would go, and stepped into the hallway for some air.

***********

Ernie turned right onto Walnut Grove Road in East Memphis. The combination of his filthy windshield and the six p.m. sun was blinding, causing him to veer slightly out of his lane.

He flipped down the visor, revealing the picture of his mother and the other of Flo and him at her sorority’s senior formal. The picture of his mother was taken back when she was in high school. She was good-looking, he thought, before the years of cocaine and alcohol abuse ravaged her. He took some solace, though, that the last eight years of abstinence improved her appearance. And Ernie felt tremendous pride in that he was the one who’d pulled her off the streets, gotten her clean and sober, and delivered them both from that hell: the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and violence of those squalid apartments and motels on Holmes Avenue in South Memphis.

Ernie gave his head a quick, violent shake, which was followed by that familiar feeling of self-disgust. He’d learned the headshake from his father who, when asked once by Ernie why he did that, attributed it to “the snakes,” in characteristic terse fashion. Ernie never knew him well, but what he did know was that his father was an eerily quiet loner and penniless drunkard who’d walked into the middle of Holmes Avenue one afternoon, put a revolver in his mouth, and blew his brains out. That was September 12, 2001–the same day Ernie’s mother nearly bled-out when she slashed her wrists after stumbling home to find police, the coroner, and a city worker mopping up the grisly remnants of her husband’s head. Ernie had arrived home shortly thereafter to find his mother–her blood-caked arms bound to her sides by the gurney straps, wailing as the paramedics hoisted her into the ambulance.

She’d stabilized since their move to East Memphis; the anti-depressants helped her, though she’d never been a happy person. Ernie had just checked on her before leaving to meet Flo–she was doing a puzzle at the dining room table as usual. She’d actually managed a smile for him before he left. That smile–he wished she did that more often.

“Oh well,” he said, thinking it could be worse. After all, things were a lot better since they’d moved, although the rent for their house was oppressive. He shook his head again, and tried to distract himself by admiring the kempt grounds of the upper-middle class houses lining this stretch of Walnut Grove Road. The beautiful poplar trees. The husband and wife strolling their infant down the sidewalk. Unafraid. No criminals on the street here. No blight. Much, much better than Holmes Avenue, indeed.

With his left hand on the steering wheel, he leaned over and opened the glovebox. He searched for the vial of anti-depressants, sifting through used tissues, receipts, bills for credit cards and student loans that had financed everything from his and his mother’s escape from South Memphis to his undergraduate education to everyday necessities like his mother’s two-packs-a-day cigarette habit. All the debt. Another violent shake of his head, this one causing him to swerve to the right, brushing-up against the curb. “Son of a bitch!” he yelled, abruptly making the first right turn out of traffic that he could.

He pulled over and thrashed through the contents of the glovebox until he found the vial. He popped-off the lid–only one left. “Just what I need,” he said, exasperated. He took the pill, put the lid back on, and threw the empty vial back in the glovebox. He considered picking up the contents he’d scattered on the seat and floor, but he couldn’t tell what had come from the glovebox and what hadn’t–his car was a veritable waste receptacle. “Later,” he said, slamming the lid shut. He flipped a u-turn and made a right back onto Walnut Grove Road.

But the dread was on him again; he needed money badly–real money–and soon. Back in early January, after completing the last of his three job interviews, he’d sat down to figure out just how deeply in debt he was, exactly what he needed to make it to August when the jobs started, and how much money he had. The funds in his checking account had been dwindling, and the monthly pay for his internship was a pittance. Aside from the new credit card he’d received in the mail–his ninth–all his other cards were maxed-out and he figured there would be no more credit available. He’d realized then that he was on the brink of insolvency, and it was the stress from this reckoning that had triggered his depression and anxiety, and shortly thereafter, the anger–the outbursts.

Ernie had always experienced some difficulty falling asleep, but recently he’d been waking up in the early morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. There had also been a few sleepless nights, where he alternated between crying from the frustration and staring at the television with the volume muted, feeling absolutely nothing. Flat.

The light changed and he pulled away. He looked over at a church parking lot and saw a man who looked like Martin. Martin was a good friend, though Ernie never confided to him his father’s suicide or his mother’s shameful past. He’d told Martin his parents were divorced, his father lived on the west coast, and his mother lived with him and didn’t work because she had a severe back problem and couldn’t take care of herself. Ernie had lied because he knew that a person who revealed to someone versed in mental illness research that he had family members with histories of illness raised suspicion that he might also be sick, or at risk of becoming so.

And Ernie had become so. He should have had his dissertation done months before, but his deteriorated state had left him with barely enough energy to attend to the multitude of his other responsibilities. On his better days, he’d worked on his dissertation for an hour. On his worse days, he’d done no work at all.

The appointments for the other two jobs he’d interviewed for were already made, so the Nashville University opening was his last chance to avert financial ruin. It had to happen, and if he failed to defend on Monday, there wouldn’t be enough time to make whatever changes to his dissertation were necessary and arrange another defense before the job appointment was made the following Friday.

Ernie grew frantic, edging toward a panic attack. These drugs, he thought. He’d been taking them for two months–when were they going to start working?

Relax, he repeated to himself while practicing the diaphragmatic breathing technique he’d taught to all his anxious clients. Mercifully, he started to calm down. He thought of the positive review his mentor had given him.

“It’ll work out,” Ernie said, trying to reassure himself. “It always has.”

***************

The bar at La Frontera was jam-packed; it took the cocktail waitress nearly ten minutes to bring his drinks. She put down the tequila. Before she could put down the margarita, Ernie slugged down the double shot. He grimaced.

“Tough day?” she asked.

“Every day,” he said. She smiled sadly, then started off to take another order.

Ernie felt the liquor slither all the way down to his toes. Relief. He gave the lime wedge a squeeze, stirred his margarita, and took a deep swig.

The crowd no longer irked him; he grew warm, fuzzy even. His thoughts drifted here and there, but nowhere unpleasant. He took another hearty gulp.

He thought of Flo, who was across the street at Oak Ridge Mall. She’d said she would make it over by seven p.m., after she bought a couple more things: this and that–she’d told him what specifically but he couldn’t remember. He just recalled the tone of her voice: still loving.

He had to tell her tonight, tell her everything that had been eating at him, consuming him. He’d said he’d been extremely busy as an explanation for why he hadn’t seen her much over the previous two months, though she suspected from the few dinners and their phone conversations that he was depressed. She wasn’t scared away when he’d risked telling her the truth about his family, so he was hopeful she would handle what was coming. He thought of the countless rough stretches they’d gotten through together, which made him grow more confident they would get through this one too.

It really was a lovely evening. He sat at a table next to the glass wall of the bar, permitting an unobstructed view of the traffic buzzing up and down Union Boulevard in this section of downtown Memphis. The setting sun gave the boulevard a pleasant, inviting glow. No wonder people get hooked on booze, he mused; he felt mellower than he had in he didn’t know how long.

“Mr. Russell,” the host said. “We’re ready for you.”

“Oh, OK. Thanks.” Ernie was about to get up when his cellphone vibrated. It was Flo. He felt a hunger pang.

“Hey baby,” he said, trying to sound like Barry White.

“Hey yourself,” she giggled. “I’m coming now, about to cross Union. See?” He looked around, then saw her–she stood at the crosswalk, waving.

“I see,” he said, waving back.

“Be there in a sec.”

“OK,” he said. “I love you baby.” Flo didn’t reply; she’d hung up. He shut his phone and watched her start across the street.

She was halfway through the crosswalk, searching through her bag for something, when a red car appeared, traveling in her direction and going way too fast. Then the car turned left toward her, fishtailing, tires screeching. Flo snapped her head in time to see it strike her right thigh, launching her up, head smashing the windshield, throwing her higher, clearing the car, somersaulting like a rag doll before landing in the street.

“NO!” Ernie shrieked, whirling out of his chair, knocking it and the table over, his margarita smashing to the floor. He ran as fast as he could out of the restaurant and sprinted into the street, tears leaking from his eyes.

Ernie came to her, dropping to his knees. He reached to touch her. But didn’t. Then he did. He gently lifted and turned her limp head, getting two handfuls of blood and brains.

“Let go.”

Ernie’s eyes became those of a fugitive for murder fleeing a manhunt through the woods who just snared his foot in the razor-sharp claws of a bear trap. He looked up and around him feverishly at the people who gathered, person to person in the encircling crowd, each taking a step back as his rabid glare met their horrified faces. No lips were moving, yet someone was talking. Someone was speaking to him. His head was a time-bomb, ready to detonate.

“Let go,” again and again. That voice. He knew that voice.

“Who’s saying that!” he yelled, leaping to his feet. He lunged at one person, then another, spinning around violently, again, eyes darting, desperate to catch someone’s lips moving. “WHO’S SAYING THAT!!!”

He looked back down at the crimson pool spreading from Flo’s contorted, lifeless body. He fell once more to his knees, hunching over her, sobbing hysterically, bloodied fingernails digging into the sides of his head.

“Let go,” the familiar voice repeated, over, and over, and over…

**************

Martin works his way through the garbage thickets under the bridge where Walnut Grove Road transitions into Union Boulevard: empty forty-ounce malt-liquor bottles and beer cans, a hypodermic needle, a piece of newspaper with Barrack Obama’s picture that someone used for toilet paper. Martin’s been searching this vicinity for almost an hour now, moving under trees, past bushes, through the filth, looking here, then there, then some other place.

It took Martin nearly two years to come up with a lead regarding Ernie’s whereabouts, though he’d tracked down his mother at a motel in South Memphis shortly after Ernie had vanished. She’d asked Martin if he was looking for a good time. He politely declined, introduced himself and said he was looking for Ernie, whereupon she became furious, got right up into his face, spat on him as she screamed accusations. He’d run away from her, fearing for his safety.

Martin is about to give up for the day when he spies someone sitting amid a cluster of bushes. Martin approaches the person cautiously, halting about ten feet from him. The man is covered in dirt, wearing a tattered pink-and-purple flannel shirt with neon-green sweat pants. He also wears a bizarre hat made of aluminum-foil sheets. His wide eyes protrude though his soiled countenance.

“Ernie.”

Silence.

“Ernie?”

“Martin.”

“Ernie!” he exhales, resuming his approach. But Ernie jumps to his feet, taking a few steps backward, set to run away. Martin freezes, his mind a beehive that got whacked with a bat. So many things he needs to ask, that he wants to say.

“Ernie?”

“Martin.”

“What…why are you wearing that hat?”

No reply.

“Ernie?”

“Martin.”

“Why are you wearing that hat?”

“She can’t get to him,” Ernie says, eyeing his surroundings suspiciously.

“Who’s she?”

“Ms. Gray.”

Martin is aghast, his head reeling. “Who is…Ms. Gray trying to get at?”

No reply.

“Ernie?”

“Martin.”

“Who is Ms. Gray trying to get at?”

“A good man.”

“Who is the good man?”

Ernie’s brow furrows as he stares at Martin. Without daring to move his head, Ernie looks to his right, then left, then right again, then back into Martin’s eyes. “Mr. Smith.”

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