Stories

In the Darkness Before Dawn – Wilson Koewing

New Orleans Rock star, Jake Cage, rides in an UBER. A faint hint of daybreak teases the horizon. Jake is in the throes of a bender. He drunkenly sings, “I want to fight these grinning bastards, who always have to look at me.”
Canal Street billboards reflect on the windows. A blonde model on a Skyy vodka ad.
“You have to look like this or that to feel like you’re something here!”
Attractive people party on a Jack Daniels billboard.
“Making money killing people, some of America’s biggest companies!”
Lil’ Wayne hawks an energy drink.
“People dying, no one’s crying, they’re all watching TV. I’m watching TV.”
The car stops. Jake staggers out. He passes a bar. A chalkboard outside lists drink specials. He keeps going. Another bar. Another chalkboard. Drink specials. Keeps going. Another bar. Another chalkboard: Whiskey $2. Jake stops. Starts. Stops. Sinks inside the bar.
Hours later, the door is kicked open. Smoke billows out. A bartender helps Jake out and watches him stumble up the sidewalk.
***
Dr. Molly Andrews, addiction therapist, drives and sips on an iced coffee. Through the car’s Bluetooth one of Jake’s recent sessions plays.
“Look,” Jake says. “There are things I’m just not confident discussing yet.”
“I can’t help if you won’t discuss those things, Jake.”
“There’s only one thing you can do to help me, Doc.”
A silence follows.
“Jake,” Molly says. “I’ve told you this is no place for sexual innuendo. This isn’t a concert.”
“Unless of course you’re in the mood for it.”
“If you’d prefer to end the session early because you can’t control what you say, we can do that.”
Another silence follows.
“I wonder if you want to help people or if you just get off on the power.”
The door slams.
***
At her office, Molly scans the Wikipedia page for Hanging Eight (Jake Cage’s band): Lead singer Jake Cage was once heralded by Rolling Stone as the next great Rock singer/songwriter, but his career has been derailed by drugs and alcohol, a messy divorce, and numerous run-ins with the law.
A knock startles Molly.
“Yes?”
Molly’s receptionist, Anne, peeks in.
“Your next appointment is here.”
“Send her in,” Molly says, trying to hide her eagerness.
Shelly, an innocent face masking a tigress’s passion, enters, and spreads out on the couch.
“Where are we this week, Shelly?”
“I only drank once.”
“Problem drinking?”
Shelly nods.
“Do you have the mantra we wrote?”
Shelly retrieves a note card from her purse, “I have to control when and where I drink because drinking dulls my inhibitions and heightens my proclivity to act impulsively. When I act impulsively, I engage in harmful behavior. In the moment, I am happy, but the next day, I am sad.”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Shelly says. “I just get so anxious and… stir-crazy.”
“Eventually you’ll learn to control your anxiety,” Molly says. “You’re anxious because you’re not getting what you’re used to getting, but that’s not what you want. You want stability, love, commitment. Isn’t that what we’re working towards?”
Shelly processes.
“I drank after last week.”
“Talk about that.”
“I worked late following our session,” Shelly says. “Around eight, Brent and I were alone in the office.”
“Brent the attractive and married young attorney?” Molly asks, shuffling in her seat.
“Yes.”
“Brent has come to you with explicit requests before, has he not?” Molly asks. “You said you… ‘felt your collective primal urges battling to burst free from the constraints of your bodies?’ Or something similar?”
“That’s like exactly what I said.”
“But you felt it was wrong before?” Molly presses. “What changed?”
“It did feel wrong, but I’ve been so lonely lately.”
“Let’s recap what happened.”
“I was preparing discovery requests,” Shelly says. “Legal mumbo jumbo. I look up and Brent is in the doorway swinging a whiskey bottle.”
Molly fidgets. Listens. Says nothing.
“I knew it was wrong,” Shelly says. “But I didn’t care.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I wanted to be wanted, to forget myself, if for only a few minutes…”
Molly says nothing. Waits.
“Before I knew it, he’d ripped off my clothes,” Shelly continues. “I was leaning against the bookcase and his tongue was—”.
Molly looks like she needs to fan off, “Okay, Shelly, I think that’s a good place to stop.”
Shelly glances at the hourglass on Molly’s desk. Sand still falls.
“Okay.”
“What aren’t you going to do tonight?”
Shelly makes a serious face, “Go out.”
Molly nods. Shelly stands to leave.
“Molly?” Shelly says. “Would you ever… want to get a drink with me outside of here? That would be safe, wouldn’t it?”
Molly considers longer than she should.
“That would be entirely unprofessional, Shelly,” Molly says.
“Okay. Sorry. See you next week.”
Shelly leaves. Molly’s look holds a hint of regret.
***
Jake exits his French Quarter apartment, guitar strapped to his back. He strolls down Bourbon. Glad-hands bouncers. Shares fuck-eyes with strippers. Cuts down Iberville. Passes the Monteleone. Daps a bellman. Stops to watch an old head play electric guitar on the street. Tosses money in his bucket. Pops in the Chart Room. Exits with a whiskey double to-go. He wanders through Jackson Square passing St. Louis Cathedral. Points at a Jazz quartet. Weaves through tourists on Lower Decatur. Eventually arrives at the Balcony Music Club on Frenchman and ducks down a back alley and inside. He orders another whiskey. Walks into the main room of the club. Climbs on stage and immediately starts singing. Lights dim. A spotlight hits. A curtain rises and reveals Hanging Eight.
“Torn, simply torn,” Jake sings. “Sick inside, sick of being alive. Alive without the shine.”
Jake’s drummer, a skinny white kid with a porkpie hat, plays a monotonous rhythm.
“For that which glitters and shines, I will burn down the house with the killer inside.”
The keyboardist, an older Black guy in a Zoot suit, hits the same key over and over.
“I will burn down the house with the killer inside.”
The bassist, a hip white guy with a mohawk, strums a low, humming baseline.
“As I lie, on a bed of nails, as I die, in the electric chair,” Jake writhes to the music. “Watching all of life through mirrors. For that which slithers inside, I will burn down the house with the killer inside.”
The audience is small, but clearly there for Jake. Other musicians and hipster types. Women of various ages donning leather. Out of place tourists. A drunken pack of Tulane undergrads.
“I’ve got a problem with you and you and everybody,” Jake points at people in the crowd. “Until I get like Kurt, pull out the shotty.”
Jake dances while the music slows to near silence.
“I get mad enough to kill sometimes, the killing times, the thrilling times,” Jake’s singing is a whisper.
A female bartender, a stone-cold brunette fox watches, mesmerized. The music quickens. Pounds. Deafening. Tourists start to leave.
“I will burn down the house with the killer inside,” Jake screams. “I will burn down the house with the killer inside. I will burn down the house with the killer inside.”
The song comes to an abrupt stop. A pregnant silence. Then the crowd lavishes applause on Jake and Hanging Eight.
Hours later, Jake stumbles out with a bottle of whiskey and the bartender on his arm. They stumble into the street. Jake howls at the moon. Toasts at it with the bottle, swigs. Trips, falls, and crashes into a bank of garbage cans. She goes down, too. Jake crawls to a seated position against a garbage can and laughs uncontrollably.
***
Jake gasps awake. Bloodshot eyes. A hoarse cough. The bartender asleep beside him. He grabs cigarettes and goes on the balcony.
“Come back to bed,” she says, rolling over.
The sun pounds him. Booze seeps from his pores. He lowers his head and notices a package on the doorstep below. Stepping outside, he looks up and down the street, then at the package, a syringe in a Ziploc.
“Fucking bitch,” Jake says. “Fucking bitch.”
He swipes up the bag. Inside, he stands over the bartender.
“You need to go,” Jake says. “Right now.”
She gathers her things, wrapped in a sheet, “The fuck, man?”
“Nothing to do with you,” Jake says. “You’re amazing, but if you stay, you’ll see a person you don’t want to see.”
She dresses fast.
Jake babbles, “The world is dead. We’re dancing on a carcass.”
He steps to the window, peers out, sees his reflection and punches the glass. It doesn’t break, but cracks. The bartender gasps, feet in concrete. Jake turns. The Devil inside him.
“Leave.”
Jake starts towards her. She snaps out of it and escapes.
Jake walks over to the counter where the syringe waits. He removes it from the bag. Remembers how it feels in his hands. Pushes the plunger. Recalls the rush in his veins. Then he tosses the syringe in the sink, flips a switch and the garbage disposal shreds it to nothing.
***
A cab pulls up to the curb and Jake steps out. He walks past a sign: Molly Andrews Psychiatry. Across the street is a small park. He sits on a bench and calls the office.
Molly is with another patient. A knock surprises her.
Her secretary Anne looks terrified to have interrupted.
“What?” Molly asks.
“Jake Cage keeps calling,” Anne says. “He says it’s an emergency.”
Jake watches Molly step outside and place a call. He freezes, nowhere to hide. His phone rings. He tries to silence it, but too late. Molly spots him. Caught, he answers and walks toward her. Cars pass on the street between them.
“My receptionist said you had an emergency.”
Jake steps into the street.
“No, stay over there.”
Jake stops.
“Can we just—”
“Jake, I am with another patient.”
Jake lights a cigarette.
“Remember when I told you there was something I wasn’t ready to talk about?”
“Yes.”
“I’m ready now,” Jake says. “It arrived on my doorstep this morning. And I’m this close to putting a spike in my vein.”
“Explain.”
“It’s a long story.”
“You’ve got three minutes,” Molly says. “Your presence here is entirely inappropriate.”
“I found a syringe on my doorstep.”
“That doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for you.”
“It was a message,” Jake says. “From a girl whose mother died of an overdose.”
“What does it have to do with you?”
“I was responsible. Tied her off. Watched it fill her up and watched her fade to stillness.”
“Addicts make their own choices, Jake,” Molly says. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“It was, though,” Jake says. “She was pure. I killed her innocence because I wanted to watch it die.”
“Why?”
“Because I hate myself.”
“Why?”
“Because existence is a trap.”
“That’s pretentious nonsense,” Molly says. “And even if true, you aren’t special, it’s the same for everyone.”
Jake is silent for a long pause.
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Three years.”
“How did you deal with it?”
“I wrote a song.”
“Did it help?”
“I only performed it once,” Jake says. “Too painful.”
“Perform it again.”
Molly hangs up, doesn’t look back and goes inside.
“That’s it?” Jake shouts. “That’s your fucking professional advice?”
Jake steps in the street. A car slams on its brakes. Enraged, he jumps on the hood and then the roof before leaping off.