Detox with Sadie
Mysteries of the East
California transplant Nathan Barshak, a third-year comparative literature student at Columbia University, is lolling away a Friday night, alone in his off-campus apartment.
His six-foot five-inch frame is sprawled across a bed covered with dozens of books from the lectures and seminars he's currently enduring. Hard at work Nathan isn’t. He's propped up against the headboard, sipping a Red Bull, perusing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume 1 graphic novel.
Nathan's reading is interrupted by the voice of Christopher Walken: "Oh yes my friend, you've got a new e-mail in your mailbox." Nathan ambles over to his desk and logs in to his PC. The e-mail is from the Associate Director of Graduate Studies. The news is grim but expected. With faculty members getting ready to meet to evaluate the work of M.A. students, and certify them for graduation, Nathan's incomplete course work has set off alarm bells. He’s told that the, "…minimum standard as expressed by grades is an A- average both in coursework overall and on the M.A. Essay specifically; satisfactory progress is defined as having completed all coursework and fulfilled the language requirement by the time of the CGE's review."
Nathan makes a mental note to dedicate every waking moment to completing his M.A. Essay…just as soon as he's read the Mysteries of the East issue of the beautifully illustrated Volume One. He logs out, hops back into bed, and rejoins the League in its secret headquarters inside the British Museum.
The Rumpus Room
Nathan’s two roommates – Cecil, a Fellini-loving exchange student from the Philippines’ and Clifford - an Applied Physics major from West Virginia – are hellbent on making the most of this Friday night.
Earlier in the evening, they had tried to coax Nathan out of his Lenox Avenue lair. “We’re heading out to the CCYA short film festival, you want in?” Cecil asked. “Then, we’re hitting The Rumpus Room…gonna shake our groove thing” Clifford chimed in while twerking to a song playing in his head.
Nathan felt a twinge of anticipation but beat it back. “I’d love to, but I’ve b…b…become convinced that this is no ordinary c…c…cold.”
Clifford, sporting a black blazer, Darn, I Ripped the Fabric of Space-Time Again t-shirt and dark jeans, was having none of it: “It’s just phlegm, Nathan.”
“I suspect b…b…bacterial pneumonia,” Nathan retorted.
As they headed out the door of the apartment, Cecil, standing a proud five feet two inches, and donning his chartreuse pork pie hat, put an arm on Nathan’s shoulder. “Take a break from the mommy porn, Nathan. There’s no better way to clear out the snot than by grinding up against a third year Puerto Rican theater arts student.”
“That’s very s…sp…specific. Anyone sp…sp..special?” Nathan asked.
“Keeping my options open. Who knows what the night will bring?” Cecil grinned.
“Crabs are a safe bet,” Clifford answered.
“Happy whoring, g...g...g..guys. Think I’ll t...t…take my temperature and call it a night.”
“Let’s make tracks,” Clifford barks out.
In Bed with Kafka
Snuggling up with a warm bag of Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Microwavable Popcorn, Nathan is about to embark on his fourth reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial when his cell phone goes off.
Nathan allows the Gotham's Reckoning ringtone to play all the way through before glancing at the cell phone.
"Oh shit," he sighs.
It’s Nathan's father, Stanley, who has called. What's worse, he had taken the time to leave a message, an exceedingly rare act that would necessitate a call back from Nathan.
"Someone's either died or the old man's been arrested," Nathan rifles through the possibilities as he presses 'Stanley Barshak, father, alleged' on his Sony Ericsson Yari.
Paco, Nathan’s Real Father
On many occasions, Stanley Barshak would jokingly swear that his youngest child, Nathan, was the spitting image of Paco, the Guatemalan handyman who did odd jobs around the Barshak family's first home, an apartment complex on La Cienega Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson area of West Los Angeles.
Tall, dark, lean and with sharp, angular features, Nathan is a reluctant greyhound, ill at ease in his impressive frame. In contrast, Stanley is constructed squat, stout and fair, with a wrinkly, short-muzzled face.
Father and son also navigate life at two different speeds. Nathan’s on cruise control, his low-friction days built around the multiple books he’s reading at any one time. There’s a growing pile of past due bills crammed between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a Sin City graphic novel. He’ll take care of one, maybe two, of the bills tomorrow…maybe next week – as soon as he polishes off The Bard. And he’ll surely clear out the spider webs in his windowless room right after he’s read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Young Stanley’s penchant for daydreaming was derailed when he met and impregnated Ida Kogan. When Stanley’s father suffered a sudden, massive, and fatal heart attack, he married Ida, and assumed responsibility over his mother’s well-being. Stanley took a job as a repair man at a teetering consumer electronics retailer in downtown L.A. He’s been in overdrive ever since.
Within a few short years Stanley owned the store and grew it into a successful chain that encompassed over forty shops across California, Nevada, and Arizona. The Barshak brood also grew. Alex, first born son, was followed by a daughter, Irene. Nathan was a surprise. Stanley labeled his youngest son “my favorite mistake.”
One of the favorite mistake’s earliest memories is of Stanley bursting into his bedroom as he was writing his first short story. Nathan couldn’t have been more than seven-years-old. “What did I tell you about hiding in here all the time? Look how pale you are…and this room stinks. Get out. Now. Go play soccer with Alex.” At which point Stanley grabbed Nathan’s notepad.
“No. P…P…. Please. G…G…G…Give it back,” Nathan begged.
“That stutter, Nathan. Jesus. It’s getting worse. You need to spend more time with other kids. Get some air, for crying out loud. What are you so afraid of, son?”
To get his father off his back, Nathan would occasionally tag along with his older brother to play soccer with some of Alex’s friends. Stuck playing goalie, Nathan’s mind would drift until the ball would slam into his groin, head, or straight past him into the goal.
“Wake the fuck up!” Alex would scream at Nathan after he had once again cost them the game.
Because of Stanley’s helter skelter work schedule, and the kids’ extracurricular activities, Friday nights were the only time the entire family ate together. Duly assembled around red and white buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, sides of creamy coleslaw, and mashed potatoes doused with home-style gravy, Alex, Irene, and their mother Ida exulted in every retelling by Stanley of his glory days as a star pitcher at Roosevelt High School.
“You just have to get out there and let it ride. Stinking thinking loses games. Your Bubby Sadie always told me before I took the field: ‘And Moses said to the people: “You’ll never go wrong by following the itch in your pants.’”
And when Alex or Irene weighed in with their weekly exploits on the soccer field, swimming pool, or Judo mat, Stanley would chime in with more sage observations from his mother, whom her grandchildren never got to meet.
Stanley would then turn to Nathan. “How about you, boychick? Hits? Runs? Errors? How’d you do this week?”
Usually, Nathan would reply with a shrug of his shoulders.
But one time, when he was eleven, Nathan was so proud of what he had just done that he decided to answer his father’s weekly inquiry: “I just finished Moby Dick.”
“That’s great. What’s that one about?” Stanley tried his best to feign interest.
“It’s…It’s…It’s a st…st…. story ab…”
“Moby Dick? Sounds like a porno. Now I know what you’re doing in your room all the time,” Alex exclaimed.
The laughter around the dinner table was deafening. Nathan slumped into his chair.
Irene tried to bring him back into the family fold: “We’re just messing around, Nathan.”
“Yeah. Don’t be such a…Moapy Dick,” Alex bellowed.
Nathan leered at Alex - beady-eyed, sporting a full beard at 15, and reeking of cigarettes - who was too busy laughing at his own joke to notice.
As it did every Friday night, the conversation would eventually shift. Ida Barshak, a plump, bosomy woman who wore her hair in a black mop top, invariably beamed with pride whenever Stanley reminisced about having worked as a Farmer's Market vendor in the 1970s, feeding and befriending the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Carson, and the Shah of Iran.
“Like your Bubby used to say: ‘A man who’s the best at what he does will have kings kneeling before him.’”
Dancing With Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft
Nathan went on his first literary adventure around the time federal prosecutors indicted Stanley on charges that he had carried out a scheme to defraud a bank out of millions of dollars.
Nathan would get lost hiking through Snake Canyon, winding up in the magical Cave of Time. At some point, the dimly lit cave would split into two passageways. By taking the right path, Nathan was transported to the murky past, where dinosaurs roamed; by veering to the left, Nathan was beamed up aboard an alien spaceship.
The charges against Stanley Barshak, which included creating false invoices and then submitting false statements of outstanding inventory, were eventually dropped.
Cleared of all wrongdoing, an invigorated Stanley grew his three-store consumer electronics chain into a regional behemoth. With prosperity came U-Haul and the Barshaks of Pico-Robertson moved on up to Beverly Hills. For Nathan, the trauma of a mid-school year move ushered in a period of sleepless nights and damp mornings.
At Lincoln Middle School Nathan mutated into a hunched, pale, and disheveled outlander. He sure did try, but there was no talking with the classroom thugs who mocked his height, stammer, and coke bottle glasses.
Having been diagnosed by Stanley and Ida with the disease of shyness in the ninth grade, Nathan was summarily sent for the cure - by way of a bald, thirty-year-old psychoanalyst who sported a long, flowing, impossibly white beard. Dr. Burt Hoofard probed into the depths of Nathan’s psyche with such pointed questions as, “Have you ever fantasized about making love to your mother?”
“No, but I once had sex with a B…B…B…Billy goat,” was Nathan’s reply.
And so began Nathan’s, on-again, off-again dalliances with Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft.
On the home front, vagueness reigned as Stanley began making mysterious trips to unspecified destinations for increasingly lengthy periods of time.
The Resurrection of Bubby Sadie
Nathan has reached Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet, a natural stopping point. Time to return Stanley’s call…right after he restocks his supply of Red Bull. Nathan shuffles into the living room, turns on the television, and heads into the kitchenette to grab a six-pack.
As Nathan’s closing the closing the refrigerator door, CNN blares:
“The damage is massive. The 6.7 magnitude quake struck Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Dozens have been reported killed. Thousands have been injured. The 10-20 seconds of strong shaking collapsed buildings, brought down freeway interchanges, and ruptured gas lines that exploded into fires.”
Nathan runs into the living room, stands dumbstruck in front of the TV screen. He stuffs down a feeling of dread, clears his throat and calls Stanley back.
“What’s going on? I just saw the news. 6.7. It looks like Armageddon over there. You OK? How about Ma? Where’s Alex? Irene?”
"Everyone’s OK. Your mothers, brother and sister are fine."
"Where are you?" Nathan asks, just now tuning in to the wailing of ambulance sirens; the honking of car horns, and the indecipherable background chatter comprised of a thousand shrill voices coming over the phone line.
"At the Chatsworth store," Stanley replies.
"Shouldn’t you get out of there, pop?"
"Nothing to worry about…," Stanley begins.
"You always say that."
"I need a favor."
"I'll be on the next flight out," Nathan preemptively answers.
"No, you won't. I need you to pick up Bubby Sadie…at Bellevue."
"Bubby Sadie? She died years ago."
"Not dead…just in detox."
Queen Mum at Bellevue
Nathan’s Lenox Avenue flat is no more than a 20-minute ride to Bellevue Hospital Center. While easily accessible by subway or bus, Nathan loathes having to stand with his nose planted in one stranger's arm pit while another's crotch rubs up against his ass. So, he takes a taxi, and gets out of the cab feeling violated by the fare he had to pay.
Nathan's chat with Stanley had shed light on one Barshak blind alley. Turns out that Stanley's frequent trips to parts unknown were in fact to 462 First Avenue, where Sadie Barshak had taken to periodically occupying one of the 220 beds that comprise Bellevue's adult inpatient psychiatry unit.
"Your Bubby's been a pill addict since she was sixteen," Stanley had confided to Nathan as the aftershocks of the earthquake left Los Angeles rumbling and groaning. Rather than rush back to his waiting family in Beverly Hills, Stanley unloaded his private burden from the privacy of his office, located in the back of the Chatsworth store.
"Your Bubby… …cut herself off from the family because of this… condition."
"She's a real piece of work, your grandmother. She accuses the social worker who wipes up after her of stealing; tells the psychiatrist at Bellevue that her children have abandoned her; checks herself back in every time she runs out of Percodan. This time, the old girl managed to get herself evicted…from a mental institution. I need you to pick her up and drop her off at her place. That’s it. I’ll take it from there."
So, the Barshak family has a Queen Mum: an eighty-five-year-old junkie living in a rent control hovel somewhere in Manhattan. Yes, Nathan's conversation with Stanley had been most illuminating and ended with a promise: "Son, the quake's grounded all flights out of L.A. As soon as they resume, I'll be on the first plane out."
Nathan is neither surprised nor disappointed that in all his father's trips from Los Angeles to New York, not once did Stanley pick up a phone to let his son know that he happened to be in the area, no more than ten minutes away by car.
Keep it vague, and keep it moving
Nathan hurries to the designated pick-up spot, just outside the black wrought iron "Bellevue Hospital" gate. Nathan is breathing heavily now, having accelerated his trademark drag to something approximating a double time march.
Shaking uncontrollably that morning, Nathan had bummed a joint from Cecil before heading out. As he inhaled, Nathan eased into the reality that strung-out ghosts walk among us and wondered what other secrets Stanley had kept from his family.
When Nathan had asked Stanley what Sadie looked like, the answer he got was: "Oh, she's a Barshak alright…," at which point the line went dead. Nathan tried calling Stanley back a couple of times but couldn't get through.
"What the hell's a Barshak look like?" Nathan mutters to himself while standing outside the hospital gates. Stanley had warned him that Bubby Sadie could be difficult, especially if she's been off OxyContin for too long. "Whatever she comes at you with, just smile, keep it vague and, keep it moving," Stanley had implored.
He now sees a zaftig figure with a mane of fire red hair elegantly exit the front doors of the main complex of the hospital. Nathan knows instantly that it’s his Bubby. Striding confidently, wearing a black leather jacket, white knee-high boots, and a green blouse with a complicated constellation of rhinestones on it, Nathan marvels as Sadie approaches the Bellevue Hospital gates. "Looks more like a visitor than a patient," he observes to no one in particular.
Stanley was right: with her porcelain skin, low forehead and pale-blue eyes, Bubby Sadie is an undeniable Barsky.
"You look constipated," Bubby quips as she leans into Nathan in anticipation of a hug from her youngest grandchild.
"S…S…Sorry Bubby Sadie…wasn't sh…sh…sure it was you," Nathan says as he awkwardly wraps his long, lanky arms around Bubby's short, stocky frame.
"Still me…for the time being," Bubby replies as she gives Nathan a quick embrace in return. "You taking me back to my place on East 21st?"
"That's the p…p…p…plan," Nathan tries hard to follow Stanley's advice and keep things moving. "I’ll hail us a t…t…taxi. Should be b…b…back there in a few minutes."
“That stammer…what a shame," Sadie remarks.
Sadie’s eyes narrow into a leer
"You still afraid of women?" she asks Nathan as they walk up to her tiny studio apartment on 245 East 21st Street.
"What…no…I'm j…j…just…" Nathan is in the process of defending his manhood when they enter her apartment.
It smells like rotting death. Nathan starts gagging, "Jesus…," he moans as a brown cat with black tiger stripes comes flying out of nowhere, pauses, then blazes across and out of the apartment.
"Must belong to that cross-eyed Alonzo kid in 10E," Bubby Sadie calmly observes, removing her leather jacket.
Having picked up and brought his Bubby back home, he’ll be able to report back to Stanley that she is safe and sound…inside a Lower East Side shanty that’s littered with used tissues, used underwear, pills of various shades, and sizes that are sprinkled across the dust-caked floor, and a damp yellow towel that is slung over the television set.
"You want me to c…c…clean up a bit?" Nathan can’t leave his grandmother encased in such foulness.
"It was nice seeing you again, Nathan," Bubby Sadie tactfully dismisses her grandson.
"No…lemme f…f…f...fix…," Nathan begins.
Bubby's voice drops to a low growl, "You've done your father's bidding…now run along…and for God's sake, get that damn stutter fixed," Sadie's eyes have narrowed into a leer.
Nathan hastily hobbles out of his grandmother's spider hole, without looking back; without saying goodbye…