Jim Ruland: Off with Her Head!
(from Issue Five)
ALICE BLINKS, LOOKS UP at the circle of women looking down at her, every one of them a stranger, wondering where she is. Old, wrinkled faces creased with worry. Inquisitive little monkeys who have climbed down from the trees in the forest, only the trees aren’t real and neither is the forest.
“You don’t look so good, sweetie.”
“Just sit still for a while.”
“Are you okay, child?”
“I’m fine,” Alice says as calmly as she knows how. “I’m all right…I’m fine.” If she says it enough times, maybe they’ll believe her.
“You had a seizure,” says an old white woman with a pile of bleached white hair on her head, like the tip of a cotton swab. The other women nod.
“No…I fell….” Alice tries to suppress the panic rising within her. She cannot have had a seizure. Not here. Not now. Not again.
“I saw you go down, sweetie. When I came over here you were still bucking around on the floor, but I don’t move so good anymore.” She slaps her walker’s armrest and the women chortle. They are neither kind nor unkind. Just lonely and discontent. That’s why they’re here: drawn to the spectacle.
Through the sound of their laughter, Alice can hear the calming call of the machines singing their attract sequences. The low, mournful whistle of the Loot Caboose, the slightly spooky-sounding Cashsylvania Castle, Golden Gizmo’s frenetic four-note loop. They have a soothing effect. It is how she knows where she is: on the floor of the Forest of Fortune, on the south side of Thunderclap Casino. Alice sits up, steadies herself, rises to her feet. Her underwear is wet in the front but dry in the back. She is a small person, a light eater. She didn’t make much of a mess, but the shame clings to her. The front panel of the slot machine she was working on, a new game that has been nothing but problems, hangs open. How long has it been like that? How long was she out?
Alice swings the door shut. The gamblers go back to their games. She sweeps her long, dark hair from her face and tries to clear the cloud that has settled over her as Tribal Security arrives at the scene. The scene of the disturbance. That’s the word they’ll use when they fill out their report. Well, she’s disturbed all right.
There are two of them this time: a man and a woman, Miki and Mike. Both of them are big and beefy, the woman even more so than the man. Alice has seen her on her bicycle, patrolling the casino parking lots, telling the tailgaters and tweakers to move on, hassling Team Members for failing to properly display their badges. A regular bitch.
“Are you all right?” He has kind eyes and seems genuinely concerned. Most Team Members assume she’s Yukemaya and go out of their way to kiss her ass; once they figure out she’s from another tribe and has no clout here, they show their true colors. Maybe this one is different. She hopes so.
“I think so. I fell.”
“You had a seizure,” the mean one says, eyeballing her Team Member badge.
“No,” Alice says, “not a seizure.”
Nice Mike looks surprised. Miki not so much. “Who’s your supervisor?”
Alice gives her his name and his four-digit Thunder number, but it’s the night shift and she can’t call him until the day shift begins. Graveyard rules. While Miki sorts this out, Alice halfheartedly checks for injuries. She’s fine. Rattled, but okay.
The paramedics arrive. One of them comes at her with white gloves. She holds up her hands, tries to back away.
“I’m fine. I don’t need any help.”
“Uh, you have a thing,” Nice Mike says. He points to his cheek.
Alice touches herself there and her fingers come back bloody. She relents and lets the paramedic treat the gash on her cheek. If only her illness were so easily treated. It had been months since her last seizure. They thought she was finally out of the woods, but here she was, back in the thicket. She has no idea how it happened. She’d opened up the game to check the tallies when she caught a whiff of something sulfur-ish. Weird. The spasms took hold as she reached into the machine. That’s the last thing she remembers. She fights off the exhaustion that comes after the big ones and wills herself not to cry. “Don’t worry, pretty lady,” the paramedic says when he’s finished. “It’s not deep enough to scar.” Alice doesn’t care about scars. It’s her sanity she’s worried about.
“You’re gonna have to come with us,” Miki says.
Alice nods and they take her to the Tribal Security Office, a tiny little cop shop just inside the south entrance. It’s a small, grim room that buzzes with fluorescent lighting and a scent like bad coffee that never fails to remind her of the police station on the reservation where she used to go pick up her mother. In the interrogation room, Miki takes charge.
“Are you on any kind of illegal substance?”
“Have you been drinking today?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Good for you, but I’m going to need a sample all the same.”
Miki sets a clear plastic bag with the bottle in it on the table. Any time Team Members are injured during working hours, they get drug tested. She understands that the world is full of people hell-bent on destroying themselves, but she isn’t one of them. She thinks of her roommate, Lisa, a cocktail waitress with bartender aspirations, who has trouble keeping her work schedule and her party schedule straight, but she’s not Lisa.
Miki tells Alice to empty her pockets. There isn’t much. A hair tie, a single breath mint, a cheap Thunderclap pen. Miki pats her down. Nice Mike looks like he wishes there was something he could do, somewhere else he could be.
Alice takes the collection kit into the bathroom and closes the door. There are no mirrors, no trash bins, no doors on the stall. She remembers her mother. Her mother the alcoholic. Her mother the suicide. Her mother who chose death over a life without booze. It must be getting on four in the morning. She often thinks of her mother in the hours before dawn.
She sits on the toilet and does her business. She secures the cap on the bottle and returns it to the plastic sack. She washes her hands with the pink institutional soap that smells like fake cheer. There are no paper towels. She returns to the toilet and contemplates opening her wrists with the razor she keeps secreted in the hem of her pants. Make a horror show for Miki to deal with. Another disturbance to write up. It would be so easy. After cutting her wrists lengthwise (not across the wrists, like they do in the movies), she’d plunge them into the bowl and let the industrial-strength toilet suck the blood from her arms and shoot it through the pipes that run beneath the casino. What’s a little more blood spilled on Indian land?
Alice doesn’t slice her wrists. She sits on the edge of the seat and cries into her dripping hands until they come knocking on the door, asking if everything is all right in there.
“IT WASN’T a seizure.”
Alice sits with her arms crossed, her pose defiant. She isn’t going to admit she had a seizure until they show her the tape. Miki runs her fingers through her short hair. It’s been four hours since Tribal Security took Alice to the interrogation room in her wet underwear, but she has no intention of backing down. She knows they have to resolve the situation before they can go home. She can see it written all over Miki’s square, mannish face. As much as it terrifies her, Alice needs to understand what happened to her. If need be, she will wait until her supervisor drags her out.
In the end, they let her watch the tape.
Nice Mike escorts Alice to Surveillance, a dark cluster of chambers hidden behind an unmarked door on the second floor. There are windows that overlook the Forest of Fortune and Thunderclap Falls, but they are closed. The light in the room comes from computer monitors and video screens. A white guy Alice’s age sits at the console and manipulates the equipment. He’s bleached the tips of his hair and has really bright teeth. Alice wonders why someone who sits in the dark all day would go to the trouble. She finds an empty chair and sits down. Nice Mike stands by the door.
“Ah, here we go,” the camera tech whispers.
Alice stiffens. Her scalp tingles with anticipation. The big screen comes to life and there she is, inserting a pass. So strange to see herself up there, so peculiar. Like an out-of-body experience almost. There’s a glare on the front of the machine, a place where the light on the glass panel shines brighter than the rest that makes the machine glow with an otherworldly intensity.
Then she’s on the ground, writhing on the floor.
Alice leans forward, her heart in her mouth. The machine she’d been working on is at the end of the row. She rolls into the passageway, where the cameras get a good look at her as she thrashes around on the carpet, eyes rolled back into her head like a demented marionette. A freak show. Alice thinks of all the times she came home from school and found her mother on the floor.
“It would have been a lot worse if you’d stayed between the banks,” the tech says.
Worse than what? Alice wonders. Worse for whom?
“You would have come away with a lot more than a cut on your cheek,” he explains.
The seizure lasts less than a minute, but seems much longer. Her eyes keep drifting to the clock at the right-hand corner of the screen, counting down the seconds until the show is over. She wants to scream. She wants to run. She feels as if she is entombed in a block of amber that will preserve her shame forever, but when it ends she asks to see it one more time.
Nice Mike nods and the technician plays it again. She can sense them looking at her in the dark. She wonders if they can smell her.
“What’s that light?” she asks.
“On the machine. The glare.”
“Hot spot. Nothing.”
“No, there’s something there…”
But what? The video tells her nothing. What triggered the seizure? Why here? Why now? Why her? She’s already feeling a weird detachment from the events on the screen, a defense mechanism marshaled by self-pity, as if the person on the monitor isn’t her. She studies her body as it rolls from side to side, her arms and legs flailing spastically, giving her a kind of weird locomotion that God never intended. She is amazed by how much ground she covers.
She notices something new at the end: There’s a woman near the open door of the slot machine, flickering in and out of the frame. She is dressed in white but the hot spot, the glare, whatever it is, makes it difficult to see. The woman is so much taller than the other guests, she’s impossible to miss. There and not there. Invisible but strangely present. Then she gets it: The woman’s feet aren’t touching the ground. The woman in white is floating. Alice panics. Don’t they see her? Oh, god. What’s she doing now? Can’t they see her climb into the machine?
“Again,” she whispers, her voice barely there.
“Come on,” the kid whines. “You shouldn’t even be here. You had a seizure. Deal with it.”
Alice feels like grabbing the tech’s hair and smashing his face into the monitor, but something tells her Nice Mike wouldn’t allow it. The smart thing would be to let it go. She’s pushing her luck, making trouble for herself. If they didn’t see the woman in white climb into the fucking machine as if it were a portal or something, a rabbit hole to hell right here on the Yukemaya Reservation, why bring it to their attention when to do so will only cause more problems?
“Just one more time,” Alice pleads.
The tech looks to Nice Mike for support but doesn’t get it. He sighs and starts the video again, making a big show of his annoyance. There she is again: Alice working. Alice opening the door. Alice flopping on the floor. What had seemed terrifying a few moments ago has become banal. It’s like she’s been given a window into the future and the future is tiresome. She keeps her gaze on the Golden Gizmo machine, but there is no woman in white to be seen. She simply isn’t there.
“Did either of you see a woman?”
“A woman? Where?”
“Reaching into the machine I was working on?”
The kid hits a button and the image freezes, but there’s nothing to see.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Me either,” Nice Mike says, with an uncomfortable shrug of his gargantuan shoulders.
“I swear there’s something there.”
“If someone was messing with the machine we’d be all over it. And not just me, but the Gaming Commission as well. You know how much that machine can hold?”
“Of course I do. I’m a slot tech.”
“See for yourself. There’s nobody there.”
Alice stares at the screen, a million maybes swirling through her head. Maybe she’s mistaken. Maybe it was only a hot spot after all. Maybe it was nothing more than a guest’s reflection in the glass panel. Maybe she hallucinated the whole thing. Now there’s a scary thought. Scarier still: Maybe she isn’t done hallucinating. Maybe the worst is yet to come.
“Oh, god,” Alice sobs. “I don’t want to be sick.”
Nice Mike and the kid at the controls exchange glances. The tech shrugs as if to say, You brought her here, you get her out.
Nice Mike approaches but can’t bring himself to touch her, wouldn’t know how to in a million years. “Let’s see if we can find someone to take you home,” he says, but she doesn’t hear a word.
ALICE SITS IN HER doctor’s waiting room, worrying the edge of the razorblade through the hem of her trousers.
It is a tiny place, cramped with chairs and tables wedged into three of the corners. Dr. Marcus told her that the former occupant was a specialist. Alice didn’t ask if it was a bona fide practice or one like his. He wouldn’t have liked that. Dr. Marcus wasn’t the kind of doctor who took your blood pressure and checked your eyes and made you stick out your tongue and say “Ahhhh,” like at the clinics on the reservation. This was worrisome at first. Alice didn’t know that this other kind of doctor, the kind who asked how you were feeling and offered to make you a cup of tea, could dispense drugs on the basis of the things you told him. She wondered how he remembered it all. Sometimes he wrote everything down in a book that he kept in his lap during their sessions, a book that looked like it would contain poetry. Sometimes he didn’t write anything at all. Sometimes he ceremoniously closed his book and wiped his glasses clean with a patch of blue cloth. When he held the frames up to the light and peered through them without looking at anything, Alice least of all, and announced, “Yes, yes, I see,” she knew their session was nearly over.
His name really is Mark Marcus. Why someone would do that to their child is anyone’s guess. The name suits him. Roman nose, square jaw, cleft chin, the works. A professorial bearing, though she could picture him in a toga. He looks like the kind of man who traded in his long hair for a beard when he finished school. He could pass for an athlete, but she imagines his body has gone soft under the corduroy and tweed. Not that she spends her time thinking about his body. He was her doctor, after all. Would she want him imagining what she looked like under her clothes? Did he? She hopes so. But the name ruins everything. Maybe his mother was drunk when they picked it out. Alice thinks this scenario likely and pushes the thought aside. She hasn’t discussed her mother with Dr. Marcus and doesn’t intend to today.
She picks up the book on the table at her elbow. Alice in Wonderland. She can’t remember having seen it here before. It has an old-fashioned illustration on the cover. She’s never read it. She’s not particularly curious about white-girl problems. A strange prop for bored teenagers to pass the time with while waiting for their shrink. Unless he put it out here for her to see….
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Marcus booms, startling Alice. She collects herself, smiles weakly, tosses the book on the table.
“Come,” he says and holds open the door to his inner sanctum. Did he call it that once, or is it something she made up? The lights are dim, the sofas are low. The massive desk would dominate the room if it weren’t pushed up against the wall. When he’s seeing a patient, he moves to a wing-backed chair with doilies on the armrests. Diplomas she’s never bothered to read hang between an oversize tie-dyed tapestry (a relic, she presumes, from Dr. Marcus’s hippie days) and a samurai sword. Doilies and decorative swords. That was Dr. Marcus in a nutshell.
“So, you had another one.”
“Tell me about it.”
Usually Dr. Marcus’s mood is light and jovial, but today he’s all business. Alice is comfortable talking about her seizures with Dr. Marcus. They share a vocabulary that makes it easy to be precise—as precise as she can remember. But Dr. Marcus isn’t interested in the seizure so much as what led up to it. For him, it’s all about the triggers. What was she doing? Was she under any stress? What was the environment like? Did she introduce anything new to her environment? Dr. Marcus is trigger-happy.
She tells him everything. Almost everything. She doesn’t mention the ghost.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Alice looks away, at the spines of the books on the bookshelf, the way the light catches the gold-framed prints on the wall. Anywhere but his eyes, which are impossibly blue. Dr. Marcus may have terrible taste, but he’s no dummy.
“This only works if you confide in me completely. I’m not a miracle worker, Alice. I can only go as far as you’ll let me—”
“I smoked pot,” Alice blurts. She’s had enough of Dr. Marcus’s journey-to-the-center-of-the-mind routine. “And your taste in office decor totally sucks.”
Dr. Marcus smiles, catches himself, writes at length in his journal.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he says eventually. “Is this a regular thing for you?”
“No!” Alice says, more forcefully than she intended. “Only once.”
“Only once this week, only once since you’ve started seeing me…”
“It wasn’t this week, it was over a month ago.”
“How many times would you say you’ve experimented?”
“It wasn’t an experiment.”
“One?” Dr. Marcus seems almost dis-appointed.
“It was my first time. I was getting these headaches, the ones I called you about. The medication you prescribed didn’t help.”
Dr. Marcus turns the pages of his journal until he finds what he’s looking for.
“Ah, yes,” he says in that now-I-remember tone she finds so annoying. You don’t remember, she thinks. You’re reading what you wrote down so you wouldn’t have to.
“I was worried anything stronger might interfere with your medication menu.”
Alice rolls her eyes in a way that’s meant to get on Dr. Marcus’s nerves. It doesn’t seem to work, but he gets the message: Get on with it.
“It could be the marijuana triggered the event, but after a month it doesn’t seem likely. Ditto your medication.” Now it’s Dr. Marcus’s turn to stare off into the middle distance, which he does for some time, long enough for Alice to wonder if he’s on something.
“You don’t like my furniture.”
“Not even the wall hanging?”
Alice takes another look at the tapestry. She’d never noticed the silhouetted figure in the center of the design before: a hunchbacked caterpillar atop a giant mushroom. Something out of a storybook, she thinks.
“You know who Lewis Carroll is?”
“Duh, he wrote Alice in Wonderland.”
“And Through the Looking Glass.”
“That’s good to know,” she snaps, losing her patience.
“He had epilepsy.”
This gets a raised eyebrow out of her. This she didn’t know.
“What kind?” Alice asks, her mouth suddenly chalky and dry. She wonders if she asked Dr. Marcus to make her some tea if he would oblige. She thinks he would, but she would prefer to hear the rest of the story.
“Sometimes things would appear disproportionate to their size. That is, things would seem either very, very small or very, very large.”
“Oh, god,” she gasps. What if her illness wasn’t the terrible affliction she thought it was, but some terrifically hokey cliché?
“Do you ever experience that?”
“I feel that way now.”
Dr. Marcus—impossible man that he is—blushes. Good.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I thought it would give you some comfort, knowing that you’re not alone in what you’re going through.”
Alice shrugs. She doesn’t want comfort. Comfort is for people who aren’t sick. Comfort is a cousin to pity, which she despises. She didn’t pity her mother, who certainly deserved it though she brought the bulk of her suffering on herself, so why should anyone pity her? She was not, by any stretch of the imagination, pitiful. She thought Dr. Marcus already knew this about her, and the fact that he doesn’t can mean only one thing: He must be punished.
“So now what do we do?”
“We start over at a higher dosage.”
“Were they the big blue ones or the little yellow ones?”
“The yellow ones,” he answers, not convincingly.
The yellow ones made her itch and something else she can’t remember. Insomnia? Vivid dreams? Weight gain? Flushing? She’s had them all.
She doesn’t like the yellow ones. “Are you sure about this?”
“Because sometimes it feels like you’re just making this up as we go along.”
Dr. Marcus considers the question. “Alice,” he repeats, choosing his words with care, “we have to be aggressive. We’ve tried the wait-and-see approach. I’m not ready to throw in the towel. There may come a time when we have to accept that the best we can do is address your quality of life between seizures, but I’m not ready to make that a priority yet. That, to me, would be an admission of defeat. Is that what you want, Alice? To give up?”
Alice shakes her head. It’s hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. She pulls her legs up under her and her fingers drift to the place where the razor is concealed. Dr. Marcus watches and her hand jumps, like a bird knocked off a wire. Hopeless! Perhaps the best course of action would be to kneel on one of his atrocious pillows, kneel before the doctor and let him whack her head off with the sword. Sayonara, Dr. Marcus! Off with my head! Chop chop! She can feel Dr. Marcus looking at her with his iceberg-blue eyes. She looks at the sword on the wall and sends her doctor a telepathic message: I’m ready.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short-story collection Big Lonesome and the host of Vermin on the Mount, an irreverent reading series in the heart of L.A.’s Chinatown. He lives in Southern California and works at an Indian casino.