Attached below is a story that was not included in BAD THINGS HAPPEN, posted here for your enjoyment. In the process of collecting stories for my first book, some had to be left behind, but they are not forgotten! Over the next little while I'm going to be putting up the ones I think people might like to read again, the ones I love the most, and maybe even some of the very weird ones nobody even knows about.
Hope you like them!
HAPPY NORMAL PEOPLE BY KRIS BERTIN
In the bathroom, I drink tapwater with my hand. Then I throw up half in the toilet, half in the sink. I have more tapwater, then do it again. I look in the mirror and notice something on my head.
There’s a moment where I think it’s a caterpillar and try to grab it. I pinch at it, scream, bleed, and realize what it is. Stitches running across my forehead. I don’t remember getting them, but then I don’t really remember last night. I think back and all I get is the memory of eating spicy wings at the bar. After that, it’s like one of those declassified CIA documents with thick black lines running everywhere so you can’t make heads or tails of anything. I assume I’ve been drinking.
I decide it’s no big deal. I’m in my apartment, hung-over but safe, just a bit foggy on a few details. I get some cereal. Look outside. Sit down and watch the news. Check my email. Wait for it to come back.
Then I find the pictures of me on facebook, doing things. Drinking beer at a bar I don’t recognize, one arm slung around Henry. Playing shuffleboard with a bunch of girls at least fifteen years younger than me. Eating a pile of cheese and nachos. Then, as I click backwards, I have a moment of panic. There’s me, on a stretcher, getting loaded into an ambulance. Henry, who is a special kind of shit-disturber, has written as a caption:
A perfect beginning to our evening.
Before that, a pair of purple gloves are inspecting me, a gash on my head that looks like a second mouth. Here, Henry has another caption:
Before that, me sitting on the curb, giving the thumbs up with blood everywhere, four or five little rivulets coming down my face into my mouth, an EMT crouched next to me, and one next to him, pointing, frowning and probably saying something like You Do Not Take Pictures of This. I’m pale, with huge rings under my eyes. I might’ve been in shock.
Thumbs up from Frank!
Before that, a photo of fluids leaking onto the pavement, glass everywhere, wrecked metal and pieces coming from a crumpled red thing in the corner of the frame. There is no caption for this one but plenty of comments from gawkers. Henry’s family and friends.
Molly Warwick says OMG what a crash.
Lindsey Bishop-Turner says You never know when something like this will happen so you Should Live Every Day Like It’s Youre Last and thank the LORD your even alive.
Blake Andrews says Is this Henry’s car or Frank’s? Holy shit I can’t even tell.
It’s then that I realize I can’t tell if it’s the Tercel or my ‘65 El Dorado either and there’s another rush of panic running through my guts like hot diarrhea. I click through a string of photos trying to figure it out, trying to identify hub-caps or antennas, and I think it’s Henry’s car but I can’t tell because there’s no direct shots of it.
Finally I just rush outside onto the porch in my underwear and there she is—beautiful and red and clean, safe and sound except for pizza flyers under the wipers .
Back upstairs, I notice only one person has tried to contact me to say they’re glad I’m okay. It’s not even my sister, it’s my ex from a few years ago who I don’t even like or really talk to anymore, and she’s mostly talking about herself anyway. I write back a message posing as facebook administration and tell her not to expect a response because user Francis Chesterfield has passed away and is subsequently having his account closed down as per his family’s wishes.
I know that a lapse in memory is a totally normal thing in this situation but I google it anyway and spend the next half hour learning about post-traumatic amnesia. They say it’ll probably all come back to you in the first 24 hours, but I don’t even know when the crash was in the first place and Henry isn’t answering his phone.
It’s my day off and I decide to stop wasting it worrying about the state of my brain. I decide to drive down to the carwash, but on the way I start to feel scared for no reason at all and have to pull over. By the time I hit the carwash I’ve stopped and started crying maybe four times and it starts up again as I go through the big bristly rolly-thing leaking soap all over the windshield. I start feeling crazy because I can’t pin a reason on why I’m upset but I’m too far away from my computer to find out if becoming uncontrollably sad is a normal part of anterograde amnesia.
Eventually I decide it actually is A Big Deal and go to work. I halfway expect someone to hug me when I go through the doors, but no one does. It’s a little bit before opening shift and it’s just Crystal behind the bar, standing there giving me a steady look, with almost no expression on her face.
She asks how I’m feeling and I say not very good.
Was I here last night? I ask her.
What do you mean, were you here last night? She asks in that tone I never like—the sharp, nasal one.
I get behind the bar and grab the bottle of Tylenol stashed back there, then lean past her and grab the coffee pot. She looks up at me.
You aren’t on today, Frank.
Don’t break balls, I tell her. Was I here or not?
You really don’t remember, do you?
No, I don’t, and you shouldn’t be a bitch about it because this is actually scaring me.
Frank, if you’ve fucked up your head, you should go to the doctor! Crystal reaches for my forehead (to do what, I don’t know) and I flinch away.
She shakes her head at me and makes a sound, goes off to clean tables I know don’t need to be cleaned.
I don’t believe you, she says as she goes by.
I almost died, I say, though I’m not actually sure if it’s true or not.
When I head into the kitchen, Henry’s back there, smoking a cigarette and clanking pots and pans. He seems stoned. Laughs and tells me I’m not in today, and I tell him I know. Then I tell him I can’t remember last night, and he says he knows that too. He tells me I started forgetting this morning at breakfast.
We had breakfast?
Yeah, maybe six AM or so.
Well can you tell me about last night?
I already did at breakfast.
I don’t fucking care what you told me at breakfast, I say, then push a finger into his chest. If It’s your fault I’m all fucked up, you should be a little more supportive.
And he just laughs and says I said that at breakfast too. Word for word, the exact same thing.
Did you get the note? He asks.
I wrote a note, he says. At the hospital. You signed it as a witness to vouch for its authenticity. Doctor said it was common for head trauma guys to forget junk cause your brain just kind of shuts off during, well—during car crashes and shit. We were laughing about it.
You aren’t going to tell me what happened?
Just read the note, he says, smiling. That’s the point of the note.
Then he motions around him, to the trays that need to be washed and stacked on the shelves, like it’s so much work.
Why did you upload pictures of me bleeding to death.
He says it was funny. That I thought it was funny. That he showed me each picture and I loved them at the time.
But dude, he says. It was fucking crazy. Really actually crazy. I went outside of my body and came back into it when we came to a full stop. I can’t stop thinking about it. It was funny but it was powerful. Sharing it was the right thing to do.
Then he asks me if I can sign some witness report insurance-thing for the hit-and-run and I tell him no. If he won’t play ball, neither will I. And he just laughs, like always, and says he’ll have the forms tomorrow even though I’m actually mad, can actually feel my face getting red. He calls after me to read the note, says:
You’ll like it!
On the way out, Crystal’s behind the bar again, leaning against the fridge, watching me.
What? I say, walking past her.
Nothing, she pops her gum.
Doctor says this note is supposed to remind you that you were in a car accident, you hit your head, and you’re okay. Got t-boned (maybe more like an L-bone actually) at the corner of Regent and Brunswick by some clown in a van who actually looked like Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame. You smashed your head. You were dead for maybe one minute and then your spirit returned to your body—for real! Went to the hospital. Got stitches. Despite strict warnings about alcohol, you and I felt it necessary to celebrate our own mortality (we probably aren’t allowed in the Lionshead anymore). Wasted lots of money. But we’re alive! My Tercel’s D-E-A-D but you and I made it so who cares. It was a hit-and-run which is GAY. Also you’re in love with Crystal. Also I paid for breakfast and you owe me.
Then, there’s my handwriting underneath.
It’s all true except for the breakfast and don’t give him anything for it he’s a liar.
I drive down to the intersection and I’m a little freaked out to even be there, like it’ll happen all over again except in a car I actually care about. With the top down I lean over and look at the road—there are huge brake-marks burned into the ground, and the gutter has chunks of glass and pieces of the body. I don’t spot any blood, but the light turns green before I can really get a good look anyway. There’s a woman pushing a baby carriage on the corner who looks like Crystal, or maybe she doesn’t and it’s just my head again. It’s then that I really think about that part of the note and I start feeling like shit all over again but I try so hard that I don’t cry this time.
I go to the Lionshead bar and grill and it turns out I really am barred. When the bartender sees me, he shouts that I’m not allowed in here.
Was I here last night? I ask, mostly as a jumping-off point to tell them about my condition.
You’re lucky the bouncer’s not here, he says. You’re fucking unbelievable.
I nod. Everyone keeps saying that.
On the way out I notice an original stand-up Pac-man arcade game. There’s a sign on it that says OUT OF ORDER. There’s no way of knowing if it’s my fault or not, but I get the feeling I was involved somehow.
The E.R. doctor doesn’t have much to say to me and says he won’t see me—CT scans showed nothing beyond a minor concussion last night. The nurse goes over my file instead and walks me through it, though none of it is really helpful or interesting. Get lots of rest is the gist of it.
Are there pills or something that can repair your memory? I ask.
Maybe just something to improve memory health? Like something for dementia patients?
We don’t do that here, she says. She puts her hand on my thigh and gives me a sympathetic look. It says I feel your pain, but it really means hurry up with your bullshit.
Was I saying stuff about someone named Crystal? I ask.
The file doesn’t say, she says. Your memory will probably come back in a few hours. That’s usually the case.
I almost say something pathetic like but I want to know now, so I pretend to yawn, then close my mouth altogether.
When I call Henry and tell him his note didn’t answer shit and that I still don’t know if I’m in love with Crystal for real or not, he says you are. I ask him why I’m in love with her, and he says I realized it before I got in the crash. According to him, I was just looking at her, thinking about her when it just hit me. I ask him if there was a specific incident and he says he doesn’t know.
It might’ve been some kind of awakening, he says. He handles his ponytail when he gets deep like this, a reminder of why he shouldn’t be taken seriously.
I ask him if he could write it out in a paragraph and he says no. This morning’s joint has worn off and he’s done laughing now. Says if I wouldn’t help him out with that statement stuff why should he help me?
After a couple seconds hesitation I ask him if he thinks we’d be a good couple.
Sure, he snorts. You’re both fucking assholes.
Not all the time.
Except for last night, yes, he says. All the time.
Well, I don’t feel like being one anymore, I tell him. Or at least, not right now.
At home I look it up and apparently Alzheimer’s drugs like Exelon have had great success in treating brain injury patients, but it’s $160 for just 28 capsules and it probably won’t work the way I think it will anyway. Instead I read about all-natural memory enhancers and I’m able to get most of them at the grocery store. I spread them all out on the table—rosemary and sage, blueberries, grape juice and bacopa root extract. There’s a message on my computer from my ex, calling me an asshole just like Henry. YOU ASSHOLE is even the subject header. In the body of the message, she asks: why do you have to be such a cruel person all the time? Why can’t you just be a happy, normal person?
I write down a list of things I need to do tomorrow, which include telling Crystal I love her, and trying to be a happy, normal person. I decide that it doesn’t matter if I remember falling in love with her or not, if I did, it must’ve been for a reason. It’s about trusting my instincts. It’s about my signature on the note, a message from the past that says yes to whatever questions I have.
I call my sister and have to deal with her idiot kids wrestling with the phone. Eventually I get to her and tell her what’s going on. And of course, she already knows. I called her from the hospital. Crying like a baby.
You wanted me to come down there, she says.
Why didn’t you?
Because you were fine. I knew you were fine. You were just scared.
Well. It would be nice to have you here, I say with caution.
Then she starts talking about the time I hit her in the head with a shovel and it went into her scalp and she had to get stitches. That was scary too, she says. I tell her I don’t really want to talk about that, but she keeps on anyway, talking about how, while she was at the hospital, I stole her Lite Brite and hid it in case she ratted on me.
I don’t remember that, I say. I remember the shovel, and some mean little rhyme she’d made up about me.
Well, I didn’t touch your Lite Brite. I loved that thing as much as you. You lost it in a fucking ditch or something.
I found it in a ditch, she tells me. In a thousand pieces because I did tell mom and dad on you. That’s how you got me back.
I really don’t remember that, I tell her.
Maybe you were too young, she says.
Will you come down anyway? I ask. I’m not doing so good here.
I wait for an answer for too long and I feel myself getting choked up so I clear my throat.
She says she can’t. She says she’s real busy these days and I remember that was the exact thing I said about a month ago when she wanted me to come up because her kids were sick and she needed help. I tell her I get the message and she says what message but she knows I know what she meant. Even still, I tell her I love her, which isn’t something we usually do. There’s a pause and maybe a swallow, then she says it back to me.
When I hang up, I decide it wasn’t for nothing. The Lite Brite story does lend weight to the Pac-Man theory. I try to imagine myself doing it—taking her toy and smashing it with a rock, or maybe throwing it into the street. Then I try to imagine getting carried around on a stretcher by paramedics, or my head getting blown open on the dash.
Then I try to imagine what it must’ve been like to decide I love Crystal. Where I might’ve been sitting when it occurred to me, or what it must’ve felt like. I decide it might not have been very different from ricocheting off another vehicle, from spinning out onto a part of the road you aren’t supposed to be on and wrapping yourself around something.
I try to relax and stop thinking about her. Try to have some cereal, try to look up when the next retro car-show is in town. I like how I feel when I’m there. There, I’m just the guy in nice shoes, the guy with the 65 El Dorado. Quiet, smiling, standing next to the open hood, answering questions about the engine. Eventually I find myself wanting to google stuff Google wouldn’t even know, like does Crystal love me back and Is Crystal good in bed so I finally drive down to work.
When I get there, she’s got that same kind of pissy look, but for the first time, I can see how it’s kind of cute. For the first time, I’m looking at her body, wondering what it looks like under her frumpy little blouse and jean combo. The answer is chubby, I decide, but maybe a good kind of chubby—chubby like you might want your wife to be. It’s busy and she says she doesn’t have time for me, but I get behind the bar and in her way until finally she tells me to wait in the staff room.
Later, she comes in and we talk quietly near the coffee pot. I tell her I love her.
I know, she says. You told me last night.
You came back here after you left. You told me at three in the morning.
What did you say?
I said you were drunk. And you were drunk, Crystal says, then lowers her voice. Said to try again some other time.
I’m not drunk now, I tell her. She makes a face.
Did you say you’d think about it? I ask. Is that what try again means?
Do I love you? She asks.
Do you? I ask her.
I don’t know, she says. Then, after a moment, after looking out at the customers she says she’s glad I’m not dead.
I’m glad too.
Then she explains that I gave her Henry’s license plate, all folded up and wrecked, as a token of my love for her. Because if I had died, I told her, I would have died unhappy. Then she points at it, over on a shelf by our lunches, and it looks a bit like when you fold up a newspaper to make a boat. I decide not to mention my observation because I figure I probably said it last night. Instead, I kiss her half on the cheek and a bit on the mouth.
I hope she can’t hear my voice crack when I tell her I meant it, and that I’m sorry.
She doesn’t say anything except that she has to get back to work, but she has the tiniest hint of a smile—just a speck in the corner of her mouth, right where I kissed her. I realize then that I really do love her, and I have a powerful, terrifying moment that must’ve already happened once before. All I had to do was really think about it, really look at her. Her response, that wait-and-see attitude, combined with the fact that she was mad at me for forgetting means she loves me too. I know it. I know her, and how she works. For Crystal, I’m glad you aren’t dead is basically till death do us part.
Plus she smiled. I know it was a smile.
Back at home, I start to get that scary sad feeling again, but it goes away and I’m left with something different altogether. I deal with it by sending my ex a message back that has FUCK YOU as the subject and SEE SUBJECT as the body. I briefly consider sending the same one to my sister, but I don’t. Instead, I end up sending a message that says I’m Sorry to the both of them. Then I do some memory games.
Later, I make a smoothie out of my ingredients, an ugly blueish-grey thing with hard bits floating in it. When I drink it, I think of Crystal and I slowly move my eyes from side to side for a solid minute, a technique that (according to ehow.com) aligns the brain to improve dialogue between the left and right hemispheres. I sit back and close my eyes and though I don’t uncover any memories about the crash or the Lite Brite, I have a vision of myself under the hood of Crystal’s car, all greasy in her driveway while she sits in a lawn chair nearby. Drinking beer and bouncing a baby on her knee and watching to see what the neighbours are up to.
ABOUT THIS STORY
This story first ran in THE NEW QUARTERLY in 2012 back when I was writing a couple stories a month and carpet bombing Canadian literary magazines with them. I remember wanting to write a love story, but also a story about being unpleasant, about memories, about family, about rebirth and--for some reason--computers, and this was the result. It's the third story about the highly dysfunctional Chesterfield family, and if you've read BAD THINGS HAPPEN, you might recognize the main character as Frank, Margie's brother from THE STORY HERE.
I like this story, because it's sweet, and silly, and because when I read it, I remember fondly the car accident I was in a few years before writing this. It's another story that I find funny, but which I understand is not my greatest work, if only because the subject matter is fairly benign stuff--at least in narrative terms. In real life though, falling in love and choosing someone to give yourself to is the biggest, most important and terrifying decision a person can make. This is the thing I failed to convey in this story, but was trying to. Frank needs somebody so bad, and admitting it is very difficult.
I ended up taking out this story at Alexander MacLeod's request after our first meeting after deciding there was a lot of other work to do on much better stories. I think this is a story I could write today and do a much better job, but I am happy to showcase it here for your enjoyment. This story represents a big breakthrough for me, where instead of having a literal plot-driven ending, the main character literally mashes up what little solutions he could find to his problem and imagines--vividly--what it is he was after the whole time.
Thanks for reading,