I don't wake up screaming. I wait a few minutes. Shortly after I awake and have gone through my yawns, toe flexes, and stretches, all with my eyes closed, I scream. Loud, shrill, ear-piercing, life threatening screams.
They are coming after me—hit men, vigilantes with noosed ropes, all of my past teachers lined up gauntlet style between my bed and the bathroom, holding yardsticks — half of them laughing and the other half looking menacing —and they are all beckoning me. There's more. Many more causes for my screaming. Thankfully my screams scare everyone away and I'm able to get out of bed and get on with my morning.
I haven't told my wife of eight years what I have to do in the morning to get out of bed. Kathy sleeps peacefully while I go through these morning screams. Right now they work as silent screams, but I'm afraid that someday that won't be enough to stop who ever's after me that morning, and I'll scream out loud. I don't want to even think about what her reaction might be, but I know it won't please her. If I tell Kathy that screaming was the only way I could save my life she'd tell me my nose was growing. She's sensitive that way.
When I was ten my parents joined a cult, adults only, and I was shipped to Manhattan to live with my great aunts, Abigail and Helen. They were my mother's aunts, never married, and had always lived together. They were critical of the way the rest of the family raised their children so I was their big chance to show how a child should be raised. Unfortunately for me on both counts, I was also the ‘interference' in their long-term ritualistic life.
They had a nice apartment in Turtle Bay , mid-town, in the Tudor Apartments. For two ladies it was spacious, and the living room and two of the three bedrooms overlooked the East River . I could see the UN, the Coca Cola sign in Queens , and the cars on the FDR from my room. They had cleaned out the water view den for my bedroom but told me that if I wasn't a good boy I'd have to give it back and sleep in the back bedroom, the maid's room. I had a curfew, there was no television, and I had to bathe nightly and show my homework daily as well as do my assigned chores. I could only speak when I was spoken to and if I had a question I would have to stand at a parade rest until Helen or Abigail acknowledged my presence.
Thank heavens for Buzz. Michael C. Blankenship a.k.a. Buzz was my upstairs neighbor and schoolmate. His parents were seldom around, mostly in far off parts of the world as travel writers for a magazine. He introduced me to the finer things in life—reefer, wine, and loose girls.
Buzz will always have a special place in my heart, although I refuse to visit him in prison. I write him but I have this great fear that once I'm inside they won't let me out. He sends back cartoons of prison life, which show the harsh realities of the things you, only hear about but never really see. He's a talented artist and lately has been inserting my face in every cartoon where his should be. I've been tattooed, sodomized, beaten, hauled in front of the warden and put in solitary as well as dozens of other daily prison scenes. I keep them locked away from my wife because she wouldn't understand Buzz drawing them or me keeping them.
It was during our years together that the morning screams started. I told Buzz about them—I told him everything. Buzz never laughed at me but he would come up with explanations or scenarios that we would sometimes laugh at together.
I was in Buzz' living room lying on his couch telling him about that week's scream scenes while he was sitting in a wingback chair at about a forty-five degree angle to my head about five feet away. He sat cross-legged with a yellow pad in his lap. He was my psychiatrist and I had to call him Dr. Buzz during these sessions.
He knew the ropes, having been in therapy himself weekly for the past four years. He said, “Hmm”, “Ahh”, and tapped his teeth with the metal band around his pencil's eraser. As Dr. Buzz he was brilliant.
“Those faceless people waiting in line to beat you in the morning are your Aunts and their spirits,” he told me. “You're not looking forward to starting the day because they are going to find fault with everything you do.”
“If it's my aunts,” I wanted to know, “Why can't I see their faces?”
“You can't see their faces because you are a good person and don't want to think evil of them. They, on the other hand, wear masks to frighten you into being a perfect specimen to show the rest of your family.
I believed Buzz and while the waking nightmares didn't go away completely, they became less frequent, but unfortunately not less scary.
We weren't playing at psychiatrist and patient, that's who we were when I needed that type of help. He had his Dr. Mellon and I had my Dr. Buzz. I doubt that Dr. Mellon would have told Buzz to trade in his nightmares for daymares and use his imagination to slay the evil aunts or at least punish them, but that's what Dr. Buzz did for me. I would look at Aunts Helen or Abigail when they were chastising me and nod my head contritely, all the time envisioning terrible things happening to them. For a while it was a pack of wild dogs attacking them, knocking them over and tearing at their flesh while they screamed. Then there was the stoning followed by weeks of burying them up to their necks in sand, pouring honey over their heads and across the sand so the red fire ants would be led to them.
I told Dr. Buzz these fantasies and he encouraged them and pushed me onward towards the more bizarre. “It'll make your life more tolerable,” Dr. Buzz said and made notes on his yellow pad.
Buzz never told me what he and Dr. Mellon spoke about even though I asked. “Doctor-patient privilege,” he said. “Just like our conversations.”
So much for the doctor-patient thing because after school one day I came home and my aunts were sitting in the living room waiting for me. They sat on the yellow couch separated by only a yellow legal pad.
“This morning two detectives arrived at the Blankenship apartment and took your friend Buzz away,” Aunt Helen said.
“He was the cat burglar that had been robbing the apartments in the other building for the past two years,” Aunt Abigail said.
“He was also the purse-snatcher, the extortionist and the “Tudor Peeping Tom” that the papers have been writing about,” Aunt Helen added.
“And the rapist. Don't forget the rapist,” Aunt Abigail said without moving her lips.
I stood in front of them nodding my head and listening and I could feel the trickle of tears running down my cheeks and under my collar. I watched my Aunts sitting in twin electric chairs spazzing and smoldering. As they continued I saw them riding a roller coaster up the incline only to have the tracks fall away as they began their spiraling decent and I saw myself walking to my room, getting my tennis racket and beating them bloody upon my return.
Nothing I imagined could stop the pain of their litany against my best and only friend.
“What do you know about this?” one asked holding up the yellow pad.
“Buzz used to take notes in it but he never showed me what he was writing,” I said politely.
Aunt Helen flipped open the pad and showed me page after page of she and Aunt Abigail being tortured with me standing by or setting them up. Buzz hadn't been writing during my sessions, he'd been drawing cartoons of my tortures. He was good and there was no doubt who were the victims and who was the perpetrator.
“There's no need to pack your bags,” Aunt Helen said. “We've done it for you. Since we are your legal guardians, we have enrolled you in a private school. We have been too good to you and in return this is what you have wanted to do to us.”
“That's not true,” I said unconvincingly.
“None the less,” Aunt Abigail said. “We are not comfortable with you here—we're actually fearful of our lives now. You'll be starting school in Connecticut and having sessions with a real psychologist. Get your bags and bring them to the hall.”
I watched as Aunts Abigail and Helen were put in a large pot of boiling water by African natives with painted faces while others encircled the pot each holding a knife and fork, watching the women throw vegetables into the pot as they danced around and chanted. The chief stood off to the side looking at a book held by two small boys. The book was labeled “Recipes” and he was calling out which vegetables and spices needed to be added to the ‘Auntie Stew'.
A uniformed driver rang the bell and was let in to the apartment. My aunts handed him an envelope into which she had put the yellow legal pad and he picked up my bags and waited for me to follow before walking down the hall towards the elevator. Aunt Abigail handed me a smaller envelope. “Don't bother writing or calling,” she said. I looked at her and then at the driver. He dropped my bags and pulled out a machine gun and gunned my aunts down. He then unpacked my bags in my room and hacked up my aunts putting them in the suitcases and carrying them to the elevator. I turned back to the apartment, closed the door, and saw Buzz sitting on the couch smiling.
The next thing I remember is being yelled to by the driver telling me that we were at the school. As I waited to get out of the car fully awake, my Aunts, and there were dozens of them, were tossing the baby me only with my grown up face from one to the other and I was being dropped with each toss. The opening of the car door stopped my torture and baby crying.
The school was located in the Northeast corner of Connecticut on the outskirts of a small town. Psychologists and psychiatrists staffed the school with a few lay teachers thrown in, and I was soon to find out that therapy was as much a part of the curriculum as English. Almost all of the students were from wealthy homes and were for one reason or another considered “troubled.” The grades went from fifth through high school and while the classes were small they were also age mixed but unfortunately not gender mixed in this all boys' school.
Lately my morning screams have been prison related. Vicious looking men lined up waiting to sodomize me as two prison chaplains hold me down and Buzz is standing off to the side collecting cigarettes from each prisoner just before they take their turn with me. Then there's the prison game of Hangman. I'm standing on a stool with a noose around my neck as Pat Zajak and Vanna White let the three prisoner contestants take turns guessing letters to spell out a word. Each time a correct letter is guessed Vanna turns the letter and then walks over and lowers my stool until I'm standing on my tiptoes just a couple of letters away from standing on air. The only way these dreams are halted is by morning screams, which have become even louder and border on wailing.
Kathy was awake before me, just lying in bed and told me she was frightened of me and for me watching my facial contortions and sweating as I began to stir prior to getting out of bed. I told her that I didn't even realize that I was doing those things and she told me that she's been watching this go on for quite a while and that I'm worse the morning after I get one of Buzz' letters.
“You act as though you're the one in prison and not you criminal friend Buzz,” she said at breakfast this morning. I am, I wanted to tell her, but couldn't. There was no easy way to tell her that Buzz was the fall guy for me and while he did the really bad things I was the Peeping Tom, shared in the purse snatching and stood guard as he terrorized and raped the old ladies of Tudor City . I wanted to tell her that the school I'd been sent to rehabilitated me into a good citizen with no desire to do bad things anymore.
Instead, I smiled weakly, all the while screaming internally until my throat was raw and bleeding.
Paul Beckman's work has appeared in The Connecticut Review, The Artful Mind, The Writer's Voice, Playboy, 5 Trope, Other Voices, Northeast Magazine, Parting Gifts, Verve, Web Del Sol, Jewish Currents, Tight, Riverbabble, Collectedstories.com and Sugar Mule.