The Life and Times of Climax Johnson
Climax Johnson never regretted being named Climax Johnson—Johnson after who his father was—and Climax after what his father did. In his brief two dozen trips around the Sun in, of all things, the Sunshine State, he had lived several lifetimes.
He had been a POW during the War on Drugs, serving four years at a Federal Camp in Florida for trafficking cocaine. Although the amount confiscated had been less than the 28 grams that would have made him eligible for just a diversion program, the integrity of his contraband was judged to be pure enough that nothing else but cutting it and redistributing it in diluted amounts could be the intended purpose. A gotcha! moment for the prosecutor.
Off he went.
For the better part of forty-one months he made twelve cents an hour by day, weed-whacking the U.S. Navy base in Pensacola. For the better part of four years, back at the dorm, he never saw the stars at night because the light pollution, designed to keep the camera eyes within f-stop tolerances, washed them out totally in search of any inmate indiscretions. Like always, he never really thought about the stars.
Out of sight, out of mind.
One day he was watching the only national news someone had decreed would be the one to watch—and this hadn’t changed in years—when two particular reports pricked his interest. The first was a report that there had been an explosion at the Santa Rosa county jail in Millville. This was the place where inmates were sent if they committed any infractions. It caught his attention because he had people from his cubicle there. The TV was of the cathode ray variety, hanging heavily and dangerously in the rec room in one corner, with five rows of pews placed in front of it, the congregation half filling them. The story was local, but because it involved inmates, it made the national news. On Robin Meade and Friends, the CNN breakfast and breaking news/entertainment hybrid, Robin Meade reported it straight into the ears of Climax Johnson. She offered her vanilla report with beauty-pageant sparkle, reporting that two inmates had been killed in the explosion, but then emphasized her relief that, “Thank God none of them escaped.”
“Looks like two of ‘em did,” Climax said out loud, answered by a smattering of grunts around him.
The other report was that there would be something called a conjunction that night, that Jupiter, Mars, and Venus would share a small patch of sky at the same time.
“I think I’d like to see this conjunction thing,” he said to his buddy to his right. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen three planets at once. Hell, not even another planet. I’d like to see that.”
“Four planets,” his buddy said.
“No, three,” Climax reaffirmed, sure of what he had heard.
“Four,” again from his buddy.
“I don’t feel ya,” Climax said.
“If ya catch the Earth’s horizon out the corner of ya eye at the same time that ya see the other three, then ya seeing four—ya understandin’ what I’m sayin’? Ya follow?”
“Oh,” Climax said. “Yea. That’s something. Yea, I’d like to see that. Now why wouldn’t they tell us that?” His fellow viewers laughed. News—even cosmic news—traveled slowly in the justice system.
Climax didn’t get to see his three- or four-planet conjunction. The same problem, the camp’s light pollution, kept any stars or planets invisible the entire time he was there, notwithstanding conjunctions. On the night before his release, he once again looked up and saw the false lights of the camp. No stars. Not here, f’sure, he thought. Sure wished I’d stopped to look at ‘em before. I guess I missed a whole lot o’things before.
“Tomorrow night. I’ll see y’all tomorrow night,” he promised, waving his finger into the sky.
On the bus out the next day, he found himself trapped in his fixation on the stars. That and the sound of the marble rolling back and forth on the luggage rack overhead with each lurch and braking of the bus. Sixteen hours later, back in the Miami area. he disembarked. It was getting dark and he felt that he had to see the stars that night--desperately. He was not one to enjoy metaphors, but nevertheless he knew seeing them would officially declare his jump from incarceration to freedom. So on his first night of freedom, he chose a knoll, sat on it, and looked up. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. How strange it was for him: no false daylight glare drowning out his night.
He kept looking deeper and deeper into the skies for anything. He had never actually just sat to stargaze; the stars had never been a part of his world, although he knew they were there before he had gone to prison. He had never cared about them before and, in fact, he couldn’t ever remember watching for them. In Climax’s serengeti, he always had to keep his eyes level with the terrain in his neighborhood, always focused on a sweep of 60° but with peripheral vision always on the alert to any movement. That was just survival. When he was older and began his sexual athletics, he was only in it for the skin rides, which squandered any romance like gazing dreamily at starry skies. Older than that put him into urban glare.
His knoll was still far away enough from the Miami light pollution such that he should easily see the swath of the Milky Way and everything with it, but he saw only black. The Gulf had conspired to throw the leading edge of a low over him, a solid layer of cloud separating him--still--from the stars.
He soul-searched. He bobbed for epiphanies. He attempted self-analysis. He waxed contemplative. Without knowing it, he plugged himself into the Maslow pyramid toward self-actualization, but his pyramid had only the first two tiers. He introspected. He reminisced.
The blackness of his sky segued to nostalgia, transporting his mind to his childhood. Before they each had been shot, his two older brothers would take him to the matinee on Saturdays to see blaxploitation movies. His sister went with them, but usually hung out by the ticket kiosk to cherry pick desperately oversexed boys from the cafeteria line passing in revue. His little brother was still in his momma’s belly at the time, the belly of his only known parent. He would never meet his little brother. Everybody important to him was gone.
Everybody and everything, including the stars. God’a’mighty punishing me, he thought. Had it comin’, I guess.
He had been released months early with his accrued good time. He returned to his old neighborhood in Miami and to all of its temptations, which quickly relieved him of his $700 of weed-whacking earnings, a good portion of it, ironically, spent on weed. When he found he needed more money, the mockery of his freedom was that after he had paid his debt to society his felony had branded him a pariah. This reduced his employment prospects to only things that had created his debt to society in the first place. The likelihood was that if he stayed in Miami, his freedom would be nothing more than an entr’acte between the previous and the next incarceration. In Miami, his likely recidivism meant there was little sense in investing any time in seeking gainful employment.
He needed to move on. There was no moss to gather in Miami. Also, he didn’t want to fight the Feds again on any level. They fight dirty. He knew he was dirty, too, but their kind of dirty fighting was the kind you couldn’t fight. He cut his ties with his fellow drug dealers and became a conscientious objector in the War on Drugs.
He landed in Tampa, hung out at clubs, assisted the DJs at their mixing consoles, mingled with the roadies, and had sex with women who thought he was with the crew. He thought that DJ’ing could make him an honest living, get him laid, and—bonus—didn’t even require a background check. And he could spin music. How leet was that? But Climax had no equipment and such gear was never loaned out to the likes of him.
His new fixation was music. He searched any and all jobs that had anything to do with music, but since he actually played no instruments, he had to filter the search down to playing the music of people who actually did play. Then he saw the ad on the city bus advert:
Wanted: groovy and fab guy to play sweet sounds for WEMD. Inquire at studio.
He had learned that the blaxploitation movies were right about white people, so he generally steered clear of them. Groovy and fab—these were white words.
I’m groovy and fab, he thought. F’sure groovy and fab enough for this white job. He wrote down the address, got off of the bus, and walked until he reached the building that housed the radio station. The address was a three-story slot of brownstone between two other brownstones. He entered the main entrance into the foyer and read the placard:
Vlad’s Tattoo and Piercing, first floor; Madame Kismét, Seer and Psychic Surgeon, second floor; WEMD Radio, third floor.
The place smelled like what was inside a vacuum cleaner bag. He took short, shallow breaths and began to wind his way up squeaky stairs that had a rickety bannister. He didn’t even notice Vlad’s on the first floor, but on the second he stopped to consider Madame Kismét.
She was a woman.
Her door was open. He peaked in and there was Madame Kismét herself, bundled on a sofa, knees up high, painting her toenails. She had her foot perched on the edge of a coffee table that had a sugar bowl, a pot, a coffee cup, and a steak knife. She had little cotton balls stuffed between each toe. She was overweight and Climax noticed this was posing some difficulty for her. She looked up.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I was wondering if I could help you,” he said. “I could finish the last few toes.” She looked him up and down. “I like women’s feet,” he added.
“Really?” she asked suspiciously.
“A lot,” he answered. She hesitated a moment, then smiled.
“Come on in,” she offered. She was white and fat, he noted, but fat, white women were the best, so he entered. He sniffed cautiously. The vacuum bag smell was overwhelmed by the waft and ebb of patchouli. She held out the small bottle of nail polish and brush and he took them.
“Bible Black, huh?” he said. Then he looked at her toes again. He regarded her three unpainted ones. “They were red before. Why black now?”
“I like my nails like I like my men,” she added matter-of-factly.
“You liked red men before?” he asked.
She put her feet down and reached over the coffee table to pour some hot coffee into the cup. She plopped in two sugar cubes and then reached for the steak knife to stir it. “I like my coffee black, too.” She paused to look back up at Climax and smiled a peculiar smile. “I like my coffee like I like my men,” she said, continuing to stir the cup with the knife. “Black with a knife in ‘em.” Climax let it go. “Want some coffee yourself?” she offered. He saw grounds floating on top of the coffee in her cup.
“Nah, it’s all good.”
“Hope you didn’t mind me having some.”
“It’s your place,” he said as she put her unfinished set of toes back up on the coffee table edge and waved them at Climax. The little cotton balls were hanging in there.
“Now go to it. Paint.”
Climax hunched down over the small table from the other side and began on her middle toe on her right foot, continuing in her initial direction. He moved on to the fourth toe and finally her pinkie. He pushed the brush all the way into the bottle and screwed its cap on tightly. Madame Kismét inspected the work and seemed satisfied.
“Nice lacquerin’,” she said, almost warmly. “I’m Madame Kismét.”
“Kiz-mā? I thought it was Kiz-met,” he said. “I read the sign.”
“No,” she insisted. “Kiz- mā,” although she had never actually been to France. “It’s l’accent aigu. Aigu, aigu.”
“G’bless ya,” he said. “Johnson. Climax Johnson,” he announced, like there was nothing unusual about his name.
She snorted in a backwards laugh like some people do and she was one of them.
“Thank you,” she said to him. She waved her toes, allowing the cotton balls to drop.
“Yea, man, it’s all cool.” He stood up and she looked him up and down again.
“Tell you what…to thank you, y’understand…what would you rather do?” she asked, “have your fortune told…or hit this?” She opened her legs by flopping her knees apart and pointed to her crotch, which he could easily see. She didn’t have to point.
“Can I get my fortune told and then see how that goes?”
“I knew you were going to say that,” she told him.
“How did you know I was gonna say that?”
“Because I’m a psychic, that’s how.”
“Oh, yea. O.K. What do I do?”
She lifted herself up and stood, then walked over to a folding table disguised as something better because of its tablecloth. She sat down and opened her hands to him.
“Come here. Sit,” she instructed. Climax walked over to her wobbly table and sat down on its other chair, a bit wobbly as well. She dealt out five cards, face down. She took his hands and placed them atop the cards spread out on the tabletop. She closed her eyes, although her eyelids fluttered a bit, which was her attempt to look entranced but came off as petite mal epilepsy. Climax reconsidered his choice.
“What? Do you see anything?” He lifted a hand to curl up one of the cards.
“Shh,” she silenced him, and slapped his hand without even looking. and she continued to flutter for another moment. Then, “Ah, yes.”
“Yes. Definitely yes,” she said.
“I see you now.”
“I’m right here, though.
“No, Mr. Johnson, I mean in my mind’s eye.”
“Call me Climax, please.”
“No, Mr. Johnson. I’d rather not.”
“And I see you wandering, searching…”
“For what? What am I searching for?”
“You are searching for relevance.”
“They all gone. Haven’t seen any of them since I was a l’il shitling.”
“Not relatives,” she corrected him, “relevance.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You are searching, Mr. Johnson.” She put her hands over her face and eyes.
“Yea, we both know that. And what?” She removed her hands and smiled, and when she opened her eyes, the irises were white—zombie movie white.
“Whoa!” he started. “You got them crazy sleepwalker eyes. How’d they get crazy like that?” He started to get up, but she grasped an arm and stopped him. She closed her eyes again.
“You will be in a horrifying accident soon, Mr. Johnson. You may even die.”
“Didn’t need that. Is it too late to change my mind? I think I want to hit that, instead,” he said, pointing to her crotch.
“You are searching for the meaning of your life. Some reason for why you’re important. And considering your immediate future, just in time.”
“Yea, and hittin’ that would be a good meaning for my life. And just in time, too,” he said. “And keep them voodoo eyes closed.”
“But you won’t find that, I’m sorry to say.”
“Let’s just get back on that sofa. I’ll find it.”
“You won’t find the meaning and importance of your life that you’re searching for, I mean.”
“Why? Why won’t I find why I’m important?”
“Because you’re not,” she answered.
“Didn’t need that, either.”
She re-opened her eyes and after he flinched in anticipation of what he might see in them, he saw they were back to normal.
“That’ll be twenty-five dollars,” she said.
“I gave you three toes, bitch. Fuck you, Jack, I’m movin’ on,” he told her, got up out of the chair, walked out, and didn’t look back.
“Don’t you want to know why you’re not important?” she called after him.
“No, ho,” he answered back over his shoulder, “it’s probably not important either. Bitch.”
He climbed the stairs to the third floor, mumbling angrily the entire way. There it was, WEMD. “Country by day,” the sign read, but didn’t go on to say anything about the night.
Get a grip, ma man, Climax thought to himself. Can’t be goin’ in here all jacked up. Chill. This is for a job. Fuck that bitch. Be nice. White man’s world. Be professional.
Park Bott was the Station Manager and Program Director. He was a loser with a job, which allowed him to outrank Climax in the world of losers. He was white, so Climax ran station managers through his blaxploitation barometer. There were no cross references.
Bott wore a pocket protector, but it held lollipops instead of pens. When offered, Climax shook his soft hand with a hesitant semi-firmness. He eyed the pocket protector and lollipops and all he could think was how he’d get the shit kicked out of him if had worn such a thing in the old neighborhood.
“Why do you want to work here at WEMD, Climax? By the way, do you mind if I call you Max?”
“You can call me anything you want if you hire me.”
Mr. Bott smiled at him. He wore a dark blue tie and a dress shirt tucked into his black Sansabelt slacks. He had a little American flag tie tack. He had a baby-face and a sad attempt at a thin mustache.
“But why? Why here?” he asked. “What is it about this job that appeals to you?”
“Because, ma man, I’m looking for some meaning in my life,” he answered, doling out the first thing that popped into his head. Madame Kismét’s jibber-jabber was fresh in his mind. “I want to know I’m important in the world in some way. Ya follow what I’m sayin’?” Mr. Bott was shorter than Climax, so he tried to look him in the eye but only made it as high as his nose.
“Yes, Max, I do. Fulfillment, Max. I perfectly understand, and I applaud you for your uprightness.”
“My what? I don’t have any uprightness right now.” Bott didn’t understand Climax’s misunderstanding, but depending on what Bott said next, Climax might walk right on out.
“Fulfillment, Max,” Bott repeated. “That’s sentiment enough to tell me all I need to know about you. I like you already. You have your priorities straight.”
“My what?” Climax asked.
“Your priorities.” Befuddled, Climax let it go. Perhaps priorities meant life’s meaning and being important. Mr. Bott smiled at his nose and said, “You’re hired, Max. I need a good man for the 42-for-you slot from 2 to 6. I have an instinct for good men. I don’t think I even need to do a background check.”
“No, ma man, I wouldn’t think you needed to do that either.” Climax looked at the clock on the wall. “You said 2 o’clock to 6? It’s already 3.”
“No, Max, 2 to 6—in the morning, after midnight.”
“Go catch a nap and be back here for 1:30 AM. I’ll tell you what to do.”
Climax left the third floor, engaging his tunnel vision as he passed Madame Kismét’s establishment on the second.
“You owe me twenty-five bucks, asshole,” she called out from behind her half open door.
“You have ugly feet and they smell bad,” he called back to her.
He quickened his pace, but was stopped abruptly, bumping into a long-haired gaunt man on the first floor landing that opened into the foyer. The man had what seemed at least his own body weight’s worth of metal sticking in and out of his face, nose, lips, eyebrows, ears, and forehead. When he and Climax bumped into each other, all the hardware clinked, even from places not visible.
“Hey, watch where you’re goin, ma man,” Climax said.
“Oh, sorry, man,” the man said. “Hi. You were coming down from three. Are you the new disk jockey?”
“Yea, ma man, I be spinnin’ from 2 to 6.”
“Vlad,” the man said.
“Johnson. Climax Johnson.”
“Cool. And I thought I had a weird name.”
“No, I like Vlad. It’s sick.”
“No, man, Climax is sick.”
“They both be sick, ma man.”
“Thanks, Climax,” Vlad said, and he liked saying Climax. He reached up and cupped Climax’s face in his hands.
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, Climax, it’s the unbroken continuity of someone’s skin, glistening wantonly in its intactness, begging to be breached.” Climax removed Vlad’s hands.
“Not today,” Vlad.
“No hole is too large or too small, Climax. I use beveled needles for your comfort and role-playing techniques for your mind.”
“Not today, Vlad, I said.”
“Do you have any fistulas I can use? There’s a discount for those.”
“I’ve been sterilizing my equipment since 2002.”
“Later, ma man.” Climax turned and walked out of the main door.
On his first night at WEMD, Climax learned what played at night after its “country by day.” It was a strange music he couldn’t understand—something called classic rock. It was stuff that had never played in the ghetto market, far removed from the hard wiring of whatever music appreciation had been instilled into his developing brain as a youth. Music, it seemed, was like language. If the engrams were not laid down at the beginning, a particular genre of music might as well be Chinese.
The “42-for-you” survey was a list of 42 songs the Program Director felt were representative of what era or genre was important to feature that day. Actually, however, it was based on the fee-per-play royalties and the budget for the month.
The music appreciation engrams of Climax Johnson’s brain, neuronal synapses of solid state forged in the ghetto furnaces of rap, hip hop, and urban R&B, began to erode and loosen a bit. His mind opened a crack.
That’s when he heard it. The song that would make him love his work.
It was called In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by a group called Iron Butterfly. In that Louie Louie manner, the title was a corruption of “in the garden of Eden,” although he understood it perfectly via pidgin instinct.
Kingsmenesque linguistics aside, the real beauty of the song, to Climax, was that it was seventeen minutes long. The first half minute of it wasn’t bad, he felt, even though he had no idea how the rest of it sounded, because the seventeen minutes gave him a chance to hit the stairwell for a smoke, visit the men's room for a smoke and other things, or even get laid, either in the men's room or in the stairwell. During the 2 AM to 6 AM slot, he could play it several times, for this time slot might as well have been in another dimension to the geriatric population that normally listened to this station by day.
Country by day.
Climax went on several seventeen-minute breaks. No one noticed. The Program Director wasn’t staying up to check on him, that was certain. All went well, as long as he was back in seventeen minutes.
One night it was a slow night at an ER in town. After the house favorite’s signal had been crippled by FCC after-dark power mandates, the search for another station involved sweeping the dial on the old radio. The intern there happened to anchor into the signal of WEMD when he caught the iconic opening riff of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida during his AM sweep. The song brought back nostalgic memories of pre-employment devil-may-care foolishness for the nurses and doctors there.
Before seventeen minutes had passed, things in the ER had picked up and never abated. No one had a chance to change the station by the time In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida came on for the fifth time. Even the patients complained.
“Please end that shit!” shouted a disheveled druggie in slot number eighteen.
A psychiatrist, consulted to see a woman with black toenails who claimed she saw stars in the sky that were sending her private messages of national importance, looked up the station’s telephone number in an ancient telephone book with questionable stains. Climax had no phone in his broadcast room. All calls went straight to the Program Director.
As long as he was back in seventeen minutes.
On this particular night, he returned in nineteen, only to find the Program Director waiting for him.
"Climax?" the weasel most program directors were, fumed. In his peripheral vision he spotted an underage black girl spin around and escape back toward the stairwell.
"Yea, ma man?" he answered, buttoning up his trousers low under his hips.
Park Bott was befuddled, unable to choose which injudiciousness to address first. He watched the girl exit through the stairwell door and turned back around to Climax.
"You played In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for seventeen minutes, and then it ended.”
“They usually do end at the end, ma man.”
“No, Max, it ended. It just ended. There was nothing. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for seventeen minutes, and then there was dead air for two. And I haven’t even started to talk about how many times you played it. How many times, Max?"
Dead air, for those who have never worked radio before, is that mortal sin from which there is no recovery. It is the Shame of Marconi. Air's final electromagnetic entropy. The type of soundless sound that noise reduction headphones would turn into din. The Program Director raised his eyebrows, demanding an explanation.
“I said, how many times, Max?”
“Um, lemme see,” Climax said, running his fingers through his hair. “At least once, maybe twice, I guess. Yea, twice. At least twice.”
“The man on the phone told me five, Max. Five! And he was a doctor. Doctors don’t lie, Max. Eighty-five minutes of Iron Butterfly, Max.”
“That’s better’n the other three hours of crap you make me play, ma man.”
“Hey, ma man, I’m talkin’ Humphrey’s Hermits, the Dave Clark—Five, is it? And what’s that shit, the Moody Blue? Ya follow what I’m sayin’?”
“Herman’s Hermits, Max. You were right about the five, but it’s the Moody Bluezzzz. There’s not just one Blue.”
“O.K., so they’re all moody. It’s your station, ma man, so I’ll play anything you want. But In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was on the list, so I played it. Played the shit out of it.”
“Again and again and again and again. Oh, and again.” Bott said it as he emphatically slapped the fingers of his right hand into his left hand for each again.
“I getcha, ma man. I feel ya. O.K., I don’t be playin’ it more than a coupla times my shift from now on.”
“You don’t be playing it at all.”
“You’re taking it off the list?”
“Forget about In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Dead air, Max.”
"Don't you think the audience needs a coupla minutes to recover after an oopus like that?"
"You mean opus, Max and no. Seventeen minutes of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and two of dead air. What is your explanation?"
"Chillin’. Seventeen to shuck and jive, two to chill. They’re all just minutes. Seventeen of Iron Buddafly and two of dead air, ma man, I mean, what's the diff'rence?"
"Oh, I suppose…your employment."
“O.K., then, take it off the list. I don’t have to play that.”
“No, I’m taking you off the list.”
“Say again? What list you talkin’ about?”
And so it went. Climax had been fired for dead air. The Kardashians had made a career of it; even his man, Kanye, knew that. Climax was conflicted, but laughed himself out of his funk when he realized he was good at dead air. Really good.
Exceptional, in fact.
Now that he thought about it, he had been broadcasting dead air his whole life. His beginnings in this world had been dead air. His mother used to tell him that when he was born…“nothin’.” He didn’t cry, didn’t move, just laid there, blue, so the doctor had to “beat it out of ‘im.” She said that the first thing she said to him in the delivery room when she finally heard him cry was, “I hear ya, ya li'l bastid.” For Climax she had little prenatal care. She had chain-smoked the entire time until, at one of her rare prenatal visits, her obstetrician read her the riot act on smoking.
“What do you want? You want your baby to be stupid?” he asked in what he thought would be a sobering warning and call to action.
“That don’t concern me none, ‘cause he’s gonna be stupid anyway.” Her doctor had no answer for that. Dead air.
She dealt drugs in between her two tours as a POW herself in the War on Drugs and between each of her five—or was it six?—pregnancies. Then she never came back and that was on purpose, her whereabouts currently unknown. Climax couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Dead air.
He didn’t know his father except for his last name and what he had done. Two of his three brothers were dead, the other one just plain missing and that wasn’t on purpose. His sister had married her pimp in a pregnancy love story that would have made a memorable dramedy.
His whole family before he had left home was dead air.
The only thing he was good for, he figured, was just seventeen minutes at a time. In fact, that’s how long his job at the Dollar General had lasted. Al’s Second Hand Tires even shorter. Burger King wouldn’t even consider him because he was a filthy, dirty felon, the default party line on felons. But that wouldn’t have lasted, anyway, because it takes over seventeen minutes to cook fries.
And so in the wee hours of the morning of his radio station shift cut short, before the sun rose, he walked toward the city bus stop and looked up into the sky, darkest before the dawn. Climax Johnson was an empty man with a missing vocation in a hollow society under a starless sky.
Madame Kismét was right. He was not important at all. And she was right about another thing.
On the other hand, importance was everything that Keith Mills was about. This new character in Climax’s story commuted either by limo, helicopter, or private jet. On the day that Climax Johnson crossed paths with him, each of them on opposite journeys through life, Mills was lounging unbuckled in the back of his limo with a Jack-and-Coke in hand. The limousine was moving at a considerable speed to catch a pre-dawn flight in Mills’ private jet when an eco-friendly hybrid vehicle, weighed down considerably with a ballast of batteries, ran the red light and T-boned it slightly off-center. There were several spins of the limo, Keith Mills ricocheting inside like a pinball until he was flung through the separator window between the front seat and the rest of the limo and then out through the front windshield altogether, striking the driver on the way out who would have gone with him had he not been stopped by his seatbelt and an airbag. Meanwhile Climax Johnson, minding his own unimportance, was battered by the front hood on one of two-axle limo’s triple Axels and then was impaled by a human projectile, the very important Keith Mills.
It was impossible to tell who had impaled whom.
“We’re going to have to take them together,” said the EMS respondent several minutes later. A crowd had gathered and was gawking. This was no ordinary gawk fodder. It was no ordinary traffic accident. Cars were stopped in four directions at the intersection. Even in this early hour additional ambulances had to sidewind their way through bike lanes, sidewalks, and stopped cars to reach Climax and Keith Mills.
“One guy’s white and the other’s black, and I still can’t tell where one begins and the other ends,” said the other EMS respondent, astonished.
“Guys?” asked a policeman. “You can tell they’re guys?”
“Like I said, we’re going to have to take them together. C’mon, let’s get ‘em in.” After straight-boarding them securely, which took ingenious papooses in four different geometric planes, it took eight firemen to lift the entangled duo into the ambulance; two of them followed them in to secure them for the ride. One of them knocked on the glass to the driver.
“All secured. Let’s move.” The driver knocked back in acknowledgement and the ambulance began moving slowly through the cars and crowd, replete with warbling sirens, booming sound bursts of a lower register, and rapid chirps. Its lights tried to make sense of any type of rhythm, the reflections on the buildings providing an even more confusing visual backbeat.
“Wha- hoppen…?” Climax asked Mills, their faces only an inch from each other.
“Don- know…who are…y—?” Mills tried to reply, but then passed out.
The two firemen held on to them as best as they could for the intertwined mass of people they were. In and out Climax went, but Mills didn’t regain consciousness the rest of the ride. On the way, an IV had been placed into each of them and they had been sedated.
Upon arrival to the ramp of the ER, a forewarned, forearmed group of doctors, nurses, and ancillary others met the ambulance with their IVs, catheters, syringes, and stethoscopes. They huddled at the back door. One of the two firemen inside opened it and as the door swung wide open, there was a collective gasp. One of the nurses vomited.
“We need two gurneys strapped together,” hollered an intern. Shortly after, three nurses rolled the double gurney toward them, joined at their matching handrails with knotted rubber tourniquets.
“Oh, my God!” said someone.
“Holy shit,” said another simultaneously.
“Mother of God,” said yet another simultaneously, so it sounded like, “Holy shit of my Godmother.”
“C’mon, on three,” announced one of the firemen. “One…two…umph!” Up went Climax and Mills. Climax had just come to again and wailed out in pain. The same nurse who had vomited, having returned after regaining her composure, only vomited again. The double patient landed on the jerry-rigged double gurney. Climax wailed again and Mills was still unconscious.
Luckily it wasn’t busy for the ER crew there that day, just like the night they had suffered through In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida five times.
An interesting collection of observations:
Madame Kismét had foretold that Climax would be in a horrible accident soon. In his brave foray into the phalanx of fate, Climax had played the aforementioned In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida five times—eighty-five minutes of Iron Butterfly, not counting the two minutes of dead air—initiating a series of events that would culminate in mayhem and calamity. The ER crew that was tuned in to WEMD heard the seventeen-minute opus repeatedly including the five insufferable guitar, organ and—especially drum—solos, until the psychiatrist, unknowingly involved in an astronomically unlikely coincidence consulting on the woman who had predicted it all, called the station to complain, which was the phone Park Bott had answered. This had provoked a philosophical dialogue about dead air that ended in Climax’s termination an hour before his shift would normally end. Climax spent an exact number of minutes ruminating about his life of dead air. Had there been either fewer or more minutes in the reverie of his specious life pageantry or had there been an extra red light for the limo, or had the Prius not stopped at the Starbucks for a Café Latte Espresso, an entirely different drama would have ensued. Again, however, in persistent defiance of Madame Kismét’s premonition, Climax began walking and at an intersection someone very important (his importance purposely vague in this narrative due to irrelevance) flew out of a limo that not only had struck Climax once, but had jettisoned this important man, Mills, into the very space occupied by Climax. This space was a tight fit and resulted in an ingenious fusion. Their combined medical triage took place at the hospital whose ER had originally called in the complaint about the excessive Iron Butterfly play, thereby setting into motion this entire mortality play. One could say it was Madame Kismét’s fault or the fault of the Mills’ limo driver or the fact that Mills had spurned his seat restraint; or Park Bott’s impatience and zero tolerance for dead air or even the old green Prius that had run the red light and, still drivable, had fled, leaving a trail of battery hazmat.
But who could say for sure?
It used to be that one could say such things were written in the stars, but things written in the stars had to be rewritten every time a star fell out of the sky and self-immolated in a swansong through our atmosphere. For Climax Johnson there would be no such celestial script today, no que sera in this starlessness of the early morning’s overcast, its darkest hour before the dawn. This morning, everyone was on their own. The sky above offered only dead air.
Keith Mills regained consciousness just in time to hear the intern present him and Climax to the attending staff physician.
“Here we have these two gentlemen, a Mr. Keith Mills and an unknown black man who—”
“Johnson,” Climax eked out.
“Johnson…Climax Johnson,” he said feebly.
“Mr. Ajax Johnson and Mr. Keith Mills.” Climax let it go. “Mr. Johnson was a pedestrian and Mr. Mills was in a limousine when a third car, in a Prius, so probably a Democrat—”
“No editorial comment, doctor,” the attending reprimanded him.
“—when a third car became involved with both Mr. Mills’ limo and the pedestrian Johnson.”
“I see,” the attending said, looking puzzled as he inspected them. “What the hell?”
“Well,” explained the intern, “it seems that Mr. Johnson has suffered a compound fracture and that the better part of an entire femur has penetrated Mr. Mill’s chest, just under his pericardium.”
“So,” the attending surmised, “into his descending aorta.”
“It appears so, yes. As you might imagine, although this is probably just an orthopedic situation for Johnson, removing his femur from Mr. Mills would result in an instant exsanguination.”
“Of Mills,” the attending clarified.
“Oh, yes, I see.” The attending’s mind began to anticipate a dead end. Even if they were to get them into an OR—stocked, instruments opened and ready—there was no way they could prevent Mills’ death upon removal of Johnson’s leg from his chest. They would have to remove the leg, crack his chest, and then operate—carefully—all taking way too long. He’d be dead even before the heart-lung machine had been set up. The doctor looked for the rest of Johnson’s leg—his tibia and fibula—and was unable to explain how they were actually behind Mills.
“What’s that?” the attending asked, pointing to a round piece of glass sticking out of Mills’ skull.
“I believe that’s a piece of a cocktail glass.”
“Ah.” They both stood there silently, medically thinking medical thoughts that had never been thought before.
“Where should we go with this now?” the intern asked the attending.
“Room Seven,” he answered. The intern sighed, prompting the attending to explain. “Even though Mr. Johnson’s leg is tamponading Mr. Mills’ aorta very nicely, the aorta’s still leaking. Also, his spleen and liver are bleeding, too, and they will keep doing that, well, until. Has either of them been transfused?”
“No,” answered the intern. “But they’re both typed and matched. And if you don’t mind me saying, sir, if we’re going to Room Seven, it would seem to be a waste of good blood. But if you want to, they’re both A-positive, even though we’re still waiting to see if Mr. Johnson has sickle trait. In a way, Mr. Mills is being transfused, because Mr. Johnson’s leg is bleeding into his aorta.” He waited for some last heroic suggestion which didn’t arrive. “So,” he concluded with a single clap, “Room Seven?”
Room Seven, go to Heaven, was the saying. Room Seven was where a patient was parked until he died a death deemed inevitable. Gunshot-to-the-head victims, people who were drowned for over twenty minutes, human railroad roadkill who still had a pulse, and casualties who were still alive but were human Jenga games, like Mr. Mills, were extradited to Room Seven. The room was dark, quiet, and undisturbed, except for a stealthy medical assistant sneaking some vital signs from time to time, appraising the mortality countdown.
Climax opened his eyes. Mercifully, he had a considerable amount of morphine on board. He looked around. He had to strain to see past Mills, whose head was almost touching his. They were still conjoined on their double gurney.
Am I dead? he wondered. He looked at Mills, and wondered if he was taking one last ride with his fellow victim to the afterlife. Then he would pass out again.
He came to once when the aide was taking his blood pressure.
“Am I dead?” he asked her.
“No sir, you’re not dead. But that guy,” she pointed to Keith Mills, “is gonna be real soon. As soon as that happens, we’re gonna pull you out of him and fix you up. You can thank your lucky stars.”
Mills stirred. He opened his eyes. Climax’s own eyes had adjusted to the dark, so he could see Mills very well. The man groaned.
“Hey, ma man,” Climax greeted him with some effort.
“What—what’s going on?” Mills asked. “What place is this? What happened? Am I dead?”
“No,” Climax answered, “but they said you would be really soon.”
“Well,” Mills sighed, “at least I’m not dead yet.” He splinted his body in pain. “At least I have time to make peace with God.”
“Were you in a fight with him?”
“No, just an expression.” He paused to groan again. “Hi, I’m Keith. I’d shake your hand, but I don’t know where anything is.”
“Johnson, Climax Johnson.”
Climax could feel wet warmth surrounding the leg that had skewered Mr. Mills. No one had been able to even say which leg it was, but they knew it was his, because it was an African-American leg. They usually came in pairs, and there was another African-American one connected to Climax at some impossible angle.
“So, you believe in God?” Climax asked.
“Yes, I do.”
Climax paused to groan. “Kinda, ma man,” he answered. “Say, where’s your family?”
“I don’t have any family.”
“Oh, sorry…Climax, is it?” said Mills. Climax nodded, but then groaned. “I’m sure,” Mills continued with some groans of his own, “mine have to move appointments, change plans, arrange for pet care, things like that to get down here to me. It would be nice to be able to tell my wife goodbye. I guess I don’t have anyone, either.”
“You got me, ma man,” and Climax managed something close to a smile. “I’m staying with you to the end.”
“Ain’t nothin’. Don’t have much of a choice.” He pointed down. Mills tried to look down at his chest, but stopped when he saw he had someone’s leg coming out of it. “That’s not supposed to be there, Keith, ma man.”
“What’s this in my head?” Mills asked, feeling the piece of glass with his fingers, cutting one of them. “Ow!” he said, and put the bleeding finger into his mouth.
“When it rains, it pours, ma man,” Climax said.
“It’s getting cold. Is it getting cold?” Mills asked. Then he laughed. “What a cliché.”
“What’s a cliché?” Climax asked.
“Like, oh, “death and taxes.’ Guess I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Both of them,” Mills laughed, which initiated a series of coughs that sprayed Climax’s face with blood. “Sorry, Climax,” he said.
“No worries, ma man.” He looked at Mills’ face. “You important? You a big shot?”
“Used to be,” Mills answered. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does. You did stuff. Look at me. I ain’t done shit with my life.”
“Are you going to be dead, too, really soon like me? Did they say?”
“Nah. They said once you wrapped they was gonna yank me out of you and fix me up.”
“I see. So I’m holding you up.”
“No worries, ma man.”
“Yes, I guess you could say I accomplished a lot of things in my life. Had a lot of things. Big house. Big cars. Money. Was very important,” he said with an ironic smile. I think I can say I was fulfilled. Maybe even helped some people. But I guess I mainly helped myself, which is why I have to make my peace.”
“Ma man! Compared to me, you—”
“Stop,” Mills said. “Doesn’t matter. Who’s important or unimportant—doesn’t matter.”
“Because we all go out with a whimper. You later and me now, we all go out with a whimper.” He clenched his jaw in pain, then relaxed again. “Had a check up with my doctor last month. Had to put me on blood pressure medicine. Wow.”
“Wow?” Climaxed wondered.
“Lately I had been doing a lot of thinking. Took some inventory. We all think we’ll live forever, but I sensed my mortality. I became aware of being very vulnerable—guess that’s where I became aware of my mortality. I was going to begin wearing seat belts as a New Year’s resolution. Pretty funny, eh? My wife and kids noticed and said I was overreacting, getting weird. Truth be told, Climax, I was just getting ready for today, it seems. Cramming for finals.”
“Yea,” said Climax, “I keep having a dream about taking finals, except in my dream I skipped all the classes and forgot to study. Of course, it was just trade school, so fuck it.”
“Oh, yes, I had that dream many times.”
“Were you in your underwear walking to the test?”
“Y’know, Climax, the other day I asked my granddaughter if she knew who Bob Hope was. Muhammad Ali, too. Forget that!”
“Who’s Bob Hope?”
“Doesn’t matter who you are, who you were. We all go out with a whimper. Like we were never here.”
“Like the stars,” Climax said.
“The stars?” Mills asked.
“Like dead air.”
“Dead air? What’s dead air?”
“The stuff that sounds good after classic rock.”
“Oh, dead air—like on the radio. I see. Well, I suppose, yes,” Mills said. “Going out in a whimper is like playing dead air. Here, anyway. But not where we’re going, Climax.”
“What’s this we’re?”
“Eventually, kind sir,” Mills said.
“Actually, I can see it now.”
“You can? See what?”
“Yes, and it’s beautiful! And you know what?” he said, cries of pain becoming cries of joy, “everyone’s important there. Everyone.”
“Even people like me?”
“Especially people like you.”
“You mean black people?”
“No, Climax, that’s not what I meant. People…like you.”
“Tell me what you see, please, I wanna know.”
“It is just lovely. Lots of light. Lots of beautiful flowers and waterfalls. And I see my mother, Climax. She’s waiting for me. I’m not afraid.”
“My momma,” Climax blurted emotionally. “I would love to see my momma. I miss my momma. I know she misses me.”
“And the women! What beautiful women!”
“Wait, momma. What about these women, Keith?”
“And my God,” he added with a Bowmanesque flare, “it’s filled with stars.”
“Shit, ma man, forget the stars. Never missed ‘em anyway. Tell me about the women. I might be ready myself.”
“You’ll see, Climax. I’m there now. I’m in it.”
“In what? In where? Are the women with you? I gotta know.”
“Yes, Climax. Yes, yes.”
“In the garden of Eden, Climax,” Mills said, but he was drifting, so he slurred the words terribly. And then he closed his eyes for the last time.