It was mid-June and the few clouds, there were in the sky, slanted like kites along the northern horizon. Axel stood and watched them sail for a minute before opening the mailbox. The Social Security checks would have come the day before so they would be there that morning. The checks—his and Miss Plackie’s—came like clockwork the last week of every month. Miss Plackie didn’t walk to the mailbox anymore but gathering the mail was a small task which Axel didn’t mind doing, especially on check days.
He and Dixie had just retuned from another night fishing on Old River. He had put up the fishing gear and given Dixie kibble to hold her over till breakfast before walking around the house to the mailbox at the road. After breakfast and a nap, Axel planned to go into town to cash his check and pick up a few groceries. He would also visit the bank and deposit Miss Plackie’s check for her so she could pay her bills and buy the things she needed. Only the bank part of the errand bothered Axel. For whatever reason, the insides of banks had always given him the creeps. They felt like funeral homes or mausoleums—sterile places for the dead.
Axel’s monthly check was enough to purchase food but that was about all. If Miss Plackie had charged rent for the shed, he would have been forced to survive entirely on the fish he caught and the garden produce he raised for food. The reason for this was because Axel had never held any job for very long so his Social Security amounted to no more than a pittance. But he was thankful to get it, nonetheless, and dared not complain about his lot. In the past, before reaching retirement age, he had made do with much less and knew he could do so again if he had to.
As it was, living in Miss Plackie’s shed rent free meant he was able to buy groceries for himself and have a little extra to share with his neighbor. He knew, too, that if it wasn’t for the groceries he brought home and the produce he grew Miss Plackie would probably eat nothing but lunchmeat sandwiches and the occasional banana or apple, if that, and would pay extra to have her groceries delivered from town.
It seemed to Axel Miss Plackie no longer cared about life so had no incentive to do for herself. But when he first met her, things were different: back then she was still alive, got to town regularly, and sometimes went to the stylist to have her hair done. But that was years ago. Axel could not remember when last he had seen that Miss Plackie. Nowadays, she would have difficulty managing, day-to-day, without some kind of help.
Axel found the checks in the mailbox. He took them around back and entered the house through the porch.
Miss Plackie did not sleep through the night. The ghosts that haunted her woke her, usually, about midnight then tormented her until sometimes noon the next day, at which time she passed out from exhaustion and drink. Her ghosts, it seemed, drove her to expend megawatts of pent-up energy. All night she ruminated, turned on the television for company, did housework, kept blazing every light in the house, baked cookies, and drank. Once in a while, she would play music loudly and sing. Axel was at the river most nights and unaffected by Miss Plackie’s ghosts. But there had been a few times when he had seen her through the windows, flying from room to room like a trapped sparrow.
Sometimes she sobbed and blubbered to herself about the bitter disappointment her life had been and the unending misery it brought her. To Axel she was, at those times, like a patient imprisoned in her own private psychiatric ward. He wanted to help, but knew that until she was ready there was nothing he could do to help her regain her balance.
Usually around daybreak, her frenzied busyness began waning and she would wind down and become her most “normal” self or, rather, the least afflicted by her demons. That was one of two times during the day when she and Axel might see each other; the other time was late afternoon, just before Axel and Dixie headed to the river.
As Axel entered the mudroom he heard Miss Plackie scream.
“Ahhh!” and BLAM! It was a scream of surprise followed by what sounded like a cooking pan striking a hard surface. A couple more screams followed in short order by more banging. Much more banging.
“What the hell is going on?” muttered Axel. “Sounds like she’s fighting rats.”
He opened the door and caught a glimpse of Miss Plackie sprinting from the kitchen to the living room, carrying a pan in her left hand. She was barefoot and wearing only a nightgown, the froufrou one. She disappeared around the corner into the living room shrieking with terror. Axel instinctively looked left to see who, or what, might be chasing her but saw nothing in the kitchen except cupboard doors flung open, dirty dishes in the sink, and a spilled box of spaghetti on the floor. The garbage container was also knocked over and its contents partially spilled out. Maybe it was a rat that had frightened her he thought. Miss Plackie stopped shrieking but Axel heard her panting somewhere in the living room as if she had just run a marathon. He proceeded cautiously.
“Miss Sharon?” he called. Every light in the house was blazing. He moved slowly towards the entryway leading to the living room.
“Miss Sharon? What’s wrong? Ma’am it’s me, Axel.” The television was on in her bedroom; it was tuned to the morning news. Axel took another step forward and could see most of the living room but she was not on the sofa or in her recliner. She must be somewhere in the corner of the room near the fireplace thought Axel.
“Miss Sharon? It’s me—” He inched forward.
Suddenly, Miss Plackie rushed Axel and, before he could react, swung the pan at him with all her might, gripping the handle with both hands. Whoosh! It barely missed his nose. The force and momentum of her swing carried her into the wall where she crashed awkwardly and crumpled to the floor in a heap. The ungainly crash separated Miss Plackie from her pan as it bounced towards the fireplace and out of reach.
“Goddamnit!” shouted Axel in surprise, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Terror seized Miss Plackie as she scrambled wildly to recover her weapon. And though Axel moved as fast as he could to grab the pan first, he was late and she recovered it before him then swatted him smartly on the elbow with it. Immediately she stood, holding her weapon over her left shoulder, ready to strike again. But her eyes, though wild, were not trained on Axel. They were scanning the room frantically, searching for some invisible menace or, perhaps, many of them. She startled, hopping left then right, then left again, looking for the menace which she expected to spring on her at any second.
Axel scrambled to his feet and moved to a safer distance. He rubbed his elbow and, at the same time, began rehearsing escape routes, how and where to run if his wild-eyed neighbor charged him again. But he also began to regain his composure and confidence as he realized she was out of her head and not her normal crazy that she was when she drank too much. He had not seen her like this before. What could be wrong with her? he wondered.
“Ahh! Ahh!” she screamed again then dented the top of her coffee table with her aluminum frypan. Quickly she squatted and began pounding the floor as if chasing a fast-moving spider. Next she looked over her shoulder and sprang up.
“Oh god, it’s a big one!” she screamed in terror.
She ran to the wall near the front door and struck it so hard that the pan left a crescent shaped hole in the plaster. I’ve got to get ahold of that frypan thought Axel. But no sooner had he thought that than Miss Plackie went into wild gyrations and, in the process, dropped the pan. Whooping and dancing in place and, with both hands, she started slapping the back of her neck as she screamed.
“It’s on my neck! Get it off! I can’t stand frogs! Somebody get it off!”
Axel saw his chance. He ran forward and grabbed Miss Plackie from behind, pinning her arms to her sides. She wriggled and struggled and stomped his boots, trying to crush his toes. But he spoke gently to her.
“It’s all right Miss Sharon. I’ve got you. You’re safe now. It’s okay; you’re safe now.”
“But the frogs—” she said, out of breath. “The ugly yellow frogs, they—”
“Shh-shh. The frogs are gone. Shhhh, now. The frogs are gone,” he whispered.
Her body went limp in his arms and she began to cry. He turned her to face him and held her close against his rigid frame and continued whispering assurances in her ear. Her hair stuck to her face; he tried to brush it away from her eyes but it resisted, being pasted to her cheeks with tears. She cried like a child.
He led her to her favorite chair and asked her sit down, assuring her everything would be okay. She opened her eyes.
“There’s one,” she said, looking down at the floor.
“A frog?” asked Axel.
“Where?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes downward and pointed stealthily to a place near his foot. He quickly stomped his large boot on the spot.
“Got it!” he declared.
She exhaled and laughed in relief at the same time.
“See? You don’t have to worry about any more frogs, do you?”
“No, I guess not. But they’re so ugly.”
“I know they are.”
Miss Plackie relaxed finally and sat down in her easy chair. Axel knelt so he could talk to her at eye level. He took her hand and patted it.
“I’m so tired,” she said.
“Miss Sharon, I need to ask you something.”
“Have you had anything to drink today? I mean, have you had any gin or vodka today?”
“Ah, yes, I think so.”
“Do you remember when that was? Was it this morning or last night sometime, when you had a drink the last time?”
“Ah, I don’t remember, Albert. Why are you accusing me?”
“Oh no, Miss Sharon, I’m not asking for that reason. I just wondered if you needed me to run to the ABC to buy some, if, you know, you had run out. That’s the only reason I’m asking. Did you run out?”
“Oh, I see. Well, I’m trying to remember.”
Axel held her hand and waited for her to think. Her hand was cool and clammy.
“Oh yes, now I remember. Yes, I did run out. I mean, no, I didn’t run out, per se. I quit. I mean, I did both: I ran out and I quit. I’m not going to drink anymore, Albert. I’m doing it for us, for our marriage. I think it’s time, don’t you?”
Axel glanced away and exhaled. He then understood that Miss Plackie’s hallucinations had not stopped; they had only shifted gears. Albert was her dead, ex-husband.
“Miss Sharon, when was it that you decided to quit? I’m very happy; it’s a good decision that you’ve made but when did you decide not to drink anymore. Can you remember that? Was it yesterday sometime or the day before?”
“It was the day before.” She sounded certain.
“No, wait. That’s wrong. It was last night I quit. I quit at the stroke of midnight, last night.”
As near as Axel could tell the onset of Miss Plackie’s hallucinations had happened suddenly, less than twelve hours after her last drink. That was good news. Had she been dry longer Axel would have suspected delirium tremens—the DTs. They were very dangerous and, too often, deadly. Axel himself had been there before, more than once, and gone through DTs cold turkey. But Miss Plackie appeared to experience the hallucinations without several of the other symptoms which came with DTs, such as the extreme incoordination. Certainly she was experiencing some type of alcohol withdrawal symptoms but probably not the DTs. Still Axel debated whether he should call an ambulance anyway, just to be safe. I’d better not chance it, he thought, so he decided to find Miss Plackie’s phone and call 9-1-1.
She had two telephone handsets: one in the dining room on the buffet and the other in her bedroom on a nightstand. Axel found the one in the dining room but it was hiding amid a jumble of mail, coupon flyers, and knickknacks on the dining room table and was not in its cradle. It had been off its cradle for some time, apparently, because its battery had died. It was useless.
Axel told Miss Plackie to stay in her chair and if she saw anymore frogs to let him know so he could kill them for her. Twice Axel had to rush back to the living room and “squish” frogs for Miss Plackie but otherwise she appeared less agitated by her hallucinations. This gave Axel time to look for the other phone handset and think about what to do next.
He reasoned she was dehydrated and could be experiencing low blood sugar. Plus, he also knew that alcohol withdrawal symptoms could be treated with alcohol, though that was not a recommended medical treatment. But it could be effective in a pinch.
He remembered the fifth of bourbon he had stashed out in the shed. He checked the refrigerator and found a stale but drinkable carton of orange juice. Mimosa!—a bourbon mimosa he thought. It would taste bad but it might do the trick as far as the hallucinations were concerned and prevent Miss Plackie from falling into a full-blown case of DTs.
Axel turned off lights to create a more calming atmosphere, especially in the living room where she reclined in her easy chair. He covered her with a blanket and reassured her that everything was all right, that nothing would harm her.
“Thank you, Albert. You are so kind to me,” she said.
It crossed Axel’s mind to gently attempt to reorient Miss Plackie to reality by telling her he was not Albert. But then he figured that Albert was someone she trusted and, therefore, she would be more likely to comply with Albert’s instructions than his own. So Axel decided that for the time being he would let the Albert-fiction remain since it might work in his favor. Besides, it was so much better for her to recognize him as Albert than to not recognize him at all which was a real possibility under the circumstances.
Axel went to the bedroom to see if he could find the second phone. He found it in its cradle, fully charged. But when he tried to use it he could not get a dial-tone. Perhaps Miss Plackie had gotten her phone service cut off or else she had decided to discontinue it again which was something she did every time she quarreled with her phone service provider. At any rate, there was no dial-tone so no calling out. But Miss Plackie’s condition had improved it seemed, making a trip to the emergency room unnecessary.
Axel mixed the off-tasting mimosa using orange juice and bourbon and pretended to be Albert in order to cajole Miss Plackie into drinking the tonic to make her drowsy. The ruse worked and soon she was asleep in her chair. Axel sat with her for half an hour before finally breathing a sigh of relief. At last, he thought, it was safe to make a trip into town.
Axel and Dixie ate a quick breakfast then started for the village. On the way, Axel remembered several of the remedies he and fellow wanderers used in the jungles for treating alcohol withdrawal. In those days alcohol withdrawal was as common as the flu.
Axel established a brisk pace as he set out for town. His first stop was Good’s Grocery to cash his check and buy food. There, he bought a bottle of B-1 vitamins, a couple of nutritional shakes, two large sports drinks (for electrolytes), and a few items, including egg noodles, mushroom soup, a small package of hamburger, and a container of sour cream. He placed the hamburger and other cold items in the cold pack, inside his backpack. Luckily, everything fit since it was a warm day and a long walk back to Miss Plackie’s.
Axel knew that the first goal was to get Miss Plackie rehydrated and one solid meal in her. If she truly wanted to kick the bottle she would need to be stronger and better nourished. She would have to be fully hydrated too; that was a prerequisite. Until she was hydrated and stronger she could not just stop drinking, cold turkey. These were the rules of the camps. The rules had saved many lives, miserable lives granted, but saved them all the same.
Having finished at Good’s, Axel and Dixie headed next to the liquor store.
A sardonic smile crept across the clerk’s face as he stared at the note in front of him. Then an expression—half disbelief, half disdain—took its place as he lifted his eyes to meet Axel’s. Axel waited placidly and poker-faced, opposite the clerk on the other side of the checkout counter. On the counter were two bottles, one of vodka and one of gin.
“You know, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is, I really am a patient man. But my patience has limits and you have pushed me to the limit. This is the same note you gave me last time. I am not some gullible fifth grade school teacher, here. I am an agent of the state and as such I am worthy of at least a modicum of your respect. With that said, my answer is no.”
“No what?” asked Axel.
The clerk raised his eyebrows as high as they would go and grinned like a clown as he shook his head in disbelief. Then he coughed a laugh at the absurdity of Axel’s question.
“Seeing that you must be a little dense or something, I will spell it out for you: No, I will not sell product to you unless you produce for me proof of your personal identification, your identification, not your great aunt Fanny’s or someone else’s. I want two forms. Is that clear enough for you?” His tone was hostile.
“Oh, no problem,” said Axel who then pulled a wallet from his back pocket.
Axel pulled a plastic card from his wallet and tossed it on the counter towards the clerk. He also took out a folded sheet of paper and carefully unfolded it, spread it on the counter, and smoothed it with his large hands. The paper was the size of a sheet of typing paper. It was obviously a form of some kind.
“There you go,” declared Axel.
The clerk picked up the plastic card, looked at the front, then quickly flipped it over and glanced at the back. He held it up by one corner like a prosecuting attorney holding up Exhibit A for a jury to view.
“You call this proof of identity? A library card? Axel J. Browne. Is that your real name?”
“I don’t have any aliases if that’s what you mean,” deadpanned Axel.
“For all I know, you could have found this in the gutter or in an alley somewhere. It doesn’t have a photo. How do I know it’s yours?”
“Call the Blaine County Library; ask them if they know Axel J. Browne. They all know me very well. I’m sure they could describe me to you if you asked them to. I’m a well known patron of the library. I’ve borrowed hundreds of books over the past seven years and returned every one of them. Call them, you’ll see.”
With a derisive laugh the clerk turned his attention to the piece of paper lying on the counter.
“And what have we here?” he said as he picked it up. He scanned it for a second. “Really, what is this?”
“It’s my DD214. I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about that.”
The clerk looked at Axel and shrugged to indicate that the significance of the paper was lost on him.
“It’s my—” With his index finger Axel traced the title of the document in capital letters as he read it to the store clerk: “CERTIFICATE OF RELEASE OR DISCHARGE FROM ACTIVE DUTY.”
“Release from what? prison?” asked the clerk sarcastically.
“No, asshole, from active military service, from the United States Army.”
“Well, I did notice this, right here at the top, in bold letters—” This time the clerk took his turn at pointing and reading to Axel: “CAUTION: NOT TO BE USED FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES.”
Axel’s face began to redden.
“Read the name. AXEL JOHN BROWNE. Same as on my library card. And I sure as hell didn’t find a DD214 lying around in the gutter someplace. I earned it!”
“It doesn’t have a photo. So how do I know you didn’t steal poor Mr. Axel Browne’s wallet and have been posing as him ever since? Identity theft happens all the time. Without a photo—”
Suddenly, and as quickly as a snake strikes a rat, Axel grabbed the clerk by his shirt collar and pulled his face to within inches of his own broad, angry mug.
“Listen up, lizard face. I don’t buy booze for myself because I don’t drink anymore. I gave it up years ago. I buy it for my landlady and friend, Miss Sharon Plackie. If you’d have paid attention the last couple of times I’ve been in here you’d have known that. But for some reason, probably related to the size of what’s dangling between your legs, you’ve become obsessed with me—who I am, whether or not I’m on the up and up. This isn’t about me!” shouted Axel. “This is about Miss Sharon. And right now she’s at home and on the verge of going into DTs because she hasn’t had a drink in two days. Have you even the slightest idea of how dangerous the DTs are? People die from them! But you don’t care about that, do you. All you care about is your over-inflated concept of your stupid position. You’re a goddamned clerk, forchristssake! Did you hear me? You’re a clerk, having no more authority than the girl who runs the dive-thru window down the street. So stop being such a goody two shoes, trying to make sure bums like me don’t get their hands on any of your precious product. And it’s booze, by the way. Plain old-fashioned, get-you-shit-faced booze—not product, you moron.”
Axel could not stop. Now that he had started, the pearls of wisdom with which he schooled the clerk shot from him like bullets from a machine gun. His finger was frozen on the trigger.
“You don’t know Miss Sharon and you wouldn’t recognize her if you met her. All you would see would be a scatterbrained eccentric woman whose lipstick might not be straight and whose hair might need combing. You wouldn’t see the angel that she really is beneath her appearance because you don’t know her. And given your attitude as it is right now, you will never know her. But let me tell you who she is, and I’ve met more than one Miss Sharon in my life.
“She’s a woman who isn’t complete without love. She loves with everything she’s got, holds nothing back, and most of the time the lout she loves doesn’t deserve her which was exactly the case with Miss Sharon. She loved a man—still loves him even though he’s dead—as if he was the only man on earth. And for her, he was. But did he recognize the treasure he had in her? No, he didn’t! He divorced her simply because he thought he deserved better. And in this case, better just meant younger. But he was all Miss Sharon ever dreamed of. To her, no man compared to Albert Plackie or could ever take his place. And that was her ruin. Now, every hour of her life, she lives with the heartbreak of losing Albert. That is why she drinks: to dull the pain of that loss.
“And believe you me, I don’t tell you this because you deserve to know. The only reason I tell you about Miss Sharon at all is to crack open that tight little shell you live in just enough for you to see that beyond your dark and constricted world there exists beauty. Beauty in other people, like Miss Sharon. Once upon a time, I was just as hard and closed as you are and my life was just as shitty as yours. There was no such thing as beauty in my life, even though it was everywhere around me. Then one day Cupid shot me with one of his arrows. Actually it took a bullet from a K-44 but that bullet changed my perception. Suddenly, I saw everything in a different light. What I’m trying to tell you, man, is you need to wake up and smell the roses or you’re going to miss out on the only thing worth living for.”
At that, Axel released the clerk who only then pretended to struggle free. Tiny beads of sweat dewed the upper margin of his forehead. He cleared his throat by coughing loudly. He then stared fiercely at Axel with his bulging eyes for a few seconds before speaking. But what he said next belied the fact that Axel had actually gotten the man’s attention and he had heard Axel’s message, even though he maintained, for the sake of pride, his surly attitude.
“So what is this only thing a goon like you thinks I should be living for?” asked the clerk.
“The opportunity not to be an angry asshole, that’s what,” said Axel.
“So you grabbing me by the throat is showing me how not to be an angry asshole? Is that it?”
“Yes, but I don’t think it took. You’re not a very bright student.”
“So specifically, if I sell you booze without doing my job which says I must ask you for proper identification, then, and only then, am I able to seize the coveted opportunity to not be an asshole? That’s all I have to do to grasp the enlightened state of being of a vagrant, such as yourself? No thank you; I think I’ll keep my day job, instead.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” said Axel as he picked up his library card and shoved it into his pocket. “I want you to see something,” he added.
Axel turned the DD214 so that it faced the clerk. He then pointed to a box on the form labeled DOB.
“See that? D-O-B. You know what that means, right? Date of birth. Do me the favor of reading what’s printed in that box and I’ll leave. Will you do that?”
The clerk stood with his arms folded across his chest but was eager to be rid of Axel so bent forward slightly and read the typing Axel pointed to:
“2 May, 1948”
“Thank you. I was born May Second, 1948. All you are required to do in order to sell me booze is make sure I am not a minor which you have now verified. And you’ll be happy to know that you won’t ever have to check my ID again since you now know who I am and that I’m not a minor. So—”
Axel pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket.
“I believe my purchase comes to twenty-eight dollars and change. Here’s thirty. Keep the extra for your trouble and thank you for not being an asshole about this. I don’t need a bag.”
Axel left the money on the counter, picked up the bottles, and turned to leave.
“I’ll call the cops,” said the clerk. Axel ignored him and kept walking.
“Wait a minute. Let me ring it up. Okay? You can have the booze. Just let me ring it up. If I don’t, it looks like missing stock.”
Axel stopped, eyed the man to determine if he was sincere, then brought the bottles back to the counter. The clerk rang up the booze as Axel waited without speaking. When the clerk had finished he bagged the bottles then unexpectedly held out his hand.
“I’m Giacometti,” he said, “David Giacometti. I don’t think we’ve actually introduced ourselves.”
Axel had picked up the bottles and was caught off guard by the clerk’s surprise gesture; it took him a second to respond. Finally his reserve melted and he reached his large hand across the counter and gripped the clerk’s, giving it a firm squeeze.
“I’m John Smith,” said Axel. “Pleased to meet you, Dave. Friends call me ‘Johnny’” Axel grinned. Giacometti’s jaw dropped open. “Naw, I’m Axel Browne. I was just joshing you, Dave. Really, I am Axel John Browne. No one calls me Johnny.”
“Right, right,” said Giacometti who laughed nervously at Axel’s joke.
“Got you going there, didn’t I?” said Axel.
“Yeah, you got me going all right.” Giacometti let go a high, nervous laugh.
Axel nodded and started to leave again.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” inquired Giacometti.
“No,” said Axel, “what is it?”
“Why do you buy this woman’s booze for her?”
“She’s a friend. That, and eventually she’d kill herself or someone else driving into town. So I do what a friend does: I help her.”
“But why don’t you drive her?”
“Well, as you’ve probably gathered from the IDs I’ve shown you, I don’t have a driver’s license. And I don’t like breaking the law.”
“But why the charade with the note and all of that?”
“Well,—” Axel smiled. “Basically, that was Terry’s idea after he’d eighty-sixed me from the store and it’s a long story.”
“So I’m not the first liquor store clerk you’ve had a run-in with,” taunted Giacometti.
“Terry was the owner. But no, you’re not the first and likely not the last. However, I’m afraid that story will have to wait for another day. Right now I need to check in on a friend. Miss Sharon’s bound to wake up before long and I need to be there when she does. So if we’re all square here and everything, I should probably—”
“Oh, of course,” said Giacometti.
Another customer entered the ABC store at that time, distracting Giacometti from further conversation with Axel. Axel stuffed the liquor bottles into his backpack with the groceries and quietly left the store.