When I saw what was standing in front of me, I wasn't scared. I wasn't surprised. I guess I always knew it would come to this. Not that I would be staring down a panther a few feet from a busy highway - I mean, come on. No, I knew that at some point I would end up chewing on a pocketful of pills with no destination and nothing but what I could carry. In that situation, something bizarre and inevitably detrimental will occur. Being attacked by a panther is more preferable than collapsing of liver failure in a gutter, in my opinion.
In a vague, bleary way, I tried to remember what Animal Planet says to do in case of a panther encounter. I don't think I watched that one. You stand still for dinosaurs, try to make yourself look like a giant-sized lunatic for bears...there was no appraising this situation. Really, he didn't even look scary (I knew it was a he - apparently panthers are very well-hung). But I wasn't downed out enough to go kiss the damn thing.
I sat down on a tossed-aside milk crate. The traffic whizzed by, oblivious through the underbrush. The panther - let's call him Brutus - was obviously not used to this approach. He took a few steps forward, faltered, tripped over a branch and abruptly had a seat in the gravel. He stared at me (was it panthers whose gaze you weren't supposed to meet or was that whales?) with a look I had seen many times on the common housecat. Mild amusement, confusion, and a bit of contempt--no haughtiness, which is a damn good thing, because there is nothing I hate more than an arrogant fucking cat. A semi blared its horn and we both glanced toward the road. He immediately returned his attention to me, and I took the cue.
"So…" I started, and he jumped a little.
"So, you really exist. I thought you were one of those shyster myths, like that ugly lionbird or Bigfoot or whatever."
"Yeah, I mean - I know, now. Yeah. So, what's the deal? Was some crazy Hoosier keeping you in one of those exotic zoos or what?"
Just a blink.
"What do you think of that Bowie cover album?"
I sighed, got up and stretched a bit.
"Well, look. You seem pretty chill. I'm gonna go up here and cross this road. You really shouldn't follow me--dangerous and all."
I nodded and gave a strange little bow (that wasn't on any Discovery special). I walked up to the road before remembering something. I turned and faced him again, still bowing and swaying a bit.
"Hey, you should really stop running in front of old people, you're going to make someone stroke out."
With that piece of advice, I turned and walked straight into the path of an oncoming truck.
Don't expect any Chronicles of Narnia shit. That panther did not swoop through to save me from harm or make me queen of some magical village or wardrobe or anything else. And there will be no symbolism here.
I got hit by Jo. Her terribly slow, erratic driving had been cause for many a screaming match in the past, but it did me well this time. I had simply been knocked over. People, families, had stopped to stare and they gasped as if the dead were rising as I crawled to my feet. I was clutching my stunned head and aiming to lean on the truck hood when Jo finally ambled around.
"I told you that I sleep when I drive!"
She appeared inconvenienced.
"I fucking hate this place. I can't even get run over by a stranger."
I hadn't meant to be found like this--lost, shoeless, senseless. And what had happened to those shoes, anyway? They were lost in that vortex that normal people call a blackout. I preferred abyss. Or, occasionally, 'the end of the line.” “The I Quit.”
Regardless, Jo had found me at the tail spin end. Technically, police-wise, I was now sober. Everything I am on was prescribed--a premium cocktail of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and those tiny but beautiful anxiety pills. I took these on a regular schedule. Minus the Benzos. Those I take on a frequent basis at any sign of trouble or distress. Waking up in the woods with no shoes can be very distressing. Thus began a reigning habit, a cycle, of booze and hangovers and tiny, beautiful hangover cures. It is a pattern that leads to a blank thought process and complete isolation.
Until someone gets hit by a truck.
I listened to a series of rants about Jo's father (she hasn't seen him in five fucking years, Jesus!) and her dead dog and some Mother Teresa jokes. I knew I had to get out of that vehicle immediately.
"Hey, you know. Why don't you drop me off at the AA building?" She just stared.
"You don't have any shoes!"
She shifted gears and we started going a bit faster than 25 mph, a huge accomplishment for her. I wondered where we could possibly be going in such a hurry. Before I had time to think about it much, we had arrived--the hospital. I groaned.
"Look, I'll do whatever you want. I don't belong here."
"You don't have any shoes!," she repeated.
I don't know what shoes have to do with a mental institution, but I do know that if she got me in that building, I wasn't coming out for a long time. It's pretty easy to get me committed; I'm not a very good liar. That's not even true--I just can't be bothered to lie. Especially to mental health professionals that put on such a great act about caring.
"What about sex? I don't have any money…"
"I don't want to have sex with you!"
She put the truck into park and took off her seat belt.
"Oh. Well, then I guess I'm fucked."
I was tired anyway. So tired of this cycle and of puking up the first beer of every night, of drunken broads on my couch and of having nothing to eat. Also, Jo was a lot bigger than me, and I had a feeling that she wasn't going down without a fight. She hasn't liked me since I screwed her girlfriend in front of her in a swimming pool.
She got out of the truck and came around and opened the door for me, like I was an invalid.
"Maybe you should get me a wheelchair."
I eyed the walk through the miniature city woods to the emergency room. It was about a quarter of a mile to the entrance. I saw a black blur stalk through the weeds.
"I saw a panther today."
Jo nodded, the way you nod at a small child or a mentally retarded person.
”You’re high, right?”
I shook my head vehemently.
“So, you want me to believe you saw a panther? On the side of the highway?”
I considered this for a few moments.
“Well, what difference does it make if you believe me? You think I’m nuts, regardless. Correct?”
Jo responded immediately, as she tugged on my shirt sleeve to hurry up the process.
“I knew you were batshit insane from the first time I laid eyes on you. And I don’t forget or forgive easily. So that whole pool incident….”
She trailed off. Damnit. I was really screwed this time. I placated her a little by allowing myself to be dragged out of the vehicle. All the while, I repeated a familiar mantra in my head.
“No suicidal or homicidal thoughts or intent.”
Hospitals make me nervous and I sometimes forget the basics.
Jo finally continued talking. We were about halfway across the parking lot.
“You know, I don’t like you. But you better cut it out with all this panther shit. They’ll never let you out of there.”
She was still pulling me by the elbow. I wasn’t fighting her, but I wouldn’t say I was going willingly. I kept thinking about the immediate future. They would search me; I would have nothing to write with, and no cigarettes. I would be observed like some new kind of insect through a nurses’ station window. I couldn’t have that. I mean, I was bad off, but I still couldn’t let this happen. What about the dogs? Oh shit, the dogs. I freaked, pulling out of her grip.
“Jo, you gotta let me go. Who’s going to take care of my dogs?”
She shook her head morosely.
“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you know you can’t keep those dogs. You just aren’t right. You can’t take care of them like you should.”
I gasped. Those dogs were all I had.
I broke free by shoving her once, hard, on the right shoulder. She stumbled and fell to the concrete. I reached her rickety old truck within seconds and found the keys above the visor. In the rearview, I got one last glimpse of the panther, hiding and slinking through the bushes. I gave a small, sad wave and threw the truck in reverse. Jo was just starting to pull herself off the ground when I whipped the vehicle around her and roared out of the parking lot. I had escaped the confines of sanity and white walls, at least for awhile. This time, I wouldn’t screw things up. Right after I got some shoes.