LA Stories

Who am I Now?

This is what I remember: Hugo Hickey seemed morose and unbalanced. His tongue was yellow (I saw it when he yawned). I felt a familiar tug of hair-envy—his parted straight down the middle, winged at each side. A sturdy nosed, gray-green-eyed, pouty-lipped, Irish, friendly welcoming face. I sat next to him in a plastic foldout chair in a small bare room, the lighting harsh. Our group therapy circle each morning at Pine Oaks Mental Hospital, both of us patients on the second floor, the chemical dependency unit. I was approaching thirty, Hugo in his mid-forties. My first time institutionalized, his fifth or sixth. My second day there, forced out of bed and instructed to participate, still in a tranquilized Valium-supported-hazy detox. The sparsely hair-circled bread-plate-sized bald spot at the top back of my dome was in serious mid-peel (I’d passed out on the beach a week or so before, face down, no hat or sunblock). Its itchy presence embarrassed me, consuming a good deal of my thoughts. I looked down at my hairy arms, which substantiated my plight: a testosterone-laden alcoholic balding depressed writer with plentiful robust hair everywhere else (back, ass, arms) but where I most wanted and needed it.

At morning group, you were supposed to say how you felt, and if you couldn’t express it, there was a laminated poster of cartoon facial expressions with emotions labeled beneath—angry, confused, sad, sorry, proud, shy, impatient, hopeful—and you could just point to a couple of these, have it over with. As we went around the circle, patient after patient reached for the poster, utilizing this emotional litmus test shortcut, including me. But when it got to Hugo, he came to life, straightening in his chair. Hugo shines in a recovery and psychological landscape. It’s like a calling. His head telescoped, giving each of us a meaningful glance, and then he spoke, his voice deep, forceful, and animated: “Everywhere I turn, every face I see, more shame.” A meaningful pause, and then, “Skin, my friends, is the limit of it. Everything we can do, everything we can dream.”

Our nurse-like moderator thanked Hugo, a patronizing impatience in her voice, reminding him that he wasn’t at one of his “important readings.” Hugo seemed not to hear her, his eyes downcast in what appeared to be self-reverential admiration.

A poet, a master at self promotion (iPhone confiscated and access to all social media venues eliminated), and a lothario, Hugo was—more importantly—also the director of the MPW program (Masters of Professional Writing) at a private college in Los Angeles. He founded the program years before, in a personality-driven ambitious quest, and employed aged literary writers in the area, mostly beatnik-father-substitutes who became his friends.

Two nights later, I walked in on Hugo and a drug-addled housewife in a dark cavern-like space, copulating in back-hunching thrusts, while another man encouraged from a corner.  She was the heavily perfumed wife of a well-known plastic surgeon, her vacant expression a disturbing combination of prescription drugs and her husband’s surgical skills. I didn’t know much about the spectator, except that he owned a million Jack in the Boxes: hence his nickname, Crack in the Box. The space held a couple of lighted vending machines (nuts and granola bars and fruit juices), and it was next to the darkened rec room, where we were supposed to be watching a scratchy DVD of the Michael Keaton film Clean and Sober. The film kept stutter-pausing, which is why—in my frustration—I’d gone for a walk, utilizing one of the “suggested tools” from our anger management session.

I was horrified and they weren’t proud of themselves. It all happened so fast. Hugo and I gave each other open-mouthed, shame-faced looks, and then everyone hastily exited—Hugo and the woman readjusting their clothes.

Though we’d been instructed to report all prohibited behavior, I told no one. Hugo, his paramours, and I avoided eye contact at group, at meals, in hallways, in line for our medicine. Yet the threesome’s noisy lust-thrusting came from a storage closet not more than two nights later, and a nurse caught them.

Crack in the Box had deep pockets, and rather than discharge the patients (standard policy), Dr. Perch, addiction specialist, decided to further cater their recovery plans to more hospital time. Only the perfume-heavy and vacant-faced woman had to move from the second floor to the dreaded, highly restricted, stigmatized third floor, or the “crazy asshats unit,” as those on the chemical dependency unit called it.

My silence on the matter impressed Hugo. “You’re Gabriel Mason,” he said, extending his hand, “a fellow writer.”

We had much in common. Digestive issues (we both shat our pants monthly if not biweekly, and had become proficient at hiding it). Mortality obsession, excessive masturbation, love/hatred of people, uncontrollable and irrational crying jags. Absent fathers, overbearing mothers. His mother called him her “light,” mine called me her “soul mate.” Once in group, I recalled how when I was a little boy, I used to wonder why my penis would go up at the sight of my mother. The others stared at me blankly, but Hugo— with a look of affectionate identification—patted my shoulder.

I told him about the novel I’d been working on for years. “You must,” he said, “abandon it.  You can’t combat the virility-dampening aura that is associated with writing itself by writing about Mommy!”

Richard Yates, I argued, recast his own mother, Dookie, in his autobiographical fiction. He loved her, so he had to write her. And what about Portnoy’s Complaint?  Talk about Mommy issues!

“Aren’t you tired,” Hugo said wearily, “of reading about Roth’s testicles. Because I know I am.”

While making leather belts in art therapy, Hugo advised me to focus my writing on working class father/son relationships, and thus my debut story collection was birthed, Trees, praised for its “muscular prose,” reminiscent of Carver and Hemingway.

The title story—the only one with a touch of magical realism—is about a Latino busboy, Gabriel Masón, who takes his instruction at a celebrity-studded fête to “fade into the background” literally. Masón stands invisible and unmoving, a tray at his side. Hours pass, until he “becomes” a palm tree, communicating clairvoyantly with other trees and flora (and his deceased father) in a stream of consciousness meditation on nature, race, class, mortality, the paternal relationship, sexuality, and celebrity worship.

Not only did Hugo help me to gain a foothold, however wobbly and nominal, within the publishing and literary community, he gifted me with a job in the MPW program, releasing me for the first time from the monetary grip of my mother and from her domicile. He guided me to low-rent accommodations, considering the pay for the professorial position was very low. The students had no idea how poorly their mentors were reimbursed, and we kept this a secret, too, not wanting to sully our aura of Godly literary import. Most of the instructors lacked the usual academic pedigrees and couldn’t find work elsewhere. In the Saturn-like academic world of tenured security, ours was amongst the farthest rings from the desired center. Hugo, as our director, nourished a sizeable salary, a 401K plan, and full health insurance; but we didn’t find this out until much later, and that was when the real mutiny began.

Hugo didn’t believe in faculty meetings, but he did have a “meet and greet” for the instructors to kick off the new semester. The long conference room table was stacked with wine, cheese, snacks, beer, and hard alcohol, including bourbon, which I was surprised to find Hugo pouring liberally into a red plastic cup. He drank in one wincing pull, and then poured himself more.

I was at home with my fellow writers—aged, hard-drinking, and melancholy—and they accepted me as one of them, despite my youth and sobriety. The conversation turned almost immediately from literary matters to the gastric.

“How’s,” asked Thomas Shelly, retired show-business star and comedy writing teacher, reaching for a fistful of tiny fish-shaped pretzels, “your stomach?”

“Inflamed ulcer,” said Lester Pleskman, the lesser known son of the writer Walter Pleskman. His post-counterculture novel, Psychedelic Balloon, had known glory in the mid-seventies, only to lapse into obscurity for subsequent eras.

“I keep a Costco-sized container of Tums beside my bed,” said groundbreaking writer Thomas James. One of the first to write about the gay community. Jet-black dyed hair, skin-stretched by facelifts, a salami-mottled color. “It helps. But the chalk-taste”—his tongue made a roving motion, moistening his strained lips—“it’s like I’m a chalkboard.”

“I,” said Bubby (everyone called him Bubby), the most famous writer on our staff, the oldest (mid-eighties), and a high school drop out at that, “I, I, I,” his excitement had stalled him. He breathed, and then his hand swiped a hanging drip from the hook of his nose, which looked like a fleshy mushroom. “I,” he continued, “had part of my stomach removed last month.”

There was a long respectful silence.

“Motherfucking alcohol-induced pancreatitis,” said Bubby, head down. His prose was notably curse-filled, as was his vocabulary. His age-speckled hand rose as he looked up. “Yep, yep. Four hours, a slab on the operating table like a piece of meat.” He slapped his palm on the table and eyed each of us.

“That must’ve been something,” said Pleskman.

With shaky fingers, Bubby pulled up at his shirt, lifting and releasing the material from his belted pants.  “Lookee here,” he said, “lookee, lookee, lookee,” but we couldn’t see over the rim of the table.

He rose, his chair clattering to the floor. He lifted his shirt farther, nearing his armpit.  Three slug-like reddish-pink fresh scars breathed in and out at his bony ribcage.

“Be-jeezus Kee-rist,” said Hugo, speaking for everyone.

Bubby, to our hesitant applause, performed a stationary Turkish-like dance, hands flagging.  Tiring, he sat again (thankfully, I’d lifted his chair and re-positioned it for him), and he placed a thin palm to his heart, head down.  It was as if we could all feel it beating, and we caught our breath with him.

“Where’s Harris?” asked Hugo, after some time had passed.

There were snorts of amused contempt. Harris Les. I’d not yet met him. I’d seen his author photo on his most successful book, an autobiographical fictional account of his homeless junkie days: red hair flayed at the sides of his head like tree branches, a mouth full of yellowed disordered teeth, and a slightly cross-eyed brown-black gaze beneath his horn-rimmed glasses. There’d been rumors of a heroin relapse. Staggering bicycle rides across the city (he didn’t own a car). Nodding off during classes.

Pleskman grunted a non-committal response.

Before anyone else could add to the discussion, Bubby slid from his chair to the fuzzy-carpeted floor. Being closest, I was there first, and I helped him back up, hooking him beneath his armpits, light and stiff like a broom.

The twitter feminists came after Hugo, specifically Sharron (two r’s) Gee, his verbose, mole-freckled, pop-cultural-opportunistic and tweet-happy, self-promotional equal. She hated him with a well-earned vengeance, as he’d propelled himself to the reigning king of self-proclaimed male feminists, tweeting and writing essays (one of his most controversial was titled “Why Men Jizz on Women’s Faces and Why Women Like It”), mostly blaming men for all of society’s ills, and for his own narcissistic and entitled tendencies. Hugo managed to capitalize on the cause, while at the same time sleeping with an array of females (including his students), engaging in pornographic text-relationships with partners of both sexes, and belittling, with behaviors both subtle and not, the opposite sex.  After Hugo used university funds to finance a lecture by porn phenoms Barack Oboner and Lola Foxx, Sharron Gee corralled the easily swayed twitter-outrage and directed it at the bull’s eye target: Hugo.

Self-sabotage and self-destruction are certainly Hugo’s mainstays, so perhaps he sought Sharron and her following’s righteous indignation all along. For a long time, he seemed to relish in his infamy, goading the masses with easy bait: passive aggressive twitter-harassment of the angry twitter feminists, pseudo-politically correct simplistic and condescending essays (“I’m a White Trayvon Martin” and “I Luv 2 Sext with Young Hot Women”), etc. Memes popped up, and anti-Hugo Hickey websites, such as the much-trafficked Fuck You, Hugo Hickey.

But then one night, drunk and stoned on Klonopin, his favorite of the anti-anxiety meds (“It’s like hitting yourself in the head with a brick,” he’d once told me, “but it doesn’t hurt!”), Hugo locked himself in his mother’s closet while visiting, and tried halfheartedly to hang himself with one of her Hermès scarves.

He gave up, re-entering the living room in time to watch Mad Men with his mother, but she noticed the inflamed red-etching around his neck.  Thus the primary feminist in his life, dressed in a velour jumpsuit and forgetting her handbag, drove and deposited him at the mental hospital yet again, both of them with tear-filled eyes.

Some hours later he went on an epic semi-confessional twitter rant, hunkered in a shower stall, tweeting over 100 times, until two orderlies extracted the phone by force from him.  His final tweet: As it is, it is no longer myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. Who am I now?  I will change! Who can I be?

He’d somehow managed to hide his iPhone during check-in, I can’t imagine how, since its width doesn’t facilitate the orifice of choice for secreting things.

Three days later I visited him, and in a heavily-medicated stupor, he spent the majority of our permitted half-hour visitation time with his face in his hands. “I fucked up big time,” was the only thing he said.

The university had already begun interviewing his replacements, and rumor had it that most of us would be canned.

To my surprise, a heavily medicated and sedated social media-neutered Hugo was released from the mental hospital three weeks later, and with charm and manipulation intact, he rose from the ashes (while at the same time flying under the outraged twitter feminist radar), saving his position at the university.

Chuck Willoughby, an ancient renowned capitalist with a permanent golf-tan, who was a tireless supporter and friend of Hugo’s, influenced the decision. Chuck’s deceased wife had been Hugo’s mother’s closest friend. Three university buildings, including the library, are named after Chuck and his family, and three others—Chuck-funded in large part—bear the names of his tight circled brethren.

Had Hugo not been awarded the inaugural Chuck L. Willoughby Excellence in Leadership and Values award by the university the following spring, which included a generous financial remuneration, my colleagues and I might still be employed.

Mid-award ceremony, during the meal-clearing portion, I went for an equivalent head-clearing walk. Reclusive recovering/possibly relapsed heroin addict Harris Les, resembling a homeless emaciated clown in a suit (flyaway red hair and bulbous veined nose), must have followed me. He hooked his index finger in the universal “come here” gesture near the men’s bathroom. He’d been trying to get a hold of me for some time, and admittedly, I’d been avoiding him, sensing that I wanted no part. He handed me a mimeographed paper: A timeline of Hugo’s salary and benefits as compared to ours. Most striking was the gaping inequality between Hugo and Bubby, who’d been teaching for Hugo since the beginning.

“This is bullshit, eh,” Harris said.

I nodded, aghast. Almost at once, my bowels agreed. It hadn’t occurred to me that Hugo’s duplicitous, huckster-ish, borderline insane behavior might harm me. Before taking my place back at the award’s gala table with my colleagues, I used the lavatory, silently thanking Harris for choosing the location’s proximity. It was over in a quick fiery blast, and I flushed the offensive crumpled paper with Hugo’s betrayal, along with my waste product, watching everything mix and swirl and, with a clanking pipe-finality, vanish.

Minutes later, I re-joined Hugo and my coworkers at our banquet table in the moonlit outdoors on the university lawn, twinkling lights canopied above us and a heat lamp scorching the right side of my leg, buttock, torso, and face. Bubby, next to me, had a cigar in one shaky hand and a squat-glassed cocktail in the other, elbows supported at the table.  Harris had mimeographed copies for all of us, and I’d been the last to receive mine, but Bubby, perhaps due to age and drink, seemed at ease. Pleskman, James, and Shelly whispered and conspired, glaring now and then, and Harris stood at the side of the stage mostly hidden behind a potted palm.

Across the table, Hugo, animated by food and drink and praise, lifted his cocktail glass at me in a smiling oblivious welcome-back-to-my-tribute salute. I tried for a corresponding smile but failed. Our wilted warm ranch-coated salads and mashed potatoes and turkey had been cleared, but I reached for a stray roll and occupied myself with massacring its doughy insides with one of the leftover stale rose-shaped butter pats.

None other than business titan Chuck Willoughby himself was led to the podium, where after a microphone screeching adjustment, he began to speak. Chuck, uncharacteristically humility-stricken, let us know that before he awarded the inaugural Chuck L. Willoughby Prize, he wanted to say that he, in his own way, well, to be honest, he fancied himself to be something of a writer, too, a poet, really, a lonely seeker, and that from his youth on, he’d always thought of himself like that, like a starving poet, really, and then his hand shuffled within his luxurious silk-lined blazer, unearthing a sheath of his originals as proof.

I felt my face go hot, and I even blacked out a little, hearing only fragments, one ghastly poem after another—strange erotic metaphors and clichéd simplicities—for a good ten or fifteen minutes. My gaze focused not on Chuck, but on Hugo, and his approving and commiserating head nods, and his mutterings of oh, yes, and oh, that’s nice, and lovely, lovely.

Hugo, in response to my leaden stare, finally turned to face me, with an expression of disgraced acknowledgment—Yes, these poems suck ass, it said—but then he looked away and returned to his beatific recognition for the crowd, and for Chuck, whose eyes continued to seek out Hugo’s approval.

Fortunately, the stage went black, and the twinkling canopied lights shut off next, leaving gasps of surprise and a scuffling chaos, as everyone adjusted ungracefully to the night.

I flashed in memory to Harris and the potted palm, where great thick chords were plugged into an extension, and a pronounced love for the heroin addict, sober or not, flooded through me.

“Hugo Hickey is a rapist,” a gruff female voice bellowed (unnecessary vitriol and not true), and then accompanying voices of both sexes: “Hugo Hickey die!” “Hugo is a fraud!” “Fire Hugo!”

The award ceremony broke up at once to sirens, beaming strobe-like flashlights, security men, police, and a heartbroken Hugo Hickey, his face a combination of horror, confusion, and despair.

Despite everything, I couldn’t abandon him. I helped him to the shelter of a police cruiser, securing him in the backseat, his face tear-shined. He’d soiled himself—the smell and wet spot on his pants a confirmation—and so with his keys, I procured an extra pair of pants and jockey shorts from his office, kept for that specific purpose in his filing cabinet.

On my way back with slacks and underwear in hand, I saw Sharron Gee and Harris walking around a corner, and I yelled, “He’s not a rapist!” Sharron’s insolent, bold eyes held mine, and then the pair moved out of my sight.

Not long after, Hugo, disposed from his autonomous role as director and founder of the MPW program, was forced to share the position with Carolynn McKinley, a humorless poet and academic and administrative Nazi. Security had to be called multiple times, due to Hugo’s angry outbursts and protests, and he was finally fired.

Carolynn took over—with a profusion of faculty meetings and regulations and rulebooks and pedagogy requirements and sexual harassment training—and one by one, the original core faculty got canned or we quit. The pay had always been poor, and so were the retirement packages. Only Hugo fared reasonably well.

A mere four days after quitting, Bubby, near destitute, became ill and died. Hugo paid for Bubby’s funeral, sparing no expense. We all showed up on a painfully bright sunshiny Sunday and watched as Bubby got put in the dirt.

Crying like babies, none of us spoke.

Not long after, at Hugo’s mother’s request, I visited him at the mental hospital yet again.  His left forearm rutted with self-induced pussy swollen cigarette burns, he was nonetheless in a good mood.

After visitation time ended, Dr. Perch allowed me to accompany Hugo to a twelve-step meeting. In the same harsh-lighted room where I’d first met him in group, Hugo held court in an articulate and poetic monologue, while the majority of attendees chose the occasion as an opportunity to sleep.

“Loyal,” he said, twice tapping his chest-hidden heart with a palm to indicate that he spoke of himself, “mentally ill, fraudulent, outrageous, passionate, honest, a social media maelstrom creator, genius, creative, and an attention whore.”

He raised his wounded forearm for us to see. “A survivor”—his fist pumping—“I love you all,” he concluded, eyes shining. “Thank you for being here for me.”

Born in Manchester, England in 1971, Gabriel Mason grew up in Wales before attending the University of Liverpool. While in school, he dabbled in punk bands and did some fish herding (an ancient local tradition). Mason’s story collection “Trees” has been critically acclaimed for its terse and masculine prose. He can be reached on his twitter account: @gabrielmason93