Robert Wake
Caffeine & Other Stories
Cambridge Book Review Press, 1997

There was always the pinhead in the White House. Neal Bishop learned this truism within the first few days of his job hosting the morning show on WORM-FM in 1985. WORM blithely billed itself as "woodshed radio," both a comment on the station's ramshackle studio facilities and a cryptic allusion to the avenging rhetoric of Wisconsin's progressive spirit. (One of the radio station's more popular fund-raising bumper stickers -- next to the ubiquitous "Conqueror WORM" and "WORM Food" -- boldly declared: "WORM takes it to the woodshed.") In the grand tradition of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, WORM likewise envisioned itself battling the dark forces of big business, government greed, and military folly. Madison's bipartisan ranks of sentimental Old Guard radicals and masochistic New Age liberals responded faithfully with donations every few months when WORM's 10-day around-the-clock fund-raising appeals took to the airwaves.

Neal Bishop was not by inclination an early riser, and the job's salary was meager, but who could pass up such an opportunity? By far the most unique aspect of the morning show -- dubbed "Naked Breakfast" in a nod to Beat sensibilities -- was its being broadcast live each day from a local restaurant. There existed no better symbol of WORM's community presence than the kinetic background rattle of coffee cups and silverware echoing off the walls of a cheap diner. Each day erupted with multiple combinations of musicians and poets, students and professors, psychics and political cranks. WORM's sunrise base during Neal's era was Günter's Cafe, a colorful if untidy establishment occupying the first floor of a crumbling turn-of-the-century brownstone redeemed by its visual proximity to Lake Monona. Full appreciation of the lake view required a mere leap of ocular acuity up and over a busy intersection and past the stretch of John Nolan Drive that curled along the shoreline.

The waters -- overripe and flora-infested by summer, and solid as cement by mid-winter -- dominated Neal's awareness. His broadcast microphone was set up on a table only a few feet away from the restaurant's enormous bay windows. Staccato sunlight flashing across the surface of Lake Monona could lift Neal's spirits as easily as a reversal to paranoia was engendered by rainstorms crashing across the selfsame waves. Happiness and dread, as Neal understood and experienced them, were both ecstasies of a kind, oceanic and all-consuming. Just like Günter's wild-ass coffee -- you never knew from one day to the next if it was going to thrill you or kill you.

The year prior to beginning his radio life, Neal tried and failed to level his moods. He experimented with sober employment as a downtown Madison shoe-store clerk. Each monotonous day had begun and ended at the bus stop in front of his Williamson Street apartment, two miles from downtown, and eight blocks east of Günter's Cafe, where in those days Neal's predecessor WORM-host was toiling away the mornings. Law school slipped from Neal's grasp, or rather sloshed from his glass, in the early 80s, as had a few half-hearted and aborted semesters as a graduate student of English literature. There were many hungover mornings when Neal literally couldn't find the appointed classrooms, prompting him to wonder if the university were nothing more than a shimmering mirage or mythical Shangri-La, lost to him because he'd dared to attempt unlocking its booby-trapped vault of knowledge.

Performing now as a community radio broadcaster -- his flirtation with sobriety shot all to hell -- Neal Bishop nevertheless felt in his heart of hearts that a hidden and profound destiny had taken hold of his life. Like Carlos Castaneda under don Juan's tutelage, Neal wondered if he had at last found his mystical "spot" in the world: seated in a dank and crowded restaurant, amped on bottomless coffee and endless cigarettes, and gibbering spittle-chinned into a live microphone.

The Naked Breakfast, for all its apparent free-wheeling disarray, was in reality a structured entity with its own arcane rituals. The show aired each weekday morning from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and during those three hours it bounced energetically between the rabble at Günter's Cafe and a more conventional early-morning drive-time hash. Five minutes of news was read on the half-hour from the studio, and the records were spun every seven minutes or so. Neal, like Naked Breakfast hosts before him, was to some degree at the mercy of the electronic wire-pulling and nob-twisting of a control-room engineer headquartered across town at the radio station (fondly and derogatorily referred to as the WORMhole). The action at Günter's was transmitted to the station via a "dedicated" telephone-line feed, also the method by which Neal's headphones remained in continual contact with the engineer.

Some mornings it all came together like a chiming sexual crescendo. If Neal Bishop on caffeine wasn't exactly Kerouac or Cassady on methedrine, at least he could attain a burst of motor-mouthing intensity that might pass for on-air confidence. He had quickly discovered that "positive attitude" was less a frame of mind than a chemically-induced neurological response. When not interviewing guests or marking time with de rigueur Reagan-bashing, Neal tended to fill up broadcast lacuna and dead air pockets by discussing the physiological effects of Günter's coffee on his wracked nervous system. Neal would say, "What have I had so far this morning? Six or seven cups? Oh, Lord, and it's strong. If you're headed down here, friends, be forewarned -- Günter is trying to kill every last one of us. I'm serious." If Günter were perchance walking past Neal's broadcast table during one of these caffeinated asides -- which was the only way Günter might hear the show since he kept the kitchen radio tuned to an easy-listening all-music station -- he'd scowl and mutter, "Hey, no one's makin' ya drink my coffee, radio-boy."

Günter Sassoon was a prematurely gnarled fiftysomething, and he walked with a permanent stoop, his head pitched forward at approximately the same angle as the smoldering cigarette that hung artfully off his lower lip. He was a war veteran, although it was a war no one had ever been able to verify historically or even geographically: a covert early-60s Ché Guevara-like romp in a mysterious Third World country that Günter claimed disappeared off the face of the earth during a coastal typhoon in the summer of '69.

"This isn't one of those mytho-poetic Vietnam War metaphors, is it, Günter?" he was often asked.

His face could ooze a slow-burn like oatmeal trying to boil on a stovetop. "I wasn't in Vietnam," Günter maintained. "I don't begrudge those kids the hell they endured, but I fought my own stinking war elsewhere." (An unlikely rumor had dogged him for years that he was a low-ranking Nazi war criminal overlooked at Nuremberg and as yet undetected by Simon Wiesenthal. Nor was the mystery solved early one morning when Neal observed Günter perusing a paperback copy of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and wiping from his cheek an ambiguous tear.)

Günter's sourness evaporated when he interacted with the restaurant's hale and hearty clique of regular customers, an elite corps of business types and local politicians that Neal was never able to crack. Off the air, Neal's bonhomie was replaced by a stilted and repressed social demeanor, the result -- he was convinced -- of a fractured alcoholic personality. In WORM's oral tradition of full disclosure, Neal from time to time invited his therapist to appear on the show. Neal preferred talking with her on the air at Günter's rather than in the claustrophobic privacy of her dark downtown office.

"Do you think maybe I was slapped around alot as a kid?" he enjoyed asking her.

His therapist, Carlotta Santiago, had the same answer for most of the thousand-and-one inane questions he pitched to her during her Naked Breakfast appearances -- "Neal, how would I know the answer to that?"

Of course Carlotta was beautiful and Neal was in love with her. The question in his mind was always: is it transference or am I just glad to see her? He had started therapy in the midst of his brief sober era, sans alcohol, sans coffee and cigarettes. Indeed, Neal was so quiet and morose during his office visits that when he told Carlotta that he'd been offered a radio job on the strength of a demo tape he'd put together, she initially seemed hard-pressed to believe Neal could muster the necessary conversational verve to perform his duties. Within five weeks of WORM life, he was slamming down several pots of coffee every day, in addition to three packs of cigarettes (one pack alone during each Naked Breakfast broadcast), and rapidly careening toward daytime alcohol. But he was talking a blue streak, as a well-oiled radio host ought. Carlotta good-naturedly appeared on the Naked Breakfast more than a few times, until Neal inadvertently offended her during a broadcast.

"Carlotta, I've been reading R. D. Laing again," he had said to her on the air, although he had no clear idea where he was going with the remark.

"Oh, no."

"But, listen, Carlotta," he begged. "Laing says insanity is a good thing, right? Almost a state of grace, a spiritual quest. Right?"

Her exasperated sighs were flamenco music to Neal's ears. She wasn't much older than Neal, maybe thirty-five, with a dazzling caramel complexion and rich, jet-black hair. She was born on the Spanish island of Majorca.

"First of all, Neal, you're not insane," she said. "Extravagantly self-involved, perhaps. Narcissistic, infantile. But not insane." And then she flashed the Mediterranean smile that never failed to ignite Neal's libido. "Anyway," she added, "I thought I advised you against reading that stuff."

Neal was stealing glances out the restaurant window and toward the lake. It was an April morning of indeterminate meteorological signs, a spectral mixture of winter and spring, overlaid with cruel T. S. Eliot anxieties. The light from Lake Monona was chilling. He fired up another cigarette and began inhaling as deep as his ragged lungs would carry him.

"Isn't it possible we can learn something from insanity?" he asked Carlotta. Light-headed from a rush of nicotine, Neal was unable to suppress a smoke-plumed giggle, which he deflected from the microphone but not from Carlotta's incriminating notice across the table.

"I fail to find anything here the least bit funny," she said, her inflections turning terse and clipped. "I've worked with a number of individuals who were painfully and inexplicably mentally ill."

The engineer -- a different volunteer from day to day, sometimes seasoned, sometimes a forlorn and raw trainee -- was yawning in Neal's headphones and said something like, "Jesus, can you wrap this up?"

Neal was absentmindedly tapping his cigarette on the edge of an ashtray so mountainous with tobacco leavings and bran muffin crumbs that it looked like a municipal landfill. He said, "Laing says that only a psychotic therapist can help a psychotic patient."

"Neal, that's bullshit," said Carlotta.

Even the engineer perked up: "What did she just say?"

"But, Carlotta, you're looking at insanity from the standpoint of someone who isn't insane -- "

"Maybe I'm not the right therapist for you."

"I'm not saying that," Neal was quick to interject.

"No, I'm saying it," Carlotta hissed.

The force of her response surprised Neal, even frightened him a little. He made a quick decision to bail out of the conversation. "Why don't we, uh, take a music break," he said, glancing down at his coffee-stained playlist. "Here's Miles Davis -- 'Time After Time' -- "

The engineer, having neglected to cue up the record, said, "Hang in there, pal. I need a moment."

"Let me see if I understand this," Carlotta continued, no less enraged. "Rather than just a psychotherapist, you're looking for a psychotic psychotherapist?"

"No, Carlotta, please -- you're a great therapist."

And he was thinking: Oh, God, do the worms really need to hear me grovel like this? (A previous Naked Breakfast host had taken to maliciously referring to the WORM audience as "worms," and while the term was rarely used on-air, many staffers and station personnel frequently resorted to it around the office. The Marxists, in particular, were fond of the proletarian/agrarian metaphor, as long as it was appreciated that WORM staff and volunteers were just as much "worms" as the listeners. To promote the concept, an "I'm every inch a WORM" bumper sticker was once suggested, as well as "I'm an InchWORM," but neither slogan was ever officially adopted.)

It was to be Carlotta Santiago's final appearance on the Naked Breakfast. Neal's private therapy appointments with her suffered as well. During a Wednesday afternoon office visit, two weeks later, Carlotta informed Neal that this would be their last session -- she was terminating their therapist-client relationship at the hour's end. She explained that the abruptness of the termination was a technique she learned from studying the enigmatic work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. A sudden "break" was supposed to effect a Heideggerian Geworfenheit, an existential "thrownness," tossing the individual wide-eyed into the maw of heightened reality. Or, at the very least, tossing the individual out of Carlotta's office; there was a small existential matter of Neal not having paid his therapy bill for three months.

"I was more than willing to show up at your WORM gig and settle for chump change," Carlotta said. "But then you turned against me and humiliated me in front of thousands of radio listeners."

"Carlotta, I think you're misinterpreting my behavior -- "

"Go fuck yourself," she said. "Why don't you wake up and smell the coffee? It's really really bad coffee, Neal. Have you ever even thought about what you want your life to look like?"

"I want to be engorged with authenticity," said Neal, improvising with death-row passion in the closing minutes of the hour. But what he was really wanting was a cigarette and a cup of bad coffee laced with good Irish whiskey.

* * *

Neal disliked the word "addiction," especially when applied to human behaviors -- such as eating, drinking, and copulating -- that were naturally seductive due to the brute designs of biological dictate. As he swiveled comfortably on his barstool, with cigarettes, beer, and brandy shots close at hand, Neal reflected that he much preferred the term "consumerism" over, say, "alcoholism" to define his own robotic intake of aqua vitae. "Consumerism" was less loaded as a diagnostic description, although Neal couldn't say the same for himself. He felt at times that he imbibed like one of those perpetual-motion toy birds whose beaks dipped back and forth with metronomic precision into a glass of water.

In the weeks following his summary dismissal from Carlotta's office, Neal gravitated toward the Williamson Street barrooms that were within nearby walking distance of his apartment. He began to find it convenient to meet evenings with the producer of the Naked Breakfast, Brian Peeples, over beer at the Rusty Artichoke, a corner bar with gaudy neon that could be seen winking its guzzler's invitation whenever Neal stared thirstily from his front porch a block away. Brian Peeples, like all WORM staff members, was overworked and neurotic, pinballed senseless between competing factions and impending interoffice coups and countercoups. And whenever he pulled up a barstool next to Neal, he would let loose a day's end battle-weary sigh that was close to a gasp of pained defeat.

"Sorry I didn't get a chance to listen to the show today, Neal," Brian would say, immediately lunging for Neal's cigarettes. Smoking was a compulsion Brian indulged only when opportunities for free and easy access arose.

"So how am I doing?" Neal would nevertheless ask, a vestige of some knee-jerk assumption that radio producers were familiar with their productions. What Neal was fishing for was gossip or innuendo, any hints of insurrection. After all, it seemed as if everyone at WORM felt they themselves ought to be hosting the Naked Breakfast in place of Neal, whose on-air efforts they deemed sorely inadequate. Brian's attitude was different because he despised the Naked Breakfast and its format. Thus was he neither a rival for Neal's job nor a listener to the program. And yet, on a mid-June evening of authentic spring warmth, Brian sidled up beside Neal at the Rusty Artichoke and actually said, "I heard the show this morning, Neal."

"So how am I doing?"

"You suck."

Neal chuckled halfheartedly for a moment, noting uncomfortably that Brian was himself smiling not a whit. "I'm serious, Neal," he said. "I mean, what was with the birdcalls?"

"It's just a gag."

"It's goofy shit is what it is. It's Soupy Sales."

Neal had recently added to the show a segment called "Bird of the Day," which was just that -- text read from an Audubon guidebook followed by a slobbering "birdcall" from Neal's lips that mimicked flatulence. Even Günter laughed when in earshot.

"And I'll tell you something else," said Brian. "You're beginning to look and smell like a backwoods Wisconsin barfly. I mean, look at yourself, Neal. The only thing missing is a greasy hat festooned with fishing lures."

"What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying maybe the job's getting to you."


"I'm saying take a shower, Neal. I'm saying get a shave and a haircut, for chrissake. I'm saying lose the fart jokes."

Brian had promised to buy frozen yogurt take-out for the kids from his first and second marriages, so he needed to leave the discussion hanging. He palmed a half-dozen cigarettes -- leaving one in the pack for Neal -- and hurried from the bar. Neal's alcohol level had reached an apex of inertia that precluded him leaving the Rusty Artichoke anytime soon. Only with the greatest effort was he able to stand up and weave his way to the cigarette machine. His nerve endings thumped with the bass-heavy drek booming from the jukebox -- Argent's obnoxious 70s anthem "Hold Your Head Up." The song evoked for Neal memories of roaring down dark and forsaken county highways in a mufflerless Dodge Dart packed to bursting with high school friends sharing marijuana and flat beer.

"I've been looking for you," came a woman's voice close up and forceful, startling Neal just as a pack of Vantage cigarettes tumbled into his hand. He tried in vain to squint his eyes into focus. In the bright glare of the vending machine, the woman's face was shockingly white; she looked like a glow-in-the-dark outcast from an extraterrestrial mime troupe.

"You're really wasted," said the woman.

Through the filter of his glazed vision, Neal could detect that she was young and oddly pretty, her skin a glass of milk. But there was something freakish about her hair -- it rose high in the air to a gelled and stiffened point like a gravity-defying Dr. Seuss doodle.

"Do I know you?"

"Probably not," she said. "My name's Gwendolyn. I recognize you from Günter's. You're the Naked Breakfast guy, right?"

"One and the same."

"Well, I'm a friend of Carlotta Santiago's," said Gwendolyn.

Neal flinched and his mouth quickly curled into a petulant frown. He'd received a good many angry letters and phone calls demanding to know what had happened to Carlotta. Her appearances on the Naked Breakfast were undeniably popular with listeners.

"Swell," said Neal. "Is she still pissed at me?"

"Nine days ago, she checked herself into a psych ward," said Gwendolyn. She handed Neal an envelope. "Carlotta asked me to give this to you."

Her mission presumably accomplished, Gwendolyn -- like the Lone Ranger -- vanished before Neal could even thank her or invite her for a drink, although neither option really appealed to him. He was convinced the envelope held yet another tally of the nearly $500 he owed Carlotta for three months' worth of office visits. It wasn't until he was seated back at the bar and beginning on his third and final pack of cigarettes for the day, that he realized he was in possession not of a billing statement but rather a typewritten letter of some length. He held it nearsightedly to drunken eyes and shallow barroom light.

Dear Neal,

I know you've heard from G. that I am where I am, voluntarily checked into Lakeview Psychiatric Hospital. Given your perverse spin on the topic of schizophrenia -- that it's a spiritual "high" akin to astral-projection or talking to angels -- I've been loath to discuss with you this aspect of my personal history. I haven't had an "episode" in many years, nor did any such dramatic happenstance bring me here. In fact, coming to Lakeview was precipitated by nothing more than a whim -- perhaps a dangerous whim, I suppose -- that I might for a time stop taking the medication that has kept me grounded and safe. I realized that such a decision would not have been in my best interests. And in a week or so from now I'll leave this place with the renewed strength not to question the regimen that has allowed me a functional day-to-day life in the outside world.

You are curious, I'm sure, to hear what it is that the medication prevents me from experiencing. You're wondering if I've hallucinated my way into other dimensions or solar systems. I will tell you that although I have been "helped" by medication -- i.e., my thoughts and feelings have been dulled enough to pass for "normal" -- it is my belief that schizophrenia is not a biochemical "disorder." Genetic predisposition perhaps plays a role, but it must be asked what one is being predisposed to: Delusions? Religious hysteria? Excitability? Paranoia? If all physical and behavioral patterns are ultimately genetic in origin, and if the scientists and doctors believe themselves charged with the duty of identifying and correcting deviations from "normalcy," I would probably in the end wish simply to be left to caper in my lunatic's cap and bells.

On the other hand, I also don't believe that schizophrenia represents any sort of spiritual state or exalted "knowing." I'll leave such otherworldly notions to you and R. D. Laing. What I have personally experienced and felt is the incinerating surge of my own brain's neurotransmitters firing like volcano blasts on the surface of the sun. I'll tell you, Neal, what I believe my schizophrenia to be: consciousness collapsing into its own primal source, which has nothing to do with gods or demons, angels or UFOs. What it has to do with is the savage and inexorable warfare of Darwinian microbes pitted one against the other -- cellular holocausts imploding across landscapes of rotting infinity. I was swept from the shores of sanity and pitched into the crashing tides of my body's roiling and poisonous bloodstream. Schizophrenia made me a mute witness to every bodily process churning within. I became my body in the most horrible, literal sense, by dissolving the sacred veil of Cartesian duality. My mind -- my "self" -- lost its transcendent safety net and shattered into raw meat and gristle. I fell into my flesh and joined its convulsive death march.

Medication gives me a human face and a human personality. Schizophrenia gives me a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of my body's daily struggle to "be" human. It is, it seems, the peculiar nature of my madness that I sometimes long to return to that ruptured tomb of seething incoherence.

Sincerely, C. S.

Neal was quite simply sick with shock and envy. As he returned the letter to its envelope, the realization struck him that Carlotta had been holding out on him. Landscapes of rotting infinity? Ruptured tomb of seething incoherence? Carlotta Santiago was an honest-to-God Looney-Tune! Certainly she was nuttier than Neal could ever hope to be. The fact of the matter was that although he had dedicated much of his adult life to the pursuit of morbid artistic truths and apocalyptic visions, Neal had thus far succeeded only in fostering hangovers and hypertension. Perhaps he had achieved a certain vague level of incoherence, but by no conceivable stretch of the imagination could he call it a "seething" incoherence.

Sleep was fitful that night. Neal's dreams were a familiar unspooling of speech paralysis and falling, always falling. But whereas he usually awoke feverish and breathless just before impact, he now found himself engulfed in his dream body's violent dismemberment at ground zero. The clock radio's 4:30 a.m. alarm sounded just as Neal was beginning an inventory of his corpse's Osiris-like fragments scattered across the cornfields of southern Wisconsin. He stumbled out of bed, his balance precarious and his head still soggy with alcohol.

An hour later he was set up at Günter's and had checked in with the engineer at the WORMhole. The coffee was slowly clearing Neal's senses, a process he was able to accelerate by dumping a shot of Scotch into the cup. He chain-smoked cigarettes while paging through the State Journal. Remembering Gwendolyn's towering punk hairdo from the night before had gotten Neal thinking about Reagan's similarly cantilevered pompadour, which was looking more like polished ebony every day. Maybe there was a joke to be had in suggesting that Reagan's Hollywood "roots" were showing -- the top of Ronnie Ray-gun's head was beginning to resemble the Maltese Falcon. Neal also scribbled a lame one-liner about Reagan spending the day trying to find Waldo in a map of Nicaragua.

The first hour of the program that morning was uneventful, no guests had been scheduled until after 7. Neal talked little, allowing the playlist's music to carry the hour. At 7:10 he interviewed briefly a school board member named Hilmont Beverly -- a dapper young liberal in gray tweed and a red bow-tie -- who droned on about an upcoming redistricting referendum. Hilmont hinted darkly at a "fascist conspiracy" to have him thrown off the board, but the charge dwindled to a tremulous stammer when Neal mentioned gleefully that Hilmont's wardrobe was identical to Pee-wee Herman's. "And I mean it as a compliment," said Neal. Hilmont stormed from the restaurant, leaving behind an untouched breakfast of brittle hash browns and an odorous blue-cheese omelet.

By 7:40 there was a lull that Neal decided to fill by reading some Walt Whitman over the air, an idea inspired by Brian Peeples's implied suggestion that Neal "class up" the program. Neal by now was drunk -- a professional first for him, in that he had managed previously to avoid drinking until a few minutes after his 9 a.m. sign-off. The poem he'd chosen was "Spontaneous Me," Whitman's exuberant ode to masturbation. "But in all honesty," said Neal, his voice aiming for Edward R. Murrow cadences, "every poem in Whitman's solipsistic universe is an ode to masturbation."

Sunlight was pouring in through the bacon-greasy bay windows as he began to read. As per Neal's request, his engineer had cued John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. The album began playing low in the background, swirling and splashing like the windy waves on Lake Monona. Usually Neal would be spraying spit and laughing by the time he got to Whitman's lines, "This poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry,/ and that all men carry." (He'd never forgotten the tie-dyed and beautiful young female student in a graduate English course, who nonchalantly raised her hand and calmly asked the professor, "Isn't Whitman essentially just talking here about his dick?") But as he was reading into the microphone and as the sun swept unseasonably hot UV rays into the restaurant, Neal was conscious not only of his throbbing hangover, but of something more curious, yet equally throbbing. He was aware suddenly of an unmistakable sexual swelling dead-center in the khaki crotch of his pants. " 'The hairy wild-bee,' " he read, and his voice jumped a half-octave, as if he'd been pinched or goosed. Something in the wordy heart of the poem was pulling his breath along so quickly that he was hyperventilating.

"You're too much," said the WORM engineer from deep within the recesses of Neal's headphones. "Are you, like, trying for some kind of Buddy Holly hiccup effect?"

Neal was drunk, of course, but drunk too on Whitman's language: " 'The hubb'd sting of myself, stinging me as much as it ever can any one...' " Images of Carlotta Santiago were flashing across his mind, and her admonition to "go fuck yourself." Had he discovered the engine of Carlotta's insanity in the Whitman whizbang of autoeroticism? Sweat was soaking his clothes. The poem continued gushing like a river of tongues: " 'The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers. . .' " He knew he was fucking something at that moment, and if not himself, or fantasies of Carlotta, he was certainly fucking the table leg around which his thighs were tightened and gyrating like the whorl of a barber's pole. There was cheerleading from the breakfast clientele, shouts of "Go, Neal, go!"

Günter, however, screamed "You filthy schwein!" and ran out from behind the cash register to tackle Neal full-force, sending headphones and microphone cords and a dazed and damp Neal Bishop skidding across the Congoleum. When Neal later attempted to reconstruct those final seconds before he lost consciousness, he was fairly certain that he'd caught a subliminal glimpse of Gwendolyn seated in the restaurant and laughing herself silly, her stalk of hair convulsing like a milkshake blender.

* * *

Three phone calls were all that stood between Neal and what he later told himself he'd suspected all along to be the truth, namely that Carlotta's schizophrenia letter was a hoax. An initial phone call confirmed that nowhere in Madison and nowhere in the state of Wisconsin was there a Lakeview Psychiatric Hospital, the facility referred to in the letter. The closest listing was for a Lakeview Alcohol/Drug Detox and Rehab Clinic, with which Neal was already familiar; he was in fact placing his phone calls from the clinic's rec room, having just completed their 5-day detoxification program.

His second phone call was to an astrologer who shared office space with Carlotta and had appeared a few times with Neal on the Naked Breakfast. The astrologer, Madame Sitz, was able to establish to Neal's satisfaction that Carlotta had been seeing clients regularly during the last 60 days and had taken no leave of absence.

The third call put him in touch person-to-person with Carlotta. She readily admitted resorting to "paradoxical communication" in an attempt to offset Neal's therapeutic "low latency."

"What does that mean in lay terms?" he asked her.

"A deluxe grade-A mindfuck," said Carlotta.

"Oh yeah?" he sputtered in sober outrage. "To what end?"

"Figure it out."

His only other question to Carlotta -- "Who is Gwendolyn?" -- was met with a curt, "None of your goddamn business."

During Neal's Lakeview Clinic detox, the Naked Breakfast was helmed by a rotation of WORM staffers and volunteers. He was not immediately allowed back to the show upon his release to outpatient care. Station policy required that Neal face a staff review and inquiry. Owing to the "incident," Günter Sassoon made it known that his restaurant would be off-limits to WORM and the Naked Breakfast as long as Neal were involved with the broadcast. (This wasn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to Neal's continued hosting of the Naked Breakfast, since more than one east-side eatery had over the years been home to the program. The longevity of each site was traditionally determined by the severity of citations issued by Madison's Board of Health.) In addition to Günter's ultimatum, there was a brusque letter from Hilmont Beverly in which Neal was characterized as ". . .a drunken moron, who, when sober, is a sober moron."

The inquest itself was an informal affair presided over by WORM's station manager, Wild Bill Boynton, a graying pony-tailed radical of impeccable leftist credentials. Wild Bill was a former SDS leader and a veteran of the Days of Rage. His hardcore political leanings had never really abated nor softened from his younger years. The 1980s found him helping the Sandinistas bring hydroelectricity to the Nicaraguan countryside. Wild Bill's sole regret was his failed effort, just prior to taking the WORM job in 1983, to organize a cadre of Wisconsin Amish farmers into a Maoist militia. Boynton was sickened by what he'd read about the taunts and abusive threats the peaceful farmers were enduring at the hands of local rednecks. Had his enthusiasm for Army-surplus regalia -- specifically ammo belts and flak jackets -- not offended Amish fashion sensibilities, Wild Bill believed he might have succeeded in balancing the scales of rural social justice.

The staff met with Neal in the WORMhole. Coffee and doughnuts arrayed at the meeting had come from Günter's Cafe, which Neal took as a hopeful sign. He considered himself on good terms with Wild Bill Boynton, and certainly with Brian Peeples, who was also in attendance. The other staff members were of questionable loyalties. Because Neal had spent far more time on location at Günter's than in the WORMhole, he consequently remained something of an outsider even sixteen months into the job.

Wild Bill opened the meeting with a Marxist koan of sorts that Neal chose to interpret as another gesture of support. "We must scrape off the shellac of childish idealism," said Wild Bill, "and locate our bodies in the real world." He then commended Neal on pulling himself together and sobering up. There was no mention of the "incident." One staffer smiled bravely and said, "These are frightening times, Neal. Our listeners want to hear real-life stories of regeneration and renewal."

"There's a radio dial," said Wild Bill. "And then there's a radio dialectic."

With a round of backslapping, warm hugs, and handshakes, Neal was ushered from the WORMhole. "Think 'health,' " Brian Peeples said reassuringly from the doorway. "Think 'mental health.' "

The bedside clock radio woke Neal the following day at 6 a.m. with the voice of Wild Bill Boynton inaugurating WORM-FM's new interview and call-in program, "Talking Mental Health with Carlotta Santiago," broadcast live from Günter's Cafe every weekday 6 to 9 a.m. Neal roused himself into the kitchen to boil water for the strongest cup of instant coffee he'd ever fixed. He felt steely-eyed and sober, alive with an inspiration that told him at long last it really was morning in America: "I'm gonna get me a lawyer and sue their asses real good."

* END *

CBR Home | Coffee Spew