& 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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
* * *
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
"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?"
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
"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
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
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
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,
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 *
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