Well, here's the final chapter of "For Baby (For Bobbie)," a five-part story I wrote ten years ago. I hope you don't even try to read this chapter unless you've read the previous four installments.
Another long one, but it had to be.
Previously: In 1974, sexually-overactive Robert "Eli" Whitney became friends with an unpopular albeit attractive sophomore named Karen Hoffman. This was actually rather amazing, considering the fact that Eli was an obnoxious jerk, most of the time.
The awkward friendship was ended when Karen became pregnant during a one-time sexual misadventure with Eli. His response to her condition was a gut-level "Get rid of it." Karen's sense of betrayal and feelings of disgust -- even hatred -- for Eli were immediate. She walked away from him assuring him that he'd get his "wish," and that she would abort the child.
They never saw each other again.
* * * * *
Above a sleazy Oregon bar oddly named "The Caster" was an even sleazier set of one-room "efficiency apartments," although the only thing "efficient" about them was the year-round fresh air provided by the windows which had been so poorly installed nearly fifty years earlier.
The Caster and the elevator to the second and third-floor apartments above it were connected by a filthy lobby adorned with cigarette butts. It was approximately 4:00 in the afternoon one day when the elevator door opened on the ground floor. One of the upstairs inhabitants had come downstairs, as he did virtually every day, just to traverse the small span of the lobby in search of strong drink and what passed for companionship.
The Caster's entry door swung inward. In rolled a wheelchair piloted by a regular (but barely-tolerated) patron known to most of the other regulars solely by his first name...
To say that the years had not been kind to Eli would be an incredible understatement. His once-proud mane of wavy blonde hair had receded to a small area in the back of his head, from which a colorless ponytail hung halfway down his back. There was facial hair, but one could never tell whether Eli was unsuccessfully growing a beard, or simply needed a shave after several days of self-neglect.
His eyes were still blue, of course, but no longer the vibrant blue of his youth. They, too, had faded somehow. They were also habitually blood-shot, resulting in a combination of red, white, and blue which more than one sardonic soul had credited with stirring feelings that were vaguely patriotic!
Eli's legs were both gone as a result of his belief that he knew more than any doctor who admonished him about dietetic excesses. In other words, Eli was a diabetic in severe denial.
He wheeled himself over to the bar and greeted the bartender. "Mickey! Howzit?"
"Not yet. Afternoon! Sun's still shining."
"Not in here... Afternoon, then. Whatever. The usual?" Eli nodded vigorously as Mickey poured out a mug of Miller Draft, serving it with a shot glass filled with Canadian Club on the side.
Eli's eyes scanned the bar for what he referred to as "new talent." Pickings had been pretty dry lately, but...
Bingo! Sitting alone at a nearby table was a fairly pretty woman, thirtyish-looking, who was sipping a glass of rosé wine. She was modestly dressed in a grey outfit -- Shame, no cleavage, thought Eli, and slacks, which hide her legs, damnit -- and she sat there quietly, reading a book. She wore stylish eyeglasses. Eli downed the shot and sipped at his beer, waving his hand in the air in a way that Mickey assumed meant "put the drinks on my tab." Of course.
A book -- a damned book -- in a bar? What is she, a frigging librarian? thought Eli, as he stared in the young woman's direction.
Before Eli could even begin to wheel himself toward her table, Mickey warned him, "Don't, Eli!"
"Don't what?" asked Eli, injecting as much innocence into his tone of voice as he could... which wasn't much.
"You know what! Leave her alone. I mean, come on, she's at least twenty years younger than you, maybe more. And she's new here. Maybe she'll add some class to the place if she starts hangin' out here."
"Class? In this dump? Get real. I'm about the classiest thing this place has going for it... and that isn't much."
"You're tellin' me," muttered Mickey.
Eli approached the woman. "Hey, sexy," he said, by way of introduction. "I'm Eli. Haven't seen you around here before. Looking for company?"
She looked up from her book, and smiled. "Hello, Eli." He liked the way her dark, wavy brown hair cascaded ever-so-slightly over her shoulders, bouncing a bit whenever she moved her head even a bit. "I've never been here before. And as far as company, whether or not I'm looking for any depends on the quality of what's offered to me."
"Oooh! I like the way you talk. I like the way you look, too. Nice bod. You fill that sweater just right."
"Thanks... I guess."
"That's a nice outfit you're wearing, too... If you like clothes that conceal everything."
"This outfit is... comfortable," she said, sipping her wine. "And as far as being 'concealing,' why display everything to the masses, right?"
"Heh. Private showings only?" he asked with a leer, as he stared at her breasts. She drained her rosé; he pointed at the empty glass and said, "Would you like to follow that up with a real drink?"
"And how do you define a real drink, Eli?" She smiled playfully. Oh, I am so going to score with this little dolly, he thought confidently.
"Anything strong, I suppose, but nothing sissy like wine. I generally stick to a shot and a beer." He turned to face the bar, and waved his arm in the air to get Mickey's attention. Mickey shook his head, but came out from behind the bar, advancing toward Eli's table to take the couple's order.
"Is he botherin' you, lady?" asked Mickey.
"Hey!" snapped Eli. "What the hell kind of question is that? The lady's going to let me buy her a drink..." He turned back to look at her, and their eyes locked. He very briefly thought that something about her looked familiar... "Isn't that right?" he asked her.
"That's right," she agreed. "What would you suggest as a 'real' drink?" she asked Mickey sweetly.
"Oh, man," Mickey said, rolling his eyes. "Eli's gotten this far already? Usually he woulda been slapped by now." He looked at the woman somewhat disdainfully. "How 'bout I just bring over a bottle of 'rotgut' and leave it here, like in the Western flicks? And maybe a brass spittoon for atmosphere?"
Eli slammed his open palm on the table. "Stop being a smartass and bring us both a beer and a shot!"
After Mickey left, the young woman removed her glasses and looked pointedly at Eli. (Now she really looked familiar, he realized. Maybe she has been here before, he thought. He indulged himself by mentally undressing her, to "see" if she looked familiar that way. No such luck.) She leaned forward conspiratorially as she donned the glasses once more. "Look, I don't care for that bartender's attitude. Maybe we can gulp those drinks down in a hurry and go someplace else?"
"These seem to be your stomping grounds, Eli. Where do you want to go?"
How far can I push this, so soon? he asked himself. Oh, hell, let's go for broke! "Well, I live right upstairs... and I've got a fully-stocked bar. Well, not a bar, exactly, but plenty of liquor!"
"Sounds great," she replied, as Mickey brought their drinks.
They drank their shots and their beers quickly, and she stood up as Eli backed his wheelchair away from the table. He noticed her staring at the stubby remains of his legs. "Don't worry, baby, everything else below the waist works just fine."
As they left The Caster, Mickey stared after them, shaking his head in mild disgust. "Why the hell do the sleazy guys always do so well?" he said aloud, to no one in particular.
Eli's wheelchair was at the rear of the elevator's interior, facing its doors. The young woman stood on his left. He silently eyed her up and down as she stood there. He was undressing her in his mind again, this time to satisfy more basic pleasures.
"Like what you see?" she asked, grinning.
"I sure do, gorgeous. And I can't wait until we get to my room!" As if in answer, the elevator stopped. They had reached the third floor.
The elevator doors opened, and the two exited into the hallway. "How well do you get along with your neighbors?" she asked, as her left arm made a sweeping motion to indicate the other one-room apartments on the floor.
"We all pretty much keep to ourselves... but right now, there are only two other rooms rented on this floor, besides mine. One guy's visiting his sister and brother-in-law... or his brother and sister-in-law... I mean, who cares, right?"
"Right," she agreed amiably.
"And the other's been in the hospital for a few weeks now."
"So we're alone?"
"Hey, sweetheart, we'd be alone in my room anyway!"
"Well... it's just..." She laughed. "I get a little loud sometimes, if you know what I mean."
"Oh! Heh. I sure do, and that's just fine with me." He stopped in front of his room, #3-F.
"Thought it might be," she said, as he fumbled in his pocket for the key.
He opened the door to his room, and in they went. It was a relatively large room with its own bathroom, which was accessible from a door in the wall opposite the only entrance. She glanced into her over-sized purse, and smiled at Eli. She pulled out a pair of handcuffs, and smiled broadly. "Like I said, sometimes I get loud... and kinky..." With that, she dropped the cuffs back into her purse. "You don't mind if I use your bathroom to freshen up, do you?"
"Of course not," he said, hoping she'd come out wearing less -- or even none -- of the outfit he found so frustratingly conservative.
She stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. After a few moments, he heard water running. "Hey. Hey!" he shouted. "Can you hear me in there?"
The water stopped, and the door opened slightly. "Did you say something, Eli?"
"Yes. Ummm... I was just wondering, what's your name?"
She opened the door and walked back into the room. The grey sweater was gone, but she had been wearing a plain blue blouse underneath it, and she was still wearing that. She held the purse in her left hand. "Thought you'd never ask," she said, grinning that maddeningly familiar smile yet again. "Or don't you usually ask your women their names?"
"I didn't mean anything..."
"It's okay." She sat down on the edge of the bed, only about three feet from where Eli's chair was located in the middle of the room. She stretched out her legs, making Eli wish those damned grey slacks were off of her so he could really see the legs in question!
"My name's Bobbie," she told him.
"Huh. Funny, that's..." He was about to say, "That's my name, too," prior to launching into an explanation of the whole Eli/Robert thing...
But then he looked at her face again, noticing that the eyeglasses had been removed once more, and something in the back of his mind clicked. "Bobbie." It finally occurred to him why she looked so familiar.
She strongly resembled... Oh, who was it? What the hell was her name?
"Karen!" he whispered aloud.
Her eyebrows shot up, and she stood slowly. "I beg your pardon?"
"You look so much like an old friend of mine... it's kind of spooky."
"Thanks a lot," she said, walking toward him.
"No, it's just... I haven't seen her, or even thought about her, in such a long time!"
"Look, Eli, I might have said I was kinky, but that doesn't extend to the kind of role-playing that makes me a substitute for an ex-lover!"
"No, no! She wasn't an ex-lover, exactly, she... she..."
"What the hell was she, then?" Bobbie asked, stepping to the rear of the wheelchair, and gently caressing the side of Eli's face with her right hand.
"She was my friend," he said, tilting his head back to get a good look at her. Due to her position, however, all he really got to see was the underside of her fully-clothed breasts, which naturally cheered him a bit. "We had a falling-out, you might say. It was really quite vicious, and ... unfortunate."
"Okay," she replied dismissively. "Hell, I'm not surprised. At the viciousness thing, I mean. Teenagers are like that."
"I didn't say we were teenagers..."
"Oh, didn't you? Sorry, I just assumed... Anyway, I got teased a lot for my name in high school."
"Why, because Bobbie sounds like a boy's name?"
"Ummm... Where's your booze?"
He pointed to a large cabinet next to a tiny refrigerator. Both were near the door to the hallway. She nodded in thanks, and continued speaking as she walked over to it. "So, where was I? Oh, yeah... In high school, they even made up a crummy nickname for me, after the guy who sang that song, 'Monster Mash.' They used to call me 'Boris' after Bobby 'Boris' Pickett."
"Like... Boris Karloff?" asked Eli, feeling his skin break out in a cold sweat.
"Well, yeah, I mean, they called that Pickett guy Boris 'cause he imitated Boris Karloff, so..."
"This is just too damned weird."
"Why?" she asked cheerfully, holding a half-full bottle of one of Eli's personal favorites, a spirit with the Runyonesque name of Jeremiah Weed.
"That's another comparison between you and that girl Karen..."
'Eli, Eli, Eli," she admonished airily, as she walked toward him, and then positioned herself behind his chair once again. "You have to stop talking about this Karen chick!" She looked around for drinking glasses of one kind or another. She realized that the room had no kitchenette, and no pantry, nor anything holding pots, pans, flatware, or anything else related to the preparation or eating of food! "Damn, Sam! Don't you have any shot glasses in here? Or... do you even bother mixing this stuff with anything else?"
"Some people mix it with orange juice, but I drink it straight out of the bottle, usually."
"That'll work for me, too," she said, walking around to the front of the wheelchair.
"Well, I do have paper cups in the bathroom, if you like."
She shook her head as if to say, "No need." She sat cross-legged on the bed, and she and Eli spent the next few minutes indulging in additional small talk, and passing the bottle back and forth between themselves until it was almost empty.
At that point, Bobbie stood up, a bit shaky, and asked "Do you have another bottle of this stuff?"
"Yes, but... Don't you think we've had enough to drink? For now, anyway?"
Bobbie was already at the makeshift liquor cabinet. "You can never have enough, don't you agree?" She twisted the cap, breaking its seal. Suddenly, she began dancing around.
"Careful, kiddo, you'll spill it!" Eli warned.
Bobbie grinned and placed the cap back on the bottle. Still dancing, she got closer and closer to Eli. "Wanna dance, Daddy-o?" she teased.
Eli wasn't put off by her remark, a remark many would have thought was in bad taste... although "Daddy-o" seemed rather archaic, he thought. "Well, I can't exactly dance, but I can put this chair through some pretty fancy..." He tried to move the chair, but it seemed stuck somehow. He looked down at the wheels and frowned.
"Whassamatter, Daddy?" She said "Daddy" again, he thought.
"My wheelchair's jammed."
He was still looking down when he heard her say, "It's not jammed, Daddy. It's frozen, kinda!" He looked up toward where the sound of her voice originated, and as he did so, he felt the bottle of Jeremiah Weed slam into his left temple.
The pain was intense and immediate; he thought he'd black out. However, he never fully lost consciousness, so he was all too aware of Bobbie's actions as she shoved something in his mouth -- the sliced-off end of one of her sweater's sleeves, as it turned out -- and handcuffed his right arm to the wheelchair. And evidently, she'd only shown him one of the sets of cuffs which she'd brought, for Eli suddenly found his left arm shackled as well.
She grinned at him mockingly. "Comfortable, Daddy? No? Good. And yes, you sleazebag, you really are my Daddy. Karen Hoffman was my Mom." Bobbie sat on the end of the bed yet again, and opened the bottle of Jeremiah Weed once more. Taking a deep swallow, she reached into her purse and took out a small jar containing some kind of amber-colored liquid. "This is the nifty little invention that locked up your chair's wheels, Daddy!" Eli squinted, but he couldn't make out the words on the glass jar's label. "Maybe you would've caught me pouring it on there if you hadn't been so busy checking out your own daughter's boobs... you sick bastard."
His gag prevented him from pointing out that at the time, he didn't know she was his daughter... if indeed she was.
"You know, Daddy... Eli... part of me wants to just get the hell out of here without another word. I've spent more than enough time with you, you loser! But you deserve to hear a Reader's Digest condensed version of my life... and my Mom's life."
She glared at him, as if waiting for a reply, although he obviously couldn't give one. "The last thing Mom told you was that she was going to abort me. But she never decided whether or not she was going to for real. She considered it, sure. She also considered moving away and having it elsewhere. But you were the one that moved away. You went west!"
Eli's hands appeared to be idly resting on his chair's wheels, but he was actually trying to move the wheels. It wasn't working.
"The decision was taken out of her hands. Only a couple of weeks after you were so cruel to Mom, she got rip-roaring drunk and 'borrowed' my grandparents' car. She got into a freak auto accident and ended up in a coma! Didn't you even know about that?" He shook his head; he'd never heard about it. "Ahh, it doesn't matter anyway!" she spat. "So! Imagine everyone's surprise when they found out Mom was carrying me!"
Bobby stood and stepped closer to Eli. She kept talking, gesturing wildly with the hand that held the open bottle. Much of the liquor spilled on Eli's face and shirt.
"I was delivered by C-section a few months later, and spent about a year being raised by my Grandma Alice and Grandpa Keith. Then my Mom came out of the coma! I thank God for that, because that's how I got to know and love her, and that's also how I eventually learned about you!"
Eli was very tempted to ask Bobbie certain details about her mother, but the gag made all questions impossible.
"Mom was never quite right in the head after she came out of the coma, unfortunately, and just about everybody blamed whatever brain damage the accident and/or the coma may have caused... but you and I know where the blame really lies, don't we, Eli?"
Bobbie walked away from Eli, and toward the room's one entrance/exit.
"Mom ended up being a heavy drinker. She used to leave me at home -- sometimes alone, when I was only seven or eight -- and go bar-hopping. She slept with anyone who'd have her. And she brought home a lot of jerks. A lot of one-night stands, mostly, but some of them even stayed around for two or three nights, and some of them stayed for even more... especially the scumbags who were as interested in me as they were in her, if you catch my drift. Some of these guys beat her up, some spent her money... Oh, it was a picnic!"
Bobbie started sloshing the Jeremiah Weed all over the door, and on the rug in front of it.
"So, you're probably wondering, whatever did happen to good ol' Mom, right? Or do you even care?" She laughed derisively. "Sorry, forgot you can't answer that!"
The bottle was empty, and she casually dropped it on the floor.
"It's a short and sweet little tale. One night, when I was fourteen, she and one of her so-called boyfriends were drunk out of their minds, and he rammed them into the back of a flatbed truck. It was Jayne Mansfield all over again. Not pretty."
She sighed. Her story was almost done, and she was getting restless.
"Anyway, I've done all sorts of research on you over the years, old man. And lately, after finally having located you, I've been working overtime! And there's a well-paid kid who works at the desk downstairs who's told me all sorts of crap, like your drinking habits, and whenever your neighbors were going to be gone, for instance. He even sneaked me in the back way and let me into this room one night when you were hitting on some college chicks downstairs... a group who saw right through your brand of bullshit, as I recall hearing later. So I even knew what your favorite beverages were, especially a 100-proof bourbon liqueur that you can ignite like lighter fluid!"
Suiting the action to the word, Bobbie took a Zippo lighter out of the purse on the bed, and flicked it to life. "Oh, by the way, I hope you don't think I'm stupid enough to rely on alcohol alone to set this room properly ablaze!" With that, she reached back into the purse and removed a glass jar containing roughly a pint of something predictably combustible, unscrewed the lid, and poured it in a wide arc on the carpeting near the door.
Smiling that damnable smile which she'd inherited from her mother, Bobbie walked out of the apartment, looking back only long enough to see that the lighter she'd thrown to the floor had indeed ignited the rug.
Faster than it takes to tell it, the old, dry rug burst into flame, a flame that immediately crawled up the entirety of the door.
And Eli was trapped; he couldn't move. By the time anyone got to him, he'd be a cinder.
He tried desperately to push the gag from his mouth. He snapped his head from side to side, trying to dislodge it that way, as well.
It took almost two minutes for his frantic acts to work. He started screaming variations of "Help me!" and "Somebody, help!" as the flames ravaged the expanse of floor directly in front of him.
There wasn't much smoke -- the fire was burning too well -- but what little smoke there was stung Eli's eyes even as he felt the heat of the advancing flames rapidly rising to an unbearable level.
He screamed again. And again.
* * * * *
"My God!" cried Jackie, the new man on the third shift's maintenance crew. "Doesn't that guy ever stop screeching?"
"Who's that?" asked his boss, Steve, who sat at Dr. Janson's desk, with his feet propped up on the desk itself as he read a year-old issue of Playboy.
"That guy in 3-F! Can't you hear him?"
"Actually," said Steve, dropping the magazine, "You tune out all that crap after a while. You'll see. We're just here to clean the place, not to deal with patients."
"But he's sitting there in his rubber room, perfectly okay, screaming at the top of his lungs that the place is on fire! What's his story, anyway?"
"Well, we're not supposed to discuss it -- or hell, even know about it, but you hear things when you're mopping up and dumping wastebaskets all day and night, you know? The doctors all talk too much."
"So, what's 3-F's problem, then?"
"Short version? From what I've picked up, old Mr. Whitney's been here for, like, thirty-five years. As the story goes, he had a pregnant girlfriend who either killed herself in a car wreck, or got killed... something like that... and he totally lost his mind over it. Guilt... or grief... who knows, right? So now, every two or three months, his subconscious mind makes up some goofy scenario which acts itself out all in his own head, like a waking nightmare."
"Yeah. But like I said, eventually, you'll get so you tune him out, as well as everyone else around here, too."
Jackie smiled and lit a cigarette. They weren't supposed to smoke in the asylum, but he'd seen Steve smoking, so...
"I hope I'll get used to it. I don't know. I have this urge to try to help people."
Steve laughed softly. "Kid, you're maintenance here. If you ever get an 'urge' like that, I've only got one piece of advice for you."
"Get rid of it."
* * * * *
I didn't dare break this chapter into two parts. Momentum is so important.
I hate sitting through a movie or reading a book only to find out at the end that it was all a dream. Therefore, Parts One through Four "really" happened, but Part Five was mostly in Eli's mind. I apologize for messing with my readers a bit here.
This story was rather tricky to write. Actually, that's not quite true. The story was easy to write, but keeping my so-called "author's notes" -- like this one -- to a minimum before now was difficult.
When I posted this story ten years ago, my readers were split. Some thought the "horror movie ending" was too much and were relieved that it all happened in Eli's mind. Others were disappointed that he didn't really burn to death! I'll leave it up to you to decide whether Eli was a total a-hole, or just clueless, and whether he "deserved" his eventual fate, or if he would have even deserved living the whole "Bobbie scenario" in reality, rather than in his hallucinations...
And to those who feel let down, keep one thing in mind: Steve the maintenance guy admittedly didn't have the whole story letter perfect. So you can pretty much supply your own "real" story as to what happened to Karen. In at least one scenario, I'm sure she's still around somewhere.
I sometimes hint around that I want comments on my stories, poems, etc., but this time, I'm really interested in wanting to hear your thoughts on the story and its characters. And I mean that in exactly that way. I don't just want to hear how "wonderful" I am, because I
Seriously, I will greatly appreciate it if people take (make?) the time to critique "For Baby (For Bobbie)."
I like knowing the behind-the-scenes stuff when I read something. I love it when an author tells me a story's background in a foreword, an afterword, or even in an interview I come across somewhere. The late Harlan Ellison, whom I greatly admired, often did this when he wrote. And it's why I often do it as well, in case you read my blog wondering "Why does he always seem like he's trying to justify the story he wrote, instead of simply shutting up and letting us read the damned thing?"
Having said that... I guess I'll shut up now. Finally.
Thanks for your time.