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Reprinted from the Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2009


The Hand You’re Dealt


Jerry Burger


I say I’ll keep taking the lithium, but the doubt I see on Dr. Pederson’s face as he hands me the pills tells me I probably won’t. And then it’s time to go. Only the real nut cases stay at the VA more than a couple of days anymore. Better for you on the outside, they say. Institutionalization can be worse than the disease. But we all know it’s the budget cuts. They don’t have half the staff they did the first time I was here. I’m released after breakfast. Pederson insists that all psychiatric patients wear their own clothes, so there’s not even anything to change into before I find myself standing at the bus stop in front of the hospital. I’ve got a brown paper bag in my right hand that contains some toiletries. In my left, a 30-day supply of the miracle drug that lowers the highs and raises the lows. Good old lithium. Safest medication we hand out, Pederson says. Consider yourself lucky to be bipolar. Look at the facial tics and memory loss the schizos have to put up with.

I hope to sneak into Mom’s house unnoticed, but she’s got the doors locked and has once again moved the hidden key. I knock, and when she sees me through the opening in the chained doorway she can’t hold back the forlorn “Oh” that escapes her lips.

“They released you,” she says.

“I’ve got medication.”

“Lithium again?”

I pull the plastic bottle from my jacket pocket and let her read the label. A scowl crosses her face as she releases the chain. “The clothes you left are in the guest room.”

On the bed I find a pair of running shoes covered with mud, and the five pairs of plaid pants I bought in one doozy of a manic episode. The pants still bear the store tags. Fifty percent off. No wonder I couldn’t resist. Mom makes no mention of me staying a few days, and the way she has laid out the pants and shoes suggests they’re to be picked up and taken with me. I wore out my welcome years ago.

“You still got the apartment?” Mom is standing in the bedroom doorway. Hints of maternal concern creep into her voice.

“At least until the end of the month.” I roll the pants up and tuck them under my arm. “But I could use some money.”

She nods. “Lose your job at the frame store?”

“Probably. I haven’t been there in a week.”

She steps to another room and returns with five twenty-dollar bills. The usual amount. Neither of us could begin to guess how much money she’s given me since my discharge from the Marines two days after my 22nd birthday. I turn 27 next month.

She presses the money into my palm. “No gambling, OK?”

“No gambling.”

Nine days later I’m on the Greyhound from San Francisco to Reno. I haven’t slept in 36 hours — one of Pederson’s seven warning signs. At the VA, the bipolars keep notebooks next to their beds. We mark off hours of sleep with red X’s. Fewer than five X’s in a 24-hour period and they up your meds. It’s their answer to all of life’s problems. Take a pill. Take a pill. Take a pill. So I take their pill. And then I stop.
It’s 6:26 in the morning, and there are only twelve people on the whole damned bus, counting me but not the driver. No one’s talking, not even the people sitting together. All I can hear are the shivers of road noise that run through the bus. I change seats, searching for company. No one will look me in the eye.

What’s the matter with you? It’s Pederson’s voice. Why did you stop taking your medicine? It’s a stupid question. Because something is better than nothing. Because you can burn up in the flame, but you can also die in the dark. One way or the other, I’ve got to find out where this magic carpet is taking me and, in the end, whether the ride is worth the price of the ticket.

I move to the seat behind the driver. He is a large black man. Rolls of fat tucked into his tight-fitting shirt hang over his leather belt. A sign clipped to the sun visor says his name is Monroe.

“I’m Winston,” I say. “I’m planning to win a fortune at Harrah’s. What do you think?”

Monroe grunts. “Heard that before.”

“Not a gambling man?” I ask. “Hell, life’s a gamble. Win or lose. You got to choose.” I tap out a rhythm on the metal bar that separates us.

“You know about Huntington’s disease?” I ask. “They used to call it Huntington’s chorea. Terrible disease. Waits until you’re 40, then turns your brain into jello. And here’s the hell of it. If one of your parents has Huntington’s, you got a 50-50 chance of getting it yourself. Imagine that? Your old man has the disease, only he doesn’t find out until you’re like 20 years old yourself. That’s when they break the news to you — it’s even odds that you’ll end up with a mush brain yourself someday. Fifty-fifty. Even Steven. You think Harrah’s gives even odds on anything?”

Monroe tilts his head to look at me in the rear-view mirror but doesn’t say anything.

“But save your tears, Monroe,” I say. “This story has a happy ending. Because now they can tell if you got the genetic marker. And not just for Huntington’s. They can do a test on you to see if you got tagged for Alzheimer’s or diabetes or schizophrenia. You name it. Now how’s that for fair? Your parents get to roll the dice for you. They squeak the springs one night, and out of all the millions of little sperm cells the one with the Huntington’s marker or the hearing-things marker or maybe the want-to-kill-yourself marker hits the jackpot. And before you ever see the light of day, your hand’s already been dealt. And all you can do is play what they gave you or fold. Now what kind of goddamned choice is that?”

Monroe grunts again and adjusts his cap. “The company discourages us from talking with passengers.”

I get the message. I bounce from seat to seat, desperately searching for one that fits my spine. Half the people on the bus are sleeping. The hum of the engine falls into a pattern. Da Da Bump. Da Da Bump. It’s like someone’s thumping the top of the roof. I put my fingers in my ears, but the vibration travels through me. Da Da Bump. It’s impossible to concentrate on anything else. But somehow these mannequins all around me manage to sleep through it.

I count the trees. I count red cars. I count the miles to Reno, but somebody has been messing with the road signs. It takes hours to travel between the 76- and the 72-mile marker. Just when I think I’m going to scream, I see the Greyhound sign up ahead. I race to the front of the bus. Monroe tells me to return to my seat. I walk halfway to the rear, pivot, then race back to the front just as we pull into the station.
The door opens, and suddenly I’m on the outside. Free of the bus and free of those goddamned lifeless zombies. Monroe yells at me. Did I bring any luggage?

“No,” I yell back. At least I don’t think so.

I’m almost running by the time I get to Harrah’s. I push through the glass door and suddenly I’m caught in a storm of flashing lights and noise. Jackpot bells are singing, coins are clanging, lights are beckoning. Red, gold, white, green, red, gold, red. I absorb the energy in the room through my skin. People are moving. Sliding and weaving like a cavern full of serpents. The smell of money and hope and cigarette smoke burns my nostrils. This is where I belong. The smile on my face is so wide my cheeks hurt.

How do you feel? Pederson again. How do you feel? How do you feel? It’s his mantra. Every time you see him on the ward. Every group meeting. We go around the circle and everyone answers the question. How do you feel? But Pederson’s never been where I’m at right now, so he’ll never get it. When you’re way up or way down, you don’t feel. You just are. That’s the problem with their precious lithium. They fill you up with chemicals, and then you’re someone’s creation. The end product of the ingredients they put inside you. A character in someone else’s play. Who would you like me to be, Dr. Pederson? A productive member of society? A decorated member of the United States Marines? A problem-free son a mother can be proud of? Mix up the recipe and let me have it. How do I feel? However you want me to.

I head for the blackjack tables, but I don’t know if I can sit still long enough to play. If I’m not mistaken, that’s another warning sign. There’s an intensity coming from the cards and the chips that draws me in. I see a table with five people. There’s an empty chair, but I don’t like to play with crowds. Too many people to wait on while they make up their goddamned minds and play their goddamned hands. I find another table that has only two players, but the dealer is wearing blue earrings, and I know that’ll be unlucky.

Third try is the charm. The dealer has bright red fingernails and earrings to match. Red, like diamonds and hearts. Red, like the heart of a fire. There’s only two people at the table and one of them is a redhead. I take a seat. This is where I was meant to be.

I buy 50 dollars worth of chips, then stack and restack them into piles of fives, then tens, then fives, then tens while I wait for the cards to come. The redhead sitting next to me is just about the skinniest women I’ve ever seen. She’s got like eight copper bracelets on her bony right arm that sound like a slinky going up and down every time she lifts her glass of booze to her face.

My first card is a red queen. Of course it is. I want to thank the redhead for what she’s done for me. I want to kiss her on her skinny lips and buy her another drink. The dealer hits on a thirteen and busts. I win three hands in a row, lose one when I stay on fifteen, then run off four more winners. I look around, hoping to see Monroe the bus driver. Luck, I want to scream at him. When you see it, catch it. Then ride it for as long and as far as it will take you. It’s the ride you live for, Monroe. Without the promise of exhilaration, the moments in between would be intolerable.

A blond waitress in a black velvet outfit asks if I want something to drink. Her push-up bra is smashing her little boobs together in a desperate attempt to create some cleavage. I drop a five dollar tip on her tray and tell her my name.

“Nothing for me just yet, hon,” I say. “But maybe if you come back a little later.”

The redhead next to me orders a drink. It’s not yet 2:00 in the afternoon and she wants another straight shot of Johnny Walker Red. Johnny Walker Red. Need a better omen than that? I double my bet on the next hand and win again. I’m sitting behind a castle of chips, more than a dozen stacks all exactly the same height. An oasis of red, white and blue in a sea of green felt.

“Keep ‘em coming,” I say to the red-earringed dealer. I slide another stack of chips next to my bet.

“Not going to save any of that for a rainy day?” she asks. “Maybe quit while you’re ahead?”

“The moment you quit,” I tell her, “you’re no longer ahead.”

Then the skinny redhead downs the last of her Johnny Walker Red and leaves the table. The dealer tosses me a seven, then an eight. Both black. She gives herself two tens. Shit. I double my usual bet and go bust. Sitting on twelve and she throws me a king. Next hand starts with a five and a jack. Things are starting to spiral. Why isn’t that on Pederson’s list? Warning sign number eight — the ground beneath you gives way and you find yourself sucked into a vacuum beneath your feet.

I wipe my upper lip and leave a line of perspiration on my sleeve. It’s hotter than hell in here and someone has turned up the noise on the slot machines. Coins crash violently into metal trays. Alarms roar overhead. I can’t buy a face card. The whole damned deck is made up of clubs and spades and not one of them is higher than an eight. My mouth is dry and I can’t find the blond waitress in the push-up bra.

I reach for another stack of chips and find that my fortress is gone. I turn to the dealer for an explanation, but the woman with the red fingernails and earrings to match is also gone. In her place I find a dark-skinned girl with high cheekbones and no jewelry. The other players at the table also have changed since I last took inventory of the situation. A row of quarter slots that were not operating when I first sat down are now chirping and chiming to my left.

“Would you like to buy some chips?” the new dealer asks.

“No, I would not like to buy some chips,” I tell her. “I would like the chips I’ve already won returned to me immediately.”

There’s a man looking over my right shoulder. As I sense his presence, I’m aware that he has been standing in this same location for some time. He has large pockets on his coat, a perfect place to hide the stacks of chips he has somehow managed to slip away from me while I was concentrating on my cards. I spin in his direction.

“I’ll take my chips back now, if you don’t mind.”

He looks at me with guilt written all over his face, then tries to slip away with my winnings still in his pocket. I have only a split second to act. I dive toward him, my right hand reaching into his coat pocket, my left arm wrapping around his legs. We tumble into a crowd of people. There’s screaming and people falling, and my face is pressed into the carpet. I manage to throw off the bodies and rise to my feet. But the thief is gone.

I see a large security guard in a black coat striding in my direction. He’s got protruding lips and waddles when he steps, which makes me think of Daffy Duck. Daffy stops several feet in front of me, his feet spread shoulder width. He tells me it’s time to leave.

“I’ll leave when I get my money back.”

“You’ll leave now, or I’ll escort you out.”

I size him up. Daffy is big, but vulnerable. No flexibility. No agility. By the time he lifts his arms, I could land a dozen punches. I glance around. He might have friends in the crowd. He takes another step my way. I have to land the first punch.

But someone tips him off. Daffy moves before I’m ready. My arm is behind my back and it feels like he’s pulling it out of the socket. He pushes me through the gathered crowd, which parts like the Red Sea. We’re moving much too fast. We sail through the open doorway like two speed-skaters. I can’t tell when Daffy lets go, but as I trip over some blue-haired geezer, he’s no longer there to support me. I topple forward, my forehead bouncing off the concrete. I press my face against the cold pavement. My body temperature seems to be dangerously high.

The next thing I know, I’m walking the streets of Reno, Nevada, watching each step instead of the people who keep running into me as I try to move forward. I’m aware of very little except that the situation has darkened. Peering up through the artificial light, I see the sky also is dark. A great deal of time has passed.

Somewhere between sitting down at the blackjack table and being escorted out of the casino, I’ve lost my jacket. If that’s not one of Pederson’s warning signs, it ought to be.

I lean against a light post. I haven’t enough energy to keep moving. I recognize the symptoms, but this is not the way it works. I’ve never come down from a high so fast. Maybe I hit my head too hard. Maybe I’m bleeding inside my skull. I think I can feel the blood oozing over my brain cells, coating my defective genes.

I look around and see the gray shapes of people passing by. I don’t recognize the place, but strangely it has the feel of a memory. Mostly I want to sleep. A police car drives by slowly, the officer on the passenger side looks at me through the open window. An instinct tells me to move on.

I push my way through the first casino door I find. The flashing lights hurt my eyes. I have a headache that runs above my eyebrows and down to the back of my neck. I’m certain my brain is bleeding.

There’s a bar in the corner that is darker than the rest of the room. I take my place on an empty stool. A mirror behind the bartender spans the entire length of the bar, reminding drinkers that there’s a casino full of gambling options just behind them. When I stare straight ahead, I see myself. My eyes are red, and my cheeks are round and puffy. One side of my face is larger than the other. I think I just might be the least attractive person I have ever seen.

I dig into my pockets and lay everything in my possession on the counter. Twelve dollars and fifty-five cents, plus the key to my apartment and a thin, empty wallet.
The woman sitting next to me reaches for her drink and clangs her metal bracelets against the edge of the bar. It’s the redhead from the blackjack table.

“Johnny Walker Red,” I say.

We meet eyes by looking at each other in the mirror. She lifts her glass in salute. “Pretty good guess.”

She finishes her drink while I scan the bottles along the back of the bar, trying to remember what I drink to complement a black mood. I feel an obligation to do this thing right.

The redhead catches the bartender’s eye and points to her empty glass. “Another.”

I point to the space in front of me. “I’ll have the same.”

I don’t recall if I’ve ever had straight shots of whiskey before, and the sensation as the liquor hits my lips and tongue is startling. It feels like I’ve placed a burning match in my mouth. But I let the liquid scorch a trail all the way down my throat. Somehow the pain belongs in the scene.

No words pass between us for several minutes, but the redhead and I are aware of each other. We respond to the other person’s movements with our own twitches and leans, and are careful to lower the liquor in our glasses at the same pace. We are drinking alone together.

“I’m Winston,” I say, staring into the top of my glass.

“Ronnie.” She sips her drink. “Short for Veronica.”

She turns toward me, and it seems to me we recognize something in each other. It happens all the time on the ward. You lock eyes with a depressed patient and see a reflection of what you feel inside. Ronnie’s eyes are amber and surprisingly clear for a woman who has been drinking as much as I think she has. If not for the bags under her eyes, I’d wonder if she were old enough to sit at a bar.

She nods toward the crumpled bills and loose change in front of me. “That all you got in the world?”

“Just about.”

“Then I’d say you’re just about at the end of your rope.”

The truth in her statement is so obvious that there is no need to respond.

“You believe in luck?” Ronnie asks.

“I don’t appear to have any, if that’s what you mean.”

“I can see that,” she says. “But do you think there’s some people who are born lucky?”

I look at my reflection in the mirror. “I know for a fact some people are born unlucky.”

“I think some people shit and it turns to gold,” she says. “And the rest of us — if we ever get our hands on a lump of gold, it turns to shit.”

“So what can you do about it?”

“Something,” she says. “Maybe.”

We finish our drinks and Ronnie asks if she can buy me another. The second shot burns less than the first. I’m still spiraling, but the booze or some other change in my neurological chemistry has put my descent in a holding pattern. Time is passing, but I experience it only as a series of jumps from one moment to the next. At some point Ronnie waves yet again to the bartender, but when he takes away our empty glasses he says, “Maybe you two should take it easy for a while. I can order some food if you want.”

A meal seems like a good idea. I can’t recall the last time I ate. But Ronnie pushes herself away from the bar so violently she knocks her stool to the ground.

“Fuck that,” she yells. “You think I came here for the fine cuisine?”

She grabs her purse off the counter, gives the bartender the finger and leaves. I stare into the mirror. There’s a desperate sense of emptiness in the room now that slowly overtakes me. I turn to follow Ronnie.

I find her just outside the door, where she’s lighting a cigarette and swearing to no one about the bartender. She nods in my direction, and we start walking.

“You taking meds?” she asks.

“Not at the moment.”

“I’ve done them all. Prozac, Zoloft.” She sounds as if she’s barking out a cadence.

“Paxil, Elavil, Amitril. They’ve inhibited my MAOs and tinkered with my seratonin uptake. And now they’re talking about electroshock. Fucking zap your brain cells with electricity. Knock that depression right out of your skull. You ever try that?”

“I’m bipolar,” I say. “They only do that electricity stuff with the straight depressives.”

We are in an alleyway between two large buildings. Even in the dim light I see the tears have reappeared on Ronnie’s face. I’ve been there before. Too depressed to recognize when the tears are on or off. No noticeable difference between crying and not crying.

You ever going back?” Ronnie asks. “Back to the doctors and the pills and the crazies?”

“I always do.”

“What for?” Ronnie tosses her half-smoked cigarette to the ground and crushes it with the heel of her boot. “Tell me why you keep going back.”

I have no immediate answer. Because that’s what I do, I say to myself.

“We don’t have to put up with it, you know,” Ronnie says. “Just because we got a shitty deal out of life, there’s nothing that says we have to be miserable for 80 years.”

Ronnie stops walking. She looks around to make sure we are alone in the alley. Then she sticks her hand into her purse and pulls out a gun.

“We can put an end to it any time we decide.” Ronnie holds the gun at eye level for my inspection. It’s a short-barrel revolver with a dull gray finish.

“I tried once before, you know.” She pulls her bracelets up to her elbow and holds her right wrist a few inches from my face. I see the scars. Three white lines overlapping the blue veins protruding from her skinny arm. “My mistake was using the wrong method.”

“Is that what you came here to do?” I ask.

“You be my witness,” she says. “You’re better than a note. You know what it’s like. They’ll ask you why, and you’ll ask them to give a reason why not.”

I hear Pederson’s voice screaming from somewhere behind my ears. She’s not thinking clearly. Things are never as bad as they seem. There’s always hope. But I refuse to listen. Ronnie doesn’t need that bullshit right now. She needs a reason why not. Just one damned reason. But I don’t know exactly what that is, because I’ve almost — almost — been there myself. At that moment when not being makes as much sense as being. When relief is so close you can start to feel it. Maybe it’s a false moment, a false promise. But who the hell am I to tell Ronnie or anyone else what’s real and what’s not?

Ronnie wraps both hands around the gun as if embracing a treasure. She lifts the revolver to eye level. I wonder if she was at least allowed a happy childhood, maybe even a high school boyfriend and a senior prom. Maybe she was given at least that much. Our eyes meet and I can see the decision has been made. Maybe it was made a long time ago, when her chromosomes locked in place and wrote the script. Maybe she’s just been waiting for the ending all this time.
I’m so afraid, my hands are shaking.

Ronnie holds the gun in front of her eyes for a moment, as if considering one last time the specifics of how she wants to do it. Then she lowers the gun to her lips and points it upward toward the roof of her mouth. I can imagine the bullet, released from its chamber and sent flying through the barrel, up through the middle of her brain. I can see it in slow motion, ripping through vital centers until it explodes out the other end of her skull. And I wonder if, during that split second when the bullet is on its way, if she’ll have the slightest doubt, a too-late change of heart.

Then a hand comes from somewhere and slaps the revolver away. The gun spins through the air and lands with a crack, then skids along the asphalt. We are both silent for a moment, breathing rapidly and trying to understand what just happened. I stare into her face and then at my outstretched arm. The hand belongs to me.

We grab one another and slowly drop to the cold asphalt. We are both exhausted. Her eyes ask, why? I have nothing to tell her. It was as much an act of survival as a rescue.

An unknowable amount of time passes, and I feel Ronnie shaking in my arms.

“Where’s home?” I ask. My voice is barely audible.


“Got money for a bus ride?”

She buries her face in my shoulder and nods.

I stand and help Ronnie to her feet. We move toward the glow of the lights, but she stops to look in the direction of the gun. Its outline is barely visible against the dark asphalt. A moment passes, then she takes my arm and we turn together in the opposite direction. The bus station is but four blocks away. It seems to me like it should be farther.