The Continuing Adventures of Matt in Anger Management Land
I'm in a daze, half-awake when the phone rings. I can tell it's morning because sunlight streams in through the window, not green neon. At first, I think the phone is part of my dream, that when my mother opens her mouth to scold me, she rings and rings and I just want her to shut up.
Once my mother has rung several times, though, I am awake enough to pick up the phone. "Hu-, Hello?" My mouth is coated with the stickiness of liquor and dehydration and my syllables tumble out like cotton balls.
"Hey, Big Guy-" click, I hang up the phone and turn over in the bed. But I know this is a temporary solutions as soon as it starts ringing again. So, I pick up the handset, leave it off the hook and enjoy 30 more minutes of sleep.
Bam! It sounds like a moose hit my door. Bam! Again. Bam!
I crawl out of the bed, step over my clothes and open the door. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light, but I recognize the silhouette; a fat, pony-tailed lug. His meaty fist is poised to pound my door again. "Big Guy."
I want to run, but the only place to go is the other end of the small room. I can jump out the window, taking my chances in an eighteen floor fall, but the window doesn't open, and I don't want glass cuts. So, I leave the door open and slip back into the cool darkness of the room. Gary follows me like the sense of dread that follows you after you've hit a bum in the sidewalk and sped away before you know whether you hurt him or not. It's a sick, dark feeling that you can't shake no matter how many times you tell yourself, "He was just a bum."
I can't say for sure why I dislike Gary so much, but it has to do with his smug superiority. What qualifies a man who never gets into fights to think he knows why I do? What in his tweed jacket, Buick LeSabre, white condominium world gives him the authority to tell me what I'm doing wrong? Has he ever been called a liar by a lying drunk at the Arvada Tavern? Has he ever been pulled over by the cops just for driving a beat-up Ford Galaxie? Last time he patted me on the arm a lot and said "super" regularly.
"I don't want to get off on the wrong foot, Big Guy," he says showing all his teeth. "I thought you were coming to my office."
I'm about to tell him to never call me Big Guy again unless he wants my big foot up his sphincter when I notice his clothes. "You wore that jacket last time. Aren't they paying you enough for a new tweed jacket?"
"This is new."
"Gary," I elongate his name, "let's be honest with each other."
"Why don't we get some breakfast? My treat."
"Your treat, or you'll bill it to my boss?"
Gary pinches a smile out of his thin lips, "What does it matter? You're not paying."
"Not now, no," Busting his balls means more to me than free eggs. "But if it's money out of his pocket, then I'll pay for it eventually."
"Fine," Gary rolls his eyes, "I'll pay for it out of my own pocket."
"Then let's eat something fancy," I fish around, pretending I can't find my shoe. "Why don't you go get us a table and I'll be down in a minute?" Gary nods and backs out of the room, and is gone.
I wait a minute to be sure he has caught the elevator before I leave the room. Exiting the elevator on the casino floor, I look around but don't see him, so I head directly to the nearest bank of double bonus video poker. It's not full-pay at nine for a full house and six for a flush, but I'll happily forfeit a few percentage points to be away from Gary.
Twenty dollars lasts a while at a quarter a draw. I'm up and down and then hit four deuces, which is worth 80 quarters. It's amazing how good winning money can make me feel. I press the cashout button at the same time I feel a hand on my shoulder, and the good feelings slip away.
"Let's go," Gary says. I turn around with my hands full of quarters and he is mad, as mad as a sissy can get. I mean, he looks like he might slap me. Instead of pleasing me, his anger is a reminder that he still controls my fate.
"I got distracted, sorry," I say with what seems like the appropriately apologetic tone.
"No breakfast," he says firmly, like a father.
"But I'm hunnnngry."
"I said no. We're running late as it is. Do you have a car?"
For some reason, that makes him even madder. "Come on." He grabs me by the arm and steers through the casino. His grip isn't firm, but he is locked on. "Do you need to pee?"
He lets me loose. "Make it quick."
I do, I make it quickly over to an empty craps table but before I can put down a twenty, Gary's on me like stink on a mudhound.
"That's it, that's your last chance. One more stunt and you're going home empty-handed." His eyes jitter in their sockets and his jaw is set crooked with the muscles straining around it. He's so angry that I apologize and follow him to the parking garage where his beat, brown Toyota Tercel sits, dripping greenish fluid onto the concrete. I could say something about his crappy car, but I don't. It would be too easy, like making fun of retarded kids.
I get in and sit quietly as we leave downtown, listening to a warped James Taylor tape.
"You like James Taylor?" Gary asks as he drums to the rhythm on his steering wheel.
"Um," I think I know the right answer, "yes."
Gary sings, "I see fire and I see rain," and for the first time I've ever seen he's happy. He's not pretending, he genuinely enjoys himself and is proud that he knows the words to such a drippy song.
It's almost an epiphany, but I won't call it that because I might just be woozy from the gas fumes seeping up through my seat. For a fleeting moment, I see into Gary's miserable life, where he has one nice jacket and a crappy car. I see the cheap joys in his life and it nearly breaks my heart.
His office is in a converted two story house with a weight control clinic on the first floor. I follow him up a narrow stairwell and into what was obviously once a bedroom. Gary sits behind a desk from a business furniture auction. On the wall is a poster of a kitten dangling form a clothes line over the caption, "Hang in there, baby!" Under this, he has added "All day, every day." He directs me to a dirty old couch while he takes off his one coat.
Gary takes a deep breath, "I like to be straightforward because I think honesty is the most effective tool a man can have."
"Better than a hammer?"
Gary ignores my question, "Let's see what we can do. Do you remember our last session?"
"Oh sure, the part where everyone was hitting each other with chairs is hard to forget."
"We all made mistakes. Was there anything you liked about that class? Anything you felt helped?"
"The free tote bag. It makes carrying stuff easier."
He leans on his desk, folds his hands and stares at me for a long minute, "Why are you here?"
"Somebody snitched and told my boss I never got the certificate the first time around."
"There's more to it than that, isn't there?" He wants me to say I'm a bad person, a violent jerk. I've been led down this path before, but it's always by someone who thinks the solution is getting me to admit to something that isn't true. I am not a bad or violent person. I punch less than 1% of those I come into contact with, and less than half of those incidents are things I later regret. The violent people are those slugging 10% or more of their acquaintances.
"And why didn't you get the certificate?"
"You know better than me."
When Gary starts talking again, I tune him out. Who sent that letter to my boss? Why, a year later, would someone tell him I didn't pass some stupid course a thousand miles away? ASTRA, the company Gary works for got paid just the same.
"You know why," he insists. "Tell me."
"Will that help me get the certificate?"
I repeat what I've heard my whole life. "It's because I have a bad attitude and don't respect other people's feelings, and occasionally I sock them in the stomach."
Gary's pleased. "Now you're starting to open up. You know what? Inside that angry shell is an awfully cute peanut."
If I were an angry person, I would have leaped over the desk and strangled Gary for saying that. I don't, though, mainly because he obviously enjoyed saying it and it didn't hurt me any.
"I think we're getting somewhere. Let's talk about today. What do you hope to get out of our session?"
"Another tote bag."
"Can I have a tote bag? I'll be a lot more cooperative."
"I'm not with ASTRA anymore, so I don't have the tote bags."
"What do you have?"
"A lot of hope for your future," as he says this he points at me and then gives me a thumbs up.
"Did they fire you? Are you going to get your own tote bags made up?" I ask and he recoils in his chair. "Truthfully, I don't think anyone will respect you as a mental health professional if you don't have a freebie."
"We're here to talk about you so don't change the subject."
"Freud had pen lights with his name on them. Dr. Joyce Brothers gives out embossed notepads."
I know what he did. He got canned by ASTRA, and he opened his own "office" in this decaying little house. To get a client, he ratted me out to my boss. I am not angry, I am strangely content. I am happy because I see how sad Gary is, and how tiny his life is. I hated him as long as it seemed like he had the power just like I despise all jerks who can control my life. But, I love insincere jerks I am above. I don't love Gary yet, but he's growing on me. My being here isn't to help me, it's to help Gary think he's needed, and he isn't.
I sit in a quiet haze, a loopy smile on my face as Gary gets up and talks. He sits down and talks. I mutter the occasional "Yes." Gary says "Don't get mad, get high... on life!" He buys me a Dr. Pepper from the machine in the hall. He shows me a book he's reading. He sits on the sofa next to me and pats me on the knee. I think he's getting a lot out of this.
The more he talks and the quieter I am, the happier he is. He thinks he's teaching me how to "thought-stop," some ludicrous belief that I can stop thinking before I figure out I'm getting screwed and start swinging. Then it's more faith exercises, where he assumes a bad French accent and pretends to rob me.
"It's lunchtime," says Gary. "What would you like to eat?"
Still in my pleasant haze, I move to the edge of the sofa, ready to get up, "Gary, I want to thank you for this morning. I've learned so much. I can see where I was wrong."
He puts his palms flat on his desk and smiles broadly, "You're not done yet." My heart sinks because he has cut me off at the pass. I am angling for an early release and he's on to me. "You'll never be done."
Gary pulls a paper out of his desk, "But you know that, right?"
"I guess I do," I sink back into the cushions.
"That's the important thing," he says, not looking up from writing. "That you know you have a lifelong problem and you deal with it. Every day, you practice what we've done this morning."
"Every day? Who will do the French accent?"
Gary holds out his paper to me, "Here you go." The certificate, my golden ticket. My name is written in on the line "Graduate," just under the heading "Anger Management Therapy."
"I can go?"
"We made a lot of progress this morning, and I thought you were very cooperative," he still holds the paper out to me and I hesitate in grabbing it, afraid he'll snatch it away and laugh. "Unless you want to stay and work through the relationship course book. I can pretend I'm your wife."
"No, no that's alright" I inch off the sofa, crouching and ready to pounce. I can barely sit still, though, because I'm so relieved to be done.
"Then, how about some lunch?" he asks. There is a stickiness to his voice, like I've walked into a spider web. He doesn't want me to leave because I represent success for him. If I leave it puts the success he thinks he's had into question. To stay would reassure him, and I probably owe him that.
I leap, ripping the certificate from his hand, and in one fluid motion, I am out the door, down the stairs, around a man exiting the weight control clinic and on the street, waving for a taxi. When no taxi arrives, I hustle down the street to the nearest intersection. The whole time, I look over my shoulder, but Gary's not there. The certificate is complete; Gary signed it, my name is spelled right, and the date is on there. I fold it and stuff it in my pocket. I still have a few hours before my flight and I have some work to do.
At the intersection, I catch a cab and ride downtown to the Cal Neva. The Cal's smoky, dirty boiler room ambience is exactly what I need. I ride the escalator to the Upper Deck, where I stuff myself with "Reno's best salad bar," a pathetic spread of wilted lettuce, dressings, a bowl of chopped cauliflower and a basket of cheap croutons. I don't care because I haven't eaten since I got to town. Following the stuffing, I am asked to leave because I cut the waiting line and eat at the salad bar, using my hands. It doesn't matter, I am full enough now to relax, and the wadded up certificate in my pocket is the icing on the cake.
With my hands dripping with blue cheese, I go to the craps table. On a Thursday afternoon, it's empty except for me and the crew. Over head, Booker T and MG's "Your Move" filter through the cheap sound system. I lay down a twenty. The Cal has the best low-limits craps game in town. All the tables are a buck minimum and they all offer triple odds. The only better game is over at the decrepit Sands Regency, where five dollar pass will get you ten times.
"What's on your hands," the gawky, pimply stick-kid asks. This kid, at six-feet couldn't weigh more than 130 pounds, and he couldn't be more than about 22 years old.
"For me to know and you to find out."
He slides the dice to me and as I bend over to pick them up, I wipe the dressing onto the felt. I let loose with the dice, making a point of "hanging 'em high."
"Keep them down," says the table boss, barely taking his eyes off a cocktail waitress across the room. The dice come back to me and I send them even higher.
"I said keep them down."
"They let me throw them as high as I want at Circus Circus."
Craning his neck like a lazy alligator, the boss turns to me, "Why don't you go play there?"
"Maybe I will. They certainly know how to treat a dollar player right."
He laughs and his crooked yellow teeth stick out of his puffy face. What an unattractive man. His attention turns back to the short, busty cocktail waitress and I notice a wedding ring on his finger.
"That's your wife?" I ask and he ignores me. "I bet it isn't, you dirty old man."
"Just keep them down," the stick kid gives me the dice again and I hurl them clear off the table, over a blackjack game and through the open door of the ladies' room. The boss stands up and tugs on his short brown tie. His fat face is red. "That's it, you're gone."
"One more chance," I beg. "That was an accident, I'm sorry. It won't happen again. I'm sorry." The boss shakes his head over and over as I plead with him. He calls me a good for nothing and a loser and some other dirty names that were pretty accurate, but he couldn't have possibly known for sure.
So, I call him some names in return, half of which I regret immediately. In particular, I am sorry to have brought up his obesity, which he says is a glandular problem, and I am sorry I made fun of his lazy eye. I am not sorry I made fun of the way his veins are bursting or how sweaty he is. We stand across from the table, screaming and drawing the attention of the other gamblers and a security guard.
"Get this hothead out of here," orders the table boss.
"Hothead?" I scream to be heard as the guard grabs my limbs. "I am not a hothead and I have the papers to prove it. I wriggle and squirm to keep free of the guards grasp and dig into my pocket. I pull out the certificate and hold it up. "Right here. My graduation certificate from anger management counseling. I'm certified anger-free."
The table boss says nothing while the security guard tightens his grip on me. No doubt, the boss feels like a jack-ass because he tried arguing with a man with the appropriate credentials, and he looks like fool. He just stands there playing with his tie as the guard drags me out.
On Virginia Street, I get to my feet and wipe off my pants.
I've got a full life ahead of me, and wherever I go, and whatever
trouble I get into, I will always be right. That piece of paper
says so. The trip to the airport and the flight home are uneventful.
I spend the time fantasizing about revenge against my enemies.
I am nearly home, to my wife, my dogs, to an anger-free life
and the job I so richly deserve.