by John C. Mannone
An empty bottle rattles on the wet concrete, the glass spinning after it bounced. ‘Dammit.’ The haggard drunk kicks it again; loses his balance. Half staggering, half walking on all fours, he breaks his fall in the dark alley. His arms and legs shake out of control. He balls-up into a fetal position, hoping to stop the tremors; but they won’t quit. He lies on the ground, his pants reeking with urine, and his dirty overcoat stinks with mold. His stomach dry heaves; wrenches blood. Writhing, he struggles to breathe, air rasping his throat like hot desert sand. He rolls on his back and his eyes scale up the buildings, their red brick glittering with rain in the neon lights.
‘My God!’ he shrieks. The brick walls close in and the red bricks begin to move in the dim light and disintegrate into lumps of sand. His eyelids stretch open; eyes bulge and sieve the dark. The brick-lumps sifted through the black morph into swarms of fire ants with glassy-grit teeth. They descend to climb all over his skin, biting and devouring his flesh. And the shadows on the walls shapeshift into black globs, which shrivel to worms that crawl inside his eyeballs.
Sirens pierce his ears and headlights stab his eyes; he cannot stop trembling. His heart thuds hard against his chest, growing louder with every beat. He cries, ‘My heart! My heart! It’s stopping! It’s stopping!’
He wakes up inside a blue room. A blurred figure leans into his scruffy face, softly speaks, ‘Mr. Johns, Mr. Johns.’
‘Where am I?’ he says.
‘St. Francis General.’ The nurse extends a pill and a glass of water to him. ‘Relax, take this.’
‘What is it?’
‘The doctor wants you to take another Librium.’
‘Is that what you used to kill those fire ants on my skin?’
‘No, Mr. Johns, it wasn’t fire ants.’ The nurse’s lips curl; her glance is sober. ‘You experienced delirium tremens.’
‘Oh that. And how do you know my name anyway?’
‘You were having alcohol withdrawal, Mr. Johns.’
The nurse points to the small table by the bed. ‘Your medic-alert bracelet has your name. You’re a diabetic.’ The slim nurse continues, ‘When did you quit drinking?’
‘I didn’t quit! I ran out. Been drinkin’ a couple bottles a day.’
The drunk lifts himself a bit, shields his mouth and whispers, ‘Don’t tell nobody, my buddy and I pulled off a liquor store heist with a water pistol that I found in the alley. A black pick-up that sped down the street as we left the store was good luck for us; the cops must’ve thought it was our getaway car and they went after it. We simply slipped our shopping cart full of booze around the corner into the alley.’ Mr. Johns pauses, hunches his shoulders in laughter. His thick eyebrows crimp down, ‘But it’s all gone now.’
The nurse simply shakes her head.
The hospital room door swivels open and a young doctor comes in. ‘We’re releasing you today, Mr. Johns. Continue taking these B-vitamins and stay off the alcohol. Do you have someone who can pick you up?’
‘No, I live alone.’
‘We’ll call you a cab.’
‘I don’t have any money.’
The doctor chuckles and pats him on the back. ‘Don’t worry, we have a social services program in this hospital to help with that.’
The nurse helps him into a customary wheelchair and wheels him to Discharge, and later to the parking lot. ‘Remember what the doctor said, Mr. Johns. Please stay off the booze. You nearly died.’
‘Why do you care?’
‘My father was a drunk; we lost him because of that.’
‘I’m sorry. Okay, I’ll try.’ The man stared at the hospital building walls. ‘I don’t ever want to see those damn ants again!’
The yellow cab pulls up to an old broken-down house. ‘Here. Drop me off here.’ The alcoholic levers the car door open. ‘Thanks.’
He starts up the steps, but this isn’t his home, it’s crazy Jimmy’s place. After the cab leaves, he sneaks back to his alley. That’s where he lives.
Mr. Johns spots his cubbyhole. ‘My cardboard shelter and all my stuff are still here! Thought it’d be all stolen by now.’ He crawls inside, grabs his tattered Army blanket. He feels a hard object through the wool. ‘Holy shit! There’s a half-filled bottle of hooch stashed here that I completely forgot about.’
His fingers run up and down the bottle, inching toward the cap, then back over the label. For a moment, he looks at his hospital nametag-bracelet, smiles as he thinks of the nurse’s kind words. His eyes shift to the dumpster across the alley, then back to the bottle. He hears himself think aloud, Maybe I’ll quit tomorrow, but tonight… just one more swig.
He wraps himself snug in the blanket, curls up inside his box, clamps his teeth and mumbles, ‘I got a bone to pick with you fire ants, you fuckin’ red demons.’ He clenches the bottle of Jim Beam.
John C. Mannone has work in Artemis Journal, Poetry South, Blue Fifth Review, Pedestal, Pirene’s Fountain, and others. He chaired Dwarf Stars Anthology (2019), won a Horror Writers Association Scholarship (2017), awarded a Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian literature (2017) and served as celebrity judge for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (2018). He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex, and other journals. He’s a retired professor of physics living between Knoxville/Chattanooga, TN.