Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ides of March

In the passing headlights, gnarled branches look like hungry fingers reaching down for me. It’s late, past seven, I’ve been running along Mem Drive, over the Longfellow and back but Phoebe’s hurt eyes chase me down the streets. Jesus, one lousy birthday card and it’s over.

My feet make soft, slapping sounds on the brick pathways. At the campus perimeter, I veer left through the Quadrangle past the chemistry building and hit black ice. My knee wrenches, it hurts like hell, and I almost cry, this day is such a goddamn disaster and, for a nanosecond, I toy with the idea of heading to Dunster, to score some Vicodin. For the pain, of course. But I banish the idea, I’ve been good, so good these last three years.

I sprint up the landing and into the foyer, dig in my back pocket and find the forgotten mood charts folded in the wad of ones. Three bucks buys me dinner: Hostess Ho-Hos, nacho Doritos, and a can of full-octane Coke.

In the animal facility, it’s humid but the sweetish scent of rodent piss and cedar shavings calms me. My six subjects swarm my hand when I reach into the glass cage. I pick up number 43, a black, brown-eyed male identical to thousands of his siblings populating this lab.

“Hey you.” My thumb strokes his neck. “Hope you had a better day than me.”

The mouse snuffs my wrist, wriggles up my sleeve. I pull him back by the tail and drop him into the cage.

I pull down the plastic feed container from the upper cabinet, refill the water, then lean against the wall to observe my subjects eat their dinner. My ‘practice’ mice, the animals I feed, inject with placebo, watch for reactions, then inject with three different anticonvulsants, giving them the maximum exposure to the study agent. One day, soon I hope, I’ll remove them, unsuspecting, from their glass house, guillotine them, and make carpaccio-thin brain slices to view under the ‘scope, and puree the rest of the grey matter, chromatograph the mess, and write up the experiment. Then, Tien and Doctor L will give me the expensive guys - six identical rodents genetically-modified to lack the glutamate-inhibiting protein – and I’ll repeat the laborious process again, this time for real.

My stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten since the morning cupcakes. I leave the animal room and ascend the stairs. The burnt-match smell of propane fills the lab. A couple of pre-docs slump over their benches, extracting compounds in gallon-sized Pyrex beakers. They nod as I pass through and down the hall to the closet of an office I share with four other undergrads.

No one’s here, even though the single computer whirs and the bald fluorescent tube strobes an irritating ice-blue. The flickering intensifies my caffeine-withdrawal headache. God, I hate these headaches, they last all day and nothing touches them. I crumple in the wood chair, tilt back with my feet on the desk, and down the now-warm Coke in three swallows. A thought pricks - I’m forgetting something - but it flits away, so I open my neuro text and flip to Chapter Five. Antipsychotics. The cake dissolves in my mouth, too sweet, the disgusting faux chocolate waxes my tongue, and as I chew I sing ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ in my head, over and over again.

I hate my goddamn birthday.

Thioridazine, prochlorperazine, perphenazine, olanzapine. All these fucking ‘zines. Nasty names. Nasty drugs, these mind numbers. Thank God I’m not schizo. The chemical structures blur, so I try to remember them by pharmacologic class – phenothiazines, thioxanthenes, butyrophenones – but my eyes twitch from the headache. Jesus, I’ll never get these blasted drugs straight. Wish I could ask Phoebe, she’s a whiz at the drugs.

When I rip the bag of chips, tiny brown balls bounce along the desktop. Mice turds. Disgusted, I sweep them off with the back of my hand and remember seeing similar pellets yesterday on the kitchen counter, near the half-eaten loaf of stale bread. I gotta clean up my place, it’s been a shambles since finals. Like me.

Then, it hits me, a miracle; all these disparate threads on antipsychotics and cleaning and winning back Phoebe converge. Time to purge my house. My self. Time to clean up.

I jump up, brush rodent shit and phosphorescent orange shards from my lap. My cell buzzes. I’m so excited about my new course of action I ignore it, but then I think maybe it’s Mother telling me she deposited the tuition money today, oh, and happy birthday son. So I grab the phone, glance at caller ID but it’s not New York, it’s local. Althea. And then I remember what I’m forgetting - my own birthday party.


The Ides of March is a big day for me, bigger than green beer day. It's the day I defended my dissertation, the day I got engaged, the day medical students get matched to residencies. The Ides is also my character Ben's birthday, a day almost as lousy as Julius': betrayed by a friend, dumped by Phoebe, and a head session so angst-filled he fires his shrink. This, the hereafter...

Excerpted from Brighter than Bright, a novel of loss and love and taking your meds -- or not.

Peace, Linda

(Yeah, yeah, I miss you flashers... the mountain top gets lonely...)


  1. I thought you very effectively made the relationship between a drug-addled youth and the mice that he takes care of.

    What I liked most about this story is that I used to work in a rat lab, and everything - the depression, the lonely, missed birthdays - really speaks to my experience at the time. Apparently work in a rat lab is universally depressing.

  2. You know what you are doing and it shows. I guess this isn't from PURE then? Another one for me to lust after. Your writing is so good it hurts my brain trying to absorb the awesomeness of it. I'm bad at comments but please understand I am a fan.

  3. Man, the good part about working with people instead of mice is that you don't have to pick up their droppings.

  4. I was so grossed out by Ben's lifestyle that when he decided to clean up his apartment and life I almost cheered. I hope he manages to do it inbetween going to his own birthday party and getting over that headache.


  5. Thank god you're back - now I can stop taking all these damned 'zines'!

    Snuffing, waxing, buzzingly yummy and sensual text Linda - even the mouse turds!

    Happy belated Ides,

  6. Glad you're back and letting us enjoy your writing.

    So you have two novels? With all that you do, I am in awe.

    I am afraid of rodents, so this would not be a job for me. Your amazing description clinches it for me.


  7. Breakfast of Champions, huh? Frazzled and edgy, I feel the guy's nerves, and I relate to the thing about hating birthdays.

  8. I have a friend who had the job to guillotine the rats in school. Memories, memories. This story was amazing. I thought these characters were from "Pure". Isn't this the same guy who carries around Phoebe's hair in his pocket? Maybe not. Doesn't matter, it's a masterpiece either way.

  9. Yeah I thought this was from PURE too. Can't be two Phoebes, surely.

    Anyhoo, great stuff again Linda. Reeks of authenticity. And then there's this: "carpaccio-thin brain slices" - totally fantabulous! I pictured those slices all arrayed nicely on a white plate, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil!!!!

  10. Hey all, thanks for reading and commenting. Same characters, two novels, long story... but each are stand-alones. Ben and BTB spawned this whole writing thing 4 years ago. Now, I continue their stories in PURE.

    Lily, glad you like the carpaccio brain, one of my fave descriptors ever. Peace, Linda

  11. Your stories are intoxicating. I get so sucked in and hate when they end.

  12. Good you're back. Enough with this break thing. I. Need. Your. Words.

    This is one heck of a frenzy. Rodent shit in the lap, cursed days coming. Loved it. And this line: "Thank God I’m not schizo" is still amusing me. Your characters are so good, and built just as they should be.

  13. Happy Ides of March!
    Glad you're back, too. Your story reads like a youthful heaping helping of fresh air.

  14. This was vibrant and visual; you've got a winner on your hands with this book.

    We miss you too, Linda!

  15. Que Linda,

    Solid selection for today's post, as always. I'm in the midst of trying to make a character express long-suppressed emotions and it is a beast of a section for me to get a handle on. Wish I could outsource this section to you. You could do it in a trice.


  16. Linda, your descriptions here are so vivid I almost threw up (that's a compliment). :)
    So glad you're back and blessing us with your fantabulous stories!

  17. Thanks all, and glad my words make some of you sick ;^)

    I'll be popping in and off the mountain. The writing's intense -- getting through PURE, query letters, and dreaded synopsis --and so is my day job (grant proposals are due!), so pleasing you all pleases me.

    It's WINE time, and I'll be dropping by y'all's stories soon. Peace, Linda

  18. Aw, Linda, what a cruel goddess you are to let Ben's girl dump him on his birthday! Even in fiction, life isn't fair.

    I love the way Ben thinks. How his thoughts drift here and there, and then come back.

    Wonderful excerpt, Mountain Woman.

  19. There is such a lush reality to this story. There's so much texture and nuance, plus a starkness to it all too. Every week, I look forward to the next peek.

    You nailed the description of vending machine food, taste and texture. Loved "carpaccio thin" even though I thought 'ew!', as I don't dissect for a living....

    You know when something just feels right? This does.

  20. Que Linda indeed! Thanks for dropping this gem on us this week - I always look forward to your writing! Vivid as always! Wishing you all the best in the day job and on the mountain top!

  21. Wonderful, as usual. ;) SO happy with Ben's wanting to change, hope it can actually last...Also happy Ben and Phoebe are in PURE, although their situation/s (from the excerpts I've read) is/are breaking my heart.

  22. What a tortured soul!

    I went through my university final exams right after having been dumped, so this very much strikes a chord!

  23. The character was a mystery to me- drugs, stress, memory loss... I was half tempted to think he was a werewolf or something but that's how my mind works. Great job writing.

  24. Thanks all for reading. Poor Ben, lousy 20th birthday. :^( But it's my job as his master to throw all the crap I can muster at him. But sheer mania will get him through the next few days (lack of lithium's what's making his go aflutter), and then... then he gets closer to the prize.

    Peace, Linda

  25. (Catching up with things I missed while away for my weekend job in Montana)...

    As always, leaving me hungry for more. I want to know what happened with Phoebe, and the shrink, etc. I am also very curious what will happen next. Just can't wait to see how all these pieces fit together in the novel!

    Keep writing!

  26. Your writing is so wonderfully edgy, full of energy!
    Hope you're surviving on the mountaintop!