I Am Not a Threat to the Rainforest

Poe Ballantine

What I think about most is going back to L.A. I lived there seven years before those two guys in the panhandle of Oklahoma carjacked me and beat my face in with brass knuckles and left me on the side of the road for dead. I couldn’t use the phone for six months after that and had a bad credit rating for two years. I had to have facial reconstruction and now I have epilepsy from the brain damage. I still cannot get used to the crooked shape of my nose in the mirror. The worst part of all is they stole my identity. And that’s why I had to come back here to Milwaukee.

I just bought this new Dodge Caravan, only 126,000 miles on it. It smokes a lot and may need some work. My father was a mechanic, though, so I know something about cars. I think it might need a new head gasket, but the other afternoon going up a hill I just laid on the gas and a chunk of something blew out the back and now it runs great. It still smokes a little bit. I don’t have a driver’s license yet, but I am going to get one soon. I have told my mother that the writer is driving me everywhere.

The writer is also going west in October and said he would drive with me to California because I don’t want to travel alone. I am forty-six now and I have arthritis in my back and I am tired of watching TV. I have seen all the Magnum P.I.s forty-five times. My mother said I could not take another winter here either. They have a lot of good computer jobs in L.A. I still have a lot of friends there too. There is a place in Malibu where you can camp on the beach for seven dollars a night.

The writer and I have been planning this trip since he got here in April. He is some kind of travel writer. I know I should not go over to his room when I am drunk. When I am drunk, Kimm says, I ramble. I talk for half an hour about nothing, she says. Get to the point, she says. But I cannot remember the point by the time I have explained everything. So I rambled again. I told him why we had to take the northern route because of the two men and the brass knuckles and how I was laid up and still had the scars and that was why I combed my hair this way and I could not use the phone for six months, but he was irritated with me. He said, "Why couldn’t you use the phone?" I think he was still mad about the roast beef.

The sign is still taped up on the refrigerator door: "Please replace my package of Dubuque Sliced Roast Beef. Thank you." And it is signed by the writer. And everyone thinks I did it. Just because I ate the yogurt and some of the bread and some of the writer’s milk which is whole milk which I only use for my coffee and because I took some of Kimm’s boyfriend’s beer, everyone thinks I took the roast beef too. I do not remember taking the roast beef. I buy a lot of lunchmeats myself. I like sandwiches with a cold glass of milk or sometimes just to eat the meat straight out of the package if there is something good on TV or if I don’t feel like cooking. It’s possible I might have eaten that roast beef by accident, just like the yogurt. I thought that yogurt was mine. I buy the same kind of yogurt. And the four-cheese lasagna I had in the microwave when he came in that day. He was mad. I thought I had bought three of them and this was the third but he said I had bought none of them and this was his. So he ate it instead. I told him I would buy him another yogurt. He said it wasn’t even his lunchtime.

I hear them joking about me in the hall. They call me the Toilet Paper Monster. Because they say I use up a roll a day. But I don’t use a whole roll. There are three other people who live upstairs and Skipper who lives in the basement. The writer said he put out a roll and it was gone in three hours. "What does she do with it all?" he said. "She is a threat to the rain forest." Skipper in the basement says I steal his TV Guides from the mailbox. He came up here shouting at me the other day, pounded his fist on the dresser in the hall. "God damn it, I know you took it," he said. He almost gave me a heart attack. I should’ve called the police on him. He is an alcoholic anyway.

My mother says I am lazy, that I could work part-time if I wanted. And I would work if I could find the right computer job, maybe two hours a day. Social work would not be bad either. That is mostly on the phone. But I have the arthritis and I worry about my heart. So I have started writing. Writing is pretty easy and the money is good. The writer has told me he gets a thousand dollars for one article. People have always told me that I write great letters. I can’t write on my computer, though, because my virtual memory is all backed up because I put everything in large font, but I’m going to get that fixed with my next disability check. I lost my last disability check. I hid it and then forgot where I hid it and had to have a new one issued. But I am writing by hand in the morning. It is hard work, not the writing, but the writing by hand. I don’t think writing itself is that hard. I have some good stories, one a murder mystery with a twist at the end. I have read some of the writer’s stuff and I don’t think it is that good. He is no Stephen King, let me put it that way.

I wrote this story the other night, I know it is going to sell. This was after my printer broke but I fixed it and then I had the dream and got up and wrote everything down. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the writer it’s you have to get up no matter how tired you are, no matter how much you think you might remember it. Get up off your ass and write the whole thing down, because I forgot this other great story that came to me. That one I could’ve made a million on. Anyway, I just needed to know where I should send this story and I had been drinking a little so I knocked on the writer’s door and he was sleeping. He told me to come back later, but I said I had to talk to him, it was important. Finally he opened the door. I told him I wrote a story last night. I know it’s going to sell. And I just needed to know where to send it, that’s all. He said to check the library, which had directory books with markets in them.

"How much you think I can sell it for?" I asked him, "a thousand?"

"A thousand easy, "he said. "Maybe ten thousand."

"No, not ten," I said.

"Atlantic pays a dollar a word," he said.

"Atlantic What?" I said.

"Atlantic Monthly. You never heard of it?"

"No, is that one of those little travel magazines?"

"No, it’s a big national magazine," he said, and I forget the rest of what he said but it was something about vodka ads. I told him I had never heard of it.

He wrote everything down for me, then said he needed to go back to sleep.

Later on that night it was too late to drive to the liquor store, so I borrowed a glass of wine from him. He gave me the whole bottle. He said, "Take it and don’t bother me for a while." That hurt my feelings. I hardly ever ask him for wine. And that’s when I broke Kimm’s Poe Ballantine glass. I was listening to my records. I listen to Flashdance, Three-Dog Night, Donna Summer, Tina Turner Live, the Supremes, and some Mexican music, I don’t remember where I got that. But I got to feeling good and I was dancing and the music was loud and I came spinning out of my door singing and ran into the dresser and broke Kimm’s glass. Kimm took all her glasses back after that. She is always so crabby after rehab. And she says I stole her ice cream bars. But someone has been stealing my ice cream bars too. Also someone took my eggs. Also I had fifteen washcloths when I came to this rooming house three years ago, now I only have eight. Also someone has been knocking on my door late just after I fall asleep. It has happened twice in the last week. I saw that census lady sniffing around the front door again yesterday. I can’t let her see me. Once they have stolen your identity they can do anything they want to you.

And now I have to take all these medications for my sinuses and insomnia and migraine and arthritis, plus the epilepsy. Some days if I can’t get enough sleep my brain does not work right. I think I need new medications. The doctor says I should not be drinking. He was looking down my throat the other day and I burped. He said, "Have you been drinking?" I said, "Only half a beer. " He said, "It’s nine o clock in the morning." I can’t help it if I like half a beer in the morning. He says I can’t drink with the medications because it makes me seize, but everything makes me seize. Robitussin makes me seize and so does diazepam and I think Vick’s Nyquil too because I had a seizure the other night when I had a bad cold. My mother says I take too many medications. My mother and I don’t get along.

So when I had that seizure I did not want to call my mother and Kimm was at AA so I had to knock on the writer’s door. There was no one else around. He said, "Isn’t three times a day enough, Barb?" I think he was sleeping again. I wonder if all he ever does is sleep. The things I have read of his I would not be surprised. I do not have the kind of epilepsy where you have to put a spoon between my teeth to keep me from biting off my tongue. My epilepsy is from brain damage. Sometimes the seizures last eight to twelve hours. They are like slow electrocutions. I am so tired after a seizure I have to sleep sometimes for two or three days. The writer sat out in the hall with me for an hour and rubbed my arms and we talked about my diet book. I have lost up to forty pounds on this diet, fast. I think I can sell it for ten dollars a copy over the Internet. The writer says all this writing I am doing is good for my brain. I wish he could’ve known me before the accident. The only time he ever treats me nice is when I’m having a seizure.

My mother only comes over once a week now, to bring my laundry and usually we fight. The social services call me. Kimm is mad at me because I broke her glass and the writer thinks I stole his roast beef. I go to the church and the Salvation Army for free food. My life is different from before. It was not like when I was going to the bars and I could not remember how I got home. Kimm says I brought home that guy one night, and I wouldn’t let him go. But I don’t remember any of it. I don’t even know who he was. At the free chicken dinner last week that’s all the preacher could talk about was lust. I don’t know why he kept looking over at me. And Kimm says I imitate everything the writer does. Just because I switched from Bud Light to Heineken and filled the freezer with sausage pizzas and put my milk in Gatorade containers and bought a black backpack and write stories every morning. He gargles with hydrogen peroxide, too, and has such pretty teeth, so I asked him about it when he came out of the bathroom. But I couldn’t stand the taste of it. You have to mix it half with water, he said. And then later that night I got up and I had taken too many medications and was thirsty and grabbed my bottle of hydrogen peroxide by accident and drank some. Then I called 911 and asked for the poison control center. About a minute later a policeman was ringing the doorbell downstairs. So I went down to answer but I don’t think he was really a policeman but someone who had been listening to a scanner. He didn’t have a badge. "Let’s go up to your room," he said. He didn’t show any I.D. I didn’t let him in. I told him I was OK.

Right after that the phone calls started. Someone had recorded my mother’s voice and would play it all spliced and cut back together but I knew it wasn’t her. There is a woman with my exact name who lives in Milwaukee who is using my social security number, collecting on my disability and SSI, so it could be her. They can find out everything they want about you through your credit cards. I called the police and they came to investigate the calls but I wasn’t sure if they were really police or not so I didn’t let them in.

After that incident they laughed at me out in the hall, Kimm and the writer and Skipper. I wanted to go out there and tell them something. Because your roast beef is missing? Because the toilet paper goes too fast? Because I broke a glass? Because I drank the hydrogen peroxide? Because I sleep sometimes for two or three days? Because I can’t work because of the disability? Because I drink a little in the daytime? What do you know about it? They never beat your face in with brass knuckles and took your car and left you on the side of the road for dead.

But I will show them. I am going to send that story to the Atlantic Monthly and everyone will be surprised when it is published. Also I am going to take that roast beef note off the refrigerator tomorrow because it has been up for over two weeks. Last night I bought the writer a yogurt and a bottle of Heineken and put it in his drawer. I have already told him I would pay for all the gas. And if he wanted to stop anywhere along the way to visit someone, I would sleep in the van for a couple of days. I think also by the time I get to L.A. I will be ready to work again. I can just see myself now, driving down the freeway with my sunglasses on. Q