Hallelujah Livingstone’s first day in this place was about to begin; and he figured his only way out was to be sent someplace worse.
“A-a-a-w-w,” Hallelujah groaned, at 6:03am, and rolled his 6-foot-6-inch frame over on the two-inch thick slab of rubber that covered his metal-framed cot.
“A-a-a-w-1! . . . What in the blazes is that?!”
The guards, aides, nurses, counselors, and blood-hounds were arriving for duty and letting the heavy, double-metal doors slam behind them, giving an electric jump-start to any sleeping soul within fifty feet of the seventh floor’s entrance.
And Hallelujah, who was known by most as “Stone,” now hated to wake up – at any time of day, in any way. It meant that his brain – or something – would start up again with all of that “You’re no good . . . Look at the mess you’ve made of yourself . . . you’re life – everybody’s life . . . You never cared about anybody but yourself.” And he wouldn’t be able to shut it off for the next 15 hours – not for a second.
“You evil trash,” it started. And Stone cringed in pain.
“Good morning, Mr. Livingstone!” a cheerful, bright and gangly young man, of no more than 20 years, smiled from Stone’s doorway. “Breakfast is in the Community Room.”
“Look at that!” Stone’s brain attacked, sounding like something other than his brain. “That kid has a real job. A responsible job . . . And here you are – 26 years old and still can’t support your pitiful self. You oughtta be ashamed.”
Stone glanced at the young man – an aide on this floor – and quickly noticed his ring.
“How do like that?!” mocked Stone’s miserable brain – or something. “That kid is married . . . and you’ve never kept a woman for more than two dates . . . Because . . . you just don’t . . . CARE . . . about anybody! . . . Do you, sociopath?!”
Stone grabbed his head and pushed his hands frantically, over and over, through his dark, shoulder-length, red hair.
“No!” he groaned. “No, blast it,” but he believed what that sound in his brain was telling him.
“Easy, Mr. Livingstone,” the young aide comforted. “It’s not the best breakfast in the world, but it’s not that bad.”
Stone twitched and jerked his head to the left. His eyes darted. His right hand went frantically through his hair again. “I’m sorry,” he said to the aide, “I wasn’t yelling at you.”
Stone didn’t want breakfast, but the life that had once flamed inside of him was in no mood to break the rules. The fire wasn’t extinguished, but it was down to a few smoldering embers. He stumbled raggedly to the community room and ate – slowly – trying to distract himself, hardly tasting the hash of oatmeal, cup of applesauce, and bacon.
And 20 egg-dreary minutes later, Stone stumbled back to his room, dropped to his bed, and thunder exploded in his doorway, roaring, “Hal— a-a—L-u-u-u— yah!! Livingstone!!!” It boomed Wildman. It beamed and howled and soared. “My goodness! ‘Hallelujah Livingstone.’What a name that is!” the obvious lunatic yelled. And Stone jumped to his feet with a thousand volts, unable to say a word.
“Ezra Eliot Loleko,” the power-plant of madness blasted away to Stone; with a big, wild, barrel-lunged laugh. “That’s my name!”
Everything about this man blazed out loud. He was blowing up all over the place. All “Yes! Yes! Yes!” He filled the doorway with neon and looked 7-feet tall in Stone’s eyes, but he was actually the exact same 6’6” as Stone.
“Ezra Eliot Loleko,” the giant roared. “How in the world did I get a name like that? . . . Well, my ma was a part-time English professor,” he sped on, answering his own question, “and my old man was a joker, who hated school, but ended up teaching because it gave him all the time in the world to do what he really loved – howlin’ out loud in a country-punk band.”
“Huh?” Stone grunted a nearly-panicked laugh.”
“Yes! Yes!” Ezra raved. “My ma was an English professor and my dad sang – if you could call it that – in a country-punk band,” he rambled and raged. “Sounded like a screaming coyote, but I loved it . . . So, I ended up getting named after three dead poets.”
“Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot,” Stone quickly responded, much to Ezra’s delight,” And, uh-umm—”
“e.e cummings! – Ezra Eliot, e.e. – Nuts, ain’t it?” Loleko cackled.
“W-what are you?” Stone shakily managed to ask, overwhelmed by the raging ball of fire.
“H-a-a-a-a!” Ezra boomed with glee. “I’m just like you, Brother Livingstone!”
Ezra was locked up in this place just like Stone, but he was the freest man Stone had ever seen. The truth is; he wasn’t locked up at all. He couldn’t be locked up . . . And Stone would have been locked up even if he was free to roam the most wide open prairie in the land.
But Ezra Eliot Loleko was, indeed, a lot like Hallelujah Livingstone.
They both stood 6’6” and were 225 pounds of brick, mortar, and muscle. Together, they could have torn the place apart. But there wasn’t much fight left in Stone and Ezra wouldn’t lay his hand on another – and he would have no other lay a hand on him – but there weren’t many so inclined.
The two men were both athletes, though Ezra had rarely played an organized sport, while Stone had been a right-handed relief pitcher, including one year on a baseball scholarship to Vanderbilt University – known to some as “the Harvard of the South.” It seemed like another lifetime. It was another lifetime.
Stone had a 93 mile per hour sinking fastball that missed as many bats as Stone did classes. And he wasn’t all that interested in going to class.
That, however, does not mean that Stone was some kind of an idiot. One does not get to Vanderbilt University without brains – even on an athletic scholarship. But Stone’s mind – or something – was already attacking him in that freshman year at Vanderbilt and he feared treatment.
Stone didn’t want medication – or any kind of therapy – while he was pitching in college. He rightly figured that it would mess with his brain. And he didn’t want anyone to know how much his brain needed to be messed with – especially his coaches. So, he looked forward to stopping the lightning in his head by getting full-blown drunk on Thursday nights in the sewer-like basement of some fraternity – any fraternity.
And that caused him to miss class all day Friday. Every Friday. But, somehow, he managed to pitch one or two innings of all three weekend games. And as soon as the Sunday games ended, he would find a bar far enough into the woods of suburban Nashville to be free from any thorn-in-the-keester, college kids. And get drunk – again.
Stone’s grades weren’t good, but his 2.5 QPA was better than one would expect, given the number of classes he missed. However, they weren’t quite good enough to keep a scholarship at a top-notch academic institution like Vanderbilt. So, Stone spent his last three years at a Division II school near his home in Wheeling, West Virginia. And made loans to pay his tuition.
With his undiagnosed brain raging, Stone needed the support of being close to his home, his family, and his high school friends. It all helped to get him through school, perform on the baseball field – and limit his drinking. But the school loans were now a heavy burden. He was close to defaulting and he beat himself daily for losing the scholarship to Vanderbilt.
Even at an obscure Division II school, Stone’s sinking fastball was good enough to get him noticed by pro scouts. And the bulk he put on between age 18 and age 21 had taken the velocity on his pitches from 93 mph to 95.3. That may not sound like much of an increase, but it was enough to get him drafted into professional baseball by the Minnesota Twins in the 22nd round.
Most of the best college players are drafted into pro baseball after their junior season. Stone wasn’t considered to be one of the best – or even in the second tier, so he had to wait until he finished his senior season; and very few players who are passed over for the first 21 rounds of the draft ever get anywhere close to the major leagues. But Stone’s hard-sinking fastball and the sweeping slider he added in his senior year gave him a chance.
“You don’t seem at all like me, Mr. Loleko,” Stone replied to Ezra’s incongruent answer to his “What are you?” question.
“We’re the tallest, strongest, most athletic men in this whole joint,” Ezra laughed.
“Probably, yeah . . . I guess,” Stone said, almost apologetically.
“And . . . more importantly, Mr. Livingstone . . . we’re Brothers-in-Madness! I’m just like you!” Ezra howled with his eyes flashing bright turquoise and rolling wildly around their sockets – for exactly the intended effect.
“Your madness doesn’t seem much like mine,” Stone lamented, sounding oddly envious.
“N-a-a-h,” Ezra grinned. “Yours is just all bound up – and mine got uncranked a long time ago.”
Stone just stared. There was a force-field around Ezra that drew him in, but Ezra’s uncranked madness was more than he could handle or understand.
“How did you get in here?” Ezra asked.
“That’s a long story – and it’s probably been a long time comin’. Feels like I’ve been headed here all my life.”
“Gimme the condensed version.”
“I’m no rippin’ good,” Stone snapped. “And I’m getting what I deserve.”
“I won’t argue with you on that one,” Ezra smiled gently – and sincerely – looking straight into Stone’s eyes.
That stunned Stone. Everyone else had been vehemently trying to convince him that he was a kind, loving, gem of a man, who shouldn’t be suffering such a tormenting, panicked, and delusional depression.
“I’m no rippin’ good,” Stone said again – and hesitated. He knew that the rest of what he had to say would sound crazy – and even in his current residence, he didn’t want to sound that crazy . . .
“I’m evil,” Stone barked at himself, still holding back on the full, nonsensical nightmare of what he was thinking. “I’ve never been any good . . . never cared about anything but myself.”
“Well, then, it seems perfectly natural . . . that you would be going through hell,” Ezra said firmly, in a voice filled with manly concern.
“My brain never stops slamming me with every miserable thing I’ve ever done. Every failure. Every person I’ve ever hurt. Every blarin’ failure . . . And it’s constant . . . And it won’t ever end.”
Ezra now looked even more directly at Stone and his voice went deep and strong. “I know what you need to do to get through this,” he insisted.
“There ain’t no getting through this,” Stone said lowly and firmly, looking at the floor to his right.
“It’s never too late!” Ezra demanded. “Not as long as you’re on the sunny-side of the dirt.”
Stone jerked his head suddenly to the left and back to the right. “Sunny-side?! Ha!” That thing that sounded like his brain was on the attack again. “There ain’t no help for you,” it knifed. “This is it, you no good leech! It’s over . . . And it’s only going to get worse.”
Stone wasn’t so sure that he was still on “the sunny-side of the dirt.” He believed that he had completely given up. He had planned to commit suicide the night before he entered the hospital, but he couldn’t go through with it. Couldn’t even take the first step of his plan.
And Stone had not come to the hospital hoping to “get better.” Or even “get through this.” He just wanted to put his family out of his misery. And he hoped that, maybe, the doctors would eventually give up, too. That they would realize he was beyond help and just drug him safely into numb oblivion.
So, when Ezra said that he knew what Stone needed to do to “get through this,” Stone figured it was a madman’s load of bunk.” . . . But Ezra was too much to resist – and there was still a flicker of something in Stone that wanted, hopelessly, to believe.
It was a devilish way to wake up.
Lights flashing blue and red like a fire truck blasting through the door. A burly-fat, loud man with a large, growling head barreled into the room. Pushing a strange, metal machine, he barked something unintelligible and charged toward the side of Stone’s bed.
“What’s this?” Stone snapped, three-quarters unconscious.
And the large-headed barbarian grabbed Stone’s right wrist and . . .