Wayne Schuck has been a human subject before. He’s managed a week of low-salt followed by a week of high-salt while women in lab coats took blood samples. He’s taken pills both easy and hard to swallow and let himself be watched and measured. He’s been happy and angry, but mostly fogged up or what he thinks is unchanged. Just once, he’s felt his heart race in a way that made him get up and walk for an hour because he was sure he would die if he stopped moving. No one ever tells him what they’ve learned from observing him. He gets his check and signs out as someone witnesses his signature and enters the date and time. If any of the stuff he’s taken has given him permanent damage, he can’t tell. If any of it will cause him a problem years from now, he isn’t thinking that far ahead.
This time the trial is housed at an out-of-business motel Wayne has passed a hundred times. He almost misses the turn because he’s so used to the lot being empty that he doesn’t recognize it nearly full of cars. Shivering, he checks his watch and sees he is getting in just under deadline. June 3rd, he thinks, walking across the lot, and so chilly I can see my breath.
Although it is 8:58, there are seven guys in each registration line. All men this time, Wayne decides. Some sort of Viagra, maybe. Something where you have to worry about keeping a hard-on for half a day when something goes wrong. The man who moves up across from Wayne wears a t-shirt that says Life sucks and so should you. The guy in front of him has one of those Christian fish symbols on the back of his shirt. Wayne wants to tell both of them that he’s never even owned a bumper sticker, let alone a shirt that talks, but he doesn’t want glares from both heaven and hell.
Wayne recognizes all of the forms—liability release, informed consent, privacy statement, and payment method. “You’re employed full time?” a young woman says, sounding as if he she thinks he’s lied.
She opens her hands in front of her like an apology. “I’m sorry if I implied anything,” she says. “It’s just that nearly all of our subjects are unemployed or students.”
“And I don’t look like a student?”
The young woman looks like she’s in college, maybe getting credit for doing this work. “You’ll be isolated,” she says. “You’ll have no interaction with anyone except staff members for twelve days.” Wayne nods and signs on four lines. He is a “healthy volunteer” for this one. Two weeks on the science clock instead of taking the vacation the grocery gives him. A double-blind comparison. He might receive the placebo, a thought that relaxes him until he sees his room doesn’t have a television.
“Don’t you worry about that,” the young man who’s escorted him says. “We’ll keep you busy.” Wayne feels him watching as he examines Room 208. The bed is bare, the mattress yellowed as if slept on by sweating bodies. A set of white sheets and a pillowcase sit on the gray, damp-looking pillow. Wayne hangs up three shirts in the small closet. The dresser drawers are empty except for a faded, bald tennis ball that looks chewed. A dog’s toy, Wayne thinks. He doesn’t touch it, nor does he put any of his jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and socks in that drawer.
The young man leads Wayne to a room to be interviewed and tested by the first person Wayne’s seen who looks old enough to be any kind of doctor. He rearranges shapes to make circles and squares and rectangles. He selects one of five answers about choices he’d make under a variety of stresses. He recognizes a reflex test he’s taken twice before. After he’s finished, he’s handed two yellow oblong pills. “Your room has been examined while you’ve been here,” the test-giver says. “I want you to understand that. We have to be certain you won’t ingest anything that will interfere with the test.”
“It was on the form,” Wayne says. “I know about all this.”
“A veteran,” the man says. “So you know your person will be searched as well.”
“Someone will always be in the hall on your floor if you feel anxious,” another young woman says. “Help yourself to some magazines or puzzle books. There is an exercise room that still has the old equipment in it. Someone will be in there to keep you from talking to other subjects, but you’re welcome to take advantage. Exercise doesn’t affect our study. The pool, however, is empty.” For a moment, Wayne believes she is going to escort him and do the body search, but that thought disappears as soon as the young man steps into the doorway and gestures him back to 208.
“I must ask you to fully disrobe,” he says. Wayne faces away from him as he undresses. He is so cold he feels himself shrivel to humiliation size.
Alone again, Wayne dresses and wraps himself in the one flimsy blanket lying at the foot of the bed. Though 208 has a balcony, the sliding glass door that leads to it is locked from outside. In the tiny bathroom, one towel and a washcloth are folded beside the sink. A tan stain spreads in a fading spiral from the drain. There is a similar stain in the bathtub. The faucet, when he turns it on, coughs out brown water for a few seconds, and then it clears. His dinner is delivered to his door, which isn’t locked, but just like the girl has promised, there is someone with a bouncer’s build in the hall. He lies on the bed and looks at the ceiling for two hours until the same burly man knocks and leads him back to the test room. “It’s like being on jury duty,” the attendant says. “We don’t want you tainting yourselves by mingling and revealing how you feel.” This time Wayne grabs a Sudoku puzzle book, 100 of them graded from beginner to expert. “Hours and hours of fun,” the cover says. Wayne notices that all the easy ones, numbers 1-25, are filled in. The rest are untouched except #100. Ultra Hard, it says at the top of the page. Six numbers are filled in. A half dozen more squares show erasures that have worked holes through the paper.
So Wayne has time to think. That’s what his mother would say to justify sitting around doing nothing for hours while yellow pills do their work. “Use your time to your advantage if you’re going to be a guinea pig,” she said when he told her last week what he was doing for his vacation. “You can work things out with yourself while you’re doing someone else’s job.”
“I can’t stand anything I hear myself thinking.”
“You sound like your father when you talk like that.”
“Dad always sounded neutral.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. He’s a hundred miles away, but I can hear him right this minute in my ear.”
He’d been cutting her grass and trimming her shrubbery. After his father left, she’d refused to move away from a house and yard too big to manage. “You can still help,” she’d said when Wayne had finally moved out, too. “You’re not going a hundred miles like your father.” For eight years now he’d done the lawn and landscaping. “Your father,” she said every summer, “if he ever drives by, will see it’s perfect.”
That afternoon, after he turned down her iced tea offer, she’d poured him a glass anyway. When he pushed it into the middle of the patio table, she’d said, “You’re so angry. Until those girls, you never used to be so angry.” She meant him to consider his recently broken engagement. His third one. “All within two years,” she said. “How is that possible?”
“I wanted the hat trick,” he said, and his mother clicked her tongue.
“Honest to Pete. You’re smarter than that, Wayne. There’s your father again saying ‘we all have to take our medicine’ like he was wrapped up in those chains the way that ghost in the old Christmas story was. I can hear him clanking when you talk like that.”
“Not so smart that I’m working check-out at the grocery.”
She picked up the glass of tea and sipped. When he frowned, she said, “There’s no sense in wasting.”
“I have to go,” he said. “The yard will dazzle Dad if he picks today to make the two-hour drive.”
His mother stood between Wayne and his car. “When I go through your line at the store, you know every vegetable and piece of fruit they sell there, even the okra and the fresh spices and all those things that look like roots. None of the other checkers know. ‘What’s that?’ they ask me, as if lettuce only comes in the shape of a ball, and I always want to tell them it’s something really cheap, some kind of cabbage, but I just can’t even though they deserve it.”
“Once we’re on the job six months, we all get paid the same, Mom. I got the two weeks vacation because I’ve finished two years now.”
“People will notice. You’ll see.”
“They already did, Mom. After a month they started calling me Mr. Produce.”
“You’re only thirty-two. That’s not old, not these days. Forty’s the new thirty. You have eight more years to be young unless all those things you let people feed you are doing something to you right this minute.”
“I don’t always take the real stuff, Mom,” but it didn’t stop her from rattling on while they stood in her driveway for another ten minutes.
His mother always forgot about the tests without drugs like the week he spent being examined for “Shift Work Disorder” back when he was working in the grocery warehouse, alternating day and night shift. He was unhappy every day, but he’d never thought he had a disorder. Extra money, though, was extra money, and all he had to do was tell the truth. Out front in the grocery, he was still on shifts, but the difference between 8-4:30 and 12:30 to 9 was the problem of getting his feet on the floor at 7 a.m. every other week.
This morning, just after eight o’clock, while he was longing for the coffee he’d had the night before, his last cup for nearly two weeks, his mother had called. “This might be the last time you’re normal,” she said.
“I’ve never had any of those things they say fast in the TV ads, Mom.”
“Numbness in the limbs,” she said. “Muscular weakness, swelling of the lips and tongue. See your doctor immediately.”
“No four-hour erection?”
She made her clicking sound before she said, “Everybody knows that’s impossible, so when it never happens those drug companies can pat themselves on the back like they’re selling miracles.”
“Somebody had one, Mom. Trust me.”
His mother sighed as if he’d brought home a rumor about his second grade teacher. “That’s what they said about Jesus on Easter.”
“You’ll make me late,” Wayne said. He stared at the clock, choosing a time three minutes away when he would say “I have to go” and hang up.
“It’s not too late to remind you it’s a good thing you were born in 1981 and not 1961,” she said. “I’m talking about Thalidomide. Those women who took it, they had babies with flippers for arms and legs; they had kids who had hands coming out of their shoulders. Don’t you ever worry that your babies one day will have burdens to bear?”
“It doesn’t look like that’s ever going to be a concern.”
“Don’t do that hangdog act. It’s not attractive in a man. You ever talk to your father on the phone? You’d think you’d just seen your first born son with toes sticking out of his ankles. What were they thinking, those women who trusted people who wanted to sell them something?”
“Back then,” Wayne said, “the people who volunteered for the tests just showed up and took things. They didn’t have a piece of paper to remind them that something could go wrong.”
“Just because people are willing doesn’t make it right. These rules they have to follow now should have been written down a hundred years ago when pills first got made. Or maybe two hundred or whenever it was pills and medicine started. Whenever anybody who invented something wanted the world to use it.”
“I have to go, Mom.”
“Sure you do,” she said and hung up before Wayne had a chance to push End Call.
Now Wayne rubs his hands together and hugs himself, shivering. He looks to where someone renting this room would expect to see a coffee maker, but the counter is bare. He bets himself that counter was bare at least a year before the motel had closed. A moment later, he bets himself they haven’t counted on a day this cold in June, what with the heat long since turned off.
His first job was when his father, a janitor for the school district, got him hired for the summer. “Remember who you want people to think you are,” his father said as they walked into the school Wayne had attended until the week before, and then, at 7:15, Wayne held a putty knife and lay down to scrape the underside of the high school gym’s bleachers. “This will take you a while,” the foreman said, and left.
Wayne had sat on those bleachers a hundred times. He’d stuck his share of boogers under his seat during ninth grade, giving it up when the longing for girls drove him to manners. In three months, Wayne had told the foreman, he was beginning college. “Well, until then,” the foreman had said, and Wayne understood this scraping was the kind of job summer help got stuck with—unskilled and awful—what the full-time janitors would never do as long as there was a budget for summer work. He thought of urinals and toilets, what might be caked under the rims of each and how he would be instructed to clean them.
Summer, his father had told him, was when schools recovered from injuries, but all morning the job carved its initials in the air, spray-painted the eat-me and fuck-you of contempt. In the supply closet, Wayne found the extra-duty cleaner and a couple of rags because tiny obscenities were inked in the spaces between the wood slats—three ways to enter Courtney, a name Wayne couldn’t match to a face; five ways to kill Mr. Wallace, an English teacher he’d had as a sophomore; and the one thing a printer wanted to do again and again to Miss Kane, who’d been a student teacher during Wayne’s last semester.
Wayne was making “Robbie Kirkland is a faggot” smear and disappear when he heard the foreman shout, “Schuck!” He was on his feet before he understood it was his father the foreman was talking to. “Get the fucking lead out,” the foreman said, sounding as if he was in the adjacent lobby, but Wayne couldn’t hear his father’s response. “What am I looking at here?” the foreman started up again. “Tell me so I can treasure it.”
Nothing else. The foreman’s voice shut off like a radio.
At lunch, an hour later, his father looked the same, eating his sandwich and his apple, going to the fountain once for a drink of water. “How’s it going?” his father finally said.
“I can see why the teachers never wanted us to chew gum.”
“That job is everybody’s first day,” his father said. “In a few days you’ll be on your feet like the rest of us.”
All afternoon Wayne lay flat on his back, soundless, scraping gum and snot, erasing wishful thinking. Ten minutes before it was time to punch out, the foreman showed up to inspect Wayne’s work with a mirror on a stick, grading like a dentist. As if he’d scouted, the foreman went right to where the obscenities had been printed. “See you tomorrow, kid,” the foreman said, tapping the mirror against Wayne’s chest before he said, “Go and clock out. There sure as fuck’s no overtime on this job.”
Wayne and his father punched out with the rest of the crew, the foreman following them through the lobby toward the main door. “Wait for me by the car,” his father said, but Wayne opted, after a minute in the full sun of June, for the shade of the front door’s overhang. Inside, he could see his father kneeling to take scuff marks from the lobby wall. Before he could be seen, Wayne walked back to the car and stood in the sun.
He waited for eight minutes, his back turned to the sun that shone over the roof of the high school from a cloudless sky. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” his father called from what sounded like fifty feet away.
“What wasn’t?” Wayne said at once, but when he turned, squinting into the sun, his father’s expression was fixed as if he hadn’t heard.
“Ok?” his father said, closing up the distance. “You ok?” and Wayne laid his bare arms across the car roof and gave his father a thumbs-up sign with both hands, holding it as long as he could against the heat.
The last girl he’d lived with, his third engagement, had left to go back to a community college where her parents lived sixty miles away. She was going to be a nurse. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, gesturing toward the aisles of the grocery.
Looking down the rows of canned goods with her, Wayne wanted to tell her there were worse jobs. He’d delivered pizzas. Clerked at a convenience store. And worst, he’d been a dishwasher in an open 24 hours diner, lasting one day listening to everybody in the back room speak Spanish.
He didn’t go back to get his money for the eight hours. He kept hearing that jabber, and somewhere in those sounds they would be laughing at him—”The silent gringo” or “the pale motherfucker with the soft hands”—some joke about him that he didn’t want to have translated.
He didn’t say anything as she nodded at a sign that read “salty snack foods” before she went on. “And I can’t make a commute like that in order to stay here,” all it took to let him know his place in her future. A ring, thank God, was just a promise he’d made.
“They’re starting one of those community colleges around here in a year or two,” Wayne had said as if that was any kind of argument. It was like packing her suitcase for her.
It is nearly midnight when Wayne pulls the single hard backed chair up to the locked balcony door. He has a view of the parking lot and the Interstate. He is looking north, Wayne knows that much.
Wayne remembers that there is a Dutch Pantry less than a quarter mile to the west that he’d be able to see if he could get outside. He’s eaten there once with his mother, and though the food was unremarkable, he’d loved playing a peg game that sat beside the salt and pepper shakers on the table. It was a version of solitaire, jumping one peg over another, removing each jumped peg until, if you did it exactly right, there would be just one peg left. Wayne ended up with three, then two, then four and three again just as their orders arrived. “Almost,” his mother kept saying. He ate a hot turkey sandwich and French fries and watched his mother fuss with a ham slice, nicking off tiny edges of fat until she gave up and ordered a slice of shoo-fly pie, giving him a few minutes to play three more times, leaving two pegs twice. “You’re getting so good at that,” his mother said, half the pie still sitting on her plate.
Wayne replaced all of the pegs and pushed the board across the table. “Oh no,” she said. “You’re the expert.”
“You never know.”
His mother jumped the pegs without seeming to pay attention, but a few minutes later, she ended up with two pegs. “Beginner’s luck,” she said as the waitress approached.
“You’ll get it down to one peg after a few tries,” the waitress said. “You through with that pie?”
“Oh no,” his mother said, covering it for a second with her hands. “Wrap it up for me.”
“I’ll finish it,” Wayne said. He took the pie in one hand and the game in the other. The waitress shrugged and laid the check on the table. Three bites and the pie was gone. “I’ll buy you one of these for Christmas,” Wayne said, dropping a few dollars on the table beside the game board and getting up with the check in his hand.
He wishes he had that game right now. He’d have eleven days to figure out the pattern. If he won the very first day, he’d ask what was in the yellow pills.
He gets up and presses his face against the glass, trying to see the restaurant, but now that he thinks about it, that Dutch Pantry has shut down just like the motel he is in. He backs away from the door when he sees the two young women walking to a car parked in what he knows is the handicap zone just outside the front door. Despite the closed glass door, he can hear them laughing, and when the car starts, a song he doesn’t recognize roars from the speakers, disappearing, a few seconds later, toward where that abandoned Dutch Pantry stands.
He lies on the bed and picks up the puzzle book, turning to #99, but that one is ruined from all the erasures on the other side of the page. He stares at #98, trying to figure it in his head because he doesn’t have a pen or a pencil. His father left before anyone in the family ever heard of Sudoku. His mother thinks Sudoku is silly. And anyway, the answers are in the back of the book, so she wouldn’t be impressed, especially with #100 not being finished.
What his mother thinks is important are all those release forms and privacy pledges, the things that made you consider what sorts of danger you might be in. Whether this was an adventure that anyone could do like skydiving, where all you need to do is fall.
“Pay no attention to anything you see or hear in this place,” his father had said to Wayne that summer a month before he’d packed two suitcases and three liquor store boxes and left, but Wayne had kept looking and listening. He still felt his father’s breath on the back of his neck when the store manager unlocked his register when his shift ended. Or in the way women watched the prices he rang up, their suspicion. Or worse, in the way they clutched their coupons, the ones they carried like medicine.
He is still awake at two a.m., but he convinces himself the insomnia is from first-night jitters. His ears are ringing. Not exactly ringing, more like a high-pitched buzz, as if he can hear an alarm that is sounding inside a locked building half a mile away. If he has this for more than a few weeks, it will be maddening. He will never be able to be alone in a quiet place.
Unusual thoughts. He remembers the phrase from the side-effect list in a commercial for a pain killer. Confusion. Fear. Wasn’t everyone confused and afraid? Didn’t they have unusual thoughts?
He stands and leans against the glass door, watching the thruway and remembering the boy in a nearby town who stepped into the path of a truck a few miles from the motel. Because he was bullied at school for being effeminate. Because everybody thought he was gay. Wayne tells himself suicidal thoughts is a side effect, but suicide is something different altogether.
The squeal in his ears stops. Wayne tears the answer pages out of the paperback and tosses them on the floor. He will borrow a pencil tomorrow. Nobody will worry that he might gouge his eyes out. And nobody will care whether he walks off with the book after he signs himself out. He pages back to the beginning and rips out the page that said answers to each puzzle on page 102.
He’s been doing this long enough to know it isn’t about getting through the pills or shots without a scratch. No matter what his mother and all the smart people who test him worry about, he’s already proved that nothing he takes will change him.
Gary Fincke’s latest book, How Blasphemy Sounds to God, a novel, was published by Braddock Avenue Books in February 2014. His latest collection of short stories is The Proper Words for Sin, Vandalia Press, 2013. He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.