Yellow Mama Archives

Mickey J. Corrigan
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Free to Leave

Mickey J. Corrigan

 

The woman rises from her plastic chair and approaches the reception desk.

Instantly, Lehigh wakes up the computer and pretends to search the files. She clicks aimlessly, making the new patient wait before she looks up.

"Yes?"

The woman is maybe forty with thick blonde hair swept up in a loose bun. She's dressed in an expensive silk blouse and black skirt, leather ankle boots with five-inch heels. Her face is by Botox. Her purse, Gucci.

Lehigh stares blankly. The paying and staying carry designer bags, so you always admit them. Their insurers will cover them for weeks, sometimes months. This is worth a lot of points.

The woman tries to smile, fails. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I've been waiting for close to two hours. Do you have any idea when I'll be able to talk to someone?"

Her manicured hands flutter, jingling gem-heavy rings. She's concerned about the long wait. The sane ones usually are.

She shivers. "I can't stay here all night—"

Lehigh holds up a hand, nods curtly. "You've already filled out the forms, so you need to stay until you're able to talk to an intake counselor. Dr. Jonas should be here any minute."

Dr. Jonas has a useless PhD in English literature from Southern Florida Community College. He is, in reality, a closer.

Lehigh adds, "He had an emergency but should be here soon."

An emergency in his pants, probably. Guy's out cruisin' on weekend nights, who knows where. When the woman turns around, Lehigh texts him again. Better hurry, she's on her way out.

Jonas texts back. Oh shit. On my way. Don't lose her.

The woman has reseated herself and is flipping through last month's People Magazine, so Lehigh says nothing more. This one could mean serious points. Once Lehigh has enough points, she can get off the midnight shift, work days. With enough points, she'll be promoted to intake counselor. After that, she can quit her part-time gig at Lucky Dog Bonds. Life will be easier. She's been working her ass off for way too long.

Lehigh checks her phone. Four more hours until dawn. Six more hours until she can go home. When she looks up, the woman is staring at her with an odd expression. Fear? Clarity?

The lady stands up. "I'm feeling much calmer now. I think I'll go home."

Shit.

Lehigh comes out from behind the reception desk. "I'm sorry, but you can't do that. Our rules don't allow it. Once you've filled out the admission forms, you are no longer free to leave. Not until you meet with one of our counselors. And Dr. Jonas—"

Her frown deepening, the lady says, "I don't care about your rules. My panic attack has fully subsided. It's two o'clock in the morning! I've got a luncheon to attend today and I'm exhausted. Please tell the doctor I'll be in touch if the symptoms arise again."

Lehigh texts Blaine. Runner in reception.

The only technician on duty tonight, Blaine is most likely hanging out back by the dumpsters, smoking and playing games on his phone.

The woman clutches her purse to her side as she marches to the exit. When she pushes against the glass door and it does not move, does not revolve, Lehigh prepares herself for the explosion. Her heart speeds up. Dammit, she needs those points.

The woman screams at her. "Hey! The door's locked!"

Lehigh speaks slowly, as if to a tempestuous child. "I'm sorry, but now that you've told us you have suicidal thoughts, you are not free to leave. Not until a counselor has determined you are no longer a threat to yourself."

The woman snorts. "Don't be ridiculous. You can't hold me here. Do you know who my husband is?"

A rich dude, Lehigh guesses. Probably at least twenty years older but with Ferraris full of cash. "Please take a seat, ma'am. The doctor—"

"Fuck the doctor! You let me out right this minute, young lady, or my lawsuit will include you."

"Ma'am, you're hyperventilating. I think you need a sedative. Let me get you something."

The lady stamps her spiked boot on the tile floor. "You don't tell me what I need, missy. Now unlock this door. You can't hold me here against my will!"

Lehigh says calmly, "You signed the forms voluntarily admitting yourself, ma'am. There's nothing I can do now. If I let you out, I'll lose my job."

She'll lose points, is what she'll lose. Where the hell was Blaine?

The woman shakes her head fiercely. "I didn't know what I was signing. I was freaking out, upset and scared. So I came here to talk to someone, not to admit myself as an inpatient." Her pretty hair is mussed up, her face a boiled shrimp pink. "You tricked me, you little bitch!"

When Blaine lumbers in from the ward, big and hard-bodied with a shiny shaved dome, the woman's face blanches. She bangs on the exit door like a madwoman until he gets her in a chokehold.

Lehigh advances in order to assist while Blaine administers the butt shot. The struggle is ugly but blessedly brief.

Outside the glass doors, an owl hoots. The sound is alluring, primal and haunting.

"You almost lost yourself a hundred points, babe," Blaine says after the woman's eyes bang shut. "This one looks like she's got top of the line insurance. She'll be in here for months."

Lehigh sighs. "I'm so tired of these rich bitches. The paying and staying are always such a pain to commit."

Blaine lifts the unconscious woman in his muscled arms. "Our job is to admit and retain, not to whine or complain," he recites from the mental health technician's manual.

Lehigh laughs, then bends down to retrieve the Gucci bag from the floor.





Old Mules

Mickey J. Corrigan

 

There was something about my new tenant that reminded me of something else, but I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. Deciphering relationships and metaphors had become increasingly difficult for me. I would puzzle over simple things, which then evolved into complex thought mazes in which I got lost until I gave up. My poor brain had slowed down, seized a few times, and now it was tied in wiry little knots of confusion.

Kit was surprisingly spry for his age. A hunched turtle with a hooked nose and penetrating black eyes, my new roommate was surprisingly fun, too, full of crazy stories and silly jokes. We first met at the beach bars, where we hung out on occasion, laughing a lot and getting drunk together. There was no sex, we were both, sadly, too far from that goalpost to even try for a naked sprint. But when he told me he wanted a place to live within walking distance of our favorite watering holes, I made the invite. After all, I needed the kind of steady income I could get from a roommate. Plus, I liked having a drinking buddy onsite.

The arrangement worked for a while. Until I got in trouble. As usual. Men and cons, they'll be the death of me yet. That is, if the tumors don't beat them to it.

Right off, Kit made good on the rent. He told me his pension came from the government of the Virgin Islands. He'd worked for many years for the Ministry of Finance in Montrieste, one of the lesser-known Virgins. So when he asked me one hot summer day over a bottle of Jack Daniels if I'd like to make some side money doing piece work for the Ministry, I thought, yeah, why not? Even though I had reservations about Kit's background. He was a weirdo and a drunk. What kind of government position had he actually held? And I knew I wasn't up to working a job. Not mentally, not physically, not in any way.

Still, I said yes.

We were sitting out back on my tiny cement patio, side by side in low-slung plastic beach chairs. We kept the sun off with a patchy yellow beach umbrella that had a picture of a clear bottle of beer and this label: "Corona, Not Corona-19." Not a good joke, but a practical one. I'd found the ancient umbrella in the dumpsters for my trailer park. Maybe the previous owner had died from the disease, but that awful thought did not deter me. Kit and I needed shade if we wanted to drink outside my now tightly-packed mobile home.

We were both wearing white wife beaters and men's boxers, both dripping sweat. A couple of old, sexless friends on a bender for the Fourth of July weekend.

Kit said, "All right, girl! You gonna love it. All you gotta do is move stuff around, that basically it. Messenger from here to there to here." He sipped his Jack, neat, no ice. His dark eyes narrowed, squinting into the distance as if visualizing the Caribbean islands and the work he'd done there. "You go to Montrieste and stay a night, a lovely thing. So fun, girl! And I watch your back, hold down your old fort here. Nuthin' to worry 'bout."

My skeptic antennae popped straight up and buzzed in my ears. "Wait, there's cause to worry? Messenger what, exactly?" I asked, reaching for the half-empty bottle. He'd paid for it. That, and all the rest of the grocery bills for the past three weeks. "I'm not doing anything even remotely related to contraband," I warned.

I was dulled mentally, but not jackass stupid. I'd had enough of jail and backbreaking work release to last me the rest of my shit life.

Kit snorted. "Course not, sugar. Hits nuthin' like that. Here's what's whats."

He gave me the briefing. How you bring an empty suitcase with you to the island, and they fill it with official gifts and documents for you to ferry back to the US. Once you land in Miami, you hand off the contents of your suitcase to the UN officials sent to meet you there.

"Very professional like," he said. "Fact is, you dress up in a straight-lookin' suit, meet 'em in a private suite at a uptown hotel. Or in style on Miami Beach."

Come on! I had no such suit, as Kit was well aware.

When I shook my head in disgust and raised one eyebrow, he swiveled. "Gifts are standard protocol in many parts of the world," he said. "But the Ministers don' wanna be seen indulging in the practice. Hits not to their advantage politically, see."

I smelled a fish. Was it coming from Kit's bare feet, dirty and thick with yellowed calluses and lumpy corns? Or was the rank odor coming from me, the next fish on his con line?

I changed the subject and we both got roaring drunk.

Another day not too long after that, Kit launched into the topic again. He said the work paid really well due to the travel requirements and time commitment. "Course they pay you back for alla your expenses. And you get to see a part of the world you ain't never seen before," he told me.

We were rolling a shopping cart down the bumpy sidewalk under a brutal late morning sun, heading for the air conditioned trailer. On our way home from CostCut with a half-dozen stacks of cheap-rate TP and a big pile of dented canned goods. Hurricane season had started early with a couple of named storms, and I needed to stock up for a possible hit. Just in case. In Florida, you don't want to run out of what you might need for either end.

"Like how much do they pay per trip?" I asked him. Against my better judgment. If I had any, which I doubted.

"Dunno what they pay per delivery now, but pretty sure hits in the four figgers." He leaned over our cart and pulled out a sweating bottle of Miller, cracked it using the can opener he wore on a dirty rawhide string around his neck. "Might be double what they paid in the two-aughts."

He said things like that. Two-aughts.

My eyes rolled along with the cart, but the thing was, I needed the money. My bank account had dwindled to a frightening degree. I couldn't keep track of my finances anymore. The social security, the disability insurance monies. They came in the mail, I deposited the checks, then suddenly all of it was gone. Was I spending wildly and not remembering? It appeared so, and this kind of lull in my cognition was happening increasingly often. I blamed it on the tumors, but it could have been from the booze. And the pills.

"So how do I apply for this dream job?" I asked Kit, making my voice sarcastic sounding.

He wiped puffs of white foam from his lips with a bony forearm. "Easy, girl. I got connections, so I can take care a' alla that. And a big old suitcase, I got one that's been a few places. Next thing you know, sugar, you be the one on the move!"

He let me steer the cart the rest of the way home while he cackled and drank the warm beer.

A few days after that, Kit came out on the patio just as the blazing sun was setting in a vivid fireworks display. My backyard, such as it was, faced directly west. The evening fireball was right in our faces, turning his a strange shade reminiscent of raspberry sherbet.

"Okay, sister girl, youse an official messenger now," he said, handing me a freshly opened bottle of Jack. "I got a official acceptance email today. You wanna read it?"

I filled up my solo cup with whiskey, then took his proffered tablet.

The official letter was short and to the point. I sipped my drink but all I could taste was the bitter flavor of jailhouse vomit.

The email welcomed me by name and advised me that my courier status would be activated as of the following Tuesday. I could fly out of any airport I desired, and would be met at the Montrieste Airport once I confirmed my travel plans with the Ministry. I could arrive and depart whenever I wished, but would need to be in Miami on the 15th for the meeting with the UN official.

"They lets you have freedom a' choice," Kit said. He was drunk, and sunk low in the beach chair beside me. "Come an' go's you please, long as you get from there to here okay."

"Why wouldn't I get back okay?" I asked, rereading the letter, which had been signed by Albertus Dominick Treehorn III, Minister of Finances, Montrieste. "I mean, like what could happen elsewise?"

I'd had a few myself.

Kit shrugged. "Dunno. I did some messenger work in the late two-aughts. Went smooth as buttermilk."

I thought hard on that. It sounded wrong but I wasn't at all sure why. His aughts threw me off every time. Was he concealing something, or being selflessly helpful to a friend, his landlord and drinking pal?

Either way, I wanted the chance to do something out in the world again, and I was grateful for an opportunity to earn. I was old, my cancer had metastasized, but I wasn't defeated. Not yet.

 So I said, "Book me, Danno," finishing my drink and reaching for the bottle.

Kit laughed. He promised he'd reserve the airline tickets for me, and a night at the nicest island hotel.

 

The island was soft and green, the streets quiet and clean, but the beaches resembled the ones at home. Brashly sunlit, uncomfortably overcrowded, and smelly from thick piles of brown sargassum, a rogue seaweed plaguing both countries. I held my nose and took a quick walk on the hot sand, followed by a dip in the exquisite hotel pool. My room was private, small and tidy, tastefully sparse and all white. Sheets, drapes, walls, floor tile, all white. I felt like a splash of mud on the untouched purity of the space.

As the half-peach sun set over the turquoise sea, I lounged out on the balcony, champagne flute in hand. Maybe this hadn't been such a terrible idea. I hadn't felt so full of the world in years.

At the pre-arranged time, the other messenger, my island counterpart, knocked on the hotel room door. I said, "Yes?" while I peered through the peephole.

She was around my age, her wispy hair a gray wildflower framing a round pink face. Her painted-on eyebrows gave her a look of perpetual shock. An exuberant floral one-piece bathing suit clung to her fleshy frame. Her feet were bare, sandy. If she hadn't been hefting two boxes and a sagging backpack, I might have thought she had the wrong room.

Her voice quivered when she said, "I think you're supposed to let me in."

"What's the password?" I asked, though I'd forgotten it myself. But if she said it, I'd recognize it. Kit wouldn't let me write it down.

"I forget," she admitted, her voice shaking.

I let her in.

When I offered her a drink from the minibar, she declined. We walked over to the king-size bed where the oversize suitcase lay open on the white cotton bedspread.

"I love this room," she said, looking around, her voice sounding less afraid, more melodious. "It's so pristine."

I agreed, then got busy transferring a series of thick envelopes from her faux leather backpack to the suitcase. Kit had instructed me how to slide the official gifts into the bubble jackets, one per. I did as he'd instructed while the courier watched me. When the envelopes were packed, she handed over a flat box of assorted seashells and a case of bottled Montrieste Marinade ("Made with Real Island Rum!"). I packed those gifts carefully to fill the space, then closed the suitcase and locked it.

"What do you think's in them envelopes?" she asked.

I told her I didn't want to think. Not until I was safe back at my place in Florida.

She gave me a cockeyed once-over, like she was checking to see if I was dimwitted. "But you jolly well should. You'd best give it a good long think before you pass through US Customs, sweetheart," she said, shaking her fuzzy head a little.

I wasn't clear on what she meant. But I didn't ask her to explain. I didn't want to know what part of me already knew. That this was a dangerous con, and I was risking something, maybe everything, by participating.

I slept poorly in that luxurious room, tossing all night long. Did the envelopes contain contraband? Drugs, or something else illegal? Was I being used by a vast criminal cartel? Was I serving as a witless mule?

Of course, the answer to all of those questions was yes. The promised payout was a thousand dollars. Obviously, I wasn't transferring official seashells between heads of state, and the people meeting me in Miami were not dignitaries from the UN awaiting a shipment of rum-based marinade. All this is crystal clear to me now. But that night, lying awake in my virginal hotel room, a cool ocean breeze wafting across my hot flesh, my old body wasting away in its own fragile, rapidly decaying wrapper, I was unable to think the puzzle through to the logical conclusion. I couldn't unravel the truth.

Unfortunately, the US customs agents had ironed out all the knots already. They knew exactly how the cartels were using muddled oldsters to move contraband. Old mules. People like me with diminished mental acuity, suckers for the quick cash deal, jonesing for the jobs nobody else would give us.

So I'm not alone. There are more than a couple dozen of us now. Unwitting contraband couriers, awaiting trial in overseas jails.

You could say I got lucky. I'm currently awaiting trial in a lofty Miami jail. It's overcrowded, sure, and unimaginably humid, but not so bad. I'm sober now and receiving free medical care.

And Kit? He's holding down my old fort, he says, living in my trailer. Drinking Jack out on the patio without me. And saving up all the rent money he's not paying me in order to use it for my bail.

Or so he said the last time I reached him from the old-style landline they got in here. But that was more than two months ago. Lately, Kit doesn't answer the phone when I call. Maybe he'll get hit by a hurricane. Trailers tend to crush flat, even in a Cat 1 wind.

Now that I have all the time in the world to think things through, I realize my tenant reminds me of people from my past. The men who led me down blind alleys. The women who introduced me to lucrative sounding scams that hurt others, and ended up hurting me too. Sometimes when I'm sitting here in my cell, images and feelings, emotions and dark sorrows rush back at me in a tidal wave of memories, a riptide of the events of my life, and I feel like I'm sinking, drowning in what I've done, what's been done to me.




Originally from Boston, Mickey J. Corrigan writes Florida noir with a dark humor. Novels include Project XX about a school shooting (Salt Publishing, UK, 2017) and What I Did for Love, a spoof of Lolita (Bloodhound Books, UK, 2019). In 2020, Grandma Moses Press released the poetry micro-chapbook Florida Man. "Old Mules" is from a collection of short fiction about cons and scams.




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