Apr/May 2018  •   Fiction

Can of Worms

by John Palcewski

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

My office, on the fifth floor of a green-tinted-glass and chrome-trimmed building between 57th and 58th street in Manhattan, has a credenza and shelves full of books and a big window with a view of moving north and southbound traffic. I always keep the door open to show everyone I have nothing to hide.

My daily afternoon ritual: open the bottom right drawer of my desk and unscrew the metal cap of my pint bottle of Smirnoff Blue Label. I prefer the Blue because it's 100 proof, as compared to the anemic 75 of the Red. I fill my mug halfway, then top it off with grapefruit juice I got in the morning at Gristedes around the corner. I always put the cup and the grapefruit juice bottle right on my desk where everybody can see it. Vodka has no odor. None at all! Nobody will ever guess what I'm doing.

At five one afternoon, I don't rush out and head for the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel as is my custom. Rather I sit at my desk in a warm haze. No sense going out on the street. It's a long walk along Central Park South to the subway station at Columbus Circle. Too many people at rush hour, and I hate being crowded and jostled. The subway is fucking murder at this time of day. It's hot, humid, and it stinks. "Step lively! Watch the closing doors!" So I just sit there at my desk and pretend to edit an article I am trying to write about mass-producing chickens on big commercial farms in Maryland.

I look up as Joe walks past my open door and turns toward the hallway leading to the elevators. But then suddenly he reappears, which startles me. He puts on a grin not at all friendly.

"Don't get too drunk, Johnny!" he says. And then winks.

"Hey, don't worry about it, OKAY?" I hear myself saying too loudly.

The warm haze turns into an awful buzzing in my ears. My face burns. Jesus. If Joe knows, everyone knows. And what will happen now to my corporate magazine career?

I can't deal with this shit. To hell with it. I just want to check out, now. I finish what's left in my cup. Tonight I'm going to get drunk, and I mean really drunk. Because I can't take this anymore. I never realized how much Joe hates me. His hatred is there, all right. Contempt, too. Just oozing out of him. Mr. Straight Arrow doesn't drink or smoke because he's not man enough for it. Fucking wimp asshole.


At the Oak Room of the Plaza I order a vodka on the rocks with a twist, please. And then in a few minutes another, if you don't mind, Bill. Then to the 7th Avenue uptown express for a long, hot, bone-rattling ride. I walk to Gaughan's Bar & Grill on West 83rd and Amsterdam. No point going home, because my wife, Annie, and daughter Jane are on one of their twice-yearly visits to grandpa's down in West Texas.

Over the hours reality fades to a soft blur. Glass after glass of draft beer. A few games of pool with assholes who can't focus on the end of their cue sticks. Then out on the street I take swigs from a brown-paper-bagged pint of Gallo Port.

At four in the morning, I'm sitting in a doorway of a brownstone with a Latino pimp and drug dealer, smoking a joint. We talk earnestly. I need him to understand I love all people, of any color or nationality or occupation. I'm not here to judge anyone, you know? I'm not like the other white men he despises, I mean for good reason. I'm different. That should be obvious. See? I don't mind sitting with a drug dealer and pimp at 4:30 in the morning, looking out at the dim street, at those evil druggies lurking in the darkness on the other side.


Women. Always women. The red-haired, blue-eyed Irish lass. Under the semen-stained sheet at ten in the morning, I fuck her for the fourth time. I come hard. She smiles. I ask her what's funny. She replies that when she leaves, she will go to confession at St. Matthews, and instead of telling the priest she sinned three times today, she'll have to say four.

"Why must you confess?" I ask.

"Because what we're doing is a sin."

"No, it can't be."

"Oh, yes, my dear, innocent boy, it is. And I'm a sinner."


When Annie goes Texas, I'm a free man and do whatever I please. The first night I bring Mabel to our apartment. She's the cute, black part-time bartender at Gaughan's. We fuck and drink and laugh at the cable TV. Rough and raunchy sex. I can't get enough.

At dawn Mabel says, "Do me one more time before I go, honey. You so sweet!"

I slide into her darkness, savoring the sensual intensity that dulls the pain. I get lost in her tight slipperiness, her willingness, her full acceptance of me, exactly as I am right now, and I try to prolong the delicious sensations. But Mabel wants me to cum, now. Right away, because she's ready. "Do it, honey. Do it. Now." And I cum. But then in just a few minutes it all comes flooding right back: Shame. Loathing. Regret.


Peace comes only with Smirnoff's Blue Label, or glasses of beer from the tap, or gallon jugs of Italian Swiss Colony sherry. Or a woman's cunt. Or mouth. Certainly not Annie's anymore, because I'm sick of her. The sight of her struggling to pull the spandex over her mottled, fatty flesh makes me want to puke. Only when I'm drunk or fucking some other woman do I feel I have a right to live. The rest of the time I furiously struggle to pass myself off as a normal New Yorker, whoever the fuck that is.

But I know I'm a fraud. The most loathsome man in the world, even more loathsome than my father, who nauseated me with his violence and perpetual anger. But underneath all that, he was just a fragile, skinny little wimp. The slightest thing blew him away. He couldn't take it because he was just a pussy. He didn't have the balls to get revenge on my mother, because he knew she'd laugh at him. So he took it out on me, a helpless little boy whose mother turned away from her own flesh and blood.

Oh, poor little Johnny! Poor little Johnny!


I put up a big world map on the wall in the living room and stuck in pushpins to indicate all the places I'd visited in my decade-long corporate shareowner magazine career. Most of the Western European countries, as far east as Istanbul. Every one of the contigious US states had at least one pin, and others—like California, Florida and Texas—had dozens. Annie told me one day she knew those pins represented all the whores I'd fucked. All my bar maid conquests. My infidelities, my betrayals. My serial adultery.

I shook my head. "You flatter me, dear," I said. "There were a lot, yes, but not THAT many!"


But let's get back to Joe. I was exactly right in concluding if he was aware of my daily on-the-job drinking, then everyone in the New York operation knew. Including my editor, Walt. So I wasn't exactly surprised when one afternoon he came into my office with a grim look on his face. I knew something bad was about to happen. He looked at my coffee mug, at the moment full of vodka with a splash of grapefruit juice. Then he looked up at the ceiling and sniffed. And sniffed again. He was making a big show of it.

"What's that funny smell?" Walt said.

"Maybe there's a problem with the air conditioning," I said.

"No, I think the problem is in that cup on your desk."

Well, it finally happened. I was busted. Unbelievable. Unreal! But Walt made it short and sweet. Because of his deep personal concern for what I was doing, which was clearly a violation of company rules as well as awfully self-destructive, he'd made an appointment for me to see the company shrink, Dr. Lewis, up at corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

"He'll see you on Monday at 1 PM," Walt said.

Then he got up and walked out. He was wooden and awkward, but I could see he was just a little proud of himself for being so decisive. Most of the time he trembled and chewed his fingernails and gnawed his knuckles. Especially when the Executive Vice President for Corporate Communications entered his office. Oh, my. Did Uncle Walt know how to fall on his knees and drive his nose up his superior's fat ass.

I had the whole weekend to prepare for the solemn and holy inquisition. To clear my head I drank no alcohol, not even beer. I went to Gucci's and bought a pale blue shirt and a dark blue silk paisley tie to go with it. Also new pair of wingtips. Got a haircut and a manicure.

A silent, slender secretary escorted me down a carpeted hallway to Dr. Lewis's office. He didn't rise to greet me but remained sitting behind a massive oak desk with a glass top. In the corner were strange looking potted trees with narrow trunks and big, dark, waxy-looking green leaves. I put my chrome-trimmed Samsonite attaché case next to my chair and sat down.

We said nothing for about half a minute.

Finally: "Why are you here, John?"

"My editor ordered me to come."

"So you are not here by choice."

"No, I am not."

I glanced up at the wall to his left. Framed diploma from NYU medical school. Other engraved certificates, one in Latin. But he didn't intimidate me in the slightest. I'd immediately sized him up as a sell-out, a fraud, a corporate shill. What in hell was an alleged "healer" doing in a tight three-piece suit, sitting behind a huge desk in a plush, high-backed leather chair? Where was his white lab coat, his stethoscope? His friendly bedside manner?

"Walter tells me he's deeply concerned about your drinking problem."

"What leads him to believe it's a problem?" I said.

"Well, he found half a dozen empty vodka bottles in your desk drawer."

Dr. Lewis's tone was that of a prosecutor laying out irrefutable evidence in a criminal case. I perceived in him not a particle of compassion, empathy, or concern. This intensified my contempt, and I became emboldened.

"You know, doc, there's a curious thing about diagnosing alcoholism," I said calmly. "Just grab any guy off the street at random. Tell him you know he's an alcoholic. If he admits to it, bingo, you're right. If he says no, you're crazy, I'm NOT, well, bingo, you're right still again. Because denial is one of the major symptoms."

Dr. Lewis's smile was just a touch weak.

"Furthermore," I said, "you must know you're opening up a can of worms here. If you insist I have a problem, then you have to define it. So tell me: If I drink, am I suffering from a disease? A mental illness? Or is it a garden variety moral failure? Or just bad judgment?"

"You tell me," Dr. Lewis said.

"You can't possibly say I have a disease."

"Why not?"

I smiled because the stupid fuck had just swallowed the bait whole.

"You know full well, doc, that corporate policy does not recognize alcoholism as a disease. The simple fact is like the general population, between ten and twenty percent of this corporation's employees are drunks. If it's a disease, then the company is obliged to treat them. But given the numbers, doing so would quickly bankrupt the medical plan."

"Nevertheless," Dr. Lewis said, "you must admit your drinking is a problem."

I reached down, clicked open my attaché case. I tossed a few of the corporate magazines on Dr. Lewis's desk.

"Has Walt told you just four weeks ago I was promoted from assistant editor to associate editor, along with a substantial salary increase? Has he mentioned my articles and photographs are among the best that have ever appeared in the publication? My superior performance is indisputable. And my performance is the only issue you may legitimately or legally put on the table. What I do on my own time is none of your business. Or Walt's."

Dr. Lewis shook his head. He scribbled something on his little white tablet. "Despite your sophistry, John, I believe your alcoholism is chronic and you ought to deal with it."

I rose. "Thanks," I said.

"Why are you thanking me? I haven't done a damned thing for you."

On the train ride back to Manhattan, I made myself a solemn promise. To stop drinking? Oh, hell no! I would never stop because it did so much for me. No, I'd just make absolutely sure no simpering son of a bitch would ever catch me at it again. That meant, of course, no more boozing on the job, during the day. I knew I could handle that. Piece of cake. On my out-of-town magazine assignments, well, I'd do as I pleased. Who's to stop me? Huh?

And, of course, I was also determined to get revenge on the sniveling, pathetic, knuckle gnawing cocksucker who put me through this embarrassment. Which revenge, by the way, I succeeded in getting, and I mean big time, about two weeks later. My payback was amazingly effective, very close to a stroke of genius. I may have been an arrogant sick, twisted, and vengeful drunk, but I wasn't stupid.

At around noon one day I closed my office door. I dialed Walt's extension, and at the same time pressed the play button on my Sony tape recorder. Out came the noises of a crowded bar, the clink of glasses and the blaring of a juke box, which I'd recorded the night before.

"Walt here," he answered.

"Lisssen, Walt," I said, raising my voice above the recorded bar chatter. "I know it's gonna pisssss you off, but I have to take the ressss of the day off..."


"I'm soooo sorry, Walt..."

"Don't bother coming back, goddamn you," he said. "You're fired!"

I put the receiver down. Then picked up a long article for the magazine I'd just completed, and walked quickly to Walt's office. When he saw me at his doorway his mouth opened. He stared at me, motionless, paralyzed with disbelief.

"Here's the piece on the Maryland chicken farms, a week before deadline," I said calmly. And I put it on his desk. Walt's eyes were wide and locked on mine. He could not speak.

"Is there anything wrong, Walt?" I asked.

He blinked. And blinked again. He looked down at the manuscript and back at me.

"No," he whispered. "Nothing's wrong."


I was on my way to the subway station at Columbus Circle. I'd been in a bar after work, as usual, knocking back vodka martinis. I noticed the cops had shut down Central Park South, so there was no traffic. I saw the TV cameras and the lights and the reporters with big microphones huddled behind barricades at the side of the entrance to one of the hotels. I asked one of those guys what was going on, and it seemed like it pained him to have to answer such a stupid question. But he said, "Nixon is on his way."

Whoa! The President of the United States.

A big black limo pulled up. Richard Nixon came out of the back seat. The doorman in his long red coat and funny hat greeted him, shook his hand as if they knew each other. Then he led The President toward the revolving door.

In the next few seconds, some truly insane thoughts flashed into my brain and kicked off a great surge of adrenaline. My head buzzed. This is a public place, right? This is a free country, isn't it? I am a US citizen, aren't I? So what the hell! I decided I would go into that hotel's revolving door, right behind him.

I felt the cold brass handle and pushed against it. Nixon was my height, five-eleven. I looked at the white of his collar and his tanned neck. His dark blue suit. His thin, shiny black hair. On both sides of the hotel lobby, people stood with their eyes wide, mouths open. Some were grinning. As soon as they spotted us, they applauded. I felt a solid wave of energy. All those intense gazes, those looks of rapture, the sound of hands clapping. Overwhelming. And I thought, hey, I'm just six feet from The President. If I had a gun, I could have killed him.

When I got home, I said to Annie, "Guess who I ran into on Central Park South?"

She said she had no idea, but she was in no mood for guessing games because she sniffed my vodka aura. When I told her Nixon, she shook her head. Get real.

"No, really," I said. "I'm not lying."

I turned on the TV. Found the Evening News.

Annie stood watching. Sure enough, there appeared a picture of the hotel's entrance. And the long-coated doorman in the funny hat, greeting Nixon as he stepped out of the limo, shaking his hand, leading the way to the revolving door. Then here comes this thin guy in a suit, wingtips, carrying a chrome-trimmed Samsonite attache case, immediately behind the President. Me. There I was on a national TV network. Everyone apparently thought I was part of the Presidential entourage. Nobody stopped me. Nobody questioned me.

Annie certainly knew then, for sure, I was not just a run-of-the-mill drunk, but a seriously disturbed human being. She saw clearly what I couldn't. That not being arrested on the spot, on live television, was a fluke. Where were the tall, muscled, sun-glassed goons of Nixon's Secret Service detail? How could they have permitted such a serious lapse in security?

Had I been arrested, my name and picture would have appeared in all the papers the next morning. And a breathless headlined story to the effect that a two-bit corporate magazine writer, with an excessively high blood alcohol content, had been arrested as he attempted to break security and approach The President of the United States, the leader of the free world, the most powerful man on the face of the earth.

The reports would say the drunk's motives were not immediately clear, but that he was being held by federal agents for further questioning. This drunk was identified as John Joyce, Associate Editor of a corporate shareowner's magazine with offices on Park Avenue. A company spokesman declined to comment on the conduct of this now ex-employee, but did acknowledge Mr. Joyce's drinking had been cause for some concern in recent months. No, the decision to terminate him was not the result of the Central Park South incident; it was already in the works.

But for some reason I was spared. A god had smiled down at me and cut me a break I surely didn't deserve.