It’s 2011 in America, the Iraq War is coming to a close, and the Occupy Wall Street movement has been gaining steam. And at twenty-one years of age, Billy Chute is sitting in the breakdown lane on the side of the highway in his ’98 Altima with his drugs in the cooler on the passenger seat floor, in the midst of escaping yet another stale reality. Still high on an opioid and amphetamine kick, his new escape crystallizes in a journal entry: Find Dad. And those few simple words seal Billy’s fate—what started as another of his impulsive flights becomes a mission, and it terrifies him, for his father is like wildfire, burning all in its path, yet confronting his traumatic past may be Billy’s only sustainable way forward.
A propulsive story with profound insights about freedom and imprisonment, motion and stasis, chance and destiny, The Escapist delves deeply into the internal and external calamities that shape this special human life and mind. Mental health, family conflict and abuse, drug addiction, and sexuality are intricately woven together in a turbulent pre-Trump America in this dynamic and layered narrative of violence and hope.
“Sizzling, a brilliant work of imagination…unflinching in its depiction of our culture and political moment…with the relevance and pace of Kerouac’s On the Road and the psychological brutality of Golding’s Lord of the Flies.”
– Michelle Yasmine Valladares, poet, MFA Program Director at The City College of New York, and author of Nortada, The North Wind
“A perfect time in our country for the return of the anti-hero. So many young men begin an odyssey into adulthood only to find that the past, usually in the form of a father, is both the catalyst forward and the keeper of a locked gate to the future. The goal becomes not salvation but survival. David Puretz’s debut novel alternates between life’s realistic blows and a hallucinatory journey that may be his only route to selfhood.”
– Linsey Abrams, author of Our History in New York, Double Vision, and Charting by the Stars.
as featured in Global City Review’s Legacies, Issue Twenty-Three
Billy put the journal back into his bag, packed up his things, then downstairs waved goodbye to his cousin, said “peace out, Greggy-boy,” and hopped into his ’98 Nissan Altima. He drove a little over an hour west to Frederick, in central Maryland, to the nursing home. It was right next door to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Frederick’s most popular attraction, and Billy appreciated how both of these places were in the business of preserving old things.
Uncle George had told Billy the night before not to alert Grandma that he was coming to visit as it would only confuse her and that she would end up forgetting the date of his visit and call Uncle George to ask if Billy was okay and why he was not there yet. Instead it was best to simply show up, say between twelve and two, right after lunch, when she would most likely be at her best.
Billy entered the Frederick Nursing Center and told the woman at the front desk that he was here to visit Gracie Chute. The receptionist told Billy to leave his driver’s license at the desk, perhaps in a measure to prevent Billy from escaping with the old lady and wheeling her to freedom. She made him put a sticker on his shirt that said “Guest” with his name below it. Easier for his grandmother to know him.
The receptionist gave Billy her room number. On the fifth floor, he walked down the hall, which smelled of urine, of course, and found his grandmother’s room. To the left of the door, her name was emblazoned on a gold metallic rectangle. When Billy was working in the mailroom at Cobin-Haskett, he had had a similar nameplate inscribed with his name, outside of his workspace. He quit that job to escape that and other meaningless things. His poor grandmother, unable to walk or think for herself, was locked into her own hackneyed bureaucracy, not that different from the one Billy had recently escaped, and was now trapped within it until the day she died.
Her bed was neatly made, and pictures of relatives were on the walls, on a bulletin board above her bed, and in frames on top of the dresser. She had a faded black and white framed photograph of her two sons, Alan and George, when they were in their early twenties, looking not that much older than Billy was now. Looking sharp, Dad, looking sharp. There was a picture of Billy and his brother, Peter, as kids with matching puffy white jackets, smiling though staring off in different directions. No Grandma though. Billy exited the room and walked back down the hall to a main corridor where orderlies were standing about next to a larger room with a TV blasting out at the dozen old people situated around it.
At a table in the corner of the room, a couple elders were playing what looked to be backgammon. Billy asked one of the orderlies where Gracie Chute was. She pointed to a woman bent over in a wheelchair facing the television. The View was blasting out of the TV. This was the show of choice for the orderlies, not the residents, Billy knew. Most of the residents were invalids, he thought of them, lost in their own minds, drooling out the sides of their mouths, sagging out of their wheelchairs. Or their heads were flapped back as if looking to the sky. Eyes closed or eyes open but gone. He wondered what was running through their minds. Is it a dead silence or are there still small reverberating echoes that dance through these still bodies?
Billy walked over to his grandmother and crouched on his knees in front of her, blocking her vision of the TV. Her eyes, though, had been facing elsewhere, slightly up and to the left. It seemed she didn’t care for The View either.
She was 79 years old, younger than most of the others. But she was just as wrinkled and lost, he thought. How long had it been since Billy had last seen her? Years upon years, no doubt. He just couldn’t remember exactly when. She was there at home while he was growing up, and then she wasn’t. Billy kissed her sagging, mildly hairy face. He sat down on a bench next to her.
“Hi!” She was so excited to see him, or, at least, to have a visitor. He could have been anyone and the response would have likely been the same. This unadulterated happiness—why couldn’t that have trickled down the goddam family line. Her eyes lowered from Billy’s and checked the name tag: Billy Chute. It clicked—grandson—and she got it.
“I was in the area and wanted to stop by and see you. Talk to you about some stuff. And make sure everything was all right. See if you needed anything.”
“I’m alright. Same old. I’m feeling much better than I was. If you remember I wasn’t doing so good earlier.” Her voice was high-pitched, and she had developed a lisp because of her dentures.
“I actually never heard anything about it until yesterday. Uncle George told me about it. He said you had an accident coming off the elevator.”
“Oh, George. I’ll kill him. I didn’t have an accident— Shirley pushed me into the door. The elevator door.”
“Shirley? Who’s Shirley? She pushed you into the elevator door?”
“She pushed me right into the elevator door.”
“Well I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“So wonderful that you came to visit me. Tracy was talking to me about you. I think it’s so wonderful that you came to see me. You kids have so much love in your hearts.”
As she said this, she cupped her hand around Billy’s cheek and stared deeply into his eyes. The moment came and went and Billy felt nothing—no sense of nostalgia, no lump in the throat. But he recognized it was a genuine moment of affection.
“Grandma, can I talk to you about my dad?”
“George? I’ll kill him.”
“No, Grandma, George is your other son, my uncle. I’m talking about my father, Alan, your older son. Alan?”
“Alan, what a good boy. He works so hard for his family.”
“Such a handsome man he turned out to be. We have such a beautiful family.”
“Yes, I guess we are an attractive bunch. Thanks to you! We have you to thank for that!”
She gurgled a laugh, getting a kick out of this.
While she was basking in this grandson-beauty, an orderly walked in to give patients their medications, their body and/or brain numbing formulas. Could be nice when you’re that old. Turn it off. Shut, the motherfucking thing off already.
A flicker suddenly went off in his head. The tingling returned with forehead sweat and grinding of the teeth. The desire for drugs came flooding into his brain like three hundred wood chimes being struck by the same gust of wind that got progressively louder as they got closer to him, the sweet music turning into a steady swelling of sound. Even the TV seemed louder, and Billy dropped to his knees and grabbed onto the armrest of his grandmother’s wheelchair.
His grandmother had, in some respects, a similar practice of ritualistic drugging as he had, and in many respects, still sought. It was her routine Billy was seeing that brought him to his knees, even though months had elapsed since his own daily drugging rituals had slackened. They were at their most ceremonial during his reign at Cobin-Haskett back in New York.
His workday at Cobin-Haskett would come to an end, at the same time and in the same way as all his other days, with a final mail run through the building at 4:10, back to his desk at 4:45 and promptly out the back doors a few minutes later, unwilling to give them anything more than the eight hours of his day that he was contractually obligated to work. Billy would ride the N train across Manhattan to Astoria Boulevard. It was a short walk from the train stop to his one-room basement apartment. There would be only about half an hour of relaxation before he would start making his preparations. By half past six, latest, it would all be laid out in front of him on the coffee table, and then he would begin.
On weekdays he would smoke his pot, ingest multicolored opioid tablets, sip his whiskey, roll up his tobacco and smoke that too. His weekend ritual usually involved harder drugs, and toward the end of his last stretch in the city, his MDMA pharma-connect had disappeared, so he had to satisfy himself with the more accessible substances. He used cocaine, but, as one of his pharma-connects explained, if the South American climate was too cool and there wasn’t enough moisture in the air, which had been happening more and more, the cocoa leaves couldn’t flourish enough for proper benzoylmethyl ecgonine alkaloid extraction leaving them in short supply. He’d resort to breaking up some amphetamines he obtained through simple prescriptions. He was prescribed Adderall but also had easy access to Dexedrine and Ritalin, all of which were solutions Cynthia had found for her stepson’s erratic behavior, and if he were to date it back, it could easily be said that Cynthia had Billy hooked before he reached double digits. Cynthia never considered how easy it would be for a young man to get his fingers on these Schedule IIs.
Billy had been overprescribed his whole life. And Alan had been quick to hand-feed him meds of his own, especially late at night when Cynthia was at work. It was at his boarding school, Mission Mountain Prep, where he first tried heroin.
During this ritual, Billy would sometimes bump 20 milligrams up his nose. If he was in a rush to leave the apartment or had plans to go somewhere, he would have upped the dosage to 30 milligrams. There were unidentifiable pills in orange pill bottles with black permanent marker on their labels. The chemical makeup of these were unclear, as his sources informed him they could have been ecstasy, or meth, or an MDA/MDMA variant, or a combination of sorts. That didn’t stop him from taking them. He welcomed the surprising impact and relief.
He would diagram out the properties of his narcotics and their effects onto sticky notes. They were placed on the right side of his coffee table in a rectangular formation, five by seven. A new collection had amassed which charted out new effects when substances were combined. His last couple of weekends during the stretch consisted of his mystery ecstasy, Adderall, and alcohol, followed by large doses of oxy later in the evening to help with the taper-off:
His last weekend bender while still under the employ of Cobin-Haskett turned into a longer, duller weekend than most with his narcotics withering within his bloodstream, and by Sunday morning, the high was still manipulating his sanity and his sense of right and wrong. Though oh so typically—the climax came and went, the best was gone, and he tumbled back into sobriety. His mind returned from its transformation. It returned from the state it was in before the drugs kicked in and turned him into something different, something of an existence he held of higher value than his unrigged self. On weekends like these, Billy liked to disassemble the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was his mind to explore potential identities, to maybe discover what he really wanted to be, what he could be, even if momentarily, to maybe discover how he wanted others to see him—to help him become something better.
When sleep eventually would come, his dreams would spoil because of the toxins, but it was during this sleep that his transformation back to normalcy took place. The toxins would be ciphered into his colon for disposal, the influence squeezed out of his head. He would wake and look in the mirror and for a split second he would see what he was and reminisce about what he had turned himself into. But sobriety would come crawling back; it always did. He would look in the mirror and his lips would droop into a shaky frown and his swollen eyes would squint yet again with unmistakable sadness.
For the remainder of those Sundays, he would fight the temptation to get up from the couch. He would lose himself in daytime programming and small mid-day amusements such as watching his pet turtle, Speedy, continuously try to climb up the glass wall of his enclosure, only to fall upon his back and struggle to flip himself back over.
Billy’s grandmother was taking down her pills like a champ, with what looked like chocolate milk in a Styrofoam cup. Billy picked up the pill cup from her lap with an almost preprogrammed mechanical desire to find something, but alas, it was empty and his early afternoon sobriety rolled on.
Her eyes started to trail and her voice sounded groggy when she called him George and asked him for a cigarette.
“Grandma, it’s me, Billy. When did you start smoking?”
Billy looked up at an orderly who was listening in on their conversation. The orderly’s name tag read: Shirley.
Billy mouthed to her: “cig-ar-ette?”
“Grace, sugar, you don’t smoke,” Shirley said, tapping Grandma on the shoulder.
“I want my cigarettes.”
Shirley looked at Billy and shook her head with pursed lips. Billy had a vision of Shirley giving Grandma cigarettes on the down-low. Did Shirley make a secret agreement with Grandma that if she behaved and took her pills like a good little girl that she would be rewarded with cigarettes? Or is Grandma making the whole thing up and just forgot that she doesn’t smoke? Her breath didn’t smell of cigarettes. Her room didn’t have the stench of cigarettes. Did she used to smoke cigarettes and was just always able to hide the truth from you? Or did she smell the cigarettes on you and some kind of transference occurred?
Grandma looked at Billy’s name tag and read the name.
“Hi Grandma.” He kissed her on the cheek.
She placed her translucent hand on Billy’s cheek as he held his lips to her for a few seconds. Her eyes were closed, and she was relishing this human contact.
“How’s school, Billy?”
“Grandma, I graduated from Mission Mountain years ago. I’ve been working in New York City.”
He again felt the need to keep this story going, that he was still living in New York, still employed at Cobin-Haskett, not in the middle of some escape act, or rescue mission, or something somewhere in between.
“New York City! You have to work real hard, and you have to treat people with respect. People in New York are so rude. You should go back to school. You can never get enough education.”
Billy had considered it on a few occasions, had once even enrolled in a chemistry course at LaGuardia Community College after learning Cobin-Haskett would cover tuition costs, but he quit after just one day in the classroom. His cousin, Greg, however, had taken his grandmother’s advice to heart. But Greg never needed any guidance. He was George’s son, destined to succeed. And Grandma played a big part in getting Peter to stay at Tompkins High when he tried to drop out. She was a big influence on Alan and Cynthia in getting them to send Billy off to boarding school, to Mission Mountain Prep, after a terrible first year at Tompkins. She did it with the best of intentions, to protect Billy from his father, but also to try to protect his father from himself. One fell swoop. She had already seen the violence play out with her husband. Eventually, the importance of staying in school and the need for education became one of her topics on loop, and she would bring it up four more times during Billy’s visit.
“I don’t think I’m going down that road again for a while. I’m taking the summer off. Maybe find Dad.” And out it came again. It still surprised him to be saying the words. “Yea. I guess…try to retrace his steps since he ran off. Maybe bring him back home to Cynthia.”
Half a dozen residents now encircled them, more interested in their conversation than the TV now. Their faces looked anesthetized as they had previously, but Billy considered that underneath the zombie countenance there was a humanity still.
Billy turned back to his grandmother, who had a confused look, with her turkey gobbler neck and wrinkled-as-raisins skin, and then a frown locked upon her face. Perhaps, “Dad” and “ran off” had thrown her a curveball. She looked at Billy’s name tag. Then more confusion and fluttering eyes. Quivering lips. Then the waterworks. Billy then realized that he now had to explain to his grandmother about Alan’s disappearance, running off with just the clothes on his back, as if it were the first time she had heard it. All the others, lost memories.
He wanted to get more from his grandmother before he left—any news about his father, clues to his whereabouts; another part of him wanted to wait until pill time came around again, in case, just in case, and then when it would happen, perhaps he would watch the scene play out all over again, and feel the pain all over again, because he wanted to feel the pain—but also wanted to pull the drain and wash the pain away.
Gracie talked about “Alan,” but the stories, he guessed, weren’t actually about his father. They were blended anecdotes that could have been about numerous individuals all wrapped up into one. When a story sounded like it could have actually been about his father, one which seemed to fit his character decently well, Billy still couldn’t be sure that it was his father that his grandmother was speaking of. She would break out at points into her stories with other names, and all of a sudden the stories wouldn’t necessarily be about Alan anymore but about her deceased husband, about Peter, about George, about Greg. Family even didn’t stick. Even when they were the names of her own children and grandchildren.
In the end, Billy gave up. But when he was leaving, he found Shirley in the hallway and asked if his father had happened to come by to see her.
“Oh yeah he did. How could I forget? It broke my heart.”
Shirley explained to Billy that Alan came here to tell her something, but it went right through her: “in one ear and out the other,” Shirley said. “She can’t retain the details, not anymore anyway. But I heard him saying goodbye forever to her, like he was never going to see her again.”
It wasn’t the first time Billy considered that Alan ran off to kill himself.
Maybe Grandma just wasn’t willing to hear that Dad was saying his last goodbye. Her brain wouldn’t allow that piece of information to stick. So it was a memory she chose to disregard willingly. Or all control had already been lost, was already too far gone, the recent past wiped clean, save for brief flashes like flickering remnants of dreams. Did she actually know her husband was dead, that he had died more than twenty years ago? Did she still consider her family her family or was “family” just another term devoid of meaning—the extinction of day by previous day by previous days, occurring at an exponential rate.
When Billy was still sitting in the room with Gracie and she was in the middle of a possibly true possibly not true story, she stopped talking, fell silent, turned away from him, and started weeping again. That was the end of the story she was telling—it was dead even before it started—but now there was a much more poignant story being told through what he was seeing. Billy considered that she was weeping because she knew how much was gone, was acutely aware of her condition in that moment, and that that was the cause of her breakdown. He considered that perhaps she was reliving some terrible day, or some terrible moment, from her past. He considered that she just needed to cry because of how hard it is to bear the reality of the world. He couldn’t quite figure it out—it’s tough to get a straight read on someone with Alzheimer’s—but it made him quite sad because it made him think about how loved ones someday die and how you have to mourn them, and that you have to mourn even those you thought you didn’t love. It made him think about how he could end up like his grandmother too and get sucked into a vortex of having to mourn over and over and over again until forgetting what it even means to mourn. Until forgetting the word “mourn” itself. Until forgetting what any word transcribed to any feeling was. Until there was no feeling at all. And then, maybe, hopefully, peace.
It made him think about his father and about what mourning him would feel like. It made him wonder if his own mourning process had already begun. If it had been transpiring for years. Why do we only mourn the dead? Do we mourn for those that only feel dead to us? Do we mourn for those that we wished were dead?
Billy collected his driver’s license from the front desk. He headed back up east toward Baltimore, made another loop around Dundalk and didn’t stop to see Cynthia for a second time. But seeing the house again made him picture his brother as a boy. Peter’ll have answers. He always did. Let’s see what he has to say now. No. Just keep driving in the direction of forward.
Billy’s eyes kept drawing over to the cooler at the floor of the passenger seat, and finally, swiftly, he opened it and reached in with one hand while he kept the other on the wheel. After tossing the towel and a few water bottles onto the passenger seat, he shuffled around until he found the muscle relaxants. He popped open the bottle and poured the pills out into his hand, threw two of them down his throat. He reached into another bottle for the plastic bag that had his psilocybin caps. His eyes were darting from the road to the bag to the road and back. He put a few smallish caps into his mouth and methodically chewed the stale bits down to mush before washing it back.