At The Post
by Horace L. Gold
When Clocker Locke came into the Blue Ribbon, on 49th Street west of Broadway, he saw that nobody had told Doc Hawkins about his misfortune. Doc, a pub-crawling, non-practicing general practitioner who wrote a daily medical column for a local tabloid, was celebrating his release from the alcoholic ward, but his guests at the rear table of the restaurant weren't in any mood for celebration.
"What's the matter with you -- have you suddenly become immune to liquor?" Clocker heard Doc ask irritably, while Clocker was passing the gem merchants, who, because they needed natural daylight to do business, were traditionally accorded the tables nearest the windows. "I said the drinks were on me, didn't I?" Doc insisted. "Now let us have some bright laughter and sparkling wit, or must we wait until Clocker shows up before there is levity in the house?"
Seeing the others glance toward the door, Doc turned and looked at Clocker. His mouth fell open silently, for the first time in Clocker's memory.
"Good Lord!" he said after a moment. "Clocker's become a character!"
Clocker felt embarrassed. He still wasn't used to wearing a business suit of subdued gray, and black oxfords, instead of his usual brilliant sports jacket, slacks and two-tone suede shoes; a tie with timid little figures, whereas he had formerly been an authority on hand-painted cravats; and a plain wristwatch in place of his spectacular chronograph.
By all Broadway standards, he knew, Doc was correct -- he'd become strange and eccentric, a character.
"It was Zelda's idea," Clocker explained somberly, sitting down and shaking his head at the waiter who ambled over. "She wanted to make a gentleman out of me."
"Wanted to?" Doc reported, bewildered. "You two kids got married just before they took my snakes away. Don't tell me you phhtt already!"
Clocker looked appealingly at the others. They became busy with drinks and paper napkins.
Naturally, Doc Hawkins knew the background: That Clocker was a race handicapper -- publisher, if you could call it that, of a tiny tip sheet -- for Doc, in need of drinking money, had often consulted him professionally. Also that Clocker had married Zelda, the noted 52nd Street stripteuse, who had social aspirations. What remained to be told had occurred during Doc's inevitably temporary cure.
"Isn't anybody going to tell me?" Doc demanded.
"It was right after you tried to take the warts off a fire hydrant and they came and got you," said Clocker, "that Zelda started hearing voices. It got real bad."
"She's at Glendale Center in an upholstered room. I just came back from visiting her."
Doc gulped his entire drink, a positive sign that he was upset, or happy, or not feeling anything in particular. Now, however, he was noticeably upset.
"Did the psychiatrists give you a diagnosis?" he asked.
"I got it memorized. Catatonia. Dementia praecox, what they used to call, one of the brain vets told me, and he said it's hopeless."
"Rough," said Doc. "Very rough. The outlook is never good in such cases."
"Maybe they can't help her," Clocker said harshly, "but I will."
"People are not horses," Doc reminded him.
"I've noticed that," said Handy Sam, the armless wonder at the flea circus, drinking beer because he had an ingrown toenail and couldn't hold a shot glass. Now that Clocker had told the grim story, he felt free to talk, which he did enthusiastically. "Clocker's got a giant brain, Doc. Who was it said Warlock'd turn into a dog in his third year? Clocker, the only dopester in the racket. And that's just one--"
"Zelda was my best flesh act," interrupted Arnold Wilson Wyle, a ten-percenter whom video had saved from alimony jail. "A solid boffola in the bop basements. Nobody regrets her sad condition more than me, Clocker, but it's a sure flop, what you got in mind. Think of your public. For instance, what's good at Hialeah? My bar bill is about to be foreclosed and I can use a long shot."
Clocker bounced his fist on the moist table. "Those couch artists don't know what's wrong with Zelda. I do."
"You do?" Doc asked, startled.
"Well, almost. I'm so close, I can hear the finish-line camera clicking."
Buttonhole grasped Doc's lapel and hung on with characteristic avidity; he was perhaps Clocker's most pious subscriber. "Doping races is a science. Clocker maybe never doped the human race, but I got nine to five he can do it. Go on, tell him, Clocker."
Doc Hawkins ran together the rings he had been making with the wet bottom of his tumbler. "I shall be most interested," he said with tabloid irony, clearly feeling that immediate disillusionment was the most humane thing for Clocker. "Perhaps we can collaborate on an article for the psychiatric journals."
"All right, look." Clocker pulled out charts resembling those he worked with when making turf selections. "Zelda's got catatonia, which is the last heat in the schizophrenia parlay. She used to be a hoofer before she started undressing for dough, and now she does time-steps all day."
Doc nodded into a fresh glass that the waiter had put before him. "Stereotyped movements are typical of catatonia. They derive from thwarted or repressed instinctual drive; in most instances, the residue of childhood frustrations."
"She dance all day, huh, Clocker?" asked Oil Pocket, the Oklahoma Cherokee who, with the income of several wells, was famed for angeling bareback shows. He had a glass of tequila in one hand, the salted half of a lemon in the other. "She dance good?"
"That's just it," Clocker said. "She does these time-steps, the first thing you learn in hoofing, over and over, ten-fifteen hours a day. And she keeps talking like she's giving lessons to some jerk kid who can't get it straight. And she was the babe with the hot routines, remember."
"The hottest," agreed Arnold Wilson Wyle. "Zelda doing time-steps is like Heifetz fiddling at weddings."
"I still like to put her in show," Oil Pocket grunted. "She stacked like brick tepee. Don't have to dance good."
"You'll have a long wait," observed Doc sympathetically, "in spite of what our young friend here says. Continue, young friend."
Clocker spread his charts. He needed the whole table. The others removed their drinks, Handy Sam putting his on the floor so he could reach it more easily.
"This is what I got out of checking all the screwball factories I could reach personal and by mail," Clocker said. "I went around and talked to the doctors and watched the patients in the places near here, and wrote to the places I couldn't get to. Then I broke everything down like it was a stud and track record."
Buttonhole tugged Doc's lapel. "That ain't scientific, I suppose," he challenged.
"Duplication of effort," Doc replied, patiently allowing Buttonhole to retain his grip. "It was all done in an organized fashion over a period of more than half a century. But let us hear the rest."
"First," said Clocker, "there are more male bats than fillies."
"Females are inherently more stable, perhaps because they have a more balanced chromosome arrangement."
"There are more nuts in the brain rackets than labor chumps."
"Intellectual activity increases the area of conflict."
"There are less in the sticks than in the cities, and practically none among the savages. I mean real savages," Clocker told Handy Sam, "not marks for con merchants."
"I was wondering," Handy Sam admitted.
"Complex civilization creates psychic insecurity," said Doc.
"When these catatonics pull out, they don't remember much or maybe nothing," Clocker went on, referring to his charts.
Doc nodded his shaggy white head. "Protective amnesia."
"I seen hundreds of these mental gimps. They work harder and longer at what they're doing, even just laying down and doing nothing, than they ever did when they were regular citizens."
"Concentration of psychic energy, of course."
"And they don' t get a damn cent for it."
Doc hesitated, put down his half-filled tumbler. "I beg your pardon?"
"I say they're getting stiffed," Clocker stated. "Anybody who works that hard ought to get paid. I don't mean it's got to be money, although that's the only kind of pay Zelda'd work for. Right, Arnold?"
"Well, sure," said Arnold Wilson Wyle wonderingly. "I never thought of it like that. Zelda doing time-steps for nothing ten-fifteen hours a day -- that ain't Zelda."
"If you ask me, she likes her job," Clocker said. "Same with the other catatonics I seen. But for no pay?"
Doc surprisingly pushed his drink away, something that only a serious medical puzzle could ever accomplish. "I don't understand what you're getting at."
"I don't know these other cata-characters, but I do know Zelda," said Arnold Wilson Wyle. "She's got to get something out of all that work. Clocker says it's the same with the others and I take his word. What are they knocking theirself out for if it's for free?"
"They gain some obscure form of emotional release or repetitive gratification," Doc explained.
"Zelda?" exploded Clocker. "You offer her a deal like that for a club date and she'd get ruptured laughing."
"I tell her top billing," Oil Pocket agreed, "plenty ads, plenty publicity, whole show built around her. Wampum, she says; save money on ads and publicity, give it to her. Zelda don't count coups."
Doc Hawkins called over the waiter, ordered five fingers instead of his customary three. "Let us not bicker," he told Clocker. "Continue."
Clocker looked at his charts again. "There ain't a line that ain't represented, even the heavy rackets and short grifts. It's a regular human steeplechase. And these sour apples do mostly whatever they did for a living -- draw pictures, sell shoes, do lab experiments, sew clothes, Zelda with her time-steps. By the hour! In the air!"
"In the air?" Handy Sam repeated. "Flying?"
"Imaginary functioning," Doc elaborated for him. "They have nothing in their hands. Pure hallucinationi. Systematic delusion."
"Sign language?" Oil Pocket suggested.
"That," said Clocker, before Doc Hawkins could reject the notion, "is on the schnoz, Injun. Buttonhole says I'm like doping races. He's right. I'm working out what some numbers-runner tells me is probabilities. I got it all here," he rapped the charts, "and it's the same thing all these flop-ears got in common. Not their age, not their jobs, not their -- you should pardon the expression -- sex. They're teaching."
Buttonhole looked baffled. He almost let go of Doc's lapel.
Handy Sam scratched the back of his neck thoughtfully with a big toe. "Teaching, Clocker? Who? You said they're kept in solitary."
"They are. I don't know who. I'm working on that now."
Doc shoved the charts aside belligerently to make room for his beefy elbows. He leaned forward and glowered at Clocker. "Your theory belongs in the Sunday supplement of the alleged newspaper I write for. Not all catatonics work, as you call it. What about those who stand rigid and those who lie in bed all the time?"
"I guess you think that's easy," Clocker retorted. "You try it sometime. I did. It's work, I tell you." He folded his charts and put them back into the inside pocket of his conservative jacket. He looked sick with longing and loneliness. "Damn, I miss that mouse. I got to save her, Doc! Don't you get that?"
Doc Hawkins put a chunky hand gently on Clocker's arm. "Of course, boy. But how can you succeed when trained men can't?"
"Well, take Zelda. She did time-steps when she was maybe five and going to dancing school--"
"Time-steps have some symbolic significance to her," Doc said with more than his usual tact. "My theory is that she was compelled to go against her will, and this is a form of unconscious rebellion."
"They don't have no significance to her," Clocker argued doggedly. "She can do time-steps blindfolded and on her knees with both ankles tied behind her back." He pried Buttonhole's hand off Doc's lapel, and took hold of both of them himself. "I tell you she's teaching, explaining, breaking in some dummy who can't get the hang of it!"
"But who?" Doc objected. "Psychiatrists? Nurses? You? Admit it, Clocker -- she goes on doing time-steps whether she's alone or not. In fact, she never knows if anybody is with her. Isn't that so?"
"Yeah," Clocker said grudgingly. "That's what has me boxed."
Oil Pocket grunted tentatively, "White men not believe in spirits. Injuns do. Maybe Zelda talk to spirits."
"I been thinking of that," confessed Clocker, looking at the red angel unhappily. "Spirits is all I can figure. Ghosts. Spooks. But if Zelda and these other catatonics are teaching ghosts, these ghosts are the dumbest jerks anywhere. They make her and the rest go through time-steps or sewing or selling shoes again and again. If they had half a brain, they'd get it in no time."
"Maybe spirits not hear good," Oil Pocket offered, encouraged by Clocker's wilingness to consider the hypothesis.
"Could be," Clocker said with partial conviction. "If we can't see them, it may be just as hard for them to see or hear us."
Oil Pocket anxiously hitched his chair closer. "Old squaw name Dry Ground Never Rainy Season -- what you call old maid -- hear spirits all the time. She keep telling us what they say. Nobody listen."
"How come?" asked Clocker interestedly.
"She deaf, blind. Not hear thunder. Walk into cactus, yell like hell. She hardly see us, not hear us at all, how come she see and hear spirits? Just talk, talk, talk all the time."
Clocker frowned, thinking. "These catatonics don't see or hear us, but they sure as Citation hear and see something."
Doc Hawkins stood up with dignity, hardly weaving, and handed a bill to the waiter. "I was hoping to get a private racing tip from you, Clocker. Freshly sprung from the alcoholic ward, I can use some money. But I see that your objectivity is impaired by emotional considerations. I wouldn't risk a dime on your advice even after a race is run."
"I didn't expect you to believe me," said Clocker despairingly. "None of you pill-pushers ever do."
"I can't say about your psycho-doping," declared Arnold Wilson Wyle, also rising. "But I got faith in your handicapping. I'd still like a long shot at Hialeah if you happen to have one."
"I been too busy trying to help Zelda," Clocker said in apology.
They left, Doc Hawkins pausing at the bar to pick up a credit bottle to see him through his overdue medical column.
Handy Sam slipped on his shoes to go. "Stick with it, Clocker. I said you was a scientist--"
"I said it," contradicted Buttonhole, lifting himself out of the chair on Handy Sam's lapels. "If anybody can lick this caper, Clocker can."
Oil Pocket glumly watched them leave. "Doctors not think spirits real," he said. "I get sick, go to Reservation doctor. He give me medicine. I get sicker. Medicine man see evil spirits make me sick. Shakes rattle. Dances. Evil spirits go. I get better."
"I don't know what in hell to think," confided Clocker, miserable and confused. "If it would help Zelda, I'd cut my throat from head to foot so I could become a spirit and get the others to lay off her."
"Then you spirit, she alive. Making love not very practical."
"Then what do I do -- hire a medium?"
"Get medicine man from Reservation. He drive out evil spirits."
CLocker pushed away from the table. "So help me, I'll do it if I can't come up with something cheaper than paying freight from Oklahoma."
"Get Zelda out, I pay and put her in show."
"Then if I haul the guy here and it don't work, I'm in hock to you. Thanks, Oil Pocket, but I'll try my way first."