On The High Horse (A Serious Look at the Margins)

By Richard Dixon

Posted March 10, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

  I had gone into the biker bar with the straightforward assumption of shooting some pool. I enjoy playing pool, but hadn’t done much of it in several years. I was invited to play pool by Jerry, the manager of the Kerr-McGee service station where I sometimes worked weekends. (I also cut their grass, as well as the owners’ house). Jerry worked at the service station every day, of course, and everyday, at the end of his shift, headed to the bikers bar, which was located no more than a hundred yards from the station, at the far end of a building which also housed an automotive garage. Ford Parker was a mechanic in that garage (and my future bodyguard, if only in my mind). Ford was a big guy, and though polite to a fault, always wore an air of quiet menace. 

            Jerry seemed to me a big guy; not so much tall but stout, like a bull, demeanor and all. Jerry was a brawler, I sensed, and so always resisted kidding him about the biker bar being his second home, which it was; he went there every night, ended up drunk and passed out, usually on one of the pool tables, only to be awakened in time to open up the service station at 7 a.m., him being the manager – and if he stayed hung over the better part of the day, who was to say? The owners themselves were alcoholics, mixing drinks all day in the back of the station even as they tried to balance the books, but somehow, until they sold out three years from then, always managed to make it come out right. 

            The bikers bar was called The High Horse, and had a reputation for being quite wild; it was run by bikers, who sold speed on the side while their ‘ol ladies danced topless and turned tricks, that is to say prostituted on the side, the Ramada Inn by the interstate being their destination of choice. What was always strange to me was  even though the High Horse was a biker bar, it was managed by a fraternity pin-wearing college graduate named Donnie, who was preppy as he could be, a 180 degree contrast from the bikers who seemed to really run the place. 

            If I had known that evening, upon entering that bar, my life was going to take a drastic change for the next few weeks, I would have had strong, serious reservations. As it was, my ignorance and my love of pool were my guiding lights that mild January evening, and they led me through the door.

            The strains of “Honky Tonk Women” were ripping through the speakers from the jukebox as Jerry and I walked in. I could see the bar was clearly divided into two parts; the two pool tables in the rear, partitioned off by the actual bar, and the large room in front with many tables, chairs and booths, all leaning toward a half-circle stage, bright stage lights, and more chairs all around the stage apron. I could easily see that all these chairs were occupied, twenty shining male faces turned up attentively to the girl dancing naked on the stage.

            Jerry racked the balls and we played a game. Or rather, after I broke the rack and made nothing, Jerry proceeded to run the table. Jerry was a good player; steady practice is nothing to be sneezed at. I had the thought that having a second home with pool tables in it had its advantages.

            I started to put the quarters in for another game but Jerry stopped me, saying, “Well, I’ve gotta meet somebody over here on the other side in a couple minutes, come on over and I’ll buy you a beer.” Silently, I followed him.

            Having just been recently divorced, I was still in the phase of not taking any chances with females, any sort of initiative, so as to keep the safety of the rejection net perfectly intact. Safety or not, I also had a natural aversion to being one of the ogling, all-too-obvious guys who watched nude dancers. But, a free beer was hard to turn down, so I joined Jerry in a booth on the dancers’ side of the bar, about thirty feet from the stage. 

            A rather short, blond and nice-looking girl came over to take Jerry’s order. Her blond hair was long and straight, down to the middle of her mostly-bare back, her skin white and, in this light, nearly translucent. Her teeth even sparkled when she smiled and said, “Hi, my name’s Melody. What’ll it be for ya’ Jerry, and your cute friend over here?” 

            Jerry ordered the beers, and as soon as they arrived so did Jerry’s “appointment,” and they immediately left me at the booth and moved to the back part of the bar. I thought, Well, I have a beer to drink, it would look kind of dumb, me sitting here with my back to the entertainment; I might as well watch the dancing. As I turned around in the booth, Melody returned, eyes fixed on me, and asked, “So what are you up to?” 

            “Not a lot,” I answered, looking at my watch. “I think in about twenty minutes I’m going down to the dollar-fifty theatre to see this Neil Young concert film, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.” 

            “Oh, really?” Melody smiled, “I love Neil Young. Listen; if you can stick around, I think I can get off the rest of the night – I’d love to go and check out Neil Young – do you mind?”

            “Not at all,” I managed to say, flattered and confused. “Great,” she said, “it’s a date.” 

            Before we went to the movie, Melody had some dancing to do, and I had some dancing to watch. The jukebox tumbled out the cowbell-and-drum intro to “Honky Tonk Women” (this Rolling Stones song was a recurring favorite of the dancers), then the rest of the song proceeded to (again) rip through the huge, overhead speakers. I turned in the booth toward the next dancer stepping out onto the stage, moving the lower half of her body to the rhythm of Mick and the boys. She was dressed in a halter top and bikini bottom, both fringed in white, and black stiletto high heels. The smoke from the room wafted onstage and found a home in the spotlights. I felt secure in the booth, safely away from the stage, while the men in the chairs surrounding it worked their sweaty faces into different levels of anticipation.

            The tall brunette finished her dance, turned and walked to the jukebox and punched in another song (I learned later that all the dancers had their favorite songs programmed on there). The brunette stepped away and out of the jukebox came the nine-bar intro to “In The Garden Da Vida.” During the song’s intro, the new, dark-complexioned dancer took off her top, with considerable response from the peanut gallery ringing the stage. By the middle of “Start Me Up” (this girl was definitely a Stones fan), she had nothing on except a few beads of sweat above her eyes and, while deeply bending her knees, was gesticulating her entire pubic area just inches from the hot, glazed eyes and protruding tongues in front of her, all around  that stage apron. All at once, as if on some silent cue, arms and hands came out toward her, each holding a bill of dubious denomination creased sideways, down the middle. These bills were then placed on the stage, creased side up; the dancer then bent her knees, back arched and, while keeping perfect beat to the song, picked up each bill in succession, without benefit of appendage or apparatus, all the true work being done by her vaginal muscles. All the bills thus dispatched, she danced off the stage, in step and time, to the song’s dying strains.

             Melody and I proceeded after another twenty minutes (she was officially “off” work), to go see the Neil Young concert film, and from there, to my house, where I had hoped to engage in a one-night stand, but that was just the beginning of surprises.

            The company I kept during this time was somewhat strange, to say the least. After my divorce, I had just been through a drag-me-through-and-count-me-fortunate-for-surviving fling with a ballerina, the original prima donna, and that had left me not scarred, but feeling a little rode-hard-and-put-up-wet. And then along comes Melody. The company I kept since my divorce, I have to admit, had been strange indeed, and I just seemed to keep adding to the equation, like some mathematician in search of the perfect quantum theory. In retrospect, I should have added up two and two, and figured out it equaled time to cut this shit out. But, like the dumb-ass-fatalist I was, I had to see it through. 

            Melody was very short, shapely and sexy; a hair’s breadth over five feet, she had long, blond hair to the middle of her strong back, nicely-muscled legs and breasts that just wouldn’t quit, sticking right out there, full and pointy, like an L.A. version of the perfect short woman. She also had a pretty face, but in a plain, Midwestern way. Most of the plainness came through in her eyes, which were myopic-looking, and I found out later she needed (and secretly used) glasses to really see anything, but right now, in the throes of stardom at the High Horse, she was doing without them. Melody gave off this incredibly innocent persona, but in her own clever way was always angling everything to her advantage, always working the score to be: Melody, 10 – dude, 0. And she was a good scorekeeper, and an incredible athlete on this field of endeavor of her choosing. She captured me in more ways than one, and thus in her eyes, most likely another fool.

            Patty, Melody’s roommate, was an ex-old lady of some biker. She had been through several reform schools and in and out of a life of (minor, I think) crime. She was sweet, in those wee hours of the morning, but ultimately deadly, as was Melody. And, as with the other dancers in the High Horse, these two ladies of the late, late night supplemented their income by turning tricks, and if they could get a john to ultimately fall in love with them, or be otherwise romantically stupefied, they could milk him for several days, really getting their (actually, his) money’s worth. Buy me this, buy me that, buy me the world, and tonight, about 4 or 5 in the morning, if you’re not passed out from all the drugs, drink and overindulgence, I just may give you the fuck of your life.

            Patty shot speed, “crank,” then sipped whiskey, smoked cigarettes and stayed up all night, tending to her bitch dog who had just had eleven puppies, all of them shitting on every space in that duplex where a person was likely to step.

            Melody’s former boyfriend was a junkie, as were several other of her friends. Not to say there was an attraction, but junkies didn’t mind at all the hours Melody kept and, rather than someone to fuck, she mainly wanted someone to hold her (tightly) when she came home from “work,” very late at night, or when she didn’t come home at all for a day or two. If you didn’t have infinite patience, then being a zonked-out junkie is the next best thing, according to Melody’s schedule.

            Melody needed $400 to move into a house; she needed to get out of that too-small duplex-apartment. Her two options were: going to New Orleans to the Mardi Gras and tricking for a week or two, or borrow the money from her boss, the owner of the High Horse. Going that far to trick was kind of a clown trip, but then so was fucking her boss for his $400, which would be the way they’d both set it up. For Melody, life was becoming one big dilemma.

            I was only one of two or three “boyfriends” Melody had at this time. Her other main boyfriend was Willie, a 25 year-old guy who was already bald, and already a dope-addict/alcoholic. I called him Weak-Knees Willie, after a character in a Springsteen song. One night at Melody’s duplex, it was me, Melody, Willie, Patty, Paula and Paula’s biker ol’ man, Alan, who sold speed out of the High Horse while Paula, one of the dancers, took her intermittent tricks for forty-five minute intervals to the Ramada Inn. At some point, Willie decided we were out of beer, and jumped up to make a run to go get some more. He was parked in the driveway of the duplex, and Alan was parked parallel on the street, right behind him. What does Willie do? He backs his old Chevy straight into Paula’s old man’s car, full-speed, mightily crunching it. We all heard the loud crash (I had already guessed it was coming; Willie was just too fucked-up). When Willie came back in, minutes later, sheepish only a mild word for the expression on his face. He earnestly told Paula’s ol’ man he would settle up with him on the damages, then left again on his beer run.

            Before I left her duplex the next day, I felt as if I had had enough; enough of this drug culture, enough of this late-night craziness; enough, mainly, of my feeling that Melody was trying to use me, in the manner of a john, so I wrote her a note:

             Melody – your getting to be (and this ain’t your daddy talkin’) real selfish. I’ve been your bitch, which is fine, but I have yet to be your lover. It’s like you’ve fucked so much for money, you can’t fuck (or make love) for the pure and simple pleasure of it.  Where has that gone?  A $100 bill?  $200?  $400? 

            I can’t be your pimp, and I can’t be your boyfriend/lover, and it’s getting really hard to be your friend, and I goddamn sure ain’t no junkie, which seems to be your perfect mate cause they’re fucked up for four days (a life) at a time and don’t notice too much you’re not being there, cause you’re out bringing home the bucks.

            The point is I feel hostile, cause you introduced me to Willie, whom I’ve met, through you, three fucking times in almost as many days – that’s outrageous.

            You are inconsiderate as a person to the point of causing consternation or at least frustration or at least constipation cause you don’t have time to separate your clothes – it takes too much time, all of it 5 minutes.

                                                                            Your friend, Badass

            Let it not be said that Melody couldn’t give as good as she got. Sometime in the next few days, she got hold of my notebook ( I had decided to quit seeing her, and maybe did so only once more, so this really had to be surreptitious) – a few days after that, opened my notebook to read the following “poem,” which Melody had inscribed:

                                                “A WHORE STORY”  

Here I am out with this man never seen him before in my life but he had the money and I had the time, for trickin’ on a Saturday nite

they’ll go to McDonald’s and out to a show she might kiss him goodnite you

my sister is probably out with some guy who asked for his date on Monday

just never know. But here I am the best restaurant in town in my high heels,

my hat a loose open blouse, my nails politely filed down when the waiter comes with the check we’ll go to the Holiday Inn or some other nice clean hotel where they clean up the sheets and no one will ever know

well paid for my services, treated like a queen, this man’s face even looks alright but there’s so many other things I’d rather be at than trickin’ on a Saturday nite.

            That kind of says it all, doesn’t it, as far as relationships go?  I mean, with Melody? One afternoon, I had just pulled up to a convenience store to get a Dr.  Pepper, and in trying to find a blank page in my notebook, had just read the above. A girl, all of seventeen and blond, sat in her maroon Mustang next to where I had just parked; sunglasses on, waiting for Columbus. When I came out of the store with my soda, I could see her looking at me through those impenetrable dark lenses. I backed up, pulled forward to the road, looked once again at her in my rear-view mirror, and waved. Lolita waved back.

            Damn, I thought. Why don’t I just go back there and strike up a conversation?  But I didn’t; I was on my way to somewhere else, my map only partially unfolded.

            One of my problems, my half-sister had told me (the night before, over the phone), was that I had a preoccupation with younger girls. What had set her off (what didn’t?) was me telling her about accepting a bicycle from a crazy man at the park while I was playing tennis, a couple days previous. The guy had just pulled the bike up, parked it beside the courts, looked over at me and said, “This is a personal communication; it’s what’s on my mind at the moment. I got home at 5:30, smoked a joint and went out to witness a beautiful winter sunset – the sky was raining fire. So many things on my mind;  I’ve been riding my ass off since 3 P.M., in my head and someday on paper. I may have pissed off my boss by being late again; another example of my trying to be too many things at one time to too many people, and not paying enough attention to my source of sustenance, anyway – doing things I end up not liking myself for – but then that becomes inspiration and I merge out of that, usually with a good feeling but sometimes with cynicism and self-hate. Anyway, thanks for such a nice-looking, well-made bed. I hope you got a ride. You keep leaving stuff – I’ll have to check you out a locker – okay, coach? This is on my mind – too much alcohol blunts my passion, can’t call it an orgasm, guess I’ll have to call it fashion, but then Sunday morning I could’ve come in a minute. Two extremes – I’m having trouble finding the balance.”

            And the guy just walked off, and left the bike. And after another hour playing tennis, since it was still laying there, I took it with me. And I’m still riding it.

             I never talked to Melody again.  I just cut it off, like I had this sharp knife that was useful for that purpose. And, about two years later, I came home to my bachelor house after work one afternoon and found this note taped on the front door: “Dear William, I am hoping beyond hope that you still live here – still mad at me?  It’s been 2 years? About that, I hope you’re doing well, no doubt I’ll stop by sometime & find out (when you least expect it – expect it).        OX –  Melody

P.S. – if you’re not William, then please don’t laugh at me, I’m trying pretty hard.”

            About an hour after I got home and read the note, the phone rang; it was Melody.  She was still in town and wanted to know if she could come by. Sure, I said. An hour later, Melody was sitting in my living room, where she had been a few times before, telling me she was the mother of a fourteen-month old baby boy, courtesy of Weak Knees Willie, and was living back home, in her small, rural town, in her parents’ house.  She told me she had, in the interim since we had last talked, become a born-again Christian, and would be raising her infant son in that tradition, and that one of the main reasons she had wanted to contact me, while she was in town, was that she wanted me to make her a cassette-tape copy of an album I had played for her one time, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” She loved it, she said; she now wanted to make it a part of her ‘life’s music.’

            Be glad to, I said.

                                                                   

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