Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Jarret Middleton. His debut novel Darkansas is available from Dzanc Books. It is the official November pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club

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It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.

golden-gate-park

We met in New York when I auditioned for a play she’d written. She didn’t cast me. I struck her as being too intelligent for the part, or so she told me later by way of softening the blow. She’d done some acting herself, mostly in musical theater, where she excelled as a dancer. Then she hurt her back, and so turned to playwriting, graduating from the Yale School of Drama—an impressive achievement for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.

She was pretty, though she didn’t believe she was. She had a dancer’s lithe build, dark hair, and fair features that came off as wan in photos. She walked daintily, with mincing steps, and her voice had a kind of tremor, hinting at something brittle at her core. Still, she definitely attracted attention on the street, which surprised and, at times, amused her.

We didn’t get involved right away. She was with somebody else at the time, and we gradually began an affair that ended before I left New York for L.A. Then, with a new boyfriend, she also moved to L.A., where she, like me, wrote screenplays. Two of her scripts were produced, one with a lot of fanfare, though we seldom saw each other during that period, her boyfriend being jealous of me. Eventually, when they were done, she and I resumed.

Everything is turquoise blue. I’m not sure how that made it into the design specifications for hospital waiting rooms but it did. The cold glare of fluorescent lighting mixes with the blue plastic covered chairs and gives a sense of anything but peace. If that was their intent they failed, whoever they are. I’ve spent an hour sitting in this hospital lobby trying to figure out exactly how I got here. Eighteen hours ago I was absolutely fine.

I arrived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas the same way I have arrived in so many other small towns over the last decade. There’s a rhythm to it. I pull in. I check into my hotel. I lower my expectations. I tell jokes. It’s really a short checklist. As I walked into the club for this weekend’s shows however, a new bullet point forced itself into the mix.

Don’t get rabies.

I entered to find the staff fully engrossed in the hunt. A cat, a gorgeous white cat, had crashed through the outer perimeter. The way they made it sound, you would have thought a terrorist operative was loose in the building. A pale flash shot from under a table, followed by a blur of mullet and overalls.

“Sumbitch!” said the Mullet. “He’s fast.”

The rest of the team moved into place. The girl behind the bar tried scare it into the backroom while a 300 pound man with disturbingly saggy pants put on his “plumbing gloves” and grabbed a tablecloth. I stood at the far end of the bar laughing. Suddenly the Big Man lunged at something invisible. From under the bar a hissing, snowy explosion shot upward, landing on a rack of glasses and destroying half of them. The cat’s screech melded with the sound of the shattering glass as the Mullet leapt over the bar. Apparently cornered, the feline sat crouched on top of a Jagermeister machine, inches away from the liquor shelf. With its hair bristling in defiance, it dared either one of the men to try to grab it.

The Big Man already had a plan. “I think… I can… get it,” he started to say. The cat hadn’t had nearly as much to drink as the man had however. They moved at the same time, the lumbering man knocking over the Jager machine and the cat knocking over every bottle of alcohol on the top two shelves. In a beautiful cascade of falling glass and colored alcohol, it sprinted for freedom.

In all honesty, I was really pulling for the cat. I was. Then it dug in and abruptly took a turn in my direction. It rocketed off the shelf, planted its back paws on the Mullet’s head, and shot through the air towards me. It hit the ground in a full run, slid across the bar floor, bounced off the wall, and fired itself directly at me.

If you’ve never had an animal throw itself at your face, it’s hard to say exactly how you would react. If you had asked me prior to this event I would have told you that I would have reacted just like a ninja should. I would simply snatch the cat out of the air with one hand, grabbing it firmly by the back of the neck, safely and harmlessly. If you asked me today though, I would not say such a silly thing.

As the cat hurtled towards me with its claws out I threw my hands in front of my face. It hit with its talons drawn and latched onto my forearm. When I tried to remove it, it struck. Like a cobra. Two gleaming incisors sank into my hand and wrist, driving down to the bone. As painful as it was, the irony of being bitten by the only thing in the entire state with a full set of teeth was not lost on me. Why couldn’t the cat be on meth like everyone else? I could have been bitten by the Mayor of that city and at the worst would only have been gummed to death. This cat though, it had a perfect set of fangs.

I flung the cat off of my arm and watched the blood shoot out of my hand. “Well sheee-it,” said the Mullet. “We thought you was gone be the one to git ‘em.”

“Sorry?” I managed to say. The cat was now hiding somewhere in a storage closet trapped behind a closed door. The girl working the door called animal control, as someone should have done to begin with instead of sanctioning this Feline Redneck Rodeo. Left to wait for the extraction team, I turned my attention to my wounds. The bartender slid a feeble attempt at medical supplies across the bar to me: a Band-Aid and a shot of Jack Daniels. I poured half of the shot on the holes in my hand and then drank the other half. I had just finished covering the injury when the bartender handed me the phone.

“Buffy wants to talk to you,” she told me, and she looked scared.

Buffy was the owner of the bar. I don’t have a lot of experience with people named Buffy, but the name conjured up negative emotions for some reason. As a matter of fact, my only real recollection of that name being used at all, in a non-vampire-slaying way, was when my great aunt used to call her dog. Her dog’s name was Buffy, but Aunt Jewel was somewhere around 114 years old, and she pronounced it “Buff-eh”. She didn’t give it the long E sound it was supposed to have, and she would snap it at the poor dog in a gravelly voice that she had earned by smoking three packs of Marlboro Reds a day for 98 years in a row.

“C’mere Buffeh!” she would growl, and then this poor beat up little black dog would come slinking into the room like some sort of villainous sidekick. So when the bartender handed me the phone and told me it was Buffy, I immediately didn’t like her.

I took the phone. “Um, hello?”

“Tell ‘em you dint git bit.”

My mind tried to process the words, to no avail. “Huh?’

“The Animal Control folks. Tell ‘em you dint git bit or they gon’ lop its head off and send it to Little Rock fer testin’.”

“Look Buffy,” I said, “It’s a little hard to hide when I have blood running down my arm and-”

“Nooooo! They gon’ chop it head off forever! That cat dint do nuthin’. You’re gon’ be fine. Folks get bit all the time ‘round here and don’t nobody die of no rabies. They gon’ put its head in a box and send it off, I’m tellin’ you!” It was like Alice in Wonderland, without the Alice and without the Wonderland… just me and cats with teeth and crazy ladies yelling about chopping off heads.

I’ll be honest; I don’t know the first thing about how you handle a feral cat once it’s been contained. I’m sure that if there is a legitimate concern that the animal has rabies or is infectious, they would be forced to put it down. What I don’t think, is that the State of Arkansas runs around arbitrarily beheading cats. Euthanasia doesn’t include hacking something’s head off with a sword, or scissors, or whatever else Buffy thought they did to something they captured.

More so, if that really is what they do to every animal they catch, then that would mean that there is a Department of Head Receiving somewhere in the great city of Little Rock.  There must be someone whose job consists of unwrapping boxes like the detective in Seven and then classifying their little beasty noggins, and that’s just weird, even for Arkansas.

And I’m pro animal under most circumstances, I really am. If I thought that the cat was going to be shoved into some homemade Southern guillotine I would be the first to step up and say something. I’m not, however, going to stand idly by and let them not run a test on a cat that just chewed on my forearm like a dog bone.

In the next ten minutes the cat was hauled out of the back room hissing and screaming and flashing its claws at anything that came close, the door girl was fired by Buffy for calling animal control, and they started the comedy show. From the back of the room I watched as everyone acted like nothing had happened. A person had lost their job over this. Big Man and the Mullet had long since left. It was just me in the darkness; me, and my fear that I might turn into some sort of zombie-werecat.

So now here I am, sitting in this turquoise room. It is 3:30 in the afternoon on an overcast day in a not-so-affluent suburb, sixty-four degrees and cloudy just like a Pearl Jam video. Somewhere Jeremy is at home drawing pictures, and I am waiting to get shots that will hopefully prevent me from transforming into a rabid Arkansan.

A fat nurse walks out as I contemplate my existence. I may or may or may not have contracted rabies. I won’t know for an hour or so. What I do know is that somewhere in Arkansas there is a horrible woman named Buffy who believes all cats die of decapitation. I know that, and that I never come home with a boring story.