(Note: The Rabbit Skinners, my second novel, concerns Herculean FBI agent James Strait, whose life is devastated by a rare disease. His promising career suddenly ended, he returns to his rural hometown in northern Arizona and resigns himself to a life of disability, until a little girl asks him to use his skills to find her missing friend. This passage, which occurs as Strait returns to his hometown on an Amtrack train, describes how it feels to have a Meniere’s Disease attack. I drew upon my own experiences with Meniere’s to write it.)
The Amtrak trip to Pine River took two days. Strait had reserved a room, and the FBI paid a month’s rental for it, at a hotel called The Blue Rabbit, an historic downtown fixture that had existed long before Strait had left town a dozen years before. The Blue Rabbit, a couple of blocks from the train station, was also the name of the restaurant and pub on the ground floor.
Strait was too large to sleep comfortably in the upright seat of the Amtrack train. His long legs were trapped bent in the space between his seat and the back of the one in front of him. While others slept, he listened to music on his ancient iPod. He had everything ever recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young stuck on there, and of course everything by Neil Young himself, and countless songs from artists of the same era, the mid-to-late sixties to the very early seventies. A narrow, precious historical window. It wasn’t the golden age of contemporary American music. It was the only age. It was the music his father had listened to.
As the trip progressed, he grew steadily more exhausted. He tried to politely thwart the attempts at small talk by the bubbly old lady seated next to him who repeatedly offered him salted peanuts from a plastic bag in her purse and jabbered about her grandchildren. Along with the salted peanuts, he ate pretzels and cheese crackers and overpriced, mayonnaise-oozing sandwiches from the snack bar.
At the time the train crossed the northeastern corner of New Mexico and entered the state of Arizona, Strait noticed the tinnitus hiss in his right ear getting louder. The train trundled across a section of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the country. From the window, it seemed a land of bus-sized orange-pink stones strewn randomly by some giant personage upon an unpopulated sand-whipped flatland that gave way to rising terrain, where scrubby bushes pushed through the crevices with ridges so jagged that the rocky soil comprising them appeared to have been melted, tossed up, and flash-frozen in mid-air. Tiny human habitations appeared sometimes along the train tracks, patches of tenuous structures that flew past before Strait could get a clear look at them.
As they wended their way through the state, the scenery started to look more familiar. A glimpse of Lake Mary brought back a memory of the time his father had taken the family on a weekend fishing trip and his brother Ricky had fallen into the lake and nearly drowned. Strait’s fear of losing his big brother in the cold blue-green water was a torture that flashed back to him powerfully even now although he and Ricky—now Richard, a tax attorney in Florida—hardly ever spoke.
The train passed close to the segment of the highway where the police had found his Aunt Sally. Drunk as usual, she’d driven wildly northwards through the state after running away again from her abusive husband and had spun into a ditch, snapped her spine into two, and died. Somewhere much farther south along this stretch he and some high school buddies had driven all the way down to Phoenix and shot up a bunch of cactuses with hunting rifles borrowed without parental consent and had actually outrun a police car that tried to pull them over.
The scenery changed to mountainous pine forest. A storm had passed through and the cool, moist mountain air heavy with pine moved into the train. Strait was caught by surprise at the surge of emotion he felt, a mingling of melancholy and joy.
Evening fell and the landscape disappeared into darkness.
A couple of hours later, the train, with a screech of iron and clank of bumping cars, pulled to a stop at Pine River Station. Strait was becoming dizzy. He knew the length of time without sleep was dangerous and the lousy food from the snack bar wasn’t helping. When he stood to depart the train, the walkway seemed to sway back and forth. Fuck.
He needed to get to the hotel room fast. A Meniere’s attack out here would be a nightmare. He’d collapse to the sidewalk and start gasping and vomiting. People who saw him wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t see the world spinning like he did and would think he was drunk. If he tried to tell them he had Meniere’s disease and ask them to leave him alone on the pavement until the attack passed—but he couldn’t do that because he would need to lie there vomiting on the sidewalk for eight hours. All night. He could get attacked and robbed as he lay helpless. Someone might call an ambulance but being in a hospital wouldn’t help him. There was nothing to do for a Meniere’s attack except let it pass. All they could do is stick him in a bed for the night, same as a hotel but a hundred times more expensive
Panic rising. There. Down the street. A blue neon sign three stories above ground with a blink effect that made a cartoon rabbit hop and rest and hop and rest. The name spelled out in ornate cursive: The Blue Rabbit. Strait remembered the entrance to the hotel was around the corner. He heard a rumble of voices from inside the bar as he hobbled past, animated, laughing, and the smell of alcohol threaded with cigarette smoke drifting out.
The dizziness was hitting him like a tsunami. He turned the corner, sending the parked cars and buildings on either side of the street careening leftwards. He stopped and propped himself against the hotel wall and stood rigid, sucking huge breaths of night air deep into his lungs, fighting back nausea and praying for the world to stop moving.
He pushed open the door and entered the lobby. Thank God, no other customers at the reception desk, just a clerk sitting there absorbed in her Smartphone game. He stuttered out his name and managed to pull out his wallet and remove his credit card, struggling not to show how scared and sick he felt. The girl hardly looked up as she ran his card. Strait wanted to cry with gratitude when she assigned him a room on the first floor whose front door was only twenty feet down a hallway.
“There’s a patio area on the street side. Just go out the other door in the room,” she said as she handed him the key.
He weaved down the hall to the door, somehow got the key in the hole on the first try and threw open the door. He nudged it shut, zig-zagged across the room, grabbed a table from in front of the TV and dragged it to the bedside, tore the vomit bucket and other supplies from his duffel bag and tossed them on the table, and collapsed backwards on the bed.
The ceiling light in its round plastic cover directly over the bed began to move leftwards as though attached to a giant, revolving cylinder. The rotation soon became so rapid it was a blur, like the ceiling was being spun on a fast merry-go-round. Strait moaned. He began to gasp in breaths desperately to stop himself from vomiting. Sweat was flowing freely from his skin, but he was icy cold. His heart was beating so hard his whole body shook with each pulse. The tinnitus in his right ear was an airplane roar. The sickness descended upon him, saturated him like poisonous glue, filled every cell of his body and he needed to vomit. Moving his head to the bucket was almost impossible because the slightest movement made the rotating ceiling also buck and bounce wildly. He threw his arm over his eyes in an attempt to lessen the impact of the spinning. He took a deep breath and flipped on his side with his head toward the bucket.
Everything he’d eaten on the train was hurled somewhere around the bucket. Throwing up eased the nausea slightly but it quickly boiled up again and he vomited more violently, retching so desperately that his stomach cramped. He collapsed again on his back and the movement flipped the spinning room on its side and bounced it up and down and Strait lurched back to the vomit bucket for more painful retching.
The spinning went on and on. Strait sank into a dark region, a place filled with a reek of mayonnaise and boiled ham, where life was crushed to fragmentary heaving gasps. With his eyelids pressed tightly shut and his arm thrown over his face, he sensed rather than saw the spinning, but the need to puke was just as bad and the roaring in his ear was so loud it hurt. At some point, the nausea was reduced such that with steady, deep breaths, he could stop retching. He lay completely immobile, spinning for a very long time.
During this attack, as with the others, Strait saw himself stripped of all superfluity and the world parsed down to its most toxic essences. The rotations of the room transmuted to a single nightmare object: a mammoth circular saw. Its flashing silver serrated blade turning and turning as it descended, in stops and starts, to cut him from his life.
As the blade moved closer, Strait cried out the name of the child.
(Excerpt from my second novel, The Rabbit Skinners)
Also available from the same author, The Language of Bears, a seriocomic literary fantasy that Kirkus Reviews called “a smart, literate, odd, and skillfully written tour de force.”