The biggest issue is this backstory issue. Ottis O’Toole’s troubled life started long before Lionheart’s grooming. In districts of Burlington, Ottis lost his soul.
Ottis O’Toole was about one hundred and forty pounds of chicken shit, a shrimp, a putty-faced ‘boy wonder’ with sagging blue jeans, and a red hoodie. His vision blurry, his cheeks sickly pale. His heart pounded. He felt like a hunted beast in Brewington’s rural-urban jungle. Somebody was watching.
“No,” a desperate girl’s voice hollered from the top of the Leprechaun Bridge.
“Oh, yeah,” Ottis said, snapping out of a childlike daze, a mixture of curiosity and fear. His heart pounding, he turned around, facing the dangerous highway. Cricket, a talent agent recruiting for Lionheart Entertainment and a casual acquaintance of his, stood framed against the line of rushing cars. She’d parked Dad’s sporty white Mazda on the side of the highway, ahead of his ancient rust-bucket, and she had her four-ways on. She dashed out. He turned around again and looked down. She hadn’t come for him, she came to make herself into the heroine. Ottis would pretend she didn’t exist. The clouds were like burnt marshmallows against the dark sky. The sunset on his life and his dreams. Everything led to a sugar-coated end; drugs had put him in a selfish trance; he blocked out the entire world.
He took a leak off the bridge. She didn’t notice. Nobody cared. He zipped up his fly. Van Halen’s Jump in the back of his mind. Not sure if he really wanted to die, if he cared about anybody, or if it overly drugged him. Ottis started singing the Mighty Mouse song, imagining himself as a mouse with a cape. No coin in the wishing well.
He was the jobless poet, trapped in media and radio broadcasting, too scared to look down for too long. There was no microphone or record to spin. No pressure, standing at the railing in the middle of the bridge. The smell of weed still fresh on his clothes, the air like fresh manure. He hesitated, slowly gazing down at the flowing water far below. Watching it was hypnotic, relaxing. He was afraid of heights, but not on this magical evening. The water seemed to call him, pull him downward, tempting him to jump. He leaned his head forward over the bridge and over the railing, then leaned farther. The water below temporarily took his mind off getting laid and dreams of becoming the most underrated speed demon. A common baker and crackhead. He had bit roles in the entertainment industry.
There were no answers under the bridge, under the world. Ottis imagined the blanket his step-mom had given him. A white middle-aged woman from his farm childhood with no music in her soul or spirit. He leaned back from the railing and a piece of cloth stuck to the edge. He stared at it, remembering a shit-brown, worn wool camping blanket with holes. The ugly brown blanket that was hugging him when he was two, maybe three years old, and innocent, removed from the world. Around the time his dad died of a heart attack. His dad walked out of the barn into the farm and collapsed. The memory hurt. He dry-heaved, wanting to vomit, but he didn’t, and instead felt himself curled up into the fetal position, helpless, almost like he was all alone on the bridge. He had no shame taking Zoloft.
The sun setting above, the reflection below on the water looked beautiful, but he was stuck. He leaned over the railing even farther. What would it feel like to free-fall to the bottom of life’s mystery? The temptation was sweet. Like Icarus, if he opened his arms and tried to fly, would he glide up into the sky or fall? What would it feel like to fly like Superman? Why kid himself? The great beyond was just a myth for trippy, hippy new-agers and their stoned kids: no blue water, or the wet blanket, ice crystals, mermaids with cool purple hair, dope, or Jim Morrison singing Indian Summer. There was no other side with superheroes and cool rock stars, just the indifferent cold water.
“No,” a familiar voice, shouting. Cricket was much taller than Ottis, wearing a floral printed dress for success and she was running, but finding it difficult to run in high heels along the walkway of the Leprechaun Bridge. Ottis watched her moving quickly, clumsily. His eyes bulged, riddled with anxiety, imagining her as a very tall mouse in search of her cheese. She had her new cell phone out, frantically pressing down on the emergency button to call 9-1-1. What was she doing stopping for him on the highway? Had she hunted him down? The traffic noises louder, almost deafening. Still, he watched her, moving closer to help. He lurched up, sighed, stepped back a few steps. She was talking on the phone, and then put it away. She panicked and shouted louder. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Ottis heard her voice getting louder, but he was still imagining Cricket as the beautiful temptation. Her hair was a store-bought red, but everyone knew it was brown. A shade darker than when they went to the Iroquois Institute together; a fan of the radio podcasts and part of the problem. He knew how to hook her. He kept going out to the bridge, every time with a loose wire. She was the agent hell-bent on finding him to get her mind back in the gutter and off her unsatisfying jobs.
She stepped back, and away from traffic, away from danger. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted again. “Ottis! Stop being so foolish. Stop. Just stop this now. Shazam Prince and Queen. These are the days of our lives. We talked on the phone for hours. You don’t want to die.” There was spit flying from her mouth. “You won’t be worth a nickel without help. You need to believe in your talent. Believe in your radioactivity. You need to be ready. Look at me, Ottis. I can help you.”
He stared at her for a second, maybe two. She had known him for a while but she didn’t know him before college. She didn’t know he was the cool hack fuck-up without a purpose in life. She walked closer, steadily keeping to the side of the highway. A gust of wind and the loud roar of a car swerving close from behind a line of vehicles. Why didn’t she give up on him? Did she want to help his rejected soul?
“It all sucks,” he shouted. “I just lost another fucking job.”
“I know,” she said. “Don’t look down.” But maybe it was already too late? He imagined himself zip-lining off the bridge into another world where he could perform radio shows on his terms and get off just spinning his records. But this was reality. He looked at her hard, more closely, and wondered, what does this ghostly vixen fucking want?
Just then, he slipped backward on the wet pavement. He fell against the bridge and onto the ground. She’s the one that’s fucked up. But really he was the one that was as crazy as a shithouse mouse. She reached out her hand.
“Whoa,” he said, banging at the metal grid of the bridge’s railing. Crawling along the damp, cold pavement. He smashed a tired fist against the bottom of the rails. “I’m not going anywhere,” he had words, but not sure of anything. He turned sharply and glared at her again. He watched her slowly extending a hand of Downy softness. The radio man putting his life in jeopardy and taking things a little too far, beyond the realm of natural curiosity.
Freezing, ice-cold, down on his knees, a mess, still high from the herb and booze, he was light-headed and slightly nauseous. She stood over top of him.
There was nowhere to go. No sailing away, radioactive between jobs, insecurity, and the nowhere blank address of Brewington. He was stuck, clutching to nothing without a flashy social media edge or a business platform. He was out of luck; no job and everything was hopeless. He slowly stood back up, regained his balance, wobbling a little, and he almost wanted his warm blanket, but instead slowly reached out for her hand, and grabbed her tight in his arms, a cozy change. They hugged and there was just nothing, except the embrace and feeling a piece of soft, warm skin, the factory smell of polluted water from Brewington Bay, and the bowels of a nearby lake. The breeze against their faces. He was feeling just fine. She appeared uncomfortable after she’d just been touched inappropriately.
“You’re a jerk-off. Don’t hug me like a perv. Jesus.” She stared at him, angry; pupils in her eyes were darkened slits, and she had mad eyes. “Wow, you’re an idiot, but you’re good at radio; you’re funny and you need to be working.” She had a smoking hot voice, and he wondered why she didn’t do her own podcasts and work for herself. Or why she didn’t pull away from the hug. She could easily do it, but then he stopped and thought with clarity. Her bark was worse than her bite. He knew her type. Did she want the more aggressive hug? “What’s your plan, or do disaster artists even have plans?”
“I finished reading Moby Dick and even stopped buying acne-fighting products,” he said.
“Yeah.” She squirmed. “Great. I’m onto you. And…” she said, “you don’t give a fuck about me except physically; and yeah, I sort of like it.”
“Yeah?” he said.
“Really,” she changed her tone and said, “I really do and I can help you.”
He stopped, took a deep breath, on the edge, biting the tip of his tongue. “I want to be friends.” A wink from his lazy eye. He grinned.
“Me too,” she said. “They’ll be here soon and I’m not kidding.”
“Who?” he shouted.
“Hold me closer,” he said. “I know this is wrong, but I really thought you wanted to lend a hand?”
“Yes. Listen,” she said, “I can help you work for a company that can help you get your feet back on the ground. All the money you earn you can live off as long as you stay clean.”
“I thought so. Look, I’m taking a chance on you,” she said. Ottis squinted, tired, then nodded. “But I’m not always Cricket,” she said. Disoriented, he tried to listen. “Refer To Me Simply.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re talking about.” Ottis was scratching his head when all he really wanted to do was hug her again and feel her warm body rubbing tight up against his.
“It’s the title track from a song that I’m releasing with the Elixirs. Sometimes, I’m Danielle when I’m the lead singer of a metal hair band.” She winked, as though she was waiting for another hug.
“That’s cool,” he said. “Good luck with that.” He was genuine but indifferent.
“It’s underground. It’s something I do as a hobby.”
“And what about everything we’ve got going on?”
“Ottis,” she said, “I’ve always had a really bad crush on you, and I want to be with you, and I want this to work for us, and I really love hacks. I looked it up and found your new number, and I’m texting you later. You can run, but you can’t hide. Johnny wants to see you. Johnny likes you.”
“His real name is Johnny Egnatius. He’s the best; but you’ll have to stay off the drugs. Do we have a deal, Ottis?” She leaned into him again with her arms around him. He nodded and rested his head against her chest. “I’m hugging you ’cause I care way too fucking much to give you a stupid handshake. But this really isn’t how it all works; and this is purely a business deal, the start of something real. This is our new relationship. I believe in you.” They stopped hugging. Her index finger slowly tapped on his chest. “So, do we have an agreement?”
“Yeah.” Then he took a step back confused, wondering how it really worked, the business deal, Lionheart, media.
Sirens were going off louder. Police cars narrowed in, two or three of them. Shit, this was just great. Cricket called the police. He thought he could trust her. Could the deal help a broken radio man? One cop car veered around the others and raced away. Two cop cars surrounded her car and his. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and Ottis had to face the music.
He sighed. “You actually called the cops.”