HOW TO EAT FLUORESCENT LIGHTS
By Aaron Coder
Begin with those spent tubes stored haphazardly on end in the corner of the garage, crisscrossing like loose rifles, all held in place by cobwebs. You can’t throw them out, right? You’re supposed to take them to the “proper disposal facility” where it’ll all get smashed into a million useless pieces anyway. So think of this as recycling. If you’re lucky, you’ll have accumulated an assortment. There’s probably a 36-inch from the light over the kitchen sink, maybe a couple of four-footers from the fixture that hangs over the pool table in the basement. There might even be an old black light tube out there, now that your daughter has outgrown her velvet poster phase, though it’s hard to say what’s worse: Jim Morrison and day-glow mushrooms or all this Woody Guthrie and Che Guevara crap plastered to the wall, and in this day and age? Communists probably don’t use birth control since the idea is to grow and spread like a fungal infection under the top layer of skin, undetectable at first, and practically impossible to get rid of once it establishes itself and begins to fester in tiny pores and crevices. Nothing topical helps. You have to take something orally, go at the disease from within, through the bloodstream. Anyway, have a son if you can help it.
Truth is, in case you haven’t read the warnings and indications, the stuff inside a fluorescent bulb is nasty. Prolonged exposure to mercury vapor causes long-term nerve and kidney damage, supposedly. You’ll know you’re in trouble if you start to experience symptoms like confusion, nausea, headache, respiratory distress, paranoia, seizure, and all that. With asthma, it’s hard to say what respiratory distress really means. There are so many triggers, so many levels of severity. The onset should be relatively mild. Not like chickens. Holy shit. Not like the morning you spent working at your dad’s friend’s poultry farm, grabbing broiler chickens from their battery pens and cramming them into those narrow transport racks that roll onto the flatbed trucks. They fight, too, those chickens. Like they know what’s coming, with their scaly legs all weak and deformed, with just enough fury to scratch and peck your forearms to hash, squawking and thrashing their wings and flinging all that dander and chicken shit dust up in your face. Two and a half hours at three dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, minus the ambulance and emergency room bills. The incident will make your mother cry, and your dad will get drunk and call you my son, Jeffrey, the great big chicken pussy. And that’s a hell of a way to find out you have asthma.
The point is you’ll want to crack the glass and let all the gas leak out first. A hairline fracture is sufficient, so take a screwdriver and gently tap the metal shaft against the glass, right below the base. Crack it all the way around, like an egg, keeping as much of the glass intact as possible. Hard to do with tremors, yes. Just do your best. At first, you’ll be tempted to smash the whole tube just as soon as you hear the glass start to crack. It’s a satisfying sound, to be sure. Like kids need to pop bubble wrap. Who can describe that feeling? There are few things finer than feeling that little air blister give way beneath your thumb, hearing the crack like a little gunshot, a tiny exploding membrane. You’d punch your cousin in the gut for the bigger piece; he’d hit you in the head with copper pipe to get it back. It is sublime. Like knocking a sparrow from the fence with your pellet gun, hearing that little phfft amid a burst of feathers. Takes practice. Anyway, you’ll feel it in your throat, this empty longing, like a hunger pang that pulls at the nerves deep inside your neck, that makes you want to keep smashing and smashing and smashing, like when you got in trouble for inappropriately touching yourself at summer camp, and you begged and begged the camp counselor not to call your parents, you’d do anything, and finally, to stem your tears, he said you and he could work something out. And when he was finished, he sentenced you to two hours trash duty, and you stood in that narrow storeroom with the door closed and smashed at least twenty, maybe thirty burned out fluorescent tubes—the long, industrial kind—and swept up all the dust and glass and poured it into a garbage can and then hauled it out the dumpster, hearing the other kids laugh and sing and squeal on the other side of the lake. But what glorious music those breaking tubes made, the smash ricocheting off the concrete walls. What you’d give to have them all back
Try and resist the urge to keep smashing; the payoff later is worth it.
Once you’ve cracked a tube, carefully pull out the ballast, which you can throw away. Let the tube sit. Go away. It’s best to do this over time, one tube at a time. Whenever you take one that’s been drained, crack another. That way you’ll always have a fresh one ready when the craving starts. You can prep a few of them at once, if you want. True, some won’t be fresh. But there’s a trade-off with everything.
Personal need can easily outpace normal, single household use, as fluorescent lights may last up to ten times as long as incandescent bulbs. And they’re expensive, so buying them strictly to eat may be cost prohibitive. Here’s one way to save money: call your neighbor on a Sunday, during the game, and ask if you can borrow some obscure hand tool, nothing big or expensive that he’d be inclined to keep track of. He’ll tell you the side door is open and to come over and help yourself, sorry he can’t help look for it but the Giants are into overtime and why the fuck aren’t you watching the game? Tell him your cable is out, or whatever you need to say to keep from having that conversation. Or any conversation, since he’ll never mention those times back in junior high when he and his friends battered your brains with dodge balls, or targeted your flabby ass with a barrage of wet towel snaps as you were getting out of the shower. He’s probably forgotten about the time he poured epoxy resin into the combination lock of your locker so you couldn’t get to your books all day and the janitor had to drill the lock out, or when you passed out at the one high school party you were invited to and you woke up in the yard naked with obscenities and penises doodled all over your skin in black permanent marker. But you wonder, sometimes, at the way he looks at you and smiles when he’s out hooking up the boat trailer to his truck on Saturday morning and you’re pulling into your driveway in your patrol car after a night shift, and you’re wife is out there watching in her short, pink bathrobe, hair wrapped in a towel, a few drops of water still running down her freshly shaven legs, getting the paper.
Anyway, hang up, run over and check the cobwebby corners of that asshole’s garage. Even a 12-inch from the top of an old fish tank is worth it. While you’re there, keep an eye out for anything surreptitious. Repeat throughout the neighborhood, as necessary.
What do you do in a worst-case scenario, which, you’ve probably figured out by now, is going into the garage in a fit and finding no fluorescent tubes? If this happens, run to the kitchen and look for Dr. Fawzi’s emergency number on the refrigerator. Call and ask his assistant if it’s okay to up your dosage for a day or two. She’ll patch you through to his mobile phone. She’ll never give you his cell phone number, of course, because he’s part of a sleeper cell, and they don’t want you triangulating his signal or whatever. But dealing with this shit is one of those trade-offs, being a self-pay, because you sure as hell can’t have it on your state insurance. Anyway, he’ll say no you cannot up your dosage temporarily because it’s a delicate balancing act, Mr. Panadero, and besides, the clozapine doesn’t work that way, and then he’ll ask why you asked. Tell him you’re having a hard time controlling your thoughts—but don’t say anything specific. This is very, very important. Just tell him you’re having a hard time. He’ll call in a prescription for Xanax or something, and while you’re at the pharmacy you can pick up a couple of tubes. You’ll have to crack them and wait, so make sure you ration the pills. Then call in sick.
In a few days, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your efforts, like a farmer who reaps the harvest. Timing is everything. You must wait until you’re alone. Call up that kid down the street, the athletic one you pay fifty bucks to each month for a cup of his piss, and see if he’ll take your daughter out for a few hours. He seems trustworthy, not a commie or a Arab. Fold a condom up inside the fifty-dollar bill, just in case. Then tell you’re wife you’re going down to organize the garage, and if the neighbor’s not around she’ll lock herself in your bedroom for a while. But you’ll be in the garage, so you won’t hear her moan, and you won’t hear the buzzing of that long, plastic egg she keeps hidden in her underwear drawer. Now is the time. Find a quiet place to sit and eat.
See, there is nothing chicken shit about the metallic tang of phosphorus or the taste and feel of your own blood pooling in your cheeks. It is better than the taste of lead, better than the smell of gunpowder or chicken dust. You can breathe free. And there is nothing more satisfying than the crack and crunch of glass echoing in your skull, louder than a thousand sheets of bubble-wrap popping at once. It is an angelic sound, more musical than the crunch of copper pipe against bone and nerve. It is more forgiving than a camp counselor, more comforting than the cold, blue barrel of a .38 in your mouth.
Certainly. It has to be.
Aaron Coder is a writer and educator living near St. Petersburg, Florida. He is a graduate of the Program for Experienced Learners at Eckerd College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts with High Honors in creative writing and humanities. His work has also appeared in Foundling Review, Zouch Magazine, Sanctuary, Eckerd Review, and the St. Petersburg Times. He spends his free time fumbling with acoustic instruments, wandering the wilderness, getting outwitted by fish, being tolerated by his children (barely), and, once everyone else is finally asleep, reading and writing short stories and poems. He is currently at work on a novel set on the Gulf beaches and a collection of short stories about the Midwest. Visit www.aaroncoder.com.