My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

by Steve Schlich

The suspect was cruelly slim and frail, but the police were afraid to move him. Instead, they brought their psychiatrist there. He was a large, broad-shouldered man who didn't look the part at all.

“How do you feel, Paul?”

“I feel fine.”

Dr. Niehouse took in the room around them and doubted it. They sat at Paul Manchester's kitchen table in front of the refrigerator and cabinets. The freezer door had been twisted and then ripped off its hinges; the kitchen was littered with TV dinners, pot pies and microwave meals for one. The cabinets had been similarly ravaged. The room looked as if it had played host to a war among prepackaged foodstuffs, no prisoners taken.

He wondered: How could this wimp do all that?

He said: “Tell me about this `power' of yours, Paul.”

Manchester waved a hand toward the two officers in the living room, who would have flinched had they seen the gesture. “I told them already. They first.”

“I won't laugh, Paul. I promise.” Niehouse considered the force it must have taken to mutilate the freezer door, the sustained frenzy required to smash all that frozen food into the tiny fragments that were scattered around the room. No, he wouldn't laugh.

Manchester looked at the ceiling. “You won't believe me. It's good old-fashioned will power.”

“Huh!” Niehouse grunted, adding quickly, “That's not a laugh. What do you mean, will power?”

Manchester's gaunt features tightened in frustration. “I mean will power, doc. I've got more of that stuff now than any man alive!” He closed his eyes and exhaled loudly. “Damn, I want a cigarette!”

“Killed my brother,” Niehouse mumbled.


“Cigarettes killed my brother. And they'll kill me too if I don't stop. Here.”

Niehouse slipped a Marlboro from the pack in his coat pocket. But it broke in his fingers, into an amazing number of pieces. “Hell,” he said, and took the pack out to get another. He wanted one now, too. Even if they had killed his brother. He knew all about will power, or the lack of same.

He never got his smoke. The entire pack jumped from his hand and slammed against the far wall as if it had been thrown. Niehouse stared after it. The pack was embedded in the wall and now no thicker than a credit card. One of the officers ducked his head into the kitchen to check out the commotion, then withdrew nervously.

“Cigarettes are an indulgence,” Manchester explained. “Nasty habit. I've been trying hard to kick my nasty habits.”

The shrink's attention stayed with his late pack of cigarettes.

“You saw the mess in the living room,” Paul said. “That slop on the rug is take-out fried chicken. My favorite junk food.”

Niehouse finally came to. “Then you did all this to cure yourself of cigarettes and junk food?”

“They started it. My addiction to them. I guess that's what makes them prime targets now...” Manchester's voice trailed off and he smiled apologetically.

“Go on, I'm listening.” But Manchester remained silent. Niehouse began to fidgit and called out to one of the officers in the living room: “Neil, give me a cigarette, will you?”

Neil answered him after a long pause. “You'll have to come dig them out of the wall if you want one, doc.”

Manchester's eyes met the shrink's. “You don't understand, doc. Didn't you see what happened to your smokes?”

Niehouse wondered if he could fit both sanity and truth into the same package. That he was here at all verified something. But what? That the dozen or so “impossible” complaints, signed by neighbors pointing frightened fingers at Paul Manchester, were not so impossible as they sounded?

He'd seen those cigarettes hit the wall with his own eyes.

“Tell me how you acquired this power,” he said, suddenly afraid.

Manchester looked at his hands. They were trembling. “I just had to quit, you know? I was coughing up phlegm like an old man every morning. Out of breath just climbing the stairs.”

Niehouse nodded his sympathy.

“I tried cold turkey. I tried those filters that cut you down slowly. I tried drawing a line halfway down the cigarette and stopping there. I tried everything! Nothing worked. So I went to a hypnotist.”

“They have a high percentage of success, I'm told.”

Manchester chuckled bitterly. “Not at first, not with me. This guy said my desire to quit wasn't genuine. I called him a fraud. `I hate cigarettes,' I told him. `I don't want to see another as long as I live!' So he put me under and convinced my subconscious of that. And he taught me self-hypnosis so I could reinforce it at home.”

The sounds of daytime TV drifted in from the living room. Niehouse frowned inwardly but let it pass. The boys were only looking to relieve their jitters in there. Something banal to distract them.

But Manchester's eyebrows raised at the noise — it sounded like the theme from The Hung and Breathless — and then a rictus of fear crowded all else from his face. There was a resounding BOOM! and the tinkle of broken glass, then smoke from the other room. Niehouse froze. Coughing followed the smoke.

“The picture tube blew! Just like that. Holy—”

“You don't suppose...?”

The voices faded to a nervous mumbling, accompanied by the sound of pacing and windows being opened.

“I'm getting some air,” said Officer Neil. But after the apartment door opened and closed, Niehouse heard two pairs of feet rushing down the stairs.

“Television is another indulgence of mine,” Paul told him matter-of-factly. “At least it used to be.”

The shrink nodded numbly. How did I get into this, anyway?

Paul went back to his story. “I wanted so badly to quit. You know how it is. I drilled and drilled myself. And I decided while I was at it, why not cut out the junk food and all the other bad habits I'd picked up over the years? Why not, I mean, WHY NOT?”

He was close to tears. “It worked, by God, it worked like a charm! I didn't smoke a cigarette for five whole days. That's the longest I'd been without one in twenty-three years. It worked! No junk food either. I was good to myself, and I kept on hypnotizing myself and reinforcing it—”

Niehouse felt low vibrations in the floor and the table, as if a jet were taking off nearby. He could hear no jet. But the shrapnel that had once been TV dinners and pot pies and whatnot, now thawed and beginning to go over, was jumping around on the floor.

“I broke down on the sixth day,” Paul was saying. “I went out and bought a bucket of chicken and a pack of cigarettes. No damned will power, I thought. Until I got back here!”

The vibrations felt like a steadily-mounting earthquake. Garbage danced and capered on the kitchen floor. From the living room came the sounds of furniture and stale fried chicken smashing against the walls.

Niehouse stood up. He wanted to run.

“I can't even backslide!” Manchester cried. “My wonderful new will power won't let me! Or anyone else! I'm trapped, we're all trapped!” The garbage was jumping a half-foot off the floor.

“Okay, okay, easy, Paul,” Niehouse said huskily. “Why don't you just come downtown with me. All right? I think we can help you down there.” Into a strait jacket, he added to himself.

“You don't know what it's like, doc! No more Pepsi!” The man was hysterical. “No more coffee! Oreos! Smoked oysters on crackers!”

“Come on, dammit!” Niehouse was shouting, too terrified to be anything but angry. He feared what might happen if he turned his back on Paul Manchester, but he was close to punching the lunatic in the nose.

“ dagwood sandwiches, no beer, no pretzels...”

“Shut up!” Niehouse commanded. He grabbed Manchester's arm. “You want help? I'll give you help! Downtown!”

Manchester would not be budged. “No! NO! I'm not going anywhere! You can't help me. Haven't I suffered enough, right here?”

“Listen, you little snot,” Niehouse hissed. “Stop being a child! You say you want help, then you refuse it. Make up your damn mind! Indulgences? Indulgences?! You're just indulging yourself. Do something about that!”

He saw the realization attach itself to Manchester's face and knew, an instant too late, what he should not have said. He knocked over his chair escaping the kitchen.

The force of the explosion broke windows for blocks and blew part of the kitchen wall into the living room, felling Dr. Niehouse. He suffered five broken ribs and a concussion — and considered himself lucky. Pinned to the floor beneath two thicknesses of sheetrock, he watched what was left of Paul Manchester drool through the cracks and added his own vommit to the mess.

When he was released from the hospital a week later, Niehouse discovered that he had quit smoking cigarettes for good. Given the proper incentive, it was easy.

When no one claimed his remains, Paul Manchester was given a plain civil funeral with an unremarkable ceremony, and then buried in an ordinary casket in a nondescript cemetery. The city took great pains to avoid indulgence. Why push your luck?

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

I wrote the first draft of “Indulgences” in a single night in 1981, partly to amuse a hypnotist who was helping me quit smoking. But she was not amused and, as of this writing thirteen years later, I'm still smoking. I recently sent it to a radio show called Rejection Slip Theater. They specialize in converting rejected short stories into radio plays. Indulgences seemed like an ideal candidate for them, having been turned down more thn half a dozen times.