Thank God things are quiet. I guess it’s medication time everywhere in the hospital, the same way it can be Christmas everywhere in the world. All the mental patients of Cottage C are lined up at their own medication room. They may be crazy, but no one is crazy enough to skip meds. There is the same weird half-light as last night, the same chairs lined up around the open dayroom, which reminds me now of a sad, empty dance floor; a lonely disco ball throwing fake starlight around the room would not seem out of place.
Behind the glass wall, I see the Tear Woman sitting on the edge of her cot, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her gray WELLESLEY sweatshirt. The only other patient who hasn’t disappeared into the medication room is the regal-looking man in designer pajamas, still sitting there like a monument in front of city hall, staring into space. With his strawberry beard and refined features, he looks like a lost professor. His broken, one-eyed eyeglasses still sit precariously atop his aquiline nose.
Like the professor, many of the other patients here look almost normal, but there’s always one crack in the egg, one weird tattered edge that sticks out, as if they are struggling mightily to contain it, yet the madness is bulging inside them like an overstuffed suitcase. [In case you’re wondering, you can easily spot crazy people in the wild because they are crazy about accessories. Especially hats. Weird hats, glasses, mismatched gloves = crazy. Don’t even get me started on shoes.]
I slink around the dancehall, a curious wallflower, a tourist in the strange country of insanity which lies just over the border from Detox. I spot a battered bookcase against the wall and I’m magnetically drawn to the leaning-a-little shelves.
Books. Reading. Books have always been my anchor in troubled times. When I was a depressed and lonely teenager seeking answer in religion, Jesus didn’t help me, but reading the Bible did.
I finger through the paperbacks, picturing myself a scholar in the professor’s library, grateful to be able to gently peruse something rather than be behind that glass wall like the Tear Woman, crying into a cup.
The books are in even worse shape than the patients. I assume they only put bland, inoffensive stuff in here because they don’t want to trigger a reaction in some brittle psychotic. Or maybe it’s just that nobody gives a shit. The collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy novels that pre-date the 1980s. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie. The few that still have covers show fanciful 60s-style artist’s concepts of moon colonies, astronauts with crew cuts. Robots. Monsters. Most of the books are yellowed, torn in half, or drop a few pages when I pick them up. The only book that looks brand new is a paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I grab Best Science Fiction of 1974 even though I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. It’s a pacifier. It’s a book. It’s something to clutch in my hand and walk around with, like the memory of my former life.
By now the Suboxones are starting to dissolve under my tongue and I’m afraid of what they will do to me. I hold the science fiction book to my face, as if focusing intently on the text, and discreetly spit the pills between the middle pages, and walk back the way I came, pushing the heavy metal door open with my shoulder as I hustle through the dark hallway back over to Detox with the book tucked under my arm. I feel like I’m getting away with something. I have some control now. Addicts love to get away with things.
I pass the medication room, noticing the last of the junkies are at the window. I feel like a shoplifter. I pass Jonah-the-Joker in the hall, tossing away his own medication cup.
“Hey, do you know anything about precipitated withdrawal?” I ask, with my book full of Suboxone tucked under my arm. “I mean like, is it over in a few minutes?” I’m asking this like I’m asking how bad cancer is.
Jonah’s joker-mask dissolves into a look of concern. He shakes his head. “Hours, homey. That shit lasts hours,” he says, and shuffles down the hall after Lindsey, the cute blonde. I hear him calling after her, “And how was your medication tonight?” in a voice as smooth as top-shelf whiskey.
Back in my room I sit on the bed and open the book. The half-dissolved pills have left a chalky paste on the yellow guts of the pages. “The sentinel passed Jupiter on its way to Io while Captain Danby slept in his cryochamber…”
I close the book and look around. I open it again.
I’m worried about everything as usual. The combination of tranquilizer and anti-seizure meds I’ve been given has blunted whatever feelings I am capable of feeling and left only a shape-shifting dread where my soul should be. The opiate withdrawal, as inevitable as the sun coming up, has not been as vicious in its return; I’m still frantic and terrified, but so far I’ve received a small dispensation. A little grace. Yet I know there is no way to cheat the dopegods. They were always watching, waiting for one little slip-up to rain down pain and misery on mortal junkieflesh. Vengeance is mine saith withdrawal.
I sit up and flip to the chapter containing my pills. They’ve turned into four clumps of stuck-on moondust.
Given a choice between taking something and not taking something, addicts will always choose the taking. Every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s just Tylenol. We are frantically empty. There’s a poem by Galway Kinnell which says ”that enormous emptiness / carved out of such tiny beings as we are / asks to be filled.” But that poem is about love, about the need for human contact, not drugs.
I fold back the pages of Best Science Fiction of 1974 and scrape the Suboxone moonlumps into my mouth. It tastes faintly sweet. I press the book close to my face and tongue the last of the powder off the pages, the moldy, decaying-book smell burning in my nose and lungs.
My thirsty cells drink again, as if straight from the mouth of a wild red poppy, and I see the world, the actual physical world, transform in front of me. The harsh light of the hallway is suddenly a warm glow beckoning me to life again. My dry veins fill with warm saltwater, the waters of the sea from which we were born. Though it’s still mercury-lamp gray in here, I know the sun is out somewhere in the world above me because I feel its rays penetrating down, down through the ceiling and walls of the hospital, down to hold me close and keep me safe in its warm embrace. It feels like going home. It feels like love.
Now my strength is returning, my limbs loosening. I’m no longer shot-through with terror and anger. I can’t believe it—I’m really high! My problems seem manageable now. It’s like an actual answer to prayer, a love letter back from God. I hear talentless, awful Bob Marley singing in my ears—“…every little thing / will be all right.” My heart pumps the beautiful warm blood inside my chest. I think of Yeats: I am blessed and can bless.
Yeehaw fuckos, your boy is high!
The tattered and dry-rot science fiction book is a lot more interesting to me now. I leaf through it, amused, smiling to myself. I wonder what will happen to brave Captain Danby when he gets out of that cryochamber! What a wonderful book with a wonderful author about a wonderful place—the moons of Jupiter—which I must remember to visit sometime on my next swing around the universe.
I hear the bell do its ding-ding dance again. It’s time for…who cares what it’s time for, I’m up for it! I shuffle out, doubly happy at being high and at my good fortune at being high in this terrible place. Haha, screw you, friends and family and coworkers. I do what I want. I don’t have consequences. I’m that fucking special. I’ve always been that special.
“Dinner time,” calls the sour-faced woman. Her nametag says Pamela, but in my mind I call her Nana because she has a busybody grandma thing about her. Her bitterness doesn’t bother me now. “Thanks for calling us to dinner, Pamela,” I say, a gentleman’s gentleman. I think about a happy time in New York while I was sitting at Bemelmans Bar, waiting for my friend Tracy to join me for dinner. “Would you have Ellis make us an Old Cuban?” I ask her.
Nana is not amused. Because she isn’t high and I am, and I am a junkie and I bet she is too, or she was before she got caught. “Just regular dinner,” she says, without looking at the annoyance.
This is the first time I’ve been calm enough to take interest in who my fellow Detox-mates are. I don’t know enough yet to tell the new people from the old—“Old” being anyone who has been here for a couple days. The veterans.
We shuffle down to the end of the hallway, children following our Nana.
I’m standing next to the surfer kid, a tired-looking middle-aged presumable housewife with a tiny frown permanently weighing down the corners of her mouth, a trembling-at-middle-age ex-sorority girl who looks beat up but a little too good to be here, and there is a new zombie, a plump little daddy’s girl with a pink shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops, like she just came from the yoga studio. Jonah the joker is standing next to Lindsey, the blonde nymphet with the green-stars-and-moon tattoo behind her ear, who is looking into a small hand mirror and adjusting her lipstick.
People talk about the fragility of civilization, how a war or natural disaster can turn us into primitive animals. It turns out Detox does this too. Everyone looks tired and sick and desperate except for Lindsey and a tall guy with long dark hair and a white v-neck t-shirt pulled tight over his rippling, fatless physique. I notice a gold football-shaped St. Christopher medallion shining in the deep valley of his chest.
With his boiled-corpse skin, Jonah looks no better than the rest of us, but he seems to be driven by some inner reserve of social energy. “Cassie dear,” he calls to the sad-faced housewife, “when we gonna turn that frown upside down?”
“Pauline, you have to stop smoking,” he says to a pudgy zombie with wavy brown hair down to her ass, who looks like she just abandoned her register at the Gas ‘N Go.
“Oh gaaawwwwd, not noooow, Jo-naaaah,” she whines back at him, her smoked-through voice sounding like she just got done crying buckets or is about to.
He turns back to me. “Chris, you met Scotty-too-hottie yet?”
“Me?” Other than Nana no one has spoken directly to me in hours and I feel invisible. Addicts often think they are invisible.
“No, the other junkie named Chris standing behind you.”
I limply shake Mr. Handsome’s mighty, handsome hand. He looks like he belongs in a body wash commercial instead of a Detox chow line.
“You look pretty together, man,” I offer to this giant among us. He shrugs and shakes his handsome locks. He could easily be cast as Jesus in a Bible movie, if Jesus was also ripped and huge.
“Oxy, man. Oxy,” says Jesus.
Nana’s enormous keyring is swinging and turning in the lock. She cracks the heavy door open and we pour out into the sunset. This is the first time I’ve been outside so I take note of the grounds for potential escape routes. We are surrounded by a dense forest of trees that goes along the perimeter of the hospital grounds and up to the ridge rise. I can’t see a road or any real civilization from here. I guess they have to keep us mental patients hidden away so we don’t frighten any sane people.
The cracked cement sidewalk makes a hard left turn and slopes down back under the building we just came from. A large magnolia bows along the walkway, its branches bent low under the burden of its sweet-smelling blooms. Our little group follows Nana as she walks with her keys jangling out of one pocket and a small walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. We are silent except for Jonah, who never stops talking.
“Okay, hurry up people, I want to eat. Come on Cassie, vamos Eduardo, Scotty-too-hottie, go long.” He grabs a pinecone and hikes it like a quarterback in the shotgun. “Get open, Scotty. Go long, I said.” Scotty laughs and catches the pinecone pass behind his back. This is silly stuff I used to do when I was a kid, but I’m still glowing from my high so I laugh at the class clown too, grateful that someone is bringing life to this death house. Nana walks ahead of us and doesn’t even bother to look back. I guess she sees idiots all the time. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackles.”Cshhhhhh….10-4. Dr. Hush to admissions…Dr. Hush…cshhhhh.”
Jonah hikes another pinecone and drifts back in the pocket, scanning ahead for the pass rush. “Dawgs are in an I formation,” he growls, ”He’s looking for his receiver. Scottie get open!!!”
“Y’all need to quit plaaayying,” cries Pauline, in her weepy baby-voice. “Y’all are gonna get us Doctor Huuuu-shed…” Kerph, kerph, kerph, cough.
“What’s ‘Doctor Hushed’?” I ask.
Cassie the depressed housewife perks up. “That’s when you cause trouble. ‘Doctor Hush’ is code for all male staff members to wherever you are.”
“And then you get the booty juice and they put you in a rubber room,” says Jonah.
Oh. I’m not sure if that is horrifying or attractive right now. At least you get a shot.
We reach the end of the walkway at another set of security doors that lead to the cafeteria, which is tucked underneath the main building. It reminds me of a dream I had once where I was in a swanky hotel in Manhattan but was stuck in the kitchen, which was in the basement. In my dream, food came and went through holes in the wall, but I couldn’t eat anything, just look at it.
“It’s nice to be outside,” says Cassie through her tiny frown. “The magnolias are pretty.”
This seems more like a wish than an observation. I’ve never seen the beauty in flowers. They just seem like monstrously swollen genitals to me. When I look at the natural world all I see is suffering, decay, and death. I’ve always thought the love of nature was a form of mental illness. Stockholm syndrome. But this is a mental hospital, so…
“Yeah, it’s nice,” I say.
We make a single-file line going into the cafeteria. The smell of dinner cooking, the hollow ringing sounds of kitchen workers banging pots in the steamy air—this is all reassuring. Someone is expecting you and they have made you something to eat. We file up to the counter where a big bitter-faced woman scowls at the assembly line of junkies.
Jonah throws his tray down, still laughing at his own football antics. “And how are we doing this evening, Miss Gayle?”
At the site of Jonah her bitter face breaks into bloom like the magnolias outside. “Pretty good baby, pretty good.”
“Your grandson do okay?” he says to her now-beaming face. How does he know her? How long could he have been here?
“He did fine, Jonah, passed all his studies.” I’m not sure if he really cares or is just doing this to get an extra dessert. It doesn’t really matter though, does it? Jonah grins and takes his tray, now heavy with side dishes and desserts, and moves down the line.
“Hi Miss Gayle!” I say. In my mildly intoxicated state I think I can imitate Jonah’s bouncy joie de vivre. She frowns again like I’ve insulted her and drops a square, gray meat-ish patty on my plate. You ain’t Jonah. I take my tray and move on. Just like airport security, the only unforgivable sin in a mental hospital is holding up the line.
The cafeteria is small but airy. Even though it’s in the basement, the ceilings are high, likely designed for summers in the South before efficient air conditioning. Spiky, star-like fixtures dangle from the beams in what must have been imagined as a “space age” look back in the 60s. It reminds me of the decaying science fiction where I hid my Suboxone. I think how everything in the world that was once futuristic and full of promise is now hopelessly dated. Even me.
The seating area is a set of Balkan nations. On the far end there is a long table that looks like it came out of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are young kids, teens and even younger, sitting with a strawberry-blonde minder in too-tight jeans who looks barely older than her charges. The only way I know she’s staff is the keys on her lanyard and the walkie-talkie attached to her hip like a barnacle.
Seeing kids here is depressing, even with my chemically reinforced happiness. There’s a tiny African-American boy with huge square-framed glasses and a basketball-themed shirt that’s so long it looks like a dress, holding in his small hand a hamburger that’s bigger than his little round head. There’s a husky, fat-faced kid with red cheeks and his head cocked to one side in a hangdog expression that looks like pain and malice simultaneously. I recognize the ugly demeanor of every bully I had in middle school, and though I am a man and he is a boy, I hate him. There’s a young girl with straight black hair and black clothes and little red lines all up and down her arms that at first I think are cute little smiley sticker tattoos, but when I look closer I see they are razor cuts, and not just a few, but a dense red rose-thicket of wounds. She holds a cardboard milk carton in one of her razored arms and laughs next to a fat girl with curly hair and braces who is wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with four fiery gold letters: L-O-V-E.
Chris Jansen grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia. He has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.
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Compelling work, Chris! I like the precarious balance between the comic and the tragic. “Chris’s” voice takes you in hand right from the start line.
The kids deserve more that two paragraphs. I liked that the narrator’s gender was quiet. More dance floor. I did enjoy the ride. Thank you.