By Scott Cooper
The psych ward was bleak on the best of days. It didn’t matter what shade of beige or taupe they used to paint and repaint the walls, what kind of soft, pastel art they hung on them after they’d dried; it had the effect of a tissue on a bullet wound. Every time I walked through the halls, I could feel the Lithium oozing from the dried drops ditched by hurried painters.
I’d been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on the ward for a few months because it was close to home and some years back, I’d been a patient. I told myself I went to that meeting to remind me of how it used to be, when alcohol consumed my life and my mind cracked at the end of its whip. In truth, I went because I liked the patients; their stories were far more compelling than anywhere else.
How many times can I stomach another drunk-a-log about some guy who decided to kick the booze or the needle because he lost his job, his wife, his home, some three years back? I mean, what have you done for me lately? With patients, all the horror and trauma pulsed with freshness, the ashes from their psychiatric fire not yet cold. Billy tried to hang himself with his best belt when his parents walked in. Maureen overdosed while sitting in a parked car. Everyone was some shade of broken, everyone was at the end of their rope.
Arriving home after one particular meeting, the phone rang.
“Henry, it’s April.”
“Hey, April. What’s up?”
“I’m back in.”
“What? Wait, I was just there, the meeting just ended. How the…”
“I know but I couldn’t come. They have me on strap-down, in 101.”
“Oh, Jesus.” If Fairfield Hospital was the psychiatric center of the city, room 101 was ground zero. It consisted of four windowless walls and a thin plastic covered mattress atop a wooden frame specifically designed for leather restraints. When a patient broke free of their medicated simmer into a raging nutcase, they were placed in 101 until they cooled out.
Even in this moment of crisis, I still couldn’t believe I was friends with April. I never could. I’d met her in a meeting a few months back and noticed her right away because she looked like a cheerleader coming off the back end of a bad meth run. She was cute as hell with both her wrists wrapped in gauze that she relished like battle scars as if to say, “What you see is not what you get.” Her dark blond hair had streaks of black and brown from a dye job long since abandoned. The coup d’etat was her Spongebob Squarepants pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt with Ted Bundy’s face on it. Throughout the meeting, she played with an emery board, looking up from under shadowy, deep set eyes to survey the action. The regulars shared, I shared a story about cutting (naturally) and after the meeting broke, we waited for a nurse to take us from the cafeteria through the maze of hallways to the front.
April came up to me after the meeting and poked me on the arm. “I saw you smirking at me. I always know when someone is smirking. It’s a gift.”
“That is a gift,” I said. “I wasn’t smirking at you, per se. It was your shirt that did it – where did you get that masterpiece?”
“I dunno. Someplace I guess. Why?”
“It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, yeah. Plus, when you add Spongebob to it, the juxtaposition is priceless. Like a car bomb detonating in the center of Disneyland.”
“Interesting interpretation. Are you familiar with this Bundy?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “I am most familiar with this Bundy.”
She smiled, I smiled and as we walked and talked through the halls, she gave me her number and I gave her mine.
“Look, I’m not gonna fuck you or anything, OK?”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of such a thing,” I said. She glared at me.
“Seriously, OK,” I smiled, raising my palms up in innocence. “You’re like, what 18? You’re young enough to be my kid.”
“As if that matters. Look, it’s just that, well, I liked what you had to say and you’re not like the regular bores I find in meetings. I don’t really have any friends left and while I don’t like people much, you know, it’s nice sometimes to…”
“I get it. I do.”
“Yeah, OK. Plus, you know this Bundy.”
“I know this Bundy,” I smiled. “Call me when you get out if you want, I can give you a ride if you need one.”
“Maybe. Mayyyy-be. But, know this. I always go barefoot. Shoes are like nooses for my feet. Understand?”
“Ok. No long walks over broken glass. Got it.”
“Good.” She looked down, studying the emery board. “Hey, you want this?” she asked, holding it out for me.
“I don’t know, I mean, I’m a guy and…”
“You need it and I’ve got like twenty.”
”Thanks,” I said, taking it, putting in my shirt pocket.
She looked me in the eyes for a few long seconds and said, “I’m here because I covered my dad in my blood.”
“Talk to me.”
“He was yelling at my mom about whatever he yells about and then he got his gun. He usually just grabs it to get his point across. He began pistol whipping her in the kitchen and I started yelling for him to stop and the revolver fucking snapped. I mean this damn thing just shattered all over the place. I’d never seen one break before. I went into my bathroom, got a razor, cut my wrists and ran back into the kitchen and jumped all over him. The blood freaked him out to no end, which, I must say, I enjoyed seeing. Anyway, he called 911 and, well, I’m here. I just wanted to let you know.”
“I… Oh, shit. I don’t even know what to say. April, I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t help much but I am. If you need that ride, a visit, a Spongebob teddy bear, anything at all, I’m here, OK?”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling, giving me a hug. “I gotta go. I’ll call you when I get out of this psychotic labyrinth.” She turned and disappeared behind the double doors with the clouded glass panels.
Walking out to my car, I was haunted by something she’d said – she’d never seen a gun break. It’s like saying “I’ve never seen an electric chair short out.” I knew right then, there wasn’t much room for more violence before someone ended up in a body bag.
She called when she was released and since I was unemployed, we spent days on end together. It was summer and the sun was long and bright for weeks. We went to the bookstore, the movies, took walks, drank Slurpees, watched kids play baseball at the field downtown, took naps on the lawn outside the library. Our favorite activity was hanging out at the park, people watching. We couldn’t get enough. I’d paint her toenails, she’d fix my cuticles as we smoked cigarettes and took it all in.
“OK, see that woman over there?” she’d ask.
“In the blue blouse?”
“No, the one with the stroller, white shirt.”
“What kind of car does she drive?”
“Hmmm,” I’d say, mulling it over. “Probably a Lexus.”
“OK. But I think Mercedes, Audi, something along those lines. Look at that stroller. I saw it in Nordstroms once and it’s more old school, not flashy.”
“And Lexus owners are new money. Or old people. You see how her jewelry is understated and the perfect pleats on her khaki shorts? That’s real Mayflower crap. That’s old money.”
“Good point. She is sensible, I’ll give her that.”
Sure enough, she hopped into an Audi A6. “Well done, Sister, well done. But you know it’s her husband’s.”
“Is there a difference?”
Now she was back inside.
“Talk to me April.”
“Well, my dad was pissed I hadn’t been home much and after hanging out with you and having so much fun, I just couldn’t take it there. I didn’t feel like finishing school, I’m barely there, and what’s the point of graduating high school anyway? Plus, with him beating my mom again… So, I took like sixty Tylenols with some vodka and, fuck it, you know?”
“You should have called me, I’ve told you, always call when things get bad.”
“Please, don’t. I know, I should have but I didn’t, ok? I’m sorry.”
“All right, we’ll talk about it later. Why 101 though?”
“OK, last night, this girl Betsy, this big fat girl started groaning or moaning or something in her bed. It got louder and louder, like a crucified whale and some nurses came by and tried to calm her down, you know?”
“I was checking all this out from the hall and as soon as the nurses were back at their stations, she sprung up like she was weightless, did some kind of ballerina pirouette and then started beating on the bureau with her fists, screaming like she was possessed. It began to crack and splinter and then she picked up the whole damn thing and threw it against the window. Remember the windows, how they’re thick as hell with chicken wire in them?”
“Well, the window cracked, if you can believe that and the bureau shattered into a hundred pieces and Betsy just broke.”
“Like Foreman, in the Rumble in the Jungle.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Remember, when I was staying at your house, we were watching some documentary on Muhammad Ali?”
“When that reporter said that Foreman fell in sections? That was it. Betsy fell by ankles and knees and hips and chest. It was insane. She writhed and screamed, contorted and twitching on the floor. The patients got manic and nurses rushed into the room, one with a needle full of tranquilizer. Between Betsy and the bureau and the chaos, I began screaming and flashing back to my dad breaking the gun on my mom so I ran into the room, pushing patients and nurses out of my way and pried a piece of glass from the cracked window. I lifted up my shirt and someone yelled ‘NO!’ and I cut my stomach pretty good and someone grabbed me and next thing I know, I’m in 101, strapped down and flipping out.”
“Oh, April. Christ, I’m so sorry. Are you OK now?”
“Yeah, I mean, my stomach hurts and I’m still a little wigged out but I’m calmer than yesterday. At least they let me use the phone for a few minutes.”
“God damn. That’s so fucking heavy. Can I do anything, bring anything?”
“I’m just so glad you were home, I really needed to talk to you. But, yeah, tomorrow, can you bring a bottle of electric blue toenail polish? My fingers and toes are all chipped up.”
“Of course. I’ll get the best they have.”
“Thanks,” she said, pausing. “And a bus ticket.”
“Going somewhere?” I chuckled.
She exhaled and said, “I’m going to Los Angeles.”
“April, hang on, let’s just take a step back here…”
“Henry, I’m going.”
My mind began reeling. “Listen, hon, you can’t go, you need to stay here. I mean, what about the park and hanging out and people watching? And my cuticles are just beginning to look good now and we have so much to do. Like, I saw this woman the other day and I have to find her again so you can see her, she’s too much and I need you for Christ’s sake and…”
“I know, Henry, I know. But if I stay near my family, whether by my hand or his, I’ll be dead by Christmas. And you know it.”
I did know it. I knew it with the certainty of a sunset but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
“Why not Portland? It’s only three hours south of here and I could visit you. You can’t go to Los Angeles. No one ever comes back. And the freeways; the 405, 605, 134, 101, and the 2 and by the time you figure it out you’ll be old and lost and out of gas, choking on smog.”
“I love you, Henry.”
I couldn’t speak. I tried but the words were caught and tangled in my throat.
“It’s OK, I know. Listen, I have to go, my time is up. Come tomorrow at noon. Bye.”
Deep down, I suppose I always knew she’d never stay. That I could never wrap her tight in a blanket, tuck her deep beneath safe covers, protect her and keep her forever. But I acted like I could and that denial kept me safe.
For the first time in nearly a year, I drank because I needed to. I wasn’t sorry. Somewhere around the ninth beer, brimming with rage and sorrow, I took a hammer to my own bureau. With a series of punishing swings, I reduced it to kindling. Panting, sweating, and in a frenzy I went for my gun but sense kicked in and I stopped. If I was going to shoot myself, it would have to wait.
I went back into the living room, cracked another two beers, finished one in a hurry and lit a cigarette. A bottle of metallic pink toenail polish stood on the coffee table. I picked up the phone and started to call Greyhound but remembered that her Ted Bundy shirt was in my laundry basket. I grabbed the shirt, went back to the couch and buried my face in it, breathing deep, staining it with tears. I took my shoes and socks off and rubbed my feet into the dirty carpet. I love you too, April. I picked up the phone and dialed Amtrak instead. Los Angeles, one-way, first class Sleeper Car.