Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Ballad of Tom N' Jim (VI)

Notes On How To Make a Wing Man

It was strange how quickly two strangers could fall into such relaxed, comfortable conversation. Then again, it was a strange setting and the rules of normalcy showed no signs of applying here. Perhaps this was normal in life when people weren’t trying so hard to fit the norm.

"Were you ever a bouncer?" Tom asked. It was an obvious question but one he couldn’t help but ask. When someone is built like a brick wall you can’t help but want the comfort of knowing that they’re using the talent. Cartoonish images of a giant, lumbering form tucked behind a tiny desk in a tiny cubicle depressed Tom and he wanted verification that Jim lived elsewhere in life.

"Maybe in a past life," Jim answered with what might have been a grin.

Tom looked at him for a second, trying to gauge if he was joking. "Oh.. really?”

"Nah, that stuff's crazy," Jim laughed. He was the kind of guy who talked in short words. Words that had been clipped of extra syllables. Not because he was stupid and didn't know they were supposed to be longer, but more because he knew he could get the point across without them. Or at least that's how it seemed.

Tom smiled at him, relieved.

“Then again, crazy fits right in here,” Jim said with a hand to the side of his mouth. Just then, as if to illustrate the point, one of the patients- the one Jim had called ‘Ben’ when he’d handed him his fruit cup- let out a large yelp and jumped up from his chair as if it’d bit him. He then turned to it and began kicking it repeatedly whilst yelling at it in the same nonsensical language Tom had heard him use earlier.

Without a prompt, Jim pointed to the old man in front of the tv with the drool on his check saying, "That Teigs, he's been messed up ever since Vietnam."

"Then he shouldn't he be in a VA hospital?" Tom asked.

"Ah, nah- he wasn't no soldier- he was a conscientious objector," Jim answered, as if that was a perfectly good reason to be screwed in the head.

"That Cheryl,” Jim said, waving a hand towards the woman by the window. “She don't say much. Or anything, really. Just sits there all day, staring out that window."
"Why? Or is that a stupid question?"

"Thinks she's a bird, flying around out there."

Tom looked at her there, her head tilted slightly upward as if trying to get the best view of the sky. It made sense.

"So, got any advice?"Tom asked, ignoring the interruption.

"Yeah, keep to yourself, don't talk too loud and get as much sleep as you can,” Jim rattled off the list as if it were the standard orientation speech he’d prepared earlier. “Oh! And don't eat the broccoli."

"Why?" Tom asked, generally interested in this new advice.

"Why do you think everyone around is here so wonked out?" Jim asked him, eying the inhabitants of the room like they were prisoners in some POW camp.

Tom followed his companion’s eyes around the room, surveying the patients. The outburst from Ben had subsided and he’d returned to sidling along the corridor at a snail’s pace, his lopsided hospital gown hanging almost to his ankles on one side. Tom looked with suspicion now at the drool coming from the corners of lips, the glazed expression on so many frozen faces.

“But… isn’t that just the psych meds?”

“Some of it,” Jim said, still looking out at the patients with a hardened expression as if regretting not being to change what he saw. “But if anyone ever asks you, I didn’t say nothing, ok?” he jumped, looking at Tom with an imploring bend of his lower lip.

“Uh, yeah- sure.” Tom said. He looked at Jim with a new emotion now- curiosity. He was obviously more than just a friendly orderly. He found himself going through the normal mental process of judging- trying to concluded whether or not working in a nut house had, by proxy, made him nuts. But there was something in his face that made him stop. Logical conclusions seemed like something that just weren’t a good idea in a place like this. Besides, who was he to judge?

“So, how, uh… how do I get out of this place?” Tom asked, not wanting to pursue the touchy subject of broccoli any further.

“You gotta convince them you’re not nuts,” Jim said, brushing a piece of lint from his pants.


“Talk to the doctor, tell him you did whatever you did cause of something other than being crazy.”

“Uh, huh,” Tom said, letting his voice carry the doubt that it was all that simple. “And when do I get to see the doctor?”

“When’d you get in here?”

“Yester-“ Tom stopped himself. He went over his internal clock and tried to categorize the stops in his journey- the ambulance, the hospital, the cops, this room. As hard as he tried to benchmark his progress based on the few moments that stuck out with clarity he couldn’t formulate a time and date. It all bled together as if he’d been on a bender and blacked out huge amounts of time. “I… I don’t know,” he finally concluded.

“Broccoli,” Jim said, giving him a heavy pat on the back as he stood up from his chair. Then without another word he walked off without so much as a backward glance.

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