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Friday, August 19, 2011


So, I’m going to show you my life. Not in pictures, for I cannot paint or draw. I use words. And I hope these words will form some small image of me I long to share with you. In order to do this I think I must reach all the way back into my past to the time before I had a name or even a face, swimming free in the dim recesses of that place from which we all come and that place to which we all will one day return. But I find there is nothing to say of that.

I began in a dried up little town in the middle of the state of Kansas. It never rained for a whole year when I was ten years old and all the trees died off from thirst or beetle disease and what crops that grew withered in the fields while farmers wrung their hands looking to the sky as they prayed for rain. But God didn’t hear. I remember that town in its vibrancy before the dust settled over it and the soil cracked in great chasms which small children had to take care not to fall into lest they be lost forever.

I knew everyone and everyone knew me. A gigantic grain elevator dominated the center of town… below it small stores and houses, streets and alleys, washed out in gentle waves like they were blown there by the wind that graced the surrounding prairie. At night a quiet would settle over it all with the early hum of street lamps and sometimes a fog would creep in from the creek that stuttered through town settling low obscuring the ground making it seem as if everything in the world floated on that mist.

Mornings I’d wake to the tinkle of milk bottles and the crowing of roosters welcoming the dawn and the smell of bacon frying and coffee. My father had no land of his own. Before the drought he worked at a many thousand acres farm on the outskirts of town… sometimes in the spring he’d bundle me with him to go riding over the fields in a growling tractor pulling tillers and plows turning the prairie sod to lay baking in the sun. I’d sit proud beside my father smelling the dampness of the newly turned soil and believe in the beginnings of life.

Late afternoon my mother would ring the dinner bell that hung on the back porch. It had a distinctive sound unlike any bell I’ve heard since and we could hear it way out in the fields. My father would look at me as if to say, we’re done for today, and he’d drive the tractor back to the barn where it was kept and together we’d walk the short distance home, wondering to each other what might be for dinner tonight and laughing at each other’s belly’s growling like that old tractor.

My father would always wash up first while my mother asked how things went today and wonder if the lunch she sent with us was enough to eat or if she should send more tomorrow. My father would say, “Fine, it was fine,” and take his place at the head of the table where a bottle and a small glass greeted him. He’d fill the glass with amber liquid taking care not to spill and throwing back his head drink it down in a practiced gulp. I liked to watch the change settle over him as he downed the third and fourth of the small glasses.

If I dawdled watching, my mother would scoot me to the sink with her hands under her apron, instructing me to make sure my fingernails were clean and to take a cloth to my face. She would load the table with biscuits and beans and potatoes and fried steaks and sometimes pork chops with onions and if it were Friday fish and there would be a pitcher of cold milk for my mother and me and bottles of beer for my father.

On Sundays we’d go to church and the whole town would be there dressed in finery with bibles in hand and the light of God shining in their eyes. After the preacher told us all what to watch for lest we swim eternal in lakes of fire, we’d shuffle out row after row and I’d see the men standing in the sunshine renewing acquaintances and the women seeking out shade and catching up on the latest gossip while the children sat quietly doing their best not to muss up their Sunday shoes. I remember those as fine days.

Early in the spring of my tenth year it quit raining… like God had reached down and turned off the spigot. When I went with my father to plow the fields huge clouds of dust billowed up following us and we had to tie handkerchiefs around our mouth and nose to keep from choking on it. The wind blew dust through all the tiny cracks in the house and it settled over everything, causing my mother to fret and fuss, endlessly wiping off our plates and silverware and sweeping up small piles of dirt that accumulated in corners and on window sills.

By early summer none of the crops we’d planted had sprouted and the people my father worked for said they were sorry but they didn’t need him to come to work any longer. I remember he quit laughing so much after that and sat at the table sometimes until noon scouring the local paper in search of a job, circling hopeful-looking ads and sometimes picking up the phone to call a number. Once in a while he’d dress up and drive off somewhere in the car. But I guess all the jobs were filled. He’d always come back disappointed. I noticed our neighbors started to disappear one by one. Sometimes they’d tell us they were going but sometimes they left in the middle of the night taking only their clothes and what they could carry with them. At church each Sunday there were more empty seats.

My mother took in what laundry she could and sold eggs from her laying hens and jars of honey from her hives out back at the local grocery but that barely covered the cost of our food. As summer wore into autumn my father seemed to give up looking for work and took to sitting silent on the front porch with a brown jug under his rocking chair which he’d raise to his lips from time to time and when my mother would say something to him he’d wave her away with his hand, as if to say to some old dog, “Git.” Sometimes I’d hear her crying late at night.

One day my mother turned on the kitchen faucet and nothing came out. I remember I was sitting at the table doing my numbers and she said, “Lisa, please go to the bathroom and see if the water runs when you turn on the faucet.” So I did. And I came back and told her, “No.” She seemed to collapse in on herself, hunching over by the sink, holding onto the counter to keep from crumpling to the floor, having a hard time catching her breath as if she were gagging on the very air. I could tell she didn’t want to break down and cry in front of me.

My father came in and saw my mother and asked what was wrong. My mother couldn’t answer so I told him there was no water when we turned on the faucets and he said the well must have given out. It was happening all over town. He said maybe it was time we thought about packing up and going somewhere else. He took my mother in his arms and held her for a long time. We left the next day. I’ve never been back to that town in Kansas and I still dream sometimes that it just up and blew away.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Billy Austin

They locked him up in an asylum with metal doors and bars on the windows… they called it an institution to make it sound better than it was... and they told him he was crazy. He didn’t understand them or what they were saying about him. Crazy? He wasn’t crazy. They must have mistaken him for someone else. After enough time had passed, though, he suspected it too. He must be crazy. He could see it in everyone's eyes. He heard it in the way they talked to him. He felt it in the way they kept their distance. Like they were afraid… not of him, maybe, but of what he'd become. Or maybe it was him they were afraid of. After all, he was crazy so how would he know, how could he know, for sure, of where the madness ended and he started?

The staff asked him questions and fed him pills. Blue pills, green pills, red pills... they all went down the same so it didn't much matter. They’d say things like: Here’s a cup of water, drink, now, lift your tongue. They asked him how he felt today and if he wanted to hurt himself. “Do we want to hurt anyone today?” When the pills didn’t work, or didn’t work fast enough, the doctors suggested more aggressive therapy. They talked to him about ECT treatments but he didn’t understand what they were saying. The pills they fed to him jumbled all their voices into mishmash.

Once, he didn’t know exactly when, a woman came to visit him. She was very pretty and she said that she was his wife… she asked, “Do you remember me?” He didn’t quite remember her though she seemed somehow familiar. He shook his head to clear the drug-induced cobwebs and she took that as an answer. She told him she was signing the papers so the doctors could give him proper treatment. And she told him she wanted a divorce. She left with tears streaming down her cheeks. She said she had met someone else and that he would never see her again.

Two orderlies all dressed in white came to his room one day and secured him onto a hard cold metal table with leather straps holding his arms and ankles in place and one over his forehead so that he couldn’t move at all. A nurse all in green put something in his mouth that tasted of rubber. “Bite down on this.” A man in a white uniform touched some kind of bright probes to his temple, and the world disappeared. When he woke up, two years had passed. Of course, he didn’t know that two years had passed at the time. All the bad memories were gone along with all the good memories. He could remember bits and pieces of his childhood but it seemed as if he’d fallen asleep when he was twelve years old and woke up almost thirty.

After enough time had passed he began to sense the correct answers to the doctors’ continued questionings, the answers that would set him free. Not just free to wander the grounds, but free to go... out there... into the world. “No,” he said, he didn’t want to hurt himself. “No,” he said, he didn’t want to hurt anyone. The answers didn't seem to work right away, the correct answers. But after enough time had passed, the staff didn't appear to be as afraid of him when they looked his way. A light in their eyes had replaced the fear.

He noticed now that everyone had that light in their eyes but the light wasn't always the same light... the sane light. The light that said: I’m okay. Other patients around him didn’t have that light in their eyes. They had a crazy light, an insane bluish hue that told the world all about them. Now, when he looked into a mirror, he saw that sane light in his own eyes. The sight of the light made him feel better.

A friendly man in a blue uniform that said Ned on the shirt came into his room one day to inform him that his rehabilitation was starting. The man was going to teach him how to sweep the floors and vacuum the carpets and clean the bathrooms. He followed Ned’s instructions, asking questions and learning all he could learn of this strange new world that he was now a part of. The friendly man in the blue uniform told him that no matter where he went there would be people there that needed cleaning up after. “People are slobs.” Billy would always be able to find a job.

One day an orderly came into his room. The orderly seemed happy, happier than any orderly he could remember seeing at that place. The orderly told him to follow him. He took him to an office where he’d never been before. The orderly said, “Sit here.” So he sat down on a hard cold metal bench. Someone would be with him soon. He had learned that when someone said that, he usually ended up waiting a long time. Eventually, a man appeared in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie, a man who looked like a doctor. The man said, “Follow me, please” and they went into a nearby cubicle. The man told him that he was indeed better now... that he could get his things and go home. The doctor’s name tag read Doctor Grimes.

It'd been so long though that he no longer had a home to go to. Four years in an institution will do that. Everything was gone. Family, friends, wife, money... like he'd been to war. Doctor Grimes explained to him that his family was forced to exhaust their own resources before the government would step in and pay for his stay there. And those resources were gone. By law, they had to give him a hundred dollars and a bus ticket anywhere he wished to go. So with a hundred dollar bill in his pocket, he took the bus ticket, and he rode that dog all the way west until the sea stopped it and he could go no farther.

He rented a cheap apartment above a tavern by the ocean. The tavern was called 29 Cats Bar and Grill. The sounds of the waves and the people below lulled him to sleep at night. He got a job in the tavern below doing the only thing he knew how to do: cleaning up after others. He noticed the light in the peoples’ eyes changing as they grew drunk with liquor, changed into something meaner, uglier, and unaccountable. They made messes on purpose just to watch him clean it up. “Get over here, boy,” they’d holler. “Earn your wages.” But he never grew angry. He just did what he did and he did it with a smile on his face. It was a smile only an insane man could properly wear.