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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.

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