I lived alone at the end of the ward, in a room across from the payphone. My door was open. David talked lightly into the receiver. I sat at my creaky, wooden desk. The top was engraved with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, hearts, Raymond loves Patricia, Thug Life. I was writing a letter to my grandmother. I chewed my pencil’s eraser and watched David’s hunched back. His long hair was wet from the shower he took after rec. He loved death metal. Dismember and Dark Tranquility were his favorite bands. He’d crank the volume on his Sony boom box and shake his hair to the power chords and guttural voices until a healthcare tech or nurse told him to turn it down, he was disturbing the peace. We learned quickly we disturbed the peace inside the walls of Dorothea Dix Hospital. David clenched the metal cord with his free hand. He breathed heavily between whispers. His father did not love him.
“Why do you hate me?”
Little sobs replaced the breaths. His shoulders shook. He turned his head. Bloodshot eyes.
“I’m not listening,” I said.
“You better not, fucker.”
I was a hospital veteran who’d heard it all: drug deals, escape plans, sex talk with girlfriends. Nothing shocked me.
“He loves you,” I said.
I resumed my letter. My grandmother wrote the most beautiful letters. Her handwriting was amazing. Mine sucked. I’d told her many times I was ashamed—ashamed of my handwriting, ashamed of my brain, ashamed of my body and hygiene. Did you know, I wrote, they use “hygiene” for everything? Like, how is your “mental hygiene” today? My brain is not an armpit or set of teeth.
David hung up.
“I’m done, nosy ass.”
“Good,” I said.
He stood in my doorway. Study Time would soon begin.
“You’re wrong,” he said.
“He loves you.”
“No he don’t.”
I knew his father hated him. I’d heard his father screaming through the receiver. I’d seen him in the folding metal chair, crying after his father hung up within five seconds of answering his call. I understood why he lost himself in those primal, gruff growls and frenetic guitars.
“How do you know?”
He wiped tears from his face with a shirt sleeve. He wore a San Diego Padres sweatshirt. We were in Raleigh, North Carolina. The shirt was donated like much of his wardrobe. The boom box was a Christmas present from a Methodist church that set up a tree in Crabtree Valley Mall. We were surprised to get a mall tree. Usually, those were reserved for kids on cancer wards, the kids on TV with translucent heads who got visits from half of Hollywood and most of the NFL and NBA. My therapist at Dix once told me bipolar is not a casserole illness—don’t expect folks to show up on your doorstep with a baked macaroni and cheese. The church kept our names private because we were mental patients, which was the worst thing in the world, like one tiny step above leprosy. My paper ornament read: “Boy, 14, loves sports, music, reading. Would like a CD Walkman to listen to classical music. Mozart’s his favorite.” So I received a CD Walkman and listened to Alice in Chains, Ice Cube, Tupac, Nirvana, and The Geto Boys.
“I heard what happened last night,” David said, grinning.
“Nosy. You’re nosy too.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
I’d been caught masturbating the night before by Ms. Mann, the third shift nurse. I couldn’t decide which was worse, a woman catching me who’d consider me a pervert and future serial rapist, or a man who’d remember his own youth and chuckle as I stopped mid-stroke. Well, in my case, I’d been caught by both in the last month: Mr. Jones, a tech, caught me the first time, and Ms. Mann caught me three weeks later. She wouldn’t look at me during morning meds. I swallowed my lithium with state orangeade, refused breakfast in the cafeteria downstairs, and hid under my covers until hospital school. We called it hospital school because a few kids attended Athens Drive. They were dropped off at a special bus stop away from the hospital and pretended to be normal, but they weren’t. You weren’t normal until you were discharged. I wasn’t interested in attending Athens. David attended hospital school too. We were both 9th graders, though he was a year older. He leaned on my doorframe.
“Choking the chicken,” he said.
“Like you don’t,” I said.
“I don’t get caught, retard.”
“Fuck off, asshole.”
Mr. Jones stood behind David. He was working second and third shift.
“What’s going on here?”
“Nothing,” we said.
“It’s Study Time,” he said.
I pulled out my books: North Carolina History, Pre-Algebra, and Great American Short Stories.
“I need to talk to Mike,” Mr. Jones told David. “Go to your room and study.”
“Okay,” David said. “Right on.”
David slipped behind Mr. Jones, who was tall as hell. Basketball tall. Dude had played college ball. We loved shooting hoops with him in the yard. He showed no mercy. Mr. Jones was the newest hire and seemed cool.
“Mike, I heard what happened last night.”
I flipped through Great American Short Stories. English was my favorite subject. We were assigned Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” for homework. Nick Adams, a World War I veteran, returns to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after the war. He likes to hike and fish. He’s alone in the woods with only his thoughts.
“Mike,” Mr. Jones said. “What’s wrong with you?”
Nothing, I thought. Was it terrible to beat your meat?
“You should apologize to Ms. Mann. What if your mother caught you? What’s wrong with you?”
I lowered my head and tried to read, tried to ignore him. I’d thought he was cool. He’d only laughed the first time.
“You caught me first.”
“I couldn’t be your mother. I’m a man, but you shouldn’t let me catch you either.”
“I’d never do that in my mother’s house.”
“This isn’t my mother’s house.”
My mother had abandoned me for booze and her loser boyfriend four months before my father committed me to Dix. As usual, she’d snuck in my room and drunkenly kissed my forehead and talked gibberish. She’d return soon, I’d thought, but never did. Glass shattered downstairs. She yelled at my father. A car pulled into our gravel drive. Headlights shone through my blinds. It was her boyfriend. What if he shot my father? What if he shot me? My body shook. My teeth chattered. I squeezed my pillow. My paranoia got worse. Four months later, I sliced my wrists in the shower before my mother’s boyfriend could climb through the bathroom window to blow my brains out.
“Until you’re discharged,” Mr. Jones said, “this is your mother’s house, and her name’s Dorothea. Ms. Dorothea Dix.”
He uncrossed his arms and left. My chest popped and the dam broke. I buried my face in “Big-Two Hearted River.”
After Study Time, I washed my eyes and hit the dayroom to watch Jerry Springer with the fellas. The Zenith TV sat on a particleboard stand with a VCR and movies we’d watched a million times. Goonies, Blade Runner, and Boyz n the Hood were my favorites. David loved wrestling and watched Wrestlemania III to death. We also watched sports. We all loved sports, mostly basketball and football. Half of us, including myself, were Carolina fans. The other half were Duke fans. But there was no debating Jerry. We all loved Jerry. Jerry was the best. Jerry could do no wrong. We were his biggest fans. His number one fan club. He made us normal. If someone on the outside called us a freak, we could say, “don’t you watch Jerry Springer? Yesterday, a man French kissed his horse, Bella, and pleaded for a marriage license to marry it. Yes, it. A horse. I don’t fuck horses, so there.” After Mr. Jones’s talk, I needed a strong dose of Jerry.
I plopped on the end of the couch that held Terrell and Douglass. David sat alone on the other couch. Both couches were upholstered with a blue plastic-y material. The wood frames showed. There were only two couches. When they were full, we sat on the brown-carpeted floor. This wasn’t your grandmother’s plush carpet—this was thin rug on concrete. Jerry talked into his microphone.
“Let me introduce my first guest…”
At the top of the screen was, My man is cheating on me with my mother!
“…Darla, whose trust has been violated by her own flesh and blood, the woman—the very woman who gave birth to her twenty years ago at the precious age of sixteen…”
“Darla ugly as shit,” Terrell said.
“The mother’s fine though,” Douglass said.
“She still backstage, Doug E. Fresh.”
“It’s a rerun.”
“Oh,” Terrell said. “Well, don’t spoil.”
“Well,” David said. “Daughter’s hot too.”
“I’d fuck her,” I said.
“Man,” Terrell said to me. “Perverted ass!”
Douglass turned to Terrell.
“You’d fuck her too,” he said. “Don’t front.”
“Might,” Terrell said. “Might not.”
“Shit, I would,” Douglass said. “It’s impossible to get booty up in here.”
The girls lived on the other side of the ward. The nurses’ station and tech station separated the two halls, and staff monitored male-female interactions closely. If you were caught macking on a girl, staff would put you on MIX for an indeterminate time, which meant restricted interactions with the ladies during rec, group therapy, school, music therapy, art therapy—basically, your entire existence.
“You gotta point,” Terrell said to Douglass.
It didn’t take long for Jerry to bring out the mother to meet her son-in-law/lover and daughter, or for the women to roll around on the floor in their slutty dresses, or for the tattooed son-in-law/lover to enter the fray and end up in the audience, on the lap of a woman ready to swing her purse upside his head, or for Steve, the bouncer, to break it up, or for the son-in-law/lover to return to the mother and daughter right before the mother’s left breast popped out, or for the producers to blur the breast, or for the audience, who saw it live, go bananas, or for the mother to grab her daughter by her hair—a blonde wig—and pull it off and wave it in the air, or for the audience to catch the Holy Ghost at the sight of the dejected daughter, bald as Sinead O’Connor, crying as her mother swapped spit with her no-count man while still waving the wig.
“Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”
“Pass me that orangeade,” Terrell said to me.
I passed him the orangeade in a plastic two-liter milk jug. Meals and snacks were sent on the food truck from central campus.
“Thanks, perv,” he said.
I knew Terrell was joking, but it wasn’t the right time. I wondered if people really saw me that way for doing something normal.
“I’m playing, M-Dawg.”
Jerry cut to a commercial break. Jim and Harold entered the day room.
“Saltines,” Jim said. “Save me some, bitches.”
“And Nutter,” Harold said. “We want the Nutter.”
We ate Saltines with peanut butter and washed it down with the orangeade. Jim and Harold took the last two couch spots. David sighed.
“It’s our couch too,” Jim said.
“You’re emotional, dude,” Harold said.
“Emotional as shit,” Terrell said.
“Man, fuck y’all,” David said.
We gave each other shit to pass time. We were kids trying to survive the hospital. We were nervous when visiting central campus to see a doctor in the infirmary for the flu, strep throat, or a bladder infection, where in the waiting room adults stared at us, drooled, and talked to themselves about government conspiracies and relatives who’d abandoned them. Once, I saw a scowling man in his thirties flip off a corner-mounted TV. A Pampers commercial played. The baby giggled.
“Jew baby bastard,” the man said.
The baby clapped.
“Should’ve been aborted by your whore mom.”
“Hush,” Mr. Williams, my tech chaperon, told the man, then turned to me.
“I’ve known Dennis for years,” he said. “He’s got major problems.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “He’ll die in here.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
Often, rec staff drove us in a van to Haywood Gym, next to Spruill, the forensic ward where Michael Hayes lived. Spruill’s windows were barred and the yard was barbwired. Hayes was a serial killer who blasted nine strangers one night from a rural road outside Winston-Salem, killing five. The victims, he said, were demons coming for him in their cars on Old Salisbury Road. It was either him or the demons. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Dix. People across the state were pissed. None of the fellas believed me—they called me crazy—when I said Hayes watched us from his barred window whenever we filed off the van with basketballs and dodgeballs.
And man, I worried what my classmates and friends thought back home, if they knew where I lived. We all did. We imagined friends at the lunch table: He’s at Dix Hill. Must be nuts. That’s where Michael Hayes is holed up. Child molesters live there too. Fuck! Dix Hill, as it was called, sat on rolling hills overlooking Raleigh. The hills were the nice part. We concocted future lies about where we’d been, and why we suddenly disappeared in the middle of the school year. We practiced the lies on each other in the day room. I moved in with my grandmother in South Carolina to help her out around the house. When she died, I returned home to my parents in North Carolina. I felt bad but hoped my grandmother would understand. God too. I prayed every night after tearing a new page from my discharge desk calendar, one day closer to 6/4/94, the magical day my father would take me home for good.
“What y’all gonna be for Halloween?” Terrell said.
Jerry mediated a truce between mother and daughter. The lover/son-in-law frowned. The tables had turned. Both women screamed in his face.
“Too old for trick o’ treating,” David said. “What are you, ten?”
“Naw, there’s a party at my parents’ house. I gotta home pass.”
“Oh,” I said. “Rub it in.”
“You’re trifling,” Douglass said.
The women screamed and pointed at the lover/son-in-law.
“Blood’s thicker than water,” Jerry said.
“Yeah!” both women said.
“We’re in a mental hospital,” I said. “We don’t need Halloween costumes.”
“Yep,” Harold said.
“Finally,” David said. “He made a funny.”
“Shut up,” I said.
“Seal it in a jar,” he said.
“Y’all shut up,” Jim said. “Jerry’s talking.”
“Word,” Terrell said.
We watched in silence until Jerry said, “Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.”
I returned to my room to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer until Lights Out. I’d borrowed it from the Cherry building library. I was a big reader. No one could touch me. I was finishing 2-3 books a week not counting school work. I was a nerd. I loved libraries, bookstores, and the smell of book pages. I couldn’t stop sniffing the pages of library and school books. I did not discriminate. I was an equal opportunity book sniffer, a book freak!
Cherry was the locked long term adolescent ward. Ashby, where I lived, was the unlocked long term adolescent ward across the street. Hospital school was on the first floor of Cherry. We’d all spent time in Cherry and Williams, the processing and locked short term adolescent ward between us and central campus. Ashby housed kids who could be trusted, but Mr. Jones and Ms. Mann didn’t trust me, a contagious, unhygienic pervert. I hated myself. Hygiene—a word used against patients. It didn’t matter if you brushed your teeth, showered, cleaned your nails, and wore deodorant—a bad nurse or tech would accuse you, the mental patient, of poor hygiene.
One Saturday, we were lounging around the ward. No school, therapy groups, or organized rec. A typical Saturday in the loony bin. I forgot to bring fresh clothes into the shower room and didn’t realize it until suds ran down my body. I finished, dried off, and dressed in the sweatpants and Nirvana t-shirt I’d slept in the night before. I would change immediately in my room. Boy, you would’ve thought I’d disgraced the human race. Ms. Mann, working second shift for Ms. Pickett, rode my ass hard. She was sitting at the desk outside the nurses’ station when she saw me exit the shower room in my offensive attire. She lectured me on proper hygiene like I should be chained up in a basement or attic.
“You need another shower,” she said.
I ran to my room and grabbed my fresh clothes, then headed back to the desk with my head down.
“Let’s see,” she said.
She studied my tan cargo shorts, boxers, plain white t-shirt, and eyed my shower flops.
“Okay, you’ve passed inspection. Get in the shower.”
Inspection. I prayed in the shower. I prayed for myself and every current and former Dix patient who’d been shamed and humiliated since 1856. Many of the staff were good but the bad apples ruined it for everyone else. Psychological abuse could be worse than physical abuse. I’d rather be slammed against a quiet room wall than deemed trash. The water was getting cold. I hurried and rinsed my body for the second time in ten minutes. I thought of slicing my wrists again, my blood circling the drain, Ms. Mann crying, begging my father and grandmother for forgiveness. But it was a fantasy. I’d submitted to the hospital. I wanted to be discharged. I’d come too far—Ashby was the last stop. I followed Ms. Mann’s orders that day. I’d left the shower room clean for a mental patient. Now, David knocked on my door. I put Tom Sawyer on the windowsill and sat up in bed.
“Sorry about earlier,” he said.
“Um, I’m out of quarters.”
David tore through his allowance trying to call his father. We told him to only let it ring a few times, but he never listened.
“I have a quarter,” I said.
I hopped out of bed and went to my desk. I kept my tiny yellow allowance envelope in the drawer. We used our money for phone calls and store trips to Food Lion and Kerr Drugs, sometimes Taco Bell and McDonalds, while David blew his on trying to call his deadbeat father. I had seven dollars in ones and a quarter. A nurse or tech could break a one for me to call my father or grandmother. They always picked up.
“Here,” I said.
“This will be the one,” he said.
“I have a feeling,” he said.
I sat at my desk and pretended to draw. The quarter dropped. I imagined calling my mother who didn’t know I was in Dix. Would she pick up? Would she disown her dirty, bipolar son in a state mental hospital? Would she side with Ms. Mann and Mr. Jones? I’d realized my status in the world a few weeks after my commitment, around the holidays. We sat in folding metal chairs in Haywood, people of all ages, watching a charity troupe perform a Christmas Carol on the gym’s stage. Michael Hayes stood to the side in shackles with two burly techs. I couldn’t stop staring at him. Finally, he stared back. A knife stabbed my chest. My face burned. He laughed. I was nothing.
“Dad,” David said.
“Are you there?”
David hung up and stared at the yellow wall for ten minutes. Then, Mr. Jones walked the hall and spoke through cupped hands.
“Lights Out,” he said.
David wouldn’t move.
“David,” Mr. Jones said.
David stood up.
“I’m not playing,” Mr. Jones said. “Move.”
“You’re not my father.”
David went to his room.
David slammed his door.
“Lights Out, Mike.”
I would cut my lights, but only after I tore a page from my calendar and hoped for a better day.
Michael Fischer’s writing has appeared in Phoebe, Natural Bridge, Beloit Fiction Journal, Green Mountains Review, The Rumpus, and Wigleaf, among others. In addition to a story collection, he’s working on an essay collection about his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and adolescent commitment to Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, NC.
What motivates him to create?
To die better. As the great Walter Payton said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? It’s okay to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying.” Everything I write is an attempt to confront mortality. Most writing doesn’t stand the test of time, but who cares if you show up to the desk?