He scowled, twisting his features into a mixture of despair and ire, and yet for him the expression seemed natural. He was a short and stocky man, but by no means small. He had spent his teen years lifting weights, and it showed: his thick, burly arms and broad shoulders strained at the plain white polyester of his uniform.
In his right hand, he gripped a steel binder, while he pushed a heavily laden cart down the hall with his left. Ralph stared straight ahead, his icy blue eyes flaming.
“Fuck!” he growled, “First I get night shift, six nights a week. Then they stick me with the goddamn stiffs.”
And to top it all off, Ralph had just been given his two week’s notice, after failing the usual 90-day probationary period. Lack of interest and inability to deal with people was the reason. He knew he’d never get a decent reference. Ralph had lost his temper in front of the wrong people too many times. The reason he’d been kicked out of school and had lost his last two jobs was his lack of control. And there just weren’t very many jobs to begin with for high school drop-outs. But at the present moment, it was being assigned the care of the “inert” patients that irritated him. He only had two weeks left.
Ralph barged into the first room on his list: an elderly woman with dementia praecox so bad she was nearly a vegetable. He stripped her body of its filthy sleeping gown, replacing it with a clean one from the cart. Then he checked her eyes, ears, mouth, and the rest of her frail body. She looked O.K.,
Ralph guessed. He had never really been thoroughly trained, but then again, as a mere orderly in a hospital for the insane, he wasn’t expected to know very much.
Eventually after propping the senile old lady against the wall, Ralph changed the bed. In the next room, he used the same procedure; this time it was an autistic black adolescent. Then a catatonic housewife, more a manikin than anything else. Ralph’s actions became increasingly mechanical as the hours passed. And the rooms were all the same: An eight by ten cubicle with cinderblock walls (the patients were in no condition to hurt themselves). The bed was bolted to the left wall and fluorescent lights covered the ceiling. That was all.
Finally, Ralph came to his last charge, a rather ordinary man, tall but very thin and emaciated. Ralph guessed that this one hadn’t been fed in quite a while. Nor had he received much of any care; the tangled brown hair, scruffy beard, and wrinkled pajamas attested to that. And he didn’t smell very good at all. “Shit,” muttered Ralph. This one was going to take a while.
Best get the regular stuff done first, he thought as he took the man’s grimy arm to pull off the pajamas. Just then, the man sighed and a beatific smile came to his face. “What’s this?” grumbled Ralph, dropping the arm as if it bit him, “Some kind of…”
Suddenly, the lids opened and Ralph found a pair of calm, sea-green eyes regarding him. “Hello,” said the man, “I’m Dave. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
Ralph’s mouth dropped open. “What the fuck…”
The man looked around him, “Hasn’t changed.” Then he glanced down at himself, “And it looks like I haven’t either,” plucking at his dirty pajamas.
“Now wait a minute, buddy-”
“You never did tell me your name, Doctor.”
“Marston, Ralph Marston. And I’m not a doctor, I just work here.” And not much longer at that, Ralph glowered. “What’s wrong with you anyway? You don’t look crazy. You one of those criminal types on an insanity plea or what?”
Dave just grinned and said, “They call it catatonic schizophrenia for lack of a better name. You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette would you? Haven’t had one in weeks.”
“No, I don’t smoke,” said Ralph. “And what would you call your problem?”
“Oh, let’s just say that the shrinks are partly right.”
“Schizophrenia is a withdrawal from reality. That’s what I do, sort of.”
“Yeah,” Ralph muttered under his breath as he stripped the bed. “I suppose you whisk off to Never-never land?”
Dave’s self-assurance irritated him. Ralph turned to get new bed clothes from the cart as Dave spoke up again, “No one really understands schizophrenia. Take me for instance—”
“I’d rather not.”
“—When I phase-out, as it were, I ‘go’ to a place I like much better. I used to be a fairly successful materials engineer, working on my first ulcer and my second divorce. Then I started having these dreams.”
Ralph tried to ignore him as he made the bed. It sounded like any of the hundreds of fantasy stories he used to read, and just as phony.
“Now I’ve got a beautiful wife named Heather, a house I built myself, and in a few years, I ought to be a village elder.”
“What?” said Ralph, “You actually believe that you live in this dream?”
It was strange that a psycho could seem so reasonable and sincere, and yet obviously be insane.
“Exactly. After I fixed the catapult and drove off the dragon, the villagers could hardly have let me go. I’m pretty good with machines, and even with their low technology, I found I could do quite a bit. Right now, I’m building them a wind-powered pump for their well. And irrigation is next.”
Ralph was confused. This sounded awfully complex for someone who was supposed to be crazy. Almost forgetting his initial skepticism, he asked, “You mean like, this is a medieval village and you go there when you’re asleep?”
“Right, except that I come and go as I please. But you see the problem,” he gestured vaguely at his body. “This gets left behind and I have to come back once in a while to take care of it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to. Can you get me something to eat? I’m ravenous.”
“Yeah, sure.” Ralph left, locking the door carefully behind him.
After bumming some change from the desk nurse down on the eighth floor, he returned to the room minutes later with a handful of wrapped sandwiches and a can of Coke. “They’re not too good, from a machine, but they’ll fill you up.”
“Thanks, Ralph,” said Dave, stuffing his mouth with egg salad. “You know, if we could just get a doctor, a decent blacksmith, and maybe a good strategist from another village, we would be fine. Dolbria isn’t a very big town but—”
“Yeah,” Dave answered with an impish grin. “You know someone?”
“I was just remembering…my grandfather used to shoe horses, make tools, that kind of stuff. I spent a couple of summers on his farm. It was fun. I mean I liked doing that, you know, making things out of plain iron…” Ralph’s voice trailed off. He remembered the red-hot iron coming out of the furnace, and the way he could pound it to his will, forming the shapes of pikes, shovels and horseshoes. It was hard work, but still, it was the only thing he had really enjoyed doing.
“We live near the edge of a forest, but it’s close to a major trade road. Mostly we have to barter for what we need. We may not have televisions or cars or anything but I like it there.”
Ralph sat on the bed beside Dave and asked, “Are you able to—I mean, can you… Fuck. Can anyone go to this place, or just you?” What the hell am I saying?
Dave smiled. “I’ll have to check. They got me only because they wanted outside help with that dragon, and the village wizard didn’t know what else to do. Lucky for me, I knew how to build a decent catapult. But if the elders say it’s okay, we’ll see what we can do.”
“Sure,” said Ralph uncertainly and made a point of looking at his watch. “I gotta go finish my rounds.” He hurried out of the room.
Later, Ralph had just finished with the fifth of his regular patients, that is, the ones with a little more mobility and a lot more awareness of the real world. Halfway out of the room, he froze. “What the hell have I done?” he demanded of no one in particular. “I just promised a loony I’d join him in fairy land!”
He swung his fist in an arc, and probably broke two fingers against the corridor wall. A thin smear of blood remained on the painted concrete. “Goddamn crazies!” he cursed through clenched teeth.
Ralph forced his mind back to considering how he was going to get another job. “Maybe the morgue…” he wondered grimly. If only he had more options.
Eventually, Ralph completed his shift at two in the morning, an hour late, due in part to the time spent with Dave, and partly because of the clumsiness of doing everything with one hand. After changing into a pair of worn corduroys and a sport shirt, he finally took a bus home to his two room flat, and soon fell asleep in an old upholstered chair, the only chair he owned, with his swollen hand in a bowl of ice cubes. Even sleeping, his brows were tightly furrowed, and his good hand clenched and unclenched all night long.
* * *
Ralph woke the next morning, pale sunlight streaming feebly through the grimy window, with his right leg soaked. He’d tipped over the bowl of melted ice sometime during the night. Scowling, he changed into a pair of old jeans and refused to think about the disasters of the previous day. He looked about his apartment: the worn sofa, the dirty grey curtains, the plain green-beige walls. Overdue bills for rent and utilities lay on the floor at his feet. The only color in the room came from the three rows of tattered novels on the shelf opposite the window. And even they were faded. Ralph frowned, “The real world…”
He began to consider some hospitals where he might be able to get work. He hated the idea, but interning was the only job he had experience in, other than the gas station he’d been fired from. Gas jockeying had been alright until a fat stockbroker decided he didn’t like the way Ralph had washed the windshield. Later, he accused Ralph of dumping gas on the ground. Then when he pointed out the corroded battery cables and a leaky radiator hose, the portly businessman blamed him for the damage. Soon after that, the stockbroker lost three teeth and Ralph lost his job.
Ralph knew he had anger management issues. In his family though they’d called it having a bad temper. Finally, to take his mind off the matter, he picked up the phone. After a few rings, a tired voice answered, “Hello?”
“Hey Floyd, it’s me, Ralph. How’s about joining me for a couple of drinks before I go to work?”
“Uh, I don’t think I can make it. You know, the jobs around the house are piling up and Diane’s nagging me about coming home drunk all the time.”
“Okay man, maybe some other time.”
Floyd never seemed to go out with him much anymore. “You’re still working the night shift at the asylum, huh? Lucky bastard, I haven’t found anything and I’ve been looking for months.”
“Yeah,” mumbled Ralph. “You take what you can get. I’ll… I’ll call you some other time. Bye.”
He hung up the phone and left his dingy apartment, aiming for an equally dingy bar called “Charlie’s Pub,” two blocks away. He had to kick yesterday’s paper away from the doorway before he could enter.
Ralph sat at the beer-sticky bar for quite a while, spending money that ought to have been held back for rent. He paid attention to nothing. The greasy-haired bartender was silent, pausing from wiping glasses only to fill the one at Ralph’s elbow. Meanwhile, Ralph stared at the television above the bar, not really watching it, and only vaguely realizing that the football game on it meant it was Saturday.
I really enjoyed those summers on the farm…
Grandpa is dead and the farm is a strip mine.
Remember those shoes I made? Best he’d ever seen, Grandpa said. Of course it was beginners luck and all, but fun anyway.
Face the real world, stupid! You get distracted, people stomp on you. Try the cemetery. Maybe they need gravediggers.
Ralph gulped his drink and realized someone had been talking to him.
“How about those Colts, they could go all the way this year…”
“I gotta go,” muttered Ralph as he flung the last of his cash on the counter and stalked away.
* * *
That evening, Ralph began his rounds again, concentrating intensely on each task. Yet as he drew closer to Dave’s room, his hands became sweaty and his stomach was queasy. It galled him to think he’d placed any hope at all in Dave’s ludicrous offer.
He hesitated at the door, working up the nerve to go in. He found Dave jauntily leaning against the rear wall, smoking a cigarette he’d gotten from somewhere. Strictly forbidden in the hospital, of course.
Ralph just stood there, his chest feeling incredibly tight, and didn’t say a word. It felt like his collar was strangling him, but his reddened face held no expression.
“The elders said you can come,” Dave finally said after an excruciating silence.
“Right,” said Ralph uncertainly as he moved closer. “Is there something I gotta do?”
“Close your eyes and just wish hard enough.”
Ralph closed his eyes obediently and began to wish. Then he realized what he was doing. He’s making me look like a foolish jackass. He looked at Dave, who was still smiling as smugly as ever. “You rotten fuck!”
He launched his fist and smashed Dave’s head into the cinder-block behind it. With a dull crunching sound, Dave caromed off the wall and fell into a heap on the floor, dark blood immediately pooling under his cracked skull. At first Dave’s eyes held a puzzled, hurt look, then began to glaze over. Abruptly, they cleared and, looking directly at Ralph, he said distinctly, “Thank you, friend. See you—” He slumped even further and breathed something Ralph couldn’t make out.
Then he was gone. Ralph groped for Dave’s pulse with his left hand, since his fore and middle fingers were definitely broken this time. He felt nothing. The pooling blood had already slowed.
He turned around, clutching his hand to his chest, and saw a young, blond nurse at the door, staring at him in terror. Ralph didn’t know her, but her name tag read Betsy, and a forgotten clipboard lay at her feet. After several seconds of gawping like a carp, she found her voice and screamed, “You killed him! You killed him!”
“Wait!” Ralph called, but it was too late. Betsy had dashed out of the room. Seconds later, the security alarms began blatting and honking.
“I am so incredibly fucked…” For nearly a minute, he stood there, unable to think of anything to do, anywhere he could go. At least get the hell out of here, moron… He took a long, shuddering breath and stumbled into the hallway just as two uniformed guards appeared at the far end, between him and the elevator bank. The taller of the two was already unholstering his Taser. “Hey you! Hold it right there!”
Ralph turned and sprinted the other direction. He dashed down one corridor, skidded into another, the guards in pursuit. “Looks like Ralph Jenkins,” the smaller guard huffed into his walkie-talkie. “Bets said he violently assaulted a patient, might’ve killed him.”
The walkie-talkie hashed back. “Copy that. Elevator locked down. Police on the way.”
In his panic, Ralph missed a turn he’d planned to take. Instead, he found himself running down the wrong corridor, a large glass window dead ahead, two institutional-grade waiting room chairs positioned on either side. Had he gone left at the last turn, there would’ve been a fire-exit door at the far end.
“Got him now!”
Skidding to a stop, Ralph heaved up one of the chairs. A Taser popped, but the trailing wire leads embedded themselves in the vinyl seat bottom, sparking and smoking. “Put the chair down, Jenkins. There’s nowhere you can go.”
Instead, Ralph swung the chair with all his might at the window, throwing himself after it and through the shattered pane. The jagged shards sliced at his clothes, his skin, but he didn’t care.
From ten stories up, it took a long time to fall. He had time to wonder why the window wasn’t barred. Every window is supposed to be barred. The patients might hurt themselves. Ralph almost laughed at the irony of his situation.
When he looked, he saw the city of Chicago lit up before him. It was beautiful, but clearly not the right place for him.
In the last seconds before impact, he wished with everything he had.
© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved
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