This writing was accepted for publication
in an issue of Down in the Dirt magazine:
They Don’t Call It Crazy Anymore
The Mental Health Center
In college I was a Psychology major. I told everyone it was because I was interested in people and wanted to help people, when the truth was that, like so many other Psych majors, I was really looking for a cure to my own unhappiness. In high school I was insecure, had few friends, always felt like a misfit, no matter where I went, and I didn’t know why. So, I took an interest in psychology. But the real reason behind my interest had to be kept secret; you had to pretend you were like that handful of super well-adjusted future psychologists not a closet loon — or, under the terms popular in the field at that time, a person with “problems in living.”
As part of my education in Psychology, I volunteered to work at a mental health center in Decatur, which was about thirty miles east of the University. My “job” was merely to go with a group of other students and talk with the patients. Each of us was given a unit. The problem was that, when there, locked in a unit with a bunch of patients, I would start feeling very insecure, that I might just as well be a patient there as any of them. Even Gladys Baker, with her white curls and liver-spotted hands, who would flirt with me and talk on and on about her travels, slipping in weird stuff occasionally about how this space ship from Mars had landed in her back yard and how the Martians had taken her up with them and done all sorts of nasty things to her. She would describe the space trips in the same tone as everything else, like it was just another trip, and I would nod my head uh huh, uh huh, wondering how I might get away from her. One hour with Gladys would make my head spin. After that, I’d be ready to check myself in.
Then there was “Dr. Morgan,” as everyone called him, who sat around with his psychology books and lectured everyone who would listen to him (outsiders like me — the other patients just ignored him) about exactly what type of paranoia he experienced and how his doctor was wrong, how he was out to get him.
Mostly, though, the patients were content to watch TV and smoke cigarettes, so sedated after medication time that they looked much like more “normal” people across America (my parents, for instance) sitting in their vegetative positions every night of the year, filling their heads with that junk food for the mind. But there were some differences, such as the fact that they weren’t allowed to light their own cigarettes, so every few minutes someone would come up to me and ask me for a light. I didn’t smoke, but after the first time at the MHC I made sure to put a couple books of matches in my pocket before I came.
I had terrifying thoughts sometimes, that I, looking just like everyone else there, would be confused for a patient and, on my way out, walking through those long yellow halls, would be grabbed by someone and forced into one of the locked units. But, of course, it never happened.
We went to the MHC every Thursday evening. There were about eight of us. We had permission to use a University van, and each of us would take turns driving it. On my first turn it was an extremely icy day. Even the highway, normally kept in such good condition, was covered with a thin coating of ice which was treacherous considering how bald the van’s tires were. I was driving very slowly, anxious as I always was when headed for the Center, not really wanting to get there. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere in the van, the people in the seats behind me laughing and joking — probably something like it is going to war, I thought, everyone trying to keep their minds off what lay ahead. I was talking to this girl, Betty, in the seat beside me. She was cute, small with long brown hair, a wide bright smile. I was trying to get to know her better, telling her about Gladys, giving her a cleaned-up version of her space trip, trying to work up the courage to suggest that maybe she and I might go out for a quick beer after doing our volunteer bit. That was when the van started to swerve. I stepped on the brake, which just made the swerving worse. But, I didn’t panic — I kept telling Betty Gladys’ story, even as I spun the wheel around, trying to regain control of the van. It was no use. The van started to spin off the road and tumbled over into the valley in the center, between the lanes of traffic. The van was on its side and a couple of girls were screaming but I hadn’t stopped yet, I was still telling my story about Gladys, and Betty was looking at me and shouting, “What’s wrong with you anyway?”
And I smiled, said “What do you mean?”
She sighed with exasperation, as a guy in the back slid open the van door and jumped out.
We stood for twenty minutes in the icy cold, our hands jammed in our pockets. Betty would not talk to me now. She wouldn’t even look at me. When a salt truck finally came by and the driver offered us his help, pulled the van upright and out of the valley with his big metal hook and chain, I decided right then and there that we would not go to the Center that night. No, I decided more than that. Back in the uprighted van, with Betty, who I would now never get a have a beer with, sitting beside me, arms crossed in front of her and staring straight ahead, and thinking of Gladys, of the Martian story I would miss, the cigarettes I would not have to light, and the unit doors that would not be locked behind me that evening, I decided that I was never going back there again. It just wouldn’t be safe.
* * * * *
Once at school I really thought I was going crazy. I was working as a delivery man for a pizza place, getting paid by the hour, but not much — I made most of my money on tips, so I would hustle with my orders and get back as fast as I could.
The guys at the restaurant were always smoking. Occasionally they would offer me some, and occasionally I would take it, not really wanting to, because it slowed me down, but because I wanted to be “a guy.” The problem was, once I smoked some, I would be worthless in a car — I’d drive one way, knowing it was west, then make a turn and it would still seem like west. With this loss of my sense of direction, I would usually wind up making endless wide circles around the place I was trying to get to. Maps did help though.
So, it came to this: 3:00 in the morning, tramping across lawns, looking for a goddamned address, none of them posted on the houses, at least not in the visible light. Tramping with this goddamned greasy pizza box, an hour already past since the order was placed, it seemed — who knows, who can tell when you’re stoned, and I was out of my head stoned — walking on these lawns, back and forth, periodically looking back at the car, at the flashing red lights, knowing something then in my head: those lights were a warning of some kind. Then it came to me clearly with one of the flashes: I would die in that car. Maybe tonight, maybe some other night. But that was the clear truth gained from my drug-induced intuition.
I kept walking over lawns, tripping over sidewalks, with this new grim news tucked away inside me now, making my whole body shiver in reaction (or was it just cool out at three in the morning, and I had just now noticed?), the stillness of the night, the flashing red lights putting me in a panic (and thinking there must’ve been something besides grass in that grass), walking away from those red lights, still searching for the numbers on the houses and still unable to find any. Finally stopping, saying “Fuck this,” out loud, then repeating it again to myself to make my point — to make sure it was I who had said it — and then turning around with the pizza, thinking the people have probably given up on pizza by now, walking back to the car, to my Fate.
I didn’t die in the car that night, didn’t even come close. I drove slowly, cautiously all the way home, watching out for cops. Then I went into the apartment I shared with Tom Zierdorff, taking the pizza and the restaurant’s money with me, feeling very uptight, electric. It felt like a pulse was going through me. I couldn’t control my thoughts. I truly thought I was going crazy. All that night I cried in bed, couldn’t sleep — the world was upside down, I was sure I was cracking up, crying at the shame of it to my family. I saw it all so clearly: the ambulance coming to take me away, the big black men in their white suits strapping me down in the back, my eyes rolling back in my head, as the hearse-like car pulled away, lights streaking, flashing red against the black, starless sky, siren screaming, piercing the night. I saw my parents coming to visit me in the hospital, acting like people do when they visit people in my condition — treating me like a little kid, rather than an adult with (ha) “problems in living.” I was sure I would wake up in the morning in that white room that I pictured in my imagination in a straight jacket on a white bed with a nurse, my roommate, and maybe my parents looking down at me — my parents somberly shaking their heads from side to side like they thought they were supposed to, like wooden puppets.
My mind was like a wayward stream that night that had gone off course. I sat at the table in the kitchenette and ate half the pizza (it was nerves mostly; I was jittery), then lay in bed all night, my thoughts whirling, swirling out of control. I closed my eyes, aware that my body was shaking and told myself, don’t worry, don’t worry, in the morning everything would be all right again.
But, in the morning, it wasn’t, not much anyway. I was still shaking, still felt like I was going crazy.
My roommate, seeing me in this condition for the first time, was staring at me funny. “Are you okay?” he asked.
I told him “No, there’s something seriously wrong with me. I think I’m cracking up.”
He laughed for a moment, then swallowed it, realized that I wasn’t joking. I told him about what had happened the night before.
We were standing in the kitchen. “You didn’t actually eat that stuff, did you?” he asked, pointing toward the small white table upon which the opened pizza box, which I had neglected to put away, sat. The pizza looked disgusting — it was green. But I hadn’t noticed it the night before.
I realized that I still had the restaurant’s money I had collected the night before. Tom drove me back and I acted like it was nothing, a joke, that I’d gotten lost and hadn’t been able to make my way back, so just went home. The guys who ran the place just laughed. It was something they could understand — getting lost.
When we got back to the apartment though I broke down. “Oh God, Oh God,” I said, and started crying, knowing, just knowing that I was going to wind up with some of those people I had visited in Decatur on Thursday evenings, thinking about how they would laugh, some of them, when they saw me and how others would look at me with eyes that would say they’d known I’d belonged there when they’d first seen me: Welcome home.
I was frantic, hysterical. So hysterical that I actually called my parents, who made the three hour drive down that afternoon. But why had I called them, and what could they do?
They stayed overnight, spent time with me. And by the next day I was feeling a little better, more like myself as we sat over eggs and dollar pancakes and coffee at the International House of Pancakes. I assured my parents that I would be all right, despite my mother’s worried eyes, and my secret belief that maybe I would never be completely all right. In any case, getting my parents mixed up in it was stupid. They left after paying the bill, giving me the required lectures about the evils of drugs (my dad) and the red-eyed farewell hugs (my mother) and firm hand on shoulder charge to keep on the straight and narrow.
That morning, when Tom was at class, I heard Jim Morrison speaking to me. For some reason only the ghost of his voice was coming out from one speaker — there were no instruments in the background — and he was speaking to me, and me alone, the words of “People are Strange.”
But, I was coming back to life. The day after that I felt only slightly hung over, more like I normally felt.
A week later I quit the job at the pizza place, told them I was falling behind in my school work. They said they were sorry to see me go, that I was the fastest delivery guy they had, when I could find my way back to the restaurant, which, I guess, was true.
* * * * *
Fun with Ted
One of my college acquaintances who truly had problems (in living) was a guy named Ted. Take, for instance, the time he tried to kill me.
He had me down on the ground and was smashing me in the face. He would belt me two, three times, then stop, give me a chance to give up, apologize, but the alcohol in my head, the taste of blood in my mouth only made my tongue sharper — I called him every name I could think of, which only made him madder, slug me harder, until he got the idea to kill me. He put both hands around my neck and pressed hard, choking the breath out of me.
I’d been ranting at Ted since he’d started acting like a jerk at this party Tom, Ted, and I had gone to. The girls hadn’t been paying attention to us, and little doubt why, with Ted trying to put on his Mr. Cool act, sliding his arm around some girl he’d never met, and saying “So how about it, babe?”, his white teeth flashing in contrast to his olive tanned skin. And the girl would look at her friends like “Who is this asshole?,” and then back at Ted, telling him to “Go away. We were having a conversation here, d’ya mind?” Ted would skulk back to where Tom and I were standing, and say in an overly loud voice, so everyone turned their heads toward us, “God, there sure are a lot of bitches here tonight!,” laughing in that mad, mocking way of his, and placing a nut between his teeth. The funny thing about it was, he never even drank. Tom and me were both bombed, as usual, but Ted would never touch the stuff, only act stupid, drunk (overcompensating, I guess). He told everyone he couldn’t drink, that it made his liver hurt. He even took these little green liver pills, said they helped, popped them like candy when he drank (usually not more than a half a beer). But acting dumb was what he did best. And it was why everyone was avoiding us.
Finally, Tom’s friend Sherm, who’s party it was, came over and pulled Tom away to talk to him. He was making little hand gestures and looking worriedly at Ted, who kept probing the nut tray, and popping peanuts into his mouth.
Tom came back and said Sherm thought we had better go. “Go?” Ted said loudly, and laughed. “What do you mean go? The party’s just starting. It’s just starting to get fun.” Tom grabbed his arm gently and said, “Come on.” But Ted tore away from him, said, “Fuck no! Who the fuck does he think he is?,” just like a raving drunk. By now everyone in the room had stopped talking and was nervously looking in our direction. Sherm came back over to try to smooth things over, talking to Ted, saying “I think you just had a little too much to drink,” to which Ted opened his mouth and in his mocking way, said “Oh, you do, do you, Sherm? Gee, I’m really sorry. Thanks a lot for bringing that to my attention, Sherm. Okay boys, let’s go,” like he was the sergeant of an infantry squad. Tom glanced at me and I shrugged, embarrassed, as I’m sure he was, afraid to look at the other guests. But what else could we do to get him out of there except play along with him, even if it meant every girl in that place would associate us with him for the rest of our lives?
“Thanks a lot for coming, guys,” Sherm said in the doorway, just before closing the door behind us, and leaving us in the empty hallway, where the real trouble started.
Ted ran down the stairs. We didn’t see him round the corner, where the big picture window overlooking the lawn below was, only heard his scream of “MOTHERFUCKER!!” and the crash of glass. Tom and I both froze for a moment. Then Tom said “shit” under his breath and ran down the stairs, where, when I got there, Ted was grinning before the gaping hole through which the five or six picnickers below could be seen frantically brushing themselves off, some of them screaming, some swearing, until one of them saw us standing there on the stairs, pointed, and shouted “There they are!” and headed for the door.
“You better get lost,” Tom told Ted, who nodded, and ran back up the steps, headed for the other exit.
“Great,” I said, “now they’re going to kill us.”
“Did anyone ever tell you you worry too much?” Tom grinned and walked down the stairs ahead of me, meeting three angry guys, all of whom were bigger than both of us, football players probably. But Tom handled it calmly, said that we were on the way down the stairs when we heard the crash, but by the time we got there, whoever had done it was gone. They didn’t believe him at first, but he was so calm they finally bought it — something I never could have pulled off.
After the football players settled down and went back to their picnic — miraculously no one was hurt — we saw Sherm hanging by the door. He approached us.
“What happened?” he asked, looking right at me.
Tom said, “Ted strikes again,” then walked away from him, down the walk.
We caught up with Ted a block from the dorm. He jumped out “Boo!” from behind a big boulder — some sort of historical University rock — trying to scare us. Neither of us flinched. We were too loaded. Ted was laughing, thought it was the funniest goddamned thing anyone had ever done, kicking out that glass window. I didn’t know until then how loaded I really was. I started telling him how I really felt about him for the first time in three years. I called him every name I could think of. It wiped the grin off his ignorant face and, besides, it felt good getting it out.
But I had to be very drunk to do it, because he was five inches taller than me and probably outweighed me by fifty pounds.
Tom didn’t even know what was going on. I turned around and he wasn’t there. It was one of the reasons I’d lit into Ted, knowing that Tom was there. But now he was gone. That’s when Ted’s grin returned and he flew on me, his thick arms easily throwing me off balance. His knees were on my chest and he started pounding me in the face, then went for my neck. He was really serious about it. I thought I was a goner. But then, suddenly, Tom reappeared and, without a word, pulled Ted off of me and threw him on his back. Now both Ted and I were on our backs, panting, while Tom stood between us.
“What the hell’d you do that for?” Tom said to Ted. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“You didn’t hear,” Ted said, “you didn’t hear what he called me!”
“I don’t give a shit what he called you. Don’t you have any self-control?”
It was a good question, and one that went unanswered, as Ted and I slowly got back to our feet, and together, without a word, walked back, like two defeated fighters, to our adjacent apartments, with Tom pulling up the rear.
And then there was the time Ted tried to kill Tom, me, and himself all at one time.
It was 2 o’clock in the morning. Ted was at the wheel of my car, a Chevy Impala (really my dad’s, on loan), going one hundred miles an hour in the rain, through the hills of Tennessee, lunging headlong toward our ultimate destination. I was in the back seat, stretched out, trying to get some sleep, but afraid that if I fell asleep I would never wake up again. He was screeching like a wild man as he took each mountain turn and Tom, riding “shotgun,” wasn’t saying a word. Looking over the back of the front seat I saw why — he was out cold, oblivious to the dangers we had put ourselves into by letting Ted take control of the wheel. Ted was always trying to break some kind of wildness mark, do something crazier than his famous older brother. He had told us often enough about George’s wild adventures, and how George had gotten the best grades, was the best swimmer (took State two years in a row in the butterfly) and always, always, got the best pussy. The girls asked him out, Ted had said. When he was home on vacation, they actually called him so often at the house that his mom and dad had to take the phone off the hook. How many of us could say that? Not me, for sure. So George was this legendary guy, close to a god (although he looked just like a normal guy the one time he came to visit and Ted proudly showed him off to everyone). Ted was unwavering in his loyalty to his brother, and in his envy of him. He followed in his brother’s footsteps through high school, doing what George had done, constantly striving to live up to his brother’s achievements and antics, which he never could. Still, it didn’t stop him from trying. And, to tell the truth, even though I didn’t really know him, I would have preferred to have George driving my car that night.
“Goddammit Ted! Why don’t ya’ slow down some!” I yelled over the seat after it had gotten to be too much for me to take.
But George was also the king of Macho, of Danger. “Why?” Ted said, turning halfway around as we neared another curve, that crooked smile on his face, “Why, you afraid? You a wussy?”
“Jesus, grow up!” I shouted. “I just want to live! Turn around, would you?”
“Okay, okay,” he’d said, and turned around, let his foot off the gas some, so I’d felt better, lay down again on the seat and closed my eyes. But five minutes later he was right back where he’d been — I could tell by the whoosh of the wind, of the passing cars, as the thunder boomed around us, the rain drops pelted the cars like rocks from heaven. I popped up in my seat and looked out the window, said, “Oh God!” and popped back down, shut my eyes as hard as I could, afraid and, for the first time since I could remember, prayed, with my eyes shut uttering this simple plea: “Please God, let us make it there alive, let me survive this night. I want to live!”
By morning the sky was clear, the sun was shining, like it had never happened. We drove down a street lined with palm trees and fell out of the car onto the hard sand of Daytona Beach. We had driven for 21 straight hours and had survived the nightmare of Ted’s mad drive.
We ran into the Atlantic. The water was like ice but I stayed in it, looking out at the endless waves — this was as close to God as I had ever come. I put my face close to the water, and looking out to the horizon, muttered, “Thank you,” then turned and walked back to the car.
* * * * *
Tom Falls in Love
We were sitting on the beach eating hot dogs, when Tom nudged me in the elbow and made me juggle, almost drop mine.
“Take a look at that,” he said. He had stopped chewing.
“Take a look at what?”
“At that,” he said pointing with his half-chewed dog. “That...girl!” I was staring at his hot dog, at the mustard that was getting ready to drip off of it onto the hot white sand. “Over there!” he said, nudging me again, this time good enough to unlodge my dog from my hand and send it flying, bun and all, into the sand.
“Thank you very much!” I said.
But he didn’t hear me. He was staring, slack-jawed at the girl and, to my surprise, she was staring back at him, smiling.
Her name was Sherry Long and, after that first encounter, after Tom stood up without a word and walked, like some entranced lemming to the call of his fate, to meet her, I barely saw Tom that whole week at Daytona. He was, probably for the first time, in love.
And, after the week was over, she was all he would talk about. Sherry, with her long blonde hair, her Doublemint smile.
There was only one problem, or maybe two. She lived in Montana and we went to school in Illinois. It was not the kind of distance that made it easy to carry on a relationship. And there was the other fact — she had a boyfriend back in Butte.
Tom wrote to her constantly and started calling her every Friday night. Before he had been the picture of studiousness, sitting at his desk more often than not. Now he walked around in a fog, on edge, unhappy. I had afternoon classes; his were in the morning. Many times, as I was heading out, backpack slung on my shoulders, he’d rush in out of breath, asking, “Any mail?,” only to be disappointed to find out that, no, there was nothing from Sherry today. No pink, perfume-doused envelopes with little hearts drawn on the back.
He took to moping around, wouldn’t go to the bars on weekends anymore. He’d gotten bit real bad. All his time was spent in silence, thinking, remembering her.
He was crazy in love.
He went to visit her that summer, spent two glorious weeks with her, he said. And, that fall, when classes started again, he continued his prior lovesick behavior, although he felt a little more confident now. Sherry had dumped her boyfriend. But over time things became strained between them.
Tom had left a letter sitting around on his bed one day, after he’d gone to classes. I’d done the dishonorable thing, lifted the pink stationary to my nose for a surreptitious smell of what a romance might be like, then glanced at the words. She would always love him, she said, but the situation was getting to be impossible. They were just too far apart.
For the next couple of months, Tom was gloomier than ever. He’d go out to the bars with me now, but wouldn’t say a word. Sometimes it would be at his insistence that we’d go. It got to be a habit. At nine o’clock sharp, off to the bars.
But despite my questions, he wouldn’t say anything about Sherry, just that he didn’t want to talk about it. Until one night, after one beer too many, he broke down, told me all. He was desperate, she was going to end it between them, go back to her mechanic boyfriend. He had to do something. He had to go out there. He had to. It was the week before Thanksgiving, the coldest week before Thanksgiving in recent history. It had snowed ten inches the night before. And Montana was one of those snow places they showed on the news — running film of stranded cars on the highways, and motorists digging out buried cars.
We shook hands the next morning. I wished him good luck. “This is crazy, you know,” I said.
“I know,” he said. He was grinning when he said it, just like he used to, but it didn’t last long, no more than a second of two before the grim, determined look of more recent days set back in. Then he turned and walked off to his car with a backpack full of clothes.
I wound up on a bus back to Chicago for Turkey Day — another holiday to tolerate with the family — trying to concentrate on Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”, but distracted by the loud radio playing of a nearby passenger, and distracted by the snow. Lifting my head on occasion to look out over the snow-covered fields, wondering where Tom was right then.
When he came back his face was drawn and white. He looked like a ghost. I didn’t even have to ask. “It’s over,” he said. “That’s all.”
“Get your coat,” I said. He readily obliged.
At the bar he told me about it, told me about the blizzard and the icy mountain road he’d slid on for about a hundred yards.
“It was snowing so hard I couldn’t see a car’s length in front of me.” That was when the car had started to slide. He couldn’t see where he was going, if he was headed for the edge — that was the most terrifying thing about it, he said, not knowing.
“When I got out of the car, after it finally stopped, one of the wheels was actually over the edge. It was still spinning. I looked over then and realized I was crazy, that it couldn’t go on between us. I mean I almost killed myself for her, Jack! It knocked some sense into me.”
“So you turned around and came back home?”
He looked at me with calm tolerance and carefully explained it to me, like I was a student who’d missed the main point of a lecture: “No. I’d gotten that far, so I had to see it through.”
Then his eyes got hot and he slammed the bar with his fist. “Don’t you understand, Jack? Don’t you understand a goddamned thing?”
* * * * *
Calling up the Past
Five years later I call Tom. I’ve been writing about Ted, trying to remember the details about all his crazy antics, before his big crack up after graduation. I work in sales now for my job (what more could someone with a bachelor’s in psychology go into, after all, except maybe the management track in retail or a fast food restaurant?). I work on my stories on the side (we all have dreams).
I have a beer before I call Tom. It helps — I haven’t talked to him in almost two years, since the last time I saw him back in Chicago, on one of my infrequent visits back there.
Neither of us has seen Ted since just after graduation, when we ran into him in a bar. The thing I can’t remember was why Ted threw his roommate Kurt’s bicycle off the balcony of their second floor apartment. My memory of it is that he wanted to see if it would bounce back up. Tom thinks it’s because he was mad at Kurt for something or other, but he can’t remember what. It was a brand new ten-speed and was smashed beyond repair.
Then Tom says, “I just got back into town.”
“Oh?” I say. “Where were you?” I assume he’s been on some business trip for his company, or went on one of his exotic vacations. But it wasn’t that. He tells me he was in a correctional facility up in Wisconsin for the last eighteen months. He’d been drunk, had an accident. Someone — a girl — had died, and he’d been convicted of vehicular homicide. I don’t say anything, I don’t know what to say.
He says, “It’s good to be home.” And, sitting in my chair, in my safe little cubicle of an apartment hundreds of miles away, I stare at the white wall in front of me, feeling, for a moment, that I’ve melted in, become part of it. Thinking Where has the past gone and how did we get where we are now?
And from the tunnel of the phone comes the distant voice: “Jack, Jack, are you still there?”
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