There must be two, maybe three hundred people on the train. I’m one of them, in a sack suit that fit the last time I’d worn it. That was years ago. I look like a child in his father’s clothes now.
They’d kept the suit the entire time I’d been there, all four years, and had returned it to me after discharge. I have no kin to collect me, so they put me on a train at their own expense and sent me to the closest OutPatient Resocialization Office available.
It’s gray, the suit. I’d remembered it being brown, the color of a watch fob.
The other passengers in my car are businessmen, it looks like, and idle vacationers coming home after a week in the countryside. Many of them sleep, some read the paper. I watch their reflections in the window, my chin in my hand, as the rain-slick landscape carousels by. Rain had turned the dying trees black and bent the wild grass under them, and we pass through patches of mild rain that tap the windows, but don’t linger.
I missed the smell of rain, the endless sky, the justified sense of smallness. I’d felt small where I’d been, but that had been artificial at best.
When the conductor passes by and tells me my stop is next, I can only nod. My speech had slurred during the years, and I’m hesitant to converse above my station. When he leaves, I pat myself down to make sure I still have my papers, that none of them had fallen out of my pocket, that I am real and solid and free of that wretched place.
The train stops, jerking to a halt that upsets the balance of anyone who’d stood prematurely. I follow the other passengers out, but since I have no luggage, I am guided to the back of the line. By the time I descend onto the platform, it’s raining again. I stand in it for a second, my eyes closed, until one of the guards shoves me and tells me to be on my way.
Other passengers are trying to board. More professional men, I guess from a glance, probably clerks from uptown who lived outside the city. Their suits are fitted and their whiskers are cut close. It makes me think of hot lather on my skin, the smell of soap instead of hose water and delousing powder, and as I walk into the station I try very hard not to smell anyone. Or at least, not to make myself obvious about it.
Just inside the station there is a kiosk of maps and newspapers, and the short dark man inside keeps yelling “ten cents ten cents a newspaper five for a city map ten cents ten cents” and I start to panic because ten cents is all it costs to push through the turnstiles and look down into the atrium at us all, thrashing in our jackets, foam and spit flecking out from the holes in our muzzles. Another five cents gets you a stick to poke us with or a bag of rocks to throw at the ones in cages. “Damn sad business these lunatics,” the men say, with their children tugging on their sleeves yelling “look look there’s one beating his head on the wall,” cheering the orderlies and their crisp white uniforms.
I smack the newspapers out of the man’s hand and run outside, not stopping until the station’s grand Roman entrance is well enough behind me. As I lean against a gaslight post to catch my breath, a few passers-by stare and walk faster, making a wide berth around me. A woman in a dirty cotton dress and straw bonnet is selling fruit on the sidewalk. I don’t leave until she turns her head to spit.
I’m on edge for a while after the episode in the train station. As I walk, I take my papers from my pocket with shaking hands and look at them, making sure the address is right. I feel the rain plaster my hair down and ignore the other pedestrians shouldering past me. Most of them have umbrellas that do or don’t match their suits and dresses, and anyone less prepared holds a newspaper over his head, or gathers with others under awnings and coach gates.
“You’ll catch cold!” I hear someone yell, maybe at me, but I’m enjoying the weather.
I turn onto a cross-street and find myself in front of a church with chipped marble steps, set back off the corner behind a wrought-iron fence. It reminds me of a church near where I grew up. The priests there would pay us a few coins each for help weeding the cemetery and cleaning out the organ pipes. They’d all gotten too fat for their chores, and too pale; they wore straw hats outdoors regardless of weather. I think as I walk by that most of them are dead by now,
The neighborhood is home to a lot of degraded people, I notice. Many of them had probably been injured in factories and evicted from company housing, left to rot away in tenements while stronger backs and straighter shoulders took their places. My old neighborhood had its fair share of them, too. I’d see some of the women lying drunk on the sidewalk under the trees in the park, sometimes cradling children in their laps.
The Blind-Deaf School is where I was headed, and the crude map they’d included with my papers placed it just a few blocks down from the church. The clerks there will help me find housing and set me up disability pension, I was told. It had all been arranged. I imagine having to wait in a dim gray box of an office, shackled to a chair while some nervous bureaucrat stamps forms I’m not allowed to read and asks questions I have to answer. He might see one hundred other outpatients like me that day, one hundred sets of fingernails bitten down to the quick, one hundred weird skin rashes and scars and amoebic bruises, one hundred pairs of eyes that had forgotten the sun.
My apartment is one of many on the second floor of an old brick building that sat on the corner of a residential street and a commercial one. The only window is in the bedroom. It faces the wall of the neighboring building and overlooks a bare pavement lot, parts of which have been dug up to plant flowers. The holes are ragged and uneven, leaving cracks that are slowly filling with moss.
I sit in front of the window for hours after moving in, just staring outside for as long as I want. The first time I open it, after seeing trash ride a breeze across the lot, I back away and seize up, waiting to be grabbed and buckled into a jacket and sedated. I don’t how long it will take for that feeling to go away.
The apartment’s furnishings are meager, but they are mine, and that’s an odd feeling too. I walk around touching everything, running my hands along the edge of the table, over the back of the chair, along the counter and over the gas-range stove in the tiny kitchen. I sleep on top of my blanket at night, afraid of getting too comfortable.
Time rolls and rushes over you when you’re inside. I’d seen one steam-engine car before I was committed, but now they’re as plentiful as horses, motoring along under a sky black with progress. I make sure to step behind something or someone whenever I see one of those cars pass, just in case it stops and people in white uniforms step out, asking for me.
My building has other people in it who share my situation, and I randomly hear them screaming, punching and kicking the walls, snoring and wheezing after coming back from the chemist with laudanum or heroin to coat their raw nerves.
Their fear is mine: that we won’t be able to reenter the world that built walls around us, that we’re being monitored, that one day we will answer a knock at the door and get shipped right back to the asylum. Our forms would be stamped Insane: Incurable and then it’s jackets and cages and watery porridge and random injections in the dark why are their rooms so dark why is his apron so white never any blood the fluid barking out from the syringe the vomit the spit when it touches my spine where are his eyes does he even have eyes or did they wash away, and then I come back to reality and I’m in my necessary, crying. Sometimes I don’t realize it until I’m halfway done, and by then I’m sweating so much it’s hard to tell the two apart.
When it rains, sometimes I leave my apartment and just stand in it, letting it pelt my face and run down the bridge of my nose into my mouth. I tilt my head back and imagine the water seeping into my brain and just drowning everything there. Sometimes I want it to rain forever.
A cat has been sleeping in front of my door for the past couple of days now. He’s skinny and unkempt, and charcoal black except for little white patches on his chest and one of his feet.
The last time I saw him, I’d come home from the chemist. A rolling prescription for laudanum had been left at his office, so I’d walked down to pick some up once I felt comfortable leaving my apartment. It was bright outside and my eyes stung, so I shaded them with my hand and walked facing the ground, which must have been quite a sight.
The chemist’s office is on the ground floor of a dreary brownstone not far from where I live. A steam-engine car was idling outside, but I didn’t pay much attention to it because of the smell that rushed out like a pickpocket the second I opened the door. It was a musk of old laundry, mold, and spoiling fruit, which reminded me of how one of my early bunkmates made liquor by hiding the limes and oranges we were given under the radiator until they fermented.
There was a man in front of me wearing a blue jacket with brass cufflinks and matching trousers. At first I thought he was a military man, but then I saw the truncheon at his hip and my stomach cinched up. I turned back to look at the car. The police seal on its door was facing the chemist’s window.
I must have been breathing hard, because the cop turned around and looked at me. His nose wrinkled. He was clean-shaven and smelled of mint and chewing tobacco, an earthy combination that would have been pleasant under different circumstances.
One of the men in my exercise group used to say, between seizures that made him rip out his own hair and eat it, that a cop’s badge was pinned straight into his heart to make sure all the goodness drained out.
“Here it is!” said the chemist, craning his long neck up from under the counter, and the cop turned back around. I saw him take a paper bag and then avoided eye contact, focusing on the shelves lining both sides of the shop, scanning the boxes and tins and murky old bottles until I knew he was gone.
When the chemist peered over his sweat-fogged spectacles at me, I started to speak, but realized (too late to spare myself some embarrassment) that I didn’t know exactly what to say. I’d never ordered my own medicine before. He asked my name, then thumbed through a fat ledger until he found it. He nodded, then walked out from behind the counter and took one of the bottles I’d been staring at earlier, a short fat one. He put it in a bag and took my money without another word.
The police vehicle was still parked out front when I left, and I felt a sudden urge to bang on the door and tell them I was free, that I didn’t have to go back.
When I got back to my apartment, I was trembling so hard that I almost couldn’t get the key in the lock, and then there’s this cat at the door, whisking his tail at my shins. I shooed him away with a kick and slammed the door behind me.
I bet he came back within the hour.
A woman who lives down the hall from me reminds me of someone from the asylum. The first time I saw her was in her apartment; her door was open and she was sitting in her chair with her skirt drawn up over her knees, displaying her petticoat. The room was a shambles; clothes and papers strewn all over, a tangible greasiness coating everything she owned. She didn’t seem to mind. She had the relaxed eyelids of a dope eater and was repeating the same word over and over again. Like she couldn’t help herself.
I’d seen a man like that once. They were delousing the beds, so the patients were all milling around in the exercise yard, all hard dirt and tramped-down grass, under the supervision of orderlies who looked and acted more like prison guards. One of them close to where I was standing nudged his friend and said “look, Duncan’s got the faucets again,” referring to an overweight man who stood by himself wringing his hands saying faucet faucet faucet faucet faucet faucet.
I’m crying again.
One of those police whistles sounded in the night and I was bolt-upright in bed remembering whistles and every light in the place turns on at once guards stripping us we yell out our numbers over and over no more whistles no more lights guards gone quiet now but whose chair will be empty in the mess tomorrow whose sheets will they take to the furnace whose blood on the razor wire.
I decide to go out to a coffeehouse. The laudanum has been working, and I feel ready.
I trip over the cat as I leave my apartment and startle him, but he doesn’t run far. I turn back to look just before I take the stairs down, and he’s back in front of my door.
The walk to the coffeehouse is bright and pleasant. There are more people outdoors than usual, chatting from porches as they hang their laundry while their children run off the sidewalk and into the street. Even the rough men sitting on the sidewalk look comfortable. There’s a man walking around with a wooden bucket selling ears of corn. I don’t stop for him, but other people call him over to buy from him.
Closer to my destination, the cobblestones are slimy and water-stained, and many of the trash barrels are tipped over or dilapidated from neglect. Still, with the sun on them they’re almost cheerful.
The coffeehouse is busy, and I stand around for a while before a chair opens up. I sit next to an older gentleman hunched over a book, his arms folded over his stomach. His whiskers are longer on one side than the other, and I don’t think he’s noticed.
When his coffee arrives, he smells it, then tilts his long face up and shuts his eyes for a moment. The server leaves without acknowledging me.
I smell the coffee and look around. Everyone else here has a cup; the sound of spoons against porcelain is unmistakable, even amid the hum of conversation. My fingers tremble. I’ve never ordered coffee before. How do I do it? How did they do it? They just seem to know – there’s a social contract here that I arrived too late to sign.
I stiffen in my chair, trying to control my breathing, looking around as sweat blooms in my palms. There’s a fat man dressed in pale blue, pulling his beard out of the way as he sips from his cup. He’s telling two women about “the islands,” and how their public transport is terrible, untouched by steam power, but individual natives will take you anywhere you wish to go.
“They have these rafts,” he’s saying to them, “of bamboo or something, lashed together with string, and they push them through the water with long poles.” He laughs. So do the women, taking care to cover their mouths and blush.
I want to tell him to shut up. I can feel sweat rolling down my back now and I shift in my chair, furious at this man’s inane conversation. I look at his coffee cup in his soft fat hand. I hate it and him and everyone else here for building those thick stone walls around me while they decided how things work.
My knee catches the table as I stand up and it topples over, sending everything on it clattering to the floor. Someone from the shop – the owner, maybe – follows me down the street, yelling, but that’s all he does and he gives up after a block.
I’m so lightheaded by the time I get home that it takes me a full minute to unlock the door. When I finally open it, I don’t walk in. The cat is rubbing up against my leg, his sharp ribcage vibrating with a steady purr. I close the door and rest my forehead against it.
I don’t know what cats eat. I’m tempted to ask the chemist when I pick up my week’s laudanum, but he’s so unpleasant that I decide against it.
I stop into a dry-goods shop on the way home and ask the shopkeeper what cats eat. He first answers my question with a look, for which I want to punch him as hard as I can, and then picks out a tin of fish and a tin of commodity meat for me, saying that cats like one or the other. He also gets a bottle of milk from the icebox behind the counter.
The cat turns his nose up at the meat, but likes the fish and the milk. I feed him out in the hallway, but can’t close the door fast enough to keep him from running into my apartment. When I try to grab him, he runs into the kitchen area and wedges himself between the stove and the wall. My arm is too thick to pull him out.
When I was inside, some of us had to wear special harnesses to curb immoral thoughts and “self-abuse,” and the thighs of their uniforms were always tracked with blood. There were ways to avoid that. Laudanum was one, or an experimental treatment where they injected you with something that took away your libido and sent flashes of numbness through your arms and legs. Or they didn’t give you anything, but sometimes a few guards would show up at your bedside in the night and take you off somewhere, then drag you back a few hours later.
Laudanum usually worked for me, but I’m out. My whole body is throbbing. The knothole in a sheet of plywood would look inviting right about now.
I leave my apartment without thinking, without scratching the cat behind his ears, and run down the stairs and into the street. I know there are some working girls out here. I’ve seen them before. They make themselves obvious in neighborhoods like mine, especially at night.
I find her sitting on a bench in a small park a few blocks north of my building. I don’t know how to ask for what I want, so I follow the stones arranged in paths around the park’s small garden, trying to get her attention. I find an old gnarly tree close to her and stare up into its canopy.
I hear her clear her throat, and the noise yanks my neck on a chain. She’s smiling at me.
“You look like you need to calm down,” she said.
Before answering, I study her. Her face is heavier than it should be, and pudgy at the nose, and she is wrapped in a shawl meant for someone larger.
“Yes,” I said, stumbling over the word. “I need…” I trail off. The words turn to dust in my throat.
She crosses her legs, exposing a pale ankle in the process. “You need to relax,” she says. “I can help with that.”
I smile back, trying to ignore the bruises on her arms.
“For a price, of course,” she says.
I dig into my pocket and find a handful of coins, which I hold out for her. “This is all I have,” I say
She takes the coins from me and holds them under a gaslight, squinting at them.
“A $3 piece? Haven’t seen one of those in ages.” She looked at me. “D’you mind hosting?” I say no, and try to keep pace with her as we head back to my building, past rows of houses whose broken windows are patched with rags and paper. Streams of dirty water fall from linens hanging over the street. It must have rained earlier.
“My aunt used to live there,” she says, pointing to a rowhouse so indistinguishable from the others that I was surprised she could pick it out. “And my uncle used to live down the street somewhere. He was an odd one.”
I nod and try to act interested as I watch her hips lilt from side to side with each step. She seems to know the way as well as I do.
She waits until we’re in my apartment to kiss me, then pulls away and says “help me get out of this.” She unwinds her shawl to reveal a bottle of cheap champagne, which she sets on my bed before letting the shawl drop. As it makes a puddle on my coarse wooden floor, I help her out of her red jacket, her striped petticoat, her crinoline. They are wrinkled and matted with dirt, but she wears them well on her heavy hips and shoulders.
“Wait here,” she says, rubbing the tip of my forefinger with her thumb. I sit on the bed and remove my brogans, then my pants, listening to her putter around in my kitchen. She returns with champagne in two cups, one of which used to be a jar. She toasts me and we drink and and and and and and
I wake up with a stinging ache in my head. The woman is going through my jacket pockets. She freezes when my eyes open. She looks the way things do on hot days, greasy and indistinct.
“Thought you were dead,” she says. She looks more confused than caught. I sit up and she takes off running, my coat flagging behind her.
My apartment has been ransacked. Every drawer and cabinet, not that there are many, is wide open, and my empty laudanum bottles have been strewn everywhere. The necessary has also been thoroughly searched, and soiled.
Whatever she slipped into my drink eventually wears off, but not before making me throw up and collapse. I stay where I fall, staring up at the ceiling. I feel like I’m full of sand, heavy and numb, and that anything or anyone I touch would puncture me and it will all come pouring out. My heart throbs in my wrists and heels, in every part of me that touches the floor.
I stay there for an hour, waiting for sleep to come. When it doesn’t, I think about the city harbor, the long gloomy docks where stevedores unload cargo and repair holes in hulls. I think about the stone slope separating the shoreline from the water, about how smooth and heavy the stones are. I wonder how many will fit in my empty pockets.
The cat fits the curve of his back against the instep of my right foot, and I feel him purring. He’s hungry. He rubs his head against my toes and I feel lighter, as though stones are falling out of my pockets.
About Dave: Dave K. is a writer, artist, and A/V tech who lives in Baltimore. His work has been published in Front Porch Journal, Battered Suitcase, LOOP, Artichoke Haircut, and Welter, and self-publishes through Banners of Death Press. Keep up with him through his blog (www.beeohdee.blogspot.com). When he’s not writing, Dave K. is a chemical compound in which the atoms are bonded by covalent bonds in a continuous network.