I work as a psych tech at a psych hospital, which means I get all of the dirty work. If the psych patients puke, I clean it up. If they get confused and wander into the wrong room, I retrieve them. I take them to the nameplate outside their door and say, “This is your room. See. This is your name.” I take them out to smoke. I show them the location of the lighter on the wall of the smoking porch. I demonstrate how to use it. No lighters allowed. They may burn the place down. I’m their guide through Lala Land. I am their shepherd in fields of madness.
Today, I’m guiding Lester. He threatened members of his family with a chainsaw because they wouldn’t buy him chewing tobacco. I’m not making this up. It happened. He went after them because his family spoon-feeds him his government check. They act as his overlords. But one day he’d had enough. He cranked the chainsaw and went for them in the yard.
Lester reminds me of Karl Childers from the movie Sling Blade. He’s a child in a man’s body. Built like Karl in the movie. Has a stomach like Karl’s. Keeps his blue jeans pulled up over his bellybutton. Talks with a drawl like Karl and weighs over 250 lbs. His love for chewing tobacco hasn’t waned since being here. He never spits his tobacco juice. Ever. He swallows it. The only time he spits is when we make him spit it out, and even though he swallows it, he can’t have it on the unit. We keep his tobacco in the desk drawer. We hand it to him when smoking time rolls around. Then a week into his stay, he runs out of tobacco. The family won’t bring him any no matter how many times he calls them, and he calls every time the phone is available. They’re done. They’ve had it with him. But I feel sorry for him. This afternoon I caught him rummaging through the trashcan on the smoking porch. It resembles a trashcan you might see in a national park—green heavy-duty metal. Bear proof. But not Lester proof. He had his arm elbow-deep inside the trashcan, searching for a wad of tobacco he’d spit out the day before. But recycling chewing tobacco is not something the hospital allows, so I yelled for him to get out of the trashcan. He froze like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He turned and smiled, and then took his arm out.
After work I go to one of the discount tobacco stores that dot our city like Starbucks. The woman behind the counter knows me. I’m a regular cigarette runner for the hospital. Whenever a patient is out of cigarettes and driving staff crazy, we will all pitch in and buy a pack for them. Sometimes the woman behind the counter will donate a pack. And instead of one can of Skoal, I buy him a roll containing six cans (I’m a softie), and the woman behind the counter throws in two free cans of grape Skoal, a new product giveaway.
The following day I tell Lester what I have for him.
His eyes widen, and he says, “That’s like gold.”
“Here’s the deal,” I say. “Every time you go out on a smoke break, I’ll give you a pinch, then you have to bring it back and spit it in this bag. Got it?”
“Got it,” he says and laughs like a Darling on the Andy Griffith Show.
I watch him pace the smoking porch with a pregnant lip of gold. His Adam’s apple jutting out every few seconds. He walks and turns at the edge of the boundaries the hospital has mandated for them. They must stay in sight of the long plate glass window of the unit. He pulls his pants up at every turn. We’ve taken his belt. It’s in a storage lockup off the main nurses’ desk. He’ll get it back when he’s discharged. But for now his body misses it. He keeps a T-shirt tucked inside to help compensate.
The unit phone rings and I turn to answer it. When I turn back, I can’t find Lester. He’s out of sight. I rush to the unit door, figuring he’s gone beyond the boundaries and roamed around the corner of the building and into the center courtyard. But before I get out of the door, I see him. He’s doing pushups on the sidewalk.
“Lester, don’t exercise on the smoking porch.”
He rolls over onto his butt and pushes himself up, one knee at a time. He’s breathing hard. Sweat beads dot his forehead. He walks to where I stand and says, “I need my nitro pill.”
“Nitro pill? Lester, what are you talking about?”
“My chest is really hurting.” He has one hand over his heart.
“Come back inside. Let me take your blood pressure. But it’s probably heartburn from swallowing all of that Skoal.”
“No, it hurts bad.”
“Okay, I’ll call the nurse.”
A minute later the charge nurse bursts through the unit door. “What are his vitals?”
“I just started the machine.”
“Where do you hurt?” she asks.
“Right here. I need my nitro pill.”
“You’ve been prescribed nitro pills?”
“I brung’em from home with me. When I got here, that woman took’em from me.”
The blood pressure machine beeps, and the charge nurse looks through her bifocals. “That’s not good,” she says.
She picks up the unit phone and calls the med room. “Can you check to see if Lester Glassco has any medicine he brought from home. Then call me back on unit three.”
She walks back to where Lester sits. He’s rocking in his chair. Hand over his chest.
The charge nurse looks at me and asks, “What was he doing when his chest started hurting?”
“He was out on the smoking porch.”
“What was he doing out there? Was he smoking?”
“No, he dips Skoal.”
“Well, that isn’t much better. Did he get in a confrontation with someone? Did anything happen that would elevate his heart rate?”
“Well…he was doing pushups.”
The unit phone rings and the charge nurse picks up. “You found them. Great bring one quickly.” She hangs up and says to Lester, “She’s on her way with one. Lean back for me and try to relax.”
She looks at me.
“Why was he doing pushups? Were you out there with him?”
“No, ma’am. I saw him and went to the door to make him stop. Then he came inside and told me that his chest was hurting.”
The med nurse appears with the nitro pill.
“Here you go, Mr. Glassco,” the med nurse says. “Have you taken one of these before?”
“Okay, hope this helps.”
We watch him for a few minutes. Not a word spoken.
Five minutes later, the charge nurse says, “Okay, let’s take his blood pressure again. How’s the pain? Better?”
“Better,” he says.
Once the crisis is over, the charge nurse takes me to the side and says, “No more exercising on the smoking porch. It’s your responsibility to watch them. They don’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain, and they sure don’t know when enough is enough. So no more exercising on the smoking porch. Not even a jumping jack. Got it?”
The next day Lester becomes agitated and throws a chair across the dayroom. The man is country strong. I get out of his way until some more techs arrive. Then we wrestle him down to the floor. He’s screaming obscenities.
All of the patients scatter to their rooms except for a runt of a man. He’s sitting in a chair in the dayroom watching like a monkey high in a tree, munching on a banana. Just there. Not afraid of Lester.
We walk Lester to his room. He sits on the bed with his fingers twitching. His head bowed. Silent now. Staring at the floor. Breathing heavily.
I’m praying he won’t blow a heart valve. The charge nurse will blame me.
She rushes into the room. “What’s going on here?”
I look away from her.
“Not sure,” one of the other techs says. “He just started screaming and threw a chair.”
“Could be the nitro pill,” I say.
The charge nurse looks at me like I’m a dumbass.
“Lester, what’s going on?” she says.
“Ben Stallings is the one who broke up my marriage.”
The charge nurse says, “Does it upset you seeing him on the unit?”
I want to give her one of those you-dumbass-looks.
“Yes,” Lester whimpers.
I’d searched Ben a few hours ago when he was admitted. He has red dots that resemble measles all of his body. When I asked him about them, he said they were a side effect of the medication he was taking.
“Does it hurt?”
“Nah,” he’d said.
He hasn’t spoken a word since.
I wonder what kind of woman would desire a man with synthetic measles. It’s comical in a sense, a sad sense, a head-wagging one. What are the odds that you’ll encounter your nemesis in a psych hospital?
“Well, you need to stay clear of him. I can’t have the two of you fighting in my hospital.”
“I’m not going to fight him. Maybe kill him,” Lester says, looking up for the first time with a weak smile.
The charge nurse turns to me.
“I want you to keep the two of them separated. Let’s stagger their smoking breaks and meals. Let one go, and then the other.”
“Got it,” I say.
I wonder how it all went down between the three of them. I ask the charge nurse later when I see her off the unit. Surprisingly she tells me the story. Lester and Ben were once in the same group home. Lester had threatened his family once before and they kicked him off their property. He landed in a group home for a while, which is where he met Ben and his future wife. Lester married her, and they moved out.
“She’s been a patient here as well. Many times,” she says. “In fact, this is where Ben and her began their affair, so to speak. The two of them were discharged on the same day and rumor has it that they got together.”
She tells me her name.
“I remember her. Tall with hawkish features?”
“Sounds like her.”
I try to imagine how it all went down. Maybe Lester got down on one knee and proposed in the living room of the group home while a soap opera played in the background and a leaky roof stained the ceiling above. Maybe she slapped her hands together in excitement and shuffled her feet on shag carpet. Maybe Ben was lurking at the edges of the living room wishing he had thought to ask her first. Maybe the wedding took place on the lawn. Maybe they went on a honeymoon, and then moved into an apartment, rubbing two government checks together to pay the bills. And perhaps life was good for a while. Then she had a psychotic break or got off her meds. Who knows? But she was admitted around the same time as Ben. And Lester’s marriage dissolved.
Later in the shift, while Ben is outside smoking, I ask Lester what happened.
“He stole my wife. That’s what happened.”
“I know that, but how did it happen? How did you find out? Did she tell you or did you catch them?”
“I caught’em in bed together.”
I picture it. His wife below a red-dotted man.
“Wow! What did you do?”
“What did I do?” He screws up his face. “What did I do?”
“Yeah, what happened?”
He eyes me.
This is when I remember the chainsaw and his outburst in the dayroom. The charge nurse wouldn’t forgive me if I somehow instigated another one.
“You don’t have to talk about it,” I say. “I understand.”
Ben comes to the unit door. I open it and let him in.
“Okay, Lester, it’s your turn. Come get your Skoal.”
I let him get a pinch.
“No pushups. Got it?”
“Got it,” he says, while cramming the Skoal into his bottom lip.
It’s been two days since Lester threw the chair across the dayroom. Lester and Ben have managed not to speak. Ben remains perched in one of the high back chairs in the dayroom. Lester paces the hallway. His family is visiting tonight. It’s almost visitation time. The phone will ring any minute. The operator will tell me that Lester’s family is here to visit.
Thirty minutes into the hour visitation, they finally show. I carry Lester to the cafeteria that smells like bleach and toe jam. Three of his family members are seated near the empty salad bar. They hardly look at him as he takes a seat at the table. I sit nearby so I can hear the repercussions of an almost chainsaw massacre.
“I can’t stay here any longer,” Lester says. “Ben Stallings is here. Remember Ben?”
All three of them blink—two women, one man. One woman has on a flowered sundress. The other one is wearing low-rise jeans and a midriff shirt that exposes a red rose tattooed on her lower back that is dripping blood. The man is wearing dark blue coveralls with stains on the knees.
The man finally speaks. “You ain’t living with us. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be hacked into pieces. You scared the shit out of us with that chainsaw.”
“I wasn’t gonna hurt nobody.”
“Well, tobacco ain’t worth killing over,” the man says.
“Did you bring me any tobacco?” Lester says.
“Your ma ain’t got no money.”
“You got my check this week. It’s the first of the month.”
“What do you think we used to get here tonight? Gas is expensive. Then we got to eat. Damn near two hours just to get here. And you gonna sit there and act like we living high on the hog with your paycheck. The government don’t think that highly of you.”
Lester slams his fist down on the table and says, “I want out of here. I swear I’ll kill Ben if I have to stay here one more day.”
They bat their eyes.
Then the father says, “We done sold your chainsaw and your guns.”
“Well, by damn, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”
I walk over and say, “Lester, calm down or I will have to take you back to the unit.”
He glances at me with a thousand chainsaws reflecting in his eyes.
I fear the charge nurse more than I do him at the moment.
He wags his finger at me, and then diverts his eyes.
When the operator announces that visitation hours are over, they stand. No hugs or kisses. They simply walk out. Lester looks at me. I take him back.
Two days later while working on another unit, I see his face in the square window of the psychotic unit door. He’s looking out at the nurse’s station, and when he sees me, he shoots me this huge smile. I put my key in the lock on the wall and open the unit door.
“How’s it going?” I say.
“Fine, just fine,” he says.
Then he says something that shocks me.
He says, “I love you.”
He suddenly looks embarrassed. His huge smile trembles beneath the florescent light of the hallway. He stands waiting for a response. It’s my turn to say something. His face is red. I’m not sure why he says this. I’m not sure what my response should be. Should I reply? It’s not every day that a man tells me he loves me. Not even my own father. Growing up we never said these words to each other. I think about this while staring into the face of this chainsaw-wheeling man. Can a man like this feel love? And maybe it has something to do with the grape Skoal. I’m not sure why he feels the need to say this. But I can’t say it back. I stand flat-footed, refusing this love, whatever it might mean.
Lester is being discharged this afternoon. We are waiting on his family to arrive. We’ve packed all of his belongings in hospital-issued plastic bags. I wrote his name on the side of them with a Sharpie. Now we’re out on the smoking porch. I’m sitting at a picnic table, doing paperwork. He’s pacing, working the Skoal in his lip, and swallowing every few minutes, as the sky threatens rain and the air is muggy, the way it gets before a thundershower.
The charge nurse opens the unit door and says Lester’s family has arrived. She tells Lester to spit out his tobacco and asks me to take Lester’s belongings to his family in the lobby. I follow the nurse and Lester to the front. When we get there, the same family members await him. The old man has on the same pair of coveralls with stains on the knees. They don’t look me in the eyes, but surprisingly, they hug Lester, and I realize the power of familial love.
Outside on the sidewalk leading to the visitor parking lot, I reveal another can of grape Skoal that I got for him this morning when I made another cigarette-run for other patients.
I place it in his hand. His face widens the same way it did when I revealed the Skoal to him days ago. He grabs and hugs me.
“Don’t squeeze too hard,” I say, feeling uncomfortable in his arms and glad to get this response. When he lets me go, I say, “Enjoy it.”
“Don’t you worry,” he says.
Lester and his family climb inside a dented, blue Ford. The shocks labor beneath the weight of them, as they position themselves. Lester looks back at me through the side window in the backseat. He shoots me a shit-eating grin. I see a lump of grape Skoal in his lip. The father backs out and guns the motor. Smoke drifts into and beyond the telephone poles at the edge of the street, dispersing into gloam, and I’m wondering how long this newfound love will last.
About the Author
Robert Lavender currently works at a psych hospital, where he teaches creative writing as therapy to suicidal adolescents. You can visit a blog of their writing at http://360westproject.com/. His work has been published in Brevity, Reed Magazine, Front Porch Journal, Controlled Burn, Clackamas Literary Review, and he was a finalist in the 580 Split Fiction Contest.