February 8th, 2017
It is rare to see the same guy in the psych. ward week after week. The third floor of the hospital is where the VA has all the inpatient psychiatric treatment. The ward has a transient population. Most of the vets come in through the emergency room, go up to the third floor, calm down and sober up, get some meds, receive some counseling, and then they go somewhere else. They might go to the “dom” (domicile), or maybe to a halfway house, or maybe home. The psych. ward is a temporary safe place where these men and women can get patched up. They are seldom there for more than a few days. So, I was surprised that Tom was still there.
Tom has white hair and a white goatee. Only his eyebrows are still dark and heavy. He’s heavyset, and he has deep, piercing eyes. He sat down at the table with me in the break room. He likes to stare, so it is difficult to look at him for long. He was talkative, but he wasn’t manic like the last time I saw him. The doctors must have tweaked his meds. It is still hard to hold a conversation with him, but it’s no longer impossible.
“You look tired”, he said to me in a concerned voice. “Are you okay?”
I find it ironic that a patient in the psych. ward needs to ask me if I am all right. I told him that I was in fact tired, but that it wasn’t a problem. Then I asked Tom, “So, how are you doing?”
“Oh, I am just getting used to being in a place where I don’t want to be. I’ve done it before. It was like this when I got drafted. Were you drafted? How old are you?”
I replied, “I’m fifty-eight.”
“Oh, you’re still a youngster. I’m sixty-five already. I was drafted into the Marines. Back in ’68. I was in from ’68 to ’70. Vietnam. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. We took blood to the Purple Heart guys. I took it to them in my veins. No, it wasn’t at all what I thought. I thought there would be more fighting, but we just brought them blood. I would have stayed a Marine longer, but they discharged me. It wasn’t what I figured.”
I thought about asking Tom what exactly he meant, but I decided against it. I’ve had these sorts of conversations before. Questions often only bring up answers that cause more confusion. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
Tom asked, “So, do you have to drive home after this?”
“Are you driving home tonight?”
“Well, you be careful. But it doesn’t matter how careful you are, because somebody could just pull out in front of you. There are some crazy people out there. I know from when I was a Marine.”
Then I talked to Scott. Actually, he talked to me. He had been there for a couple weeks too. His meds weren’t right, not at all. His mind and mouth were constantly moving, shifting restlessly from one topic to another. He sat down next to me, and started shoveling a bag of chips into his face, while talking continually. Crumbs and words spewed from his lips.
“Are you Charlie or Sally? I forget your name.”
“Oh, okay. Yeah, I used to have these custom vans. Hot rods too. Do you like vans? I like vans.” He dropped a chip on to his faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, and then he brushed it off.
“Maybe I should take a bag of these little marshmallows.”
I told him, “Take what you want.”
“Well, there are six bags. I could take them all.”
“You should leave some of them,” I said.
“You said that I could take what I wanted,” and Scott looked at me confusedly.
“Well, yeah, but other people might want marshmallows too.”
“Okay, I’ll just take three. I’ll take some cookies too. Custom vans. I had some of those. I had to get rid of them. I don’t know about this place. They don’t know what they are doing here. Is there any soda left?”
He walked to the table with the soda, and then walked out of the break room. He found an unused wheelchair and sat down in it. He rolled himself down the hallway. He moved with a purpose.
I talked to Russ.
Russ had been quietly sitting near the wall, staring at the television. “Man on Fire” with Denzel Washington was playing loudly on the big screen. I asked him how he was.
“I’m okay”, he said without much conviction. “Do I know you?”, he asked. “Did I see you in an AA meeting?”
“Maybe twenty-five years ago.”
Russ frowned and shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that long ago. You just look familiar.”
I asked him, “So, what do you do?”
Russ kept staring ahead, and said, “I work for a tree trimming service. At least, I think I do. They haven’t fired me yet.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Are they taking good care of you?”
“Yeah,” he said softly as he gazed into the distance. “They have to adjust my meds before I can go.”
It occurred to me as I spoke with Russ that maybe he wasn’t watching the movie. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at anything. He just stared straight ahead.
“What will you do when you get out of here?”
Russ replied, “I guess I will go back to work, if I still have a job.”
“How long have you been with that company?”
“Twenty-four years.” He never even glanced at me.
Thoughts flow like water. Sometimes they move swiftly and surely. Sometimes they make twists and turns. Sometimes they get dammed up until they overflow and wash away everything else. Sometimes they pool in deep places, and become dark and fetid.
Tom’s thoughts always seem to flow back to a low spot on the other side of the world, to events that happened a half century ago. Something happened to him in Vietnam that changed everything for him. His mind always returns there.
Scott’s thoughts burst forth like a torrent. They rush and roar, and sweep away all order. They can’t find a valley big enough to hold and guide them. They can’t find peace.
Russ’ thoughts follow a straight and narrow channel. They flow constantly toward a point in the distance that only Russ can see. They flow toward an unknown future, a void, a raging sea.