Father prayed like he and God were sitting at a bar, drinking beer and shooting the breeze about football and the weather. Sometimes it made me happy when he did that, like the world was a great place, and mother wouldn't go crazy, and we'd always live together in our shack in southeast Portland because we wanted to live there, because we were hardy and stable-minded folks and so a little rain couldn't possibly get us down.
On the day we went to pick up our mother, me and my little brother Tommy piled into our old Volkswagen van and then we sat quiet and still as we could. We sat in the seat farthest to the back of the van because there was no middle seat, on account of the fact that Father used the van on weekends to deliver bundles and bales of religious tracts.
Father didn't let us into the Volks unless it was part of some plan of his, so I knew we were really going to pick up mother this time. My nose was full of the smell of old plastic and gasoline and mildew, and my stomach had a warm, prickly feeling and I wanted to get on the road, damned soon. I wanted to see my mother, and even though I'm 15, practically full-grown, I wanted to hold her thin, shaky hand and let her pat me on the head, the way she likes to do.
Father got into the driver's seat and the van rocked back and forth from his weight. Kids don't usually admit it, but that can be a scary thing. Father didn't start the engine right away and only waited while me and Tommy settled ourselves on the wide vinyl seat. When we were quiet enough that he couldn't hear our breathing, Father nodded to us in the rearview mirror and then he closed his eyes and tilted back his head.
"Lord," he said in a big voice, like he was talking to his buddy, Phil, who shot off too much artillery in Vietnam, "thank you for the damned beautiful day you've given us. The bounty of your nature surrounds us, and I don't see how those asshole atheists can ignore it, but we sure as hell are grateful."
Of course it was only another dark and crappy day and the clouds were spraying that Portland ever-rain and the wind slapped at the firs and rocked the Volks on its sagging springs--but I found myself sharing Father's gratitude anyway. We were going on an adventure, going down to the loony bin in Dammasch to bring our mother back home, no matter what it took, and so it was a beautiful day, after all. Father cleared his throat like he always did when he was in a hurry to get started on one of his missions.
"Keep us safe, Almighty One, O Thou Most High, as we navigate these crappy roads that were built by the frail hand of man, and also, Lord, please bless this German piece of shit so it runs straight and true, as we go to liberate one of your most faithful and beautiful servants from the captivity of the non-believing assholes. In Jesus' name," "Amen," we said in unison, the three of us, and I couldn't help thinking that we were blessed people who were part of some huge plan--a plan that was bigger than anything the government might have in mind for us. Father made us believe that our God was a friendly God, but also a clever God who would get what He damn well wanted, using us as He saw fit, in that perfect plan He had in mind when He created the whole damned universe.
The Volks was at full throttle and loud and Tommy and me sat and watched the Willamette Valley slide past. All the crops were turned under but the fields were still marked with signs for rye and hops and mint. We climbed some hills with the Volks chugging and the sound going low, low, too low up the grade, and Father downshifting and the engine catching some power over the top and down the other side. The Volks was the fastest car on the road when we were going downhill. Father kept the throttle mashed, and when the downhills were too steep for the gearing, he'd put in the clutch and let us free fall past the trees and the pulp mills and the crossroads with their flashing yellow lights and the business loops that went into the towns the freeway bypassed. I caught glimpses of the old highway as we whizzed along and sometimes I waved at the farmers in their muddy pickups and sometimes they waved back.
My brother wanted none of this interstate travel. Tommy wasn't one of the most mentally-stable human beings on planet earth, but he was a good kid, and sometimes he seemed to know when there was some trouble about to happen. I know he wanted to see our mother--wanted it with every screwed-up molecule in his body--but now he acted like he didn't want us to get to the state hospital.
He said we should stop for ice cream, damn it, and as far as he knew, there wasn't a single ice cream stand anywhere near The Wicked Road to Hell. Tommy rocked back and forth. He started praying to God that all he wanted was for Father to stop--please, please, dammit stop for ice cream. Tommy's voice hadn't changed yet and he had a wail that could just about scare the bejesus out of me. It sounded like the voice of an old woman who just lost someone she loved, only it was louder than any old woman's voice I'd ever heard.
Father flogged the Volks for as long as he could stand Tommy's racket and then we were stopping to go off for some ice cream. Father usually took Tommy's shit for about ten minutes and then, if he didn't pull off the road and backhand him, he'd generally do what Tommy wanted. This time I could see Father think about it and I could see the whites of his big knuckles when his hands tightened up on the plastic steering wheel, and then he got a lost look in his eyes. I watched him in the rearview mirror, and then he muttered something to God, and then we were pulling off for ice cream.
But Tommy didn't know when to shut the hell up. He made a moaning sound like his whole family had just been wiped out by an artillery shell in the town square. It was about to make me belt him myself. Father was wearing his scowling on-a-mission look and he drove without saying anything. The exit took us under the freeway and then we were in a business district that some people might have thought was butt-ugly, but I liked a whole lot because it was new to me and I didn't know whether or not it sucked. It was raining and dark in the afternoon and the power lines were all crossed above us like they were hung by sloppy morons, and the crappy neon signs were flickering, missing some letters, and they reminded me of something I'd seen once before. It wasn't a very classy thing. Tommy was still making his grieving old woman sounds and Father was starting to clamp his jaws so the muscles got hard and knotty.
"Hey," I said. "Do you remember that neon sign we saw last summer in Beaverton? The one for the Black Angus that didn't have the 'g' in 'angus' lit up?"
My brother stopped crying and bitching for that. He thought about it and then he started to laugh. He laughed like he cried. His whole being was wrapped up in the noise, like a prayer, and I guessed he did that because he mustn't have gotten much attention when he was a baby, or maybe he got dropped on his head. Father frowned and said it wasn't nice to make fun of God's creations. His face clouded and then he started to laugh himself and he said damn it anyway, but that was funny and he didn't care if the whole world knew he thought so.
The Polar Queen was an old one from the 1950s and it didn't have an indoor place to eat. It reminded me of a car I saw once, a big glass-and-steel machine called a Polara. Father took us through the rain and got us big, frozen cones that were wrapped in thick white paper. My brother kept saying "black anus, black anus, black anus, huh?" and laughing like a little leprechaun.
There was no one else standing in line to buy ice cream on that dark and crappy day, and the girl in the Polar Queen gave us some funny looks. I rolled my eyes when she looked at me so she wouldn't think we were all crazy, but it didn't seem to change her mind any. She was one of those thick white girls with the pale faces you see in cars as they go by on the freeway. The kind of face you can see really well at night and that always looks surprised, like it was being taken somewhere against its will. I knew it wasn't her fault that she lived in a place where it rained all the time and all the people, pretty much, were thick and pasty, too. She had a name tag that said Lee Anne and it was pinned crookedly to the curve of her right breast. I started to wonder what her big titties looked like when they weren't all hidden by her uniform, and then she handed us the cones and we stood under the stripped awning, Father and Tommy watching the neon polar bear, and me throwing glances at Lee Anne's titties and eating on my cone.
I worried about the future while I ate. It was something I was doing a lot of, lately. We have a cardboard box full of books back home, and most of them are about history. As soon as I could read, I dug into that box of books and found out that the world is one heavily screwed-up place. The books are full of wars and plagues and famines and disasters and shit like that, and they made me wonder if anything good ever happened, in between. The main book I read though is Abnormal Psychology. That book is like a magnet to me, and it taught me that lots of mental illnesses are passed from parents to their children. The kids seem normal at first because they don't start getting loonied-up until puberty. I didn't know what puberty was at the time, but I found it in our old Encyclopedia Britannica and then I knew. So later, when those hairs started to grow up like wires in that place below my belly that had always been smooth, I wasn't too happy about it. I knew I had to keep on the lookout for crazy-symptoms from that time on, and sometimes I doubted if I would have any say in the matter.
The craziness in our family was worst during prayer time, which was something we did every day, and wasn't voluntary. One day I told Father I didn't want to go to prayer time, and Father told me OK, then he'd just have to spank on me until I felt like I needed to do some praying. I didn't give him any more shit about it after that, but let's just say that mine wasn't the loudest voice in the prayer circle.
At prayer time, Father would pray in that God-drunk voice of his and Tommy would sway and nod to the rhythm of it and I would feel the wildness start to rise in me, too, and I'd fight it for all I was worth. I tried to tamp it down tamp it down tamp it down, until I could go somewhere else in my mind where hands didn't clap to soundless music and eyes didn't leak tears of joy for no reason at all and the air wasn't all scratchy-full of the electricity of craziness.
During prayer time, I mostly thought of girls and how it would be terrific to have one--to really have a girl and to know her, like in the biblical sense. I mostly thought of romance, because if I got off into the sins of the flesh part of it, I'd get a boner-to-end-all-boners and I thought how crazy it would look for God or man to see me sitting at prayer time with my dick so hard a cat couldn't scratch it. But I had to think about something besides the praying and so I thought about softness, mostly. A soft voice and soft hair and brushing the back of my hand against female cheeks that are different skin and the same skin as mine and seeing the curves that I wanted to get to know. And then I got too deep into it and had to start thinking instead about hiking into the Cascade Mountains until I was in snow up to my waist. But that didn't stop my body from reacting and so I opened my eyes and looked, really looked, at my praying family and I felt like a damned phony and that did the trick. The sinful part of me shrank down in my shorts and behaved itself and then the craziness of Father's praying started to reach up into me again and I had to tamp it down tamp it down tamp it down.
Anyway, that's pretty much how I spent the two hours of prayer time we had every God-blessed day of the year.
After the ice cream, we hit the road and we had sticky hands and dairy breath. Father drove alone on the wide front seat and Tommy and me sat again way back in the third seat. The heat vents beneath the seat went straight to the engine compartment and after a while I smelled my rubber boots starting to melt. We didn't wear seat belts because the Volks didn't have any, because if Almighty God wanted to call us home, it wouldn't help to have any fucking seat belts, as Father always said.
Anyway, my boots were melting and so I stood up in the big empty space in the middle of the van. I told Tommy I was surfing and I crouched down and put out my hands for balance, like surfers do. Father saw what I was doing in the rearview, and he jerked the steering wheel back and forth to give me some waves. Tommy joined me and we surfed the Interstate at 70 miles an hour, and Father weaved the Volks back and forth to give us a thrill. In the end, Father sawed too hard at the wheel and Tommy and me fell to one side of the van and we damn near tipped us over in the road.
Father struggled to get control of the Volks and me and Tommy crawled back to our seat and stayed quiet until we got to Dammasch. Father gave us hard looks in the rearview and we knew we'd better be good and quiet for the rest of the trip, and so we sat still as pillars of salt.
We pulled up to the state hospital and it was all painted concrete and steel-meshed windows. We went inside, Tommy with a snotty nose and me with my boots untied and Father's hair all messy and sticky-looking like he had some ice cream in it. The front door was heavy and the glass was thick and I thought it might be bulletproof or something, so the crazies couldn't break out, or their crazy-ass relatives couldn't shoot up the place trying to rescue their locked-up loved ones. The floor was green tile and the old walls were scrubbed and gleaming, but the place smelled like rotting paper and piss and there was also a smell of heavy drugs coming from behind the locked white doors. The lights were bright and too serious and the hospital had that sad, boring look that made you wonder how anyone could work there for very long without being committed themselves.
The nurse at the desk was big and soft-looking like the girl at the Polar Queen. She didn't smile at me and Tommy like most adults did. The desk was as high as one where a judge would sit and when the nurse saw us coming she picked up a phone and talked for a few minutes. She was very serious. When we got closer I saw she had a name tag just like the girl at the Polar Queen except it only had her last name, McFinney. She was wearing about as much mascara as her eyelashes could carry, so she had those "eye fang" things, as mother called them. The nurse looked at me like she'd memorized Abnormal Psychology, and so she knew that it was only a matter of time for me and Tommy, before we were a danger to ourselves and others, and we got sent to live here.
"Yes?" she said, like we'd just asked a question and she was guessing the answer.
Tommy didn't like eye fangs. The nurse made him nervous and so he backed away and started saying "black anus," over and over again. He sucked his thumb, too, even though he was almost 12 years old for God's sakes, and it didn't make me happy to see he had a weird, too-bright spark in his eyes that made him look like he belonged here.
Father went to the desk and ran his sticky hand through his hair. He looked up at the nurse and asked if Darlene Wimberley was ready to be set loose. He said we were here to pick her up and that if it wasn't too much damned trouble, we'd like to get her loaded into the van so we could get back on the road. He was trying to be nice, I could see, but he was still pissed at Tommy and me for nearly causing the Volks to tip over on the freeway. He was about a heartbeat away from giving us his belt, the rod that he didn't spare all that much, and his anger seemed to spill over to the nurse, even though he was trying to be nice, and the nurse seemed to know it. The air was getting that crazy electricity and I smiled at the nurse but she didn't smile back. I thought how that if you said it just right, the words "loony bin" sounded Vietnamese: Lu Ni Binh, and I imagined my mother in a bamboo cage surrounded by men who poked her with sharp sticks to get her to do what they wanted.
Father raised his voice and asked the nurse if she'd heard him. The nurse picked up the phone and started talking again and Father began to shout about what almighty God would do to this shit hole of a hospital if Darlene damned Wimberley wasn't cut loose, right fucking NOW!
I jumped when the heavy door behind the nurse's desk banged open. Two men came toward Father and they looked like cops, except they were wearing white shirts and pants and white shoes. They had white pistol belts that held billy clubs and handcuffs and walkie-talkies. There was a doctor with them.
The doctor seemed nice enough and he looked at me like he knew I was the level-headed one of the group--the kind of guy who wouldn't make excuses for the way things turned out--and that I would accept the fact that God included hardship in His plan, as He did with Job, and Peter, who was crucified upside down, and all the other people in His plan, all the other people in the world who had short and shitty lives, but for a question and a purpose that only God could answer.
And then the doctor nodded and the fake cops came on. One of them was tall and skinny, and he walked all hunched over like a thin guy in a marching band. The other cop was a fireplug, short but with meaty arms and a patch of black hairs growing up from under his white shirt.
"Has he ever been a patient?" the beanpole fake cop asked.
"No," the nurse answered, "but maybe he should be."
"He looks like he needs a nice, soft room," said the fireplug fake cop, but the doctor said "No, it's not up to us." The fake cops crossed their arms and looked at Father like it was his move now.
"Doctor," said the nurse, "we have no authorization to release his wife." She looked at Father. "It's just not going to happen."
It was quiet for awhile and then Tommy looked at me and laughed a sweet laugh, like he was a regular kid. He didn't make much noise, but it was enough to break the silence, and that was all it took, just one sweet sound in that hopeless place we were in.
Father went ape-shit. He let his craziness out into the world, his energy coming like lightning. He raised up that praying voice of his and he spoke in tongues, so the only word I could understand was the word "fuck." Father wasn't being polite and the fake cops weren't there to be polite and so they didn't bother with it. I could see the hospital wasn't built with the idea of politeness in mind, at all, and I wondered if any sane person ever had a reason to smile there. Maybe the patients needed to laugh like hyenas because otherwise the hospital would have a complete lack of laughter and there wouldn't be anything else to fill the void. All places need some laughter, if you ask me.
The fight didn't last long. The fireplug fake cop hit Father hard across the face with his billy club and that was a mistake because Father gets happy as hell when he gets hit. He was happy in his work, like he tells us to be. He decked the fireplug with one huge, smiling punch and then he picked up the beanpole and threw him against the concrete wall. Beanpole hit the wall like a sack of bones, and that was about the same amount of fight he had left in him, too. The doctor retreated back through the door he'd come through. The nurse picked up the phone and Father told her to put it down or she'd need a doctor and a winch and a minister of the Lord to help her get it out of her ass. The nurse looked at Father and then she put down the phone and folded her shaking hands on the desk. I'd read in Abnormal Psychology that crazy people are often stronger than ordinary people, and now I knew it was true. Part of me liked the idea very much, like I was the first-born in a family of super-beings.
Father handcuffed the moaning fake cops together, arm to leg, and leg to arm. He pulled the keys from fireplug's belt and he unlocked the heavy white door and went into the wards shouting Darlene! and rattling the keys. Tommy and me ran after him.
We ran down a hallway lined with doors that had tiny windows with steel wires in them. There were charts stuck up outside each door and I don't know whether it was luck or almighty providence, but we passed all those doors and found mother pretty damn quick. She was in a big room with lots of people who didn't look too crazy to me. Father tried the keys until he found the right one. We ran into the room and Mother was standing, laughing and crying and praying all at the same time. She was pale and skinny and only wearing a plain gown, but I'm not ashamed to say she looked beautiful to me. I held the door open and the other crazies left the room all at once, like someone had given them an order. When we were alone in the room, Father went to Mother and they hugged and then pulled back and looked into each other's eyes like they were seeing each other for the first time. I was happy for them. Tommy started to wail, so I could tell he was happy too. Down the hall I heard someone using a big ring of keys and then a door swung open and then shut hard. I heard a voice shouting orders and hard shoes running on tile. Someone saw us in the big room. They got smart and locked us in. There was no escape that I could see, but it didn't seem to bother Mother or Father or Tommy or me.
Everything quieted down and my parents held each other carefully, like a bomb had gone off and we were the only survivors. Like they couldn't believe their good luck. They went to where two chairs sat together in the middle of the room. Father pretended to open a door and Mother pretended to get into a car. Father went around to the other side and got into the invisible car and I imagined it was a Mercedes, a big, fast car with rich leather and shiny wood on the dash. Mother took a scrap of tissue from the floor and licked it and put it against the bloody scratches on Father's face. She said, Harold, let me drive but he said Don't sweat it Darlene. It's O.K. I'm O.K. I feel like a million bucks.
They sat on the chairs and held hands for awhile and then Father told us to get in, that if we didn't get going soon, the devil would have us for sure. Me and Tommy stood still, not sure what to do, and then Father closed his eyes and Mother did the same.
"Lord," Father said in a loud voice, "bless us as we embark upon this journey, Your journey. We feel Your presence in this room and we need Your divine power to set us free. Just as Daniel escaped the lion's den, so do we trust in You to help us escape from this den of jerk-offs. In Jesus' name,"
"Amen," we said, all of us, in perfect unison. Mother and Father got comfortable in the chairs and Father made powerful car sounds and Mother looked at us and said "Children, it's time to go, now." She beckoned with her long fingers and we came up close to her. Tommy made a growling sound and started to drool and I realized the sound he was making was a perfect copy of the sound the old Volks made going up a hill. I went and pushed two chairs over behind Father and Mother so that we could join them. It really felt like we were about to go somewhere--not making a break for it, but just going out to the country to see the sights. Mother put her hand on Father's knee and said, "Don't tailgate, dear, there's no hurry. Not today."
We sat in our chairs and we didn't look over at the group of orderlies and nurses and doctors who were watching us through the reinforced glass windows of the room. Even though I was riding in an invisible car, I still knew I was only about half-crazy--what I heard some kids call me once: "about a bubble off plumb," and so I was jealous of the way Father and Mother and Tommy had their eyes wide open, looking at scenery that was bright and beautiful and only there in their minds. I was only about half-crazy, but then I felt the scratchy-hot feeling trying to reach inside me, too. For the first time in my life I let it come. It didn't hurt at all, and then I could see the sun and the blue sky and the interstate and the turned-under fields and the farmers in their muddy pickups. It was a perfect day to go for a ride and we drove like people used to drive, slow and steady, just to see the sights. I loved my family very much, and I knew I was theirs and they were mine, and we had to stick together because there was no other way to go.
|© 2001 Terry DeHart
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Terry DeHart lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters. He works as a technical writer at NASA/Ames Research Center. His stories have been published in bananafish, Vestal Review and The Paumanok Review and are forthcoming in In Posse Review and Blue Murder. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1998 and is currently at work on his first novel. He may be contacted at: email@example.com
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