By Paul Thelen
Carter began to suspect he no longer had friends when, for an entire month, his phone neither rang nor beeped nor vibrated nor flashed. He got very sad about this and wound up here, at his parents insistence, at St. Margaret’s. He figured he could encounter some like-minded individuals, and maybe even make a few friends, but the other patients were not fond of him. In fact, they hated his face. How dead it looked. Wrinkled. Dry. Deteriorating. There’s no way you’re 20 years old, the others would tease. Many of them took to calling him Oak, as he looked more tree than man. This continued for weeks, the ridicule indurating Carter’s desire to cease existing. Until, finally, Evan arrived and Carter finally had someone to converse with at St. Margaret’s.
“We shouldn’t be talking,” Carter said, twirling the few blond stragglers left on his hot-dog-shaped head. “It’s not healthy for me.”
“You’re really worried about your health at this point?” Evan said, legs crossed on the chair right of Carter’s bed. Evan was tall, his jaw line absent underneath chubby flab, and his hair was pressed flat and thin by a grey stocking cap. “Now tell me about your sister? What’s she look like? Cute? I hope she’s blonde.”
“Blonde yes,” Carter said, examining one of the hairs he plucked from his head. He flicked it from his thumb with his skinny pointer finger towards the ground. “Didn’t shed a tear at her funeral, been dead a few years now. She was a lawyer. Growing up, she use to lure me into arguments and make me look stupid.”
“How she go? AIDS? Plane crash?”
“Cancer? Bus crash? Come on tell me!”
“Skiing. Smacked into a pine.”
“Ah, the Sonny Bono route,” Evan said, tearing open a candy bar from its middle. “Closed casket?”
Carter nodded and reached for the remote. His parents got him a 19 inch television set, after he was here two months. Flipping through the sixteen channels, he pressed passed sports, local news, a teenage soap opera, and a reality show about loud, big-breasted women before landing on a Jack Ryan movie starring Harrison Ford. “Fine with you?” Evan nodded, licking his fingers of the chocolate residue. A few scenes, then a commercial break. An erectile dysfunction one.
“How they get those bathtubs onto the pasture, you figure” Evan asked. “I mean where does the water come from? They carry them full of water?”
Then came a commercial where a sharp, raspy voice shouted about the intensity of Last Stand, a video game set in vampire-ridden Vietnam.
“I wish I never had to sleep,” Carter said.
“And what would you do with all that time?”
“I could do lots of things.”
“I could read a book or watch all the episodes of one of those television shows the internet loves.”
This is why Carter hated debate. He was a one-move kind of cat—was his whole life. He didn’t miss going to restaurants. He would take twenty minutes to select an entree then combust into a sweaty mess when the server asked whether he wanted a potato, salad, or soup to accompany it.
“You think he scored more pussy because of Han Solo or Indiana Jones?” Evan asked, but Carter wasn’t listening to Evan. He was clicking through the eight contacts on his mobile phone, over and over and over.
“Why do you still look at it? It doesn’t have service? Wouldn’t ring even if you wanted it to.”
“Shut up. We’ll need it soon.”
“I’m the only one you talk to, and I haven’t a phone.”
“Just break it. No one is going to call.”
“I’m trying to watch.”
“You know what happens.”
The most effective way to rid of Evan was to scream. He hated the Mount-Everest reaches of Carter’s pitch. So Carter screamed. Loud and long and then loud some more. It took nurse Beckwith awhile to get to Carter’s bed, slow even for her. She moved like a rusty bicycle. Each spin an onerous effort.
“Calm down, Carter. What’s wrong?” she asked, leaning over his bed. “Is Evan bothering you again?”
Carter bit down on his blanket, grinding the edge until it frayed.
“Want me to turn off the movie? Did you get scared?”
Carter shook his head at nurse Beckwith, and after she patted his shoulder a few times, she puttered off towards her observing station. When she was out of earshot, Evan returned and said, “Would you take a pasture bath with nurse Beckwith in exchange for the ability to never sleep?” and the two laughed, and Carter told Evan his designs for escaping from St. Margaret’s.
I like it.
An interesting, well written piece.
Wonderful imagery (She moved like a rusty bicycle,,,) and use of current cultural references. I loved the bathtubs-in-field analysis by two psychotics. Like many mentally ill people, they often say things that make complete sense. The ability to capture insanity is hard to come by. Most of us try to understand it by relying on sane thinking. You did a masterful job.