When They Ask Where I’ve Gone

State Hospital image 6
When They Ask Where I’ve Gone
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

He slept for a long time and when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. He was in a bed with a blanket and sheet folded over his chest, wearing pajamas that belonged to somebody else. When he tried to raise himself, he saw that his wrists were tied to the bed frame with short, leather-like strips that allowed him to move only about six inches in any one direction. He didn’t like being tied down—he saw himself dying in a fire—and called out for somebody to come and help him but no one came.

The room was small and besides the bed there wasn’t much in it; only a metal cabinet near the bed. The walls were covered with green tiles, each one about four inches square. He began counting the green tiles that he could see from the bed; he had counted to thirty-seven when the door opened and a man in a white doctor’s coat entered the little room. He carried a clipboard and wore a striped tie peeking out of his white coat.

“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. West. And what might your name be?”

“My name might be Pig-Eye Tatum.”

“Hah-hah! I don’t believe that’s really your name.”

“No, it’s Randolph Scott.”

“That’s not what it says here.”

“Okay, I didn’t want anybody to know, but I’m really Bruce Wayne.”

“No, I want you to tell me your name. Your real name.”

“Is that standard procedure with mental patients?”

“I want you to tell me about yourself.”

“My name. Well, the truth is, I don’t think I have a name anymore.”

“Yes, you have a name. It says here your name is Russell Estes.”

“Isn’t that a silly name, though? I was named after somebody’s grandfather.”

“I think it’s a good name. It suits you.”

“You don’t know me. How could you know if my name suits me or not?”

“It seems to suit you, based on my first impression of you.”

“Well, Dr. West, now that you’ve engaged me in conversation, I want to ask you a question.”

“What is it?”

“Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”

“It’s for your own protection. You’re just waking up from treatment.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“If there isn’t, we’ll find out.”

“How long will it take to find out there’s nothing wrong with me?”

“That all depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“In large part, it depends on how well you respond to treatment.”

“If there’s nothing wrong with me, why do I need treatment?”

“You don’t need to worry about that now. Believe me, it will all be sorted out in time.”

“Well, if you say so.”

“Now, tell me your age,” Dr. West said. “How old are you?”

“I bet you already know that.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“I’m twenty-four. How old are you?”

“Forty-one.”

“You’re getting along in years, aren’t you? I’ll bet you have a wife, don’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter if I do or not. We’re not here to talk about me.”

“No, I think a person’s age and marital status are always very interesting.”

“Well, if you must know, I had a wife, but we decided to break it off.”

“The marriage, you mean?”

“Yes, it was an amicable divorce.”

“Any kids.”

“No more questions about me, please.”

“Are you going to answer the question or not?”

“No, I don’t have any children.”

“All right, then. I won’t ask you any more personal questions.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“In a bed.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m in a bed in a hospital on planet Earth.”

“How long have you been in the hospital?”

“I think I’ve been here about two years if I remember correctly,” Russell said.

“My notes say you’ve been here two months.”

“Yeah, a long time.”

“How do you feel?”

“Like shit.”

“You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I’ll feel better when I’m no longer tied to the bed.”

“A nurse will come along soon and take you back to your room.”

“And untie me?”

“Yes, and untie you.”

“Speaking of my room, I don’t like my roommate. I think he might be insane. Can’t I have a room to myself?”

“All our rooms are for two patients.”

“I’ve always had a room to myself. My whole life.”

“We all have to make certain adjustments.”

“Do you want to hear the story of how I came to be here?”

“I think we might save that for…”

“I lived with my parents. There are certain advantages to living with your parents, of course, but it also means you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”

“It’s usually a good idea, after a certain age, to live apart from your parents.”

“Especially my parents. They’re Christian fundamentalists. They belong to a fundamentalist religious sect.”

“I see.”

“I should probably tell you I’m gay,” Russell said. “I’ve known since eighth grade and I’ve always been good at keeping it secret. My parents should have known my secret, but they never picked up on it, because, well, that’s just the way they are. They aren’t even aware of themselves, so how could they be aware of me?

“One weekend they were gone and weren’t supposed to be home until Sunday night. Believing I had the house to myself, I invited a friend over to spend the night with me Saturday night. His name was Sebastian. I called him Seb for short. He was ten years older than me. He and I had been seeing each other for a while and things were going well between us. Well, it was Saturday night about ten o’clock. He and I were alone in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, wouldn’t anybody think that a closed door would suggest the desire for privacy?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Dr. West said.

“Well, my parents returned, unexpectedly, twenty-four hours early. They could have called to let me know they would be home early, but they didn’t because it would have spoiled all their fun.”

“You think they did it on purpose?”

“They wanted to catch me in the act of doing something that would horrify them. Well, as I was saying, Sebastian and I were in my bed. Just the idea of two grown men being in the same bed at the same time was horrifying enough to my parents. Well, we didn’t hear a sound and had no reason to suspect anything was amiss and, before I knew what was happening, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of my bed looking at us.”

“What did they do?”

“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She saw Satan standing over me. She saw me burning in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me, and then he bent over and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”

“What did your friend do?”

“He gathered up his clothes and ran out of the house. Who wouldn’t run?”

“He was embarrassed, of course.”

“Well, my parents wondered what they had ever done to deserve a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail but, you see, I hadn’t been engaged in any criminal behavior, even from a religious standpoint. She went on with her showy nervous breakdown, and the next day my father called the church elders and told them what had happened. They had some good advice. They knew from past experience that it only takes one doctor and one lawyer to draw up commitment papers to have a son committed to a mental hospital. Well, wouldn’t you know it! There was at least one lawyer and at least one doctor in the church who would be more than happy and more than willing to have a gay man committed to an institution where he would be not only “cleansed” and “cured,” but also punished. It’s not quite as good as jail, but almost.”

“Well, that is quite a story!” Dr. West said.

“Every word is true!” Russell said.

“And you don’t think you need to be here?”

“You can send as much electricity coursing through my brain as you want, and it’s not going to change me. I’ll still be what I am.”

“You wouldn’t like to change if you could?”

“No. I’m the most stable, well-adjusted person I know. There’s nothing wrong with me. So, the question remains: When are you going to release me and let me go home?”

“Home? You want to go back and live with your parents after the grave injustice they did you?”

“No, I don’t ever want to see them again. When I say home, I mean someplace far away where I can be by myself.”

“And where would that be?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a monastery in the Himilayas.”

“Well, the truth is,” Dr. West said, “we can’t talk about releasing you yet. We have an aggressive schedule of treatment scheduled for you for the next six weeks or so. At the end of that time, we’ll re-evaluate your situation.”

“I won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Well, you may think you don’t need treatment, but that hasn’t been determined yet from a medical standpoint. A board of doctors, not just me, will decide when you’re ready to go home.”

“I know I’m locked in, but I can always escape,” Russell said.

“And where would you go in your hospital garb and without any money? You shouldn’t think in terms of escape! You have no reason to want to escape.”

“Do you really want to help me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Unlock the door and look the other way as I slip out into the night.”

“Do you think I would be able to do that with a clear conscience?”

“Nobody has to know about it.”

“And what do I tell people when they ask where you are?”

“I don’t care what you tell them because I’ll be gone.”

Dr. West patted Russell on the shoulder then and left, as if he suddenly remembered something else he had to do. In a little while, Nurse Gertrude came into the room. She was easy to remember from the other nurses because her head bobbled continuously, setting neck wattles in motion.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

He held up his wrists. She clucked her tongue and unfastened the leather straps.

“You’re an angel,” he said. “I could give you a big kiss for that alone.”

“Don’t bother.”

He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars if you unlock the door for me and look the other way as I disappear like a little puff of smoke,” he said to her over his shoulder.

“Where would you get fifty dollars?”

“I think I could go as high as seventy-five.”

“Don’t make me have to tie you up!” she said.

His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed, snoring like a buzzsaw. His hospital gown and his bedsheet were down around his ankles.

“See what I have to put up with?” he said to Nurse Gertrude.

“Things are rough all over,” she said.

She helped him from the wheelchair to the bed. She pulled the covers up to his chin, tucked him in like a dour nanny, turned off the light and walked out, her crepe soles squeaking on the tile floor.

He lay on his back in the dark and looked at the ceiling and listened to Victor Hugo snore. He thought of the others who had been in the bed before him, looking at the ceiling, listening to somebody snore, wishing they were dead. A lot of them probably were dead. He thought he might soon be dead himself, and it was a thought that brought him a kind of comfort.

In the early hours of the morning, before even a glimmer of daylight, somebody woke him by shaking him by the shoulder. He didn’t come awake right away because he was dreaming and believed the shaking was part of the dream.

When he opened his eyes and focused them, he saw a young man he had never seen before.

“Come with me,” the man whispered. “And don’t make a sound.”

He still believed he might be dreaming, but wasn’t sure. He slipped out of the high bed and, feeling like a child playing a game, followed the unknown man out of the room into the darkened corridor. Before they had gone very far, the man turned to him and put his finger to his lips to make sure he kept quiet.

The man took him down into a part of the hospital the patients never saw. It was dark, and after a couple of twists and turns, Russell didn’t know where he was or how he might get out if he had to, but he didn’t care. He would just keep following the man until they came to where they were going.

Finally they came to a service door. It was so dark in that part of the hospital that he wouldn’t have been able to see the door if the man hadn’t been carrying a flashlight. The man reached out and put his hand on Russell’s wrist to get his attention.

“Here are some things you’ll need,” the man said, handing him a paper sack.

Russell took the sack from the man and started to open it.

“There’s a shirt and some pants in there,” the man said. “Also a jacket and a cap. In the pocket of the jacket is some cash money. It’ll be enough for you to get away. I’m going to let you out this door. Walk east about a mile or so away from the hospital and you’ll find a place to catch a bus. It’s an all-night bus, so you won’t have to wait until morning.”

“Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter who I am. You haven’t seen me.”

“Why would you want to help me?”

“No time for questions. Just go!”

The man held the door open. Russell thought he should at least thank him for helping him but couldn’t find the words. Tightening his grip on the paper sack, he smiled and nodded his head to say he understood everything. Then, with a tiny rustle of feathers, he was gone into the night like a bird being released from a cage.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

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