~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
(I posted this short story before in a slightly different version.)
Claude slept heavily 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 red-white-and-blue striped tie peeking out of his white coat.
“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. Argyle. And who might you be?”
“I’ll bet you already know my name. I’ll bet it’s written in your notes on that clipboard.”
“I want to hear you say it.”
“I don’t like my name and I don’t like saying it.”
“I need you to say it, just so I’m sure I’m talking to the right person.”
“All right. If you must know. My name is Ramon Navarro.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I’m Pig-Eye Tatum and I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Lord Leopold Plumtree.”
“Finally, that’s the name that gets the prize!”
“Good! Mission accomplished! Can I go home now?”
“Well, I’m afraid not. You do understand where you are, don’t you?”
“I’m in the Nervous Hospital.”
“Why do you call it that?”
“That’s one of the more refined names for it, isn’t it? Isn’t this the place where you remove the bad parts of people’s brains?”
“I don’t remove anything. I’m not a surgeon.”
“All right, now let me ask you a question. Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”
“It’s for your own protection.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re just waking up from treatment. We secure the wrists of patients who receive a particular kind of treatment.”
“What kind of treatment?”
“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“If there’s not, we’ll find out.”
“How long will it take before you find out there’s nothing wrong with me and release me into the wild?”
“You don’t need to worry about that now. Tell me your age. How old are you?”
“I bet you already know that.”
“Just answer the question, please, Claude.”
“I’m twenty-three, unless I’ve lost track of an awful lot of time.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“How old are you, doctor?”
“No longer a young man, but not old either.”
“I think that’s enough about me.”
“Are you married?”
“No more personal questions, please.”
“No, I think it’s interesting. A person’s age, I mean, and whether or not he’s married.”
“No, I’m not married. I was married but my wife and I got divorced.”
“Do you have children?”
“No, I was never blessed in that way.”
“Do you think children are a blessing?”
“Aren’t they sometimes a curse?”
“I suppose so. Depending on how you look at it. No more personal questions, please.”
“When are you going to untie me?”
“The nurse will be along in a minute. She will undo your restraints and take you back to your room.”
“I don’t like my room, but I especially don’t like my roommate.”
“I think he might be insane. If he doesn’t kill me, I believe I’m going to kill him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’d like a private room, please, with a private bath and a view of those big trees that you can see from the highway when you’re driving past.”
“We have very few rooms like that and they’re all taken.”
“They’re all taken by the really important patients. Isn’t that right?”
“That I wouldn’t know.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been here, doctor?”
“According to your chart, you’ve been with us almost three months.”
“That’s not right! They got it wrong! I’ve been here three years already!”
“It might seem like three years to you, but it’s been three months.”
“Do you know how I came to be here?”
“It’s getting late. I think we might save that…”
“I lived with my parents. Living with your parents in your early twenties is not that unusual, but I should have moved out when I was eighteen.”
“Don’t you like your parents?”
“No! Nobody likes their parents and mine are particularly ghoulish. I’m going to kill them when I get out of here.”
“No, you’re not. You say there’s nothing wrong with you, but wanting to kill your parents is not a sign of mental health.”
“Well, you’re the doctor. You ought to know. As I was saying, when you live with your parents, you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”
“It’s always better to move away from your parents after a certain age.”
“Well, the thing is, I have a deep, dark secret, doctor.”
“What is it?”
“If I told you my secret, then it would no longer be a secret, would it?”
“You don’t have to tell me your secret if you don’t want to. I thought you wanted to tell me.”
“You see, I’ve known since eighth grade that I was gay. It is an especially odious secret to have to keep from your parents when they’re religious fundamentalists.”
“They 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?”
“So, they found out your secret? Is that it?”
“Yes, they found out my secret the hard way. They found me in bed with another man. They believe there is no greater sin than two men lying together. It’s an abomination unto the Lord.”
“All right,” Dr. Argyle, said, “It’s getting late. I believe we can pick up on this in our next scheduled office session.”
“They were gone for the weekend and weren’t supposed to be home until Sunday night. Believing I had the house to myself, I invited my friend Alban over on Saturday night. Alban and I had known each other for a long time and we were, you might say, compatible. We were in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, you have to understand, a bedroom—especially with the door closed—is supposed to be private. A closed door would suggest privacy to anybody in the world but my mother.”
“Point well taken.”
“Well, they returned unexpectedly on Saturday night, twenty-four hours early. They could have called to let me know they were coming home on Saturday night instead of Sunday night, but that would have spoiled their fun.”
“So, you believe they came home early just to catch you in the act with another man?”
“Of course they did! So, Al and I were alone in my room. There was no reason to believe we were not alone in the house and, then, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of the bed looking at us.”
“What did they do?”
“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She said she saw Satan standing over me and that I was going to burn in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”
“What did Alban do?”
“He ran! Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t run?”
“He was embarrassed, of course.”
“He ran downstairs and out of the house. I haven’t seen him since. Poor Alban! I’m sure he thinks my whole family is crazy.”
“Poor Alban,” Dr. Argyle said.
“Well, my parents didn’t know what to do with a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail, but you see, it’s not a crime for two men to be in bed together, so she had to take a different approach. The next day my father enlisted the aid of his doctor and his lawyer, both religious fundamentalists like himself, and the four of them—my mother, my father, the doctor and the lawyer—came up with the plan to draw up the papers to have me committed. The idea was not only to cure me and cleanse me, but also to punish me.”
“Sounds medieval,” Dr. Argyle said.
“Every word of it is true.”
“Do they come to visit you in the hospital?”
“Not once! I’m sure they’re hoping I’ll die in here so they won’t have to be bothered with me anymore.”
“Where will you go when you’re released?”
“To a place far away where I can be by myself. I’ll know when the time comes.”
“Well!” Dr. Argyle said, looking down at his watch. “I have to go now, but we’ve had a most informative first talk.”
“One more question, doctor. You know deep down in your heart that I don’t belong here.”
“That’s not a question.”
“You couldn’t unlock the front door for me and let me slip out unnoticed into the ether?”
“I’d have to go before the medical board if I did that. I could lose my license.”
“Nobody has to know. Just between us.”
“What would I tell people when they ask what happened to you?”
“Tell them I disappeared. I was here and then I wasn’t. Just one of those things.”
“They’re never believe me, I’m afraid.”
The doctor made a couple of notes and then he patted Claude on the shoulder and left the room.
“Still waiting to be untied!” Claude called to anybody who might hear him.
When Nurse Esther came in, she looked at him like he was something that came up out of the sewer.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Please untie me,” he said in his most pitiful voice.
She made a couple of deft twists and the restraints fell away.
“I could give you a big kiss for that.”
“You have awfully big breasts for a nurse! Don’t they get in the way of your daily duties?”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.
He turned around in the wheelchair and looked at her slyly over his shoulder. “I’ll give you fifty dollars if you take me to the front door and let me escape into the night.”
“Where would you get fifty dollars?” she asked.
“I could go as high as seventy-five.”
“Don’t make me have to tie you up again.”
His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed. The sheet that was supposed to cover him was down around his ankles and his hospital gown was in a wad underneath his head.
“If the scientific community ever wants to know what happened to the missing link, he’s right here,” Claude said.
“When he wakes up, you’ll wish he’d go back to sleep,” Nurse Esther said.
She helped Claude out of the wheelchair and into the bed. She tucked him in like a grumpy nanny and turned off the light and left, her crepe soles squeaking on the tile floor.
He lay on his back without moving for thirty minutes or more, but sleep wouldn’t come. He would never be able to go to sleep as long as Victor Hugo was snoring and snorting, gasping, and making clicking sounds with his teeth and tongue. He had to face the facts: he was locked up in a room with a crazy man where he himself didn’t belong. He felt a choking resentment against his mother and father, their cultish church, the hospital, and against the entire world. He never wanted any part of it.
He got out of bed, thankful at least he wasn’t tied up, found the switch on the wall and turned on the light. He looked over at Victor Hugo to see if the light had made him come awake, but he slept on, oblivious to all.
“Victor,” he said in a loud whisper. “Victor Hugo! Why don’t you wake up and talk to me? Together you and I are going to break out of this place. I don’t know where we’ll go, but anyplace will be better than here. Don’t you agree? I can free you from your miserable existence if you will only let me. The two of us will soar the heavens together.”
Victor Hugo made a wet-sounding spluttery sound with his lips as though trying to speak but he didn’t speak; he kept on sleeping. Claude moved around to the side of the bed and leaned over it, his face inches from Victor Hugo’s. He put his arm around Victor Hugo’s head, his hand touching his right ear.
“You are my only friend,” he said. “How did the two of us happen to be here, together in this moment? I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don’t.”
On the floor in the corner, between a cabinet and the wall, was a length of rope that some workman had left behind. Claude spotted it from across the room, not because it was obvious, but because he was meant to spot it. It was left there just so he would see it.
He picked up the rope, flexing it in his hands, letting the dust on it fall to the floor. It went easily around Victor Hugo’s neck. He had never strangled anybody before, with a rope or with anything else. It was easier than he thought it would be.
He pulled steadily on the two ends, without much effort. Victor Hugo stiffened, but there was no fear, no resistance. After a couple of minutes he stopped breathing. The snoring stopped, too, and the gurgling in the throat. Finally he was at peace. The whole world was at peace. Nothing before was ever so sweet.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp