By Elle Michael River
When Jesus walked into the nuthouse, I knew things would get interesting. Our savior wore a muddy gray t-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans my mother would never allow past her seasonal welcome mat, and a pair of really rad, orange converse. An angry red sore oozed over his brown lips, and he had the tell-tale bruising of a black eye almost healed. Jesus bounced on the balls of his feet and hummed what sounded a bit like Jingle Bells. I guess he knew something we didn’t.
No one else paid Jesus much attention. It was close to lunchtime, and meals were serious business in the nuthouse. I was bringing up the caboose of unit B2’s lunch line, picking at my yellow, overgrown nails, when I heard him sing:
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!”
Jesus’ crisp tenor pierced through arguments about the legalities of Connect Four and whether or not there would be lunchtime pie. Everyone stopped short at our savior’s sudden serenade. Silence. Jesus smiled, his teeth a rancid, smoker’s yellow.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah! Praise ye the Lord!”
Jesus wasn’t a very good singer.
Pete laughed and turned his crooked grin toward Jo and me.
“Wow, this one’s even better than Crazy Kerry! Someone screwed up downstairs.” He rolled his eyes in that Pete way and sniffed.
A stiff brunette woman wearing coffee-stained scrubs surveyed us clipboard-first and counted off four dozen hungry faces for lunch. A line of dark lipstick smeared beyond the left of her smile, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. She called my number–“thirty-nine and forty”–and I shuffled forward, sucking my lips. She narrowed her eyes and touched her stained cheek, but I looked down. I didn’t like being last. My favorite number was nine, but I wasn’t fast enough to count eight places and wedge myself in. It was much easier to be number forty.
Jesus was all but forgotten during our meal. Hunger has a way of taking over your brain until all the mashed potatoes are gone. Pete, Jo, and I always sat together at lunch. We weren’t really crazy, not like the others. The doctors couldn’t keep us for too long when they had actual psychos like Kerry to deal with. It was important to have allies in the nuthouse. Crazy’s contagious, you know?
Fluorescent cafeteria blubs illuminated the dark circles under everyone’s eyes. Light chatter and occasional laughter masked a minefield of gossip and hierarchy. Even among society’s outcasts, a pecking order of popularity existed. I had to remind myself this wasn’t high school: no one was handing out grades, only medication. And no one was going to throw tater tots at my back and call me a freak. Not today. Not anymore.
Jo grabbed my hand. “Hey! Stop being a slowpoke. You’re going to miss your butterscotch pudding!”
“No touching!” shouted a wide-faced nurse with a lopsided pixie cut.
“We weren’t touching.” Spit flew from Jo’s mouth. “Not like touching, touching. Jesus!” She let go of my hand with a huff, and I followed her purple and orange hair in line behind Pete. He handed me a green tray. I hated green, but I loved butterscotch pudding.
We found our seats at the far end of the cafeteria. I ripped open the pudding lid and listened to Pete explain why peas were the devil’s vegetable. Jo kept glancing at me as she maneuvered a slimy lump of meatloaf onto my tray. I shook my head and stuck to the safety of beige gelatin. Everyone knew meatloaf was really ground-up Golden Retriever puppy, but everyone ate it anyway. Well, everyone except me. They recorded what you ate, when you slept, what meds you took. My inpatient chart would only say two things: Seroquel and butterscotch pudding.
“They won’t let you out if you don’t eat something,” whispered Jo. I shrugged.
“Stop being everyone’s Mom, Jo.” Pete piled six peas onto his spoon. “Duck!” He launched the wrath of the devil’s vegetable onto unit C3’s lunch table. An older man with a neck tattoo of a naked woman deep-throating a snake screamed like a little girl, brushed the peas off his shoulder, and slammed his fists on the table. The pixie cut nurse hurried over, her white sneakers squeaking on the linoleum floor. We snorted into our trays as the tattooed man snapped her clipboard in half, flipped C3’s lunch table, and ran into the kitchen.
“Now you have time for another pudding.” Pete passed me his butterscotch as the lockdown siren rang over the loudspeaker. “I’ve stared at than man’s calves every day. He’s fast. They won’t catch him for at least ten minutes.”
“You’re insane,” said Jo.
“That’s what my Dad always told me.” Pete stuffed a forkful of peas in his mouth and swallowed.
Sugar, pudding, and peas fueled our slog back to unit B2. I trailed my fingers across the concrete walls avoiding each dipping crack and seam.
“So, I just took aim, spread my pussy, and pissed on them,” said Jo. My right ring finger snagged on the wall and tore off the tip of my nail. Pete covered his snort with his hands.
“I did!” Jo pulled her multicolored hair into a ponytail. “What else what I supposed to do? I’d been up in that tree holding in four energy drinks and a pint of vodka for at least six hours!”
I stared at Jo. When did she start telling this story?
“Um, hello?” Jo knocked her knuckles against my forehead. “Are you in there? I’m talking about the cops? After they chased me up the tree?” She placed her hands on her hips. We stopped at our unit and waited for the doors.
“Did you fall asleep?” asked Pete. He raised one bushy eyebrow.
“God, I didn’t realize I was so boring!” Jo laughed. The doors clicked opened.
“Maybe it’s her meds.” Pete nudged my arm, but I tugged the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my wrists and shuffled past them both into unit B2.
Jesus was there. I’d forgotten him.
He carried a paper cone cup filled to the brim with cold water from the cooler. His golden eyes narrowed. I stopped walking.
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God, Almighty!” The lunch crowd parted around him, the novelty of Jesus long gone. He frowned and lowered his arms. Pete and Jo caught up to me, and I followed my only friends in the whole world toward the unisex lounge. Jesus took a belly-deep breath as we passed.
“Praise ye the Lord!”
Pete turned, laugher leaping from his lips, but Jesus tossed the cup of water into Pete’s face. The deluge cascaded across Pete’s forehead, dripped down each cheek, and soaked the front of his shirt. His nipples popped erect. One of them was pierced.
“What the fuck?” Pete wiped ice water from his eyes. “What the actual fuck?”
“Praise ye the Lord!” Jesus held out the last wobbling note and stepped on the empty paper cup.
“Haha! It’s like he baptized you, Pete!” Jo snickered and slipped on the wet floor. She landed on her elbows and dissolved into heaving giggles.
“What the Hell do you think you’re doing?” said Pete. He pushed Jesus away.
“Hey!” A bald man in scrubs a size too small rushed over with a roll of one-ply paper towels. “Respect. Okay? Re-spect. It’s rule number one on the board.” He pointed at the old sign next to the unit’s doors. It said Respect Others except both “t’s” had faded and looked more like “l’s.”
The nurse handed Pete one paper towel. “I expect better from you, Peter. It was an accident.”
“An accident? What?” Pete’s face turned purple.
“Let it go. Respect.” He turned his bald head toward Jesus. “You can come with me.”
Jesus walked across the puddle toward the nurse’s station. I helped Jo off the ground, and Pete mopped his face. We escaped further wet blessing and made our way into the unisex lounge.
“Freak,” muttered Jo. She smoothed her bright hair. “Seriously, they should 303 that guy if he’s gonna be baptizing everyone all the time.” She put air quotes around the word baptize and looked at Pete. He crumpled the saturated paper towel into a ball.
I plopped onto the gray couch next to the barred window. It was raining, again, not that it mattered. I don’t know why I cared. I don’t care. Jo sat opposite me and started picking at her neon green nail polish. It was almost gone. What would she chip away at tomorrow?
Pete tossed the paper towel ball into the overflowing garbage can. He moved toward the couch but spotted the remote: it rested on a Home & Garden magazine by one of the faded armchairs. There was only one remote for the three TVs in unit B2, and it was rare to find it unstuck from Kathy’s fat fingers. Pete sprang up, grabbed it, and mashed through the channels until he found Jerry Springer.
“That new guy is psycho.” He settled on the floor and leaned against Jo’s bruised legs. “If he touches me again, I’m going to kill him.”
“Don’t let them hear you say that.” Jo combed her fingers through Pete’s damp hair. “They’ll drug you again.”
“I don’t care. I’m serious. They should, like, separate those people.”
“Those people?” Jo tugged on a curly red strand.
“Ouch!” Pete leaned away. “Fuck—you know what I mean. Like, the crazy people,” he held out one hand, “from the normal people.” He held out his other and lifted it toward Jo, but she didn’t grab it.
“Are we the normal people, Pete?” Jo pulled up her legs and leaned back. “Because I’m pretty sure we can’t just walk right out those doors if we wanted. I mean, they’re giving me three different medications right now just so I can get some fucking sleep.”
Pete turned toward the TV.
“And how many do you swallow, huh?” Jo’s voice rose. “I think I counted four during last med pass? I don’t know what they give you for being bipolar, though.”
“I’m not bipolar!” Pete stood up. “I told you, the doctor I got is–is stupid. I’ve got some very normal anxiety, and that’s it.” He wiped water from his brow. “I’m getting my doctor changed Monday anyway, or I’m calling my father.”
“But isn’t your dad the one who–”
“Fuck you, I’m gonna get some graham crackers.” Pete shoved the remote into his cargo shorts and stomped out of the lounge.
“Can you bring me some too?” Jo called. “Also some milk!” She turned back to the TV.
I knew why Pete was upset. It had less to do with Jesus and more to do with his father. He demanded Pete “straighten up” before he came home, but I didn’t think Pete was ever going to go home.
“He’s right, though,” said Jo, her eyes still on the screen. “There’s something seriously cracked about that new guy.” She glanced down the hall. “I hope he remembered to grab me chocolate milk for my crackers and not gross vanilla milk.” She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted, “Hey Pete! Chocolate milk! Remember?”
A nurse with curly auburn hair stuck her face in the room. She was new.
“Are guys doing okay?” Her voice sounded like a child’s cartoon character. We nodded. “Well, I just have to ask you keep the noise to a comfortable, indoor level, alright? Oh!” She spotted the TV and gasped. Two women in neon pink thongs had lifted up their crop tops for a pair of Jerry beads.“You are, um, not allowed to watch this… this particular program. It’s the hospital’s policy, not mine.” She glanced around. “Where’s the remote?”
“I don’t know.” Jo shrugged. “I think Kathy has it. This was on when we came in here.”
“Oh, well. Hold on.” She took out her radio. “Maybe just close your eyes for a bit until we find it?”
Jo and I stared.
“Okay, that was silly… I’ll be right back.” She stomped out of the room in the direction of the female lounge where Kathy was, undoubtedly, watching the very same thing.
“We should probably move our party somewhere else.” Jo jumped up, but her thick frame left dimpled imprints in the sagging cushions. “It’s almost time for group therapy anyway.”
I stood up too, but the room swam. I followed Jo’s blurry figure into the hallway. Pete had returned with an armful of milk cartons and snacks. He handed me a packet of graham crackers, but my arms wouldn’t work. I swallowed butterscotch bile and fell flat on the hard tile. A dark figure loomed over me and reached out a hand. Pete? Jo?
It was Jesus.
“Glory, Glory, Glory! Lord God Almighty!”
But that thinking had landed me here in the first place. So, I took Jesus’ hand and let him pull me up. His fingers were soft and warm, and for a moment, I thought about hugging him. He looked like he needed a hug. But his smile faded as his eyes traveled from our hands to my wrist. I yanked my arm away. He opened his mouth, but I was already halfway down the hall, my sleeves pulled down to my knuckles.
I sat between Pete and Jo on a green plastic bench in the rainbow-hued therapy room. They munched on stale graham crackers, and Jo sucked her chocolate milk through a chewed-up straw. I wrapped my arms around my knees and watched our overstuffed unit shuffle in and create an oblong circle of plaid pajamas and pale hospital scrubs. We all clashed with the room’s bright paint. It was too colorful, too happy, like a Kindergarten art class full of broken gray crayons.
Jesus was one of the last people in the room. He grabbed a metal chair from the stack and scraped it across the floor until it was next to our bench. I leaned toward my friends, away from Jesus, but I knew he was watching me.
“Alright, folks, let’s begin,” said Linda, our group therapy leader. She was a short, round woman with black hair, and she never sat down. “I’m passing around the sign-in sheet. Make sure you write your name, so you get credit for being at this afternoon’s meeting.” She handed the clipboard to Pete, who drew a giant penis on it, and passed it to me. “Today, we will be discussing how to manage feelings of rage and anger.” Her eyes scanned the room. “Kathy, what makes you angry?”
Kathy had a bald spot the size of a silver dollar on the center of her head. She sat plastered into her usual seat by the door, wearing a look of rampant contempt at the lack of TVs in this room.
“People who do dumb shit and don’ let me watch my shows,” she muttered.
“Okay.” Linda’s voice was cheerful steel. “What sort of things do these people do?”
“Uh.” Kathy snagged a hanging booger from her left nostril and flicked it to the floor. “People bitch about what’s on the TV. Then they take my seat when I get up to piss. Oh, and they steal my fucking remote.” She made a fist and slammed it into her knee.
Pete twitched at the mention of the remote. Did he still have it? I suppressed a smile and turned away to catch Jesus staring at me like he was expecting something. What was his problem?
“So, when people do these things, what do you feel?” Linda took the sign-in sheet as it came back around and ignored Pete’s artwork.
“Uh, angry?” Kathy shifted in her seat.
“Right,” pressed Linda, “but what–”
“AMAZING GRACE–HOW SWEET THE SOUND–THAT SAVED A WRETCH–LIKE ME!”
Voice cracking through a rapid vibrato, his hands raised toward the industrial lights, and his feet balanced on a swaying folding chair, our Jesus sang his goddamn heart out. I laughed. Jo snorted. And even Pete snickered, his earlier baptism forgotten.
Linda ignored the hymn. “What physical feelings do you have, Kathy? Does your gut clench up? Does your vision get cloudy? Does it feel like you have no control–”
“I ONCE WAS LOST–BUT NOW I’M FOUND–WAS BLIND BUT NOW I SEE!”
Linda opened her mouth again, but Jesus continued singing. Our laughter grew louder with his every refrain. Linda did her best to ignore him, but she knew she had lost this battle. Everyone was giggling or singing along in a strained, cacophonous chorus.
“AMAZING GRACE–HOW SWEET THE—”
“Peter!” Linda rounded on the three of us. “Is there a person in your life that you’re angry at?”
“Oh,” said Pete. Jesus’ shadow fell over his body. He shrank into the bench. “Um, my Dad… I guess.”
“THAT SAVED A WRETCH–LIKE ME!”
“Why are you angry at him, Peter?” Linda clasped her hands over her clipboard and squared her shoulders against the third Amazing Grace refrain. Jesus stepped down from his chair and waved his arms like a drunk conductor.
“Because he doesn’t like me.” Pete crossed his arms, and his left leg shook against mine. I stopped laughing.
“I ONCE WAS LOST–BUT NOW I’M FOUND!”
“Why do you think he doesn’t like you?” asked Linda.
“WAS BLIND BUT NOW I SEE!”
“Well.” Pete took a deep breath. “Maybe because I’m gay.”
The song ended. Gay bounced off silent sunshine walls. Everyone looked at Pete, and it was just too much. He broke.
“Fuck you!” Pete jumped off the couch and grabbed Jesus by the neck. He clenched his fist as Jo screamed. Jesus’ head crashed against the floor, blood pooling from the side of his ear. Pete jumped on Jesus’ chest and slammed his shoulders against the tile. Linda grabbed her radio, and the lockdown siren blared through the halls. Tears soaked Pete’s shirt and Jesus’ crimson face.
“It’s. All. Bull. Shit.” He slammed his fist with each syllable. Jesus vomited beige bile on the floor. It looked like butterscotch pudding.
I stood up, and the room spun again. Shit.
“We need help!” Jo’s voice. Something heavy pressed against me. The floor? Red dots popped behind my eyes.
“She never eats anything! She needs help.”
I didn’t need help. Jesus needed help. I opened my mouth, but my tongue lolled against my teeth. I had to get up. I had to let them know Jesus needed help, not me. Jesus was dying. Not me. Jesus was dying. He was dying. I was dying.
And I didn’t want to die anymore.
Kathy had already taken over the couch in the unisex lounge when I stumbled in Sunday morning. The remote was still missing, and Jerry Springer blasted from the TV.
“Heh. Fucking weirdos. Of course, it ain’t his baby you dumb slut!” Kathy stuffed a handful of graham crackers into her mouth.
I found a soft-looking spot on the floor and leaned against the wall. A few minutes later, Jo slid down beside me. Her green nail polish was gone.
“I’m glad you’re okay. You went a little crazy, you know? It was a lot of blood, though. I thought for sure he was dead.” She handed me her half-drunk chocolate milk. I took it. “I don’t think Pete’s coming back.” She looked at me. “I heard… I heard his Dad came.”
I took a sip of the chocolate milk. It tasted pretty good.
“I’m going to miss him, ya know?” She leaned against her knees, her orange and green hair falling across her eyes.
I would never see Pete again. And when I got out of here, I might never see Jo again either. Was that sad? Was Jo my friend? Was Pete? Did we even know who Pete was?
A tear ran down Jo’s face. She brushed it away and took back her chocolate milk, finishing it in one gulp. The sleeve on her sweatshirt slipped down, and I saw fresh fingernail marks on her wrist. I tugged at my own sleeves. I hated this place. It made you look at your demons. Every single person walked through those double-locked doors ugly, raw, and a little hungry. Unit B2 was rock-fucking-bottom.
I think we knew Pete better than anyone.
Jo nudged me. I looked up, and she pointed. I followed her gaze toward Jesus. He was back, shuffling down the hallway supported by the new nurse with the red hair. Bandages covered his purple face and neck. They sat him in a metal chair by the door, facing away from the TV.
“I can’t believe they let him back in here. He should be locked up!” Jo got up. “Let’s get out of here.” She hoisted me up by my arm and walked right passed Jesus without even looking.
But I couldn’t help it. I looked, and I found he was looking at me.
“Jesus…” I whispered.
“Forgives,” he said.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© 2017, Revised and Reprinted 2020 Elle Michael River