I fold my knees up to my chest and turn onto my side, sort of half fall onto the carpet before I can think about how dirty it is, how long it’s been since it was vacuumed. When this occurs to me, I upright myself, take an antiseptic towelette from the box by the bed and wipe my face. The television, since the tape stopped, casts everything and myself in its too bright, sickly blue glow. I imagine I look dead, cyanotic and cold.
The years between fifteen and eighteen I spent in New York’s Wayne County Mental Hygiene Facility. Most of what I am now is an artist’s rendering, a courtroom drawing done after the fact. The artist was Dr. Clark Tydings: by necessity a hard man; rural Wayne County’s token mulatto—regarded as exotic by the almost out-of-time locals. Almost anything you see now when you look at me is his Vision.
In courtroom sketches, defendants who end up guilty look sinister in the sketches. You see what the artist wants you to see. A brooding man behind the right hand oak table, shabbily dressed in tweed between two men in matte black suits. Barely stifled murderous rage on the witness stand, sloping brows and slightly unkempt hair. A Cro-Magnon anachronism. The innocent are smaller than the setting; too small for the great, high backed chairs. Victims, dwarves, children on the witness stand. All of this is placed there by the artist, in accordance with his Vision. All of this is ex post facto.
Before I was released, I was emptied, effaced, erased. I was broken down to an almost stick figure, one of those textbook “How To Draw People” people. Points of articulation roughed in, lines of symmetry drawn. By the time I was let out, anything more than that was what Dr. Tydings put there.
I do my best to remain faithful to his Vision, but I am obviously a guilty man.
When Vision fails, or something exceeds the scope of his input, I let the viewer decide what’s there. What I am is passive. I am non-action. I’ve had enough of action until the Second Coming.
Actually, I’ve had enough to last until the First Coming, since Dr. Tydings wanted me to remain faithful to my mother’s Hasidic heritage.
Right now I’m trying to decide what to do, who to call, where to go. It’s a Friday night, nine PM, and as I’m supposed to be normal for my age, twenty three, I think I should do something besides stay at home.
Decisions, all weighing out and questions of normalcy; this is how I’ve lived for the past five years. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I can’t say I’ve got better options.
Home is a studio apartment on the outskirts of Erie. Home is tiny, prewar construction and immaculate. Immaculate excepting the unvacuumed floors. The vacuum I had, the last Kenmore anything I’ll ever buy, devoured itself in an heroic thrall of resistance to my will. I haven’t been able to clean these carpets for almost a week, a new record. If I didn’t have to be normal, I could have bought a new one last week, but normal means cell phone bills and bar tabs and movies. I’ll have to wait a week longer. The previous record was substantially lower, about one sixth the current. I usually vacuum once a day, at night, after work, when I clean everything. Really, this is killing me inside, to have it dirty, but Dr. Tydings’ brushstrokes were specific.
I’m supposed to be clean, clean is very important. I believe he actually said “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Fond of clichés as he was, this wouldn’t surprise me. The good doctor was the medical equivalent of Puff Daddy, having never said something someone else hadn’t already said verbatim a long time ago.
But before cleanliness on the Hierarchy is normal and functional. Well-adjusted. Sociable. Normal took priority, and works of art do not betray their respective artists. I do try my best, but I hate feeling dirty.
I hate it.
So I unfold my knees, go to the closet and decide what to wear. I light a Marlboro and move the ashtray off the squat bed stand and over to the top shelf of the closet so I don’t dirty the floors any more than I have to. You’re thinking smoking is a filthy habit, too filthy for someone like me, and you’re right. It’s just the one habit I haven’t been able to kick yet.
By the time I was fifteen, I had shot thousands worth of heroin, done at least one BMW worth of cocaine and probably supported an entire Mexican village on the proceeds from marijuana purchases. I kicked all of those years ago. Eight years ago. Eight long years ago.
I still want, still pine for it all. But I remain faithful to the letter of the law, if not the spirit.
Even the staff at The Wayne said that every man should have at least one vice. I think they were going more for books or opera, but with a loophole like that, I decided not to ask too many questions and keep doing the one thing I can still enjoy on my own.
So I pick a grey turtleneck sweater and a pair of blue, but not too blue jeans. I strip to socks and underwear, the most ridiculous state any person can reduce themselves to and redress. I’ve still got to decide who to call. There’s not a long list of choices, but just enough that I have to make the distinction about what would be most like a twenty something living in a minor city in the early third millennium.
I should call the single blonde.
That sounds about right.
Really, I don’t think I feel much in favor of or against anything anymore. I do what I was told, I do what an exquisitely crafted work of art should do: my best to just sit and look like I was intended. Apathy isn’t the right word, because it’s not that I don’t have feeling. I’m, for example, quite distorted and torn about this whole dirty floors issue. I also want to make this phone call more than I’m pleased to admit. I have feelings, it’s just they so rarely have anything in common with what I have to do, they’ve become entirely disparate, remote from yes/ no questions. Questions of choice.
So I grind out my cigarette, and head for the phone.
The number to the Mental Hygiene Facility is right there, right on a business card next to the cradle. The business card has a yellow smiley face on it. What the hell is “Mental Hygiene” anyways?
The phone rings six times before she answers.
“Free Will. What’s going on? I hoped you’d call.”
“Should we meet for drinks tonight?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Should we?”
“You too? Good to hear.”
“Ten sound okay? I have to shower.”
“How many showers have you taken today?”
“Mmm hmm. Yeah, I’ll be there.”
I lied. I’ve taken three showers. One before work, one after work and one before I sat down to watch the tape. The tape. I take the tape carefully out of the machine, make sure it’s rewound all the way and place it back in the black plastic box. I put the box back in the black plastic bag. I take the bag and put it in the black plastic traveling toiletries box, and I take all of this to the bathroom. I take the top off the toilet and put the whole package in the tank. I put the top back on. I wash my hands with water just hot enough it hurts, not so hot it leaves any permanent marks. I do this all without thinking about it much.
I don’t want to tell you this, but I do this every Friday night before I go out.
I straighten the counter, check my hair and move towards the front door.