This is a true story. For what that’s worth, and how much good it does to know that, is anyone’s guess.
This is his portrait...He has horns,
And he carries a foot-long wooden stake
In one hand and his
Wooden mallet in the other.
Of course, there is no such thing as
- Fragile Things
He was 15 when the men in white came to take him away. He wasn’t crazy then, but after 10 years in the madhouse known as St. Jerome’s, he was certainly crazy now. A long time ago, in the era before time, when he was a different person, he had been known as Andrew Vincent Atar.
His friends, distant memories that they were, faded like fog in the glare of the sun had called him AV, but now everyone, the guards, his fellow inmates, Warden Johnson, even the psychologists who thought they could gain their PH.Ds from studying him called him Crazy Eight. It was apt; catchy, straight to the point and described him to a tee.
He didn’t consider himself crazy of course. Nobody who was truly insane ever thought they were. If you were crazy, then you wouldn’t know it. Everything would make perfect sense. Your mind would be like a maze with all the ins and outs perfectly mapped out. Everything would make perfect sense. But if you thought you were crazy and you had the presence of mind to question yourself, then maybe, just maybe you might be sane. He’d tried to pay attention when the warden had explained it to him, but it was all so confusing. Thinking you were crazy meant you weren’t, but being sure you weren’t crazy was irrefutable proof that you were. It was crazy, like some kind of catch-17.
‘All part of the game,’ the warden had said and AV had nodded like he understood. “Dinner’s in 20 minutes. You should get to the cafeteria. A healthy body is a healthy mind.” He laughed mean spiritedly. AV walked away, with a smile playing on his lips, like he was privy to some great secret.
So that’s where he was, waiting. Warden Johnson ran a tight ship. Dinner was served at 6 pm, and not a minute before. It was Thursday. That meant Beef Stroganoff the consistency of fake vomit and tapioca pudding. Not even the rats would sneak a taste; only the poor souls who called this place home dared to. AV looked at his watch, his prized and only possession. The face consisted of a series of strange, shifting glyphs that had to be decoded to tell the time. There was only one person alive who knew how to decode the symbols. The watch was useless to everyone else. He waited in line, like always, got his food and went to the furthest corner of the cafeteria, like always.
Like always, he was joined by his cell mate, Two-tone Tim. Like all good monikers, his was slightly cruel. Timothy Whitehall, Jr. had been caught in a fire of his own making and had suffered third degree burns over 90% of his body. His leathery, scaly skin was an unholy combination of brown and pink. He’d doused himself and an entire living room in kerosene, set it all on fire and watched the flames burn. Timothy just wanted to watch the world burn. The flames licking around him, the smell of burnt flesh, had been intoxicating. For the first and only time in his life, he’d had an orgasm, but death, the one thing he wanted more than any other had been denied him, cruelly. He was a shell; alive but incomplete. He would never burn again.
The scarred flesh of his face hung droopy. It looked melted, like ice cream left in the sun; his left hand, nothing but a withered stump, dragged limp by his side. He was smiling his crooked smile as he took the chair beside AV. There were others in the cafeteria, forgotten and miserably alone sitting at their tables, surrounded on all sides by a crush of people.
“Who’s you today?” Tim asked. His voice was rough, like smoked wood, and seemed to come from a faraway place.
“Just me,” AV replied. Tim looked disappointed.
“I miss Boy Blue. Haven’t seen him in weeks” he said. “That guy’s the life of the party, a real riot. You got a match, by any chance?”
“Not for you, I don’t,” AV replied.
It was all part of their ritual. The only thing that changed was the answer to the first question. They lapsed into a comfortable silence as they ate. It was all part of the ritual.
“You know what the hardest part of writing is, Tim?” AV asked rhetorically. “The dialogue – that’s the hardest part. Imagine, you had two guys sitting around a table, having dinner, what would they talk about? It’s gotta sound natural and realistic, you know? The good writers make it look easy, but it’s harder than it looks.”
“I ain’t no writer, and neither is you. Hell, we ain’t even allowed the proper utensils. They’re probably scared we’ll off ourselves.” Tim replied with feeling.
AV tapped his head. “Yes, but we have our imaginations. If we believe the world to be how we wish it to be, then we can begin to make it so. One day, I will get a paper and pen, and the story in my head will spill out gloriously. It’s hard to keep track. It’s in fragments, bits and pieces, but it’s all there. It will never leave.”
Tim smiled his crooked smile. “Now that you got me thinking about it, I only ever read the one book, when I was a kid. Too busy burning ‘em to ever take the time. Had something to do with a girl named Alex, or it may have been Alice. I forget sometimes.” He laughed mirthlessly, and his scarred face danced its merry jig.
“Be hard for me to write though, what with my arm and all.” He lifted the stump and waved it almost gleefully.
“Plus, I ain’t got a mind like yours. I’m a simple man. Give me some fire and a good raw steak, and I’m happy.”
AV pointed at the beef stroganoff and laughed. “Looks like you don’t have either of those.”
“Yeah, I guess not. Funny, we’re just a couple of guys stuck in the crazy house, talking about writing. You ever put something like that in one o’ your stories? You know what it makes me think, me and you sitting here, having a civilized conversation about the finer arts, it makes me think we’re the only sane people in here. Everyone else, even the warden is mad as a hatter. Wouldn’t that be a crazy story?”
AV said nothing, and just like that, they lapsed back into their comfortable silence. It was like they hadn’t said a word to each other all evening. They finished their meals and walked silently back to their rooms. AV climbed to the top bunk, lay back and continued the story in his head. Once again, he was stuck on the dialogue. It had to be perfect, realistic, flawless. He erased the last two pages, and began anew. Below him, Tim fell asleep the minute his head hit the pillow. He smiled broadly in his sleep as he dreamed his nightly dreams, filled as they were with images of death, fire and hell. Tomorrow, they would start all over. It was all part of the ritual.
AV woke up with a silent scream in his throat as the last fog of sleep was burned with the rising sun. The strange nightmares and daydreams that had plagued him night and day seemed doomed to repeat themselves. His lucid moments were becoming few and far between. The novel in his head had become an obsession, all-consuming. Tim stirred below, and spoke his cryptic words
“Poor little bird
spreads his wings.
Has forgotten how to fly.
But still he sings, because he has wings.”
AV looked at his watch, with its ever-shifting facade. There was nothing else to do, so he tried to fall back asleep with the vain hope that he would wake up, a new man, in a new place, far away from the desolation and loneliness. Until then, he still had his imagination with which he could transform the world as it was, into the world as it should be.
The voices in his head were a crescendo, a series of cryptic phrases like flickering lights ran through his psyche.
“Watch out for the invisible man in the mirror. He only fears God. God only fears you.”
“Do you know why you’re here Mr. Atar?”
“Please call me ‘boy blue’.
"You’re here because you’re broken, defective, in need of repair. The first step is acceptance. There is no other step."
Little boy blue said to himself:
"This place is built of hate and spite. I miss the outside. I miss how it feels to touch someone and care. I remember the time before, meeting people as ‘people’, not numbers and hateful nicknames. I remember feeling something, I remember natural light and food. I miss it.”
He would never get it back. It was lost forever in the shifting sands of time.