He’d inherited it. As lives go, his would grumble. Slept-through years in high school lots and community colleges until one day a dead Old Man had bequeathed to him a key. The key: it opened the doors of an effective group home located in a community where this was an ideal. The group home was left to him as shirts and such of dead old loves are left, title and all and its stamp upon his brow and future made it impossible to simply flee: he’d found a career.
Haydn’s goals were such that you’d barely refer to them; but this place made him swelter. He referred to each visiting mental health practitioner or “respite apprentice” as an inmate and their captives as masters and gods. The place was a muddled panopticon where nobody and everybody watched nobody and everybody simultaneously. Of late he’d held interviews with college-aged inepts about their hopes and dreams, asked if they could wipe and sit, watch and administer meds through various orifices and apparatuses. One was Clyde, a greasy lout with legs spread too wide and a grin and résumé that indicated he could and would do this job better than Haydn; Haydn hired him. Another was Monica, a social work major with bad teeth who wanted to change or shape lives, nothing short would suffice. These were the faces and they were endless. Each of them eventually broken until they all came to look as inmates freshly released and given menial jobs at Burger King. The enthusiasm waned. Most could endure half a decade without some stare cropping up and the cycle of guilt and terror that would be their later years, however Haydn was born into this.
In morning he stepped around the building in gray light and sipped at coffee that burned his top lip. He’d contemplated his father’s years here before but never fully ingested the memory. It remained lodged in his esophagus and wouldn’t flee like the Old Man’s death. Haydn lived simply and modestly and thus the death of a parent registered in bold. He kicked aside small acorns as he walked around the place and sipped his drink and considered where he’d come. This place was thick with feeling and character to Haydn, such as only certain state names invoked in him at boyhood. Iowa, maybe. Utah, certainly. The landscape seemed to bleed a moaning ghost. His gods and masters could be seen through white-crossed windows and he loved this stretch. Staring there he played his thumbs against the knuckles of either pointer finger noting the stuck callus from endless anxious abrasion. He looked into the windows as a prowler to feel as if he hadn’t mistaken and wasted his life. He remembered the god or master who’d held him as darkness swallowed the home. Her demeanor toward him strange and impossible, he’d fallen for her complete presence and almost-scream. The shirt he wore today was red and bore a pocket over his left pec. He wore sweatpants and flip-flops that clopped a bit if he moved too quickly, so he wouldn’t. He shuffled from window to window and felt like Anthony Perkins, emaciated and anxious to impress. An individual whose epilepsy was so persistent little else was made note of in their days had wandered from bed to the floor to the small closet, apparently. Haydn observed with a sad concerned look the spectacle of human life and scratched the right side of his neck with same hand, feeling depressed and inhumane. Their range of abilities and not eluded him almost entirely. His understanding of the place was based almost solely on a small pile of paperwork his father’d left beside the will and testament. Frequent visitors were indicated, percentages paid out of pocket or by the state, medications required et cetera. Haydn felt he’d inhaled this information without considering its import and gone almost immediately into the absolute misery of having done this work for decades. He leaned his forehead to the glass outside the individual with epilepsy’s room, and the cold-wet morning mixture eased his thoughts. He wondered when his new employees might arrive. He wondered whether the weekend would present itself with only slow prolonged hints and several rushed TV dinners. He wondered about the legality of various practices engaged in on the grounds of his estate, and felt a shutter of political anxiety. Nothing seemed real upon that land, when lives were quickly exchanged and quotas met by weeks of awe and terror. Haydn knew where he stood and it was nowhere. The ground would spit its guts through his soles as constant reminders of the lies he upheld, a horror show.
When Haydn was younger his father would bring him to this place to teach him something. It wasn’t certain—his father’s lesson—but his father bore no less certitude considering. Haydn’s relationship to the Old Man was a bit like the masters and gods were to their inmates, Haydn had come to realize. Observation was key, staring off into space as if great matters had to be attended to the moment the sun shifted just slightly. Paperwork as well, theirs and his. The Old Man filled out reams of sheets with notes and indications of his love for his boy. The boy responded with tissues plopped to the floor either stenched with masturbation or tears. Life was not immense within their home, but rather piddling and center-seeking. Much of Haydn’s time within his father’s workplace was spent staring into the faces of these men and women who’d been left outside society’s gut. He wondered at their freedoms. One man’s eyes were pulled-out and he’d mumble “yea” at every inquiry. Haydn spoke with him endlessly asking the most eccentric questions just to hear affirmation. There’s something hopeless about fathers and sons, their pathetic yearning toward apposite goals, their constant mistaking of one for the other. The vein connecting the two, this mental health facility. The locks it holds, the alarm system. The sleepless nights and cups and cups and cups of bad to worse to dead coffee. Haydn felt sick to think of it. Watching his father’s hands go from stretched masculine possibility to arthritic strung digits with no apparent interim. Watching certifications change throughout the years moved Haydn. Different boards and organizations and their encouragements, the nature of this thing. Self-congratulatory mustachioed white males with autistic grandchildren and resultant chips on shoulders. The nature of it made Haydn spit.
Calm with finger wrapped inside the cup’s handle Haydn slurped his coffee. Walked-out to the edge of the yard he stared back at the angles of the building. He faced it almost precisely at its corner from a small jut of trees behind which drove a country road. It looked peaceful that way, its inhabitants neither sick nor healing but merely breaths. Spectral maybe, the way it looked. Years of incarceration and misunderstanding and medication and apparent garbage piled beneath this home and all its histories. Clyde’s shirt missed its button. Haydn noticed this imperfection and it was likely this more than anything that led to his hire. Confidence could murk Haydn’s thoughts, turn them serpentine and running. This sort of work required it yet owning this place gave him no step toward self-esteem; he didn’t want it. What Haydn wanted was his humanity driven under the floorboards and filing cabinets. His work consumed him and it wasn’t work. His life reflected this place endlessly and he might never leave. A small rip existed on the stomach of his shirt. Monica’s heart was on her sleeve and Haydn felt envious. This sort of thing attracted her and her and her; the type was endless. He flipped around an image of her in his mind and couldn’t see her face throughout. She the Eve and Clyde the Adam of this new wave of mental health treatment in the United States of America. Collegiate cares turned to dry empty glances by each day’s end and Haydn loved to watch. The workers change; the occupants remain consistent and headstrong, society’s own heroes without praise or due compensation—they kept the world in its lines.
Without reason he checked the mail, knowing there’d be nothing. He stared inside the oversized box for moments of quietude. He looked down the road and saw nobody coming. He kicked aside dust. He took the right thumb and pressed it to the center of the left palm and looked precisely upward into the sky to let some madness wash over him. Haydn took no medication but considered it. Haydn sought no counseling but considered it. At one point he’d entered Alcoholics Anonymous because he didn’t seem capable of stopping drink on his own. He still drank infrequently and read from books on Rational Recovery in his off hours to gain perspective. It wasn’t sensible. He lived in a perpetual gray state and morally ambiguous position of trying to help without helping. Their faces would smile, their reprieve gained. He’d take the hands of new gods or masters and bring them inside to plastic bedding and endless bags of soiled sheets and latex gloving. Families handing over lives and anxieties for days or months on end, or the courts and their red tape. None of it eased Haydn’s thinking. The drink became overwhelming just before his father’d passed as though in anticipation. The place was now his salve, perhaps.
He’d taken a course once wherein he’d written on various strains of illness within the arts. He’d consulted Kay Redfield Jamison’s texts and written a compilation of sorts from the depressive mumbles of van Gogh or Byron, et al. He’d explored the Primal Scream and Arthur Janov. He’d watched live-streamed footage of contemporary therapies in practice, their doctors stood with smug exclaim. The antidepressant ritual, the cavernous glance of Ativan. Seizures so overwhelming the anus must be shot through with Valium and the body recoils into a placid monotonous twitch. Biters and hurlers of shit. Prisoners generating glyphs with diarrhea and dotted I’s with cheeked medication. The Thorazine Shuffle slowly degraded and shifted to the Pfizer Waltz, the Seroquel Slide, et cetera. He’d read a bit but really processed through the gut. He processed maybe like an artist, ingesting stood-out moments and casting aside the rest. Van Gogh’s failed suicide that became a success. Two bullets in the heart. Steven Jesse Bernstein’s knife to neck multiple times, a father. The Virginia Woolf considerations of lightness and heft, the gravity and the image of her moods as rocks in pockets. Without realizing it Haydn cared.
Walking he’d expected to see some child maybe, some slight version of himself assembled in pixels to the side of his eye. The coffee was gone, he’d drunk it. The place would exist and persist in its sprawl, unfortunately. He thought of Ed, an occasional maintenance worker who’d read to the gods and masters in his off-hours. He’d read to them almost incessantly until his voice scratched, a sort of therapy. It made them tired, but he’d keep reading. He’d read to them from Hawthorne, Haydn remembered, and H.P. Lovecraft, and others. Haydn remembered the East then, where they’d come from. He remembered Hester Prynne and laughed a bit at his reaching. H.P. Lovecraft and the edges of madness, or some such. Life could get to be too much. Shopping for the home was interesting, bulk in each and every aspect, spare clothing and more coffee than was reasonable. Haydn would sit watching films after everyone slept drinking cup after cup smiling at his impact and its absence. Father had received awards. Haydn sought no rewards. No money even seemed to sprout from all his griping, just more and more.
Once when he was ten or so Haydn saw his father lose his caring. He’d fallen asleep on one of the couches while gods and masters sat around playing cards or watching television, and woke to walk around the top floor of the home and find his Old Man. He entered the room at the end of the hall and saw his father sleeping, while a young man seized up on the bed pulling out locks of his hair. Haydn knew this man, this syndrome. Haydn watched as his father snored and the man seemed intent on yanking his scalp from his skull. His father seemed so placid, so absolutely content with the situation. For years thereafter Haydn couldn’t stomach full conversations with the man, but would veer in every direction until they’d both left the room without realizing it. He’d seen his father as this heroic entity, strong beyond strong. Now as he remembered it he knew the sweat that piled on palms and the disgust that boiled up and knew his father as the figure of all disability incarceration on this earth, the sleeping moneyed tyrant as more funds piled in. In retrospect the thought warmed him, though at the time it felt like watching himself become impaled.
Still early, while seated in his office the telephone rang:
“Where are you?” her voice grated, unique.
“I am buried in the plainest sight, and you?”
“I am watching my daughter sleep, it is problematic.”
“Did you miss the smell inside the place?”
“Nobody could miss the smell there. Not even me. Not even your father. Least of all you. I did not miss it. I did not miss you. I simply called, while watching my daughter sleep.”
“I’m having trouble with it. It causes angst. My stomach feels ready now to leave. I remember when I saw you here.”
“My diagnoses, my problematic behaviors.”
“Your hair, the things you’d read. And why is your daughter’s sleeping problematic?”
“She’s been fussy nights. I don’t know. Call it a phase. Is Ed still working there?”
“He is, occasionally. What were your diagnoses anyway?”
“In retrospect they all seemed to start with E and none of them got to the heart of the matter. Now come to think of it, I miss you just a bit. I’d carved something under the bed for—“
“I found it, you needn’t worry about me finding it.”
“—you and. Wait, why wouldn’t you call me, on finding it?”
“It didn’t seem to matter when you’d left. I’m not sure. The place can do it: make it simple to wonder at the reality of things, whether what you’re feeling is what you’re feeling or just a talk, just what one needed to get by.”
“A patient maybe, a god or master as I’ve said. I’m not sure.”
“My daughter’s been fussy. I never felt much for her father, which I’m sure you’d advocate for. Mothers always had their hold on your ethic.”
“A slippery one at that, you’d never pinned it down. All this wandering and speculation for a life, any progress?”
“Not a bit, my dear.”
“Must be nice to speculate, like all those explorers before you. Men huddled in rooms adjoining cocks and aspirations staring up at the cosmos. We were cowered around you in circles waiting for the advent of fire. You’re like Prometheus and I couldn’t wait each morning for the cereal you brought.”
“I’m losing my edge. I never had an edge to speak of but whatever was there is clearly gone just now. I’ve lost it somewhere. I lost it in you maybe, staring up. What do you think of this place? Of the Old Man and all his plaques?”
“I think it’ll make for a fine casket when the time’s right. I think it served its purpose between the wee hours and the screaming awareness, but little else made sense within those walls you’ve painted. I think you’ll turn it into your enemy, turn the building into a knife within your gut no matter what I say. I think my daughter’s fussy and I missed the particular brand of discourse you tend to leak. What do you think?”
“I think sometimes where you wind up and what you wanted reveal themselves to be sad attempts at mythology—the questions, anyway. All my life I constructed this bloodsoaked heroism out of all my middling and it wasn’t hard to do. Everyone being my enemy, as you said, the knives; but here within the murk there’s less certainty. You make the shaky elder your enemy and you’re like all the world. You make the vomiting mumbler your enemy and you’re doing what they expect, you’re boring. I can’t do it here. The building yes, as you said, could come closest because of the Old Man’s dust, but even that has its warming effect. I tried to overwhelm myself. I tried to win out and lay placid under all the paperwork it bled. Nothing doing, no chance.”
“There’s the old explorer in you. Where next Columbus? Sleeping human beings communicate effectively before they turn twelve or so, I’ve realized. My daughter she communicates all night. It’s not something I can convey to you. These aren’t words. Not your usual signage. What it is, it’s, an honesty. She bleeds it and shares it, it comes forth from nowhere and I watch her fuss. I find myself thinking about you at the worst possible moments. I’ll pour myself a cup of coffee and wonder why I can’t think of it as anything but that phrase, a ‘cup of coffee,’ and this digression will bring on hours in the wood-paneled rooms where I saw death’s hover. I can be dramatic, I’m allowed to be dramatic. I have been given permission to be dramatic here and now and perhaps evermore by these prescriptions. The bottle shakes and I am shaky too, an elder as you said. I look forward to sleeping someday soon. I can’t achieve an orgasm with them. I couldn’t achieve this with you either but it didn’t matter. Do you notice this with the brands I’ve been prescribed? Are you medically licensed? I cannot recall…”
“I notice little anymore. I graduated with a halved slip of paper that allowed me to enter certain buildings and leave others alone for all time, that is all. I apologize for the absence of an orgasm. This place leaves me that way if I’m honest. Unable to do anything but sweat and stare. I cannot wait for death. People like me are not logical practitioners of this thing. The living walk, the existed day. I’m just so fucking unfamiliar.”
“Do you still attend those meetings? The quasi-religious husk-filled rooms? That coffee you fed me?”
“I don’t but they’ve been replaced. I tolerate an absence only when a lesser, more abstract presence replaces it. I don’t know. I’m a godawful mess these days. I sit and stare and drink pile after pile of the coffee bean. My hands feel estranged. My attitude is rotten. Just look at me, look at your daughter’s fuss. She’s more heroic than I. She’s what, seven? Eight? More heroic than I at thirty-six. I live a deathly life. It has not been promising.”
“I can let you rest now. I can let you sleep, now. I’m sorry for this disturbance, for the step. I just needed to speak with someone who didn’t want what life promised them either. I don’t know what I needed. I’m very sorry. My mind feels dipped in bleach of late and it’s been hell to process. The daughter’s fuss is the closest human connection I’ve felt in one thousand years, it would seem. I miss your pathetic stare, the emptiness there. I miss your fawning, your reaches to help. I hope your life continues in this wasted manner. There’s nothing out there for us.”
The click that ended their telephone call crawled inside his ear and pulled at the root of his brain until his eyes seemed to open up. Standing in the doorway was Evelyn, a god or master who’d begun coming to their home over four decades hence. For moments, for one protracted moment, Haydn simply stared and felt his pulse grow under the pressures. She’d wet herself while sleeping. Her shirt looked as if she’d slid across slicked floors. Soiled to the knees her crotch seemed frigid as she shook. Haydn couldn’t put things together staring there. He couldn’t raise himself sufficiently to assist her transitions, apparent and pressing as they were. The necessary work was ingrained and yet he couldn’t stop thinking about the daughter imagined through the telephone. He’d fallen asleep, perhaps. He’d felt that way, as if he’d dreamt some nightmare of a girl and history. It was all quite there. The smell began to raise him before his body thought. Stale urine and the onset of ammonia. Evelyn stood there thankful and imploring. Haydn rose and guided her, stepping softly through the hall toward the women’s. The human waft of morning mess as they walked to the bathroom was all too familiar and yet Haydn shook with grief. He’d felt some last corner walked, some last door entered before the step into his father’s.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, Marcel, and The Persistence of Crows. His newest work, PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, is forthcoming from Solar Luxuriance.