It's another slow night on Ward 6. Joanna says the CIA is
transmitting instructions to her over CBS and won't let anyone
change the channel. Bill the Lawyer, as he insists we call him,
came unzipped from his elbow to his wrist and was rushed to City
Hospital to be restitched. He vowed to sue his surgeon for shoddy
workmanship. Jack wouldn't take his Dilantin because the stripes
weren't lined up on the capsule. He said I was trying to poison
him, and what kind of nurse wears army boots, anyway? Heather
tried to hang herself again from the aluminum rod in her closet. If
she keeps gagging up her meals, she may soon be light enough to
Me, I'm feeling a little better, thanks for asking. No panic to speak
of, just a little uneasiness today in the cosmetics aisle of the
drugstore and perhaps some dizziness seeing my reflection in the
Tiffany's window downtown—nothing unusual for a failed anorexic.
I immediately closed my eyes, let my jaw fall slack and breathed
deeply five times. The feeling passed just as the Calming Breath
Exercise brochure promised. Later, on my back porch, I smoked a
honey blunt Howie left for me. I don't think I even need to smoke
anymore—I could just light the cigarette and let it burn next to me
in an ashtray. The aroma sends my mind into other foggy worlds
where no one expects you to see clearly, because how could you?
Coming to work tonight has lifted my spirits, as usual. If you can't
feel good about yourself working in a mental hospital, then you've
lost all comparative powers. And isn't that what happiness is all
about—feeling better off than the next person?
Howie says I shouldn't aim so high, that happiness may be a bit
out of my range at this particular time in my particular life. He
suggested I strive for hopefulness, which he said is the state most
people live in anyway.
He's probably right. I told him that and he said, "You know I am."
It scares me that he can see so easily into my soul. When I told
him that I'd put in for the overnight shift for the extra pay, he
looked at me with that squinty gaze of his, kind of like Superman
trying to see through walls. He nodded almost imperceptibly. He
didn't say, "So there's no use my moving in with you if you're not
going to be home at night" because we both knew that's what I
meant. Howie rarely wastes words, just as he rarely wastes
movement. At that moment he got up from the sagging sofa in my
living room, smiled a little bit in my direction and left.
* * *
The first time I saw M. it seemed to me a pleasant place to be
crazy. Acres of lawns gently rising and falling like a friendly green
ocean. Giant shade trees with their roots heaving from the ground,
perfect for cooling yourself in the stinging heat of August. Graceful
buildings with lazy porches and massive central chimneys. A
century ago the brick and ivy hid people with syphilis and
dementia. They needed rest and peace and stayed for months,
sometimes years. I could have lived there, then. Today the wards
are filled with schizophrenic teens and jumpy heroin addicts and
the genetically violent. Everyone is healed in seven days, max. We
call it the "HMO cure."
You drive in on a curvy road under an arch of sycamore limbs. Once
inside the buildings, there are no more curves, nothing rounded or
soft at the edges. It's all straight and narrow and gray. The
fireplaces have been cemented closed, the doors reinforced, the
windows fitted with more bars. Everything is kept out as much as
Sometimes you can go a week at M. seeing nothing but the
everyday paranoids and phobics. The doomsayers are still dribbling
in but have switched their obsession from the new millennium to
some more convenient, dateless Rapture. They're mostly harmless,
if you can stand their proselytizing.
Then you get somebody like Mr. Sam Ghadafi, a 300-pound manic,
the classic shitty admission.
Just a few minutes after Domenic dropped off our nightly four-
cheese pizza, we got the call to prepare for a man built like a
gorilla. He came through the door with two policemen holding his
arms, and two more trailing. His eyes were smoky. His head was
thrown back. His hair fell long and tangled over his shoulders. Mr.
Ghadafi went surprisingly quietly into the isolation room while we
processed the paperwork. He acted the model patient. But after
the police left he cried out as if his feet had been set on fire. The
four of us on duty rushed to the observation window. He lowered
his head and rammed the door. It was guaranteed to withstand
any mortal strength, but I doubted it had been tested against
someone of Mr. Ghadafi's bulk and intensity. Lester ran to the
nearest patient room, pushed old man Robinson out of his bed and
dragged away the mattress. We flung it up to the door and leaned
our collective 700 pounds against it. Every few seconds Mr. Ghadafi
hurled himself into the steel frame and rattled our bodies. The
* * *
On a night like this I miss Howie. I don't think it's healthy being a
solitary smoker, just as I don't want to drink alone. There's a
certain desperation to getting high that feels better to share. He
rolls the nicest blunts for me, no spliffs or cones, just thin and
firm, the way I like them. He doesn't smoke himself, of course, but
just his being here would be enough.
We haven't talked since I changed shifts. He sent me an email
saying that he realized I needed some space for a while. He said
he didn't mind waiting. He lets himself in with his key when he
needs some supply. He always comes by when I'm not here.
Howie's the only one who ever understood why I surround myself
with certifiables. I like the fact that they're exactly as they act. No
pretense or affectation, which you get everywhere else in the
world. I'm talking primarily about the manics and psychotics, of
course. They have Ward 6 to themselves, and I often sign up to
work there. You haven't truly glimpsed the human mind at work
until you've watched a manic. It's as if they're tuned into a very
weird radio station only they can hear. Their delusions are so grand
I can see why they believe them. I'd believe them, if I were them.
It's a locked unit, of course, no sharps or flames allowed. The
design is strictly Monet—all vagueness and hazy light. Victor the
orderly suggested to Dr. James "Harvard Med" Riley that the
psychotics might relate to a Dali on the wall or perhaps some of
Picasso's Cubist period. When the young doctor asked if he were
an expert in therapeutic artwork, Victor got angry and grabbed him
by the lapels of his lab coat and shook him. Shortly thereafter
Victor got reassigned to the junkies.
I'd have quit on the spot. You don't meet a high class of people
anywhere at M., but the druggie ward gets the absolute dregs.
Guys piss on the floor instead of waiting for us to unlock the
bathroom door. The women all seem to have multiple personalities
and won't speak until you figure out who they are today. I can't
stomach any of them.
I freely admit that compassion is not an emotion I come by
naturally. Empathy is even more of a stretch for me. It's one thing
to feel sorry for the misery someone else is going through and
quite another to project yourself into the nightmare of their lives.
I'm willing to give compassion a try now and then, but I draw the
line at empathy.
So why did I become a nurse? There's a very logical reason. When
I left the bookstore eight years ago for nursing school, I figured
there would always be a job for a woman willing to wipe up the
bodily fluids of others. I knew I could do that. After all, I did it free
for years for my father after my mother left. At the time I was a
single 32 year old "without prospects," as Dad used to say, and I
decided I needed a profession to fall back on. It seemed to me
that the sick would always be with us, whereas books might not be.
Now I'm a 40-year-old without prospects, except for a man I love
too much to let him love me.
* * *
It's quiet at midnight. Mr. Ghadafi suggested a joint might calm
him down, and I almost offered to go to my car to get one. But Dr.
Riley brought out the Thorazine, and now Mr. Ghadafi is sitting in
the corner of his room dozing like some giant stuffed bear you see
in the department stores at Christmas. He has a big smile on his
My paperwork is done and the meds administered. So there's time
to listen to Classical Late Night on the radio. Ray del Vecchio is
playing Mozart again, a piano concerto I've heard dozens of times.
Or maybe I've never heard it—I can never be sure with Mozart.
Music is good for me, my shrink says. It clears my mind for
"important" thinking. Tonight I wonder, Why did I maneuver Howie
out of my life? He didn't ask much of me compared to most men.
He didn't need me to be there for him, or acknowledge him, or
cultivate his self-esteem—none of those cliché emotional
dependencies. He never hugged me suddenly in the street or held
my hands too tightly in the movies. He always settled for a few
quick kisses goodnight.
Maybe it was the way he had been looking at me so often lately,
with disappointed eyes. Disappointment from anyone else I can
stand, no problem. Who are they to have expectations for me? But
Howie . . .
* * *
I started on 10 mg of Prozac at the beginning of my summer
vacation. At the end of a week I couldn't convince myself to get
out of bed, so my doctor doubled the dosage. She insisted I
commit to weekly analysis—no more of this crisis therapy. I
resisted at first because I'm certainly not rationally challenged. I
work with them—I'm not them. I scrupulously follow the three
cardinal rules of mental health: I keep my clothes on, probably way
too much for my own good. I don't scream in public. And I pay my
bills on time. I learned that one like all my lessons, by perverse
example from my father. He used to bundle up his bills in rubber
bands and mark them by the month they came in, as if ordering
them in some way was a step toward actually paying them.
He said I would never amount to anything. He said I wasn't even
pretty enough to marry well and bail him out. I always believed
what he whispered in my ear. As a young girl I watched the
shadow of him climb the stairway, fill the doorway, slip over me on
the ceiling. "You won't feel anything," he said. On that he was
My shrink is very perceptive. At first she said I was suffering
endogenous depression and free-floating anxiety. But after a
month, she knew I was hiding something, though she still doesn't
know whether I'm hiding it just from her or from myself, too. She
says, "The truth will set you free." Sure it will, and laughing will
cure you of cancer. Doctors see that all the time, don't they?
Besides, I don't want to be free, I want to be gone. I told her that:
I feel like disappearing. She said, What do you think that would
feel like? I said, I feel that it would feel like I had no feelings
anymore. She nodded as if that made sense and wrote something
on her large yellow pad. The narrow lines on the sheet always
intimidate me. I can't imagine saying enough to fill them up. Are
her other patients that much more interesting? Sometimes at the
end of the hour I sneak a look to see how much she's written.
There's never more than half a page.
Howie didn't push me. Our relationship progressed like a long
Sunday opera, no notes skipped. He waited ten months before
suggesting he move in. I said yes at first. But how can you live
with someone and not accept his hand falling on your thigh now
and then or let him curl around you as you watch a movie on TV?
How can you go to bed with one man and see another coming at
you in your dreams? Howie said I'd do just fine if I stopped
thinking about the past so much. He said that's why shrinks don't
work—they make you think more about yourself when what you
really need is to think less. He insists I'm as sane as the next
Pity the next person.
* * *
I have no pity left. I wonder what else of me I've lost along the
way—humor certainly, patience, desire perhaps, but not memory.
Why is memory the last to go?
Fortunately, August is a slow time for craziness, so there are a few
empty beds now. People prefer to be outside in warm weather, and
there aren't any inspirational holidays this month. Just before
Easter you get the messiahs with persecution complexes, and
Christmas brings out the Santa Clauses and Jesus freaks. In
summer you get a few agoraphobics and the odd delusional
following dental surgery, not a very interesting bunch. Some bring
laptops with them to keep in touch with work. They pretend they're
"Johnny" was readmitted last night. He's the son of an actress who
appeared in a popular Western in the 1960s. You'd recognize her
face if you saw her, but her name isn't well known. She's a
character actress, and she was particularly good at playing kind-
hearted whores. Her son's an obsessive who can't stop touching
things and then washing his hands. The schizophrenics and
psychotics don't know they're sick. But an obsessive like Johnny
has some normal part of himself sitting off in a chair watching the
crazy part get up and touch the clock or phone or television and
then go to the bathroom to wash his hands until someone makes
It's no comfort to me to know that a person can observe his own
* * *
My shrink tells me my job is rubbing off on me. "Craziness begets
craziness," she said. She recommended a change of scenery, an
exercise at taking control of a different environment. So on my day
off last week I drove myself to the outer Cape, one of those towns
without a public beach. I parked at the end of a private driveway
and walked onto the sand carrying my shoes. I was bold. I
pretended I belonged there. At the edge of a dune, a woman with
painted red toenails lay back in a low beach chair, angled toward
the sun. She wore a red bikini. A large Thermos sat next to her
chair. She was reading a thick book propped on her chest.
Everybody walking by looked at her. I imagined being a woman like
that, reclining by a dune in a red bikini with men passing by. What
would I read?
The beach curled in and out of coves for miles, and I decided to
walk as far as I could. But after ten minutes or so I came to a line
drawn in the sand, perhaps by a child dragging some toy behind
her to the water. It was a thick groove, and my mistake was to
stop and think about it. If I had just stepped over and kept going,
who knows how far I could have gone?
When I told my shrink this story, she said, Did you consider
rubbing out the line with your foot?
* * *
The morning I tried to get rid of myself, I called Howie and got his
answering machine. The message was a new one. It said, "Go
ahead, talk." The beep came faster than I expected. As I tried to
remember why I was calling, the machine hung up on me, sensing
that no one was there, I guess. I was impressed that a machine
could be so prescient.
I could have called him again, but what would I have said, that I
look in the mirror sometimes and wish to see someone else? That
some days I can't even bear the weight of my own skin? That I
look out of my apartment window and feel like dissolving into the
yellow city air?
He would have sought reasons, first causes. I can't bear to tell him
what his touch reminds me of. Instead I told him the triggers—an
impending elevator ride, a crowded party, turning a corner and
seeing strangers walking toward me. He knows it's none of these
things, really, at least nothing inherent in them except the
possibility of possibilities—the brush of a sleeve, a look over the
How could I tell him that I stopped in the middle of the square
today and closed my eyes and screamed?
Howie said he had felt my pain. He didn't mean it in that unctuous
way of "I feel your pain." He said he sensed something wrong with
me as he was driving across town to get a haircut. He felt a pull on
him, a psychic hand on his arm. He did a U-turn and came to my
apartment. When I didn't answer his ring he climbed the fire
escape to my bedroom window. He pushed in the screen and found
me in my bathtub, half awake, the water pink. He felt much
stronger than I had imagined as he carried me to bed. He
bandaged me up as well as he could and called for an ambulance.
While we waited he held my head against his chest and rocked me
in his sweet-smelling arms. I wondered if smell was the last sense
to go for everyone, or just me.
* * *
It's another slow night on Ward 6. Lilly has started speaking in
tongues again, which is okay with me because she didn't make
sense in English anyway. Rob the Musician threw his shoulder out
playing air saxophone and insisted on going to the infirmary. Sal
faked choking on his milk and spit it on the floor. He said I was
trying to kill him. Irene ran herself into the cinder block wall a few
times, and if she puts on any more weight she might just bust
through some day.
Me, no dark thoughts to report, just a little disorientation when I
combed my hair this morning and didn't recognize the woman in
the mirror. I steadied myself on the sink and closed my eyes. The
nausea disappeared in a few minutes. Later, I curled up in the
easy chair to watch the Lifetime channel with Lilly, who fell asleep
on my shoulder. I didn't feel happy exactly, but at least I wasn't
alone. Sometimes being crazy just needs company.
George Harrar's short story “The 5:22” won the Carson McCullers
Prize from Story Magazine and was selected for the 1999 edition of
Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Spinning Man
(Penguin, 2003) was adapted into a film starring Guy Pearce,
Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan. It was released this spring and
is available On Demand. His novel Reunion at Red Paint Bay (Other
Press, 2013) has been adapted as a film for French TV and will
premiere this year. Harrar lives in Wayland, Mass. with his wife
Linda, a documentary filmmaker. For more short story and novel
information, please go to www.georgeharrarbooks.com.