When Browning came in he was on a gurney, too weak to walk yet cognizant that he had done something wrong. He mumbled to the nurses that he was sorry, and tried to clasp the hands of the paramedics as they carried him down the hall from intake. There were oxygen tubes spidering from his nose and his usual sunburned face was white. He didn’t recognize me but I waved to the nurse.
“This time the old timer almost checked himself out,” she told me.
I was surprised. In the past, he was rowdy at home and his brother had called 911 more than once, but they were always able to bring him to his senses. He wasn’t a classic drunk or opiate abuser, or one of those that came in every month and abused the system. He was just a tired, lonely old Florida farmer who had a temper and occasionally drank too much. He’d never tried suicide before.
“Where’s he going?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if he would be placed in the hospital wing.
She spun back to me. “Detox.”
We call the hallway to detox the Detox Corridor. The old wing, built almost forty years ago, winds deep into the palmettos and palm trees, and great cypress trees fold across the windows so it’s dark, even in daylight. To get there, you pass through the dim corridor that connects the detox wing to the new part of the hospital. The patients never forget the Detox Corridor. Thanks to the proliferation of opiates, the detox unit is always full and low on funding. The fluorescent lights flutter in constant need of replacement, and walking through the hallway it’s as though you’re in a carnival fun house. When new patients enter, yellow flashes perforate their eyes, and they wonder what’s on the other end of the corridor. They wonder if they’ll die in there or if they’ll make the twelve weeks without the juice running through their veins, whatever that juice may be. When the program is over, they wonder where they’ll go and when they’ll be back, still others are pacified that they’re fed and cared for and that someone gives a damn.
I looked at the time. It was getting late. I had planned on leaving, getting home at a decent hour so that we could go pick out a Christmas tree. I’d be content with getting home to tuck my boy in and have a late dinner with my wife, but Browning had come in. Damn it. I walked through the wing and into the flashing Detox Corridor, somehow looking forward to seeing him.
I found Tamara, the charge nurse, taking his blood pressure. The room was cold, the air acrid with Lysol and body odor. Browning lay beneath the sheets like a mummy, his bony arm dangling off the bed. His breathing was raspy from tobacco and COPD, and every breath he took shook the bed. The last time he was here he had just had chemotherapy for mouth cancer, and he kept offering me Tampa cigars he said he had in his shirt.
Tamara finished and stood, letting the stethoscope fall to her chest. Tamera had big hair and wore lots of makeup, and I liked her tough Jersey exterior. She was big and muscular and nice to have around when a patient went code red. “Ricco-man. I take it you’re staying,” she said.
I nodded. We were short on staff all week and no one else was here to do the intake notes and evaluation. I was the only intake psychologist available to work night shifts, and I often wondered if it had been a mistake, offering myself when I had a family. Yet it went beyond that. It was something I wanted to do, a calling.
“You getottahere. It’s just Browning,” she said.
I took the chart from her and waved her out the door. “Night, Browning,” she said. “I don’t want to see you here next month, ya hear?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t a done it,” Browning said.
It was midnight now. I know my wife has fallen asleep with the light on, a book folded over her chest, and my son is lost in dreams of Harry Potter. She will have read to him until he told her okay. He never was one of those kids who fell asleep as you read to him. He simply rolled over and said, “okay” and that signaled us to put the book away and turn off the lights. I often wondered if any children fell asleep while being read to, or if it was another one of those parental myths. It was the same when my son was learning to ride his bike. Before he was old enough, and in my virgin years of being a father, I envisioned that day with my son gripping the handlebars as I held the bike next to him, running as he peddled and then letting go, watching him zoom down the street without training wheels. But it didn’t happen like that. Instead, a training wheel fell off and he rode on just one wheel without knowing it. While he would not let me remove the other one for some time, he was well aware that he could ride without it. I coached him by telling him to use his feet when he came to a stop. To place a peddle at the top and push off with the other leg to get the bike going without depending on the single training wheel. Soon he was rocketing all over the streets on two wheels.
Tomorrow, my son will explain his dreams to me, explain that he rode a dragon through dark forests to escape Voldemort. He will ask me why I never came in to kiss him goodnight even though I did, and I will tell him he was too busy slaying monsters to have noticed.
Here, where all the bruised souls lay shaking in distorted sleep-realm, the periods of silence are suffocating. At this time of night the sounds are muted and seldom. Any footsteps on the cold tile echo with the monotony of desperate hours. Those restless souls do not remain inert. They wander the halls waiting for the dawn and a cigarette. In detox they attempt to slay their own monsters.
In the room now I hear the air conditioner moan and feel the air along my neck. It was always cold for a reason. As multiple studies had shown, it lowered blood pressures and kept the unit calmer. I haven’t said a word to Browning. I sit at the far wall across from his bed and watch his chest expand in quivering breaths. His foggy eyes are open, staring wide at the ceiling.
He moves his sandpaper hands in the air when he speaks. He heard my footsteps and the creak of the chair as I sat. He knows I’m here. He knows it’s his duty to talk and mine to listen. This is the game we play. I sit and wait and listen. And I realize that perhaps this is why I stay. I stay because I am interested in this old farmer’s stories, his life. There is a gentle knowledge of the world within him, a past assemblage of incidents that somehow intrigues me. Browning is the end of a beginning. He is a weathered soul, a face of humility that somehow got buried in discontent and longing. In his face and body there is a timeline that looped the state of Florida and arrived here battered and torn. It seems he has been everywhere but nowhere at all. He has wrestled alligators at the Miccousukee Indian Village, hunted for Pythons in the Everglades, picked oranges and tomatoes from Florida farms, and rustled cows through endless pastures. The elements and creatures have stripped him away. The Florida sun has turned his skin to leather, the summer thunderstorms have drenched his soul. Fire ants have branded permanent scars on his legs, and several rattlesnake bites on the same hand have disfigured it into the shape of a knotted great oak branch. Karo syrup has rotted his teeth, and when he smiles his lips flatten into a ridge where his teeth once were. When he walks, the crooked slant of his body makes his gait slow, as though he were pushing into a hurricane gale. He told me he has been to every Florida honky-tonk joint from Pensacola to the Everglades, and once drank a tall one with Lawton Chiles. I realize now that every time he comes in it somehow fulfills something in me.
“I was having dreams -- real dreams –- an’ I wad’nt sure they was real,” he says. His voice is choked and sounds like a flooded carburetor. “But I’m real sorry for what I done. I wad’nt ever do it again. I was drinking, see, an’ depressed. Everyone’s gone. Lois’s been gone some ten years now, bless her soul. My kids are all grown an’ gone. Never call ’cept Christmas. Scattered all over tarnation.” He pauses and clears his throat, listening, I know, for the sound of my pen scratching over the clipboard.
“Even Infant Tucker.” As he blinks, I notice his moist eyes twinkling in the dark. He wipes his hand across his face. The shadows in the room seem to blend with his hollow cheek, forming one mass of chiaroscuro, for only the small trace of light gives his skin any human quality. I close my eyes to rest them and his voice takes on a melody.
“First son born. Met my first wife in a Florida juke place -- never did look in the right places -- got her knocked up, an’ our first born we called Infant Tucker. As a teenager, hell, strong, he was, like me, bound to work the land. Take a bail a hay an’ toss it for a mile before he done turned fifteen. He worked them orange groves, he did, right next to his daddy. Tropicana done took over all them groves now. `Course now oranges don’t go for no twenty-five cents a crate no more. Back then we never could sell enough of `em, so we moved to cattle. That’s what he does now, cattle farmin’ up near Gainesville.”
I think about my own son again. Tomorrow we are to decorate the Christmas tree, and he will run around the living room, squatting to examine the minute ornaments in their boxes. He will consider each one carefully before reaching into a box with his tiny fingers, finally choosing his favorite, and delicately hold it in his hands as though Christmas depended on it. I will point and try to guide him where to put the ornaments on the tree, but it won’t work. He will place them where he wants, around the same low area of the tree, at his height, on the end of the branch where it quickly bends to the floor. I will commend him, and then move the ornaments later to spread them out.
My son is at the beginning of his own timeline, and I imagine that cord of waiting incidents floating in his future. I wonder how much I can do to place him well in life, to see that he will adjust and fit in. I wish I could see the unforeseen and I have a sudden urge to stand and go to him. He will be impervious to me waking him, but won’t question my embrace. His head will bob over my shoulder and he’ll sink back into sleep. Most of all, I wonder if he will call after he’s grown and gone, wonder if I’m there enough for him now.
Now I hear snoring in another room and it brings me back, reminding me that Browning and I are not alone here, that the universe is out there spinning with galaxies and stars. Browning lowers his voice as though he, too, has realized the same thing. I see the lights flickering in the Detox Corridor through the window, and it appears as its own galaxy, a yellow-misted world that we are somehow in the center of.
“That’s who I thought done called. I thought it was Tucker. He was `sposed to. He always calls ‘round Christmas. No sir, I wad’nt ever do it again. My kids and grandchildren, hell, before Christmas and all, just wad’nt a been atall fair. I tried though. Took me a han’ful of Prozac, them pills for depression, an’ I just laid down on the couch an’ waited for the silence. I could hear the birds outside my window, an’ I thought they was nice, how they was gonna follow me when I fell asleep. That’s when I had them dreams. Them birds come in the window -- must a been a hundred of ‘em -- an’ they came over and lifted me off the floor.”
My hand is getting cramped. I stop a moment, stretch my fingers. I hear scuffling footsteps in the hallway. Someone was up wanting a cigarette. Mary at the desk will hear and make sure they find their way back to their room. No cigarettes until morning.
“Then the phone rang. Them birds lifted me up enough to answer it, they did. See, I don’t have a listed number on a count of them salespeople trying to sell me every blame thing. It rang an’ I reached up to answer. It was one of them phone operators trying to sell me the service! I says, ’No ma’am, I don’t need your service ‘cause I just took me a han’ful of pills.’ Well, she must of dialed 911, `cause they was there in minutes. It saved me. Here I am, an’ such a dumb thing to do, really, I wad’nt never do it again.”
“Browning? You better not do it again. I should be home right now.” I stand, closing his folder on the clipboard.
“It was God, you know. Funny thing is, Tucker called me here today when he found out. He was plenty mad, but he says, ‘Daddy, if only I got hold of you -- I tried, the line was busy.’ And I says, ‘Tucker, God done called me first.’”
When he stops talking the silence is strangely comforting. Even the corridor light has stopped flickering.
“You got you a child?” he says.
Usually I don’t like to share my personal life with my patients, but somehow I want to tell him. “I do,” I say. “He’s six.”
He takes a deep, raspy breath. “You go on then, and get on out a here. They grow up right quick.”
As I leave I look at Browning’s face and he is smiling, toothless and full of it.
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