YOU HAVE TO watch what you say here because everything you say means something and somebody’s always telling you what you mean.
“Step off,” I tell this nurse when she tries to get me to eat.
“You mean, thank you for caring,” she says. “You’re welcome.”
“I need a lighter,” I tell her, and she goes. “You mean you want a lighter. Dream on, sweetheart.”
So I take their medicine and walk around in socks the way they make you, and stay real quiet.
* * *
“Hello, America,” he goes. “I’m Dr. B.” He holds out his hand, but I play like I don’t even see it. “I’ll be your therapist while you’re here at Ridgeway.” He drops his arm like it’s no big thing and dumps his skinny butt in a chair behind his desk. “You can sit anywhere.” He doesn’t have any tennis balls or messed-up eyeglasses or an attitude like those other ones back at Applegate. He’s just regular. I stay standing. “We’ll meet at this time for forty-five minutes every Tuesday and Thursday.” I keep my back right up on the door. He’s all calm, like it’s cool with him. “Our sessions will be confidential. Are you familiar with the rules of confidentiality?” I don’t bother answering. “Confidentiality means what’s said in this room stays in this room.” He stops a second, looking at me, close. “Except for three things.” Looking at me straight up. “If you tell me that someone is harming you, if you express the intent to harm yourself, or do so, or if you express the intent to harm anyone else, or do so. Those three things don’t stay private between us.”
“That’s it?” I go.
“ ‘That’s it,’ what?” he goes. Not in my face. Just normal.
“That’s all you’ve got, if I say I’m going to off myself?”
“Is that what you’re planning?”
“Are you planning to kill yourself?”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I know that’s not what you asked.” He’s leaning forward on his elbows, like he’s interested, like he for real even cares.
“It’s no big secret, doc,” I go. “How the hell do you think I got here?”
* * *
They try to make me do group.
“Who wants to share with America what the purpose of this group is?” the lady goes.
Nobody bothers, so she picks on some kid all bent over with his arms crossed looking like he’s got nails twisting up his stomach. “Don?” the lady goes, and he squeaks his chair and crosses his arms the other way.
“Supposed to talk or something,” this Don goes. I’m out of here.
“Please sit down, America,” the lady tells me. I head for the door. “America, you are required to participate in group,” the lady goes. I keep walking. “Privileges,” I hear her yelling.
Points, tickets, privileges. You do this, they give you that many. You get that many, they let you out. Let you out where? Some other sorry-ass place. I don’t need this.
* * *
I’m not stupid. I know it’s going to get real tiring standing by his door for near to an hour. So I sit this time.
“I guess you’re not in the mood to talk,” Dr. B. goes, after a lot of minutes. I lean my head over the back of the chair and stare up at the ceiling. “I guess you’re not much in the mood to be here, either,” Dr. B. says, all calm.
“You’re some genius,” I go.
* * *
A week. Maybe two. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m just slamming my pillow on the floor every night. Sleeping on my back, flat out, with my arms straight down my sides. Like I’m in a coffin.
* * *
“It’s hard to know how to begin.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
His ceiling is white stripes and a round light in the middle.
“Just what it says,” he goes. “Sometimes, it’s hard for people to begin their sessions.”
“Ah, man.” My neck aches, bad, but I keep my head hanging over the back of my chair anyway.
“You seem annoyed.”
“Yeah, I’m annoyed. Who wouldn’t be?”
“Maybe that’s part of why it’s hard to start each session.”
“Maybe you’re repeating yourself.”
“Maybe you’re so annoyed to start with, it makes you not want to talk.”
“What would it be like if you did talk?”
“I talk, man.”
“Not so much.”
“I’m curious about what keeps you from talking.”
“Well, you’re going to have to live with curious a long time, doc.”
* * *
You get in line, and you slide your tray, and they hand over your baby carrots and your chicken and your roll, and you sit at some table with a million other dudes, and you eat, and it tastes like your own tongue, and you wish you could just choke to death once and forever right here, right in the middle of nothing.
* * *
“Some people believe that depression is anger turned toward the self,” Dr. B. says.
He might not have attitude like those other ones back at Applegate, but he’s got the same old pile of stupid games. Connect Four and checkers. Chess and Monopoly and all that. I grab his Uno cards and knuckle-shuffle them.
“It’s just something to know,” Dr. B. says. “Because usually people who try to kill themselves are depressed, and often they’re depressed because they’re angry.”
I shuffle again and then slap the stack down on his desk.
“People who are able to somehow acknowledge their anger often become less depressed.”
“Cut the deck,” I go, because he’s giving me a headache with all that.
* * *
I try not to think about it in the rec room. I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. About that anger mess. About depressed. Only every time I remember that cement rectangle with a footprint in one corner, I watch Mrs. Harper sending me away, and whenever I see Clark Poignant, it’s when he’s got tubes running all into the backs of his hands, and if I try to picture Liza, I just hear how she said she’d hate me if I ever killed myself, and anytime Brooklyn’s face pops up in my head, I see him stealing those green Magic Markers. And every time I think about baseball, I see Browning.
I watch that Ping-Pong, and I try not to think.
* * *
“What would it be like?” Dr. B. goes.
“You’re interested in being dead. I’m interested in what you think being dead would be like.”
“You’re the doctor, man. You tell me.”
“I don’t know. Different people imagine different things. I’m wondering what you imagine.”
Empty. Quiet. Nobody’s good. Nobody’s bad. Nobody’s nobody. You don’t think. You don’t remember. You don’t be. Nothing hurts.
“Step off,” I tell him.
“Hmm,” he goes.
CONTRACT FOR SAFETY
I, America, agree that if I feel I might harm myself, I will immediately follow the plan below:
1) Notify on-duty nurse of my feelings.
2) Write down the date and time.
3) Write down the name of each feeling I’m experiencing, followed by the thoughts and/or events which preceded it.
4) Notify and discuss all of the above with Dr. B. immediately upon our next scheduled session.
In addition, I give my promise that I will not try to harm or kill myself, should I experience the wish to do so.
It’s one of the most messed-up things I ever heard in my whole stupid life. If you feel so bad you want to die, why would you even care what kind of lame-ass promises you make?
I’m not signing shit.
* * *
“Some kids don’t want to feel better,” Dr. B. says. So what. “Because it’s too frightening,” he goes, and then he stops. I’m resting my head over the back of this chair and staring up at his ceiling. “Think about it a second.”
“I don’t like to think.” I hang my head way far back and see his bookshelves upside down behind me. Instead of books, they’ve got some kind of little statues lined up. Dollhouse people, or something.
We’re quiet for a real long time, but then he goes, “I’m guessing you’re used to feeling mad and bad.”
“So?” I go.
“Feeling better would be something you don’t know.”
“You got that right,” I tell him.
“A lot of people are scared of what they don’t know. So they hold on to mad and bad.”
I’m not even going to play like I know what all he’s saying. So I stay quiet.
* * *
My pills used to be green. Wheatgrass, Mrs. Harper would say. Then blue. Now yellow. They’re all the same shape. Stretched-out ovals. The nurse brings me one every morning and watches me swallow it. I don’t care. Some people take all different ones. A mess of colors, and all these shapes. They try to hold their pill under their tongue, or sick it up after the nurse leaves. It’s likely a million pills these nurses have to keep all stocked up here. Somebody’s making a straight-up fortune.
* * *
“How many weeks have I been here?” I go to the group lady.
“I didn’t know that kid could talk,” some scrub goes.
“How long have I been here?”
“About three weeks,” the group lady says. “Is that something you’d like to speak about?”
I shrug and stare at this crack on the wall, this crack that does the shape of a big-ass crumpled square. It looks like a TV after someone smashed up all the corners. I watch it for the whole rest of the time, so I don’t know how I get to noticing it, but all of them that used to be in this group are gone except me. It’s new guys now, and I’m the only old one.
* * *
“All right,” Dr. B. goes, after I won’t play Uno anymore, and I won’t play anything else, and I still won’t talk, either. “Where would you like to be five years from now?”
“Nowhere,” I tell him.
* * *
The thing is, Mrs. Harper might be alive. She might be in some bed somewhere, in some nursing home, just hoping for someone to come see her.
Or she could be hanging out with Clark Poignant up there in Heaven. Dead.
* * *
This one kid screams at night. If Liza or Brooklyn were here, either one, they’d find out quick right where he’s at and tell him to shut the hell up. This kid’s in some other hall or wing or someplace. The screaming’s not real loud, because must be he’s far away, but it’s bad. It’s the kind that makes you picture a movie scene with some crazy-looking dude, wrapped in sheets, all sweaty and bug-eyed. Like something real, real deep went down with him he’s likely never going to get out of his head.
I’m betting he’s real pissed they’re keeping him alive.
* * *
I could ask, but I’m too tired. So I listen instead. I listen to the nurses chitchatting, and I listen to the other guys telling all their private business and everybody else’s, and I listen to Dr. B. even when he thinks I’m not. You figure out a real lot when you’re just quiet and you listen.
Here’s what I figure out. This place, Ridgeway, has just about everything. It’s got buildings for girls and buildings for boys and buildings for both. It’s got buildings for real serious, like me, where you live, and for people who sleep somewhere else but come in here for the day. It’s got a building for if you’re here because a judge made you, and it’s got a building for if you’re all used up from drugs. The street kind, not their kind.
Me. I was in emergency first, right after I tried to off myself back at Applegate. Emergency drugged me up intense for a while, and then they didn’t drug me up as much, and then emergency kicked my butt out and put me here. Most people stay about a month, maybe two, and then go somewhere else. They go home for good, or else to sleep at night and then back to Ridgeway or some other place for day treatment. Or they skip home and land right in long-term residential. That’s what Applegate was, long-term residential treatment. I wasn’t supposed to get sent there in the first place. I should have gone to some group home. Some foster care group home, only the system screwed up. Stupid thing is, right now I would go back to Applegate, only they just got this new rule of not letting kids in older than thirteen, and the other long-term residential eighteen miles away is full, and the rest are out of my district, so I’m not allowed in, and there’s no beds left in any group homes, and the only places left besides here is jail, which is where I know I ought to be. Or else a state hospital, but you only get sent to a state hospital if you’re so far gone, you’re pulling out your eyeballs thinking they’re grapes, or some damn thing.
So I’m here.
* * *
“You only let people out after they spill their guts, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying, you only let people leave this place if they’re all talking every minute in their sessions, right?”
“Something’s given you that idea?”
“Hell yeah, man. I see how it is. It’s those guys who talk that get to leave. Like that Don guy from group. He used to never say boo, then all of a sudden you can’t shut him up. He’s talking every second, and bang. He’s out of here.”
“Well, I’m not telling you jack.”
“You think if you start sharing your thoughts and feelings with me, you’ll leave here more quickly?”
“I don’t think. I know.”
“So you’ve decided not to talk.”
“So you don’t want to leave here.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So you do want to leave here,” he goes.
“So, nothing, man.”
“Maybe you have mixed feelings about it. Maybe sometimes you want to be here and other times you don’t.”
“Can you just be quiet a second?”
“Or, maybe, sometimes right at the same time you want to be here and also you don’t.”
“I asked you to shut up. You’re making me dizzy.”
* * *
We play checkers. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to talk. Say things that might make you remember, might make them send you away when you’ve got no place to go. No house, because you burned it right down to the ground, no shopping mall to hide out in, or bushes in a park. No couch up for grabs in some dude’s crib. No nothing.
* * *
I’m listening to that kid screaming from whichever wing they’ve got him in, and I wish I had my shoelaces. You can see good enough in the middle of the night here because they keep the hall lights on, and I could hypnotize my sorry self the way they do in those cartoons where some hanging watch going back and forth makes a dude black out even though the guy’s awake and all. I could tie something heavy to the end of a shoelace and swing it back and forth in front of my face and stare and stare, keeping my head real still, and letting my eyes go all side to side, and make myself get all spaced out. Only problem is these Ridgeway nurses, man. They took my shoelaces, and damn if I can find anything else to use.
* * *
“If you’re so interested in my business, why don’t you just read my file?”
“I know you’ve got a file on me, doc. Don’t even try to play like you don’t.”
“I’m not trying anything,” he goes.
“So what are you bothering me for?” I go. “You lazy or something? Just read the file.”
“Actually, I’ve read it.”
“Then why do you need to talk to me?”
“Why do you think I might need to talk to you?”
“I don’t know, man.”
“I’m aware that you don’t know. I’m just wondering what you think.”
“I don’t like to think.”
“Yes. You’ve said that before.”
“Okay. What do I think? I think it’s your job.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘What does that mean?’ It’s your job. It’s a job.”
“Hmm.” Sometimes, he’s just stupid.
“So what’s in my file, anyway?”
“What do you imagine is in the file?”
“Are you for real?”
“Yes. What do you imagine?”
“I don’t go around imagining.”
* * *
That file probably says how I was in special ed. How I cursed at teachers and stole lighters and made Mrs. Harper sick. It probably says something like, America is a boy who is a lot of trouble. America is a boy who is crazy. America might be a murderer. Be real careful of America. That’s probably what it says. That’s how those files go.
* * *
I must be walking my ass from the bed to the cafeteria to the rec room to his office, but I don’t know. I just end up wherever I am. I can’t hardly remember how I even got here.
* * *
“How’s it laid out?” I go.
“What do you mean?”
“Damn, Dr. B. Am I going to have to explain every last little thing?”
“Maybe,” he goes.
“How’s the order of it? Is it all one paper, like somebody telling some story about me, or is it all blanks and squares and like that?”
“You’re asking me how your file is organized?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“Well, how are you picturing it?”
“Would you stop with that, man? I swear to God.”
“Stop with what?”
“With that picturing shit. I’m not stupid. I know picturing’s the same as imagining.”
“So just answer my question.”
“All right,” he goes. “Your file has a sort of story about you as well as blanks and squares.”
“How’s the story set up?”
“There’s a section about your medical history. Another section about your school history. There’s a section about your people and growing-up history. And other sections.”
“How are you supposed to know if they got all those sections right about me, if I don’t even get to check it out my own self?”
“You want to be sure what I read about you is accurate.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“One way I could know that is to have you tell me about your own self, your own self.”
“Nice try, doc.”
“I’m not trying anything, America.”
* * *
I’m flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed. Here’s what I imagine. The growing-up section starts with me getting born. It goes like this: America got born to a crack addict who didn’t want him. Two days after that, America got with a rich white family, only they didn’t want him after he started turning his color. So in a couple of months quick, America got taken by the rich white family’s nanny.
I’m flat straight without any pillow on my coffin bed and I decide imagining is right up there with thinking. Don’t like either one.
* * *
“You’re going to blackmail me, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to make me tell you all my private business before you let me see the file.”
“What else? You’re doing your job the way they tell you. Trying real hard to get me to give it up. So now you’re all, ‘America, you tell me your business, and I’ll show you the file.’ ”
“I’m not telling you shit.”
* * *
“You dropped your pillow.” I didn’t used to see these other beds right next to mine. “Hey,” this new kid’s going. “I think you dropped your pillow.” Must have been weeks before I even got to noticing this room, much less any of these other guys in here with me. Thing is, they change over so many times, I never know who all is going to be in the next bed.
“Here,” this new dude goes. He picks up my stupid pillow and drops it on my legs.
* * *
America is a boy who’s been a lot of places. I bet that’s what that file says somewhere. America is a boy who gets lost easy and is not worth the trouble of finding.
* * *
He’s all leaning forward on his elbows. “There’s an opening at a group home.” That’s how it works. You stay awhile one place, and then you go. “Medicaid’s been clear with us that stays on this unit are to be short-term only. You’ve been here more than six weeks. A time frame Medicaid does not consider to be short-term.”
“Medicaid’s same as the state, right?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You know exactly what I mean. It’s all the same. Medicaid. The state. They’re all the same damn thing.”
“America, if you’re still unable to sign the safety contract, I’m not sure the group home will take you, regardless of Medicaid’s requirements.”
“I guess you and Medicaid have a problem, then, doc.”
“So you’re still thinking of killing yourself?”
“I don’t think, man. I keep telling you.”
* * *
America’s nanny’s name was Mrs. Harper. Mrs. Harper was real good to America. Also Mrs. Harper’s half-brother, whose name was Browning, was real good to America. Also, Mrs. Harper’s man friend, Clark Poignant, was real real good to America. But then, America turned out to be bad and made people sick, so Mrs. Harper and the state sent America back to his mother. But then America’s mother had better things to do and left America with his two older brothers. Lyle was the oldest one, but Brooklyn was the baddest, so Brooklyn was in charge. That’s probably in there, too. Stupid-ass files.
* * *
I watch those guys play Ping-Pong, and I try not to think. Trouble is, the more you try not to think, the more you end up thinking.
This is what I think. You can know who you’re mad at but still know you’re bad and ought to be dead. Partly because just knowing who you’re mad at doesn’t make you any less bad and partly because if you do get better the way they want, then the feelings are going to come crashing down on you like some kind of goddamn avalanche.
* * *
“If you let me read my file, I’ll sign your stupid safety contract, and you can get rid of me to that group home,” I go.
“First of all, the safety contract doesn’t work that way.”
“The safety contract is not some sort of trading tool. It stands on its own. And second, what makes you believe I’m trying to get rid of you?”
“Because that’s what you’re doing, man.”
* * *
I sleep in that room with all the dudes who show up and leave again. Some kid with an earring who used to be in cottage two back at Applegate shows up four beds over for a week and then disappears. I don’t care. I stand in that cafeteria line and eat their nastiness. I sit in group and don’t listen and watch Ping-Pong in the rec room. That’s all I do, besides try not to think.
* * *
He won’t show me the file, and I won’t sign the contract, and he won’t sign for me to leave, and some other kid gets my spot in the group home.
“Looks like were stuck with each other, doc,” I go.
“Stuck,” he goes.
“S-T-U-C-K. Stuck,” I go. “Rhymes with fuck.”
“Should have let me read the file, man.”
“What is it about the file that feels so important, America?”
“Can you shut up with your stupid questions? Just bring it out, already.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that right now.”
“Partly because I’m not comfortable showing it until we’ve talked further about what reading it might be like for you.”
“Reading your file could bring up feelings, America. It’s a complicated thing to read what other people write about you. I think it might feel too complicated for you to handle right now.”
Those files probably only have the bad. America is a thief and a wrecker of property. America did not learn to read right until he was almost ten years old. America is a runaway. They only have all the messed-up stuff. They don’t have the smaller things. The parts that matter.
“What is it about the file that feels so important to you, America?”
A red ball lollipop. The UPS man who delivers the angels and picks them up again gives it to me. When I get to the fizz in the middle, Mrs. Harper smiles at my face and touches my chin and says, “Real meaning is in the smaller things.”
“It’s mine, man.”
That smell of mint leaves on Mrs. Harper’s hands, same as the Chap Stick she makes me smear on in the winter. A rusty streak in Clark Poignant’s silver hair. The way he always brings Mrs. Harper white tulips cut straight from his garden and teaches me to shake hands, real firm and solid. The sweet smell of Browning’s brown cigarettes.
“It’s yours?” Dr. B. goes.
“That’s right, man. My business is mine. I own that shit.”
I hide under the paint table, and Mrs. Harper goes, “Where is America?” And I pop up, and she goes, “There he is!” And I scream because it’s real good to get found. And she stands up from her stool and puts down her fresh-painted blue-and-gold angel real gentle and goes, “I see you, Mister. I see you over there.” And I scream because it’s real good to be seen. And she pulls off her smock and goes, “I’m going to get you, America! I’m going to get you!” And I’m banging out the screen door running real hard and laughing real hard, and she’s running right after me and laughing, too, and she’s going to snatch me up any minute and hold me real close and tickle, and I run harder, and then she catches me, and she’s going, “I got you! I got you!” and she’s got me right down between her warm self and the scratchy grass, and she’s wiggling her fingers up under my arms, and we’re laughing like crazy, and I’m screaming my head off.
“My not letting you read your business makes you feel I’m taking away something that’s yours,” Dr. B. goes.
I help Mrs. Harper screw the paint caps on and soak the brushes, and those angels stand and fly and kneel and sit on our built-in bookshelves waiting to dry off, get repacked, and sent back to the people who pay us for them. They cover every wall of Mrs. Harper’s workroom, the great big mess of them protecting the whole house, like a real pretty army.
“Maybe you could just tell me more about your business being yours,” Dr. B. says.
“I told you, doc. I’m not telling you anything.”
* * *
I lie flat out straight in my coffin bed, and it’s getting on my nerves. How Dr. B. gets things going in my head, making me see things I don’t hardly care to see. That’s the problem with talking to people. All that talking makes you get cracks in your brain, and then all these flashes start leaking right on through.
* * *
“You seem extra quiet today.” I’ve got my neck fixed on the back of my chair and my eyes all open on that round light.
“I’m always quiet. Nothing extra about it.” I lean my head back more and check out those sand people on that bookshelf behind me, all upside down. They’re gray and little, the size of my fingers.
“Maybe what I mean is that I’m noticing you’re not interested in playing any games today and you haven’t looked at me at all.”
“Whatever.” They’ve got guns and drums and all that. Soldiers. A bunch of soldiers.
“Maybe something’s happened that’s brought up some feelings.”
“Nothing’s happened, man. I eat. I sleep. I piss. I go to group. I come here. Time up yet?”
“Almost. Those are things that happen for you on the outside. Maybe something else has happened with you on the inside that’s brought up some feelings.”
I’m sitting in a booster seat in the middle of Clark Poignant and Mrs. Harper and Browning, and it’s real calm. I’m filling in the coloring book page with crayons the waitress gave me.
“Look,” Mrs. Harper goes. “It’s America.” She points her finger with the round, black ring to my page.
Clark Poignant says, “That’s a map of where we live.”
“That’s New York,” Mrs. Harper says. “That’s in America. We live in New York in America.”
“I’m America,” I tell them.
“Yup,” Browning goes, hanging his arm over my shoulder. “You’re America.”
“America is the place where we live, and it’s also your name,” Mrs. Harper says.
“I’m in America,” I say. “And America is me.” I like saying that. I like the sound of it and the beat of it and the way it makes Mrs. Harper and Clark Poignant and Browning smile. So I say it again. “I’m in America, and America is me.”
“We’re done now, if you want to leave.” I sit up.
“I said,” Dr. B. goes, “we’re done for today.”
* * *
You try not to think. You try not to imagine, but then those cracks pop up, and these flashes squeeze right through. At first, some of it’s not too bad, and you get stupid, maybe even wanting a little more, but then you pull yourself together, knowing what all is likely going to ooze out if you’re not careful. So you try to patch up this one crack real quick, but then some other one pops up faster than you can spit, and then you’ve got to rush your ass around trying to keep things shut tight. That’s the problem with being in one place too long. You’re at somewhere too long, and your brain gets weak. It’s enough to drive a person straight out of his own mind.
* * *
“So how long am I staying here, anyway, doc?” I go.
“How long do you want to stay here?”
“Who says I want to stay here?”
“I’m just remembering the time you mentioned you weren’t planning to talk much because you believed talking meant you would leave soon.”
“So I took that to mean that a part of you would like to stay here.”
“Well, I don’t know what all you’re talking about now, man.”
“Anyway, I don’t stay places long.”
“What do you mean, ‘What’s long?’ ”
“I mean, how long is long. A week? A year?”
Clark Poignant’s in his bed, even though it’s light outside, and he has his own nurse, even though his house isn’t a hospital.
“Saturday will go by quicker than you think,” he tells me. “You’ll be back home before you know it. And then Monday you’ll start kindergarten.” He raises his arm to touch my shoulder, the way he always does, and I’m scared the tube in the back of his hand will slide out, making him bleed.
“He’s just confused,” Mrs. Harper says when I hide behind her. A little rip in her voice makes me look up at her face and then grab her finger with the black, round ring on it. I rub the top of the ring, and she lets me, and it’s smooth and feels good.
“Kindergarten,” Clark Poignant says. “Can you believe it?”
“An unsupervised visit,” Mrs. Harper says back, with that rip again. “That’s what I can’t believe.”
“Does he know how to call us?” Clark Poignant asks Mrs. Harper, and she says, “He’s got everybody’s number memorized,” and then I make them smile by saying all the numbers. It’s a lot to remember, but Mrs. Harper said a boy my age could do it, and I did. “Tell Clark about collect,” Mrs. Harper says, so I do, and he says when I get home to call him collect for practice.
Back at Mrs. Harper’s, on the upstairs phone, I push zero, just like she showed me, and I give out Clark Poignant’s number, and the operator goes, “Who can I say is calling?”
“America,” I say, and Mrs. Harper smiles at me from her rocking chair. I hold the phone out to her for a second, but Mrs. Harper waves it back at me, and then Clark Poignant’s voice is on the line, and he’s saying, “Good job. Good job.” I like the way his voice is real still and buzzes fast, like the way a bee’s body is real still and buzzes fast around a flower, both at the same time.
“Long is long, man. Long is whenever they feel like deciding,” I go.
“Who’s ‘they,’ America?”
“The state,” I tell Dr. B. “Medicaid.”
“The state and Medicaid?” Dr. B. goes.
“Now you’re getting on my nerves, man.”
Before my visit to my mother, Mrs. Harper’s going to paint something special with all her angels.
“Can you sit still for half a second?” she goes. I don’t figure I can, but if I say no, she’ll think I’m being mouthy.
“Do I have to go?” I say to Mrs. Harper.
“You do,” she says. “But it’s only for Saturday, America. And then you’ll come right home, and Monday after that, you’ll start your kindergarten.”
“If I act extra good, do I have to go?” I ask her.
“Has nothing to do with how you act,” she says. “I keep telling you.”
“What if she wants to abduct me?” I say.
“Adopt you. Not abduct you,” Mrs. Harper says. “She doesn’t have to adopt you. You’re already hers. She’s your mother. I’m the one trying to adopt you.”
“What about the papers?” I ask her.
“What do you know about papers?” Mrs. Harper says, and I’m scared she’s going to look at me hard and turn her back, the way she does when I’ve made her mad, but she just pats her paintbrush over angel wings.
“Browning said she could write her name on a paper and then the state would let her keep the paper and let you keep me and I wouldn’t have to visit her.”
“She doesn’t want to write her name,” Mrs. Harper says.
“How come?” I ask.
Mrs. Harper looks real hard at her wet wings and then throws the angel down. It breaks into pieces. She never broke one before, ever, and especially not on purpose. “I don’t know,” she tells me. “I really don’t know.”
“I’m getting on your nerves,” Dr. B. goes.
“Can you stop repeating every other thing I say?” I go. “Damn.”
“Unfortunately it’s a bad habit of mine, but I’ll try to stop.”
“Why don’t you just try to be quiet?”
“You’re pretty aggravated right now.”
“I’m not aggravated. I’m pissed.”
Browning’s gin root beer smells nasty. His bag of Tootsie Rolls is stuffed in my back pocket. It’s heavy, like it might just take my pants right down.
“Don’t you have yourself together yet?” Mrs. Harper goes after dinner, and I wonder which part of him fell off: his head, or his arms, or his legs. Then I wonder if he has wings, so I go to check, but before I can see. Mrs. Harper sends us outside. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times,” she goes to Browning. “I’m not having liquor in this house.” So now Browning holds his gin root beer in one hand and throws me the Wiffle ball with the other.
“Now listen,” Browning says, tossing me an easy one. “We’re buddies, right?”
“Yeah,” I say, hitting it straight to his chest. He drops his root-beer can and claps both hands around the ball quick, the way I catch fireflies.
“So listen to me careful,” Browning says. “More careful than you ever listened before. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, waiting for the next pitch.
“Because what I’m about to say is real different from what Mrs. Harper and Clark have been telling you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say. “Pitch it.” He pitches it. I hit a pop fly. He catches it behind his back. Then he sits on his butt in the grass and waves his hand at me to come get next to him. I do, and our faces are real close. His breath smells. He talks real low.
“What you have to do is, when you get to your mother’s tomorrow, as soon as you get there, as much as you can, you be bad.”
“Be bad?” I back up from his breath.
“That’s what I’m trying to say.” He pulls a brown cigarette from behind his ear and sets it between his lips without lighting it. “Don’t listen to anything your mother tells you. Do as many bad things as you know how. Act like a real bad kid. Okay?” His cigarette moves up and down in time with what he’s saying.
“I don’t want to.”
“If you act bad,” he says, “that mother of yours will make sure to send you home right back here to Mrs. Harper before your day is even up, and she won’t ever want you to visit again, much less want to keep you.”
“But Mrs. Harper will be mad.” If I do it like he says, she’ll end up looking at me hard and turning her back. “Mrs. Harper will get extra mad.”
“Nope,” he tells me. “She won’t be mad as long as she gets you home for good.”
“I’ve told you what to do,” Browning says, messing with a dandelion. He knows how to tie a knot in it and then snap the stem so the flower part flies off. “If you want your mother to leave us all be.” He shrugs at me and flicks the dandelion top. The flower hits my eye. “It’s up to you.”
“What’s pissed you off?” Dr. B. goes.
“What is it that I’ve done?”
“Please sit down, America.”
“I’m out of here.”
“We have five minutes left, America.”
“Fuck your five minutes.”
“I’ll see you Thursday then.”
“Oh, yeah? Fuck Thursday.”
* * *
I fuck Thursday. I keep my ass in the rec room watching Ping-Pong. I watch that ball popping all back and forth. I watch it careful, concentrating real hard, and doing that shit helps keep those cracks in my brain sealed up tight. It works so good, I almost don’t even notice Dr. B. hanging out in the doorway awhile, looking at me.
* * *
“Something kept you from coming to our session Thursday.”
“I looked for you.” America gets lost easy. “I found you in the rec room.” And is not worth the trouble of finding. “I was interested in what it was that took you to the rec room instead of to our session.” He’s got a regular deck of cards in his stupid pile of games.
“War,” I go.
“Something happened that kept you from our session, America.”
“You know the rules?” I’m knuckle-shuffling.
“You don’t want to discuss what happened.”
“I asked if you know the rules, man.”
“I’m not sure if I know your rules.” I slap down the deck. He cuts it.
“Two of spades beats everything, including aces. Aces beat everything but the two of spades. Count your cards.”
“Twenty-five,” Dr. B. goes.
“Twenty-seven,” I go. “Here. Pick one.” He picks. “Now we’re even.”
“So throw down, man.” We throw down. “See that?” I say. “We got war already.”
“Well, let’s go then, doc,” I say. “I De Clare War.”