“Zoloft, Depakote, Zyprexa, sleeping pills, no more weeping pills, no more creeping pills,” Marianne says. “Kid, you’ve got to stay tough.”
There’s a man, a nurse, comes with me when I shower, sits on a plastic chair outside the stall and reads a magazine. I ask, don’t it bother him? Me, I hate a damp magazine. You always know a magazine that’s been damp, steam-scarred, never going to lay flat again. Another nurse sits in my room all night with the light on. I’m not sleeping much, not thinking much, just feeling the dull bloat of the medicines.
On the television it’s Christmas specials, reruns. It’s Darlene Love: They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls,’ but it’s not like Christmas at all.
Marianne says give no one the story, but damn if everyone doesn’t want the story — the doctors and the patients both — and damn if I don’t have to strain not to give. Marianne says it’s my youth makes them hungry, 17, still baby-fat in the face, this open face I haven’t learned to shut, haven’t yet found anyone who could shut it for me, which is maybe what I’m looking for. Marianne says I got sad brown eyes the color of whiskey; everyone wants a taste.
There’s moms and dads in this place, not one fit to raise a child, but they’re moms and dads just the same, got the instinct. C’mon baby, c’mere baby, what they done to you, baby? Everyone wants the story to be about sex. And they all believe the telling is the healing, all these mad and half-mad zombies, these busted toys, walking around with their stories, telling, telling, still here, still raw, and yet still believing that the telling is the healing.
We got a tough way of talking, me and Marianne.
Marianne asks, “How you supposed to outrun shame if you give it a head start? How you supposed to swallow, if you don’t close your mouth?”
We got a tough way, but inside, Marianne thinks I’m quite possibly profound.
I arrived on the 17th of December, rush week. Never enough beds over the holidays, and we’re here in the intensive ward, on suicide watch, so we’re extra crowded. Marianne is the one I let adopt me, my ward mother. She’s a right-minded woman, Marianne. Warm, sarcastic, 20, maybe 30 years my senior, not pretty, not frail, but competent, you see that right away, not done with life, not done in. She stands out here, stands straight up, broad man’s hands, a little weathered by the world.
We’re in the TV room, lying on the floor, looking up at the underside of a long, wooden table. The top of the table is clean and shellacked, but the surface underneath is covered in decades of graffiti: profane advice, nonsense ramblings, crude etchings of genitalia. Marianne brings me here and pulls me down onto my back.
“Behold,” she says, “the wisdom of our ancestors.”
Marianne’s voluntary, checked herself in after her husband died — that’s all the story she gives. She can check out whenever she likes. I’m committed, still too young for rights, but housed with the adults on account of my being overly mature for juvie. Marianne traces her fingers along a carved-out message that reads: the outside is in us.
“Outside of here,” I ask, “you think you’d adopt me all over again?”
“Profundity,” Marianne says, shaking her head.
Names and dates float above us like stars. Someone named Roger B has been here every year from ’79 to ’95. Marianne uncaps a Sharpie and puts her name up and the date. Merry Christmas 1997, she writes, then underneath, my man did this to me. Then she says, “C’mon, let’s go,” before I have a chance to make my mark.
Marianne’s been telling me about her two other kids, real kids, a boy and a girl, small, calls them The Pudgies. She tells me about what The Pudgies read and their unashamed kid greed and how unremarkable they are.
“I know better than to mope around this place feeling sorry for myself,” she says. “The Pudgies need me.”
“No, stay,” I say, “I need you.” I say this a couple times a day.
The intensive wing is bedrooms and three common areas: the smoking room, the TV room and the hallway. Time doesn’t move the same. We’re sometimes split up by a conference with the doctor, or the psychiatrist, I have NA in the TV room one hour, Marianne has AA the next. (Almost everyone on the ward’s dual diagnosis. Marianne says the state gets double-billed for our treatment.) Other than that, I only ever leave her side to smoke cigarettes in the yellow-dinged room. She doesn’t like me smoking, but she bought the pack for me all the same. It’s Christmas.
“You ain’t always going to make the best decisions,” she says, handing me a pack of Kools. “Guess what? That’s normal.”
“Kools?” I ask.
“That’s what they had. You even listening to what I’m getting at?”
“Profundity,” I say, and she slaps me on the shoulder, then hugs me brief, then shoves me off to smoke.
Now we’re on the floor in front of the television, our backs against the pleather couch, laughing so loud we draw attention. The disgruntled man nurse comes and stands in the doorway and stares us down until we quiet. Rudolph is on, and they’ve arrived at the Island of Misfit Toys, and Marianne’s got this shtick, a real stand-up routine, slaying me.
“The Pudgies love Rudolph,” she says. “Always with the Rudolph, and I come away with some questions about this here King Moonracer, Christlike, flying around the world, gathering up all the Misfits and bringing them back to the island. Every night he flies ahead of the moon, a sun god, this Lord of Misfits, swooping down and scooping up toys, and flying back to the island. But why? Them toys will never be happy, never saved, until they are loved by a girl or boy. Moonracer knows this. So why gather them to a remote island with no girls or boys, where they could never be found?”
Marianne cups either side of her mouth, megaphone style, and shouts at the TV, “What’s your endgame, Moonracer? What’s your plan for success?”
These are lines from therapy, and now we’re cutting up. I take off a slipper and smack the rubber sole against the linoleum. Raucous, raucous.
The man nurse, disgruntled, returns. Marianne salutes, calls him the Official Sentry of the Island of Misfit Toys, which is a line from the show.
“But you see what I’m getting at,” Marianne says, after he retreats. She says it quiet, sweeping her arm out to take in the room, the patients. “These bastards need love.”
I slide my head into Marianne’s lap, we never been this physical. She leans down to whisper-sing the misfit theme song: We’re on the Island of Misfit Toys. Here we don’t want to stay.
She doesn’t smell nice, but she doesn’t smell bad, which is a thing I’ve always loved about the smell of dirt — not pretty not foul — and I think this is a possibly profound thing to say to her, but what’s impossible is finding a way to arrange the words without the meaning coming off that she smells like dirt.
Marianne stops singing, points at the TV. “But look, look, what’s wrong with the doll?” The elephant with pink spots, the choo-choo train with square wheels, the gun that shoots jelly, and the jack-in-the-box named Charlie, but what’s wrong with the doll? I turn my head up to look at her face. She really wants an answer.
“You tell me what’s wrong with the doll,” I say. Which is a line from therapy.
On the walls, it’s red and green tinsel and cut-out letters shouting HAPPY HOLIDAYS, all strung up neatly. On the table it’s markers and leftover Christmas cards from boxed sets, which have been donated by happy Christmas families, and the idea is that we give cards to one another. It’s patients everywhere, mumbling and drooling and clapping and some looking normal, some looking blank as the cards themselves, but really it’s Marianne and me and Rudolph on the TV and her warm breath and nothing else.
“Go on, tell me what’s wrong with the doll,” I say.
“Ain’t a thing wrong with that doll,” Marianne says. “Look at her. No spots, no square wheels.”
“Then why’s she on the island? Go on, tell me.”
Marianne decides she’ll give me the doll’s story, but that don’t mean she wants to hear mine, because she says she knows, she’s always known, just from looking at me, that I don’t belong here.
“How do you like that? Even among misfits I’m a misfit!” Which is a line from the show.
Marianne talks about how the doll had a husband doll and he killed himself in their bed. He used a gun. How this was an act of unimaginable cruelty — but I try to imagine it anyway. How they had two small children, a boy doll and a girl doll. How the children were not in the house, but at their grandmother’s. How the husband doll was not their father, and she liked to think that would save them some grief, later on, when they were teenage dolls, my age, on the verge of adulthood, a time when their souls would be porous, grief-sponges, and they were trying to decide whether or not they had the will to face the grief, face it daily, the muck and filth of their inherited world. How later on, she hoped that it would matter that this man, this doll, was not their father.
“You think it matters that the husband doll was not their father?” She asks, but I can’t answer.
Marianne smooths my shirt across my back. “The world is full of cowards,” she says. “Weaklings. Maybe that’s why Moonracer brings them toys to the island, protect them from their own damn cowardice. But what he ought to do is teach them how to deal. It’s a mistake Moonracer’s making, and now he’s got you, brought you here, but you don’t belong.”
“Even among misfits,” I say.
“Them toys got to decide they can live in this world, loved or unloved. Quit hoping for something better, some Christmas Miracle. It’s the hope that hurts.”
Marianne’s alternating between smoothing my shirt and patting my back. It’s too familiar.
“Hush,” she says, “Hush.”
In the morning, she’s gone.
Here’s how it goes down: I spend Christmas here, and then my 18th birthday. I make the story about sex and give it to everyone; I tell and tell, until I find someone, a man, to shut my mouth. And then I check myself out. I have every right to. The day after being released I overdose and slip into a coma, and two weeks later, when I wake up, Moonracer comes, flies me back to the island. I spend months among the toys, all them minds cannibalizing themselves. I get to know a lot of brainsick folks, folks crazy with pain. It hurts to know that kind of sickness. I keep hoping Moonracer will bring back Marianne as well, and that hurts, too, that kind of hoping. Instead, one day I get a card with four sentences. I always remember the sentences perfectly, though not their order. Odd for Marianne, neat: I’m so glad you’re alive. I’m so angry with you. I thought we agreed not to be cowards. How could you? Or maybe the reverse. Point is, I never hear from her again.
But before that card comes another card. I wake to it on the nightstand, Christmas morning. One of them leftover cards from the table. Had to go, kid. The Pudgies need me. Be in touch soon. Stay tough. And I get to lie in my hospital bed, smiling goofy, and think on them kids, the looks on their faces, crying “Mama, Mama!” I picture this in front of their grandma’s tree, while they’re still opening presents. It’s wrapping paper everywhere, blinking lights, them kids rushing to her, lifted up, and Marianne, tough one, just bawling, warming them kids, and warmed by them kids. Something out of a movie — like the end of Rudolph, when the misfit toys get dropped from Santa’s sleigh with parachutes strapped to their backs, the smiles on their faces, and there’s the doll, and you know she’s going to be loved — a Christmas Miracle, except this is real. Marianne is with The Pudgies, it’s happening now. They clutch her around the legs. She swings one in the air and then the other, and then they fall onto the couch together. I just know she’s got them kids in her arms, and I get to lie in bed with the image, little pudgy ones, Christmas morning.
Ain’t that some vision?
Ain’t that a gift?
Justin Torres is the author of the novel “We the Animals.” He lives in Brooklyn. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.