Dell is sitting at the nurses’ desk trying to read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an assignment for her playwriting class. She can get away with this because the head honchos have all gone home, and evening has settled its lazy, sticky lassitude over the psychiatric unit. The patients have eaten their heavy supper (the smell of scorched gravy and broccoli still hangs in the hall) and are sitting in front of the tube waiting for the high point of their day: bingo. Everything would be quiet if it weren’t for Mr. B.
Mr. B. was admitted a couple of weeks ago, for the second time in a year. Though he’s thoroughly American, he’s saddled with a name that sounds as if it originated in Uzbekistan and was truncated by an official at Ellis Island, who took out some Z’s but forgot to add vowels. No one on the unit could pronounce it, so it was summarily shortened to “Mr. B.” From what Dell can gather, his preferred lifestyle is to travel up and down New England, from Maine to Connecticut, occasionally stopping in a small city to live in a homeless shelter or rent a room for a few months. He never stays in one place for long because he is always kicked out for some peculiar behavior, such as leaving hot dogs on the stove till they burn to a crisp, or papering his windows over with newspapers, or peeing in empty milk containers.
Mr. B. has a long, stained beard, and hair trickles out of his nose and ears. The top of his head is bald, but the hair grows densely all around the sides, making his pate look like a weedy rock in a tide pool. He carries colored pencils and paper around in a battered, secondhand briefcase because he thinks he’s an artist. Dell has seen his sketches, and they look like what bored seventh-grade boys draw in their notebooks: girls with big chests, and futuristic cars with impossible features. When Mr. B. speaks, Dell can hardly understand him, because he has lost his dentures and there seems to be something wrong with his neck or jaw, so that he aims his words down into his left armpit. Most of what he says sounds like muffled pig Latin.
Dell is always the one who has to take Mr. B. to the smoking room, because she smokes, so it’s no trouble for her — or so the other nurses think. Tonight she is at the nurses’ desk, reading the Beckett play (which she finds fairly boring) and trying not to think about how much she’d like a drink, when Mr. B. swims into her line of sight wearing his prized faux-leather jacket and a Def Leppard T-shirt with ice cream dribbled down the front. He brings two fingers to his pursed lips, which means: Smoke? Because he wants something, he does this in a fairly pleasant way, with a little lift of his bushy eyebrows. But as soon as Dell agrees to take him to the smoking area, he feels free to begin complaining about the monitor on his wrist, which causes an alarm to sound if he tries to leave the unit. He wants it off. He doesn’t like rules. He is of sound mind and body, and they have no right to keep him penned up against his will. Fucking doctors. Fucking nurses.
Mr. B. is going to be with them a long time, Dell figures, because they can’t find another facility that will take him, and besides, he doesn’t want to be anyplace but on his own. His plan, when he gets out, is to collect his Social Security check, then get a job and a little place in town, then buy a used car, because “You’re nothing without a car” (only it sounds like “Yawr not’ing wit’out a caw” when he says it). Once he has all of that, he’ll have time to work on his true calling, which is art. He asks Dell if she knows that no one thought Picasso was any good when he first started painting. She makes a noncommittal grunt.
“Yeah,” he goes on, “Picasso learned to draw by himself, and he never left instructions on how to do it. Heyah, heyah.” Mr. B. has this horrible little laugh that implies he’s wise to the world and you’re not. Dell finds it impossible to join in with a chuckle, or even a smile, because everything he says is so tedious. For instance, he once explained the difference between legal-size paper and business-size paper to her till she thought she’d scream.
Another thing: Mr. B. is always losing his eyeglasses. He has three pairs, bought for two dollars each from a box at the Salvation Army, and he loves to tell the story of how he put on one pair after another and held up a book till he found the ones that made the print clear. In fact, he once demonstrated for Dell how useful his glasses were by reading aloud from a book for about a minute. But he’s always leaving the glasses on his meal tray, or in the smoke room, or in his pajama top that’s in the dirty laundry, and when he can’t find them, he power-walks up and down the hall, cursing and getting so irate that Dell has to drop everything and look for them. He says someone is stealing them; he says someone stole his jar of Bengay; he says someone would steal his eyeballs if they weren’t attached to his head.
Dell knows he’s this way because he’s stayed in so many homeless shelters, and a lot of stealing goes on in those places, which gives her pause when she thinks about it: these people are reduced to practically nothing, and they are taking even that from each other. It seems oddly wonderful to her that a stained pair of boxer shorts can be elevated to an object of desire. It says something about the nature of desire. But she doesn’t say this to Mr. B. Instead she looks at him with disdain and asks, “Who would want to steal your dirty old jar of Bengay?”
He needs the Bengay for his bad back, and Dell wishes the doctors would give him something good for pain, because then she’d have a chance to steal it. She’s supposed to be clean and sober, but she figures a pill here and there won’t hurt. If she had even one Percocet, Mr. B. would be a lot less annoying.
When they get to the smoking area, Dell puts Mr. B.’s cigarette in her mouth, lights it, and gives it to him, hygiene be damned, because when he tries to light one himself he drools all over it and can’t hold the flame to the end. Then she sits at a table with other smokers and pointedly ignores him. He sucks contentedly on his “cancer stick,” as he likes to call it, and wanders around the room. He never sits down. He’s walked so much he has the legs of a marathon runner. The ash on his cigarette gets longer and longer until Dell says sharply, “Mr. B., ash!” and he shuffles over to the ashtray.
Sometimes, if the news is on the television, Mr. B. will be inspired to make a political comment that’s so off-the-wall no one can think of anything to say in return: “The Israelis don’t want anything to do with those rusty Arab tanks,” or, “Mao Tse-tung called America a ‘paper tiger,’ because we have so many newspapers,” or, “Winston Churchill said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Once, Dell tried to tell him it was FDR who’d made the famous remark about fear, but Mr. B. swore it was Churchill and said she was a fucking smart aleck and didn’t know a fucking thing, just like the rest of these fucking smart alecks. It occurred to her then that his speech was much clearer when he was mad, and she decided that needling him might be considered a form of speech therapy.
Dell knows it’s mean of her to ignore Mr. B., or to correct him, or to be impatient with him when he lets his ash get too long. She should be kinder, she thinks. But then, when he tries to walk out the door of the smoke room, she shouts, “Mr. B., where are you going?” like some nightmare schoolteacher. He turns and says he was going to the bathroom. She says, “Not without me, buddy,” though they clearly are not buddies. Then she rolls her eyes at the other smokers. She wants them to dislike him as much as she does. Somewhere deep inside her, she feels loathing bubbling up; she feels the desire to hurt him. She wants to ask Mr. B. why he won’t just give up and go to a nursing home or a group home and sit there for the rest of his sad life. But no, he has to have plans. He’s going to get a job, an apartment, a car, and he’s going to draw. Doesn’t he see that there is no hope for him?
Dell knows that if you dislike someone intensely, it usually means that person is a reflection of your own perceived flaws. Being prone to self-examination, she wonders: how could she possibly see herself in Mr. B.? She’s not friendless and alone in the world. She’s not ignorant of politics and history. She doesn’t think she’s annoying. Maybe she is a little, when she whines about her miserable childhood and her various addictions, but if she can tell that she’s boring the person she’s talking to, she’ll veer off onto another subject. She knows her speech is clear, and she doesn’t insult people to their faces or have delusions about her talents.
But she is stubborn and doesn’t like following directions. She wants to write a play (about her miserable childhood), which is why she’s taking the course at a nearby college, but she never agrees with the professor’s comments on her work. She wants to do everything her way. She has trouble with AA because she thinks she can devise a better way to get sober, a method no one else has thought of yet.
At the edge of her consciousness hovers the terrifying possibility that she’s not as smart or as talented as she imagines she is. For years she’s been struggling with her ambitions and her addictions, and she wants to think she still has time to make it all come out right. And probably his whole life Mr. B. thought he could make it all come out right. Probably he still thinks that.
On Saturday when Dell arrives at work, Mr. B. has taken the Patients’ Rights poster off the bulletin board and is marching up and down the hall with it held to his chest. He says he wants his monitor off so he can go outside whenever he pleases, without a nurse. She tells him the doctors aren’t going to do that, because the last time he was on the unit, he left without being officially discharged. He declares this a lie, getting so mad he spews saliva.
“You can sputter all you want,” she says, “but I can’t take it off.”
“You can take it off,” he points out. “It’s just you don’t have an order.”
He stares at Dell, waiting for a reply. She and a nurse named Patty both put on their best blank looks. They ignore his demonstration till he finally tacks the poster back up on the bulletin board (crookedly, of course). Patty gives out meds, and Dell gets started on showers. First she helps Mr. Riggoli wash himself, and then Mr. Purty. She is going to shower Mr. B. when Patty says, “Let’s tub him.” The unit has a fancy whirlpool tub for patients with physical disabilities.
“Oh, God,” Dell says, “that’s so much work,” but Patty replies, “I’ll draw the water.”
When they get Mr. B. in the tub, he lifts his legs straight out of the water and howls that it’s too hot, that they’re scalding him, that he’s being made a guinea pig. Dell tells him the tub is designed so the water can’t be too hot. Finally, after a lot of swearing and hand waving, he gets used to the temperature. Then Dell and Patty go at him hammer and tongs. Patty cuts the hair out of his ears and trims his eyebrows, and Dell scrubs his fingernails and beard. All the while they keep up a running commentary:
“See, the water’s not too hot, is it?”
“Your beard is disgusting.”
“Mr. B., you are so dirty. You look like someone who lives in a cave and eats possums.”
“God, look at this huge blackhead.”
“C’mon, Mr. B., don’t you like having two women bathe you?”
These quips are interspersed with much giggling. Mr. B. slumps in the tub, making occasional grunts and groans of appreciation and seeming to enjoy himself thoroughly.
At one point Patty has to go get Mr. B. some clean clothes to put on after his bath, and Dell and Mr. B. are left alone together. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem. Dell has a well-developed, twenty-year nurse’s callus: human frailty and nakedness are not much different from a bowl of fruit to her. But suddenly something shifts. The water dripping into the tub sounds unnaturally loud. Mr. B. snuffles, and the noise seems deafening. Dell has nothing to do, her face grows hot, and her hands feel enormous, like catcher’s mitts. She busies herself by mopping the floor with a dirty towel.
Mr. B. asks, “You aren’t really one of those mean nurses, are you?” He says this quite clearly.
Dell feels as if her heart were shot through, and she waits a second to reply. “I am mean, sometimes.”
“But not really, not inside,” he says.
Before she can answer, Patty comes back with an armful of clean, donated clothes. Mr. B. gets sweat pants of an insipid shade of green, a worn T-shirt with an American flag on it that says, “These Colors Don’t Run” (though they do fade), and a plaid flannel jacket. He is not entirely pleased with this ensemble, as it does not fit his stylish image of himself, but he wears it and leaves the tub room clean, dry, and dressed, though wobbling a little, as if all the hair they have trimmed has left him a little off plumb. Then he goes into the kitchen and makes himself a Dagwood sandwich: lunch meat, peanut butter, jelly, Velveeta, and mustard, sprinkled liberally with Mrs. Dash. He eats this with gum-chomping gusto, and soon the beard Dell washed is streaked with orange saliva and bits of peppercorn.
Meanwhile the other patients on the unit, who have heard all the splashing and commotion, come to the nurses’ station and ask for baths. Patty tells them they aren’t old enough or crazy enough to need baths, and they say they are getting older and crazier by the minute, and Dell says, “Aren’t we all.”
Dell has a few days off after that. She wanted to spend the time working on her play, but she can’t stop thinking about Mr. B.: his strange walk, his garbled talk, his smell. She reminds herself that she should try to be kinder to him, and while she’s at it she should take a hard look at her own life, and decide which goals she can accomplish and which she should give up on. Meanwhile she distracts herself by cleaning out her closets and scrubbing the tub.
On her way back to work for an evening shift, Dell drops off some books with Melanie, a friend from AA. Melanie has bursitis and has been told to rest her hip, so she’s been mooning around in bed, and Dell thought she might like something to read. It has also occurred to Dell that Melanie may have been given something for pain, but Dell doesn’t want to get her hopes up. Doctors are so stingy these days; they probably put Melanie on Indocin and left it at that.
Melanie lives in a quaint residential part of town: rows of wooden houses with peeling paint crowded close together on narrow lanes. Dell parks on the street and runs in with her books. While she’s there, she quizzes Melanie about what pills the doctors have put her on, and Melanie complains they gave her Percocet, which is so strong it made her puke. Careful to keep a straight face, Dell advises her to cut it into quarters if she needs to take it again. Melanie shudders and says forget it; she’ll take the Indocin.
They chat for a while about what it means to “turn your life over to the will of God as you understand God.” Melanie, who has been sober longer than Dell, says she is beginning to feel the presence of a higher power. As always, Dell wants more evidence that God exists before she turns anything over to her or him. She knows she’s made mistakes in her life, but she isn’t convinced that, had she turned everything over to God, this hard-to-pin-down deity could have done much better.
Before she leaves, Dell asks, as if it were an afterthought, “Can I use the bathroom?”
“Sure,” Melanie says. “Just remember to jiggle the handle, or the toilet won’t stop running.”
In the bathroom Dell turns on the faucet and opens the medicine cabinet. She finds the bottle of Percocet, shakes out five, closes the cabinet, turns off the faucet, and flushes. Then she dashes downstairs, calling goodbye to Melanie, and rockets off, patting her pocket to make sure the pills are safe. She has driven halfway down the street when she realizes she forgot to jiggle the handle.
The first thing Dell sees as she comes through the double doors at work is Mr. B. lurking at the nurses’ desk. This makes her pause for a moment, because she remembers her resolution to be kinder to him, and to accomplish something in her own life. The problem is she has five Percocets, and if she takes them right now, she’ll be guaranteed hours of euphoria. She’ll be able to do her job, and nothing will bother her. The hard part will come only when the drugs wear off. Then she’ll be anxious. She’ll want a drink. And if she’s really going to get her life in shape so she doesn’t end up old and disappointed like Mr. B., she’d better start making some changes now. But what to do with the five little nostrums in her pocket, the ones she is touching at this very moment?
From the nurse going off duty, Dell finds out, to her amazement, that Mr. B. is to be discharged on Friday to a homeless shelter in a city to the west of them. When Dell takes over the floor, Mr. B. is raising his left arm and demanding that the monitor be taken off his wrist so he can be free. Dell tells him to be patient; he’ll be free soon enough. “Free as a bird, free as a bee, free as a bug,” she riffs, and he laughs, which surprises her. Then he asks if she could take him to the smoking area for a cigarette.
“Just a sec,” Dell says.
She goes into the staff bathroom and locks the door. One hand is in her pocket, clutching the pills. Turning her face away, Dell draws the hand from her pocket and holds it over the toilet. She pictures herself at seventy, living in a trailer full of cats, dressed in dirty sweat pants, drinking every morning. Abruptly, she opens her hand. The pills make a small splash. They lie there on the bottom, glimmering like a faraway constellation. She has never thrown away drugs before. She had no idea it would be so hard: like killing something. She considers fishing them out, but that’s too much, even for her.
The moment feels to her like a scene from a play. Maybe she should give up writing about her miserable childhood and start a new drama about the wider world and the meager triumphs that are all most of us ever have. It’s easy to be happy when life grants all your wishes. The trick is to be happy when it doesn’t.
She flushes the toilet, runs the water, and opens the door. Mr. B. is waiting by the unit exit with an impatient look. “How’s your cigarette supply?” Dell asks him, almost breathless.
“I’m low,” he says.
Dell goes into the back room, where there are at least ten donated packs for patients. She’s always given Mr. B. one cigarette at a time, but today she grabs a whole, unopened pack. When she comes out, she says, “Think fast,” and lobs it to him. To her surprise, he catches it.
“Let’s go smoke,” she says, “to celebrate.”