The Kid


I first saw The Kid at a hospice in Rock Island, Illinois, and thought I’d never see him again. Then I broke up with The Girl and he came to live with me, though I’d never invited him and wanted him to leave. For months, I watched him walking around my apartment at night, making peanut butter sandwiches, drinking milk, throwing up in my toilet. He seemed as real as the only time I’d seen him. He wasn’t a ghost, but I wasn’t sure what he was. In the mornings when I looked in the mirror, I was the self-professed saddest man alive, and sometimes when I saw The Kid I thought I was looking at myself—because I might’ve looked like him if I was ten years younger and institutionalized.

I decided to visit the hospice where I’d seen him for the first time, almost three years ago. The nurse with the ogre face was still working there. I told her that I didn’t expect her to remember me—I’d been a volunteer for a few months and I wanted to know if The Kid still lived there.

“He was this kid, maybe fifteen or so, so he’d be about twenty now.”

“What did he look like?”

I rubbed my chin as if trying to remember, but I remembered exactly. His face was pale with bright red splotches on his cheeks. He was crying so hard that the veins on his forehead seemed about to explode. I could’ve wrapped my thumb and forefinger around one of those veins and popped it. I didn’t tell The Ogre any of this. I told her that he had blue eyes, brown hair and a long angular nose. He was thin, medium height, on the pale side.

She looked at me suspiciously. “Why are you looking for him?”

My hands fumbled with my shirt. I should’ve brought flowers—the van was waiting outside, full of lilies, roses, daisies. I was a delivery driver for a flower shop. I knew all the flowers that were poisonous. I was convinced that I was allergic to bees, probably flowers, too. Sometimes when the van was empty I climbed in the back and jumped around, beating my fists against the metal, windowless walls, just to clean the excess energy out of my liver.

“Because I have something for him. A nice surprise.”

“We don’t like surprises here.”

“Well, I can give it to him in an unsurprising way. Also, he was a good friend of my brother’s.”

She didn’t believe me. I wasn’t very good at this kind of thing. However, I did manage to find out that he was gone, but it could’ve been for any number of reasons. Maybe he’d gotten better, but I doubted it.

“All right,” I said. “Forget about the brother and the surprises. I really need to find him.”

I wanted to tell her that I’d go crazy otherwise. That it was a matter of life or death. Not mine, but The Kid’s. Well, maybe mine, too. Maybe just mine.


~

I’d decided to volunteer at the hospice before I started my job at the flower shop, and I hadn’t met The Girl yet. I was just another lonely mope living on the Mississippi River. When I asked my therapist if pills would help, she suggested community service. Pills seemed easier, but she couldn’t prescribe them.

The hospice was just down the street from where I lived at the time, so I only had to walk a few blocks to reach the crisp green lawns that surrounded the building. The interior looked like a cross between a hospital and a cheap motel, with tiled hallways and hard gray carpet and narrow cots in the rooms. Most of the windows didn’t have bars, but some did. A lot of the patients were schizophrenics and former addicts, more than happy to have company. The hospice provided them a home.

My job was to pass around little plastic containers of apple sauce and good cheer. In other words, I was Mister Happy Guy, and I did my best to play the part. I rolled my cart down the hall and beamed my brightest smile. First I passed the craft room, where there were usually a half dozen people knitting or building birdhouses. The Ogre had told me that eventually I could volunteer for the birdhouse master class. I found the possibility strangely exciting. There were cardinals and house sparrows in my yard, and I liked to watch them from the window in the mornings.

Once I was finished with the craft room, I continued down the hall. There was an old guy with a buzz cut and a mustache who liked me, and I liked him back. He’d been homeless for a long time before landing at the hospice. He tapped his hands against his sides, counting one two three one two three.

“Apple sauce, Jim?”

“Can I have two? They barely put more than one bite in those things.” He tapped his sides, whispering the numbers.

I gave him two. There was a dirty joke I wanted to tell him—it involved getting an asshole and a pussy mixed up—but I was already getting the holes and the punch line all wrong, and that wasn’t Mister Happy Guy’s job. I knew The Ogre wouldn’t be happy if she heard that one.

I didn’t know what Jim’s diagnosis was, but the medicine must’ve helped. He was always smiling. Whenever I saw him I showed all my teeth. For some reason, he made me feel that happiness was a terrifying prospect. His eyes looked like Christmas ornaments or cheap trinkets and we shook hands, trapped in our merry little snow globe. Even after my hand went limp he wouldn’t let go.

There was a chatty older woman who liked to rip her hair out. Her name was Karen, and I liked her, too. Though I liked Jim most, I felt more comfortable around her, because she did all the talking and looked everywhere except at me. She told me how her knee hurt, and her back hurt, and her knee still hurt, and sometimes she couldn’t see, and sometimes she saw too much. But it was good to keep her talking because then she didn’t rip her hair out.

“Apple sauce, Karen?”

I gave her two.

At the end of the hall there was a padded door with a little observation window, though I’m probably remembering wrong. The door opened and The Kid came out. He held his arms wide and his cotton gown billowed like a sail. His eyes were two creased slits blooming with tears. His nose seemed broken and too large on his thin face.

I thought maybe he wanted a hug.

“Hi, there,” I said. The cart squeaked to a stop. Karen was still talking, building me a nest of wiry, gray hair.

The Kid was wailing with pain beyond pain I am become death destroyer of worlds and I knew that this was the crushing force of the universe when it decided to bear down on some skinny kid all at once now we are all sons of bitches. I tried to think of what to say.

I held up a container of apple sauce. “I don’t think we’ve met before,” I said, my voice cracking. The Kid waved his arms and wouldn’t stop crying. He stared through me with his iceberg eyes, and I stared through him, too. I saw the ninety percent that floats beneath the surface. It was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen. That was what drowning must’ve felt like—seeing the last little bubbles bursting from your mouth and floating to the surface. We were completely transparent, we were ghosts together. He was shivering. I knew he was cold and afraid.

I spread my arms wide, feeling strangely hopeful (I must be all right, compared to this), and prepared to embrace him, to feel his hot snots and tears on my neck, but he didn’t seem to hear or even see me.

“Janice, Janice,” he wailed. “I need you.”

The Ogre came out of nowhere—I didn’t even hear her footsteps. She took The Kid in her arms.

“There, there,” she said, her voice strangely soothing. He was still crying, his arms held out as if he hadn’t reached her yet. Enveloped in her body, he sounded like a suffocating infant.

Now my hands were frozen on the handles of the cart with its tiny cartons of chilled apple sauce. And then I thought what I’d been trying not to think all along: a single broken mind, if it’s your own, fissures the entire world.

“Go on, go on,” The Ogre said. She was shielding The Kid from me, but he seemed beyond embarrassment, beyond reprieve. Maybe some apple sauce would be good after all. You could throw or crush it, watch it splatter. You could rub it on your bulging veins like a salve. You could eat it and it would feel good when you shit it out.

The Ogre led The Kid back to his room. He slapped at the walls, gurneys and light switches as if they might bite him. His gown fluttered open at the back, his skinny butt showing and finally disappearing, along with The Ogre, behind a self-closing door. That was the end of my volunteer experience at the hospice. There would be no birdhouse master classes for me.


~

Seeing The Kid actually made me feel better about things for a while. Whenever I felt down, I reminded myself of The Kid. Just think of The Kid, I thought. Now he was fucked up, Mister Happy Guy. And I didn’t laugh, not exactly, and I didn’t feel amused, not exactly, but I felt giddy and a little exhilarated, too.

This was all before he started haunting my apartment. I felt a renewed sense of perspective. I considered traveling abroad and getting a fresh start, even though the possibility of leaving the country was scary for me. I checked out travel guides from the library—Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Brazil. I’d actually break into a cold sweat at the thought of buying a plane ticket. But it was better than thinking about the sorry state of my personal life. I felt a strange, new confidence, and I tried not to think about how shaky it was. It was around that time I started working at the flower shop.

I met a girl and we were together for two years. I’d say her name except things ended badly with us. The Girl was agoraphobic but functional enough. She avoided crossing bridges at all costs. This was a problem because I lived on the other side of the Mississippi, so I usually came over to her place with Chinese take-out or pulled pork sandwiches, and we’d watch movies. I suggested that we build our own birdhouse and hang it from the tree behind her building, but she didn’t want to. I even moved to Iowa so she could visit me, and I felt good about myself because I didn’t have a problem crossing bridges. I fell in love with The Girl and asked her to marry me after three months. She said no so I asked again after six months, and then at biweekly intervals until she said no no no and freaked out and disconnected her phone and locked herself into her apartment.

The Girl had bangs and long brown hair. She showered regularly but almost never washed her face. She was short and had a little potbelly, but I always thought she was beautiful. Sometimes we went to the pet store and examined the fish, because she was always dreaming of adding new species to her aquarium. We looked at the guppies and mollies and killis, the piranhas and stingrays and African butterfly fish. The Girl would nestle under my chin. Her arms would flutter lightly, as if she had fins herself. I’d dream of giving her the fish that breathes on land for her birthday. Once I bought her a little zebra striped fish as a surprise, but it went belly-up before I could give it to her. I took him to the Mississippi and left him for the catfish.

A few weeks after The Girl freaked out and left me, I came home from work and someone was standing at the kitchen counter, smoothing out the peanut butter and using the good jam. I made this weird, sadly pathetic karate yell and then charged him. He turned and looked at me with his iceberg eyes. How many times had I looked at myself in the mirror and seen that expression? I backed against the wall and rubbed my eyes, but he was still there. I watched him eat his peanut butter sandwich. Finally I realized it was The Kid, if not in the flesh, then almost. I wanted to touch him but I was too scared. He finished the sandwich and walked through the wall into the bathroom, where I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of vomiting. There was a plate with breadcrumbs on the counter. Had I eaten a PB sandwich earlier that day? I went into the bathroom, repulsed by the acrid smell in the toilet. I leaned over and threw up, then flushed it down.

I told myself that I’d imagined it, but I left the TV on all night and closed the curtains and wrapped myself in all the blankets I could find. I didn’t have insurance or medicine. I’d always been functional enough. I tried to be nice and I delivered flowers just like I handed out apple sauce. I knew there were a lot of other people like me out there, getting along fine, and I just wanted to have my girl and my own life back.

After that I saw The Kid once a week, sometimes more, even though I prayed not to see him. Sometimes he poured himself a glass of milk, and I pleaded with him to leave. Sometimes he slept in the recliner or looked out the window, and I shouted and waved my arms but he would walk through walls or stand on the ceiling and jump up and down—it made me dizzy. The worst was when he threw up, which was often, peanut butter and jam and milk, so I stopped buying those things, but he didn’t stop throwing up. First it was the horrible retching, followed by long guttural dry heaves.

For a long time he was quiet other than when he was throwing up, but then he started wailing and crying and passing through walls, his cotton gown billowing behind him. That was when I went to the hospice and pleaded with The Ogre to tell me what had happened to him.


~

I drove home from the hospice feeling angry. It was a relief to be angry because I felt in control, while I knew I was powerless when I was afraid. I weaved the flower van through traffic and tried to think about how nice it would be if the back doors of the van flew open and all the roses, lilies and daffodils trailed onto the highway. I crossed the wide, muddy Mississippi and when I got home The Kid was banging the kitchen cupboards and crying.

“Is there anything you need?” I asked him.

He walked through the wall but then he walked back in, still crying.

“Do you want some milk and peanut butter? Do you want some apple sauce?”

He jumped up and down on the ceiling. I lost my temper.

“Do you want me to bash your head in? Is that what you want? Because I’ll do it. I swear I will.”

He went into the bathroom and threw up.

The next day I went to a hobby store and bought all the things I needed to make a birdhouse. I bought wood and glue and a little saw, but no hobby knife because they were too small and sharp. I also got paintbrushes and paints and a ruler. I spread out sheets of newspaper and sat on the floor in my living room. I measured out the walls and the roof of the birdhouse—triangles on top of squares for the walls and rectangles for the roof. I painted the birdhouse green and added red shingles.

The Kid sat down on the love seat and watched me. He squeezed his knees together with his hands between them as if he’d banged his thumb. He watched with distrustful eyes; for the first time I noticed how light a shade of blue they were. They were almost transparent. When I hammered the roof onto the little house he wailed and ran through the bathroom wall. When I finished, he came back and sat down.

For my first birdhouse, it wasn’t bad, and I felt tenderly toward it. The Kid was sleeping on the loveseat. It was the first time I’d seen him asleep. I wanted to touch him but as soon as I leaned over his eyes popped open and he began to cry.


~

I stopped by the hospice whenever I was doing deliveries in the area, but The Ogre was always there. Finally, after about three weeks (I’d built a half dozen bird houses by then), I came on a day when The Ogre wasn’t working. I told the receptionist that I’d once been a volunteer there and I wanted to know if my friend Jim was still around.

She smiled and a nurse led me down the cool blue corridors. There were more windows than I remembered, and more bars. The place smelled like rubbing alcohol and old puke and unwashed bodies. The floor tiles were white squares with wavy gray ripples. When I looked closely, the waves and ripples became an ocean and the tiles spelled out words I wanted to decipher.

“Jim,” I said, though I didn’t recognize him. He looked older. He smiled his toothpaste smile and I showed all my teeth. He didn’t recognize me either, but he seemed happy to see me. “I brought him apple sauce,” I told the nurse, and she checked the plastic package to make sure it was sealed. Jim sat on his neatly made cot and I sat in a chair by his desk. There was a plastic vase full of real flowers. I wondered if someone in a van had delivered them, someone like me, giving out his parcels of color and fragrance. This person would be my counterpart, preferably female. We’d park our vans next to each other in a supermarket lot and silently exchange bouquets, then continue our deliveries as if nothing had happened.

“I’m trying to place you,” Jim said. “You look familiar. Have you been on television?”

“I was on the local news in high school. They were doing a piece on chess club. They didn’t ask me any questions, but you could see me in the background.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” he said, shaking his head. “Would you like to play some checkers? It’s the same as chess, except a lot easier.”

“Sure, I’ll play a game.”

“Let me get the board. I’ll be right back.”

As soon as he left the room, I took a packet of powdered plant food from my pocket and put it in the bouquet of flowers. I did this quickly, and then I folded the packet very small and put it back in my pocket. The sun was shining through the bars on the window. Why did Jim have bars? He seemed happy to be here.

The checkerboard was missing a piece so we used a penny instead. I tried very hard to lose the game and finally managed to succeed.

“Do you remember this kid who used to live here a few years back?” I tried to describe him as best as I could—transparent blue eyes, moved like a ghost, his head would fit in a pressure cooker just so.

“Oh, yes,” he said, sitting up straight. “You’re talking about The Kid.”

“Yeah, that’s him. The Kid. That’s what you call him?” I leaned forward, suddenly excited.

“Yes, The Kid. I remember The Kid.” Jim had a distant look in his eyes.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. I think he got transported.”

“Where did he get transported?”

Jim scratched his head. “I’m not sure. You can write him a letter. I think Karen writes him letters.”

“Karen still lives here? Karen writes him letters?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure.”

Jim took me to Karen’s room. She was as talkative as ever, though she was mostly bald with only a few patches of gray hair left. She told me that her face hurt worse than it ever had. Her mouth moved sideways when she talked, and that scared me. She twirled one of the hair patches around her finger and gave me a shy look. There were deep grooves running from her eyes down to her mouth, a riverbed for the tears.

“Mister Happy Guy, I’m glad you’re back! Did you bring apple sauce?”

I was surprised that she remembered me.

“Do you have flowers? All I have is plant food.”

I gave her all the plant food I had, but only after she promised not to eat it.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Why would I eat plant food?” We laughed together. Of course she didn’t eat plant food. Who did? I thought of the large plastic containers full of fish food at The Girl’s place. The orange flakes always made my mouth water when she poured them into the aquarium. I never ate any but I remained curious. That’s what this hospice needed—more aquariums. Even one would do, as long as it was large and didn’t have fish that would eat each other.

“Do you write letters to The Kid?”

“I’ve been working on one all week.” She pointed at her desk, which had three sheets of lined paper side by side. There was also a bouquet of flowers, and over all this a latticed grid of sunlight. The letter seemed to be laid out like a comic strip, with panels and pictures.

“Do you have his address?” I asked her. “Do you know his real name?”

“I just call him kiddo,” she said.

“Does he ever visit here? Do you ever see him?”

“No,” Karen said, laughing. Jim laughed with her. “He’s been transported.”

“But does he ever get transported back here? Does he ever walk through walls?”

“How could he walk through walls?” Jim asked. “There are bars on the windows.”

Karen started playing with her hair. She seemed concerned. When the nurse arrived, Karen asked which room I’d moved into. The nurse explained that I didn’t live there and that it was time for me to leave. Everyone seemed relieved, even me.

I told the nurse that I wanted to see The Kid. She told me that his address was confidential.

“I’d like to send him a letter. Can I do that?”

“You could do that,” the nurse said slowly. “But all his mail is screened, so it would have to be a nice letter.”

“All right. Can I drop it by next week?”

“You could do that,” she said again. She had a fringe of dark hair on her upper lip. She had a pretty mouth and small black eyes. I said goodbye to Jim and Karen and then followed the nurse down the hall. She had a nice figure. I’d never been one to entertain fantasies of nurses in starched white outfits, but this was a good time to start.

“Could I make him a birdhouse?” I asked her. It would seem innocuous enough but I could scramble the letters of the message on the little red shingles so they made no sense to the nurses but made perfect sense to The Kid. I’d build a little chimney and crush it. He’d spend hours weighing each of the little house’s portents—cobwebs in the windows, the miniature old fashioned butter churn that he could see when he peeked in (of no use to birds and even less use to him, since it would be glued firmly to the base). Perhaps I’d make hundreds of little rooms out of toothpicks. It would be the size of a large dollhouse and filled with stuffed doll birds. All of these thoughts spiraled and soared and crashed and burned in the space of a few seconds, a few billion synapses, and a single curt no from the nurse.

I climbed into the van and sped around the paved circle with its fountain, past manicured gardens and through the gate, driving fast because I was an hour behind on deliveries. What if The Girl were dressed in one of those nurse’s dresses, and what if I were to bend her very forcefully over an examining table, only to discover that she was wearing nothing underneath? And what if I happened to have in my possession one large shiny speculum, warmed by my hands and lubricated with my tongue? Not to mention one bright examining light which I’d maneuver into the correct position as she whispered my name with little cries. Only then, dilated, would she offer up a pink heart, shaped like Valentine’s candy and imprinted with the message, won’t you be mine?


~

So now I had new hobbies, coping mechanisms if you will, and I felt more peaceful. As The Kid dashed through walls and watched intently, I made birdhouses and wrote countless drafts of the letter. The Kid tried to read the letter over my shoulder but I wouldn’t let him. I’d started buying milk and peanut butter again. My life had accumulated a certain fullness, a kind of gentle suspense punctuated by flowers under examining lights and the watchful gaze of stars. I was several pages into an impassioned letter before I realized it was really for The Girl, not The Kid. I simply had to reverse most of the words—“love” for “hate,” or “marry me, darling” for “avaunt, you sorry specter,” and of course I could leave the pleases and thank yous and rambling asides about birdhouses intact.

The letter I finally sent her was only a page and stripped of all beseeching and pleading, stripped also of the perversions that had served us well in our intimacy. It was really only a letter about watching movies, how we could do this from opposite ends of the couch, and how I’d be happy to bring take-out and pulled pork sandwiches and I’d never propose to her again. Because didn’t we really need a little company, didn’t we want things to be a little easier? To help my entreaties, I kept my letter on the dashboard of the van for two days, and before delivering each bouquet, I rubbed the flowers gently against the envelope. Eventually, I felt confident enough (a kind of carelessness, really) to put it in the mailbox.


~

I had an accident a few weeks later, a minor one, but it wasn’t my fault. An old lady in a Buick town car ran into the rear fender while I was waiting for a red light. It was a gentle bump, a love tap really, but there was a hideous scree sound as our bumpers gnashed their teeth. I looked at her wrinkled face in the side mirror. Even from this distance (since objects are closer than they appear), I could see that she was crying. She was wearing a red coat and a matching red hat with a little flower in it. She was all dressed up, she was going somewhere—that place happened to be my fender. Despite the inconvenience for my deliveries, I felt terrible for her. I wanted to make a dramatic entrance (or more appropriately, an exit). I’d open the rear doors of the van from the inside and shower her windshield with flowers.

Instead, I stepped out of the car and we waited for the officer and filled out accident reports. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. What if I wasn’t afraid to do all the things I wanted to do?

But what was most important about that day was the letter I received from The Girl, in which she said she’d consider watching movies together, under one condition: that we watch the movies quietly and talk very little, at least for a while. So I banished all thoughts of speculums from my mind and imagined instead the sort of radioactive, lurid landscape in which orange snow floats through a molten blue sky, only to disappear in a flash of scaly kisses and golden flippers. In the background, Hokkaido in winter, red temples under a drift of orange snowflakes, looking exactly as it did in a guidebook.

Lying in bed that night, I trembled with hope and fear at the endless possibilities. In the dark, I couldn’t see The Kid. He might’ve been sleeping, or perhaps he was quietly making his peanut butter sandwich, now that I’d taken to leaving the bread out.

But usually he isn’t around. I see him a few times a week and that suits us both. His needs are simple and I do my best to fulfill them. What can I ask of him, really, other than hope he sits quietly and rests his eyes?  

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