A Story by Jonathan Strong

TIM was a thirteen-year-old fat boy, the youngest patient on the ward. I knew him after I had been at the hospital several weeks and had begun to get myself back in touch. We talked first in the lounge on a rainy alternoon listening to a Donovan record.

“Jamie,” said Tim, “that’s your name, right?”

“Right,”I said.

“You been here long?" His round lace was red because it had been hard for him to start talking to me.

“Three weeks,” I said. “Don’t you remember?”

“I been here so long I don’t remember who were here when. I been here eight months. Where you from?”

“Winnetka,” I said.

“Is that your car, the turquoise-blue one?”

“Yep.”

“You must be rich,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say so. Where you from?”

“Skokie.” He had a bright voice that was starting to get lower but was mostly high-pitched still. His teeth stuck out a little, but he could have been handsome if he were not so fat. “I love rainy days,” he said. “I hate sunny days. I love it when it’s all gray and soggy.”

“Are you kidding?" I said.

“Nope,”said Tim. “I really do.”

Our ward was in the basement of the building. The lounge was built of gray concrete blocks, and the windows at the ceiling showed clouds and long grass that had not been clipped. There were about fifty of us day patients. A lot of guys were in for drugs, but there were all kinds—straight guys, suburban ladies with nerves, some far-out chicks, old ladies having shock treatments, two old men who played chess. I slowly made friends all around, but I mostly stayed with the guys my age with the same experiences.

I had sat with Tim once before at the O.T. table when he was drawing a bullfrog that turned out quite well. I had been working on a leather belt myself. We had not talked then, but now in the lounge we had. He sat back in his chair, and his T-shirt lifted up to show his round middle. We did not talk anymore for a while but listened to the Donovan record, with the rain in the background. Tim had brought the record in. The lounge had a Victrola donated by someone, but we had to bring our own records. The younger patients were usually the ones who brought records in, though sometimes we had to suffer through some lady’s Dean Martin album.

“Hey, Jamie,” said Tim, “you like this song?”

“Yep,”I said. It was “Mad John’s Escape,” which I think is a cool song.

“I play the bass guitar, sou know,” said Tim.

“You do?”

“I couldn’t get into a group yet, but I’m learning it.”

“Great,”I said.

“You play?”

“Some,”I said. “Hey, how’s the bullfrog?”

“Miss Hedrick wants me to enter it in the hospital art show.”Miss Hedrick was the O.T. nurse and a cool chick.

“Great,” I said.

“I love frogs,” said Tim. “Except you know a funny thing? When I were little, I used to dread lily pads.”

“What?”

He was sitting on the edge of his chair, and his friendly eyes were looking at me. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “I actually dreaded lily pads, I dreaded them.”

“How come, do you suppose?”

“I don’t know. When I were little, a wet lily pad blew onto my stomach and stuck when I were swimming up in Wisconsin. I couldn’t get it off. I were really scared.”

“How come you always say wore instead of was?”

“I don’t know,” said Tim. “I just do.”

Though he was seven years younger than me, I did feel like being his friend in a way. I found him a cool person. He was very bright for his age, not that he necessarily knew a lot, but he responded with a lot of feelings to things. I myself had been such a dead kid at his age. We went on talking most of the afternoon. I had nothing else to do, having got my work therapy out of the way that morning. We talked about his family and his lack of friends. He brought up his fatness, which I was going to ignore, but I should have known he would want to talk about it. He said Miss Hedrick told him he would look something like Donovan if he lost some weight.

I was a particular friend of Tim’s for the rest of my time at the hospital. He said he did not have anyone he could talk to about his life except me and of course his doctor. Every day we sat and talked, particularly about the things he wanted to know about sex. He worried about getting excited seeing girls on the bus on his way to the hospital in the mornings. Once he went three stops beyond the hospital and had to take another bus back because he could not stand up without grossing-out the whole car, as he put it. He wanted to know all about my chick Diane, and every morning he asked me if I had slept with her last night.

I made several other close friends too, but I do not feel like writing about other guys who were into drugs. I talked with them about drugs the same as if we knew each other on the outside. I was trying to get away from all that. My friends and I had spent the winter in one apartment or another turning on. They were still doing it. My doctor and I agreed that while I was in the hospital I would not hang around with my friends outside anymore. I only saw them for an hour or so in the evenings on the way home, and they thought it was very mystical and mind-blowing to be in the hospital. I spent most of my time at home and with some old straight friends from high school. I did not mind the quiet evenings, because my days were busier, and I slept a lot. I soon got sort of attached to the hospital. It was an experience I was having by myself which my friends could not share.

One Monday I wanted to talk to a chick who had just been admitted to the ward, but she was withdrawing, sitting with her head between her knees, rocking a little back and forth. While I was sitting beside her on the green plastic couch in the lounge, I heard a crash in the dayroom. I got up and went in, and it was Tim throwing things. He had tipped over a bridge table and thrown a chair. The ladies at the sewing table were all scared but trying not to notice what he was doing. Mrs. Fisk, the head nurse, was standing facing Tim with her hands on her hips. I realized that though I had thought of him as my friend, I did not know him well enough to do anything at that point. I could not go up to him and try to calm him down because I was not his doctor and I did not know what was involved. That was the hard thing about making friends at the hospital.

They put him on restrictions for the rest of the week. He could not leave the dayroom to go to the gym or the grille or even the lounge, and the attendant had to go to lunch with him. The next day I tried to talk to him, but he did not want to talk. They had upped his dose of Thorazine, and that kept him pretty much subdued. He said he wanted to go to sleep, but it was against the rules to put your head down or close your eyes, and the nurses kept making him sit up.

Tim spent the week at the O.T. table painting. His first bullfrog was so good, he did more of them. He modified them till they were simple heart-shaped green things with one eye and feet. Then he started to do them in all colors. The last one he did was not even a frog but blobs of dark colors which he called “Frog at Night.” While he was painting frogs, I wrote a poem about drowning which I hoped one of my friends outside could make into a song, and I submitted it to the hospital newspaper. The girl who had been withdrawing read it and said it was “a real trip.”

The next week Tim was off restrictions, and we sat in the lounge again listening to records. I brought in the Cream and the Doors, and Tim brought Tim Buckley. He told me then what had caused his tantrum. He had gone with Lucille, a teeny-bopper who was really tough, into the closet where they stored the gym equipment, and she had got him excited and unzipped his fly, and they had made love sitting on a chair. Tim had told his doctor because he thought he would keep it secret, but his doctor told the entire staff. Tim was so mad when one of the nurses talked to him about it that he started throwing things. Of course his doctor had to tell Lucille’s doctor and the staff, but Tim did not understand. Now he wanted to know more about sex. It had not been very good, he said. He felt all funny about it. I told him that for it to be good you had to care something for the girl and you had to do it more relaxedly, in your bed, not in some closet.

That week Tim became troublesome again. Though he was still on Thorazine, he burped very loudly all the time and made the ladies at the sewing table cringe. In our talks he got more dirty-minded and talked about bathroom things a lot. I tried not to laugh and told him I did not want to talk to him if he would not be serious. He showed me a picture he had drawn of himself looking like a meatball standing behind his doctor, who was throwing up into the toilet and saying, “Tim, what a stupid, disgusting patient you are, you make me vomit!” I told him he should show it to his doctor. He said he already had.

My work therapy was changed from the shop to the grille, and Tim used to meet me on my break and have a milk shake. Once I told him to have a Diet-Pepsi instead, but he said Diet-Pepsi made him vomit, and he let out a burp. Everyone in the grille, mostly patients, looked at him.

“Jamie, why am I such a stupid baby?” he said to me.

“You’re not stupid,” I said.

“I know. You might not believe it. I have a very high I.Q. When I were tested, they said my I.Q. were near genius level.”

“I can believe it, Tim,” I said.

“But I always act like such a baby. If I were only handsome like you.”

“Cut out the milk shakes every day. Have a grapefruit juice if you don’t like Diet-Pepsi.”

“Oh, puke,” said Tim. “You know what that is you’re eating?” I was eating a strawberry-rhubarb pie with powdered sugar.

“I hate to think,” I said.

“It’s bloody snots with curdles.” I just kept eating and ignored him.

“I told you I want to talk to you without all that,” I said.

“I can’t help it. It just comes out. Like puke.” He burped.

“Come on, Tim,” I said. He looked at me with his friendly eyes.

“Why do you like to talk to me?” he said.

Mr. Strong is a talented young writer who has just completed his course work at Harvard. This story comes from his first collection, TIKE AND FIVE STORIES, to be published next month by the Atlantic Monthly Press. “Because I can really talk to you. I can tell you things. It helps me too, you know.”

“But you’ll be going soon, and you have all your friends and sexy Diane and your car. I’ll be still here for years.”

“It won’t be years, Tim.”

“Nothing will get any better.”

“How do you know? Have faith in the place.”

“They said I were getting worse.”

“Well, I don’t know, Tim.”

“Why should some people be handsome like you and some ugly and fat?”

“Why don’t you just try eating a little less each day?”

“You told me before I should starve myself for a couple of days so my stomach shrinks, and then I wouldn’t want as much.”

“Well, then try that. Doesn’t your doctor give you a diet?”

“I’m mad at him now.”

“Tim, you know, being thin doesn’t mean you solve your problems.” I felt bad saying that to him. To him being thin was a kind of solution.

The following week he was doing well enough to have work therapy. They assigned him to the grille with me, but he kept sneaking brownies and shakes. After a few days he had enough of work. When he was fooling around with the soda jet, it sprayed out onto some customers, and the manager of the grille sent him back to the ward.

I WAS going to be discharged, and I had told Tim about it. We were working at the O.T. table. I told him as casually as I could, and I immediately suggested that maybe I could still see him, maybe I could pick him up some afternoon and go to a movie. He said they would not allow it because patients cannot see each other on the outside. I told him I would not be a patient anymore, but he was still sure it would not be allowed. Anyway, I felt better saying I would try to see him again. It was going to be a hard thing leaving the hospital after so many weeks, especially the patients I meant something to.

My own therapy had been going pretty well. I would still see my doctor once a week to keep me in line for a while. I planned to get a job and hopefully go back to college in the fall. I really felt I was through with drugs, at least acid and speed for sure. I am not going to get into that kind of thing again.

Tim painted a lot during my last week. He was on restrictions again and taking a lot of Thorazine. I decided to paint too, and I did a psychedelic painting of the bottom of the sea with creatures crawling around. It was an illustration of my poem. Tim drew in a little frog at the top, swimming.

Once I went into the bathroom to clean off my brush, and when I came back the paints on my palette had all been swirled around in a big mess and VOMIT was written across my painting. Tim was not around. I did not see him the rest of the day.

The next day I was in the lounge listening to somebody’s Donovan album, Sunshine Superman. It was a beautiful day outside, but of course we could not go out. I was glad I was being discharged before the really good weather started. The chick who had been withdrawing had become a pal of mine. She was sitting with me on the green couch making a string of beads. Tim came in and sat down across from us.

“Jamie,” he said. “I’m sorry I wrote VOMIT on your painting.”

“That’s OK.”

“I just had to get mad at you, for going.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“I don’t have any friends anywhere,” he said, He looked up at the windows. “I wish it were gray and soggy out. I hate it like this.”

“I asked my doctor about us getting together for a movie or something on the outside,” I said. “He said he’d have to talk to your doctor, but it might be all right.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Tim. “When I get discharged from here, I can see you whenever I like.” We sat and listened to the record, and then Mandy, the chick, had to go, so Tim and I were alone. The side was over, and the needle lifted up and started at the beginning again.

“I lost three pounds,” said Tim.

“Great.”

“You know what this looks like?” He was eating a brownie.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said.

“Don’t you want to know?” he said, sitting on the edge of the chair.

“I know.”

“What?” He was chuckling.

“You know. I’m not saying.”

“Did you sleep with Diane last night?”

“Nope,” I said.

“I wish I could meet her,” said Tim.

“Maybe you will,” I said. Suddenly I felt sad encouraging him. I did not know if I would come through. “Dreaded any lily pads lately?” I said.

“Nope. I really used to though.”

“You wouldn’t make a very good frog.”

“I know. But I wish I were a frog.”

“Hey, Tim, I’ve got a present for you.” I pulled off the belt I was wearing, the one I made in O.T., and gave it to him. “I’ll make you a bet that when you’re my age you’ll be wearing this buckled at the same notch I do. That’s this one.”I took out my knife and scratched a cross on the nextto-tightest notch.

“Thanks, Jamie,” he said and leaned forward to hold the belt. He put it on, but it did not go around him at all. I had not thought he was that fat.

“Oh, boy,” I said. “Well, that’s incentive then.”

He smiled. Then we said what was hard for us to say. He started. “I’ll miss you, Jamie, I’ll really miss you here.”

“I’ll miss you too, Tim,” I said. I remember him as he was then: he knew I was going outside and that I would change. It was like leaving him there.

The day I left the hospital it was hard saying good-bye to everyone. I talked with Miss Hedrick for a while, and I wished I had got to know her better before. Our doctors still had not decided whether Tim and I could get together for a movie. My record as a responsible guy was a little fuzzy. Anyway, I could not know all that was involved. Tim was a sick guy.

I promised to write him a song on frogs, something about the Frog-who-would-a-wooing-go or the Frog Prince. My poem about drowning was printed in the hospital newspaper that week. I will put it at the end of this story.

DE OOZY BED

Layin in de oozy bed
Minners swim about me head.
Swarm o waterbug at play
Swim above me all de day.
Now me sinkin in de ooze,
Close me eye an take me snooze.
Do no hear de lates news,
Do no want an do no choose,
Nuttin here fo me to lose
Sleepin down among de ooze.
All dem fish no matter whose,
Comes in greens and comes in blues.
Crabbies crawlin by in twos,
Lobster grabbin at me shoes,
Crawdad an de octopooze
All a-livin in de ooze.
Sink into de oozy slime,
No mo place an no mo time.
All de oozy people knows
Here de place to close de eye.