Monday, November 17, 2008

Chapter One: The Insane Asylum, August 1868

I was working the hay field across from the insane asylum. Pierson had a gang of us out there with rakes. It was the first week of August, and hot. The locusts were squalling. I could look down and see the broad blue elbow of the Connecticut River in the valley below, and it only made the heat worse. The sweat ran in currents through my scalp and down my neck. And the haydust clung to my skin like a burlap shirt, but it itched worse.

I was the only sane one on the gang. Except for Vinny. But it seemed like I was the only one sweating.

I stopped for some water and Pierson spotted me.

"Conroy," he said. "Keep raking."

"I ain't your prisoner. And I ain't no madman. I'll get a drink of water when I'm thirsty," I yelled back.

"You're the only one gets paid." Pierson called back.

"I'm thirsty too," Chester Nealy shouted in his cow voice. Then it was too late. Pretty soon the whole gang of them crazies was mooing for water.

"Drink then," Pierson spat a muddy gob. His teeth looked like piano keys from that black twist he chewed. "But get back to work as soon as you're done."

I got to the water first, and was glad.

I was mostly used to these men by now, living with them as I did. But I know some people couldn't bear to look at them, with their faces twisted and squashed like they were. I got over that a while back.

But I didn't want even one of them getting to the water first and drooling in the bucket.

"He's a bitch's bastard's whore, he is. He can bite my arse," Vinny whispered to me.

Vinny learned to curse when he sailed with a freight line out of New London. He was abandoned in Spain when he beat the boswain of the Mary Lee near to death in Madrid. The boswain tried to sell him to a circus.

"Fuck Pierson, but don't fuck his mother," he leaned into me, "She'll give you the clap."

And he laughed.

Vinny was nearly as sane as me. And I don't say that with any pride. He was, down deep, a better man than I. But he'd lived up here at the insane asylum for eighteen years, and that pushed him off center. That was before I was born, by four years. Before they called this place the insane asylum.

When he got back to New London on another freighter, the police were waiting for him on the dock. They never told him why he was arrested, but he says he remembers seeing that boatswain smiling as they loaded him into the Paddy Wagon. He didn't go without a fight. He still carries a leather oval that he shows when he tells the story.

"There's a one-eared, son-of-a-papist, Irish copper pounding a beat in New London. That flat-footed potato thief won't ever forget me. I'll never forget him, either" Then he'd stash the soft, wrinkled oval in his pocket again, shrug his shoulders and laugh softly.

They put him in lockup for awhile, then shipped him up where his family came from. His family weren't very happy to see him again. Fact is, they thought they'd seen the last of him. Vinny swears they put the boatswain up to selling him to the circus.

Middletown didn't want him either, jail or no. The chief of police couldn't stand to look at him. So they sent him up to the Goodman home, what we call the insane asylum now, and he's lived with these lunatics for eighteen years.

That's why I say he's almost as sane as me. After eighteen years with this kind -- the night screams and the fits, the arms and legs and necks twisted all the wrong way – you'd fall a little off the track too.

Vinny's face was one of the hardest to look at when you first saw him. His really doesn't look much like a face at all. It's a bright violet blotch. It looks like it's turned inside out, like a butcher slit it down the middle, pulled what was underneath out, and chopped it up some for good measure. ‘Cept with a nose three time the size you'd see on any normal man, and bright blue eyes.

I knew what that ship captain was thinking. There'd be plenty of folks who'd pay money to see a face like this in a circus tent. They'd see it again in their nightmares once they got home.

He called his face his "rosebud." But it reminded me more of a tub of innards. He's told me it'd been like that since he was born. Says, "Can you imagine the looks on the face of my Mam and Da. It's a wonder they didn't kill me, then and there."

But just like these others, once you saw him a couple of times, you could look in his eyes when he was talking to you and almost forget that he looked like something that stepped out of your worst dream. And living up here, you have some pretty bad ones.

"Three more hours ‘til dinner" I said to Vinny.

Meals were the only partially pleasant intervals in days filled with numbing boredom or deadening labor. In my thirteen years, these meals were the only way I marked my days. Still I couldn't remember a good day, all the way through, yet.

"Don't count on food tonight," Vinny replied. "Pierson says his legs tell him rain is coming. He wants the hay in the barn before the evening dew sets."

"If it storms, there won't be any dew. He's got to give us dinner. These loonies'll fall over dead."

I shouldn't have said it. Vinny was starting to get agitated. And when he got agitated, his cursing got worse. He told me he didn't have any control over it, but I never believed it. He'd stand there and roll his eyes back in his head, and jerk his arms forward, just like he was pummeling some forgotten enemy, and curse to beat the band. Never heard such words before, or since.

"Fucking Pierson. Fuck him, fuck."

"Relax Vinny. Finish your water and let's get back to work."

"Shut up. Shut, shu-shut. Fuck Pierson. Fuck him, fuckshut."

I was sure Pierson heard that. And though I hated Pierson as much as I hated any man, I was tired and I wasn't sure I wanted to get beaten just to protect someone who didn't know better than to curse his boss in the noonday sun, even if he was my friend.

I shook Vinny, and that was a mistake. He sputtered and spit and his arms started jerking. The rest of the lunatics had finished the water, and were walking back to the hay rows. Cooley Hanson was pissing in the middle of the field with his britches around his ankles. Pierson stopped and said something to him, then headed our way.

He walked straight up to us. He didn't stop, and he didn't say a word.

"Fuck you, Pierson. Shit, shit, shit, stuck shutfuck. Shutshutshut. Fuck you Pierson, shut."

Pierson raised the handle of his rake when he was a step away from Vinny, and as he reached him he carried it in a wide arc then swung it hard into Vinny's face. Vinny staggered, and his rosebud seemed to blossom with blood through the fingers he pressed to his face.

"Fuck. Fuck. Shutshut." Vinny said as he fell to the ground.

Pierson was raising the rake to take another swipe when I landed my fist in the side of his head. He staggered back a step, but didn't fall and now he raised the rake handle and aimed it at me. He was a good foot taller than I was, and I knew I was beaten. I covered my head and readied myself for the blow.

"This is your fault Conroy. Your friend would be fine if you didn't need to stop for a drink of water."

The blow to my head never came. Instead I felt the sting of the maple rod against the back of my legs. My knees buckled and I fell to the dust.

"I don't want you unconscious," Pierson laughed. I need to get the hay in the barn and you're the only sane one here.

"Fuck you." Vinny spat. It sounded like he was drowning.

I took Vinny back to the hall. After I roused him and got the bleeding to stop, I saw that his nose had a severe pitch to the left. Overall, given the condition of his face, if you hadn't seen him before, you'd never guess the new angle was man-made harm. And I thought the alteration actually had the effect of making his huge snoot seem smaller.

"What'd I say now?" Vinny asked me in a raspy nasal whine as we crossed the field to the hall.

"Get off it. You know what you said. And I can barely walk because you don't like Pierson's looks."

"What'd I say, Jack. I swear, I don't..."

"You do swear. That's the problem."

"Pierson give us the afternoon off?"

"It must've been the sweet way you asked, Vinny."

We played Bristol pitch the rest of the afternoon sitting on our bunks in the hall with a worn deck of cards Vinny pulled from his bed chest. The room was as big as a church, but instead of rows of seats, there were beds. Vinny and I slept on two in the middle. We had straw mattresses with worn flannel ticking. And in winter, grey horsehair blankets that scratched like grandad's Saturday evening beard.

Vinny pulled a cigar tin from the chest.

"Medicine," he whispered. "For my nose."

Inside was the jar of the potato liquor he favored. He brewed it in an old kettle down by the river. He sold it to some of the crazies who got a few pennies from their with families. Why they gave them money I'll never figure. What didn't get stolen by the guards got spent on Vinny's potato liquor.

When they drank, the quiet ones got noisy and the noisy ones slept. So things weren't much different for the rest of us. You still woke up every hour with one of them moaning like a heifer birthing her first.

"You know," Vinny said, sending a drizzle of alchohol onto the playing cards. "I'd sell my soul to Beelzebub if I could look like you, instead of owning this blasted mug of mine.

I had heard Vinny begin to strike this sorry bargain with Satan before, and I just wanted to play cards.

"Not that you're so good looking Jack. Not that at all."

I tried to give him a look that would put an end to this tired sermon, but he misinterpreted.

"Oh, don't go getting hurt Jack. Shit, I didn't mean you weren't good to look at. Lots of rich boys would pay to have that silky hair and grey eyes of yours, just like they paid not to fight the damn rebels. You're skinny sure, but you're taut as the line on a mainsail. And you're tall for your age. I was as tall as I am now when I was fourteen."

"Vinny let's play cards," I pleaded.

"Your mama and papa must've been handsome to produce two like you and Elizabeth."

"Listen, Vinny. You don't want to finish this game I got some reading I could do."

"Oh leave off those sorry dime novels Jack. Errant Dave and his Indian pal Pequot Bill will be under your mattress all night long. You can get to them later. Here, I've got a trump."

He pulled away my nine with a jack and won a point.

"Just that I'd like to look normal. Not like this, that's all," he sighed.

We didn't bother going over to the dinning hall at six, sure that they'd already gotten word that we'd skipped out of working. No meals for loafers. At eight, Chester Hight ran into the hall in his famous crouch.

"You boys missed dinner."

"No grub for the lazy," Vinny replied dropping a red-headed Queen on my ten. "Pitch."

"You boys missed dinner," Chester repeated.

"He's got his song for the night," I folded my cards as Vinny added three points to his total. He played better drunk than sober.

"Got my nourishment right here." Vinny held the tin aloft.

"You boys missed dinner."

"Should I kick him?" Vinny asked.

"Let him be. If it weren't dinner, it'd be his hat or shirt..."

"Or his John Thomas."

"You boys missed dinner."

"I need some dinner."

"But we haven't finished the set," Vinny said, and began to deal.

"It's yours. I need to eat and sit by the river. Want to come?"

"No, I'll just stay here and listen to Chester sing."

With that, Vinny fell back against a coarse flannel pillow that coughed a cloud of dust into the last finger of sunlight reaching through the darkening hall.

"You boys missed dinner," Chester said again as I moved down the hall.

"Shaddup," I heard Vinny yell as I walked down the worn path that led to the kitchen.

I was hungry and figured I'd have to be happy that way.

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