By Andrew Manzoline
I had always figured Henry was nuts; since the beginning I had figured it. When he was little he would pull the fire alarms at restaurants, and when he was in junior high, he would pull the fire alarms there too. When we asked him why he pulled them, he’d say, “Well, say there is a fire, and I pull it before the fire even happened. Then the fire wouldn’t happen because I pulled it and think of how many people I’d save?” I saw what he was saying.
He would carry nails around with him because they were good luck. When he didn’t have his nails, he wouldn’t talk, or move a whole lot, he’d just watch everyone and everything very carefully. He was afraid something bad would happen. He was always doing crazy stuff like that. I remember one time he really got us. His bedroom was in the basement at our house, and he’d stay down there all day, with his door shut. We’d have to go and check on him now and then, but he always stayed down there.
One occasion when I went down to check on him, I went into the bedroom and he was gone. We looked everywhere for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Dad had locked his window, so he couldn’t have went out there. We were tearing up his bedroom, when we heard a noise from his closet. We looked in the closet, but he wasn’t there. We tore it apart, and we found a small square cut in the dry-wall, in the very back. Dad moved the cut out square, and Henry was in there, crunched into the small hole in the wall he had worked on all afternoon. That was Henry.
Mom home schooled him in high school, because none of the teachers wanted him. He was actually very smart, smarter than me, and that kind of pissed me off. He was very quiet and very smart. He remembered everything, and math was easy for him. It wasn’t easy for me. Mom struggled teaching him, because he was too smart for her, and he would just teach himself the material, and she didn’t like that. “You need a teacher!” She’d say. But, he didn’t care, and he kept causing her trouble and continue to teach himself. He was very smart, but I knew he’d end up in the nut house eventually.
I was a sophomore at Wake Forrest when I came back for Thanksgiving break that year. I came into the house, expecting to see my mom preparing the turkey or the pie, but instead, she wasn’t in the kitchen. I heard voices coming from down the basement, and my Mom and Dad were down there with Henry, putting black construction paper over the window above his bed. “Your brother thinks people are watching him in the night, so we need to block off his windows so they can’t see him,” Mom said, shaking her head, disgusted. “Not just at night mom, all the time,” Henry said. He was lying on his bed reading an encyclopedia. Letter L.
After that, his paranoia got worse, and pretty soon, he thought there were cameras in the bathroom and in the mirror, and in the television. He’d tear up the house, sometimes in the middle of the night, thinking he heard something, or someone. He’d tear out the phone lines, saying they were listening in through the phone. He wouldn’t leave the house, because they followed him. He stayed in his room down the basement, reading and sleeping. It got so, my parents had to hold him up in a sanitarium. My Mom hated it, but my father knew it was necessary, because they couldn’t live like that. Henry really didn’t seem to mind much. He liked it because they made good food, and he didn’t have to do a damn thing. He made the transition very seamlessly.
By this time I had finished with school, and was a branch manager of a large company that sold ceiling fans, Henry had been held up in the sanitarium for three years. The doctor said he was making very good progress, and was beginning to seem right in the head again. He said he hadn’t said anything about the people watching him, and he was doing very well mentally. They were thinking about taking him home. My mother phoned me and told me this, and I knew it wasn’t true. Right from the beginning I knew he’d be in the loon bin all his life. So I decided to take a trip and see ole Henry. I hadn’t been to visit him in many months and the trip was overdue. I’d see how “normal” he was really getting.
It was raining the day I went to see him. The Blue Ridge Sanitarium was ten miles from the nearest town, up in the mountains, very difficult to escape from. The road was windy and it was nice driving through that country in autumn. I had made an appointment before I went, and I got to the sanitarium and singed in at the front desk in the lobby. The nurse working the desk was very plump and was shaped something like a blackberry.
“I’m here to see Henry Spalding,” I said. The nurse didn’t look up right away and that kind of pissed me off. When the blackberry finally did look up, I wish she hadn’t.
“Spalding, Spalding, Spalding, let me see…. Oh yes, you have the ten o’clock appointment?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“All right, I just need your name right here, and you can go up and see Mr. Spalding.”
I signed the paper, saying I wouldn’t take anyone form the sanitarium without permission, and I took the elevator up to the eighth floor. Henry hated elevators, and he would take the stairs everyday down to the cafeteria or the exercise room. Eight stories he’d climb, sometimes three or four times a day. He was in pretty good shape to say the least.
The elevator came to the eighth floor, paused, and the door opened. I walked through the hallway towards Henry’s room. The hallway had linoleum tile, and it smelt like food, and sheets on the eighth floor. Every room had a small window that looked out over the mountains, and the real severe patients had bars on the windows. One of the rooms’ doors were open and I walked past and saw an old man in the room, staring out the window at the mountains. He had his hands in his lap, and his head was slightly tilted. I continued to walk down towards Henry’s room, past the nurse’s station in the middle of the floor, and past the small room with the fridge and coffee maker. I came to Henry’s room and knocked on the door and went in. He was sitting on the bed reading “Green Hills of Africa” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Hey,” I said, as I walked into the room.
He looked up from the book, and didn’t seem real surprised to see me. Almost like he knew I was coming. “Hey,” he said. I went and sat down on the recliner next to the bed.
“How’ve you been?” I asked him. He was still reading the book.
“I’ve been all right. Why? What have they told you?”
“They haven’t told me anything, I was just asking how you were doing.”
“Oh. Well yeah, I’ve been doing fine.”
Henry looked the same. He looked younger than twenty-two, but I think it was because the patients couldn’t grow facial hair. He had on a plain, light blue crewneck sweatshirt, and light blue cotton shorts. He was average height, and thin, very thin. His face was shaven very smooth to the skin, and his hair was cut very neatly, not buzzed, but very trim and proper. A young, thin nurse came in shortly after I had sat down.
“It’s time for Henry’s breakfast,” she said to me. “Would you like to eat here or down at the cafeteria Henry?”
“We can eat down in the cafeteria,” Henry said, putting his book down on the small table near the bed.
“All right, I’ll meet you down there,” I said, knowing he’d take the stairs.
I took the elevator down to the ground floor and waited near the stair exit for Henry. I waited about a minute, before he came down and out of the stair exit. He wasn’t breathing heavy. We walked to the cafeteria that was right off the lobby. It was a very big cafeteria with large, tall windows that encompassed the whole room, letting in the morning light. There were a dozen or so patients in the cafeteria eating, and I found a table near a window and sat down to wait for Henry. I could see him looking through the glass at what he was going to get. He stood real rigid and nervous. He got what he wanted and swiped his patient card at the end of the line. He got coffee from the coffee dispenser at the end of the line and came and sat down with me.
“What did you get?” I asked him as he sat down.
“Eggs, toast, oatmeal, and coffee,” he said, stirring his oatmeal.
“Those eggs look good,” I said.
“They usually are.” He ate the oatmeal first, eating it very fast, and not looking up. I watched him for a while.
“So the doctors said you’ve been doing pretty well,” I said.
“I guess I have been.”
“That’s great! Are you feeling good?” I asked.
“Yeah, I still count the number of steps I take in a day. But that’s always been there and always will be.”
“Well that’s not too bad. I guess that’s why you’ve always been good at math,” I said, laughing. He didn’t laugh.
“I suppose,” he said. He drank some of his coffee and started on his eggs.
“The doctor said you might be able to leave soon,” I said. “Isn’t that nice?”
Henry looked up for the first time, with eyes somewhat wide. “He said that?”
“Sure, he said that you might be well enough to go home. You’ve been making good progress.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Henry said hesitantly. “I still need time.”
“Well, of course, but you might be well enough soon to come home. He said you seem very stable.”
Henry didn’t like the suggestion, I could tell. He slowed on his eating and began to play with the cup his coffee came in. Another patient who must have known Henry walked by our table and said hi to Henry. Henry said hi very quietly and took a drink of his coffee. Then he looked at me very quickly, his eyes focused.
“You know I could have broken out of here anytime I wanted,” Henry said very matter-of-factly.
The question took me by surprise. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It means, I can leave whenever I want. But I don’t want to leave. I choose to stay here.”
“Why do you want to stay here?” I said, leaning back in the chair. “Don’t you want to go home?” I began to see the real Henry now.
“No, I don’t want to go home. I won’t go home.”
“Henry, you’re being ridiculous. Why the hell not?”
Henry didn’t answer right away, and he finished off his eggs. He took a drink of his coffee and looked up at me.
“I said, why don’t you want to leave?” Henry looked around the cafeteria very slowly and inconspicuously.
“They can’t get in here,” he said.
“The ones who have been following me. They can’t get in here. They just can’t. It’s too hard for them.”
“And that’s why you don’t want to leave?”
“Well, of course! If I leave, they’ll find me again at home. Here, they can’t find me.”
“I see,” I said. Sitting back and watching Henry eat his breakfast fast again.
He finished up his breakfast and coffee and we went back upstairs to his room. He continued to read, and I scanned through some of the channels on the television. Neither of us said much more about him leaving. After a while, I gave him a hug and walked down the hall, out the lobby and drove home in the rain.
Andrew Manzoline lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Emily and a kitten named Oliver. He is originally from Ishpeming, MI. He has written many short stories, and hopes to publish a volume of short stories. He enjoys writing, reading, and traveling.