Justin Hudnall performs a story from his collection of family tales at VAMP: “Altered States.” Recorded on October 28th 2010 at Whistle Stop. So Say We All.
“The Loony Bin” – Justin Hudnall
Somewhere, lost in time and space is a briefcase that has never existed. It is filled with confidential documents no one has ever seen, pertaining to what, no one knows. But one thing is clear: my Grandfather wants someone to fetch it from his house and bring it back to him in the loony bin. This is precisely why he is in the loony bin; he has become obsessed with doing things that are impossible. But after watching my mom spend the last four hours of her Saturday afternoon actually looking for it, I am considering putting her in there with him.
I tried to talk her out of it but she’s out to prove a point to a dull edge, has been since he moved into the loony bin, and watching her depresses me so much I’m compelled to follow. We go over the house together room by abandoned room, until eventually I find the only briefcase to be found and present it to my mom. I open it to show the thirty or so ancient issues of National Geographic shoved inside as proof of her father’s insanity. Mom carries it obediently back to him in the loony bin anyway though.
“I want to show him what’s real,” she says. She can tell from my expression that I don’t buy it, so she tries another. “He needs to see how I spent my day off because of him.”
But I know what’s really going on. She’s hoping this is the piece of evidence that will finally bring their realities back on course, but that’s part of her delusion. They never were.
By the time she’s back at the loony bin, he’s watching football in the common area. He’s forgotten he ever asked for it.
“Why’d you bring me this pile of junk?” he asks, and laughs without listening when she tries to explain.
I’ve seen this cycle for years, but it only recently had a scientific name. My grandfather has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The neurologist said he’s probably had the disease for ten or more years now, but he was always so good-naturedly incompetent at managing his life that he threw us off the scent.
For half my life, my grandfather has referred to me by his son’s name and called the dog by mine, but even before that, all the way back in the fifties when he was a young sailor, stationed in Guam, he was famous for getting drunk and climbing palm trees. Because of the couple of times he was able to climb down again without hurting himself and get behind the wheel of his car, he became famous for being bailed out of jail around two in the morning by his wife with my mom in tow.
In the 1960’s he forgot to pick up the kids from school. For six hours.
In 1992 he insisted on walking my mom’s skittish golden retriever on a busy street, where it bolted out of its collar and into traffic.
2004 started when he set the microwave on fire by accidentally heating a cookie for fifteen minutes instead of seconds.
But bring up any one of these examples, hell, bring up all of them, and I guarantee two things: he’ll laugh without acknowledgment, and somewhere nearby, my mom will be shaking her head, remembering the other half of the story, how she walked home in the rain, or rushed the dog to the vet, or woke from a phone call by the fire department.
With that kind of a track record, Mom might have never had him tested for Alzheimer’s at all if he hadn’t forgotten who she was for a day. No one likes to be forgotten, so off to the loony bin he went.
He loves the loony bin. He never has to clean up after himself or remember what medications he’s supposed to take, and the food is served hot and on the regular just the way he likes it: cannery-cookery processed, baby-food soft, with a medley on every plate containing salt and sweet, the two flavors he can identify besides Tabasco.
Best of all, other old sailors are wandering all over the place. They sit for hours talking about the good old days, ports of call, and who they gave gonorrhea to where. Then, overnight, they completely forget it ever happened, and relive the fun all over again the following day.
At least once a week there’s a big to-do the loony-bin staff throw, such as the senior’s luau complete with hula dancing lessons. He calls to tell my mom about it every night after he tuckers himself out. He makes it sound like a cruise ship going nowhere.
It’s Mom I’m worried about.
She’s a single parent all over again, except the first time around, the kid grew up.
She agonized over putting my grandfather in the loony bin for so long, now that he’s finally there, she spends most of her free time with him out of guilt. This included most of her 59th birthday, where the first words out of her mouth to him as she walked through his door were,
“Do you know what day it is?”
This is a trademark gesture by my mom that only I recognize, and it kills me. She’s asked so little of life – the remembrance of a birthday, a token pat on the head – it’s as though life were obliged to disappoint her. What she wants to hear could only be heard in the same dimension where my Grandfather’s briefcase actually exists, so to my ears it just sounds like the setup to an ugly joke.
But my Grandfather thinks about her question for a moment, with his mouth open, and then provides the punch line:
(Physical punch line.)
When mom isn’t at the loony bin or work, she’s over at my grandfather’s house, and if there’s one mercy, the house has removed all doubts that the loony bin is exactly where he belongs. The depth of his insanity was revealed with every can of roach spray we found stashed in a plate cupboard and open bottle of Drano left beside drinking water.
She’d tried to intervene before it reached this point, but he fought her over every expired coupon and broken pair of glasses she tried to throw out. Eventually mom graduated to threats, but this just turned him sly. He took to cramming the twisty-ties he’d stolen from the grocery store into drawers, and hoarding his newspapers in the closets.
One she found the, mom asked him,
“Is this supposed to be some sort of game?”
And he giggled like a little kid with his hand caught in the cookies jar. Exactly like a kid in fact, except she couldn’t send an eighty-six year old to his room. She couldn’t even force her way in to clean it.
Once he was finally ejected from the house and into the loony bin, she had a list two pages long of all the repairs she wanted to do, renovations years in the making. But once mom finally had her chance, something else tied her hands. She started on a Saturday morning, in what was her parents’ family room, and by noon a few cookie tins crammed with broken pencils and dried out pens made their way into the trash. By two she’d have sorted through some piles of clippings dating back to the 80’s that he’d mixed seamlessly with irreplaceable family photos.
And then the sight of hundred hurdles more broke her spirit, forcing her to retreat back to her black couch beside her black dog with a bottle of pink wine where she stayed until Monday took her back to her regular job.
Sometimes she’ll watch the comedy channel, but it’s mostly horror movies these days. She says,
“They’re the only thing on that resembles my life.”
But there was no relief in ignoring the problem, ether. I could tell the house was on her mind while she was watching even the goriest horror show. It was mocking her, like the sight of someone in a coffin impossibly small to contain their presence in life, but doing it all the same.
You see the family room was an add-on, built with her brother back when they were teenagers and had a relationship. Back when my grandmother was at hand to supervise them, and capable of taking the burden of misbehaving men off her shoulders. Those were better days and they are not coming back. So the house must be restored. It has become metaphor.
I focused on my Grandfather’s den the last time I went over to help her, the belly of the beast. This was his private chamber while married and base of operations once widowed. The photographs and plaques from his Navy days that line the walls looked like a timeline of where he’ll be traveling back to as his mind dies. Fiji. Hawaii. Guam. It’s a vacation in reverse, the total opposite of the thankless years spent emptying out an old man’s icebox filled with spoiled milk my mother would face if the disease struck her. The thought softened me on her refusal to quit smoking. I don’t want to find out if I can do for her what she has done for him.
We all might wind up in the loony bin eventually, but only my grandfather has perfected the lie of the mind. He can take responsibility for nothing, and he is the only truly joyful family member I have ever known. When I left his house, I went to watch horror movies with my mom until the infomercials replaced them.
“There is no justice in this world,” she said when it was time to go to bed.
And then the phone rang. It was my grandfather. He wanted to tell her about how that afternoon in the loony bin, he danced the jitterbug.