They cut all the loonies loose. They never told us why.
And if they told any of the loonies why, no loony ever told me. Which wouldn’t be surprising, I guess. Despite all that time cooped up with them, I never spoke to the loonies much and they never spoke to me. I think once you hear my story you’ll acknowledge that I was never really one of them. I was a moth caught in their butterfly net, pinned for a time to the same page, a stammering yammering mess, looking for my lost lad. It was because I joined with Father Julius right away, see, that I didn’t come to traffic with them on the outside. He was the first person I met on the outside, Julius—a happy accident. Otherwise, I might have run with the loonies just for want of options, and then wound up in the same boat as them later.
Then again, look at the boat we’re in now.
I expect the loonies were as confused as I was to get tossed out. I gathered the story later, on the outside. It was in all the papers. Politics. Some lady named Fritz with more clout than sense. At the time, I didn’t care about any of it. All I knew was I was outdoors, looking for a roof over my head and a willing ear—that’s how it was when I lucked into Father Julius.
“Loony Island” isn’t a true island; civic planning composes its borders, not water. Still, as Father Julius sees it, it’s earned the name. A forgotten wedge of a neighborhood, both hidden from the city and hidden by the city: long ago a secluded hill-perched purlieu of the rich overlooking the very center of the city and the interstate highway, now a forgotten place seemingly engineered for quarantine, cut off to the east by a steep bank leading down to the muddy Loony River, and embraced all around by a hard-to-negotiate concrete park of abandoned factories, and by the less permeable element of social indifference. At the north end, a public transport trestle runs (without stopping) west to east until it rolls over the Loony, a wide and turbid river carrying sticks and mud and alleged industrial waste south. At the “island’s” southern point, the river runs beneath an interstate highway, making an acute angle. From this confluence, the highway carries cars (but never any cars from Loony Island, which is afforded no on-ramp) away to the southeast, or up north and west until it dips and runs beneath the transport trestle, completing a triangle—river and highway and trestle—from whose borders most of its denizens rarely if ever depart. Seen from the air by passengers on their way to somewhere else, its shape might briefly suggest an abandoned slice of hastily cut pizza—a slice partitioned into quadrants by two main roads, Apse St. and Transept Ave., and surrounded by a gray donut of shuttered factories. Cross-like, Apse and Transept intersect nearly exactly in the neighborhood’s maudlin middle, escaping it through narrow gaps running beneath highway and rail—though not to the east; in Loony Island, no road reaching the river receives tunnel or bridge. If you have a car, making your way north or west is easy enough at first, but you’ll find that these ways lead only into the rotted industrial ring, tailing off into lots that haven’t seen a truck in years, designed to accommodate warehouse docks that haven’t seen inventory for just as long. Transept’s southbound course carries you out of the neighborhood—it’s the only one that does—but you have to patiently follow a road that needlessly wends switchback down a hill of moderate grade before passing out of the factory district and finally—finally!—to a main thoroughfare connected to the rest of the city. If you don’t have a car, you’ve got to hoof it for the bus stops (no buses’ routes go out of their way for the Island), risking encounters with the bad sorts who lurk in narrow places and the dark parts of shuttered buildings, or who wait around curves—and the skeptical eyes, and the confident hands and elbows and knees, of bluebirds in their squad cars.
Most here don’t have a car. Most stay put.
And, it must be admitted, some stay put not because of lack of transport, but because they aren’t given any legal choice. Take, for example, the inmates of JAWPI—the Joan A. Wales Psychiatric Institute—“The Wales”—bones of steel, flesh of concrete, skin of brick, clothed in industrial green paint. A hulking rectilinear cracker box, it hugs Transept Ave. for unbroken city blocks in the southeast quadrant, some blocks south of the main intersection. The Wales is the most prominent building in Loony Island, and its presence might lead ruminative souls to question—is the placement of a loony bin here a sly joke by some waggish urban engineer? Was the neighborhood bequeathed its name because of its inmates, or did it gain inmates because of the nearby Loony River?
The majority of Loony Island’s population lives in Domino City, six neglected high-rise urban housing complexes standing at surly attention west of the Wales on the other side of Transept. Identical gray concrete slabs filling most of the southwest quadrant, visible for uncomfortable minutes to commuters in cars gliding past on the highway. In Domino City, every building has a name and a gang, and each gang its own specialty and jurisdiction. They all used to war for dominance over one another, but that was years ago, before Ralph Mayor took control. Ralph’s General & Specific is his store; a monopoly made inevitable by isolation. Ralph’s is smaller than the Dominos but no less important to the criminal ecosystem, and you’ll find it situated right at the central intersection. Ralph’s got the goods, and Ralph’s got the organization, and Ralph has managed to put the fear of Ralph into the heart of every other roughneck, so Ralph’s is where business—any business—gets done.
Everything north of Apse is nothing but Checkertown: a tessellated patchwork grid of streets whose parcels hold century-old houses gone to sag and ruin or over-ambitious partition into apartments by absentee landlords, or burned-out vacant lots, or the occasional liquor store—and also Father Julius’s Neon Chapel. The Neon, a large two-story building, its construction of a more recent vintage than that of its neighbors, is located on the north end of Checkertown, up near the rail. Leave the Neon and cross Transept, and you can bowl at Barney’s Suds & Lanes, if you care to bowl. Few do, but there are still a few working stiffs who’ll groove a ball or two down those flaking aisles—they mostly come up from Slanty’s Cannery after shifts let off. Slanty’s, the only factory inexplicably still open, operates in the southern tip of the “slice,” hard by the river.
It’s a lot to ponder, if you’re the sort to ponder.
Father Julius, running in early morning light, passing from one errand to another, cresting the southern Transept switchback at a formidable pace, squinting as morning sun peeks out between buildings on his right, subconsciously avoiding open manholes and uneven sidewalks, can’t help but ponder: What, exactly, are the implications of all this architecture? Settled into a haze of comfortable exertion, he considers a pet theory: the neighborhood as an assembly line, with insanity the product. It’s not so hard to imagine. These brutalist buildings were built for efficiency and utility, after all, much like any factory system. He’s seen too many in the neighborhood lose hope living in the gray slabs of Domino City, get initiated into the gangs—either as member or as customer or as product—and matriculate from there to the Wales or to prison, or from one to the other. Close your eyes, you can see it: the young, sluiced down the chute, sprayed with disinfecting insanity, and then, with factory precision, canned and packed and stacked away, first made systemically unsightly, then warehoused out of sight. Incarceration not an indicator of some breakdown in the system, you understand, but a function of the system working precisely toward intended purposes.People, it seems, generally view imprisonment as proof that the imprisoned deserve imprisonment.
There’s a lone gangster sitting on the sidewalk, abandoned by his fellows after a night drinking, bleary-eyed, carefully breathing himself sober. Miserable business, to be sure, but even in his headspun misery he turns his head to watch Julius chug by—impossible not to mark a figure like Julius, his beard a magnificent tangle edging without border into the unkempt jungle atop his scalp, the whole thicket framing the smiling white half-moon of his teeth and the brown twinkle of his eyes, his only garments the denim robe shielding his barrel of a body and the dirty sneakers anointing his boatlike feet—he’s buff, vital, a creature swimming in the present, holding reliably to his routine.
The routine. It’s the same every day. Father Julius has his errands and he runs from one to the next. If you’re the type to rise early, you can watch for him. He’s coming from the first errand—the secret one, the off-Island one. If anyone knows where it takes place, or what business is transacted there, they aren’t talking, and neither is he. Now he’s heading to the Wales, where he’ll minister to the mentally ill—an attempt to fulfill the patients’ innate need for non-clinical interaction. He reads whatever they request, which, when he’s lucky, means romance or spy or mystery novels from the Wales’ modest library, but which in practice almost always means reading the requesting patient’s manifesto. “Recognize the gods offered Magilla the Gorilla for a reason,” Julius might find himself proclaiming in his gravel truck of a voice, the patient listening enraptured by the novelty of hearing their own words marbling the mouth of another. “She freely admitted there were multiples, just as there are multiples of your favorite baseball heroes. Apes in particular may be Planet Earth’s ‘acceptable losses.’ The Magilla model suggests you are many branches from enlightenment.”
And so forth. Julius hopes for mystery novels.
He’s running alongside the Wales now, coming up on it from the rear.
As he rounds the corner, he pulls up startled, his way suddenly blocked by a fellow standing, skinny arms pointed to the sky, legs planted wide, taking up ample sidewalk. Julius avoids collision only through an admirable display of reflexes. They both scream shortly, once. Thus introduced, the two of them stare at each other, breathing heavily. Julius—nearly late for his appointed time at the Wales—is trying to manage a polite way around this blockade when the man, who’s clearly working himself up to something, at last manages to speak.
“I’m!” he proclaims, emphatically.
“You’re. . .?”
“I’m I’m I’m I’m I’m. . .”
Julius, who’s now expecting to have to negotiate a panhandle, finds him self unsure if he’s dealing with a stutter or some kind of crazy. The longer this recursion continues, the more it strikes his ears not as a word, but as something without meaning, the purposeless squawking of a giant flightless bird.
“I’m not ever going bah bah back to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee,” he declares at last.
“That’s all right with me,” Julius says, keeping wary. It’s a strange way for a panhandle to begin. This fellow is a skeletal jitterbug, large glasses askew on an angular face that hasn’t seen a razor in days, and he looks frightened enough to be unpredictable, but there’s also something categorically familiar about him. . .
“You don’t have enough money to pay me to go back there, no captain, no sir.” He salutes, bathrobe sleeve flapping, and Julius makes the connection. Of course—the bathrobe. White terrycloth tainted by the dinge of a thousand rides through an industrial laundry, pinstriped with pastels, the bathrobe is the standard-issue uniform of a resident of the Wales: a mental patient. A “loony,” as they say on the street. It’s the context that’s thrown Julius—Why are you meeting a loony outside the Wales? On the heels of the question comes the probable answer: the Fritz Act. That’s today?
The Fritz Act—so named for its sponsor, Regina Fritz, the district’s representative, a one-time lobbyist and all-time socially connected mover and/or shaker, possessed of an iron will and given to what her critics call “butterfly philanthropy”—land quickly, drink shallowly, flit away. Fritz recently abandoned her previous bugbear (childhood obesity) to focus her considerable energies and resources wholly upon her new conviction: the notion that the mentally ill would be much better off roaming free—this after attending a screening of a recent popular film in which a cadre of escaped mental patients, therapist in tow, circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. FREE BODIES, HEALTHY MINDS read the movement’s T-shirts and bumper stickers; still initially Fritz found her fuss came to a fizzle, for while folks can be compelled to feel temporary sympathy for the incarcerated, it’s a back-of-the-milk-carton concern, barely felt, easily expunged, evaporated by the third bite of cereal. People, it seems, generally view imprisonment as proof that the imprisoned deserve imprisonment. Fritz, frustrated, fulminated, but finally flip-flopped. Discreetly coached by political adjuncts, she tacked hard to starboard, making a successful appeal to pocketbooks, pulling the spotlight onto the scandalous burden placed upon the taxpaying public for unprofitable lunatic upkeep, millions (a metric she frequently pronounced with a distinct leading “b”) in funds drawn from hardworking citizens—and for what? Do they ever get better? (This question was asked with enough rhetorical scorn that none ever thought to investigate the answer.) This time, the public outcry proved massive and enduring. As Father Julius learned, the cause of misappropriated funds proved trenchant enough to capture even the imaginations of apolitical beasts such as his criminal buddy, Daniel “Donk” Donkmien, who only yesterday snorted: “Fritz has it right, dipshit. My taxes should go where I choose, not to housing a bunch of potted plants scared of reality,” et cetera. As if Donk had ever in his life paid taxes. Julius, wishing he’d thought to say this at the time, files it away for later use.
But now here’s one of them, a freed loony, the first fruits of an idea so bad they just had to try it—and a talkative banana he is, too. He’s starting in again.
“Na. . .na. . .na. . .na. . .”
Julius waits, fighting the urge to make impatient motions with his hands.
“Now I’m ow out they’ll be on my tail again, no way they won’t be.
I know them. They’ve taken so much from me. They even took my boy.
They’ll pack me up in their boxes and never let me out, not ever.”
“Sounds bad,” Julius says, deliberately noncommittal.
“It’s worse than bad,” the loony insists. He clutches at Julius’s sleeve, and the priest sees as the robe opens a dirty T-shirt underneath, a sticker attached to the right breast: HELLO, MY NAME IS, with Sterling scrawled beneath. “It’s nigh unbearable. They took my boy and now he’s run off and I know not where. After putting us in those boxes, I don’t blame him for running. The thing you wouldn’t guess about those boxes is the terrible lie light. . .”
Oh dear. This is something worse than a panhandler’s needlessly complex hustle, for those at least build to some sort of termination point: the ask. No, this is the cousin to the panhandler pitch: the endless harangue, a self-fueled nightmare of pretzel logic whose only point is itself. A longtime city dweller, Julius has learned to recognize and move past this sort of thing instinctively, but this morning, startled by circumstance, his usual instincts ebbing after miles of exertion, he’s made the fatal error of listening, and now he’s trapped by social contract and his own well-honed posture of personal responsibility toward the lost.
“. . .after that, he just kept on digging to who-knows-where, and here I was left to fend. A veritable stray stranger in a strange land, and friend, let me tell you, this land is strange as they come. . .”
Looking past this unwelcome interloper, hopeful for some excuse for extraction, Julius notices emerging onto the block another, then yet another loony, stumbling into sight from around the far end of the Wales, and now it’s a platoon of them, wandering, unhurried and uncertain—How many are there?—and meanwhile Sterling’s still going.Scattered through the crowd, here comes something strange: a group walking with easy grace and quiet confidence.They resemble monks or ninja.
“. . .that’s why you’ve got to help me, friend. It’s bad trouble coming.
Those that snatched me are rye right behind me. I saw them. They’re the same as snatched us in the fur first place!”
Julius considers him, unsure if the idea that’s forming is expedience or altruism.
“Just I need a play place to stay is all I need. Just a place to duck into and lay low in until the heat passes by.”
“Listen,” Julius announces, and some quality in his voice—kind authority, perhaps—shuts the guy up. He points one big paw to the main intersection. “Make a right at the corner there and hold steady. You’ll have to go about a dozen blocks, but eventually you’ll find my chapel. You’re welcome there.”
“How will I know it?”
“It’s covered in neon. You won’t miss it.”
“Is it open?”
“I’ll tell them you sent me.”
“They’ll take you whether you tell them that or not,” Julius says, hoping not to have to accept this rather dubious credit. The brothers and sisters are good folk, and can be depended upon to do what’s right, but they might not want to hear hours of whatever this guy has cooking. God, what if more of these loonies need a place? What if they all do? Down the street he can see maybe two dozen of them already. In the newspapers and on the TV news, the Fritz Act’s sponsors seemed certain that the patients would return safely back to their beds at night of their own accord. The assumption had struck Julius as sensible enough when he read it in black and white, but now, confronted with the reality, it seems heedlessly optimistic. “If you hurry, you can probably get some breakfast,” Julius suggests, and that does the trick; the skitterbug skates, his bathrobe flapping in the breeze like a misrigged sail, stumbling not once, not twice, but thrice, over jutting slabs of sidewalk.
Fellow must be hungry, thinks Julius, breaking once again into his customary trot. As he rounds the corner so he can see the Wales’ bank of front doors, what he sees pulls him up short yet again.
The Wales is leaking. It’s leaking loonies.
Hundreds of them, and more still pouring out. It’s a sluggish flow; more lava than liquid. This can’t be what Fritz intended, can it? It’s going to be a disaster. These loonies have no mission, no guide, no immediate purpose beyond the wide world itself. Presented with a million possibilities of unregimented time and space, all with hints of unspoken rules and lacks of boundaries, they fold their hands, cluster together on street corners nearby, unnerved, huddled in the glow of their amalgamated imbalances, their bloodstreams packed with sedation, staring at their fingers and muttering to themselves. Look at them. JAWPI mostly handles longtime commitments, people who really need an institution’s oversight, not short-termers. They’re barely out and already they look as if they’re counting the minutes until at last it’s time to return. Their eyes are too open, too observant. Many look frightened. All appear directionless. Some sway, some rock, some harangue.
Some amble to the nearest upright object and then clutch it or lean against it like a daytime drunk, like someone afraid of being pulled up into the sky.
If we weren’t Loony Island before, Julius thinks, we certainly are now. Who knew there were this many? Those that wanted a reader must have been the smallest percentage. . . it’s a human ocean. The whole street’s nothing but toothpaste pastel stripes on a terrycloth sea—but no, wait, not quite nothing. Scattered through the crowd, here comes something strange: a group walking with easy grace and quiet confidence. They’re dressed in bright red tight-fitting clothing, foot to face, which makes them resemble monks or ninja.They carry two swords in sheaths on their backs. Some of them have one drawn—a blade of. . .wood, it seems—and for reasons unknown they swing their bokken as they walk, slippered feet precise as dancers’, moving between the loons like farmers reaping invisible wheat, while others of them methodically corral the patients into small herds, inspect the face of each, then, apparently satisfied, release them. Father Julius decides to worry about them later—he’s got a job reading to. . .glancing at the masses all around. . . to who exactly? Who’s left?In that moment, in one of the chairs in one of the alcoves, Julius sees something—a blink, like an apparition. A flicker.
“Fine, goddammit,” Julius growls to nobody in particular, pushing his way toward the door against the outbound flow. “If there’s even one person left in there, that’s who I’m reading to, and if there’s nobody, then I’ll talk to the air.”
Which is, he realizes later, pretty much what wound up happening.
Julius finds himself in the nearly deserted common room, a day-space almost passive-aggressive in its blandness. The long room is filled with an oppressive fluorescent light that refracts the tapioca sameness of the room back onto itself. On one end stands an orderlies’ station and two heavy locked doors. One door leads to the bedrooms, the other outside to the visitor’s lobby—though visitors have always been rare; a patient who still has potential visitors most likely wouldn’t have been left here in the first place. At the far end, two shallow alcoves wing out, each containing a low wooden table and a pair of empty chairs. Nobody wants reading. Nobody wants anything.
Nobody’s here. They’re out there. At a loss for what else to do, Julius leans against the counter of the orderlies’ station, trying to start a chat with its only remaining inhabitant, though he’s only half-successful; this orderly’s attention is for her screen.
“Hell of a day.”
“Day of hell. They didn’t even do it the way they said they was doing it; they just did it.”
“They. . .?”
“Management. They spent weeks training us. This whole routine. Five phases of release. Then we come to the day of the thing, and boom—first thing in the morning, they just throw the doors wide open. Right at shift change. Everybody out. No phases, no sense, and no patients.”
Julius thinks of the languishing loons pooling all over the streets, uncertain and vulnerable. He’s got an even stronger premonition now that something about the whole business is wrong. “Maybe we can get them back inside. I’ll help. Where are the other orderlies?”
She gives him a mordant look. “Gone. They can read the writing on the wall. Loony bin with no loonies is a loony bin with no workers, either.” She rubs her temples, staring out to the alcoves at the end of the room. Julius, naturally empathic, joins her gaze out into emptiness. In that moment, in one of the chairs in one of the alcoves, Julius sees something—a blink, like an apparition. A flicker.
“What the hell was that?” Julius demands.
“I didn’t see anything.”
“No? Watch. Watch right there.”
The orderly follows the line of his finger, pointed at nothing at all. Sure
enough, it blinks back. No—Julius can see it’s not something. It’s someone. A
guy. He’s flickering like a failing bulb. Huddled in his seat.
One knee hugged to his chest.
Julius approaches the alcove slowly, as one might a deer in the woods.
The man flickers in again and Julius shouts, points, looks back to the orderly,
who only shrugs.
“You don’t see that?”
“I see a chair. I see a wall.”
Julius looks. The man is clearly visible now, right there. He’s young, wide-eyed, his face hollow, his wrists thin. A skinny neck pokes from his misbuttoned light-blue pajamas. His thick short hair, unwashed, launches at odd angles from his head, as if attempting escape. “You really don’t see that guy?
Sitting right—” but no, dammit! he’s disappeared again. She regards him warily, like he might be one of her chickens who’s yet to fly the coop.
“You. . . seeing things over there?” she asks.
“I did. He’s not there now.” Knowing how it sounds. He waits, but the man doesn’t return. In the place he’d been sitting, Julius canvasses, waving his arms and finding nothing at all.
“You know what?” the orderly says. “I’ve had enough of this Fritz bullshit today to deal with your bullshit. You go ahead and have fun. I’m getting off this ‘Island’ for good. Maybe I’ll go downtown, to the library, where at least they make the crazy people stay quiet.”
“No, wait! He might come back!”
But she’s out the door.
Even more cautiously, the priest takes the seat opposite the one occupied by the flickering man, and waits. You’re not crazy, Julius tells himself, and you’re not seeing things. Wait for him to come back and then you’ll know for sure. One appearance could be nothing but something caught in your eye, maybe an odd refraction of light. The second could be nothing more than some sort of trick you unwittingly played on yourself; your mind furnishing you with an established expectation of the original illusion. A third time, up close, with your mind settled, will serve to prove it.
Only. . .prove it to whom, Julius? Yourself? You just failed the corroboration game, and you failed it cold. The orderly—she was looking right where you were pointing and saw nothing—isn’t that your proof? If he shows up again, isn’t that actually proof, not that you aren’t crazy, but that you are? Sitting in a psych ward, alone, looking at air and waiting to see something that isn’t there, insisting to yourself you aren’t crazy. . . what about that behavior strikes you as sanity?
But what if he’s a vision?
What if he speaks?
Here on the Island, they know you as a man of faith. They’ve called you a man of miracles. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once—just for once—those qualities were actually real? Wouldn’t be nice if you actually felt you were what they all assume you are? Isn’t it possible, Julius, that the reason only you can see this man is because only you are meant to see him? It seems possible, even likely, that this fellow may have some message for you, some answer to your unanswered questions, some secret method to impart that might loosen spiritual knots you’ve lived with so long you’ve given up trying to untie them.
Or—this new thought leaves Julius chilled—he might be nothing more than one of those visions your daddy chased to his bad end. Your father—didn’t he think his visions were offering answers? Do you want your story to wind up like his? What if he had just ignored them? Wouldn’t that have obviously been better for everyone? You should just go. Leave. It’s not anything meant for you, there’s no answer here, no message. It’s not anything at all, any more than anything else is. You’re a man of routine for a reason; hold to the routine. Think of those who count on you. They’ll soon enough be waiting: Domino City shut-ins, agoraphobics, the Checkertown elderly and infirm, the single parents, the friends waiting for ministration from a friend.
They won’t mind if you come early but they’ll worry if you’re late, even more if you don’t show at all.
Yes. You should go.
Eyes fixed upon the place he first saw the flickering man, Julius stays.
From The Revisionaries by A. R. Moxon. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Melville House Books. Copyright © 2019 by A. R. Moxon.