(This is another in the series of fictional accounts and character sketches inspired by my stay in the hospital.)

Andy’s Story

            “Hey, Andy,” I said to the big man as he carried his dinner tray over to my table.  “Missed you at lunch.  Thought maybe you wore yourself out on the piano this morning.”

            He put his tray down and settled himself across the table from me without a word.  He took the cover off his plate of baked ziti and carrots, and placed it off to the side.  He picked up the menu slip tucked under the bowl of cottage cheese, and compared it to what was set out before him.  “I asked for two rolls,” he said in disgust, and pushed the one in front of him first one way and then the other, as if thinking that the second one might be hiding.

            When satisfied that what he had was all that he was going to get, he took a long drink of black coffee (decaf, of course) and looked up at me.

            “Got some bad news,” he grunted, and started salting his carrots.

            “I’m sorry,” I said, conscious of the fact that my therapist kept telling me that I wasn’t supposed to be sorry for things that I didn’t do or couldn’t control.  But old habits die hard, and I didn’t see what it could hurt to be polite.

            I wondered if Andy was going to say any more as he dug into his meal as if he hadn’t eaten in, well, at least six hours.  He usually was pretty predictable:  ask him a simple question, then just listen and nod as he rambled, riffed, repeated, and ranted over the topic at hand, or any others that came to mind.  His favorite topics were popular music from the ‘40’s; classic action movies from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s; literature that he hoped to read one day; ancient and new age religions (which he considered one and the same); and government excesses.  After three days I couldn’t tell if he was a republican or a democrat—he was an equal-opportunity critic.

            But this time he didn’t follow up his remark.  He ate everything on his tray, and even a piece of pizza that Ben put up for grabs.  We weren’t allowed to share food, but the techs didn’t say anything, and Andy really seemed to appreciate anything we didn’t like, didn’t want or hadn’t ordered.  At 6’1” and 300 pounds, he looked like he might have been a linebacker 40 years ago.  The big man enjoyed this institutional food more than just about anyone else on the ward.

            Only after he had put the cover back over his plate and the tech had picked up the tray did he speak again.

            “They’re putting me out of here tomorrow,” he said.

            “That’s great!” I responded stupidly.  He had called it bad news, and he had said they were “…putting him out.”  Most of us talked about being discharged, going home, getting out, or splitting the joint.  Some, like Artie, told us every day in group meeting that his goal was to be discharged “tomorrow.”  We all knew that he wouldn’t be going home any time soon—he was plain crazy and just didn’t know it.  At least most of us realized that we were only moderately sick and would soon be better and be glad to go home.

            But Andy was different.  He used a napkin as a tissue, and then wiped what might have been a tear off his cheek.  “This place is like a vacation to me,” he said.

            “What do you mean?” I asked, growing genuinely interested.

            “It’s quiet here.  I can sleep when I want to, my meals are delivered to me, somebody else remembers to give me my pills.  The halls are wide enough that we could have wheelchair races if they would let us have wheelchairs.  I can play the piano as much as I want, and I can watch TV and complain about the food.”  He laughed heartily and pounded his fist on the table.  I wasn’t sure if it was out of exuberance or anger.

            “You can’t do those things at home?”  Duh—another stupid remark.  If he could do those things at home, then this wouldn’t be a vacation to him, would it?  But he answered me anyway.

            “I can complain about the food, but who’s going to listen?  I cook for myself.  I used to be a good cook.  These days it’s mostly microwave crap.”  He paused to blow his nose again.  I refrained from saying anything stupid.

            “They cut off my cable, but I have a TV and a good collection of movies I can watch—I probably have 20 or 30 tapes I’ve picked up over the years.  Did you ever see Terminator?  I’ve got all those movies.  They have some pretty good tapes in the tv room here, too.  They don’t have DVD’s because they don’t want anybody breaking one and going on a cutting spree.  I could have DVD’s at home, but I have a VCR that I picked up at a yard sale for five bucks, so that’s what I use.”

            Andy was getting more serious.  “My house is in pretty bad shape,” he said, barely above a whisper.  “I need to get to work on it.  I’ve been meaning to for a long time, but I just couldn’t.  It’s not a good place to go back to.”

            “Where do you live?”  It wasn’t exactly a stupid question, but Andy looked at me as if it was.  We both knew that we weren’t supposed to share personal information that anyone could use against us when they got out.  Spill your guts in group—tell everybody your worst fears and most twisted imaginations, but for heavens sake don’t mention your last name!

            “I mean, do you live in the city or out in the country?”  I mentally patted myself on the back for a good recovery.  That made it sound like a reasonable and non-intrusive inquiry.

            “In the city.  Down on Union Street.  That’s one of the problems.”

            “That’s not one of the worst sections of town,” I countered.

            “The city says my house makes the rest of the area look bad.”

            After a moment he continued.  “Two years ago they took my dog away.  The neighbors said he barked too much, but hey—a dog’s gotta bark.  You know what I mean?”

            I nodded.

            “Last year they gave me a ticket cause I didn’t cut my grass.  Cost me almost a thousand dollars to pay somebody to clean up and mow the yard, and then pay the fine.  And they’ll be after me again when I go home.”

            “Don’t you have a lawn mower?”

            “Oh, yeah—I have three.  Two of them don’t run, but I got them cheap a few years back, and once I get the parts it won’t take anything to fix them up.  The other one is out back, and it worked the last time I tried it.  I’m not sure it will start now, though.

            “The neighbor wants me to take down a tree that’s leaning over the fence, and I’ve got a bunch of tires stored in the back that I need to get rid of.  I used to pick them up and resell them, but it got so I had more than I could sell, and you can’t put them out with the trash, you know?  And there’s quite a bit of other trash, too; I bagged it all up and put it on the curb, but the city won’t pick it up unless you put it in their pretty green bags, which I didn’t have the cash to buy, so my black bags sat by the sidewalk till the city threatened me with another ticket, so now they’re on the front porch.  The neighbors called the health department.  That’s why I’m here, you know.”

            “Oh?”  I didn’t want to pry, but Andy didn’t need much encouragement to continue.

            “Yeah, the health department came to my house, and they looked around and made some calls and asked my some questions, and brought me over here.  I told them I was fine with the way things were, but they didn’t agree.  I have a lot of things, you know, and I’m working at sorting through it all…to be honest, I’ve been saying that for years, but I really need to…I can’t even get to my piano.  It’s been a long time–that’s why I was so rusty this morning.”

            “I could tell what you were playing.”

            “Yeah, thanks…but…they’re gonna take it all, you know.  They’re just waiting for me to get home, and then …I can’t go back there.”  The despair—the hopelessness—the helplessness—his entire being sagged under the weight.

            “Isn’t there somewhere else you could go?” I protested.

            “No.”  He rose and started to leave.  As he passed me he put his hand on my shoulder.  “Thanks for singing with me this morning.  It made me feel good.”

            “Me too.”  And then he was gone.

            An hour or so later an alarm sounded and we all had to gather in the activity room to be accounted for, and to keep us out of the way of the crash cart and emergency responders.  Andy wasn’t there.

            The nurses and techs can’t say anything, so nobody asked.  But eventually the rumors started   He had a heart attack.  He threatened his therapist and had to be restrained.  He tried to force his way through the security door.  He went into diabetic shock.  No one knew, but everybody had a guess.

            Dan, his roommate, said that Andy had told him that if they tried to make him leave, he would slam his hand in the bathroom door and break his fingers so they would have to keep him longer.  But Dan was always after attention, so nobody took him seriously.

            All I know is that I never saw Andy again.  I’ve been tempted to drive down Union Street, but I haven’t gotten to it.