In fifth grade Alex Klein jumped out of the art room. It was on the first floor so the drop didn’t even hurt him, but it was one of those horizontal elementary school windows, so he twisted his elbow or shoulder wedging himself in there, I don’t remember which. Alex was retarded, we called it, back then. Now it’s Down Syndrome, but then, back then, when lots of things had different names, it was just retarded, and he made us laugh but not the good kind of laugh.
Now, because of karma or drugs or because Laura kicked me out or all the money went to my goddamn brother’s funeral in July, I’m on the overnight shift at Land’s End. It’s a residential facility in a nothing town in Massachusetts. The name is unfortunate. It was meant to signify solitude or peace, I guess, like the jackets and boots. But the people here, the residents, even they joke about it. And they used to be called retarded.
I got the job four Saturdays ago. I work five shifts a week, midnight to eight. It’s a strange life, keeping these hours.
I’m this close to falling asleep when I hear noise coming from Community Room 2. Just, ok, ok, let it pass, it’ll pass. Don’t do anything and it’ll go away. I roll over and part the brown utility closet blinds. It’s still snowing. I’m barely high. Peaceful enough, to watch from this terrible cot. Watch it quietly fall from high up, let things die down, and forget Adam and the “opioid addiction is everyone’s problem” billboard I passed on the way here.
I hear stomping feet and shit, I really have to get up there before Tommy or Sam or Kate or Josh or Eddie wrestles the aquarium to the ground, or lifts the Christmas tree out of its stand and flips it like an ice cream cone. I put my sweatshirt on slowly and go upstairs.
Here, finally, is the crisis: The Land’s End computer doesn’t recognize the word “retarded.” I know because Josh is in charge of making a flyer for the holiday party. That’s the word he wanted to use; he’s funny like that. When he saw the red squiggly line beneath it he got mad. He went to CR2 where I was supposed to be, where I should have been, where I should be, but wasn’t, isn’t.
Josh is what a writer would call hulking. He wears red and green flannel pajama pants all day. He drinks water from what looks like an oil can and when’s he’s not upset he laughs at the TV no matter what’s on. Josh is nonverbal but he can make a ton of fucking noise.
I sit Josh back in front of the computer and tell him we’ll get through this together. Problem is he spelled it “retarted.” Spellcheck suggests retarded, retorted, restarted, and retracted. His gives me a questioning look. I tell him to turn the program off and back on. Take that back, I tell him, I’ll do it.
Adam used to talk about going to meetings. He said he tried, last year around this time, at All Saints Episcopal in North Adams, but before he could get in the building he ran into his friend Brian Sullivan in the parking lot. Generic name, boring guy, terrible friend, but always had something, usually cocaine, sometimes other things. They ended up that night at this guy’s cabin outside Bennington, way in the woods. Adam latched on to some girl named Brenda and didn’t come home for two months. When he showed up in May he was shivering and had two black eyes.
The billboard is on the frontage road for the limestone quarry. It’s for a rehab facility called Sumner House. Or Summer House. It’s hard to make out because only one light shines up on the sign and my shift starts at midnight. I’m usually not paying attention on the parts that aren’t road when I’m driving to work. It’s all I can do to focus in one direction at a time.
Both names sound dignified. Sumner, Summer. Call it whatever you want, it’s still full of people that aren’t my brother.
What’s summer anyway? Warmer and lighter later, ok, but the drugs are the same, your need is the same, your stupid fucking friends are the same.
And you know what, billboard? Addiction isn’t everyone’s problem. My middle school math teacher, I see him at the grocery store sometimes. He knows when I’m too far gone but he never says anything, just looks at me like I didn’t show my work. Mr. Overton. He saw me last Thursday afternoon sitting barefoot at the bus stop when my exhaust went and didn’t pick me up. If it hadn’t been a stoplight he’d probably have sped up, flicked a soda cap at me.
In CR2 I help Josh choose a new word and I head back downstairs to the cot. In the morning, each door will have a “Land’s End Restarted Holiday Party” sign on it.
From four to six I should be in the media room. But now that Adam’s gone and I didn’t do anything to stop him, here’s how I think: The windows are all locked, there are no matches or lighters or serrated knives, and the residents seem to like each other. They know one another’s quirks and tics.
What sets Kevin off is the train sound Janet makes when she’s playing solitaire. She plays sometimes all night, alone, and sleeps through lunch and dinner. But Tommy knows, he’s been here for 17 years. He’ll sing to drown her out. Last Saturday he sang that “Bottle of red bottle of white” Billy Joel song for probably 45 minutes and a sense of calm hung over the community room like a melting puddle.
Knowing what hurts someone else and getting in the way, singing to stop the pain – that’s as close to love as you’ll see here, at Land’s End. Or anywhere.
Adam and I used to drive through North Adams making fun of songs like that, singers who tell drawn out stories, who try to sound like they really mean it. We did that in Worcester, too, and Conway, Malden, Saugus, Portsmouth in the rain, near the cemetery motel. In Lee, Saugerties, Saratoga, Syracuse, Seneca Falls: all those wish away waste away wash away towns; Pittsfield and Leominster and Chestertown and Warren; Geneseo, Potsdam and Plattsburgh and Utica in the awful sun. It doesn’t matter where.
Off Center Street in Jamaica Plain; picking up in East Hartford; picking up in Troy; burrowed in that bar in Eureka Springs, everyone’s voice like Tom Waits; parked in the Akron Walmart; the Chicopee Walmart; two a.m. in East Orange, East Rutherford, East Rochester, Burlington, Durham, three-thirty in Keene, Nashua, Manchester, Meriden.
All these places but it doesn’t matter where. It never matters where. Only what. What we’re saying, what we’re ignoring. What we choose and don’t.
We’d tap out our cigarettes at red lights. When he got sick I’d drive. He’d sprawl in the back. Back then I thought that’s what being family meant. Before it was called enabling, before that was the word for it.
It’s still snowing when I wake up at five. My shift ends at eight. I’ll go up in a few and make sure there’s butter for the bread. I’ll shake the orange juice and put out a stack of clean plates for Martin and Luke and Jenny and the other early risers. I’ll scoop grounds into the coffee maker and top off the sugar. Useful, helpful things for the residents.
But for now I’ll do a little more of whatever’s left in my pocket and crack the window and put my face against the glass and look at the empty parking lot of the dollar store across the street. Nobody’s out. People are doing what they are supposed to: sleeping, getting ready for work, ironing clothes, jogging, cutting the crusts off sandwiches, showering, watching cartoons, walking dogs.
I’ve thought about jumping from this window. It’s high enough, and it’s one of the few that opens. I can’t tell you I won’t, but last Wednesday after breakfast I stuck around for Group. The therapist had the residents reenact uncomfortable scenarios. Psychodrama, it’s called. She modeled appropriate reactions and then each took a turn. “I’m sorry,” some said, or “Just a second.” “I’m doing my best to help.” “Thank you for your patience.” She told them yes, it does sometimes feel like it all hits you at once, but that’s why we’re here, together, to break things down, to do things the right way. The residents, here where the land ends, smiled like babies and kept acting.
I wasn’t a good brother, and I’m not a very good person. I didn’t do what I should have done, then, and I’m not now. I’m bloodshot too much of the day. My eyes itch. I don’t talk much. I sleep on floors, on fire escapes, in parked flatbeds. I’m not blind: I have a sense of where this is headed.
But group meets again tomorrow, and next Thursday at five I’ll be at the Restarted Holiday Party. My eyes will be shot and my face caved in, like yesterday, earlier, like now, later, like tomorrow. But if that song comes on, that bottle one, or any song really, I’ll sing every goddamn word.
Matt Liebowitz earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where he studied with Ha Jin, Martha Cooley, and Leslie Epstein. He was awarded the Sara Bennett Prize for Fiction from Skidmore College, where he worked with Steven Millhauser. His stories have been published in Fiction Southeast, 236, Crack the Spine, and Clare. Matt teaches English and Journalism in Easthampton, Mass.