Maybe mom was right. Maybe he had damaged his brain with beer and destroyed his heart with cigarettes. After watching him sleep like a suckling pig for hours and then throwing up all kinds of bright greens and yellows into our toilet like a bewildered beast, I never touched the stuff. My childhood was shit because of it. You wouldn’t touch the stuff either if you saw your old man falling down the stairs screaming at invisible demons.
Sure, it was difficult for me when I first got to school. Everyone wanted to know why I didn’t drink. Some guys in particular can be pushy. You know how those jock types can be? It makes them feel uncomfortable if others aren’t drinking with them. Jana was good about it though. She didn’t ask. We’d just do dinner and a movie and let the rest have their keg parties. Eventually I told her about my family. But despite her support, I started hearing this voice at night. With Jana beside me, I would try to sleep and a whispery hum would distinctly resonate between the buzzing of the dorm room heater.
“My son. Patrick, my son.”
According to my dad’s case manager, he was off his medication again, which meant another lengthy hospital stay. My mom hadn’t spoken to him in years, but I still kept in touch — keeping emotional distance, of course. I had his case manager’s number and she kept me informed of his progress, or lack of progress.
I had to see him today though. I had to. I know it’s crazy, but before my mom, before a psychiatrist, and even before Jana whom I trusted and loved so much, I had to talk to Dad. I needed to talk to him about that whispery “Patrick” I hear in my ear. I needed to find out what he hears. I had that ugly word in my head for days now, and I kept going back to it like a dry, unscratchable itch: schizophrenia Even the mumblings of that word make children cry and dogs whimper. Jesus Christ, my family…
The psych unit was typical of them. People in robes wandered in and out of their rectangular rooms like ranched cattle. The nurse’s aide that led me down the hall was a giant with a neck that would put a bull’s to shame. He could and should be working as a bouncer somewhere. But instead he was here to restrain this unit’s regulars and bounce them off the walls at his leisure. I’d ask him how my dad was doing, but I got the sense he didn’t know or care.
The common area was empty except for my dad watching some awful talk show. He was wearing those stupid hospital socks that keep you from falling down; his feet were up on another chair as if he were the Goddamned prince of the psych ward. I never understood those socks; it was like some depressive somewhere had tried to commit suicide by falling down. If all the pills and booze hadn’t killed my dad by now, he had little to fear from a fall.
It was just me and him, which was perfect. As I pulled up a chair beside him, he barely looked away from his show – Maury or Montel or something.
“Hey Dad. How are you?”
He gestured toward the trashy rednecks yelling about a paternity test on the TV and asked, “Do you think this is about me?”
“It’s not about you, Dad.” But he didn’t look convinced, his eyes glued to the spectacle. There was a deep sadness in those eyes, which oozed down into dark flesh pockets underneath.
On the screen, a heavy-set woman was screaming at her husband that their child was his. “Just look at his face and tell me? You’re the only one with a nose that crooked!’ she screamed, her fingers flailing in dangerous sweeps around the stage. The audience loved her for it and hooted and hollered approval. In the background, between the estranged couple, their child was on a live feed. The camera cut to the kid’s nose to illustrate the point; the audience loudly cooing at his cuteness.
My dad wiped away tears from his eye. Was he moved by this child’s situation? I couldn’t recall him ever this being emotional over me, who he should have lost to DCF hundreds of times in my youth.
The supposed father of the baby didn’t look impressed by the nose evidence. He pointed and screamed about the difference between his forehead and the child’s.
“You sure they didn’t write it about us?”
“Nah, it’s a reality show. Dad, you know those voices you hear, are they ever about me?” Pretty direct, I know. But I’ve found this kind of directness worked well with Dad. Often, if I wasn’t upfront with my questions, he wouldn’t catch the drift and we’d get nowhere.
“They’ve got me on a new medication in here. I don’t hear the demons now. I still hear the monsters. But the demons are gone. Do you think that’s your mother? You know your mother slept with a monster.” A big, wild beast of a woman was welcoming the other possible father of the baby onto the show. In seconds, the two men were on each other, pushing and pulling like a pair of rabid roosters.
“What the fuck, Dad?”
He turned to me with fire in his eyes now. The sadness was gone, if it ever was there. Here it comes. Whatever comes out of his mouth now is sure to be a pearl of schizophrenia. I grew used to these little psychotic fortune cookies of wisdom in my youth.
“Don’t swear and don’t call me ‘Dad.’ I’m not your dad. It’s that monster that crawled out of the basement and laid in bed with your mother. He fucked her and then you popped out.”
On the screen, Maury or Montel opened an envelope and, as if it were Oscar night, the result of the paternity test was announced. The winner celebrated by spiking his chair to the ground and dancing demonstratively. He thanked his family and friends and was led off stage by the host. The father sat quietly, while the mother continued to scream, “I told you so. I told you so.” A child was being thrown to the wolves, and it was captivating television.
I didn’t have much to say to the old booze bag after that. My dad was whispering to himself now about monsters and demons and I sat there listening myself. Maybe I could hear what he was hearing too? Was it “Patrick, Patrick”? I heard fuck all, just the sounds of his quiet mutterings. It was pointless to visit him.
My dad’s psychiatrist was nice enough to talk to me before I left the hospital. We talked about my dad’s progress and he told me about new trends in schizophrenia treatment. They wanted to try him on this new drug recently approved by the FDA. The doctor was very hopeful. The old drug targeted his depleted dopamine receptors, which they used to think caused schizophrenia, whereas this new drug would target his misfiring glutamine receptors, which they now think causes schizophrenia.
On my way out I crossed paths with an array of patients shuffling through the halls like the animated dead. Their bodies were rotting from the inside out from the Thorazine and Clozaril. Maybe the doctors would try ECT if that didn’t work? I can’t believe that is popular again. The doctors were trying, but it all seemed so desperate. I didn’t expect much from this new drug.
Afterward, I walked down toward the lakefront. The weather had brought all the families out. Fathers were playing with the children; the men were young and full of hope and care for their kids and the children were too young to say otherwise. The streets were filled with commotion and cars. I couldn’t hear past the wall of sound created by honks and shrieks. Only the blue sky was quiet. I thought I heard from somewhere up high, “My beloved son.” But I wasn’t listening anymore. Jana would be waiting for me, so I only lingered for a second and headed home.
*Kevin Munley is working in the mental health field. In the past, he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short story “Strangers on a Plane.” Also, his screenplay “A Cask of Brandy for Whitey Bulger” written with friend Christopher Connal made it to the quarterfinals of both the KAOS and Scriptapalooza