The Treatment Team members sat around the conference table. “We’ve got a real problem with Walter Mac Henry,” said the ward supervisor, Miss Cruikshank, a middle-aged black woman, her face heavily rouged. “Walter Mac is pissing into the heater in the day room, and not only does the ward staff have to clean it up, it stinks to high heaven.”
Walter Mac Henry’s high-yellow skin was pockmarked. He had once been a barber, claimed to have been a prizefighter, and had a habit of wearing his oversize shirts pulled up over his head like an Arab headdress.
His chart was at the top of a stack of them, in gray metal covers. Miss Cruikshank drummed on it with the eraser of a Black Warrior pencil in a way that made me think that she had played snare drum in her high school marching band.
As if that were a signal, the eyes of the Treatment Team members swiveled towards me. As the psychologist, I was expected to modify inappropriate behavior. What was I going to do about Walter Mac Henry?
The next morning, I found him alone in the dim Ward B day room. “Walter Mac!” I called out, and sat down in the chair next to his. “I’ve come to talk to you about something important.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Walter Mac, do you see that heater?”
“Over there, under the window.”
He didn’t look like he understood, so I walked over, raised my foot, and banged it against the vented, gray sheet metal. “This heater here,” I said.
Walter shifted in his chair. “Oh, tha’s a heater.”
“What did you think it was?”
“I didn’t think it was anything,” he said, scratching his belly.
“Well, listen, Walter, can I be honest with you?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, the ward staff are telling me that you’re urinating into the heater.”
“Nah, man. I ain’t pissin’ into the heater. I piss out the window.”
“Out the window? Why would you want to do that?”
He looked at me as if I were an ignoramus. “I piss out the window so that it will hit the ground and rise up to make clouds. So the ladies downstairs, in wards C and D, can look up at the sky and know what’s in my mind.”
I considered that. “Well, Walter, you’ve got a big problem.” I returned to the heater. “Come over here.”
Walter reluctantly unwound his legs from beneath him and slowly walked over. “Look,” I said. “When you piss here it doesn’t go through the window. That’s solid glass, and that’s concrete block. Your piss doesn’t hit the ground, and it doesn’t turn into clouds.”
“No. All it does is hit the wall and goes right down into this heater and onto the floor.”
“They’re not seein’ my thoughts in the clouds?”
“No, Walter. And I’ll tell you, Miss Cruikshank is really mad. Because when you piss there it stinks, and the ward staff have to mop it up. Look, would you make me a promise? Would you please not piss against the wall? I led him into the bathroom and demonstrated the use of a urinal.
The next Treatment Team meeting I found myself something of a star. Walter Mac Henry had been complying with my request. In our unit, inhabited by revolving door patients for whom there was little hope, even a small success was remarkable and challenged the staff’s ennui, like one of my son’s great, tackle-breaking runs roused his high school’s football fans, who’d been numbed by years of losses. My son was a reluctant warrior—it was only my encouragement that kept him playing.
My success with Walter Mac Henry led the Treatment Team members to recall the inappropriate elimination behaviors of a half-dozen other patients. It seemed that my advanced degree had enabled me to become a toileting specialist.
The morning after my son’s violent meltdown, for which my wife blamed me, I drove from his hospital to my own. I stopped by the Ward B Day Room. As usual, Walter Mac Henry was alone, sitting in the dimness, his shirt pulled over his head. I sat down by him, but didn’t say anything. It was quiet and peaceful. A state hospital was a much maligned institution, but sometimes it made a good place to rest.
After a while Walter got up and walked to the heater. He unzipped his pants, took out his penis, and produced a good stream. I watched it splash against the wall directly under the window, then slide down into the heater, humming against the cold of the season, and onto the floor.
At that moment, Miss Cruikshank, performing her duties as ward supervisor, walked into the room. “Aren’t you going to do anything?” she demanded.
Walter continued pissing.
Cruikshank’s persistent voice sank to a mosquito’s whine. I said nothing. I watched thoughts scudder, puffy white, above the tall pines, across the Southern sky. I sensed the women on the floor below, in Wards C and D, join me in contemplation. For the first time there was a patient whom I felt I thoroughly understood. I understood him better than I did myself.
Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.