I met Jack in the afternoon therapy group. He sat next to me and broke down while talking about how his wife just left him. He got drunk Saturday night and tried to carbon monoxide himself in his garage, in his classic 1986 Ford Mustang. He had changed his mind at the last minute and drove to the hospital instead.
Jack is in his late fifties. The top of his head is mostly bald and he’s got a gut on him. He’s not much to look at, as they say, but he seems sweet, especially the way he cried when he talked about his soon-to-be ex wife.
“May I join you for supper,” he says with a nod towards the seat next to me.
I smile. Supper. It sounds so midwestern, especially coming out of his mouth. “Sure.”
He takes a seat. James, at the table across from us, shoots him a dark jealous look. I wouldn’t sit with him and his cronies.
We eat our bland hospital food and make bland conversation. After awhile he says, “you getting out of here tomorrow?”
I nod. It’s going to be a mass exodus. The evening nurse shook her head and informed me that tomorrow afternoon would be busy. It’s Tuesday, after all.
A “forty eight hour hold” I have learned, is not forty eights hours. It’s two working days of the court. Working days means, excluding weekends and holidays. The rationale is that they have to hold you long enough so that if someone needs to file commitment papers on you, they can. Since they can’t file when the courthouse is closed, those days don’t count.
What that means in practice is that everyone who goes out and does something stupid on the weekend, like trying to carbon monoxide themselves or showing up in an ER insisting they can’t live without their Oxy, gets stuck in the ward until Tuesday afternoon. If nobody files on you before the court closes, you are free to go.
“You?” I ask.
He shrugs, “most likely. Except…”
He trails off. I take the bait. “Except what?”
“I am not suicidal,” he says. “I keep assuring them of that. It was an impulse. I was drunk. Only I’ve been drunk a lot and I can’t stand living alone. I’ve made some bad choices.”
“So? There’s a big difference between bad choices and having a mental condition that requires you be committed.”
“Yeah, Doc says I can go, but I need to be supervised.”
I laugh. “What? Like a babysitter?”
He shrugs and gives a sheepish laugh. “I guess. Only I don’t know who.”
I have a sudden suspicion where this conversation is going. I am not in a hurry to get there. I need to think it through.
I don’t want to go to the shelter. It’s not the shelter itself that worries me, it’s the trip there. The general assistance office, where Tim gets his disability check, is on the same block. I don’t relish the thought of riding the bus with Tim, Nick and James. Earlier I overheard them talking. I am not sure what the whole conversation was about but I heard James say, “don’t worry, she’ll come.” Something in his voice made chills run through my spine.
“Anyway,” Jack is saying, “I was thinking. You don’t have anywhere to go, do you? It wouldn’t be like that,” he assures me. “You are young enough to be my daughter and really I just need someone there.”
“They say we aren’t supposed to hook up after our stay,” I say.
“We aren’t hooking up though, I promise. Consider it a job or something. You be my babysitter so the doctor is happy and I will let you stay as long as you need in return.”
“What about the doctor?” I ask.
“I will just tell him I have a friend that can stay. I don’t have to say who.”
The chair next to me scrapes as Mad Dog sits down. Jack tenses and looks away. He’s scared of Mad Dog.
Most of them are. Mad Dog looks to be in his sixties, but he’s been on the street awhile and people don’t age well out there, so it’s hard to tell. He has thinning black hair and an olive complexion that makes me think he’s Native American. I don’t know what his real name is, even the staff call him Mad Dog.
Almost all the other patients on the unit are afraid of Mad Dog. He’s got wild eyes and a gruff manner. I’m not afraid. I think he’s the kind of old man that is all bark and no bite. The fact that the others are afraid of him makes me feel safe in his presence.
He does make me feel uncomfortable in a way I can’t exactly define. We had the strangest conversation in the hallway earlier and I can’t get it out of my head. He asked how I liked my new body. I had stared at him, thunderstruck. His face became wary, like he knew he had said something he shouldn’t. I tried to ask him what he meant, but he wouldn’t say.
“I will think about it,” I tell Jack.
“Think about what?” Mad Dog asks.
“Nothing,” Jack gripes.
“What I am going to do after discharge,” I say.
“Hmm,” Mad Dog says and nods. “I like to camp by the river this time of year.”
Campers are the most die hard of the homeless, I think. The majority of the homeless stay in shelters or long stay hotels. Others couch surf, staying a few days with this person and a few days with someone else. It occurs to me that staying with Jack is kind of like couch surfing. It seems preferable, given the alternatives. I couldn’t live in a tent by the river. Too many things could happen to a young woman. Even the shelter scares me a little, too many drug users and rough characters. Plus, it is downtown and you have to leave during the day.
Jack’s offer was sounding more tempting the more I thought about it. Like Jack said, it was a job, really.
“I like to stay up on the north end of town,” Mad Dog comments, “along the Missouri River.” I sense he’s talking to me, communicating something. I give him a nod, storing this information. I don’t want to camp, but if I did, I want someone like Mad Dog near by.
“I’ll think about it,” I say to Jack, “and get back to you.” He nods and we eat the rest of dinner in silence.