Editor’s note: Welcome to The Root’s Sunday series highlighting the best in black fiction writers: It’s Lit! Each week we’ll feature a new story across all genres—from Afrofuturism to those stories that will bring a tear to your eye. Want to submit your short story? We’re looking for well-crafted works of fiction of no more than 10,000 words. Simply fill out this Google document and we’ll contact you if your story is chosen. And yes, if it is picked, you’ll receive a payment for it!
I like to tell folks I don’t have a story
But I also like to fuck with people
That in itself tells a story.
You confused yet?
Good, now we have something in common
I think that’s how friendships begin.
Not sure if I can maintain it but that’s part of the story too
Pay attention to the details
That’s where the angels are for me
I live in devilish broad strokes
Details are the only way the good creeps in
Giving the true life to the picture
Details are what fill funeral obituaries
Speaking of obituaries …
When I exit this world
I mean exeunt this world—
I am a lot to take ...
Two paragraphs can’t hold me
But I digress.
I guess I should breathe a sigh of relief. I am crossing the threshold of the loony bin back into the real world for the second time. Some stories start from the middle. All I can manage is a barely audible, “What now?”
OK, rewind time: I have to call the psychiatric ward the loony bin. Insensitive? Maybe. Do I care? Naw. I have to keep things light for my own good.
I continue walking with my $10, bag of random clothes, six bus passes, pack of stale cigarettes and zero clues. The July sun does not relent as I make my way around the familiar campus. The pristine, gorgeous, ridiculously well-kept grounds are a stark contrast to my life as of late. In fact, the order of the old stone buildings and carefully planned paths is unsettling to my jumbled mind. I feel like I am in the Matrix. Suddenly I see a scruffy man pass by and he becomes the glitch I need. I breathe a sigh of relief for my good pal disorder.
As the self-proclaimed Queen of Public Transit, I begin running the bus schedules through my head as the bus I need passes right by me. “Fuck!” I say a little louder than intended. Great, it is Sunday and another bus doesn’t come for an hour. Can’t even smoke my stale cancer sticks on this smoke-free campus. Why can’t I kill myself in peace? Oh, wait, I can’t say stuff like that, even in my head. I just got out of the psych ward for trying to kill myself in peace. Twice. I internally digress.
I decide to go sit on one of the benches on the outskirts of campus and sneak a cigarette in a little-less-populated area. The lightly wooded area seems like a good spot to begin my Covert Nicotine Ops. Call me Captain Cancer Stick! I ease on the bench, start a Tasmanian devil search in my duffel-bag-sized brown leather purse, aka satchel of random crap, for a lighter. I’ll let you take a guess on whether I found it. Of course not. Right as I am about to throw the realest of 3-year-old tantrums, someone comes around to sit on the bench. I mumble, “Oh great, now I will get chided for trying to smoke. Swell.”
I look up and see the kindest set of eyes on earth, my lifeline in the loony bin. Mr. Champion. Yes, this fortuitously named angel was on his lunch break. Mr. Champion was a balding black man with a deep-chocolate-brown complexion, medium build, about the age of my dad. His cadence, manner of speech and appearance reminded me of a “cat daddy” at a nightclub who’s a little too old to be there. So of course he was my bestie in my head.
Mr. Champion reached over and picked up the white Bic lighter with black letters stating “Nope” in fancy script across it—I apparently knocked it out during my earlier cyclone-approach search—and lights my stale Marlboro. Mr. Champion jokes, “Normally I don’t do this, but, ummmm, keep the party going,” making a reference to an old joke we were both familiar with. I reluctantly laugh through burgeoning tears. Mr. Champion gently puts his arms around me and I melt into his arms. My reluctant laugh and baby tears turn into guffaws and sobs. Then silence. He keeps his arms around me for a while. We separate and don’t say anything for a few minutes, but stare at each other through peripheral vision.
Mr. Champion purrs, in his cat-daddy way, “Oh well, dah-ling, ya bus gon come real soon, come back and see meh when you are doing love-uh-lee things ruling da world and what-have-you. You ain’t crazy, ya just needed a break.” I mouth “Thank you” and nod as he wipes away my tears. We walk to the bus stop in silence. We see the bus coming in the distance. He says, “All righty, suga, you gon’ be just fine. I been doing this a lot of years. You gon’ make it. Take care now.” I manage a smile and a wave. The bus arrives and I board, looking longingly at the safety of the hospital and my champion. Next stop: reality.
Reality bites. Colloquially and actually literally, if strife had jagged incisors and firm molars. I have always had a flair for the dramatic. However, this time the drama was real and I did feel a bit chewed up. For a month I had been in a state of realized suspended animation, but probably many years of unrecognized pause. Now the play button is pushed, and a rush of terror permeates my body through every available nerve ending as I step off the bus.
Let’s go back a month earlier, the last day of June. I step off a bus at 11 at night, drunk beyond reason. All I possess is a bag of random clothes, satchel of crap, $30, fresh pack of cigarettes, bottle of sleeping pills, zero clues and a huge plan. Bad plan, but huge. It is a beautiful, breezy night that humidity decided to spare. The city is quiet, the universe is listening. This is not comforting. Discomfort makes my mind race.
i hate … silence. i don’t want to hear repression. memories then have my undivided attention nothing to drown out the incessant firing of synapses playing target practice with my pain. bang.
I sit down on the wooden bus stop bench, located in a usually busy major intersection the late night has turned into a relative ghost town, and proceed to sob. My mind and its stupid misery marathons. Quite an entry back into the world after two weeks of not leaving the house, talking to barely a soul. I begin a quite familiar thought process on the bench on this warm summer night. My mind races:
What if I killed myself today; who would come to my funeral? What would they say? Does anyone even know my favorite color, favorite song? Will they know of the extent of my Badu standom? Will I have a Next Lifetime? Who will tell my internet friends? I guess people could read my blog. How can I update my blog if I’m dead? Should I update it now and let them know?
I sit on the bench a little longer in my drunken stupor and take a few pills.
My mind begins to race.
Boston Marathon. Beantown. Mmmmm, beans, I like black beans. Oooh, if you don’t like black beans, are you racist? If you are racist, does that mean you hate races? Does that mean I hate my mind? I am so confused ...
Yes, imagine this line of thinking, except extended and more nonsensical, going on in a drunken state in the middle of the night, deep in a depression, while contemplating ending it all. I take a few more pills. Maybe they are my magic beans. It would fit the theme.
I then feel invincible. I have magic beans, for goodness’ sakes! I am taking them and not getting sleepy. In fact, I feel like I am running a million miles an hour. The tears disappear and an awkwardly footed confidence takes over. I can take over the world! I stagger through the streets of Durham in the middle of the night with my satchel of crap and bag of clothes, determined that I need another drink, so I must find an open store. It takes my mind off ending it all for the moment because I have a mission. I walk what seems like miles, though in the ever-so-sharp hindsight it was about three to four blocks.
I stumble through the door of a gas station on a mission to procure the cheapest 22 ounces of beer I can find. Apparently I look a lot less drunk and deranged than I really am because I get sold my beer. I even manage to pull out my license because I get carded. Apparently, deep depression and suicidal ideation makes me look youthful. Watch out, Olay.
I head out the store, still strangely Wonder Womanly energized, and classily pop open my 22 ounces of Struggle Juice. I wander to a slightly wooded area and sit down amongst the trees who seem just as hyper as me. The fragrant pines two-step in the breeze that is apparently playing the Greatest Hits of Frankie Beverly. I sway along and the sway morphs into a knee-in-chest rocking back and forth. The tears suddenly burst through levees finally breached by sleeping pills. My mind is again flooded with the mission at hand. I wash down the rest of the bottle of pills with the fancy beer in its brown paper bag. The hypnotizing dance of the foliage puts me into a trance. The deluge of tears abruptly stop and are replaced with an eerie smile of satisfaction and accomplishment.
The once rapid staccato drums of heartbeats slow down to a dirge for a procession mourning my abandoned hope. I lean back against the tree. Every time I exhale, a piece of life marches out somberly. Mind racing again.
I am ready to go. You may be young but you’re ready. I am young. I ain’t ready. Shit. HALT CITIZEN! Stop the madness, we’re not ready to leave this earth. Snap out of it!.
I try to will myself out of the sleeping pill slumber. Abort mission! ABORT ! ABORT! I try to move. Limbs will not cooperate. I am going to have to try a little harder. I manage to whisper, “Get up, girl, get up.” Doesn’t work. I whisper again, “Get yo ass up.” Nothing. I then realize if I can just move my hand into my satchel of crap, I can call 911. I activate my arm with tendons of noodles into a search for my telephone. Through the power of some deity or magic spell, I locate my literal lifeline and call 911. Mission successfully aborted, I think, as I drift off into a slumber in the grass.
My eyes open ever so slightly in response the flashing lights and commotion. A paramedic yells, “Ma’am, ma’am, please respond if you can hear me.” I say nothing. I attempt to move my arm but nothing will budge. I fight an internal battle with brain signals pitted against sleeping pills to reach my appendages. Game: pills. The only thing I manage is tears and a barely audible whimper. The Abercrombie & Fitch model-reject paramedic nods and, along with his frumpy counterpart with a friendly smile, lifts my limp body onto a stretcher.
Abercrombie gets my vitals and starts asking a barrage of questions I do not want to answer and barely can answer. “Did you take something?” I nod. “What did you take?” I shrug. “Can you understand me?” I nod. “Were you trying to hurt yourself?” No response.
The realization I did this to myself is too much to take in, and the tears create a storm surge on my cheeks. I am sure he took this as a yes. Abercrombie’s partner in crime, well, I guess un-crime, tells me to stay awake. I step outside my body and let him have it.
Motherfucker, that’s easy for you to say. You try to stay awake with liquor, beer and prescription sleeping pills all up in yo’ system. You got a lot of nerve trying to tell me what to do! Just get me to the hospital to the real doctors, fool!
I step back in my body and nod, holding my eyes wide open like a Bratz doll. I decided it would be best to stay awake and cooperative just in case he is not the total quack I am convinced he is. Don’t want to dig a deeper hole. I digress on everything.
The ambulance ride that I later discover is only about five minutes feels like a two-hour ride. Abercrombie unsuccessfully pokes my uncooperative veins to get an IV about five times. However, the pain doesn’t upset me, it energizes me because I know I am still here. Funny how pain always is a mainstay in my journey. My mind starts racing:
pressure is a funny thing, but not like ha ha. it can create and destroy but always changes things. pain is a funny thing but not ha ha, it makes it harder to create ... and easier to be destroyed, but i won’t allow the latter because this is far beyond a laughing matter it is my life. and i am worthy of creation. So time for me … to abandon the vicious cycles ... and running in circles … I am gonna run ... in some new shapes, ellipses, rhombuses ... no. fuck that. I am multidimensional. I’ll run, walk and glide in 3-D, run in dodecahedron ... excel in this sphere … shit, I’m dizzy.
I pass out despite Abercrombie’s flunky’s request.
“Ms. McKay, looks like they are going to release you in the morning,” explains the aptly named second-shift babysitter, Nurse Sunny. What is a sitter nurse? you may wonder. This is the nurse who has to sit in the room 24-7 with a suicidal patient. Twenty. Four. Seven. This Jackée doppelgänger with a “sister-girlfriend-honey child” affectation had shared the last three days with me, had finally gotten me to say more than a few words and mumbles. I may have had a semiconversation at some point, scoffing at the BET Awards that night. Slander usually pulls me out of all variety of funks. I softly reply, “But I’m not ready.” and then loudly exclaim, “I’M JUST NOT READY! IT’S NOT FAIR!”
Sunny, in her sassy but calm way, replies, “What’s not fair. baby?” IV’d arms crossed and midtantrum, I respond, “Fucking life. I know it’s not supposed to be fair, but why can’t it just be a little more level? Why I gotta be so sad all the time? Why I gotta be so scared all the time? Why I gotta be so, so, so broken.”
The tears let loose: “I just want to feel whole, if only for one day. Just one day.”
Sunny says, “I don’t know why, and I may never know, but let’s work on changing that. They’re not going to throw you in the street. We got some options for you. So just relax for now, hun.” And for some reason that was enough. I roll over and sleep the soundest I have in years.
Morning arrives and real sunshine replaces my sweet Sunny. The light pours into the thin blinds of the hospital window and I manage my first smile. A real cheek-stretching, almost cheesing smile. Kool-Aid, even. Progress.
My smile is quickly doused by Dr. Raincloud entering the room with his band of merry interns. Regress. He stares at me with his permanently furrowed unibrow and starts to talk with his condescending, barely intelligible speech. This balding, racially ambiguous little troll hits me with a barrage of questions I barely understand coming at me a million miles per hour, hitting me in the head. Mind begins racing.
Now I am overwhelmed. Brain is fried over easy. Mmmmm, eggs, wait, I don’t like eggs like that like that. I don’t like this. His bald head looks like an egg. I want to smash it. This is my brain on drugs. Any questions? I’m gonna raise my hand, I have aplenty. Hope Raincloud calls on me and shuts up. Snap. Out. Of. This.
Stormy Raincloud, M.D., glares at me and asks me something. All I hear is sad trombones and see a cirrus cloud with lips flapping away. Snap. Out. Of. It. I catch enough words to realize he is releasing me, has written me a stack of prescriptions and is sending a social worker in to speak to me about what’s next.
Cloudy day, pushing Dr. Raincloud away, I want to go where this doccctorrrrrr ainnnnn’t. Won’t you tell me how to get, how to get to Sanity Street. Hey, Big Bird, what’s up?
I take a look at the prescriptions and think of how my mama always says, “Oooooh, they gave me some good drugs!” when she goes to the doctor to lift the seriousness. I let out a strange, creepy-adjacent chuckle followed by a slight whimper.
My mama. Sigh. Haven’t talked to her in a month. I know she probably has a search party out for me. I have a search party out for me too. I want glitter at my search party. Finding yourself should be festive. I want whistles too. Wait, what?
I reach into bag of clothes to change out of the struggle-filled hospital gear to get ready for the social worker’s arrival and my departure. I pull on my jeans and a black tank top. I go in the bathroom and throw some water on my face and my strife-stricken Afro. The current sitter, Nurse Chatterbox, wants to know my whole natural-hair protocol. I want to cut off all my hair and throw it in her eye.
Anger from nowhere begins to build up from an undisclosed place. My secret anger. I hate conflict. I don’t even like to watch people fighting on TV without getting anxious and cringing. So the anger remains hidden under rocks. Nurse Chatterbox is threatening to uncover my lifelong charade with her hair-conditioner inquiries. I want to smack her with an Herbal Essences bottle. And with rocks. Namaste.
Plain Jane Doe, LCSW, enters just in time to save Nurse Chatterbox from stoning and martyrdom. “Ms. McKay, can we talk for a moment?” she says dryly. I nod. She motions for the current bane of my existence to leave the room. As soon as the nurse leaves the room, Ms. Doe’s entire body language changes. Little do I know I am about fall in love with her.
Ms. Doe says, “I’d like to apologize for ... ” Before she can finish, I ask, “What on earth could you be sorry for? We just met.” She replies, “I kinda, off the record, hate your doctor.” My eyes are now saucers. Still in disbelief, I ask, “Whaaaa? you too?”
Ms. Doe touches my shoulder and says, “I have talked to your nurses and read your charts and I think your diagnosis is totally wrong. I won’t tell you what I think it is because it’s not my place. However, I would suggest you go to this crisis/recovery center and get a correct diagnosis and the help you will need. Just trust me.” Dumbfounded, I agree to go to the center. Nurse Chatterbox returns to the room and informs me that I will be released officially after lunch arrives.
A food-service worker about my age, height and build delivers me my hospital Last Supper minus disciples, the Lord and even sans babysitter nurse. Overcome with anxiety, I barely touch the actually tasty hospital food. I have been shocked by the incline in quality of hospital food. Just four years ago I had been hospitalized and the food was atrocious. They still have that ubiquitous Jello, though. What can you do?
The social worker returns, and giggles enter my mind of her hate for my doctor. That will forever be hilarious. She says, “Here is a voucher for a cab to the center. There they will do an intake and see if you need to be admitted or if you want to receive outpatient help. Here is my card. Feel free to call me.”
I walk to the front of the hospital campus, bag and purse in tow, to await my chariot to take me to the center. I squint at the bright sun doing its July duty. At least something is acting right, ole reliable ball of gas millions of miles away. I glance at my watch on my left arm and then my eyes shift over to the right arm. It is adorned with a light-blue hospital bracelet. I read: MCKAY, MARLENA. “Ha,” I think. “Who the hell is that chick?”
After a few minutes the cab pulls up and I walk to it. An older, frail-looking black man is in the cab. Out the window he says, “Ms. McKay?” I nod and open the door and hop in.
“Where to, little lady?” the gentle-voiced grandpa says.
“Johnston Treatment Center, please. The hospital gave me a voucher.”
The cabdriver begins to laugh hysterically until he looks back and sees me on the verge of tears. “Oh honey, I’m sorry, I am laughing cuz it is right across the street, but I’ll still drive ya. It’s hotter than Satan’s Kitchen out there. Wanna stop at the store or something first? Rules are made to be broken.”
Now smiling, I say, “Just take me off these grounds so I can go smoke and get a real soda. I don’t ask for much.”
“Sounds like a plan, pretty lady. Let’s go!”
I stand against the cab in the parking lot of the store with one foot up against the car like a movie poster, puffing away on the second back-to-back cigarette. I chain-smoke when I am nervous, calm, sad, happy, sober or drunk. You figure it out. I inhale each drag with purpose and attempt to exhale all my problems. It isn’t working, but you can’t blame a sister for trying. I get my dose of nicotine therapy and hop back in the cab. Next stop: loony bin.
I glance at the unassuming gray stone building surrounded by trees.
What place isn’t surrounded by trees in this town, just green for no reason. I like trees. I don’t like green, though. “Green Eyes” is my favorite song. I wonder if Erykah Badu been to a place like this before. She kinda crazy. Maybe she good crazy. It ain’t easy being green. Ooooh, Kermit! I love the Muppets. Snap out of it.
I bid adieu to the best cabdriver on earth and step outside the cab. I shuffle along dragging my feet like I always do, literally and figuratively, up the cement walkway snaked through plush grass. In my current, over-keenly-tuned self-awareness, I realize how annoying it is, literally and figuratively, to drag your feet, especially in flip-flops. There is a metaphor in there somewhere, minus the flip-flops. Or something. I think, “It really is hot as Satan’s kitchen out here. I wonder if he has chicken.” I find my way to the door and try to push it. It won’t open. I nearly jump out of my skin with the sound of an obnoxious, blaring buzzer, followed by the click open of the door. I push the door and step in.