|A Novel By Max Rabinowitz|
|It was a bright day in September when Octopus first entered our sphere. His real name was John Fitzsimmons O'Mare and he was the scaredest guy I ever saw. If somebody tried to talk to him or got too close he would scream and run away.
Octopus would never go to the bathroom if anyone was inside, nor would he ever take a shower with us or even undress to go to sleep. There were times when everyone thought he was one of the really crazy ones, but if he was so, he shouldn't have been on the same ward with us. Our ward was supposed to be for guys that were at least superficially sane. Something was very wrong there and we resolved to find out just what it was.
Since no one could get very close to Octopus without that yelling and, consequently, an attendant showing up with a beating we decided that someone should make a concentrated effort to approach him. Since I was considered the slickest, when it came to conning people, I was dubbed for the job.
It took three weeks and three beatings before he would let me get within ten feet of him without all the yelling. Then I'd put a candy bar on the ground and push it over toward him. That didn't work because he would just look at it. So I started talking to him, not saying much or anything, just trying to feel him out like someone would when they make friends with a puppy. The other guys left us alone and paid no obvious attention to what I was doing.
It must have been about the second week in October when I finally broke the shell he had surrounded himself with. I had been talking at him for weeks, but to no avail, and it came as a very big surprise when he started crying real hard, and then, in a beautifully eloquent voice, he told me to fuck off and started screaming.
Success at last! O'Mare said something! Now it was just a matter of time. First I had to dodge the attendant who came running in response to the screams, but before the afternoon had ended, O'Mare was talking to me coherently. He still wouldn't let me get close to him, but he was talking and even allowed the other guys to circle around at a respectable distance. For a patient, O'Mare was really smart. Not many of us had any real schooling, but O'Mare had finished junior high school early and that amazed us.
He talked all about himself and the reasons for which his family had brought him to the hospital. Those reasons were supposed to be because they wanted him to get mentally well before he had an operation, one he had been waiting for all of his life.
All the guys crowded closer and began throwing questions at O'Mare, one after another, until he finally got mad at us. What set him off were the continual queries about why he wouldn't get undressed to sleep or take a shower with us.
In pure disgust, O'Mare ripped open his shirt and sweater. Our mouths fell open as we saw a large leather strap running diagonally across his chest, sort of like a Sam Browne belt arrangement, and we watched carefully as he unbuckled the contraption. Underneath it was a tiny little hand, just like a baby's, and it was growing straight out of the center of his chest! Two guys got sick, but the rest of us looked real close at it and I asked O'Mare if it was real. He assured me that it was real and then began to cry, shouting at us to go ahead and make fun of him like everyone else always did.
No one said a word until I asked quietly if O'Mare could move it around an stuff. O'Mare sobbed out that it just hung there.
Bob Scoenstein, whom we had nicknamed Feet, was the only guy we knew who wasn't exactly like everyone else as far as the physical went and we dragged him right up to O'Mare, who stopped crying and wondered what we were doing. Feet took off his shoes and showed O'Mare why he had been given his nickname. He had six toes on each foot.
O'Mare stopped breathing for a moment as Feet explained that it was no big thing to have something extra, and we all chirped in with comments such as, "So what if you got an extra hand?" A dopey little guy we called Little Mouth Baskins piped in, Ï wish I hadda got one of them!
O'Mare was stunned at our reaction to his physical deformity, but we weren't the usual kind of kids anyhow, and everyone thought that he was okay with us. Not one guy laughed.
I asked O'Mare if I could touch it and he nodded gingerly. I touched it with my fingers and it felt just like a real hand, only smaller. Then everyone else got into the act and soon we were all feeling the tiny hand and asking him how he had gotten it and things like why did he want to have it removed.
When O'Mare recovered from his surprise, he told us it had bothered him all his life, that everyone at school always teased him about it. His parents took him to a doctor but there was something about a large artery that ran through it and also about having to wait before the operation could be performed. By that time O'Mare was kinda buggy about the whole thing and his people brought him to the hospital to get his mind straightened out first.
I don't know who it was that first began calling him Octopus, but we all picked it up and he didn't seem to mind one bit. In any case, with the medications and with flaky friends like us, Octopus improved tremendously in the eyes of the headshrinkers and was finally taken out to a special hospital about four months later. We all wished him well when he left and stupid Little Mouth Baskins even asked Octopus to save the hand for him.
About three weeks later Octopus returned to our ward for what were to be his final few days. He had a large bandage on his chest and seemed happy as anything when he told us that the doctors had removed the hand without any problems. We still called him Octopus, but somehow it wasn't the same anymore.
On the day his parents came to take him away, Octopus brought them around to our ward and introduced them to all of us. I watched is mother wince visibly when guys said "Goodbye, Octopus", but she never said anything to us other than hello.
I never saw him again and that was good. Octopus was one of the few guys that got well in that hospital.
In our own small way we were of more therapeutic value than any of the doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, or attendants. It was us, and our concern for each other, that made or broke a new patient. If something was wrong with someone we knew it right away and, if we felt so inclined, we would get involved with that person. And, depending on our moods at the moment, it was either good or very bad. Octopus was one of the good ones and so was Yolanda.
Yolanda was a pretty little girl from Ward Twelve who went to the school with us. Everyone liked her too. Yet, almost all of us there had a problem. Yolanda's was that she wouldn't talk to anyone. Whenever anyone asked her a question that couldn't be answered with a shake or a nod of her head, Yolanda would just smile prettily and that was that.
A couple other guys and I talked to the social workers about Yolanda. The social workers told us that Yolanda wasn't a deaf mute, but rather she thought if she said anything or made any kind of noise her soul would escape and she would die. Yolanda's parents were real Bible people and Yolanda became warped by some of the things they told her would happen if she made noise as a baby. So, Yolanda wouldn't talk. The social workers warned us not to bother her but that was like waving a red cape at a herd of bulls.
I cannot quite remember who originally came up with the idea first. I know that it wasn't me and I know that most of us didn't like it because Yolanda was such a pretty girl, but we couldn't see any other alternative.
It was agreed that we would clear our actions with Doctor Masti so that we wouldn't get into too much trouble, though we all knew that we would get into a mess anyway.
When we approached her with the idea, Masti told us that we shouldn't do it. We told her that if she didn't let us do it we would all stop eating and we would also set fires and throw shit on the walls. Little Mouth Baskins told her that if she didn't let us do it he would rip his prick off. She blushed at that and gave in, but only if she could be right there to make sure we didn't hurt Yolanda. Since we had no intention of hurting Yolanda this seemed like a reasonable compromise. We would have to change our plan a little bit, but that was all.
It was agreed that we would get Yolanda and do it on a Thursday, which left us with two days to work out the details and get ourselves ready. Doctor Masti promised to see to it that Yolanda was at the school on Thursday morning and also to make sure she didn't get any medication until then. That way Yolanda wouldn't be too doped up to react to what we had in mind. We had to promise that we wouldn't bring anything to the school area except ourselves and we had to agree to an attendant out in the hallway. We didn't like that part, but okayed it as long as it wasn't that rat bastard Robeson. We settled for a halfway decent attendant named Sludge. He was tall, black, easy-going, and not too mean.
On Thursday morning we trooped to the school area, thirty-six of us ranging in age from eight to fifteen years old, and in size from four to six feet tall. The bigger and older guys were to take care of Dr. Masti and at least twelve guys were assigned to grab Sludge. We were determined to carry our plan through and we knew that Masti wasn't going to let us do it our way. We had told her that we planned just to crowd around Yolanda and keep talking softly to her until she said something, but that wasn't our actual plan. Dr. Masti would've never have agreed to that.
Yolanda showed up right on time and her attendant left her with Dr. Masti, Sludge and the rest of us. She flashed her pretty smile, but if she had known what we were all there for she wouldn't have.
As soon as Yolanda's attendant left we started out. First, we sat Yolanda down in the middle of the schoolroom floor and encircled her. She was nervous because her eyes flickered and the tip of her tongue peeped out to wet her lips. She smiled anyway and just waited to see what we were going to do.
Bullwinkle got to his feet casually, as if to stretch his legs and some of the other guys followed. They walked behind Dr. Masti and, without any warning; they grabbed her and dragged her into the supply closet at the side of the room. She yelled wildly, probably thinking that the guys were going to rape her, and as a result Sludge came running down the hallway.
When he burst through the door the rest of us grabbed him, took away his keys and pushed him into the supply closet also. Iron Man, Bullwinkle, Little Mouth, and I pushed the door shut and locked it with Sludge's key.
Everyone crowded around Yolanda and began shouting at her. We didn't even know what we were saying half the time, just loud and meaningless noises.
Yolanda started to cry because everywhere she turned there was someone screaming in her ears. Once in a while one of us would yell that we would stop if she asked us to, but she just cried harder and tried covering her ears, but that didn't help. The noise was unreal.
We kept going at her, while Dr. Masti and sludge banged on the supply closet door and Yolanda cried. Even my ears began to hurt from all the noise.
"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" Yolanda screamed, suddenly. She jumped up and ran over to Iron Man and punched him in the face. "Leave me alone you devils!"
We were amazed. We all thought our plan had worked. Yolanda had finally said something, but then she fell to the floor and started rolling around like she was having an epileptic fit. We all got scared. I knelt over her and tried to calm her down, but that didn't help very much and I got more scared.
We released Doctor Masti and Sludge right away and they ran over to Yolanda. There wasn't much they could do either and so they just took her away, still crying and babbling.
Our entire ward was locked up for two weeks and almost all of us were given extra medication and seclusion room treatment. Seven of us got the Robeson Special.
Yolanda returned to the school about a month later. She hadn't changed very much. She would still nod yes and shake her head for no and still smile her pretty smile, but there was something new, a wild, haunted look. She shied away from most of us.
It hurt a great deal and it saddened me to feel that we had put that pretty girl through all of that torture only to have failed.
We saw Yolanda for the last time when her guardian aunt came to pick her up, a few months later. The courts would not give her real parents custody any more. She was at the front door when we left the building for our afternoon recreational period. I waved at her and she ran over to our line.
We all gathered around, ignoring the attendant's pleas for us to get back in formation. One of our own was leaving for good and that was always an occasion.
Yolanda smiled that pretty smile and then in a very soft, very sweet voice, she spoke to us: "I'm going home now with my aunt and I wanted you to know that I'm not going to die now if I talk. Isn't that wonderful? It was wicked of you boys to tease me like that and make me lose my soul, but Aunt Sarah says that I'll get it back in less than a year if I'm real good."
Then she frowned a little bit. "It feels funny not to have a soul, though." I often wondered if Yolanda became normal, but I never found out for sure, because she never came back to the hospital. I mentioned Yolanda a couple of years later to Sludge and he had forgotten all about the incident. I prodded him, but he couldn't bring Yolanda back to mind.
I wasn't really surprised. Why should staff members let things like that stick in their minds. To them, each day's events were just part of the job, like working in a factory, a funny factory, with us as the products. To me it was a matter of shared fear, of a common cause with every kid who was in the same predicament as I was.