He dropped the headline onto the floor, Canadian Prison System Confronts Staggering Rise in Number of Geriatric Inmates. He gave it a frail laugh. It was all the laugh he had strength to give. Across the ward, the prison padre spoke quietly with a nurse, looking over his shoulder occasionally at Atticus Byrd, lying in his bed. Atticus was connected with wires and tubes to a jungle of IV stands and electronic apparatus, all of it humming, beeping or dripping. They forced large doses of anti-psychotic medication on him daily, but the army of disembodied voices they eliminated would be a delight compared to the medically necessary mechanical racket.
The padre finally broke off his conversation with the nurse and arrived at Atticus’ bedside.
“How are you, my son?” he said seating himself.
“You’re half my age,” Atticus replied. “Don’t call me your son.”
“It’s just a greeting,” said the padre, his eyes calm and sympathetic. “It’s a respectful salutation.”
“It’s conceited and condescending.”
“You misunderstand, I think.”
“Don’t think, just listen. What I’m about to tell you is important. It has to do with something that happened back in 1957, you see. It was life changing. It was brilliant. It could have changed everything, set mankind on a new path. All of that. But no one cared to listen to me because I’m mental, see.”
“My, it sounds quite grand,” the padre said. “What was it, Atticus?”
“Can’t remember. It was 1957, for God’s sake. I didn’t have a pencil, forgot to write it down.”
“So just stay focussed, boyo. You come in here and start talking like you’re gonna save my life or something. All you’re doing is confusing me.”
“You asked for me. I only want to offer comfort. Have you reconsidered confession?”
“Hump confession, Father. What I want to tell you is as close as it’s gonna get. God’s the only one that’s got some explaining to do. I’m an open book. And you’re looking at the final chapter, ain’t you?”
“But to die without confession….”
“Means what, daddyo? That universe is a dangerous place? That I might miss the chance to spend all eternity in the presence of omnipotent incompetence? I’ll take my chances. A deity’s got to make himself worthy of adoration. If the only reason to confess to my sins is the threat of damnation, then god hasn’t got much going for him, has he? What I really want you to do is write something down. I can’t see or hold a pen no more.”
“I’ve brought a pad of paper and a pen,” the padre said, “Begin when you like.”
“Good. Now listen and write. 1957, understand? Ok hang on, hang on, suddenly it’s not so clear no more. Give me a minute. Yeah, okay. It’s funny, you know? Sometimes it’s like I wrote my life in drain cleaner, and it just dissolved whatever it was written on. We were talking about ‘57, right? I was seventeen and hanging out a lot downtown, on the street round Woodward’s department store. 1957 was the first time I went crazy. I mean real over the rainbow, daddyo. Voices, visions and accusations. They blamed it on reefer and booze. But it wasn’t no reefer. The reefer back then wasn’t nothing compared to now. I smoked a little here and there, and I couldn’t afford no booze. The wops up on the Drive called me touched by the angels. They’d give me free coffee and sandwiches, like out of charity. Maybe because they knew being angel touched wasn’t such a good thing. But there weren’t no angels, not at first.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy illegal shit – I’ll give you that. That’s why I ain’t been out of prison for more than a month or two, here and there. But it was mostly because of the schizophrenia. I ain’t a real bad guy. It’s just easier and cheaper to put me in prison than an asylum. And I ain’t the only one. Prison’s full of kooks like me.”
“Is kooks the right word, Atticus?” asked the padre.
“That word fits like a glove, baby. Don’t let no one tell you different. I own it. It’s mine. So you can back off on that one.
“Anyway, I wound up in Riverview in ‘57. It was my first rap. I’d broken a window and punched a cop. Agnes, one of the voices I was hearing, said the cops were a virulent worm army from the centre of the Earth, bent on world domination and destruction of the world’s televisions. I didn’t need much convincing. My lawyer said Riverview Hospital would be better than prison. So, we pled insanity. But he was wrong. Riverview was hell.
“It was the first time they drugged me, chlorpromazine. A doctor there, named Dr Wilver, told me I was lucky to be drugged. He sneered when he said it. He said he’d rescued my sorry ass from the ice baths, insulin shock treatments and a lobotomy. Just like that, my sorry ass, he said. I could hardly move or think for three years because of those drugs. And Mr Shiv never went away.
“Have I mentioned Mr Shiv yet? No? I never saw him before the hospital. And he was a creepy fucker, daddyo. He liked to stand in the corner during the day, grinning and wearing his napalm choir gown. It was like he was being baked alive in a gasoline fire, but always smiling about the whole damn thing. There weren’t no pills could make him go away. He laughed at the doctors, who couldn’t see him anyway. And he told me not to tell them I could see him, because the docs would rather kill me than admit that they couldn’t make Mr Shiv go away. And I knew it was true.
“Now I don’t know what you know about Riverview Hospital, but it was like this weird little town up there over the highway. And a town split right down the middle, with the doctors and nurses on one side and the patients on the other. Dr Wilver was the psychiatrist in charge, and he hated the world and everybody in it. Especially me.
“I lived with a bunch of other male patients in the oldest building, West Lawn. Built in 1913. It was like an unflushed toilet, full of bad psychic energy. All of the poor sick souls who came before and never made it out alive. They were invisible except to some of the patients like me. And they screamed and shook the place like they was having some sort of collective epileptic seizure. Only reason I slept a wink those years was because of the chlorpromazine. But that didn’t even work, mostly. Mostly I just sat up in bed, watching it all. Watching Mr Shiv burning and conducting that chorus of damned dead psychiatric patients as they fought with one another and sang their songs. It was all anguish and regret, daddyo. And I rocked back and forth, sitting on that bed. There was an eerie rhythm to it, and hard not to move in time to.
“Another person that rocked to the ghost music was Trevor Meatyard. Trevor was even more batshit than me. He believed he was Lord Krishna and liked to bless everyone. He saw shit you wouldn’t believe. Urinals opening like doors into other dimensions and demons swimming in the alphabet soup. I hung out with him just to see what was next.
“So, one day we’re supposed to have a trip away from the hospital, to a farm somewhere to commune with the cows. There we all were. Me, Trevor and all the other nutbars, standing sedated in the hospital parking lot. We were waiting to get on a big orange bus that said Riverview Hospital on the side, so that anybody who looked would know everyone on board was crazy. And as we stood there, the sky opened up and it rained these tiny crystals that went tink-a-link when they hit the pavement. Trevor Meatyard picked one of the crystals up and swallowed it. And that made his eyes glow all red and blue. And he levitated for a minute above everyone. He’d done this before, and the doctors and nurses hated it. So, I said, ‘Get back down here, Trevor. They see you levitating again and you’re going for electroshock, for sure.’ But then an angel floated down and said her name was Martha, but no relation to Mary like you’d have thought.”
“Goodness, an angel?” the padre said incredulously. He touched his hand to his chilblain cheek.
“That’s right, padre. An out and out angel. It’s funny how you religious types spill all that angel hooey and then act all sceptical when a body reports seeing one. And it’s funny how stories of angels make most people feel all warm and tender inside? Well, I can tell you, Martha wasn’t no warm and tender angel. She was all clock gears, levers and ratchets, wheels rotating inside wheels. She smelled like rotten wood and had a thousand eyes that all wept, and her tears were the crystals going tink-a-link on the blacktop.”
“Now Atticus, really…?”
“Put a sock in it, padre. This is my moment. You just keep writing.
“That was when I had the idea. When I saw the angel, I mean. This is the thing I need you to get down before I die, padre. I figured then that my greatest triumph would be my own death.”
“Really, Atticus! There is no triumph in death.”
“What about Jesus?”
“But you’re not Jesus, Atticus.”
“Jesus wasn’t even Jesus until the resurrection. Before that, he was just some skinny magician in possession of a certain persuasive eloquence, same as ten thousand other sunburnt desert lunatics.
“Anyway, I’d always thought that I’d be more successful dead. You get it? I was never successful in any measurable way in life. But I thought that I might be in death. Maybe that was the place for me. The voices I’d always heard said so. I’d hear them recommending death to me all the time, like it was a career choice. And Mr Shiv said so, too. He whispered in my ear round dawn on rainy days, when the only other sound was the wet hiss off of the highway.
“‘Only you can do it,’ he’d say. “‘Become fire like me. Get matches and kerosene. They’re in the basement waiting for you. You are special among men, and you belong with me.’”
“I belonged with him, you see? There was a place for me at West Lawn. Not as a patient, though. Not as some drugged zombie. But as a fully realised spirit, free of my body and brain with all of their defects. Fire would make me an equal to Mr Shiv. We’d each possess our own powerful cloak of flame.
“So, next day, I slipped down into the basement and took the kerosene and matches out of the utility room and hid them. I was going to wait for my big moment.
“But now here was Martha, the weeping clockwork angel. The parking lot smelling of rotten wood, and all of her crystal tears tink-a-linking on the pavement. And she spoke to me. I mean, she really looked at me with her thousand teary eyes and spoke to me.
“‘Atticus Byrd,’ she said. And her voice was all of the angels of heaven talking at once. It was a sound impossible to hear without dying from it, but I heard it and lived all the same. “’Atticus Byrd, Mr Shiv is a liar and a murderer. His fire is his own and you can never have one like it.’
“And I thought then of the kerosene and the matches I’d stolen from the utility room and hidden behind the boxes under the stairs. And I said, ‘But you could be a liar, too. How’s someone supposed to tell the angels from the devils in this world?’
“And that was when Dr Wilver came over and asked me who I was talking to, and I made the mistake of pointing to where Martha had been and was no longer. I guess she was a flash in the pan angel, same as them demons swimming in Trevor’s alphabet soup. And seeing the vacant space she’d once occupied, I said, ‘No one. I wasn’t speaking to no one.’
“And Dr Wilver said, ‘That’s good Atticus Byrd. That’s very good.’ He nodded all knowingly as he spoke. He was really taunting me. I could tell he wanted me to get all defensive and change my mind and say that there really was someone there. He’d have loved to hear it was some mechanical, gear driven angel. Then I really would get that lobotomy. He was asking for it, boy. So I bided my time. I waited a good six months. And when the time was right, I moved like an incendiary cat.
“Dr Wilver liked to mess around with Nurse Temple. She wasn’t nothing to look at, but I guess she gave it up easy. So, at lunchtime on a Wednesday, I went down and got the kerosene and matches.
“Wilver and Temple were in his office banging against the wall like it was no one’s business. And NurseTemple was going ahhhhhhh! oh, oh, ahhhhhhhh! Most of the patients were holding their hands over their ears, but some were doing other stuff I won’t relate to you here. I mean, Wilver and Temple had absolutely no shame.
“I’d planned to pour all of the kerosene under Wilver’s office door and light it on fire. But Trevor Meatyard came round the corner and saw me there.
“‘Bless you, Atticus’ he said. ‘Chant with me, hare krishna, hare rāma….’
“And I said, ‘Not now Lord Krishna.’
“Then he looked at the can in my hand, and he said, ‘Karma can be a can of kerosene and a book of matches as easily as a small kindness undone.’
“And I stood there for a moment, thinking about that, while Trevor Meatyard hovered several inches off of the floor with a rainbow glowing aura round him.
“Then I heard someone say, ’Do it!’ It was Mr Shiv. He standing down a ways from me, burning like tire fire. ‘Do it! But save some for yourself. Finish it now. Come over to me, Atticus.’
“And Trevor Meatyard was all, ‘hare krishna, hare rāma….’ And I was stumped. I was standing between this weird dualistic binary thing that should never happen to a guy on a Wednesday afternoon.”
“Well, what did you do?” the padre said, engrossed now. All incredulity vanished.
“I said fuck it and poured the kerosene all over me, head to toe. I mean the can was full. It pooled all round my feet, and I knew then that the whole damn place was gonna go up. But I couldn’t take it anymore, always being pulled between the good and the bad by completely unreliable people and cosmic visions, everyone a bunch of self-serving liars. Do you know what I mean, padre?”
The padre nodded, grim faced. He had to admit that he did know what Atticus Byrd meant.
“So what happened?” the padre said.
“I lit the match.”
“But that’s impossible. You’re here now. You’re alive and you have no burn scars.”
“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre. You see, I lit the match and Mr Shiv goes ‘Yesssss,’ kind of like a snake. But Trevor Meatyard just keeps hovering and chanting all serene-like, ‘hare krishna, hare rāma….’ And I figure, why not go out big time. So, I used the match to ignite the whole book of matches. It flared up and burned real good. Then I sort of had this out of body experience. I mean, I was watching it all from on high, padre. I could see myself soaked in a highly flammable liquid with a burning book of matches in my hand. It was weird and liberating and really frightening, all at the same time.”
“So what happened, Atticus?” said the padre. “You must tell me!”
“I applied the matches to my kerosene soaked body.”
“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”
“Oh stop saying that, will you. Tell me what happened.”
“I applied that burning book of matches to my body, right about here.” Atticus Byrd said again.
“Well, nothing happened.”
“But it was kerosene. How could nothing have happened, for God’s sake?”
“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”
The padre clenched his fists and said, “You are testing me, Atticus Byrd.”
“Well, it seems that Trevor Meatyard, AKA Lord Krishna, replaced the kerosene with Windex a couple of days before.”
“Yeah, the all purpose window cleaner with Ammonia D.”
“I know what Windex is, Atticus.”
“Then I guess you know I didn’t burst into flames, though I did have to do extra kitchen duty for a month for making such a big mess. Anyway, Mr Shiv went away after that. I saw him from my window that night, walking across the parking lot toward the highway. He wasn’t burning so bright no more.”
“This has been very disappointing as confessions go, Atticus.”
“Weren’t no confession, padre.”
“Consider yourself absolved, nonetheless.”