March 22, 2020
Tie a Tie
Russell cannot tie his tie and cannot accept that he cannot learn it, that this part of his brain is just gone. In the bathroom mirror, I watch his fingers fumble with the tie as the upturned scar on his forehead purples with tamped down rage.
“Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop,” he says.
I respect Russell’s perseverance, that despite his traumatic brain injury Russell does not acquiesce into helplessness and rely on the assistance available to him, like some other residents tend to.
But after so many Sundays, I must admit, I am not optimistic. After so many Sundays, I know that this episode only ends one way: with him asking for my help.
“Russell,” I say, hoping to move things along. His half-sister hates when we’re late. “There’s plenty of stuff I can’t do, either. I can’t do calculus or knit sweaters. I can’t eat dairy products or peanuts or watch Christmas movies without crying. I can’t roller skate.”
Russell ignores me. “Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop.”
“I can’t think about the deep ocean without existential dread,” I say. “Or sleep without draping a heating pad over a pillow and pretending it is another human body. I can’t volunteer at the humane society.”
“Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop.”
And as Russell’s fingers fumble, I continue listing my shortcomings. I list them and the list grows long and painful. But I do not stop. I keep listing because I want Russell to understand that we are all deficient in some fashion.
Finally, Russell turns to me, and says: “I am very sorry, but can you please respect my personal space. I do not want to keep my half-sister waiting and you’re making it difficult for me to focus.”
For a moment, I am gobsmacked. For a moment, I feel betrayed, as if Russell does not fully appreciate how difficult it is for me to list all my shortcomings, to open my heart to him and bare my soul.
Then the moment passes, and I remember the one thing I have always been good at: forgiveness. “I forgive you,” I say.
I go and stand on the other side of the bathroom door. I listen through the door to Russell fumble with the tie and think how I can forgive any person in the history of the world. I can forgive murderers, rapists, ex-husbands. I can forgive every evil tyrant for every atrocity they have ever done.
My secret trick is remembering how they all started out as babies.
Then I think of Russell’s half-sister. I remember all the times she blamed me for being late and how, out of all the Sundays, she never once invited me inside for church. How each time I sat at the curb in the passenger van, watching the stained-glass glisten and listening to the pipe organ groan.
But then I think of Russell’s half-sister as a baby. I imagine her swaddled in her crib, staring up into her mobile trying to figure out this miracle called life. And I forgive her in advance. For everything. Every last thing she has ever done.
Now the bathroom door swings open, and Russell emerges with an unexpected smile to match his scar, the inverse of which describes the trajectory he flew many years prior in a drunk driving wreck. “How’s this?” he asks me.
It takes me a moment to notice the tie tied around his neck—crooked, loose, and an attempt closer than he’s ever come, but still not close at all.
“Well, what do you say?” he says.
At first, I do not know how to answer. I know that his half-sister will not accept this, that she will blame me for Russell showing up so disheveled, like she blames me for every other misfortune that befell her half-brother. And I forgive her for all this also.
Then, most importantly, I forgive myself. For the moment I lie and pretend Russell’s tie is tied perfectly. When I roll my eyes, throw up my hands, and say, “What? You’ve never seen a double Windsor knot?” And for any harsh words or physical altercation that might follow. I forgive myself for everything. All of it. I bequeath myself total freedom and the power to act.
Then I look at Russell, smile back at him, tell him the tie looks perfect. More than perfect. Divine.
Now the two smears of cowboys work the pump on a well beside their horses. They take turns drinking from the ladle with high-noon squints across their faces… Maybe. The poor picture quality makes it hard to decipher their expressions, their features rounded down.
I watch Karen watching them. I think how the Powers-That-Be should not allow her to watch TV all day, how if it were up to me she would be at workshop, stuffing Kleenex into cardboard boxes for slave wages, like the rest of Lexington Home’s residents, and not have these outbursts at all: “Go away!”
Each time I turn the volume up, Karen turns the volume back down with the spare remote she must keep hidden in her bathrobe pocket.
“Go away!” I assure you she is not talking to me. I assure you that if you pulled her case file you would find a pathology that includes these outbursts. I have heard her many times before while downstairs with the boys.
I flinch, all the same.
The cowboys ride into an amorphous cluster of buildings: From a rocking chair, a pale, nebulous sheriff tips his hat. A painted woman in a billowing dress exits a saloon, curtsies. A hazy drunkard falls into a horse trough.
“Are those ghosts or people?” I say.
Karen does not answer, keeps watching.
I watch her watching. The TV light echoes softly in the hollows of her now-calm eyes until, suddenly, again, they bulge: “Go away!”
I flinch again. Only this time the flinch is different. The flinch is not my being startled at all, but an accumulation of tonight’s so many outbursts and flinches. It is Karen’s pain becoming too much—
Clearly, she has no one looking out for her!
Clearly, I am her only advocate in this world!
After the incident, the Powers-That-Be sent me up here—the details of which I will not get into, just know that if I did, you would see that the incident was not an incident at all, but simply a misunderstanding. “If you really want to help Karen,” they said. “Keep quiet. Don’t agitate. Remember where and who you are.”
Yet, as her sole advocate, I ask you: Who am I to stand idly by and leave her to suffer?
I get to my feet, sit back down, trying to think of what to do. I remember an article I read once online about PTSD. Repetition. Complex, the Death Drive.
I get back up again.
Maybe she is stuck on a loop, I think, returning to the trauma through this TV show, trying to figure it out. She must be preparing herself for next time.
Then I sit back down, pick up the remote. I flip the channel in search of a better picture, all the while reassuring Karen not to worry, that soon everything would be all right.
At long last, I find what I want: A scene so vivid that she could not breathe her life into it. An HD nature show—
Two muscular rams crash into each other on a rigid cliff overlooking a churning ocean. Geysers of snot spray from their snorting nostrils. Their long chin hairs flutter and knot in a breeze that carries a fine mist from the breaking waves that drift over their potential winnings, an onlooking harem of mates.
Every molecule of the HD picture is accounted for.
“Perfect,” I say and turn the volume all the way up. I do not stop until David Attenborough’s voice and the crush of hardheads fills the entire apartment.
“How’s that, Karen?” I say. “That better?”
Karen turns toward me. I wait for her to respond, to say something. Anything. But she only continues staring with those same calm eyes she uses to watch the TV between outbursts. Eyes that reflect nothing but my curved, dark image.
She does not blink. She does not go to the bathroom. She does not have an outburst. Just keeps looking at me, completely silent. She looks at me and looks at me in this fashion until my discomfort gives me no choice.
I change the channel to her channel, then Karen looks back. An extreme close-up of a man’s grim smile, bathed in static, glares at us both.
When the call comes canceling all outings, the other aid, Eduardo, becomes nothing but excuses: “I’m worried about the long commute home,” he tells me. “I have seriously bald tires,” he says. “I need to get to Walmart before the bottled water runs out.”
Excuse after excuse, Eduardo ratchets the residents’ nerves tighter than the weather reports about the hurricane.
Russell drapes a blanket over his head.
Malcolm flaps his hands.
King-King looms at the window while Phil gets up, sits down, gets back up again—like the apocalypse is pressing down on us.
“All right, all right,” I finally say. “Just go.”
I do not know what has Eduardo so worried. From the weather report’s doppler radar, it is clear the green static blob has parked itself over New York City more than a hundred miles south. And it makes me wonder if he is worried about something else. About the way King-King’s been looming in the window, perhaps, where, as far as he can tell, his bimonthly trip to the New York State Museum has been cancelled for nothing but clear, blue skies.
“You’re sure it’s cool if I go?” Eduardo says.
“I’m certain,” I say. I remove the blanket from Russell’s head and put it over Malcolm’s hands, settling them. I tell Phil to wait fifteen minutes and I will give him another Ativan. Then I add, “I’ll be fine.”
And while Eduardo pulls on his jacket, I believe this. I believe I can keep the residents calm without his backup, that the rumors surrounding King-King are false.
For example, rumor has it: King-King’s father was an opera singer who suicided into the frigid Hudson, that he visits the New York State Museum every other month because he believes his father lives with the Eskimo in the Ice Age Exhibit, feasting on slayed mastodon. But rumor also has it: King-King prefers his nickname because it sounds like the sharpening of butcher knives, that he once choked out an unsuspecting aid with murder in his eyes.
And the rumors are bullshit. I’ve been here long enough to know. I know how people talk.
For example, back in high school, a rumor went around that I was dating the mute, disabled boy I used to push around the track during gym class. “Just admit it,” they said. “You’re dating, you’re dating, you’re dating…” Until one day I could no longer take it and cried out: “So what if we are!?” I saw no problem with that, but the gym teacher sure did after he found out. After that, I was not allowed to push the boy anymore. He was left out at the edge of the track to bake in the sun.
So, I figure that this is what must have happened to King-King, that somewhere along the line an aid must have taken one look at his herculean size, let the worst-case-scenario hijack their brain, and that this fear must have worked its way from aid to aid like a biased game of telephone, eventually rendering King-King into some boogeyman.
At least, this is what I figure must have happened until the door slams shut behind Eduardo, until the tremor creeps back into Malcolm’s hands below the blanket and Russell begins eyeing the spasming blanket like he might snatch it back up again. Until Phil gets up again, sits down, gets up again.
“Why did Eduardo leave?” says Russell.
“Did he leave because of the hurricane?” says Malcolm.
“Can I have an Ativan?” says Phil.
Now the residents all look at me for reassurance—their faces the faces of adults with a child’s face faceted inside—in a way that I know I can stop by making up some excuse, something as simple as: “Don’t worry, my sweets. Eduardo didn’t want to work and lied to us.”
Instead, I turn the television up.
Instead, I fill the living room with the weatherwoman’s voice, with words like Catastrophic, Power outages, Record-breaking floods, while the high winds whip through the soft tip of the microphone.
Instead, I say, “Any minute now.”
Then I look at King-King’s silhouette in the window. And as the sound of gale-force winds rip from the TV’s speakers and into the living room, the sky remains cloudless, the trees completely still—a discrepancy that fills me with sudden vertigo.
Onscreen, an umbrella pinwheels across the background of the flooded city—nearly missing the weatherwoman’s head. It happens so fast and dangerously that I cannot help but duck, too. “Any second,” I say from my crouched position, my hands over my head.
Now Russell removes the blanket from Malcolm’s hands. He unleashes them back into the air like panicked doves and places the blanket over his head.
Meanwhile, Phil continues getting up, sitting down, getting up again.
“King-King, did you see that?” I say. “King-King, did you hear?”
But King-King just continues looming there. He continues searching the clear horizon for a good reason as to why he cannot take his bimonthly visit to the New York State Museum for the rest of the night. And for the rest of the night, I stare at the back of his herculean head with the volume turned up loud, and think to myself:
is where the real terror starts.