The particular pharmaceutical wholesaler, a marginal enterprise at best, was suffering the breakdown of its Japanese delivery truck.
Mac drove down South Grand Street, along a fungus-and-graffiti-streaked seawall. Half overgrown, invisible from everydayness, and so of dubious purpose--whether to protect the inhabitants from flood or the river from the inhabitants uncertain--it followed the random inclinations of the unseen current beyond. To his left, large sagging houses marked the intervals between nursing homes and coincident graveyards. The yards were oversized, highly vegetated and wrought-iron-fenced, a feel remnant of some long vanished local version of flapper-era splendor parties.
The drive progressed through smaller and shabbier neighborhoods, occasional ex-homes exhibiting through doorless casings the remnants of bonfires on the floor.
The clinic Mac sought was all the way down at the lower city limits, where South Grand and Jackson merged. On the map the tract of land rounded off like the southern tip of Africa. It was actually inside a compound, rude wiring along the top of hurricane mesh. Within were the Boys' Reformatory, the Intermediate Holding Facility for the yet-to-be-judged-not-criminally insane, and the Charity Hospital. The whole place looked like a setting from the Halloween movies Mac hated so much.
Mac turned in at the gate. There was a small sentry hut. The windows were dark, opaque. "Rear dock, hospital?" came a voice; "Go on around to the front. Don't come through here."
"I have a package for, uh--"
"Forget it. Forget it. Just--" Then another voice, two people in the hut? "It's medicine, I think," Mac interjected. An impatient hand waved him on.
The clinic building lay long and flat in a field in the middle of the tract, several hundred feet from the other structures. He pulled within the no-parking strip of the circular drive and looked around. No further challenges presented at this checkpoint. It was like getting to use the handicapped spaces in front of a department store.
In the reception area the package caused a confusion that can only be found in institutions with extensive procedural flows for all possible occurrences. A man in scrubs folded his arms and said "See? What did I tell you?" A lady and another man dressed in lab jackets averted themselves from Mac's gaze, edging away from the package. "At any rate, we can't take responsibility, and if we have to petition the director himself--" "And he sure won't like that."
Ultimately the room was abandoned by all and the responsibility left to the receptionist who after making three calls for permission signed and took the package while loudly chewing gum. This one's contour-lined face evidenced that she was well aware of being the caretaker of valued body cavities. She positioned the package in a vacant corner of the desk. Mac began to tell her about the failure of the wholesaler's truck; she said she was temporary and answered the trill of the phone.
Mac had never been inside the facility before. It always seemed forbidden, anonymous in a way that provoked curiosity. The receptionist spoke monotonously into the receiver, apparently concerning what some bitch said about her to a third party, totally heedless of Mac. He stepped into a brief hallway at the end of the reception area. No one stopped him as he ventured down the hall.
There was a door with five numbered buttons--to allow only those with a security combination to pass. It wasn't quite closed, however. A strategic block of plywood left a small crack where cool air sifted. The door pulled open easily.
The floor beyond was slickly tiled, the corridor walls a two-toned ammonia-laced green. Some eerie forecast preceded him down the hall, doors slamming harshly in a wave before he could pass or see inside the rooms. Sounds echoed everywhere. A spacious lounge opened at the end where the windows were blinded and the aspect dim.
There were people in the room, a small contingent turning to behold him. Most seemed unimpressed, as if he were some expected phenomenon, but one was visibly excited, jumping and pointing. A young extravagantly pale man in loose-fitting jeans opened his mouth wide and covered it with outspread fingers, emitting a hoarse hooting cry. He darted about, tapping others and pointing at Mac.
Although most of the inhabitants were conventionally dressed, some wore pajamas and robes. One middle-aged man, not old, a little fat and gray, leaned over from a chair into the wall with a hand-written note safety-pinned to his shirt: I have thought every thought there is to think and my brain is finally empty.
A brightly lit cubicle behind reinforced glass in the wall with a small countertop opening and rows of shelves looked official and vaguely medical. But no one home. The hooting man edged along the wall and turned the corner, disappearing to a room down the hall. His door shut with a brief groan of finality.
One denizen wore a surgeon's mask and approached Mac obliquely. An unexpectedly thin high whispery voice incommensurate with the bulky shape and dull dandruff-flaked hair whispered intimately "Smelling somebody else puts their body particles into yours."
"I guess I never thought of that. . ." Mac began to say before finding his companion had already edged away. A television blinked quietly in the carpeted corner, banked off by sofas. The picture was intermittently skewed, vertical hold in absentia. Two men in short pants, approaching obesity, watched the screen with no apparent desire for remedy.
A woman in a pantsuit design circa 1969 perhaps located Mac and asked if her phone call had come in yet. He told her he was making a delivery because the wholesaler's truck broke down. She seemed disappointed. She began to tell him that she has been touched by the hand of God and that it is a tremendous and awful burden to be touched by the hand of God. Although she was older, maybe fifty-five Mac guessed, her face seemed remarkably unstressed. Only her hair was a clue; shoulder length and pleasantly styled, it was a silky white spiked with black shocks. Her figure gave Mac a warm feeling.
Distressed by her responsibility, she began to weep as she spoke. Mac politely asked what time does God usually call. She fell upon him, hugging his shoulders. Mac was pleased by the contact--she had a clean, lightly perfumed smell. They were interrupted by another woman arriving from the hall behind.
"Helen," she said. "Helen." Helen allowed herself to be removed into a room, still crying. The woman returned to Mac, appearing somehow official without the benefit of a uniform. "Uh, I'm--I don't belong here. I'm not--"
"Yes, I know. Can I help you?" Her convention-style name tag carried only a first name: Vicki. She did not rush or try to push him elsewhere. "I got a package for you." She looked at his empty hands. "I uh, they didn't let me take it in, it's out there I was just afraid it would stay out there. It's medicine. I think. I bet it is. I wanted to tell somebody."
She did not seem surprised. "Good. Yes."
"That lady was telling me about God."
"Yes, she has a condition that causes auditory hallucinations. There's a new drug we have hopes for--" She halted, looking at Mac. "I mean, she hears voices."
"But they're not really there."
She fixed her eyes intently, almost curiously upon Mac. "In a sense. But, they're there because she hears them."
"Oh, yeah, I see. I think." They were approached by a young black man of pleasant face and manner, well dressed in light tans. His speech was clearly enunciated: "When a civilization is discovered it makes a society. Then Columbus came to the new world and invented the big bang, which disintegrates into people of different races from a tiny particle of nothing. On top of the mountain they learned different languages and each word turned into a pea which was handed out and who got the black pea died from pulling his own heart out and eating it."
"Yes, you may go sit down, Mutuk. Thank you." He turned to Mac. "Everything about your face says you got a dirty mind. Whenever in a lonely place say you walk upon the line." His neutral look only now changed, growing charged with pain. "I don't never get no funk." He joined the couple on the sofa in front of the skittering television screen.
Mac watched a young woman walk smoothly around the room in a long white gown. She would pause at the window, lift a blind-slat for a while, and move on, occasionally patting a distressed individual on the arm. Once she took a paperback book from a large pocket and read a page or so before resuming her walk. "She works here, right?"
"Caley? No. She's here. Voluntarily, at the suggestion of her parents. But she agreed to be evaluated."
"She dont act like there's nothing wrong with her."
"And there doesn't seem to be. She's fond of poetry."
"I see." Mac nodded, as if he knew there was something he was supposed to get it and didn't.
"I suppose that seems odd to you, that she's in a place like this."
"Nope. It seems all right to me."
"Well, I guess I'm glad at that," she laughed.
For a while she and Mac stood and watched; in a clean, precise manner she described the way of illnesses in the room, and alleged crimes associated with them. It did not seem at all out of place that Mac was here and being told these things, yet almost imperceptibly she began to lead him down the hall, away. Her face was horizontally oriented, like some actress's best friend in a movie from the forties, softly round. A good heart resided here.
"I, ah, Vickie. . .what I mean is. . ." She refused gently when Mac asked if she would go to a movie or something with him, and soon had him back in the lobby headed for the car, leaving behind the room of schizophrenics, godless, desolate and waiting.