George Watkins is Going Home

by Matthew Guerruckey

That morning, George Watkins thought he was Jesus. The day before it had been Michael Jackson, the day before that David Bowie—a new one, which took us all a bit by surprise. George didn't have all of Bowie mannerisms nailed down yet. His androgynous baritone wasn't nearly as effective as his moonwalk. As Vergie and I helped him into the tub he said, "Bless you, my children," then lay in the tub giving a blank stare to the ceiling as the water rose to cover his body.

As patient aides, with no psychiatric training beyond a three-week course, we were there to make sure George had whatever he needed. If what he needed was medicine, we couldn't do anything for him, we called the nurse. If he got too out of hand we couldn't do anything for him either, we just called security. We were babysitters, and the state paid us accordingly.

All George ever wanted in the morning was a bath. To an outsider it must have looked pretty strange—me, a spindly 22-year-old kid, and Vergie, a stout, round-faced woman in her forties with a skunk shock of white in her otherwise auburn hair watching an emaciated elderly man take a bath. As he sat in the tub George would drift to sleep and startle himself awake with a shudder. We had to sit with him to make sure he didn't go under. All of the other patients took their baths alone.

I spent most of my mornings making sure that George didn't drown, as his tremendous pecker floated on the water, surfacing and submerging like a submarine. George was aware of his gift, but only seemed to mention it when he had slipped into his Jesus delusion. "That's right," he'd say, "Jesus Christ needs to have a big dick," to which Vergie would reply "I've seen better," and I'd think, where?

I'd been working there for just over two months and I still wasn't comfortable with the patients. Vergie was a big help, but I was beginning to feel like she resented how much I depended on her. At night, when things were quiet, she'd tell great war stories of the days before the new hospital building we worked in was built, when the patients had been kept in the old brick and barbed-wire building across the street. Vergie was getting older, but she was still a scrapper. My first night on the ward I watched her drag down Janet Harper, an Amazon over a foot taller than Vergie, and hold her down until our head nurse could prep a needle with Thorazine and knock her out. Meanwhile, I'd just stayed frozen in my chair behind the front desk. I justified my inaction through regulation (we were supposed to keep one person behind the desk at all times), but really I'd just never seen anything so inhuman. Janet had rushed at her like a linebacker who'd just found a hole in the defense that led straight to the quarterback, but Vergie had sidestepped it like she was dancing around a puddle.

Tracy Ravel, a squat woman with an unfortunate pig's face full of freckles, poked her head around the door and crooked a finger toward Vergie.

"Can I help you, Tracy?" Vergie asked, but Tracy just crooked her finger again with greater urgency. Vergie sighed and got off her chair to see what she wanted. They whispered back and forth for a moment, and then Tracy left.

"Miss Ravel is in need of some assistance." She looked at George sitting in the tub then back at me. "You going to be okay alone?"

"Yeah, sure," I said, but I really didn't know. I had never been left alone with one of the patients. Even though George was harmless, I still had reservations—but I didn't want her to know that. "George is a piece of cake, right George?"

"Oh, sweetheart, don't give him any more delusions than he's already got," she said, and disappeared down the hallway with a jingling of keys.

I took the chair that Vergie had vacated, closer to George, and checked my watch. Shift change was in twenty minutes, and the day crew got irritated if we left George in the tub for them.

"All right, buddy," I said to him, "it's time to get going, don't you think?"

George answered with an annoyed grunt and shut his eyes tight in defiance.

"Have it your way," I said, and reached into the water to pull the stopper, a trick I'd learned from Vergie. Only on a day that George was being especially stubborn would he stay in the tub after the water had drained completely, but when he did he wouldn't move until the last drop was gone.

When the water had drained he shifted to sit up at a ninety degree angle.

"Okay," I said, "let's get you out. You're going to have to help me out a bit here."

I knew I should have called someone to assist me, but I wanted Vergie to know that I could do things on my own. I placed my arms under his armpits and pulled upward. He didn't move at first, but once he realized that I wasn't going to give up he raised his arms to the edge of the tub and pushed himself up while I pulled. Once he was on his feet, George lifted one leg out of the tub—always the most precarious moment of the procedure, even with assistance. He wobbled for a moment, but I held onto his shoulders to steady him. He brought the other leg out and stood dripping onto the towel we'd laid out as his bathmat.

"Cold." He moaned.

"Yeah, I know, George, hold on a minute," I said, reaching for a towel to cover his back. I gave him one of the bigger ones to wrap around his chest as I used a hand towel to wipe down his legs.

"Cold!" he said again, louder, in a tone that startled me. I'd heard stories of George's temper, but I'd been lucky not to witness it firsthand. Though he was ancient, wet, and naked, I still wondered if I'd be at a disadvantage in a fight with him.

"I know, buddy, I'm almost—"

But George had already left me to sit in the chair. I knelt down in front of him with the towel and finished drying his legs. I knew I'd have to get him to stand up again to get his clothes on. Some mornings that was impossible. I stood up and grabbed his diaper from the edge of the tub.

"Come on, George, let's get your diaper on first—we don't want a repeat of yesterday."

He stayed quiet until I urged him again, and then stood up. I took the opportunity to wipe down his butt and thighs, which would, hopefully, make it easier to slip the diaper on. After a bath we always applied lotion to his body to keep his skin from drying out. His kneecaps and elbows were dark and ashy. On the days that we were low-staffed or rushed, and weren't able to apply the lotion, his skin would scab and flake off. George never complained, and it probably looked worse than it felt, but we still didn't want to put him through that.

I'd never put the lotion on him myself—it had always been Vergie. She rubbed it into his skin with an ease bred from twenty years of habit and routine. His skin would shine like new leather when she was done. The bottle was travel-sized, like you'd find in a hotel. Full-sized bottles had been outlawed after one of the patients had taken one outside during smoke break, packed it with dirt, and clubbed another patient in the face with it. You could never be sure what would become a weapon.

I opened the cap and poured a bit into my hand, but it was more watery than I'd anticipated, and it all ran through my fingers onto the floor. I cupped my palm and tried again. I knelt back down in front of George and put some on his kneecap. I'd thought I'd used too much, but the lotion was instantly swallowed by his dry pores. I tried a few more times with my hand, then gave up and poured the entire bottle onto his leg.

Whenever Vergie gave George his rubdown she would gab away at him just as she would with us all night, but I didn't have twenty years of experience with George and, I was focused on getting everything right. There was nothing but heavy, dead silence as I slathered the greasy slickness in my hand on George's poor, gnarled feet.

"You're not doin' that right," he said. His voice echoed in the silent room. I jumped.

"Yeah, I know, George. I'm just trying to figure it out."

"Where's Vergie at?"

"Vergie had to help someone else. So I'm going to finish up with you today. We're almost done here, and then we'll get you into some clothes and back to bed."

"Gonna need my suit today."

"That sounds fancy," I said, chuckling to myself. "What are you gettin' all dolled up for?"

"Going home today. Gonna get packed up and leave here this morning."

I looked up at his face for a sign of change, but his face was expressionless. His glassy eyes stared forward, focusing on nothing.

"You sure about that, George?"

"Yes, sir. Been called home."

Oh. I got it—another one of his Jesus things.

"Okay, George," I asked cautiously, "who called you home?"

"My sister called up yesterday. Said it was time. Said I been here too long and they're gonna take me back in. Said it's all okay now, I can come home again."

"George, I'm not sure—"

"You'll see. I'm gonna walk right through those doors with you all when you leave. Yes, sir. Right along with you all."

I finished applying the lotion and stood up.

"Can we at least get some clothes on you, then? For your big day?"

I struggled to put a t-shirt over his unmoving head and then helped him into a pair of pajama pants.

"Okay, then, go back to your room. Breakfast is soon."

I left George to shuffle back to his room and walked to the front desk, where Vergie sat filling out progress notes.

"Hey, Vergie," I asked as I sat down to fill out my half of the paperwork, "is anyone coming to pick up George today?"

"No, I'm afraid we'll be enjoying the company of Mr. Watkins for some time. He told you that, did he?"

"Yeah. He's convinced that his family's going to pick him up—that his sister's going to be here soon. He said he's going to put his suit on—does George even have a suit?"

"Oh, yes," Vergie said. "George has treated us to the sight of his suit many times."

We sat filling out paperwork in silence, as other patients began to shuffle into the day room. They stared contemptuously at the clock, awaiting day shift and the cigarettes and coffee they would provide. Then, from the far end of the hallway, George emerged in a magnificent yellow and green checkered suit, tailored for a thicker version of himself.

"Well, don't you look nice, George." I said.

"Yes, sir, I'm going home, just like I told you."

"Okay, George," I said. I turned to Vergie and shrugged. She put down her pen and looked at me with an expression that hovered between sadness and disgust.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Come here," she said, and motioned to the back room where the charts were shelved. She reached up and took down a thick file with George's name, date of birth, and known allergies on the side. On the front of the chart someone had written "Volume 25" in permanent marker. Vergie opened the chart and flipped to the front page, scanned for a second, then pointed at a paragraph halfway down the page.

"That man's not getting picked up by his goddamn sister because he killed her in 1987."

I read the section she had pointed to. It told me about a violent man who had been in and out of prison all of his life, of a family who had tried to take care of him the best they could, and how that kindness had been repaid with a slashed throat. I looked out into the day room at the confused old creature in his ridiculous suit and tried to reconcile the two visions. Vergie saw my fallen face and hers softened.

"Now, listen here," she said, "This here is who George was. This is why he's here. And if he ever got off those meds and out that door it's exactly who he'd be again. Now, I know he seems funny dancing around, swinging that dick in everybody's face, but this here's the real George, and if you ever forget it ..."

She pushed her hair up away from her forehead, which I'd not realized was a wig until that moment, and revealed a jagged scar on the top of her head.

" ... he'll remind you right quick."

I took my seat again and sat in silence. George sat still in the chair. His face was the same long, blank canvas it always was, but his eyes were wide and unblinking. The day shift workers had arrived and were walking the ward to check on the patients.

"Miss Vergie," George said, approaching the desk, "it's time for us to say goodbye. I'm goin' home today."

"We been over this before now, sweetheart. This is your home, remember?"

"This ain't no home, it's a prison. Y'all think I don't know that. It ain't right keeping me here. You'll see. My sister's gonna walk right through those doors and take me home. We're gonna get some good home cooking from our Mama, and I'm gonna get me a job like I had before I come here. You'll see."

He sat down in the nearest chair, muttering to himself.

"What do we do?" I whispered to Vergie. She looked at me with a patient, kind face.

"He does this every few months. By the time we leave here he'll be Michael Jackson again."

But George was still mumbling to himself about the home cooked breakfast he had waiting on him.

"You'll all see," he said, "it'll be just like it was."

The day nurse finished her tour and came back to the front desk. She looked over at George in the chair and asked, "Going home again, Mr. Watkins?"

"That's right, missus. Heading home directly. Gonna see my sister and have a good meal."

The day nurse glared at Vergie. "Who got him started on this shit again?"

"Nobody. George himself decided he was going to leave, isn't that right, Mr. Watkins?"

"You all laugh now, but you'll see. My sister's coming through that door any minute." His voice began to climb until it was at its top range. "You'll see! She's gonna walk right through that—"

"Mr. Watkins, please," the day nurse said, "the other patients are trying to sleep."

"She's coming!" George screamed. "I'm going home with her! She's coming back for me!"

The day shift aides advanced toward him and he rose to bat them away. I stood at the edge of the front desk, unsure whether I should step in—feeling responsible for all of this. I looked for Vergie, but she was already standing in the open doorway with her travel mug and purse in her arms.

"Let's go," she said.

I walked with her through the entryway, past the lockers in the hallway to the main doors of the ward. She asked if I wanted to have breakfast with her in the cafeteria, but I went on without her. Until I walked through the double doors leading to the parking lot I could still hear George screaming.

BIO: Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys, and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Harrison and Lennon. He is working on his first novel.