They let him take his truck along on days when everyone went out on the grounds. It was otherwise considered dangerous to allow the man the length of metal chain, much like a dog’s lease, so he pulled the toy along behind him. He was likely in his 50s, only his official chart knew for sure, but had the capacity of a child.
On recreation days he and his fellow patients were supervised by attendants in an area with swing sets and teeter totters. They might as well be children. The men were corralled within the surrounding fences while an Aid sat atop a picnic table watching their random activity. Little to nothing kept him occupied, so toting the black plastic S*W*A*T truck across the grass and sticks was a pleasant enough distraction from his ostensibly miserable existence.
The group varied from those with stunted brain function that kept them in a state of adolescence to the ones who were probably “all there” but deemed criminally insane but safe enough to keep them out of the penitentiary. Better to be incarcerated here than with the thugs up at the big house. And they were better off than the waterheads trapped in infancy at the hospital, where anything from a car wreck head injury to a birth-defect or encephalitis kept them suspended in a bed-ridden purgatory of medical compromise. An afternoon out meant they were at least breathing fresh air instead of the stale recirculated oxygen inside the walls painted institutional yellow at 800 North Lincoln Street. The entrance’s wooden sign read “State School and Hospital” and employed the largest percentage of the small town’s population. It kept the citizens with a steady paycheck and its occupants out of the rest of society’s concern.
Some families didn’t want to think about loved ones whose care became too much for them or whose condition was so helpless they had no other choice but to commit them there. It was easier to forget about whether their son or brother got to go outside for an hour or two every few weeks to commune with the outdoors.
A house next door had a dirt patch to its east with a handful of horses the guys could watch wander around within its own confines. Their attendant said they could feed them grass through the woven-wire fence as long as they kept their hands on their own side. Funny how no one ever asked the people who lived there if it was okay. Those were the days before lawsuits were so common.
The S*W*A*T truck rattled along behind the man, his squat little body bent over in its trek. His hair hadn’t been washed for days, but no one cared — even him. Hygiene was the least of his concerns, because a simple joy came from yanking the silly truck all the way over to those horses AND getting to touch and feed them. It was an exciting thing to do when there’s little else.
Out of his peripheral vision, he spotted a lady in the yard next door who was eyeing his progress along the fence line. The scowl on her face intimated she wasn’t happy with his presence, although her mood made no difference to him. “Hey there, Big Mama,” he called. “I am Womp! What yo name?” Hands on her hips, she scoffed and didn’t answer him. Her disgust apparent, the woman darted back into her house. She obviously didn’t find it acceptable for those boys reach over into the back lot. No matter. The joy gained from the equestrian feeding frenzy was all that concerned them. The greener, the better.
A tall spotted horse with ruined red eyes smelled his way to their offering, its head moving back and forth till it reached the prize, but a rounder one on short legs saw the juicy treat being presented. Neither animal minded the source a bit. The “crazies” came to feed them every once in awhile, which suited them just fine.
The woman had meanwhile informed her husband they were back. He was his usual surly self and immediately began dialing the phone. Upon an answer and connection to the administrative building, the man demanded, “You need to send a supervisor out to the south lawn! Your damn nuts are over here bothering my livestock again.” He paused, tapping his boot on the floor in impatient exasperation.
“I don’t care,” he continued. “They might have just as much right to be out there as the next person, but I’ve got kids over here who don’t need to see their bullshit.” More silence ensued, and crimson flamed in the man’s face and showed how he felt about the answers he was getting on the other end of the line. His voice rose in indignation. “Next thing you know, another one of those nuts will be naked on a park bench again!” The attendant’s watchfulness made no difference to him, as this was a repetitious conversation and he felt the workers did anything but pay attention to their charges. He threatened, “If it happens again, I’m taking it to the top! You tell that woman in charge that I’m either calling Jeff City or crossing the fence to take care of it myself.” A sharp ring resounded from the wall phone when he slammed the receiver back onto it.
Outside, two horses’ jaws gleefully masticated all that was given. The barely 20-something Aid sat studying a textbook in the center of a makeshift playground, glancing up from reading every now and then to survey the group for which he was responsible. They continued to pull weeds and shove them between the wires to pile up in front of eight hooves across the divide, however invisible to them.
Down an adjacent hill, a short man with dark, greasy hair moved slowly out of earshot. He was oblivious to where he was expected to be, the black square toy bumping blissfully along on wheels to his rear. The plastic truck’s lettering grew smaller as its owner faded into the distance.
*The writing prompt I am was from Studio 30 Plus.