Opening from 338: A Memoir

by Andrea Afra

338 was the number assigned to me, and to others who were there before and after me. I’ve never met another 338, but maybe this story will finally reach one. I hope they’re okay, whoever they are. And if you’ve ever been there, no matter your number, I hope you’re okay now too.

Chapter 1: Salute

“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo black ass!”

Leonard’s strange cadence call was one of the few phrases he carried in his verbal arsenal. The other patients all laughed as the last word left his mouth. He blinked a few times and a slow smile stretched his lips revealing strong white teeth, but his eyes stayed on the blank wall across the room. Then his jaw relaxed and he was gone again.

It was evening free time, my third Saturday on the adolescent unit at the Harris County Psychiatric Center. Most of the patients were sitting in the common area under an old wall-mounted television that spouted a clamorous stream of tabloid talk shows. The common area’s boundary was squared off by four rows of five blue chairs. Each row was welded together by a bar at its base, a security feature built on the notion that it was harder to hurl five chairs at someone than a single chair. While ignoring the bleeped out altercations of the Jerry Springer reruns, we passed many hours sitting on the rough gray carpet dealing cards and trading stories like normal kids away at summer camp.

I was playing a card game with three other kids and Leonard was in a chair behind me. He might as well have been on the moon, but we knew the one word that could bring him back and it was my turn to call him. We were on our second round of Karma, and I was either about to lay down my last card and win, or pick up the discard pile and surely lose. When my next turn came, the top card’s number matched the one in my hand.

I slapped it down with a victory shout. “Salute!”

We turned to watch the ghost of a smile dawn on Leonard’s lips. Though his eyes stayed fixed on the wall, they were shining and alert while we waited for his bellowing refrain.

“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo white ass!”

Our laughter held a note of relief. If a black kid gave the first ‘salute,’ it was ‘boom on yo black ass,’ and if the caller was white, ‘boom on yo white ass.’ A month before I arrived, he added ‘white’ to his repertoire, but before then it was just booms on everyone’s black ass.

Throughout the day, a random ‘salute’ rang out from somewhere on the unit without any schedule or method guiding the frequency. It was up to the individual to decide when the time was right and it took some kids weeks to find the confidence to give the call. Some never did.

Ernesto was the same height as me but his hands were larger than those of most full grown men so we made him shuffle the deck. He didn’t mind because he was good at it. The night before, we had finally extracted his promise to set off the call for his first time if I went before him. He scooped up the cards and began straightening them in one hand, but stopped and put them on the ground, mumbling something about needing to use the restroom as he walked off.

Just as he rounded the corner out of sight, we were jolted by a bark like a mad Rottweiler. “Salute!” Ernesto had made good on his word, and Leonard delivered a prompt report.

“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo brown ass!”

Our laughter blocked out the noise of the television for longer than the staff would have preferred, but we didn’t care. Even Leonard joined in, slapping Ernesto’s high five when he hurried back to rejoin the circle. As we quieted down, a small, knowing grin settled on our lips. We saw the flare Leonard sent up from his side of the horizon. He would be okay. From then on, though someone else would have to hold his cards and play for him, we dealt Leonard into the games.

Out of all of the other kids at HCPC, only Rodney was worse off than Leonard. Both were black, tall, and good-looking 16-year old boys. They both could walk on their own, but Rodney had to be bathed and fed by a staff member in the handicap bathroom outside of his room which housed the only bathtub on the unit. When Leonard grew angry or frustrated to the point of physical aggression, the male staff members encouraged him to swing at them because he was doing something other than the nothing he always did. Yet, Rodney never got upset. Nothing stirred in his impassive face the few times I saw him. He dwelt in a permanent catatonic state and seldom left his room. When he did, it was to shuffle from his bed to stand in the doorway, often naked, either fully or from the waist down. Undressing was the one thing I knew he could manage on his own besides walking. Everyone guessed he had always been that way, however, in Leonard’s case, the story of why he’d been committed sounded like urban legend.

He met a friend by their school one hot summer day to sell them a hit of acid. While tearing off a square, a cop drove by. Leonard panicked. He shoved the sheet of acid deep into his sock and took off running. The cop turned around and started chasing him. He jumped a fence into his neighborhood, and cutting through backyards to stay off the streets, finally made it home — but it was too late. The sweat-soaked paper had slipped to the bottom of his sock where it clung to the skin of his bare foot. He lost the cop, then he lost himself. Nearly two years later, we took the racial nuances he proudly displayed in reply to another’s ‘salute’ as a sign he was returning from his drawn out trip.

The only other time Leonard spoke was when we all took turns saying a goal at the end of our daily group session in the common area. His voice flat as a dial tone, he’d say, “My goal for the day is to stay away from drugs.” Everyone knew his goal by their second day on the unit, and no one expected it to change. Everyone also had at least one prescription for antidepressants or mood stabilizers by their second day. We joked about how our nurse was the biggest drug dealer in town, just not the kind Leonard was talking about.

Someone already familiar with Leonard’s story would tell it to the newcomers on the unit, so I can only repeat the way it was told to me. Only Leonard knows the truth.

The first six chapters have been released and the remainder will follow over the next few weeks.

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