An American Novel
It is supper time at the extended care unit at Hamilton Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, New York. Joe Callaway wheels down the hallway to dinner with some difficulty. “My hands,” he groans and the wheelchair swerves slightly to the right.
Once outside the dining area, Joe wheels up next to another one of the residents, a woman with gray hair.
“Hello,” I say to the woman. “How are you?”
“Oh I’m fine,” she says and smiles pleasantly.
“Hey there little girl,” Joe says to her. “How are you doing?”
With a bit of difficulty, the woman turns her wheelchair to look at Joe because her neck is stiff and she cannot turn her head. Once she sees that it is Joe, she clenches her teeth together and does not say anything and wheels off to her place in the dining room.
Joe does not really notice. This is the way women typically react to him. He relates other incidents of this to me. “This one girl came here and I whistled at her and you’d think I’d committed a damn crime,” he said to me once.
Joe has a gray beard and a very full and round face with little definition. Joe’s face has the look of having been molded out of a piece of clay. His features run into the white fleshiness of his face and his large jowls run his face and neck together into one distinct and oddly molded lump. Joe typically wears sweatpants with a matching sweatshirt and his Eaton Fire Department hat, Eaton being the name of the town he used to live in. Although Joe wears this hat everyday, he does not like people to know that he used to live in Eaton.
“They put me in here against my will,” he says. “I could tell you some of the things that happen here.”
“God you’re so beautiful,” he says. “I could fall in love with you.”
After dinner, Joe takes me to his bedroom. He does not like to spend too much time in the common area and wants to talk to me in private as not to risk being overheard. Joe’s room is stuffy and smells vaguely of gas. He does not like to leave the door open ever because he is afraid that people will steal his things. Unlike most of the other residents, Joe lives in a single. Joe’s room is neat but it is filled with countless stuffed animals, model trains and cars and pictures of animals. Joe is most proud of his stuffed monkey on a bicycle and tells me that it is one of the things that he is known for in the extended care unit. I sit down on his bed which is neatly made and covered with a simple light blue blanket.
Above all else, Joe loves to write. Smiling, he shows me his latest work, a page and a half scrawled on a legal pad about Norm, the world’s largest pig, who recently died a couple months ago. As a young boy, Joe used to see Norm at the state fair.
“He was so goddamn big,” Joe says, shaking his head. “People never see a pig that big.”
In his old age Joe remains a fan, Joe has the article about Norm from the local paper in a frame next to his bed. He reads what he wrote about Norm out loud. Joe has a speech impediment and pronounces the letter ‘l’ the way most people pronounce the letter ‘w.’ Joe writes in choppy sentences and the story details the tedious life of Norm the pig. Most notably, it includes a long description of Norm eating his favorite food, gallon containers of ice cream.
“Good bye and God bless,” he says when he finishes reading his story about Norm. “That poor old Norm. He was a good pig.”
Joe says that he has written eight books. I ask to see some of his other writing.
“Let me see,” he says. “I normally keep this stuff hidden.”
He looks at me as if to say that this is a privilege. First, Joe wheels over and checks the curtains of his bedroom to make sure no one is outside the window. Then he leans over in his wheelchair and starts going through his dresser. He lifts out a small stack of shirts and hands me a yellow spiral notebook. Quickly I flip through. The pages are filled with a long and narrow messy script. I once asked Joe what his favorite books are, and he is quick to respond that he likes his own books, but if forced to name a book that he did not write, he would say Tom Sawyer.
He writes under the name Joseph Finch after his cousin. “He’s a dead man now but he had ten billion dollars.” Finch worked for an oil company in Texas and when he died he left all of his money to the village of Sherburne, New York. “He didn’t leave me a goddamn nickel, not a nickel, honey.”
The book is called Cobblestone Flats and it is a western. In the book, a group of people settle a town and try to shoot it up and end up finding some buffalo. They put the buffalo in a pasture and free them. A group of buffalo hunters come and want to kill the buffalo. They tell the people of the town to surrender the buffalo, but the town’s Sheriff and his men refuse and shoot the buffalo hunters dead. In Joe’s favorite part, the sheriff and his men shoot somebody and when the sheriff goes to look at the corpse, he sees that the corpse no longer has a heart and says, “God that looks nice.”
Joe turns his attention back to a television program on the Hallmark channel about the Vietnam War.
When he wrote the book, Joe lived on a farm on the hill, he says gesturing out the window. “It was getting kind of boring you know.”
While writing the book, his yellow and white cat, Tiger used to come and lie down on the pages. “I don’t remember what became of him. When they put me in the hospital, he disappeared. I didn’t have to worry about him because he was a great hunting cat. I’d like to find him.”
One time, Joe found Tiger with a hole in his neck and Joe had to fix him up with a tube of antibiotic cream. Another time, Joe saw Tiger fighting with a neighborhood black tomcat in the weeds across the road from his farm. After that, Joe reflects that he never saw the black tomcat again. “I think Tiger killed him.”
Joe was in a state institution for ten years. “I don’t talk about it because for ten years it was wasted.” During roll call, Joe reflects, they’d all stand in a straight line and it was “elbow to your guts” if you forgot to respond. It is unclear what exactly Joe means by state institution, whether it is a prison or a mental institution or some sort of military school.
Following his time at the state institute, Joe worked at his father’s farm. “Same old shit day after day…He misused me. He beat me on my ass with a cane. It’s why my legs are bad today. I don’t say nothing though. I don’t want to let him down.”
After that, he got a job at the Pub on Colgate University’s campus in Hamilton. “What a hole that was. I had two meatheads for a boss.” There Joe washed dishes and mopped floors. It was an unfair place to work, his bosses stole big crates of meat from the facility and they eventually got caught.
After working at the Pub for a couple years, Joe took a job at the Bluebird, a small restaurant in downtown Hamilton that served very good food. His boss at the Bluebird, a man named Perky, was very good to Joe. One morning, Joe came to work and the door was locked. Frustrated, Joe kicked the door with his shoe and broke the glass. Perky told him not to worry about it, that he would get insurance to cover it. One day, Joe was shoveling snow and pulled his back out. “Talk about pain, you don’t know the kind of pain that I was in.” Joe was forced to quit his job at the Bluebird and spend several months recovering. Perky told the insurance company that Joe’s accident happened on the job and this helped with the medical bills. While he was recovering, Perky visited Joe.
After Joe got better, he took a job at the Colgate Inn. “Talk about a bunch of assholes.” Perky had been forced to find a replacement for him at the Bluebird and this was the only job that Joe could find. One day at work, Joe twisted his ankle and received little sympathy from his boss. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to work, go home.’ Nice, huh?” According to Joe, the other two guys who worked there were lazy and spent all their time in the basement smoking pot. “I don’t know where the hell they are now, but wherever they are, it’s a small loss.” At one point, Joe took his boss to the labor board, only the head chef lied. “If you do something wrong here, you’ve got to answer to that man up there. The Lord knows everything you do,” he says and pauses, then smiles sheepishly, looking at me. “How would you like to get married?”
“Oh no thanks,” I say, laughing.
Joe turns from the television set and gives me a serious look. “Don’t play with any of those jerks at Colgate. Screw with some guy over there, you get aids and you die and what a beautiful waste.”
“Don’t sleep with your boyfriend unless you have him checked out by your father.” Joe goes on to tell me a story about a Colgate student he once knew who slept with his girlfriend and dumped her and left her broken hearted. “I guess that’s life,” he says. “Life as we know it.”
Joe was never married. “Just never found the right girl.” There once was one girl, he explains, her name was Donna and he knew her when he was fifty or sixty. As if to change the subject, Joe wheels over to his stuffed reindeer, with the push of the reindeer’s hand it begins to sing ‘Jingle Bell Rock.’
“What happened with Donna?”
“Well, Donna had a rough life. People took advantage of her.”
He starts to show me another stuffed bear he has that also sings.
“I never asked her. It seemed kind of personal.”
Donna comes up again in our conversation, another night at dinner.
“She was a pain in the ass,” Joe says. “She never wanted to go anywhere. I’m gonna drop her and get me a new girl and then go to California.”
Aside from writing, Joe spends the bulk of his time watching television. He likes shows like “M*A*S*H” best but also watches the news a lot.
Joe proudly supports Barack Obama but fears for Obama’s future. “He’s from Hawaii you know, If he were smart he’d stay in Hawaii because a whole bunch of them are going to kill him.”
Joe says that he would never willingly fight in a war. “My wife says, if they want me they’ll come and get me.”
“I don’t have no wife,” he says defensively. “I told you I never been married. I’m just a good old bachelor honey.”
“So what else do you like to do?” I ask him over dinner. Dinner tonight at the extended care unit is turkey on a slice of bread soaked in gravy. Joe only eats the bread, presumably because he cannot chew the turkey.
“I love to fish,” he says. “I love to go fishing. After I catch them, I throw them back. Hey beautiful, do you want a piece of meat?”
Joe hold outs his fork with a large piece of the turkey on it.
“No thanks,” I say.
Later on during dinner, Joe brings up Barack Obama again.
“They had the nerve to tell Obama that he was a radical. I don’t believe it…What the damn Republicans won’t do to win.”
The time that Joe spent at the state institution was very traumatic for him and I have to ask him about it directly in order to learn more about it. “I was put there because I was poor in school. It sure didn’t help any either.”
Joe thinks hard for a minute and looks around the dining room suspiciously.
“They said I was retarded. Shit, I ain’t retarded anymore than Adolf Hitler. Do you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean,” I say.
“I ain’t retarded, do I look retarded to you?” he says and goes on to explain again that ten years of his life were wasted in this place. Joe was twelve when he went there and twenty when he was allowed to finally leave. “Do you know who you look like?”
“You look like Nancy.”
“This girl my nephew married.”
I ask one of the people who works in the extended care unit about Joe and she tells me that he has the mental capacity of a twelve or fifteen year-old “with a hormone surge.” The so-called institution that Joe was sent to was common practice for people with disabilities during that time. At the time he might have been just a hyper child with a learning disability. “Back then, they just said, ‘you’re too dumb to learn’ and passed you through the system.’” He has never had a job and was been taken care of by various people for the bulk of his life. The exact details of his life are unknown, but he is from an abusive background. “His stories are astronomical. It’s like talking to a teenager who wants to get attention.”
One day while at the extended care unit, a man came up to me in his wheelchair. I started to make small talk with this man, when he suddenly said, “Your tits are lovely.”
“Don’t be dirty,” I said.
“I’m not dirty. I like tits.”
Uncomfortable, I walked away from him. Joe was very upset that someone would say that to me.
“Oh, I gave him hell after you left last time. You don’t talk to girls like that,” he said and apologized to me many times, bringing up the incident after I had forgotten about it.
In general, I do not like Joe. He is the quintessential dirty old man. He makes me very uncomfortable and seems to view our interviews as some kind of date. He tells me things only because he enjoys showing me off to the other residents at the extended care unit. Yet, at the same time, there is something unsettling and intriguing to me about Joe. His eyes always dart around in conversation with me as if checking to see if anyone else in the room is listening. He always suspiciously asks me what I am writing and asks that I lock up my notes about him after I finish writing. Joe’s room is filled with stuffed animals, as if he has chosen to surround himself with toys rather than people. Joe always shuts his door, even though his room smells really bad. Joe likes attention, but it’s clear that he trusts few people.
Writing, I think, is the only thing that Joe is really passionate about. He proudly brings up his books to me time and again, even though I know that he realizes he has already told me about them. As a writer myself, I have to wonder how someone like Joe became a writer and think that maybe it is because he spends so much time alone. Maybe like the rest of us, he just wants someone to relate to him. Or maybe it’s just a means of exercising his wild and adolescent imagination.
I don’t know how many books that Joe has actually written, but he showed me at least one relatively thick spiral notebook filled with his scrawl.
For now, Joe has plans to take Cobblestone Flats to a guy he knows that works at the Sherburne News and from there, he will see how much he can get for it.
“I’ll go down there myself, I trust nobody,” he says and he repeats himself, “I trust nobody. I wrote a book a long time ago and some guy took it and had it printed in his name.” The guy who printed Joe’s book went on to make a lot of money and Joe never saw any of it.
“What book was that?” I asked.
“I can’t remember the title of it,” he says. “I got eight books in my room right now that I wrote.” Joe thinks a little harder. “I can’t even remember who the guy was or what the hell the title of the book was.” Joe furrows his brow and then dismissively waves his hand. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all packed away now.”