Staff Meeting, Occupational Therapy Department, Tranquille Psychiatric Hospital for the criminally insane ... September 14, 2015
The issues started with the rubber pencils. Larry, the newly minted Occupational Therapist (OT), insisted they'd be safer. You couldn't stab anyone with rubber, not that badly. I took his offered sample, a four-inch-long flimsy stick. It wriggled like a trout between my fingers. I pressed down, scribbled on a piece of paper. Couldn't see more than a sad grey line. "These things don't work," I said. "No one's going to be able to obtain their Grade 12 writing with these."
"They're safe, Wilson," said Linda T, knee-high booted, white suited platinum blonde supervisor. "We don't want a pen incident."
My colleagues around the table nodded and murmured, except for Bobby. He kept staring at the table, and picking something off his pants.
"We already count all the writing implements," I said. "We have a pen porcupine in which to place them." I referred to the block of wood in which ten ballpoints sat, sticking out securely from their holes. "And I check off their presence three times a day."
"So you don't like the rubber pencils?" Larry made a stabbing motion. "Anyone can take out one of those pens and use it as a weapon."
"Well, since the patients still use six-inch knives to cut their meat in the kitchen ..." I began.
Linda T sighed. "This isn't about the knives," she said. "It's about the pens."
I looked around the table. Pretty diverse bunch, from hyper-super-ambitious Larry, rapidly sipping coffee and typing the minutes, to laid-back bearded Chuck, thumbing through a retro car calendar that just happened to be on his side of the table. I viewed Bobby, he appeared to be examining the contents of his pockets.
A brilliant light shot by my face. My trickster activity worker amigo Don, up to his off the wall antics again. I glanced across and there he grinned, with his bright red face and wrinkle scrunched eyes. He caught window sunlight on the edge of his watch, deflected the shine into people's faces. Richard, a big, block headed fellow who headed the Recreation Therapy department, massaged his pupils and looked around dazedly. Don's face turned ever more scarlet with mirth, holding his breath as he tried to stop chortling.
Two of a kind, Don and I. Rebel personalities. Normally, Richard's bewildered eye rub would both pain and amuse me. I winked at Don, to tell him I knew the game.
Today, though, Bobby was my main concern. He sat there, still picking lint. That very morning he'd made another complaint about me, the fifth one in the last two weeks, about my singing during lunch break. "Wilson is very loud and inappropriate," he told Linda T. His office was directly adjacent to the school room. I did like playing the guitar blues at lunch. It worked out some of the tension, and sounded in tune most of the time.
Bobby also objected to my coffee cup being on the staff kitchen counter, leaving a ring. "Every day he does not tidy up." Bobby said. "Dirty plates everywhere."
He told Linda I'd been babbling nonsensically outside his office door, something about mushrooms. "Maybe the magic ones," he told Linda.
Just the previous week, I stood in front of my class of patients found not criminally responsible of a crime by reason of a mental disorder, when Bobby burst in and accused one of them of leaving feces floating in the toilet.
"Someone did not flush," he began. "And someone is going to tell me who it is."
I tried to explain that the toilets needed double flushing. Some of the patients were unaware of this technique.
"You could use the staff toilet," I said.
Bobby stood there, a bead of sweat running off his wide nose. "This is filthy. Dirty! I want to know who did it."
I knew who did it. Jackson, the only patient in the room wearing wide bottom pants with Canadian flags on them. The last guy to excuse himself and go out to the john. Jackson ran his index finger over the pictures of a magazine he just happened to be leaning over. I wanted to keep things calm. Jackson could be highly unpredictable when disturbed. All the other guys watched Bobby. There was a long silence.
"Looks like a job for Sherlock Holmes," I said. A couple of the patients nodded. Jackson kept tracing his pictures.
Bobby turned, stamping over to his office. "I'm going to find out!" he yelled, and shut his door, leaving it open one eighth of an inch. He was supposed to watch for security issues, so closing it totally would've been unsafe.
I looked at the clients. "Wow, that guy seemed angry," said Jackson.
"Yes," I said. "He's having some plumbing issues."
Bobby complained to Linda about the toilet incident, and I complained about his unsafely cracked open door.
We both endured the safer writing implements meeting. Linda T didn't seem to be progressing much on the pen issue.
Linda smiled in my direction. I nodded back. I found it preferable to be on her good side. Earlier that day, she told me she'd have to send the Me-and-Bobby issue to Human Resources. She could no longer sort out the problems, things going downhill between Bobby and I for the past couple of months. I felt an irritating anger building. Or maybe it was partly great boredom. Was it also the rubber pencils?
I'd started practicing my leg stretches in the morning meeting. I lifted my leg, then lowered it. Then I moved my feet in small circles, to squeeze out the stress before work. Bobby jumped up. He stood facing Linda T. "I cannot be at this meeting when people are doing exercises," he said. "A meeting is not a place to do exercises." And he walked out.
No one said anything. Chuck shrugged. Linda T went on to the next subject. Later, though, she took me aside, told me not to stretch, because it could seem disrespectful to "some staff members." I continued in secret when she wasn't looking, with Don's encouragement. "This makes the meetings much more interesting," he said. "I love to see that pissed off look on Bobby's face."
Bobby stopped looking at me during the meetings. If I swiveled my head towards him, he'd turn his chin the other way. So, whenever his head slipped over slightly in my direction, I started to stick my legs out, then back in, then cross one leg over my knee and lean forward. I did it just for a moment, only so Bobby could catch the fact I was secretly stretching. He'd yank his head sharply to the right whenever he glimpsed my wiggling foot on his left. If he saw me coming in the hallway, he'd turn around and walk the other way.
"See if you can drive him nuts." Don said.
At the rubber pencil forum, Bobby continued to sit with a slack half grin on his face. I remembered that my colleague Chuck, the stout wiry-haired man seated beside me, used to be a sniper trainee in the Ukrainian army. He told me that when the men and women practiced sniping, they were told to lower their gaze just before the shot. They were told people can sense who's aiming at them, and might duck.
So I started gazing at Bobby. Kind of like I was a sniper myself. I'd try and anticipate his glance, and look away just before. If Bobby wouldn't acknowledge me, and show respect, I was going to keep trying 'til he did.
During the pencil safety meeting, he gawked between his legs. He sat across the table from me, beside Sharma and Larry, picking more hair off his pants. I peered very casually, making sure no one noticed. I kept looking, waiting to see if he'd sense me. After a very short while, Bobby turned around. This time, I didn't glance away. I tried to force my gaze, pierce his glasses. His slack lips closed. I kept steady, trying to focus all my pissed off feelings right into his face.
Bobby turned his head away. He swiveled his whole chair right around. I kept looking, imagining rays from my eyes burning into the back of his head.
I concentrated my stare right where his medulla should be.
Maybe there's just something about Tranquille Psychiatric Hospital. If you're on the edge to start with, working there can push you over.
* * *
I raised my gaze to just above Bobby's head, as beside me Chuck started looking in Bobby's direction too. Don kept flashing his watch off the windows. Larry Two Screens moved his hand to his eyes. "Something's really bright in here." Linda T droned on about more safety issues in the school, "Some of those hard cover books are very large, they could be used like baseball bats."
Bobby stood up. He stretched his arms out, like Moses. Linda T stopped speaking, her mouth open in mid-sentence. Bobby vocalized. "Someone is staring at me." He kept his arms raised.
I continued to nod in Linda's direction, then glanced across to Don. He grinned, his face beet red. He raised his eyebrows. I looked up over his head. He turned to see behind him, then back to me. I raised my own eyebrows. Don giggled, then laughed. He put his hand over his face, lifted himself up, and ran from the room.
Bobby kept standing. He slowly put his hands to his sides. He peered around at each member of the meeting group. Then he sat down. "Someone is staring at me," he said again. A long silence followed. Bobby spoke in a loud voice. "I want staff to check the washrooms after someone goes."
Then he started picking the lint off his pants again.
"Yes, it's important to check the washrooms," said Linda T. "Can we make sure that everyone checks the washrooms?"
Nobody looked at Bobby. He didn't name me as the culprit. But considering our dynamic, everyone knew who he meant.
After the meeting, my colleagues gathered round. Larry remarked, "Wilson, you weren't staring at him. That's what's so weird. You're the hardest working guy around here."
Big Richard spoke. "It didn't make sense. You're the most decent guy in this department. He has to be a bit paranoid."
Chuck said, "I think the guy has some trouble with his nerves."
I nodded. "Yes, it's kinda strange. Hope he doesn't go postal. I'd be his first victim."
In the two weeks after the meeting, Bobby stayed in his office. Nobody, not even me, the guy who could watch him through his office window glass, knew exactly what he did. He appeared to be reading foreign newspapers, or looking fixedly at the computer screen, on which I noticed advertisements for eye exams. He seemed to be napping, sitting in his swiveling chair with his hands in his lap, his head leaning back, eyes closed. He went into his office each morning, and stayed there all day. He stopped going to the meetings. That last matter got noticed.
Linda T called in Human Resources. Two women with leather briefcases met Linda T at the school. They clustered into Bobby's office, and closed the door tightly. The Human Resources women sat behind Bobby's window. Their lips moved. Bobby pointed out the window at me. The women looked in my direction. They scribbled on their notepads.
In the class, Jackson motioned me over.
"I want to say I'm really thankful you didn't rat me out, the other week," he said. He poked his thumb in the direction of Bobby's window, where the three sets of lips moved, three heads bobbed. "That guy looked really pissed off." Jackson continued. "You treat us patients with dignity," he said. "I really appreciate that. I thank you again for not telling the staff about that toilet thing."
"Well, I can't keep track of who goes to the bathroom when," I said. "Just flush the thing twice."
I continued to explain fraction concept while Bobby leaned sideways behind one of the human resources ladies' shoulders. His eyes bored into mine. He frowned. He held up a rubber pencil, then waggled it.
He was the kind of guy who couldn't let anything go.