Quan falls into the patient breakfast line at the hospital for the criminally insane, he peers at the kitchen staff through pushed in black glasses, grips his tray in both hands, nose sniffing right over its plastic surface, checking to perceive odors and blemishes. He mentally calculates the time distance between himself and the food. “Maybe ninety-eight and a half seconds.”
Happy George serves today. A squat stout fellow, face and gut fallen in front. Blue gloves over his hands, a hairnet across his eyebrows. In the large pink hospital kitchen, the hustle and bustle of security. Doors unlocking, locking, the beep of fobs fobbing. In come a few more dishevelled patients, droop faced Larry Butler lurches to one side, bangs into the wall. He mutters and sits in a special chair at the back, he looks up. Quan follows Butler’s gaze … perceives the water pipes and the drain pipes on the ceiling, some emit a gushing sound, “bring on the sustenance” Quan thinks. He imagines all this in Vietnamese, but his talk now very Canadian.
“That’s some good language I’ve learned here.” he says out loud to Bobby Ramsay, the very thin, always smiling hockey haired fellow beside him. Quan has a secret to share, but he’ll wait til Bobby is seated.
Quan checks out the newspaper. “Legislature passes new stalking law,” it says. The Minister of Justice is apparently very much behind this new law, after his daughter, a pharmacist, was stalked for months by an individual “suffering from a mental illness,” the paper says.
“There’s a lot of suffering in this world,” thinks Quan. He ponders these thoughts, muses on one message, his life’s mission. “We all need to live without pain.”
And for the past few months, he’s been feeling relief of that within himself. And he thinks of what he’ll tell Bobby, in a few moments.
Mary the under cook twists steel taps, fills the giant saucepans. Boiled eggs are coming right up. “Served with tender, loving care,” grins Happy George.
There’s a clash of chairs, unpacked one by one from a series of piles. Steam billows over a vat of bubbling oatmeal. “I’m ecstatic!” George yells at Quan, stirring the mass heavily with a humungous steel pole.
He fills bowls of plenty, plates out slightly stale toast buttered and dusted with cinnamon, with eggs in scrambled form, cooked leather perfect. Institution food, but it is better than no food at all, thinks Quan, who, after pirates captured his family’s boat, floated adrift on a raft and ate his own boots. He shuffles his feet, waiting too long.
Then it all arrives. All the goodness of a hospital breakfast. Hands serving hands. Quach exceedingly appreciates the serving. If he was on a reality TV talent show, he’d give it eleven out of ten. He sits with Bobby Ramsay, who’s staring at the eggs. Quan stares at his coffee, making sure it shimmers brown, then sips and leans over the table.
“I received an absolute discharge yesterday,” he whispers.
Bobby looks over. “Yeah? Wow, that’s great!” He grins and pushes his toast around his plate. He never eats much, he passes most of it to Quan.
Quan wants to tell Bobby that the discharge plans cause him fear. A sense of emptiness and loss. But instead he pulls a small piece of thread from of his pocket and measures it around the outside of his boiled egg. “This egg is smaller than yesterday,” he says.
“Where are you going to live?” asks Ramsay. “Have they set you up with a place?”
“Yes, it’s a group home,” Quan says. “But what if I don’t want to go?” He takes his finger and spreads the jam evenly around his roll, making sure there’s no thick edges.
“Yeah, most of those group homes suck.” Ramsay says. “Maybe you could just throw a chair.”
A week ago Bobby lifted a chair right in this kitchen, casually tossed it at the wall. “I was sick of sitting around waiting for everyone else to finish.” he said.
The security officers slammed the chair back. Then sort of gently but seriously firmly escorted Bobby upstairs, Ramsay remaining one hundred and fifteen per cent compliant, he told them he never wanted to hurt anyone, just following the voices of the little people in his head.
“I’ve thought about that,” Quan replies, after sawing the top off his egg with a very dull plastic knife. “But I don’t have any little people voices in my head.”
Quan’s in the hospital for harassing his pharmacist, Amy Chu. For the exchange of a prescription paper, she offered him brain medication. The doctor recommended it. Medication he did not take, because at the time it blocked his Chi. But he always returned, to be with Amy. Her reaching out to him, to accept the prescription paper, the affirmation from her eyes, and the pharmacy talks regarding all his medication questions, made further telling true. Each medication dispense day, and on other days, he talked to her, related, persevered for as long as he could. She smiled and it seemed like she understood, though he had trouble communicating the exact information. She kept turning away. Her laugh became a frown. After a while she said “why do you keep asking the same questions?” and began sending the other pharmacist over. Yet understanding was the main thing. And her smile. He couldn’t let that disappear.
He visited the pharmacy every day, then a few times a day, then every hour. He bought first aid items, laxatives, digestive aids, asked questions about the location of products, the nature of medications, anything to entice her over. He shuffled around the aisles pretending to shop, touching things off the shelf, examining them closely, til the staff started asking too many questions. Then he hung around outside, waiting. He captured her cel phone number one day, as he peeked through the window while she ate lunch at a restaurant. He’s still not sure how he did it. Maybe telepathy. She looked up after, wow, the shock on her face, so surprised and intimate! Like she almost expected him there…but didn’t. So Quan began calling.
When Amy blocked him, he changed his number, then bought another phone. He waited for her to leave work, he followed to her car. “Hey,” he would say, “Hey, Amy Chu… I … I…” and he’d always forget exactly what it was he wanted to say. She made him very anxious. But he had to tell her. And tell her again. And again. He knew she’d come back to him, to the first understanding. She tapped her fingers on her chin, nervous just like Quan….mutual feelings! Then he discovered where she lived… oh yes, he was very efficient….especially with electronics, but he never hurt anyone. His mission only to share the message.
The court delivered a restraining order. No contact with Amy Chu. Quan broke it three times. Then the crown prosecutor charged him with harassment and summoned him to court. Quan didn’t show up. He was arrested and after two doctor recommendations, held at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital as “mentally unfit to stand trial.”
Quan thinks of his pursuit now, the will and determination of it. He wonders if he can find the details, the pattern again, somewhere deep in his mind. He wonders if he retrieves the pattern, will there be anyone who’ll hear, who’ll listen as closely as Amy in those original days? He sucks down some very liquid porridge, it tastes excellent.
Yesterday, he learned The Crown dropped all his harassment charges, on the promise and condition that Quan remain at the group home and never contact Amy, by any means. “They didn’t want me using up too many hospital resources”, Quan tells Bobby. “They trust me to be independent, and not to break my word.”
Quan knows it’s scary to appear somewhere else in the world, like he and his family did, leaving Viet Nam on that tiny fishing boat, but a man must have a mission. A man needs a family, too, but he tried with Amy and in the end, she didn’t want to participate. In Canada, independence is vital, not to be in debt to anyone, for that leads to capture and corruption.
Quan does feel a bit hospital corrupted now, all the food, the beautiful soft warm blanketed bed. The law halted and sheltered him awhile, shut up the messenger for quite some time, but now… he thinks, “maybe they only wanted to build me up, make me strong again.”
He does feel much tougher. Six months ago, little eating at all, walking eight to ten hours a day, pacing the night, working all his electric devices, trying to contact Amy. No time for sleep. Now, so relaxed. Now he’s ready to begin anew, if he uses his will, and faces all fears. No facing with Amy, he gave his word, to the lawyer and the Crown. But he does miss her a lot, she filled all the holes in his thoughts, and in his heart. Funny thing about the heart, it becomes imprisoned, too, with the needing, the desperation to tell the truth.
Quan smiles. “This brain medication does heal,” he thinks. Now he can sleep, no longer pacing and tossing and cursing from Amy dreams. The only problem is weight gain, because of the beautiful food, and the medication effects. His limbs are slow now, like his Chi, not wanting to scurry, or touch.
“Where would you go, Bob?” he asks Ramsay, “if you got sprung tomorrow.”
“I’ve got family here” Ramsay shrugs, “but they don’t seem to like me much. How about you?”
“Its the same for me.” says Quan. “Well, maybe cousins back in Viet Nam, but they could be dead.”
He scans the breakfast kitchen. He waves at George. George waves back, from behind the porridge pot. There’s some singing back there. George has been a good friend. Same with Bobby Ramsay. Quan slowly eats Bobby’s breakfast, as Bobby sits and fidgets.
Quan pops his last piece of peanut buttered roll. Down the mouth tunnel.. very satisfying. These days, he’s been able to concentrate enough to read the paper again. He looks at the headline, one more time. “Legislature passes new anti stalking law.”
Quan knows some people do regard him as a stalker. Reality being that he was just the messenger, he only wanted to convey needed words. He realizes that this new law is telling him that there are better ways to realize the mission. He’s free of mind pressure now, because of all this profitable, generous hospital treatment. Now he can work to his goal from a calmer base. He glances over at Bobby.
“I wish you good luck, my friend,” he says. “I’m leaving today round 3,” and he thinks “I will stay at the group home, despite my fears.”
Maybe in a month, after he feels oriented and familiar with the new home routines and geography, he’ll begin the Mission once more. He will visit the legislature, and alert the government. This time, he will go straight to the top. The Minister of Justice must be the first leader to hear the words. But Quan will phone first, and ask for an appointment. The suffering in this world must end, for sure, and Quan knows he can help, but he’ll follow the accepted process. If the Minister doesn’t answer after a reasonable time, he’ll proceed to the next step.
Quan readjusts his glasses, stands up to return his cutlery and tray. As usual, he runs his fingers along the dishes, and licks the off the results. He organizes his and Bobby’s cutlery in neat rows, clean and precise on top of the plates at forty-five-degree angles.
He notices that the brownish rim of his fingernail matches the brown of the room… the shine of his shoes like the shine of the still roiling saucepans, and he thinks again… and again….. he pauses and states aloud, reminding himself, with an echo rippling behind the thought. “Phone first, and then arrange an appointment.”
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