Down at the asylum, the best-behaved patients were out walking around loose, roaming the grounds in their bathrobes and pajamas or sitting on benches staring at the road. Some wore regular clothes, but you could tell they were patients whenever a car went by. Patients had a special way of watching a car. They followed its path as though it magnetized their faces, their heads swiveling together in sync; they gazed down the empty road long after the car was gone, as though, like a movie in reverse, it might come reeling back. Only a tiny old man ignored the cars altogether. He was off by himself on the lawn beneath the massive gray buildings, making his way among the flower beds in his tattered blue robe. At each bed he knelt to speak to the plants, putting his lips close to specific flowers, gesturing to make himself understood. I could see the pain it was causing him that blossom after blossom failed to respond, the umbrage he was taking. Finally he began to cry. He wrenched a clump of daffodils from the ground and lashed them into slivers against a nearby rock.
I was across the road behind a tree. Id just hiked down from the mountaintop where my family lived — down the old deer-hunters’ path and across a field — and I was hiding behind one of the big maples lining the hospital road. Every minute or so I stepped out and stood beside its trunk and waved to the patients on the lawn, and they waved back to me. I hid behind the tree for a minute before coming out to do it again. It was a game I’d been playing with the patients since the beginning of spring. First they would see a cornfield and trees, then a dark-haired twelve-year-old boy, then only trees and a cornfield again. They loved things like that. This time a few patients hid behind trees on their side of the road too, but they lost track of the game and forgot to come out.
I was already late getting over to my friend Clayton’s house. When I crossed the road, patients flocked to me like ducklings. It always surprised me to see how quickly they could move. They were terribly gaunt. Even the stout ones seemed gaunt somehow, around the mouth and eyes. I knew they had food to eat because I ate it myself; Clayton’s mother worked in the hospital kitchens and gave us whatever the patients were having. Maybe they just did the wrong things with it. Many of the men had dried egg-yolk patches in the stubble on their cheeks.
I revealed a few secrets to them. ’The fish refuse to have their pictures taken,” I said. “The bumblebees are meeting to decide what to do.” The patients nodded enthusiastically. ’There’s a city in the sky,” I added, looking up at the sliding clouds. They’re having a party today.”
They were eager to tell me things in return. “The doctors play violins all night and never let us sleep,” one patient said. Another said, “They have factories on the moon where they make all the money.” ’They’re selling our sunsets to the Chinese nation,” I was informed by a third.
I knew these things — they’d told me already—but I put on a good show of surprise and indignation. Then I said good-bye and proceeded across the lawn. The man in the blue robe was still kneeling by the rock, gaping at his scraps of yellow flower on the grass. “I’ll be back soon with rubies and diamonds,” I called to him over my shoulder. He looked up at me, and for a second he forgot his troubles. The patients hiding behind the trees were still pretending I wasn’t there. Out of courtesy, I pretended the same thing about them.