[I was sipping my Cheerwine tonight, thinking about Henry. Poor Henry. Putty in my hands. This is his continuing story, someone I hope can become a "rounder" character as I keep writing about him. He reminds me of someone. Read the story, as edited, to date, here.]
"Mr. Askew, can you stand up please?"
Henry quickly rose to his feet -- too quickly, maybe, because his legs felt quivery, like jello, and for a minute he thought he'd fall. Looking down at his feet, he realized to his surprise that he had no shoes, and his lily white feet stuck out of the ends of his pants legs. Looking up he saw an enormous podium about 20 feet away from him, only much, much higher than him. There was a person behind the podium who had no face, just an enormous mouth on a white sphere, like the face had been erased, and sounds were emanating from it, angry sounds. And he scared Henry.
"Is there something the matter, Mr. Askew? Are you listening to me?
Henry's head began to throb. He put his hands on each side of his head to try and stop the pounding. Looking down as he did it, he noticed the table he was seated at was like those you find in a preschool, and his chair the kind little kids sit in as they play with puzzles and color, the kind Mrs. Holshouser had in her room at the Center.
Mr. Askew? MR. ASKEW?
Henry looked up, and when he did he saw Cheerwine bottles, no kidding, cases and cases of bottles flying past him and that mouth, that enormous mouth shouting something that sounded like gibberish at him, all the time getting bigger and bigger. He felt hands on him, squeezing him, shaking him, hurting him.
"No, leave me alone. Leave me alone. He began to struggle to get free, thrashing around wildly. "I won't go. I won't. You can't make me. . ."
Henry woke to find himself in complete darkness. For a moment, he didn't know where he was. Listening, he thought he heard a clock ticking loudly, only he realized it was his heart beating out an exaggerated rhythm. He was breathing heavy, his chest heaving, his body drenched with sweat. Sam was oblivious, still asleep in his lap. "Oh, Sam, that was a doozie, a real bad dream." Sam twitched a bit, enjoying some nocturnal feline fantasy. Henry wondered what kind of things cats dreamed of beyond the usual mice, food, climbing trees, being chased. Whatever they dreamed, it couldn't be as crazy as the things he dreamed. At least that's what he figured.
Carefully laying Sam on the sofa, he walked into the kitchen, turned on the light and opened the bread drawer. He unwrapped the bread and laid two slices Merita Enriched Bread on the counter. Reaching for the Jiffy peanut butter, he unscrewed the lid and, with a dull knife, began to spread big globs of it on a piece of the bread. He felt his body calming as he began normal routines, leaving the dream somewhere back there. Henry thought to himself that peanut butter must be one of the finest foods ever developed. "It'll stick to your insides," Henry's mother used to say. Henry smiled at that. He figured he could eat peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, and sometimes he did. He tried to interest Sam in peanut butter, but he wouldn't touch the stuff. In that uppity cat way he merely sniffed at it and walked away with a disinterested amble as if he was saying "I can't believe you eat such stuff, Henry. It's beneath me." Henry liked Sam OK, he guessed, but for an animal that was supposed to be intelligent, he figured he sure was dumb. Any person, and beast, who didn't like peanut butter and Cheerwine must not be too smart.
Finishing his sandwich, he opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a new bottle of Cheerwine. For a moment, he just looked at the row upon row of Cheerwine bottles lining the shelves, and he felt better, secure, just knowing that he wouldn't run out anytime soon. "I suspect in Salisbury everybody's got all the Cheerwine they need," Henry thought. Why Henry imagined a swimming pool filled with the bubbly red liquid, and him on a float in the midst of it. He liked thinking about such things. He called it his "L.D. Peele moment," because he imagined that Mr. Peele lived that way, and inventor that he was, he for sure was busy developing other uses for Cheerwine while he floated in his pool.
Sitting back down in the brown recliner, his eyes rested once again on the envelope. He set his drink on it. "Do you mind if I use you for a coaster, Department of Social Services?, he said out loud to no one in particular. Sam looked up at him from where he reclined on the sofa. Henry thought to himself that it'd been a long time since anything good came to him in a white envelope. There was a time when bills came to him, papers with numbers on them that confused him. He'd stare at them, not knowing what to do. Then the lady from the DSS, Mrs. Hightower, came and grabbed them all up off the kitchen table where they were littered and took them all away. He never saw one again. No one else wrote him. Occasionally he'd get a catalog. He liked to look at the pictures.
Sighing heavily, he reached for the letter, tore the end off, and pulled the letter out, carefully unfolding it and laying it in his lap. As he read, the words began swimming off the page -- words like "inform," terminate," "move," "no choice," and that last phrase, "institutionalize you." Then he couldn't focus. He put the paper down in his lap, and laid his head back in the chair, remembering green walls and locked doors and his mother crying.