By Leah Sackett
Lips are gross if you watch them in motion wet, dry, rough, soft, flaky, luscious, spittle, and bad breath. Harlow had asked for her tube of lip balm from Orderly Roberts.
“Can I have my lip blam?” Harlow asked. “You see, my lips are so chapped,” she said with a pout.
“Okay, give me a minute. I have to give out meds,” Orderly Roberts said.
“Here you go,” he said and handed over the little tube of Orange Crush chapstick. Roberts didn’t think her lips looked chapped. He figured it was just something to do when stuck on the ward and watched as she applied it to her pale lips. He fantasized about what those lips would look like with a bold, red color like his sister wore. Roberts was just an orderly, but he felt some of the patients were misplaced and mismanaged. In his mind, Harlow was one of them. If it weren’t for the morning and evening rounds of meds, Roberts would not indicate Harlow’s condition. She was Bi Polar and went off her meds from time to time, and every time she landed in the hospital. But she straightened out pretty much by the time she reached the main population ward where Roberts worked. He was jerked out of his reverie by an outburst from Oliver. This guy had been in much longer than insurance customarily allowed. He had nowhere else to go. No family, no place to stay, the social workers had promised him he would be released three days ago, and this quiet guy who shuffled the floors like an old man, which belied his 23 years, was frustrated. The Nurses’ station housed Cafe and De-Cafe urns of coffee along with Styrofoam cups and little packets of sugar. The objects were now being hurled at the nurses. Roberts embraced Oliver in a stifling hug and worked him to the floor. Another Orderly joined the struggle armed with a syringe of Midazolam. Together Roberts and Orderly Harrison muscled Oliver back to his room, where he could sleep his anger off. When Roberts regained the floor, the other inmates were whispering and wide-eyed. Harlow approached him and released the chapstick in Robert’s hand.
“Here’s the lip blam,” she said.
“You know it’s balm, right?”
“What?” she said shrinking from Roberts.
“It’s lip balm, not blam,” Roberts said gently.
“Oh, right. I get confused,” Harlow said.
Roberts felt wrong for correcting her. He didn’t want to scare Harlow off. He only had her for three more days, and then she was getting out.
“Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints.”
He couldn’t ask for her phone number. It was an impossible relationship. Roberts palmed the lip balm back in her hand.
“Keep it. Just be discrete,” he said. He gave himself the same advice.
Roberts wasn’t working when Harlow was released. He resigned himself to the inevitable. His purpose was to help those short term cases get back on the right path. It started as rewarding, but some of these people just seemed to be arrested on the fringe of society, not a danger to it. Of course, he was no doctor. He was the muscle.
Time inside an asylum sucks the staff and the patients into a warped fabric of reality, and the days run a cycle of drama and drool. Roberts began to wonder who was really incarcerated in this place, him or the patients? Charlotte slinked up the hall and cornered him up against the wall, mumbling, ” Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify…” Charlotte’s repetition of this question was maddening, and it got inside Roberts’s head like an earworm. He would ask himself the question on break and off shift. Was he a hero or a medical thug? His time in the asylum was tortured and terminal. Who was really trapped in this place?
A new patient, James, was obsessed with his missing shoes, and tension was high in his demeanor. He shouted out threats to the unknown persons that had his shoes.
“Where’re my kicks?” James pleaded.
“You can’t have your shoes here. You got the gripper socks,” Roberts said.
“Man, I don’t want no gripper socks. I want my kicks. Then I’ll kick your ass,” James shouted.
“I need you to keep it down and stop the threats,” Roberts said.
“You telling me what to do? I don’t think so, Bitch,” James said and pushed Roberts back.
Roberts got him in a prone floor hold. Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints. Hopped up on adrenaline, the Orderlies lifted the man and strapped him to the table in the solitary room. The rest of the inmates made a reticent scatter to their rooms.
It was the end of the summer, Roberts had a much needed three day weekend. He and his buddies, Marc and Lucas, were meeting up at Milo’s for some beers and bocce ball. And to be honest, they were hoping to hook-up with some babes. Marc fetched the first round of beers, while Lucas and Roberts wrestled up the bocce balls and chalk to mark the score. Marc returned with a trio of girls, and introductions were made.
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“So, what do you do?” the strawberry blonde Twiggy asked Roberts. “Oh, stay away from him. He’ll lock you up,” Marc said.
“What are you some kind of cop?”
“Naw, he’s an orderly over at the mental hospital. Spends all day with the loonies,” Marc said.
After the last pitch of the bocce ball, the ladies begged-off and went in pursuit of less creepy conversation.
The guys were still quarreling over who was responsible for scaring the ladies off when they entered a greasy spoon, the Midnight Owl.
Roberts did not like owls. He got a plush owl on his 8th birthday. Since then, every birthday and Christmas, he was gifted another owl. Things had really gotten out of hand when his grandma got him a set of owl salt and pepper shakers when he was 14. This diner’s name had kept him away, but tonight the dining victory went to Marc and Lucas. Roberts kept his head down in the menu, avoiding the Owl clocks, toys, and taxidermy on the walls. The waitress smelling of bacon was rattling off specials. She started to recite the Midnight Owl special when Roberts looked up into her face. No introduction was needed. It was a greasy Harlow with her hair up and thick eyeliner. It was Harlow right in front of him. But she didn’t let on that she knew him. Roberts assumed, correctly, that Harlow didn’t want to be identified. But this understood anonymity did not stop her from zoning in on Roberts and flirting aggressively.
Roberts excused himself for the bathroom. In the narrow back hall, Harlow stood in his way, “It’s so nice to see you,” she said.
Roberts was unsettled. What were the odds of them meeting like this? He ate up her attention, and his fantasies about her came crowding back in his head and cluttered his judgment.
“Let’s go somewhere more private,” she said.
“Ah, yes,” he said with bated breath.
After a greasy meal of eggs, onions, and hash, the guys made their good-byes. Roberts settled into his black 1967 Chevy Impala and waited. Roberts was racking his brain for a private place. There was a Red Roof Inn four miles down the road, but they never made it there. Harlow unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned dangerously close to Roberts’s face, for starters.
“Hey, hey, you need to put your seatbelt back on,” Roberts said.
But she was busy fishing for something in her purse. It was a tube of Orange Crush chapstick.
“Here’s some lip blam for you,” she said, smearing it across his open mouth and chin.
“A second squad car arrived…”
A clump stuck on his bottom teeth. Roberts wiped and at it with the cuff of his sleeve, while Harlow redoubled her attack and swung her right leg over Roberts. Saddling him, Harlow began to grind.
“Harlow, I can’t see. Get off,” he said.
“I thought you liked me?” she said. “You’re no fun.”
Harlow was pouting and leaning against her door with angst that scared Roberts. Just then, he saw the lights in his rearview mirror, and it was backed by the siren. Roberts pulled over on the shoulder of the road. This was a busy road during the day, but at night the businesses were all shut down, and the four-lane road was a vast playground for drunk drivers on the way home.
“What’s going on here?” Officer Manners asked.
His flashlight illuminated the half-dressed Harlow slumped along the window.
“Do you want to have a good time, Officer,” Harlow said, climbing back over Roberts. Roberts was glad to have the policeman’s assistance. Harlow was out of control.
“Step out of the car,” Officer Manners said to Roberts.
“Me? What about her?”
With that, Harlow stepped from the car and planted a handstand on the side of the road. Her waitress uniform fell around her waist. She was naked waist down. Roberts looked to see her panties draped from his rearview mirror. He had no idea when that happened.
Officer Manners made Roberts take a breathalyzer test, which he failed, and found himself cuffed in the backseat of the squad car. A second squad car arrived to take the loud and hard to handle Harlow to the psych ward. She’d been wearing her medical ID bracelet.
Roberts’ car had been impounded, and he was unable to release it until Tuesday. He drove straight from the impound yard to work. He told his supervisor that he would need time off for his court date. Roberts thought this was the height of his embarrassment, but he was wrong.
“Hey, there lip blam man,” Harlow said in a scratchy voice.
She moved in close, not too close, just close enough so only he could hear her when she dropped her voice.
“How much trouble did you get into?”
“Plenty. But you need to stay away from me.” Roberts said.
“Awww. Don’t you like me when I’m manic? Admit it, I’m much more fun.”
“No, I don’t. We can’t act like that in here.”
“You mean you can’t act like that in here. I can do whatever I want. I rather thought I got that point across this weekend,” Harlow said. “It’s not about you.”
Roberts stared into those big brown eyes. But he stopped seeing what he wanted to see. He saw a woman that needed help, stability. And what had he done but take her for a joy ride? He felt like a misogynistic ass. Harlow slipped off like a discarded garment and curled up in a green faux leather chair. Roberts watched her sitting there, talking to herself. A patient approached Roberts from the left. It was Charlotte. She was to be transferred to a long term facility that day. Charlotte stopped to rub the top of Harlow’s tussled hair.
“Do you identify as a hero?” she asked Roberts. “Do you?”
Leah Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is where she earned her B.A. and M.F.A. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn about her published fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website.