And I’ll build a house inside of you
I’ll go in through the mouth
I’ll draw three figures on your heart
One of them will be me as a boy
One of them will be me
One of them will be me, watching you run
—Wolf Parade, “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son”
You were born small. Your skin was white, fragile like a porcelain doll, and your head was twisted wrong up on your neck, came out tilted to one side like you were always asking a question and never getting an answer. It was a stubborn birth—that’s what they called it, that’s how they put it—and your mother was red-faced, sweaty and exhausted and starting to hate this baby just a little bit, this thing that ate away at her for nine months and now refused to leave her goddamned body—frightened, clingy little boy.
They handed you to her and she sighed, didn’t grin that mother grin, didn’t light up across the eyes like goldtrimmed streetlamps flicking on over cheekbone pavement, didn’t catch a gasp deep in her throat bubbling over into breath, no. She sighed. Well. Here we are.
Your father stood up from his chair in the corner, heavy steps across the shiny waxed floor to see his son, thick black brows over deepset eyes looking down at you.
“Boy’s got lady’s hands,” he grunted. “ ’ll be a faggot if I ever saw one.”
And this is crazy, this is the end-all be-all of your illustrious, your lifelong career in insanity—you actually believe you can remember the cradle in that hospital, the wood, the ceiling, the nurse and her white, her white, her white.
You got older and you wanted what we all want, love, love, that elusive love, and you found you were one of the ones who couldn’t seem to get it. You started trying for it, you got smart and you got sharp and you learned words like they were your circus act, learned how to walk across a balance beam of words or throw words like knives and miss by a hair, spin words into a sugary sweet cotton candy mix of pandered joy, you learned that.
But in school they start to notice that you’re different, you; kids have a better eye for that than anybody, give us your tired, your poor, your clinically insane and we’ll root ’em out for you, we’ll kick ’em to the curb. What use are they to us? If they can’t help us turn the wheels of this machine they ain’t no use at all, that’s how we work, that’s how it goes in this godblessed country of ours, you see.
It isn’t all at once. You have friends in the first grade, and in the second, and the third, and it isn’t until you’re going on eleven, maybe twelve, those big kids start to sniff you out. Head’s a little crooked on your shoulders, you’re always asking questions nobody turning wheels can answer.
But it’s not that, really. It’s not that.
You remember sitting in a group of kids at lunch out on the playground, sun, dirt, childhood in the air, and it was just the same as ever, seven or eight of you beneath an oak tree trading sandwiches your mama gave you or stealing if your mama gave you nothing, and you were talking. That’s it, just talking, about who knows what—you were precocious and at that age they admired that in you, so maybe it was this here President or the origin of peanut butter or Missus Pritchard’s roll of fat, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter in the end. All that matters is at one point you looked across at your friends, words like music still spilling from your lips, and there eyes weren’t where they’re supposed to be, no, not up on you at all, they were down somewhere, they were—watching your hands. These spider fingers, these china bones, these goddamned lady’s hands.
That’s it, really. It was over, there on out.
Vera was a pretty girl who liked the way you talked smart, liked to hear you thread words like candy necklace on a string. She had no way of knowing she’d’ve been better off with one of those beefy guys, those footballers with their lumpy hands and empty skulls—she tried to so hard to find something different, ain’t like the other girls, she said. (you said, am not, and she said huh? and for the moment you let it go.)
You used to let your hands unwind in front of her, slowly, like strings rising out of a tangle, slow and then faster, faster, fluttering out in front of you as you waltzed with words, her big eyes, her red open mouth. She used to say how beautiful they made you, how far they set you apart from those other boys (she used to be all about that in those days, used to aim for different, aimed a little too far North and her arrow hit you).
But she didn’t know, see, that she’d’ve been better off with one of those brainless billionaires than with you, because you grew up all crooked in the head, you were born sad, and your hands got tangled up in their strings again.
A little too different, see.
It was like you were in a boat, really—that’s the heart of it. It was like you were all, all of you, all of us in a rowing boat, and all through your childhood you’d been allowed to sit in the middle—a little sad in the middle, a little lonely in the middle, but in the middle all the same.
And then you grew up, or you were supposed to, anyway, and it was like somebody shoved an oar into your trembling hands, calloused palms chafing over your smooth pallid skin, and they pushed you to the side and they yelled, Row, ROW!, and you found, all of the sudden, that you couldn’t. So they kicked you out. Or you hid. Either way, they’re not letting you back on that boat for a while now.
(Maybe it’s because of this, the secret you started to suspect that nobody wanted to hear:
The boat isn’t going anywhere.)
When your father was young still, pretty young, young enough he’d just barely begun to taste bitter on his tongue (bitter beer, too much whiskey), he used to lean back in that leather chair of his, black boot feet up on the rest, and you by the fire, small in the light on his hair, his face. And he’d say, “I imagine hell ain’t too bad,” (swig, spit.) “Once a feller gets used to it.”
(Isn’t, you said, and for once he was drunk or maybe too tired to hit you.)
I imagine hell ain’t too bad once you get used to it, your Father said, and at the time you looked into the fire, flames licking up that log like it was nothing, same way they could lick that leg of yours clean off if your Sunday school teacher was onto something. Wrong, you thought, you’re wrong, but that was stupid, really. That was foolish. You’d’ve resented him anything then, because you were a child and he was your father and you hated him, you hated him. You’d’ve cried bullshit at anything he said, anything, really, that’s it.
There’s this music that tinkers around the ceiling in the day room, the kind of shit you hear riding up the elevator at a midrange hotel in Portland, plunky piano chords and skippy beats and smiling flutes. You asked once—first week, it must’ve been—if they couldn’t search the radio for a bit of Elvis, could they, some of that geetar, Father calls it, some of that down home, some of that soul. She said no, of course, and you said fine, could they maybe turn off the music they did have, then, and she said no, and you said okay, could they turn it down a little bit then, it’s remarkably distracting to your card game, it’s remarkably annoying to boot, and she said no, why does it annoy you, Mr. Harding, why do you suppose you’re so keen to get annoyed by it, hm.
And that first week you hated it, you hated that music. Every sunny-bright key change and dancing trill of that flute and your fists curled, and on Friday you slammed your cards down right in the middle of a game with Billy Bibbit and you stormed into the latrine and dug your hands into the sides of the sink, sunk your head, looked into that mirror and felt heavy, so damn heavy you did.
You came out, and in group sessions that afternoon she brought it up, noticed you were quite upset today, is that correct, Mr. Harding? Bit quick to anger, don’t you think? and you didn’t say a thing.
You got over it, quick. The music wasn’t too bad anyway—once you got used to it.
(Don’t get used to it. Don’t.)
“He’s layin’ awful quiet, I told myself, I ought to touch him to see if he’s still alive…
That’s a lie. I know he’s still alive. That ain’t the reason I want to touch him.
I want to touch him because he’s a man.
That’s a lie too. There’s other men around. I could touch them.
I want to touch him because I’m one of these queers!
But that’s a lie too. That’s one fear hiding behind another…I just want to touch him because he’s who he is.”
—Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
McMurphy was born big. You can’t be sure what he looked like as a baby—hell, you weren’t there—but you can’t seem to picture him any other way than what he looks now, red hair and flash eyes and hairy arms, tattoos, rough hands, dirt creased into the lines of his palms. He’s got freckles all up his arms, a few on the tops of his hands too, and you know because you’ve looked, okay, you’ve been looking. There’s not a single man on this ward hasn’t been looking. And it’s not because the whole lot of you are queers, and it’s not because he’s big and red and always there, it’s because it’s him, it’s McMurphy and you can go to hell if you don’t wanna look at that.
First time he sees you he asks you if you’re the bull goose loony. Matter of fact you are, now does he have an appointment?
Second time you share a smoke, and he brings to light that big ol’ nurse, and he bets his life that day. You watch his hands around that cigarette and wonder how he managed to shrug away that oar for all these years and still look like work, like the fields and like the ocean and big, he’s born big is the point.
You take some pride in this fact even now, and maybe that’s a little sick and a little wrong but what are you if not sick and wrong, so: McMurphy always did like you best.
He liked everybody, or at least made like he did, broad shoulders and grins, winking blue eyes behind the Nurse’s back, eyebrows twitching at everyone, everybody. Gifts he gave to all the guys.
But there were these little things, see—of a more physical variety, that he would—that was just you. Sometimes he’d nudge you with his giant hip, sometimes he’d sling an arm around your shoulders, his heavy freckled hand hanging by your head, or he’d ruffle your hair when you flirted with one of those student nurses, like you were a kid who’d just said something clever—but you weren’t a kid, and he knew that. You weren’t a kid.
A bunch of the guys stayed up late in the day room once (not like later, not like cherry-whiskey fire lapping at your tongues and pilled handed out like peppermint candy at the Roundup, smell of something musky and green in that cigarette of Turkle’s, Candy and Sandy and—and Billy. Not that, not yet), and you swear you’d meant to go to bed three hours ago, but McMurphy kept winking at everyone, and butchering the English language, and you had to stick around to tease him about it, didn’t you. You’d gotten good at it. You liked it.
Everybody trickled off to sleep, wandering down the hall to the dorm with laughter still warm on their breath and color rising pink to their sallow cheeks, until suddenly it was just you and McMurphy and a whole lot of empty chairs and a whole lot of darkness.
He tapped his armrest with two fingers, surveyed the room with an easy smile, swung his head around to look at you.
“Well,” he said, voice big even when it’s not, “tell me som’m inneresting then, son.”
“My dear Mister McMurphy,” you grinned back slow, “do you honestly aim to keep a tired man from his bed at such an hour as this? Surely you don’t expect a comrade—nay, a friend—to indulge you with frivolous tales and speeches this late into the night purely on the basis that your whim demands it?”
“Your bet your ass I do,” and he grinned, wide, six teeth, “and you’re off to a good start there with the frivolous speeches part of the deal.”
You smiled, close-mouthed, lips curling up to cover your long teeth, and leaned back in your chair. Folded your hands over your stomach and stretched your legs out so your feet nearly touched McMurphy’s in the seat opposite yours. “With what sort of story do you bid me regale you?”
“Talk about the war,” he shot back automatic, and his expression didn’t slip a bit, not even in the corners of his lips.
“Ah,” you said, “but you forget I wasn’t in the war.”
“ ’Course you weren’t, little sissie like you?” He stretched out his legs too, calf sliding past yours in coarse denim, laced his fingers behind his head. “Talk about it anyway.” He met your eyes—you’re pretty certain, the dark and all—and he was still smiling but a little less now, just a little less.
So you told him about the war, told him about these here Communists in this here North Korea, told him about our Lord and Savior the U.S. government, told about the glory and the honor and the blood that’s worth it all, oh how worth it that blood is if it’s shed for the glory and the honor of our Lord and Savior the United Sates government, oh the glory, oh the honor, and your hands began to fidget with invisible strings, and your fingertips played at invisible knots, slower, slower, faster faster faster, until they’re dancing in front of you free of the tangles, oh the glory oh the honor they sing, of this here United States of America, shed blood if needs be for the war is ours to win with bullets rotting deep the hearts of these here Commie soldiers, hail to the Chief and glory to God in the highest they sing.
And it happened again. You looked down and he’s not looking at your eyes he’s looking at your hands, these faggot hand syou got, and you shoved them away quick between your knees, tied up the strings real fast.
The trance on both of you was broken and he tugged his eyes up to yours, gave you an edgy look. “Aw, come on now son,” he said, “don’t go like that.”
“Haven’t done a thing, McMurphy.”
“Shit, you did too, you—” He cleared his throat, and you realized he was unsure how to put it. He gestured toward you, hoping he wouldn’t have to press on, but then, “you’ve put your hands away.”
“Away is where they belong.”
He looked a bit surprised at that, mouth falling open a second, and then he seemed to gather himself together, and he straightened up real big in his chair, shoulders shooting out like they could shelve twelve books each, and his face hardened into a crooked smile. “Seems to me a man shouldn’t hide any part of him that’s his,” and he lunged forward so fast you’d never’ve be able to catch it, and yanked your hands out from between your knees. He probably hadn’t thought it out further than that—never does, does he—because then he’s just stuck there holding your wrists in his giant freckled palms, dumbstruck look on his face.
“M’ father always said I had lady’s hands,” you mumbled, fill the silence fill the silence.
And that’s when Mack’s face sort of caved, and he turned your palms over and looked at them, said real soft, “Bet they feel like a lady’s hands too.”
They did. You showed him.
You wondered in the next week if perhaps you have a type. You tried to draw all the parallels you could, because you’re smart and you’re sharp and that’s how your brain works, but everywhere Vera is soft McMurphy is hard, and everywhere she is sweet he is brash, and everywhere she can bite he can smooth over with fast talk and quick blue-eyed winks.
You realize, actually, that the one thing that’s the same about them is they can both hurt you, they can both hurt you bad. Badly, you mean. (Because Vera says any man that drops around to see her flips more than his damned limp wrists, and because last night McMurphy had his hand around you and he was whispering rough in your ear, he said, You ain’t crazy, Harding, and harder faster strings untying, You’re just sad, that’s all. And that’s the kind of talk could drive a man insane.)
You realize, too, that it doesn’t work that way. That’s the thing. McMurphy isn’t a type, he isn’t anyone’s type. He’s a monkey wrench is what he is. He’s Randle P. McMurphy.
You tried to tell him run. After the night of Candy and Sandy and cherry medicine and fire you told him to get his ass out that window, why don’t (doesn’t) he. That’s exactly what you tried to do, say, get outta here, git, like McMurphy was some wild thing come in here to knock over a few tables, kick down a few walls. Go on, git. Can’t you tell you don’t belong here? Don’t you know you ain’t one of us at all?
(“He ain’t crazy,” Scanlon told you once, muttered breath like a smile hissed between two teeth, “not a lick.” And that’s why you told him to run.
You like to pretend it isn’t because you already knew what would happen.)
“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them.”
Word gets around.
The Chief’s been on the road a year or so now, you heard this from Sefelt when he rolled through town on business. (Business, he’s got business now.) You don’t talk to a lot of the boys often, because that’s not how it works, is it. Getting out. At least not for you.
But Scanlon comes around, and you run into him coming out of the grocery store and he doesn’t look like he ought to—instead he’s all oiled up and leathery, got dirt on his face and on his boots. You invite him round anyway, because you have to, don’t you? You have to.
Scanlon rests his boots on the dining room table like Father used to. Vera flits around the kitchen, making coffee and asking four times if they need anything, slamming drawers shut loud enough so you know she’s irked about Scanlon getting mud on her cedar table. You ignore it for now (though later you’ll apologize and clean it up yourself, because she’s got a round, pregnant stomach, and you have to humor her.)
It’s nearly eleven and pitch black outside. Vera gets tired early now and she kisses your cheek, heads off to bed, you boys play nice and Scanlon doesn’t smile. His head’s tilted down, he’s flicking at a knife.
She’s gone and you feel her absence like a heavy pit in your stomach. You try with small talk, “What’ve you been doing, son?” some of the old rough-and-tumble, but Scanlon looks up with fire eyes and he says,
“He died, Harding. And you weren’t even there.”
Your stomach drops with the sheer shock of it, but there’s this part of you wants to talk about it, wants to talk fast and hard like the old days, wants to quite game-playing and answer for once. Been a while.
“Now I can’t help but take offense at you going off like I wasn’t there. I was plenty there, my friend. I was—”
“You weren’t there, Harding. You didn’t see him.” And Scanlon keeps his gaze steady, cold and stone, sparks flying off the knife he’s sharpening. “His skin was pale, wax-paper pale, none of those ruddy cheeks they talked about, you remember.” He watches you for signs he’s hit a nerve, but you can’t do the same—he’s a blank slate to you now, he’s cold-angry and it shows. “And his arms were all limp at his sides, not even botherin’ to move, not big and muscled-up like before.” He crosses one dirt-scuffed boot over the other, cocks his dark head like a dare, like a gun. “And his eyes, Harding,” he says. “Hooee. You never seen anything like those eyes. Cold, blank. Looked like the eyes on a china doll. Hell—looked like the eyes on that Big Nurse, just like those black button pins in the head of Nurse Ratched, they—”
“Stop, stop it, stop it”—you feel sick, sick like bile burning up your throat, sick like your stomach churning your guts to blood, sick like your head tilted wrong way on your shoulders, born crooked, born sad, born small.
You think you see a flicker of satisfaction in Scanlon’s dim eyes, but it’s gone. He flicks his knife long, silvery, that even scrape of metal. “Those were dead eyes, son. That’s what those were.”
You feel you have to talk now, have to or else you’ll just feel sick more and you don’t wanna feel sick, that’s not what you want. “…Ah,” you interject, playing at a halfway smile, “but he didn’t have to die, did he. Our good Saint McMurphy wasn’t dead until the Indian killed him, was perfectly—”
“Bullshit,” and this time there is venom in Scanlon’s face, and his boots slide from the table, hit the floor with a clunk. His nostrils flare, contempt. “He was dead the minute he set foot in that place and you know it. Deader’n Pete, even.” He calms down, turns his gaze to the window, black lining on the pane, rush of cars outside. “Difference is,” voice softer now, hard planes face yellowed in the gentle light, “he chose to die. Died for us, including you.” He smiles a not-smile, seems to chuckle just a little bit. “Sickest part is,” he says, and turns his eyes to yours again, “prob’ly especially you.”
You don’t have anything to say to that. You didn’t expect to have that wielded against you, that knife breaking skin on the small of your back. At least not now, not so soon—
“And while you’re here with your—your nice big house, and your fancy car, your color TV, your pretty, pregnant wife,” (spits.) “He’s at the hospital. He’ll always be at that hospital. Buried there, nothin’ on the tombstone but his godblessed name, Randle P. McMurphy and that’s it. And you know why he’s there?” Faltering with his words now, voice rising, breaking day, and it would be so much easier if you could yell, but you can’t yell, you can never yell, that’s not how it works here on this godblessed boat, “So we could go on livin’ and fightin’. He’s there so you could be…” He gestures around the room, top lip recoiling over sharp bared teeth. “Here.”
“Scanlon, my friend,” rushing whispers over words, “you don’t by any means intend to imply that what I’ve got going here is not—is not how you put it, living?”
“Ain’t sayin’ you ain’t livin’,” Scanlon whispers, eyes on the knife. “I’m sayin’ you ain’t fightin’.”
And here marks the day Harding runs out of words. No more letters to string onto your candy necklace, no more vowels to teeter across on a heavenward rope, no more sugar sweet cotton pooling warm in the stomach. You’ve run out. You’ve been beaten. You are done.
“ ‘He died so that we might live,’ ” Scanlon’s saying now, and he’s not even in the room anymore, you’re not even in the room. You’re living separate lives, you ain’t, you aren’t connected. “There’s an Angel of Mercy for you.” His knife is almost sharp now. “There’s your goddamned Angel of Mercy right there.”
Scanlon leaves and you go to bed. You lay there beside her and you press an ear to her stomach. Beneath a layer of skin and bone you can hear the wheels turning inside, the cogs and sprigs coiling swift into place, the steady oar-rowing of two timed heartbeats, a thousand white strings tying themselves up into clean tight knots.
You’ll have a son. You won’t name it Randle.