Before Thought Comes

They could see the lake shimmering a mirage of far below moon out the window of the common room on the locked ward. On their plates filets of chicken, perfect domes of rice, salads with halved cherry tomatoes, salt and condiments on the side. Dwayne was a street man, twenty years, collecting meals like these when he was too tired of the cold, of the bottles he’d empty and let roll down the floorboards of the foreclosed he found that night: an empty rolling down an empty. Of nights crawling into windowless rooms so police flashlights wouldn’t find him, boots clacking mud on stoops as they rattled door knobs. And Elyse, still in the gown they gave her, blue eyes going gray but still piercing, trailing now over Scrabble letters not yet placed, on her wrist the watch she wore when it happened, hands ticking nothing, its face half gone from where it made contact with pavement, stuck forever on 2:32, and the way her words came out in a whisper, lips pursed after her story, of what they did to her, nodding and looking back to the letters, tallying her score on the backside of a sheet on coping mechanisms, the pencil short enough to be deemed safe for use. The way they’d sit at the heads of the table at mealtime like some rich couple, cold and distant, and the kids just passing through, ODing on heroin or sleeping pills or memories, they’d populate the side seats, so young these kids, thinking their lives were over at 23, withdrawing hands shaking as they’d drain milks like the ones you’d get in grade school, the juices they’d trade for the milks, cups of ice they’d chew just to have something to focus on, something tactile and real. Or the pre-packaged pumpkin pie they’d pass at Thanksgiving, and filling out the next day’s menu “just in case,” those three words a gentle way of saying you’re not ready yet, Dwayne and Elyse past even this formality, just being handed the things instead, memorizing the entrees, side options, both of them circling the same thing, like the birds outside, out the window, orbiting the park bench where the man drops the bread, every morning, at 8:40, and the way Dwayne and Elyse will prolong their breakfasts, never speaking, just to see this man again, the passing-through kids always rushing off to group, or their rooms, or shaving in the hallway, supervised. Practicing what they’ll tell the doctor, reciting, writing it down so he’ll see they must be let go, Elyse dictating to Dwayne when her hand shakes too bad to write, Dwayne’s coffee bean eyes steamed over, seeing loopy alphabeticals on dashed paper, learning to start his letters from the bottom up, to build on what he put down before. Taking their pages to the trash, confettied and clinging to plastic lining, bits of words only, Elyse coughing out a laugh when Dwayne does this, taking off her watch, tossing it in with the paper, then her socks, and his, and their clothes, and sprawling out on the table in the common room, fingers on bodies as the mirage of far below moon comes in, before the RNs notice, before the doctor’s called, before thought comes and clings too deeply to the moment.

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