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Jaime Clarke


What you have to do to get in here: set fire to your family while they sleep; lock a small child in an old refrigerator abandoned to the earth by its owners; lay wooden posts in the path of an Amtrak Sunset Limited; remove the stop signs at an intersection near a grade school; dump hydrochloric acid in a public pool; lure neighborhood boys and girls into your house for cookies and movies and store their body parts according to size in a reach-in freezer; order a Big Mac at a McDonald’s and open fire on its patrons—all of these things will get you sent to the Arizona State Hospital, usually for life. Where I thought I would spend at least six months, I ended up lasting only a day, the most bizarre day in my then eighteen-year-old life because by the end of that day Lindy had no sooner introduced himself than he was dead.

Of the number of venues for serving your mandatory Christian service, a graduation requirement heartily endorsed by the priests and laypeople of Brophy College Preparatory, there were two: the children’s crisis center or the state mental hospital. And on the authority of generations of graduates before—an authority based on tales of crazy women shedding their clothes while walking down the hall, men who tried to shove eating utensils in various orifices, human beings acting like animals, performing for the benefit of craven teenagers whose hair was, at all times, cut above the collar—the hospital was the place to volunteer.

My assignment that first and last day, a day which seemed forever in coming as I waded through a series of checks (fingerprint, background, etc., as well as various interviews with doctors whose peculiarities paralleled their patients’) was a large man with a stone face who looked about forty, his dull gray crew cut meticulously maintained. Thomas Major Hill, his chart read, along with an ominous instruction to "keep the patient out of the vicinity of any activated television."

"Call me Lindy," Thomas Major Hill said. "My friends call me Lindy."

"Is that a nickname?" I asked.

"Sort of. I’m Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr.," he said. "I’m the baby Lindbergh."

Lindy seemed exceptional in his incarceration. He hadn’t violated someone else and become a criminal; his brain just wouldn’t unhinge itself from an assembly of facts: that he was born in 1930 to Anne Morrow and Charles A. Lindbergh, that he spent the first year or so of his life at Next Day Hill, the Morrow estate in Englewood, New Jersey ("That’s Englewood," Lindy said. "Not Inglewood, as in California. I’ve never been to California. I hate California"), that his real nickname was "Hi" because of something cute he once said, that he missed his nurse, Betty Gow, that his father was a great pilot. Lindy said he’d been separated from his family since he was young—when I asked him what separated them he nodded vaguely, saying "Yep, exactly"—but that he’d tried several times to reunite with his sister, who lived in Hawaii. Apparently it was these reunions that wound Lindy up in the loony bin.

"My sister has a magnificent house," Lindy said. "She has three children with her husband Tom, who is a lawyer. They have a maid their house is so big. I had a picture of them, but it got taken away."

I told Lindy I once lived in Hawaii and his stone face softened with a big smile. "How did you like it?" he wanted to know.

"I loved it," I said.

I wondered where Lindy was from. When you meet someone it’s interesting to guess at who their parents were, what their childhood was like, etc. I figured it wouldn’t do any good to point out that mathematically Lindy wasn’t old enough to be the Lindbergh child. Plus to do so might enrage him, a feeling substantiated by something I learned later from Stillwell, Lindy’s doctor.

Stillwell told me about another patient who came to the hospital claiming to be the son of Charles Lindbergh. Lindy was understandably irate. He publicly challenged this Lindbergh to prove his claim. This Lindbergh told a long-winded tale in the cafeteria one lunch about how Bruno Hauptmann snatched him from his crib, handing him off to Al Capone, who changed his name from Lindbergh to Salvatore. This Lindbergh—now Salvatore—grew up under Capone’s wing, managing several casinos in Las Vegas under the name Bugsy Siegel. When Lindy pressed this reputed mobster for details verifying his birth, this Lindbergh admitted he wasn’t in fact the baby Lindbergh but Colonel Lindbergh himself. The Colonel hinted that little Lindy was the bastard child of Mrs. Lindbergh and one of the construction workers building the Lindbergh estate in Hopewell. Further, he hinted that he and Mrs. Lindbergh conspired to have Hauptmann abduct the bastard child and kill him. This sent Lindy into a fit and luckily he was restrained after cutting the impostor with a sharpened toothbrush Lindy carried in his sock. By the time Lindy came out of isolation, a long hall of dank rooms in the windowless basement, the Lindbergh impostor was gone, transferred to a facility in Georgia.

I told Lindy about when I was sixteen, how I spent the summer with my aunt in Macon. Bobby Haynes lived next door. Bobby Haynes and his girlfriend Beth took me out to the lake with them on those hot summer nights. I kicked rocks around the lake while Bobby and Beth listened to the radio. After a while I got to where I could time when I could come back to the car. The three of us would go to the Dairy Queen if it wasn’t too late. There was an even calm to those nights, a calm shattered when they found Beth face down at the lakeshore, her lungs clogged with red mud. Everyone including my aunt thought Bobby did it, that he probably got her pregnant. They were satisfied in this when Bobby’s mother found Bobby hanging from his closet by his rhinestone belt. He’d removed the silver buckle with the engraving of a cowboy lassoing a bull and put it on his dresser. My aunt sent me home shortly after that.

I didn’t actually tell Lindy the part about them finding Beth and Bobby. Lindy spent the rest of that day playing chess with Old Sam Strumm, who claimed to be the greatest chess player in the history of institutionalization. The cause of the riot that day, the riot in which Lindy would end up dead, wasn’t a disagreement of any kind over the chess match. The riot started because Martha Easton jumped on the piano when it was quiet time in the common area. I was still learning the rules of quiet time myself so I wasn’t sure that piano playing wasn’t allowed, but the orderlies said, Now Martha, and flipped the lid down. Martha flipped it up and started playing, and one of the orderlies slammed the lid down on Martha’s fingers. Martha yelped and jumped up, the top of her head catching one of the orderlies on the chin so hard he opened his mouth and spat blood. As you can guess, in a minute everyone was up and screaming. Orderlies from other halls flooded the common area. For my part, I tried to pull the orderlies off Martha, who was cowering near the pedals of the piano, but I was so new I wasn’t sure what to do. The sound of glass breaking hushed the room and when an orderly stuck his head through the broken window, a shard of glass hanging like a guillotine blade, he looked down and saw Lindy crumpled on the sidewalk, ten floors down.

Or something like that. Who could reenact that melee? With all the flailing arms and screaming it’s a miracle more people didn’t get hurt. It’s all true, though. Everything I said happened did happen. Well, except the part about me being an eighteen-year-old volunteer. That part was a fib. I wish I had the luxury of being an eighteen-year-old buttfuck volunteer, laughing at all the crazies while leaning against a new sportscar Daddy bought me, worrying about whether or not I was going to get blown Saturday night after the dance. Eighteen for me was graduating from high school and being drafted into the Army. Eighteen for me was worrying that I might not live to do the things these punk volunteers take as their holy God-given. Eighteen for me was being in the jungle.

The jungle was a bad place for a war was the first thought I had on Vietnamese soil. The jungle is really all I see when I remember back. I can’t remember anything I ate, or the places I slept, or anyone’s face except Renshaw and Kim Li. And of course what happened.

Private Renshaw was my shadow on my first tour. Everywhere I went, he went. He was from somewhere in Kansas and whenever we came upon a rice paddy he’d shield his eyes and peer into the distance and say, "This ain’t no wheat field." That sounds like a sweet, innocent thing to say but that was just part of Renshaw’s shtick. He might’ve looked like a corn-fed dope, but he had hellfire in him. At night in the foxholes, the sound of monkeys and who-knows-what echoing all around us, he’d tell about what he and his buddies would do back home after the Friday football games. Renshaw was a defensive lineman, which he had us understand wasn’t a glory position necessarily, but he was also the quarterback’s best friend, and to hear him tell it, boy, those cheerleaders couldn’t line up fast enough. He amazed everyone in our platoon—Riker, Macdonald, Seeley, and Sergeant Roberts—with his tales of conquests. All his storytelling sort of backfired on him, though. He opened his mouth so much the others used to kid him. "Watch Renshaw around that grenade launcher," they joked. "Don’t get too close to that beer bottle," was another one. Or: "Lock up your pets." Renshaw grew to hate the kidding, but he never let on. I sort of kept my distance from him in the foxhole, too. I knew the fag jokes wouldn’t be far behind.

Vietnam wasn’t anything like boot camp, let me tell you. In South Carolina the sky was quiet and filled with the colors of the rainbow at sunset. When you looked up in Nam—if you looked up—you didn’t see the sky, but the helicopter patrols that buzzed day and night in your ear. And the screaming. Everyone screams. I got so I was afraid to take a step forward.

Renshaw knew of a place to unwind. A couple hooches near our post housed ten or more girls and one girl’s mother ran a shine bar out of a third, adjoining hooch. The thatched roof was so low Renshaw couldn’t stand upright, which was okay because we never stood around for very long.

This one particular night, the night in question, Renshaw grabbed a girl and headed for what he called "The Renshaw Suite." It didn’t matter which girl you chose; they all knew us and they all knew we went back into the dirt-floor rooms and either gazed over the mud windowsills or closed our eyes and thought of girls back home. Still, we got to know all the girls and some of the guys could even talk about them by name.

Maybe Renshaw was getting Dear John letters from home or, more likely, he couldn’t stomach another day of the smell of killing. The best way to explain what happened is to figure he just snapped. No one heard the girl’s screams but me. I knocked on the wall of The Renshaw Suite to make sure everything was okay. You always checked on your buddy. The screams stopped as I reached the burlap bag splayed and hung in the doorway. I peered around it and saw the girl, her wrists tied behind her back. Renshaw’d stuffed one of his socks in the girl’s mouth and was forcing her head down while he sodomized her. I could smell his sweat. Renshaw pulled the sock out of her mouth, but before she could scream he shoved her head down on him so hard she gagged. He held a gun to her head and told her to take it nice and easy.

I stood watching. I realized that, through the tears, I recognized the girl. Kim Li Phan. Renshaw rolled his eyes in his head and nodded forward, relaxing his grip on the gun. He jerked up when Kim Li accidentally bit him and he slapped her hard, knocking her into the corner. Renshaw stuffed the sock back into Kim Li’s mouth and turned around, seeing me in the doorway. "This gook bitch bit me," Renshaw seethed. He yanked Kim Li out of the corner and asked me to help him get her out of the hooch. I followed them down the noisy hall, Kim Li moaning and sobbing. "Don’t fuckin follow me," Renshaw warned, pointing his gun at me. "Just stay where you are." I stared at Kim Li helplessly, and her sobs faded into the dark as Renshaw dragged her into the jungle.

Things happened quickly after that. I was reassigned to a desk in a supply camp. The government needed me alive because I was the only witness. They never found Kim Li’s body. Renshaw swore his innocence at the trial, telling everyone I was making the whole thing up, but when you have the sort of reputation Renshaw had, it was easy for people to believe how he got from A to B. In the tradition of military justice, Renshaw was convicted of rape, but, because there was no body, not murder. He got eight years and was hauled off to Leavenworth. I never saw him again. The war ended, and I came home to North Dakota, got married, and settled down. Maybe you saw the movie Casualties of War—that was based on me, partly.

Well, tried to settle down. Not in North Dakota, though. I don’t know why I said that. I did come home to North Dakota, that part is true. Got a job as a night manager for Pete’s Fish and Chips. You never saw a bigger bunch of morons than the guys who worked there. My main responsibility was to count the receipts and make sure the money matched and deposit the blue bag with the locking zipper in the night deposit slot at the bank.

The bank parking lot wasn’t that well-lit, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got jumped. It was three or four guys at least who came out of the bushes. One of them had a gun. I didn’t get a good look at their faces because another of them conked me over the head with a baseball bat. When I regained consciousness, the little blue bag stuffed with three thousand dollars was gone. Mac, the day manager, didn’t believe my story and fired me. Who knew the bank had the parking lot under surveillance twenty-four hours a day? He gave me the same look Bobby and Beth did when I said I really did have sex with Mrs. Jones, the woman who cleaned my aunt’s house. I had to say something. Who can take the kind of kidding Bobby and Beth gave me when I came back to the car too soon and found them naked in the backseat? I was just kidding when I said earlier that Bobby and Beth are dead. They’re not. I wished they were when Bobby told me he asked Mrs. Jones if what I said was true and Mrs. Jones said she was going to have a talk with my aunt, who sent me home right after that. Bobby and Beth still live in Macon. My aunt told me they got married and had children.

I got married, too. In Sacramento. North Dakota was too small for me anyway; and California is a dreamer’s paradise. I dreamt of finding a woman to love and to make a home with on the Pacific shore. When I met Jill she was waitressing during the day and taking law school at night. Not law school really, but criminal justice classes at the community college towards a degree so she could go to law school. You never saw so much ambition. It made me ambitious, too. I got a job in the admissions office at the big state university. My coworkers liked me, and we all got along fine. Jill started to make plans to transfer to the state university. We were also making plans to get married, which we did in a very low-key Vegas ceremony. "We’ll do it big when we have lots of friends and paid vacations," she said.

People always say you should know someone inside and out before you marry them, but I found it exciting to find out about Jill along the way, sweet discovery after sweet discovery. The only discovery that wasn’t so sweet was learning that Jill was in a secret competition with her best friend Helen, who lived in New York. Helen was the fashion editor for one of those big glossy Madison Avenue magazines. Jill and Helen had grown up together outside of San Francisco, and Helen went to college right away and moved to New York after that. Helen’s husband was a literature professor at Columbia and had published a big-to-do book on Shakespeare. Our autographed copy carefully supported the towels and sheets in our linen closet. Some days, Jill seemed impatient with our ascent.

Then, out of the blue, I started to rise through the ranks at the university. One of the history professors found out I was a Vietnam vet and asked me to give a lecture in his class. I did and the professor was so impressed that he recommended me for an adjunct job teaching a course on military warfare. Of course I had to lie about being a college graduate to get the job, but who wouldn’t? Jill was able to quit her job at the restaurant and she transferred to the university as a full-time pre-law student. I took on a couple more courses, freshman western civ classes.

Jill talked about having children. We talked about getting out of our useless apartment and buying a house. Things were going well, but an uneasy feeling settled around me. Helen and her husband continued to write with fantastic details of their life in New York, about parties and museums and openings—all the things that get shallow people so excited they can’t talk. What those people know wouldn’t fill half of Jill’s brain. She wouldn’t see it that way (if you saw a picture of Helen you’d understand Jill’s agitation, though. Jill wouldn’t admit that had anything to do with it). Jill grew agitated by the sight of me.

Then fortune knocked. Jill and I came home to a letter on embossed stationery. A big publisher in New York wanted to publish my book on the history of the world. "I didn’t know you wrote a book," Jill said, but she was so happy she hugged me until I was blue. She called Helen immediately. The story of me blowing up in my editor’s office and throwing the only copy of my manuscript out the window reached the status of legend with my immediate circle of friends. It still makes me laugh.

The guards are good sorts, and when there’s a lockdown they always give me the same room, the one with the corner chipped away, which I did when I was eighteen. You figure it worked for Clint Eastwood, why wouldn’t it work for your average joe? Hey, Lindy, how are ya doin’, the guard says and it reminds me of that show with what’s-his-name on it, the one where he looks at the outside from the inside and wishes he was on the outside. You know the one.


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