II. Helping Hands

by a contributor

This is part II of Andrew Brininstool’s three-part series “Reader Response Theory.”

Andrew Brininstool

Not much, he was so dull. He never looked at anything. I guess he was bored by being in Mississippi. That day they were going to move the hospital for the insane down on North State Street to the next county, to a bigger place. The patients were helping move themselves. I thought that that would be a funny sight for Mr. Miller, especially since the superintendent was named Love. Superintendent Love, moving the insane hospital patients from Jackson to across the river. It meant absolutely nothing to him.

– Eudora Welty, on meeting Henry Miller. From Paris Review No. 134, 1995. “Eudora Welty: Two Encounters.”

Mr. M’s fedora is soaked through, sweat turning the felt the color of a bruise. You can tell he is upset about it. He holds his lips tight together. The hat must be expensive.

You are on a knoll overlooking North State Street, Mr. M and Ms. W leaning against the hood of your father’s Bel Air, the two of them looking down through the haze across to where yellow moving vans sit in the hospital’s circle-drive. Orderlies are bringing things out from the hospital and placing them beneath a wide veranda. Mattresses and bed frames and bedpans and boxes. Radios. Folded wheelchairs and card tables and heavily padded easy chairs and waiting room settees and benches; filing cabinets; dozens and dozens and dozens of gurneys. And there are the restraints; there are the straitjackets and leather binds and muzzles—brought out with as little fanfare as the potted ferns.

Earlier today Ms. W asked you to drive them up to the knoll. She told you she had a guest in from New York, that she wanted to show him something. You didn’t want to do it. You’d met a number of Ms. W’s friends from New York. They were always coming to visit and they usually ended up standing in Ms. W’s garden while she talked about peonies and magnolias; and you could see through your parents’ fence the friend, whoever they were, looking bored and disappointed, as if they had traveled hundreds of miles to see ghosts of the Confederate dead but were met instead with gardening tips from a woman in a large sunhat.

You did it anyway. Your mother has told you to help Ms. W whenever she asks. Your mother has some of her books in the den above the television, all of them inscribed in Ms. W’s tiny handwriting. Once, on a rainy day when you had nothing else to do, you read through some of her stories. You didn’t care for them. You prefer that one book, White Fang, and the Zane Grey novels your father keeps on his tool bench in the garage.

But here you are, standing in the sultry heat of an August afternoon, Ms. W pointing out certain landmarks in town while Mr. M stares at his hat.

The patients sweat beneath the cloudless sky. Schizophrenics and paranoiacs. Men walking in tight circles. Women reaching for things that are not there. Among them you spot superintendent Love, holding a clipboard and looking thin and sober, his cheap short-sleeve shirt tucked into a pair of Sansabelts. Love keeps licking the tip of his pencil. For a while, he and his wife had lived in Belhaven, not far from Ms. W. But their son was struck by a train a few years ago, and the couple moved not long afterward.

Ms. W doesn’t mention the son or the train or what it’d done to the Loves. Instead she says, “Now, superintendent Love is also a deacon at the Baptist church. He met his wife there, years ago. She plays the organ. Her name is Luanne, but everybody calls her Lucky. Lucky Love.”

Mr. M does not find this amusing.

You notice one of them, a young man who keeps moving the same box. He takes it from the hospital to the van and places it on the van and wipes his hands on his trousers before taking the box back off the van and back to the main entrance where he sets it down and wipes his brow before picking it up again. He does this six or seven times. You keep your eyes on him. Then you realize it’s Lee Greer.

Greer is a few years older than you. He had been a fat boy who carried a tennis ball with him through the hallway of the high school. Greer never spoke. He grew fixations with certain girls, obsessions that would last the better part of a semester. You could tell which one he was crushing on: he’d bounce the tennis ball to them and then make this pathetic finger-wave motion, asking them to toss it back. You remember how a few pals of yours gave Lee a lot of shit for that. Finally, sometime during your sophomore year, Lee attacked a girl named Colleen Murchison. You’d heard she wouldn’t catch the ball. You don’t know what happened exactly. The most common story is that Greer backed her into the lockers and became excited, shoving the tennis ball into the girl’s mouth. And while this is probably not true, you’re willing to believe almost anything. You’re sixteen. How loves displays itself—the manifestations it takes on—is still an unmanageable and frightening mystery.

Of all the patients, Greer looks the happiest.

After the first few vans begin to leave, Ms. W tells her guest she thought they could have lunch on the knoll. She’s prepared a tub of chicken salad. You pull a quilt from the trunk and spread it on the grass beneath a tree and use a few stones to hold down the corners, though there is little in the way of a breeze. Mr. M looks down at the quilt. Sweat rolls from the top of his bald head across his high cheekbones. Ants crawl along the seams of his Florsheims. Ms. W sits down and opens the container and lays out a sleeve of crackers. You open a bottle of sparkling wine and pour some into Dixie cups. Mr. M doesn’t sit down.

He says, “And what is this?”

“Chicken salad,” Ms. W responds.

He looks horrified. He can’t take his eyes off the white, pulpy substance. “And what do we do with it?” he says.

Lee Greer is still working over his box. His white shirt has soaked through and clings to his distended gut. You recall the book on mythology you read last fall in English class. You imagine Sisyphus: If left to his own devices, Greer would move this box of belongings for eternity.

But superintendent Love won’t allow that. He puts his clipboard down and grabs Greer by the elbow and pulls the boy close to him. They speak for a while. One of the orderlies takes the box from Greer and Love drapes his arms tightly around the boy, and for a moment you believe he is restraining him, that the superintendent is forcing Greer away from the box. But that isn’t what’s going on.

You watch. You wonder why on earth Ms. W would think anybody would want to see this.


A graduate from the MFA program at the University of Houston, Andrew Brininstool’s work has appeared in BarrelhouseGreen Mountains ReviewQuick Fiction, the Tin House blog, Best New American Voices 2010 and has received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from Mid-American Review as well as the Editors’ Prize from /nor.