Each of us is a chest our ancestors put a bunch of things in.
Each day, we throw open this chest and use what’s inside.
We use the jewels that people like Juana packed in there for us, jewels like great hair, nut-cracking molars, a knack for horse, dog, or cat whispering, the ability to read a road map.
The difficulty is our ancestors, like Juana, hard-packed their genetic legacy in a bunch of shit.
I am witnessing one family’s inheritance of some major poo.
Scruffy Christians kneel around this boyish man. He bellows. Through their elbows, I make out the back of his nightgown, rocking.
The Christians shout emotionally unstable proclamations about Jesus.
A thin nurse wanders towards their huddle. “Settle down,” she warns them.
“A-men,” they retaliate.
Is belief in a higher power a heritable trait? Is it gift or is it shit?
I communed with my higher power twice today.
I drank two cups of coffee.
From my purse, I slide three photographs.
“I brought you pictures of Saint.”
My uncle’s tortoisey arm reaches for the pictures. He swings them into his line of vision.
“Saint looks nervous,” he says.
“It’s me. You’re his best friend. He’s not used to me taking pictures.”
Nearby, patients pace. One slides into a chair to sulk. He has no shoelaces. Without shoelaces, nobody can look like a man.
From a thousand leagues under the sea, the loudspeaker farts: “Snack is being served on the patio. SNACK IS BEING SERVED ON THE PATIO.”
“Do you wanna get a snack?”
I trail my uncle into a narrow hall and out into an equally underfed courtyard.
We step into sunlight to join a line. An orderly plays rap on a stereo. It’s our sexually suggestive hold music.
Moving forward, shade makes it so we don’t have to squint. The keeper of the snacks sits in deep shade. With arms folded, he looks us up and down, determining whether or not we are deserving.
He reaches into the box and holds out a sandwich. My uncle takes it, creaks, and craning his neck, tortoises. He surveils.
“Hey!” rasps a hoarse, ginger loon. “Hey!”
He points. “There’s lemonade at the end of the patio!”
The ginger watches us bumble to the juice.
“Would you like me to pour you a cup?” I ask my uncle.
“Yes. Get one for yourself, too.”
After filling two Styrofoam cups with yellow, I catch up with my uncle at a concrete planter. We scoot onto its edge. My uncle arranges his body, gown, and cup while I wrestle with his sandwich’s plastic wrapper.
As I’m having a eureka moment, my fingers are inside, my uncle asks, “What is it?”
“Peanut butter and jelly but the bread is pinch-sealed along the sides, so somebody turned this sandwich into a dumpling.”
“You can have some,“ he says.
I tear off a chunk and pop it into my face. It totally tastes like childhood. I have a feeling that lot of the food here tastes like childhood.
I shlurp my yellow drink. My uncle nibbles. He gives peanut butter a few general compliments. I agree with the kind things he says about it.
Across from us, a ballerina trapped in the body of a very bottom-heavy eggplant moves. Her seated heft performs an interpretation of first position, second position, third position, and she flings her fingers at her lips. They pucker and suck a drag off a cigarette she doesn’t have.
She looks at me.
“Pwaaaaaa,” she exhales.
“I’d like another,” says my uncle, chewing his final mouthful.
“Would you like me to go fetch your seconds?”
“Yes, another dumpling, please.”
I head to the sandwich bouncer. He gives me the same appraisal.
“May I have another sandwich for my uncle?”
He gives it up.
I convey the dumpling back to our planter, unpeel it, and hand it over. While we discuss the weather, I notice an unkempt reincarnation of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, leering, potentially mad dogging me.
“Hey,” she interrupts. “Hey.”
My uncle quiets.
Left Eye cocks her head so I can only see her right eye.
Now I’m embarrassed. And I’m embarrassed about being embarrassed because I’m dubious of the compliment. People live here because their reality is topsy turvy.
“You’re really beautiful. Has anybody ever told you look like Angelina Jolie?”
“Let’s go look at the schedule,” suggests my uncle.
Happy to leave the Isle of Sandwich, I reenter the hallway with him.
Standing in front of the white board, I read:
Arts and Crafts
A ghost of a woman wanders up to me. She blinks naked mole rattishly.
“Did you bring my salads?” she whispers.
“No, I don’t have your salads.”
My uncle turns and tiptoes. He lingers in front of a framed charcoal drawing.
“We have art on the walls,” he explains. “It was made by great leaders.”
I step to the plaque beside the frame and read about the artist. He was a patient. All the art here is by patients.
A sunburned woman squints up at me from a chair. “Nice jellybeans,” she says. “Those are jellybeans, right?”
I touch the jellybeans tattooed on my arm. “Yes, they’re jellybeans. Thank you.”
“Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“There is a charcoal sketch,” says my uncle. “There is a charcoal sketch.”
“This one?” I point at the charcoal sketch he stands next to.
“Where is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Do you want to go find it?”
My uncle shuffles to the end of the hall. In front of the exit, a nurse straddling a chair reads The Secret.
We turn left. The quality of the art begins to improve, but a regretful- and Jamaican-sounding orderly says, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, you can’t go up this hall.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “My uncle wanted to show me a picture. I didn’t know this area was restricted.”
“I’m sorry. Please come back to the main hall.”
He smiles to show he’s sorry.
There is so much sorry on lips and in the air.
My uncle shuffles to a drinking fountain. He presses fingers to it.
“Just checking the temperature,” he says.
With four cool fingers, he leads me into the dining area.
We migrate to a corner table by a mounted TV.
A Black, butch lesbian, a stud, watches it. She shimmies along with a dance scene from Coming To America.
She has no shoelaces.
As we’re about to sit, a a man with Rasputin eyes pitter-patters up. His neck cranes too far to be healthy.
“My name is Paul,” he hisses.
My uncle looks at me and says, “He’s my roommate.”
Paul looks at me with concern. His stare wants to know what my deal is.
“He’s my uncle, “ I explain. “I’m a niece.”
“You’re uncle is a war hero,” growls Paul.
Paul crumples into the chair across from us. He admits, “I was in the war, too.”
Emotion drains from his eyes and into his beard.
“It was nothing.”
The woman who told me nice jellybeans speed walks to our table’s remaining chair. She adds herself to it.
“Don’t I know you?” she asks. “Sheila, right?”
I shake my head.
“Yeah, you’re Sheila. I committed a hate crime against you in 1982.”
Paul is looking less Rasputin, more determined.
“Listen,” he says, “none of us wants to be here. None of us.”
His eyes aim at me, expectant.
The woman mumbles, “They’re keeping me from Burt. Burt Reynolds. Sheila, can I pray for you?”
Sensing that I am not his Moses, Paul rises and scurries away.
From the sink, the apologetic nurse gestures at the clock. Visiting hours are over.
“Would you like to walk me to the door?” I ask my uncle.
“Yes,” he says and we return to the woman reading The Secret. My uncle pauses beside the drinking fountain. “A kiss,” he says.
My lips reach to kiss his cheek. I get a whiff of cleanliness.
An orderly comes carrying keys and I look at the door sign: “Open with precaution. Danger of elopement.”
My uncle calls out, “Be good! Keep magical files!”
“I will!” I say and wonder when I’ll be able to cry about this.