Frank Denby by Michael Norris

Medication! It’s time for medication!”

The patients in Psych Ward A were lined up in their hospital issue pajamas, waiting to take their pills.The pills were placed in little plastic cups and given to each patient. Each according to his needs, each according to his neurosis. Green pills, yellow pills, pills with multicolored bands around them. A colorful array of chemicals. A nurse in a starched white uniform dispensed the medication.

Frank Denby took his plastic cup full of pills. A tranquilizer, an antidepressant, and an Antabuse. Antabuse is a pill that causes the ingestion of alcohol to produce unpleasant effects. It is given to chronic alcoholics. Chronic alcoholics such as Frank Denby.

Frank Denby took his plastic cup of pills and deftly removed the Antabuse, cupping it in his palm, so that the nurse was unaware that he had removed the pill. Then he put the plastic cup to his lips and swallowed the remaining pills. He washed them down with a plastic cup of water that the nurse offered him.

Frank then returned to his bed, changed into his clothes, and left Ward A for his job, which was sweeping the floors in the locked ward. He walked down the long hall toward Ward D. He passed B and C, on the way dropping his Antabuse pill into a garbage can. He finally arrived at D. Unlike the other wards, D had a dark, forbidding look. The entry door was metal and window-less. To communicate with the outside, a narrow opening was cut into the door and covered with a sliding metal slat, through which the person inside could peer out at whoever was in the hall. There was also a buzzer to ring for entry.

Frank rang the buzzer. The metal slat snapped open and someone inside looked out to see who was there. Recognizing Frank, he opened the door. Frank entered quickly and the person inside slammed the door and locked it. The person inside was the day orderly. He was dressed in a grey lab coat and grey hospital pants. Frank nodded to him. The orderly unlocked the broom closet, and Frank retrieved the big push broom and a dustpan. Then he set to his job sweeping up the ward floor.

In the beginning, when he had first come to Western Psych for detox, and been assigned the job of sweeping Ward D, Ward D had terrified him. About half of the patients were restrained, either in bed or in wheelchairs. The others wandered the floor of the ward, moaning or emitting strange, piercing cries. They were all gaunt and hollow eyed; some staring into space, others looking intently at the floor and never looking up. In the back of the ward were the “solitary units” – the padded cells with one patient per cell. These patients were locked away from almost all contact with the outside world, sometimes for long periods of time. Frank was afraid to go near the solitary units. The very thought of what he might see paralyzed him with fear.

His first time in the hospital, Frank also had nightmares about Ward D. Horrifying nightmares where he dreamt that because of a mistaken diagnosis he was locked in one of the solitary units. In the dream he lay on his back in a padded cell under a dim light. He never knew whether it was night or day, or how long he had been there. He would try to get up, but he was tied to the bed with restraints. He would then wake up out of the dream, screaming, and the orderly, thinking he was having the DTs, would give him a shot to calm him down.

Now, on his fifth detox tour, he thought nothing of the grey, ghostly psychotics who populated this ward. He pushed his broom over the shiny linoleum floor, and thought about lunch. After he thought about lunch, he thought about how he could escape from this place and get a drink.

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