The Nouns by Daryl Scroggins
He couldn’t say what he wanted to say, so he decided to write it—but that didn’t work either because he had to make big spiraling motions with his arm before he could get the pen down to the letter he wanted to write. I mean a letter in the alphabet—each one requiring a new approach to landing. Okay, who hasn’t heard a story about some poor guy who has had a stroke. But this man kept at it, and we practically had to use a net to get him away from the dayroom table at lights out. I was the only orderly working there who paid much attention to what he was trying to put down on paper. It looked like he was starting with verbs, and would maybe later fill in the nouns and other words. He would write, say, “swim,” and then move way over to write another word like “catch” or “drink.” Some pages in his loose-leaf notebook had only a half dozen words on them.
I was only working at the state hospital during the summer to help pay for school. Had to wear a white shirt and white pants and gum-sole shoes.
It wasn’t until my last day there, when the fall term was about to start, that something changed. I was sitting with Mr. Reynolds when he finished a word and then started trying to go back through the pages. He must have had two or three hundred sheets in there, and it was painful to watch him go at each one like he was having to turn it with a shovel. So I said—let me help you. We weren’t supposed to do that except with basic stuff like bed, bathroom, meals, but I started turning pages back for him. I didn’t know which page he wanted, so I would turn one and look at him, and he would pop his chin an inch to the right, which I took to mean—keep going. After a while I figured he must want to go all the way to the start, so I turned the whole batch over. Got them all flattened down smooth by the rings.
His chin didn’t move. He was still for a long time. Several minutes, just looking down. And then his arm got going with the first big circle in the air. Finally he got his letter down on the page, right at the margin at the top of the first page in his notebook, and he looked up at me, right at me for the first time ever. I looked at the page and saw that he had written—“I.”
I did the usual things that school year. Played some baseball in the spring. Went to lots of parties. I missed some classes and had to drop a couple of courses. Thought about changing my major—but couldn’t think of what I would change it to. I could see that it was going to take me a long time to graduate, but I liked living in Austin so I wasn’t too worried about it.
In late May I went back to the state hospital to see about working there again, but I probably should have checked with them in early May because they had already hired all the orderlies they needed. Before I left I checked with Gloria at intake, asked about Mr. Reynolds. “Gone,” she said. I raised an eyebrow. “Absolutely gone,” she said.
Outside I looked around with that feeling you get when all you can do is go some places, and all of them seem pretty much the same.
Daryl Scroggins is the author of This Is Not the Way We Came In, The Game of Kings and Winter Investments. His short stories have appeared in many magazines. Prairie Shapes: A Flash Novel, won the 2004 Robert J. DeMott Prose Contest. He lives in Marfa, Texas.