Now, being as he was, he could have been surviving anywhere, in his way, but now he was living in a Harm Reduction facility in central Canada on the outskirts of a loud, distracted city where there was never really any time to stop and know a person. Unless you knew a life of slow, you’d not quite realize he was one to know. He was average in his build and average in his ways. Except when he wasn’t…. And that was more often than not, now that he was growing older and everything became an effort and every one an idiot.
He sported an expression like the butt end of a rolled-up pair of socks under his long bedraggled brown hair, now striped in defeated grey. In piteous vanity, he covered up a bald spot with a dirty black bandana, which he never seemed to take off. He wore the same brown pants he always seemed to wear and a ratty grey sweater, which he wore even in summer.
He had tattoos, of course. One on his leg of a shark because, he explained he was almost killed by a Great White in Florida. But he had never been to Florida. Not ever. On his chest he sported a huge American flag with his name that no one called him by. And he was not American but some days he thought he might be. They called him Nails. The ones responsible for him.
And why they called him this was not because he was a hard man. He spoke quietly mumbling jumbling for the most part and at length unless he decided he was being disrespected, and then he was a loud and angry man. He was interested, he said sometimes, in biology and chemistry because he wanted to know more about the aliens that lived in his stomach. And the closest thing to a smile would appear when he rubbed his scrawny belly as if to introduce you to them. And that smile would eventually have you half-believe him until you shook your head and carried on.
You might have thought him a white man, but he said in no uncertain terms that he was black. He’d explain that he was always black and that he took too many white men’s drugs and that changed his skin but he was very black he said. And if you questioned him, he’d take umbrage and threaten to kill you. A thing he did more often than not now but no one took him seriously really. He couldn’t harm a fly and never harmed anyone in his life but he could curse and swear and scare the younger ones who had not yet realized his impotence of pretence.
But he had a fine way of threatening. And he would do that if you did not believe his story about the aliens but most of all when those who were responsible for him failed to deliver, outside of their prescribed routine, cigarettes or alcohol when he decided he needed them. That would enrage him and he would simmer until boiled and then threaten everyone’s lives. But most would simply roll their eyes when he wasn’t looking and move away to do other things until he settled down.
That was usually when he would call the police and explain that “they” had his things and “they” were robbing him and an officer needed to come immediately. And the police, well familiar, would admonish him to listen to the people there. And then he’d threaten to call the police on them. “Look Nails,” they’d say, “You can’t call the police on the police and you can’t threaten to kill police officers.” He usually told them to go to hell and that would be the parting. Every single time.
Now Nails was a Canadian who’d never been to Florida and he’d also never been to Egypt which is where he said the aliens found him when he was riding a camel to the top of the Great Pyramid. And the only reason these facts were known to those who were responsible was because they would interrogate his ancient mother who would arrive weekly with a bag of candies and books and sometimes socks. And he would take the bag and ignore her until she left. And yet she did this every week. He was her cross. He was her hope. He was her duty.
Nails was named Nails on account of those socks. He had them and he wouldn’t wear them. And he wouldn’t wear them because he had four-inch nails on his toes. They were crusty, curled, and deadly, and he would not cut them no matter what was said.
It became a game of wills when he was admonished not to come to the common area without socks and shoes. He would shuffle on in, toenails first, to every gathering. “Fuck you,” said he to the ones responsible. “I’ll cut off my feet to make you happy,” he said in righteous sarcasm. And they bought him a pair of size 13 shoes to wear in exasperation but he just said “Fuck you.” And so they let him wander barefoot. There were more important things to attend to.
And he would pat his belly and smile and then go wander. And every day, without fail he wandered out to the back edge of a car park that was not so far away and was all scrabbly and broken and littered with metropolitan debris. And he would feed a fox. The miracle of a fox in a city. The same bedraggled red fox. The urban fox.
And if they tried to keep him in at that prescribed time of day it would be the only time he would say “Oh please,” instead of “Fuck you.” They would always let him go. Even in the winter barefoot—off he’d go. They said it was the medication maybe that made him immune to the cold but they didn’t know really and it wasn’t far and he was never the worse for wear. He had to feed the fox. It was his cross. It was his hope. It was his duty.
He always bought a can of dogfood before he bought anything else like rolling papers or extra tobacco. He only worried he did not know who would care for his fox if he was gone.
Here in Canada expansion of the euthanasia legislation is being extended to the mentally ill. Nails’ mother holds power of attorney over him and now grows old. Without other family, that power of attorney goes to the State. Who is valuable, and who isn’t? And what determines value?
As much as we may be moving to a collectivist communist society, the individual has to matter. In this, of all things we might decide in life, in this we meet our God alone. Our life in all its shambles and/or glory is our cross, our hope and our duty. And no one else’s.
Without adequate treatment, there can be terrible suffering with mental health issues—that’s a given. For some, there is no medical way out from that suffering when the cure can be worse than the disease. Even still.
Beauty out of tragedy is one of humanity’s most painful paradoxes. Here’s an earworm with a song by a man whose life was lived despite impossible mental illness and tragedy. His life was our gift.
Who has the right to decide?
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