From an Orange Plastic Chair

Mark Bastable

 

So I’m sitting on an orange plastic chair in a tiny room at the Yonkers Juvenile Offenders Center, and I’m waiting for the psychologist to come and figure out what flavor of freak I am. I don’t feel a whole lot like chatting to tell the truth because my mom just left and dealing with her has totally wasted me.


“You know I woulda gave you money if you needed it, Patti. When did I ever not give you money? I just don’t understand why you’d do such a thing.”


Talk about missing the point. So I just kinda aired her and waited it out. It usually takes about half an hour.


“Don’t sit there like a dummy! Why won’t you talk to me?”


The don’t-sit-there thing means she’s winding up the show. Five minutes later she’s gone, saying that it’ll all be okay and I’ll be home by the weekend. Whoopee. I guess Alf’s waiting for her outside in his precious Mustang. He must be really pissed with me. Like I care.

His real name’s Paolo, and he’s this smooth, Italian silverback gorilla type of macho man. Thinks he doesn’t have to do dishes just because he brings flowers every weekend. In my head I call him Alpha Romeo – which I think is pretty funny, but what I really like about it is it drives him nuts that he can’t figure out why I refer to him as ‘Alf’.


“Hey, Alf. Tell mom I’ll be home around eleven.”


“Stop calling me ‘Alf’, you crazy freak. What’s with that shit?”


Oh, wait. Before you start thinking I’m some kind of fucked-up product of a broken home, I’m not. Yes, my dad evaporated when I was, like, five. And, yes, I resent it. But if you think that explains why I’m here waiting to see a shrink, then you might as well stop reading now. Then again, you’d be in good company. That’s pretty much what every teacher and social visitor thinks too. Talk about a lack of imagination. This isn’t Netflix. This is my life.


I guess you want to know what I look like. Creative Writing 101: I have to get you to identify with the protag – which is me. If you’re a guy, you’re wondering if I’m hot. “Hey, sounds about fifteen, sixteen. Pretty feisty. Hope she’s a honey too.” And if you’re a woman, you need to know whether you can empathise. “She’s kinda disturbed, but she has real oves. As long as she’s not unbelievably cute, I can be on her side.”


Heads up, guys. 5’6”, 105 pounds, strawberry blonde, gray eyes. And fourteen, actually, so keep both hands where I can see ‘em, dee-ude.


That was irony. I hate the word ‘dude’. The slang everyone uses at school is total bull. They figure they’re so out-there and down with it because they talk like some vlogging airhead, but all that stuff gets decided by a paunchy creep in LA, and then the cretins at Dumbass High suck it up and spew it out like they thought of it themselves. And these are the morons that call me a loser.


Anyhow, the shrink shows up. He’s about thirty and has shoulder length hair and the general-issue ‘I’m-on-your-team’ smile. He tells me to call him Andy, so I assume that’s his name, though it might be an alias. If I wore clothes like that, I sure wouldn’t want people knowing my real name.  I wish these people would dress right. He has on the corduroy pants and open shirt that’s standard for adults who work with kids. The idea is to put me at ease. But these people are supposed to be professionals. The least he could do is wear a suit and tie. How am I supposed to respect someone who dresses like an auto mechanic on Labor Day?


“So tell me what happened, Patti,” he says.


I’ve already told the story to a whole string of police officers and my legal representative. I’m getting bored with it. But it’s not like I have anything better to do.


Here’s the set-up. Alf’s sprawled on the couch watching CSI and grazing on banana leaves or something. My mom’s ferrying beers from the kitchen in between vivisecting tomatoes for an ‘old-fashioned Italian salad’ that’s supposedly going to make Alf all kissy-kissy. And I’ve just come down from my room where I’ve been chatting on-line to this girl I know in Canada who’s just about the only other intelligent being in cyberspace. At least she used to be. Apparently she had sex last week and as far as I can make out it’s clipped about eighty points off her IQ. She can’t talk about anything else. I mean, I don’t have anything against sex in principle. I’m not one of those weird tight-ass freaks that save themselves for the wedding night in Jesus’ name. But equally I’m not about to go over on my back for some mouth-breathing jerk-off who’s stolen one of his big brother’s condoms and is actually thinking about Billie Freakshow-Eibrow.


Anyhow, I have to step over a suitcase to get to the kitchen, which is weird because my mom is such a tidy-maniac. It’s close to a personality disorder, if you want to know the truth.


“What’s to eat?” I say, picking an olive from a dish on the counter.


She smacks my hand away. “Paolo and I are planning a quiet dinner together in the moonlight,” she says. “I thought you could send out for pizza. You like pizza.”


She’s wearing this really stab-your-eye-out shade of lipstick and I suspect those are thigh-highs under that dress. Really – it would be disgusting if it wasn’t cheesier than Wisconsin.


“Oh, right. And where will I be while you two are slobbering in the yard?”


“Don’t try to make me feel guilty, Patti. I guess you’ll be upstairs like you always are.” She dribbles oil into a skillet on the stove. “There’s some money on the night-stand in our room. Don’t leave the pizza box under your bed.”


Suddenly it’s ‘our room’, you’ll notice. It all adds up. Alf is moving in. Nice to be consulted, right?


So I go to her room and look on the night-stand. And what do I see there besides a few bucks and a tube of lube that I don’t even want to think about? Alf’s penny in its little plush-lined box.


I have to explain about the penny. For one, it’s not a penny at all. It’s whatever they used in Italy in, like, the Jurassic era. But I’ve no clue what the currency of Italy was back then, and neither does Alf, so he’s always called it ‘the penny’. When he started dating Mom, and he gave a flying one what I thought of him, he showed it to me.


“My great-grandfather arrived in America with just his shoe-making tools and a pocketful of change. This penny was one of those coins and it’s been passed down through my family for over a hundred years.”


Then there was a long Hallmark speech about the immigrants’ struggle and the American dream and keeping in touch with your roots. I nearly upchucked.


So, long to short, I pocket the penny. And when the pizza arrives, I jumble it in with all the other change and give it to the guy. Bye-bye penny. Later that night all hell breaks loose and the scene gets ugly. Alf’s chasing me around the kitchen screaming. Mom’s chasing Alf. It’s Tom and Jerry. And the headline is I stabbed Alf in the thigh with a fondue skewer.


When I finish the story, Andy the denim shrink strokes his chin.


“How do you feel about that?”


“Listen,” I tell him. “Don’t work up any lame thing where I’m homicidal about Alf. I knew I wasn’t really going to hurt him. If I’d wanted to do that, I’d’ve spiked him through the heart.”


“Do you fantasise about that?” he says.


“Oh, please. I don’t like the guy, but I do have some sense of perspective. You’ll have me toting automatic weapons in the mall next. Give me a break.”

“I’m trying to. It’s my job.”


He writes something on his notepad. He’s been scribbling away like a freak all the way through. And then he gets up and leaves, saying he’ll be back tomorrow.


A dykey uniform takes me back to my room. I guess I should say my cell. The food in this place is lousy, but the cot’s actually comfortable. I sleep pretty well, considering.



*



“This is the latest and the most serious of whole string of incidents, isn’t it?” Andy says when we meet the next day. He looks at his file. “Cutting school. Disruptive in class. There’s a shoplifting episode that was never pressed.”


I have to admit that the shoplifting was dumb. But all the other things were totally justified.


“I have a really low threshold for taking crap.”


“Maybe you’re bored at school. I’ve seen your IQ stats. You regularly score in the hundred-forties.”


Man, I’m sick to the teeth with this one. “Listen, don’t try to paint me as some kind of under-appreciated genius looking for stimulation worthy of her supersize brain. Why do you people always have to have a theory about me? It’s just possible I don’t fit into any of your categories.”


Andy nods. “I thought you’d say that.”


“Yeah? Why?”


“It fits your paradigm.”


I roll my eyes. Seems now I’m a paradigm. Take my word – no one can handle thinking of you as a real person. You have to be a theory or a case or a subject or (apparently I’ve gone psychoviral) a paradigm.


“And what’s my paradigm, Sigmund?”


Andy looks at me thoughtfully for a few seconds, and then takes a sheet out of his file. He hands it to me.


“These are my notes on you. Normally a client wouldn’t get to see them, but I’m going to make an exception.”


I read what he’s written about me.


Patti is a highly-intelligent fourteen-year-old from a single-parent family. She’s articulate and insightful, expressing herself clearly and with remarkable self-confidence.


She’s at great pains to pre-empt any suggestion that her circumstances or her environment have had any effect at all on either her world-view or her behaviour. This is precisely the opposite of what might be expected. Young adults with Patti’s issues are usually quick to propose that parents, school, peers or any number of external agencies should be blamed for whatever situation has brought them to the attention of the authorities


But Patti would consider it counter-productive to permit the idea that she’s a product of her environment. In general, she feels powerless – but the one sphere of her life in which she imagines she retains total control is her personality.  If she were to blame anyone or anything for how she thinks and behaves, she would have to admit that she doesn’t even have control over who she is.


Patti’s governing paradigm, therefore, is that she is completely responsible for herself. Nothing can change her. No one can explain her. No one need trouble themselves with attempting to understand her. She is her own creation and she is inviolate.


I flick the sheet of paper back across the table.


“You think that’s bad? I sound pretty cool to me.”

“Do you think it’s accurate?”


“If you mean, do I think I need excuses for being me – no, I don’t.”

He nods, slotting the paper back into his file. “That’s going to be a problem.” He stands up. “Your mom’s here. We’ll talk again.”

*

Ten minutes later Mom’s shown in, and Alf’s with her. He makes a big deal of dragging his stabbed leg across the room like a community theatre Igor. It’s hilarious. When he groans as he takes a seat, I actually snigger, which is not a great choice.

“You see that? She’s laughing at me! I’m tellin’ ya, Shell, she’s fuckin’ psycho.”

My mom holds her hand up in a ‘just a minute’ gesture, and turns to me.

“Honey, how are you? Did you sleep okay? Did you have breakfast?”

“I could do with picking up a sub on the way home,” I tell her.

“Well, I don’t think you’ll be coming home right away, Patti…”


“I have muscle damage,” Alf says, jabbing a hairy finger at me. “I need physio. Me! Physiotherapy!”

“Patti, we need to talk about something.” Mom opens her purse and takes out a cigarette. She knows she can’t smoke in here, but she likes to hold one. “Paolo’s been offered a contract in Houston. Just six, eight months, but it’s a great opportunity.”

I raise an eyebrow and glance at the gorilla. “Jeez - I’ll miss him.”

“Thing is, we’ve seen a beautiful house for rent, right on the park…”

“Ten minutes from the country club,” Alf puts in. “And your mom could do with a change of scene.”

“And it has a kitchen to die for.”

Whoa – wait, wait. There’s no way I’m signing off on this.

“Mom, this is big year for me at school. I can’t just up and leave. It’s a dumb idea.”

“Patti, it’s a great opportunity for Paolo…”

“Uh, yeah - you already said that!” I’m yelling now. “What about me? What if I don’t want to go to stupid Houston?”

“You fuckin’ hate your school.” Alf says. “You never shut up about it.”

“Who asked you, asshole? I’m talking to my mom.”

Paolo gets to his feet. Not wincing now, I notice. “Fine. You don’t want to go. No problem.” He gestures to my mom. “Shell, we’re leaving. Right now.”

“Patti, you can’t talk to Paolo like that…”

“Right now, Shell.”

As she heads for the door, Mom says, “I’ll come in tomorrow, when you’ve calmed down.”

I’m not going to fucking Houston!” I shout as Alf ushers Mom through the door.


“I heard you,” he says, looking back at me. “I get it.”



*


Turns out Mom gave the maid fresh clothes for me. I change in my private suite and have room service bring me lunch on a very chic aluminum platter with uber-retro plastic utensils. Really, you can’t fault the service in here.

As I fork what might very well be chicken casserole – difficult to tell when there’s no chicken in it – I think about this whole Houston cluster.

Look – I know my mom is allowed a life, I do. Alf isn’t the only creep that I first met over Cheerios, but he does look like he’s going to be the first to pay for them – and I don’t like that. I don’t like it in Yonkers and I really wouldn’t like it in Houston.

Then again, the Texas gig does give me something to play with in getting Alf dropped from the roster. If he goes and mom doesn’t, six months is a long time for them to to smooch on Hangouts. And anyway I can’t see Alf checking in before bed every night while his solitary mug of cocoa revolves in the microwave.

So all I have to do is refuse point-blank. They can hardly carry me on the plane drugged, or chain me up in the back of a U-Haul. So Alf’ll go to Houston. Mom’ll stay and give me shit for the first few weeks. Alf’ll be unable to keep it in his pants. Mom’ll get ultra-clingy like she always does. The whole relationship will go long-distance wrong and life’ll be back to normal by spring break.

I just have to do nothing and wait. Which – if you wanna know – works every time.

*

“How’d it go with your mom and step-dad?” Andy asks when he comes in after lunch.

“My what? He is not my step-dad.” I shake my head. “They have some crazy-ass plan about moving to Texas. It’s bullshit.”

“Your mom’s keen on the idea.”

“Don’t worry – I’ll turn that around. There’s no way I’m going to Houston.”

“Do you have a grandma or someone you could stay with here?”

“Nope. But it’s not going to be a thing.”  I give Andy a grin. “Seriously, don’t worry about me, bro.”

Andy nods. “It’s my job. Do you know what mitigation is?”


“Yeah. It’s when the bad guy comes up with a good reason why he did it and the judge lets him off.”


Again he nods. That boy lives for nodding. “Well, you don’t have such a plea. You stabbed Mr Vialli and I can’t suggest that it was because you were stressed or emotionally disturbed or hormonal. Nothing. Because none of that external stuff applies to you, does it, Patti? You don’t fit into any of my categories.”


I shrug. “Nope. It’s a shame, isn’t it?”


“So,” he says, “I guess you’ll just have to take the rap. The going-rate for a minor stabbing is maybe six months.”


If the nod-maniac here figures I’m that easily frightened, he really ought to go back to shrink school.


“You think my mom’s about to let Alf press charges? Get real.”


“Actually, I’ve talked to her. She’s worried about you – about your direction. She and Mr Vialli are coming to the view that a spell at Camp Belcher might be exactly what you need right now.”


Well, that was out of a clear sky.


“Camp Belcher?” I say. I keep it even, but I’m a bit freaked inside. Camp Belcher is one of those tough-love bootcamps. Tough-love my left tit. They just put the word ‘love’ in there so that wimpy parents feel okay about their children being fucked in the ass by sadistic bullies. To be honest, I could totally see my mom caving to Alf on that one.


But – huh? Proportion? I mean, I only spiked his leg, for God’s sake.

“Did she say that?”

“Yeah. She said that.”


“That’s not fair!”  I clench my fists and look directly at Andy.  He just looks back at me, doesn’t say anything. I don’t say anything either. He just goes right on not saying anything.

Camp Belcher? Jesus.

I can’t stand it. I say something.

“It was an accident, okay? I didn’t even know what I was doing!”


“Really?” Andy says. “Why not?”


“He was chasing me! He was screaming at me! He was going to kill me!”


“Because of the penny…”


I’m crying now. Actual real tears. “Yes! Because of the stupid penny!”


“Which you took because…”


“Because of him, of course!”


“Because..”


“Listen, you idiot,” I shout, wiping my eyes. “My mom doesn’t even say goodnight to me when that ape’s around. It’s all about Paolo, Paolo, Paolo! And now she’s going to put me in prison and go with him to stupid Houston!”


I rest my forehead on the desk and cry and cry. It feels kinda good actually. I sob my crazy little heart out.


“Not even goodnight,” I wail.


I feel Andy’s hand on my shoulder. “It must make you feel very alone.”

“It’s like I died or something!” I wipe my nose on my sleeve. “You know? I feel like I died…”

“I understand,” he says, offering me a white handkerchief.


“I’m just so unhappy,” I say. I look up at him, tears trickling down my face. “Every day, you know?” And the sobs start up again. “I’m so fucking unhappy…”

“It’s okay, Patti,” Andy says. “I have a category for that.”  He does this kinda not-funny smile. “Actually,” he says, “it’s pretty much the only category I ever need.”

 

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