There are few worse ways to wake up than in the headlights of a police car. I’m lying on the ground next to my Jetta in a field off highway 212 outside of Lame Deer, Montana. The cruiser is the first car I’ve heard all night. The officer puts a hand on his gun to tell me to stand up and present him my license and registration. He asks if I’m from around here. No, I answer, though the question seems rhetorical. No one in eastern Montana drives a Jetta. A winter here would bury that little car in snow and the cement-thick mud the locals call gumbo. I explain to the officer that I’m a traveling government employee and on warm nights I like to sleep outside to save on living expenses. He softens a bit and he leaves with a grunt about trespassing. Once he’s pulled away I lay back down in the cool alfalfa and fall asleep.
The next morning I wake up, dust myself off and drive forty minutes to Ashland, a town way out on the eastern boarder of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The patient I’m looking for is a thirty-four-year-old man, one year older than I am. I find his house before noon on the outskirts of town. It’s an old building with a small porch out front. White paint peels off the wooden slats and the windows are milky like quartz. I knock on the door and am greeted by a man in his underwear.
“I don’t know how to start at the beginning. I don’t know how to tell this story or how to explain myself. I can’t explain,” he said, and paused. “I can’t explain why I felt like I needed to do what I did.” The patient is single, unemployed, surviving off saving and government checks. William Holter. He sits across from me at his kitchen table in the house he bought after his fiancé left him. She kicked him out of their home in Billings after he burned all her clothes in their oven. He looks lean like a stray dog, sipping chocolate milk.
“Are you feeling depressed or detached from the modern world?” I ask. He stares at me. I ask because I am paid to ask, one hundred dollars for each completed questionnaire. The questions are part of a statewide survey of mental health patients suffering from the mental illness generally diagnosed as schizophrenia. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know much about schizophrenia and the more interviews I conduct the less I expect to learn. There are one hundred and twelve known schizophrenics living in Montana east of the divide. My first interview had been with a twenty year old man who had dropped out of college the year before. The patient was living on his parents’ ranch near Dodson, way up on the Highline where the wind cuts through clothes, walls, and souls until all that’s left is the truth of your naked bones shuddering in the sun. He was anxious and didn’t sleep and was worried about his unpredictable behavior; for example he told me he’d been watching some antelope in a distant spring field when he went outside, stripped naked, and ran as fast and far as he could, stopping when he was tired to eat grass and bed down, because he had been wondering what it was like to be a wild animal. He didn’t come home for two days. I scored his answers on the one hundred and fifty one question survey from one, being stable, to seven. Seven meant crazy. I gave him an average of five, which was too high, but I hadn’t seen much by then.
William Holter is still staring at me. “I live in Ashland,” he says, expecting me to understand his meaning. I do. Ashland is a one street town as quiet and remote as the moon.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I live in Ashland. There are four hundred people who live here. I’m here on purpose.” He stares again, like he’s looking through me, wiping sweat from his chocolate milk glass. Eastern Montana can be like a sanctuary where the Titans of the modern world have yet to conquer. No Walmart, no Facebook, no cell phones. Here you can slip through the cracks between the wheat yellow earth and the big hard sky to let your guilt meld with the sun. There’s no gravity here. The highway is the only thing that holds me on earth.
A single bare bulb screwed into a socket above the sink lights the patients kitchen. The windows allow a faint dishwater white light to flow through the room. The sink is full of pots and pans and the room smells like unwashed sheets, like animals live here. The refrigerator clicks. Four hundred people live in Ashland. William Holter didn’t always live alone.
I took the job traveling across eastern Montana interviewing schizophrenics because I’d left my wife, because I’d run away and I needed to hide in something. I was fired from my work conducting interviews for a national three minute radio program before I lost interest in bullshit and ruined my career. The radio show was intended to showcase the power of American goodness and convince everyone that everything was getting better. I like to travel and remain anonymous and the radio job allowed me almost free reign to go anywhere I pleased so long as I found something that proved we weren’t truly monsters. I would conduct interviews with mayors and townsfolk and local heroes, ask them about food drives and free auto repair and neighborhood cleanups and send the completed interviews on tape back to Baltimore where they would be cut up and spliced with the famously comforting voice of The Good Man and broadcast weekly during the national news. We took the slot between economic downturns, suicide bombings and health scares to prove things weren’t so bad. Thank God for us. I was fired after my tapes began to reflect what I really found – a ‘low-cost’ clinic that offered long expired or knock-off meds, a school making room in its budget for new teachers by firing janitors and giving brooms to the special ed students, a night basketball league that spawned the violence it was designed to prevent. My boss called after she listened to the tapes and told me she’d thought I was a professional, that I’d mislead her, that they didn’t need me anymore. I hung up while she was still talking. I didn’t care.
The patient sips his chocolate milk and looks away from me, disinterested. I finally score his previous answer. Three. I was trained in how to rank responses objectively, without my own emotions because that’s not what this survey is about. I was told I couldn’t do anything to help these people so I shouldn’t get attached to them. I’ve only written one seven next to a question. The patient was a nineteen-year-old girl living with her mother in Busby. She thought she was the devil. She hadn’t left her brightly painted and decorated room in two weeks and the air hung around us like dusty cobwebs. She was beautiful but pale and sickly thin with dark shadows under her red-rimmed eyes. Her baggy tee shirt hung pathetically over her dying body. A old picture of her and her horse stood on the night stand next her bed. She was smiling, she was happy. She hid her left hand under a pillow as I interviewed her. I saw it when she shifted, deeply scarred from what looked like cuts and burns. I asked her what had happened and she answered that the devil needed to be punished, to pay for his sins against humanity. I asked her why she thought she was the devil and she answered “I don’t want to get into it, it only makes you upset and you won’t believe me anyway, even though the signs are all around you.” I beat my fists against my steering wheel and cried as I drove away. There was nothing I could do to help her.
“Alright, next question Mr. Holter. Do you have trouble sleeping or have troubling dreams?” I ask looking up from my notes. The patient looks at me and smiles.
“Call me Will. What’s your name again?”
“How old are you Scott?”
“We should get back to the questions,” I answer.
“I’m thirty-four, and I feel my life taking a new direction,” he replies without a pause.
“I’m thirty-three. Do you have trouble sleeping or have troubling dreams?”
He leans forward and puts his hands on the table. There is chocolate milk in his thin beard. “I have trouble sleeping when I think about before, before she left, what I was trying to be. I feel sick when I think about that. I want to live like a primitive. I’m done with computers. I want to kill pronghorn and wrap myself in their hides and sleep on the ground.” He stops, catching himself breathing excitedly, his head barely shaking. “She didn’t understand it, didn’t want it. That’s why she made me leave after I tried to show her, show how simple we could make things. I just want to live like a primitive.” He glances toward the living room and for the first time I notice his television. It’s on the ground and the screen looks like it’s been kicked in. He leans back again and runs his hands through his grubby hair with a nervous hiccup laugh.
I interviewed a patient two weeks ago. A mother who maintained custody of her teenage daughter, ran a home and was active in church. While I was interviewing her she would pause to yell into the living room at her daughter who sat talking on the phone to her boyfriend. “Who is that?” she would yell, “is that Chris? Tell him you’re not allowed to go out tonight, tell him he has to come here.” She looked tired and worn and her daughter ignored her but this woman seemed completely normal and led a fairly normal life and there was no evidence in her home of her illness except for a single slice of bread on the living room floor. I kept staring at that slice of bread, dry and crusted near the beige easy chair, because it was the only sign of something wrong. When I asked her about her dreams she told me that at first the angel Michael, then Gabriel, would visit her room at night and rape her. She told me her pastor made her promise to take her medicine so that the angels would go away. She told me the medication had worked, the angels had stopped coming. But now she was afraid of losing her daughter because she had stopped taking her medication again. She told me she stopped taking her medication because she was lonely and wanted the angels to come back. I told her I was lonely too. She took my hand, closed her eyes and prayed for us.
“Did you do that?” I ask Will, gesturing to his ruined television. His breathing speeds up but he doesn’t answer. “To live like a primitive?” I ask.
“It was a step in the right direction.”
The diagnosis of schizophrenia is based on a disorganized mind which develops difficulty in separating delusions from reality. Social or occupational dysfunction leads schizophrenics to withdraw into the worlds they create around themselves. If a soul runs like a river, then a schizophrenic’s soul is like a puddle in a parking lot, trapped and isolated and threatening to evaporate forever. All these people seem so thin and frail, depleted by medication, by their manufactured worlds. For a long time I couldn’t sleep either.
I came home from a radio assignment in Tuscon. I was sent to investigate a retirement community that opened its doors to serve as a soup kitchen four nights a week. The program sounded good, giving the retired a humanitarian purpose while feeding the hungry, but was grossly underfunded. The elderly had nothing to hand out except for rolls of toilet paper and plastic spoons. I came home from my lying work in Tuscon to my new wife in Baltimore. We’d been together for eighteen months, married for eight. She’d been an assistant’s assistant to the Good Man. I met her in the studio. I remember she smiled at me and said my name without reaching to shake my hand. Two days later we were sitting at a bar, leaning into each other, drinking gin and smiling. We were never closer. We rushed, moving in together in six months and marrying after a year. We never fought, not really, but I always knew something was missing for her because it was missing for me. A year into the marriage she was pregnant. I must have started drinking then. Our mortgaged home with a one car garage and tiny lawn. Before we picked a name I’d packed my bags. Everything that had gone wrong had done so in silence. She wouldn’t say goodbye. She sat in the kitchen waiting for me to leave, no makeup, no smile, wearing an old sweater that hung from her shoulders like black drapes. I left her my savings and the house and drove west.
“A step in the right direction. Ok, Will. Next question, do you feel your illness prevents you from communicating with and trusting the people around you?” His hand covers his mouth and his foot begins to tap. Something’s changed, the pressure is building.
“Yeah, trust. Who do I have left to trust except for you? I’ve driven everyone away from me, I don’t know what’s wrong.” He looks at me for answers. I can’t try to give answers, only ask questions.
“How about a different question? Why are you out here?”
“I’m here because out here I don’t have to deal with other people, because out here there is enough room for me, I don’t have to be scared of anything. Look outside. Grass, dirt, and sky.” He thinks a moment, his foot keeping rhythm on the floor. “Why are you here?”
“I’m just here to ask questions.”
“What’s wrong with me?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
The patient was a man in his early fifties. He walked along the road, raising his thumb to passing cars. He would hitch from Billings to Miles City, to the outskirts of town, turn around and hitch back. There was something in the journey that he needed. When I found him, he had been dropped off near Forsyth and was walking toward heavy clouds that hung over Miles City, his leathered hand held out for a ride. I picked him up and drove him into town to the post office where he collected the Medicaid checks that fed him. We sat down at bench outside where I conducted the survey. Halfway through the questions he held a hand up to stop me. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?”
“There are twelve more questions on the survey,” I said.
He stared at me, his heavy and lead-gray like the sky. His face was lashed deep by the wind and winter and he smelled like a statue or a river-stone.
“I have a crystal in my pouch. Would you like to see it?” I nodded and he handed me a little cloudy piece of quartz. “I can look through that crystal and tell if you’re a good person or a bad person. Would you like me to do that?” He wanted me to take his test first.
“There are only twelve more questions on the survey,” I said. He held the crystal to one eye and I nodded. He mumbled, spit, and whistled with the growing wind. He grabbed my hand and squeezed my fingers like he meant to break them. I pulled back as he let go.
“Ah,” he sighed, “did you get it? My message?” I told him I wasn’t sure. “I just sent you a message. I told you everything that was wrong with me. You don’t need that survey anymore. You know what I need now.” He leaned back, satisfied.
“I can’t do anything. There are twelve more questions on the survey,” I said, staring at his crystal.
“Do you want to know? What the crystal showed me?” he asked, “Are you a good man?” I drove away in a rainstorm, the survey unfinished.
Will’s feet tap and his breath shortens almost to gasps. “What’s wrong with me?” he demands. “What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know.” I have no answer. He rocks back and forth, hyperventilating. “What did I do what did I do what did I do?”
“YOU DON’T KNOW” he cuts me off, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want anymore questions, I want to be done.” He stands and knocks over his chair. The sound of the chair crashing onto the floor panels startles him and he yells, picks up the chair and throws it against the wall. I stand and yell for him to calm down but he’s a badger, a jackal, and a bear. He goes to the sink and throws all the pots and pans on the floor then grabs the refrigerator and yelling pulls it to the ground with a crash like a broken piano. I grab his empty glass of chocolate milk and throw it at the wall behind him. The glass shatters leaving a small chocolate blood spatter on the grimy egg white wall. He turns and stares at me. He smiles, his eyes soften. I laugh, maybe relieved. “Truth is,” he says panting, leaning forward against his knees, “I don’t trust anyone, I don’t think I can and I don’t want to have to. Can we be done?” I tell him sure, I have what I need and plan to make up the rest of his answers so I can collect my pay. Will, still panting, says “I need your help with something before you go.”
We have a hammer, a bat, and a heavy black axe. He smiles at me, still in his underwear, and for the first time in a long time I smile back and watch as he throws the weight of the axe over his shoulder and brings its full force upon the countertop, splintering the cabinets. I take the hammer into the living room and smash through the wallpaper and drywall with the clawed end, tearing forth plaster and pink insulation. Walls fall before us, appliances bleed plastic pieces. We tear it all down. We laugh as we drag the devastation out of the house through what once was a door and into the yard. Soon we have a big pile of everything that’s supposed to be inside a house; the refrigerator, the tv, the mattress, pots and pans, clocks, forks, everything but the tools we used to hollow it out. I’ve sweat through my shirt and his mostly naked body is dripping, flecked with bits of plaster from his old life. We light a fire in the rubble and watch the flames consume it all. We stand like Gods before our creation, watching the pieces pop and melt. Eventually we’re left standing before coals as the stars begin to take their places in the sky, brilliant sentinels admiring our work, our new order. The house is nothing but slats nailed to two by fours. A step in the right direction.