They brought the big man in on a winter night when the moon looked as hazy as the heart of an ice cube. It took three cops to wrestle and handcuff him. They threw him in their undercover cruiser and drove him to the New Hyde mental hospital. This was a mistake. They shouldn't have brought him there. But that wasn't going to save him.
When they reached the hospital, everyone got out. The big man refused to walk. The three cops mobbed around him, trying to intimidate, but to the big man they just looked like Donald Duck's nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie. A bunch of cartoons. It didn't help that they were dressed in street clothes instead of blue uniforms.
Dewey and Louie walked behind the big man and Huey stayed up front. The big man's hands were cuffed behind his back. Dewey and Louie pushed him like tugboats guiding a barge, one good shove and he floated toward the double doors of the building. The lobby was so empty, so quiet, that their footsteps echoed.
New Hyde looked like a low-rent motel. Bland floral-print cushions on the couches and chairs, the walls a lackluster lavender. There were no patients waiting around, no staff members on hand, not even an information desk. But Huey, the lead cop, knew where he was going. The big man frowned at the décor and the empty seats. He'd thought they were taking him to a lockup. What the hell kind of place was this? He got so confused, his feet stopped moving, so Dewey and Louie gave him another shove.
They reached the far end of the lobby and found a hallway. The cops turned right but the big man went left. It might've looked like an escape attempt except that the big man stopped himself after two paces. So confused he actually turned back to look for them. Huey, Dewey, and Louie were watching him now, to see what he would do. They were relaxed because they knew he could do nothing.
Huey raised his right hand. He wore a chunky silver diver's watch that looked expensive even under the hospital's terrible fluorescent lights. He beckoned and the big man stepped closer to them. It was quiet enough that the cops could hear him lick his dry lips.
Now this guy was big but let's put it in perspective. He wasn't Greek mythology-sized; wasn't tossing boulders at passing ships. He wasn't even Green Mile-sized; one of those human-giant types. He stood six foot three and weighed two hundred seventy-one pounds, and if that doesn't sound big to you, then you must be a professional wrestler. The dude was big but still recognizably human. Beatable. Three smaller men, like these cops, could take him down together. Just to get that straight.
The big man returned to his captors, without a word, and once again they all moved in the same direction.
The hallway was clear and empty, just lavender walls boxing in a thin runway of industrial carpet. But the big man could see that the runway ended at a big old door, heavy like you'd find on a bank vault. Unmovable. This was no Motel Six. His footsteps faltered. But this time the cops weren't going to let him wander off. Dewey yanked that big boy backward, by the handcuffs. His shoulders popped in their sockets and his face went hot with pain.
"Now he's scared," the lead cop said.
They reached the door. A small white button sat in the wall. Huey pressed it and kept his finger on the button. The buzzer played on the other side of the door and sounded like a duck's quack, as if Huey was throwing his cartoon voice.
The secure door featured a window the size of a cereal box. With his finger still steady on the buzzer, Huey peeked through it.
"Just break the glass," Dewey said.
He seemed to be joking, but he hadn't smiled.
Huey clonked the sturdy silver face of his diver's watch against the window. "You couldn't shatter this shit with a bullet."
The big man opened his mouth. He had plans to speak but found no words. He couldn't stop staring at that door. Not wood, not faux wood, fucking iron. Maybe. The damn thing had rivets in it, like it had been torn off a battleship. Bombproof; fireproof; probably airtight, too.
He finally found the words. "This place is locked up tighter than your Uncle Scrooge's vault."
Huey turned away from the door. His eyes brightened with joyful cruelty. "You think these jokes are going to save you, but they're only making things worse."
Louie said, "He's just trying to get one of us to hit him. So he'll have a lawsuit."
Dewey said, "We didn't hit him before, why would we start now?"
Huey said, "You're applying logic to a man who's not thinking logically."
"What the hell does that mean?" the big man asked.
"We think you might be a danger to yourself because of your mental condition," Louie added sarcastically.
The big man's body went rigid. "What mental condition?"
Dewey said, "You attacked three officers of the law."
"How was I supposed to know you were cops?!"
To be fair, the big man had a point. The three men wore plain clothes. Their shields, hanging around their necks on silver chains, were tucked under their different colored sweatshirts. But who cared? Here was one rule you could count on: You were never allowed to punch a cop. So forget about punching two of them, repeatedly, and trying hard to connect with the third. It didn't matter if they were in uniform, wearing plain clothes, or rocking a pair of pajamas.
But before he could get into a debate about the finer points of an entrapment defense, an eye appeared on the other side of the unbreakable window.
Well, a head at least, with a mess of grayish white hair, but the only part they could make out clearly was that eye. The outer ring of the pupil was blue but closer to the iris the color turned a light gray. Cataracts. The other eye was shut because the person squinted. Man or woman? Hard to say, the face was smooshed so tight against the pane. The clouded pupil swam left then right, as alien as a single-cell organism caught under the objective lens of a microscope. It surveyed the big man, and the three cops. It blinked.
The big man frowned at the person in the window. Dewey and Louie unconsciously stepped backward. Only Huey, still pressing the white button, didn't seem startled by the watchful eye. He smiled at the big man, more broadly than he had all night. Relishing what he would say next: "Welcome to New Hyde." He pointed to a plaque embedded in the wall right above the door: NEW HYDE HOSPITAL. FOUNDED IN 1953.
Dewey said, "When can we leave?"
Just then the eye seemed to slip away from the window and another face replaced it. This new person stood farther from the glass so they could make out more of him. A man. Brown-skinned. With puffy cheeks, a soft chin, and a nose as round as an old lightbulb. He wore glasses. A bushy mustache. And a scowl.
They could see his chest, the tie and jacket he wore. An ID card, sheathed in plastic, hung around his neck on a plastic cord.
The big man said, "He wears his ID on the outside, see? That's how people know what his job is."
The three cops sighed with exhaustion. Nine-twenty at night and all three were tired. They just had to hand the big man off and file their reports, then each could finally go home. (To their mother, Della Duck?)
The brown man looked out at Huey, and his gaze followed the cop's arm down as far as it could go, toward that finger, still mashing the white buzzer. The brown man then stared up at Huey again and brought one finger to his lips in a shushing motion. Huey pulled his hand away so quickly, you would've thought the buzzer had just burnt him.
The bolt lock in the door turned, clacking like the opening of a manual cash register's drawer. Then the door opened with surprising ease for its apparent weight. The doorway exhaled a stale, musty smell.
They could now see the brown man fully. His big round face fused right onto his round body. Imagine a wine cask, upright, wearing glasses. Not tall and not fat, just one solid oval.
And yet he must be someone with authority, if he had the keys to open this mighty door. Which was good enough for the big man, who said, "I'm innocent."
The brown man looked up at the big man. "I'm not a judge," he said. "I'm a doctor."
The doctor narrowed his eyes at Huey, who suddenly seemed bashful.
The doctor said, "I didn't expect to be seeing you again."
Huey nodded, looking away from the doctor. But then he seemed to feel the gaze of his partners, and he snapped out of his shame.
"This is legit. He jumped two of my guys."
The big man appealed to the doctor. "I thought they were meatheads, not cops."
The doctor looked at the two cops on either side of the big man. He smiled, which made his bushy mustache rise slightly like a caterpillar on the move. He stepped aside and invited them in. "My team is waiting down the hall," he said, locking the door behind them. "Second room."
The cops led the big man forward. Dewey and Louie holding his arms tighter than before. They didn't like the meathead line. Huey, with the watch, rested one hand on the big man's shoulder and together the quartet followed the doctor.
The room looked like nearly any medium-sized conference room you'll ever find. The walls were an eggshell white, a dry-erase board hung on one of them with the faintest red squiggles half erased in an upper corner. A pull-down screen hung on another wall. In the middle of the room sat a faux-wood table, large enough to seat fifteen, but ringed by only fourteen faux-wood chairs with plastic padded backs. Another ring of cheaper, foldout chairs was placed against the walls. The working class of meeting spaces. All the people already in the room looked as tired as the decor.
Tonight the full intake team was in attendance: a social worker, an activity therapist, a registered nurse, three trainees, an orderly, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist (that was the brown man). These poor folks had been ready to leave at the end of their shift, but then the cops called ahead and said they were bringing in a new admission, so the doctor demanded that everyone stay. The team had been waiting on the big man for two hours. This was not a cheerful group. Ten people, plus three cops, plus the big man. It would be a crowded, grumpy room.
Before the guest of honor arrived, the men and women on staff had sat at the table with notepads and files spread out in front of them, doing busywork for other patients while they waited. Some used cell phones to make notes, or to text, or answer email. The orderly, at the far end of the table, watched a YouTube video on his phone and sagged in his chair.
When the cops brought the big man into the conference room, the staff members leaned backward, as if a strong wind had just burst in. The doctor pointed to a faux-wood chair that had been pulled back from the table about three feet.
"He can sit there."
Huey brought the big man to the chair and unlocked his handcuffs. He then took the big man's right wrist and handcuffed it to the arm of his chair. The staff watched quietly and without surprise. Only the orderly looked away from the scene, replaying the video on his phone.
Once the big man settled, the doctor walked to the open door of the conference room. Somewhere outside the room, farther down the hall, deeper into the unit, buzzing voices could be heard. A television playing too loudly. The doctor pushed the door shut, and the room became so quiet that everyone in it could hear, very faintly, the bump-bump-bump coming from the orderly's cell phone. The tinny thump of music playing over small speakers.
The doctor walked the length of the room and chucked the orderly on the shoulder as he passed to collect a folding chair for himself.
He set his plastic chair in front of the big man and sat down. He smiled and the bushy mustache rose.
"I'm Dr. Anand," he said. "And I want to welcome you to New Hyde Hospital. This building, this unit, is called Northwest."
The big man looked at the other staff members. A few of them managed a New York smile, which is to say a tight-lipped half-frown. The others watched him dispassionately.
Dr. Anand--like the big man, like most of the people in this room--had been raised in Queens, New York. The most ethnically diverse region not just in the United States, but on the entire planet; a distinction it's held for more than four decades. In Queens, you will find Korean kids who sound like black kids. Italians who sound like Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans who sound like Italians. Third-generation Irish who sound like old Jews. That's Queens. Not a melting pot, not even a tossed salad, but an all-you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet.
Dr. Anand was no stranger to the buffet table, a man of Indian descent who sounded a little like a working-class guy from an Irish neighborhood. He dropped those r's when he wasn't being careful. He sounded like he was talking through his nose, not nasal but surprisingly high-pitched.
The big man wasn't concerned with ethnography just then. He hadn't said anything since crossing the threshold of the big doorway. That's because he wasn't actually there. Only his body filled his chair. The rest of him lagged a little behind. It was still back in the lobby.
The big man knew he should be listening to this doctor. If anyone could explain how soon he'd be released, it must be the barrel-chested Indian dude squatting on the dinky chair right in front of him. But he just couldn't do it. His ears felt stuffed up and his mind fuzzy. He wanted to turn and look over his shoulder, try to find that lagging part of him that would make sense of this moment. He didn't actually move, for fear the cops might pummel him.
"So why do you think you're here?" Dr. Anand asked.
The whole room waited for his answer.
Except for the orderly, who pulled out his cell phone again, muted the device, and tilted his head down toward the screen. He wore the glazed-eyed grin of a man watching something that showed skin.
Copyright © 2012 by Victor LaValle. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.