On my last visit home to Florida, on convalescent leave from Walter Reed, limping and wounds still seeping, I’d made the mistake of staying with my mother – she with the guilt rays emanating from her eye-sockets. Her guilt rays had doubled in power. She’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

You should visit your brother, she told me, sitting in her favorite easy chair, wearing her ratty housecoat. She’d just sold the family home for boom-times money and bought herself and Magda a tiny condo in a fake 19th century New England whaling village called Wamaponga, which was still under loud construction.

Why it made sense to build a fake 19th century New England whaling village in Florida is beyond me. I lived in Florida most of my life and never really understood the place.

Paul Harvey’s stentorian voice boomed out from next door, along with the shrill whine of circular saws and the hiss and clap of pneumatic nail guns.

I don’t wanna visit my brother, I said. I closed my eyes and knew I was gonna.

I drove out to Arcadia in Mom’s Saturn Vue, to the G. Pierce Wood State Psychiatric Facility, in the wilds of undeveloped Florida. State Route 72 is a straight, slightly warped, two-lane blacktop. Scrub palmettos, razor wire fences, Australian pines, armadillo roadkill, turkey buzzards, Brangus cattle covered in swarms of horseflies, the burnt remains of a former citrus grove, a county work farm, a makeshift trailer park and then there was Arcadia.

I found a visitor’s parking spot. The facility had been built in the 1960’s. It could have stood in for Starfleet Command on the Shatner version of Star Trek.

The guard eyed my military ID suspiciously. I signed in. The guard led me down a corridor to a visitor’s area and directed me to a table. I sat down on a plastic chair in a clean, empty room, industrial lighting buzzing overhead. The walls hummed narcotic green.

After a few minutes, in walked Chess wearing cotton-pilled pajamas, a shabby bathrobe hung over his shoulders, crinkly paper slippers on his feet. So, he said. You’ve come at last. He plopped down in the seat next to mine. What happened to your um, err, ah. He waved his finger in the general vicinity of my face. You look like shit. He had about 30 pounds on me. His face was round and pink, accented by a poorly trimmed Van Dyke with little streaks of premature gray in it. It’s my twin brother, Chess told the attendant who’d led him in.

The attendant smiled. He walked over to the far corner of the room, leaned against a wall and flipped open a magazine.

The last time I had seen Chess he was bug-eyed insane. He only took his pills if someone stood over him and watched him swallow. Even then, he’d developed a way to make them come back up.

What brings you… um? Chess asked. The drugs dulled him, made him rummage for words. Off drugs he was hyperarticulate, and – I think I’ve mentioned it before – batshit crazy.

I could leave, I said.

Yeah, Chess said. You’re good at that.

We sat uncomfortably. Look, I said. Are you planning on getting out of here anytime soon? Mom’s sick. She’s probably getting sicker. If you could manage to take your pills, on occasion, you could take care of her and our little sister. I’m sure she’d like that.

Oh, I get it, Chess said, narrowing his dark eyes. This is about the… hmmm. Pills? Yes.
This is about Mom, I said. This is about you making a fucking effort.

Yes, sir, sergeant, sir, he said. Am I planning on getting out of here? That’s rich. I’d leave today if that was… He smiled, like he was remembering a time he’d enjoyed, whenever that might have been.

You’re working on someone, I said.

After four years, Chess was becoming an old hand in psychiatric wards. He knew how to get out, nice and legal:
Step one, find a young doctor who needs his or her first success.
Step two, develop a tick that disrupts the entire ward.
Step three, let the young doctor cure you of the tick. The doctor becomes your most fervent advocate and soon you’re on the street.

Nah, Chess said. These docs are all on to my little tricks. Bastards. Chess stood up. Have you finished yet? Have you done your good deed for the day? Because I have to go back to yanking, um, my arm hairs out. I still have three or four left.

I slumped forward in my chair, elbows on knees, and let out a long gasp.

Wait. Now I can see it, your grand, um, grand, grand, grand plan. Mom takes care of me, the poor sick thing. And I take care of her, the poor sick thing. And Joe is not really part of it. Joe has done his duty without doing a fucking thing, like always. Ain’t that right, my man Joe? He rubbed his belly counterclockwise three times and then snapped his fingers three times, quickly.

New tick?

Do-wah, do-wah, do-wah, Chess went. Yeah. You like it?

It has a certain style, I said.

On to plan B, Saint Joseph, Chess said.

(From the novel Alpha Mike Foxtrot, available now from Paragraph Line Books)

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About the Author

John Sheppard

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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