Hershel scooped rocky road ice cream into plastic bowls, and set the bowls on the counter for the schizophrenics to take. One of them, a man named Zook, who wore grease-stained jeans and a button-down orange shirt, scrubbed dishes an arm's length from where Hershel stood. Zook's jacket, something he washed about twice yearly, and then only with staff prompting, lay somberly on the kitchen tiles, its cotton fur-lined collar sopping up suds that ran down Zook's forearms and dripped off his elbows onto the floor.
Residents queued one behind the other, maybe a quarter of the sixty that lived in the halfway house. Ice cream was a big hit, and it only got served for snack on Tuesdays, the evening after the Sysco truck delivered the ten-gallon container, as well as other less exotic food stuffs, such as pasta, salt, liver, onions, and all matter of cheap edibles. As Hershel served scoop after scoop, he glanced down at the others in the queue. Chun-Wei rocked on the balls of his feet, Linden drooled on his shirt, and Esther tapped her nails against her teeth.
Out of the corner of his line of vision, Hershel spotted a four-inch critter walking along the wall, legs acting like little plungers on the scum-slick wall, slick from so much steam, sweat, and moisture made by frying, simmering, and boiling things, and slick from the wet Northwest breezes that drifted in from the often-open living room door. Sometimes, when he wanted to be funny while talking with friends, Hershel compared these roaches to Chihuahuas, those tiny nuisances with that annoying, high-pitched bark. Sometimes he laughed at his own jokes harder than anyone else did. But just now, with the roach crawling along at eye-level, he didn't find it so funny. He grabbed a spatula from an upright container brimming with large serving spoons and the like. And he swatted the roach dead. The thwack of the spatula hitting the roach and the wall was sickening. The roach fell to the floor.
"You killed the prophet!" Zook said.
Hershel looked at the small, dirty man, and blinked.
"Why did you do that?" Zook's unshaven cheeks flushed. He breathed fast and hard, and his eyes flashed with anger.
Hershel considered explaining to Zook why he had killed the roach. But he also realized they had a fundamental difference of opinion about the critter he had killed.
"Tell me," Zook said. "How do you know that wasn't the prophet?"
Zook nodded. "OK, then." And with that, Zook turned back to the sink and began scrubbing spoons.
Hershel's shift didn't end until eleven PM, and although Zook, by washing snack dishes, had earned a cupful of loose-leaf tobacco, Zook didn't approach the office. For the remainder of his shift, Hershel sat listlessly under fluorescent lighting in the office, considering the fine line separating the insane from the sane.
A note recorded in the Staff Log of the Quaint Manor Halfway House, one of several houses for schizophrenics operated by a Seattle, Washington community mental health organization:
Two AM: All staff -- Do not put the milk on the top shelf of the kitchen fridge anymore! This is the reason for our mandatory staff meeting. If we are to rely on cereal for breakfast, we shouldn't have to microwave the milk to thaw the icebergs that form overnight. After you use the milk, put it back on the bottom shelf where you found it or we send resident arsonist Ngoc Nguyen to your apartments with a box of matches and half dozen flares.
Three AM: Lucinda says, "My machinery is talking."
"Say again," you say.
"You know, my machinery. In here." She rubs her stomach.
"Let me get you something from the kitchen," you say, and you make her a bologna sandwich.
Four AM: Conversation with Mr. Stubler: He says he's campaigning to stop the use of test tube babies to make people younger. And that his job for NASA is blueberry research. Blueberries have iridium, a radioactive isotope, which makes the ice shine. Mr. Stubler used magic marker to copy Painting No. 24 by Canaletto. The Grand Canal Near the Rialto Bridge, Venice. The artist's full name was Zuane Antonio Canal, but his nickname meant 'little canal.' Mr. Stubler points at his drawing, and he talks about how he's campaigning to stop the use of test tube babies to make people younger. Yes, you say. You've told me. Did I tell you about my job for NASA, he says.
Five AM: Talked to Ngoc "The Igniter" Nguyen. He's willing to perform aforementioned task for a pack of Camels. Probably a good thing the meeting was organized. All seriousness aside, we get enough crap from the residents. If we start fighting amongst ourselves all civility goes out the window. And I'm all for civility. But if you put the milk on the top shelf, we'll have to microwave it, and then it will go sour, and we'll have nothing but flour for their morning snack. Ngoc does not like to go without his corn flakes. And if you don't care about Ngoc or his corn flakes I'll tell you what to do. Just go ahead crush 35 milligrams of Zyprexa and mash it onto your tongue and lift a glass of water to your lips and swallow. Then sit down on the living room couch with Lucinda and Mr. Stubler and the others and stare at the flashing TV screen and tell me what you see.