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Issue 2: March 2020
Flash Fiction: 616 words
By Julie Whitehead

The Zen Masters


In all the mental wards I’ve been in, there’s always that one guy (it’s always a guy) who’s just happy to be there. And he’ll say it too, just like that, if you ask him. “I’m just happy to be here,” he’ll tell you, a serious look on his face that belies the content of his words.

I call these guys the Zen Masters of the Mental Wards. They are the gurus, the shamans, the guys who know all the secrets of getting along. You can often tell one by his Zapata beard and mustache, tanned skin, athletic build (like a runner or a bicyclist, not a weightlifter), and beatific grin. He wears blue jeans and muscle shirts and would wear a fedora if they were allowed on the ward.

The Zen Master gravitates to the new people—the scared, the ones going through their first hours of detox, the angry, the suicidal, and the defeated. He always has an encouraging word or tidbit to tell them: that everything’s going to be all right, man, you’re safe now. He calls everybody “man,” including me.

He knows to let the psychiatry techs and the new people win at dominoes every once in a while, even though he knows what bones I have before I’ve even laid down the two-three or the one-four on the table. He knows not to mouth off to the nurses or flinch when the techs are taking blood to check med levels. He knows to ask for his nicotine patch when he first comes in and to take his meds with a good glass of ice water. He knows the techs check the bathrooms for spit-out pills so he tells the new people, “Man, just swallow them down. They’ll do you good.”

No matter how long he’s been in the ward, he’s endlessly optimistic about his chances of getting out soon. “Yeah, man, I’m ready to go and get my life back together,” he says when asked about his discharge plans. What that looks like, he never says exactly. But until then, he’s just happy to be here.

He tells long, confusing stories in the day rooms—lots of great characters but the plot’s a little hard to follow. But in group, his comments are always short and to the point on whatever topic you’re on and he often winds them up with an inspirational quote or two—maybe from Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or a self-help book he picked up somewhere. He always wants the TV on the Science Channel or the news or a documentary of some kind, but if someone wants to watch something else, that’s always okay with him, too.

I wonder why he’s here—he seems out of place with the addicted, the grieving, the broken, and the psychotic. But I don’t want to ask him because he’s so nice and that would be rude. I wait for him to tell me. But he never does—he’s too busy cheering everyone else up to dwell on what brings him here on the ward with the rest of us.

I’ve never seen a Zen Master discharged, so I don’t know what he thinks about getting his freedom back finally. Maybe he goes out and fixes cars or installs TV’s or works on motorcycles in someone’s back yard somewhere. Maybe he just stays on the ward out of the goodness of his heart, trying to help all the new people that come in and out through those electronically locked doors. Maybe he’s his best self on the inside because that world out there, man, it’s powerful scary. You know he knows that—he knows everything.

Julie Whitehead
Issue 2, March 2020

lives and writes in Mississippi. Her fiction has appeared in The Esthetic Apostle, China Grove Press, and The New Southerner. Her poetry has appeared in The Gordian Review and Cobalt Review, and is forthcoming in The Dead Mule School. She holds BA and MA degrees from Mississippi State University.

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