Illustration by Calef Brown
Charles “Salted-in-the-Shell” Hudson and I had spent the morning attending classes, lunch time driving aimlessly around Long Beach and late afternoon playing basketball with Robin Williams.
Williams was, it turned out, a great basketball player. Not surprising in that he’d come from a suburb of Chicago; downright astonishing, though, in that, more recently, he’d come from Lock-up, where he’d been responding well to treatment for some kind of schizo-affective disorder. Supposed to be crazier than Hudson or me; supposed to be more vulnerable to distraction, less suited to or interested in such linear, non-deviant extracurriculars as late-afternoon hoops. But Williams would have no part of supposed-tos; he simply kicked ass on the basketball court.
This pissed off Hudson. “I’m taller than him,” Hudson grumbled, later. “I outweigh him by 50 pounds — mostly muscle — and, not that I’m a racist, but I am black.”
Robin Williams’ talent for basketball didn’t piss me off. It was, in fact, at the time, one of the few things I found funny. Partly funny because Basketball Robin Williams shared not only an appellation with Comedian Robin Williams, but also mannerisms — incongruent mannerisms exhibited during Basketball Robin Williams’ courtside oratories, and the transitions between these mannerisms were eerily similar to those of his hirsute counterpart. But mostly I found it funny because Basketball Robin Williams was perhaps the single most insalubrious-looking human I’d seen outside of National Geographic. He stood about 5 feet 10 inches, weighed perhaps 120 pounds. Half his teeth were gone; the others were rotting away in various shades of beige. Most of his yellow-gray head hair had fallen out; those remaining were long, sticky and lifeless pale yellow, like dirty angel-hair pasta falling to his shoulders, stuck, al dente, to his cadaverous, pitted cheeks. He’d been there a week, wearing the same flannel shirt, Levi’s and black cowboy boots, and he hadn’t, as far as we could tell, showered.
Hudson and I had been shooting hoops for half an hour. Real slowly. No competition. Just shooting. There was only one hoop, the one with the late-afternoon sunset gathering behind it. To a depressed Ativan junkie, such as I was (but also a former MVP of my sixth-grade basketball team and damn proud of it), the act of shooting into a backboard-shaped silhouette was pleasant enough without having to get all competitive about it.
Robin Williams comes out, says, “You guys wanna play a game?”
We don’t care. We’re in a mental hospital.
“I don’t care,” I say. I look at Hudson.
“What the hell,” says Hudson.
“Okay,” says Williams. “You two guys against me.” He shows us his dental detritus.
“Us two against you?” says Hudson.
“You afraid, pussies?” Williams becomes Walter Brennan. Hitches up his jeans, starts pacing bowlegged, back and forth. Hudson looks at me. I hold the ball and look down at Robin Williams’ cowboy boots. Hudson and I are wearing shoes designed specifically for playing basketball.
I say, “In those boots?”
“We’ll play to 20,” says Williams. He holds up his hands like he wants the ball. I pass it to him. He stands 20, 22 feet from the hoop. Looks at the ball, looks at the basket, at Hudson and me, back to the ball, the basket, smiles and shoots. The ball sails delicately through the hoop, barely caressing the net.
“Robin Williams plays roundball,” mutters Hudson, to no one in particular, while I, at the same time and to the same no one, mutter, “Motherfucker.”
Hudson was just like the rest of us. The rest of us here, that is, in Voluntary. Long ago he’d been a paratrooper; had killed, as he put it, “more people than you want to know about, and not just soldiers.” He’d also killed his father — ran over him with a Ford when he spotted him beating up, for the thousandth time, Hudson’s mother on their front lawn. But that was long ago. Now Hudson was an accomplished welder, a full-time reasonable man being treated for his first major depression, just like me. Two end-of-the-rope crash-test dummies for America’s pharmaceutical companies.
Across from the nurses’ station hung a chart of the floor population. Beside each patient’s name was a red, yellow or green dot. Red dot meant suicide watch — constantly monitored or doped out of harm’s way. Yellow dot: You still weren’t allowed to commit suicide, but you could wander around the hospital without escort. And a green dot added off-campus privileges.
Hudson and I were green, so we decided to spend a one-hour pass tooling around Long Beach in my anonymous gray Honda. Boulevards, side streets, way too slow. No place to go but away.
Hudson said, “Hey — this could be just like we were two guys driving.”
“Yeah, but you know. Two guys driving home from work, or going to lunch at that hamburger restaurant, that one where every table has a bowl of salted-in-the-shell peanuts, and they leave all the broken shells on the floor. We could wear ties and shit like that.” (Hudson had a salted-in-the-shell-peanut fetish; hence his nickname.)
“I hate ties.”
“You hate ties? I like wearing ties. With white shirts. I like getting dressed up. Makes me feel clean.”
I turned up a ramp and onto the westbound 405, too fast.
“I don’t know, Salted-in-the-Shell,” I said. “I just don’t feel like myself in a white shirt. And ties are like silk nooses. Slow, soft suicide. That’s not how I want to look.”
“Slow down,” said Hudson.
“What do you mean?”
Hudson raised a palm toward the speedometer, the one with the red needle pointing at 80 mph. “What I mean is slow the fuck down. This is Signal Hill. Don’t you know about Signal Hill?”
“You mean the cops?”
“If we get pulled over for being a black guy and a white guy escaping a mental hospital at 80 miles an hour, Signal Hill cops’ll kill us.”
I slowed to 70. “What’ll they do if we’re only doing 70?”
“At 70 they’ll probably just beat us up and fill out a fake accident report.”
We took the Long Beach Boulevard exit and headed uptown, through the stoic foliage of Bixby Knolls, then meandered onto Spring Street east and headed home.
“Yeah,” said Hudson, leaning his seat back. “Soon as I’m well, I’m gonna go get that job in Kuwait, in the oil fields. Then in one year I’m going to come back and buy your car and get me a nice place to live. And you’ll be a writer by then, and you and I are gonna put on white shirts and ties and go out to lunch.”