In the 1970s, when Wish Mooney was growing up next to the Mental, I was a fully-grown-up bay-boy who had been to Bowring Park and — in bay-boy awe, I s’pose — had walked the banks of the Waterford River. Unlike Wish, I didn’t discover a corpse in the river.
Brian Callahan’s novel “Growing Up Next To The Mental” [Flanker Press] opens with Wish Mooney standing beside a body in the Waterford River, its “face down, and limbs splayed like a skydiver before he opens the chute.”
Finding the body of a patient of the Waterford Hospital — the Mental — is Wish’s first memory. It is his first conscious awareness of the disturbed people confined inside the mental health institution beyond his own backyard.
Part of Wish’s memory is also his first sight of a man standing inside the hospital fence, a man with a “bad brown comb-over” carrying a “Union Jack attached to a blade-less Sherwood hockey shaft that rested on his right shoulder.”
Wish and the man with the bad brown comb-over are fated to share secrets and insights for decades, until Wish is a grown man, in fact.
There is a secret about a fire and a secret about a cubbyhole inside a wall. For Wish, there is insight into the manifestations of madness and normalcy.
At age 12, Wish learns something about the nature of mental illness from his PB — his personal bully, Rodney Carter. As a result of a miscalculation regarding prescription medicine, Rodney is admitted to the Janeway Children’s Hospital. As a result of poor oral hygiene, Wish winds up having half a dozen teeth extracted at the Janeway …
… and thanks to their mothers, who are unware of their sons’ PB relationship, Wish is coerced into returning to the hospital to visit Rodney, as a friend — kinda.
During the visit, Wish sizes Rodney up and says, “You don’t look sick at all.”
Ticked-off, Rodney replies, “You don’t have to look sick to be sick.”
Ah, there’s insight for Wish, eh b’ys?
An anecdotal aside: While Wish was growing up next to the Mental, I once visited the Waterford Hospital for reasons you don’t need to know. As I walked a corridor in search of a room number I met a woman wearing one of those doctors’ lab coats. Thinking she was staff, I said, “Excuse me,” and asked about the room number.
Nodding pleasantly, she gave me directions and, as normal folks do, we chit-chatted about the miserable weather for a minute or two.
At the time, I wore a jacket with a braided cord belt, the ends of which — because it made me feel cool as Clint — I let dangle.
As our weather chat waned, the woman in the professional-looking lab coat reached out and commenced toying with the ends of my jacket’s belt.
Smiling coyly … well, yes, coyly — remember I was feeling cool as Clint — she see-sawed the belt in its loops and said, “I bet you could hang yourself with this.”
For frig sake! You don’t have to look sick to be sick, eh b’ys?
Okay, back to Wish growing up next to the mental, all the while keeping mum about a grass fire on the Waterford grounds that “one of the patients burned his foot trying to stamp it out.”
The truth about the fire festers in Wish his lifetime until his mentor — Cap’n Mike of the fire department — offers sensible advice: “At some point you gotta let stuff go, or it’ll beat you up inside … you’ll be your own bully.”
Good advice, eh b’ys?
Wish’s father is a newspaper man. Author, Brian Callahan was a newspaper man. It isn’t a surprise then, that Mr. Callahan, by means of Mr. Mooney, throws a few barbs at television journalists who blithely employ clichés — “Dramatic testimony” and “tense moments”, for example.
Such was the practice when Wish grew up next door to the Mental. Such is still the practice.
Now and again, a news anchor’s penchant for speaking in clichés drives Missus to plucking at her curls and demanding that I listen to what the anchor already has said!
“It’s time for (and here’s the bit that irks Missus) a short break.”
Short break! Short break! Short break!
Apologies, if I’ve spoken in clichés above.
On a final note, “Growing Up Next To The Mental” doesn’t end on a final note. It ends with this promise — to be continued.
Thank you for reading.
— Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org