Pennsylvania author Tom Charles Bair III brings a sense of gleeful, disjointed absurdity and determination to real-life issues of emotional and mental illness in the meandering, everyday surreality of “St. Dymphna’s Quartet.” So named for the patron saint of runaways, the psychologically troubled, and those who treat and serve them, it’s a story with no ending, but plenty of hope for tomorrow.
The bass is warbling so low the homeless guy covered head to toe in garbage bags just outside an impromptu circle of onlookers is shitting himself. The circle bounces up and down in agreement with the bass; Yu nods at the audience in rhythm with their rhythm with him.
Yu is sort of absent-minded but probably the best barbershop quartet singer the world has ever seen.
Shucks, do you really think so?
Well, yeah, when you remember to sing.
Yu has a poorly concealed habit of talking to himself. And when I say that Yu is absent-minded, I don’t mean that Yu forgets his keys or to pick up his laundry or to feed the dog (to feed his mother’s dog I should say — his mother forgets). Yu is pretty good at that stuff. He keeps a good schedule. No.
When I say that Yu is absent-minded, I mean that he will, very often, during songs, forget which song he is singing. Sometimes he’ll forget that he is singing altogether.
In addition to singing (which he really just picked up as a side thing to stay active in the performing arts) he runs a costume-by-order boutique, teaches dance at an after-school program, volunteers at a shelter, and works as a freelance laborer on Sundays for pocket change.
Sleep when you’re dead. No rest for the wicked. Yu is big on mantras that make industriousness sound sort of unsavory.
Yu made the costumes for his quartet today. It’s the classic: red and white vertically striped vests, white shirts, arm bands, black slacks, black shoes, straw boater caps with red ribbons, and everyone has a fake plastic handlebar mustache except for Yu, who grew one.
“Everybody wants to be a cat,” they sing.
Yu is the only member who spent the extra duckets on a cane, too.
“Because the cat’s the only cat —”
Yu reminds himself that his mother will be joining him at class this week as the circle dances in what cannot be described as perfect circles.
Yu is tapping at his raised desk with the flat end of his pen, estimating the day’s earnings in his head.
He understands these to be two of his bad habits — he is prone to thoughtless, nervous gestures like tapping his pen or cracking his knuckles or blinking too much or tweezing the odd ends of his mustache or making little squares in the air with his index finger. He also knows these innumerable mental calculations would work better on paper. After all, he is more inclined to error when not keeping records, and, more to the point, all of his goals and ambitions will mean very little when he forgets them. He has wanted to put an extension on the store for three years now, for instance.
Charlie, the owner of practically the whole block, and live-in manager of the bar next door, opens the door of Yu’s boutique with a shove and raises both arms into the air as if he is very, very welcome, expecting a hug.
Queen Ursula, Yu’s mother and self-assigned Helper, switches directions and speeds to the back of the store labeled INTERNAL PROCESSING the moment Charlie appears in front of the plate glass windows.
“Hey, Queenie,” Charlie calls, “I’m seeing a lot of your back these days” — the door under the internal processing sign swings shut and continues to swing on its hinge — “and I like it.”
Charlie winks at Yu, Queen Ursula gives Charlie the finger from behind the still-swinging but not at all open door, and Yu steps out from behind the register, stretches his arms, and tells Charlie to come in, come in, and know me better, man.
Cardboard mats, a necessity for PS 187’s polyurethane-slick gymnasium floor, are only one of the costume items Yu brings to every single session of Friday’s “Breaking in The Weekend” (Queen Ursula’s coinage), Yu’s after school dance program.
Yu knows the importance of a costume better than he knows how to breakdance. So Fridays generally go like this: Yu shows up at PS 187’s heavy-duty metal door with a giant box full of Kangols and Shelltops and tracksuits and athletic shirts and plastic rope-chains and full-hand rings, checks in with security, lays out cardboard mats in a style similar to that of an aerobics class, and waits for the youth of the day to come in, settle, and teach him how to breakdance.
Queen Ursula admires him from her discreetly-placed chair at the far side of the gymnasium. The first wave of elementary school students burst in through the door like something electric. She knows that he knows there is no way those cardboard mats will stay in their places through the two hour “dance class.”
Still, week after week, Yu expertly plots their distances among and between one another. Dancers should be close enough to watch and observe and garner excitement from one another, but physical contact must be avoided at all costs.
As with all of his jobs, Yu is meticulous, but a little scattered, she thinks, as the second battering ram of prepubescents slams the gym door wide.
The kids are now climbing Yu. She isn’t delusional. She knows that Yu takes pride, maybe too much, in all he does.
It’s Friday, the kids just got out, and based on the energy level in the room, Yu might not be able to begin for another half-hour.
But Queen Ursula has what we might call the gift of Augmentation. Queen Ursula the Augmentor, she calls herself. She also knows something that her son doesn’t, can’t. The thing about her son, the value of Yu that might or might not be there whether she was present, is that the mustaches, the rope-chains, the boater hats, the perfect spacing of the mats, the endless flourishes, the hundreds upon hundreds of little disguises her son wears and designs — he may pretend and simulate and masquerade and delude, but Yu does not impersonate concern.
Yu carries his concern in a box with him and is humbled for you to borrow it.
So when that prick Charlie comes in all happy and huggy and ready to half-growl, half-giggle over the rent that may well be a little late, Queen Ursula the Augmentor is always just about prepared to shove off and add a little something to his frame of reference, too.
Wizard and Tanner are hanging from Yu’s hands like pails of water. Yu responds by spinning around and around at irresponsibly fast speeds. Many kids who show up don’t even pretend they’re going to dance, and their flock is forming in a distant corner, so class may well begin within twenty minutes after all.
Several of the overhead bulbs are flickering.
Yu’s revolutions are reaching carnival ride speeds. Wizard and Tanner are parallel to the gym floor.
The apex of nurturing is behavioral adaptation. Cute.
Tanner slips from Yu’s hand and crashes against the wall of the gymnasium, which is covered with blue foam, but still. Tanner is down. Yu places the other pail softly on the floor. Yu crouches over Tanner, his left knee on a cardboard mat, his right foot propped up on the gymnasium floor, his left hand against the wall’s padded blue, his right hand lightly touching Tanner’s shoulder.
A chameleon overbooked.
Summoning some strength, Ursula shrinks before she stands.
“Tanner, get up. We’re going to the nurse,” she yells.
Yu snaps to the front of the room, clapping his hands. The students who are going to be teaching Yu to dance are clapping, too. Class begins ahead of schedule.
Lights Out at the homeless shelter. Rain patters against the basement windows. Fluorescent lights cover the entirety of the den of St. Dymphna’s, and take several minutes to go completely dark. The bells that indicate Lights Out could therefore more accurately be said to indicate Lights Gray. A dull, gray glow, compounded by the dust.
And the smell. The rot’s noxiousness can almost be seen, like the rainbow ribbons of oil on water. Queen Ursula the Augmentor is compelled to talk about these rainbows.
It isn’t a huge space. On Saturday nights between 40 and 60 of the city’s homeless perch abstractly on green-grey cots and remove the boots that barely require removing and cover themselves with thin, blue, wool blankets.
Last week Yu brought sixty Franciscan Friar Habits. Ant and Day are not the only two still wearing them, but they may be the only two who have not taken any liberties with Yu’s instruction on how to wear a Franciscan Friar Habit.
Ant and Day sit upright on the center of their cots, facing each other. Yu and Queen Ursula kneel north and south of Ant and Day at the head and foot of their respective cots. The bell chimes.
YU: Do you guys want to say a prayer?
QUA: I’ll chant.
ANT: Been confessing all week. Nothing left.
DAY: Let’s ask for something.
YU: We could ask for blessings.
QUA: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Red, Orange, …
ANT: Better yet, let’s give thanks.
DAY: Better still, why don’t you guys get the fuck out of here?
YU: Thank you for the broth we drank tonight, and thank you for bringing us here, together.
QUA: Violet, Red, Orange, Yellow, …
ANT: It’s a real treat.
DAY: It’s a fucking celebration.
YU: Thank you for the Joy I feel tonight, here, among friends.
QUA: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, …
ANT: Thank you for only taking the digits I didn’t need and for ruining my sense of taste.
DAY: Hearing you speak, Yu—it’s like listening to myself be lobotomized.
YU: How should we pray?
QUA: A few words for the confused.
ANT: Oh, oh, oh, we could pray about learning to pray!
DAY: We could pluck the parasites from the creases of our skin one by one!
YU: The group has it. A confused prayer about learning to pray for the parasites.
QUA: Gray-black, fill larger and larger spaces.
ANT: Brother, it is getting dark.
DAY: Can it—
ANT: Day, if I sleep tonight, will you comfort me?
YU: I’m scared.
QUA: Close our lids. Tighten the case over our lenses.
YU: Teach me to sit still. Teach me to mean anything.
QUA: Yu. Qua. Ant. Day.
ANT: They say rain.
DAY: They say right.
Got my shovel. Got my health. Two arms. More than most. Many. More than many. Can say. Prosperity by way of comparison. Heave, ho. Heave, ho.
Ma makes dinner tonight. Beef stroganoff or something with egg noodles. Ma loves the egg noodles. Soft, wide. And the egg noodles love her. She’s getting plump.
You didn’t have to say that. Whether or not it’s true, you didn’t have to say it.
Well, you don’t have to listen if you don’t want.
Well, you don’t have to be here.
Fine, then. I’ll leave. Bye.
Bye. Heave, ho. Heave, ho.
The ditches are an easy task after the rains. He knows that. That’s why he put me here. Must think I’m stupid. Or he just doesn’t like me. Probably thinks I’m stupid because I’m happy all the time. Well, I think he’s stupid because of his fucking lisp. How about thoathse appleths.
You’re awful. And you’re getting worse. Don’t forget that, you’re getting worse all of the time. It takes a diligent mind and able hands. One must always be on guard.
But a gentle guard. Do not forget compassion.
Ha. Do not forget compassion. As if there is a choice in the matter. Heave, ho. Heave, ho.
Ma sits around. She was always eccentric.
Watch it. You’re treading on thin ice calling your mother a loon.
He thinks I’m weak and I think he is fucking retarded.
It’s a good day. Working with my hands. Ma making dinner.
I need a work song.
I’ll fly away fly away in the morning.
That’s not a work song.
But if it works —