Billy Goes to Werkworth


Robert Starr

Billy was free to walk the streets of our town for many years but always lived in a prison. Looking back now, I still can’t imagine a worse kind because at least people institutionalized for a crime stand a chance of getting out one day, but Billy’s jail had no bars or guards, no high barbed wire fences, and there were no other prisoners.

What kept him locked away from the rest of us was the worst kind of betrayal I can imagine. His own mind had turned on him.

I used to see him walking down Simcoe Street early in the morning, well before the working people were up and around. He’d be marching down the middle of the sidewalk, looking down at the slabs and nodding his head like some invisible person had whispered something in his ear he agreed with. Billy always looked like he was going somewhere too, or he looked like he was already there in his mind and had just switched on autopilot for the walk.

To me he was fascinating, but not just because he was so different. I mean there were others who paid attention to him too; but mostly they just got out of his way on the sidewalk and shot him angry glances when they passed. But me, I always thought Billy could use a friend.

But I’m like that. I can look at somebody once and think I know everything there is to know about them-their entire history right down to the awful things that make them sad and I always think I know just what will make them happy too.

So that’s the way it was one late May day when I’d gone out early to pound the streets looking for a job because I couldn’t sleep past four not having one. I rounded a corner racing with my own thoughts and saw Billy across the road ahead of me, so I crossed and got close enough to hear him muttering in front of me.

"I won’t listen to that. I won’t listen to that," he repeated like a mantra to combat whatever he was hearing.

(And Billy was always dressed in the same dull grey windbreaker, the same navy pleated dress pants, and his hair was identical from one day to the next -- a crewcut that ran up the sides of his head to a slight burr on top.)

But that day whatever he heard agitated him further and he leaned forward and sped up, swinging his arms at his sides with a clenched-fist determination to expel whatever bee he had in his bonnet. A lonely car rounded the corner ahead of us dazing Billy into stopping his flight and standing motionless by the billiard hall.

I choked back a breath when I realised I’d taken an extra step before stopping and waited with the air stuffed so tightly in my lungs it seemed to be pushing against my ribcage.

"Who’s there?" Billy said without turning around, his voice quavering and his hands making quick fists under the cuffs of his windbreaker. I didn’t speak but wanted to duck somewhere for cover but found myself frozen on the spot.

And Billy... Billy started to pound on the sides of his head with closed fists , hunching over with his knuckles making dull thwacks on his temples. When I realised he thought the extra footstep he heard was internal, I turned and ran back the way I’d come.


I’d forgotten about him after that day and gone on with my own matters, specifically the shattering lack of routine that unemployment brings. It was a week after our peculiar walk that I heard the news -- Billy had been taken away and placed in a provincial hospital. It seemed he’d attacked a parked car in the middle of the afternoon, jumping on the hood and beating the windshield with his fists until he broke both his wrists. The police had to come to cart him away with Billy muttering, slapping, and punching at the sides of his head and face like invisible insects were swarming him.

"It took two policeman to put him in the car," Zen Offerman told me standing outside his smoke shop, leaning close and looking up and down the street like he was a spy about to pass along national secrets.

"All the while he was muttering something to himself," Zen said curving his spine backward and resting his hands on his massive belly like a pregnant woman, proud that he had information both significant and shocking.

I’d been shielding my eyes as best I could, trying to look fascinated, compassionate, or indignant where I thought it appropriate. But I was really only miming to hide how I felt -- that I’d tipped poor Billy over the edge that day by following him and was responsible for him being locked up.

"Where did they take him?" I asked trying to sound nonchalant, as though I really couldn’t care less but was only being polite.

"Werkworth," Zen said. He’d become quickly annoyed I’d suddenly interrupted the flow of his story and crossed his arms over his belly like he could keep the words trapped there and not let any more out. "Why?"

But I didn’t hear the question. I was staring at the sidewalk slabs, jolted by the sudden thought I knew exactly why Billy had been muttering when they took him away.


Werkworth was an old psychiatric institution built back in the days when it was still acceptable to use ominous, cold-steel-high-walled phrases like that. Growing up, it became a place we’d only imagined but a catch phrase nonetheless. "You’re a real Werkworth case," or "Why don’t you go to Werkworth?" I went there once, not as a patient, but with my father who thought it was a fine place to teach a fourteen-year-old how to drive

I can still remember how different the wheel looked when I sat in the driver’s seat for the first time and it was as clammy and unpredictable as a tense snake when I held it. In the seconds it took me to take the keys, the petals on the floorboards had grown to dangerous slabs of granite that could send the car careering out of control with the momentum started by my touch. But what I remember most is the weightlessness and exhilaration, how effortlessly the Lemans glided ahead in the institution’s grounds once I got her going.

My fingers folded tightly into the grooves around the wheel and I strained forward in my seat, my body going rigid and tense as the car began to move. Gradually, I settled down as the car wound through the compound; the white dinosaur lumbered past white two story stucco cottages, manicured brilliant green lawns, and rich full maples with drowsy leaves swaying in the light breeze. The whole atmosphere was deceptive: only the occasional patient rocking back and forth on a white concrete and red lumber bench gave it away at all.

"Pull in there," my father said when we were parallel with the administration building, and I swung the car into the drive to face three stories of red brick with a solitary bay window on the top floor.

I stopped when I saw the window was angled down and covered with a reflective film so I could see the tranquil scene all around with our car parked in the middle of the lot like a shopping cart overturned in an otherwise peaceful stream. I was sure I saw a disapproving frown in the brown trim over the top of the window as though we’d been noticed and the very spirit of the place was shocked by the audacity of our intrusion.


So it had been twenty years since I’d been there when I pulled my car back into the grounds to find the brilliant white stucco I’d remembered had faded to grey and was missing whole chips on some of the worn cottages.

I pulled up to the administrative building and went inside without looking up.

"Are you a relative?" the receptionist asked, punching in his name on her monitor without looking up at me when I asked where I could find Billy. I leaned over and snuck a look, and, by the time she’d looked back for her answer, I was gone.

He was on the third floor waiting for processing to one of the cottages, so I made my way to the elevator and feigned fascination with the lighted numbers as I lurched up. When it stopped on the second floor and the door rattled and slid open, I heard and saw bells and codes, harried nurses squelching by, wheeling their silver carts across polished floors that reflected the overhead fluorescent lights in a uniform sheen, and a short burst of laughter from behind the nurse’s station that made me feel confident I was going to be able to help Billy.

The elevator shuddered before stopping next and, as soon as the door opened on the third floor, a weighted silence like the air from a long forgotten fruit cellar rushed in.

There was no laughter here, and I couldn’t see the nurse’s station behind the wire meshed door that faced me; even the white lights from the overhead lights gave off a cold stark glare as if everything here understood it needed to hold itself rigidly in an alerted frozen state under their quiet eyes.

I took a cautious step from the elevator, suddenly afraid my shoes would make a deafening sound, and the door slid shut as soon as I was out as though it knew where it had dropped me and was impatient to leave. I stood frozen, waiting for some kind of reception, some instruction to tell me where to go and find Billy.

And then he came around a corner, soft and quiet with his hospital slippers scratching lightly over the hospital floor like smooth sandpaper over a fine wood. I kept staring straight ahead because I knew it was him -- the determined gait was something I knew from Simcoe St and I imagined his arms swinging through the air to alarm the otherwise teetering cocoon of apprehension in the corridor.

And for the second time I let him down when anxiety boiled up and over and I almost made a move for the elevator. I was about to turn and run for the button when Billy rushed past me toward the only window at the other end of the hall.

He broke into a frantic dash when a man’s voice called from behind:

"Stop, now. Come back here."

I ducked toward the wall when he sprinted past -- a coward again in my friend’s needy time -- and the attendants chased him with the soles of their shoes slapping off the floor tiles like wet fish flapping on pavement.

Then came a moment of horrible momentum (like the seconds after someone asks your name on the phone in the middle of the night), an instant where only one set of fish shoes skidded at the end of the hall, the others having left the polished floor for the bay window and an end to their suffering. When the elevator door opened behind me, I rushed in and hammered at the ground floor button to muffle the cascading thunder of shattering glass. A group of hysterical, white clad orderlies and nurses were standing outside in a circle when I pushed the door open to the parking lot, and I walked away from Billy one last time without even turning back once I’d passed the scene.

But after I’d backed my car out, I looked into the rear view mirror with a twitch as involuntary as a cough.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the broken bay window. There was a gaping, jagged hole where my friend had jumped that looked like the horrified mouth of a tormented soul recently violated by a recurring nightmare from its past; a spirit screaming a warning across the Werkwork grounds that the intruder responsible for its agony had returned and was still loose in the otherwise tranquil surroundings.


© 2005 by Robert Starr

Rob Starr has appeared a number of times in Aphelion (most recently Jumping Off Point, December, 2004), and has been published in various other zines (web and otherwise), including Bloodletters. A novel, 'The Apple Lady', and a short story collection, 'Jumping Off Point' (hmm ... sounds familiar!) are now available from Stone Garden Press.

E-mail: Rob Starr

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