Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Inspired by, but not about, Henry Darger

Henry was not extraordinary,
but his parents had always been proud.
He earned mostly B’s,
didn’t display any artistic or literary talent,
was a linebacker on his high school football team
but wasn’t the star player.
He took some girls out on dates
but nothing serious.
He was accepted to the state university
but wasn’t sure what his major would be.
His father, a prominent surgeon,
had long ago accepted that Henry
would never become a doctor.
But when Henry,
age nineteen,
came home for the summer,
his father got him a job
as a janitor in the hospital where he worked.
It was easy, but boring, work.
Henry whistled while he mopped
and flirted with the older nurses.

One night, Henry was sweeping
on the sixth floor,
a place of deep sadness,
pediatric oncology,
but Henry didn’t think much of it.
Most of the rooms were empty,
and all was quiet at this time of night.
In a deserted hallway,
the fluorescent lights above Henry began to flicker
and then extinguish.
He sighed deeply, and then,
just as quickly,
the lights came back on.
Standing in front of him was a little girl
in a thin white nightgown.
Brown hair cut in a bob,
pale skin,
dark circles under her eyes.
Her mouth seemed too large for her small face.
She smiled at him,
teeth too large too,
and Henry shuddered but tried not to show it.
“Are you okay, Honey?” he asked.
“You need me to find you a nurse?”
The lights flickered, and then she was gone.
Henry rubbed his eyes,
convinced it must have been
a trick of his imagination.
He continued mopping the hall.
Suddenly, the girl jumped on his back from behind,
and before Henry could even open his mouth to scream,
she whispered in his ear,
“I want you to tell my story.”

The story she had to tell was a very, very long one,
and all day and all night, she dictated it to Henry,
who had no choice but to try to write it all down.
She decided that she wanted the story to be illustrated,
but Henry couldn’t draw,
so he cut out pictures from magazines
with exquisite care,
tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth
as he snipped,
and pasted them onto pieces of construction paper.
To other people,
it seemed as though Henry had drastically changed.
He had stopped going to work,
hardly ever left his childhood bedroom.
sneaking food out of the kitchen at odd hours.
He stopped going out with friends,
barely talked to his family,
and eventually missed the start of the fall semester.
His mother was frightened.
His father diagnosed him with clinical depression.
His younger brother was disgusted and embarrassed.
Henry didn’t know how to explain,
had no time to explain.
Ella (which is what he had secretly named her)
dug her fingernails into his back
when she felt that he hadn’t been working hard enough.

Ella had to make some concessions.
She had to allow him a few hours at night to sleep,
had to allow him to scarf down a sandwich
or attend to necessary bodily functions.
He’d die if he didn’t do these things, he explained.
She didn’t like it, though.
“You should let me get a job,” Henry said
about three years later.
“Why?” Ella asked, sinking her teeth
painfully into his neck.
“I need money.”
“I should get my own apartment.”
 “I’d have more privacy,” he explained,
“to work on your story.”
He had been trying to hide his labors from his family
and was worried that they would destroy his work.
“I don’t understand what you do all day in there,”
his mother would mutter during his rare appearances
outside of his room.
“I can get you money,” Ella said,
and she did.
Enough for Henry to rent a one-bedroom apartment
with a landlord who asked no questions
as long as the rent was paid on the first of the month.
No one cared in that shabby brick building
in a not-so-great part of town
if Henry was neighborly or not.
With no need to work
and a cheap Chinese restaurant nearby that delivered,
Henry stayed inside and worked on Ella’s story.

Henry didn’t really understand the story.
It had so many characters
and crossed many different dimensions.
It was about some kind of space war
with a genocidal wizard,
and whole planets were involved
in long, complicated battles
that went on for hundreds of chapters.
Henry tried one night
To make the story his own,
just a little.
Ella read over it, declared it “stupid”
and clawed him viciously across his back and chest,
leaving deep scars so he’d never forget
and try pulling something like that again.

Years went by, and Ella noticed
that Henry wasn’t in the best of health,
even though he was only in his early 60s.
It was probably the lack of sleep
and the lack of exercise
and all the Chinese food
and loneliness.
He collapsed one evening
while she was in the middle of a sentence,
and no matter how she hissed and screamed
and bit and scratched,
Henry would never wake up again.

His landlord found Henry
when the neighbors started to complain about the smell.
More astonishing, however,
was Henry’s life work.
Hundreds of thousands of pages of a story
scattered all over the apartment.
Drawings, some as large as an entire wall.
The landlord lamented to his daughter
about the mess
and all the nonsense written on it.
His daughter, who was in art school,
asked if she could take a look.

Now Henry’s work is displayed in art museums
around the world,
and people ponder daily his creativity and his madness
and his sad life of isolation.
Ella is furious
because Henry receives all the credit for her story,
and no one really reads it all anyway.
She hunts alleys and dark hallways for someone else
to start the story again.

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