Off the Wagon

Pic: Instagrammer @missfilatelista

I unlock the door to the dim bedroom-turned-office at the center of the group home and sift through stacks of charts and empty med bottles until I find the schedule—ice cream wagon with Anne, noon until five pm. I plop down in a chair and spin around and around until I feel sick. Fifteen minutes until my shift. I could go out on the floor, gossip with the other counselors, get a feel for who’s having a good day and whose voices are active, but I’m too off-kilter to get out of this chair. I want my shift to be over. My whole day to be over. But when it ends, I have to decide between going back to my parent’s house for turkey hotdish and Cheers re-runs as we try to pretend everything is fine or going to the Rusty Nail until I stumble home ashamed and aching for my ex-husband, Brandon and our three-year-old, Becca.

My parents mean well. My mom circled the job listing for this place (“Mental Health Tech at local group home for mentally ill adults”) in purple pen in The Northern Pioneer, and drove me to the interview, telling me how proud she was to see me using my education. I don’t point out that the main part of my education I use here are third grade math, when I help the resident’s count out their pills and put them into weekly organizers.

From the window facing the backyard I can see Anne, the resident I’ve been assigned to for today, perching on the edge of a rickety lawn chair, smoking. I can tell by the way she’s sitting tall and rigid that it’s going to be a hard shift. She stares through the fence and occasionally moves her mouth. Most of her hallucinations are medical, so she’s probably chatting with the doctor she mutters about. Intent on her conversation, she grips the chair’s armrest with one hand, and gestures at her stomach with the butt-end of the cigarette with her other.

The other window in the office is a one-way mirror facing the interior of the home. From the dining room it looks like a mirror bordered by a gaudy bronze frame more suited for a funeral home than the group home’s sparse, clinical decor. The glass is shatterproof as a precaution; even though the residents are rarely violent, sometimes their hallucinations get the better of them. It’s supposed to allow us to keep an eye on the residents without them knowing, which to me, seems like a cruel joke, especially on those who tend toward paranoia. Some of the long-term residents know what the mirror is for, but when they tell visiting family members I doubt anyone believes them.

Through the one-way mirror I can see Martin at the long dining table, one hand binding his long curls in a ponytail, the other flipping cards in his game of solitaire. He stares at the top card from the draw pile for a long time before he turns it over. He believes the cards’ order is controlled by magnetic waves and he’s very close to figuring out the pattern. Sometimes, after a few drinks, I worry he’s right and he’s just stuck here because the world is too dumb to understand.

On the days he can focus, Martin is a brilliant mechanic. He made the ice cream wagon by welding a chest freezer to a little metal trailer. That was last summer and the home had a young director then—fresh out of college in Oregon, or somewhere west coast—who was big on work therapy and increasing community engagement. The residents called him “Dr. Dan” and still smile when they talk about him. He only lasted a year. He’s been gone three months now, but the staff complains about him like he left last week. Sandy, the current director, is all about the rules. She’d never allow Martin near welding equipment. His ice cream wagon works pretty well though. We can pull the freezer trailer around for about six hours before the ice cream gets soft and we have to haul it back to the home and plug it in. I think Sandy hasn’t shut the wagon down mostly because it gets one of the residents out of her hair for a big part of each day. I get scheduled for the ice cream wagon more often than the rest of the staff.

Sometimes I ask Sandy questions about Dr. Dan. I roll my eyes and cluck sympathetically when she bitches about all his “hippy dippy ideas.” I’d lose my job if I told them Dr. Dan was who I wanted to be if I would have finished school before I had Becca. And before the accident.

Becca and Brandon are still in Sioux Falls, where we were living before. Three months ago, after the judge granted Brandon full custody of Becca, he helped my parents move me back here. He’s going to bring Becca to visit me soon, he says. He just wants to give me some time to get everything set up, get everything together. What if she doesn’t remember me? What if she’s calling Brandon’s new girlfriend “mommy”? She’s eating healthy, he promises me, and taking her meds. He sent a picture last week. She got little pink glasses with butterflies on the bows. I can still see the scars from where they opened her skull to relieve the pressure in her brain. The accident wasn’t your fault, he reminds me, it just happened. But he’s full of shit. I was the one who backed the car into Becca in the driveway.

I was rushing to the grocery store for the second time that day. Friends were on their way for a barbeque and I was pissed that Brandon expected me to cook. I had a mid-term in forensic psychology the next day and everything felt off-kilter—finishing the last fourteen credits of my degree while taking care of a constantly teething and sick two-year old. All that afternoon as I shaped raw hamburger into patties and chopped onions, I sipped sweet white zinfandel and scolded myself for not finishing my degree before she was born. Becca clung to my leg and whined to come with as I grabbed my purse to leave. No, I snapped, I’m not taking you. When I slammed the screen door part of me knew it would bounce back open, but I figured Brandon would hear the noise and hear Becca fussing and know I’d left. He might even feel guilty, I thought, because I should have been studying instead of cooking.

It’s a miracle she’s alive, her doctor told me. Focus on the fact she’s still with us, Brandon told me. I’d rather he screamed at me, said all the things we both were thinking. Then I could hate him instead of hating myself.


I leave the office and head to the backyard. “Looks like we have ice cream wagon today,” I say pulling up a chair beside Anne. I try to sound cheerful and soothing at the same time, like someone who could handle this job. Anne looks at me; she wants to respond but gets distracted by something I can’t see near the fence. “Yes,” she says, “of course.” I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or one of her hallucinations. I lean in and inhale the smoke from her burning Camel Light. I only smoke when I’m drinking and sometimes a good whiff of cigarette smoke tricks my brain into a feeling a little buzzed. Lately I’ve been wondering how hard it would be to carry a little flask of something to work with me. It’s been chilly this summer and the fleece sweatshirt I wear has big pockets. If Brandon knew what I was thinking he’d tell me to call my sponsor.

“We can’t be out late,” Anne says. Her eyes focus on me in one of those rare moments real people take precedence over the hallucinations. “My daughter’s coming today. At supper time.”

I know Summer, her daughter. She was a year ahead of me in school but was so tiny and shy I thought of her as younger. There were different stories about the burn scar that covered her right hand like a lace glove and curled her fingers into claws— her crazy mother doused her with lighter fluid and struck a match, her crazy mother forced her to make a bomb, her crazy mother tried to feed her to sharks. Summer never contradicted or corrected any of them. I read in Anne’s chart that she lost custody of Summer when she was five. Now Summer lives six hours south, in Minneapolis and rarely comes back. This visit is the biggest thing that’s happened for Anne in over a year. “Don’t worry.” Impulsively I touch her arm. She jerks it away but it could have been a muscle spasm from her Risperdal.

“Let’s go set up the wagon,” I say. She crushes her cigarette butt and follows me to the fence.

In the garage I hand Anne a clipboard with the checklist so she can take inventory of the ice cream. We restock the freezer with fudgesicles, rocket pops, and Eskimo Pies. Anne hands me the key and slouches on the passenger side. I hand her the cow bell and drumstick from the floor. Sandy insists we beat on that fucking bell as we drive around the neighborhoods so people hear us coming. She even calls people she knows on our route to check on us, to make sure we’re doing what we’re told.

Anne looks sheepish. “It scares the kitten.” She cups her hand over her belly.

“Kitten?” I say.

“Doctor implanted it.” She smiles down, “it’s a girl.”

If I were a good group home employee I would challenge her, remind her of her illness, tell her there is no kitten, but all I can do is touch my own belly and remember how it felt with Becca there. Back when I thought I could keep her safe from everything, even from me. Sometimes, even now, when I feel a flutter of gas I forget and think she’s still there sloshing around inside me. I take the bell and the stick from Anne and set them on the floor.

The day is chilly for June, even by Northern Minnesota standards, and overcast. Anne shivers inside her thin, red nylon jacket, her hands fiddle with the elastic in its grimy sleeves. I can imagine Sandy encouraging Anne to buy this ugly, uncomfortable jacket on a Life Skills outing to the Salvation Army. Someone should remind her to wash it. Driving with one hand one the wheel, the other in my sweatshirt pocket, we work our way through Burglar Creek’s small downtown at the humiliatingly slow pace of a brisk walk, giving us plenty of time to feel the occasional confused or suspicious stare of people we pass. We stop at the hardware store that’s always on the brink of closing, Ben Franklin with its dusty aisles of knickknacks, and The Pioneer, our town’s newspaper, which mainly prints invitations to fiftieth wedding anniversary open houses, obituaries, and the police report—heavy on DUI’s. Anne goes into each business to take orders, tally totals, and count change. People know her and ask how she is. A couple of middle-aged women with giant purses walk out of an insurance agency and come up to the wagon.

“Summer’s coming,” Anne tells them without any context. They glance up at the cold gray sky, puzzled, thinking she’s talking about the season then give her exaggerated smiles and nods as if she’s a precocious child.

“She means her daughter,” I explain ushering her back into the cart. Even with the pedal floored it takes forever to drive away.


We leave downtown on Third Street and cross the railroad tracks toward the residential areas. The golf cart hums louder and feels sluggish. The trailer’s tires are worn and go flat every couple of trips. Martin will put new ones on as soon as he adjusts to his new meds, Sandy says, as soon as he’s ready to use sharp objects. I pull into 7-Eleven and park near the air hose. Mike, the man I’ve hooked up with at the Rusty Nail, is working at the liquor store across the street. He has beautiful soft pink lips—almost girly—that feel so nice when he slides them along my neck, but I don’t have much to say to him when I’m sober. I could run there and he’d give me some of the strawberry sloe gin he keeps in the back room. I drag the air hose behind the cart and glance at Anne, her long hair pinned with a barrette and her skinny shoulders hidden beneath puffs of red nylon.

I sit beside Anne and drive us to our assigned neighborhood—street after street of little 1960’s ranch-style houses with day lilies and azalea bushes in front. If normal, happy families exist, this is where they live. The neighborhood is deserted. I should have Anne beat the cowbell to drum up some customers, but I don’t want to upset her. And neither of us really gives a shit about selling ice cream.

From a daycare on the corner I can hear kids, safe inside the fenced backyard, laughing, and playing on a swing set. Becca went to a perfect daycare just down the block from our house in Sioux Falls. It was run by Marlene, an older hippy with long braided hair and batik print skirts, who Becca called Grandma. Marlene came to visited Becca in the hospital after the accident while she was still unconscious. She brought a foil balloon shaped like a flower. She held Becca’s hand and sang The Wheels on the Bus and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, but she couldn’t meet my eyes. Last week Brandon told me Becca started going to a new daycare. One that can give her more help. I offered to send money, but he told me I should take care of myself, that they were doing ok. I bet Becca misses Marlene.

At the end of Gladys Avenue we turn on a gravel side street into Countryside Estates Trailer Park. It might have been in the countryside at one point, but all that’s left of the country now is a muddy field across the road that the trailers look out on. At the center of each lot is a mobile home, most covered over with plywood and rusty sheet metal add-ons—decks that tilt to one side, saggy entryways, and porches with flapping screens. Two young boys in cut-offs and bare chests stand at the end of a driveway throwing rocks into the field.

“Hey!” the smaller one in crooked glasses calls. “We want ice cream!”

I pull over and look at Anne. She’s rubbing her belly and humming softly. She looks tired—probably couldn’t sleep last night because of her daughter’s visit.

“What would you like?” I say getting out.

The bigger boy with a shaved head elbows Crooked Glasses, looks down and digs his grubby toes into the gravel. I open the freezer and they run over, grip the edge and peer inside. Their eyes widen at our stockpile of frozen treats, they squint up at me, waiting.

“Can’t leave this open all day,” I tell them.

Shaved Head looks past me into the empty lot. “We don’t have money.”

Go ask your mom, I want to say, but I can picture her sleeping hard wrapped in a cheap scratchy blanket, maybe exhausted from working the night shift at Gold Star Turkey Processing. Instead I hand each of them a Patriot Pop—red, white, and blue striped popsicles so huge they melt down your arm before you can eat the whole thing—and put fifty cents from my purse into the tackle box where we keep the money.

In the empty lot a female killdeer cries and stumbles through tufts of dead grass dragging her wing to lure us away from her nest. I get out of the wagon and step into the field hoping for a glimpse of her chicks. Cold, fishy-smelling mud sucks against my flip flops and oozes beneath my toes. I try to step back toward the wagon but my shoes are stuck. Behind me there’s a loud CRACK.

“I’m sorry, lady,” one of the boys cries, “really sorry!”

The mother killdeer launches herself into the air and flies away, her charade and babies forgotten. Leaving one shoe in the mud, I run back to the wagon. Anne hunches on the seat with her hands covering her face. Crooked Glasses is squatting in the driveway sobbing into his skinny arms, his Patriot Pop melting on the ground beside him. Shaved Head kicks at a heavy chunk of broken cinder block at his feet.

I walk to the front of the golf cart—there’s another piece of cinder block on the ground and a fresh impact mark and crack in the hood. I sit beside Ann. Her breathing is ragged and there’s the kind of red blotch on her cheek that will turn into a bruise.

“He didn’t mean to hit her.” Shaved Head faces the wagon. “He was aiming for the bird.” He gestures with his Patriot Pop toward the lot then bends down and wraps his arm around Crooked Glasses.

I toss the piece of cinder block into the field where it lands hard in the mud near my shoe. When the mother killdeer comes back she’ll wonder how the landscape of her home changed while she was gone and if the new objects are a threat to her chicks.

“You’re okay,” I say patting Anne’s back. “You’re safe.” I push the hair away from her hurt cheek with trembling fingers and re-pin her barrette.

“She’s wiggling today,” Anne sits up and rubs her gaunt belly furiously. “Gonna be a wild kitten. Doctor says she can come out now any day.”

Stress triggers delusions, they told me that when they trained me for this job. I slide my hand inside my sweatshirt pocket where the bottle would go. We leave the trailer park with the boys still in the driveway, and cross the bridge over the river by Elk’s Park, a big stretch of green lawn and petunia beds winding along the Thief River. Anne looks out at the park and laughs. “Gary rode my horse here.”

Gary is her former husband. She’s probably remembering one of her hallucinations but the image of the mother killdeer takes up all the space in my head and I don’t challenge her.

“He wanted to be Prince Charming.” She snorts. “Got my black mare from the ranch and hauled her here.” She shook her head. “That mare was bad. Trouble. She shied at the picnic blanket, he fell—bam!—and she ran all through town. Terrible plan.”

“What plan?” I ask, imagining a black horse tearing across the bridge.

“Getting married.”

“But you married him, right?”

She frowns. “You need a Dad to have a baby.”


We park the wagon in the garage and plug in the freezer. Walking back inside the home, I notice the clouds have thinned and the late afternoon sun is breaking through. Anne and I cast a single, distorted shadow against the glowing lawn.

On my break, I sit out front next to the “Northern Lights Residential Treatment Center” sign. Slipping off my sweatshirt, I light a cigarette with still shaking fingers and think that maybe if Dr. Dan was still here I’d have someone to talk to. I want a drink, but even more, I want to tell someone about my day, about the boys, and the killdeer, and Anne. Maybe even about Becca—how right after she was born the top of her head smelled like Nilla Wafers, how I cried so hard after I pushed her out of my body because, I’d never been that tired and unsure of everything.

Summer pulls up in a little silver Honda. She doesn’t get out of the car right away, just sits there gripping the steering wheel. When she finally gets out she slams the door harder than she needs to. I haven’t seen her since high school, over ten years ago. She looks good. I didn’t remember her being tall, but she is, and thin, wearing clean white jeans with big sunglasses. I’m worried she might think I live here. I crush my cigarette into the lawn and stand up.

“Hi, Summer,” I say too loudly and reach to shake her hand. I want to say something I learned in school, something that makes it clear I deserve to work here, but I can’t think of anything.

“Oh,” she says. “Hi,” and holds out her hand. I try not to wince when I feel the lumpy scar tissue. She looks hard at my cigarette; the corners of her mouth twitch a little. “You want one?” I reach for my purse.

“I promised Mom I’d quit.” She takes it and pulls a lighter from her pocket.

We lean against the low brick wall that edges the flowerbed surrounding the group home sign.

“I rode on the wagon with your mom today,” I say to remind her I’m staff then cringe at how ridiculous it sounds.

She turns her head away from me to exhale as if we weren’t breathing in the same smoke. “I thought you moved to South Dakota?”

“I moved back.” I can’t help staring at her scarred hand.

“How’s your little girl?”

“Good,” I say and wonder if Summer has heard about the accident. I wonder if she’s thinking, why the hell would they allow someone who ran into her own kid take care of my mother? To change the subject I ask, “Did your mom ever have a horse?”

Summer rolls her eyes and nods. “When my grandma couldn’t handle having Mom around she sent her to her aunt’s ranch and they gave her a horse. Thought it would teach her to be normal.” She exhales through her nose and shakes her head. “I hear about that stupid horse all the time. She obsesses.”

“It sucks,” I nod. “Having your mind stuck on something.”

“Sucks being around someone like that,” she says looking toward the house. “I don’t know how you can stand it.”

“Nobody wants this,” I say nodding at the front door of Northern Lights, “But it’s surprising what you can get used to.”

I want to ask her more questions about Anne so her life becomes a case study from my applied methods textbook—understandable and with a clear treatment plan—but Summer drops her still-burning cigarette into the flowerbed beside the sign and walks to the door.

I stub my cigarette and follow her. As I pass the dining room on the way to the office, Anne is sitting at the table looking down and tracing the scratches on its surface with the tip of her finger. There’s a bandage on her cheek covering the scrape from the cinder block. Summer is standing with her back to the door but I can tell her arms are crossed over her chest. I wish I could tell Summer, be kind, Anne doesn’t deserve to be hurt anymore. But neither does Summer. I go into the office to fill out a vulnerable adult incident report form about Anne’s scrape. When I get to the blank lines where I’m instructed to “describe the facts of the incident in detail” I stop. My hands are damp and restless.

I dim the office lights and stand by the one-way mirror looking into the dining room. Summer is leaning down hugging Anne. Anne’s frown melts for a moment as she pats Summer’s back with one hand while her other hand continues tracing the scarred tabletop. If either of them looked up at the strange mirror right at this moment, they might catch the flicker of my movement behind their own reflections.

Sara Dupree’s stories have appeared in Red Savina Review, Alligator Juniper, Conclave, and the anthology Among Animals. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Dakota.

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