I don’t sleep. My head’s a bunch of clacking pool balls, worrying around about things. That’s why I hear Mrs. Patterson tiptoe into my room. I can see from the hall light it’s her: she’s wearing her hospital gown, her red high heels, red kid gloves, and matching purse.
“Lu, it’s time for my beauty-parlor appointment now,” she says.
I’m not Lu — that’s Mrs. Patterson’s daughter, who never visits her — but I don’t care if she calls me Lu. Mrs. Patterson escapes out of 1B easily enough. The geriatric ward is tame except for her, and the nurse’s aides play cards in the activities room after midnight, so they aren’t paying attention. But down here on 1C, the Looney Tunes corridor, they keep the lights on. I get up and close the door softly, wondering if she’s got any chocolate in her purse. I turn on the side lamp and cover the shade with a sheet.
“Want to play some hearts, Mrs. Patterson?” I say, pulling the cards from under the corner of the bed where I’d wedged them.
Her face brightens as I shuffle the cards, and we play two rounds. I let her win, even though she forgets which cards she gives up or even which ones she keeps, and she’s bad about showing her hand. After a while, she gets tired.
“Well, this has been lovely, Lu, but I got to go home and cook dinner for Roy,” she says. Roy Patterson was the county judge before he passed away ten years ago, and Mrs. Roy Patterson had been quite the lady here in Greensboro, Florida.
Now her fat little stomach pokes out of her cornflower blue hospital gown. She peers over her glasses at me. “Young lady,” she says, pulling on her gloves and looking stern, “you’re skinny as a stray cat. You sure you haven’t got the tapeworm?”
I say, “No, ma’am. I’m just not hungry.”
“Better get checked for the tapeworm,” she says, standing up and steadying herself on those heels. “You need to start eating some meat.” (The idea turns my stomach.) “Next time I visit,” she says at the door, “I’ll bring you some fried chicken.” Her heels clack on the linoleum as she heads down the hall.
She doesn’t scare me anymore. Neither does Ronnie, who shows up nights all the time. His room’s two doors down. They’ve got him on Ativan, but he doesn’t take it because he says it makes him feel dead. Last time he came down to my room, he slipped in and sat on the bed and opened this book by Nietzsche.
“Listen to this,” he said. “ ‘One is punished most for one’s virtues.’ ” His eyes got round with excitement. “Brilliant!” Ronnie’s only fourteen, but he laughs like an old woman. He has eager eyes and a buzz cut, and he listens to rap when the aides let us play music.
Even the nurse’s aides don’t scare me now. I still get confused, but not about being in here. I’m confused about all my worries and how they got started.
I never met anybody like Forest. He came to Greensboro to be the property-tax appraiser. All the girls had a thing for him. He dressed like the guys on L.A. Law. He had pretty, plump lips and kissed like I’d imagine a girl might kiss — all soft, like he knew just what to do. Even Daddy liked him, and Daddy always hated my boyfriends. My mama ran away when I was five. They say she ended up in Chattahoochee, the real psych home up by the Georgia state line.
I took Forest over to Daddy’s office in the Chevrolet car lot, and they got to talking about taxes and how the black folks needed to get jobs and get off the county payroll that we had to pay. Daddy gave me a hug and kiss when we left.
“What’s with you and your dad?” Forest said. That’s when I started seeing the knives go into people. Zing, right into his sternum. I don’t know why I thought about that.
“Nothing,” I said. I kissed him on the ear the way he liked, and he forgot about it.
When I got pregnant, I was so excited I went over to Forest’s house in the new neighborhood to tell him. I thought it would be more fun to surprise him in person than over the phone. That white car that belonged to the lady lawyer, the new public defender, was parked in front. She came from Connecticut, and the license plate on the car said Connecticut. I knocked on the door and he didn’t answer. I rang the bell. No answer. That’s when I knew.
After that I went home and got in bed. Sometime in the night, my throat got so swollen I could feel it on the roof of my mouth and I started throwing up everything. I swear to God, I thought I’d throw up the whole world. I couldn’t keep anything down. Even a glass of water might as well have been gasoline in my throat.
Somewhere along in there I fell down on the living-room floor, and when I got up I had to take a shower and clean up the rug. The blood was impossible to get out. I got dizzy again and threw up nothing. I wasn’t even hungry after a while. Daddy came home drunk and passed out on the sofa downstairs. I went back to bed and a couple of days came and went, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t hungry, and it felt good, like I was dead. Being alive just hurt too much.
Then somebody fat scooped me up and out of my bed and brought me here to Goodwill Manor. Daddy asked them to come get me, I guess. I didn’t see the man who picked me up, but I could feel my bones sticking through my skin and into his blubber arms as he carried me in.
They’ve finally built the big factory they promised would bring jobs to Gadsden County, and I work there. So does Forest. I look for him in the maze of rooms. I’m five months pregnant and I walk funny. I find him in bed with that new lawyer woman — she’s pregnant, too. I grab him by the arm and say, Forest, Forest, don’t you remember me? But he doesn’t hear me. I’m begging him, Please, please, but he’s kissing that Connecticut lady in his soft girl way. I walk toward the bathroom because I’m sick to my stomach. In the square mirror is a girl, and her nose is bleeding. Blood is drooling out her mouth and into the sink. Women come and go from the bathroom, but no one notices the girl in the mirror, losing her baby.
We’re drawing pictures of our families in the art-therapy room. MC Hammer is blaring from the radio. Ronnie’s gyrating to the drums, chiming in with the lyrics:
In the game lame and insane it’s a shame I gotta do this but I remain the same unchanged gettin’ better never known. . . .
His arms and face and feet are all scratched up from his escape attempt last night. Dr. Morton is giving some lady a tour of the place. She peeks around the corner, staring at us.
“What are you looking at?” Ronnie yells. The lady gets a terrified look on her face and backs away. Ronnie cackles. He has that Hammer tape memorized. Ronnie says Morton’s a dick, “lame and insane, it’s a shame.”
“I bet he can’t even get it up,” I say. We laugh.
Last night in the cafeteria, Ronnie pushed past the lady putting fake potatoes on our plates and tore out the door to the courtyard. He jumped the four steep bushes barefoot and heaved himself over the concrete wall. The first house he found he knocked on the back door and told the guy who answered that somebody was out to get him. Said they’d beaten him up and stolen his shoes. Thing was, he was still wearing his hospital gown. Hadn’t been taking his Ativan. The guy called the police, of course.
Mrs. Patterson’s in the art room because she likes to draw, not because she has to be. She’s sketching a picture of herself and Judge Patterson on their wedding day. That’s her family.
Mine doesn’t have Daddy in it, or Mama. Just me, a stick figure with a big, fat head and arrows pointing in circles, red and green and blue and yellow. No face, just arrows.
I tell Ronnie my dream, and he pulls out his Nietzsche bible. “ ‘What we do in dreams,’ ” he reads, “ ‘we also do when we are awake: we invent and fabricate the person with whom we associate — and immediately forget we have done so.’ ” Then he laughs, Haw haw, like an old lady.
Lester is also sitting in the art room. He thinks he’s Jesus. He shapes any sticks he can find — yardsticks, pencils, plastic blind adjusters — into the shape of a cross and binds them up with rubber bands. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” Lester says, holding up his cross. “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Lester’s going to Chattahoochee tomorrow.
“Young man,” says Mrs. Patterson with her hands on her hips, “you are blaspheming the Lord. What you need is a summer in Bible school and maybe a good night’s sleep.” She picks up her picture of her and Mr. Patterson and stalks out of the room. Lester’s got a bad case of psychosis, they say. Chattahoochee’s where they have barbed wire around the grounds and bars on the doors. I don’t believe it about my mama. I don’t think she ended up there.
Dr. Morton opens a green folder. Somehow he’s gotten ahold of my pictures from art class. He promises to give them back.
“So, your father raised you?” he says. I nod and know the next question before he asks it: what happened to Mama?
“I don’t know,” I say when he asks. “Do you have any chocolate?”
“No, Leslie. You’re not here for chocolate,” he says. “Are you drinking the meal supplement after you eat?” I nod. It’s only a half-lie. I usually hold my nose and drink about half, then throw the rest away with my dinner. Tastes kinda like baby formula mixed with tin can.
“How did you feel about growing up with a father and no mother?” he asks. I look at his dick and remember what I said to Ronnie. I bet he can’t get it up.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m hungry. Can I have some chocolate?” I won’t eat a bite other than chocolate. Otherwise I’d be gaining weight. I’m only ninety-eight pounds. I’m as light as a bird that can’t quite fly.
I take some bittersweet chocolate chips from the pocket of my gown and suck on them. Dr. Morton wants to know why I think I was pregnant.
“ ‘Cause I let myself,” I say. “I wanted a baby to love.” I know he can’t get it up. That’s probably why he’s so nosy. He wants to know what’s with me and Daddy. Just like Forest. Zing, the knife goes into his sternum. Dr. Morton says I have a serious case of denial and that it happens to a lot of victims; they block it out, can’t remember. Zing, into his heart. Zing, into his lung. I want to stand up and say, “You can’t get it up, can you, fuckhead?” Instead I suck on the chocolate.
I walk the two blocks home from first grade and find Daddy stretched out limp on the bed. The Dickel bottle’s half empty on the bedside table. He sees me and starts crying and I say, What is it, Daddy, what is it? She’s gone, he says, and I can feel his hurt in my throat and in my heart and in my stomach. Don’t cry, Daddy, don’t cry, I say. I’ll learn how to cook and clean. I crawl into his arms and cry too, and say, I want my mama, I want my mama. The huge limb of the old live oak thumps against the house all night.
Before dinner, we sit in the activities room and watch reruns. Gilligan’s Island is on. I hate all the people on the island except the Professor and Ginger: they’re the only ones who know anything. Mrs. Patterson sits down next to me. She’s got on her white kid gloves and pearl earrings like she’s going to church. She looks beautiful to me, even though she is eighty-six.
“My husband is coming for me in a little while,” she says to me. She’s even wearing pantyhose under her hospital gown. She giggles like we’re sharing a joke. I grin back and burst out laughing.
“I’m hungry, Mrs. Patterson,” I say, wiping the tears off my face. She pats my leg with her gloved hand.
“Good, good,” she says. “That’s what I like to hear, Lu.”
One night she played “Holy, Holy, Holy” on the organ in the activities room at 4:00 A.M. with the cha-cha rhythm turned on; she couldn’t hear the beat, but the night crew did. They howled, but Mrs. Patterson didn’t care. She woke all of 1B and 1C that night.
Suddenly now she looks tired, and I think of my mama somewhere in the world watching Gilligan’s Island.
“Would you play the organ, Mrs. Patterson?” I ask. Her face brightens.
She begins with “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Ronnie comes over. Someday, I think, someday we’ll pack up our stuff, Ronnie and I. We’ll stand in the lobby waiting for the taxi to drive up to the glass doors. And when it does, we’ll grab Mrs. Patterson and bolt out of here. We’ll roll out like pool balls, knocked and flying.
I start to sing along with Mrs. Patterson’s playing. We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves, I sing, and turn on the bossa-nova switch. Ronnie grins. He holds out his Nietzsche book and reads, “ ‘That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.’ ” He lets out one of his old-lady haws and I think he’s the most beautiful boy in the world.