UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2006
My father is on the short side. When courting my mother, he told her he had a hole in his height. The hole was more in his head than his height, but she married him anyway, which turned out to be her hard luck. I’m forty now, and my mother has been confined for twenty-two years, during which time I’ve tried to persuade the old man to visit her, but he won’t go near the place, even though he’s the one who put her there. I try to see her once a month, though it’s never easy.
It’s a good hour’s drive, and I’ve forgotten my sunglasses, exposing me to the high intensity of the day. Sunshine wincing off oncoming windshields resembles small arms fire, and I’m the target, the world conniving to kill me. Pressing on the gas, I reach speeds of eighty and ninety mph and at one point nearly lose control in trying to avoid a dog that lies disemboweled on the outside lane.
An hour’s drive, hell! I’m driving as if forever on an unending highway. I take a break at a rest stop restaurant, where I dawdle over a mug of coffee because I dread my destination. I’ll be meek and contrite in my mother’s presence and feel guilty that I’m a free adult and she isn’t, that I’m compos mentis and she’s a nut case, and that I did little to stop my father from signing those papers. In caustic little ways she will make me pay. The last time I saw her, she said, “Why don’t you ever surprise me? Why is it always the same old you?”
This she asks of her only child.
On the road again, I clench the wheel, shoot past other speeding cars, and soon make my turn onto the hospital grounds. The building my mother is in is nineteenth- century brick, with a burdensome wooden front door that is always locked. After pressing the bell and waiting a good three minutes, I’m let in. The cast of characters seldom varies. The female receptionist, armored in perfume, summons Alfred, the attendant on my mother’s floor, a wiry fellow my age, with shiny scar tissue on the left side of his face. He was attacked here once, more than once, but brutally this one particular time. My mother claims he was defending her honor, which may or may not be true. In here, truth is apocryphal.
“How’s it going?” he asks from the side of his mouth.
I don’t respond. Why should I? We’ve never gotten along. I trail him down a long corridor where a wisp of a woman steps in our way and slips a note into my hand. I know the routine, for I’ve been through this before, and I know exactly what the note says. I have a winter coat to sell. In my room. $10. Her eyes fasten on mine to see whether I’m interested. A hint that I’m not will set her off. I take a bill from my pocket (I had it ready) and press it into a hand that has the feel of chicken bones.
“Dollar down to hold it,” I say.
“OK, keep moving,” Alfred tells her. Later he will take the dollar from her and give it to my mother. Or keep it for himself. How do I know this? Some things I don’t need to be told.
Alfred jangles keys. I know the doors that need unlocking. I watch him unlock the first one, which opens onto rising metal stairs, like those of a fire escape but wider. Tripping down is a young nurse, disturbingly pretty, provocatively shaped.
“Hold it!” she says, and her thick-soled shoes fly down the stairs. My hands jump up to catch her, but they aren’t needed. She whisks by as Alfred holds the door, his eyes following her.
“She’s having a thing with a guy here, a full-blown schizo,” he confides. “Everybody knows about it, even her husband.”
I ignore the gossip as we start the climb. Someone substantial is standing near the top.
“Jesus, it’s him, the schizo!” Alfred says and lowers his head.
The man at the top is tall, heavy, and stately in a vested suit. According to my mother, he was once a top executive, a perfectionist who dealt with detail, wrote memos meant to make men move fast, and has a fitting surname. Duke. Duke has a phone in his room, calls person-to-person collect, and hears phantom voices that stay trapped in his skull for days. The phone is unconnected.
“If he says anything, don’t believe a word of it,” Alfred whispers.
I never do. The truths of the disturbed are too richly embroidered, tapestries with weaves beyond the skill of human hands. Duke says nothing as we reach the top and warily edge by him. I doubt he even notices us. His burnt-brown eyes are on the ceiling, as if some of his thoughts were stashed up there.
Alfred and I enter the second-floor corridor, which maintains a high polish. Somewhere--I don’t see her at the moment--is a woman, calamity written into her face, who runs a dry mop up and down the corridor all day long and sometimes deep into the night. I do, however, see two familiar figures standing side by side in colorful bathrobes. Brothers, they resemble mighty kings in a poker hand, kings who beat the crap out of queens and upend jacks. One of the brothers, I’m quite sure, dealt the blow that permanently scarred Alfred.
“They shouldn’t be walking loose,” Alfred says when we are far enough away. “And she shouldn’t be either.”
Pushing toward us is the woman with the dry mop, her usually long hair butchered by a barber who didn’t give a damn or maybe was playing a joke on her. Alfred says nothing to her. Once I did, and she swung the mop at me. We trudge by plated doors with enormous keyholes, through which, if you wanted to (no secrets here) you could drop to your knees and have a peek inside. This is what Alfred does at my mother’s door, which is kept locked not so much to keep her in but to keep others out.
“She’s decent,” Alfred says, rising, selecting a heavy key from a ring of several, all medieval-looking.
Always the flinch from my mother when she sees me--the disconcerting resemblance between me and my father, at least as she remembers him. She rises from the edge of her bed, where she has been sitting with her hands in her lap. We smile. We are not demonstrative. We don’t kiss. Her gray hair has been neatly attended to, Alfred’s job. I pay him.
“Don’t mind, do you?” Alfred says. He’s staying. Why does he even ask? He’s in control. The head of the hospital grants him authority beyond his job description. I smile again at my mother. I was never much help to her. As a boy, I sided with my father, whose eyes were always open to her faults, real or imagined, and always blown out of proportion. And I was one of those children, sullen and surly, who seldom answered when spoken to.
“Sit down, dear,” my mother says. She never asks about my wife and children. They are not of her world. And neither am I.
I take a chair near the bed, sitting sideways as if ready to run. She drops into the room’s only other chair, which is cushioned and comfortable. Alfred got it for her. Long ago she took to her surroundings like a corpse takes to flowers. I remember when my father and I ushered her from the house to the car, which was parked curbside. Wind funneled down the street, picking up paper, throwing sand, lifting my mother’s hair, which was abundantly black then. Turning to me, she whispered, “Imagine, I won’t ever again have to worry about what kind of mood your father’s in. I won’t have to tiptoe around pretending I’m not there.”
I wish she could see him now. He’s old and tiny, terribly diminished, like a diseased child with a bladder problem, which is the reason his house smells like a urinal. I seldom go inside. Alfred has seated himself on the edge of the bed and is saying something to my mother.
“Excuse me,” I break in and try to think of something pertinent. “You’re looking well, Mother.”
“Am I? How nice.” She smiles in a way that makes her seem excruciatingly sane.
As sane as she did the day my father told her to stay out of the kitchen. He was losing his teeth and blaming it on her, on his diet, on the dishes she served. He took over the shopping and hired a part-time cook, who lorded it over my mother, my father joining in.
As sane as she did when he blamed her for what he didn’t get, a high-level promotion for which he’d been jockeying for months. A man named Jefferies got it. “You know why, don’t you?” he yelled. “Jefferies’s got the better wife.”
As sane as she did the night my father found bits of blood spattered on the bathroom mirror, with no sign of her. She was outside in the moonlight, belly-down on a neighbor’s lawn and conducting a minute study of a snow-white moth fluttering in the damp grass. The moth was disabled. Wet wings. She was trying to dry them. My father brought her back and asked where she’d hurt herself. “Guess,” she said. She was menstruating. “I’m not taking any more of this,” my father said.
Evidence presented at a court hearing was a suicide note that went on for twenty legal-size pages. A lot she wanted to get off her chest, she told the judge, who looked at her with sympathy and iterated the need to put her some place where she’d be safe. “My wish exactly,” my father said, and the judge told him to shut his trap.
Alfred slips off the bed’s edge and now stands behind my mother’s chair, his hands on her shoulders, as if they were mother and son and I an intruder. She says in a warm voice, “I am so thankful for this young man. Before Alfred came here, I used to howl like a banshee, didn’t I, Alfred? You’ve been so good to me.”
“That’s what I pay him for,” I say too sharply, and Alfred (we are obvious rivals) reacts at once.
“You don’t pay me that much, and I don’t do it for the money.”
“What do you do it for?”
“Boys, don’t argue,” my mother says and concentrates a smile on me. “Are you still working where your father does? He’s still there, isn’t he, dear? Did he get his promotion?”
“How time flies.”
“When you’re having fun,” Alfred adds.
My mother grips the arms of her chair and stretches her legs. “I didn’t marry your father for his looks. Hardly. I married him for his mind. How was I to know it was sick? I was sick myself. Worse, I was taller and, what’s more, smarter, so he had to cut me down to size. I’m glad you have some height, dear. You got that from me. You’re not mentally warped, are you?”
I shake my head.
“When I first came here, I was on my knees praying for inner peace. ‘There’s no such thing,’ the doctor told me. ‘You deal with what you’re dealt.’ So they dealt me Alfred, and now I’m at peace. Lordy, how nice.”
“I’m glad for you, Mother.” The doctor, as far as I can tell, isn’t one of those Freudian fellows. I personally despise Freud because he dug deep into the human mind and found filth. Too damn much of it.
Alfred has shifted from the back of my mother’s chair to the back of mine. Touching the back of my neck, he says, “Look, he’s letting his hair grow long. Must be because it’s getting thin in front.”
I bat his hand away.
“He’s only teasing you, dear.”
“He has cat’s eyes,” Alfred says.
“No, he doesn’t. He has eyes like his father’s. Leave him be.”
I look down at the floor. I don’t want to end up like my father, who, bald and gnomish, should be in diapers, has sky-high cholesterol, and reads a newspaper with one eye. The other one went bad a few years ago and registers only flickers of light.
“How’s your father doing?” my mother asks, surprising me, for it’s been years since she has mentioned him. Once I did, and she told me to leave.
“Not well. Not well at all.”
Her face goes stark. “When I die, I don’t to be buried anywhere near him. You understand? You promise?”
An easy promise. I tell her that he wants to be cremated and has it in writing, his ashes to be scattered anywhere and everywhere, which draws a snort from Alfred. Hovering behind my chair, he says, “The good burn cleanly, the damned crackle. Your father will crackle.”
Alfred is God-fearing. My mother, who is not, grimaces. “Let’s face it. God is a rumor, nothing more. Were he more, he’d be a lie.”
Alfred says, “We can argue about that later."
“I’m sure we will,” my mother says challengingly. She’s a reader. Alfred provides her with books picked up at flea markets and garage sales. I can discern the titles of two of them on her night table: Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen and Time and Eternity by W. T. Stace, neither of which I’ve heard of, understandable, since I’m not much of a reader beyond Newsweek and the daily paper. I glance at my watch and draw an instant reaction from my mother. “My son is restless.”
Alfred drops a hand on my shoulder and tells me to relax. I shrug his hand away as my mind races into a comparison of my mother’s lot with my father’s. Despite being locked up, she’s doing quite well. She’s physically healthy and has kept some of her younger looks. It’s my father who’s gone to pot, a dying man looking for a place to stretch out. I remember a morning he threw an egg at her and hit her in the chest, and the two of us watched the yolk maneuver the drool down her dress. With a recent Newsweek article in mind, I want to tell her that maybe, just maybe, nothing is my father’s fault. It’s the brain he was born with.
My mother says, “I sometimes have memories I know aren’t mine. Some are your father’s, some are yours. Would you like to hear yours?”
“Some other time, Mother. When we’re alone.”
“I don’t keep anything from Alfred. He knows everything.” She stares thoughtfully at me. “You mustn’t be afraid of me.”
What makes her think I am? “I’m not.”
“I can tell. So can Alfred.”
Alfred says, “You ought to stay with us. This is a peaceful place. It’s no Bedlam. No straitjackets here, only a needle when needed.”
“Which can be nice,” my mother says, as if struck by a particularly poignant memory of her own. Or maybe one of Alfred’s memories is playing in her head. I’m rising slowly out of my chair while she sits in hers like a planted flower nourished by something other than sun and water. I want out of here. I’ve had more than I can reasonably take. “I’m leaving now, Mother.”
“So soon? A pity.”
I wait for Alfred to escort me out, but he doesn’t make a move. My mother is viewing me ironically, as if some cat-and-mouse game were in progress, with Alfred in on it. I don’t like it. Her smile is unchanging, as if it were a disguise.
I throw a look at Alfred. “Let’s go!”
He shrugs. “You know the way.”
“Keys. I need the keys.”
“Fake it,” he says with a grin and resumes his place with my mother.
She says, “Are you still married, dear?” A nod tells her I am, and her smile shifts a bit. “Good. No one likes to be lonely.”
I reach the door with three deliberate steps. It isn’t locked--but what about the other doors? I glance back at my mother and Alfred. Do they want to mingle me with the population here? Is that their scheme? My mother’s voice catches me as I open the door, ready to rush away.
“This is terrible, dear. I can’t remember what I named you.”
“You didn’t. Dad did.”
“Ah, of course.” Her fingers tickle the air in a gesture of good-by. Alfred’s follow suit.
The woman with the mop is stationed in the middle of the corridor. She is perfectly silent and still. Were it not for the mop, a weapon when swung, she’d be divested of identity. My problem is that I’m not sure I can get around her without an encounter, but luck is with me. Abruptly she steers the mop past me while letting out a string of involuntary farts. Or voluntary. Who knows? Disrespect is everywhere. And suddenly the pressure of someone’s thumb in the small of my back hurries me along. From one of the closed rooms I hear a man howl, as if purging his soul.
“Enough!” I say and wheel around. The thumb belongs to a man in denim, who’s relatively new here. He has milky-white skin and violet-blue eyes that are strange, striking, remindful of buds on bushes waiting to be yanked open by the force of a new season. He invites me to watch him go the bathroom. “No thank you.” Best to be polite. Best never to come here again.
The two kings reign at the door to the stairwell. One has a key, the other doesn’t. The robe of the key bearer hangs open, revealing lime-green Jockey shorts, privates bunched into the pouch. Either king, but this one in particular, the mightier of the two, is capable of anything. Nobody should be loose in this place. Assuming an air of authority, I bark, “Let me through!”
“Pee-yew on you,” the mighty one says and shoves out a hand. He wants money. The man in denim, still dogging me, reworks his thumb against my spine in a manner more unpleasant than before. “Pay him what he wants.”
Do I have a choice? My mind settles on five dollars, and I slap a fast bill into the royal hand, soft like a woman’s.
“Make it more,” the man in denim demands. “Some for me.”
Something for everybody, for Christ’s sake. I do as I’m told. When in Rome. The mighty king frees open the door, the lesser one pushes me out, and the door clanks shut behind me. Am I safe? Not yet. Halfway down the steep stairs I step over abandoned clothing, the bulk of which is a three-piece suit. Duke is at the bottom, sans underwear, sans sanity, wincing as he displays himself to the nurse, who’s probing him, asking if this hurts, if that does. “Everything does!” he roars. He may have fallen. Bruises on his big body. The nurse glances up at me.
“Visiting hours are over,” she lies. “Get out of here.”
Gladly. I’m smothered inside this place where aberrations are the norm. Where faces generate into threats. Worse, where everyone seems to bear a family likeness. I slip past the nurse, who wears the traditional white, and Duke, who wears nothing. Poor Duke, far away from that male atmosphere of presumption and aggression and of cavemen in custom suits. Here, who is he?
Back in the first-floor corridor, I walk rapidly, arms swinging, showing I’m someone who doesn’t belong here and has a life to go to. I’m twenty-first century but rooted deep in the twentieth. Does that make me schizophrenic? Hardly. I’m leaving the twentieth behind. The woman with the butchered hair and the coat to sell spots me and hustles forth with that note again. No more money. No more of this shit. “Get out of my way!” I yell and stop her dead.
The receptionist sees me and rings for Alfred or whoever might be near, as if I were an escapee. Maybe I am. I have miles to travel. Haverhill, Massachusetts, that’s where I’m headed. Headed. I’m a double-header, a schizo. An instant little joke. Outside, the sun blinds me, nearly knocks me on my ass. Where are my sunglasses? Where is my car? I discern a shadow in it and stop short with the absurd fear that my mother has beaten me to it and is waiting for me to drive her home. What home? This, for Christ’s sake, is her home. The shadow dissolves when I open the door.
Looking for the highway, I make a wrong turn and drive on unfamiliar road, where too much is happening: trees bursting against the sky, stones tumbling from an endless wall, an unexpected covered bridge leading from one unclear (that may well be an anagram) world to another. Unease escalates into anxiety as I struggle to get my bearings. Where the hell am I? I’m scanning scenery for a rest stop restaurant and a dead dog. In another world the dog wouldn’t be dead, and the restaurant wouldn’t be real. I make more wrong turns before realizing I’m running on Empty. Help!
Help arrives minutes later when somehow I find myself back on hospital grounds. Waving to me is my mother, young as she used to be.
Mama!Andrew Coburn is the author of 12 novels, 3 made into French films. His work has been translated into 13 languages. A short story George W. Bush will be published in the North Atlantic Review next month and another story Spouses will be published in the winter edition of the Summerset Review. A nonfiction piece Cop Talk will appear this January in the Oregon Literary Review.
Egg Yolk was inspired by his maternal grandmother who spent her adult life in a state institution.
© 2007 Underground Voices