By Marcie Beyatte
Miranda shuffles in a conga line of johnny-coated inmates to reach an open Dutch door where she’s served a piece of rhubarb pie on a white paper plate and given a black plastic spoon. She sits at a long wooden table and discovers she’s ravenous. She’s aware that she’s being studied by the Druggies across the table as they disdainfully try to decide if she’s worthy of their attention.
“Can I have more of this humble pie?” She holds up her empty plate and the Druggies cackle but they can’t agree on what kind of crazy she is.
“Must be speed she’s on.”
“No, that’s some other good stuff, like mesc!”
“Whatever it is, I want some.”
For the past two years, since she turned sixteen, she’s been the center of a medical dilemma to determine what medication will fix her so they’ll know what diagnosis to write in her chart. Everyone agrees that something’s wrong, but she’s still broken, despite Valium, Haldol, Lithium, Meleril, Elival, Tofrinal, and now Thorazine.
She hated Lithium the most because she had to take eighteen capsules a day. She often lost count and resorted to grazing in her parent’s medicine cabinet, sampling a smorgasbord of whatever was the current favorite among the disillusioned middle aged.
Miranda can’t sit still and she can’t shut up so the Druggies have christened her Poetry in Motion. She can tolerate a massive dose of Thorazine and somehow remain ambulatory. They try to convince her to share her meds but she knows that would be wrong and tells them so.
At the next meds line-up, she finds out that she’s on “mouth check,” which means that she must open her mouth wide and lift her tongue, first to the left and then to the right, while a nurse probes with a tongue depressor and finally a flashlight to make sure she’s swallowed her pills. It’s humiliating yet mysterious, this omniscient power the nurses wield, that makes them privy to almost every exchange that takes place.
When she’s invited to make wine with the Druggies, they use empty plastic shampoo bottles, sugar and green grapes left over from lunch. They hide out in a different room each night, timing their efforts between hourly room checks. As they sit in a circle, they shake the bottles like shamans to the music of New Riders of the Purple Sage singing “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” They gather every night to shake these bottles and then hide them around the unit. The wine tastes like soap but she’s happy to be included; she feels an alliance with the Druggies, even though she knows she’s a different kind of crazy that has little to do with LSD or speed. Without them, she would be forced to attempt conversation with the ancient catatonic ladies lined up in their wicker chairs, littering the silent halls.
Miranda is always alert for any sign that heralds a new arrival. There’s a subtle hum of activity as the aides prepare the room and the nurses bustle about with pinched lips, feeling sorry for themselves, regretting that it has to happen on their shift.
Laura is carried in on a stretcher just before Christmas with bandages lined up on both her forearms. The next day she appears in the dayroom as cheerful as if she is at a pep rally. She couldn’t have been older than twenty, but her pearls, twin sets, and maiden lady manners make her seem older. Miranda imagines her in saddle shoes and bobby socks, waiting in the gym for a partner to invite her to jitterbug. Laura reads TheNew Yorker magazine from cover to cover every week then passes the issues on. Miranda likes to hang out in Laura’s room because she never talks about herself and she applauds Miranda’s solitary lines of poetry. Her favorite is: For a friggin’ nickel, I’d buy a Jewish dill pickle.
Holly is a fragile blond who refuses to eat and will not speak. Miranda disagrees with the Druggies who insist that she’s catatonic and paces the halls with her, chattering away. She won’t give up and when she finally succeeds in forcing Holly to smile, Miranda promises to keep her secret.
They snake a tube up Holly’s nose and down her throat. They do this twice. Before the start of the third treatment, she shouts her first words, “OK, I’ll eat.”
The hospital publishes a fancy brochure that makes the asylum look like a college campus with an indoor swimming pool, theater, and tennis courts. The Druggies launch a campaign to be taken swimming and every day they chant in unison, “take the loonies swimming, take the loonies swimming,” until all the inmates join in.
They keep the chant humming for weeks, until one day they win and the loonies are finally taken swimming. Most of them have the regulation blue tank suits and the few that don’t, improvise with the abandoned yellowing lingerie hanging in the washroom. Miranda goes with them to the pool through the underground tunnels of the hospital because none of them are allowed outside, above the ground.
The tunnels smell of dank earth and steam heat. She’s amazed at the sheer number of food, laundry and cleaning staff swarming in this primeval underground hive. They speak a patois she can’t quite understand but the words are musical.
Miranda has always hated swimming and thought the chanting was more fun than the actual dip into the icy pool, but she knows, along with the rest of the loonies, that the power scales have tipped. She relishes the change and waits for a sign about their next action.
Once spring arrives, they’re allowed outside in a courtyard enclosed by high brick walls. She’s been locked inside for five months and this tiny patch of walled-in dirt is her first sniff of freedom. Even the breeze is intoxicating; she sits on a bench and tilts her face up to the sun, like a flower. She absorbs the warmth and sucks the air greedily into her lungs. Later she joins the rest of the loonies as they circle the perimeter of the courtyard. One of the Druggies yells “clockwise,” and later, when she announces “about face,” they turn in unison, like synchronized swimmers. They refuse to come inside and their demand to stay out past dark is granted, reluctantly.
They attend metal- and leather-work classes once a week, traveling again through the underground tunnels. The therapist in charge of the leatherwork class has a port wine stain on the left side of her face, from her cheekbone to her chin. It’s the same shade as the maroon dye Miranda uses to color her wristband. She wonders about the mark; it looks like someone tossed acid at the therapist’s face. Miranda still worries about what she might have done during the time she can’t remember. No one has posted her crimes and she’s too afraid to ask. If she could arrive at this place with no memory of the journey, it’s possible that she may have hurled the acid or done something even worse.
“You look like a girl who loves to ride horses,” the metal shop supervisor singles her out. She wonders what it is about her that makes him guess right. She considers this as she polishes a silver ring and again later when she stares at her reflection in what passes for a mirror, a reflective piece of shiny metal stuck to the bathroom wall. Her hair vines past her shoulders, thick, wavy, and matted, like a horse’s tail, and her hazel eyes can see a girl galloping away on taffy colored horse.
When the medication has fulfilled its purpose, rendering her passive and obedient, she’s promoted to a co-ed unit where she earns a ground’s pass and the sharps are not counted after every meal. She’s told that she’s on the way to recovery, yet she feels more disconnected than ever.
The new ward could have passed for a college dorm; the only thing missing is the laughter. Medication fogs any chance of life and the halls are deadly quiet.
She first notices him on evening promenades. He’s over six feet tall and he looks like a cowboy in his denim work shirt, faded Levis, and hand tooled leather belt. When she sees him she hears James Taylor’s lullaby, “Sweet Baby James,” playing softly in her head.
They often find themselves sitting up late at night, unable to sleep. He’s from out west; drugs and alcohol paved his way to this hospital. Soon he’ll be released, tossed like an unimpressive fish, landing back on his bar stool, “thinking about whiskey and bottles of beer.”
As soon as they both earn passes, they walk into town every day to order Cherry Cokes, with lime twists, in the dark hotel bars. They mostly talk about the leaving: What they still need to prove, to whom, and when it might happen. It’s too unsettling to talk about what kind of life awaits them back home.
When word gets to her doctor that she has a boyfriend, she’s grilled about why they don’t display any physical affection on the ward. Miranda knows that she has to prove that she won’t engage in indiscriminate sex--something she was notorious for in the past. She understands that she’s required to demonstrate that she can conduct a quasi-sexual relationship before her release, as long as consummation--or pleasure--doesn’t take place. He agrees to cooperate and they display sanitized gropings and chaste kisses to fuel the rumor mill. The authorities are satisfied.
He’s scheduled to be released before her. She knows she’ll miss him, but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever see each other again; Reno is a long way from her home.
The morning of his departure, he wears his cowboy hat and he already looks like a stranger. He bends down, scoops her up and kisses her--it’s really their first and only kiss--then he’s gone. She doesn’t know how life works out for him. They exchange a few letters but they quickly run out of things to say. But she’ll always remember that kiss: The frustration, the promise, and ultimately, the disappointment.
A few weeks after he leaves, it’s her turn. She’s instructed that she must take medication for the rest of her life and that working at a McDonald’s is a realistic career objective. Suicide seems like the better solution to the blueprint they’ve extended.
She rejoins the family that rejected her as a teenager, only now they have confidence in the documents that testify to her sanity. The past is whitewashed like the attic bedroom walls where she used to record her graffiti-like dreams using a black marking pen. She burrows under quilts as the blizzards pound against her window.
She hides an almost full bottle of pills in her bottom dresser drawer, under some sweatshirts, and writes a poem about the apricot-colored light she imagines exists in California. She leaves her family and finds a job in a library. On a Sunday night when she walks to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes, she’s surprised by the sound her voice because she hasn’t heard it all weekend. She’s careful, very careful, not to draw attention to herself.
If they ever get hold of her again, she still has the pills, more than enough to thwart their plans. Sometimes she lines them up on her kitchen table, feeling the power as they snake around the perimeter, like soldiers preparing for battle.
Marcie Beyatte is in the process of re-inventing herself after surviving breast cancer. So far, she has “come out” as a writer and she also likes to paint. She lives in Northern California.
Marcie's story Double Or Nothing is also available at VerbSap
Photo "By Prescription Only 4" courtesy of Hannah Gleghorn, Addision, Texas.
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