by Gary William Crawford
Margaret knew she didn’t belong here; she wasn’t like the others. But it was a comfortable place, relatively speaking. She needed a place to unwind: it had been eight months since her father died. He had been old, eighty-four in fact; but the way he died was horrible.
She could still remember the smell of his half-alive body, as his legs were gangrened. It was not simply that the smell was horrible at the time. It still lingered with her in a strange way. It was, Margaret felt, as if her father had managed to penetrate some rift in time, and still live on in that horrible smell.
But Margaret was not like the others in the place. They were gathered in the day room. Visitors were coming through the door of the lobby like cattle and heading for the coffee makers. That was about all one could do here: drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.
She could go to the gym sometimes and play volleyball with the others, the younger ones. But she didn’t like to do that. Every morning she had to go to Occupational Therapy and slop paint on ceramic figures, then go to Group Therapy and listen to the others’ problems. Margaret didn’t have any problems, especially now; as she waited for her mother to come to visit her, she felt she had no problems at all.
The day room was noisy with the babble of voices, the families talking with their loved ones, the ones who had problems. The television sets — one linked to a cable system, one with rabbit ears — were on different channels. Enough to drive the paranoids wild, thought Margaret. Assorted visitors were lined up at the coffee pots. People kissed each other. It made Margaret think of decaying flesh. Nurses rushed about but did little or nothing. Cigarette smoke rose like a cloud.
In the dining room, the others were lined up at the Coke machines, which buzzed and vomited cans of soda. Margaret felt ill.
There was one of the techs: Jim was his name, a graduate student in psychology at Michael James University. Margaret liked him. She was thrilled when he spoke to her.
“How goes it, Margot?” He often called her that, and she laughed.
“Just waiting,” she answered. “Waiting for Dr. Herrmann to let me out.”
She liked Jim’s looks and manner. Tall, with sandy brown hair, dark large eyes. The full, young, soft beard. He was intelligent, too, and that made all the difference. He wasn’t ignorant, like the others. She’d wanted him to hold her and caress her; to feel his sensuous lips with that full, soft beard kissing her breasts.
Then she remembered her father telling her that any kind of sexual love, except for that of procreation, was evil. It had been a long time since she’d had the love of a man, ever since she left school. There had been Robert. Bob. He was older. Married, too. A professor of physics at Northwest Alabama. He’d taught her how physics could explain everything in the universe, even the irrational part of the mind, the subconscious. But here was Jim, closer to her age, a psychology major. He was learning to explain everything too.
“We... I’ll miss you when you leave,” she heard Jim saying. He jerked her back to reality with his words. She smiled, and felt her face redden.
In the background, the two could hear one of the patients, a slightly retarded man, yelling at one of the nurses, who was trying to get him to take his medication: “No Haldol! I refuse to take Haldol!”
Jim and Margaret laughed.
“Wilkins is my doctor!” the man continued to yell. “He says no Haldol!”
The nurse continued to try to persuade him to take his medication as Jim gestured Margaret to one of the dining tables.
“Tell me,” said Jim as he sat down. “Still having problems with your memories of your father?”
She felt she could be honest with Jim. “A little. But I’m not like the others.”
“I know. You’re not crazy. The others aren’t either, if you look at it a certain way.”
Margaret grimaced. “But all of those people believe that they’re God’s messenger or that they’re God.”
“A lot of them do.”
“We don’t know yet. A psychosis is a disease. A lot of the research indicates that people are born with it. It’s genetic. The symptoms just get worse when they’re under some kind of emotional stress.” He looked at her warily, and then came out with, “You’re under stress now.”
“But I’m not crazy.”
She liked Jim. She felt that he could replace her father in her mind. She felt warm with him, safe. She wanted to ask him if they could see each other after she got out of the place, but that would be too forward. She wanted him to make the first move.
A tense silence settled between them, emphasized by the noise of the others.
“I refuse to take Haldol! No Haldol!” the retarded man kept yelling.
Margaret’s mother walked into the dining room. She winced at the noise. Jim followed Margaret’s gaze, saw her mother, and got up from the table.
“A visitor,” he said, turning to her and smiling.
Margaret cringed, then smiled at him.
“See you later,” said Jim as he turned and walked out.
“Who was that?” her mother said as she sat down.
“One of the techs.”
“Well,” her mother said with a smirk. “When is Dr. Herrmann going to let you out?”
“He said as soon as he gets my medicine regulated.”
“Well, all I can say is that this hospital bill will be enormous.”
“I have insurance. Is that all you can think about?”
“I’m worried. I’m worried about you.”
“Is it your father?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” She hadn’t told her mother about the smell. It seemed to increase now.
The retarded man kept yelling: “No Haldol! I refuse to take Haldol!”
“Who is that?” Margaret’s mother asked, eyes rounded in shock.
“One of the patients.”
“What’s his problem?”
“He thinks his father is in the Mafia.”
“Well, is he?”
“Is he what?” Margaret was irritated.
“In the Mafia.”
“Who knows? He’s crazy.”
Margaret’s mother shivered. “I hate to come to this place.”
“I came to see you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“Go home, mother.”
“But I came to see you.”
“Just go, mother. You don’t want to be here. So go.”
“Just go, mother. You don’t understand.”
“All right.” She rose from the table. “Do you need anything?”
Her mother leaned down to kiss her, but Margaret turned away.
Margaret stared into space and listened as her mother’s heels clicked off into the noise. She got up and went into the day room. The sound of the voices was deafening. The television sets blared. A stereo radio blasted away in a corner of the room. An acid rock song.
Margaret saw her psychiatrist, Dr. Herrmann. She heard him tell one of the nurses in his thick accent: “Somebody turn that Devil machine off.”
Margaret laughed, “Don’t you like rock, Dr. Herrmann?”
“It’s enough to drive me crazy.”
“When do I get out?”
“In a while.”
“Aw, Dr. Herrmann...”
“I counsel patience.”
He responded with: “Still having the hallucination?”
“Then, we wait and see.”
Margaret sighed and walked away past the nurses’ station.
“Margaret?” One of the nurses called her.
She stopped and stared at the nurse.
“Time for your Loxitane and Dalmane,”
Margaret forced a smile, took the pills handed out to her in a paper cup and swallowed them with a cup of water. She wondered is she’d ever be able to get off the stuff.
“Turning in early?” the nurse asked, smiling. Margaret noticed how all the staff always smiled like that. It made her ill.
“I guess,” answered Margaret.
As she went into her room, she could sense the smell intensifying. She’d been thinking of her father. The brief, tense visit with her mother reminded her of how life had been at home when her father was alive. Here she was, thirty years old and still living at home. The nervous breakdowns she’d had when she was in her early twenties, all five of them, had stunted her growth into maturity. Now, the smell.
She undressed and got into bed. She had the room to herself. The bed next to hers had been unoccupied for a week, and for that she was grateful. She didn’t want to share anything with the other patients. Least of all her problem.
The smell. Would it ever go away? But as the Loxitane and Dalmane took effect, the smell only increased. The medication seemed to make all her senses acute.
She lay in bed, and after a while she found herself in a strange building. Was it a hospital? No, it couldn’t be. This was a long corridor with white walls, ceiling, and floor. Solid, no doors or windows or lights overhead. But light was everywhere. She seemed to glide through the long corridor until it turned into another, just as white. This one, however, turned at odd angles. There were no doors anywhere. She was frightened, but she knew it was a dream. There was, above all, the smell.
She saw her father’s face, all shriveled and rotting, as she had seen him in the hospital before he died. A rat — a fat, dead rat — was in his mouth. He looked at her with rounded frightened eyes. He knew he was dying. Did he die insane? Her father had been crazy. Never letting her go anywhere alone. Driving her everywhere. She hadn’t been able to use the car. After he died, she realized she’d almost forgotten how to drive. He ruled tyrannically over the household. He was sick, a potent yet rotten evil.
Her father’s head turned and she saw a scalpel sticking out of the rat’s body. He had died under the knife. Gangrened legs. His legs were to be amputated.
“Pick her up and put her in the bed. Dr. Watkins has ordered an injection of Haldol.”
Someone wailed. A woman. Margaret struggled out of her drugged sleep. The wailing grew louder. She managed to open her eyes, but the lids felt swollen and heavy. There was a light in the room. It had been dark when she went to bed. The room stank of rotting flesh. The wailing continued.
Then she noticed a woman’s head in the bed next to her. “Why did they put someone in here?” she thought angrily. She climbed out of the bed, feeling the drug weigh down her body. She looked at the woman’s body, its shape under the bedclothes.
She shrieked when she saw the legless torso.
She ran out of the room, straight into Jim, the tech.
“There’s a woman in my room. She doesn’t have any legs!”
The others stared at her with dead, paranoiac faces. They watched her hysteria mount.
“Calm down,” Jim said. “That’s Mrs. Wilkins. She’s a psych patient like you.”
“But her legs!”
“Oh, no. Hold me, Jim. Keep me here.” She pressed against his body but then recoiled. His flesh seemed rotten to her touch. Was he evil? A moral evil? Like her father?
“Go back to your room.”
“I can’t. Not with her there.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
He walked away from her. Margaret hesitated, then went back to the room. She went into the bathroom, washed her face, and looked at herself in the mirror. She touched the mirror, and touched not glass but the gray rot of decayed flesh.
Then she noticed it. The smell was gone. Her own wry smile came to her as a shock.
Copyright © 2009 by Gary William Crawford