came up and said, "I'm Doctor Pancreas," and shook my hand.
After introducing themselves, the doctors all stood within listening distance, only
I couldn't tell my mother that they were taking down every word we said without their
hearing me, so I leaned over and whispered into her ear.
My mother drew back sharply.
"Oh, Esther, I wish you would cooperate. They say you don't cooperate. They say
you won't talk to any of the doctors or make anything in Occupational Therapy. . ."
"I've got to get out of here," I told her meaningly. "Then I'd be all right. You got
me in here," I said. "You get me out."
I thought if only I could persuade my mother to get me out of the hospital I could
work on her sympathies, like that boy with brain disease in the play, and convince her
what was the best thing to do.
To my surprise, my mother said, "All right, I'll try to get you out -- even if only to
a better place. If I try to get you out," she laid a hand on my knee, "promise you'll be
I spun round and glared straight at Doctor Syphilis, who stood at my elbow taking
notes on a tiny, almost invisible pad. "I promise," I said in a loud, conspicuous voice.
The Negro wheeled the food cart into the patients' dining room. The Psychiatric
Ward at the hospital was very small -- just two corridors in an L-shape, lined with rooms,
and an alcove of beds behind the OT shop, where I was, and a little area with a table and
a few seats by a window in the corner of the L, which was our lounge and dining room.
Usually it was a shrunken old white man that brought our food, but today it was a
Negro. The Negro was with a woman in blue stiletto heels, and she was telling him what
to do. The Negro kept grinning and chuckling in a silly way.
Then he carried a tray over to our table with three lidded tin tureens on it, and
started banging the tureens down. The woman left the room, locking the door behind her.
All the time the Negro was banging down the tureens and then the dinted silver and the
thick, white china plates, he gawped at us with big, rolling eyes.
I could tell we were his first crazy people.
Nobody at the table made a move to take the lids off the tin tureens, and the nurse
stood back to see if any of us would take the lids off before she came to do it. Usually
Mrs. Tomolillo had taken the lids off and dished out everybody's food like a little mother,
but then they sent her home, and nobody seemed to want to take her place.
I was starving, so I lifted the lid off the first bowl.
"That's very nice of you, Esther," the nurse said pleasantly. "Would you like to
take some beans and pass them round to the others?"
I dished myself out a helping of green string beans and turned to pass the tureen to
the enormous red-headed woman at my right. This was the first time the red-headed
woman had been allowed up to the table. I had seen her once, at, the end of the L-shaped
corridor, standing in front of an open door with bars on the square, inset windows.
She had been yelling and laughing in a rude way and slapping her thighs at the
passing doctors, and the white-jacketed attendant who took care of the people in that end
of the ward was leaning against the radiator, laughing himself sick.
The red-headed woman snatched the tureen from me and upended it on her plate.
Beans mountained up in front of her and scattered over onto her lap and onto the floor
like stiff, green straws.
"Oh, Mrs. Mole!" the nurse said in a sad voice. "I think you better eat in your
And she returned most of the beans to the tureen and gave it to the person next to
Mrs. Mole and led Mrs. Mole off. All the way down the hall to her room, Mrs. Mole kept
turning round and making leering faces at us, and ugly, oinking noises.
The Negro had come back and was starting to collect the empty plates of people
who hadn't dished out any beans yet.
"We're not done," I told him. "You can just wait."
"Mah, mah!" The Negro widened his eyes in mock wonder. He glanced round.
The nurse had not yet returned from locking up Mrs. Mole. The Negro made me an
insolent bow. "Miss Mucky-Muck," he said under his breath.
I lifted the lid off the second tureen and uncovered a wedge of macaroni, stone-
cold and stuck together in a gluey paste. The third and last tureen was chock-full of baked
Now I knew perfectly well you didn't serve two kinds of beans together at a meal.
Beans and carrots, or beans and peas, maybe, but never beans and beans. The Negro was
just trying to see how much we would take.
The nurse came back, and the Negro edged off at a distance. I ate as much as I
could of the baked beans. Then I rose from the table, passing round to the side where the
nurse couldn't see me below the waist, and behind the Negro, who was clearing the dirty
plates. I drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg.
The Negro leapt away with a yelp and rolled his eyes at me. "Oh Miz, oh Miz," he
moaned, rubbing his leg. "You shouldn't of done that, you shouldn't, you reely shouldn't."
"That's what you get," I said, and stared him in the eye.
"Don't you want to get up today?"
"No." I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my
head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the
thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.
"You see, it's normal." I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect
it, the way I always did. "You see, it's normal, what do you keep taking it for?"
I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be
fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my
head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn't say anything. I only
burrowed down further in the bed.
Then, through the sheet, I felt a slight, annoying pressure on my leg. I peeped out.
The nurse had set her tray of thermometers on my bed while she turned her back and took
the pulse of the person who lay next to me, in Mrs. Tomolillo's place.
A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt
of a loose tooth. I yawned and stirred, as if about to turn over, and edged my foot under
"Oh!" The nurse's cry sounded like a cry for help, and another nurse came
running. "Look what you've done!"
I poked my head out of the covers and stared over the edge of the bed. Around the
overturned enamel tray, a star of thermometer shards glittered, and balls of mercury
trembled like celestial dew.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It was an accident."
The second nurse fixed me with a baleful eye. "You did it on purpose. I saw you."
Then she hurried off, and almost immediately two attendants came and wheeled
me, bed and all, down to Mrs. Mole's old room, but not before I had scooped up a ball of
Soon after they had locked the door, I could see the Negro's face, a molasses-
colored moon, risen at the window grating, but I pretended not to notice.
I opened my fingers a crack, like a child with a secret, and smiled at the silver
globe cupped in my palm. If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of
itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one
I smiled and smiled at the small silver ball.
I couldn't imagine what they had done with Mrs. Mole.
black Cadillac eased through the tight, five o'clock traffic
like a ceremonial car. Soon it would cross one of the brief bridges that arched the
Charles, and I would, without thinking, open the door and plunge out through the stream
of traffic to the rail of the bridge. One jump and the water would be over my head.
Idly I twisted a Kleenex to small, pill-sized pellets between my fingers and
watched my chance. I sat in the middle of the back seat of the Cadillac, my mother on
one side of me, and my brother on the other, both leaning slightly forward, like diagonal
bars, one across each car door.
In front of me I could see the Spam-colored expanse of the chauffeur's neck,
sandwiched between a blue cap and the shoulders of a blue jacket and, next to him, like a
frail, exotic bird, the silver hair and emerald-feathered hat of Philomena Guinea, the
I wasn't quite sure why Mrs. Guinea had turned up. All I knew was that she had
interested herself in my case and that at one time, at the peak of her career, she had been
in an asylum as well
My mother said that Mrs. Guinea had sent her a telegram from the Bahamas,
where she read about me in a Boston paper. Mrs. Guinea had telegrammed, "Is there a
boy in the case?"
If there was a boy in the case, Mrs. Guinea couldn't, of course, have anything to
do with it.
But my mother had telegrammed back, "No, it is Esther's writing. She thinks she
will never write again."
So Mrs. Guinea had flown back to Boston and taken me out of the cramped city
hospital ward, and now she was driving me to a private hospital that had grounds and golf
courses and gardens, like a country club, where she would pay for me, as if I had a
scholarship, until the doctors she knew of there had made me well.
My mother told me I should be grateful. She said I had used up almost all her
money, and if it weren't for Mrs. Guinea she didn't know where I'd be. I knew where I'd
be though. I'd be in the big state hospital in the country, cheek by jowl to this private
I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn't feel a thing. If Mrs.
Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn't have
made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat -- on the deck of a ship or at a
street café in Paris or Bangkok -- I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing
in my own sour air.
Blue sky opened its dome above the river, and the river was dotted with sails. I
readied myself, but immediately my mother and my brother each laid one hand on a door
handle. The tires hummed briefly over the grill of the bridge. Water, sails, blue sky and
suspended gulls flashed by like an improbable postcard, and we were across.
I sank back in the gray, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar
wadded round me and I couldn't stir.
I had my own room again.
It reminded me of the room in Doctor Gordon's hospital -- a bed, a bureau, a
closet, a table and chair. A window with a screen, but no bars. My room was on the first
floor, and the window, a short distance above the pine-needle-padded ground, overlooked
a wooded yard ringed by a red brick wall. If I jumped I wouldn't even bruise my knees.
The inner surface of the tall wall seemed smooth as glass.
The journey over the bridge had unnerved me.
I had missed a perfectly good chance. The river water passed me by like an
untouched drink. I suspected that even if my mother and brother had not been there I
would have made no move to jump.
When I enrolled in the main building of the hospital, a slim young woman had
come and introduced herself. "My name is Doctor Nolan. I am to be Esther's doctor."
I was surprised to have a woman. I didn't think they had woman psychiatrists.
This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother. She wore a white blouse
and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped
But after a nurse had led me across the lawn to the gloomy brick building called
Caplan, where I would live, Doctor Nolan didn't come to see me, a whole lot of strange
men came instead.
I lay on my bed under the thick white blanket, and they entered my room, one by
one, and introduced themselves. I couldn't understand why there should be so many of
them, or why they would want to introduce themselves, and I began to think they were
testing me, to see if I noticed there were too many of them, and I grew wary.
Finally, a handsome, white-haired doctor came in and said he was the director of
the hospital. Then he started talking about the Pilgrims and Indians and who had the land
after them, and what rivers ran nearby, and who had built the first hospital, and how it
had burned down, and who had built the next hospital, until I thought he must be waiting
to see when I would interrupt him and tell him I knew all that about rivers and Pilgrims
was a lot of nonsense.
But then I thought some of it might be true, so I tried to sort out what was likely
to be true and what wasn't, only before I could do that, he had said good-bye.
I waited till I heard the voices of all the doctors die away. Then I threw back the
white blanket and put on my shoes and walked out into the hall. Nobody stopped me, so I
walked round the corner of my wing of the hall and down another, longer hall, past an
open dining room.
A maid in a green uniform was setting the tables for supper. There were white
linen tablecloths and glasses and paper napkins. I stored the fact that they were real
glasses in the corner of my mind the way a squirrel stores a nut. At the city hospital we
had drunk out of paper cups and had no knives to cut our meat. The meat had always
been so overcooked we could cut it with a fork.
Finally I arrived at a big lounge with shabby furniture and a threadbare rug. A girl
with a round pasty face and short black hair was sitting in an armchair, reading a
magazine. She reminded me of a Girl Scout leader I'd had once. I glanced at her feet, and
sure enough, she wore those flat brown leather shoes with fringed tongues lapping down
over the front that are supposed to be so sporty, and the ends of the laces were knobbed
with little imitation acorns.
The girl raised her eyes and smiled. "I'm Valerie. Who are you?"
I pretended I hadn't heard and walked out of the lounge to the end of the next
wing. On the way, I passed a waist-high door behind which I saw some nurses.
"Where is everybody?"
"Out." The nurse was writing something over and over on little pieces of adhesive
tape. I leaned across the gate of the door to see what she was writing, and it was E.
Greenwood, E. Greenwood, E. Greenwood, E. Greenwood.
"Oh, OT, the golf course, playing badminton."
I noticed a pile of clothes on a chair beside the nurse. They were the same clothes
the nurse in the first hospital had been packing into the patent leather case when I broke
the mirror. The nurses began sticking the labels onto the clothes.
I walked back to the lounge. I couldn't understand what these people were doing,
playing badminton and golf. They mustn't be really sick at all, to do that.
I sat down near Valerie and observed her carefully. Yes, I thought, she might just
as well be in a Girl Scout camp. She was reading her tatty copy of Vogue with intense
''What the hell is she doing here?" I wondered. "There's nothing the matter with
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Doctor Nolan leaned back in the armchair next to my
I said no, I liked the smell of smoke. I thought if Doctor Nolan smoked, she might
stay longer. This was the first time she had come to talk with me. When she left I would
simply lapse into the old blankness.
"Tell me about Doctor Gordon," Doctor Nolan said suddenly. "Did you like him?"
I gave Doctor Nolan a wary look. I thought the doctors must all be in it together,
and that somewhere in this hospital, in a hidden corner, there reposed a machine exactly
like Doctor Gordon's, ready to jolt me out of my skin.
"No," I said. "I didn't like him at all."
"That's interesting. Why?"
"I didn't like what he did to me."
"Did to you?"
I told Doctor Nolan about the machine, and the blue flashes, and the jolting and
the noise. While I was telling her she went very still.
"That was a mistake," she said then. "It's not supposed to be like that."
I stared at her.
"If it's done properly," Doctor Nolan said, "it's like going to sleep."
"If anyone does that to me again I'll kill myself."
Doctor Nolan said firmly, "You won't have any shock treatments here. Or if you
do," she amended, "I'll tell you about it beforehand, and I promise you it won't be
anything like what you had before. Why," she finished, "some people even like them."
After Doctor Nolan had gone I found a box of matches on the windowsill. It
wasn't an ordinary-size box, but an extremely tiny box. I opened it and exposed a row of
little white sticks with pink tips. I tried to light one, and it crumpled in my hand.
I couldn't think why Doctor Nolan would have left me such a stupid thing.
Perhaps she wanted to see if I would give it back. Carefully I stored the toy matches in
the hem of my new wool bathrobe. If Doctor Nolan asked me for the matches, I would
say I'd thought they were made of candy and had eaten them.
A new woman had moved into the room next to mine.
I thought she must be the only person in the building who was newer than I was,
so she wouldn't know how really bad I was, the way the rest did. I thought I might go in
and make friends.
The woman was lying on her bed in a purple dress that fastened at the neck with a
cameo brooch and reached midway between her knees and her shoes. She had rusty hair
knotted in a schoolmarmish bun, and thin, silver-rimmed spectacles attached to her breast
pocket with a black elastic.
"Hello," I said conversationally, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "My name's
Esther, what's your name?"
The woman didn't stir, just stared up at the ceiling. I felt hurt. I thought maybe
Valerie or somebody had told her when she first came in how stupid I was.
A nurse popped her head in at the door.
"Oh, there you are," she said to me. "Visiting Miss Norris. How nice!" And she
I don't know how long I sat there, watching the woman in purple and wondering if
her pursed pink lips would open, and if they did open, what they would say.
Finally, without speaking or looking at me, Miss Norris swung her feet in their
high, black, buttoned boots over the other side of the bed and walked out of the room. I
thought she might be trying to get rid of me in a subtle way. Quietly, at a little distance, I
followed her down the hall.
Miss Norris reached the door of the dining room and paused. All the way to the
dining room she had walked precisely, placing her feet in the very center of the cabbage
roses that twined through the pattern of the carpet. She waited a moment and then, one by
one, lifted her feet over the doorsill and into the dining room as though stepping over an
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Documents you may be interested