Monday, February 28, 2005

Andrea's Fiction - "...a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here"

Unlike Toni, Van, and the others likely to post here, I probably won't have much content to contribute. My personal experiences with Andrea overlap Toni's almost 100%, and I'm not a poet. Setting up and administering the site will probably be much of what I can contribute.

That said, Toni has suggested that we post Andrea's story "Someplace In Between" here. This was the work which first established Andrea as a writer of national stature, winning the 1992 Hemingway Prize for short fiction.



Someplace In Between

I never sleep that I know of, so I'm awake when Hattie slips into my room. She's black as the night outside and moves quick for an old woman, but they leave the lights in the corridor on all night here for the nurses to come in and take our vital signs. So I can see it's Hattie but I don't let on, and she creeps over by my bed, lifts up her hospital shift, and squats with her big gray bush inches off the floor and lets a huge puddle right there on the linoleum. She laughs without making a sound, but she does that a lot, her body rocking and her candy corn teeth barely hanging in there, ticking like bad nerves. I think about asking her if she knows who took my cigarettes. I had a secret stash in a BandAid box taped under the bathroom sink. But I don't want to spoil her fun so I keep quiet and she tiptoes out the door, her shoulders still shaking.

When I first came here, I was afraid of Hattie. I was afraid of all the other patients. I was confused about everything. I can't really say how it all came about. I had a love affair with a married man that ended badly, but at thirty-four that's not a singular experience. It's not like I slit my wrists or something, I just quit living. After he left me, I kept an apple in the refrigerator that he had taken a bite out of. The older it got, the clearer you could see where his teeth marks cut the flesh right down to the core. I kept it so long it shriveled up like an old man's balls. Except for the vodka, it was the only thing in the refrigerator when they came for me that day.

It wasn't at all like in the cartoons, with a van-load of starched orderlies wielding giant butterfly nets. Which reminds me of how much my father liked those cartoons with the chicken hawk. He would chase me around the house yelling, "Come to me my chickadee!" in his Foghorn-Leghorn voice. Anyway, two policeman entered my home at my family's request, fished me from my waterbed and placed me almost reverently in the back seat of a patrol car. I don't remember being very surprised or frightened, just embarrassed because I hadn't bathed or brushed my teeth in a long time. I had on my loud silk kimono which was flapping in the wind, so they probably saw that I hadn't shaved my legs in a while either. The strangest part was that my family was huddled in my back yard by the fig tree. When we drove away, they were all peeking through the holes in the chain link fence. All except my father.

Processing was tedious--a lot of paperwork and paper cups and violated veins. They took away the belt to my kimono, which was awkward because I had nothing on underneath. They gave me a pair of big blue pajamas. When I changed, I was pleased with my pointed pelvic bones, and my small breasts reminded me of the apple. I wondered if my mother would find it and throw it away, not knowing its significance. Later that day someone delivered an overnight bag with toilet items in it. It was dropped it off, so I never saw who brought it. An overnight bag. There's humor in that now. The nurse is coming. She always feels my breast when she wraps that pad around my arm, so I pretend I am asleep.

***

I am standing in the cold outside a big beautiful house in a fancy neighborhood. It is my lover's house, and he is inside with his wife and new baby. I can see through the bright windows that they are having a party. I am not dressed nice enough to go inside, but I want to very badly. So I pull a miniature Smirnoff from the pocket of my blue-jean jacket and stick the whole neck of the bottle in my mouth like a small gun. Armed with a warm rush of social composure, I slip through the door to the party in progress. My lover, ringed in the last of his red hair, offers me a cocktail as if he doesn't know me. I think this is a trick because he has said he will leave me if I drink, so I decline. No one seems to notice me except the dog, who singles me out and pushes his friendly greeting between my legs, making a spectacle of my gender. Women walk by in spiked heels that click like tongues. My lover looks intellectual with a pipe. He ignores me and sniffs his own smoke thoughtfully. I resist the urge to touch the hem of his jacket. An old man stands by a grandfather clock, his presence thin as crystal. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. He toasts me with a cocktail and whispers, "This is my body, this is my blood." I am perched on the edge of an antique chair, balancing a plate of baby swiss and a small bundle of green fruit. The wife approaches, the Madonna and child. I am blushing like the Zinfandel, the grapes pale beads I count with my fingers. Closer now, and I slip through a hole in the cheese, stumble through the sober door. Outside, the crones of midnight wait. We whip the rats to frenzy.

***

Breakfast is fake eggs and tough pale toast. "Jake the Flake" runs down the hallway, clutching the excess handful of his hospital pajamas at the waistline yelling, "Cigarette break!" We all file out and take our places at the round table. The nurse unlocks a cabinet and rations cigarettes as though this took years of training. We stare at her big ring of keys. The old man beside me never wears his teeth and as always, asks me for one of my cigarettes, though he gets two just like the rest of us. I shake my head no, then look away so he can steal one. Across from me Hattie gets a kick out of this, laughing silently. It happens every day. There is a certain order to things here. Today there is a buzz of excitement around the table. Jake is being transferred to Chattahoochee. He has been there before. His wrists are manacled with scars. Jake is younger than I am and not bad looking except that his teeth are a little mossy. People in here tend to have bad teeth. Maybe they were bad before they came in. I don't know.

I know my father would have refused to sign the papers to put me in here. This is not even a private clinic. It is the mental health ward stashed in the basement of Bay Memorial Hospital. Even the staff who have to work here are offended. The huge nurses march around doing the Gestapo two-step with their breasts starched up under their chins and all that facial hair. I have sat with my father many nights while he fought the war over again with a bottle in his hand. I have been a prisoner with him, eating thin broth and bits of maggot bread. I cried with him over his dead friend, the two of them trapped in a foxhole and the body stinking and swelling up so tight the buttons burst off his uniform. I have held the green Tupperware bowl under his chin when he got sick and put damp cloths in the freezer for his head. That is how I know he would have had no part of this.

Dr. Peningroth is here. He looks like Quasimodo. The nurse brings him coffee and I think, "She brawt me wata!" and envision him swinging from the bells at Notre Dame. He asks why I am laughing, but knows I won't answer him because I don't talk out loud anymore. That started about the same time that my personal hygiene declined. At first, it was because I was just too tired. Too tired to get out of bed, go to work, answer the phone or the door. Then I just didn't have anything to say. They have a fancy name for it in here, but I call it fatigue. Besides, I know I can talk, that's why I could have asked Hattie about the cigarettes last night. I just didn't want to.

Peningroth is reading over what I have written for him and chain-smoking Virginia Slims, which is particularly hard on me because I am only allowed to smoke at designated times. I could probably quit under the circumstances, but I don't want to give up anything else. It was his idea that he assign me questions and then before our next session I write my response in the notebook he gave me. This is fine with me. The questions are personal, about my family and childhood, sex and death. I let him read what I have written, but I don't let him keep it. It's mine. He doesn't wear a lab coat. Today he has on a loud Hawaiian-type shirt and khaki pants that bag in the seat. He is a huge man, but I suspect he has a small penis. I know what he is reading right now. Maybe he has a large penis. I don't know.

Dr. P wants to know why I have never married. Why I have affairs with older men, married men. Men who aren't my own. I am actually getting angry while he steams up his Ben Franklin specs talking about my sexual fears and fantasies right out loud. It is all I can do to keep from yelling, "I bet you have a small penis!" when I realize that is probably just what he wants me to do. I do nothing, and he tells me again about this being an uphill climb and how I have to help him help me. Behind his glasses he looks like a big bird, all beady-eyed, and I wonder what would happen if I trusted him. Where is all this taking me? I don't know. I am too tired to think about it. I go back to my room and lie down, just to rest because I never sleep.

***

I walk through pine needles and purple berries, the wet soil dark as blood. It is an uphill climb. Vines like fat fingers grope the trunks of hardwood trees. There is a stream. On the sand bed, below the surface of the water, is a white stoned stained with algae. I wade into the stream and when my hand closes on the stone, a hawk circles above me. He settles on a nearby branch, his talons cracked and curled like an old arthritic. I know him from my dreams. We are familiar. I clean the green from the stone and it becomes a candle. In the company of the hawk, I move on. We have not gone far when I feel that we are near the nightmare, a cave so dark that even dreams will not sleep here. I offer the hawk my arm, and we enter. I hear the cracking of heads beneath my feet. Snakes of all species hiss and slide. Venom stalactites drip and rainbows of poison splash like arcs of oil on water. I walk by faith and the light of the stone. I am not bitten, but exit into a wet forest, the sound of something dripping magnified and everything too green. I think I am safe when a serpent's tongue licks the wick of my candle. It is dark again. The hawk's eyes are hollow. Wisdom falls like feathers.

***

It's T.V. time in the rec room, and everyone is arguing over what they want to watch. I rarely have an ally in this, but I give it my best shot, showing Hattie it's Orson Welles week on WTBS. She stares at where I'm pointing in the T.V. Guide, and it hits me that she can't read. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to her. So I wave the Guide in the air and kind of toss it toward the cheap coffee table like it doesn't matter anyway. I have to sit through "Hee-Haw," but Hattie is enjoying it, shaking and pointing her finger at the set. I wonder if Jake has a T.V. in Chattahoochee. I picture him watching this same show and laughing out loud with his green teeth.

Roy Clark is burning his fingers on his banjo, and the next thing I know I can hear my mother calling me. I see through some wire that she's on Uncle Brice's back porch. I'm hiding in the chicken coop. The hens are all flustered, and my black patent Sunday shoes are spattered with chicken shit. It is my uncle who finds me and takes my hand and leads me to the car, and we all get in and drive to a place called Little Flock. It is a country funeral, and these are my country relatives. Big bald men with speckled hands who wear their pants pulled up high and tight around their bellies like pot roasts wrapped with twine. The women stand like they're planted in orthopedic shoes. Their hair is pulled back tight; I can hear it screaming at the roots. My shoes are from last year, and they pinch my feet so bad I could cry but I don't. It's hot in the country, and everyone's waving these fans with Jesus on the cross. They have to close the lid on my father because the make-up is melting around the hole in his head.

I look over at Hattie still watching "Hee-Haw," and she starts me thinking about my mother who isn't black or nearly so old. I have this sort of premonition that she needs me or something, and I get a little frantic that I haven't known this before and maybe it's too late. It even crosses my mind that I might have died in my waterbed, and this is someplace in between. But Hattie is so real beside me that I am reassured. I think what's going to happen is that soon I'll find myself standing by those double doors with my overnight bag. When they buzz them open, I'll shoot out of here like a breech birth, and my mother will be there like before, counting my fingers and toes. It's good to think about this, and I feel as if Hattie is responsible. So I reach over and put my hand on one of her soft knees, and soon I'm laughing, too, at Buck and Roy and all these big-breasted women popping up out of this corn field.

2 Comments:

Blogger TLS said...

My personal experiences with Andrea overlap Toni's almost 100%. You forget the night of your and Andrea's adventures at the dinner for Heller, Vonnegut and Styron. Andrea absolutely loved that, and it's a great story.

12:51 PM, March 01, 2005  
Blogger John said...

Yeah, okay, you're right -- it was a memorable evening. Will try to post this over the weekend (but save till later and another venue the story about all three of us, and all three of them, at the Radisson).

9:23 AM, March 11, 2005  

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