“Now, look here,” she said to her reflection, “you are not dead. Cold maybe, but not dead. Dead people do not root around in their drawers for something warm to wear. Dead people do not scream bloody murder when they burn their fingers on the tea kettle. Dead people rot and forfeit their zip code. You’ve still got a zip code, don’t you? Okay then. Take it easy. Everything’s fine as long as you’ve got a zip code.”
Yesterday the postman came to her door with a package. He said, “Man alive, it’s cold as a son of a bitch out there, and it’s supposed to be even colder tomorrow.” She offered him a shot of Ginger brandy and had one for herself. They clinked their glasses together. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well,” he said, “if that don’t knock the ice out of my moustache, nothing will.” The package was wrapped in a brown A&P bag cut down to size and tied up in yellow string. Large red letters in the upper left corner said, “WE CARE”. Inside was a three pound tin of tea biscuits in assorted shapes and sizes. A note from her uncle Richard was taped to the lid.
How’s every little thing? I’m dying to see you. Meet me at Grandma’s on the 6th. Sorry I can’t give you a definite time. The trains are running off schedule. Somewhere around noon, I’d say. Bring something to read just in case. I know how you hate to wait.
Love, Richard The Un (crazy)
PS: It’s true. I’m all better. Honest Injun.
She moved closer to the mirror. Her nose appeared to be growing bulbous. Her skin looked green and translucent. She put on her cobalt glasses, lit up a cigarette, gave herself another pep talk.
Order in the court. This court will now come to order. She whacked the dresser with her hair brush. It has been brought to my attention that some people think they are dead. I’m not going to mention any names. You know who you are. I am not wearing blue glasses because I have syphilis. Trust me. I have presided over cases like this before. If you think you are dead you have been brainwashed. There is a lot of propaganda floating around due to the energy crisis. Pull yourself together. If you want to be all better like Richard the Un, here’s what you’ve got to do. First, get yourself a hat and pull it down over one eye. If you don’t have a hat, don’t worry, it’s attitude that we are concerned with. Imagine that you’ve got on a hat and it’s pulled own jover one eye. That’s it. Now, shove your fists into your poets and smoke smoke smoke that cigarette like everything is legit. Terrific! You could be nominated. I can’t over stress the importance of infiltration. Infiltration is the key as far as I’m concerned. First you assume the attitude, then you infiltrate. In other words, you develop a subterfuge, apply a camouflage. Don’t worry, when no one is looking you can still use your bed for a trampoline. We allow these little outbursts, very beneficial, as a matter of fact, great therapy. Why of course, by all means. What’s that? I beg your pardon? Come closer to the bench, I can’t hear you. Can you still count your fingers and toes? Of course you can count your fingers and toes. Whenever you’re alone and feeling insecure, sit right down and count anything you like. Okay Joe. I think we’ve covered everything. Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep, just direct your feet, to the sunny side of the street. Whack, whack, whack. Case closed. Court dismissed.
Grandma died a long time ago, one seizure too many. Richard found her in the attic all wrapped up in toilet paper. Two days after the funeral he had a breakdown, took the refrigerator apart for no good reason. She’d stopped in to help him sort out old photographs and found him on the kitchen floor with a screwdriver clenched between his teeth. He was crying. The potato bin was in the sink, full of nuts and bolts; the wire egg basket in a corner, smashed to smithereens. Grandma’s cat, Toby, was on top of the china cabinet covered with mustard. When she removed the screwdriver from Richard’s mouth he said, “Welcome to New York City. If you’re looking for the door, we had to put it in the attic.” There was a cupcake on his head.
She took the trolley to the end of the line. It was hard work walking up the hill through the frozen snow. Darby was deserted. All of the shops on Chicken Hill were dark and locked. They called it an energy crisis. There was a dead dog on the sidewalk. She walked around it and pulled her collar up. The pain was like a bullet shooting through her head. She should have worn a hat. The second and third floor windows of Grandma’s house were boarded. The porch was altogether gone. She had to walk up a ramp made of cinder blocks and two by fours in order to reach the front door. There was a sign on the stained glass window. WELCOME TO THE MENTAL EQUILIBRIUM SOCIETY. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK. WE’VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU. She knocked anyway.
“Can’t yuh read?” asked the old man who opened the door. His voice was raspy and mechanical. He wore two overcoats and a cap that said: Phillies. There was no discernible bridge to his nose. His legs and feet were bare and decrepit, he had an odor of creosote. “Well,” he said, “what’s it gonin’ tuh be? Shit or get off the pot.” Rudeness no longer surprised her. It made her angry, but it didn’t surprise her. She got a good grip on the doorjamb and pulled herself over the threshold.
The vestibule hadn’t changed. Piano against the left wall, telephone table against the right. Phony slate tile on the floor. She was there the day Richard put it down. Grandma had to go for a walk because the muck made her dizzy. Richard rolled up a fat joint. When Grandma got back he was sitting on the muck can singin' his head off. Gonna sit right down and write myself a letter. Later all three of them were in the kitchen drinking strawberry wine and eating bologna sandwiches. Grandma opened the refrigerator to get some mustard. She scratched her head and said, “This refrigerator sure is disorganized.” Richard put a soda straw up his nose and said “So is New York City.” Grandma laughed and said she was going to bop him one if he didn’t quit acting so goofy.
The old man shuffled across the phony slate into the kitchen. She was about to follow, but he said, “Stay put, and closed the door behind him.” Another sign. This one said that the kitchen was no longer the kitchen. It was the “OFFICE” now. She pulled out a cigarette, had trouble getting it lit. Her fingers didn’t want to move. No cooperation anywhere. Her head began to thaw. No tissues in her purse. She used her coat sleeve. After a bit, she knocked on the office door. It was ten after eleven. “Go away,” yelled the old man, “we don’t want any.”
The living room was packed. All sorts of strange looking people craning their necks to gat a look at her. If she made a left she would be in there with them. She made a right, into the empty dining room. “Bunch of goddamn lunatics,” she mumbled. The shades were down and the bucket-a-day was glowing red. She stood next to it, out of sight in the corner. Someone left the vent wide open. She fixed it the way Grandma showed her, so the house wouldn’t burn down. “Bunch of lunatics,” she said, “trying to burn the house down.”
The old man returned and gave her hell for being in the dining room. “I thought I told you to stay put,” he said, “Now slap this on and get in there with the others.” It was a hat. A brown felt hat with two pheasant feathers tacked to its side. She bit her lip. Didn’t budge. He came after her, grabbed her by the coat sleeve and pulled her into the vestibule. “Put it on,” he screamed, “put it on and get your ass in there.” He pointed to the living room with a crooked yellow finger.
“There must be some mistake,” she said, “this isn’t my hat. I wasn’t wearing a hat.”
He didn’t like that. His face twisted and he threw his head back. “Lady,” he said, “we don’t make no mistakes around here. You just put that hat on your head and get movin’. Hear? No more backtalk.”
She didn’t want to put the hat on. It could be full of lice. It could be like making some kind of commitment. Sealing the deal. She looked at the door. She wanted to leave, but what about Richard? She hadn’t seen him in such a long time. “I beg your pardon, Sir, but could you tell me if Richard Browne is in there?”
“We ain’t got no Richards. No Richards of any kind whatsoever. Now quit foolin’ around and do what you’re told.”
She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at the gold knob on the front door. The warning signals were beepin in her ears again. She forgot how to breathe. The hat fell to the floor. She stood there in a frozen state. No time now for an explosion. One door knob became two doorknobs. In and out, in and out. Tap your boot on the tile.
The last time she saw herself she was in a green cotton dress that matched the curtains, standing at the kitchen sink in her bate feet, washing dishes. Her hair was down to her waist, she was singing. “That’ll be the day.” It was warm. She disappeared right after that, but couldn’t remember the details, how or why. Her head got lost, stopped working. She was always cold, cold and angry. She locked the angry up because it scared her. She cut off her hair and threw it out the window. It grew back, but was never the same. She was gone.
She opened her eyes for a minute, then closed them again to see six, seven, eight doorknobs. It was hard to say because they were spinning around in such a frenzy. It was eleven thirty, somewhere around noon. No problem. She was getting herself all bent out of shape for nothing. In and out, in and out. Open your eyes. Stop looking for her. She’s gone. Out the kitchen window. Tell your boot to knock it off. She stood frozen, in her green dress, looking out the kitchen window at the Zinnias and Cosmos in the back yard.
“Oh, I get it,” said the old man. “Look, lady, just ‘cause you got such nice long hiar don’t mean you can get away with a bunch of monkey business. Now, you remember that and things’ll go easy for yuh.” They were laughing in the living room, with their hats on lop-sided, their faces like cottage cheese. “And, just because I got such a big heart,” he continued, “I’m goin’ tuh do somethin’ we don’t usually do around here.” He turned and winked at the lunatics, made the crazy sign with his crooked finger. “Yep,” he said, “that’s exactly what I’m goin’ tuh do.”
He went into the office again, came back with a big box, threw it at her feet and said, “There yuh go. Now yuh got a whole shitload to choose from. Any kind o’ hat your little heart desires.”
She poked around in the box, but only to humor him. Did the silly bastard really think a different hat would make things right? “I think I’ll keep the one I’ve got,” she said, “but thanks just the same for your trouble.”
“Son of a bitch,” he said, “bend over backwards and what do yuh get!”
She picked up the brown hat with the pheasant feathers, put it on, said, “Have you got a mirror? A powder room, maybe? I’d like to brush my hair before I go in,” pausing, swallowing, nodding her head in the direction of the living room, “there.”
“Lady,” he said, “I’ve had all I’m goin’ tuh take from you. Move!” He gave her a shove. “Move you crazy bitch!”
She wanted to strangle him. She wanted to take off her boot and beat him over the head with it. She wanted to bite off his crooked yellow finger and shove it up his nose. Make a bridge for it. He gave her another shove, a violent shove, and she was at once in the living room. The lunatics squirmed in their folding chairs, snickered, rolled their eyes. She took a seat on the end of an empty row. There was clapping of hands, stamping of feet, one of them whistled. She pulled a little orange book of poetry from her purse, Eleven Outlined Epitaphs by Bob Dylan, and then put her purse on the seat next to her, saving it for Richard. He ought to be coming along any minute now, she thought.
She hardly had the book opened to the first epitaph when a hand from the row in back of her lunged forward and snatched it away. It was a ballerina in red chiffon with a rhinestone tiara who ran with the book into the vestibule. She jumped up and ran after her. The ballerina was waving the little orange book around under the old man’s nose and talking in pig latin. “Ooklay atwhay hetay itchbay isay eadingray.”
“Well, well, well,” he said, “what have we got here? Pornography, no doubt" He rifled through the book looking for something dirty, stopping several times to point out a verse to his secretary and ask her opinion. The secretary was dressed like a nurse; white dress, white stockings, white shoes, a stiff little white cap.
“It all looks pretty Kosher to me,” she said.
The old man sneered and sniggered. “Yuh never know,” he said, winking at the nurse and the ballerina,“yuh got t’ be on your toes at all times around this bin. He threw the book across the room. The Ballerina got to it first and said “Nah nah nahnah nah.”
“Give me my book back,” she said. The ballerina mimicked her words in a high pitched exaggerated whine and threw the book at her. It hit her in the head and fell to the floor. She picked it up, gave the ballerina about three minutes worth of the evil eye, during which time the ballerina backed up slowly and cowered in a corner, totally withered, her red chiffon wilted, sticking to her skin like artificial blood.
She returned to the living room, took her seat, and counted the lunatics. Forty-two of them, all with their heads cropped, all looking as though they were waiting for some sort of show. No one had better try that head cropping business with her, she’d gouge their eyes out. She was beginning to remember now, why she had disappeared, why she threw her hair out the window. All of the folding chairs were facing a podium. In back of the podium, where Grandma’s sun room used to be, was a stage with the curtains drawn. The curtains matched her green cotton dress. A man with long black braids was serving a liquid refreshment. It fizzed in paper cups. She didn’t want any. “No thank you,” she said. He was wearing striped pajamas, motorcycle boots and a fireman’s hat. Engine Company 609. His thumbs were gone.
She bowed her head, covered her face with her hands and recited the twenty-third psalm, over and over and over. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. Thy rod and they staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Thou annointeth my head with oil. She felt a presence, someone had taken the seat next to her. My cup runneth over. She noticed a faint odor of patchouli. Surely goodness and mercy. A man’s voice said “Lillian.” Shall follow me. “Lillian.” Her hands dropped to her lap and she opened her eyes. A man dressed in a black cassock was sitting next to her. “Let me guess,” she said, “Ignatius Loyola.”
He laughed and said, “Not by a long shot.”
She looked at him intently, with a slight beam of recognition. “Did you used to say Mass in the hospital chapel?”
“Not that I know of,” he said, “but I could be mistaken.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You either did or you didn’t. Oh Christ,” she said, “don’t tell me you’re part of this freak show.”
“Lillian,” he said again, “don’t you recognize me?”
‘No,” she said, “I certainly do not. Now get out of here. I’m saving that seat for my uncle.”
“Lillian,” he said, “look at me. It’s, Richard. I’m Richard. Did you ever see anyone else with a nose like this?”
“Richard?” She was beginning to believe him. “Oh God, Richard. Is it really you? Where have you been and why aren’t you old like me?”
He threw back his head and laughed just like he did in the old days. “Lillian,” he said, “you’re too much, still nutty as ever. Sorry to keep you waiting. My train was an hour late. Why aren’t I old like you? That’s a riot.” He laughed hard and loud, slapped his leg a couple of times, had trouble pulling himself together. “That’s a good one,” he said. “That’s the best one I’ve heard in years.”
There was a sudden succession of flashes as the overhead lights went on. The Jesuit who claimed he was Richard kissed her hand, put it back in her lap and excused himself. He had some business to take care of and would be back in a jiffy. He motioned for Mother Superior to follow him. She put her hands together like a church with no people. She opened the doors and closed the doors. Someone in back of her leaned forward to look over her shoulder. It was a policeman. “Don’t you know how to make the people?” he asked. She told him to mind his own business. She broke the church apart, leaving one half in her lap while the other half reached into her pocket and pulled out the little orange book of epitaphs.
The policeman leaned over her shoulder again and said, “Put it away, Lady.” She told him to get lost. He said, “I can have you locked up for that.” She gave him an elbow in the throat. He pulled her back by her hair until her chair was teetering on its two rear legs. It slid out from under her but she was quick on her feet and was just about to give it to him good when the old man came running in and threw a blanket over her head. He drug her out to the vestibule and held her down while nursie gave her a shot.
“She’ll be countin’ doorknobs for a while,” he said.
The ballerina was doing pirouettes in the dining room. “Oh yeah,” said the old man, “I almost forgot.” He reached into her pocket and pulled out the little orange book of epitaphs. “Here yuh go, twinkle toes” he said, tossing it to the ballerina.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked.
“Whatever your little heart desires,” he said.