By: Constance Woodring
It was spring, and the street was lined with cherry blossoms and magnolia trees. I stopped to appreciate the glorious fragrance that made me feel as if I were inside a talcum powder can. Ida picked a blossom off the sidewalk and stuck it in the chignon she had in her hair.
“Ida, do you realize you are wearing your hair like your mother’s?”
She looked at me with flashing eyes and immediately took the pins out, threw them on the ground and let her long gray hair flow over her shoulders. “You are right. I cannot have anything around me to remind me of that witch.” The blossom fell to the ground, and I picked it up. I stuck it behind her ear. “There, now you look like Ida Sunshine!”
We passed shops that I didn’t remember being on Linover Street—Larry’s Barber Shop, Flena’s World Boutique (whatever that was) and a Goodwill Industries thrift shop.
“Let’s go in, Ida. Maybe we can get some clothes that look better than the volunteers’ stuff.”
I couldn’t really complain, however, because much of the donated clothing was from wealthy ladies in town. I was able to wear the best labels like Barry Biscayne and even a fur coat from a famous Philadelphia department store, Jim Winnaker’s, I think. We both had been given $25 from the patients’ community preparation fund to buy whatever we wanted. We felt like millionaires. Frank, my husband, said he would send me money to pay for my first month’s rent, but I never saw any of it. I think the staff stole it.
As we entered the crowded store full of skirts, slacks, sweaters, blouses, shoes, pocketbooks and hats Ida remarked, “If my mother knew I was in here, she would shit her pants.” We both laughed as the clerk walked up to us.
“Can I get you anything special? We have a sale today. Buy one item and you get 50 percent off any item of lesser value.”
“We need to buy clothes that are going to help us fit into the community. We are from the hospital across the street, and we are going to get an apartment together. Isn’t that exciting? We’ve been patient patients here for over 20 years, and now they are letting us out. I’m sure you are sharing in our happiness,” I said in a provocative tone.
It was my intention to give this town an accelerated test in tolerance today. If it didn’t pass, I would reconsider my plan to leave and move in with Ida. I knew Ida understood as she chimed in, “Yes, we are very happy to be out of the loony bin, and we just want to know that everyone else is going to accept us as the State expects them to.”
The clerk looked at us, opened her mouth but nothing came out. I wondered how many clothes she sold acting like that.
I asked, hoping her mouth would again work, “Do you have any clothes from rich people?”
“I’m sure we do. Just read the labels. There are some suits for spring over here. Linen or silk, perhaps.” She acquired a shy smile on her face. Perhaps she realized we weren’t going to run amok in her store after all.
Id and I looked at some clothes, tried on a few items and bought some blouses and skirts. Although I didn’t have enough money, I wanted to buy a black and yellow herringbone wool jacket. I asked how I might purchase it at a future time.
“You could lay it away.”
“What does that mean?”
She looked at me quizzically, then realized the effects of being cloistered. “You can put some money down on it and pay on it each month.”
“That’s a wonderful idea. Here’s $5. I will pay it off next month. I’ll make sure Frank gives it to me for my birthday.” Ida smiled and raised her eyebrows as if to say,” Life is going to be grand out here!”
We walked out, looked at each other and almost said together,” Well, test number one passed.”
We continued down the street and were startled by a car horn. I didn’t recognize any makes of cars, and I didn’t like the way they looked. Boxy, squarish, no flowing lines. They didn’t look comfortable. I almost mused for a moment that old Packards looked better, but I immediately stopped that thought. My parents were killed when their Packard crashed when I was in high school. The powwow doctor at the hospital said that’s why I was crazy.
“Mary, should we get lunch or eat back at the canteen?”
“I think we should save our money. How are you going to get any money now that you disowned your parents?”
“I’ll get a job, don’t worry. We should find out how much rents are around here. Here’s a sign in the window. Let’s knock on this door.”
The house was a small, red brick, two-story with a straggly hedge in the front. #817 Linover Street. Perhaps that would be my new address. Maybe now I’d get letters. The porch needed painting, and I figured I could paint it in exchange for rent. I wouldn’t paint it hospital bilious turquoise, though. Ida knocked on the door, and an old lady came to open it. She was humped over and looked to be no more than three feet tall. She could barely look Ida in the face.
“We saw your sign in the window. You have an apartment for rent?”
“Oh, yes, dear, come in. Oh, both of you, come on in, please sit down.”
She led us into her living room. Oil paintings, watercolors, photographs, needlepoint and embroidered doilies—all pictures of animals, some I didn’t even recognize. I asked what the animal with the long nose was.
“That’s an aardvark. Do you girls like animals?”
“Oh, I do. I had a German shepherd years ago and a cat.” I welled up unexpectedly with tears. I had not thought of them for years and felt quite guilty that I left them with Frank, even though he was the one who committed me here for trying to stab him to death so many times.
The old lady said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Here is a tissue. She spoke with a soft kindness that reminded me of Ida’s voice.
“My friend Mary and I have been at the hospital across the street for years, and we have had to leave a lot of what we loved behind, especially animals. We are going to be released soon, and we are looking for an apartment to share,” Ida explained. “Maybe we’ll get a pet if you allow it.”
The woman’s countenance immediately changed. She stood up and ushered us into the hall. “I cannot rent to you. I can’t have any trouble. I am an old woman, and my children don’t want me to rent out the upstairs to strangers, certainly not mental cases. No, you will have to leave. I’m sorry, I can’t have any trouble.”
“Well, that’s okay, sister. We just want you to know you’ve failed the Returning Patients to the Community Test. We aren’t really mental patients. We are just taking a survey of the tolerance level of people, especially old people, in this town. The State is trying to save you tax dollars by closing down the hospital, but since you don’t want them to, you’ll just have to pay more taxes. We will let your Senator know this.” I fumbled in my purse looking for a small writing pad, pretending to be taking formal notes.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t want any trouble whether you are patients or not. You can tell them at the hospital that I don’t want any more patients knocking on my door. Maybe my children are right. I should just take the sign out of the window. I don’t know how I’ll survive. I don’t have enough money to live on.”
I wanted to lock her up like they locked up my grandmother in the hospital just because she would dangle here children over the well on full moon nights to see if the fairies would come out. “You could just put on the sign: For Rent. No Nutcases Allowed! Do what you want. If you would have passed the test, the State would have sent you $100. That could have helped you. We’ll be going now. If you have any questions, just call the hospital or my husband and ask him for the $100. Ida was laughing so hard, she could hardly contain herself.
I didn’t laugh. I knew we would never get an apartment in this town. Perhaps this was just a cruel game the State was playing on us. Some huge hand was playing dolls, and we were taken out of the hospital doll house to be toyed with, and then at the end of the day we would be tucked back neatly into our tiny iron frame beds next to the white metal tables that were there since 1600.
The fog had disappeared, and the sun was shining on our faces as we continued down the block. All of a sudden Ida grabbed my arm tightly. “Oh, my Goodness! Look who it is. Leigh Myers is walking towards us. I knew her in high school. Let’s see if she recognizes me.”
Ida walked faster and came up to her old friend. “Leigh, do you remember me? It’s Ida Leichenstein from high school.”
Leigh backed away in surprise. “Oh, my blessed Jesus. Ida. How on earth are you, and where have you been? I never saw you at any of the reunions. No one would ever tell me what happened to you. Someone said you were in the mental hospital, but I knew that was absurd. So where have you been?”
“In the mental hospital. For over 20 years. Here’s my friend, Mary. She’s from town here, too. She’s been in the hospital for years because she tried to kill her husband.”
Leigh ignored me and said, “Oh, Ida, I don’t believe you are saying this. How could anybody like you be in such a place? Why it’s nonsense.” She looked at me as if it wasn’t nonsense that I was a patient there.
“My wretched mother put me in here and kept lying about me beating her and burning the house down and a whole bunch of bullshit. The staff believed her. Now they all want us to leave, so all of a sudden I’m sane, and my mother is wrong! Mary and I are looking for an apartment to share.”
Leigh confided in a quiet voice, “To be perfectly honest, I never liked your mother. Whenever I would come to your house, she always hid the cookies. I heard her say to your father one time, ‘Hide the cookies. That fat Leigh is here again.’”
“And let me guess. My father did what she said without a peep.”
She and Ida laughed as if they were best friends. I decided I didn’t like her.
“That’s right. If you want an apartment, my husband is a realtor. How about if he looks into it for you? It’s a real shame about what happened to you. I’ll give you our number to call him. Remember Wally Kichline? That’s who I married.”
“Wally. My ex-father did his mother’s funeral.”
“I’ve disowned them both. Mary helped me get the strength to tell my mother off once and for all.”
Leigh continued to look at me disdainfully. “Leigh, I tried to kill my husband because he is having an affair to this day with his boss’ wife, so don’t keep looking at me like I’m the town axe murderer. My therapist told me Frank just put me in here so he could have his affair and not get any trouble from me.”
Ida pleaded my case. “Yes, Mary is my best friend. She isn’t going to kill anyone. Don’t worry about her. I wouldn’t be planning on living with her if I was afraid of her, would I?”
“I’m sorry, Mary. I just never met a luna-I mean mental ca- I mean mental patient before. I guess I’ve had a pretty lucky life. The only bad thing that ever happened to me was that I broke my foot falling down the steps. I guess I should feel bad I had such a good life,” she chuckled nervously. Leigh was very ordinary looking, like a movie star that would be listed 15th in cast of characters at the end of the movie. Maybe that’s what you have to look like to have nothing go wrong in your life.
I piped in, “I had a good life until my parents got killed when I was 16. Marrying Frank didn’t help. Maybe I’ll have a ‘good life’ when Ida and I get out of the hospital.” I could feel myself getting hostile, and I didn’t want to alienate Ida’s friend or upset Ida.
Sensing this, Ida said, “Well, we have to be getting back. I’ll call Wally. Please reassure him that we are both certifiably sane, and that the hospital really wants us to be discharged.” Ida hugged Leigh and said goodbye.
As she walked away from us, we looked at her as if she held the key to our future. “Do you think her husband will really help us?”
“He was an okay guy in high school, kind of like a blank piece of paper, but who knows what he’s like now.”
“Well, Ida, I can’t believe this day went so well.”
Ida was exuberant. “Let’s go eat at the canteen and raise some hell with Jesus Jack. We’ll have to have him over for dinner when we get our place.”
“If Frank comes to visit, he and Jesus Jack could play pinochle with us. We could play scrabble or watch the new shows on TV. What are they? Mary Tyler Moron or Dick Van Dickle?”
We looked at each other, burst out laughing and realized that we were actually getting ready for real freedom. It seemed quite natural and easy, as if we had just been sleeping like RipYourMindOutVanWinkle. I wondered what had happened to my fear and contempt for the outside world. It had vanished like the fog. Perhaps I thought this was all a dream, and I would wake up tomorrow, knowing I would never have to leave the hospital and feel relieved. But another feeling, of lightness, came over.me. Grabbing Ida’s hand, I could feel us floating up into the sky. We soared over the hospital grounds and landed on the roof of our ward. As we gazed at the patients walking on the grounds, we saw two women named Mary and Ida walk into their ward.
Ida queried, “I wonder how many more Returning Patients to the Community Tests there will be.”