Bird-Eyes

Madelyn Arnold

Stonewall Inn Editions

Bird-Eyes
1
THEY BROUGHT her into the middle of our ward by the hand, like a child, and left her standing in the hallway, staring around like somebody's little smart dog. That was the first time that I ever saw her: early December, 1964. She was maybe forty and athletic. Her face was wide-awake and kind of nice: bright brown eyes, looking around her constantly. There was this note pinned to her neat round collar: Anna Robeson.
Weird Diane was always the first to meet you on our ward, which sort of set the tone for your arrival. She was coming up behind this New One just about the time that I was noticing her myself, but I didn't say anything. I was thinking about that writing. I hadn't seen them send up any patient wearing a note before, and Weird Diane started yelling, "Hey what's your name" from behind this brand-new patient. Though if she'd been in front of her she wouldn't have known the name, that's what I think. In all nine months I knew her, Weird Diane did not read anything--includingTV ads. She'd point to the screen and yell, what's that word mean!
But the New One didn't answer: she was staring. I think maybe at the hemlines which were four inches too long on most of us. And some of us wore socks with our skirts, which nobody did back then except for patients. And then only back ward patients, or old ladies. People that you wouldn't ever notice. She might have been fascinated but that isn't exactly the first word I would think of--she just could not take this in.
"I said your name!" said Weird Diane--and slapped her. The sudden slap nearly knocked her over; she dodged away as graceful as a dancer and flattened quickly up against the wall, with Diane screaming at her, "Whadju say! Whadju say to me!" right in her face. We were kind of enjoying this--you never knew what Weird Diane would do.
"I don't think," said Diane Brown, "she said anything at all ... ." While Weird Diane was screaming: "Donchu answer a body! Donchu speak no English to a body!"--very angry. And someone else said: "She just made this noise, only just made this noise--she didn't even mean to answer you! Well!"
The New One kept her eyes on us--angry, I think, but maybe just afraid.
"Cat gotcher tongue!" said Weird Diane. Loud, in the lady's face.
The New One brought her palms up quick to keep Diane away from her; her fingers spread like eloquent fans--liquid, graceful, bones flowing like tracings in clear water--and she froze again: fingers rigid, fixed and bent like branches of a tree.
She reached down for a pocket but there wasn't one, which must have meant she was used to wearing trousers; she looked again for the pocket that wasn't there, and swallowed hard--looked brave--and opened her mouth tospeak. Like an animal with some weird foreign language.
"She's deaf!" I said.
And yes she was. We stared.
And then an attendant--Hart, I think--came up and put a string and pad-and-pencil around her neck. Just like a package.
 
 
Some people came in completely crazy of course, like Weird Diane and Vivian-who-never-talks and Spacey Shirley, but most of us came in depressed and not too clear about this place we were committed to; something about benevolent institutions. People coming in from the courts, of course, tended to be suspicious of their families, which makes sense if you think about it. About Anna, though; I never got it exactly straight, but I heard Anna had been depressed about the recent death of her husband (ladies get that way). For several months she had simply avoided people and just worked frantically on the farm, without communicating much with her grown children. Though it's not like she could have called them on the telephone--she would have had to hunt them up, which I guess she wasn't willing to do, so they all went together and took her to this doctor.
He gave her medication, but it backfired; the stuff made her breathing stop. This upset her, and so she would not take it anymore, plus she would not trust him. Nothing upsets a family doctor more than lack of trust. This means you're crazy.
I've always wondered how he tried to communicate with Anna. If this was the guy who delivered all her children. If he knew anything about the place they decided they would send her to; but probably, he didn't. Not his business. So either all of them committed her, or they talked her into signing in herself as suicidal. Imagine this place as heading off a suicide attempt. A contribution to the love of living.They seemed to think a stay in Eastern Central would erase severe depression, which just shows you. Since she could not read or write too well, I've always wondered what in the world they told her she was signing.
Merry Christmas.
 
 
Eastern Central State Hospital Care.
At 5:59 in the morning, all the lights are off except for the little white vents above the floor which line the hallways. In winter, like when Anna came, it's dark except for that glow above the floor. But at six-oh-oh all the lights explode in your face--and the Muzak, loud--you come awake in a sweat with your heart on drive. That's the most effective thing in their treatment program.
Anna never did get used to the adrenalin hit that it gives you, when you're shocked awake. But I've always heard that deaf people are kind of jumpy when it comes to lighting. At least she had the blessing that she didn't have to hear that goddamned Muzak.
I hope I meet a Muzak person someday.
All the rest of us did get used to the lights; and some of us, who were really dopey, got to where we could even stay asleep in spite of everything, but Anna was too different from us in this--as in some other things: deaf, you know. What she looked at meant too much to her.
We the rest of us were not very different at all on that ward. Except maybe me, since I was younger. Even our names were not really very different: there were duplicates (or quintlicates, I guess). I don't really know why it's true; maybe the movies were responsible for the naming: but about five years before I was born in '48 everybody named their kids "Diane"; and the girls born in 1938 were all named "Shirley."
So there were five Dianes and at least three Shirleys onWomen's ward D. The Dianes were Tall Diane, Weird Diane, Old Diane, and Diane-with-the-glasses; and it's funny but one of them even got a last name--Diane Brown--but it cost her enough.
(Weird Diane coming up to meet the New One, who is Diane Brown): "Hey what's your name!"
Diane Brown (suspicious of Weird Diane): "Hey yourself."
"I say what's your name? You don't look too crazy to know that!"
(Depressed, fluffing her hair): "I'm Diane Brown."
"We got lots of them," I say, and somebody else says: "How about Dianepink? Look at that hot pink makeup she's got all over."
"Old Diane," says Spacey Shirley, who is old herself. "Tall Diane, Dianewithglasses, Weird Diane."
"Who you calling weird!"
"And a pink one, Dianepink!" says Spacey Shirley, who is black.
"Brown," says Diane Brown. "One of the Brownstown Browns from down around Fayetteville."
"Omy!" Weird Diane says, rolling her eyes around. "One of them Brownstown Browns! One of them how-now-brown-cow-Brownstown-Browns! Miss Diane Brown!"--and suddenly hits her in the teeth. Which was all right with us.
 
 
And nobody else was named Latisha, but then I've never been like anybody else.
 
 
Well I knew what it was like to wake up with those lights, but not to be deaf in a place like that. You can't know that and you might as well block it out. I do know that the firstweek is the worst because you are so drugged up that your mind can't move and you can't get used to that; and because you are really looking at where you are, and you can't believe that this could really happen to you. How could this happen. And not only is your body locked up in these solid green walls, but the dope has locked your mind up in this teeny place in your head, and you can't get used to that; and they're going to find your mind in there and stop it cold.
Anna wouldn't take the pills. After what happened to her, she would not trust them, so they gave her shots. And that was bad to watch and so I didn't, except when I couldn't help it. She hated them holding her down, and she hated the shots. She could not only not wake up, she couldn't move. I remembered what that was like when you were locked up in a box inside your head, and couldn't think. Like others here, she began to stand and stare most of the time. If no one moved her, she would stand for hours in one place. But at least she tried to keep from sitting down--you can't get up. She couldn't concentrate on people's faces anymore. She couldn't read the notes they'd write on that little pad she hated, which was stuck on her. I didn't really like that.
If I had only trusted her, I could have helped her out with this: I'd have shown her how you hold the pills in the space beneath your tongue. That's what I did myself, and I saved the pills to trade them off. But I didn't tell her, couldn't have hoped to tell her, which I thought about: I wouldn't have trusted my own face in the mirror.
It was the custom to keep New Ones on the ward for meals during the first week after their arrival. This keeps them from falling in their soup, lets the staff see whether they are going to be a pain or not to manage, and keeps them away from the silverware while they're getting used to us. A good idea. Saves a lot of trouble. So it was the end of the second week before they let her join us down the hall inthe cafeteria. The attendants had to hold her up beneath her arms as she was walked.
And she wouldn't eat.
Of course, nobody still sane will touch that stuff the first time they see it. And she tried to hide the fact that she wasn't eating by just messing up her plate and moving silverware--but she really didn't do this very well. Any little kid will do it better. And she started out to act as if not eating was okay; as if they'd let her do just what she wanted to. Well there's nothing they don't interfere with.
The attendants let one meal go by with her messing up her plate. They stuck the next meal forcibly down her throat. I always hate to see it when they do that. So the meal after that she was hiding mashed potatoes in her sweater. It was clear to me that she had to get a whole lot better than that. And so I told her.
Our ward ate at the same time as the guys from the vegetable C ward. Staff schedules this so we ladies are socializing with some guys. There were two fat guys between where we were sitting. The man to my right had crosses and nicks of healed cuts on his head from rapid seizures; he was stupid, but he was really useful (if you acted right), though I kept my cup away from him because he'd stick his fingers in my coffee. I leaned way past him, trying to get Anna's attention. I didn't want the attendants or the fat guys to pick up on what I'd tell her.
--Hey! (I'm waving).
(Anna is staring, horrified, at the stuff they serve for food: don't look at that stuff.)
--Hey! I try; I throw a green bean at her.
She looks up.
--Look! I point. I scoop up the hard meat parts and most of the beans in my hand. The staff's not looking. I dump it all on the plate of the dumb fat guy, who's to my right. I open my carton of milk and drink a little--til he puts downhis orangeade--and then I pour the rest of it in his tall green plastic cup. (Looks awful.) (Anna stares at me; she's fascinated.)
I mash the rest of my food with a fork, and look up fast to catch her eye.
--See! I mouth to her.
I tear the milk container completely open, by its upper seam:--See!
(I stare at her):--Do you catch what I am doing?
I scoop up the bean mash and the fatmeat mash and the slimy potato gravy into the top of the milk container. (She is studying this.)
--Understand? I mouth.
And then the sun's out in her face.
The attendants saying later, "See! Now that wasn't so bad!" And Anna smiling ... .
 
 
It seems like I remember that she wouldn't drink the coffee when she first arrived--her saying that she hated it. I guess the damnfool thought somebody liked it made that way.--Stupid! I told her. Whenever I pointed it out, she made an ugh! face. That would make me feel like slapping her. That you don't do what you like in here--but I didn't know how to make her understand me.
That sure it tastes ugly, but you don't worry about taste; what you do is, you put in a spoonful of sugar and three of that white stuff and then at least two of the black coffee powder that looks like powdered coal--or two lumps of it if it's really an old can and has picked up moisture, and only two if the attendants are watching, otherwise as much as you can stand of it, which for me is usually five lumps. Which is why you use the white stuff, straight from artificial cows. It smooths it down so you don't spit all that black stuff out again; so you can swallow it.
You try for five and drink it all down fast (it's not for pleasure); if it goes down fast enough it hits at once--and snaps you high, into a sweat on your palms and forehead; your heart rate jumps right up through the top of your head. The caffeine fights the flattening dope they give you here; the flattening stuff will shut your eyes but the coffee props them open. It makes it so every part of you is so heavy you can't move but the caffeine lightens you, it's the only help you'll get. There's surely nothing else that's going to help you on this ward and so you drink it. What the hell it tastes like shit.
--Stupid! I told her.
When they bring out the coffee cart at 6:15 in the morning we'd all hit it at once, even the maniacs (I guess they didn't like feeling stupid either), but Anna would just stare at us, like who could drink such garbage? Well I could. I guess she wasn't used to doing things she didn't like. She'd get over it. I would always try to drink at least a couple cups, which I could manage.
That much caffeine really did the trick--except when every now and then some new attendant would see how really fast we'd go through coffee, and then order decaf which is absolutely no damn use at all. You can't drink enough of the stuff to fight that numb-death flatness off your body. Or your brain.
And the first time that happened to me, and I couldn't wake up, I just couldn't make myself adjust right and I really absolutely threw a fit. Screamed and threw the cup against the wall (but the cups are paper) and Hart runs out and tells me what a dirty little whore I am and to wipe it up, wipe it up with my hair I mean, which I refused to do and that gave her an excuse to throw me in the sideroom; which was, I think, the first time I was there. But usually I'm really good at getting over things; you just put them out of your mind and make your body work at something. But then littlethings will just sort of add up on me; adding up while I'm doing something else. Just a little thing that somebody's maybe done thirteen hundred times will suddenly bother me a lot, and I get this feeling like there's pressure in my head and I get dizzy.
--Stupid! I mouthed.
... That it did not matter whether she hated the stuff or not, she was going to stay the dead-numb stupid way she was unless she learned to drink a lot of rotten coffee. That tastes don't matter. Or tastes and opinions sure don't matter here. Take it from me, you can put anything in your mouth.
I tried to wide-talk some of this at her, and I tried to write it down on her pad but she couldn't read so well; reading wasn't something she was used to doing and she got mad and started shaking her head real hard: not at me. We were mad at each other but I kept thinking about it: she was miserable. So an idea hit me. I closed my eyes and acted like I was trying to get them open. I acted just like Anna had been looking. Then I acted like my hands were stumbling around looking for the cup, and had found the cup, and that now I was drinking the stuff; and then I had my eyes go pop! open! daylight!--and then I repeated the whole thing over again. She wasn't what you'd call real easily convinced. I repeated it again. Then I pointed toward the really dumb and dopey ones and how they hit the coffee, hard and regularly. And finally with a big-deal sacrifice look she tried the coffee (making the most godawful faces); and of course she did begin to wake up. So she smartened up and had a bunch more and began to look almost human.
Well, you learn.
Except she didn't want to learn.
BIRD-EYES. Copyright © 1988 by Madelyn Arnold. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.