When Marilyn was seventy-one and three quarters — because at her age, the little bits that make up years start to matter again — she was sent to a mental hospital. The sort of institution wrapped up with a nice little bow to look friendly and welcoming. Picturesque, even, tucked away in a sleepy little town at the base of mountains always shrouded in mist. With sidewalks that curly-q’d through the grounds to benches decorated with daffodils and a game room with foosball and checkers and flickering fluorescent light.
They brought Marilyn in through the back. They didn’t want to disturb the other patients — she was still pleading, begging, bargaining with her escorts. The bags under her eyes were an alarming array of purples and reds and greens fading to sickly yellows — she was a sight to be seen.
Marilyn ran her hands atop her head over and over again, stopping from time to time to clasp them over her ears and rock a moment. Her hair had fallen out in tufts, leaving her head covered in patchy bald spots punctuated by long stringy strands of gray here and there.
The man pushing the wheelchair was talking, but Marilyn wasn’t listening. The place reminded her of the school her granddaughter attended. It had the same speckled tile and yellow light. Even the corkboard, decorated with scalloped blue borders and bright paper letters, looked like it belonged in Gracie’s classroom.
But Marilyn couldn’t grasp why this stranger, and not her son, was pushing her through the school.
“We’ll get you all fixed up, Mrs. Bordeaux,” the man said. “Our doctors here are excellent, and we aim for short recovery times.” The words lurched Marilyn back to reality and out of the ghostly halls of memory.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” Marilyn said sourly. She was tired of not being heard, sick of repeating herself to no avail. “I’m hurt. I should be in the hospital.”
“You are in a hospital.” Placatingly, condescending, like one would talk to a toddler.
“I want to see my doctor — my real doctor, not one of your quacks.”
Marilyn ran her tongue slowly over her teeth. She was lisping. Her teeth were tender, some worn down to nubs, others gone altogether. No wonder she sounded funny — she was gumming the words out of her mouth. She shut her mouth tight and altogether refused to talk to him again as they wound through the maze-like halls until Marilyn was sure they were going in circles.
He finally stopped at a room, parking her momentarily while he opened the door. It smelled like bleach and laundry detergent and was just big enough to avoid feeling altogether claustrophobic.
“This will be your room while you’re with us. Feel free to decorate it, make it feel homey. We want you to feel comfortable here.”
The man kept prattling on while he opened the windows and set down a bag of Marilyn’s things on the dresser. How was this supposed to feel homey? It was too sterile, too clean, too empty. Where was her cat to keep her company? Her knitting things to keep her fingers nimble or pictures of her boys?
“Alright, I’m going to ask you to stand up. We have got to get you out of those clothes.” He stood in front of Marilyn now, smiling friendly in his green scrubs. He put out his hands, palms up, nodding encouragingly at her.
Marilyn shrunk back, clasping the front of her blouse closer to her. She cursed the shaking of her hands and the way it made her look so frail. “I will do no such thing. It’s improper!” she shrieked. “What kind of woman do you take me for?”
“Mrs. Bordeaux, please, I just want to make you comfortable. Your clothes are covered in blood.”
Marilyn set her jaw, but the clenching was too painful, so she turned steadfastly away instead and stared out the window.
Another nurse — a female nurse — shuffled in and smiled at Marilyn, but Marilyn noted that the smile didn’t quite meet the nurse’s eyes.
I’ve become a burden, Marilyn thought sullenly.
Marilyn’s mind had begun to slip sometime before she turned thirty. At first, it was only little things, like what she’d had for breakfast the day before or where she’d left her keys. On the days when she noticed, she brushed the thought away. Enough things happened in any given day that a few things were bound to slip.
But then it was the bigger things. Birthdays and events. Repeating herself unapologetically, only once in a while realizing she’d done it, but mostly just going on business as usual. Before too long, Marilyn’s grasp of language was slipping too, words dying on her tongue before she could formulate them correctly.
Marilyn had two young sons being raised on a solid diet of comic books and after-school specials. Their father was a logger who spent more time up in the brush cutting down old growth than at home, and the boys used her like a doormat.
“Jonathan! Put that stick — sword — spoon — away.” Marilyn stopped and blinked, trying to find the word for the switch Jonathan was using to torture his brother. “Oh, give that to me!” She threw the thing out the back door because it made her feel better. She pushed the nagging in her head out too.
She walked directly back into the kitchen, her mind running over a mental list of the things she needed for finishing dinner. Carrots, potatoes, bread in the oven, parmesan, butter, carrots…but coming to the fridge, Marilyn’s mind went blank again, and she spent a solid minute staring into it, grasping for a tenuous hold on what she was supposed to be doing.
It wasn’t until the boys were sitting down to eat that she realized that she’d forgotten the carrots.
The nurses left Marilyn alone for a bit to make herself at home. As the door shut, the loud click of the tongue clicking into place startled her so badly that she couldn’t stop the shaking of her hands again. She tried to busy herself around the room — smoothing the bedspread where she’d wrinkled it while sitting and tidying the little bottles of hair supplies sitting on the shower wall.
She sat in the vinyl chair next to the desk, papered to look like real wood. There was a telephone — old enough that the buttons were built right into the hand piece — on the desk. Marilyn picked it up, trying to remember the number for Father Jones.
She pecked at the numbers, staring blearily though myopic eyes at the dial pad. She thought that the number had a certain poetry to it, so she hummed the numbers aloud to herself as she typed it.
The phone screeched into an automatic recording that the number, as dialed, was incorrect.
Frowning, Marilyn looked about for her purse; surely Father Jones’s number would be in there. But in the confusion and heat of being brought in, her purse had been left behind.
She tried another number, sure she’d remembered it correctly this time, but again the number was rejected.
Tears welled up in Marilyn’s eyes. She calmed herself as best she could before trying another number, sure this time she had it.
The phone began to ring, tinnily and distant, but still ringing nonetheless. Marilyn exhaled the breath she had been holding, grateful to finally get through to Father Jones. But the number rang through to an automated voicemail.
Father, something really terrible has happened. I been hurt so bad, I thought they were going to take me to a medical facility, but I’m in a mental hospital way up north instead. I tried calling Father Markum, but this is the first call they’ve let me get out.
Please call me back, Father. The people here won’t tell me anything, and I’m just so scared. I don’t know how I got here, and the people here…it’s so lonesome. It’s mostly silent, and I’m left alone with the rattle of my own thoughts. Sometimes I hear footsteps going by, and I hope so bad that they’ll stop in to see me, even though the people have been so rotten to me. Sometimes there’s an awful, tinny rattling, and I just know they’re wheeling somebody away somewhere.
They have me in a room with no carpet — just white and green tile. It’s shiny enough that I can see myself in it, and I don’t like what I’m seeing. All my hair has fallen out — it’s all gone now, and my teeth are decaying. I don’t feel like myself anymore…I don’t know who they’ve brought in here, but it’s not me.
Father, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. The people here won’t tell me anything. I should be with my doctor back home. I don’t know why they brought me here. They’ve left me alone, and I’m just staring at this woman in the tiles.
I’m so scared, please pray for me, Father. I will try calling you again later. You can’t call me yet, but I’ll try again later.
Marilyn hung up the phone, crying in earnest now.
There was a soft knock at her door, and a younger nurse in purple scrubs peeked in tentatively. She didn’t offer Marilyn a tissue to wipe her face, choosing instead to ignore the tears.
“Hi, Mrs. Bordeaux, I’m Jenn, I’ll be your nurse this afternoon. If you need me at all, there’s a call button on the wall next to your bed. I thought maybe you’d like to go down to the cafeteria for a little lunch.”
Jenn smiled so hopefully that Marilyn felt a pang of guilt, but she shook her head resolutely.
Jenn nodded knowingly. “I know the last thing you want to do right now is to mingle, but I really think it might lift your spirits to meet some of the other residents here.”
“Residents is just one of those feel-good words for what I really am here.”
Marilyn cast her eyes upward and crossed her arms, but she slipped into the waiting wheelchair and allowed Jenn to wheel her down the hall.
“Why are you keeping me here?” Marilyn didn’t turn to look at Jenn but could feel the tiny exhale ripple across the back of her neck.
“You haven’t been doing too well, remember?” Jenna used the same voice as the nurse before — easy, measured, low. “You’re going to stay with us until you’re feeling up to it.” She didn’t bother to say what “it” was.
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Marilyn barked. She wanted to cry, but it was easier to be angry. “Why are my hair and my teeth gone? I was pretty once. And where are my boys? Who are you?”
“Mrs. Bordeaux, just focus on one thing at a time, okay? I know this must be really overwhelming for you.”
The atmosphere in the cafeteria was subdued, even with the multitude of patients shuffling around in their slippers. No one looked up as Marilyn was brought in. Their eyes were trained carefully down to their trays or feet or hands. Jenn took her to a corner table, tucked away next to a large window that looked out into the courtyard. She left Marilyn to fetch a plate, murmuring something about acclimating herself to the situation.
Marilyn fingered her scarf — a plain, black thing she’d had forever — to keep her hands busy.
Once when the boys were nearly teenagers, the scarf had nearly ruined her marriage. One day, Marilyn had come home from work, made dinner, helped Jonathan and Jacob with their homework, and listened to Jack’s complaints about his own job. When she finally found a moment to slip away to the bedroom and kick off her heels, she sighed with relief as she sunk barefooted into the carpet. She slipped out of the rest of her clothes and into a comfy pair of shorts and t-shirt, throwing her discarded clothes half-heartedly toward the laundry basket. She paused to remove her earrings, throw her necklace into the dish, untie her hair.
As she made to leave the room, an unfamiliar shape caught her attention. It was a crumpled mass of fabric on top of her dresser. She picked it up gingerly, trying to un-ball the mass of gauzy black fabric.
Her mind made off in a dozen different directions even as she tried to catch her breath. The fabric wasn’t something she recognized out of her own closet, so, logically, Jack must have had another woman over at some point during the day. Marilyn could only imagine what the tramp had worn home if she’d left this behind.
Marilyn began to rehearse the forthcoming fight with Jack. How dare he bring another woman into this home they’d made together? Into the very home in which their children lived?
She dropped from anger into despair. Because what had she done to deserve this? Wasn’t she enough for him, or had she not done enough to keep him from wandering?
The tangle still wasn’t coming undone, until finally Marilyn wrenched two ends apart, releasing it into a large loop. A scarf. In fact, the very same scarf that Marilyn had taken off only moments before.
Holding it like a bug, Marilyn dropped it into the laundry basket, grimly wondering how she’d forgotten about it so quickly.
Marilyn returned to her room without having eaten anything. Jenn had returned to find Marilyn sobbing and shaking at the corner table.
“Mrs. Bordeaux? Marilyn?” Jenn shook Marilyn gently, trying to bring her eyes back into focus.
It took a trio of nurses to get Marilyn back to her room. The sobbing had subsided, but she was violently angry with everyone. They took her, crying and yelling and belligerently beyond any reason back to her room.
“You can’t do this to me! You can’t treat me this way! Why won’t any of you help me?” Marilyn subsided into crying again.
“Mrs. Bordeaux, I need you to take these. They’re going to help you feel more calm.” Jenn held out a little paper cup with two little pills inside.
Marilyn reared up in her wheelchair, bucking it nearly completely backward until one of the other nurses had to force her to sit back down again. “I won’t! They had me on pills forever until they made me crazy. I won’t take your pills!”
Marilyn wrenched herself out of the nurse’s grip, hobbling as quickly as she could down the hall. She staggered, knocking down photo frames and pinging from wall to wall.
Marilyn had quite forgotten why she was running, but any number of explanations were coming to mind. She’d forgotten her very important meeting with Jacob’s teacher. Or she’d left for work, only to get halfway there and realized she’d left the coffee pot on. Or she was running because the pills made her fat.
The pills. The doctors. Marilyn remembered again suddenly that there were nurses following her. The nurses who wouldn’t tell her why she was there. The same ones that wouldn’t let her calls out.
The intercom rang out tinnily, startling Marilyn so badly that she nearly lost her balance. She caught the word “code” but not the rest of it. She had the startling and fleeting realization that they were talking about her. She turned sharply down a new hall, cutting it too close and catching her shin on a hidden chair, adding to the catalog of bruises up and down her legs.
She collapsed, out of breath and nearly incoherent, onto the chair, where the alarmed nurses closed in.
Father, it’s me again. I’m so sorry for calling you like that earlier. I’ve been talking to the people here, and they’re going to help me figure out what’s going on. They don’t know either. They’re going to call my doctor and see why he hasn’t been notified yet.
Please don’t worry about me. I’ll…I’ll be fine.
Kirby’s phone rang once more late that night before falling silent for nearly a month, until Kirby had almost forgotten about Marilyn and her mysterious priest. Then one day, quite out of the blue, Kirby’s phone rang again. She let it ring through to voicemail.
But instead of Marilyn’s husky grate, it was a younger man’s voice, maybe a good ten or fifteen years younger than Marilyn herself. He sounded like the kind of soul who might wear tattered sweaters over collared shirts and drank tea instead of coffee.
Father, I heard from John that you might want to go up to the mental hospital and visit Marilyn. I’m planning a visit next weekend and just thought that maybe you might want to ride with me. My number is …
Kirby put her cell down, hands clammy.
She had felt bad for Marilyn the first few times she’d heard the voicemails — a poor, scared old woman just trying to get ahold of her priest, and it didn’t sound as though the hospital was doing much to help, if she kept calling the wrong number. Kirby felt even worse when she called the hospital’s front desk to tell them.
But, Kirby went back to her day-to-day life, where nothing more exciting than a trip to the grocery store ever beckoned. She forgot about Marilyn and her phone calls, at least until this newest call.
Kirby watched her phone for a moment, waiting for it to ring again. She ought to call the number back and tell him that she wasn’t, in fact, an ordained priest or, for that matter, any member of the clergy that could be called “father.” She should have called Marilyn back from the first, instead of letting her think that the priest wasn’t calling her back, but Kirby had assumed that the hospital had let her know about the wrong number.
But, she hadn’t and now she couldn’t quite get Marilyn out of her head.
Kirby found the hospital’s address and got into her car without much thought. The mental hospital was nearly a three-hour drive if she didn’t stop anywhere along the way. She threw her anxiety meds into the top pocket of her bag along with a bottle of water and didn’t bother to pack anything else.
Kirby drove hypnotically, slipping past miles and miles of empty rangeland on an empty highway. She drove with a single-mindedness.
It was mid-afternoon when she pulled into town. A quiet little town without streetlights or foot traffic. There were cars lined against the sidewalks, but seldom a person to be seen. A ghost town, Kirby thought. A ghost town for the ghosts of the mental institution.
The hospital was situated up a little ways on a carefully manicured lawn, giving it a nondescript air. The only indication that it was a hospital at all were the little signs in the parking lot designating “visitor” and “doctor” parking.
Pushing the car into park, Kirby sat for a moment. She hadn’t even thought of how she might get inside. She was fairly certain that without a relationship with Marilyn, asking for admission would win her her own bed here.
But the receptionist barely blinked an eye when Kirby stuttered over a lie about being Marilyn’s much-younger niece. She was given a visitor pass to hang around her neck and given the room number.
The whole thing was so surreal it took on a dreamlike quality that left Kirby feeling like she was floating through the halls. She felt an uncertain lurch that reverberated into her stomach every time she met an employee in the hall, but they either smiled or ignored her, their heads buried in charts.
She finally found Marilyn’s room in a wing that felt miles away from the front desk. She knocked and, getting no answer, knocked again, waiting awkwardly in the hall. Too far from home to simply turn and go back, Kirby pushed the door open a crack and peeked inside.
Marilyn sat in a chair, peering out the window. She didn’t turn when the door creaked or so much as make a sound. Marilyn’s hair had been shorn, but Kirby could still see where certain patches were shorter than the others. Sunlight glimmered in what was left, winking, but there was no telling if it was blonde or gray or white.
Marilyn sat stock-still, and Kirby could just make out the rhythmic rise and fall of her shoulders.
“You can stand there gawking all day, or you can come on in, just make sure you shut the door behind you.”
Kirby did as she was told and shut the door slowly, afraid to make any noise at all lest it startle Marilyn. She looked so fragile — like a feather could knock her down. Somehow, Kirby had failed to imagine just how fragile Marilyn really was. She felt a little enfeebled herself, and so sat without saying anything.
Marilyn swiveled in her chair slowly and looked narrowly at Kirby. Marilyn looked halfway to dead, her ragged hair offset by the sunken depths beneath her eyes and the puckered gathering of her lips around a half-full mouth.
“Can I help you?” she crossed her arms curtly. Despite her fraility, there was a hard edge to her voice.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Kirby said, finally finding in herself to speak again. “It’s just that you’ve been calling me. Trying to get a hold of your priest.”
“I haven’t tried calling him in well over a month, since he couldn’t be bothered to answer his phone. I guess we know why now, don’t we?”
“I’m sorry,” Kirby started again.
“Don’t you think that maybe after the first time, you ought to have answered your phone and told me? But I suppose it was easier to go on letting me think that my priest had forsaken me to this godawful excuse for a clinic.”
Kirby was about to leave when a nurse bustled in. She scrutinized the two of them, picking up quickly on Marilyn’s agitation. “Mrs. Bordeaux, how are we doing? If you’re getting tired, we can resume visiting later.” The nurse narrowed her gaze at Kirby, appraising her faded jeans and matted hair.
“No, it’s alright,” Marilyn nearly barked. “My…my…oh damn, who are you again?”
Kirby wasn’t sure if Marilyn was merely playing along or really thought she knew her. “I’m your niece, Kirby.” Her voice cracked. For a moment, Kirby’s lips went numb as she lied, sure that the nurse was going to call for backup any moment.
“Oh, that’s right,” Marilyn motioned impatiently at the nurse, shooing her away like a fly. “Leave us alone, won’t you?”
One of the nurse’s manicured eyebrows rose slowly, but she finished what she’d come in to do, leaving the door open into the hall as she left.
“What kind of a name is Kirby anyway? Never mind — It doesn’t matter. What are you doing here?”
Kirby didn’t say anything, unsure Marilyn was done with her rapid-fire questioning. Marilyn was far from the ailing woman that left her voicemails crying. This was a veritable spitfire, ready to chew Kirby up and spit her back out.
“I’m here because you kept calling me.”
“We’ve established that, haven’t we? I wonder which of us ought to be in here truly?”
“I’m here because I felt bad for you,” Kirby felt like shouting. The long drive and the stress and the shock of Marilyn all wrenching together in her gut. The words spilled out, pouring one after another after another. “Who calls their goddamn priest so much? I thought maybe he was all you had in the world. I thought that maybe I could…I could…offer you something. Solace, maybe. Friendship.”
Kirby stopped. It sounded canned, prepackaged, ready to use.
Marilyn was silent too. She was a nightmarish vision, backlit with the mid-afternoon sun throwing her figure into sharp relief. The sun washed out the details of her figure, so all Kirby could see was a slender frame twisted into itself, the perfect dome of the head disrupted by the uneven cut of the hair.
When Kirby got to the door, Marilyn stopped her. “You’re here now, you might as well stay. I haven’t the foggiest idea of who I am anymore or why they’re keeping me so long. I thought they would have had this sorted out long before now.
“But, I think the real question is who are you? I’m still lucid enough to recognize when someone else is acting odd.”
Kirby said nothing, the words piling up on top of one another. She wasn’t even sure what the words were, just that they were heaping up. She found the chair, placing her bag on the floor by her feet.
“I don’t know,” she said finally. The sunlight had cast the floor tiles in orange and pink and nothing seemed real any more. Marilyn was staring fixedly at the ground near Kirby, watching the colors change. “I guess I related to you. You sounded so down and out, and I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way too.”
Marilyn made a noncommittal sound deep in her throat.
“I sound pathetic. Who the hell drives so far to see a mental patient they’ve never met? Maybe I should be in here too.”
“I could use a friend,” Marilyn said gently, her voice softer now, more matronly and calm. “I won’t be leaving here, I know that now. I needed to speak to the father to sort some last bits.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Kirby extended a hand, hesitantly, slowly, but withdrew it before reaching Marilyn’s papery skin. It looked as though it might crumble. “I mean, you’ve got to be getting out soon.”
“Blech. I’ve been here for well over a month, and those doctors aren’t telling me a thing.”
“You still don’t know why you’re in here?”
“I’m not as sharp as I used to be,” Marilyn shrugged. “There’s a lot of fuzzy, gray areas. I still don’t know where my hair’s gone, or my teeth, or my boys…”
“Who are your boys? Did you have sons?”
Marilyn grinned, and for the first time Kirby could see the black blanks where her teeth used to be. The rest were thin and yellowed. “Yeah, I had sons once.”
“I’m sorry,” Kirby caught her mistake only a moment too late. “I meant do you have sons? I didn’t mean —“
“No, you were right the first time. I’m getting peckish. Would you mind running down to the cafeteria and getting me something?”
Kirby was out of her chair before Marilyn finished her sentence, glad for an excuse to retreat for a moment. “What do you want? I mean, I’m not sure what they have…or what you like.”
“Oh, whatever. It all tastes the same.”
The halls were quiet, although here and there Kirby caught hints of conversation coming through the walls. Nurses plying patients with bribery like toddlers. Patient repetition of phrases uttered a hundred times before. Sterile, hollow, surreal, Kirby had to quell the urge to run through the nearest exit. Her footprints echoed through the hall so much that she slowed herself until she could no longer hear herself walk.
Marilyn was sharply different than the terrified little bird that Kirby had been picturing. More sober and sensible than the sobbing woman leaving confused voicemails on Kirby’s phone. She was sterner and more formidable.
The halls folded back and forth, switching senselessly back and forth and splitting into a dozen new halls. Kirby walked, taking the fewest forks but still becoming hopelessly lost. It wasn’t long before she’d forgotten how many lefts she’d taken.
She pushed through an exterior door into a sunny courtyard. It was empty, although there was plenty of chairs and picnic tables. Kirby leaned against the clinic wall, enjoying the warmth and quiet. She took a moment to calm her nerves shaken by Marilyn’s vitriol.
Feeling a little calmer, Kirby went to go back inside, but the door refused to give, stopping with a sudden lurch as the lock latched. Heart in her throat, Kirby scurried from door to door, but the other three were locked also.
“Who the hell locks an interior courtyard?”
She pounded, open-palmed on the glass door. She couldn’t find it in herself to shout, but pulled and hammered on the door. Finally, a nurse came to open the door.
“Sorry — we have to keep this locked for the patients’ safety. Is it Miss Bordeaux, too?”
Kirby, still trying to squash the panic, said “What?”
“Is your name also Bordeaux? You’re Marilyn’s niece, right?”
“Oh… yeah. I’m just looking for the cafeteria — she’s hungry, I guess. But I got turned around in the halls.”
“Right this way. I’m Jenn. I’ve been Mrs. Bordeaux’s nurse for much of her time here. You know, it’s funny, she never mentioned that she had a niece.”
They came to the little cafeteria, and Kirby was sure she would have never found the way herself.
Kirby shrugged, busying herself with selecting a fruit cup. “I’m not sure what she remembers these days, I guess.”
“That’s true. We really are doing our best to help get her back on her feet, but she’s been resistant. She has incredible moments of coherence, but then she backslides again. I’m hopeful that your presence here will help move her away from self-harm. It would help the judge to know that you’ve been here too. Will you be attending the next hearing?”
“I’m sorry, what judge?”
Jenn looked thoughtfully at Kirby, rubbing her chin. “You’re aware that our hospital is by court-ordered appointment only?”
Kirby said nothing, the moisture having wicked away from her throat, leaving her vocal cords shriveled and useless. She shook her head.
“Mrs. Bordeaux is in here because a judge found her to be a danger to herself — and quite possibly others.”
There was a sudden clattering of feet down the hall and a simultaneous chiming from Jenn’s pager. A small sound escaped from Jenn before she turned and rushed down the hall to the commotion. She turned sharply on her heels — into Marilyn’s room.
Kirby was there without remembering running down the hall, past the nurses and doctors and patients standing in doorways.
There were too many people already in the room for Kirby to get a clear view. Between the legs and baggy scrubs of countless orderlies, Kirby caught snippets of the scene inside. The pink of Marilyn’s shirt in the graying light. A scatter of little pills across the tile. A long, white string of drool dribbling from Marilyn’s slack mouth.
The greater crush as the staff started CPR blocked Kirby from any view at all, but she could still hear the doctors.
“Whose pills are these? Where the hell did she get them?”
“The question is, how many has she swallowed?”
“I can’t get a pulse.”
Kirby sat slumped against the wall, waiting for something to change. For the miraculous sound of choking and spluttering or for someone to announce a long-lost pulse, but Marilyn was already gone.