A Ford in a River
I buzz the door at the end of the corridor, the red light flashes, the door opens, I check in at the nursing station, ask how Susan's doing, the same the nurse says. I don't see her pacing, so I go to her room. Susan's wearing a purple blouse over her nightgown, tan pantyhose, one house slipper. She tells me to sit on the edge of her bed while she goes out to get her hourly allotted cigarette. I wait a little while for her to come back before going to the dayroom. I put her dirty clothes in the plastic bag that I brought to take them home in.
Jimmy Ray is in the dayroom. He's waiting for us to get started. Already he's laid out the Scrabble board, having turned the tiles face down in the box. I'm conscious of Susan close to me, a cigarette ash on a silk scarf, cigarette smoke in my lungs. Then Susan puts out her cigarette. She has smoked it down to the filter. She sets the filter next to the Scrabble board. When I put it in one of the ashtrays, she puts it back next to the Scrabble board.
Jimmy isn't much of a Scrabble player, and sometimes he doesn't follow the rules. He will play contractions and brand-name words. I watch him edge in the D tile in FORD. He has already played the O and the R, playing vertically off the F in BUFFS. But Jimmy hasn't a brand name in mind. He has a ford in a river in mind. Susan's holding a glazed doughnut that she hasn't gotten around to eating yet. I play two O's and a D off FORD, carefully putting each tile in its square. I get triple word points off DODO. Jimmy plays HEARTS off the S in BUFFS.
We're getting the weather on Channel Four. The weather woman is forecasting rain. There is this black man, Big Tim, with his coffee, smoking a cigarette. I've been keeping Big Tim in cigarettes. I leave the cigarettes at the nursing station with instructions to give them to Big Tim because I know he would take care of Susan, look out for her in the corridor. Big Tim is in charge of the refreshment room; he hands out coffee and soft drinks. One time I lined up for a soft drink but he shook his head, not for visitors.
I play two tiles vertically, an S and an E, off the A in HEARTS. I do the adding up, write down the score. Susan is back in the dayroom with her uneaten glazed doughnut. I am about to play SHUT off the H. Susan puts her hands on the card table, rocking the tiles loose on the board. Jimmy hooks his thumbs in his belt. I put the tiles back in the box, the tiles, first, then the board, trying not to listen to Susan. She wants me to go to her room. She doesn't want me with Jimmy. I tell Jimmy we'll play again next time.
"I said let's go to my room," Susan says.
Susan is tapping her right foot. I have seen her tap her right foot before when she wanted to get money out of me. It would always be her right foot until I say something, yes or no. Today I say yes; we will go to her room.
My wife, Peggy, turns on the washing machine. She waits for the level of water to rise before putting in the detergent. She has the dial set for warm/cold, for Susan's blouses and washable sweaters. The camisoles, panties, and T shirts are on high-to-low heat, in the dryer. Water trickles into the washing machine. Peggy waits with a scoop of detergent. I am holding Susan's wash basket, the one she used while she was living with us, in the garage apartment behind the house. Peggy is watching the level rise. She puts in half a cup of detergent. This is my signal to move away so Peggy can put in Susan's clothes.
Peggy lowers the lid and spreads her arms, palms flattened on the washer. She looks past me at the stairs, through the window across from the washing machine, running up past Susan's window. Neither one of us want to climb these stairs. We haven't cleaned up Susan's apartment yet. This is something we will do together, put Susan's apartment in order. Peggy won't do this without me. We will pry loose candles and clotted wax from saucers and paperback books. There are the cigarettes Susan smoked. They are standing in rows on a window sill, on her vanity, in the bathroom. Peggy will leave the cigarettes to me. She will do the dusting and vacuuming.
Peggy moves to the door of the laundry room. She stands in the door, she wants to keep me inside. Then I realize she isn't blocking my way. She is asking me to bring the ironing board, folded up next to the water heater. The iron is in Susan's apartment. One of us will have to get it.
I haven't seen Shirley Ray in the store before. Shirley Ray is wearing the pants suit that she usually wears in the ward. She would watch us sometimes, playing Scrabble, but never for very long. Shirley hands me a prescription, for an antidepressant, Elavil.
"Remember me. I'm Jimmy's mother," she says. "I've seen you two playing Scrabble."
I ask her how Jimmy is doing before I go to fill the prescription. About the same, she tells me. When I come back with the prescription, Shirley touches one teardrop earring with the edge of a painted fingernail. The plastic container she holds up to the light so the capsules show through its apricot haze. Shirley rummages in her pocketbook. She has a checkbook and a ballpoint pen. I tell her we can't take her check because she doesn't have an account here. She asks me if we take credit cards. I tell her to go to the tobacco counter. Someone there will take her credit card. Shirley's eyes narrow like Jimmy's when he is about to make his play. She is moving the checkbook slightly, tapping an edge on the ball of her thumb. Then she comes out with it, about Jimmy.
"There's something I think you should know. My son Jimmy tried to kill me. Jimmy pointed a shotgun at me. I was lucky, my brother was there. Next time he might not be there."
I don't tell Shirley I know about that. I've heard about it, from Big Tim. I look away from her, at aisle 6-A, toothpaste, dental floss, shaving cream. I know Shirley has things to say to me. I look at my row of prescriptions, lined up in their plastic containers. Witch doctors' mumbo jumbo, voodoo incantations might work better, but I am a pharmacist. I have to stick to what I know.
Shirley pulls out her billfold, spreads it out on the prescription counter. She shows me a family photograph of Jimmy and Shirley together, in the backyard in front of a gas grill. Jimmy is wearing a barbecue apron. He has his arm around Shirley. Beside Jimmy, Shirley looks small and frail.
"That's Jimmy when he was fourteen. Jimmy's Dad took that picture."
I tell Shirley Jimmy looks good, and she shows me a second photograph. Jimmy is riding a bicycle. I think of Susan on her first bicycle, with a nice little smile for her father.
"Jimmy was okay before Jack left. You can tell that in the picture."
"Maybe he'll be okay again."
"That's never going to happen. I can't trust Jimmy anymore. I don't know what he'll do next."
Another customer is approaching, an old man, one of the regulars here. Shirley moves aside to let him in. He waves a prescription at me, and I take it and go to fill it. I measure out the loaf-shaped pills, put the cap on the container. I put the prescription in the computer. Shirley watches me stick the label on. She puts the billfold back in her pocketbook, and I wait for Shirley to leave the store.
Susan has not gotten better. The insurance will pay for thirty days. In eight days we will either have to bring her home or go to the probate judge and petition to have her committed to Stockton. We have to decide what to do next, how long we think we can have Susan here if she isn't better in nine days. Peggy sees no alternative; Susan will have to be taken to Stockton.
Peggy sips on her iced tea, looking up from her pinochle hand. We are sitting out on our screened-in porch. The melds are laid out on the tiles. It is Peggy's turn to lead. She leads a ten of diamonds, trumps. I play the jack from a meld. Then I lead from the melds, king of clubs. Peggy plays the nine of clubs. She draws from the stock and leads from a meld. Susan's window over the garage is shut; the Venetian blind is closed. We finish, add up our tricks. Peggy shuffles the cards with authority, riffling the interlocked cards off her thumbs. I have seen her do this at her bridge club, with her friends, without looking down. I've heard her keep up a conversation, shuffling the cards, dealing out bridge hands, seen her do this on my way to Susan's apartment with Susan's meds in a plastic pillbox, pills with different shapes and colors, in each compartment, pills with one shape, one color.
Peggy is wearing the dress she wore to church. She has already been to the psychiatric ward. She has seen Susan in restraints. That hasn't caused Peggy to change her mind. I tell Peggy we should try to keep Susan at home. Peggy stops shuffling the cards. I won't put up with it, she says. I say nothing. What is there for me to say?
We play pinochle for another hour; then I drive across town to the hospital. The head nurse says they have rules. Susan has to stay in restraints, but they will take one of the wrist straps off. I can hear Susan yelling and cursing. Usually a nurse at the station will tell me to come back tomorrow. But today I can see my daughter. I can sit with her for as long as for ten minutes. I ask the head nurse for a cigarette from her pack at the nursing station. An orderly unbuckles one wrist strap. I light Susan's cigarette and watch her smoke. She complains about being in restraints, and I tell her I'll see what I can do. I tell her I will come back in an hour. I will bring her a cigarette, in an hour.
I leave Susan and go to the dayroom. Jimmy is waiting for me. He is wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Already he's laid out the Scrabble board, having turned the tiles face down in the box. We get started; we draw out tiles. Jimmy looks at his tile rack. His shoulders are hunched as he picks out a tile. He plays ACCEPT. I write down his score. I play my tiles vertically off the E. I play TEE, as in golf tee. That is only good for three points. Jimmy starts cracking his knuckles. He puts his right fist in his cupped left hand. There is something he wants to tell me. He says he tried to call his father today, but all he got was the answering machine. Jimmy picks up a tile and edges it in, an E, off the T in golf tee. "I know why I never see him. He's with this woman who hates me. She doesn't want him to see me."
I play EXIT off of TEE. Jimmy plays BED off of EXIT.
"My mother, she wants to see me. But she doesn't want me in the house."
I wait until his agitation goes, like a hand has passed over his face. I play SPEED off the D in BED, for a double word, write down the score. I can play DEEP, but instead I play SPEED. Big Tim and another black man come in; they go to the Ping-Pong table. I still have thirty minutes to wait before I take Susan her cigarette. The Ping-Pong ball rolls across the room. We can all hear Susan yelling because the room she is in doesn't have a door.
I hold out Susan's cigarette and put it, lighted, between her lips. She waits to blow the smoke out. Susan tells me I have to take her home. The head nurse says Susan will be out of restraints when her behavior becomes acceptable. She says I can take Jimmy outside. She allows us out in the courtyard. Big Tim and some others are going out, have permission to take this smoke break outside.
There is a hoop and backboard outside, but no net, and no basketball. Jimmy's standing with his thumbs in his belt; then he sits down on one of the benches. Big Tim lights up a cigarette. He lets Jimmy take one drag. When Jimmy asks for another drag, Big Tim says he'll have to work for it. He'll have to play him one on one. Streaks of sunset are still in the sky, outside the courtyard gate, in the parking lot. I tell Big Tim he's too tall, over six feet, no contest. I tell Jimmy I'll get him a cigarette on the next break if he can whip me.
Jimmy goes in for a lay-up. He gets by me for the lay-up. I get off a one-handed push shot. Swish, I say to myself, two points. Jimmy cuts to the right, gets by me again. But we can't go on; even Jimmy knows that.
The next day I come home for lunch and see that Susan's window isn't shut. I move out through the screen door and move on to the garage. The door at the top of the stairs is open. I can hear Peggy vacuuming in there. In a paper bag there are cigarettes. And the candles are in the paper bag. Some of the clothes are tied up in a sheet, what was going into the washer. There are skirts and sweaters heaped on the bed.
Peggy turns off the vacuum cleaner. "You can drop these off at the cleaners." I see that Peggy hasn't dusted the window sill. The ashes from Susan's cigarettes, those tiny columns of meaning for her, have been obliterated, are gone.
I say, "I want you to leave it the way it is."
"It's too late for that. I'm cleaning it up."
"I'm not sending Susan to Stockton," I say.
"All right. All right. You say you aren't but I say it's the only way Susan will get better."
Peggy turns on the vacuum cleaner, moving the trolley across the floor. I watch Peggy bear down on Susan's bed. She tries to vacuum under the bed, but she can't get far enough under. She doesn't ask me to help her move the bed, so I leave and go back to the house. The front closet is where we keep the games—Monopoly, Backgammon, Scrabble, a few others that aren't that popular. We keep the games on the top shelf. I pull down the Scrabble game. The box is coated with dust. I go to the kitchen table. I open the box and lay out the board. I think about playing all the tiles to make sure they are all there. But there isn't time to do that today. I soak a handy-wipe in water and wipe the dust off the board.
Susan isn't watching the Scrabble game. Susan is at the window, doing her numbers again. For her, the numbers mean something—one, eleven, three, forty-two. She is out of restraints; she is quiet. There are silences between the numbers. I write down the score. I play my tiles. Naturally, Jimmy is pleased with the score. His hands are gripping his wrists, and he rocks in his chair with glee. I don't intend to finish the game today. I will sit with Susan in her room, accompany her in the corridor, keeping step with her as she paces, alert for the slowdowns, the stops, the shifts in direction mapped in her brain. Will we go to the end, the fire exit, to the showers, the refreshment room? Will we sit down in the alcove, in the love seat, going only partway?
The next day Shirley Ray's there. She tells Jimmy he has to pack tonight because he won't have time to pack tomorrow. She tells him to be ready at six so they can have some time together. A deputy sheriff will be there at seven to take Jimmy to Stockton. When Jimmy asks about his father, she says his father won't be coming. But he will visit Jimmy at Stockton. That is when Jimmy looks at me. I can't say no to that look, but I don't know how to say yes. Peggy wouldn't put up with it. She wouldn't have Jimmy in the house.
Jimmy goes with us to the door. He waits for a nurse to buzz us out. We are leaving the hospital together. We can't see the ward from the parking lot. In the parking lot, standing near my car, Shirley brings up her ex-husband, Jack. Jack is living with Kay Lyn; they are living in a trailer park. It is Kay Lyn who won't have Jimmy. Shirley says she knows this for a fact because she has talked to Kay Lyn herself.
"We had a talk," Shirley says flatly, folding her arms and looking at me. Kay Lyn said she wouldn't feel safe with Jimmy around." Shirley is standing close to me, a little too close, I'm thinking. I put one hand on the door of the car.
There is a telephone in the paint shop and, sitting next to it, an answering machine. Jack listens to Shirley tell him that I happen to know about Stockton. My daughter has been in Stockton; there are certain things Jack should know. Jack has sideburns and a wavy mustache. For awhile he is looking away from us. Then he gets up and goes to Shirley. He stands over her so I move away.
"I told you I'll visit him at Stockton," Jack says.
"I'll believe that when I see it, Jack."
I go to the door of the paint shop. The body shop is across the yard. There are cars in there being worked on.
The next day I'm back at the ward. Big Tim tells me what happened, how a deputy sheriff took Jimmy out of the ward. Shirley was there. Jack wasn't there. Jimmy's hands were handcuffed in front of him, his legs were chained. That was the way it had to be done, Big Tim tells me.
We are moving along, down the corridor, past the nursing station. Susan might do the numbers next, or ask for a cigarette at the nursing station. Susan might go anywhere, do anything, if she weren't here, having to pace.