"I don't have any idea."
I answered in a very annoyed tone. I was again speaking to the ward staff in the team conference
room. All my favorites were there for the spectacle, including the ward doctor, Dr. Messer and
Mike, the attendant, who had recently become very aloof and distant with me. I missed the late
night talks we had about the hospital, the patients and the possibility of me getting a divorce and
marrying him. In spite of his new behavior, I kept staring at him and smiling whenever I could. I
wondered if he was told not to speak to me anymore, since it was a cardinal rule that staff not
relate positively to the patients. Some new male staff were sitting around
Dr. Messer's/King Arthur's crooked table. I was introduced and told they were visiting
psychiatrists here to interview "clinically challenging cases." That's me.
Dr. Messer said, "So you're saying you don't know who the President is?" He looked
smug, knowing he had a specimen that would definitely challenge his colleagues.
I began to defend myself. "We don't have a radio on the ward since Carmen threw it against
the wall. My husband wrote to me about TVs, but I guess you'll never get one on the ward.
Good thing, since they will be used to spy on all of us. If I stand around the nurse's station to get
tidbits of information regarding the horrid world outside, which I could care less about, I am told
to move away. They're afraid I will steal pills or something. I don't even take my pills most of
the time, and they know it. So, no I don't know much about the President or current events. Does
that make me crazy?"
Dr. Messer responded. "Well, Mary, you've made a good point. We'll see if we can get a radio
on the ward. Would you listen to it?" He asked as if he were actually interested. He was trying to
make a good impression on the visiting staff. When I asked him previously for a radio, he spat,
"I'm too busy. Ask the nurse, and don't keep asking the same things."
I continued my defense. "Dr. Messer, I surely would listen to the radio. I would read National
Geographic, the poetry of Matthew Arnold, Thomas Gray, Anonymous and John Milton if we
had them. I am related to Anonymous, by the way. I would play pinochle like my husband,
Frank, and I did every Friday night. I would plant azaleas in the nurses' station and make
Moravian sugar cake every Sunday and put starch in my husband's underwear by mistake, and I
would stab him, and that's why I'm here in the first place. Who is the President or are we going
to play charades?"
I guess I wasn't in the mood for "let's play patient today" or else I would have added to my
"Ahem, Mary, I am Dr. Wellstein from Philadelphia. I understand you have been here all these
years because you claim you will kill your husband if you go home. Yet your visits with him are
generally pleasant. Can you explain that to us?"
"No, I can't. I have no idea why that is."
"I see you have bandages on some of your fingers and others have been picked until they bleed.
Why do you do that? Are you nervous about something? Is something bothering you?"
Dr. Wellstein looked puzzled, even for a big-shot psychiatrist. I was proud of myself.
"What do you mean 'layers'?" he asked me tentatively. He wasn't sure he was looking
like he passed his medical exam.
"I'm just going to explain this once, so listen carefully. Skin has layers. Finger nails have
layers, too. They are like fossils and shale. I often picture myself along the Ohio or Colorado
rivers looking for fossils in the rocks when I pick my fingers. I can hear the crows calling
and eagles diving for dinner, watch the clear water ripple over the fresh water clams and marvel
at the smooth holes the water has carved into the rocks over eons of time. If it wasn't for
my fingers, I wouldn't get anywhere."
Dr. Wellstein was taking notes and not looking at me as he changed the subject. "Do you ever
wish you were someone else?"
"I never answer anyone who writes notes in my presence. I am sure Dr. Messer discussed this
"Can you just answer the question?" The doc was drumming his fingers on the table.
Dr. Messer was getting frustrated, and yet he had a delightful glint in his eye as if to say," See, I
told you she was a pain in the ass."
"Do you know what day it is?" with a tone of voice indicating this question should be answered.
"Yes, Dr. Messer, I always know the day, thanks to Starlee Shantella. On Wednesdays
and Fridays she is --"
Dr. Wellstein interrupted. He didn't want Dr. Messer stealing the nutcase-of-the-week show.
"We aren't talking about other patients. What day is it, please?"
"It's the damn day I am walking the hell out of here. I don't need to talk to any of you. If you
want me to leave the hospital, I will kill my husband. If you want me to stay, I'll makes your
lives miserable. I win either way! Do you get the deep meaning in this about freedom?"
I got up, slammed the chair against the table and quickly walked out of the room, vowing I
would stop being cooperative with any of them. After all, I don't owe them anything. They have
no intention of helping me. Why should I answer their questions? Why should I perform for
As I ran down the hall, Nurse Bealer came out of the room and hollered to me, "Mary, come
back here. We aren't done with you yet. We aren't done with you yet. You yet."
I screamed at the top of my lungs, "I'm done with you. No more good Mary!"
I stormed out of the open ward and bumped into Frank.
"Hi, Mary. I was just coming to see you. Where are you going?"
Explaining myself again, "I just left all those damn doctors back at their damn conference. They
are talking about me, an example of a 'challenging case.' I've spent my whole life trying to be
free, intelligent, creative, humorous and caring, only to end up being a 'challenging case.' Shit
on all those doctors who have nothing to do but pick me apart. Do you know how stupid
Nurse Bealer is? A brother of one of our patients came to visit her for the first time in 30 years.
She never had any visitors all that time! Bealer told him she would be out in the visiting room in
a minute. It turned out she was dead. Bealer forget she died. They are always asking me who the
President is. Who the hell is the President, Frank?"
"Well, I guess it's Lyndon B. Johnson. President Kennedy was just shot to death. I figured I'd
come and tell you."
"I haven't seen you in years. All I get is cards from you, and now you come to tell me about
some dead President. Who the HELL cares?"
Frank looked at me with disgust, a familiar look. "The whole country cares. Everyone is upset.
He was a popular President. I didn't vote for him, but he was a good guy. It's terrible and
whoever is sane (he looked at me closely) is very upset. Shot him as he drove down the
street in Dallas. Jesus, just like the wild west. This country! First the depression, then the war,
then the atomic bomb, then we worried about the Communists. I bet we'll get in another war
before it's all over. We're all going to hell! You are sure better off. At least you know who is
crazy in here. It's hard to figure, it sure is."
Frank was wringing his hands and looked so weak and nervous. I never saw him that way before.
"Frank, you really are upset. It's just a President. They come and go."
"I guess it was a mistake coming today. I'll come back later. I never could talk to you about
anything serious. After all these years you'd think you would change. You're a pathetic piece of
shit, like the whole Goddamn world is!"
He turned and walked toward the parking lot. I stuck my tongue out at his back. I sat down on a
bench outside the ward and wondered where Nurse Bealer was. Why wasn't she coming after
me? It was cold, but I didn't mind that I only had on my favorite red flared wool skirt and white
muslin blouse. The skirt looked brand-new except for a small cigarette burn. I guess that's
why it was donated to the hospital. I looked down at the brown leather penny loafers I got at
the volunteers' clothing shop the day before. They had no scuff marks on them at all. I forgot to
ask Frank for some pennies to put in them. I was very confused by his behavior. I began
reflecting on what he cared about over the years: what people thought of him, money, how
things looked (his brown trousers and, of course, me). He was ranting about the damn country
and injustice, but he never thought about the injustices he poured down on me throughout our
marriage. I truly doubted his sincerity about President Kennedy.
About a half hour later I walked back into the dayroom. By this time the news had arrived on the
ward, and several of the staff were crying, but the patients were as they always were -- crying,
mumbling, masturbating, twirling, counting picking their skin, staring at the third crack in the
floor three inches from the bathroom door, singing the blues. Someone important had died, but
life went on as usual for these patients. I decided then I would be silent for a year. My life would
not go on as usual. I hoped wherever the President was he knew at least one mental case honored
him, even if I said who the hell cares.
Article © Connie Woodring. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-10-12