Loving the written word as I do, I’m doing case histories at two in the morning, with great pleasure, when Ray O’Hara comes to my door fully dressed. I do need a break: my back and shoulders are stabbing at me, my eyesight is fogging, but writing histories beats even relating to patients. Ray O’Hara is higher than a kite.
I say, “Hey, Ray. You look like the cat’s whiskers, but it’s the middle of the night.” Ray is in dress pants and a fresh white shirt open at the neck. His hair is slicked down but springs up as unruly at his mental state. He desperately craves a light for his cigarette.
Ray spends his good days at the sheltered workshop doing piecework beside troubled and social-deficit workers, spends his weekends with a sympathetic older brother. When he gets high he can’t leave the hospital. When he gets very high he can’t leave the wing. Twice a year he gets depressed so severely he can’t get out of bed or carry on a conversation. One time, years ago, I brought him back up myself my taking a newspaper to his bedside – a newspaper headlining the election of Jack Kennedy. Ray is Irish Catholic.
We met on my first night in the old Men’s Ward. The building’s torn down. White uniforms were still required in these days before pseudo-equality, and that night I had worn green nylons, I suppose in an unconscious test of authority. Ray had never looked before at green stockings, and green was his favorite color. So our history begins.
There is nothing anyone can do to help Ray. We’re experimenting with lithium. He doesn’t get quite as low on lithium. Now, on a high, he’ll sing Cole Porter and George M. Cohan songs every night until his voice gives out. The words will not always be correct, but Ray’s enthusiasm will make up for the inaccuracies.
“Mary, Mary plain as any name can be!” bursts out Ray in his Louis Armstrong voice – no tune yet. “But with propriety, society –” He stops at a signal from me. He breaks into a whisper: “The day nurse, she tried to tell me you weren’t coming in tonight. I knew you’d make it. She was just trying to get me into bed!”
“Getting all spiffed up in the middle of the night and then having to get back to sleep, that’s a lot of work,” I comment.
“Yes, it certainly is, but somebody has to do it,” agrees Ray, bending over the match flame with his cigarillo. He laughs heartily, showing his fine white teeth. Next week he is almost sure to misplace his teeth. He’ll be coming from his room at two in the morning, down the dark corridor, with no teeth in his mouth, singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
“Listen, Ray, let me go on break with you,” I say to him. “I’ll come have coffee with you in the lounge if you give me your word as a gentleman you’ll go right back to bed so I can get the rest of my work done.”
Ray was a gentleman and way more. “You got a deal, Mary,” he says.
I lock my door after us, coffee in hand. The lounge is a dim open alcove with a television high on a ceiling shelf in the corner. There are a dozen chairs in the lounge. Ray and I sit next to each other on two of them.
“How’s the farming going, Mary?” Ray asks.
I put my finger to my lips, cautioning him. His voice is loud and raspy from emphysema and could wake the whole south wing. “Starting with hay now,” I tell him.
“You have to bale hay tomorrow?”
“No, no, someone else does it. Once in a while I help unload. This neighbor of mine does it on shares, well, most years. So far it has worked out good. He’s a couple of miles down the road. Remember I told how he’s a big shot from an old farm family taking advantage of bad times and buying up land all over? He wouldn’t mind having my place. But I don’t think he actively cheats anyone.”
Ray says with fervor, “If you need some help, count me in!” It’s a sign of his manic state. He has told me many times how he hates farming. And as far as work is concerned, Ray can stand about twenty minutes’ worth – after seventeen years in the institution. “I worked for Morris Albright, west of Footville,” says Ray, “and he always said I was the best man he ever hired. Then I got hurt. I fell off a beam up high in the barn. I mean way up.”
“You’ve told me about that.”
“I was up there fixing the hay track,” says Ray. “Prob’ly the fifth time I was up there that afternoon. Fork fell right on top of me. Funny I’m alive. I been living on borrowed time for forty-five years.” He laughs modestly, looking at the glow of his cigarillo in the half-dark. I sip at my coffee in its Styrofoam cup. Styrofoam keeps it too hot and does something bad to the flavor. “You don’t bring your typewriter in anymore,” says Ray.
“Eleanor was complaining one day. She had dreams about getting machine-gunned, second night I used it, so I had to quit typing. I was surprised she could hear it with both doors shut…she gets a handful of sleeping pills at night, too.”
“I never heard it,” says Ray, “I don’t think I ever did.”
“You should give sleeping lessons to these folks.”
“I’m not doing too good myself tonight,” laughed Ray, “You want to have breakfast with me and Bernard Sunday morning at Pine Grove? I’ll buy.”
“We better put that on ‘hold’,” I tell him. “I’ve been working two extra nights every month, usually Saturday night.”
Ray hums a bar or two of “Dancing in The Dark.” Then he says, “You always working so damn hard, Mary.” He thinks it’s funny. I try to keep the volume of his laughter down. “I was a hard worker, too. When I worked for Morris, it was five-in-the-morning milking, and I tell you it was too dark to work when we quit at night.”
“We use lights now,” I say. “You can work all night long if you want to.”
“Milkin’ was bad enough,” he says, “I never minded it so terrible lot, but that upper-barn work is a widda-maker; a real widda-maker.”
I sip my coffee, watching Ray’s chiseled face outlined by exit lights as he inhales from his almost-feminine cigar. Ray must have bought cigarillos when his money was low; men don’t usually appreciate a cigarillo. He sometimes whips out his pockets so they hang inside out from the sides of his pants. He calls the display “Hoover Flag” as all the CCC veterans do.
“Y’got a garden this year, Mary?” he asks, getting louder.
“No,” I whisper back, “I’m not gardening. Once a long time ago when I was married, a county agent came around and talked gardening. We were signed up for crop rotation. He said the Department of Agriculture figured you made four hundred dollars extra every year, having a garden and putting up food for winter. He said, ‘That’s the same as milking an extra cow or two.’ This was up north, y’know. I told him right off, I’d rather milk an extra cow or two.” Talking “up north” to a Rock County mental patient is talking space travel almost. It’s somewhere he’ll never see, most likely has never been – except if he’s been shipped around from county to county for therapy or because a hospital has closed. Mental illness is confining, like a jail.
“Do you make enough at this job,” Ray asks, “to pay for farming?”
“Well, the milk money pays for hay and feed. I don’t have to worry about weather or own a lot of machinery. The money I pay for hay helps the man pay off his baler. This is the way they farm in California. But, of course, they pay more for milk in California.”
“Do you wish you could quit working here?”
“No, I’d never quit work here. It’s just a way of doing what I want to do until I quit wanting to do it.” Ray has a happy look on his face, shaking his head at my logic. “While we were farming back when I was married – and farming was just about all I ever wanted to do – the old man was never happy. So we quit, of course. I still don’t know whether his discontent was with economics or with me – or whether he was just naturally discontent. Maybe I was too young and starry-eyed and thought about happiness too much.”
“Is he happy now?”
“Maybe mellower,” I finished off the brackish coffee, cold by this time. “It’s no longer my worry.”
“Remember that first night I ever say you in the old building in the men’s ward?” Ray chirps. It’s a subject he never tires of. “We talked Democrat politics all night. I told you FDR was the greatest man that ever happened to this county and you said, ‘Exactly right!’ You had those long green stockings on?”
“It couldn’t have been better timed,” I say to him. “I was brought up by Republican small-town. Then we went farming, and I got my eyes opened up.”
A voice comes from somewhere. There is a woman standing behind me, a seersucker robe gathered around her thin frame. “Is it time to get up?” she asks.
“No, no, it’s not,” I say, on my feet, “Ray got up and had to see about something.”
“Could I get a cigarette?” She is a woman whose face is lined with worry. Her hair is red. She had once been a teacher; she taught home-economics until two years ago, when one morning she got up from bed to find her interest in everything, except smoking, had vanished.
“I’ll give you an extra one at five,” I tell her.
“But couldn’t I get one right now?”
“If you just stay in bed until I wake you at five, you’ll get two.”
“I can smell someone smoking,” she says. It’s not really an accusation; her voice is weak, without any kind of timbre. She clutches her robe at her breast. If I get her a smoke, immediately as she finished it she’ll forget and ask for another. It’s all she does all day. The more I talk to her the more awake she’ll be.
“Good night, Ray,” I say. I tell the woman, “I have to go write some reports now, Lucille. Don’t worry; I’ll wake you up in two hours just the same as always.” I walk toward the locked entrance to the south wing; I leave as fast as I can, Lucille at my back clutching her robe looking confused. I can sneak back in ten minutes.
Sneaking is what the night shift does. Room-checks and writing and cleaning are what we do, quietly, until five or six o’clock when we get people up, mostly people who don’t want to get up.
The door locks solidly behind me, trademark of a mental ward. My feet pad past the enclosed fourth floor main desk, where three women are writing, knitting, sleeping. I poke the elevator button; the door opens with a flash of light and the women at the counter perk up like chickens alerted to a flashlight. Alone then, I’m on the elevator descending to the basement, which the administration likes to call ground floor. There is a dining room and the entrance to a long tunnel in the basement. The dining room has been partitioned by sliding plastic walls and in the space left, four tall vending machines light the walls and tables in ghostly fluorescent glow. Two patients from the alcoholic floor sit at one of the tables, a bald man and a tired-looking blonde woman. Their heads lean together, uttering quiet words I can’t hear. They are probably off-limits, but I’m not a cop. I sit without money, looking at the vending machines.
Back in the old building, I’d be sitting this time of night in the old men’s ward in that high-ceilinged cubicle, sitting at the old desk. The medicines were kept then in a glassed-in wall cupboard. Men came shuffling to me in the night, in a shirt and boxer shorts or in winter longies. They asked for a smoke or a jigger of cough medicine. They faked congestion to get the cough medicine, which was made the old-fashioned way with alcohol. For me, there was no question, never a doubt, whether to give a taste of whiskey to help a man sleep or to help him start one more pointless day. In the morning, these men would be walking or rocking, or some of the luckier ones would be out on the grounds. Some would sit waiting for company that rarely came. Some hoped only for a second cup of coffee at breakfast or a week-old Bismarck left off by the local bakery which had been caught burying it’s unsold bread in a landfill and had decided it would improve public relations to sell the bread instead, to this warehouse full of unwanted human beings.
One time during the early-morning wake-up period, I apprehended a jar wrapped in brown paper, being pulled with a length of baler twine up the laundry chute from the outside. I thought it had to be liquor. I caught it and unwrapped it. It turned out to be cold coffee, sent up by a patient I’d let out at four o’clock for barn work. I handed it off to its intended receiver shamefacedly after tasting from the half-pint jar. It tasted bitter. The old man looked so please when I gave it to him.
When I did bed-check in the old men’s ward, twice each night, I would sometimes find two sleeping men in a cot together, and a cot empty across the room. There were twenty-five beds in that room, barely visible under the glow of one bulb high on a wall. I would walk along the aisles formed by the rows of cots and, passing the one with two people under the blankets, I would murmur, “Don’t forget to go back to your own bed, Jesse,” and Jesse would make a throaty noise acknowledging me. My job as I saw it, and still see it, is to do everything I can to make their lives endurable.
When I get back to the fourth floor, Victor is up, his suspenders flapping on his legs and his feet shoeless. He paces, talking word-salad in a low voice as if communicating with a spirit. His hands are shoved into his pants pockets. He says hello to me, apparently refreshed by his short drugged sleep. “Please go back to bed, Victor,” I say to him. I don’t think he will.
I go behind the desk, inspect an industrious aide’s knitted vest with the long yellow needles still in it, and pull out Victor’s chart. “I’ll write up Victor,” I tell the three women. I go through the kitchen passage and into the back, a room which opens into my locked wing. Lucy is back there arranging pills into the slotted tray for six o’clock meds. Lucy’s hair is tied into a loose knot at the back of her neck – dark, heavy hair. We begin to talk again about her house, which she believes is inhabited by her mother and father, killed in an accident five years before. Her attitude is not unlike my own concerning Jorgine. I haven’t told Lucy about Jorgine yet. Lucy’s eyes are a deep brown; she talks 60s style: breathy, fragmented and loose. I have notice the Richard Brautigan books she brings to work, and the Carl Jung readings. Lucy has a retarded sister who stays with her whenever she isn’t working, in the parent’s house. At the fringes of her intimate life are men who take her too seriously, calling her in the night while she lies in her bed not always alone. When Lucy and I talk, it goes on and on, deep. I wonder whether Lucy feels the closeness to me that I do to her, as I talk Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky or even Sonia Johnson, the voluntary exile from the Mormon Church.
Listening to Lucy, I sit and write on my lap in Victor’s chart. A state law compels us to write daily about each patient. “Up as usual at three. Pacing but quiet. Partially dressed. When asked, he will neither put his shoes on his feet, or return to bed. No cigarette given at this time.” I put the chart away, out in the front rack, and I unlock the door carefully, to pad down into the dark, silent south wing and finish the case history I’d been writing at two o’clock.
After six straight days, I was finally going to have Monday night off, then extra comp time to be used, and administration pleased as punch to give non-weekend time-off. Weekends have no meaning for me, but I have spread before me like a banquet several nights to sleep, several days for meaningful activity instead of hibernation – days and nights almost free of clocks. Writing my own schedule is all I know of Heaven.