This is the first of a two-part story. The conclusion will be posted tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.
Squirrel Pen Diary: First Entry
Last Wednesday morning I entered Our Lady Star of the Sea church during mid-week mass. While two dozen or so senior citizens went through the ancient, dusty rites (monotonously administered by an equally ancient and dusty priest), I rose unseen and snuck upstairs to a small balcony that communicates with the church’s attic. I climbed atop the guano splattered stone rail that hugs the balcony and balanced myself on one foot and held the other out as though I intended to take a seventy-foot step onto the marble walkway below. After I had done all that, there wasn’t much else to do except wait for someone to notice me.
“Probably not,” the young priest said when I asked him “Will God catch me?” The young priest had been in the rectory across the street. He was the first person to see me on the rail, and he ran upstairs so we could “talk things over.” If the old priest had somehow managed to huff his way upstairs without suffering a heart attack, just to recite the tiresome company policy against suicide in response to my question, there’s no doubt I would have taken that last big step — if only on general principle. But proof that there still was at least one honest human being left in the world gave me enough pause as to allow the young priest adequate time to snatch me off my perch.
When I was a girl, we had many clever names for The Northwestern State Mental Hospital: Lobotomy Lounge, Acorn Patch, Squirrel Pen — it’s all good. “Keep on fucking with it, Tess, and I’ll have the Wacky Wagon take you to the Squirrel Pen.” The staff encourages the “guests” to refer to the institution as “Northwestern,” as though it were a branch of the college of the same name. No matter what you call it, the institution is your basic 19th-century imposing pile of bricks, which had been consciously designed to convey the Awe and Majesty of the State. Naturally enough, Northwestern is supposedly haunted. I’d like to see a similar structure that isn’t supposedly haunted, but I guess that’s asking for too much. One thing’s for certain: if it wasn’t haunted before I arrived, it is now.
I’m currently at Northwestern for sixty days’ worth of “voluntary” observation. Although the potential criminal complaints against me (trespassing, disorderly conduct) are pretty mild, and although my previous adult criminal history is limited to a single speeding ticket in 1984, the Catholics, the law, my employer, and family thought it best that I spend quality time in the underfed bosom of the Washington State Mental Health Authority.
Here in the wildly overmedicated U.S.A., most taxpayers think that insanity is just a dodge concocted by lazy fuckers as to avoid richly deserved jail-time so they may lie around, use dope and watch HBO on the taxpayers’ dime. This kind of thinking has allowed me a private room here at Northwestern because nearly all the Americans who belong in mental institutions are either in prison or are muttering dark observations to themselves as they follow people just like you down the street.
Upon check in I informed the staff that I was a good sport, and would continue to be one as long as nobody I knew had contact with me for the duration of my stay. Other than the staff and the young priest who had snatched me off the rail, the only other visitors I would allow were God and my sister, Tess, who died last fall. I had to dictate my highly unlikely guest list because I am not allowed a pencil or anything else that I might be able to use to do myself in with. I do get an hour a day (supervised, of course) to work on an internet-free computer (as I am now). I spend most of the rest of my time not watching the basic-cable TV that you suckers pay for. (I am not yet allowed books because they too can be contrived into something that you can use to prematurely terminate your journey on Spaceship Earth. True story: in the 1930s a guest managed to beat himself to death with a Gideon Bible).
It’s funny how the perception of one person’s personality can be hugely altered by one action. For fifty-nine years, three months, and fifteen days I was “Sara Sane.” For all my adult life I was the steady star at the centre of my own little solar system. I was orbited by my sister (who’s still dead), mother (ditto), husband (ex), two step children whom I helped raise (“Hell”-en and Ann “oying”) and an Oort Cloud composed of needy friends and colleagues, who, for unknown reasons, always came to me to vent about everyfuckinglittlethingimaginable. I was the kind of star that other people shit on with impunity. But that had all been a lie; a contrivance contrary to the real me. Truth be told, I am one sun who cannot change her spots.
There’s one entity not mentioned in the yeas and nays of my guest list, because she’s always around no matter how I feel about it. And as we used to say on the Home Block when I was a girl, “I don’t give a flying fuck at a rolling donut” whether you believe it or not: but a demon has entered my life. Her name is Lydia.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Second Entry
It is in keeping with my preposterous existence that the young priest who had fetched me off the rail has a porn star-esque name: Father Rodney Hardin. Although it’s not quite as blunt as, say, “Peter Everhard,” his name has the same effect on my mind. Sara Sane would have discreetly set that connection aside in her mind to ponder later, but Sara of the Squirrel Pen keeps it close and on the ready.
Father Hardin is remarkably well educated for someone who has been assigned to the Charleston faithful. He holds degrees in theology and psychology. The Father is all of twenty-five, as thin as a blade of witch grass, and looks a little like both Lyle Lovett and Eraserhead. Just about every conversation we have begins with him speaking the same three words, which preface similar topics of conversation.
“Tell me about Lydia, Sara,” Father Hardin asked. We were alone in the common room, but I knew that we were being watched, just in case I did something especially squirrelly.
A coy little sadness formed at the edge of my thoughts and flirted with my desire to no longer be alive (which isn’t the same thing as being suicidal). The sadness knows that I want the impossible: Awareness while safe inside death’s sweet oblivion. This must run in my family. Tess had been an opiate addict from her mid-teens until her death a few months ago. She had found her own sweet oblivion in a forty-year opiate addiction; in a secret garden of the soul that was always bathed in “dream-purple light.”
“Lydia’s from a long time ago,” I said. “She was a Jehovah’s Witness girl who attended my school until the sixth grade. Then she and her whole family died in a house fire during her final summer vacation. Something electrical had gone wrong. Most everybody hated Lydia because she was different. You know how the blessed little children act when nobody is watching them, don’t you, Father?”
Father Hardin just nodded in an “if you say so” sort of way and said, “Did you hate her?”
I thought about it. “No, not really. I remember feeling that she was probably the loneliest kid on earth. But I never gave her much hell or thought, until she came to the Home Block one day, maybe a week before she got killed. Then I hated her plenty. But, really, at school she was so damned quiet, almost not there.” Although I hadn’t smoked since I was fourteen, I found myself wanting a cigarette.
“Most of the other kids ragged on Lydia for her old fashioned way of dressing,” I continued. “Oh, and for those stupid kitty cat glasses she wore — the chick looked like one of those brainwashed Jepps’ wives, you know? The teachers never helped her out, either. I think they hated her too. You see, this was back in the 60s; we used to pray right there in a public school and call your boss by name while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Back then, whenever it was somebody’s birthday or St. Valentine’s Day or whatever, we’d have a little party at the end of class — za rex, cupcakes, stuff like that. As I’m certain you already know, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take part in celebrations. And every damn time a party was about to begin, a teacher like old Mrs. West would make a big show of saying ‘We shall excuse Lydia so she may go study quietly in the library’ in front of everyone — Apparently to embarrass her, I guess. I can still hear the hushed scorn in the old bag’s voice and the awkward silence that suddenly broke after Lydia left the classroom. Still, I have to give that girl credit, way the hell past due, she never once cried or reacted in any way to the bullshit.”
“What happened between you and Lydia on the ‘Home Block’?”
I didn’t respond. I just sat there wishing I was a 14-year-old smoker.
“All right,” I whispered, “but I don’t see how it will help.”
“You never know,” Father Hardin said with a smile so thin that it wouldn’t have been visible if I had caught it head on.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “Sometimes you do know.”
Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion.