Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paint it Black

Excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues

“Really a classic case, she is…uh—”

“Mary Lou, Doc…”

Sam and Mary Lou were sitting in Dr. Thaddeus Musselman’s office two years earlier when the beefy, red faced psychiatrist diagnosed her paranoid schizophrenic.

“Yes, of course, Mary Lou,” Musselman said from a cushioned leather chair perched behind a polished oak desk, “quite fascinating, from a clinical point-of-view, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure, we get it, but can you help?” Sam said, sucking a Lucky.

“Well, there are drugs, like Haldol, the one we have her on now, and individual therapy sessions…”

“You’re going to drug her, then talk to her? That works?”

“Well, Mr. Henderson, not exactly like that. It’s more complicated. Cognitive behavioral therapy…uh, uh… than drugging and talking, as you put it…you see…”

Sam and Mary Lou stared across the shiny divide, in straight back hardwood chairs. Sam, legs crossed, squinting through the smoke, nodding. Mary Lou, hands in gray skirted lap, knees together, eyes darting from Sam to the doctor. Not speaking. Feeling like people who described near death experiences, soul hovering above, seeing all, but unable to engage in the human activity below as Dr. Musselman explained the progression of the “disease.”

Mary Lou recalled the intent look on Sam’s face as he tried to follow the doctor’s lead, to get what he believed to be the best treatment. She empathized with Sam’s struggle to reconcile the rational to the emotional, to accept her missing-in-action status, to not “take the illness, personally, Sam,” as Dr. Musselman put it.

“I’m not taking the illness personally, Doc,” Sam said, leaning forward, eyes meeting Musselman’s. “No more than I did Kraut bullets. But the holes they tore into my buddies, I took that personal. I don’t blame the illness, Doc.  But I sure as hell blame it for what it’s doin’ to my wife, to our marriage, to our family. I damn sure take that personal.  Let’s cut the clinical point of view crap, Doc.  Can you help Mary Lou or not?”

Musselman, face pale, nodded.  “Yeah, Mr. Henderson, I think I can.”

“Here’s your tea, dear.”

Grandma Henderson touched Mary Lou’s shoulder.

Mary Lou flinched and the oak rocker creaked to a halt.

She had been home a week and began every morning with a hot cup of tea laced with honey and cream, settling into the padded rocker in front of the crackling fireplace, hair in a bun, face bereft of makeup.

“Thank you, Etta,” she said, taking the steaming cup in trembling hands.

Mary Lou gazed out the front window where a November blanket of snow and ice made the dormant grass crunch under foot, the entire land frigid, the temperature never edging above freezing. A pang of guilt struck her at the sight of the lumps and bumps of dead flowers in her garden. She had neglected it the last few years, doing less and less each spring and summer until the wildflowers and weeds overwhelmed the colorful carpet of perennials, the sole nursery plants left, three bare rose bushes, their stakes like crucifixes.

“Farmer’s Almanac says we’re in for a long, cold winter,” Etta said, tucking in the quilt that covered Mary Lou’s legs.

Muted by the Haldol, but mind clearer than it had been in weeks, Mary Lou snuggled deep into the quilt, alternately drumming her fingers and sipping the tea, her emotions as flat as the Midwestern landscape.

Mary Lou stared into the flames, thinking of her father, Wally.  There was a man who built a good fire. Always kept one going in the pot belly stove of his general store.

 

“Tell me about Wally. Wally Weller, right?” Musselman had said at a session, yellow legal pad propped in his lap.

“Yes…what do you want to know?” Mary Lou said, stretched out on a cushy leather couch, Musselman within her peripheral vision.

“Let’s start with how you remember him? What’s he look like in your mind?”

“Well, I guess when I think of him it’s as a younger man.  Black hair, clean shaven, cigarette dangling from his lip.”

“What was he like?”

“Busy.  Daddy was always busy.  Always at the store.  Owned a general mercantile a few blocks from our home. Seemed like he lived there.  Have to girls. Not really selllin’ merchandise as much as I’m sellin’ myself.  No Wally, no sales.”

“Hard worker, then?”

“I suppose.”

Musselman shifted in his seat.

“A religious man?”

“Daddy?” Mary Lou said with a laugh. “Not any you’d recognize.  He did believe in God, but more for practical reasons than from any kind of faith.  Sure as hell can’t hurt, he’d crack.”

“Any one memory stand out?”

“I remember I always hugged him,” Mary Lou said, folding and unfolding her hands. “I don’t remember him ever hugging me or Momma or Sara. We always had to hug him.”

Musselman’s pen scratched the pad.

“Anything else? Any specific memories.”

“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s been so many years.”

“Try.”

“Well, I guess the spring concert my senior year of high school.  I was featured on piano.  I remember stepping into the spotlight. The house lights were down, so I could not make anyone out, just heard the applause.  I played exceptionally well.  A Mozart waltz.  When I finished and stood to take a bow, the lights came up.  There, in the front row, clapping like crazy were Momma, Sara and my Aunt Thelma, Momma’s sister. But no Daddy.  He didn’t make it.”

“Why?”

“At the store.  No Wally, no sales.

Musselman cleared his throat.

“Any other memories?”

“I remember when he was dying,” Mary Lou said, squirming on the couch. “He wasn’t old, fifty-five.  Just at the end of the war. I thought it odd, someone as busy as Daddy, dying just as the world was experiencing a rebirth. It was the cigarettes. Emphysema. The lack of oxygen affected his memory.”

“Did you talk before he died?”

“Not really. I know he worried about me. Momma told me.  He never understood my need to play music. Didn’t understand what purpose it served.  He only let me go to college because I received a scholarship.  He wouldn’t have paid for it…saw no reason.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, wiping a tear.  “I remember one of the last times I saw him.  He was sitting with Momma.  I gave him a hug and a kiss and scampered away, off somewhere… But I remember as I reached the door hearing him say to Momma: Who is that girl?

“How old were you when your father died?”

“Nineteen.  Momma died six years later. Polio. Shriveled away in an iron lung.”

 

“Mary Lou, it’s noon. Why don’t you have lunch in here with me?” Etta called from the kitchen.

The two women sat facing each other across the forest green table, Etta posture perfect, Mary Lou slumped. They ate grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup with Saltines and drank cold milk in silence. The Paul Harvey Show crackled from the AM radio on top of the fridge. The commodities report followed with that day’s prices of corn and beans.

“Bumper crop,” Etta said. “Low prices. What’s a farmer to do?”

“Not farm,” Mary Lou said.

Etta laughed. Mary Lou straightened up and loosed a weak grin.

“Amen, to that, Mary Lou.  Amen, to that.”

Finished, Etta cleared the table and Mary Lou, exhausted, retreated to the rocker and fell asleep.

 

A whoosh of cold air, the slam-bam of the back door, and the high-pitched voices of Becky and Maggie, home from school, rang through the house. The seven hours of their school day had slipped by like a single breath. The girls’ cheeks were rosy and chilled as they kissed her. Their fresh auburn hair, their skin soothing to the touch, their inexplicable, naïve, and infectious happiness pulled Mary Lou out of the chair and into the kitchen.

“C’mon, Mom, let’s bake with Grandma.”

Maggie scaled the side of a long-legged stool and took charge.

“Chocolate chip, Mom. That’s what I was thinking of all day in school. Warm, chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.”

“Hmph,” Becky said. “That explains why you spend so much time in the corner of Mrs. Harper’s room. Thinkin’ ‘bout cookies instead of your work.”

“Tattletale. Miss Becky the goody-two-shoes of Washington Street School. You—”

“Maggie,” Mary Lou said, “you’ve never been in trouble at school. Goodness gracious, what’s gotten into you?”

Maggie bent her head to the floor, wringing her hands as Becky gaped at Mary Lou then Etta.

Etta knelt, opened a cupboard door, and hauled out two mixing bowls.

“Maggie, you and your mother can discuss your behavior when your Dad comes home. Becky, you take care of yourself and let your parents take care of Maggie.”

“But they’re not. They’re not taking care of any—”

“That’s enough now, Becky,” Etta said, eyes lowered as she lifted an electric mixer from a cabinet. “Let’s bake cookies.”

Becky stomped on the floor, walked to the avocado green refrigerator, and got eggs, milk, and butter. Her sister’s back turned, Maggie put her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck out her tongue .

“Maggie,” Etta said, “get down off your throne and get the wooden spoons out of the drawer.”

Mary Lou wheeled around on the white linoleum, lost in her own kitchen.

“Here, dear,” Etta said as she touched Mary Lou’s elbow, handed over a bag of chocolate chips, and guided her to the counter. “You make these better than I do. I’ll preheat the oven. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and let you and the girls make cookies. Is that OK?”

“I’m not sure I remember…”

“You will, Mary Lou. All the batches of chocolate chip cookies you’ve baked? You could do it in your sleep.”

“I feel as if I am. I don’t know…”

“C’mon, Mom,” Maggie said and tugged her away from Etta, who twisted a black knob on the oven to 350 degrees, poured a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table with a Good Housekeeping magazine.

Butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, salt, brown sugar, sugar, and baking powder were arrayed on the tiled countertop. Mary Lou stared at the assortment, hands trembling as she reached for the stick of butter, picking at the edges of the wrapper, struggling to loosen the corners.

“Let me crack the eggs,” Maggie said, scooting the stool up to the edge of the counter, balancing on skinny knees next to Mary Lou, tiny freckled hands steady, as she snatched an egg from the cardboard carton and rapped it on the beveled edge of the mixing bowl.

Mary Lou twitched at the sharp click.

“Look, Mom, clean break,” Maggie said, eyes shining.

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, forcing a smile, letting Maggie crack another egg while she added butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla, then beat the mixture with a wooden spoon, gauging the increments more from instinct than memory. She looked across the counter where Becky poured the flour, salt, and baking powder, measuring before dumping them in a smaller bowl, sifting them together.

“Can I use the electric beaters to mix everything, Mom?” Becky asked.

“No, me, me!” Maggie shouted.

Mary Lou beat the eggs, butter, and vanilla, trying to remember how she had determined the portions a moment before, then, seeing the sugar and flour, her mind returned to her father’s store and the shelves with kitchen staples. Wally used a long wooden stick with a short hook to retrieve items from the top—“Can a corn”—he hollered, five pound bags of flour and sugar toppling into his big, soft hands like a pop fly in baseball settling into an infielder’s glove.

“Mom?” Becky said.

Mary Lou kept mixing.

“Maggie, you cracked the eggs,” Etta said as she rose from the table and walked to the counter. “Let Becky mix, you can dump in the chocolate chips.”

Mary Lou felt her father’s touch on her elbow.

“See, you remember. I knew you would.”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” she said, pleased because her father never touched her.  She turned to smile and welcome his approval, but Etta stood by her, not Wally. Mary Lou stopped mixing and gazed down at the bowl, lips pursed, eyes vacant.

“I think I’d like to go back… to the fire,” she said.

“OK, Mommy,” Maggie said. Still crouched on her knees, Maggie hugged Mary Lou about the neck and kissed her cheek, then busied herself with opening the chocolate chip bag. “We’ll bring you cookies when they’re baked.”

Becky shook her head, seized the bowl from Mary Lou, dumped the contents into her own, plugged in the electric mixer and punched the button. “Yeah, thanks Mom,” she shouted, beaters whirring.

Mary Lou averted Becky’s gaze, stumbled back a step, and wiped her hands on a towel.

“Just for awhile, girls, just for awhile…I’ll be back,” Mary Lou said, then turned and scurried to the rocker, swirled the quilt over her shoulders, hands and legs shaking as she drummed her fingers on its solid oak arms, the twilight shadows of November creeping across the snow-covered lawn, the fire popping and snapping, thoughts once again drifting to the past, to her father—

“Hi, Mom.”

 

Mary Lou jerked up to see Jack.

“Looks like your fire needs help.” He snatched a couple of logs from the wood bin and set them on the smoldering embers.

“Oh my. I drifted off. What time is it?”

“’Round six o’clock. I just got home from basketball practice.”

“Is your father home?”

“In the kitchen. He said I could come in and wake you. It’s almost supper time.”

“Where are the girls? Have they finished the cookies?”

“Yep, I grabbed a couple when I came in. Don’t tell them, but they’re good. Grandma must’ve helped.”

“Actually, I did,” Mary Lou said, straightening up. “Don’t spoil your supper.”

“You must be feeling better. You sound like a mom again.”

“Again? I didn’t realize I had stopped being a mom, Jack.”

Jack frowned as he turned his back to Mary Lou, grabbed an iron poker and jabbed at the logs, poking and prodding them until flames flickered along the base of the stack then leapt to the top. He grabbed a few smaller pieces of kindling and propped them on end across the bigger logs. The hearth glowed.

Mary Lou stared at her son kneeling on the red brick. Taller than Wally, just as lean, hair not black but brown and just as thick and unruly. The muscles in his straight, broad back undulated beneath a red and black flannel shirt as he stirred the embers, the heat in the room rising as the flames brightened.

“I’m sorry, Jack.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jack said into the fire. “You can’t apologize for something you can’t control. It just pisses me off, you know…the way things are.”

Jack rose, placed the poker in its holder and sat down on the floor to the right of Mary Lou, his legs bent, forearms resting on bony knees, long, lean fingers dangling.

“Not bad, if I say so myself,” he said examining the fire. “Better, huh?”

Mary Lou reached out, hand no longer trembling, and stroked her son’s hair. The giggling voices of Maggie and Becky floated down from upstairs. She could hear Sam and Etta talking, Sam telling a story that made his mother laugh.

“Much better. You build a good fire, Jack. You build a good fire.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, In the moment, Mental Illness, Rolling Stones, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Life During Wartime

Excerpt from “Transcendental Basketball Blues”  

          Jack opened the back door, wiped the gray, slushy snow off his shoes, patted Basker, and hung up his coat. It was 6:30 a.m. the morning of the Super Sectional. Sam sat slumped at the knife-scarred kitchen table, cigarette smoke drifting up from Jack’s grade school clay ashtray, a pile of bills on the left, checkbook in front of him, stack of envelopes to the right. Jack watched his father’s familiar routine as he examined a bill, took a drag from the Lucky, and, if he could pay it, wrote out a check and slipped it in an envelope. If he did not have the money, he slid the bill to the side and scratched a note to call the company or person he owed to tell them he would pay them next month.

Jack knew medical insurance did not cover mental illness, but at seventeen did not understand the ramifications. His father not telling him about the second mortgage on the house to keep the cash flow steady, and even then, not able to keep up with the bills. Many of the people the Hendersons owed were local, which in one way was a blessing. They knew Sam and worked with him on payments. But it was humiliating for Sam to have to ask, and small town gossip hurt.

“Hear about Sam Henderson? Judy down at the electric company told me he was late on the bill…again,” leaving Sam to wonder who knew what about his finances.

They had dropped their membership at the country club the previous year, attending the New Year’s party as guests. He did not have time for golf anymore, Sam told his friends. He had not bought a new suit or sport coat in three years, nor had he purchased anything for Mary Lou, reserving the money exclusively for the kids’ clothes. The Caprice needed tires, the house a new roof, and Becky braces. But after paying the mortgage, utilities, and buying food, it seemed all the cash went to doctors, the hospital, or the pharmacy, with nothing left at the end of the month but more unpaid bills and mounting debts.

Seeing Jack, Sam glanced at one more bill, this one to Musselman, and thinking about the doctor’s latest advice and the catastrophe in the kitchen a few hours earlier, he scribbled a note and tossed it to the side.

Musselman could wait a month.

Jack shuffled in and sat across from Sam who, like Jack, wore the same clothes he had on the night before. Sam took a sip from a cold cup of black coffee.

“How’s Mom?” Jack said, looking at the stack of bills.

Sam set down the coffee cup, slipped off his bifocals and rubbed his eyes with both hands, the right one wrapped in white gauze.

“Not good. They’ve got her drugged and in restraints. But she’s safe. Not a danger to herself or anyone else.”

“Sorry I left the house last night, Dad. I should’ve stayed with Grandma and the girls.”

“Yeah, probably,” Sam said, sliding his glasses on. “But I can’t blame you for wanting to get the hell out of here. I’m sorry you and the girls had to go through that. And you told Grandma where you were. How’s Luke? Don’t see him once college starts.”

“He’s good. Wrestling season’s about over.”

“You guys drink some beers?”

“Yeah, more than I should’ve. Didn’t sleep much.”

“Did the boys come over?”

“No,” Jack said, thinking of how he and Luke sat in silence watching TV, taking turns grabbing Old Milwaukee long necks from the fridge. “Luke was gonna call ’em, but I told him not to. Not like there’s anything new to tell ’em. Mom’s in the mental hospital. They know why. Might as well let the guys get their rest. Jones and his buddies kicked our asses last summer in the Y-league after we’d been partyin’ the night before. No need to repeat that.”

Sam drank his coffee, lifting it with his left hand.

“How’s your hand?”

“Ah, its fine. Got nicked when I grabbed the knife.”

“Dad,” Jack said, leaning forward, “how’d you know?”

“Know what?”

“How’d you know she was gonna stab you? Wrappin’ your hand in the towel like that. How’d you know?”

“Didn’t. Just thought I better be prepared if she did.”

“I’ve never seen her so crazy. Never thought she’d try to hurt any of us. I mean, I knew it was possible…but I didn’t think she’d actually…”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Jack. Why should you think your mother’d try to stab me?”

“You did.”

Sam set the coffee down and stared into its blackness.

“Well, it isn’t because I’m smarter than you, Jack. And I’m not proud of the fact that I sometimes think the worst of people. It’s just that I’ve seen things most folks haven’t…because of the war…I know what people are capable of when they’ve been pushed too far. Seen how quick civilized people turn into animals when they’ve seen enough horror. Seen people kill for a few bucks… for food… for water.”

Sam slipped the Lucky from the ashtray and took a drag.

“Hell, one night me and Ollie were waiting for a transport train in a small town in France. We’d dropped off a POW at a detention center nearby. Had to point our rifles at a dozen Frenchmen—people we GI’s liberated from the goddamn Nazi’s for chrissakes—who surrounded us at the station ‘cause they were starving. They were gonna steal the K-rations from our packs. Kill us if they had to. For the food. They’d been through too much, Jack. Been pushed too far. You could see it in their eyes…I saw that same look in your mom last night. The illness has pushed her too far. She’s been through too much…just like those folks in France during the war.”

“But, this thing with Mom, I mean, well, hell, Dad…at least the war ended.”

“The war ended.” Sam nodded, bloodshot eyes gazing into the coffee. “The war ended.”

He tamped the Lucky out and picked up a bill with his bandaged hand. This one he would pay.

“Better go shower and get ready for school, son,” he said, looking up and cracking a small smile. “Somebody said something about a big game tonight. Onward and upward, buddy.” He opened the checkbook and clicked his pen. “Onward and upward.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, High School, HIgh School Basketball, Mental Illness, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Talking Heads, World War II