Winter 2007, Volume 23.2
David McGlynn was until recently Managing Editor
of Western Humanities Review and now teaches at Lawrence University in
Wisconsin. His stories and essays have appeared in Image, Black Warrior
Review, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, and other publications.
Our first time by ourselves, my mother was nervous. She checked my sister and me into the airport two hours early, announcing to the counter clerk and the gate agent and the flight attendants that we were "two children flying alone." She demanded that we be outfitted with gold wings and buttons pinned to our denim jackets, which labeled us as too young to fend for ourselves or meet our father in the airport without a stranger to check his identification. While we sat in the vinyl chairs in the staging area, other families headed to Disneyland looked at us and whispered to one another, nodding, recognizing us. The children of divorce.
On one flight, a gray-haired woman sat with us and asked my sister about her schoolwork and whether or not I played any sports and promised the flight attendants to look after us. We asked the flight attendant for a Coke and the woman piped up, "Bring these kids some milk. Coke isn’t good for them." She turned to me and said, "It’s a shame you have to fly like this. Without your Momma and without your Daddy. It’s just not right." We nodded, answered Yes Ma’am, sipped our milk, and prayed for the plane to fall.
Soon we were seasoned enough to travel without interference from any grandmother or flight attendant, free to listen to our headphones and read our magazines and linger in the bathrooms of the plane without anyone there to usher us back to our seats. We drank as many Cokes as the attendants would give us. Sometimes we flew at different times. My father made sure my sister was on the non-stop flight between Houston and Los Angeles, but he saved money on my ticket by finding flights with layovers and plane changes. I bounced through Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, even Albuquerque and El Paso. With time to kill, I wandered the airports with my headphones on, thumbed through the surfing and travel magazines and looked over the shoulders of the business travelers slowly leafing through the pages of Playboy or Penthouse or Hustler. I made friends with the other detached teenagers waiting for their connections and would sit with them on the floor by the gate and play cards or Tetris, talk about the parent we were leaving and the parent we were going to see. One winter, an ice storm shut down the Dallas airport where I was to change planes. I called my mother in Houston, and she said I needed to find a spot to wait. "It could be hours," I said.
"You’ve no choice. There’s no one there to get you. Just sit tight."
Two boys my age, brothers, were talking on the payphone beside mine. One nodded at me and said, "You wanna take a ride?" He tucked his thumbs inside his lambswool jacket.
"Where?" I said.
"Who knows," he said. "You got any money?" I did and so I was invited to come along. The taxi driver’s hands were purple from his tight gold rings. The radio played mariachi music. "Where you want to go?" he asked?
"Give us the fifty-cent tour," one of the boys said.
"Fifty-cents get you nowhere," the driver said.
"Fifty dollars, then. How far will that go?"
"Once around the downtown." We agreed that was far enough. I sat against the door and watched the skyline in the flaky mist, bobbing my head to the driver’s mariachi music, cussing to the other boys, giggling at the thrill of it, of being alone and free in a city where I knew no one. Every word I spoke was a lie: my name, my age, that I had a girlfriend, that my father was a producer in Hollywood. I even had myself convinced after a minute. Then I looked out the window and saw the car beside ours pitch back and forth, the driver frantically trying to correct the wheel. The grill hit my door and I felt the taxi begin to spin, once around and then twice, and then I lost count. The brothers gripped each other’s arms and gasped. "¡Socorro!" the driver yelped. Help! He reached for the picture of the Virgin hanging from the rearview mirror as if she could pull us back from what was coming.
The hurricane was a saw blade cutting across the Gulf of Mexico. One sweep of the radar’s needle erased the crescent of northern Mexico. One more, and the coast of Texas was gone. News from Jamaica returned footage of white waves exploding, steel roofs like unlashed sails, stranded tourists sleeping in the airport with their heads between their knees. It was projected to hit Galveston sometime after midnight, Houston a short while later. All morning I watched the weatherman pace back and forth across the satellite grid, his thunder-gray shirt darkening beneath his arms, his outline pulsing with a thin green light, and imagined the same things happening here. Pines shooting through our windows, hot power lines sparking on branches. I turned my eyes across the kitchen floor to the table where my mother sat, and I thought about water cresting the bayou and rushing through our windows and doors, the three of us scrambling up the stairs, kicking out a window and fighting against the rushing tide to swim to a neighbor’s roof. Every few minutes the weatherman would step out of frame and the satellite image would reset, the storm would vanish, and the Gulf would reappear, a placid blank spot on the map. It all seemed ridiculous. Nothing was going to happen. A day or two without power, reading by candlelight, maybe a few felled trees. Then the storm would reappear just south of Cuba—a tighter spiral, her wrath refocused—and begin her march north again.
The weatherman had a silver flattop and a silver mustache as straight across as a ruler. When I think about him, I see a man not-quite comfortable talking to a television camera. His face and hands were shiny pink and he bounced from one side of the weather map to the other, which I now know is nothing but a green screen. He was hard to follow, but because he was a doctor my sister trusted his predictions. He had been interrupting the afternoon shows since noon to update us on the hurricane, which passed over Cancun two days before and was dead set on making landfall at Galveston.
My sister sat cross-legged on the floor in front the television, tracking the storm on a paper map the size of a placemat she had gotten for free at the supermarket. She used a blue pen to register wind speeds and barometric pressure, red to chart the path. The news cut to a field reporter out on the island, a young guy eager to move up in the world, standing with his back to the jetties as waves sprayed over the rocks, the wind whipping the sleeves of his blue windbreaker. He squinted against the spray, and his voice was a shout. My sister nodded, made notes on her map. She was worried about our house, but more than that she was worried about our father. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a friend’s apartment, kept his clothes in his car. Where would he go? Twice that morning we’d seen pictures of people scrambling through windows of flooded cars or else standing on the roof as the water crested the trunk.
My mother appeared in the doorway between the TV room and the kitchen. "How big is this hurricane?" she said. My sister and I both jumped. She hadn’t spoken much since our father left. Mostly she had sat at the kitchen table and waited for the phone to ring. Her eyes were glassy in an almost nostalgic way. She looked toward the windows, the big pines outside listing a little in the wind. "When I was a girl, a big storm came tearing right past our house. We hid in the pantry for two days. We lost trees, and the azalea garden had been ripped to shreds, but just one street up a tornado touched down. It took the roofs off of four houses, jumped one, and then took off another three." She shook her head. "Why was ours missed? Wrath strikes where it pleases, I suppose."
This wasn’t a story we’d heard before, and when my mother was finished with it, she left us sitting there, on the floor, wondering where wrath would strike next.
As the husband of a social worker, I have been a proxy witness to myriad forms of madness. Since we’ve had our son, Katherine has borne a much greater professional burden than have I, often requesting the night shifts so that she can be home during the day. She sleeps with a pager beneath her pillow, ready to be rattled awake at any moment by a call from the crisis hotline, the number people call when their demons have them cornered. The pager chirps and she answers, groping the dark for her robe and slipping down to the kitchen to the phone and the table and her notebook. She makes notes while her callers talk, and tries not to interrupt too early or too often. Sometimes she’ll advise a caller to go to the hospital, and sometimes the caller just needs an ear to speak into. On occasion I hear her voice drifting back to me beneath the bedroom door, and on other nights I make my way down to see her sitting toward the windows, nodding and scribbling, fully present at two in the morning, at three and at four. "It’s okay," I hear her say. "You’re not a freak; you’re just going through a lot. It’s only been a few months since he died." I try to imagine her callers sitting against their bathroom doors with their knees tucked up to their chins, at a kitchen table not unlike ours. In their fear and trembling, they are my brothers and sisters.
One call came from our neighbor three doors down, a young mother with a sick infant. Her daughter had been in and out of the hospital more than a dozen times in the last six months with hip dysplasia, a string of unexplainable infections, and sleep apnea that one night caused the baby to stop breathing. The mother, our neighbor, did CPR to revive her and then rushed her to the hospital. The baby lived, but the mother was afraid to sleep for fear that she’d wake up to find her daughter dead. Katherine recognized her name and the sound of her voice; she looked out our front window and saw her kitchen light on, the woman pacing back and forth in her nightgown, her blond hair in a ponytail. Katherine did not identify herself beyond her first name. She did not say, "Hey, it’s me, from down the street. Look out your kitchen window!" Nor did she keep looking out our kitchen window. She sat down and listened. The next day was sunny and our neighbor was outside, pushing her daughter in the stroller up and down the block. Katherine wanted to invite her in, reveal herself, become the friend she knew she could be, and had in many ways already become. But she couldn’t. It’s against the rules.
When the hospital wakes her up, chances are she’ll be going in. A patient needs a psychiatric assessment before being admitted or discharged. Psychiatrists don’t like coming to the hospital in the middle of the night, so the task is given to the social worker. Katherine dresses in the dark, brushes her hair, and drives through the empty streets to the hospital. I don’t like the thought of her car alone on the road, and I’m always a little scared when she goes. I have considered calling the police to explain who she is and where she’s headed, to ask them to keep an eye out. I have, however, grown so accustomed to the pager that some nights I dream right through it. Katherine leaves without me even turning over and sometime later I wake up to find her already gone, the bed beside me empty and cold, the house eerily quiet and blanketed in the paralyzing realization of what it would be like to lose her.
One night she arrived home late and woke me up. Her eyes and the tip of her nose glowed in the moonlight through the slits of the blinds. Her look told me I needed to sit up and listen, so I sat up. She had gone to the hospital to assess a patient whom the police had found screaming at a stop sign, "H2! H2!" He told her he’d been eating dinner with his girlfriend’s family when an argument escalated into a fight. He threw a glass against a wall and stormed out of the house, tearing off his shirt as he descended the front steps. Katherine recognized his girlfriend from high school—a disheveled but pretty blond who once swam on the swim team. The patient wore his hair cut short, and was clean shaven; with his shirt off, Katherine could see the topography of veins in his neck and chest and stomach. He was compact and muscular. Velcro cuffs around his wrists held him to the bed. He admitted to having a history of schizophrenia. He said he had stopped taking his medications because they didn’t do him any good; he still heard voices. Katherine said the psychiatrist could prescribe him a different drug, which might work better, and a sleep aid so he could get some rest. He said he didn’t want a different drug. He wanted to leave. He said his parents were assholes and his girlfriend’s parents were assholes and the police were assholes. Katherine asked him if he had used other drugs and his girlfriend admitted they’d used ecstasy. Katherine could see the muscles in his chest and arms begin to contract, slowly, like a python tightening its stranglehold. He made a fist and flexed his wrist, testing the strength of the cuff. "We’ll need to run some tests," Katherine told him. "Draw some blood."
"Am I going to stay here?" he wanted to know.
"We have a psychiatric unit at another facility. They’re better equipped. You’ll be a lot more comfortable."
"Can I drive him?" his girlfriend asked.
"Ambulance would be better," Katherine said. If she let them go, there was a good chance they wouldn’t show up at the other hospital.
"I don’t want to go in an ambulance," the patient said.
"It’s better," Katherine said. "Safer." She sat back on the bed and took a deep breath before telling me the next part. She filled and emptied and refilled her lungs before she told me how the tech came in to draw the blood but could not tap the vein with the cuffs around the man’s wrists. How the tech unfastened the restraints. How the moment his wrists were free the patient had sprung from his back to his knees in one fluid, adrenaline-injected motion, both hands reaching for Katherine’s neck. Had he made it he could have crushed her windpipe: the adrenaline that made it possible for him to leap would also have made it possible for him to kill. Fortunately, the tech stuck out his arm and within seconds hospital security was in the room, the patient was on his back again and his wrists were restrained. "He never laid a finger on me," Katherine said. "But he got close enough that I knew what it would have felt like if he had. I felt the air leave his nose. I could smell the barbecue sauce on his breath."