(Missed the last chapter? Go to 37: Miasma)
DOROTHY STOOD BY the front door. She’d changed out of her stained sweat suit into wool pants and a pink sweater set. I didn’t know if she recognized that she had a problem, or if she would have agreed to anything she thought would save her marriage.
As I drew closer, I realized that Dorothy’s fine hair was a rat’s nest. Her face, though made up, showed fine lines of dirt in her wrinkles and her red lipstick was smeared. She stood, dull-eyed, her coat half on and half off, as if she’d forgotten what she was doing.
“Here, let me help.”
Dorothy held out her hand obediently and let me slide it into the other coat sleeve. She smiled brightly, as if we were heading out to church or a garden club meeting, then her face slackened into dull confusion again.
John wheeled into the hall and grabbed his coat from the low hook the workers had installed next to the coat tree.
I leaned over to speak to him in a whisper. “Maybe the diet powder has worn off? Maybe she just needs to sleep and then she’ll be okay.”
John glowered, not bothering to lower his voice. “One minute she’s hyper and hysterical, the next she falls into a depression. Either way, she barely sleeps.” He squinted at Dorothy and wrinkled his nose. “She needs a bath.”
Dorothy didn’t react, just stood there blinking like a sleepy child.
I leaned in and sniffed. Dorothy smelled faintly of urine and strongly of body odor. The tile in John and Dorothy’s new bathroom still wasn’t done, so John had been taking showers at the Health Club he’d joined downtown, and Dorothy had been bathing upstairs, or so I’d thought. I wanted to reprimand John for not telling me about Dorothy’s hygiene sooner, but there was no point in bickering with him now.
“Let me know when she’s presentable.” John wheeled over to his desk and started working on the computer.
UPSTAIRS, I STARTED the bath and laid out clean towels and washcloth. Dorothy sat on the toilet, still fully clothed, staring at the running water like she was in a trance. “He wants me dead.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose, and my temples pounded with the pressure of unheard voices. Not now.
“John loves you,” I said. “I think. Even if he doesn’t, I love you. We’ll get through this. I promise.”
“I’m no good to anyone.” Dorothy held her hand up and gazed at it, like it belonged to someone else. “What’s the point?”
“Okay, enough of that talk. You ready to jump in the tub?” I felt like I was talking to a petulant teen instead of my proper, fastidious aunt.
Dorothy stood and looked around uncertainly, as if unsure what came next.
“You have to take off your clothes, honey,” I said. “Do you want me to give you some privacy or do you need help?”
Dorothy bowed her head, but didn’t answer. I reached to the waist of her pants. “Can I undo these?”
Dorothy nodded, so I unclasped and unzipped her pants. I held her arm while she stepped out of the pants, and then helped her pull off the sweater set. She wasn’t wearing any underwear or bra, which shocked me. I thought nothing of going commando, myself, but Dorothy would have just as soon run down the street naked as leave the house without “drawers.” I remembered her lecturing me when I was a teenager about the importance of “a proper foundation,” by which she meant girdles and bras rigid enough to stand up and walk around on their own.
Now she stood frail and limp as a baby bird, tears running down her face. I sensed her humiliation and my heart twisted again. I had the impulse to bundle her up and run away from that house. Just get in my car and start driving. As if a change of location would magically solve everything. The psychotic leading the manic-depressive.
I shifted back into social worker mode. “Feel the water. Is that a good temperature?”
Dorothy touched the water tentatively and then stepped into the tub. I hovered over her, ready to grab her arm in case she slipped. She sank into the bubbles that I’d added for the sake of both modesty and cleanliness, and gave a deep sigh. “This is nice. I’m sorry to be such a bother.”
“You’re not a bother, aunty. You know that. Are you feeling better?”
Dorothy frowned. “This isn’t my bathroom.”
“It’s mine. We’re in the Richmond house, remember?”
“Oh, yes… I’m just so tired.”
“I know.” I handed her a clean washcloth. “We’re going to take you to the doctor after your bath and see about that. Do you need me to stay here or would you like some privacy while you wash?”
“Privacy, please. I’ll be a good girl.” Dorothy tried to smile, but with her caked on makeup running in the steam from the bath, the effect was ghoulish.
While Dorothy bathed, I rushed downstairs to pick out some underclothes for her. By the time we left the house an hour later, Dorothy was presentable. I’d blow-dried and curled her hair so that it flipped under, the way she liked it, and applied a little makeup. I didn’t do it as well as she would have, but she no longer looked a psycho killer on her way to a garden party. The only outward sign of her troubles was her dull gaze.
As we came down the stairs, John smiled and nodded. “Dottie looks very nice. Good girl.”
Dorothy smiled obediently, but I bristled. I don’t know if it was the condescending use of “girl,” or the nagging sense that something was wrong, but I found myself wishing Dorothy would put up a fight. Dig in her heels and refuse to go.
“No girls here, Uncle John,” I said. “Two grown women.” I thought my remark would make me feel better, but it resounded in the soft interior of my redoubt with a sickening thud.
“You and Dottie will always be my girls. My good girls.”
Dorothy continued to smile tentatively, but there was no light in her eyes. I felt again the urge to grab her and run. Leave this house, this city and never look back. It was crazy. Dorothy needed medical attention—so why did it feel like a betrayal?
AT THE MEDICAL center off Libbie Avenue, we took the elevator to the third floor. Dr. Rolfe’s waiting room was antiseptically clean, with overstuffed beige couches and vintage circus paintings on the wall: clowns and lion tamers and scantily clad women on horseback. John indicated that I should get Dorothy settled, and then went the reception desk.
As John wheeled to the opening between the counter and wall, I chose a couch on the opposite side of the room from the only other people—a woman in a red dress and someone wearing heavily patched jeans and combat boots. Both of their faces were obscured by magazines.
“Can I get you some water?” I asked Dorothy.
“Oh, wonderful. Throat’s so dry,” she said, slurring a bit.
As I went to the water cooler, I glimpsed the receptionist, a thin woman with fire engine red hair handing John forms to fill out. It piqued my memory. Where had I heard about a woman with hair like that?
By the time I returned with the paper cone of water, Dorothy had closed her eyes and seemed to be dozing. I positioned her so she could rest her head against the back of the couch and then turned my attention back to John and the receptionist. I could see her face now, middle aged and pretty, though with an artificially smoothed brow and the over-wide mouth of someone who’s had a face lift. She and John were talking intently and I felt the pressure build in my head.
Legacy, don’t trust— I slammed the door on the voices. I couldn’t afford to have an episode now. Dorothy needed me. Imagine, acting crazy in a psychiatrists office. I wondered if they had any two for one specials. As I felt the urge to giggle welling up, the receptionist put hand to her mouth in a strange synchronicity. Was she laughing, too? Did John have his hand on her knee?
The woman he goes out with … pretty, but with ghastly red hair. As the memory of Dorothy’s lament flitted through my mind, John snapped his head around. I flinched guiltily and John tilted his head to indicate Dorothy—she had slumped over in her sleep,. I gently righted her head against the back of the couch.
“Now she falls asleep,” John said as he wheeled over and parked his chair next to my end of the couch.
“Do you know that receptionist?” I asked, keeping my voice casual.
“Of course. Dr. Rolfe’s an associate.” John’s voice had an edge.
“Dorothy said you went out Saturday night with a woman. With bright red hair.” I couldn’t keep the disapproval out of my voice.
John’s face went dangerously still. I knew that look. He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned closer so the others in the waiting room couldn’t hear. “There is a dangerous fault in your bloodline. Kitty, and now Dottie, have succumbed to it. Don’t be like them, Lacy. Paranoia will destroya.”
I flushed with mortification. John gazed at me, mist-gray eyes magnified by glasses. This man, crippled and half-blinded by my mother, was stronger than all the rest of us put together. Why did I fight him when I so clearly needed help?
“I am like them,” I whispered.
John’s face changed again, another lightening shift. “Oh, no, no, no. You’re not like them at all, Lacy Rose. Trust me.”
I desperately wanted to. I could feel the pressure of it in my head, in my ears like diving down into deep water. It was too much. Dad, Branson, Dorothy, the voices. I needed to trust someone. “John. Lately, I’ve been hearing—”
John’s head snapped toward the hearty greeting and his hand jerked away from my shoulder. The absence felt like a cold void, shocking in its intensity, as if something had been pulled out by the roots.
“Dr. Rolfe!” John snapped and stuck out his hand.
“Hello?” Dr. Rolfe took John’s hand, and shook it tentatively. He was younger than I expected. Medium height and ultra-lean like a bike racer with piercing dark eyes that reminded me of the pictures I’d seen of Freud.
“This is Lacy, and her aunt Dorothy.”
Dr. Rolfe shook my hand with an appraising look that was almost sultry. Then he turned to survey the sleeping Dorothy.
“Would you ah, like to….” he indicated I should wake Dorothy.
“Dottie!” John said.
Dorothy’s eyes flew open and she sat bolt upright. “Tea, John?”
“Time to see the doctor, Dottie.” John said.
Dorothy looked around, dazed and frightened. “I’m not sick.”
“It’s okay, honey.” I stood and took her arm to help her up. “This is Dr. Rolfe. He’s just going to talk to you about how you’ve been feeling….” I looked at John, who sighed with impatience. “And about the medications you’ve been taking.”
“I want to go home,” she moaned. “I’ll be a good girl, I promise.”
“Dottie!” John snapped.
Dorothy jumped up as if she’d been goosed and allowed Dr. Rolfe to guide her toward his office.
I followed behind them. “It’s okay, Aunty. We’ll go home soon. We just want to help you get better. Dr. Rolfe will know what to do.” I was babbling, not believing a word of it. Dorothy’s fear was contagious. I felt as if we were in terrible danger, and again had the impulse to grab her and run.
He’ll never catch you in that chair, if you can make the stairs. But he won’t need it much longer. Run now, while you can! The voices were getting stronger. Full sentences now, and downright bossy.
As Dr. Rolfe closed the door of his office, almost in my face, he gave me another enigmatic smile. As our eyes met, I felt a jolt of electricity—a kind of animal fascination. Then I was staring at the blank white door, with no choice but to make a scene or go back and sit down. Undecided, I did neither—just stood there, fuming with anxiety.
John, apparently unconcerned, flipped through an old issue of Psychology Today, snorting in derision from time to time. I stared at the circus paintings, thinking what a bizarre choice of décor it was for a psychiatrist’s office.
I had expected John would insist on going into the consult with Dorothy, but he turned her over to Dr. Rolfe without protest. But, of course, Dr. Rolfe was one of the group John played chess with. A trusted colleague. John would never let anyone in his family be seen by a stranger.
I considered the jolt I’d felt when my eyes met Dr. Rolfe’s. Had I been flirting with my aunt’s doctor while she was in the middle a nervous breakdown? But as I tried on the idea, I decided it wasn’t sexual attraction I felt. It was a different kind of fascination, the kind I imagined a biologist would feel upon encountering an unfamiliar species. I don’t want to fuck him; I want to dissect him. But that was disgusting, too. I felt myself teetering on the high, crumbling edge of a phantom cliff—a vein of shale between sanity and insanity. I’d been balancing for a long time, and I was exhausted.
Part of me longed to let go. But I knew that whatever was over that edge was violent and inhumanly cold. It wanted me for some purpose that I couldn’t begin to imagine. Didn’t want to imagine, because I feared that even looking squarely at this thing might make me fall.
As if my thoughts had opened the door, the voices broke through, an unintelligible chant intertwining with a monotone voice, … outlived usefulness … bacteria devouring the offal … give rise to the fruit … drop the petals, make mulch, make way for the new … and there was a low, tortured moan.
I thought the sound was coming from my head, but the noise resolved into a deep, throttled howl. My peripheral vision waxed cloudy and dark. Everyone in the waiting room, along with the receptionist, turned in unison to stare at the door to Dr. Rolfe’s office. In the miasma, their faces appeared flat and sinister. Get her! Run! Get out of here! Run! The high-pitched voice shrieked so loud it hurt my head.
The office door burst open. Dorothy stumbled out, clawing at her face. For an awful moment, I thought the red lipstick smeared across her face was blood. “Not the baby,” she moaned. “Not the baby!”
She threw herself into my arms with such force that we both went tumbling down. The office erupted into shouts, but all I could see was Dorothy’s face twisting in agony as she lamented wildly, “I have to save the baby, save the baby.”
Dorothy had never had any children, but there was no time to ask what she meant. She flailed at me with the force and desperation of a drowning woman. Instinctively, I loosened my grip on her and blocked my face from the blows. Men in white pulled her off me as she kicked and screamed.
“Dottie!” John’s voice cracked like a whip, and Dorothy froze. “You will be a good girl. Go with the doctors and do as they say. Now. ”
As someone helped me to my feet, the room swam in a sickening gray blur. I heard Dorothy’s voice, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” My heart twisted, but I was too dizzy to do anything but grope blindly toward the nearest chair.
In a weird echo, the kindly voices in my head picked up Dorothy’s refrain, lamenting, protect the baby, who will protect the baby, must protect the baby. Another voice snarled as if in answer, nectar of the sixth enriches the master, and then it was as if the door to the room full of shouting voices had burst open again.
I could barely make out anything in the chaos of overlapping voices, just snatches of profanity, low growls, a sing-song cadence like a nursery rhyme, and shrieked accusations. The volume increased to the point where the words became unintelligible and painful—a plane crash combined with the shrieks of a dying animal.
It was too much. I put my hands up to my ears and tried to shrink back into my chair as my vision started to dim. The last thing I remembered was the dark, feral eyes of Dr. Rolfe peering down at me.