by Rachel King
Our gutters are leaking, and you can’t fix them. The porch needs its boards replaced. These are not accusations. They are statements about this Victorian house. Remember, when we moved in, how we made lists? Refinish the basement. Remodel the kitchen. Replace the roof. Build a chicken coop. Buy batteries for the fire alarms. Adopt a dog.
I still make lists on nights when I sit with easy patients. I make them about the kinds of patients I’ve had, how many women and how many men. Or how many times you had a breakdown that week and what you said. Sometimes I make a grocery list or a list of symptoms I see in patients that correspond to yours.
A book at the grocery store promises you can order your life by following lists. This is so ridiculous it might be true. It recommends lists for everything from long-term goals to personal ratings on different brands of laundry detergents.
Before my brother died, and you got sick, I didn’t have problems completing daily tasks. This year, before your psychotic episodes, I altered thirty-four skirts, pants, and dresses, and sewed fifteen complete articles of clothing. I’ve always made things and usually been paid for it. When I was twelve I made seventy-five pieces of jewelry and set up a booth at a craft fair. I sold forty-two. Why didn’t I ever tell you this? Maybe because we usually discussed our life together and rarely discussed our pasts.
Kara has been in the hospital seven times. Every time she comes back, I’m happy. This is the difference between the rest of the hospital staff and me: They prefer new patients, I want the old ones. How are your pet mice? I asked Kara on her last visit. Have you found homes for the babies? She said they’re fine, and yes, she had. She let me read “Cinderella” and “Snow White” from Grimms’ Fairy Tales to her. She likes how irrational events don’t phase the characters, how often those who hurt others get their comeuppance, although violently. I don’t remember the stepsisters losing their feet and eyes, she said.
I just adopted a cat, because I wanted something to greet me when I came home. Why not a dog? you asked. Dogs are more sincere. But sincerity taken to the extreme can wear you out, and dogs need so much more attention. Have you heard the cat? Most of the time he sleeps in the attic. If I open the basement door to ask you a question when he’s rubbing my legs, he scampers away so quickly that I startle, stepping on his paw or tail.
Kara thinks mice are the largest pets she could handle. If she weren’t away from home so much, I’d think she could care for any animal, even a horse. She’s one of those suicidal patients who is careful with everyone and everything. Every time I sit with her she asks, How is your husband today? and she tells me when my face looks tired. But she has tried to escape three nights, and she pinches herself hard, creating bruises the size of her fist. Once I used my body to block the door, and twice I put her in restraints.
Sometimes I get the impression that she thinks everyone in the world is valuable except herself. Sometimes I think my brother was like this, too. When we were in high school, he praised his strange friends, and later, he described in detail acquaintances he met while on the road. But he never thought he was good at anything; he never held any job longer than a year.
When Kara isn’t too tired or intent on pinching or fleeing, I describe other patients, confidentiality be damned. I tell her about those who are experiencing psychosis, me playing along with their hallucinations the same way I did with yours. Yes, you are Mickey Mouse, but Mickey Mouse still needs sustenance. Or, yes, Mr. Ross it seems this flight does have a lot of turbulence. If you dip the plane under these clouds we’d get a better view. Kara and I laugh together, my mouth hurting I smile so long and hard, her arm fat jiggling as she stifles a roar. At these times I feel as though I’m laughing at you, too. I’m OK with that. If someone else had ambled into the kitchen while you were riding a broomstick like a children’s play horse and singing some song about the rodeo, they would have thought it funny.
Laughter seems more therapeutic than my dead-end sessions with the counselor. Yesterday she told me: You and your husband living in the same house is creating a psychological barrier—her elbows on knees, her eyes so damn serious. Maybe I want to kill myself, Kara said. But at least I know what’s real and what isn’t. Suicidal people see reality better than the average person, she continued, and ten times as well as psychotics.
Yesterday, when I visited the basement, I saw you’d painted the cement walls instead of your canvas. It looks like an expressionist painting of a coastal storm—the greys and blues with cream-colored specks that could be the tips of waves or sea-foam. You’re always looking for storms, you once said. You didn’t mean this metaphorically. All my life I’ve lived in Portland’s steady drizzle; I want to go to the coast in winter or Central Oregon in summer to experience downpours, a refreshing and cathartic madness. Here, all winter and spring, I want to yell: Rain harder, or, Be sunny.
Your drawing phase last week was more controlled, but it unnerved me. Why did you sketch those black-and-white photos of Forest Grove? Your house, your room, Main Street, one of Kenny and your cousin smoking. You hated that place, didn’t you? I wouldn’t let Kenny hang out with you, because who doesn’t keep in touch but wants to “spend quality time” when you’re distinctly not yourself? I didn’t recognize him when he walked into Starbucks to meet me. With his deep wrinkles, pale skin, and almost-jowls, he looks fifty instead of thirty-two. Like those before-and-after photos of meth addicts I studied on the front page of the Oregonian when I was a kid. Kenny twiddled his thumbs and nodded spasmodically. He showed me some of his drawings. They were decent, and if it weren’t so risky, he could have taught you. Why have your Portland State colleagues distanced themselves, and it’s only the Kennys who want to spend time with you?
The first time you showed me your hometown I thought about my brother. Like you said, the malt shop did look like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the sidewalk chalk festival artists were as good as the sandcastle-building competitors at Cannon Beach. But when we saw two men in cowboy hats, smoking and chatting in their truck bed outside of Goodwill, I couldn’t help but think of that time, in Central Oregon, when my brother asked why men in a diner wore cowboy hats. Because they’re cowboys, stupid, I said. We were thirteen. He wore a Ramones T-shirt and a red mesh trucker hat. After you and I passed Goodwill, all I wanted to do was find my brother. When we walked near Forest Grove’s meth district, I let go of your hand so I could peek in windows.
As my brother was heading out of my life, you were coming in. But life’s exchanges aren’t so simple. That day you and I met, on the MAX, you told me about your daily commute: a ten-minute walk to the Trimet bus stop, the bus to Hillsboro, Hillsboro to downtown Portland on the MAX. How you finished your grading en route, the relief you felt when entering the city. The hills of farmlands giving way to suburban sub-developments giving way to Craftsmen and Mt. Hood on the skyline. Some of your relatives and former friends had become meth addicts. It wasn’t that people weren’t doing drugs here, you said. There were just other things to do.
I was only on the MAX that day because my drug-addled brother had stolen my old blue Accord. I never told you that. Why mar the beginning of a love story?
I named the cat Cheddar, not because he’s orange (which he is, with a white belly), but because he jumped onto the table and bit a block of Tillamook cheddar cheese the day I brought him home. Cats, as far as I know, don’t like cheese. But I don’t know a lot about cats. Yesterday, I threw him into the empty henhouse and told him to catch the mice. Instead, he waited on the back porch, licking his paws.
You know my copper plaque that hung in the entryway: Shall I rush your rush job or rush the job I was rushing when you rushed in? And above it your handwritten sign: Ask about eggs! Large tasty brown eggs! This morning, after work, I took them both down. I’ve sold the chickens and put all sewing jobs on hold. You could say I’m trying to isolate myself.
Strange how I feel alone, yet I am—for the first time in years—around people at my job. But they are the kind of people who listen to country music and discuss fishing in the white-walled break room. There is one nurse, Jake, you might like. Like you, he rides his bike to work and puts sprouts on his sandwiches. He always writes his name, the date, and the plan of care on his patients’ dry-erase boards. When Jake told me his middle sprocket was bent, I told him my husband fixed bikes. If I can’t manage it, I’ll call him, Jake said. What’s his number? Suddenly, I remembered your current state, pretended not to hear, mumbled I was in a hurry, and walked out of the break room. I don’t mind this slip up. For a moment I’d forgotten things.
Not that our normal was all fairy tale. I don’t miss you tracking mud and chicken shit into my workspace. Why you insisted on chickens in the middle of the city, I’ll never know. It was up to me to clean the henhouse after I gave away the chickens. I pressed my thumb against the hose’s spout because we don’t have a fancy nozzle. A nozzle was on our list of “household items to buy.” After I sprayed it down, Cheddar lapped up water from puddles on the floor.
Here’s another story I never told you: Last October, a month after we moved here, my brother showed up with a guitar. Not the guitar he’d stolen from me, but another Fender acoustic. His NA group had told him to apologize. I snatched the case and turned it lengthwise across the front door to block his entrance. He asked if he could meet you. It scared me that he knew where we lived. Get out of here, I told him. Don’t ever come back. When he tried to talk, I yelled, Get off my porch, and poked him with the case. I followed him to the curb and shoved the case into his arms. I went back to my workspace, shaking, and saw the bumpy bowls he and I had fashioned from clay-mud at summer camp. We’d dyed them with blackberry juice. Now I used them to hold pins. I poured the pins into a cereal bowl and smashed the clay bowls on the back porch.
Kara thinks depression runs in families. Look at the Hemingways, she said. She doesn’t seem the kind of person who’d know a lot about Hemingway, and I questioned this reference. Just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I’m stupid, she said.
I told her I hadn’t been to college, either. She was surprised a position such as a sitter didn’t require it. I told her I get benefits, too, for myself and my spouse, which was one of the reasons I’d taken the job. I’d talked with the sitter who sat with you about her job, and a week later, I applied. If I could deal with you, I could deal with anyone. And who knows how long you’ll be on antipsychotics—we can’t pay for those out of pocket. If I’m ever stable, Kara said, maybe I’ll look into it. I’d enjoy working with you, I told her. I meant what I said to Kara, but I hope you’re doing better before she is, so that I can go back to sewing.
It’s a wonder how unaffected the hospital staff remains; they deal with psychosis and dementia and depression with a standard, purposeful levelheadedness. My emotions are subsumed in you. If I were healthier, I hope I’d sympathize more with patients. I used to experience subtle emotional variations when handling corduroy versus silk versus cotton.
Maybe the counselor’s right that you in this house with me equals some kind of psychological barrier. Even if we don’t talk for two days, you’re always underneath me, slightly to my left. Things aren’t magically fixed by establishing distance, I tell my counselor, and continue on about my brother.
This is what he took from me:
1) fifty dollars of my babysitting money
2) our entire high school CD collection
3) the red glass change jar from my first apartment
4) that guitar
5) my old blue Accord
6) my debit card
7) my leniency
8) my early belief that blood is thicker than water.
After my brother returned from road trips, he’d crash at my apartment and tell stories. I used to laugh at his self-deprecating humor. After I cut him out of my life, I laughed at your impersonations of your coworkers and students. I’ve always appreciated how, unlike him, you can describe others without comparing them to yourself. We haven’t laughed together since January, when you were mimicking the quirks of your new undergrads.
The counselor said that while your psychotic episodes continued, you’d continue to be insensitive to me. Two days later, you climbed out of the basement and approached me while I scrambled eggs. Your usual red stubble was almost a beard. You reached toward my shoulder, retracted your hand before you touched it, and said, I’m so sorry; you know you can leave.
We have received no definitive diagnosis for you. He could have brief psychotic disorder, the psychiatrist has said. Though it usually hits men unexpectedly in their early twenties, not their early thirties. She also said there’s often a stressor. My brother committed suicide, but it’s not as though you knew him. Did my obvious grief wear you down? Did his suicide remind you of your meth addict cousin’s death? Did we talk about everything except what was important? The psychiatrist added that ninety-five percent of people who have symptoms like yours lasting longer than a month are either bipolar or schizophrenic, but I asked: What about the five percent? How do you know he isn’t the minority? I sound like parents who are so sure that Johnny should be in the gifted class and Suzy is the best artist since Van Gogh.
I bought that book about lists. It’s on the way to the canned soup; I pass it every few days. Our frozen soup stock is getting low, and you won’t be making more anytime soon. That one clear afternoon last week, I turned over wet dirt in our garden plot, slicing earthworms in half. But I’m at a loss on what and when to plant. You’re the green thumb.
I bought the list book to read lists to patients. Many of them have too short attention spans for Grimms’. Last night I read to my depressed patient what ten items you should keep in your trunk and what ten in the bathroom. While he dozed I made my own lists, trying to replicate the ones we’d lost. We’d planned to use the basement for a guest room, to block off the washer and dryer with partitions. I’d wanted to make a quilt for the guest-room bed and curtains for the garden-level windows.
While I listed, Jake stopped by to check the patient’s vitals. He told me he’d fixed his sprocket, and I said: Well, if you ever need help with anything else... He cocked his head but didn’t respond. I want to tell Jake about you. Your state wouldn’t phase him. Maybe you two could work on bikes together.
A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about my brother. He was the one who found my frayed copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales in our parents’ attic. We used to fight about who got to read it before we fell asleep. Once when I made a huge fuss, he threw it from the top bunk to the bottom, aiming for my head. That morning you said I could leave, I said, I already have. I meant I’d taken the job as a sitter, but maybe I also meant I’d left you metaphorically, mentally. I’m asking because after my response you asked, What do you mean? raised your palms and, when I didn’t reply, retreated to the basement. If I have left you, I am sorry for that.
You have given me:
1) a bike
2) my favorite black dress
3) classes at the Portland Fashion Institute
4) fresh eggs
5) a different homemade soup every birthday
Cheddar left a dead mouse on the porch today. I take that as his saying, I will kill your mice, but only in my own good time. Cats, I think, think like that. Today I’ll take him to the basement. Those are turds on your desk, not spilled coffee grounds, whatever you may insist. Once Cheddar clears out the mice, I can bring down the sewing machine and materials to make curtains. While I sew, I’ll sit with you. If you’re coherent, maybe we can talk. There won’t be seedlings when the rain lets up, but the curtains will guarantee the sun won’t discolor the childhood snapshots tacked across the sea on the basement’s walls. Maybe your photos and artwork can be the beginning of us decorating the guest room. I like your paintings of storms as much or more than our originally planned sky-blue paint.
Published March 24th, 2019
Rachel King’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Flyway, Lunch Ticket, the Concho River Review, the Farallon Review, Ashland Creek Press’ Among Animals 2 anthology, and the Museum of Americana, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. She lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.
Neda Al Hilali is a Czech-born, Los Angles-based artist who was one of the leading female artists working in large-scale three-dimensional fiber in the 1970s. She adopted processes that had traditional origins in the domestic realm, including crochet and knotting, and elevated them to the level of fine art. Al Hilali studied with Bernard Kester at UCLA and went on to teach at Scripps in Claremont, CA. She has worked with metal, paper, and various other materials in her sculptural, performance and installation work.