Saturday, November 21, 2009

Quilt of Souls

Over the years in my day job as a psychotherapist, I’ve heard thousands of ‘stories’, none of which I can share outside of my consultation group; stories of courage, of heartbreak, of inconceivable suffering and loss, of creative growth and transformation, all of which have moved and molded me in some way.

Occasionally a client’s story will continue to haunt me. Even though the therapy has terminated, the images linger in my consciousness. As a way of processing the material while maintaining confidentiality, I turn to fiction, my favorite form of creativity.

Quilt of Souls is a story of five pages. I’m going to post it all in one sitting, so this will be a long one. The picture above is a painting that I found at a garage sale years ago (artist unknown). It speaks to me of many things, but perfectly illustrates this story. Welcome to my world:

Quilt of Souls

“Shhh, baby, baby, Momma’s sleepin’,” crooned seven-year-old Natalie to baby Landry wailing crocodile tears from the folds of her cradle. Natalie brushed back frizzy, dry hair like September wheat, from her own face and tucked it behind a delicate ear as she bent to free the infant from her swaddling. The back of her hand felt the wetness of soggy cradle sheet and her palm moistened with baby pee.

The room was hot and stuffy like the inside of an old trunk. There was not enough light to avoid tripping over the bottles strewn about the carpet, leaking rank fumes and amber liquid.

Landry continued howling like an alley cat in heat, her face red and swollen, her body reflecting the hot summer day. Natalie peeled off layers of blankets and threw them across the room in the general direction of the bucket. Baby pee didn’t smell so bad, she thought, as she laid Landry on a mostly clean towel. Not like the pee that puddles up under Momma. Dang, she wished she were at the swimming pool with Adele and Shank.

Out on the street she heard Butch, cussin’ out some poor bastard who happened to park in the curb space Butch considered his very own. She shook her head, the way a wet dog does, to try to get the sound of his voice out of her. When he had turned that shout on her, she had pulled so far inside she had near disappeared.

“It’s okay, Landry, I’m not gonna disappear on you,” she reassured the baby and herself. “You and me, someday we’re gonna get outta here. Open us up an ice cream store. Sell balloons and kites, too,” she sang the familiar mantra of better days ahead.

The baby, quiet now, stared up at her with eyes like saucers of fear and dread. Her tiny mouth sucked silently on her thumb as if it offered sustenance and protection from the evil so small a being should never have known.

An ambulance careened into the alley. The scream of the siren cut through the summer dusk scattering children playing Kick the Can, neighbors catching the first waft of cool evening breeze from rickety fire escapes, and stray cats rubbing against overflowing garbage pails. Bodies dispersed only to reconvene in morbid curiosity as the paramedics rushed up the steps of the brownstone.

“Stand back, folks,” Ed Fontaine used his bulk to clear a path through the onlookers to the open door of Number 11. He usually worked crowd control, leaving his partner La Rue quick access to triage. Ed never developed a stomach for being first on the scene.

“Oh, pee-euw!” said old Mrs. Hickey from across the hall. She reeled against her doorframe and covered her mouth and nose with the back of her liver-spotted hand.

From the far reaches of clouded consciousness, Cora heard Butch’s voice full of venom hiss, “Go on bitch, die. Do the world a favor.” Then, from nearer, “on my count, one, two, three...” and her body was shifted onto a hard surface. Then blackness all around.

In the ambulance, La Rue called in their ETA along with the alcohol and barbiturate overdose of 54 year old white female, Cora Buckley.

“Amen,” whispered Marvel as she finished her daily prayer for Jazelle’s soul and blew out the white candle on her altar. A slow drip of molten wax worked its way down the candle and melded into the silk scarf she used as an altar cloth.

The acidy sounds of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit blared from the shabby speakers balanced on a warped board that served as the dining table. They never ate at the table as Jazelle preferred a collection of TV trays that she’d decoupaged with pictures of bejeweled, toothy actors and actresses from her movie magazines.

Jazelle exhaled sweet, pungent smoke from her nose, leaving vapor trails in the air. “And the ones your mother gave you don’t do anything at all,” she sang in a sultry Grace Slick impersonation. Her big gold hoop earrings bobbled against her chin as she shook her head, flinging her sleek black hair over her shoulders and back again. Enough of all this gloom and doom, she was having herself a par-ty.

Baby Landry’s red-eyed gaze looked detached and far away through the cloud of smoke, but she was quiet now.

“Would you like to light a candle and pray for anyone, Natalie?” Marvel offered. “I’m praying for Cora. I figure she could use all the prayers she can get, locked up in that hospital.

“I don’t have much use for prayer,” Natalie said, keeping her voice even. “What kind of God would let this happen anyway?”

“Saint Marvel probably has an answer for that, don’t you Marvel?” asked Jazelle in a dreamy voice, swaying to the music in the middle of the room with the baby in her arms. The infant’s limbs hung limply and wobbled to the beat.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Marvel’s voice was full of quiet conviction. “I believe She’s working through us right now, to bring strength and hope to Cora,” she said.

Across town, in a dimly lit back room of the Psych. Ward at St. Boniface, Cora stirred in the muss of sheets, wet with sweat and tears. Her own stench made her nauseous.

“Damn, that was a stupid thing you did back there. You could’ve burned the whole place down with that lit cigarette that fell on the floor. What a cow,” Butch spared no mercy.

“Shut up! Shut up and go away. Leave me alone,” Cora managed to rasp out through a parched throat. Her scalp itched and the skin on her face burned. Every muscle felt as though it had been stretched taut then let go. She took the fear and despair she felt, loosened a brick in the wall of her emotional well, stuffed the feelings in, and tamped the brick back securely in place.

“You wouldn’t last a day without me, you idiot. Who the hell you think takes care of things when you’re shit-faced? I don’t know why I bother with the likes of you,” he harangued.

A young nurse with pale blonde hair pulled back in a long braid that swung as she crossed the room, scribbled notes in a manila chart and checked the white paper cup the pills came in to make sure it was empty. She made no eye contact, didn’t speak. Cora sensed that the woman was holding her breath.

“Could I get a drink--Cait?” she asked, noting the nurse’s name badge.

“Yeah,” whispered Butch, “just throw a liter of whiskey in the bag. Heh, heh. Cait,” he smirked just loud enough for Cora to hear, “not K-a-t-e, but C-a-i-t. Sheesh. Must be from California.”

Cora’s head was pounding. Cait Plunkett, LVN, answered in a voice that felt like Graham cracker crumbs in the bed. “Ice, you can have ice,” she said, looking at Cora’s chin. She turned abruptly and left the room.

“Flo Nightengale she ain’t,” muttered Butch.

“Leave me alone!” Cora shouted, pressing her temples and squinting against the pain.

“You don’t speak to me like that, woman.” Butch was on her like a junkyard dog. Before she knew what was happening, he had yanked her by the arm out of bed and onto the floor. She heard a soft thud on her way down as her head met the corner of the drawer that had been pulled out from the bedside table. Blood oozed down the front of her white hospital gown. Her vision blurred and a searing pain finally caught up with her.

A keening cry that Cora didn’t realize was her own, brought an attendant on the run, followed by Nurse Plunkett. Butch had vanished.

Back in the apartment, Natalie sat on the edge of the bed, rocking back and forth. “She’s not coming back, I know it,” she cried. She had used up all of her patience trying to calm Landry who had kept up a steady wail for the last hour. Her nerves were shot. She was scared.

“Oh, she’ll be just fine,” Jazelle patted her leg. “Have another brownie. You want more Coke?” she asked as she reached for a tube of lipstick on the nightstand. With a deft hand, she applied a layer of ice-pink over her lips, followed by another, and another. She flashed a butter- cream frosting smile at the mirror.

Natalie felt the mattress indent as Marvel curled up behind her, wrapped her arms loosely around her and whispered in her ear, “Pray with me.”

“Oh for heaven sake, Marvel, why don’t you pray that baby shuts up pretty soon or we’ll all be in the nut house!” Jazelle said.

As if plugged into an invisible battery, Landry launched into an even more vigorous outpouring of ear-splitting, raw emotion. Natalie sobbed quietly. Marvel began a “Hail Mary.” Jazelle reached for her nail polish.

In his own private world far away, Butch swore under his breath, “I’ll show you who is boss. Next time I just might kill you.”

An attendant wheeled Cora into an office on the second floor of the hospital. “Good morning, Cora. I’m Doctor Morgan Craul. You may call me Morgan. I’ll be your therapist for the next few weeks.”

“Okay,” Cora mustered. She couldn’t keep her mind focused. Why was she here?

“Do you know where you are, Cora?” Morgan asked. Her voice was calming. She seemed genuinely concerned. Cora nodded.

“Could you tell me where you are please,” Morgan was more specific this time. She looked into eyes that shifted like sand in the dunes. She knew that look.

“Damn, lady, if you don’t know, you’re in worse shape than I am.”

Morgan blinked at the deep voice, the hostile tone. She drew in a slow breath, settled back in her chair and said, “Hello, I’m Morgan. What may I call you?”

“You may call me a cab so I can get the hell outa here,” Butch answered. “She doesn’t need you, so why don’t you go do your do-gooding somewhere else, okay?” He leaned forward, hands braced on the seat of the couch, as if readying himself to lunge.

“Who else do you speak for?” Morgan asked. “May I speak to another?” She waited and watched the shift of energy, the carriage of the body, the melding of the eyes from one personality to another.

Unguarded tears ran from the eyes of the exhausted child who appeared before her.

“I can’t make her stop crying,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t know what to do,” she sighed, and pulled her legs up onto the couch, hugging them close to her body with her arms.

“How old are you, and what may I call you?” Morgan asked softly.

“Natalie. I’m seven. And I have to take care of baby Landry.”

“That’s a terribly big job for a seven-year old girl. Do you have any help?” Morgan prompted.

“Jazelle is supposed to be watching us. And Marvel.” Natalie blew her nose with the Kleenex Morgan handed her. “But they’re really not much help,” again, a jagged little sigh that sounded like a whimper.

“I’d like to be of help, if I could,” Morgan offered. “Do you suppose I could speak to Jazelle or Marvel? And, I’d like to talk to you again in a bit, if that would be okay.” Morgan wondered what trauma had left a seven-year old in charge of the system.

The gate was open. It was unusual to have so much revealed at the first session. She wondered if Cora had any idea.

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