Traverse City, Michigan, 1952
Ray wants to know what I am carrying around. What’s in that box you’re always digging through, he asks, and I can hear the irritation heavy in his words.
They’re just notes, I say. I know that if I actively hide it from him, he will tear the room apart searching to find and read every slip of paper inside this box, so instead, I put the secret of my birth right on the kitchen counter, grab a handful of papers, and hand them out to him as if offering a bouquet of flowers. Would you like to read it? I ask.
He looks at me and there is a moment when we are staring at each other. I force myself not to lower my gaze and then, soon enough, he lowers his first and eats his eggs. It is a minor miracle.
I don’t know why I am hiding it, even in the open like this. Beyond the paperwork that says my mother died three years before having me, there is very little in here that Ray would understand. There is very little in here I understand. Some things I look at again and again, like the old postcards of the asylum, making the grounds look so peaceful and inviting that I’d like to go there myself. There are some medical records taken from when I was an infant about my weight and size and length and that I had jaundice. There is a lock of hair tied with a white string. It is a single curl and even though it sits in this box, I can tell that the woman who had curls like this must have been beautiful once. It occurs to me that it is the same dark color as my own, though mine is short now and has no beauty left to it.
There is also a red ball (smaller than my palm, cupped), a candle burned to just a stump, and a list of names. It’s the names I look at now, run my finger over: Liliana Stephenson, Robert Kostic, Timothy Beeler, Lynnie Sherry, and then a single name or phrase written in capital letters AMA.
There are papers attached to this list of names. Each name has its own page and there are terms and boxes checked. Feeble minded, senility, involutional melancholia, dementia praecox followed by other words that are, I know, different kinds of treatment, words involving shock and water and other things I do not understand. And there are phrases that scare me, phrases like “the patient displays episode of extreme violence and rage”. And there are dates circled and stamped, and I do not know if these people were discharged or they left the asylum through a more permanent departure. My father has signed each page. These names then, these people, were patients of his…but why are their names and diagnoses wrapped in my box of secret things and why, no matter how many times I go through the pages, is there no such page for AMA?
I touch the curl of hair with my fingertip. Ray calls for more eggs. I put the lid on the box though even I know that you can lock something away, and it still goes on existing, even in the dark.
Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, 1932
He was upside down. Surely he was upside down!
But no. That wasn’t right. He wasn’t floating above the floor, staring at it beneath him. He was staring up at the ceiling…and there was Mallie Lynn Peters dabbing his forehead with a damp cloth. “There, there, now, Doctor Kinney. It’s all right. It’s all right now.”
He felt, rather than saw, the hulking presence of Biggart leave the room. Mallie continued. “You tripped and fell in the tunnels you did. Bumped your head good and deep now, didn’t you. Afraid there are stitches. But don’t you worry. We’ve done them before. They ain’t pretty, but they’ll heal. Now, sit up, Doctor Kinney. It’s time to start your day.” Mallie helped him to a sitting position and then offered her arm to steady him as he rose to his feet.
“But there was someone in the Tunnels…” he began. He remembered it clearly. He’d reached out, felt the tangle of hair, heard his name echoing around him, through him. And hadn’t he…hadn’t he seen Rose? Hadn’t he seen someone who looked like Rose standing next to him, her eyes a flash of wild blue in the darkness, like a flint lighting?
“Course there was someone in the Tunnels. There’s always staff in the Tunnels. It’s how we get around so quietly.” Mallie studied him, wiped the dirt from his knees and then took a step back. “Now, don’t you look a sight. The patients will be pleased as anything, they will, to see them look at you. Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” he asked, still confused as to how he had ended up in his office and how he had received stitches without any awareness at all as to how that was managed.
“It’s time to work,” Mallie said with more than a hint of authority in her voice. “Follow me.” She turned and exited the room. It took Kinney only a moment to follow her, but before doing so he pulled a single strand of dark hair from his lapel. It was a small thing, indeed, but proof enough that he’d seen someone in the Tunnels, and that someone had worn her hair down, not clasped tightly under a hat the way support staff did. No. That someone was either a patient or perhaps… perhaps…
Kinney shook his head and took after Mallie. He’d had the slightest moment where he’d actually believed the woman he’d seen really had been Rose. She had the same dark hair, the same length, and the same blue eyes that seemed to stare straight into his soul—if, indeed, he still possessed one.
They walked a short distance to the women’s ward. At last, Kinney was getting a sense of the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum as it really was: a vast machine for the mentally broken, a place inhabited and thriving with a swarm of lost souls. They passed inmates walking the grounds, inmates obvious in their striped pajamas and slippers. Some exhibited psychoses clearly, while others just stared at him a bit too long, the head cocked a bit too far. Mallie, for once, did not chat too him about bread or Mr. Young. She walked briskly across the courtyard and into the cold, hard building of the women’s ward. “You are to check on patients in Ward B. You’re lucky though, Doctor Kinney, Ward B is a pay ward, not the best one though, but at least you’re not in the other.”
Kinney nodded. There were several areas in the hospital, patients separated first by sex and then by finances. Those with families who could afford to, paid for their keeping. These inmates were treated to a spacious, open ward and meals that ranged from ham with breakfast to a full dinner at night. Their room was open and peaceful. Inmates were allowed to bring elements from home. That was the highest tier. The second tier belonged to inmates whose families could not afford to keep them in comfort, but still paid a minimal fee to at least ensure that they had decent meals and were tended to with respect. Their room, also wide and open, had more beds in it and no elements of the home. They had porridge for breakfast, boiled meat, soup. This would be the ward he would attend to.
And finally there was the Ward of the State. These were patients whose families could not pay, did not want to pay, or for inmates who did not have families at all. These were the inmates picked off from the streets and shipped to the asylum so that society would not have to see the effects of long-term syphilis on the brain, or psychoses where someone existed physically in this world, but spiritually they were somewhere or someone else. Kinney and Mallie passed this ward. He could hear the women inside, crying, laughing, shouting. One glance inside the room told him what he had feared. With the economy free falling, more and more individuals were slipping into madness, and no one could afford to pay. The hundred beds were filled in Ward C, and there were a hundred more women sitting, standing, pacing in the room. They were fed porridge and a watery soup and when they became very sick indeed, they were shipped to another secret room in the hopes that their illness would claim them quickly. The State did not like to pay for their upkeep.
“We’re here,” Mallie said and opened the door to Ward B.
He had expected to walk in, sit quietly at a desk, observe and then leave. Kinney should learn, he thought, that life never operates the way you expect. It’s as if as soon as you form an expectation, life hears you and then makes a different choice just to spite you. Kinney walked in, Mallie passed him a file, and the women surged.
He tried to walk forward. Tried to breathe. Tried to keep his gaze firmly in front of him. He was a tall man and because of this, the women reached up to him. He registered the reaching of their hands to touch his shoulders, his neck, his hair not as women individually touching him, but as if he were being accosted by some mythical creature with a hundred arms, a thousand probing tendrils searching to read him.
“Line up!” Mallie Lynn cried, her voice showing more than that hint of steel. “It’s Doctor Kinney to examine you!”
Mallie stomped her foot against the tile and the room fell to a hush. The wave of hands reaching to feel him ebbed, receded, and the women parted. A tiny, old woman stood before him. Her grey hair was not secured and it fell to the middle of her torso, wrapped her small frame as if it were a shawl. “You’ve been in The Tunnels, you have,” she whispered. Her voice was an injection of ice to his veins. “You’ll be back there too. Once The Tunnels bites you, you’re never the same.” She pointed to him, to his face, and he tentatively touched the stitches that now stretched there.
Mallie looked at Kinney and said softly, “Her name is Mrs. Hoogewind, sir. We don’t ever use her first name sir, not ever. She bites.” Mallie placed a file in Kinney’s hands, and with that, he began his work.
That night, he did not think of the waves of patients he’d seen and analyzed. He did not replay assigning therapies, addressing issues, discussing treatment plans. He did not look to tomorrow when he would oversee the hydrotherapy sessions. He did not revisit his ideas and plans for new therapies or read any of the journals that were being published discussing experiments with brain tissue and how elimination of key areas of the brain could cure a patient of all psychoses…and perhaps all emotion as well.
He did not think of these things.
As he lay in bed listening to the moans of patients trapped in diseased minds, he thought instead of Rose, singing to him. It seemed if he really focused his mind he could hear her singing even now. Her voice was as far away as memory, and as soft as a promise. As he drifted to sleep he thought, for a moment, that her song seemed to be coming from somewhere beneath him, directly under him. Perhaps straight from the Tunnels.
With this thought, and Rose’s song calling to him, he slept.
The woman watched the man sleep. His dark hair fell across his eyes and his chest rose and fell with each breath. He looked sad, even sleeping. She reached her hand out to touch him and gently as a whisper touched his brow. Even sleeping he looked different than the others. She drew her head back and studied him.
The woman heard her name and withdrew, sinking into the night. She was not to touch this man. He was of the upper world. He was not a tunnel person. He would not understand her. She knew this. She felt it as a truth. And even as she followed the woman in the white dress down into the Tunnels, Ama knew without question that she would be back, and next time she would touch his lips.