“There are two people in this room, Doctor. One is sane. One is as crazy as they come. I assure you, sir, I am sane. So which one are you?”
-Handwritten note addressed to Dr. Kinney and marked PRIVATE
Second Street, Traverse City, 1952
My head throbs. My body aches. I feel as if every muscle has been straining to grasp something it cannot reach. Maybe it was the conversation with my mother. Your father, she began and then she said, Charlie…She paused here and her eyes filled with tears. I think, perhaps, mine did too. No longer was he simply my father; she had to specify that she meant her husband and the man that raised me. She continued, Charlie and I met because of Ama. She was raised in the tunnels, you see. Charlie had been bringing her food secretly for sometime and the others…
I slip my hands in the hot, sudsy water and grab a glass and begin to scrub.
The others, she said, raised her.
The glass in my hand is a fragile bird. I scrub. I said, but if Dad knew she was there…why didn’t he rescue her?
My mother looked at me and sighed. She was tired. She did not want to discuss this with me anymore. Her words were heavy with fatigue. Who would rescue her, Beth? A ten-year-old girl, raised by lunatics? Where would she go? Who would take that risk? Charlie was raised in an orphanage. He has the scars to prove it. And if you saw her…if you knew her…I met her when she was seventeen. We were the same age. I was jealous of her, of how Charlie would bring her things…ribbons, a slice of bread, a jewelry box. And so I started bringing things too. I think maybe she wanted him, but she could not go to the surface then and I could. And of course, Doctor Kinney arrived shortly after that. After that, everything was decided.
What was decided? I asked.
You. Ama. Rose. Me.
I say the four words as I scrub a glass and when the glass snaps in my hand, I don’t feel a thing. Not until I see the water beneath the suds and the swirl of red do I realize that anything is wrong. I call for Ray but he is not home. He never seems to be home anymore.
I pull my hand from the water and it seems to pulse blood directly from my heart. There’s a towel and I wrap it tightly across the gash in my hand. If I cannot get the bleeding to stop, I will call my neighbor Katy to help me. I will crawl to her if I need to. It’s not the loss of my own blood I fear, but my child’s.
For now, I slide down against the cabinets and sit on the floor.
You. Ama. Rose. Me. I repeat it. It’s a refrain. A dirge. The sound of a glass shattering.
What did you do to us? I ask the air. I ask Kinney. I ask the man who was my real father, and yet a man I feel nothing but contempt for. He doesn’t answer. He is not here either.
Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, 1933
“Mallie, I’d like you to assist me with a few things,” Kinney said to the young nurse. She stood in the doorway to his office and looked behind her as if to see if anyone were watching. “It’s perfectly above board,” Kinney said. “You have nothing to fear from me. Please come in and shut the door.”
“It’s just that…if you forgive sir, there have been doctors, sir, who…” she fumbled with her apron, twisted it with her fingers.
“I’m aware of the rumors. Do not fear. I have nothing but a professional interest in you. In fact, I have a proposition for you.” Mallie seemed to let that register. She entered the office and shut the door, though she stayed close to it, Kinney was sure so that she could escape if needed.
“You have a proposition, sir?”
“Tell me, has your family been struck by the wave of job losses?” Kinney knew the answer to this. Most of the country was under a serious economic crisis. Even now the asylum was filling with the deranged that family members could no longer support. He could surmise that Mallie’s family was having trouble, but he did not need to surmise at all. He knew that Mallie Lyn Peters lived with her single mother and four siblings. He knew that her mother mended patients’ uniforms. Harvey Biggart himself brought great stacks of uniforms for her to fix. He also knew that she had lost quite a bit of work lately because Kinney had quietly seen to it to find another seamstress.
Mallie Lyn’s face flushed red and she nodded. “Yes,” she said.
Kinney nodded, once. “I have a special job for you, one that you will be well compensated for. One that will require some additional time from you on your day off, and perhaps at night. You will be safe, I assure you. I have no interest in you of a physical nature, I assure you. I simply need a nurse to help me at my new house.”
“Your new house, sir?” She looked up at him.
“I have purchased a home not far from here, on the shore of the bay. I have, of course, decided to keep my appointment here at the asylum. You will assist me with some…” Kinney paused here as he searched for the word. “…experiments if you will. A new method in healing the sick. We will start with one patient.”
“One, sir?” Mallie asked softly.
“Just one. And Mallie, if you assist me, perhaps I can send some more work to your mother and your young siblings.” He saw her eyes flash then and he could not be certain if it were from gratefulness or if she guessed how much of her family’s fate he truly held in his palms.
“Of course, sir. Whatever you need, sir.” She curtsied. “Just a question, sir. Who is the patient?”
Kinney walked to the window to hide his grin. “Ama,” he said. “But from now on we will call her Patient Rose.”
Mallie’s reaction was not what he’d expected. He’d expected her to harangue him, to fight. But she said with a voice that now had more strength in it, “Oh, yes, Doctor Kinney. I would be happy to take Ama away from here. To take…Rose. And watch over her, I mean, and help you with whatever experiments you need. No one need know. She doesn’t really belong here anyway.”
This time when Kinney turned to her, he did not hide his grin. It seemed that Mallie Lyn and he had a perfect understanding. “We will begin at once,” he said. “I am moving my things to the house tonight.”
“Tonight, sir,” she said, and she smiled at him in return.
Traverse City, 1952
I sit in the rocking chair and rock. I rock to the pulsing in my hand, to keep the sound of Ray’s voice from touching me. “What a fucking stupid thing to do, Beth! How could you cut yourself! Are you a child? Do you need someone here to watch you? I had to take work off. I lost a day’s pay. A day’s pay!” He goes on and on. I rock. I focus on the color of Ray’s hands, stained deep and forever with the cherries he cans. He smells of the factory, sweet.
I tell him I’m sorry. I tell him it was an accident. I tell him it will never happen again. I talk to him and while my mouth moves and say words, my mind is very far away. Back in the asylum my father took my mother from the only home and family she ever knew. How did he do it? How did her family react? I do think of them as her family, the inmates. They loved her, didn’t they? And isn’t that what family is? People who love you?
I have their pictures: Liliana with the long dark hair. The albino man, Timothy Beeler. The crazed and fierce looking Kostic. The old woman Lynnie. It is their voices I hear now, not Ray’s. They say the words I want to say.
Stop! What are you doing? How can you take her? She is ours ours ours. Ama! Ama! They cry.
They are grabbed and thrown in cells. My father prescribes new therapies. They inject Liliana with insulin to trigger a coma. For Robert Kostic, it’s massive doses of barbiturates to control him and he sleeps the sleep of the dead. They lock Timothy in a room where he cannot paint or draw. And old Lynnie they treat by holding her food, and feeding her only broth. And later, there’s a new technique, electroshock therapy, and I see their bodies vibrating and bouncing and I see the foam forming in their mouths.
In my rocking chair, I imagine Ray doing the same to me. Shocking my system, only it is with words. Stupid, useless, ridiculous, selfish. Why I ever married you I’ll never know.
He’s chipping away at me. At the very core of me. I feel my self slip away under the cold water.
This, too, is what my father did to my mother. She may have started out as Ama, but she became Rose.
The question I have now is who, exactly, will I become?