When the paramedics arrived, they took my mother to the trauma center at Parkview Hospital where the attending physician counted 30 puncture wounds. Not twenty-seven or 3.14 or the square root of the hypotenuse of some obtuse triangle. Thirty. Of course, this accounting weighed heavily at the trial.
The headlines of the local counter-culture newspaper proclaimed: Local Woman Found Perforated.
I thought that distasteful.
Now the doctors at the institute where I’ve been confined are interested in my mental state. My motivations. My dreams.
I do my best. Give them something to work with. Nightmares to dissect.
“How about this one?” I say. “I’m riding in a Cadillac with God. The top is down. He’s a lousy driver. Like a kid on a joyride. He’s roaring down the road, squealing around corners, knocking folks over like bowling pins. ‘Where are we going?’ I shout at him. And, ‘Where’d you get your license, out of a Crackerjack box?’ But he remains dumb just like he has for more than two thousand years. So I grab his arm ‘Let me out,’ I plead. ‘You’re driving me crazy!’ He takes his eyes off the road then and grins right into my mind, his face a blank page, his skin
parchment. And I cry out, silently, of course, because there are no words to describe what I’m feeling, just the obsession to describe it.”
This recitation gives the doctors pause. They stop scribbling on their notepad and ask,
“What do you think that means?”
“What does any of this mean?” I volley back. Meaning life its ownself. “Besides,” I add, “aren’t you supposed to tell the patient?”
They retreat and consult and study me through a one-way mirror.
They want to know why I did what I did, but knowledge is not understanding. Understanding runs deeper. It won’t be tapped so easily.
As the reader can imagine, coming to terms with my murder is difficult. Painful.
Still, day after day, they press me, hoping one revelation will lead to another. I fend them off until a particularly offensive cheerful morning when they ask—driven by frustration, “Don’t you want to get any better?”
“How could I get any worse?” I hurl back at them.
“All right then. Allow us the truth.”
“But the truth is a fiery thing,” I protest, flouting my poetic sensibilities, “and could burn me to ashes.”
“From the ashes comes the phoenix,” they say, responding in kind. “From the ashes, flowers.”
This gives me pause. “Lilies?” I wonder aloud. Weakening. “They’re my favorites.”
“Especially lilies,” they say.
They smile. “God watches over them and madmen,” they remind me.
That’s some comfort. Feels like grace, so I decide to let them in and myself out little by little.
What more could it hurt?
And I try: “I wrote a poem. Once,” I tell them. “On paper. Age nine. The poem referenced a crushed milkweed caterpillar. I recited it to my mother.
“‘But it doesn’t rhyme,’ she said. And, ‘This word is misspelled.’ And, ‘What does it mean, it never had a chance to be king? You must be clear.’ And, ‘It’s too long.’ And, ‘Where’s the punctuation?’
“And. And. And.
“And I snatched that paper away and I ran from the room, burned the poem and kept them all to myself after that. All those voices clamoring to be heard inside my mind.
“I didn’t know then, but nine was too damn young to think there is no rhyme or reason.”
“You still think that today,” they state.
“Aren’t we in a psychiatric hospital?”
“There’s your answer.”
They clear their throat and shift to firmer ground. “So you stopped writing after that?” they say, tracking. “After the butterfly poem?”
“No,” I correct them. “Aren’t you listening? I carried on. Of course. I have to be an author, for god’s sake. It can’t be helped. I’m writing all the time. In here—where it’s safe,” I say pointing to my shaven head. Eager for their empathy. My own justification. “I can’t stop. Even in my sleep. Entire stories answering this—this—enigma.”
They put a calming hand on my arm. “So put it on paper,” they challenge me. “What you’re feeling. You’re safe here.”
“I refuse to debase my story that way,” I answer.
And they hear the mocking tone in my reply. Of myself and them. We’re both aware of the absurdity of a writer who refuses to write. We’re quiet, together. Studying each other. Them taking the measure of me. Me caught in the web of self-deception struggling to get out.
And finally, this. “What are you afraid of?” they ask.
The answer is clear.
“Condemnation,” I say and it’s a small step forward.
They leave me to myself then. They know a breakthrough when they hear one. Let it percolate. Let it seep into the quicklime of the wall I’ve built. Let it do its work.
They also leave a pencil and paper.
I examine the pencil.
A yellow Dixon Ticonderoga. Soft. Newly sharpened. The eraser, partially used and scruffy. The pencil is a gauntlet dropped on the white table. A “be who you say you are, or shut the fuck up.”
I reach out. Take it in hand. Forefinger and thumb as if it’s an unfamiliar animal that might sting or bite.
They want revelations from me. I want a resurrection. Christ knows only one of us can be satisfied.
And while my mother meant no harm—I did.
I see the red light is lit on the camera in the upper corner of the room, and ignoring the paper, I push up from my chair, cross to the white wall and ham-fistedly scrawl:
They don’t rub it out.
The television is broken in the common room so I have a lot of time to unravel the thread between cause and effect. To wonder about my childhood. The root of my evil.
They wonder about it as well, and, sitting across from me two days after I defaced their wall, sporting their white clinical jacket and polished shoes, sincerity writ on their pleasant features, they continue to pry open my past.
“Was I ever content?” I say in response to their query. “Growing up. Happy? All I remember are endless harrowing days at school, chock-full of verbal assaults followed by empty afternoons of excruciating ennui. So I’d turn on the television. If I concentrated fiercely enough, the flickering images and blather blotted out the cruelty of my peers—the hollowness of my life, and Mother downstairs banging on her piano working out one banal jingle after another while I ached to speak, but distrusted the sound of my own voice.”
“Jingles?” they say and sit up straighter.
“Yes, my mother wrote jingles. Ditties,” I respond, in response to their cue. “Four lines of rhyming doggerel she submitted to contests for advertising products. ‘Wake up bright and refreshed,’” I sing derisively, “‘ready to do your best, when you sleep in a pillow, made by Rapturerest.’” She’d win, cash the check and we’d have steak for dinner. I hated that it tasted so good.”
They jot that down. Earnest employee of the state.
“I despised my small life,” I carry on. “My father, who abandoned us for the milkman.” This elicits not even a smile. “Regretted the brothers and sisters I never had.”
“You were lonely,” they encourage.
“Did you know the English language has over 30 synonyms for the word solitary?” I inform them. “I’ve lived them all. Even in college where I discovered Anne Sexton—her poetry.”
I hesitate there. The Anne Sexton reference having slipped out unbidden. But, of course, it would. How could it not? Still, is it too soon? Are we moving too quickly? Going headlong to a place that yet bleeds to the touch. Going where language can illuminate and blind. Someplace sacred.
“Would you like to talk about Anne?” they ask, sensing an opportunity.
Talk? I think to myself. About the seemingly inexpressible. Risk overexposure. But why not? What’s been done has been done. And I have opened the door. And while there will be no recovery, there might be absolution.
Besides, the dead won’t mind.
“She came to the college I attended for a reading,” I begin and stand and cross away from my interrogator—giving me space to unpack memory. “I sat front and center listening, transfixed while she read, in that smoky voice, one poem after another speaking for me—touching on the chaos I knew so well. And the exaltation I ached to realize. I found myself, afterwards, asking for an autograph on the title page of her most recent volume. ‘Write well,’ Anne penned. ‘It may rescue someone.’”
I take a moment there. Tilt my head back, breathing intentionally. A rueful smile creases my face. “Already she’s being forgotten,” I say. “But my mother’s jingles, my mother’s jingles, people know them like their first names.”
“You sound bitter,” they observe.
“Oh, I am.”
“Is that why…”
“I was so enthralled by Anne,” I interrupt, wanting to be thoroughly understood. Wanting them to fully appreciate my case. Find some redemptive qualities to record for the record. And continue, “I mustered up my mettle and, yes, wrote to her. My own confessional to the confessional poet. She invited me to her home in Weston, Massachusetts. It was an hour’s train-ride away, and I accepted. Full of trepidation.”
They set down their blue ballpoint pen and sit back. I have my audience.
“Even twenty-years my senior, Anne remained striking. Once a model for magazines, she had kept her figure. The regality.
“Her immediate presence had a telling effect on me. But being so self-absorbed, so inexperienced with the world, I failed to register what lingered behind the smoke of her cigarettes or in the mirror of her wide-open features. That unapologetic nose. Full, sensuous mouth.
“‘You caught me on a good day,’ she said in greeting, effusive and embracing, further obscuring the underpinnings of her depressions.
“‘I’m glad,’ I answered not knowing how bad bad days were.
“‘Let me take you to dinner. We can talk. About this and that—and possibly being your mentor,’ she said and taking my arm escorted me to a local café.
“Anne had white wine. ‘Something with bubbles,’ she told the waiter and smiled. My infatuation bloomed. She spoke of the curios in the café, the ghastly weather, the horrors of war in Indochina. I agreed with everything.
“Finally, she leaned in over her ceasar salad and said, ‘Tell me about yourself.’
“Oh, and I did. Safe in her hands, I spoke of my tender yearnings, the ache for self-expression, my persistent struggles with existence, and she had the grace to listen while hoarding her own trials and tribulations. Asking me questions. Leading me to revelations that freed more inhibitions. Fueled courage.
“The dishes cleared, I said, ‘This is the happiest time I will remember.’
“Anne took my hand and assured me.
“Like any mother should.
“Like any lover could. ‘You’re a beautiful boy,’ she said. ‘Believe it.’
“‘I’ll try,’ I promised.
“Anne finished her third glass of wine and set it on the checkered tablecloth as one who has made a weighty decision. She fingered the rim. ‘Come home with me,’ she said. ‘My family’s away, as it happens, and I need company.’
“We never spoke after that. Everything understood. A rite of passage. A ritual. She, disrobing me. Taking my hand; leading us to the comforting disarray of her unkempt bed. My heart racing. All my senses afire with anticipation. She, both Magdalene and Madonna. How
wonderfully we fit together. Anne, allowing me refuge in the landscape of her long lanky body. Wanting me wanting her. Afterwards, I lay there like an emperor while she medicated herself and called it sleep.
“The next morning, Anne had forgotten my name and wept over coffee and cigarettes. She wore those tears like pearls.
“‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, yet imbued with self-absorption.
“‘It has little to do with you,’ she answered.
“Which was solace and not.
“I knew she was wounded, but I couldn’t imagine mortally.”
I pause there to fortify my mind. They wait expectantly having shifted to the edge of their chair, voyeuristic tendencies a professional requirement. We both know where this is going, but only one of us will survive the journey.
Nevertheless, I web my fingers together as if in prayer and continue saying. “Inspired and emboldened by Anne’s… sacrifice, I did take up a pencil. And even though whatever I could compose would be a mockery of what we shared, that day later—with Bach in the background—I sifted through my cache of words for some that might do her justice.
“And began to… write, but was interrupted by a newscast. A dry, matter-of-fact voice announcing the successful suicide of Anne Sexton as if reading copy from a weather report.
“Stunned, I ran from my room, stumbled down the stairs and into my mother as she confronted me at the front door. ‘Look,’ she said in her bright and cheery voice, waving one more $25 check she had earned writing a jingle selling soap, the letter opener flashing in her hand. ‘Listen to this.’
“’No!’ I cried out and secured the opener. ‘No!’
“Thirty times no! Each thrust of my dull weapon, an exclamation mark. Over and over until—until Mother came quiet and still as my Anne.
“And somehow that’s who I saw there—at my feet. My mother transmogrified. Transfigured. My mother as Anne Sexton. Her brave heart giving out. Her jangled life ebbing away. I knelt and cradled Anne’s head reciting poem after poem hoping such incantations would breathe life back into her. But not even the power of words could rescue so mortal an immortal.”
I end there. Weeping. A liberating emptiness, a cleansing exhaustion has overcome me.
And unfathomable regret. For my mother as well.
And I say in my grief, “And now, Doctor—now—this inevitable reckoning with God.”
Gavin Kayner‘s plays, poems and prose have won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications. He thanks the folks at Helix for this opportunity.