Monday, February 2, 2009

Never before and never again: a Kentucky story

I don't know why this story popped into my head this morning, but it's worth sharing. I've always wondered what I was supposed to learn from it. Maybe you can tell me.

In Kentucky, those of us who lived in rented rooms or other off-campus student housing sought and cherished "townie" friends. These lucky people lived in real houses, and those houses had all the comforts of the homes we'd left behind, like dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens--in other words, they were more than just the single rooms we students were calling "home."

My townie friend was Martha Beall. Martha was a hanger-on with the music crowd I also hung with--actually, she had more music cred than I did because she had studied music and she taught piano. (That was another thing it was fun to see in her house, the baby grand piano in the living room, just like in my parents' house.) In spite of the fact that we all needed each others' company and were grateful for it, Martha did have her ways. She prided herself on her cooking, though there wasn't much basis for her boasts as far as her friends could see. Still, it was fun to graze through her refrigerator, which she allowed, to see what might be nibble-worthy. Once out of curiosity I picked up a bowl of some brown, sludgy-looking stuff. I smelled it and discerned chocolate. I tasted it and it was odd, but good. I wolfed it down, growing boy that I was. I asked her what it was, and she told me it was leftover pudding. I'd never had or seen pudding like that, though, and it was only later that I figured out it was raw cake batter, or really what was supposed to have turned into a cake in the oven, but didn't.

I don't know how well Martha taught the piano, but I can say that like her cooking, her singing left something to be desired, as well. (This would have been no big deal except that she was running with a group of people whose claims to artistry were mostly based on our voices. Vocally, we knew what was what.) Once, Martha graced us with an a capella version of an interminable folk song called "Mary Ann." She sang it with a beatific smile on her face as if she were edifying a crowd in the Kentucky Colosseum. For all its repetitive verses, you could barely discern the melody; I did notice, however, that with each change of verse she also changed to a higher key. By the time she ended the song she had migrated to such heights that the sound she was emitting with such tender emotion was more a squeak, really, than a musical note. When she was done, I rather snarkily asked her why she did that. "Oh, I just like variety," she said. A good cover. Just like with that cake dough, she could think fast. But at least the cake dough had been edible.

But I digress. This story isn't about Martha. It's about a her housemate, Cindy. To make a little extra money, Martha rented her attic apartment, and during the time I coincided with her life, Cindy was the renter. Cindy fit right in with the crowd of well-meaning misfits that made up our musical klatch--she wasn't a musician, but she was gifted in the use of charcoal, chalk and paint to create haunting studies of faces. Cindy had a history of severe mental problems but at the time was in remission with the help of some wonderful drugs. She was good company when she wanted to be, and we understood when she did not. She just wasn't around. Eventually, there came a time when her absence was longer than usual, and we learned that she had had a crisis and been involuntarily committed to the psych ward at the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

One bright morning no more than a couple of weeks after we learned of Cindy's news, I was in my beloved attic apartment on Maxwell Street when my phone rang. It was Cindy. She needed "a ride home." She was cheery and talkative, the way she'd always been during the fun times at Martha's. I was elated she was feeling better and that she'd be part of the scene again, and was not especially surprised to be the one she called for a ride--I was the only one in our group who had a car and Cindy had no family in Lexington. She told me she was at the Med Center and I could pick her up there. Off I went.

Once I was on the road adjacent to the building, I saw a small figure by the side of the road. As I got closer I saw it was a young woman, clearly in trouble. Everything about her, her clothes, her hair, was completely disheveled. It was indeed a very desperate, wild-eyed Cindy. I stopped. She frantically climbed into the car and said, "I escaped."

To say I was confounded would be a gross understatement. No experience in my 20-odd years of walking the planet had prepared me for something like this. Should I take her back to the Med Center? Should I cross her? Was she dangerous? She asked me to take her to my apartment, and that's what I decided to do. On the ride she calmed down, and when she got inside she first asked to take a bath and then for a cup of tea. After her bath, as she sat with her tea, she explained that she couldn't take the psych ward any more; she knew she couldn't stay with me for long, but needed a few days to figure out her next move. I just nodded and tried to look sympathetic. What do you say? "What's exactly the matter?" "What's it like on the psych ward?"

I had my life to get on with and I knew there was no way I could have an escaped mental patient living with me, now matter how much I liked her and wished I could help her in her plight. Cindy saw me to my door as I left for class, and sweetly kissed me a thank-you. Feeling like a complete heel, once I was outside I found a phone booth, called the Med Center, and told them Cindy was in my apartment. I then stayed away on purpose for the entire day. When I got back that evening I heard from my neighbors there had been a bit of excitement on Maxwell Street that morning, complete with an ambulance and police cars.

When I let myself into my apartment, I saw that it had been cleaned, and the dishes were washed. I never saw Cindy again. I do have a souvenir from her, though. For Christmas she gave me the Wes Montgomery album, "A Day In The Life."


Jeff said...

Who knows what drives these memories, Ralph. The turn of a newspaper, a phrase on the radio, a photo on your local newscast. We tied them down years ago but for whatever reason, the tether comes loose. Finally freed from our memories, we get one last look as they float past? Maybe we've led far more interesting lives than we imagined...I'd say that there are many more stories to tell... :)
- J.

Nan said...

I am guessing that one of the reasons you are hanging onto this memory (even deep down most of the time) is because you felt so conflicted about what to do, and you wonder if you did the right thing. My goodness, you were so young to have to make that decision! On one hand, I can imagine with some terror the idea of being confined to one of those places against my will -- and we have certainly seen images of psych wards that we know truly couldn't have helped people who needed help. And yet it sounds like there was so much you didn't know about her or her illness. You had to do what you did. You were kind. To come home and find a cleaned apt. with washed dishes must have given you some pause. And yet, she did that for you to thank you for at least giving her some shelter and momentary respite from her nightmare. It was *her* thing, though, not yours, so I hope you will be able to "release" the memory now.

This reminded me a tiny bit of when my grandmother, a widow, was in the nursing home. She had never been a driver. She would call my mother to ask her for a ride home. "I'm ready to be picked up now. Your father isn't here yet. Can you give me a lift home?" It was like she had just finished a visit at the dentist.

Linda - SE PA said...

When a random memory comes by, I look and let it go... Perspectives change and looking at a situation such as the one with you and Cindy will have a different perspective than it did at the time.

My thoughts are that you acted with wisdom and it takes a lot, especially in those times and coming of age when we did, to take the steps you did. Perhaps, in time, she found the assistance she needed.

And as wisely mentioned above, sometimes it is a song, a word, a news story that triggers a memory... and KY has been in the news of late with their severe ice storm problems.

Ralph said...

Jeff, Nan and Linda, thanks for taking me up on my invitation to tell me what the lesson is. As I think more about it, Kentucky's been on my mind lately. I've actually conjured that exciting and so-consequential time in my life because I have the chance to now that my mind isn't so occupied with economic survival and that daily oppression. I'm able to think back on a very happy time and savor the memories. Why this particular story came to the fore I don't know. The memory of those clean dishes on my drain board has always been starkly touching and I think I've always wanted to tell the story attached to that image. I did feel bad about "telling on" Cindy, but I also knew clearly that I had no choice.

Sadly, in later years I heard that she finally took her own life. It was what she always said she meant to do, even in her cheery moments. I guess it can be said she succeeded....

Jeff said...

Nostalgia, Ralph. A return home...there are some people we just don't forget.
Like a game of pool - that ricochet sent us off in a particular direction. Just a momentary collision but never forgotten...
Bleah...Monday musings...
- J.

Kat said...

I think you called out of fear, an understandable fear. Your description of her is filled with adjectives which clearly indicate your sense of her, a sense which showed you were a bit afraid of Cindy and for Cindy.

The clean dishes just seem so normal, out of place with all that happened and all you saw.

Ralph said...

You're right, Kat, I was definitely afraid. I didn't even really know what might greet me when I got back home from class if I didn't notify the Med Center, and at the very least I was afraid of being held as an accomplice in some sort of crime. I did what I had to do, but not without regret.

Anonymous said...

What's that great line? "the world is crazy except me and thou and some times I think thou art". I read a little guilt into this post. Very well written but my, my couldn't help let go a wonder. That's what tells me you may be having second thoughts about turning your friend in. Because if she truly was a friend, you would have helped her. Funny how you never found out from gossip her whereabouts. Maybe you really didn't want to know. That's my armchair view of it.

Ralph said...

Z&M, one a personal level I felt guilty, but on a grown-up level, I knew I was doing the only thing I could do. I knew intuitively that she had problems that no mere friend could help--this was more than just needing a shoulder to cry on. She was psychotic. I actually tell more of the story in the comments. She was always suicidal and she actually ended up committing that deed, really the only ambition she had in life. I knew at the time she had that potential and for all I knew she could have done it in my apartment if I'd let her stay. There was no way I was equipped to handle a psychotic escaped mental patient. So I felt sorry for her, yes, and I liked the girl I knew when the medications were working, but I also knew from those who'd seen her at different times that she could be a drastically different, violently insane person.