All You Know On Earth A novel by Marilyn McGrath
One hand is clenched in a fist on her lap. The other one scrabbles over it like a pale, homeless crab on an overturned shell. Otherwise, she sits quite still. And she does not smile despite his many efforts to have her do so. The window behind his desk is open, and the sweeping limbs of an enormous tree move with an almost imperceptible rustle. She heard a mockingbird in that tree yesterday. Funny bird, with his complicated repertoire of songs. Was that just yesterday? Maybe it was a long time ago? Keats heard a nightingale from his bedroom in England, and wrote his famous poem. What does a nightingale sound like? Are there any in America? Where could she find that out? Why won’t he stop talking? He just goes on and on. He is rather nice looking, though, in his pin-stripe suit and gray silk vest. That blond mustache is waxed and tapered to needle-sharp points. All in good taste. Not like most men you find out here.
She fingers the intricate carvings on the arms of her chair. Mahogany. She is pleased to recall such a lovely, important word. There is an empty chair next to hers. Slightly larger, it does not have mahogany arms. It has wide upholstered arms that look soft and deep like forest moss. He says it will be his chair once they begin. Begin what? She has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. The fabric of both chairs is the same. Dark green. Rich. Sleek like a new puppy. What is it called? It has a name. Everything has a name.
He wants to have sessions with her. Dear God, what does that mean? He says it will help her remember what happened to her. Why would she want to do that? She wants the words to come back. Not the memories. Maybe she should tell him.
“It’s actually quite simple,” he says. “All you have to do is talk.”
“We begin with childhood.”
He says this with certainty and ease. As if childhood were a thing kept on a shelf in the pantry. As if you could dish it up and serve it whenever unexpected company arrives. He misinterprets her reluctance as fear.
“No,” she says emphatically. “I’m not afraid. But what if I don’t remember what you want to me to? You could be disappointed.”
“Hold on a minute,” he says with a smile. “I’m here to help you. Not the other way around. You can’t disappoint me. And you never have to apologize to me.”
She was not apologizing.
“You see, it’s important to start with your earliest recollections. Your first attachments. Then we can understand more clearly who you are now, and why you’ve chosen to forget certain things.”
The two older doctors used to ask questions. But it no longer seemed to bother them that her life was an empty page, or that she had no name. They had tacitly allowed her to embrace anonymity and to grow comfortable in its domain. But this one has different plans. He seems quite young for a doctor, no more than twenty-five or so. She could almost be his mother. The idea intrigues her, and she would like to consider it further, but he just goes on and on about this talking therapy of his. How it has been highly successful in Europe. How he has had some breakthroughs of his own back in Baltimore. He says that she will very likely remember everything. Everything? What a sweeping bit of arrogance! But perhaps it is forgivable in one so young and eager. She decides not to ask the obvious question: If people could remember everything, might that not be an unbearable burden? Velvet. That’s it. Both chairs are covered in forest green velvet.
A sudden breeze causes the sheer curtains behind him to billow, and a piece of paper sails off his desk to the floor. When he bends down to get it, a swath of sunlight reaches through the window toward her, illuminating a thousand tiny dust motes that are dancing in its path. She leans into it, fully expecting a warm, golden embrace. But the doctor sits up again and absorbs all the light. Men do that sometimes. They will take a thing for themselves and not bother waiting to see if it might be offered to them later. They don’t always understand that some things take time.
Now he is talking about couches. He seems especially keen on his, although she can’t for the life of her understand why. It’s only an old-fashioned parlor settee, and much too bulky for this small office. The shiny fabric is so fiercely distasteful to her she can barely stand to look at it. Mauve and gold brocade. Odd that she would remember brocade and not velvet. The high, curved back of the couch is trimmed in a narrow-grained wood. She asks him what it is, but he doesn’t know.
“You see,” he continues, as if her question meant nothing at all, as if it were an annoyance, even. “The founder of our science feels that when a patient, such as yourself, lies on the couch, and is unable to see her analyst, that is to say, me, she will feel more comfortable. She will be able to speak more freely about whatever might -- ”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Lie on your couch.”
“It is customary with this type of therapy.”
“We would really like you to consider it.”
“Well, I would.”
She shakes her head emphatically.
He says, “We can discuss this later. In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that the couch is here, in case we change our mind.”
In case we change our mind. How to describe his distant, formal way of speaking to her? It has a name. Think. Then, as if on command, a tumble of words cartwheels through her mind. Pompous. Ambiguous. Ubiquitous. Ridiculous. They play in her head like acrobats and clowns. She almost laughs. Where have they been hiding? She wants more.
He clears his throat. “And another thing. There will be a stenographer in the room taking notes in shorthand. Miss Kelly will be seated off to the side where you won’t see her. You should be able to forget all about her.”
“That seems rather rude. Besides, I think I would welcome the presence of another woman, even if she is only a silent scribbler.”
“That’s good. And it reminds that I want you to keep a record of your thoughts while undergoing analysis. It would be best to do so right after each session. Sometimes it can seem as if you are remembering things in a random fashion, rather than chronologically. It can be confusing. It might help to keep track of them in a notebook.”
He takes a school composition book from his desk drawer and offers it to her. She stares at its black and white speckled cover and the room suddenly fills with young girls. They are dressed all alike in pleated skirts and crisp middy blouses, with large ribbons in their hair. She smells chalk dust and feels the binding chains of teaching. Shaking these images off, she wills them to disappear before they evolve into something she might recognize and possibly regret.
“You want me to keep a diary?” she asks.
“I suppose you might call it that. And no is going to read it, unless you want them to. It would be completely private.”
She looks into his eager blue eyes. "This is a lunatic asylum. I have no expectations of privacy."
"I see. But I would like you to take the book anyway. And here are some pencils, but I would caution you to keep them in your room. We wouldn't want them to get into the wrong hands."
How could hands be wrong? She ponders this, seeking the hidden answer.
"Sharp objects," he explains. "You know. We wouldn't want anyone to get hurt."
Oh. It's not a riddle, after all. He's just talking about the safety of the other inmates.
"No, we certainly wouldn't want that," she answers. "In fact, we are probably very much opposed to that. However, we do accept your gift, and we shall be ever vigilant with our pencils. Thank you, Doctor Hyatt."
"You mock me. Well, a little humor is always a good thing. But, just so you know, my name is not Hyatt. It's Wyatt. Cal Wyatt. Short for James California Wyatt, if you can believe parents would do such a thing to an innocent baby."
He is smiling. He has very fine features. Delicate, really. Very blond hair and blue eyes. If she had a son, would he look like that?
"Doctor Wyatt it is. I will remember, and I will not make that mistake again. But the subject of names does bring up an interesting question. How do you plan on addressing me during these talking sessions?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I was wondering what name you doctors have for me."
"Well . . . at the moment, we refer to you as Jane Doe."
He looks at her intently. She has piqued his interest again.
"Is there something else you'd prefer?"
"Well, yes, actually. I would prefer Rachel."
"Is that your name?"
She looks past him, gazing out the window. "Do you think you could find something for me to read? Even a newspaper would suffice. Right now I only have the Bible that was in my room and, of course, my own Keats. I could do with some variety."
Just then a gray-haired matron appears in the doorway. "Time for this one to do her chores, Doctor."
"Can't you see we're busy? Come back later," he snaps.
"But Doctor Morgan likes them to stay on schedule," she replies in a thick Irish brogue.
"I'll talk to him. I'm sure it will be fine."
Rachel stands. "I should go."
"But you just told me your name. That's very significant."
"Perhaps. But it doesn't change the fact that I have chores to do."
At the Arizona Territorial Insane Asylum inmates were routinely assigned household tasks. Like children, they were led to believe their contribution was indispensable, when in truth, a large staff kept the place clean and running smoothly. Male inmates emptied waste baskets and helped with touch-up painting and minor repair jobs, while the women dusted, put clean linens away in the cupboards, and swept the carpets and floors.
The Irish matron sent Rachel off to the library, a misnamed room off the large front vestibule. This room had floor-to-ceiling windows on both the south and west walls, and thick burgundy drapes that were normally kept closed to block the sunlight. Built-in bookshelves housed a collection of Oriental vases and bowls on carved wooden stands, a menagerie of porcelain animals, mostly dogs and birds, and one exotic Chinese dragon with a fierce red mouth. But not one book.
Rachel noticed that a folded newspaper had been left on one of the chairs. Like books, newspapers were considered too stimulating for inmates, and she'd not seen one in a long time. She wondered if the new doctor knew about the rule. She peered out in the vestibule and closed the double doors. She pulled the drapes apart slightly and sat in a large wing chair beside the window, the forbidden paper on her lap. The very look of it thrilled her. Five columns, each with a bold headline, and one enormous banner line sweeping the top of the page. Words appeared in a vast array of sizes and type styles, including one that was slanted and delicate. What was the word for that? Italics? Yes. That's it. Italics. She smiled. The words were coming back, now, almost as soon as she asked for them.
The words seemed rather ordinary at first, but became increasingly more interesting and persuasive the further she read. One story was about a massive water reclamation project in the desert; another, about some high-spirited women lobbying the territorial legislature for the right to vote. But the strongest language, by far, was used to describe a rag-tag army of thugs across the border that seemed to be gaining status, as well as political ground. Words like revolution and anarchy appeared. Beneath the grainy photograph of a man with a bushy mustache and gap-toothed smile she read the name Pancho Villa. She repeated it several times.
She read the article about him slowly and rhythmically, as if it were a narrative poem. Only on this level did it truly satisfy her. As a mere story, too much was missing. Perhaps the writer did not have all the facts. Where was the human element? Who was this man? What drove him to violence? Might he be justified, even a little? The writer seemed eager to elicit fear from his readers, and that hardly seemed fair. Heavy footsteps outside caused her to leap up and begin dusting the table in front of the window.
"What'd you close the door for? You know that ain't allowed. C'mon. You should be done in here by now. Close them curtains and go dust the banister and rails of the Grand Staircase. And don't be taking all day about it, neither. I got better things to do than watch over the likes of you. And give me that newspaper. You ain't supposed to have that."
The woman pivoted her girth on small feet and proceeded down the west hall toward the dining room and kitchen. It was well-known that this particular matron spent most of her time snacking and gossiping with anyone who would sit down with her. And she had a mean temper. Once, in the dining room, Rachel saw a frail, elderly man toss his piece of bread at her and call her a fat Irish cow. The woman flew into a rage and snatched his plate of food from the table. When he tried to get it back she hit him in the face with it, screaming for help. Soon orderlies appeared with canvas restraints, which meant he was bound for the third floor, a place where inmates did not want to go.
The Grand Staircase, aptly named, was a massive structure, its wide steps covered with a green carpet runner decorated with tropical flowers of deep vermilion, gold and blue. A domed skylight shed light on the delicate brass trim on the stair rails, as well as the deep leafy shine of potted plants on the landings. The main landing was large enough for children to stage a production with a fair amount of princesses and Arabian sheiks.
At the top of the stairs a short hallway led directly to First Ward, the official name of the second-floor home where most of the inmates lived, herself included. People were free to go up and down the stairs all day long if they chose; but almost no one did, which Rachel found interesting. Instead, they came down in silent lines just for meals or to do their chores. To the casual observer on the first floor, it must seem that these people led an orderly existence, one that was quite pleasant and peaceful. It was only upstairs that they behaved like lunatics - moaning, fighting, picking at themselves, even relieving themselves on the floor. No one bothered much about the things an inmate did in private, but insanity, she discovered, was never appropriate on the first floor.
After dusting her way to the top landing, a smaller version of the main landing, Rachel sat down to remove her shoes. They were too small and pinched her toes. She knew they'd been worn by other women, as had her gray uniform, and this knowledge brought strange comfort to her, a sense of continuity. If others had come before, more will come after, and her own secrets took on less significance. She rolled her black cotton stockings into a ball and stuffed them into her shoes. Standing up, she reached her arms toward the skylight. She closed her eyes and the carpet suddenly became the lush floor of a jungle beneath her bare feet. Banister and railings transformed into a tangle of rainforest trees and vines. And the muted, muffled noises coming from First Ward were no longer the sounds of inmates complaining, but the brays of howler monkeys, the growls of yellow-eyed jaguars, and the hissing of snakes in trees. She heard water cascading into a clear blue lagoon and bird chatter in the canopy of tall trees. Curling her toes into the softness, she inhaled the faraway, damp smell of fertile earth.
"What on earth are you doing up there? Good heavens. Put your shoes and stockings back on before you lose them. Do you think they grow on trees? And what if one of the doctors saw you standing there with your arms up in the air. You go back to First Ward where you belong. Right now, do you hear me?"
Rachel peered over the railing at the black and white tiles of the vestibule floor. A narrow skirt whooshed around the corner, taking the strident voice with it.
Rachel is suddenly back in her own house, the one where she grew up. The stairs are not as grand as this, but her bedroom is elegant. With a big canopy bed. White lace on the top. And a window seat covered in pale blue silk. You can sit there for hours and watch the carriages drive by. Listen to the rhythm of high stepping horses on the cobblestone avenue. Here, her bed is so small. More like a cot. The faded gray blanket is scratchy. And the window is too high to see out of. But that's all right, there is nothing to look at. Except sky. And iron bars. What are those for? Do they think she can fly out the window? That's good. Think about flying. Think about the bars on the window. Think about anything else.
But it was too late. The harsh voice was here, humming and droning hive-like in her head. Bringing words of criticism like the barbs of a darting wasp.
Ungrateful girl. Difficult child. You are so peculiar, just like your mother.
In need of calming, Rachel went back to her dusting. Other inmates complained that it was a futile task in the desert, but she found it profoundly satisfying. She loved making small, circular motions with her cloth, tracing the whorled grains of the banister and rails. Circle. Circle. Making circles. Making circles join with other circles. Don't think about Grandmother Cook. Don't think about anything at all.
The clicking of boot heels below caused her to spin around and peer down to the floor. The vestibule was empty, but the front door was slightly ajar. She smelled cigar smoke, and a ferocious longing surged inside of her. It was a powerful need that commanded her full attention. It mattered. It mattered dearly.
She padded down the carpeted stairs and crossed the cool, chessboard tiles on bare feet. At the front door she looked out, squinting into the daylight. She could barely make out the figure of a man standing on the gravel driveway. Dressed in loose white trousers and shirt, he adjusted the wide brim of his straw hat. Then he disappeared. Just like that.
She sat cross-legged on her narrow bed. She had put her shoes back on because the pinching helped her to focus. Leaning close to the lined paper in the notebook, she wrote:
I told the new doctor my name. I'm not sure why, but I must confess to feeling lighter, as if a small burden has been lifted. Still, I must be more careful in the future. After all, what am I to him? Just some sort of project. Or perhaps a tricky riddle to be admired for its complexity. What can he possibly hope to gain from all this? What does he want? No doubt he desires what everyone does. To be understood. To be admired and esteemed. And, yes, to be loved. He is young enough to dare even that.
She read the words and then tore the paper from her book. She crumpled it into a tight ball and tossed it into the darkest corner of her room. It would remain there until Wednesday, the day inmates cleaned the second floor. Most of them, she had discovered, lived in dormitories of four to six people. She didn't know why she had this room to herself, and she didn't dare ask, lest it be a mistake. Privacy was as necessary as air and water, and to find it in a place like this was nothing short of a miracle. Her favorite nurse, Socorro Hernandez, told her the word for miracle in Spanish was milagro, which sounded a lot like magic. Miracle. Magic. Really, was there any difference between the two? And every Wednesday she cleaned this little room with the furious zeal of a dedicated housewife so that not even the fussiest matron could find anything to complain about.