Earthquake Weather – Snippet 11
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” said Cochran defensively. “This was nearly five years ago, and I don’t really remember, but I think I was trying to cut off my right hand.”
“Oh, is that all.”
Armentrout put down his file and got up and crossed to a filing cabinet against the far wall. He pulled open the top drawer and came back to the desk carrying a spiral notebook and two fancy purple velvet boxes. He sat down again and put the boxes down by his telephone, well out of Cochran’s reach, and then flipped open the notebook.
“You were married on the sixth of April,” he said.
“Ri-ight,” said Cochran, mystified.
“That’s very interesting! A week later a lot of people went crazy there. Well, at Hoover Dam, which is nearby. Most of them recovered their senses by the next day, though two gentlemen fell to their deaths off the after-bay face of the dam.” He sat back and smiled at Cochran.
“We’ve got a woman on the ward here who also had a nervous breakdown in Las Vegas in April of 1990–on the fifteenth, Easter Sunday.”
“Uh . . . did she also go crazy in L.A.?”
“Yes! Or nearly. In Leucadia, which is . . . well, it’s almost to San Diego. But she called the police nine days ago and told them that she’d killed a man. She said he was a king, and that she killed him with a speargun spear. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Shit, no,” snapped Cochran impatiently. He shook his head. “Sorry–I thought you’d be showing me Rorschach ink-blots here, or having me interpret proverbs, like they did at Metropolitan in Norwalk. No, I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Have you ever seen anything that seemed to be supernatural?”
“Well, I saw a man turn into a bull, on Vignes Street, day before yesterday.”
Armentrout stared at him for several seconds with no expression. “You’re getting hostile.”
“No, I’m sorry, I–”
“You were being cooperative a few moments ago. You may be too labile right now to participate usefully in group.”
“Too what?” Cochran wondered if he meant lippy.
“The charge nurse showed you your room? Where the cafeteria is, where you shower?”
“That was your roommate, the one-armed man I couldn’t roust out of the conference room. John Beach–we all call him Long John. It’s almost certainly not his real name; I think he chose it just because he was found in Long Beach, get it? He’s been with us since November of ’92.”
Cochran felt empty, and hoped the one-armed old man didn’t recite from Alice in Wonderland all the time, at all hours.
“He’ll be in group. So will Janis Plumtree–she’s the one who had the breakdown in Vegas in ’90, and who believes she killed a king nine days ago. You may as well participate. I’ll ask you to leave if you start acting out or getting too gamy.”
Gamy? thought Cochran, involuntarily picturing tusked and antlered animal heads on the stone floor of an old smokehouse.
Armentrout led him back up the hallway to the TV lounge, but Cochran hung back in the entry when the doctor strode out across the shiny waxed floor and lowered himself into one of the upholstered chairs around the conference table near the window. Four men and two women were already seated around the table, visible only in silhouette from the hall entry–Cochran thought it must almost be time for the lights to come on, or curtains to be pulled, for the evening sun was throwing horizontal poles of orange light into the room through the shrubbery that waved outside the reinforced glass.
“My civil rights are being violated,” a young woman at the table was saying harshly. “I haven’t signed anything, and I’m being held here against my will. What’s nine days’ impound fees on a car in the San Diego County municipal lot? I bet it’s more than my car’s worth, it’s just an ’85 Toyota Celery, but I need it for my job, and I’m holding you people, you soy dissant doctors, responsible.”
“It was a Toyota Cressida, Janis,” said Armentrout, and the backlit blob of his head turned either toward Cochran or toward the window. “Unless you’re thinking of some other vehicle. Perhaps a bus?”
“Fuck you, Doctor,” the woman went on, “you’re not scaring me away. It was legally parked, and–”
“Janis!” interrupted another man sharply. “Personal attacks are not permitted, that’s non-negotiable. If you want to stay, be good.” He raised his head. “Are you here for the self-esteem group?”
Cochran understood that he was being addressed, and he shuffled forward uncertainly.
“Come in and sit down, Sid,” said Armentrout. To the group he said, “This is a new patient, Sid Cochran.”
Cochran broadened his stride, squinting as he walked through the brassy sunbeams to the nearest empty chair, which was at the end of the table, next to the angry young woman, with the windows to his right and slightly behind him.
“Hi, Sid,” said the man who had rebuked the angry woman; he was wearing a white coat like Armentrout’s, and seemed to be another doctor. “How are you?”
Cochran stared into the man’s youthful, smiling face. “I’m fine,” he said levelly.
“Ho ho!” put in Armentrout.
“Well, my name is Phil Muir,” the younger man went on, “and we’re here this evening to address problems of self-esteem. I was just saying that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else–”
The young woman interrupted: “And I was just saying, ‘Fuck you, Doctor’.” She pointed at Armentrout. “To him. ‘Ho . . . ho.’ You big fat fag.”
Cochran looked at her in alarm–then found himself suppressing a grin. Under the disordered thatch of blond hair her sunburned face had a character he could only think of as gamin, with a pointed chin and wide mouth and high cheekbones, and the humor lines under her eyes and down her cheek made her outburst seem childishly valiant, just tomboy bravura.
Hoping to prevent her from being ejected from the group, he laughed indulgently, as if at an off-color joke. But when she whipped her head around toward him, he quailed. Her pupils were tiny black pinpricks and too much white was showing around her irises, and the skin was tight and mottled on her cheeks–
Abruptly, an old man who a moment ago had seemed to be asleep hunched forward and hammered a frail fist onto the table. “The . . . rapist!” he roared as the pieces of a forgotten dominoes game spun across the tabletop. “That’s what it spells! Don’t pronounce it therapist! You’ve raped me with your needles!” He twisted in his chair and suddenly smacked both of his palms around Muir’s throat.
Muir was able to struggle to his feet with the old man’s weight on him, but he wasn’t succeeding in prying the hands free of his throat, and tendons were standing up like taut cables under his straining chin.
“Staff!” roared Armentrout, shoving back his chair and thrashing to his feet. “Code Green! Help, get a chemical here!”
The nursing-station door banged open and two nurses came sprinting out, and with the help of a couple of the patients who had leaped up from the table they pulled the old man off Muir and wrestled him face down to the floor.
“I’ll be snap-crackling pork chops with Jesus!” the old man panted, his cheek against the linoleum tiles. “You sons of bitches! Bunch of Heckle and Jeckles!”
Armentrout was standing beside the table. “Thorazine,” he told the charge nurse, “two hundred milligrams I.M., stat. Put him in four points in the QR till I tell you different.” Two uniformed security guards hurried in from the outer hallway; after taking in the scene, they slung their nightsticks and knelt on the old man so that the patients could return to their seats. The overhead fluorescent lights had come on at some point during the commotion, and as the doctors and patients sat down again the group seemed to be only now convening.
Cochran felt a touch on his shirt cuff, and he jumped when he realized that it was the woman Janis; but when he looked at her, she was smiling. She couldn’t, he thought, be as much as thirty years old.
“With his hands and feet tied down,” she said, “at the four points of a mattress, in the Quiet Room, he’ll be back to himself in no time.”
Cochran smiled back at her, touched that she had worded her remark so that he would understand the psychiatrist’s jargon without having to admit ignorance; though in fact he himself had spent time in four points in a QR back in 1990.
“Ah,” he said noncommittally. “I hope so.”