By Leila Allison
Squirrel Pen Diary: First Entry
Last Wednesday morning I entered Our Lady Star of the Sea church during mid-week mass. While two dozen or so senior citizens went through the ancient, dusty rites (monotonously administered by an equally ancient and dusty priest), I rose unseen and snuck upstairs to a small balcony that communicates with the church’s attic. I climbed atop the guano splattered stone rail that hugs the balcony and balanced myself on one foot and held the other out as though I intended to take a seventy-foot step onto the marble walkway below. After I had done all that, there wasn’t much else to do except wait for someone to notice me.
“Probably not,” the young priest said when I asked him “Will God catch me?” The young priest had been in the rectory across the street. He was the first person to see me on the rail, and he ran upstairs so we could “talk things over.” If the old priest had somehow managed to huff his way upstairs without suffering a heart attack, just to recite the tiresome company policy against suicide in response to my question, there’s no doubt I would have taken that last big step–if only on general principle. But proof that there still was at least one honest human being left in the world gave me enough pause as to allow the young priest adequate time to snatch me off my perch.
When I was a girl, we had many clever names for The Northwestern State Mental Hospital: Lobotomy Lounge, Acorn Patch, Squirrel Pen–it’s all good. “Keep on fucking with it, Tess, and I’ll have the Wacky Wagon take you to the Squirrel Pen.” The staff encourages the “guests” to refer to the institution as “Northwestern,” as though it were a branch of the college of the same name. No matter what you call it, the institution is your basic 19th-century imposing pile of bricks, which had been consciously designed to convey the Awe and Majesty of the State. Naturally enough, Northwestern is supposedly haunted. I’d like to see a similar structure that isn’t supposedly haunted, but I guess that’s asking for too much. One thing’s for certain: if it wasn’t haunted before I arrived, it is now.
I’m currently at Northwestern for sixty days’ worth of “voluntary” observation. Although the potential criminal complaints against me (trespassing, disorderly conduct) are pretty mild, and although my previous adult criminal history is limited to a single speeding ticket in 1984, the Catholics, the law, my employer, and family thought it best that I spend quality time in the underfed bosom of the Washington State Mental Health Authority.
Here in the wildly overmedicated U.S.A., most taxpayers think that insanity is just a dodge concocted by lazy fuckers as to avoid richly deserved jail-time so they may lie around, use dope and watch HBO on the taxpayers’ dime. This kind of thinking has allowed me a private room here at Northwestern because nearly all the Americans who belong in mental institutions are either in prison or are muttering dark observations to themselves as they follow people just like you down the street.
Upon check in I informed the staff that I was a good sport, and would continue to be one as long as nobody I knew had contact with me for the duration of my stay. Other than the staff and the young priest who had snatched me off the rail, the only other visitors I would allow were God and my sister, Tess, who died last fall. I had to dictate my highly unlikely guest list because I am not allowed a pencil or anything else that I might be able to use to do myself in with. I do get an hour a day (supervised, of course) to work on a internet-free computer (as I am now). I spend most of the rest of my time not watching the basic-cable TV that you suckers pay for. (I am not yet allowed books because they too can be contrived into something that you can use to prematurely terminate your journey on Spaceship Earth. True story: in the 1930s a guest managed to beat himself to death with a Gideon Bible).
It’s funny how the perception of one person’s personality can be hugely altered by one action. For fifty-nine years, three months, and fifteen days I was “Sara Sane.” For all my adult life I was the steady star at the center of my own little solar system. I was orbited by my sister (who’s still dead), mother (ditto), husband (ex), two step children whom I helped raise (“Hell”-en and Ann “oying”) and an Oort Cloud composed of needy friends and colleagues, who, for unknown reasons, always came to me to vent about everyfuckinglittlethingimaginable. I was the kind of star that other people shit on with impunity. But that had all been a lie; a contrivance contrary to the real me. Truth be told, I am one sun who cannot change her spots.
There’s one entity not mentioned in the yeas and nays of my guest list, because she’s always around no matter how I feel about it. And as we used to say on the Home Block when I was a girl, “I don’t give a flying fuck at a rolling donut” whether you believe it or not: but a demon has entered my life. Her name is Lydia.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Second Entry
It is in keeping with my preposterous existence that the young priest who had fetched me off the rail has a porn star-esque name: Father Rodney Hardin. Although it’s not quite as blunt as, say, “Peter Everhard,” his name has the same effect on my mind. Sara Sane would have discreetly set that connection aside in her mind to ponder later, but Sara of the Squirrel Pen keeps it close and on the ready.
Father Hardin is remarkably well educated for someone who has been assigned to the Charleston faithful. He holds degrees in theology and psychology. The Father is all of twenty-five, as thin as a blade of witchgrass, and looks a little like both Lyle Lovett and Eraserhead. Just about every conversation we have begins with him speaking the same three words, which preface similar topics of conversation.
“Tell me about Lydia, Sara,” Father Hardin asked. We were alone in the common room, but I knew that we were being watched, just in case I did something especially squirrelly.
A coy little sadness formed at the edge of my thoughts and flirted with my desire to no longer be alive (which isn’t the same thing as being suicidal). The sadness knows that I want the impossible: Awareness while safe inside death’s sweet oblivion. This must run in my family. Tess had been a opiate addict from her mid-teens until her death a few months ago. She had found her own sweet oblivion in a forty-year opiate addiction; in a secret garden of the soul that was always bathed in “dreampurple light.”
“Lydia’s from a long time ago,” I said. “She was a Jehovah’s Witness girl who attended my school until the sixth grade. Then she and her whole family died in a house fire during her final summer vacation. Something electrical had gone wrong. Most everybody hated Lydia because she was different. You know how the blessed little children act when nobody is watching them, don’t you, Father?”
Father Hardin just nodded in a “if you say so” sort of way and said, “Did you hate her?”
I thought about it. “No, not really. I remember feeling that she was probably the loneliest kid on earth. But I never gave her much hell or thought, until she came to the Home Block one day, maybe a week before she got killed. Then I hated her plenty. But, really, at school she was so damned quiet, almost not there.” Although I hadn’t smoked since I was fourteen, I found myself wanting a cigarette.
“Most of the other kids ragged on Lydia for her old fashioned way of dressing,” I continued. “Oh, and for those stupid kitty cat glasses she wore–The chick looked like one of those brainwashed Jepps’ wives, you know? The teachers never helped her out, either. I think they hated her too. You see, this was back in the 60s; we used to pray right there in a public school and call your boss by name while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Back then, whenever it was somebody’s birthday or St. Valentine’s Day or whatever, we’d have a little party at the end of class–Za rex, cupcakes, stuff like that. As I’m certain you already know, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take part in celebrations. And every damn time a party was about to begin, a teacher like old Mrs. West would make a big show of saying ‘We shall excuse Lydia so she may go study quietly in the library’ in front of everyone–Apparently to embarrass her, I guess. I can still hear the hushed scorn in the old bag’s voice and the awkward silence that suddenly broke after Lydia left the classroom. Still, I have to give that girl credit, way the hell past due, she never once cried or reacted in any way to the bullshit.”
“What happened between you and Lydia on the ‘Home Block’?”
I didn’t respond. I just sat there wishing I was a fourteen-year-old smoker.
“All right,” I whispered, “but I don’t see how it will help.”
“You never know,” Father Hardin said with a smile so thin that it wouldn’t have been visible if I had caught it head on.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “Sometimes you do know.”
Squirrel Pen Diary: Third Entry
It’s been three days since I wrote the previous stuff. My computer time had expired when I had wrote “Sometimes you do know,” and I had fully expected to pick up the narrative the next day.
Unfortunately I had what the staff called a “little setback,” that evening. Lydia came to see me in the guise of one of the head doctors. The instant I realized who it was, I blacked out of the current reality and awoke in the past.
According to Father Hardin, the shell I had vacated launched herself across the table at the doctor, screaming gibberish and had fiery murder in her eyes. Fortunately, I guess, the doctor had entered my room accompanied by an aide who looked like a cross between Divine and an NFL linebacker. The burly aide caught me and planted my crazy-ass face first on the table. This prevented an assault charge; but my fuckery had been so intense that the staff had no choice to sedate me. I wouldn’t stop trying to kill people, which, I don’t mind telling you, doesn’t look so good on your chart. When I returned to my body I discovered that I had earned a 72-hour “time out,” upheld by the team of Thorazine and Versed.
I will tell you once (if there is a you reading this) what I had essentially told Father Hardin twice. The first tale I told him (after I had said “Sometimes you do know”) was highly distorted by the clouds that lie between the present and distant memory, and had been the subject of unconscious editing and bald-faced lying. The second version (told three days later after the veil drawn by the drugs had lifted) I had told him about the day Lydia came to the Home Block was a report of the unadulterated truth. By whatever power, and for whatever reason, Lydia had sent me back to 1971.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Fourth Entry
Tess and I grew up under the exasperated guidance of our mother on Corson Street at Charleston, Washington, in a specific area we kids called the Home Block, and what the good people in Charleston considered skid row. It was the sort of area you either escaped from or died at. Our father had been the victim of a fatal workplace accident when I was two and Tess an infant, so it was always “just the three of us”–which wasn’t always (or even half the time) a good thing. Tess was what you might call “dreamy” and laid back, she got along with everybody, and was able to coast long on charm alone. Mom and I had similar prickly, quick-tempered personalities; and for whatever reason, Mom and I saw only the bad things in ourselves in each other. I cared about Mom, but I didn’t like her very much. I have no doubt that she felt the same way about me.
The Home Block is really a misnomer because nearly everything we did took place in the alley that bisected the block that lay between Corson Street and Wycoff Avenue. Corson was neither residential nor respectable, it remains neither of those things to this day. Although they still exist in the physical sense, my conception of Corson Street and the Home Block Alley have never achieved the escape velocity necessary to break the gravitational bond of memory; I always view the area through the eyes of the child I had been, and never as I am now. Even though we officially resided on Wycoff, the avenue itself never meant anything to anybody, even the mail came through the alley.
We lived in the basement floor of a sagging old former hotel that had been built around the same time Northwestern had gone up. Corson lay at the foot of Torqwamni Hill, which leapt into the sky almost immediately. This caused the Wycoff side of the alley to be ten feet higher than the Corson half. There, a raised row of mostly blackberry- and Scotch broom-choked lots stood behind a procession of interesting businesses, such as Elmo’s Adult Books and The White Pig Tavern (both of which are still going to this very day). Our place was directly behind Elmo’s, and at early ages both Tess and I could tell the real scum from the young guys who had never seen a naked girl before.
“Don’t pick that up, dingbat,” I told Tess one summer day when we’d found a jack-rag tastefully titled Horny Orgies lying on the ground behind Elmo’s. Surprise! Horny Orgies wasn’t one of those upscale jack-rags. It didn’t feature artistic photos of cornfed college pretties playfully showing some of this but not much of that. Oh, no, it was all about the that, and all the nasty things that the sight of the female orifice summon from the deepest hell in the male mind.
“We can use it as trade,” Tess, who was all of nine, said as she picked Horny Orgies up by the corner as though it were a dead rat and placed it in her burlap “treasure” sack, which had mostly been used for the collection of returnable beer and soda bottles (two cents for the small, a nickel for the quart–if you could find any that weren’t cracked).
Tess was right. Call me a man hater, but even at twelve I knew that the boys at Charleston Elementary were little more than perverts in waiting, thus eager pornography customers.
Horny Orgies hadn’t been the first atrocity we had found lying behind Elmo’s. And it always seemed that I’d tell Tess not to pick whatever we found lying there up (mainly because I’d thought it was the sort of thing a big sister should say), to which she’d appeal to my business sense, and I’d relent. Dirty pictures often brought actual folding money at school. Moreover, and trust me, I’m not bragging, I was a very tough kid, and not “for a girl,” either. I only make mention of this because at the end of every dirty picture transaction I always said the same thing to the “client”: “If you get caught and tell on us, I’ll kill you.”
After we had decided on a good hiding hole to keep Horny Orgies on ice until the fall term began, Tess gave me the elbow and said, “There’s that weird kid from school.”
Before “Which one?’ popped out of my mouth, I saw her too. It was Lydia. she was dressed as though school was still in session. And those stupid kitty cat glasses gleamed in the sun. She was a little way up the alley from us, and I saw that she was carrying a stack of pamphlets. Like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses usually go from door to door in pairs; but even in her religion, Lydia walked alone. If Lydia had seen us she gave no indication as she went up one of the few stone staircases that didn’t lead to vacant lot. We watched her knock on the door of the small house up there and wait for a reply.
“Ain’t nobody there no more,” Tess called out.
“‘Ain’t no one there anymore,’ Tess,” I said, all scholarly-like.
“She’s right,” I said to Lydia, “the cops tossed them last week.”
I have always found it weird when I meet someone whom I have seen plenty, yet at just one place, like school or work, out in the wild. Ever since I was six, Lydia had only existed from September till June at school. Yet there she was in the middle of July, as big as life there on the Home Block, as out of place as a turtle out of its shell.
I had never seen her smile before, either. Yet a crooked, superior grin creased her lips as she descended the stairs and walked slowly toward us. She was a tall, razor-thin, hatchet-faced girl. Even though she was just twelve like me (an age she’d forever be), her “Lydia uniform” and silent demeanor gave her the frumpiness of a spinster. But there wasn’t anything frumpy about that smile. I swear there was evil in it, as well as payback gleaming behind her glasses.
The three of us stood there for a moment. Then Tess laughed and said, “Dumbo’s watchin us.”
“Dumbo” was Mr. Soames. He lived two floors above us. We’d often see his fat ass standing at his window. He was in the habit of asking small children “You wanna see the elephant?” then expose his genitals. No one who could have done something about him ever did so.
Silently, Lydia consulted her stack of pamphlets and gave one to Tess, and from a dress pocket she pulled a single, folded slip of blue paper and handed it to me. Then in her seldom heard whispery voice she said, “No charge. For keeps.”
Tess did that thing with her bottom lip that she always did until her death at fifty-six from a substance that at the time still lay some years ahead in her future. She looked at the tract, it said: WISDOM FROM THE WATCHTOWER. She nodded at her treasure sack and said, “We got somethin to look at in here, too, but it’ll cost ya.”
“Tess,” I said without the usual force because the paper Lydia had given me had absorbed my attention. Only one thing printed on it, an unattributed quotation: “All I love dies alone.”
Next “Surprize!”: I didn’t like that paper much. It has never taken me long to heat up, and when I was a girl I was almost always angry to begin with. Although I got mad at her plenty, Tess was only person in the world who had any influence over me when I exploded. I already knew that it was going to take all of Tess’s diplomatic skills to prevent Lydia from getting her ass kicked that day. That smile, that goddam better than you smile. Who did she think she was coming down to the Home Block and tell me how to live in front of my sister and that sick fucker in the upstairs window?
I always chewed bubble gum back then. I recall blowing a huge bubble and popping it with a loud smack as I suddenly reached forward and held the slip of paper about an inch from Lydia’s kitty cat glasses. “What’s this shit mean?”
Lydia did not help herself by holding that smug smile while slowly and sarcastically pronouncing the words on the paper.
Tess never made the right choices for herself in life, even though she always knew what the correct answers were. It was as though she would deliberately torpedo her opportunities at the very last possible moment prior to guaranteed success. She was both the brightest and most self destructive person I have ever known. And I suppose being that it’s this late in the game, I ought to confess that she is the only person I have ever loved. Yet despite our lifetime of closeness there were areas in her personality that remained as obscure to me as the mind of God–even after her disease had become a tyrannical black hole from which nothing good ever escaped. As children, the two and a half year age difference had put me in charge; yet whenever my prideful, hideous temper caught fire and seemed destined to land me in the “Juvie,” Tess had the presence of mind to take over and was somehow able to predict my actions even though I didn’t know what I was going to do myself. I guess she knew the cock of my head and the snarl of my lip to catch the drift of things to come well enough, but I never knew how she managed to know the precise second in which to take action. Midway through the instant I had decided that it was time to kill Lydia, Tess stepped on the top of my right foot just as I made my lunge, guided me as I fell forward onto the ground, and placed me in a “chinlock” she had learned from “Irish” Paddy Ryan while watching Superstar Wrasslin’. Although I had at least twenty pounds and six inches on Tess, and must have been as hard to hold down as the thrashing halibut that my ex had stupidly brought onboard our small boat once without first killing it, her action had prevented Lydia from soon getting burned to death with a broken nose.
“Run kid!” Tess yelled. “Can’t hold her long!”
I was willing myself up onto my hands and knees and I think I heard that asswipe Dumbo knocking on his window.
“Off me, Tess! Goddammit, lemme go.”
Lydia did run, eventually. But not before the unspoken anger concealed in her smile met her words. Looking back, if it had been any other of her classmates she had seen in the alley her attitude would have been the same. Ostracized for six years by both the children and the school, I imagine she had a great deal of hatred built up, all due to her family’s choice of religion. I guess it just happened to be my lucky day.
“This is the thanks I get for spreading the word to white trash,” Lydia said as I struggled to my feet. Goddam Tess remained on me piggy-back style, her hands still locked on my chin. “All you at school treat me like dirt, but not a one of you lives any better than a nigger.”
Dumbo began knocking on his window again. This infuriated me even more, for I could imagine the bastard up there with his gross dong hanging out and laughing at me. I screamed and peeled Tess of of my back, she dropped to the ground and tried to wrap her arms around my ankles, but, for once, I knew that one was coming. I broke her attempted tackle and lit out after Lydia.
Lydia had a good head start and she flung the pamphlets back at me and began to laugh as though she were having the time of her life. “Be sure to read them, if you know how. We print them for the less fortunate, like you. I feel oh so sorry for you-hoo.” Nothing anyone had ever said to me before or since has wounded my pride as had that.
On top of everything, Jesus Christ, that girl could run. Her long legs effortlessly carried her out of the alley and to what apparently was her family car, which had been parked where the alley and Corson met Farragut Avenue, without me gaining an inch on her. The sight of her parents in the front (along with various male and female versions of Lydia in the back seat) seat told me that this day was hers. I had rightfully expected her dad to come out of the car and inquire into the fuss, but he simply drove away.
There had always been odd pockets of cold clarity within my childhood rages. Although I blew up mindlessly and often, I would just as suddenly sail into a calm place and examine what had just transpired and would make plans to fix anything that had gone wrong, later. And as I watched Lydia’s car disappear from view, I marked her for a measure of extreme payback, come September. What I would do to even up that “I feel oh so sorry for you-hoo,” would most likely get me suspended or even expelled, but it would be worth the price. Of course, that never happened. That September and almost fifty more have passed since Lydia was on this side of the grave.
Tess finally caught up with me. I whipped around to face her. I guess any other big sister would have gone to town on her as to blow off the pent up violence, and for her role in Lydia’s escape. But I never did that sort of thing to Tess, even though she would sometimes press my buttons for no discernable reason other than the pure hell of it.
I squinted at her, cocked my head, faked a punch. She smiled and offered me a few pieces of Bazooka Joe she had in her treasure sack because I had lost my chaw somewhere along the alley.
“You think Dumbo will tell Mom?” she asked.
“Who cares? Maybe he’ll show her the elephant.”
When Tess again did that thing with her bottom lip, I felt myself plunge through the years and awaken in the now experiencing a sadness so profound and hopeless that it was unto itself beautiful.
As I lay in a restrained stupor, those words, “All I love dies alone,” echoed throughout my mind. For three days I dreamt uneasy dreams: I dreamt of the Forty Year War Tess (and in an even much more profound sense, that I ) had fought with heroin, methadone, morphine, and the Legion of guises under which that devil goes by. It had been a Forty Year War that had an inevitable outcome.
I dreamt of the useless stints in rehab, the 2 A.M. phone calls, and the lies. And I dreamt of her uncanny knack of ruining my mood when all was well, by coming to me and affecting an abused, hard version of that thing she used to do with the bottom of her lip. And I dreamt of the money I threw at her bullshit, even though I knew that it wouldn’t be going toward the power bill. Upon handing it over I would console myself that it was better that Tess would get the cash from me instead of turning a trick behind the White Pig, in the alley in which she used to prowl for items to fill her treasure sack. But in reality I had done it for myself. I needed her to go away. The Forty Year War had contained hundreds of similar crimes.
And I dreamt of the thousands of “Yeah, yeah, honey, just let me get well and I’ll go back to Echo Glen with you tomorrow morning. It’s just that it hurts so bad today.” Then she’d either sneak out of my house before I got up or no show the next day, and I’d have to take off work and go look for her. And well into those times a horrible, self incriminating thought would come to my mind: “Maybe she’s dead this time.” And I’d either find her or she’d turn up on her own just when the battle smoke had cleared enough and allowed me a glimpse of a satisfactory future without Tess being in it. Then she’d start to cry and wrap herself around me and still trade on the early won, thus eternal love I had for her. And I dreamt of the guilt I felt for wishing her dead..
It’s an old story, known to millions of similar codependent refugees. On the day the Forty Year War ended, Tess had been assigned to the county rehab facility for yet another shoplifting conviction. She had earned a half-day furlough and I was going to take her to lunch that day. I remember feeling nothing at all when the call came. Somehow she had gotten hold of a dose of smack too strong for her decimated system. She had passed out and never woke up. The Forty Year War had died in its sleep.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Final Entry
Sometimes somethings can never be made all right again. You have to let them go, for they belong only to the past, and they gasp and wither and die and their remains become toxic in the alien atmosphere of the now. Just like the acceptance of the fact life isn’t fair is a necessary component in growing up, knowing when to let go of what you love most does not mean that you love it less, but perhaps, it may allow you to love it more wisely.
The birthing of demons is a nothing trick to the infinite mind–that unfettered god-maker capable of lighting, smoking, and crushing out the universe as though it were a cigarette. Yet it was the demon Lydia, the same one who had caused me to climb to a church attic and enter the dismal shadowland lying at the end of the universe, and the same one who had placed me in the Arcon Patch (nearly for keeps), who had shone the light of purifying truth on the blackest of all my self told lies.
As I prepared for my release from the underfed bosom of the Washington State Mental Health Authority, this morning, I had cleverly thought it would be unworthy of me and disrespectful to Tess and, yes, even Lydia (whom nobody has probably thought of in years), to blithely speak of the simplicity of the cure that had found me. Yet, as Father Hardin had finally stopped saying, I somehow whipped together my remorse of not being able to save Tess with an essentially unrelated ugly memory, an out of context quotation of some sort, and invented a third thing.
All I love dies alone.
Still, there remains one final question Father Hardin cannot provide a simple answer for:
Do Angels and Demons have lives, thoughts and Free Wills of their own, even though they may only make contact under conditions that make their existences unprovable?
He said he will only work on the answer to that if sees me at church, but not up on the balcony.
I may just do that. But right now as I write this in the computer room, awaiting my discharge/exit interview, and wondering if that is such a good idea. You see, in my room a piece of blue paper, quite yellowed with great age appeared on the nightstand as I slept. I haven’t dared touch it; for it reminds me too clearly of the slip that Lydia had given me in the alley. Although it may seem ridiculous, I know that it’s lying face down. Right now I’m going to send for Father Hardin. And I’m afraid. So very afraid.
The last part, Lydia appears in Father Hardin to apologize.