Tuesday, July 7, 2009

At McLean

Don’t make eye contact, they said.
So when one of them passes me in the hall
I’m supposed to look away, lower my eyes,
pretend I don’t see them.

There are locks on the door of the nurse’s station.
All day long I'm locked behind a glass window,
typing, filing ... watching.
In the hallways, glaring down from wooden frames,
jarring paintings of chaotic brushstrokes
slashed across the canvas
as if zapped there by electric bolts.
It bothers them, I can tell.
Art they can’t look at, art that shrieks at them
from the walls,
messing with their minds.

They go outside for a smoke break
You’re allowed to join them.
Just don’t make eye contact.

I was never afraid working there.
Bored ... but never afraid.
A clerical temp assignment,
one month, one summer,
working in that grey building
surrounded by the severely mentally disturbed.
I loved the rolling green hills,
the graceful trees, the expansive lawn
where you could walk barefoot at lunchtime
and sink into the utter quiet,
penetrated only by the whispering wind
or gentle song of a bird.

One night one of them died.
She'd complained of not being able to breathe.
The next morning in the nursing station closet,
a paper bag containing
all her earthly possessions:
Some pink bedroom slippers,
slacks, a shirt and some underwear,
a stuffed animal,
her bathrobe.

I remembered her.
The day before, we had talked briefly as
she smoked her cigarette,
and spoke of life “outside”.
I broke the rules.
I made eye contact.
How can you sit together and talk with someone
and not
make eye contact.

I forget her name
but not her face.
I still see her face sometimes,
and that paper bag in the closet,
waiting to be
disposed of.

--Annie Wyndham


*photo by awyn

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