Stories by the best artists are many times inspirational to those of us who strive to be one of them. Here is a selection of a story that will help lead the aspiring writer in the proper direction.
By Amy Bloom
My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see. That before her constant tinkling of commercials and fast-food jingles there had been Puccini and Mozart and hymns so sweet and mighty you expected Jesus to come down off his cross and clap. That before there was a mountain of Thorazined fat, swaying down the halls in nylon maternity tops and sweatpants, there had been the prettiest girl in Arrandale Elementary School, the belle of Landmark Junior High. Maybe there were other pretty girls, but I didn’t see them. To me, Rose, my beautiful blond defender, my guide to Tampax and my mother’s moods, was perfect.
She had her first psychotic break when she was fifteen. She had been coming home moody and tearful, then quietly beaming, then she stopped coming home. She would go out into the woods behind our house and not come in until my mother went after her at dusk, and stepped gently into the briars and saplings and pulled her out, blank-faced, her pale blue sweater covered with crumbled leaves, her white jeans smeared with dirt. After three weeks of this, my mother who is a musician and widely regarded as eccentric, said to my father, who is psychiatrist and a kind, sad man, “She’s going off.”
“What is that, your professional opinion?” He picked up the newspaper and put it down again, sighing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know something’s bothering her. Have you talked to her?”
“What’s there to say? David, she’s going crazy. She doesn’t need a heart-to-heart talk with Mom, she needs a hospital.”
They went back and forth, and my father sat down with Rose for a few hours, and she sat there licking the hairs on her forearm, first one way, then the other. My mother stood in the hallway, dry-eyed and pale, watching the two of them. She had already packed, and when three of my father’s friends dropped by to offer free consultations and recommendations, my mother and Rose’s suitcase were already in the car. My mother hugged me and told me that they would be back that night, but not with Rose, She also said, divining my worst fear, “It won’t happen to you, honey. Some people go crazy and some people never do.
You never will.” She smiled and stroked my hair. “Not even when you want to.”
Rose was in hospitals, great and small, for the next ten years. She had lots of terrible therapists and a few good ones. One place had no pictures on the walls, no windows, and the patients all wore slippers with the hospital crest on them. My mother didn’t even bother to go to Admissions. She turned Rose around and the two of them marched out, my father walking behind them, apologizing to his colleagues. My mother ignored the psychiatrists, the social workers, and the nurses, and played Handel and Bessie Smith for the patients on whatever was available. At some places, she had a Steinway donated by a grateful, or optimistic, family; at others, she banged out “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” on an old, scarred box that hadn’t been tuned since there’d been English-speaking physicians on the grounds. My father talked in serious, appreciative tones to the administrators and unit chiefs and tried to be friendly with whoever was managing Rose’s case. We all hated the family therapists.
The worst family therapist we ever had sat in a pale green room with us, visibly taking stock of my mother’s ethereal beauty and her faded blue t-shirt and girl-sized jeans, my father’s rumpled suit and stained tie, and my own unreadable seventeen-year-old fashion statement. Rose was beyond fashion that year, in one of her dancing teddybear smocks and extra-extra-large Celtics sweatpants. Mr. Walker read Rose’s file in front of us and then watched in alarm as Rose began crooning, beautifully, and slowly massaging her breasts. My mother and I laughed, and even my father started to smile. This was Rose’s usual opening salvo for new therapists.
Mr. Walker said, “I wonder why it is that everyone is so entertained by Rose behaving inappropriately.”
Rose burped, and then we all laughed. This was the seventh family therapist we bad seen, and none of them had lasted very long. Mr. Walker, unfortunately, was determined to do right by us.
“What do you think of Rose’s behavior, Violet?” They do this sometimes. In their manual it must say, if you think the parents are too weird, try talking to the sister.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s trying to get you to stop talking about her in the third person.”
“Nicely put,” my mother said, “Indeed,” my father said, “Fuckin’ A,” Rose said.
“Well, this is something that the whole family agrees upon,” Mr. Walker said, trying to act as if he understood or even liked us.
“That was not a successful intervention, Ferret Face.” Rose tended to function better when she was angry. He did look like a blond ferret, and we all laughed again. Even my father, who tried to give these people a chance, out of some sense of collegiality had given it up.
After fourteen minutes, Mr. Walker decided that our time I was up and walked out, leaving us grinning at each other. Rose was still nuts, but at least we’d all had a little fun.
The day we met our best family therapist started out almost as badly. We scared off a resident and then scared off her supervisor, who sent us Dr. Thorne. Three hundred pounds of Texas chili, cornbread, and Lone Star beer, finished off with big black cowboy boots and a small string tie around the area of his neck.
“O frabjous day, it’s Big Nut.” Rose was in heaven and stopped massaging her breasts immediately.
“Hey, Little Nut.” You have to understand how big a man would have to be to call my sister “little.” He christened us all, right away. “And it’s the good Doctor Nut, and Madame Hickory Nut, ‘cause they are the hardest damn nuts to crack, over here in the overalls and not much else is No One’s Nut”—-a name that summed up both my sanity and my loneliness. We all relaxed.
Dr. Thorne was good for us, Rose moved into a halfway house whose director loved Big Nut so much that she kept Rose even when Rose went through a period of having sex with everyone who passed her door. She was in a fever for a while, trying to still the voices by fucking her brains out.
Big Nut said, “Darlin’, I can’t. I cannot make love to every beautiful woman I meet, and furthermore, I can’t do that and be your therapist too, It’s a great shame, but I think you might he able to find a really nice guy, someone who treats you just as sweet and kind as I would if I were lucky enough to be your beau, I don’t want you to settle for less,” And she stopped propositioning the crack addicts and the alcoholics and the guys at the shelter. We loved Dr. Thorne.
My father went back to seeing rich neurotics and helped out one day a week at Dr. Thorne’s Walk-In Clinic. My mother finished a recording of Mozart concerti and played at fund-raisers for Rose’s halfway house. I went back to college and found a wonderful linebacker from Texas to sleep with. In the dark, I would make him call me “darlin’.” Rose took her meds, lost about fifty pounds, and began singing at the A.M.E. Zion Church, down the street from the halfway house.
At first they didn’t know what do to with this big blond lady, dressed funny and hovering wistfully in the doorway during their rehearsals, but she gave them a few bars of “Precious Lord” and the choir director felt God’s hand and saw then with the help of His sweet child Rose, the Prospect Street Choir was going all the way to the Gospel Olympics.
Amidst a sea of beige, umber, cinnamon, and espresso faces, there was Rose, bigger, blonder, and pinker than any white women could be. And Rose and the choir’s contralto, Addie Robicheaux, laid out their gold and silver voices and wove them together in strands as fine as silk, as strong as steel. And we wept as Rose and Addie, in their billowing garnet robes, swayed together clasping hands until the last perfect note floated up to God, and then they smiled down at us.
Rose would still go off from time to time and the voices would tell her to do bad things, but Dr. Thorne or Addle ot my mother could usually bring her back. After five good years, Big Nut died, Stuffing his face with a chili dog, sitting in his unair-conditioned office in the middle of July, he had one big, Texas-sized aneurysm and died.
Rose held on tight for seven days; she took her meds, went to choir practice, and rearranged her room about a hundred times. His funeral was like a Lourdes for the mentally ill. If you were psychotic, borderline, bad-off neurotic, or lust very hard to get along with, you were there. People shaking so bad i from years of heavy meds that they fell out of the pews. People holding hands, crying, moaning, talking to themselves. The crazy people and the not-so-crazy people were all huddled together, like puppies at the pound.
Rose stopped taking her meds, and the halfway house wouldn’t keep her after she pitched another patient down the stairs. My father called the insurance company and found out that Rose’s new, improved psychiatric coverage wouldn’t begin for forty-five days. I put all of her stuff in a garbage bag, and we walked out of the halfway house, Rose winking at the poor drooling boy on the couch.
“This is going to be difficult--not all bad, but difficult--for the whole family, and I thought we should discuss everybody’s expectations. I know I have some concerns.” My father had convened a family meeting as soon as Rose finished putting each one of her thirty stuffed bears in its own special place.
“No meds,” Rose said, her eyes lowered, her stubby fingers, those fingers that had braided my hair and painted tulips on my cheeks, pulling hard on the hem of her dirty smock. My father looked in despair at my mother.
“Rosie, do you want to drive the new car?” my mother asked.
Rose’s face lit up. “I’d love to drive that car, I’d drive to California, I’d go see the bears at the San Diego Zoo, would take you, Violet, but you always hated the zoo. Remember how she cried at the Bronx Zoo when she found out that the animals didn’t get to go home at closing?” Rose put her damp hand on mine and squeezed it sympathetically “Poor Vi.”
“If you take your medication, after a while you’ll be able to drive the car. That’s the deal. Meds, car,” My mother sounded accommodating but unenthusiastic, careful not to heat up Rose’s paranoia.
“You got yourself a deal, darlin’.”
I was living about an hour away then, teaching English during the day, writing poetry at night. I went home every few days for dinner. I called every night.
My father said, quietly, “It’s very hard. We’re doing all right, I think, Rose has been walking in the mornings with your mother and she watches a lot of TV. She won’t go to the day hospital, and she won’t go back to the choir. Her friend Mrs. Robicheaux came by a couple of times. What a sweet woman, Rose wouldn’t even talk to her. She just sat there, staring at the wall and humming. We’re not doing all that well actually, but I guess we’re getting by. I’m sorry, sweetheart, don’t mean to depress you.”
My mother said, emphatically, “We’re doing fine. We’ve go our routine and we stick to it and we’re fine. You don’t need to come home so often, you know. Wait ‘til Sunday, just come for the day. Lead your life, Vi. She’s leading hers.”
I stayed away all week, afraid to pick up my phone, grateful to my mother for her harsh calm and her reticence, the qualities that had enraged me throughout my childhood.
I came on Sunday, in the early afternoon, to help my father garden, something we had always enjoyed together. We weeded and staked tomatoes and killed aphids while my mother and Rose were down at the Lake. I didn’t even go into the house until four, when I needed a glass of water.
Someone had broken the piano bench into five neatly stacked pieces and placed them where the piano bench usually was.
“We were having such a nice time, I couldn’t bear to bring it up,” my father said, standing in the doorway, carefully keeping his gardening boots out of the kitchen.
“What did Mommy say?”
“She said, ‘Better the bench than the piano.’ And your sister lay down on the floor and just wept. Then your mother took her down to the lake. This can’t go on, Vi. We have twenty-seven days left, your mother gets no sleep because Rose doesn’t sleep, and if I could just pay twenty-seven thousand dollars to keep her in the hospital until the insurance takes over, I’d do it.”
“All right. Do it. Pay the money and take her back to Hartley-Rees. It was the prettiest place, and she liked the art therapy there.”
“I would if I could. The policy states that she must be symptom-free for at least forty-five days before her coverage begins. Symptom-free means no hospitalization.”
“Jesus, Daddy, how could you get that kind of policy? She hasn’t been symptom-free for forty-five minutes.”
“It’s the only one I could get for long-term psychiatric.” He put his hand over his mouth, to block whatever he was about to say, and went back out to the garden. I couldn’t see if he was crying.
He stayed outside and I stayed inside. Rose and my mother came home from the lake. Rose’s soggy sweatpants were rolled up to her knees, and she had a bucketful of shells and seaweed, which my mother persuaded her to leave on the back porch. My mother kissed me lightly and told Rose to go up to her room and change out of her wet pants.
Rose’s eyes grew very wide. “Never. I will never. . .” She knelt down and began banging her head on the kitchen floor with rhythmic intensity, throwing all her weight behind each attack. My mother put her arms around Rose’s waist and tried to hold her back. Rose shook her off, not even looking around to see what was slowing her down. My mother lay up against the refrigerator.
“Violet, please . . .”
I threw myself onto the kitchen floor, becoming the spot that Rose was smacking her head against. She stopped a fraction of an inch short of my stomach.
“Oh Vi, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry don’t hate me.” She staggered to her feet and ran wailing to her room.
My mother got up and washed her face brusquely, rubbing it dry with a dishcloth. My father heard the wailing and came running in, slipping his long bare feet out of his rubber boots.
“Galen, Galen, let me see.” He held her head and looked closely for bruises on her pale, small, face. “What happened?” My mother looked at me. “Violet, what happened? Where’s Rose?”
“Rose got upset, and when she went running upstairs she pushed Mommy out of the way.” I’ve only told three lies in my life, and that was my second.
“She must feel terrible, pushing you, of all people. It would have to be you, but I know she didn’t want it to be.” He made my mother a cup of tea, and all the love he had for her, despite her silent rages and her vague stares, came pouring through the teapot, warming her cup, filling her small, long-fingered hands. She rested her head against his hip, and I looked away.
“Let’s make dinner, then I’ll call her. Or you call her, David, maybe she’d rather see your face first,”
Dinner was filled with all of our starts and stops and Rose’s desperate efforts to control herself. She could barely eat and hummed the McDonald’s theme song over and over again, pausing only to spill her juice down the front of her smock and begin weeping. My father looked at my mother and handed Rose his napkin. She dabbed at herself listlessly, but the tears stopped.
“I want to go to bed, I want to go to bed and be in my head. I want to go to bed and be in my bed and in my head and just wear red, for red is the color that my baby wore arid once more, it’s true, yes, it is, it’s true, Please don’t wear red tonight, oh, oh, please don’t wear red tonight, for red is the color—”
“Okay, okay, Rose. It’s okay. I’ll go upstairs with you and you can get ready for bed. Then Mommy will come up and say good night too. It’s okay, Rose.” My father reached out his hand and Rose grasped it, and they walked out of the dining room together, his long arm around her middle.
My mother sat at the table for a moment, her face in her hands, and then she began clearing the plates. We cleared without talking, my mother humming Schubert’s “Schiummerlied,” a lullaby about the woods and the river calling to the child to go to deep. She sang it to us every night when we were small.
My father came into the kitchen and signaled to my mother. They went upstairs and came back down together a few minutes later.
“She’s asleep,” they said, and we went to sit on the porch and listen to the crickets. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, but I remember it as quietly sad, and I remember the rare sight of my parents holding hands, sitting on the picnic table, watching the sunset.
I woke up at three o’clock in the morning, feeling the cool night air through my sheet. I went down the hall for a blanket and looked into Rose’s room, for no reason. She wasn’t there. I put on my jeans and a sweater and went downstairs. I could feel her absence. I went outside and saw her wide, draggy footprints darkening the wet grass into the woods.
“Rosie,” I called, too softly, not wanting to wake my parents, not wanting to startle Rose. “Rosie, it’s me. Are you here? Are you all right?”
I almost fell over her. Huge and white in the moonlight, her flowered smock bleached in the light and shadow, her sweatpants now completely wet. Her head was flung back, her white, white neck exposed like a lost Greek column.
“Rosie, Rosie—” Her breathing was very slow, and her lips were not as pink as they usually were. Her eyelids fluttered.
“Closing time,” she whispered. I believe that’s what she said.
I sat with her, uncovering the bottle of Seconal by her hand, and watched the stars fade.
When the stars were invisible and the sun was warming the air, I went back to the house. My mother was standing on the porch, wrapped in a blanket, watching me. Every step I took overwhelmed me; I could picture my mother slapping me, shooting me for letting her favorite die.
“Warrior queens,” she said, wrapping her thin strong arms around me. “I raised warrior queens.” She kissed me fiercely and went into the woods by herself.
Later in the morning she woke my father, who could not go into the woods, and still later she called the police and the funeral parlor. She hung up the phone, lay down, and didn’t get back out of bed until the day of the funeral. My father fed us both and called the people who needed to be called and picked out Rose’s coffin by himself.
My mother played the piano and Addie sang her pure gold notes and I closed my eyes and saw my sister, fourteen years old, lion’s mane thrown back and eyes tightly closed against the glare of the parking lot lights. That sweet sound held us tight, flowing around us, eddying through our hearts, rising, still rising.