Group Time, they called it, but to Carl Prentice the times they met inside the green room with cages on the dirty windows felt like Circle Time for a bizarre class of kindergarten students.
Willahawkin Mental Health Center, however, was not a school, not by anyone’s stretch of imagination. Prentice knew the place was an asylum with a modern-day, politically correct, gentle name. The Center’s roster listed him as a patient of Ward 3, minimum security, no hospital gowns required. The psychiatrists, nurses, aides and group facilitators called the residents patients, yet Carl Prentice realized that he was a prisoner behind unlocked, yet formidable doors.
Group Time. Friday, June 29, 1979, 10:30 am
A fat woman named Maggie sat separate from the rest of the inmates, at a long Formica-topped table, grunting and groaning about the water-color markers the Lead Facilitator, Mrs. Sharp, had ordered taken away from her until she stopped wetting herself after eating lunch and visited the bathroom instead. “Fuck your filthy toilets,” yelled Maggie, “There’s ghosts inside the pipes underneath them. My mama taught me how ghosts smell. They smell like shit and piss pudding. You got shit and piss pudding inside your toilets.”
Mrs. Sharp wiggled her ample ass backward into the vinyl-covered couch cushions and smiled at the group of people in front of her. Prentice stared at the tiny clots of mascara that hung from the tips of Mrs. Sharp’s eyelashes. “Her lashes flicker like blinds on a naval ship’s spotlight calling SOS,” thought Prentice.
“So yesterday we were talking about what?” said Mrs. Sharp.
“She really doesn’t know,” thought Prentice. “The old bag’s earning a salary just for showing up, and I can become her victim or her savior.”
“We were discussing how to take responsibility for our mistakes and then move on toward success,” said Carl Prentice. He moved the thumb and index finger of his right hand up and down along his mustache as he spoke.
“Could you repeat your comment, Carl?” said Mrs. Sharp. But take your hand away from your mouth this time, so your voice won’t sound so muffled.”
Prentice slipped his right hand under his thigh and repeated what he’d said.
“Carl has a good memory, doesn’t he group?” said Mrs. Sharp. To Prentice her voice sounded like an off-key twirling giggle. “Anyone else care to expand upon that idea?”
“You stink like shit and piss pudding,” said Maggie. “I want to draw you sitting on the crapper.”
“Maggie, we all know that you’re an artist,” said Mrs. Sharp. “And artists can be temperamental at times. But if you really want your markers returned, then you’ll have to lower your voice and cooperate with the other people here who could use your help. That and take full advantage of our restrooms.”
Prentice thought he counted fifty-two eyelash flickers in the time it took Mrs. Sharp to reprimand Maggie. Maybe fifty-three.
“And how about you today, Amber?” said Mrs. Sharp. “Does our Amber feel like taking responsibility for the damage she’s done to herself in the past and then focusing on a brighter future?”
Amber Barnes rolled her shoulders backward and then forward, as if to release tension by loosening her muscles’ nervous grip on her upper skeleton. Prentice wondered if the lesions on Amber’s face were the result of drug abuse or the symptom of a fatal disease. He next looked at Mrs. Sharp’s face and imagined digging his fingernails into the flesh of it, so as to help the Lead Facilitator understand how it feels to carry obvious scars.
“I can’t talk today, cause my mind is bleeding,” whispered Amber. “When your mind bleeds, can you talk?” Amber bent her head back and studied the rust-stained ceiling tiles as she spoke. Mrs. Sharp smiled and her eyes continued to blink.
“You express yourself in the manner of a poet, Amber,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Perhaps you could write down your thoughts before our next group session. Carl, would you be willing to read to the group what Amber writes?” she said.
“Yes, of course, Mrs. Sharp. I read a lot of –“
“You’re muffling again,” said Mrs. Sharp.
Prentice caught himself smoothing down his mustache and quick grabbed his right hand with his left.
“Sorry, Mrs. Sharp,” said Prentice.
“No need for apologies here,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Here we’re all about admitting our regrets and then –“
“Moving on,” said Prentice. He forced an artificial smile to meet Mrs. Sharp’s nod of approval.
“So how about we leave it there?” said Mrs. Sharp. She glanced at her wristwatch as she spoke. “Tomorrow we can begin with our theme being that of . . .”
Mrs. Sharp scooted her behind forward to the edge of the couch cushion, stood up and walked to a black chalkboard. She picked up a nib of chalk and wrote No Apologies Here. Prentice listened to the tap tap tapping sound of chalk on board, along with the jingle of bracelets that shook as Mrs. Sharp double underlined what she’d just written.
“Can I use your chalk to draw you on the crapper?” said Maggie.
Carl Prentice giggled, but this time he kept his hand covering his mouth as he rubbed down his mustache.
“Okay then, group,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Tomorrow at 10:30. Now off with you to lunch.”
Prentice followed Amber out of the green room, but as Amber turned left and toward the cafeteria, he turned right and headed straight to the hallway’s end. A Plexiglas-enclosed room, where at regular intervals inmate patients were delivered doses of prescribed drugs, was to his right. A public telephone hung on the wall. Under the telephone was a stiff-backed chair. Inmates used the chair when they were talking on the phone. The chair was unoccupied. Prentice sat down. He snatched the telephone’s receiver and pretended to be holding a conversation with someone on the other end of the line. When he felt certain that no one was close to the pill-room window, Carl Prentice hung up the telephone, rose from the chair and walked through the exit door at the end of the hallway.
Outside, traffic raced, beeped and swerved its way along the four-lane highway. Prentice looked left and right, searching for anyone wearing an asylum uniform. When no uniformed personnel appeared, Prentice ran through all four lanes of traffic — ducking, darting and cutting his way so as to avoid collision — until he reached the highway’s farther side. There he slowed his pace to match that of other pedestrians and moved his body in toward the middle of the crowd.
Three city blocks later he turned left into a side street, then right, then left, then right again, as he made his way across the manicured lawns, around the summertime swimming pools, and through the quiet neighborhood. He was heading, by way of a circuitous route, to Harley Street. Francesca Olivera lived at 35 E. Harley Street, and she was about to entertain an uninvited guest.