Author: Nelle Moran
Literary, Historic Based on True Events, Race Relations and Local American Culture.
13 Short Stories, 234 Pages, 45,689 Words
Summary and About the Author
At eighteen, Nelle Moran set out on her own from a destructive home life, having become something of a forensic pathologist of human nature developed largely to protect herself from further pain. In Their Own Damn Business Moran wrote the autobiographical account of her well-off 1920s and 30s Irish American family’s disintegration.
Now, Moran’s short stories, Small Landscapes, are drawn from the exceptional self-propelled life experiences she had after leaving home. Her skills at mining motive and intent and digging for understanding and answers to the “Why?” questions have been put to good work in her short stories. Each tells a story of local American culture the reader will experience as true, even if never having been there.
In the early 1950s, not long after leaving home, Moran’s secretarial and administrative training landed her work as assistant to the chief psychiatrist in a public mental institution – originally named, “Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Mentally Insane of Maryland” – supervised by doctors who survived German concentration camps. That mind-bending irony is a subplot of the first four patient stories in Small Landscapes which form the first section Moran calls “C” Ward ~ the purgatory between prison and freedom. The locked ward for the Negro Insane in a 1950s State of Maryland mental hospital.
Moran went on to manage wacky radio station disc jockeys whose take on the news was to set fire to the bottom edge of Associated Press news sheets coming off the AP printer, hand them to the next DJ signing on live with, “top of the hour news,” then watch how fast the DJ could finish reading the copy over the air before the flames reached his fingers. She was hired as program manager because, the station owner told her, “Your work with mental patients qualifies you.”
The mid-1950s award-winning public affairs radio and television programs she produced sought out people with something powerful to say, or went after the powerful believing they could handle themselves on any sharp or pointed question. Her travels across America with groups of foreign diplomats in tow from every corner of the world staying in the homes of local American families in nearly every corner of America, let them experience an authentic America even most Americans never see but would say they wouldn’t be surprised to learn about if told the stories.
Moran’s son served as her copy and content editor for both manuscripts, and arguably describes her best. Seeing her reported once in a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper as “. . . the young, slim, red-haired and intellectual Nelle Moran,” her college-age son laughed, “Wrong on all counts!” Challenged by his mother on at least the mental part, the son replied, “Mom, you are very, very smart. But you are not a bit intellectual.”
From the section “C” Ward ~ The purgatory between prison and freedom. The locked ward for the Negro Insane in a 1950’s State of Maryland mental hospital.
“I had a blackout,” she insisted at her court hearing when she was indicted for the murder of her mother.
For a year in the mental hospital, pending further order of the court, she played answer games with psychiatrists and test games with psychologists while keeping to a clear, simple story she could remember. Elsie’s passive face betrayed none of the roiling fear she felt in her gut.
She ate the rank stew of tired vegetables and poor cuts of meat, lived in the locked ward she shared with schizophrenics and the senile, the porous, aging concrete floor soaking up and trapping the malodorous mixture of urine and acrid disinfectant used to wash down the ward.
Always she felt the hard eyes of head nurse Ann Little watching for a slip of the tongue that would reveal Elsie guilty of premeditated murder. Now she’s decided to risk everything. She’s asked for a sodium pentothal interview to try to claw her way out of the pit she had fallen into that afternoon over a year ago.
The first head of hospital, long ago retired, stares down at Elsie from his portrait on the institutional green walls of the staff conference room, the stern blue eyes accusing, still judging those who come before him when patients are interviewed by the hospital’s professional staff members for release back to court with their findings, or returned to the ward for further observation.
Elsie stares back. I heard about you. You can’t hurt me old man. Not afraid of your kind anymore. Your days are gone.
At the turn of the century the state legislature appropriated money to build a mental hospital on an isolated patch of farmland at a modest cost of construction and maintenance for the “Negro Insane of Maryland.” It concentrated in one remote and secure place colored “lunatics” who were put to work building the hospital before taking up residence as patients. This had the benefit of holding labor costs to a bare minimum. Frugal food rations held down other expenses. Collecting them from the streets and rancid jails was considered an enlightened step forward.
The first superintendent ran the hospital with a stern hand and a white staff for thirty years until the mid-nineteen forties. After a fruitless search for an American doctor, he was replaced by Morgenstern, a Jewish psychiatrist and refugee from Hitler’s murderous rampage through Europe. He brought fellow refugee doctors to fill other vacant and unwanted slots at the hospital.
American doctors were hard to recruit to the “snake pits” state mental hospitals had become by the end of the war in 1945, particularly institutions exclusively set aside for people of color. These positions were considered a professional step backward, indicating a lack of qualification to work in a better class of public or private mental hospital.
Elsie looks away from the old superintendent’s portrait.
Never mind him. Think. Don’t let them make you change your story. Keep your mind on what you told them about that afternoon. Momma and that afternoon.
The story hangs like a ghost in the back of her mind.
The buzzing in her head started the day she was leaving Joe Wilson’s office.
“Going home to Momma,” he asked mockingly?
He taunted her often about what he called her “Momma strait jacket.” She used Momma’s iron rule to fend off his fat-assed, cigar-smelling, sloppy pawings. She was the prettiest of the female crew, soft, elusive, old enough not to be tied to a Momma’s apron strings unless it was an excuse. She aggravated him.
He was boss of the maids and janitors at the Belmont Hotel. She needed her maid’s job, moving quietly around the plush rooms on the floors above, dusting furniture, ignoring the indifference of whites while she cleaned their toilets. She smiled at him now, answering softly, sweetly, offering him a sliver of her anger.
“It’s only a strait jacket, Joe, if you feel like it is. Like a job, Joe. A job can be a strait jacket — know what I mean? —
if you feel like it is.”
His eyes glittered as he tried to stare her into submission. But she only smiled. Smiled, as she always did in the face of threats. He hated the passive smile that soaked up aggression and rendered it impotent, sponging it up like some nasty spill on a counter.
“‘Course, Joe,” she crooned, “I don’t feel like my job’s a strait jacket, like some do ‘round here.”
She continued to smile as her eyes played over the cramped, dirty space he sat in.
“Anymore’n I feel like Momma’s a strait jacket.”
She walked out of his office, her soft hips swaying a triumphant backhand that left him simmering because she had sassed him again in a sly way he couldn’t punish her for.
Shifting his weight in the battered leather chair wedged against the flaking walls of the basement closet he called his
office, his big belly pushing against the scarred desk handed down from the whites’ offices on the main floor, he flung at her retreating backside.
“Girl, you so smart, you must be white!”
Then he laughed his hyena scream, hee, hee, hee, to see her back stiffen. He knew his insult struck home across that light amber face. That’s when her head started buzzing. Something stirring in her head, something stinging, expectant.
The Superintendent enters the room quietly and takes his place at the head of the conference table, studying Elsie intently for the effects of the drug injection. His diffident body language, hunched shoulders hiding in his slight frame, the mouth in a spare, quizzical smile, the habit of shrugging when making his opinions hold sway over the staff, as if to say, I may be wrong, but this is how it’s going to be. The kindly, homely face under the shock
of dark gray hair belies a stubborn character.
A few days after the Nazis marched into Vienna to the cheers of the Viennese, the city where he was practicing medicine, he was stripped of his home, his car, his office and his position in a hospital, herded into a school with males of all ages, stripped again of everything but the clothes on his back – eyeglasses, wallets, watches, wedding ring – to wait for the train to a concentration camp. He escaped with his wife and baby into France where without legal papers they hid for a year, then boarded the last boat leaving France for America shortly before Hitler was photographed standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.
In New York, he took the American psychiatry boards, found a staff position in this hospital where he encountered not only black people for the first time in his life, but in a supposedly free country, people separated by race and forced to accept inferior status. He was elevated to Superintendent when the first Superintendent retired.
There is little he fears now. He had resisted the pressure of the Department of Corrections for the past year to diagnose Elsie and send her to trial before he was convinced of her story. He had learned when to stay in the shadows, when to risk stepping into the open. He had absorbed brutal lessons balancing pity and survival.
Before he is ready to diagnose Elsie he has to know more about her mental state at the time she killed her mother. Did she know what she was doing, or did her state of mind render her incapable of rational judgment? The gallows Maryland used could wait.
“I don’t like the idea of this interview, Benedict,” he had said to Dr. Benedict, the medical doctor who had administered the injection. “Truth serum tests are unreliable and I wouldn’t have advised it. Risks you take to live another day, I understand. This is a reckless risk in my view. There is a real possibility that with our evaluations, she could be cleared of the charge of murder. Why not wait? But she asked for it and we can’t refuse her.” He shakes his head. “She may regret it.”
“It’s her neck,” Benedict answers in his cold monotone. “Let her risk it.”
Benedict sits down at the table, with Sparks, the head psychologist who will join in interviewing Elsie.
Sparks, the first black on staff in the hospital’s history, was the Superintendent’s opening shot at integrating the
hospital’s white staff in the face of stiff resistance from the southern white community and legislature. It represented mixing races on an equal basis and hiring blacks instead of whites. With a master’s in psychology and trained well, Sparks had an equanimity of temperament Morgenstern needed.
The Superintendent remembers the late spring day in 1948 when Elsie was brought in from the Baltimore City Jail by a Maryland State Trooper and the hospital’s head nurse, Ann Little. Nurse Little, starched uniform crackling authority, lips compressed in scorn, steel gray hair pulled tightly back from eyes hardened from watching criminals try insanity as an escape hatch, marched into his office after delivering Elsie to the admitting office, like a reform school guard reporting an urchin for the punishment cell.
“She says she doesn’t remember anything before she got home. Got a headache on the streetcar and blacked out. The house was bloody upstairs and down, a couple of knives used to stab her mother, a bloody hammer used to smash her skull to pulp. But all she remembers from this little excitement,” Nurse Little reported with a short, bitter laugh, “is ‘a blinding headache on the streetcar.’ She’s faking.”
Watching Little deliver Elsie’s verdict before examination, the Superintendent suppresses a smile. He thinks the judge has spoken, and he didn’t ask for Ann Little to settle the question.
Nurse Little has spent many years with Morgenstern. He elevated her to “Ward Meister” of the hospital. The jailer muscles in her face had by now hardened to feelings of joy or pain if they ever knew them. She and Morgenstern professed before Almighty God to be free of prejudice, but Little harbored severe judgments about her dark charges.
He had learned not to oppose Nurse Little openly. She was friendly with too many of the old guard in the state and the predominately rural southern legislature to tangle with her when he had plans for change that needed her cooperation. She knew it. And she used it to argue her opinions she knew sat well with state officials.
“Ann,” he said quietly, “thank you for bringing this patient in.”
Over the next year he would listened patiently to Ann’s angry accusations that they were coddling Elsie.
“Send her back to court. She’s guilty. She smirks at me on the ward. She knows I know she’s getting away with it. She’s crafty behind that sweet voice and smile. She’s lying. She’s a manipulator.”
Ann Little could punish most patients who didn’t respect her authority with seclusion or a long stay in a special ward for the most violent, incontinent patients, but with a court committed patient she had to be careful. She didn’t like it.
Elsie is watching Morgenstern now, her mind focused on how that afternoon started after she left Joe Wilson, sorting out what parts to remember. What is safe to remember? Think before they start asking questions.
The streetcar swung around the corner onto Fayette Street where Elsie waited for the trip home. It screeched to a stop, digging into Elsie’s throbbing head, metal wheels grinding over metal rails, the pole to the electric lines above swaying, jumping off.
The driver hopped down, brushing past her with the long rod he carried to reconnect the power.
With exquisite slowness and others behind her impatient to board, Elsie hoisted herself up the steps and dropped her coins into the glass box where they danced and jingled about until they clinked into the locked steel bin below.
Let ‘em wait!
The white driver, climbing back aboard, looked through her as if she didn’t exist. He always did.
If I tried to climb on without the fare he would damn sure see me.
Gripping the strap-hanger’s pole, she eased into the first empty seat, pushing hard against a bony white woman whose wary eyes had watched Elsie make her way toward her, becoming steadily unhappy about the open seat beside her.
Hold your breath, you skinny white bitch. If you don’t like my smell from cleaning your toilets, choke on it.
She let a long sigh hit the woman full face, as she wearily settled her backside on the hard seat.
The car began its swaying journey, like a muddy river meandering from the center of Baltimore’s commercial buildings, past decaying tenements of the black neighborhoods with their shoulder-to-shoulder sagging brick facades, broken windows patched like bruised eyes, and cracked, white granite stoops falling onto littered sidewalks. It flowed slowly on to outer urban neighborhoods where blacks with hard-saved money had taken over homes vacated in panic by whites fleeing a rampaging dark flood. These narrowly separated homes boasted trim, freshly painted front porches set back from small squares of immaculately tended green yard.
The car rocked along. The buzz that started in Joe Wilson’s office louder now. She stared unseeing at the smeared window across the aisle. Charlie’s face floated back at her. His lazy smile, his soothing, laughing eyes that always insisted on letting go.
“Hey, baby, life‘s fun as us niggahs make it, cause n’one’s gonna make it fun fo us. And sho not yo Momma, girl.”
He would talk like that in front of Momma, just to see her outrage. Momma despised the way Charlie talked.
“Trash,” Momma would hiss at him, “ignorant trash talking like that and gutter trash using that word.”
Charlie, why didn’t you fight for me, she whispered to the window. Why’d you let Momma drive you out? It’s her house, but I keep it going. She’s not going to live forever. Why didn’t you wait?
The bony woman glanced sharply at her whispers, inching away, debating whether standing was better.
No. Next, we’ll be sitting in the back of the car, she thought angrily.
Elsie closed her eyes on Charlie’s image and the buzzing. She let herself be lulled by the car rocking along until, with a jerk, she realized she had gone two stops beyond her own. A long walk back.
Elsie watches the Superintendent passively, waiting for the questions to start, her hands folded, composed on the conference table.
Kind eyes, but something in them looking right through you. Not like the old man up there on the wall, hard eyes. I know those eyes. Don’t know what this one’s mean. Maybe just looking for the truth. The truth . . .
She’s starting to feel fuzzy . . . almost stunned . . . probably the shot.
Keep sharp, girl. Don’t let your mind wander.
“So, Elsie, tell us what you remember about that afternoon. Let’s start with your work. Was it a usual day?” the
Superintendent prompts gently.
And so the two-hour ordeal begins.
The Superintendent moves questions onto the table. Elsie moves the simple, rehearsed answers into position, checking him. It is a story she had implanted in her brain until she’s certain it happened that way.
“Nothing unusual at work,” she smiles an answer. But her mind is beginning to riot.
Charlie, I thought I saw you. Did I?
Fear had pierced the fuzz. Her mind had drifted. She begins questioning herself. Had she said that out loud? Her eyes searched around the table. The Superintendent, Benedict and Sparks. They showed no reaction, just watching, waiting. Stern-eyes continuing to watch from the portrait.
Old man, what you watching? You think you know?
The Superintendent prods, “What happened on the way home, before the headache started?”
“Nothing, except this real bad headache came on me. Sort of blinded me. I don’t remember getting off the car, don’t remember getting home.”
Elsie struggles with the cotton invading her head. Random memories are starting to crowd in, pushing for space in a shrinking and intensifying competition for attention and awareness. For an endless moment she regains control of her thoughts . . .
That damned driver knew my stop. I get off there every damn day with him.
She remembers stepping on the bony woman’s foot as she scrambled up to pull the cord for the car to stop.
Good, hope it hurt, you damned white bitch.
She stumbles down the steps. Breathing irregularly, she starts out the six blocks to the house.
I’m not stopping for groceries, Momma. Too tired. Plenty in the house if you stir yourself and fix it. I’m going to bed.
Don’t care what you say.
The buzzing dances inside her head as she plods along. Sharp, painful jabs.
Elsie, in her mid-thirties, was not fat, but tall with soft flesh over big bones, and when she was tired, and she was tired most of the time lately, her bones sat down on her feet as if to say, “carry me.” And the feet obeyed, sullenly, lifting the bones like a heavy sack to be hauled one step at a time past the row houses invaded by new owners from the projects and tenements along Mulberry and Fayette Streets. Momma had invested her life savings in one of them, savings she earned on her knees scrubbing floors.
Elsie plods on, blind to the nods of new neighbors tending yards or gossiping on front steps . . .
Elsie drags her mind back to the table.
Stop remembering. Look at them. Smile. Not afraid. Don’t think about anything, except what they’re asking.
“Tell us again, did you and your mother fight a lot?” Sparks speaks for the first time.
Sparks, the cherubic face, the spectacled eyes, his quiet, precise language, his composed, methodical manner. The
Superintendent who rarely scratched notes during sessions mostly listens. Sparks as always jotting notes.
As a ten-year-old kid on the streets of Newark in the nineteen thirties, with a doting mother, Sparks had announced importantly to the neighborhood winos and numbers writers,
“I’m going to Harvard!”
Laughing and slapping each other at the hilarity of the hood and Harvard they shouted, “What that boy say? He goin’ to Harvard? Oh yeah!”
Nineteen thirty-nine was too early for a black kid from Newark to make Harvard, but his good grades got him into an elite black college, then on to a Psychology Masters.
Outside the hospital, Sparks revealed a rollicking sense of humor. Inside, he had a job to do and he would prove that he was as professional as any white man. He knew the Superintendent’s goals were on the line.
My goals, too, he thought, comfortable in his skin.
Elsie fears Sparks. Fears him more than the foreign doctors whose accents were sometimes hard to understand. Even more than Ann Little.
He’s got all my answers written down in that folder from all those tests he’s been giving me. He’s colored, but he’ll trip me up if he can.
She was getting very tired.
How much longer? How many times will they make me repeat the same things.
“Elsie, did you hear my question?” Sparks insists.
Elsie gazes at him, blinking slowly, Momma’s harsh voice echoes in her head.
“Girl, I don’t want that black-skinned trash in my house! Light-skinned girl like you, thought you’d amount to somethin’. Pickin’ up with that black trash!”
Momma’s militant bust and ass marching over top of her hard, thick legs and flat, black shoes, truculent lips threatening extinction to anyone in her path.
“Momma, Charlie can’t help he’s black, no more’n we can help not being white.”
Elsie knew better than to confront her mother with their history. Once when she was nine years old and the kids had teased her for being a white nigger, she had sassed Momma about it. Momma had beat her with a belt so bad she ached for days, with welts on her light skin.
Now she found sly ways to remind Momma, the way she found ways to hit Joe Wilson. She knew that in spite of Momma’s shouting and hollering every Sunday in church, Momma was secretly proud of grand momma’s carnal history with her white boss that produced children and grandchildren with light skin and fine hair. Light skin and
fine hair were top of the heap, and Momma wasn’t lookin’ no gift horse in the mouth.
Elsie frowns at Sparks’ question.
“Momma and I got along. I lived with her, didn’t I? Didn’t have to.” Anger flickers in Elsie’s voice.
Be careful, don’t get angry, smile, smile.
Sparks persists, “But Charles, your husband. She didn’t like him, did she? He left you, didn’t he? Was that because of your mother?”
Elsie’s smile falters. Her vacant eyes, partly concealed now under half-closed lids, hide the fear scrambling her brain. Why is Sparks tormenting her? Why doesn’t he see her as a “sister”?
Momma is raging on in her brain.
What does that trash do for a livin’. I’m talkin’ to you, girl! Lays in bed ‘til noon, whilst you out workin’ to support
him. Out all night. Doin’ what, I wants to know? You know? Course you don’t, you fool!
Elsie brings herself back to Sparks.
“Momma only wanted Charlie to leave until he got a job. And Charlie was going to make it. He was.”
Sparks is activating panic in her. She is short of breath, her hands grip the edge of the conference table like it’s a life
raft. She begins to slump. Benedict, steadily watching beside her, is ready to catch her if she collapses.
From across the table Sparks continues as if he doesn’t see.
“And when do you remember seeing your mother for the first time that day?”
Sparks taking over the questioning rattles Elsie. She begins to feel cold, sick. Water, she wants to reach for the glass of water, but can’t move her hands, hands too heavy to lift. She starts to sag in her chair toward Benedict.
Benedict, the refugee, watching her . . . memories flashing through his head … the flight out of Germany . . . those not
picked up yet swarming into China . . . the Japanese marching into Shanghai . . . the stinking ship to the Philippines, its packed cargo of dead and dying . . . trying to keep Hulda’s husband alive in the hellhole Japanese camp . . . protecting Hulda when he died . . . Hulda, cowering in the muddy ditch, reaching out for filthy water for her parched mouth under the impenetrable eyes of the Japanese guard, who might, or might not, put a bullet through her brain that day, you never knew, the way you knew with the methodical Germans. Hulda, the only human he could still care about in this world.
Benedict lifts the glass of water to Elsie’s mouth. Elsie swallows. Presses her hands on the table.
Funny. Never liked Benedict. Never did anything to me, put me in the infirmary when I felt bad. Quieter, better food, nurses friendly. Ann Little yapping I wasn’t sick, just faking, trying to get good treatment. Benedict telling Ann Little, cold-like, “I’m letting her fake on her back for a while. A few times resting on her back in a lifetime is no crime.” But no pity in his eyes.
Elsie takes another sip of water and steadies herself in the chair, thinking about that afternoon, about Momma.
Think, think, don’t answer ‘til you think.
Elsie drags herself up the steps of the porch, past her neighbors, barely acknowledging their smiles and “hellos.”
She doesn’t have time to get her key out for the door. It’s flung open by a waiting, raving Momma, brandishing a newspaper in her face before she can get inside.
“You read the paper today, girl? You read it?”
The paper slaps the air near Elsie’s face. The neighbors stop talking and stare.
“Your Charlie, that piece of trash got himself shot last night. Cheatin’. Just like he was doin’ you, cheatin’. Only, he was cheatin’ someone smarter’n you! Got his head blowed off. Where he belongs now, that lowlife, with the devil!”
Stunned, Elsie stares at her mother. Moves around her and the threatening newspaper through the doorway, stumbles past her down the long hallway to the kitchen. Charlie, Charlie, her head throbs, trying to get away from Momma’s rasping voice as she stalks Elsie down the hallway whipping the paper at her head.
“What you got to say about that, girl? Answer me! Was I right to throw him out? Wha’da-ya say now!”
The conference room is quiet. Sparks is waiting. They are all waiting. The conference table grows larger, menacing. The glass of water is huge, sparkling under the lights, mocking her. Elsie’s hands seem to grow larger in front of her. She feels her head swelling, her tongue pushing against her teeth, like a balloon expanding inside her mouth. Sparks’ spectacled eyes bulge over the table at her. She tries to lick her lips, her tongue stuck against the back of her teeth.
Don’t talk. Don’t answer yet. They can’t make you answer. You’re a mental patient. They can’t make you say anything. Think, then answer.
But she can’t will Momma out of her head.
Wait. Wait. She’ll disappear.
In the kitchen Elsie can’t hear Momma, only see her contorted lips, the newspaper flailing the air in front of her face. The buzzing in Elsie’s head is blasting. She feels the paring knife under her hand as she leans on the kitchen counter to steady herself. She closes her fist around the handle.
“Girl, answer me!”
Momma rolls the newspaper up tight. Smack! The newspaper hits Elsie’s face hard. Momma had never struck Elsie since the time when she was a child. She didn’t have to, Elsie always obeyed.
Elsie raises her arm, unseeing, knife in hand, strikes at Momma’s mouth, opening a gash across her cheek. The old woman rears back on her powerful legs, wide-eyed, horror plastered across her face, throws her arms up in front of her face and drops the newspaper.
“You crazy, girl?! You gone clean crazy?!”
But Elsie, blind by years of pent-up mistreatment and rage, is just getting started. Like swatting at a fly, she strikes again, the knife slashing the soft bottoms of Momma’s upraised arms, blood spurting.
Momma turns to run. Driven by a mission suddenly unearthed and brought to light like a coffin pushed up out of its grave, Elsie grabs an arm, tries to pull Momma around to strike at her mouth again and opens a long gash on the other uplifted arm.
Momma tears loose and runs through the hallway to the stairs, all her strength, all her wily mind intent on reaching the safety of her room. Her room, with the lock she had put on when that devil Charlie moved in, and the telephone she had reinstalled behind that locked door so he couldn’t run up bills. That devil Charlie had taken over her child! But she had beaten back the devil all her life.
Elsie runs after her, trips on a piece of loose carpet, scrambles to her feet as Momma is crawling up the stairs on all
fours, gasping, bleeding. Elsie catches up as Momma stagers toward her bedroom desperate to reach the door that will lock Elsie out. Elsie stabs Momma in the back. Again. Again. Ripping her flesh and dress in savage strokes until the paring knife, greasy with blood flies out of her hand.
Momma reaches the bedroom still on her feet and clings to the door like it’s someone come to save her, strength ebbing now from her arms and legs, light fading in and out.
Elsie grabs the fine, gray hair of Momma’s pride in both bloody hands and with a surge of strength, yanks the old woman off her feet and drags her back toward the stairs, Momma desperately clawing the carpet, grasping the walls, scrawling and smearing their life and death fight in bloody finger paint along the flowered wallpaper waiting to be interpreted later by dumbstruck homicide police investigators.
At the top of the stairs, locked in a frantic embrace, they fall halfway down the steps, the only sound Momma’s rasping moans and grunts and Elsie’s furious, staccato breathing. Momma, her world jumbled and turning grey, feebly paws the air. She can’t get up, blood gushing from cuts that hadn’t yet hit a vital spot.
Elsie tears loose and races to the kitchen, the buzz in her head now a roaring inferno, pulls the long, wide butcher knife from its rack. Back on the stairs, Momma’s eyes glare up at her, the mouth moving.
Stop her mouth!
Elsie plunges the knife deep into Momma’s throat. Then into her chest. Then into her stomach.
Still, Momma’s mouth continues to move, blood gurgling in her throat, her hands twitching in death throes.
She’s the devil. She doesn’t die cause she’s the devil, Charlie. The brain. Smash the brain.
Elsie runs for the hammer in the kitchen tool drawer. Stumbling back to the stairs, she raises it overhead like a sledgehammer and brings it down on Momma’s scull. Once. Twice. Momma’s head bursts apart like a ripe melon, brain matter spraying over Elsie, the walls, the stairs, blood spilling from the ears like an overfilled pot. Her mouth hangs open, her hands frozen in claw-like combat.
The roar in Elsie’s head hangs suspended. The house is eerily quiet, as if it had all happened in silent slow motion. Elsie can hear her own ragged gasping, feel the sweat dripping from her face and trickling down between her clothes and every part of her body, sees the flesh and blood on her hands, arms, soaking her pretty print dress. She fills the house with piercing, agonized shrieks and bursts through the front door. The neighbors stand gaping. She blacks out and tumbles down the granite steps bloody hammer still in hand.
When she came to on the sidewalk, surrounded by babbling neighbors, the flashing lights of police cars and an ambulance blinded and stunned her. She couldn’t remember what she was doing there.
“Where’s Momma,” she asked?
When questioned about what happened, she said, “I don’t know. Where’s Momma?”
By the time Momma was carried away, neighbors had fallen silent, watching in small clusters with wary, protective eyes as the white police took Elsie away in a squad car. No one gave any information. She remained numb on the way to the precinct, staring dumbly at her bloody hands and arms, the stains coagulating and blackening on her dress.
She heard snatches of officers talking. “. . . says she doesn’t remember anything . . . doesn’t know what happened . . . had a bad headache on the streetcar.”
Elsie didn’t remember telling them that. It was like waking from a dream. Maybe it was a dream. Some believed her. Some didn’t. It didn’t matter. Unless she knew, they couldn’t know.
After the booking and gruesome picture taking, Elsie staring blankly at the camera in the blood-soaked flags of revolt she wore into the stationhouse, matrons helped her wash up and get into clean clothes.
In the din of the precinct, Elsie felt a calm coming over her. The noise became a shield behind which she began to think. She hadn’t given answers yet. She didn’t have to give answers yet. She remained silent on the long ride to the mental hospital, saying only that she couldn’t remember that afternoon.
Elsie looks up at the Superintendent and Sparks from her terrifying reverie, willed the pulsating room into stillness,
refuses the accusing eyes staring down from the wall and concentrates on the answer she gave that day at the precinct.
“I don’t remember anything about Momma until I found her bleeding on the stairs. I ran for help and fainted.”
She repeated and repeated it then as the detectives circled around her, coming to it from different points in her story, until they tired of asking questions, and she repeats it now to the doctors.
Back on her locked ward, Elsie overhears Ann Little say bitterly, “I hear she passed. She could be home free if the court believes that nonsense.”
Home free. Home. What does that mean? She had refused to think about home for over a year. Still dazed from the shot, she thinks about it now. Charlie. But Charlie can’t be there. Momma. Momma can’t be there. Home. There is no home. It disappeared with no payments to keep it. Who will take charge. She had never been away from Momma. Charlie, Charlie, why’d you leave me?
The buzz begins. She dreaded the buzz.
In his office, drained, but relieved it was over and a report could be made to the court, Morgenstern sits alone at his desk, watching through the long Victorian windows the late afternoon sun ripple through old trees, over rough fields turned into well-tended grounds that made room for new staff housing he had built there.
He thinks about Elsie’s performance. A remarkable strength of mind. He had witnessed it before in people who survived the concentration camps. A survivor’s strength.
He swivels from the window to his desk to jot some questions to himself about sodium pentothal. He knows its full effect sometimes took hours, but how long and how quickly, and why? Did it uncover lies, or recover truth? Difficult questions, but it might make a difference to the court. The prosecutor would attack a diagnosis of insanity, especially temporary insanity, and he had to be ready.
What was her state of mind that afternoon? Was she shrewd enough, with enough will power, to do what had to be done to get out free? Or did she really not know what she was doing? He had to answer these questions in his report. He isn’t sure anything can tell him. She is the only one who knows. If she knows. But she passed the interview. It would be a strong defense, sticking as she did to that story through the long interview. He doesn’t condone what she did, but he feels a secret sympathy for her triumph. She’s a survivor.
There is a knock at the door.
“Yes,” he answers wearily.
It is the end of the day and he wants to get his notes down while they are fresh in his mind. His assistant pokes her head in the door.
“An attendant brought Elsie down from the ward. She wants to talk to you. She’s right here.”
Elsie steps through the door, a stunned calm about her. He leaves his chair and crosses the office to meet her. He nods to the assistant who goes back into the hallway and closes the door. He guides Elsie to the chair next to his desk and sits down.
“I didn’t hate her,” she begins.
Resignation crosses the Superintendent’s face. He puts his pen back on the desk and without taking notes as is his custom, he listens for the next hour.
About the Author
Please see Summary to learn about the author.
Author Name: Nelle Moran
Phone: (415) 516-4840