(NOTE to Reader: "Echoes of Marian Hall" is a serial story. Part One was posted in January, Part Two in February, and so on. Each part will make sense on its own, but it will make the most sense if you read them in order. See the titles above.)All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience. ~ Henry Miller
THEME: TAKING A LEAP
THEME: TAKING A LEAP
I arrived home at four. The twenty-eight mile drive from Marian Hall hadn’t erased my agitation. Katie hugged my knees; her world of joy reminded me of normal.
“So, how was it?” Ed asked. “Do you love it there?”
“Where to start,” I said. “Do we have any wine?”
After an hour of relating my day, Ed had it all figured out. “So these are troubled girls from dysfunctional homes who do something bad, go to court, get sent to live with other troubled girls from dysfunctional homes all in the same colorless, cinder blocked, stinky-bathroomed, linoleum-floored, musty-furnitured room of a dead-bolted apartment inside a locked institution surrounded by a chain link fence and watched over by a bunch of nuns who patrol the building clattering keys around their waists.” He took a chicken out of the fridge and rinsed it under the faucet. “Now that’s living.” He slapped the chicken onto the cutting board. “What, exactly, did you expect?”
“I don’t know – I didn’t think I’d care. That it’s just a job? Like babysitting?”
Ed cut the legs off the carcass and sliced through the joints.
“El, these are locked-up teenage girls. Did I mention dysfunctional?” He chopped off the wings. “They’re not home making a chicken dinner with their moms and dads, who could probably give a flying fuck.” He winced and looked around for Katie, who lay under the kitchen table drawing circles on her steno pad, imitating Ed working on his graduate assignments. “Right now they’re all in the same room, eating the same crap, knowing that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are going to be exactly as it is right this minute. It’s not a happy place.”
Ed cracked the breastbone and hacked it into two sections. He wiped blood off the fleshy pieces and threw them into a bag of seasoned cornmeal and flour. White puffs danced as Ed shook the bag. He dropped the pieces into a hot iron skillet, the sizzle reminding me of Sunday dinners at home in the Adirondacks. Tender, crispy fried chicken, real mashed potatoes, smooth gravy—all expertly prepared by my mother who didn’t send me off to live in a reform school, no matter how disrespectful I was or how many curfews I broke. But then I didn’t get caught shoplifting or running off with a man twice my age or sexually abusing the next-door neighbor’s kid in the woods.
Bottom line. It wasn’t a happy place.
“There’s something else,” I said. Grease splatted my hand. I made sure Katie was still under the table.
“I got a strange feeling – especially with Sister Pauline. She scares them.”
“She’d scare me.”
“Gloria started to tell me about putting the girls in the hole. I think it’s a punishment room.”
“It’s probably just a time-out place. Like the principal’s office.”
“They put the dispunkals in a hole?” There she stood—right behind me, clutching her pencil and steno pad--innocence rising from her face.
It would be several days before I would give Ed a private update—where Katie’s budding mind wouldn’t absorb all the sadness.
* * *
On my second day, I worked the three o’clock shift. This time Diane, a veteran worker, would be on duty with me. She “kept things tidy,” according to Sister Pauline. I pushed the doorbell and after a couple of minutes Marvin, the handyman, spoke through the intercom. “Que voulez-vous?”
“I’m Ellie Searl.”
“Ellie Searl. I – je travail - work here – ici – dans Apartment One.” I held up a finger as if he could see it.
Was he deaf? Didn’t he remember me? I wondered how long this would go on. I wondered when I’d get my own set of keys.
“Je suis . .Ellie . . . Searl. . . . travail . . . dans . . . Apartment . . . Une.”
Marvin let me in. He laid a mop against the wall and motioned for me to follow him. “You come,” he said, and we headed toward Apartment One.
Muffled screeching came from within the apartment as Marvin unlocked the door—like someone was screaming into a pillow. Marvin ignored the commotion and walked away. Once I was inside, shrieks reverberated off cinder block walls—a hen fight in an echo chamber. A tall, dark-haired, burly woman—Diane, I assumed—stood between Greta and Marlene who were trying to hit each other. The other girls, fists air-punching, circled the fighters, egging them on, cheering—as if they had bets on the winner. I had walked in on a teenage boxing match.
My first reaction was to leave. Quit. Right then. I hadn’t signed up for referee duty.
Sister Margaret was outside her small room, hands twitching at her sides. “Someone should go get Sister Pauline,” she said when she saw me. I started toward the living room, but her shaking fingers clutched my sleeve. “Don’t get in the middle of that. Please. Go get Sister Pauline.”
By that time, Greta had thrown Marlene to the floor and was trying to kick her, but she lost her balance and fell on top of her instead. Diane dropped into the midst of it all to unglue the wrestlers.
“You little bastard,” Greta said. “You took it—I know you did.”
“I’ll get Sister Pauline,” I yelled to Diane.
Sister Margaret touched my arm and said, “Thank you, dear.”
“No!” Diane shouted. “I’ll handle it.”
Sister Margaret shook her head. She had tears in her eyes. She went into her room and shut the door.
I stood there. Like an idiot. Watching. Undecided. Scared. Then I got mad.
I moved in to the fight and bellowed. “STOP IT! BOTH OF YOU! NOW!” I pointed at Marlene. “GET UP.” I pointed at Greta. “YOU! SIT OVER THERE.”
Maybe it was pure novelty—the new worker having a fit, the one who the day before hadn’t made much of an impression. Whatever the magic, the girls sunk into a kind of stupor. Marlene and Greta rolled away from each other and stared at me. I glared back and continued to point toward the couch. “Move,” I said. Greta stood up and sank into the sofa. She stuffed her arms into a pretzel. One of circling girls pointed at me and laughed. Marlene just lay there, panting.
“Well, haven't you got the touch.” Diane sneered at me—as if I had stepped in her personal shit pile of responsibility. “What else can you do? Raise the dead?” She got up and tucked her T-shirt back into her jeans. “I have my own ways.”
It wasn’t clear why she needed to demean me in front of the girls. Hadn’t I helped? Wasn’t she the one who liked to “keep things tidy”? But then, she had lost control—and I had found it. Her credibility had been put to question. Apparently, I wasn’t building rapport with the veteran.
“You,” Diane gestured to Greta. “You’re outta here.”
Greta started to say something, but she must have thought better of it because she closed her mouth almost as soon as she opened it.
Then Diane ordered the others to their rooms—doors open—until supper. No talking, no music, nothing. “Just sit on your beds and shut up.” Some mumbled stuff about it being unfair and that they hadn’t done anything. “Or you’ll all get the same,” Diane responded. That got them moving. Marlene giggled like it was all a game.
Diane stuck her face into Marlene’s. “You think this is funny? . . . Huh? . . . Answer me!”
Marlene shrunk back and shook her head.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you don’t,” Diane smirked. Somehow, she head managed to regain whatever distance had been lost—she was boss again. And the girls understood whatever it was she wasn’t saying.
Diane turned her attention to me. “You go patrol the upstairs,” she said in the same tone she had used with the girls. I felt reduced to underling status. “Make sure they follow the rules. Take notes.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Miss Kicker and I are taking a little trip to the zoo.” Diane grinned and cocked her head. Her composure, and her control, all back together again.
I watched them go out of the apartment, Diane’s arm around Greta’s shoulder. Had Greta’s head not been hanging, it would have appeared that Diane was leading a prized student to an award ceremony.
(Part Three - March)