Visiting Hours

by ANDREW McFADYEN-KETCHUM

i What then did we know of sadness, of suicide threats and institutional wards, pharmaceutical sleep in pharmaceutical dreams, and the one lit window in the night I believed was hers? When she called it was stories of group therapy and crazies who listed down the long, cinderblock hallways of narcoleptics and nightmare, the fluorescents’ strain when shock waves flagged the lines, and how when the twin red oaks bled their shadows past the gated revetment, another night came calling. Still, when the doctor’s opinions turned and Mary came home, the ward’s work became our own: antipsychotics and insomnia dreams, the list of sharp objects we checked our world against. She shaved her head and called it liminal, slept by day and shook coffee to her mouth by night, sank deeper and deeper after twilight into the diamond-blue oracle of her laptop when all but the clocks were sleeping. And when finally she did it, a year had passed in that bedroom we swore not to enter: dim shafts of dust in beams through the blacked-out casements, the instructions Mary scrawled in black Sharpie across her mirror: wake brush your teeth stop thinking such things ii No one prepared me my entrance into that ship of souls. No one taught me to mask each step I took across checkered linoleum or that it wasn’t wandering, that path of pea gravel and weeds that wound the back lot’s maze of fifty-year boxwoods and a crumbling slave wall, that path the doctors had Mary keep. Pulling handfuls of bluegrass and henbit, I brought her back to childhood’s game of palms, traced her birthline with the tip of a finger, read the will of the thumb, said you will name your many children for saints only to watch her turn her hand into a fist around another clump of thistle. What could I do?— I nothing more than a boy dangling before her, searching for the words to summon the girl I once knew from the girl this girl had become, her hair already turned the dun of the ash of the cigarette that dangled between her fingers, eyes turned all hours to the closed doors of the earth, her down-turned lashes the wings of some darkly-sane and wing-broke bird. iii Her oversized t-shirt. Her paint-spattered jeans. Bras hung like eighth-notes from the bed post. Prison bars of light then dark then light again cast by the window. None of it seemed real—I a member of the perfectly sane, I the visitor allotted his single hour. So I took it all in: the misplaced game pieces and faded carpet, gowned residents hugging the ward’s warped walls, the courtyard where I found her, that inner sanctum of smoke. Standing in the doorway I held open... The nurse (my quiet guide through the labyrinth of rooms) receding back to her duties... Watching Mary sleep...a rhombus of daylight scrolled across her star-turned face, the hardback balanced on her chest slid slowly down the length of her body, and a cricket chirred its song. When I went to her, I went quietly, careful not to disturb the garden’s foundation of vines, the birdbath poised on its pedestal. What else could I do but watch her rest? The tiptoe of stray hairs across her face. The procession of ants climbing up her leg propped on the waterless water fountain. iv The doctors told them Keep an eye on your daughter, but she need not stay here. Watch her take her pills three times a day. Let her rest all day if she wants in her room. But when she descended the carpeted stairs that linked her world to ours, they said she stumbled like an injured angel in her nightgown down that handful of steps, gazed about the kitchen and its objects (a salt shaker, the checker of a tablecloth) as if she’d entered a stranger’s house. That’s when they posted the list of chores like a want ad to the Frigidaire’s bifurcated door and began to plan her return to college, the writing gig they helped her find at the local paper just enough to fulfill the dean’s requirements. Then came the radical, post-Feminist papers she authored for her distance-learning course and the late-night journaling sessions: I am a freight train I am a freight train, in perfect block print in a margin of a notebook: I am a freight train I am a freight train, scribbled on a rolling paper. I am the rain. I am inane. I may not fly like a great blue crane, but I am not insane. I am not insane. I. Am not. Insane. v blame the lariam blame the bad pills blame my thin blood and vanishing periods blame the spasms in my back how i could crack my neck like the snap of green twigs in flame blame the drugs they had me take blame nepal blame malaria and the faulty doctors the shrink with his bifocals and beard the mosquito for its infected proboscis blame the military for its failed recipe blame bad blood blame lucid dreams blame bellyaches and the night nurse her concoction of tablets blame linoleum blame white sheets and matching curtains breathing in and out of the window blame the ticking space heater and the stars’ poor alignment western medicines failed search for an antidote blame nausea blame vomiting blame diarrhea blame dizziness loss of balance blame stomach pain muscle pain difficulty falling asleep difficulty staying asleep difficulty breathing blame the rash and seizures blame the rash of seizures blame rain blame the sun blame a loss of feeling in the toes confusion and forgetfulness blame the radio’s bad signal blame passenger planes power lines transformers blame shaking in the arms and legs panic attacks blame hallucinations blame blame blame the parking garage’s easy access blame the voices no one hears but me blame visions blame waking dreams and miscommunication blame the sensation others want to harm me blame the thoughts of killing myself blame the beautiful blame the mosquito its hunger blame hunger blame nepal blame the medicine the government still makes our soldiers take blame the lariam blame the lariam blame anything but me vi We wanted to touch the moon, bobbing that flashbulb on the heat-glazed pane of Smith Lake. So we dove full-clothed from the dock, paddled slowly that body of water as chorus frogs and crickets boomed back and forth from the reed-thick shore. There, at the lake’s dead center, we embraced that back-filled halo in our circle of hands. There, treading water, Mary cupped her palms beneath that beacon, lifted it to my lips, and said Drink... And what could I do but follow when she side-stepped buoyancy and dove beneath the moon, dropping easily through zones of cold and colder water, the frog- slick star-vines and hydrilla swaying heavily in the drifts, her hair held suspended by the water’s hundred hands? What I want is to go back to the moon’s conception when it first broke free of the earth to fly that first tethered orbit around the hemispheres. I want to tell the Jade Rabbit’s story, finger its outline from the ridgelines and craters, that hare working herbs in an urn for the immortals. I want to see that moon returned to its rightful station overhead, Mary making small motions with her hands to keep from rising as we held our breaths who knows how long until she rose, thick ribbons of reeds unraveling from her ankles, Mary surfacing so slowly it was as if she were ascending not water but sky. Mary backlit against darkness. Mary slipping into the moon. vii Still hard to believe it was the road’s grip alone that kept us breathing, no moonlight as we maneuvered the hairpins and jogs of the fireroad we climbed, doing our best to keep pace with the New River hammering along in its groove through the chinquapins. You could say, We desired ascension, wheeling our way up Proffer Mountain, headlights panning wildly as broken lighthouse beams. You might think, They were just young, sleeping all day and flinting fires by night. No tent. Only our mummy bags and boots. The frayed edges of the tarp as satellites pinging across the cool fix of stars. But it’s her voice, not these images that keep calling me back. That one evening of snow, its broad, almost winged flakes turning back into water just moments above the flames. That weird metal ache of last dark we stayed up for, sipping Folgers and stoking the campfire until the faceplate of the ridgeline tilted open and the sky’s dull tint drained back into the valley like a bruise. It’s her face lit by fire—a white mask in the dark. It’s the nightjars calling out into the quiet for a name: Whip- or-will? Whip- or- will? It’s Mary saying back: -will -will -will

viii

Who’s to say a starsprent sky didn’t warp or flex above the foothills that night? Or That any kind of light at all broke free of the clouds to knife its gloom across the snow-banked rooftops and empty lots of Blacksburg, Virginia’s 3 AM? All I know for sure is the clamor the cordless made from my desk and the gin-and-tonic headache I woke to, my sister’s voice like static.

This was in my final semester of college, hawking Rolling Rocks and hoagies to Engineering Professors and the ROTC at a deli not a block from the power plant. On Fridays I’d kneel in rubber gloves to cleanse the massive industry of Steakumms and Kraft powdered alfredo for an extra under-the table five. Then I’d clock out to fight the gales of wind that gathered speed between the dormitories and halls before finding my seat around the conference table of amateur theorists.

But I have no idea what 3 AM this was or whether the westerlies howled or bayed as my sister’s words caromed the complicated wound of my ear. All I know for sure is how slowly the receiver fell from my hand, the dent it left in the hardwood, the lights in the hallway snapping to life, my foggy-eyed roommates emerging from their bedrooms.

Who knows what else happened that day? I’ve read a platoon of American boys led a night raid on Kabul and came back men. I’ve no doubt the thermometers ruptured at the county airport with cold. Somewhere, certainly, God made another of his billion daily revision of the world.

But what did any of that matter anymore? The only thing I could see was Mary. The ledge. All that snow. The only thing visible was her mother clenching the bed sheets in her sleep, her father holding his head in his impossible hands. The phone call I had to make.

ix That first morning, it wasn’t the distance that mattered but that which made it: a mountain pass, two valleys, several hundred miles of road the only link between that place I woke to and home. That first morning, I wandered my apartment as if I’d never listened to the warming of its foundation or the buckling of floorboards, the wan dust and debris of everyday life floating in columns of daylight through the east-facing windows. And when the train whistle cooed its sluggish way through town, a motley crew of wintering crow lifted like paint fumes from my backyard. And when a roommate’s alarm erupted, a showerhead burst to life, the coffeemaker kept winking 12:00 AM 12:00 AM 12:00 AM 12:00 AM... What else is there to say? What else recall? That first morning, it wasn’t Mary that haunted me or her leap, but her father’s words, diffuse and malformed through the telephone, that voice once so certain I held to my ear, I sat on the bed, I did nothing, I said nothing, I did everything I could. x i. I kicked at pebbles on the shoulder of the highway, tested the wind’s direction with a finger. The winds that came spoke of hoarfrost and fields, commerce rumbling by on I-40, the streetlamps burning their fishhook of light before the red-brick Victorian— its locked double doors, its hundred shuttered eyes. Not a family member, not a lover, no guests welcome past visiting hours, I watched the night watchman doze in his A-frame of spit cups and Hustlers, I observed the roosting of birds, the library of stars adrift against the trees that lined the county road where I drafted my path over the high outer wall and through the just- mown grass, the method by which I’d scale the sanitarium, tap a finger on her window, whisper, Mary, let me in. ii. I still don’t know why I’ve put her in this house for the somewhat-less-than-sane where they kept her a mere 24 hours, a two-hour’s drive from her bedroom where she hid herself the year before she died. That December home from college, I’d park across the street from her house, warm my hands by the heat of my Sentra’s 4-cylinders and wait to catch a glimpse of Mary in her window. More than a decade I’ve been writing these verses. Still I have no answer. She spent just a year in college. She climbed the mountains of Nepal, helped raise schools for the poor. In the one picture I’ve kept, she smiles at the camera. Sometimes a fly lands on the glass of the frame. Sometimes it looks as if she’s blinking. iii. And what would you do differently? she asks, sights trained through the passenger window on that glowing square of light that could be the window of the imagined sanitarium, could be the window of her bedroom on Willis Ave. She’s blue-eyed here. The breeze is honeysuckle and sex. And even though she knows I’ve no answers, knows when I say nothing I say everything, she places a finger to my lips to freeze me in that game of What Ifs I’ve been playing since college then departs to follow that brick path back to herself from the mailbox to the stoop, up the sanitarium walls and through her house’s archway into that white hospital room while I’m stuck here, eyeing that figure lighting the window. Is that a chest x-ray or the moon? Is that the girl I once loved, the girl we thought we knew?

ANDREW McFADYEN-KETCHUM is the author of Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014, Finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, Finalist for the Colorado Book Award), series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2014), founder and Editor-in-Chief of PoemoftheWeek.org, and editor of Warning! Poems May Be Longer Than They Appear: An Anthology of LongISH Poems (forthcoming) and Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2012). His poems, reviews, interviews, and podcasts have appeared in journals such as The Writer’s Chronicle, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, storySouth, Blackbird, InsideHigherEd.com, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others.