Our Lady loves like a dog. Four yellow chairs. Chirping from inside the mint green chimney in the kitchen. Small birds fly in and sing, fly out. Why is there a chimney in the kitchen? Fireplace in the living room. Boarded up, but the whole room smells like smoke. One of these two parts of the hospital was built first. Now a bathroom, hallway, front door connects them. Glass front door opens directly on the toilet, sink, a sliding wooden door. Obviously added. But where was the bathroom a hundred years ago? Outhouse in the large backyard.
White magnolias silky flower skin. Jasmine. Mosquitoes. Rubbing one off the dog’s forehead, it dies on a towel. Someone’s blood staining it. Bird song in the chimney is outside in the yard now, chirpa chirpa chirpa. Squeaky. She wishes she was more interesting for the dog, or that there was something in the hospital more interesting for the dog to do than to stare at her. It’s after dinner, after their walk. He’s lying by the front door, head back to watch her cooking couscous. Plain, she doesn’t like it. But she’s hungry. No car. Then she realizes it’s love, or affection anyway. He’s looking at her because the looking itself is a kind of happiness. Is happiness. He’s a good dog. Sweet. Thumping his tail when she walks by. Even if he’s half asleep, eyes half shut – thump thump thump. A bird is singing inside the bricks a few feet from her chair in the kitchen. A new song, new bird. Notes continuous like something small and mechanical that can’t stop. It must be dark in there.
The dog’s brown eyes on her. It’s how she looks at a man she loves. Just the sight of him. Even a photo. Her chest settles down, body at rest. The sight of him a comfort. Tonight, she’s a comfort for the dog. It’s weird not having to do anything to be loved. Just be there, be seen. No one has ever been satisfied with so little from her. A train goes by for a long time. Like a wind outside the house. 8:30 PM, almost full dark. This must be dusk.
She wanted to go home, but didn’t have one anymore. Just the Night Hospital. Borrowed time like a light snowfall. Flush. A keep is a jail. She would never say I’m stoked. Never say vacay. But if she talked for a long time, her voice strained, cracked, lowered. As if all conversation was still a play, an acted voice. What was her own voice like? It was too late to start over.
The dog, a blond lab, was tired now. Slept stretched out by the front door. Not moving as she stepped over him, into the kitchen. Sliced two small red apples, sprinkled salt over them as Susan had in sixth grade. She and Susan had eaten the salted apple slices sitting on her concrete stoop. She’d never heard of salt on an apple before. This was before Susan’s little brother stepped into the garage, and a rake fell, took out an eye. In eighth grade, she ate apple slices on granola after school, reading The Good Earth at the kitchen table. Now, the apples were a meal. She’d bought a bag of apples, hoped they would fill her up. Last through morning. The cereal gone, bananas. Fiber, fruit had fiber. Maybe the dog loved her because she fed him. He could count on her to open the plastic tote with his name markered on it. Fill his silver bowl with a little more than a cup of dry brown nuggets. Half a pink anti-inflammatory tablet in the morning. Gold fish oil capsule at night. Fresh water. Singsong voice he seemed to like, so she kept using it. A high sweet voice for dogs and babies. She called him Good.
Redemption means to tear loose, a ransom. When drawn from the marketplace, it means to buy back. Any land forfeited through economic distress was returned to its original owner in the year of Jubilee. According to Leviticus, every 50th year in Israel was to be announced as a jubilee year. Our Lady was 50. Perhaps she could be redeemed. Have her own Jubilee. She is reading a publication from the Department of Agriculture: Light Horse Production in Florida. The Night Hospital library has two copies. The Pony of Americas has the Appaloosa’s eyes, the body of Quarter Horse and Arabian. A grown Shetland Pony is about 8 hands high, but no more than 11 hands. The Pony of Americas Club keeps two registration books. One is the tentative book – a pony gets in based on looks. To get in the permanent book, a mare must foal three qualifying foals; a stallion must sire 12 qualifying foals. The counting of the foals, keeping of the books, exhausts Our Lady. The blinker is attached to the bridle to restrict what the horse can see, focus attention forward. She’s never seen this bright yellow face on the green wallpaper before.
A woman in town is getting married. Her husband-to-be asked her to get something bunnish. The woman is very calm. Dark hair combed in a French twist. A white gauzy flower in back, to the left. A pearl in the center. She’s thin, older. Alone. Our Lady can’t imagine she’ll ever marry someone who will ask her to get a bun. Our Lady can only imagine marrying someone in the past. As if the past is a dream. She can see a yellow room – mustard and tan –
in a city where she is younger and loved. She’s younger in the future. A man who loves her is in the room. They are city dwellers. A window seat awaits them. Confabulation is fabrication of stories in response to questions about events that are not recalled. It is found in the table of neurologic deficits. Our Lady does not confabulate. She wants to please, but is already confused by what she may have missed. What she is missing right this moment.
However, her disinterest in keeping the records of ponies may be abulia: a reduction in impulse to action and thought coupled with indifference or lack of concern about the consequences of action. She wonders if the squeaking birds in the chimney know that she is outside the bricks, that they are contained inside it, inside the kitchen, inside the hospital. That there is life outside their life. Chirping winds down, mechanically again. Then, wings flutter, a beating in the dark air. As if the bird is right beside her ear, in her hair. Anosognosia: apparent unawareness of one’s own functional defect. The Night Hospital is for those who can function during the day, but need supervision after work. In the Day Hospital, one returns home at night. There is also a Weekend Hospital.
At the Night Hospital, a pale girl asked Our Lady, “What did it smell like in the Year 2014? The girl’s strawberry hair reached her waist. Fell, as if her head were the summit of a waterfall. Her body the cliff.
“A shooting gallery. Caps hit with sharp gray rocks on the sidewalk. The diseases of horses. The respiratory ones – small hemorrhages throughout the body. And Strangles, with abscesses around the head. The Navel Ill. Sleeping Sickness. Animals on their sides, bicycling their legs. Swamp fever. The blood-stained tears of later Equine Piroplasmosis.” The girl was sixteen. Tell her something hopeful. “A pie with molasses and brown sugar filling.” Oh, Our Lady is confabulating after all. She’s never had a shoofly. Something true, something true. “Cucumbers, white patches of snow. Spreading open. Rain, the Big Dipper, flight feathers. A primary color. Blown glass, fish orbit. Oranges. Dead letters. Donut sugar. A hot punch of chlorinated lime. Do-It-Yourself-Guides. Sometimes it smelled like nothing, or like air-conditioning and cooped-up dog. Sometimes when I got caught in rain, my unwashed hair smelled like cooped-up dog. I don’t know why. Hair of the dog. Ha-ha.” The girl is too young for this joke. Too young for wool-sorter’s disease, a pulmonary anthrax. “Sometimes my hair smelled of fruit and purple. We were tireless with fragrance in our toiletries. Talcum powder. Evergreens. Cold snakes and smolt. Honey was popular. Tea-kettle rust. Helium. Dense fog. Some people had an appetite for ashes or earth or paint. Pee seeped into the concrete walk over the bridge. When boats approached, a man in a tower opened the bridge into two halves. Coffee, cinnamon, chocolate, creamcups. We ate a lot of albacore in tin. Homey electromagnetic waves. Blue light. Tellurian, we never smelled gravity. No one wanted to decompose, so people often memorized and danced.”
The girl said, “My name is Eleanor of Castile,” though she was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. All day she took tickets for the ride, “It’s a Small World.” Even now, her chin nods slightly to the tune. It sends strawberry molecules into the air. Our Lady sat on her pull-out couch, dented cushions propping her up as if she were a doll. In the Night Hospital, she’d first unpack her Bed-in-a-Bag, plug the power cord, the electric mouth over the hole. Turn it to blow the crumpled rubber into a mattress. Roaches had appeared in the kitchen, bath, dining room, and lately one in her room too. Our Lady killed them with bathroom cleaner and recycled paper towels. She wore yellow gloves. But the big finger-long palmetto bugs kept coming back. Her pull-out too close to the floor. No metal underneath, no frame or coils, just two cushions on the floor. Still attached to the couch. She lay the blow-up bed on top. Which added another 3 inches. Slept with the hall light on.
“Sweat and dust. Stone. Salt from the sea. Weeds. A casserole, hamburger on a grill. There was skunk and shit and schlieren. Sometimes children blew kisses. Apple green shampoo. Sunblock. Nuptial lilies. Rooms full of sex, unbottled a component of air. One of the elements. The lobster pot was a cage, loblolly denuded. We thought our bodies extrinsic, like cars we drove around.” The chimney bird warbled, a blown bubble song.
On her day off, Eleanor of Castile accompanied Our Lady to her U-Horde storage unit. Unemployed, she could no longer afford it. Hoped to throw a few things away. She’d been hording clothes. Threw a stretchy, bright watermelon exercise suit into a tote. To donate. “Looks like it would fit a child,” Eleanor said. A rusty evening gown gemmed with gold stars, diamond-ish straps. Orange surf shorts. “Imagine we’re on a hoarding show,” Our Lady said. “Eleanor, you’re the host, you have to be tough. I won’t want to throw anything away.” Eleanor has the round eyes of a baby. Paying attention, but unclear to what. Eleanor dips her chin slightly to the left in assent. She’s strong. Steps up on a box of books, an old yellow paperback of Les Miserables beneath her sneakers. Grabs a full tote of clothes, hands it down to Our Lady. Fourteen totes total. To reach them all, they have removed seven bookshelves, a kitchen chair, end table, metal bed frame and feet, a glass lamp. Lined them up in the storage hallway. “It’s not as bad as in the TV shows,” Eleanor said, lifting a clear tote with pink lid. “There’s no dead cats.” After examining each item of clothing, Our Lady filled nine totes to donate. During the examinations, Eleanor varied her comments: “It makes you look old,” or “It’s too young.” Both worked. Often Eleanor just wrinkled her nose, twisted her mouth as if Our Lady tried to serve her jarred octopus and peas. Our Lady tried to imagine someone else in her opera gowns, exercise clothes, bikinis, clear straps that can attach to any bra. Suit jackets, vanilla lace dress. Flannel shirts, winter socks. Flared jeans. But once she throws an item in a tote to donate, she’s done with it. “Don’t throw,” Eleanor said. “Fold. Otherwise they won’t all fit.” While Our Lady reorganized the unit, Eleanor carried the discarded clothes to her hatchback. Drove to Habitat for Humanity and got there just before they closed. There’s another fifteen or twenty totes to go through. “Nowhere to bring them now,” Eleanor said. “Let’s go.” Mouth means corner, edge, skirt, a well, a sack, a grave. Eleanor spoke from one of these.
Getting rid of belongings can be good or bad. Feng shui good, making room for something new. Suicide bad, saving others the trouble of sorting through your things. Eleanor appeared to view the trip as good. Our Lady too – it’s nice to have less to carry. “But it’s like giving away my past,” she said as Eleanor slid her key into the U-Horde checkout machine. “You still have your mind,” Eleanor said, not looking at her. “Your memories.”
At the Night Hospital, Eleanor tells her that the kitchen used to be a separate building. “In case it caught on fire, the whole place wouldn’t burn down.” This chimney with the birds a remnant of the old kitchen, 1890s Florida. “There’s a plaque on the front porch,” she said. The chimney kept in the new building as support, ballast to help hold up the ceiling. There’s a beat from next door. Drums, a dog howling as if trying to sing along. Sepham is nakedness, near the Sea of Galilee. In Canaan. On TV, a man and a woman are flown to a jungle. These two strangers are left there without any clothing. Just a hatchet and a film crew. The film crew instructed not to assist them in any way, to blur their genitals, her breasts. On screen, it makes the couple look ghostly. As if their spirits are disappearing or returning. The dog is an owl: ow, ow, ow, ow, pain all at the same pitch.
Kelle Groom’s memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), is a Barnes & Noble Discover selection, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and a Library Journal Best Memoir. An NEA Fellow, her work has appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Ploughshares. Groom’s fourth poetry collection, Spill, will be published by Anhinga Press. Her fiction is forthcoming in Saint Ann’s Review and Map Literary.