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Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Cup of Tea

Flash fiction - about an unsettling visit to a mental institution.


I spoke to Nannie Mae only once after she was sent to the institution.  It was in January, I remember, the weather was bitter cold.  I didn't want to go, but she was my aunt, my mother's oldest sister, and I felt I should.  Three years were enough to bring me to a place where I thought I should confront this broken piece of my family's past, however painful that confrontation might be.

I don't know what I expected -- people in straitjackets, drawing with crayons clenched in their teeth, making wild purple swoops on pieces of butcher paper. Inmates  laughing wildly, their eyes wide and white.  The sounds of screams bouncing off metal walls.

There were no straitjackets, no shrieking and moaning.  It was a quiet place; the dust hung motionless in the beams of light coming in through the windows, so that the light itself seemed not to be moving, to be something solid that you could pick up and move when you were done with it.  Oh, you knew that the quiet was an illusion; the security was there, and an outburst would have brought them running.  You could see it in the guarded expressions, in their careful, controlled movements.  It was the tense silence of the coiled mainspring of an overwound clock.  Hold your breath, let the silence continue.  Don't disturb the people.  Don't disturb the dust.

Nannie Mae looked up when I came to her, where she sat wearing a house dress with little blue flowers.  Her eyes fluttered over me, vague passes over my face like the brush of a light breeze, there and then gone, never resting in one spot for long.  She smiled a little.


"Hi, Aunt Nan," I said.

Her hands made a restless, fluttering movement, like her eyes.  "It's sweet of you to visit."

"I wanted to see how you were doing."

"I'm well, well enough.  They treat me nicely here.  For the most part."

"Is there anything you need?" I asked, not knowing what to say, wanting to fill the silence.  I didn't know if I could bring her things, anyway, or if that was against the rules.  I suspected that this place had lots of rules.

"Tea," she said. "I'd like a cup of tea.  Two sugars, no lemon, like I like it."

"Oh, okay.  I was more thinking of things like books, or music, or something.  But I'll see if I can find someone who can get you a cup of tea."

She smiled, and some of the tenseness went out of her; I could see what she had been during my childhood, the eccentric maiden aunt who played the piano, who was just a little bit different -- not insane.  Not yet.  Not yet the person who would eventually, by order of the court, be committed to this place for the rest of her life.

"John, dear," she said. "How is Adelaide?  I do miss her.  Would she come see me some time, do you think?"

I looked at her, searching for some sign that she was kidding, that she knew that what she was saying wasn't possible, but her vague, watery blue eyes just kept up their ceaseless, restless movement, never giving me a window by which to see into her thoughts.

"Aunt Nan, mom's dead.  She died three years ago.  Don't you remember?"

There was no shock of sudden recollection; the truth and her version of it melted into each other seamlessly.  "Oh, of course, that's right.  And your father?  How is he?"

"He's managing.  Bonnie and I visit him a lot."

"A good man, your father.  I'm glad.  But, John, there's just..."  A frown wrinkled her forehead, and I thought that perhaps there might be more, that she could find something in her memories of the real world that she could catch a hook into, and let it pull her along, pull her out of this dusty half light into the full light of day.  The harsh, unyielding light that shows us everything, whether we want to see it or not.

Her frown deepened, and her mouth opened a little, her eyes focusing on some distant point for a moment, then came back to my face.

"I never got my tea, you know," she said, raising one hand and then letting it fall back into her lap.

I made an excuse to leave, saying I had an appointment, I couldn't stay long.  She said okay, that was all right.  Nothing seemed to register much with her, or at least not for very long.  So I made my lame excuses and left, eager to get back to the free air and the free light.  But as I left, I asked the attendant to bring her a cup of tea.

Two sugars, no lemon.

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