SCARLET FEVER – Daphne Bellflower

Albert sat on his wooden chair, trying to get comfortable. He squirmed this way, that way, but nothing worked. His state-issued pajamas were itchier than usual today. Albert speculated they were overdoing the bleach in the laundry again. He scratched his bony chest, and glared at the newcomer.

The thing Albert hated the most about Jordan wasn’t just Jordan’s handsome face. True, Jordan’s square jaw, blue eyes and thick black hair were were disconcerting. But his intense dislike wasn’t entirely due to Jordan’s striking appearance. It was Jordan’s ease, his confidence, the way he wore his hospital pajamas like he was wearing a tuxedo.

Albert continued scratching, his yellow nails creating a whirlwind of skin flakes that landed on the dayroom table. He leaned over to Ginny, who stared steadily at the wall across the room. “Can you believe this guy?,” Albert whispered in her ear. “Where does he think he is? The Olympic Hotel? Maybe somebody should tell him he’s locked up in a mental hospital.”

Albert waited a few minutes for Ginny to respond. She continued to stare intently at the pale green wall. The shift nurse had handed out medication about an hour ago. Albert figured that Ginny was deep into her Thorazine stupor by now. He’d ask her again before the nurse issued the ward’s pre-dinner medication.

Restless, he looked out the window. It was another grey day from what Albert could tell through the safety wire. He scratched and squirmed. He was always lonely after breakfast medication was administered. Most of the patients needed pills to stay calm. Albert didn’t, but sometimes he wished he did.

Albert shook open his beloved newspaper and snuck a look at Jordan behind his flimsy fortress. The paper was ragged, at least five months old. Albert had surreptitiously fished it out of the trash after he was done with his shift at the dairy. The nurses and orderlies hadn’t confiscated it, probably because May 27, 1963 was long enough ago for the staff to simply be amused by Albert’s coveted link to the outside world.

Albert studied the front page photo and crossed-checked it with the real life Jordan Neville, sitting a couple of feet away. “Neville The Devil Declared Criminally Insane,” the headline announced. “Neville Sentenced to Western State Hospital For The Murder Of Local Girls.” With all this attention, Albert figured Jordan was just as famous as Sinatra or Eisenhower. Jordan, feeling Albert’s gaze, looked at him and smiled.

For the umpteenth time, Albert read every detail of of the murders and the ensuing trial. Teenaged girl after teenaged girl had disappeared from Tacoma over the past two years. The circumstances of the girls disappearances were different, but the end result was always the same. Albert read about the murders, thinking about his own two daughters at home with his wife.

Susie was walking home from  school. Alice didn’t show up at the Girl Scout meeting. Miriam didn’t come home after the football game. Ellie rode her bike to the candy store and never came back. And so on. The girls were all eventually found; Susie in a dumpster, her throat slashed. Alice strangled and tossed in Commencement Bay. Miriam, shot in the head, at the bottom of the ravine. And Ellie, her bike found in Jordan’s garage, her mangled body found behind the concession stand at the Star Lite drive-in.

Albert knew for a fact that Jordan wasn’t too smart. It was Ellie’s bike, a girl’s Schwinn Starlet with a pink seat and white handlebar basket that gave Jordan away. The police found it in Jordan’s garage after a neighbor saw it and called the police. The bike wasn’t the only suspicious thing the police found. There was a box full of mementos from Jordan’s twisted hobby; a retainer, a plastic coin purse, a home economics textbook, and several pairs of girls cotton underwear.

“Hey Jordan,” Albert said, glancing at the ward nurse. She was engrossed in Photoplay, staring at photographs of Liz and Dick. She wouldn’t look up unless excessive screaming started in the ward. “Hey, Jordan, I’m Albert Towne. Hope you like it here. Looks like you won’t be leaving this place for a long time.” He gave him a tight, sarcastic smile. “Who are you gonna murder next?”

Jordan got up, his height and broad shoulders both impressive and a little worrisome to Albert. Jordan ambled over and sat down next to him. “You know, it’s been quiet for a while,” he said confidentially. “I haven’t been ordered to eradicate. I usually wait until the voices start, and then I do what I’m told to do.” He shrugged, leaned back into the chair, and crossed his legs. “Nothing,” Jordan said. “Right now I don’t hear a thing. I think they’re gone”

“Isn’t your family ashamed of you, humiliated by what you’ve done?” hissed Albert.  “I bet they all hate your guts. They probably have to move to a different state because of you.”

“Nope. My family’s all dead,” Jordan said casually. “They died in a fire when I was a kid. Our house burned down, my dad and mom and my brother burnt up.” He paused, a ghost of a smile on his face. “So I moved in with my grandma. She’s dead too.” Albert felt the itching start up again. He looked resentfully at Jordan and started to scratch.

Albert’s commitment to Western State definitely lacked the criminal drama of Jordan’s. His entire life to this point added up to a whole lot of nothing. His bout with childhood scarlet fever left him skinny and awkward. He never really fit in with the other kids in his neighborhood, and his frequent illnesses left him bedridden for weeks at a time. An only child, his mother was fearful that she might lose him. Any cough or sneeze was an excuse for her to pull Albert out of school until the family doctor deemed him well enough to attend class. He spent his high school graduation in bed, eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup.

He married Bettie, the daughter of his mother’s best friend, right after he graduated. She was just as awkward as Albert. Her buck teeth and thick black glasses prevented high school success just as Albert’s frequent illnesses precluded friends, sports, and typical teenage activities. They went on three dates, and Albert proposed. He knew they were perfect for each other.

Bettie had their first daughter a year after they were married, and the second girl a year later. Now Albert had a family to support, so he had to get a job. Like many men in Tacoma, Albert went to work at the Asarco smelter. It was grueling work and the smell was terrible, but the pay was good and for the first time in his life, Albert made friends.

Each day after their shift was over, Albert and his coworkers trudged up the long hill from the smelter to the town. There were several temptations on that long walk; the bars and whorehouses would claim at least half of the men before they reached the top. Albert was happy to follow his new friends into one of the many bars.

Another pleasant discovery was the the joy of drinking alcohol. After a few drinks, Albert’s nervousness disappeared. He didn’t feel like an sickly, skinny joke anymore. He was a steelworker, not a twitchy invalid. Albert loved how drinking made him feel, and he liked the company of men. It didn’t matter if it was his fellow steelworkers or sailors on leave. Albert just felt good in their company.

He began coming home later and later, unwilling and increasingly unable to leave the bars. The first time he blacked out and didn’t some home, Bettie called his parents and the police. Albert woke up in the bushes, the daylight hurting his eyes. His head throbbed and he threw up before getting into his car and driving home to find Bettie in tears and his parents tense with worry. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and threw up in the kitchen to the sound of his mom and Bettie’s shouts.

It wouldn’t be the last time Albert stayed out all night. He had developed a pattern: go to work, grab a drink with the guys, get drunk, and black out. Most of the time he woke up in his own bed, Bettie tight lipped with anger when he got up the next day.

But sometimes he’d wake up in other places with no memory of the night before. On several occasions the police found him passed out on the sidewalk. They would throw him in jail for the night, and let him leave when he sobered up.

One morning Albert woke up in an alley in downtown Tacoma. He couldn’t remember how he got there. He felt cold, looked down, and noticed his pants had been pulled down around his ankles. He tasted blood in his mouth, and wiggled a loose front tooth with his tongue. He pulled up his pants and staggered around the corner to the street. The sun was high, and he knew he missed his shift again.

Missing work became another one of Albert’s unpleasant new habits. After missing several days, Asarco let him go. Even the steelworker’s union couldn’t intervene. Bettie had given up her rivalry with the liquor; she left with the girls and moved back in with her parents. So Albert had no job and no place to go. His mother died earlier that spring, and his dad wanted nothing to do with him.

“You’re a drunk,” his dad said, “you killed your mom with your drinking and you lost your family. I don’t want to see you until you get yourself straightened out.” That was the last time Albert saw his dad until his hearing.

He sold the house and used the proceeds to rent a cheap room downtown. He liked living in downtown Tacoma. His hotel was close to a dozen bars and the county jail. If the police picked him up for public drunkenness, he could easily walk back to his hotel the next day. He missed Bettie and his girls, but he found he could easily erase their faces after a few drinks. Albert found that he couldn’t get his mom out of his thoughts as easily.

When he got sick, and he got sick often, there was nobody in his hotel to take care of him. As the weeks passed, Albert became obsessed with his mother’s kindness to him as a child. He’d take the bus out to the Tacoma Cemetery and sit by her grave for hours. He began bringing a pint with him when he visited, drinking and thinking about her.  The thought of her laying in the cold ground under layers of dirt made Albert physically ill.

He began taking the bus there every day. Other mourners stayed away from him, his drinking and muttering to himself making the obligatory trip to the cemetery even worse. The cemetery office began getting complaints from visitors. Albert was asked by management to end his mother’s drunken graveside vigil, and not return unless he was sober.

A few nights later, Albert was drinking in the Siren. He looked at his glass and began to cry. “Hey everybody, look at the queer,” said Billy, a Siren regular. “Must be crying about his mommy again. Boo-hoo-hoo.” The drunken crowd laughed appreciatively. Billy was a mean drunk, but he was also funny. Bartenders regretted having to throw him out when he got too rambunctious. At least he provided a little entertainment to an otherwise depressing crowd.

Albert finished his drink and staggered over to Billy. “Screw you,” Albert slurred. “What do you know about anything. I’m no fairy, I’m married.”

“Where’s your wife, then” Billy said, looking around. “You only stare at the guys. We know you ain’t looking for pussy.” He laughed. “Didn’t Tom have to kick your ass last week after you tried to touch his dick? You said it was a mistake, but we all know better.” Everyone laughed, even the bartender who typically tried to remain above this sort of thing.

Albert left the Siren, and started walking towards the cemetery. He couldn’t take it any longer. He had to see his mother again. He climbed over the fence and headed toward her gravesite. There was a funeral earlier that day, and next to the fresh grave was a wheelbarrow full of tools. Albert grabbed a pickaxe and found his mom’s headstone. ELEANOR ANN TOWNE. b. 1898 d. 1957. BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER.

He woke up in handcuffs, his mouth full of dirt. Two police officers were staring down at the hole. Tufts of grass and piles of dirt were everywhere. The top of the coffin was nicked with holes from the pickaxe. Albert moaned. “Well, look who just woke up,” one of the cops said, nudging the other. “What the hell were you trying to do?”

Albert burst into tears and wouldn’t stop crying, not even the next day when he was taken to court. The judge glared as Albert sobbed. His dad, sitting next to Bettie, stood up. “Your honor,” he said, “we ask the court to commit Albert to Western State Hospital. He’s a drunk. He was fired from his  job. He abandoned his wife and kids. He tried to dig up his mother last night.”

The judge stared at Albert. “Is this true?” he asked. Albert, shaking from alcohol withdrawal, couldn’t respond. “I have no choice, based on your past arrest records, complaints from the cemetery, and testimony from your wife and father, to remit you to Western State Hospital for mental instability and chronic dipsomania.” So that was that. Albert arrived at Western State Hospital in a straightjacket for what turned out to be an extended stay.

Albert paced around the ward, scratching his stomach. He sat down next to Jordan, who was surrounded by female patients. “My lawyer’s gonna get me out,” Jordan was explaining. “This is all a big mistake. I told the judge that they went away, that I only did what they told me to do.” He paused and leaned forward. “They’re with Lee Harvey Oswald now.”

“Ha,” Albert sneered. “What a joke. You’re nuts. That’s why you’re here.” He got up and stomped off in disgust. He rapped on the nurse’s station window. “Nurse,” he yelled, “isn’t it time for my appointment?”

She looked up from Photoplay, dreaming of diamonds and the Via Veneto. “It’s time, Albert. Calm down, I’ll call for the orderly. She lit a cigarette and resumed reading. Albert jiggled nervously from one foot to the other until an orderly arrived to take him to the hospital psychiatrist.

He followed the orderly through door after locked steel door. They got to a long, carpeted hallway. “Dr. Spencer,” announced the nameplate. The orderly rapped on the door. “Albert Towne to see you sir.” Albert walked into his office.

“Well Albert, how are we today?” Dr. Spencer asked. “I hear you are doing good work in the dairy. That’s progress.”

“Not so well, doctor,” Albert said. “That new patient Jordan. I hate him. He’s driving me crazy.”

“Now Albert, why is that?” Dr. Spencer asked mildly. He was immune to Albert’s rants, but he had to at least feign interest. Dr. Spencer had long ago decided that treating mentally ill patients wasn’t rewarding in the slightest. He was glad most of them were drugged now. Twenty years ago, working with crazy people was a matter of keeping them from killing each other. Now he only needed a prescription pad.

Albert’s litany of complaints pulled Dr. Spencer away from his thoughts. “What were you saying?” asked Dr. Spencer. “Something about disliking Jordan? Has he done something to you?”

“He sits here like he’s been crowned king of Western State Hospital,” Albert said. “All the girls like him. He plays catch with the orderlies when it’s recreation time. The orderlies can’t stand us, but Jordan, oh they like Jordan. And, and this is the very worst part, he says he doesn’t belong here.”

He paused to catch his breath. “And when we eat, Jordan wants a napkin and a fork. A FORK. We don’t get forks here. Forks are for normal people.”

Dr. Spencer stared as Albert wiped spittle off his chin. He cleared his throat.

“Albert,” he said gently. “Why do you care what Jordan or the other patients do here? Haven’t we discussed this for years. You can leave this hospital anytime you want. You can leave today if you want.”

Albert shook his head. “No, no, no I can’t do that. I can’t leave here.” He looked around Dr. Spencer’s office, saw a letter opener on his desk and grabbed it. “I’ll kill you. I’ll stab you right now.”

“Give that back to me,” Dr. Spencer said. Albert handed it to him, and watched as he slipped it into his desk drawer. “You can’t stay here forever Albert. You’re not even forty years old. Don’t you want to live with your wife and kids? Don’t you want to get out of this place?”

Albert thought about Bettie and the girls, the smelter, his dad, and the bars. He remembered his dead mother and Campbell’s chicken soup. These memories gave Albert a severe gag reflex. He started choking and gasping for air until Dr. Spencer called for the orderly to take him back to the ward.

The orderly gave Albert a little push through the ward door, and locked it. Albert scuffled back to his wooden chair, sulking. He hated Dr. Spencer too. Useless, he thought, every one of them. He looked around. Jordan was now talking to the nurse, who had put away her magazine to give him her full attention.

“I’ll be free soon,” Jordan earnestly explained. “This is just a mistake. I had to do what I was told. I’ve explained that to the people in charge. It’s just a matter of time.”

Too bad he was a psychotic killer, the nurse thought. He looked exactly like Rock Hudson.

“What a joke,” Albert said loudly, rolling his eyes. “You’ll be here forever Jordan.” He stomped toward Ginny, hoping she could string a sentence together at this point. He turned and yelled at Jordan. “You’re no better than me.”

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on November 5, 2013, in Fiction, Seattle, Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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