Coward

By Charles W. Brice

Melba had been running around Cherry Creek with a knife lunging after white people. “Just another crazy nigger,” the cop who brought Melba to our ward said. The cop smelled like rawhide and cigars. His leather belt creaked when he took off Melba’s cuffs. This was 1970 Denver. Martin Luther King was only two years dead. There’d been riots in Denver after he was killed.

Chess Piece, Black Knight

Melba was on a manic high, and when she was high she hated white people. Hideously dressed for January in nothing but a purple satin nightgown and combat boots, her matted hair exploded atop her head, her cheeks smeared with mascara and lipstick underneath inch- long fake eyelashes—almost diagnostic for female manics—Melba turned to me and said, “Y’all a bunch of motha fuckin’ honky fucks,” and spit in my face. The cop went for his mace, but I waved him off. It wasn’t the first time I’d been spit on by a manic. Spitting on hospital attendants on the psychiatric unit at Denver General Hospital was also diagnostic for manic depressive psychosis — part of the differential, we liked to say.

Unlike most of the docs and the other attendants, I agreed with Melba. Most white people I knew were motha fuckin’ honky fucks. I’d grown up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the few blacks we had lived in squalor around 18th street or with the Mexicans over the frightening and unstable viaduct that led to the South Side. Weirdly, Cheyenne was the first city in the U.S. to elect a black chief of police. He was even made a member of the Country Club, which made everyone feel better about the lousy deal the rest of the blacks got in Cheyenne.

Linda was bi and got worked-up watching the strippers, and I was straight and got worked-up watching the strippers.

Denver was different. There was a large black population crammed into a ghetto called Five Points. There was even a black man in the State Legislature. Denver’s blacks were more organized, and they were pissed, and rightly so, I thought.

Heavy doses of lithium gradually brought Melba down. Once the lithium took effect I got to know and like her. She was a lovely woman, about thirty, and terrific at chess. We had lots of great games together. “Always look at that back row, Youngblood. From the first move, think about checkmate.” I’d told her that I’d played drums in a soul band, the Kansas City Soul Association (even though we were from Cheyenne), and that the “bloods,” the four black singers in the band, had called me Youngblood Hawk. I think Melba thought I was blowing smoke about the band. I was a blond, skinny, white kid who looked like he was sixteen. She didn’t believe me until I tapped out the kick-beat to James Brown’s, “I Feel Good,” on the wooden top of one of the tables in the day room. She smiled and looked at me sideways. “How old are you, Youngblood?” I told her that I was nineteen, a conscientious objector serving my time as an attendant on the psychiatric unit.

“You scared to fight?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, “I just don’t believe I or anyone has the right to take another person’s life.” Becoming a pacifist had been a long and arduous road. I’d studied the thought of Buddha, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, but it was Yevtushenko’s poem, “People,” that convinced me that killing a person meant killing a world, a universe of relationships, a lifetime collection of love, hate, joy, disappointment, defeat, and triumph. Who had the right to do that?

When I’d made these arguments in front of my draft board in Cheyenne, one gray-haired board member fell asleep. I was shocked when they granted me conscientious objections status — shocked and relieved. I had been ready to go to jail for my beliefs.

Melba handed me back my bishop, which I’d foolishly put in harm’s way just to capture one of her pawns. “The game’s about gettin’ the king, Youngblood, don’t be goin’ after no pawns when you should be killin’ the king.”

I was amazed at how quickly Lithium worked on people. In three days you went from dealing with a snake pit lunatic to somebody you could talk with, joke with; share a game of chess with.  Four days into her hospital stay Melba asked that her husband, Dandy, be allowed to visit. Melba was doing well; she’d be leaving our ward soon. She hadn’t said much about Dandy, but we all agreed that his visit would help in her transition from our ward back into the community. And community was important.

In 1963, JFK got congress to pass the Community Mental Health Act, an ambitious initiative based on the principle that mental health and mental disease was a problem in the community and should, therefore, be dealt with by the community. This meant that the back wards of state hospitals would be opened and gutted, and that patients who’d been sent there by angry or embarrassed family members, and the general practitioners they’d bought-off, would be released into halfway houses and hospitals in their own communities. In tune with these sentiments, the halfway houses and hospitals would be staffed not only with psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses and psychologists, but with people from the community who, while not possessing official degrees, would, nevertheless, be put into positions of power in order to help their fellow mentally unbalanced community members. That’s how it came to pass that I, a lowly psychiatric attendant, had my own patients and could actually admit patients to the ward. They called us “care coordinators,” and most of us took our duties and our power very seriously.

On paper, the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 represented a moment of hope, where communities would be strengthened through their efforts to help the most vulnerable amongst them. Unfortunately, congress never allocated enough money for community mental health centers to even begin to do their jobs. Instead, they became processing stations for the deranged. At Denver General, our average patient stay was three days. We’d get ’em in, assess ’em, dope ’em, and then either hook them up with an understaffed outpatient center or with the one long-term hospital we had left to us, Fort Logan. The result was that no one really got better. Those of us who had been made “care coordinators” had little or no training, the term became a fancy one for “orderly.” Still, we got to do some things that made it seem that our time at DGH was worthwhile.

One of those activities involved me working with Melba’s psychiatric intern who was working with the Denver DAs office to get them to drop Melba’s charges. Although Melba hadn’t touched anyone with her knife, some honky motha fucka had charged Melba with attempted murder. The more reasonable charges, assault and battery with a lethal weapon, reckless endangerment, making terrorist threats, would be harder to deal with, but we were making headway and thought we’d get them dropped. Our point was simple: Melba couldn’t help being a manic depressive. When manic, she could no more control her behavior than a diabetic gone nuts during a sugar drop. If they wouldn’t prosecute the diabetic, then they should afford Melba the same courtesy.

My favorite LPN, Linda Kester, answered the door when Dandy rang the bell. Linda was small, about five feet, with long auburn hair, and a lovely, tight, sumptuous, body. After weeks of flirting with each other, we had finally consummated our relationship. One evening after working the day shift, we’d gone to Sid Kings, a strip club on Colfax Avenue, to have a few drinks. Linda was bi and got worked-up watching the strippers, and I was straight and got worked-up watching the strippers. “A perfect storm,” she’d said. Soon we were romping on my huge bed in my Pearl St. apartment. Linda made us stop at a convenience store on the way to get some baby powder. Even though our amorous cavort had occurred a week before, I was still finding baby powder dust in the crags and cracks of my tiny apartment. Our frolic had been fun, but Linda, who was five years my senior, was married and unhappy, while I was just unhappy. Ours was a temporary, if extremely pleasant, pairing.

And there was the fact that Linda was a little ditzy. Sometimes she’d float to a region the rest of us visited only at night, during REM sleep, or after accidental bouts of carbon monoxide poisoning. A week before Linda let Dandy onto 4-West, Penny Albright rang the bell of our ward. We tried to keep the door unlocked, but some of our patients had been violent; so the big steel door to 4-West was locked. Even though Linda had looked through the peephole and seen Penny resting her forehead on the barrel of a shotgun, she opened the door. Without taking her head off the barrel, Penny asked to see Dr. Spatner, the intern who’d taken care of her during her recent hospital stay. When Linda asked Penny why she wanted to see Dr. Spatner, Penny said she wanted to kill him. Linda asked her to wait a second. She closed the door, found Ben Spatner in his office, and told him that Penny was in the hallway and wanted to see him. Just seconds before Ben opened the door, Linda mentioned that Penny had a shotgun. When the Denver cops came to haul her away, Penny told them that she didn’t remember why she wanted to kill Dr. Spatner, only that she wanted to kill him.

The incident with Penny and Ben Spatner was far from my mind as I watched Linda open the door for Dandy, a black man about six feet tall. “Where’s Melba?” he asked. I saw Linda point towards the day room where Melba sat alone at a table, a chessboard in front of her. It was 7:30, late for a visit. Melba had waited all day to see him. Dandy reeked of booze as he walked past the nurses’ station and pulled up a chair next to Melba. She leaned over and kissed him. He kissed her back. Melba hadn’t said much about him, but she clearly loved her Dandy.

That night, before Dandy’s visit, I’d played a game of chess with Melba and had beaten her for the first time. “Good game, Youngblood,” she said, but I knew her head wasn’t in the game and that I won because she wasn’t paying attention.

“Are you worried about seeing Dandy?” I asked.

“No no, Youngblood. He be fine. It’s all good.”

“But you seem distracted,” I said, “is there anything I can” –

“Don’t move your knight there, white boy.” We were already on our second game. “I done taught you better than that.”

I looked at the board and, sure enough, I’d made another dumb-ass move that would have lost my knight to one of Melba’s pawns.

We finished the game a little before seven. I asked Melba if she’d like some juice. She would. I got some grape juice, her favorite, and poured it into a glass. I could see she wasn’t up for talking and went behind the nurses’ station to do some charting. “Pt appears nervous about husband’s visit,” I wrote in Melba’s chart, and went on to finish my charting and help the charge nurse, Dorothy Carol, stock her tray with meds for the eight o’clock medication call.

I’d been reading Ken Kesey’s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and had found many uncomfortable similarities between some of our staff and the characters in Kesey’s novel. We had our own Big Nurse, and she was Dorothy Carol. Dorothy was a member of the National Guard. Every other month she would fly off with other Guardsmen and play at being a real soldier without risking life or limb. During the Viet Nam War, the vast majority of those who joined the National Guard did so to avoid the draft, and if they avoided the draft, they avoided serving in Viet Nam, but to Nurse Carol, her weekend warriors were “real men — all male,” implying that conscientious objectors, like myself, were sissy homos. She treated COs as if we were castrati who played with dolls.

Dorothy wore her hair about the same length as the “real men” in the Guard. I once saw her pile metal chairs, one after another, on top of the lap of an older patient named Herb — a homosexual who was pathologically shy. She didn’t stop even when he started to cry. She continued until, almost unable to breathe, Herb screamed, “Stop it! Take them off!” After this “session” — this had happened in a “group therapy” session she was running — I’d asked her what she was trying to do. “He’s such a passive milquetoast,” she’d told me. “I wanted him to find his masculinity, his masculine protest.” She smiled. “Now he knows that if he asserts himself, positive things will happen.” This was my first week on psychiatry. I almost asked to be transferred back to medicine, where I’d never seen anything so cruel.

I flipped through the pages of Kesey’s novel, feeling like a coward that I hadn’t stood in front of Dorothy and told her that she’d have to knock me down if she tried to load another chair on top of Herb. I was convinced that Dorothy was a man. In fact, I wanted to see the autopsy results should one of her “all males” toss her dikey ass out of an airplane at nine thousand feet.

I stopped reading my book and let my eyes wander over the day room. Patient rooms surrounded the day room, forcing patients to form a community if they wanted to leave their rooms. The wooden Dutch style furniture was warm and stylish, and I’m sure some architect thought the green institutional carpet would symbolize hope, life, a new beginning, but the easy to clean artificial fabric obliterated any sense of optimism. Everything from shit, puke, tubercular saliva, and hepatitis-infused blood had splashed over that ugly green mat. The day room carpet had about as much hope left in it as the Community Mental Health Act.

The clock next to the nurses’ station read eight P.M. Visiting hours were over. All the visitors had left except Dandy. He and Melba sat at the same table and seemed to be in a serious conversation. I got up to tell Dandy that visiting hours were over. I never interrupted a patient and his or her family member during a conversation. One of our other Kesey characters, Prentiss, a black attendant with a military bearing, would march up to visitors, regardless of the situation, and order them to leave immediately. One patient had attacked Prentiss and beat him so badly that he had been hospitalized for three days. His back still gave him trouble on cold nights.

The car was coming toward me. It picked up speed.

So I waited while Melba and Dandy talked. It was only a minute after eight, there was plenty of leeway. Visitors didn’t have to be out at exactly eight—at least, that’s how I saw it.

I caught Dandy’s eye and smiled, but when he saw me he said, “You want my wife, motha fucker? You think you can have her, you cracker fuck?”

It’s incredible how fast your world can change. People usually responded positively to my smile. Now I’d threatened somebody by trying to be polite. Instinct took over; I put my hands up, turned, and walked back toward the nurses’ station thinking that if I retreated, showed him I was no threat, he’d calm down.

“Is that where you keep your gun, fucker?” Dandy said to my back. “Well I got mine right here.” Dandy reached under his sweater and pulled out a huge handgun and pointed it at me.

Before becoming a conscientious objector, I had been a philosophy major at the University of Wyoming. After reading Nietzsche and Sartre, I’d given up on the capital G god. Now my god was reason. Until Dandy pulled out his gun and pointed it at me, I thought I could reason with anyone, but as I stared down the barrel of Dandy’s gun, I realized that reason was worthless. This guy was going to blow my reason all over the nurses’ station wall.

When you don’t believe in violence, there’s not much you can do in a situation like that. My hands were up, he could see I didn’t have a gun, but I don’t think that made much difference to Dandy. I looked frantically around the day room. My buddy Phil, also a CO, was on duty that night, but nowhere to be found — I’m sure he would have helped me in some way — and I couldn’t see Linda. Had they gone off together? Was Linda treating Phil to the joys of baby powder sex in the occupational therapy room behind the day room? Nurse Carol was sitting next to me at the nurses’ station. Surely our big time weekend warrior would know what to do. But Nurse Carol’s face suddenly turned ashen. She dropped to the floor behind the nurses’ station and belly-crawled into the med room where she slammed and locked the door.

Thank Nietzsche or Sartre or Zeus that Melba was calm and not on a manic high, because she saved my life. She jumped on her husband and wrestled the gun away from him.

“Give me my gun, bitch,” Dandy yelled.

“You ain’t ‘sposed to have no gun, nigga,” Melba grunted on top of him. “Someone help me,” she yelled. I ran from behind the nurses’ station and took Dandy’s gun from Melba; it felt like it weighed fifty pounds. Phil appeared out of nowhere, grabbed one of Dandy’s arms, and a patient grabbed the other. Melba, Phil, and the patient hustled Dandy off our ward. As he passed the nurses’ station where I sat, my hand atop his gun, Dandy’s cold brown eyes looked through me, “I know you. You a dead man.”

After we swore that it was safe, Nurse Dorothy unlocked the Med Room door and called the police. As usual, the Denver cops weren’t real hip on getting themselves to the Psych Ward at DGH. By the time an officer got to our unit, Dandy was long gone. When the cop filled out the incident report he tipped back his hat and sighed, “Okay, how do you spell psychiatry?” Nurse Carol smiled as she spelled it for him. Clearly, this Denver cop was all man.

While the cop edged Dandy’s gun into a plastic evidence bag, he asked if I wanted to file charges.

“What charges,” I asked.

“He pointed a gun at you. That’s battery, son.”

I declined to file charges. Dandy’s look, his brown eyes burning through me like napalm — these were things I never wanted to see again. I just wanted to let it all drop.

I couldn’t thank Melba enough for what she’d done. I explained that I had been standing there, not saying anything, to be polite.

“You and me is cool, Youngblood,” she said and touched my arm. I was still shaking even though it had been over an hour after Dandy had pulled his gun.

Linda said she had smelled alcohol on Dandy’s breath when she let him in. Then why did you let him in? I asked. She smiled and said she probably shouldn’t have let him in.

Melba thanked me for not filing charges, but said that Dandy would get in trouble for the gun anyway. He’d been released from prison only a few days earlier and it was against the law for him to be carrying a gun.

“What had he gone to prison for?” I asked.

“Murder,” she said.

He’d only spent three years in a Colorado prison for killing someone.

The last four hours of my shift flew by. Midnight came before I was prepared for it. I was scared shitless to walk to my car alone in the frigid Denver night. I was sure that Dandy would be waiting for me. He’d have another gun. I wouldn’t have a chance. If I could do it without anyone seeing, I’d get a hospital guard to walk me out to my car.

I took the elevator down to the first floor and walked cautiously through the lobby. Dandy probably wasn’t dumb enough to try something in the lobby, but who would have thought he’d bring a loaded gun onto a psychiatric ward?

A guard stood near the entryway doors. He looked like he was in his sixties. These guards didn’t carry guns, just billy clubs. It was a strange experience for a conscientious objector to be looking for help from someone who could become violent, but I was desperate.

“Hi,” I said, trying to be friendly. The man’s nametag read “Dawson.”

“Mr. Dawson, I was wondering if you might walk with me to my car tonight. I was nearly attacked up on 4-West and”—

“Was that the crazy nigger they had to call the cops on?” Guard Dawson looked alarmed.

“Well…a black man did pull a gun on me, so I was wondering if you”—

“Sorry, bud, but I can’t leave my post.” Guard Dawson gave me an If you had any guts you’d be in Viet Nam look.

I felt my face turn crimson. It was hard to deal with these guys who hated COs. I thought of my best friend’s dad back in Cheyenne who told him that C and O were the first two letters in the word coward.

I turned away and faced the doors that led out of the hospital and into the parking lot, took a deep breath, and walked out.

The night was cold and very dark. A half moon driveway ringed the entrance to DGH. I put my hands in the pockets of my pea coat, felt for my keys, and began walking toward the employee parking lot.

A pair of car lights beamed on in front of me. The car was parked, as if waiting for someone to leave the hospital. Don’t be paranoid, I told myself.

Whoever was in the car put it in gear. It was coming toward me. It picked up speed. I stood still as a rock, then began to back up. There was nothing but a brick wall behind me. Now the car was up over the curb. I had no doubt that the driver was after me. He was going to kill me.

My arms hung down, I turned away from the blinding lights. There was no hope. Dandy was doing what he said he would do. I was a dead man.

The car stopped about a foot from my knees. The driver’s door opened. Out popped Linda holding a bottle of Mennen Baby Magic Lotion.

“This stuff is so much better than Johnson’s Baby Powder. Want to go to your place and try it?”

I dropped to my knees and placed my hands flat on the frozen concrete. My fingers felt dirty snow and gravel pieces, the frozen Denver air smelled pure. Linda’s headlights haloed the sidewalk, me, the entire scene. I felt the grainy cold of the sidewalk and knew I was alive. My breath, which had stopped, returned and I took in large gulps of frigid air.

Still holding the body lotion, Linda crouched next to me, and put her hand on my back. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Her hair hung in front of my face. It smelled of cigarettes, coffee, and shampoo — ward smells. I couldn’t look at her. She sat in front of me on the pavement, held my arms, and said again, “Are you okay?”

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About Charles W. Brice

Charles W. Brice is a psychoanalyst and freelance writer in Pittsburgh. His stories have appeared in Talking River, The Blue Collar Review, Circle Magazine, The Front Weekly, and The Armchair Aesthete. His story, "The Fragile Shelf of Being," was awarded First Honorable Mention in the Springfed Arts/Metro Detroit Writers Poetry & Prose Contest, 2006.

8 Comments

  1. Posted April 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Charlie: Just wanted to let you know how much I liked this story. Our mutual friend Rodger McDaniel posted a link to it on Facebook. Nice ending, too — I felt Youngblood’s fear as the car closed in on him. I’m a short story writer in Cheyenne. We share a bit of common history as I worked as an orderly around this same time at a drug and alcohol ward at a big county hospital in Florida. Never written about it, though, but I may have to now. Thanks, Mike

    • Charles W. Brice
      Posted April 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the kind words, Mike. I’m glad you liked my story. I hope you do write about your experience in Florida. I’d love to see the results.

  2. Diane Neal
    Posted April 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Charlie: It’s a wonderful story, well crafted, with such vividly drawn characters. There’s a world of pain and truth in that hospital, and you manage to capture some and hold onto it long enough for us to see and feel. Well done indeed!

  3. Laura Horner
    Posted April 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Nice work Charlie! Your descriptions were extremely vivid and I read it on the edge of my seat. Thanks for sharing your talent.

  4. Posted May 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    GOOD job. Thrilled I finally found some time for this. Nice to think of you continuing working on stories.

    • Charles W. Brice
      Posted May 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Kathy. Means a tremendous amount coming from you.

  5. Diana
    Posted October 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Brice I really enjoyed this story: you’re an excellent writer. I can’t tell whether you can see my email through this comment form, so I will include it here. I’d like to contact you regarding some genealogy.

    Thanks!

    Diana Dow
    [email address redacted]

  6. Amanda Matthews
    Posted October 2014 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Charles – This is very good. The female characters are all quite ‘quirky’, the main male characters all seemed to be so manic, even the geriatric guard. although he seemed more passive/aggressive than outright hostile. The way that you describe them made these people were very easy to picture in my mind.

    What’s interesting,, and confusing (but probably only to me) about the ending of the story is, why did the protagonist’s fear make him ashamed? Why did he see himself as a coward? Did he begin to doubt his past and all the things he had always believed about himself? He had always been a believer in non-violence, a pacifist, or so he thought. Did he suddenly begin to feel that he had never been a pacifist at all, but in reality always a coward? Why, with all his training and experience, did he not see fear as a natural reaction?

    Good stories always leave you thinking after you’re done reading them.

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