Earthquake Weather – Snippet 12

Two mental-health workers had rolled a red gurney into the room, and the old man was lifted onto it and strapped down. Cochran saw a nurse walking away with an emptied hypodermic needle.

Muir was kneading his throat. “And I think Janis–” He looked across the table at her and stopped. “Janis,” he said again, “maybe you’ll be good now.”

“I do apologize to everybody,” she said. She watched the gurney being wheeled out of the room. “I hope Mr. Regushi is going to be all right . . . ?”

“He just flipped out,” said Armentrout shortly, settling into his chair. “Very uncharacteristic.”

“We feel vulnerable, threatened,” said Muir hoarsely, “and we get defensive and lash out–when we don’t feel good about ourselves. We feel like bugs on a sidewalk, like somebody’s going to step on us.” He gave the patients a wincing smile. “Janis, I think your recurrent dream of the sun falling on you from out of the sky is indicative of this kind of thinking. How do you feel about that?”

Cochran braced himself, but the woman was just nodding seriously.

“I think that’s a valuable point,” she said. “I’ve always been frightened, of everything–jobs, bills, people. I’ve wasted my whole life being afraid. My only constellation is that I’m finally getting good, caring, state-of-the-art help now.”

“Well,” said Muir uncertainly. “That’s good, Janis.” He looked at Cochran. “I’ve, uh, looked at your file, Sid, and I think you’re afraid of being hurt. I noticed that when poor Mr. Regushi attacked me, you didn’t get up to help. I suspect that this is characteristic of you–that you’re afraid to reach out your hand to people.”

Cochran shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Reach out your hand, you get it cut off, sometimes.”

Belatedly, he noticed old Long John Beach at the other end of the table. The one-armed man bared his teeth, and a domino on the table in front of him quietly flipped over . . . as if, it seemed to Cochran, he had flipped it with a phantom hand at the end of his missing arm.

No one else had noticed the trick, and Cochran quickly looked back at Muir. Long John probably tied a hair to it, Cochran thought, and yanked on the hair with his real hand. He’s probably got a dozen such tricks. And he’s my roommate! And now I’ve probably offended him with my get-it-cut-off remark. Swell.

Muir had apparently followed Cochran’s brief glance. “Long John can’t remember how he lost his hand,” he said. “His whole arm, that is. But he’s okay with that, aren’t you, John?”

“In some gardens,” said Long John Beach in a thoughtful tone, as if commenting on what had been said before, “the beds are so hard that the flowers can’t even put down roots–they just run around–right out into the street.”

“The dwarves in Snow White,” put in Janis, “came home every night–because their little house was fixed up so nicely. Snow White made them keep it just so.”

Cochran thought of his own little 1920s bungalow house in South Daly City, just a few miles down . . . the 280 . . . from Pace Vineyards on the San Bruno Mountain slope; and he reflected with bitter amusement that these doctors would probably consider it ‘valuable’ for him to ‘share’ about it here, ideally with hitching breath and tears. Then all at once he felt his face turn cold with a sudden dew of sweat, as if he were about to get sick, for he realized that he wanted to talk about it, wanted to tell somebody, even these crazy strangers, about the tiny room Nina had fixed up in preparation for the arrival of the baby, about the teddy bear wallpaper, and the intercom walkie-talkie set they had bought so as to be able to hear the baby crying at night. Their whole lives had seemed to stretch brightly ahead of them; and in fact he and Nina had even bought adjoining plots at the nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, just on the other side of the highway–but now Nina’s ashes were in France, and Cochran would one day lie there alone.

Janis touched his hand then, and he impulsively took hold of her hand and squeezed it–but his vision was blurring with imminent tears, and Armentrout was probably staring at him, and the mark on his knuckles was itching intolerably; he released her hand and pushed his chair back and stood up.

“I’m very tired,” he managed to pronounce clearly. He walked out of the room with a careful, measured stride–not breathing, for he knew his next breath would come audibly, as a sob.

He blundered down the hall to his room and flung himself face-down onto the closer of the two beds, shaking with bewildered weeping, his hands and feet at the corners of the mattress as if he were in four points again himself.


“She’s DID,” said Muir to Armentrout. He was sipping coffee and still absently massaging his throat. The two of them were standing by the supervision-and-privilege blackboard in the nursing station, and Muir waved his coffee cup toward Janis Plumtree’s name, beside which was just the chalked notation SSF–supervised sharps and flames– which indicated that she, like most of the patients, was not to be entrusted with a lighter or scissors.

“Degenerate Incontinent . . . Dipsomaniac,” hazarded Armentrout. He wished the pay telephone in the lounge would stop ringing.

“No,” said Muir with exaggerated patience. “Haven’t you read the new edition of the diagnostic manual? ‘Dissociative identity disorder.’ What we used to call MPD.”

Armentrout stared at the intern. Muir had been resentful and rebellious ever since they’d heard the news about the overweight bipolar girl Armentrout had treated and released last week; the obese teenager had apparently hanged herself the day after she had gone home.

“Plumtree doesn’t have multiple personality disorder,” said Armentrout. “Or your DID, either. And I don’t appreciate you running tests on her circadian rhythms, and giving her . . . zeitgebers! That silly watch that beeps all the time? You’re not her primary, I am. I’m on top of her–”

“The watch is a grounding technique,” interrupted Muir. “It’s to forcibly remind her that she’s here, and now, and safe, when flashbacks of the traumas that fragmented her personality forcibly intrude–”

“She’s not–”

“You can practically see the personalities shift in her! I think the patients have even caught on–did you hear Regushi mention Heckle and Jeckles? I think he was trying to say Jekyll and Hyde. . . though I can’t figure out why he seemed to resent her.”

“She’s not a multiple, damn it. She’s depressed and delusional, with obsessive-compulsive features–her constant demands to use the shower, the days-of-the-week underwear, the way she gargles mouthwash all the time–”

“Then why haven’t you got her on anything? Haloperidol, clomipramine?” Muir put down his coffee cup and crossed to the charge nurse’s desk.

To Armentrout’s alarm, the man picked up the binder of treatment plans and began flipping through it. “You don’t know enough to be second guessing me, Philip,” Armentrout said sharply, stepping forward. “There are confidential details of her case–”

“A shot of atropine, after midnight tonight?” interrupted Muir, reading from Plumtree’s chart. He looked up, and hastily closed the binder. “What for, to dilate her pupils? Her pinpoint pupils are obviously just a conversion disorder, like hysterical blindness or paralysis! So is the erythema, her weird ‘sunburn,’ if you’ve noticed that. My God, atropine won’t get her pupils to normal, it’ll have ’em as wide as garbage disposals!”

Armentrout stared at him until Muir looked away. “I’m going to have to order you, Mister Muir, in my capacity as Chief of Psychiatry here, to cease this insubordination. You’re an intern–a student, in effect!–and you’re overstepping your place.” The pay telephone in the patients’ lounge was still ringing; in a louder voice he went on, “I’ve been practicing psychiatry for nineteen years, and I don’t need a partial recitation of the effects of atropine, helpful though you no doubt meant to be. Shall I . . . dilate! . . . upon this matter?”

“No, sir,” said Muir, still looking away.

“How pleasant for both of us. Were you going home?”

“. . . Yes, sir.”

“Then I’ll see you–you’re not working here tomorrow, are you?”

“I’m at UCI in Orange all day tomorrow.”

“That’s what I thought. You’re going to miss our ice cream social! Well, I’ll see you Thursday then. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, right?”

Muir walked out of the nurses’ station without answering.