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By Adam Klein
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2003 Adam Klein
All rights reserved.
Every word I say has chains round its ankles; every thought I think is weighted with heavy weights. Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
For some people, trouble runs so deep in them no part is left unaffected. You spend your time trying to help them fix a thing here or there, but they cut you like a handful of shards. People are fragile; once they're broken you can't piece them back. Not that anyone has the time to try, at least not those of us working for the state. We're wearied by quotas, the endless cycling of people through the system. Concern is invariably measured, and that, they will tell you, is how it has to be. The world generates more need than satisfaction; there's simply not enough to go around. Be cautious with care. Sparing. That's what I've learned, and I'm happy to have learned it.
Frances says, 'Carrie, you don't have to tell your story to get your clients to share theirs.' I don't answer her. What she says is not unfamiliar; she says it with brusque concern. But her reminder is crushing. I have been a caseworker for seven years, and it always comes to this point—a vantage point—of who sits behind the desk and who is in the chair. It's give or take, and you can't do both.
That, of course, raises another point: only the blind are willing to lead the blind. And often they don't want to. Just because someone's had a tough life, some struggles of their own, doesn't make them empathetic. Empathy is hard won, rare. Frances finds empathy dangerous, disorienting. But if you've survived—even if you don't know how—you might have something to offer someone who doesn't believe they can survive. You're a kind of example, a museum piece. Something suddenly valuable in you, admirable. When I walk into the office, I can't help but think of my co-workers, at least the good ones, as artifacts; they seem removed from their lives except to exemplify their history, convey its lessons. Their bad choices make them good counsel.
I started doing casework in San Francisco. They interviewed me before a panel of eight representatives from various field offices. They put a heavy, gray, reel-to-reel recorder at the center of the table and sat sipping from Styrofoam cups.
'Why do you want to work for the Department of Social Services?' a young woman asked. The left side of her face drooped, as though she had had a stroke or had been in some kind of accident. She was hard to understand, but I didn't ask her to repeat herself. When I smiled at her, she averted her eyes, so I stopped smiling. Through most of the interview I sat quietly, looking at each of the panelists' faces. Their inquiries were strangely laconic, their silences more demanding than their questions.
Feeling pressed to respond, I answered, 'I feel guilty not helping people who need it. When I needed it, someone was there for me.' They suddenly stiffened as though to dam a flood of potentialities in my answer. Their expressions turned unenthusiastic, like a wary parent, a distracted police officer. Just the facts, ma'am. They had done this for years; they asked their questions, biting them off before they could provide revelations. Not one organization in America can ask the pertinent questions. And if they stumble on one, just by accident, there's an automatic shutdown in the person who has asked it. The parts just settle and turn off.
So when I got the job, and they told me about the pool of two thousand applicants, I said, 'You've made a mistake.' But I was wrong. They didn't want any more than what they got. They sent the recording to Sacramento, where my answers—and my silences—were impartially scored. If they'd made a mistake, it was not irreparable. There were 1,999 people waiting for my position.
Now, in Iowa City, the expectations are considerably different. I hurry into work clutching files. My co-workers, four of them, are at their desks before 8 A.M. I say good morning to them, making sure they hear me. They are sensitive about these things. If I brush past them and don't speak up, they talk about it. Frances says, 'Treat it like another part of the job, being nice to them.'
I look out at the lobby. Empty. Some days only one or two people make it in. In San Francisco, my caseload was never under fifty. People took numbers, sat on hard plastic chairs waiting to be called. Selfish of me to think that was better. Frances, when she hired me, told me this wasn't a busy office. 'Iowa City is hardly a city,' she said. 'Still, people have problems here.'
Frances is black; she's a heavy woman who wears a base too light for her skin. She smokes incessantly, often with the patch on. She smokes until she's dizzy, sitting outside when it's warm enough, with her head in her hands. 'It's not easy to close a case here,' she said during our interview. 'It's a college town mostly. Students come in when their financial aid doesn't cover them. They want food stamps, that's about it. Your job, really, is to keep your stats.' She looked at me with surprising concern after laying out such cynical objectives. 'Are you sure this is the right place for you? I know you've worked with much tougher cases.'
I didn't say anything about Victor, about what came before, and how an easy caseload would inevitably present challenges for me. I made my job in San Francisco practically impossible; I could do that anywhere. She never asked me why I left San Francisco. I don't think she called my references. She took me on face value, and I'm glad she didn't tell me what she read there. But I've never known her to do anything that rash since. Even after three years of working here, we still seem to be stumbling around that first encounter; I sense her regarding me with a concern that borders on distrust, and I either feel indebted to her or humiliated by her attention.
I start going through the files on my desk. Last name first. Social security number, and on and on. Jones. Gloria. November 9, 1989. A week ago, but I can't imagine her face, so I read on. Mother of two. Court case pending. Substance abuse. I remember her now. She looked anorexic, her eyes enormous in her face. Her education was minimal. She wanted work as a home health attendant, emptying bedpans, cooking up oatmeal. She had less than a week clean. She was still shaking.
She never made her follow-up appointment. One of those people who gets clean then disappears. Not my failure, I tell myself, as though I'm new to this and need to justify the incompleteness of case files, of lives. I know what it means to sit on the other side of the desk, to spill your life out to someone you've never met before, thinking they're the last safety net, the last hope. I know what it means to sit shaking in a chair, listing your skills to a skeptical job developer. But that experience doesn't keep me from feeling a sense of personal defeat when I come upon the abandoned cases, the early terminations.
Frances is on the phone behind me, talking to her boyfriend in Washington. They're planning to build a home in Virginia. She whispers, but just loud enough for me to hear her making plans.
She's starting a new life. It makes her purposeful and energized. I've felt that way every time I started over. Except the last time, when I left California. Then, I just felt tired.
The door swings open, letting a chill wind whip through the office. As though we've planned it, none of us makes a move to admit the young woman who takes a seat on one of the orange chairs in the lobby. We push files aside, lift our phones to make calls. We're adept at looking busy; we do it as a defense. We prepare a front of orderliness to address whatever chaos we might encounter that day. Eventually, I stand up and call her to my desk.
She has hair like a rooster, pomaded so each strand looks thick as a pencil. It's cut short, exposing her face. She doesn't wear much makeup, but I continue to look at her, drawn to a kind of toughness and sadness that is its own shadow. I ask her name, a litany of questions before we begin.
'My name's Carrie. What's yours?'
'Fisher. Hannah Fisher.' She answers indifferently.
I ask who referred her, and she responds with a name I don't recognize. Then she just says, 'The hospital.'
I know instantly what she is alluding to and write the words South Wing on a post-it. Sometimes writing informal notes—rather than composing longhand in their files—keeps them from embellishing too much. When I'd first met Victor in San Francisco, he used to lean over my desk and dictate, tell me when I'd left out something he considered important. I'd become a kind of biographer in his mind, even though no one would read his file, except maybe the police a few years later. I wonder now what I wrote in it and whether they noticed the dangerous attention I gave him, the fond slant my notes could hardly have hidden.
I look at her while leaning forward in my chair and giving one nervous tap of my pen to the blotter. 'How'd you end up in the hospital?' I ask.
She looks at the pen for what feels like minutes. 'My best friend died last winter.' She meets my eyes and smiles for the first time. 'I think I may have had something to do with her death.'
I recognize but can't place her, and begin to consider my limited spectrum of activities in town. I don't see her face in The Deadwood, a dark-paneled bar I sometimes stop in; or Pierson's drugstore with its fountain in the back; or the Bijou theater. I imagine myself walking in and out of these places alone, and Hannah Fisher doesn't appear in any of my recollections. My time outside of work seems suddenly full of dark and aimless meandering, untouched by any interaction. It's distressing not knowing anyone here. Only part of it intentional.
'Do you mind if I smoke?' she asks.
We'll need to go outside,' I reply. 'I'll join you.'
Outside, I realize how young she is, maybe twenty-five. Her hand trembles while she lights her cigarette, and when she looks at me I notice one pupil more dilated than the other—a reaction I've seen before in people on psych medications.
'Do you mind if I have one?'
'Oh, sure.' She says this flustered, sorry for not offering. She rummages her purse, then the pockets of her winter coat before she finds them.
'So, they must have mixed some strong cocktails for you at the hospital?' Her dilated eye is almost vibrating.
'I beg your pardon?'
I explain how South Wing patients sometimes call their pills cocktails.
'I wasn't there too long, but I did like the chloral hydrate.' She laughs briefly.
'In the old days they called them Mickey Finns.' I say it, gloating a little, something my father taught me.
The sky is still dark, and I think it will be another impossibly gray weekend. There's a fine snow over the cars in the parking lot and over the fields stretching away from us. She turns to look out over the faint snowdrift, and her profile is startlingly beautiful. Her green eyes and orange hair are sharply contrasted, cut out against a sky the color of purple contact paper. She turns to look at me, exhaling smoke from her nose.
'I noticed the pictures at your desk.'
'I've been collecting them, cutting them out of books. I've had some of them since I was a child.' I remember sitting by the canal near our house paging through heavy art books. My father sold them, but he wasn't a bookseller. The books were one of his many occupations. He had a trucking job when he married my mother, but when I was ten years old he lost it. He went to jail, came back, and went to jail again. We call it recidivism.
'Someone always needs something fixed,' he'd say, and that's where he came in. Most of the books he'd get from people who had died, or the Salvation Army drop box. Sometimes, if he saw one cheap in a used bookstore, and he knew its value, he'd buy it and sell it for what it was really worth. That's another thing he told me: 'You've got to learn the real value of things.' There was no shame in picking around for what others—through either laziness or negligence—discarded.
I'd sit under the bridge where the sounds of the canal magnified, damp sounds you felt in your bones. If I found a picture I liked, I'd scramble out from under the bridge wiping away the pebbles and dirt embedded in my knees, and open the page up to the sun. My eyes would adjust slowly, and then the picture would assemble itself. The pictures I'd look at the longest depicted women in the midst of battle: The Rape of the Sabines or Liberty Leading the People.
'I love nineteenth-century painting,' I say to her. 'Do you like painting?'
There's a dead silence, a windless snowfall. At the mention of painting, I notice a flash of curiosity in her eyes.
'That's what I was in school for,' she says, dropping her cigarette in the snow. 'I finished last year.'
'Do you still paint?' I ask.
'A lot of people at the hospital liked my yarn and felt work.'
It takes me a moment to discern her sarcasm. 'I guess that was a stupid question.'
'No,' she says in a careful, correcting voice. 'It's not stupid. I just don't think of myself as a painter right now. Besides, I have a hard time believing it matters to you one way or the other.'
'It does matter to me. I'm here to help you if I can.' I watch her light another cigarette.
'People shouldn't burden each other.' There is something disheartened in her tone, as though trying to convince me of this is too much. She looks at me squarely. 'You're awfully young.'
'No, I'm not. Not really. I'm twenty-nine, and sometimes when I look at myself I see someone older. I have these dark rings, for instance.' I point to my eyes. 'They're genetic, but they say something about my life.'
I notice Hannah has them too, but I don't point this out to her. 'Where are you from?'
'Sioux City,' she answers. 'I came to Iowa City to study painting. I got my MFA here last year.'
'And you decided to stay?'
'My friends expected I'd be the first to leave. All of them have moved on. They'd be shocked to know I couldn't.'
That's how these college towns are. If you're not connected in some way to the university, you immediately become the town idiot, delivering newspapers, chewing your own tongue. Or you've had some misfortune no one's ever asked about, but everyone knows. You carry this dark aura with you, and people watch you a little closer. It's not difficult for me, having never attended the university. I drove in from San Francisco and decided to stay. Anything they might say about me is true.
Hannah Fisher, however, does not belong here. I trust my instincts on it.
She stubs out her cigarette, and we go back inside. I continue for a moment to write out her case notes.
'Do you want to tell me about your friend?'
'Not really' She laughs, picking up the taxidermic baby alligator I've carried for years. 'You have the strangest things on your desk.'
My father first took me down to the canal after a particularly dry summer. The water level was low; the canal was like a long skeleton baring itself. He carried a big branch, turning over old cans and plastic bottles, pieces of clothing.
'Why would someone take their clothes off here?' I asked him when we chanced upon a muddied pair of panties.
'Probably to go swimming.' He raised them up before us on the end of the branch.
Why didn't they take them when they left?'
'This little girl must have lost 'em,' he said. I could tell he was thinking about her, so I started thinking about her too. I thought of the girl who wandered the block eating the prettiest flowers. We had angels' trumpets growing at the side of our house. My mother cut them with scissors and threw them into the trash. 'One day that girl is going to die on somebody's lawn, but it won't be ours,' she said. I called her the 'Poison Girl' from then on. That's who I thought about when I saw those panties on the end of the stick. Perhaps she'd eaten those flowers before she went in, paralyzed by their poisons or succumbing to the delusion she required no air. I imagined her body falling slowly through the murky water and settling on the soft bottom.
Excerpted from Tiny Ladies by Adam Klein. Copyright © 2003 Adam Klein. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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