“You know,” I say as we drive along the twisted country road, “if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.” Maxine looks out the passenger window. Dogwoods are bare. Fall is almost over; winter is fast approaching. Jacket weather, but not glove weather yet.
“Who are you today, Max?” she asks smugly. I look at her, but that can’t be what she said. She’s never in such cruel humor, and where would she get off asking a question like that.
“What’d you say?” There’s an edge in my voice. I know by the way it gets her attention.
“I said you must be pretty excited about today, Max. Did you misunderstand me?”
“No,” I lie. She knows I lie. Used to be I never misunderstood her. That was before. It’s much easier to know what a person says when that person is as much a part of you as Maxine was a part of me.
“Okay, I did. Sorry. Nervous, that’s all.”
“I know. Are you?”
Excited at first. Now I’m wondering. Is this a good idea, visiting Glenda after so long? Will she remember me?
Us. I sometimes forget Maxine was there. Sort of. No, she was there in mind and body, they just weren’t connected at the time.
I should explain.
It was three years ago. So much has happened since…it seems a lot longer. In that time, we had little Maximillian II, and now he’s almost six. We keep this a secret. Not because we’re ashamed of him, no, we’re proud as parents can be, that’s the truth. We spoil him, but why not? He’s six when he should be three, is this his fault?
That’s not why we’re going to see Glenda, though.
I admit I feel guilty. This is the first time I’ll be seeing her since I left, and I’m visiting because I want something from her. If Glenda hasn’t changed, she won’t mind. She never felt better than when she felt needed.
“Can we stop soon?” Maxie asks from the back seat. He’d been asleep; now he’s awake.
“Max wants to stop,” I tell Maxine.
“I heard,” Maxine says in that annoyed voice she uses on me when something offends her. I know why she’s offended this time. She doesn’t like me repeating what Maxie says, because she doesn’t always hear him. She does it to me, but it doesn’t bother me. I know I can’t hear every word that comes out of his mouth.
The next rest stop is another fifteen minutes, so we get there before Maxie gets irritable. He’s not perfect. He whines when he has a reason to whine, even if it’s not much of a reason, like most kids. Maxie goes to the men’s room while Maxine gets overpriced sodas to take with, so we’ll have to make another pit stop in an hour. I’m just as guilty as the next guy, because if there’s a Coke there for me, I drink it.
When we get back on the road the scenery begins to look familiar. My mood darkens. My memories of this area aren’t particularly pleasant. Maxie senses this and becomes a perfect angel the rest of the ride. Maxine’s mood mirrors mine, and may be darker.
Her body remembers, but her mind doesn’t, which is good. Two orderlies transporting her from a homeless shelter in Savannah decided to stop for recreation. They pulled off the side of the road, under cover of the trees, and used her body for pleasure. It was a nightmare Maxine sometimes had, so I told her the truth, but pointed out it had not been her at the time. The nightmare was very infrequent now. The orderlies had been discovered and dismissed, not charged. They were free men now, living full lives, hopefully unable to sleep at night as well as they might have.
“There it is.” Maxine points ahead to a clump of dogwoods…perfect cover when covered with greenery. She stares at that spot as we pass, turning in her seat to watch as it recedes into the distance. Then she turns back around and sits stoically in silence.
I say nothing. Words wouldn’t help right now.
Then there’s the sign: BETHLEHEM HOUSE. We residents called it Bedlam, when it was under state jurisdiction. Now it was part of the Peachford Foundation, people buying institutions all over. I hoped they treated Glenda as well as the state did, once they found out who she was.
A witch. Not just any witch, but the witch L. Frank Baum had known before writing The Wizard of Oz and the other Oz books. She was crazy then, but at that time it was considered par for the course for witches. Ever see a real shaman or seer? Nutty as a Snickers bar, loopy as a hippie hallucinating on LSD… They see things we can’t see, do things we never dream of doing. That kind of, and I hate to use this word because it’s not what I mean, but that kind of power will crack anyone.
“Max!” Maxine yells. I almost miss the turn for Bethlehem House. Up the long, black drive to the gatehouse.
“Max Silverberg,” I say. The gatekeeper checks his list.
“Hey,” he says, then grins. “I remember you. I’m Henry the gatekeeper, remember?”
I remember. He’s been gatekeeper for longer than I’ve been alive. Rumor was that he’d been a “resident” when the place was still under private ownership, and got the job because he followed all orders without question. Would’ve made a great Nazi.
“How are you?” I ask, wishing he’d just wave us on through, but I act friendly now that I’m here. I feel like I’m in the spotlight. Everyone who knew me before will be watching. Is he still holding together? Should we get his old room ready?
“You know how it is, Max.” He looks past me at Maxine. “Isn’t that…?”
She waves. “Hi.”
Henry grins, that insider’s grin to let me know he knows what’s what—not insidious, just another form of elitism. I wink, to make him feel all warm and special inside. One thing I’ve noticed about people who know about me, who knew me when. They think I’m either a savant with the wisdom of Solomon, or a blathering idiot who doesn’t know the difference between night and day.
He waves us through.
“It’s changed,” Maxine says with a touch of awe in her voice. In three years, the place has grown. The main building has sprouted two arms extending out at an angle, ready to embrace us as we drive up. The lawn is nicer, with trees, shrubs, ponds, paths, gazebos, and benches. Some of the more responsible residents are out, alone and in pairs. I recognize no one. The drive curves around to the front entrance.
“I don’t like this place, Daddy,” Maxie says. “Can we go home? I don’t want my present!”
I glance at Maxine to see if she heard. She turns around to answer for me, “Now honey, you were excited when we told you what we had planned…you said you wanted to meet Glenda the Good Witch, right?”
Maxie’s seen The Wizard of Oz a dozen times since we got the video. We told him that Glenda in the movie isn’t the same as ours. He understands about actors and movies.
He reluctantly climbs over the front seat to get out with me. We never let him go out the back…it would look pretty weird to someone when they didn’t see anyone get out.
“I am a little nervous,” I confess to Maxine.
She nods. “Me too.”
The lobby isn’t different. The man there to greet us with a big smile hasn’t changed, either.
“Mr. Hale,” I say, “Good to see you looking fit.”
“It’s true.” Maxine gives him an exaggerated once-over. “Mmmm. How do you do it?”
Hale inflates with our stroking. Old habits die hard. We’re lying through our teeth, of course. I’m surprised to see him walking under his own power. The director of Bethlehem House is overweight, smokes, and spends his days sitting around reading case studies of the residents and psychiatric journals. To give him credit, he was a staunch anti-Freudian when it was virtually impossible to be taken seriously in his field without making even vague reference to Freud. His stance had a lot to do with why the place went through lean years, because he couldn’t get funding.
“Please.” He shakes my hand with a loose grip, gives Maxine a wet kiss on the lips. “Call me Lawrence.” To let us know he accepts us as sane equals now.
“Okay, Lawrence,” I say. Then, “How’s Glenda?”
He fends off the question with a wave of his chubby hand. “Glenda will always be Glenda.”
“Where is she?” Maxine presses the issue. She wants to spend as little time with Hale as possible. He was the one who’d dismissed those orderlies, but he also saw that they got off without criminal prosecution. Rumor had it they’d been supplying him with companionship from the wards. Maxine has told me the thought of Hale makes her feel unclean. She doesn’t know if he used her body or not. I give people the benefit of the doubt, but in this case I tend to assume the worst. “I’d like to see her,” Maxine says. “It’s been so long.”
Hale checks his watch. “She should be eating lunch now. Let’s join her!”
“What about the boy?” I don’t want to wait too long to get to the purpose of this visit.
“Right,” Hale says, as if he’d forgotten. “He’ll be brought down.” He waddles over to a phone without buttons, picks it up, talks, hangs up, smiles at us, and says, “Okay! Let’s see Glenda.”
We follow him down a hall, past a checkpoint where we’re given guest badges, past where I remembered the cafeteria used to be. It’s not there.
“Where are we going?” I ask, trying not to sound scared. As soon as you start to question things everyone else takes for granted, when you’ve already been committed once, watch out.
Hale glances back. “The North Wing,” he says. “A new addition. We moved Glenda there a year ago.”
“The North Wing.”
“Yes.” A smug chortle. “Too bad she doesn’t understand the reference. She’d appreciate it.”
It’s easy to tell when we go from the old to the new. The halls get wider, whiter, with sprinklers poking down from the ceiling. Better lighting. The effect is antiseptic, less inviting than the hardwood floors and brass-mounted candelabra of the old part, but maybe this is better, I don’t know.
“Despite Spartan appearances,” Hale says, “this wing is quite cozy. Bigger rooms, all with color TVs.”
I don’t say what I’m thinking. Large rooms, bright lights, and too much TV are partly why some of the people are here in the first place.
The cafeteria is a haloed affair of white tile and polished chrome. Round Formica tables scattered throughout, an improvement over the long rows of tables in the old cafeteria, like the ones used in prisons. I wonder if the food is any better, despite the gleaming mien.
Glenda sits alone, spooning applesauce, heaping mounds of it, into her mouth. If you’ve seen the movie, you’d pass this woman right by and not even begin to imagine that she was the Glenda, the Good Witch of the North.
“That’s her?” Little Max asks in utter disbelief.
“That’s her,” I say. Hale glances at me, a question in his eyes, but I smile at Maxine as if that’s who I’m talking to. She smiles back; I don’t think she heard Maxie.
Glenda looks like a Norman Rockwell granny on acid. Silver hair that started the day in a tight bun sticks out in loose strands all over her head, as if she stuck her thumb in a wall socket. She’s wearing gigantic earrings, dangling silver baubles like Christmas tree ornaments. Pinned to the top of her hair is a black lace hat, deceptively tilting to one side, threatening to fall off. Her eyes are wide and blue as the ocean, and as deep and wild.
Hale approaches the table timidly, which reminds me that as much as he enjoys the prestige of having her here, she scares him.
“Glenda, you have visitors.”
She looks up from her applesauce, lumpy globs of it drop into the bowl from her mouth. Her eyes stay devoid of emotion.
“Mannequin,” she says in a dismissive tone, “Stuffed shirt.” She looks past me and Maxine, and suddenly those eyes alight with blue fire.
“There!” She points between Maxine and me. “Between the air! I see green eyes, I see blond hair!”
Maxine whispers into her hands, cupped over her mouth, “She sees him!”
“Glenda,” I say, “it’s Max. Remember?”
She looks at me, smiles, but the fire dims in her eyes. “Mirror Man?” A frown. She looks at Maxine, at me, back at Maxine, at me again. “Mirror Man, Mirror Woman…Mirror Child!” Now the flames leap from her eyes. It’s difficult to tell if it’s really happening or a trick of the imagination. No matter, she knows what’s going on. I can tell she remembers, and she knows why we’re here.
Then Hale says, “The child.”
I look where he’s pointing. An orderly wheels the boy in, then goes.
Brown hair, emerald green eyes, and he looks almost as I’ve been imagining Maxie would look to…others. To us, he’ll continue to look the way he always has. Like love.
“Sure the kid’s gone?” I ask Hale. We’d discussed it over the phone during the weeks leading up to this visit, but I’m still uneasy about it. “Vacant?”
“Look at those eyes,” Hale tells me. “There’s no one there.”
“Nobody home,” Glenda says. “Ding dong! Nobody hoooommme!”
I look at Maxine, she nods.
“Glenda,” I say. “Glenda, please listen.”
She looks at me, doesn’t say anything, but her face is alive with a mischievous aura, grinning like a Cheshire cat. I fully expect the rest of her to vanish. Wouldn’t be the first time. I got used to that trick when I lived here.
“The little boy with the blond hair and green eyes wants to be real. Can you make him real?”
She looks at Maxie. Hale looks at approximately the same spot, but sees only the gleam of a newly waxed floor.
“Real little boys get hurt, you know,” Glenda says. “They scrape their knees and bleed. Real little boys get yelled at for tracking mud across the carpet. Real little boys cry.”
“I still wanna be real,” Maxie replies.
“Wouldn’t you rather have a finely carved wooden body like Pinocchio?” Glenda asks. “Never grow old, be young forever and ever like Peter Pan?”
Glenda is pulling out all the stops. All pretty little beads to dangle before a six-year-old boy, but I know that’s all they are, too. Beads. Trinkets.
Maxie believes Glenda can do those things. Maybe she can. I know what she did for me, over three years ago. What she did for Maxine.
For some reason, I think of the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not my favorite movie. I just don’t understand how two people can be so cruel to each other. Perhaps if Glenda weren’t around to make our dreams real, or to give hope that they could be real someday, Maxine and I wouldn’t be so far from that. Exchange one kind of madness for another. I like to think we’re just not that kind of people, but I see similarities.
The fact that we had to dream Little Max up, because Maxine and I can’t have children Nature’s way and won’t adopt. We wanted a child that was ours.
“I wanna be real,” Maxie says. “Make me real, pleeeeeaassse!”
I’m proud to hear him say “the magic word”…and Glenda nods, closes her eyes. A beatific smile spreads across her face as she turns it up toward the sky, way up high, and there are three taps as she clicks the heels of her shoes together. I feel wind on my face, warm, and I feel my heart swelling with love that we had known only a shadow of before—
“Max! Look!” Maxine yells. I open my eyes, which I don’t recall closing.
The kid stirs. His little brown-haired head twitches from side to side, he groans, and suddenly his eyes open. He looks at Maxine.
Maxine cries out, rushes to the wheelchair and lifts him out into a hug. “Yes, Mommy’s here!”
She turns around so her back is to me. Maxie looks at me now, and I give him my best Dad smile, like I imagine my father would have given me had he ever decided to smile.
“Way to go, son,” I say. His reply is to smile back, the happiest kid on Earth because he’d just won the approval of his father, not realizing he’d had it all along.
“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” says Glenda, gleefully playing with her applesauce again, having forgotten us. Gurgle and burp. She thwacks her spoon into the applesauce. It splashes up all over her face. She sits there, stunned for a moment, then exclaims, “Jimminy Cricket!”
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