James M. Flammang, author of 30 books (including
six for children), is at work on several more,
including the title described below.
An independent journalist since the 1980s, Flammang
specialized in the automobile business. During
2016, he turned away from cars and into more vital
topics: work/labor, consumer concerns, and especially,
the emerging outrages of the Trump administration. His
website, Tirekicking Today (tirekick.com) has been
online since 1995.
Her name was Mary Ellen, and she was a beauty. I mean, the kind who won beauty contests. Slim but curvy. A smile that could flirt gently yet boldly, revealing the quietly intense seriousness of the busy, admittedly agitated mind inside.
Laid-back, greenish eyes twinkled hints of secrets that might never be disclosed; or, perhaps might, any moment now. Short hair, just a touch disheveled, but carefully maintained. A mellifluous voice, complemented by a bare touch of huskiness, as if it had consumed and savored a few too many filter-tip cigarettes.
Though quiet most of the time, she unquestionably knew a lot more than she let on. In fact, as I learned later, she was a seriously smart young woman. Maybe even near-genius, who knows. Or at least, a head above any of the females she hung around with. A head, a mind, that was as beautiful inside as out.
She was a musician, too. Not professional, not playing for money. Not yet. But close to that caliber. With a bit of luck, she might have transformed herself into a mildly-iridescent star at some second-tier record label. Or, at least, performing late-night sets on smoky stages at small, darkened venues, content with scattered applause while struggling to cope with lewd catcalls.
That’s what I thought, anyway. Then again, what do I know about music? And musicians?
Not just one instrument, either. She could play the piano, whether by ear with gusto, or reading music carefully when a quieter sound was needed. Accordion, too; and in her hands, that antique instrument – so often ridiculed as an unsophisticated joke – got a new breath of life.
Mary Ellen was learning the clarinet, too. Or was it the flute. One of those two.
Her shapely fingers also could strum a few tremulous chords out of the old guitar that usually sat within its case, stuffed into the back of the closet in her room.
Someone said she’d been an actual, for-real beauty pageant contestant, someplace out west. Not just some hick town, either. Almost won, they insisted. Second or third place, something like that. Take a quick look in her direction, and you wouldn’t doubt that claim for a second. You’d just wonder why she hadn’t taken the top prize.
On this particular evening, her good looks, her liveliness, her gracefully feminine nature, got her into trouble. For one reason, and one alone: Mary Ellen was a drunk.
She was also crazy. Not psycho crazy. Just troubled, tormented, fighting off some sort of demons, trying to drown them if nothing else. Pretty much like the rest of us in the Psychiatric Institute, to tell the truth.
Mentally ill, to be genteel about it, at least in the opinion of the court system. After some sort of rambunctious misbehavior, no doubt involving alcohol – plenty of it – a judge had sent Mary Ellen to the psychiatric hospital, which was where we met. In the dayroom, where the patients spent the better part of their time when not asleep or lying awake during the long nights.
No one knew she was a drunk. Not at first. She was one of those alcoholics who do nothing bizarre, who don’t scream and shout, or speak in garbled, unintelligible phrases. Crazy talk.
Not until that evening in late spring. I’d been there for a month or so. Checked in voluntarily, no longer able to cope with everyday life, with the workaday world. Anxiety and Panic Reaction, the admitting shrink called it.
I couldn’t argue with that assessment. In fact, those few words described me accurately and precisely. I’d been afraid, panicky afraid, day and night for months. More like years, really.
Unable to function anymore, I was unbelievably relieved to learn that I could be admitted to the psychiatric institute, and gladly signed myself in for a minimum of 30 days. When that time was close to running out, I was overjoyed to agree to remain.
Mary Ellen, on the other hand, was not in the hospital voluntarily. Like about half of the patients on our floor, she’d been committed by the court. Hardly any of the involuntary patients were happy to be there. Many of them talked constantly about how they didn’t belong in such a place; how they hoped to get out as quickly as possible; the steps they intended to take to secure a release. The sooner, the better.
Why, you could go crazy living in a place like this, they’d insist. Amazing how many times I heard that one.
Who knows, maybe it was true. Being realistic, though, a lot of them were pretty far gone from their first moments on the ninth floor, before they saw or talked with anyone.
Not all of them acted crazy, necessarily. But after being there a while, you could start to see it in their eyes, in their speech, in their overreactions to simple events. No doubt about it, most of them were exactly where they should have been, despite their protestations.
On this particular day, the staff made a big mistake. They were always looking for new ways to keep the inmates – okay, patients – busy and entertained. So, one of the nurses came up with the idea of a contest. A beauty contest. For a bunch of mentally ill people, many of them way short on self-confidence and big on feelings of inferiority, a contest of any sort could be troublesome. But a beauty contest? With winners and losers? That one was insane.
Rather than make it a daytime event, which was the usual way, they decided to start right after dinner. The announcement came at breakfast that morning. Immediately, a few of the female patients perked up. Big surprise: each of the eager participants was pretty good-looking. Unlikely to be the big loser, for sure.
Ordinary-looking women seemed more morose.
Men (and boys) didn’t seem to know what to think. Most were heterosexual, at least in theory, so the prospect of being permitted to gaze at some hot-looking women wasn’t exactly something to dread.
Randolph, one of the loudmouth, macho residents, started to whoop and holler, almost leaping into the air and practically licking his lips. Illicit relationships were hardly unheard-of on the ward, but most patients were doubtless celibate during their stay at the institute.
Mary Ellen didn’t respond at first. When she did, it was with a quietly raised hand, responding to the call for contestants. Looking back now, there was something in her eyes that suggested secrecy.
Dinnertime conversation was more animated than usual. One or two guys recalled strip shows they’d seen, trysts they'd experienced. Or claimed to, anyway. One attractive middle-aged woman admitted to having participated in a beauty contest, years earlier.
As soon as dessert had been consumed, the group rose almost as one, to settle themselves on the couches and easy chairs in the main part of the dayroom. As the festivities began, Norman took over his regular role as DJ for the occasion.
Each of the contestants took a few minutes to prepare for the event, returning to their own rooms to change clothes or just do a bit of primping.
Elizabeth, the first participant, looked scared as she approached what amounted to center stage, her feet slowly pitter-pattering on the hard tile floor. She wore a pretty modest swimsuit, which revealed her elegant shape but nothing startling.
Rita was next. More rambunctious, though not a beauty. Joking, making faces, her interpretation of a come-hither smile.
Mary Ellen was third, and she wasn’t back yet from her room. Seconds, then minutes ticked away. Melvin – looking like he was about to burst from holding a huge secret – finally opened up to the group of fellows with whom he was sitting.
“Mary Ellen. She’s next. She’s going to come out naked. I heard her tell one of the girls before they went to their rooms.”
Note: Text above is an excerpt from the full story, subject to final editing.