By Kent Monroe
Just give me some truth
The story we all know has God simply resting on the seventh day, but in my story he spends that day adrift in melancholic contemplation, tracing the face of the Girl Who Killed Her Family on a glowing nebula. Then he weeps inconsolably. Then he vanishes inside a photon and lets it all be.
I never learned her name with certainty. William Bly said her name was Karla, but after you learn more about William, you will understand why I cannot swear to the veracity of his claim. It is entirely possible, though, that this is her actual name — besides, I cannot bear the impersonality of her nameless — and so the Girl Who Killed Her Family is Karla.
“Take me home,” Karla said to me.
She carried herself with an air of exaggerated dignity, like a queen proceeding to her beheading. I picture her now exactly as she was: freckles sprinkled on the whitest of skin; hair longish, closer to auburn than orange and combed straight back from her regal forehead; eyes green — more peridot than emerald — and radiating a jewel-like acuity. I barely noticed the large stain on her state shirt, or that her state jeans were badly wrinkled, or how her hand shook as she shielded her eyes from the sun.
Truth is freedom, and truth is a prison. If I said my truth is your truth, and your truth is Karla’s truth, would that mean anything to you? If I pointed out to you there are buildings you probably drive by without notice on your way to the office or the beach or the grocery store — buildings you would never enter if it were up to you—would it affect in even the most modest manner the way you view the world? Would it diminish your contentment, your pleasure, or dim your luminous dreams to consider — even obliquely — the notion we are all connected in some fundamental and inextricable way? It is nearly a certainty, I will remind you, that Joseph Merrick and Adolph Hitler both breathed molecules that once flowed through the bloodstream of Jesus Christ.
You see, a long time ago I lived in some of those buildings you would never enter if it were up to you. I met Karla in the darkest of them. Take me home: I have carried her words within me for thirty years. Sometimes they rattle inside my heart as my ceiling fan weaves the three threads of night, moonlight, and memory into ghosts. They are my brothers and sisters, these ghosts. They are the marchers from my life’s parade: junkies and convicts and lunatics, reprobate preachers and wife beaters and children praying with webbed hands. Karla is always in the front row. She turns her head my way as she floats by, reaches for me as she fades to black.
I’m going to take you to where I met her, if you’ll go with me. I visit there to reaffirm the truth I have come to understand. The door to there is always here beside me, the patina on the doorknob worn through where my hand grips it. I’m opening it again now…
It is the second week of the insufferably hot August of 1984. I am lost, separated not just from love, but from the hope of love, and I have done bad things. I robbed two drug stores in April of 1982, and I am now a flat man, one of the losers the flowers mock, soul #133095, a ghost floating through a world devoid of depth and meaning, a ghost floating beneath sepia skies in a dimension without perspective. I have forfeited my freedom, my context, my dignity. I float within the world, but I don’t go anywhere.
My home for these last two years is a prison in Staunton, Virginia. I work in the main kitchen as a baker, and this morning, after I place the bread dough in the proofing room, I walk into the bathroom, sit on the toilet and slash my left wrist to the bone. I have removed the blade from a disposable plastic razor and embedded it in the head of a toothbrush I’d melted soft with a lighter. I have carried this around in my boot for a few days. Some inmates carry these as weapons, but mine I fashioned for myself. My commitment to actually killing myself, however, is vague, and so after some minutes have passed and it is evident that I am not going to bleed to death, I do not cut myself again, but instead walk unsteadily out into the kitchen and approach a guard I am on friendly terms with. He is a good man. I want to be a good man.
“I’m sorry, John,” I say, holding my bloody arm up so he can see the wound clearly.
“Jesus!” he shouts, jumping from his seat and blowing his whistle like the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are galloping straight towards us.
They transport me to the town hospital. They shackle my legs, but don’t fasten the handcuff to my injured arm. A surgeon repairs my wrist. I wake angry in a private room with a guard I do not recognize sitting at the foot of my bed. His expression is decidedly unsympathetic.
“My arm hurts like your face in a mirror,” I tell him.
“Loser,” he retorts, pointing to his wrist then to me, and his reply is so incontrovertibly true, I keep my mouth shut.
A nurse walks in and shoots me up. The morphine is exquisite, vintage ‘82 from the poppy fields of some lonely country.
“I love you,” I whisper, as I close my eyes and dream.
I behold the moon covered with silver poppies, silver with blood-red crosses in the middle. The beautiful moon swells, draping the sky all burnished silver and blood-red velvet, and the petals release into the blue air, floating down upon the dingy, groaning world, coloring everything, covering everything… and no one ever hurts again.
She comes to me later, closing the door quietly. The guard sleeps beneath a blanket of poppies. She stands beside the bed, lovely, backlit by the starlight from the open window that appears in the wall. She runs her fingers along my lips, unbuttons my shirt. I sit up and slowly unzip the back of her uniform with my good arm, unpin her long auburn hair. It brushes my face musky-sweet as it falls. She sighs, and I run my hand slowly up the soft line of her thigh, kiss the swale of her back. She sets her glasses on the nightstand as she leans into me. I trace the elegant curve of her cheek, feel her breath quicken on my hand… and I float. I float to the beat of her heart…
I arrive at the Forensic Unit in the middle of the night, my reservations confirmed. You might say I have a ticket to writhe. My escorts don’t tell me where they are taking me, and I don’t ask. I don’t care. They could say: “Buddy, we are dropping your miserable ass into the ninth circle of hell,” and it would have no effect on me.
I spent the ride there in some gilded dimension of my imagination, where I fell back into the beautiful light of the contracting, transmuting universe. I had read that if the universe stopped expanding, one day it would reverse, fall into itself, and that we might then live our lives backwards. I envisioned myself then as an old penny dropped into a shimmering well, and then becoming a shiny new penny as I fell, disappearing into the Singularity. I liked the notion that when the universe emerged again from a new Big Bang, I could one day feel love like I dream it. It was so pretty to think that.
They take me in and hand me over to my new keepers. I still hear the crickets in my head from outside. I am now a resident of Central State Hospital. Back in the day they called this place Central Lunatic Asylum, and it is now my home.
They lead me down what seems like miles of beige institutional tile, the halls lifeless and inescapable — like a cave whose entrance collapsed — with block walls and every fifty feet a door you would never pass through if it were up to you. They take me into a room dark as the belly of a nightmare as it uncoils in your mind. I am scared, but you wouldn’t know it. Inside this room, a dozen or so men sleep on roll-out cots. I say men, but they are just lumps in the black air that might hurt me.
I am directed to my cot. I take off my shoes and slip beneath a blanket. Now I am a lump. It is dead quiet, the foreboding quiet before the Inquisitors come, their black robes scraping the stone floor like serpent skin.
Minutes later, I flinch to the sound of a laugh. It is not a cocktail-party laugh. Another laugh: shrill, disturbing. Then the whip-strike sound of the hard slap of an open hand against a face. The Inquisitors are in the room.
A hand hovers in the black air above me. I can’t actually see it, but I feel it. At any moment it can crack my head like an egg, snatch me away into this vile, loveless air.
The dead quiet again. After a while comes the harsh and disconcerting sound of teeth grinding, first behind me to the left, then in front to the right, then all about me, a macabre circle of gnashing teeth, the relentless, toxic discharge of fucked-up minds. I slowly run my tongue along my own front teeth, feel the sharp, beveled wear, and I know these are the grotesque sounds I too make when I sleep. They are the echoes of my mind, and the horrible thought occurs to me that I am exactly where I should be, that I belong here, and that I could never, ever, be deserving of anything but this.
“Get your asses up! Get your shoes on! Get those goddamn cots outta here! Let’s fuckin’ get with the program, homeboys!”
The booming voice startles me. I open my eyes and the room is revealed in the morning light. The lumps are indeed men, and they rise mechanically, but without delay, as do I. These men obviously know the routine; they fold their cots and roll them down a hall and into a storage room. I mimic their actions. Several keepers assist some of the slower men.
When I get back to the main room, I sit on an unoccupied picnic table, my feet on the bench, light a cigarette, and look about. There are windows in the block walls. Iron screens cover the glass, and the sun shines through them, the golden shafts of light slanting to the floor, each shaft connected to the sun… and to here.
Our room is large. A television bolted high on a wall plays the news. Two huge ragged sofas pushed together at a right angle face the television, and a group of disheveled men sit there rigidly upright. They don’t acknowledge the television. They don’t acknowledge the presence of anything. They look… damned.
I glance around the room, and when I look back, the sofa men rock their upper bodies back and forth. The speed of their rocking slowly accelerates. One begins to mumble as he rocks, then another, and another. Their tones become strident.
“Okay, gentlemen, let’s get our shit together! It’s chow time, homies!”
An instant after that powerful voice projects into the air, the commotion settles. One by one, the sofa men rise, mumbling softly now, yet obeying.
Our keepers, six black men in khaki pants and button-down shirts with name tags pinned to the pockets, consolidate us like cattle. We file through a door at their direction, and they lead us down halls of distilled lifelessness. They are taciturn fellows, our keepers, and they speak mostly commands, which we all obey. We sleep, after all, beneath hands that hover over our heads.
There are about thirty of us, inmates from the state prison system. I infer some of them sleep in cells down the hall from the main room. The cot men obviously need the hovering hands to make it through the night. Now I see these men clearly — broken ghosts, their fucked up brains chemically lobotomized. Their gates are stiff and shuffling. Their hands tremble at the end of board-like arms. Every few steps we pass beneath a square fluorescent light sunk flush in the plaster ceiling. This light is morgue light. It renders our skin sallow. It is an adjunct to the drugs, permeating us with lifelessness.
The chow hall is staffed by black women wearing white aprons and paper hairnets. They are as dour as our keepers, their skin also sallow in the dead light. They spoon our breakfast robotically onto our outstretched plastic trays. At the end of the line, the server speaks to me.
“Biscuit or roll?” she asks flatly to a point over my left shoulder.
“Roll,” I reply.
I hold my hand out for the roll, but she doesn’t respond, just stares at her spot. I raise my tray up, and she drops a roll onto the tray.
This breakfast is not comfort food; it is uncomfortably bad food — powdered eggs, paste-like oatmeal, a carton of iffy-tasting milk — and I down every bite. So do my comrades. Our keepers don’t give us long to eat. They lean against the walls, arms crossed, watching. They don’t need to say hurry up. No words are spoken, but it is far from silent. Chairs creak, mouths smack, steel forks clack on the trays, throats clear, throats cough, exhaust fans whir in the kitchen behind the chow line, and in the background, like radiation, I hear the distant, lonesome hum of the world as it spins.
We parade beneath the morgue lights again, back behind the door you didn’t wish to pass through.
Inside, in the corner to the left of the door, our keepers gather outside a Plexiglas-enclosed office where two keepers sit in chairs turned sideways on either side of a wood desk. Both men are stretched back and reading newspapers. On the desk is a phone, and above the phone, on the wall in a glass-faced cabinet, are what look like canisters of pepper spray.
Between the sofas and the picnic table I had earlier appropriated as my territory is lots of open space. A dozen men begin pacing back and forth within this area. These are precise routes. The choreography is as perfect as it is bizarre. The obstacles are two steel support columns, two other picnic tables, and each other. Although they seem oblivious to reality as they pace, directing impassioned soliloquies to the trespassers inside their skulls, they somehow never collide with the obstacles or each other.
I chain-smoke and watch. Half an hour passes. The men pace faster, their faces flushed, their soliloquies devolving into rambling diatribes. In time it looks like they’ve taken their eyeballs out and poached them for just a second. Over at the sofas, the men mutter, curse, laugh like the maniacs they are. Our keepers lean against the wall and watch. One of them points to me, turns to his buddy, and they both chuckle… and I know now exactly where I am. I have not fallen down some shimmering well to my loving rebirth. I have fallen into the black and boiling blood of the world. I have landed in the ninth circle of hell.
The hall door opens. Two keepers escort a nurse as she wheels a medication cart into the room. Grace had arrived, friend, and I don’t mean the name of the nurse. There is an immediate and palpable change in the energy of the room. It becomes almost serene. The men solemnly line up before the nurse. A keeper walks over to me and extends his hand in the direction of the line. I take a place at the end, behind a tank-like man who mumbles almost imperceptibly. Occasionally his voice becomes guttural. I’m careful to not touch him.
As each man steps forward, the nurse hands him a paper cup of medicine. Down the hatch it goes, with no prompting. Then she pours him a chaser of water in the same cup… and the men drink. She smiles as each man steps up, and she smiles again as he leaves.
I step to the altar.
“Name?” she asks.
“Monroe,” I reply.
“Nope,” she says, quickly glancing over the cart before raising her head. She looks me in the eye, smiling. “No meds for you… yet.”
I return to my spot. The golden shafts of light have disappeared. A fly lands on my hand and I swat at it with my other hand and miss. The fly returns, and I miss again, and again. I fashion a swatter from a newspaper on the table and wait patiently, but the fly doesn’t return.
Thirty minutes after the Eucharist, our room is as quiet as the pause after a priest says, “Let us pray…”
On the eighth day they threw us a party. They paraded us beneath the corpse lights and out into the courtyard behind the building. A twenty-foot-high brick wall enclosed the courtyard. It was stifling hot, and the drone of locusts resounded like severed electric lines. The morgue lights had inoculated my brothers against true light, and they reacted like bugs beneath a stone suddenly lifted, burning now in the infernal light of the world.
Three big white wedding tents stood on this scorched ground. Bright yellow crepe-paper streamers dangled limply from the frames, and red balloons floated dead still and taut at the end of blue ribbons. Beneath the tents were two long card tables with pink paper tablecloths. Decoratively arranged on the tables were punch bowls and party snacks on paper plates, with napkins, and little butterfly-printed paper cups. There were no real butterflies, though, nor birds — just locusts and ghosts.
Two tents, one for us, the other empty, stood a hundred feet apart. The third tent was more like a football field away. Three-dimensional people — women in their summer skirts chatting with men in their white shirts and loosened ties — mingled beneath the third tent. A photographer sheltered beneath a beach umbrella snapped pictures of them with a tripod-mounted camera.
The affair had obviously been carefully planned. It followed the afternoon Eucharist, and only the friendliest ghosts were invited. Pairs of keepers stood between us and the three-dimensional people chatting beneath the tent sitting beneath the different sun.
My brothers hesitated, gazing upon the party refreshments with bewilderment. What to do?
Our keepers said: “Go ahead, homies, eat! Now!”
There we were, a tribe of goddamn criminal maniacs, most chemically lobotomized, burning in the hellish light of the world, herded beneath a wedding tent behind the monolithic walls of a prison for the criminally insane, munching on peanuts and sipping punch from butterfly-printed cups. I was momentarily stunned by the absurdity of the scene. Reality had bent into something unutterably rotten.
“Sir, can I have a cigarette?”
The voice came from behind me, and out of habit I stepped forward and a little to the side as I turned. It was a ghost with bones, a particularly skinny one, with short brown hair and gray eyes with tiny pupils. The gray of his iris was almost opaque, like paint that had oxidized.
“Can I have a cigarette, please?”
Today I would lurch at the smell of cigarette smoke like a vampire in the presence of a crucifix, but back then a cigarette was life’s greatest pleasure.
I handed him a smoke and lighted it for him. It was not easy— his hands trembled so. He took the long, deep drag of a seasoned smoker, finally exhaling slowly through his nostrils.
“You see them?” he said, whispering now, pointing to a pair of keepers with an expression that suggested what he was about to say was of the gravest importance.
“I’m legally blind,” I replied. “I see blurs of this, shadows of that — like a fly.”
“They’re wearing black caps.”
“Sure they’re not midnight blue?”
“And they file their t-teeth to a point.” He stuttered on his t’s. “They wear dentures so you can’t see them, but their t-teeth are like shark’s t-teeth.”
The better man prevailed.
“I believe you,” I told him.
I lit a cigarette, and we both stood there and smoked and watched our keepers for a couple of minutes.
“Thank you for the cigarette, sir,” he said. “Can I have another one?”
I’m a sucker for manners. Blame it on the better part of my upbringing. I shook a few cigarettes out of the pack and handed them to him. He told me his name was William Bly. I liked him.
“Why do they file their teeth?”
“They’re going to eat us. They put stuff in our food so we will t-taste good.”
“Oh, yeah,” I agreed. “The powdered eggs…”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a group of women ghosts file out from one of the wings of the main building. Four female keepers — two on each side of the group — escorted them towards the empty tent close to ours. The women were as discomforted by the sun and the heat as the men. They stopped about fifteen feet away from me while their keepers discussed something. I turned to get a good look at them, and there she was, staring directly into my eyes.
“They won’t let me go home,” she told me in a little-girl voice.
I just stood there. She was… not like the others.
“I want to go home,” she said to me.
I couldn’t speak. I just shook my head yes.
“Take me home,” she implored, and she held a trembling hand out as she took a step toward me.
Two of her keepers took hold of her arms and redirected her away from me.
“Yes, yes, we know you want to go home, dear,” one said to her kindly. “But we’re going to have some punch. Now come on, dear…”
I was a man made of paper. Raise the temperature one degree and I could have curled away in a puff of smoke. I watched them make their way to their tent. She stood gazing at the sky above the wall while one of her keepers fetched her a cup of punch. Another woman blocked my view of her. I tapped William Bly on the arm and he turned to me with that serious look.
“Can I have another cigarette, sir?” he asked me.
“Just a second,” I told him, waiting for her to come back into view, and when she did, I grabbed his arm and asked him who she was.
“That’s Karla,” he told me.
“You know her?”
“She killed her brother,” he said, whispering again. “She’s been here t-t-twice. She was here for eight years and they let her out. Then she killed her mom and dad.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
He held out his hand. “Please, sir,” he said.
I took two cigarettes for myself and handed the pack to him.
“Everybody knows,” he said, shrugging. “She’ll never get out,” he added with emphasis.
I stood there and watched her stare at the sky over the wall. She dropped her punch and her arm remained rigidly extended. I couldn’t stop looking at her. I thought about what William had told me.
“How did she kill them?” I asked him.
“She poisoned them with ant-t-ifreeze,” he answered, rocking his body as he spoke.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I’ll get you another pack of smokes when we get in.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, William.”
Then our keepers led us back into the building you would not enter if it were up to you, and I never saw her again.
On the fourteenth day, two hours after the afternoon Eucharist, I sat at my usual spot, smoking a butt, staring at the tile floor. Most of the pacers just stood against the wall, muttering softly. A few had just begun their routes. Their eyes had not heated up just yet.
“White boy a punk motherfucker.”
I didn’t look up. I knew the words were directed at me. I took a deep breath.
“White boy a punk bitch.”
I raised my head.
It was the tank-like man I stood behind in the Eucharist line that first day. He did not attend the party they threw us. Under his ebony skin, the muscles swelled from his back to his huge neck, but he had done nothing in particular to alert me of danger. I had never heard him actually speak. I just looked at him now, heart racing, and said nothing.
“I like to fuck punk motherfuckers.”
His eyes changed as he said this. They narrowed. The pupils swelled into holes, and I saw his demon.
So I summoned my own demon. It clung to my heart like a leech. It sucked my dreams of love, made despair and self-loathing, shot it back in me like dope.
“I hate the world,” I told my demon.
“Yes,” it replied.
“There is no love here.”
“The flowers mock me.”
I stood, took a quick step forward, and punched him hard. Blood dripped from both his nostrils. He wiped the blood with the back of his hand, slowly licked it like it were his lover’s skin, and then he set out to kill me.
I heard the stone in his heart rattle. Then I was flat on the floor, the breath smashed out of me, his huge hands crushing my throat, his hot blood dripping onto my face. I thought: I am blessed at last with my death… here, separated from all love and tenderness, and for an instant I saw myself as a child, floating in the air where the sun streamed through the iron screens. I had a crew cut. I was smiling. My front teeth were just growing in. I was not yet afraid of the world.
I faded to black.
Then I returned, gasping, looking up from the floor to where William Bly rode the man who would kill me like a cowboy rides a bull, only cowboys don’t gouge their bulls’ eyes as William did. I sprang to my feet and punched the bull in the neck, then the ribs. He snatched William Bly from his back and slammed him to the ground and turned back to me.
An army of keepers swarmed into the room. They slung us apart and blasted all three of us in the face with pepper spray. I staggered blindly, my eyes and face aflame. Mucus streamed from my nose to the floor. I struggled to breathe. A keeper cracked me on the side of the leg with a blackjack, and I folded to my knees.
I was blind, but not deaf. The air reverberated with a cacophony of the anguished, a violent, perverse oratorio, and I was the conductor.
Above the clamor, the man who set out to kill me cried out like a little boy: “He hurt me! He hurrrrt me!”
I turned my head towards the voice. A hand hovering in the black air slammed into the back of my neck, and I fell on my face, unconscious.
I came to as two keepers dragged me down a hall. They stood me up and pushed me into a cell. I fell onto a bunk and rolled onto my back, gasping. Leather cuffs secured my hands to a belt at my waist. My head hurt. I could not see. Gradually, my eyes cleared.
Two keepers later escorted a nurse into the cell. She looked me over. I told her I was okay. They removed my restraints and handed me a meal tray and a carton of milk and left. The carton had an expiration date stamped on it, but I didn’t know the date. I felt it was still August, but I wasn’t sure. Anyway, the milk smelled okay. I drank it, and I ate the food. Then I slept hard.
When I woke, it was dark. You could see just enough from the dimmed morgue light in the ceiling. Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed a Bible resting on the floor. I picked it up just to do something, and when I did, a four-leaf clover fell on my lap. It was pressed dry and thin as a pencil line, but it was a four-leaf clover all the same, and I… I began to weep. I dropped the Bible on the floor, fell to my knees, and held this goddamn dried clover in my palm and wept like God on the seventh day. As I wept, the four-leaf clover broke apart in my palm. It just disintegrated to dust. I blew it away, wiped my eyes, lay down on my bunk in my room in my home and fell asleep again in the loveless air.
On the seventeenth day, two uniformed prison guards entered my cell. They cuffed and shackled me and handed me a pillowcase filled with all my worldly belongings.
“What’s up?” I asked, but I knew I was leaving.
“You’re goin’ home, Slick,” one of them answered.
“That be home,” he said.
They loaded me into the transport van. The air was cooler, pleasant. The sky was robin’s-egg blue. One of them lit me a cigarette. I turned my head as we pulled out and watched the Central Lunatic Asylum grow small. We turned onto a busy highway. I looked back one last time, but the big brick edifice had disappeared. The guards joked. They gave me smokes. We laughed. I felt better.
Thirty years have passed, and although I may never feel love like I dream it, I do feel it, and my dreams are wonderful. I cannot say why I am such a lucky man, why I smile so comfortably, why this existential grace that allows me to dream of love settled inside me.
Perhaps it is simply foolishness that fills me with notions of hope. Maybe the flowers do mock me, and I am just too wrecked to see it. Sometimes I fear I embarrass myself by presuming I could possibly understand anything, but then I tell myself to be brave and say what I have come to know. I visit my past to reaffirm my knowledge of an omnipresent reality connecting us all, a prime truth, which is this: love is the only thing that can possibly matter. Love is the fountain from which all true freedoms flow, and the separation from love creates our prisons, within and without.
I don’t believe anyone chooses to be disconnected from love. There is a process of error to every separation. The deficit or absence of goodness in a person is not a decision; it is a condition. Evil, even, is not a decision; evil is a condition, a process of error. To think otherwise is to ignore reason sanctified by the omnipresent reality of love. If someone becomes a danger to others, they must be segregated, of course, but we must never look past our duty and our destiny to fix the broken, for this is our sovereign purpose — to connect our disconnected brothers and sisters, and by doing so, to connect ourselves to our holiness, our godliness, and thus become fully realized. Truth, shared at the quantum level of existence by all, is that love ennobles us; love ensouls us; love quickens the universe.
I don’t know if Karla is still alive, if she is still there, her eyes sewn open by life, her every breath a lungful of poison, her child’s heart withered, embalmed in dust. I cannot change Karla’s story.
This is my story, though, and I’ll end it my way, with my brothers and sisters, my broken ghosts, marching beside me towards love, because this is my desire, and my desire never ends. I have carried inside me for a lifetime the words of Karla, and I shall carry her words always, like the ark of some lonesome, indefinable covenant, until the Night of Luminous Hearts, the night the moon flips its dark side to the light, and Karla flies to my window in a cloud of diamonds. I’ll be there for her, and when I take her beautiful hand to lead her home, the scars on my wrists will disappear.
Kent Monroe writes and gardens in Troy, New Hampshire. His poems and prose musings have appeared in New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Missing Slate, and The Write Room. Odd notions such as the abolishment of war inhabit his mind.