Clare Dinnocenti

         It was the time of the year when spring experiences conception, yet offers no tangible proof of its coming.  There was an early morning mist lingering on the gently rolling hills of the Pennsylvania countryside.  A green stationwagon sped along the turnpike; its occupants were solemn and preoccupied.  As the car began exiting toward the city of Norristown, someone in the rear commented,

“It doesn’t matter how often we do this, I still get nervous and shaky.”

“What’s the matter Ethel, are you afraid someday you won’t get out?” another responded causing the other passengers to laugh.

Only Laura Hardy missed the humor; she gazed through the window at the landscape, particularly the trees.  She always enjoyed looking at trees in winter—they intensified her awareness of God’s unique creations.  Summer trees, wearing lush green foliage, blend into surrounding hills and are absorbed,  but the winter nakedness of trees reveal their twisted individuality.

It’s true of them too, she thought, their twisted minds are bare to us.  We see deformity because we know it is there.

The car had passed through the older parts of the city and entered the less populated suburbs when it came to a full stop at a massive, heavily guarded gate.  Having produced identification for a guard, the driver proceeded toward the clusters of elongated red-brick buildings monotonously trimmed with sick-looking yellow paint.

“God, it’s depressing here.” Cecelia said, “I’ve never seen anything like this – why you could become manic depressive by just having to look at this place.”

This was Cecelia’s first visit to the State Mental Hospital; Laura sympathized with her.  She remembered the anxiety which tortured her for days prior to her own first visit and, for weeks following it, she agonized over the total waste of humanity stored under lock and key.

She had been only twenty-one at the time of that visit—it seemed so long ago despite the mere eighteen months.  When she began, she would say simple prayers with the patients as each volunteer had been directed.  Now she was more comfortable and often sang or played cards.  Once she had danced with a young man, he wanted so much to dance, but an orderly had asked her to stop.  Although the volunteer group was religiously sponsored, Laura only spoke of religion or verbalized prayers when one of the patients was very distant or extremely incoherent.  She hated the place, but loved it.  She hated the patients, but her soul ached for them.

The stationwagon stopped in front of one of the non-descript buildings--#29.  This would be the first time any social workers visited #29; the building was reserved for patients who were almost totally unreachable.  Before leaving the car it was customary for the group to offer prayers that their work would be in the spirit of Christian charity.  Laura always found herself praying for a miracle—just one.  She wanted to be responsible for helping someone.  She longed to be the one to whom one of these pitiable people responded.

They entered a hallway of locked doors.  An orderly took them through one of the doors and they waited in a passageway for the unlocking of another door.


“This idea of the Doc’s stinks,” Dave complained.  “Ive been working in ths place for ten years and once these guys get this bad, they ain’t never coming out of it.  They sure as hell ain’t gonna respond to these ‘goodie-twoshoes religious nuts.’”

“Well Dave,” Steve said, as he struggled to move a stuporous patient down the hall, “I guess it just isn’t our job to second guess these doctors, but just to move these patients around.  Hey, grab that door for me, will you please, while I get Johnny-boy into the room.”  Steve moved the boy into the recreation facility and took him to a far corner of the room.  Might just as well let the other boys sit up front; he thought, Johnny’s been in this stare for a couple of months now and nobody will talk to him anyway.  Poor slob.  Seventeen.  Crist, it’s a bitch.

After placing John securely into the chair, Steve leaned down and spoke to the blank face, “Company’s coming in from the outside today, John.  You’ll get to see some new people.  Have fun kid.”  Then he proceeded to help Dave place the remainder of the patients around the oom along with six extra chairs for the social workers.  Steve didn’t think the Doc’s idea of exposing thse patients to outside influence would work, but he gave the Doc credit—no one else had tried it.


Laura held Cecelia’s hand to cushion the shock of sight and amell when the orderly opened the second door.  The floors of the large room were tiled in black interspaced with white in checkerboard fashion.  Staring at the floor, even for a short time, produced perspective distortion; a disadvantage for these patients who stared endlessly.  The faded, drab, seagreen walls were made further depressing by a heavy brown paint-stain on the woodwork.  There was a putrid mixture of old and new disinfectant in the room; both failed to camaflouge the decaying odor of the patients.  The patients had remained at their chairs after having been placed there by the orderlies.  A few, however, stood twitching.  Several of the patients, like John, stared quietly.  There was intermittent giggling and randomly one or several patients would laugh or gesture uncontrollably.

Gazing around the room and surveying the desolation of the human beings before her, Laura realized why visiting this building was a tribute of confidence to her volunteer group.  Looking from one to another produced reverbating shocks for her and tears, caught in her eyes, were kept from falling by sheer will power.  She gathered her conscious strength and began to cross the room.  Suddenly, her composure fell away and she nearly fainted.  Dear God! It can’t be, she thought, sruggling to regain her control, “That’s John Cecci.  Oh my dear God look at him,” she whispered to no one.  Tears rushed to her eyes once more and this time she did not stop them.  She sat into a chair with so little control that Steve the orderly, ran over to help her.

“Are you alright Miss?” he asked.  “Can I get you some water?”

“No” Laura replied.  “It’s that patient, the one in the corner.  He grew up with me.  He grew up in my neighborhood.  I knew he was in this hospital, but I never dreamed he would be here, in this building. Oh my God, he looks terrible.  May I talk with him? I mean would it be OK?”

“Miss, you may talk to him all you want,” Steve said, “but he won’t know you and he won’t respond.  So don’t be disappointed.”

Laura sat quietly for swhile and prayed not to cry when she went over to see John.  Slowly she regained her control and approached him.

“How are you today, John?” she asked as she seated herself in front of him.  He was very pale and sallow.  Why is it people in institutions always look ashened and half alive, she thought.  She longed to tell him who she was and how he had lived two doors away from her for so long, but she knew he was oblivious to her.  She spoke to him softly about innane topics like sports and weather, but her own mind raced back eleven years.


The whole adoption had been ridiculous—two sixty year old Italian speaking immigrants adopting a six year old American orphan.  Laura remembered how the entire neighborhood speculated about why they did it.  Her mom thought it was because they needed someone to care for them in their old age.  Laura was eleven at the time and though that was funny—to her those people had always been old.  Her dad, less emotional than her mom, felt they wanted someone to inherit their money.

Nevertheless, it was wrong from the beginning.  Little Johnny had difficulty fitting into the old folks lives and the neighborhood.  All the children got along with him alright, but he was never allowed to go anywhere.  Kids being kids, they stopped asking.  John spent most of his time alone—at home with her—his overly protective mom.

Mrs. Cecci wasn’t a bad woman.  She was frightened to raise the little boy and ignorant of how it should be done.  Whenever John was out of her sight, even momentarily, Mrs. Cecci would call him over and over again in litany fashion.  Her voice calling “Gio-van-n-ie” became part of the neighborhood sounds.


“John,” Laura said, leaning her face closer to his blank one.  “Do you remember the picnic we had when you were eight?”  Laura knew she shouldn’t do this to hersef; knew he wouldn’t remember her and knew that it would be a disappointment to know she might have helped someone she cared about and couldn’t.  It would be wonderful, she thought, if he would respond, if he could just suddenly say my name.  He really had tought of her as an older sister back then.

         “John” Laura said, leaning her face closer to his blank one.  “Do you remember how I used that silly, broken Italian accent trying to convince her to let you come?  Remember how you guys laughed at me when I said, ‘I’ma wannna taka Giovanni—picanica upa the tracks’.”  Laura wished he would remember—wished he would hear her.  Finally, she decided to sit quietly with him for awhile.


Her mind went back to the day the Cecci family brought the orphan home.  Everyone was curious about this strange child who lived in an institution.  The town was so small and unsophisticated that adoptions were rare.  The first time she saw John she sensed he could perceive what each person’s next movement would be.  His eyes seemed to have a wisdom she could not understand.  Despite his being a mere six years old, he appraised every situation and acted or reacted to it instantly.  Since then, Laura had recognized that capacity in other institutionalized people.


While Laura sat quietly gazing at the checkerboard floor recalling the day John came to the neighborhood, a change began taking place in John.  Laura’s face, which was caught in John’s fixed stare, triggered a slight awareness of something distasteful.  An abrasive, repetitious, throbbing sound entered John’s disturbed mind.  The sound of his stepmother calling, ‘Gio-van-n-ie’ mounted in intensity and became louder and louder.  John’s stuporous stare quivered slightly and rested.  The sound dissipated; his stare resumed.  Laura continued staring at the floor wondering how she could reach the boy she had known so well.


Laura thought about how Johnny had tried so hard to be a part of that family.  He had learned fluent Italian in three months.  Before he was eight he was caring for the chickens and helping with the large plot of land that dipped down from their home to the end of the town zoning, enabling them to farm it.  John was unhappy, however.  He lounged around the house and if he wandered further than the old lady could see, she would begin her chant.


“John,” Laura said, “would you like to say some prayers.  We could pray for your mom and dad, you know they both died within a year after you left.”  Laura felt that if anyone needed prayers, they did.  She was sure that if there was justice for sinful souls, these old ignorant people, who allowed their stupid pride to keep them from helping this boy, had to be in hell.  And in hell with them would be that old buzzard priest who used his influence to push through that stupid adoption.  Immediately she felt guilty for thinking a priest might be in hell.  I don’t care, she though, he belongs there.


The abrasive, dissonant sound throbbed again in John’s brain.  Again a slight quiver came to his stare.  And again, Laura, whose face was turned toward the floor, missed it.


Laura was thinking of the day Jakey, her brother, came in shouting to her mom.

“Mom, Mom, John Cecci ran away fro school today.  He stole some kid’s baseball and when they took him to the office he ran away.”  John was ten at the time.  Once again the neighborhoold was able to look at this little boy’s problems.  The immigrants were convinced he was a bad boy.  He had been born bad.  By this time, however, they did love John in their own way.  They tried to protect him from the law and the school officials.  He remained at home.  Alone.

John’s problems got worse and worse; his parent’s ability to handle them decreased as they aged.  Laura remembered her mother telling Mrs. Cecci about doctors who helped with the mind.  Mrs. Cecci screamed a tirade of Italian at her mother accusing her of calling John crazy and not being her friend at all.  In her broken English she protested, “Hima no crazy—hima no crazy.”  Rather than lose a lifetime friend, her mother never mentioned it again.

But four years ago the crisis came.  Laura was eighteen at the time and had a job in data processing.  Once each week she began early in the day and ended her day early because of payroll demands.  It was one of the early days when she came home and found her mom in a panic.  The doctor’s car and the ambulance were in front of the Cecci house and all of the neighborhood women were outside looking and whispering.

“What’s happened?” she had asked, sure that the old lady had died or had had a stroke.

“John did something awful,” her mother had answered reluctantly.  The anguish in her mother’s eyes told Laura that it was truly bad.  She remembered that her mom was so upset and reluctant to tell her what had happed that she wanted to shake her.  Finally she had said,

“Goodness sakes mom, I’m going to know sooner or later, so tell me.”

“Well,” she said and paused, tears welling in her eyes, “he took the sissors and cut off one of his testicles.”

“Oh my God!” Laura had gasped unbelievingly.  She thought then that John truly was crazy.  It was only recently that she realized he was cryng out for help.

That was another big error, Laura thought.  That dumb doctor.  He belongs in hell with the ignorant parents and the stupid priest.  When he took care of John that day, he convinced those old people that John belonged here in this place.  He wasn’t like he is now when he came here. 

Laura’s mom had foreseen John’s present state when the incident happened.  Her mom had said,

“Oh, I wish she would have listened to me when I told her about the psychiatrist, she was so ashamed, so stupid and I wasn’t much better.  Your father kept telling me it was none of my business, to stay out of it, now they’re putting him in the Norristown State Hospital where he’ll go crazy for sure.”

Oh the injustice of it all, Laura thought, this poor unfortunate human being.  Laura lifted her face to look at John.  Suddenly she screamed, “My God, he’s moving.”  Her mind returned to the present in a flash.  She saw John’s agitation—saw his eyes flare as the pounding voice of his stepmother droned on in his mind.  Laura tried to signal an orderly but she was too late.  John grabbed her by the arm and shook her.  He struck her face and was about to punch her to the floor when Steve and Dave reached them.

Two additional orderlies were summoned to bring a straight jacket.  The four orderlies secured John.  As John was dragged away ranting, he eyes no longer stuporous, showed hate and fear.

Laura who had been crying in fear watched John being dragged away and sobbed uncontrollably.  “I’ve ruined him, I’ve ruined him,” she was devastated.  “I wanted so much to help him and I’ve hurt him more—just like those old people—just like that stupid priest and doctor.  I hurt him too.”  Laura continued to sob uncontrollably as Ethel and Cecelia helped her out of the room.


“That was a close one,” Dave said to Steve as they began getting the patients back to their quarters.  “I told you it was stupid to let these patients see people from the outside—he coulda killed that girl.”

“No Dave” countered Steve.  “How could you have been working in this place for ten years and not know that when a guy like John responds, even if it’s bad—it’s good.  The kid came out of the stare and now the Doc can work with him again.”


As the stationwagon passed through the massive gate, Laura sobbed quietly.  “John, please forgive me.  I’m sorry John—I’m so sorry.”