Hope Denney – Prisons

“Miss Blake, you are not the heroine in some Faulknerian short story,” Dr. Mitchum says over his notepad. “You can tell it like it happened. None of us will judge you for it. Your mother and father have been dead for over ten years. They can’t harm you anymore.”

The aide comes round with my pills in a little fluted paper cup like they used to serve sugared almonds and candy in at wedding showers. I take them in one gulp while noticing the way Dr. Mitchum chews on his pen top when he’s frustrated.

“What were doing in that big house by yourself all those years? What made you think you couldn’t leave?”

I want to tell him, but my mouth won’t open.

Every little town has one, I try to say. The prized daughter no one can court, the pretty little girl who runs to fat over twenty years when she isn’t allowed to do anything with her life. Why my parents thought it should be me is a mystery even to me, but they thought I was a delicate prize.

“What did you do to provide for yourself those years?”

He has on a silk shirt with gold cuff links and a pompous wife with a pink Cadillac. She is a nurse here and asks me what day it is every morning. I know it is August of 1978. They would not think of growing your own vegetables or using a well for water. They have only led pampered lives.

“No one will hurt you, Miss Blake. Fill in the blanks for us. The last time anyone saw you was August of 1978. You watched your father die of a heart attack at Biloxi Memorial, and you walked home never to be seen in public again. Ten years later, the Mississippi Department of Human Services drags you out of your home and sends you here. What happened?”

Surely ten years have not passed! I think while he chews on his pen top in that aggravating prissy way he has. He even taps his feet like an anxious lady.

I think. I am three, running through the watermelon patch behind the Biloxi Antique Palace my parents have opened. I am five, being slapped in the face for spilling my tea on the floor. I am eight, being strapped until I can barely breathe because my genuflecting was not flawless. When I was thirteen, I got caught holding hands with Will Burton in our porch swing and was locked in my room for five days. I had to say so many rosaries to cleanse me from my impurities that my tongue went raw. The other girls got to go to prom, but I polished silver and a cannon from Antietam until they shone in the moonlight. I watched the other girls frolicking in the streets with their handsome dates.

Momma died of cancer soon after, but Daddy lived until I was thirty. I watched him die at the hospital and went home to pack, to set sail on a new adventure. Maybe even graduate high school like I always wanted.

Daddy didn’t stay dead. He was in the Antique Palace when I got home. He said not to leave. He had me tend all his antiques. I cleaned muskets and restored paintings just so, the way he told me to. I wasn’t allowed to open shop and sell them. He said it wasn’t a woman’s work. Myrtle Walker saw my candle one night. I saw her. She must have turned me in.

“Can I take off her straightjacket?” the tech asks.

“No,” Dr. Mitchum replies. “Catatonic schizophrenics are too unpredictable. Take her back to her room.”

He’s chewing on that pen top again, clearly unnerved by something about me, the frustrating case he can‘t seem to crack. Then the sun clouds over for a minute and I see more clearly. His dead mother, Judith, put her hands on his shoulders the way she used to do when he was small to make him straighten up, to intimidate him. She’s been there the entire time.