“Jan Abbott, here to see Eunice Cohoon.” I shout this at the iron gates and right at that moment, all the lies in my world began to unravel.
At my initial visit, I was told her name is Eunice… and Matilda. “She’ll let you know which, just don’t try to decide for her,” the head nurse had said, with a chuckle that was more cold than kind. I smiled back, not at her callus humor but at how her gray-threaded bun set on top of her head. How it reminded me of a circus monkey wearing a little hat.
I sign in and make my way to the second floor, reminding myself that stairs are good for the calf muscles. I’ve been given almost unlimited access to the facility, and the woman. This isn’t my first trip to Ashland. The first was back when Ashland’s director and psychiatrist was charged with taking indecent liberties with five of the female patients. That was nearly thirty years ago when I was a young and eager reporter for a local newspaper assigned to cover the story, and later the trial. Those paper and ink days are long gone as is the psychiatrist– Ira Kaufman.
When I left Ashland in the summer of 1985, I vowed never to return. Most would guess the obvious reason why: my utter failed attempt at reporting the story. While that reason would be cause enough for nearly anyone, it wasn’t the real reason. Already, out of the corner of my eye, I’m watching for that reason, praying this time I won’t see the shadows, knowing prayers won’t make a bit of difference.
At the west corridor, I turn left. Ammonia stings my nose, but it doesn’t quite do its intended job. Neither the putrid body odors or the dull green walls are stored in my long-term memory, though I’m sure they’ve been here all along, since the very first patients.
I’m here to learn and write Eunice Cohoon’s story, if she’ll tell it. If she can. I’ve already met Eunice, but was told not to expect her to acknowledge or even remember me our first few visits. I’m told this by the facility’s current director who thinks my story will be good for Ashland. Dr. Edward Rodham says he has nothing to hide and thinks people should get to know the patients in a personal way so they can understand them better. Perhaps even care about them, while not invading their privacy of course.
I take shallow breaths down the long corridor to Room 216; it’s nothing but walls and closed doors. The building is old, more than seventy five years old. The hallways are too narrow to meet current safety codes. Ashland was granted an exemption by the town council. What else could they do? There was nowhere else to put the patients, no money for renovations.
The corridor is quiet except for an occasional crash or slam and a scream or two– not blood-curdling ones, just ones of frustration, anger, despair. Or maybe that’s just me, why I’d scream if I lived here.
My sensible heels click-clack on the linoleum covered concrete, irritating even me. Dr. Rodham told me the Institute is “bias-free.” He explained they no longer label the patients, no longer separate them by age or sex or mental functional capacity: “labels that can’t possibly define human beings.” He’s proud of this even though it’s a moronic concept with likely disastrous consequences. I didn’t bother to tell him that human beings is a label.
I’m four closed doors from Room 216 when a patient bolts from one of the rooms and deliberately bumps into me. He grumbles something and spits on himself. He’s shorter than me by five or six inches, probably not even five feet, but he’s wide and stocky. I freeze, neither flight nor fight is activated.
He has issues with his face and scalp. The fingers of both hands rub and slap the skin raw, hair has been uprooted. His elasticized pants look clean but stained, his tee-shirt looks as ill-treated as his skin and hair. The smell of vomit is overwhelming. He’s less than a foot from me now, turned sideways, staring at the floor, and squeezing his hands in tight fists at his collarbones. His knuckles are rough and stained. The only sound is our breathing, first erratic then in sync. I don’t know what he wants and doubts he does either, but I’m sure he could cause me serious damage.
I step away from him with no intent of stopping, click-clack, click-clack. He doesn’t follow but his moans do. I suspect he’s rubbing and slapping. I’m rushing. When I glance back over my shoulder, he’s turned the other direction. For now, I’m forgotten.
Room 212, 214, 216. I knock softly, wait, knock louder, wait. A desperate moan causes me to jump; the man is heading my way. I open the door and close it tight behind me.
She’s sitting in a chair facing the wall, all but wearing a dunce cap. Stepping into her room reminds me of a story I once did on unclaimed bodies at the Ruston Morgue. It was a follow up piece on the death of one of the town’s senior citizens. A woman whose name I’ve long since forgotten. A woman who died in her sleep and whose body no one came to claim.
“We keep them a month or more,” the attendant had said. A single thick, black bag lay on a shelf seven feet long. Three shelves above it, going almost to the ceiling, were empty. The opposite wall had its own matching configuration. The room’s temperature was a chilly thirty eight degrees. The attendant waited and watched while I wrote down this last fact.
I asked him why there were so many shelves.