Saturday, February 22, 2014

Glad for Gladys

(OK, I guess I'm going keep posting stuff I find sifting through the writings of my past. This short story, unlike most of the stuff has a date on it though most of the stuff I have only a vague place in time for, this is for sure: July 28, 1974. I would have been living in Alexandria Virginia, driving every day with Sister Jeremy and Brother Roger to a huge mental hospital in Maryland to do Clinical Pastoral Education. CPE was required for Episcopal Seminarians in the summer before their final year and of some Roman Catholics who were working on advance degrees. Jeremy was a Sister of  Mercy and Roger was a Franciscan brother. We were a merry trio that summer, driving up to Spring Grove Mental hospital and pretending we knew how to talk to people with mental illness. My reaction to madness is to be sucked into it and sometimes I would keep my hand on the keys to the locked wards to remind me I would be able to leave. I just saw Jeremy last year in Baltimore when we were visiting Josh and Cathy and the girls. She came to their house and I fixed lunch. Jeremy has done a lot of ministries in her day and is a fierce feminist of a nun, but I'm not sure if she was used to being around three little girls for a meal. I lost track of Roger years ago. I liked and trusted them both emmensely.

So, "Glad for Gladys" was written during that time of my life. Odd to know that and have no idea why I wrote it. But, here it is.)


Gladys Spinnet is dying. Not that it matters much to anyone, but she's dying and that should be worth something. It should matter--make a difference somehow.

Elsie Flowers told me today--about Gladys dying. Walking down the main road in Conklintown, along Mrs. Flowers' fence, I saw her out in her garden and she hooted me over. She asked if it were hot enough for me and since it was, I told her, "yes, plenty warm, thank you." She brought her hoe over to the fence and wanted to hear all about me and what I was doing. When I told her I was working on my doctorate, she thought I was in Med School. so I explained I wouldn't be that kind of doctor, not the kind that looks down your throat. Then she talked about her cabbages and politics and all sorts of things, and, right in the middle of something else, she said, "O, ya' know don't ya' 'bout how Gladys Spinnet is dyin'?"

I stood there, trying to remember who Gladys Spinnet was and feeling profoundly sad that knowing someone was dying didn't matter much to me, no more than Mrs. Flowers' cabbages or Senator Jennings Randolph, who she found too liberal.

She leaned on her hoe, as if to make it final, and said, "she is....Really....Dying."

A thin necklace of dirt ringed Mrs. Flowers' neck. Her garden and her sweat gave her a necklace like kids get playing ball on a hot dusty day. It reminded me of Julia, a little black girl I'd seen that morning wearing a necklace of the pop-tops from soda cans. I took her picture and asked if the tops ever cut her neck. "Jist sometimes," she said, "but I don't mind much."

I wanted a picture of Mrs. Flowers with the necklace of dirt around her neck, thinking how it would look beside Julia's picture. Julia had been leaning on her bike and Mrs. Flowers was leaning on her hoe. I imagined the photos, in identical black frames, stark against the white of my study's walls. I was on the verge of asking to take her picture when Mrs. Flowers said, "Cancer, rite here," pointing to the beads of wet dirt on her neck. "Too late to 'ketch it and she'll be dead 'for winter. It'll eat up to that little part of the brain with the long name. Jason tol' me what that's called, but I forgit. Anyways, when it does, Gladys'll  die, quick like."

I almost said, "You can't 'catch' cancer," since I thought she meant 'catching it' like the measles or a bad cold. Luckily, I paused long enough to realize she meant, "it can't be treated." Then I caught myself about to say that the part of the brain she meant was the medulla oblongata, but with Gladys Spinnet dying, that didn't seem important enough to mention. Suddenly, all I could think of was that the next time there were cabbages in Mrs. Flowers garden or a Senatorial election so she could vote for the Republican, there wouldn't be Gladys Spinnet.

And as hard as I tried, I couldn't make it matter.

"Gladys Spinnet," Mrs. Flowers told me, "went to Charlottesville las' month." Going to Charlottesville--to the University of Virginia Hospital--was the kiss of death where I grew up. You only 'went to Charlottesville' when no one in southern West Virginia had any answers. And Charlottesville didn't have answers either. In Charlottesville they did research on things without answers.

Mrs. Flowers rambled on about how her niece worked at the University of Virginia Hospital and what a good job it was and how beautiful the mountains were there in fall, "there bein' lots more maple trees there and maple turnin' bright red." While she talked, I thought about Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, about the big calendar clock that covers a wall of that house, keeping perfect time after all these years, counting out the moments of Gladys Spinnet's life.

When I got away from Mrs. Flowers, carrying three Big-boy tomatoes in a brown paper sack for my Uncle, I stopped at a road side grocery to buy a Dr. Pepper from a fat women whose name I couldn't remember just then. Her name is Mrs. Goins, or Mrs. Cones, or something like that, ans she asked me about her bursitis, since I was studying to be a doctor.

I stood in the middle of the store, drinking my soda, when Sam came in, his hands greasy black from working on cars, to buy some Lucky Strikes. Sam is my age--a little league teammate who dropped out of the high school where I excelled.  He asked where I'd been and what I was doing and how I came to be visiting 'home', and then he told me, matter of factly, like everything else he had said, "ain't it sumthin' 'bout Gladys Spinnit dyin'?"

For Sam, she was already dead. There's something about cancer, something about how much we fear it, something about how some people--Sam, for one--call it 'the Big C", that makes the diagnosis final, a death warrant.

"The big C'll get you, Richie," Sam told me, solemnly, "never fear. Never fear."

I was on the verge of saying that 'fear' seemed an appropriate reaction toward cancer and death and about to tell Sam that I couldn't remember the last time I was around someone who smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes when, without warning, a picture of Gladys Spinnet jumped into my mind.

I saw her, clear as day, running down the main road in winter, ignoring the icy patches on the pavement and the snow piled up almost as high as mail boxes on the shoulders. She was running like mad, in my unexpected memory, coat-less--running to her retarded brother, Casdy, who was sitting in the middle of the road, playing with something he'd found there: a small animal, a chipmunk or something, dead.

I remembered Gladys' face then. It was a soft, round, mountain face--like my mother's, like mine beneath my beard--with small eyes and thick brows, full lips and a weak chin. Sam's face...and Mrs. Goins' face, Mrs. Flowers' face, and Julia's--though her face was Black. Gladys Spinnet's face lept into my memory, as if out of the mirror in my uncle's house's bathroom.

Someone once told me that Gladys changed Casdy's diapers even though he was almost fifty and weighed over 250 pounds. I also remember hearing that Gladys' other two brothers--one not much brighter than Casdy and the other a jack-legged preacher of some kind--wouldn't lift a finger to help. And the father and mother were both long dead--Able Spinnit climbed out on the roof of his porch and died, gossip had it, in a rainstorm. So Gladys Spinnit changed Casdy's diapers and took the dead things he collected out of his pockets each night.

I remember Casdy Spinnit the way you remember a bad dream. He was so large and so retarded, drooling a lot, that he frightened the wits out of me as a child. I even remembered the dead things he carried around in his pockets. Dead things are usually frightening to little kids...or fascinating. I don't remember which it was. Or, maybe it was both at once.

Standing there, talking to Sam, I remembered how Casdy wasn't afraid of dead mice or frogs at all. Casdy would take dead things out of his pockets to show you like he was showing you something glowing, or a shiny quarter he had to buy some gum.

My 'killing time' at home with Uncle George, back where I grew up, suddenly seemed pointless. I wanted a few weeks away from my apartment and my thesis, a few weeks to try out my new camera and sleep late and walk the mountain roads without thinking or reading or writing. Instead, I happened onto the drama of Gladys Spinnet's death--a drama that depressed me because it didn't seem to matter much.

I'm going back to Princeton tomorrow. I've decided I actually want to be near the library. There are several things I need to know about Stephen Crane before I can finish what I've been working on. I won't find out those things here. All I can find out here is more about how Gladys Spinnit is dying. I realize there is nothing I can do to prevent that, or even make it matter much to me.

Gladys' dying may matter to Casdy. Someone else, after all--probably someone less gentle and loving--will have to change his diapers. But he'll most likely think of Gladys as one more dead thing he found and wish he could put her in his pocket.

I'd like to write Gladys a note, but it would be maudlin and vain and she wouldn't remember me or understand. I'd like to tell her, somehow, if I only could--"O God, Gladys, I am sorry." But for all my good intentions, it still wouldn't matter much.

What would matter is if I could tell her something hopeful, joyous, wondrous, glorious.

Like I was glad for her.


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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.