Use Your Words

I sense it before I feel it; feel it before I hear it; hear it before I recognize what it is. The gaining volume of fluorescent lights overhead. 

Freshly laundered linens piled neatly at the foot of the bed across the room. They say, You’re alone in here but not for long.

She enters on the balls of her feet, already outfitted in the papery johnnie and treaded socks get-up. Her folded street clothes held to her chest like textbooks. Round face, dark downturned eyes—she’s melancholic and angelic, a painting of a martyred saint. Seems cruel, exposing someone like her to this place. Like she might catch it or something. Like it’s airborne. 

Claudia introduces herself. I respond with unyielding silence.

A drop-ceiling above. Broken acoustic tiles, once white, now covered with water stains. The dingy pastiche, a work of art. Cypresses reaching for heaven. Sweeping brushstrokes and glimpses of sky, despairing irises and heavy-headed sunflowers. A divine pastoral, a day at the park, a view of a better world. 

Claudia jolts upright at the sight of her, the small woman hesitating in the doorway. Tote bags dangling from the crook of each elbow, overloaded with the comforts of home. Her distress unhidden, eyes red-rimmed and misty but unmistakably dark and downturned. The small woman plunges into the room, arms outstretched. Wraps her daughter in a full embrace. 

Fuck this shit, I say, and snap the covers over me. I roll onto my side and face the barred window. The fluorescent lights thrum overhead.

The social worker asks me how I got here, but wound up here is what he means. I shrug.

Well how are you feeling?

I cannot tear out a single page of my life, I tell him, but I can throw the whole book in the fire.*

He asks if I’m a poet, and I say no, I’m just a Pisces. He nods, unimpressed, and jots in the open file on his lap. The line is obscure, and that is the point. I am using all that I’ve read for screening purposes. 

The social worker reaches into the business-looking bag by his chair and produces a bunch of tiny papers. I flinch at the sight of them. Sticky notes. These were found in your backpack, the social worker says, placing the pile before me. He waits, blinking, so that I might explain.

One note says Space Rendezvous, Lunar Acrobat, Every Day is Summer in Space, all in box lettering. Band namesI had wanted to form a band so I could name a band. People have babies just to name humans, is how I saw it. Another note is more of the same. These Days: This is our daughter Ellipses / And our son Hat / And that’s our dog Katherine.

Something I stand behind—Hemingway was a dilettante. I’d even circled it for emphasis.

The exile dreams of a glorious return: a relict of a day spent bellied up at Spock’s, talking to anyone who’d listen. I’d fallen down hard and the bartender bounced me. I didn’t have any money to pay up, not even a dime, and the bartender threatened to call the cops. I begged him: do it—please, do it.

And then there’s one that’s a furious scrawl. It says diseased memory over and over

The social worker points to one note in particular. He says it stands out among the rest. A pig is no longer a pig when it’s a dead pig. What does it mean, he wants to know, as if it means anything more than what it says. 

I thought all you people would be home right now, shutting the fuck up. Intrusive thoughts, still-frames and sounds and smells—a bus ride as a hellscape.

Don’t let the wish be the mother of the thought. 

A party I heard through the wall, a party I came to leave.

Ice to water, water to vapor, I am gone.

And then I was admitted. There’s no note for that. 

A nurse had been assigned to watch me shower and use the bathroom. A nice enough nurse with a worn-through smile. 

I ask the social worker what happened. He says she lost her job. All of them on the ward, in the hospital, they had to rethink their protocols in light of the incident.

It’s a shame that nurse was fired—that nurse saved my life.

The social worker puts down his pen and eyeballs me intently. Do I understand my role in the nurse’s termination? My doing, my tying and knotting, my adaptability to the impossible—what’s meant to be impossible on this ward, by design?

Render the objects. Render the characters through observation.

A white tab for sleep. Sleep as a weighted feeling. Waking is not waking. It’s a gentle poke in the side. A silent line of us, all of us lined up at dawn. The kinetic doings of the nurses’ station, the squeeze of a blood pressure cuff, paper cups of pills and paper cups of apple juice. 

And this poor guy. He logged an adult lifetime of working hard for his family and ran himself ragged. He went ahead and blew a gasket. Now his days are spent pacing—nights, too. Together we watch reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger before breakfast. Me and him and Chuck Norris delighting in wrongs made right.

Everywhere, there is the subliminal fragrance of inevitability, here on the Incurable Ward. Which means it’s my fault for failing to prepare.

My mother visited when I was here the first time. She arrived with boxes of donuts, enough for the whole staff. Make sure the doctors get some too, she’d said loudly. 

When it was just the two of us, visiting alone behind an unlocked door, she didn’t ask how I was feeling. My mother wanted to know, What are you telling them?

I don’t recognize him, but the food service guy recognizes me. From the bar, he whispers. You know, you’re not the only one from Spock’s I’ve seen come through here.

And this information is meant to do…what?

There is a world of gossip happening on the outside, in and around my old haunts. I’m sure of it. Because when that one bastard hit me, I hit him back—harder. He must’ve worn the shiner for a week.

That’s me doing my part, like how I’ve always said some men would do well with a punch in the face. I’m doing all I can for the community.

Moving in the direction of greater and greater abstraction is the only way. 

So, from here on out…

I am not quite myself, I think. Or am I my most self. Here, with the scrim scraped away. Cracked wide open for all to see. It’s a brave new world. And it’s exhausting.

Some people in Group like to drum up a hard luck story. Some of us keep it under wraps.

Words have meaning, it’s true. But certain words are used incorrectly so often that they’ve been leeched of their meaning. So when I tell this woman, I literally couldn’t care less about you, I’m concerned she doesn’t believe me. And this Lisa, she stands up so suddenly her chair falls back. She storms off, screaming, I’m moving to space ’cause you’s don’t know how to treat each other!

Am I a crybaby, or am I a bully? Or do you not know what the hell you’re talking about?

My diagnosis is contingent. They’re revising.

They tell me what’s wrong with me and it sounds like a condemnation. Like there’s morality attached. What’s worse is, the Madonna song of the same name is stuck in my head now.

The doctor brushes me off. He says a defective question is a question that sounds like a question but really isn’t. For instance—why?

I hate him in ways that are almost rejuvenating.

The words elopement risk are spelled out on my door. Not on a sticky note, on a paperboard sign that’s tacked up with care. 

They won’t let me have a pen and there’s nothing here to read. The ceiling is higher than I remember—the pale green walls have been painted a dusky blue since last time. Voices pervade the hallway, echoing in a round like “Row Row Row Your Boat.” 

The social worker won’t quit. Still he tries for a connecting moment. 

What is your happiest memory? he asks.

My what? 

Happiest memory.


I am incredulous, though I’ve heard him perfectly well. I want to be sure he hears him.

My mother had wanted me held that first time. For as long as it takes, she’d said.

She saw my future as a white room with rows of white beds. She saw nurses as babysitters and orderlies as cops. The doctor, then, was at a loss. I don’t think you understand the situation, he’d said. Which was a nice way of saying my mother had seen too many movies.

You shall know the tree by the fruit it bears, motherfuckers.

My family’s greatest hits include:

Everyone’s got problems, what makes you think you’re so special.

What happens in this house stays in this house.

Stop crying—no one’s listening and no one cares.

There are people who get day passes. Not me, but some people. Family members appear on the ward. They sign out their loved ones and promise to have them back by supper. Their promises mean something.

A day pass is a goal to work toward, the social worker says. Except no one is coming for me. I’ve no one to sign me out, take me around, suggest a world outside these walls and outside myself that makes life worth living.

A new patient arrived yesterday. A boy grown old in the body of a man—a mountain. The staff takes turns pacing alongside him. Up and back at a gentle clip, up and back. He sings all day long. The melody changes but the refrain stays the same.

When he gets upset security is called. Six men arrive wearing black rubber gloves. They subdue him with arms and elbows. It changes his tune. His sweet boy words with the timbre of a grown man: I hurt! he says. You hurt me! 

His words are his. They cut to the quick.

We just want you safe, is what the weary nurse had said.

*Sand, George. Mauprat. 1856.

COURTNEY DENELLE is a fiction writer from Providence, Rhode Island. Her stories have appeared in The Alembic, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She has been awarded a residency from Hedgebrook and received her greater education from the public library.

Twitter: @courtneydenelle

Courtney DenelleTSRFICTION