Bright Bright Bedlam

Karen Heuler

We have to be careful because our residents can go wandering. Canes, walkers and even wheelchairs don’t hold some of them back when the idea takes them to go off somewhere. Once the alarms start, we slam the doors in the dayroom and call out the numbers, half of us minding the ones we’ve got and the other half checking down the two long halls and in the rooms of the bedridden ones, counting heads. Yvonne shouts out, “Get those numbers, now,” because she likes numbers games and it’s a little fun that way (though we’re not supposed to think that). We find Mama, Edith, Vinny, John, check the bathrooms too though a lot of them are in diapers. We have forty residents; some of them never move and some of them never stop moving.

Little jail breaks. Exciting, I think. For all of us. You work here long enough, you feel pent up sometimes. Of course we go home when our shift is over—but every day it’s back here, pulling Vinny by the hand, dealing with the endless fussing. And the cursing, which surprises everyone. Edith, small and neat and gray, sitting politely, suddenly shouting, “Shit fucking piss artist, what the fuck did you say to me? You say that again and I’ll crush your toes in the cement mixer. You’ll see what you did.” Always a cement mixer, though it can be other parts of the body.

My husband, Franco, came twice hoping to catch her at it, but she was quiet both times. He’s curious about this place, thinks I get too attached. But I told him it’s just the way it is when you’re tending to people. You get fond of them. He snorted and I said, “Like I got fond of you.” And that made him laugh even harder.

Mama sits with a baby doll most of the time, cradling it, it makes a good scene, the tours for the relatives like it very much as long as she doesn’t get whatever it is in her head and start smacking that baby. She won’t allow men near her, raises the roof then with the fucks and the shits; there’s a story there. But you can’t exactly go up to the son or daughter or niece or whatever and ask, Was that woman raped? Most likely, in my experience, they wouldn’t even know.

Vinny, who goes up to people too close, and talks to them softy in syllables only (he has no words left), takes one of the photos Anita likes to look at and walks around with it. I take it back and put it in front of Anita. A wedding picture, not Anita’s though. Vinny takes things from one place and puts them down somewhere else.

Ruby yells out, “Never mind! Electrician set off the alarm!” There’s a key code you have to put in before you go out the door to keep it from ringing, otherwise you put the keycode in backwards on the outside to cancel it. The electrician should have looked that up, but few of them ever do. Still, everyone’s safe and Ruby, she gives a great big whoop—that’s our Ruby, big and bold and brassy, always trying to kick things off. She organizes parades sometimes, just when we’ve all had it up to here, tells the aides to get hats and bright clothes from the residents’ rooms, and then we all start lining them up and walk up and down the corridors, having a parade. We call down for Cheryl, the hairdresser, to come up, wearing one of those gowns so you don’t get hair on them, and there’s of course the sweeper, pushing her cart, and we turn up all the radios to different stations and for a while there’s excitement like you wouldn’t believe, even the wanderers fall in line, the ones who can’t sit still and go from window to door, mumbling. Then shoosh! It’s all over and it’s time for cookies and tea. Settle them in, give them something to drink, then haul them off to the toilets one by one.

Tyrone’s the newest aide, he sometimes seems too embarrassed to do much easily, and he once walked towards a visitor sitting with his mother, ready to haul that visitor off to the toilet, when he caught himself just as he went to grasp the man’s arm. He couldn’t stop saying how sorry he was, but the man didn’t take it amiss, even laughed at first; if Tyrone had apologized just the one time it would have been better.

“What’s that spotlight on you?” Valerie asks. She’s a small black woman; there are only two black residents; the other blacks are all the aides.

“No spotlight on me, honey,” Yvonne says.

Valerie lifts her hand and places it in the spotlight, which is nothing, of course, the lighting is regular. “Here,” she says.

Yvonne shakes her head and moves away. “I’m going to turn that spotlight off, it’s bothering you,” she says and goes over the light switches on the wall and pretends to turn it off. “No more spotlight,” she calls back to Valerie, who says, “It’s on again,” and Yvonne lets it go.

Tyrone watches all the other aides, learning quickly. He was afraid to touch the residents at first; I think wherever he worked before touching was frowned on, but he’s got a good voice, real soothing, so I think he’ll fit in eventually. He doesn’t like the bathroom stuff (he only handles the men on that), but who does? Bend them over when they’re done, wipe their butts and get it over with; no use dwelling on it. They’re babies in some ways, big fretful babies, with a strange life. Going backwards, from what I understand, losing their years, motor skills, words, inhibitions, the sense of touch is the last, we have one here in a rolling lounge chair, makes little baby hand claps, that’s all she can do. Got her own aide, a cushy job that one, not always on her feet, she rolls Barbara to the sun room and grabs a snack and her cell phone. Someday I’ll ask her how much she makes, how she got that job.

Because we’re on our feet all day, can’t put these babies in a playpen, try as we might. Some stay still, heads bowed, constantly nodding off, but the others wander around, wanting something. And as Ruby says, “I’m a big woman, you know? Hard to be on my feet all day.” I love that about her, no pretense, whatever Ruby is, is fine by Ruby.


Carleena is pouring out drinks for snack time. “Any word?’ I ask, not looking at her directly. Her daughter’s gone missing. A fourteen-year-old with a glaring eye. Tight clothes, sharp hips. You look at her and see troubles. LaToya’s been gone two months now. I have two sons; the thought of one of them out there, lost, is unbearable.

“No, nothing,” Carleena says and turns away.

I take a tray and start handing out juices. They have a busy schedule, with exercise, breakfast, memory games, snacks, lunch, singing and games, snacks, dinner, and movies. They can’t keep track of it, of course. We take them by hand and lead them to one thing, to another thing.

“Have you seen my papers?” Edith asks; she’s always looking for them, holding her hands over her fanny pack, she doesn’t feel safe without it. In her old life, she never went out without her papers and her fanny pack, I guess. Her tablemate, Trudy, says sharply “You don’t need those papers here.”

In a little while Trudy will start crying; she’s one of the ones who can’t adjust, she’s crazy half the time and aware of it; she keeps popping back up from wherever she goes, and she sobs.

And where does she go? What kind of place is it, and which is the right version of Trudy, of Edith, of Mama? Were the cursers always cursers, fighting it all their lives? Did the wanderers never get a chance to wander? Which is the right version—what they always were or what they are now? Have they gone now straight to their own cores?

Trudy often thinks she’s in prison. Her whole life long, did she secretly think she was in prison?


And here it is, Wednesday, and the Magic Man is here. We call him that because every Wednesday he sings “That Old Black Magic,” without caring if anyone wants it. Sings, and pops out the same old handkerchiefs, the stuffed bunny. Once he even pulled Mama’s plastic baby out of his jacket, and there was hell to pay for that, I can tell you. Mama went for him. We jumped then, soon as Ruby cried out, “Baby!” You know to act fast with Mama, if you’ve been here for a while. She’s got a thing about that plastic baby, and a mouth that will tear your skin off.

And then, after he’s gone, of course Edith starts looking for her papers.

“Forget those papers; you don’t need papers,” Trudy says.

“No?” Edith says uncertainly.

“What do you want those papers for anyway?”

“What time is it? Have we eaten yet?”

“I don’t know what time it is!” There’s a big clock on the wall opposite her; she’s never noticed it. I walk by and I say, “Did someone ask the time? It’s three o’clock. You’ve had lunch, and dinner is at five.”

“Dinner is at five,” Trudy shouts. “And you don’t need papers. You look for them all the time, and it doesn’t matter.”

I walk back, and Trudy rolls her eyes. She’s stuck in a wheelchair, but doesn’t even know it. She doesn’t want to be pushed anywhere; she wants it all to be the way it was. Whatever that means; she doesn’t know. But it was different from this.

Valerie lifts her hand in the air, in a spotlight again, I suppose. She studies it intently.

We do mental exercises before dinner, and I can hear Tyrone calling after Florence, who keeps wandering off, and I see Ruby taking Penny by the hand and sitting her down on the rows of chairs, and a few of the good ones come over naturally, interested in what’s going on. John feels his way along the wall to his room; he’s pretty nearly blind but as long as nothing much changes he does well enough. I go and get the flash cards with the pictures on them from the cabinet, the kind my boys have grown past, they’re nine and ten, and by the time I get back, I can hear it.

“I want to go home!” Trudy cries. “Help me!

“Stop her,” Carleena warns, near me at the doorway.

“Home!” John bellows. His shoulders tighten.

I turn to see Margaret, silent and still, open her mouth and lift up her hand. She freezes like this sometimes when she’s upset, her mouth open and pulled down, her eyes shut, her nose never wet.

Bodies start shifting around the room. “Home!” Edith cries, standing up, her hands at her fanny pack, and around the room criers and starers alike stir, their eyes bugging, their hearts thumping.

Let me go home,” Ruby begins to sing. “Let me go home—I feel so broke up, I want to go home.”

She sways her hips. I run over to her, grabbing John on the way. I put my one hand on his shoulder, crying out, “John, sing!” And begin to dance and sing.

John was a singer; he hears music when he hears nothing else. He joins in and one by one the mood changes and some sing and some nod.

Ruby doesn’t stop. She begins some reggae—none of the residents know it, and I don’t either, but she shakes her massive hips and shimmies. “It’s breaking out of me!” she calls, her head and eyes tipping to the left and then the right. “Lord, Lord, it’s getting out of me!”

And Carleena runs over, her teeth stretched bright, and shrugs into a shimmy next to Ruby, singing along.

“If you ain’t laughing here each and every day, you’ve lost your way,” Ruby shouts out, wagging her butt, grabbing Penny, who stumbles gamely.

One or two go away back to their tables or over to the window, and John demands to know when they’ll be serving dinner, and the day moves back into place and we go back to songs about home.

Carleena has her arms raised, though, held up to the roof, her eyes raised, too, though tears run down. She keeps singing, lower and lower, twisting her hips, her feet moving a tight circle. I go next to her and raise my hands, too, and sway around with her. She can have the words, because I think the words might matter to her. All the business of home, you know, wondering if her daughter was dead or dying or wishing with her last breath to go home. Well, home is the place where you know everyone’s safe, and when they’re not home with you it means it could be bad. Carleena is afraid. I raise my hand and dance with her.

Trudy is across the room, staring at us. She never wheels herself; she always waits for someone to push her. All at once she raises her hands and shimmies a little, from the waist up. Is she just mimicking the rhythm or is she reaching out to Carleena, whose tears sometimes shoot off her face when a strong shimmy hits her?


The next day is a bad day, they come without warning and no justification that I can see. Even Ruby has a grim look. She’s eating coffee ice cream, and that never goes well, she’ll be taking pills all day. Must have had a fight with Malcolm, the two of them too strong-minded to have a peaceful life. So it’ll be bad for a day or so, and then it will all pick up again when she comes in with cookies or donuts, a shine on her face. The two of them will never die of boredom. But she’s on afternoons, and the gloom was already there in the morning.

The exercise lady comes, so we move the chairs in two lines again and get them to sit. Edith gets up and we sit her down. Tyrone sits next to her, holding her hand, John wanders around, feeling chairs where there shouldn’t be chairs. Yvonne shouts, “John! John! Over here, my man!” and John goes to her, complaining. He can’t hear or see enough for exercises, so Yvonne takes him to his room. He listens to music there, and the surprise to me is that it isn’t all that loud. He can hear music; he can’t hear us.

We leave Mama with her baby. Mama usually won’t join in. But she’s in the main room, sitting in a room with people, and for Mama, that’s interaction.

I wonder about the exercise lady—what job did she fail at to get this? Did she actually go to school to sit people in chairs and get them to raise their arms?

We all of us do the exercises—chair exercises—touch your hand to your shoulder, touch your hand to your knees. We plaster a smile, we touch our shoulders, we eyeball each other and wink, pull Vinny back in his chair, grab Edith’s hand just as she’s about to rise—it’s like we’re a chain of eyes saying, “Yes, I know. Yes, I know.” What do we know? We’re the guard, the guardians, we’re the spirit of the place, these wrinkled children are our children, their sorrows now no deeper than a child’s sorrow, here and gone. We keep them clean and safe, we keep them here, where nothing will harm them.

Then John comes out of his room and starts bellowing that someone stole his shoes and he can’t hear us shouting that he’s wearing his shoes and he can’t see us pointing to his feet to show him, because he’s mostly deaf and blind and doesn’t know it. I jump up and take him by the arm and sits him down and take his hand and put it on his feet so he can feel his shoes and he shouts, “What are you doing, woman?” as the exercise lady says, “Twist gently at the waist.”

Vinny wanders by and quietly takes one of the exercise lady’s spare music tapes. Ruby drapes her arm around his shoulder and walks him back, putting the tape back in its place. Valerie says, “Ruby, you’ve got a spotlight on your nose.”

And I love it all at times like this. I love puppies, and toddlers, their determination to amble off and do what they don’t-know-what, their unhidden neediness at times. I love everyone here, all together like this, and I deeply love Ruby and Carleena, something Franco gets grumpy about or pretends to. I come home with stories about Ruby eating ice cream and crying, “Lord, Lord, I’m going to pay for this!” and Carleena cradling Trudy in her arms as Trudy sobs that she wants to go home.

There is goodness here.

Franco grumbles that I sometimes don’t know where my proper home is, but I know his heart and it’s all right. Some people were put on earth because they’re good at loving, and I’m one of them. Franco is another.

Mama starts hitting her plastic baby all of a sudden, a bad thing. I see Carleena’s eyes shift and focus on that, and a big frown pulls her mouth down. Her daughter was pregnant. We all murmured when she told us that, and we all—all—thought: of course.

But now that LaToya’s gone, baby belly and all, Carleena notices that doll more; we all do. Tyrone rushes over to Mama and calms her down. “That baby’s always crying, isn’t it? That’s a baby for you, never any appreciation, maybe it’s got gas.” And so Mama starts to burp it, a good move on Tyrone’s part, he’s really getting the hang of it. Carleena stares for a while longer, then turns away. Her neck looks locked to me.

And then all the exercises end and Yvonne nudges me and says, “What’s that?” There’s a policeman in the doorway, but Yvonne’s chin is nudging towards Carleena, who just caught sight of him.

She’s frozen in her tracks, holding on to Edith, a bathroom call or something, and Edith takes her hand away and walks off. Carleena’s face is all eyes and mouth directed at that cop.

I think something has happened to LaToya, and Carleena thinks so too.

But the cop starts singing! Carleena’s face breaks apart, she looks like she has lost her place in the world.

The singing cop goes to Vinny and takes his hand, and walks around the room and up and down the hallways, nodding at people. Vinny follows along, his lips moving.

Sharon, the administrator, must have let him in ’cause I see her here watching. “It’s Vinny’s birthday,” Sharon says. “He used to be a police officer. That’s his nephew.” She looks around. “Seems to be going well.”

She’s looking at the residents, of course. She’s not looking at Carleena, who anyway has caught her breath and is drinking a cup of water, one arm steadying herself against the counter.

“You see that?” Ruby says a little later.

“Well, LaToya’s still missing. Maybe she thought it was bad news.”

“Nuh,” Ruby says. “She thought it was worse bad news. She didn’t cry out. I’ve been thinking she knows something, the way she’s keeping quiet. You ask her, ‘Anything new about LaToya?’ And she just says no. If you were worried to distraction, you’d be talking, right?”

“She did at first,” I agree. “Nonstop.”

“She knows something. She knows where LaToya is, and it ain’t good.”


Some people never get visitors, but we lie and say they do. We say, “Valerie, what a handsome son you have, and I could see how much he loves you!” Valerie’s son came once exactly. We saw him, we keep track.

We listen for what they say, we hover everywhere, listening. Sometimes Ruby, after she’s made up with Malcolm, will come with her box of donuts and say, “Edith, your daughter sent these. Look, there’s a note.” And it’s a note that Ruby wrote, of course, but day by day we tell the ones who never get visitors that they just had visitors, and discuss those visitors all to hell—“Hey, Yvonne, Penny thinks her sister was wearing the pink sweater, but it was blue, wasn’t it?”—we talk them into being real. We can do that, we can give them a moment of being remembered, keep them thinking their loved ones are faithful; we can do that.


Every so often, Mama puts that plastic baby of hers down. She’ll sit with the others at activities, smiling in a superior way. If John or Vinny gets too close she’ll start with “Go away, you fucking shit bastard” and John will give it right back at her, but Vinny murmurs his nonsense syllables in a pleading voice, stopping right in front of her. Then Yvonne or Tyrone takes his hand and leads him away.

He picks up things and puts them down somewhere else; he never takes anything to his room. He’s always moving; we’re used to it. We can judge how long it will take him to reach the doorway and get out of sight in the hallway; it comes natural after a while, so we only keep a bit of an eye out for him; he’s harmless; that’s how we miss seeing what he does.

It’s the last activity before dinner, so they’re all in the small common room, next to the dining room, when I hear a scream that stabs my heart. Carleena is screaming, then wailing, and I hear Ruby yelling out, “What is it? What is it?”

I tell Tyrone to stay with them, and he nods and calls for Yvonne, and I run to the kitchenette, where Carleena is bent over, sobbing, and Ruby has her hand on Carleena’s shoulder, moving her sort of, pushing Carleena backwards. I look around, fast, and see nothing alarming.

Carleena heaves herself upright, then folds over again. Ruby has her by the forearms, now, pushing her backwards. It’s like a slow dance. Behind Ruby, in the corner, is the garbage can, and I sidle over slowly, get behind Ruby, blocking the view, and look in.

It’s Mama’s plastic baby, and we get the picture all at once: a pregnant daughter, a baby in the garbage, and cops.

Carleena is heaving her sorrows up, right there in front of us. Vinny is coming towards her, murmuring his syllables, his hands gesturing, and Yvonne comes and takes him. No doubt he moved that doll, the way he moves things, just from one place to another, no special reason, but this time he’s caused chaos. I yank the doll up quiet as I can and put it behind me, going to a bathroom to rinse it off fast and get it back before Mama looks for it and that screaming adds to the woe.

I dry it and put it back where Mama left it.

I hear Ruby’s soothing voice, and Carleena’s voice rising and rising, I don’t catch the words. Then there’s silence, and I see Ruby coming for me, and all at once the alarms go off and there’s no choice, we have to follow instructions, closing the ones in the common room, leaving Yvonne and Tyrone to take count there, then Ruby yells, “Maybe that’s Carleena,” but of course Carleena knows the combination, and how upset would she have to be to forget to punch it in? Ruby goes toward the front door and I go to the back exit.

I run and fling it open, not bothering with the key code to stop the alarm because I see Carleena at the far end of the hall, at the elevators, and I yell over my shoulder, “Ruby! She’s getting away!” but just a glance backwards shows me that Edith is following me, her hands on her fanny pack and a frightened look on her face and I feel I can’t just leave like that, slamming the door in Edith’s face. Even though I want to, I really do, and for a split second I consider it because my heart is breaking for Carleena, and it’s Carleena who needs help now, but Edith is my responsibility; Carleena will come back.

I put in the code and close the door and take Edith’s hand and we go back to the common room.

Yvonne looks at Edith. “Everyone’s here,” she says, tapping the sheet with the residents’ names on it.

“Carleena’s not here,” I say. “Carleena is missing.” They don’t answer me at first, because it’s true and because Carleena isn’t part of the count.

“Carleena just wanted to go home,” Ruby says, but it’s the wrong thing to say because I can see Trudy sitting up and her mouth is falling open and I know what’s coming next. Ruby doesn’t see it, but I do and I can’t stand the idea of it, of the fuss she’ll make, without Carleena here to lift her arms up and change the mood. I rush over to Trudy and I kneel beside her and I say, “This is home. You are home. This is home.”

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