By Colleen McKee
Here are two pieces, a personal narrative and a poem, from Colleen McKee’s chapbook A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money. She’s written other books since then—see her bio below— but this book seems to be out of print, more’s the pity.
THE 59-CENT PAD OF PAPER
For Judy Gay
My mother used to work in a private insane asylum. She was hired to be a cook at minimum wage. That remained her title for three years, Cook, though she also drove to the grocery store, doled out Dixie cups of pills, and was nicer than anyone could expect her to be for $5.15 an hour. She sneaked the big guys extra baloney sandwiches when the place was too chintzy to fill their stomachs. She made the crazies chocolate cakes at home, because the institution never offered them dessert. And she listened to their problems after dinner, because none of them cared for their shrinks. And their problems were always the same, because the whole point of a mental home is that life doesn’t change much inside. They would sit there and smoke GPCs at long, industrial tables after canned green beans and PBJs, and say, “Judy, do you think one day, I’ll have an apartment of my own?” Mom would adjust her hairnet and flick her ash and say, “Sure you will. You can do it.” But she told me “they were never going noplace.”
Mom decided that, since she was already a cook, chauffeur, nurse’s aide, dishwasher, pastry chef, and pep talker for $5.15 an hour, she might as well be art therapist too. Her boss said they could try it out, as long as she got dinner and the dishes done on time, and she had to buy the art supplies herself. Art therapy wasn’t a required activity, so Mom lured them in with more Betty Crocker, markers, and unlined pads of paper from Walgreen’s, and announced that you couldn’t have any cake unless you came. And that smoking was allowed in her class. Smoking is important in the nuthouse because you’re not allowed to make love or go to the movies or drink beer or buy your own shoes. So smoking means a lot inside.
Everyone came to art therapy day. There was Lauri, shy, schizophrenic, and stout, in her Victoria’s Secret T-shirt and mullet. There was tiny Dolly, who always wore blue, and asked, “Is that true?” after everything anyone said. (Mom painted her portrait and called it True Blue.) And many more nuts shuffled in, about twenty in all, medicated, eager to lick frosting from their fingers. And after they finished their cake, they found drawing a fine break from the nothing they usually did.
Another student at art therapy day was Ed, an enormous man with nicotine yellow gray hair who generally kept to himself. Ed just watched TV and never asked for anything (except for extra baloney). But today, Ed was alive. He went through three pads of paper in a single hour, a flurry of ink, drawing after drawing. Mom tried to get him to pace himself, so there’d be plenty of paper for everyone. Plus she had to pay for the paper herself, and 59 cents a pad adds up when you only make minimum wage. But Ed just couldn’t stop drawing. He pressed the markers into the paper with so much force that each drawing left traces on the next, echoes of ink on his pants, ink bleeding onto his hands. He didn’t speak as he drew, or even bother to look at his art before tearing it out and letting it float to the floor.
What did he need from the paper? What could the paper give that man, who couldn’t eat oatmeal without supervision? Each drugstore pad of paper was a bird with sixty wings, all flapping at once. With each mark he drew the wings closer to him, if only for a few scrawling seconds.
* Patients’ names and some personality traits have been changed a bit out of respect for their privacy.
FROM THE SHANGRI-LA
TRAILER COURT WITH LOVE
We lived in a trailer court called Shangri-La,
and we lived in another trailer court called Times Beach,
where four years before the trucks had sprayed dioxin on my
street and it was still dusty after that, and
we lived in a commune in Catawissa, and almost
too many places
for me to remember.
But I remember everything.
At least, I remember everything I should,
and I remember other things as well.
This is what my mother always said to me:
- Colleen, there is nothing noble about being poor.
- Colleen, don’t you ever let anyone tell you there is anything noble about being poor.
- Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you have to be dirty. Some people around here, they just let their kids run around all over this goddamn trailer park. They don’t wash their kids’ hair, they don’t wash their kids’ faces, why? Because they don’t give a shit that’s why, they just let ‘em run around in the goddamn street like that.
- Colleen, when you grow up, you can do whatever you want. You can be a doctor, or an artist, you’re so smart, and don’t you ever let anyone tell you you can’t.
- Don’t be like me.
- Don’t ever get married. It ain’t worth it.
- Marry a rich man!
- Never throw out your cardboard boxes when you move, because you never know when you’re gonna’ need ‘em.
- I wish I knew what to tell you.
- Well, hon, I wish I knew what to tell you.
- Babe, I sure do wish I knew what to tell you…but I just don’t.
Colleen McKee’s works include two collections of poetry, fiction, and memoir: Nine Kinds of Wrong and A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money. Her chapbook My Hot Little Tomato, published by Cherry Pie Press focused on food and the erotic. She writes most of her poems on public transportation and cultivates snails as pets. Her new book My Heart, That Chew Toy of the Gods is coming soon from Pedestrian Press. If you can’t wait, catch one of her Bay Area readings—the schedule is here.
Copyright Colleen McKee, 2012. All rights reserved