By Patton D’Arque
They showed her a blowup of a blurry black and white photo and wanted to know if she recognized the polka dot dress.
“I’d never wear something like that.”
The woman in the robin breast red pants suit brought the high heels of her black pumps together and looked down at her notes. A professor at a small college upstate, she had a grant to do archive research, and that had brought her to All Soul’s Care Home. The man with her was large boned, long limbed, square faced with the pale eyes of a northerner. He wore a dark blue suit that was not his, or one he had outgrown many years ago. His scuffed brown oxfords were massive. The professor had introduced his instantly forgettable foreign name which he acknowledged with an expressionless nod. He didn’t say what he did.
The window onto the small patio porch let in a muted gray light. A lamp was switched on over in one corner of the private room by the bedside table but not much use where they were, seated crowded together on the settee across from her armchair. A polished wood coffee table sat between them. Among the piles of mail, the TV remote, and next to a struggling underwatered potted violet, the professor had placed her smart phone on a tiny tripod and was recording the interview.
She wanted to know about the letters. The pictures and the letters, and what the letters said, and what the pictures showed. There was a picture she said that looked like her in a polka dot dress although the young girl had a different name. Yet their body signatures were the same, the DNA matched that of a Connecticut woman born Mary Ellias Anders.
She waited for what the professor would say next. Yes, there was a picture of young woman in a polka dot dress if it was her as they claimed. She appeared young, very young, with a crooked mischievous smile. It could be, but she had no supporting memory of that being her. There was a block as solid as if it had been made of granite when it came to remembering a certain time in her life, the time the professor was interested in, and, presumably, the man. The other picture, not posed, was of what appeared to be the same dress. A glare of streetlight overhead, silhouette of a narrow brimmed hat and dark masculine profile, a fall of blond hair over the shoulder of a black and white polka dot dress blurred by the couple’s movement. She couldn’t imagine herself in such a dress. She favored pastels and florals, something that made her feel anonymous and unnoticed. And besides, her name was Sharon, Sharon Salton.
The professor, Pam Pearson, was asking questions that she didn’t know the answers to although they made her feel vaguely uncomfortable, almost as if by not remembering she was deliberately lying.
The things she did remember they didn’t seem interested hearing about. She did suffer from memory lapses, but that wasn’t unusual at her age. And she had only a dim recollection of her life over fifty years ago.
She had been in an accident, a car accident, maybe. She remembered being told that, repeatedly, by the man who raped her, also repeatedly, and that she should be repeatedly grateful that he had saved her life and had not left her to die in a dry arroyo full of snakes, rats, and coyotes. She had suffered broken ribs and a broken leg. The man, Luke, she recalled, had applied basic first aid and kept her immobile. The pain was just a vague memory. He had acquired pain killers and while they helped, they also left her confused. She was kept in a drugged stupor, and only dimly aware of her surroundings. The smell, she would always remember. A cool dankness mixed with a rancid clammy sweat, his. But also bacon, and burned beans, and bitter coffee. In a lucid moment, tied to the wooden bedframe, she realized that she was underground, and sometime later, that she was being kept in an abandoned mine.
In one of the letters the professor claimed she had written she announced her arrival in Los Angeles. It was dated December 12th, 1967, and addressed to the Honorable Mark Edwards Anders of Sharon, Connecticut. The professor said that Judge Anders was a controversial political figure, a staunch anti-communist and John Bircher, in Western Connecticut with an estate on the outskirts of Sharon near the border with New York State, and that he was her uncle.
She could tell by the professor’s questioning look that this revelation was supposed to light up some dark corner of her memory and substantiate her identity as this other person, Mary. They had reached this point before, on the professor’s previous visits, and all she could express was bewilderment because she really had no memory of her past before her imprisonment in the abandoned mine. Amnesia was a likely diagnosis. And when she forced herself to go back further in her memory an uncontrollable fear shook her, as if she were poised to hurtle down a deep dark hole like the mineshaft that Luke had threatened to throw her down when she didn’t act the way he thought she should. It always made her tremble. Her eyes would water, she would stutter gibberish as if she were having a fit.
At that point Angel Baby would rise from her chair in the darkness by the door to the room, shake her head, and inform the professor that they were done for the day. The professor, eyes flashing with exasperation, would gather her notes and smart phone before rising and following the care center director out of the room.
Angel Baby wasn’t her real name. She was Doctor Babba Angeli, an East Indian woman, and the director of the psychiatric care home. Most of the residents just called her that. Not to her person, but she was probably aware of it. It was an affectionate turn. She had reluctantly agreed to allow the interviews on the condition that she could end them if she thought they were becoming disruptive. She hadn’t wanted to allow it at all but there were considerations. The trust fund paying for Sharon’s care had been impounded by the Justice Department. She might have to be moved to assistance and shared housing. And she didn’t want that, did she?
The professor had a grant that might guarantee her continued level of care if she agreed to the interviews. She always felt that Angel Baby had her best interests at heart. A lot of the residents felt that way about her.
They did not feel that way about Mr. Chowdray, or Mr. Ray, or to some, evil Ray. He was vice president of operations for the corporation that owned All Souls as well as many other care and assisted living facilities. When he was around, every one became agitated, from the director to the janitor. The overworked aides were pushed by their own scheduling conflicts as well as the emotional disturbance of the man’s presence. Extra meds were then doled out.
Then Angel Baby became ill. Everyone was getting sick. Not a few residents and staff died. Angel Baby was one of them. They were made to wear masks and were not allowed visitors. And the aides stopped coming to work because members of their family were getting sick or dying. It was always on the TV, pictures of helpless men pretending to be doing something. And Mr. Ray was appointed the director of All Souls, something he made sure that everyone knew he wasn’t happy about, at all. And because the care home was not getting any new referrals, only the most desperate cases, it was floundering financially.
Sharon was forced into a three bed living space with no private patio or any of the amenities her single private room had afforded her. She had two roommates, a woman who was borderline catatonic and Karen, someone who felt that she had to voice her opinion about everything, and when she didn’t have an opinion, she had a complaint. And she smoked, which was against policy but she did it anyway, standing by the outside window open a crack even in the coldest weather. One of the night duty aides sold her the cigarettes. She never wore her mask and claimed they would have to kill her before she allowed them to vaccinate her.
Sharon did get the shots, and got sick, but her symptoms were mild compared to some. She’d got the booster, too. Karen got very sick and they had to take her to the hospital. She hadn’t returned and for a while Sharon had the room to herself and the vegetating woman addled by treatment and medicine. May, as the aides called her, as she was at any one time May Be or May Be Not.
And she now had full control of the remote and didn’t have to always give in to Karen’s choices, silly crime dramas or twenty four hour news infusion, nothing that actually represented real life. Her own preferences were cooking shows and outdoors living. She only checked the news channel for the weather forecasts. No matter that she didn’t go anywhere and was hardly allowed outside. Because of staffing shortages, the number of hours residents could be supervised safely outdoors had been cut back. But weather reports were her one abiding interest. It punctuated with regularity her days.
Then Mr. Chowdray informed her that he was allowing the interviews with the professor and her associate, once a large boned man in an ill-fitting suit now apparently a woman in an ill-fitting wig, to continue. The professor herself had put on a few pounds and her Kelly green pants suit strained in places. And they both wore masks. The professor’s was a custom brocade design and the large boned associate wore an out of the box blue surgical mask that struggled to contain all of her nose and large jaw. All she could see of their faces was their eyes, the professors more expertly done up then her associate’s.
“Call me Pam” wanted to review some of what they had covered in the previous sessions, and pointedly asked Mr. Ray for permission, bypassing Sharon and assuming she was compliant. Mr. Ray nodded in agreement and then looked at his watch and announced that he had pressing business to resume.
They told her again who they thought she was. They asked her questions she didn’t know the answers to, again. She had no clear memory of long ago events, especially around the dates they were interested in, June of 1968. It was all a blur. However, during the lockdown and travel restrictions, Pam explained, she’d been busy with additional research.
For instance, the trust fund that was paying for her residence was one set up by her uncle, Judge Anders, something that had already been established. Pam had traced the credit lines to an offshore account that was on a watchlist of foreign government sponsored assets used either for money laundering or funding intelligence operations or both. Because of the ongoing investigations the trust fund had stopped paying into the account. And which explained why Mr. Ray was eager to allow the interviews to go forward. Her cooperation might mean a return to the comfort of a private room he’d intimated.
They wanted to clarify some points that they had covered before. How she had come to be committed to All Souls. Why the attorney and doctor named in the court documents committing her to psychiatric care were untraceable and had been employed by a firm that was no longer in existence, and may have been a dummy front funded by the same trust fund set up by her uncle, leaving only the barest of records.
Sharon couldn’t answer those questions. She had told them before, a lawyer, an associate of the private detective who had contacted her, came and made her sign some papers and told her that by doing so she would be set for life. It was part of her husband’s insurance policy they said. When she thought of her husband, it made her sad and she would blubber and lose composure. Usually that would end the interview, at Angel Baby’s insistence. But Angel Baby wasn’t there anymore and the professor and the large man dressed as a woman simply waited until she stopped.
Her husband was a plant mechanic for one of the big casinos in Reno. He died in a vehicle accident on his way to work the night shift just a few weeks before his retirement. She met him while she waitressed at the restaurant that was part of the casino, kind of an upscale Denny’s. Up until then her life had been a careening pinball bouncing from bumper to flipper with no hope and no future.
Hikers had found her chained to the bed in the abandoned mine tunnel. She didn’t remember how long she’d been there without food or water. Luke had just stopped coming back to abuse her and yell at her and rant his antigovernmental conspiracies. The hikers had called the sheriff who had called the ambulance who’d called for the helicopter. The hospital, after determining she was indigent but with no serious health problems other than a poorly healed femur that caused her to limp, contacted the county welfare department who put her in a home for abused women after they’d heard her story. She didn’t remember her name and that was a problem for the case workers because they told her that she could only remain a Jane Doe for so long. If she could remember her name, they could begin a search for relatives and process her package. They had fingerprinted her only to learn that she had never been in jail or in the military. She was not on any national missing persons roster as far as they could tell.
A name had come to her, out of the blue fog that consisted of her memory, Sharon. It was a start. And she remembered the green road sign they’d passed when they were driving her to the shelter. She told them her name was Sharon Salton. And they gave her a temporary ID card with that name on it. To get a driver’s license she would need a birth certificate. But in the meantime she would be able to find work which she did in a soup kitchen in Bakersfield but that did not last long because they sometimes served kidney beans and she hated kidney beans. Just the thought of them sent her into hysterics. Then she met a woman who told her she could make good money in Vegas as a cocktail waitress and she would never have to see a kidney bean again.
What she did see however was a parade of handsome ugly men and ugly handsome men all with one thing in mind, possession of her body for a short time or longer, none, after a while any different than Luke, the man who had chained her to his bed. She understood she was damaged goods, besides the slight off kilter gait to her walk. Some men said that’s what they liked about her, and her smile, she had a nice smile, even after all she had been through.
When Vegas got to be too much and the man she had been living with was arrested for murder in the course of an armed robbery, she left for Reno, taking the bus upstate, all that she owned in one suitcase. Her impression of the biggest little city in the world was that it was a gritty bleaker version of Vegas, that the glitter and neon was hardly bright enough to hide the desperation of so many of its inhabitants.
She’d found a job in housekeeping in one of the downtown hotels, and then waitressing in a couple of chain restaurants. She didn’t mind the winters, they reassured her for some unfathomable reason, and she loved to ski which she did on occasion with the new friends she had made. And in the summers she hiked the mountain trails of the Sierras. There, camping in the rough desolate wilderness, she found relief from the anxieties of not being able to recall anything of her life before her rescue from captivity in the mine tunnel. With the exception of bouts of sleeplessness and the occasional nightmare that had her waking in sweats, her life had settled into a predictable routine and slowly remade itself as if the first twenty or so years were incidental and not worth the worry.
Then she met Mack, Bill McKensie, an older man whose kindness provided her with a sort of refuge. He was easy to like, undemanding, with a sense of humor and a hearty laugh, ex-Navy so he liked to drink and only occasionally to excess. Everyone has their demons he’d told her and they have to be let out every once in a while. The last time she remembered was at the turn of the century, the eve of the year two thousand. They’d been together that long. How time flies was a cliché that never grew old. But they had grown old, together, and Mack was due for retirement although he dreaded the thought of it because he knew he would go stir crazy without a job to go to. They’d often talked of getting a fifth wheel and hitting the road and seeing some of the country, looking up some of his long lost relatives in the Midwest. He had long ago stopped asking her about her kin, knowing how much it upset her and caused her sleepless nights. She’d been prescribed pills but she hated the way they made her feel.
One Christmas he’d surprised her with a genealogy test that might trace her heritage and perhaps lead to some long lost relative. At first she had been angry, and fearful. The great unknown of her past after all that time might be waiting to reveal who she really was. But she was content with who she was, those two decades conveniently erased were nothing to the more than three decades she could remember. But Mack had insisted and so they had sent her spit off to be tested.
The results must have come back around the time of Mack’s death. It sat on the tiny writing desk in the front room along with all the other unopened mail, bills, and such, nothing that she could bring herself to look at or deal with. And she was taking more pills and sleeping whole days away, not answering phone calls, stumbling out into the late night to the 24 hour supermarkets for more of the same frozen dinners. She was slowly letting herself die. I’ll be dead by the time I’m sixty she’d told herself. As if it had been a promise. And then a man who said he was a private detective showed up at her door.