Of Fools and Lunatics

Jeanne Lyet Gassman

You think you know people but you really don’t. You share a cup of coffee, talk about hassles at work and the price of food and gas, joke about last night’s episode of everyone’s favorite TV show. You know about their latest diet or exercise program, their squabbles with family, and what they did on summer vacation. But do you really know them? Nope.

The call comes in around 3:00 a.m., a time when it’s never good news. Confused by the ringing in my ears, I slap blindly at the alarm clock before I grab the phone. “Yeah,” I say, as I dig for a cigarette. My mouth tastes like last Friday night’s whiskey, but I haven’t touched the booze for over forty-eight hours. I’m not stupid enough to hit the bottle when I’m on duty. The flame from my lighter flares blue in the darkness, and I suck hungrily at the cancer stick before I answer. “Yeah?” The voice on the other end sounds like a mechanical doll as she recites: We’ll deliver her to the Chinle airstrip tomorrow, 8:00 a.m. She’s going to the psych hospital in Phoenix.

I don’t know why I was surprised. The buzz has been going up and down the rez for several weeks. First, there was that incident in February when we had the storm with sleet and hail and wind so cold it froze your nuts into iced melon balls. She shows up at her classroom wearing short-shorts and a tank top. Then, twice in March, she comes to work drunk, staggers into the nurse’s office with her hair matted and a mess where she’s wheezing gin breath on the students and handing out excuses to get out of gym. The second time the principal sends her home “sick.”

But last weekend was the clincher. The janitor finds her passed out in the hall on Saturday, wrists slashed criss-cross from a straight-edged razor. They dump her into an ambulance and send her off to the clinic for a quick patch-up. All but one of the cuts is superficial anyway. The principal says to her, Don’t come back until you get some help. Then Chinle phones me.

Why me? I’m a flight jockey, a pilot who makes his bread with puddle-jump runs from the small towns on the rez in northern Arizona to hospitals in Phoenix, Denver, and Albuquerque. The natives around here call me “Red Jack” ‘cause of my hair. Eric James is my attendant the day we pick her up. Public Health requires an attendant for the crazies. You never know.

Eric is waiting for me by the plane when I pull into the lot. There’s no sign of the ambulance. Last night’s rain has turned the air strip into a mud bog, and as Eric jogs toward me, I can see the red goop sticking to his shoes.

“Hey, Jack.” He kicks his feet out one at a time, but the red paste won't come off. “So, what’s the word with her? She have a fall at work or something?”

“Nope. Suicide attempt. We’re taking her to Phoenix for a psych eval.”

He stops poking at the soles of his shoes long enough to look up. “No kidding?” His words condense in the air in neat white puffs.

I nod and turn to watch a couple of old Navajo men in the parking lot struggle to change a flat on their truck. The ambulance is late, making me wonder if they’re having car trouble, too.

The last week of April. A season of extremes in Arizona. The late spring front has kept the temps in the low 40s this morning, but Phoenix has a predicted high of 95. It could be a bumpy ride for all of us. I’ve just finished reviewing the preflight checklist with Eric when the sudden blare of a siren makes us both jump.

“What the hell?” Eric says as the emergency vehicle cruises through puddles around us and showers us with a spray of dirty water. “Do they think we’re invisible?”

I don’t answer. I’m staring at the creature they’re wheeling out. Leda has always been pretty, almost Nordic-looking with her pale, pale skin and long white-blond hair, but there is nothing pretty left. Red scabs pock her scalp where she’s pulled out that silk. Skin the color of yellow wax, eyes sunk in dark hollows. White bandages, fat as sausages, are wrapped around her wrists. With her head against the headrest, the thin stream of saliva running down her chin, and the slack lips, she looks like she’s dead. I realize then that I have never known the real Leda Johnson at all. And I doubt that I know the real Eric James, or the real me, or the real anybody. I feel a little sick.

The driver wipes Leda’s face and straightens her up in the chair. But Leda still tilts to one side. “Sedated,” he explains.

I watch her mouth fall open, resisting the urge to grab her and shake her. No one warned us that we’d be transporting a vegetable. She should be on a stretcher, but we’re flying a four-seater Bonanza, so I’ll have to put her in the front passenger seat. I glare at the ambulance driver. “Like to make it easy for us, huh?” He looks confused, so I add, “Come on then, you and Eric can get her in the plane.”

I climb into the pilot’s seat and watch as Eric and the driver struggle to lift her from the chair. It’s not an easy task. Eric hefts her under the arms, and the driver grabs her legs, but she’s as unwieldy and limp as a 110-pound bag of water as they half-carry, half-drag her up the wing. When Eric reaches the door, he sets her down on the wing while the driver balances her to keep her from sliding off.

“No chance you want to help?” Eric’s face is glistening with sweat as he crawls into the back passenger seat.

I grin and hand him a paper towel. “Seems like you’re doing fine on your own.” After I adjust the front seat again, I help the driver position her next to me. Her thin hospital gown is bunched up around her legs. The inside of her thighs are marked with fading bruises and healing cuts. Self-inflicted? Her skin is cold, clammy. Goosebumps prickle across her knees. It hurts me to touch her.

“Use this.” The driver hands me a coarse woolen blanket.

“Do we still need the restraints?” She seems so empty, so broken. What is left for her to fight?

The driver nods. “I won’t make them too tight, but better safe than sorry.” He fastens her seat belt and backs out of the plane. “The meds will keep her quiet the next couple of hours. Maybe the whole way there.”


*

Quiet is what we get. We are ten miles north of the Mogollon Rim when I become aware that Eric hasn’t said a word since we took off, but I can still feel his curiosity hanging in the air. He wants to ask. Just doesn’t know how. I cut back the volume on the radio chatter and reach for the thermos stashed in a map pocket. “Want some coffee?” I ask as I swirl the dark liquid around in my thermos. The aroma of Folgers fills the cabin. “I have enough to share.”

He leans forward. His voice is loud in my ear. “No thanks.” He pauses, waiting for an opening. “Looks like good flying weather,” he adds.

“Uh huh. Deer Valley says there’s a light cross wind kicking up from the west so we could hit some turbulence on final.”

“Yeah?” His gaze flicks from me to Leda and back again. “I asked her out once, you know.”

The coffee burns when I swallow. “And what did she say?”

“Turned me down flat.”

“She prefers the bad boys.” I laugh. “Like me.” Just off a quickie divorce, Eric is ready to get his ass back out there. He claims his first marriage was simply a poor choice or poor timing. Me, I’ve been down the “'Til death do you part” road three times and decided long ago I’m happier single. But Eric still believes he’ll find his true soul mate. He’s the kind who flies over the clouds and sees angels in them. He’s got the face of a lost puppy, too. All big eyes and round cheeks and innocence. Women fall in love with him on the first date every time, thinking he needs their tender care. But he never stays around too long. This one is “too clingy,” that one “too bossy.” When I glance at him, I can see he has his eyes on Leda. I wonder if he thinks the recovered Leda is a likely candidate for the next Mrs. Eric James. “Be careful of that one,” I say, pulling his attention back to me. “She’s a firecracker. You could get burned.”

He looks at her, his gaze uneasy. “Do you think she can hear us? Do you think she knows we’re talking about her?”

“Nope. Not with all that crap they pumped into her. She’s out of it.”

As if to contradict my words, Leda suddenly mumbles something unintelligible. Drool oozes out of the corner of her mouth, but her eyes remain closed. I set my coffee down and put my hand on her seatbelt. Still snug.

He looks back at Leda, who is snoring softly now. “She used to be gorgeous,” he says. “What the fuck happened to her?”

“How the hell would I know? The last I heard she was warming a bar stool every night at Smokey Joe’s.”

“Didn’t you date her? Weren’t the two of you an item once?”

I pour more coffee into my mug. Take a sip. I could really use a cigarette, but I don’t smoke in the plane. “You should have seen her at Diane’s Christmas party last December. She was hot. Wore this short little black dress with something glittery on it. Legs up to her elbows. That blond hair piled on her head like a golden crown. Dress was so tight you could see her nipples pop.” Diane’s house was packed that night. Hot and sweaty bodies pressed together in every corner. Stereo blasting Motown hits. Diana Ross: Stop! In the Name of Love… And Leda, the Swedish goddess, on my arm.

“Lucky you.” Eric sighs loudly. “I missed that party. Had to visit my folks in Albuquerque.”

“Yeah. I’m lucky all right.” I grin at him. He knows what I mean.

“So why do you say she’s trouble?”

I shake my head. I can tell he’s still picturing her in that dress.


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