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Sean McElhiney

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mothersnympho2.jpg
Art by Betty Rocksteady 2015

MY MOTHER’S NYMPHOMANIAC

by

Sean McElhiney

 

She wore a snug black tee-shirt with spaghetti straps that did nothing to hide her neon pink bra, and blue pajama pants decorated with pink socks, the Red Sox logo, faded. She’d teased her hair, forgotten to tame it, and caked on makeup like a colorblind clown.

          “Check out Lady Gaga,” my wife said, and I laughed.

          It was hard to look at her, but even harder to look away as she made her way up the bleacher steps, balancing beers, glancing down at her feet, then up at the seats. I was on the aisle. When we made eye contact her face lit up.  

          “Scott?”

          She stopped right in front of me, nearly on top of me. Her two overfull beers sloshed in her precariously balanced snack box. I crouched up and held out my hand to steady her.

"Careful," I said.

          “Scott!” She sounded sure.

          Up close, I could tell she’d been pretty once, sexy even. She was probably in her early forties, maybe late thirties. I somehow recognized her, but I didn't want to engage her.

“Sorry. No,” I said. Her beers teetered. I stood all the way up and helped her balance the beverages and a pair of Fenway Franks. There was something soft in her eyes and a glistening invitation in her lips that was negated by a nasty sore on one corner of her mouth.

“Wow,” she said. “You look just like…”

“No,” I interrupted.

Beer bathed her hotdog buns, turning them pink with ketchup and Budweiser. She didn’t notice.

“Hey, down in front!” a voice called from behind. It was the bottom of the first inning; the Red Sox were coming to the plate.

“You look just like this guy I met at…”

I talked over her. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”

 She was disappointed in me. The open look on her face closed and her beers stopped lapping the edges of their plastic cups.

“Sorry to bother you,” she said as I sat down.

I resisted the urge to turn and watch her go.

“What the hell was that?” my wife asked.

“I have no idea.”

“Scott?”

“I guess I look like a Scott.”

“What a train wreck.”

I laughed.

 

As the game went on, I kept looking back. She’d be easy to spot, I thought, but she was nowhere to be found.

          “What are you looking at?” Barbara asked after my seventh or eighth turn-around.

          “The scoreboard.”

          "The game’s over there," she said, nodding toward the field.

"Duh," I said, looking back deliberately. It was between innings. They were showing fans on the big board in different, more expensive sections of the stands yucking it up for the camera. I rubbed my neck.

          “No Ben Gay," Barbara said. “You’re not coming to bed with that shit on.”

          I stopped turning around.

Before the top of the sixth inning I made my way under the stands. Barbara wanted a beer and I volunteered to get it.

 

“Just like this guy I met at…” she’d said and I’d cut her off. What was I afraid of?

“Scott. Scott. Scott,” I said, talking to myself as I searched for the nearest beer concession, trying to jar something loose. Why would she call me Scott?

And there she was, right in the back of a short beer line. She’d tied up some of her hair. It seemed random, one big spray scrunched up on top of her head. I stepped in behind her. Her fleece pajama bottoms looked soft but threadbare, thrift-store chic. There was a tiny hole in the middle of her right buttock. Her panties were yellow.

“Hey,” I said.

She glanced back and once again beamed when she saw me.

“Scott,” she said

And then I remembered. 

McLean. Just like this guy I met at McLean.

McLean Psychiatric Hospital.

She was the one my mother had called the nymphomaniac. She’d called me Scott, my stepfather’s name. I may or may not have corrected her.

“It’s Steve,” I said. 

“No. You’re messing with me.”

“It’s Steve. My mother might have told you. But she was into the Scope back then. I can’t imagine you would have listened to anything she said.”

“How is your mother?”

“She's gone,” I said. This staggered her.

“Oh, God,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“She died last year. She was lucky to live as long as she did.”

“Lucky to live,” the nymphomaniac said, her voice trailing off, her eyes blinking rapidly. "As long as she did," she whispered.

“I’m sorry. Your name was?”

“Scott,” she said.

I laughed. The trace of humor surprised me, so quickly after I had shocked her with the news of my mother’s death.

 "No. Really."

“It’s Mandy,” she said.

I offered her my hand. She held hers out, palm down, an incongruous bit of gentility. I thought about kissing it, but lightly shook her fingers instead.

"I should have kept in touch. Your mother was good to me." 

“I’m sorry I was so short with you up there, Mandy. I couldn’t place you.”

“It’s McLean. Even guests block it out if they can. We don’t have reunions, you know?”

Mandy was next in line. She ordered two beers, and then waited for me as I ordered Barbara’s beer and a Diet Coke for myself. I stepped toward Mandy when I was done, held out my soda-bearing arm to guide her back toward the stands.

“Why were you there?” I asked as we walked back, wanting to hear it from her. Do they actually institutionalize nymphomaniacs? I wondered.

She shrugged.

“I’m sorry. That’s personal,” I said.

“I don’t mind.”

“My mother spoke so freely about her struggles. I kind of assume everybody wants to talk.”

“I get it,” Mandy said. “Let’s just say I had issues.”

“It was a locked ward,” I said. “I would assume as much.”

“Relationship issues. I’m better now," she said. Then she smiled and stopped walking. "Mostly," she added.

Mostly. What is mostly better for a nymphomaniac? 

“I remember how you teased me,” I said, stopping beside her.

“You were cute,” Mandy said. “Still are.”

A cheer went up. The Sox had retired the side and a mid-inning crush of people came pouring out of the stands, splitting Mandy and me, forcing us to step aside. 

I’d only visited my mother at McLean once. I spent an afternoon there with my stepfather and my sister. Mom had introduced us to a few of the other patients and whispered what ailed them. “Her husband died,” she said of one patient, “She thinks she’s Queen Elizabeth,” of another, and, memorably, “She’s a nymphomaniac.”

Somehow Mandy had joined us for a board game in my mother's room. I think it was Life. I think it was the only way she could hide from the scrutiny of the staff, by hanging out with our family. But even though she was just hiding, she seemed to genuinely enjoy our company. I certainly enjoyed having her there. It kept my mind off my mother.

She'd sat close to me, touched my arm, my chest, and whispered in my ear. "Are you my doctor, Scott?" And I'd said, "No."

"Do you want to be my doctor?" she'd said thickly, saliva dampening the inside of my ear. I remember I pulled away, even though I really wanted to lean in. She was a gravitational force.

I was seventeen then. She was a young adult, maybe twenty. My mother didn't seem to notice that Mandy was toying with me. Mom was just giddy that we were all there, her eyes darting around like she was looking for something but not really seeing anything. My stepfather noticed Mandy’s teasing, but I think he found it amusing. He smirked. There was an implied wink in the glances he took in our direction. I don't think my sister saw anything. She was fourteen; she barely had her eyes open.

“Twenty years later,” I said, moving back in closer to Mandy. “I can’t believe you recognized me.”

“You look like your mother.”

“A little bit.”

“It’s not a bad way to look.” Mandy smiled.

She wanted to continue talking; so did I. As the hungry crowd thinned, queuing up for snacks and drinks, I looked for a quiet corner but couldn’t find one. I nodded toward the nearest surface, a hot dog fixings station, and led Mandy there. We rested our drinks on the stainless steel counter. Suddenly conscious of my hands, I anchored one on Barbara's beer and put the other in my pocket and asked Mandy where she lived. Nearby, she said, and when I told her I lived in Vermont she was surprised.

“You mother wasn’t from Vermont.”

“No. Worcester.”

“Is that where she was? In the end?”

I nodded. “She died of pleurisy.”

“Oh.”

“I think it was everything, though. All the booze.  And the drugs. All wrapped up in time. She was sort of sober when she died. She had an opioid issue, but she wasn’t drinking.”

“Why was she there?”

“Where?”

“At McLean.”

“You don’t know?”

“They don’t lock you up for drinking mouthwash.”

I explained what I knew. That she was there because of her fear of vomiting. It’s what Mom told everyone. It was a debilitating phobia and when they put her on Antabuse to encourage her to stop drinking, she flipped. It had never seemed reason enough to lock her up, but she wasn’t out of place at McLean. I never thought she didn’t belong there.   

“She was awfully nice,” Mandy said.

“She called you a nymphomaniac,” I said. I felt like I was tattling.

Mandy opened her eyes wide. She said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“There are drugs for that.”

“Really?”

The crowd erupted then; the roar carried down under the stands. People ran back toward their seats, calling out “Who hit it?” Normally I’d be right there with them. 

“No! Not really!” Mandy shouted above the noise. “But there are anti-depressants. They gave me plenty of those.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” I said. Things quieted down a bit as a large portion of the fans who’d been milling around found their way back to the action. There was talk of a homerun.

“Drugs and sex. I had that too,” Mandy said. I couldn’t tell if she was joking. "The best cure for nymphomania is to feed it."

“I, I guess," I stammered, "I, I, I guess you can’t just abstain.”

She licked her lips and reached out for my face. I let her touch me.

“Sometimes I can’t help myself,” she said.

I took my hand off Barbara’s beer and held Mandy lightly by the wrist, which felt hot under my condensation-cold hand.

“I was so tempted then,” I said, holding her hand to my face. “It was such a turn-on. I was seventeen for Christ’s sake.”

“You poor boy.”

“You don’t know.”

"Well. I hate to disappoint you,” she said softly, “but I'm not a nympho."

I pulled my hand back as if her wrist were on fire.

She continued touching me, caressing my face with the back of her fingers.

"I wasn’t saying you were. You know?  I'm just saying that's what my mother said."

“It's called hypersexuality. It comes and goes,” she said. She pulled her hand back. “They call it sex addiction now, but they never diagnosed me as a nymphomaniac. I was there because I was suicidal.”

“So my mother wasn't that nice, was she?”

“She didn’t make it up. I told her I was a nympho.”

“Oh?”

“It turned her on," Mandy said, and she smiled.

"That's probably more than I need to know."

“Talk about hypersexual."

“That’s enough,” I said.

"I got her some vodka."

"I don't want to know."

"She was a human being," Mandy said. She sounded disappointed again, but she was still smiling. I don't think I was the man she wanted me to be, but she seemed to take pleasure in my discomfort.

"She helped me, Scott. I helped her.”

I was done trying to correct her. Scott I was, Scott I would be.

“Some fucked-up people are really good at telling other fucked-up people the things they need to hear,” Mandy continued, her smile fading. “Your mother always told me to respect myself. ‘There's no one on earth for you unless you're for yourself first,' she said. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm for me. I asked her to repeat it. She moved the words around, but it came out close. ‘You have to be for you,’ she said.”

"My mother said that?"

"Then a couple days later I passed her in the hall and I said 'I'm for me, Sally!' and she just looked at me all glassy-eyed like she had no idea who I was or what I was talking about. That was right around the time of your visit."  

“One of the worst days of my life,” I said.

“Was it?” Mandy smiled. "Did I scare you that bad?"

“I was visiting my mother in a locked ward.”

Mandy shrugged. "So?"

“She wanted to show me the padded room at the end of the hallway. Somehow she thought it was something I'd like to see. She whispered 'that's where they put the crazy people,' and she laughed. But she couldn't show me the room because there was a patient locked up there. In a fucking padded cell. Right down the hallway from my mother."

"Probably Gretchen. She was a biter."

Organ music rose up from the field. The public address announcer’s deep baritone rumbled as a new rush of people queued up for refreshments. I thought of Barbara.

"Anyway. You look good,” I lied.

"I feel good," she said.

I secured Barbara's beer and picked up my soda and told Mandy I had to get back.

"Coke for your wife?"

"No. It’s for me. I'm a friend of Bill's," I said.

"What?"

“It’s an AA thing. I'm sober,” I said, raising my Coke and leading the way back toward the ramp. “I'm for me."

Mandy smiled and stepped in beside me.

"I miss it," she said.

"What?"                                                                                                     

"McLean."

"Seriously?"

"I hated high school. I barely went to college. But I was at McLean for more than a year. I got close to your mother. To Gretchen. To all the girls, really. I've never felt more alive than I did there. You try to forget it, but I don’t know. It remembers you."

She had no hot dogs this time, no snack tray to mess with her balance. We stepped out into the sunshine and walked up the aisle together. I glanced up at Barbara. She was watching something on the field and didn’t see us.

"Enjoy the rest of the game," I said as we reached my row. I stepped in beside Barbara and handed over her beer. Barbara and Mandy looked at one another. I made no effort to introduce them.

"I'm Mandy. I knew Scott's mother."

"Oh,” Barbara said, ignoring the misnomer. “I’m Barbara.”

They moved to shake hands, but both of Mandy's were occupied. Barbara looked relieved.

"Hey," I said, before Mandy could walk away. "My Mom's obituary is still online. There's not a lot there, but you might want to see it. It's Adenzio's Funeral Home."

"I'll look," she said.

"Adenzio's. In Worcester. You can still leave a comment, if you'd like. There's a few there. Adenzio's." I was hoping she might leave an email address. Some way for me to keep track of her. I didn’t even know her last name and it was too late to ask.

"Adenzio's," she said, raising her beers in some sort of toast.

"Adenzio's," I echoed, raising my soda. "Sorry I didn't recognize you earlier."

"You do now,” she said. “It was nice meeting you," she added, nodding to Barbara, then she turned and started back up the aisle. I watched her go.

It had been a memorable day, my day at McLean. Just one day in my mother's six months there; one day in Mandy’s year. I remember the visit mostly in non-sequential snippets: my mother's darting eyes; her pride when she showed us her room; her project, a biographical collage she'd made from pictures and words clipped from magazines and pasted on poster board; her toiletries lined up on her institutional dresser, no sign of anything she might drink. And I remember Mandy, and my immediate, unstoppable erection trying to make room for itself in a fold in my jeans as I fended her off weakly. There was electricity there: for her, habitual, clinically obsessive; for me, an arousal the likes of which I had never felt before. I would lose my virginity later that year, but as thrilling as that event would be, I have since forgotten the details: I remember McLean.

“My beer’s warm,” Barbara said.

“What?” I turned back toward my wife.

“She turns you on, doesn’t she?” Barbara said, and she laughed.

"No." I sat down. I was ashamed.

"So, what?” Barbara said, sipping her tepid Budweiser. “Did they give her a day pass?"

"You'd think," I said, glancing over my shoulder. I’d lost sight of her. I thought about her beer. They wouldn't let her drink if she were institutionalized.

“She looks like a nut-job.”

"She said my mother helped her," I said, and I turned around more deliberately now, trying to find Mandy, rubbing my neck. “She said she helped my mother.”

"That fits. She could have been one of your mother's projects."

"Sadly," I said.

"Fucked up people."

"Yeah, but they're people."

“I know,” Barbara said. “I’m just saying.”

I stood back up now, turned my back to the field, and searched the seats above us. This time I spotted Mandy. She had turned into one of the last rows near the back of the bleachers under a huge Dunkin' Donuts sign. As she made her way back to her seat people bowed up just enough to let her through. She held out one of the beers. A large woman in a sleeveless t-shirt (a “wife-beater”) stood and took it from her. Mandy squeezed in beside her. Before she sat, she held her girlfriend’s arm and guided her line of sight toward me. She pointed. When she saw that I was standing up, she waved and smiled.

“Hey, down in front!” someone shouted. The game was back on.

I waved back.

THE END





DOING THE TRASH

 

by Sean McElhiney

 

I packed my work-stuff, pens on the left side of the file drawer, notes on the right; the two hanging files I pushed to the back of the drawer, as usual, then I bagged the trash. I emptied my garbage into the bag in the lunchroom, then grabbed the bathroom trash and tied the whole thing off. I knocked off the air conditioner, killed the lights, and walked out the door, trash in hand. 

The moonlight was different; I remember that now. It had a haziness to it, a foggy translucence. A fleeting thought—a touch to the senses that would not have been remembered had it not been for the events that followed. Day-to-day existence is littered with this kind of thought, these almost memories—a strange scent, an odd-shaped flower, uneven  headlights on an approaching car—little eye and ear and nose catching things that come and go and only stay if something grand encompasses them and keeps them there. 

In the car the air-conditioner still whined from hours ago when it was needed; now it got cold fast. I shut it off, then turned down the radio which blared too loud after the loss of the noise of the air-conditioner. I ran the windshield wiper to get the condensation off the glass, then turned the fan on high and set the vents to aim at the window… 

So if I was thinking of anything as I pulled away from the office, this was it: it was nothing. Barely thinking: feeling, reacting—cold, warm, loud, quiet. Just reacting really. Isn’t that what we’re all doing most of the time?  

The green plastic garbage bag with its office odor of coffee grounds and cigarette butts and mostly-empty microwave meal containers rested on my lap. I turned right, right again, then bump. 

Bump bump. 

The front of the car lurched up. I thought curb. You’ve hit the curb. But I was turning the corner behind the building where there was no curb, heading toward the dumpster. 

As I quickly slowed the car, the right back tire bump-bumped softly, and something in my stomach went sour. A quick identification shot to my consciousness: Animal. Ignoring instinct, I rifled possibilities—large bag of garbage, bag of grass, old carpet, dirt, mattress, rocks—in a futile split second. 

I stopped the car. In the rearview mirror my brake lights illumined the thing I’d hit. I could make it out now. 

Rags. Old denim. Blue pants, black with dirt.  Sooty, leathery arms. Mangled, distorted legs. Overcome by a rush of nausea I jumped out of the car, buckled over, lost it. 

No longer sealed in the muffled cocoon of my car, I could hear the moans. I listened intently and moved closer, trying to make out words. The moaning turned into a wrenching, inhuman scream. 

“Oh man, are you, oh God,” I cried.  

The rags writhed and whimpered. 

It, he, was bloody and gritty. Young, no older than thirty-five, his grimy hair was here and there matted down and sticking up; his bare feet were twisted and crushed into one another. The bottom of one foot, hard and black, faced up at me and the other was wrong the other way. I ran, leaving the car running, its hum and my victim’s cries receded behind me. 

“A bum, some homeless guy, a derelict. I hit a bum,” I shouted into the phone.  

“Slow down. Take it easy,” 911 said. 

“I crushed a homeless guy with my car,” I enunciated forcefully. “He’s hurt bad.” 

Back behind the building my headlights shone on the side of the dumpster and I could see the tied-off bag of trash on the ground by the driver-side door. My victim whimpered like a whipped dog. 

“Help is on the way,” I assured him as he rolled his eyes back into his head and clenched his fists in pain. “They’ll be here any minute.” 

“Son of a bitch,” the bum groaned, then he drew a staggered breath, aimed a piercing stare at the inside of my eyes, and screamed again. 

“You’ll be okay!” I snapped and I turned toward my car. 

Real fog rolling in now, anger; I tried to shake the feeling off. 

“You shouldn’t sleep right in the middle of the damn street,” I growled, turning back. He squinted up at me. 

“Is this murder?” I said. “If you die am I a murderer just because you decided to sleep on the pavement?” 

“Son of a bitch,” the bum said again, and he squeezed his pathetic eyes shut. 

A stream of hard white light then lit up his gray-red face as a police cruiser pulled up behind me. 

“Get up,” the cop ordered as he stepped out of his car. The cold light burned an impression of the bum’s blinking features into my mind’s eye. 

“I hit him,” I said. “I didn’t see him. I had no time to react.” 

“Hit him?” the cop said. 

“Rolled him over. Rolled over him. I didn’t know what it was at first, then it was too late.” 

I looked up toward my fading car. The trash bag was open and coffee grounds were scattered like so much mud. 

“Trash. I was doing the trash. I drive it around, you know, so I don’t have to deal with things – with things like this! There’s always some bum. Some hobo, you know? Some car. Some couple parking. Somebody prowling. There’s always something to avoid so I drive it instead of walk it. I was doing the trash.” 

A neat stack of food-smeared plastic containers stuck out of the coffee grounds as if they had grown there. My stomach rumbled. 

 “Move out. You can’t stay here,” the policeman said, then he poked me with his nightstick. 

“It gets cool a lot faster now,” I said, “what with the fall coming on.” 

“You can’t be here,” the cop said, and he poked me again. 

“The pavement is warm,” I mumbled, staggering to my feet. “It’s just a parking lot.” 

“Don’t let me see you here again.” 

He poked me once more, then shoved me back away from my trash.  

I sidled off the pavement and walked, wounded, through the gravel and brown grass field, away from my dreams, toward my deeper dream, this life under the tree-cover by the edge of the freeway. The fog was getting thicker. 


“Doing the Trash” was originally published in New Times, San Luis Obispo, CA, in 1993.

 

Sean McElhiney is the founder and host of Writing Itself, a podcast featuring conversations with writers from all walks of life.

 https://www.writingitself.com. He is a crew member at Trader Joe's on California's Central Coast, where he lives with his wife and two pugs. 

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