I could barely look her way as she gummed her scrambled eggs and talked to no one. I was eleven and she was probably in her fifties. She was disheveled and wore a maroon overcoat. The booths on either side of her were empty, but the good old boys from the farms sat at the tables and paid her no attention as they sipped their coffee and talked the local gossip. I could not take my eyes off of her. I suppose my fascination was more ignorance than fear. As a kid, I had no experience with mental illness and I did not know how to act. Was she dangerous and someone I should fear? Little did I know.
The Revco was a dirty drug store. The lights were harsh, the tiles were worn, and the smell rich. Actually, the odor was more like old grease rather than moth balls, probably due to the small cafeteria in the back. It was there that we sat, she with her eggs and me with my awe.
“What are you looking at?” she asked spewing eggs with each syllable.
I could only look away. I was shocked that she spoke to me and startled that her tone was so loud. Strangely, no one looked her way. My coach, who was also like a big brother and mentor was paying for our food. He never turned to see what had happened.
“I asked you what you were looking at?”
“You, I guess. I’m sorry.
“Ah, whatever, everyone looks at me.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Hmmm, look at me, no teeth, crazy hair, and I am quite mad you know.” She winked. “Do I scare you?”
“Not really. Maybe a little.”
She laughed and dunked a piece of toast into her water and started gumming it like it was jerky. Her eating was gross, but she was not threatening. She was aware of her problems, but she also seemed to have a confidence that she knew more than others gave her credit for.
“You know that I know things,” she said.
“I know when things are not right. I can feel them.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s hard to explain. I just know. I think it’s part of my sickness.”
My coach sat down with the tray passing me a plate with pancakes and tough looking sausage patties. He also brought chocolate milk and a brownie. This was the kind of breakfast I could really enjoy. Today was going to be a slow day at the tennis courts. Brian worked at the courts for the recreation department and on weekends he would let me hang out at the courts. Sometimes he would give a lesson or meet up with someone to play a few sets. I would handle the business, which amounted to making sure the cash box was not stolen. He was sitting between the lady and me.
“Brian, can you slide over a little bit. I’m talking to that lady.”
He turned and looked at her. She had her head down and was mumbling to her plate. Neither of us could understand what she was saying, but she was more animated than she had been before. Now I was scared, more for her than of her. I got out of the booth and walked beside her.
“Are you okay?”
She looked up and shook her head like a dog trying to shake water off his face. Her eyes were dark and insistent. I knew something was wrong. One of the good old boys said, “Come here, son, get away from her. She’s having one of her crazy fits.” I didn’t leave. My coach did, though. He said something about orange juice and headed back to the cafeteria line.
“Are you okay?” I asked again.
She answered as if nothing was going on, “Something is not right. I only get like this when there is a problem. Who is this guy you are with?”
“He’s my baseball coach and he teaches me tennis.”
Brian was back and the lady started talking to a spoon. I sat down and started eating my breakfast. While I had no idea what she meant by “Be careful,” I did not enjoy the rest of my meal. I kept looking around Brian to check on the lady.
“Stop staring at her, it’s rude,” said Brian.
“I know, but she’s not crazy, crazy. I was talking to her and she said sometimes she sees things and then gets like this. She’s cool and then she’s not.”
“That’s what crazy is,” said Brian.
We finished eating and just sat hanging around. The old guys recognized Brian and asked him questions about his family. They had known his father for years and shared how proud Brian’s father was of him. Of course he was, Brian had been the high school quarterback and played tennis in college. Now he was a paramedic, working to earn his teaching certificate, and giving back to the community by coaching youth baseball and keeping me out of trouble.
At some point during their conversation I looked to the lady. She had stopped eating and was staring directly at me with a catatonic look. I was scared, not of her but of whatever she couldn’t say. Brian said goodbye to the good old boys and we started to leave. On the way out we saw a board game about tennis. Brian bought it in preparation for the slow day we were going to have at the courts. Nobody ever came out to play on cold, misty days.
We were just about to leave the store when the lady from the cafeteria fell to the ground. Brian, being a paramedic, ran to the back of the store and began to help her. The manager called Eastern State Hospital to have someone from the asylum return her to her room. I just watched. When the hospital attendants arrived, they helped her towards the door and I walked behind.
She turned and said, “Be careful.” Then she was helped into the van and driven away.
We worked that day, really we played the tennis board game all day. When it was time to go we put the game in the file cabinet and left. That was the last time I went to the tennis courts with Brian. He would be my coach for another six years, but as I got older, I went in a different direction. Ten years later, “The Goose,” the recreation guy for the city asked me to work the tennis courts one night. I was so bored that I looked everywhere for something to do. The board game was still in the file cabinet, worn, but all there. Maybe some things just survive.
The old lady from Revco was an angel sent to protect me, at least that is what I believe. She may have been mentally ill, but she was also gifted with an ability to know when something wasn’t right. She was harmless, but everyone saw her as crazy. Perhaps her truth was something most of us prefer to ignore. She knew there were bad people out there.
Brian was one of them. He was popular, handsome, but a local legend. His secrets would become a dangerous illness that would put him in a different sort of institution. He would betray the good old boys, his father, and from a distance, me. Brian would confirm that sicknesses hidden are often evil and that being somebody is really nothing at all when you do the things to people he did.
Hopefully, my toothless angel has found clarity wherever she is.