Wilhelm Reich conducts therapy sessions with his patients in their underwear. I make an appointment. I’ve looked for answers in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan codices, and flying saucers, but am unsure about this; I catch cold easily. He tells me doubt is the seed of faith—No matter how isolated, no matter how far away, someone will always catch you skinny-dipping. I climb into the Orgone Energy Accumulator, box of metal and wood. Burroughs convinces Ginsburg and Kerouac to try it. I feel claustrophobic; I can’t see my character armor. Dr. Reich waits for me to begin. I tell him my dream about Bette Davis and Doris Day. We all go out for ice-cream; Doris stands at the counter and has a nervous breakdown deciding between vanilla and pistachio. Bette slaps her. I think we should examine this development further; you’ve made quite a breakthrough. Then he asks me the first word I had pleasure with. Frangipani. He nods in approval. A very sensuous flower. Dr. Reich tells me at twelve he watched his tutor seduce his mother. It was inevitable that sex would be the site of his existential struggle. He’s researching the function of the orgasm, says little about his criteria of evaluation. You’ll know it when you have one.
I keep a written list, an inventory of my glamorous clothing: one dress blue satin, one cape beige wool, one dress black fringe, one kimono rose and aqua. One McCall’s Dress Pattern for the future. A pair of scissors to cut off the spirit world. An expensive bottle of perfume from Paris. One should always do her best. White gloves to hold my antique curling iron. Be careful not to singe my brain. It’s something that just happens to people. Where is everyone?
I’m a military man. I was eating in a diner and the waitress disrespected me, called me a fairy and a nigger. I just went nuts. I smashed some plates, got arrested. Ended up here. With a pair of plyers, War Ration Book, and one small black pistol. The key of life placed inside a box of Cracker Jack. With only these pictures of me and my friends from the photo booth to keep me company. I write down the names of every railroad station in the country. Got a Westclox Big Ben alarm clock. Reminds me to wake up.
Floyd’s Empty Suitcase
There’s a whole group of people who love empty suitcases.
Silver fork and spoon, a small cat figurine. Packet of finger sandwiches made with real fingers. I stayed in another asylum and was released. It felt good to be free. But then I was sent to Willard. This place isn’t so bad. There’s arts and crafts and even our own dance band. And I’m allowed to receive letters. I just got one from my sister saying, “You could come back to Erie, but I don’t want you living in the Y because they’re still really upset with you for trying to stab that girl.” I don’t like to be reminded of that. She has some nerve.
I never speak. Trolly lolly. I keep to myself. Walking makes me sad. I’m filled with letters never mailed. Our old family Bible. Beautiful needlepoint. Delicate, old syringes. A small bell in a bell jar. Ten tubes of brand-new toothpaste. Small drug packets with pills still in them. I don’t like to let go. I’m afraid of the dark.
One Washington monument thermometer. Wedding photo and a bouquet of silk flowers carried by my wife. A pair of mechanical wings. Notebooks filled with drawings of sine waves and complex mathematical formulas. I come from the Ukraine. It’s all a misunderstanding. I was arrested by the Secret Service when I was in Washington, D.C. I told them I was married to President Truman’s daughter, Margaret. She’s a great girl. They didn’t understand me. She has a beautiful voice; I don’t care what anyone says.
The weight of the waiting room: pity the passenger who loses his ticket.
A good Queen holds her head high. Don’t complain; don’t explain. Her face is a delicate birdcage. She exits and enters her body through the top of her head. It’s bad luck to separate one’s head from one’s body. She breathes from her proud heart. An accident of Destiny: she mops up curbside puddles with the hem of her gown. She imagines sitting in a white chair in a white room. She waits all day to be summoned. A Royal Game of Goose. The King takes away the chair. The jester takes away the room. Gives her a bird of green. The Queen turns into a purple velvet chaise.
My favorite Queens are Catherine of Aragon, Elizabeth I, and both Marys. They fear the whim of God, the favor of Fate, and the wrath of Henry, the clotted hearts of old men.
Should I sit here while somebody chops off your head with an ax? The jester inquires.
Djuna plays Truth at Peggy Guggenheim’s Hangover Hall, encourages brutal frankness among the guests. This creates a tense emotional atmosphere. Under the pseudonym Lydia Steptoe, she writes with clenched teeth and savagery. Averaging a bottle of whiskey a day, she accidentally drops the bottle. There is more surface to a shattered object than a whole: suffering for love is how I learned everything I know. During a conversation with James Joyce, Djuna’s attention wanders. You should limit the number of times you act against your nature, like sleeping with people you hate. It’s interesting to test your capabilities, but too much will cause damage. All her chips used up, lovers discarded, she shares a single room with her mother, a Christian Scientist, who coughs all night and reads passages from Mary Baker Eddy before kicking Djuna out. Later Djuna lives in self-imposed exile next door to e.e. cummings. Occasionally he leans out the window and yells, “Are ya dead yet, Djuna?” Of course I think of the past and of Paris; what else is there to remember? She has cabin fever, rearranges her books to spell secret messages, repairs the spider webs in her garden with thread. Elizabeth Bishop asks Marianne Moore what it’s like to run into Djuna, a rare sighting. “Well, she looked very smart: her shoes were beautifully polished.” Lillian Russell comes over for cocktails, tries to convince her to be more sociable, advises, “I could never be lonely without a husband.”
Houdini escapes from water-filled milk cans, riveted boilers, the belly of a whale. He buys Mama a dress made for Queen Victoria. Vanishes an elephant from the stage. Spends his life searching for a box that can hold him. Rosabelle says he never stops hoping to hear one word from his dead mother: “Mama, are you here?” On Halloween night, right before he dies, he gives Rosabelle a ten-word secret code. She receives thousands of letters from psychics claiming they received it. None of them are right. Rosabelle holds annual séances on Halloween for the next ten years until she puts out the candle beside Harry’s photo: “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” FORGIVE, she receives from Mama. Houdini’s most famous act was the Chinese Water Torture Cell: He held his breath for three minutes. Rosabelle... Answer... Tell... Pray-Answer... Look... Tell... Answer-Answer... Tell.
Deborah Flanagan’s manuscript, Or, Gone, was the winner of Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Series Chapbook Award. Her work has appeared in journals including The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Southern Review and Drunken Boat among other places, including Mudlark.