Mercy of the World: November 1964
Late November 1964, women’s dorm, King College, Bristol, TN
Chapter from memoir, Mercy of the World
Chapter from memoir, Mercy of the World
I sit on the edge of the bed in my dorm room. I smoke a Salem.
A few days ago Miss Morton had me move from the room I shared with Carolyn to my own room at the end of the hall. I miss Carolyn. I haven’t unpacked, but somehow my nice clothes are all over the floor already. The bed is unmade, the pillow uncovered. Why was I moved? I am so alone. Yesterday on campus Carolyn handed me a magazine open to an article, “The Positive Role of Psychosis.” I haven’t read it. It scared me. I miss my favorite music, Carolyn’s recording of The Warsaw Concerto, that I played and played on Carolyn’s record player. One thing, Carolyn was sick of the Warsaw Concerto. Also she didn’t like my smoking in the room. I think Miss Morton and Carolyn are friends and don’t like me.
I’m so cold. I shake, arms around myself, rocking. Lenny? I cover my face in my hands, rocking, shaking. Maybe I need a rest. Running the Goldwater campaign. What a disaster. President of Young Republicans. Starring role in the Thanksgiving play. Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Sixteen-hour course load. All the time so alone, so alone. I miss Lenny. Three hundred Presbyterians at this college, and only a few will talk to me. They all know how bad I hurt Lenny.
I’m nervous about hosting Miss Morton’s reception tonight. I walk down the hall to the shower. I’m shaking. I’m cold. The hot water feels good. I shampoo my hair and put the conditioner in. I soap under my arms and pick up the razor. I freeze. I look at the razor. Put it down. Gasp. Oh my God. What’s happening? What’s wrong with me? Am I going to hurt myself with this razor? The razor is dangerous. It’s sharp. People kill themselves with razors. I’m shaking. I can’t stop shaking. Soapy, conditioner still in my hair, I hurry out of the shower and into my robe and back down the hall to my room. I sit on the edge of my bed, shaking in terror. Now I see how out of control I am.
I call Miss Morton and tell her I can’t host the reception. She seems to understand. I can’t put on that white beaded prom dress Mother made for me. It’s too good. Oh, my god. I need help. Help me somebody. Who can I call? Nobody. There is no one. Not Daddy. I’m not his lovely young daughter now. Not Lenny. I’m not his girlfriend now.
I call Tom. I can talk to Tom. I know he won’t care what’s happening to me, and he won’t report me to Miss Morton. He feels safe enough. I meet him in back of our dorm where he picks me up in his old car. We go to a greasy spoon in downtown Bristol, and he orders coffees. I light up.
“I thought I was going to kill myself with a razor,” I say. “I was so scared.”
He just smirks. Drinks his coffee. Tom is not really a friend. He is just one of the few people who talk to me. He’s the closest thing to a friend I have now at King. One time he roughhoused me in front of the boys’ dorm. There were visitors and students all around who saw how disrespected I was. Humiliating. The day of the mock election he kept me at a picnic, just us two, until it was too late to vote, and I was head of the Goldwater campaign on campus. I didn’t even vote. I just lost track of time. I felt like a complete phony. When Tom invited me to the Autumn Banquet, I hesitated to answer, and he said, “No one else is going to ask you.” I said yes then. Desperate to be included.
Again I lost track of time, and it was past curfew when we got back to the dorm. I had to knock on Miss Morton’s door to get back into the dorm. She said, come in, sit with me for a minute. I dreaded talking to her, but was glad for the attention.
How are you feeling?
I’m confused. I don’t know what to do.
Are you glad you learned this about yourself?
Oh, yes, I said, uncertain what it was she thought I had learned.
Well, that’s good.
I want to move off campus and get a job to pay for my education.
Maybe your parents want to pay your tuition.
You have an early math class tomorrow, don’t you? You’d better go on to your room.
Thank you, Miss Morton.
Back in my room, I light a Salem and think about Lenny. He’s fine. He has a new girlfriend, Marie. I wonder if Lenny made copies of my love letters and showed them to the guys in the dorm.
What about me? I wish I hadn’t sent that letter. Big mistake. I’m fine. I’m going to be just fine. Oh, God. I chew my nails and cuticles until they bleed. I stare into space. I hum The Warsaw Concerto to keep myself company.
The room goes dark. I go quiet. Then I see something. Something beautiful. It’s above me, in front of me. I see a cross. A glowing cross. The Cross is The Source of Light. The Cross is Daddy. The Cross is Salvation. It means Complete Forgiveness.
“You don’t have to feel guilty any more, Sweetie. Everything is forgiven.” I hear the voice of God.
Everything is forgiven! I weep for joy, fall down on my knees, hands in prayer, looking up.
“You are innocent.” The voice of God again!
I am innocent! I am saved. This is it. Christianity! Daddy is Jesus. Oh My God. Oh, Daddy! I leap up, dancing around in circles, hugging myself. Christ, I’m happy! I sing The Warsaw Concerto loudly. LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA.
I flop down on the edge of the unmade bed. The room is a mess. I’m so alone. I’m staring into space when I see something again. A witch! She is naked and yellow. Her ribs show through her quivering sack of skin. Her filthy black hair is streaked with pieces of straw. Her yellow nails are long and curling. “I am youuuuu”, she whines. She is raw need. I panic. Oh, God. I look in the mirror and see her. I smear on some lipstick. Pimples. Nice clothes all messy. Wild hair. So hot. Burning up. My throat is closing. I am terrified.
Soon I lie down on the bed, and cover myself with a blanket. I close my eyes so I won’t see anything more. What about the beautiful cross? The joy was taken away by the witch. I am in despair. I lie awake. Exhausted, I finally sleep.
I pick up the phone and dial, singing The Warsaw Concerto fast deedle deedle dee dee while I wait.
“I want to come home.”
“This isn’t working.”
“What do you mean? What’s your plan, Sweetie?”
“I don’t know. Can you come and get me?”
“Stay there until Christmas break. We’ll talk about it then.”
“Daddy! I have to come home now.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid, Daddy. I can’t stay here.”
“Are you sure?”
“I will be there tomorrow. Pack up to come home.”
What time is it? I look in the mirror. I look ragged. I’ve missed breakfast. Not gonna make it to class. I’ll stay here safe. Uh-oh. Missing class. Mercy me, mercy me, mercy me. I’m so cold. Not going to make it to class. Not going to make it to choir practice. Oh, my God. What’s happening?
I don’t sleep. I put some things in a suitcase. I wait. I can’t stop shaking. I take a pill, smoke. I’m so cold. Daddy’s coming. Daddy’s on his way. Daddy will be here soon. I hum The Warsaw Concerto, distracted, looking out the window.
There’s a knock at the door. Startled, I jump. Morning.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Your Father.”
“Oh, Daddy, come in!”
“You ready to go?”
Daddy puts my suitcase in the green Chevy station wagon. We’re on our way.
“What happened?” Daddy says.
I can’t say anything. I have no idea.
“You tell me what’s wrong!”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you pregnant?”
“So what’s wrong? What happened?”
I start to cry.
“What the HELL is going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean YOU DON’T KNOW?”
“I need to talk to a psychiatrist.”
“I’ll be goddamned if I’m paying $2,000 for you to go to a psychiatrist. You tell ME what’s wrong. Now!” Daddy is yelling. “NOW!”
“I don’t know.”
Mother is in the living room when I walk into the house. I see her concern and burst into tears and start toward her. She runs into the kitchen. My sister runs down the stairs and hugs Daddy. He puts his arm around her shoulders and looks into her eyes. The place where I had been closes over.
Jeannie Lupton moved to the San Francisco East Bay from Northern Virginia in 2002 and has been active in the poetry community there, and in the tanka community more generally worldwide, ever since. Her work has appeared in various journals and booklets over the years, culminating in her collection, But Then You Danced: Tanka (Raw Art Press, 2007), followed by the publication of a second collection, Love Is a Tanka (Blue Light Press, 2021). Jeannie hosted the Second Saturday Poetry and Prose Reading Series at Frank Bette Center for the Arts in Alameda, California, for over 13 years. She has also given several short solo performances at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, as well as leading a memoir writing group for seniors on Zoom. She is a member of the Fresh Ink Poetry Collective and Bay Area Poets Coalition, and writes with Clive Matson's 2-Busy-2-Write group every Tuesday night. She lives at Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley with 150 other elders and her cat, BB.