The first time I met Mary Louise Brandon, sitting framed by green in that window at Meadowview, I knew somehow that she would change my life. Actually, that's not entirely true. I think she knew that she would change my life. And she let me know about it in no uncertain terms.
Meadowview is a beautiful place, all pine trees and pointed little turrets, sitting in those soft blue-green hills almost like a castle. I like to think it looks like a home. I know it's not what most would call a happy and comfortable place, but those who trust their loved ones to its red brick walls are trusting me to help take good care of them. So I try to take care of them as though they were my family.
It's not always an easy job. When I first started working there, I guess I did expect it to be easy. Things have always been easy for me: family, friends, school, girls. Now, I'm not trying to be arrogant. In fact, I'd have more to be arrogant about if I'd actually had to work for anything in my life. I'd have more to be proud of. You know. I guess, in a way, I've always been looking for a challenge.
Working at Meadowview Psychiatric Hospital is a challenge. Mary Louise is a challenge.
I walked into Meadowview that first day with my head full of symptoms and treatments and psychobabble and my heart full of a grad student's idealistic confidence. I'd been trailing Cathy, the Head Nurse, for a couple of hours longer than was really necessary to understand the routines and the rules. My aural memory is damn near perfect, you see. Again, I'm not trying to brag. I inherited it from my father and have never put it to much more use than being good at school without actually studying, playing half a dozen instruments without being accomplished on any of them, and being embarrassingly good at trivia games.
Anyhow, there was a disturbance down the hall and Cathy left me with Mae to watch over a small group of patients in the rec room. Mary Louise was at a table in the corner by the window, graceful and delicate and lovely, even in her near colorless hospital-approved clothing, her lips faded and chapped, her hair frizzy from institutional shampoo. I knew she couldn't have been more than forty five, maybe fifty years old, but she was aged by this place. Aged by her illness, perhaps. She was folding strips of shiny magazine pages and humming to herself. I watched her for a few minutes until she set down a perfect little frog, sunny yellow and speckled with bits of colorful letters and logos. With a distant, wistful smile, she flicked a finger down behind its arched back and it leaped several inches across the table's surface. She looked up when she heard me laugh, and her face went slack for a moment before she suddenly beamed at me like a child.
That smile made my heart stutter strangely, and in an anxious rush to hide my strange reaction – mostly from myself - I stepped closer to her, and gestured toward the frog. "May I?"
"No!" she cried and grabbed hold of my wrist in a strong, warm-fingered grip. "Not yet!"
I could sense Mae was watching us closely. I gave Mary Louise what I hoped was a reassuring smile. "My name is Jasper, ma'am," I said, bowing slightly and placing my other hand over hers as if her grip on me was a friendly handshake. "And you are?"
She smirked at me. "Not as charming as you, I'm sure." But she released my wrist and dropped her hands back to her lap, paralyzing me with pale gray eyes narrowed, as if she were memorizing me, but I felt uneasily that it wasn't my face she was seeing. I needed to straighten up, to take a step back. But this bedraggled angel was holding my guts in some kind of vice and I couldn't move or think anything further than that I had never met anyone like her. A sudden thought and surge of panic made my pulse race, and I made myself imagine leaning close to kiss her. Her thin lips curled upward as if she somehow knew what I was thinking, and I felt nothing more than a flood of relief that the embarrassed flush on my cheeks was the only blood moving against my wishes.
Just then, Mae cleared her throat and announced that it was lunch time. The other patients stood and began to shuffle their way toward the hallway. I side-stepped and turned, offered Mary Louise my arm. She stood, but then stayed rooted in place, eyes still skimming the air around me, that strange smile tugging at her eyes and mouth. "Come along, Mary Louise. You must be hungry," Mae said, and she took her elbow and led her away.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Custer," Mary Louise called as she waved without looking back.
"It's Jasper, ma'am," I said to her retreating form, feeling awkward for probably the first time in my entire life. I heard her laugh.
I suddenly realized I was standing all by myself in the rec room and shook my head to clear it. I needed to go find… Cathy. Sweet Jesus, I'd never forgotten anyone's name before. Ever.