September 2013

How To Cure a Fright

Maile taught me to gamble on the penny slots. She said, All slot machines play in the key of C.  It’s pleasing to us, the sound when you win. Various small parrots, electronic buttercups, gold coins. Smoke. A woman the color of driftwood. Superstitions aren’t mocked here, Maile said. It’s a pagan town. From my window, I can see the green MGM and treeless mountains.


The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is only useful sometimes – only 43% recognized frightened faces. How do I know how you feel? I guess you have to tell me. I have to ask. 43%. Not even half.  In Joanna Bourke’s history of fear there’s a photograph of a naked woman dragged to her lobotomy in 1950. She’s almost backed herself into a corner, but a smiling woman in a dark dress and no shoes blocks the corner with her bare feet in a kind of plié.

The woman being dragged has her head thrown back against the wall, hair thick, curly. Her one visible arm across her breasts is lifted toward the wall; her fingers touch it in a dead way. Because her head is thrown back, I can’t see her face, just her mouth, lips open wide toward the ceiling. Appealing for help beyond the dark dressed woman, the nurse reaches both arms toward her in an empty embracing gesture. The nurse’s white tights sheen and glitter like a dancer’s. The nurse is the only one wearing shoes (white). She wears a dark leather watchband on one weakly reaching wrist. It matches the only item on the dragged woman – a leather belt cinched around her waist with a tiny light circle. Next to the circle embedded in the leather is an inch or so of leather facing downward toward her thigh, as a belted belt can have the extra unnotched piece folded over itself. Perhaps she is too thin for the belt – she’s very thin. The belt has a strange holster that hangs from her waist halfway to her knee. It looks like it could hold half a rifle, a shotgun. But who would carry such a large gun on her body? Maybe there is more to this, more behind her.  She has one foot (cut off in the photograph) on the wooden floor, one in the air, hidden from mid-thigh behind the nurse’s wide white dress.

Though struggling, she has the appearance of a doll. At least three other people here – two women draggers, the photographer. Where is her dress? Why are the walls filthy, black mold climbing? The dark dressed woman nearly has one foot in the black corner. Sixty-two years ago, the naked woman ended there. There is another wall behind the women attendants – it might be a door – gray/black with many scraped areas of white, as if knives have been taken to it, or nails. The caption: Other patients have to be held.  The edge of the photo reads, The Welcome Trust.


I’d love to live above ground if possible. The first night in my DC sublet, I found dark red sauce splattered thickly on the kitchen walls, stove. A brown-stained tub that filled without a plug, water rising to my knees as I showered. Cholera toilet so encrusted I had to scrub it daily for a week – an archaeology of shit ran over my yellow gloves. The mattress on the floor looked dragged from a tenement a century ago. Yellowed, stained primary stripes underneath long decay. A ragged hole cut in the bottom center, apparently for storing items or a home dug by small animals. Another mattress on top, bedding gone except a top sheet crumpled on the couch. Was the previous tenant too afraid of the mattress to sleep on it? No towels. Beer cans, wine bottles beside the desk. Linoleum I thought patterned a wispy black and brown until I looked closer to find roaches ground down. My first morning, I opened the fridge to six inches of standing water and mold, produce drawers full to overflowing, a constant leak from above.

Under one kitchen cabinet, hundreds of dead roaches and broken glass. I tried to work fast to clean it all out, imagined I could make this livable. Not thinking, I dumped broken glass and swept-out roaches into plastic garbage bags. A shard easily cut through, sliced my leg. Blood, insects, filth, where are the Band-Aids, antiseptic?  There’s a big white plastic jar in the dead roach cabinet, pushed to the back. I pulled it out, opened it on the linoleum. As I turned the lid, I thought, What kind of poison killed so many bugs? All in one cabinet? What made a roach graveyard? Too late, then, the lid came off in my hand, inside an orange powder. What kills bugs through a closed jar? Fear I breathed it; I called my landlord across the country, asked, What is the orange powder? He said, I don’t know. I’ve never even opened that cabinet – it’s behind the garbage can.

I tried to write, but the furniture gave me hives. Wore long sleeves in case my arms touched the armrests of a chair, the sticky desk. It was impossible to eat. I tried to keep yogurt in the fridge after I’d drained it with a bucket like a sinking boat. I scrunched small containers along the side, away from the waterfall splashing in a pot. But I worried about spores. Above me on kitchen shelves were boxes of soup that had reached their expiration years ago. The fridge held a collection of wet jars – fancy jams and vinegars from some luxurious past. Why hoard so many condiments? The place felt post-apocalypse. Paper bags stuffed with papers stacked around the desk. Two closets: one so jammed it would not open, another heaped with clothes that rose almost to the ceiling. In glass cabinets were dusty books and martini glasses, brandy snifters. More empty wine bottles. Open bottles of whiskey, scotch.  Alcoholic, and sick of all the booze around, I stored it in the poison cabinet, along with the glassware. Tore a piece of multipurpose copy paper in half, wrote: I think the white container is full of poison. Placed it in a snifter.

It was hard to sleep. In the bedroom, my clothes hung on a portable wardrobe rod or folded on a dresser top. Dust layered the wooden floor, bureaus, mirror, broken air conditioner in the middle of the room, a weight bench. I kept the windows open because of the smell: burnt, sopping, foul.  It was late August. I’d once worked in an office that had been not only underwater, but a storage facility for city water. Tiny windows up high looked down on the lake. The floor had been scattered with limestone balls for purifying lake water. Then, the building was turned into an opera house. Sitting at my desk, I’d imagine the water all around, an aquarium. Limestone rolling like small bowling balls, chalky white and green, a breath mint for the water. Even with all that water, my office never smelled like this apartment — stagnant with bacteria, their little tails.

At night I could hear people talking outside. Cars. I wished I knew someone. My landlord said he had a friend. I called him. We met for coffee. He talked about Ralph Nader. He said sometimes there were muggings in our neighborhood, but that shouldn’t stop me from going anywhere. You can walk to the White House, he said. DC’s a small town. Or bike, he said. When I mentioned the state of the apartment, he seemed to find me finicky. I still had a little optimism then, some brightness. I was living in a city!

In my ID card photo, I’m bedraggled from the walk uphill in a storm, through the river trough of water that ran downhill. Wading to the station, a train, another train, and another walk in rain. My shoes, socks soaked. But in the library basement, in front of the photographer, I tried to smile. When I grimaced at my laminated face, she said, Everyone thinks I’m a photographer. I’m a government employee. In the apartment, the toilet stopped flushing – more bugs, something new crawling on the floor.

One of the German scholars at the library, Sascha, finds a place I can live for a couple of weeks. A basement. Cat litter box by the door, just a room with bath, but clean with a closet and a door leading outside – so when it’s closed it’s not like a cement tomb. No more daily trains – I can walk.

There were police with assault rifles on my walk. When I walked to the Capitol, police were on top of the building, rifles aimed. Another behind the library, gun barrel pointed downward. There had been a threat, specific, but unconfirmed, of a car bomb as I walked through the city.  On the sidewalk, I passed a policeman with his rifle just inches away. He asked, How are you doing? When I answered him, my voice was so slowed down – a record on the wrong speed – I didn’t recognize it. In the Capitol I’d been in the old House of Representatives meeting room. It seemed small for all its history. But someone reminded me that men were generally smaller then, and they sat at little desks, the states fewer then, too. But still. A high school cafeteria would be bigger.

I had imagined my apartment here would be something else too. Like my yellow two-bedroom rental house by the ocean, transplanted to a city. Higher up, but serene with room for Alan to visit, Linda, and Teresa. I thought we might see a ballet. But here there is never room for anyone to visit. There’s barely room for me.


My place in the book was frozen. What I read: it said I would have to imagine the world without you. I knew I could never do that. I worry that imagining something may help to make it true, like a wish, a prayer. So how can I imagine what I most fear? What if it helps to make it happen? When my brother’s son, John, was just past being a baby, a toddler, he came to me in the living room of my parents’ house in Florida. Walked to me on the carpet and asked if dreams can come true. I said something cloudy about sleeping dreams or wishing dreams or both. But felt I’d had the right tone of comfort and confidence. Then, John said, But Sleeping Beauty said that dreams come true. Are my fears the fears of a four year old?


You may find that your thinking is characterized by more than one distortion.

Intolerance of uncertainty is a common cognitive distortion as is an inflated sense of responsibility. I want to find the author of my worry book, track him down at his anxiety institute. Ask if he saw that issue of Time that I found in a used bookstore about fifteen years ago (the issue much older). Yellow cover and either a winged image or hands in prayer (the steeple, inside all the people) or both. The cover article on the power of prayer; instances of prayer working, maybe even scientific proof (a study).  The magazine had disappeared when I went to look for it, replaced by a yellow cover of Time with the image of Jesus, his face all calm love.

Also, what about positive thinking and imagining what you want – visualization – to make things happen. What about that, Doctor? Are you familiar with the power thoughts are thought to have?


Chronophobia is the fear of time. People who suffer from this are often prisoners. They cannot speak, the world narrows. There are overwhelmingly haunting thoughts.


How to Cure a Fright: 1) Find the person who does the cure; 2) Get a red hot key.

Be bled. Wear or drink hyacinth. You’ll need a healer to feel the suffering in your pulse and temples. Fear must be charmed out of the body.  It was thought fright could make a person so weak, a demon could enter, possess them.  I remember a girl in a recovery meeting who had been in the Navy’s Detox program after me. Either she, or another girl who witnessed the event told me the story. While in treatment, the girl had been vulnerable, and a presence had possessed her. She said it spoke through her in their circle, in group. I remember thinking of darkness over their circle, swooping in on her, on a weakened space in her aura. I thought I have to be strong. Envisioned my aura like the weave in a coat. If torn, I’ll have to mend it.


Mouth of Fire is the movie in which an old woman, Marte Herlof, tied to a ladder, falls face first into the fire. The real name is Day of Wrath. In the movie, old, black and white, another woman’s eyes are wide with an inward slant. Something hidden. Shifting light on water. Hard to fix on. It’s suggested she may have her mother’s power of wishing, witchness.  She’s young, and her old husband, a pastor, who may have never loved her, asks if she has the power to wish things to happen. To curse.

She floats in a rowboat with her old husband’s son whom she loves, but he abandons her. It’s Denmark, 1623. She wears a white collar and cuffs, white brimmed cap, white apron even in the boat. She and the son hold hands. The movie is based on a play – Anne Pedeersdotter – based on real life in sixteenth century Norway; a real woman who fell in love with her old husband’s son. The woman who plays Marte is eighty years old, sentenced to burn at the stake for witchcraft, for wishing harm to another. For harm happening.

The pastor in his dark robe keeps asking his wife if she has wished him dead. She looks cornered, eyes flickering with candlelight inside, and she says yes. She wished him dead. And then he immediately dies in front of her, a heart attack. She goes to court in what looks like a tomb. She appears to sit on the edge of a coffin to confess. We’ve already seen what happened to the old woman after being made to confess, the way they tied her to trees. Fire in front of her. Then her body raised on trees, the wooden frame. As if they were raising the wall of a house with a woman roped to the inner beams, tied down. And then, after it was perpendicular to the ground, the boy singers sang and watched her. The men below pushed the frame forward, and the old woman fell face first into the flames. She screamed going down, but once she hit the flames – silence – her mouth full of fire. Then no more mouth.


The next day, I met Oksana for coffee at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf across from school. On the news, I’d heard of many pedestrians struck down by cars. It seems as if a week cannot pass without a motorist striking and killing somebody walking. In the Las Vegas Valley, 29 pedestrians have been killed this year. The highway across from my conference-housing dorm is the second busiest north-south street in town. My decision to live here for five months without a car was ill advised.  I wait for a clear space, walk fast.

Oksana told me about cursing. She said that even now in Russia, or in the very recent past, one could go to court and say they’d been cursed. The court would have to check it out. The curse investigated. Oksana said the pagan, the Christian, and the superstitious were hidden behind a wall of Communism. But not gone. Just behind it.


If you are threatened by dogs in Bali, Evan said you should reach down as if to pick up a rock. You don’t have to actually pick one up, it’s just the reaching that’s necessary, and the dogs will retreat. Simen could hear the dogs at night alone in his room. He began to think maybe he’d been poisoned.


Howard Hughes lived at the now demolished Desert Inn in Vegas. He stayed on the top two floors for four years straight. Bought the hotel. How easy it is to just stay inside. And then he disappeared in the night without being seen.


            O my terrified my obdurate/my wanderer/keep the trail – Adrienne Rich


 In Vegas, I was drawn to the necklace, gold swirl interlocking with a brown leather cord – but it was Maile who said, Is that a snake? And it was, my fingers on the bumpy gold. I liked touching what I was afraid of, wearing it around my neck. Like a talisman, Maile said. I’m not sure that’s it. Maybe she meant amulet. Not to protect me against what I fear – the alley of snakes I dreamed at 15 – but to wear what I fear. To move around in the world with what I fear around my neck, unafraid.


Bring some luck to the table, the guy next to me said at my first roulette. Lit up, surprised that I might have some.


In “The Great Dog Massacre,” Mark S.R. Jenner, said that one early attempt to combat plague was the large-scale slaughter of dogs and cats. People need something to do against the unknown, fear. They need an object. Then they need a task.


At the store near where Japanese radiation landed on Flamingo, I bought a very soft dark blue blanket to cover my scratchy couch. But I put it on my bed at night, over the green blanket on which someone had inked a smiley face. I’d found it in a plywood closet, the face creepy. One wall is the color of grape soda. The sign outside my building says “Central Desert Complex.” Instead of grass, there is a lawn of sharp rocks. Baseball sized, if baseballs were all edges, heavy.  Outside are bushes that look like Cousin It made of grass instead of hair, rows of them all together: a family.

I have signs inside too. One in my bedroom; one in my “TV room.” Though the rooms are identical dorm rooms made into one unit – a small bathroom with toilet and shower in between. The bathroom doors both have signs that read: “OCCUPIED.” The bedroom and the TV room each have a sink with a sign glued to the mirror that says, in thick red letters, “DO NOT PUT FOOD IN SINK.”  They’re just regular bathroom sinks. I’m at the top of an old building, sixth floor. The long, glistening red hallway of doors, absent of other people, reminds me of The Shining. When I meet a man in the elevator, he can’t stop talking, says, You’re the first person I’ve seen up here in months. But he leaves the next day.

One night, I walked down the hallway to the elevators, trash bag to take out. A horrible smell in the hallway six or seven doors away, I’m already gagging. Reek of spoiled animal and what else? On a bike that summer, I’ll pass a decomposing deer on a twice-daily basis. This is worse. A man is vacuuming the room. Door wide open. I hold my breath, rush past. Toss my trash in the ground floor dumpster, breath fresh air. I have to get by the room again. There’s only one way in. In the hallway, the man and I pass each other. He carries a big bundle of bedding, including a brown thing, maybe a mattress pad.  All of it held slightly away from his body and putrid. Door shut, but the smell is still horrendous. I didn’t ask. I had no other place to go. Open my windows even though it’s winter, cold. Even though one window had no screen, and Nevada has bats. The material of the green blanket I’d found was thick and weirdly stiff – extra flame retardant or flammable. Like felt with cardboard in it. I drape the ocean dark blue over it. Let it touch my face, lean into it.