The hospital had an old mental health annex.
You could get there walking uphill from the commuter rail, through oak trees and a footbridge over the river and across the main road. The annex had high narrow windows and echoing corridors and heavy slamming doors and checkerboard inlaid floor. Inside you’d expect nightshirted Irish orphans on crutches, and Sisters in batwing wimples skimming along with bandages or baguettes. But instead there were just the patients. They were weatherbeaten men sitting on the steam radiators, smoking; or the same men drinking from paper bags on the steps and shouting in English or Spanish about events in their outer or inner world.
We weren’t patients, though. We were visitors who slipped in on Saturday mornings, staking out the front parlor that looked out on the hospital incinerators. I was a newbie, attending for only ten years; the other older timers attended for years before me. None of us was a founding member, so nobody knew how many years the group had been meeting here, or how they ever discovered the annex or took over the room. In those 520 Saturdays, no mental health employee or police officer on guard ever stopped us to ask who we were. Once or twice the patients, who noticed everything, said “What the hell are you lot doing in a dive like this?” and I’d say “We’re learning how to play bridge.” That made perfect sense to them. Before long “Bridge Club” is what they called us.
Bridge Club was really a 12 step group. This was not one of your big famous groups with a history and Book. It was a newer spinoff for people who’d had the carpet pulled out from under and were starting over from somewhere sub zero. We had a basket of Conference-approved literature with a preamble. We took turns being the group leader. But somehow the basket kept ending up in this person’s car trunk or that person’s laundry room. So we’d make up our own opening, with all of us chiming out the lines we remembered or thinking up phrases that felt meaningful (Words from Unity, Kahlil Gibran, the Barney Show) until we reckoned that the meeting was open for sharing already.
Meeting time was 9:00 to 10:30 on the button. This clear boundary was useful. That way the people terrified of being in groups could show up at 10:25. The people who were terrified of the Serenity Prayer, or any prayer anywhere ever again, could leave at 10:26. The one with claustrophobia could show up at 10:40 in the parking lot as we said goodbye, because she wanted to meet outdoors and not spend one more Augenblick of life in (quote) The Nut Bin. One new member needed desperately to talk and for once be finally heard all the way through; it impressed her to know that the meeting ended at 10:30, because then our staying and listening meant something extra and special. That meeting ended at 5:00 when the hall lights turned off; we groped our way out in a human chain through clammy smoke-filled halls over the checkerboard tiles.
Some of us wanted to pull down all the shades so no one could spy on us. Others of us needed to pull the shades up so we could see any intruders before they climbed in. Some had to turn the lights off, or turn them on, or open the door, or keep it closed. (Can we unlock that window? Is there a draft in here?) People brought their dogs, but only once or twice because the topics made the pets curl up and whine. We brought stuffed animals and dolls and set them up in their own little meeting with their own chairs. We brought quilts to crochet and coffee in styrofoam and dandelions and musical instruments and press clips and photo albums and art projects. At my very first meeting, on Christmas Eve, our baker member brought cookies the size of frisbees loaded with chocolate chips and nuts, and we ate them until they were gone.
But most of all the members just kept talking.
They started out telling life stories that no news anchor would ever dare to touch. But over the years, each person started bringing some plan or idea, and then went out and tried out their idea or plan, and then came back next week to tell us how it went. So step by step the one with anorexia opened a health restaurant. The one who couldn’t get off the couch ran a marathon and became a personal trainer. The one with agoraphobia learned how to drive, saved up for a little car, and took off to see the country. The one stressed to tears by her phone operator job ended up running agricultural trade shows in China. The one afraid to talk ran for office and won an election. Everybody invented a life, and they graduated one by one. Then there was only me, and that was the end of our club.
Years after on a windswept Christmas Eve I had business in town and was walking to the commuter rail. The annex didn’t even cross my mind until its obsolete nondescriptness loomed up from the drear. The same pigeons and the same straw wrappers were still milling around. But the patients were gone. The lights were out. The windows were closed, except a broken one to keep that draft going. The doors were padlocked and chained. In the rising wind and falling light, the rain leached out incinerator soot and pigeon twigs and the life stories of people who could hardly crawl out of bed. Like Ishmael, I was the only one left to remember. Bridge Club deserved a plaque in remembrance, cave drawing, notches in the door, something. But no trace was left but a little placard I’d never noticed before. You had to step close to read the battered festively sad little message Flower Deliveries to the Rear.
I turned to the street.
And right there, silent, waiting behind me was one dozen Canada geese.
I backed off to keep from startling them, and walked away.
The geese fell in behind, all dozen, plodding in a line.
I turned and showed them my hands. “Nothing here to feed you.”
They looked up at me.
I kept walking.
They fell in again.
At the eight-lane main road, known affectionately as Death Row for its careening ambulances and defectively short WALK sign, I stomped and waved them away. “Go back now, be safe. You can’t cross here! You’ll get hurt.”
They hedge-hopped right over it all and waited in the oak trees on the river side, then followed me over the bridge and waited in a silent semi-circle near my feet.
The train pulled in.
The geese took off, circled once for altitude, and headed for the water. The car was empty; I got on and took a seat. A fairy tale edged into mind, something with twelve brothers turned to swans, and if only their sister can weave them twelve shirts it will break the spell so they can come home from the sky again.
My dozen brothers disappeared above the trees. Just then, a shaft of early-setting sun struck the clouds, shaking loose a flurry of snow. As we pulled away, the flakes fell in hexagonal blossoms: Bridge Club’s first and last delivery of flowers.