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July 08, 2024

Side Show

By Connie Woodring

I don't know if I was transferred to the open ward last month because I had behaved or because the staff just got too tired of me playing tricks on them like hiding under my bed or flirting with Mikey, the night attendant. In any case, one of the open ward privileges was to be able to go to the State Fair. The last time I had been to the fair was when my father took me. I remember a goat trying to eat his gray raincoat. He steered me clear of the side show with the warning, "I know you're only six years old, but I hope you remember this. That's a place you never want to go to." I had a feeling of fear and revulsion as I looked at the crudely painted pictures on the canvas tent -- a woman with a mustache, two children joined at the stomach and a man with two heads. I agreed with him and vowed to never go to a side show.

About twenty of us were loaded into the hospital bus. I sat next to Armella Jean who threw up on herself about two minutes into the trip. She ruined my black suede pumps I got at the Ladies Auxiliary clothes shop the day before just for this occasion.

I smelled bad all day, but none of the patients seemed to mind. Armella Jean had to stay on the bus with Miss Teresa. The attendant seemed pleased to be staying on the bus, opening all the windows as we filed out. "See you when you get back," she said, waving her hand. Armella was slumped over the seat. I wondered if I should stay with her, but the smell was making me nauseous.

There were only two attendants for all of us, and I considered the fact that at least one patient would get lost in the crowd. I noticed people staring at us and looking mean. I mumbled to myself, "These assholes don't know I'm saner than any of them. They better not say anything or I'll throw this jar of Aunt Millie's Horseradish Mustard I just stole in their faces."

As we wandered through the buildings filled with smelly goats, "prize" sugar cookies, even smellier pigs, Weisinger's bacon dressing and Hammermock's smoked ham hocks, I began to have a vague feeling of dread, confusion and other worldliness. By that I mean this was a world that I didn't want to be in. I knew I would never come here willingly again. It was like a punishment I'd get on the closed ward. Why did all these people look so angry? Was it me or my shoes?

I asked one particularly surly guy, "Hey, Bugeye Bob, are you pissed at me, or do you just hate the smell of vomit? You look like you just vomited yourself!" He really smelled like beer and chewing tobacco.

Mr. Tim grabbed my arm and, in front of the man who was making me sick, scolded me, "Now, Mary, don't act like an ass here, okay?"

The man shot back at Mr. Tim, "You people come here to the fair every year and make it hard on all of us. You chase customers away. Why don't you keep 'em locked up? That's what we pay our taxes for, to keep 'em out of sight!" He snorted just like the smelly pigs and spit on the floor as he walked away. He just missed my now blackish brown yellow shoes.

When we walked back out into the fresh fall air, I immediately felt better until a grizzly pot- bellied man came toward Nurse Schlegel. He stopped her and asked, "Are you from the State Hospital?"

"Yes," she answered curtly.

Pointing toward Hilda, he said," I see you have a pinhead here. How much would you take for her? We can put her in the side show. She'll be a big hit." He seemed so earnest.

"How dare you!" Nurse Schlegel retorted. "Get away from us, or I'll call the police." She briskly smoothed out her coat and rearranged her nurse's cap on her head. She looked at him as if she wished he were a patient who could be put in isolation.

He turned on his heels and shook his head at another man who was standing close by. I had never thought about how those poor unfortunate souls got into the side show. Molly, the new patient who has ichthyosis, a horrendous skin disease that makes her look like a fish (we all call her fish and chips) grabbed my arm tightly and began to whimper. I looked at her and said, "Don't worry. They won't take you. I'd punch the bastards in the mouth first."

I was determined now more than ever to not go to a side show, state fair or anything else outside the hospital. I just wanted to be alone in the safe and sound open ward. I vowed I'd never call any poor souls cruel names ever again.

Article © Connie Woodring. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-01
Image(s) are public domain.
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