By Karen Brode
Ida Black wasn’t like other people. When she was a child growing up in the 50s, her parents scratched their heads and wondered how she could be their daughter. Like all parents, they wanted to be proud of their little girl, and in some ways they were, such as that she was only three when she started organizing her books on the bookshelf in perfect alphabetical order and that she arranged her dolls on the floor in order of size.
It was the other things she did that concerned her parents. Mrs. Black was particularly distraught by her child’s behavior and she did everything she could to make Ida more “normal.” She was convinced that, if given the chance, Ida would take to dolls in the way normal little girls did, so she bought her daughter a doll for every occasion. Mrs. Black wasn’t prepared when Ida threw the doll aside to play with the box it came in. And she nearly fainted the day Ida took the box to the backyard, got in it, and pretended to be sailing across the ocean.
Mrs. Black sighed and wrung her hands wondering where she had gone wrong. She finally decided what Ida needed was a tea party. She invited all the little girls in the neighborhood. Maybe Ida would make some friends and become more like them. The hand-printed invitations informed the little guests that they were to dress up and arrive at 2:00pm. It was going to be a grand time.
On the day of the party, three little girls with hats and their mother’s heels arrived at the door giggling and talking about Barbie dolls. Mrs. Black smiled down to the children with a vacant smile only a disappointed mother can have.
Oh why did Ida have to be so different, she thought.
“Ida,” she called with an uncertain tone. “Your…friends are here.” At these words she winced. She knew that her daughter didn’t know the other girls, but she didn’t know what else to say.
She waited with a strained smile on her face, but Ida did not come, so she called again.
“Oh, Ida, honey.” She used her sweetest tones as she went around the house looking for her daughter. She became frantic when she could not find her. She stalled as much as she could, asking the girls about what they wanted for Christmas and talking about Barbie dolls. Now and then, she excused herself to look into the backyard and front. There was no sign of Ida. She had known her to do these kinds of things in the past, so she didn’t worry about her being in danger. As the time passed and there was no sign of her daughter, she admitted to herself that Ida had never wanted the tea party to begin with. She sighed to and thought about how everything she did for that child always went terribly, terribly wrong.
When finally the other little girls had gathered around the table, Mrs. Black poured the very pale tea into their cups and explained that Ida was not feeling well.
“That shouldn’t stop us from having a grand tea party, though,” she said with an embarrassed giggle.
When the tea party was over and the girls had gone home, Mrs. Black finally spotted Ida in the tree in the front yard. Her daughter had climbed way too high to be safe and Mrs. Black nearly fainted.
“Honey,” she said in a shaky voice, “please come down from there.”
Ida just squinted at her mother through eyes of distrust. She shook her head and clung more tightly to the branch she was sitting on.
“If you will please come down I will never have another tea party for you,” Mrs. Black pleaded. But nothing she said convinced Ida to climb out of the tree. In fact, she was still there when Mr. Black returned from work. He found his wife collapsed in tears on the couch in the living room.
“Will you try to get Ida out of the tree,” she managed to say.
Mr. Black went out to the front porch and peered up to find his daughter hanging like a monkey from one of the branches.
“Ida May Black,” he yelled. “You get out of that tree and into this house right this minute!”
Ida was in mid-monkey swing when her father yelled at her. She grabbed onto the branch with both hands to keep from falling. Branch by branch—and with no monkey antics—she obeyed her father. Mrs. Black was still crying on the couch when Ida finally entered the house and went to her bedroom.
The Blacks were a devout Baptist family, but Ida had noticed that sometimes her father nodded off during worship service. Whenever this happened, her mother went on and on for the rest of Sunday about it.
“I can’t believe you,” she’d say. “Falling asleep in church. What an embarrassment! We’re going to have to stop going to church if you’re going to keep that up. You can’t stay awake for just one hour to serve the Lord?”
If that didn’t work, she laid on the guilt. “I don’t ask much of you, but if you can’t control your sleep habits, we’re going to have to stop going to worship and Ida will grow up a heathen. Do you want that?”
Whenever Ida overheard this lecture, she secretly hoped her father would continue to sleep through the services. She thought it would be a good thing not to go to church. It didn’t seem like anyone was really paying attention. Even as a young child, she watched the teenage girls giggle and pass notes to boys on the row behind them. She wondered if they were listening to the minister. Then she looked at the minister and decided that they probably were not. Brother Tommy was a yeller. Ida could have done without the yelling, but sometimes it was entertaining for her to look around the congregation and see the expressions on the member’s faces.
Brother Tommy’s pants were always a little too short for his legs. Ida tried to look and see if he had pulled his pants up too high. It was hard to tell because he wore a jacket to preach. Surely he knew that his pants were too short. She’d heard the teenagers talking behind their hands about “high waters.” Now she knew what that meant.
She may have understood why they said that, but she knew it still wasn’t nice. She wouldn’t sit there and make fun of Brother Tommy for trying to save them all from the fires of hell. Even if he didn’t make much sense and raised his Bible above his head as if in a threat, she felt sorry for him. She could tell that he was sincere.
The day she spotted Mrs. Baker with her earmuffs on her ears, she was completely intrigued. She watched idly at first, but as time went on, it occurred to her that she had never seen Mrs. Baker without the earmuffs, whether it was summer or winter. She wondered if Mrs. Baker was making a statement about the church, the minister, the sermons, or if she really had a constant earache. Ida wished she had some earmuffs.
When Ida was 35 years old, she lived in San Diego, and worked as a typesetter for a magazine that no one ever read. The job she’d had before that was a little more controversial. She worked for Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the leader of atheists in the United States, also known then as “the most hated woman in America.” It didn’t bother Ida that Ms. O’Hair was an atheist because she didn’t think her own beliefs bothered her boss. After all, Ms. O’Hair worked to separate church from state matters. Sometimes, Ida wasn’t sure how she thought about it all. She had come to believe that sometimes it was better not to think at all.
As Ida got older, she could see that she wasn’t able keep up with everything like she used to. She tried to keep lists and keep everything in her house organized, but it was impossible. Eventually, she started throwing things into a corner. Before long, whatever it was had grown to take up one whole bedroom. As long as she kept the bedroom door closed, she didn’t have to think about it. She felt that she couldn’t throw anything away because she might need it later. It was much safer to just keep everything.
On a Saturday in June, though, Ida tried to open the door to the bedroom where she kept everything, but the door would not open. Somehow, whatever was in that room, had reproduced over the weeks, and it was preventing the door from being opened. At first she panicked. She tried to think of what all was in there, but it was just too much to take in. She looked at her watch. She needed to go to work and really didn’t have time to think about it.
On her way outside to her car, she stopped by the window to look in. She couldn’t see anything except a tower of clothes, blankets, and trash bags pressed against the inside of the window. She wrinkled her nose wondering how things could have gotten to this state and then she shook it off with a snort.
I don’t have time to think about it right now, she thought, and she got in her car and tried to forget all about it.
The days rolled on and the state of the room continued to haunt her, until finally, on Thursday evening, she sat on her couch flanked by her cats, and flipped through the telephone directory. She had decided to see a psychologist. Since it was San Diego and not Bakersfield where she grew up, no one would know her, so she didn’t have to feel weird about it.
Finally, her eye fell on an ad for a psychologist whose office was not far from her house. Somehow, that made it a little easier for her. His name was Dr. Gray and, to Ida, that sounded like someone who would be understanding and not too judgmental. He wouldn’t think of things as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. He was Dr. Gray, which surely meant he would understand someone like her who had lived most of her life in the gray places in life.
With determination, she picked up the phone and called the number of his answering service. She left her name and phone number and told the machine that a morning appointment would be best for her. She had barely hung up the phone when it rang.
“Hello, Ms. Black?” asked the familiar voice on the other line. It was the same woman’s voice who had been on the answering machine.
“That was quick,” Ida said, not realizing she said it out loud.
“Would nine in the morning work for you?” asked the woman.
Ida nearly fell off the edge of the couch as she heard herself agree to an appointment that would happen so early the next day. It had bothered her a little that she had been called back so soon with a spot open so quickly. It was almost as if they knew she needed to help right away.
The next morning, she parked her car outside the professional building. She took in the many stories of the building and all its windows. She sipped the coffee she had bought at a gas station and wondered which window belonged to the doctor. She folded her empty coffee cup into a square and tucked it into her fanny pack.
You never know when you might need a coffee cup, she told herself.
Looking back at the building, she felt a small shiver go up her spine at the reminder that she would have to ask someone for the location of Dr. Gray’s office in the building. It seemed sort of like shouting to the world that she was a crazy person.
At five to nine, she got out of her car and made sure everything was in place: fanny pack, bag on her left shoulder, bag on her right shoulder, keys attached to her belt. She didn’t want to have to worry about losing things because she was already a little nervous. She knew she shouldn’t be. She was acting like her friend, Jane, who had to take a pill every time she left her house.
Thinking about her friend Jane, Ida squared her shoulders, tossed her hair back, and started toward the building. She stopped at the first office on her left. Without reading the sign on the door, she walked into the waiting room and presented herself to the woman at the counter.
“Excuse me,” she said. She was always polite, even when she was nervous about being crazy. “Is this Dr. Gray’s office?”
The woman glanced back to another woman who was typing and widened her eyes. Then she turned back to Ida and said, “No. This is Dr. Martin’s office, the neurosurgeon. You want to go to the third floor, suite five.”
Ida thanked the woman and went out into the hall to wait for an elevator. As soon as she was on her way up to the third floor, her thoughts crept back to her friend Jane.
“Jane can’t ride elevators,” she said out loud, as if talking to someone. Ida knew that her friend had been seeing a psychologist for quite awhile, but she didn’t know if she had made any progress.
“Probably not,” she said, snorting. She blushed, then, realizing she was talking out loud to no one and then she held her chin higher and said in a whisper, “Jane isn’t the type of person who makes progress.”
On the third floor, Ida found Dr. Gray’s office. Once inside, she saw two women standing behind a window.
A black-haired woman slid the window open and asked, “Do you have an appointment?” The woman seemed angry or upset. Ida wasn’t sure. She wondered if she had done something wrong. She didn’t think so, but she knew you could never be sure.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “For nine o’clock.”
The woman nodded and told Ida to take a seat.
Ida sat down and pulled out the book she was reading, “The Fixer” by Bernard Malamud. She was almost halfway through it. She tried to concentrate on her book, but her ears kept picking up on the conversation going on behind the window. She didn’t miss the desperation in their voices or the expressions of both the women. It made Ida nervous. She wondered if she should leave.
At one point, Ida looked up and jumped to see that both women were looking at her in horror. Her hands immediately went to her hair and then to her face. She was dressed. She thought she had combed her hair. And she always brushed her teeth. She ran her fingers down the buttons of her shirt. All of her shirt buttons were buttoned. What was wrong?
Ida pressed her fingers to her temples and cheeks. She had always refused to wear make-up, but surely these women were not that upset by her lack of makeup. Ida’s mother still sent her some lipstick with her other presents at Christmas. She always tossed the lipstick as soon as possible. She thought women who wore any makeup at all were just ridiculous creatures that could not accept themselves as they were. In Ida’s opinion, she looked better without makeup, but seeing the expression on those women’s faces made her question this for the first time in her life.
Then, the black-haired woman came into the waiting room and sat in the chair next to her. She put her hand on Ida’s arm and said in a soft, motherly voice, “When did you make your appointment?”
“Last night,” Ida said. “Quite frankly, I was surprised I could get an appointment so quickly.”
The black-haired woman cringed and looked up to the ceiling before looking over to the reception counter. She seemed to be trying to summon help of some kind. This made Ida nervous. She made the decision then that she didn’t really like these people. She might be crazy, but this woman was nuts. She held her breath and consoled herself thinking that Dr. Gray would be much nicer.
“Is the doctor almost ready for me?” she asked, peering into the dark hallway beyond the reception desk. She thought if she could just get in and see Dr. Gray, everything would be all right.
The woman in front of her put her head in her hands and then lifted her eyes to Ida.
“I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” she said, “but Dr. Gray committed suicide this morning.”
It took Ida a few seconds to completely grasp that there was no Dr. Gray, no one to hear her story. She wasn’t sure how long she stared at the woman before she stood up in silence, gathered up her belongings, and started walking to the door to leave.
Just before she turned the knob, she remembered her manners. She turned back to the black-haired woman and, with her shoulders squared, she said, “Thank you.”
As she walked out, she paused for a moment and shook her head. “What was I thanking her for?” she said out loud.
Standing in the hallway outside of Dr. Gray’s office, Ida looked back at the door shut behind her. She wondered if the doctor had known she had made an appointment. She shifted one of her bags more firmly to her shoulder and then felt for the keychain on her belt. She wondered if Dr. Gray had known she was coming.
“Did he know?” she asked as she stared at his name etched into a plaque on the door. “Did he kill himself because of me?” She didn’t want to think that she had somehow caused this poor man to kill himself. She fingered the doorknob and contemplated going back in. She wanted to ask if his death was somehow her fault.
And what if it was? She thought to herself. “What if I killed him?”
She sucked in her breath and drew her hand back from the doorknob. The purses slipped from her shoulders and the belted keys made a jangle as she repositioned everything. This woke her out of her thoughts. She straightened her fanny pack and grabbed more tightly onto the straps of her purses on each shoulder before turning and walking stiffly back to the elevator.
“It’s probably best if I don’t know,” she said.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.