Prologue of THE CRACKER FACTORY
for the 2010 Edition
The time? Early 1968. On the West Coast, hippies protested Vietnam while celebrating free love and cheap LSD. On the East Coast, pundits and newsmen debated Vietnam on a handful of Sunday talk shows, their voices impassioned as they showed war footage so graphic and horrible that the audience at home turned away.
While the headlines and televised news proclaimed Armageddon, the Americans who lived between the riotous coasts watched the Green Bay Packers beat Kansas City in Super Bowl ll, St. Louis beat Boston in the World Series and Israel beat everyone in the Six Days War.
In those turbulent times everyone picked sides and had an opinion. Voices were raised at family dinners, in parking lots after church services, in lines at local banks and check-out counters at Fazios, baker of Northwest Ohio’s favorite pecan buns. Vietnam, Civil Rights, the hippies and drugs were the topics of America’s family squabble. The word “Revolution” was bandied about.
Truth was, most of the Americans between the coasts, except the families whose kids had been drafted, didn’t participate in the Revolution.They only watched it on television.
The men went to work while the majority of women still stayed home to grocery shop, make meals from scratch, do the housework and take care of the kids. In the evenings they watched television. The hit shows were The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Family Affair, Bonanza, Gunsmoke—the comforting world of the Fifties and Old West followed jarringly by the blood-and-guts Eleven O’clock News. Everyone in Middle America lived in two disparate crazy-making worlds.
Enter Cassie Barrett. Typical Sixties housewife, she was also between crazy worlds—checking herself into one of them to find relief….
I woke up, rolled over carefully to prevent the pin cushion in my head from doing major damage, opened the eye with the astigmatism, and focused on the window with its mesh screen and bars.
“Oh, no,” I groaned, “I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole again.” I curled up in a ball, or more ‘appropriately, since I was in a psychiatric ward, the fetal position. I huddled under the covers while fragments of memory staged midair collisions. The pieces settled and locked and it all came back to me.
This was my second trip to Wonderland. At my first admission I’d clung to my husband’s arm, frozen with fear. My arrival was the result of clever coercion by my shrink, who’d been saying for weeks, “Cassie, you’re falling apart. You’d better go to the hospital.”
Ever the cooperative patient, I fell apart as quickly as I could and went to the hospital, sure that I’d be surrounded by loonies doing weird things. All I could remember was poor old Olivia de Havilland wandering around the Snake Pit being vague, an out-of-focus Dante in hell. I pictured myself dramatically tied to a bed while sadistic attendants forced gruel down, my throat with a tube.
Then I signed myself in and found a private psychiatric ward artfully disguised as a Holiday Inn, done in soothing shades of green, with family-motel furniture, carpeting, and famous artists’ prints on the wall.
The patients who could verbalize at all pretended that they were really fine, thank you, just terribly in need of a “rest.” They successfully ignored less fortunate patients like old Mrs. Walker, who remained tied in a wheelchair and thought everyone was her granddaughter.
I could understand how they felt. As a child I’d tried to ignore some of Aunt Lily’s more embarrassing outbursts, such as the time she threw the Thanksgiving turkey at Dad because no one passed her the gravy, or the day she set the broom closet on fire because no one wanted to discuss Catherine the Great. (“She’s high-strung,” Dad said. “She’s crazy, Fred, a real lunatic,” Mother replied, scrubbing the smoke off the walls after the fire department left. “Goddammit, no one in my family is crazy,” Dad bellowed, throwing his coffee cup at Mother.)
The rooms are semiprivate, the beds are comfortable, the gruel, in disposable trays, is attractively surrounded by parsley, and the staff, composed of essentially pragmatic people, never expends the energy required for sadism.
So my terror had abated and I did what was expected. I learned the game and how to play it. When the staff said, “You should feel better by now,” I learned to say, “I do, I surely do,” as I shuffled off to occupational therapy to gather approval by making crooked mosaic ashtrays, bumpy with ridges of grout. I hoped that by acting better I would eventually feel better, or at-least deceive the staff into thinking I did, because, after all, they were doing their best and if I still felt rotten it was my own damn fault.
I was given hospital privileges and went, unescorted, to the gift shop for candy, cigarettes, and an astrology book that foretold a career change and a move close to water, which made perfect sense to a novice whacko in a nuthouse near the lake. Forging ever onward, I was given grounds privileges entitling me to slog through the slush on Shaker Heights Boulevard where I flapped my arms to ward off frostbite while berating myself for not having delayed falling apart until spring. I smiled and chuckled, made references to maturity and even got to believing some of it.
The staff observed, and duly noted, that I ambulated, communicated, and ate my dinner. One day Dr. Alexander, motivated. either by the cheerful chirpings of the staff or a need for my bed, said, “You are decidedly better. I am sending you home.”
So I departed with the staff waving bye-bye, clutching a prescription for a lifetime supply of Antabuse, and wondering who it was who decided I was better. And why I felt so lousy.
Charlie welcomed me home with dinner at a Chinese restaurant, a movie, and the wariness accorded the recently weird.
“You look fine,” he said, eyeing me over his menu. “In fact, you look great. You must feel better.”
I dipped a noodle in hot mustard and crunched. “I guess so, Charlie.”
“You guess? You must know. After all, if you weren’t cured, they wouldn’t have let you out.”
I nodded agreeably. “Well, now that I’m cured, there’s just one thing I’d like to know.”
Charlie smiled. “What’s that?”
“What was I cured of, Charlie?”
Charlie frowned, his eagerness to have me “better” deflated. We ordered egg rolls and spareribs.
I devoted the next six weeks to acting cured. Before dawn I was in the kitchen whisking lumps out of oatmeal which the kids dutifully ate, though they made wistful references to the days when breakfast had Consisted of a bowl of Rice Krispies topped with chocolate ice cream. Or eight-year-old Steve’s favorite, hot dogs and soup.
Everyone had clean underwear and socks, enough towels for a dozen consecutive baths, and homemade brownies after school. In the bottom of the ironing basket I discovered Jenny’s misplaced pink booties and cap, somewhat late since she was in kindergarten, but found nonetheless.
On Tuesday mornings between eleven and twelve, Alexander nodded approvingly as I regaled him with reports of my “progress.” Even ‘Mother was pleased with my newfound domesticity.
“This house is finally beginning to look like something,” sh beamed, high praise indeed from one who does for a household what Mussolini did for trains. “Now, why don’t you wash down the walls?”
With a collective sigh of I relief, everyone returned to functioning in an orderly way, comfortably content with me. Thank God, that’s over, they seemed to say. I put one foot in front of the other and marched through my days, wondering why I felt as though redhot barbed wire was shredding up my stomach. And I stopped taking the Antabuse, telling myself that it made my food taste tinny and I didn’t need the threat of its deadly effect in combination with alcohol to keep me sober.
One morning I put two poached eggs in front of Charlie, who looked up briefly from his newspaper.
“You’ve really shaped up, Cassie,” he smiled. “A dreadful lady went to the hospital and a very nice Cassie came back. I think you’ve learned a lesson and honey, I’m proud of you.”
He went to work and I started the dishes, trying to feel thrilled at having shaped up; for Charlie. He sounds as though the hospital performed some sort of exorcism, I mused, scraping egg off the dish with my fingernail. Evil is banished, goodness restored. Then why don’t I feel transformed?
The dish slipped out of my hand and smashed into the sink, spraying chips over the counter. I looked down at the mess, then at the cluttered kitchen table, and beyond that to the dust on the television set in the den. I pictured the four unmade beds and the three clothes-strewn bedrooms and the toys in the living room and last night’s newspaper on the floor next to Charlie’s reclining chair and I yelled at the cat who was licking milk out of a cereal bowl, “What lesson? What goddamn lesson was I supposed to learn?”
I grabbed my coat and the grocery money and was waiting at the liquor store when it opened.
Chapter 1 continues....