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MUSED Literary Magazine.

Grandma's Release

John Clark Smith


A dim and bruised hallway of the State Hospital for Mental Health showing several open doors with chairs outside each of them.


MOM: an elderly woman worn out not only from institutional life but from a life of mental pain
KATHY: Mom’s youngest daughter, soft, sensitive and refined
TOM: grandson of Mom, an innocent, nervous, but gentle man
MARGARET: Tom’s mother and Mom’s oldest daughter. A tortured beginning has made her hard.

[MOM, a patient, is upstage, rocking with her upper body strapped to a chair outside her room so she won’t fall, and mumbling names (Harold, Jack, Peter, Elijah, Philip, Bill, Dick, Ralph). She continues to mumble them almost inaudibly throughout the play except where noted. She holds tightly in her hand a lipstick.]

[KATHY, with a sweater wrapped tightly around her, is pacing in front of MOM. Despite the sweater, KATHY is shivering. KATHY squats at MOM’S side.]

KATHY: [gently and sympathetically] Oh Mom. Come on. What’s wrong? They won’t release you when you’re like this. Don’t you want to come home?

[MOM does not react, keeps mumbling the names. KATHY stands up and continues to pace.]

[TOM, Grandson of MOM and KATHY’S nephew, enters]

KATHY: Where’ve you been?

TOM: Long story short? Dad told her she wasn’t allowed here, that she wasn’t needed because you were here, that there would be trouble, blah, blah, blah, but she fought, there was a big argument, and Dad lost.

[TOM is staring at MOM and says confidentially to KATHY]

Is Grandma OK? What did the nurses say? She’s so pale and shaking.

KATHY: They won’t release her until she calms down. It may be a relapse.


KATHY: You should’ve called me.

TOM: And how am I supposed to stop her? Dad couldn’t. Aunt Helen couldn’t. She said she’d leave the hospital and go back to the car if there’s trouble.

[TOM shivers, touches the wall]

This place! The walls are freezing. And the draft.

KATHY: The smell too.

TOM: What is that smell?

KATHY: It gets worse toward evening. It’s so dark, so cold, the smell so strong, I gagged and ran outside to get fresh air.

TOM: Imagine spending day and night here for years.

KATHY: Worse than the smell is the sense that invisible faces are looking at you.

TOM: [looking around with dread] I’ll be glad when we get her out of here.

KATHY: The nurse said she’d be just ten minutes. It’s been twenty. If the doctor says it’s OK, then we can take her, finally.

TOM: But what will the nurse and doctor do when they see Mom here?

KATHY: I’m more worried about what your grandmother will do. Your mother shouldn’t have come.

TOM: But why is that? I never understood.

KATHY: Ask your mother, not me.

TOM: I did ask her.

KATHY: Well?

TOM: Goes back to giving birth to you.

KATHY: Ha! Of course it does.

TOM: Postpartum depression.

KATHY: Of course.

TOM: But Grandma blames Mom for everything.

KATHY: Now how did that happen, I’d like to ask?

TOM: She didn’t say. But Grandpa agrees with Mom.

KATHY: I’m sure he does.

TOM: She was too old to have a child, he said. And Grandpa, Mom says, never lies.

KATHY: Yes, she had a breakdown. He didn’t lie about that.

[long pause]

KATHY: You need to talk to your mother about your grandmother.

TOM: I’ve tried.

I’m going to look for her. She should be here by now.

KATHY: Tell the Security Guard and the Orderly about the situation. Maybe they can convince her to stay away.

[TOM exits]

[KATHY begins pacing]


MOM: [mumbles incoherently and quietly to herself but with expression and quickly] I love seeing Harold at the grocery store, at his butcher’s counter, with his wide smile and friendly way, he’s so kind, treats me with such respect, asks about the kids and about my sling, I lie and tell him I fell, he gives me a little extra cut and tells me about his divorce and the woman he likes at the mall and how he wishes his son would come home, he’s so nice, I love his voice, I would go every day to talk to him, but I have so much to do and have to run errands and I hate going home…

[MARGARET and TOM enter. When MOM sees MARGARET, MOM is quite agitated and makes moaning noises but returns to mumble the names.]

KATHY: [to TOM] Ask her now. You need to know.

MARGARET: [while picking at MOM’s clothes and hair] Need to know what?

KATHY: About our mother and why she’s here.


MARGARET: God, Kathy. Let it rest. Now’s not the time.

[MARGARET stands in front of MOM, MOM bristles, MARGARET laughs]

MARGARET: Again the chanting. [to MOM, mocking] Working up a little spell?
I thought she was better. I thought we heard the last of that.

[KATHY gestures to MARGARET to meet her privately]

KATHY: [in a quiet voice] What are you doing here?

[MARGARET breaks away but KATHY holds on to her arm]

KATHY: Oh, I get it.


KATHY: You knew how she’d react. You want her to stay.

MARGARET: Ridiculous.

KATHY: Then why come? Look at her. The poor woman. She probably feared this would happen.


KATHY: What are you afraid of?

MARGARET: [mocking] Me? What am I afraid of?

KATHY: Think Mom might say something you don’t want to hear?

MARGARET: Like what? What are you referring to?

[KATHY crosses to TOM]

TOM: [to KATHY] Where’s the other patients? And the staff?

KATHY: [to TOM] Don’t worry. Did you talk to Security?

TOM: He said he has no authority to do anything.

[KATHY begins pacing again]


MARGARET: [to TOM, looking at MOM from a distance] Listen to her. Always a whiner. Attention-getter. So weak.

KATHY: Margaret! She can hear you.

MARGARET: I doubt it. She’s got those men on her mind.

[KATHY exits into MOM’S room, brings back some water, and offers it to MOM, then caresses her shoulders. MOM clutches KATHY’S arm.]

TOM: Who are those names?

MARGARET: Men she knew. Men she knew. Ruined your Grandpa’s life.

KATHY: Well, Grandpa…

MARGARET: Let’s not talk about it. You’re the baby who caused it, then left, and didn’t have to live with it every day.

KATHY: [glances at TOM] Really? I caused it? She’s here because of me? Are you serious?

MARGARET: [to TOM] Sweetie, could you please get me a coffee?

[TOM exits]

MOM: Jack comes in to fix the drains, he’s so sweet, tells me about his two year old and the funny noises she makes, how he and his wife are up all night because the little girl is so scared by shadows, shadows, I tell him I’m afraid of shadows too, but Jeff my husband thinks he can cure me by putting me in a dark room all night, and doesn’t let me out, he says it will help, but no light is worse than shadows, and I beg him to let me sleep with him, I tell him I’m frightened, but he doesn’t open the door all night, and I’m afraid to scream because I think I will scare the kids, I sit all night shaking and seeing things, Jack says Jeff’s wrong, that’s not going to help me, I need security, they bring their little girl into the bed with them and hold the child close…

MARGARET: [to MOM while MOM is speaking] Shut up! Will you stop it for god’s sake?
What’s with the lipstick? Let me see that. Hey! That’s my lipstick. Where’d you get it?

[MOM stops, grips her lipstick holder, and returns to mumbling the names].

[KATHY comes over to MOM and puts her arm around her for a time, then sits in a chair outside another room away from MOM so that MOM won’t hear MARGARET. MARGARET follows KATHY]

MARGARET: I don’t want to talk about her or Dad, OK, not with Tom around. What’s done is done. I don’t want my son to despise both his grandparents. Let him at least have his grandfather.

KATHY: Fine. But stop saying my birth caused Mom’s breakdown. And stop with the stories about Mom. One day the truth…

MARGARET: The truth? [MARGARET laughs] You want to know the truth?

[loud whisper near to KATHY] The truth is that she drove your father crazy, the bitch!

KATHY: Helen told me what you saw. Dad screamed at Mom and hit her...several times. On more than one occasion.

[MARGARET turns away from KATHY]

KATHY: That’s what Helen told me. And Helen said it was because of Mom’s so-called affairs. Look. It’s time for the family to know. They all blame Mom.

MARGARET: [to MOM] Do you see the mess you’ve caused, you little…?

[MARGARET smashes her fist into her hand and walks back to KATHY]

MARGARET: [under her breath in a mean tone] God, I hate her.

[pause] [strikes her fist again]

MARGARET: I’d like to hit her myself. Look what she’s done to all of us. She’s a life stealer.

KATHY: Why not confront Dad? Tell him what you saw. Our poor mother deserves that much. Get it out in the open.

MARGARET: [mocking] “Get it out in the open.” So easy for you to say. You live on the other side of the country. You never have to deal with him. I actually see some of these men. I have to deal with Dad.

KATHY: Fine. I guess you think Dad’ll hate you if you say something.

MARGARET: Of course, he’ll hate me! And you want to know why I know that? Because Helen and I did confront him. We had to. We thought our “poor mother” would go to the police. She had bruises and her arm was so sprained she had to get a sling and there was a cut and she was moaning and crying.
So we told Dad and he broke down, sobbing, and he told us what a slut she was. The poor man was so distraught. You should have seen him. I felt so bad for him. She made him furious. To think his wife would act that way, right in front of him! Well, he couldn’t control himself, he told us.


So…just like you said we confronted him and guess what? He hasn’t treated us the same since. Because of her, the life stealer! Her! Our “poor” mother!


We made a choice. Have Dad go to jail or…this?

[long pause]

KATHY: [disgusted] Who can blame her for not wanting to go home? She has no home.

MARGARET: Oh I blame her. I blame her every day. She should have left him instead of...

KATHY: Oh really? And leave her children?

MARGARET: Her children? That’s us, remember? We’re the children. How’d that work out? Right here, in the looney bin, that’s how it ended up.

MOM: Peter feels sorry for me, I know he does, he tells me stories about our high school years and how he wanted to ask me out and was too shy and was jealous when he saw me with others but he wouldn’t let anyone say anything against me, and I tell him about the dark room and the things I see in there, things I’ve seen since I was a child, and Peter tells me Jeff always was like that, Peter says, Jeff would make fun of me behind my back in high school so no other boys would ask me out, that’s what Peter says, but Peter says he never believed him and wishes now he would have asked me out but it’s too late and he has to go home and so do I…

MARGARET: [mocking MOM] Listen to the whiner! “Peter felt sorry for me.” Ooh, ooh, ooh.

[MARGARET tries to take the lipstick from MOM]

Give me that. It’s mine. Give it to me. Now!

[MOM starts whimpering]

KATHY: [wedges between MARGARET and MOM] Let her have it!

[MARGARET moves away and slaps her thigh]


[TOM enters with coffee and hands it to MARGARET]

KATHY: Why do you believe Dad?

MARGARET: Because I do. Maybe because I know more than you. You think I’d believe THAT bowl of nerves.

KATHY: I think there’s another story.

MARGARET: Oh you do. Well, you go right on thinking that. But no, there isn’t. Sometimes life is just the way it appears. Face it. We’ve got a screwed-up mother who tortured our father and…other things.

KATHY: Suppose Dad was paranoid?

MARGARET: He isn’t.

KATHY: How do you know?

MARGARET: Goddamn it! I saw her with my own eyes. I saw the smiling, the talking, the walking with, the teasing and laughing with other men. I saw it. I saw it at the mall, at the grocery store, on the street, in our home, at school, I watched it a lot. Remember, I’m the oldest, I was around her a lot, more than you or Helen. Dad didn’t make it up. Helen saw it too. Our friends gossiped about it. The woman couldn’t stop “mingling,” as she called it. Hah! Mingling! “I’m just mingling, honey,” she’d say to me.

KATHY: That’s IT? That’s what you saw? Her mingling?
I don’t want to hear any more.

[KATHY and MARGARGET and TOM take the seats outside the doors of the other rooms, separate from each other saying nothing, waiting for the nurses and doctor]

MOM: Elijah says he loves me, he wants me to be free of HIM, free of my shackles, I meet him at Margaret’s school, he’s her teacher, and we talk about Margaret, and then we talk about me, what I’m doing, which is nothing, I do nothing, but I’m afraid, trying to get over my fears, but I don’t want to anyway, I don’t, I don’t know how to love anymore, it’s too late to think in that way, and I can’t leave my children, and I’m afraid what their father might do, and I’m afraid what I’ll do and I won’t go into the dark room anymore, I won’t…

MARGARET: “I don’t know how to love.” What crap! The woman is such a liar. Where did she get that lipstick?

KATHY: The only thing you saw for sure was what Dad did.

TOM: What did Grandpa do?

MARGARET: Nothing, honey. Your grandparents argued, they had fights like lots of couples.

[long pause]

[MARGARET points a finger at MOM] She’s the one at fault, believe me.

KATHY: You took Dad’s side. And she lost not only her husband but you. You supported him.

MARGARET: And why not? All those men around her?

KATHY: Who supported her?

MARGARET: Don’t be so naïve. Who do you think? Harold and Jack and Peter and Elijah and Philip and Bill and Dick and all her admirers, that’s who. Meanwhile, Dad went crazy.

TOM: Grandma’s a flirt?

KATHY: No, Tom, I don’t think she was. This is all speculation.

MARGARET: Dad said…

[KATHY shakes her head in disappointment]

KATHY: “Dad said...” You know nothing for sure.

Be honest, Margaret. Why are you here? Why?

[MOM stops chanting the names and stops shaking]

MARGARET: Finally!

TOM: Aunt Kathy and I could have brought Grandma home.

KATHY: Maybe your grandmother knows something or will say something or can prove she’s not as ill as you think. Maybe there’s some reason to keep her quiet or prevent her from leaving. Maybe she’s stayed in here to protect herself.

MARGARET: [furious and slowly circling KATHY] You know what, Tom, your Grandma has twisted your Aunt Kathy’s mind too, she’s controlling her.

[MARGARET abruptly changed her tone, revealing her insecurity] How dare you talk about me like that with my son? I want you to stop, right now!

[to TOM] That woman, your Grandmother, has disgraced us. How do you think we all feel saying our mother is in the State Hospital?


MOM: At Helen’s wedding, I shouldn’t have drunk so much, especially with Phil there. Oh my god. I shouldn’t have. I remember Phil eyeing Margaret. Poor Margaret. She was so young. That Phil! Oh Margaret. I can see you, I can see it. I did nothing. I did nothing to stop it. Poor Margaret…

MARGARET: [to MOM] Stop it! [to KATHY] Get her to stop! [MARGARET grabs her head, which is aching]

MOM: I see him touch her, kiss her, push up against the wall, and then he pulled you away, oh Margaret…

[MARGARET charges MOM, and KATHY holds her back.]

MARGARET: Shut her up or I’m going to kill her!

[confronts KATHY] What did she tell you?

TOM: Mom, calm down, Grandma’s just babbling...

MARGARET: That witch said something. I know she did. She told the doctor. She told your Aunt Kathy.

TOM: Who? What did she tell her? What witch?

MARGARET: Your Grandma. That’s what your grandpa calls her. She manipulates people.

TOM: But you wanted to come. You insisted on coming. You fought with Dad to come.

MARGARET: Of course I did. The witch knew I would. Your grandfather said she’s been controlling minds even from the hospital. She made me.

TOM: But you’ve nothing to hide.

MARGARET: Oh you don’t know how devious she is! You think she’s ill? She’s been planning this. Your grandfather told me all about her tricks.

TOM: But Mom, she’s been in the hospital for years.

MARGARET: I’m talking about…Never mind. My whole life she’s twisted. You can’t imagine how it feels to be used.

[MARGARET falls to the ground and starts pounding the floor with her fists.]

I hate her, I hate her, I hate her. Harold and Jack and Peter and Elijah and Philip and Bill and Dick and…

[The SECURITY GUARD enters and tries to help her to her feet, but she resists and fights him.]

MARGARET: [growling tone] Leave me alone! It’s not shameful. It’s not. Dad told me. Dad said. It’s not! She shouldn’t have told you. And I know she told you. I’m telling Dad.

[MARGARET rushes over to MOM] Did you tell Tom? Did you? Did you? Give me that lipstick! Oh! I know where you got that. That was the lipstick…Oh my god, you sick little bitch!

[MOM hides the lipstick behind her]

You’ll never get out of here! Never! And if you do, you’d never be welcome. Dad hates you. Helen and I don’t want you. So where else would you go? You’re a witch!

[MARGARET raises her hand to strike MOM but the SECURITY GUARD holds her arm. AN ORDERLY enters and helps the SECURITY GUARD guide MARGARET away.]


[TOM stands frozen watching them take away his mother, his mouth open in astonishment]

[KATHY moves over and looses the straps on MOM’s chair. MOM hands the lipstick to KATHY and KATHY takes it]

KATHY: You’re coming home with me.