Monday, October 1, 2001

Inside the Haunted Halls of the Sonoma County Department of Mental Health Services

The front office of the Sonoma County Department of Mental Health Services in Petaluma California is a strange place to find oneself indeed.  But, that's the way life works, first youre on one side of the fence marveling at the antics of the clinically insane on the other, and then one day you wake up and see that fence has been moved to the other side and you're in with them now. Only, in all actuality the fence hasn't moved at all, it was you who moved somehow across that line while you were busy dreaming of other things.

            So, there I was sitting in the waiting room of our local government welfare nut house waiting to see a shrink so that I could get a new prescription for an anti-depressant medication called Serzone.  ("Serzoneâ, Reach For Relief" the package had said, with a cartoon picture of a happy yellow sun climbing out from behind dark, purple, brooding mountains.)  I had been on the medication for two weeks and I hadn't felt shit, but like I told my therapist, I didn't think that my dark purple mountains of suicidal thinking were going to go anywhere until my luck changed, but I would take the stuff anyway; oh why not; just one more drug going into a human body; who's to notice?

            I was of course feeling moody and depressed and generally frightened of humanity at large and the decor of the waiting room wasn't helping.  Even though this particular office building appeared young and fresh on the outside, with a hip, modern architectural motif using red painted steel beams woven in and out of concrete, the inside reminded me of waiting in the principals office when I was in 3rd or fourth grade, before they remodeled it.  The over-stuffed cushions of the waiting room seats were a blazing, while still dingy, orange-red.  The floor was covered with mangy off-beige carpeting and the ceiling mirrored its bleakness with its cracked, yellowed acoustical tiling.  Plastic cubbies lined the walls with self-help information pamphlets that looked to have been designed in the 1970s, with titles like "How to Know if Youre DEPRESSED", or "Depression HURTS", or "What Every Kid Should Know About ALCOHOL" or "Dealing with Teenage ANGER", all written in that round bubbly late 70s font, like normal type filtered through a lava lamp sitting on a naugahide coffee table next to a stained yellow ash tray with three stubbed out cigarettes and one tiny roach.

All about were advertisements for various medications like the one I was taking.  There was a Prozacâ clock, a poster explaining the various pros and cons of using Paxilâ, a small Prozacâ manipulatable magnetic sculpture toy, a Busparâ stress relief squeeze ball, a Zoloftâ calendar.....

            Another part of the decor that was increasing my fear of mankind was the man who had just walked in.  His name was Patrick, and he had an appointment with Bob at 2:00.  He was short, with a somewhat trimmed, very full black beard, in the middle of which was a mouth that could not stay closed.  When he had initially entered the office I thought that his mouth hung open because he was winded, perhaps panting like a dog or something.  This I could have dealt with.  However, after telling the secretary of his appointment he sat down and the mouth did not close.  It hung open gaping, unexplainable.  In a normal doctors office waiting room I would have assumed that he had some sort of jaw condition, but here I imagined that perhaps he just always thought that he was in the dentists chair with everyone he came in contact to being either nurses or the dentist himself.  Glad I'm not on the other side of that fence, I thought to myself just as the ghost walked into the room.

            I had never seen a ghost before, so this came as somewhat of a surprise to me.  She did not glow a ghostly blue or green or anything, and you couldn't see through her no matter what angle you tried and she couldn't even walk through walls.  She simply pushed through the other door in the room, the one that led to and from the therapist's offices, and brushed past me toward the receptionist's sliding glass window.  She was dressed in multiple layers of sweaters, sweat-pants, dresses and jackets.  She had a huge collection of plastic bags that seemed to be overflowing with garbage; dirty shoes, empty beer bottles, paperback novels and stained magazines.  She smelled faintly like an alley I always cut through on my strolls through downtown.

When she walked up to the receptionist's window she tried to speak but nothing seemed to come out.  Instead she just made a strange circular motion with her head.  The receptionist seemed to understand this and replied, "Okay Linda, see you next week," with a little smile and curtly closed the sliding window.

 This lady didn't seem like a ghost at all, just a mentally ill homeless woman keeping it all together long enough to pick up her new free prescription down at the government psychiatric ward. But I knew she was a ghost all right for I was the one who had killed her.


It was about a year ago.  My roommate Chris and I were riding around town in his somewhat bashed up white sports car.  It had the kind of headlights that flip up like opening eyelids, but one had been jammed halfway open from a small accident between Chris and a skateboarder, giving the car a groggy, drunken look.  Truthfully I don't exactly recall what we up to, why we were driving around in the first place, but there we were and I was in the passenger seat and bored and playing with Chris's astoundingly realistic looking fake handgun.  It was actually a pellet gun, purchased from a Wal-Mart in nearby Rohnert Park, but Chris had not purchased it to shoot pellets; he had purchased it because it looked so fucking real.  It was black and HEAVY as you would think a real gun would be and it could always be found just laying around on the floor of his scared-up Acura.

I remember thinking that you could have conducted a scientific study right there in Chris's automobile about men and women and handguns.  Here, for all esthetic purposes, was a real handgun, and it would be so fascinating to see what different people would do with it, all sitting in the passenger seat with Chris driving at their left, at different times. I could see the women asking questions about the gun, perhaps even picking it up once they realized it was fake, but putting it down, perhaps away under the seat even, soon afterward.  Women are by and large disgusted by tools of violence.  They also mature faster, live longer and are generally all-around better people than men.     However, I was of course a man and thus having the time of my life with the thing.

            I was holding the gun in my lap with a mean look on my face, like I was a fucking killer.  Chris was of course the driver.  We were busy entertaining ourselves with fake arguments about who was gonna get it from "da boss" if we didn't "do dis ting right".  By "dis ting" of course we meant a drive by shooting.  I told him that if I missed it was "gonna be bofe our asses" and Chris was hollering disagreement, saying that he was "da drivah" and that I was "da fuckin shootah" and that it was my responsibility not to "fuck this ting up".  We sounded like a bad mutant sketch of Italian mobsters and South Central LA ghetto gang bangers, but we kept this line of immaturity up, interspersed with the occasional outburst of pure honky suburban laughter, as we headed toward downtown.

            We turned a corner.  I held the gun in my right hand, fiddling with it, pretending to make sure that it was loaded.  But as we turned the corner everything changed.  It was one of those times when fiction jumps out of its usual hiding place in the human imagination and becomes the real thing and who knows where actual reality goes to.  Perhaps it just gets covered up.

Anyway, as we turned the corner I saw her. It was one of the few crazy homeless ladies that lived in our small town.  It was the one who screamed profanity at the antiquers downtown on Sunday, who couldn't keep from exposing her lower genitalia to passing children, the one who seemed to like masturbating in public during our yearly local parade.  She was sitting at the bus stop all alone with her huge plastic bag seemingly full of garbage on the seat next to her.  She was busy having a rather animated conversation with herself.   There wasn't a single other person, not one potential witness, in sight on either side.

Now was the time.

In one quick, automatic-feeling motion I brought the gun up and extended it out the car window, aimed it at Miss-Crazy Petaluma's head and fired.  From the time we had made the turn on the corner up until then, perhaps only a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity, I had become a cold-blooded killer.  I had been overcome by an overwhelming instinct that had, without an ounce of hesitation, led me to stick the gun out the window cool and calm and professional-like and just fire on an innocent easy victim.  After all, the shot was wide open, ideal.  Chris had seen what I was doing and hadn't said a word.  Like he had said, he was just the driver.

But then, after the empty pellet gun clicked in my hand, I thought about what I was doing.  Sure, no one was going to be hurt by me and this realistic looking toy, and of course there was the danger that some law-enforcer could see me sticking a gun out of a car window at a pedestrian and follow us in hot pursuit, but I wasn't very worried about that.  It was such a quick moment, what were the chances?

            I was much more worried about what the lady would think as she saw a mean-faced youth sticking a handgun out of a passing car and aiming it between her eyes. She might have a heart attack, I thought to myself.  But then again, the woman is insane, so she's probably used to seeing images like that, probably some even more terrifying and threatening.  She probably doesn't believe anything she sees anymore anyway. Plus she looked pretty involved in that internal debate.

            Boy was I wrong.

            The moment she saw the gun the poor old woman's face constricted into a mask of cartoonish terror.  Her eyes squinted up as if it was a light beam ray gun I was about to shoot her with as opposed to just a normal old hand gun.  Just as the trigger was pulled the lady's hands shot up to cover her face and the motion of her arms was so violent that the momentum caused her whole body to slip off the back of the bench, which had no back to it and into the plexiglas wall behind her.  In reality of course, the gun had just made a tiny click as the trigger was pulled.  But, I swear to god I heard a goddamn shot and I certainly know that she heard it.  Her body flying back against the wall was the last thing I saw as our car sped away down the street.

Half a block later I pulled the gun back into the car and rolled up the window.  It just seemed the right thing to do.

            "Holy shit!" Chris spat out from my left.

            "Whoa...." I responded.  I felt as if I was waking up from some sort of dream.

"Holy shit!" Chris repeated.

"Did I just........ kill her?" I asked, my voice sounding tiny and far away to me.  Was I in a movie?  What the hell was going on?

            "Holy fucking shit Damian!  That was goddamn hard-core!"

            "Is she okay ya think?  Oh man what the hell!  I didnt mean to do that...."  I said.

            ".....goddamn hard-core...."  mumbled Chris like a mantra.

            " just happened.....Oh man Chris, turn right again!  Lets go around the block..."

            We went around the block and passed the bus station again but she was gone and I never saw her around town after that. I asked around a bit and no one else had seen her either.

            That is until I saw her ghost passing through the waiting room at the Mental Health Services building.  After gesturing to the secretary she pushed her way through the front door, with some difficulty due to the large, full plastic bags slung over her shoulder.  I caught another glimpse of her face and I was totally positive it was her.  She looked exactly like she did before I had blown her away.  After the front door closed behind her I dropped the book I had been pretending to read and just sat there with my mouth hanging open.  I had never seen a ghost before.  Then I looked across the room and there was bearded Patrick, with his mouth hanging open as well of course, staring right back at me.  Our eyes stayed locked for an eternal second until the inner door opened and a woman's voice said:

            "Damian......the doctor is ready to see you."