An excerpt from:
Autobiography of a Jawbone
(a novel based on the life of Diane Arbus)

    Terri Brown-Davidson

Chapter Sixteen: The Nunnery

She wanted to live a patient’s life. The nurses didn’t care, so she wandered the hospital grounds for hours, the girls running laughing and chattering behind, and pointed her camera at a scrubby green bush, a swath of white cloud that unraveled while she and the girls stood there and watched it, all of their faces tilted back, the cloud dispersing to glints of white silk that melted away.

“Look, girls,” Diane said. “Where did it go?”

Sarah was a stutterer . . . but a quiet one. “Uh-uh-uh,” she whispered, her chewed-nailed fingers pressing Diane’s palm.

Diane scarcely felt that pressure . . . so she believed she must have evolved into a creature who no longer experienced pain.

She gazed down at Sarah. Her awful, blondish teeth, exposed in a grin as she thrust her face back, smiling up at Diane.

Diane smiled back. Then, she saw that Sarah’s knee socks had slid down around her chubby ankles.

Diane stooped, eased them back up, patted Sarah’s fat calves until she was certain the socks would stay in place.

“Time to eat,” Diane said, letting her fingers stray across Sarah’s pale scalp, a thin strip exposed, her dishwater hair tugged tight on either side of her head, plaited into rubberbanded braids. “You hungry?”

“Uh-huh! Uh-huh!” the girls all shouted then, and she watched them ascend the dried brown hill with squat, pumping legs, one girl running so fast her underpants slid down around her ankles, tripping her: Diane gazed on as the girl hopped on one leg, left her undies in a cotton heap on the grass. Yesterday she might have smiled at the sight.


She went in to eat with all of them. Lately she’d started pretending that she was living in a convent, that the large, wooded room with its battered oak floor, food stains years old eating into the wood, was the rectory where she and the sick and the insane and the retarded--all of them freaks, including her — gathered for meals, for respite, for a holy silence.

And mostly, the girls were silent: all of their energy went into spooning up their watery oatmeal, biting down hard on two-day-old French bread that the nurses’ helpers bought from the bakery down the street.

Diane sat at only one table now — always, always — and had helped train the girls in the ways of this holy silence.

She sat down at that table now, tugging out her chair, arranging the folds of her long black gown, clenching the usual something between her knees. She was the first one there. It didn’t matter that this was the evening she planned to kill herself. Everything must proceed as usual.

Diane knew better than anyone — including, even, the girls — how much comfort there was to be found in ritual.

She watched the girls assemble. Or, rather, she watched the nurses assemble them. There were many more, in this brick-and-stone building, than could run with her out on the grass. Most of them were confined to their rooms every day. Sedated, drugged, a few tied to their chairs or to a mattress when the nurses couldn’t control them or when they insisted on striking their heads against the wall. Many drooled from the drugs they’d been fed. She was used to the sight of them, at dinner, wiping the drool from their chins with the backs of their hands.

Now she watched the three that belonged to her table, the three that were wheelchair-bound, being pushed up toward the table, near-blackish with food splashes, by three separate nurses. Diane knew who they were by sight, these nurses, but preferred not to learn their names. They were white-uniformed custodians.

The first girl seemed to have no motor skills at all. Her head sagged toward her chest; her mouth hung slack. Ropes bound her to the wheelchair, kept her from falling face forward into her oatmeal. The nurse, white-uniformed, her large breasts straining against the insubstantial polyester, knelt beside the table, gripped the girl’s mouth, spooned the oatmeal in.

Diane watched.

Sarah sat down beside her, grinning. Sarah was always grinning. She fumbled for Diane’s hand under the table, squeezed it.

Diane squeezed back so hard Sarah winced.

No matter.

It was her way of saying “goodbye.”

She sat there, Sarah breathing beside her, rubbing her reddened knuckles, Diane inhaling the stale-pill stench of Sarah’s breath.

The other two girls, twins, had the use of their arms but not their legs. These twins were dark-haired and plump, relished their meals. Diane gazed on quietly while they ate with soft, sibilant grunts, slouching a little in their wheelchairs.

Other girls gathered.

The nurse feeding the quadriplegic left.

Now it was just Diane and her circle.

The lights were dimmed. It was a mid-meal ritual. Some of the nurses believed that turning the lights down low, to this soft, yellow, romantic glow, calmed the girls before bedtime. The quality of the light attracted Diane though the photos never turned out. The light, in fact, was so buttery at times that she felt she could pull it inside her mouth, savor it, let it roll around on her tongue. Taste and aftertaste, she thought. Life and what came after.

“Uh-uh-uh,” Sarah said, leaning toward Diane’s ear. “Didyoudidyoudidyou b — b — bring it, Diane?”

Diane smiled. Touched Sarah’s knee. Showed her, under the table, the camera.

The nurses left, for the after-dinner pills in white paper cups. The helpers departed to bring in the pudding. Diane lifted the camera to her eye, snapped and snapped while the entire table of girls gazed straight at her, smiled.

And tucked her camera away, between her knees, before anyone came back.

The nurses served the pills first, carrying the little white paper cups over on trays, waiting patiently beside each girl until she swallowed her red or purple meds, with a quick intake of water from another paper cup.

Then, the nurses retreated to the kitchen to smoke in a corner beside the battered GE stove, tease the busboys and cooks.

Then the helpers came in, lifting the puddings waitress-style, one-handed, on big enamel trays. The pudding was served in white-plastic bowls (stoneware could smash, create shards, and the girls might cut themselves). It was always the same, night after night: the oatmeal the texture of diarrhea, followed by the festive, pale-hued tapioca.

The helpers moved wordlessly around the table in their blue-and-white striped uniforms, placing a single bowl before each girl, positioning a battered silver spoon in each stubby fist. How, Diane wondered, was this different from a nunnery? The discipline. The ritual. Only tomorrow would be different.

Only tomorrow, when the nurses, the helpers, and the girls would find her beneath the root-bound oak out on Redfern’s front lawn, perfectly posed for another snapshot on her back, her arms and legs spread, her eyes gazing up glazed at the vast vista of dead gray sky.

But now it was pudding time. Diane watched carefully until the helpers had retreated for their own smokes in the kitchen. A deep stillness descended upon the dining hall, suffused in its lavish, lemon-colored light.

Diane glanced around the table. Then, camera still clutched between her knees, she angled her left hand left, her right hand right, joined hands with the girls on either side of her...and all the girls around the table linked hands.

“Do you want to?” she asked.

The girls stared at her. Then, slowly, one or two nodded.

“Uh — uh — y-yes,” Sarah said.

They bowed their heads. Their lips quietly moved. Some of the girls closed their eyes.

Diane had closed hers, but now she opened them, glanced around the table.

Then, some of the girls opened their eyes. Blinked. And — for a second — the blurriness from their pills faded. Their haziness disappeared. Blue eyes, green eyes flecked with yellow. Her girls were coming back to life.

“And what are we praying for?” Diane whispered, watching the helpers in the kitchen. They stood there, a little stiffly, in their blue-and-white-striped uniforms, rigid like the young girls that they were, like girls with one leg pointed out coquettishly from the folds of their full uniform-skirts, flirting with the busboys, but in the shy manner of the young.

“It’s safe,” Diane whispered, and glanced around her circle.

“For art,” one girl murmured back, grinning.

“For sanity.” Another girl.

“For — uh — the final rest that can heal us from this life.”

Diane bowed her head. Studied the scarred wooden table as a nurse sidled up.

“Miss Arbus,” she said.

Diane looked up at her, willing her eyes calm.

“Are you enjoying your dinner?” the nurse asked.

She was a plump one, this nurse, with a pinned-high cascade of red hair.

“Always,” Diane said. One of the girls giggled. “I never tire of — Redfern’s cuisine.”

“Will you be staying with us again tonight?” the nurse asked. “In . . . the visitor’s quarters?”

“Yes,” Diane said. “Though I was thinking of renting my own private room. Like — you know — a resort.”

One of the girls giggled. One laughed out loud. Under the table, Sarah squeezed Diane’s hand while Diane’s knees gripped the camera and it slipped.

Diane smiled serenely at the nurse.

The nurse didn’t return the smile.

After tonight, Diane thought, I won’t be needing any room at all.

Sometimes Diane believed that the ultimate Heaven was a darkroom. Everything sheen. Substance. Entitlement. There was no darkroom for her at Redfern. And so she’d learned to live with that. Those enforced periods of absence. She felt it stirring, that empty space, that thing she longed for, like a phantom limb.

And it ached. It ached.

Instead there were the visitor’s quarters, which she’d frequented before. Deliciously private, nunlike, with a great iron bolt on the door.

She slipped inside it now, glancing from side to side down the long, wood-paneled hallway to make sure no girl had followed.

Then, she stood leaning against the door, breathing against it, her breaths coming rapidly.

But she wasn’t agitated.

She was calm.

She walked across the room, placed her camera upon the bedstead, gazed down at the long black gown she’d worn to dinner — there was a small gravy stain there, on the skirt.

She stared at that gravy stain as if it were the oddest thing she’d ever seen.

Picked, with two nails, at the crust.

It was on that fabric.

It’d stay on that fabric for good.

A small iron bedstead in the room, a thin mattress with ticking placed upon it, one moth-eaten blanket. And a rose lamp with a splintered shade. And a worn wooden chair, spindly-legged. This was the only furniture. Diane turned around, stared at the chair for a second, went to sit down.

It didn’t matter that there was no darkroom at Redfern, because she carried the darkroom inside her mind. And it went with her everywhere. Would follow her out of this room. Out of this life. If her brain were removed for an autopsy, forensic experts would discover that darkroom tucked deeply inside the gray matter, the manifold whorls and folds.

She went there now.

Sitting on the spindly-legged chair in the visitor’s room, her hands folded chastely in the crusty black folds of her gown.

She loved the room’s gloominess when she first entered: as if everything were covered with a layer of red shadows. It glowed perpetually crimson, that room, like the flickering neon in the Red Light districts she’d frequented during her life, searching for freaks to photograph, beautiful but malformed specimens of humanity, grotesque on the outside but gorgeous within . . . while she was just the opposite: a superficially pretty package (dark bobbed hair; large-eyed, elegant face; high-breasted figure) with some hard twist at the center of her being, an unfathomable darkness photos proved unable to chase away.

And the room was narrow, the walls built up out of white-splotched cement blocks that looked wet even when dry. Her photo tray was there, a print already soaking; many others were hung up around the room.

She went to those photos, peered at them through the heavy scrim of scarlet darkness.

Photos she’d taken tonight. Sarah with her gapped and grinning teeth, one finger thrust playfully up a nostril. The quad who was roped into her wheelchair but who still hung half-slack over her bowl of oatmeal. A fey blonde with enormous breasts pressed tight into a girlish velvet jumper. The plump and dark-haired twins, imitating a staid ugly nurse behind her back.

Diane looked at all of these photos. They weren’t good — she knew that. She’d missed the essence of every girl somehow. Why? She’d been coming to Redfern for months, practically lived here now. And yet, she’d never taken a single decent photo of any of these girls. Somehow they eluded her. The right approach. She’d taken spontaneous shots of the girls at play in the field, cartwheeling with their socks sliding down, their tight braids flying.

Photographed them standing with arms spread wide, savoring the fresh, cool breeze that blew in after dusk. But she’d missed it. Always.

But there was always tomorrow, right?

No. No.

The darkroom was in Heaven. And she was going there now. Finally and forever.

Diane lay down on her stomach. Fished under the worn, flat pillow.

Pulled out her razor blade.

Eyed it, quietly, listening to the distant sound of the nurses’ record player spinning 45’s in the lobby.

She must have dozed off because, when she opened her eyes, there was the weight of a heavy silence compressing the room, as if the chaos of Redfern had converged to some stasis point.

Diane sat up on the bed, looked at the razor blade, tucked it under the pillow. She hadn’t heard this type of silence in a while. It floated above her, lovely and blue-tinged and ethereal, a dragonfly’s wings — its lightness an illusion.

She closed her eyes, passed one hand over her face, feeling the solitude sink down through her pores, weight her like a satisfying meal might, a filet mignon, perhaps, if she ever had an appetite.

Then, a tiny knock at the door.

Diane rose, stood before it. “Who is it?” she whispered, reluctant to crack the Tiffany-stained-glass quiet.

“Uh — uh — uh — Sarah.”

Diane unbolted the door, opened it. Sarah stood there in the gray, sacklike dress she wore for bed, clutching her stomach.

“Sweetie,” Diane said, kneeling, grabbing her wrists. “What’s wrong? You o.k.? Should I go get a nurse?”

“N-n-no nurses.” Sarah nodded, her cheeks contorting as she smiled and swallowed tears. “M-m-m-meanies,” she said.

Diane laughed. “No meanies,” she said. “Do you want to lie down?”

“B-b-bathroom,” Sarah said.

She loved the damp, warm feel of Sarah’s palm, tucked into hers, as they slipped into the darkened hallway, wended past large, dormitory-style rooms where the hoarse collective rasp of the girls, sleeping open-mouthed, wove its way gingerly into the fabric of the silence, which, as Diane and Sarah crept forward together, was already, Diane thought, an intimacy.

The girls’ bathroom — not the Hygiene Room, but the smaller bathroom — had one of those green, institutional-looking doors that Diane remembered from her elementary-school days. It seemed every elementary school, every institution, even the rich ones, featured this kind of door.

She pushed the door open with the flat of her palm, escorted Sarah inside. There were no private stalls — so the girls could be more easily monitored, Diane decided. The open, white toilets, at least seven of them, looked a little naked, just sitting there in the room, no stalls surrounding them. A thick dark muck covered the bottom of each leaking toilet, the stench of the whole room indescribable, the floor shimmering, wet.

Sarah breathed deeply, covered her mouth with her hand, then vomited yellow bile.

All over the front of her dress.

“Oh, sweetie,” Diane said then. She grabbed paper towels from one of the two dispensers, ran hot water over them, started wiping at the front of Sarah’s dress.

But the vomit seeped into the dress faster than she could get it out.

“Sweetheart, we need to take this dress off. Get you some help.”

Shivering, Sarah reached around to the back of the dress, couldn’t grab the zipper. Diane unzipped it for her, pulled the dress off, down around her knees.

“Now, step out,” she said, and Sarah did, her bare feet stirring the water.

But the plain white-cotton panties and bra were also soaked.

“Oh, God,” Diane said. She unhooked Sarah’s bra, her fingers trembling because she knew Sarah must be getting cold, tugged her panties down.

“Step out of these too,” Diane said, and Sarah quickly obeyed.

Did she obey everyone? Every request? Diane wondered.

“H-h-have to use the potty,” Sarah said, and Diane placed her hand on the small of her back, helped her over to one of the naked toilets, helped her sit down.

That was when the darkroom-like wash started behind her eyes. The kind of a shimmering crimson curtain a person might glimpse before she passes out.

Diane knelt, breathing deeply, trying not to inhale the collective muck of this room.

It was hard, hard, all of it.

So very very difficult.

But still —

“W-w-what’s wrong?” Sarah asked: the strong tinny stream of her urine echoing.

“Nothing,” Diane said. “Be back, baby, in a flash.”

She saw so many things that she knew she’d never be able to tell Sarah as she knelt before her on the linoleum, her drenched gown clinging. How Sarah looked, for example, through the lens. How her body glimmered white, stocky, the thighs fat-laden, the sparse blonde curls of her pubic hair matted, the buds of her breasts weirdly pale in this light. But she knew she’d never be able to say these things . . . because saying them would entail others. About how Sarah’d changed . . . which only Diane and the camera could detect. Become an object. A white cool sculpture bathed in hot light.

And Sarah was retarded.

So how could she make her understand?

The beauty in a body that others called ugly.

The beauty in a razor blade that wouldn’t be used tonight.

All Diane knew was what she felt, kneeling on that floor until her gowned knees grew soaked. That there was holiness in that white, goosepimpled body spread-eagled on the toilet. That there was beauty in those stubby yellow teeth, in the flat, stuttering voice that whispered Diane’s name, over and over, telling her that she was cold, telling her that she was lonely, telling her that she never wanted her to leave, floaters and a white flash that could have been someone’s soul burning Diane’s good eye pressed hard against the lens.

Terri Brown-Davidson is on the faculty at Gotham Writer's Workshop and is an assistant editor at Zoetrope All-Story. Her first book is The Carrington Monologues (Lit Pot Press, 2002). Terri has received six nominations for the Pushcart Prize and more than forty national writing awards, including an AWP Intro Award and a Yaddo fellowship; her chapbook Rag Men won the Ledge Competition, and her work has appeared in more than 700 journals. Her poetry was featured in the anthology Triquarterly New Writers (Northwestern University Press, 1996) and in a Literary Review chapbook online at Web del Sol. In collaboration with art historian Judi Justin, Terri has written a short-story collection, On Her Knees: Andrew Wyeth and His Women. "Brutal Helga" from this collection appeared in IPR’s Issue 16.


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