I was first aware of the peculiarities of Norman Potter’s case when a guard told me he had made a pen of himself. I was then requested to turn over my own pens and notebook before seeing him.
In my 24 year tenure at Belleview Institution, I have learned to quickly adapt to avoid any of the nuances—unnecessary tapping or other noises, looking into the eyes for too long, etc.—that may trigger an adverse reaction in a patient. In a place so criminal, so volatile, it is a simple rule of survival. Even so, I had never been forced to relinquish my own tools. Going in with only my suitcase and a tape recorder made me feel stripped, almost vulnerable.
I entered the interview room, known as the “board room” to other staff in the ward. It’s simple, white-walled, and nearly taken up by a long, executive-style table. It adds a small sense of grace to an otherwise sterile, fluorescent-lit box, but its real purpose is separation. The length limits my exposure to whatever ill wind might be blowing across at me from the other end.
Potter was already seated at the opposite end of the table, two guards standing vigil behind him as protocol demands. He was slouching, pitched to the right, staring at some unknown interest on the wall. As I took my seat and set my suitcase on the table, the corner of my eye caught the sudden shift of his flat, straw-like hair as he turned toward me. I looked up to find his gray eyes staring intensely at me from beneath two puffy lids, as though two large slugs had taken residence just above his eyes. His entire face held a slightly swollen, leathery look that made him look older than the 34 years his file indicated. It possessed a surprising tension beneath it, however, which built as I opened my suitcase. He leaned forward, bringing his hands out from under the table, and I finally understood what the guard had meant when he said Potter had tried to “make a pen of himself.” Both of his hands were wrapped in gauze, his fingers bound tightly together, and a hint of red had seeped its way through the white pores that covered the fingertips of his right hand. The bindings on the other hand were still clean; probably there for preventive measures. This man desperately wanted to get something out.
I set out and prepared my tape recorder, which I set out a few feet in front of me, and set my case on the floor out of his view. He stared back and forth from the recorder to me until I clasped my hands on the table. He seemed to get the message, as his anticipation drained and he resumed his observation of the wall.
“Mr. Norman Potter,” I began in my normal fashion, “I am Dr. Leonard Pratt, chief psychological analyst here at Belleview. We’ll be seeing each other relatively often, so I hope we can get acquainted quickly.”
His eyes shifted towards mine, then back up at the wall. Finally, he gave a sluggish, bobbing nod that appeared directed more toward himself than to me.
“Do you know why you are here?” I asked.
He spoke toward the wall. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“Because I’m a writer.” He said it simply, matter-of-factly.
“Really?” I said. “But the records I’ve seen say that you delivered sandwiches.”
He nodded. “That was my job,” he said. “To support my writing.”
“And your mother as well?”
I finally hit a topic more interesting to him than his inspection of the wall. He turned fully towards me.
“Most of it went to her, yes."
I encouraged him on with a nod.
"After my father left for good 12 years ago, she proclaimed it my duty as ‘the only man remaining in the house’ to be its provider. I never found anything that paid much, but I never wanted to. Just anything to keep her off my back until I was able to sell my work.”
“Were you ever published?”
He swabbed a hand back and forth across the table. “I had a couple short stories published in 2nd-class journals, for which I only received free issues as payment. I knew I could go further, though. Every night when I came home from work I went to the office I had made in the cellar to employ my craft. When I wasn’t trying to breathe life into some half-idea I gleaned during the day I studied the guides on how to hone my skills; a diet… or regimen… a regimen of Strunk and White, Zinnser, even Stephen King. There were many things I was meant to write,”
His hand stopped.
“but they never survived for long.”
“Distractions,” he said. “Whenever I sat down to try developing a story, something always made me lose its spark before I could get it down. It’s a horrible feeling, like glimpsing the woman of your dreams across a bar, turning to answer your friend, then finding her disappeared when you return. Only this happened to me every day, and she knew it.”
“Yes.” His eyes flashed. “She never took my writing seriously; always complaining that I never spent time with her. And her distractions were the worst. Every moment in that cellar I could hear her above me. Watching Wheel of Fortune with the volume up, chopping something in the kitchen. And talking to her worthless, squatting friends! The way she paced through the house while on the phone! God, it was like a giant rat scurrying within the floorboards above me! And if it wasn’t that ruckus—din—above me, she was constantly summoning me upstairs to run some meaningless errand or answer some idiotic question about the remote control.” He shook a mittened hand toward me. “Every new day those damned noises filled my head more and pushed against what I wanted to accomplish. I lost perfect lines, skipped areas in my proofreading. I had asked her to be quieter—more understanding—but she balked at me! Said it was still her name under the deed, and she could run the damn house however she wanted. Say she didn’t know what she was doing to me!”
The guards looked at each other, but I gave them a quick, reassuring glance. Potter must have seen it, because he looked over his shoulder. He turned back and exhaled deeply.
“I’m sure you are aware that I killed her,” he said.
I nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“I tried not to, at first,” he said, staring down at the table. “I thought that, if I could get rid of every other distraction under my control, I would be better able to bear the weight of hers. I began small; removing the radio, deleting games from my computer. The weight, the burden, wasn’t lifted hardly enough, so I uprooted my garden behind the house and removed the photos from my walls. It still wasn’t enough. I deleted everything but the word processor on the computer; I threw out the clock; I even dumped…” He rubbed his arm insecurely. “I discarded my books. To believe now that I had been deceived into thinking they were an enemy….”
“And none of this helped?”
“No. If anything, that woman yanked taut every bit of slack I made, and then some! She cornered me with endless questions about what I was doing ‘down there,’ chiding…ridic—mocking me relentlessly for locking myself in what she called my ‘shell.’ I could hear her talk about me in disgust over the phone. The TV even became louder and more obnoxious every day, if that’s even possible! I would curl up in silence downstairs, thinking desperately to remember my ideas, not even touching my keyboard anymore for fear that they would shatter at some point between my mind and the computer.”
He paused, raising his face. The corners of his mouth slightly turned up.
“And then came the day I quit the job. You could call it my last stand. I didn’t tell her, of course. I went to the cellar and locked the door behind me without a word. For once, she said nothing. I listened closely, waiting for any of her needless racket to begin, but all I heard was perfection. It was silent as a tomb… but that’s a cliché.”
“Not to mention poor foreshadowing?” I ventured to say. Thankfully, he didn’t take the remark poorly, flashing a brief smirk.
“True enough,” he said. “I took the silence as an omen that I had finally defeated her; that I could finally truly begin my own life.”
He gritted his teeth.
“Then the phone rang. I heard her pick it up from the coffee table. I heard her unnecessarily high, nasal greeting. I heard her tone drop. I heard her making angered, staccato laps around the kitchen, always making a side step to the left to avoid the trash can in the corner. I heard her terse goodbye. Then I heard her at the stairs. She started banging on the cellar door, yelling—screeching—for me to open it.
He grimaced, rubbing one hand over the other as though he wanted to wring them.
“Do you know how a sound, when it reaches a certain frequency, is capable of destroying crystal? She finally struck that perfect pitch with my patience! Before I was even aware of myself I had bounded to the top of the stairs and thrown open the door. She was there in full form, her graying, thinking hair up in her filthy, crude bun, crooked teeth sneering at me, and that phone—that goddamned phone!—pointed at me like she threatened to run me through!”
“What did she want?”
He gave a bemused grunt. “What does it matter? My mind—my intent—burned on that phone. I shot out and grabbed her wrist. One wrenching twist, a snap, and the phone lay in pieces on the floor.”
His fingers struggled to flex under some sort of instinct.
“That one simple move… it was euphoric. I could only stand for a second and marvel at what I had done. Her damned banshee shrieking brought me back to the moment, but even that horrible noise was tinged with liberation—victory! My hand still clenching her wrist, I gave one firm jerk and threw her past me down the cellar steps.”
“Is that what killed--”
“It ended the shrieking.”
At that moment of true confession, I studied his eyes. All I found was deep, unsettling complacency.
“So you chose your ambition over your own blood?”
His eyes narrowed as he cocked his head to the side. “And why not?” he said. “Did I owe this woman anything? She owed me! Owed me pages upon pages of worlds that I sacrificed in order to keep her delusion of a worthwhile life alive!” He leaned back in the chair. “The floor of that cellar was littered with my aborted children. She was just another body on the pile.”
I blinked in amazement. “If you won your peace, then why did you turn yourself in?”
He stared through me, wide-eyed, as if beholding some terror behind me.
“Because,” he said softly, “Silencing that woman did not bring me peace. It brought me vigor—an energy. All that I had asked for had come true. Everything that wanted a part of my life was gone but for writing! My spirit was at its apex; my senses primed. I ran down the steps and over her rag body, not wanting to waste a precious drop of that primal core of all that coursed through my veins.”
He sputtered, following with a laugh that grew in intensity until it became a wheezing, grinding mix of grief and hilarity. It sounded like his soul was being squeezed through an accordion. Even the guards were visibly unsettled at its sound.
“But I had nothing!” he gasped. “Nothing! Not a single letter was born onto that screen at my finest hour. I had eliminated everything else from my life, but discovered too late that this is what my writing was supposed to draw from. That woman, she knew! She made me get rid of it all! And when that didn’t break my spirit, she made me get rid of her, too. That’s why I turned myself in, doctor. I was broken!”
He turned to the wall, eyes closed, and gave a small cackle.
“But now that I have had time here to analyze my… my consequences, let us say, I now realize that something actually does remain for me. It is the ultimate workable irony; that the very act itself of destroying my life is the ultimate foundation to my story. I wasn’t meant to see it until now. You must be able to see that it shouldn’t have come any other way!”
He turned to me, and I could see the same fire in his eyes that had been present before we began.
“Why am I still here, doctor? I can write again. I’m cured! The story is within me—it is me! I no longer fear for its frailty. All I need are the tools to work again. Is it not your duty as a healer to give them to me?!”
At this he leapt out of his chair and made a break for, I assume, the briefcase he knew lay under my chair. The guards were faster, and began to drag him away even before my nerves could function well enough to remove me from my seat.
“Our time is up for today,” I said to Potter, trying to hide my trembling hands beneath the table. “We will meet again soon.”
“Damn you!” he cried, his face red and blazing, sweat dripping from his hair as he struggled. “She knew this too, didn’t she!? Can’t you see it?! Release my hands! I’m cured!” He weakened, letting the guards guide him. “I’m cured…” he repeated until he was out of earshot.
Subsequent visits to Potter affirmed to me that his so-called “craft” was firmly attached to his soul. After several weeks of long thought on the matter, I finally relented and allowed him to dictate his story to a revolving group of aides outside his cell. One, in receiving only pieces of his story, became visibly shaken over time and asked to quit. The aides were asked to keep their project confidential, but word obviously began to spread its way among the faculty of the institution in lunchtime whispers and corner murmurings. I should have ended the sessions there, but I continued them in the hopes of finding a working therapy for Potter. And, I admit, I had a macabre fascination to see his completed work.
Then one day, to my horror, I was told a publishing company had approached the institution to buy the rights to Potter’s manuscript! I fought diligently against this action, but the promises of royalties to the institution were too much and the board of directors forced me to surrender Potter’s story.
As a sort of compromise, the publishing house allowed me to write this foreword. I know it will do little to prevent anyone from reading Potter’s book; reading this means you are holding it in your hands right now. I wrote this more as a confession, to try to prove to myself that I have done all in my power to attempt to rectify the mistake that I have made.
God, don’t let this story serve as a catalyst.
Leonard Pratt, PhD
Providence, Rhode Island
November 27, 1998