Beginning in 1889, the Southwestern Insane Asylum thrived in San Antonio. The facility occupied 640 acres and could hold 500 patients.
Excerpt from The Last Bordello:
“Ticktock, ticktock, they’ll put you under key and lock,” she’d said. Lucinda had made good on her threat.
Too skinny from institution mush, my skin peeled off a layer at a time. Curled on top of a thin, lumpy mattress on a rusted bed frame, I traced the scratches on the wall made by another’s bloodied nails, the dark red stains proof of another’s determination to escape a world unworthy of its inhabitant.
Earlier, the attendant had pushed my forehead back and forced open my jaw. Unnecessary effort on his part. The medicinal haze thickened. I found myself calm but without spirit.
Strange how I felt erased, yet without the rubber remnants to remind me I once existed.
Any bits of green paint that had remained on the wall, I peeled off the first day. I didn’t know if I had been there three weeks or three months.
The cell remained still, inactive, and almost empty. A bucket to catch my excrement. The bed, fetid like the bucket; the whole place a shit hole.
A cockroach scurrying across the floor would have been a welcome sight. Or a black widow working tirelessly to create a fine net to catch its prey. I stared at my idle hands.
I wanted to float outside where flowers bloomed, where the great oaks of San Antonio provided shade from the sun. The rattle of trains and trolleys would have been welcome sounds over the never-ending cries and moans of despair.
Despair. “Do not cry. Do not cry,” I told myself. But tears came anyway. It didn’t matter. If they heard, they never came.
My eyes blurred as if I were drunk. I trembled like the women escorted to surgery before their reproductive parts were cut away and discarded like the contents of my shit bucket.
I heard the click of a door key. It wasn’t mealtime. They had already drugged me. What did they want? Confusion—as potent as a heaping spoonful of laudanum laced with arsenic.
The attendant in white stood firm, stoic. “Come with me.”
I had a birthday. A big one. I wasn’t ready and felt a bit down. Then, my sister called. Our dad often told us “always remember who you are.” So, when Pat read me what she wrote, I knew it was the best, most sentimental gift of a lifetime.
Here is an excerpt of what my sister, Pat Witherspoon, read to me on on birthday.
I don’t remember seeing her until we brought her home. I sat in the middle of the back seat, by myself. Then they put her in my arms. I didn’t move. She was asleep. She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Of course, I hadn’t seen too many babies in 5 and ½ years, but she was still the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Many years later I gave our mother a little plate, a picture of a little girl looking down, smiling, at a baby. That plate reminded me of the first time I saw our baby.
Our baby has always been a butterfly. She crawled; then she walked, then she flew. We never knew where, or when, or if, she would land, or what she would do when she landed.
We watched her run, which she could do really fast. We watched her play with her doll babies. We watched her play in sand and in the mud. We watched her swim, which she loved to do. We watched her ride horses, and bake cookies, and play with clay. We watched her paint with her fingers.
We watched her sneak out of her bedroom window. I never understood why she didn’t sneak out the front door. That seemed easier to me. But butterflies must need to escape out of windows. We watched her dance, and play the piano, and fly.
We watched her play the guitar, and write music, and dance, and sing. We watched her write poetry and prose, with no capital letters. I always use capital letters in the right places. I discovered that butterflies don’t need to use capital letters.
We watched her fall in love, and out of love, and in love. We watched her get married. We watched her become a wonderful mother…and a loving grandmother. And all the time, we watched her fly…and paint, and write, and play the piano, and tap dance, and box, and paint and write books. (Now she uses capital letters in the right places, but probably wouldn’t if she had the choice.) She writes books about things that are hard to write about…like Dad. And I know that made him happy, like she did many, many times. We watched her speak Italian, and travel to places away from our house, just like butterflies do.
She is still our butterfly, and our baby. She still flies, and we don’t always know when or where she will land. JRR Tolkien once wrote: “Not all who wander are lost.” Our baby has always wandered. But she has never been lost.
Now, I remember who I am and my wings are still intact.
Before I turn that big corner, I’ll have to look both ways.
Twenty years ago, on the evening before my fortieth birthday, I wrote a little cathartic something for myself. Something about “anything goes,” how I might dye my hair purple, get boobs, a tattoo, spit when I want to. In these past twenty years, I did one of those things. And before you wonder too hard, I’m not a spitter. I’m not good at it and don’t have a hankering to learn now.
So, I’m at the corner. To my left is the past, my right, the future.
Obviously, unless I live to be 121 years old, there is much more to see on my left, sixty years worth.
I was very fortunate to have loving parents and a sister, five and a half years older. I often tell her it’s one of the many things I love about her. She’s been every age before me and can tell me what it’s like.
Am I being overly sensitive?
Yes. But sixty? It’s so hard to believe.
I know when that big day comes a few days from now (not just my birthday but early voting day in Texas), I will settle peacefully into a new decade.
But what will I see? Do? How many more novels live inside of me that beg to be allowed in public?
How many empty canvases can I fill with paint and like the result?
When will I have to stop boxing? (pads and bags, not people)
Mostly, I wonder, what will I learn?
That’s the exciting part.
Sometimes, I want to return to the years when my children were young. The fun we had at parks, reading stories, making up stories, and endless other happy times. I loved watching them grow.
I smile now after typing that last sentence. They are adults and I still love watching them grow. And each of my two children have given me a grandchild. I will watch them grow too, just not for quite as long. It’s okay. Because now it’s my children and grandchildren’s turn to experience that joy.
And that thought makes me smile like the birth of a new baby.
It’s the circle of life. And it’s beautiful.
Have a listen while you read!
As a Texan, I have no problem understanding southern dialect and the slang words and phrases that go with it. But what if you are writing in a different time period? What changes?
In 1928 rural Texas, eleven year old Emma June understands words like “fixin’ to” and “fair to middling”. And she knows what it means to be Cooter Browned. But does she know the terms blotto or hoary-eyed, spifficated?
So when and how does the slang of the 20’s hit her isolated town? From newspapers? The radio? City transplants?
That’s what hit me while writing my current novel.
Let’s say her father saunters into the washroom. Is he bleeding his lizard (Texas) or ironing his shoelaces (Jazz term)?
If a woman dresses to the nines, is she ritzy or wearing her best bib and tucker? (Women’s fashion stays relatively consistent)
I WANTED TO USE JAZZY TERMS, Dagnabbit!
So thirteen year old Frank moves from New Orleans to Holly Gap, Texas. He made it possible to use both- Texas and Jazz Age Slang.
Now, everything’s Jake and I’m sitting in tall cotton!
The Moonshine Thicket, coming soon.
Jazz Age slang : home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm
More Texan-isms https://shar.es/1xYMnH via @texasmonthly
Here’s a great video of how dialect changes by area: https://youtu.be/mNqY6ftqGq0
… And helps with historical treatment.
I hated history in my youth. But now? I love research. It takes my mind to places that existed long before and can exist again in a historical novel.
The Library of Congress – Historical Newspapers – can take you back to the late 1800’s. I needed 1901 so I found myself in good shape (except I spent hours upon hours finding interesting articles that had nothing to do with my MS, The Last Bordello.) Once I focused, ALL these articles played a pivotal role in my plot line. (I had many more, these are just a few.)
Let’s start with the secondary, still-important, characters and work our way down to Madam Fannie Porter.
If you are writing historical fiction, The Library of Congress is a great place to start!