“The Fixed Idea,” by April Bernard

I met Alvin when both of us were staying at Holdon House Facility upstate. Formerly it was Holdon Hospital, before that Holdon Asylum, and called variously by those who have worked and lived there, among other witticisms, Hold It, The Hold, and Hold On I’m Coming.

That I had “committed myself” was a distinction that became meaningless within moments of my arrival. (I had not written anything in three years; eight month earlier I had lost a newborn child, to death; and shortly thereafter a nonhusband, with whom I had lived for a dozen years, to the winds.) I felt cold all over all the time, even in the heat of July, even in the heat rising in silken ripples off the asphalt drive up to Holdon House. I emerged shivering from my taxi and tugged on my luggage. Weak and petulant as well as chilled to the bone, I gave way to babyish whimpers and was glad to let the attendants carry my things up the shallow steps.

Alvin Lightman, though I did not yet know his name, was sitting in the front parlor, designated the “lounge,” his long legs stretched out across a wicker ottoman. As he later told me, he watched my arrival circumspectly, from behind the traditional screen of an open newspaper. He thought I looked “ghastly” but “possibly interesting.”

Plenty of people have suffered worse than I; I knew it but the knowledge did not rouse me from my chilly and haphazard torpor, my thoughts that alit and then slid away from ideas, or names for things, or images. It was difficult to focus on the kindly man, not wearing white thank goodness, who showed me to my room, speaking gently and moving smoothly, as might an expert with wild animals. In my small private room, whose window looked out on a broad sloping lawn interrupted by tall pines, the attendant helped me unpack—that is, he relieved me of my laptop and cell phone and explained that Holdon was firm about these things. Supervised email once a week for each patient; no cell phones; no TV.

Television deprivation might be serious. Recently it had become necessary for me to sit in front of the television set with my eyes averted from the screen, and to sit in this posture for most of the day. Once in a while, I would slide my eyes back to the dazzling pixilated world of cars and pets and investment strategies; of carefully dressed women turned sideways in their chairs to ask slightly younger and more beautiful women about their movie roles; of Rice-A-Roni, which apparently people still ate somewhere; of soothingly incomprehensible yet ostensibly tense discussions between characters from old television shows, cops and doctors and cop-doctors and hookers and dealers and hooker-dealers. For an entire week, a channel that claims to air programs “for women” aired a “reality” series called “Snapped! Women Who Lose It.” Wonderful stories, I thought, if only I could have followed them. Hookers and girlfriends and hooker-girlfriends and wives and serial killers and serial killer-wives. I think there was also a wife-hooker-mother who forged checks.

I suspected, during occasional lucid moments, that there was a poem or story in there. People I don’t know well often say to me—“Sarah, you should write about that.” Usually it’s about them, but sometimes it’s about something horrible in the news. The father in Mount Vernon who was pimping his high-school daughter and her friends. The young woman in Staten Island who had been making “outsider art” out of bones from the local graveyard. The Park Avenue lawyer who coerced his wife into helping him starve and beat their adopted children to death.

I settled in at Holdon House, adjusting with a kind of blank relief to the enforced boredom. Gradually I rediscovered the attention span to read—there were at least a dozen Trollope novels in the library—and took walks about the grounds. I met with Dr. G. twice a day. I agreed to write in a journal on the condition no one called that activity “journaling.” I wrote extensively about my wish to be dead, which was illogically, but apparently not uncommonly, unaccompanied by any wish actually to do myself in. I continued to grieve—on consideration, I know that is the right word—for my dead child, whose heart was bad and who had died in surgery within hours of her birth. I tried to be articulate about the loss of Jerry, who had packed and gone to Sri Lanka almost as soon as our baby had died. I hated him, that was about as articulate as I got. Jerry was a bass player who made his living as a physician’s assistant—you know, better than a nurse, not quite a doctor. While I was pregnant, without telling me he had signed up with Doctors without Borders—hence the trip to Sir Lanka, where presumably he was vaccinating hundreds of thin children and their grateful mothers, thus lending a noble cast to his desertion.

Dr. G had me on a minimal amount of meds—just enough, he said, to take the edge off. So dully my days gnawed at me, and for the most part I avoided the other patients.

Alvin Lightman changed that. We exchanged a few gnomic sighs at meals, and I felt as if he were someone I already knew—of course, I did, as I had seen him often enough on TV. He’s a slightly-well-known actor, somewhere around 60, tall and patrician, silver-haired, with a great voice, the kind that used to be called “plummy.” When they wanted a white male judge for the courtroom scenes on “Law & Order,” they got Alvin.

One day, a couple of weeks in my stay, I was trying to write in my journal while sitting directly in front of the air conditioner in the lounge. My body temperature had returned to normal, if nothing else in me had, and so I now I was able fully to feel the terrible summer heat; I leaned into the vent, pressing my forehead to the plastic slats, curled over the notebook in my lap, writing with a particularly pleasing ball-point pen that skated over the page. Alvin came into the room and loudly told me to quit hogging the breeze. He said it with a smile in his voice; it was the first normal-sounding sentence I had heard in a long time.

I hugged the vent closer, pretending at first not to let him share, then moved aside as he backed up to the window. We looked into one another’s faces—he had humorous creases about his mouth and his large grey eyes, and was obviously completely sane.

“What are you in for?” I asked, breaking a rule. We were supposed to listen if told, but never to ask. What the heck, I thought; I’m crazy, how can I follow rules?

Alvin laughed, as if delighted by an insouciant remark. “Can you get a pass for town this afternoon?” he asked.

Around 4:30, just as the worst heat of the day was fading, we strolled out of the Holdon grounds, wearing linen shorts, t-shirts, and straw hats, just like any other tourists in the summer resort town. Alvin had decided to look into the three antique shops along the main street; he told me a great deal about Ohio glass and arsenic soft-paste glazes and ended up buying a pair of opera glasses with mother-of-pearl decoration, in a tatty moroccan case lined in blue felt. He talked constantly about New York City and we found all sorts of restaurants, people, plays, and stories we both knew. Like other men of his generation, he had a way of guiding me with just the slightest of pressures on my elbow; also of opening doors, of turning courteously at every curb and step to make sure I had managed the journey. I felt frail and slightly comical, musical-comedy comical, and did my best to keep up my end. I believe I may have fluttered, once or twice.

We had only a hour’s leave, so although an old inn with a bar and a TV set looked very tempting, we told one another Not Today, and walked back up the side street. I told him a little about my dead child, about Jerry leaving, and about Dr. G. He said he knew someone who had praised Dr. G. I asked if he saw Dr. T, the director? This time, he answered my question: “Yes.”

Another week passed before Alvin told me what I had first wanted to know, perhaps because he was leaving the next day and felt confidential before parting. We were about to smoke our evening cigarettes on the back terrace when a cool gust came upon us, so we backed indoors to light them and then stood like naughty children just inside the threshold, blowing smoke out through the screens and hoping not to be caught. In the grand main hall, with its checkerboard tiles and double staircases, catching the cross breeze that ran from the open front door to the french doors at the back, we were feeling the exhilaration that comes in the air before a thunderstorm.

He had been placed into Holdon by court order, he said. Just this past spring, at a rehearsal for a production of Uncle Vanya at the Classics Warehouse, he had assaulted another actor. Alvin was in the role of the Professor, the pompous bad-guy bully of the play, and it is in the script that Vanya mocks the Professor and even takes a wild shot at him, which misses. For reasons unrelated to the play itself—they were vying for the attentions of the same bartender down the street, it seemed—Alvin had come to hate the actor playing Vanya. In this rehearsal, they were getting accustomed to the use of a pistol that fires blanks. After their third time through the scene, with the actor playing Vanya ad-libbing new taunts, Alvin, dumb with rage, seized the stage pistol and, like some murderous thug in a completely different drama—a cop show or a war movie, say—placed it at the other actor’s temple and fired.

Even a blank can cause harm; the other actor had needed emergency surgery to remove the powder from his eyeball.

A lightning flash was swiftly followed by a crack and a boom that meant the storm was upon Holdon House; the rain rushed down and we moved back from the screen door to avoid getting wet. Alvin spoke up to be heard over the noise.

He explained that his insurance, and the theater’s, had covered the medical costs. Alvin would be paying off damages, both to the actor and the theater, “probably forever.” Meanwhile, to avoid any criminal charges, he had agreed to spend six months in Holdon.

“Anger management?” I asked, giving the words a little twist to show I knew how inadequate they were.

Alvin spread out his hands, and wiggled his long fingers, a movement comically but sincerely indicative of bewilderment. “I am not an angry person, usually. I never did anything like that in my life before, I promise you.”
“Sounds unlikely. You could be a serial-actor-assaulter.”

“Dr. T thinks I may have had a kind of seizure. Of course we did the MRI and all that—nothing to be found. Weeks and weeks exploring the old mire of my childhood—it was bad, of course, but not violent or explosive in any way. I have a theory of my own, one that Dr. T is unwilling to endorse. I think I have an idée fixe.”

“Which is?”

“This murderous rage, towards a particular person. Like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. The problem is—of course I feel sorry I hurt the guy, I wish him well—and yet . . . ”


“I feel that if I saw him again, I would try to kill him again.”

“This is terrible—you’re leaving tomorrow, for heaven’s sake.”

“Don’t tell anyone.”

And then Alvin laughed, and kissed me quickly on the cheek, as if he had been joking all along. He began to sing one of those Sondheim numbers that seem written expressly for a mental hospital, not the one that goes “Am I losing my mind,” but another one, “You could drive a person crazy . . . ”

The hall’s chandelier flickered a little, as the electricity hiccupped in the storm, but then it steadied to its usual glow again. Alvin was amazing on his feet, soft-shoeing in his espadrilles over the shiny tiles, hardly seeming to care to move but moving with exquisite grace all the same, his hands again splayed. The cool air was delicious. “Which it only makes a person, madly, want you even more . . . ” It was as close to Noel Coward, or heaven, as I would ever get in this life.

Will Alvin strike again? Will Sarah recover her appetite and her métier? Find out in Little Star #2 (2011)!

April Bernard is a novelist, poet, and (probably) unbelievably great professor of English at Skidmore College.   Her books include Romanticism, Swan Electric, Psalms, and the novel Pirate Jenny. Next spring Steerforth Press will publish Miss Fuller, her new novel about the last years of Margaret Fuller, her capaciousness as a person and the restrictions it met within even her “advanced” milieu of Thoreaus, Emersons, and Longfellows.

We took note last March of a gorgeous piece of reading in Bernard’s review of new collations of Elizabeth Bishop. Potential literary tourists should also consider her recent comments on author’s houses in the New York Review blog.