The Misplaced

by Terry Sanville

Will living in big cities drive you crazy? Just ask commercial artist Charles Colgrove. In 1951, under psychiatrist’s orders, he flees his suburban Long Island home and job in New York City with his wife and three young daughters. After a long train ride, they arrive in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, at a 200-year-old farm that is falling apart from years of neglect.

As Charles struggles to regain his mental health and establish a home and art studio, his family finds that they are less than welcome in their rural community. They occupy prime farmland but let it go fallow, an inexcusable waste according to the locals.

Margaret, the eldest daughter and a budding artist in her own right, chronicles the physical and mental challenges that the family faces – polio, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness, rejection, overbearing in-laws, sexual assault, exposure to tuberculosis, isolation at school – to name a few.

Will they survive and adapt in this rural culture that seems alien to them? Or will the Colgroves disintegrate, or worse yet, return to the madness of big city life?


Chapter One

After lunch they come for me. Ruth and the new girl pull me from bed, wrap me in a fuchsia-colored robe, and lower me into the chair.

“Margaret, do you want your sketchbook?” Ruth asks.

“Of course...and my box of pencils.”

They wheel me down the hall and onto the glassed-in terrace, stationing my chair next to Lenny. The poor guy just got a haircut, his mane of snow-white curls reduced to stubble. He turns stiffly to glare at me. The ring from his cellphone makes me jump. He manages a weak smile and answers it. Beyond the glass, the garden thrashes about in the spring wind. The rains have finally come to California, the drought over, well sort of.

I open my sketchbook and draw the rose near the window, laying down a faint graphite image then blocking it in with colored pencils, trying to capture the subtle pink and yellow shades of the hybrid Peace. Lenny shifts in his chair and watches my drawing hand move across the sheet. He never says much, just stares at me, as if observing some kind of freak show. The farm kids at the Village School used to do the same thing.

Sounds fade as I concentrate on drawing, force painful fingers to heed my bidding. Ruth approaches with a tiny plastic cup and a glass of water.

“It’s time for your meds, Margaret. My Lord, look at those filthy hands.”

I hold them out in front of me; they’re covered in pencil dust. “You should have seen my dad’s. After a day painting at the board, he’d have rainbow fingers.”

She cleans me with alcohol wipes then sets the plastic cup and water glass on the tray. The pills are golden, dove gray, and ecru. Every few years they have changed in number, size, shape, color, and texture. But they’ve all tried to do the same thing. They’ve allowed me to push back the darkness and move forward into my seventies. I pour the pills into the palm of my hand and finger each one before washing it down. If only Dad could have taken them, had been able to endure a sober reality. But then my life, my story would be entirely different.



Chapter Two
Into Plowshares

On a warm spring evening in Port Washington on Long Island, Daddy came home from work in New York City. He flung our front door open so hard that the knob slammed into the wall and made a hole. He looked scared and his body shook. He stared open-mouthed at Carolyn and me on the sofa then grabbed a bottle off the sideboard, ran down the hall and ducked into the bathroom.

Mama came out of the kitchen, her face wet from cooking over the stove. “Charles, are you all right? Charles?”

From down the hall came the sound of things being smashed. Mama edged toward the bathroom and tapped on the door. “Honey, why don’t you come out? I’ll fix you a Martini the way you like it, and we can talk.”

He answered but I couldn’t understand, his voice something between a scream and a laugh.

“Please, honey. You’re scaring your daughters. You’re scaring me.” Mama twisted the knob and pushed, but the door wouldn’t open. She ran into the dining room, picked up the phone and dialed. Her hands shook so hard that she tried twice before the call went through.

“Hello, Alf, it’s Edith. Yes, yes, just shut up and listen. Your brother’s in real trouble. You’d better get over here.”

Mama explained to Uncle Alf what had happened, then stood with hand on hip, tapping her shoe. Finally, she yelled into the phone. “Yes, I’ll call the goddamn police. He’s got a bottle, and my sleeping pills are in the cabinet. Just get the hell over here.”

After slamming the phone down, Mama went to the sideboard and gulped something golden brown. She phoned the Police then paced the floor until the sound of their siren filled the night air. She met the cops on the front porch and led them to the bathroom. They tried to get Daddy to come out, but with no luck. Another siren sounded and an ambulance pulled up along the curb. Our neighbors and all their kids stood on the sidewalk, staring.

No sounds came from the bathroom. Daddy wouldn’t answer the cops’ questions. Two big officers smashed in the door. The men in white rushed in. They carried him out and strapped him to a wheeled stretcher. His body bucked and heaved like a fish just yanked from the sea. He screamed naughty British words as they rolled him out of the house and slid him into the ambulance. Its flashing red lights disappeared into the dark. The police talked with Mama on the sofa and wrote in their little books.

Uncle Alf and Aunt Astrid finally arrived from Manhattan. “What the hell happened here?” Alf demanded.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” Mama snapped, wiping tears from her cheeks.

Aunt Astrid frowned. “Sounds like Charles really flipped his wig this time.”

“What am I going to do?” Mama asked.

“The doctors at Bellevue will set him straight,” Alf said. “We’ll take care of this. It’s a Colgrove matter.”


* * *


Just after my sixth birthday in May 1951, Mama told me we’d be leaving Port Washington. I didn’t know what to say and stood in our living room, chewing my nails and whimpering.

“Look, Margaret,” she said and knelt in front of me, “your Daddy will get out of the hospital in a few days. We’re moving to a place where it’s green and quiet, where he can work at home and not be hurt by so many people.”

“How do people hurt Daddy?” I asked.

“They don’t do it on purpose. They just…just want him to produce artwork and he can’t do everything as fast as they want him to.” Mama covered her face with her hands and sucked in a deep breath.

“But why would that make Daddy sick?”

“You’re too young to understand. It’s a goddamned rat race and the city is ripping him up inside. The psychiatrists can’t give me a good answer why he gets so…so frantic, then he mopes around the house with the blues. But they’re the ones that want us to move. They say that living in farm country is more...more restful.”

I opened my sketchbook and grabbed a pencil. “How do you spell psychiatrist?”

Mama smiled, leaned forward and kissed my forehead, then spelled the word for me. She and Daddy had taught me how to read. But I had to look up a lot of words in our dictionary.

I still didn’t understand why his sickness made us leave Port Washington and Manhasset Bay with its inlets dotted with white sails, where Daddy sketched for hours, talking to himself. But I knew that something really, really bad had happened.

In the kitchen the baby fussed. Carolyn yelled, “Mama, Mama, Nancy pooped. Come quick.”

Mama groaned and put both hands on my shoulders. “Now look, Margaret, it’s going to take a lot of work moving to the farm, and Pennsylvania is a long train ride from here. You’re my oldest. I’m going to need you to help look after your sisters. You need to keep Carolyn company while I take care of the baby.”

“I will, Mama.”

She smiled and told me to turn around then combed and braided my waist-length hair. Carolyn continued to holler from the kitchen. I thought about everything I’d leave behind in Port Washington: Betty and Sharon, who lived next door and were my best friends; Eddie from down the street who I liked a lot, even though he was a boy. But mostly, I’d miss the ocean with its fishing boats churning the water, dodging the rich people’s yachts. Daddy had promised to take me sailing. I couldn’t imagine living someplace without boats, moaning foghorns, and seagulls.


* * *


Shortly after Mama told me we were moving, Mrs. Hanson from across the street came over for afternoon tea. Carolyn and Nancy took naps while I listened from the hallway to the women talk.

“The doctors said it was a nervous breakdown,” Mama said.

“That’s just some phony word they tell all the families. What really happened?”

“Well, they say it was some kind of psychotic break. They think Charles was at the height of a manic phase of his…his illness when something happened at work. They’re not sure what it was but it…it triggered his...his episode. But I have my suspicions.”

“Like what?”

“A woman.”

“Oh, Edith, I’m so sorry.”

“You know he’s always been a flirt, and I’ve had to watch him like a hawk.”

“Yes, he flirts with me all the time. But it’s harmless and he’s so charming. That British accent sounds so…so sophisticated.”

“Yes, it got to me too, was probably one of the reasons I married the guy.”

The conversation stopped. The faint slurping of tea filled the quiet afternoon.

“Can the doctors give him something?” Mrs. Hanson asked.

“They’re testing some new drug called lithium salts. But mostly they just keep him doped up on tranquilizers.”

“Christ, that doesn’t sound good. Charles is always so lively.”

“Yes, and the lithium makes his hands shake so bad that he can’t draw or paint.”

“I’m so sorry. Maybe the move to a quiet farm will help.”

“It has to. He’s got to be able to work.”

I scribbled “lithium salts,” “manic phase,” and “tranquilizer” in my sketchbook to look up in our dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica. I wondered if the salt from the shaker on our kitchen table could help Daddy get better. I didn’t understand how flirting and women had anything to do with his sickness.


* * *


It was well into summer before Daddy came home from the hospital. At first, he slept late and got up near lunchtime. But after a few days he seemed more like his old self. He worked alongside Mama and me to pack all of our things in cardboard boxes. But it was the huge piles of sketches, half-finished paintings, and pieces of china that he couldn’t decide what to pack or what to throw out. Mama tried to tell him what to do, but that just made him mad.

One evening, he left in our rusting LaSalle with the back seat stacked high with his drawings, bound for Finnegan’s Bar where he went most nights. He came home a while later, red-faced and staggering, the artworks gone.

“Did you make any money? Mama asked.

“Bollocks that idea,” Daddy said and laughed. “Those louts have plenty to spend on pints, but not a dime for a Charles Colgrove original. I ended up giving it away.”

Mama hugged him. “I’m sorry. I know how you loved some of those pieces.”

“It’s what happens to artists. But I’ll do more. It’ll be my illustrations that all the big houses will beg for.”

“Sure, they will, Charles, sure they will. And you still have a designer job with Castleman. They love your modern china pieces.”

“Yes, they bloody well do. What would snooty New Yorkers do without their fancy tea services?”

A few days later a lumbering Mayflower van with a sailing ship painted on its side pulled up in front of our house. The neighbor ladies came over to watch the movers load our belongings. Mama yelled at the hulking men to be careful with the furniture and to handle the china with care. Tears streamed down her cheeks as, one after another, her friends hugged her, brushed away their own tears, and promised to write.

She had known these women and their husbands from before I was born. She’d often tell me stories about how the couples would go out dancing in the city at the Copacabana, the Stork Club, or maybe Jimmy Ryan’s. Or they’d host their own dinner parties. Mama would put on a pretty dress, sing and dance, and drink a lot. Afterward she’d stagger down the sidewalk to our house while hanging onto Daddy’s arm. They’d find Carolyn and me sprawled in front of the radio, listening to Inner Sanctum or The Shadow while Nancy burbled softly in her crib and our babysitter snored on the sofa.

When the moving truck was fully packed, Daddy climbed into the LaSalle and waved goodbye.

“Why aren’t we going with him?” I asked Mama.

“Your Father is going to get the power turned on at the farm and make sure that the well and furnace are working before we get there.”

“Won’t he be lonely by himself?”

“Yes, I suppose so. But he wanted it this way. I think I get on his nerves sometimes. I know he gets on mine. I’m not sure how I’ll like living in the boondocks.”

“Will we have animals on the farm?”

“No, honey. We won’t have animals and we won’t be growing anything, except maybe a vegetable garden and my roses. Your father will use the back of the house as his art studio.”

“Will there be kids I can play with?”

“I’m not sure. I’m a city girl, like you. I’ve never lived on a farm. It’ll be our grand adventure.” She clutched me tight. I could feel her tremble.

We lived out of suitcases for five days, eating whatever was left in the cupboards and the old ice box that Mama didn’t want any more. She said that Daddy and Uncle Alf had purchased the farm with a house and most of its furnishings and appliances.

“We won’t need to do hardly anything to our new place,” she told me. “We’ll just walk in and start to live. Won’t that be fun?”

“I...I guess.”

Early the next morning, we stuffed our suitcases into the trunk of Mr. Fulton’s car. He drove us into the city and dropped us in front of Penn Station. Mama hailed a porter, and he hauled our luggage inside. I clutched Carolyn’s sweaty hand and stayed close to Mama as we passed between thick columns and moved through a huge hall crammed with people, all talking at once amid a background of garbled announcements and train sounds. The porter led us to a ticket window. Mama slipped the tickets into her purse and we hurried out of the hall to the platforms. On one of them, a short line of people waited to board a train, its engine and tender covered in black dust. We joined the line while the porter stowed our luggage onboard.

Families with kids and men in suits filled our car. Sofas that could seat three backed up against the windows. Each sofa had a small table to hold drinks and snacks. Mama sat with Nancy on her lap with Carolyn and me beside her. As the train got underway, the car cooled and Mama’s face lost its redness. She sucked in a deep breath and smiled weakly, the first time since leaving Port Washington.

“I hate to travel,” she muttered. “You girls better be good, at least until we get off this damn train. Just be glad Uncle Alf gave us money for first class seats. We’d be stuck in coach if it was up to your father.”

Carolyn and I looked at each other and nodded. The rattle of people talking filled the car. Tall buildings, glimpses of water, then more skyscrapers, brick tenements and factories slid past, moving faster and faster, making me dizzy. As we left the city, conversation died. The men stared at newspapers while the women tended their children, read magazines, or knitted. A lady seated across the aisle and wearing a mink stole stared at us and frowned. I sucked in a deep breath and almost gagged.



"The Misplaced" by Terry Sanville



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Small Town
Historical (Post-WWII)

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