By Sam Levin
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White-bearded, puffing with emphysema, Richard Evenson shakes snow from his herringbone jacket and flashes his badge to the guards at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center (SLPRC). Built in 1997, low and sleek at the foot of the Gothic redbrick domed building on Arsenal Street, SLPRC is the new, light-filled incarnation of the old St. Louis State Hospital. It's the only facility in the area designed for people with serious, chronic psychiatric illness, yet its population of 217 is about 80 percent forensic, committed after a criminal conviction.
Evenson stops first at the canteen to get Sally's usual: coffee with two creams and two sugars and the biggest glazed doughnut in the case. Juggling two of everything because Sally hates to eat alone, he buzzes the locked door of Ward H, the "social learning" ward where 26 of the most severely impaired, lowest-functioning patients live.
Sally's waiting for him at the reception desk, wearing soft black shoes, open at the top; hot-pink sweatpants; and a red sweatshirt appliqued with satin poinsettias. She's pretty, her hair still dark and glossy, her broken-toothed smile younger than any other 45-year-old's. Her cheeks turn as pink as the sweatpants when Evenson swoops her into a hug.
"I saw Tom walking around the canteen," he tells her when they're settled in a visiting room. "How come he has all those privileges, and can go to the gym or the courtyard on his own, and you still can't?"
"I guess he's moved up a level and I haven't," she says, shrugging. "I don't want to leave Level 1. I'm afraid" -- she leans forward and stabs with her index finger, pointing between her legs. They both know that since her commitment, she's had sex with at least two other patients, at least one of them HIV-positive, right on the grounds of the hospital -- and the less supervision, the likelier such encounters.
"I didn't have too much of a happy life," she says a minute later. "My dad, when I was a baby, he kind of had intercourse with me, you know?" Evenson nods, remembering how, at 9, Sally told doctors she didn't have a father or mother, that she "came from the moon."
Later, Evenson asks whether she has any happy memories of her mom, and Sally starts to rock back and forth: "I don't think I remember that far back. I guess she was so-so; that's all I can say about that." She does volunteer a memory of a foster father who, when his wife went to open the door for her, said, "You going to let that bitch in?" She doesn't remember any of the foster parents' being kind -- but then she's not sure, and she looks to Evenson, her only friend for 27 years now: "Do you remember if any of them were kind?"
Helplessly he shrugs, and she turns back.
"It really wasn't a good thing for a young child," she says firmly.
Glancing through the room's window, he asks how she likes the new staff (turnover, especially for nurses, is high) and Sally tilts her hand left, then right; they're "so-so." She talks about the doctors and nurses back at the domed building with the nostalgia other people reserve for the happiest days of their childhood. "They know more about me, I guess, than a lot of these people do," she explains. "These people are new towards me, and I'm new towards them."
Later, watching the elaborate negotiations needed to bring her a soda from a vending machine outside the locked ward, she remarks, "It's kind of hard to do things here." She sits down, clutching the cola gratefully -- and immediately an elderly woman taps on the door, gesturing that she wants a sip. Sally sighs. "No, don't worry about it," she says to an offer for another soda expedition. "I'll give her this." She pours half the soda in a spare cup, goes to the door and whispers, "Go in that room to drink it; you're going to get me in trouble." Then she returns, explaining, "We're not supposed to give them things. It's against the program."
Later a nurse, seeing rare visitors, comes up, squeezes Sally's shoulder and announces, "She's been doing great!" Behind the spectacles, Evenson's bright eyes narrow. "She's still on Level 1, isn't she?" he retorts. Sally smiles but doesn't say anything, just leads the way into another empty classroom. "They have "shaping class' in here," she says over her shoulder. "It's like arithmetic, maybe a little bit of reading, and they give 'em candy. If one of 'em does good, they will give him three pieces of candy."
She speaks often in the third person ("Santa comes -- they do buy presents for the clients"), and she lives for the chance of a conversation with a staff member or the ward psychiatrist. The other clients make her nervous, she confides, some walking up and down really fast and "talking to nobody, or acting like I'm in their head." Sally prefers quiet people. In shaping class, she gets in trouble because all the clients are supposed to sit around the central table, and she likes to stay off to one side.
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