Burial on the Third Floor
Though he was a warm, generous, open-minded man, there were certain acts of kindness that Philip Bernstein couldn't perform. Visiting a nursing home was a good example. Of course he sympathized with the residents and realized how painful it must be to lose one's faculties. Some older colleagues in his department had ended up in places like Golden Terrace and Morley Manor. It was heartbreaking. But what good would it do for a happy, healthy 45-year-old, who taught the most popular course at Thetford College ("The History of Human Thought") to visit one of those decrepit ex-professors whose human thought had been scrambled to nonsense? Wouldn't seeing Philip in the prime of his life just add to their torment?
There was no reason for him to ever visit one of those places, those festers of human decay and bewilderment. Yet when his wife Nora asked him three times to come with her to see Charlene Sheets, who had just moved into Autumn Gardens after a severe stroke, Philip had no choice. Charlene was the mother of Nora's closest childhood friend, Petra. She had made Nora countless egg salad sandwiches and had taken her on the most wonderful camping trip of her life. Nora even referred to her as "my second mother." Still, Philip tried to get out of visiting her. But his wife kept pressing, and in the end he just couldn't find a convincing excuse.
The inside of Autumn Gardens smelled like nowhere he'd ever want to be. One odor covering up another odor covering up another. And whatever was at the bottom of that pile of smells was something he didn't want to think about. The air was overheated, the light harsh, the carpet a rich pattern of browns and yellows, ideal for concealing stains. Amateur landscape paintings hung crookedly on the walls. A home designed for people unaware of their surroundings.
Ms. Vaughan, the heavily made-up assistant director, led Philip and Nora to the elevator and toward their destination. The hallways all looked identical. Every resident's door was open. Occasional sounds issued-blasting TVs, moans, gibberish: "I'm not used to this," "I need to go to Afghanistan," "What's coming out of my rear end doesn't feel right!" In the middle of one hall sat a woman in a wheelchair, her head hanging limply forward, her scalp showing through her pathetically coiffed white hair. They passed other women, generally in the same posture.
Philip craved fresh air like never before. She won't even be conscious, he thought about Marlene, Darlene, whatever her name was. They passed another woman. Her eyes were open, but comprehended nothing. "Is it your birthday?" she asked Philip, attempting to wink. Where were all the men? Out playing golf? The absurd thought made his stomach knot up.
"This is the room," said Ms. Vaughan. Room 365.
A narrow hallway with a bathroom to the side opened up into a cramped room with a twin bed, a TV, an armchair, and hardly any floor space. The high window afforded a view of an oak tree, its leaves orange.
"Where is she?" Philip asked.
He didn't notice Nora's lack of answer because on the bookshelf was a family photograph, showing Philip, Nora, and their two children, Caroline and Jason.
"Look, our picture," he said.
Nora glanced at Ms. Vaughan, unsure what to do. Ms. Vaughan nodded to her and left the room. Philip peered at the various objects, more and more baffled. The painting Nora did for their anniversary? His Thetford mug? His pillowcase?
This was not like Nora. She wasn't a prankster. He turned to her, attempting an optimistic smile. "What are we doing here?"
Her face showed nothing but anxiety.
"This is amusing. But weren't you just encouraging me to spend more time on my book?"
She couldn't look at him. Her body was frozen.
"What's the message? You can just talk to me, you know. I understand English." His voice was getting louder. Why did she communicate so indirectly? It was the most irritating thing about her.
She took a deep breath, mustered the strength to look him in the eye. "Philip..."
But she couldn't go on.
"My lamp? My diploma? Is this my new office? Is this one of your shrink's brilliant ideas?"
He'd always resented her meddling therapist, Dr. Huzman.
"I...just want you to feel comfortable," she said.
"Putting my belongings in a dead woman's room is supposed to make me comfortable?"
She looked scared. He towered over her, a big man, a former wrestler.
"She's dead, right? You haven't mentioned this friend in years. I should have known."
Nora looked to the door. Her lack of answer added to his rage.
"You made this all up! I've never heard about your glorious camping trip and your chicken salad sandwiches." Suddenly this woman, whom he thought he knew better than anyone in the world, appeared foreign to him.
"Hello?" she called to the door.
"What are you trying to do to me?" he shouted in her face.
The door burst open and two huge men in blue scrubs charged in, Nigerian and Samoan. As Nora shrank into the corner, they pinned the writhing Philip to the bed. He thrashed around like a wild animal, thrusting out his jaws, trying to bite anything he could. Then he felt a sharp pain somewhere and the world around him dissolved.
He opened his eyes to find himself in his pajamas, under the bed covers. It was night, but the light from the hallway made everything visible. He felt a stab of anxiety as he recognized the picture of his family on the shelf. He tried to sit up, but got dizzy and fell back onto the bed.
He opened his eyes again. The light had changed. He made a few more attempts to sit up and finally did it.
In his bare feet, he came out into the bright hallway. No one was around. He headed toward an exit.
Around the corner came Solomona, the huge Samoan nurse, carrying a pile of laundry. Terror darkened Philip's face.
"You all right?" Solomona asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Let's go back to your room."
"I don't have a room. What are you talking about?"
"You'll get used to it, sir."
From a nearby room came a woman's moan, followed by, "My bed is full of frost!"
"Why are you going along with this? You know I don't belong here."
"It's not my job to say who belongs here."
"Just look at me. What do you think?"
"Whatever reason you're here, it must be for your own good."
"My own good? I'm a professor. I'm writing a book. Next week I'm going to Italy for research!"
Solomona looked at him calmly, giving away nothing with his expression.
"I won't insult you with a bribe," Philip said. The nurse stood motionless. "But what will it take for you to let me walk through that door?"
"Sir, that door requires a 9-digit code to open."
"So give me the code."
The nurse considered. "Okay. Stay right here."
Solomona strode down the hall with his pile of laundry. Just like that, the nightmare was almost over! All he had to do was ask the right question. In minutes, he'd be outside. His feet were bare and it was probably freezing out, but a cab would pick him up. He'd get home, Nora would weep tears of apology for her lunatic behavior, he'd go to a few therapy sessions with her, and soon this would all be forgotten. Fortunately, he hadn't run into anyone from the college.
The nurse came back, without the laundry. He was holding an envelope. "Let's do this in your room."
They sat on the edge of the bed. Solomona handed him the envelope. "It's from your wife. She thought it would help."
With trembling hands, Philip took out the letter.
"Dear Philip, By the time you read this, I'll have deceived you into staying at Autumn Gardens. I'm so sorry. I tried many other ways, but none worked. I know this isn't what you want, but if you have any trust in me-your first love, the mother of your children, your companion for so many years-you'll know I only did it because I truly believe it's the best thing for you. All my love, Nora."
"What 'many other ways'? This is insane. You know it is. Unless you're also insane."
"You'll feel more like yourself soon," said Solomona. "They gave you some extra meds for the first weeks, to get you over the hump."
"Weeks? Don't toy with me. You know I just came yesterday."
"It's normal to feel disoriented. Nothing to worry about, sir."
"You have no right to keep me. I need to speak to a lawyer."
"A lawyer can't help you here," the nurse said gently. "This is Autumn Gardens."
The room started spinning.
Solomona stood. This brought Philip back to his senses. He had to act quickly.
"I need to check my email."
"I'm sorry, but..."
Philip grabbed the nurse's scrubs. "I have a deadline for an article. My advisees write to me every day. I'm supposed to go abroad. I can't just be cut off from the world!"
"Get this over with," Solomona muttered to himself. He gestured for Philip to follow him into the bathroom and then shut the door. "You'll never ask me this again?"
He produced an iPhone from his scrubs and handed it to Philip. "You know how to use this?"
"Are you kidding?" Philip entered his email address. When asked for his password, he pressed the keys carefully, holding his breath.
His account opened. He beamed a smile to Solomona. Which instantly turned to dismay.
The only contents of his Inbox were pages and pages of spam: Ticketmaster, Viagra, Subaru of America, Mrs. Ibraham Abdelaziz, "Philip, you've won $10 million," Subject: None...
"Who are these people? How did they hack into my account?"
"It's just spam, sir. What fills up your account when you're not using it. Like mouse droppings."
But then Philip's eyes lit up with hope. "Beth Hansen! One of my students." Subject: I Miss You. He pictured a pretty young woman with glasses, typing on her laptop while holding a red pencil between her teeth.
He opened the email only to find a link to another address. Solomona snatched away the phone. "What are you trying to do? Give my phone a virus?"
At breakfast, Philip sat in the eerily still and lifeless atmosphere of the dining room. A few ancient people sat at each table, almost all women, about twenty in all. Some were asleep, some stared empty-eyed into space, some drooled and muttered, some played with their food, almost all wore bibs. A woman with an eye patch plucked out one of her beard hairs and examined it. A bald man with a tiny head stared at a gaping wound on his forearm, covered with a transparent bandage. A few people were talking, but not to each other, and not with any sense.
Philip's mind raced. He was handed a plate of heart-attack sausage and reconstitued eggs. It was the most repulsive meal he had ever seen...though it looked familiar. He would never eat such shit. But then his arm moved, and his fork stabbed the eggs, which clung together unnaturally, in the shape of a corn cob.
The drugs were doing this to him! There was no other explanation. All the people in this room with their drooping heads and slack expressions had been drugged into the same stupor. Drugged into submission. Submission to what? He didn't know. Maybe there was a reason to drug these other people, but why drug him? What was the point? Did they think he was a threat to society? A terrorist? They? Who? He couldn't think. He had written a 900-page book spanning 3000 years of history, but now he couldn't put a simple chain of thought together.
A loud belch woke him up. He looked across the table at a tall woman, another withered wreck of a human being, sucking on something white with a straw. She smiled. "How's the grub?" she rasped. Her lack of a voice box made the sound unearthly, but the question was reassuringly normal.
"Tastes like it was stored in a PVC pipe," Philip said.
Her laugh was more like a wheeze. But at least she could recognize a joke. "Your swallowing's gone south like mine. Crushed pills aren't like sugar and spice. But you'll get used to them."
And there was the solution. So simple! He'd been trying to put it together even before coming to Autumn Gardens, and now it all added up. A few months ago, he'd started taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, a standard one for someone with familial heart disease. There had been a few weird experiences. He'd gotten more clumsy. One night he'd put an ointment on his toothbrush. He'd called his wife by his mother's name. Et cetera. But a colleague of his, who was only 39, had had similar experiences. They weren't unusual for this drug. It was all over the internet.
That was how it all started! He must have done some other strange things, which had bothered Nora. Then, instead of talking to him about it, she'd talked to her shrink. Dr. Huzman had commanded her to set a few traps, which he must have fallen into. Remember that time she dropped him off at the college and "forgot" to pick him up? Now it all made sense. Those shrinks were devious. Dr. Huzman was the closest thing to Hannibal Lecter. He could have manipulated Nora into eating her own husband's flesh. Instead she had him put away, fed on a diet of powdered pharmaceuticals.
Now he found himself in this unbelievable reality: a young man surrounded by disease and dementia, and treated by everyone as though he belonged there. It would have been no more absurd had he gone to a nursery school and been treated like a toddler. Hands to yourself, Philip! Or an even better comparison: going to the zoo and being treated like an orangutan, or a tortoise.
Not a single person was helping him fight this absurd injustice. Not only his wife had betrayed him, his colleagues had shown no loyalty either. Was it so easy to install someone new to teach "The History of Human Thought," the class that made him the most popular professor on campus? And speaking of students, where were his children? They were only in grade school, too young to help, but why hadn't they mentioned to someone that their father had disappeared?
You spend your whole life learning how the world works, how people act and think, what one can and cannot do-and then you find out it's all fiction. Anything can happen at any time. (For example, the oak tree outside his window was somehow covered with fresh buds.) Cross the wrong person, and he can take over your beloved wife's mind and have you committed to a nursing home in the prime of your life! He can have everyone agree to treat you like a hapless fossil, and have you drugged until you're used to it. On a whim, he can turn your life into a totalitarian prison.
Everyone knew how intelligent Philip was. His colleagues often called him a genius. He appeared on NPR as an expert in culture, anthropology, literature, you name it. The man had a brain. But never before had he needed cunning. It was the only way to escape. And time was running out. The more pills he took, the more he'd be at their mercy. Soon he'd be spending lunch with his head drooping above lukewarm soup.
He executed the first step of his plan with surprising ease, almost as if there were no enemy. When Brooke, an idealistic young aide, child of New Age parents, was checking up on him, he put on a face of false cheer and said that everything was going wonderfully except for one thing.
"I love cooking, spending hours in the kitchen with all my recipes and ingredients. And now..." He lowered his head miserably and rocked it back and forth. The intuitive Brooke understood immediately.
She asked the head nurse if it was necessary to crush Philip's pills. No, that was just in the beginning because of his resistance to the routines. They would see if he could swallow them whole.
Philip easily demonstrated he could. As a bonus, he got to find out what the pills were for. When Candy, the nurse in charge of meds, put them into his paper cup, she would say: "This one's for your pain. This is for your heart. This one's anxiety. This one's depression. This is anti-diarrheal. This is cholesterol. And this one's for allergies." He had never been allergic to anything, but who cared about that? When he swallowed everything in one gulp, Helen looked on admiringly.
The next step was more farfetched, like something out of a movie. Yet he knew it would work. They weren't used to cunning 45-year-olds. He found his baggiest sweater and started wearing it every day. Fortunately, it was winter. (But wasn't it just spring? he thought, before stifling that disturbing train of thought.)
He practiced the maneuver in his room until he felt confident. Then he did it in the dining room. There was a cup of pills and a cup of water. He poured the pills in his mouth. Then, with the hand that held the water, he pulled the edge of his sweater out to make a space in which he could spit the pills. Once the pills were safely in his sleeve, he swallowed the water. Keeping his elbow bent, he subtly worked the pills up his sleeve until they were in no danger of falling out. Back in his room, he flushed the pills down the toilet.
For the first few days he felt incredible. He looked at his fellow diners and wished they could have the same experience. To have your mind back! Yes, they were all twice as old as him and maybe they did need the pills to keep their blood flowing and their bowels moving, but wouldn't it be wonderful still! He fantasized about all the diners standing up, shaking hands with each other (though they lived together, they had never really met), telling stories and jokes, rejoicing in one another's freedom. How wonderful it would be for everyone to awaken from the collective nightmare.
Helen belched, popping the fantasy. "How many people are here from when you first arrived?" she rasped. She noticed him looking around at all the residents.
Now he felt very dull, with a vague feeling of dread. Except for Helen and the employees, not a single person looked familiar to him.
"What happened to...?" He gestured with his head to an empty seat.
"Angela? She took to her bed a few weeks ago. Stopped taking food and water. Cold turkey. That's how a lot of them exit. Give up on life."
The dining room became silent. Philip watched the diners' small movements as if through thick glass.
"It's a mystery, isn't it," Helen rasped.
"How they get so many bodies out of here with no one noticing."
His mind felt like an airplane, piercing through the clouds and meeting the blue sky. Everything was so clear. He almost felt he could read people's minds. Of course there remained the troubling question: why was he trapped here? Blaming it on a shrink-led conspiracy was just drug-induced paranoia. There had to be a more straightforward reason. Why were all these other people here? Answer: because they were inconvenient. They had betrayed the people who wanted them to stay young, charming, and easy to deal with. They were a reminder of the decay everyone must go through, and so they were shoved into a corner and drugged into silence. Similarly, Philip, even though he wasn't decrepit or cantankerous, must have become inconvenient. But who was he so inconvenient for? The colleagues who resented him for his popularity? His children who were embarrassed by his sense of humor and way of dressing? His wife who didn't have a career and blamed him for it? In this clear state of mind, he could admit that he'd probably offended many people. But that doesn't get you locked up in a nursing home.
Not only was there no answer, but thinking about this too much hampered his prospects of escape. He was having dizzy spells regularly, brought about by these thoughts. If the spells kept getting worse, he might lose his chance.
Then opportunity knocked. Gina, the recreational therapist, along with her aide Debbie, had been taking some relatively functional residents on weekly outings: an ice cream shop, a scenic drive, a Disney movie. Now, presumably thanks to his recent self-improvements, he was being invited. Next week, they were going to a mall.
It would be the easiest thing for him to run off. But he could get farther by snatching Gina's purse in the parking lot and stealing the van. Gina and Debbie would be so concerned with their bewildered charges that no one would pursue him until he was long gone. He could use Gina's credit card to buy gas to get him all the way to Mexico. Then he could begin his life anew. He spoke Italian, which was close enough to Spanish to make the transition easy. He couldn't think about every detail. That made his head hurt and increased his dizziness. But the plan was sound. He knew that in his gut.
They were at the mall. His gut was full of McDonald's fare. He resented being led around like a child and having his head counted, and especially having to go to the bathroom with Frank, the male aide (chosen over Debbie so that Philip could relieve himself safely). But his imprisonment was almost over.
They were out in the parking lot, the handicapped spaces. Frank, a very slight man with thick glasses, joked with Jeannette, a babbling lady leaning on a walker. Gina counted the residents for the umpteenth time. Her purse dangled loosely at her shoulder.
Suddenly Philip felt lightheaded. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, waiting for the blood to return. When he opened his eyes, he knew it was now or never.
He stepped toward Gina and grabbed her purse.
She screamed. "What are you...? Frank!"
Frank looked up at Philip's crazed face. He froze.
"Do something!" Gina screamed.
Philip turned toward Gina. Something like a roar came out of his mouth, sending her backward, cowering. Jeannette toppled over. Harriet clutched her chest. Thelma shouted, "Stop that maniac!" Grace sobbed, "I never should have left my family."
Philip rummaged through the purse, hands shaking, throwing everything onto the ground until he found the keychain. About twenty keys. Impossible! He stabbed the car door with a house key. Another house key. Frank came toward him, but he roared him away. He stabbed the door again. The key fit. It didn't turn. Gina knelt over Harriet. Grace kept sobbing. This one looked like a car key. It worked and he got in.
He put the key in the ignition, turned it. The engine roared. The car was awfully big. The gear shift was in a strange place, by the steering wheel. In front of the van were three dazed old ladies. Gina frantically tried to remove them from danger. He looked in the rearview mirror. Hard to see, but the coast seemed clear! He tapped the gas. The van hopped forward. He applied the brake before the van hit Gina and Maude. Gina slammed her fist on the hood. He switched gears and looked again in the rearview mirror. He wasn't used to the van's height. But it looked clear behind, and sometimes you just had to trust. He put his foot on the gas. A distant memory of backing over a poodle flashed in his mind. The van backed into the traffic lane. No sounds of crunching. He was almost free.
Many cars were trying to leave the parking lot. Dozens. Hundreds even. A beloved humanities professor. Old ladies having heart attacks all around him. He'd always been a gentleman. Horns honking, many cars. Honking at him? Children with ice cream cones. Police car lights. More than one. Grand theft auto. Sirens blaring. The van crawled forward. The car ahead went in slow motion. His mouth was totally dry. A horrible smell. He felt something exit the top of his head, then there was a thud, then it was all over. For now.
He dreamed that his body shaped itself into the number 8. But he wasn't dreaming. His eyes were wide open and here he was again, in this foreign, familiar bed with that picture of his family staring at him. Brooke wiped his head with a washcloth. She transformed into Candy, as night turned into day and the oak tree's leaves came back. Candy crushed his pills with a mortar and pestle. He didn't resist, not now. Maybe he'd have more courage later, but he couldn't go through that again, the nausea and dizziness-not to mention the criminal behavior. For now all he could do was wait. Nightmares always end.
One day he found himself on the way to the dining room. Solomona walked beside him just in case. He was a comforting presence. "You're doing well, sir," he said, and it was true. He almost felt a spring in his step. Nothing made any sense, but there would be time to sort things out. There was no pressure: no rent to pay, no meals to cook, no classes to prepare, an all-expenses-paid holiday. It wasn't the most pleasant place, but he could deal with that for now.
They got to the dining hall. The usual assortment of human wreckage. No one looked familiar. Not a soul. Where was that woman, the one with the voice?
"Helen's not here anymore," Solomona said.
Philip looked at him anxiously, trying to discern the meaning.
"I can take you to her after lunch."
Philip ate in silence, unable to taste the food. A rasping voice echoed in his mind: "How do they get the bodies out?"
Solomona led him to the dim bedroom. Helen looked like a breathing corpse. Her eyes were slightly open, her cheeks hollow, her breath slow and irregular.
"Do you want to stay a while?" the nurse asked.
He could hardly understand the question. He didn't want to stay, but...
"Why don't you have a seat? I have to check on someone and I'll be back in a moment."
Philip sat in an armchair facing Helen. Her face looked strained, evidence of struggling. A crucifix with all the gory details hung on the wall behind her head. The atmosphere was peaceful, yet charged with profundity. It made no sense to him.
Enough was enough already. Nothing was going to change, and he was sick of playing along. If he didn't do something soon, he'd be here until he looked just like all the other vacant-eyed residents in their wheelchairs. Some of them had probably started out young just like him. They had stopped questioning, stopped trying to do something about their situation, and now they were still here, after forty or fifty years! But that would never happen to Philip.
Grinding his teeth, he stared out the picture window of the barely used recreation room. Snow was falling hard. He could charge toward the window, shoulder first, and break free. That would show them. He tried to visualize it. Arterial blood on the snow, frostbitten feet (he was in slippers), the canine unit sniffing him out, more humiliation.
But that might finally get through to his wife. How could she not have visited once? There was no pretending otherwise: she was having an affair. Her passion had made her totally lose judgment and integrity. She was going around like a teenager, more confused than he was! Thinking about her deep state of delusion made him almost feel sorry for her. She probably thought he was lounging around, reading his books, listening to music, as if on vacation. Because how else could she live with herself?
He tried to picture her. Maybe it was normal that he couldn't come up with her name (all those drugs), but her face, why could he only picture a lady from the dining room? He laughed bitterly. It was his revenge that he could only picture her as an old hag.
He looked at his watch. Only 10:30. What did that mean? Virtually nothing. Life now was just waiting-and waiting for what, he didn't know. And what was this ugly watch? He'd never seen it before.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and his heart leapt to his throat.
"Sorry to startle you," said Brooke.
He liked this one. She was sweet and cute. But he was through with letting people think he might be happy. He glared at her.
She smiled meekly. "Do you need to go to the bathroom?"
He felt the blood rush to his face. "Do I need to what?"
"Do I need to what? You don't ask me that. Never ask me that again! I know when I need to go and when I don't need to go! Who the fuck do you think I am, you little child?"
She swallowed and stood up a little straighter. "I'm sorry you're upset."
"I'm not upset. Upset is for little girls like you. I'm irate, I'm enraged, I'm...you don't know what I'm capable of doing!"
She took a small step backward and glanced toward the doorway. "You have every right to be enraged. I would be if I were you."
This calmed him for a moment. She continued, "I wanted to make sure you were ready for your special visitor."
"Who, the Nigerian nurse?"
"It's a surprise," she said with the utmost sweetness.
Abruptly he turned on her. "I don't want any more surprises, I've had enough surprises!"
He turned toward the voice. It was his daughter, a slight twelve-year-old with her hair in a ponytail and a retainer in her mouth.
She ran up to him and hugged him. He squeezed her so tight that her body almost snapped. When he let go, she had to catch her breath.
As they walked through the lobby, Solomona said to Caroline, "Sure you'll be all right?"
She smiled. "This is my daddy," she said. But the nurse watched with concern.
The summer sun beat down on the asphalt parking lot.
"My car's not here," Philip said.
"That's all right." She pressed her keychain and a small Honda's doors unlocked.
"That's a good one," he chuckled.
"I know it is, Daddy. But it's how we're getting to the restaurant."
She opened the passenger door for him. He stood there, dazed.
"Come on, Daddy. Get in."
"Has Grandpa been giving you driving lessons?"
"Yeah, I've been driving him around the golf course. Get in."
An intense fear ran through his body. She couldn't be old enough... So much time couldn't have passed. But then?
It was a beautiful day and he hadn't been outside in ages, but as they drove down the tree-lined street, he was fixated on her feet. How could they reach the pedals so easily?
They drove through the town's crowded business area. She maneuvered deftly around a stopped van. Philip put up his hands to shield himself.
"Don't worry, Daddy. I know what I'm doing."
She swerved into a just-vacated parking space.
On the sidewalk, it crossed his mind. He could easily escape right now. But it didn't fit. Escape from his daughter? Didn't he want to escape to his daughter? And if he escaped from her, who would take care of her? Besides, he felt so tired.
In the restaurant they were seated at a booth. The place smelled of grilled onions. He felt his stomach growl for the first time in... No, he didn't want to think about how long.
The waitress brought him an omelette. He peered forward to examine it for signs of powdered medications. Then he started eating. Yes, it was delicious, but not as he had hoped. His taste buds seemed to be blocked. And how was he going to pay for lunch? No cash, no credit card...
"Is everything okay?" Caroline appeared to be pitying him.
"No, it's not."
"What is it, Daddy?"
How could she be so dumb? She was always the brightest, most precocious girl around. Why was she pretending? He glared at her.
"Daddy, I know it's hard."
He felt himself turn red. "You know? What do you know?"
"I mean..." Her confidence was gone.
"Tell me what's going on," he said fiercely. "Where's your mother?"
She swallowed. "Mom's in Florida."
"What, on vacation, while I'm...?"
"She moved to Florida."
"That's ludicrous. She detests Florida!"
Heads were starting to turn toward their table. Caroline spoke extra softly to make up for his loudness.
"She thinks the sun will help her depression."
"She's depressed because she feels guilty about what she did to her husband."
"What about you and Jason? You're becoming wards of the state?"
"Jason can take care of himself."
"That kid can't put bread in the toaster without burning down the house!"
"Maybe we should go somewhere private."
Instead of responding, he bit off a huge chunk of muffin and chewed, fuming.
"Do you have any questions for me?"
Something about her willingness to talk, the openness in her young face, added to his confusion and terror. He kept chewing so he wouldn't have to ask questions.
"Is there anything you want me to explain?"
Stop talking! he thought. Suddenly, he was choking. She darted out of the booth and grabbed him from behind. Before she could begin the Heimlich maneuver, the muffin shot out of his mouth. He shook her off, fought his way out of the booth, knocking her to the floor and falling on top of her. He had to get away from her. He got up, and, despite an intense pain in his ankle, charged out of the restaurant. He stood bewildered on the sidewalk, looking all around, panting. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the glass door to the restaurant being pushed open. He whirled around and slammed the door into Caroline's face, knocking her backward.
He scurried across the street. Tires screeched. He went down an alley, came out on another street and went left. Up ahead looked familiar. The pain in his ankle made him dizzy. He wanted to sit down on a bench, but forced himself to keep going. The bookstore! He used to spend a lot of time here. A safe haven from all the madness. As he limped in, he feared the employees were also in on the plot. But their faces looked unfamiliar. He hobbled to the back of the store, the travel section, grabbed a random book, plopped down in an armchair. The book had lots of color photos, somewhere in Asia, many temples. The words were nonsense. His eyelids became incredibly heavy.
Two strong people supported him as they walked down the street. Caroline, ahead, kept looking back, showing the bruised lump on her forehead. Her girlishness had vanished. They helped him into a van.
"How do you keep finding me?" he said to no one in particular.
The driver, Solomona, looked into the rearview mirror and spoke to him like an angry policeman. "Sir, you're wearing a locked GPS bracelet. You will never get far."
Philip looked at his ugly watch. What was wrong with the band? Where were the holes and the little metal piece that went through them?
He sat in a wheelchair, looking out his window, some kind of heavy boot on his ankle. Every day the oak tree looked different. Green leaves, orange leaves, budding, bare. Those drugs. But they were better than becoming suddenly crazed or terrified or just highly embarrassing. They had convinced him. What did it matter if no one looked familiar? If he couldn't be sure anything in his life had really happened? Was he a married professor with two children, or had that been a dream? It was easier just to go with the dream hypothesis. He smiled when the word "hypothesis" popped into his head. Then he was back in the realm of confusion.
But at dinner time, everything changed. A beautiful young woman sat at his table. She had round eyes, high cheekbones, jet-black hair, and a nice figure. Like him, she was in a wheelchair.
Before he could think of a good opening, she spoke, smiling.
"My name is Bobby Jean," she said in a strong Carolina accent. "I'm here for a short spell while I heal."
"A riding accident. My horse, uh, Willoughby, he threw me."
"Sorry to hear that. Where did you get hurt?"
"Mainly the knee. But I'll be back on my feet any time now. What about you? The knee?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Then we'll both be back in business," she said, followed by a seductive smile.
He ate every meal with her. Through their conversations he pieced together her life. She was thirty-seven, and had grown up in a big, wealthy family who owned half the land in the county and hundreds of horses. She had been married, but when her two-year-old son died of a virus, the marriage fell apart. He thought of her as Scarlett O'Hara without the slaves. Having spent his life in the cold Northeast, he found her exotically enchanting, with her strong accent and her repertoire of winks and smiles.
He asked her if she had come voluntarily.
"Why of course, silly! No one can make me do something I don't want to do!"
For her this was the best place to recover from her accident. She felt at home here. Her dear grandma had "gone a bit daffy" and she had spent much time at places like these. But when it was time, she would be happy to go home. She described the beaches, the tomatoes, the hummingbirds, the thunderstorms, the live oak trees, and the stars so enticingly that he knew she wanted him to go with her.
He found himself getting erections at the table. One day he made a joke about his "Big Dipper," and she gave him her number one wink, something of an order he'd never seen before. That clinched it.
In the evening, he was sitting in front of his TV. He had to see her now. Not only had she restored his sexual being, she held the key to his entire situation. Her presence here was living proof that there was nothing wrong with him. It was rare, but young people did sometimes stay at places like these. Yes, he now had to admit that, like her, he must have come here for a reason, but now he had recovered and there was no point in staying.
He wheeled himself into the hallway. No one was around. Her room must be on this floor. He went down the hall, listened at each door. A sound would tell him it wasn't her room: a moan, a vulgar TV show. He passed employees on his way around. They greeted him, unaware of what he was doing. He passed the dining room, the recreation room. He'd almost gone in a full circle. Maybe she was on another floor? Then why would she eat in this dining room? Now he felt disturbed.
Ahead, the reassuring Solomona appeared.
"What are you up to, sir?"
The nurse was his ally. He had to tell him.
"Where does Bobby Jean live?"
Solomona laughed mischievously, and he felt himself blush. It was a good feeling.
"There," Solomona said. "Across from your room!"
That was strange, but strangeness no longer rattled him. Solomona clapped him on the shoulder and continued on his rounds.
He paused at the entrance to her room. He identified the movie by its sound: "The Philadelphia Story." She was in there. His entire lower body surged with fresh blood. He moved his legs. The boot on his ankle was gone. Why was he in a wheelchair?
He grabbed the rail by the wall and helped himself to his feet. He was fully restored, Philip Bernstein, standing on his feet and about to...
He took a few steps. The legs weren't used to walking, but they felt sound. The whole problem had been in his mind. It was all a test, which he'd finally passed! He could do whatever he wanted now.
He peeked around the corner and was almost overcome with arousal.
Captivated by the movie, she sat in a long white nightgown, with stockings and tennis shoes on her feet. She moved her lips in sync with Katherine Hepburn's.
"Shut up, shut up. Oh, Mike. Keep talking, keep talking. Talk, will you?"
Her lips kept moving as Jimmy Stewart replied.
Philip stepped into her room. "Bobby Jean," he whispered.
She didn't turn. "Shhh. This is one of my favorite parts."
He approached. She moved her mouth to the dialogue. He knelt beside her. Finally, she turned.
"Mike, you found me!"
"I want you so badly."
"And I want you, Mike."
He grabbed her around the torso and lifted her out of the wheelchair. She was surprisingly heavy, and her legs hung limp. But he felt too strong and virile to care.
He kissed her on the lips. Their mouths melted together, just for a moment. But the effort of holding her up made him short of breath.
"Take me, Mike. I can't wait to behold your Big Dipper!"
Weakening with each step, he lugged her toward the bed. He tried to lay her down, but came up short. She came down on the bed's edge, slipping.
"Save me, Mike. My horse has gone spooked!"
He struggled to keep her from slipping off, but she was too heavy. In a last, desperate attempt, he grabbed her above the ankle.
Her leg came off in his hand.
The rest of her crashed to the floor, back of the skull first, making a tremendous thud.
He stared at the stockinged, tennis-shoed prosthesis for a moment, and then, finally understanding what it was, hurled it across the room in horror.
She lay completely still, eyes and mouth agape. He knelt over the one-legged corpse. Was he witnessing reality, or something else? She looked like she was on the verge of winking or smiling, letting him know it was a joke. How could it not be a joke?
He kept staring at the face, the face that was just about to move. But the expression hardened into a mask. And he started seeing what he couldn't before. The white roots of her jet black hair. The false teeth in her gaping mouth. The wrinkled throat. The stitches running along her hairline, from ear to ear. The facelift.
His lower body went cold to the core. Full of nausea, he staggered backward, feeling along the wall. Her glassy eyes appeared to follow him.
He backed into the wheelchair, tripped, crashed to the floor. She kept staring at him.
He tried to stand, but couldn't. He could only crawl. Still feeling her eyes on him, he crawled until he found himself in a doorway. He crossed the threshold and shut the door.
The windowless room was dark. He felt for the doorknob and pushed in the lock. He was safe. He had outrun death!
The room was dead silent, except for the thumping of his heart. His eyes adjusted. There was a toilet and a sink. He could relax. But relax on this ice-cold floor, which had been soiled by every type of human filth? The thought appalled him. The filth, the corpse outside, and now something in the room with him, filling the air.
Panic set in: he had to stand up, get ready to defend himself. He reached for the edge of the sink, fought his way to his feet. Under the noise of his struggle, he thought he heard a voice. He listened. Yes, a voice. Was it inside or outside his head? Was there a difference?
The voice became clearer: "What do they do with the bodies?" It was no human voice.
He couldn't stay in the dark with this presence. But neither could he turn on the light. That frightened him even more. And he was too afraid to ask why.
The voice repeated its question. "What do they do with the bodies?"
There was no doubt it was in the room.
The bathroom was shaped just like his. He knew where the light switch was. But he couldn't turn it on.
Something rubbed against his lower leg. He heard the question again. The question was coming from down by his leg. Could he flip the switch and just look down where he was being rubbed? No, it was too risky.
The voice got louder. "What do they do with the bodies?" Now it was tugging on his pants leg. What would it do next?
It pulled more violently. He had to see what it was. He felt for the switch. Looking down toward his legs, he flipped the light on.
What was there to see? Only his pants and shoes.
Eyes down, he scanned the floor, looking for the speaker. He knew where the mirror was and he made sure to avoid it. But there was nothing to see down there.
Then his eyes inadvertently darted up toward the mirror. And he saw. He saw what he had been trying so hard not to see.
The presence in the room.
He squeezed his eyes shut. His heart felt like it would pound a hole through his chest. He could just sink to the ground, pass out, and probably never wake up again.
Instead, he opened his eyes again and looked.
The image in the mirror showed him an entire world.
In it, he saw his wife, face sagging, back bent, hands distorted by arthritis.
He saw Caroline, double-chinned, wearing thick glasses and a pants suit.
He saw his son Jason, balding, teeth discolored.
And through these images, he finally saw himself, as he really was.
About the Author
Screenwriter Joseph Waxman writes about everything from reincarnated presidents to robots that perform heart surgery. He is the editor of "Crucial Point," a journal of Tibetan Buddhist writing.