Robert Ready. Educated by nuns, brothers, and liberals, Robert Ready lives in NYC, Truro, MA, and teaches in NJ. Atmosphere Press published his novel, Eck: A Romance in 2021. His fiction has appeared in Antaeus, Mondo James Dean, RiverSedge, Reconfigurations, Antioch Review, Exterminating Angel Magazine, and elsewhere. On writing, he sides with Ishmael: “God keep me from ever completing anything.”
By Robert Ready
They had been there longer than any other current resident. So they had privileges. One for good-weather mid-afternoons was treading the goose-dung spotted paths on the hospital campus. They liked the vista of the Greek theater below the institute directors’ parking lot. The lot held yellow lines of ten shiny black sedans and four cherry red overland vehicles, parked on a downward tilt like spectators wearing wraparound tinted glasses. The view blended eucalyptus stands, observation nooks, clear openings onto the fifth green of the nine-hole golf course still maintained for people who could walk a hole or two, maybe play them.
Their attendant on these excursions was thick-middled Bridget, a sergeant in the security force. Bridget snuck a smoke amid knotted eucalyptus trees, telling them more about her difficult family, as they sat on a concrete stone bench. It was Bridget’s favorite way of drawing them out of themselves.
“Bridget’s a Jack of spades,” they said. That acted as an alert that the sneaked smoke was done because somebody was coming, probably somebodies, at a distance yet but coming.
When they had a big career it was in hospitality. “Ha!” they said now. “You could do that job, Sergeant Bridget. You care so much for everybody.”
Bridget marched out of the shadow of the willowing trees. They saw the edge of the butt crushed in her right fist.
“Somebody coming, love?”
They didn’t answer but concentrated on making a straight smile.
“Ready to go back? Keep going over the goose-poop path to the falls? Which?”
As if with invisible other fingers, they held the smile in their face.
Bridget’s flaw as a security guard was affection. She teared up. “I swear,” she said. “In your face is the silence of the just.”
She got on her wrist device to tell the front desk she was taking her charge just over to the fall. Another fifteen minutes only. They got the phrase to hum themselves, say it in bird. Bridget teared down. She was a professional.
They imagined that the firecrackle static of the radio receiver that Bridget held straight out in front of her was a cluster of little lightnings. When they saw things like that, they kept it to themselves, an old strategy from their days managing corporate social skills. Bridget, or any of them here, might misunderstand if they mentioned firecrackle lightning. Sometimes she told such optical memories to Dr. Des Salles, whom she recognized from the first as able to get them right. He was a passionate healer, a truly good and brilliant man who put them at their ease as if by some second nature. His full-scale oil portrait inside Tremaine, the main residence building, would do for a president.
The cigarette butt flicked up and away. They tried to remember the smell of cigarettes. The smell should have come up off Bridget’s fingers and uniform pants. But it didn’t. They worked on imagining smells they could no longer smell. They changed from that to welcoming the giant boxwood topiaries trimmed into a dragon, a giraffe, a mastodon. The three protected them from old harm as long as they sat right there.
Bridget started to hurry them along the path because fifteen minutes wasn’t that long.
“Step here. Watch for that there.”
They replied, “Goose poop.” It was sad.
“Don’t worry,” Bridget said and put a strong left arm around the shoulders of their blue denim dress. “You’re walking strong today. Just a little ways to the pretty rill. Look down here. Look at that one, my god.”
As they expected, two pair of grey Canada geese came by to usher the way down to the rill. They were fat, flat-footed, and officious.
“Geese step, step,” they said.
Bridget called them disgusting, tried to shoo the geese away. When the wild creatures honked, the Carlas laughed delightedly at their genus word, anser, which they spelled and imagined but could not say. The honking in answer stayed low in their throats. Just before they all got to the rill, the grey geese fanned out and rose up into a wedge formation of their kind in the sky. They watched and filled with the goodness of the day, saying “Geese step, step.”
The rill trickled so that anyone quiet could meditate by it. A calm man named Orland talked only to them. He wasn’t here now, but he had the privilege of coming by himself as long as he wore his red call button on the rainbow lanyard he made for it one week in crafts. Every day, he came here to write lines of poetry. Then he ripped them into shreds and threw them about. These were the little pieces of paper they and Bridget saw now adhering to the tremendous rust-purple hydrangea flowers the geese turd helped swell so painfully beautiful in late Augusts.
One of the Carlas spoke kindly about Orland to Bridget. “When Orland does that to his verses, shreds them and flings them that way you see, all he does is add more pieces and fragments and playing cards to the piles we already have.”
Bridget was taking off her right sock to put her sore toes in the cool running rill. They were close, but the two socks didn’t really match. She said, “When you hum that way, it sounds like you’re getting ready to talk again. Hum some more. Maybe today is the day.”
The two strolled into one of their favorite appearances. Clouds parted, patching high afternoon sun through. Even so, the cedar-boarded millrace grew more sound, an insistent gurgling against some blare from uphill downshifting by what must have been an eighteen-wheeler beyond the walled grounds in the Berkshires.
Bridget sat down on a boulder memorial to someone who recently chose to die her own way in her own time within the walls. She took off her right shoe and sock, turned the sock inside out, shook it, put it back on, listened, said, “Here come the sketchers.” Her watch device said, right on time.
The two front proctors halted the line to make conversation with them and with their colleague, whom they called “Bridgie,” a kind of tease.
Eight destabilized adults, the more advanced of them wearing their own clothes, the rest in colorful thick paper daywear, each held his or her sketch pad open to the session’s plein air work. The end proctor—they knew her as Edmilla though her ID badge said Edmund—carried all the sharpened art pencils in a leather shoulder bag that said Eleutheria in light blue stitched script.
The Carlas were polite to all, interested in seeing the individual work of three who were not too shy to show. They knew the vantage point from where the sketchers all had ink-drawn and charcoal-shaded how they had seen Mount Greylock. They had themselves twice done the Art Trek Programme but hadn’t drawn Mount Greylock.
Now there was a good deal of interacting encouraged by the four staff members. It became an impromptu art show. Bridget pointed out two especially, which showed careful attention to particular details of tree and sky. One of these two sketchers had an open-mouthed strong reaction to them. She started to hum and gobble at them. They and Bridget got away from her, disturbingly for all.
They said to Bridget, “That jealous woman’s acute depression needs more than art therapy, don’t you think?”
Bridget had no answer for what she heard from them. She simply said in spaced words, “It’s time to get back to Tremaine, Carla. For four o’clock movement. Or 4:15 personal seclusion, whichever you want, Carla.”
As the line of sketchers started moving again, something about their arhythmic gait and their downward heads imaged the Carlas back fifty years. Their father, once a corporal who served in Hawaii in the peacetime army, liked to take them in the car of a Saturday to the train station and wait for the Boston & Maine freight to lumber through. It took ten minutes. A lot of the freight cars were open but filled to their tops. Each had a different dirty color or faded markings. Its only sound was its wheels on the tracks. Each was clamped front and behind to two others. Each was squat, full up with somethings. Each went straight ahead, rolling geometry, alone in a great linking of squat, full, cars together in a funereal roll. They shut their eyes against the rocking, ending caboose.
“That’s it,” their father said.
Like that caboose, the last sketcher, moving with dropped feet, asked Carla what was for dinner.
They held up one, two, three fingers and said, “Marinated beef? Panko-breaded baked fish fillets? Vegetable quiche?” They held up a forefinger. The word went up the departing line, which didn’t have the last sketcher. People were saying, “Mmmm.”
They, the Carlas, had an instinct about what was for dinner that activated every day at 4:45. The ken of it came from their ten thousand days in the hospitality business organizing attractive menus that didn’t look the same week by week.
A proctor came back impatiently for the errant foot dropper.
They started responding to their own answer to a heard daily quiz about ingredients.
“Molasses, anchovies, white wine vinegar,” they listed by finger.
As the proctor guided the last sketcher back to the line, they heard him respond to each ingredient, “Right. Right. Right.”
They were alone with Bridget again, who placed the back of a cool hand on their cheek until the ingredients were each hummed and clicked out. Bridget spoke of their résumé list of employments at Aramark, Red Roof, USLTA, Cornell Hotel School, until calm nostalgia settled their face. When they got back to Tremaine, the Carlas chose seclusion for twenty minutes before dinner in the community atrium.
In the middle of the night, smoke alarms started chirping in sequence. In their assigned emergency line-up position in the bright main hallway of Tremaine, the Carlas talked to the upset alarm directly above them in the thirteen-foot ceiling. They saw no smoke, smelled no CO1. It would take a twelve-foot step ladder to get to it. There was some wailing and some audible shortness of breath among residents, but they remained standing or rocking or shivering in place under shoulder blankets.
Bridget rushed by, managing an encouraging glance. First responders came in emergency-practiced, carrying tools and dangling gas masks around their collars. The Carlas saw the way they looked at all the human weakness around them. They seemed to avoid making great official noise getting the situation under control. They decided there was no need to evacuate, made aware by the professionals what fright that might trigger.
The Carlas said to a red-faced, gear-burdened firewoman in knee-high rubber boots, “The central computer governing all the supplementary warning systems must be short-circuiting the whole backup upload function. It happened once when I was with Raddison in Cleveland.”
“Tweety-tweet to you too, lady,” the firewoman said. Then she looked ashamed and hurried away from them down the now streaked black and white tile hallway floor.
They felt good and bad at once at their power to repel. They decided that in the days ahead it would take to restore trust and order, they’d best utter only the sounds necessary to pee and ask for more lemonade, unless it was Bridget. During the day at least, they’d get into the bathroom alone, something they were already getting better at.
One day soon after, their Visitor came. Bridget made it inappropriately clear that at no time did she like either the Visitor or the visit. Dr. Des Salles himself came down out of his oil painting to join them. He found something else for Sgt. Bridget to do for the hour the Visitor and donor conferred with them as a privilege in the solarium. He sat beside the Visitor while they sat in an enormous red leather chair opposite.
The Visitor had a commanding, executive bearing about her. Her upswept hair was like a blonde-grey flame. She wore one ring, on her right little finger, that could open any door, pierce any ceiling, freeze any man. She kept calling them “Karla Karson, two k’s,” and tried to talk about “KK’s” industry-famous career, their thirty years of innovation and thought-leadership in the hospitality world. She was too important to wear a regular visitor ID badge, so they didn’t remember her name, something like Oris, Doris, Choris, Clarisse, Chochise, no. She was the head of a company that managed the lives of once magazine-recognizable chiefs, heads, and stars who were wrecked, rich, and alone in later life. Her kindness and compassion were unique, a work of financial art.
They did not mean to cause Oris Doris difficulty but they had an instinct of aversion to anyone who would say something to them like, “You are still everyone’s heroine, Kay.”
One Carla repeated in her incomprehensible sounds her own diagnosis of herself.
“Dissociative identity disorder with vocal phrenesis. The Procne complex.”
“Yes, of course. You are still everyone’s heroine, Kay. You know that. Is everything all right here for you still? Should I make any other changes for you with the good Dr. Des Salles here? “ She patted his left hand with her right. The gesture made them turn their head away.
“I still have time to listen to all you have to say, this time. Dearest Kay, I’d really love to know how you really are.”
They told the Visitor this story. It didn’t take as long in their language as it takes in this language.
“A conductor in a clown suit and a clown nose and gleaming white gloves, points both forefingers and thumbs at their musicians. Up and down like shooting pistols to trigger a note from that horn player and that string player and that tympani section. Their whitened face and long red-edged teeth in their huge mouth open up like laughing rubber to each musician they conduct. The sound is cacophonous, brass incoherence, crescendo out of diminuendo. Still, everyone gets to participate. After a while, they let the bandestra play all over the place on its own. Out of nowhere, the conductor pulls out a black freezer tote bag, reaches down into it as if it were forty feet deep. Flying up and out come individually gold-foil wrapped two-inch-square chunks of maple-sugar and clove-studded Virginia ham. The conductor underhands them singly to the players, calling them like pigs. ‘Pigs Eating Ham’ is what that page of their musical program says. When it’s all gone while all the music hits all the notes, they rise up terribly on the podium and gets them all to play one unhearably unbearable D-sharp for two-and-one-third minutes. The music hall goes totally dark. But lights finally go back on. They are gone. The remaining half of the players stare crazily out from the chairs they are belted into.”
Wildly lost in all their sounds, the Visitor snapped, like a crazy person right then in front of them. She chirped back, tweets, whistles, caws, da da dada. She tried to say Procne, but it came out procure. She tried to say swallow but it came out wallow, in trite phonemes, in aviary crackings. Still, it was a language.
To them, everyone else’s language no longer signified. In their lovely birdsong, the Carlas told about all they once were. All they had accomplished as a very improved child. All they loved to do and did for many, many others when they were the best there was in hospitality. At the same time, they were terrified that the Visitor would make total sense to the director. The director stood up magisterially, paid his respects again to the Visitor, and exited the solarium. The Visitor suggested that they too take a break by doing a turn of the solarium, over to the other side at least. They did so. The Visitor no longer sounded strange.
In a few minutes, Bridget burst into the solarium, marched over to the bank of hundred-year-old ferns, where the Carlas sat with the Visitor in wicker throne chairs in big sunlight motes. Bridget was furious, outraged, in full protection mode against the Visitor. Regular words were coming at the Visitor for what Bridget sounded like. They were disgust, contempt, dismissive.
“Don’t you come here and mock this woman, lady. Don’t you do it. You make fun of sorrow, you sick bastard. You make fun of hope. You are despair. Get up and get out.”
The Visitor regained her haughty bearing, did not move, but did not look at who was in front of her. Institutional guards surrounded her.
Bridget said to the Carlas, “Come on, love. We’ll go play cards until lights out. A nice
game of cards we’ll play.” She took them and their sounds of upset away from the Visitor and used her laser key to open the iron-plated solarium door.
As it closed heavily, Bridget held their left elbow. They walked down the wide hallway that had on either side evenly spaced, high-backed upholstered chairs under a hundred years of paintings of men like the director now.
Cards, nice. That would be good for awhile. They would see all fifty-two solitaire cards as fifty-two credit cards, or as business cards, licenses, insurance ID’s, as key cards, debit cards, membership cards, prayer cards, device and time cards, as hallway, travel, and rain-check cards, voter cards, National Parks senior admission cards, entry and re-entry cards. They could be Go-Fish, Monopoly, and Old Maid cards. They would play again the hearts and spades and clubs and diamonds of life that could be arranged and played face up and shown to prove just who we thought we were.