YOUR DESTINATION, YOUR CHOICE
The sign says it all. The Hill is where you end up when you are living on the tendrils of a receding world of recognition. Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. The disintegration of your importance is slow at first, then gains speed, until any significance to anyone and anything that gives you identity or purpose is trashed, spent, tallied out. You are left with the part you hold on to when most of you is crumbling, and that precious little that is left barely keeps you alive. You look back, wanting to relive the scene where you were ambushed, taken by force, so that you can somehow understand it, rectify it, avoid its recurrence. But it is too late. There is no understanding, no redo. The irrevocable turning point has caught you in a chokehold and there is no plan, no hail mary that will save you from falling. It is the moment when you realize you have been thrown for a loop and everything you do or try does not work. Then, a hand reaches out, you look up, and are stunned that there is one more chance. This is the Hill.
The Hill is a holding station, a twilight happy hunting ground that discards you if you resist but keeps you breathing only if you give up. The Hill is your last chance to redeem yourself, but first you must find out who you really are. Here, they share a particular bond, these specimens of poor character, players of lost causes, studies in a half-life. They are trainspotting opportunities that never stop for them.
Some are still harboring their old tricks, and that is why they called me in. Someone is not playing on a level field here, and I was summoned to weed out the kink in the order of things.
IT ONLY WORKS IF YOU WORKOUT!
GIVE UP YOUR OLD SELF
BECAUSE THIS IS THE NEW YOU!
The sign over the gym area shows the way out, or the way dead. It’s a generic looking place, with decoration an afterthought, a feeble attempt to cover the inevitability of your dilemma. In the lobby, a fake fire blows worn green and red strips of crushed foil fluttering upwards, giving off the relentless appearance of continuous disappointment. The love seats have pillows that have worn their invitation to comfort. They sit unoccupied, facing each other across the plastic faux mantle overlooking a prefabricated vinyl hearth. Magazines no one ever picks up lie on the low table, stained with circles of spilled coffee cup containers. On the grey walls, generic prints of mundane still life feature faded oranges and apples that could never be real. They appear flattened against the somber ray of a descending sun on a mournful day. A basket of stale mints lay exposed, offering tainted refreshment to those seeking respite from a peckish urge. The room is dressed as if expecting a party of enthusiastic vacationers reveling in the new digs. But the only takers are resigned detainees forced to endure this inhospitable hospitality. They have no other place to go to take a break from the debilitating monotony of waiting. All these empty promises of lifestyle and comfort look back at them in a catatonic, immovable stare.
I know this place. I’ve been here before. That’s why they called me in.
There are the downy birch trees and buckthorn bushes that straddle the Flemish bond brick village walkways leading to small rebated doors. Behind these are individual living compartments. There is the same layout in every unit. You could be blind, and chances are you would find what you were searching for in someone else’s unit because it is all the same. Paper towels on the left by the sink. Fridge on the right, two steps over. Air cooling units blast frigid air into the compartments, while dissipating internal heat outside onto unfortunate plants situated around the exhaust units, all of it failing to elicit a cultivated, manicured look. The pastel colors of the filigree and decorative adornments of the lighting fixtures evoke a cartoonish, dreamland world all too unrealistic to be appreciated.
The people who run the place in the head office look legitimate, but they are just as much a part of the plan as the surroundings. There’s Bernadette with her raven hair and slim, petite form accented by her alabaster skin peeking through an embroidered, snow-white eyelet shirtwaist dress. Always enriching her façade of propriety and service. But that tart, key lime pie smile of hers does not hide her craving for a rumpy pumpy behind her office door, blinds closed please. Just enough to make one feel alive one more time as they go under this clockwork orange detox.
They are all desperately looking for the providential moment to claim a defiant crack in the order of things, things that have wound up tight with conformity and restriction. Here, structure is king, and the king is a ruthless queen that metes out castigation with low voltage prodding.
That would be Susan, the quintessential black spider siren, hottest-thing-you-ever-laid-eyes-on management queen who’ll kill you with her spiked heels and ray gun eyes. She fancies herself no less than a Princess Royal, where an encounter with a little submission goes a long way. She relishes being taller than anyone she talks to. She revels in looking down on your pain. A 50-foot goddess. I’ve noticed how many approach her with eyes focused to the floor. I know better. I look her straight in the eye, and nowhere else, and then she knows who she’s dealing with.
That’s why they called me in.
There’s Kenny, a forceful, detached handyman with a haughty Limey demeanor. He’s easy to spot, driving around the complex on his service cart in his spotless ochre overalls with the HH insignia. You’ll know if you’re in his good favor by the speed with which he responds to your needs. He deftly expresses his prejudice by discriminatory scheduling of requested repairs at the site. If you persist, or give him too much flack, he starts preaching about the demise of England and the golden years of the Empire under Elizabeth I. Otherwise, Kenny keeps to himself.
ASK FOR HELP
NO GAS CANISTERS
I knew the assignment would be a career breaker. I could handle anything, and they knew it. I set up my base of operations in compartment #3, though when I first saw the occupant in #5 next to me, I thought I would have to move. The tenant was a prying old geezer, Jimmy, who thought himself a gumshoe but was actually a brain damaged former x-ray machine operator. He once worked at St. James University Hospital in Leeds. You know, the one that made the evening telly about the inordinately high rate of employee death by radiation. Jimmy knew too much, but he never brought it up. My instinct is that he might have been one of the reasons for so many of those deaths in Leeds, but he’d be the last to bring that up. He looked old and decrepit, and he would be tolerable if he hadn’t become his fat dog’s bitch, feeding the thing a treat for every step the damn dog took. Jimmy glowed inside, from years of radiation exposure. He was too lazy to don his lead vest to protect himself and now he was paying the price. That inside radiance of Jimmy’s went dutch on his demise with his two pack a day cigarette habit. I would feel for him except that he’s killing his pet dog as well. I mean, it takes Jimmy a good three hours to walk it, with most of the time spent standing there, right in front of my back deck waiting for the animal to get off its ass and move on. But Jimmy won’t push her, oh no. He sweettalks, cajoles, whispers inane pleas and tosses her another treat, and the dumb sack of fat just eats it up. I feel sorrier for the mutt than Jimmy. Living this way won’t give her a chance of a long life. I am surprised she is still alive after watching this happen in front of my compartment. I’d say Jimmy should know better, but I would never expect it.
Down the cement walkway by the community room, Marylou, another winner, pretends to work the elliptical in the campus exercise corner. She fancies herself a vegan and smells like one. I once brought in a fried Marylebone banger sandwich with oily chips into the exercise center and watched the old ex-hippie get pissed off at the aroma filling the tiny room. Who gives anyone a name like Marylou? Were they covering their bases just in case she decided to transgender? Marylou doesn’t give anyone the time of day if she thinks you are more dim-witted than she is. Always promotes her sad self as the pseudo intellectual, the defining controlling authority on everything. She is frequently seen with the Kashmiri couple in #9, who work in the nearby pharmaceutical plant. She thinks they’re scientists, with big, fancy degrees, so she engages them by making roghan josh and inviting them over. Smells like burnt curry for days. The couple feign graciousness by repeatedly chanting, “Gas dafa, gas dafa!” as she bows appreciatively like a Cantonese coolie. Wrong culture, sister. They are really saying, “Get lost, get lost!” She’s too stupid to realize they only pretend they don’t understand much English. The old witch doesn’t know they are spies. I’ve been following them since their college days in Bath. They were exchange students who ended up in pharmacology because they didn’t make medical school.
They are undercover agents. I know this. I’ve been following them for years. I can mix among them unnoticed and I had clearance. That’s why they called me in.
Down in #4, Donnen, a raspy old kilt dresser with an annoying attitude and a mongrel that overruns him on his daily walk, sticks his interfering ass in every little trite complaint and belly ache, which makes up most of the conversation among these poor misfits. Always about the paltry National Insurance. Every dog owned by these circus rejects has been given a sentence to act like their pitiful masters. Collared and harnessed like their owners, they tug and pull, hoping one day to rip the leather strapped around their necks and bellies and run off into the wooded embankment filled with squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, and possum. They might get eaten, but they would be among their lot, and that would make them happy, and free.
MIND YOUR PET!
Lenny, the retired postal worker, walks the complex incessantly, and at all hours of the day. “I need exercise”, the fool mutters to himself as I pass him. Probably thinks he’s still delivering the Royal Mail. I wonder how many letters he’s lost on his route. Or stole. I’ll have to check the mailboxes to insure he hasn’t tampered with them. I never see Lenny walk any animal, but he always carries a tether.
These pathetic leash holders can’t get away, not even for a moment. Kenny sees to that. He also keeps an eye out for the college type kids brought in for grounds keeping every fall. They are really here to pry on errant resident activities. Pepper spray works wonders on runaway dogs and expelled freshman. One of them, a greasy sociopath who knows no other wardrobe colors other than black, rolls his dented pickup from another era and bumps it into the walkway, marking up the curb edge. Looking for another statement of resistance, I bet. Thinks he can change personalities like his black hoodies. You can’t put a bunch of outliers like these together and not expect a crime to happen. That’s why I’m here. That’s why they called me in.
All of them, takers on a pension, are living out a life now controlled by a government agency, the National Insurance. That’s where I come in, an M-5 level. They may be retired, but they carry proprietary information. They have secrets. I already know this, and what they don’t know is that they could never be let out again. Somewhere, somehow, someone is leaking those secrets out, and I have my work cut out to find out the perp.
So here they are, all in this propped up, suburban fakery, acting out their daily constitutional as if were something they looked forward to, as if they cared. When all they really want is to get out of range of the pencil protecting nerds that have been placed around them.
SAVE THE DATE – POOL PARTY AUGUST 15
BANGERS, CATERPILLAR CAKE, FROLIC
Be Seeing You! Management
Can you just imagine it? That femme fatale at the front desk signs off on a get together for the Hemlock Hill Community. Another ploy to probe the poor chaps for information on what they know. What if they find out they all want to terminate them and each other? There are no sides here, only opportunities. I’m here to find out. That’s why they called me in.
Bernadette, darting between looking up records of “members” and surveying me to see if I was fixed on a permanent gaze of her décolletage, began to compile the list of suspects. The usual candidates showed up on her screen. Lenny, the walker, Jimmy the creep, Marylou – did I mention she keeps rats as pets? She thinks they are sacred vermin. I know better. She’s no worshipper of Karni Mata. I know Hindu.
I decided to get proactive and investigate the motive behind this communal get together by the pool. Somehow, I figured the setup of a social event had ulterior purposes and I was going to get a head up on what that reason was. I waited until dark, until after Lenny made his last pass for the day. Jimmy was asleep, exhausted from his dog duty, Marylou was ohhming herself into a trance, Donnen was dozing in front of the telly, ready to fall fast asleep in his CPAP machine, I would imagine. The management team had gone for the day and was replaced by a lethargic, security retiree more interested in his iPhone than the closed circuit monitor he was charged with watching. His face reflected the only light in the front office. The security hack was deep into his Trivia Crack Level 1. The bloke never got past beginner level.
I opened the gate to the pool. It was unlocked, which ignited my sixth sense. Just who unlocked it? And when? The entrance was steps away from the Management Princess’s office window; her blinds never closed. Did she know, and if she did, why didn’t she tell me? This was getting murkier by the minute. I was now in my element, checking every noise, every shadow, every nuance of movement. It felt great, like old times, when I had a truckload of cases to solve and I’d succeed in cracking them in a matter of days. A little Eastern wisdom goes a long way in a Western culture. That’s because we see inside first, then look out. That is the curse of the Western way of living. It is easy to distinguish between the world and the spirit. I have a sense about this. That’s why they called me in.
Then it appeared. Without warning, a slimy, moving darkness floated near the center of the pool. The form slowly approached my end, staying underwater as if to prepare for an engagement. A distinct fear of the unknown grabbed me, tugging and ripping away my fortitude, my courage, my power. But I held my own. I stood up to the threat, prepared to engage. I had foiled the perp in the middle of his plan by discovering his hideaway, his lair, beneath the blue green waters of the pool. I was certain he was preparing to do his deed at the height of the party, and I began to suspect that he had the total support of the lovelies in the front office. Who else would have unlocked the pool gate? Then I realized the trap had been set.
I felt a sharp pain invade my body. I began to lose focus, then dropped to the edge of the pool before I blacked out. Cloudy visions danced in and out of my head, like I was in a surreal consciousness being controlled by everything turning white. Voices in white forms pleading to me to wake up, the sky, suddenly bright blue and luminous, white all around me. It felt warm, encased in comfort, not needing to exert any of my muscles in my entire body.
When I came to, the perp was gone, the voices, the whiteness slipped away, and I was safely tucked in warm sheets. I felt my body to check for wounds. Nothing. Might have been a dream, I thought, but I somehow knew it was real, and I would find out. That’s why they called me in.
The blues and twos wagon backed toward the registration entrance. Two attendants administered oxygen to the disoriented patient. They had set him up on the gurney and shelved him into the back of the wagon. Kenny, in his morning rounds, had discovered the occupant in #3 curled up and nearly unconscious by the pool’s edge. The occupant had suffered a violent reaction to a new treatment regimen and had regressed during the three-day experiment at the Halfway Wing of Hemlock Hill Hospital. Dr. Bernadette Simmons, resident psychiatrist, looked on as Susan Host, Chief of Staff at the Halfway Wing, signed the transferal papers to admit the patient to Psychiatric Observation, North Wing.
Jimmy, Marylou, Lenny, and Donnen, their lab coats waving in the windy fall morning, arrived too late to see the patient off but knew the outcome as they watched Kenny return the patient care registration lobby back to its normal look. All those hours of role playing to elicit a patient back to sanity had been for naught. It was an admirable undertaking. The research committee had created an intervention treatment that replicated daily acceptable normal behaviors within a controlled environment. The idea was to enact this scenario of a healthy normal life and expose it consistently to the patient. The theory was a procedure of cultural osmosis, developed in a laboratory at Hemlock Hills using rats as subjects. It was the brainchild of Marylou Hutchins, a resident behavioral research scientist. Jimmy MacPherson, a veterinary researcher who developed radiation treatment levels for animals diagnosed with cancer, assisted in the experiment. Laboratory technician Leonard Poole, managed the findings of Dr. Hutchins’ observations with Donnen O’Connell, neurologist at Hemlock Hill University Hospital.
Dr. Hutchins’ associates, Sagheerah Bhat and Abhinada Munshi, pharmacists at Zeneca Pharmaceuticals adjacent to the hospital, managed the medication therapy for the experiment.
As the emergency wagon carried #3 away, Kenny checked on the condition of the pool and retrieved a black raincoat floating against the edge. He whipped away the loose water and hung it out to dry. He noticed the fishline that had been attached to the button hole of the left shoulder epaulet. He gathered the line into a coil and tucked it under the collar. He thought about the latest patient in #3. Too bad, he pondered, he might have needed it for a rainy day, someday.
In the distance, by the bark park, Sagheerah and Abhinada, relieved at the departure of the insolent occupant in #3, had sensed his disdain throughout the experiment simply because of who they were. The patient was Adivasi, and they knew of #3 and his long-ingrained ethnic prejudice. Simmering in an emotional moment, they burst out in defiance, “Gas dafa! Gas dafa!”
Kenny turned toward the Kashmiri couple, snickered, then burst into laughter, thinking how a simple fishline and an old coat scared the sanity out of the poor bloke. Kenny knew if anyone didn’t assimilate here, they would be extradited to their country of origin. He coiled the fishline and tucked it under the collar buttonhole. He would use the raincoat again, twice.
One by one, Kenny thought, he’d send them all back to where they came from.
All for England.
HEMLOCK HILLS HOSPITAL
KEEP BACK 200 FEET
John Bonanni spent the last forty years in the theatre on tour, Broadway, Radio City Music Hall and elsewhere managing sensitive personalities. His articles appear in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Inspired Living Magazine, and Senior Outlook Today. He is in the MFA in Creative and Professional Program at Western Connecticut State University.