Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, December 27, 2009
This is a little story about my father, Thomas Barnard, who encouraged me
to write and who will always be my biggest fan. “You’ll be better soon, Daddy.”
“Hi,” he said to the two female graduate students who had been staying with the patient, doing their best to communicate with him. Women, his years of experience had taught him, were better at making patients – without gender specific disorders – feel comfortable. “Give us 30 minutes, and then wait outside until we’re done.” Saying nothing, the two left the room, the door locking shut behind them. Once closed, a security code was required to exit without assistance from the outside. The windows for this third story apartment looked ordinary enough, but didn’t open and were made of unbreakable glass – as were the lens covers for the surveillance cameras. There were no curtains or blinds. The glass in the windows could be darkened electronically with the turn of a dial.
“How are you today, Mr. Barnard?” Dr. Brian Cummings was the Chairman of the Institute for Psychological Studies where Thomas Barnard had been admitted a few days earlier. Notwithstanding his administrative responsibilities, Cummings continued to handle patients, deferring his more mundane management tasks to others he’d hired. With him that morning was Dr. Elisha Mercer, a junior colleague on the faculty. Together, they were in the studio apartment that was, for patients of the institute, the style of the room to which they were assigned. Thomas was standing, staring out of the bay window that looked out over the woods at the edge of the campus. It didn’t seem as if he’d heard them come in, so Dr. Cummings tried again. “Mr. Bernard?”
Thomas turned, took his hand off the wall where he had been standing and walked toward the two of them, clearly hesitant to talk, literally clenching his jaw to keep his mouth shut.
“He’s fully aware of his condition, isn’t he?” Dr. Mercer asked her colleague and mentor.
“Yes. It’s the reason he’s not responding. ..Thomas, this is Dr. Mercer. I wanted to introduce the two of you. She’s going to be working with us, helping to get you back on track as quickly as possible.”
“Hi, Thomas.” Dr. Mercer needed to hear for herself. “Tell me, how are you feeling today?”
“Fine. ‘I’m fine, that you?’ Is that all you can manage to say when someone asks you how are you are, how are things going in your life? Because things aren’t going well, are they? Not really. Having problems at work? Is your marriage is missing something? If you’re single, the men or women you’ve been dating – if you’ve been dating at all – don’t seem to care, and you’re beginning to think, well, that it’s got to be you. Thing is, you’re right. It is you. You need help. Nothing wrong with admitting it. Say it with me, ‘I need help.’ Seriously, say it out loud with me, ‘I need help.’ …Now, put the remote down, lean back and let’s spend the next 28 minutes figuring this out together. …Wait, you do have a something to write with, don’t you? If not, get it now while I…”
“Thank you, Thomas. I just wanted Dr. Mercer to hear your reaction.”
Thomas stopped alright, but had to put his hand over his mouth to do it, the stress on his face building as he struggled to relax.
“Com’on. Let’s sit down,…” Dr. Cummings gestured to the small round table in front of the small L-shaped kitchen in the corner. (Some patients were allowed to cook for themselves and eat alone, but not Mr. Barnard. Not yet. A small potted plant in the center of the table, its yellow petals helping to brighten up the room, was a gift from his daughter.) “I want to try something. We’re going to start by asking you a series of “yes” or “no” questions. First, I just want you to shake your head, “yes” or “no.” Don’t try to speak. Not yet, but when you do shake your head, try saying “yes” or “no” to yourself.
Thomas nodded to confirm his understanding, his hand still firmly covering his mouth.
“Okay, good. Let’s start with something simple. Uh, I don’t know, how about, ‘Is your name Thomas Barnard?’”
Thomas nodded in the affirmative.
“Good. We’re off to a good start,” Cummings smiled, as did Mercer, an obvious attempt to get Thomas to relax. “Now, are you an alien from the planet Zork?”
Smiling back at them, Thomas relaxed, but didn’t remove his hand and shook his head left to right.
“Whoa,” Dr. Mercer pretended to have been worried, “that’s a relief.”
…A few questions later, “Great,” Dr. Cummings’ praise was sincere, sensing how hard this was for Thomas. “So far, so good.” (Thomas seemed pleased.) “Ready to try an an audible response?
Thomas looked hopeful, even anxious to give it try.
“Okay. If you feel like saying more, just make “yes” or “no” the first word you say, and then stop, like you did when we first came in. Just…”
“Yes,” Thomas blurted out, his breathing suddenly heavy. Drs. Cummings and Mercer looked at each other and then back at their patient. “YES! Yes we can!” and then he slammed both hands over his mouth, mumbling the next few words of some campaign speech before he managed, only a few seconds later, to get himself under control.
“Let me guess,” Dr. Mercer turned to Dr. Cummings, “he’s been watching this History Channel special on the Obama campaign?” It wasn’t supposed to be funny, and she certainly didn’t mean to react as if it was, but she couldn’t help herself. An embarrassed Dr. Cummings held up a hand to cut her off, but to no avail. Like the occasional giggle that surprises a mourner at the funeral of family or friend, it was natural, however regrettable and unprofessional.
To both their surprise, Thomas laughed back, which they took to be a good sign, but then lost it. “No. No, no!” His voice was loud. “Shower and bath tub mold is no laughing matter. Sure, you can try the bathroom cleaners you find at the supermarket and home improvement centers – and they’ll work, up to point. Problem is, they’re mostly bleaches that only remove surface discoloration. What you need, is ‘Mold Devil!’ – the long lasting foam that penetrates your grout and stays there until your shower and bath tub tile is truly mold free. Don’t believe me? Take a…”
“Thomas,” Dr. Cummings tone was stern, “please stop.” But he didn’t.
“Thomas, cover your mouth if you have to, but stop.” Dr. Mercer thought it might make a difference if she asked, but it didn’t, not even after a few minutes of non-stop commercial, word perfect as far as they could tell.
“Okay. Okay, Thomas. We’ll come back this afternoon.” Dr. Cummings pushed back his chair and began to rise, even while Thomas continued his rant, using his hands, pointing aggressively at the two of them, grabbing the small plant in the center of the table and holding it up to an imaginary camera. “Com’on, Elisha. Let’s go,” and they left, closing the apartment door behind them to see Thomas on his feet now, shouting his sales pitch after them.
The two graduate students were waiting outside and had been observing on one of the flat screen monitors that are outside each apartment. “Your turn,” Cummings told them. “No notes. It’ll make him nervous. Everything’s being recorded. Just do your best to engage him on whatever subjects he’ll talk about. And be sure to write up and email me any comments and suggestions you have as soon as your shift is over, while they’re still fresh –each of you, separately.”
“Any subjects off limits?” one of them asked.
Walking down the hallway, Dr. Mercer spoke first. “It’s worse than I thought, Brian. I didn’t get your message telling me to meet you here in time to read your notes. How long has he been this way?”
“Hey, Dr. Cummings.” One of the students from his lecture course said “Hello,” rushing by on his way to observe a group therapy session.
“Hi,” he responded with a polite look, and then waited a moment for him to be out of earshot. “According to his wife, he’s been a broker ever since graduate school. Very bright. Very hard working. Moving quickly up the ranks, the usual story. He’d been making really good money, but recently began pushing his high net worth clients into progressively more risky investments. One thing lead…” He stopped in front of the elevator to press the down button, just as the doors opened.
“Excuse me,” Dr. Mercer apologized for being in the way of several students who were getting off.
Alone on the evaluator, Dr. Cummings continued. “The point is, he’s been told to take a mandatory month off – with pay, to his firm’s credit. They say they want him back, but his wife doesn’t believe them. Money isn’t the problem, at least not for now.”
“No. It sounds more like he’s burned out?”
“I agree. His wife says he tried some day trading, but lost a good deal of their savings until she made him quit. Since then, he’s refused to get help, until just a few days ago. He’s definitely sleep deprived, but there’s no evidence of drug or alcohol abuse.”
“What do you think accounts for the sales-speak?”
“It apparently goes back to when things began to fall apart at work. He started staying up nights, unable to sleep, watching whatever was on television, dozing in an out.”
“Any idea yet which was cause and effect?”
“No. It’s tempting to assume the pressures he was under at work set him off, but it could have been the other way around or something else entirely. His family life seems stable. No physical illnesses that medical has been able to find. The other day, his wife had trouble waking him, called an ambulance, and he’s been this way ever since. I think he’s struggling to get anyone to pay attention and identifies with these late night pitchmen.”
“He’s what, 35, 36?”
“38. A daughter in high school, and a younger son. I think he’s hiding in the infomercials he watches and can’t turn it off. He’s just not going to stop selling until…” Cummings paused in front of the desk of his assistant, outside the door to his office, to pick up his mail.
“You, know, Elisha,” he smiled at his protégé, shaking his head, “I haven’t a clue.”
“Oh, yeah? Well I do.”
He looked at her skeptically. “Okay, don’t tell me. Give it a shot. …In the meantime,” he thought it best to lighten the moment, “at least we know what to do if we have a mold problem.”
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