A Slice Of Virtue: Part V: Walkin’ Through Willahawkin

Mental Wealth At Willahawkin

This story is Part V of a book I’m writing called “A Slice of Virtue.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part I here.

An Entertainment, Part V

Group Time, they called it, but to Carl Prentice the times they met inside the green room with cages on the dirty windows felt like Circle Time for a bizarre class of kindergarten students.

Willahawkin Mental Health Center, however, was not a school, not by anyone’s stretch of imagination. Prentice knew the place was an asylum with a modern-day, politically correct, gentle name. The Center’s roster listed him as a patient of Ward 3, minimum security, no hospital gowns required. The psychiatrists, nurses, aides and group facilitators called the residents patients, yet Carl Prentice realized that he was a prisoner behind unlocked, yet formidable doors.

Group Time. Friday, June 29, 1979, 10:30 am

A fat woman named Maggie sat separate from the rest of the inmates, at a long Formica-topped table, grunting and groaning about the water-color markers the Lead Facilitator, Mrs. Sharp, had ordered taken away from her until she stopped wetting herself after eating lunch and visited the bathroom instead. “Fuck your filthy toilets,” yelled Maggie, “There’s ghosts inside the pipes underneath them. My mama taught me how ghosts smell. They smell like shit and piss pudding. You got shit and piss pudding inside your toilets.”

Mrs. Sharp wiggled her ample ass backward into the vinyl-covered couch cushions and smiled at the group of people in front of her. Prentice stared at the tiny clots of mascara that hung from the tips of Mrs. Sharp’s eyelashes. “Her lashes flicker like blinds on a naval ship’s spotlight calling SOS,” thought Prentice.

“So yesterday we were talking about what?” said Mrs. Sharp.

“She really doesn’t know,” thought Prentice. “The old bag’s earning a salary just for showing up, and I can become her victim or her savior.”

“We were discussing how to take responsibility for our mistakes and then move on toward success,” said Carl Prentice. He moved the thumb and index finger of his right hand up and down along his mustache as he spoke.

“Could you repeat your comment, Carl?” said Mrs. Sharp. But take your hand away from your mouth this time, so your voice won’t sound so muffled.”

Prentice slipped his right hand under his thigh and repeated what he’d said.

“Carl has a good memory, doesn’t he group?” said Mrs. Sharp. To Prentice her voice sounded like an off-key twirling giggle. “Anyone else care to expand upon that idea?”

“You stink like shit and piss pudding,” said Maggie. “I want to draw you sitting on the crapper.”

“Maggie, we all know that you’re an artist,” said Mrs. Sharp. “And artists can be temperamental at times. But if you really want your markers returned, then you’ll have to lower your voice and cooperate with the other people here who could use your help. That and take full advantage of our restrooms.”

Prentice thought he counted fifty-two eyelash flickers in the time it took Mrs. Sharp to reprimand Maggie. Maybe fifty-three.

“And how about you today, Amber?” said Mrs. Sharp. “Does our Amber feel like taking responsibility for the damage she’s done to herself in the past and then focusing on a brighter future?”

Amber Barnes rolled her shoulders backward and then forward, as if to release tension by loosening her muscles’ nervous grip on her upper skeleton. Prentice wondered if the lesions on Amber’s face were the result of drug abuse or the symptom of a fatal disease. He next looked at Mrs. Sharp’s face and imagined digging his fingernails into the flesh of it, so as to help the Lead Facilitator understand how it feels to carry obvious scars.

“I can’t talk today, cause my mind is bleeding,” whispered Amber. “When your mind bleeds, can you talk?” Amber bent her head back and studied the rust-stained ceiling tiles as she spoke. Mrs. Sharp smiled and her eyes continued to blink.

“You express yourself in the manner of a poet, Amber,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Perhaps you could write down your thoughts before our next group session. Carl, would you be willing to read to the group what Amber writes?” she said.

“Yes, of course, Mrs. Sharp. I read a lot of –“

“You’re muffling again,” said Mrs. Sharp.

Prentice caught himself smoothing down his mustache and quick grabbed his right hand with his left.

“Sorry, Mrs. Sharp,” said Prentice.

“No need for apologies here,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Here we’re all about admitting our regrets and then –“

“Moving on,” said Prentice. He forced an artificial smile to meet Mrs. Sharp’s nod of approval.

“So how about we leave it there?” said Mrs. Sharp. She glanced at her wristwatch as she spoke. “Tomorrow we can begin with our theme being that of . . .”

Mrs. Sharp scooted her behind forward to the edge of the couch cushion, stood up and walked to a black chalkboard. She picked up a nib of chalk and wrote No Apologies Here. Prentice listened to the tap tap tapping sound of chalk on board, along with the jingle of bracelets that shook as Mrs. Sharp double underlined what she’d just written.

“Can I use your chalk to draw you on the crapper?” said Maggie.

Carl Prentice giggled, but this time he kept his hand covering his mouth as he rubbed down his mustache.

“Okay then, group,” said Mrs. Sharp. “Tomorrow at 10:30. Now off with you to lunch.”

Prentice followed Amber out of the green room, but as Amber turned left and toward the cafeteria, he turned right and headed straight to the hallway’s end. A Plexiglas-enclosed room, where at regular intervals inmate patients were delivered doses of prescribed drugs, was to his right. A public telephone hung on the wall. Under the telephone was a stiff-backed chair. Inmates used the chair when they were talking on the phone. The chair was unoccupied. Prentice sat down. He snatched the telephone’s receiver and pretended to be holding a conversation with someone on the other end of the line. When he felt certain that no one was close to the pill-room window, Carl Prentice hung up the telephone, rose from the chair and walked through the exit door at the end of the hallway.

Outside, traffic raced, beeped and swerved its way along the four-lane highway. Prentice looked left and right, searching for anyone wearing an asylum uniform. When no uniformed personnel appeared, Prentice ran through all four lanes of traffic — ducking, darting and cutting his way so as to avoid collision — until he reached the highway’s farther side. There he slowed his pace to match that of other pedestrians and moved his body in toward the middle of the crowd.

Three city blocks later he turned left into a side street, then right, then left, then right again, as he made his way across the manicured lawns, around the summertime swimming pools, and through the quiet neighborhood. He was heading, by way of a circuitous route, to Harley Street. Francesca Olivera lived at 35 E. Harley Street, and she was about to entertain an uninvited guest.

Perhaps to be continued . . .

A Slice of Virtue: Part IV: The Past Is Yet To Come

An Unexpected Knock On The Door

This story is Part IV of a book I’m writing called “A Slice of Virtue.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part I  here. Find Part V  here. 

An Entertainment, Part IV

“Why, Jackson? Why did you have to –“

“I didn’t.”

Both men stopped talking as Lydia Carson approached their table at The Club Revere. Jon Trainer thought that Lydia’s facial expression revealed alarm and maybe a touch of fear. Her eyes appeared to be wide open, red and teary. She banged the table’s edge with her hip, hard enough to upset Trainer’s glass of iced water, and then she flopped her body down into the seat beside him and breathed a long sigh.

“I’m sorry, but –“

“Not a problem,” said Trainer, as he slid back his chair in an attempt to avoid the stream of water that ran toward his lap. “Are you all right?”

“I’m not sure, Jon. Mark and I had a visitor early this morning, and –“

“And is that so unusual?”

“He was asking about you. Said he was a detective. Showed me his ID card.”

“Wait a minute. This a joke, right? I mean, when you walked in here, I figured Jackson invited you, but this is going too far for a prank. You look scared, and you have me worried now. What’s up?”

“I told you. I didn’t,” said Jackson to Trainer. Jackson pointed a long, brown finger in Trainer’s direction as he continued to speak. “I didn’t invite anyone but you. I thought we came here to talk about renting a house together. Look, should I just leave you two alone to sort things out? I mean, I can go see Douglas now and sign the lease –“

“Hold on just a minute, Jackson,” said Trainer. “I’m not quite understanding what’s going on here.” As he spoke, Trainer rubbed the thumb and index finger of his right hand up and down along his mustache, so his voice sounded muffled.

“I don’t want to upset you, Jon,” said Lydia. “But I’m kind of upset myself. This man, this detective . . . well, like I said, he was asking –“

“Slow down, Lyd,” said Trainer, who was still smoothing down his mustache as he spoke. “You want a drink? You look like you might need a drink.”

“Mark doesn’t know I’m here. I gotta get back soon. What with his running in to you and me last night, and all, well we’re fighting with each other as it is. I just came here, because when you didn’t answer your phone, I figured you might be here for brunch, and I wanted to warn –“

“Warn? You wanted to warn me?” Jon Trainer noticed that Lydia’s hands were trembling. Again. Much as they had trembled the evening before when Mark met the two of them at the cafe. Only this time more than just her hands seemed to be shaking. Jon tried to meet her glance with his own, but her blue eyes darted this way and that inside their sockets.

“Okay, Lyd. It’s okay,” said Trainer, although he understood that nothing would ever again be as simple as okay. “Tell me what questions this man asked you. Was he local?”

“This ain’t none of my business,” said Jackson, as he stood up and pushed back his chair. “You can get the check this time, friend. I’m off to see Douglas. I’ll call you later. Take care. And Lydia, you look damned sexy when you’re nervous.”

Jon knew that he had more important concerns at the moment, but he felt his face flush with anger as Jackson walked toward the restaurant’s front door. Flirting, especially with a so-called friend’s current love interest, was a compulsive habit with Jackson Chessman. Jon avoided confrontation with Jackson only because he needed the man’s cooperation if he was to survive, financially speaking, this move from one coast to another.

“He didn’t say where he came from, not exactly. But he sounded like he knew the place where you and Francesca lived. He asked me if I knew you well, and if I could tell him where you were staying now, and if I ever heard you talk about a place named something like Weehawkin Creek and –“

“One thing at a time, Lyd. Did you tell him that I’m subleasing Debra’s apartment?”

“Do you know this man, Jon? Do you know why he’s here, at my door of all places, asking about you?”

“Not exactly. But I’d guess that one of Francesca’s friends is trying to get hold of me. I told you why it’s important to me to be alone, away from her right now. So what did you say to him?”

“I admitted that I know you; that much seemed obvious anyway. But I said that we just met each other, and that all I knew is that you had an apartment somewhere. Look, please tell me, Jon, because I’ve never had a detective knocking at my door before. Maybe this is none of my business either, but I happen to be falling in love with you at the same time things between me and Mark are falling apart. So can you tell me why Francesca would want to talk to you so badly that she’d hire a detective?”

Trainer inwardly jumped at Lydia’s suspicion that it was Francesca who had hired the detective. To let on otherwise would be to give up the game and thereby force him to move a second time in quick succession. He wasn’t ready just yet to take to the skies again.

“Like I told you many times before, Lyd. Although I left all my worldly possessions behind with Francesca, possessing me is what she seems to want most of all. I’ll take care of this. Just promise me, if you can, that you won’t answer any more questions from this so-called detective, not at least until I’ve had a chance to contact Francesca and set her straight. There’s nothing here to worry about. This all fits in neatly, I’m sorry to admit, with my history where Francesca is concerned.”

Jon Trainer couldn’t guess, of course, whether or not he had convinced Lydia Carson that she need not feel anxious. But for now, he thought, a nonchalant air of self-control was the best he could do to contain the situation. He leaned back in his chair, snatched the cotton napkin that lay beside his plate, forced from his throat what he considered to be a lighthearted chuckle, and wiped at the wet stain on his trousers.

“So you and Mark are arguing? I’m sorry to hear that, Lyd. But I’m here for you. When will I see you next?”

“Can I call you after things have calmed down?” said Lydia.

Jon noticed the subtle stutter of hesitation in Lydia’s voice, and he tried to ignore the same.

“Of course. Now please go home and try to relax. I plan to do the same.”

Lydia pecked him on the cheek before she turned to leave. Her lips felt cold and tight.

Jon Trainer laid down what he thought was enough cash to cover the bill and followed a comfortable distance behind Lydia Carson.

Willahawkin Creek. He hadn’t bothered to correct Lydia’s pronunciation of the place. But it was the detective’s mention of Willahawkin Creek that most concerned Jon Trainer.

Jon would not be going home just yet, and he couldn’t imagine when he might next feel able to relax.

Perhaps to be continued . . .