Tracy never judged him for it, but she knew that Lars had spent too much time, having dreamed too long, before resigning himself to the responsibilities of adult life and becoming the reliable human being he secretly and anxiously despised. Which he did, and he more than made up for his late start by mercilessly driving himself into his work at the media consultancy firm, sailing steadily and quickly from promotion to promotion, "skittering across the pond like a stone" being his favoured stock expression when speaking about his career fortunes.
Tracy could not say exactly when the problems started, or she was in denial of all the usual symptoms that seemed too obvious to consider. Perhaps, she justified to herself, it was natural for a husband to lose a little interest in his wife due to habit or the stresses of work. Lars was not in the danger zone of alcoholism, but he seemed to drink a bit too much at family functions and insisted on his after-work whiskey. He had spent a bit too long tarrying with "the boys", coming home on Friday nights a touch sloshed, and though he seemed affable enough, Tracy knew it was a front. Lars was anxious and depressed.
Four years ago, Tracy had delicately suggested Lars go on medication. Of course, she didn't want to signal some sort of deficit in him that would cause him to react defensively, so she gradually introduced the idea in a cushioned way, just enough to make it seem to Lars as though he had come up with the idea himself. There was no problem in being diagnosed a little on the depressed side, and his prescription was regularly filled with no more fuss or attention than paying the water bill every month. If he was showing any signs of improvement, these could have been illusory - Tracy's hope glossing over reality. In time, it did not seem as though the pills were having any appreciable effect on his mood or behaviour; in fact, he seemed to be in a perpetual funk. She felt it most strongly in the bedroom; their lovemaking sessions that were once a nightly storm of the passions were now reduced to a monthly obligatory servicing of basic need.
The turn occurred one year ago when Lars was suddenly flush with grand new plans. He started openly musing on a career change, something that was far from prudent given his age and how well ensconced as he was at the firm. He also fiddled with other ideas about exotic vacations, a left-field urge to take up rock climbing, and other suggestions that were entirely out of Lars' staid character. Tracy met these desires with more alarm than welcome, coming as they were in a steady stream that belied his unhappiness with life. The extremes did not stop there, for she was beginning to suspect Lars of being attracted to a young, pretty office junior named Annabelle.
All Tracy could do was to helplessly watch as her marriage was deteriorating, and as Lars was seemingly trying to recapture something he felt he had lost, which he never had in the first place. Hilda, who was quite astute in detecting misery in others no matter how well concealed, invited Tracy out for a few drinks after work. Having gone through similar events herself, Hilda saw all the hallmarks of a woman in that kind of distress. After a few too many drinks loosened Tracy's tongue, granting her license to break the confidence of her private life, she confessed her own dissatisfaction with Lars. Hilda, with a matronly sense of care and control, sympathized with her by a series of understanding nods and sympathetic "hmms", and traded her own story, but followed this up with a recommendation that would resolve the situation.
"Have you heard of the Midlife Crisis Response Service?" Hilda asked.
Tracy internally bristled at the mention of the words "midlife crisis," perhaps far too indicative of mortality, commonality, and something that happens to other people.
"No. What do they do?"
"When Trevor started acting up, trying to prove his manliness and being reckless, I had nowhere else to turn. Whenever I tried talking to him, he just blew me off by saying that I was becoming a nag and that I was trying to stifle him. I knew he wasn't healthy upstairs, if you know what I mean, and most men go through this. It's what the good people at the Crisis Centre call 'the denial cycle'. Trevor was having a hard time adjusting to the reality that his best years were behind him."
"So the Crisis people specialize in telling men this?"
"Gosh, no! Not in that way. They have a philosophy. The hardest thing for a man to give up and accept is the loss of his youthful vigour. The people at the MCRS counsel the man to not think that the best years are gone, but to consider that different years are coming that have benefits not possible when one is young. Another problem is what they call 'dream malingering'...That's part of what torments a man in crisis the most...all those foolish notions of wanting to climb Everest, or all the things he wanted to do and never did suddenly come back to haunt him with a vengeance. So, the counselling includes 'reality adjustments'."
"They basically tell him that if he wanted to, or was capable of achieving those dreams, they would have been done already. Men need to understand that all that childhood and adolescent feeling of infinite potential are actually an illusion. The second step is understanding that even if those dreams could somehow now be achieved, they would not validate his existence beyond a very temporary and fleeting feeling of satisfaction. It really just masks the real problem. The last step is the acceptance of limitations and that where they are in life at the moment is exactly where they should be, to derive a little joy from what they have done rather than what they haven't."
Hilda gave Tracy the number for MCRS, which Tracy transferred into her cell phone. She waited at least four months before placing the call, having done some research and a visit first
The central office of the Midlife Crisis Response Service was a converted fire hall. No one had bothered to take down any of the old road signage that warned drivers that at any moment a screeching fire truck would be bursting out onto the intersection, rushing to rescue a cat stuck in a tree. The logo of MCRS was in raspberry lettering on a pistachio back board. The office was a bit too clean to the point of sterilizing any trace of personality, and the usual women’smagazines were fanned out on a table in the reception area. A few promotional posters adorned the walls: "Has He Traded in His 40-Year Old Wife for Two 20s?", "His New Muscle Car is a Cry For Help!", "Time Moves Forward, But He Refuses."
A bouncy man with bulging fish eyes and a smile that refused to retreat from his taut face was standing in front of Tracy with his pen nervously and expectantly tapping a clipboard.
"I'm Dr. Hedley. My receptionist tells me that your husband is currently facing reality deficit. Has he purchased a motorcycle, ATV, or any other potentially hazardous vehicle in the last six months?"
He was talking very fast, with extreme enthusiasm threaded with the comforting care of a concerned doctor.
"Oh, no, no. Nothing like that."
"Oh, that's good...Sorry for the rather abrupt question, but it is our regular procedure. We have to assess dangers and respond to those immediately. Not to say that your husband isn't in danger, but just to see if he is currently in any immediate danger. Let's go to my office."
Tracy dutifully followed the bobbling man in his swishing lab coat, his walk that could be described as jaunty. They reached an office in a series of self-contained offices each with a window facing the corridor with venetian blinds. He stopped, turned, and gestured with his hand to enter the office first and take a seat. He breezed into the office and immediately, as if by rote, presented Tracy with a colourful package with the MCRS logo filled with informative pamphlets. He quickly jiggled the mouse and started clacking at the keyboards, presumably starting a file.
The package was overwhelming. If Tracy was not already overcome by her own initiative to seek help on behalf of her husband (and without him knowing it, which seemed like a betrayal), all of the information arrayed in glossy brochures with their streaming lingo was enough to make her dizzy. Her first impression was that not only was there seemed to be a lot of information about this condition, but that these people took it seriously.
"I have to ask a few more questions that our phone questionnaire did not ask. Do you mind? To your knowledge, is your husband on any medications? Not just anything for psychological disorders, but any physical health medicines for the heart, joints, and so forth?"
"No...Oh, wait, he takes a blood thinner...Lapi...Lasi..."
"Yes, that's it!"
"Recreational drugs? Don't worry, Tracy. This is strictly confidential."
"Not that I know of. Does drinking count?"
"Yes!" he beamed, almost too much. "But I was more aiming toward the illicit variety. But you've anticipated my next question. How much, would you say, he consumes in an average week?"
His face was expectant, but non-judgemental. There was something of the unnerving kindergarten teacher aspect to him. His desk nameplate which read "Dr. Maximilian Hedley" was being eclipsed by its surrogate done up in large, bubbly, child-like blocks, each shock neon cube showing the right letter in sequence to spell "Dr. Max". There were far too many pictures of children as part of his desktop clutter, but Tracy noticed the conspicuous absence of any photograph of a wife. Maybe he was unmarried and spent his free time volunteering in one of those Big Brother-type services. She thought it too rude to inquire, though Dr. Hedley didn't seem to mind asking her the most probing and intimate questions ranging from her husband's eating and drinking habits to the mechanical details of their sex life.
At the end, Dr. Hedley beamed another smile that was perhaps impossibly larger than the perma-grin he always had. "Tracy, you'll be happy to know that despite your husband's late start, this is a very textbook case. He is the ideal candidate for being properly reintegrated to reality by our patented methods with a success rate that is very favourable."
"Oh, we don't like the word normal. It implies standard behaviours and that any difference will count as some sort of deviation. No, we much prefer 'deficit' in the positive sense. So, with your consent, we can start immediately. There are some legal forms - waivers and liability type stuff - and then the unpleasant business about your method of payment."
"Will it cost much?"
"We scale payment on the basis of treatment activities. There's no way of knowing in advance how long it may take. Some patients experience a turnaround quickly, and others are more obstinate and require more aggressive methods. I suppose you can look at it this way: would you put a price on your happiness, your marriage, and your husband's personal well-being?"
"Oh, please, Tracy, don't take this to mean something...violent. We sometimes have to ramp up our means to induce positive response in the patient. Nothing to be alarmed about!"
Tracy, in the same dizzying state, signed all the requisite forms and was given what looked to be a small beeper with a red panic button that would fit inconspicuously on her keychain. She was instructed to use it in emergency situations when she felt her husband was a danger to her, himself, or others. To be used in extreme crisis situations, Dr. Hedley informed her with an uncharacteristic sternness.
Little did Tracy know that she would have to make use of this device much sooner than anticipated. It was affixed to her car key ring. It was the very next day that Lars was having something of a breakdown, making a big ruckus in the basement in search of sporting equipment. Offering to help him, Tracy was barked at and became the target of misdirected aggression. He flew into a rage that resulted in a great fit of yelling and knocking over of furniture. He didn't engage her in any physical violence, but she was very frightened. She pushed the little red button.
Within twenty minutes, the doorbell rang. She left Lars in the middle of his continued harangue and answered the door to see two very able looking men in yellow sweatsuit uniforms, bearing the MCRS logo.
"We're responding to a call. Is he here?"
She nodded and pointed in the direction of the basement. By this time, Lars had come up to see where his wife had gone. Seeing the two men advancing, he demanded what they were doing in his house. The two men were quite adept at subduing Lars who struggled feebly against the well-trained personnel. One of them was able to open Lars' mouth and force something in, massaging the throat to induce swallowing. After a few minutes of kicking, Lars' struggling was beginning to lose its passionate force, reduced to a slow animation sequence. The two men carefully assisted Lars out of the house and placed him inside a waiting van, seemingly modified from an ambulance, also with the MCRS logo. One of them returned and, with strongly assuring honeyed tone, informed Tracy that Lars was in very good hands and that they would be treating him immediately, release expected the next day.
No attention has been paid the actual subject of what could be considered a kind of vaudevillian spectacle (really: two men in bright coloured jumpsuits retrieving a man who is merely a bit angry, tossing him into some converted ambulance, and whisking him off with lights flashing?). No one has yet to entertain that figure who had always been content lurking behind the question mark, having that particular ability in avoiding any detection by the light that would reveal his true nature for all to see.
First of all, Tracy's story did not square with the truth, cobbled together from stale knowledge and a habitual failure to ask the right questions. Lars no longer worked for the media consultancy firm, and even "firm" was misleading. In fact, he worked for a kind of brainy talk-shop, a think-tank involved in the contemporary uses of social media technology applied to business and political solutions. He was a star researcher with a bevy of lucrative consultancy contracts, working in an open-concept environment that makes modern chic the design prerogative of the same people who manufacture Lego. Lars was not only the top media geek, but he also possessed the preternatural gift of viewing media in its Gestalt through visions of the mediascape - a kind of a waking dream where he physically floated above and through a physical representation of all media forms from past to present. He could view the affinity strands on ever-radiating sociometric stars that depicted online social networks and pluck them like some alien harp. He could watch the pulse of information flow on a global scale that made the human circulatory system seem hopelessly primitive. But, it was on account of these visions that Lars eventually had a serious and debilitating breakdown. This breakdown he managed rather well in disguising from anyone who saw him, including his wife. Masterfully crafting his external appearance, his decision to leave the think-tank perplexed even his closest colleagues (and came as a surprise relief to those who envied his talents). He did not leave without having done some admirable work behind the scenes as a social media engineer for the mayoral campaign of Tristan Frazer, but the successful conclusion to the campaign meant that Lars' usefulness had diminished to that of nothing. After the excitement and satisfaction of having spearheaded a virtual media campaign that would have rivalled the best tactical minds in military history, Lars returned briefly to the think-tank as though it were a safe nest to indulge a breakdown long in the works. That had all transpired eight years ago. Since then, Lars had been living exclusively from his savings. With the ruse that he was still employed intact, his wife never suspected anything awry about his "going to work" every morning and returning at the same time every evening in a usual state of post-work fatigue. He cultivated the ruse with a few calculated lies, airy mentions of promotions and the like. His wife never truly understood what it was that he did, and so it made no difference in not telling her what he did now. Every morning, he would make his way to the university library and read for the entire day on whatever struck his intellectual fancy at the moment. It would be tedious to follow that skipping rock of curiosity that skimmed across a plenitude of subjects he undertook to educate himself on. On Friday nights, he would drink with the few ex-colleagues he actually cared about in that previous life, which more and more seemed to him an unfamiliar shadow cast by someone else other than himself. There was something in the works at this point, alluded to by one of his ex-colleagues who had a habit of spilling potentially lucrative contracts out of sequence. It appeared that someone was going to run against the now embattled mayor Tristan Frazer, and that Lars' name had come up somewhat innocuously and thoroughly independent from any knowledge that he had once worked for Tristan Frazer's camp. This prospect of changing roles to that of the now vacant spot of campaign manager (the former one had been unceremoniously tossed for ineptness) appealed to him. The candidate was a dark horse, an ex-journalist by the name of Dr. Jango, who had a startlingly similar set of affectations and manner to that of the late journalist and icon, Hunter S. Thompson - and, perhaps, with about as colourful a history. This would present a significant challenge in the largely staid, inert, and conservative taste of this city of Leamingville.
On the night before his outburst and subsequent removal by the two burly MCRS people, he had been continuing his research on the lives of eccentrics. He had wanted to understand the psychological mechanics of those who had led the most eccentric lives in history, and tooled with the idea of engaging in hands-on experience. Hence his somewhat offhand musings to Tracy about climbing mountains and the like. He was also agonizing over his cover letter and how best to approach the bizarre Dr. Jango. Lars' research revealed that Dr. Jango would hardly be interested in a job candidate who was dry, dull, and otherwise perfect for the position. Dr. Jango seemed to be the type of person who would cleave to those with as much flash and panache as him, and it was in this department that Lars was obviously in deficit. In order to woo his potential employer, he had to sample becoming like his employer, to think as he did. The only way to do that, reasoned Lars to himself, was to engage in some of the eccentric antics Dr. Jango himself had undertaken.
One should also hasten to mention the suspicion Tracy had of Lars' infidelity, if only to dispel it. Lars knew that he would, as campaign manager, need capable assistants he could delegate to various tasks such as press releases and liaison work. As a favour to an ex-colleague named Robert, he agreed to meet with Robert's daughter. Fortunately, the usual blindness of a parent to the reality and faults of the child did not apply, for Lars was pleasantly surprised by Annabelle's eagerness and fleetness of mind. She was well aware that her employment would be doubly contingent on his acquiring the position and the say-so of Dr. Jango. Annabelle was pretty, but this did not arouse interest in Lars, who was wholly focused on the task at hand. In addition, Lars' apparent funk was merely his being preoccupied by his work, and the decrease in their lovemaking was a direct result of his anti-depressant medication, which had all but chemically cooled his libido.
And so it must have come as an understandable shock when he was hauled away by those two men and herded off to the MCRS office. Once he was pushed into the back of the converted ambulance, the two men quickly put him under restraints on a gurney. He watched and seethed in both anger and confusion as the wash of street lights reflected off the ceiling of the vehicle. Lying on his back, he could not fathom what all of this meant. Once they arrived at the destination, the two men took Lars on his gurney through the back entrance of the facility where he eventually made facial contact with Dr. Hedley, who had an implacable and mystifying serene smile on his face as if all was as it should have been.
"You can unstrap him now. I think he'll behave," Dr. Hedley instructed the men with a becalming tone. They did as requested with no verbal acknowledgement, turned and left.
"Could you lock the -" Dr. Hedley's voice chased after them, but was stopped by the closing of the door. "Sigh," he vocalized resignedly as if this was the perpetual joke of an incorrigible and repetitive comedy. He bobbled his way to the back door and drove the security bolt home before returning to Lars who was anxiously awaiting explanation.
"Do you know where you are?"
Lars shook his head slowly.
"Do you know why you are here?"
Again, same gesture.
"My name is Dr. Hedley. You might say that I am the head physician of this experimental institute. My methods may seem unorthodox at first, but I mean you no harm whatsoever. Completely the opposite."
"Where am I?" Lars asked.
Embarrassed by the oversight, Dr. Hedley placed a gentle guiding hand on Lars arm. "Midlife Crisis Response Services. We are here to help. We received a distress call from your wife, Tracy, and our dispatcher sent our boys to fetch you. I hope you weren't too alarmed, and I certainly hope they weren't too gruff."
"My wife called you?" Lars queried incredulously.
"Tracy called our emergency dispatcher. She must have had reason to believe that you were experiencing crisis, and so our policy is to intervene immediately. Do not bear her any grudge for she is trying to help you. We all are."
"There'll be time to answer all these questions. Please, follow me to the orientation room."
Dr. Hedley delicately guided Lars to a spacious and calmingly lit room with two oversized armchairs separated by a brushed steel table riveted to the floor. For some reason, Lars fixed his attention to finding anything in this room that could be lifted and thrown. He did not find any. The label on the door - a thumbtacked 8 x 11 plastic sheet with a paper in it - did not say Orientation Room. It read "Safe Room". Dr. Hedley had Lars enter first and then directed him to be seated on one of the disproportionately large armchairs. Lars felt like a child sitting in a grownup chair, his entire body swimming in its vastness. Dr. Hedley took the opposing chair.
"Now, Lars - may I call you that? - you are here because, as I said, Tracy believes you are in crisis. She has had reason to suspect this for some time. Now, I know what you are feeling...You are angry and in denial. The unfortunate constellation of symptoms associated with midlife crisis usually goes undetected until too late, and that can result in an episode. In extreme cases, where there is no treatment, episodes can be fatal. In the less extreme cases, they can result in deleterious life changes that are abrupt, harmful, and psychologically unhealthy. Midlife crisis should be considered under the same conditions as trauma. You are experiencing trauma."
"I just had an argument with my wife. That is entirely normal."
"Ye-e-es," Dr. Hedley quavered in half assent and half skepticism. "It is normal to experience conflict with one's spouse under regular conditions. However, in your case, your blow-up with your wife is symptomatic of something larger and has nothing to do with what you perceive she has said or done. It is all about you, Lars. You are lashing out because you are unhappy. You are unhappy because you have not achieved the proper level of peaceful acceptance."
"Acceptance of what?"
"I can see we have a lot of work ahead of us. I don't generally do overnight calls, and we usually keep our patients safely secure in rooms such as these to 'sleep it off' as they say. What I mean is that you have not accepted your limitations or your awareness of your own mortality. You fight nobly against it, I am sure, but there are some battles not worth fighting since they are unwinnable. The road to acceptance is a long one, and it can prove even more challenging than fighting a battle against the inevitable reality of aging. I was like you, Lars. I, too, waged war against the encroaching reality of aging. I blamed everyone and everything else for my unhappiness, for having squandered my youth and not done the things I should have done. We here at MCRS do not believe in the words 'should have'; what is past is past, and we must orient our present toward the reality of what is to come. Many of our patients have the same behavioural pathology, so you're not alone. There is something seemingly unfair about life, the way it gives and takes away."
"I have no idea what my wife signed me up for, but I haven't given any consent...and I certainly am not interested in being fed all these platitudes."
"Stop fighting, Lars; now you want to fight against me and MCRS, but that is just a misdirection of your true unhappiness, your lack of acceptance. If you want to be technical, the form your wife signed on your behalf does not require the patient's consent. MCRS and its affiliates are governed under the Mental Health Act of this province, thereby legally assigning the right to a spouse power of attorney when there is a suspicion that the patient may be of unsound mind and requiring emergency treatment. According to the testimony provided in the pre-diagnosis forms your wife has filled out, and by my opinion as a physician and a mental health practitioner, I would declare you of unsound mind."
There it was: the threat of being branded unfit, and Lars searched his memory to locate all of the likely testimony Tracy could leverage to make that label stick.
Lars was asked to bed down for the night and would receive a wake-up call the next morning. When he protested about work, Dr. Hedley waved off the concern with a claim that Tracy would handle it.
The next morning arrived and a beaming, chubby woman looking the part of a nurse welded into that of a camp organizer came chirping into the safe room with a jubilantly shrill ‘good morning.’ He was given a healthy breakfast, and he noted that on the tray was a familiar set of pills: his prescription antidepressant and the blood-thinner Laniplex. These were in a small and stout paper cup used in psych wards, ribboned with one of those minimalist quasi-flowered motifs like a small sneezing florid jetty. Almost as promptly as he spooned the last of the single-serve yogurt and obediently washed down his two pills, the same woman returned and herded him out of the safe room and into another room, luridly covered with age-affirmative posters, a circle of PVC chairs, and a coffee decanter towering over a basket of creams and sugars and diner-style bone-white coffee cups. He was not alone, for he saw Dr. Hedley and three other men, two of them confused and perhaps irritated and impatient.
"Lars!" Dr. Hedley greeted with warm exaggeration. "I'm sorry, I must check myself. Do you prefer Mr. Purcell? We prefer informality, so you can call me Max if you like."
The two confused men looked up at Lars as if somehow his sudden appearance would explain everything. Lars had already looked at them for the same reason, and came to the same conclusion: they knew as much as he did. The one man, a rather bony affair in a high-buttoned shirt that seemed to have the creases from being worn right from the cellophane package, picked at a fluff on his arm and exuded a strange serenity that bordered on snobbishness.
Max. The name went along with the smarmy tone and appearance of the man. It was a name seemingly wrapped up in one of those itchy, thick woollen sweaters with some ugly pattern.
"This is Tom, Greg, and David," Dr. Hedley introduced, each of the men giving some kind of nod when their name was called. "And this, everybody, is Lars. Now, we have three new members in our Sharing Group. David, would you like to explain the purpose of the Sharing Group?"
The serene bony man dutifully complied. "The Sharing Group is part of our cure, if you like, the way we resolve our reality deficit. I've been attending the group now for six weeks. If I can give you any advice, it would be this...You see, when I first came to group, I was like you: confused, angry, maybe even a little resistant. But you cannot resist the process. You really shouldn't. I know it will help each and every one of you as it continues to help me. It's like a men's group, a getaway from the hustle and bustle, a retreat where we can share what we feel without ridicule," he said, trailing off now that he had run out of canned feel-goodisms.
As if correcting or adding to what was said, Dr.. Hedley picked up the thread: "The aim of this group is to isolate the core issues of our deficit and adDr.ess them in a spirit of non-judgemental exchange."
"It sounds like AA to me," sniffed one of the new arrivals, Tom. "If Jesus comes up, I'm out this door."
"No, this is not a traditional therapy group," Dr. Hedley responded with equanimity. "Unlike groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, we don't preach that you are forever helpless, nor do we merely share stories without matching these with good therapeutic suggestions. This group is one of discovery and healing, but MCRS' program does not involve mere passive healing. Our mandate is balanced therapy: disclosure and response. But we will talk more about that once our preliminary sessions are completed. So, Tom, would you like to start?"
"Start what? Confession? I was hauled off in the middle of the damn night and ended up in some kind of therapy zoo. If you're asking me to confess to some sort of problem, you're way off base."
"Resistance," David said sadly, shaking his head in disappointment. Lars was beginning to see that David was some sort of suck-up to Dr. Hedley, a kind of therapist's familiar, and he feared that he himself would be brainwashed into becoming some sort of convert.
"Tom, there is a reason why you are here, and I can honestly tell you it is because your wife adores you."
"Then she can buy me a chainsaw or a new drill, not have me manhandled in the middle of the night to be sent to some kind of mental health spa."
Dr. Hedley, unperturbed and perhaps immune to the common hostility of new arrivals, turned his attention to Greg, who was far more concerned than suspicious. "Greg, tell us why you think you are here today."
"I guess because my wife thinks I'm sick. Maybe I am. I know I just can't shake this terrible feeling - it's hard to describe. It's like anxiety, but I feel tired and joyless all the time. It's like despair, but not that serious. Sometimes I just want to run out into the woods and scream. Other times I just want to sleep forever. Sometimes I feel hopeless and think: what's the point of it all? I feel uninspired and I watch as younger colleagues are coming up with all these fresh ideas that I used to get. I feel like some kind of automaton."
"What is it that you do for a living, Greg?" asked the doctor.
"I'm a graphic designer, and a lot of people don't know that it is a highly competitive profession, and that it favours youth."
"Okay, thank you, Greg. Let's return to that in a few moments. I think you are coming close to expressing your issue. Lars, tell us why you think you're here."
"My wife is overreacting. I can see that quite clearly. I'm sure her intentions are good, but it fails to take the facts into account."
"Which are?" Dr. Hedley pressed, wearing a blatant expression of being unconvinced.
"That I live a kind of secret life...That doesn't sound right. I'm a private person and I just do my own thing. I have a few personal and professional projects I'm currently pursuing that Tracy doesn't know about. I really don't want to trouble her in thinking that our security is threatened - which it isn't - but it can be hard to explain to her that I'm not the type of man she idealistically envisions. You know, the plain nine-to-five type. I'm more of a free spirit, a nomad who follows his own interests."
"You are what we at MCRS call a 'self-denial expert'. You see, this wanderlust you are feeling, this mania for populating your life with interesting projects, and the secrecy by which you conduct them indicate very strongly that you are dissatisfied with responsibility and structure. It is a very common thing, no matter how eloquently you state it, how you justify it to yourself. It is, in sum, your way of trying to recapture the tumultuousness of your youth. Rejecting the structure of everyday life is a sign, Lars. I think all of us here suffer something similar."
"I don't buy your characterization," Lars said, not meanly.
"Let me continue. Memories are tricky things. Nothing is terrible that the mind does not make so, say the Stoics, but the same is true of the good. Memories are a lot like reading a horoscope: you pick out the things you want and conveniently discard the rest. So, in our case, we may tend to romanticize the past. I mean, who doesn't? The wild and carefree days of youth, the feelings of invincibility and future promise, the risks we took, the nights of drinking and debauchery...Of course, it all sounds so idyllic! Who wouldn't choose to relive those days? However, what we conveniently forget is all that came between those high times, the loneliness, being broke, the uncertainty, the confusion. All of that is masked by memory. I think what we forget is the only reason we enjoyed those good times, the only reason they had value, was because we secretly knew one day they would come to an end. But all those good times must end; eventually, it is closing time at the bar and time to return home. This doesn't mean that good times do not continue to await us, but they can be different. They must be different since it would be monotonous to do the same things."
"I sense contradiction here," said Tom. "On one hand, when I look at all these silly posters telling me to embrace my structured life as something good, that there is joy in everyday repetition, I'm supposed to...what?...enjoy the repetition of it? And then you tell us that variety is the spice of life, that we should seek to do different things to avoid monotony."
"Modest differences. Manageable differences. Differences that do not clash with reality. Part of our therapy will be in exploring how we can still have fulfilling lives by choosing minor differences to satisfy our natural need for adventure."
"Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me," said Tom, arms folded across his chest. "What kind of differences? Take another route to work? Try a different flavour of soda pop? Mismatch my socks?"
"It needs not be so forced and banal, Tom. There is a world of different things you can do that appeal to the reality of our circumstances as aging men. Why not volunteer as a peewee softball coach or organize a road trip with your spouse to visit a small town? You can do anything just so long as you make it conform to the MCRS Ratio. Every chance you take should be equal to an honest appreciation of your life circumstances with all its limitations."
After having endured this insufferably toxic men's group fiasco with all its scudding between skepticism and worn platitudes, Lars began steering his thoughts to the root cause of all this: his wife. His anxious, wheedling, nervous, overreactive wife. This would not last, for his attention was biffed back to Dr. Hedley, who was now addressing Lars with a kind of flocculent, mushy tone one would use to console? a child.
“Lars, I think we can all agree that we've all been self-denial experts. But, what can we do about it?”
Lars was becoming internally rattled by what seemed like Dr. Hedley's endless self-congratulatory manner of being some kind of survivor, like he had somehow pried the crucifixion nails out of his own hands and feet and lived to tell the tale. There was the hideous stench of intellectual vanity about him mixed with the suffocating loam of padded therapy better suited to juvenile malcontents. But lurking somewhere behind Dr. Hedley's vinyl-sheen grin was something of a maniac, a psyche out of balance that secretly enjoyed jiggling the small black pit inside the rotten fruit of his own penchant for the absurd. Lars had seen this look only once before belonging to a clinically disturbed woman who claimed that she could launch rainbows out of her own vagina. No, there was something quite off about Dr. Hedley, something – if not sinister – that threatened a vicious attack against sanity. Dr. Hedley was about to propel himself into another mushy series of condescension for the benefit of his wobbly flock.
Tom was a textbook case of resistance to therapy. It was obvious even in the way his arms were folded across his chest in a defensive posture, the smug skepticism slathered all over his face, the suspicion-flecked and fixed gaze like an alert cat anticipating attack, and the smug, snappy tone of his voice. The sad thing was, Lars knew, that as such a prosaic resistor, he would be the first to fall to the trickery of psychotherapy that had more than ample experience with resistance – be it from unyielding patients to cleverly defending the legitimacy of its profession from gangs of nay-sayers.
“I wanted to return to your secrecy, Lars. This is, after all, a Sharing Group, and I don't want you to think that anything you say here will drift outside of this room.”
“I don't know if I feel comfortable calling what I do secretive. I just do things and prefer not to be bothered when I do them.”
“Ah, but Lars, we can give all sorts of names and justifications to our secretive behaviour, but it is always indicative of the same thing: a problem. We hide things from our loved ones because we are essentially embarrassed by what they would think. We then play the denial game to cover for our own reality deficit.”
“It so quickly fouls up our life,” chimed the ever-eager David.
“Okay, so how long is this caring, sharing session?” asked Tom. “I have stuff to do.”
“We meet for one hour,” said Dr. Hedley. “But new patients are not released for a period of one week for full examination and what we call Buffering. David here comes voluntarily every week.”
“What?” thundered Tom. “Are you saying we're stuck in this loony bin for a goddamn week? No bloody way. I'm leaving. This is against my will, and I never gave my consent. You just try to stop me.”
“I truly think it is in your best interest to comply, Tom. You have been deemed unfit at the present time, and your spouse assumes power of attorney if you are in any way deemed a threat to yourself or others. I won't bore you all with the legal mumbo-jumbo, but I can say that you are not free to come and go as you please – with the exception of David here.”
Lars suspected as much. Tom was outraged, Greg was perplexed, but Lars was far from surprised. An operation like this would need legal assurances to keep patients sequestered. Lars worried more about the effect this therapy would have, and if the MCRS slogans – buffering, self-denial expert, reality deficit, and the like – would become the mantras of the brainwashed. Would he, too, come out of this treatment speaking this MCRS gibberish, perhaps even imposing it on others in an act of insistent conversion?
The pargeted speech of Dr. Hedley hunted after Lars as he was released from the cultish clutches of the Sharing Group and led to the back of the facility that seemed now to sprawl in size, a tesseract of some sort where the interior was paradoxically more capacious than its misleading exterior. There was a series of small dorm-rooms already fitted with the basic accoutrements and impedimenta of living: a single bed, night table with the kind of characterless lamp one would overlook in a hotel room, a modernist armchair with no arms and upholstered in dark forest green canvas-like weave, and a mute and featureless grey industrial grade carpet that yawned across the entire room ending succinctly at the rolling track of a small closet door and at the metal lip that divided the room from a small bathroom covered in blank white lino. The room was not completely bereft of items since there was a thin book on the night table that exasperated Lars: “Closing the Reality Gap: A Guide for the Middle-Aged Male” authored by none other than Dr. Max Hedley. The arrogance and vanity of the conspicuous placement of the book with no other possible distractions or options such as other books or a television suggested clearly that Lars was expected – nay, forced – to fill the empty quarry of boredom with the mush of Dr. Hedley's writing. He was, at first, sleuthing quietly around for something, anything, else to do, but found nothing else. The bed was firm and without any cushy frills, the pillows hospital grade, and there was the smell of a recent bleaching emanating from the bathroom imposing upon the room its clinical, sterile perfume. The carpet was still newly laid, Lars reasoned, for the formaldehyde could still be detected, battling for olfactory supremacy against the other rivalling chemical scents. There was a small hermetically sealed window from where he had a view split in half between criss-cross mowed back-lawn and a sparsely populated parking lot belonging to the kitchen supply store next door. Blocking his view of the skyline was a few heavy branches from a stubborn common ash that seemed to mimic the stolid order of the MCRS building. No doubt, Tom and Greg would be housed in similar, if not identical, conditions in this series of featureless dorms.
“Beware of a culture that only has one book,” the thought came unsolicited in Lars' mind. And there that one book sat, in menacingly saccharin, near-bubble font upon a cover canvas of jaundice yellow. Was the title font comic sans? It looked terribly amateurish for a book and he reasoned – rightly – that it was self-published. He had to resist for as long as possible the urge of boredom to lie on the bed and leaf through that svelte self-published atrocity, that ego-crime, that propagandistic tool to pulp his otherwise critical mind to receive the catch-phrase soporific of Dr. Hedley's quasi-religious therapeutic message.
Why was Lars so suspicious of Dr. Hedley? Surely there was no real threat, and that this hokey midlife crisis psychological boot camp was just another kind of support group like AA, albeit a bit more aggressive in its methods. Lars pined to be given the opportunity to roam from this place, to pick up on his itinerant research at the library rather than to be a prisoner in this little clinical jail. Prisoner? The thought had not occurred to him that he was incarcerated – oh, under the best of intentions, yes. Why had he been so passive, whereas Tom was defending his own liberty?
Lars attempted to retreat to his own mind to cure his boredom, but there was something so arid about this place that it exerted its vacuous pressure upon his thoughts, rendering them at a fuzzy distance. Was there something with the ventilation, he thought, and then put that away as quickly as it came so as not to build up an entire architecture of useless paranoia.
After a few hours, Dr. Hedley knocked, then, without waiting to be invited, poked his head inside. “Lars? You must be hungry. Let's all go to dinner.”
The way he said it sounded as though they were all going out for a lavish meal at a posh restaurant where waiters would be on hand to refill glasses with expensive wine served from wicker baskets, rather than some microwavable culinary failure in a sterile and overly-lit cafeteria. Lars could tell that Dr. Hedley's nonchalant, sweeping glance over the entire room was designed to see if the book had been touched, which it wasn't.
Despite obvious attempts at office-ware frugality, Lars was impressed with the financial scope of the operation in hiring a healthy stable of staff, emergency vehicles, and these lodgings for patients. Simply the taxes, insurance, and commercial lease of this bulky property must have been formidable. This thought drove Lars to the inevitable conclusion: that this must be costing Tracy – i.e., indirectly him – a small fortune. It certainly couldn't have been cheap to sustain a service like this one. Was it subsidized by the government? He wanted to obtain the answer to this question in the hopes of indirectly answering the more personal question of how much this was costing him. It was highly unlikely that the government would subsidize such a niche service any more than it would the homeopathic jungle of chiroquackery, aromaterrorism, or elective cosmetic surgery for the obsessively narcissistic.
Dinner, as it was called in name alone, would prove just another machination, another indoctrination session as Dr. Hedley tended to his wary flock, giving forth in gushing feel-good babble and platitudinous patter. Although “crisis” figured prominently in both the name of the service and what it purported to cure, the word was entirely absent and avoided in the expression of the cure itself, and barely anything but the most obligatory traces of it appeared in any of Dr. Hedley's therapeutic literature. Instead, the usual glossy generalities, slick optimist and vacuous slogans were carved into the discourse – a fluffy salad of new age terminology mitigated for the more serious-minded by brash, pro-active, and largely meaningless strings of corporate-speak designed to inspire courage. The entire recovery road of the discourse was composed of vast semantic potholes the recipient would dutifully fill in with his own favourable interpretation. Slogan. The word rankled Lars, remembering as he did reading Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Slogan. Derived from the Scottish highland sluagh-ghairm, or war cry of the dead. Lars was on familiar terms with the term “slogan,” having worked as a campaign message manager for an embattled incumbent mayor, smuggling the viper back into his den. The word “slogan” horrified Lars more than “crisis” ever could. Was this the scene of a therapeutic siege against the crumbling ramparts of Lars' psyche, a sloganeering war for psychological dominance in a stand-off of wills? Would Dr. Hedley's slogans of slush finally overwhelm the jagged points of Lars' default critical reasoning, leaving him swamped in that unbearable miasma of pro-active gobbledygook, boring everyone within range with endless preaching of his own recovery? Would be become a convert of Dr. Hedley?
The four men – Greg, Tom, Lars, and the proselytizing doctor – had been joined by a new victim, Viktor, a bitingly witty professor with an evident air of proudly archaic vaulting homosexuality. With one eyebrow in perpetual half stroke in the air, Viktor looked to be in constant amused disbelief. Each of the men had the same meal on the same beige plastic trays: some slab of meat only vaguely resembling in appearance and flavour as belonging to the bovine family, wilted greens, two globular scoops of what postured as mashed potatoes, and a small sundae cup of what could have been raspberry or some-other-berry crumble. Standard cafeteria fare.
“Confusion, anger, doubt, and desire,” Dr. Hedley launched without preamble, holding a gravy-sopped cut of the meat slab on the end of his fork as if it were a baton, “makes for an unpalatable stew.” He paused to stick the meat-like portion in his mouth, perhaps completely oblivious to the connection between what was being eaten and what was being said. “But it also marks what we call the Great Emotional Transition, or GET. GET is not the end of the road, but the beginning.”
Why was it, thought Lars, that so many of these hokey, cliché-ridden therapy gurus resorted to acronyms as if it lent them any credibility? Were we to be impressed by the acronym, or was this just one more of those mnemonic devices of propaganda?
“O life, O roads, how the metaphor has been buried so many times only to be exhumed and made to dance its clumsy little number for us yet again in the mouths of uninspired men,” quipped Viktor.
“Viktor, please,” Dr. Hedley said, pointing his darkened brow toward Viktor like a warning. “I'm only using a manner of speech, not writing poetry. Let's absorb the essential message. As I was saying, GET is part of the natural movement of all men of a certain age, but some of us have a bit more difficulty making the transition.”
“And if this is so bloody natural,” interrupted Tom, “D'you think being shut in some psych ward is natural, too?”
“Tom, don't presume to lecture so confidently on what is normal and what is not, or is it that you think there is nothing abnormal in your 'appreciation' of scat pornography?”
Lars expected Tom, who looked more than a capable scrapper, to upend his tray and make for the doctor's throat. But, no. Instead, Tom was frozen in place by a look between hatred and horror. It was a low blow, for Dr. Hedley had obviously aired a very confidential detail in Tom's file for all to hear, but it sufficed the purpose: Dr. Hedley would not endure wayward pupils for too long. Tom's mouth was half open as if he had forgotten how to chew or speak. Dr. Hedley had won, effectively unmanning perhaps the manliest of the group, sending a silent shockwave of equal punishments to come in response to any further insubordination.
Without breaking stride, Dr. Hedley continued: “The way we get through GET is to treat each of these items in our psychological stew with isolated care. If we are confused, let's ask why we are confused, and about what. If we are angry, what are we angry about, and is it worthwhile to remain angry about those things we simply cannot change? If we doubt, is it ourselves we doubt rather than all those others in our lives we have so sadly made the target of our unresolved selves? If we desire, is what we desire practical and feasible given the conditions and circumstances of what we really are? I think you will find the way through GET explained in more detail in the book each of you have in your rooms. I urge you to read chapters one and two tonight, complete the questionnaire at the end of chapter two and really reflect on your answers. Once we have done that, we'll be ready to move onto Phase 2 during Sharing Group.”
A mix of stoicism and new-agey bullshit with the whiff of religion and cobbled first-year psych class. That was what Lars felt was in store if he dared to sift through that suppurating book, abutted with false solicitude.
The doctor was the first to finish his meal and lay his paper napkin upon his tray as if this were a candlelit restaurant. There were no further outbursts, given the almost palpable fear that was generated by Tom being rebuffed by a doctor entirely willing to brandish confidential details, to twist them in his hands and in turn twist those who would not bend voluntarily to his will. He had no qualms whatsoever when his purpose was what gave him the ultimate focus: to retrain and fashion them as proof of his curative powers. Dr. Hedley made polite and non-committal banter, asking after the condition of their lodgings and so forth. All the patients were herded back into their rooms, each of them retreating as the silence cocooned each of them in an anxious solitude. On his way back to the room, Lars glanced at a plastic yellow sandwich board used by the janitors, announcing caution in three different common languages. The board depicted one of those standard stick-figures that looked more like a mutated exclamation mark attempting to make a foul line goal than a man in the midst of slipping. The board was mutely protecting the shame of a floor that had wet itself.
Another night in this well-lit quack shop, Lars thought to himself. He could hear Viktor's rasping cough soughing through the baseboard vent, the kind of cough that reveals its identity as it carries the voice with it. It looked like Viktor would be in the neighbouring cell. After an hour, the entire place felt like a mad vibrating box as Lars stared in dread at the unopened book on the night table. Would he be forced to peel through each flimsy POD-printed layer of Dr. Hedley's candy-psych self-help book? He dared not even pick it up for fear that it could sully his mind merely through touch, like an osmotic liquefaction of the brain. Instead, he pulled aside the heavy drape with its slightly dusty netting. Looking out at the lot, which was now empty and ineffectually lit by the sad glow of the kitchen supply's meagre light, and then looking at the now completely black expanse of backyard, and then noticing that the ash was neither obscured nor well-lit, as if it had quietly absorbed its own illumination and shadow. Stepping away from the window and going toward the bed, he noticed a stranger among the child-proof orange pill bottles. A white bottle with high shoulders squatted next to the Laniplex. Temazepam, 20 mg. He picked the bottle up and stared at it without registering what was printed on it before breaking the confused trance and pitching it in the tiny waste basket that was nested beneath the night table. He barely registered this presumptuous attempt by Dr. Hedley to drug him, with an anti-anxiolytic no less, a soporific that would only render him more compliant to the “treatment.” And why had he, if he was such a risk, be trusted to have his prescription in his room and not given to him in supervised dosages? Could he not neck them all and secure his release to a nearby hospital? No, his thoughts were orbiting a different yet related issue.
Lars reconstructed what must have been the scene that transpired, that terribly misguided signature snaking its way across the MCRS contract form, rushing to push her husband-the-problem into the care of someone else, closing the betrayed loops on her married name as if somehow they safely lassoed a neurosis that properly belonged to her and her alone. Just as she dated beside the cursive version of “Purcell” (Lars was deeply suspicious of the intelligence of those who had elegant handwriting in the era of its decline in necessity), Lars was now the quarantined property of MCRS and she had effectively abdicated all responsibility. Lars would have half expected his emotional distance to be answered by a denial-of-sex attack rather than this sangfroid vengeance meted out with such legal precision. He could have at least countenanced the mock justice of her usual behavioural tactics, the passive-aggressive sort or the manipulative withholding of sex like her body was some lolly she could just snatch away for the purposes of teaching him a lesson. Not this. This was a whole other league of treachery he would never have anticipated. Worst of all, it was a punishment being exacted allegedly for his own good, for his mental well-being, under the false banner of care. In Lars' eyes, he wondered if Tracy was just stupid and gullible, or if there was some design in hiring this psycho-fraud mercenary to punish him on her behalf. This seemed out of her ken, given that Tracy was more the type to gibber about with no plan but to indulge her own excitable nature.
He would have completed his thought had a bolt of laughter not rattled the baseboard vent, sending out a tinny vibration in its wake. The laugh belonged to Viktor who was finding something amusing, but not in a kind way. There was no doubt what the risible cause was, for every room had the same contents – a coordinated boredom and nothingness that centered on the only alternative: to read Dr. Hedley's book. Viktor's laugh was streaked with an obvious tone of derision and disbelief. It was so horrible, it was comical, and for perhaps a more sophisticated mind like Viktor's that had been well-nourished on a diet of profound metaphysical poetry and all that great literature and ideas had on offer, Dr. Hedley's own attempts at being equally profound must have struck Viktor as the grossest of farces. At least he was deriving some humour from his circumstances, Lars thought to himself, wishing he had the same appreciation for dark humour to cope with this absurd situation. Perhaps Lars would join Viktor in the amusement – at least from their respective rooms – in the hopes that they could somehow form a silent pact to combat the brainwashing techniques. The one way to deflect propagandistic effect was to ridicule the source message. But Lars could barely summon the urge to open the book. Part of him felt like a student who did not do his homework, which in many ways was how Dr. Hedley had framed the request as an admission requirement to the next day's Sharing Group. Whether it was the poor ventilation, the boredom, the bland dinner squatting stone-like in his gut, or a concatenation of these, he found himself asleep.
The pale and weak throb of sunlight struggled past obstacles near and far: the stuttering motion of the ash's bough and the varying thickness of passing haze in the sky. This was Lars' weak greeting to the morning, realizing that he had fallen asleep in his clothes on top of the cheap duvet. As if on cue, waiting for him to wake up, the same bobbling nurse opened the door with a tray balanced in one hand, and a clipboard in the other. Upon closer view, she had one of those unfortunate piggish noses with flaring nostrils that only seemed to add to an unfortunate characterization in the context of her corpulent shape. She smelled of warm linen and a hint of air freshener.
“Mr. Purcell, breakfast,” she said, setting the tray down with a rattle on the night table after delicately removing Dr. Hedley's still unopened book. Lars wondered if she knew. He could already feel a baffling pang of guilt for not bothering with the printed claptrap.
She moved with swiftness not natural to her size, going to the other side of the bed and removing a pill from each bottle and checking these against the clipboard. Without even asking him, and just knowing in the way that some nurses do, she peered into the wastebasket, pulled out the temazepam, and removed one pill to add to the other prescribed two. She presented all three to him in a single paper cup matched by a paper cup with warm fountain water. She did not bother to scold him at all for throwing away the anti-anxiolytic, but decided to dispense with any foolishness by pretending he hadn't rejected anything at all, conveying to him that order would prevail over any juvenile resistance.
“I'm sorry, nurse, but I think there must be a mistake in my medication. I've never been prescribed temazepam.”
“Clipboard don't lie, Mr. Purcell,” she said, waving it for emphasis as if it were the embodiment of an indisputable truth.
“Well, I know for a fact my doctor never prescribed this or else I would already have been on it,” he persisted, the clipboard be damned.
“That may be so, Mr. Purcell, but it has been prescribed now.”
She checked the clipboard. “Dr. Hedley.”
“Is he licensed to prescribe? I was never consulted. I never consented.”
“My oh my, Mr. Purcell...You sure want to be difficult today. Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, did you?”
“If it's all the same to you, I'd like to discuss this with Dr. Hedley.”
“Suit yourself,” she tutted, making a note on the clipboard with restrained exasperation but unconcealed disappointment.
Sharing Group was still a few hours away, which would have given Lars time to skim through his “homework assignment”, but first he was called into Dr. Hedley's office to discuss the matter of the medication. The office was ridiculous, with its bubble letters spelling “Dr. Max” and other confused impedimenta that made it somewhat uncertain just what Dr. Hedley's profession was.
Dr. Hedley's eyes darted probingly at Lars with an almost predatory look. “You're resisting again,” he warned. Resisting was quickly becoming the code word for “disobedience to my will supreme.”
“I was not consulted about this new medication,” Lars said, comfortably perched on principle.
“Yes, the nurse reported to me that you were being a bit difficult with her this morning.”
“It is not a matter of me being difficult, Dr. Hedley, it's -”
“Call me Max,” he interrupted, putting on the airs of an inappropriate chumminess.
“What I meant to say was that I was not consulted about taking this medication which I know to be prescribed for people suffering insomnia or anxiety disorders. I have neither, so I fail to see what the purpose of this is.”
Dr. Hedley looked down at his hands, put them together and pulled them apart with one of those accompanying sighs that suggests knowing something troubling the other does not. “You see, Lars, it's all right there in your file. In order to service you better and maximize your treatment we do a lot of rigorous background research on our patients which – I am sure someone of your critical and meticulous mind would agree – is the responsible thing to do. So, apart from what information your spouse supplied us, we took the liberty of finding out a bit more.”
“That's invasive! Prying into my private life? Are you quizzing my friends?”
“We're obtaining a better clinical picture so that we can tailor the treatment regimen to your needs. It isn't as seedy as you might imagine it. Fairly standard practice. As for friends, well, Lars, to be honest, you're a little light in that department. You don't seem to be very social, which is not too surprising for your type. You're very intelligent, well-spoken, and so forth, but it also alienates people. Your people skills are not so refined – but we're not here to fix any of that, for I believe once we transition you into closing the reality gap, you'll see all kinds of benefits you'd never expected in every aspect of your life.”
“It still looks like spying.”
“Paranoia, Lars: keep that in check. What's this about a mediascape?”
A cold electric jolt shot through Lars' body. That was personal. To whom had Lars confided in about his ability to view the entire mediascape in a kind of mystic trance? He could not recall ever telling anyone else, a fantasy that he alone indulged and that had proven one of the advantages he held over his colleagues when he worked as a media researcher before he had quit.
“I think it would be too early to get out the label-maker and say you're having delusions and hallucinations. I just want to start you off on this medication and see if it precipitates any changes. I've flagged this 'mediascape' business for further follow-up, you understand. I thought it best not to delay and prescribe the temazepam now. I may have reason to believe that your reality deficit may be intertwined with an underlying issue of a different psychological nature.”
Dr. Hedley knew far too much, and he certainly wanted Lars to know that. Lars was getting worse than nowhere with the doctor who was now fingering him as a closet troublemaker, a sleeper-cell insurgent. There was no doubt he suspected Lars all along and had staged this moment precisely for Lars' benefit, or at least as a means to show what was at stake and keep him in line with the implications of what could be done with such intimate knowledge.
Lars pictured Dr. Hedley's secret life, a tossing of articles for insider entrepreneurial magazines with such regrettably foul attempts at clever titling such as “Crisis is in Business!” and “Crisi$: A Market Leader.” It was only in that private world where “crisis” was ever invoked, and only as a financially positive generator, a shrewdly immoral cause and effect relationship between suffering and profit. Did Dr. Hedley spend his off time in a gated community, rubbing down his modest collection of convertible while his titivated wife trotted out with a tray of lemonade? Were there an assortment of children, their faces beaming like miniature lanterns with love and awe at their father whom they physically mirrored in the diminutive?
Wanting to dig out from being slumped in this craggy pile of clinical proclamations, Lars asked: “how old are your children?”
As much as it was designed to throw “Dr. Max” off and shift the power balance just slightly, the volley was returned: “Oh, no-no-no. Lars. This simply won't do. Don't you think I can see what you're doing? You feel vulnerable that we know something about you and you think I'm somehow threatening you, so you try to even the score by pulling private information out of me,” he said with the faint rising uptick of a statement becoming a question.
Dr. Hedley leaned back and seemed to balloon in his chair – at least in Lars' perception. A big bag of compressed air. Dr. Hedley stared directly into Lars' eyes with an unyielding look beside all the quaintly framed photographs of children that seemed to all direct that same stony gaze at Lars. There were so many of them. Eight? Eleven? They all seemed different, but it could have been photos snapped at different ages, the protean aspect of transformation gifted only to children. Lars let the question drop along with his gaze in a cloudy puff of defeat. The consultation was over.
Lars went back to his solitary confinement, lay back on the bed, and shook the temazepam bottle as if though its rattle would offer up a secret. He twisted off the cap and tipped it toward his palm, and with two swift jerks, nudged three pills out into the palm and donated two of those back. He ran the tip of his finger over the perfect machine-scored groove, a diameter depression to facilitate the halving of the dosage if need be. His meeting with Dr. Hedley, a Dr. Hedley short on clinically affable grins, had left him feeling agitated. Not angry or afraid, but a crossroads between the two pulling him in both directions at once. He didn't want to give in to Dr. Hedley, but he was admittedly starting to feel the very unnerving symptoms these pills promised in all the clinical literature and glossy brochures to alleviate. He took one and, in an apparent but uncalculated act of further surrender, he opened Dr. Hedley's book to page one.
The haze of the early morning had been a weak defense against the oncoming scud of storm clouds. The puffier grey-black billows were being pulled into lines by a derecho, all seemingly to point at MCRS. A muted rattle and boom said that the storm was approaching, but hadn't made land yet. Inside the sharing room, the first minute slashes of drizzle appeared on the hermetically sealed window, but the inside was entirely still and clotted with an atmospheric cotton wool. The air pressure was plummeting outside in inverse proportion to the rising stuffiness inside. Barometric opposites were to be had as well in the room itself among the Sharing Group members. David was, much to Tom's and Lars' chagrin, in attendance well before his usual weekly visit, and Viktor was a new addition, a pursed smug look on his implacable face. Tom's arms were still folded in defensive posture high up on his chest, but the protective self-embrace was slacker and his chest sagged. Greg was still confused, but making his way toward ambiguous concern in a slow series of steps. It was his face that occasionally flashed now with suspicion. David, still as approval-seeking as ever, had most likely come at the bidding of the father he would have fancied Dr. Hedley. Lars speculated about Dr. Hedley's strategy: by calling in David, this would serve both as indoctrination support as well as a shining example of what awaited all the patients if they were obedient. It seemed to be well beyond Dr. Hedley's comprehension that no one in the room had any desire to become anything like the clucking sycophant in Dr. Hedley's therapeutic church.
“Have we all filled our questionnaires?” Dr. Hedley opened, more schoolmarmish than therapist.
It seemed as though David had, but that would have been long ago; he had brought along a severely dog-eared copy of the book with so many post-it flags that it looked as though it had over a hundred neon tongues. Despite any lingering resistance to Dr. Hedley, everyone in attendance had indeed brought their copy of the book and filled in the questionnaire – in varying degrees of seriousness. Greg's book kept popping open at the page he had bent the corner to serve as a bookmark, just at the midway point of the book where the binding had already started to split. Lars was surprised that Greg had made such progress – not that the book was heavy reading: 190 pages in large font. But the dismally written style of this self-help bilge proved difficult to consume in anything but the most measured of reading doses.
“Why don't we start with you, Tom?” directed Dr. Hedley, much to the disappointment of David who was impatient to share, or perhaps afraid that Dr. Hedley would find a better patient to bestow his favour upon. There would be jealousy, Lars thought, most likely based on nothing but innocuous medical affection and encouragement.
Tom may have been a simple man in many respects - the stereotype of the blue-collar worker with all the class-based tastes of beer, sports, obnoxiously loud and dangerously powerful hand tools, and dreams of prosperity that skidded on the cheap low-pile rug of his subsidized housing – but he was not ignorant of the games authorities play. He knew he was being tested after last evening when he had been mercilessly yet clinically cut down in front of everyone.
The questionnaire was one part soft introspection mixed with a far too obvious ploy to test if the reader was paying attention or had just skimmed through. For Lars, the questionnaire had been a condescending affair full of poorly posed or rigged questions, spot-checking on the reader's memory for all the freely redefined definitions (all bolded in the text). However, some questions were too personal, and their broadcasting even in the confines of this group was liable to increase vulnerability. It was no doubt a calculated plan to diminish and weaken the group's defenses so as to further the chance that everyone would seek protection in the woolen folds of Dr. Hedley's protective sweater. The program was familiar to Lars, who had read about the methods of brainwashing in POW camps. First would come the feigned camaraderie between the captor and the captured, then the humiliation, then the sowing of distrust of the other captives, then the openness of the captor to play the confidant (and rat out the others), and then the steady supply of negative news from outside that only further isolated the captive and made him cleave that much more to the captor. This was, according to that model, the second phase: humiliation.
The personal questions ranged from the pathetic to the probing. A dizzying series of them, in a profusion of one after another, would be enough to snag even the most attentively guarded to slip up. They just chipped away, kept digging, kept asking and asking...Are you sad? How long would you say you have felt sad or dissatisfied with your life? Do you feel unattractive when you look in the mirror? Are you envious of your more successful friends? Do you spend time reliving the past in fantasies? Do you masturbate more often? Have you wanted to cry? Have you thought of suicide? How often? Have you been cross with a friend/relative/spouse/pet that did not deserve it? Does your job fulfill you or does it leave you feeling empty and unchallenged? Do you have an ulcer? Do you have haemorrhoids? Are you tired all the time? Listless? Insomniac? Do you avoid visiting elderly relatives?...All of them designed to reduce even the steeliest, unemotional, hardy male into late autumn mulch.
The nurse bouncy-bouncied into the room apologetically and deposited a freshly opened tray of tasteless sugar wafers on the static table. Bouncy-bouncying back out, Lars noticed that there was no clock anywhere to be seen in the room, everyone's need to know the time at the mercy of their own devices or Dr. Hedley's thick-banded watch concealed under a ruck of sweater sleeve, its pilling mingling with his tufts of hand hairs like clownfish in sparse coral. The absence of a visible clock, here or in their individual cloisters, made it feel like some sort of clinic-version of a casino where the payout was mental health or else.
Tom stammered through all his replies which seemed to take a very long time. While Tom was murmuring his replies, Dr. Hedley glared admonishment at Viktor who had dared to sample the coffee and made a too audible “pah!” in revulsion. No one touched the wafer offerings on the table, each of them in a bland sugary retiform alignment in two plastic rows. Not exactly portion-controlled packaging, since taking one cookie would make the others spill out as well.
There was a sense of dread in being chosen next to share, yet also a strange desire to be the centre of attention, even under these absurd conditions. Not necessarily for Viktor, who was already in a scoffing mood. Viktor turned his chair around and sat in it like a horse, raised the book at eye level and spoke as though this were a poetry reading. All of his answers were either snide, cryptic, or a biting jests against the question itself. Dr. Hedley remained absolutely composed, allowing these antics to play out, while the occasional responses Viktor gave elicited a slight chuckle. Viktor loved it: he had an audience, and he felt triumphant for showing up Dr. Hedley for the fool he was, albeit indirectly. David was obviously not amused, but the others were, and this act of levity not only raised the estimation of Viktor in each of their minds, but also signalled that Dr. Hedley was not in as much control as they might have believed.
“'Do I dread seeing my elderly relatives?'” Viktor gave forth facetiously. “Well, of course I do. The elderly are absolutely dreadful, unkempt beasts. They smell something horrible. Not to mention just how depressing they can be, as if they've put all their happier memories to death and filled the void with the works of Schopenhauer and the life philosophy of Eeyore.
“'Do I have urges to engage in reckless behaviour?' Defined as...what? A snifter of port on Christmas Eve? O my untameable urges, how they defile the piety of my mind! How will I ever reconcile myself to be at peace between mind and body, temptation and salvation? O great therapeutic guru, steer us toward the path of the righteous and spare us from committing these reckless acts of filling out banal questionnaires!
“I positively squeal at this one: 'Do you have an ulcer?' I wonder if buried under all this dog's breakfast is the physiologist's purely mechanistic explanation for this artifice of 'mid-life crisis', that it was just an irritable ulcer all along!”
“That will be enough, Viktor,” Dr. Hedley said grimly. “I am quite disappointed that you took a very serious and helpful exercise and turned it into something frivolous. You fail to amuse me, and I hardly doubt that your comedic attempt is anything more than your fear of vulnerability.”
The smug grin vanished from Viktor's face as it stormed over. “I am to make myself vulnerable to you? You expect me to cast off my better sense and confide in a charlatan, be subjected to this dreary psycho-slop, and share my innermost feelings and personal details so openly as if they were vacuous remarks about the weather? I'll have you know that due to my lifestyle and my profession that I can scarcely think of anyone more vulnerable than myself, lest I be a member of the Romanov family at the end of a dark alley thronged with angry revolutionaries. No, I confide in those I respect, and I simply don't buy any of this ridiculous self-help nonsense you keep spooning me. In my eyes, you're nothing more than a failed priest with a psychotherapist's lexicon. This sadly arranged emo-fest is a complete waste of my time, and -”
“Shut up, you aging queer!” raged David.
Dr. Hedley seemed unfazed. David's guard dog barking was waved away as unnecessary; Dr. Hedley would meet Viktor's challenge. There was commotion as Viktor turned his attack against David, but Dr. Hedley put a stop to it all.
“Viktor, all this juvenile lashing out, these disparaging remarks against my person and a therapeutic process that has more than proven effective, is merely a cry for help.”
“Oh, don't pull these table-turning shenanigans on me! Your rhetorical attempts are just cheap tricks. You must think I'm stupid to fall for any of it.”
“Not stupid, Viktor, but in denial.”
“Ohhh, here we go! Finally the biggest sham of them all is trotted out: the old denial card! Every hack psychiatrist uses this when the patient doesn't confirm the diagnosis. If everything I say will just be considered as a denial, some sort of auto-deception, then I say let's dissolve this farcical relationship!”
“Viktor, I'd like to speak with you in private. There are things I must say that I do not think you would want broadcast to the group.” And then to us: “Please pardon us for a few moments – we will continue.”
No one in the room could hear what was being said once the door to the Sharing Group room was closed, but when they both returned, Viktor was very pale. What was it Dr. Hedley had said to silence Viktor? “We will resume now,” Dr. Hedley announced calmly.
It had been four days of intensive indoctrination sessions, alleged sharing, and isolation. The temazepam had begun its process of wrapping its plump and duck-downed fingers around Lars' anxiety, incidentally also smothering his ability to resist the MCRS patented methods. It would be on this fourth day that something resembling fortune would occur. His door, usually locked from the outside, had not been closed properly to drive the bolt of the lock. It was late evening, and all but a skeleton staff remained at the now dimly lit clinic. It amazed him how his room had been entirely insulated against all the regular sounds of the rest of the clinic – the susurra of the heating, the buzz of only the most essential fluorescent lights in the corridor, and...and a muffled sound like a tittering behind a closed door. Lars proceeded cautiously over the anti-skid vinyl flooring as though in fear of being caught. Curiously, he had no thoughts on making an escape, for where would he go? Home to Tracy? She would most likely press her little panic button to alert the gruff orderlies to drag him back and repeat this whole process over again, or worse. He made his way stealthily, creeping toward the noise, passing a drinking fountain, a fold-down gurney, and a pile of empty file boxes that were destined for the next week's recycling. The tittering briefly became a squawk followed by rapid snuffling sounds like an animal rutting. The entire corridor was straight with no sufficient cover, a single lane extending from the entrance back to where the cafeteria sat in its eerie gloom with nothing but a single shriek of light beneath the sneeze-guard. Dr. Hedley's office was a bulwark right in the middle of a warren of offices occupied by lower hierarchy staff. The rooms were closer to the back near the cafeteria, the only other doors leading off at the opposite side of the corridor being the nurse's station and a utility closet. Dr. Hedley's office, like all the others, had a single pane of glass with venetian blinds in that partially open, partially closed aspect of semi-privacy. Under the darker conditions, the low light of a desk lamp helped Lars to see what he would never have chosen to see.
A large, round, white sphere occupied most of what could be seen. It was wriggling and Lars identified it as the nurse's hyperbolic ass. He could also make out Dr. Hedley's hand, fumbling and groping over mounds and mounds of the nurse. There was no mistaking what was transpiring, and Lars had no interest in peeping any further. But there was something quite wrong about it, something that went well beyond unprofessional. In fact, with the lights so low, this comically depraved scene of nocturnal grappling, the throbbing pulse of the cafeteria's gloom, the doors bolted from the outside, and the concert of industrial noise, the whole place seemed...seedy, a kind of sketchy operation. This was a bedlam that barely disguised its own rotting liquefaction, its own rusting and peeling away to reveal the turpitude within. Everything took on a grisly aspect, as if the removal of light had illuminated the real nature of this place and the man who ran it.
Lars debated whether to share this view with the others, to free them as well to roam around and observe this ramshackle for what it was, what it tried to hide. Everything during the day seemed sterile and orderly one would expect of a well-funded hospital, but at night it was a decrepit place ruled by chaos and neglect. Although he had not formed anything like close friendship with any of the other prisoners of wellness, he did feel pity that they were caged here, gradually disempowered by a steady hypnotism. One by one, Lars unlocked the doors, bidding each of them with his finger on his lips to be quiet. They formed a mass and Lars pointed toward the cafeteria so that they could whisper conspiratorially. Tom was insistent on leaving and made his desire known in an effort to kibosh any further planning.
“Let's not be typical,” Viktor said, placing a friendly hand on Tom's shoulder. Tom recoiled, his reflex standard evidence of a long cultivated homophobia.
Greg was terribly uncertain if this was the right thing to do. He seemed to be suffering some kind of inner torment since he arrived here, and it was getting worse.
“Viktor is right,” Lars added his whisper to the mix. “This is a typical brainwashing experiment that requires a shrewd and aggressive atypical response. I -”
A sudden gurgling sound caused them all to hush. It was just a pipe finally digesting what had been lodged there earlier in the day, a plug of accumulated hair or other matter finally giving way to the fluoridated water that nibbled patiently away at it. As the pipe cleared its metallic throat, each of the men found themselves viscerally aware of their own blockages, their own knotted fear in being caught out of their rooms without leave colluding so openly in this cafeteria. What if Dr. Hedley or the nurse found them?
“I'm just going to fuckin' go,” said Tom, standing still and not making good on his own declaration.
“I'd advise against it,” counselled Lars. “The same people that sentenced us here to receive the gospel of Saint Max will just have us put back in here again.”
“Who? My wife?” Sneered Tom. “She's pulled some stupid shit in her time, but this takes the fuckin' cake. I ain't coming back, and she's going to really understand that when I get through with her.”
The imminent vague threat of spousal abuse was left ignored.
“We could feign obedience,” offered Viktor. “Let on to Dr. Hedley that the remedy has worked and secure our early release. At least we'd be released and pronounced cured rather than be fugitives.”
“The price seems too high,” Lars said. “Where Dr. Hedley's hypnotic suggestions won't work, being drugged up will. I'd really not want to take the chance. But, Tom, I don't think being escapees is going to work either. In my mind, this place has to be shut down.”
“Every man for himself's what I think,” Tom insisted. Everyone else quite suddenly became rigid and wide-eyed. “What? Does that offend your liberal minds or something?”
What Tom did not see, his back to the entrance to the cafeteria, was what was now occulting the sparse light of the corridor. That shadow had a voice: “What have we here? A little seance?” It was Dr. Hedley. Tom yelped despite himself, belying his own bravado and devil-may-care posture.
“If you can't sleep,” continued the even tones of a now menacing Dr. Hedley, “may I suggest that you catch up on your reading. Shall we return to bed now?”
Caught in flagrante delicto, the men fell into lock-step, faces down-turned refusing to make eye contact with the doctor on account of some curious shame. Filing in line, they deposited themselves one at a time into their rooms, Dr. Hedley securing the locks on each door. They were made to feel that they were little boys who had done bad.
Lars shivered on his bed. There was no telling how much was overheard. Viktor and Lars had applied the finishing touches to reveal that they were in fact Dr. Hedley's adversaries. This oppositional rift would come with consequences, of that Lars was invariably certain.
“Given last night's...event, I am sad to say that you've left me no choice but to be a bit more aggressive in my treatment methods. I fail to see to what purpose your little act of mutiny serves since you only defeat yourselves. From now on, you will have to earn the privilege of coming to the Sharing Group. None of you are ready yet, so I will consult with each of you independently. All meals will be taken in the same fashion to prevent further development of this toxic conspiracy theory you all seem to indulge. You are all very ill, and it may be best to keep you quarantined from each other to prevent any more incidents like we had last night.”
Dr. Hedley sat weightily upon his chair, bringing his fingertips together into a steeple and then pulling them apart. This isolation would serve as the first round of punishment. What was merely implied as mandatory completion of the end-of-chapter questionnaires became explicit obligation, and it served Dr. Hedley's purposes quite well since the more the patients offered up their privacy to the probing of Dr. Hedley, the more control Dr. Hedley had over them.
The second round of punishment, announced to each of them individually at the end of that same day, was that their stay at MCRS was necessarily extended by another week for reasons of ensuring successful treatment. It would mean, thought Lars, that Tracy – and indirectly him via his shared savings – would be billed for another week.
Dr. Hedley made his rounds, but he had lost much of his feigned affability in his visits, instead becoming more of a stern schoolmaster. If he was dissatisfied with the level of disclosure and commitment to the questionnaire exercise, he would declare it insufficient and demand that it be done over again properly. What Lars would not learn until much later was that, on the eighth day, Tom had attempted suicide and failed miserably. A prescription was soon enforced that made any such further ideation a fuzzy and distant thing, a widening and impassable chemical sea between thought and action. Greg, who seemed to Lars the most likely candidate for a suicide attempt, was ever more receding from all certainty. His initially confused state had progressed to a violently introspective torment resolving itself in the non-resolution state of catatonic stasis. Of course, none of this was knowledge to Lars who, like the others, had been sequestered from all human contact save the remedial therapist and the perfunctory nurse. If there was a reality deficit, this place was widening rather than closing it, lodged as each of them were in this nightmarish fantasy plucked from all sense and reason. Lars felt his will ebbing from him, which was a combined effect of the isolation, medication, and sloganeering repetition. Cognizant of the small lump of his remaining will, Lars resolved to think of a new strategy. And then he hit upon it.
If anyone knew that the old saw “knowledge is power” was a useless heirloom, it was Lars who had worked long enough as a media researcher to understand that the value of knowledge was worth less than nil in the popular mind. Knowledge and information are too frequently conflated terms, but they constituted very distinct and antipodal continents. There was nothing synonymous about them at all since knowledge took effort to process while information is merely a passive flow of data, much of it trivial and easy to digest. Information required no real action on the part of the recipient: it was merely part of a mechanism that performed its rote functions to absorb and discharge indiscriminately. The cyberneticists of yesteryear enjoyed fooling with the idea of the speed of information, especially compared to the speed of light. But it was not solely speed that was of importance in the dissemination of information, for though the rate of transmission is important to the 24-hour news cycle and the mania for constant status updates that have merely proved just how banal life and its information can be, the real importance lies in the perceived value of that information to the recipient. There is no standard currency for the value of information for it, like how beauty and all the other relativist myths, was in the eye of the beholder. The value of information could be separated into two types for every individual: advantage and disadvantage, generally linked to how the information stands in relation to the goal of the ego. Information itself was entirely innocuous, inert, and largely fiat.
Information is a threat if it presents the possibility of disadvantaging the ego that receives it. At times, even the suggestion of information is enough to throw the receiver into a tizzy if it becomes a virally open and free-flowing thing that cannot be controlled. With this in mind, Lars would try a different tack with the clever Dr. Hedley: he would answer his questionnaires in such a way as to provoke Dr. Hedley's ego into disclosure. Gradually, Dr. Hedley would oppose some of the views Lars would inscribe in his answers, causing Dr. Hedley to defend his own views, thereby increasing the possibility that he would slip up and offer personal anecdotes. Those anecdotes would be leverage, a wealth of raw information that could be used to the eventual disadvantage of Dr. Hedley.
Lars had already made note how carefully guarded Dr. Hedley was about personal information, evading even the most mundane family questions. This was more than just the professional's divide between public and private life as if these could be impenetrable to one another. No, it spoke of something else, a maniacal need to control, and the obvious secret that must at all costs stay concealed. There was no doubt that Dr. Hedley knew the cost and importance of information, for he deftly wielded it to ensure obedience, always the airy threat that a patient's confidential information might slip out, and that dissent would mean a lapse in protection. The bloody info-mafioso. He was selling protection over the patient's vitally personal information from the very protector at the cost of compliance. Servitude. Sycophancy. Dr. Hedley was little more, in this light, than a trumped up clinical bully.
Lars' speculations would turn out to be truer than he realized, for there was a suspicious supplement to Dr. Hedley's finances that allowed him to lead the lavish lifestyle he had thus far enjoyed, and it did not come solely from the overpriced therapeutic service he was providing. The equation was clear: information-power-money. The trick was how to turn that information by some modern day alchemy into riches. Dr. Hedley was partially using MCRS as a front to pilfer more information that he would subsequently sell to partners in various industries. So, if it turned out that one of the patients had a predilection for sports vehicles, it would only be a matter of acquiring a bit more information that would assist a company to market directly and personally to that patient upon release. Dr. Hedley cured no one of mid-life crisis: he amplified it to such a pitch that his “cured” patients would gladly turn over their money if some product or service would alleviate anxiety: unresolved crisis and the installed guilt of rendering time at MCRS a meaningless expenditure. The final bill for treatment would be incentive enough for most men to make the “treatment” count, to justify the price tag. Dr. Hedley carefully wove such a potent fear of relapse in these patients that they would spend everything they could to indulge their crisis without admitting defeat.
There was also another source of revenue for the shrewd doctor. His first book was a “freebie,” albeit specifically designed to make his patients dependent upon his teachings. His second and third books on the subject, both of which made vaulting promises to delve deeper into the matter, became obligatory purchases for released patients in order to complete and not nullify their treatment. He had been precocious enough to discover the spending power of the male in mid-life crisis, and he had developed an expert method for channelling that spending power for his own benefit by transforming men of deep pockets into emotional cripples for life.
It was an information war. Lars busied himself answering the questionnaires with meticulous care to reverse the roles, to undo the brainwashing attempt. And, just as Lars had predicted, Dr. Hedley felt compelled to argue with Lars by appealing to the thinnest thread of personal anecdote to lend credibility to his reasoning. Individually, the tiny shreds of personal information amounted to very little, but Lars was compiling them, stitching them together into a quilt of complete disclosure. He collected these fragments and was better able in time to fill in various missing pieces. For instance, he learned of a previous failed business venture when Dr. Hedley spoke broadly on persistence toward success as a proper analogy to the process of treatment. Dr. Hedley unwittingly volunteered that there had been infidelity in his marriage simply by the slight clues he offered. Other bits of information Dr. Hedley exposed were arrived at by inference: Dr. Hedley did not factor for Lars' knowledge on particular schools, but Lars had recalled such details of what some institutions offered and what they did not purely from conversation with others. Dr. Hedley had scandalously, though unsurprisingly, made reference to where he obtained his medical degree, and even gave the year: 1985. The university he cited did not have an accredited medical school program until 1998. But Lars did not risk challenging Dr. Hedley prematurely, and instead went about hoarding more information until it was reaching critical mass. There was no sense alerting Dr. Hedley so soon for fear that he would clam up. But he continued confiding ever more scraps for Lars' collection.
The summary provided for an ample and formidable arsenal to use against Dr. Hedley. There was no longer any question that Dr. Hedley was not a doctor at all, but a misrepresenting fraud. Tax evasion, infidelity, bizarre fetishes, and a long string of sham enterprises was more than enough to discredit him and irrevocably ruin his reputation. Yet, it was still too soon to play the hand.
By day twelve, Dr. Hedley presumed it was safe enough to reintroduce the patients to the Sharing Group. He had felt they all made steady progress, which meant that he had effectively drummed out all remaining resistance. The same brand of wafers were placed and left untouched on the centre table, the same tepid coffee percolated, and the same absurd slogan-posters adorned the walls. Dr. Hedley had left the men in the room while he was busy processing new admits. It was then that Lars confided in Viktor what he had learned, to which Viktor – who had been having a rough time of things as of late – seemed nearly to rebound instantly – his verve, wit, and willing defiance returning.
“You pulled all of that out of him?” Viktor said. “That's quite the damning list. We should move on this now.”
“We're still cut off from the outside world. Having this information is good, but we need a way to relay it. Even if we confront him with what we know, he will simply deny it and ensure that we never have the opportunity to transmit it. Besides, I don't want to give him the opportunity to cover his tracks before we can go to the authorities.”
“Do we have a plan of action?”
“I do. I need to get a hold of some paper.”
Viktor walked over to the recycling pail and pulled out a scrap of notebook paper that had been crumpled up after writing a single line of “Mrs. Hathgood – cheque bounced, follow up Wednesday.”
“Here. Not exactly stationery, but it should do. Plan to list his sordid crimes in a great philippic?”
“Yes. I want to write it so that it doesn't appear that we're just a bunch of mental patients. I will write to the Medical Board and give them the address of this place and ask for clarification on Dr. Hedley's credentials. I will add as well some of the abuses we've suffered here.”
“That could take weeks. I sincerely doubt they answer their mail promptly. Send it to the newspaper instead. They can make a real circus out of this. The negative press alone should be enough to make us look the sad victims of fraud and abuse. But how do we get a letter out of this place? I doubt Max will simply let you pop out to drop a letter in the mailbox. How can we do this so as not to arouse his suspicion? Do we have an envelope? Stamps?”
“I've thought this through already. It's the weekend, so all the staff except for the nurse and Dr. Hedley will have gone home by dinnertime. Saturday's mail doesn't go out until tomorrow and is just sitting behind the receptionist's area in a bundle waiting to be picked up and dropped off. I can quickly pull one of the envelopes already stamped, yank out the contents, jam in my own letter, and replace the address with the newspapers.”
“And you somehow think Max will let you saunter over to the receptionist's area?”
“We'll need a distraction. I hate to ask this of you, but we need a serious commotion. It won't do for one of us to pretend we're violently ill at dinner since that would only bring the nurse to take the sick man away, leaving Dr. Hedley to continue supervising the table. We need to keep both of them occupied so I'll have time to slip the letter into the mail-out.”
“You seem to have something in mind, perhaps something I would find terribly distasteful. But, you may as well tell me and I'll most likely cooperate if it means our freedom.”
“At dinner, I want you to make a blatant pass at Tom.”
“As I thought: terribly distasteful.”
“You and I both know Tom will react violently. He may be in a drugged stupor, but I'm sure he still has it in him to respond typically. Just before the fight breaks out in earnest, you need to dash into the nurse's station, thereby allowing Tom to give chase. She is usually in there during dinnertime to get the medicine ready for after dinner. Since the area is so tiny, you and Tom would prevent her from being able to get out. Dr. Hedley will most likely not directly interfere, but will go immediately into his office to telephone one of his burly orderlies to help break it up. While both the nurse and the doctor are detained -”
“You take advantage of the distraction, slip out and do your thing while I'm getting pulped and pulverized by the redneck savage. Got it,” Viktor said resignedly. “It isn't the most eloquent solution I've heard, but I suppose a black eye is not a bad price to pay for our liberation. You know that such an incident will make Max crack down that much harder on us, extending our forced stay here indefinitely. If the newspaper doesn't act on your letter, it will all have been for naught.”
“I know that. I'm taking a chance.”
“And if that letter is intercepted before it leaves here, the jig is up.”
“That I also know. I'll aim for maximum discretion.”
Dr. Hedley rejoined the group and he seemed inwardly pleased just how cooperative Lars and Viktor had become in the Sharing Group, almost as if the method was working its magic.
Just as Tom was about to dip the plastic knife into the unidentifiable meat cutlet, Viktor abandoned all dignity and leaned in to nibble Tom's ear while moving a lecherous hand up his thigh. Viktor had to stop himself from retching; Tom was quite the opposite to his type, and there was no desire in Viktor's sexual repertoire for that cheap thrill of trying to convert the unwilling, that silly conquest over fortified denial. Tom nearly leapt out of his chair and was so livid and in shock, that he could only manage stammering half-words. Viktor started winking and licking his lips, calling Tom his sexy such-and-such, how things have been so lonely without a man to penetrate, and so forth. This threw Tom into a mad rage as he lunged toward Viktor who was already on his feet and dashing toward the nurse's station as planned. Tom gave pursuit, his fists waving after Viktor desperately wanting to land heavy blows for this violation. Viktor was so afraid that he could not help himself from laughing as he burst into the nurse's station with the nurse already distributing pills in paper cups. Dr. Hedley, true to form, knew that he would not be able to physically restrain the rampaging Tom and darted toward his office to make an emergency call. Lars, seeing the way was open, ran halfway up the length of the corridor and stooped below the window of Dr. Hedley's office before resuming his upright rush to the mail-out. Picking a standard sized letter envelope from the middle of the bundle that was already held together with a rubber band, Lars frantically opened it, removed the letter, put his own in its place, and scribbled the address of the local newspaper after scribbling over the previous address. As luck would have it, scotch tape was beside a small dish of paperclips, and he resealed the letter, tucking it into the centre of the bundle. He had just enough time to wrap the rubber band around the bundle and crumple the old letter and shove it in his pocket as Dr. Hedley rounded the corner. Operating on an almost mechanical level of basic survival, Lars reached for the telephone to make it appear as though his whole purpose at the receptionist's area was to call out.
“What are we doing, Lars?” stormed Dr. Hedley, his face a kaleidoscope of red and white. Lars stood frozen, his hand hovering over the telephone.
“I asked you a question! What is the meaning of what you were about to do?”
“I...I, uh...I wanted to call my wife,” Lars said, kick-starting a fake blubbering jag to convey his innocent intention that he desperately missed his wife. “I want to go home,” he sobbed, his face scrunching together in that mixed look of a mourner and a gargoyle. It was convincing. Dr. Hedley softened his tone just slightly and asked Lars to come away from the telephone. Meanwhile, Viktor was being pummelled by an enraged Tom as the nurse made feeble attempts to wedge her spherical form between them. Viktor's cries were like that of a dog being whipped. Dr. Hedley restored what order he could by telling Greg and Lars to go their rooms. The soundproofing of the room prevented Lars from hearing the rest of the incident, but his mind was more than capable of conjuring up what may have been transpiring.
Day thirteen. A diaphanous band of cirrus cloud kept the sun behind a porous veil. He had just been released into the day after spending the better part of the last hour giving his statement to a sergeant with steel wool for hair and forearms knotted with ganglion cysts. The police officer seemed almost incredulous upon hearing Lars' testimony, jotting down notes for a green file folder. Tracy had come to meet him on the concrete apron outside the newly renovated police headquarters that looked more like a prison built for Buck Rogers. The editor at the local newspaper had taken Lars' plea so seriously that he barked for any available journalist to confirm the report. The police were called thereafter, and the office of MCRS was thronged with men armed with cameras and guns. The bust made front page, accompanied by a picture of the defamed doctor with a coat over his head to conceal his face as he was brought to a waiting police cruiser. The headline was comical: FRAUD DOCTOR TORTURES MEN IN MID-LIFE CRISIS. The details of the alleged torture, dramatically spruced up by inventive journalists, made the human interest angle, while the details of the profiteering seemed thin and tacked on.
Tracy was so choked on guilt that it seemed too large to assuage. Reading the article and seeing the state Lars was in made it worse. She attempted the few guilt-tinged offers to make things better, as if cooking his favourite dinner or volunteering to massage him could in any way function as reciprocal payment for what Lars endured.
As if to underscore her error, while Lars was effectively incarcerated at MCRS, Tracy learned that Hilda's Trevor had sunk their savings to lease a yacht, precipitating a row that resulted in Trevor hastily throwing a few clothes and the two new books by Dr. Hedley he had recently purchased into a duffel bag and beating it to an out of town motel from where it was presumed that he would launch his divorce. Tracy didn't need to be told, and quietly removed the MCRS panic keychain and tossed it in the garbage. There was an altogether new crisis that no existing service could resolve, and which now involved her and Lars.
Lars did not make any attempt to correspond with his fellow MCRS inmates after the liberation. It would be two full years of legal back and forth until Lars saw the six thousand dollars it cost for MCRS' treatment plan returned to him. Three years after that, he thought he recognized Dr. Hedley, albeit in another of his many incarnations, on a late night infomercial for something called Doc Max's Anti-Balding Ointment.
Kane X. Faucher is an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario's Media, Information and Technoculture Program. He is the author of 11 books of fiction, the most recent being Epigonesia (annotated by Tom Bradley) and The Infinite Library (forthcoming September 2011).
He lives in London, Ontario.
Volunteers for Issue 8
For copy-editing this issue of MTLS thanks:
- Amanda Tripp
- Carmel Purkis
- Rosel Kim
- Julia Cooper
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus
MTLS is grateful to Jean-Pierre Houde for his hard work on web management.