“How’d you hear about us, Mr. Bretoff?” asks the sixtyish, silver-haired woman at the table.
“I…don’t remember exactly. I think it was…”
“Mr. Bretoff…Mr. Bretoff…you okay?”
“I…sure…I was just thinking about…something.” His tentative tone frames his dilating eyes.
“How’d you hear about us?”
“From my…this woman over at the café on…she said she had this old boyfriend whose brother was here and…” He stops and gawks off to the right where two males are painting the walls and returns with a mottled grin.
“Good…we love to get referrals from satisfied customers.”
“And I…think my ex might…be here…or was here when…” He gazes off to his left and lasers the movements of a woman racing down the hallway in her wheelchair, mumbling something to herself.
“What’s her name?”
“Well, she used to go by…but she changed that when she went to…guess that was another friend who went into the convent and then…”
“Maybe you’ll recognize her tomorrow when you come back. You can eat with us. Would you like that?”
“I’m…not sure if…I can but…if I can I would like…”
“Mr. Bretoff, you okay? Do you wanna lay down for a while? Can I get you a water?”
“No…no, no I think I need to leave.”
“Something bothering you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Nothing that I…this place makes me feel like I’ve been here before and something bad happened.”
“Here? We’ve only been here for a short while. I don’t remember ever seeing you here. Are you sure you have the right place?”
“Oh…I don’t know…I just feel…who was here before?”
“I don’t know for sure…think it was a café some years ago, then a mission.”
“Oh…really? I kinda re…member going to some places like that but then I’m not too sure…so…”
“…you’re probably confusing this place with somewhere else.”
“When I was a young…I think I used to come somewhere around here. Maybe the building that used to be here was…”
“Was what, Mr. Bretoff?”
“Maybe it was a café back…”
“I can’t remember for sure. I think it was when…”
“When, Mr. Bretoff?”
“When that guy was President who…”
“Who was that?”
“I….don’t know. Who was that…lady in the wheelchair?”
“That someone you remember from when we had this President?”
“I don’t…she looks like someone who used to be at that club over on…the Rig or something and…but maybe that was somebody…else.”
“Well, we’d love to have you be part of our family if it’s the right place for you and if you…qualify. Can I get some information from you, Mr. Bretoff?”
“What do…you mean?”
“We wanna make sure you will feel at home here.”
“We wanna make you feel like you’re part of our community and will stay until…well, we don’t wanna see you unhappy.”
“How do you feel about other people, Mr. Bretoff? Are there any people you don’t like being around?”
“Well…those people who’re always making all that noise up by the Center who…but I think I like just about everyone else.”
“What about girls…I mean women?”
“I like…to sit on the bench by the pagoda and peek at them as they go down to the water.”
“Sure, that’s only natural. But do you enjoy being around them and…interacting with them?”
“Inter…yeah, yeah…I like to…I ran into Sophie last month at the Center and we had a nice chat about…”
“About some of the good times we had when we…”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find some good companionship here too, and maybe even renew some old acquaintances.”
“I think I would…like that.”
“Do you like to share with people and participate in activities, Mr. Bretoff?”
“I like to help other people and…”
“And…I like to get back something when I deserve it.”
“That’s…pretty normal. And do you like to join activities with people you don’t know very well?”
“As long as….I like to do new things with some but…”
“Well, you think about that and we’ll revisit it. What’s your financial situation like?”
“I have a bank account at the…coop over on…”
“Sure…the coop. Do you have documentation of your net worth?”
“Yes, like your recent tax returns?”
“I think I have that…it’s over at…”
“Try to find that information and bring it to us as soon as you can. We don’t accept applicants who are independently wealthy. We have a cap on income level and asset ownership. All of your needs will be taken care of here so you’ll have no worries. You’ll be relieved of the burden of having to manage your finances. You’ll be free to pursue your dreams and goals…the values of an alternative lifestyle to perfection.”
The building is one of the first constructed along the Boardwalk, built in the first few years of the 20th century as a hotel but since adapted to the sundry uses of various owners and occupiers. Abandoned quite recently and threatened with demolition, a consortium of concerned citizens purchased it and leased it to a group of artists, therapists and pharmacologists. The consensus was to preserve and upgrade the fossil of the older structure while adding a modern front with lots of windows for light and a view of the ocean. Workers are currently putting the finishing touches on this façade. Just to the right of the entrance is a large, discolored wooden arch hewn with indentations and markings positioned in a small garden of succulents. Several folks are currently milling around it.
“What do you think this is?” asks a woman with a long gray ponytail, admiring the arch like it’s an important work of art on display at the LA Louver.
“Oh, maybe it’s…your guess is as good as mine,” returns a portly male with a cane who’s squinting like he’s trying to bring the image into clearer focus.
“Who knows,” blurts a genderless voice from the fringe. “But where did they get it and…why did they put it here?”
A woman with a frizzed-out reddish-gray Afro sashays through the tangle to the arch, disrupting the momentary stupor. She looks it over, takes a deep breath and walks circumspectly through it, turning around slowly to face the leering crowd before strutting back. “It makes me feel…like I’ve been on a trip into…the future and back,” she says, giggling to the gallery.
“Or…into the past and…returning to…” The portly male mouths a few latent syllables.
“Returning to what?” asks another gray ponytail with granny glasses as she creeps up behind him and massages his mid-section. He stumbles into the woman next to him, who’s tall and very thin, her baggy clothes obscuring what was likely a model’s body. He manages a vacant smirk.
“To bed!” rips an anonymous voice. “I need a nap.” A concordance of chuckles suffuses the crowd as it disperses toward the front door of the building and files inside.
The giddy mood presses into the lobby, sparking surprised looks from those schmoozing at a few tables. The entrants spread around and begin to mingle, the mood now modulating. A few languish alone on the sofas and gawk at the spectacle. A florid, loquacious cue-tip jerks up from a table and waddles to a sofa, bending over directly in front of a man who’s staring at a space off to the right. She turns and sees the apparent object of his vision, a rusty-haired sixtyish woman busting out of a string bikini.
“Do you know her?” she asks, unable to break his trance. “That’s Lisa…she used to be a stripper over at the…somewhere on…Washington I think. She still likes to show off her silicone. Are you the new arrival? I’m Clara.”
“New arrival?” He now turns to face her.
“You just got here?”
“Yeah, that’s…right. I just got here…a while ago. I’m…Andre. Andre. I…”
“Yes…you what?” He jerks his attention toward the string bikini and lasers her, though she doesn’t return it. He shuffles away and alights on another sofa across the room, crosses his legs and gazes at the wall.
“Charming the new male residents again, Clara!” exhorts a lanky woman wearing a slightly-oversized tie-dyed tee who’s been tracking the trajectories. She rises and saunters over to the sofa, sporting a quizzical smile. Clara remains on the periphery, bemused.
“I’m Jane,” offers the tie-dyed tee, edging her body onto the sofa. She has an unflinching smile that exudes life-and-people-are-beautiful but giggles periodically and at the very edge of each eruption her expression becomes vacant, like a subliminal flash threatens to dissolve her upbeat mood, before returning to form.
“You must be our new member,” she continues, “the one everybody’s been talkin’ about.” He’s in the process of forming a syllable when Lisa plops down on the other side of the sofa, quashing his verbal efforts but re-engaging his gaze. He appears deep in thought.
“Not much to talk about because…”
“Why, Andre?” asks Jane, drawing his gaze halfway toward her.
“I haven’t talked to anybody about much…yet and…”
“And?” He now turns toward her while riveted on Lisa who’s seemingly oblivious to their conversation.
“And I haven’t had a…chance.”
“Maybe your reputation precedes you. Have you lived around here?”
“Yeah, I used to live down…”
“Down…somewhere around the…guess maybe that was a long…time ago.”
“How long?” Before Jane can finish he jerks up and arcs to about five feet in front of Lisa and stops quickly, like he’s decided not to address her. He observes her intently for several seconds until she slowly makes eye contact, but gracefully angles away toward Jane who turns and looks at her quizzically. Locking on her gape like he’s come under a spell, he inclines his head lower and fixes on her necklace.
Curious, Jane rises and joins Andre’s sightline. “Hey, what’s so fascinating about Lisa’s neck?” Lisa looks at Jane, as if to second the question, and then directly at Andre who squints and resumes his inspection, now below the necklace in a swatch of crepey freckles that points like an arrow to the deep valley cleaving her fleshy masses. Lisa reaches behind her back and undoes the strap of her bikini top. It slips down slightly while pulsing her countenance, her eyes like flames combusting from a smoldering fire.
“Lisa, what’s got into you?” interjects Jane.
Andre meanwhile inspects the new terrain, his penetrating gaze seeming to firm up her skin which now reveals a shapely mole.
Jane steps to the right of Lisa and stretches onto the sofa, reaching behind to fasten her strap. Andre’s gaze remains fixed on the same spot like he’s mesmerized by the afterimage of a flashing neon sign.
An electronic, genderless voice reverberates from the ceiling.
“Attention everyone…attention! We’re gathering in the auditorium for our five minutes of peace and love at the top of the hour. Please don’t be late!”
As if the sound secretes an invisible chemical through the room, everyone’s movements slow, their expressions becoming pensive but expectant. They fall into single file and march methodically through the door. Andre scans the ephemera pulsing from the wall….
The room is spacious and brightly lit, the walls patterned with random paintings, posters and portraits. The chairs are full of residents whose attention is focused on the screen in front where images begin to flicker in tandem with soft, instrumental music as the lights dim. Faint lyrics surface and gradually become more distinct. They’re from an arrangement of “White Bird” that transitions into an eclectic mash-up. A field of daisies fills the pulsing screen, the camera zooming in to glimpse what appear to be clusters of bodies contorting through the petals, then back out. This repeats but each time the camera offers a slightly different vantage of the bodies. The lyrics of “White Bird” press through the sounds as naked limbs entwine the flowers, fading to a spike of instrumental riffs that are quickly layered with the electronic voice, this time inflected an octave higher.
“Now hug each other…move around the room and spread love to your brothers and sisters!”
The riffs keep repeating as some pivot eagerly to a mostly willing target while others inch timidly toward moving shapes and flail for hugs. Many find vacant spaces but continue the search. Meanwhile the body parts on the screen evolve into Frisbees floating off in various directions, each transforming into one then another human shape before returning to inanimate plastic disk. It conjures a hiccupping organism.
A scream cascades through the room and the lights flash on and off.
“Attention everyone…attention!” peals the electronic voice with a trace of urgency. “Please be careful…respect your neighbor!”
The interruption snuffs the scream, leaving a stretch of silence that seems to alter the cadence of the flashing lights. Snickers and then a few giggles puncture the void as the lights stabilize, though remain slightly brighter than before. Most now seem to see others around them more clearly and the configuration of exploratory hugging changes. The riffs return as the Frisbees on the screen morph into peace signs, the countenances registering degrees of blissful resignation.
“That’s it…that’s it!” peals the voice. “But move around, spread your love…reach out and touch someone!”
The scene resembles a Chinese fire drill, the urgency dissipating with each movement. Some touch while others graze toward their nominal target but not quite reaching it and slumber off toward another choice. The riffs slow and distort then abruptly terminate as the lights fully brighten and the voice fills the room.
“Time’s up….time’s up! Return to your rooms and savor the good feelings you’ve received today and…rest up for our activities later. There’ll be a poetry reading in the library…a group therapy session in the conference room…a seminar on libido retrieval here…an anger management class in…”
“…ehhhhhhhh…haaaahhhhh…no, no!” screams a tall, wispy but spry cue-tip in the rear with long, stringy hair swaying from her efforts to get away from a frenzy of groping hands in search of targets. All eyes turn toward the action as the woman evades the flailing reach and slips to the door.
“I told you last week I don’t remember ever meeting you,” she says, inching through the doorway. The male pursuer continues searching as if he’s comfortable flailing at her physical echoes, slow in processing her words, or perhaps just hard of hearing.
“What do you mean?” asks the handsome, burly hulk with a sagging paunch whose instinctual energies seem to be in the process of dissembling. He turns sharply around, the cue-tip now nearly through the doorway. “You said the other day you wanted to be…”
“…be what? You got the wrong person…I’ve never talked to you.”
Several genderless figures wearing white coats rush through the doorway. One grabs the male’s arms and takes him from the room. He goes willingly but with a puzzled expression on his face. The other white coats meander through the skittish crowd. As if the first scream might’ve been contagious, another one erupts from the other side of the room and the white coats skip to the source, but another spikes from an unknown location before the first stops, the overlay delivering a sonorous screech. A small crowd gathers near the center of the room and the white coats surround them.
“Don’t touch me!….get away from me!” screams a woman who’s gyrating in the center of a crowd, her short, brownish-orange hair seeming to frizz out in rhythm with her movements. She swivels a choppy, incomplete three-sixty, gazing at the rapt expressions and suddenly stops, as if on stage, and delivers an apologetic curtsy. As she faces the group again her matronly mien dissolves and her countenance pulses with confidence.
“Why are all of you looking at…me…like that?” she asks while stepping to the edge of the crowd, forging a path through the awestruck bodies to the awaiting clasps of white coats on the other side. As they escort her from the room a male jettisons from the group and impales himself against the wall, arms spread out parallel to the floor, his look suggesting he’s occupied with his own mental imagery, oblivious to the gallery’s stares.
“Relax everyone…relax. Please return to your rooms!”
Most trudge anxiously through the door while a few stragglers ogle the male who remains frozen in the same position against the wall as the white coats bee-line their way to him.
Andre is wedged into the corner of the room in squat formation like he’s ready to spring up at any moment, gazing across at Lisa who’s returning it from a few feet away as she’s slowly angling to the exit. They become locked in addled trances, freezing Lisa’s momentum and straining Andre’s expression. As if this brief meeting of minds secretes some chemical that awakens his memory this strain now dissipates, and he feels elated, energized with confidence and clarity.
“Lisa…Lisa!” he exhorts, springing in her direction. “It was in that spacious upper-level living room at that mansion on the Boardwalk, just down from the Lafayette.” He’s now facing her. She seems ready to make her escape but then becomes curious. “Remember?” Her expression contorts. “The windows were all open. There was lots of natural light streaming in. Sensual music filtered in from ceiling speakers. It was late afternoon, the 4th of July 1979.” She seems pleasantly puzzled, her eyes flickering recognition. “The beautiful screams from so many throats, the odor of sweat and pungent lilacs.”
Lisa curls her lips ever so slightly and flashes a caustic smile while slowly stepping away from him. She suddenly turns around, fixes on him for several seconds, and screams through a convolution of high-pitch variances. Two white coats appear and graciously guide her away from him, terror in her eyes. But she keeps looking at him all the way through the exit. Andre rushes after her.
“What are you doing on Saturday night?”