“How’d you hear about us, Mr. Berkoff?” asks the sixtyish, silver-haired woman behind the desk.
“I…don’t remember exactly. I think it was…”
“Mr. Berkoff…Mr. Berkoff…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 a wheelchair, hollering something in some private language.
“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 for your next session. You can have brunch with us. Would you like that?”
“I’m…not sure if…I can but…if I can I would like…”
“Mr. Berkoff, 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. Maybe I can come back later.”
“Something bothering you, Mr. Berkoff? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Nothing that I…this place makes me feel…funny. I 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 funny. Who was here before?”
“I don’t know for sure…think it was a mission at one time.”
“Oh…really? I kinda re…member that…but…I never went to…places like that 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. Berkoff?”
“Maybe it was a café back…”
“Back when, Mr. Berkoff?”
“I can’t remember for sure. I think it was when…”
“When, Mr. Berkoff?”
“When that guy was President who…”
“Who was that, Mr. Berkoff?”
“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…Washington…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. Berkoff?”
“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. Berkoff? Are there any people you don’t like being around?”
“Well…there’s those people who are always making all that noise up by the Center who…but I like just about everyone else I…think.”
“What about girls…I mean women?”
“I like the…to sit on the bench by the pagoda and peek at them as they go down to the water.”
“Sure, that’s only natural, Mr. Berkoff. 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 what, Mr. Berkoff?”
“About some of the good times we had when we…”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find some good companionship here too, Mr. Berkoff, 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. Berkoff?”
“I like to help other people and…”
“And what, Mr. Berkoff?”
“And…I like to get back something when I deserve it.”
“That’s…pretty normal, Mr. Berkoff. 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…”
“But what, Mr. Berkoff?”
“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 the amount of income and assets you can own. All your needs are taken care of here so you’ll have no worries. You’ll be relieved of the burden of having to manage your finances. Those things are a burden…they’ll interfere with your dedication to quality values, those of equality and human fairness.”
The building has no name on it but workers are busy painting the front, suggesting that one may soon appear. It’s a formula façade familiar along the Boardwalk for retail businesses, stretching nearly a hundred feet wide and rising about ten feet high, likely put up hastily to satisfy or subvert zoning codes. There’s a structure behind it that juts up about four stories. It’s clearly older, perhaps dating from the sixties, but other workers are in the process of doing a mild retrofit. The whole structure stands out from the surrounding one-story structures that cater to the whims of wandering tourists. Off to the right there’s a large, discolored wooden arch hewn with indentations and markings erected in a plot of grass, suggesting it’s possibly an artifact from this or a nearby site. Two women with long gray ponytails have just finished planting a tall slender pole in the center of the arch with the help of one of the workers. Secured, the women begin to stroke the pole and giggle.
Several others begin to spill through the front door and gather around the arch, admiring it like it’s a just-unveiled work of art at the local museum.
“It looks so…Freudian!” spouts a portly woman with a cane, sputtering a laugh while pivoting to the male near her who’s squinting like he’s trying to bring the image into clearer focus.
“You mean like….oh, the shrink, but…” His face blanches as one of the ponytails creeps up behind him and massages his mid-section. He stumbles into the woman next to him and smirks.
“It looks real familiar,” lofts a voice from the group. “But where did they get it…why did they put it here?”
“This could be our logo,” says a woman with granny glasses. She’s tall and very thin, her baggy clothes obscuring what was likely a model’s body. “We could put it on tees and caps and….”
“…and what?” asks a voice two bodies away, a rusty-haired sixtyish woman busting out of a string bikini.
“And we could…I don’t know, let’s just go in and get ready for…”
“…bed!” spurts an unidentified source. 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 to the various clusters and begin to mingle, the mood now modulating. A few others, sitting alone on the sofas, 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, the woman busting out of the string bikini.
“Do you know her?” asks the cue-tip, pulling her gaze away from her, unable to break his trance. “That’s Lisa…she used to be a stripper over at the…somewhere over on…Washington I think. She still likes to show off her silicone. Are you the new arrival?”
“I…I just got here….a while ago and my…name’s…Andre…Andre…Berkoff. I…”
“Yes…you what?” He turns to look at the cue-tip and snaps out of his trance, but jerks his head back like he’s seen a ghost, forcing her to step away from him. He shuffles away and alights on another sofa across the room, crosses his legs and stares aloft.
“Charming the new male residents again, Clara!” exhorts a lanky woman wearing a slightly-oversized, draping tie dyed tee from one of the nearby tables. She rises and saunters over to the sofa, sporting a quizzical smile. Lisa also begins to creep over to the sofa, apparently quite curious about this new male who seems obsessed with her appearance. Andre now appears more relaxed. Clara remains on the periphery with a perplexed look on her face like she’s totally confused about Andre’s reaction. As if he might be feeling the force of her confusion, Andre flashes a glimpse of Clara but pulls away abruptly as if he’s received a shock.
“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 blank, like a subliminal flash threatens to dissolve her upbeat mood, before returning to form.
“You must be Mr. Berkoff, our new member,” she continues. Andre is in the process of forming a syllable when Lisa drops onto the sofa from the other side, jerking his attention a few inches in her direction but quashing his verbal efforts.
“You’re the guy everybody’s been talkin’ about!” spurts Lisa, drawing Andre’s gaze closer to her, but he flinches from direct contact like he’s deep in thought.
“Not much to talk about cuz…”
“…cuz why, Andre?” asks Jane, drawing his gaze halfway toward her.
“Cuz I haven’t talked to anybody about much…yet and…” He peeks over and spies Clara’s gaze sandwiched between two animated cue-tips but quickly turns back, this time urging his frame toward Jane. He now looks at her directly but the flickering of his eyes seems to suggest he acted to avoid Lisa’s penetration from the other side.
“Maybe your reputation precedes you,” blurts Lisa. “You must’ve lived around here before. You do look kind of familiar.”
“Yeah, I used to live down…”
“Down…somewhere around the…guess maybe that was a long…time ago.” He now turns to her full-faced but quickly swivels away before jerking back, locking on her gape like he’s under some kind of spell, his expression of fright tempering like the object of his fear is withdrawing from him, or morphing into something very familiar. He’s now fascinated by the area around her neck, inclining his head imperceptibly lower and then quavering nervously from side-to-side, fixing on her necklace for an instant.
“Hey, Andre, what’s so fascinating about my neck?” Lisa interrupts, nudging him graciously, but he merely 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.
“Andre, what’re you…doing?” she manages, her eyes like flames combusting from a smoldering fire. She reaches behind her back and undoes the strap of her bikini top. It slips down slightly while pulsing her countenance.
“Lisa, what are you doing?” interjects Jane, who is now on her feet and peering at the spectacle. “It isn’t 1975 over at the…”
Andre meanwhile inspects the new terrain, his penetrating gaze seeming to firm up her skin which now reveals a misshapen mole. He ponders it like it might be some sort of talisman. Clara shuffles toward the action, stopping at the fringe.
“That’s…the room was full of…the light was…” Lisa curls her lips ever so slightly and flashes a caustic smile but abruptly screams at a very high pitch. She could be mistaken for testing the upper ranges of her vocal chords if the outburst was occurring somewhere else. Its prolonged intensity could suggest she’s trying to withdraw the smile, neutralize its existence by shielding it through the excesses of another sensual register. Clara steps behind Lisa and fastens her strap, covering the mole and terminating the scream.
Lisa jerks around as Clara scampers across the room. Andre’s gaze remains fixed on the same spot like he’s mesmerized by the afterimage of a flashing neon light.
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, nonplused, scans the ephemera pulsing from the wall….