A POP STORY
Cynthia Stone was in a straitjacket. She sat in the chair where attendants left her, outside a gray doored office. A steady echo of voices reverberated off the ceiling and floor. Footsteps multiplied, compounding on top of each other so to become indistinct. Doctors walked back and forth in front of Cynthia as if she didn’t exist.
“Has your admittance card been filled out?” a burly black woman dressed in blue demanded of Cynthia.
Cynthia Stone didn’t reply, didn’t know the answer to the question. The woman’s crimson tinged eyes frowned at Cynthia. She shook her head and walked away. This was some kind of state hospital for the insane. The tiled walls were pale yellow. Oppressively shiny. The only windows had bars over them. People screamed in the distance. They were in this place for a reason, as was Cynthia Stone. Cynthia had tried to kill herself by drowning in her bathtub. She’d been taken to a hospital afterward, where she tried to jump out the third floor window of her room. Then she was brought here. Cynthia didn’t know why they bothered—if she wanted to kill herself that was her business, this was still a free country, wasn’t it?
A gruff-looking sheriff’s deputy with a yellow-red walrus moustache strode down the hall, glancing for a moment at Cynthia, his glance one of contempt. This was the enemy, Cynthia thought in her mind. A young storm trooper, representative of the police state. “You’re evil, you trample on the people, this isn’t a free country anymore, you’re a pawn of Big Brother, you won’t even let someone kill herself if she wants,” Cynthia said to the man. Or rather, she thought she said this to him. Her mouth opened but no words came out. The fascist cop had probably come to aid in her destruction, Cynthia believed, until she saw him stop a tall, bearded, professorial man in glasses and a white coat.
“Doctor, we need to talk,” the sheriff’s deputy said to the white-coated man.
Their conversation took place in front of her. Pieces of words fell. Cynthia abstracted the information that the deputy’s name was Rakowski and the doctor was Dr. Norman Hoppenngger, leading specialist for the hospital. Cynthia focused slowly on what the two men discussed. Words and phrases began to make sense. They debated a new program of the doctor’s—and whether a person named Parker Kirby should be entered into it.
“It’s not just the people he killed,” Deputy Rakowski told the doctor. “It’s the gruesome way he did it. I saw the results. People were dismembered. Shocking things were done to their heads, their eyes. . . . I don’t enjoy talking about it. Parker Kirby is a brutal person. He should never be put into human society. He’ll kill again. It’s easy for him. He loves to kill.”
Dr. Hoppenngger’s mouth turned down and he blinked several times in agitation. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Deputy,” he said. “Let me remind you that I’m the expert on this subject. You’re a layman who sees people at their worst, and makes no attempt to understand them.”
The doctor stared at a clipboard, making an effort to control himself, so upset he couldn’t continue. His lower lip quivered. The pencil in his hand vibrated. After several minutes he looked again at the deputy.
“I wish you would read about the new program. We have a very thorough description of it in a handout you can pick up at the front desk when you leave. Believe me, I’ve put a lot of work and research into this project. More than that, I’ve put my heart and my soul.”
“Tell me about it, then, Doctor,” Rakowski said in an arrogant way.
The very appearance of the deputy, the badge, the uniform, the gun, was oppressive. Cynthia Stone felt sympathy for Dr. Hoppenngger, who looked about to stalk off in fury. Instead he pointed a shaking finger at the smug lawman.
“This new program is intended to develop the human, artistic side of these individuals, Deputy. We can’t blame them for their actions. The way these individuals turned out is because of society. All of us, you, me, are to blame. Their environment is to blame. Change the environment and you change the person. That’s the concept behind Hoppenngger House. You should see the location. You really should. I invite you to. The trees, water, shore. We’ve taken over a large historic house overlooking the ocean, with a long, curving beach. This is where our artists will renew themselves. Quite a peaceful setting. Men and women will be reborn there. Regenerated. It’s beautiful. You should see it. You really must. I recommend you do.”
“Parker Kirby is one of your artists, I suppose,” Rakowski asked.
“Parker has special, unique qualities,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “You’d be surprised. He has innate, precious talents that should be brought out, if for no other reason than for the good of the world. Oh, I know how you work. I know how your kind thinks. your mind is fueled by resentment and jealousy. You would destroy parker. His talents would be wasted. But we do not waste people here, Deputy. We rehabilitate them. They are not garbage, not human refuse. No, Deputy. No!”
With that Dr. Hoppenngger swiveled and marched off. His departing, angry footsteps mingled with the drum of other discordant sounds. The jumble of noises roared like waves into Cynthia Stone’s ears. The sheriff’s deputy touched the holstered revolver at his side, glanced at Cynthia in her straitjacket, laughed, then departed.
The flow of time resumed its nonsensical course. The conversation she overheard became a fragment of many disjointed sights and sounds filtering in to Cynthia’s senses. Dark-suited officials passed, doctors, a priest, other patients, no one noticing her. She was forgotten. Then round-faced orderlies surrounded her. Hands grabbed. The straitjacket was removed. She was given a shot and put into a room. A very dark room. Cynthia wondered what had been given her. She fell asleep.
The next thing Cynthia remembered, she sat in an office in a chair, not in a straitjacket. Bright daylight streamed in through a wire mesh window. Part of the light fell on her hand. Tentatively, she enjoyed it. How long had she been in a state of amnesia, she wondered? That’s what it must have been, because the last several days were a haze to her, a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and white colors making little sense. A man with a beard, a white coat and a benign expression on his face sat at a massive square desk directly in front of her. The man didn’t say a word. His eyebrows raised, waiting for a response. Behind him a green plant stole the pleasant yellow light from the window.
“I had a nervous breakdown,” Cynthia said to Dr. Hoppenngger.
“If you wish to describe it as such that’s okay,” the doctor told her. “Actually, it was something more than a breakdown, it was a psychotic episode, but I see that your mind does not want to accept the truth of what happened so we’ll call it a nervous breakdown, yes, we can settle for that.”
The doctor flipped sheets of paper quickly on a clipboard, his voice at the same time in an unreal monotone reciting Cynthia’s schedule of medication, “. . . milligrams, Thorazine . . . twice a day, ten milligrams . . . once a day . . . Haldol . . . Darvon . . . Mellaril . . . Prozac . . .Librium . . . Limbitrol . . . five milligrams . . . yes,” were some of the more intelligible words honing in to her.
An ashtray with bevelled corners sat on the imposing desk, the ashtray’s glass angles playing with the light. Cynthia stared at the square ashtray, fascinated, transfixed. The ashtray was the level of the world she was at now. To comprehend meaning in anything more than that small object was beyond her.
A door opened. A woman whose blue plastic identity card read “Therapist” walked in and she and the doctor began to talk about Parker Kirby.
“That awful deputy is protesting Mr. Kirby’s transfer,” the prim woman informed Dr. Hoppenngger.
“Narrow minded provincial bureaucratic goon,” the doctor snorted, weakly punching a stack of forms on his desk. “I’m sick of his paperwork and delaying tactics, and his professed concern for the ‘victim.’ Parker Kirby is the victim—that’s what I can’t make that uniformed clown see. He wishes to sacrifice art because of the lives of a few insignificant insects, two or three of 300 million mediocrities and destroy the solitary artist—that’s what the sheriff’s office would have us do, Ms. Glemp. Perhaps because they see themselves in those faceless anonymities they’re so worried about?”
The doctor and therapist chuckled together at their private joke. Then the therapist was gone and the doctor faced Cynthia. He removed his heavy eyeglasses. His face took on a wry, unblinking, self-satisfied smirk.
“Uh, yes. Miss Stone. Well, now—yes. Mm huh.”
His face scrunched. A facial muscle twitched beneath his eye.
“Er, yes. I’ve been reading your file. I believe there’s hope for you. You seem to be a sensitive person. In your being there are truth-seeking qualities we need to bring out. Potential is buried beneath that untrod, mundane exterior. You have possibilities, definite possibilities, um, yes.”
Sunlight narrowed. A clock moved. Orderlies came. Cynthia left the office feeling worried. She didn’t know what the doctor had been talking about, was afraid he had expectations she’d not be able to meet. She found her gray clothed body put into a dark blue room where shadows gathered ominously in corners. Cynthia sat gently on the properly made bed, afraid to bother it. She sat without moving, waiting for something to happen.
Many days passed, or an hour. Cynthia was taken out of the dark room and put in another room and told to eat. The bright light in this new room shattered her eyes. Pieces of her eyeballs fell into her head. An artery in her brain throbbed. The top of the table she sat at was formica green. Vague fleshy items and plant materials rested on the table. Cynthia had nothing against plants. “Eat!” a voice rattled inside her ear. Her conscience? She couldn’t eat. Later she was taken back to the dark room and told to sleep. Cynthia sat in a corner on the cool floor and felt the unmoving walls. She liked this room.
Her life became a routine, one of eating and sleeping, or actually, not doing either, pretending to do both. Then she discovered the day room, which contained a television. Cynthia sat in the day room watching the television bounce interesting colors and scratchy noise off pink walls. The images made no sense. She spent all day watching television.
“I suppose that’s why they call this the day room,” she said to a red-faced man sitting next to her.
The man’s eyes stared in fright.
“Suppose? No, we don’t suppose, we can’t suppose, not here, not now, we don’t suppose anything, we can’t use that word, suppose, it’s unequivocal, it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe . . . ,” he continued, but Cynthia was again watching television.
Or affecting to. Really she was trying to figure out how to be like the other inmates. Her behavior differed in marked ways from the standard.
For instance: everyone except Cynthia tried to bum cigarettes off one another, involved in a perpetual hustle. Cynthia didn’t understand the motivation for cigarettes. Those fiery demons terrified her.
Or, other inmates told their life histories, to themselves, to the television, pointless selfish descriptions of trifles or elaborate, distorted, surrealistic other-planet tales that weren’t true, couldn’t possibly be true, could they, she wondered? The green table stared at her face. She went into her room.
Night. The hospital silent. A barred window shifted in front of her. Outside spread the ivy-covered brick wings of the hospital. The black sky plunged down, sweeping across unmoving lawns. Drops of rain fell onto the glass.
Cynthia walked down the corridor, had lost her way. The access to the last room revealed a heavy steel door covered with padlocks. Parker Kirby resided inside. This was the end of the hallway, the ultimate destination, what the world of the hospital led to. The darkest part of the soul. Distant sounds reverberated within, threats, muttering, crazed laughter, the pounding of walls, Parker slamming them with his body. Cynthia’s feet shuffled fast and she returned to her own room.
“What’s your racket?” another patient asked her one morning, a short, dark haired, thick browed man named Robert Cerano.
“What?” Cynthia Stone said.
They both sat at a small table in the coffee room. Above in the ceiling hovered dust covered yellow lights protected by iron cages. Tiny bugs scattered across the lights. A row of blue-red vending machines hummed mechanically against a wall to the side. Brown coffee belched from one of the machines, knocking a rolling wax coated paper cup onto the square tiled floor. Robert’s face pushed close.
“You know, your racket,” he said. “What are you taking up? I’m going to be a sculptor. I kind of like the idea of working with clay. I figure it might free the creative juices.”
“I don’t understand.”
Robert Cerano looked at her as if she were thoroughly dense.
“You know, the new program Doc Hopp is setting up. Hoppenngger House. You have to be an artist to get into it. I figure I can be an artist. Anything to get out of this place. Parker Kirby is leaving for the house today. They’re letting him out of his padded cell. I figure if he can go there I should be able to. After all, I didn’t kill three people—I only tried to strangle one. The Doc wants sensitive patients. Hell, I can be sensitive.”
Robert Cerano stood up.
“Better find yourself a racket if you want to get out of here,” he told Cynthia, pointing his finger. “But stay away from sculpting—that’s mine.”
Struggling noise bounced in from the corridor. The atmosphere in the coffee room tightened. Robert paused, listened.
“Here comes Kirby now,” Robert said with a malicious leer. “Going to watch?”
Robert disappeared. From down the hall came the sound of dragging feet. With curiosity Cynthia Stone stood and edged herself to the doorway. Four of the largest attendants led a straitjacketed figure, moving steadily toward Cynthia’s location. Bridled force flowed from the bound person like electrical current. Cynthia saw the face of the man: handsome, with penetrating blue eyes and a flushed complexion. Parker Kirby had yellow hair, a smiling mouth with gleaming ivory teeth and a thick neck corded with muscle. The ominous parade approached, forbidding, inevitable. Suddenly the tall presence of Dr. Hoppenngger appeared from a doorway and raised his hand, halting the procession.
“What is this?” he demanded. “Is this man to be treated like some beast? He’ll leave here freed of constraints. We liberate people here, not enslave them. Remove the straitjacket.”
The attendants looked uncertainly at one another. The doctor’s lips narrowed. The attendants did as he ordered. Their hands unbuckled straps, loosening the canvas restraint. When the straitjacket was off, Parker Kirby rubbed his wrists, flexed the muscles in his shoulders and neck, a satisfied expression over his face. Like a new man he seemed to inhale from the air and world around him. His entire being radiated power and health. He stood with a sense of triumph at his new freedom.
“Thanks, Doc,” he said.
Then he walked down the hall toward the heavy doors of the exit, attendants following behind.
The opening of the vacation house caused a flurry of excitement among the longer term residents of the hospital, which created satisfaction in Dr. Hoppenngger.
“These distressed people have no purpose in life, so I have provided it for them,” he bragged to the hospital staff.
Inmates strained their imaginations to develop interests that would attract the doctor’s attention. Cynthia Stone couldn’t think of an artistic endeavor to adopt, but was such a sensitive person the doctor discovered one for her.
“You are a writer, Miss Stone,” he told her at one of their sessions. “It’s in your nature. You have the innate qualities to be a writer, you must only bring them out. And you will. Believe me, I’m an authority on such matters.”
Every day after that Cynthia Stone sat at a table and thought of being a writer. She thought of other things also, about what led her to be placed in this institution.
Cynthia Stone was a shy young woman, twenty years old, extremely thin, with long, straight brown hair and a pale gray complexion. Her problem was that she didn’t know how to talk to other people, couldn’t make contact with them. She’d been raised by elderly grandparents and never left the house much, never developed interests or friends. In school she was the quiet child nobody noticed. Then she went away to college, with its social pressures. Her roommate, feeling sorry for her, set her up on a blind date. The evening was a disaster. So nervous she felt sick to her stomach, Cynthia was unable to make conversation, unable to look at the young man. They went to a restaurant. Cynthia didn’t touch her pricey food. The evening’s highlight came when she spilled her drink over the table and onto her date. His expression said, “How did I get talked into this?”
He found amusement about the date afterward though, because it became a topic of conversation around her dorm—Cynthia Stone the target of stories and jokes. The classrooms, halls, cafeteria—the campus—became unbearable for her. She left the school three weeks later, returning to the old house with the elderly grandparents. They were mystified at her return, and tried to get her to go back to the college. “I can’t,” she said, hiding in her room, withdrawing further from reality. Cynthia thought of drowning in water, how pleasant that’d be. A week after her return from college she tried to kill herself. That was how she ended here. At least she was lucid enough now to remember all of it.
The month after parker Kirby’s exit, Dr. Hoppenngger called Cynthia into his office and asked if she wanted to join his new program. She stared blankly at him, trying to decipher his question. To her his words were meaningless pieces of data lost amid the muddled minutiae of his office.
“You’ve improved,” the doctor told her as he tore apart his pen, his eyes looking disdainfully at the window. “You’re more in touch with the world now. You’re ready for change. I feel if we maximize your leisure time it will lead to a flowering of your talents. You need to relax, need an opportunity to build up your thoughts. A new environment will do wonders for you.”
Cynthia thought of the hospital, the shattering step it would be to leave this heavy-walled place. Life imposes impossible choices. The unassailable presence of the anointed expositor of established opinion focused upon her, dictating her answer.
“Okay,” she agreed, with a sigh. “I guess . . . I think . . . I’ll go.”
Her large, round eyes gazed around herself.
“I’m tired of these cold walls.”
The next morning a woman attendant drove Cynthia in a white state-owned van to her new residence. The reckless danger of automobiles, of speeding, mad-hurtling vehicles, of a road passing under tires—concrete and asphalt rocketing beneath the floorboards under Cynthia’s feet; all the destructive facts of civilization incensed her. She thought she must protest, instead watched the uncaring woman who casually turned while eating a sugary snack the large black steering wheel of the van.
“I don’t know how you rate,” the woman said above the whining of a motor, the rattling of windows and doors. “Get into trouble and you get to live in a big house by the ocean. Screw up and get rewarded for it. What a world!”
Cynthia didn’t respopnd, but hung onto an armrest. The winding road took them through a series of jagged cliffs, then sloped downward. Cool, fresh air seeped in through windows. Cynthia saw the blue expanse of water, beyond a shimmering orange beach. The sight was removed, as the van curved to the left past a row of tall evergreens. A pink, many-storied Victorian house swung suddenly into view, resting above the beach like a magical castle. The ocean shivered behind it. Large, gnarled trees the color of the now gray sand were next to the malformed wooden structure.
“HOPPENNGGER HOUSE,” read a newly painted white sign with black letters on a black iron fence.
The van halted at the end of a drive inside an opening in the gate. Blue painted steps led up to a burgundy door.
“This is the place,” the wide-faced driver told Cynthia. “Follow me. I’ll get you settled.”
They stepped out, Cynthia’s feet glad to be on solid ground. The attendant led Cynthia into the house and up polished wood stairs to her room.
“You’ll be on your own here,” the woman said as she opened heavy curtains to allow light into the dusty room, revealing a wood floor, tall wood furniture and a large, canopied bed. “Make your own schedule. That’s the way the doctor wants it. He must think highly of you. You’re next door to the star pupil.”
The attendant snorted, then left. Cynthia Stone stared at the patterned walls of her new home. The walls reeked of tradition and age. Her eighty year-old grandmother might’ve once lived in such a room. For the first time in her life Cynthia felt close to her grandmother. She recalled a yellowed black-and-white photograph of the woman at eighteen, a slender creature in a white dress, with dark eyes and soft, delicate skin. At that age they were much like each other, Cynthia realized, except her grandmother had possessed a core of strength, evident in her person, unmistakable even through the photograph.
Cynthia walked through the room. She touched the top of a narrow chest of drawers. The house she lived in with her grandparents was not nearly as old as this one, had been built in the nineteen-forties, yet Cynthia’s rooms in both houses, despite their differences, felt very much the same. On top of the chest of drawers in her other room, though, had rested a black-covered Bible. Atop these drawers existed nothing.
She stepped into the hallway. The door to the next room stood open. As Cynthia glanced in she saw the white-shirted back of a man working furiously at an easel, with a brush splashing shocking red splotches of color across the canvas. The mood of the picture was one of chaos, of anger. Cynthia drifted into the room, mesmerized by the lines and swirls, the emotion depicted. The message attracted her. Parker Kirby turned to face her, his eyes gleaming.
“Hello,” he said. “You must be the new inmate of this . . . asylum. I see you’re admiring my painting. Doesn’t it show the futility of existence? Doesn’t it express perfectly the absolute pointlessness of life, the awful injustice of the world? No one should have to endure such injustice. Better to escape from it. Don’t you agree?”
“S-sure,” Cynthia stammered with effort.
Cynthia said nothing more and Parker’s expression began to change from that of exuberance to one of uncertain hostility.
“I like your painting,” Cynthia told him, and Parker became happy again, turning with more forcefulness to his work.
“Not a painting. Art,” he said, sweeping a broad red line across the entirety of it, while Cynthia escaped to her room.
She soon discovered there were as yet only four permanent residents of the house: Parker, Robert Cerano, an attendant named Igor, and herself. Igor wasn’t the attendant’s real name. He’d been named Igor by Parker because of his hulking, slope shouldered appearance. The designation so fit that even Dr. Hoppenngger took to calling him that. In actuality Igor was more a servant than an attendant. Whenever Cynthia saw him he was lugging canvas and supplies up to Parker Kirby’s room.
The doctor visited his new clinic every day for several hours, to counsel his patients and to observe the overall activity of his program. Various therapists and experts were also frequently in and out of the house. This was to be Dr. Hoppenngger’s demonstration to the world that people were intrinsically good. Provide the correct setting, and evil would cease to exist.
Her first week, Cynthia Stone was unsure what to do with herself. The sessions with the doctor and the other professionals were the only thing that gave her days form. The rest of the time she spent downstairs in the kitchen nibbling carrots—Cynthia had always been the most birdlike of eaters—or upstairs staring out the window of her rosewood-smelling room. The upper levels were as Cynthia imagined they’d always been, quaint, fragile, with frilly lampshades and fringed rugs, push button lights, ornate woodwork over doorways and blue-pink pitchers of water on tables: a peaceful setting. The first floor had been remodeled into stark, utilitarian modernity, everything white and bare, particularly two large offices that were intended to be eventually used by Hoppenngger and his staff. At the back of the house—by the kitchen, where Cynthia spent most of her time—a pair of sliding glass doors had been put in. Outside, Cynthia knew, stirred the sandy beach and the ocean. Though the doors were unlocked and she was free to roam the grounds as she pleased, the world frightened her.
At night she lay awake listening to the sound of the ever-pounding surf. She heard other things—products of her imagination, she believed. A high-pitched laugh. Someone walking outside with heavy footsteps, circling the house again and again. Anxious pacing in the hallway on the other side of the door to her room. The knob handle on the door to her room turning, turning—but nothing happening. The turning would stop. The person would go away.
While in daytime bright sunlight would stream in toward her, the glow from the water and the beach, Cynthia would stay inside, away from it.
Among the projects Dr. Hoppenngger tried on his three patients was a new idea intended to “prepare them for life in the outside world,” as he put it, as if their release into society were soon to be realized. The doctor constructed mock situations for each individual, to simulate reality. With Cynthia this consisted of pretending to be in a store asking for products from a therapist playing the part of a shopgirl, while the doctor observed intently.
“I need: toothpaste,” Cynthia said tentatively. “And soap.”
“That will be two-ninety-five,” the shopgirl/therapist said.
Cynthia pretended to give the woman money and receive change in return. She put the imaginary change into her imaginary purse.
“Good, good,” Hoppenngger exclaimed, pleased with her and with himself. “You see how you can adapt to life when you put your mind to it? You’re making progress.”
The others did well at the mock situations also. Cynthia overheard Dr. Hoppenngger tell the therapist: “Parker Kirby always does fine at these examinations. It proves he’s cured. Who says he’s not ready for the outside world?”
Cynthia Stone wanted to believe she was making progress. She became so convinced of it that one morning she built up her courage and stepped out of the house. The moving blue ocean lay ahead of her. Cynthia walked to the amber colored beach and sat down, putting her hand into the warm sand. She wanted to go farther and touch the water, wanted to drown in it. She couldn’t swim and was afraid of the ocean, yet at the same time, attracted to it.
When she wandered back to the house she noticed a black and white police car parked in front. Cynthia couldn’t explain why those vehicles frightened her. Probably because they represented the impersonal, authoritarian state. Probably because she’d been taken away in one. Inside, Dr. Hoppenngger showed Rakowski, the swaggering sheriff’s deputy, around the house.
“he’s the most savage, brutal kind of animal,” Rakowski said. “When you consider the pleasure he took in what he did to his victims’ bodies after they were dead—“
They argued about Parker Kirby.
“Of course, he was out of his mind, “ the doctor said in a sarcastic tone. “But let’s not take that into consideration. Let’s not allow rationality to intrude into this discussion.”
Cynthia followed the two men as they walked upstairs. Dr. Hoppenngger took the deputy into a large room where light streamed through windows. Robert Cerano stood at a table working with clay with his hands, forming an impressive, unrecognizable blob.
“This man is sculpting,” the doctor said. “See the joy and pleasure he obtains from this, how his aggression is channeled into art?”
Robert paid no heed to his visitors, totally absorbed in his work, adopting the role of intense craftsman. To Cynthia it seemed he was fooling around.
“What’s the name of the piece,” the deputy asked Robert Cerano.
“I call it ‘Man and His Environment.’ It represents the struggle of mankind through the centuries against the forces of greed and selfishness. Notice the tension evident of the dynamic forces as they transmogrify the world, and us!”
He stepped back to admire his work. The grayish amorphous mound of clay sat mute on the newspaper covered table.
“Good, good,” the doctor said, a smile on his face.
“We have another Michaelangelo here,” Rakowski said.
He and the doctor stepped toward the next room, Cynthia trailing after from a distance. The deputy bristled, hesitating when he noticed Parker Kirby at his easel. Then he carefully followed the fearless doctor into the room.
Parker’s large chest expanded as he painted, sweat streaming down his reddened face, upon which was an arrogant smile. On the canvas in front of him glowered grotesque green and gray faces. While outside the room Rakowski’s expression had been different, now he went close to Parker, inches away, appraising the work, his attitude one of callous indifference. His hand, however, remained close to his revolver.
“Parker is truly an artist,” Dr. Hoppenngger exclaimed admiringly. “This is in oils. He works in acrylics also. He’s turned out some amazing works.”
The deputy must think them disturbing works, Cynthia thought to herself. Her foot brushed against the hard wood floor. Dr. Hoppenngger noticed her behind them and glared at her. Cynthia scampered to her place at a desk in her own room.
The voices of the doctor and Parker Kirby debating the significance of Parker’s work drifted to her.
Parker: “This work exemplifies the incapability of knowledge, the irrelevance of it in a disordered, irrational world.”
Doctor: “No, no, no, you’re wrong. What this work admits IS knowledge. Knowledge breathes through the very fiber and texture of it, the knowledge that the world is disordered and irrational, we are, after all, incapable of knowing and understanding it, the canvas shouts the difficulty of making any true statement. The knowledge of that is what we’re talking about.”
Bored with the conversation, Rakowski strolled into Cynthia’s room.
“Hi,” he nodded.
Cynthia was too shy to reply. She stared rigidly at a tablet of paper in front of her. The deputy stepped behind to see what she was working on. The tablet was blank; Cynthia couldn’t think of anything to write. She raised her eyebrows defensively. Rakowski shrugged his shoulders and whistled, a skeptical, humorous expression on his face. Cynthia remembered how much she hated police officers.
“Keep up the work,” the deputy said as he strolled from the room.
The visit of the sheriff’s deputy added an air of tension to the occupants of the house. Or rather, Cynthia Stone began to notice a tension which had always been present. The tension was expressed by the wild look in Robert Cerano’s eyes, by his sudden bursts of anger with the clay: “I hate you, I can’t take this anymore, the whole world is crazy, yes—it is—yes, ha, ha ha ha ha ha . . . ,” as he scattered clay across the room. It was expressed in Parker Kirby’s vacant stare at his own hands, in his pacing at night back and forth in his room, again and again, then his door opening, footsteps in the hallway, down the stairs, the sound of running outside on the beach. One night Cynthia built up her courage and looked out her window to the ground below, peering carefully through a thin crack in her curtains so she would not be noticed. Her hand moved the curtain slowly. Over the span of five minutes, a fraction of an inch. Her heart beat in anticipation of the sight. The moon glowed. Parker was no longer running. He stood looking up at the window to his own room, shaking his fist at it, his face contorted with furied hate.
The next day as Cynthia Stone sat in the downstairs kitchen with her tablet, four words on it-- “Cold, black, running night”—Parker Kirby came up behind her, a confident grin on his face. He wore a new gray and yellow jogging outfit. One of his hands was behind his back, as if hiding something. With his other he took Cynthia’s thin arm in his powerful grip. Cynthia realized how strong Parker was, how easily he could kill her.
“Get a look at this,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
He pulled his other arm out to reveal how he’d sharpened the wooden ends of his brushes into dangerous weapons.
“Pretty good, huh?” he said. “The doc doesn’t know. He’s not so smart. Not half as smart as he thinks he is. The great doctor! The brilliant genius! The renowned intellectual! He’s not so smart, I tell you.”
Parker paused and looked with amazement at his sharpened brushes. His grip on them unconsciously tightened. Several of the brushes crumpled and fell in pieces to the floor. Parker Kirby was the strongest person Cynthia had ever seen. Powerfully built, his insanity multiplied his natural strength several times over. Crazy indeed would be anyone who’d seek to get in his way. Parker released the hold on Cynthia’s arm. He touched her long hair and her face—his pale blue eyes studying her. He smiled, put his head back and strolled from the room, returning upstairs.
That night Cynthia Stone filled with foreboding. She twisted back and forth on the canopied bed. Furnishings—a chest of drawers, a mirror—became huge. The room zoomed in upon her. Cynthia had a dream.
She fell, deep, lost in dark purple water. Slow waves beat across her face. Her mind froze. Blood cut off to her brain; she felt the gentle disconnection. Her body dropped away from her, into an endless blue pit. Cynthia wanted it back. “Please,” she said. She looked up, toward fractured rays of light floating far on top of the surface. She peeked into one of these rays like a spy, saw the green tiled bathroom she’d tried to kill herself in. Straps tied her. Surging black water enveloped her. As dark purple color rushed over her eyes and the world became silent, her soul cried out in despair, was lost, would never come back. All that remained: nothing. Depression. Void. The world ended. Two people were talking.
Yellow light flooded into her face. Cynthia sat up, wondered what time it was, how long she’d slept. A hum of distant sounds disquieted her. Her throat was dry. She tried to wake up.
The doctor was here, in the next room. Cynthia recognized his self-important voice. He debated something with Parker Kirby. Cynthia arose and stepped into the hallway to listen.
“We understand nothing in this world,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “And so we cannot judge anything. You ask for an opinion of this particular work and I cannot give you one. You ask me to do that which I am unable to do. I can only tell you what this chaotic collage represents to me, my subjective experience of it, which to me is a positive statement that we do not really know, knowledge is fleeting, unknowable, unrealizable. Only the knowledge that we can’t know.”
“You understand nothing,” Parker Kirby said. “You know nothing.”
The sudden verbal assault disconcerted Dr. Hoppenngger. His voice took on an attitude of scholarly offense” “Well now, yes, wel-l . . . , no, yes, well, hm . . . , no, I must say, no.”
Cynthia stepped closer, to hear better. The room came into view. The two men stood facing each other in the studio-like work area. Both glanced sideways at a large canvas covered with vomit-like paint. The picture looked intentionally ugly. Offensive. The worst of the world, life, humanity. Violent. Bleak. The doctor’s arms were folded in a condescending manner, a pinched expression on his face. Parker Kirby wore a white, paint-splattered coat. Igor was in the room also, against the other wall, glancing out the window with his hands behind his back, not understanding what the two men talked about, not caring. The door to the room was partly open, so that Cynthia could see into the light-filled room while unseen in the shadowed hallway.
“To me, this painting is an affirmation of sanity in an insane world,” the doctor said. “Your triumph against it. It accepts no reality beyond that experienced by your mind. The painting is sane, and the world is not.”
“You’re all wet,” parker told him. “you contradict yourself on a daily basis. it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. I can prove it. If I’m still crazy you’re wrong about this painting. If I’m crazy then everything you and this house stand for is wrong. Well, I’m crazy.”
Dr. Hoppenngger blinked, confused.
“Yes, if,” he finally said. “But I know that you’re not. You know that you’re not.”
Hoppenngger said this, but looked at Parker, as if not sure. The gesture of uncertainty angered Parker Kirby.
“Where’s your faith in me, Doc?” Parker demanded. “I don’t see it.”
As she listened, Cynthia felt squeamish tension rise inside her.
“Of course I have faith in you,” the doctor insisted. “That’s why you’re here.”
“You’ve never had faith in me,” Parker said. “To you I’m not a human, not an equal. I’m a toy, a puppet. You use me. You use me and the others to show your superiority, but all you care about is yourself. You’re a parasite who feeds on people such as myself who have the power of life.”
Parker’s fists clenched. His voice choked, as if he wanted to cry.
“You drain me, Doc-tor. You drain my energy. You feed on my uniqueness, drawing talent out of my pores. I feel it. You exploit the creativity of the artist. You’re not an artist, so you live through people who are.”
“I made you an artist,” Hoppenngger said. “I can unmake you. I make the definitions. I decide what you are.”
To this Parker put his hand through the canvas they’d been talking about, ripping to shreds his masterpiece.
“If you don’t quiet down I’ll have Igor restrain you,” Dr. Hoppenngger said, visibly dismayed at what had been done to the painting.
Igor turned from the window. Parker Kirby laughed.
“I’m an artist—an artist of violence,” Parker said to the doctor in a surprisingly calm voice. “And you’re a violence groupie. You love to hang around people who’ve done violent acts. We’re your heroes, because we’ve done the things you secretly wish you could do yourself.”
Parker Kirby removed one of the sharpened brushes from under his white coat. Igor instinctively took one step toward him. Parker stabbed Igor, then wrapped his arm around the man’s head and broke his neck. The body fell into a corner like a broken doll. This took little more than a second.
“Now, come, stop this, I insist,” the doctor said. “I command you halt byour rambunctiousness this instant.”
Parker grinned and began to advance on the doctor, taking more of the long, deadly brushes from under his coat. Hoppenngger stood frozen, his eyes large behind his eyeglasses, the glasses steaming. A look of naked fear appeared on his face.
“What’s the matter, Doc?” Parker Kirby asked. “You love violence so much. Now here’s your chance. Now’s the time for some violence.”
He thrust his arm forward several times. Splashes of blood sprayed, like the splotches of Parker’s work. The black bristled tips of paintbrushes stuck out of the doctor’s head and his neck. Dr. Hoppenngger began to fall. Parker held him up, removed his eyeglasses and looked at the eyes as he withdrew from his coat one more sharpened weapon.
“So you can see clearly,” Parker said in a happy way.
Cynthia pulled herself along the halls, foun d the stairway and stumbled downstairs. The shock of vision untethered her mind. Her hands held onto walls. Robert Cerano sat in the kitchen stuffing his face with food.
“Hey, what’s the racket up there?” Robert complained as food fell out of his mouth.
Cynthia knew she should warn him, but was unable to speak. The upstairs horror distorted the world. An image of the doctor hovered near, paintbrushes sticking out of him. Cynthia bumped into glass. She hesitated, opened the sliding door and stepped with bare feet onto warm sand.
Something impelled her to try to run, a sense of danger, of urgency. She had maybe five minutes, ten at the most, perhaps less, had to gain a head start. Cynthia knew that now that Parker was killing again he’d kill everyone who came into his path. She knew Parker had wanted to kill her yesterday, when they spoke and he showed her his brushes. He knew then that soon he’d be murdering her, gained pleasure from the thought. Cynthia walked faster than she ever believed she could. She tried to run, her feet were heavy in the sand, they sunk—she stumbled, fell, cried in desperation as she pulled herself to her feet. She didn’t want to die, not like that! If only she could gain a hiding place, to be out of sight when he stepped from the house. A mile away; yes, that might do it. She glanced back at the misshapen wooden structure. Parker Kirby was inside, doing his terrible work. His art. A spot of red appeared on the sliding glass door, like paint on a canvas. Cynthia pushed herself desperately along the beach, her feet already tired. Ahead were trees, steps, a path to the road. Yes. She needed time. She knew now in her heart she definitely did not want to want to die.
A feeling brushed her hair, she looked behind, it was him, dressed in his new gray and yellow jogging costume, a distant figure moving inexorably on the beach, running forward, coming for her.
“No, please no,” Cynthia screamed.
The bright spotlight of the sun—the world—was upon her, she was exposed to him, revealed, shown in full color, every part of her displayed by the white blaze of blinding light. She had a significant lead, in no way what she wanted. Parker took pleasure in the challenge. Cynthia sensed his long strides, rapidly closing the gap. She was running now as hard as she could but it was futile, pitiful against his bounding, joyous leaps. Parker Kirby reeked with happiness. More death lay ahead!
Then he was suddenly close, she saw his eager face, the yellow stripes on his jogging sweatshirt, the gleam in his eyes, red splatters of blood on his forehead. Cynthia ran into the water, would rather drown than be dismembered, than have her limbs pulled from her body, her eyes poked out. She envisioned her death, wished it were over, thought how terrible those final moments would be. Then—his breath, bearing down upon her. His voice-- “Cynthia, I’m coming, Cynthia, I’m coming for you.” He was in the water. His superhuman energy took him in one great leap after her but he slipped and fell. Cynthia ran onto the sand.
“Cynthia,” he said, laughing, exhilarated by the chase. His mood changed in a millisecond. Naked rage appeared on his face. “Cynthia!” he cried, he was running hard now after her and a single scream of ringing terror echoed through her brain, “No, no,” she said, he should be grabbing her and crushing her existence in his hands, but something else appeared on the beach, black, wide, a round red light on its top.
A police car hurtled forward at astounding speed; even Parker was surprised by it. He turned to face the monstrous metal vehicle. The car slid on the sand and stopped. Rakowski stepped out. Parker laughed and ran at the deputy, would tear him to pieces, Rakowski struggled for his holster, his revolver, having underestimated the distance between them, the ability of Parker to make it up. Cynthia turned her head, couldn’t witness that again, only wished the nightmare was over. A shot rang out, a quick pop, sharp, dividing the air. Cynthia turned, saw Parker running forward, a crazed madman, Rakowski facing him in a crouched position, weapon in both hands, the barrel of the revolver lowering, Parker three feet away. Another shot, gray smoke, a red mark on Parker’s back, alongside another, he reached, grasped, fell, tumbling face forward onto white sand. His expression showed a combination of emotions: surprise, fear, longing, relief. He tried to rise, the muscles in his arm twitched, then ceased. His energy faded off, disappearing for good. The world balanced.
Rakowski put his revolver away, after looking at it in puzzlement, then walked toward where Cynthia lay sprawled among footprints of sand. He wanted to say something, but was unable to. He gasped with emotion, could not catch his breath. Behind him stretched a clear blue sky.
“Come on,” he finally said.
Cynthia was so weak and exhausted she wasn’t able to walk by herself, Rakowski put his arm around her to help—or maybe to steady himself—the two people inched slowly along the beach. She realized both of them were shaking.