Many would and did call it a nervous breakdown. However, I suffered no such debilitation. Rather, my collapse in Amsterdam at a lung cancer conference was due primarily to exhaustion. I had been travelling constantly for months, attending every Sack Farm opening ceremony I could, granting interviews to major news media, and giving lectures at universities along the way.
We predicted the success of Sack Farms even in the early stages of development, sometimes as a fantasy, and other times as legitimate enterprise, but these delusions did not prepare us for the unmitigated fervor that our medical breakthrough provided. Thanks in part to my somewhat famous face and the unusual nature of our work, Peter and I became international icons overnight. Everyone wanted to talk to us, either to laud our achievements or question the morality of creating Sacks.
No part of my life was safe from the media's scrutiny during the year after we launched the first Sack Farm. I would see myself everywhere—on television, in newspapers, even on the cover of magazines in the grocery store. Quickly, it became difficult to travel anonymously, and I took to ordering in food and relying on others for small chores and favors. Even buying a shirt before a speaking engagement in Berkeley turned into a mob interview, as dozens of people descended on me, some smiling, some shouting.
We knew our Sacks would be controversial, but we also knew that they would work, that people would be healed, that no matter how you felt about the prospect of a miniature, soulless piece of yourself growing in a warehouse, if your loved one needed a kidney or a heart, you would most likely overcome any doubts and preconceived notions you once held.
And you did.
As the attention on us grew, I felt an increasing pull towards reclusiveness, but my schedule, and Peter, would not abide. Behind the scenes, my calendar filled up with no input from me. Peter handled all engagements at first until suddenly two personal assistants appeared and took over the duty from him.
My first assistant was Helen McCoy, as you may know. She woke me up in the morning, told me where to go, who to look for when we arrived, when to eat, and when to go to sleep. Once again, I allowed someone to lead me, only this time, I paid a handsome salary for the job!
Helen stayed with me for five years, at which point her generous mass of options vested from LifeSack, Incorporated. She cashed out the stock and opened Sack Retreats, the well-known spa and recovery center designed specifically for our patients. She still manages hundreds of these facilities across the planet.
When I stuttered and began to sway at the podium in Amsterdam, I felt my words and body slipping away. Initially, I assumed the lapse in coordination to be a sign of an incoming vision, but no vision arrived. A thick blurry frame encircled my eyesight, so I backed away from the podium. Faces of strangers surrounded me, some I had met at other conferences or just ten minutes prior. My fainting spell transformed them, made them featureless, nameless—hungry mouths atop garbage bags of flesh.
The arm that reached out and took my own belonged to Helen.
"Come on, Charlie. Let's take a walk." She said, quietly to me.
I allowed her to maneuver me off of the stage and to a seat in an empty classroom off of the main banquet hall. It was set up for a breakout session, with panelist placards lined up in front like specimen plates at a museum.
Helen excused everyone from the room and walked to the panelist table and poured a glass of water from the icy, full pitchers. She returned to my seat and handed it to me.
"Drink this. You're probably dehydrated."
I sipped the water, and she sat down next to me.
"You'll be okay. We've just been at it non-stop for a while."
"Yes." I said.
She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it lightly. It was the kind of gesture that is so small, so easily handed out, yet so rare as to seem almost impossible. We were not friends; we were not lovers. She was my employee, yet she was responsible for me. Such a strange relationship! My life had become too large, so I allowed another person to live it with me. Helen's gentle touch that day soothed us both, I now realize.
"How about we go home for a while?" She asked, forcefully.
"Maybe. Give me another moment."
We flew home that evening.
Helen visited me recently, while attending to one of her company's Sacramento operations.
"Dr. Fleshman," said a nurse. "You have a guest."
"Really?" I asked, as very few people pay me visits.
"Yes," she replied. "Shall I send her in?"
"By all means. Let's see what the matter is."
In walked Helen, her own assistant in tow, looking like she had stepped right out of my memory.
"My god, Helen!" I said, attempting to stand.
"Please don't stand," she remarked, assuming her old role as my guide immediately. Half of assisting is directing, and Helen's talent for both had not diminished at all. For the record, I did sit down!
"How are you? You look fantastic!" Unlike so many other women her age, Helen chose not to reinvent herself at each new fashion trend. Rather, she merely maintained her ubiquitous look through the ages. I deeply admire her for her allegiance to her own form.
"Thanks, Charlie," she said, moving a long curtain of hair behind her ear. "I can't say the same for you."
We both laughed, and mine transformed into a cough. Even humor is denied to the old and frail!
"Careful! I don't want to be the one who watches you die."
"Don't worry, Helen," I returned. "I'm not going to die today."
"Good. I'm glad to hear. Now, tell me, what do you do all day? I assume you haven't completely stopped being yourself."
"Not exactly," I said. "I'm working on one thing, but it's taking quite some time. It's a memoir."
"Am I in it?"
"You are now!"
"Well, Charlie, you better be nice."
"I have never been anything but polite, Helen."
"I guess you could say that," she replied, looking playfully at me. Helen quit me long before my deep troubles began, but she remained my friend through them, even at some cost to her own reputation.
"What brings you to Sacramento?" I asked.
"Business, of course. We're testing out a new pre-treatment facility on the West Coast."
"Interesting," I said. "What is the benefit?"
"Patients arrive and receive one on one transition therapy prior to the surgery. Studies show that pre-treatment reduces post-transition stress by over 60%."
"You know what else reduces the stress?" I asked, wryly.
"Oh my, do I even want to know?"
"Charlie, you are ever resolute and predictable."
"Nothing wrong with being predictable. At least you know where you stand, right?"
"Charlie, I had lunch with Simon last month." Helen said, moving us away from the topic.
"I see. How did you find him?"
"Very well. He's very special, you know. Smart. He reminds me of you."
"Yes. Let us just hope he's enough unlike me, too!"
"He said you have been sending cryptic messages to your attorneys. Apparently, you're hatching more than a memoir."
I smiled at Helen. She may have been a great assistant, a remarkable businesswoman, and a friend, but she would not get any information out of me.
"Why Helen, I have no idea what you mean. Admittedly, I have been keeping everyone informed of my progress with the book, but I would hardly say that these missives have been cryptic!"
"Still the Charlie I knew."
"Just very old, now."
"We are all the same age, forever, Charlie."
Hearing this phrase sucked me back to a speech I gave at the opening of a Sack Farm in Florida, one of the first states to truly embrace our medical technology. Getting Sack Farms from demonstration to production was no small task, and without the aide of the Livingstons, I am not sure it would have been possible. He really did put his family fortune to the test, assembling the largest army of lawyers and lobbyists in medical history, all deployed to different state capitals around the country. Visiting his headquarters in Charlotte, you would have thought he was running for office!
"…and the Sack is merely a means to an end, an opportunity to get your life back, to live as long as you can. No longer do we need to accept the symptoms of our age. We can all be the same age, forever. With that, I declare the West Miami Sack Farm open for business, open for you!"
The audience of wealthy philanthropists, doctors and media on hand had returned excited applause to my speech. It is hard to imagine now, in my day to day solitude, how I endured so much consideration. No doubt, being my assistant, Helen must also remember.
"Miami?" I asked.
"You used that one a few times," she answered. "I still hear it, occasionally."
"Clearly, I was very immature then," I offered, meekly.
"Charlie, I don't believe you mean that for a second."
"Perhaps, Helen, but we were meant to die. What is life without death?"
"We will still die, Charlie, but thanks to you, not for a very, very long time."
"What about Thompson's work on imprinting brain tissue? No one has to die, if our memories can be swapped!"
"Okay, I'm not having this conversation with you, Charlie. I came to see how you were doing and make sure you weren't causing any trouble."
"No trouble. Not yet." I grinned.
"You really are up to something, aren't you?" She asked. "I can see you're not going to tell me, so I'll just say that it's probably a bad idea."
We laughed again, only this time I kept mine contained to avoid the cough.
Helen and I talked a little longer, and she told me about her family, her business and the changing state of politics in the world. I listened intently to stories of her great grandchildren heading off to college, to her decision to sell off a portion of her international spas, but I stopped her when she got into politics.
"Helen, have you seen him?" I asked, abruptly.
"Well, have you?"
"Of course I have."
"What do you want me to say? Do you want me to say that he's miserable?"
"Is he still in China?"
"Charlie, Peter is…"
"You do not need to say anything else. I just wanted to know if he is alive and in China. That is where I picture him."
"Okay." She laid all the weight of her eyes into mine.
"I needed to be certain." I continued, somewhat sheepishly.
"Oh, I see."
The conversation heaved one last breath and died. Helen made a few attempts to resuscitate it, but failed. Finally, her assistant rescued her with a tap on the shoulder.
"Time to go, Mary?" Helen asked.
"Yes, Ms. McCoy."
"Mary," I said, "I trust she has outfitted you with a good deal of stock options?"
"Don't you worry, Charlie." Helen intercepted. "All my employees get healthy stock options."
"That a girl," I said, taking Helen's hand. "You are a bright star to me; one of the few I would trust to orient myself."
Helen smiled warmly, leaned in, kissed my cheek, and whispered, "you're a good man, Charlie Brown," something she used to say to me after particularly exhausting days on tour.
Dear Helen. You are now in the book! This is my permanent testimonial to the friend you have been and to the degree in which I admire you. Keep shining, bright star!
After we de-planed in Raleigh, Helen kept her arm in mine. Although my nerves had returned to normal, she still assumed control over my steadiness and guided me physically through the airport and to a limousine. Standing outside of the car was Steve Livingston. He opened the door and loaded me inside.
"You should get some rest, Helen," he suggested.
"Thanks. I'll do that," she replied to him. She stuck her head into the car door and smiled at me. "Go to sleep, Charlie. I'll check on you tomorrow."
"Will do," I answered, mildly saluting her.
Steve slid into the limousine with me and knocked on the front window.
"Well, Charlie, it seems you've hit the wall."
"I guess I have."
"I'm actually surprised it has taken this long. You and Peter never stop."
"It is my fault for trying to keep up with him."
"No one should. Peter could run a marathon and still have enough energy to shake two hundred hands."
"I am not sure how he does it," I said.
"Some people are just like that," he offered. "I'm not. I try to take time off whenever possible. You should do the same. In fact, my family is going up to our cabin in Blue Ridge for a few weeks late next month. Why don't you join us? Stay as long as you like."
"That sounds great," I accepted, motivated mostly by my own fatigue. "Thanks."
The limousine arrived at my house and Dick guided me in where Thomas, my butler, was waiting.
"Take him upstairs and put him to bed for a week," he said.
"Yes, sir," Thomas replied.
"Wait, who's the doctor?" I asked.
"For the next few days, try to be just Charlie," he answered, patting me on the shoulder.
Once I arrived at my bedroom—a room I had slept in maybe a dozen times in the past year—I pulled off my shoes, lay back and slept for 16 hours.
When I woke, it was the middle of the night. I heard a jingling sound coming from downstairs, and although I tried to dismiss it and return to sleep, it persisted with such an annoying regularity that I could not.
I rose from bed and could feel the weariness lingering in my muscles. Often times, after a speaking engagement and a long flight, I would feel like I had swam 100 laps in a pool, so I stood still for a moment and allowed my body to remember what it meant to be upright.
The noise continued, like a coin being flung around my mother's clothes dryer. Cling, ding, ring!
I left my room, entering the dark hallway on the second floor of my house. All of the furnishings and artwork remained from the day Elaine handed me the keys. Even though the house was mine, I still did not know it well, and I bumped into tables and plant stands as I rubbed my hand along the wall looking for a light switch.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness of the hall, permitting me to detect the faint light emanating from down the staircase. I made my way to it, navigating around the last few items lining the hall.
The jingling grew louder as I gingerly tip-toed down each step of the large oak staircase. I felt no fear, only curiosity and irritation. I needed to know the cause of the noise, and subsequently put a stop to it.
I eased myself off of the last step and crept along the wall towards the sound, which I could now sense came from beyond the living room. The downstairs entrance light provided enough illumination for me to see a clear path, so I glided towards the sound, and moved down the entry hall and into the room.
The living room did not benefit much from the entrance light, so I slowed my pace and crept towards the sound. I could see light coming from under the door to the library. Still, I felt unafraid. My annoyance waned, giving more over to my curiosity. Somehow, I knew whatever jingled in the library was not inherently dangerous.
I placed my hand on the knob to the library door and turned. The heft of the massive door always surprised and delighted me. I considered the room an intellectual safe.
In the center of the library sat a large, muscular dog, perhaps a Rottweiler, licking itself provocatively—the tags on his thick, leather collar banging together.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I asked, knowing well that I was speaking only to myself.
The dog stopped his slobbering operation, and I heard faint laughter.
"Amathing. Thith ith juth thucking awethome."
"Who's there?" I yelled.
The dog looked up, his massive head a blend of human and canine features. Large, sympathetic human eyes and the small, flat mouth of a man, wide, wet black nose and thin, floppy ears of a dog, the creature smiled at me and moved his front leg to the side, revealing a sizable, erect human penis.
"Thucking amathing," said the dog, his long tongue lolling around his mouth as he spoke, drool spilling onto the floor in front of him.
"What are you?" I demanded.
The dog started laughing, his substantial muscles gyrating and shaking as he did.
"You don recognithe me?" The thing asked, panting
"What the fuck are you?!" I shouted.
"Ith me, Darlie!"
Blood pumped vigorously through every vein in my body, clouding my vision and pushing against my chest. I felt the darkness move in, and tried to drive it away. As I passed out, the dog sat across from me, his phallus slowly deflating, retracting into itself, a friendly smile on his slightly cocked head.
What page are we on? Only you can tell. I'll be well gone by the time any publication designer lays out these words. However, I believe this is a page you will mark with your interest. After all, the odd beast who visited me, the first Flesh Pet, is the genesis of much of my misery, of what many believe to be a deadly foe in the ongoing war between man and his morality. I may be the cause, but I am not the response. You own that mistake, dear reader, for it all lies in your hands how the world proceeds. Therefore, if you do mark this page as significant, and I will not deny that it is, be sure to give yourself the credit you deserve.
All I did was revolutionize the war. Whatever the design, you would have been holding a gun, at the ready.
I admit that as I bully my way through these chapters, I feel less a man seeking redemption than a man seeing an entire canvas for the first time. All my actions, my decisions, rise up to form the greater work—elevated by many layers of paint and consideration—but the backdrop somehow gets a pass. The world without its ferocious inhabitants seems less a world than an artifact of perception, something necessary to the template but undeserving of attention. Is it possible for me to shine a light on the world and not be reduced? Would you still follow me through these pages if you knew I merely meant to implicate you?
Perhaps I can offer you some comfort: whatever guilt you own, I have resolved to pay the mortgage with my life.
I awoke in the library from a rough knocking on the front door. If the previous night's apparition were simply an elaborate vision, I would have unapologetically shaken my head and resumed my day. However, I had never physically traveled in a vision, so my response mixed mild anxiety and disbelief into a concoction of pure trepidation.
I sprang to my feet and hesitantly made my way to the front door. Sunlight shone in through every window, illuminating the artificial age the decorator of the house attempted to create. Antique tables and fixtures were betrayed by modern plaster and paneling, and the chosen artwork blended into the atmosphere rather than creating it. I had not noticed until this moment as I tip toed to the door just how unaffecting it had become. When I first walked into the living room, it dazzled. Now, it seemed like someone had replaced this grand impression with a photo from a magazine with a caption that read "new southern money."
I promised myself I would have the whole house remodeled as I turned the corner into the main hallway. The pledge transformed as I moved closer to the door. Instead of trying to alter this house, I would merely move into another. My fortunes were already considerable, and there was little reason to continue living inside of a gift.
To be honest, I had not been in the house more than a dozen days straight since opening the first Sack Farm, just as Peter had not been in his. Both of us, while accumulating fame, had also been amassing considerable sums of money; we just simply had no time to spend any of it! All we could do was upgrade hotel rooms, flight seats and clothing, converting ourselves into extravagant vagabonds, like the Arabian princes of legend, moving our treasure from tent to tent across ancient deserts.
Thomas appeared from the side of the front door, in casual clothing but looking ever poised, and opened it. I stopped a dozen feet back and leaned against the wall, watching the interaction. Thomas opened his stance as well as the door, allowing Peter to enter.
"There he is!" He exclaimed, warmly. "Rumor has it that you might need some rest."
"I have been advised by a number people less qualified than me that this is true," I returned with a smile. For all my comments regarding Peter's ultimate betrayal of me, please remember that at the time, he was as close to a best friend as I knew.
"Well, you can't deny that you look like hell, Charlie," he said, walking towards me. He scraped me off of the wall and walked me back into the living room.
"I'm fine, Peter," I whispered with an unconvincing sense of urgency.
"You look like you slept on the floor."
"I did, sort of."
"Interesting. Too tired to make it into the bed?"
We sat down across from each other in large, billowy chairs. Thomas followed us in the room.
"Please, Thomas." I nodded.
"So, Charlie, what's going on? Helen told me you almost collapsed and seem very distant. I told her that the collapsing part did sound unlike you."
"I would answer you, but I feel slightly distant right now."
"Fair enough," he continued, grinning. "At least I know you're behaving somewhat normally. Anything I can do?"
"I am fine, Peter," I said. "I think I just need to catch up on some sleep and buy a different house."
"Really? A new house! This one too stodgy for you?"
"I think it is."
"I see that. My house feels no different than another hotel. The suitcase never gets put away."
"I feel the same, but I think I am ready to at least put together my own home. I have never really had my own place. Always just rented rooms or my mother's house."
"How about you and me go house hunting? Turns out that I had to rush home for an emergency meeting with my ailing partner, so my calendar has been cleared for a week."
"Sure, but I need some coffee first."
Peter made a phone call and enlisted the aid of a local realtor to help us canvas downtown Raleigh for my new home. Although Peter fancied the pseudo-country lifestyle, I felt compelled to seek shelter in a more urban setting. This tendency led me to push our guide into showing us flats and other commercially styled domiciles.
"I want one big space," I mentioned. "Something where I can see my car from my bed."
"Really?" Asked Peter. "You sure about this? Wouldn't you rather get something with more land?"
"I spend my days wandering from one bit of country to another," I replied. "I want a fortress, a mad-scientist's lair where I can work on my car or conduct some secret experiments that go horribly awry."
"You have an entire laboratory at your disposal for that," laughed Peter.
"True. I was only joking about the experiments. I really just want a shop, and maybe a houseboat."
"What's that? A boat? Now you're talking!"
"Yes, a boat," I replied, shying away from revealing that old dream.
We drove up and down the streets of Raleigh, looking at various properties, until we pulled up in front of an old Ford car dealership, a for sale or lease sign prominently featured on the a window.
"Hmm," muttered our realtor from the front of her plush car. "This one's labeled multi-purpose commercial in my listing, but I think it's only purpose now is to be torn down!"
The once glorious windows had largely been replaced by plywood, tagged by local artisans, and broken on occasion by desperate people looking for a safe place to sleep. Tall weeds pushed up from every available crevice in the desolate front lot which once housed cars from the golden era of the American automobile industry.
"I want it."
"What?" Came the response. I don't remember if it was Peter or the realtor who asked.
"I want this place."
"It's been on the market for a very long time, according to the listing, and it looks to be in fairly bad shape," the realtor advised.
"Can we go inside?"
Minutes later, an agent from the company responsible for selling the property arrived and unlocked the facility for us.
"The previous tenants opted to build a new facility on the other side of the highway, rather than retrofit this one," he said. "Since then, most of the other old dealers have moved to the same spot. This is one of the few, original sites that's still standing."
"Barely," suggested Peter as we entered the main showroom.
Harkening back to a different era in car sales, the showroom portrayed a time when automakers emphasized the future as if it could be had only through the purchase of a brand new car. Sales offices were caged in by glass and without ceilings, and the massive, two story oval showroom contained a giant platform in the center with the manufacturers faded logo. A dozen small light fixtures took the form of rockets orbiting a giant oval fluorescent lamp, cracked with age, a thousand decaying insects laying inside.
The place was littered with trash, fallen plaster and broken furniture. Several make-shift cots were stacked up in the sales offices. Clearly, the dealer took everything it could use before leaving. Wires dangled from the ceiling like scorched trees among the brown contour maps made by years of water leaks.
"Take a look here," said the new realtor. He moved behind a reception desk and pressed a button.
The platform creaked and whined and slowly began rotating.
"Now that is cool," yelled Peter over the noise. He leapt onto the platform and stood in the center. "You could put your bed here!"
"I think that would make a great surgical table," I replied, after seeing him up there. Only Peter laughed.
"Always thinking about work, Charlie."
"You're not considering re-opening this facility?" Asked the realtor from behind the desk.
"No, not right now. I am more interested in the shop. Can we see it?"
"Absolutely," he answered.
He had to shoulder his way into the service bay, as the door was bent and damaged from a break-in that occurred shortly after the shop shuttered its doors.
"The original tenants believe it was an inside job," said the realtor. "They hadn't stripped the shop yet, and only a few people would have known that some special equipment was still being stored in here."
We entered the shop to the overwhelming stench of oil and mildew. Whatever leaks had dried on the tiles of the ceiling in the front had apparently formed pools of muck somewhere in the depths of the garage.
"Dang," Peter choked. "Smells awful in here."
"It needs some love," chimed in our original realtor, in a crude endeavor to defuse Peter's influence.
"It needs to be leveled," he added, without any hint of sarcasm.
"It does need some work," I added, "but I think it is worth keeping."
I walked out into the shop alone. Most of the garage had been stripped clean of anything that could be re-used or sold. Two of the bays still had buried single post car lifts, obviously too costly to remove.
"Do these work?" I shouted, indicating the lifts.
"Yes, as far as we know, the remaining equipment can be made functional if you put in a new compressor," answered the realtor, joining my by the bays. "The other bays are wired, plumbed and ready for refitting."
"I think two functioning bays are sufficient for my needs. I only have one car."
"Uh, okay," he said, awkwardly. "I just assumed you would be running a full shop."
"If my other business slows down, I might," I said. "But even if it does, I am just one mechanic."
The realtor tried to conceal his uncertainty. I assume that if my name was not known, he would have already wrapped up the tour.
"How much for the whole place?"
"The property is being offered at one point five."
"Okay. Do you know any commercial architects that you can recommend?"
"Uh, sure. So, you want to make an offer."
"No. Just buy it for me," I answered. "I would rather not deal with the details."
"Fantastic!" He said, holding out his hand to me. I shook it.
"Well, I guess you're going into the automotive business after all, Charlie!" Yelled Peter from the service entrance. "I'll be sure to get my oil changed here once I start driving again."
"You better," I shouted back.
I immediately hired an architect and contractor to clean up my new purchase and convert it into a livable space. Although the architect saw great potential in my vision of a commercial-residential hybrid, the contractor merely smiled and answered, "I can do that," to all of our ideas. I'm sure he would have built a brick box around me if I paid him enough.
The front of the dealership would be converted into guest accommodations and general living space. The architect suggested holding onto the thematic elements of the 50s era cars, so that guests felt "transported," a buzzword he trotted out often. The stage, once elevating and rotating the most desirable car available, would be expanded and hold the dining table. The giant auto parts room would be dug out and converted into an indoor swimming pool.
I told the architect he could do whatever he wanted in the front, and I would design the back, which would be my living space. He took notes as I outlined my plans, and smiled occasionally.
"Sounds like you're designing some kind of industrial fortress!" He exclaimed. "I love it."
"I can do that," chimed in the contractor.
They went to work making drawings and assembling bids while Peter and I spent a few days at the lab and the local Sack Farm prior to the trip to the Livingston family's cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Although the reception we received at the lab was warm and our staff eager to hear of our travels, being there again felt odd, as if I were returning to my old, first job only to find they had hired another mechanic. Clearly, the talented staff, led by our lab director, Gregor Malikoff, operated quite handily without Peter and me in house. In fact, on their own, they continued to refine the best practices of Sack development and quality.
Most of our time in the few days we visited was filled with meetings and demonstrations. We met with accountants, lawyers, our team, visiting scholars, more lawyers, and each other. Peter toured the surgical facilities of affiliate hospitals while I made the rounds in our first Sack Farm and the labs. After, he and I would meet for lunch or coffee and report our findings.
On a day not long after returning to work, we found some time and met at a coffee shop across from my dealership. I began frequenting the diner because I could watch the massive assembly of equipment going in and out of my new house. A least two dozen construction workers climbed all over the structure, preparing it all for me.
You may recall the diner; it was featured in Time Magazine a few years later, when they did an exposé on our work. I purchased it not long after moving into the dealership, just to keep it open and functioning, even at a loss. Not long after Time published the story, the coffee shop experienced a renaissance, so I gave it back to the original owner, who had continued to cook and manage it during my proprietorship.
I liked it because it held the same vintage optimism as the dealership. Built by the owner's father in the 40's, it is one of the few free-standing diners left in the country, a place where you can eat a simple, hearty meal, or just have coffee and a piece of apple pie. Chrome framed everything, booths wrapped in hard imitation leather, and a waitress as timeless as the Bunn-o-matic dispensing the coffee—the diner would have easily perished if not for my intervention. If only more entrepreneurs and coffee drinkers would have propped up these establishments, rather than taking their coffee in paper cups from drive-thru purveyors. Think of how many great ideas, sketched onto the square paper napkins, were born over a cup of coffee in a diner!
"Nice place," said Peter, dryly, sliding into the booth. Helen as well as Peter's assistant, Cheryl, occupied the booth just behind us, no doubt sharing their experiences being our keepers while coordinating schedules. "I suppose you'll be eating here a lot."
"I can cook, you know."
"I remember. I just have a hard time imagining you cooking in the garage."
"Actually," I replied, with affected smugness, "I am having a commercial kitchen installed in the old waiting room, complete with a brick oven and stone wok."
"Well, excuse me, I didn't realize that you were opening a restaurant, too."
"Why not? I can feed my customers while I fix their cars."
"An interesting idea. Perhaps they can eat around their car as you work on it."
"Not bad. I am going to make a note of that." I pretended to scribble in my notebook.
"So, what's good here?"
"Everything tastes exactly as you expect it should, but I'm just having coffee."
"Sounds safe," he said, waiving the waitress over.
"What'll be, hon?" she asked, unenthusiastically. Her hair was dyed an unnatural hue of red and rolled up on the top of her head, and a pair of ancient glasses hung from a beaded necklace.
"Coffee, please," replied Peter.
"Same for me," I answered. "And bring plenty of cream, okay?"
"Sure thing, sweetie." She collected our plastic menus and walked away.
"I love her," Peter whispered after she left. "She's an artifact!"
"I know. I may have to buy her for my dealership."
"Any news from the affiliates?" I asked.
"Booked solid, expanding, grateful. Seems like we're growing sacks of gold!"
"And the Farm? All the chickens in the coop?" Peter asked, removing a cigarette from his case. He offered one to me, and I declined. My interest in smoking had not returned since my days in high school, even with Peter's constant indulgence.
"A little trouble with the stabilizers. I authorized the fabrication of a new one, with modifications suggested by Samir. Gregor said he has been instrumental in improving the delivery of the package."
The package was our term for the blend of nutrients we fed the Sacks to keep them healthy and in stasis.
"Fantastic. I'll tell Gregor to give him a raise or something."
"Are you going to the Livingston cabin this weekend?"
"Yes, Steve told me that he invited you to Blue Ridge as well."
"Oh, yes, that. Well, first of all, if that's a cabin, I live in an outhouse. Second, I'm flying back to Dallas tomorrow to meet with two more legislators at the proposed site. I think we're going to be fine, but I want to make sure we keep our face in front of them."
"Oh, sure. Too bad."
"It's okay. I've been there before. It's beautiful."
"So I hear."
Our coffees were expertly slid onto the table from a tray, a small pitcher of cream in tow.
"Thanks, darlin'," said Peter.
"Anytime, handsome," she replied, giving him a wink before moving on to the next table.
"Jesus, I may buy her!"
"I saw her first. Hands off."
"Steve says we're clear to move on Sacramento," Peter continued. "The governor's wife is on dialysis, so we going to grow a Sack for her here and fly her out for surgery. Should be nothing but support for us after that."
"Figured you might be interested. Care to return to your home town to do some PR?"
"Sure. I would like that."
"Great. I'll have Cheryl tell Helen."
"I should let my mother know."
"Probably a good idea."
"I have been neglecting her a bit, lately," I admitted, half-heartedly.
"In your defense, you did pass out in Holland."
"Maybe I will use that as an excuse."
"You should," he replied. "Just don't mention all of the brothels and drugs."
I turned my eyes down to the table. My only kiss from a girl had been that one with Beth Madden years ago. Since then, I hid from future disappointments by working more than necessary and avoiding dating altogether. My beard was thick enough to hide the scars on my face, but I could do nothing to hide my back, which looked as though I had been hit with a shotgun blast. Very rarely had anyone seen me without a shirt. When Peter first did, back in Kentucky as I made my way from the shower to my room, he could not help from uttering the word, "Jesus."
"Have you met Steve's sister?" Peter asked, knowing well the effect of his previous statement.
"Christine? Sure. Several times, a few with you present!"
"No, his other sister, Claire. She's not in the family business. Does photography in New York."
"I haven't met her. Should I?"
"She may be at the 'cabin' as well."
"Yeah, she's very interesting."
"Great. Sounds wonderful," I replied, eyes half rolled back.
"Come on, now. How would you expect me to describe you, Charlie?"
"Dapper," I answered, after a long pause.
"I've always wanted to be dapper."
"And I've always wanted to be Surgeon General."
"Maybe there's hope for us both."
I stirred cream into my coffee and took a sip. In the time it took to swallow the hot, milky blend, a vision swept into my mind of Claire, although I had no idea who she was at the time. I was standing behind a boy, my hands on his thin shoulders, as a woman on a gurney was rolled slowly away from us.
"Charlie," Peter said, quietly.
"Why don't you let me give you some new skin?"
I set my mug down and looked at Peter. I have never seen a more sincere expression of sympathy in a man.
"Let me think about it."
Peter was, of course, right about the Livingston cabin. After arriving, I realized that even the Livingston's used the term cabin loosely, indicating that they were aware, at the very least, of its immense size and luxury.
"Wow, some cabin," I said as Steve pressed the code into the front gate. Up a snaking slate drive sat a sprawling rustic mansion, something between a castle and a fort.
"My great-great grandfather actually built a cabin here. The wood from it was salvaged and made part of the fireplace mantle in the main hall."
Steve put his Porsche in gear, and we scrambled up the road to the front entrance. A butler greeted us at the door.
"Mr. Livingston, Dr. Fleischman, good day."
"Afternoon, Herbert," Steve replied. "Anyone else home?"
"Your parents are visiting the Elmwoods down the way, sir."
"Okay. Would you put our things in while I show Charlie around?"
Herbert opened the massive front door and ushered us into the house. Living up to its exterior, the castle meets cabin theme persisted inside, with giant rough hewn logs nestled into imported brick constructs, chandeliers made from antlers, glossy floors of marble and inlaid mosaics. The front entrance was as long as it was tall, vaulting above us twenty feet. At the end, a staircase wound up and around to the upper level rooms.
We walked through the hall, and Steve pointed out the library, the dining hall, and finally the saloon, an old bar that his father had rescued from nearby Asheville and installed here. We bellied up to it, each of us affecting a bow-legged walk, and another servant appeared from a door at its rear.
"Afternoon, Mr. Livingston, Dr. Fleischman," cheerily said the man. "Care for a cocktail?"
"Two Booker Manhattans, Ken."
"Coming up, sir."
"Your cabin… it has its own bar." I muttered.
"It does. Although Elaine fought my father on it, I think it adds a bit of old charm to the place. What do you think?"
"I think it adds to the place." Honestly, it seemed that anything would go in the mixed up the aesthetic of the house.
"Here you are, gentlemen. Marie pickled the cherries two weeks ago. They should be excellent."
"The only reason I order a Manhattan when I come here is to eat Marie's drunken cherries!"
"They are quite good," the bartender returned.
"Let me show you the rest of the place before Elaine and my father come back from the Elmwood's."
We moved from the saloon back into the main hallway.
"The upstairs is just bedrooms," Steve mentioned.
Past the staircase we stepped down into the great hall, a massive curved room with twenty foot high windows on the back wall, granting us a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"My god," I said.
"Gorgeous, isn't it?"
"Yes, it truly is."
Steve led me down into the great room, which was easily the size of the rest of house in one open environment. On one side, a massive, eight foot tall fireplace lay dormant, its frame composed of the antique wood previously mentioned. Over the mantle a hand carved sign displayed the name Livingston branded in a rough script.
The rest of the room featured seating for dozens on raw cowhide and leather couches and chairs. A pool table, small bar and humidor occupied the other side of the great hall.
"Another bar?" I asked with a smirk.
"The original bar. My father wanted to put the saloon there, but Elaine won that battle, arguing that it would distract from the view, which should be the focal point of the room. I think she was right."
"The view is astounding. No one would argue that."
"Check this out," he said, leading me towards the windows. He pointed down below us, to a massive deck and pool. "We're actually on a bit of a cliff here, so when my grandfather built this place, he had a crew blast out a hole for the pool with dynamite. It has to be heated all year, otherwise it would be too cold to use."
I sipped heavily from the glass, and my ideas followed the whiskey and bitters down my throat into my stomach, where they met a rapidly dwindling mound of pastrami. My head swooned, no doubt a reaction to the whiskey and a sudden realization of the change in altitude. I had ascended a mountain, and now, my mind tried to ascend towards this unfamiliar pedigree of society.
I spotted my old life, back over my shoulder, so many years ago. My family house—the one I lived in prior to the split of my parents—it seemed like a palace to me, with its three full bedrooms, two bathrooms and hyper-fertilized lawn. My shop, that old two car garage, was big enough to do anything, as big as the universe to me! In front of the window of the luxurious Livingston cabin, I felt something new, some kind of mental development that would not make itself clear to me, so I stood there, looking out over the smoky bluish-gray horizon, wondering what exactly it meant to be happy.
I can suppose that this feeling is recognizable to many, easily evaluated, deconstructed and put in a proper place; but for me, it came on like a pair of rapidly approaching headlights on a one-way road at the darkest part of night. If I had the ability to move and avoid whatever it was that was coming at me, I wouldn't have. Instead, I stared deep into the lights, let the brilliance overtake me, and still saw nothing at all.
As I write these recollections, I feel a pang of pity for you. Any of you, that is, who must regularly tolerate such outbursts of uncertainty. You dodge, you maneuver, you deny, and ultimately, you forestall the impending doom for another day, a day on which you will consult your mental acrobats once again. I see you because of the many books I've read about your endeavors, but for me, the road is not one I know to avoid. As much as I create, I spend equal time clinging to a wrecking ball.
I looked at the lack of ideas inside of myself, saw them as a mild lament for the life I had, the one before Jeff, before my misstep, when my parents thrilled at my inventiveness and cared for me. And then I push these misguided sentiments aside and saw the reality of the current situation.
I could have the dynamite pool, the faux bar, the house in the hills. What I could not have was a family. I had not the capacity to breed because of my unwilling nature and festering schedule. I already had more money than I could easily spend, and more was piling on every second I breathed, but I had nothing to do, no one to bestow it on, not one person to share a shelter with me.
"I must procreate," I muttered.
"What's that?" Asked Steve, even though he had heard my quiet, awkward statement.
"Um… Sorry, I was just thinking about having a family cabin. I don't really have a family."
"What are you? 27, 28? It's not like you haven't been busy!"
"I'll be 30 in three months," I replied. "I know that time is not running out. I just felt a sudden need to move into that part of my life."
"Spoken like a true scientist, Charlie," he said, slapping me on the back.
"I'm not making much sense; I realize that. It's not urgency I feel as much as a general lack."
I couldn't believe I was saying this to him! Even I would have suspected a real nervous breakdown had occurred!
"Makes perfect sense, Charlie. You've been at it for more than a decade, working harder than most people ever do. You should consider your future, and what you want to do with yourself."
"I do," I replied, which was not entirely true. I had not, until that moment, considered the possibilities, the real future. Buying the dealership was the first spontaneous act of my adult life, and even it evolved out of a vision, or at least the rejection of a vision. Seeing that human-hound in my library left me with a slight sense of aversion, so I reacted by finding a new habitat, one without the haunting of an apparition.
I questioned these intentions as a hawk flew in orbit of a tall pine tree a hundred yards away from us. Did I buy the dealership just to avoid the vision's fated event, or was this lack already prompting me, issuing a silent command to my sub-consciousness to return to what I had known, to seek some sort of comfort, some fortress to defend myself against the coming possibilities?
'Did I, in fact, have a nervous breakdown?' I thought.
I still believe whatever led me to falter in Holland lay primarily in my unyielding schedule and the abundance of attention I faced wherever I landed, but I cannot deny that part of me wished to surrender, to fall down and not get up again, if only for some sense of finality. If anything, I see this less as a mental deficiency than as evidence that I was already becoming a Deathist!
"I'd like a family," admitted Steve, "although I've had my share of trouble with women. You're likely to face the same difficulty."
"What kind of trouble?" I asked, wondering if he also suffered from intense, prophetic visions and a lack of emotional connection to others.
"Your name and face, my friend. It is a sad fact that people are now friendlier to you than they would be if you were anonymous or poor. You'll get better at distinguishing friends from hangers-on, but you'll never stop suspecting your friends, wondering who of them will quietly open one of your veins and drink from it as you sleep."
"Wow, you must have really seen some trouble!" I exclaimed, laughing.
"For sure. After about ten bad endings and two near marriages, I've become overly cautious with women. Sometimes I think I'm the victim of an arranged marriage to my name."
"Does it really matter, if someone is parasitic?"
"You have a way with words, Charlie, but I think I catch your meaning. In a way, it does matter, in a way, it doesn't. There just needs to be balance."
"I think you're right," I added. "But I'm afraid I don't have much experience. I just know I need to get moving."
"Charlie, I didn't mean to lay my trip on you. Forget I said anything. Follow your heart."
"Literally?" I asked, innocently. "Because I've got one growing at the lab."
"Any cute lab girls working there? If so, maybe you should follow that heart!"
We both laughed and then returned to silent appreciation of the view.
"I believe my other sister, Claire, is coming this weekend," he announced after finishing his cocktail. "I think you'll enjoy meeting her. She's unique in a lot of ways, really follows her instincts."
"Are you setting me up?"
"Hell no, Charlie!" Steve replied with surprise. His shock evolved into a wry smile. "Well, maybe a little. She's interested in meeting you, and I can vouch for her near-sanity."
"Peter mentioned that she would be here. I'm beginning to think you two are in collusion."
"Peter and Claire dated for a short time years ago, actually. They met at a party I threw back in college. Nothing really came of it. They mostly exchanged letters, maybe saw each other a half dozen times total."
"I'm not exactly sure. It seemed that one day they were no longer dating. I asked Peter long after, and he said he was fond of her but didn't see them going anywhere."
Where was my vision? If only some glimpse into the future could have warned me, so much might have been avoided!
"Anyway, let's get you settled in. My parents will return soon, and I'm sure they'll want to spend some time with you."
"Absolutely, Charlie! You've remade them, you know. All of us!"
The days I spent with the Livingstons offered no insight into my state of mind. Occasionally, Dick or Elaine would ask of my plans for the future, but often these queries, when stripped of pretense, were little more than launch pads for their own suppositions.
A curious note about rich people, for those of you who might be unfamiliar: many of them walked into their money or have been rich for so long that they feel compelled to serve as ambassadors for the lifestyle. Rather than simply effuse my sudden success, they instead instructed me on the troubles of rich folk, what to look out for, which accountancy firms cannot be trusted, or even an appropriate vehicle for my current status.
"The proper way…" Elaine might begin a dozen sentences, never for a moment believing that she was either insulting or deranged. Keep in mind, I adore the Livingstons to this day, and what they have done for me and humanity cannot be challenged. However, what they and many other wealthy families fail to realize or admit is that the gathering of more wealth than you need is decisively improper. I count myself in this group, for it took me far too long to transition into philanthropy, and I only did after having my dignity stripped. Why do you think the masses take such pleasure in watching the rich and powerful fall? If it were their equal falling, they may watch the gruesome scene with interest, but they would not cheer nor consume every detail of the event and transform it into a god-damn spectacle!
Although extravagance and greed are considered capital vices, it seems that we look the other way, even bestow honor on the greediest, lest we be accused of envy. Thankfully, our hearts betray our minds, and we inwardly rejoice when the universe corrects itself.
The Livingstons, for all their connections to me, did not fall with me. Perhaps I should have listened to their advice, you may suggest, and have taken great care to insure my success not be lost. Were I a sinful man, a man without conscious and perspective, I might agree, but the man I evolved into no longer believes in success or wealth. I believe only in death and in life, and therefore I have no conflicts with my past. Maybe someday you, too, will see things my way.
Elaine greeted me warmly at the cabin, even smoothing my hair as if I were an adopted son. I took comfort in such gestures, just as I innocently devoured all of her stories and counsel. I desperately wanted to be that son to her, to Dick, a brother to Steve, for I had clearly stepped into a new era of my life and had no clue how to proceed.
'Lead me,' I thought, 'and let me lean into you.'
When Claire arrived three days later, my indoctrination almost complete, I felt as if I, too, would be seeing my sister for the first time in months. We gathered in the great room as she entered, each greeting her in turn. Her angular beauty muted by a sloppiness some might see as occupational eccentricity, she nevertheless glided into the space like she belonged in it, a deep burgundy scarf flapping behind her like a broken sail. At once I could see Peter's interest. His secret, unmanaged self, lying like a pig in shit, would at once find comfort in the arms of this dirty debutante. For some reason, the Peter in her excited me, and I didn't wait for an introduction. Instead, much to my own surprise, I approached and embraced her as if she were my own kin.
"It is great to finally meet you, Claire," I softly said. I heard Steve quietly cough into his hand.
"Likewise, Dr. Fleischman," she replied. "You're quite the champion of this family it seems."
"I think it's the other way around. If not for the Livingstons… I mean your family, we would still be slashing our way through the red tape at a university lab."
"Well, I can't take any credit for that, but I know that Mom and Dad are pleased to no longer be simply considered cigarette peddlers."
"Dear, I shall always be a simple tobacco farmer, just like my grandfather and his grandfather before him," interjected the elder Livingston. "In the summer I'd leather my neck hoeing and weeding the acres. In the winter, I'd cover the Northern Raleigh route, filling vending machines until my hands were as silver as the coins I extracted."
"We know, Dad," said Claire. "I was referring to the public perception of the family. Since Dr. Fleischman arrived, even I am treated differently."
"Please, call me Charlie," I requested.
"Okay, Charlie," she gently spoke. The way she uttered my name made me feel as though she had named me herself.
My mind felt warm, like I were awakened in the night by an excess of blankets that I could not kick off. For the first time since Beth, I wanted to be near someone more than I wanted to run away. Whatever Steve was coordinating between Claire and I no longer needed a moderator. If I believed in love, I would consider this to be it.
"Claire, did you know that Charlie has purchased a car dealership in which he intends to live?" Announced Steve.
"No, I didn't," she answered. "Are you into cars?"
"I like to tinker," I replied, "and the space suits me. I think it's worth keeping some old things, rather than tearing them down."
"Will you be selling Sacks out of it?"
"Claire!" Elaine exclaimed. "Charles is our guest."
"Of course, Mother," she acquiesced, never taking her eyes from mine.
"If I thought someone needed one, I would create a Sack anywhere I could."
"Bravo," acknowledged Dick. "No need to defend yourself here, Charlie."
"I never defend myself," I said, keeping my eyes in Claire's. She blinked hers quickly and blushed. A surge of confidence burned through me that I had not felt outside of the laboratory. Even without a vision, I simply knew the way. Considering my late confusion, this small instruction weighed as much as a revelation. Perhaps this is how John felt seconds before lifting that rare disciple from the baptismal waters.
Claire's blush turned into a smile, allowing her to regain eye contact with me.
"Nor should you, Charlie," she finally said. "Forgive me if I sounded insulting."
"I'm in no way insulted," I vaguely responded. "I've heard that you take pictures."
"Oh, no," muttered Steve.
"What?" She asked. "Think I'm going to chomp your man for calling them pictures? That's what they are."
"Well," he yielded, "I'm in no position to take a position."
"I mean photos…" I began.
"Are you defending yourself?" Claire asked, her posture improving.
"Just Claire-ifying," I said, wickedly.
"Oh my god, Charlie." Steve groaned.
"How about a cocktail?" Elaine suggested. Everyone nodded to avoid further embarrassment.
The next few days were spent as a group. We ate, drank, hiked, swam (me with a swim shirt on, always) and generally lounged about. At times, I would be alone with Claire, but our conversations never lasted more than a few exchanged sentences, sometimes in play, sometimes in reference to our separate, unique occupations. She warmed to me, and I, as much as possible, to her.
On my last night in the cabin, I dreamt of her. Having conscious visions with some frequency, my dreams always seemed like a poorer sibling to them, showing me nothing of the future. Rather, they tended to function as a psychological blender, mixing events and metaphor into a concoction that rarely makes sense but remains somehow easily digestible.
I was standing on a steel beam hanging over a ravine hundreds of feet below me. This bridge, just barely under construction, felt sturdy to each footstep, but somehow wrong for pedestrian traffic. It was unbelievably narrow, forcing me to walk with my arms extended as if on a tightrope. Baby birds, featherless hawks I believe, perched all along the girder, shook with avian youth and hunger. Off in the distance, a mother hawk, mouth stuffed with a mangled, bloody kill, circled.
I could see Claire on the far side of the beam, sitting down, legs dangling. A dream condition prevented me from calling to her. Instead, I had to traverse the precarious rail. I attempted to step over the birds, but each one would startle and attempt to take flight. Without feathers, they merely plummeted silently down into ravine, as if they somehow knew that it would be their fate. Each time a baby fell, the mother hawk's circuit would widen, bringing her closer to me.
I continued, still trying to avoid the tiny hawks, but failing with every effort. When I was less than ten feet from Claire the last of the baby hawks dropped. Claire looked up at me, her face long and dull as if some giant had smeared her painted visage with his moistened thumb.
"Hawk," she muttered before turning her face back to the ravine below.
The hawk's loop had grown so wide that her next pass would be close enough for me to touch her. I watched as she approached, the grace of her turn mesmerizing me into a trance.
As she closed in on my position, she flapped her massive wings and slowed her speed. With a flinch of her neck, she swallowed the meat meant for the babies, and hovered near me.
"You will not stop," Claire said, flatly, still staring at the ravine.
I continued to examine the mother hawk, floating noiselessly in the air, and I detected in her eyes pleasure or, at the very least, satiety.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt a mix of relief and anticipation. The vacation relaxed me in many ways that I had not experienced since my youth. The absence of anything productive to accomplish or some invitation to speak left me with a strange sense of release. Helen was not there, touching my shoulder, ushering me onward to our next appointment; Peter was not there, telling me about the newest negotiation or Sack success; the directors in Raleigh were not there, each asking for just a minute of my time to share some perspective, idea or issue; my visions were not here, orienting me towards some fated activity; you were not here, dressing me down with your gossiping eyes.
All things removed, the nudity I enjoyed came at a cost. Whatever confusion I had experienced amplified with each day I stayed, until I found myself taking apart the clock radio in my room with a Swiss Army knife I found in a drawer. By the time I realized what I was doing, I had already begun to piece it back together, so rather than infuse my regression with therapeutic questions, I let the process complete. Honestly, if only we would all do the same, let a whim play out to its utter conclusion without interference, without introspection or outside interrogation, how much happier a world would this be?
I packed up the few items I brought and the numerous gifts I received from the Livingstons, who found it impossible not to supply me with everything I found acceptable. I praised the quality of the bourbon, and a case was brought to my room. I commented on the headiness of a cigar, and a sealed box was placed on top of the bourbon. Copper River salmon caught and smoked by Steve, chocolate handmade for Elaine by Pierre Marcolini, a print of Claire's photo "Doves Sleeping," an autographed first edition of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisted, which I only held for a moment while parsing through the many old books in their library—all of these items handed over immediately after my interest was noted. Their generosity, while profound when considering their philanthropic ventures, often made me uncomfortable when personally presented, as if they knew not how to simply say, 'indeed, it is fine.' Rather, they would always heap more of whatever it was onto me.
I left my luggage and my 'stash' by the door, finished dressing and made my way down to the great room. Claire was there, standing alone by one of the windows, a pair of binoculars pressed to her eyes. I approached her quietly, trying not to disturb whatever bit of research she enjoyed.
"A nest of babies," she whispered to me as I drew near.
"What kind?" I asked.
"Sharp-shinned hawk, I think," she said. "I can't really tell. Want a look?"
"I'm not a very adept birder, but I'll take a peek."
She handed me the binoculars without removing the strap from her neck, forcing me to get extremely close to her as I peered into the lenses.
"It's unusual for us to see a nest here," she said, quietly, her mild coffee-flavored breath wafting over me. "We are a little far south."
"I can't find them," I said, even though I spotted the nest immediately.
"Over there, second tree from the end, about twenty feet from the top." She placed the palm of her hand on my back, as if to adjust me like one of her tripods. I twitched, worried that her hand would detect the enormous pits in my back.
"Okay, I see them now."
Three tiny beaks tucked into downy fluff bleated silently into the sky, the mother standing astride of them, examining nearby trees for ready prey.
"Gorgeous, aren't they. Look at the striations of color on her breast."
"I see. She's spectacular."
I felt Claire turn towards me, her nose bumping into my cheek, deep into my beard, down all the way to the scarred skin. I abruptly recoiled, lowering the binoculars from my eyes and handing them to her.
"Sorry. I've stolen your glasses."
"I was sharing them with you, Charlie!"
"Right. You were. Sorry."
"Something the matter?"
"Not at all," I began. "It's just a bit of an odd coincidence. I saw a hawk circling that tree on the day I arrived, and last night, I dreamt of it."
"Really?" She asked. "How interesting. Maybe this place is getting to you."
"I think it is."
"It gets to me, too. I should come out more often than I do."
"You think so?" She asked, inviting me to make a suitable overture.
"Yes, if it's important to you," I replied, re-affirming my inability to understand the mechanics of courtship.
"Okay, well, I guess that's true."
"I mean," I began, trying to regain my opportunity. "I think that I should like to visit this cabin again, preferably at a time that you also visit it."
I winced at my own words, as they descended on Claire like medical advice.
"How about you invite me with you to Sacramento, so that I can shoot your event?"
"You want to take pictures of my work?"
She laughed. "Everything I've ever heard about you is dead on, Charlie."
"I guess that's good."
"It really is," she said, softly, warmly. "In a very weird way it is."
"Would you like to take pictures, I mean shoot, me in Sacramento?"
"Yes, I would."
"Okay. That's great. I'll be in touch."
We awkwardly exchanged smiles as I backed away from her and out of the room. In the hallway, Steve was leaning against the walk, his sunglasses on.
"That was truly painful," he said.
"Ready to get out of here?"
"Please, before I say another word."
"Mom and Dad are outside, waiting to see you off."
"Okay, let's go."
We walked outside, and the elder Livingstons were standing next to Steve's Porsche, now packed full of my belongings.
"Charles," Elaine exclaimed, embracing me affectionately. "I enjoyed your visit very much. You are a gift to this family."
"I could say the same of you, Elaine."
Dick approached and took my hand in his.
"Anything you need, my boy, you just raise the flag, okay?"
"Of course," I replied.
Steve and I climbed into his car and waved to his family.
"Thanks for bringing me out here," I said.
"Sure. Glad you accepted our invitation."
"I'm ready for the rest," I announced.
"The rest of what?" Steve asked.
"The rest of my life. I wasn't ready for it last week. Now, I am."
"Wow," he returned. "You really did need a break!"
"Is it okay with you if I bring your sister to California?"
"You don't need to ask my permission," he said with a smug grin. "I'm not her keeper."
We glided down the mountain roads, my body shifting slightly to the left and right with each curve in the road. As he did on our drive up to the cabin, Steve continued to educate me in the history and geography of the region, pointing out the crest of Mt. Mitchell, how the Cherokee believe they once hunted mastodon in the area, a fishing hole his grandfather used to catch trout in before they vanished.
I listened to these stories with great attention, but I split my mind, and sent the other half on into the future, to Sacramento and the time I would spend with Claire. I considered what I might show her, and I stumbled. Surely, she would not care about my old shop, or the streets I grew up on, or Fairytale Town, where Jeff and I sometimes went after getting high, sneaking in with a large group. Would she even want to see the river, with its muddy banks and architecturally bland houses? The greatest memories of my young life all seemed as sterile as that empty road I visualize so many years ago. Even though I believed in nothing more than the moment, I had spent my youth imagining the future with Jeff.
We moved back and forth, up and down the serpentine highway, the sun high in the noon sky. With no sense of true north, I trusted the navigation of the road, taking minor reassurance in the meager distribution of directional signs. After Steve's car negotiated a final bend in the road, we slipped out of a vale into the open world, descending towards an eastern skyline and into the foothill communities.
We arrived back in Raleigh in the afternoon. Thomas unloaded my things and shuttled them into the house.
"When will you be moving?" Steve asked.
"Maybe a month," I answered. "Depends on how many problems they run into. The whole place will take about six months to remodel."
"Can I ask what you will do with this place?"
"I'm going to give it to Helen."
"It was when I received it."
"I guess it was," he admitted. "I'll be in touch, Charlie."
"I hope so."
As he drove away from my house, I walked inside and turned on my phone for the first time since leaving.
Peter answered my call, sounding as if he were in a car. He always seemed to be in a car.
"I'm ready now."
"Great news," he said after a pause. "I've already spoken with Gabriel Bennett. He's going to assist. Best grafter I've ever seen. Better than me."
"Better than you?" I knew Gabe and his reputation, but I had to play along with Peter's admission.
"Yes. He's one of the best."
"I can't believe it," I said. "Peter Parsons is not the best?!"
"Take your time," he joked. "I realize it might be a shock. Anyhow, these days my hands are better suited for signing contracts." Peter's use of sarcasm had greatly expanded in the years since our first meeting, no doubt influenced by my continuous indulgence. I also believe he felt a little untouchable due to our immense success, and he no longer needed to make any concessions to advance his career. Now, his former employers and professors paid respect to him, hoping to get a foot in our solid gold door.
"Yes, I don't think I want your signature on my face."
"That would mean I own you, and I'm not sure I want the responsibility."
"No, you don't," I continued, dryly. "I seem to be prone to breaking down."
"Now, that is funny," he laughed. "I take it your trip to the cabin went well."
"It did, even though the cabin is somewhat dilapidated."
"Barely habitable," he said. "I remember."
"I want to be fixed before I go to Sacramento. Can that happen?"
"Sure," he answered. "Gabe can do it next week, and I've already grown enough of your skin for six backs, and I have two complete facial molds ready."
"You were that sure I would do it?"
"No, but I didn't want to take a chance you'd change your mind."
"You must really be tired of looking at me," I quipped.
"Actually, it's a business decision. I want you looking your best for the cameras."
"I see. What about you?"
"Have you seen me, Charlie?" He asked. "I'm in my prime. A knife would only make things worse for me."
"You're right," I said. "You're too beautiful now. Maybe in a couple of years you'll need some work."
"Did you meet Claire?" Peter inquired.
"How is she?"
"Good," he repeated.
"Steve tell you we dated?" he asked.
"I'm not sure what happened. We just seemed to take two exits off the same highway."
"She's very nice. I like her photographs."
"Ahhhh. You've got a crush, don't you, Charlie?" he goaded.
"Why do you say that?"
"I've never heard you say that anyone was nice."
"Hardly anyone is."
"Really? What a terrible world!" He exclaimed. "Driver, take us off of the nearest cliff."
"The world would be just as terrible if everyone were nice," I returned. "Imagine it, everyone saying please and thank you all the time. You'd never get anything done!"
"Well said. Driver, cancel the suicide request."
"Next week?" I asked.
"Next week. I'll send over a list of things you should and shouldn't do to prepare. Gabe will call in the next day or two as well, just to discuss the procedure."
"It'll be great, Charlie."
"I hope so."
"Claire will love it," he said, solemnly.
In darkness, I was peeled like a grape, my inner pulp squeezed from its sleeve.
Scraped away, the scarred me dropped into a medical waste bin, later emptied by a man I'd never meet.
My new skin was laid over me, and immediately slurped plasma and steroids while my old skin steamed up the inside of a bag, awaiting collection and incineration.
When the light returned, I lay on my belly, my face propped up by foam and tubes. The only sound I heard was the hum of negative pressure vacuum.
The room was empty, light blooming around every object. One radiant white chair sat empty in the corner. No half-finished cups of coffee or crumple magazines lay on the side table.
Were I able to move my face, I would have smiled.
During my convalescence, I began writing my first memoir. I called the first chapter, "The Skin of a Sack," thinking that it would be a clever name for a man who physically transformed the world and himself. Here's a tidbit from the chapter.
Being Charlie Fleischman once meant to be in a constant state of defense. I was not like the other children in grade school, not like the other young men in college, completely unlike the other successful medical researchers I associate with. Always, I maintain myself on the periphery, observing the interactions of others, seeing them engage in relations with each other, all hopelessly selfish and driven by common fears and insecurities. That I have none of these emotional issues allows me the freedom to create new technology without ever thinking, it might not work.
Dancing around in the periphery—I don't deny that I am that man, but I now see the arrogance of my perception, the unlikeable tone of my generalizations. Sometimes our eyes open at once, pried apart by undeniable events. Other times, our eyes open slowly, as they might on a lazy, godless Sunday morning. My sharper corners, rounded by time, no longer stab; rather, they bump against the status quo, roll on parallel to you and yours. I take no offense at your track these days, and I hope you forgive mine. There are only so many routes, so few original ideas, after all. Take them all apart, and you have only impulse and observation.
I'm getting muddy in my mind. Elian smuggled a flask of bourbon in two days ago, and I've been rather stupid since. What I would give for a fifth of Booker's, poured in the saloon of the Livingston Cabin! Do they even distill such a drink, now that Kentucky has been quarantined? If this is the case, I believe I might feel a little guilty at the loss.
Thinking back to those "fresh faced" days after my surgery, I feel the sting of my decisions. Running my rheumatic fingers through the Fu Manchu wisps of my present beard, I can detect the subtle crevices in my aging skin. Although it's nearly half my own age, time and conditions have been unkind and were not aided by a painful event I've yet to describe. Had I known what the future held, would I have even bothered lying under Peter's blade? Would I have allowed him to wrap me up like a Christmas present only to steal everything else I had later on? I suppose it makes little difference. That future is now the past and I'm an old, deformed man.
Peter canceled many of his appointments to oversee my recovery. When he wasn't there, Helen often sat in the white chair, asking me questions she could have easily answered on my behalf. No one else visited because no one else knew of the procedure. I concealed it not out of embarrassment. Peter and I agreed that the attention from the media would overshadow our altruistic plans and might tarnish our profiles.
After a week in a gauzy narcosis, I was ferried back to my stucco castle for further recovery. My little proteins finally got a chance to impress their master, and impress they did. The skin felt loose only for a few days before taking hold. The vacuum removed, the bandages lightened, I could almost detect the sensation of rapid healing. In fact, as they worked, the increase in adrenaline made the entire recovery somewhat euphoric.
My mood also contributed to these physical reactions. I was plainly excited to shed my old self. After so many years hiding behind a beard, wearing a shirt even at the beach, I would soon be able to run a razor across my chin with smooth dexterity, never nicking a bulbous daub of scarred skin. I even began to practice keeping my hands down when people looked me in the eye.
As my back healed, I began a regimen of physical therapy. Soon, when I wasn't working on my memoir, I would head down into my basement and exercise on the various machines Peter had delivered. My lean, soft exterior quickly took on a more chiseled appearance, and my little proteins also attended to my sore muscles, greatly enhancing my development. Little did I know at the time how many athletes would come to depend on my discovery just to stay competitive!
A month into my recovery, I moved to my new house. Peter, back on the Sack farm circuit had a sign made and delivered that said "Charlie's Fine Autos." I liked the vintage script of it, a colorful tangle of fluorescence, so I had the installers mount it on the wall of the garage, as I had no intention of opening the dealership as a business. The movers were busying arranging my bedroom furniture in an empty bay as the sign came on.
"Beautiful," I said, aware that the movers were exchanging mocking glances with each other behind me. I knew that my garage house baffled people, but the more my mind embraced my new home, the more it felt right. The front of the dealership would be where any visitors would be greeted, fed and entertained. The garage would be my personal home, fully equipped for automotive and personal repairs!
A Snap-on sales executive oversaw the installation of fifty thousand dollars worth of tools and equipment, while four of my employees assembled my own personal Sack farm and research laboratory behind a partition on the South side of the garage. Yet another crew busily finished insulating the roof, carefully leaving the exposed, painted steel beams visible, per the request of my designer.
Watching so many people working just to fashion my dream house was not disconcerting at the time. Now, as I reflect, I see how selfish I was becoming! I cared not who these men and women were, what their lives entailed. I only wanted from them their skills for long enough to construct happiness for me. The same tools that allow me to live this life with little worry and dread kept me from caring about others. Surely, I would have denied such a truth had I been asked, but even those benefiting from my Sacks were nothing more than the necessary pieces to my work, indistinguishable from the Sack itself.
Perhaps the greatest travesty of this association between me and the people I had hired to create my home was their absolute submission to the task. I was the rich man, they were the employees. Kings and slaves know the drill, and speak of it so much better than we who feign equality. Ever since the first deception, where a strong man was deceived by weak man, we have arranged ourselves accordingly, willingly, to this natural order.
Do I have a lesson here? I surely do not. Once again, I am an old man, half baked on bourbon, surrendering to death and unafraid of such dangerous ideas.
Slowly, my belongings disappeared from the house and reappeared in the dealership. Six weeks into my recovery, I slept for the first night in the garage, the darkness of twenty foot ceiling feeling more like the expansive universe than even the night sky. As I drifted off to the sound of a minor leak in a compressor valve, I imagined my mechanical life moving in perfect order, like an assembly line. I would wake up, walk thirty paces to the West side of the garage, spend five minutes on each of the ten exercise machines situated in a semi-circle, walk thirty paces over to the bathroom I converted from the old locker room, soak myself under the hot water of an enormous walk-in shower, shave my perfect face, splash it with an aromatic coagulate, pull a tight white shirt over my taut body, a pair of slacks over my nimble legs, and walk out into the garage to start my day with whatever mad idea entered my head.
As my dreary mind softened to this vision of waking, I watched myself move through the shop, the overhead lights warming up to their full brightness. My bare feet tingled from the cold hard concrete steps as I climbed the short flight of stairs to the rest of the dealership where the kitchen had been installed and my personal chef Rachel would likely be.
"Can I help you?" A voice asked from the old parts ordering counter I had just passed.
"Excuse me?" I asked, turning to see who the man was.
"Charlie?" He inquired. "Is that you?"
"Walter? What are you doing here?" Walter was the parts manager of my old shop in Sacramento.
"I'm getting ready to open! What else would I be doing?"
"But this is my house," I nervously said, wondering if I might be the one confused. "I live here. And I'm pretty sure I had the parts counter ripped out."
"Sometimes I feel like I live here, too, Charlie!" He exclaimed, laughing. "Are you okay?"
"Maybe not," I replied. "I must have been dreaming. I thought I bought this dealership and moved into it."
"Shit! What a fucking thought!" He guffawed.
"I guess," I said, walking closer to the parts counter.
Walter shook his head and turned around to attend to the register. I looked down and noticed that his legs were covered in thick hair.
"What's with your pants?"
"These aren't pants, Charlie. These are my new legs! Thanks to you, I can run a mile in two minutes, now!"
"What are talking about?"
He leapt over the parts counter, landing with a clop on his hooves. He trotted around on his equine legs in a showy prance.
"Cost a bundle, but I've never been happier."
"I must be in a vision."
"A vision. I'm having a vision, Walter. You're not really here."
"That's pretty fucked up, Charlie."
"If you were real, I'd feel bad about saying that."
"Damn, Charlie, that's cold," he sadly retorted just before leaping back over the counter. "If you'll excuse me, then, I better get back to work."
"Go ahead. I'm going to pull myself out now."
And I did, waking up in my bed, the sound of the leaky valve hissing in the darkness.
After covering more than 75 pages of my initial memoir with personal revelations, I had one of my own. No where in the narrative did I mention my visions! I made no conscious decision to exclude them, but my newly skinned self had no interest in describing the darker parts of my soul. As I lay in the gloom of my new home, I realized that the story I crafted was false, so I stopped writing it. What a relief, too! Used as source material, the initial manuscript is invaluable, but if it had hit bookstore shelves, I would be forever married to its flawed presentation, and the public reaction to my later, morally ambiguous deeds might have been worse, if that were possible.
The day after I stopped writing, the last set of bandages came off in the hands of a nurse attending me during the final stage of my recovery. Dr. Bennet's baseball stitches, coupled with several rounds of dermabrasion left me with only the faintest red line around my new skin. The scars actually looked better than the blotchy pink skin on my face.
"I look like I slept wrong," I remarked to Peter while we chatted online. Peter was in Tokyo on business, ridiculously dressed in a flashy kimono.
"No," he replied. "You look like you were resurrected."
"Thank you, Dr. Frankenstein."
"If you're my monster, I think we'll all be safe."
"I'm my own monster, so you can't take credit this time."
"You haven't let me take credit for anything yet. Why start now?"
"Is it my fault that everyone will want to talk to me, now that I'm so pretty."
"Just remember who did your make up, okay?" Peter asked, somewhat sincerely. "You should go out get some new clothes."
"Am I presentable?" I asked.
"In a couple of days you will be," he answered. "Right now, you look still look a little frightful."
"I am scared," he flatly replied.
"Good," I said.
'Me, too,' I thought.
Peter returned from Tokyo the following week to take me shopping. He arranged a haircut at the finest salon in Raleigh, referred me to a dentist who specialized in movie star teeth, even gave Rachel dietary instructions for me! As a life coach, Peter had no equal. Yet I wondered what the inside of his bedroom looked like, now. Was it still a mess? In hindsight, I cannot fathom why Peter went to such extents to rebuild me. He knew I had formed a small bond with Claire, and I would learn later that he still had feelings for her.
I arrived in Sacramento nine weeks after my surgery, stepping off of the plane like a movie star. I slipped into an Italian jacket, smoothed the front of my fitted shirt down over my flat belly and strolled off of the stairs and onto the tarmac.
Sacramento most famous son returned with a flourish, and when I descended the escalator to the lobby of the airport concourse, a throng of media types awaited my arrival. I slipped right past them as they strained their necks to find the bearded, scrawny researcher pictured in a hundred magazines. I saw a few of them even photos of me on their phones, referencing the pictures as they scanned the crowd.
To the side of the crowd, looking dowdy in a ball cap, costume sunglasses and a red sweatshirt, stood Claire. Her hair sprouted from the back of her hat in a loose ponytail, and her jeans were unfashionably torn, completing her disguise. If not for the expensive camera in her hand, I might not have believed she was here for me.
I slipped my sunglasses on and strolled past her slowly, barely touching her arm.
"Sorry," I said, softly.
I walked out into the dry, warm afternoon air. A limousine waited for me, with another group of journalists parasitically gathered around it, so I walked in the opposite direction of the hired car.
I stopped in front of a family of three waiting for a shuttle. Their son was probably nine years old and fully engaged in a portable game device of some sort.
"Excuse me," I asked the father.
"Can I trouble you for a favor?"
"I need give a woman a message. She's just inside the lobby. I would like to pay your son ten dollars to give this message to her. Would that be okay with you?"
"Why can't you give it to her yourself," the mother asked skeptically.
"See all these journalists?" I asked. "They're here to talk to me, and I've just managed to escape them. If I speak with the woman, they may spot me, and it'll take me an hour to get out of here. You'd be doing me a tremendous kindness."
"Okay," said the father. He poked his son on the shoulder.
"What?!" The boy angrily asked.
"This man wants you to give a lady a message."
"He's going to pay you to."
"Ten bucks," the father replied.
"How about twenty?" I asked.
"What do I have to say?"
"Just tell that woman, the one in the red sweatshirt, that there is a hawk's nest out here. Can you do that?"
"Can I have the money first?"
"Very shrewd!" I exclaimed, nodding to his parents. "Certainly you can."
I handed him a twenty dollar bill and then watched as he tottered into the terminal and approached Claire. She leaned down to hear him and tilted her neck as he spoke. I saw the boy point towards me, and following his finger she finally saw me, smiling at her. Her mouth fell open.
She backed out of the terminal and made her way inconspicuously towards me.
"Ms. Livingston. I'm pleased to see you again."
"Charlie?" She inquired, slowly lifting her camera. "Is that you?"
"Yes," I whispered, putting my hand up to stop her from taking a picture. "But keep the camera down for now. Let's get out of here."
"Okay," she said, finally returning my smile.
"Thank you," I said to the family. The boy nodded, put his headphones on and returned to his game.
"He's really a nice kid," his mother interjected.
"Of course he is," I said.
I gathered Claire's hand in my own and pulled her across the inner lanes of traffic to a small island in the center. She willingly followed. Once across, I took us back so we were opposite of the limousine.
"Ready?" I asked.
"For anything," she replied.
We dashed back across the street, quietly open the door to the limousine and ambled inside. I pulled the door shut softly, attracting no attention from the reporters.
The driver, who had been standing on the passenger side, leaning on the car, felt our intrusion. He opened the door and looked in at us.
"Three hundred bucks extra is yours if you get us out of here without anyone seeing me," I said, holding out the bills.
"Dr. Fleischman?" He quietly confirmed, taking the money.
"And Claire Livingston, ready to go and hoping to avoid interrogation," I replied. He nodded and gently shut the door. He stood for a moment longer to throw off the journalists and then checked his watch and moseyed around the car to his door. He dropped in, slammed the door shut, put the limousine in gear and quickly pulled out into the flow of traffic. Behind us, Claire and I watched the diminishing reporters scratching their heads. We laughed and congratulated the driver.
"No problem, Dr. Fleischman," he said. "Glad to help. On behalf of the city of Sacramento, we are pleased to have you home."
"I'm happy to be home. Very happy." Without looking, I tightened my hold on Claire's hand, and she did not remove it.