The New People [novel excerpt]

At 5am, the four-story silhouette is a monument dense as a mountain.  By dawn, a dull light has illuminated the facade so that you wonder whether behind the sandstone it is hollow.  In full sun, there is the grey of the windows and you can feel somebody inside.

I put my pipe in my pocket and climb down off the roof.

Two people are walking over the footbridge down below.  The bonnet and straw hat bob up and down, their hooked arms jangling like links in a dragging chain.

Without touching the binoculars, I inhale the blithe air of interpretation.  Follow closely; they wouldn’t notice me now even if I yelled out their names.

As we walk across the massive lawn, the stillness makes me check over my own shoulder once or twice, but they keep on at a fairytale skip.

When they reach the main building, I hide behind the fountain.

At the top of the steps, Anna jumps backward so violently that Chester has to catch her by the arm.

“Hello Anna.  Chester.  Nice to see you again.”

The character at the door has a doctoral air, but he is not a doctor.

“Doctor Weshler!  We heard our friend Josie has been admitted.”

“Why yes, she has, Anna.  Have you come to visit her?”

It is not his period white coat that renders him a doctor, but the shallow displeasure which he carries like a leather briefcase.  The condescending calm which he wears like a stethoscope across his shoulders.  He is doctoral, in the way an unfamiliar farm is pastoral.

I stifle a laugh, but by the wide smile directed out over the lawn, I think he already knows I’m here.

Anna widens her stance as the doctor leans in emphatically.  No doubt she’s annoyed by a taste of her own medicine.  Chester rocks back on his heels.

“Please,” says Dr. Weshler, “come inside.”

Once they disappear into the great hall, I step just inside the door and listen.  The words cascade from their mouths as if rehearsed:  weather and farming and the word from Gatlinburg recirculate the musty air as real conversation happens by way of smaller things.  Nods and self-conscious introspection—but now they’re far enough inside that I can’t see them.

I go back outside and walk along the exterior wall to the first cell window that overlooks the front lawn.  Crane my neck to look inside.

A hospital bed; some tattered baby dolls with scratched out eyes; four hooks mounted in the walls, in swirled circles of slightly whiter paint.  Just in front of the closed door into the hall is a velvet rope hung across two brass posts, and a sign I can’t read.  Recently furnished, I think.  Formerly forgotten.

When I get to the southernmost end of the building, I step through a rotted-out wall and into a pale green hallway with identical gunmetal doors swung open on both sides.  Broken glass and overturned chairs spill out of the rooms as if years of pressure caused them to explode, and were it not for the Amish Outlaws tags spray-painted on the walls and ceiling, it would almost look like the last batch of lunatics managed to escape.

At the opposite end of the hall, I can see the only closed door, protecting a few valuable antique dolls, a tightly-made bed that’s not overturned, four walls without peeling paint, and a window that doesn’t have a rock-hole in any of the panes.  Three floors above it there is a 29-year old woman locked in a similar room without the velvet rope.

Condemnation, the doctor once said, is our best friend.

I turn around.  Climb.  Dodge the last loose step at the top of the stairs, and enter an identical green hallway on which all the doors are closed.  Then hear a woman’s voice—it echoes as if from hidden speakers.

Every day in every way I am getting better and better.

“Every day,” it says again.  “In every way!  I am getting better and better.”

I feel the blood in my ears.   Whisper, “Josie?”

“Every day, Rhett.  Every day.”

The door on my left:  throw it open.  For a second my heart stops.  Protruding from a wool gown are two sycamore legs covered in wrinkled skin.  Twisted knob knees, twig-bone feet, and a face on which life and death are waging a war.  Rose’s head sways back on her neck, as if pushed by a breeze.  It is only the noise; she doesn’t recognize her name when I say it.

In her pupils the only sign of life flashes, then disappears.  Her head falls, and I see in her lap there’s a doll like the ones downstairs.  Its face clear and shining, its bald head thinly covered in liquid.  I sit next to her on the floor and touch her back, and the smell of urine transforms the room.  Horror from pity.  Hospital into prison:  ’Where is your husband?’ into ‘What has he done?’

She flinches away from my hand, draws her head into her arms, her arms around her knees, shouting then screaming:  “Barry, the doctor is coming.  The doctor is coming, Barry.  Don’t let him hurt me, Barry please don’t let him hurt me!”

I grab her arm.  “Rose, what has—the doctor—what has the doctor done to you?”

“No no!  Please don’t!  Barry!  Where’s Barry?”  She cries as if choking on her own tongue.

I jump to my feet.  Without thinking step toward the window.  Step on something soft and brittle at the same time.  Rose yells out in pain.

“Rhett!” Weshler hurries into the room and rams me into the wall.  Kneels down by her side, his back to me.

“Please please, let me go.  Let me go!” she cries.

His back to me.

“Why don’t you lie down in bed darling?”

His back to me.

Chester’s head peeks into the doorway, and behind it Anna’s.  She’s given up on improvisation now.  She watches, stone-faced, as the doctor calms his wife.  His back to me.

I watch a thick flat palm run along the surface of her back, lightly but not gently.  The fingers do not touch, even as he helps her up off the floor and onto the narrow cot which is the only piece of furniture in the room.  He steps through the door and pauses in the hallway.  Rose lies on her back, eyes glazed and unmoving.  I wonder whether the foot of the bed is deliberately pointed toward the door.  In here it’s hard to believe any superstition could be unintentional.

“Let’s let her rest now, shall we?”

We have no choice but to follow him out.  Follow his motioning and chiding, the quieting wave of his arms.  By the time we enter his office, I’m walking on my toes.  There is only one chair in the room besides the red leather one at his desk.  Chester throws himself in it.

“I get the impression you’re all here for some reason besides a visit.”

The doctor squints his eyes at me, as if to read fine print.

© 2015 Kevin Nigel Watson