I have no idea why I’m here. I see my distorted reflection in the shiny chrome elevator doors, but I don’t look like myself. I know I came here for a reason; I just don’t know what it is.
There is a ping, and the doors to one of the six elevators open, and there is the chairman of the board.
“Hi, Mr. Chairman.”
Tony, the building manager, hates it when I call him the chairman of the board. There is a moment when I feel like he’s either going to laugh or punch me in the face. But I love to goad him.
“Oh Kevin,” is all Tony sputters out.
He seems not only surprised but anxious that I’m standing here at the elevators.
“How are you doing today, you look a little pale? How are you sleeping?”
Tony sounds like my mother, my dead mother, who I’m beginning to suspect isn’t dead at all because I never saw her body. I had a disturbing dream about her last night. She seemed so real – so alive – it was as though I could touch her. But she’s is gone, dead. I didn’t get to touch her or hug her before she died. I only saw her on an i-Pad that the nurses held up to her face. She was just trundled off to a refrigerator truck.
But I suspect that it is a lie, a trick – that she isn’t dead at all.
“I’m fine, Mr. Chairman, just a strange dream that has me a little flummoxed. What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you lately.”
But just because I hadn’t seen him didn’t mean that Chairman Tony wasn’t here. In this mixed-up building there was always trouble brewing on ground floor mental health section. Tony, would sometimes share tales about other tenants’ fights and misbehavior in this SPOD, or Special Purpose Operating Destination. I suppose he told me these stories to make me feel less like a lonely misfit. He always invites me for coffee, the only place I will go because of my still crushing fear of people. It’s his way of getting me out of my unit and into public. He treats me like I’m his looney pal who’s one step away from throwing myself out of the nearest window.
He has this sneaky way of bringing up the relationship with my son, not directly, more in a – time to let it go – way that makes me think that he’s crazy. I think he is crazy. But I know he must be under a lot of pressure because most SPOD folks are on the edge. The Royal We had ended up here for one reason or another after, or during the plague years (for financial, mental, or not really giving a shit anymore reasons). On my floor and a few floors above and below, it was mostly middle-class folks who were still trying to rebuild our lives.
SPODS were the commercial real estate industry light-bulb answer to all the vacant office space after the years of COVID, because most folks who had worked from home during that Plague just preferred to stay there. Instead of tearing down building’s, owners created multi-use SPODS; with space for the homeless, and a special floor set aside for a mental health ward. A lot of people have lost touch with reality. I’m on the good luck floor number seven. The upper two floors with the best views have companies that survived the downsizing onslaught and still need office space. The business people have separate elevators so the business folks don’t need to mix with the losers. This is my second SPOD. My first was a two-bedroom that I shared with my son, Archie, in Santa Monica. It was bigger and less utilitarian. After one of our many fights, he moved out, and I ended up in this smaller SPOD in Westwood near UCLA that could only be described as bland with white walls and furniture.
“Let’s go for coffee, Kevin. You can tell me about your dream.”
That was the other thing about Tony, he had an obsession about dreams. I give him the short version of my dream, and share the conjecture that maybe Mom isn’t really dead at all. But I change the subject when he gives me the men in white coats look.
“Thanks, Mr. Chairman, I can’t go for coffee.”
But to be honest, I’m still trying to remember why I’m standing at the elevators. I’ve been blanking out lately, and that’s happening to me more regularly than I want to admit.
“I have a phone call with my son in few minutes, but I’ll catch you next time.”
Tony, gives me a look as though I burped something smelly. People are so touchy these days.
“You take care of yourself Kevin.” Tony, turns and punches the elevator button like I’m carrying a new strain of virus. His time out bell rings in the elevator much to his relief.“Call me anytime for anything at all, truly anything you need,” he says to me from the safe zone of the elevator cab as the doors close.
I make up a reason to be standing here. I want to get in my car to take a drive up the coast to my old home town of Santa Cruz. It seems like the best reason to be here. I do want to go for a drive and see that ocean to dip my toes in the cold blue water the way I used to when we all lived in that beach town in the beforetime. I was the one who pressed to move to L.A for more money, and a better job as cameraman. But none of that mattered anymore. That car was long gone like my job, sense of smell, taste, and family, and Mom, along with all the other things that had disappeared into the hereafter.
I go back to my SPOD that has this time-jump look like my first efficiency apartment when I was seventeen. The place has been cleaned, which one of the things I like best about SPOD life. I can be as sloppy as a teen and as soon as I step out the door it’s cleaned up.
I wait for the weekly phone call with my son. His rules. The rule is that he can only call me, I can’t call him. No Face-calls, only voice calls. Sometimes, he doesn’t call at all. I suppose I’m lucky that he still contacts me. My phone lights up with his picture, and I hesitate. I don’t want to seem too anxious to pick up. I’m nervous like on a first date. I only want to connect with him – to hear his voice.
“Hey, dad. How are you?” Archie’s voice sounds distant and constrained. He still has good reasons to be angry with me.
“I’m okay. I had a strange dream last night though. It was like grandma was still alive and running around doing Pilates the way she used to.” My throat constricts, and I stop talking for a moment to get my emotions under control. I’m glad Archie can’t see the well of tears in my eyes. Mom got sick in the first six months of the COVID Plague and died before she could get a vaccine. There are times that I can get through the whole day without thinking about her, and some days her loss hits me so hard that I can’t get out of bed. It’s too much to think about, all the people that died.
“You should call Mom. I think she’s having some crazy dreams too.” Archie always brings up his mom is these conversations. Ilene, and I had split up a year after the Plague ended. She left me and moved to Ireland to write novels. But she’s back living in Santa Cruz, and I have this sneaky feeling that Archie’s living up there too. “I have to go Dad. I’m out of time. I’ll talk to you next week. Love you.”
“I love you, Arch. I really miss you. Maybe, I’ll visit you soon.” But he is gone. I look at my phone like something has gone wrong. I shake the stupid phone, like it’s the phone’s fault, and I want to throw it against the wall, but I don’t have the energy. Archie ends the phone call the same way every time as though he has something to do, which he doesn’t. Maybe he does. He could be back at school or have a new job and have a new lease on life. It had gone wrong between us, but now years later I blame myself for my awkward, distant relationship with my son and daughter. That plague had been harder on Archie, who had missed out on his high-school graduation, and he hated internet college. He could have gone back to college, but at that point the kid was so depressed he couldn’t even get out of bed. He always had an excuse for why he couldn’t go back to school or get a job or get up and do something, anything with his life. I plead guilty to calling him stupid and lazy until he could only look at me with a blank stare. I wasn’t certain back then what so pissed me off about his desperate dreams about the future, except that I don’t believe in the future at all. The future is an illusion, a card trick, a slight of hand.
I don’t remember when Archie moved out of our other SPOD, or what the fight was that brought that about. I can’t even remember the last time I saw Archie. It’s like my car. Things just disappeared and couldn’t be accounted for. When I caught COVID, it changed me, it wiped me out, and the way that I saw the world. I squeeze my eyes shut to remember the last time I saw my car, and I can just about see it, touch it, feel it. The leather seats, the shining dashboard, and the bright buzzy electronics that message me.
The mechanic gave me a bill, and the woman behind me coughs, and I hesitate. I turn to ask if she thought she had a cold. I from the corner of my eyes, I found that I was alone, and my car was gone too.
I woke up in the hospital after being unconscious for five weeks. A ventilator was jammed into my throat and machines buzzed around me. Twice, the doctors had told my wife to prepare for my death. I have to admit now, that back in that first year of that Plague, I hadn’t taken the whole thing very seriously. The president, said it was a hoax, and all my life I had believed in what president’s said no matter who he was or what party he was from. I thought wearing a mask was stupid, and I only did it when I was forced to. I went out to eat alone at a local bar, because my wife refused to go to a restaurant. I thought it was just a cold, until I couldn’t breathe and was coughing up my lungs. After I came home from the hospital, I was bone-crushing tired, with no enjoyment for food that I couldn’t taste, and no energy for sex.
A swarm of swallows had covered the sky of my life.
The phone rings again, and it makes my heart jump. Maybe it’s Archie; who will want to restart our conversation, and we will be our better selves. It’s April, my daughter. I don’t want to talk to her. I’m still angry and depressed after my phone call with Archie. We had great days, after our family home broke up. and we moved into that SPOD together. I still didn’t feel good, and he didn’t want me to be alone. Ilene left for Ireland, and I think I did or said something to her, that is fuzzy in my memory that made her want to leave.
At first, Archie was okay and full of plans. But like air in the tired balloon the hope seeped out of him as year one rolled into year two. He left too, and I was alone. I’m fairly certain that I went into some sort of relapse because I don’t remember moving here. I was just here.
My phone rings again, insistent. I suppress the urge to smash the thing under my shoe. April, worries because I didn’t pick up before. She likes Face calls, and it’s always nice to see her lovely face that looks like the young version of her mom.
“How are feeling, Dad? Have you been talking to your therapist?” I swear, her tone sounds like Tony – like they’re checking in on the resident basket case.
I say something palliative but true. “I miss you, and your mom and Arch.” Tears leak down my face with wetness that I don’t expect, that I wipe at with disgust. “Have you talked to him lately, your brother?” She ignores the question.
“I miss you Dad. Come up and see us. You can meet your baby granddaughter and get out of L.A. Come home and be with us, be with people who love you. There is nothing to keep you there.”
The baby, my grandbaby, Lilith. I had forgotten. For some reason, I keep thinking April is the same person she was before the Plague. As though she was still twenty-two, unmarried, with no baby. My mind wants to go back to days into the before when I had a car and a mom. But I know that time is dead and never coming back. I do. April is still talking, as Lilith crawls into the picture to be lifted to her mom’s lap.
“We’re going to Santa Cruz to stay with Mom this weekend. Please come, Daddy. I know you want to be here with us.” April, starts crying. She’s always crying, unhinged about everything these days. Her voice hitches with sobs. “Please, Daddy, we really miss you.” She doesn’t say goodbye, but hangs up. I look at the phone as though it has betrayed me again and the heat-swell of anger moves from chest into my head. I turn toward the window to watch the burning red sunset in the west, and watch as the sun melts into the ocean.
Why am I here in L.A., without a home, a life, or a family? It’s all fallen away. My brain doesn’t want to think about things. It won’t stick to things. I’m foggy, and unable to remember my children’s faces, because I still feel sick. I’m stuck here on the other side of the phone, away alone from my family with no way to cross over to get to their side, because I don’t have my car. I see my face distorted in the window glass, and at first, I don’t recognize an old man’s craggy unshaven face on my a forty-seven-year-old person.
In the morning, I wake up cold on the floor with only one thought in my mind. How to get from L.A to Santa Cruz when I still have this crushing fear of people and their disease filled bodies with no car? I buzz down to the café and order a breakfast sandwich and get on my computer. Forget about a plane, I will crash and burn. I can take the train from Burbank to San Francisco, and take an Uber to get the Santa Cruz that would add another hour or two. This, of course, would require being around people. Strangers.
I could rent a car, which is a four-hour drive. But I hadn’t driven in four years, and the thought made me nervous, which leads my mind to other thoughts of scorching disastrous events. In the shower, it occurs to me that the answer is Tony. He is always offering to help me. I call his office number expecting to leave a message, or hang up when he answers while my courage wanes.
“Hi Kevin. How are you doing today?” It dawned on me that this was always the first thing Tony says to me whenever I speak with him.
“Oh, em, I’m fine. How are you today?” I sound like an idiot, and there is silence on the phone. “So, here’s the thing. I need to get to Santa Cruz for a visit, and I don’t have a car. It looks like there is a train I can take out of Burbank to San Francisco. But, em, well, I don’t like being around people that much. What do you think? Should I rent a car and just drive it? I haven’t driven in a while but I think I’m good. What do you think is the best way to go?” There is a beat of quiet on the other end makes my hands sweat.
“Why do you want to go to Santa Cruz?” Tony’s voice drops in a deep tone. Gone was Mr. Chairman; here is the serious man.
“I want to go for a visit. I used to live there.” That was good. It made sense without all the specific noise about the feelings for my ex-wife, and wanting to see my grandbaby, and April – and certainly Archie, knowing – feeling certain – that he was there too. Another beat of silence on the phone. I can feel Tony contemplating whether he wants to get involved in my family drama.
“I’ll drive. Be ready in an hour.” He hangs up. No goodbye or see you later, or let’s go for coffee or none of Toniets that I expect. As though, he’s suspicious of me, or maybe this is a warning that this is a bad idea, or that I am suspect. I now begin to wonder where the rest of my stuff had gone after the house was sold. All the things that had stitched our lives together, me and Ilene. I realize that this isa terrible idea. I don’t know what desire made me think that anything good would come of this, “Surprise! I’m here!” visit. I should just stay here tucked away from everyone. It didn’t matter if I was lonely with a devastating fear of everyone and everything. Most people were like that these days. But it wasn’t even that. It was this sense that I was in the wrong place, and that all the things I couldn’t remember had been swept away, covered-up in the fog of my memory, as though the ocean tide had come across and cleared the beach of my mind.
I try to call Tony back but there was no answer – because he’s at my front door.
“Kevin, you look – don’t take this the wrong way – but you look nice, good. You clean up nice.” He laughs, surprised that I could actually look like something other than the bum of the week. This gives me the courage to grab my duffle and walk out the door with him.
It’s mid-afternoon, as we drive through downtown Santa Cruz, a town that I hadn’t seen in maybe fifteen years. The air is clear, and the blue of the sky matches the aqua-marine water, and orange flowers bloom on the side of the road. My memories become real life: Archie and April hold my hands, and beg to go into Ryan’s toy store (it isn’t there anymore, it’s a real estate office.) The pier where I had first gathered my courage to kiss beautiful blue-eyed Ilene, and later ask her to marry me is in that same place. Fear launches into the pit of my stomach like a wave from sea: cold and harsh, overwhelming, nauseating. The stinging slap of her fingers across my face feels so real and so close that my hand moves up to my face in defense. What had I done to her? I can’t remember. I lean on the window so that Tony can’t see my dread, as the car slows down.
“We’re here, Kevin. You’ll be fine. You can see the people who love you and help you remember who you are. Now go, before you stop yourself.” Tony reaches over and opens the passenger door, and gives me a little push. “Go, now.”
It’s a pretty little house, with a brick façade and flowers of red and yellow along the path that leads to the door – an Ilene house. All the colors are bright, and vivid and cheerful and clean, like an unreal land. I don’t need to knock because she opens the door and leans against the doorframe.
“Hello Kev,” is her only greeting. Her long hair is the same auburn and her blue eyes still have that strange yellow tinge. She waves at Tony, and he waves back almost like they know each other.
“Come in, Kev, we’ve been waiting for you.” Ilene, still beautiful, extends her hand toward me with a smile. “April, is here with her husband, Jackson. Come on, I’ll make you some of that green tea that you like. Then, we’ll visit Archie.”
It all feels surreal. The colors of the garden and her house; the warmth of her hand when she takes it in mine. The room I enter is painted a soft yellow but familiar artwork stands out from the walls, ready to jump out at me, those things that had moved from our house to this house. April, along with an unfamiliar tall man with a trimmed dark beard stands as Ilene moves me into the room. April, runs over and hugs me, and her head rests on my chest. Of course, she is crying, but so am I. I pat, and smell the sweet musk of her hair. The tall man comes over to introduce himself as April’s husband, Jackson.
I’m given tea and a sandwich, but all I can say is, “Can we go see Arch now?” My suspicions now confirmed that he is living here in Santa Cruz where he always said he would return to. The four of us pile into the car, and I nestle in the back seat warm and accepted back into my family. I pinch myself hard on my arm to feel pain to make certain that I’m awake, and not dreaming about where I am, and what’s happening. I doze, on that short drive but I don’t dream. My reality is the dream. They wake me, and we are in this beautiful grassy park filled with trees that ripple in a late afternoon breeze. I rub my eyes, and pinch myself into hurt again to make certain of wakefulness.
“Stop doing that, Daddy. You’re making the skin red.” April, touches my arm where I have damaged the skin, and she squeezes my hand. “You’ll be okay. We’ve all moved on now.” The car door opens, and I follow the group with Ilene holding onto my hand as they lead me through this lovely park. I breathe the air and see the green of the grass, dotted here and there with flowers. I watch the breeze flicker though the trees. I scan the scenery for Archie, who will greet us here. I have so much to say to him, so much to apologize for. We veer off the path onto the grass and I step onto an oblong stepping stone. I pause to read the writing on it, but Ilene pulls me along to an area under an oak tree with a stone bench nearby.
The group pauses, and I ask Ilene; “Is Archie meeting us here?” Silent tears are on her cheeks, and I wrap my arm around her shoulders for comfort. My eyes follow hers, that are fixed on the oblong stone with a small angel on top in a pirouette, with new flowers of yellow and orange surrounding it. Archibald O’Donnell 2002-2022 Dancing with the angels.
I choke, unable to breath as an inhuman sound fills the air with despair and disbelief. I fall to my knees to scrabble at the grass on the grave, yanking it from the roots until I can feel the cold earth below. This can’t be, it’s a lie. We spoke yesterday.
There is shouting, a distant sound, an echo, a pull on my shoulder, and I push them away with dirty hands, through my unearthly moaning sobs. I rub my face into the cold dirt where he lies so I can be with him, close to him, under that dirt, that earth. A vision, too real and vast flashes through my protesting mind.
Archie, hangs in the closet, his face purple and his eyes protruding and distended, his body swings, back and forth. I grab his legs to save him. I can save him, lift him up. I scream in my panic and the police pry me off his body.
Strong arms lift me, ready for my resistance but I can resist no more. I can’t struggle with the young men who carry me, then or now.
I turn to Tony and ask him “Why?” He puts me into bed at Ilene’s, and gives me a pill to calm me down and make me sleep. In my dreams that were like a reality; Archie sits on the bed and says to me; “It’s alright Dad. Everything is fine now. I’m better now. It’s better than it was.”
The dream is so real that when I wake, I think it is Archie sitting on the bed but it’s Tony. “Do you know who I am?” I sit up and he hands me a cup of coffee. I sip at the cup.
“Tony, you’re Tony the building manager, the chairman of the board.” He gives me that wrong answer look, we both smile, and I know. Tony is my therapist, my doctor, and Archie’s therapist but this is mixed up in my head. “My therapist. I remember now, I’ve been a little confused lately.” He looks at me, like this is the time, or time’s up moment.
“You need to remember, to know what’s is real and what’s not.” Tony is stern.
“I must have had some sort of fit when I found him.” I concentrate, I pause ready to cry out, but instead I whisper. “I did it. I drove him to that.”
Tony shakes his head. “No Kevin, you don’t get to do that. It’s not about you. It isn’t yours. It was about him.” Tony stands to keep his own emotions under tow, hidden away, closeted. “You were non-responsive and hospitalized for months. We moved you to a medical health unit where you’ve been living for the past year, not a SPOD.”
“I felt as though your dreams about your mother were in combat with what you knew was real, like with Archie. You were erasing the events too painful to grabble with. Your family wanted you home.”
I knew what he meant. My mind felt like a chalkboard that was erasing the events of the last four years so that I could write over them. Tony, lifts me from the bed, and helps me get dressed.
“It’s time for you to be around people that love you and loved Archie. You can’t recover those things you lost in those years. Go and appreciate this life.” Tony opens the door, and I can hear the quiet sounds of conversation and laughter at something. April is on the couch and Jackson is on the floor with tiny Lilith clapping and dancing between them.
“She dances like Archie.” Ilene observes in a quiet voice. They look up, and there is silence. April picks up Lilith and approaches me.
“This is grandpa.” Lilith, reaches for me, and April, holds her back. Lilith’s, tiny arms extend toward me, and I reach for her and lift her from her mother’s arms. I see the swift motherly doubt on April’s face, but I sit in the big stuffed chair behind me with Lilith in my lap. April sits next to us and Lilith happily turns to me with Archie’s freckles on her face and pulls on my ears. “Pa!” She yells. I can only smile at the future sitting in my lap pulling on my ears, in the year 2024.
Deirdre Fryer Baird’s recent work has been published in Lemonspouting Literary Review, Bad Pony Literary Review, Potato Soup Literary Review, and other journals. She has BA in political science from California State University, Northridge, and has obtained an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles.