Just Shy of 360

By Paul Black

Two men entered the long corridor of the Lennox Ville Psychiatric Facilities east wing. Their shoes tapped loudly on the glossy cement floor as they walked. Each donned a long white overcoat which bellowed around them in their professional haste. Below the coat dark navy cuffs flipped loosely around their ankles in stride. One man was speaking and pointing to the odd room as they passed. The other man nodded his comprehension.

“Most of your patients Dr. McKay, reside in this wing.” informed the one man.

“I’ll assume,” replied Dr. McKay. “That their files have been prepared for me in my office.”

“On the contrary,” both men stopped. “I don’t know how things were run at Darlington, but here at Lennox, we like for our patients and doctors to meet fresh. Whatever ails our patients, and whatever progress has been made is only one facet of the complex healing process.”

“I’m afraid that I don’t quite follow.”

“If I were to tell you that Mrs. Adams came to us several years ago as a suicidal manic depressant, but now seems well adjusted to the hospital and her surroundings, with a relatively clean track record what might be your first impression?” The man motioned down the next corridor and they began to walk again.

Dr. McKay considered. “It sounds like she is well on her way to recovery and that …”

The man held up his hand. “Doctor Simmons went on much the same assumption. After 3 days in his care Mrs. Adams tried to launch herself from the cafeteria balcony with a fire hose tied around her neck.”

Dr. McKay was silent.

“Suffice it to say,” Continued the other man. “Two very important lessons were learned that day. Naturally we all found out a little more about Mrs. Adams – though not the way this hospital likes to practice medicine, but we also realized that every patient needs to be understood for who they are and not for what the system tells you they are. Look, we have many labels and many ideas about what is happening in these people’s heads. But the truth is we can only get to know them based on what they say and how they act. Even then we really don’t know anything.” The man paused, perhaps running through what he had just said, checking to see if he had covered all of the ground that he wanted, or dared to. “In time we shall fill each other in on our perspective progress. For now just try to get to know who your patients are.” The man stopped again, this time in front of a room. “This is Mr. Richards. You’ll be working with him, and this would be an opportune time to introduce yourselves. I have my own rounds to make and will be back in about,” he checked his watch.” Forty minutes.”

Dr. McKay stood for a moment as the other man walked off down the hall. He was checking over notes on his clipboard obviously focused on his next task at hand. McKay turned and looked in through the doors wire enforced glass window. Inside a man sat in a banana yellow chair. He was wearing the standard issue white top and pants which creased slightly as he rocked toward the window.

“And in the best case,” called the man from down the hall. “You may uncover something that we didn’t.”

Dr. McKay raised his eyebrows slightly and entered the patient’s room. As the door closed behind him he could still hear his colleague’s shoes tapping away down the corridor.

“You’re late Doctor.” Said Mr. Richards, eyes focused somewhere outside of the window.

“Hello Mr. Richards, I’m Doctor McKay.”

The patient stopped his rocking and turned abruptly. His eyes were full of confusion and concern. It was natural, reflected Dr. McKay, since he was interrupting an obvious routine. “Beautiful day isn’t it?” asked the Doctor approaching the window.

Mr. Richards followed his movements like a cat stalking its prey.

“Outside I mean.” continued the doctor leaning into the glass pane. “It’s a lovely day today.”

“How?” demanded the patient looking cautiously out of the window again as if the Doctors presence had somehow changed the exterior environment.

“Well, it’s warm outside, the trees and flowers have really started to bloom. The people in the courtyard appear to be enjoying the first of the spring weather.” Dr. McKay had been taught, lectured to and otherwise commanded to always remain in control of a Dr. – client conversation. The first rule in maintaining this facade of control was to never under any circumstance be the one answering questions. Today, however, not understanding who he was dealing with, or how this hospital really operated he felt that it might prove useful to let his guard down slightly.

Mr. Richards craned his neck and leaned closer to the window looking through one eye. His appearance and mannerism might be likened to that of some large ugly bird. “Well,” he started. “Your description, though somewhat vague, is accurate. I think that I know what you mean.” He seemed to relax as if having confirmed that the world was still as he knew it in spite of the visitor.

Dr. McKay pulled out his pad of paper and a sat on the bedside. “Vague?” He asked groping for a pen.

Mr. Richards said nothing; he simply extended his arm out to the Doctor hand opened.“What Mr. Richards?” asked the Doctor.

“Frank.”

“Alright Frank, what do you want?” Dr. McKay awaited a reply, but Frank simply sat there with his arm outstretched. He wasn’t sure what he had done to invoke this response but the paper did seem to be a likely culprit. “Alright Frank here,” he placed the paper in the open hand. The patient took the paper and stood. He placed the pad on the seat and sat on it. His movements were slow and methodical. Fixated Dr. McKay watched Frank close his eyes and curl his balding skull into his chest. “Frank?” asked the Doctor. But Frank said nothing. Suddenly there was a low hissing sound as if someone was blowing through a constricted straw. Yellow liquid quickly trickled down the legs of the chair and pooled on the cement floor at Dr. McKay’s feet. As Frank began to finally relax the pungency of urine filled the room.

“Do you find that beautiful Doctor?” asked Frank.

“Not particularly.”

“But there is beauty in everything.”

Dr. McKay was quiet for a second. He was wishing he had a file to flip through. “Well then why don’t you tell me what you see Frank.”

Frank seemed quite taken by the question. “What I see?” He laughed. “What I see.” He repeated more pensively. I see a small child, a boy, about eight years old. He has something on his mind. He’s preoccupied upstairs as it were.” Frank touched his pointer finger to his temple for Dr. McKay’s benefit. “You see it’s his mother’s birthday and he’s been planning a special surprise for her.” Frank leaned in to the Doctor, his face full of life and expression. “He’s been working on a card for his mom, not at home though, at school. He’s been secretly working on the gift at school for days actually. Today he is marching proudly home to present the work of art to his mom.” Frank looked at his hands for a moment then back. “It’s quite well done really.” He said with a father’s pride. “Its blue construction paper folded half over and there are large flowers glued to the front, flowers that he made with sparkling Christmas wrap. Where kids get the ideas I’ll never know.” He chuckled. “The front says Happy Birthday Mom, and inside it says I love you with his named signed at the bottom. He took the time to print all of the letters as best he could with the exception of his name. That he signed. The card was perfect.” Frank looked up with a smile that morphed into a frown. “But you know what they say about the best laid plans. You see Doc; he was so preoccupied about his mother’s reaction when she finally saw it that somewhere along the way he lost the card.” Frank stopped abruptly. His face changed betrayed fear and he looked at his hands again. “It’s gone, I mean it was there, only a few minutes ago, I know it was, but now it’s gone!”

Frank exclaimed and the pitch of his voice began to rise. “Oh no! What happened to it, where did it go? It was there when we left school, but now we’ve lost it.” Frank swiped his hands together distraught and annoyed. “It’s these lousy mitts I knew I shouldn’t have worn them.” Frank looked from side to side seemingly searching for the card. Suddenly he stopped and straightened up. His eyes were red and a tear ran down his cheek but his disposition changed abruptly again. “The streets are a busy place Doc.” He said quite matter-of-factly. “Really not a place for a small boy. Poor thing, all wrapped up in his card, wandering aimlessly, not paying attention. Stupid people!” He scolded under his breath. “He’s just a boy looking for his gift when snap!” Frank clapped his hands directly in the Doctors face. The small amount of air that was displaced made the doctor blink. “The boy stumbled off of the curb as the traffic light turned green and the wheel of an otherwise inconsequential vehicle crushed him.” Frank stopped wide eyed staring at the Doctor. “Now wasn’t that some kind of gift?”

Doctor McKay remained silent.

Frank eventually turned away to look back out the window.

Finally Doctor McKay stood and looked out the window as well. “Where did you see this Frank? It’s certainly not happening in our courtyard.”

Franks head spun around and locked eyes with the Doctors. “Well of course it’s not happening if the courtyard!” yelled Frank at the top of his lungs. “You didn’t ask me what I saw out there!”

Visibly surprised at Franks response, Dr. McKay pushed through as if the conversation were quite reasonable. “Alright Frank, this happened long ago.” soothed the Doctor.

Frank said nothing. He simply turned away in disgust.

“Is that what keeps you here Frank, dealing with this tragedy?”

Frank broke the silence with a laugh. It was a deep menacing laugh that carried well into the corridor and perhaps further. “Are you actually asking me why I am here?” He laughed louder and longer almost to the point of exhaustion.

Dr. McKay suddenly began to feel the gravity of the situation. Frank was obviously more cognoscente of his conditions and surroundings than he had previously believed. A medley of answers ran through the Doctors mind. He needed something intelligent enough to gain the little control back yet nothing too condescending to alarm Frank and set him off any further. “I want you to tell me what you are here for Frank.” was the best he could muster given the situation.

Frank, still laughing, walked to the door of the room and opened it. “You are a funny bunch!” He screamed down the hall. “The lot of you.” Frank looked back to the Doctor and shook his head. “Oh well, we’re really into it now.” He said and walked back to his chair his bare feet splashing slightly in the urine.

Dr. McKay suddenly realized that he had not been taking notes. He pulled out a smaller pad than the original one and a pen from the breast pocket. No sooner had he engaged the writing implement and Frank swooped down upon him. His face was inches from the Doctors and for the first time each looked deeply into the others eyes. Dr. McKay couldn’t help but feel that the grey glossy orbs in Franks head were probing farther into his head than even he dared to tread. They were penetrating and eerie, yet McKay couldn’t help but stare back into an abyss wondering only when he’d take his next breath.

“Write one word doc and I’ll shove that pen through your esophagus.”

Slowly Dr. McKay brought the source of animosity between their faces to break Franks stare. “Okay Frank, look.” McKay then released the pen allowing it to clatter to the floor. In his hunched position Frank moved only his eyes, as if to confirm that the pen would not suddenly leap back into the doctor’s hands.

“Be very careful doctor.” said Frank resuming his stare. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Dr. McKay found himself nodding. Not because he agreed, but rather to have Frank return to his seat. “Did something come back to haunt you Frank?”

Frank smiled and stood erect. In his movements the air displaced around him and the reek of urine assaulted McKay’s senses again. “Have you ever delivered a child Doctor?” asked Frank sitting back down. Dr. McKay shook his head. “Fired someone?” Doctor McKay had not. “What about shot someone or stabbed them? Been with a prostitute, or watched helplessly as someone you loved was raped? Have you ever tried to save a life or accidentally taken one?” Dr. McKay remained silent and motionless. “No, of course you haven’t. But I’ll bet all of these things have crossed your mind at one time or another – fantasized about them perhaps? What if, what if, what if… But you and I know that fantasy and reality are quite different aren’t they.” Frank paused staring at the Doctor. “So then Doc, can you tell me something.” Dr. McKay still sat stone faced. “What in the hell are you doing here in the real world? You live in a world of fantasy. I have done and seen things that you wouldn’t even hear about on the news. Well not the way that they really happened. You may have broken a sweat tossed and turned in your sleep a little but all in the comfort of your own mind. So what is it you think that you can offer me?”

Dr. McKay took a second to evaluate Frank’s new direction in the conversation and believed that they were getting closer to something. What he wasn’t sure, but this was likely to lead somewhere and McKay knew that it would be deep. “I can offer my guidance and understanding Frank. I’m here to help you work through the things which have brought you here in the first place.”

Frank laughed out loud again, though this time without the tenacity his tone had had before. This was more of an empathetic laugh. It was like that of a parent for a child who had made a valiant effort at a task yet still come up shy of the goal. “Let me let you in on a little secret Doc.” He whispered. “You can only help someone who needs help. And you can only know how much help to provide based on what a person says and does.” Franks eyebrows went up, then his next words came out more like a growl “And even then you don’t really know that!”

Doctor McKay, though struggling with a pang of déjà-view, answered remarkably calmly. “I can only help people who want to help themselves.”

“People who want to help themselves.” Frank repeated the Doctor’s words and smiled. “But who determines whether they need help or not? You can only truly help someone who actually needs help doc. For example you told me it was a beautiful day out today.” Frank looked briefly out the window then back to the Doctor. “Well here’s something you can help me out with. How do you know? How do you really know beauty? How can you even say that you have been graced by beauty when you have yet to realize actual horror? And I mean real horror Doc. Not a news cast or some F/X movie, I mean standing beside your wife as her skull comes apart from the blow of a blunt object.” Frank stopped suddenly and looked to the ground, though he continued to talk it was obvious that his 5 senses had left the room. His eyes saw things that his mind conjured, his ears were listening to other voices, and though McKay wasn’t sure he suspected that he could have pricked Frank with a pin and he’d have been oblivious. “The taste of her blood is on your lips and her limp body is now torn between gravity and your ailing strength to hold her close. A transition between life and death so startling that it seems to take hours just to catch your breath again. Alone and oblivious to everything around you but a lifeless corpse robbed of its soul. My God what did they do to her? She was so beautiful, so full of life…” His voice trailed off. Suddenly his head snapped back to look at the Doctor all five senses returning to their normal status. Franks voice became condescending and cold. “Very beautiful Doc, or at least she was until her blood and cranial matter slipped through my fingers. But she’s still beautiful though. Isn’t she? I mean she’s still my wife, nothings changed really, she’s still there, her parts are still there, just a little,” Frank grinned as if holding back on a punch line. “Reorganized,” Frank frowned. “And how do you help me help that? Huh Doc? How do you with your almighty wand of reconciliation undo that? How do you strip from my mind and cleanse from my eyes the vivid images, the hatred and the anger toward those with such a flagrant disregard for life?” Frank was now towering over McKay nearly yelling. “Where do you find the courage and understanding to even approach the world of the real when all you live in is fantasy and make believe!?” With disgust in his face Frank turned to the window and rested his hands on the concrete sill.

“You loved her very much.” said McKay in a soft voice.

Frank chuckled and turned back to face his visitor. His face was red and tears dripped from his nose and chin. “Love is a thing of the past Doc. We were discussing beauty. And beauty is truly only skin deep. Do you know why that is? It’s because we are incapable of discussing it any further than that. We are weak. Everything it is said moves towards destruction, and yet knowing that we fear it every day. Do you know what beauty truly is?” Frank waited a moment, perhaps wanting to see if the Doctor would respond. Unsettled he continued. “It is the preamble to the end, the state before horror.” Frank looked out the window again. “Is it beautiful out? Perhaps. But understand that below that perfect skin you so ardently admire is destruction. It’s in the trees, the birds, the grass, you. Horror is patient Doc, just ask your notepad.” Seemingly tired Frank sat rubbing his forehead as if massaging a migraine.

“Are you telling me that nothing is worth living for Frank? That nothing is worth loving.”

Frank looked straight at the Doctor again, frowning. “You really have no concept of this conversation have you?” Frank had sadness in his voice as if he had failed to truly impart life’s deepest secrets. “Everything is worth living for, everything is worth loving.” His voice became very soft. “Provided that you understand, provided that you respect. Respect is a rare commodity afforded by time and patience. Understanding is a cognizance of action. Look at me Doctor, the only thing that truly separates you and I is our understanding of self. I am the action you are the reaction. I am what you quietly strive to be.”

Dr. McKay knew that Frank was on the verge of opening a dark door. It would reveal how he perceived himself and everything around him. The Doctor lowered his voice and simply asked. “And what is that?”

“I am the squirming intestine, the bulging artery, the fractured skull and the cartilage between joints. I was born to this world the miscarriage of all things. I am beauty turned inside out for a better look. I am who you fear on the news and what glues you to your seat in a movie. When you tire I creep into your conscious, and when you’re awake I nag at your ego. My voice is the thought that never crosses your lips, and my touch is the instant that it does. I am the compilation of experience and the sum of horrific knowledge. Though look upon me Doc, I appear in the fabric of flesh for your comfort. No.” Frank paused for effect. “It is I who has something to offer to you, and not the other. For without me there would be no horror, and without horror there can be no value in beauty, and therefore no beauty. And is there not room enough in your heart for more beauty Doc?” He closed his eyes and began to recite. “Blessed is the man who finds understanding, for she is more profitable than silver, and yields better returns than gold. By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place.” His eyes opened again. “Proverbs 3:13, from the good book. Don’t insult me with the offerings of a limited and misguided wisdom. You feel that your time as a Doctor has proven to gain you solid experience. Don’t be so quick to dismiss mine. And don’t be so naive to think that I am the person in need. For it is through your own ignorance that you become more disillusioned. If you took notes Doc, you obviously wouldn’t know what to write.” Frank paused for a second realizing that there was another perspective at play. “And if you did know what to write.” He put a finger in the air. “We’d probably be sharing this room.” Frank stopped and watched the Doctor for some response.

Dr. McKay stood uneasily, Franks eyes followed. “I’ll ask you again Frank. What do you see in the courtyard?” His voice was shaky.

Disappointed in the Doctors seeming lack of comprehension Frank turned back to the window and said sullenly. “Do you see the large tree in the center?” McKay nodded. “I am deciding which way it will fall when it is time.”

“Dr. McKay?” called a voice. His colleague had quietly entered the room at some point. “Are you ready?”

“Good night Frank.” Said McKay to Franks back and walked to the door.

“Doctor?” called Frank. McKay turned. “You forgot this.” With his back still to the two Doctors, Frank had a soaked pad of paper and one pen in his outstretched arm. McKay retrieved the items and left the room.

The colleague met McKay in the hall, a slight smirk on his face. “What?” Asked McKay not amused.

“I suppose that I could have warned you about trying to write anything.” replied the colleague. “Well at least he didn’t try to actually ventilate you with the pen.”

McKay was silent.

“Did he?” The colleague appeared to be getting quite a kick out of the event.

“There were a lot of things that you probably could have told me?” replied McKay. “Regardless of your rather sadistic policy.”

“Come now Doctor, I’d imagine that you did much better than you give yourself credit for.”

“What is he doing here? It sounds as though he would be better evaluated in a criminal psychiatric institution.”

“Frank?” The colleague sounded quite surprised by the comment. “He’s quite harmless really, in spite of his pen antics.” The two stopped at a hall junction. “I will tell you this Doctor McKay. For all of Frank’s life, before he came here that is, his only real crime was being a writer.”


( Bio: Paul Black is a 49 year old male writer who, since recently finding much time on his hands, has decided to delve more deeply into his lifelong passion of writing. His many years of management and travel have given him much perspective on our dynamic world and the mosaic of people in it. It has been his keen observation that beauty is the cloak which horror wears patiently. He hopes that his writing gives you a glimpse into the darker things that people hide.)

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