(T/W Mental Health/Gore)
There it was in section 13A of the Times, a one-star review given by Mrs. Marlene Whatley. I pulled the paper close to my face so that I could read the tiny print.
I read aloud, “Ed Bulwer takes us on a depressing, self-indulgent journey to nowhere.”
My blood was boiling. I couldn’t read any further than the critic’s opening line.
“That fucking bitch!” I screamed as I slammed my fist down against my plastic seat.
I quickly buried my head in the paper as I realized I had attracted the disapproving eyes of almost every rider in subway train car.
Thank God I had used a pen name for the writing contest. I could not have handled my patients knowing that my writing had been met with such a harsh review. How would that look? An accomplished Psychologist receiving a belittling review in the Times. Just who did this Mrs. Whatley think she was?
A digitized male voice blared from a graffitied grate, “Approaching Sixth Street.”
The train slowed and came to a stop with a flock of landing litter. I stood up and swam my way through an opposing sea of grumpy business suits flooding into the train car. I kept my eyes low to avoid confrontation as I traversed the steep stairway leading me toward daylight. I emerged from the urban grotto to find summer’s asphalt mirages wafting the odors of oily tar, fresh bagels, rotting garbage, broiling hotdogs, and hints of dehydrated urine into my nasal cavity. I defended myself against the pungent conglomeration by covering my nose with my handkerchief as I navigated the bustling street sidewalk.
This city was disgusting. It sickened me that I had lived here long enough to witness its decline. I couldn’t put my finger on a singular reason for its fall, it seemed like a multitude of factors had created this mess. However, the results were undeniable.
The city’s public structures and streets were falling apart, but even worse, its inhabitants were falling apart too. Politics, religion, and diplomacy had failed us, and we walked around like human powder kegs begging for a spark.
Sure, it was great for my mental health practice, but I, too, fell victim to the social decline. Days and months blurred together as a steady rotation of egotistical citizens laid on my couch and exorcised their demons upon me. I tried to stay focused and objective, but there is only so much one person can take before losing all empathy.
I had reached that point about six months ago. Tray Brothers, Divorce Attorney extraordinaire, was stretched out on my office’s chaise lounge, his black patent wingtips grinding the city street’s filth into my lounge’s velvety fabric. His gossip floated around us like the smog lingering over this damned city. He was talking me through his week and the client’s he had dealt with. He loved to dwell in his client’s miseries. He couldn’t feel happiness without knowing another person’s misery was greater than his own. I could bore you with medical jargon that would describe his mental ailments, but it is much easier to define him in one word— Asshole.
I had a copy of the Times held in front of my face, neatly folded on top of a yellow legal note pad. I would nod my head whenever he said something with inflection and then I would lift my pen to the newspaper acting like I was taking notes. I was scanning through the print when I saw a headline that grabbed me.
Fiction Writing Contest Boasts $250 Prize!
I tried to contain my excitement and maintain the façade of listening to Mr. Brothers.
I waited for his first pause, which was mid thought for him, when I interrupted him, saying, “Well, that is enough for today—”
“But I still have ten minutes—”
“No, this is a good stopping point. Keep using the coping techniques we have talked about, and we will pick up here next week.” I said as I helped him up from the couch.
“But I didn’t even get to tell you about the fucked-up, rich couple with the prize-winning giant schnauzers—”
“I know, but it can wait until next time,” I said as I escorted him out the door, shaking my head in disapproval of his use of profanity.
“When did people decide it was okay to casually drop the F-bomb?” I muttered to myself.
I scrambled back behind my desk and read the details of the contest. I smiled as I thought about this being my jump from the rut I was currently traveling. It was the first time I had smiled in months, and it hurt my cheeks.
I decided to craft a tale that would captivate the city. My words would lift the city out of the muck, clean us off, and define a new direction—one of compassion. There was only one problem. I had never written fiction before. Sure, I had written medical papers that had been placed in occupational journals, but that was a far divergence from writing motivational fiction. I was not sure I could do it but the thought of something new in my life quickly overrode my fears.
I picked up the phone and asked my admin to clear my schedule for the rest of the day. I hung up the phone in the middle of his objections. I reached into a bottom drawer pulling out a stack of white printer paper and placed the stack in front of me. I then reached for my ZenZoi fountain pen, perched in its holder at the front of my desk. The German-made pen, a gift from a colleague, had a cap and barrel formed out of swirled crimson and onyx plastic making it look like fiery marble. Its clip and tip were plated with sterling silver and decorated with ornate scrolls and lines. The pen’s holder was equally ornate and had a quote from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play “The Conspiracy” displayed on the base. Engraved and painted in silver were the words:
“The pen is mightier than the sword.”
I began frantically scribbling down words. My thoughts and emotions flowed continuously from my mind to my pen. Before I knew it, I had written ten pages without stopping for so much as a stray thought.
The writing was rejuvenating, I felt great. It was as if a weight had been lifted and all my problems had faded from thought. This writing was perfection. Each word’s use and its pairing to the next, exquisite. I set my pen back in its holder and wept over my masterpiece.
After I cleared the tears from my face, I carried the manuscript to my admin and asked him to type it into a Word document for me.
I looked him directly in the eyes and said, “Do not change a single word.”
He assured me that he would type it up word for word and email it to me. Later that night when I received his email, I immediately submitted my story to the Times.
I spent the next month completely distracted. I craftily neglected a full schedule of patients, each one receiving empty nods and feigned note scribbling. Under a trance of boredom, I would daydream scenes involving my admin interrupting a patient session.
“Doctor, I have someone from the Times wanting to offer you a position writing for them full time,” the admin would say.
“Can’t you see that I am with a patient?”
“Yes sir, but this guy is very persistent and says he must hire you today—”
“Really? They liked my piece that much?”
“Oh, yes sir! They have already faxed me a contract for you to sign. They said they have never read such a moving piece before.”
My return from these thoughts was particularly cruel. I was always greeted by a patient’s droning. They would be expressing some form of how desperate their lives had become and how they needed to find something soon or they would commit an awful deed of some sort.
I would nod my head and ask, “And how does that make you feel?”
The question was a programmed response that I had recently started attaching to anything that spilled out of a patient’s head. Like a forgotten glass of milk, my doctoring skills had stagnated and soured. I longed for the day to come when I could write all my patients referrals to another doctor as I eagerly transitioned to my new writing profession. No longer would my time be wasted diving into how someone’s childhood trauma had turned their life into a tempest of broken relationships and pain. I was going to be a famous writer.
Well, I was—until Mrs. Whatley left a huge steaming pile of a review for me to find in section 13A today. As I entered my office building, I was wrestling with the fact that there had been a panel of five critics judging the fiction and the paper had decided to only include the best piece of criticism given. But this—this had to be incorrect! There was no way Mrs. Whatley’s one-star review was the best criticism of the five critics.
I entered the elevator while I wiped my handkerchief at my nose, trying to erase the street’s stench, but the action intensified the odor—that damned stink. I kept wiping in vain as the elevator opened its doors on the 14th floor and I exited it into my office’s lobby.
I raced past my admin as he said, “Doctor, your new patient is here. She has been waiting for fifteen minutes.”
“Give me a moment and then send her in,” I said as I fumbled my keys in the lock on my door.
I plopped down into my high-backed, leather, desk chair. I spread the newspaper out in front of me and looked at the review again. “A depressing, self-indulgent journey to nowhere,” kept echoing in my mind. Obviously, Mrs. Whatley had missed the point of my story.
She was probably some debutante, breaking into the world by pretentiously casting the shroud of her hollow collegiate achievements over the city. I didn’t know anything about this woman, but if I could get my hands on her I would hurt her. I would grab her head in between my fingers and palms and push my thumbs into her eyes until blood bubbled and oozed from the sockets.
A sudden knocking at the door interrupted my vicious thoughts.
I yelled, “Come in,” as I crumbled the newspaper into the trash bin.
I stood, straightened my tie and shirt, exhaled, and then looked to the door. I was amazed at the striking beauty of the woman standing in the doorway. She was in her mid-thirties, professionally dressed, and was towering above me at almost six feet tall. Her face was stunning, highlighted with high cheekbones, luscious lips, manicured eyebrows, and lengthy lashes flickering above and below jade irises.
I stood there motionless as she stepped forward, offering me her hand. I snapped out of my paralysis and offered my hand in return. Her skin felt like silk, delicate and warm.
I said, “I—I’m Dr. Skinner.”
She replied, “I’m Marlene Whatley.”
I let out a choked snort which was met with a puzzled look.
I said, “You’re joking right?”
She maintained the look of confusion.
I stumbled my way through the awkward start by asking, “You aren’t Mrs. Marlene Whatley from the Times? The critic? Are you?”
She smiled and gently dropped my hand as she said, “It is always nice to meet a fan.”
My blood boiled again; I was not a fan. How could it be that the person I had been fantasy murdering had just walked into my doorway?
I hid my anger and motioned for her to enter the office. She walked past me and as she did, I caught a sniff of her perfume. It was tantalizing. It diffused vanilla, lavender, and a musky hint of jasmine into my nostrils, temporarily overpowering the remnant street stench from earlier.
Mrs. Whatley stopped in the middle of the room. I knew why—it was a dilemma all my patients faced, couch or chair. Their choice would help me determine their comfort level. Most new patients would choose the chair, but returning patients almost always chose the chaise lounge, usually facing themselves away from my desk. I was surprised as I watched Mrs. Whatley choose the chaise lounge. She pushed the palms of her hands on the bottom cushion, testing its firmness before sitting down and stretching her long body out upon it. She chose to face my desk. This meant that she was extremely comfortable in the situation. This boldness intrigued me.
She slid her fingers together on her chest, sighed and said, “So how do we start this?”
I returned to my desk chair and said, “Well—why are you here today?”
“I’m completely lost. I thought I knew where I was headed in life, but now I feel like I have no purpose.”
I was surprised by her immediate openness, but I returned it asking, “What makes you feel this way?”
“It is work—I can’t stand my job! I spend all day, every day, reading stories written by people that believe their stories are the best ever written—but they are not.”
“Come on—they can’t all be bad,” I said while holding back my rage.
“No—they are. They are all awful! I’m not just talking about grammatical mistakes and misspellings. I’m talking about stories that have ridiculous themes and absolutely zero plot.”
Mrs. Whatley raised her hands to her face and covered her eyes, saying, “I can’t get them out of my mind—I can’t concentrate—I can’t sleep—and their sickly tales are infecting my own writing”
I was trying my best not to explode. Mrs. Whatley must have thought she was really something special. The fact that she had tattooed my wonderful story with one star, and she was now whimpering on my couch about her job—it was too much. I reached forward and grabbed my fountain pen as I often did when I became emotional. Usually, the smooth texture rolling between my forefinger and my thumb calmed me. However, today—today the pen fueled the fire within me, its onyx and red swirled shell representing the flame of my ego seeking retaliation for damages sustained.
Mrs. Whatley recaptured my attention by saying, “I’ll give you an example. Last month, I waded through hundreds of stories, before landing on the worst one. It was written by an Ed—somebody. It was dreadful.”
I jumped up, sending my chair into the wall behind me which startled her causing her to uncover her eyes. I once again disguised my anger by staring down at my pen while I rolled it between my fingers.
I slowly began walking the perimeter of the room while asking, “Really? What made this—Ed’s— story so dreadful?”
Mrs. Whatley returned her hands to her eyes before responding with, “He wrote a story that was about the declination of our city. His grammar was sound, and his vocabulary was quite eloquent—”
I felt a bit of pride swell and I interrupted her asking, “So what was the problem?”
Mrs. Whatley did not hesitate in her reply and began to cry as she said, “The entire premise of the story! This writer is so dark. He has such a negative outlook on society. His words were so depressing that I felt like I was being buried beneath them as I read them. How could someone see the world through such pessimistic eyes? This person should never write another story—ever!”
I circled behind her, grabbing a tissue from a box sitting on a small table.
“Sounds like this person could use some couch time with me.” I said as I approached the end of the chaise lounge where her head was propped.
“Yes—he is definitely disturbed. His writing was so desperate, and he seemed—well—he seemed unhinged. His ramblings became completely incoherent toward the end.”
I was standing, undetected, directly over her face. I crouched down and floated the tissue on the top of her hands. She jumped, spooked by the touch of the tissue and my proximity. A brief look of fear turned to a smile when she realized I was offering her a tissue. She took the tissue and dabbed it at the corners of her sparkling green eyes. They were mesmerizing, but deep beneath their allure I pictured the city’s rotten garbage, buzzing with swirling flies and crawling with their larva, its putrid smell wiggling through her teeth and seeping from the gap between her wine-red lips—stinking up my office. That damned stink!
I began to tremble as I questioned her words, “Unhinged, you say?”
Mrs. Whatley widened her mouth but before she could emit more of her vitriol, I forced my left hand over it, pressing the back of her lovely brunette head into the buttoned pleats of my chaise lounge. Her arms flailed, grasping at mine. I raised my right arm high above her. My hand tightened around the ZenZoi fountain pen, pointed tip down. A large black drop of ink gathered on the tip, it released and fell directly into one of her flashing green eyes, turning it slick with darkness as if the critic’s demonic soul was rising to the surface.
I shook as I yelled, “Ed Bulwer-Lytton says ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’—but I think they can both get the job of murder done. Is that too dark for you? That’s okay—you can give me a one-star review—from Hell!”
Her muffled screams escaped through an opened window, caught an alley breeze, and mixed with the stench of the decaying city. That damned stink…