J.C. Hallman
 
 
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The Hospital for Bad Poets

Sample story

DALRYMPLE

We gave ourselves a warning sign about Dalrymple--we refused to call him doctor--but we didn’t heed it, so it’s fair to say we brought this on ourselves.  He wasn’t the kind of guy that put you on the lookout for red flags.  Beederman remembers—or says he remembers--Dalrymple’s mobile laboratory pulling into town that first day, a converted ice cream truck with the speaker still on the roof, the whole thing painted lab coat white, the sides festooned with letters:

Dr. Dalrymple’s Amazing “Sleep” Machine

Thing was, Dalrymple didn’t strike anyone as the authoritative type, let alone a medical doctor.  He was a messy-haired guy with a mustache to hold back an ocean with and a sweat gland problem.  A momma’s boy type.  Sort of guy you’d offer loose change if he’d looked just a bit more down on his luck.

He set up shop at the mall.  Scenic had just the one, a great big structure, 467 stores, though most of them are empty now.  Dalrymple found space in one of the piazzas--level two, near the playground--and he brought in, all by himself, a pair of the compartments, as he called them, big space-age looking things, crossed between a diving bell and an astronaut suit.  Later, we would see more advanced versions of the compartments, but that first pair were like patched-together prototypes, his and hers whatevers, and Tiptoft wonders why no one ever asked to see a permit for the things, which, even as they looked as though Dalrymple had put them together in the back of his ice cream truck, did look like a complicated bit of machinery.  Others say Dalrymple’s goofball manner prevented questions.  He just didn’t look like a guy who knew the answers.

We ignored him at first; we ignored him for a long time.  The children, not surprisingly, were the first to pay him mind, raising a stubby finger to Dalrymple’s free-standing sandwich board and demanding a translation.

½  hour -- $10
2 hours -- $25
1 day -- $200
??? -- please inquire

Which of course their parents could not provide, except to say that it seemed some kind of service was being exchanged for money.  Dalrymple didn’t exactly come on with a hard sell.  He sat there reading our local newspaper--the Scenic Whig-Herald, owned and operated by the Lions Club--ignoring those who stopped to puzzle over the sign.  He came and went every day, loading and unloading the compartments, driving the ice cream truck to and from who knows where.  Dalrymple appeared to have nowhere else to go and an unflappable patience.  The patience, Hasselbeck now says, of a hungry fisherman.

Which eventually paid off.  The first to bite was Pitzl-Waters, who later admitted that the idea to give Dalrymple a try came after he and a few friends finished watching a football game.  They were liquored up, their team had won, the night was young, and Scenic was not exactly brimming with resources for celebration.  Pitzl-Waters himself suggested Dalrymple, who by that time was a town fixture.  Dalrymple, Pitzl-Waters said, was the only adventure they had, and the mall was still open.

Dalrymple met the four men not like a vendor greeting his first customers in months, but with the annoyance of a shopkeeper staying open five minutes extra after a long day.  Pitzl-Waters didn’t care.  He giggled the whole time Dalrymple fixed him up with sensor pads.  Pitzl-Waters opted for just the half hour plan, so his pals were still drunk when Dalrymple cracked open the compartment again on that first occasion.  There was no hiss, no escape of pressurized gas to hint at how the machine worked, just a lifting of the lid and a peculiar smell--wet cardboard--that we never have been able to figure out.

Pitzl-Waters had sobered on the inside.  Which is not to say that he came out refreshed--it’s not like that--but certainly he’d gone through some kind of shift.  It wasn’t like time passing, he told his pals, but it wasn’t like no time had passed, either.  Rather, it was as though he’d stepped from one era directly into another--another, he said, he was surprisingly ready for.

Now Pitzl-Waters was not a man to come out lightly with words like era.  Neither age nor epoch were regular tenants in the storehouse of his vocabulary.  Like most of us, he thought about last week and next week, and that was already a lot to handle, and so the others were taken aback by Pitzl-Waters’s talk of an era-making machine.  Yes, they said, but what was it like?  Should they try it themselves?  Was it dangerous?  How many brain cells had he lost? 

“It was like,” Pitzl-Waters said, “being off.”

“Off?”

“Turned off.  Like a light.” 

“Did you dream?  Were you just asleep?”

Pitzl-Waters was certain about this.  “No.”

Most of those who came immediately after Pitzl-Waters chose the one-hour plan.  The results were predictable: Pitzl-Waters’s experience was heightened, though no one, not even Pitzl-Waters, who went back for a second dose, was willing to characterize the hour sleep as twice as good as the half hour sleep.  “Good” didn’t quite describe it, and others disagreed with Pitzl-Waters’s time talk.  The compartments weren’t relaxing, particularly.  It wasn’t like taking a sauna.  (The best description would come from Ullyat, who some time later stood up during the public comment portion of a special meeting of city council.  “It’s like the same thing you’re inside of is inside of you,” Ullyat said.)

Regardless, Dalrymple began doing a tidy business.  He upgraded to the more modern looking compartments--opaque face plates, flush bolts--added six units, and moved into the alcove of the mall’s first failed business, a cookie bakery.  People started taking doses on lunch hours, or cut out of work early and hit the mall before dinner.  There was generally a line.  Dalrymple arranged to stay open as long as the multiplex.  A few people tried the day-long plan to get through weekends or lonely holidays--they came out neither hungry nor rested.  Dalrymple started taking reservations and gift cards.  He moved into a second failed shop, a shoe store.  He couldn’t keep up with demand, but at least he didn’t have to lug the compartments in and out of the mall anymore.  The ice cream truck disappeared.

Edna Skym was the first to inquire about the final stage of Dalrymple’s treatment sequence--mentioned on his old sandwich board.  We all knew about Edna’s difficulties--with Fred, her husband, and their neighbor, Devon Sheach--and Obrissel, who worked as a mall guard, claims that he saw Edna sit down with Dalrymple in the back of the shoe store one day with a stack of papers.  She looked a little shaggy, slumped, and resigned.  They were still there when Obrissel returned for his second round two hours later.  Obrissel didn’t see her sign anything, but it was the last any of us saw of her.  Sort of.

The next morning Dalrymple had opened another new store, a gutted lingerie outlet up on level four.  There was just one compartment in it--Edna Skym’s.  She was locked inside, or so Dalrymple said, and there was no indication of when she was coming out.  Now Sheriff Kjar got interested.  He gathered together a couple deputies and lawyers, and wandered over.  Dalrymple greeted them warmly, opened his books.  Sheriff Kjar pulled him aside while the lawyers sifted through Edna’s contract.
“No bullshit--how long’s she in there for?” Kjar said.

“She’s got a permanent deal, sheriff.”

“How much that go for?”

“You’ll need a court order for that.”

Kjar nodded his frustration--the level-headedness that got him elected.  He nodded again when the lawyers admitted that all the paperwork seemed to be in order.  They took their leave.  The next day two more compartments appeared in the lingerie store--Fred Skym and Devon Sheach, of course.  People were uneasy about that, at first.  It felt like a murder-suicide, except we never knew who’d been murdered, and who was the suicide.

Dalrymple took on his first employee--Sarah Hornback, nice girl, still with us, out of a job because Fred Skym had owned the cutlery kiosk on level one where she worked.  Dalrymple trained her for two days.  Basically, she kept records on the gauges that looked out from the compartments’ rear ends, so to speak.  She was supposed to report to Dalrymple if any of the needles showed anything out of the ordinary, which they never did.

For a while, businesses up around the ex-lingerie outlet saw an increase in incidental traffic because people went out of their way to peek in at the three compartments lined up against the back wall--not that you could see anything.  Dalrymple’s regular business took a bit of a hit.  Then the floodgates shuddered.  Professor Vandersteen, who taught English at SCC, published “My Last Class” on the opinion page of the Whig-Herald.  In it, he ranted.  Our offspring were “uncurious,” he wrote.   As a “culture,” we had “written reams on materialism,” but were “illiterate in spirit.”  The only real view in Scenic, he complained, was of the artificial lake.  Near the end it became clear that this was more than just a lecture:

What we have learned, my friends, is that the evil queen
was not evil, she was pragmatic; the poison apple was not
poisoned, it was medicinal; and the prince’s kiss was not
affection, it was rape and a rude awakening indeed.

Professor Vandersteen was secure in the lingerie outlet before his words hit our driveways.  An op-ed alone--even a moving one--wasn’t going to trigger an avalanche, but it was the shout that cracked the snowcap.  Pettygrove recalls Sheriff Kjar talking up the Vandersteen piece at Piskhaver’s barber shop.

"In ancient times,” Kjar quoted by heart, “the only exodus to a better life was the migration of the dead to the paradise of a suburban cemetery.”
The professor was quoting too, but the sheriff didn’t seem to know it or at least he didn’t let on that he knew it.  Kjar signed his own permanent sleep contract that night.

The next morning there was a line outside the mall, people in tents pitched on the asphalt.  Dalrymple couldn’t keep up.  For a while he tried alternating between installations and closings, but within a week he was forced to take on managers to handle contracts, oversee maintenance and security, and so on.  He rented new spaces, and there were plenty: the arcade, three gift shops, the theme park gift store, the eyeglass hut.  Shipments of compartments came in at night, men in gray overalls dollying them in through the cargo bays.

The financial services industry spiked as people liquidated assets and bought in.  Church attendance skyrocketed, then crashed, and before long you could get a Scenic home for a song.  Dalrymple hired more staff, and eventually he was spotted only at brief training sessions for upper-tier execs.
 
The frenzy lasted a month, and didn’t stall so much as run out of feed.  The mall management was sleeping by then, and those of us who were left--Dalrymple’s army--had to figure out the various systems, heating for now, but we’re thinking ahead.  No one quite remembers the last time we saw Dalrymple.  We’ve gone on without him.  A few more were able to fall asleep--we drew straws--when we figured out the minimum workforce necessary to keep everything monitored.  Video surveillance has proved invaluable in this regard.  Those of us who remain take turns with shorter rests.  Sometimes, we go out for a drive, head up to Scenic Overlook, where our kids used to park and make out.  We know now that the city of the dead is foretold by easily diagnosed symptoms.  When those signs appear, Necropolis is near.  There’s regret, surely.  Each of us could have been on the inside.  It leaves one with a hollow feeling.  But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say--and we were not the adventurous types.

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