Fred paused with the key in the door to Asylum and examined the neat schedule posted by Manny. Story night tonight, and of all people John had offered to go first. Opening the door and turning on the lights Fred paused again, looking around and smiling at how far things had come in a few short days.
Peggy and Ralph had been very busy. The walls now held several tasteful pictures, the one Ralph showed up with that first night was there too, but hung around the corner, more or less out of sight. The furniture had been rearranged, the front window held a few nice plants, and a stereo system had been installed, complete with a large CD collection graciously provided by Ralph.
But the oddest thing of all was the blue vase. John had arrived carrying it carefully one day when Peggy and Ralph were there moving furniture about and arguing over the placement of every little thing.
John had just stood there for the longest time, watching them, not saying anything and cradling the vase as if it were an infant. When they finally stopped arguing long enough to notice him, he simply held it out, still not saying anything.
Peggy had started to speak to him at first, to tell him that the vase was really all wrong for this place, but the look of pride in his eyes stopped her. Silently she took the vase and, carrying it almost as delicately as John had, she placed in the center of the coffee table. Stepping back to admire it she had glared at Ralph, daring him to argue the point.
Fred shook his head again in amazement recalling that scene. This was an odd foursome, his first members, but still they related even when they argued. The club had grown since that night they had met to organize things a bit. First, there was that man who had been with Ralph, strange he still did not know the man's name. Then there had been a few more assorted people, ones that got his flier in the mail, or just happened by and stopped in to see what it was all about.
If everyone came tonight for stories, the place would be quite full.
Fred walked to the little refreshment area Peggy and Ralph had created and started unloading the various supplies he was carrying.
Paper cups here, napkins there.
The bell on the front door tinkled and he turned to see who was there.
The box of plastic spoons fell from his hands in surprise, scattering across the floor. There, just inside the front door, actually looking a little uncertain was a striking blonde, the kind that you usually see on the cover of fashion magazines. She was surveying him by means of boring holes into his skull with a pair of icy green eyes, or so it seemed at that moment. Fred was unable to quite regain composure, deadlocked between the lady's gaze that seemed to put little bits of his hidden self on sharp pins, the way they used to prop various poor animals open so they could see their insides back when Fred was taking anatomy, and a strong, almost overpowering impression that he had seen her before, that in fact they were familiar, but definitely not friendly, respected rather, the way he would recognize Butch, the bully of his desperate, plaid clad schooling years. Fred kept fumbling with the plastic spoons on the floor for a while, always one seemed to escape, fall, slip just when he was about done picking the lot, but at least that would give him some time to think in the relative privacy of the space between his bent back and the freshly waxed floor. When at last he had enough nerve to re-assume a biped position, he noticed the horrible terrifying petrifying monster that scared him so terribly had the kind inclination to turn around and let him sort the mess with the spoons and everything else by himself, while she explored the place, no doubt leaving little ice scratches on the floor, the plush of the couches and probably the blue vase too. Or maybe she just didn't care. It took Fred a while to pick all the spoons, realize they had been spoiled by being on the floor anyway, throw them out, and try to chase away the gut impression the nice lady is going to show an extra string of teeth and eat him whole. He stood a bit straighter and took a big breath. After all, judging people by their appearance was too often misleading, or at least so he read in some very smart book about how to judge people and make friends, and the poor woman could well be, just as all of them, a lone soul looking for other nice people to fill the lonely hours.
"Hello and welcome to Asylum!"
Fred had the distinct impression of a hammer slightly missing the place where his nose started, and blackening one of his eyes instead. Suddenly all the self-reassurance he managed to build was gone in a puff, and there were the eyes again, just add vodka and you have a nice cool drink.
"Umm. ... I mean..."
"Well no... I mean yes, it is."
"Well, this place."
She looked around again, summing the 3 couches, 4 tables and double window making up the cozy place some freaky people would die to defend by now. Or at least be very sad over its loss. But of course, Frankie didn't know that. Yet.
"I though they used racks and much longer sleeves in asylums?" Rosy lips, a nice complement to the thorny eyes, seemed to move somewhat, forming a more pointy corner. Or maybe it was just imagination.
"Uhm... racks?" Uh, oh, Fred almost giggled as he got the reference. "No, no, no, Asylum as in place of refuge, not place of confinement."
"Oh?" There seemed to be genuine interest in her voice. "You mean people could just come here to get away from all the nasty sharp bits that always scratch and bruise you every day, all the time?"
Fred looked fascinated... for the first time he considered the woman before him in a somewhat balanced perspective. No longer was he a teenager shy to look too intently at some suggestive poster, convinced everyone around will think he is going to jack off to that image after dark. Although she looked like a cutting from a magazine page, she was still just as living and breathing as himself, and maybe, just maybe, with a little blessing from above, the similarities won't stop just there.
"How do you mean?" He could barely cover his emotion, but then again nobody ever notices these things, do they.
"Oh, it's just a little thought of mine. Have you ever noticed how everything around is so hard? Every single object has edges, and corners, and everything is always strong and sturdy and solid. And your body is soft and tender... and it looks like nothing good can come out of that mix."
Fred's eyes were never that wide. He suddenly didn't understand. How was it possible for anyone, anyone at all to be lonely and sad and desperate? When all there was to it, really all there was to do, was just work past the terror and dropping of plastic spoons and all the other silly details and somehow manage to listen to what people had to say.
Peggy slid the last batch of cookies into the oven and checked the clock. Plenty of time to finish this up, get dressed and arrive at the club a few minutes early. For perhaps the hundredth time she asked herself if she was doing the right thing, somehow she had fallen into a pattern of playing mommy to the rest of the club. Planning refreshments, decorating things, baking cookies, doing pretty much what came naturally to her after all these years. And also for about the hundredth time she answered herself with more questions:
"What else was there to do?"
"What else did she know how to do?"
Round and round her mind always went, asking the same questions, answering with yet more questions, never moving forward.
As she began to wash up from the usual cookie baking mess, Peggy wondered more about this circular thinking thing she had started doing recently. She had never had a problem like this before, life had always been so orderly, she had always known just what she was supposed to do next.
Now... now there was no clear path, nothing to guide her, she had no idea, no vision to follow, and she was lost. Wandering in circles, much like a child lost in the forest, that was what seemed to be happening inside her mind.
Later in the shower she wondered if possibly there would be any more women members there tonight. Fred had told her last time she was there that the membership was growing a bit, to plan a few more refreshments for tonight. Half of her wished for more women, a chance to see and meet others, maybe develop some better ideas on what to be doing with her life, the other half didn't want to risk sharing her meager fragment of spotlight with anyone new. Round and round, her mind circled this question too. How was she ever to find a way out of these endless circles? Had she not, once upon a time, had dreams? Things she had wanted, but put aside, because they were not in the expected path? Or maybe they were not all that obvious; because there was always something else she had to do first. Once, when she was a kid, her grandmother visited in the summer and brought her a wonderful book. It was the "Adventures of Fluffy and Puffy in The Nile Delta". It was hard covered and had Fluffy and Puffy painted on it... and there were flowers and strange plants and a river flowing through thick trees that arched on both sides across, reuniting in the middle and making a sort of covered waterway that in her childish eyes was the simple essence of freedom, but not oppressive or threatening, just the blessed state of endless possibilities, a place where anything might happen, and anything that happens can only be good, and pleasant, and somewhat, vaguely, always what she deep down really expected.
She wanted to start reading right away, but her mother was all ready to go shopping, so they went together, and then when they came back she had to help with fixing dinner, and when that was done she would rather not even eat anything, but go to her room and read the wonderful book. Unfortunately, her mother was nobody to allow such foolishness, after dinner they went for a walk, and she ran around a lot, came back very tired, and went right to sleep. And when the next morning came, bright and clear, her father showed up to surprise them and take them to the seaside. He was usually off on business trips for weeks at a time, selling Corby vacuum cleaners and household appliances to make your life easier and more pleasant, for a modicum cost. Later she found her father's favorite way to introduce himself, and at the same time his company, job and entire life was really at odds with the English language. He always had this way to just pop up one morning, smelling strange, and pack the entire family for some outing or other; as if that was the only thing a family could be doing on their days off. And her mother always got into a terrible fuss because she loved to have everything well under control and if possible neatly folded and put away, and getting everything ready for a trip was a huge effort for her, and consequently for all her kids. She meant to take the book along three times but every time she got called to do something or the other, and eventually left without it, and then never saw it again... and actually she never even knew that for all these years until she remembered right now. Strange how memory works.
She felt sure that she must have had dreams, but now she had no idea what they might have been.
Stepping from the shower she was startled to hear the phone ringing. Her phone rang so rarely these days; puzzled at who might be calling she wrapped a towel around herself and went to answer it, still dripping from the shower.
"Uh, hi, this is Ralph."
"Oh, hello, Ralph. Is there a problem?"
"No, no problem. I was just wondering if you would like a ride to the club tonight? I can come by and pick you up."
"Yes, I guess that would be ok, do you have my address?