The Duck

I want to go away. I need a break from life; I need a break from how I see my own life. I fantasize about going to some kind of getaway camp. I need a place I can go to be the same self-indulgent, emotionally narcissistic, pity partying prick that my friends are tired of but professionals will have to listen to because they’re trained to do so. A place where I can go to just relax and take a break from everything. I feel terrible almost all the time and if I can just go somewhere and get some perspective, maybe that will help me pull up the yoke. I’m not looking for a rehab facility but not completely unlike a rehab facility either. Like a vacation but with a little more sullenness. I can make some new friends, some new enemies; judge others’ problems as not as fascinatingly existential as mine. My time would be my own to either waste or indulge or gain understanding.

I imagine everything at this place would be soft. Soft colors, soft furniture, hopefully soft rules on drinking. Soft grass, soft robes, soft serve, just everything soothing and easy. Soothing and easy is terrifying but maybe there’s a therapeutic element to it that I can embrace, days just lounging around being therapeutically bored. Bored, but bored for my own good. Maybe there will be attendants wondering around, offering soft plastic cups of juice and empathetic thoughts. I imagine one woman specifically that will maybe take a liking to me. Her name is Cherryl. Two rs. Seems weird but obviously everyone here has issues. “We have orange, apple, and cranberry, sweetie.” And then she’ll lean down close to my ear and whisper, “Also, it’s all your parents’ fault.” And then Cherryl softly walks away as I sip my juice and blame my dad.

I can’t imagine a place like this not having robes. I hope the robes won’t be forced upon us but rather an option. I’m not a robe guy. It’s just a towel with a belt. It signifies laziness and relaxation to the point of lethargy. To me there’s a difference between relaxation and laziness. Granted, the Venn diagram is massive but on one side is just trying to take things down a notch and on the other is apathy. Every time I imagine myself walking around the grounds I see myself in a robe. This is troubling because I don’t want to wear a robe but it seems inevitable that I will. My imagination is making decisions for me that in real life I’m against.

There will be activities offered all day, classes, seminars, non-competitive badminton, therapy sessions, yoga, a room full of puppies. I’d like a place with lots of options but little structure. Like a Marshall’s. There will also be the option to do nothing at all; just wander around the grounds mumbling to myself about all my failures and taking stock of what disarray my life is in. This constitutes a lot of how I’m spending my time now so I’ll probably check out the pottery class, just to give my hands something to do. I’m certain there will be a pottery class. There’s peace and tranquility in pottery. Everything’s soft and moist and requires shaping with focus and patience. Like a life. I assume there won’t be woodshop classes offered. All that noise and sawdust. Plus, given the mental state of all of the people at this beautiful facility providing access to circular saws and screwdrivers probably would be ill advised.

Of course therapists will be in abundance. Therapy sessions will be available but I’d like to go to a place where therapists would be walking around the grounds like mental health patrolmen, empathetically twirling their mental health batons. I often have spontaneous panic and need immediate feedback so it’d be nice if therapists were available in the spur of the moment. Maybe I’ll be sitting on my favorite bench staring off into the pond and the woods beyond. A therapist (I hope his name is Ted) walks past me.

“But how can I find out whose fault this is?” I blurt out.

Ted stops and looks through my eyes. “Maybe it’s no one’s fault.”

“But I need to find the source of this so I can fix it.”

He smiles softly, like he’s heard this rhetoric 28 times just today. “The past is only so useful. Perhaps you can try to focus on how the now can affect the future. I run a group session at 2pm, room 51, across from the puppy room. Stop by.”

I try to conceal my frustration with his fortune cookie therapy but I know he makes sense. He smiles softly and puts his hand into his jacket pocket. He pulls out his fist. He puts his fist in my left hand and lays down something small and warm. He curls up my fingers into a ball, like a great-grandma giving her great-granddaughter a nice pendant. I open my hand and see what he placed. A small, black marble. Glenn gave me a new perspective. And a marble. It’s a nice gesture… but still…whose fault is this?

He walks away in a very friendly way, which I didn’t know was a walk-away option, but I think Ted could do it. So I’ll sit there with no answers and a strong need for Ted to fix me. Also, for reasons only Ted knows, a marble.

I imagine hard-soled shoes would be outlawed. That loud clacking of hard-soled shoes on a hard floor sounds like someone walking by who’s far more successful than I am. Who needs that when I’m just trying to get my shit together? I will not wear sandals, no matter how bad things get. Sandals are a robe for your feet. They’re too passive. I will wear flip flops. Flip flops are fun and onomatopoeic. Research has shown that anything that sounds like its own name is fantastic. I imagine walking around the grounds in my flip flops. Sometimes Cherryl kind of giggles. Oh, Cherryl, sweet, sweet Cherryl with her two rs, kind nose and sexy limp. The way she leans down and offers me juice, peering over her red eyeglass frames, eyebrows raised, tells me that she’s been around the block a few times. And, judging by the amount of silver bracelets she’s wearing, there’s a swap meet on every corner of the block.

The grounds will be sprawling, the grass the definitive shade of green. Taupe buildings are grouped together at various locations. Birds chirp but somehow it’s not bothersome. Maybe that means I’m making progress. I generally find birds chirping annoying and tedious. Birds just chirping so gleefully like they’ve got everything figured out. Similar to a guy in hard shoes, they sing blissfully like they’re better than me. And crows can all go to hell. Crows don’t chirp or sing or squawk. Crows squelch and screech like angry, bickering garbage trucks. If I had the means I would travel the world with the sole intent being to punch every crow I could find. A crow is a mood disorder with wings.

Of course there will be bodies of water. Most likely at least one large lake but several smaller ponds. Like I said, this place is fucking sprawling. There’s something about small bodies of water that force me to be reflective of my own life. But it has to be a small body of water. The ocean is too vast for self-reflection. An ocean makes me feel too insignificant and my sense of insignificance is part of my problem. The simple specificity of a pond is perfect for intense emotional indulgence. An ocean is a telescope. A pond is a microscope. So I’ll sit on my bench and gaze at the pond. There are old pieces of bread scattered about. There is, I’m sure, an attendant who wanders around with a basket of breadcrumbs, offering handfuls to the patients to feed the ducks. There will be ducks. I like ducks. Ducks are odd but kind of cute, like a tiny child in eyeglasses. Geese are psychotic maniacs and chickens are just brainless food; but I like a duck. They’re just dumb enough to be adorable but potentially aggressive so there’s an air of unpredictability. But this place isn’t about unpredictability, it’s about gaining perspective. I think ducks have perspective.

After four or five hours of feeling sorry for myself and staring at the duck filled pond I’ll head up to the main quad where all the buildings are. There is a slight incline I’ll have to navigate from the pond. It makes sense that the pond will be slightly below the main campus. If you’re going to reflect on your life and enjoy the ducks it’s best to do it slightly downward from the main area. Ponds require going down a little bit, be it emotionally or topographically. I’ll reach the subtle top pf the slope and try to feel good about the ascent. People will be milling around. There will be some of us in the robes. I’ll try not to judge them but I will. I should feel bad about judging them but I know I won’t. Some people make eye contact and some don’t. I’m really struggling with making eye contact these days so I pick up my pace and look for the closest empty room. It’s a beige room: beige walls, beige chairs, beige floors, beige water station. On some days in the cafeteria I overhear conversations about this room. There are bookshelves filled with self-help books. It’s wall to wall books. It’s a library without the oddly sexually suppressed librarian. It’s basically the heart of this place. I don’t want to read these books. I just want to escape from all the people around here until lunchtime. Oddly, I went to this facility to get away from people, myself, and people saying ”literally” too often and because I don’t want to be around these people I escape into a huge room full of books to help me deal with why I’m here. It’s like going to an airport and just hanging out at the bar at the TGI Fridays. I want to fly somewhere but I guess I’ll just hide behind a $13 Anchor Steam and nine Buffalo wings.

There’s a man dusting the shelves on the opposite side of the room. He’s a black man with lines from life detailing his face. I don’t know his name but I know it’s Carl. The loudest thing in this facility is the jangling of his constellation of keys. I can tell by his dusting method that he realizes dusting is pointless. He knows dusting is just moving dust from these books to other books very close by. It’s not cleaning, it’s just displacing filth. This facility is so immaculate his duties are minimal; he still has a job to do though. I’ve seen him around the grounds for weeks now but I’ve never been this close to him. I’m nervous because I think he knows things on a different level than I do. Carl’s done and seen things that make my life seem soft and pointless. He’s an actual man. I’m an aging boy. But he always displays a friendly dissonance; he’s not outwardly friendly but he makes me feel like he’s fine with me being here. I want him to like me. I want him to teach me how to be better so I can leave this place. I imagine, when I check out, I’ll doff my cap to the counselors and attendants but he’ll know the doff is meant for him. I’ll pick up a cap in the gift shop when I check in, just in case.

While dusting the “It’s All Your Parents’ Fault and Your Uncle Played Part as Well” section Carl looks at the pocket of my robe that I wish I wasn’t wearing but I know I am. He sees the odd shape in my pocket. He knows that I have a small bottle of liquor. I imagine their drinking policy will be absolute. Not the fun kind of Absolute but most likely absolutely no alcohol. But I’m a good sneaker so I brought in some “clarity water” because I know if they accuse me of bringing in contraband I can claim persecution, prejudice and victimization so I took a risk. Everyone claims victimhood in today’s climate and I want a piece of the action. I drink to escape my own life. I’m at this facility to escape my own life. What’s the difference? At least with drinking I’m able to relax and think that maybe I can make sense of all my shit. The life lines on Carl’s face tell me that he instinctively knows me more than he should. He steps down from his ladder. He walks over to me, thumbs hooked over his belt like a gunslinger. His keys jangle like spurs. He gets a respectable distance from me, not like he’s trying to intimidate me but he knows he’s better than me and he wants me to know it. And I do.

“Two fingers”, he drawls.

I don’t know what that means.

“I don’t know what that means”, I say to him.

Carl smiles. “Right hip pocket. Small bottle, based on the sag in the pocket it’s weighty, probably a glass bottle, not plastic, so maybe you have decent taste in contraband. I’ve been here 38 years, I know a saggy booze pocket when I see it. No alcohol on the grounds. You knew this. Right?”

“Yes, sir.”

He chuckles softly. “I’m just the janitor. I’m no sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Two fingers.”

“I think I have a little more than two fingers left.”

He sighs like he’s seen more of my type than he really wants to. “Take out the bottle using two fingers.”

I pull out the small bottle and hand it to him with two fingers. He throws it in the garbage can on the side of the cart he wheels around. “This shit doesn’t help, ya know. You’re better than this and better off without it.”

“Am I?”

“I don’t know. Find out.” Carl pushes his cart out of the beige room. But I see him reach down into the garbage can as he heads out of the doorway.

Lunchtime rolls around. The cafeteria is two buildings over. Obviously, all of us who came here are damaged so there’s stress and anxiety involved in socializing. In my real life I’m having trouble being around other people, even close friends, so I assume that dining with a bunch of slightly broken people will be really stressful. To help all of us integrate, it makes sense that the facility will try to accommodate the stress of socializing with strangers. Maybe each lunch tray is numbered so that the trays correspond to one of the dining tables. This allows all of us to be assigned to a table so we don’t have to worry about being excluded or do that lonely walk, eyes darting for an empty seat. Today I’m assigned to table nine. I have a seat next to Dennis, an auto mechanic, and across from Leslie, a food taster for Nabisco. Leslie took a much needed leave of absence after she was tasked with taste tasting the new Pineapple/Tamale Oreo. This pushed her past the breaking point. The police had to be called to escort her out of the building. People say she’s been here almost a year now. She is very careful about what she eats and takes small, clearly traumatized bites. Dennis is here because he’s dealing with a crippling fear of wrenches. Dennis has been here for three months. He used to walk around in circles just muttering “Retched wrench”. It was very difficult to be around him, even though he seemed like a nice enough guy. When I sit down today I ask him how he’s feeling. He turns to me, smiles lightly and says, “Kinda…tired. Get it? Cause I’m a mechanic?” It’s more of Triple A quip but it seems like he’s making progress. Then he chuckles.

Cherryl comes by with the juice. I’m feeling like cranberry today. Cherryl winks at me and sets down two plastic cups of juice. I can’t tell if she flirts with me or thinks that I have a UTI. Maybe Carl saunters by, his keys loudly chiming on his left hip. None of us are talking very much so the keys are very loud. It’s like a metronome of discomfort. I don’t enjoy these meals. It’s like being in a room full of myself. Being around people is like taste testing Pineapple/Tamale flavored Oreos: it’s too much, too confusing, and I need to get away from it. I take a few bites of what I tell myself is sausage and politely excuse myself. I want to think that I just walk out blandly but my imagination tells me that I’ll cinch my belt robe before I exit.

I get outside into the clean air. I walk past one of the 6 pottery rooms, the pillow making class, and one of the 19 pastel therapy rooms. Maybe I overhear a session in progress. It sounds like a confessional discussion about growing up with mothers with large breasts. I step up my pace. “I gotta get my life together. Why am I making this so difficult?” I say to myself as I descend to the pond. I need to get back to the ducks. I’ll sit on my bench and try to come down from that lunchtime drama. After a few minutes I settle down. A duck waddles up to me and stops short. This duck isn’t my favorite one but I often notice it. I assume it’s a male duck because to me a female duck is a swan and part of the reason my life sucks is because of goddamn sexy, perfect, flirtatious swans in my life who complain about their horrible boyfriends whom they’re texting at dinner while I pick up the check. The duck’s stare is unwavering and maybe a little menacing. The duck stares at me like he’s mentally lecturing me, the tiny black eyes bore into me. He turns his head to the right and left and sort of looks down at the grass. He moves slightly to his left, picks something up and waddles over to me. He is far closer to me now than I have ever been to a duck. I don’t know how I feel about it. Slowly, almost delicately, he places something into my right hand. It’s an old piece of bread. How good do the ducks have it at this place if they can just give away old pieces of bread to the patients? He walks to the end of the bench, poops a little and runs away. I’ll place the bread in the right pocket of my robe. Ted’s marble is in my left pocket.

I’d like to think that a facility like this could really be good for me. I think gruff yet kind janitors, flirtatious juice ladies and compassionate, pooping ducks would help me get out of my head a bit. The issues I’m dealing surely could be solved by non-stop therapy and numbered lunch trays. I don’t know if places like this actually exist but if they do, there better be caps in the gift shop.

Dan Linley is a writer, stand up comedian, sketch actor, and a helluva guy in San Francisco. He wears a watch and has an abnormal fascination with fire engines.