Sacred Window Exhale
At the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, our goal was to provide a safe place for people to get treatment and heal, so it was bad when one of our guests got hurt during their stay. I don’t mean on a horseback-riding trip or from slipping on the tiled deck of the mineral pool. I’m talking about a dart to the third eye.
All our guests came to stay with us because they were suffering from one or more weaknesses in the trifecta of mind, body, and spirit. Norbert Fischer had traveled all the way from Germany. He wanted to give his mind room to breathe, he said, to allow a higher percentage of his brain to function, and we were like, “You’ve come to the right place.” Norbert participated in the Spring I session, which lasted for three weeks, and he had this mix of Zen and good cheer that could have tricked you into thinking it wasn’t his first trepanation. His procedure was scheduled for early in the morning, when sunlight started to break up the mist and wash the world in gold. The staff later told me that he’d said “Thank you” before they made the first incision. After the whole thing was over and he’d gotten stitched up and bandaged, he went straight to the dining hall and shook hands with the kitchen staff, beaming as if he’d just had a child, and ate a breakfast of sausage, grits, and black tea. That’s the kind of man he was, endlessly hungry.
Norbert’s recovery was textbook, no issues, no complications, until right before he was due to go home. He was playing darts in the game room with a fellow guest, Wilmer Alvarez of Buenos Aires. I had been arranging flowers in the great room when I heard Wilmer calling for help and saying that he had accidentally thrown a dart and hit Norbert in his third eye. The third eye is the hole drilled in the head during a trepanation. The skin is cut and peeled back, then a drill goes through the skull, drumming up a ring of wet-looking bone dust. The drill stops before it hits the brain and then is retracted. In the old days, the procedure was performed with an auger, cranked by hand, or sometimes giant screws, chisels, or scrapers. The modern way is electric.
When I rushed into the game room, Norbert was sitting in a chair, arms on the armrests, ankles crossed, the dart sticking out of his forehead. A cup of tea rested on one of the shelves across the room, which made me wonder if he had decided, at the last minute, to cross in front of the dart’s path to retrieve it. I remember everything about how he looked, sitting there. He was wearing loafers without socks. A once white Henley French-tucked into a pair of blue wool trousers. His face was pale and smooth, with fine wrinkles around the eyes, but the skin on his neck was pink and resembled gooseflesh. There wasn’t even gauze wrapped around his head by that point—no, he had insisted on having it removed, saying that the incision wanted to breathe. Poor man. He had wanted the whole of himself to breathe through that aperture in his head and the whole of the world to breathe into him.
The dart was deep in there, there being his brain, and just a tiny bit of the feathered tip stuck out. It didn’t help that Wilmer Alvarez was incredibly fit, having been a matador in Mexico in his youth. Imagine him sticking banderillas in the back of a bull’s neck. Imagine the tendons and muscles in his arms when he threw that dart, the speed at which it traveled. Wilmer was saying that he didn’t know what had happened, he’d never even played darts before, his athleticism was a curse. I called an ambulance and sat with Norbert. He started saying things in German that I couldn’t understand. Something about his tone made it seem like he might be telling Wilmer that it was all right, that it had been an accident, that the world had a will of its own and we as guests on earth must learn to accept the plot twists. At the time, I took this wisdom to mean the trepanation had been successful and that his mind had been expanded. It didn’t even cross my mind that it could have been gobbledygook. Norbert gave me a thumbs-up as he was carried away on a stretcher. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma.
Our guests had to sign a bunch of paperwork when they arrived, basically saying we couldn’t be held liable for anything that went wrong. This was considered alternative medicine, so there was a play-at-your-own-risk attitude. The head of operations at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat, a man by the name of Dan Collier, who definitely wouldn’t have had that job if his father hadn’t been the retreat’s cofounder, said thank God it was a freak accident and not malpractice. Otherwise our reputation might have gone down the tubes.
The big reason I felt terrible was that I had been the one to hang up the dartboard in the first place. I was head of guest services and did any number of things around the property, depending on what was needed, such as changing sheets, fulfilling special requests, and maintaining the aesthetic integrity that guests came to expect of the retreat. I also did things like deciding we were missing a dartboard. This is probably because when I was growing up, my father kept a dartboard in his office at the University of Florida. He was a professor of anthropology, and whenever I went to school with him, he’d be off getting coffee with graduate students or attending department meetings and I would be left to play darts among his stacks of books and ungraded papers in Turlington Hall. My mother was also a professor of anthropology, but, being department chair, she was, as a rule, busier, more stressed out, and less tolerant of my gum-smacking. Her office was farther down the hall, near a display of an ancient mortar and pestle.
After the Spring I session ended, all of the guests departed, including Wilmer Alvarez. Dan said everything was fine, legally speaking, to which I said yippee. I still felt this personal guilt, both because I’d hung up the dartboard and because I hated the idea of one of my guests leaving in a condition worse than the one in which they’d arrived. Before I started working at the retreat, I had been a guest myself. So maybe I imagined myself in Norbert’s shoes and thought, What if I put my well-being in someone else’s hands and they let me get a dart to the third eye? The third eye never blinks. I became a little depressed.
Between sessions, I cleaned half-heartedly and often tuned the portable radio that we kept on the room service cart to a station that played bizarre ambient stuff. One time I was restocking the cart, making sure it was loaded with towels, soap, and extra toothbrushes, when one of the cleaners on my team asked me what I was listening to. I said it must be some avant-garde broadcast from a liberal arts college somewhere, and Liz, a teen mom who wore braids and ribbons in her hair, said, “I think that’s a dead channel.” I didn’t know that was a thing, but she said I hadn’t been listening to music at all and it was just a white-noise whale song bouncing off the topography.
So that is what I was dealing with when the Spring II session began and I met Flip Goldberg. He was my perfect guest, a dream born of a nightmare, and I knew from the first moment I saw him that he was mine to protect.
The first morning of the Spring II session, I got up when it was still dark outside. I did a final walk-through of my domain, which included the great room, the game room, the listening room, the Brown lounge, and the observation deck. It was a manageable domain, so it seemed reasonable that every inch should be exactly right, not an artifact out of place, not a patch of velvet brushed in the wrong direction. Other teams dealt with the kitchen, the spa, the barn, the trepanation theater, etc., and even though all that stuff was flashier, I took pride in the fact that my rooms became known as “home.” Home was comfortable. Home was safe. You could call the front desk, say, “I’m cold,” and I would be there with a blanket.
I put a few more citronella candles out on the observation deck and found an apple core in one of the trash cans in the great room, which I put in my back pocket. I could have taken the extra two minutes to walk in the kitchen and drop it into one of the big bins, but carrying around trash seemed like a small punishment I deserved. Ever since the dart accident, I was always looking for little ways to hurt myself. It felt good to feel bad, and it felt especially good to feel bad in the early morning, when the mist had not yet shifted from ominous to luminous. We were already into the spring sessions on the retreat’s calendar, but in terms of weather and mood, we had just come to the edge of winter and were about to cross over.
I went in the game room and stood there for a minute, among the busy shelves, the leather armchairs, and the goatskin rugs. I touched the pool table, softest burgundy, with my hand. The wallpaper was desert shrubs, cowboys on painted ponies, coyotes drinking rainwater from hoofprints. There was no physical evidence that anything bad had happened in this room, and though I knew the memory of seeing Norbert Fischer with dart feathers sprouting from his third eye was a thing trapped in my head and not a thing that existed, presently, in the real world, still I wondered why that memory had to linger when it could easily slip through my own unblinking third eye and be released. I suspected it was because you couldn’t always choose what you let go of, that just as often the good slips away as the bad. For instance, I’d recently realized that I couldn’t remember my father’s middle name, which seemed like an unbelievable thing to forget, to lose, to have slipped through my third eye without my even knowing. I could have called my mother and asked, but I didn’t like to bother her.
I took down the dartboard and removed the set of darts from the wooden box they were kept in, a box cared with pine cones and squirrels. Was it ironic or was it fitting that the dart to pierce Norbert Fischer had slept on velvet in a Black Forest box? It was perfect and it was painful. The set wasn’t even complete anymore, since one of the darts had traveled to the hospital and probably ended up in a hazardous waste bag or something. If it was incinerated, good, but if it went to the landfill it would likely pierce another innocent animal in the head.
I took the dart stuff to Dan’s office. Golf clubs stood erect as Boy Scouts in the corner of the room, while on the desk sat an unopened Sea-Monkey kit that one of his kids must have given him. All of the guest paperwork was printed out and arranged in a neat stack of folders, which was important in case another tragedy struck and we needed legal language to free us from financial and emotional obligations. Reparations? Nah. Guilt? Who could be bothered? In front of his computer, Dan hunched and scowled in the blue light. He must have trimmed his nose hairs that morning, because he kept rubbing a knuckle on the end of his nose. I leaned the dartboard against a file cabinet and set the bundle of darts on the floor. I had put a rubber band around them, so I wouldn’t have to throw away the beautiful box. Without even looking at me, Dan said, “Everything all set?”
I said, “Destroy this.”
What he said caught up with me. Of course everything was all set. If it wasn’t all set, I would have still been dealing with it, instead of sitting in the wine-colored chair in his office. The thing about Dan was that he shaved on the first day to make a good first impression and then let his beard grow out over the course of the three weeks, which had an inexplicably endearing effect on the guests.
I said, “I have a bad feeling,” and Dan looked up from the computer, eyebrows pinched as if I’d summoned evil. He said, “Enough with the bad attitude. Do me a favor, would you? Smile today, for God’s sake.”
“He’s in a coma, Dan.”
Dan twisted his wedding ring around his finger. “As you will recall,” he said, “we have a special someone coming. So I would greatly appreciate it if you made yourself the picture of hospitality. One person has a good time, they tell their friends, their friends come and have a good time. It’s called word of mouth. It keeps the lights on. So if you can’t get yourself straightened out, we’ll have a talk.”
“We’re talking now.”
“I’m sorry, let me rephrase. We’ll have to reexamine your position here.”
Dan was bad at being human. He seemed to forget that I had once been a guest at the retreat, and back then, two years earlier, I had been sitting in that very chair as a paying guest and not as his subordinate.
“You know how I figured out who the special someone is?” he asked. “The guy registered with one name, but it didn’t match the name on the credit card. Can you guess who it is?”
“I’ll give you a hint. His face is on the cover of the National Enquirer. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame got bashed in with a hammer. I thought about turning him away, but we need the business.”
Trash-talking guests was not a game I played.
I said, “I don’t gossip,” and left.
It made me sick to think of Dan running a lint roller over his quarter-zip and practicing his smile in front of the mirror. I’m sure he did that before welcoming new guests. He had to get in character as someone likable.
It began as it always began. Our shuttle pulled into the front driveway and hummed in mist turned red by brake lights. Walkie-talkies buzzed as the bellboys, Jimmy and Rodrigo, furiously finished their chicken biscuits, balled up the greasy wrappers, shot them into a trash can from an imaginary free throw line, and jogged through the service hallway into the great room. Their tennis shoes gripped softly. Their calves bounced like oranges. The front doors opened for them automatically—what New World extravagance, what accessibility!—and when they returned they were loaded down with luggage. They breathed through their noses, never their mouths.
Dan led the guests inside. They floated on a wave of mist that skated over the floor and then dissipated in the warmth of the room. The vapor was still there, even if we couldn’t see it with the naked eye. It drifted over the handwoven rugs and leather sofas, then rose to the height of the antler chandelier and curled around buck points. Dan lifted his hands like he was playing preacher. Guests tentatively approached display cases holding shards of ancient pottery, medicine pouches, delicate pipes. On the wall hung a framed photograph of our three founders with shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Dan’s father, Frederick Collier, stood in the middle. The little plaque read new beginnings, 1978. The guests looked up,
around, and beyond, to the observation deck that faced the sunrise each morning, with a row of rocking chairs.
I watched the guests from behind a service door. I always enjoyed seeing their reactions, which was selfish of me, I know, but surely not the bad kind of selfish, because it meant I took pride in my work. When Norbert Fischer had arrived for Spring I, he had said, loud enough for the entire group to hear, “What do I see? I see wonderful things!” A memory tolled in me when he said that. As a child, I’d read a book about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. When Howard Carter cracked into the tomb for the first time and cast light on what treasure had been sitting in the dark all those years, someone behind him asked, “What do you see?” and he said, “I see wonderful things.”
I counted six. There were always seven. I figured the missing guest was the someone special mentioned by Dan, the one who had registered with a different name from the one on his credit card. It was highly unusual to arrive outside of the designated “welcome window,” but it wasn’t my place to judge, only to serve where I could. Dan’s voice was muffled, but I heard him leading the group into the dining hall for breakfast. I slipped down the service corridor and into the kitchen, where I saw the head cook, Farrah, spying through a little porthole in the kitchen door. She said, “They’re all going for the avocado. No one’s touching the oatmeal.”
I hopped up on the stainless steel counter and began rolling knives and forks into napkins. My adrenaline was pumping, as it always did with new arrivals, and I needed to give my hands something to do. A whiteboard hung in the kitchen that listed every guest’s name and any relevant dietary info. There were a couple of vegetarians and a pescatarian, which was fairly common with every group, since there was a big overlap between people who wanted to get a trepanation and people who didn’t believe in eating meat. At the bottom of the whiteboard, Farrah had written:
–REQUESTS MEALS BE TAKEN IN HIGS ROOM
After breakfast, the six new guests were taken on a tour. They met the horses, saw the brand-new kiln in the art therapy room, and shook hands with the medical team who would be supervising the physiological aspect of their treatment. Then they were shown to their suites, to unpack and wait for their appointments with Dan to complete the paperwork. I made sure to smile as I introduced the guests to their suites, pointing out little touches like the linen bathrobe, the smudging kit, and the basketful of bottles of spring water and clementines. When I looked them in the eyes—Hulda, Axel, Inga, Tomás, Richard, Nattapong—I tried not to imagine them getting hurt. I tried to imagine them safe and clean and restored. I said, “If there’s anything I can do, please ask.” They smiled, nodded. I said, “Anything at all.”
People didn’t really ask for outrageous things as often as you might expect. For the most part, guests were polite and didn’t want to make a fuss. There was only one time when something weird happened, and the guest who made the request was suffering from a major chemical imbalance. I won’t say her name, because she has political ambitions. One night she called the front desk and asked if I could come to her room. A piece of used toilet paper lay unrolled on the bathroom counter like a soiled scroll. She requested that I read the marks, from left to right, and tell her what I saw. She said she saw birds, tons of birds, and if it really was tons of birds, that was an omen she couldn’t live with. She asked, “Do you see birds?” I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from gagging. I told her that I didn’t see birds, only clouds blowing in the wind, which was the truth. She said she could live with that.
Where did it come from, this desire to serve? I guess you could argue it came from having a father who served his entire life, offering all of himself to his students, his university, his field, his wife and daughter. Or I guess you could argue it came from a mother who mainly served herself, which I can’t necessarily blame her for, because I know she was the first woman to be department chair and that came with its own challenges, namely an endless stream of spittle from the old guard, but it would have been nice if she’d held my hand every now and then. My dream was a tent made of bedsheets, draped over kitchen chairs, and a flashlight casting spooky shadows. What I wanted was for her to crawl in the tent with me and tell me about sleeping in a gorilla’s nest during her field research and waking to the sound of rain. It didn’t matter if that actually happened or not. I guess most women who are the first to do something are sacrificial lambs, as in, OK, you’re doing something exceptional here, but the other parts of your life will dry up.
The mist was heavy all through the morning and into the afternoon. I fetched extra pillows. I relayed the Wi-Fi password. I passed around binoculars on the observation deck and pointed out a skinny black bear that had just emerged from hibernation. It flipped over a rock, sniffed, and sneezed. The guests asked if we had a nickname for the black bear, and when I said no, Nattapong suggested the name Equality, which we all liked. Finally, the sun came out at the warmest hour of the day and the mist thinned, revealing dark patches of trees, trees gasping for breath, and that’s when the helicopter was finally given clearance and Flip Goldberg came down from the sky. He stepped out of the helicopter in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos the color of butter, and flip-flops, with one Louis Vuitton bag slung over his shoulder and another in his hand. He wore gold aviators. Dan had warned me, “Don’t act starstruck. And don’t bring up the accusations.” I told him it wouldn’t be a problem. I was a professional. The bellboys took Flip’s bags and jogged down the quarter-mile trail to the retreat.
Over the helicopter’s slow chop I shouted, “Welcome to the Smoky Mountains, Mr. Goldberg.” Flip ignored the greeting, then headed down the trail by himself. Flip Goldberg was his stage name. Even so, he let everyone call him that. He must have been cold, since he didn’t have on a jacket, only resort wear, but he didn’t comment on the weather at all. It was obvious from the first moment I met him that he was used to leading, not being led. The helicopter revved up, rose above the trees, and surged west.
I followed at a respectful distance and thought, This is what a celebrity looks like. Flip was forty-four years old, and I could tell his true age from the sun-damaged skin on the tops of his ears. His hair was dark, almost black, and the silver at his temples flashed whenever he turned his head. The hair was buzzed to hide the fact that he was developing a bald spot, but a bald spot coming on gently. His neck was not anything special, although I paid attention to it, because most of my first impression of him was from behind, which might sound dirty, except I made a conscious effort not to look at his butt. Instead I looked at the skin on the back of his neck, which was deeply tanned with an orange undertone that made sense once I learned that he had been hiding out on the Big Island before coming to the retreat. That’s where he must have gotten his shirt. It was printed with Hawaiian teenagers feeding one another rings of pineapple.
As we walked down the trail, from helicopter pad to retreat, he moved with confidence, never slipping on a rock or tripping over a root. Despite the turmoil in his life, he seemed to convey strength and resilience that I would not have expected of someone in the throes of a scandal. A bald eagle sat in a tree ahead of us, holding a fish in its mouth, the fish’s wet tail gleaming, dripping water, but Flip Goldberg didn’t even look up. It would have been easy for me to judge him then, to say he was a Hollywood prick, that he couldn’t see past himself, but when you are in guest services and you take your job seriously, you do not judge. If I say that over and over, know it’s something I believe.
Flip’s suite was the largest we offered and also the most private. It was a room that made you feel at the center of the universe, which would have been an incredible rush for regular people, for people like me, but it was the norm for people like him. I had learned the most basic facts of his career earlier that morning, when I overheard an assistant cook ask Farrah why Flip Goldberg was famous in the first place. She explained that he started off with sketch comedy and stand-up, then transitioned into cameos and supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, and then created and starred in his own kids’ TV show. Apparently the kids’ show did the miraculous thing of appealing to both kids and adults, but especially potheads. This was a level of success nobody could have predicted for such an offbeat talent. “Offbeat” was the word Farrah had used, as in, Good thing you’re funny, because you’ll never be Leonardo DiCaprio. The truth is that the center of the universe must have been lonely no matter who you were. There was money and love and good ratings, but the weather could change at the drop of a hat and all of those precious things that made life so wonderful could be hidden behind a wall of impenetrable mist. I said to Flip Goldberg, that star who fell from the sky, “That’s a steam shower
in the bathroom,” and he said, “Fine.”
Then he asked for Lincoln Logs. It wasn’t a joke. My heart quickened. I bowed at his request, which was something I had never done before, not to anyone, and said, “At your service.”
Going down the mountain in the company truck, I felt that apple core in my back pocket, the one I’d put there earlier that morning, a lifetime ago, back when the world was dark. I found Lincoln Logs in the toy aisle of Target and wondered about the potential for a freak accident. Could someone fall and have their third eye pierced by a Lincoln Log if the Lincoln Log had been standing upright? The odds seemed pretty low. A man in Target saw me and said, “You look like you’re in that cult up there.” He blocked my path so I couldn’t get past him. I said, “Excuse me,” and he said, “I see it on your face. You’ve got the mark like all those wackos.” Then he wheeled off toward the automotive section and I headed for the checkout.
I didn’t give it a second thought, because I’d learned a long time ago that I couldn’t get wrapped up in what other people thought about me. Some of my college friends had thought I was crazy when I first went to the retreat as a guest, as in, “Are you seriously getting a hole drilled in your head?” They thought it was totally understandable for ancient times, back when flies laid eggs in cheese and ash fell from the sky, but in today’s world? “Just go to a doctor,” they said. “A specialist. A regular spa!” The truth is, I was going to end up with a hole in my head one way or another, so I figured the retreat was worth a shot.
Flip’s suite was empty by the time I got back. He was going through paperwork with Dan, which meant skimming over legal clauses that basically said, You can’t sue us, bud! I left the shopping bag on the dresser and was about to leave when I noticed a depression in the bed from where Flip had been sitting earlier. I sat in the depression and faced a print of woodpeckers on the wall.
The next day the laundry attendant, Nina, dropped her phone behind one of the washing machines. Why she had her phone out, I don’t know. Suffice it to say some people didn’t take their jobs very seriously. As she started to reach behind the washer, she saw behind it a copperhead with hellfire eyes, saying, “Come at me, bitch.” Nina got her walkie-talkie and shouted that a “serpent” was threatening her safety. I showed up, along with the bellboys. Where was security? Where was the custodian? Probably smoking by the woodshed.
Jimmy and Rodrigo fastened a pillowcase onto the end of a hook. I think it was something they had seen on TV. I didn’t watch TV, or even follow the news, but sometimes it seemed like that was all other people did. They talked constantly about the things they’d seen, read, and heard, as if absorbing media was their second full-time job and their third full-time job was regurgitating all that crap at their first full-time job. I supervised, since I was technically the most senior employee out of everyone, even though I was the same age as the bellboys and twenty years younger than Nina. She was a tiny woman in a big blue smock. She sat crouched on top of the folding counter, her arms crossed in front of her chest in an exaggerated self-hug.
I reminded everyone that we could call pest control, since this pillowcase contraption looked risky, but Jimmy and Rodrigo shut the idea down. Nina said that one of her nephews had gotten bit by a copperhead once and he didn’t go to the hospital, just sipped a bottle of rock and rye through the pain, and his hand swelled up so big that the skin ripped and you could see through to the bone. Jimmy and Rodrigo moved one of the washers so they could pin the snake behind it. Jimmy said, “Maybe we could relocate it to that faggot’s room,” and Rodrigo said, “Yeah, he deserves to get bit in the ass.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
Nina, who was still crouched on the counter like a gargoyle, said, “That man deserves worse than that.”
“Yeah,” Rodrigo said. “Maybe he’d get bit in the dick and then they’d have to
cut it off.” His brow shone with sweat. It was warm down in the laundry room, especially behind those machines spinning hot water all day, which is probably why the snake had gotten cozy. A noise came out of Nina, rising from deep within. It was a mother’s mm-hmm. Rodrigo said, “Your kids ever watch his show?” and she said, “Not anymore they don’t.”
Jimmy said “Got him” and showed us the pillowcase, heavy with snake. He raised it up to the lightbulb that hung from a chain on the ceiling. We could see the snake’s silhouette sliding around, the shadow of its flickering tongue.
I said, “You can’t talk about guests like that.” Jimmy lowered the pillowcase, disappointed, like I had ruined his big hero moment. They tried to argue that it was all over the magazines and if Flip Goldberg hadn’t been a celebrity, he would have already gone to prison, where he would’ve gotten shanked in the showers, and rightfully so, but because he was a celebrity he could afford fancy lawyers and would probably settle out of court. Nina said, “The system’s rigged,” and I said that we had to do our job with our guests to the very best of our ability, and they should all be treated equal. That was our job; our job wasn’t to judge people. We weren’t a court of law. Nina said, “What if he was a Nazi? Would you still love him then?” I didn’t have a chance to answer, because Rodrigo died laughing, saying that Flip Goldberg was Jewish.
I told them to get out, to drive that snake far away and release it.
Nina said, “The linens,” and I said, “I don’t care––get out, get out, get out.”
The snake was the same orange and brown as Flip’s Louis Vuitton bags. I had heard whispers of the scandal, but I didn’t know all the details and I hadn’t sought them out. I didn’t know if the accusations were true or not, which I guess is what made them accusations and not facts, and I had tried to explain to my co-workers that, the way I saw it, Flip was a guest like any other. He was here for a reason. He was seeking treatment. It was our job to facilitate his healing. Period. It’s not like I believed in protecting bad people, but I didn’t think it was right to judge someone for something he may or may not have done, especially when it was mostly being written about in the crap tabloids and magazines on sale in the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes the people who appeared the most powerful were really the most vulnerable.
That is why I won’t repeat the accusations here, now. It does no good to perpetuate rumors or unfounded claims, only gives breath to delusions, lies, and a fantasia of hurt. I say: Let the air go out. Breathe anew. In all likelihood, you have heard the accusations against Flip Goldberg anyway, but in case there is someone out there who hasn’t, I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us. What is weird about him, if you want to call it that, and it seems like everyone wants to call it that, is weird about all of us. I think we should examine the lives of others as if we were looking in the mirror, which requires a certain grace, an instinct for forgiveness. My co-workers were not on the same page.
I went to Dan’s office. He was staring at the computer, greasy-eyed, and he told me that he’d found something interesting. “Turns out,” Dan said, “the name Flip Goldberg was actually the name of a character he came up with in some sketch comedy group in like ’95. The early days of his career, blah, blah, blah …” His eyes scanned the computer screen. “No wonder he didn’t make Saturday Night Live. It says Flip Goldberg was a fictional dentist who wore dentures. I don’t get it. That’s funny?”
I told Dan that employees were gossiping.
He looked up from the computer and asked, “Did they say something to his face?” When I didn’t answer, he said, “All right, then.” He touched the corners of his mouth with his index fingers and curled up the corners into a smile. If I was a person capable of intentional violence, I might have perpetrated some right then and there, maybe swung a golf club at his head. Instead I saw the darts and dartboard still sitting on the floor. I picked them up and left for my cabin, which was on the retreat property, about a mile away from the central hub. I put everything in a trash barrel and burned it. Smoke rose to meet the mist. I had once heard a guest say our famous mist was like a blanket, which I guess meant beautiful, protective, swaddling. There might have been a time when I agreed, but lately the mist seemed more like it aimed to smother. I looked up and said, “You can take me if you want,” but there wasn’t anything up there, or anyone, and nothing happened.
With the barrel still smoking, I went inside and did a thing I am not proud of. I went in the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and cut myself on the inside of the thigh with a razor blade. Back when I’d been a guest at the retreat, I had met this other guest who cut herself, which was a thing I hadn’t understood back then. When I asked why she did it, she said it felt as though her sadness was leaving her when the blood came out. After I made the first cut, I waited for my sadness to leave me, and also my anger. If I hadn’t felt it work, I probably would have stopped right then and there. But I did feel a little something. So I tried it a couple more times, and then I thought, OK, maybe this works. Now I can see this for what it really was—another way of trying to heal old wounds by opening up new ones.
Five guests opted to go horseback riding: Hulda, a woman in her early fifties from Humboldt County, California, who owned a marijuana farm and told most people within ten minutes of talking that she planned to stay single for the rest of her life; Richard, a white-haired retiree from Seattle who volunteered on archaeological digs and had heard about trepanation from one of the interns; Nattapong, a young man from Thailand who had recently graduated from college and decided to abandon a career in hotel management to be an LGBTQ+ activist; and Axel and Inga, a thirty-year-old couple from Iceland, both of whom wore matching Fair Isle sweaters and suffered from mild depression.
Two guests stayed behind, even though they had technically paid for the horseback-riding trip as part of the all-inclusive price of the retreat. Our brochure claimed that it broke down to $1,300 per day, but I think that was before taxes and the online processing fee. One of the guests who stayed behind was Tomás, the pescatarian. I don’t think he would mind my saying that he wanted the treatment to let the evil out of his head. He’d told me that he had been hospitalized for manic episodes twice, because he struggled with medication adherence, and he thought trepanation might help. He’d heard about it on a podcast where armchair anthropologists talked about trepanation being an ancient surgery that was believed to help ailments such as demonic possession, babbling, drooling, glassy eyes, brain diseases, paranoia, parasites, swelling, bleeding, epilepsy, energy imbalances, fractures as a result of blunt force trauma, hard knocks, battle wounds, mania, migraines, visual disturbances, hallucinations, and a general feeling of impending doom. Tomás sent a cheek swab to a DNA company that advertised in the podcast and discovered that 22 percent of his DNA traced back to Oaxaca, Mexico. A simple Google search revealed that just outside Oaxaca City was Monte Albán, the World Heritage site where trepanned skulls had famously been discovered. This is what Tomás described as life coming “full circle.” He himself was an embodiment of the kiss sealed between then and now. I said, “Good for you, Tomás,” and arranged an appointment for him to float in the isolation tank.
The other guest to stay behind was Flip Goldberg.
Everyone who wanted to go horseback riding met for breakfast at seven o’clock, then walked to the barn together. Tomás closed himself in the isolation pod. The retreat became so quiet that I could hear clocks ticking in the great room. Liz, one of the room service attendants, came back from her daily rounds sucking on the end of her braid and saying Mr. Goldberg wasn’t in his suite, which made her nervous. I sensed something more. “What is it?” I asked. “You can tell me.” She said there were toys on the floor of his room. I handed her a toothbrush and a can of Bar Keepers Friend, saying if she was really that freaked out, she could expel some of the bad energy by scrubbing the staff bathroom.
Before I even knew it, I found myself wandering into the great room with my hands behind my back, teetering on my tiptoes, senses piqued. If anyone had caught me and asked what I was doing, I almost certainly would have scuttled off like a roach. I heard the hiss of a bottle being opened and knew where to go.
He sat on a barstool in the Brown lounge, sipping our house-brewed kombucha out of a bottle. His hair was pressed flat against his head, and he wore an old Hollywood Bowl T-shirt that had tiny holes in the collar. He was barefoot, his toes curled over the barstool footrest. He looked like he wanted something more than kombucha but didn’t have the energy to be disappointed. The Brown lounge was a self-serve deal. The name didn’t come from the wood paneling, which made the room glow, but from the Brown family, who had two seats on the board of directors. The effect of being in the lounge was intoxicating, but in the dreamy way, not the way where you’ve been drinking and have a headache and want to die when the party ends. We didn’t offer alcohol on-site anyway, since technically we were in a dry county.
This was the first time I’d seen Flip out of his suite. He’d been taking meals in his room and hadn’t joined any of the scheduled activities, neither the rafting trip on the Nantahala nor the frozen yogurt social. Knowing he was lactose intolerant, the kitchen staff had even brought out a machine called Yonanas, which turned bananas into ice cream, and then they complained when he didn’t show up. I don’t know what he did in his room alone. Every now and then I heard him talking on the phone. I never eavesdropped. I always walked away. I figured he had ventured into the Brown lounge because the place was empty. I asked if he wanted some nuts. He said, “Sure.” I stepped behind the bar and shook organic salted peanuts into a vintage Planters Peanuts dish. There was a jar of maraschino cherries behind the bar from back when a guest had requested a Shirley Temple, but, remembering the “no cherries” on the kitchen whiteboard, I pushed the jar into the shadows.
Flip didn’t touch the nuts.
He said, “I’m thinking of a Christmas special where I pull back a manhole, then go underground and find creatures living in the sewers. They seem scary at first, then we make friends.” His voice was quiet and deeper than I expected. He held up a cocktail napkin scribbled with notes. “Or maybe not,” he said. “Maybe they eat me alive.”
This was the first time he’d said anything to me that didn’t involve a request of some kind. I was excited that we might be having a real conversation, although nervous about how to proceed. Obviously, I wanted to shoot for professional, cool, a little coy, quiet. It was always better to start on the quiet side. I said, “Are the Lincoln Logs well?”
“Playing with toys helps me think of ideas,” he said, as if he thought I was making fun of him. “You should see my house.”
I smiled, but I don’t think he trusted my smile.
He asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“I know you’re an actor and a comedian. You have a kids’ show.”
“That’s what people think.”
I never would have pried into his perception of himself, but this felt like an
invitation to peel back a single layer. I asked, “Who are you, then?”
“I do the aforementioned,” he said, “but none of that happens unless something’s written, so really I’m a writer. Some would say not a very good one.”
“Isn’t that what you do, not who you are?”
“Not a bad question,” he said, speaking into the narrow opening of the bottle, his voice trapped, ricocheting in amber glass. “But no. I am a writer. I am this head, its contents and its creations, however fucked they might be.”
He pushed the napkin into the kombucha bottle, pressing with his finger until the whole thing made it through the tiny opening, then he swirled the bottle. Faint wrinkles on his face showed that he had spent much of his life smiling, but he wasn’t smiling now. The look on his face conveyed the loss of something terribly important, of something it would be too painful to put a name to. There was also a dash of self-hatred. I could tell that by the curled toes. It made me hurt inside to see him like this—not because he was a down-and-out celebrity, but because I could feel his need for healing. Maybe the thing he felt he’d lost was respect in the public eye. Or maybe it was something much less obvious. His eyes were flat brown, like the fizz had gone out of them.
I waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t, I wondered if his tolerance for company had waned and he was ready to be alone again, so I put my hands behind my back and said, “I’ll leave you to it.”
He asked, “Am I crazy for coming here?”
“You have to say that. You work here.”
He rubbed his face. His fingers, one by one, brushed over the length of his nose. It was a terrible thing to realize that I was attracted to him, because from then on I would have to consciously remind myself not to be attracted to him, not to let it show, not to do or say anything that would reveal the fermenting affection I felt. I was a professional, after all, and almost everything had to be corked.
I said, “I didn’t always work here. I was a guest before.”
He didn’t go googly-eyed or anything. He said, “I could tell,” and pointed to my third eye. He asked if it felt strange, and when I said no, you could just feel the rim of bone, his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested curiosity. I said he could touch my third eye, since he was going to get a trepanation soon enough. He made a thumbsup with his hand. Then he turned the thumbs-up sideways and touched the pad of his thumb to my forehead, where my third eye pulsed. The thumb was cool from holding the bottle.
He said, “I’d have to get makeup to cover up the dent. If I ever work again.”
The front doors opened. There were voices. The trail ride had been scheduled to last half the day, but they’d had to cut it short. Flip got off the stool without saying a word and went back to his room, silent on bare feet. I started to clean up so that there would be no evidence of Mr. Goldberg’s roaming that could inspire further gossip.
Joe came into the lounge, bowlegged and peeved. He worked down at the barn and was in charge of trail rides. His background was a mystery to me, although he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his hand. It didn’t seem to bring much luck. He looked at the jukebox, which had neon piping that shifted from red to orange to yellow, and he said, “Fucking Twizzler lights.” He ripped the plug out of the wall and said they’d encountered paparazzi in the woods. “Yeah,” he said. “Paparazzi.” He clenched his teeth together like they were a race of people he wanted deported. The story was that he’d been leading the string of horses when the first of the paparazzi jumped out from behind a tree and started taking flash photos. This spooked Joe’s horse. Joe said, “Lucky I know how to hold on, because if it’d been anybody else, they might have fallen off and bashed their brains in.” When his horse reared up, he reached over to the nearest tree and snapped off a branch. Then, when the horse dropped to all fours again, he whipped that branch across the paparazzo’s face. It made a solid white mark, completely bloodless, and the paparazzo ran off screaming before Joe could have the satisfaction of seeing the welt rise. As the injured paparazzo tore through the woods, two others broke free from their hiding places and followed the first guy like ducks in a V.
I said we should let Dan know. Joe said, “Thanks, Mom,” and I gave him a look that said “Do we have a problem now?” Because we had always gotten along OK. He said, “What am I supposed to do? Hammer a ‘no flash’ sign out there? Flip Goldberg coming up in here and trying to fuck up my trail ride. What a fake-ass name. I heard you were defending that pervert, like he’s even got the right to a defense. Why do you care so much, anyway? Why do you care at all?” He sucked his teeth and headed out the door, muttering, “Whole world’s gone to shit.”
I went to Dan’s office and said Joe was creating a hostile work environment, as evidenced by the fact that he’d stood in front of my face, close enough that I could see the wad of dip in his mouth when he talked, or rather when he yelled at me.
Dan said, “Maybe he’s got a point.”
I stood there, in my perfectly ironed uniform, my flared trousers and buttondown shirt and fleece vest. I didn’t know how I was becoming the bad employee, when I only ever tried to do the right thing. I told Dan that the right thing to do was to hire more security, because paparazzi were clearly a threat to the safety of everyone at the retreat. Surely that was an objective we could both rally behind. At the moment the retreat had only two security guards, one a middle-aged man whom everyone called Turkey Tom, because he made gobbling noises during his nonsanctioned work naps. He sat in a dark room and reviewed footage from the handful of security cameras scattered across the property. The other security guard was a kid with cystic acne. He made ten dollars an hour for reading Fight Club on repeat.
Dan complained about the cost.
I said, “Forget the cost.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“How can people expect us to help them if we can’t even keep them safe?”
Dan slammed his fists on the table. He started to laugh. I thought, Wow, he’s
losing it. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. He admitted that he’d tipped off the paparazzi in order to make a little extra money. This went against the entire ethos of the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, which had been co-founded by Dan’s own father, his own flesh and blood. I said, “Your father would be ashamed,” and Dan drew a spiral in the air with his finger and said, “Loophole: the dead don’t feel shit.”
Having lost my own father, I could only look at him with pity. “Are you in
trouble?” I asked. “Is that what this money stuff is about?”
There were dark gray rings around his eyes. He said, “I’ve got triplets! That’s three times everything! Goddamn IVF.”
He sighed, as if all of this was too much for him. He tapped his desk. His beard thickened before my very eyes. The mist pressed against the windows and waited to see what would happen next. I said, “We have to protect the guests,” and Dan simply nodded without saying a word. He said that he had some cousins looking for work and they might be able to help out. By the end of the day, Dan had hired three new guards.
Johanna called from the spa to let me know that Flip Goldberg had requested a manicure. She said, “We’ve got an issue on our hands,” completely unaware that she had just made a pun. The “issue” was that our cosmetologist had called in sick because of a case of the dreaded double pink eye. Johanna said, “I offered to arrange a visit to the nearest salon, but he refused, because I guess he’s trying to be incognito or whatever, and then he asked me to call guest services. Which is you? I don’t know what to do. He’s like, right here.” I said I would be there in five minutes.
It was raining, so I took the golf cart. I passed one of the new security guards, who was lumbering along the muddy trail, probably going to his outpost in the woods, where, if he was lucky, there would be a roll of toilet paper in an old Christmas tin. He looked mad about having to wear a poncho. I wanted to shout, “Cheer up! You’re doing a good service!” because I was glad that my safety concerns were being taken seriously. I waved, but he didn’t wave back.
At the spa, flute music played through hidden speakers and an artificial grove of bamboo grew in the center of the lobby. Just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, there was a giant sprinkler head above the bamboo that released mist on a timer; just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, a noise like thunder preceded the mist. I took off my shoes and put on one of the pairs of slippers that were kept in every size by the door. The air had a smooth, creamy texture that you didn’t find anywhere else on the retreat. This was owing to a filtration system that pumped in extra oxygen. After a few breaths, I already felt more alert. Edges sharpened. I walked up to the bamboo, which grew in a familial clump, and stopped in front of a ring of stones. Each stone had a word etched on its face. When you read them together, they told a story: INHALE. LIFE. SACRED. WINDOW. EXHALE.
Johanna snuck up behind me. “Should I have lied?” she asked. “Should I have told him we didn’t do manicures? Would that have been easier?”
I told Johanna that it was never OK to lie to a guest. Our job was to accommodate their wishes whenever possible, and no, Mr. Goldberg’s request was not impossible. I would perform the manicure myself.
We sat in a room tiled from floor to ceiling. There was a long sink against
one wall, reclaimed from the psychiatric ward of an old Memphis hospital, with enough room for six nurses to stand side by side and scrub up. The hardware was copper, very expensive, and there were two kinds of soap cakes: unscented, for those with sensitive skin, and lavender. The tile was baby pink, which made it easy for the mind to wander and think of bubble gum and newborns and lying naked in a bed. I tucked those images away and got to work. Even though I had never given a manicure before, I familiarized myself with the cosmetologist’s tools and decided I would learn as I went. Success was the only option.
I directed Flip Goldberg’s hands into the soaking tray. He said it had been a few weeks since his last manicure in Hawaii. It gave him a restless feeling to watch his hands revert to their natural state, “natural” meaning rough and dry, even though they felt nice to me. I didn’t say that out loud, though, because I didn’t want him to think I was sucking up. I clipped the nails first and discovered how much there was to consider, like keeping the lines clean and not cutting too far down. Then I filed and buffed. Buffing was my favorite part. By the time I got to work on the cuticles, pushing them back and clipping the excess, he spoke again. I had to be careful. The trimmers were wicked.
“You said you were a guest,” he said. “How did you end up here?”
I told him it was migraines.
He said, “It’s supposed to help?” and I knew by “it” he meant getting a hole in the head.
I explained that trepanations relieved pressure. This pressure could have
different causes, such as headaches or unwanted spirits, for example, and when you created a hole in the head, there was a way for this pressure to escape. Otherwise, your head would be a pressure cooker. And what happened to the brain and, subsequently, to the mind when the pressure built and built and built? Complete deterioration. Mush. The funny thing was that back when I’d had migraines, before my trepanation, I had always wanted a hole in my head. It was a fantasy that materialized in the throes of pain, a primitive desire that worked its way up from the subconscious, rising like a whitehead. It was not just my subconscious, either. Trepanned skulls had been found all over the world, dating back thousands of years.
The desire was collective.
I didn’t know what kind of face Flip was making while I told him all of this,
since I never dared look up and risk an inauspicious snip, but I sensed wariness. I tried to soften the whole spiel around the edges by saying, “I studied anthropology in college.”
He didn’t comment, but I assumed that he could relate to the feeling of
overwhelming pressure. His entire life must have been a performance, whether he was playing a character or just being himself, and what defined the life-asperformance was the constant presence of an audience. They were always watching, whether it was on TV or in real life. I couldn’t imagine the effect that would have on a person, so I put all of my energy into exfoliating his hands, beginning with his left hand, with the goal of scrubbing the old, the damaged, the weary, and leaving only the fresh and new. The paste smelled like crushed walnuts. Grit filled the lines on his palm. Then I exfoliated his right hand, working over the palm, the individual fingers, the back of his hand. Some of his suntanned skin scrubbed off, like tiny bits of dough rolled into snakes. Even though I felt self-conscious about my performance as a manicurist, I was giddy at my core.
Some co-workers had thought it was weird that I liked Norbert Fischer so
much, the guest who had been so ebullient, up until the dart accident, but it was only because Norbert reminded me of my father. Flip Goldberg didn’t remind me of anyone. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. It might sound crazy that I held any affection for him at all, especially considering the scandal he was wrapped up in and all the speculation about his life and what kind of man he really was, but I hardly took any of that into consideration. You can’t tell your heart not to race when it’s already racing. All you can do is deal, even if dealing means praying that the sound of your nervous blood can’t be heard pounding through your ears.
Next came the moisturizer. Flip wanted to know if the trepanation had
helped me. I said, “I haven’t had a migraine in two years.” It was true that I hadn’t experienced a headache or anything, but lately I was feeling like I wasn’t totally healed in the broader sense of the word.
“How do you know the procedure was responsible?”
It was almost as if he didn’t want to say the word trepanation. I asked, “What do you mean?”
“How do you know it wasn’t from lifestyle changes? My manager, or ex-manager, had migraines. He kept a list of triggers in his wallet, which was supposed to remind him to avoid MSG. I should’ve kept a list that told me to avoid people like him, the jackass.”
The objective truth was that I had not isolated the variable. When I decided that something had to be done about my migraines, that I couldn’t keep living with them, I had a trepanation performed and then I quit drinking. Alcohol was my trigger. Now that I’d quit drinking and had the trepanation, I no longer suffered from migraines, so it was hard to give a definitive answer. I told Flip the truth, which was that the trepanation had not harmed me in any way. His lip curled. I said, “I always assumed it was the trepanation that made the headaches stop, but I don’t know for sure.” I felt terrible admitting that—advocating the treatments we offered at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness was, after all, my job—but
only thirty minutes earlier I had been telling Johanna that you should never lie to a guest.
I asked what color polish he preferred. For all I knew, he could have wanted a clear coat. He declined any. He said, “I’m having second thoughts.”
The copper pipes banged, as if we were being called to dinner in a castle. Flip and I looked up at the same time and saw Johanna, standing on tiptoe and watching us through the diamond-shaped window in the door. Flip said, “I don’t want to see her face again,” and I said, “Of course, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
Later, I pulled Johanna aside and asked what she possibly could have been
thinking, spying. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said. “Seriously. I mean, I saw you touching his hands and I was thinking about where his hands had been.” I couldn’t believe her stupidity. I said, “Let me see your hand,” and she held it out, doe-eyed, like What are we looking for? I shook her hand, hard, businesslike, and said, “Now you’ve caught it, too.” She wailed, then ran into the oxygen chamber and strapped on a mask.
For me, evening in the Smokies wasn’t characterized by natural wonders, such as hooting owls or star-spangled skies, but by walking home in the dark, putting on the kettle, and kicking off my clogs. My cabin was decorated in the style of a Pigeon Forge rental, which is another way of saying it was dressed like a sitcom set. The photographs hanging on the walls didn’t even represent local wildlife. It was all summer elk, white rabbits, and moonlit wolves. I guess those images came from Alaska or somewhere, I don’t know, but the cabin had been furnished when I moved
in and it was easier to leave everything alone. I had never even turned on the TV. Sometimes I used it as a mirror. The windows became mirrors at night, too. They didn’t show the outside world like they did in daytime, but reflected the inside of the cabin back at me. Lights, furniture, my face. If I had to describe my expression in the windows during the Spring II session, I might say at sea.
We were far enough into the session that guests were going through pretreatment counseling and being asked to visualize their trepanation. Soon they would be in the surgical theater, with the chair in the middle of the room, positioned directly under a skylight, and a drain in the floor. On the walls around them, a mural depicted trepanation through the ages. Their foreheads would be wiped with disinfectant. Gauze would be wound around their eyes, a layer thick enough to absorb the blood that dripped from the incision, and they would wait in their own personal darkness for the words “Now I am going to make the first cut.” Then the sound of the drill, which started at a low pitch and got higher as bit bore into bone.
The isolated variable thing nagged at me. That’s why I skipped my nightly hot chocolate and had a bottle of bourbon on the coffee table. Dry county, I know, but the bottle had been a Christmas gift from—who else?—Dan and his wife, Ivy. That tells you how well they knew me. I knew them, too. For Christmas I had given Dan a Titleist headcover for one of his drivers and Ivy a stainless steel bento box. She was a mommy blogger, and I’d heard somewhere that they liked to meal-prep.
I had devised a little experiment, which was to drink a single glass of bourbon and see what happened. I figured one glass would do it, since my tolerance was zero. Plus, when I drank back in college, I normally noticed the early signs of a migraine during the first drink anyway. You might be asking, “Idiot, why drink at all? If you knew what was going to happen, that you were going to feel terrible, so terrible that you wanted to die, why would you revert to the behavior that had made you feel that
way?” The truth is that I always hoped it might be different this time, whenever “this time” happened to be. This is the ultimate delusion, that an established pattern might randomly be broken. When you hear it in real life, you hear people say, “Things might change,” or, “Maybe it will be different next time,” even though the pattern suggests otherwise. You might be saying now, about me, “Oh, she was an alcoholic,” but that’s not the truth. I just wanted to hang out like a normal person.
This is the story:
Some friends and I had gone to an on-campus screening of A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo and then for drinks after, where we talked about the disgraced anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the ethics of ethnography. The bartender came over to our table, shouted “No sniveling” into a megaphone, then went to pour us a round of shots with blackberry liqueur and vodka. The shots were called “Zipperheads,” a name that I can’t be blamed for, since I didn’t come up with it. My head started to hurt, so I went home and drank water and took my prescribed migraine medication, Topamax, which didn’t help. I managed to fall asleep. I would not say that I “woke up” later, because it wasn’t as gentle as that, a coy fluttering of eyelids at first light; no, it was more like being cut out of sleep, as a baby is cut out of the womb. I was brought back into the pain, but it was a pain so bad that it almost didn’t register as a feeling; it was more like another dimension of existence. I stumbled through the apartment, looking for a gun so I could shoot myself, as if there was a gun in a drawer somewhere. There wasn’t. I tried to summon a gun by saying, “Gun, gun, gun,” which woke up my roommate. She called 911. This landed me in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. They pumped me with drugs and fluids. After twenty-four hours, I was back to normal. Mostly. My mental status had to be evaluated before they would discharge me from the hospital. They asked, “Do you remember talking about black holes? And singing, ‘Cock it and pull it’?” I lied when they asked if I was currently suicidal, even though I knew I’d have to kill myself if I continued experiencing migraines like that. My father was the one who suggested trepanation. He had a friend in the linguistics department at Auburn who’d gone to the retreat. “Highly recommended,” he said. Off I went. My experience in the surgical theater? Terrifying, but delicious—because I had nothing to lose. I remember the relief that came once the drilling stopped, which meant I had a hole in my head. I had done something terrifying and survived. No more headaches. The retreat changed me, too. I considered the full picture of my health and wellness. I quit drinking. I focused on my breath. My father said he was happy for me, that all he’d ever wanted was for me to be happy, which is a stupid thing to hear in somebody else’s story, but when it’s your own story it’s enough to make you cry. My father ended up dying in a lecture hall, in front of an audience of graduate students. At least I had the chance to feel sad. I don’t think my mother did. The bureaucracy of death was, in some ways, no different from the bureaucracy of being department chair.
I didn’t want to be home after that. I didn’t want to continue with my education, either. So I’d gotten a job at the retreat and had been there ever since.
I sipped the bourbon and felt the trail of warmth go down my throat and into my stomach. I kept sipping, and it started to make me nervous. The whole point was to see if I was going to get a migraine, and yet a migraine was the thing I was afraid of getting, mainly because migraines hurt but also because if I got a migraine, it would mean that I had not been cured by trepanation.
I kept drinking anyway. Ever since that dart had hit Norbert Fischer in the third eye, I had been feeling disenchanted with the retreat. A crack had formed and doubt had slipped in, like a cat.
Once I finished the glass of bourbon, the experiment was over. I sat there and looked at the wall, trying to decide what I felt. The wall was blank, but slowly Flip Goldberg’s face began to fill it. A halo grew around him, fuzzy and gold. I knew it wasn’t a halo, but an aura, which was a precursor to a migraine. That was enough for me. Fully spooked, I called it. I went into prevention mode, taking the loading dose of ibuprofen, drinking a glass of water, and then having a hot shower, since that regimen used to help. I changed into pajamas and determined, with immense relief, that the pain was not getting any worse, only hovering at “annoying.” It was scary to think how close I might have been to a migraine, but in a way, it was scarier to think that I had not been entirely cured, when I had believed I had been for so long. I didn’t think the trepanation had done any damage, but not doing harm is a far cry from helping. People wanted an endorsement. They wanted the brochure to say “It works!” not “It can’t hurt!”
I was about to go to bed when a security guard knocked on the door. It was one of the new guards Dan had hired. My initial reaction was that something terrible must have happened, like Flip Goldberg had been kidnapped by paparazzi and was being held for ransom. I was ready for anything, because earlier that afternoon, once the rain had stopped, two stoned middle schoolers had been found hiding in a hollowed-out log. They were fans of Flip’s TV show and carried pictures of him that they’d printed out from the internet. The pictures were sealed in gallon-size Ziploc bags to keep from getting wet. When asked what they hoped to accomplish, they said they wanted autographs. When asked how they knew Flip’s location, they pretended not to hear the question.
I opened the door to see what it was all about, crossing my arms over my pajama top. We must not have had any spare security uniforms at the retreat, because this guy wore a silk bomber jacket and a black baseball cap with security embroidered on the front. He said, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I asked if everything was all right. He said, “Oh, yeah, everything’s fine. Everything’s good. Not to be weird, but I saw you having a drink through the window and wondered if you wanted to have another one with me? It’s kind of cold out tonight.” He stamped his feet on the ground, as if to emphasize his point. Women know this moment, the moment where you think, Oh, come on. I told him I was going to bed and started to close the door. He blocked the door with his boot.
“Did I mention I’m Dan’s cousin?” he said. “I should have mentioned that. People call me Ozzy because I like to rock. Dan said he was shorthanded with security, so I’m doing him a favor. Crazy about those kids in the log earlier, right?”
I told him it was late, which is as nice, as accommodating, as gentle as you can be in that situation, and he sort of laughed. “Let me come in and I won’t tell Dan you were drinking. I know it’s a dry county and employees aren’t supposed to drink.”
That might have been true, but the fine print in the employee handbook wasn’t worth getting assaulted over. I said, “If you don’t step away, I’m going to call the police.”
He held up his hands, a gesture of surrender.
“Forget it,” he said. “No worries. Dan just mentioned you were the one who liked that creep so much, so I thought you might want to role-play and let me eat a cherry out of your ass.”
I must have known all along that something would happen with the accusations against Flip Goldberg, but I didn’t know when it would happen or if he would still be in my care. The two options, if you were trying to be simple about it, were either that everything would explode, which I guess meant he would end up going to court and being found guilty, like all of my co-workers wanted, or that the accusations would disappear. True, if the scandal died a quiet death, Flip’s reputation would still be tarnished. Whenever the general public saw his face or heard his name, they would always think, There’s that guy who did that thing, but at least he would be free. I never believed Flip Goldberg was a bad man. I’m not sure I even believed he was a sick man, and I certainly didn’t believe on a philosophical level that being sick made you bad. So I was glad that the quiet death happened, not the explosion. I was also surprised that I was there, or at least in the vicinity, to witness it.
It had been a busy morning. Axel and Inga’s toilet was clogged. Hulda asked that all the light bulbs be removed from her suite, because she thought natural light would ease her into a headspace fit for trepanation. “I know what you’re going to say,” she said. “Leave the light bulbs and just don’t use them. That’s missing the point. I want the temptation removed entirely.” Nattapong wanted his clotheswashed and folded. Richard needed pens. I delivered a package of black pens. He said he preferred blue. A mysterious stain appeared on the velvet settee, which my co-workers blamed on Flip Goldberg, even though there was no evidence to back up the claim. The stain acted like marmalade, which screamed “Richard” to me. There were always marmalade jars in his trash when I emptied it, plus X-shaped stains on the hand towels in his room, as if he were always wiping a sticky finger on them. I wanted to tell Dan about the encounter with his cousin and order that the creep bedisposed of, figuratively speaking, but I never found the time.
Then Flip Goldberg came to the front desk. “In private,” he said to me, and I urged him into the service corridor, which was empty at that time, except for a piece of limp broccolini that lay between us on the linoleum. He said his reception was terrible. He was trying to answer an important phone call, but the call kept dropping. I asked if he could use the landline in his room, but he didn’t believe the line was private. I said, “I can assure you, sir, that no one listens in,” and he said, “Not good enough.” His eyes were glassy. He glanced at the broccolini and his toes curled in his flip-flops. I offered to set up a videoconference in the business center, which I could seal off using caution: wet floor signs. “Is it 1999?” he said. “I didn’t ask for a videoconference. I asked for a phone call.”
I told him that I understood completely and I could offer two options: we could drive thirty minutes to a Waffle House parking lot acclaimed for its good reception, or we could go to a fire lookout that sat on retreat property and had a clear shot to the nearest cell tower.
Flip picked the second choice. His nerves must have upset his stomach, because I smelled farts as we hopped in the golf cart, and then luckily the breeze whisked them away. I couldn’t remember exactly where the fire lookout was, so we drove around for about ten minutes until we arrived at an electric fence I had never seen before. On the ground, I spied a circle of downy feathers, with a bird head at the center. The rest of the bird was gone. Flip said, “Tell me you know where we’re going,” and I said, “We’ll be there momentarily, sir. My apologies.” Flip was pale. We backtracked, and I found the turn that I’d missed before. The fire lookout was not entirely abandoned. Someone sat on the bottom of the stairs. I said, “Let me see who it is,” afraid that it might be Dan’s cousin. The figure was short and squat, though, and wearing a black polo that I recognized. Flakes of skin dusted the shoulders. It was Turkey Tom, one of the original security guards. I said, “What are you doing here, Tom?” and he said, “I could ask you the same thing.” He said one of the new guys had boasted about his computer chops, so Dan offered to let him try overseeing the wall of security footage, while Tom was sent into the woods like a horse to pasture. He said, “This is a young man’s job, standing in the elements.” I knew it must have been a big change from his usual position, with the comfy swivel chair, the heat vent blowing on his feet, and the nearby kitchen where he could sneak muffins.
“Sorry about all that,” I said. “I had my own problems with one of the new guys.”
Flip was waiting in the golf cart, his trifecta deteriorating by the minute, and I felt bad for keeping him waiting. I pointed to a big tree about twenty yards away and said, “Would you mind standing there for a while, Tom? I’ve got a guest trying to make a phone call. It’s private.”
He looked around. “This is as private as it gets.”
“Well, OK,” Tom said. “Good reception up here. Nice view, too.” He pointed to the fire lookout and said, “I had to climb up there earlier to make sure paparazzi weren’t hiding out. The door was unlocked and the place was a mess, so my heart was going pretty fast.”
“Secure?” I asked.
He picked up his thermos of coffee and started walking to the tree. He gave a little wave.
I told Flip that I would be waiting at the bottom of the tower. A security guard was on standby. Before making his ascent, I thought he might say thank you or give a meaningful nod. Instead he said, “How can it be this hard to make a motherfucking phone call? Jesus fuck, this place is stuck in the Dark Ages.”
I knew he was under stress, so I tried not to let it get to me. The fire lookout was much taller than I remembered, even though I’d only seen it once before, when I was new to the job and had been exploring the property on a day off. I’m not good at guessing heights, but it might have been a hundred feet off the ground. There were two flights of steps, with a landing in between, where I suspected Turkey Tom had taken a break so he could catch his breath before continuing the rest of the way. The lookout itself looked like one big room, with a wraparound balcony. It would have been a little kid’s dream if it had been erected for the purpose of play and not spotting potentially deadly fires. Flip walked up the first flight of stairs, paused on the landing to check his phone, then walked up the second flight of stairs. Here he stood on the balcony, head bent, and turned in nervous circles. After a moment, he seemed to have collected himself and then went inside the room at the top of the lookout, slamming the door behind him. I guess he wanted that extra layer of privacy. I watched everything from below. I could have cried.
I waited in the golf cart for a long time. I worried that Flip was getting terrible news, like he’d have to go back to Los Angeles for a deposition or a hearing or even the beginning of a trial. Like I said before, I didn’t know about the state of his affairs. I had been out of the loop for the past two years. When I came to the retreat, I’d quit reading the news and watching TV, since it was part of my quest to cut out noise. Only since Flip Goldberg’s arrival had I begun to have tinges of curiosity about him, moments when I was tempted to tune back in and google everything from “Flip Goldberg scandal” to “Flip Goldberg shirtless.” Ultimately, though, I couldn’t do it. I was afraid of what I might find. Worse, I was afraid the evidence against him might be convincing. Maybe at the center of all this is a question that I have difficulty confronting. A question that makes me embarrassed, sick. The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile? I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t want to be the answer. So I never gave myself the opportunity to really know, believe, or acknowledge that he could have been one. In this way, I protected myself from becoming a woman who liked a pedophile. I’ve said before that I believe in examining the lives of others as if looking in the mirror, with the same kindness and gentleness that we hope to afford ourselves. I saw myself in him, as any human can see themselves in any other human, and I said to myself, in the mirror, “Please be good.”
Eventually, Flip came out on the balcony and leaned against the wooden rail. I got out of the golf cart and craned my neck to see him. When I looked up, my lips must have been parted, because one of his tears fell into my mouth. It was cold from falling. He leaned on his elbows, hands clasped together, head forward. This would have been the moment when the scandal passed out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead, a vapor making its way from one room to another. It was a quiet passing, because the rest of the world didn’t know about it yet. All of that would come with time, but just then, at that moment, it was only a nearly imperceptible exchange of energy: as the scandal left, so returned Flip’s life.
I waited for a minute, giving him time.
Then I said, “Is there anything I can do?”
He squinted at me in the silver light. Maybe it only looked like he was squinting because his eyes were swollen. Over by the tree, Turkey Tom had fallen asleep. Flip said, “Come up here a minute.”
A hundred stairs later, I saw mountaintops breaching the mist. It felt like there could not possibly be a higher place on earth. Flip appeared unsteady, with his head bobbing and the silver glimmering at his temples. I could not ask what had happened, even though it was the human impulse. What I heard later was that his lawyers had settled out of court, for an amount of money in the millions, and the case had been dropped. The phone call taken at the fire lookout in Tennessee was the moment he found out that his life was not over. I would have thought such good news would invigorate him, would make his strength return, but the opposite happened. In the midst of the scandal he had been at his strongest. The scrutiny made him tough. It was the only way to survive the judgment of an entire country, a dark sea of nameless, faceless people who had no problem cursing him and his mother and the day he was born. He couldn’t bear to be seen as weak during this time, but the second he realized the battle was over, he grew frail. Tears streaked with tears. He was his most animal, his most fetal, his most ancient self.
We went inside the lookout and Flip sat on an army cot in the corner. Beside the cot was a bookshelf, with guides to the birds and wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains. Old papers lay scattered across the dusty floor, maps among them, as well as a guide to operating a flare gun. I stood in the middle of the room, upright, hands behind my back, and looked at the floor as politely as I could.
He said, “I can’t get a trepanation.”
He leaned forward and put his hands on the back of his neck. His voice was more muffled that way. He was twitching all over, legs bouncing, fingers tapping. I wondered if his brain was trying to remind his body that it was still alive.
“There’s no reason to do it anymore,” he said. “People said it would look good in case there was a trial. Like I was seeking help.”
I knew that in order to protect Flip Goldberg, I couldn’t make the argument that he should have the procedure. Before this, I probably would have tried. I would have thought I was doing the right thing by convincing him of the wonders of this place, but I had recently grown up a little. That was a truth I hadn’t known before, or hadn’t been willing to accept—that I wasn’t finished growing up, even though I was twenty-three years old. I’d felt plenty old. I had all that knowledge in my head from growing up with anthropologists for parents, visions of temples, pyramids, middens, markets, huts, and graves. When I had migraines and my head was bursting with hallucinations of outer space, of black holes, it felt as though I had the entire universe inside me, not just one measly planet. When I had the trepanation, everything could pass through me. The delusion had been that I was complete.
So I didn’t try to convince Flip.
I said, “OK.”
He sat up and looked toward the ceiling, where the shells of insects dangled from spiderwebs. The whites of his eyes were pink. He said, “I’m empty anyway. If I got the hole, I don’t think anything would come out. It’s taken everything from me. There’s nothing in here.” He knocked on his chest with a fist. “I should be relieved.”
I said, “Now you can rest.”
He nodded, looked through the windows, and then took a deep breath. He said, “I can try to sleep on the plane. I don’t think I will.”
On the way back to the retreat, he said that he’d already called his personal assistant, who said she could have a helicopter at the retreat the next morning. Flip said that wasn’t fast enough. His assistant found a flight to Los Angeles out of McGhee Tyson Airport. He asked me to take him to the airport and that we keep it quiet. He said that his personal assistant would be calling the head of operations, Dan, to announce that he, Mr. Goldberg, would not in fact be moving forward with the trepanation. To all of this I said, “Yes, sir.”
I escorted him back to his suite, where he packed his things, and then we took the service exit to the company truck. On the drive to the airport, he kept his eyes covered with his hands, and I wondered if he was replaying the phone call in his head, or thinking of all the things that would come next. I could have interrupted the silence, saying, “Hey, this has been crazy getting to be around you, and I’m sorry to see you go, since we’ll probably never see each other again, but just know that I never felt the way everybody else felt, and I never trash-talked you once.” I couldn’t say that, though. He needed the silence more than I needed to fill it.
I gave Flip a ten-minute warning so he could put on his disguise. He dug through his Louis Vuitton bags, pulling out a Puma track jacket and a Yankees baseball cap, which I assumed had been purchased for the express purpose of traveling in disguise. His aviators had been hooked in the front of his shirt. He put them on, along with everything else. It probably made him look like a regular person from a distance, but up close the disguise was betrayed by the exceptional quality of his leather bags and, beneath the track jacket, the silk of his bowling shirt, which looked like it had been snagged from the wardrobe mistress of a gangster movie. I stopped in front of the arrivals area, where he got out, slinging one bag over his shoulder and carrying the other in his hand. When a guest leaves, it’s typical to say something like “I hope you had a wonderful stay” or “Please come back again,” but neither of those applied here. Without any parting words, Flip Goldberg stepped through the sliding doors and into the airport, where he would in turn navigate through other people, other travelers, on his way to the counter, where he would give, I presumed, his real name. I liked that the last time I saw him was from behind, just like how I first saw him when he walked down the trail that day.
Dan was furious.
I said, “He didn’t want the trepanation.”
Dan said, “Well, it looks bad for us.”
“How is that?”
He said that if guests left before getting a trepanation, it made it look like we had done something wrong. People would talk. They would assume our facilities were unclean or the staff was unprofessional. They might think we had BO or spinach in our teeth. Dan said a bad pattern was emerging. First, Norbert Fischer in the Spring I session, then Flip Goldberg in the Spring II session. What would happen next?
Dan said, “You certainly haven’t helped the situation.”
I said, “Maybe I should leave then, if I suck so bad.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I will.”“It might be for the best.”
“You can’t resign.”
“Your job isn’t important enough. You’re not high up enough in the chain. You can quit, but you can’t resign.”
“I still resign.”
“No,” he said. “You quit.”
I stood up from the wine-colored chair that sat in front of his desk. I said, “Here’s a hint, Dan. You should get rid of those Sea-Monkeys.” The Sea-Monkey kit still sat there, unopened. “I’m saying this as a parting gift. You’re going to make somebody mad one day and they’ll dump those shrimp into your coffee. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve always had the willpower to stop myself from actually doing it. Somebody else might not. So it’s better if you remove the temptation.”
When I left his office, I knew that my time at the retreat was officially over. I would have to move out of the cabin, since it was on retreat property, and the unexpected discovery I made when packing up my things was that I owned almost nothing. I had some clothes, some pots and pans, that sort of thing, but everything else had been there when I arrived. My stuff fit easily into my car, and my presence in the world felt very slight, but in a pleasing way. I hadn’t spent much money in the past two years and had been able to save a good chunk of my income, which came to a total of $57,600 that was spread across a checking account and a savings account. It seemed logical that I could go back home before I determined what to do next.
Before I left, I wanted to visit Norbert Fischer in the hospital. I hadn’t heard any updates on his condition lately, which was probably Dan’s intention, and it felt like a loose end. It would always be a loose end.
Because of patient confidentiality laws, I couldn’t receive a status update on Norbert Fischer’s condition or find out his room number. I told the nurse that I understood, even though it was disappointing, because I had visions of feeding him banana pudding if he was awake, or, if he was still in the coma, trimming his fingernails. On my way out, I got turned around in the hospital. I was wandering down a hallway when I saw an old woman in a wheelchair. There was vomit on the floor and several gurneys pushed to one side. I looked for someone who could tidy up, but this old woman was the only soul in town. I asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” and she said, “Anything?” and I said, “Name it.” She’d had some kind of procedure that had given her two black eyes, or maybe she’d been in an accident, I couldn’t tell. Air whistled through a gap in her front teeth when she spoke. She said, “How about more of that apple juice with ice?” I didn’t know where the apple juice was, but I told her I would find it and be right back.