This Crowded Earth
Chapter 2: Harry Collins--1998
It took them ten seconds to save Harry from falling, but it took him over ten weeks to regain his balance.
In fact, well over two months had passed before he could fully realize just what had happened, or where he was now. They must have noticed something was wrong with him that morning at the office, because two supervisors and an exec rushed in and caught him just as he was going out of the window. And then they had sent him away, sent him here.
“This is fine,” he told Dr. Manschoff. “If I’d known how well they treated you, I’d have gone couch-happy years ago.”
Dr. Manschoff’s plump face was impassive, but the little laugh-lines deepened around the edges of his eyes. “Maybe that’s why we take such care not to publicize our recent advances in mental therapy,” he said. “Everybody would want to get into a treatment center, and then where would we be?”
Harry nodded, staring past the doctor’s shoulder, staring out of the wide window at the broad expanse of rolling countryside beyond.
“I still don’t understand, though,” he murmured. “How can you possibly manage to maintain an institution like this, with all the space and the luxuries? The inmates seem to lead a better life than the adjusted individuals outside. It’s topsy-turvy.”
“Perhaps.” Dr. Manschoff’s fingers formed a pudgy steeple. “But then, so many things seem to be topsy-turvy nowadays, don’t they? Wasn’t it the realization of this fact which precipitated your own recent difficulties?”
“Almost precipitated me bodily out of that window,” Harry admitted, cheerfully. “And that’s another thing. I was sent here, I suppose, because I’d attempted suicide, gone into shock, temporary amnesia, something like that.”
“Something like that,” the doctor echoed, contemplating his steeple.
“But you didn’t give me any treatment,” Harry continued. “Oh, I was kept under sedation for a while, I realize that. And you and some of the other staff-members talked to me. But mainly I just rested in a nice big room and ate nice big meals.”
“So?” The steeple’s fleshy spire collapsed.
“So what I want to know is, when does the real treatment start? When do I go into analysis, or chemotherapy, and all that?”
Dr. Manschoff shrugged. “Do you think you need those things now?”
Harry gazed out at the sunlight beyond the window, half-squinting and half-frowning. “No, come to think of it, I don’t believe I do. I feel better now than I have in years.”
His companion leaned back. “Meaning that for years you felt all wrong. Because you were constricted, physically, psychically, and emotionally. You were cramped, squeezed in a vise until the pressure became intolerable. But now that pressure has been removed. As a result you no longer suffer, and there is no need to seek escape in death or denial of identity.
“This radical change of attitude has been brought about here in just a little more than two months’ time. And yet you’re asking me when the ‘real treatment’ begins.”
“I guess I’ve already had the real treatment then, haven’t I?”
“That is correct. Prolonged analysis or drastic therapy is unnecessary. We’ve merely given you what you seemed to need.”
“I’m very grateful,” Harry said. “But how can you afford to do it?”
Dr. Manschoff built another temple to an unknown god. He inspected the architecture critically now as he spoke. “Because your problem is a rarity,” he said.
“Rarity? I’d have thought millions of people would be breaking down every month. The Naturalists say--”
The doctor nodded wearily. “I know what they say. But let’s dismiss rumors and consider facts. Have you ever read any official report stating that the number of cases of mental illness ran into the millions?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“For that matter, do you happen to know of anyone who was ever sent to a treatment center such as this?”
“Well, of course, everybody goes in to see the medics for regular check-ups and this includes an interview with a psych. But if they’re in bad shape he just puts them on extra tranquilizers. I guess sometimes he reviews their Vocational Apt tests and shifts them over into different jobs in other areas.”
Dr. Manschoff bowed his head in reverence above the steeple, as if satisfied with the labors he had wrought. “That is roughly correct. And I believe, if you search your memory, you won’t recall even a mention of a treatment center. This sort of place is virtually extinct, nowadays. There are still some institutions for those suffering from functional mental disorders--paresis, senile dementia, congenital abnormalities. But regular check-ups and preventative therapy take care of the great majority. We’ve ceased concentrating on the result of mental illnesses and learned to attack the causes.
“It’s the old yellow fever problem all over again, you see. Once upon a time, physicians dealt exclusively with treatment of yellow fever patients. Then they shifted their attention to the source of the disease. They went after the mosquitoes, drained the swamps, and the yellow fever problem vanished.
“That’s been our approach in recent years. We’ve developed social therapy, and so the need for individual therapy has diminished.
“What were the sources of the tensions producing mental disturbances? Physical and financial insecurity, the threat of war, the aggressive patterns of a competitive society, the unresolved Oedipus-situation rooted in the old-style family relationship. These were the swamps where the mosquitoes buzzed and bit. Most of the swamps have been dredged, most of the insects exterminated.
“Today we’re moving into a social situation where nobody goes hungry, nobody is jobless or unprovided for, nobody needs to struggle for status. Vocational Apt determines a man’s rightful place and function in society, and there’s no longer the artificial distinction imposed by race, color or creed. War is a thing of the past. Best of all, the old-fashioned ‘home-life, ‘ with all of its unhealthy emotional ties, is being replaced by sensible conditioning when a child reaches school age. The umbilical cord is no longer a permanent leash, a strangler’s noose, or a silver-plated life-line stretching back to the womb.”
Harry Collins nodded. “I suppose only the exceptional cases ever need to go to a treatment center like this.”
“But what makes me one of the exceptions? Is it because of the way the folks brought me up, in a small town, with all the old-fashioned books and everything? Is that why I hated confinement and conformity so much? Is it because of all the years I spent reading? And why--”
Dr. Manschoff stood up. “You tempt me,” he said. “You tempt me strongly. As you can see, I dearly love a lecture--and a captive audience. But right now, the audience must not remain captive. I prescribe an immediate dose of freedom.”
“You mean I’m to leave here?”
“Is that what you want to do?”
“Frankly, no. Not if it means going back to my job.”
“That hasn’t been decided upon. We can discuss the problem later, and perhaps we can go into the answers to those questions you just posed. But at the moment, I’d suggest you stay with us, though without the restraint of remaining in your room or in the wards. In other words, I want you to start going outside again.”
“You’ll find several square miles of open country just beyond the doors here. You’re at liberty to wander around and enjoy yourself. Plenty of fresh air and sunshine--come and go as you wish. I’ve already issued instructions which permit you to keep your own hours. Meals will be available when you desire them.”
“You’re very kind.”
“Nonsense. I’m prescribing what you need. And when the time comes, we’ll arrange to talk again. You know where to find me.”
Dr. Manschoff dismantled his steeple and placed a half of the roof in each trouser-pocket.
And Harry Collins went outdoors.
It was wonderful just to be free and alone--like returning to that faraway childhood in Wheaton once again. Harry appreciated every minute of it during the first week of his wandering.
But Harry wasn’t a child any more, and after a week he began to wonder instead of wander.
The grounds around the treatment center were more than spacious; they seemed absolutely endless. No matter how far he walked during the course of a day, Harry had never encountered any walls, fences or artificial barriers; there was nothing to stay his progress but the natural barriers of high, steeply-slanting precipices which seemed to rim all sides of a vast valley. Apparently the center itself was set in the middle of a large canyon--a canyon big enough to contain an airstrip for helicopter landings. The single paved road leading from the main buildings terminated at the airstrip, and Harry saw helicopters arrive and depart from time to time; apparently they brought in food and supplies.
As for the center itself, it consisted of four large structures, two of which Harry was familiar with. The largest was made up of apartments for individual patients, and staffed by nurses and attendants. Harry’s own room was here, on the second floor, and from the beginning he’d been allowed to roam around the communal halls below at will.
The second building was obviously administrative--Dr. Manschoff’s private office was situated therein, and presumably the other staff-members operated out of here.
The other two buildings were apparently inaccessible; not guarded or policed or even distinguished by signs prohibiting access, but merely locked and unused. At least, Harry had found the doors locked when--out of normal curiosity--he had ventured to approach them. Nor had he ever seen anyone enter or leave the premises. Perhaps these structures were unnecessary under the present circumstances, and had been built for future accommodations.
Still, Harry couldn’t help wondering.
And now, on this particular afternoon, he sat on the bank of the little river which ran through the valley, feeling the mid-summer sun beating down upon his forehead and staring down at the eddying current with its ripples and reflections.
Ripples and reflections...
Dr. Manschoff had answered his questions well, yet new questions had arisen.
Most people didn’t go crazy any more, the doctor had explained, and so there were very few treatment centers such as this.
Question: Why were there any at all?
A place like this cost a fortune to staff and maintain. In an age where living-space and areable acreage was at such a premium, why waste this vast and fertile expanse? And in a society more and more openly committed to the policy of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number, why bother about the fate of an admittedly insignificant group of mentally disturbed patients?
Not that Harry resented his situation; in fact, it was almost too good to be true.
Question: Was it too good to be true?
Why, come to realize it, he’d seen less than a dozen other patients during his entire stay here! All of them were male, and all of them--apparently--were recovering from a condition somewhat similar to his own. At least, he’d recognized the same reticence and diffidence when it came to exchanging more than a perfunctory greeting in an encounter in an outer corridor. At the time, he’d accepted their unwillingness to communicate; welcomed and understood it because of his condition. And that in itself wasn’t what he questioned now.
But why were there so few patients beside himself? Why were they all males? And why weren’t they roaming the countryside now the way he was?
So many staff-members and so few patients. So much room and luxury and freedom, and so little use of it. So little apparent purpose to it all.
Question: Was there a hidden purpose?
Harry stared down into the ripples and reflections, and the sun was suddenly intolerably hot, its glare on the water suddenly blinding and bewildering. He saw his face mirrored on the water’s surface, and it was not the familiar countenance he knew--the features were bloated, distorted, shimmering and wavering.
Maybe it was starting all over again. Maybe he was getting another one of those headaches. Maybe he was going to lose control again.
Yes, and maybe he was just imagining things. Sitting here in all this heat wasn’t a good idea.
Why not take a swim?
That seemed reasonable enough. In fact, it seemed like a delightful distraction. Harry rose and stripped. He entered the water awkwardly--one didn’t dive, not after twenty years of abstinence from the outdoor life--but he found that he could swim, after a fashion. The water was cooling, soothing. A few minutes of immersion and Harry found himself forgetting his speculations. The uneasy feeling had vanished. Now, when he stared down into the water, he saw his own face reflected, looking just the way it should. And when he stared up--
He saw her standing there, on the bank.
She was tall, slim, and blonde. Very tall, very slim, and very blonde.
She was also very desirable.
Up until a moment ago, Harry had considered swimming a delightful distraction. But now--
“How’s the water?” she called.
She nodded, smiling down at him.
“Aren’t you coming in?” he asked.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you, Harry.”
“You know my name?”
She nodded again. “Dr. Manschoff told me.”
“You mean, he sent you here to find me?”
“But I don’t understand. If you’re not going swimming, then why--I mean--”
Her smile broadened. “It’s just part of the therapy, Harry.”
“Part of the therapy?”
“That’s right. Part.“ She giggled. “Don’t you think you’d like to come out of the water now and see what the rest of it might be?”
Harry thought so.
With mounting enthusiasm, he eagerly embraced his treatment and entered into a state of active cooperation.
It was some time before he ventured to comment on the situation. “Manschoff is a damned good diagnostician,” he murmured. Then he sat up. “Are you a patient here?”
She shook her head. “Don’t ask questions, Harry. Can’t you be satisfied with things as they are?”
“You’re just what the doctor ordered, all right.” He gazed down at her. “But don’t you even have a name?”
“You can call me Sue.”
He bent to kiss her but she avoided him and rose to her feet. “Got to go now.”
She nodded and moved towards the bushes above the bank.
“But when will I see you again?”
“Coming swimming tomorrow?”
“Maybe I can get away for more occupational therapy then.”
She stooped behind the bushes, and Harry saw a flash of white.
“You are a nurse, aren’t you,” he muttered. “On the staff, I suppose. I should have known.”
“All right, so I am. What’s that got to do with it?”
“And I suppose you were telling the truth when you said Manschoff sent you here. This is just part of my therapy, isn’t it?”
She nodded briefly as she slipped into her uniform. “Does that bother you, Harry?”
He bit his lip. When he spoke, his voice was low. “Yes, damn it, it does. I mean, I got the idea--at least, I was hoping--that this wasn’t just a matter of carrying out an assignment on your part.”
She looked up at him gravely. “Who said anything about an assignment, darling?” she murmured. “I volunteered.”
And then she was gone.
Then she was gone, and then she came back that night in Harry’s dreams, and then she was at the river the next day and it was better than the dreams, better than the day before.
Sue told him she had been watching him for weeks now. And she had gone to Manschoff and suggested it, and she was very glad. And they had to meet here, out in the open, so as not to complicate the situation or disturb any of the other patients.
So Harry naturally asked her about the other patients, and the whole general setup, and she said Dr. Manschoff would answer all those questions in due time. But right now, with only an hour or so to spare, was he going to spend it all asking for information? Matters were accordingly adjusted to their mutual satisfaction, and it was on that basis that they continued their almost daily meetings for some time.
The next few months were perhaps the happiest Harry had ever known. The whole interval took on a dreamlike quality--idealized, romanticized, yet basically sensual. There is probably such a dream buried deep within the psyche of every man, Harry reflected, but to few is it ever given to realize its reality. His early questioning attitude gave way to a mood of mere acceptance and enjoyment. This was the primitive drama, the very essence of the male-female relationship; Adam and Eve in the Garden. Why waste time seeking the Tree of Knowledge?
And it wasn’t until summer passed that Harry even thought about the Serpent.
One afternoon, as he sat waiting for Sue on the river bank, he heard a sudden movement in the brush behind him.
“Darling?” he called, eagerly.
“Please, you don’t know me that well.” The deep masculine voice carried overtones of amusement.
Flushing, Harry turned to confront the intruder. He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man whose bristling gray crewcut almost matched the neutral shades of his gray orderly’s uniform.
“Expecting someone else, were you?” the man muttered. “Well, I’ll get out of your way.”
“That’s not necessary. I was really just daydreaming, I guess. I don’t know what made me think--” Harry felt his flush deepen, and he lowered his eyes and his voice as he tried to improvise some excuse.
“You’re a lousy liar,” the man said, stepping forward and seating himself on the bank next to Harry. “But it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think your girl friend is going to show up today, anyway.”
“What do you mean? What do you know about--”
“I mean just what I said,” the man told him. “And I know everything I need to know, about you and about her and about the situation in general. That’s why I’m here, Collins.”
He paused, watching the play of emotions in Harry’s eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking right now,” the gray-haired man continued. “At first you wondered how I knew your name. Then you realized that if I was on the staff in the wards I’d naturally be able to identify the patients. Now it occurs to you that you’ve never seen me in the wards, so you’re speculating as to whether or not I’m working out of the administration offices with that psychiatric no good Manschoff. But if I were, I wouldn’t be calling him names, would I? Which means you’re really getting confused, aren’t you, Collins? Good!”
The man chuckled, but there was neither mockery, malice, nor genuine mirth in the sound. And his eyes were sober, intent.
“Who are you?” Harry asked. “What are you doing here?”
“The name is Ritchie, Arnold Ritchie. At least, that’s the name they know me by around here, and you can call me that. As to what I’m doing, it’s a long story. Let’s just say that right now I’m here to give you a little advanced therapy.”
“Then Manschoff did send you?”
The chuckle came again, and Ritchie shook his head. “He did not. And if he even suspected I was here, there’d be hell to pay.”
“Then what do you want with me?”
“It isn’t a question of what I want. It’s a question of what you need. Which is, like I said, advanced therapy. The sort that dear old kindly permissive Father-Image Manschoff doesn’t intend you to get.”
Harry stood up. “What’s this all about?”
Ritchie rose with him, smiling for the first time. “I’m glad you asked that question, Collins. It’s about time you did, you know. Everything has been so carefully planned to keep you from asking it. But you were beginning to wonder just a bit anyway, weren’t you?”
“I don’t see what you’re driving at.”
“You don’t see what anyone is driving at, Collins. You’ve been blinded by a spectacular display of kindness, misdirected by self-indulgence. I told you I knew everything I needed to know about you, and I do. Now I’m going to ask you to remember these things for yourself; the things you’ve avoided considering all this while.
“I’m going to ask you to remember that you’re twenty-eight years old, and that for almost seven years you were an agency man and a good one. You worked hard, you did a conscientious job, you stayed in line, obeyed the rules, never rebelled. Am I correct in my summary of the situation?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“So what was your reward for all this unceasing effort and eternal conformity? A one-room apartment and a one-week vacation, once a year. Count your blessings, Collins. Am I right?”
“Then what happened? Finally you flipped, didn’t you? Tried to take a header out of the window. You chucked your job, chucked your responsibilities, chucked your future and attempted to chuck yourself away. Am I still right?”
“Good enough. And now we come to the interesting part of the story. Seven years of being a good little boy got you nothing but the promise of present and future frustration. Seven seconds of madness, of attempted self-destruction, brought you here. And as a reward for bucking the system, the system itself has provided you with a life of luxury and leisure--full permission to come and go as you please, live in spacious ease, indulge in the gratification of every appetite, free of responsibility or restraint. Is that true?”
“I suppose so.”
“All right. Now, let me ask you the question you asked me. What’s it all about?”
Ritchie put his hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Tell me that, Collins. Why do you suppose you’ve received such treatment? As long as you stayed in line, nobody gave a damn for your comfort or welfare. Then, when you committed the cardinal sin of our present-day society--when you rebelled--everything was handed to you on a silver platter. Does that make sense?”
“But it’s therapy. Dr. Manschoff said--”
“Look, Collins. Millions of people flip every year. Millions more attempt suicide. How many of them end up in a place like this?”
“They don’t, though. That’s just Naturalist propaganda. Dr. Manschoff said--”
“Dr. Manschoff said! I know what he said, all right. And you believed him, because you wanted to believe him. You wanted the reassurance he could offer you--the feeling of being unique and important. So you didn’t ask him any questions, you didn’t ask any questions of yourself. Such as why anybody would consider an insignificant little agency man, without friends, family or connections, worth the trouble of rehabilitating at all, let alone amidst such elaborate and expensive surroundings. Why, men like you are a dime a dozen these days--Vocational Apt can push a few buttons and come up with half a million replacements to take over your job. You aren’t important to society, Collins. You aren’t important to anyone at all, besides yourself. And yet you got the red-carpet treatment. It’s about time somebody yanked that carpet out from under you. What’s it all about?”
Harry blinked. “Look here, I don’t see why this is any of your business. Besides, to tell the truth, I’m expecting--”
“I know who you’re expecting, but I’ve already told you she won’t be here. Because she’s expecting.”
“It’s high time you learned the facts of life, Collins. Yes, the well-known facts of life--the ones about the birds and the bees, and barefoot boys and blondes, too. Your little friend Sue is going to have a souvenir.”
“I don’t believe it! I’m going to ask Dr. Manschoff.”
“Sure you are. You’ll ask Manschoff and he’ll deny it. And so you’ll tell him about me. You’ll say you met somebody in the woods today--either a lunatic or a Naturalist spy who infiltrated here under false pretenses. And Manschoff will reassure you. He’ll reassure you just long enough to get his hands on me. Then he’ll take care of both of us.”
“Are you insinuating--”
“Hell, no! I’m telling you!” Ritchie put his hand down suddenly, and his voice calmed. “Ever wonder about those other two big buildings on the premises here, Collins? Well, I can tell you about one of them, because that’s where I work. You might call it an experimental laboratory if you like. Sometime later on I’ll describe it to you. But right now it’s the other building that’s important; the building with the big chimney. That’s a kind of an incinerator, Collins--a place where the mistakes go up in smoke, at night, when there’s nobody to see. A place where you and I will go up in smoke, if you’re fool enough to tell Manschoff about this.”
“I wish to God I was, for both our sakes! But I can prove what I’m saying. You can prove it, for yourself.”
“Pretend this meeting never occurred. Pretend that you just spent the afternoon here, waiting for a girl who never showed up. Then do exactly what you would do under those circumstances. Go in to see Dr. Manschoff and ask him where Sue is, tell him you were worried because she’d promised to meet you and then didn’t appear.