The Phlogiston Precariousness: Chapter 1, Scene 1.
The distance from the river prevented him from hearing the thrum of an airship’s engines. The nose of the dirigible turned southward as it maneuvered on its approach to the airfield at Forster Island. Light brown water rushed southward past the city which was stretched out below the hill a quarter of a mile away.
Slate gray clouds formed a blanket across the sky threatening to pour rain. A lush carpet of grass rustled in the hint of a breeze. The man patted the wool blanket that was more hole than warm covering with gaunt hands. He sat ramrod straight in the wicker backed wheelchair. Dark circles underlined cold green eyes but they tracked the airship’s movements steadily. His face was angular and carefully devoid of expression.
Around him several trees rose up toward the sky with green leaves showing tinges of yellow, orange and red. Crushed gravel formed a pathway leading away from the man back to a large building which was brick and wood. The sign over the entranceway proclaimed it to be the Pennsylvania State Mental Hospital. Whitewashed frames decorated the windows and made the cupola glisten in the light.
It seemed another tribulation was in the offing. The crunch of two sets of boots on gravel announced the arrival of two orderlies. The dull drone of their conversation reached the man’s ears:
“An’ this is Mr. Ignatius St. Eligius, one of our charges of the criminal persuasion.”
That was Leonard Mummer, a barrel-chested, unkempt mustachioed brute with ruddy complexion and sandy hair. The second set of footsteps were lighter, less certain. The scrape of boot on stone preceded the wrenching force of the wheelchair being spun away from the river.
“Mr. St. Eligius, this is Orderly Lorenzo.”
“Hello sir, are you doing well?” asked the new orderly. He had an open face and dark hair.
“Don’t talk to Mr. St. Eligius, it ain’t worth yer time,” snapped Leonard. “Yer new here, so I’ll explain how things work here at Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital. Crazies, or patients in front of the doctors and visitors, have three states: Useful, vegetative or unfuckingcooperative. If they are in the last group they’re kept separate from everyone else.”
“I don’t think…” began Lorenzo.
“That’s right. What this criminal is an example of is an uncooperative pain in the ass. The useful nutters work on the farm to help keep this place running. The flat ones just hold down the beds. Lots o’ bedpans in your future. Still better than starving I’d wager.”
Ignatius sat without responding. He picked at the cuff on his hospital gown where it rubbed the stitches on his wrist.
“But Leonard, what sort of trouble could this man possibly be?” asked Lorenzo.
“You will address me as either ‘Boss’ or ‘Mr. Mummer’ do you understand me?” growled the bigger orderly. “There’s an order that must be maintained here. You can’t let the animals get a whiff of yer fear. Take this one fer instance,” he said pointing at Ignatius.
“He done a whole lot o’ toughs down at the riverside with some kind of machine. Claimed it were justice he was after. Now, three years in our tender care an’ he’s a little lost lamb.”
“How do you account for the change?” inquired the younger man.
“Doctor Salinger’s got the proper notion on how to treat criminals. He uses them to try out new experiments. Mr. St. Eligius is his favorite subject, has been for going on two years now.”
“Why is he in a wheelchair? Is it from this Doctor Salinger?”
“Naw, the dipshit got broken up pretty bad by a gang. Rumor has it that it was the same gang he slaughtered nearly half a year later. We can pretty much leave him unrestrained for the most part. He ain’t runnin’ anywhere.”
“You an’ me will be responsible for transporting him to the doc, along with our other duties. Any questions?”
“Is it true what they say about him? That he’s one of the most intelligent men and that a combination of trauma and narcotics drove him to build the steam powered war machine and rampage through the park?”
The barest hint of a smile twitched in the corners of Mr. St. Eligius’s mouth.
“Yeah, he’s some kind of inventor or something like that. Rich bastard too. He owns that huge spread just south of Shipoke. You know the one I mean? It sits on the border of the new steel factories and Harrisburg.”
“Oh yes. My girl and I have admire it each time we go past on the train to Lancaster. Does he ever talk?”
“Not that I can recall. Doc Salinger calls him a partial cata..whatsit…”
“Yeah. Says that’s how he is dealing with the guilt of what he’s done.”
Leonard took a pouch of tobacco out of his pants pocket and some cigarette papers. With nimble fingers he soon had a respectable cigarette between his lips. A match sprang to life against a yellowed fingernail and touched the end of the roll-up. The noxious smell of cheap leaf tobacco and sulfur burned at Lorenzo’s nostrils. Leonard released a long hacking cough before spitting a wad of phlegm out onto the pathway.
“Here’s the routine: six o’clock you get his nibs dressed and roll him through the mess hall. Doctor Salinger has him from seven to nine. After that roll him some place out of the way. Day room or his room, whatever you feel like. Some of the others think he likes it here,” Leonard said taking another drag and exhaling. “No skin off my back. Park him here near the trees for all I care. Two o’clock back to the doctor for another session. Five is dinner time, Nine is bedtime.”
“Doesn’t seem like much of a life does it?”
“The man is a multiple murder, what do I care if the quality of his life isn’t all fine dining and social climbing?”
“Shouldn’t we care about those patients entrusted to us?”
“Lot of new folks think like that. A few weeks here’ll knock the shine off ya.”
Orderly Mummer pushed the front corner of the wheel chair with his foot spinning it to face toward the river again. The burly man exhaled a double stream of smoke through his nostrils watching the breeze carry it away. Lorenzo shuffled his feet.
“Did you hear about the airship crash yesterday?” he asked. “There were no survivors. They were hauling a load of Automata to Harrisburg. Reports say that some are missing. Some think pirates are to blame.”
With practiced negligence Mummer flicked his cigarette butt into the grass several yards away.
“What do I care if a bunch of airmen get dead? C’mon, let’s go see what sort of slop they’ve got in the mess. I explain about all of the lovely work you’ll do in the afternoon.”
The orderlies’ footsteps retreated back down the path fading out of hearing. A cardinal darted from the branch of a maple, swooping across the lawn in front of Ignatius, dipping low before rising up to perch in a pine tree. Somewhere unseen a blue jay chattered in disgust at a gray squirrel. The sun moved past its apex and began the slow descent into the afternoon.
At quarter until two the new lighter footsteps returned. Firm hands grasped the back of the wheelchair and rotated it to face the main hospital building. Lorenzo pushed the straight-backed chair along the gravel path. Jostling in the seat Ignatius bounced back and forth nearly falling out. Lorenzo stopped and repositioned Ignatius. After tucking the poor excuse for a blanket back around the vacant man the new Orderly continued on into the hospital.