The most worthwhile thing
is to try to put happiness
into the lives of others.
Phil considered, once again, what to admit to his family. He didn’t want to undermine their confidence and shake their faith in him. Opening his front door, he forced himself to smile.
“Hello. How’s everyone doing?”
His response surprised Toni and his wife, Jane, more than anything else, as it wasn’t typical of him.
“I’m glad you enjoyed your afternoon off,” Toni replied. “I hope you got it out of your system.”
“Why? Is there more demand than usual?”
“Uh, not particularly,” she hedged. “A couple calls came in, but your older customers appreciate a familiar face.”
“I suspect they’ll survive if they don’t see me for a day or two. I’m sure the rest of the crew can handle things. I may take another day off, just to clear my mind.”
“Does this have anything to do with your friend?” she asked, arching her brow.
“Not specifically, but it’s given me a few things to consider.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing, I’m off.” Jane announced, coming down the stairs with her purse. “I’m meeting my girlfriends. Dinner is warming in the oven.”
“Don’t worry, Toni and I will clean up. Have fun.”
Jane Walker was a pleasant woman, but just as he’d past his prime, age was beginning to show around her eyes. She’d reached the ‘pleasingly plump’ stage. It wasn’t unusual for her to disappear with friends. In fact, Phil and she had spent ever decreasing amounts of time together over the years. He missed their old intimacy, but at the moment, was relieved he wouldn’t have to account for his day with her.
He tried to keep the spark of romance alive, but after suffering from early menopause, Jane was uninterested. As her mood worsened and she attacked him for minor issues, he’d stepped back, giving her room to live life on her own terms.
Phil’s trip home was unlike his time in the city. Driving home, he hadn’t notice anything unusual. Whatever strange creatures might be tormenting the other drivers, they weren’t obvious through their car windows. He wasn’t sure why, though he suspected the tinted windows on most modern cars had an effect. Either way, he was relieved not to be confronted during his drive home. He wasn’t sure how he might respond if challenged while driving. Still, he kept his vision focused on the cars ahead of him, not risking glancing at pedestrians or into the passing vehicles.
It was reassuring imagining his earlier adventures were merely a bad dream. He realized he had to face them again, but wasn’t prepared to deal with customers wrestling with the same tormentors.
Toni waited until her mother left. “I’ll reschedule everyone to take up your slack. I hope you won’t get too distracted. You’d tell me if there was anything to worry about, wouldn’t you?”
Toni looked much as her mother had when they were younger. She had short, dark curly hair, rosy skin and a bright smile. Unlike her parents, she was thin, without a spare ounce on her entire frame.
“Don’t worry,” he answered, leaning in and kissing her forehead. “Why don’t we enjoy dinner? Better yet, since the cats away, why don’t we mice take the opportunity to pig out in front of the TV and watch some old movies?
Toni looked askance at her father, but shrugged and followed him into the kitchen. She realized her parents had grown distant over the years.
Now that their children were grown, her mother wasn’t fond of Toni working for her father. She felt it kept her tied to the house instead of developing her own life. Jane had wanted to start a new life herself once the kids moved out.
The fact Phil was taking time off—without explanation—instead of taking his wife on a cruise like she’d been hinting, didn’t bode well for their relationship. Toni planned to drop a few suggestions, but he didn’t seem inclined to talk, so she wasn’t expecting any breakthroughs.
Phil ventured into downtown Philadelphia the next day. After considering his many mistakes, he planned to rectify them. Instead of studying everyone surrounding him, he strode directly to the Woodlands Community Gardens, staring straight ahead rather than getting distracted by what he might witness in transit. He was looking for the most extreme cases rather than the milder, more successful ones. He didn’t think anyone would appreciate his attacking invisible entities near them, but those better off were more likely to file charges. He was still likely to be arrested, but there were fewer chances of his being held for any length of time. Worst of all, he didn’t know whether harming the imaginary beings only he saw would have any impact on the people they threatened. However, the only way to determine whether it would was to test the premise and see how much trouble he could get himself into.
He found the Woodlands an ironic choice, since it stood next to the Philadelphia Veterans Administration offices. Although they didn’t have much success curing the homeless residing so near their mental health services, he hoped to have better luck.
He picked the new location in the hope no one would recognize him from the day before. He again headed to the less-public areas of the park where people went to escape scrutiny. He strolled among the various park denizens before selecting a prime subject afflicted by demons, but also alert. He didn’t know if the combination was any better than the others, but he hoped so.
Biting his lip and hoping for the best, he approached the man. Handing him a twenty-dollar bill, he struck up a conversation.
“Excuse me. I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering whether you’d care to talk?”
The man, thin, wearing threadbare clothing but protecting a wheeled cart containing several bags of goods examined him skeptically.
“I’m always willing to talk, but I can’t help wondering what you’re after.” The man was clean, but had long hair and an uneven beard, with wild eyes which kept flicking about, following random things around him. “Are you selling God, trying to make yourself feel good, or pushing some agenda?”
Phil laughed. “No. I’m a plumber by trade, but I noticed you seem bright and capable. I’m curious what brings you to living in a public park.”
The man raised an eyebrow, expecting more, so Phil sighed. “My daughter is young, and while she has plenty of promise, she’s showing a few symptoms of being distracted and bothered. I’m wondering whether she may be in a similar situation. I’d like to pick your brain about the best way to handle things if she does develop a problem.”
The man chuckled. “I’m the last person to ask, as I’m not terribly successful at it. Yet, I can at least tell you what I’ve experienced, and you can decide whether it’s any help or not.” He extended his hand, grinning at his potential benefactor. “The name’s Peter.”
Realizing this was a test, Phil reached out, gripped and pumped his hand.
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Phil. My daughter is Toni. She’s … twenty years old.”
Peter chuckled again. “You’re unsure how old she is?”
Phil joined him by laughing as well. “No, I know her age, but I’m nervous since she’s a little old to be experiencing this. Doesn’t it typically hit in the late teens?”
“Schizophrenia usually strikes between eighteen and twenty two, but with many things, the age ranges vary. While most people don’t hear voices until later, we often get into trouble much sooner. We encounter trouble with the law or alcohol and drugs, before our lives completely fall apart.”
“So you were diagnosed by a professional?”
“Yeah, I wasn’t always hopeless. I finished my BS degree. I had big plans for my life, even after I started hearing voices. Yet it became more difficult to maintain a normal life—especially once my family turned their backs on me.”
“You see, that’s what I wanted to discover.” Without examining his position, Phil sat on the ground before Peter, leaning forward and opening up. “You seem similar to my daughter. She’s slightly older, so I wasn’t sure whether she still qualified, but she’s been struggling for years. She seems to be self-medicating, but so far there’s no evidence she’s schizophrenic yet.”
“Well, there are other reasons she might be having trouble, but there are also a few things to watch.” As Peter elaborated, Phil struggled to listen, distracted by the four demons tormenting him, screaming “Kill someone”, it was difficult following the conversation. His eyes kept flickering over his head, or from side to side, and Peter noticed.
“You know, you’re showing a few symptoms yourself. If it’s genetic, you might still be asymptomatic. If so, it would help to tap into your own issues to relate to her experiences.”
“You think so?” Phil reached into a backpack and pulling out a couple sandwiches, offering Peter one. Peter considered it, shrugged, unwrapped it and took a bite, trusting it was okay.
“You’re having trouble focusing. It’s as if you’re hearing voices no one else can, even if you’re not conscious of them. I’m guessing you’re a borderline schizophrenic who managed to squeak by, by the hair of your teeth.”
Phil accepted that, biting his lip before responding, taking a chance. “You mean like: ‘Ignore him.’ ‘Hit him,’ or ‘cut something, make it bleed?’”
Peter’s eyes opened wide, his head jerking back. “You hear them, too?”
“I don’t hear anything on my own, but sitting this close beside you, I can hear the echoes of your own demons. That’s why I’m so worried about my daughter. I can feel the turmoil in her head, but so far, I don’t hear anything when I’m around her like I do with you.”
Peter leaned forward, turning his head as he examined Phil in a new light. “I’ve never heard of anyone acting as an intermediary before. If what you claim is true, you should discuss it with a psychiatrist. They might learn something about the disease by studying you.”
“Which is another reason I’m interested in picking your brain, to discover whether what I’m perceiving is real, or I’m just a little crazy myself.”
“You repeated exactly what I was hearing. I doubt you could guess that without suffering it yourself. Even then, you wouldn’t know what words I was hearing.”
“At the same time, you’re rational and clear headed, and can relate to what I’m saying, while most shrinks would consider me delusional.”
Peter chuckled. “Yeah, there is that aspect to it.”
“Look, while we’re at it, I want to try something. It won’t amount to much, but I’m into oddball dances. I’d like to do a ceremonial dance, just to see whether it will have an impact. It’s likely to look violent, but I won’t harm you. Call it my ‘plumber’s dance’, if you will.”
“If you slip me another twenty, you can dance all over me if you want.”
Phil smiled, pulled out his wallet and handed him a crisp hundred-dollar bill. Clasping him on the shoulder, he used his replacement cane to stand, and went into a theatrical spin, waving his cane in the air. Those nearby turned at the odd movement, watching to see what he was up to, but Phil had planned this ahead of time. As he completed his spin, he caught one demon in the back of its head, breaking its tiny neck before it realized there was any danger. His fellow demons, realizing something was up, glanced around, trying to determine what was happening. By then, Phil spun in the other direction, ending the move by smashing the next in the skull, sending it into the pavement. The last demon, realizing it was in trouble, howled and launched itself at him. Phil danced away, striking it with a backhanded blow powerful enough to break its hip. When it collapsed, shrieking, Phil completed his dance with a theatrical bow, smacking his cane on the back of its head, extinguishing its life.
Peter watched the entire routine, delighted by the older man’s fluid movement, despite his obvious difficulty getting around. He clapped enthusiastically, which convinced those nearby this was some sort of staged event.
Phil, on the other hand, had the time to observe what happened to the last of his targets. When he delivered the killing blow, the creature vanished as if it never existed. As Peter applauded, Phil took a bow.
“Don’t ask me to do that again. I’m not sure I can manage it, but if nothing else, it makes me feel better.”
“So how did a former dancer end up as a plumber?” Peter asked. “Did you lose your way too?”
“Not quite. While I was in the military, I took up Tai-Chi to help with the stresses of combat. While I don’t practice much anymore, I can still perform a few movements, even if I can’t keep it up for long.”
“Well, you’re not the only one who enjoys your ‘plumber’s dance’. It’s brightened my day, and damn it, I feel better already.”
Phil chuckled, heartened by the positive response. “I’m glad you feel that way. Take the money and go get yourself a decent meal. Nothing too extravagant, mind you. You’ll need the rest for emergencies. I hope we get a chance to talk again, but it may be a few days before I can return.” With a final bow, Phil made his exit. Peter continued clapping, delighted by the odd turn of events which brought the strange plumber into his world.
For Phil, the encounter was everything he hoped. It proved he could chase away the demons, striking terror in their hearts, without exposing himself to their attacks or frightening those around him. He realized he still presented a challenging figure, so he beat a hasty retreat, not planning to return soon. He planned to try another park to determine whether he could repeat the encounter. Either way, he felt better making a difference in these people’s lives. What impact it ultimately had was a question for another time. He hated killing these creatures, but it was either them or Peter. If he simply chased them away, they’d return to torment their victims again. This way, others might take their place, but if so, he’d try a different tactic. For now, he made a difference in Peter’s life, hopefully offering a temporary reprieve from his mental illness. That was a satisfying achievement for one day. He’d spend the rest of the day rethinking his strategy, seeing whether he could improve it or make it less obvious. Either way, he assumed he could avoid attacking anyone else for the rest of the day. He’d see about tomorrow, though.