Friday
Dec052014

Gentle Hands Will Save You

Matthew Kirkpatrick


 

At night, Champion dreamt of rage. He dreamt of humiliating Dale at meetings, of firing him for no reason, or demoting him, or sending him off on some meaningless, eternal errand. He dreamt of grabbing Dale by the back of the head and punching him squarely in the throat until Dale lay lifeless on the floor. He dreamt of dragging Dale's dead dream-body into the office elevator to the fountain where he would leave him floating face down for days.

But this was only a dream; Dale had killed himself. Each time he imagined punching Dale, he told himself: Dale had committed suicide, seemingly by floating in a shallow pool of water until gentle death overcame him. That's how he chose to believe it.

Champion's hands were gentle; he'd suppressed his rage like they'd taught him at Gentle Hands. He'd grown inside, and used his hands only for happiness: hugging, petting, and stroking. Gentle Hands had cured him.

Dale had been there, too, during his fourth visit.

Awakening with a headache and a pasty mouth in a concrete cell was no longer a surprise to him. The first time he'd been spirited away to the facility, when he'd been shouting too much in meetings, they'd taken him by surprise. Counselors from Gentle Hands had broken into his apartment at night, administered tranquilizers, and covered his head with a black bag. He hazily remembered, as if in a dream, being thrown into the back of a van, waking up in a cold cell, and beginning his rehabilitation.

When he'd woken in a cell with Dale, he was able to explain: "We're not in jail, really, though we're not free to go. It's sort of a camp. Like rehab. The company makes us go sometimes. Once I stayed for so long I lost count of the days, dreaming of the wind and the sky, dreaming, even, of the soft felt walls at work and long leisurely lunches."

When Dale told Champion he didn't know why he'd been sent, that he could think of nothing violent, Champion asked him if he'd been feeling depressed, if perhaps he'd been feeling badly toward himself, and that maybe this was, in some imperceptible way, causing him to think violent thoughts about himself, or others. Maybe he in fact did not know what he was thinking at all.

"They'll explain it to you here. Sometimes when we don't think we've been thinking violent thoughts it turns out all we've been thinking are violent thoughts."

Dale looked puzzled. "Maybe," he said. He paused as if he was going to scratch his head. "You know, maybe. Maybe I've been a little down lately."

"Do you think about killing yourself sometimes?"

"Doesn't everybody?" Dale grinned and when he laughed, Champion laughed, too.

"Yeah, they do. I think about it almost constantly, but not consciously. It's something I push into the back part of my mind."

"How do you know you're thinking about it, then?"

"Because I think about having pushed it to the back of my mind. It reminds me it's there, somewhere." Champion began to feel his anger percolating. He didn't like to think about everything he worked hard not to think about.

"I should try that."

"You won't be here long. I learned a lot about myself and my hands the first time I was here. I didn't think shouting at meetings was that big of a deal. I always thought of myself as mild-mannered, but after my first and third visits, I realized how enraged I was. For a little while I thought I was going to go to jail. I kept having these dreams, and then I'd react poorly in them, and then I'd wake up and my knuckles would be bloody or my shoulder would be sore, and I'd know, I'd know I'd blacked out after not being gentle."

"When do they serve breakfast?"

"Soon. We get dry toast and water, and then group therapy."

"That makes me so angry."

 

In group therapy, they sat on chairs in a circle. Though Champion had been there before, he felt, as a guide to Dale, he should just sit close by and be supportive. He took Dale's hand and nodded at him when he looked up. His hand signaled that things would be okay, no matter what.

Dale whispered. "I wish I knew why I was here."

"You should get used to not remembering things."

"I miss my cell phone. I miss my camera."

"We've only been awake for an hour."

"I miss the Internet."

"You need to elevate your mind: you must free yourself from things if you're to know yourself."

"What?"

A man in an orange jumper and slippers stood. They all wore orange jumpers and slippers and mostly they all used fake names, so it didn't matter who stood up, except that it was someone who was neither Dale nor Champion.

"My hands are angry. I know that now. I'm not sure who sent me here the first time, but I'm thankful. Maybe it was my wife, maybe it was work. They fired me. I'm unemployed now because I can't shake the violence. And divorced, after my second visit. I came back on my own, this time."

A counselor put his arm around the man. He told him it would be okay, to take a deep breath. "Relax, brother," he said. "Relax."

"I'm so filled with rage right now."
"You have gentle hands," the counselor said. "Your hands are so gentle."

"I have gentle hands," he said. He formed his gentle hands into hard little balls. The skin of his knuckles reddened. "Hands are for hugging. Hands are for hugging. Hands are not for hitting or hurting, but hugging and petting and drawing gentle circles in my sketchbook."

"That's right. What else are your hands for? Why don't you tell us a story?"

He took a deep breath and unlocked his fists. He stared at his hands as if they didn't belong to his body, as if he could only barely communicate with them.

"I hate my hands. My hands are horrible. I with I'd been born without them."

"Your hands are just a metaphor, Mike. The problem isn't your hands."

"I hurt people with my hands. My hands have to go."

"Tell us a story, Mike. A gentle story. Maybe a new story? Or an old story with a different ending?"

"Okay, I'll tell you a gentle story. My gentle story is that I was never a violent person until I woke up in this shithole."

The counselor put his arms around Mike and tried to guide him back to his chair, but he wouldn't move.

"Sometimes we don't know we're violent until we come here," the counselor said.

"My hands were perfectly gentle until I spent a month here. Now I'm fucked. Brainwashed. Ruined."

"That's enough, Mike."

A few more counselors entered the room and surrounded Mike who had re-clenched his gentle hands into fists and swatted them around like he was trying to knock flies out of the air.

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry. My hands are gentle. I can tell a story. Who wants to hear a story?"

They clapped. They wanted to hear a story.

"Okay. I used to be an engineer, a controls engineer. I programmed machines that made cookies. The kind of cookies that are hard with cream in the middle and come out of machines in rows of plastic. The kind of cookies you like to dunk in milk. Crispy, delicious little cookies. If I fucked up my job, the company I worked for lost millions of dollars, and the price of cookies would go up, though nobody would notice if it did, because people love this company's cookies so much they would pay anything for them. And the price never did go up, because I was really good."

They leaned forward in their chairs.

"I was so good they didn't want me fucking with cookie machines anymore—I'll tell you that any one of you could program these machines; they've taken all the guesswork away. The software we use to program the computers has all kinds of help files, smiley faces—it's all visual. A child could do it. Dump x amount of sugar here. Add y amount of water. It's like a video game. The program's so sophisticated I wondered why they didn't just program it to do the work for us. Anyway, as easy as it was, there are a lot of idiots in the world and I was better and faster than anybody. My machines always produced the best and most consistent cookies for the least amount of money. I knew how to run the software, and I knew how to calibrate all the machines. I got promoted, and then promoted again. I worked doing research at the company's headquarters on how to make cookie-making machines more efficient, but there were a lot of things they wouldn't tell me. Like I never saw nor could I find any documentation for the machines that made the nut-shaped, peanut butter version of our most popular cookie. I'll just call them Nut Jobs here, but that's not what they're really called. I'll let you imagine what they're really called. Anyway, I didn't think too much of it, except that Nut Jobs are one of our most popular cookies, and though I knew our whole product and manufacturing ecosystem, among other things, I could never figure out how Nut Jobs fit in, where they were made, even, and it drove me crazy. Something to figure out. But I was so busy with other projects that I didn't have time to think about it too much.

Dale whispered to Champion. Champion nodded. They would have to sit through the whole story.

"This is after my first trip to Gentle Hands and though I knew how lucky I was, how, even though I didn't know it at the time, my hands were attached to this pressure cooker that was going to blow. I know that now. Anyway, one day my boss asks me if I'm being paid enough. He tells me things are going well, that everything's running so well—the ovens, the mixers, the extruders—that I'm doing a really good job. The engineers are so efficient they've been able to lay most of them off. Everybody's happy. Customers love the cookies more than ever. He tells me there's a factory that could use my help in South Africa. He asks me if I want to go, check out the machinery, do some programming again, some training, maybe review processes for efficiency. He tells me it's a special factory, and that if I decide to go, I'll get a nice bonus.

"I didn't have anything going on at the time, so sure, I said, I'd love to go.

"Over the next couple of weeks, we work out all the logistics. The factory's in Port Elizabeth and I'll be staying on a compound near there, a walled-in place where foreign workers can stay and be spared from seeing anything that might upset them. So, once I'm there, I find the compound comfortable and the walls are high enough that what they say is true: it's like I'm not in Africa at all. The first weekend I'm there, me and the other workers go on a bus trip to a safari park and see all kind of animals running around. We see elephants and we see zebras. We see a lion eat one of her cubs. It's great. On Monday, they take me to the Nut Job factory—that's right, this is where the peanut butter cookies are made. Finally, it's all going to be clear. What they want me to do is easy—they want me to look at some processes, analyze some things, and look at how all the software's communicating to the machines. I've heard all this before, so I do it, but there's this one step in the process I'm concerned about. What most people don't know is that at the end of almost any manufacturing process where food is involved—whether it's breakfast cereal, bread, or Nut Jobs—one of the final steps is for the food to be sprayed down, washed, in formaldehyde. I won't go into detail about why this has to happen, but it does. It's mostly harmless to the consumer, but the shit is nasty in relatively small quantity and repeated occupational exposure is serious. So what they showed me, what I saw, was really upsetting. The workers were doing the washing by hand. There were these African workers in coveralls—no eye protection, no respirators, not even gloves—standing next to the conveyor belts holding hoses, spraying down the Nut Jobs. We're not talking about an expensive machine here, one to properly wash the cookies without exposing the workers, but here, here we saw already-exploited workers standing around breathing in this shit. It was dripping from their faces, into their eyes, their mouths. And let me tell you, you could see they did this every day. Their skin was heavy with boils dripping all over the place. One guy's face looked like it was melting, like it was going to slide off of his skull. One guy's eyeballs had fallen out and were just hanging from his face. I'm not exaggerating. The smell alone was enough to make you never want to touch another cookie in your life; they smelled like corpses. When I spoke to them after their shift, they could barely talk, barely breathe, some of them, because the formaldehyde was causing their throats to close. The crazy thing—they just sat there, eating Nut Job after Nut Job, telling me how lucky they were to have such good jobs. One guy showed me how the stuff had scarred his tongue. He could no longer taste anything. Can you believe that?"

Another counselor had entered the room and was waiting to interrupt Mike. "Okay Mike, that's great. Let's all clap for Mike. Who asked Mike to tell a story?"

They pointed to the counselor.

"And what do you think I did? Did I sit by and watch those poor workers suffer? That's exactly what I did. For a few weeks."

They clapped.

"That's okay, Mike, we all know what happens next." The counselor tried to lead Mike to his seat.

They clapped more loudly. Champion and Dale didn't know what happened next, but wanted to know. Mike's hands, arms, and face were covered with old scars and new scabs; it was clear he needed Gentle Hands more than most of them.

"I'm not proud of what I did. Most of those good people had nothing to do with it. At the time it made sense to put them out of their misery. And once they'd taken me back to the States, I went right back to it. Right back to my old job. It was . . ."

"The worst thing you've ever done. We know, Mike. We know how you massacred the whole factory, beat everybody to death like you were Rambo. And that's how you ended up here again. Why did you let him talk? Don't you read their files?"

"I thought telling stories was good for them."

"You don't believe me. I killed sixty people."

"It doesn't matter if I believe you or not, Mike. You believe it. That's what's fucked up. You shouldn't let Mike tell stories."

"I should have gone to prison for the rest of my life, that's what should have happened, but I got back and nobody acted like anything had happened. That's how powerful these companies are. They covered the whole thing up, just so nobody would find out how cookies are really made."

The lunch bell rang and everybody stood. Most everybody was very hungry while at Gentle Hands and nothing could keep them from a meal.

At lunch, Champion and Dale sat with Mike. Mike looked sad. Champion knew how important the fourteenth step was to their recovery, so they sat with him.

"Hello, comrade," Dale said. He smiled at Champion, looking for his approval for adopting the Gentle Hands lingo. "Are you gentle?"

"Yes, I'm gentle from my head to my hands, from my foot to my heart. My hands are gentle. Are you gentle, comrade?"

"Yes, I'm gentle from my head to my hands. My hands are gentle. I use them for hugging and high-fives."

They high-fived gently.

"Me and Champion were wondering if you wanted to tell us the rest of your story? About the chemical burns and the snack cookies?"

"Look, I kicked ass. I'm not proud of it. I'm not in the mood anymore."

"Kicked ass? That doesn't sound gentle." Champion really got into it when he was at Gentle Hands; he felt at peace thinking Gentle thoughts and doing Gentle deeds.

"Do you guys like to party?"

Champion had been asked to party a few times at Gentle Hands. Partying meant getting wasted with contraband booze or krabkake, a drug they made by boiling kerosene and Maalox. He didn't really see anything wrong with partying—the counselors smoked weed all day in their wing—but he didn't feel like partying.

"I love to party," Dale said. At lunch, they ate soft foods. Dale took a bite.

"Well, I've got a bunch of schnapps. Airline-sized bottles, every flavor you could imagine."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. If you can get out of your cell tonight and meet in mine, we can drink them. I probably have close to a thousand bottles. We'll get ourselves good and blotto."

"Blotto?"

"That means drunk," Champion said.

"Good and blotto. You in, Champ?"

"Sure."

 

Champion showed Dale how to unlatch the doors from inside at night; it wasn't hard, as if they weren't really incarcerating them. Champion thought they only needed to give the appearance of imprisonment, that they weren't really locked up. Nobody ever tried to escape, but once, he heard, a patient just walked away. Lots of them talked about trying to leave, but nobody did. Champion thought it was because at Gentle Hands they were reminded of their vulnerable position in the world and that few of them really wanted to leave. And, because they were brought to Gentle Hands with bags over their heads, most of them were afraid that if they did escape, they wouldn't know how to find their way home.

After navigating the dark halls, they found Mike's cell. Inside he showed them a cardboard box full of hundreds, perhaps a thousand, tiny schnapps bottles in every flavor, just as he'd said. Mike tossed Dale a root beer, and Champion a lemongrass.

Like many evenings in which the guests of Gentle Hands snuck out of their cells to get wasted together, tonight they went too far. Champion estimated they'd each had around fifty airline bottles of schnapps, enough to kill most people. Though that seemed excessive, there were a lot of bottles on the ground and he could no longer think clearly. The room spun. He couldn't remember if Mike offered up a krabkake pipe or not, but when questioned later, after the suggestion had been planted, he couldn't stop remembering a particular smell followed by a decided change in Dale and Mike.

Mike began to curse his hands. Champion told him to calm down, that his hands were gentle, and that he was as likely brainwashed by this place as cured, something he would never admit sober. Champion suggested they try to escape; he was drunk enough, he thought, to just walk away.

Mike continued to curse his hands, telling them to go fuck themselves.

"It's time to go hands, it's time to go," Mike said. From beneath the bed, Mike slid a large, green metal board: a paper cutter.

"Where'd you get that?" Dale asked. Dale stumbled onto Champion who had reclined on the bed. Champion was so drunk he couldn't bear to think of moving. He passed out and awakened.

"I snuck it out of the office. It's the solution to everything," Mike said.

"What is it?" Dale asked.

"A paper cutter. It's our way out of here."

"We're going to leave?"

"No, I'm talking about a cure. A real cure."

A cure, Champion thought. "A cure for what?"

The room swam above him and he imagined being free, free from the sickness of anger and, for a moment, he believed Mike. They could be free. But then, even in drunkenness, he began to wonder again why he'd been sent there, as if somebody was playing a cruel joke on him, or programming him, for some reason, to believe he was constantly controlling his anger, when in reality, he was rarely angry at all. Maybe he hadn't been angry until he'd been sent to rehabilitation. They told them not to think about that—they were violent, they said, even if they didn't feel it.

What he saw when he tilted his head to see what Dale and Mike were doing was the paper cutter on the card table, Mike sitting with his arms outstretched across the green metal plane of the cutter, his wrists in the line of the blade.

"Are you sure?" Dale was already screaming.

"Do it. Just fucking do it," Mike shouted. "And do it hard. Harder than you imagine. You've got to crack through all my arm bones to pull this off. There's at least three. You understand? You're going to have to give in to your anger."

Dale slammed the paper cutter blade down onto Mike's wrists. The blades made it into Mike's arms, though not quite through them. He screamed and bled and screamed again. "Do it again, you pussy. Do it again!"

Dale brought the blade down again, and again. Champion thought he heard a crack; perhaps he had at least broken the bones. Champion couldn't believe Mike had it in him to sit there, clearly in agony, with his arms hacked and bloody still resting on the paper cutter while Dale chopped at him with the blade. This, Champion thought, would not end well.

"I'll be cured," Mike screamed. "I'll be cured."