FORTY WHACKSby Charles Edward Brooks
My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet“No, Doctor, I don’t think I’ll come anymore. I appreciate everything you’ve done, of course —” “But you’re giving up just when we’re getting down to bedrock, Mr. Landolt.” The other man’s air was stern. “And you know what my agenda’s like. If you leave now and want to come back later, I may not have space for you.” The patient pushed down his impatience and replied, “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” The psychiatrist, a leading light at the Bloesch Institute for the Study of Psychosexuality and Related Phenomena, laid down his notepad. “But what has prompted you, all of a sudden, to stop your therapy? You might at least tell me that.” “It’s getting me exactly nowhere: that’s why.” “But surely you realize that this is negative transference, quite a normal part of any therapy. Resistance to —” The patient stood up. “Good-bye, Doctor. All the best.” The two men shook hands. Of the same age and build, they looked disconcertingly alike: tall, slim quadragenarians with graying hair and craggy features. In both faces, a high color set off china-blue eyes. To his dismay, the therapist had developed a countertransference problem in his work with patient Landolt. In a sense, he would be relieved to be rid of both patient and problem. The other man was entirely too much like himself, and not just in appearance. If the renegade should want to come back, the agenda just might be full. * * * Roland Landolt strolled along the lake toward Tiefenbrunnen. He met no one on the way, for a damp, penetrating cold hung over the city. A slippery layer of ice covered the ground. But he felt no cold. He burned with rage. This therapy with Dr. Loewenstein had cost a mint without bringing him a damned thing. Just like all the other things he’d tried: transcendental this and biorhythmic that—one and all a bloody waste of time and money. He’d been running from pillar to post these past few years. Ever since the accident… * * * “Roli,” the white-haired woman cajoled, “you’re thirty-five years old. Your father and I would like so much to see you married before we’re called on.” “You would like this and you would like that,” Roland Landolt replied testily. “Are my wishes of any relevance at all?” “Well, you’d be happier too, Roli. You keep busy with your writing and lecturing, but you’re lonely. A mother just knows these things.” “Mother, please drop this subject. I do not have the qualities of a husband and father. I do not have the desire to become either one. Just forget the whole thing.” But old Mrs. Landolt was not to be deterred. “There’s the Vonesch girl. She’s interested in your field. She even paints well. We could ask her to dinner when—” “Mother, please!” Roland Landolt, Senior, professor emeritus of theology, shuffled into the paneled dining room. “This sounds like a regular disputation,” he smiled. “If there’s a point of theology at issue, perhaps I can join in.” Roland, Junior, hastened to forestall his mother: “It’s most definitely not theology we’re talking about, Father.” The old man nodded amiably and went through to the library. While the old woman carried the empty coffee cups to the kitchen, Roland wondered, as always, why he hated his parents so intensely. He owed them much: a secure home, love in their fashion, a fine education, wealth. And yet, ever since he was as a small boy, he had spun fantasies of murdering them. In early adolescence, the boy’s fantasies had grown vivid after he read about a criminal case in the United States. In 1892, a woman named Lizzie Borden had killed her father and stepmother—and literally got away with murder. Prior to studying the Borden affair, his fantasy weapon had been a revolver. Afterward, it was an ax. Soon after taking up English at school, young Roland learned a poem by heart. Neither Shakespeare nor Milton had penned it; the author was unknown: Lizzie Borden took an ax And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one. In the kitchen door, Mrs. Landolt wiped her hands on her apron. “Roli,” she said in a stage whisper that could be heard all over the house, “Please come to the prayer service with us this evening. Father really shouldn’t be driving.” “Mother, I’ve told you I am not going to any more of those deadly services. You can take a taxi, for heaven’s sake, if you’re worried about Father.” “He would never agree,” she sighed. “He doesn’t realize how bad his driving is.” And she hurried off to give orders for dinner. His parents gone for the evening, Roland settled down in the library to polish his Böcklin lecture and lost track of time. When the doorbell shrilled, he glanced at his watch: ten minutes past ten. A beefy policeman faced him at the door: “Mr. Roland Landolt?” “Yes.” “There’s been an accident.” They died immediately, according to the medic. Without suffering. Though there was no doubt about who the victims were, Roland was needed to identify the bodies. “It’s the law,” the policeman explained. As he fetched his overcoat, Roland Landolt felt the tentacles of guilt already slithering around his ankles. * * * At the Casino Restaurant, he ordered a cup of coffee, though he didn’t need the caffeine with all the excitement sounding and clashing inside him. Leaving the cup half full, he rushed out into the park. After a few minutes of brisk walking, he veered to his right into the Bellerivestrasse. It was there that his grandfather had built the forbidding Tudor Revival house referred to in the guidebooks as the “Villa Landolt.” Grim as it was, he sometimes mused, it would have made a far better setting for patricide than the Borden residence in Massachusetts. He raced up the stairs to his bedroom and switched on all the lights. Paintings and photographs plastered the walls, but only two photographs had human subjects. On the mantelpiece, the bespectacled face of the late Professor Bloesch, founder of the famous institute, peered blandly out of a silver frame. Next to him, Dr. Loewenstein—a color photograph from The Illustrated—gazed affably from a wooden one. Some visitors to the room (there were not many) mistook this face for their host’s. Seizing the silver frame, Roland Landolt slid the contents out of the back. He threw the likeness of Professor Bloesch into the grate and set it afire, tittering as the flames consumed it. He started to do the same with the other picture, but stopped. Instead of burning Dr. Loewenstein, he inserted the therapist into the silver frame and put him back on the mantel, in finer garb than before. The wooden frame he dashed into the fireplace. The glass shattered with a sickening sound. In his dream that night, he chased Mr. and Mrs. Borden from one end of the Villa Landolt to the other. He pursued the fleeing couple up and down stairs, from attic to cellar. But he never caught them. Dr. Loewenstein foiled him at every turn. * * * The day dawned gray and hopeless. Unfriendly clouds reached down to the very treetops. As he ran, Dr. Loewenstein’s heartbeat fell into a rapid steady rhythm. A sense of well-being warmed his solar plexus, spreading out to claim every part of his body. The psychiatrist lived with his wife and two children in Witikon. Every morning, he jogged up to and back from the observation tower in the forest behind his house. As he sprinted up the wooden steps, he felt lighter and lighter. Often, when he got to the top, he experienced something that his wife called satori. Up, up, and up: only one more stretch of stairs to go. “Good morning, Doctor,” a familiar voice said as the jogger reached the platform. Roland Landolt, bundled up thickly against the freezing air, stepped quickly behind the man he had greeted, blocking the stairs. High over his head, he held a long-handled ax with a shiny blade. “Um Himmels Willen! Mr. Landolt, what are you doing here? Put that ax down!” The doctor struggled to keep his alarm from showing. “Doctor, you know everything about me. Far too much. But I know nothing about you. Only what was in that Illustrated article.” The other man’s voice firmed: “You know that therapy requires a certain distance, Mr. Landolt. Why are you even interested in my person, as opposed to my professional role?” “We look like brothers. Twins, almost. You’re like a side of myself I don’t even know yet. But I’m going to. I want to see the brushwork up close, the instruments the music flows from.” And after a moment of silence: “I can’t stop thinking about you. The way I think about them.” “Are your feelings when you think about your parents still the same? Aggression and remorse?” “Mostly remorse. Sometimes…love.” “And your feelings about me?” “Anger, and a kind of fascination. Love too.” “Are the love feelings strong enough to let you put down that ax?” Roland Landolt lowered the ax and held it under his arm like a rifle. An unfathomable expression formed on his face: “Take off your clothes.” “What?!” “Strip.” “It’s below freezing, Mr. Landolt.” “I could chop you up into forty pieces and take my time examining each one. I’m offering you another option.” The psychiatrist stared stonily at his former patient for thirty seconds. Then he unzipped the jacket of his warm-up suit and took it off. A heavy sweater came over his head, followed by the last layer, a long-sleeved T-shirt. Voices rang out below as riders from the nearby stable cantered their horses. They passed quickly into another part of the forest. “Go on.” The doctor undid the waistband of his trousers and pulled them down to his ankles. Long underwear came next, and lastly a jockstrap. “Turn around, all the way around.” The naked man turned slowly, moving awkwardly with the clothing bundled about his feet. His lower jaw shuddered from the cold. His ex-patient gaped in silence. And then, without warning, he raised the ax above his head and screamed, “Oh God! Forgive me, please!” Closing his eyes, the doctor clenched his jaws and waited. Roland Landolt scudded to the railing and looked down for an instant before hurling the ax into a fir tree; the weapon crashed to the ground in a tangle of mistletoe. He tore off his heavy lumber jacket and wrapped it around the doctor, taking the other man in his arms and rocking him back and forth. “Quick!” he cried, releasing his hold. “Get your clothes on before you catch pneumonia!” The unfathomable expression had vanished. The voice, every gesture, seemed perfectly normal. Dr. Loewenstein dressed rapidly with his ex-patient’s help. Without further words, the two men hurtled down the stairs. On the ground, they paused by the ax. “I could, and should, have you arrested, Mr. Landolt.” “You’re quite right, Doctor. Do as you see fit. I’ll cooperate.” “But first I want to go home and get some hot coffee inside me.” For the first time in his relations with the psychiatrist, Roland Landolt read perplexity in the other man’s eyes. Once again the horseback riders thudded by, shouting gaily to the men in passing. The doctor set off toward Witikon. Some twenty paces off, he turned around and shouted, “Couldn’t you use some coffee too?” When Roland Landolt caught up with the physician, the two men began to jog side by side. The powdery snow rose about their feet like puffs of diamond dust. Before them on the trail, the steaming horses broke into a gallop. And overhead, the cloud cover dissolved like a bad dream in the light of day. About the Author: Charles Edward Brooks has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize for his stories, “Cho Cho San,” “The Doomsters,” “A Book You’ll Want to Read,” “A Spark Remains,” and “Through The Gate.” Born in North Carolina, he took degrees at Guilford College and Duke University. Following his qualification as an actuary, he received a doctorate from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. For some years his work involved international travel and communication in a number of languages.