Anna Mantzaris ~ The Arrival

They heard about the retreat cen­ter from a friend of a friend. They heard about it from an ex-cowork­er, an ex-lover, an ex-in-law. They liked the pho­tos on the web­site. They imag­ined them­selves sit­ting on the pret­ty lit­tle bench in the pret­ty lit­tle court­yard com­muning with nature with a col­lec­tion of Rumi on their lap. They imag­ined them­selves as one of the smil­ing peo­ple on an eco-friend­ly yoga mat, poised and con­fi­dent about the future. They envi­sioned a place where they would walk arm in arm with their for-the-week­end room­mate and form a life-long bond. We’re so look­ing for­ward to host­ing you in Nantucket this sum­mer! They could prac­ti­cal­ly smell the sweet scent of the jas­mine bush that Stan, the staff pho­tog­ra­ph­er, down­loaded from a stock agency.

The six retreaters have trav­eled from near and far. They have come from the city, from the coun­try, from the sub­urbs. They admire the leaves, coo at the chip­munks and yes, hug the trees.

 Meals are silent and usu­al­ly include kelp and goji berries. Everyone loves the meals. If only, they think, if only some­one would pre­pare three healthy meals a day for me at home. When they return to their con­dos, hous­es and sub­let­ted flats at the close of the week­end they will quick­ly fall back into their old eat­ing habits of fast food, fried food and refined sug­ars. John, a thir­ty-six year old ex-NFL play­er, will resume his twice-a-day Long John Silver’s trips (he reas­sures him­self The fried cod balls for break­fast are pro­tein packed!). Denise, an unhap­pi­ly mar­ried moth­er of one, will blame her hus­band, Dale, for bring­ing home the calo­rie-laden mon­key bread his admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant makes. Candace, a fifty-year old heiress to a paper mill, will main­tain a sen­si­ble diet until her dog acci­den­tal­ly bites her per­son­al chef and she has to pre­pare her own food. Candace will cry dur­ing inter­views for a replace­ment chef and hire an unqual­i­fied col­lege stu­dent named Duncan, who is obsessed with deep fry­ing Oreo cook­ies after buy­ing the Big Daddy Fryer on late-night TV. Candace and Duncan will eat a lot of fried Oreos.

But the retreaters aren’t home yet. It’s Sunday after­noon and they are on an orga­nized nature walk and final group exer­cise before leav­ing for home. For most, it has been a long and unevent­ful week­end, with only qui­et resent­ments brew­ing from com­ments in Saturday’s “Sunshine” shar­ing cir­cle rang­ing from “You are too sen­si­tive” to “I think you are the recip­i­ent of body odor,” and the unex­pect­ed, aggres­sive jock­ey­ing that took place at din­ner when it appeared there were lim­it­ed wild salmon fil­lets available.

The group has been asked to put aside any dif­fer­ences they may have devel­oped dur­ing the last two days. It is a warm spring day in the Berkshires. They are retreat­ing. Walking. Unaware of ticks, and no one thinks of ser­i­al killers except for Milton, a Pre‑K teacher who is obsessed with the ID chan­nel, chock­full of true crime shows like Snapped and Going Postal, where unsus­pect­ing sub­ur­ban peo­ple are blud­geoned to death with bed posts and hacked apart with indus­tri­al cut­ting shears. Milton sets his TiVo to record all new episodes and once vio­lent­ly threw the tele­vi­sion remote across the room because it skipped a two-hour spe­cial edi­tion on cam­pus crime that he had real­ly been look­ing for­ward to watching.

The retreaters have stopped in a clear­ing in the woods ¼‑mile from the main house and are asked to gath­er in a cir­cle. They are instruct­ed to close their eyes and imag­ine a giant blimp. Everyone imag­ines the blimp is sil­ver and hov­er­ing over­head, except for Milton who pic­tures a float­ing death cham­ber. Candace says she can feel the heat from the blimp seep­ing into her tem­ples. John tells Candace to move over because the heat she is attract­ing is giv­ing him a skin rash.

The group leader is Gregg. Gregg is employed by the Center and comes from a bro­ken home (his father, a com­pul­sive gam­bler, left his moth­er for his mother’s sec­ond cousin). Because of his parent’s failed mar­riage and fear of his­to­ry repeat­ing itself, Gregg has an unwa­ver­ing sense of monogamy and Stellar! rela­tion­ship with his wife, Trudy. Gregg has no idea what he is doing in charge of week­end retreats. He was ini­tial­ly hired as Director of Entertainment. He was the guy who showed the movies in the lounge and ran the organ­ic cot­ton can­dy machine until it was tak­en out after a retreater, who worked at a Hartford Insurance com­pa­ny, fell into a dia­bet­ic coma after sneak­ing down late one night and con­sum­ing a five-pound bag of floss sugar.

Gregg received a 3% pay raise and full health ben­e­fits with his new title. His train­ing con­sist­ed of the pre­sen­ta­tion of a binder. The binder sits on Gregg’s desk and is com­prised of twen­ty lam­i­nat­ed activ­i­ty pages, each accom­pa­nied with clip art. Gregg par­tic­u­lar­ly likes the black-and-white image of an over­sized pick­le in sun­glass­es loung­ing on a tow­el and often fan­ta­sizes about being that hap­py pick­le.

Gregg has tak­en to devel­op­ing his own themes and uses the binder on his desk pri­mar­i­ly as a place to rest his size-11 feet. This week­end Gregg is using one of his more pop­u­lar ideas, When Small Fears Cause Big Problems. On open­ing night of the retreat Gregg learned that Candace has a pho­bia of arti­fi­cial taco sea­son­ing. Milton has mail issues (he’s afraid if he seals an enve­lope, he’ll be trapped inside). John has a self-diag­nosed extreme sen­si­tiv­i­ty to tea that keeps him away from any estab­lish­ment that sells hot bev­er­ages. Denise has an intense fear of blue­ber­ries because her cat dis­ap­peared on a small island in New Hampshire famous for blue­ber­ry pick­ing and every time she sees the dark fruit she gets heart pal­pi­ta­tions and cries out for her beloved Mr. Ichibon. Melanie, a recent Smith College grad­u­ate, has a fear of the col­or yel­low even though it seems hap­py. Talyah, a self-pro­claimed klep­to­ma­ni­ac, explained to the group that her fears are too numer­ous too list but her top three are tri­cy­cles, women in wrap sweaters and chew­ing gum. Talyah has issues as they say in the yurt. Gregg did not admit his own fear of children’s live the­ater, sens­ing it was best to main­tain a lev­el of author­i­ty and not bring per­son­al prob­lems to work again.

Gregg looks around the cir­cle, remind­ing him­self of each person’s pho­bia. He has made use of mem­o­ry tricks through­out the week­end like pic­tur­ing Milton in an enve­lope and Denise as a large blue­ber­ry to keep them straight. Gregg gen­tly tells the retreaters, sit­ting on the out­door pil­lows they car­ried out to the clear­ing, to con­tin­ue visu­al­iz­ing a peace­ful blimp float­ing above their heads. He would hate the retreaters to know that the blimp idea came from Stanley Morton, founder of the cen­ter, after eat­ing a Blimpie sand­wich on his day off. Gregg gets hun­gry think­ing about this and has a stash of corn chips in a near­by shed for just these occa­sions. He tells the retreaters he is Taking a breather and will be back in five.

When Gregg gets to the shed he is sur­prised to find Melanie. He real­izes he should have noticed a retreater was miss­ing from the cir­cle and tries to push away thoughts of when he was fired from his first job as a coun­selor at Camp WaWa for a miss­ing camper. He will not allow him­self to think about what hap­pened to Jennie Barth. He refus­es to think about the police reports, her seething par­ents and lack of relief he felt when it turned out Jennie had hiked to the Interstate and caught a bus to a local casi­no and the extent of the dam­age was $420 from her col­lege fund blown on roulette because he was roy­al­ly screwed and out of a job as his super­vi­sor had informed him.

Melanie is not sur­prised to find Gregg because she not­ed in her retreat jour­nal that Gregg said dur­ing ori­en­ta­tion every­one needs an escape from their dai­ly life and his is the lit­tle shed near the cir­cle. Melanie, recent­ly sin­gle after her record four-month rela­tion­ship and approach­ing her twen­ty-third birth­day, has been keep­ing a close eye on Gregg and last night looked in the mir­ror in the com­mu­nal bath­room and referred to her­self as Mrs. Gregg. Melanie did not real­ize that Denise was in a stall at the time, gorg­ing on the mon­key bread she brought with her and car­ried to the restroom swad­dled in a pair of her sweat­pants, gen­tly car­ried like the sec­ond baby she had been oh-so-much hop­ing for.

In the shed, lit­tle is said and Melanie has no qualms about strip­ping off her half-zip hemp-woven hood­ie and smok­ing a cig­a­rette even though gaso­line is stored here. Gregg has not slept with a woman oth­er than his wife in almost two decades and finds him­self afflict­ed with uncon­trol­lable laugh­ter and delight as Melanie strad­dles him and takes charge.

Two weeks from this day, on his fif­teenth wed­ding anniver­sary, Gregg will con­fess to his wife Trudy that he slept with Melanie in the shed that will burn down the day after the tryst because Melanie will leave a smol­der­ing cig­a­rette butt in the cor­ner after she does things Gregg has only dreamed about.

When Trudy finds out about the affair and the real rea­son behind the fire (it was blamed on a phan­tom unau­tho­rized smok­ing hik­er and no one was held account­able), she will insist on a make-up week­end with a deluxe Poconos Package where the unhap­py cou­ple will take a bub­ble bath in an eight-foot-high mar­ti­ni glass bath­tub. Trudy will tell Gregg You got off easy this time. Gregg would love to beg to dif­fer, con­sid­er­ing he will devel­op a skin con­di­tion he’s cer­tain orig­i­nat­ed from soak­ing for an hour in pas­sion fruit bath oil in the slip­pery, over­sized cock­tail glass, but is just glad Trudy doesn’t tell the author­i­ties the truth behind the blaze. The skin con­di­tion devel­oped in the Poconos, along with a mys­te­ri­ous ache in his left shoul­der, will stay with Greggg until he dies from a freak snow­mo­bile acci­dent in his own back­yard five years lat­er. Little Corey Williamson will be quot­ed in the news­pa­per as say­ing I thought it would be fun to take my dad’s snow­mo­bile for a ride in July.

In the Poconos Gregg will also sprain his ankle hop­ping out of the mar­ti­ni glass bath­tub but will know bet­ter than to com­plain and with each limp count his lucky stars. Trudy will tell Gregg he is for­giv­en after the $250 meal at the Crab House where she will drink two bot­tles of Chardonnay and have to be car­ried out the front door—framed by over­sized plas­tic crab legs—by a limp­ing, rashy Gregg and night man­ag­er who can’t get the smell of crab out of his starched work shirts even with a ton of Fabreze. Trudy will har­bor resent­ment towards Gregg for their remain­ing years togeth­er, caus­ing her to devel­op a bleed­ing ulcer and fre­quent migraines that dis­ap­pear short­ly after lemon bundt cake is served after Gregg’s mod­est, yet taste­ful funer­al service.

But Gregg is not dead yet and while he is fin­ish­ing up in the shed with Melanie, the group is pass­ing around a box of Queen Anne choco­late cov­ered cher­ries that Talyah stole from the hos­pi­tal room where her eighty-three year-old neigh­bor, Mrs. Ludlow, was recov­er­ing from a recent stroke the week before Talyah left for the retreat. Mrs. Ludlow’s eye­sight was always spot­ty at best, even with her glass­es on, and Talyah sim­ply slipped the large box into her PBS tote bag before exit­ing. Talyah will feel a slight twinge of guilt when Mrs. Ludlow expires, but it won’t cure her klep­to­ma­nia. Talyah will lat­er be arrest­ed at a Forever 21 in the Short Hills Mall for stuff­ing her purse with marked-down tank tops and ordered to per­form eighty hours of com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice work­ing with teenagers on a road­side clean up where she will come across an emer­ald ring on a sev­ered fin­ger that she will slip off the pet­ri­fied dig­it and pock­et. The fin­ger and stolen ring will lat­er be fea­tured in one of Milton’s all-time favorite episodes of So Sick. So True.

When Gregg and Melanie return to the retreat cir­cle no one sus­pects that min­utes ago the two were in the makeshift shed, naked and coo­ing next to a weed whack­er and Gregg promised Melanie they have a future togeth­er. Gregg adjusts him­self on his pil­low, orange and pur­pose­ly larg­er than the rete­treaters, to show he is the leader. He asks for everyone’s atten­tion, please. His recent for­ni­cat­ing will give him the con­fi­dence he needs to lead the group. Gregg has only two min­utes left until his final duty of the week­end, The Arrival, and then he will head home for a din­ner of chick­en cut­lets that Trudy will fry up after hav­ing sex with Parker Sands, their exter­mi­na­tor. Gregg won’t sus­pect a thing even though Parker Sands will acci­den­tal­ly leave his fumi­ga­tion kit in the liv­ing room, again because he is so tak­en with the extra spicy cut­lets that he shouldn’t eat because of his Acid Reflux condition.

Gregg has always hat­ed the idea of The Arrival and thought it should, at the very least, be called The Departure as it’s the clos­ing activ­i­ty for retreats, but the require­ment and moniker stuck. The Arrival is the one activ­i­ty he must include if he wants to keep his job and con­tin­ue to make pay­ments on his sec­ond mort­gage that he nev­er told Trudy about because he has been spend­ing his off-hours at OTB and an under­ground gam­bling room and has lost their life sav­ings. He is just weeks away from can­cel­ing his life insur­ance pol­i­cy, not know­ing it will mean no mahogany cas­ket for him in just a few short years.

Gregg sens­es the retreaters are los­ing patience and the eupho­ria he felt from hav­ing sex with Melanie is wan­ing. He feels a wave of exhaus­tion come over him and he can’t wait to get home to the spicy chick­en cut­lets. He checks his watch. Any minute now Dennis Boskowitz will flip the switch. Gregg recites the lines he wrote for this week. Imagine your spe­cif­ic fear. Cup it in your hands. Imagine your spe­cif­ic fear has wings and when you open your hands, it will fly away. Just let it go. Saying these words reminds Gregg of his wed­ding in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the small white box­es that were hand­ed out to guests. After leav­ing the church, guests were instruct­ed to open the box­es they had held on their laps through­out the twen­ty-minute non­de­nom­i­na­tion­al cer­e­mo­ny. Trudy said she want­ed to Give Gregg the sur­prise of his life and didn’t tell him what was in the box­es. Gregg assumed it was rice or con­fet­ti. Gregg and Trudy exit­ed the church and he expect­ed to hear a slew of con­grat­u­la­tions but instead a hush fell over the crowd. The small take-out box­es held limp, life­less Monarchs. Trudy ran to the car (she insist­ed it be tied with cans) and he could hear the cans rat­tling as the rem­nants of what was once Hurricane Carla blew debris around the rent­ed 1949 Ford Deluxe Coup. Gregg knew he should join Trudy in the rental car but found him­self unable to move. He watched as the polite guests qui­et­ly walked to the small foun­tain out­side the church entrance and took turns tilt­ing their box­es until the but­ter­fly car­cass­es fell and swirled in the murky water. Congratulations!

Gregg tells him­self to Stay pos­i­tive, you stu­pid idiot and returns to the week­end script. Now go back to the image of blimp he tells the retreaters. Imagine it hov­er­ing over our heads, send­ing warm­ing rays. John chuck­les imag­ing the blimp dump­ing blue­ber­ries on Denise and her freak­ing. It’s not that John is mean spir­it­ed but he has always loved a prac­ti­cal joke, even after he was expelled from Northwestern for lead­ing a high-lar­i­ous! lock­er room prank turned assault on an unusu­al­ly short, but always so sweet, sopho­more named Danny Dunson, who com­mit­ted sui­cide short­ly after the inci­dent because the humil­i­a­tion was just too much to live with.

Gregg’s voice has become monot­o­ne and he is now so tired he’s begin­ning to slight­ly slur his words. Know that yoooou have the paw-er to make some-thing hap-pen. Yooooou have the pa-wer to chaaange he tells the group. Candace leans over to Milton and whis­pers Is he drunk? but Milton doesn’t hear because he is focused on bang­ing a large stick he has found into the dirt and murmuring.

 Out of view of the cir­cle, Dennis Boskowitz is sta­tioned in a hap­haz­ard­ly con­struct­ed tree house that will col­lapse three years lat­er and per­ma­nent­ly injure Mario, a loy­al mem­ber of the ground main­te­nance crew, who will have to go on dis­abil­i­ty, caus­ing his wife Andrea, who every­one said was a gold dig­ger, to leave him and take their three adorable bam­bi­ni with her. Dennis doesn’t find it pathet­ic that he is a fifty-five year old man sit­ting in a shot­ty tree house because he has con­vinced him­self he is on a covert and cru­cial mis­sion. He is also con­vinced his cat’s tail can pre­dict the stock mar­ket, rain is bet­ter than sun, and the end is near.

Gregg finds it hard to believe that word has not got­ten out about The Arrival but he guess­es the waivers and What hap­pens at the cen­ter, stays at the cen­ter phi­los­o­phy agreed upon dur­ing sign-in has kept it under wraps. One more minute and Dennis will flip the switch. Gregg returns to his script. With your fears gone, return to the image of the blimp. The blimp sym­bol­izes every­thing you want. The blimp is your past, your present, your future. Gregg has nev­er liked this line but Trudy said it sound­ed authen­tic. Gregg checks his watch. 30 sec­onds. He is dis­tract­ed by a thump­ing, and for a moment imag­ines it is the heart­beat of the baby he and Trudy lost, just hours after it was born. Though they hadn’t named the baby, Gregg called him Timothy in his head. He just always like the sound of that name and imag­ined a Timothy could have a nice, qui­et life and he had always wished it were his own name, soft­er than the one syl­la­ble he was stuck with, an extra con­so­nant hang­ing off and caus­ing con­fu­sion through­out his childhood.

The thump­ing increas­es and the retreaters are now focused on Milton and the large stick. Milton is pound­ing hard, a poof of dust flies up with each thud, caus­ing Candace to get up because she Can’t see a damn thing with all that dirt fly­ing into her eyes. 15 more sec­onds and Gregg thinks This will all final­ly be over until next week. Milton’s mur­mur­ing has evolved into a loud, yet indis­tin­guish­able, chant. 5 sec­onds. Gregg is anx­ious to com­plete the week­end and have that large plate of those spicy chick­en cutlets. 

 At the Command Center, as Dennis likes to call the tree house, he is busy eat­ing a whoopee pie made by his Aunt Ellen, whom he still lives with, who did the very best she could to raise him after the house fire, and acci­den­tal­ly hits the accel­er­at­ed speed when flip­ping the switch. Before Gregg can fin­ish his last line, Your future has arrived. Your future is now, a 10 x 4ft met­al­ized nylon, con­trolled air­ship (NOTBALLOON!), careens into the clear­ing.  After years of see­ing The Arrival, Gregg has final­ly fig­ured out what the float­ing device reminds him of: an econ­o­my-size Jiffy Pop. As Dennis licks the whoop­ie crème fill­ing—made with too much Crisco again—off his thick fin­gers, he drops the blimp remote and it falls into the once too-wide, now too-nar­row slat in the tree house floor. Dennis tries to wedge his thick hand into the slat, his coarse fin­ger pads just brush­ing the black plas­tic, unable to pry it out and push the cor­rect speed.

Gregg is knocked out of his lethar­gic state when he notices the blimp is doing what must be 90mph cir­cles. Milton stands up and swings the stick, tak­ing aim at the air­craft each time it zips buy. Standing on his toes, along with the blimp’s now-descend­ing height, Milton is able to make con­tact, smack­ing at the sil­ver fab­ric with the wood as if it were a piña­ta. John jumps in the way Ready and will­ing to save the day. His last thought before being knocked in the head by Milton’s stick is that he’d wish he’d been able to have a go with Talyah. He falls over, land­ing near a way­ward log. Melanie sees John down and feels elat­ed. She can final­ly try out the mouth-to-mouth she was forced to learn for scu­ba cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which qual­i­fied as a gym cred­it at Smith. She pinch­es John’s nos­trils while com­pos­ing in her head their wed­ding announce­ments about how she saved her future husband’s life (a for­mer NFLer!) and it’s what brought them togeth­er. Gregg sees Melanie’s lips on John’s and he thinks of how much he loves Trudy and that the tryst in the shed was a major error in judg­ment.

Milton con­tin­ues to swing the stick and John, now awake and angry, gets up and takes his 240-lb, still-game-day-ready body and tack­les him. Denise doesn’t know why, but she grabs the stick and runs, not look­ing back. The retreaters take stock of the site, all but Denise, who will return to the main house in tears, promis­ing her­self she will stay with her hus­band no mat­ter how much mon­key bread he brings home because being mar­ried and get­ting fat is bet­ter than being alone and watch­ing Lifetime on Saturday nights.

John has Milton in a head­lock and is await­ing the local police to arrive, where they will con­sid­er cit­ing Milton for dis­or­der­ly con­duct but let him go with just a warn­ing after he rec­og­nizes and prais­es Officer Tim Lewis for a job well done in the case of Dusty Dunmire and the nev­er-found sis­ter-in-law show­cased in an episode of Twisted Crime that aired just before the retreat.

Milton’s repeat­ed bat­ter­ing of the blimp has caused it to slow­ly descend, even­tu­al­ly falling like a sil­ver, injured bird and land­ing on Gregg’s over­sized leader pil­low. Talyah is three feet away, fin­ish­ing off the remain­ing choco­late cov­ered cher­ries and count­ing the mon­ey she took from the pock­et of John’s wind­break­er that he took off before jump­ing in front of Milton when the deflat­ed blimp lands on the ground.

Candace is using baby wipes she had in her silk car­go-pant pock­ets to wipe off the dust that has cre­at­ed a film on her skin and makes a men­tal note to make an appoint­ment for dermabrasion.

Dennis Boskowitz, haven long giv­en up on fish­ing out the remote, wan­dered to the east side of the retreat prop­er­ty, and will be found lat­er that evening wan­der­ing on Highway 5, eager to return to his post.

The retreat is offi­cial­ly over when the clock tow­er at the main house rings six times. Trudy, in the sub­ur­ban house she shares with Gregg on Magnolia Lane, less than a half mile from the retreat cen­ter, will hear the faint chime of the bells and quick­ly slip back into a pair of non­de­script cot­ton briefs, know­ing her hus­band would sus­pect some­thing if he saw her don­ning a match­ing lace, rasp­ber­ry-col­or bra and panty set. She scur­ries to the kitchen and pops the frozen chick­en breasts in the microwave to defrost.

When Gregg gets home, after stop­ping at OTB for the lucky break he real­ly deserves, he will tell Trudy what hap­pened at the cir­cle. He will cry for the first time since he hid in the bath­room on their hon­ey­moon night and told his new wife he would be right out, and for the last time in what will be a short­er life than he ever antic­i­pat­ed. Trudy will hand Gregg the Tapatio hot sauce his doc­tor has for­bid­den him to have and encour­age him to douse it gen­er­ous­ly on the chick­en cut­lets she burned because she had to cook them fast and furi­ous. She will assure him every­thing is ok. She will tell him not to wor­ry. The future looks bright.


Anna Mantzaris lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Ambit, The Cortland Review and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her short sto­ry col­lec­tion ‘The Girl Who Can Take the Most Electricity’ was a final­ist for the 2020 Eyelands Book Award. She has been award­ed res­i­den­cies for her writ­ing by Hedgebrook and The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.