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 (NOT A BALLOON!), 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.