It was in the winter of 19-- that I had the chance to renew my friendship with Dr. Malted and came by the tale I am about to relate. I was traveling to a lecture in Cleveland, a thing that I loathed to do, but am occasionally cajoled into as a condition of my employment, when a blizzard of biblical proportions came upon me and I was forced to find shelter until it abated. All the local hotels were packed with stranded travelers in the same boat as I, and no room could be found anywhere. I tried to think of some acquaintance in the area that I could impose myself on, as I have no relatives, and the only name I could come up with was my old college chum, Dr. Phineas Malted.
I had been reading in some scientific journal recently about some grand and learned paper that Dr. Malted had just published and was making quite a stir in psychological circles. I skimmed the article, most of which was unintelligible to the layman, but noted at the end that the author mentioned that Dr. Malted ran an institute near the airport I found myself stuck in.
So, grasping at the only straw I could think of, I headed out in the storm. After a lot of haggling with a cabbie, and a large sum of money that I was hesitant to part with, we started out. The cab traveled at a snails pace on the icy roads and sometimes had to plow through banks of snow that had drifted across the path. The driver leaned as far forward in his seat as he could, almost pressing his nose against the glass, and kept swearing and muttering to himself about he had to be crazy to venture out in this weather, but Edith needed that operation and Christmas was coming and whatnot. I sat back in my seat and took a long pull from my flask and lit a cigarette as I watched the flakes swirl by the back window. "Hey, there is no smoking in 'ere!" the cabbie whined. "For what I'm paying you, I can damn well burst into flames" I replied, and that seemed to shut him up. The cab labored on until a passing snowplow forced us from the road and into a convenient ditch. There was no going on in the cab. It had sunk so far into the snow, the only egress was by the rolled down window. I grudging paid my fare, pulled my kit out and left the cabbie swearing and beating his frustrations out on the steering wheel.
I couldn't tell you how far I wandered. The only landmark I had to follow was a high wall to my right and some blurry glints of distant streetlights off to the left. The snow was deep and the going rough. I had to stop every hundred yards or so and catch my breath. The flask was a great comfort in my trials, as it kept a small warmth in my center, but the howling wind was enough to prevent my zippo from providing my one other great comfort, my Players Navy-Cut cigarettes. I was determined that I would not be beaten by anything, storm, cold, or privation. The was to be the classic battle of Man Vs. Nature, and nature, as far as I was concerned, could piss up a rope.
At long last, I found a break in the wall. A large iron gate filled the break and a speaker box off to the left was the only means I could discern of opening the gate. At this point, I was prepared to take any kind of shelter I could find. The flask, like myself, was exhausted, and my resolve worn thin. I pressed the button again and again until a garbled, crackling voice came out. I shouted who I was and what I wanted and the garbled voice came back with something unintelligible. I repeated this process four or five times. Finally a buzzer sounded and the gate opened with a groan.
The driveway seemed as long as my trek here, but the going was easier, as it was sheltered on both sides by large pines that limited the depth of the snow to only mid-calf, instead of the waist deep stuff I had been wading through for what seemed like hours. I found myself in front of a three story building that stretched off into the darkness both ways. I rang the bell and pounded on the door, shouting for someone, anyone, to let me in. The door opened and the glare of the light inside blinded me for a moment, but this didn't prevent me from rushing past the silhouette of my rescuer and into the warmth that I so desperately craved.
I dropped my bag to the floor and tried to murmur so sort of thanks as I stamped my feet and rubbed my hands to see if some blood could be coaxed into returning to my extremities. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that it was none other than my old friend Phineas Malted who stood before me, with a look on his face as if he was looking at some ghastly apparition. His mouth moved as if to speak, but the wonderment was too much and all he could manage was to croak "Great Cesar's Ghost! Smith!" Without another word he grabbed my bag and ushered me into a room just off the hall and positioned me in front of a fire large enough to roast a hog. He went to the sideboard and filled a pint sized glass with whiskey and placed it in my hand. He pulled a blanket from the back of a sofa and threw it around my shoulders and placed a footstool by the fire and motioned for me to sit down. I would have offered my thanks, or at least some small pleasantries, but my teeth were too busy clattering against each other to make conversation, so I merely grunted and gulped at the whiskey in an effort to thaw my frozen tongue.
Dr. Malted returned to the sideboard and pour himself a drink. He took a long pull and stared at me in disbelief. "My God man! You gave me quite a turn. You are not at all what I expected to find on my doorstep tonight."
"Why," I managed, "were you expecting a pizza, a call girl, or both?"
He laughed his old familiar, warm-hearted laugh. "No. No indeed. I was hoping that the object of my life's work would arrive tonight. I little expected that an old friend from my past would appear, half frozen, and begging entrance into an insane asylum. I assume you aren't here to check in." He chuckled to himself and emptied his drink.
My mind careened. Insane asylum? The article mentioned studies of ancient documents, idols, and patients with weird diseases, but my overly chilled mind couldn't recall anyone labeled insane. I rotated to let the fire warm my backside and asked him to explain.
"You and I spent a lot of time in college playing cards between classes. You were an excellent poker player, and I used the game to study people. That is why we were such great partners. You studied writing and I was a psyche major. You would keep the table entertained with your marvelous banter and jokes, and I could study each player in turn. In one of the history classes that I had to take to get my degree, I came across a historical reference to an iSplotchy. I was fascinated by by the story of how the ancient Sumerians worshiped this idol, and what a fantastic power it held over them. There is a reference to it in the story of Gilgamesh. After further study, I found that this idol kept appearing throughout history, and with the same result. The Romans found it and brought it to Rome. It inspired awe and terror, and I believe the ultimate destruction of the Empire. From there, there is a receipt that sends the iSplotchy to Egypt. There is a reason why Napoleon invaded Egypt. He believed that if he carried it before his army, all the world would fall under his rule. He was partly right." Dr. Malted wandered over to his desk and withdrew a cigar from a fine ceder box. He took his time trimming the end and lighting it from a table lighter that looked like a donkey. He offered me one as he puffed to get his started, but I shook my head and lit a Players with an unsteady hand.
He continued, "In Malta I found evidence that it had passed through there when the crusaders had been there, but from there the track was cold. I have traced it from one corner of the globe to another. For two hundred years there were monks in Tibet that guarded it, that was until Hitler found out. He steered his party, and then his army, in a crusade to find the iSplotchy. With this item he believed that he could rid the world of the Jews and their grand conspiracy to hide the iSplotchy and later use it to annihilate the Aryan race." At this Dr. Malted went to the sideboard and poured himself another very tall drink.
"I must admit that I have spent my whole life trying to pin this thing down. I agreed to become the head of this institute, on the condition that I treat those afflicted with the mind-numbing disease assosiated with this thing. That took a lot of papers in disregarded presses, as well as an extensive amount of money spent in questionable ways. When you heard news of the Government spending $30 for a hammer or a toilet seat, most of that was funneled to my project. I am ashamed, but somehow satisfied that I was doing the right thing. I have done my level best to use the money to protect all of us." At this he peeled off his cardigan and I could see that he had sweated through his shirt and his tie hung limply from his perspiration.
He gulped a swig of whiskey and continued on like a man at confession.
"I have discovered people throughout the world who have had small brushes with it. Under lock and key, I have two geishes, a high ranking KGB officer, a Buddist monk, two house wives, and a town drunk. I have the two members of the town council of Suffolk. I have a proffessor of culture from China. Hell, I have three ship captains and a maid from Chicago, as well as one garbage man and a shitload of spectators from a Browns/Steelers game." He sighed a heavy sigh and brushed his bangs from his face and smoothed down his shirt.
"So," he said in a falsely calm voice "what have you been up to?"
My mind reeled. There was nothing in my mundane life that could compare to the story I had just heard. Even the recent death of my great-aunt seemed pale by comparison. I mumbled something about work and sipped my drink. I was more than willing to let him continue, just so long as I didn't have to move from the warm place by the fire. My teeth had just stopped chattering and the fresh whiskey was becoming a search party for the last of my flask. He seemed to want to talk and I was more than obliged to listen.
He puffed his cigar and rummaged amongst the papers on his desk. He held up a well-thumbed file and said "Petrov Melov. It took me six years of grants, and seven years of paperwork, but I got him shipped here, but only because the KGB didn't know what to do with him." He rubbed his chin and continued "Mary Louise Burgess. Mother of three. She refuses to quit licking windows and cries out to iSplotchy in her sleep. Wilson Pickert, alcoholic, refuses to eat or drink until he is reunited with his beloved 'Mitzy'. He is on a feeding tube. I have four frat brothers that will not stop chanting 'tuba, tuba' until their grand majesty, 'His Thickness' is restored to his proper place." With that he slumped in his chair and took on the air of a man defeated. "It is enough to drive a sane man mad" he said. He puffed at his cigar and stared at his fingernails for a moment.
I would have said something at this point if I could have conjured up some words of comfort, but the warmth of the fire and the strangeness of the situation left me speechless. I pulled the blanket a little closer around my shoulders and just nodded my understanding. He reached under his desk and pressed a button. In seconds, the door opened and the worried face of a Korean woman poked her head in. Dr. Malted looked up long enough to say "Fetch something hot" and then returned to his long stare at the fireball at the end of his cigar.
Before I could say "Lickety-Split", she returned with noodles and a steaming cup of tea. At first I was alarmed by her nakedness, until I realized she was wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit. Without a word she set the bowl of noodles in my hands and the mug of tea on the chair at my elbow. She bowed deeply to Dr. Malted and then retreated to a dark corner by the door where she stood erect and vigilent, ready for direction, but as silent as a cat fart. It was a bit disturbing.
"I was hoping that the solution to my life's work would arrive tonight from Sri Lanka, but the weather has played a foul hand in it. I have coming to me the grand sum total of all mankind's ambition. His drive! His zeal!" He gulped the last of his drink and his eyes took on an unearthly glow. "The grand sum total of all man's ambition I expected tonight, and you are the one to turn up on my doorstep." She was there instantly to refill his glass, but he shrugged her away, and with a quiet word or two, gave her his instructions. He said his goodnights and muttered something to the effect that "Stacy" would see to all my needs and left the room like a man with a mission.
The noodles were too hot to eat, even in my frigid condition, so I took a polite sip of the tea and stood up, as if ready for bed. Stacy paused for a moment to look me over, head to toe, and with a jerk of her head, she asked me to follow.
As we climbed three flights of stairs, the strangeness of the situation started to sink in. But I followed her all the way to the top, watching her behind manuever like two puppies lost in a pillowcase. I thought of the cold, and all the whiskey I had consumed, and I resolved to follow Stacy wherever she led. In the dim hallway I could hear whispers and cries, "The iSplotchy is coming", "Have you got it?", "Give me my iSplotchy and I will be good, I promise." My skin started to crawl at the thought that I was surrounded by madmen.
Where she led me was to a very large hot bath. The room had to be thirty by sixty, and tiled white floor to ceiling. It was an Olympic sized pool heated to a hundred and five degrees. She motioned for me to get in and then turned her back, as if she had nothing better to do. The water thawed out all the places that the fire couldn't, but at no time did I feel at ease, despite the whiskey that was trying to thaw my innards. I splashed around for a bit, but seeing Stacy standing there, even with her back turned, just made me want to be alone all the more. The towels I pulled from the rack were warm to the touch and that was more of a comfort than the silent trip to my room that Stacy led me to.
The room had a bed and a toilet and sink. There was no carpet, no windows or curtains, no coat hooks, and no dresser. It was like a night in the drunk tank, except there were no other prisoners and no central drain in the middle. She motioned to an intercom and nodded her goodnight. The door fell shut with a very final click. I pulled the covers up to my neck and fell instantly asleep, but I spent the night dreaming I had a very important paper to write, but was sadddled with a Chinese typewriter and none of the keys made sense.
I awoke very early, with Dr. Malted shaking me. He kept shreiking about this joy of joys, and didn't I want to start my day with this great big batch of wonderment that was awaiting us in the hallway downstairs. I gazed off into the middle distance for a moment and tried to recall the night before. I remembered the cab. I remembered the cold and the snow. I remembered our brief conversation. Hell, I remember Stacy's ass and the bath, but the night before seemed like some long forgotten dream. In a short time I was dressed. Dr. Malted kept rubbing his hands together and he pestered me to hurry up.
I followed at a loping trod as he bounded down the stairs, two at a time. His excitement would be infectious at ten in the morning, but at six-thirty it loses a little of it's majesty. The growls of the inmates were louder now. They were ill at ease and this made me shudder.On the black and white tile sat a large cardboard box. Stacy stood off to the side with a large ring of keys in her hand and alternated looks at her employer and worried glances up the stairs. She wears nothing but her bodysuit, and smells like fresh baked scones.Her boss tears into the brown box like he is expecting a large cash prize. He throws bubble wrap to the edges of the room, and with a bit of struggle, holds his prize aloft.
"At long last, it is mine!" he decries. He laughed like a lunatic as he cradled this thing in his arms like a babe.
Suddenly the floor shakes beneath our feet. For the first time, I see alarm on Stacy's face. The chandelier that hangs in the hallway falls in front of us with a crash. From the back rooms and from up the stairs, people from every walk of life coming tearing down the stairs, screaming, slobbering and foaming at the mouth, each with the same foul glint in their eye. This is the look of rampant madness! All I can hear is calls for iSplotchy, as well as a group of frat boys calling for a tuba, and an emaciated man hollering "Mitzy". I cannot get out of the way fast enough and and an old lady in her seventies shoves me aside as if I am made of paper. My back strikes the wall and I see Dr. Malted in the middle of this crush of people. He is clinging onto a small chunk of concrete with a rusty pipe in it and flailing about as if he held the secret to life itself, as two geisha's bite his arms and a Buddhist monk is kicking him in the groin, and yet he still won't let go. The old lady who shoved me aside grabs a shard of glass from the chandelier and slashes at his throat. The crowd overpowers the good Doctor and he falls under their weight, but he will not release this iSplotchy. The crowd turns on each other and the blood keeps flying out from amongst them. Stacy was fighting to get to Dr. Malted, but to no avail. My head was struck as I called out to her and the whole bloody scene winks out as if someone had turned off the lights.
Three weeks later, I woke up in Denver in a body cast, but I had a nice, quiet Korean nurse named Stacy, and that seemed to help a lot.