Last Chance by Max Welton
It is hard going, but the demolition is scheduled for tomorrow. The brush that started at your ankles now reaches chest height, the fence is in sight. Past bulldozers, poised like fierce beasts to devour the hapless sanitarium, you enter the north wing and hunt for room #36. An excited sadness overwhelms you as you search her room for what was hidden within the wall. After the accident her decline had been swift. Seventeen years since you learned the truth about Daisy, it’s now or never. An unseen hand guides you to a loose wallpaper patch, glittering Art Deco reveals itself. Her bracelets are safe once again.
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FROM THE DESK OF MAX WELTON
So, that’s it! The start to my first novel. I’m kind of going for a Twilight Zone vibe here, maybe Rod will be interested when I’m done. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, like my uncle Nick. I’ve written a few poems and stories for the Reader when I can find the time, but I would really like to write a novel. I have great ideas and can write really great titles, like ‘Death in the Shadow of Saint Mary’s’. I live on the North Side in Bucktown, a Polish/Puerto Rican/Low Rent neighborhood, and I work right down the street from St. Mary of the Angels, I think it’s the coolest looking church in Chicago. I can just never come up with a story… that was it, just a great title. It’s going to be a murder mystery someday when I can think of a story. But right now, I’m quitting my job and writing full-time to finish ‘Last Chance’, thanks to uncle Nick.
My uncle Nick was a famous writer, well kind of famous. He had one big hit, but made a decent living writing for magazines. He was very kind to my mom and me, more like a father than my father. When I told him I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, he said “Write what you know about.” I saw my first Sox and Cubs games with Nick, he introduced me to art, and he showed me Chicago. I wanted to be just like him. I still do after all these years.
Nick was killed covering the war when I was just out of high school. He never married, and I was his only heir, so I was not only sad, but expecting a nice inheritance. Like the character in his book, I got cheated. He left everything to the Perkins Sanitarium in New York. I got a few boxes of old letters and unfinished manuscripts. I was bitter at first, but his lawyer told me that Perkins had given Nick his life back when he was lost in an alcoholic depression. He had dreamed of being a writer, not a bond salesman, and a new technique called ‘automatic-writing’ was a perfect fit to help cure him. His doctor suggested he write about the events in Long Island, and the grief that was fueling his condition. “Write a book. Even if you are the only person to ever read it”, he said. It worked, because Nick came out a well man, and a writer. The story was published to a huge success. He moved back to the Midwest to be near his family and write stories. He took care of me, so I forgave him.
Years later, I actually looked at the contents and discovered a story he never intended to publish. I thought it was interesting, as it was about a distant cousin named Daisy. She had been part of the whole Long Island thing, and ended up in a ritzy mental hospital also, Lakeview Sanitarium on the North Shore. That’s where the filthy rich went… guys like me went to Cook County.
That was awhile back. I forgot all about it until the other day. I was reading the business section of the Trib, and saw that some new luxury homes were slated to be built there, using the bricks from the Lakeview Sanitarium. The property had been abandoned to seagulls and rats for many years and was in ruins. Demolition was slated soon. That jogged my memory… something Nick had mentioned in his story about Daisy.
I found the volume devoted to Daisy. Nick tells how her life unraveled after the murder of Gatsby. She was a woman torn between two men not able to have them on her terms, her tense gaiety gone, and perhaps never forgave herself for her involvement in an automobile accident. She had been the one driving the Rolls, and Jay had covered for her. Nick was never sure if her husband knew she was the driver, but Tom Buchanan saw fit to take her away from the unhappy scene. They moved from East Egg back to their estate in Chicago, not even going to the funeral. When Nick finally went to see Daisy, he found that stricken with grief and guilt, she had slipped into a despondency so great that she was in a constant state of shock. Her husband could no longer put up with it or bear to watch and committed her to a sanitarium, where she stayed till her death. Sadly, Nick was her only visitor, and would go to Lakeview to visit Daisy once a month.
This is the part I was looking for… “I never knew who to expect when I visited Daisy. One time she would be staring out a window, alone in her thoughts, and completely incommunicado. I would hold her hand and talk to her, hoping she could hear me. Maybe she wouldn’t feel alone. Curiously, the next visit would find her attired in one of her finest dresses bedecked in jewels and excited to see me. She loved her diamonds, especially the bracelets, of which she had many. She would chatter on, completely a different girl. We would never bring up Long Island. On occasion, she would ask me about her daughter, Pam. Daisy had not been the most caring of mothers when well, and I wondered if she thought it odd that Pam never came to visit. I would say she was just fine, and that was that. Lakeview liked the guests, that’s what they called the patients, to dress as they had at home, and it could be quite the fashion show. We would dine in the great room and the attendants always made quite a fuss over her. Daisy liked that, as I think it brought back memories of the good times. One day as I walked Daisy back to room 36, I asked her if she wasn’t the least bit concerned about the safety of her jewelry. She assured me she wasn’t and was quite proud that she had been so clever. Daisy explained that she had peeled back a square of wallpaper, and hollowed out a place in the wall. With the wallpaper pushed back, “you couldn’t tell otherwise”, she said. I didn’t ask her to show me, but she did say it was low to the ground.”
The demolition date was in two days, so with that bit of information and a few tools, I set off for the old hospital to see if I could get lucky.
Maybe now, I’ll get lucky with ‘Death in the Shadow of Saint Mary’s’.
Max Welton… Chicago… 1970
Okay, I know what you are thinking… “The next F. Scott!” … please, I’m far to modest. This is a post I started last June. I had just seen ‘The Great Gatsby’, and was inspired to write a 100 Word Flash Fiction for Friday Fictioneers based on Daisy’s character. It is actually Max’s story and can be seen here… Friday Fictioneers: LAST CHANCE It got me to thinking about what life would have been like for Daisy after the book. The only problem… I had never read The Great Gatsby, so I only had the movie to go on. I know, I can hear it now… the outraged “Never read ‘The Great Gatsby’, The Great American Novel!!!… in your mind right now. I’m still puzzled why it was never assigned to read in high school or college, but it was not, maybe it wasn’t The Great American Novel in the 1960’s. So I had started the story of Max Welton and then put it on hold till I could read the book. Mission accomplished, I finished my story and immediately got sidetracked with work, taking time off writing anything for a while. And so my story languished in my draft file, a cold case, forgotten… until my memory was jolted by this line by Karen, in her blog Fat Girl In Boxing Gloves, ” They’re all in my draft box collecting cyberdust, and if that trollop of inspiration that stokes my creative fires ever returns, you’ll get to read them”. My creative fires were re-lit and my story now sees the light of day, or the glow of your computer screen. Please let me know what you think.
The photograph is of the Willard State Asylum in Upstate New York. I came across it when looking for photos of gothic looking asylums to represent my made-up ‘Lakeview Sanitarium’. I also came across an amazing story. A project by photographer John Crispin, inspecting patients suitcases that had been stored in the Willard State Asylum, which closed in 1995 and had only recently been discovered. It is pretty amazing… Willard Suitcases.