Writings and Reflections

And It Was Good

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Paul Halloran had a name. He had a date-of-birth and a nine-digit identifier. But what he did not have was any measurable amount of intelligence.

A “client” at the Glendale Nursing Center, Paul Halloran was the last surviving transferee from the infamous Willowbrook State School on Staten Island after it was closed almost thirty years before. This all followed the furor caused by the television coverage that made Geraldo Rivera a household name.

Paul remained just as he had been when he was evacuated at age fourteen from an adult-sized crib with rusting metal bars, his body crumpled into a fetal position, his skull undersized and misshapen, his teeth crooked and protruding, his fingers and toes gnarled and malformed. It was assumed he was blind and deaf – nobody could say for sure anymore – for he didn’t respond in any usual manner to visual or aural stimuli. It was hard for anyone except one nurse – Antonia DeJesus – to look upon him, let alone tend to his most basic bodily needs.

But Antonia was growing significantly more exhausted. She’d seen so many of her colleagues come and go. With them she’d celebrated their birthdays, their engagements and weddings, and their retirements. She’d been there for almost forty Flag Days and forty Independence Days, forty Halloweens and forty Thanksgivings and forty Christmases, helping the aides, with flagging enthusiasm, put up and take down holiday decorations stored in magic marker-labeled corrugated boxes stored in a supply closet in the basement.

It was Antonia with whom Paul had a special relationship. When she released the bars on the side of his adult-sized crib and exercised his limbs it was with her that he moaned the least. When she hand-fed him it was with her that he ingested the most. And when he was sponge-bathed, for that’s the only way he could be cleaned because the last time he was carried into a shower his unworldly screams could be heard throughout the wing, it was Antonia’s ministrations that seemed to actually make his mouth twitch into a smile.

But bone-weary and living a nondescript, colorless life that had passed her by, and now at the age when she could start receiving Social Security, Antonia finally decided to submit her own retirement papers and accept the meager severance package that Glendale had offered. And she would be free of the place for good.

XMD Industries was a privately-held corporation that worked out of a featureless cinder-block building in an industrial park south of Buffalo. It was formed by a pair of biotech graduates who’d found that working in the corporate world was inhospitable and suffocating, and funded by a reclusive billionaire who lavished upon them a huge no-strings-attached research grant – for motivations only he was aware of, as he said, “I’m stinking rich and this is what I want to do.”

XMD employed a team of surgeons and veterinarians who had lost their licenses, lab technicians who had gotten their knowledge through online classes and honed their skills on the job, computer hackers who had once run afoul of the law, and disaffiliated techno geeks and computer experts who were in it for the thrill and also for the money. And there was a lot of money to be had. Nobody could complain about being underpaid.

They had all signed non-disclosure agreements because they were doing research that, if word got out, might strike some as revolutionary but ethically distasteful. Most importantly, XMD did not want to become a possible target until it was time. Thus, it was decided early on to keep an extremely low and secretive profile, to do whatever possible to stay off the corporate grid.

XMD’s lab animals were housed in a state-of-the-art facility and were treated with a sense of reverence. Their care could not possibly be faulted by PETA and the other animal rights groups that were the conscience and bane of so many other research laboratories.

But there was a palpable unease in the lab. The dozen or so chimpanzees were chittering and bouncing about in their cages. The first of the assembled chimpanzees, code-ID’d A-1, and dubbed Alex by his handlers, had been taken away for his final procedure.

The team, which had first worked with mice and rats, and then cats and dogs, had been perfecting a method to attach a remote-controlled programmable module into the neural channels of a chimpanzee’s brain. In the way that an original concept keeps evolving, the module resembled the square-shaped breastplate of judgment worn by the high priest of the Israelites, but XMD’s attachment used a myriad of colored LEDs instead of the dozen precious stones denoting the original twelve tribes.

Many other researchers had tapped into the brain to investigate diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and to map exactly in the brain where feelings and thoughts were processed. But those studies were child’s play to the XMD researchers, for they were working on connecting directly with the brain’s billions of neurons and synapses to create a biologically expandable organic supercomputer which they hoped would be magnitudes more powerful than the super-cooled rooms of multi-million dollar hardware currently in operation. With a brain’s enormous capacity, theirs would be a massive supercomputer with which they could solve the most insurmountable problems plaguing mankind. Such was their fervent hope.

But their research using the lesser mammals had not met their expectations. Although they proved that their design and interface could work, they found that the earlier incarnations were disappointing in terms of speed, feedback, neuronal growth and the melding of brain and machine. The learning curve was agonizing. They feared that even with the latest module, which they designed specifically for their beloved Alex, which had taken months of painstaking development, they would not be able to achieve their objectives.

Months later, after tweaking it and also testing it on B-1 and C-2 and D-3, they knew they were right. They knew they needed an animal smarter, and with more brain mass, than a chimpanzee: an animal with insight and memory, an animal with apprehension and mindfulness. What they needed to experiment with was a human being.

At the mandatory weekly staff meeting, which was purposely scheduled for Friday afternoons to cut down on long-windedness, there was only one agenda item:

● Acquiring a test subject

Although the agenda item was vague, they all knew exactly what was desired, and what was at stake. Suggestions were brainstormed: a death-row prisoner … who cares if one were sacrificed? … but damn those prison rights groups; kidnaping, but if caught, there was the FBI and harsh prosecution, not to mention the negative publicity; a foreign subject from a third world land, whisked out of the country … after all, who’d be missed given all the sex-trafficking going on?; a homeless person, but his brain cells might be so fried that he would be worthless to experiment on; a slave bought through a clandestine transaction … and so on. When one mentioned taking his wife, please, there were only titters. Their exhaustion had drained the humor from the room.

But what surprised them most during their extended deliberations was their self-discovery that they actually cared about what was morally right, or, at least, what was morally defensible. Their hour-long meeting continued on through the evening because these former felons, geeks self-identifying themselves as disenfranchised and medical mal-practitioners began to look at themselves, really look within themselves, as they weighed the value of the suggestions.

With his mind wandering, Hugo Dietrich, the senior neurological researcher, remembered back to the Willowbrook exposé and how shocked he was when he saw the inhumane conditions on his old black and white Zenith. As part of his undergraduate study, he’d also visited a couple of state institutions on Long Island. When he observed some of the most crippled and retarded beings, lying inanimate in improved but still-squalid conditions, he wondered why they even bothered to keep them alive. But he kept the imprudent thought to himself. To this day, though, he couldn’t get the hideous images out of his mind.

That’s when Dr. Dietrich made his suggestion, but it was met with immediate skepticism. Questioned one colleague, “We’re going to hook a profoundly mentally retarded being to our system? An idiot? An imbecile? Someone with an IQ of zero? How could that possibly work?”

But Dietrich pointed out that all that was needed was the brain itself, kept alive and functioning. “And it might be better if there were no insight, no memory. There would be nothing corrupting the data flow. It’d be like a tabula rasa … like drinking pure, untapped good ol’ H-2-O – just like Jesus’s living water.” Because there were no other viable suggestions, and even though Dietrich’s reasoning sounded bizarre, the team decided to go along with his recommendation.

So the hackers started their kind of research into hospital and medical databases, which was made infinitely easier by the mandates requiring computerized record-keeping. They searched for their ideal candidate: a patient from one of the mental institutions which was closed after Willowbrook – maybe even from Willowbrook itself. After all, they thought, why not give Dietrich exactly what he was looking for?

Proximity was a factor. Having no kin was a factor. Ease of procurement was certainly a factor. Because so many of the Willowbrook survivors after its closing had died, their search eventually narrowed down to one forgotten soul located in a section of Far Rockaway, New York where there was a concentration of other such “care” facilities.

He was housed at the Glendale Nursing Center.

And his name was Paul Halloran.

Now that their target was acquired they needed a clean and clear method of extraction. But sneaking in during the middle of the night and slipping out with a live body was not going to be a walk in the park. Dealing with the staff was going to be just as impossible. That is, until they hacked into Glendale’s employee records and found the file of a nurse who had submitted her retirement papers, to be promised only a pittance as a severance payment, despite Glendale’s having received huge reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid that had the stench of overcharging, overpayment and fraud. When they hacked into her bank records they concluded that the nurse, Antonia DeJesus, with the right financial inducement, might be persuaded to assist with their plan.

The charismatic but thrice-divorced Dr. Dietrich, with his old-money charm, was recruited to approach the retiring nurse. He dropped in at Glendale to ostensibly visit a long-list relative who just happened to be in a semi-private room on Antonia’s floor. When he introduced himself to Antonia and said, with a tear sliding down his cheek, “I need to once again connect to my beloved aunt – I’ve missed her so,” his loving, attentive nature and his irresistible appeal made her heart begin to melt.

He wooed Antonia and took her places she’d never dreamed of going – by limousine, of course. Four-star restaurants. Hit Broadway shows. Even several nights in a boutique hotel. And then he made his proposition: cash on the barrel head for her propitious cooperation. And a lot of cash to keep it quiet – cash into the mid-six figures that no one would ever have to know about.

But like Dietrich’s associates, Antonia realized that she, too, had a moral compass. The vast amount of money was alluring, of course, but she had developed maternal feelings for Paul Halloran, who’d been in her personal care for so many years. She didn’t want him injured or in pain. So her one additional stipulation for her participation was to be allowed to continue caring for him at the XMD facility. And, of course, she’d continue to be close to Dr. Dietrich, the man with the glorious golden tongue.

No amount of Dietrich’s honey-sweet cajoling could deter her, for this was her final offer. And thus it was accepted.

So late in the evening after her retirement party in Glendale’s community room, after all the plastic tablecloths were wrapped up and discarded, after all the tables were moved back in place, after all the remaining balloons were distributed and the reusable Happy Retirement sign was folded and put away, a private ambulance was backed into the loading dock and the warmly-blanketed form of Paul Halloran was wheeled on a gurney along her hall, into the elevator, and down to the basement, where it was rolled out and into the ambulance and driven away. Antonia, in her nurse’s uniform, with the Mardi Gras beaded necklaces still around her neck, sat in the back during the nine-hour drive, tending to her ward.

As much as they were split about the decision to have Antonia on board, the XMD staff had also been of two minds about having Antonia be part of the decision-making. But once they realized that she, too, had become a willing participant in their research – “a co-conspirator” mentioned one – she was allowed to sit in on most of their meetings. They found she was a valuable addition to their staff. She made worthwhile suggestions about how best to care for Paul, about how best to position him for his numerous procedures, about how to keep him calm without major sedation, and about how to keep him from wasting away in this sterile, stimulus-free environment.

And Antonia kept up her dream-like but slowly ebbing relationship with Dr. Dietrich, despite what had originally looked like a fundamental mismatch. Those around them – and even Antonia and her Hugo – could not understand how it could possibly happen – a lonely, mousey spinster paired with a dapper, dynamic neurologist. But they shrugged their shoulders and toasted to them, thinking “stranger things have happened.”

On an overcast day in August, though nobody had been outside since early morning, Paul was brought into the operating room for the final procedure. Already, over a series of surgeries lasting many hours, thousands of mini-wires had been micro-implanted through Paul’s skull directly into his brain. Today was the day of the connection.

Masked and gowned, Antonia was at Paul’s side monitoring the readouts, making sure he was comfortable, making sure that her part of this epoch procedure would succeed. The surgeons and lab technicians were engaged in their carefully-choreographed ballet, attaching the color-coded wires from the breast plate module to the core of wires connected to Paul’s brain. When Paul became agitated, and none of Antonia’s ministrations seemed to help, she administered a mild sedative into his intravenous line.

But things were taking longer than expected.

They discovered colored-wire mismatches and missing electrical feeder lines. Dietrich began cursing, screaming, “How the hell could this be happening?” He whipped off his mask and stormed out of the operating theater.

They all decided they needed to take a break. Their anger and disgust were becoming counter-productive. “We can’t take the negative energy, man,” whined one of the techs. Though Antonia was needed outside, for ameliorating and alleviating had always been her true gift – her ability to dispel anger, to quiet an agitated patient, to comfort a distraught spouse or sibling – to calm … things … down – she stayed glued to Paul’s side.

When they returned, they had obviously been flustered, but they soon continued their flurry of activity with renewed enthusiasm. Their confidence became contagious, which also seemed to have an effect on Paul, whose vital signs showed less turbulence.

After five more frenetic hours, they were finished.

Finally, it was time.

The module was activated. The breast plate LEDs began lighting. Data began flowing. The LEDs began dimming and brightening, blinking and flickering. The computer techs in the connecting room could be seen through the glass window holding their thumbs up high, big smiles on their faces.

It was apparently working.

The fluttering of the lights began accelerating. Dietrich looked through the window, as if to ask, “More?” Through the intercom came the answer. “Let’s do it.”

They upped the current. Increased the data flow. Antonia was astonished yet becoming agitated about the dazzling display. She thought the LEDs were about to explode.

But in the eyes of the masked surgeons, and in the faces of the techno geeks, she saw looks of relief. Exuberance. Absolute joy.

There was concordance.

There was digital harmony.

It was a success.

They had done it.

Until the body started quivering.

Until the convulsions.

Until the frothing at the mouth.

Until the moaning.

And, until the shrieking – that god-awful, unworldly shrieking.

It echoed against the concrete walls. It was louder than the screeching from the uptown express. It was piercing their ears … and their souls.

Except for Antonia, for over the years she had become inured. She had planned for such an eventuality days earlier. Now it had become necessary. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a previously-prepared syringe from her pocket and injected a lethal dose of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride directly into Paul’s intravenous line. She knew that his heart would almost immediately stop beating, but it would take a short while longer for his brain to cease functioning.

And his suffering would stop.

After all, her overriding impulse was to always, always provide comfort and care, but most importantly, to stop the pain her patients were experiencing. The degree of palliative care she bestowed – aside from the occasional rumors – was something that wasn’t explicitly stated in her personnel file.

While the team raced to revive their subject and resurrect the newly-aborted experiment, Antonia silently lifted herself up, dropped her mask and gown into a hamper, and slipped out of XMD Industries for good.

With her many thousands safely stashed away, she could live the good life on her own terms away from Paul Halloran, away from XMD, and especially away from the conniving, manipulative Hugo Dietrich.

And it was good.

It was very good.

Rev 10 / April 17, 2015
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 35, May 2015

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April 2015 … Copyright © 2015 Lloyd B. Abrams
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