Allegheny Spa by Robert Boucheron

(published 16th July 2018)

Peace smothers the landscape like apple blossom petals or cottonwood fluff, except that it’s summer, warm as toast. The hour is post meridian. The air is still, and dry leaves hang from the towering beeches, oaks, and maples. Crisp at the edges, yellowing, the leaves filter low-angle sunlight, transmute glare to gold.

I can hardly keep my eyes peeled. Draped in a lounge chair, I stare under lowered lids at the lawn, dark green and evenly mown. Though I go to bed at dusk and rise at dawn, much of the night, I lie awake or read in bed, and then all day I doze. I am idle, lazy, and good for nothing. I read a page and absorb not a word. I write a line, and the pen drops from limp fingers. My mind is blank.

I arrived yesterday, or so long ago I forget when. How did I get here? Maybe I rented a self-driven car, an electric robot automobile, spotlessly clean and lightly scented, a whoosh of tires and a gleam of chrome, a silver-gray ferry with a silent, invisible Charon at the wheel. The route twisted through mountain passes and a national forest, with hairpin turns and a narrow shelf of roadway, rock wall to one side and airy void to the other. The dreamscape passed like an avant-garde film as I slouched in back. Or maybe I took the bus.

At all events, here I am in the Allegheny Mountains, in the quiet town of Hushington, at the spa. Brought down by a bout of sciatica, a pain in the butt so severe I wept, I sought relief by taking the waters. Generations of sufferers have traveled here before me, pilgrims in the religion of health. I followed their uncertain footsteps, the spectral tap of their bamboo canes, the wobbly track of their wheelchairs.

Persephone met me in the marble lobby, not at all institutional, to guide me through a long and intrusive check-in. A young woman from the region, she was firm and lovely. The niceties included confusion over the room—an ominous number and not the one reserved—credit card, billing address, supplemental insurance provider, whom to inform in the event of an event, bracelet inscribed with “Do Not Resuscitate,” optional organ donation card, and a choice of cremation, embalming, or eco-burial in a coffin guaranteed to decompose in a year. Last but not least, we dissected the meal plan. The spa offers white-tablecloth dining, as well as round-the-clock snacks in a downhome café, with degrees of dietary privation: low salt, whole grain, strict vegan, flavor-free, and raw.

All difficulties having been smoothed away, Dr. Mort in a white lab coat conducted an intake interview. His private lair was decked with diplomas. On his head was a mass of dark brown hair, and a thick beard covered most of his face. Black-framed lenses focused beady black eyes. According to the display of credentials, his professional training included a year in a psychiatric ward. His voice was basso profundo.

“The chronically afflicted all subscribe to the same inner newsfeed, a hysterical bulletin of doom and dread. Learn to look beyond.”

He tapped his skull through the bear-like pelt.

“Pain happens in the brain, up here,” he growled. “Drugs interrupt the signals in the nerves through chemical inhibition. You possess other means of overcoming discomfort.”

So what was this transcendental technique?

“All in due course. Meanwhile, I ask you to meditate on goals, bad attitudes, and the mind-body problem.”

The fellowship of pain is a like a lapel pin, easy to spot, and yet we have little to say to each other, at most a word on the weather. The unique tale one is eager to tell of symptoms and physicians turns out to be the same for all, and nobody wants to listen. We gravely nod as we shuffle along the path. Gentlemen touch the brim of a hat, and ladies flourish a handkerchief.

Therapy entails a daily bath, to which I descend in flip flops, swim shorts, and a plush white terrycloth robe embroidered with the spa logo. The private clinic and resort hotel was built in a rustic style on top of a natural geothermal spring. The bath is subterranean, clad in white ceramic tile, scrupulously scrubbed, vaulted and booming, and lit by hidden sconces. A veil of vapor eddies through the cavern.

The bath attendant is a young person of exotic ethnic blend and uncertain gender who smiles but never speaks. A baptismal candidate about to take the plunge, I remove the robe and sandals. I slip into a capacious tub of white enamel on cast iron. I sink to my neck in water steam-shrouded and mineral-clouded, like so many gallons of hot milk.

I steep and soak. I close my eyes. I inhale a bouquet of magnesium and potassium salts, with a hint of sulfur, carbonated. I fizz like a non-prescription tablet guaranteed to relieve symptoms that result from indulgence and dissipation. I melt away to bodiless bliss, a nerveless state of no pain. I am barely conscious, removed from space and time. Keats and his nightingale should appear at this point:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here where men sit and hear each other groan.

The bath attendant withdraws the white canvas privacy curtain to remind me time is up. They hold shoulder-wide the white terrycloth robe like an ermine cloak for a coronation. They treat us like royalty here at the spa.

A bit of fruit on a porcelain plate is placed out of reach, a ruse to rouse the lethargic. Like a body cut up and boiled in a magic cauldron, I rise restored. My skin is rosy, my limbs are whole, and my stomach gurgles. I want the treat.

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Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He has worked as an architect in New York City and since 1987 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear inBellingham Review, Fictive Dream, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.