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Fiction

The Institute of Joy

by Juan Carlos Reyes

In 1988, to see Humberto Pacheco in his homeless man’s attire, overgrown coat sleeves and no undershirt, a knotted rope tightening his waist band, bare unshaven balls in the shadow of his opened zipper, is to confuse the abandoned basement where he slept, and the purpose the larger building had formerly embodied, with the ever-deepening well of destitution it had become. Beer bottles rested by Humberto’s feet. Scattered plywood and splintered wooden beams littered the basement floor otherwise covered in dust.

Forty years earlier, the Pacheco family had presented a novel idea to the mayor. Felipe Pacheco, Humberto’s father, envisioned a two-story building where the sad could cry, where the happy could laugh, and where greying shades abiding the full emotional spectrum could intersect and analyze each other’s lives, such that, in crossed perspectives and endless chatter, the attending world could meet in the middle, fuse into a pragmatic joy neither extravagant nor naïve, neither arrogant nor self-deprecating.

Felipe’s brand of enduring passionate pestering of city officials, in signed petitions and visitations and greeting cards signed Your beaming friend!, sealed the first successful step in the formation of the center. After receiving as a gift a particularly tasty chunk of domestic honeyed ham, the mayor granted Doctor Pacheco an audience.

One afternoon, accompanied by municipal lawyers, the mayor assessed Doctor Pacheco’s meticulously sketched schematics for the building and his detailed surveys of best practices and therapeutic methods, And so do you consider this a mission of yours Doctor, Mr. Mayor wholism is not uncommon in swaths of tribal lands not yet succumbed to the bottle, And why do you wish to incorporate the municipality into your plans, Because the building Your Honor would necessitate full community support to function properly and effectively, But why now Doctor and how does it benefit this community whose support you crave, Your Honor without work and few looming prospects the community would benefit from exchanged perspectives minimizing hopelessness and criminal enterprise, I’m just not sure why you insist Doctor that our tax base should erect something for which there isn’t a problem, Not yet Your Honor, Excuse me Doctor, Exasperation isn’t yet a problem and left to simmer on its own without preemptive address can ultimately cost the city excessive wage-hours policing and fighting fires and detentions that should never have been, I’m just not understanding Doctor why this matters at all if clearly our sidewalks aren’t muddy and there isn’t a single picket sign even in homes, But we don’t know that Your Honor, Excuse me Doctor, We don’t really know the desperation that our people are either capable of or covertly begun, Is that a threat Doctor, By no means Your Honor, Because that sounded like a threat Doctor, Nothing of the sort Your Honor you must believe me, This office will stand up and stand down threats from all borders and peoples Doctor, Absolutely Your Honor and you’ll receive none from me.

Funding sources and building team under contract, The Mayor’s Institute of Wellness and Joy was up and running by 1947. The Institute rode the memory of antebellum rations into a postwar excitement in which the words, both wellness and joy, immediately adopted an anticommunist allusion. The words also lent the new building an air like that of a community nerve center from which both steady gazes and ambient, curtailed smiles were able to radiate from the building like coupled plagues, Your Honor We have thus far been a wild success, Your first annual report Doctor appears rather impressive, With six soothing rooms upstairs and three lounges on this floor and a large open contemplative space in the basement Your Honor only the emotional stars will be our limit, Did you say scars Doctor, No Your Honor I said stars, Scars you say Doctor, No Your Honor I meant the stars.

Felipe Pacheco served, expectedly, as The Institute’s first managing director. By 1952 when the doctor’s only son, Humberto, was born, The Institute had blossomed into a daily breathing space for anyone ailing with stoic lips and drooping eyes, for everyone whose egos had been drilled into the ground by nagging bosses. Doctor Pacheco had even grown comfortable with opening his living room for weekend overflows twice a month, permitting out-patient exchanges under his chandelier. This, unfortunately, left Mrs. Pacheco often horribly confused, as she bore witness to patient exchanges, thinking to herself once why a woman so beautiful and elated and agitated, and who should have been restrained by chains, would so rabidly converse with a man so morose that he belonged under permanent therapeutic supervision for possible suicide.

In any case, a husband’s dream is a husband’s dream. However, and unfortunately for Mrs. Pacheco, the most extreme case of transformation in those early years of the Institute happened in Doctor Pacheco’s own home. And it was this that finally convinced him, because the comfort of homely scents seemed to stabilize everyone’s gazes, and in light of The Institute’s increasingly bustling schedule of patients, that an annex was needed, one that looked and smelled and flowed like being home for the holidays.

And so, the incident of extreme transformation happened in the winter of 1958, when a woman who’d been despondent upon arrival became so animated, the renewed feeling in her hands convinced her she could climb the doctor’s backyard oak, only to pause frightened two thirds up and start sobbing uncontrollably because she’d lost sight of her shoes. Conversely, the man she’d been sharing a conversation with had arrived rosy-cheeked and ecstatic and absurdly happy only to become so melancholic by three o’clock that he went missing for thirty minutes and Mrs. Pacheco screeched upon finding him in the kitchen, and then she kicked him unconscious just so she could pull his head from the oven without his restraint, What are you doing Elena, Felipe the man’s ears were smoking, But you could have simply encouraged him to slither out, Felipe the man was hardly listening to me, Oh Elena I have a method to these things, And it seems sometimes even our best intentions wind up baked or inhaling gas, Oh Elena he was already having a hard go of things, Then I’m sure his newly bruised forehead would only be at home in the gloominess.

In the election turnovers of its first decade and a half, The Institute had slowly lost all municipal support. Several mayors and city council members came and went, and city commissioners gradually lost all attachment to the gentlemen’s agreements of earlier administrations. The waned formal encouragement, and scheduled termination of financial sponsorship by year-end 1963, left Doctor Pacheco with little choice but to pursue private endowments.

His first two applications that season were denied. But, as luck would have it, a local banking executive had sat on both selection committees. This independent woman banker soon approached Doctor Pacheco with an administrative arrangement that offered the good doctor a way to continue his project unabated, And so what you say Doctor, Would you mind if I think it over, Of course Doctor I’m just not sure what’s to think over, It’s just that I’m not sure a boutique of medicines and medical supplies in the lobby would benefit my patients and I’m tentative to grant a board of trustees and members with no medical experience even a third of executive privilege, You mustn’t worry Doctor having a board of trustees is simply old hat nowadays for any growing organization, I would still like several days to think it over, Absolutely Doctor and please remember that not only is my investment team thoroughly excited by the prospects of joining your project we are also a highly coveted commodity, Excuse me, Nothing more Doctor but please take your time and think things through, Excuse me but did you just say I’m competing for your attentions, You mustn’t worry Doctor having a board of trustees is simply necessary nowadays for any growing organization.

Rebranded simply The Institute of Joy in 1964, after its first long-term foundational contract and the inevitable contraction that followed, the center experienced something of a second birth. Even though the annex home Doctor Pacheco had envisioned as a crowning therapeutic innovation was turned into a boutique medicine and medical supplies shop, its basement a temporary stock warehouse for items before shelf life, the remaining group rooms continued their usual ambience.

True, the furniture had begun to reflect its age. And, true, the walls begged for new paint. However, a new cycle of patients arrived with a better formal understanding of words, and many immediately caught onto The Institute’s sudden omission of noun and group exercises, And the wellness Doctor, Excuse me, Should we no longer be well Doctor, Of course you must we must all be, Then why reduce our experience to joy, My dear boy these are only formalities of the bureaucratic kind, But Doctor everyone here is insisting all they want is happiness, My dear boy any brute can be satisfied through fleeting satiation but it takes more so much more to be well, I see Doctor, On you go then for balance and even keel.

However, by 1971, even the patients that had remained from the Institute’s earlier era no longer recalled first generation incentives and whole names. In short, they’d succumbed to executive formality, and by 1974, as part of higher annual dues, The Institute required all patients monthly purchase medications that, to their knowledge, offered supplemental nutritional value for their meals. And even though some had begun to complain the following year of crystallized urine and consistently harder fecal matter, the board of trustees released a statement ensuring all patients that medical studies had already proven, without a shadow of a doubt, nutritional supplements remain effective so just as long as one’s diet followed federal government daily intake recommendations.

And, so, per popular patient request, the annex medicine and medical supplies boutique began stocking and selling meal plans which soon became mandatory fee for all new patients, old patients rolling over into the program without additional charge so just as long as they agreed to contractually bind themselves to three more years’ attendance at The Institute.

In the meanwhile, Doctor Pacheco had grown increasingly frustrated with his patients’ reliance on ingestions, as opposed to exorcisms of pains and words, for the emotional leveling he insisted they all strive for, But Doctor every option taken together feels very good and very energizing, Yes my dear girl but one mustn’t forget that learning how to both laugh and cry is a base goal of this program, Yes Doctor but doesn’t it make sense we’ve all arrived to you for joy, Wellness and joy my dear girl wellness and joy and though we might fluctuate above and below it’s that center line that matters, Yes Doctor but you’ve named this place yourself The Institute of Joy, My dear girl one mustn’t fall prey to a bureaucracy of titles, Yes Doctor but me I’ve signed up for The Institute of Joy and I love The Institute of Joy.

By 1982, having sold his private practice, opening his schedule for father-son collaborations, emerging therapist Doctor Humberto Pacheco joined The Institute of Joy and immediately lent his modernizing hand. In conjunction with the board of trustees, and according to its guidance, Humberto secured sponsorship from a pharmaceuticals company for new carpeting and flooring, and in exchange The Institute agreed to carry solely that company’s brand of diarrhetic and incontinence products in the annex boutique. Additionally, Humberto agreed to partnership with another pharmaceuticals company, bound to contract for four years, in which that company would foot The Institute’s utility bills in exchange for carrying only that company’s nutritional supplements and all variety of skin products in the boutique. Lastly, Humberto trademarked the center’s name and then sold its copyright, under agreement he and his father could use it for their single center on only that single plot of land for as long as the younger shall live, to a third pharmaceuticals company that agreed also to refurbish, repaint, and repair the building in order to update The Institute’s façade so to match its neighbors’ contemporary exterior décor.

The senior, ever the pragmatist for executive control, remained skeptical of his son’s renovation and modernization projects. The junior, ever the ambitious one, assured his father that such organizational shifts have been old hat for small businesses for years.

In any case, tragedy, which to some extent had been approaching surface for years, emerged unveiled finally in 1985, and for Humberto, the road’s sudden profusion of glass showed him, gradually, that regardless of where he’d started or thought to put his feet, one arduous step after the next would follow him until time inevitably taught him that both laughing and crying was really, as his father had attempted to reveal time and again, the best way to ensure one’s ready momentum, if life so chose to try you, to shift either both left and/or right, this way back and/or that way and forward.

First, the elder Doctor Pacheco passed away via sudden complication of the heart. All the doctor could inform Mrs. Pacheco, who died three months later, and Humberto were that Felipe, having always cycled between median blood pressure values, too quickly dipped in that department, and his sudden chance of heart left him without the strength to recover from his two heart attacks in the span of a single week.

As aforementioned, Mrs. Pacheco also passed on. Humberto and his father had already been training staff for months, and so Humberto did not question leaving others temporarily to charge for the Institute of Joy.
In the month that followed his mother’s funeral, Humberto had not remained as privy as he should have to The Institute’s contractual handlings. As it turned out, in the span of the previous year, the pharmaceuticals company owning The Institute’s conceptual copyright, had purchased the other two pharmaceuticals companies with which The Institute partnered in sponsorship and sales. In the paperwork mayhem that accompanied the mergers, holding company officials reportedly mixed up and misplaced sponsorship files and took to believing that The Institute’s copyright lending program with the Pacheco family had expired on December 31st, 1986, immediately set their legal team to restitution mode, and within two months, the holding company had drafted a contract to either offer the Pacheco family copyright license for a fee or to outright desist from using The Institute of Joy as the center’s name, lest the family face legal suit.

Because the paperwork never made it into Humberto’s hands, and the clerical staff on site returned the form signed but without checking a box for this or that copyright option, the day after Humberto’s return proved to be his most hideous swing between laughing and crying, shouting all the same during each and throwing his desk phone across the lobby to assert, once and for all, his father had clearly forgotten to re-embed Grief in the center’s first moniker, The Mayor’s Institute for Grief, Wellness, and Joy.

And then the sheriff’s office bolted the center’s doors shut, with patients still inside, in order to carry out the pharmaceuticals company’s filed lien on the property. In the raucous following, because patients had only just arrived and still suffered from antecedent pendulum peak points, everyone’s first register after the sheriff left was concern, and then many throttled into panic, and though Humberto had yet to shatter composure, his patients did. The more anxious ones started walking circles, or back-and-forth lines, muttering to themselves hoping to themselves pulling at their roots until someone pulled another’s hair, and when one patient went to another’s defense, the cycle continued until a drunk pub brawl erupted in a second floor meeting space, and in fits, a patient shattered the window just before another lost his footing and stumbled into a third until both persons fell onto the pavement below, dying and one fracturing his face.

Beyond that, hope lay smashed on the sidewalk. Patients ran through halls and stairwells, room to room. One started a fire in the basement bathroom and a second, numbed and thoughtless, tossed paper into the flames, and then suddenly, because the annex and main Institute basement was one and the same, an explosion rocked the foundation. Perhaps vials and pulverized chemicals fed the growing blaze until everything boomed, and then the first floor blew out, and everyone leapt through now empty window frames, Humberto hurling himself onto the curb, and then he wrapped his face in a jacket and braced himself for some second boom.



Juan Carlos Reyes' photo

Juan Carlos Reyes is originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador. In 2007, he received a PEN USA Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellowship, and his stories, poems and essays have appeared in Arcadia, Black Warrior Review, Blue Stem and The Busy Signal. He holds a Mathematics degree from New York University, and he currently teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at The University of Alabama. He’s recently finished work on his first novel, A Summer’s Lynching.