CHAPTER ONE: THE MYSTERIOUS MR. STEVENS
Wednesday, 6 August 2014, 18:00hrs
Inside the Wasatch Front Senior Citizen Center, Layton, Utah
Fifteen people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease sat at the tables in the main assembly hall, each one in a different stage of the illness and experiencing their own unique set of symptoms. These symptoms extended along the entire spectrum of the debilitating brain ailment, and included those that were severely noticeable to ones that remained imperceptible. The ages and genders of the patients were also diverse, ranging from a man in his mid-forties to a woman in her early-eighties, which portrayed both the nondiscriminatory nature of the disease and the unfairness of life. Next to the patients sat their significant others, some of whom were now delegated to the role of caregiver for their loved one. In front of these brave patients and the heroes taking care of them was where my wife Madison and I found ourselves this early summer evening.
I thought about how much the group had grown from when we had our first meeting. At that time only seven people attended and I was beginning to think this support group idea was going to be a failure. But as the word spread, more and more people started coming out until we reached an all-time high of fifty people at our Christmas party last December.
I remembered the day a little over two-and-a-half years ago when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and subsequently came up with the idea of starting a support group.
As I gathered my notes and prepared to make a few announcements, I looked around and noticed him again, sitting in the farthest chair in the back of the assembly hall. This was the fourth time I had seen the thin man, and I was beginning to wonder who he was. Was he a Parkinson’s patient? Was he a caregiver to a spouse who had the disease? Or maybe he was just an average senior citizen living nearby who was dropping in to see what was on the menu for tomorrow’s lunch?
Every previous attempt I’d made to meet this man had been unsuccessful because he always left the hour-long meeting early. In addition, when I made my announcements at the start of the night, I always made it a point to remind the new people to write their address or email on a roster so that they can receive news about future meetings and upcoming events. For the last three months, however, there were no new entries on the list that would identify who this strange man might be.
Each time I noticed him, he was wearing the same attire: black slacks, white dress shirt, black tie and overcoat, black fedora hat and white sneakers. He appeared to be a little older than me, mid-to-late fifties, walked with a limp and used a cane. I suspected his limp was caused by him having Parkinson’s disease, but I hadn’t been able to get close enough to him to know for sure.
Two months ago I gave Madison the job of finding out who this man was and to persuade him to come up and introduce himself to the group. Since she is one of the most personable and friendly people I’ve ever known, I thought if anyone could make him feel welcome and get him talking, she could. Each time she approached him, however, he would suddenly leave the room. The first time, he quickly made his way down the long hallway toward the entrance door and ducked into the men’s room. The next month, he hurriedly left the building altogether.
Since that happened, I concluded that this man must be extremely shy about coming to a support group, which I found to be the case with other Parkinson’s sufferers, and decided to stop trying to initiate contact, hoping he would eventually feel comfortable enough to come forward on his own.
I had the most unsettling feeling that I’d seen this man before, but I couldn’t place where or when. The more I searched my memory, the more I drew a blank on who he might be. I also began to suspect he’d been following me, but I just wasn’t one-hundred percent sure. For example, last month I was selected as the 2014 honoree for the Pedal Away Parkinson’s bike ride. We were about two miles into the course, winding through one of our town’s older neighborhoods, when I thought I saw him standing in the shade of an oak tree. As we got closer, Madison said something which drew my attention away from the tree, and when I looked back he was gone.
A couple of weeks earlier, I experienced a similar situation while we were riding in a vehicle that was pulling the Pedal Away Parkinson’s float in our town’s Fourth of July parade. We were nearing the final turn of the parade route when I thought I saw him. Making the turn, however, I suddenly heard the familiar voices of our two grandkids shouting, and after a few brief moments of smiling and waving back to them, I turned back and found him gone.
Now here he was again, wearing the same attire and sitting in the same place as the previous three meetings: farthest away from Madison and me but closest to the exit door.
“Do you want me to go on another secret mission and see if I can find out who he is?” Madison asked.
I shook my head. “Hopefully, when he feels comfortable enough, he’ll come up and talk to us.”
Although I was displaying a calm demeanor in front of Madison, his continued appearances were starting to make me nervous.
An hour and thirty minutes later, after the last of the support group members had departed, Madison and I were finishing straightening up the assembly hall and gathering up the flyers and handouts I provide at the meetings. Except for Tiffany, the facility’s caretaker who normally stays until we are gone, we were the only ones to my knowledge still in the building.
“I didn’t see our mystery man leave,” I said.
“Me neither,” Madison replied. “I wonder what his story is and why he’s so afraid of coming in and meeting everyone?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not going to embarrass him. If he wants to be anti-social that’s his business.”
A few minutes later, after pulling our truck up to the entrance and loading everything, I felt the need to visit the restroom. While making my way back inside, I passed Tiffany.
“Did you forget something?” she asked.
“No, I just need to use the men’s room.”
“Okay, just make sure the door is closed and locked when you leave. I’m out of here.”
“Will do, and thanks again for everything.”
After going and washing up, I turned to the paper towel dispenser to wipe off my dripping hands and found myself suddenly face to face with the strange man! Normally I’m not that jumpy of a person, but his sudden and unexpected appearance scared me half to death. I hadn’t heard the door open, nor had I heard him walk up to within three feet of me.
“I’m so sorry if I frightened you, Mr. d’Clare,” he said, “that was not my intention.”
“Oh, that’s all right. Just give me a chance to catch my breath and change my underwear.”
He laughed and extended his hand in friendship.
“My name is James Stevens, but you can call me Jim.”
This was the first time I’d seen him this close, and I immediately noticed his eyes were a piercing color of blue, and his intense stare instantly commanded my attention. His face looked tired, but not from physical exhaustion or lack of sleep. Instead, his weary expression seemed to come from a profound worry or loss he carried with him, as if he’d been laden with the weight of the world on his shoulders for a very long time. Up close, he also appeared younger than I first thought, probably in his mid-forties to early fifties by my estimation.
The question of whether he had Parkinson’s disease was immediately answered. His voice was soft, just above a whisper, and his left hand showed an unmistakable tremor. Another thing about his voice I found interesting was that he spoke in a very articulate and distinct manner, as if he wanted to convey his feelings or thoughts to me as clearly as possible. Although I had just met him and knew nothing of his background, I suspected he was a highly educated and intelligent man.
“Okay Jim,” I replied, obliging him with the handshake, “nice to meet you.”
“You’re probably wondering why I chose this setting to formally introduce myself.”
I smiled. “The thought had crossed my mind, especially since I don’t usually meet new members of the support group late at night in the men’s room of the senior center.”
He laughed again. “As I said, it was not my intention to frighten you. My real purpose was to meet you alone and without interruption. You see, I’m a very private person, Mr. d’Clare, and I value my privacy as much as I do my money in the bank. That being said, I don’t venture out of the house and into the public very often.”
“Parkinson’s can easily turn anyone into a recluse, especially if depression sets in.”
“How true, but in my case I choose to be private due to my life’s work, not because of the affliction we both share.”
“And what is your life’s work?”
“I’m a retired physics professor. I spend most of my time researching theories, working out equations, studying the interactions of energy and matter, things of that nature.”
“Wow, that sounds pretty cool. Physics and math were my worst subjects in college, totally out of my element, but like anything else, if you get into it I bet it can be pretty interesting.”
I knew in an instant that my assumption was correct, and that this man’s knowledge and education level were well above mine.
“Don’t let my chosen profession intimidate you, Mr. d’Clare,” he said. “I’m sure that if I were to try to restore a 1949 Seeburg Select-o-matic 100A jukebox, I would be totally out of my element.”
“You heard about my old jukebox? Who told you about that?” Now I was completely stunned.
“You’d be surprised what you hear in the back of the room during one of your support group meetings.”
“I guess I would.”
“I don’t want to take up any more of your time, because by now your beautiful wife might be wondering if you’re sick or incapacitated. But I did want to meet you and introduce myself, and as a token of my goodwill give you this little donation for the support group.”
He handed me a fresh, crisp one-hundred-dollar bill.
“By the way, you certainly have done a wonderful thing here by starting this group and giving hope to others who share our affliction. Good night, Mr. d’Clare. I’ll be in touch.”
He turned and immediately exited the men’s room.
“Oh, good night Jim and thank you,” I stuttered, “thank you very, very much.”
I stood there for a moment staring at the large bill before stuffing it in my pocket and proceeding back to our truck. When I climbed in, Madison asked me what took so long, jokingly wondering if the restroom was now unsafe for human habitation.
I smiled. “No, I got held up. Did you see him?”
“Our mystery man. He came into the restroom and scared the living you-know-what out of me. He left just before I did, so I thought you might’ve seen him come out the door.”
“Really? I didn’t see anyone come out but you, and I’ve been sitting here the whole time.”
We both looked over the parking lot, then back to the front doors of the building.
“Did he say anything?”
“Yes, he said his name is Jim Stevens and that he’s a retired physics professor. And just as I thought, he’s got Parkinson’s. He also praised us for starting the support group and then he gave me this.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the one-hundred-dollar bill.
“He said it was a token of his goodwill.”
“Oh my goodness. Did he say anything else?”
“Yes, he said a lot of things. He even knew about our old jukebox.”
I relayed to her the main points of the conversation.
“That is really weird.”
“No kidding. And I got the feeling that he knew even more about us than he let on.”
She laughed. “Maybe if you hang out in the men’s room more often we could raise enough money to afford that vacation I’ve been wanting to go on.”
“No thank you,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “My heart couldn’t take more scares like that one.”
We both laughed as I pulled out of the parking lot.
As I drove home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the strange restroom encounter with Mr. Stevens. How could he have known about our old jukebox? I didn’t buy his story about overhearing it at one of the support group meetings. On the few occasions that I’d mentioned it to group members, I never used the term, “100A,” nor had I called it “Select-o-matic.”
I also wondered why he was so standoffish at the previous meetings, seemingly not wanting to engage with us or the group at all. He even went out of his way not to meet us, and ran away when Madison tried to get close to him. This entire episode left me with more questions than answers, and I wondered what other surprises were in store for us the next time we crossed paths with him.
* * *
I was unaware at the time that this strange man who called himself James Stevens carried with him an incredible secret. A secret that would not only cause Madison and I to question all we knew about science, physics and the known laws of the universe, but also offer me the unfathomable opportunity to find the cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Excerpted from "The Device" by Dale C George. Copyright © 0 by Dale C George. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.