The Toxicology Report

That’s him! I’m absolutely certain of it, that’s him.

Kenny Booth was not one to create drama. He avoided scenes and seldom made them. When he first spied the gangling, seventy-something man standing among the men assembled in the reception room he remained impassive, his double take imperceptible. The Groucho Marx swivel was not in his repertoire or his personality. He simply blinked, his brain recording the re-scan of a high-tech facial recognition program, pixels and hues compared to archived files from a seldom accessed vault of unpleasant memories.

If not impossible, it was at the very least, highly improbably. He had not seen the man now standing less than two strides and a handshake of welcome from the name tag on his fleece pullover in… he calculated using his fingers to count off the decades… seventy years.

Abruptly, the time capsule he was preparing to board was derailed by the tug on his arm. “Kenny, let’s go, the men are waiting to start the weekend.” Jolted into the present he quieted a faint tremor of palsy and braced himself to face the expectant stares of the men assembled for the first Sharing Circle of the Begin Anew weekend workshop

Kenny made his way to the front of the room, returning the embraces of the eager participants with flashes of his legendary, hypnotic smile, relying on the years of training and his tenure as a revered elder in the organization to contain his agitation. As if on cue the room quieted.

“Tonight, we will be embarking on a great journey.” Kenneth Booth, PhD, the self-assured sage, the model of authenticity, the man other men aspired to be, began his opening remarks. “Along the way we will encounter formidable blocks standing in our path… and wondrous passageways to grand ballrooms, once shuttered tight and now flooded in the light of new found joy. Tonight we are embarking on the journey from the head to the heart.”

Kenny listened to the echo of his words, embarrassed by the florid prose, wondering if the staff noticed the oratorical flourishes that worked to suppress his unease, the hyperbole masking a mixture of shame, rage, pride and suppressed screams for revenge. If they knew the agony this man had caused him!

It was time for his trademark tactic – some called it artifice – when he made eye contact with each man in turn, a riveting look that said, we are connected, you are safe, be with me, speak your truth. Slowly he moved around the circle; he could not avoid the unavoidable any longer.

For the first time in more than seventy years, after a thousand manic dreams of vengeance and unspeakable thoughts of inflicting the cruelest of tortures on the villain who haunted his life, Kenny looked into the eyes of Angus Aspins.

There was not a flicker of recognition. The pale eyes that absorbed his gaze were expressionless.

Kenny felt a flush burn his cheeks and a flutter of nausea at the pit of his stomach. He struggled to calm himself, covering his agitation by mouthing phrases from a script reduced to rote by endless repetition. “When we look into our hearts, we are surrounded in pastel shades, the air saturated with the scent of exotic flowers, celestial music playing hymns of grace, for it is love that resides at the core of who we are.”

Suddenly, Kenny paused, catching the staff off-guard. They began to grow uneasy as the pause turned awkward. The intensity and air of irrepressible optimism that had always characterized their leader shifted before their eyes into uncertainty and confusion. Suddenly he turned to the room, his body language almost confrontational, his words tumbling out of his mouth, evangelical in their passion. “Forgiveness is the light that we must follow to find the path to redemption. Revenge will not work. Revenge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. It will eat at you and destroy you.”

Abruptly, the Kenneth Booth of a hundred workshops reappeared to face the startled men, his anguished glint of rage too brief to be registered as he returned to the homily that trumpeted the rewards of replacing cynicism with compassion. In a few moments the departure from the familiar outline was attributed to the soaring eloquence of their leader simply adding more nuance to the themes of the weekend.

All seemed normal as the evening’s program got underway. The staff that Kenny had assembled after several years of training separated the men into small groups where the themes of the weekend would be explored within an intimate Sharing Circle. It was a format that Dr. Kenneth Booth had developed and perfected.

The first part of the workshop directed the men to articulate ‘the Crux Question’ that had prompted them to attend the weekend. Typically, the ‘I’m-here-because’ responses were a litany of unfulfilled marriages, job dissatisfactions and repressed aspirations. In the small group meetings that followed, Heart Work Sessions as they were called, the men would examine the source of their discomfort and envision their life in the future as they examined the steps of the Ladder of Transformation: ‘the probe,’ ‘the purge,’ ‘the preview’ and ‘the pledge.’

As the architect of the celebrated program Kenny was justifiably proud. Initially reluctant to accept the accolades that soon accumulated, he grew to enjoy the brightening spotlight as awareness and recognition of his program spread. He was praised for embodying the program, and was often quoted, “We teach by modeling, not instructing,” a quote that quickly became wide spread.

Back in his room, the evening’s program concluded, Kenneth Booth, the guru and venerable wise man, was not a model of serenity and self-love. The emotions he had stifled throughout the day exploded in a corrosive mixture of adult disgrace and childhood shame. It seemed impossible that he could be tormented by a pre-adolescent event so inconsequential in the scheme of his life it wouldn’t warrant a footnote in his biography. Yet seventy-five years later the disgrace that in his eyes forfeited all his many accomplishments, would not leave him. He put his tongue against the false tooth in the front of his lower jaw, re-imagining the empty hole that was there after that fateful day when his childhood ended.

Seventy-five years later and he still lusted for revenge! He wanted to inflict pain, more than pain, agony, bamboo splints under the nails, needles in the eyes, head in a vise agony! It was all so stupid, so infantile, so unlike the man he was, yet no matter how hard he tried to release the feelings, he could not. He could not unhook; could not be finished with it; could not forgive and release and free himself. He preached love and compassion; he actually lived with love and compassion. But the incident – the childish, insignificant, laughable, trivial, completely petty incident – had taken residence in his entrails and would not let go.

Kenny knew he was behaving irrationally. To be this obsessed with a childhood event that took place so long ago was borderline pathological never mind downright pathetic. He had analyzed his feelings a thousand times. A street kid bubbling over with bravado he had marched through the misgivings of an unregulated upbringing with bluster, a sharp wit and a quick temper. He was often in scraps with the neighborhood kids and won them all. If he doubted himself he pushed the feeling down and amped up the pugnacious bristle that kept him king of the hill. What had happened to the eleven year old street rat was absolutely non-consequential by any adult measurement. “Kid stuff,” he reprimanded himself time and time again.

He remembered every detail. It started when he was horsing around in the park with a kid named Myron Balsam. Their playful bragging had turned into a shoving match of escalating pushes and punches. It was not much of a fight; in truth, both of them were half hearted about the affair and Kenny quickly had gotten the best of Mike, straddling him on the grass. He was waiting for him to give up when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Kenny turned around… and never was the same again. The sucker punch came from an older boy he recognized from a couple of grades ahead of his. Angus Aspins was his name. He had never been particularly menacing as far as Kenny could recall, and he appeared more surprised than malevolent at what he had done. Obviously he was a friend of Myron’s come to his aid.

Kenny registered the situation, engraved the details in his mind, and went into shock. He was frozen in time; no feelings; no pain; no reaction at all… until his tongue found the space where the top half of his lower front tooth used to be.

Aspins seemed to loom over him, at least a foot taller with long, sinewy arms. Fighting him was not an option, but nevertheless the question was, what to do in response? Thoughts raced through his mind. Charge him, tackle him, bite him, kick him, pick up a rock and bash him with it! But Kenny was immobilized. He kept feeling that empty space in his lower front teeth, and he simply could not move. He stood there: bewildered, disbelieving and humiliated.

The moment of retaliation passed. Myron picked himself up. Angus and he got on their bikes and rode off. Left behind, Kenny burned with shame. I’m a coward, goddamit, a pansy coward he thought to himself.

His mother and father were there when he got home. He told them what happened and revealed his broken front tooth. His mother began to cry and reached out to hug her son. Kenny’s father, however, ushered her away and grabbed him by the scruff of the shirt. Where does this Aspins kid live, he demanded. He was furious, beside himself in anger.

His father’s rage added to Kenny’s shame. It was clear, compared to his father he was a wimp, a weakling, a momma’s boy. “Where does he live!” his father insisted, fury unabated.

Kenny didn’t know where Aspins lived, but did remember where the Balsam’s house was located. We’re going there, his father raged, grabbing Kenny by the arm and pulling him to the car. At Myron’s house they found Angus in the back yard. Kenny’s father jumped out of out of the car, leapt over the fence and grabbed Angus by the neck. Did you hit my son? he screamed, and before Angus could answer he slapped him hard across the face and threw him to the ground.

A few minutes after they returned home the phone rang. Kenny’s father answered.

“Yeah, this is Samuel Booth.”

“You’re god damn right I did.”

“Any time, pal, any time.”

“If you think you can, c’mon, give it a try, because I’ll be right here. Just c’mon over, shithead, you know where I live.”

Nobody came over. Kenny went to his room and stayed there without responding when his older brother yelled that supper was ready. He didn’t answer when his sister Janet timidly knocked on the door and asked if he would like to play with her. He was not the same boy for a long time afterwards; maybe never again.

So many decades later, Kenny once again was closeted in his room. Face down on the bed, Kenneth Booth, the senior leader of an esteemed and respected organization would have been unrecognizable to his closest associates. The childhood wound that should have healed had seeped into the suffering component of his brain. He had spent his life disproving his father’s dismissive characterization, flagellating himself with a cat-of-nine-tails of synonyms for the perfect description of his small, weak spirit in the face of adversity: craven, gutless, lily-livered, chickenhearted, cowardly, spineless, yellow pusillanimous mama’s boy.

For all his accomplishments Kenny could not keep his father’s message locked away in the dungeon of his brain’s neural region. Seeing his childhood nemesis had triggered a floodtide of anxiety and fear. And a screaming desire for revenge.

The moon light seeping through the window was sufficient to see the outline of Angus Aspins’ body under the hotel blanket. Stealthily, Kenny tip-toed to the bedside of his bête noire. The steak knife he had slipped into his jacket pocket after dinner melded into his hand. He held the point under his adversary’s Adam’s apple, a sinister grin curling his upper lip. He nudged Aspins awake, waited for the eyes to register his face, and plunged the knife…

Kenny sat up abruptly, then fell back to the pillow, a debilitating queasiness sweeping over him. It was as if his fetid memory of an event that had been moldering for seventy years had escaped its crypt and invaded his body. He felt faint and began to twitch uncontrollably. The fervor of vengeful dreams that lusted for fiery justice burned and seared his skin raw. He felt his pounding pulse race wildly out of sync with a quickening metronome of guttural, panting gasps struggling for breath.

The next morning, for the first time anyone can remember, Kenneth Booth, the paragon of a disciplined life, was not on time for morning tai chi. Nor did he appear for breakfast, an occurrence that was inconceivable to the team of therapists and social workers who had partnered with the great man for decades.

The staff member sent to fetch their leader returned ashen faced, in obvious shock as he attempted to put into words the ghastly scene that greeted him as he opened the unlocked door to Kenny’s room.

Stuttering, wide-eyed with dismay, incredulous, barely coherent he blurted the grisly reality, “He’s dead.”

Months later the final Coroner’s report was vague and inconclusive. For the lay person the cause of death as revealed by the toxicology analysis was ‘poisoned,’ although no evidence of any drug overdose, medication misuse or toxins of any description were found.

Ultimately the official death-trigger was listed as hypercapnia, acute respiratory failure due to a low amount of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Puzzled by the absence of any lethal drugs at the scene, the coroner pondered the lack of the common etiologies such as neuromuscular disease, chest wall abnormalities, and severe airway disorders related to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“What was it that caused Kenneth Booth to increase the rate and depth of his breathing to the extent that he literally suffocated from the CO2 levels in his blood?” he asked hypothetically.