The co-operative‘s motto, “DON’T TRY TO FIX ME I’M NOT BROKEN”, was scrawled in lurid dripping red over velvet black on the glossy cover of its annual report to the foundation. Only twenty or so were produced each year, and no expense was spared.
Inside, the paper was hand made from rags, with texture. The front page was a charcoal portrait of the co-operative’s director, Ben Lee. The wrinkles in his face showed his age, not a day short of sixty. His wispy goatee, shoulder length hair, and hoop earrings revealed why the co-operative loved him. The penetrating eyes and ironic half smile showed how much he loved them.
The next two page spread recapped the twenty-four covers that had graced the other annual reports since the co-operative’s inception. Each shared the same words and an extreme artistic sensibility that fit its time.
The text, tables and fill art that filled the rest of the interior could easily have been mistaken for a college recruiting brochure, or thin high school yearbook. The rear cover featured a haunting black and white photograph of the huge Victorian house at 301 S. Emerson Street, which housed them all, framed by lightning, with a half-visible moon reflected in the picture window beneath the soaring angle statute that rested atop the gable over the front door.
Ben had chosen a dark corner of the Wellshire Inn to make his presentation. Murky cocktails rested on the thick oak table that sat between Ben and the three committee members who stood across the table from him.
Ashley Athanapolis, daughter of the foundation’s founder and a borderline manic depressive, who’d lost her own daughter, Ruth, to suicide while her daughter was in college, had always been Ben’s surest supporter. Without Ashley, there would be no co-operative, although few co-operative members even knew she existed in anything but the most abstract sense. Ashley was frail now. An oxygen tank next to her chair fed the thin tube that ran under her nose. Her skin was mottled with age spots. Her thin wrists looked like they were made of balsa wood and spider’s silk. Her cocktail shook, ever so slightly, and her hands trembled, as she brought it to her mouth. Five tiny black ribbons, one for each husband she’d led to the grave, accented her silver hair. Her ankle length dress shrouded how thin she’d become everywhere else.
The chairmanship of the committee had fallen to a portly man in his 50s, who was dressed in a business suit and wore a conventional red necktie. Seth Waxman had been an associate attorney fresh out of law school when the foundation had been established, who had known the founder shortly before he died. Now, he made monthly payments to the widow of the attorney who was once his boss, and he occupied the corner office. This year, as he did every year their Lloyd’s of London policy came up for renewal, he reminded Ben that half of the co-operative’s endowment income each year was sucked up by liability insurance for this extremely risky venture. As always, Ben reminded Mr. Waxman that giving up the insurance was impossible -- several suits had been settled since the co-operative began, but the steps necessary to reduce the costs of insurance would be directly contrary to the cooperative’s mission. In a house full of unmedicated, mentally ill young adults, disaster will inevitably strike from time to time. Ben also pointed out that the cooperative’s creative properties, while not sufficient on their own to keep the cooperative afloat, did pay for two-thirds of the cooperative’s operating expenses.
Dr. Martin Wilson, a thirty something psychiatrist wundkind who spent his days running the psychiatric research center at the Fitzsimmons medical campus in Aurora was a new and unwelcome addition, imposed by the Foundation’s full board. Today, he’d managed a golf shirt and linen slacks, instead of his usual hospital scrubs. His stylish pager ring, with a large cubic zirconia ruby that glowed when he was needed, matched the red on the front of the annual report. He was a minority on the committee, so he couldn’t shut the cooperative down, but his distrust of the venture, which was against everything he’d been trained for, and his through knowledge of psychiatric ethics, which he could twist to his liking if he wished, made him a threat. Ben parried that threat with Dr. Wilson’s curiosity. The cooperative was an experiment that mainstream psychiatry would never dare to try, and the idealistic core in Dr. Wilson, that had lead him to his specialty in the first place, left him with a suppressed but palpable desire to know what results the study had produced.
“I didn’t set out to do this.”, Ben told the committee, reviving the cooperative’s history. “I started out as a school psychologist at the Denver School of the Arts. I figured I’d spend most of my time dealing with hypocondriac drama queens with attitude. I’d read the studies that had described manic depression as the poet’s disease, but hadn’t taken it to heart. I hadn’t expected some of the schools most talented students to be the most afflicted. I hadn’t expected to see sixteen year olds struggling between their muse and the drugs that could make them live ordinary, stable, productive lives. These kids had a much better sense for human passion than I ever will.”
“And then there was Ruth.”, Ashley chipped in.
“Yes, Ruth. I’d worked with her for two years. She was on the right drugs. She’d come to the school to develop her creative writing and acting. She’d stopped hurting herself. She’d stopped writing. She flunked poetry. The only dramatic part she got that last year was in the chorus of a Gilbert and Sullivan show. But, she was clean, and neat, and well behaved, and had even found a clean cut boyfriend from the George Washington High School football team who lived down the block. She’d talked about transferring back to GW. The day her still life had come back with the note from her art teacher, ‘Technically perfect, but uninspired.’, she snapped. She threw away the drugs, grabbed an old friend, drank the better part of a fifth of vodka, and disappeared. She was found three days later in a thin black night gown, dead of hypothermia, beneath a stunning chalk mural under a bridge. She was posthumously awarded the art prize that year for her mural, and an oversized color photograph of it still hangs in the trophy hall. You spent many long days talking to me about what happened in the Spring after it happened, and soon, the cooperative was born. Her mural, with its motto, “Don‘t Try To Fix Me I‘m Not Broken.” was the cover of our first annual report, it’s on page two of your report.”
When the drinks were emptied, the committee signed the paperwork Mr. Waxman distributed unanimously. Another year’s funding was secure, and they’d even approved a budget for an increased retirement stipend for Ben, and a part-time staff member to help him locate a successor for himself so he could actually retire and get that stipend. Ben paid the tab for everyone. It had been a worthwhile investment.