a serious joke: chapter 6

“Doctor, Doctor, I think I’m a cat.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Oh, since I was a kitten!”

– traditional american doctor joke

“I had a dream I was a cat.”

“That’s not all that interesting. As far as dreams go.”

“That’s not all…I had a dream I was a cat…and as a cat, I had this…what do they call that?”

“What? Describe it.”

“What do they call it when a cat has a bunch of baby cats…?”

“You mean kittens.”

“Well, yes…but no, I mean. I mean, what do they call it when a cat has a bunch of kittens, like all at once, the way cats and dogs do…?”

“You mean a litter.”

“A litter. As a cat, I had a litter of baby cats.”

“You mean kittens.”

“Right. Kittens. A litter of them.”

“So you were a cat, and you had a litter of kittens. You realize that makes you a girl, right?”

“I guess so. I guess if I had been a dog, I’d have been a bitch then.”

“True. …But, still. That’s not a crazy dream to have. I’ve heard crazier ones.”

“Maybe you have. But the other thing is, I don’t dream. Ever.”

“Since when?”

“I said ‘ever’. So, since always.”

“That’s not possible. Everyone dreams. You probably just have trouble remembering yours. By the time a person wakes up, they’ve already forgotten about 90 percent of their dreams for the night.”

“I don’t dream.”

“You dream. You just don’t remember. “

“We’ll have to agree to disagree…”

“What else about this cat dream was notable then?”

Jim Spleen took a moment to mull it over. “Well,” he began with a sigh, “I guess maybe it’s that I’m an only child. When I was a child, I was an only child. I’m a man now. Still ‘only’, though. And I’ve never been married. Never had a serious relationship.”

“So you think dreaming you were a lady cat necessarily means you were a married lady cat?”

“Don’t be silly. Cats don’t get married. But I get your meaning. I think, probably, the father was in the picture.”

“So, there you are—a married female cat who’s just given birth to what, six, seven baby cats…”

“Kittens,” Jim interrupted.

“Right. Kittens. And in any case, there you are—cat man and cat wife, and six or seven kitten children. Your classic atomic feline family.”

“It sounds silly the way you say it.”

“I’m not here to judge, Jim.”

Jim found himself at a loss for words suddenly. Nonplussed by something. “…Well, sure. Silly or not, yes. True. That’s it, what you said.”

“So,” the Cat scratched behind his left ear with his hind leg, “All this bothers you why?”

Jim was still nonplussed by something but answered, “Like I said, I’m not the marrying type. Never had a serious relationship. Never even dreamed of having children. Fathering children, I mean…”

“I know what you mean,” the Cat said professorially. “All these things—husband, children, family—you’ve never considered them. So, your cat dream struck a chord.”

“Yes, I think.”

The Cat was now licking its paws, glancing at Jim intermittently. “Why do you think this bothers you?”

Jim had to ponder. “Well…I can’t say for sure it really bothered me, per se…it’s more like…it just stayed with me. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Then why can’t you stop thinking about it, let’s say.”

“Like I said, I don’t dream, for one. And…,” Jim gestured with his hands, emptily.

“Go on.”

“That wasn’t the only thing about the dream.” Jim closed his eyes, tight. The lines in his face deepened.

“What else, Jim.”

“I guess—in my dream—I felt this…great sadness.”

“Only in your dream?”

The lines in Jim Spleen’s face were now deep trenches. His skin around his eyes and eyelids spasmed. “No. I feel that now, too. And…it didn’t happen in the dream, but…”

“Finish your thought, Jim.” The Cat was now licking his undercarriage.

“…it didn’t happen in the dream. But I feel like it was a part of the dream. Like a missing scene, or a deleted scene, from a movie. I feel it now, anyway.”

“What happened in this scene?” Hind leg up around his head, licking.

“My litter was stolen from me.”

The Cat sat up straight, licking his chops. “You feel this now. But it didn’t actually happen.”

“Yes. Not in the dream, no. It didn’t actually happen.”

“You feel it now, though. Awake. After the fact.”

“Yes. I feel it happened. Even though it was just a dream, and even though it didn’t even happen in the dream, I feel it. I know it. That it happened.”

The Cat lounged on the garbage pail lid, paws crossed. Jim Spleen sitting across from him in the alley, back against the brick wall of some building. The Cat stared for a while, his green eyes glowing in the dark, finally adding, “And this is what brings you that great sadness.”

“Maybe it’s not all that unusual,” Jim said, more to himself than the Cat, “…to have a dream…and when you wake up, if it’s a bad dream, to feel bad in real life about it. Even though it never actually happened.”

The Cat’s eyes glinted an emerald look of concern in the dark of the alleyway. “But in your case, the thing you feel bad about in real life, now—it never even happened in the dream.” Jim Spleen was still nonplussed, now understanding why. “Interesting.”

Sitting at 3am in the grime and refuse of an alleyway and confiding in this cat all his fears and sorrows, Jim did not feel at all silly. It was the sadness that still haunted him. That still menaced him. A great river of sadness flowing from the estuary of some dream in which his litter of children were not taken from him, but felt now in waking life as if they had been. A dream that had occurred weeks ago…perhaps approaching a month. Bad dreams can color one’s emotions even after waking, he thought…but this emotion—this great sadness, along with a feeling of undefined menace—had been following his every movement for far too long now. Coloring his emotions to the point that the sadness was no longer a simple trick of the mind but something approaching a legitimate clinical depression. Something real. And along with the sadness, the depression, tagged along that ill-defined perception of menace. A thing or person or entity that was no doubt responsible for it all; for the taking of his litter, for the sadness and foreboding he had been wrestling for close to a month’s time. A menace lacking definition…or, perhaps more accurately, lacking the physical representation of the definition. A metaphysical menace. A square in concept, bereft of the four simple lines set down or drawn or made to construct an approximation of the ‘square’ concept. A foreboding which lacked verisimilitude in the physical world. And the river of sadness. Very real and painful, flowing from a metaphysical estuary. A dreamworld.

Yet, the pain and grief—mounting exponentially by the hour—possessed every line; every line, set deep in trenches as the trenches in the lines on Jim’s face, forming very convincingly and very authentically the shape of a box. Grief and foreboding constructed with meticulous physical verisimilitude. Lacking the philosophical dimensions or definitions ostensibly requisite to their manufacture. Jim Spleen thought of the figurative police line-up…the usual suspects gathered together for the commitment of some undefined crime, and him standing behind the one-way mirror, told to pick out the perpetrator from the rogues gallery before him. Even now, if the figurate scenario were to be made real, Jim Spleen would not be able to finger the suspect. The degenerates and lowlifes and vagrants standing under those hot lights might as well be wearing burlap sacks over their heads. If prompted to identify the perpetrator of this great sadness and the menace that followed invariably close behind, Jim Spleen would be powerless. It was a metaphysical riddle. A riddle without a question…or an answer without a riddle. Maybe a punchline without a setup. A setup without a punchline. An unclosed circle, in any case. A square with only three sides. Whatever the most apt analogy, one thing was clear, here and now. Something was wrong.

A cat, acting as an impromptu shrink. A cat, anyway, Jim had never met before in his life…acting as an impromptu shrink. Perhaps it was best not to question it too much, he pondered. Perhaps it was simply a good thing. To have a cat to talk to. God knows, Jim thought, shifting uncomfortably on the asphalt and bottles and caps and refuse beneath him, there’s certainly a lack of other things to talk to…be them male, female, human, feline, canine, reptile… Maybe it was best not to ask every question under the sun. Jim had to ask one additional question, however: “why did I take off like a shot?” The altercation at the comedy club was unpleasant, sure, but nothing life threatening…nothing you’d think would send a grown man running for his life, out into heavy traffic, only by the grace of god dodging the oncoming cars without sustaining serious bodily injury. Worst case scenario, the little man in black might’ve given him a black eye. Small as he was, this John Lewis, Jim Spleen was still no fighter. He’d have found a way to get beaten physically by a man half his size. Lewis was a wolverine. Tiny little man, bit of a Napoleon complex. But had a reputation for scrapping with anything and anyone at the drop of his fedora. Still, that wasn’t the reason. Jim Spleen felt it flowed from the same river of sorrow, which flowed from the same estuary, which brought with it the same sense of foreboding. The same vague, ill-defined philosophical menace. Same metaphysical perpetrator…standing confident and likely haughty behind that one-way mirror police line-up. The same metaphysical perpetrator. The same face he’d yet to see.

Assuming it had a face. Assuming it was a man, a thing of flesh and blood, with the requisite facial features requisite to identification…requisite to definition. Requisite to fitting that last side on that square of only three sides. A face would complete the square. It would still not explain, Jim Spleen supposed however, why this crime of kidnapping a nonexistent litter of kittens still felt like a real crime, with all the trappings of a real crime: grief, sorrow, depression, foreboding, a burning desire for revenge. Plaintively, Jim looked up to the Cat for support. But the Cat had some time back soundlessly wandered off, into the night. Into the bright lights and shiny objects and neon bulbs and fluorescent promises of GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! lining the streets like gold. The american promise of gold-lined streets at 3am at nigh, in the heart of darkness central Virginia and parts south. Jim realized his grief and more importantly his growing thirst for revenge were not fully formed objects. There were at least two, maybe even three sides missing from the square which represented his metaphysical description of grief and loss.

Instead of examining the nature or validity of this one or two-sided square and all its portents, Jim felt an undeniable need to go out and find those missing sides…to complete the square he reasoned would explain the nature of this faceless perpetrator. To complete the physical recreation of something described only vaguely in dreams and incomplete emotions. To put a face to the faceless.

And what he would do once that face was squared away…all four sides in place. A square a square. And what he would do to that square once it revealed to him the face…