nocturnal and diurnal

I’m lying on the green, at the foot of a large oak tree, hands clasped, looking up at the stars. I don’t know if it’s actually an oak tree. What difference does it make? Whatever kind of tree it is, it’s large, the leaves rustle every now and then with the cool latenight breeze, and it’s planted there at a nice spot on the green, a bit away from the sand trap to my left. I don’t know golf either. It’s the part of the course where there’s no grass…it’s kind of smooth, an earthy patch with those long flags sticking out of the holes here and there. But the possible oak tree is an ideal spot for laying, and looking straight up on a clear night. I’ve wandered these links many times, late at night. Many times I’ve wandered these links and several times I’ve taken a piss into the holes here and there along the course. It feels good. There’s no one here to tell you no. Not at this hour. Not at night. The rich go home and piss in their own holes round this time of night. I don’t feel bad for pissing in theirs, at this late hour. It’s all good natured. And lately, it’s mostly just because I’m nocturnal. As a nocturnal creature, you feel a call. Go out and experience the empty world. Lie down in the middle of the sidewalk. In the middle of the street even…depending on the street. Stores open 24 hours are a different universe at these hours. I’m a nocturnal animal. I don’t really know animals either, otherwise I’d compare myself to another nocturnal animal.

 

The freedom to piss outside. For the male sex–no matter the species of animal–it’s one of nature’s great liberties. Man has overlooked it for far too long…

 

Back in the dirty little animal hospice (false advertising, they call it an ‘animal hospital’, with a cheerful little sign out front with paw prints in front of ‘animal’ and after ‘hospital’…how cheerful, to be sure…)…  The piss is not outside, but inside…and not intentionally, either. Dripping off the stainless steel of an exam table; in a cold, disinfected room. Smell of cotton balls and tongue depressors. For dogs. This is where dogs go to die. Not unlike the place from your youth, where you got your first TB shot or chickenpox vaccination. An unpleasant sense memory. Only…for dead and dying dogs. Worst part of that, maybe: who even knows if they know it’s the place that it is…the doggie end of the line…?

 

You could say for that reason alone, it’s a sad little tableau.

 

But the reasons get sadder with each visit… Dogs are no good at two things, I know: walking sideways, and now, accepting IV fluids, antibiotics, saline…dogs just weren’t meant to have tubes coming out of them, that much about dogs I now know…in addition to the not walking sideways very well at all… Try to make a dog walk sideways sometime. It’s about as unnatural as training a cat to shake hands, sit up and beg, or squat on the commode to do its business. I seen a dog do some crazy shit, if trained right–including squat on a toilet to do its business, and as unnatural as it may be, a dog can pull it off 9 times out of 10, it seems. A cat, on the other hand…that’s a whole other barrel of monkeys…

But, tubes coming out of dogs. There’s hardly another sight I’d call as unnatural as that one. Tubes coming out of dogs…dog or not, you could probably rightly say your days of pissing outdoors are over, once you got tubes coming out you. Nature’s great, male, animal liberty–pretty much gone at that point.

 

The pretty girl in the teal scrubs. Smell of dead and dying dogs on her pretty girl teal scrubs:

 

“I’m afraid we’re coming to the end of the road, Mr. —“ I hadn’t really thought much about the plain reality of the vet’s words until she’d just said them. She didn’t say anything else…it seemed plain I’m sure that I needed a moment and so she and the vet tech left us in peace. Quiet, dying dog silence. He was lying on the cold metal table, tongue hanging out, panting a bit, but otherwise (to me anyway) in good spirits. Why can’t they invent a dog that lasts an entire lifetime? …..the animal kingdom is a cruel bitch when it comes to bonding.

 

My very diurnal friend had been moping about, not finishing his kibble, only sniffing around it, taking labored bites here and there… not drinking much either. Lapping up a little bit of water then scuffling away, wobbling left and right just slightly, like a drunken canine stumble-bum. “God dammit, —, eat your dinner,” I’d say to the bitch. But she wouldn’t barely touch it. I always hated picky eaters.

 

As she ate less and got skinnier, I started sleeping less and waking earlier. The thinner she got, the sooner I woke. Soon, I was waking in the middle of the night. 3am. At least she still slept. She slept while I was waking up at 3 and then 2 and then 1 in the morning, and milling about the apartment, looking for things to fix….a rusty door hinge….a leaky faucet…a blown fuse. Actually, I found none of those things. And I looked really hard. Couldn’t find a thing to fix. Everything appeared to be working just right. Apartment spic and span, clean, sparkling….not a thing out of place, not a thing askew. Perfect.

 

She snores, and sleeps deep, and seems somehow happy….if a thing can be happy while sleeping, if that’s even possible. I imagine it is. But I can’t find a damn thing to occupy myself. My hands idle, my mind begins to sink lower and lower into a circuit of racing, pernicious thoughts. Idle thoughts. I become a creature of the night. Nocturnal. A mute songbird, maybe. I have to get out…and walk. Pretty soon I find myself prying open gas caps on random cars parked along the street and pissing inside them. I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t key cars, or smash windows, or steal, or commit any overt acts of vandalism. But releasing my bodily fluids into and onto various objects and fixtures along my way seems okay. It’s all good-natured. It keeps my mind off things. That circuit of racing thoughts, idle and racing thoughts alike, is held at bay. The dark is warm and cool and welcoming. I have seen only a few other nocturnal creatures along my route, and they always keep their distance, just as I keep mine. Somehow I think we all must be up to the same thing. Not pissing in cars and golf course holes per se, but simply enjoying the warmth and cool and welcoming of the night and the night air. I am also not a zoologist, but to me anyway, it seems nocturnal creatures enjoy a less stressful existence. Diurnal creatures are always in a hurry to be somewhere…usually more prone to fits of anger, impatience, rudeness… Maybe there are just too many people out there, period. Maybe we should all take shifts, some of use are diurnal one week, then nocturnal the next. Maybe it’s about balance. …….in any case, there is still something extremely freeing and primal about pissing outside, in public, and not getting in trouble for it.

 

Soon the night is over and I’m back in my spic and span apartment and she is just waking up. I spend some time watching the shop at home channel with her big bulldog jowls rested on my lap, pour her some kibble, and some water, and eventually I fall asleep. Around 3pm, I wake up to a persistent knocking at my door. I was dreaming about flying. I was loathe to leave that dream. I dreamed I was perched in a huge tree…I could see out across the whole world…observe every little detail and every person and every little action of every person…I was some kind of omniscient man-bird observer. The details of every little thing in the world were interesting to me…but then I got bored and flew from my perch. I didn’t know where I was headed, but it was exciting to head out.

 

And then I woke up.

 

The rapping at my door had a somewhat angry tone to it. “You don’t answer your phone,” she says, pushing her way through the door and quite past me.

 

“Battery must be dead.”

 

“You look tired,” she says. “In fact, you look like shit.” I offer her a cup of something and a seat. At the very least, I think, she can’t say the place is a mess. I’ve got that one all locked up.

 

“Not sleeping too well,” I say.

 

She looks over at the dog, lazing around her food dish, sniffing furtively…aware she’s being observed. “I’m sorry about —,” she says. “But you have to get your shit together now. How long are you gonna live like this?” She takes a sip of her cup of whatever and I think about the question, and the answer. I can’t think of an approach. How do you explain a thing like this? That you’ve found you prefer being nocturnal, a free animal in the night, a roaming thing that’s free to piss on anything anywhere…? And that it’s not just the pissing of course, but the freedom to piss. The freedom to observe the still and the cool warmth, all without being observed. To lie under a giant tree of indeterminate genus and look up at the stars… unobserved.

 

“I’m good,” I say, forcing a cracked smile. “In fact, it’s really okay…” I pause and glance out the window…the blinding sunlight glaring off a rusty old gas station sign, “….I found a pretty good position, working overnights. Not just wage-slave work either…it’s good. It’s blue collar, but it’s good. Middle management.”

 

“Really.”

 

“Hey,” I say, drawing the blinds, rubbing the crust from the corners of my eyes, “Hey, you realize the whole world doesn’t stop between the hours of 5pm and 9am.”

 

She’s finding her spot on the carpet, circling it once, twice, three times, and then plopping down as if exhausted. “What’s the prognosis,” she asks, coldly.

 

I find this one much harder to answer…even though I know the answer this time. “More tests. Blood. Poop. Piss.”

 

“Poop and piss,” she says, her arms folded, angry like. “That’s not a prognosis.”

 

“Piss,” I begin—

 

“And neither is blood.” She unfolds her arms and takes one, unfolded stiffly, like rigor mortis is setting in…and places a stiff, begrudging little hand lightly on my shoulder. “How long, I mean.”

 

“You know…nobody knows. When it comes to these things. Nobody knows anything.” That straining, understanding hand lifts off my shoulder with a nearly imperceptive quickness. Gone.

 

“That’s enough. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Eat something. Sleep and get a job actually…a real job.” By real she surely means “real”…I wasn’t fooling anyone. “Does she always make that sound?” Pointing to her…pointing out her wheezy labored breathing. She gets up and mills around a little, poking at things indiscriminately. “You need food. You don’t even have any.” Her breathing makes a whistling sound. She puts her coat on and leaves. Her breathing gets smoother then. Less labored. Like she could tell. She was relieved as much as me, I’m sure.

 

Around 1am, I ventured out in my black jacket and slacks in search of gas caps. The kinds you can pry open, not the ones that you have to click the thing inside the car to get it to open. I still hadn’t figured out how to pry those ones open. I found a big obnoxious SUV parked askance just outside the rusty old gas station. Pried the cylinder open and twisted off the gas cap. Then pissed inside the tank. Full service. The guy who drove the thing I presumed was coming out of the rusty old gas station food mart place just then; I quickly and carefully zipped up my pants without taking the time to shake it two or three times. Shake it more than three times and you’re playing with it, my father always said. A lot of wisdom in that man. He also would wax philosophical a lot of times about how some women are bitches and some women are ho’s, and some bitches are ho’s, and when I brought home my at-one-time fiancé to meet the family he warned me never to marry a bitch. Or a ho. He also used to piss with the bathroom door wide open. Maybe that’s where I get it from. The inappropriate pissing. My dog at least, she had an excuse to piss in non-pissing places. My bladder on the other hand, it was just fine and dandy. She was pissing more and more, and drinking lots and lots of water, which is probably why she was pissing so much and in so many non-pissing zones. The floor. The freshly vacuumed carpet. The sofa. The tub. Like she went out of her way to piss in new and different places. I supposed I wouldn’t be surprised to find her out here one brisk night prying open and pissing into a gas tank alongside me.

 

“I’m afraid we’re coming to the end of the road.” …

 

Later that night I got arrested for public urination. I was reprimanded. The police officer was none too pleased, but more exasperated than irritated I’d say. I got a summons. A hefty fine. Maybe it’s time I start pissing where a man is meant to piss. Unlike her, I had no excuse. It occurs to me you can get away with a lot of abnormal behavior the sicker you are. People beat murder raps for being ‘sick’, after all. My acting out was not out of sickness, however. As she limped around that piss-stained apartment of mine, wheezing and taking in her IV fluids, I was out pissing in gas tanks, lying in the middle of the road at 3 in the morning, throwing rocks at stop signs and traffic lights. And the vet’s words came back to me every so often, as I picked up another rock and chucked it at a security camera mounted on the side of an office park suite. I’m afraid we’re coming to the end of the road.

 

Lucky not to be spending the rest of the night in a cell, I decided to cut my losses and head home to the dying, pissing dog. When I got in, she perked up and wagged her tail. She sat with her chin rested in my lap for awhile while I watched a preacher talking this and that about the bible…one of those God channels buried at the bottom of my cable package. Good news, folks: today may be bleak, but today is only one day, and Sunday is coming. A brighter day. He has a greater plan for you. …unfortunately, maybe, just not for your dying dog. Your dog is out of luck. Today is the dog’s last.

 

And that’s what I found. Two and a half days later, granted. A little off schedule, but sure enough—for the dying dog at least—Sunday never came. There is apparently no greater plan. God is a busy man, or asleep. Maybe obligated to appear in an obese woman’s tortilla somewhere in Mexico. Him or the Madonna.

 

The night after they took her body off my hands to be incinerated, I stopped by the rusty old gas station food mart and bought a quart of milk. Forgetting I don’t drink milk. She did, and she’s dead. I bought the milk anyway. I used the restroom before leaving for home (I had to bargain with the Indian behind the counter for use of the shithouse key). I didn’t stay up or go out again that night. I pissed in the toilet, and scrubbed the piss stains from the carpet with whatever I had on hand. Some hand soap and a worn out pair of underpants. I didn’t dream, either. I had a summons. No job. A freshly dead dog. And Sunday, I’m told, is coming.

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hush

On a Wednesday afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, I made my move—lying down in the middle of the street. I curled myself into a neat little ball, slowly rocking at first, back and forth, gently. Then stopped rocking. The pavement hot under my flank, I very soon was perfectly and completely still. And very cold. A lot of people seemed to be gathering and quickly, but I was still as death, eyes wide open and fixed vacantly straight ahead. Quite a crowd gathering. A beautiful late summer day. I felt I would lie down, in the road, and not move from there. I felt I would stay there, still as death, until I was myself gone or else forcibly moved. I felt somehow this was the only way things could be.

It had struck at a seemingly arbitrary moment. The pulling, the irresistible pulling on what I would only describe as the nucleus of my being…the epicenter of my self was pulled down with a tremendous weight, like an elephant brought to the cold hard ground by a thousand piercing barbs. Something massive brought down by hundreds and thousands of spears hurled into its side; something like an elephant, or a rhino, harvested for its tusks. My fall was flat and non-percussive, however. And while quite the crowd had gathered, I myself was no elephant. No rhino. In reality, small. Thin. Gaunt, even. An ignoble beast. My falling made no sound, I’m sure. It was not a dignified falling, either, I’m sure. Simply walking along one day—a Wednesday—I fell to the pavement, like a sack full of hollow stones—rather silently and with not much impact. The harpoons tethered to my heart, however, pulled with high speed and tension; I felt myself hit the ground harder than I’d likely appeared to. I didn’t feel like moving then. I felt I would stay there, instead. However long.

What it was that hit me, however, I’m afraid I can’t identify. Just something forceful and somehow, cold; a phrase danced on my lips, but did not escape. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words—the cold, fricative whisper that pierced my senses and punctured my heart. Brought me down like an elephant. A phrase; several words; a sentence; something I could not recite even if the apparent shock that had overtaken my body hadn’t presently confined me to a neat little ball, lying perfectly, deathly still. A chill of words cruelly danced on my lips, which parted slightly to show my teeth, gritted shut. A peculiar chill of words that had first danced in my brain, then in and out of the exit wounds of my heart and in-between all those barbs and spears. Now on my lips, I only felt cold and perfectly unable to broadcast the simplest human form of expression to define the chill in any concrete terms; no language, no movement or indication would suffice; even if I’d scrawled the words in chalk alongside myself, nothing would be an adequate vessel to translate it.

A crowd had gathered, car horns honking impatiently and men and women and children pointing, whispering. Perplexed, annoyed, unnerved or otherwise inconvenienced at my stillness on the ground and my complete lack of intent to move. I was still as death, and they were volatile as life—wondering and raving and questioning and shouting in no organized manner. All at once, a symphony of confusion; as the piece progressed, however, the crowd and the noise from it became more that of a mob. Disorganized, still confused, but taking shape steadily to resemble a sort of hive-mind—a hive-mind that howled in unison like a pack of dogs. Shouting. Whispering. Honking. Barking. And my ignoble, unmoving frame at the center of it.

“Sir,” one man dressed like me said, kneeling down and speaking in a hushed tone, “What’s the matter? You’re blocking traffic. You should move, before you get hurt.”

“I can’t move,” I said, my voice hollow and empty. It seemed to lack weight, my voice. Just more hollow stones spilled to the pavement. Each one exited like blood.

“Why not?”

“I can’t tell you,” I said.

“Why can’t you tell me?” The man was beginning to show signs of irritation.

“Because,” I said, and stopped, realizing I had nothing more to say to him. The man looked to be in his mid-30’s, like me, and he wore a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his tan jacket slung over his left shoulder and a bead of sweat on his brow. But I had nothing to say to him, and certainly, nothing I said to him would carry any meaning. I was meaningless. A meaningless, neat little ball. Still as death. I couldn’t translate or even begin to hush that fricative, cold whisper that danced on my lips. For a moment, my mind wandered: what would happen, I wonder, if I were to let that cold whisper spill too from my body? Whatever it was, it tasted bitter. It tasted like biohazard. Cold and radioactive. He couldn’t understand, unless I were to spill those words from my lips– allow him to wither and die alongside me. I supposed. And as long as this was the case, I thought, I would be lying there on the street, until men in white coats piled out of an ambulance and wheeled me off, snug and secure in their butterfly net. What else is to be done with a man who very suddenly shuts down, curls into a neat little ball, and feels a complete inability to move from his spot on city pavement?

The 30-something man knelt back down, said, “Sir, there’s a crowd gathering. I’m sure you don’t want me to call the police—have them physically remove you?” He tried to look into my eyes, but my eyes, but they were too vacant. Set perfectly still in the optic cavity, aimed dead ahead. At nothing. They were open, glassy. Nothing could look in, and nothing could get out. “Sir.” The man tried to get my attention, snapping his fingers and clapping his hands. “Sir! Listen to me. You can’t just lie down in the middle of a busy street. Do you hear me?”

By now, the throng of onlookers had multiplied—at least fifty people crowded around, cars pulled off at odd angles and children pointing and laughing. Dogs barking. Car horns honking. A real spectacle, it seemed. They were all crowded around in a circle, and a woman stepped forward through the barricade of bodies, attempted to look in my eyes and said, “He’s right, sir. You need to move. You’re making people late for work. People have places they need to be. You have to move. Please, sir.”

“That won’t work,” another man said, pushing his way through to the front. “He’s obviously nuts. It’s like one of those guys who threatens to jump from a bridge. We need to talk him down, is all.”

“And how do we do that?” another woman asked, throwing her hands in the air. “Is anyone here a psychiatrist? Or a hostage negotiator? No? Then let’s just call the damn cops! I have a meeting at 9:00.”

“She’s right,” a teenage boy chimed in.

“What do you know? You’re just a kid. Tell you what: give me five minutes alone with him, and whether he moves himself or I have to move him, your problem’ll be solved.” He began to usher the crowd back. “Step aside, now.”

The 30-something man broke in, “No! He’s obviously unwell. We need to treat him with a little more consideration. You can’t just go and manhandle a sick person.”

“Bullshit! He’s tying up traffic. At this rate, the cops won’t be here for another 20 minutes. I’ll take care of it.”

“Leave him be,” another woman said. “That guy’s right. Let’s just try to talk some sense into him until the police get here.”

But their words were all moot. They meant nothing to me. I felt I would lie there, perfectly still, and that nothing would change that. That cold phrase still dancing cruelly across my lips. I supposed it would take the force of fifty men to lift my body from its spot on the pavement—I felt so heavy, pulled down by a tremendous force onto that small spot in the road. Cold and intent not to move at all, I was–I supposed–stuck. That it might not be a question of intent at all was only now dawning on me. I supposed, for all that weight pulling me down, I was indeed stuck. And like biohazard, also contagious. I felt all women and children ought to back away. Clear the area.

Car horns honked in a delirious cacophony of confused street noise; the career-driven businessmen and women pacing in frustration. I couldn’t blame them. As far as they knew, I was just some basket-case—a mentally disturbed nobody threatening to jump from a bridge. Maybe that’s exactly what I am, my mind wandered. I certainly had no intention of inconveniencing anyone. It was simply unavoidable—inevitable—that something like this would happen. All the weight pulling at my heart—my nucleus—had probably been pulling for some time. I’d probably walked down this road many times carrying it, bearing the weight and the barbs. Today, however, was different. Today, I felt I would lie down and not move a muscle. And so, I didn’t. In time, I supposed, I couldn’t. And I still felt I should be regarded a disease—a biohazard or a human radiation. In a perfect world, my body would shrivel up and blink away, or else some apparatus would lift it—perfectly still and rigor-mortised—up and away somewhere from all the commotion. There was a certain guilt for having fallen, then and there. Then, a complete disregard. Before I could feel too guilty for becoming spectacle, I retreated into myself some more, and things around me became a bit muted. I supposed this might be death. Or a variety of it.

But the cold phrase dancing on my lips was not death; it tasted bitter, poisonous even, but not like death. It was, I suppose, a pearl of nihilistic wisdom—one that said in its own cold, fricative way, that what I needed to do that day, then and there in the middle of the street, was to simply lie down…and not move…and not be moved. And if others tried to, I felt they may well find themselves lying down in their own neat little balls—perfectly still and dead—alongside me. Maybe it’s just too heavy and too cold for me to really care, I wondered…

“…what’s your name?” the first man with the tan jacket asked, kneeling back down. His voice had softened. His words were deliberate, and they nuzzled up close to me. He was trying to play me. Trying to get on with his day and the inconvenience by being kind and understanding, if just for a moment. But I had no intention of playing his game. I felt more and more like the common cold; a human contagion ready to spread. “Just tell me your name, sir. Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

Now, it seemed, the group think had shifted strategic mental gears. And the leader of the three-ring circus was the man with the tan jacket slung over his shoulder, poking and prodding as fumblingly and gently as he could to engage me in something resembling a dialogue. To talk me off this supposed ledge. Everyone has their reasons. People have places to go…other people to see. And I moved more towards not caring with every word hushed to me. Towards contagion.

“I won’t tell you my name,” I said finally. “And I won’t play games with you.”

“You won’t play games?” another man blurted out. “What the fuck are you talking about, buddy? You’re the one playing the damn games around here! You want attention, is that it? Well, you’ve got it. So now what?”

The man with the tan jacket slung over his shoulder turned to shoot the other man a dirty look, said, “I’m not playing games, sir. The cops will be here soon enough. I’m just trying to see if—“

“If you can get me to move, right?” I interrupted. “To see if you could save yourself a little inconvenience, go on with your life and your work day and all your perfect little things…” Hollow stones of words spilled out like blood from my lips, and only as I heard them myself was I taken aback. A human contagion.

“It’s nothing like that, sir,” he said. “I’m just…”

“Curious?” I interrupted.

The man with the tan jacket looked sullen, then smirked a little bit, kind of nervously, and said, “…I guess. Yes. I’m just curious. Why would a person do something like this?”

“That, I can’t tell you,” I said. It seemed the man with the tan jacket at least, did have a legitimate claim to conversation. Either that, or he was simply a ghoul…a rubbernecked motorist gawking at a dead and twisted thing on the side of the road. With vacant eyes fixed straight ahead, I added, “…And you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do,” he said. “Really. Tell me. Why are you doing this?”

I supposed there was no harm in a man slowing down to gawk at a train wreck. I supposed, there was no harm in entertaining him. “Really. You don’t,” I said at last.

“Why? Is it really so horrible?”

“Yes.”

“We’re talking in circles,” he said, “You and me, just you and me, now. Forget about everyone else.” He looked over his shoulder, looked back, and continued, “What is it?”

But it was impossible to oblige. I couldn’t separate his face from the fleshy mass of onlookers and gawkers. I saw the mob as one; one big, cancerous mass. “If I talk to you,” I said, “I talk to them too. And I can’t be held responsible.”

“For what?”

“For what might happen…,” I said.

The man with the tan jacket wiped some sweat from his brow. “Sir, listen to me,” he said, grasping my shoulder with his right hand, “nothing is going to happen. It’s all in your head,” he said, swallowing and proceeding in a whisper, as if his words were not fit for the rest to hear, “…you’re sick. That’s all.”

“I know I’m sick. And I know it’s all in my head. That’s just the problem.” My words were hollow stones dropped to the ground. I kept looking straight ahead through dead, glassy eyes. I could feel my contagion starting to spread.

“You need help, sir. Help is coming.” The man with the tan jacket rose to his feet, stepped back, and checked his watch.

“I’m sick of this!” another man shouted. He dropped down to the pavement, on his hands and knees, and peered into my glassy eyes. “Listen you little shit, either you get your ass up, or I’m gonna move you myself. And you don’t want that.” He jammed his index finger into my forehead. Poked and prodded. Back to his feet, he gave a half-hearted kick to my shoulder and moved away.

I felt the inexplicable, cold phrase that had been dancing across my lips begin to spill out onto the pavement. The crowd was settling down. Still staring dead ahead, at nothing, the cacophony of confused and frustrated whispers, shouts, the horns honking and even the dogs barking died out; at first more bluntly muted, then muted some more. And then silent altogether…the symphony ended, or myself deafened, I couldn’t tell which. And I supposed I would lie there. Until I was myself faded into nothingness, or else moved by force.

…however long…

 

waiting

No one believes him. That he’s got a cat who comes and goes in his unit, no one sees him except you, he comes out at night—late—when the nursing staff is gone and he’s left to his own devices. And that there’s not much he can do to feed the poor thing when he does come out…he’s confined to his damned wheelchair, or his easychair, or some other chair….and worrying about how the cat will starve to death sooner or later. He can’t walk anymore. Can’t stand up without great difficulty and a lot of help from the nursing staff. And god damn they won’t believe you, he doesn’t have a cat in his unit they say, of course you don’t have a cat in your unit, where could a stray cat have come from anyway….how did he get in, they say. These are the questions they ask him. How is it no one else ever sees the lil’ guy but you, they say. But he sees him. And so, it must be real.

 

Les begins the precarious mission from his craftmatic easychair that lifts up when you push the button, so it sets you on your feet, in front of your walker, ideally so you can get up with the help of the chair and right to the walker…it doesn’t always shake out so easy though. But the cat needs to be fed…and watered. No one’s had the decency to put out a bowl of water for the cat. Or some kibble. He takes it on himself. He’s got to do this himself. No one else will. So allowing the craftmatic easychair to lift him up, wobbling twisting grabbing the rubber grips of the walker in front of the easychair, with all his might, and DOWN he goes. It’s over in a matter of seconds it seems….more like minutes in reality…the whole mission from easychair to walker has taken about fifteen minutes. The fall takes a split second. And an unforgiving thud. Les, you idiot, he thinks. He grasps the emergency alert button hanging from his neck but the dexterity of his hands is an issue here. The big red button doesn’t give easy. A bony index finger struggles to press down with the necessary pressure. In time, it gets it right….

 

“What happened here, Les,” the 30 something girl with arm tattoos asks…in an almost sneering tone. Like a mother admonishing her infant for spilt milk. A man who killed Japs in Okinawa now lying prone on the shag carpeting of an old folks home….. and a girl with arm tattoos beginning to pull him up, setting him into a wheelchair. The whole place stinks like cat piss. ……..’and they tell you there’s no cat here’…..

 

“Trying to feed the cat.” Les pointing blankly at a seemingly random corner of the living room. Bony finger pointing. Quaking.

 

“Where is your darn cat, Les?” the girl with the arm tattoos says. “Maybe he’s under the bed. I’ll go check.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She is gone for a few minutes and eventually comes back out of the bedroom with some soiled bedsheets. “I saw him, Les. I put a bowl of water down for him.” Another girl, a younger girl, enters the unit that smells of cat piss, and they begin to chatter amongst themselves as they stuff a bunch of soiled sheets and clothes and towels into a hamper on wheels. The younger girl is no older than 19. Nose-ring. Purple hair.

 

“Les! How are you darling??” She projects from the kitchenette. Les, slumped over in his chair on wheels towards the sliding glass door on the opposite side of the room. “Your kitty giving you trouble, sweetie?”

 

….crust in the corners of his mouth…..mouth so dry….hands quaking….”He’s hiding.” Under the bed. Doesn’t come out for the girls with the purple hair and the arm tattoos. ‘Well, to hell with them’. You have ties older than these girls, he thinks. Stupid girls. No….they’re nice girls, really. But it’s cruel. The naked cruelty of this whole damned thing. Where a man ends up. This is where you end up. And it gets to a point…where a cat is all you have. The fake plastic smiles. Patronizing hellos and goodbyes. You have a cat. They can’t see it. Even if they can’t see it or can’t find it, you have a cat, he thinks. There’s a cat in here. The girl with the arm tattoos lays down a fake bowl of water….he has to lay down a real bowl of water. Cats need water. Cats need to drink. One time when he was a boy he took care of a cat in a barn, out in the country; he was called away for a couple days; no one else knew about the cat; when he got back he was appalled. What have I done, he asked himself. This cat needs water. Badly. And he put down a big dish of fresh water for her and she immediately ran to it and started lapping it up and she lapped it up and lapped it up and lapped it up for no less than five minutes straight; that cat lapped up that whole bowl of water. It was that thirsty. Thinking back to the country, and that cat….that thirsty cat. Thinking back, he gradually transitions from awake to asleep.

 

Poking, prodding, blue pills, red pills, pink pills…….an assist getting onto the toilet and cleaning up thereafter. Once these silly girls leave, the cat comes out. And there’s some decent company. The purple hair girl actually puts a real bowl of water down in the kitchenette, and a bowl of cat food too. After pill time, they both make for the door and snicker on the way out. Les waits for the cat. A man who mowed down Japs in Okinawa waits for an invisible cat to appear in his assisted living community unit.

 

“They say the dementia is to be expected. It’s all part of it,” the daughter says to a visitor. They chat about dementia and morphine and living wills. Preparing to split the assets and the belongings and the property in an egalitarian fashion amongst each other; heated discussions and talk of who gets what, all before the body is cold…in fact, while it’s still quite warm. Broken down, shriveled, crippled, but warm nonetheless. “He’s been seeing things lately,” the daughter says to the man Les can’t quite identify. “Claims there’s a cat running around in here only he can see.” The man makes a dry remark concerning that and they both smirk. And this is what happens to a man. Authenticity of the cat aside, one thing they all seem to forget is that he does indeed remain acutely aware of the slow breakdown taking place—the descent—and that he feels every painful step down the slow, winding slope…the wait…feels it as real as real gets; he feels it and him only…while they stand around and chat and joke and argue about estates and valuables and nursing issues.

 

It seems indignity is all a part of life, as much as anything else; and this is something too the rest seem to forget he can feel all too well. They’ll see, when it comes to be their time to see invisible cats. He sits, still waiting for the thing to come out from wherever it’s hiding, and the wait for that is every bit as real as the wait for one’s own end. As real as the slow breakdown that is taking place. Waiting is as real a human experience as anything, and among the most excruciating. He waits for something they tell him does not exist. Or otherwise mock him for as they turn away. For that, he bears insult, and waits anyway. And regardless of dementia or no dementia, for this he is no different than anyone.

 

Later, in the night, the thing does come out of its hiding place and he observes it alone, in the din of 2am and infomercials on the TV. Not a fool, not stupid, he knows he doesn’t have long; you know when you’re looking at it dead in the face…everyone does; no matter how far gone, this is a thing you know when you see it. No matter who you are. With that in mind, he also knows a cat when he sees it, and he sees a cat. The two of them sit silently in the soft glow of the television and the moon outside, shining in from between the slats of the blinds.

 

This is what happens to a man. Where he ends up. Waiting for a thing to come is maybe the most universal thing, and the saddest. They sit, both waiting in their own ways for the same thing. A man who’s lived a life, and a thing that may or may not exist, depending on the man you ask.

 

And regardless, the morning comes.

the jellyfish

I had a dream. It was an awful dream. One of those dreams, the kind where you almost know you’re dreaming but also don’t—somewhere in between, crouched cold and quivering in the crawlspace beneath consciousness and above dreaming. That kind. I was at the aquarium. In front of the jellyfish. They were floating, drifting…..in that jellyfish way they do….these amorphous blobs, drifting through space, silken white tendrils of jellyfish pulled behind them, languidly in the water—like a bodily fluid spilled into a clear glass of water….like oil into water….or cream into coffee…..their bodies an uncertainty. An uncertainty.

When I woke up, I had a very unsettled feeling in my gut. Like indigestion. But worse, a feeling of something I couldn’t quite name or put a number to. It haunted me all day, this indefinable something. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, couldn’t really eat, or manage to say but two words to anyone; couldn’t do anything, really, but think of that silken-white amorphous drifting. I couldn’t figure why I might be dreaming of jellyfish. I hadn’t been to the zoo since I was a child. Couldn’t rightly say that I’d ever been to an aquarium, furthermore. Once as a child, I stepped on a jellyfish while at the beach with my family. It hurt, and I had to piss on my own foot to take the stinging away. It was a fairly unremarkable experience. Not the worst pain in the world, and far from the worst trauma I would ever feel. Other than that, I had no special reason to be dreaming of jellyfish. I suppose. I guess there’s no special reason for anything when it comes to dreaming. I had to ask myself, still, where this feeling of unease was coming from. When work was done, I had the strange urge to drive by the aquarium—way downtown, in the city, miles and miles out of the way—but decided against it. It was already dark by the time I got home. And by that time, I was tired. I made a ham sandwich with a soda, watched a little TV and then fell asleep there on the sofa. My unease relaxed like a knot of cramped muscles loosened with the sudden onset death…..a perfect Gordion knot taking up slack in my gut, loosened to a limp tangle of ropes. As the knot continued to untie, I returned to the aquarium. And the jellyfish.

Coffee into cream. Oil into water. Ejaculate into water. Amorphous. Silken white tendrils drifting and swaying in the water’s gentle ebb…somehow, this was a horrible dream. A nightmare, quite. Why, I couldn’t easily say, or say at all. If pressed, I simply would come up short—blank and empty for the correct answer or indeed, any answer at all. Like a school-child who’s not done the reading and is called on by the teacher. I was speechless—at a loss—more than at a loss…embarrassed. That I could find such a serene, tranquil, and verging on beautiful little thing of a dream to be at once confounding and nightmarish. Perhaps nightmarish for being so confounding. Or who knows why. Who knows why. In any case and for whatever reason, I woke cold and clammy in the middle of the night. Clammy and feverish. I went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of tepid water. I nearly caught myself checking it for thin, white tendrils.

My cat was dead. She was now in a little sealed oak box, perched over the fireplace. The dust and ashes to ashes of incinerated flesh fur and bone. In a little oak box over the fireplace. I sat down on the sofa and looked straight ahead at it, like watching a movie or a TV show…watching an incinerated cat in a box. I watched it like it might possibly move, or otherwise change its state. This was also confounding. And vaguely nightmarish. She was dead of cancer. Cat cancer. Dead of it five weeks, and now in a little box on the mantle over the fireplace. Over the incinerator. I found myself watching the box more and more, and not knowing why. An amorphous, drifting spectre like the jellyfish. My stomach cramped up, and I began to vomit.

“It makes that sound,” the old woman whispered to me as I lay on my back. “That vibrating sound. I can’t play it like this,” she whispered. I could barely hear her, this woman who couldn’t play her piano because it ‘vibrates’.

It was the next day, at work, out on a call to tune a baby-grand for an apparently well-off old woman with laryngitis. I had spent most of the last night vomiting, and like so many things these days, not knowing why. “This will take a while,” I echoed from under the piano, my tools laid out beside me for what appeared to be quite a lengthy and complicated task. “Please,” I said, “Ms. Arlen, don’t speak. Your voice needs rest. And this will take a while.”

“Have you ever had laryngitis?,” Ms. Arlen said, directly ignoring my advice.

“Once,” I echoed. “As a boy. It didn’t matter all that much though,” I said. “I don’t talk a lot anyways.”

“Mm,” she said only. After several quiet minutes following that, I presumed she had wandered off. “It’s got to be quite the soporific profession, Mr. Lands…repairing and tuning pianos.” Still in the room, apparently, she went on, whispering and disregarding my advice to preserve her voice, “Is it?”

“Is it what?” I said, distracted by my work.

“Soporific.”

“Not really,” I said. “I don’t sleep much to start with.”

“Insomniac, eh?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just don’t sleep.” Wiping a bead of sweat from my forehead. “Bad dreams.”

“You need your sleep, Mr. Lands. You don’t know how crucial sleep really is.”

“I suppose not,” I echoed. “Ms. Arlen…your voice,” I added, increasingly frustrated.

“What do you dream of, Mr. Lands?” she asked me under her raspy whisper, which was becoming fainter with the syllable.

“Jellyfish,” I answered.

“That’s interesting,” she said, rasp lower and fainter still.

“You’ll be mute pretty soon, Ms. Arlen. And this will take a while.”

After several minutes of silence once again, I presumed her to have wandered off. This time I supposed I was right. I continued working, laid out on my back and sweating in the un-air conditioned day room. I was increasingly bothered, over the hours it took to come at last to a stopping place, by something again and increasingly typically amorphous. Vague. Whatever had inspired the bad dreams of silken white jellyfish, and my watching of an incinerated cat in a box. It was that. Whatever ‘that’ was…it was making me physically ill. My stomach was a tight knot, cramping and painful, by the time I left the old woman’s house for the day. I vomited in her driveway. Thankfully, she had already waved goodbye and gone inside.

Are you a married man, Mr. Lands? she had asked me before I left. No I said. She, likewise, was not married. Not married or at least widowed. I had an inkling but wasn’t sure, and wasn’t about to ask. I’d come to fix her piano. That was all. Like I’d fixed thousands of pianos before that. I’d never particularly enjoyed having to work in stranger’s houses…so often they would feel it necessary to hover about me in the same room and make conversation while I tried to work. If not for that, maybe I could call it a particularly soporific profession.

I went home. I watched my dead cat in a box for a while and then ate dinner, and then threw dinner up. My stomach was in tight, taught contractions by the time I’d finished vomiting…pain only increasing. Maybe I had cancer too, I wondered. Just like my cat. Not cat cancer but human cancer. And in my stomach. Stomach cancer. Human stomach cancer. One of the worst kinds of cancer to have, to be sure. While my stomach tightened and cramped with pain, I thought again about Ms. Arlen’s question. Are you a married man, Mr. Lands? I’d spent the majority of my adult life alone, and for the most part I presumed it didn’t bother me all that much to be alone. I presumed but couldn’t say with conviction I knew. It was something I couldn’t know all that well, one way or another, having spent so much time one way. At a certain point, I’d lost touch with anything with which to compare it. I was increasingly spending my nights awake or in nightmares, my stomach contracting in acute pain as I silently watched the little box atop my fireplace mantle. That dead, incinerated cat. She had been about the only thing I’d had to call company, for quite a number of years…until she got the cancer and died. I was not emotional about it. She’d provided a little companionship, had run around crazy at 3 in the morning and dragged the trash across the apartment floor, and otherwise lead a rather full and perfectly fine cat life. Died at a ripe old age, the two of us parting as perfect strangers and happy to have known each other as such. I was good with that. I presumed. The weeks were dragging on and my dreams of amorphous, white jellyfish still plagued me night and day. What little sleep I got was filled with jellyfish. That amorphous, formless nothing that I now began to blame entirely for my stomach pains. The question remained why. That amorphous, formless question. Not like repairing or tuning a piano…not a simple, logical answer to a complex, mechanical problem…not that simple, and not that logical. Not at all. My tools could not address this pain. I could not tune this pain. It only gnawed at my guts, growing inexplicably from within. And without form or reason, as far as I could tell. As far as I was able as a tuner of pianos to determine. The mechanical breakdown of my insides was by all appearances completely resistant to a logical, mechanical fix. I dashed all my tools against the wall in frustration, my stomach pierced by an intense, white-hot agony.

“The doctor says I can resume my singing lessons,” Ms. Arlen said, her hushed rasp nearly gone. It was some time later, and I was out again to her place to replace a part.

“You’d have healed much faster had you kept quiet,” I echoed from underneath the piano.

“You sound as if you’re in pain, Mr. Lands,” she said. She was right. I was in pain. A lot of it.

“Just the usual,” I muttered.

“Pardon?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t say anything.” My stomach spasmed. I winced, holding back a howl for the pain.

“Mr. Lands?,” Ms. Arlen said…

“Yes?”

“Mr. Lands, would you please consider meeting my daughter. I do believe you and her will enjoy each other’s company. Go to dinner with her. She’s a lovely young woman. You’re getting too old to play this ‘bachelor’ game any longer, you know.”

“Thank you but no thank you, Ms. Arlen. I don’t think I’m very good company for anyone.”

“Please, Mr. Lands. Don’t be like that. Consider this my thanks for your services, please.”

“Oh. So this is some sort of favor,” I bantered.

“Indeed, it is. You’ll see.”

“Fine. I’ll meet her,” I said flatly.

I went home and writhed about in pain for some time, then sat—still in pain—watching my cat in a box. I hadn’t slept for several days. Partly for fear of the jellyfish. What had gotten into me, to accept that odd old woman’s ‘offer’, I wondered. I would be lucky to make it through dinner with this strange young woman without doubling over in pain and falling out of my chair.

The time came, in a day or two, to fulfill my obligation and meet this stranger. I picked a moderately priced restaurant and a bland Hollywood movie. I doubted I’d make it to the movie.

“Greg?” a pert, female voice came from behind me. I was dressed decently in black slacks and a suit-coat. The woman who’d come from behind me was decent-looking and dressed casually. Either too casually or I was too overdressed; I couldn’t tell which. We exchanged the necessary pleasantries, the hi how are you’s and the like and proceeded to dinner…my stomach was oddly calm for a change; the sharp talons that typically gripped and twisted it were, for this night only, loosed, but only slightly. “Are you okay?” she asked as we sat down…

“I’m in agony,” I said flatly. “Most of the time, lately, I’m in agony.”

Her face reddened and she either feigned concern or was overcome by concern…I was unable to tell. “Oh my god, are you serious? What’s wrong? Tell me…”

Suddenly, my amorphous, drifting spectre of pain and nightmares began to take form. It was foreign, but form nonetheless. “I don’t know,” I said, sincerely. For the first time in a long time, I had said something sincere to a person. Just then. And the claw that gripped and twisted my insides loosed just a little more. “Do you have a cat?” I asked.

“What? …I,” she stuttered, stammered… “Yes. Why?” Her either feigned or real concern became something else then.

“I had one,” I replied.

“Oh. I’m sorry…” she said…reaching for my hand, which was not on the table.

“It’s okay,” I said. “…anyway, it’s okay. I’m starting to feel a little better, thank you.”

My hands remained where they were…still, on my knees. Under the table.

story about a bitch

Precisely on the corner of 56th and 7th, the right rear wheel of my Pontiac snuffed the life out of a perfectly adorable jack Russell terrier mix. I couldn’t help it. I’d swerved to avoid collision with some asshole in a Jeep running a red light. By mere inches, my vehicle (and, potentially, my life) was spared. Sad to say the same could not be said for this plaintive, twitching canine. He was still alive, but barely. My heart swelled, partly in shock, part in a deep sadness and remorse. I felt awful. And panic. I couldn’t think what to do. Pick the poor twitching thing up in my arms and race him to a vet, or what.

Unfortunately, I could not do that. I was in a hurry. My wife had sent me out on a last minute venture to the supermarket. I was to pick up some onions and a pack of sanitary napkins. The sanitary napkins were for my wife, who was on the rag, and not in the best of moods. The onions were for dinner. My mother-in-law was in town and on her way from the airport, and the onions were a necessary ingredient for the dinner my wife was preparing for us. Any minute, that old bat of a woman would be setting down her bags on the front porch, ready for an extended stay at our place. My wife would be scrambling to cook dinner and make a last minute sweep of the house, cleaning up the clutter and arranging things just so. I wouldn’t dare return home without the onions.

The Jack Russell, meanwhile, slowly stopped twitching. His heart slowed. Emaciated ribcage rising and falling faintly, and then altogether resting, suddenly and finally. I supposed he was dead. My heart felt tight and twisted in my chest. My stomach churned and twisted also. I felt sick. The thing’s eyes—still open—glazed over and took on a glassy, vacant appearance. My heart and stomach still twisted and sick, I reluctantly climbed back into my Pontiac and proceeded to the supermarket. Not looking back. I got the damn onions.

“Where have you been?” my wife started in on me before I’d even stepped out of my vehicle. She had been waiting, hands on her hips, in the driveway. The old bat was here. I could smell her. And dinner was late, in no small part to a poor dead dog on the side of the road. Of all the calamities and disasters in the world today…dinner was late. And a poor, innocent dog was dead. And I killed it. For want of onions and Tampax.

“I was delayed,” I said, stepping out of the car and gripping the grocery bag with white knuckles.

“Delayed,” she mimicked. “My mother is here and dinner isn’t ready. Nice of you to be here to greet her, by the way.”

“Nice, yes I know. I’m here now anyway. Here,” I said, handing her the bag and walking sullenly to the front door. My mother-in-law was here. She was a harpy. I braced myself for the nagging, the back-handed remarks, the unsolicited advice and admonishment. “Hello, Margaret,” I said, not looking in her direction. Then I noticed something. The old mare was crying, sniffling. Sobbing, in fact. I didn’t know how to take this. Even so, my first instinct was not one of sympathy.

“Some terrible man ran over this beautiful jack Russell,” she sobbed, “…and then just sped away…like nothing had happened. Oh. That poor dog. It was awful.” The old gray mare wasn’t so much telling this to me as projecting it to the wall in front of her, to no one in particular, to who knows what or why. She kept sobbing. Sniffling.

“Sick,” my wife said, obliquely. “Whoever did that ought to be shot. Just driving off like that…”

I was at first unsure of how to process the crossfire of emotions before me; but without warning, I was at once delighted. Why? Because there on the sofa was the old bat, the old gray mare who ain’t what she used to be—sobbing, blubbering, pathetically…genuinely. Seeing her in such dire straits of emotional angst I can’t help but admit warmed the cockles of my heart. I was at once ghoulishly pleased. …as for my wife…who cares, I supposed. I could go one way or another on that one. The old bag had apparently witnessed the event, but hadn’t identified me as the culprit.

“On her way here from the airport,” my wife continued, “she sees this horrible thing. Right there.”

“The onions alright?” I asked.

“Fuck the onions, Hal,” she snapped. “A dog is dead. My mother is traumatized. Think,” she said, laconically tapping her index finger to her temple.

“The onions are alright, then.” I was secretly pleased. How I’d dreaded the arrival of this woman into my home. And now, to see her cruel, shrewish demeanor reduced to sniveling and tears… only, too bad that poor Jack Russel had to buy the farm to make this possible. I almost felt badly again, for a second, but didn’t. Ding dong the witch is dead, I thought to myself. It just might be an alright weekend after all.

“Console her,” my wife said, snatching the onions from my hands and disappearing into the kitchen.

Console her, I thought. Well, she’d only torn down my standing as a full grown man—respectable—respected—she’d only demeaned my perfectly good character and position at a reputable insurance company for years on end. “There, there…Margaret,” I said…in the slimiest dulcet tone I could manage.

“So awful,” she sniveled…sobbed.

“Life is sometimes awful,” I said. And this was the one and only true thing I would say to the woman until her eventual death…which was likely not far off.

Then again, I did picture that poor Jack Russell. Bleeding. Ribs smashed in. Leg bent in a way it shouldn’t bend. I almost felt badly again.

But then didn’t.

“Yes…life is sometimes awful.”

 

Poison Control

(blank) cradled the receiver between his chin and shoulder, while at the same time peering with one eye through his binoculars, lenses poking between the slats in the blinds, focused on the nearly deserted street corner at the end of the block outside. The easy listening selection piping through one ear suddenly cut off, mid-note, followed by a click.

“A Cut Above Incorporated, how may I help you?”

(blank) straightened up in his chair with a jolt, the binoculars now dangling around his neck, shades drawn. “…Uh, yes…..I….”

“May I ask who’s calling, please,” the voice on the other end interrupted.

“Who am I you mean…oh, my name, it’s (blank),” the voice on the other end interrupted again.

“Thank you for calling us, (blank). You are interested in the Ginsu Special X4 Series, item no.1999389?” he asked.

“Well, yes, but—-“

“Do you have your credit card information ready, Mr. (blank)?”

(blank) pretended to fumble through his wallet, his shirt pockets….rustled some stray papers, garbage. “Oh, yes….yes I do, but I had a question about product number…..” he trailed off.

“1999389”

“Yes, that one,” (blank) continued. “I was wondering if…….” (blank) paused, thinking… “I was wondering if that package included the white bone swiss army knife as well..?”

“Yes it does, sir,” the voice answered readily. A brief yet noticeable silence. The voice went ahead, “Now then, Mr. (blank), may I have your credit card information?”

(blank) paused again. Deliberately this time. A brief silence on the line, becoming each second much larger, much more silent. Sounds of breathing. (blank) relaxed, sat back in his chair and put his feet up, winding the phone cord around his thumb.

“What’s your name?” he said finally.

A Cut Above Inc. paused as well…a pause to rival (blank)’s. “I represent A Cut Above Incorporated, sir. How may I help you?”

(blank) paused, again. “That’s an interesting question.” The cord was now wrapped taught around his thumb, up to the first knuckle, the skin red at the end. “My dad died this week,” he said, flatly.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir………..”

“He….he hung in there…..he’s a fighter, my dad….was a fighter. Anyway. Parkinson’s.”

A Cut Above sounded as if to swallow, perhaps lick his upper lip. “Oh. Well…that’s very unfortunate. Certainly sorry to hear it.” The two men at either end of the receiver shared a very respectable and mutual silence, then. “…my grandfather. He had it. The Parkinson’s.”

“It’s rough.” (blank) began unwinding the cord from his thumb, then winding it around his left index finger. “Yeah,” he sighed. “You a married guy…?”

“Doug. No, sir.” A faint tapping sound coming from A Cut Above’s end. “Umm….yes, it is difficult. Very sorry, Mr. (blank)……..uh….about the Ginsu Special, however, do you—“

“Oh yes,” (blank) picked up. “Of course. I apologize. Yes indeed, I have it right here. My card number is………………………”

 

(blank) had laid the phone back in its cradle, taken up his binoculars again. He peered outside from the third floor, from behind his shades…..between the slats…..a brand new set of titanium specialty ginsu knives along with a bonus white bone handled swiss army knife only two to three weeks from his doorstep. And a perfectly healthy dad some three hundred miles away…..whom he had not heard from nor thought of in many years. No telling the delivery estimate on that item.

(blank) kept watch on the street corner and the blight outside his window. The attractive young woman in the short shorts talking animatedly to her slightly less attractive young woman friend. A man in a business suit stood directly behind the first woman in the too-short shorts…noticeably leering at her ass while attempting to rub some sort of coffee or food stain from his dress shirt. The knife show was still droning in the background. 7pm. A bit too early in the day to be ordering knives, he thought to himself. I’ll microwave myself something, (blank) thought, or maybe order in. Chinese would hit the spot. Later he would catch the 3am showing of the knife show. Or maybe call the phone-sex line instead. Talk to the whore on the line about baseball, or another imaginary, recently deceased dad. Setting his binoculars down on the bureau and taking a ballpoint pen between his fingers, (blank) leaned over the phone and popped out the knife show’s number from the ‘3’ spot on his speed-dial listing, replacing it with the poison control line. Knives had run their course, he decided. Poison control tended towards the more loquacious. Picking the binoculars back up and peering through the slats in the blinds again, (blank) began to run through the things in his mind he might allegedly have swallowed, or touched, or eaten, or been exposed to. “Asbestos…rancid milk…turpentine…antifreeze…lead…bad Indian food…that Japanese blowfish that kills you if the chef doesn’t cut it just right…” The possibilities were endless. As he continued taking mental notes on potential poisons, there came a rather soft knock at the door.

(blank) peered through the peephole. Reluctantly unlocked the deadbolt, then opened the door a crack…the chain clasp still in place. He said nothing to the thing on the other side of the cracked-open door. She spoke nevertheless. “You coming out of there this week?” (blank) shrugged. “Can we open the door, at least? We have to talk through a crack, really?” (blank) shrugged again, and absently unclasped the lock. She let herself in as he lumbered away, towards nothing in particular. Just…away. “We’re all doing our part,” she said to his back. “We don’t ask much. Certainly don’t expect much, at this point. You could at least visit her.” (blank) paced, picking up his binoculars, putting them down…drawing the curtain on the view from his window. “We don’t even have to be there.” She stood a moment, still, silent. Waiting. Turned around and walked away, lingering at the door.

“The dead don’t suffer, you know that?” (blank) said, not looking in her direction.

“She’s not dead.”

“Well. Just about, anyways.” She turned around. (blank) shut the door, locked the deadbolt, replaced the chain clasp, turned the knob left and right to make sure it was secure, and turned around. Lumbering back into the dark of his burrow, the apartment he left only for life’s unavoidable necessities. Like groceries. And toilet paper. And even then, he made do on scraps of both as a practice. “Asbestos…bad Mexican food…glue…paint thinner…carbon monoxide…” he continued. “Formaldehyde.” He paused. The memory of dissecting frogs in middle school biology class flashed inexplicably somewhere in the cobwebs of his mind. This dead thing with its guts spilled open in front of you, he thought; whatever prompted the thought of it, he observed—silently—that he hadn’t gained a thing from the exercise. Nothing learned. He thought of his fake dead dad, then…the one who likewise showed no interest in coming to the bedside of another dead (or dying) thing, currently. The man who lived somewhere in Arizona now, remarried, a successful type guy in business and other like adult pursuits. (blank), at the thought of this, felt only a bit more for the dead thing on the middle school biology lab table. Nothing against either one of them. But he supposed, maybe, the memory of the dead frog resounded as a bit fresher in his mind. Other than that, fake dead dad from Arizona was alright, he guessed. Either that, or he had no real opinion on him one way or another. In any case, “…mercury…mouse droppings…hmm…” (blank) strained to think of more theoretical poisons. His mind gravitated back to the dead dissected frog. The thing was alive, to start with. Brought out in a big glass jar, in pairs. As instructed, you had to reach in and grab yours, then put it to sleep. Then cut into it. But it was only asleep at that point, not dead. “The dead can’t suffer,” he thought again…said aloud. Had that thing with its guts spilled out all over a middle school lab table suffered? Or, was it dead enough? “…rancid beef…”

Somewhere there was a dead enough thing also just waiting to be dissected, and for what reason? For what purpose? Who would really come away from the lesson with a better understanding of the subject…or of anything, for that matter? (blank) went on running through theoretical poisons in his mind, then committing them to writing. He waited a few hours till after dark, ordered some take-out, and sat by the phone.

 

“You close with your dad?,” (blank) asked the 40-something Chinese delivery guy. The Chinese guy didn’t seem interested. Either that, or he didn’t understand the question. Or, pretended not to understand.

“No dad,” the 40-something Chinaman uttered, holding out his hand for his tip.

“Yeah,” (blank) said, fishing a crumpled $5 out of his pants pockets. “Me neither. He’s dead.”

“Yes,” the Chinaman stammered, confusedly. He took the crumpled $5 and nodded slightly, then turned around and shuffled away.

That’s the trouble with Chinese, (blank) thought as he secured his apartment door and began to set up the various containers of food on a TV tray next to the phone. Probably should’ve gotten pizza. Fake dead dad having gotten rather short shrift, (blank) decided to retire him for now. Instead, tonight would be poison control night. Generally, the dead and dissected didn’t make much of a showing with poison control. Fake dead dads, grandpas, grandmas, fake dead brothers, fake dead sisters…dead or dead enough moms. Lab frogs. Generally, he would talk about other things while fake poisoned. Philosophy, maybe. Or art. Observations about life in general.

For whatever reason, (blank) had years ago developed a habit of dialing up the Poison Control Hotline and wanting to chat idly with the various operators. Starting off at first with a bogus concern…. “I was painting and my cat just jumped onto the palette, got oil paints all over her paws….now she’s licking her paws….what should I do?” and that sort of odd thing. (blank) didn’t oil paint, he had no special skills, no talents, and no cat…other than a peculiar knack for conjuring up imaginary dead or dying family members for the sake of uncomfortable conversation, he had no appreciable talents, abilities or aptitudes. Not a particularly gregarious type of guy…in fact he was downright awkward. But this worked for him. Over the phone, and with the delivery guys and girls who generally kept him fed and safe from venturing out into the world, that certain ineptness was the perfect tool for the job. The job, whatever it was or however it had evolved to this, was enough to keep his mind firmly grounded in the comfort of false sympathies. Though patently false, he’d figured quite some time ago, they were enough to keep him both tethered to some form of reality…and entertained. Perhaps more entertained than the first one. (blank’s) thoughts in the heat of unrehearsed conversation typically ran a fair pace behind the normal back and forth of any human exchange, however. Did not speak with confidence; the low volume and blunted tone of his voice betrayed any attempt at appearing to speak with conviction. So, he typically didn’t. The late-night dialogues with telephone operators and TV knife salesmen could be voiced with the conviction of rehearsal. Preparation. And a certain species of voyeurism. Physically, (blank) was just as understated….almost unstated entirely. So much so that no further description is necessary…

As a result, (blank) pretty much would just stay inside his burrow…a simple apartment with virtually no furniture. Just lots of things on the floor. Some unread books, newspapers, magazines. In bad enough health to get by on a little disability, his days were as empty as the place he lived in, yet just as cluttered. Retired from a brief life in what some may call ‘the real world’, he spent his time watching TV, listening to the radio, looking out the window. Late at night, he’d watch the home shopping channels and sometimes call up to order a set of titanium steak knives he’d never use, and often attempt to strike up some sort of conversation with whoever would answer the phone. Here, his false dead dad made his first appearance. The knife show guys were the place for the fake dead dad, he found. Other places, it would be a fake dead grandpa, or a beloved dog…all fake, alive and well, and often perfectly estranged. There were few if any real dead things to invoke as the center of the conversation. Few enough, in any case, that he could manage to forget them in the ersatz graveyard of his mind. He’d call phone sex lines also, but those were never as fulfilling, since they would be expecting the customer to engage in conversation. In those instances, he would usually try to veer the sex talk into something unrelated, like baseball, or the weather. Anything to break down the defenses of the operator. A real, human moment. A real, fake, human moment.

His family of the dead did not suffer. The dead can’t suffer. And generally, those conversations would end on that particular note—the ‘he’s in a better place now’ note. The ‘dead enough’, (blank) could manage to forget. Like the biology class frog, which had been making frequent appearances in his mind’s eye since earlier that day…now, he couldn’t get that ‘dead enough’ thing out of his head. For a fleeting moment, (blank) hoped he wasn’t doing something ‘wrong’ by conjuring up dead family members in exchange for real, fake, human sympathies. Whatever pang of conscience it may have been, it was gone just as quickly. His minimalist burrow, littered with papers, magazines and Chinese food containers felt at that moment just a shade claustrophobic. The walls moved in just slightly. “Will I go out at all this week?” he wondered aloud. Now fondling the receiver, the cradle in his lap, Chinese food scattered and uneaten on the tray in front of him, (blank) thought again—bluntly—“why bother…there’s nowhere to go…”

He figured he wasn’t missing anything. And there really was nowhere to go. As he dialed up Poison Control, his notepad of theoretical poisons and topics of conversation in hand, (blank) figured there was really nothing to miss. Whatever is out there, he thought, it’s as fake as anything. In exchange for convincing, fake sympathies—real, contrived human connection—the fake world out there could be ably avoided, and deservedly so. There was a dead (or dead enough) thing out there that might otherwise command his attention. But like his fake dead dad, there was no comforting or comfort in the dead…or the dead enough. “Poison Control Hotline, if this is a true emergency, please hange up and dial 911,” a pert, young female voice came from the other end of the line.

“Uh, yes, I think I swallowed some lead paint chips…I’m renovating an old townhouse and I think some got into my drink.”

“When was this, sir?”

“…not sure…” he trailed off. “…I think I’m a bit out of sorts, to tell you the truth. My mother died this week. She’s dead now.” There was only silence. He continued. “I don’t know…I may be a bit delirious. I don’t feel well.”

“…I’m sorry to hear that, sir…” Silence.

“Yeah. She died of Parkinson’s. Hell of a thing…that Parkinson’s…”

Silence on the line.

“She’s dead,” he said, the receiver halfway between his face and the cradle. Faintly, he concluded, “I guess I’ll be going.” Said hollowly, distantly, he gently placed the receiver in the cradle. Tossing his notepad of theoretical poisons and talking points to the wood floorboards, the walls of the burrow began to close in again. This time a little more. And a little more. “There’s nowhere worth going, anyway,” he said aloud. Sitting with the phone in his lap. Feeling dead enough at that moment that all the contrived, real, human sympathies in the world wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Dead enough that he was sure, in fact, that he was not suffering. (blank) placed the phone back on the table, and the walls moved in a little more. No exchanges of false sympathies necessary tonight. The dead (or dead enough) don’t suffer.

No point in visitation.

 

a serious joke: chapter 12

“My uncle got arrested for sodomy. Fortunately, his lawyer was able to get the charge reduced to ‘walking too close’”

                                                            -american lawyer joke

 

 

“Benjamin S. Zion, attorney at law,” he said, extending his hand. Jim Spleen shook it, tentatively. “What brings you here today, Mr. Spleen? Walk me through it.”

 

Jim took a seat in the leather chair opposite Zion, who was dressed rather casually in khaki pants and a polo shirt—tufts of matted chest hair protruding from the collar loosened to the first button. Jim made as if to speak, paused, then ventured sheepishly, “this is free, right?”

 

“The consultation is free,” Zion answered reassuringly, taking a sip of his morning coffee and puckering. His demeanor was in some indefinable way not particularly ‘lawyer-like’. Perhaps it was the cut of his hair; swept behind both ears and hanging near shoulder-length in back, while the front marked a slightly receding line along his forehead—slicked back, a thin wisp of a stray curl hanging over the ridges in the skin of his face. He came across casually, no doubt well-off but decidedly lacking the air of the rich. His old Lincoln Navigator sat rusted out along the edges of the bumper outside in the parking lot, a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, magazines and empty CD jewel cases scattered about the passenger seat. Jim had noted it as he’d entered the business suite earlier. Not a typical rich man car. Likewise, things were scattered lightly about in the small windowless office room they sat in now. Personal articles of mail, crumpled up pieces of paper, a bottle of Windex, a half-dismantled Xerox machine positioned at an odd angle adjacent the door. Zion reclined in his seat, elbows up, fingers interlocked behind his head. “I remember just the bare bones of your story.” He snapped back, ducked into a desk drawer and rummaged through some things for a moment. “Wrote just the cliff’s notes down here somewhere…” He couldn’t find them.

 

“Well, basically,” Jim assisted, “I think I’m being stalked.” A cat jumped up onto the desk, cutting Jim short and producing a startled jolt in his torso, arms halfway raised almost as if to shield his face from a projectile. The cat sat up, purring. Staring a hole in Jim.

 

“Never mind him,” Zion said, grinning halfway. “Office cat,” he said, reaching down into his desk drawer and taking a small saucer out. Placed in front of him, the cat stooped down and began lapping up some warm milk.

 

Jim strained to concentrate, the cat’s sandpapery tongue lapping up warm milk, intermittently glancing up at him…knowingly. Jim did his best to gather his thoughts and explain the situation halfway as succinctly as he’d already explained it to the cat. And to do so in a way that wouldn’t make him look like a complete lunatic. Fortunately, in questioning his agent about the booking that night in Richmond, Jim had come up with a somewhat grounded lead. Something that both seemed right and might at once lend a bit of verisimilitude to his story. The show that’d ended up in Jim fleeing in a mad dash through the avenues and alleyways of downtown had in fact been booked for John Lewis that particular night by what had been relayed to Jim as a new agent. Someone he hadn’t heard of in the nightclub circuit before. A ‘Sam Vest’. Vest Booking and PR. Jim had known Lewis’s agent for years. He’d talked to him only days prior. There had been no mention of Lewis jumping ship. As a matter of fact, when asked offhand how that insufferable bastard John Lewis was performing, the man had said ‘fine. Just fine.’ And that he’d even renewed his contract little more than six months beforehand. “The problem is,” Jim explained—now well into his story and doing not too badly at appearing sane—“I looked this…this Sam Vest up. No such guy. He doesn’t exist.”

 

The lawyer looked uninterested. “Doesn’t exist.”

 

“No.” Jim fished around in his pants pocket and pulled out a dog-eared piece of paper, folded in quarters. Unfolding it, pressing it flat against the desk and rotating it 180 degrees to face Zion, he continued, “here. It’s a flyer.”

 

“Vest Munitions,” Zion read outloud.

 

“I dug deeper. My agent called around. She used to do that sort of work.”

 

“What sort?” Zion asked, sliding the flyer back in Jim’s direction.

 

“Investigating. Private. Not like Sam Spade or anything, but more of a desk job. Like a…what’s the word…researcher. But conducting background checks, skip-tracing, things like that. She found this ‘Vest’ name comes back to a shuttered gun and ammo shop in the mountains. Roanoke. The place has been closed for just inside of a year. But the phone number’s still in service. She called. Machine answered. Place closed nearly a year ago…I called then…same thing, a machine. The voice on it. It’s hollow…” Jim trailed off, caught off guard by a sideways glare from the cat. Its emerald eyes glinting briefly, catching the light off the banker’s lamp positioned haphazardly on the corner of the desk.

 

“You mentioned something about loss of wages,” the lawyer said flatly. “Is this related? So far, what you have is a criminal matter. Now, stalking is a hard crime to prove, I know. I’ve had civil cases that included stalking among other causes of action, sure, but you may want to be sure you’ve exhausted your criminal prosecution options before going down that road. Have you visited a magistrate?”

 

“I’m not looking to press charges. Not yet. First I need to find out who this ‘Vest’ guy really is. That flyer appeared in my mailbox the other day. Just the day after I called that closed up gun shop.”

 

“You think you’re being tracked. Why?” Zion asked the question despite having the sense not to. So far, this was not a case. “More importantly,” he added, leaning forward, “what exactly is it I can do for you, keeping in mind a detective does a detective’s work, an attorney does an attorney’s work.”

 

After a pregnant pause, Jim answered. “…Did you ever have a really, really vivid dream, Mr. Zion?” Zion hesitated. Unsure what territory he was headed into. Professionally, the consultation was now well over and done with. On another level, however, something goaded him, begging him follow. He did. Furtively.

 

“I did.”

 

“Well,” Jim Spleen said, leaning in close, “so did I. A dream so vivid that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was something…” he paused, staring off into the diplomas hung at slight angles on the wall behind Zion. “…it was something else.”

 

“Go on…” Zion said, slowly.

 

The Cat had finished its saucer of milk. Licking its chops, Zion reclined in his leather chair, fingers tented. Jim continued. Both men were now venturing into a foreign land…