fairly

She came at first across my feet, in the deep grass, as a snake;

A venomous serpent.

 

Instinct incited me to run,

And so I did.

 

And in doing this—by obeying my instinct—

I was not poisoned.

 

She came second across my feet, slithering over square office tile;

still a venomous serpent; now at the feet of lawyers, now dressed as a plaintive creature bearing self-inflicted wounds.

 

Instinct incited me to run,

but believing this time instead that I had the power to charm this snake,

to make it into something other than a snake; by some foolish alchemy, to change its nature and state; and further, in believing its plaintive dress and resolving to attempt to remedy its self-inflicted wounds,

I did not run.

 

And upon mesmerizing the snake successfully, believed I had in fact charmed it, worked some foolish alchemy; and made it something other than a snake.

And healed its wounds. And made it better.

And in believing all this, also believed myself a better person than I was.

And even celebrated myself, and my achievements, and thought myself ‘good’.

 

And in doing this, and upon believing myself a snake charmer and an alchemist, and a healer—I was poisoned.

 

Bitten, and poisoned. Suddenly and without warning;

foolishly, I thought to myself as it slithered away, “unfairly”.

I at once was relieved of the delusion of charming snakes, however; and of

snake charming. And of alchemy. And of healing. And, temporarily, even of my own foolishness.

…the most potent venom of all…

 

She came third, across my feet, slithering over the pavement leading to my front door; and asked to come in, dressed this time in shame, and repentance, and petitioning redemption.

 

Still, a serpent.

 

And remembering the poison it had injected previously into my vein, I was incited to stomp it—to squash its head and break its fangs off brutally against the pavement—

to empty it of its venom and twist its guts into the road with my heel.

 

But as I lifted my foot, pheromones wafted to my nose and invaded my senses. I was mesmerized, at once; a fool again, and I once more began to try charming it.

To change its nature and state. To transform and transmogrify it. To domesticate it.

And again, to heal it.

 

Some time went by, and the snake was docile; wrapped warmly around my leg and arm; coiled contently—quietly—across my chest. Finally no longer a snake, I believed;

Charmed, I’m sure.

 

And in believing this, and for being a fool, I was bitten once more;

Once more, suddenly and without warning. Though, certainly, not “unfairly”.

And I was poisoned;

And in believing I could charm this snake, or any serpent, I was expired.

Poisoned, and cold; left alone in the tall grass and on the office tile and the suburban pavement—a fool, mesmerized and poisoned, at last,

A poisoned fool with no creature or lawyer or serpent other than himself to blame for it.

 

Bitten and poisoned and passed on,

Neither rightly nor wrongly.

 

But, “fairly”.

 

 

 

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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.

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.”

 

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…