Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Cat Man (a very late project)

IN MY NEXT BOOK I planned to expand on infinity. My last book on time travel had touched on the concept, but I hadn’t elaborated because of the tediousness of the subject. I laughed to myself: expand on infinity. What a contradiction in terms. Infinity just goes on and on and becomes boring even to someone like me.I had been writing on these and other related subjects for the past five years now in my parent’s basement, where I lived. The shelves lining the walls were stacked with books on all sorts of subjects — none of them fiction. My mother brought me down all my meals and took away the scarcely touched plates of food. I’d hear her clucks of displeasure, but by now she knew better than to admonish me. As long as I took my medications — the large white pill each evening, the tiny blue pill each morning, and the three yellow and white gelatin capsules that contained hundreds of tiny beads of compacted atoms full of chemicals that controlled my wildly gyrating brain synapses — as long as I took them she’d leave me be. I needed to go to the library today. I briefly considered bathing, but knew I couldn’t do it. Let everyone wrinkle their noses. I would ignore them. Hercules was on my lap, purring. I stroked his arching back with the palm of my hand and the pleasant scent of tomcat rose to my nostrils. I knew my mother didn’t like all these cats in the basement, but she rarely spoke to me anymore. Father hadn’t spoken to me for two years, ever since I tore his newspaper to shreds and then set fire to it. He agreed to leave me alone and I agreed to increase my medication, as Dr. Gamble suggested. I trusted her more than anyone else. Dr. Gamble seemed to have my best interests at heart and understood about the voices I heard. She had never heard voices of her own, she said, but did know others who had. She thought she could help and wanted me to take my therapy a step further, but I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. A thump overhead startled me and I jumped. A rain of fine dust fell from the cracks in the unfinished ceiling. Just because my father didn’t talk to me didn’t mean I never heard from him. I brushed the dust from my shoulders and the top of my head. I knew I would be seeing the young assistant librarian today and I wanted to look better than usual. I thought today I might dare look in the mirror on the wall. I stood up and walked over to the door where the small, square mirror hung, shrouded with a piece of light blue flannel. I reached out for the soft fabric, but before I removed it I closed my eyes. Sometimes I saw people looking over my shoulder. There were two people I consistently saw. One was an old woman with a wrinkled face and long wispy gray hair. The other person, who I had seen since I was very young — I was now 45 — was a wild-eyed guy with long unkempt hair. He had a beard and mustache and rotten teeth. He scared me; not just with his looks but by the things he would whisper over my shoulder and into my ear. I held the fabric up to my closed eyes. I would lower it slowly and could pull it up if I saw him. The old lady I didn’t mind. All she did was smile and shake a long crooked finger at me. Carefully I opened one eye. I saw no one but myself — a man with a thin face, clean-shaven, bald head and ears that stuck out. “Like a cab coming down the street with both doors open” my father had once said. I guessed he was right. I shrugged and covered the mirror. Just as I reached for my black knitted cap I heard the front door slam. I glanced at my watch. Just like clockwork my father was off for his chess game with Herman, the next door neighbor my mother suspected of having killed his wife. It never occurred to her that women might leave their husbands. “Just like that ... she’s gone?” my mother asked endlessly. “Just like that with no word?” My father ignored her. She thought Herman had buried his wife in their back yard. She had composed endless notes to the police about this, but inevitably threw them away. It was nice she had a hobby. I had seen his wife, Lydia, a time or two in my travels about town. She shopped at the little grocery store near the downtown library. Lydia hadn’t spoken to me, but I knew she recognized me. She’d been a little frightened of me ever since I’d knocked on her door to borrow tin foil to make myself a suit. It was something the wild man in the mirror had suggested. I didn’t realize I was naked until she started screaming and her husband, Herman, came to the door. As I put on my jacket I thought about the beautiful assistant librarian and took out a cherry flavored Chapstick and applied some to my lips. I hoped one day to kiss her, but first I would have to talk to her. She had long, thick, dark hair and wore glasses that magnified her eyes to the size of quarters. In the light from the library window, you could see brown and gold flecks in her irises. Her eyes watered a lot and I often watched her remove the glasses and wipe her eyes with a rose-embroidered handkerchief she kept tucked in her skirt band. When she blew her small nose it sounded a little like a muted cornet. Her name was Allison. I had heard the older woman at the large wooden desk call her that. The older woman’s desk had a brass nameplate on it that read “Miss Pinchley.” She looked as if she existed on nothing but dry, dusty library air and never ate or shat, wished or dreamed, loved or desired. The dreary woman seemed to live only to boss Allison around. “Allison, have you done this? Allison, have you done that?” Her nasal voice droned on and I had seen the young assistant roll her eyes plenty of times. Once she caught me watching her and giggled. Mrs. Pinchely, irritated, asked “What?” Allison turned red and said, “Nothing.” I was always careful to follow the exact same route every time I went to the library. So far I had been lucky and never encountered a loose dog running through the streets. The smell of cats on my clothes always seemed to attract them. Dogs frightened me. I glanced down and noticed cat hair covering my slacks. I should have brushed my pants but perhaps Allison wouldn’t notice. I, myself, noticed a lot of things on the way to the library. I saw a short, old woman in a red bandanna pulling a little cart on small wheels — one hand behind her as the other gripped a black plastic purse tightly to her side. She must have been going shopping, Two young women walked by and one said, “I try to stay away, or limit my time, when my mother-in-law or sister-in-law are nagging at Bobby to get a job.” Her words echoed in my head for a full block before I could let them go. I saw two men, both shorter than me, on the corner of Fourth and Madison, having a conversation. They were speaking a foreign language and the one in the orange suit gestured wildly. He was very excited. There were two small children, hand in hand, a boy and a girl, both carrying sticks, following a man in a top hat and a woman in a fur coat. The woman stopped, turned around and her red slash of a mouth opened to reveal even white teeth. “Put down those sticks before you poke an eye out!” Her voice was so shrill I put my hands up to cover my ears. She turned away after the children dropped their sticks and hurried after the man, who hadn’t even paused. As soon as she turned away the children ran back and grabbed their sticks, then hurried to catch up. They poked at each other’s heavy black knee-length coats, pretending they were daggers. It was cold today. A few leaves clung to the broad oak trees on the edge of the park’s boundaries. I both loved and hated this park. Mother used to bring me here to play on the swings and slide. That was fun. But this was also where I first heard the voice that told me to hurt myself. I was on the swing in the center. A girl in a pinafore, with scabby knees, swung on my right and another girl in shorts was on my left. I saw her pink socks and brown and white saddle shoes flash by from the corner of my eye. The sun was shining straight overhead in the blue July sky. It shown down and something in the sawdust glittered. Mother was behind me, sitting on a bench, and I looked back to shout, “I’m going high!” I kept seeing the glitter and it fascinated me. I dragged my feet to slow myself down. The girls had left the swings and were on the pavement with a jump rope. I walked over to where I had last seen the glint of light and dug through the sawdust. I could hear the girls shriek and then the rhythmic slap on the pavement and their sing-song chorus as they skipped. I saw a flash of light again and found it. It was a broken piece of a mirror. I held it up and tilted it, trying to catch the sun’s rays. I looked into the mirror fragment at my 8-year-old face, my almond-shaped eyes clear, fringed with heavy dark eyelashes. It was then I heard the voice. “Look at the sharp edges.” I jumped, dropping the glass, and looked around. The voice was so close but no one was near. Mother still sat on the bench, dozing, a newspaper on her chest. I found the fragment again and looked in the bit of mirror and this time I saw a mouth, but it wasn’t mine. The lips moved and the voice said again, “Look how sharp.” I stared at the piece of glass transfixed. I could not take my eyes off it. There was one exceptionally sharp point. I heard a scratching sound like the tines of a rake through dry leaves. My eyes traveled down my hand to the base of my thumb and the pale white inside my wrist. I took the glass in my left hand and drew it across my right wrist and watched a dark red line appear. I did it again and then again. I heard screaming from far away. “Oh, my god, oh, my god! What are you doing? Johnny, what are you doing?” I looked up into the tall trees and blue sky and then it was a red sky and then I was home. Mother was so frightened she bandaged my wrist herself and fixed me buttered pieces of toast that floated in a bowl full of hot milk. She treated me as if I were sick and even though it was a hot day I couldn’t get warm and was glad to drink it. When father came home from work, I heard mother tell him she had carried me all the way from the park. He insisted she take me to the doctor, but she refused. She pushed him out my bedroom door and they both stood in the hallway. She closed my door but I could hear what they said. “Marie, what in god’s name are you thinking? What are you thinking still? Not to take him to the doctor? What kind of care is this?” “Jules, I knew you would say this. Just think for a moment. Think! What do you suppose the doctor would do, a boy cuts himself like that? Or god forbid, thinks I cut him — or you! No, this is not some playground accident that will be explained away. No, no, there is no way to explain this.” You’re right, mother. This time you’re right, I thought. I was near the library now and paused to glance into a window. I had good luck with windows. I rarely saw anyone that should not be there. I adjusted my hat and turned the collar of my jacket down. I wanted to look nice for Allison. The crunch of leaves under my feet made me feel good. Or maybe it was the thought of seeing her. I didn’t know, except I rarely felt this way unless it was when I watched wrestling on television. There was something exciting about the outfits the wrestlers wore; the way they wore their hair long or shaved their heads, or the makeup they painted on their faces and the people in the crowd jeering and cheering. The people carried signs and jumped up and down. The whole place must smell like a zoo. The odor almost came through on the small black and white television screen. My favorite wrestler was Loud Proud Charlie. He wore pink satin shorts, purple tights and a purple cape trimmed with glistening spangles. His blond hair was long and I envied it. It was my genetic misfortune, however, to have inherited my grandfather’s baldness. Photographs of him were just another version of me. The people around me hurried on as I paused outside the library. Someone bumped into me and it startled me. The guy rushed on without an “excuse me” or a backward glance. I didn’t like others to touch me and I mechanically checked all my belongings: wallet, inside jacket pocket, good; notebook and pen, good; bag of books, good; keys in my pants pocket, good. Everything was there. I walked toward the library doors and saw two people talking inside the foyer. It was Allison and a man I didn’t know. I’d never seen him here before. Allison wore a light brown dress with a white collar and long sleeves. Her coat was over her arm. I didn’t know if she was coming or going. The man, who wore dark slacks and a raincoat reached out a hand and actually touched Allison’s elbows. My eyes lingered there on his fingers which were long and tapered. I opened the door and walked inside. Just then he bent toward her and gave her a small hug. He glanced over and saw me watching. “Well, Allison,” he said,” I’ve got to be going. I’ll see you tonight.” I stood stiffly as he left the foyer and walked out into the afternoon crowd of people. Allison looked over at me and nodded. She didn’t say anything. She turned and went into the library. I followed. I followed her past the reception desk where Mrs. Pinchley frowned. I followed her past the children’s reading area and the computer center. I watched as the backs of her sensible shoes rose up and fell down along the pale delicate backs of her heels. Her skirt brushed her calves and the hem swayed with the movement of her hips. She stopped so suddenly I almost ran into her. She turned around, shocked to see me there. “You can’t come in here,” she whispered. I looked up and saw the sign on the door said Women. “I knew that,” I said. I heard a giggle from somewhere and retraced my steps to the front of the library and the circulation desk without looking up. My face glowed bright red as I stood there. Mrs. Dominguez, the circulation clerk, looked at me closely. “You look flushed, Johnny. You coming down with something? I hope not.” She never waited for a reply because she knew I wouldn’t speak unless it was absolutely necessary. That’s why she looked so surprised when I said, “Does Allison have a boyfriend?” Her mouth dropped open, her eyes were wide and then she started to laugh. Mrs. Pinchley glared over from across the room and issued a loud hiss in our direction. Mrs. Rodriguez stifled her laughter. “Oh, Johnny, sorry. Allison — now, this is only my own personal knowledge, mind you ... .” She leaned forward, pushing a dark curl behind one ear. “My own personal knowledge ... that girl would not know what to do with a boyfriend. Where’s your books? You got books to check in?” I reached into my bag. I had five books. Two were on professional wrestling, one on psychology, one on medications and their contraindications, and one on how to raise purebred cats. I put the books on the counter one at a time, flipping through each one, making sure all my notes and bookmarks were taken out. I looked up just as Mrs. Rodriguez finished applying a new layer of bright red goo to her ample lips. “There we go,” she said. “That’s what this circulation desk is all about. Circulation.” She pulled the stack of books toward her. “See you on the way out.” I turned away and Miss Silva came over to the desk. She leaned over the counter and I heard her whisper loudly, “So what’s so funny?” They giggled together as I walked away. Mrs. Pinchley glowered at me and hissed at the two clerks. I went to the furthest corner of the library, took out my notebook, placed it on the table, hung my coat on the back of the chair and sat down to wait for Allison. I had to wait a long time. My eyes got heavy and I laid my head down on the book I was reading. I think I might have fallen asleep for a while. I woke up with a start and a gasp. I had a bad feeling. I think I might have been dreaming. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed but I didn’t see anyone watching me. Then I heard the circulation cart squeaking down the library aisle and a thumping sound. It must be Allison, putting books back on the shelves. I got up and went over to a shelf and looked through to the other side. Suddenly her face was framed in-between the books. She hadn’t seen me yet. Quickly I hurried to sit down at the table and opened the book in front of me and pretended to be reading. She came around the end of the row of books and I looked carefully from the corner of my eye. She was searching for the space where a book should go. I stood up and straightened my jacket and walked past her. I was going to leave. I couldn’t talk to her. I licked my lips and tasted the cherry Chapstick I had put on before leaving the house. What had I been thinking? I would never kiss this girl. I would never work up the nerve. I couldn’t even talk to her. But I would have to. I stopped in my tracks and thought. What could I say to her? “Here, you’ve left behind something,” she said. I jumped and she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you, but you’ve left something behind. If you’re leaving, I mean. Maybe you’re not going.” I turned slowly and faced her, the beautiful girl with the green and gold flecks in her eyes. I licked my lips again and took a deep breath. “I’m not leaving. Just going to find a book on cats.” I raced off to the shelves where I knew the books would be. I had talked to her. I couldn’t believe it. I had said something and I hadn’t died or fainted. Things were looking up. I grabbed one of the cat books and made my way back to the table where I had been sitting but Allison was no longer in this part of the library. I looked a little further until I found her in the children’s section talking to a little girl who was wanting to find a book about fairies. “The blue fairy,” she said. “I want a book about the blue fairy. The one who turned the wooden puppet into a little boy. You know, the blue fairy!” “Oh, ‘Pinocchio!’ ” she said. “Yes, I’ll bet that’s the one you mean.” “Wait, I know where it is,” I shouted and then ran for the fairy tale books. I knew exactly where it was. I could remember where every book I’d ever read in this whole entire library was. I grabbed the book and raced back to Allison. That night when I got home I knew I wanted to see her again, not just once but many times. I realized how often I thought of her and how empty my life felt sometimes. I looked around the basement room. How frightening it was to be all alone. It was like Dr. Gamble had once said: “Your parents will not always be there. You must either learn how to live for yourself and be happy alone, or learn to share your life and be happy together with another person.” In the morning I called Dr. Gamble’s receptionist and made an appointment and this time I kept it. I was there very early in the morning and waited outside her door for nearly an hour. Finally the receptionist showed me. “John, you are very early. Is there a problem?” she asked. “No,” I replied. Somehow I found it easy to talk with her. Could it be the increase in my medication or could it be the influence of Allison? “I just want to be on time.” “Well, Dr. Gamble won’t be in for another hour, at 10, and your appointment isn’t until 2 p.m. Why not find something else to do until then?” Reluctantly I left the building, but I knew where to go. I went to the library and once again it happened that Allison was in the entryway with that same man. They were talking as I opened the door and walked in. The man was saying, “Allison, I worry about you. I know you say you like living alone but are you really sure you are up to taking care of yourself?” “Raymond, you are making me very angry asking these questions.” Her cheeks were flushed and her brow was damp. I felt sorry for Allison and stepped toward them. I said, “It’s none of my business, I know, but it doesn’t look like Allison wants to talk with you.” He turned toward me, glowered, and pointed a finger at me. “You’re right. It’s none of your business. Now I’m talking with my sister if you don’t mind.” His sister! He wasn’t a boyfriend. I smiled and went inside the library. Allison came in, went behind the desk and inside a small room. I could see her hanging up her coat and I waited. She finally came out and walked over to me. “Yes, what is it?” she asked. “Can I help you?” “Well, I heard your brother say he worried about you taking care of yourself ... .” “Oh, not you too!” she sighed, biting her lip to keep back tears. “No, wait, listen,” I said as I looked around to see if anyone was listening. Everyone was trying to. I lowered my voice and whispered, “Me, I’m working on taking care of myself too. If you ever need anyone to talk to ... I mean, I could use someone to talk to ... maybe we can both help each other while we learn how to take care of ourselves.” She looked dubious about that possibility, so I gave her my best attempt at a smile. I glanced around at everyone in the library who had frozen in time straining to hear our voices. I gestured toward the book on Greek mythology I held. “Give me 10 minutes, then come find it on the shelf,” I whispered. I hurried back to the table in the corner and began writing in my notebook. When I had finished I tore out the sheet of paper, tucked it into the mythology book and replaced it on the shelf where it belonged. I left a bit of the paper sticking out so Allison would be sure to see it. Then I left. I hurried back to Dr. Gamble’s office and made it just in time for my appointment. She had never heard me talk so much. I was tripping over my words to try and explain everything that had happened to me. To most people a day like mine would have been par for the course, but to me it had been exceptional. I had talked to Allison again, I had left her a note and told her my plans and when Dr. Gamble asked me about my voices, I realized I hadn’t heard anyone today. Not the imaginary people anyway. I was so excited that I told Dr. Gamble about Allison. “Do you think Allison returns your feelings?” she asked. “Is she interested in being your friend, do you think?” “I think she needs someone,” I replied. “I’d like to help her. But before I can help her, you have to help me, Dr. Gamble. You’ve got to make these people — especially the scary man — go away and not come back.” “If you’re not hearing the voices and you feel comfortable talking with your friend, then perhaps the medication is doing its job and they will.” I wanted to be certain, however, and began to get panicky. “Calm down, Johnny,” Dr. Gamble said. “All right, we’ll try a hypnotic exercise.” She told me to put my hands on the arm of my chair, close my eyes and concentrate on breathing. Then she told me balloons were attached to my hands and they would rise into the air and carry my hands with them. Slowly they did. I felt relaxed and safe. My hands were in the air, my eyes were closed and Dr. Gamble told me what to do when I woke up. “Imagine a door, a heavy iron door. A door so solid, so thick, so strong that nothing can get out from behind that door. Anything locked inside will always stay inside and never be able to come out. It will never harm you. It will never harm anyone.” There was more and I could picture it vividly. When I awoke from hypnosis, I felt relaxed and Dr. Gamble cautioned me to continue taking my medication in the new dosage. When I got home and went downstairs into the basement I wasn’t surprised when I saw a heavy iron door standing ajar on the other side of the room. The door hadn’t been there before. I could hear Dr. Gamble’s voice softly telling me to walk toward it. I approached the door fearfully. I tried to keep from looking inside, beyond the door. I thought I could hear breathing and a soft shuffling noise. “No! It’s your imagination!” I shouted. I reached up to my shirt pocket and found the key Dr. Gamble had given me. It was warm from the heat of my body. The metal door handle was cold in my hand as I pushed the door shut. I thrust the key into the lock on the door and turned it. There was a metal grate in the floor near my bed and I walked over to it. I held the key in the palm of my hand over the grate and looked at it. This key was powerful, but I was most powerful of all. I turned my hand over suddenly and the key fell and slipped between the bars of the grate. I heard a splashing sound far away. I turned and walked away from the door. I felt the old crone who had shaken her finger at me shrink away into a corner behind the iron door. The raggedy man tried to scream, but nothing — no sound — came from him. He beat on the door until his cries of rage turned to tears and quiet moans. Nothing like this could ever hurt me again. Now I would only be subject to the hurts everyone else got in life — and they could laugh and make fun. I could handle that. When you have known the desperate fears of the mind and been unable to control your thoughts, the small concerns of everyday life don’t matter quite so much. Even if it turned out that Allison couldn’t return my feelings in just the way I wanted, I thought I would be all right because I hadn’t felt quite this good for a long time. The door slammed upstairs and I knew my father was home. I heard my mother’s footsteps walk toward him. It was time to rejoin the land of the living, I thought, and time to tell my mother that I had seen Herman’s wife, Lydia, and no, he hadn’t murdered her and buried her in the back yard. On second thought, why spoil a perfectly good hobby? Who knew when and where she might find another one. THE END

5 comments:

Steve said...

I love the driving pace of this... so dynamic and yet with enough space to create such vivid pictures in the mind.

femminismo said...

My sweetheart!

Laura said...

Outstanding, outrageous. I love this project. I have missed you.

Nathalie Thompson said...

Worth the wait! Great story. So descriptive. It's a page turner- er, "scroller". ;) I love how all of the "commissioned" art fits the story too. Well done!

femminismo said...

Missed you guys too. I have started on an April art challenge. Doing one piece a day, and since April is poetry month, I'm also writing a haiku about each picture. So far so good, even though I posted one drawing at 11 p.m. Squeaked in under the wire.