That gentleman over there doesn’t realize that although he may have his thumb and not his index finger up his nose, he’s still—even if in a somewhat more socially acceptable manner—picking it.
She said, “You should write about this.”
“Huh?” I said. “I looked over from my seat at the kitchen table, where I had been scribbling away on my pad while drinking coffee.”
She held the pencil out to me, twirling it back and forth with its sharpened point, proud of her quick work with the battery-operated small plastic pencil sharpener she’d bought at the dollar store that day. In front of her on the table, sitting next to her mug of tea, was the folded pages of the newspaper open to the daily crossword puzzle.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“You’re always writing stories, right?”
“So why not the psychology of the sharpened pencil?”
“Ma, I still don’t get it.”
“What’s there not to get? And besides, has that ever stopped you before? I don’t get even half but maybe more honestly like 20 percent of what you write about anyway.”
“That’s a first,” I said.
“What about that piece with the mosquito?”
“What about it?”
“That’s what I’m saying. W-T-F?”
“What the fuck?”
“Yeah, I know what it means, Ma, but what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you should write a story that has for its main protagonist a sharpened pencil. It makes as much sense as anything else you’ve ever written.”
“But what would happen?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The pencil could be a smart pencil.”
“They already have those,” I said. “Pencils or pens with computer chips.”
“Whatever,” she said. “I mean a pencil with a brain. Or maybe the pencil is like the writer’s unconscious. And it could be trying to help the woman solve the necessary clues of her crossword before her son in another one of his so-called psychotic episodes approaches from behind her chair with a carving knife.” She paused to look down at the crossword. “Like this clue here,” she said. “What is the six-letter word that ends the story?”
I took this opportunity when she looked down to go over to the counter for a carving knife. ”MURDER,” I said from behind her chair.
“Gerald!” she gasped and simultaneously reached for her heart. “You startled me. What are you doing?”
I bent over to whisper into her ear, “Murder. That’s what you’re looking for.”
“What?! Sit back down. Don’t be childish!”
“M-U-R-D-E-R,” I spelled out for her, just to be clear, and tapped the knife against the crossword. “The six-letter word that ends the story.”
The coffee drink of the day is the called the Dilator. The corporate slogan when launching the drink? “It opens you right up.” Some people have taken offense, naturally, especially the Mother Advocates for Protecting Our Youth Against the Pubic Region Pointing Contest of the Constant Public Relation Coup Responsible for Dumbing Down of America (MAPOYAPRPCCPRCRDDA, for short).
The advocacy group pickets the front of the store. Their leader, a lumpy woman with a grayish bob, yells through a megaphone that we shouldn’t be able to order such things in the presence of”—she points at the children in the crowd and spells out, “C-I-L-. Oops. I mean, C-I-H-L—”
“Do you mean to spell,” I yell back with a megaphone of my own, kept for occasions like these, in the trunk of my car, “C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N?”
“Yes, that,” she yells through her megaphone, no matter that the children in the crowd are between the ages of ten and sixteen, and can hopefully spell. ”C-I-H. Goddamnit,” she says, sending a shrill of feedback through her megaphone. She starts again. “We shouldn’t publicly call out anything that has anything at all to do with D-O-W-N-T-H-E-R-E. Especially when the D-O-W-N-T-H-E-R-E is associated with the delivering of B-A-B-I-E-S.”
“A dilator doesn’t have to do just with D-O-W-N-T-H-E-R-E,” I yell back. “There’s pupillary dilation, for instance. Dilation is simply the opposite of contraction. It comes from the latin dilatare, ‘to widen.’”
“Um,” she says, and again with that feedback as she pulls the trigger of her megaphone but does not, at least for a moment, go on. Meanwhile, exhausted as they are by the day’s activities, the children have lumbered into the store on their anywhere from relatively obese to much more morbidly so frames, to order, every last one of them, extra large Golden Vaginas, topped with whipped cream and mocha cookie crumble.
Five members of the Taliban come into the coffee shop where I’m working as a barista to order twelve grande Jihads with whipped cream and extra caramel. They have a coupon.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “This coupon is expired.” I hold two beats and smile. “Just joking. Hot or cold?” I ask them.
“Hot,” they say.
The hot Jihad comes in a flaming cup. The Taliban laugh when seeing them being made and ask for stoppers. They have a long way to go, the most leader of these Taliban leaders says to me. “And we wouldn’t want to inadvertently spill any on our burqas.”
“Nor would you want to get any of that fiery syrup in your beards,” I say. “Ha, ha!”
They look at one another, raise their UZI’s at me across the register, wait two beats and say, “Bam.” And then laugh. “Ha, ha, ha. You very funny American. We keep you around. Very very funny American.” They ask for a couple of those cardboard drink holders and head for the others waiting for them from the backs of the jeeps in the parking lot, all of them whooping and shooting up the sky as they roar down the road.
I should probably make it clear up front that I am not in my right mind, which I quite understand compromises the credibility of what I’m about to say. Without going into the history of my minor and somewhat more major psychotic episodes, my psychiatrist, unsure how finally to help me without restraint and forced intravenous medication, suggested as a last resort that I get a plant.
I went to the nursery one Saturday afternoon and picked up a rather nondescript plant with a picture of what its beautiful prickly red flowers for two months of blooming time in late spring would look like. The cashier said, “Are you sure you want this one?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and took his barcode gun to the barcode sticker stuck to the side of the green plastic planter until it beeped. When handing me my credit card receipt to sign, he said, ”Be careful.”
“Be careful of what?” I said.
“I’ve heard about these plants. They can be very aggressive.”
Somewhere between the nursery, the parking lot, my car and home, I lost the plastic plant tag with the plant’s name and the picture of its red prickly flowers, so that I couldn’t remember what it was called. I knew nothing about it except that it lived, and that was all that mattered.
“The plant lives; I live.” That was the deal I made. The plant doesn’t go crazy, is what I more than likely meant, and neither do I. It was a deal I was making with my unconscious with no guarantee, of course, that it would hold up to its end of the bargain. But whatever the case, the plant didn’t die. I lived. And I didn’t go crazy. Or not overly so.
The problem was that around this time, or shortly after bringing the plant into my home, and into my master bedroom, where I set it up on the bureau across from my bed, my girlfriend decided to move in with me. She found the plant bothersome. She was tired of dusting its long, leathery leaves. She wanted me to get rid of it. She told me at breakfast one morning that she was allergic to those types of plants.
“What type is it?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m allergic to all types of plants.”
“But I made a very specific deal with that plant. It’s life is in my charge, as is my own mental health.”
“I don’t care,” my girlfriend said.
“You don’t care about my mental health?”
“I don’t even know what that means,” she said.
My girlfriend was suspicious of my close relationship with the plant, but she basically dealt with it, until one day while making the bed, she found some potting soil between the sheets and, even, one petal from the red prickly flower. When I came into the bedroom from the bathroom where I had been taking a shower, I found her packing her things in teary madness.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“It’s either me or the plant,” she said through her tears.
“Stay,” I longed to say to her, but when I opened my mouth, it came out, “Stamen.”
After she left, during the many days and nights that I lay in bed without energy enough to kill myself, I forgot about the plant until one night I dreamt that I was greeting the queen of a distant country. “Take off my white glove,” this queen said to me when I bowed before her. I took the lady’s hand into my mouth to pull off the glove and then swallowed the glove until I began to choke. I woke up with one of the plant’s dried leaves lodged in my throat.
I pulled it out, coughed until I caught my breath, and yelled at the plant sitting over on the bureau, “You are the cause of my unhappiness!”
The plant looked sad and wilty.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I went to pet its dried leaves and feed it a spoonful of fish fertilizer. It responded very well to this, of course, but I realized then that I couldn’t take care of this plant. The plant’s many needs were much too overwhelming for me.
I set it in my backyard and wished it well. I told it to send me out some pollen next spring to let me know that it was safe and had found a new home. But it stayed right where I put it. It had grown attached, I guess, and because of the rainy weather over the next several weeks, it thrived, spread itself, overtook my beds, seeded the front lawn and began growing on the roof. One day I opened the blinds in the living room to see nothing but the inside of the leaves, with a little light coming through.
The neighbors complained and called the pest control with their spray guns of toxic weed killer, yelling at me through a megaphone to step out of the house. When I came out dressed in my bumblebee pajamas, I said, “First of all, this plant is not a weed and second of all, you can’t kill it. You kill the plant and you kill me, for obviously reasons. I live there. I live inside that plant.” I pointed back to the carpel, as I’ve since learned to call it, surrounding my front door, inside which was the stigma, style. Farther back, inside the house, in the center of the kitchen, the ovary. Surrounding the house were the stamen, swinging slightly in the breeze, calling to me somewhat sexually.
“Now if you don’t mind,” I said. “If you all are done here, I have some important business to attend to.”
The coffee drink of the day is called the Prophet. To help launch the new Prophet drink, which has caramel in it, as best as we can tell, with milk and espresso, whipped cream, and a few other essential ingredients, a man—apparently “the prophet,” sent in from corporate, dressed in a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo from the coffee shop—gets up on a crate at the front of the long line and says, “My, God, what is she doing?” He’s pointing at a young woman reading a book at one of the round tables.
“Where is her power cord, her trackpad? Don’t you just want to swish her away? A book? Really? What next, her collection of compact discs? Huh? Am I right?”
A couple of those standing near the pastry case look up from their smart phones and say, “What is he talking about?”
“He’s talking about the truth,” some of the early converts around us are already saying. ”Obviously this drink is very forward-looking.”
“Look at her!” the prophet continues. “Just look at her!”
We look at her. She seems to be really into her book. She doesn’t even know that we’re talking about her. She’s a young woman, plain-looking, a ginger, with the tip of her nose burned red.
“Don’t you see?” the prophet says. “A book first and then what? A Walkman AM/FM cassette player? A cabinet radio the size of a piano?”
“Or one of those old school phones,” one of the customers yells out. “The kind where you have to spin the numbers!” The people cheer.
“Yes!” the prophet says. “A rotary phone, and then what?”
“Her grandma’s cinnamon rolls,” I yell out only half-jokingly, but they like that. They think I’m being serious. They cheer for me, too. And then I get to the front of the line and order a Prophet.
“Thank you, brother,” the prophet says, shaking my hand between both of his. “You won’t regret it.”
“What size do you want?” the barista says.
“Large. Make it a large Prophet. Without whip,” I say, and the barista says, “Do you want whip with that?” Again I say, “Without whip,” and she says, “Okay, so you don’t want whip with that. Is that correct?”