by June Freeman Baswell
Write it down. That’s what the guy on TV said. Write it down and you can work your way through it.
I saw him while I was flipping through the channels, trying to find an answer. Or the right question. That psycho doctor, well, I’ll call him Bill. Not that he was a psycho, though he did seem a little screwy; a few leaves short of a tree. He treated psychos.
I imagine, though, if you treat enough nuts, your own fringe might become a little frayed. Just imagine talking to them every day; absorbing all that pain; wading through limitless swamps of bitterness, despair, and delusion.
The ones who hear voices; those must be the hardest, the ones who have a demon or an angel or whatever perched on their shoulder, whispering in their ear. Or, maybe, it’s the ones who don’t hear voices; at least they think they don’t. But they do and they just don’t realize it.
People fool themselves all the time. Sometimes, to be fair, they have to fool themselves just to get out of bed in the morning. Giving themselves a little pep talk—that’s what they call it. Today won’t be like yesterday. Today the road will be smooth; no bumps, no detours, straight down the pike. Hit the gas and leave yesterday behind. Fast forward to tomorrow; tomorrow when everything will be perfect; when everything will fall into place.
The pure fact is we just can’t go fast enough to out-distance yesterday. We’re the sum of our yesterdays and, and no matter how we keep adding them up to come out different, to come out right, they never do.
Write it down, that’s what Dr. Bill said. When I heard that, to tell you the truth—and I would never lie to you except for your own good—I thought it was the biggest load of BS to come down the pike since a certain President held up a banner proclaiming victory in the War in Iraq. But what did I have to lose?
Write. Write from the inside out. Start with what’s around you in the moment, in the now. Describe it, feel it, taste it. Work your way in, layer by layer, to the core: to the subconscious where you’ll find out, if you dare, what you’re really thinking; what you’re really feeling. When you do, maybe you’ll know where you’ve been, where you are, and why.
I’m doing it, Doc, I’m doing it. And I hope that when I get through, I won’t just want to be numb all the time. It’s the poor man’s psychoanalysis—writing. All you need is a few sheets of paper and a pen. Or a pencil. Or a fingernail file to scratch words on a restroom wall. Or a can of spray paint and the blank side of a boxcar. Anything that can be filled. Or defaced. It’s a matter of perception.
A long time ago there used to a TV show called “I am a Camera”. They had catchy names for things a million years ago. It was about a photographer, I think. Or, maybe, it was about a spy. I can’t remember. I am going to be a camera; just record and nothing more. That’s where to begin. Objective. Here and now.
I’m an elderly—call it senior if you want to: I can’t stop you—white female, sitting at a bare wooden table, a cup of coffee to the side, a notebook in front of me, and a Papermate retractable in my hand. I’m alone. Most of my life, I’ve been alone. Even in crowds, I’m alone. Am I sorry for myself? Maybe. But, after so many years, you begin to like solitude. It tends to make you weird, but you like it. You begin to crave it, like that first jolt of caffeine in the morning.
I remember when I was nine or so. That was the year before the stock market crash and we were—
Yes. I know that’s the past. I’m not stupid. God, you’re such a tyrant, Dr. Bill. I knew that the first time I saw your face. Okay. Have it your way.
In the now, I’m sitting here writing in this stupid notebook. And I’m alone. Well, not exactly alone. No human company anyway. Haven’t seen anyone human since that old man delivered my meal, or rather meals, two days ago. They do that for the weekend. He was so thin and frail looking, somebody should have been delivering his meals to him. Anyway, the cat’s here, curled up as close to the electric space heater as he can get without burning his whiskers off.
Does the cat have a name? You ask.
Of course, the cat has a name. His name is Cat.
Not very imaginative, you say? No, I guess not. But I can call him anything I want to; even dog, or fish. He’s my cat, not yours. He won’t come, whatever you call him.
How do I feel about that? About the fact that he won’t come except when he wants food? Because he’ll run by heaven at the sound of the can opener. I guess the can opener knows his true name. Click-whirr it must be. It’s an electric can opener. Unbridled admiration—that’s what I feel.
Describe him? Why should you care what he looks like? Okay, okay. A head, two pointed ears, a body, four paws, and a tail.
Not good enough? How did I know it wouldn’t be? Maybe it’s that Southern drawl you have, doctor. The whole lot of you Southerners think you’re William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.
He’s what the Brits call a ginger cat. He’s tiny with ginger to spare; more attitude than Garfield and a walk like Jimmy Cagney’s. Little tough guy. I’m not going to tell you under any circumstances what he tastes like—never tasted him—but he smells like deep woods and clean air.
Describe the table? Really? It’s a table. You know, four legs and a top. Some things are just things; they have no other significance. It’s wood, tiger maple; joined together so you don’t see a seam; waxed to a mirror finish. It’s very beautiful. Eddie made it when he was… I can’t talk about that. I won’t talk about that.
Dead? Of course, he’s not dead. Just as alive as I am. More alive. This table, I imagine, is more alive; all those invisible atoms whirling around inside it; all those protons and electrons banging into each other.
Which am I more like, a proton or an electron?
What kind of a question is that? Electron, I guess. Electrons have a negative charge, don’t they? Electrons. Electric. No, that sounds much too energetic. Neutron? Yes, that’s more fitting. A neutron bomb. That’s the one that destroys all the people and leaves the empty buildings standing. I am an empty building with all the windows blown out. I am a city of one.
Brrr. It’s getting cold in here, don’t you think, Dr. Bill? My electric heater, the new one that resembles a miniature radiator, looks like it’s gone out. It must have flipped the breaker switch again. Bear with me, Doc. I can’t write, you know, with my fingers frozen. I’ll have to go out and fix it. So, for now, we’ll just talk. Okay?
I wish whoever replaced my breaker box with this one hadn’t done it; this one cuts off at the drop of a hat. Probably Eddie switched it out before he left. I wouldn’t put it past him. Whoever thought of putting it outside to start with is not my favorite person either. Get back, Cat; you don’t want to go out in this. Get your paws frozen. I’m just going to leave the door ajar a little.
Job’s hat and raincoat, but it’s cold out here! Must be in the twenties. Two inches of snow on the ground and the clouds threatening more. The whole blooming town will be locked down tight. I should have stayed in Florida, but I wanted seasons again. I thought. South Carolina has seasons. And Eddie is here. Was here. He came up from Florida with me. And at first… but you don’t want to hear about the past, right, Dr. Bill?
You do? Well, you’ll have to hold on a minute while I wrestle with this breaker box. Yeah, you got to bang on it on this end a little to close it. Didn’t ever have to do that with the old one. There. Done. Now to get back inside. Have to watch myself. Not as steady as I used to be. But who is? Go slowly. You wouldn’t think it would be—
—so slippery. Snow here always starts with ice. I forget that sometimes. Flat on my back now in the stuff. It knocked the breath out of me for a while there, Doc. Funny. It seems so much darker than it was. And somehow lighter, too. The snow is falling thick now and has taken the light from the sky. All the light in the world is stored in these crystals of ice, not one alike. All the light; all the answers, and all the questions, too, locked inside. So beautiful.
The snow is a down comforter, covering me. It would be so easy to stay here; to stay here and sleep. I could just drift away.
But, I have to finish what I started, don’t I, Dr. Bill? And there’s Cat, too, waiting inside. He was a stray, you know. I found him on a day like this, crouched in that holly bush over there under the kitchen window, shivering. He looked like the loneliest creature in the world. Eddie and I took him in, dried him off, and gave him the tuna we were planning to eat for supper.
That was back before Eddie left. Before he told me he’d had as much as he could stand. What was there to stand? That’s what I want to know. Said he wasn’t going to die for me. Well did I ask him, did I ever ask him, to do that? He just wanted to control me, like everybody else. That’s what they all want.
And I wasn’t having it. Just like Cat won’t have it. He’ll come when he wants to, not when anybody else says. He won’t sit, he won’t fetch, he won’t roll over, and he won’t beg.
Yes, you’re right, Doctor Bill. That’s what I admire about him. That’s exactly it. Funny, I never liked cats before Cat. Maybe that’s because the ones we had around when I was a child were barn cats. They were there for only one reason—to keep out rats. They say petting a cat calms you. Stroking a barn cat, believe me, never lowered anyone’s blood pressure.
Cat will let you stroke him, sometimes, when he feels like it. He’s in there now, probably getting hungry. Not missing me; I don’t fool myself on that score, just hungry. He needs me—the only thing in the world that does.
I brush the white blanket off my legs and stretch them. Wet, but nothing broken. It’s almost as hard to leave it as it was to leave my bed on winter mornings in the year before the Depression hit. Not that we had it much better before than after; church mice were rich compared to the thirteen of us. Would have been fifteen if Ma’s oldest two had lived. We slept stacked like cordwood; a room for the boys, a room for the girls, and one for Pa and Ma. It was bitter cold in the winter then, even in the South. Or maybe it was just a bitter time. Maybe it seemed icy even when it wasn’t.
Somebody had to get the woodstove started and I was the oldest girl. It was Raymond’s job to get up and get the wood in from the shed, even though he wasn’t even close to the oldest of the boys. I can see him come in, stamping his feet free of frost, and dumping the logs in the wood box. He was a handsome thing, my brother. Two years older than me. What a waste; killed on a tiny island in the Pacific; killed a week after the war was over.
By sixteen I’d had enough of taking care of children and the endless work that didn’t seem to make anything any better. I’d also had enough of “Uncle” John fooling with me. I wanted something better. I left. And I didn’t go back.
I hoist myself to my knees and rest a bit; then push myself up the rest of the way, like a marionette with half the strings put on wrong. I must look ridiculous, but there’s no one here to see. No one. My apologies, Dr. Bill, but you’re not real you know. You’re just another voice in my head, like all the others. Don’t you think I know that?
Hands sliding against the brick wall, I reach the door. A shallow drift of snow has found its way inside. Cat, who could have run for it, hasn’t. I guess he had enough of freedom as a stray: freedom to be cold and hungry and alone. He’s at my feet, looking up at me, meowing. It must be past dinnertime. How long was I out there? I nudge him back from the door and shut it. Leaning against it, I stand still for a minute, getting my bearings.
Cat yowls now, insistent, relentless, like a baby crying for its bottle.
“Okay, okay, you refugee from the alleys, I’m working on it.”
I’ve just put his tuna on the table—it’s hard to bend all the way to the floor anymore—when the phone rings. It’s Eddie. Yeah, he still calls me, once in a long while. I guess that’s not going to kill him where living with me would.
“It’s snowing,” says Eddie.
“Some people have lost their electricity. You still got yours?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just going to make another pot of coffee. You get your white bread and sweet milk?”
He laughs, an awkward laugh that doesn’t fool me any. Ella’s behind this. Ella, my daughter. She never calls me herself. She gets Eddie to do it. “You mean the necessities? I sure did. If you drink too much coffee, you’ll be up all night.”
“Well, it won’t trouble anyone but me.”
There’s a real long silence after this.
“Got enough to eat in the house?” Eddie finally manages.
“Plenty. Meals on Wheels was just by.”
“Good. If you lose your power, you call me, you hear?”
“Sure. Sure I will.”
We both know I won’t. We say a couple of things not worth recording, say good-bye, and hang up. He’s relieved that he won’t have to deal with me tonight, but he’ll be the one to call again, not me.
If the power fails; if I can’t get the breaker to switch back on, I’ll take Cat in the bedroom and we’ll hunker down under several blankets and quilts. We’ll ride it out. If we can’t make it, cold is not the worst way to die. There’s no pain like there is with fire. I hear freezing to death is just like going to sleep, and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a long time, Dr. Bill.
June Freeman Baswell attended Furman University in Greenville, SC, where she majored in art and fell in love with William Shakespeare. Over the years, he has been joined by many other writers, but never supplanted. Currently Ms. Baswell is a contributing member of Thema, a literary journal which has published three of her short stories. Born in South Carolina, she lives and works there, which probably explains everything.
The title pulled me into the story. I appreciate the nod to Robert Frost’s poem, Fire and Ice.
“To say that for destruction ice/ is also great/ and would suffice.”