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15:33 - Friday, Dec. 03, 2004
shameless plea
So this isn't so much an entry as a shameless plea for critiques. I know I'm pushing the envelope asking for stuff when (a) it's finals week, at least here, and (b) I haven't written anything in something like two weeks. However, the writing class I'm in is fairly shitty at critiquing, given that NONE of the people in my group have touched my story yet, and the final version is due in less than a week. I am desperate for feedback that consists of more than, uh, I like it.
'It' follows (and the end is not the end, it is just unfinished):

-------------

When you try to put it into words, it comes out in pastels. It’s a perpetual-motion square-within-square-within-square, scribbled black on gray on white. It’s lopsided ninety-degree angles and those superfluous lines that stray like staticky hair along the cracks of the watercolor paper.
All outside is, you think, you sketch, is circle upon circle, square within square, of possibility. Which is terrifying. The first few layers, those shedding skins of familiarity, are slightly less so, and this is where you stay.

* * *

The first layer is 8x13. Wallpapered in abstract tree trunk strips – like, the painted kind. Sideways, the branches and flowers have a pattern that is invisible when standing upright. Swathed in animal print quilts at age seven, wide-awake eyes up past their bedtime perceived for the first time: there was a trapezoid. And a dreidel shape. And a rhombus, and a pointing index finger, and a cat’s fist. Swathed in animal print quilts, the shapes marching across and repeated up down left right looked like an army. You counted – your seven-year-old self counts – the times the figures repeat in one line, the number that can march and fit before hitting the ceiling. The next morning, on the way to the bathroom, you glanced, and you stopped, and stared, and remembered. Right side up, there is no cats-fist rhombus dreidel army, just snaking branches and flowers.
So your first layer contains your tree wallpaper.
Something safe to think about.
Amid the jungle of the army-by-night and forest-by-day, you have your cats. Like you, they are confused as to what to do with the wallpaper. Climbing it has failed to produce satisfactory results; the paper is torn from three feet all the way to the floor, but the cats, sadly, remain grounded. They yowl and tumble on the hardwood floor when they are not eating, shedding, throwing up, or sleeping. Cat behavior is soothingly predictable. Their routine, day after day, is almost a layer itself. Often, you spend hours on end combing your cats’ fur and listening to jazz; this, so static and serene, can almost be thought of as a necessity, like drinking water or sleeping.
Wallpaper, and cats, and books as well, carefully selected for their full departure from reality. Even so, in worlds of aliens and AI robots, cognizant monkeys and trees with the gift of language, a two-dimensional universe and girls in cloaks being eaten by wolves, your books contain by definition the third and fourth and hundredth layer, but only when open, and only when light, and in focus.
Third layer. The hallway. Alternately too converging and too spacious, with a dangerously placed light bulb. Five foot nine, placed in nineteen fifteen, doubtless to blind the maids. The hallway has a simple papering. Thin blue lines race diagonally from ceiling to floor, not unlike modern art. There is even a splotch of blue crayon wax from when you baby-sat your sister’s twin boys and set their playpen up against that wall.
The fourth layer is the bathroom, whose hospital-green tiles suggest a hospital or something else sterilized, gleaming, hospital-like. Nothing in there tricks the eyes and mind like the wallpaper, or suggests other layers, like the books. The bathtub with the slip-free duck mat; the sink with it’s sink-grunge spreading like the petals of flowers; the mysterious blue toothbrush, not yours, that swings from its hook, unsteadily. Nobody has lived here for years except you. The blue toothbrush stays because it is proof that something strange is going on outside your head.
And anything layerless, or beyond the first four or five, is too precarious; you may begin to find things out, terrible frightening things, like—

* * *

Your youngest cat may run away. Not on purpose. She is four months old, orange and black and white, like a piece of Halloween candy corn. To her, the world is your first few layers plus endless fascinating smells. Straw and mud to roll in. Binocular vision like yours, but red-green colorblind: she will never be able to catch the robin that dive-bombs her on the front porch. Instead, she tries to follow you to work.
Your boots crunch the leaves on the sidewalk against the underlying matrix of ice, and she follows that sound. When commuters on the sidewalk kneel to pet her, she ducks her head and darts, weaving. She runs, and her elongated leaper-legs push her hindquarters to a speed that quickly surpasses her front. They jerk to the side, and she kicks herself in the ear. Yowling, she pushes on. Six, seven blocks. Trying to chase her back only results in mewling ecstasy that you have finally, at long last, returned. Now, you can fulfill your sole purpose of dragging string with pom poms on the end and wadding up sheets of paper to throw. To her, these bouncing folds of white contain blood and meat. To her, the pom-pom has a family, and she would like to consume the whole unit.
Yet, outside, where there are real meat-and-blood balls swishing their frizzy tails and scolding from far-off branches, where there are winged five-course dinners raising dessert-babies in bushes, she chooses not to indulge, but to trot, trot, trot, blissfully oblivious, and follow you to the train station. The train station, whose five-course dinners are poison: dumpster-diving pigeons.
You are thinking of buying her one of those electronic collars that shocks her when she leaves the block. But you haven’t, not yet, and she cannot get through the station turnstiles, not legally, at least, and with a shove of your foot and a secret offering of catnip from your palm, she trot, trot, trots back in the opposite direction. The direction is vaguely correct, but only vaguely. It is Halloween, and she skids over the strewn pumpkin guts in the street as she lifts her nose in the air to sniff her way.
At work, you can think only about the possibility of having a lost cat. In Microsoft Word, you draft your posters for tree trunks, streetlights, community centers. They read
LOST: CANDY CORN KITTY.
and
REWARD
but that is all you can write, in your best calligraphy, before a tear blurs the page, and before the boss comes by and inquires as to how she can help find your lost cat. It would be too, too awkward to try and explain, so you reach inside yourself for all the remembered lost-pet stories you’ve ever heard from other grieving crazy-cat-ladies or animal shelter volunteers. The fat sleepy Maine Coon who dozed atop the garage door, escaping a sure squashing so many times that he eventually escaped for good. The newly adopted Dalmatian puppy that leaped out the window of the station wagon on his way to get his first rabies shot. The fifteen year old Persian who, after fifteen years of being completely content shedding the same winter fur on the same red armchair, wandered out the unused pet door and up into the mountains.
Your boss puts her arm around you, and, keeping it there, she types out an office wide e-mail on your computer with her other hand organizing a search party for directly after work, at five. Now, instead of being terrified your cat has run away, you are terrified that she is, at this moment, at home, purring away in her cat condo. You will have to hide her. You will be expected to provide refreshments for the searchers, and you will have to hide your ‘lost’ cat so she doesn’t beg for their punch and cookies.
This is what could happen if you leave your layers.

* * *

Or you could venture out to shop for groceries and trick-or-treater candy, and there you could run into one of those groups of organic-only nuts that protest outside of chain grocery stores. You grocery-shop on Friday afternoons, and as often as not, there are protesters in masks blocking the sliding doors. Their masks are aliens, or else grotesquely disfigured humans. The idea is they got that way from eating genetically engineered foods. The idea to you is they got that way by paying a huge sum of money at the Halloween store; the money they somehow had left over from buying their certified natural ‘n’ organic dinners at the local co-op.
You make $17,800 a year. By your calculations, buying organic would put you about $3,480 in debt each December. However, there is never any arguing with masked and disfigured activists.
“Is a little debt worse than endangering your health and your children’s health?”
“If you can’t make sacrifices for the sake of your own body, what can you sacrifice for?”
and your favorite,
“We’re not protesting your decisions – stop being so touchy. We’re opposing Safeway’s support of corporate-run mega-farms.”
Fair enough, then direct your complaint to the system, the man, the bigwigs behind the desks at Safeway, the farming industry, and the massive population that has shoved subsistence farming off the map. Raise your voice and your hands and howl to the winds of capitalism. Go on a mass assassination spree of the heads of the Department of Agriculture and make jail your sacrifice for pure foods. Better yet, find the last crumb of unpopulated land, unquestionably in Siberia, and work the dirt with your unblackened hands until there sprouts a certified organic – tomato, or carrot, or potato.
You are not intelligent enough or well-read enough to debate your way through the sliding doors, yet you are angry enough, and you do debate, and as you begin talking, another masked crony inches between you and the stack of shopping baskets. ‘Fresh meat,’ you can imagine him whispering, his lips and breath hot under his three-eyed camouflage.
Every Friday afternoon.
You want cat food, spaghetti, lemonade, chicken broth, candy for the trick-or-treaters, eggs, and cheese. And cookies for the cat-finding crew. The shrouded radicals demand the reversal of population increase. There is no other way to feed 6.5 billion people. The earth is not outfitted for it. Your mind, woefully malnourished of statistics, stretches to touch logic. The closest it comes is to yell, “MURDERERS!” as you push your way through, for all the people - the additional people - all over the world who would die immediately if all the farmers on earth switched to organic.
The protesters are not used to being called murderers, or at least not in such a forceful tone. They fall to the sides, muttering. One man’s mask slides down and off his chin. Underneath, he has a scraggly goatee and darting deep-set brown eyes. His expression is akin to that of a dog caught peeing on a favorite houseplant; embarrassment, and regret at being unmasked.
If you leave your layers, you get all political without meaning to. Even going to the store means these thousands of new questions rolling around in your brain. Thousands of questions in addition to the one about how you’re going to hide your cat, if she has returned, from the office do-gooders. You keep going back to animals, who have natural limitations on the populations. Somehow you don’t have the intuition that limiting crops so they can be grown organically quite qualifies as a human limiting factor. Your cats’ limiting factor is your income; fourteen bowls of canned meat go down on the floor every day; no more, no less. No more cats than can be supported can live in the ecosystem that is your first four layers.

* * *

When you get home, you do a thorough examination of all your layers and your youngest cat is not present. As you check the corners of your bedroom, the rumples of the futon quilt, the rubber bump beneath the rug, the cracked bureau drawers, you find yourself at eye level with the beginning of the wallpaper pattern: the pointing index finger. You have always wondered exactly which shape began the pattern, in the leftmost bottommost corner, and now it seems that the index finger, accusing and quite 3-D from the cross-eyed closeness effect, is pointing directly at you. The doorbell rings.
Juanita; chronically early, even to the office at 8:00 a.m. You squat, paralyzed, imagining that you can hear a mew, or feel a velvet ear against your ankle, vibrating with purrs and whisker quiverings. Juanita edges into the living room as you rise to your feet. She sneaks a look around at your outer layer, scanning for cookies and/or secrets, for a word of welcome, even, or thanks.
Then there is the problem of small talk. What you know about Juanita consists solely of peeking through the crack in the cubicle wall to spy on her endless games of Solitaire. You know that she plays the cheating way; one card turned over at a time. You know that she picks her cuticles as she contemplates the screen, between mouse-clickings, and she can wiggle her ears. She does it unconsciously as she strains to distinguish the footsteps of the boss from the footsteps of someone less threatening. Yet, your cat may or may not be missing, while Juanita’s broken fingertips reflexively go through the motions of cookie-grasping, and worse yet, you have to talk to her.
Your bare toes squeak on the linoleum, back and forth, inching backwards to hide the grocery bag which contains the cheap Oreos: two-for-one and sure, according to the grocery store aliens, to cause hideous disfigurements. You feign cookie-bowl searching, gazing out the window to where kids are just beginning to emerge. Masked and suited, frilled and fluffed, painted thick as good cream and carrying hollow plastic pumpkins, they scan the houses for candy beacons.
Juanita clears her throat. Somewhere in her chest, she gurgles like a fish tank. Slowly, you fill a mug with cold water. As your knuckles soak with the overflow, you run through first phrases in your mind. Truth, bent truth, truth skewed beyond proportion. Your cat might be missing, she was eaten by the bulldog next door, you don’t have a cat. She fell onto the train tracks. She was hiding in the closet.
You hand the mug to Juanita and your eyes begin to water. Thinking of your kitten on the train tracks renders you incapable of speech.
“Oh, honey,” Juanita rasps – sincerely? – just as Molly, your 15-year-old tabby, cranes her neck gracefully over Juanita’s shoulder and takes a lick from her mug.

 

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