I believe everything I read. Every single written word crystallizes
into fact. It could be emergency instructions on an airplane or a poem
handed out by a woman on a park bench. I cannot argue against a single
sentence any human being writes. This is why I am a patient of Dr. Fleiss.
He writes something on his notepad and hands it to me.
"There are rats in your apartment," it says.
"Where?" I say, staring at his wispy hair. The handsome curl of his
mouth. He leans back again, until sunlight reflects in his glasses. Then he
scratches something else on the paper and hands it back to me.
"There is a dead man under your bed."
He apologizes for his lack of imagination and then stands up.
Shaking my hand and slapping me on my back, he wishes me good luck and
leaves me to my rats and bodies.
I wait on the porch until Martha comes home from work, and then I
explain the situation. She stands on the lower step, looking at me with
grave sympathy. Everything about her seems slightly different. The
immaculate brown of her business suit. The tight bun of blonde hair. The
tiny silver rectangles on her shoes.
I follow Martha upstairs, and while I wait in the hallway, she
shouts at me from all corners of the apartment.
"No rats in here," she says from our bedroom. "No body either."
But I sleep over a corpse with one eye frozen open, the other a
wrinkled slit. His hands are bony, white claws. I hear the dishes in the
sink move. A box of cereal topples over.
Dr. Fleiss smiles at me gently, as if I were growing hopeless.
'I haven't slept," I say.
"This is good," he says. I watch him scribble something else on his
pad of paper. He looks up for a moment as if he were sketching me.
"I'm scared," I say.
"This is a synonym for progress," he says, and hands me the pad of
"Martha is gone," it says. My whole body goes cold and I end up
staring at the misshapen ashtray on the edge of his desk. It is polished to
green brilliance and I cannot understand it.
"What are you thinking?" he asks.
"Why you have an ashtray on your desk if you don't smoke," I say.
"You are in shock," he says.
"Thank you," I say.
I let him lead me out the door and we walk down the corridor, and
pass one of the disturbed children. He is overweight and hangs his head and
tries to walk into me. The carpet is covered with patches of sawdust where
recent struggles have taken place. Everyone on the staff is an expert
chokehold artist, and sometimes, from Dr. Fleiss' office, I can hear bodies
being taken down, and then muffled howls, as if crying had yet to be invented.
In the lobby, I wave goodbye to the security guard, a thin black man
who looks like he never trusted anyone.
"Careful out there," he says. The lock on the door buzzes and clicks.
At home, the memory of Martha persists. She drops silverware and
curses me. She turns up the volume on the TV and insists she is alive.
Presses her warm palm against my cheek. Hurls an orange crème bar at me and
lets it melt on the kitchen floor.
I talk to her as I always have. But she is not here. In the bedroom,
at dawn, I touch her hip. She is facing away from me. Through the window, I
can see the frayed clothesline that hasn't been used in years, and the
rusted pole which anchors it. At the top, a squirrel spasms and gnaws at an
unripe peach. I wonder if Dr. Fleiss will take it all away, and what he will
put in its place.
"Do you want her back?" Dr. Fleiss says, unwrapping an egg salad
sandwich. He holds up one overfilled half and waits for my answer, white and
yellow clumps dripping on his desk.
"Are you playing God?' I say.
"For now," he says.
I tense up when I see him bring out the notebook again. He scribbles
a sentence and then crosses it out. He settles on something and rips off the
sheet of paper. He hands it to me.
"I am happy," I say, reading the words.
"Why not?" he says, looking at his watch. "I couldn't think of
Close to midnight, when I usually panic about my life, I start the
Deep in the fridge is a bottle of pink champagne that my mother once
left for me on one of her dour visits.
"Drink this when something fabulous happens," she said, and then
frowned, as if it never would.
Martha watches me carefully twist off the cork. For two days she
hasn't moved from the couch. Crumpled balls of paper litter the floor, each
one a letter from her that I have refused to read. Dr. Fleiss has insisted
on being the sole author of my life.
I put her glass of champagne on the coffee table and sit across from
her. On the television, a slick of oil has spread on the sea and caught
fire. We watch it with the sound turned down and suddenly we can hear the
woman next door. She is in agony again, groaning her pleasure for the whole
neighborhood, her invisible partner nudging her into fits of ecstasy.