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Paul pulled his sedan over to the curb in front of the house. The sedan’s battered engine rattled ominously as Paul shifted into reverse. Paul, used to the auditory threat of failure, continued parking. He lifted his foot from the gas pedal and let gravity work its magic. The sedan slipped backwards on the slope in front of the house. Just as the hood of the car cleared the mailbox, Paul pressed the brake. He slid the gear shift into park and enlisted the emergency brake to relieve the transmission from tension. Paul performed the routine motions of parking in front of the house mechanically. It was, afterall, his house.
Or, it used to be. Paul lost the house to his wife—now ex-wife—Janice. A man of passionate involvement, Paul unwittingly found himself party to an affair. The affair, like most affairs, was a result of boredom. Paul knew this, but continued his betrayal for the sake of novelty. As the affair dragged on, a few months, a year, two years, Paul sensed Janice was aware of the situation. She made small comments about the hours, never anything too head-on, but enough to unsettle Paul: “Paul, they can’t make you work that much.” What Paul never told Janice, was that they weren’t making him do anything. He did it all willingly. And all because he was in love with the flexible (and I mean flexible) freedom of editing.
After two years of Paul working as an editor, coming home late and ignoring her, Janice was sure she had lost her husband to editing. She had never suspected any of Paul’s other jobs, bereavement coordination, hippotherapy, or Bingo management of being sirens. She had actually grown fond of Bingo during Paul’s stint as a Bingo manager.
Like any betrayed partner, Janice wanted answers.
“What do you get out of correcting people all day?” asked Janice.
“A paycheck. What do you get out of Bingo?” Paul, feeling attacked, retorted.
“A random chance to escape my reality!” shouted Janice, stomping to the bedroom.
Both Paul and Janice were unimaginative.
And so, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Paul, after a long day of editing a technical manual for spillback nozzles (a piece of industrial equipment whose purpose is more dubious than that of gnats), didn’t think twice when he encountered Janice standing in the vestibule.
“Oh,” said Paul, opening the door, “you scared me.” He awkwardly forced himself past Janice into the house. He hung up his coat and spoke without provocation.
“You’ll never believe who called me today. Do you remember Marjorie? The catatonic from hippotherapy?…Anyways, she fell off her horse and broke her neck. She’s writing a memoir and she wants me to edit it,” said Paul.
Janice blocked Paul’s advance up the stairs.
“What are you doing?” asked Paul.
“I’m leaving,” said Janice.
“Where are you going?” asked Paul.
“No,” said Janice, “…I’m leaving you.”
“…Oh,” said Paul.
Betrayer and betrayed stood in the vestibule searching each other’s faces for a compromise.
“What’s the name of the book?” asked Janice, breaking the silence.
“Breakneck Freedom:” said Paul, “A Story of Traumatic Therapy.”
Neither Paul nor Janice had a grim sense of humor.
The divorce weighed on Paul. He had become an editor so one day he could work remotely and travel the world with Janice. That dream was over now. It had gotten away without Paul noticing.
At work, Paul struggled to care about word choice, commas, periods, independent or dependent clauses, dashes, colons, parts of speech, prepositions and so on. He sat, like Marjorie, the catatonic turned paraplegic turned author, completely still at his desk, without emotion. The technical manual for spillback nozzles, the manuscript he worked on before Janice announced her intention to divorce him, sat on his desk. Paul had edited less than a quarter of it. Uncharacteristically, he OK’d the unedited manuscript. He didn’t care. What was the point?
Outside of work, Paul packed his few belongings into a cardboard box and moved into a studio apartment on the southside of town. The room was small, cramped, and poorly lit, hardly appropriate for a career man of thirty two years, but it was all that was available. The room itself wasn’t bad. It was clean, with new-ish appliances. The lack of natural light was the problem. The only window in the apartment was set high in the far wall and measured a measly two feet squared.
The situation at work was about as bright as Paul’s new studio. Work, which Paul viewed as his rock during the tumultuous upheaval of his personal life, started eroding. The erosion of Paul’s rock started with a letter sent by Fineberg, Alex, and Ward Law. The letter’s envelope had “URGENT” stamped on the front of it in bold red letters. Paul opened the letter with the edge of his scissors.
Paul’s stomach sank as he read the letter. The letter stated that Fineberg, Alex, and Ward Law were in the process of building a case. The case was to be filed on behalf of two employees of Atchison County Solid Waste in Atchison, Kansas who had met their untimely demise by-way-of an improperly installed spillback nozzle. The only witness to the homicide was a technical manual published by Content and Mill, the publishing house where Paul worked.
How dumb, Paul thought. It should be Fineberg, Alex and Ward Law.
Paul scanned the office for signs of unusual behavior. Everything looked normal. It seemed that Paul had, by dumb luck, received the only notice about the unfortunate incident in Kansas. Paul refolded the law firm letter, placed it back in its envelope, and shut it away in his desk drawer. He opened his email and, shaken sober by the letter, worked without interruption until lunch.
A new anomaly greeted Paul on his return from lunch: a sticky note. The note requested Paul visit the Editor-in-Chief ASAP. Paul looked around the office before cautiously opening his desk drawer. The letter from Fineburg, Alex, and Ward Law was still there. It looked untouched. Paul exhaled, adjusted the tuck of his shirt, and walked to the Editor-in-Chief’s office.
Flipped open on the Editor-in-Chief’s desk, was the spillback nozzle technical manual.
“You asked to see me, Sir?” asked Paul.
“Have a seat, Paul,” said the Editor-in-Chief.
Paul sat down. From his seat, Paul saw that the manual was opened to the section titled “Installation”, which is where Paul had stopped editing and approved the manuscript. A single sentence was highlighted in yellow at the bottom of the right hand page: “Once installation is complete, a minimum feed pressure of fifty bars is recommended.” The word “minimum” was underlined three times.
The Editor-in-Chief asked Paul if he understood the difference between “maximum” and “minimum”.
“Yes,” said Paul, “‘maximum’ is the greatest amount attainable and ‘minimum’ is the least amount permitted.”
“Good, you’ll have no problem understanding your prison sentence for homicide.”
Paul was informed that, when installing a spillback nozzle, fifty bars is the maximum feed pressure that is safe to use, not the minimum. The Editor-in-Chief fired Paul for his oversight to save the skin of Content and Mill. Paul left the office feeling as useless as the spillback nozzle, even less so because, unlike Paul, the spillback nozzle had a purpose. Even if nobody knew what a spillback nozzle was.
Paul drove in silence back to his tiny studio apartment. He pulled up to his new curb without the flourishes typical of his old parking routine. Paul When he got inside, the first thing he saw was the gloomy light leaking through the tiny window in the far wall. Paul felt weepy.
Another week passed. To Paul’s surprise, the families of the late Atchison County Solid Waste employees did not press charges against Content and Mill or himself. After being sacked from his job, Paul entered into a brief correspondence with the grieving families. In the correspondence, Paul admitted culpability. To which the families replied (against the counsel of Fineberg, Alex, and Ward Law I should add): “Man has no right to challenge God’s judgment. If it is God’s will, so be it,” said the families, “so sayeth the Bible.”
Paul had read the Bible in Sunday school as a child and couldn’t recall anything about spillback nozzles in the text, but who was he to challenge the word of God.
Without editing to occupy his time, Paul spent his nights in his lonely studio sitting on the floor, pantsless and contemplative. How could a few letters, scrunched together, with no fixed meaning, spell the difference between life and death? Paul grabbed a pint of ice cream from the freezer to fuel his philosophical ponderings.
Paul had made substantial progress on the ice cream when his cell rang. The vibrations from the call sent Paul’s phone skittering across the coffee table, vvvvvvvtst—vvvvvvvtst.
It was Janice.
“Hello?” Paul answered.
“Oh, thank god,” said Janice.
Janice explained that her mother, aged ninety one, was in the ICU of Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She had suffered a stroke.
“I want to fly out to see her,” said Janice, “but, I need someone to watch my cat.”
“When did you get a cat?” asked Paul
“Paul, please,” said Janice, “can you watch the cat or not?”
Paul stared into his pint of ice cream.
“Janice?” asked Paul.
“Yes, Paul?” asked Janice.
“Have you ever heard of a spillback nozzle?” asked Paul.
“What?” asked Janice.
“Nothing,” said Paul, “I’ll watch the cat. When do you need me there?”
“I know you will probably be at your lovely job, but tomorrow would be great,” said Janice.
“…Yeah,” said Paul, “I’ll see what I can do.”
In that pause, Paul, in characteristic fashion, decided Janice didn’t need to know about Atchison, Kansas. She had received enough news from the midwest for the day.
The next day, Paul decided there was still not enough room for the news from Atchison, Kansas. He stepped out of his car, checked the mailbox out of habit, and walked up to the house. He knocked. The door opened immediately. Janice was waiting in the vestibule. The same way she had been when she told him she was leaving. She had a lot more to say about her cat than the end of her marriage.
“Just be sure to feed him at the same time everyday,” said Janice.
“I will,” said Paul.
“And remember to alternate the canned food with a meat patty every other day.”
“But he gets a can of kidney care plus every night.”
“Kidney care at night, got it.”
“His probiotics are in the fridge, mix them with a tablespoon of water so they dissolve.”
“Dissolve in water.”
“His multivitamin is under the sink in the wicker basket. Break two capsules into his food and stir them in for him.”
“If he starts acting up, there’s buprenorphine injections on top of the fridge.”
“Where did you get this cat?”
“Paul, if he starts to act strange, he is probably in pain.”
Janice kneeled down to the level of the cat. His name was Pumpkin.
“You’re going to miss me, aren’t you baby boy?”
Pumpkin sucked his legs under his belly. His green eyes widened. He lowered his face to the ground, transforming into a streamlined killing machine thousands of years in the making.
“Look Paul, you’re scaring him,” said Janice, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t leave.”
“What do you mean? You already have your ticket. Your mother is dying. The cat will be fine,” said Paul, “He doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
“Animals have a keen understanding of their environment. He knows when something is off,” said Janice, studying Paul, “…Unlike some people.”
“…I suppose that’s it, emergency numbers are on the fridge.”
“Tell your mother I said ‘hello’.”
“Bye Pumpy, momma’s gonna miss you!”
Janice waved goodbye to Pumpkin. His emotionless eyes tracked her hand as if it were a bird in flight. All this time to evolve and you still don’t understand companionship, thought Paul.
Janice checked her wristwatch, got in her car, and drove away. Paul stood in the doorway, watching the car disappear up the hill to the airport.
Mmerow, said Pumpkin.
“She’ll be back,” said Paul.
Paul locked the front door and walked upstairs. The house looked nice, different, but nice. Paul dropped his laptop bag on the couch. The walls where Paul’s paintings once hung were now decorated with a number of exotic plants. The dated CD stereo system Paul bought for Janice when she moved in was gone. A record player, something Janice had always wanted, sat in its place. Janice loved music above all, even more than Bingo.
Paul walked down the hall to the office and discovered he was wrong about more than he imagined. Paul’s desk, which had once been a temple of grammar, was now a Bingo shrine decorated with scorecards, markers, machines, and dabbers. Paul had said of Janice and her Bingo: “It’s all luck, and luck doesn’t exist. How can you be addicted to something that doesn’t exist?” “Easily” was Janice’s reply. The embarrassment Paul felt for his question then, washed over him now.
Paul was no longer sure luck was a hoax, not after his deliverance from his editing snafu. Paul picked up a scorecard and examined the space labeled “free”. What was free? Maybe there’s something I’m missing, Paul thought. He slipped the scorecard into his pants pocket without thought and left the office.
Paul went back to the living room, sat down on the couch next to Pumpkin, and turned on the TV. It was tuned to a cartoon station that aired shows for different age groups depending on the time of day. Paul checked his watch. It was about midday. Paul assumed the cartoons were intended for partially developed humans, around the age of fourteen maybe. Paul didn’t know what to watch. He rarely had time for TV when he was editing. He let the station play.
The show airing was bad, unforgivably bad. Paul was disgusted, so of course he watched an entire episode and another and another one after that. The show was called Cop Cat. The show followed an anthropomorphic crime fighting cat as he served justice to Chicatgo, a fictional, feline interpretation of Chicago.
The first episode focused on the arrest of a dog whose crime was this: chasing squirrels in the park. For his natural inclinations, the dog was sentenced to the Chicatgo pound without a chance of parole. The pound intake process included shaving and neutering the dog. Pumpkin watched the show intently.
Jesus, this is a kids show? Why are the cats and dogs anthropomorphized, but not the squirrels? Paul thought.
Pumpkin purred. Paul looked down at the cat. Pumpkin kneaded his paws into the couch cushion in ecstasy.
“Sicko,” said Paul. Paul pointed the remote at the TV and depressed the “+” to increase the show’s volume. Pumpkin’s sadistic expressions were lost in the blare of the TV.
The intro ended in a crescendo. The next installment of Cop Cat rolled. Cop Cat came onto screen as a rugged, dutiful, civil servant. He soliloquized tiresomely about the status of justice in Chicatgo, while his wife, another anthropomorphized cat, shuffled around the kitchen on heavy feet. Cop Cat’s wife wasn’t important enough to have a name. She was simply the wife, but she was gifted speech by the writers. Occasionally, she would sneak a snide remark to the audience as her oblivious husband prattled on. Cop Cat, unaware of his wife’s despondency, would always reiterate his last thought after one of her remarks, ignorant of sarcasm and irony. The audience roared through the speakers everytime Cop Cat responded to his wife’s ironic asides with an esoteric, philosophical rumination on the nature of justice and man.
“At their best, cats are the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice they are the worst,” said Cop Cat. The laugh track rolled. Paul didn’t recognize the quote.
The eerie depiction of Cop Cat’s wife unsettled Paul. Cop Cat’s higher calling, noble on the surface, was actually death. Just death, thought Paul. Paul continued to read profundities in the numerous inconsequential details of the show. Luckily, Pumpkin was his only company.
The fact that Cop Cat’s partner on the force was a mouse, eased some of Paul’s anxiety. He thought it represented diversity. He had gone so far down the hole, he forgot they were animals. The final scene of Cop Cat froze on the screen. Inky black bled over the screen from the edges, cleansing the visual palette for Plant Diaries.
Paul snapped off the television. Pumpkin’s brain, knowing that nothing comes after black, commanded him to leap from the couch and search for something to occupy his time. Cats have gotten smarter through domestication. The same cannot be said for humans, thought Paul.
With the TV off, Paul noticed the brilliant sunlight pouring through the bay window, bathing the house in warm tones. Paul floated towards the golden glow of the window.
Outside, a group of Paul’s old neighbors, whom Paul had never bothered to get to know, exchanged words while their dogs exchanged sniffs. Paul swiftly shut the curtain and walked to the home office, grabbing his laptop bag from the couch as he went. It’s too nice out, thought Paul, I won’t get anything done looking at that.
In the office, Paul cleared his old desk. He crowded the new residents of his desk into a corner. A bingo dabber fell to the floor. Paul wasn’t sure if the new residents were owners or renters, but he promised he wouldn’t disrupt their home for long. Paul opened his laptop’s library and clicked on a file named Process Copy, Breakneck Freedom. It was Marjorie’s memoir.
Marjorie promised to share a trivial fraction of her enormous settlement with Paul for his editing services. In a pinch, never say ‘no’ to money. It’s the American way. Or at least, that’s what Paul thought. Paul expected the prose to be florid and incoherent. It was. Paul rubbed his temples. He started by shaking out the punctuation.
Paul dressed down the unsightly, scattered-brained manuscript. As he worked, the world melted away. Marjorie’s story bled on the screen, satisfying Paul’s bloodlust for order. See, thought Paul, this is real. Paul probed the story’s silence with his 104 letter-key piano whose slow and steady music worked to seduce the convention in Marjorie’s writing. Paul took the words and made music. He became a frenzied producer, churning the muck of words into clean refrains.
The edits flowed like lava, hot and primordial, reshaping Majorie’s hackneyed phrases into a world of new possibility. Paul suspended himself in the magic of creation. He floated through the text, graceful and listless as a butterfly’s first Spring flight. While in his element, Paul experienced just one hiccup: a cameo of himself in Marjorie’s story.
After I fell from my horse, the therapist’s assistant, whose name I spare by the grace of God, rolled me over; unaware his ungainly movements may sever my spinal cord, thereby forever robbing me of the physical ability to manifest the fecundity of my mind. Readers, I tell you this: beware the uninspired, their buffoonery destroys potential.
From beyond Paul’s fortress of writing, Pumpkin meowed: MREOW
The dissonant sound stupefied Paul. Janice’s collection of bingo trinkets, pushed to the background by editing the manuscript, came into focus. Paul sat stunned. His brain worked overtime to return his body to reality.
“What?” snapped Paul, opening the office door.
Pumpkin sat on his hind legs at the foot of the door and meowed by way of greeting.
“Yes?” asked Paul.
Pumpkin dropped onto his forepaws and slunk to the rug in the middle of the room. His soft paws thumped the worn floorboards as he crossed the room. Paul watched as Pumpkin rhythmically kneaded the knotted fibers of the center rug. What are you doing, thought Paul. Pumpkin completed his house grooming, laid down in the sunlight, and fell asleep.
Paul sat back down and tried to resume writing, but the magic had been broken. Paul was now keenly aware of how hot the south-facing office had become in the midday sun. The sun poured into the stuffy cube, real and compelling.
Paul watched his 104 letter-key piano melt into a laptop. Majorie’s song faded in the sterile light of the white word processing screen. The program’s cursor blinked evenly. Paul drew the curtains in frustration.
Pumpkin opened his eyes.
Paul cussed the cat and migrated to the living with his laptop to resume his hunt for the precious language that had only just slipped through his fingers.
In the living room, Paul sat on the couch. He flipped open his laptop. He resumed typing. He typed with great caution now, building rhythm slowly, striking the keys with deliberate intention. The writing dribbled onto the page where it had once rushed, but Paul was grateful nonetheless. His writing developed into fluid motion fluent—
“No,” said Paul.
MREOW, Pumpkin screamed.
Paul set his laptop to the side.
“Alright,” Paul said, resigned.
The floorboards creaked under Paul’s weight as he walked back down the hall to the office. The door was ajar. Paul leaned his face into the open space to address Pumpkin: “What are you meowing for?” Paul said heatedly, “There’s plenty of room.”
Pumpkin cocked his head to the side at the sight of Paul’s face in the gap between the door and its frame.
Ridiculous, thought Paul.
He pushed open the office door.
Pumpkin sat up, stretched, and trotted out of the office, purposefully. Paul turned his head to watch Pumpkin leave.
“This isn’t Chicatgo you know,” said Paul, “this is a man’s world.”
It was Pumpkin’s turn to not recognize a quote. That one is easy though. That’s James Brown. Paul shut the office door to prevent any further disruptions before following Pumpkin into the living room. In the living room, Pumpkin had found his way onto Paul’s laptop of all places. A thin beam of light pouring through the gap in the closed curtains illuminated Pumpkin’s face. Pumpkin shut his eyes.
Maybe he needs the drugs, Paul thought.
He grabbed the bupropherine from the top of the fridge. Seeing the injection triggered Pumpkin’s primal brain and he flew from the couch to the floor to escape the attack.
“Oh my god,” said Paul, “they’ll help you.”
Paul watched Pumpkin’s lithe body slip under the armchair. Frustrated, Paul returned the opioid to the top of the fridge. Alright, just stay there then, thought Paul, his irritation snowballing out of control.
To lighten his mood, Paul changed his scenery by migrating, this time to the kitchen. Paul opened his laptop and tried again.
Pumpkin listened to the clatter of keys for a few minutes. Then, like a cobra coaxed from its basket with a pungi, he slunk out from underneath the armchair, weaving into the kitchen.
Paul, his hearing impaired by the deafening din of words on screen, didn’t hear the soft thumps of Pumpkin’s approach. Pumpkin brushed Paul’s leg. It was a successful counter attack. Feeling the sensation of a hairy worm moving against his leg, Paul jerked out of his seat. He ducked his head under the table. Under the far corner of the table, barricaded by dining room chairs Pumpkin sat, forelegs tucked beneath him, with what Paul understood to be a smile. Paul’s irritation was indescribable. He had become prey to an innocuous killer: an animal whose higher purpose had been bred out of it by the progress of society.
“You little fucker,” spat Paul, “This is my house.”
The deadbolt of the front door disengaged. The snap of the lock echoed up the stairs. The noise sobered Paul. The door opened.
“Paul? Are you there?”
It was Janice.
“How are you here?” called Paul, walking to the staircase.
Janice looked up. Paul stood at the top of the landing.
“Oh, the curtains are drawn,” said Janice, seeing Paul, “I thought maybe you went for a walk.”
Janice walked up the stairs, a bag of groceries in her arms.
“I was writing…What happened to your flight?” asked Paul.
Janice explained. Her mother’s condition improved dramatically over night. The doctor planned to keep her in the ICU another night to monitor her, but all of her vitals were perfect. The hospital needed the bed, so they sent her home.
“So, she’s fine?” asked Paul.
“I don’t know about fine, but she sounds great. ‘God works in mysterious ways’,” said Janice, quoting her mother, “Can you help me with this?”
Janice handed Paul her bag. As the bag switched hands, Paul momentarily forgot he was divorced. Pumpkin crept up to the foyer to inspect the commotion. Janice caught sight of him and stooped to his level.
“Hello sweet boy,” said Janice.
Pumpkin tensed at the address, then, seeing Paul, he ran under the couch.
“What’s the matter baby?” Janice asked Pumpkin. “Paul, how has he been?”
“Fine…I think,” said Paul.
Pumpkin hissed from beneath the couch.
“What did you do to him?” Janice asked.
“What did I do to him?” Paul repeated, “Nothing, he’s just needy.”
“How Paul? He’s a cat. He doesn’t do anything, but sit in the sun.”
Paul walked, spellbound, towards the bay window. Janice watched her estranged ex-husband like a tourist observing the cultural performance of a foreign country. Paul drew back the curtains. Golden hues of orange, yellow, and pink from the setting sun washed over the living room. Janice shielded her eyes: “Oh, it’s bright.”
Paul watched the couch expectantly.
He’s lost it, thought Janice.
The warmth of the sun coaxed Pumpkin from his hiding spot. Pumpkin walked into a palmy patch of sun on the floor, drew his tail into a crescent around his body, and started purring.
“What’s the matter with you? You’re being weird,” said Janice. She eyeballed Paul, the scorecard he had taken from the office stuck out against his pants pocket, “What’s in your pocket?”
Janice studied the scorecard Paul produced from his pocket.
“Bingo? I thought you hated Bingo,” said Janice.
“I need to get out of my new studio. There’s no light in there,” said Paul.
Janice considered Paul’s offer.
“Alright,” said Janice, “I’m free this weekend.”
“I’ll call,” said Paul.
Paul pulled away from the curb with the windows rolled down. He thrust his arm into the breeze, opening his hand to soak up the light. The sedan’s engine rattled ominously.
Spencer Linford is a freelance writer and editor. He enjoys exploring the morality, ethics, and significance that underly ordinary experience.