In preparing this issue of Recommended Reading, I read “Recovery” a dozen times and thought about it many more times than that. Much of that time was spent trying to understand the feeling the story gives me—that some central mystery of discontentment and ennui, something I perhaps didn’t even know was a mystery to begin with, has been explained.
In “Recovery,” Scott believes that buying cheese in bulk, as he has done, has the potential to improve one’s quality of life, or, at least, render the cheese-buying aspect of life much easier. Because if those tedious daily battles can be fought ahead of time, in bulk, rather on an as-needed basis, then he might be able to forestall some of the anguish of daily life. I see a connection to Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt’s latest novel, in which a man systematically turns his sexual fantasy into a multi-million dollar industry. Though it may be a leap to connect anonymous sex-on-demand with a lifetime supply of cheese, both are instances of executing a seemingly outlandish idea: dedicated cheese refrigerators are installed in the kitchen, sex portals are installed in the office walls.
Because with Helen DeWitt, everything is physical. Fantasies don’t just serve as masturbation-fodder, they get implemented in real-life. Ideas don’t just flutter through Scott’s head: they “[trail] through the meat in the bonebox like a worm.” Scott can’t simply think, he must contend with the ever-demanding bonebox. Because the reality of actually hanging out with the bonebox, which one must do alone and in the company of others, is inescapable, up there on the list with death and taxes.
Though it was never his intention, Scott’s life has become tame in a way that dulls his senses almost to the point of boredom. Scott, who used to face life in a kilt, balls to the breeze, has become a paler version of himself, dressed appropriately in chinos. “Things that would have seized the imagination in his kilt-wearing days have a tendency to sit inertly in the social space,” DeWitt writes, leaving me to think maybe it’s not such a good decision after all to do all your shopping in one go, eschewing a thousand trips to the store where something small but unexpected might happen. I’m reminded of this nugget of wisdom: “You’re only bored if you’re boring.” As a kid, it always seemed unfair whenever someone said this, because, come on, school’s boring, chores are boring, life’s boring. But really, it’s true. If your imagination’s not seized, hanging out with the bonebox can be pretty challenging.
The challenge for Scott is perhaps that he has become someone whose fantasies exist on the edge of practicality, but never outside, and who, by the end of the story, understands and identifies with what he once thought was inscrutable and pathetic.
By now I hope it’s clear that I think “Recovery” is brilliant. It’s brave and it’s messy in the best way possible, the way people are messy and full of unsorted feeling. What maybe I haven’t made so clear, is that it’s also hilarious. Best for you to see for yourself.
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by Helen DeWitt
Recommended by Electric Literature
…the average exhaustion of a man’s power to avoid death is such that at the end of equal infinitely small intervals of time he has lost equal portions of his remaining power to oppose destruction which he had at the commencement of these intervals.
- Benjamin Gompertz
BAKER’S EX KEEPS BREAKING HIS BALLS. She penalizes him for minor infractions. She calls the police when he accidentally turns up on a day that’s not one of his days. It’s rarely his day.
His tribulations are a popular subject with National Enquirer. In AA, though, anyway, he wears the cloak of normal visibility. Incurious sympathy is on decent display. People trying to maintain authenticity, the level of man-to-common-man laissez-faire which is the norm for the group.
Scott listens nonjudgmentally to yesterday’s headlines. He’s been working the rooms for 156 days; nothing new under the sun.
Baker says: “Something you learn as an actor is to respect the writer’s craft. Not everyone can write good dialogue. Even among the pros. There are actors who insist on rewriting lines. It’s rare for an actor to write screenplays. Even if you have a good part, good lines, it takes time to bring the character to life. Why would we expect life not to end in disaster? Improv is the hardest thing you can do. For the big situations, what you would want is to have good lines from a great screenwriter which you could rehearse. You wouldn’t choose to have your life hang on your ability to come up with good dialogue at a time of crisis.”
The timer pings. Baker sits down. Another dude stands up.
Scott isn’t paying the dude much mind. When he gets home he can have him a big old hunk of seven-year-old cheddar. In the bonebox the image of a Smeg packed with five-pound slabs of cheese just stands solidly in the folded meat.
Johnnie Walker isn’t talking these days. The herbal teas say: It’s nobody’s job to look after you but you. Your first job is to look after yourself, and the Number One job of everyone else is likewise to look after Number One.
Old habits, though, die hard. Baker has a problem. The problem has a solution.
Scott’s wearing chinos and a blue Lacoste polo shirt. If he was wearing the kilt he could definitely get Baker to accept the hand of a brother, but now the situation feels thin, flimsy, he can’t get any traction. He’s wearing Topsiders.
Maybe what you do is, keep it simple.
In the aftermath of the closing pieties he tells Baker there’s something he needs to see.
The apartment has a quiet purposelessness. Scotty doesn’t have to explain, they all know the signs. Takes the dude to the kitchen, opens Fridge 1. Dude looks at the solid wall of cheese.
Doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t say, What the fuck?
“Man,” says Baker. So he does smile.
Scott says: “Maybe that’s what she needs. That kind of thing. It’s reassuring. Not necessarily cheese. Does the kid eat peanut butter?”
"I think so."
"50 jars of peanut butter." (Which would maybe not be such a bad idea for himself.) "Skippy or Jif?"
"One or the other."
"It’s good to be brand-specific. It shows you were paying attention."
"I wasn’t paying attention."
"It didn’t register."
"Welch’s. Oreos. The genius is in the details."
"I never notice those details. Which you’re right, pisses her off."
"What I mean is," Scotty says, "when you lay in supplies, it’s a way of eliminating thousands of decisions. You don’t notice the friction until it’s gone."
Words aren’t serving him well. The meat in his head, it’s like a slug left out in the rain. He sees the woman reminding herself to pick up peanut butter and forgetting to pick up peanut butter. Making unanticipated sorties to the 7-Eleven. Screaming at the kid. Suddenly, bulwarked.
Now they’re stranded in his kitchen.
He’s embarrassed by the chinos and the Lacoste, he could just as easily have picked black jeans and a t-shirt. It was just the first thing that came to mind when he had to ditch the kilt.
What it had going for it was, it was the kind of thing his lawyer had picked to keep him out of jail.
He says: “I used to wear a kilt.”
He says: “It was easier with a kilt. People had expectations that were easy to meet.”
He says: “You should try this cheese since you’re here.”
He takes a block on which depredations have been made out of the fridge. Cuts off a couple slices.
"You could be right," says Baker. "She’s under a lot of stress."
Takes a big old bite of cheese. Says: “Man that’s good.”
Scott opens Fridge 2. Says: “See, the first fridge is your seven-year-old cheddar. Your second fridge is for variety. Wensleydale with mango and ginger. White Stilton with cranberry.”
Baker says: “Dude.”
Scotty opens the cupboard.
"What you’re looking for," he says, "is the sense of security you would feel going down to a bunker after nuclear fallout. Knowing you were not going to find yourself stranded with fine-cut marmalade, which is shite, at a time when civilization as we know it had come to a standstill and thick-cut marmalade, which is the best, could not be had for love or money. You see what I’m saying.”
He says: “See, women, what do they talk about? What do we hear them saying? They juggle their lives. Always on the run. A woman with a kid, maybe she needs five fridges and a whole, what’s the word, pantry? Can that be the word? But maybe she needs that. Maybe she needs somebody to take charge, put in the five fridges and the freezer, you definitely need a freezer, and just stock those motherfuckers up.”
Baker says: “What else you got?”
Scott says: “Dude.”
He opens one cupboard, then another. It feels reminiscent of the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby throws shirts around. (Not to you, necessarily.) As each cupboard reveals a new depth of insanity Baker starts to grin and goes on grinning, kind of grin you used to see on Gene Kelly. The guy’s a star, remember.
Scott says: “But you know I’m right, dude.”
Baker reopens Fridge 1.
Scott says: “That’s a six-year supply.”
He says: “Course, you could say, it’s not in the spirit of one day at a time. But see, I might be able to handle ordering $3,722 worth of cheese on one day but not be able to handle buying, you know, an 8 oz stick of Monterrey Jack on an as-needed basis daily or bi-daily or weekly for years. Maybe that single day is the only day I can count on being able to get through, you know, the shit associated with cheese acquisition. Just because I can do it once doesn’t mean I can do it thousands of times.”
Baker says: “Yeah. Yeah. I see that. It’s like, you pay $3,722 so you can buy cheese in a single take.”
He says: “Is that really $3,722 worth of cheese?”
"$3,722.76. 24 at $53.55 minus 10% plus 48 at $52.80 minus 10%. 24 are 7 years old at time of purchase. 48 are 6 years old at time of purchase, meaning they’re 8 years old by the time you get through the first 24."
Baker doesn’t say, Man, you must really like you some cheese.
This is the level of fanaticism that people turn to Gentleman Johnnie to mellow out. You know it.
Scott says: “It’s like, if you buy ad hoc, you’re paying an extra thousand dollars, maybe more, to buy 380 pounds of cheese in 760 separate errands. Why would anyone do that? We’re not talking about sex here.”
Baker says: “You think you can pay people to take care of things. “
Scott says: “Maybe you can. “
The deal is, Scott will talk to the ballbreaker.
He will explain that her ex wants to provide, like, provisions over and above the requirements of the maintenance agreement, and that he has been sent to ascertain the specific brands preferred in the household.
He goes to the address provided. He’s wearing chinos and a white Oxford-cloth shirt with pale blue pinstripes, with a button-down collar open at the neck. He feels pale, insignificant. It’s the kind of situation where you need the extra confidence that comes with a kilt.
The ballbreaker opens the door.
This in itself epitomizes the way things have deteriorated in Baker’s career. The ballbreaker, for sure, said she wanted to have a normal life, live in a normal neighborhood with normal people for a change, but if Baker’s career had not gone into freefall no way would the ballbreaker have been able to answer her own front door. No way would she have been just living in a house on a street. The best she could have hoped for would have been a semblance of normality, the level of semblance achieved in a gated community patrolled by security guards and their dogs.
An interesting relatively little-known fact is that the Romans thought the Gauls were effeminate for wearing trousers. The Romans themselves wore tunics or togas. Scott feels emasculated in the pants, he feels like a guy who is too big of a pussy to get out there in a kilt. This feeling of inadequate masculinity is, obviously, not the best footing on which to approach Baker’s ballbreaking ex.
Scott says politely: “Hi, my name’s Scott. I’m a friend of Baker’s from AA. He was concerned that the financial unpredictability brought about by reconfigurations at his agency was affecting the environment of you and the boy, so he has asked me to organize a year’s supply of provisions over and above, and I do want to emphasize that, the financial requirements of the settlement. He has asked me to consult with you about your preferred brands. Once you have made your preferences clear orders will be executed, deliveries made.”
The ballbreaker says: “Is this some kind of joke?”
"Absolutely not," says Scott. "One of the things we come to recognize in AA is the importance of thinking ahead, of not leaving the lives of ourselves and those we love exposed to the vagaries of chance. One day at a time, yes, but in order to live one day at a time it’s sometimes necessary to think a year ahead." (This is a total travesty, of course, of everything he has ever heard in the AA environment, but he’s guessing this is something only a seasoned attendee would know.)
"Do you have some kind of ID?"
Scott brings out his passport, all he’s got left now that the driving license and credit cards are toast.
He says: “I can understand your reluctance to let a stranger into the home, ma’am, but it would definitely help if I could see the kitchen and storage facilities.”
"You can call me Amy," she says. She has streaked blond waist-length hair.
The piece of meat is thrumming in the bonebox.
Scott follows Amy back to the kitchen. It’s not a bad size for what it is, but he’s finding it hard to see where a whole extra refrigerator full of cheese could go. Let alone the five he had thoughtlessly advised. There are cupboards above and below the counters, and there’s a closet that turns out to be full of brooms and shit, but there’s nothing that he can see as having the potential to be a walk-in pantry. He can’t see where you could have the solid wall of peanut butter. This may in fact be the heart of the problem. The woman is living all unaware the life of a fly-by-night.
It’s not that he’s blaming, because he has heard all the repo stories. And the worst about the repo stories, in his opinion, is the fact that these were nobody’s fault. Or rather, they were not the consequence of people behaving in an irresponsible way that would legitimately call repossession down on their heads, in other words a consequence that could have been avoided by acting responsibly; they were the consequence of some dumb-ass kid being a dumb-ass kid. So, for sure, if you were the ex of a guy who was supposedly a star, and you still didn’t have enough security to guarantee uninterrupted ownership of a TV, you would probably just give up on security; you would adjust to living like a drifter in your permanent residence.
It’s his opinion, though, that this is all the more reason to socially engineer your life in such a way as to protect it from the vagaries.
He says: “I think something could be done if the over-the-counter cabinets were replaced with cabinets going up to the ceiling.”
He says: “Sometimes we don’t realize the importance of having contingencies provided for. Life becomes a constant battle of attrition. We find ourselves engaging in a series of small daily skirmishes, running to the store for milk, butter, eggs. There’s no energy left for the big things. A single outlay of energy on the imperishables, and the perishable-but-preservables, can reap big benefits. For instance, the time it takes to decide on the purchase of a single jar of peanut butter is not significantly less than the time it takes to decide on the purchase of a year’s supply, say 200 jars. Savings can be achieved.”
Amy says: “Uh huh.”
She is looking at the grossly inadequate kitchen, which probably has a single jar of peanut butter and a half-empty jar of grape jelly stowed away somewhere, with her arms folded.
She says: “Well, this does sound like AA.”
She says: “I know this is something he needs, and I guess it is helping with whatever it is he needs it for. But it’s like, I’m dealing with this zombie. This zombie with nice manners. It’s like, organize your whole life around avoiding confrontation, be it with another human being, be it with the physical world. It used to be, I’m not saying he couldn’t be a prick, but he was a good fuck.”
A professional actress would probably have found some unobtrusively convincing gestures, or maybe have paced restlessly up and down, but Baker’s ex just talks unstoppably on.
She says: “It wasn’t really about the money. When we started out he was unknown. He was fun. Crazy but fun. I never knew what would happen next. When you have a kid you do need some financial predictability, yes. But it’s like, all of a sudden, the goal is just to be this bastion of normality. The goal is to put on this performance and get a round of applause for taking out the garbage. But see, it’s not as though there is actually a greater level of predictability, there’s still the same old shit, the difference is just, now there’s a person to interact with who’s really boring. Maybe that boring person was there all along, maybe the rest was just an act to cover up the fact of being boring, maybe alcohol was a necessary part of that act, but the thing is, it was a good act. There’s a reason people pay to see actors in movies rather than just spend time with the normal people they know. There’s a reason people don’t buy tickets to watch someone take out the trash.”
She says: “See, with the 12 Steps, there’s a step where someone comes and apologizes for all the anguish and tries to make amends. But nobody ever apologizes for being boring. The idea is, you make amends by being boring. And the kind of person who gets bored turns out to be the problem, this is the kind of person who pushes them toward alcohol in the first place.”
Scotty is in this frame of mind, it’s true, this kind of quiet pleasant unresponsive frame of mind where you don’t let people get to you, where you just reasonably proceed. Which, for sure, could be perceived as boring.
He says reasonably: “Well, I guess I was not claiming that stocking up on a year’s supply of groceries was interesting per se. The point is more the other way. There’s maybe twenty staples, at a guess, that remain stable over time. So it’s not necessary to make those twenty decisions repeatedly on a weekly basis, and link each cluster of decisions with a trip to the store to return with a handful of items. It’s possible instead to draw up a list of twenty items on one day, and have the items delivered and stored on a single day, and then that’s 363 days when you don’t have to think about them. When you could be thinking about something more interesting. Stuff like fresh produce and dairy, obviously, you can’t clear the deck in the same way. So the idea was just to find out the specific brands that you would prefer. Some people like creamy peanut butter, some like it chunky. Some like Skippy, some swear by Jif. Then there’s the whole cookies equation. Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Pecan Sandies. Pepperidge Farm Brussels, Milano.”
It’s true that he feels somewhat let down. He had this feeling, which in retrospect does look grandiose, of being able to fix the world, of coming in like a knight in shining armor, providing Baker’s ex with the level of provisioning he himself has come to value.
It’s also true that things that would have seized the imagination in his kilt-wearing days have a tendency to sit inertly in the social space.
She says: “Look. I can see that the intentions are good. I know he means well. But what if I decide to move? What if I get the chance to go to Acapulco? I can’t just get up and go, I have to dispose of 200 jars of peanut butter? So instead of just going I have to go on eBay with 200 jars of peanut butter? And package and ship 200 jars of peanut butter? Or find a subtenant who wants a house with 200 jars of peanut butter? Maybe I like being able to just walk out the door.”
Scotty had never really appreciated the full ballbreaking potential of Baker’s ex. He had imagined that this would be someone whose heart could be softened by a grand gesture, by indisputable evidence of Baker’s concern for her wellbeing and that of the kid. He had not imagined someone who was capable of finding cause for grievance in being offered the chance to slash her annual grocery shopping expeditions by $300 or so (assuming milk and fresh produce would still be required weekly, which he is beginning to doubt anyway given the level of indifference).
"Okay," he says wearily. He wants to get home. He wants to bunker down with some seven-year-old cheddar. "If it’s of any interest, it would not be a problem to guarantee removal at a week’s notice. If it’s not of interest, we’ll drop it."
He says: “Look, I’ll give you my card. If you decide this is something you want to do, send me your list of brands and I’ll take care of it.”
He gives her his card.
He can’t think about this.
He needs to go home and stop trying to make things happen.
He goes home in his white shirt and pants.
The head feels like it has rotten meat in the bonebox. He gets undressed, goes into the bathroom, from the putrid flesh comes this low-grade solution, he puts the power shower on cold and stands under it, brrrrrrrrrrrrr, but the water is pummeling his chest, he needs to control the nozzle. He hoicks the, this thing, this thing like the tail of an armadillo where it joins the animal. He holds it an inch from the skull. Fine needles of water prick the tight skin over the bone. He’s trying to clean the meat inside. The cold water buffets the bonebox.
He wants to go lie down.
He does lie down. She’s right, maybe, these days he feels good about himself if he just lies down instead of having a drink. That has to be a boring source of pride.
He lies there, damp head on the pillow, staring at the wall.
What he thinks is, Okay, but there was something I was definitely right about. I was definitely right about the quality of the sensation to me of having the motherfucking fridge full of cheddar.
This sentence actually trails through the meat in the bonebox like a worm, and you know it’s a pretty wormlike jointed sentence. Still, it will do to think the thought with.
About ten hours after the meeting with Baker’s ex he suddenly mentally replays the line about Baker formerly being a good fuck. He has no feeling about this line at all. No feeling, that is, about whether it was a pass or just a passing remark. The thing he knows for sure is, in his kilt-wearing days he would instantly have taken this for a pass and taken appropriate action. And whether it was a pass to begin with or not, the odds were that the novelty of close engagement with a man in a kilt would have made the result a foregone conclusion.
Couple things he remembers from what seems like a former life. (Former as in concluding with demise and interment.) Outside Scotland, he got the impression, women thought they might never get another chance to fuck a guy in a kilt. And even if they were going out with somebody it did not make that much of a difference, because fetishism does not feel like infidelity.
So, on the one hand, not fucking the ex of a guy who is not necessarily over her, this is arguably desirable behavior. On the other hand, not to even notice the possibility, or rather to only notice the possibility ten hours later, huh.
He’s unbelievably tired.
This is something that would once have been worrying, is the point, but now all he wants to do is sleep.
There’s a brand of cookie whose name he forgets, a chocolate biscuit with mint cream filling covered in dark chocolate. Man is that good.
Scott sees Baker at AA and explains the ballbreaker’s lack of enthusiasm.
"She said, What if she wanted to move to Acapulco."
"And was tied down by peanut butter."
"It’s hard to get edible peanut butter in Mexico," says Baker. "In Latin America the peanut butter has oil floating on top. She may not know that."
"It’s not hydrogenated," says Scotty. "In America, mainstream peanut butter is hydrogenated. Which they say is unhealthy, but you can’t expect a kid to eat peanut butter that has been excavated from under a pool of peanut oil."
"So if she was going long-term, taking Jack, she could do worse than to bring a suitcase of peanut butter."
"You’d expect her to do it for the sake of the kid," agrees Scotty.
"Whereas if she was just going for the weekend, having a supply of peanut butter in the house would not really tie her down."
"Totally," says Scotty. "But to tell the truth I — the problem is, these are rational arguments, and rationality seems to be something that she associates with AA. What I mean is, there were points that could have been made that it seemed best not to make."
"Well, that sounds familiar," says Baker. "Thanks for trying, anyway."
"Not a problem, dude," says Scotty.
"Though, if you’ve ever had Mexican food in Mexico, man. Why does anyone live north of the border? A real Mexican tortilla is out of this world. Maybe you shouldn’t let a kid eat peanut butter when he can have real Mexican food. Even if he wants to.”
"I don’t think that was the issue," says Scott.
"You worry about these things as a parent. You worry about being an asshole. Either, the kind of asshole who takes his kid overseas and takes the kid to McDonald’s, or the kind of asshole who takes his kid overseas and refuses to take the kid to McDonald’s. The kid did not ask to be taken overseas. The kid did not ask to be born. The kid found himself in a world full of horrors, the two bright spots being cartoons and the golden arches, and here you are trying to restrict access to TV and Ronald McDonald."
"It’s a tough call," says Scott.
"Not that it’s my call, these days," says Baker. "If Amy took him to Acapulco, though, thinking about it, she probably would just let him go to McDonald’s. If necessary. If they got down to Mexico and he turned out to think the locals were not up to the standard of Taco Bell."
"In some cultures McDonald’s can be like a breath of fresh air," says Scott. "There’s places where public playgrounds for kids are not part of the culture. You go to the McDonald’s, which has one of those net-enclosed playgrounds that to our eyes look all plastic and inferior to a genuine playground, and the families are congregating on the outside benches, it is one of the most popular places in town for kids.”
"Huh," says Baker.
"Morocco, for instance," says Scott. "I was there once during Ramadan, and McDonald’s was about the only place open during the day. There were families outside at the picnic tables who weren’t eating, they were just there so the kids could use the play area. Though in fact kids do not necessarily have to fast during the day."
He’s glad Amy is not here to hear this. A conversation which would probably confirm her assessment of the wit and sparkle to be expected of the AA confraternity.
Maybe Baker thinks the same thing.
He says: “Well, if she changes her mind, I’ll let you know. Thanks again.”
I saw pale kings and princes too
Pale warriors, death pale were they all
They cried — La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall
I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapéd wide
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side
Is maybe what Scott wants to say. That once he lived in a bright dream where people were vivid and full of life, and now he is on the cold hillside.
Point being, formerly, he would see the potential in people to glow. We do live in a world where the norm is to pass on the other side; if you turn an ear to what people are saying in their need they flare briefly alight, eyes aflame with belief in their own existence.
Now pale creatures pass him. This pale, quiet world is what there is. None of his concern.
The piece of meat does its calculations, and maybe it sees an opportunity here or there, but really the people who surround him are so flimsy and unreal, it’s hard to believe in engaging with them to the point of turning a profit.
So now, uh huh, he trades words back and forth with Baker, but this too is a pale prince.
It’s true, he is not deeply engaged with Baker’s problems in the way he would once have been. But then, he is not deeply engaged with his own problems. Maybe the point is, even if he makes a lot of money, all he can really envisage is a self like his present self having the enjoyment of it.
Scott goes home. He gets a thing of bacon out of the fridge. Fries four or five slices. Butters two slices of Wonder Bread, places two slices of Kraft’s American Processed Cheese between, adds the bacon, inserts the result in the sandwich toaster deal. (It sounds crazy, probably, but he did in fact stock up on Kraft’s American Processed Cheese, buying 100 72-slice packs @ $9.95 for a total of $995.00 (at 2 slices per day, a 10-year supply). Toasted cheese sandwiches are Ralph’s favorite food.) Ralph is nuzzling his legs all this time, purring like a steam engine.
Um, okay, no, not purring like, obviously, producing a sound that is more reminiscent of steam engine FX than your typical purr.
Cruel to be kind, Scotty forces the cat to wait till the sandwich has cooled; no way should a cat eat a piping hot toasted cheese sandwich with the liquid cheese close to boiling. Ralph meows pitifully.
The disenchanted meat in the bonebox can still respond on something like an emotional level to a cat, maybe because he never had much investment in cat personalities to begin with. Maybe because he never really went to much in the way of personal sacrifice for cats in the past, so there was never a dissonance between what he had done for his feline friends and what they had given him in return. To the best of his recollection, no cat had ever let him down. A cat does not promise fidelity in the way that a dog does, but the kind of person who tells you a cat is a selfish independent loner knows nothing about cats, or maybe is just the kind of person a cat doesn’t have much time for. (Kind of person who would not bother to fry bacon for their cat’s toasted cheese sandwich, probably.)
Scott slings the cat up over his shoulder and thwacks it. Ralph says Raorrr, raorrr, raorrr. His back arches up. His tail is going wild. He’s happily clawing Scotty’s sweatshirt. Scotty tests the sandwich, tears off a corner. The center is still molten cheese lava, but the corner is probably safe enough.
He puts Ralph on the counter, the kind of unhygienic practice single men are prone to. Drops the corner of toasted cheese sandwich, starts tearing off the cooling edges.
Hhhhurh, Hhhhhurh, Hhhhhhurh, says Ralph. (It’s partly the melted butter.)
The sandwich continues to cool. It’s getting better, from a cat’s point of view, as the cooling proceeds, because now there are morsels of bacon and thick runny cheese, hhhurh.
While Ralph chows down, Scott cuts himself a big old chunk of 84-month-old cheddar and spreads it with Bonne Maman.
Strange that Kraft has never advertised the popularity of toasted cheese sandwiches among cats. Should he tell them? Nah.
The sentence “I’m unbelievably tired” drifts up from the meat.
He takes out the trash.
Ralph has finished his sandwich and wants another.
"Now see here, Ralph," says Scott. "You know how many calories there are in one of them things? There’s grown women who wouldn’t touch a toasted cheese sandwich with a barge pole. I’m talking women who see 105 as their ideal weight but can live with 110, and they know if they start indulging in toasted cheese sandwiches it’s all over. These are women who would see even one toasted cheese sandwich as an impossibility, let alone two. So just how do you think a fifteen-pound cat can get away with that?”
"Well, I’ll tell you what," says Scott. "Seems to me one toasted cheese sandwich per diem is more than enough for a cat, but what I’ll do is, I’ll give you some smoked salmon, which is pure protein and full of Omega-3 oils."
He loots the fridge for salmon, cuts three strips into squares and puts them in Ralph’s bowl. Hhhhhurh. Hhhhhurh. Hhhhhhurh.
The kind of person who sees a cat as an asocial loner is probably not being over-generous with the smoked salmon, either.
He goes to the bedroom, pulls off the sweatshirt, ditches his pants. It’s a clear bright day. He closes the Venetian blinds. He drops to the bed. Darkness claims him.
Something he’s starting to understand?
As you drift through life you’re often struck, or anyway he was often struck, by the dumb-ass ideas people come up with expecting to make a buck, or even mega-bucks. Not cool-ass ideas like RetailRelay.com, but the motley commercial jetsam you come across at the average strip mall. Kind of thing you see stretching out to eternity up the Rockville Pike. Who doesn’t tune out a paint-your-own-ceramics store, with never a thought for the hopes and dreams tied up in this dumb-ass enterprise? Who doesn’t just tune out bead stores? Who even pays any attention to a store selling stencils and customized rubber stamps?
Now it’s starting to make a whole lot of sense.
The ideas that come limping into the maggoty meat have strip mall written all over them.
It’s like, suddenly even committing to premises in a strip mall has the power to daunt. Suddenly some kind of small outfit on wheels, thing like a hot dog stand, thing like those pretzel stands you see in parks, this seems like all the brain could reliably be put in charge of.
That’s part of it. But the real point of commonality is, when you pass a strip mall, what you’re seeing is people who imagined a whole market out there in the world of people just as pathetic as they were. Enough pathetic people so that a store catering to the needs of pathetic people could cover its overheads and turn a profit. And it’s not just one store that was inspired by its proprietor’s belief in a population of humble needs, it’s one dumb-ass outfit after another across the whole country. And now he can be part of it. Dream up a population as useless as his unkilted self and see a way to a profit by meeting its lame-ass needs.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake
And no birds sing
Baker says: “The thing about acting. It’s not just the words. You slot into place all the habits, and then you inhabit. It’s a way of putting aside the self you normally drag around with the body. Each time you do it you wonder whether you really have to go back. There’s an intensity to it, working with other actors, all those people who have put aside their selves; the characters are as fresh and exciting as a hotel, or a vacation home. It’s like having sex with strangers. You get so you can’t live without it. But to get to the part, to get to the point of standing in front of the camera, you have to get through a lot of stuff. And what happens is, somebody wants to use you, but then your agent says, No, I can’t let you do it for what they’re offering. So they use someone else. And you’re stuck in this thing, this you.”
He says: “If you work with a great director. It’s like a great coach, someone who can get a performance out of people. Someone who can get people to surpass themselves.”
He says: “Coming down is hard. The old self feels unreal. Like sleeping in your bedroom when you were a kid. I mean, going back to the bedroom you slept in as a kid.”
He later says: “You have the feeling, interacting with people, that it’s a lackluster performance on the part of all concerned.”
When the timer pings its little bell the speaker is allowed to finish the sentence. So Baker does finish the sentence, not that it’s going to help much. No discernible change of heart from the ballbreaker.
Scott is mentally already elsewhere. When he gets home he can have a big old hunk of seven-year-old cheddar. In the bonebox the image of a Smeg packed with five-pound slabs of cheese just stands solidly in the folded meat. That gets him through the closing pieties.
Time was he was quite the raconteur.
Helen DeWitt was born in a suburb of Washington, D.C. in 1957. Her father joined the Foreign Service in 1960, and she grew up primarily in South America. She has a B.A. in Literae Humaniores and a D.Phil. in Greek and Latin Literature from the University of Oxford. Her first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books and subsequently in nineteen other countries. A Guggenheim Fellowship (2006-7) supported work on Risk, a novel incorporating the information design of Edward Tufte (in progress). She has collaborated with the painter Ingrid Kerma on the show “Blushing Brides,” with journalist Ilya Gridneff on the novel Your Name Here, and with artist Elizabeth McAlpine on “Plantinga” for Photomonth Krakow. Her most recent novel, Lightning Rods, was published by New Directions in 2011.
All rights reserved by the author.