Richard sat down at his desk for the fourth time that day and stared at the blinking cursor, counting them. He tried a couple of different things: batting his eyelashes in time with the blinks, holding his breath for twelve, thirteen, even fourteen blinks. He tapped his index finger against the desktop twice for every blink and liked that the rap of his fingertip against the wood sounded like a heartbeat, maybe even his own. Several times, he tried to lose focus of the cursor by allowing the page to blur, an occupation that took a great deal of effort from his eyeballs to the point it started giving him a migraine. It was then that he took his next break. He needed ibuprofen, a new beverage, a couple of crackers and perhaps a slice of the summer sausage he spied in the pantry earlier that morning. He pushed away from his desk, the familiar squeak of his rolling, faux-leather chair distinctly audible in his otherwise quiet office.
“Ten more minutes,” he said to the giant, Mane Coon cat that lazed indifferently in the antique chaise his wife had purchased for him ten years ago at an estate sale.
“For breaks,” she had said when she presented it to him.
He had looked at both her and the chaise skeptically. It didn’t look the least bit comfortable; it was overstuffed, the once-amber-colored stain had worn away in several spots and the front leg on the left side looked like some small animal had chewed on it quite regularly. He ventured it was a small dog, a Pekinese maybe, judging by the look of the couch whose owner was once probably a lover of small dog breeds, afternoon golf-lessons at the local country club, and monogrammed towels that hung in the bathroom and looked pretty but were not particularly useful. He had told her as much. She scoffed a bit and mumbled something about it being well-loved and if he didn’t appreciate it (or her) he could certainly figure out something else to do with it (he thought there was some mention of his arse but it could have been his imagination).
His wife had been born and raised in Essex and was a lover of antiques, proclaiming that most of her purchased items had most-likely derived from England in the first place and should rightfully be “reclaimed” by a proper ancestor. He didn’t argue. However, after her third high-boy purchase in nine-months-time he put an end to the foyer clutter by suggesting she open her own shop where she could not only purchase to her heart’s content but sell as well. He even showed her how she might be able to use the Internet to trace some of the antique’s genealogy (if there was such a thing) to give her sales historic validity. With a small portion of their savings from their 403(b), they rented a small shop on Main Street and opened up for business just prior to Christmas in 1998. Her shop, Essex on Main, was an almost instant success. To Richard’s relief, his house was soon emptied of all but the most favored antiques, the scent of Murphy’s oil becoming less pronounced even as the last high-boy went out the door. He kept the chaise. It was comfortable, after all, and quite suitable for breaks, his arse and his cat.
Upon his return to his desk, Richard set his plate of sliced summer sausage, rich gouda cheese and mini rice cakes (he could not find the crackers) down on the placemat his wife had so thoughtfully purchased for him to use in order to preserve the wood finish of the desk. He had told her it didn’t matter, that the desk was not even twenty years old, and oak, to boot, but she would have none of it. Her motto: What was once beautiful will remain so even after hundreds of years if given the proper care. He thought the practice of using the placemat rather absurd until he left his “I love New York” mug on the desk for the better part of two days and removed it only to find it had left an indelible ring of water on the desk’s surface. He now used the placemat and it was placed accurately on the desk to help cover his ignorance. He looked at the cursor; it was blinking, ready, waiting. He batted his eyelashes twice. He was off a beat. He cursed the cursor. He remembered someone telling him to write down the word, “chicken” continually if he needed assistance. He tried it out:
Chicken chickenchickenchickenchicken chicken chicken CHICKEN
He opened the desk drawer to extract one of his favorite roller-ball ink pens and grabbed a yellow legal pad from his file-less file cabinet. Testing out the smooth surface, he wrote down his name, allowing the flow of black ink to glide effortlessly out of the pen.
He contemplated the derivatives of his name and wondered how the last came to be. He was the third of a family of Richards. His father was Rich, his grandfather, Richard. When he was in grade school his mother called him Richie and up until his death, he was known to his father as Dick. He changed it back to Richard shortly thereafter not so much in defiance of his father but to recognize the absurdity of being called “Professor Dick” by his students or colleagues. He was convinced that the name would surely have a negative impact upon his literary and professional career, and he was probably right.
chicken chicken chicken
Glancing towards the placemat, he noticed that his supply of summer sausage was a bit low and he had already gone through the cheese. The rice cakes were still abundant and he picked one up, gnawing on the edge like a patient field mouse. They were horrible. He wondered how they arrived in his house, and as he examined the puffed rice puck he remembered that Lizzie had purchased them a short while back after one of her therapy sessions. The doctor had recommended them to quell the nausea that each session induced. He sighed and took a real bite of the rice cake. Matzo, he thought, tasted better than this, but if Lizzie could endure it so could he. A few crumbs fell from his mouth onto the yellow pad and he looked down at it, observing the emptiness of the paper and the loneliness it exuded. He reached blindly for his beverage and brought it to his lips. The ice cubes rattled haphazardly against the glass as he tried to take a drink, offering him only the slightest amount of liquid to satiate his thirst. In the hallway, the grandfather clock struck the five and the twelve, announcing the time with painful precision. Richard counted the rings and then waited. Nothing. He needed a break.
When he returned to his desk, the sun had already begun to set, shadows beginning to creep up in the corners of his office like slowly growing vines. Charlemagne rose from the chaise and arched his back, his paws kneading gently into the cushion before he jumped down, his weight offering a slight thud on the hardwood floor.
“Fluffy?” Lizzie had offered, stroking the kitten’s fur. “Hairball?”
She had brought the kitten home with a Tiffany lamp. The lamp owner had conveniently persuaded Lizzie to take one of the last kittens from the litter and Lizzie, being a lover of antiques and cats didn’t hesitate, despite Richard’s preference for dogs, large ones, especially. He never owned a dog, finding his yard inadequate for such a charge, but he remembered the farm his grandfather once owned and his three hunting dogs that ran endlessly through the fields beyond the farmhouse. As a boy, he often visited his grandfather and the three dogs obediently followed him while he explored the countryside. He felt confident in their presence and that gave him the assurance to venture a little farther from the farm than his grandfather or his parents would knowingly allow. At the fishing pond, the dogs would often flank him while he sat waiting, their patience equally matched with their enthusiasm when he would make a catch. He loved those dogs like they were his own, and he looked forward to the freedom that the farm, his grandfather and the dogs permitted him; it was a welcome change from the congested streets of New York City.
Lizzie was careful to offer the lamp first, showing Richard how nice it would look on the end table in his office.
“Such rich color,” she remarked. “The light is perfect for reading and writing.”
He had been sitting behind his desk when she turned it on and the stained glass brightened from the 60-watt bulb underneath. It was a beautiful lamp and he was about to thank her when he saw the kitten, walking in the door as though he knew it was his turn to be introduced. The kitten sniffed the air a bit and sat down; mewing softly up at Lizzie and then turning it’s green eyes on him.
“What’s that?” Richard asked.
“A cat.” Lizzie looked at Richard, cocking her head slightly as if that was the dumbest question he had ever asked. It probably was and as he realized it, he revised his question.
“Whose cat is that? Where did it come from?”
“It’s our cat dear, and it came from 33rd street. The lady with the lamp. You get the lamp, I get the cat.”
“Oh,” Richard said, knowing from Lizzie’s answer that this wasn’t up for debate. “Um, okay. Does it have a name?”
She picked up the kitten and cradled it underneath her arm, stroking its head. “Not yet,” she said, “but we’ll think of something.” She left then, and the kitten hung limp by her side, purring. It was Richard who finally christened the cat with the name, Charlemagne. After observing the kitten’s intent on ruling the house he could only deduce that this cat, in one of it’s nine lives, had once been some sort of royalty, a king of kings perhaps, and therefore, could only be named as such. Lizzie was delighted.
When they diagnosed the cancer it was already well advanced. The doctor’s percentage of Lizzie making it past one year was less than fifty. Upon hearing the news Richard was angry, firing questions one by one at a doctor who had probably heard it all and could do nothing more than answer all but one: why. Why Lizzie? The clinical answer was not enough and could not provide comfort to Richard no matter how many times he asked, not just of the doctor but also of himself. Lizzie, on the other hand, was complacent. She accepted her fate as though it were nothing. Perhaps she knew already, having had a grandmother who shared the same diagnosis. Either way, she kept moving through the next eight months without disdain for the unfairness of her life. The cancer moved through her body systematically. It removed first the left breast and then the right. Shortly thereafter, it claimed one organ after another until there was nothing left to hold onto. And then, as quickly as it had come it was over, memories of Lizzie lingering forever in a desk, a lamp, a chaise and a cat.
He turned back to his pad and tore off the top page, crumpling it up and throwing it in the trash, determined. He could do this. He had won the Pen award for god’s sake. He was a well-known author and respected professor at NYU. He looked up. The cursor was still blinking, commanding attention in its frozen position on the screen. Frustrated, he turned off the computer, not bothering to shut the program or computer down properly. He turned back to his yellow legal pad, pen poised dauntingly above the faint blue lines. He wrote the first line:
Elizabeth Lauren Hughes: 1957-2006
And then the second:
Beloved wife, mother, friend.
Copyright: Joie Norby Lê, 2007 from Soundtrack. To be read with Pearl Jam's "Nothingman."