A Collection of Short Literature

The Perceptionist


In 1972 Theodore Roosevelt wakes to the itchy discomfort of percolating sweat at the small of his back. Sara Roosevelt coughs a little in her sleep as he slips out of bed and pads across the hardwood out into the hallway. The Roosevelt house is whispering a little as it settles in the stillness of the night. There’s a light on in the room to his left. Anna has fallen asleep with a book clamped to her chest, her glasses skewed comically as they slid unevenly down to the tip of her nose. He frowns and shakes his head, plucking them gracefully from behind her ears and folding them on her night stand. As he switches off the light and lifts the book slowly away from her arms, golden strands slide reluctantly from the novel, drifting fitfully back against her shoulders. Anna readjusts as the weight of the book leaves her, and then curls slowly away from the cold air at the door, her mind muffled and reeling from R.E.M. Theodore knows that she will cough like her mother, jutting her jaw out a little as her nostrils swell to accommodate the intake of air. He knows she will wake up and go to the bathroom in a few minutes; knows the spider that will scurry, bulging in pregnancy, across the face of the bathroom mirror; the sudden grope for oxygen that comes before a scream; the fear that will jostle Michael awake in his arms. ‘So that’s what kind of night it is’, he thinks, and goes to hold his son so that he will not be afraid when his sister wakes him.
Anna screams and Michael’s tiny face curls a little with surprise. Theo whispers almost words and coos and smells the top of his son’s head as he plants ghost kisses. Michael unfurls and gives a single tentative breath of relief. They hear Sara land as she vaults out of bed, the haze of sleep rebuffed by maternal instinct. Footsteps pound into the bathroom where Anna is swearing that it was the biggest spider she’s ever seen in her life, and she didn’t mean to but it just happened, and she’s sorry and just wanted a glass of water. Soon, the inarticulate syllables of hushed yelling are lulling Theodore’s son back to sleep, and the whole household is sliding back into stillness. Solemn little gasps from the floorboards brush passed Sara’s feet as she creeps down the hall. She stands in the shade of the doorway so that moonlight will not touch her face.
“I don’t like waking up to an empty bed.”
Theo says, “I know, I’m sorry.” But what he thinks is, ‘In six years, four months and ten days you will tell me you’ve never felt like you can trust me and you will remind me of tonight and I came in here to hold our son when he was afraid.’ He lowers Michael back into his crib. He goes to his wife and smells the top her head as he plants ghost kisses. “I just wanted to see him.” She nods, and the only light in the darkness of her face is the glint of her eyes.
“Alright, I’m going back to bed. Please, talk to Anna in the morning.”
“I was going to anyway, she was up reading.”
“Like father, like daughter. Come back to bed soon.” As Sara leaves she shuts the door so that it rests against the frame but does not close. Michael sniffs a little and his minute fingers clench at his sheets. His father stands over him and watches the pattern of his breathing. Something in his neck trembles, and he turns to face the broad and thinly paned window of his son’s room. Darkness flickers in the corner of his eye, and a primordial twinge in the back of his head, like a clasp on the shoulder, pushes him over Michael’s crib. There’s no sabertooth tiger behind him. The jostle from his father makes Michael roll a little, and his eyes open and his pupils are so thick and wide in the blink that he’s awake that Theodore almost forgets about the flicker in the darkness in the room behind his shoulders. But he doesn’t, and he lifts his son into his arm, and turns back to face the window. There’s nothing there, nothing but the night and the street light on the corner and the woman crying at the base of the hill and the man dying by the waterfront and the child being born in Tacoma. Theo takes his boy with him to bed and sleeps easily.
The arch-angel Gabriel is at breakfast. Its legs are crossed as Theodore enters the kitchen, and its cheeks give way to a smile that cuts from one earlobe to the other.
Sara is cooking. Theo grabs the paper, and the angel leans so close that Theo can feel where its breath should be. It starts to whisper.
“You know where I just came from? You’ll never believe it Teddy. I was in Laos. Beautiful countryside when peasants aren’t being executed on the roads.”
Sara walks over and scrapes breakfast onto his plate. The toaster pops.
“Refugees have started lying on their stomachs so that their families can drink the morning dew off their backs. It’s really something to see. How are your eggs? They smell amazing.”
Sara brings over a cup of coffee and puts it down. Theodore knows that all the porcelain will break in an earthquake a few years before he dies so he takes special pleasure in the heft and texture of the mug. He pulls out the chair Gabriel is perched on. Sara sits.
“Not very hospitable.” Says Gabriel from where its standing on the table. “I come here and talk to you and all you do is eat breakfast and sip coffee and have your wife sit on me.” Sara talks about going to her parents’ on the weekend; Theo nods in time to the beat and drains his cup. She gets him more without him asking. Gabriel puts its hands on its knees, its wings buffet impatiently out into the air, brushing the pans that hang from the ceiling. Sara wrinkles her nose and closes the window.
“Come on Teddy, ask me. It’s all you can think about, it’s the only thing you’ve ever wondered about in your whole life. Why don’t you do what everyone else does and ask someone who knows more than you? Come on, do it; I won’t leave you alone until you do.” Theo sighs and grabs a piece of toast. He spreads jelly on it and Sara asks for the sports section. He passes it to her between bites. “The other week, this reminded me of you, I was in Brussels and I checked in on an artist friend of mine and he threw himself out a window. He was trying to take a picture of the moment that he would realize, with absolute certainty, that he was going to die, but didn’t set the camera timer right; all it got were drapes in the wind. In his mind though, the moment before he hit the ground, he’d done something perfect, he’d changed the world.”
Theo has finished his breakfast. Sara puts down the newspaper. She takes his plate and stacks it on her own and goes to do the dishes. While she’s washing Theo kisses her on the neck and wraps his arms around her stomach. They conceive their second son over the sink while the arch-angel Gabriel reads the Seattle Times sports section. Afterwards, Theo tells her he’s going to have a cigarette in the basement. He leaves the kitchen and Gabriel follows him, smiling its smile.
The paint on the hinges of the basement door wrinkles and sheds miniscule flakes. The stairs are worn with the cold that radiates from the basement floor. Theo passes under a naked bulb and pulls its chord. Light showers across a vast cement slab, casting a shadow that falls awkwardly through Gabriel. Theo knows that in eleven years Sara will hang herself down here. She will have him committed a month before hand and he will be eating pudding and watching the clock when she does it. In 1972 Gabriel taps his foot to the rhythm of Sara as she swings like a metronome in 1983. Theo looks up at him and lights a cigarette.
“Well, I’m waiting Teddy. Ask me. Ask me what you saw in the corner of your eye last night.” Theo blows a ring of smoke that drifts over Gabriel’s head. “That’s why you came down here Teddy. Don’t try and deny it. We both know it, all you need is a little gumption, a little push.” Theo pretends like he’s going to say something and then exhales a sharp little cloud. “Cute, but you need me today Teddy. You need me and all you have to do is acknowledge me. What are you afraid of Teddy? You’re going to be committed. Talking to me isn’t going to change that Teddy, so why does it matter?” Gabriel’s voice suddenly sinks into the voice of Theodore’s father and coos, “c’mon, Teddy, one word for papa, just one word.” Theo laughs and snubs out the cigarette, half finished, onto the cement. “You’ve got a sick sense of humor Teddy, you’re a pervert, a pervert waiting to be exposed.” Theo murders the lights and heads back upstairs alone.
Tyler Jarmusch is sitting in his unmarked blue and white while Theo stands outside and stares at a billboard.
“Yeah, we’re at it, I’m looking at it right now” says Jarmusch into his radio. “No, I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. Not graffiti, no. Well, what for? Alright, find out, but I’m not taking anyone in unless you have something you can make stick. No… no, I don’t think it’s funny. I’m not taking anyone in unless you have something you can make stick. Well then he can order me to himself, I’ve got principles, ethics.” Tyler helps move copious amounts of hashish through the Canadian border; he has two mistresses. “Well, because you can’t go around arresting people for what they write down, this is Seattle not St. Petersburg. It’s definitely not slander. Then find something that we can make stick. Hold on, let me ask Theo.” Tyler opens his door and calls, “what about inciting a riot? How will we do with inciting a riot?” Theodore Roosevelt shakes his head and Tyler Jarmusch shuts his door. “Theo says it won’t stick. I don’t care what he told you, you tell him Theo says it won’t stick. Okay good, I will.” Theo walks around the hood of the car and stares down both sides of the highway. Morning rush hour. The passing traffic whips his tie up over his shoulder where it slaps at his face; he ignores it and climbs into the passenger seat.
“What are we doing Tyler?”
“We’re waiting while they find out who put it up.” Tyler doesn’t start the car. “You wouldn’t happen to know, would you?”
“Why would I know? I’ve never even noticed it before.” Theo does know, he’s always known, and he’s always noticed the billboard.
“Why would you notice it, it got put up overnight?” The two men sit in silence until Tyler turns the ignition and country music busts calmly through the speakers. “Alright, I need coffee.”
Tyler sings along to choruses and smokes a cigarette. Theo tries to sleep. The world along Interstate 5 fluctuates with the music. Patches of suburbia mingle gracelessly with the forest. Trailer parks are erupting into communities, neighborhoods are trickling into slums. The recession permeates everything. It’s in the smoke in the sky and the sound of the asphalt. It tastes like copper and smells like powdered sugar. In the distance, Tyler is talking about something as Theo loses consciousness.
They stop in front of a street vendor near the courthouse. Tyler gets out and orders the drinks and Theo dozes, flitting between states of being. A call comes in over the radio, lancing Theo back to consciousness. He reaches across the car and rolls down the driver’s side window, “we have a name.”
Tyler is holding coffee in both hands and clenching a stir between his teeth. He nods at Theo to open the door and then drops heavily into his seat. He stretches a Styrofoam cup towards Theo without turning around. “Who is it? Wait no, let me guess, some nigger poet from the CD.”
“You’re a third of the way there.”
“Gimme a hint.”
“She’s not black.”
“A woman? What a world. Well then, she sounds like Capital Hill to me, the apartments facing the city, not the residential side.”
“You have a gift.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Tyler pivots on his ass and shuts the door. The two men sit quietly and drink their coffee. Theo uncrinks his neck and lights a cigarette.
The apartments are old. The plumbing’s all shot and the wiring makes them vintage pre-ware deathtraps. The two men get out and don’t feed the meter. When they buzz the basement apartment they get nothing. Tyler looks to Theo and Theo nods at Tyler. He buzzes the apartment again, and this time a voice comes gargling back. “Who,” it says, but not like it’s asking anyone in particular.
“This is Detective Jarmusch of the SPD, I was wondering if you could answer a few questions.”
The door unlocks and both men move inside. The color of the hallway matches Tyler’s suit, which has a modern cut at the sleeves and neck. It’s meant to be worn open. They take the stairs two flights down. Theo starts to knock but before he can hit the door twice it swings open. Clementine Dowd stands in front of him, wearing only an apron and a pair of glasses. “I’m sorry Ms. Dowd, we can wait a few minutes while you put something on.”
She cocks her head, and gives Theodore a look. “I have something on.” There are freckles on the tops of her breasts. Theo can hear Tyler’s shoes squeak as he clenches his feet. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”
“I’m Detective Roosevelt, this is my partner, Detective Jarmusch, we were wondering if we could have a few moments of your time.”
“I let you in, didn’t I?” Smoke passes through the air behind her.
“She did,” a voice calls out, “I saw her do it.” Someone else laughs.
“Did you purchase a billboard on I-5 last week?” She nods yes. Her eyelashes are thick and she wears no makeup. “Did you print a message on it sometime in the last 12 hours.” The right corner of her mouth dances a little.
“You mean the one that reads, ‘would the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?’ Yes,” she says, “that was me.” A man walks passed the door, naked except for the chrysanthemums painted across his chest and back.
“Is there a man inside your apartment who is naked except for chrysanthemums painted on his chest and back?” Tyler asks these kinds of questions all the time, and it frustrates Theo because everyone already knows that there is a man inside Clementine Dowd’s apartment who is naked except for the chrysanthemums painted across his chest and back, even Tyler.
“Yes,” she says, “there is.”
“Why those particular words, Ms. Dowd?”
“She was trying to incite a riot!” Calls the same voice as before. More laughter. Clementine turns her head and twists her back to glare at someone in the recesses of her studio apartment. A garbage truck backs into the alley at the end of the hall. The detectives can trace the line of Clementine’s spine all the way to her right ass cheek; can hear the man who is naked except for chrysanthemums root through the refrigerator. Theodore knows that Clementine is glaring at her lover, who will leave her in four months for San Francisco, where he will die in a city park in 1987.
She faces them again, “It was a statement.”
“About what, Ms. Dowd?”
“Public perception of the economic bust.” She doesn’t even blink.
“Alright, I think that will be all.” Tyler puts away the pad of paper he hasn’t written anything on. Theo nods.
“Am I in any kind of trouble, detectives?”
“No,” says Tyler smiling, “this is Seattle not St. Petersburg.” In Clementine’s eyes she cringes a little and then turns back to Theo.
“I like your suit.” It’s black. The hallway is brown.
The supermarket smells like apathy. The old woman in front of Theo in line smells like old woman. She stares at the prices of her items as they pop up in the cash register’s display, the little painted tabs piling on top of each other until she can’t keep them straight in her head; 75 cents, 55 cents, one dollar and 35 cents. The price of tuna is up. She pays slowly, like she expects someone to intervene. Theo knows that no one ever will.
The cashier is a tired looking woman with the ghost of a mustache. When she smiles it looks like she’s going to bite someone, which reminds Theo of Gabriel. He pays for his groceries and takes them out into the parking lot, eyeing the steaks Sara will overcook for dinner. He pulls a six pack of Pabst from the bottom of one of the bags and throws it into the passenger seat. The setting sun casts strange light across the dash, highlighting the dust that rotates in the air in oscillating shades of orange. Theo grabs a Pabst and cracks it open.
In 1979 Theo’s daughter is losing her virginity three cars away. She cries out a little from time to time as she wrestles in the darkness. The boy she’s with apologizes awkwardly between breaths and sweats on her shoulders.
Theo cracks another beer and sips at it and lets it sit on his tongue, taking so long to drink it that the light has almost gone.
Seven hours later Theodore bats the sleep from his eyes, confused, and for the second time in as many days, surprised. Michael. Sara rolls over, “will you go see what he wants? He likes it when you hold him.”
Theo says, “he likes it when you hold him too,” but pulls sleep from his eyes and gets out of bed. The tops of his feet tingle like there is electricity in the air. Michael isn’t bawling, but is wailing, taking measured breaths and sending long forlorn tones into the black. ‘He cries like a widow,’ thinks Theo.
The door is ajar, resting against the frame but not closed. Theo pulls it open and is startled by the cold of the staircase as it streams through his boxers and then scrambles back into the rest of the house. He walks inside and Michael falls silent; he’s standing on the crib, leaning against the rail, eyes trained on the far corner. Theo follows the child’s eyes but catches on nothing. As he turns to lay down his son, he feels it again, the something, the twinge that makes the hair on his neck stand and his breathing double. Slowly, Theo turns back to the corner. Darkness there thickens and blackens, so that in its center it falls away to nothing. He moves towards the writhing shadow, squinting hard and lifting an arm tentatively towards its surface. The shade retreats into itself, pulsing lightly. He presses the flesh of his right hand to the wall, and skews his fingers, and it is warm. Theo backs towards the crib and father and son stare at the incubating absence together, until it is just another facet of the room, like the wallpaper or the rocking chair or the cold.
There is a long moment in which Theodore feels night-blind, and he us uncertain of everything, and only his senses report through the quiet of the house. When it passes Theodore Roosevelt knows nothing about his son. He sets Michael down in his crib and smells the top of his head and plants ghost kisses. He climbs down the stairs, numb to the cold that lingers there, and walks into the kitchen where the arch-angel Gabriel is waiting.
“It’s about time Teddy. I was worried, really I was. Are you ready? Are you ready to ask?”
In 1987 Clementine Dowd’s lover overdoses in San Francisco. In 1983 Theo is eating pudding and watching the clock. In 1979 Anna is losing her virginity in a supermarket parking lot. In 1973 Theodore Roosevelt Jr. is passing through his mother’s birth canal. In 1972 the arch-angel Gabriel leaves Teddy alone in the kitchen of the Roosevelt house.
-10/08

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Writer from the American Northwest