Fiction January 2004

An Incomplete Map of the Northern Polarity

If you were to ask George why he loves Margaret, he would say, "Because she's so mean to me."
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Please answer the following questions completely and with attention to detail; explain your answers and give examples. Use reverse side if necessary.

  • What household tasks do you do?
    My housekeeping tends to be project-based. Sometimes the standard vacuum-floor and do-laundry projects, but also such things as stripping paint off walls and removing furniture from premises. Sometimes I tend to let things like basic cleanliness fall off, leave food to rot, concentrate instead on "larger" tasks. I recently installed a pull-up bar in my closet.

Day one. A woman is speaking to him through his receiver. Answering the phone seems like such an obvious thing, but sometimes George forgets how it works: ringpick upHelloI'm talking on the telephone. The woman's name is Lynda, and she's calling from Citibank. She says, "Listen, George, can I ask you a personal question?" Lynda's voice has an edge this afternoon. Of all the people who call George, Lynda is usually the kindest. Normally she asks, "How are you, dear?" or "Is everything okay?" before getting down to business. Now George sits through Lynda's pause and clenches the cord between his teeth in the uncertain half hope that it will electrocute him. She asks, "What color is the sky in your world?"

George holds the telephone away from his ear and thinks. He takes this question seriously, feeling he should answer it correctly. Usually George's conversations with Lynda have to do with money, which isn't much fun to talk about but at least has the advantage of being straightforward. This new question seems complex—philosophical, epistemological, meteorological—and is almost certain to be a trick. "I don't know," he says. He honestly doesn't.

He hangs up the phone.

  • Do you have difficulty getting these tasks done? Yes. If so, please describethese difficulties. It's often very challenging for me to do household chores as simpleas washing dishes. The cycle may sound familiar: I feel bad, so I don't wash, but not washing makes me feel worse. I've started buying paper plates, but even those fester when the garbage isn't taken out. Maggots appear.

Taped to the receiver is a sign in neat calligraphy that reads Do Not Answer. George can't seem to take even his own advice.

He stands. Something is different inside his apartment. He examines the walls, which are bare, the Sheetrock exposed. The beige carpet has been worn to a near brown; half of it has been torn up, revealing a hardwood floor, the nails of which have started to work their way out. A patch of flooring has been sanded down and the nails hammered back in. The door to each room—bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom—has been removed from its hinges. Only the front door remains. No, nothing has changed inside George's apartment. Something is different inside his head. Now that he's noticed it, he knows it's been there, nagging quietly, for several weeks. Trips to the doctor are supposed to make you better, not worse. To which of the earth's magnetic poles, he wonders, is my mind about to wander? Northern movement can be such an advantage (social bravado, home-improvement inspirations), whereas during a trip south he's usually encamped in his bed for the duration. There be dragons here.

  • Does anyone help you? No. If yes, how? N/A.

The room is way too bright. George has seated himself on the floor, and from there he can see all the objects: paper clips, plastic Army men, complete and incomplete copies of applications for jobs and disability benefits, appeals to the unemployment people. Hanging from a fixture in the ceiling, two 100-watt bulbs illuminate the room from behind a frosted-glass screen. George reaches for a cardboard box and pulls it closer to him; he fishes around inside for his slingshot. He made it last month. The handle is fashioned from the wooden stand of a lamp he bought a few years ago at the Ikea in Seattle. The prongs are two spoons, soldered together with bulbous globs of metal. The rest of it is assembled from surgical tubing and a leather coin purse he found on the sidewalk on Hawthorne Boulevard. He arms the slingshot with a ball bearing (he has seemingly hundreds to choose from, spread around him on the floor as if in constant anticipation of a cartoon stumble), takes aim, and fires at the light. The frosted-glass screen shatters, littering the floor with tiny shards. One of the light bulbs cracks, and the filament within it dies. George looks at the floor: Army men besieged by a rain of glass.

  • Do you shop? Yes. How often and for what? Since I began getting my food at the local food bank, I no longer shop at grocery stores. However, I still find myself drawn to them. I spend approx. 2-5 hours a week in the supermarket, examining the products, standing and smelling the weird draft of the freezers. Every four to six months I seem to enter an acquisitive phase, during which I fill my apartment with items bought at thrift and secondhand stores. Most of the things I buy have little or no apparent value: I recently purchased a soldering iron with a corncob handle for fifty cents (I already own two of the regular kind). These acquisitive phases are usually followed by periods of expurgation.
  • Do you have problems with shopping? Yes. Describe. See above.

George sweeps the glass and the men and the ball bearings into a pile in the middle of the floor. Then he goes outside to find his truck. Since the people from Toyota started calling, George has been parking it several blocks from his building. Eventually they will find it.

Rimsky's café is hidden away and doesn't have a sign, which makes it appear to be an exclusive club. Nevertheless, it's usually pretty crowded. Classical music is always playing, sometimes a live pianist, and each table is named for a different composer. George's favorite place to sit is Rachmaninoff, but this evening two hipster kids are there, sharing a tiramisu. He takes a chair at Haydn and opens a book—two weeks past due at the Multnomah County Library—about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. He's not really reading.

George has come to Rimsky's because he's in love with one of the girls who work here. He knows practically nothing about her. She's probably in her early twenties, at least ten years younger than George. He knows her name is Margaret, but he calls her Rosetta. She is what George considers a challenging beauty: she has a long nose that ends in a pointed slope; her eyes peer off, just slightly, in different directions; her hips seem to be on an even plane with her narrow shoulders and her widely planted feet. She carries herself with a post-teen disaffection that hangs in the air before her like a neon sign reading YOU MAY THINK I'M UGLY, BUT I THINK YOU'RE STUPID. If you were to ask George why he loves Margaret, he would say, "Because she's so mean to me." But that would be a lie. He loves her because she's mean to everyone else.

  • How often and for how long do you usually read? Usually, I lose concentration after fifteen or twenty minutes.Sometimes, during hypomanic phases, I'll go on "research binges," during which I'll check out several books on a single subject (fifteenth-century woodcuts, for example, or Chinese cuisine) and read them obsessively. This is rare.

George is looking at a chapter he suspects he may have read several times before. He can't tell. Margaret is standing over him, holding a pot of coffee. Without looking up he says, "Rosetta." He says it with an accent, although he doesn't know what accent, so she's unlikely to recognize it, which probably means that he sounds like a jackass. He turns a page in his book, just for show. "Rosalee," he says. "Rosalyn."

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