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."

She studies him for a moment before placing an empty cup on the table. George's appearance is in such a constant state of flux—his weight, his skin, even the color and gloss of the whites of his eyes—that from one week to the next he doesn't know how he looks unless a mirror is directly in front of him. And he can't quite remember the last time he did laundry. George wonders if he looks like a homeless man. This is followed by a moment of panic (it passes quickly; it always does), during which he wonders how soon he'll become exactly that.

"Good to see you again, George." Margaret pronounces his name deliberately, as if trying to demonstrate her ability to say proper names. "You haven't been around." He shrugs. Before lassitude became George's life, he sort of worked in a café too. He ran the coffee kiosk at a corporate campus in Beaverton. Back then George kept a sign on the door to his apartment that said THE EDUCATED POOR. When he was fired, he changed it to read THE IMPOVERISHED. Margaret fills George's cup and says, "How will you be paying?" While still gainfully employed, George had the good sense to overtip his fellow travelers. They stopped charging him long before he stopped being able to pay. Since then he has taken advantage of his fits of energy (islands in a sea of lethargy) to create things to leave in lieu of cash. Margaret proclaimed them better than money, and has since come to demand them.

George produces a champagne cork he has decorated with pink pipe cleaners in order to make it look like a pig: it has a snout, ears, and a twisting tail. Margaret squeals when she sees it, her hands at her mouth. Then she laughs at the sound she's just made and, in laughing, snorts.

"A little piggy for my little piggy," George says.

Margaret reaches toward George in a half-hearted attempt to pinch his nipple. He parries the advance, and regrets it immediately.

  • Do you currently have any source of income? Yes. If yes, please describe. For a modest sum each week I clean things. Ironic, right? Given the present state of my dwelling and body, it hardly seems likely that anyone would pay me to keep things tidy.

After leaving Rimsky's, George drives over the Morrison Bridge and onto the highway, which will take him to the office building in Southwest Portland that he cleans four nights a week. For this service he is paid $500 a month, cash. George recently received a letter from the unemployment office, the upshot of which was that his benefits were being canceled because he had been terminated from his last job for being "belligerent, hostile, or violent." The letter also asked him to return the $3,700 he'd already been paid.

George glances in his rearview mirror and sees a cop. He's terrified of being pulled over; if someone were to run his plates, all kinds of things might show up: unpaid parking tickets, a moving violation, several months' worth of delinquent car payments. He steers his truck into the right-hand lane, takes the first exit, and has to navigate back streets in order to get to work.

  • How well do you get along with people in authority (doctors, supervisors, police officers, etc.)? Please explain. Not very well.

The building, which contains four offices, is a community of one industry: therapy. He got the lead on the job through his own doctor, a stylish and charismatic man whom George used to visit in a similar building but now has to see at a clinic downtown. The doctor has told George he's a difficult case. Since moving over to the clinic George has come to feel like a test subject. Here, take these pills, let us know if they make your ears bleed.

They do! They do!

What the four offices have in common is that credentials occupy most of the wall space: degrees, awards from alumni associations, certificates from the various regional organizations that govern the practice of headshrinking in Oregon. The pastoral counselor has the most: two walls that paint a meandering path of degree gathering (from seminary to social work), creating a hopeless rather than an academic effect.

The other thing the offices have in common is sofas: different upholstery, different shapes and levels of comfort, chosen to match décor inspired by different ethnicities, but lots and lots of sofas. George wonders sometimes whether patients actually use them. When George sees his own doctor, they face each other, both of them rigid in their chairs. Occasionally, when he has finished cleaning, George will try one of the sofas; he'll lie back and diagnose disorders in himself that make his actual problems seem minor by comparison.

  • Describe your disability. Use an additional piece of paper if necessary. As you already know from the form I had to fill out in order to get this form, my current diagnosis is BP2. In the past two years I have also been diagnosed as BP1 and ADD. Wouldn't it be great if I really were BP1? Those are the guys who get shit done. Their upswings are extended and charming; their lives get made into movies, television shows; their children write memoirs. Me? I suffer from prolonged stretches of dysphoria that are about as interesting as watching a beetle flail around on its back. I used to belong to a support group, but my attendance flagged when I realized that I had nothing to say about myself other than "I'm sad."

George is going through the desk of Myrna Heath-Smith, Ph.D. This has become part of his routine; after he cleans an office, he pokes around. Patients' files are secondary. More satisfying are the personal artifacts—diaries, outlines of conference papers, letters to and from estranged children—of the doctors themselves.

Myrna has kept a stack of Mother's Day cards, some twelve years' worth. "To the best mom ever" has transformed over time into "Sorry this is so late." She has drafted an article called "Psychologist as Self, Patient as Other," the opening line of which is "I am not a therapist, I am Therapy." The middle is all jargon, with oblique references to Lacan and Freud, but it ends "When they found my husband's body, seven months later, it showed signs of anal intrusion. The baby was already born, and I knew at that moment that psychology was my calling."

  • Since your illness, have your sleeping habits changed? Yes. If so, please explain. Lately I've been sleeping 12 to 16 hours each day. Some daysnot to sound melodramatic or anythingI don't get out of bed at all. Prior to this period of oversleeping I had a five-day hypomanic episode during which I disavowed the need for rest, and probably slept for less than ten hours total. This led to hospitalization.

Day two. It's past 3:00 A.M., and George has been standing in the middle of his room for nearly an hour now. He's trying to imagine the place through Margaret's eyes. It's a dump. He has left the offices immaculate, but his own home is a wreck. He tells himself that he will embark on a cleaning campaign the likes of which his apartment hasn't seen since the last time they fucked with his meds. But George doesn't clean. He goes to his closet and pulls out cans of paint. He has a mauve, a burnt sienna, a beige, a charcoal, and a cranberry—manly colors, for the most part. He tries a wide brushstroke of each on the wall. None of them seems quite right, but he likes the calico effect they produce together, so he goes about applying small swipes of each color at irregular intervals. When he has finished with one wall, the telephone rings. It's morning.

The sign on the receiver says Do Not Answer.

It's Greg, from MBNA. "Hey, guy. I'm just calling to remind you about the little bit of money you owe us. Last time we talked, you told me I could be expecting a check. You're not going to tell me 'It's in the mail' again, are you?"

  • Do you have any problems getting along with friends and family? Yes. If so, please describe. You try filling out a nine-page form that asks you, in a dozen different ways, why you don't have any friends.
  • While still employed, did you have trouble getting along with your supervisors and/or co-workers? No. If yes, please explain. I prefer to think they had trouble getting along with me.

George was fired from the coffee kiosk in Beaverton at the request of a young executive about his own age. She came up to the kiosk one morning and said to George, "So, what are you, an artist?" She wasn't a challenging beauty. Her features were symmetrical, if a little severe, and her body was perfectly proportioned, if a little thin. Her beauty was kindergarten beauty.

"Excuse me?" George replied.

"Are you an artist?" she said. "A musician? What, then? Are you, like, a nontraditional student?"

George said, "I don't know what you're asking me."

"Why do you have this shit job?" she said. Kindergarten beauty was cruel. "What's the deal?"

Suddenly George became very angry. They say you see red when you get this mad, but George saw white. Then he saw himself from ten feet above. It wasn't the first time he'd experienced this kind of near-death anger, but this time it got him into trouble. He threw her latte at her feet and said, "I'm fucking crazy, that's the deal."

  • How often and for how long do you watch TV? I do not presently own a TV. Before I smashed it with a hammer, I would watch it constantly. That's why it had to go.

There's a television in the lobby of Oregon Vocational Counseling Initiative. George is twenty minutes late for his first appointment here. Now they have him in the lobby, waiting. The television is hanging from the ceiling in a corner of the room. George and half a dozen others are all staring up at it together, their mouths slightly agape, like baby birds waiting for the mother to arrive with worms. They are watching The Young and the Restless.

A small, hassled woman appears through what looks like a trick door (it blends seamlessly with the wood paneling of the wall). "George," she says, "so good to meet you." She hands him a clipboard attached to which is a stack of papers and a pen that's connected to a foot-long chain. He has to use the pen at an awkward angle because the chain is too short.

When he has finished with the forms, the woman leads George through the trick door and into the bowels of OVCI. He passes a man with Down syndrome who's chewing a pencil, trying to choose from among the multiple choices on a Scantron test. A relatively normal-seeming woman is being interviewed by a man who looks like a Marine, and George watches as the expression on her face changes from serene to unsure to panicky. A middle-aged man sits in front of a giant plastic block, fitting square, round, and octagonal pegs into square, round, and octagonal holes while a woman with a stopwatch stands over him.

George points to the man with the pegs and says, "Can I take that one?" They probably call it the Spatial Reasoning Aptitude Test, George thinks. In elementary school we called it "playing."

The woman invites George to settle into an uncomfortable chair in a small office and she—his work-rehabilitation counselor—says, "The good news is, we're going to help you find a new career." It's the least they could do, he thinks. He had to fill out page after page of paperwork just to get this interview. The counselor pauses—George swallows noisily and the woman taps her long fingernails against the lacquered surface of the desk—and then says, "We'll be working with you here for a few days." George closes his eyes and tries to go to his quiet place. "Then we'll help you find a job." He opens one eye. "We offer training. Even pay for schooling, if necessary." He opens the other eye. The question of schooling seems to have diverted her; she's glancing over her files. "But first we'll start you out with a few aptitude and personality tests." George closes his eyes again. The quiet place—where did it go?

  • Has your involvement or participation in social activities changed since your illness? Yes/no. If yes, please explain. Let's face it, I've always been a little odd.
  • Are you involved in any hobbies,such as fishing, bowling, sewing, swimming, handiwork, carpentry, sports, movies, hunting, or other activities? No. If yes, what are they?N/A.

At Rimsky's this evening Margaret wants two presents. "Civil war in Guatemala. Unrest in Indonesia. Famine in Ethiopia. The price of coffee has gone up, bud."

"I could shave my head and weave you a bracelet out of hair."

She considers this. He considers her.

He doesn't find much trash to collect in the offices tonight. The vacuuming goes smoothly, and the toilets don't really need to be cleaned at all. In fact, George wonders whether the pastoral counselor, Dr. Thomas Brennan (D.D., M.S.W.), has ever once used his toilet. It's always immaculate.

George has developed a certain fondness for Dr. Brennan, a man he's never seen in person. He has been reading Brennan's book, chapter by chapter, since drafts of it began to appear in a wooden box beneath the doctor's desk. The book is a "topical combination of theology, philosophy, cultural criticism, and memoir," to quote from an as yet unsent letter to an agent in New York. It's called Gay, Catholic, and Loving It!

George takes the liberty of adding a few commas to the manuscript. Then he crosses out "topical" in the letter to the agent and replaces it, in neat printing, with "charmingly self-absorbed." Before getting in his truck to go home, he seals the letter in an envelope and puts it in a curbside mailbox.

  • Do you prepare your own meals?Yes. How often do you cook? 5-19 times per week, depending on whether you count cereal.

Day three. He feels super. Whatever's in these new meds, they're out of this world. George realizes that other than a few cups of coffee and some biscotti at Rimsky's, he hasn't had anything to eat in a while. He no longer needs food. Food is for animals. The kitchen is dark, and it smells like something has died in there. But who cares?

The living room is half painted in multiple colors. It's ugly; he can see that now. He finds his calligraphy pen in the pile of glass and toy soldiers and ball bearings in the middle of the floor. His mother gave him the pen when he graduated from college, ten years ago. The telephone rings. The sign says Do Not Answer. He lets the machine get it.

It's Brandon, from the company (so innocent-sounding, as if they might make cookies) that owns George's student loans. "Hey there, George," Brandon is saying. "This is Brandon again. That's right, I'm calling about your debt. Looks like we haven't heard from you in, gosh, about eight months. You know, a lot of programs are available for people in your position. You could apply for a forbearance—"

Something about the word "forbearance" moves George to pick up the phone. "This forbearance," he says. "Would it require filling out any forms?"

"Yes, well, paperwork is required. Of course."

He hangs up.

  • Has your involvement in the household budget, bill paying, and decisions regarding major purchases changed since your illness began?Yes. Please describe below. I'm glad you asked. As my income diminishes, more and more people seem to be concerning themselves with how my money gets spent. Now I have doctors, pharmaceutical companies, caseworkers, the unemployment office, landlords, and bill collectors telling me how $500 should be divided. As for major purchases... don't be silly!

The office of Gayle Bowers, Ph.D., is tidiest of all. She even takes her clinical notes in a neat little scrawl. Her closet, on the other hand, is a wreck. Clothes are scattered around, along with empty boxes of Snackwell's cookies, and stacked on the floor are a dozen or so photo albums, each containing hundreds of pictures of women giving birth. Many are before-and-after shots; some of them show the woman holding her child, with or without extended family nearby. On every page is a shot of a baby's head crowning.

  • Have your eating habits and/or the manner in which you fix your meals changed since your illness? Yes. If yes, describe the changes. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. I now do my "shopping" at the food bank. For the most part, this limits me to dried and canned food. They give me all the cereal I can carry, but nothing to eat it with. Last month, when my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I asked her to buy me an industrial size package of powdered milk.

Day four. After several hours of test-taking at Oregon Vocational Counseling Initiative (math, verbal, logic, and personality—but still not fitting pegs into holes), George is standing in the long dinnertime line at the food bank. The man in front of him asks George if he can spare some change. Behind George is an intimidating-looking biker who, he discovers, is remarkably friendly. The biker asks George where he's from and how he ended up on Skid Row. George smiles at this, a man saying "Skid Row," pronouncing the actual words while standing in front of a food bank.

"Don't you think this place ought to have a salad bar?" George asks.

The biker, whose body is on the verge of buckling out of his leather vest and tight blue jeans, looks at George and for a moment says nothing. Then he raises his hand to eye level. He's holding a grimy tennis ball that has been cut halfway open and on which has been drawn, above the opening, two eyes and a nose. The man squeezes the ball, causing the mouth to open and shut, and says in a small, squeaky voice, "Vitamin C is important for overall health."

  • Are you aware of any changes in your general appearance or in your grooming or dress since becoming ill? Yes. If yes, describe the changes. I've learned, when I try a new drug, toexpect acne, weight gain, halitosis, even a change in the odor of my urine.

George knows Margaret's schedule by heart. He knows she's working tonight, so she should be here any minute now. He's writing on a legal pad, mostly a free association of words; just something to keep his mind focused.

Earlier today his work-rehabilitation counselor told him, "George, you have to help us help you." Then she left the room to run his tests through a machine. He found nothing to look at in her office (the walls were beige and bare), so he read the counselor's paperwork, upside-down. He made out this much: "On the day of his first appointment George showed up late and badly groomed. His odor was distinct and lasted in the offices for at least an hour after he left. It was even worse the next day, and he was wearing the same clothes."

When the counselor returned, George leaned back in his chair. Sitting, she said, "I was just glancing at your test results, George." She put several sheets of paper on the desk in front of her. "I tell you," she said, "I wish I had your mind."

George laughed. "No," he said. "You don't."

The counselor seemed to consider this for a moment, her shoulders squaring off tensely. Then she relaxed and said, "Have you been thinking about what you might like to do for a living?"

"Yes," George said. "I think I might like to be a therapist."

Now Margaret is standing over him, asking, "What are you writing?"

"It keeps me calm." He hides the legal pad so that she can't see all the nonsense. "Listen," he says. He's staring at her now, as hard as he can. "This is very important. Will you go out with me?"

Margaret stiffens and says, "What have you brought?"

George gives her a cinnamon stick onto which he has glued cloves and peppercorns in order to create the appearance of a thickset dragon.

Margaret says, "After work." She fills his coffee cup and heads off toward the kitchen. She looks back only briefly, somehow intuiting that it's important to be specific. "Come here," she says, "and pick me up, after work."

  • If you usually attend activities outside the home with a friend or relative, would you still go if the friend or relative couldn't go? Is this a trick question? If no, please explain why not. If you attended an activity outside the home with 24 friends or relatives, and 6 friends couldn't go, but 3 friends each brought 4 friends of their own, how many people would be attending the activity, counting your friends, relatives, friends of friends, yourself, and your diagnosis?

George returns to the offices just before ten o'clock. The garbage of Dale Pemberton, M.D., is always filled with the discarded packaging of free samples of various medications, sent to the doctor by pharmaceutical companies. George doesn't know whether the doctor is giving the pills to patients or taking them himself. George is a little concerned for Dale. Many of the medications have contraindications. He knows. He's been on half of them.

  • Have you noticed any change in your condition since you started taking your medication? Yes. You change, you just do.

In his apartment he collects the papers and bills and applications, the glass and soldiers and ball bearings, and throws them away, along with the homemade Ikea slingshot and his collection of tools bought at secondhand stores. He even discards his favorites—the four-foot monkey wrench and the corncob soldering iron.

George realizes that he hasn't received a phone call in several hours. He picks up the telephone. No dial tone. Such relief! That should've been the first bill he stopped paying.

  • What prescription medications have you taken in the past twelve months? List all. Ambien, Asendin, Ativan, Celexa, Effexor, lithium, Luvox, Norpramin, Parnate, Paxil, Restoril, Risperdal, Ritalin, Wellbutrin. The names: they're like poetry.

Day five. When he meets Margaret, just past midnight, he's holding a rose—a real one, stolen from one of the public gardens in Ladd's Addition. Margaret takes it and smells it. She says, "I didn't think you would show up."

They walk together up Belmont. They pass George's truck, but he doesn't mention it. Neither of them seems to have much to say. They both like it that way. Yesterday George might've talked for hours on end, until his vocal cords were raw, until he was sick of himself and sick of her for being there to be talked to. Tonight he wants to walk and look at things and touch Margaret quietly under a tree. She's wearing a red blouse and a black skirt, and George loves the way her stockings shine in the streetlight, moving with the muscles of her legs. She smells faintly of coffee. Does he, George, smell of therapy?

They pass people's homes, and George stops several times to pick flowers from yards. He gives them to Margaret, and she holds them cupped in her hands. "Why do you call me Rosetta?" she asks.

"I don't know."

"You look far away," she says. "Like your brain's in orbit or something."

"Yeah," he says.

They cross the street and a car, speeding toward them, burns to a flamboyant stop. Margaret throws the flowers—including the original rose—into the air. George tries to catch some. The car honks its horn, and George trips over the curb. Margaret laughs.

"I should tell you," he says, after recomposing himself, "I'm on a lot of medication."

"I kind of figured."

They reach his apartment. "I could be dangerous."

"I kind of doubt it," she says. Margaret scans the walls and floors. She laughs again. She puts her hand behind George's neck and kisses him. Her lips taste like oranges.

"About the medication," he says. "It has side effects."

"Yeah?"

"But it's okay," he says. "I just stole a lot of Viagra from work."

Margaret smiles. Then she steps backward and slaps George lightly across the cheek. "First things first," she says. "We're going to go into your bathroom, you're going to get into the shower, and we're going to wash the funk off of you." He can't believe his luck.

Tomorrow everything will be different, of course. He'll wake when Margaret does; he'll fall back asleep when she leaves, lying there in bed all through her shift. Inside his skull his brain will feel as though it's floating in fluid, and it will seem to have drifted a little off center. He'll push his fists against his eyes, wondering if he can get at it through the sockets, put it back into place himself. The evening will pass this way into nighttime, and he'll be wondering when he started to head back south, and he'll also be wondering whether Margaret is ever coming back. And if she does—if she sits with him and tugs his hair, if she brings him dinner and eats with him, if she lies next to him in his bed and puts her arms around him for another long round of sleep—then he'll know, truly know, that something is wrong with her.

Nathan Roberts is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.
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