Versus

by Paul Silverman


It could never be perfect with Ted and Emma because there was always the question of whether to buy Microsoft at fifty-three and three sixteenths or Cisco at sixteen and five eighths. There was always the question of two percent milk versus one percent milk; and the whole antioxidant business, and osteoporosis; and the boggle of California reds versus French reds, and private school versus public school, and whether to fuck from the front or fuck from the rear -- and each year kept piling on more questions until they reached a point where just going to sleep meant crawling under a quilt of questions, a quilt so heavy it made them sweat and roll and wake up in a state of numbness no quantity of Starbucks could dispel.

Sleep was where the questions swirled like piranha. Sleep was the opposite of rest.

Emma would escape from the coils of her afternoon nap screaming, possessed by a recurring dream of the man-made pond in her rock garden, totally empty of water, its ugly, dark pump still grinding away, rasping and sucking like the gills of a beached, sun-scorched fish. A pump with no water -- drowning in the ocean of sunny air, in the greenhouse sweetness of the summer lawn.

But then came the night something happened to Ted -- it was the cat dragging in a live bat -- that made him see that sleep itself held the only promise, sleep with its infinite depths, since the conscious world was no bigger than an old battlefront, and trampled beyond repair at that. All it had left was dead soil, every inch of it dug up with foxholes and armies of opposition forever skirmishing and locked in place, never budging a millimeter. By temperament Ted and Emma were both generals. Commanders of the mundane. Exactly equal in power and torque. Two big wheels spinning on a truck trapped in the snow.

Dinner done, pets fed, children put away, they ran to lairs in opposite ends of the house. Emma's game was endless solitaire on her laptop. Sometimes he stole by and watched her in the dark, the back of her head silhouetted by the screen. She made him think of the gray parakeet he had when he was eight. He would take cards and lay out the entire deck of fifty-two, face down across the bed. Then he would open the cage. After a time the parakeet would fly down and turn each card over with its beak, until all the cards were face up. Mission accomplished, the bird always retreated and slipped back in its cage. Until the day Ted took on the task of discovering its forgotten jungle instinct.

Back then, there was a tree in his old yard with a strange trunk, wrinkled and fat with bumps at the bottom that looked like toes, giving the impression that an elephant had stood in the yard some years ago and left behind one leg. From this tree Ted snatched a small branch, gnarled and sharp like a vulture's claw. He took it into the house and attached it to the inside of the parakeet's cage. He stepped back, pleased with himself for giving the bird a taste, at least, of the true wilderness. But the bird shot out of the cage in a panic, crashed into a window and was dead in a few hours.

That message was ages ago -- to leave well enough alone. But Ted had a laptop game of his own. Covering the screen with rows of documents, like columns in a regiment. He would create them out of any source: his undelivered sermons, subversive ruminations, mythical acceptance speeches, diaries, predictions, time capsule snippets, nefarious downloads and pure blanks with cryptic titles and nothing else -- just to have stamp-sized rectangles arrayed all over his glowing desktop. When the screen was filled he would slide in a disk and begin clicking and dragging the documents, one by one, from the desktop to the disk. The wonder was seeing the miracle of mitosis, or giving up the ghost, as the document darkened at the cursor's prod and gave off a pale spectral replica of itself, and it was this replica that rose up and entered the disk, like a soul into heaven, while the original document remained on the screen as before, like a body bound fast to the earth. It was only electronics and man-made symbols and illusions; yet Ted saw a path and a plan and became aroused in a new way. All this solitaire in one corner of the house and clicking and dragging in the other. Arguably it was foreplay, since the unvarying conclusion was Ted and Emma joining in the bedroom for an act.

Which these nights was always sleep.

Sleep -- in the very year that was being watched by gossips and back-fence vigilantes for its upsurge in nocturnal activity -- the year the animals came to the suburbs. An overrunning which the newspaper of the tiny Atlantic town recorded in psychotically large headlines. Coyotes and fisher cats reclaiming the woods. An ancient turtle, the size of a manhole cover, stopping traffic at rush hour. Wild turkeys shaking their necks like crones and pecking the paint off public buildings. A wondrous red fox, straight out of a fable, stalking sparrows in broad daylight on the manicured library lawn.

Ted and Emma feared for their cat when raccoons crossed the property line and occupied the hollow of a dead oak. Yet the cat thrived as never before, exulting in feral blood sport. In the dead of night the floppy pet door would slap against the house. Three hours later it would slap again, and the immediate commotion of murderous scampering would wake the house before the alarm clocks rang.

But it would usually wake Ted first. Sometimes he would lie and listen and other times he would investigate, standing or sitting on the cellar stairs watching the ritual: chase, torture, but never an intentional kill. The cat hunted for entertainment, not food. It was her objective to fill the house with the greatest variety of living creatures possible, so she could ferret them out of their hiding places at will for her own exercise and pleasure. She brought in ordinary deer mice, moles and voles, chipmunks and juvenile squirrels, both red and gray. She dropped a black and yellow snake on the gleaming tile and watched it slither and disappear under the warm copper pipes coiling around the furnace.

One night Ted found her standing over a bat whose defense was playing dead. She punched it, pushed it, scratched and nipped it, all to no avail. The bat hunkered down, self-entombed in a mound of fur and fangs that lay as inert as taxidermy, and finally the cat became bored and left through the floppy door to find livelier company. Ted raced from the stairway to the dryer, grabbed a towel and threw it over the four-inch beast, the prelude to its execution. Around here there could be no trifling with rabies - not in this neighborhood of toddlers and Web MD devotees.

The bump in the towel was hardly discernible, no more prominent than a normal fold, but Ted loomed over it with a two-by-four, intent on bludgeoning it to protect the household. At the last second an image from a comic strip popped into his head -- Batman silhouetted against the moon -- and he dropped the heavy lumber and picked up the swaddled, hibernating mound, which added no weight to the towel whatsoever, and stepped outside to the deck and the moon.

It wasn't full but it was big enough to hang in the sky like a giant streetlamp from an earlier time, casting platinum light over the bordering hemlocks and washing the lawn with sufficient phosphorescence to make gates and statuary visible. Ted set the bunched-up towel on the cedar decking. He reached down and gingerly put his thumb and forefinger together over the corner that was farthest from the mound. He yanked the towel and jumped back, but the creature didn't move a hair.

Ted could tell that either he or the cat had killed it, and his next job was to go find a shovel. As he bent down for a closer look the dead wedge of fur divided into a spreading fan and whirred past his face, coming so close he could feel the blur of air on his chin. He looked up and, for an instant, saw the Halloween archetype, the black fluttering wings against the lunar light, but there was more grace and majesty in this striving for altitude than illustrators and filmmakers have ever learned to show. Ted returned to the house feeling privileged, as though he had been visited by a rare prehistoric specimen, the largest butterfly to ever inhabit the planet.

When the pet door slapped the next night he didn't go downstairs to check. He stayed next to the sleeping Emma, who was on her side with her back to him. He watched her resting form under the comforter, the gentle climb of her legs and the summit of her hips. She was deep and still within herself, and he thought of the bat under the towel and stillness as a disguise. He started to reach for her. But then the image of her spreading herself to meet him was so engorging he dragged it to his side of the bed and enjoyed it alone.

Solitaire with Kleenex -- then he slept soundly.

So much for infinite depths. So much for wings without cages.

Ted and Emma consulted the Utne Reader, posted cries for help on Moms Online and hypothesized contrarian strategies. They signed on for one Saturday a month at My Brother's Table. But even when they concentrated and bent the knee and pared away and simplified  their lives as best they could , there was still the inevitable, unanswerable question of mineral water with bubbles versus mineral water without bubbles, and even the bubbles raised questions of their own, because some came from the natural springs and others were artificially imposed on the pristine water through  carbonation. Moreover, there was the mail that had to be opened every day -- the Visa bills and the Gold Amex and the Bliss catalogs -- and to do this Ted and Emma had to pull on disposable plastic gloves and peer through a magnifying lens to search for traces of alien powder.

They longed to be members of another race, unencumbered by estate planning.

In time, raccoons suffering from rabies surrounded their rustic house, hiding in the dark crevices between boulders and the hollows of trees. There were many humans on this earth who wanted to kill Ted and Emma. But the rabid raccoons were there first, hissing and spitting their deadly foam.
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PAUL SILVERMAN has had recent work appear in Branches Quarterly, South Dakota Review and North Atlantic Review. This is his first appearance in The Adirondack Review.
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