The Burden, Furthermoore

I awoke with the usual affliction; not to say that there was but one, but this one in particular I knew from experience could only be remedied by a physical expression of the affliction’s desire, which is to say I awoke one fall morning feeling favorably disposed to some good-natured pranking. It was early, as per my stalwart regimen of self-abstinence. The sun seeped a honey of autumnal hues through the curtains as I carefully made my way down the stairs for breakfast. I have a unique method of stair negotiation—which I don’t care to get into at the moment—that is slow and tediously executed, but unusually safe.

Falling down—or up—the stairs would be a mistake, and I loathe mistakes.

The clock over the mantel told me it was only 11:20, and I commiserated the cost of my self-abstention. “To-day,” I boldly proclaimed to Titus Andronicus, who was otherwise occupied razing the houseplants, “is a day for something special. None of the usual baby-snatching or cane-greasing will do. Not today!” Titus Andronicus responded by tearing asunder a rare orchid my maid, Gertrude, had been grooming for some competition or another.

“Just so, my boy. Just so!”

I beat myself upon the chest with a solemn, if tender, fist, and continued my journey into the kitchen, leaving Titus Andronicus to recommence whatever it is that Irish wolfhounds do while I’m not around. Through a din of morning sunlight Gertrude fortified me with eggs and bacon, limiting me to five and ten respectively, in accordance with my regimen. Having finished, I belched and rose to see to my toiletry.

You should know that maintaining a gentleman’s dispensation is my primary concept, whether with my cape, my extraordinary moustaches, or my unique personal habits. But I fear I’ve said too much.

Sequestering myself in my bedroom, I disrobed and entered the bath, locking the door behind me. I tested the door for several minutes to assure myself of its integrity; I have learned from a scattering of disastrous situations that the sight of me embroiled in my grooming routine can be extremely upsetting to people, most notably while attending to my testicles, the maintenance of which consumes several hours each day. I’ve been known to orate vociferously, and generally without solicitation, upon the importance of seclusion while attending to my grooming routine, often elaborating on the extensive catalog of exotic tasks I inflict upon my body.

At length, satisfied with my hygiene and dress, I set about the task of fastening my cape and remembering to which side I prefer to part my hair. As I struggled with the cape I began to ruminate on the details of the day’s proposed chicanery. Remembering, sadly, that there were no details to ruminate on, I revisited my speech while maneuvering to the back door, which I prefer to the front for its safety. “No, nothing of the usual sort to-day. Today is a day for something especially hilarious and good-natured,” I thought, or said aloud as I descended the final steps before interfacing with the sidewalk for my daily stroll. Though I have a special method for walking with companions, which I may illuminate for you later, at this time I was walking alone.

Most of the time my neighbors can be found digging in the squalor of their yards—whether foraging for roughage or in pursuit of recreation, is a mystery to me. As I walked past, several of my neighbors paused their savagery to voice inanities such as “Good day, Mr. Furthermore,” or “How do you do, Mr. Furthermore?” all hastily securing both their children and their canes. The habits of my neighbors are wisely informed by previous experience with me and my joyful antics. I managed to make one trip around the block before returning home, happily exhausted.

Upon reentering my abode, I repaired immediately to my study to begin planning the day’s activities in earnest. I was at my desk, hunched over with the dignity of a rabbi, when Gertrude shuffled wearily into the room to announce the presence of a visitor. Gertrude, herself, is no stranger to my methods and suffers demonstratively with ruined nerves. As she entered, I looked up at Gertrude with an amicable grin, which caused her to shift her weight nervously and for her hands to tremble. The truth is, Gertrude once had a large family of her own: a husband, two sons, and a lovely daughter. In her darker moments, Gertrude has credited to my amicable grin the circumstances around each of their untimely departures, a misstep which only the quality of my character allows me to forgive.

The visitor to whom Gertrude had alluded was the Parson Graham, devoted churchman and all around prankster extraordinaire. It was, in fact, the selfsame Parson who was auteur of the great newborn mix-up of ’86, which was never successfully straightened out.

The Parson sometimes liked to joke that he was a prankster first and a man of the cloth second, but that was sufficiently evident to anyone in his acquaintance.

Having announced my visitor, Gertrude shuffled, perhaps even more wearily, out of my study, muttering beleaguered oaths for which I will have to punish her at the appropriate time. If there is one thing I cannot tolerate it is melancholy, especially when given expression, artistic or otherwise. Not a day passes that I don’t give thanks for having never been stricken by the abominable desire to express myself.

The first thing the Parson did upon entering the study of his long time friend and accomplice was to slip on a grease spot which I had placed purposefully before the door, and to gash his elbow on a nail whose presence was similarly motivated. Rising and dusting himself off, Parson Graham applied a handkerchief to his favored appendage, which was already beginning to weep. He then strode quickly towards my desk and thrust out his hand, which I shook warmly.

“Well played, then,” the Parson managed to utter between winces.

“Oh, that was nothing,” I waved my hand irreverently, “I meant it for Gertrude, actually. But the Lord does work in strange and mischievous ways, as you well know.”

“That I do, Sir.”

Parson Graham eased himself painfully into the chair across the desk from mine, but only after thoroughly and painstakingly examining it for a variety of potentially fateful modifications. The chair, as the Parson soon learned, had indeed been modified, and fate struck him a vicious blow as he plummeted backwards, slamming his lacerated elbow on the floor. Tears came to the Parson’s eyes as he struggled to his knees, backing slowly away from my desk.

Having heard the Parson’s shriek from the hallway where she was almost certainly cowering, Gertrude must have fought her maternal instinct and retreated to the pantry where she kept a bottle and wrote her poetry. Not a day goes by that I don’t have to set upon Gertrude for composing poetry in the secrecy of the pantry. Her poetry is miserable, though I’ve never taken the pains to read it.

All poetry is miserable.

After allowing Parson Graham a moment to compose himself at a safe distance from me, I began to relate my ambition for a truly hilarious and good-natured prank.

“It is almost as if God himself has spoken to me.”

“I believe He has, my old friend,” the Parson acquiesced, clutching the torn elbow of his sport-coat, which had begun to harden with blood.

“But still,” I said pensively, “there is the matter of the actual doing of the thing, not to mention the divination of what the thing is, exactly.”

“Yes, yes, there is that.” The Parson allowed.

Parson Graham is one of these gangly, awkward fellows who manages to spring any trap within his vicinity, no matter the intended victim. In fact he often succeeds in stumbling into calamities not designed by man. For the next several minutes he did just this, upsetting bookshelves, piercing himself with a letter opener that was put safely away in a drawer, and generally destroying what was left of his wardrobe.

I was at the point of allowing confusion and apprehension to poison my thoughts when Titus Andronicus burst into the room and saved my peace of mind. Obviously as in the mood for fun as I was, Titus Andronicus began cutting a swath through the study, sparing neither vase nor lamp. I leapt to my feet and clapped with delight, though I soon noticed that my companion did not share my delight. Once the hound had tired of destroying mere objects he began to seek game in a more animated fashion, which inexorably led him to Parson Graham. If the braying weren’t enough for the Parson, there was also the jumping and the clawing to contend with. The ordeal soon began to visibly affect the Parson’s humor. Sensing the decline in my friend’s morale, I hollered at the beast and it let off terrorizing the Parson, for which he was grateful.
I entreated the Parson to bow heads and submerge in meditation with me, which he did slowly and with a measure of indignity.

“Well, there’s always…” he began, but I promptly truncated his line of thought.

“No, no,” I stated flatly, “I’ve bored of child-snatching.”

“What about…”

“Nothing involving babies, I already told you! Don’t mention it again.” I was beginning to lose patience.

It is in moments of frustration such as these that I become afflicted with the burden of my memories: of days spent wallowing by the heady stream of childhood; of love lost, only to hang unreachable in the gauze of the past, which is never so far away as one would like it to be.

In order to combat this mental palsy, I try to conceive of life as a single, fluid motion: uninterrupted symmetry and perfection; and I silently mourn the loss of this perfection, as I mourn the loss of loved ones now absent (as though they weren’t already dead in my heart). Then it is in bed at night, plunged in the entropy of darkness and the rapture of vertigo, that I excoriate myself for such thoughts. Then there are the certain memories that stubbornly refuse to be censured, such as my once formidable desire to sing. Luckily I now have no one for whom I would like to sing, even if I could. There was once a soul who was admittedly desirous of my song, but I was loathe to admit my inability and called off the engagement. Besides, I wisely choose not to believe a word spoken to me, especially on the subject of love. But I mustn’t speak of these things lest I risk alienating people. Forgive me.

The Parson suggested that we take a walk, to clear our heads and perhaps gain some inspiration. I allowed myself to be taken, though I had already had a walk, as it would give me the opportunity to outline for you the theory behind my method for walking with companions, which is as follows:

When walking with a companion, I place myself somewhat behind and to the left of said companion, that being the advantageous position should said companion make any false movements. If said companion should be of the female persuasion, I often extend the distance between her and myself, as women are known to export not only strange and troubling odors, but various of their bodily limbs and digits for the purpose of clinching or being clinched (the extent of this spatial extension reflecting a mathematically proportionate relationship to the specific degree of said woman’s odor and likelihood of limb clinching). The logistics of walking with a female companion while avoiding both her odor and potential romantic assaults are flummoxing to the extreme and tiresome in general, which is why I habitually decline to walk with a female companion unless absolutely unavoidable. It is important to keep in mind that, while walking in such a way with a female, one must be prepared for on-site interrogations such as “Why on earth are you walking all the way back there?”

Should your walking companion be a man, one must maintain appropriate distance that the public does not perceive one as being a homosexual, but not such a great distance that one gives the impression of avoiding a homosexual appearance and therefore being guilty, in fact, of being a homosexual. Walking with a male companion is also very exhausting, and generally unrewarding, which is why I often choose to avoid walking with men as well as women. Also, when walking with a companion of either gender, one will invariably invite the public to make certain assumptions regarding the social affiliation between oneself and one’s companion, which is usually disadvantageous to one’s respectability.

When one weighs the combined threat of damage to one’s reputation, exposure to foul odors and conversation, likelihood of bodily harm (not to mention that most abhorred of all grievances: affection), one will surmise that walking with any companion of any gender under any circumstances is imprudent and inadvisable, and should be attempted only after absolution and with the most fatalistic of attitudes. But, should one find it unavoidably necessary to walk with a companion (of either gender), one should practice caution to the extreme: always maintain a safe distance between oneself and one’s companion, keeping a vigilant observation of one’s surroundings, a constant eye for obstacles, avenues of escape, and native objects sufficiently blunt for cranial violence, should it become necessary; and lastly, by always keeping one’s hands secretly balled into fists within one’s pockets. It is in this manner, and this manner alone, that one may avoid falling victim to the many perils of the companioned walking expedition.
The Parson himself is a proselyte of my walking philosophy, and therefore any occasion on which we walk together inexorably succumbs to chaos, and sometimes violence.

The sight of us walking together, each trying desperately to place ourselves behind and to the left of the other, hands thrust purposefully within our pockets, has often proved a source of ridicule for many members of the public. I shall have to punish them.

Eventually I succeeded in asserting my position behind the Parson, though I must have been walking too closely behind him because he kept stepping on the toes of my shoes and excusing himself, both of us nearly falling over on several occasions, and without the use of our hands to balance us. We hadn’t made it a block before calling the whole thing off.

Depression was again threatening to intervene in my joyfulness, as it is wont to do. I fought the old feeling as best I could, though the only true remedy is to execute a successful—and potentially fatal—prank. Parson Graham must have been experiencing a similar emotion, for we had both stopped and were merely standing on the sidewalk facing each other, eyes locked in mutual suspicion. Within my pocket I had my fingers wrapped around a small but heavy stone that I didn’t tell you about previously in case you, yourself, should try anything foolish. I pride myself on being prepared for virtually any contingency.

There is only one solution I know of when two minds as coldly impenetrable as the Parson’s and mine become locked in such a perambulatory stalemate, and that is that both parties must walk backwards with their eyes closed. Though the only way to be sure that your companion has his or her eyes closed is to keep your own eyes, which are secretly open, trained on those of your companion. Of course, when dealing with a companion such as the Parson, whose wit nearly equals my own, one must assume that they will be doing the same thing. In which case the only thing left to do is squint very convincingly and try to out-bluff your companion.

You can imagine that while engaged in such a vertiginously complex system of checks-and-balances it would have been impossible for either of us to see the old woman shambling behind us with the aid of a cane, clutching a child to her withered breast. Nor would it have been possible for me to avoid shoving the Parson into her once I had discovered her presence, sending the whole mess—minus the infant who I managed to extract—into the thoroughfare. It was only by lucky coincidence that there happened to be an automobile coming along at just that moment which struck both the Parson and the old woman. Sagely weighing the scenario, I decided that the only prudent thing for me to do was to take the child, which wasn’t actually that horrible to look at, back to my house.

When I entered the house, using the front door at the sacrifice of my own safety, I called out to Gertrude to come relieve me of the child. It was to my consternation that she did not appear. Assuming her to be hidden away in the pantry, nursing a bottle and scribbling a few flawed lines, I placed the infant on a very high table so that it would not be tempted to jump and went in pursuit of the truant Gertrude. I was in the vestibule when I noticed the note on a table next to the remains of an orchid. The note was poorly written, and I managed to decipher it only by reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom; read any other way the thing was incomprehensible. The poor woman was obviously mad, of that there could be no further doubt. Her prose was all twisted up into a meaningless arabesque like one of these suicide notes you hear about. Could it be? I re-read the note, trying desperately to extract a drop of meaning from the florid bramble. I held the note up to the child’s face, hoping for a broadening of perspective. From the child’s dumbness I could only deduce that it was practicing an infantile form of Socratic irony on me. I clutched the baby off the table and was standing there with the thing stuck to my arm, wondering what to do with it, when I heard a hollow moan, punctuated with brief sobs and painful sounding hiccups.

Gertrude suddenly emerged from the pantry with a noose around her neck, hanging like a cheap cravat.

Gazing up at me, Gertrude looked impossibly old, as I must have looked to her. Shadows thrown across the walls, the din of Titus Andronicus tearing things up somewhere. Though wretched as Gertrude may be, it would be unfair to omit the fact that she might be considered beautiful to those inclined to such considerations, which I am not.
As is typical with a mother (or former-mother, as the case may be), Gertrude’s eyes were drawn immediately to the child I held in my arms, which I quickly delivered into her own. Tears came to Gertrude’s eyes as she cradled the babe I had just given her, and I magnanimously retreated to my study without waiting for the gratuities of affection that were surely forthcoming. When it comes down to it, I have a heart of silk taffeta and cannot refuse anyone anything when it means his or her happiness. In fact, there was a time when I might have considered making certain declarations to Gertrude, but it’s too late for that now. Matters of the heart are better left to those more qualified than I.

Outside a heavy rain had begun to fall, and from the window of my study I could see down onto the street where the Parson and the old woman were struggling moistly to drag themselves clear of the traffic, which hadn’t time to slow down for them. All in all I had to consider the day a tremendous success. Lowering the blinds to grant the Parson and his new acquaintance their privacy, I leaned back in my chair feeling almost contented, my wretched memory relaxing its claws a bit.

I considered telling Gertrude how I had placed the faulty noose in the pantry as a joke, but I suspected the knowledge that her suicide’s failure was a fait accompli might compel her to try again, and I couldn’t afford to lose her. Not to mention that it would offer her little consolation, and in life, a little consolation is all one can hope for.

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About Eli Hopkins

I live and write in Portland, Oregon. Please share and comment so I can be positive that I exist!

3 comments

  1. Dad

    Wicked! Dangerously funny and brillant!

  2. There is an echo of Ignatius J. Reilly, as voiced by John Kennedy Toole in A Confederacy of Dunces, evident in your protagonist’s voice. This is not a detraction from your work, but a compliment. I liked it. You made me smile and that is not always easy to do.

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