I don’t know where I heard this but picture it: the first American Indian (or was it a Yanomamo out of Brazil?) gets his photograph taken by some earnest anthropologist. As the silver nitrate resolves on the plate bringing up a ghostly image, the Indian freaks out. He smashes the plate and guts the photographer convinced that his soul had just been stolen and imprisoned. Did this desperate and violent reaction happen? I don’t know. Eventually American Indians fell in love with the wonders of photography as did the dozens of photographers who descended on their pueblos and villages. But I am here to tell you that the soul-stealing thing; that’s for real.  It happened to me.

I slept in my clothes again. A year ago that wouldn’t have happened. I would have slept in pajamas pulled fresh and folded from my drawer. And even though it is September and about eighty degrees outside, I keep my condo a cool seventy-two. Perfect sleeping temperature. But not today. I must have left the windows open and the air conditioning off. The atmosphere in my place is tepid and damp. And I smell …bad. I open my front door and see myself reflected in the glass of the storm door. My buttons still tucked through their little holes of my crumpled shirt. The shirttails flap at my hips, yanked out of my pants in the tossing and turning of restless sleep. Still, there is a convenience factor at play here. I can shuffle out front and scan the bushes for the newspaper fully clothed. Any of my condo neighbors who catch site of me through their vertical blinds will only see Mal ready for the day. At their distance my dirty hair and the bloom of cocktail sauce poorly dabbed from my pants would hardly be noticeable. I slide the plastic sack of newspaper out of the grip of the chokeberry bush and retreat to my own choking condo.

The news is tense. A car bombing here, broken down peace talks there. But the stories themselves don’t make me anxious. It’s the other way around. Whatever mood I am in gets reflected in my read of the paper. It becomes a mirror for me. Happy and light-hearted, I notice the human interest, good Samaritan stuff and skim right past the minefields and children without arms. Today, everything seems on the brink of violent catastrophe. Sliding the Chinese food boxes iced with crystallized black bean sauce out of the way. I find enough counter space – nothing wet – to spread the paper full. I flip the pages not really seeing much but reinforcing my sense of dread. My left eye begins to flutter and twitch. I have two days – two weekend days – to deliver a finished software product that is at least three weeks from anyone’s idea of being “done.” My team hates me. Not because I have abused them in anyway but because I have neglected them. They know that the only chance to meet our deadline is if we all come in early, and we work around the clock for two days straight. Even then, we would be lucky to squeak by the product review on Monday. I am reading a story about an old woman who leapt a curb in her Saturn mowing down a half-a-dozen wide-eyed pedestrians, but I am really thinking about being fired. I am prone to this kind of multi-tasking. Still I go through the motions of reading even turning the page, when I see another one of those pictures.

This is what I am talking about – the soul-stealing thing.  There I am, all smiles and confident posture, looking toward some bright horizon. My jacket matches my polo shirt – relatively easy in a black and white advertisement, and I look pleased as punch to be living in yet another new, luxury apartment building. My image is being used to sell the super-duper luxury lifestyle at the Geoff 2. Maid service, concierge, indoor/outdoor pool, they even throw parties on Friday nights on the deck overlooking the river. Everything an up and coming thirty-something professional could want. Life at the Geoff 2 blends the ease of child-life when your parents did everything for you with the indulgent independence many people experience at college for the first time. It’s a launch pad to life, just not quite life, itself. Apparently there is something in my own “look” that exudes that young but mature adult embarking on life’s hopeful incline. Traveling, making smart investments, drinks before dinner, apartment living in the big city, it’s all part of the brand positioning behind the Geoff 2. The only problem is that I don’t live there. I am not on the river. I am not downtown.  I live in my condo – not super-duper luxury but I park my Nissan out front, and I’ve got two pools to choose from. For now, anyway. If I lose my job on Monday it’ll be a quick slide downhill away from my two pools to some month-by-month rental outside the highway perimeter.

Ever since I had my picture taken by Jonathon Black, my image has shown up in more advertisements than I have family photos. This isn’t the first time I have seen the Geoff 2 ad. But there have been so many others – different products, different services. Somehow my mug as captured in Black’s photos suits everyone’s needs. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no male model. I just have that look that says, ‘I‘ve got the world by the tail’ or ‘I’m resilient and will bounce back from these unfortunate events (bankruptcy, drug abuse, and yes, cancer) to scale even greater heights.’ It’s that hopeful stare three-quarters, up and to the right as if I can actually see Valhalla in the distance (I can’t). I look down at myself. I barely recognize my own likeness. Pictures of me, like hearing my recorded voice, always seem so foreign.  If I hadn’t done those original pictures my soul would be intact. But I have tried to get the genie back in the bottle and it just won’t budge. Now as I sit in my debris-filled condo, not reading the paper, with my left eyelid out of my control, I have to decide whether I will make a mad dash to save my job or visit Shelly instead. I can’t have both, and it genuinely feels as though my soul is what’s in play now. I refold the paper my own way ignoring the creases and toss it onto the hip-high stack by the refrigerator. It all started, or stopped depending on your point of view, last August.

I Dream of Geese – Part 1

I stand in the doorway and watch my daughter stare into the television. I am supposed to tell her something. From the dining room, I can see her but not the screen. Blue and white light project onto her as scenes change on the program. Her eyes move in little stutters – right and left, up and down – as she tracks some animated character. This is some modern hybrid of REM sleep. She turns to TV when she is tired and needs downtime. I do the same thing. Television serves as a bridge for me between being fully alert and the swinging hammock that leads to unconscious rest. Her shadow looms large and motionless on the living room wall. What is she thinking about as she watches? She blinks and I know we’ve gone to commercial.

“Time for bed,” I finally say.

We have a routine, my wife and I. The kids are in bed by nine o’clock. That gives us an hour, sometimes and hour and a half to be alone with each other. We talk about how Alex is doing in math (he started the year gangbusters but has settled into some difficulties neither of us can pinpoint). We discuss, okay, argue, about how to deal with Mara’s new-found taste for “being difficult.” That’s a euphemism for being argumentative which is somehow less acceptable in a seven year old than two forty-somethings.

Often, after they are up in bed, we are literally ‘alone with each other.’ Sitting in the same room, perhaps, but our conversations never leave our own heads. That silence will go on until I feel compelled to make some comment about some trivial thing or another. We both like TV commercials. Sometimes we talk about whether that one was a good one and why. There’s nothing wrong with this, I suppose. I don’t mind keeping my wife company as we watch television. Some couples don’t spend any time with each other.

We are in that last dry stretch of reruns that make September the longest month. Had we been born of this earth a hundred years ago, we might have looked to the Farmer’s Almanac with its moon phases, crop cycles, and weather predictions for guidance. Planting and harvesting, that’s what it was all about.  For us now, it’s the television programmers with their whiteboard schedules that guide our yearly rhythms. The new season breaks right around October first. Season replacements trickle in around the first of the year. We have even learned the meaning of “Sweeps” which is to say, we don’t know really what it means other than the best shows are on for a brief, promising week in May.

September reruns are like milk blood: that drawing back of the blood in the junkie’s syringe only to push it back into the vein carrying any last molecules of opiate. You can’t run out. I don’t know this first hand, but I go to my meetings. There are all types there, and I have learned a thing or two about substance abuse since I put down the bottle.

Social Fiction

You have stumbled into the short (so far) fiction of John H. Bell. I may publish new installments on several stories. You can subscribe via RSS feed or by email and be notified of new chapters. I welcome your comments but please be kind. This is my fiction, not my opinion.