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The Horned Manby James Lasdun
One afternoon earlier this winter, in a moment of idle curiosity, I took a book from the shelf in my office and began reading it where it fell open on a piece of compressed tissue that had evidently been used as a bookmark. I'd only had time to read a few sentences when I was interrupted by a knock on the door. Reluctantly?the sentences had looked interesting?I closed the book on its marker and returned it to the shelf.
The next morning I took it down again, intending to continue reading where I had left off, only to find that the marker was no longer at the page it had been on the day before. Leafing through the book, I found my sentences thirty pages earlier. Either I had moved the marker inadvertently myself, or else some night visitor had been reading the book in my absence. I settled on the first as the more likely explanation, though it seemed odd that I could have moved a bookmark thirty pages forward without noticing it.
I mentioned it that afternoon to Dr. Schrever as I lay on the crimson couch of her small consulting room off Central Park West. After telling her the story, which she received in her customary silence, I asked her if it might have been a case of parapraxis?Freud's term for the lapses of memory, slips of the tongue, and other minor suppressions of consciousness that occur in everyday life.
"Maybe I moved it myself, without being aware of it."
"Is that what you think happened?" Dr. Schrever asked.
"I don't know. I suppose if it is, the next question is, why would I have done it?"
Dr. Schrever said nothing.
"You think I deliberately hid the words from myself because they disturbed me in some way?"
"Is that what you think?"
"I suppose it's possible...."
We continued like this for a little while, but the topic didn't seem to be leading anywhere, and we moved on to other, unrelated matters.
And by the time I next went into my office, the mystery of the moving bookmark had ceased to interest me.
A few days later I received my office phone bill through the internal mail. Glancing over the list of calls, almost all of which were to my own number in New York, I happened to notice an unfamiliar area code. I was wondering who I could have been calling at that number when I saw that the call had been made at two in the morning; not an hour at which I had ever been in the office.
I was a little perturbed by the idea of a stranger having access to my office and coming there in the middle of the night to make phone calls. I didn't have anything to hide, but the intrusion made the bland carpeted space with its metal desks and cabinets feel momentarily strange, as though it were concealing something from me.
Until then, it hadn't crossed my mind to wonder whose books these were on the shelves, whose files were stored in the cabinet, even whose computer it was that sat shrouded in plastic on the surface of the cumbrous desks arranged on one side of the room. There were always the same things lying around these offices when you were assigned them books, files, letters, invitations to talks, dog-eared old New Yorker cartoons, often a pair of gloves, an umbrella ... the residue of former occupants, leached by time and dust of anything suggestive of a living human being.
But as I looked at the phone bill on my desk, it crossed my mind that my visitor, who must have had a key to the room (I always locked it when I left), might have been one of these former occupants.
On the other hand, perhaps I really was sharing the room: legitimately and officially; with a colleague who worked on different days from me. Perhaps it was simply that nobody had thought to inform me of this arrangement.
On my way to lunch I asked Amber, the intern, as casually as I could, whether anyone besides me was using Room 106.
She looked at me as if expecting an explanation of the question. Ignoring this, I asked if she knew who had had my office before I moved in there.
"Yes. That was Barbara."
"Barbara Hellermann. Why?"
"I?I think she may have left some things behind." I was reluctant to get into a conversation about the bookmark and the phone number.
Amber gave me a strange look.
"Well?maybe. I mean ... you know about her, right?"
I was about to ask more when I felt the warning signs of an ailment that had been afflicting me since I had begun this job in the fall: an unpredictable and embarrassing tendency to blush. Like insomnia, the affliction had become a self-perpetuating problem. The fear of blushing had me in a state of permanent blush-readiness in which the slightest errancy of thought, conscious or unconscious, could open the blood-gates. A moment before it started, I would experience a faint lurch inside me, and with a helpless lucidity I would know that a burning crimson tide was about to start rising from my neck over my chin and cheeks, all the way up to my forehead. I would have grown a beard by now if the hair on my face were not so fair and scant.
I thanked Amber curtly and hurried away. Outside her force field, the blush command withdrew itself, and I continued pallidly down the corridor that led out of our building.
It was snowing as I walked up Central Park West from the subway station. The large flakes were few enough in number that I was aware of each individually as it drifted by, though the sky had a lurid, bruise-colored tone, as if it were getting ready to unleash something more serious.
Lights came on in windows as I passed the Dakota Building and reached the area I had once heard described as the Therapy District. Already the snow was thickening. The trees on Dr. Schrever's street had started to catch puffy snowflakes on the tips of their purple twigs?a ghostly blossom, almost luminous in the darkening air. Through the proliferating whiteness I saw a figure moving toward me: a woman, in a thick jacket, powder-blue scarf, and black skirt?leather, from the way it gleamed.
As she approached, I found myself absentmindedly eyeing her figure, a crude reflex I had been struggling to correct but still sometimes caught myself succumbing to. Her legs were slim and shapely; her hips moved in their gleaming sheath with a sinuous, swaying motion. As she drew close, I peered through the veils of snow to check out her face and saw, to my astonishment, that it was Dr. Schrever.
I was early for my appointment, so I suppose there was no reason for her not to be out on the street. But the sight of her there (I had never seen her outside the context of the consulting room) was disconcerting. She smiled at me; we said hello, and continued on our separate ways. At the end of the street I looked back and saw that she had crossed the avenue and was heading into Central Park.
I had half an hour to kill, so I stopped for a coffee at a diner on Amsterdam Avenue. As I sat in my booth I found myself thinking about the encounter. Had Dr. Schrever noticed me eyeing her up? I wondered. The thought that she might have, troubled me. She had asked me more than once whether I ever experienced sexual feelings for her, and I had told her emphatically that I hadn't. As a matter of fact, although I had spent the first few sessions sitting on a chair opposite her (rather than the couch I now lay on), I had never formed a very definite sense of her physical reality at all. She had shortish dark hair, dark eyes, smooth skin. Beyond that, her appearance always melted into vagueness whenever I tried to summon it. Agewise, for all I knew, she might have been a seasoned thirty or a well-preserved fifty. I never noticed her clothes, though I suppose I wouldn't have suspected a taste for leather skirts.
It became clear to me now that in her capacity as my therapist, I had placed her off-limits sexually, but that reduced to the anonymity of a female human being, she was in fact quite capable of arousing desire in me after all.
These two aspects had been separated as I watched her coming toward me through the snow. I pictured her again, trying to catch the carefree, sensual elegance she had projected before I realized who she was. A distinct pang of arousal went through me. And at once a preposterous surmise came into my head: she changed into the leather skirt between sessions to pick up men and have sex with them for money in the park. I could go there now and find her with one knee provocatively cocked as she leaned pale and delicately shivering against a cedar post of the trellised walkway that led down to the lake....
I finished my coffee, read a newspaper, then walked the two blocks to her building. As I entered her consulting room, I saw that she had changed her clothes again: in place of the leather skirt was a demure pleated tweed affair, with thick brown wool tights underneath and house slippers on her feet. She looked rather aloof and forbidding.
I lay down on the couch, facing away from her. For a moment I almost balked at telling her the things that had just been going through my mind, but at a hundred dollars an hour, I couldn't afford to suppress anything that might prove illuminating.
"After I passed you on the street just now," I began, "I went to a diner where I started thinking about why seeing you like that disturbed me, which it did, and I found myself drifting into this fantasy...."
I described all the things I had thought and felt and imagined as I sat in the diner. As I spoke, I was aware of the sound of her pen scratching across the pages of the notebook she always jotted in furiously while I talked. It occurred to me that this notebook contained a great deal of intimate material about me, and I wondered if there were any circumstances under which she would show it to someone else. Was she bound by any code of privacy or therapist's version of the Hippocratic oath? What, in fact, bound her to me other than the fees I paid her; the fees I realized now I had been faintly annoyed to see glistening in that expensive-looking leather skirt?
I must have been speaking for longer than I realized: it seemed we had barely begun to discuss my fantasy of her picking up men in the park when a soft buzzing filled the room, marking the arrival of Dr. Schrever's next patient.
As I got up to go, Dr. Schrever looked at me in a way that seemed for a moment uneasy.
"By the way," she said, "I wasn't sure whether to tell you this, but I think on balance I should. You mentioned passing me in the street, but I haven't been out of this room all afternoon."
I looked at her, dumbstruck.
"In any case," she went on, "I was with another patient when you arrived. You must have seen him leave while you were in the waiting room."
Now that I thought of it, I had seen him leave: a lugubrious-looking man who always preceded me that day of the week. But so certain had I been of encountering Dr. Schrever half an hour earlier that it hadn't even crossed my mind to infer from his presence anything that might have brought this into question. I had seen him, but apparently not taken account of him.
"Perhaps it disturbs you to think I have other customers?" she asked, looking at me levelly.
"You mean ... patients?"
"Well, yes," she said with the trace of a smile, and I realized she had been referring lightheartedly to my fantasy, presumably to defuse any embarrassment I might have felt about it, with a note of humor, and I appreciated this.
Even so, as I left, I felt rather worried that I could have made such a blatant error of recognition, and as I walked back toward the park, where the snow was now lying in raised veins along every shiny black branch and twig, forming an exact white replica of each tree, I wondered who the woman was who had smiled at me in the street and said hello.
I walked idly over to the opening where I had seen her disappear into the park, and even went so far as to go down the winding path that led to the lake.
There was a small, rustic shelter where the path turned. I looked in; half-hoping, I suppose, to see the woman there. It was empty, of course. I stood there for a moment, watching the snowflakes dissolving in the black water, parts of which still had great plates of ice floating on or just under the surface.
Then I went home.
The next time I was in my office, I made a deliberate effort to settle the question of whether there really were grounds for thinking I had an intruder. The moving bookmark no longer seemed very mysterious, and given my misidentification of Dr. Schrever I now began to wonder whether I might not have been paying proper attention when I went through the phone bill. Perhaps I had called that number after all, forgotten whose it was, and misread the time of night recorded on the printout. I looked for the bill now, but I couldn't find it. I assumed I must have thrown it away after paying it, and the cleaner had emptied the wastepaper basket.
In the act of searching for it, however, I found myself for the first time really noticing the contents of this room. It hadn't occurred to me to take stock of them before; after all, why would anyone waste a moment on such things?objects so remote from any active use or ownership, they'd staled away into little more than dust-shrouded memories of themselves? But my curiosity was aroused, and I embarked on a conscious inventory of the place.
Black-stained wooden chairs and bookcases; off-white walls; gray carpet and doors; a four-drawer metal filing cabinet with a Hewlett-Packard printer curled up on top of it; the two oversized desks by the latticed window, a Dell desktop computer on one of them, on the other a giant stapler; a five- to seven-cup Hot Pot coffeemaker in its opened box; my own wooden desk with cables running around its legs and a cache of Styrofoam peanuts under its base?out of reach of the cleaner's vacuum.
There was a door I hadn't opened: behind it a closet with an air conditioner hibernating on the floor, pleated wings folded neatly into its body. Some clothes in a dry cleaner's wrap hung on a metal hanger from a peg, under a woman's maroon beret. The late Barbara Hellermann's, perhaps? I closed that door. A few curled and fading cards stood on the window ledge. I opened them; saw they were all to Barbara from her students: Thank you for being you; Your generosity and understanding will live with me forever. A clock in the shape of a sunflower stood on a metal shelf next to several amateurish, brightly glazed pottery mugs. Although these things were of little interest in themselves, I did find it interesting that I hadn't even registered them until now. On another shelf was a bronze bowl with pebbles, a piece of quartz, a fir cone, a tarnished coin?Bulgarian, on closer inspection?a key ring, and a jay feather. There was a framed Matisse still-life on the wall, a small cork bulletin board with an old teaching schedule pinned to it, and next to that a rough-edged square of what looked like hand-made paper with the following quotation printed on it in gold letters:
The ceiling was made of perforated white drop tiles and was stained yellow from a leak in one corner. The light came from three plastic-paneled fluorescent strips.
Completing my examination of the room without any great sense of satisfied curiosity, I found myself thinking of Barbara Hellermann. I pictured her coming in here, hanging up her beret and her dry cleaning, glancing cheerfully at her cards, her uplifting quotation, taking her five- to seven-cup Hot Pot from its box to brew coffee in for her class, setting out the pottery mugs.... The sense of a sweet-natured, diligent soul came into me. I imagined her as an elderly lady, and hoped that her death had been peaceful.
Copyright © 2002 by James Lasdun
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