Friday, December 03, 2004

Cacophony--Chapter Four

Hmmm. I believe this is the last chapter I've written (that I like). So I'm gonna have to get cracking again soon.

Chapter Four

"This is pretty dry," said Magda, upon finishing the third chapter. "Your writing is usually much more conversational than this."

"Well, it's exposition," I said.

"Ah," she replied.

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

"Well." She paused. I could tell she was thinking carefully about her words. "I guess I'm wondering if you're trying to protect yourself."

"From what?"

"From memories. From pain. From Christy."

"Ah," I replied.

"Sorry. Maybe I should read it again." She shuffled and arranged the papers before her.

"No, that's okay," I said, and took the thin manuscript from her. "Do you want to hear a story?"

"Yes, tell me a story," she said, and settled her chin on her arms as she sat sideways on the couch with her legs tucked under her. Her listening posture never failed to remind me of her daughter. As always, the effect startled me, despite having seen it by then thousands of times.

I cleared my throat. "Once upon a time, there was a lonely little boy named Jonah. He never knew his mother and his father was frequently away on business."

"This should have been your first chapter."

I shot her a look. "This is fictitious. My father was always there."

"If you say so."

"Do you want to hear the story or not?"

"Sorry, go ahead."

"Because Jonah was often left alone, he learned to do many things for and by himself, including keeping himself entertained. He taught himself to read by the time he was four and particularly delighted in comic strips. He came to think of Pogo, Hagar the Horrible, the Wizard of Id, and many others as real friends.

"When Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown, Jonah always envisioned an unseen panel in which he helped Charlie Brown to his feet and dusted him off. When Elmo interrupted Dagwood in his bath, Jonah created stories of how he and Elmo went out to play kick-the-can, giving Dagwood some peace and quiet.

"The friendships that Jonah imagined were very real to him and began to be established at such an early age that by the time he was old enough to attend school, one of his comic strip friends was always with him. Teachers often found him deep in conversations or play with imaginary friends. In children of that age, they didn't find it unusual, but they worried that he rarely, if ever, left his imaginary friends to socialize with any of his classmates.

"This continued through kindergarten and first grade. Most of the other children had established relationships with one another, whether as best friends for life or as bitter rivals at four-square. Of all the children, though, most could not even recall Jonah's name. Few even teased him—he was odd enough to frighten them too much to make even that kind of contact.

"In the second month of second grade, however, a new girl joined Jonah's class. When the teacher introduced her, Jonah didn't even bother to look up from the math problems he was working at his desk. He remained blissfully unaware of her until recess.

"When the children were out on the playground, clustered in their usual groups around the monkey bars and the paved kickball court, Jonah was at the far end of the field by the fence playing with Booboo Bear (he didn't much care for Yogi). The little girl was intimidated by the larger groups of kids and wandered her way out toward where the single boy was playing seemingly by himself.

"At first, she only watched Jonah at play. She realized fairly quickly to whom he was talking and was fascinated by how real the interaction seemed. It wasn't until Jonah and Booboo had settled on their backs to watch the shapes in the clouds that she spoke.

"Standing looking down at Jonah, she said, ‘Hi.' Normally, Jonah would have continued his description to Booboo of the precision with which a cumulus cloud imitated a seahorse, but in that moment, he completely forgot about his comic strip friend.

"His eyes went wide as he found himself staring up at a little girl who looked precisely like the female character in the strip ‘Love Is...' He'd conversed with the male from the strip before, but had always been too intimidated by the nudity to speak to the girl. To his horror, he now found himself visualizing this apparently real little girl without any clothes on.

"Aghast, he stood up quickly and ran back to the safety of the school. Inside, he made his way to the principal's office and stayed in the waiting area there until the bell rang sending everyone back to class.

"Throughout the rest of that day, Jonah kept finding his eyes drawn away from the work on his desk and toward the ‘Love Is' girl. On a few such occasions, she caught him staring and smiled and waved. He always blushed fiercely, still imagining her naked, and pretended to be deeply absorbed in his cursive.

"The school day eventually came to an end and Jonah raced home as quickly as he could. He took the key from under the front mat and let himself in. Once inside, he bolted the door behind him and fled to his room, which he also locked.

"In his room, he pulled the week's newspapers from under his bed and returned immediately to the comics. He was fairly sure that the girl character had been in some of the ‘Love Is...' comics in the past week, but every oval he scanned was only the boy character doing some loving task for his unseen partner. Where had she gone?

"Jonah's brow creased as he continued scanning the illustrations for clues. But she simply wasn't there.

"It was only after he'd almost given up that he spotted her. He'd only been looking at the comics in which she'd always appeared previously. Now, suddenly she was in every comic strip except the one that had always been her home. There she was playing with Dot in ‘Hi and Lois.' There she was again, fighting her way out of a scrape alongside Annie in ‘Little Orphan Annie.' Suddenly, the girl from school was in every frame of his private world.

"The night was a sleepless one as Jonah tried to understand what this new turn of events meant. Who was this girl and why wouldn't she leave him alone? His usual companions were now just as invisible to him as they'd always been to everyone else. They offered no advice.

"The following day, Jonah felt too ill to attend school. He'd never missed a day of school in his life and this was to be the first of many. As days went on, he continued to sleep poorly and never quite felt well enough in the mornings to face the girl in person. She continued, however, to inhabit all of his favorite comic strips.

"The days turned to weeks and Jonah's father eventually got concerned enough to send him to a psychiatrist. The doctor proved helpless before this odd boy's predicament, however. Weeks turned to months and it became clear that Jonah was going to have to be held back a grade, in spite of his fierce intelligence.

"On the last day of the school year, Jonah got up and opened the newspaper to the comic strips as usual. ‘Love Is...' had suddenly been replaced with a new comic called ‘The Far Side.' Further, the little girl had completely disappeared from all of the other comics where she'd haunted Jonah all year long.

"Finally, the image of her was taken from Jonah's eyes and he became more aware once more of the world around him. His comic strip friends were still invisible and silent, but he felt ready to face the world once more. He decided to go to the last day of school.

"At school, the other children hardly recognized or remembered him. There was, besides the seat he'd left behind, one other empty desk. The little girl was gone. Nobody spoke of where she'd gone or how long she'd been missing, but every time Jonah looked up, expecting to see the pig-tails and freckles, there was only an empty desk.

"And he never saw her again. The end."

Magda sat silent for a little while before responding. "See?" she said. "It's always about Christy."


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