by Oliver Zarandi
The phone starts ringing. It’s 4.30 in the morning. I don’t pick up straight away. I light a cigarette and only then do I take the call. I already know who it’s going to be so I don’t say anything.
“You can always rely on Paul Baldwin,” the voice says.
I am Paul Baldwin. The voice is Jim Connors. Jim is my friend. He’s a pharmacist. I have known him since we were kids. We used to hang out at an old abandoned cabin in the woods. The cabin is still there – derelict, of course. It’s in that house that we grew up and learnt things together as young boys.
Jim lives at 36 Carlton Street, Woodstock City, Oregon, with his wife, Francine. She was a teacher. He married Francine in 1988 and he loves her, but some sort of dementia has overcome her. Jim says he’s not sure what kind of dementia it is. The doctors don’t know what the problem is. Maybe it’s not dementia. Maybe it’s something else.
“I’m going to see her folks,” says Jim. “We’re going to talk things over.” He always calls me first. A few weeks ago he told me that he had been unfaithful to Francine numerous times during this whole ordeal. I don’t judge him for this.
“Paul Baldwin, I need you to look after the house for a week,” Jim says. “Can you drive down this Friday?”
“Sure,” I say. He knows I have nothing better to do. I live alone. Sometimes I listen to my neighbours talk.
Jim tells me that he wants me to look after Francine while he’s away. “She’s a handful,” he says. “Sometimes she wets herself and forgets things. And sometimes she sees things, too.”
I ask him where he will be and he says that he’s got a new woman. She’s a natural dick rider, he says. He’s taking her somewhere out of town so they won’t be seen. He says that a man deserves some happiness this late in life. He asks me if I agree and I agree. And maybe then, after he’s had some fun, he’ll drive to Francine’s parents place and see if they can work something out for her future. Put her somewhere where she can live out her days in peace and quiet.
I don’t judge. I tell him I’ll pack some things and swing round later tonight.
I pack some clothes and a pair of work boots. The forecast for the weekend is rain. I get in my blue pickup and shut the door. I look back at my house and then, just to the left, next door. In the window, the man and woman are close together. Their shadow is big and lumpy. The goes out. I start the car and drive down to Jim’s.
He doesn’t live far. The light outside his house is yellow. Jim told me the light here is ugly and reminded him of jaundiced skin. Jim is already standing outside his house. It’s not really a house, either: it’s a bungalow. There’s a metal fence that separates the thin strip of lawn from the pavement. Some plastic refuse bags are huddled in the crease of the pavement. It’s a cheap house and isn’t much to look at but at least he has company.
I get out of my pickup and grab my things. Jim comes over and gives me a hug. We don’t say anything. I notice that there is a new wheelchair ramp outside of his house. He sees me looking and says, “Sometimes she wants to walk, other times she doesn’t want to walk.”
Jim leads me inside. Francine is in the living room watching half a television. On one side the television shows a moving image, a melodrama. The other side is taped up. “She thinks the characters are looking at her,” Jim says.
I don’t say anything. I rarely do. This is just the way I am. Again, this is what Jim likes about me. Unquestioning in his nature, Jim would always say about me. Jim’s other friends are regular men. They are a different shape to me. They drink more than me. The fact is, I don’t drink. I live a life of carefully controlled routine. His friends would call me ‘the priest.” Francine once said I had the “aura of a saint.”
I don’t know whether I agree with that. But this image I have is enough for Jim to like me, enough to respect me and call me Paul Baldwin and not just Paul. In many ways, this is the only power I have or have ever had over anybody else.
Jim pours me a drink of coffee. I ask for it black but he doesn’t hear. I don’t touch the coffee. I look around the kitchen. It’s small and everything seems to be made from plastic. It’s tacky but lived in. It has memories. “You have to water the plants,” said Jim. “These plants are the only other joy in my life, okay?”
“Okay,” I say. The kitchen is filled with cacti and herbs buried in plastic tubs resting on the windowsill.
“Good. Okay. And the rest of the time, just make sure Francine doesn’t do anything ridiculous.”
“Well, you saw what she did with the television. And a few days ago, she left the gas on.”
“Could’ve killed us both. And she wets herself. Does it pretty regular now.”
“So clean her up?”
“If you can. Is that too much?”
“No. It’s the least I can do, Jim. You said it yourself. You deserve to be happy.” This makes him smile. That’s my intention. When I see Jim smile, I feel a bit more complete.
“Thanks, Paul Baldwin. And up here,” he says reaching up to the cupboard, “is your food. Tinned stuff, some sauces, capers – do you like capers? – and bread. And here is Francine’s food.” He reaches up and I notice there is not much food for Francine.
“Do you want me to go out and buy her some more food?”
“This is plenty,” he says and shuts the cupboard.
Before Jim leaves, he shows me his office. He has a bookshelf filled with medical books and antique bottles of poison.
“They’re beautiful, don’t you think?” he says as he pulls down a blue bottle with a paper label wrapped round the front of it.
“Sure,” I say.
He shows me a book called Poison, too. “Day in day out, Paul Baldwin, the people of this city give me their prescriptions. Ear pain, palpitations, conjunctivitis. I’m completely in control, you know? I give them pills, ointments, liquids. Tell them how to take things, when to take them. It’s why I love my job, truth be told,” says Jim.
“I wish I had that sort of job satisfaction,” I say.
“Well, you are unemployed, Paul Baldwin.”
“Yes,” I say. And it is true. I lost my job and have not had luck in finding another. I have done odd jobs here and there in order to pay my rent and eat at least two meals a day. I worked in a restaurant taking orders. I worked on a railroad. I worked as a taxi driver. I worked as a general laborer.
“But look. Perhaps this job – looking after my Francine – maybe it will give you some sense of purpose? It’s why I called you. You’ve been so quiet recently,” he says.
“The priest,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s you all right. When we were at the bar a few weeks back. Not a word out of you. Anyway, this book. I wanted to show it you. Pretty fancy. It’s a first edition. All about the history of poison. Arsenic, cocaine, alcohol, cyanide, morphia. I’ve been reading it a lot recently. To think people who had my job used to give this stuff out. I give out ear drops and these guys gave out opium tincture.”
“And I saw this bit and thought of you, Paul Baldwin.” He opens up the book and laughs a little. I notice now, up close, how big his head is. “I remember how you don’t drink, after that time. Remember? But look here: ‘A horse, which had been introduced to the pleasures of wine, once broke into a cellar,’ – how does a horse break into a cellar? – ‘and drank as much as it was able to swallow; it was found drunken and collapsed amidst broken bottles. When pushed the horse reacted violently. The cow is also easily affected. The hedgehog holds its liquor quite well.’”
He laughs. Jim shuts the book and puts it down on the table. “The hedgehog can control its liquor better than you, Paul Baldwin,” he says. When he laughs, a small whistle is emitted from the gap in his front teeth.
We hear a screaming from the living room and Jim says, not to worry, it’s just Francine.
A moment passes and Jim tells me, “You are not a horse, priest.”
I slept in Jim’s spare room the evening that he left. It is a single bed and the walls are blank, save for a crucifix nailed into the wall. This strikes me as strange because Jim is not a religious man.
I wake up and light a cigarette. 8.00am. Saturday mornings always smell different. The shadows of overhead clouds pattern the street outside. I make a pot of coffee and pour two cups, one for me and one for Francine. I go to check on Francine and she is already out back in the garden staring at the washing line. The clothes swing back and forth in the cold wind.
I water the plants. Jim used to tell me cacti are the most beautiful of plants. And they’re less hassle, too. Jim doesn’t like maintenance.
Francine walks into the kitchen. She sits at the table and pours the coffee over the table surface. I clean it up as she smiles.
Later, I sit down to watch television. There’s a smell in the room that suggests the windows haven’t been opened in some time. Half the screen is still taped up. Francine comes in to sit down too. I start to peel back the tape. “What the fuck are you doing?” she says.
“I want to watch the television,” I say.
“But they’re watching us,” she says.
“Oh, you stupid thing.”
Francine wets herself. I collect some kitchen towels and pad at her crotch and the sofa. The piss is still warm. She opens her legs for me to get every bit of urine soaked up. It smells like fish. I bin the towels and sit down and pick up a newspaper and read.
I like Jim’s house. It’s comfortable. Spartan. Francine isn’t bothering me. I see her sitting in her wheelchair rolling forwards and backwards. I start to look around the house. I pick up some of Jim’s books and leaf through them. I start to hold the books by the spine and flick the pages to see if anything will fall out.
Something falls out. Two photographs. One is of Francine and Jim and is dated 1996. She looks pretty enough but I certainly would not have married her. Jim looks young, too, and quite handsome. They are at a table in a foreign country and they are smiling.
The other photograph is of the old derelict house that Jim and I used to go and play in. Our secret den, you could say. The place where we grew up and learned things. I think of Jim keeping this photograph safe and what this meant to him, perhaps.
Francine appears at the door. She says nothing.
I do not say anything either. I am Paul Baldwin, after all. Like an actor sticking rigidly to his character, I just smile and turn from her. I face the wall of books and hear only my breathing.
“I will fix you something up now,” I say. I turn to Francine. She has a shock of white hair on the right side of her head. Her legs are covered in varicose veins. She looks ten years older than she should do. I think, for a second, what it would be like to see Francine having intercourse with a young man, the differences between their skin types.
It is the second photograph that causes me to think about things. The photograph of the old house. It was more of a hut. I think of the years that I have spent without Jim. He has lived a life, certainly. He has his own private history. He has Francine. In Francine lives a life I want to know. Who is Jim Connors? He isn’t the boy I grew up with. What does he do in his spare time? What are his favourite positions? Why has Jim moved on so easily and I have not? Why am I the priest? Why am I in control of myself but not my life? Why do I have the aura of a saint? Why can’t I punch a window through? Why can’t I let loose? Who is Paul Baldwin? And Francine. Why Francine? What had happened between them both? Who was the woman out of town? Was there a woman out of town? Where was Jim right now? Will he really go and see Francine’s family? Is this fair? Is this decent? Is Jim stronger than me? Will Francine really be taken to a quiet place and live out the rest of her days in silence, out of sight, out of mind?
It’s halfway through the week already. At the dinner table, Francine calls me Jim. She says, “Jim, fuck me.” I try to reason with her. I move the egg to the east of the plate. I try to tell her that I am Paul Baldwin. She says I am not. She doesn’t talk for a few minutes. She asks me to pass the salt.
I agree with her. I am not Paul Baldwin. I am Jim. I go to Jim’s bedroom. I try on his clothes. I take his underwear and try them on. I walk up to the mirror and think about Jim’s book on poison. I say to the mirror, “You are not a horse.”
I put my clothes back on and go back in to see Francine. She sits in her wheelchair with a rosary twisted around her hand. I go and kneel down next to her. I hold my hand over hers. I feel that Francine and I are kindred spirits. We both know what it is to know Jim Connors.
Francine turns her head to me. “When can I leave?” she asks. Some time passes and I wheel Francine out of the kitchen and turn off the lights.
Searching through Jim’s office, I find some old photographs of us. I believe this was the last time I was happy. There are photographs of other people I don’t know. Two bigger men, older, hold three fat trout close to a steel bridge. A photograph of two mallards. I want to know this history. I eat one of the photographs – the one of the mallards.
And then I find a notebook. Inside the notebook is Jim’s name. One of the entries is simply titled ‘The Cabin’. It reads:
‘There are some thought processes that, as an adult, are difficult to rationalize. The thought processes of a child almost seem automatic, as if carried out by a somnambulist. I wasn’t thinking.’
Jim’s car pulls up and I go out and meet him. He gives me a hug again. It is always Jim who makes that move first. He goes into the house and checks every room. He checks Francine.
“So how was it?” asks Jim. I don’t say anything. I shrug. The priest. “Well, good news is that Francine is going to be cared for.”
I manage to smile. “That’s good for Francine.”
“My new girl will be moving into this place,” says Jim. He seems pretty happy. He deserves it, I guess. “Had a great week with her. She showed me that there’s life in me yet.”
I don’t need to ask Jim about where Francine is going. He knows I know. He takes a step forward and says, “Don’t worry, I’ve found a place.”
I collect my things. I say goodbye to the rooms in the house in my mind. I wave goodbye to Francine and she doesn’t wave back. I get in my blue pickup and start to drive but I am not driving home.
I am driving somewhere else and maybe I am turning back around and maybe I am not Paul Baldwin. I am not the priest. I am not a saint.
I am a horse.
Oliver Zarandi is a writer and editor of Funhouse. His work has recently appeared in The Alarmist and The Quietus and is forthcoming in Hobart. Contact him on Twitter: @zarandi or www.oliverzarandi.com.