THE PRIMAL ANGUISH OF NORMAN FEATHERSTONE
Norman and Miriam Featherstone spent an entire afternoon at Miriam’s brother’s house. As it turned out, the sole purpose of the visit was for Miriam’s brother, Montgomery, whom everyone but his mother called Monty, to show off a chair. As soon as Monty had started his demonstration, Miriam abandoned Norman, just walking into the kitchen to chat with her long-suffering sister-in-law.
The fancy new chair was called a Relax-A-Lounger. Monty hadn’t even allowed Norman to sit in it, except to “try it.” When Norman tried it, Monty had shown him how to lay back with his feet out straight and his head nestled in the feathery head cushion. Then Monty made him get up by grabbing the handle and dropping the footrest with a jolt. “That’s enough, pal. Let’s not wear it out.”
* * *
That night Norman could not sleep. He lay in bed, twisting and turning, trying not to think how much he hated his brother-in-law.
“My God, Norman,” said Miriam from the other side of the bed, “lie still. How do you expect me to sleep?”
Norman sighed. He loved Miriam. How could he hate her brother? At times, when he had difficulty falling asleep, he would think of Miriam by calling up memories of their times together, and this helped him relax. But this hatred, this feeling for Monty, he could not control. He did not call it up. It called him up, would not leave.
“I can’t get comfortable,” he said and tried to turn over again. Earlier that semester, Sean O’Riley, the poet-in-residence in the office next to Norman’s, was there one day and dead the next. Heart attack. He had been fifty years old. In a week, Norman would be sixty. Sean was a friend, a great teacher, a loss to the college and the community. Norman felt deep sadness, actually shed tears. Why couldn’t it have been Monty who keeled over?
* * *
A week later, on his birthday, which Miriam seemed to have forgotten, he walked in the front door, and for some reason, the lights were out. He switched them on. The entire neighborhood jumped from behind the furniture, shouting, “Surprise!”
Champagne was popped. His back was slapped a hundred times. “You shoulda seen your face,” said Monty.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” said Miriam, and kissed him.
Then he saw it—the chair—right there, in the middle of his living room, with a red ribbon around it. It was newer, fancier, better than Monty’s. He rushed to Miriam and embraced her. “Norman,” she giggled, “stop it.”
The guests feasted, drank, and then slowly departed, one by one. At eleven, Monty’s wife Gladys had left with a neighbor. “Norm and I are having one more. It’s his birthday,” said Monty.
“Suit yourself,” said Gladys. At midnight, Miriam excused herself and went upstairs. Only Monty was left, and he had his coat on. Monty stood next to the chair, arms folded, while Norman demonstrated one more time the lever that caused the chair to unfold into a lounge.
“Notice how smoothly and easily mine works,” said Norman, “not jerky like yours. They’ve made a lot of improvements in these newer models.”
Monty walked slowly around the chair, then put his hand on Norman’s shoulder.
“I hate to break it to you, Norm. I mean, it’s a nice chair and everything, but this ain’t no Relax-A-Lounger.” He laughed. “You got taken.” Norman did not respond.
Monty’d had too many beers, but Norman wasn’t about to drive him home. He’d had a few himself. It would be better if Monty got stopped and learned a lesson, or even got in an accident, maybe fatal.
Two hours later, somewhere in the night, a car door slammed, followed by a clunk. Maybe Monty had run into a telephone pole. Norman turned from his right side to his left, thinking that he did not really hate his brother-in-law. He despised him. “My God, Norman,” said Miriam. He pulled the thin blanket tightly around him. Miriam pulled back, tensing the blanket between them like a tightrope.
* * *
For three days Norman stewed. Finally, Miriam said, “Just what is your problem now?”
He told her. “My God, I don’t believe this,” she said. She dug out the receipt and an ad from the newspaper, which she had saved. The ad clearly said “Relax-A-Lounger Sale.” The receipt said “Lounge chair.”
It sure looked like a Relax-A-Lounger. He called his brother-in-law. “Monty, I’ve got the ad right here. It says ‘Relax-A-Lounger’ clear as day. They sold it to Miriam. They must know.”
“I’ll be right over. Stay right there, pal.”
* * *
“This is Leland—lives next door. He’s been helping me fix my lawnmower,” said Monty. “The wife’s got the car. Thought Leland might help out.” Leland, with a head of rumpled, dark hair, in overalls and grease-smeared T-shirt, wore the signs of his struggle with Monty’s greasy machine.
Norman wondered how Leland could help.
“This is my brother-in-law, Norman. He’s a college professor,” said Monty, with an inflection most people reserve for used-car salesmen. Monty was neatly attired in stay-pressed khakis and Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, showing no sign of having touched his mower. “Leland here is the reptile keeper at the Jones Park Zoo. How’s that for a job?”
“We just got a new monitor,” said Leland. “That’s a kind of lizard.”
“No shit,” said Monty. “What next?”
“Which chair is it?” said Leland, looking around the room. Norman pointed.
They stood around the chair, examining it as a team. “How can you tell it’s not a Relax-A-Lounger?” asked Norman.
Monty sat in it and moved the handle, which smoothly lifted the built-in footstool and lowered the back until he was laid out flat. “I can tell, Norm, by looking at it, by sitting in it.”
Norman hated to be called Norm.
“That’s quite a chair you got there,” said Leland.
“Get up, Monty,” said Norman. “It’s got to say somewhere what it is. Isn’t there a tag somewhere, you know, one of those tags that can’t be removed under penalty of law?”
“Those are for mattresses, Norm,” said Monty.
They turned the chair over and found a tag. The chair had been made by the Gotham Chair Company, Montreal, Quebec. Nowhere did it say “Relax-A-Lounger.”
“Where are the instructions that came with it?” said Monty.
“There were no instructions,” said Norman. “Why would I need instructions for a chair?”
“The Relax-A-Lounger comes with instructions,” said Monty. “Your Relax-A-Lounger is the Cadillac of chairs. Your La-Z-Boy is like the Buick. What you got is like the . . . um . . .”
“The Frontenac of chairs?” said Norman. He knew Monty had been about to say “Edsel” but had caught himself. The two-tone Edsel, according to Monty, had been his “only mistake in life.” He did not talk about it.
Leland was sitting in the chair now, letting it up and down. “Yes, sir, quite a chair,” he said.
“Let’s see that ad,” said Monty. Norman had the ad ready. He walked to the coffee table to retrieve it.
“Why is it called a monitor, that lizard you were talking about?” said Monty. “Big eyes or something?”
“Don’t really know,” said Leland.
“There was a time when it was believed that it warned other creatures of approaching crocodiles,” said Norman.
Leland looked at Norman.
“Your problem, Norm, is that you don’t know how to exercise consumerism,” said Monty. He was examining the ad. “Uh-huh. I think we got ’em by the balls. I can see we’re going to have to go down there and straighten this out.”
“Go down where?” said Norman.
Miriam walked into the room. The men were silent. Norman gave Miriam a helpless look. Miriam responded with a slight private smile and walked out—not a lot, but enough to give Norman courage to forge ahead.
The three men rode together on the bench seat of a Jones Park Zoo pickup truck. Leland explained he was “on call” on Sundays and allowed to have the truck for the day. That evening he had to go over to the zoo and feed the big snakes. Norman sat in the middle.
Leland was going about fifty on the narrow residential streets, past signs reading “25 MPH” and “School Zone.” Norman could hear and feel the Relax-A-Lounger bouncing up and down and banging against the cab.
“Whoa, Nelly!” said Monty. “What’s the big hurry?”
“I drive fast,” said Leland.
“Please, slow down a little,” said Norman.
Leland slowed to about forty.
The Relax-A-Lounger slammed against the cab, then lurched and smashed into the side of the bed, almost careening over the side.
“Couldn’t we do something to tie it? Or slow down? Or something?” said Norman.
Leland seemed not to hear. Now they were on a country road, taking a shortcut over the hill to the Monroeville Mall.
A small plastic figure hung from the rearview mirror in front of Norman’s face, swinging back and forth as the truck swerved. It looked like a little Buddha figure. Norman reached up to steady it and saw that it was a coiled hooded cobra. He quickly let go.
Leland suddenly slammed the brakes and pulled the truck over to the side of the road, coming to a skidding halt in a cloud of dry gravel, throwing the chair with a thud again against the cab. The echo resounded in Norman’s ears.
Leland climbed out of the cab. Standing on the shoulder of the road, he reached behind the driver’s seat.
Norman turned his head and glanced over his headrest. A slatted wooden box was wedged in the space between the driver’s seat and the rear of the cab. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Leland flipped the lid and reached into the box. What he saw made his heart stop. He was frozen in fear.
“These guys will do the trick,” said Leland, thrusting a writhing handful of three-or-four-foot-long sinewy shapes in Norman’s face.
Norman raised his arm. Then, as he saw what he was looking at, slowly moved his hand toward the writhing mass, touching a red-and-orange striped bungee cord.
“They look like snakes,” he said.
“You should see your face,” said Monty. “What’d you think, Leland drives around with a box of snakes?”
“Something like that,” said Norman.
“Afraid of ’em, eh?” said Monty.
“Most people are,” said Leland, standing in the bed of the truck, as he wrapped bungees around the chair. “Give me a hand up here.”
With difficulty, Norman climbed into the back of the truck to help. Monty stayed in the cab. Together, Norman and Leland stretched the bungees across the chair and secured them to hooks inside the bed of the pickup.
Leland turned to Norman. “How did you hear that—about the monitor, how it got its name? You read it in a book or something?”
“I really don’t remember,” said Norman.
“Well,” said Leland, “I think it might be true. I’ve seen that kind of thing at the zoo. Animals do communicate. They don’t talk, but somehow they communicate. I think they would warn each other. Some of them have mates. A lot of them have babies. They do love each other, sometimes. I see that.”
“How about hate?” asked Norman, trying to imagine a lion or tiger waking up in the middle of the night feeling hate.
“Nope,” said Leland. “Don’t think so. Hate’s not an animal thing. I guess only humans hate.” He secured another bungee. “You know, he had gas in there, must have been two years old. He used my mower all last year. I knew all I had to do was clean his carburetor and change the gas. It’s a good thing he’s got me next door.”
With the Relax-A-Lounger now secure with bungee cords running in all directions, they screeched around a corner on two wheels. Monty yelled, “So, how’s things going down there at the zoo? You get over that problem you had?” He turned to Norman. “Leland has a problem at the zoo. Afraid to feed the big snakes.”
This didn’t surprise Norman.
“Oh, I’m not afraid of them. We get along,” said Leland. “It’s the constrictors. According to my boss, they’ll only eat meat if it’s alive, which is bullshit. I have to give them live rats. I just can’t do it,” said Leland. “I can see it in their eyes—the rats’ eyes, I mean. They know before I even put them in with the snake.”
“Boy, I’d feed ’em in a second. I hate rats,” said Monty.
“I’ve never seen such terror,” said Leland. “I have dreams.”
“I’m sorry,” said Norman. He put his hand on Leland’s arm. “That’s rough.”
Leland smiled. “Thanks. And tonight’s the night I have to do it. Every other Sunday.”
“You’re such a chicken, Leland,” said Monty. “You’re lucky they don’t fire your ass outta there.”
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Norman.
“Well,” said Leland, “they’re my responsibility, and they got to be fed. Sometimes it’s all right—if I don’t look into their eyes. They know. The rats know. They look me in the eye, and they know that I know. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
“Okay,” said Monty, “that’s enough of that nonsense. It’s the law of the jungle, that’s all it is.”
“But it isn’t the jungle,” said Leland, “it’s the zoo. We protect animals.”
They were in heavy traffic now, but it was moving. Leland was changing lanes, weaving in and out. The Relax-A-Lounger held fast.
“I said, that’s enough,” said Monty. “So, Norman, you still letting them push you around over at that junior college?”
“Community college,” said Norman.
“I’ve told you, Norman, things aren’t going to get any better until you show them who’s boss,” said Monty.
“Well, I understand that part,” said Norman. “The department head is my boss, and the President is her boss.”
“You mean you’re working for a woman?” said Monty. He laughed.
“Actually, things aren’t too bad right now,” said Norman. “I’m just having trouble dealing with the low self-esteem of some of my students. I wish I could motivate them more.” If only he could make their eyes light up when he read Milton to them, the way Miriam’s used to.
“That’s their problem,” said Monty.
“You know,” said Leland, “I had a guy like that working for me last year. He couldn’t keep the cages clean. He didn’t care.”
“Why should he?” said Monty. “It’s just a bunch of lizards.”
“So every day,” said Leland, “I’d show him my cages. I’d say, ‘See that? That’s a happy dragon. And see this,’ and I’d point to my face, ‘that’s a happy keeper.’”
“You got dragons?” said Monty.
“Komodo dragon,” said Leland. “It’s really a lizard. Whoa!” Leland narrowly missed a Camaro that had sped up as Leland tried to pass him. The Camaro pulled alongside and the driver, a young man, flashed Leland a middle finger. Leland smiled and waved.
“Happy dragons,” said Monty. “What next?”
“So,” said Norman, “did he figure it out—that if he did the job right, he’d be happy?”
“Yep,” said Leland. “All he had to do was watch me.”
“So,” said Norman, “how’s your job going, Monty? You’re at Jefferson’s, right?”
“Hell, no,” said Monty. “I got the hell out of there. They’re crazy over there. I’m selling insurance now. Set my own hours.”
By Norman’s count, the new job would be Monty’s fourth over the last year. He had started a job in marketing at Jefferson Specialty Steel only two months ago, telling Norman it was the job he had always dreamed of. “I see,” said Norman.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Monty.
“I’m the only one let in the dragon’s cage,” said Leland. “One slash from him and you’re dead. But we get along okay. He trusts me.”
“You seem to be able to see personalities there, in these creatures,” said Norman.
“No, I don’t see personalities,” said Leland. “They’re just snakes and lizards, but they’re thinking. They know what’s going on.”
“I wonder what they think, do you suppose?” said Norman.
“Mostly about food,” said Leland, “and keeping warm.”
“And sex,” said Monty. “You can bet your ass on that.”
“No,” said Leland, “they don’t think much about sex—most of ’em, anyway.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” said Monty. “Where do you think all those little snakes come from?”
“They don’t,” said Leland. “They don’t think about it. They do it, but they don’t think about it.”
“Like you could really tell what a snake is thinking,” scoffed Monty. They were now less than a mile from the mall on a four-lane highway, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, creeping along a few yards each time one of the endless sets of traffic lights ahead changed. Norman was greatly relieved at the pace they were now proceeding. It looked like they would make it to the store without running someone down or being shot by an angry driver.
“That’s interesting,” said Norman. “No passion. How about curiosity? Are they curious?”
“In general, no,” said Leland. “In general, I would say they lack curiosity, as compared to, say, a dog, or a cat. And they never try to escape. If they’re fed right, they achieve a kind of contentment. In general.”
Norman tried to remember when he had last felt he had achieved a kind of contentment—what that would feel like.
The furniture store was not in the mall, but across the highway in a former car dealership. Norman could read the faint words “Body Shop” above an overhead garage door. The words had been painted over but showed through. There was a “Mattress Riot” apparently in progress. Strings of red, white, and blue plastic flags were strung between light poles running the length of the property.
The store was crammed so full of furniture, it was difficult to move from aisle to aisle. As they entered, Monty said, “I’ll do the talking.”
When Monty finished talking, the kindly old man who had met them at the door and listened patiently, said, “Well, that does sound like a problem. Let’s see what we can do.”
Monty gave Norman a wink. Leland was on the other side of the store, trying out mattresses. The man, short, thin, and bent permanently forward at the waist, had yellow, uneven teeth. He was wearing a pilled maroon wool cardigan, and looked as if he were cold, even though it was over eighty degrees outside, and hotter in the store. Norman noticed dust on the tables and wooden chairs.
The man continued, “The reason the ad says ‘Relax-A-Loungers’ is I had some Relax-A-Loungers in the sale—five of them—a discontinued line. The handle stuck a little sometimes—nothing serious. They’ve fixed that on the new models. But they’re gone. So I can’t give your brother one.”
“He’s my brother-in-law,” said Monty, “not my brother. Anyway, the question is, what are you going to do about it?” Monty waved the ad in the man’s face. “This is false advertising.”
“I’m not sure it amounts to that, Monty,” said Norman.
Monty glared at him, hissing between his teeth, “Shut up, Norm.”
Norman and Monty had now been together most of the morning. Norman remembered a play he and Miriam had seen at the college. Norman couldn’t remember what it was about, except one of the lines in it was, “If we all could see each other all the time, all the hate in the world would melt away.” Miriam had said she was moved by that line, that it expressed a truth. Norman’s reaction, which he kept to himself, was that if he had to see Monty all the time, he’d shoot himself.
The man slowly raised his arm. “Just a moment, gentlemen,” he said. “I’ll show you something. You’ll find it interesting.”
The man leaned further forward, as if to start his momentum, and shuffled slowly away from them, then reached down behind a counter, disappearing for a moment. He came up with what looked like a large cutting board, blew a cloud of dust from it, then wiped it with the sleeve of his sweater. Screwed to the board were two small cross-sections of fabric, springs, stuffing, and webbing. He handed the board to Monty. “On this side,” he said, “is how the Relax-A-Lounger is made, and on this side, the Gotham Prince Albert Chair. That’s the chair your brother owns. Notice, the Prince Albert has firmer stuffing, tighter coils, superior burlap.”
Monty was nodding his head. Leland was back now, looking over Monty’s shoulder. To Norman, the two cross-sections were indistinguishable, mostly because they were so dirty. There were dust balls in the springs that had not been blown out.
“I just realized what time it is,” said Leland. “I got to go feed the snakes.”
“I grant you, Relax-A-Lounger’s got the name, if that’s what you want. And it’s a fine product,” said the man, glancing sideways at Leland, then gently removing the board from Monty’s hands and setting it on a nearby table. A couple with a young boy had come into the store. The boy was bouncing on a mattress. His little round determined face kept popping into view. “Excuse me for a moment,” the old man said and walked away.
Monty wiped his palms on his clean khakis, then turned to Norman. “Well, that settles that, as far as I’m concerned.” Norman was leaning over the table, still trying to make sense out of the cross-sections. “What you got, pal, is the Rolls Royce of lounge chairs.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Norman.
“You’re crazy,” said Monty. “You got the proof right in front of you. Let’s get out of here before he tries to give you your money back. There’s no satisfying you, Norm. I try to help you out and this is what happens every time.”
“Look, I really got to go,” said Leland. “Not that I want to.”
“I’m getting sick of this,” said Monty. “Tell you what. I’ll feed the damn snakes. Take me over there and I’ll dump that rat in the snake cage.”
“The reason we always feed the constrictors on Sunday night,” said Leland, “is because we’re closed Monday, then by Tuesday, most of the rat shape inside the snake is gone. Sometimes it even moves a little in there, you know, as it’s being digested, and that freaks people out.”
Traffic had thinned, but Leland now drove slowly and deliberately. The three rode in silence for a while. Norman realized that his brother-in-law had just admitted that Norman’s chair was better than his.
“Most of the animals, I feel sorry for,” said Leland, “but not the big snakes. Our python is an old man. He’s been in that glass case for years. He can’t come close to stretching out in there. The tiger has almost an acre, and he paces and frets and stares all day. That python is in this tiny cage, and he’s perfectly content.”
Once inside the reptile building, in the eerie darkness, Norman felt a calm. He had expected to be apprehensive around the snakes, but Leland’s air of confidence was reassuring.
Monty’s speech became louder and faster. Norman heard him say, “I’m going to do this,” almost under his breath.
Leland showed Monty how to coax a white rat into a little plastic box, which would be held over an open hatch, so the rat would drop into the case below. “Let’s use this nice fat one,” said Monty, “and this one. Good riddance. They sure don’t look scared to me.”
Leland prepared two plastic boxes—two rats—one for the boa and one for the python.
“They will when they see the snake,” said Leland. “Pick one up. I’ll open the glass case and you drop him in.”
“Okay, okay, let’s do it,” said Monty. His voice was shaky.
Norman watched. He was silent. Leland and Monty approached the python’s case. Leland had his back to Monty. He opened a hatch in the top of the case, big enough to put the rat into, and talked quietly to the snake. The snake moved to the far side of the case. “Okay, Monty,” he said. “Now.”
Monty approached the cage, holding the rat in the plastic box. Suddenly his hands began to shake. “Oh my God!” he said. “He sees him.” The rat began to scratch violently at the sides of the little plastic box. Monty dropped the case as if it were on fire and put his hands over his eyes. The case shattered. The rat hit the floor running, scampered across the concrete, and darted around a corner.
Monty walked over to Norman. “Hold me, Norman,” he said. Norman put his arms around Monty’s shaking body. Monty’s shirt was soaked with sweat.
Leland turned and walked toward them. “You okay, Monty?” he said.
Monty slowly raised a shaking arm and pointed. The python’s head had emerged from the open hatch in the glass case, and the snake was slowly slithering out into the room. Monty slumped to the floor in a faint. He hit with a thud.
“Get the other rat,” said Leland. “Quick.” He went to the case and gently held the snake near its head, talking softly, stroking it, saying, “It’s okay, fella. It’s okay. Dinner’s on the way,” coaxing it back into the case.
Norman picked up the second plastic box with the live rat inside and carried it to the cage. The snake slithered back.
Norman looked the rat in the eye, shuddered, and then let it drop into the hole.
Monty lay shivering on the stone floor.
Leland was sitting on a folding chair, his head in his hands, rocking back and forth.
Norman pulled a stool over to the cage. He could not avert his eyes. The snake slowly coiled itself about the rat, which offered no resistance, until Norman could see only his eyes and little pink ears. Norman watched, fascinated, as the snake squeezed life out of the rat. The rat’s eyes glazed; his short life ended. The snake uncurled, opened its jaw, and slowly took the rat’s body, thinner now, but still wider than its own, into its throat, until only the rat’s tail extended beyond the slit of the snake’s mouth, like a second tongue.
The huge snake lay slack, satiated, a huge bulb just beyond its throat, no sign of remorse in its relaxed face and body.
As Norman studied the peaceful serpent, and as he continued to sit hunched on a hard maple stool on the concrete floor of a dark hall filled with hissing reptiles, he felt his back relax and his head clear.
Leland selected another rat. Norman attended to Monty, who was now sitting on the floor, dazed. Leland was squatting beside him, holding a Dixie cup to Monty’s lips.
“What happened?” said Monty.
“You’re all right, pal,” said Norman. “Get up.”
Norman went to the boa cage and dropped the rat.
“Can we go home now?” said Monty, dusting himself off, still shaky.
In the truck on the way home, Monty was still and silent, murmuring to himself. They dropped him in his driveway. Monty walked unsteadily toward his door. As Norman watched and thought of that line from the play, his hatred for his brother-in-law melted away, and an animal contentment filled his soul.