Right now I imagine Dr. Bascomb is checking the computer for information about his next patient. He needn’t because he knows exactly who was coming to see him at this time — he’s been thinking about me all day — but he checks out of habit, nonetheless. He’s obsessive that way. And I know all about obsession.
Bascomb peers out his office door into the waiting room and gently calls, “Hi, Ted, come on in.”
I, Theodore Czemielewski — C. Z. Miller on the book jacket — jerk my head up from reading an US Weekly magazine I found next to the table lamp in Bascomb’s small dark waiting area. Bascomb’s face registers surprise, no doubt because he sees me reading a gossip magazine. He’s always seen me writing in a notebook, from our first appointment almost three years ago until today.
“What’s that all about?” his expression asks.
For a guy who is supposed to be a clinical observer of behavior, he’s never really gotten a handle on observing his own. He should never play poker.
Hi, Doc, how’s it going? Yeah, I know, last appointment of the day. I’ll make it worth your while. Don’t I always?
My visits to Bascomb are monthly now. At one point, when we started, I was seeing him twice a week. I needed to see him that often, he said. Everyone else in my life said so, too. Once he started me on the new meds, I tended to agree with them.
We each sit down in our respective chairs for this appointment. Bascomb parks his cashmere-sweatered frame in the high-backed executive chair behind his shiny mahogany desk; I take the leather side chair to his right. I like to be close when I talk to him, eye-to-eye, like we’re conducting business, which I guess we are. I never have used the leather couch over in front of the opposite wall. There are too many sobs echoing over there. Shadows of crazy block the light.
Bascomb opens his portfolio — he has a thing for leather, I guess — and writes at the top of a pad of lined light green paper. He stops writing, frowns, and turns his yellow pencil over and erases what he’s written. Exhaling his annoyance, he blows the rubberized crumbs of whatever error he made into the wastebasket at his feet. He doesn’t take such things well.
I prefer a mechanical pencil to a wooden one, Doc, but only because mechanicals don’t get worn down to nubs that used to be their points. I like a sharp point on my pencil, don’t you? It makes me feel more nimble of translating thought to written word. Not that the thoughts are all that sharp, but it’s better that I get them out before they become obsessions.
What’s the difference between an obsession and a compulsion, Doc? We’ve never talked about that, just danced around it. Is a compulsion one of those things that you suddenly feel you must do or have? Is an obsession where that compulsion becomes the biggest thing in your mind, your day, your life? I can string those like the links of a chain stretching the length of my life. You have any obsessions, Doc?
This obsession I have to write fiction, even though for the longest time I didn’t submit much of it, strikes me as one of those ‘You’re crazy if you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome’ things. But we’ve both determined I’m not crazy, right, Doc?
What? Oh, yeah, obviously I submitted something to get a book published and all. Yep, it was a couple months after I started seeing you. That’s when I figured you can’t win if you don’t play. Gotta play to win, right, Doc?
In order to play, I revise those bits of whimsy that I’ve already crafted. In my case, though, I’ve always felt I’m kind of like a Cub Scout bending nails trying to make a birdhouse compared to the stuff real writers do. They’re the house framers or finish carpenters. But now I realize my stories are the truth, just like theirs. Funny, isn’t it? How can I call something the truth that is, by definition, a lie? I guess they’re my truth, seen through my now-clear eyes. They’re stories that have happened somewhere in the dark insides of my mind, given life and light by a little self-recognition and the glow of a computer screen or the lined white pages of a notebook.
Which brings me around again to the pencils. I think there is something almost noble about writing literature with a pencil. Not the ink-versus-pencil war fought by know-it-all crossword geeks. I hate those guys. It’s more the feel of the words scratching their way out and onto the page, digging themselves out of my mind’s prison like escapees would with a spoon. A noble effort against tremendous odds and all the forces against me.
Until the end, Elmore Leonard wrote – though with a pen – on legal pads. Every day. Well, there’s the difference between Old Dutch and me. Legal pads and forty years of oh-my-gosh fiction. I must admit that I really like reading his old western stories more than his smart-ass detective/crime stories so loved by his ass-kissers like that sports guy with the Daily News.
He reminds me of those nitwits that’d call Howard Stern and start yelling at guests like they’re part of the show. They’re not. They’re just smartass wannabes. Not to say sports guy isn’t a talented writer. He’ll tell you that himself, so he doesn’t need me. He’s just got more balls than I do and got an earlier start at all this than I did. He must have matured earlier than I did or maybe I’m a late bloomer of fully-formed and descended literary testicles. I think I still have one undescended, but I’m afraid to look.
I never asked, you’re not one of those Freudian guys, are you, Doc? Folks like me, who graduated with a useless degree in English, were taught to look for those sex things in literature by our professors. You know, sometimes a cigar is a cigar, a flower is really a flower and a rope swing is really just a rope swing. Sometimes not. Yeah, I’m looking at you D. H. Lawrence, you freak.
Back to the obsession thing. The writing obsession I have is not as strong as all those other ones I’ve had in my life. Maybe it should be more like the ones where I thought of little else but that target of my mind and heart. In some cases, they know who they are. Most don’t, but they eventually will.
The writing is more a guilt thing now. I feel guilty if I don’t do it. Maybe that’s because of wasting all those years doing nothing but working and watching TV, not even opening too many novels or even trashy pulp things. I don’t read a hell of a lot more now, but I crack them open every once in awhile. It’s got to be something special to keep me interested over the span of weeks, including taking the book with me into the bathroom, parking on the toilet and sometimes not even using the throne for what it’s there for. I just need to find an alone spot to stay in the groove of the world the author’s making.
Is that an obsession or a compulsion, Doc?
That groove may be why I keep writing stuff. I get into a world of the author’s making. Even though the author’s me, I still want to know what’s going to happen next. I don’t like to start a story and not finish it until weeks later. It’s something I want to get done in one sitting. The first draft, that is. I‘m not one who does much revision and that must be why I didn’t submit too often. To submit means that I would have to obsess over the quality of the writing and maybe I was too lazy or too afraid or didn’t feel I have the right stuff to obsess over something I’ve already finished. Like taking a dump. I’m going to carve it into the Venus de Milo? Nope. I’m gonna walk away and leave it for others to pick up, more than likely in their shoes. Disposable, you know?
Which is what art might eventually be, when you get down to it. It’s disposable shit that is kept around by hoarders, those other obsessive people that I don’t feel a part of, but keep dropping loads for nonetheless.
Maybe a call to Dr. Freud might be in order after all, Doc. Sex and potty stuff seems to be all I’m talking about today.
Now where was I? The readers’ and writers’ obsessions have fed my family since the book happened and they almost feed my ego. What? Of course I have an ego. I want to be respected by those other writers, even though I don’t feel I belong among them and they always seem such arrogant pricks when I get together with them. Their obsession is so much cleaner, so much greater than mine. Bigger, more necessary.
Maybe I don’t really have an obsession. What do you think? Oh, what do I think? Well, maybe I just found a way to root all these things out of my head and onto a piece of paper, like some Rorschach blots. I don’t know for sure what they mean, but I feel better having made them. Some other folks look at them and see cats or clowns or their moms or bicycle-riding doughnuts doing wheelies in the clouds. #And then these people think I’m special. No, I’m just a guy trying not to feel guilty about wasting his life just by living it all these years, just living it. And I guess I feel good getting all the drama over with.
Do I feel guilty now that I’m writing more? Sure I feel guilty, that’s why I came here. Well, there are a couple other reasons, too. Look, I’m made to feel guilty that I’m not exercising, not reading, and not being the provider I used to be or could be.
Even though I never was doing much when I was a lump in front of the TV all those years, at least I was there, she says. Now I’m somewhere else trying to get all these things out of my head, make a deadline for something that nobody’s really going to give a shit about in five years or five months or tomorrow. Sometimes that ‘somewhere else’ is inside my head.
Now she says she thinks I was better when I was on the old medicine from the first doctor she sent me to, rather than the stuff you’ve had me on the past couple of years. Better for whom, though? On the old medicine, I felt nothing at all, except for the times I blew up with anger. It was like I was in the fuzzy interior of a long dark tube. There was light at the other end, but I could never get to it, so I just hung out, suspended inside, feeling nothing. Occasionally, I would blow up, remember?
When I got off the old stuff, I started to see things as they probably really were, you know? I started feeling things again, real emotions and caring about myself. I started writing stuff down like I used to do when I was in college. The professors said that I might be a writer if I applied myself to it. Instead, I applied myself to that girl, and she applied herself to me, and now we’re married twelve years and dreams got shelved.
Well, they were shelved for awhile. Things are different now. Now, I eavesdrop on all the conversations I hear up here.
I point to my temple.
Secret time, Doc. Better sharpen your pencil. I know my wife’s been calling you about me. I know you’ve been calling her, too. That’s okay. You hear plenty of secrets and I’m sure you’ve got a bushel of your own. Nobody’s perfect. Does she know about your obsessive cleanliness, how you can’t handle making mistakes, how you’ll lie to patients just to keep them coming back? Do you know that you’re not her first walk on the wild side? Sure you do. You’ve had plenty, you’ve seen it all.
Oh, about my secret. I stopped taking the medicine you gave me two weeks after I started. I was feeling so much better after I weaned myself off the old junk, I just wanted to stay with life unaltered. Didn’t know what I had been missing.
I guess I was missing how she’d have all those secret phone calls. How she’d go out with the girls because she was sick of sitting home all day waiting for her doped up, meal-ticket drone to get home and take over the stuff the queen didn’t do all day anyway. Well, her being out allowed me to connect all those notes I’d been making, thoughts I’d been scribbling down, turning them into stories. Into truth.
Hell, no, I never showed them to her. What did she care other than how they might reflect on her? She still hasn’t read the book. But then I’m pretty sure you read to her from your book, the one you’ve been writing there about me since we got together.
Look, our time’s almost up. Here’s your co-pay, Doc. Don’t bother making me another appointment. We won’t be seeing each other again, at least professionally. It’s been great. Couldn’t have done all this without you. No lie. Appreciate all that.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Just got another manuscript accepted and the publisher offered me a three-book deal. Couple hundred thou up-front. Approbation, baby. I’m going to be pretty busy for awhile, so I guess this is goodbye.
When I leave today, please be sure to call the little woman again with the good news. How you’ve got everything under control. What do you mean, ‘Don’t be ridiculous?’ You’ve probably got her on your cell’s speed dial. Fifteen years ago, I would have. Anyway, tell her I’m coming home with a surprise, okay? And not to worry because I’m cured. I mean, just look at me; look at all I’ve done, all I’m doing. Very busy, very busy. No more time to talk.
And, with that, I stand up, extend my hand, and when he cautiously offers his, I reach past it to pick up the pencil on his desk. Taking an end in each hand, I hold it in front of my face and break the offensive Number 2 Medium in half, or close enough to it.
Bascomb will probably measure the two pieces, one against the other, when I leave. That’s just the way he is. Always in control. He really needs help. Then he’ll call my wife. She always has to know how things are going. Controlling, that’s just the way she is. She can’t help herself. And she needs some help. I’ll pay for it. But I’ll bet it won’t be with Bascomb. That’s just the way the world is. It needs some help, too.
And me? I’ll always provide for her. That’s what I have to do. I just do. Oh, and I’ll write it all down, because life — no matter how skewed, corrupted, secretive, sad, or happy — is all grist for the mill with a guy in my position. And I won’t be under anyone else’s control anymore — not hers, nor a doctor’s, nor some medication’s. Never, never, never again. I’ll always see to that.
After all, I know all about obsession.
Not sure if I’ve hit the prompt for Day 5 of my Story a Day Challenge — a story about with a character like me. This guy has more than a few of my foibles, hangups and views, but amped up to Crazytown levels. I think. Also, the style and structure are different for me. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe I’m C.Z. Miller after all.