INTRO: I'd been reading too much Murakami when life hit home with a series of tragic events. Then late one night, a visitor came to me and suddenly everything was clear.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Sorry friends, the artwork is my own this time.
Out of Proportion
There were a million reasons why I said it, but none of them were good. Work. The election. Car problems. My wife. They were some of the big ones. In between were the routine ones. Commuting. Coworkers. Grocery shopping. Dishes. Walking the dog. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat down and done absolutely nothing for more than 10 minutes. I was like a shark, constantly moving, always circling. Whether alone in my mind, lost in roundabout thoughts of worry and obligation, or putzing around my apartment, picking up and putting away, I was always moving. I couldn’t stop. Not my body, not my mind. Like a doomed shark, I was swimming in circles, and the circles were growing smaller by the day.
Under such circumstances, I had entered a mindset of thoughtless re-action. I, Arthur Jay, was no longer calling the shots, just reacting poorly to them, and growing wearier all the while.
The death of my father earlier in the year was the main factor. Its wounds were still fresh so many months later. Everywhere I went, every insult felt like salt on a bleeding heart. I was so worn out from the sadness and anger, and life's constant inconvenience, that I was no longer myself. Some days it felt like I wasn’t even walking under my own control. It felt like an outside version of me was pulling my inanimate corpse by the scruff of the neck through the humdrum routine of my life, dragging my body along as my legs dragged limply behind me.
To top it off, it was that time of the year again. The holidays were approaching and the days were growing shorter. The creeping darkness was suffocating what little breath I had left and little things were setting me off. Bad drivers had me cursing and shaking my fist from the driver’s seat. Slow lines at the pharmacy had me walking out mumbling under my own breath. At work, pointless, drawn out teleconferences had me banging the phone against my head. I was like a tether ball, wrapped so tightly around the pole that my head was ready to pop off. It was a Friday when the pressure finally got to me.
Clients were coming to town the next week, and I was putting a presentation together. I had spent over eight hours that day, sealed up inside on one of the last prime days of autumn, staring at the changing leaves through the boardroom window. The bosses were reviewing the material, commenting on every picture, punctuation and choice of word in the presentation. As they flipped through the slides from eleven until five, and on into the evening, I watched the afternoon sun descend gracefully from its bright blue apex and disappear soundlessly just over a darkening hill in the distance. We never even stopped for lunch when at about 7:30 the regional Vice President finally said to me, “Good job, Arthur. Fix this up and we’ll look at it again first thing Monday.”
‘Just great’, I thought to myself. ‘Homework’. I left the office in a hurry, got into my car and slammed the door. I sped off. By the time I pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building I was tired, hungry, and pissed off. I wanted nothing more than peace and quiet and a cold beer.
I grabbed my briefcase and stepped out of the car. I slammed the door shut and hit the clicker. The car beeped twice. I strode up the concrete steps to my yellow brick apartment building, walked into the foyer, took the elevator up two flights, got out and walked down the hallway to apartment 3C. I could already hear my wife through the door, yipping with the dog, getting her all riled up. Immediately, I was annoyed.
Now at this point, I should pause to provide some more context. You see, my wife was feeling more or less as I was. My dad’s death was as much a blow to her as it was to me. As a result, we’d been bickering a lot more than usual. It’s not that I had been mad at her. I had just been mad near her, because she was the only one around. My anger, meanwhile, was radioactive. It’s steady heat had warmed my wife up to a boil and she was getting hot and angry herself. It was a vicious circle, like a sandstorm in the desert, whipping up accumulated grievances into a growing twister of discontent. It didn’t help that I had been drinking more than usual, and I couldn’t help the fact that at that moment, after a long day and a long week, and a couple of long months before that, all I really wanted was a cold beer and some peace. Instead I found my wife yipping at the dog and barking her into a frenzy. So when I opened the door, gave my wife a silent stink-eye, walked to the fridge, opened up a beer and then immediately, even before saying hello, told her, “you know, you and the dog need to be quiet for a minute,” it was already over.
I can’t say whether it was because of my tone, or the comment, or the combination of the two, but she sassed up quick. She came right over and said, “Oh, so that’s how you greet me now? No kiss, just ‘be quiet’?”
I replied, “Seriously, you need to be quiet. It’s been a long day and I need some peace.”
She asked me, “You know what?” Then she proceeded to let me know what. She was throwing out accusations and big words like, always, never and every time, all in relation to how I’m always drinking, never helpful and every time I think about someone, I think about myself first.
I couldn’t help but think how mean of a thing that was to say to me, even if it was true. Now she had really upset me. All I wanted was some peace, and now she was laying into me. After all, she was the one at fault, wasn’t she? She was the one yipping up the dog!
“You know what,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I had a long day. I’m tired. Don’t be quiet. Just shut up.”
Now like I said, there were a million reasons why I said it, but none of them were good. If I thought she was fired up before, she was fired up now, like a Chinese fireworks display. Her lines were coming at me fast like colorful little missiles. Red ‘stupids’, yellow ‘lazies’, interrupted by snow bursts of white spittle. Her arms were stretched out to her side and waving up and down in rhythm to her accelerating barrage of insults. The curses were flying with reckless abandon. I cringed as I considered the thin walls between us and the neighbors. She stomped a foot, pursed her lips and said to me, “You know what? You can go f--- yourself.“
Stunned, I dropped my defenses and stepped back. For a moment, everything was perfectly still, like the moment after a car bomb explodes in a crowded market, before the wails and the sirens fill the air. I was frozen in fear of what might come next. Too smart for my own good, I offered up, “I don’t know why you put up with me, if you have that kind of attitude.” Her reply was, “Neither do I”. She picked up my jacket from the back of the kitchen chair, and handed me my keys. ‘Get out!’ She yelled.
* * *
Thirty minutes later I was hunched over a dark beer at the local bar, with my feet hanging from the bar stool and my cupped hands cradling a pint glass. I nursed my wounds and sipped my beer while a man in tight pants strummed cover songs from the corner stage. His tuneless renditions grated at my strained nerves. I was fuming. Even the beer couldn’t calm me down. The bartender seemed to sense my mood. He kept busy rinsing glasses at the other end of the bar, while the singer murdered one song after another.
After a lifeless version of “Werewolf in London”, the singer started up an even flatter rendition of “Love Shack”. I decided that I’d had enough. I left a twenty on the bar and drove back home. The old lady could yell at me all she wanted. I’d just fall asleep on the sofa. We could talk it out in the morning.
When I got back to the apartment, I opened the door to silence. The dog hopped off of the sofa to greet me. I noticed my favorite gray sweatshirt was laid out flat on the coffee table next to a red marker. The left arm was bent such that it looked like the flat man inside the shirt had been shot and was now holding his bloodstained chest where she had scribbled. I folded back the arm to find the words, ‘Blow yourself. I’ll be at my mother’s. Don’t call!.’
I threw my keys at the wall and they clattered to the floor. I then collapsed on the sofa and fell asleep drunk.
* * *
An hour or two later, my eyelids were twitching as drunken dreams washed over me. I don’t remember how I got there, but I remember finding myself alone in a barren desert of rolling yellow dunes. It looked like the bottom of the ocean. An endless sea of pale sand stretched to the horizon. The desert's hazy edge radiated into the searing blue sky.
In the distance, the wind whistled. A hot breeze blew across my face. I licked my cracked lips. Then a familiar, metallic squeak caught my ear. I turned around to find my father sitting in his wheel chair. He was focused, picking at something in his thick gray beard. He was deep in thought.
“Dad, is that you?” I asked, puzzled.
His face lit up. “Who do you think it is, Mother Theresa?”
I stepped towards him, but he put his palms out, warning me to come no further. “Arthur," he said loudly, over the growing wind. "I came to give you a little advice from the grave. Don’t piss off your woman, unless you want trouble.”
As soon as he said it, the Earth shook. The sky turned gray, and thunder rumbled through the atmosphere. Beyond my father, in the background of the vast desert, the sand began to swirl. A whirlpool was forming in the desert floor and the sand was draining into the earth, like water leaving a tub. The wind tossed my thin hair and the whirlpool grew bigger. It was sucking the sand and sky into its darkening center. The dark edge of the spinning vortex was approaching the wheels of my father's chair. “Dad!” I shouted, but it was too late.
He gripped the rubber tires and spun himself around to face the widening funnel. He turned his head over his shoulder to look at me one last time and put his hands to his mouth. He yelled to me, “If you know what’s good for you, you'll apologize,” as the edge of the whirlpool touched his wheels. His chair tilted forward into the black, spinning center and I woke up with a start.
I was parched. The forced air was blowing in from the vents. My nose was clogged and I had been breathing with my mouth open. The dog was lying on top of me panting. From the kitchen, I could hear the faint sound of food packaging rustling. I looked at the digital clock on the end table. Three nineteen in the morning. Was my wife back already? I sat up on the sofa and rubbed my face. In the darkness, I slipped on my slippers and stepped into the hallway. I pulled at my loose boxer shorts and shuffled along the carpeted floor toward the kitchen. When I got to the end of the hallway, I pushed the swinging door inward and let out a shrieking, high-pitched “Aaaaaahhhhh”.
I couldn't believe it. Sitting at my kitchen table was a six-foot cockroach. He was just sitting there in the darkness casually, as if there weren't an odd thing about it. A single round recessed light shone on him from above. It’s light cast his face in shadow while it skipped brilliantly off of his smooth round back, like the illuminated edge of a planet in outer space. The cockroach’s spindly legs and two pairs of thorny arms cast creepy shadows on the wall, like cactus needles in the moonlight. The roach’s upper arms were bent at his body. He appeared to be holding a mug in one hand and some kind of cigarette in the other. It’s cherry glow flared and crackled in the darkness. The cockroach gestured wildly, apparently excited to see me.
“Arthur, my man! You’re up!”
“Holy shit!” I yelled.
The cockroach stiffened and put his arms forward as if to calm me. “Hey now, Arthur, take it easy.”
“You know my name!” I shouted
“Of course I know your name! Do you have any idea how long I've lived in your walls? I didn’t mean to wake you but I was getting hungry.”
I noticed the open box of cereal on the counter and the empty bowl in the sink. I sniffed the air and looked at the cigarette in the cockroach’s hand.
“Cockroach, is that weed?” I asked him stupefied.
“You know it is, baby!” He replied with delight. “I didn’t think you’d mind. I poured myself a cup of gin too.” He waved the mug out of the shadows and into the light. It was my favorite black mug of course. Drops of liquid splashed about as he swung his jagged, hairy arm.
How much did I drink, I wondered. Sitting in my kitchen, smoking a joint and drinking my gin, was a six-foot talking cockroach. I pinched myself, hoping it was a dream.
“This ain’t no dream, baby! This is the real deal. Have a seat and take a puff.”
I sat down at the table. The cockroach reached his thin, gross arm toward me and handed me the joint. I looked at it suspiciously and glanced at the cockroach, then did the only logical thing at that moment and took a hit.
I coughed hard and returned the joint. The cockroach received it and took a big hit. He exhaled a massive plume and washed down the ashen taste with a swig of gin.
"Arthur, my man," said the cockroach, "your father came to me last night in a dream. He was sitting in his wheelchair out in the desert when a whirlpool grew in the distance. The wind was whipping the sand all about and the sound was deafening. The whirlpool got so big, it felt like it would swallow the Earth. I ran to your father but it was too late. He yelled out to me as his chair was sucked into the vortex. ‘Cockroach, look out for Arthuuuurrrrr.’"
The cockroach looked sad for a moment. His beady black eyes stared at the floor. Then he perked up. "I have to say," he said. "It was sad to see him go, and I want you to know that I’m here for you if you need me.”
The weed was making me dizzy. I didn’t know what to think. It was all just too heavy. The cockroach put down the empty mug and put a clawed hand on my shoulder.
“You gotta trust me, Arthur. I really am here for you. I saw what you did earlier. You shouldn’t have said what you said to your wife. Even I know that. Now I know that you're hurting, but I want to show you something.”
“Show me what?” I asked annoyed. I didn’t appreciate him discussing my private matters.
“Trust me,” he said. “You’ll understand when we’re done.”
The cockroach took his hand off my shoulder and offered it to me, wanting me to take it. I didn’t know what to think. Everything was just so surreal. But I grabbed his hand anyway. Immediately, I felt a jolt in my arm and then all of a sudden, like Alice in Wonderland, we were shrinking. Before I knew it, the cockroach and I were only an inch and a half tall and we were walking along by the floorboards in my kitchen.
“Follow me,” he said as he led me toward the crack between the refrigerator and the wall. We stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
* * *
A moment later, we were in the living room of apartment 3B. My crazy neighbor Marlene was alone on her sofa. The flickering TV illuminated her in the darkness. She was dressed in leopard print panties and a bra. Her soft pale stomach glowed blue in the flickering darkness. She was holding a clear plastic bottle, half full with a thick green cream, and slowly running her tongue around the bottle’s neck in a circular motion. Every now and then she caught her red lips on the threaded plastic edge. Looking closer, I noticed that it was a bottle of crème de menthe.
“Cockroach, what's going on here?” I asked.
“This happens every night about this time. I’ve seen it a hundred times since I moved into this building. It’s terrible.”
“Seriously, why are we...” I tried to ask him, but he shushed me as Marlene continued to run her tongue around the bottle’s rim. She slid her pink tongue down the long neck and pulled the bottle’s opening into her mouth. She tilted it back and took a strong pull of the green liquor. The sweet mint seemed to excite her. She exhaled with pleasure and ran a hand under her leopard print bra. She began to fondle her nipple.
“Cockroach, I’m not sure I want to see this,” I said.
“It’s okay. Just another moment and then we’ll go. It’s important that you see this.”
As Marlene continued to stroke her nipple with one hand, she grabbed the cap to the bottle and screwed it on with the other. Then she lowered the bottle between her thighs and began to massage it in circles against her damp panties.
My face scrunched up. The cockroach must have sensed it. “Wait for it,” he whispered. “Wait for it.”
Marlene continued to work the bottle in circles as she licked her fingers. She dropped her free hand to pull her panties to the side. Then she lowered the bottle, tilting the neck toward her warm muff. The cockroach grabbed me by the arm and shouted, “Run!”
Suddenly he was pulling me toward a crack in the wall and we were falling into the darkness. I screamed at the sensation of weightlessness and then landed with a crunch. I rolled off of the cockroach and stood up.
“Cockroach, are you all right?” I asked.
The cockroach got up, dusting himself off. “I’m fine,” he said. “It takes a lot more to kill a cockroach than a little fall. You know that.”
“Cockroach,” I asked, “why did you show me that?”
“If you think that’s strange,” he said, “take a look at this.”
I looked up and realized we were in apartment 2B, Dr. Miller’s apartment. I had forgotten what sort of a doctor he was. Proctology, Urology, Anesthesiology, or some combination of the three. He told me at a party that he had once performed a female to male sex change. I still wasn’t sure how that was possible. I had asked him about it but couldn’t follow the details. I was too busy cringing at the telling to really make sense of it.
But there we were in Dr. Miller’s living room, and the cockroach was pulling me toward the hallway. There was a muffled groan coming from the closet. It sounded distressed. Still only an inch tall, we struggled over the thick carpeting and came upon the opened closet door in the hallway. The cries were growing louder. The cockroach crossed around the edge of the door first. He wasn’t looking in the closet. Instead, he was looking at my face, as if waiting for my reaction. When I crossed around the edge of the opened door, I saw it.
Dr. Miller was handcuffed and hanging by the wrists from the bar in the closet. He was groaning softly through a red ball gag. He was completely naked except for a dangling gray gym sock hanging from his privates. His round butt cheeks were red and swollen. A black leather paddle lay at his feet.
“Holy hell!” I shouted. “Cockroach, what the hell is going on?”
“No clue,” replied the cockroach. “He’s been like this for well over an hour. I stumbled across it earlier and thought you might appreciate it.”
This absurdity was starting to upset me. “Cockroach, what the hell is going on? I want to go back now. This is ridiculous.”
The cockroach looked at me disappointingly. “You’re done so soon? We haven’t even visited the Donners. They’re hoarders, you know. There are enough crumbs in their carpet to feed a cockroach til kingdom come! It's a gold mine!”
I stomped my foot. “Cockroach, take me home!”
“Fine,” he said reluctantly. Then he put his four arms on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and shouted “Shazam”. An instant later we were back in my kitchen, restored to our prior condition.
“Cockroach, what in the world was the point of all that?” I asked.
“Point?” he asked me rhetorically. “There was no point. I was just trying to lighten things up. You were getting too heavy.”
I was confused. I put my hand to my chin and paused to think. There had to be something more to it than that. My father’s warning. Marlene and the crème de menthe. Dr. Miller in the closet. There was something to those clues.
“No. There’s something more,” I said. “There’s a moral here, and I think I know what it is. What you’re trying to tell me is that if I upset my wife, I’ll end up cursed to suffer a long life of bizarre and failed sexual encounters. That’s it, isn’t it?”
The cockroach leaned forward. His tiny little mouth and beady eyes came into focus. He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Arthur, do you even hear yourself?” he asked. “You take things way too literally. That’s not the moral at all.”
“Then what is the moral?” I asked him.
“You’re blowing everything out of proportion. That’s the moral.” The cockroach started to raise his voice.
“Look at you,” he said agitatedly. “You’re getting upset at work. You’re getting upset in the car. You’re upset at home. You let your wife’s harmless fun with the dog get you all worked up. Now one little cockroach in the kitchen is suddenly six feet tall. You have to stop making things bigger than they are. Break the cycle already. If you don’t want to be angry any more, don’t be angry. If you don’t want to get upset at stupid little things, don’t get upset at stupid little things. That’s the moral, dammit!”
The cockroach looked genuinely angry. His two pairs of arms were crossed at the chest, and he was shaking his head. I felt bad. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was that simple after all.
The cockroach didn’t say anything. He just stared at me and tapped his thorny right foot. Finally, I broke the silence.
“You’re right,” I said, sighing. I looked up at him. The microwave clock behind him showed five fifty. I looked out the window and noticed the sun creeping up over the horizon, signaling the morning's arrival. The cockroach put his hand to his mouth and coughed.
“Arthur, my man. The sun’s almost up and I have to go. But I don’t want to leave you on a bad note. I didn’t mean to get upset. And I didn’t want to upset you either. I know it’s been a hard year, but you gotta keep your head up. I hope you’ll think about what I said.”
“I will,” I told him. “I will.”
The cockroach thanked me. He shut his eyes. Before I knew it he was very small again, like an ordinary little cockroach. He scurried toward the space between the refrigerator and the wall and disappeared out of sight. I went back to the sofa to lie down. After all that had happened, I had a lot to think about.