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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

 

“Metamorphosized”

 

Arthur Berkeley awoke one morning to the still darkness before dawn and, with sleep in his eyes, rose and traversed the narrow hallway leading to the house’s one bathroom. His parents and sister were still asleep, and out of consideration for them, he did not turn on the hallway light, which would have shined into the open doors of their rooms. Privacy was an unknown in his parents’ house. He fumbled a little in the darkness, traveling slowly and uncertainly until he closed his eyes and allowed memory to guide him through the unchanged contours of the hallway he’d wandered for the first quarter century of his life.

He managed soundlessly until he reached the threshold of the bathroom and stubbed a toe on the metal doorstop protruding from the linen closet. He seized the injured foot tightly, attempting to restrict the flow of blood to its rudely awakened nerve endings.

“Godda—”  he squelched his swearing, reminding himself yet again that he no longer lived alone in a modest but respectable apartment in the city; at 33, he had once again become a recipient of his parents’ generosity as a rent-free resident of their home. Arthur’s sister Willie had been attending prayer meetings with a Pentacostal group for the last year or so, and had recently quit her job and undergone repristination—the act of recovering one’s virginity—to prepare herself for an eventual proper Christian marriage. She liked to cut Arthur down by observing that at age 33, Jesus had returned triumphantly into Jerusalem, worshipped by crowds as the Messiah. “Yeah,” Arthur had finally replied, “and look where it got him in the end.”

He explained to Willie that his comment was intended to bolster his argument by highlighting the short-term unpleasantness of crucifixion, and not hers, as she argued, by implying the eternal glory of the son’s place by his all-powerful father’s side. As he did so, Arthur realized the analogy might be more accurate than he cared to admit, on both counts. Was not being condemned to live with one’s parents because of one’s economic shortcomings a kind of modern crucifixion? And here, in the kingdom of his father Reginald, had Arthur not returned to take his place as the son at the father’s side? These were strange thoughts for Arthur, who normally didn’t indulge in metaphors. He reassured himself by focusing on another aspect of the analogy: Jesus returned to Jerusalem on a donkey; Arthur returned home in his three year-old Porsche 911.

Rustling noises emanated from the bedrooms, and his father’s signature snoring pattern stopped abruptly. Arthur froze in place, barely breathing, his injured foot still held aloft. After what seemed an eternity, the snoring continued. Arthur lowered his foot and proceeded into the bathroom. He pulled the door closed behind him, turned on the lights, and, squinting as his eyes adjusted, positioned himself before the mirror for his daily ablutions.

            The face that stared back at him from the polished glass was unrecognizable. Arthur’s irises had darkened noticeably overnight, as had his hair, which now shone nearly pure ebony. His hairline had descended a good two inches toward his eyes, resulting in a somewhat feral appearance. He also seemed to have somehow grown a few inches; he now had to hunch over to see his reflection in the short mirror. He cupped some water and pulled the long cords of hair flat to his scalp to offer a better view of his new countenance.

He contorted the muscles in his face a few times, grinning, grimacing, trying to catch the reflection unaware, but it matched his movements perfectly. Who was he, this man in the mirror? Apparently, he was him.

            Just yesterday, Arthur Berkeley had been a somewhat pale, sandy-haired man of average height and Western European descent. Now, he was darker and distinctively Eastern European in appearance. 

            How could such a change happen in just a few hours? What did it mean? Arthur stared at his new face for the better part of an hour, then, remembering his family, retreated to his room before anyone else awoke.

 

*

 

Mathilda, Arthur’s mother, knew his routines well, and she noted from the untouched morning sports section and the sink, absent its usual assortment of used breakfast bowls and glasses, that he had not left the house in search of employment that morning. Arthur had been following the job seekers’ guides religiously, keeping himself on a strict nine-to-five schedule for the past few months, so that when something did turn up, he’d be in good habits and ready to work. 

“Arthur?” she called to the door of his bedroom. She waited a few seconds, heard nothing, and tried the handle. It was locked. This alarmed her, since Arthur had never been a door-locker in his youth. It was only since going out on his own that he’d developed these strange desires for quiet and privacy. He was no longer the sunny, carefree boy she had raised. Perhaps it was just a phase of melancholy, brought on by his career misfortunes.

“Arthur, what ARE you doing in there?” The vague feelings of dread she harbored were worse than any actual misfortune she could imagine, and thus her fears passed from the realm of the tangible to the more ominous domain of those horrors that lingered just outside the edges of her comprehension, nebulous, reticent to take shape, whereupon she might attack the problem with a vengeance. Masturbation, pot-smoking, satanic rituals—she had prepared for these eventualities when Arthur was a teenager, had rehearsed whole paragraphs of responses, carefully selected from the advisories of parenting magazines and mother’s clubs. Instinctively, she knew that whatever was going on in Arthur’s room now was worse than anything she had ever prepared for, or even conceived of.

This was the despair of a parent: the existence of a child in distress, mere inches away, but effectively out of reach.

Disguising her fear with anger, she knocked on the door again, hard enough that there was no mistaking her irritation. She was a tiny wisp of a woman, no more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, but as part and parcel of her motherly duties, she prepared to force the door, which was quite thin itself. Just as she prepared to heave her meager weight against the door, the handle turned, and she saw why Arthur had not gone to work that morning.

“Oh my God,” she said quietly, gazing upon her transformed son.

 

*

 

“He should see a doctor,” Arthur’s father said definitively, bringing his fist down upon the small dining room table as punctuation. “I’m sure it’s just a temporary illness, some proper medication will put it right.” He went back to his dinner, as if the matter had been settled, once and for all.

“Reginald,” Mathilda hesitated before finishing. “What if it’s not temporary? What if we bring him to the doctor and they take him away from us? Quarantine him?” Mathilda had long been the emotional counterweight to Reginald’s aloofness; she was the worrier, he the problem-solver; she was the tender hand of mercy, he the stern hand of authority. Most times, a calm word or two from Reginald was enough to assure her misgivings, or at least quiet them, but not today. “I’ll never see my Arthur again,” she spat out, surrendering to a cascade of tears.

Willie ignored her food to stare at Arthur. She propped her head up with one hand, still holding her unused fork, and gazed lazily into Arthur’s eyes, searching for some trace of her brother.

When she finally spoke, Willie’s aspect instantly changed from that of a young woman fixed in wonder, to a harder, more judgmental demeanor. “He really has changed completely,” she said. She spoke as the others had, as if Arthur wasn’t even in the room. They discussed him like abstract theories of politics, like the person they knew as Arthur was no longer a person at all, but rather some temporary construct culled from their respective ideas of a son or a brother, who had impolitely disrupted their otherwise well-tuned lives. Arthur noted for the first time that his sister had inherited some of their father’s clinical nature. 

“Maybe he’ll keep changing,” she continued. “Who knows if this is the final state?” Then, to Arthur, she advised, “You should pray about it tonight.”

Arthur’s father lowered his utensils and considered his daughter’s words while chewing on a particularly tough piece of pot roast. With some effort, he finally gulped it down, but before he could speak, his wife had seized the opportunity.

“Yes, yes,” she cried. “Pray tonight, Arthur. Let’s all of us pray. Perhaps tomorrow he will return to normal.”

            Arthur’s father glanced at his wife’s pleading eyes and decided to accede to her wishes. He nodded and took another bite of pot roast.

“Poor Arthur,” Willie said quietly.

“My poor dear,” said Arthur’s mother.

“Are you going to eat that roast, boy? This thing taken your appetite, as well?”

Arthur placed his fork on the table and gripped his head with both hands. “I cannot deal with all of this, with all of you!” He ran to his room and locked the door. He could no longer be bothered by their nattering, he decided. Instead, he would sit in his room, alone, and think about things, all sorts of things. Maybe he would even write his thoughts down on paper.

His family, meanwhile, sat stunned at the kitchen table. The old Arthur would never have delivered so dramatic an outburst. There were other differences, too, between the Arthur they had known and loved, and this new version.

“He didn’t eat any of his meat,” his mother observed solemnly.

 

*

 

Within a week, the house was ringing with the click-clacking of the family’s Smith Corona portable, an heirloom from Reginald’s father’s university days in the early 1950’s. Having absconded to his room with the typewriter and most of the family’s supplies of paper, pens, pencils, and envelopes, Arthur had taken to writing whenever the urge seized him, any time of day. Mostly he wrote letters—a curious inclination for him, he realized, as he hadn’t written a letter to anyone for a good twenty years, and even that had been a thank-you note, in which the few additions he’d made to the prepared message in the card had been coerced by his mother, she being extremely well-versed in the responsibilities of etiquette.

He warmed up by writing a formal letter of resignation to his former employer, simply for his own edification.  It had been six months since he’d been let go in a round of layoffs, and he casually reflected that his unemployment benefits would be ending soon. 

Composing the resignation letter served as an exorcism, severing the last ties from his days of gainful employment, and when he had finished, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It was one thing to resent one’s employer for exploiting and/or abusing its employees on a daily basis, but another, far worse thing, to be flatly rejected and have one’s offer of willing exploitation in exchange for a steady paycheck refused. “Let go,” as corporate-speak for having been fired, might be a more accurate term than they realized. He had been released, spurred to move on, and wasn’t that a kind of blessing? If change hadn’t been thrust upon him, he might—no, he definitely would—be at the same job, doing the same thing every day. Now he was becoming… something else, he knew that much. This house, this room, was the chrysalis from which he would emerge one day soon. But as what? Was the radical change in his outer appearance a by-product of the transformation he felt within himself? Or was it instead the root cause, which, combined with the coincidence of a job layoff, had brought him to this point?

Thinking about these questions gave Arthur an awful headache, so despite their profound implications, he concentrated on other, more mundane concerns. After the resignation letter, he began drafting formal letters of complaint to any organization that had ever done him wrong. Politicians were the unlucky recipients of much of his ire, as a steady stream of offenses poured out of Arthur’s mind and spilled onto the pages.

Taxation, traffic—anything was fair game. When he was done, a stack of envelopes lay at his desk, ready to be delivered. The letters were an additional catharsis, and with each one, he drained a fragment of the anger that had lingered inside him for so long. It was not anger about taxation or traffic, or any of the topics he discussed in his letters, but those topics were directions, avenues to channel that inner anger while satisfying a primal human need to reach out to other people. Given his success in churning out letters, Arthur wondered briefly if he would no longer care for meeting people in person—it had now been six days since he’d seen anyone other than his immediate family.

No, he thought. He was not ready to abandon human contact just yet—maybe never. But perhaps a new form of human contact..?

More letters! He must write more letters!

 

When he had exhausted his ideas for business letters—complaints to the makers of inferior products, helpful suggestions to the makers of products he respected—he still harbored a burning desire to write more. He thought of people he had known during his life, and, riding the waves of nostalgia, hit upon the idea of contacting his former girlfriends. He began to compose the first such letter to the now-familiar rhythms of the Smith-Corona, but, as intimate a friend as it had become, something was not right.

These letters demanded to be written by hand.

As Arthur began to write the letters—real letters, he thought, replete with ink smudges and cross-outs—he found he enjoyed having time to consider his remarks before committing them to paper. In the chaos of conversation his thoughts easily became confused or lost to outside distractions, or misunderstood because of an imprecise word selection here or there. He also reveled in the knowledge that a handwritten letter, a near-obsolete rarity in the modern world, would almost certainly be read, possibly reread, and maybe even preserved as a personal memento. The time involved in drafting such a letter would be obvious with even a glance. From his self-imposed exile, he contemplated the passage of time creating a buffer between his words and those of a possible reply. It made him feel secure, free to express himself without reservation.

After many hours of letter-writing, Arthur stood up and stretched, flexing the fingers of his writing hand. His hand was sore—with good reason, he thought. After all, how often did one actually write longhand? The tiny muscles of his digits throbbed, crying their resentment at being put to work after such a long rest. Arthur thought of someone he’d once known who’d contracted something called “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.” Arthur didn’t know what a carpal tunnel was, or where they could be found, or what they might connect, but he knew that the syndrome carried with it severe and debilitating pain in the hand and wrist. He wondered if he might be coming down with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome himself. Or maybe it was something else, like writer’s cramp. Writer’s cramp certainly sounded better than Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; in the age of data entry, writer’s cramp had significantly more cachet.

Arthur flexed his hand a few more times. Definitely writer’s cramp, he thought.

 

*

 

In order to deliver his letters without interrupting his carefully nurtured solitude, Arthur had devised a system in which he would slide completed letters under his door (sealed tightly in doubled envelopes to withstand his sister’s inevitable but cursory attempts at prying), with a request that Willie or his mother mail them at the earliest convenience.

“Who are you writing to?” Arthur’s mother would demand, whenever she saw the envelopes stuffed under Arthur’s door awaiting pickup. “The names on these envelopes don’t make any sense! ‘T’? ‘F’? These aren’t names! What are you hiding?”

Arthur would always respond calmly, despite his mother’s worried frenzy. “Please just mail them, mother. The addresses are correct.”

Curiosity and despair lost out to years of rigid scheduling, and rather than battle any further, Mathilda merely shrugged her shoulders and put “stop at post office” on her list of things to do. She lived a self-regimented life, and the best way to handle anything new was to absorb it into the routine. The act of doing so took anything, no matter how bizarre, from the strange to the everyday.

Willie showed slightly greater resistance. Frustrated by her foiled attempts to sneak a peek at Arthur’s letters, she soon became confrontational regarding his apparent laziness. “Why should I mail these for you? Your body may have changed, but you can still walk. Do it yourself!”

“Please?” Arthur would reply in a sweet voice from the other side of the door, “I have so much other work to do. It would be a great help to me.”

At this, Willie would inevitably be wracked with guilt at her own selfishness. Her brother was obviously going through a momentous inner turmoil; the least she could do as a good sister—a good Christian—was indulge him until it passed.

So, in spite of their protests, and whatever their motivations, both Willie and Mathilda obliged every time, sooner or later. Delivering the letters to the proper postal receptacle soon became the central event of the day. They would often go together, neither willing to entrust the other with what had become a critical task. They did not know what Arthur was writing, but surely if he spent all day and night composing these letters, there must be something to them?

 

*

 

With each letter he wrote, Arthur grew closer to exhausting the list of names in his address book.  He found some solace in the possibility of replies to his letters, which would keep the process going a little longer, but he also realized that the candor in which he had revealed his innermost fears and desires might frighten the letter recipients from ever contacting him again. Some things, he now understood, were perhaps not meant to be discussed so candidly.

Two weeks ago he would never have considered writing such letters, but distinct from and yet undoubtedly tied to his transformation, he had grown to notice a tightness in his chest that only found relief through the motion of his pen, or the hammer of the typewriter keys.

The end came suddenly, as the entries in the address book stopped well short of the last page. Turning to find only blank page after blank page, Arthur saw that his campaign would die an abrupt and ignominious death. His most recent letter, addressed to she of the last entry, was a rambling analysis of the friendship they had shared in younger days, and the inevitable (or was it, Arthur questioned in the text) drifting apart that followed. It was a good letter, but anticlimactic. There had to be a last letter, one in which he would summarize all of the thoughts and feelings that had filled those other envelopes, theories and philosophies in various stages of completion, everything. One more letter… but to whom would he send it?

Write it first, he decided, and that is what he did. He sat and stared at the blank page, bleary-eyed, for the better part of an hour, mentally composing his tour de force. Then he wrote it down. Over the next few hours, he forced himself to explore every aspect of his person—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—defining himself to the world like a candidate for political office, except more honestly.

When he had finished, he held the pages proudly before him, seeing them not as words and sentences, but as a single, cohesive statement. Not one word could be removed or changed without irrevocably changing the very essence of the document.

He folded it carefully into thirds, stuffed it into an envelope, and sealed it. Then he flipped the envelope to confront its unyielding blank face.

From the growing steadiness of sounds other than silence outside his door, he knew it was nearing daybreak—he had worked through the night. When his mother and sister were dressed, they would check under his door for outgoing mail. More than anything else, he wished to send this letter now, remove it from his sight, and forget he ever wrote it. He knew that after sleep, he would succumb to the compulsion to reread the letter. Then he would succumb to the compulsion to make changes to it. And, in the end, he would not send the letter. Unless he sent it now.

Who would receive this, his most complete self-exploration yet? He needed an address, or at least a name. No sudden inspirations took him, and when his eyelids grew too heavy to stare any longer, he ended his ordeal by writing one large capital letter, chosen at random, right in the center of the envelope: “K.”   

 With the last of his energy, he slid the envelope under the door, where it was instantly grasped by his mother’s eager hands. He turned and dropped into his bed without bothering to turn the covers. Within a few moments, he was asleep.

 

*

 

The following day, there were no outgoing letters under Arthur’s bedroom door. Willie and her mother interrogated each other at length, each convinced the other had taken the day’s allotment and stolen off to the post office alone. But they had been within each other’s sights all day, and it would have been impossible for one of them to have taken the letters without the other noticing.

“Arthur? Dear? Don’t you have any letters for us today?”

“Dear brother, surely you have some correspondence, even a brief note, that should be put into the post today?”

“No,” came Arthur’s reply, through the door. Then, remembering his manners, he said, “Thank you, though.”

The din of the typewriter sounded again and continued unabated, but no letters were forthcoming. For days, Arthur’s sister and mother were reduced to quivering, begging lumps of flesh at his door, as they struggled to find something to replace the letters in their lives.

Reginald, meanwhile, sat in front of the TV in the living room watching reruns of Benny Hill, blissfully oblivious to the troubled household goings-on. On a rare excursion from his room, Arthur saw his father so encamped, and noted that his father’s bulk seemed to shrink before the television (Benny Hill, in contrast, had achieved overweight immortality, his appearance frozen in time, never aging, never changing). The bluish light from the television flickered temperamentally in the dim room, limning Arthur’s father in an eerie glow. From a certain angle, Arthur reflected, it looked as though the TV had actually possessed him, and was consuming him bit by bit, crowding out the memories of his younger days until eventually the man Arthur had once known and admired would disappear permanently, replaced by a living, breathing repository of Benny Hill routines and catchy commercial jingles.

 

*

 

Arthur’s mother was now driven to distraction by the dearth of letters and the paradoxical increase in typing emanating from Arthur’s room. What was he writing in there?

Mathilda had observed that Arthur’s new body was subject to the same biological limitations as his old one, and thus, several times a day he was forced to withdraw from his sanctuary to relieve his bladder. After observing Arthur leaving his room on one such occasion, she snuck in, determined to discover what he’d been up to.

What she found was truly horrifying: piles of paper everywhere, some blank, some seeming no more than the half-mad scribblings of a man attempting to capture and immortalize his every random thought. While Mathilda struggled to regain her composure, Arthur reappeared in the doorway behind her.

“What have you become?” she said, turning upon him in horror. She searched Arthur’s face for some trace of his former self, but even his eyes, windows upon the soul, seemed to offer a strange and foreign view. “All this writing. You are… a writer?”

This garnered a reaction, a small spark of recognition, for in the rush of activity that had consumed most of his hours since the transformation, Arthur had not realized the true extent of the change that had taken place.

How had this happened? How had he transformed himself from a reputable salesman into this loathsome form of life, frittering his life away in fruitless efforts to attain clarity of thought and transfer it to paper? It seemed as if a switch had clicked in his sleep—he cursed the face he now carried, for he was certain it was responsible, and yet he also knew that the foundations for all of this must have been laid long before. Was he really a writer? Certainly not in the sense of a career choice—he knew perfectly well that there would be no best-sellers springing to life from his pen. But as a life choice, in the sense of a writer as one who writes, then yes, he had to admit, however painful, that it was true.

He panicked. Surely the very analysis of whether one was a writer or not was itself the indulgent, introspective mark of a writer? The only thing worse was… questioning that questioning. These strange thoughts were a sure sign that he was degenerating rapidly, spiraling toward intellectual and creative suicide.

What sort of writerly pretensions would he find himself validating next, he wondered?

 

*

 

“A,” as Arthur had decided to refer to himself—after all, what was a name but an arbitrary, inadequate cipher which, if anything, gave a false sense of self-knowledge—began to feel even more isolated, despite the near-constant worried attention of his family. Even his father had shown more concern of late, going so far as to occasionally draw himself from the television during commercials and ask Arthur if he wanted anything from the kitchen. “No thanks,” Arthur would usually say, and his father would return to his throne, satisfied that he’d done his fatherly duty, drawn back by the promise of Benny Hill in drag, and the siren call of the manic, moronic intonations of “Yakety Sax.”

His family had become a group of satellites seized by the power of his personal gravity, their lives shadowed and revolving around his, like the lesser moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

There was no denying his fate; he had come to accept it with bitter resignation, and a secret thrill. Writers, he knew, had an unusual ability to feel separate from other people no matter how close the physical proximity. And, the worst cases had the further ability to diagnose their own failings at length, so much so that they often collapsed into retching blobs of self-pity.

Not only had Arthur become a writer, he had become the quintessential stereotype of a writer.

“Why, oh why, has this befallen me?” said A. “What evil deed have I committed to deserve this cruel fate?” Martyrdom (in the figurative sense), a messiah complex, and lengthy pronouncements made aloud... Nothing could save him now. He bowed his head and cried loudly, so that anyone in the vicinity could hear. After all, what was the use of suffering for one’s art if no one knew you were suffering?

 

*

 

Mathilda knocked loudly on Arthur’s bedroom door. There was a barely perceptible hesitation in the typing from within, but no acknowledgement of her presence. She knocked twice more, and each time the typing seemed to grow louder and faster in response. She decided to play her ace in the hole.

“Arthur!” she shouted.

“I can’t hear you,” Arthur sing-sang, still typing.  “No one by that name here. Just me, A.”

“Well, let me know when Arthur returns, A. I have a letter to deliver to him.” 

The typing ceased immediately. The door opened and Arthur appeared, somewhat perplexed by his mother’s announcement.

Mathilda smiled a bit at this successful exercise of her household power. She realized how dependent she’d become on Arthur to fill the gaps that had appeared in her own life since Willie had begun to explore the world as an adult. Mother and daughter had been unusually close, even through adolescence, when such relationships were often strained near the breaking point. Willie’s recent lack of interest in anything Mathilda or Reginald had to say was all the more shocking for it. Arthur had moved back just in time to fill the void Willie’s newfound religion had caused, and Mathilda was at once grateful to him and resentful of his power to give or take away her own sense of fulfillment. Once Arthur was straightened out, she would see about getting Willie into some sort of deprogramming regimen.

Mathilda began to open the envelope, sliding her finger into a gap in the glue-sealed edge and slowly pulling. She watched Arthur’s face while she did it, noting his temporary submission to her will. Mathilda was only a little interested in what was inside the envelope – the more important thing was that she had it.

Arthur was baffled, still wondering who could have replied to one of his bizarre letters, and he watched her performance in slow motion until some interior alarm alerted.

“That’s mine!” He reached for the envelope.

“What’s your name?”

Arthur sighed defeat. “Arthur.”

“No ‘A’? Is Arthur your only name?”

There was no mistaking her intent. She meant to nip his pen name at the bud. He would have to suffer the indignity of his birth name a while longer. “Yes,” he said, “Arthur is my only name.”

“Well, all right then.” As she brought the envelope close to Arthur, he seized it and slammed the door shut.

He retreated to the farthest corner of the room before looking at the envelope. The writing seemed familiar, and he quickly realized why—it was one of his own letters, returned to him unopened and unread.  It was the last one he had written, his tour de force, mailed randomly to “K,” and as he examined the envelope, noting that the stamps stuck on it had been cancelled and that there was no other mark, no “return to sender,” no “address unknown,” nothing—it occurred to him that maybe the letter had reached its intended recipient after all.  

 

*

 

Arthur’s unemployment checks had stopped, and his parents begged him to write a note to his former employer, offering deepest apologies for the harshness of his after-the-fact resignation letter. They advised him to beg for mercy, forgiveness, and his former job at half pay, but Arthur refused to do so. It was the principle of it, he explained. If they did not respect him as he was now—as a writer—then they did not respect him at all. He would not demean himself by combining words into bourgeois phrases that had been composed a thousand times before. He briefly considered the challenge of lifting the “please let me have my job back“  letter to a higher level, but decided that, as one marked for greatness, he simply had more important things to do. He asked Mathilda to sell all of his marketable possessions, including his Porsche 911. He wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Arthur’s mother, despite her shortcomings, had a canny financial sense, and though Arthur’s lack of income hadn’t affected her yet, she had enough foresight to know that if she didn’t act soon, she might well end up with a permanent dependent in the house. Remembering Arthur’s father and sister, she corrected herself: three dependents.

One day, a doctor came to their home to examine Arthur. Arthur’s mother had wisely developed a chart of his bathroom habits, and it was in transit from one of these calls of nature that Arthur was confronted by Mathilda, her husband, and the doctor, in an intervention designed to address his worsening hypergraphia.

“This is Dr. Ravi, Arthur. He’s going to examine you.”

“I can never return to the way I was,” Arthur said, referring to the physical changes to his face but interpreted by his parents as meaning his former, admirably self-sufficient lifestyle. They had adjusted surprisingly easily to Arthur’s new face, and would accept him regardless of how he looked. Accepting him as a permanent, non-paying boarder, however, was another story.

“You can’t go on like this,” his mother insisted. “If what you say is true, if you really can’t go back to work, we’ll have you declared disabled by the state, and at least get some money each month for food and rent.”

“There is nothing wrong with me!” Arthur angrily exclaimed. “What has our society come to, that its brightest lights are persecuted so unfairly, called ‘disabled’ out of fear, jealousy, and misunderstanding?”

“He’s like this all the time now, doctor. Insufferable. Delusions of grandeur.”

“Generally, a pain in the ass,” Arthur’s father added. He turned to Arthur and said, “Do you have any plans for the future?”

Arthur said stoically, “I will plumb the depths of the human experience.”

“Ah,” said Reginald, “now you’re talking sensibly. A plumber will always have work. You get in the union, you’ll be fine. I know someone who can—”

Mathilda sighed impatiently, eager to get the examination under way. “Reginald, that’s not what he means.”

Reginald frowned and glared at Arthur, thinking he’d been intentionally shown up. He shook his head slowly, indicating that he’d done his best to encourage the boy, only to find it was a wasted effort. “See what you can do with him, Doc. This face thing’s got him all screwed up.”

 

The doctor asked a series of questions in order to get an idea of how Arthur spent his days. His examination was so thorough he even read two of Arthur’s stories, in order to gain a glimpse into his mental state. At the end of the interview he examined Arthur physically, which consisted of taking his blood pressure, taking a blood sample, tapping his knee with a little hammer and staring into his eyes and ears with a tiny flashlight.

“I’ll have to wait for the blood work to come back before I can write anything up for you, but once that’s done, I should be able to help you. It could be as simple as a shortage of B vitamins in the diet.”

Mathilda bristled at the suggestion that her carefully prepared meals might somehow be deficient, and shot the doctor the most evil stare she could muster.

“Or not,” the doctor added.

 

A week later, there arrived a signed note in the mail, written on the doctor’s personal stationery:

“It is the professional opinion of this physician that Arthur Berkeley has become self-absorbed to the point of uselessness, for any purpose other than streaming his thoughts and subconscious fears and desires onto paper. Since there is no viable market for this type of work, I hereby deem Arthur Berkeley officially disabled.”

 

With Arthur seemingly impervious to her prodding, Mathilda was forced to engage in a bit of subterfuge to get him to sign the forms requesting Social Security disability payments. She had been busy talking to a lawyer friend, and he seemed to feel that they had a good case, well worth submitting to the proper authorities.

Arthur would not willingly sign the papers, because as much as he felt that his talents should be subsidized by the state, this process would not require them to acknowledge his genius—rather the opposite, in fact. Instead of a show of thanks for the hard road he had chosen, they showed only disdain by interpreting his refusal to cater to societal rules as a “disability.” In some cultures, he told Mathilda, he would have been worshipped as a god. Arthur’s mother, beaming as she took control of her son’s financial future, completed everything on the forms but the sections requiring Arthur’s signature. These he finally signed when she disguised them as autograph requests from an imaginary fan club.

 

*

 

There was no filter; it was dysentery of the mind, and it was all spurting out onto paper. Packaging up a few pieces of fiction he had written, Arthur slid them under the door. He said nothing—they would speak for themselves. He had felt an occasional pang of guilt at having given, and taken away, a daily task his mother and sister had so looked forward to in the mailing of letters, and now he convinced himself that he was putting forth these pages, full of made-up characters and situations, in a purely humanitarian  gesture. The thought of his own ego’s gratification, of someone else reading his work… why, that had never occurred to him, had it?

Well, maybe just a little.

Paper-clipped with care, the stories lingered half out of the doorway until Mathilda happened by and noticed them. Arthur attuned to the noises in the hallway, as his mother flipped through a few of the pages and said loudly into the door, “What the hell is all this shite, then?”

 

*

 

Critics! Their tiny brains could not fathom the subtle intricacies of fine writing if their collective existence depended on it. Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t do or teach, criticize. But the logic of that aphorism was sophomoric at best. Freshmanic, more likely.  There were skilled critics who had honed their craft, the same as any other, over years of exercise. But didn’t those years of exercise create in them a jaded audience immune to the charms of the most honest work? Didn’t it merely leave them with a talent for analyzing the nuts and bolts, while often losing sight of the greater whole? That’s just my ego making itself heard, protecting its own fragile sense of self-worth. I have nothing valuable to say. I have many valuable things to say. I say valuable things, but not in an interesting way. How could I make them more interesting? Perhaps I should ask the critics…

Arthur talked himself in and out of depression in this way for the better part of an hour, until he realized that he was becoming a critic of the critics.

 

*

 

Arthur’s mother announced at his door that she would no longer be bringing his meals to him; he would be expected to join the family at breakfast and dinner. There was no indication of what brought about this sudden burst of tough love—presumably, the sense of value Mathilda felt in being so needed had finally been overtaken by the annoyance and hassle of dealing with Arthur’s eccentricities, or perhaps a lingering resentment at Arthur’s stoppage of letter flow. Whatever the reason, Arthur had no choice but to comply.

Before rejoining the family for their first meal together since his metamorphosis was revealed, Arthur visited the bathroom and, for the first time in several weeks, looked at his face. It was quite amazing, wasn’t it, what a person could get used to? A new face, a new lifestyle, a new vocation—or, he chastised himself for an incorrect choice of words—a new avocation.

He missed his old face, and even his old personality, but it was more of a vague nostalgia than an active longing. This face was mousy, and he did miss his former (if he did say so) rugged handsomeness. But there was an intensity to this face that suited him.

He emerged from the bathroom and seated himself at the breakfast table, as if there were nothing unusual about it. Without speaking he began to eat, and the others took this as a cue that they, too, should pretend that nothing had changed. They forced out innocuous questions at Willie, like “So how was your evening?” this being the natural (morning) accompaniment to the evening’s traditional “So how was your day?” There wasn’t much sense asking anything of Mathilda or Reginald­, since they pretty much did the same thing every day, and always volunteered the details, down to the color of the dress Mrs. Dautschmeyer wore into town, and the zany misunderstandings of Benny Hill and his cronies.

Arthur sat and ate and listened, his eyes glazed over from lack of sleep. Finally, when Willie had finished describing, as slowly and in as much detail as she could, the two hours she had spent before bed last night, Arthur lurched into the silence and said, “Ich fühle verschieden heute. Etwas ist bestimmt verschieden.”

“Is he speaking… German?” Arthur’s father asked.

“Sounds like it,” said his mother. “Ugly language. But I didn’t realize you were studying German, Arthur. Is that what you’ve been spending so much time doing lately?” She knew it was not, for she had seen the growing piles of writings, noticed the increasingly introspective slant of the themes, and it frightened her.

“Ich habe Deutsch nicht studiert.” Arthur realized that the words weren’t coming out the way he intended, and slowed himself, mechanically pronouncing every syllable this time, with considerable effort. “I… have not… been… studying… German.” And he hadn’t, which was why Arthur’s face betrayed even more surprise than those of his family at his newfound abilities. He knew that he was speaking German, but he had never spoken a word of German in his life, not even so much as a “Gesundheit!” after a sneeze. He focused himself and tried to speak in English. Not German. Anything but German.

“Jaký is událost až k mne?”

“Say again?” said Arthur’s father, seeming to come alive from a long hibernation of the mind. He had dealt with many different cultures and languages while growing up in London, and he occasionally remarked on the fact that the States were not nearly as cosmopolitan as they believed.  He tilted his head down toward the table and closed his eyes, to get a clear listen at the words.

“Jaký is událost až k mne?” Arthur repeated.

“Hmm. Polish? Czech, maybe? Or some kind of Slovak language.”

Whatever it was, it was worse than the German, Arthur thought. He tried to force English past his lips, as he had before, but now he just alternated between German and Czechoslovakian. Arthur felt a little more comfortable with German, and soon managed to restrict his utterances to it. It didn’t matter much to his family, who understood neither language, but it made him feel more at ease.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” said Willie, ominously.

“What?” demanded Mathilda. “What does it mean?”

“Yes, do tell, girl.”

Willie waited a heartbeat or two before answering, just long enough to make Reginald and Mathilda shift forward in their seats. Arthur also leaned in, his ability to understand spoken English still intact despite his inability to speak it. “He’s speaking in tongues,” Willie finally said, emphasizing the last word.

“My poor Arthur! Maybe… he’s possessed by a demon?” Mathilda despaired.

“I don’t think so,” Willie said, appraising Arthur from across the table like a doctor examining a leper. “I think… I think it may be a gift from God. There’s a name for it: glossolalia.”

Mathilda cast a dismissive sneer at her daughter, then turned back to her son. Concern and kindness filled her eyes. “I think he’s just been locked up in that room too long. He needs a psychologist or a psychiatrist or… something.”

“Maybe an exorcist?” Reginald offered.

“It’s a gift from God, I’m telling you,” Willie insisted. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and sulked.

Arthur’s father looked at him for the first time during the meal. “Well, boy? A gift from God or possession by a demon? Which is it?”

Arthur sat in silence. He was afraid to say anything, and it was only in part because he feared yet another language emerging from his lips.

 

*

 

Arthur watched as a cockroach appeared from a perfectly cockroach-sized crack in his bedroom wall and proceeded to scutter across the floor and into an almost identical crack on the other side of the room. Its newfound boldness was, perhaps, the result of Arthur’s near-complete lack of movement.

It was another aspect of life that he had only begun to observe by removing himself from the equation. The insects now ignored him; if he could recede from life even more, to the point where no one remembered that he had ever existed, to where he was for all practical purposes invisible to the world, just think what he might see! Now, he occasionally scribbled during brief bursts of energy and inspiration, but for much longer periods his pen sat unmoved, nestled snugly in his hand as he tried to make sense of the jumbled thoughts bouncing inside his skull. The cockroach detected Arthur’s presence, suddenly, and froze.

“Hallo, freund,” Arthur said calmly. In keeping with his new mystical Zen-like exterior, Arthur fought back the revulsion that would normally accompany such a cockroach sighting, and instead took refuge in the panacea of many a solitary person – anthropomorphism. He addressed the cockroach as if it were a person, and not just any person, but a person of exquisite taste and empathy who appreciated Arthur’s writing and understood his situation.

“Verstehen sie Deutsches?” Arthur asked. The cockroach did not reply.

Arthur continued to speak to the cockroach, listening as his lips and tongue took his thoughts and made them German. “Why do we hate you so?” Arthur asked the cockroach. “The diseases you carry are as surely a part of nature as anything else. Do we fear nature? Are we jealous of you? Do we fear that within your hive-mind, you may be engineering nuclear apocalypse, after which you and your kind will be free to evolve into the preeminent role on the planet?”

The cockroach turned toward Arthur and wiggled its antennae.

“I’m afraid I can’t understand you, my friend. Just as no one can understand me now, either. I speak languages they do not know, languages unfamiliar even to myself.” Arthur caught himself mid-wallow, and, not wishing to drive his newfound friend away, quickly changed the subject.

“Do you have a name, my small friend? If not, I shall give you one. I shall call you…” He pondered the perfect name. “Gregor,” he finally decided. “lhr name ist Gregor.”

 

*

 

Two months later, during a brief lull in his writing, Arthur overheard his parents discussing the matter of his Social Security claim with his sister.

“It is hopeless. We can’t even get a meeting to speak with someone, they simply turn his request down as soon as they hear the details of his disorder. It is not on their list of acceptable reasons for a disability claim, and that is all they care about. They cannot see anything but their narrow definitions. They cannot imagine how horrible it is to live with a writer!”

The words sunk deeply into Arthur’s psyche. He had become a burden. Whatever meager skill he had developed with the written language was not enough to compensate for his other shortcomings.

Willie’s voice sounded, high-pitched and desperate, above the low murmurs of her parents. “Don’t give up on him yet! He’s my brother! He’s your son!” A pause, while she considered a plan of action. Then, “I’m going to a revival this weekend. Maybe he will come with me. ”

A revival! By definition, surely a revival would help his sagging spirits, would it not? But a revival of what? His former life? No, having moved beyond that hardscrabble day to day existence, there was no way he could survive it again. Maybe a revival would refresh his faculties, his motivation, remove the fog of lethargy and depression which had descended upon him these last few minutes, when the true nature of his post-transformational existence had been revealed to him in the cold light of day. He had been revived once before, he realized, on the day he awakened to find himself transformed. How many times could one revive a dead, burned-out husk of a man, he wondered?

When his sister’s voice came again, this time from just outside his door, asking, pleading to let her help him, he had his answer ready.

“Nein,” said Arthur.     

She retreated from the door, reluctantly, and Arthur returned to his bed. He had been spending more and more time there of late, and less time writing. In bed, the hours raced past while he followed the random connections of his thoughts.

Arthur knew his metamorphosis had hastened the progression, but was certain he would have arrived at this same crossroads in his life one way or another; not out of destiny, but of necessity. What else was there to fill one’s days, he wondered? Television? Religion? Work? Parenting? He had seen the results of these in his family, and they did not appeal. He was being led down a narrowing series of passages, and as more and more of them terminated in dead ends, it became apparent that there was really, in the end, no choice at all.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad—as much as he pitied himself at times, he imagined a nobility to his chosen path that was absent from those others. Surely this—living a spartan existence, isolated in thought, conversing with bugs—this was the highest calling one could have in life, wasn’t it?

Yes, he told himself.

No, he decided.

Yes. No. Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

 

*

 

Arthur had begun to exhaust himself. Not just in the physical sense, though there was that too, since he had stopped eating and his atrophied limbs tired from the merest exertions; but also as a writer. He began to notice that certain themes appeared in his stories, even when he had not been consciously aware of their presence as he wrote. Favorite phrases and techniques had aged with overuse, ripening from novelty to cliché, and his sentences had grown longer and more obtuse. He was becoming a caricature of himself, that much would be obvious to anyone who cared enough to look.  He wanted nothing more than to remove himself from the everyday trivialities of life so he could write; and yet, removed from that flow of experience, what could he write about? He saw a future of endlessly examining the same experiences in his life from a hundred different angles. He saw nostalgia and remembrance sucking at his capabilities like a leech. But how could he give up this opportunity he had forged for himself, to write undisturbed except by his own doubts. Maybe those doubts alone were enough to foil his plans.

The cockroach appeared again as Arthur lay in bed resting. It had grown accustomed to Arthur’s presence in the room, even his occasional outbursts, and it often went about its business whenever the desire came upon it, day or night. It wriggled its antennae at Arthur again, this time in much more complex gyrations, which brought to Arthur’s mind the elaborate and communicative dance of the bumblebee. Was there some similar code here for cockroaches? Some profound message to be discovered, perhaps a key to the hidden recesses of his own mind where the truly creative elements lay waiting to be revealed?

 “I still don’t understand what you’re saying, friend. I sense in you a kindred spirit, but it seems we are both cursed to be solitary creatures, misunderstood by all who surround us. I am sorry.”

The cockroach seemed to understand, if not the exact meaning of Arthur’s words, at least their overall tone. It turned back to its business, hesitated a moment, gave a final wiggle in Arthur’s direction, then disappeared.

 

*

 

Upon waking the next morning, Arthur expended his meager energy by throwing the covers off the bed and staring at his belly. When he had transformed into the black-haired man, he had instantly lost about 50 pounds, as the man was taller and leaner than Arthur’s old self. But his new body had recently begun to further waste away, as if from lack of nourishment. He was not hungry, yet felt as if he’d slept for days without eating a morsel.

“I am dying,” he said aloud, the words transforming themselves into German. “My body is consuming itself, and I have no desire but to watch it happen.”

He could call for his sister, his mother, his father, but why? He had nothing more to do; for the first time in his life, he felt ready to die.

He looked around the room at the last things he’d written, days ago, abandoned for lack of motivation. There was nothing worthwhile there, just echoes of the first glorious days of his new persona, when years of bottled-up ideas and thoughts had effortlessly etched themselves onto paper.

“Woe is me, woe is me,” he whined. Elend ist ich, elend ist ich.

His friend Gregor the cockroach appeared again near the crack in the wall. Arthur wondered if the sound of his voice had summoned Gregor, or if this was merely a happy coincidence. Gregor scrambled half the distance toward Arthur’s bed, then stopped and seemed to regard his roommate. Arthur sat transfixed by the movements of Gregor’s antennae, which seemed more vigorous and expressive than ever before. There were things that words could not touch, intangibles, emotions that did not quite fit the standard definitions; things that could only be communicated without words. Here lay the seeds of his failure. Still, he felt his spirits lifted by Gregor’s efforts. He could not survive in this world, inside of this life in which he had imprisoned himself, but he must make an effort to leave something to posterity, some small contribution to the sum of aggregated human knowledge.

“I must write something completely original,” Arthur said to Gregor. “Something so bizarre it cannot help but be profound. It will speak to the human condition in ways never before dreamed. It will unite the entire world in empathy. It will create a window through which we will know each other’s minds. It will do all this, and have entertainment value, as well.”

Arthur watched as Gregor flipped himself over, engaging in some form of cockroach breakdancing. All at once, it came to him.

“You have inspired me, my friend. I thank you.”

Gregor struggled to right himself in the corner, while Arthur took a fresh sheet of paper and began to write:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams…”

THE END

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Metamorphosized." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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