“Is this a new couch?” I asked.
The psychologist looked at the couch. “No. Same as always.”
“Are you the same doctor?”
The psychologist paused. “Yes…”
He scratched his head and sighed. Father sighed the exact same way often. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a small rectangular bottle of Jim Beam. He raised the bottle to his lips, avoiding eye-contact with me, and took a sip. Then he offered the bottle to me.
“Take a swig.”
“I’m retiring in a week. I’m leaving. Take a swig.”
I took the bottle of whiskey, unscrewed the cap, and took a sip.
“This isn’t whiskey?” I said after swallowing.
“You’re right. It’s brandy. You noticed that. You’re fine. You overreact. You’re a clam.”
” ‘It’s all the same to a clam’. Shel Silverstein wrote that. Would you call a clam stupid because it doesn’t notice when prodded by a fish or stepped on by a human?”
“The clam functions well enough.”
“But I’m not a clam.”
“And this wasn’t whiskey.”
I shook my head. I’d guessed that it wasn’t whiskey. I had no idea that it was actually brandy. The psychologist must have realized this. I wish he did. “You don’t think my problem is a problem?” I asked.
“It’s not. It’s a peculiarity. Nothing more. Your mother’s been missing for six years and you never noticed. It’s unobservant, but not abnormal. Your father has accused you of her murder. I’ve seen families more dysfunctional. You took the bus here, all on your own. You are completely normal. Do not let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The fact that you can’t naturally observe is just a peculiarity—and nothing more.”
I looked around and scratched the cuticles on my thumbs with my pointer fingers.
“Did you switch my room? Something looks different.”
It was a bad habit, the cuticle scratching. All of my habits were, I suppose. My cuticles were red and raw with hints of blood. I rested two fingers against my lips every once in a while—a habit reminiscent of my time as a smoker. My fingers felt yellow, like the old glow from a night spent binge smoking until four in the morning—except my smoking had never been from going out with friends. No, I spent hours at night staring at a certain spot—the coffee shop by the bridge, the park with the lights on the trees, even my own home—wondering what looked different. Nothing felt different. That was the problem. Nothing ever feltdifferent.
“Not only did we not switch your room, but every room here is exactly the same,” said the orderly. “So even if we had switched you to a new room, still nothing would look different.”
The orderly wore white. He had brass skin and his forearm muscles twitched when he spoke. The hair on his forearms was thick and blond and looked like a memory of wheat. He had dark eyelashes and a heavy nose that seemed to melt from his face. His baggy white pants looked comfortable—it seemed a shame that wearing them out in a social setting would be abnormal. The orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages. Did the orderly ever wear different pants?
“When I was eight or so, while at school, my parents switched my bed for a bunk bed and moved all my older brother’s things into my room,” I said. “Or maybe I switched into his room. He had a lot of things. Clothes and furniture, but also posters, like that Captain Marvel poster, the one where he looked like he was about to dive back down to earth from the clouds. He had a lot of stuffed animals and action figures as well. Mostly Captain Marvel stuff. He had a few Wonder Woman toys but he kept those hidden. I used to tease him and call them Barbies. He would punch me for saying that. I didn’t notice when he went off to college. I didn’t notice when he came back. I didn’t notice that, while he was gone, Father made the empty bedroom his office. I didn’t notice Mother was missing. I didn’t notice any of those things. Who knows why a butcher needs an office? Either way, I didn’t notice. My brother asked where Mother was. I hadn’t thought about it until he asked. He and I found out at the same time that she’d been missing for six years. My brother and Father had gotten into a fight. He came back all of a sudden, my brother. It all makes me feel stupid. So much happened, and I tell it as it was told to me, not as I experienced it.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“That’s kind of you to say, orderly. So anyway, my brother insisted I see a psychologist. Father would grimace at me. He would say, ‘even the orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages.’ He would give me steak every day because I don’t like change. That line is from a Simon and Garfunkel song. I tried to be skeptical then. I knew I’d always have steak for dinner. I was always skeptical. Am I the only skeptical orangutan around here?”
“Yes. There has been no change in your cage. Not that a change would be easy to notice.”
I wiggled my toes. I was barefoot because walking the hallways without shoes allowed me to feel the cool tile on my feet. There was something relaxing in pacing a small room barefoot. I shifted my weight and began picking at my eyebrows as I looked around the room. The walls were beige with a horizontal line of blue. The floor, tan tile. Details.
“My psychologist thinks I don’t have a problem. You guys think I do. I feel like a caged orangutan that doesn’t move. The kind that if you had to describe it, you’d think it was depressed. That’s how Father looked at me—like I was a depressed, confined orangutan.” The orderly didn’t reply. I sighed. “So when can I leave here?”
“After the trial, maybe.”
“No I mean, when will I be fixed? I keep having the feeling you guys are going to test me by making a change in my room and seeing if I notice.”
“We don’t do that. We’re here to help you, not play tricks on you. You know that, don’t you?”
“My psychologist tests me,” I said. I tapped my forehead, imagining a conversation where the orderly told me to take control. Unshakable habits beget unfavorable function. Something like that. That’s what the psychologist said. I scratched my cuticles and looked at the orderly’s pants. “Are those Dickies?”
“Yeah. They look comfortable. Is that an elastic waistband?”
“You have the same pants except yours are blue.”
I felt my waist. I hadn’t given my pants a thought. If someone had blindfolded me, I’d haven’t the slightest idea what pants I was wearing. “Is that normal?”
“Yeah, everyone here wears the same pants.”
“Sorry, not that. I was thinking that it’s strange that I’d have no idea if what I’m wearing is different than normal. Isn’t that odd?”
“That’s not for me to decide.”
“I’d like to be able to notice change,” I said.
The orderly scratched his head. “The doctor has diagnosed you with neophobia. Do you know what that is?”
“A fear of change.”
“But I’m not afraid of change. I just wish I’d notice it naturally.”
The orderly shook his head as he left the room. “I don’t know what to tell you. But I believe you. I don’t think you murdered your mother.”
A lawyer looked at me with an eyebrow raised, but also with his nose crinkled a little. “So you never noticed your mother’s absence…” he said.
I shook my head. “No. Father never mentioned it. I know this is my second day in court, but I’m not sure if you’re the same lawyer I spoke to yesterday.”
The courtroom didn’t look like a courtroom. It looked like a room. Yes, the judge sat on a raised platform, but everyone else sat on folding chairs. Yes, the jury sat behind a wooden bar, but the room was carpeted, and there were only three people in the audience, who all looked vaguely familiar. Everyone looked vaguely familiar when out of context.
The lawyer turned to the jury. “Why is that something that would need mentioning, if you already knew?”
“I didn’t know. Are you the same lawyer as last time?” I asked.
The lawyer raised an eyebrow and turned back to me. “I’m not your lawyer. I work for the D.A. How did you not know?”
“I thought I already answered this to the other lawyer. Isn’t that why the judge sent me to the facility? Don’t you already understand? I’m not an orangutan.”
There was a second lawyer. He nodded at me, a reassuring nod. The district attoney looked confused. I’m sure I looked confused too.
The orderly leaned against the frame of the doorway. “Tough day in court?”
“I’m just glad to be back,” I said. “It’s comforting here. I like the padded floor and walls. I don’t like it out there—I can never shake the feeling that everyone’s playing a big trick on me, moving things around and laughing because I don’t notice. I hate it when people laugh at me.”
The orderly had brass skin and thick blond hair on his arms. He had a heavy nose and dark eyelashes. His forearms were thick like an ape’s. He looked familiar, but you could never be too certain—everyone looked vaguely familiar to me.
“Are you the—”
“—yes. Same as always.”
“Is this the same room?”
The orderly looked at me curiously. “You really don’t remember? You even mentioned it to me yesterday. The tan walls with the blue horizontal stripe. Now today, padded walls.”
“So this is a different room!?” I said, wide eyed. I began scratching my cuticles. I don’t like being surprised by change. I don’t have a fear of change. No one likes surprises.
“Yes, this is a different room. So you don’t hurt yourself. Your lawyer’s request, actually. Says bad news is coming.”
“None of you understand me. Father understands me. He gives me steak every day for dinner and for breakfast. I hate change because I don’t notice it. But Father understood. He’d tell me all day that we’d be having steak, then we’d have steak, and I knew nothing had changed. The orangutans have nothing of which to be skeptical. I knew I’d be having steak. I wouldn’t have noticed if one day I didn’t, but it was more comforting not having to worry about not noticing a change.”
“Steak every day? I envy you, man. I love steak.”
“Well, after a while he would switch to hamburgers. Probably because it was too expensive to give me steak every day. But then we’d go back to steak. We alternated. I didn’t like the burgers as much, though.”
“The burgers made me sick sometimes. I wouldn’t notice that he’d switched to burgers. They made me sick sometimes, with their crunch. That’s why I started seeing the psychologist.”
“Why would you see a psychologist for a crunchy hamburger?”
“Oh—not about that. Sorry. I mean Mother missing for six years and I never noticed. That’s what I was thinking. That’s crazy. I love her. That’s why I began seeing the psychologist—when I found out she’d been missing for six years and I never noticed. But now I’m here, in this psychiatric facility. Perhaps this is where I belong.”
I scratched my cuticles with my pointer fingers. Wherever I was, I’d always been there. Whomever I met I’d always known. Whatever I ate I’d always eaten, whatever I’d think I’d always thought. Not noticing change meant never getting excited, never pleasantly surprised, never owning, never having, just seeing—never observing. I recognized this, but unless I made a conscious effort to observe, everything passed by me unnoticed.
“That’s crazy,” said the orderly. “But I’m certain you’ll be out of here soon. You’ll continue seeing your psychologist, and you’ll slowly get better. You don’t deserve to be here. That much is obvious.”
“Imagine two boxes of chocolates, if you will. One is uncovered, one is covered. Both are yours. You would notice immediately if the uncovered had missing chocolate. Missing chocolates from the covered, however, could only be noticed once the cover was removed. This is how the butcher’s son lives his life. Every uncovered box in his world is covered. While you or I would notice missing chocolates immediately by just glancing at the box, he wouldn’t notice unless he actively wanted a piece of chocolate and it wasn’t there. A favorite sofa, even if it were the only piece of furniture in his otherwise empty home, would only be noticed as missing once he intended to sit on it, and not a moment before. The rest of us would notice the second we set foot inside the home…
“And his father kept feeding him steak.” He pointed out the front door of the courtroom, for some reason, instead of at me in the witness stand. I guess Father was here too, somewhere. I hadn’t seen him since this case began.
The D.A. stood. “Objection! Move to strike.”
The other lawyer turned to the judge. “It’s all about the evidence, your honor.”
The judge looked at both clients. “Overruled. I want to see where this goes.”
The psychologist looked at me like I’d covered myself in shit. He didn’t reply to my question. He really did not like me. It was the exact same look Father always gave me. I’d been released from the psychiatric facility. I wasn’t guilty. I did not murder Mother. Now both Father and Mother were missing. I just needed to see my psychologist. The orderly looked apologetic as I’d left. I’d taken the bus straight here. The psychologist always made himself available to me. He felt sorry for me too, I think.
“Yes, this is the same couch,” the psychologist said, sighing. He took a swig from his bottle of Jim Beam. “Do you understand what happened in court today?”
Pity was common. People always felt sorry for me because of my debilitating stupidity. The orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages. They are especially skeptical of the clam.
“Yes. Apparently Father is now the alleged murderer of my mother. I only get to see bits and pieces of the trial when I’m on the stand, but I’m not stupid. I could figure that much out. I still can’t believe it.”
The psychologist stood from his chair and walked to the window. He stared at the parking-lot down below. I watched him, wondering what I missed. That’s why I hated change—I obviously missed something, but I had no idea what.
“I missed something.”
The psychologist’s complexion became slightly pale, but also a tinge green, as if he suffered from food poisoning. He turned, grabbed his keys from the desk and coat from the hook by the door. “Come with me,” he said. “This will all be over soon. We’re going out for lunch.”
The psychologist held the door open for me. “Yes. Let’s go.”
I rapped my fingernails on the table. Why were we out to lunch, at Outback Steakhouse?
The waiter approached. “What will we be having today?”
“One steak,” said the psychologist. “For the young man across from me.”
“You’re not eating?” I asked.
“Not right now, no… That’s all, thanks.”
The waiter nodded and left. I looked around the restaurant. A giant boomerang hung from the wall. Do Australians actually use that?
The psychologist cleared his throat. “Do you understand what happened in court?”
I nodded. “Father is wanted for the alleged murder of Mother. They think he did it. I didn’t do it. Mother’s body was never found, so I’m not sure why they think there’s a murder to be solved. Maybe she just left. That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“No, she didn’t just leave. She was murdered. Your father is guilty.”
I grimaced. “I don’t think so. But either way, he’s been missing since the verdict. I’m sure he’s off trying to find her now.”
The psychologist spoke slowly. “Your father, the butcher, cooked you steak every day.”
“Yes. He understood how I didn’t like change. I don’t notice it, and it makes me nervous and uncomfortable. He’d tell me we’d have steak and that I’d always be having steak, and I always did. If he never repeated himself, then one day gave me fish or chicken or something, I’d never notice. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I hate not realizing that something is different. I’m smart enough to realize how brain dead this all makes me. I wish so badly I could notice change, because then I’d be completely normal. But I can’t, and I hate that so much. Most messed-up people like me can’t imagine what they’re missing. I can. I can imagine it. I see normal and know I’ll never be that. But I’ve accepted that I guess—”
The waiter returned and placed the steak in front of me.
“Is this definitely steak?” I asked. The waiter looked at the psychologist and then back at me, with a slight grin. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
“It’s definitely steak.”
The psychologist frowned at me. “Try it.”
A strange bubbling grew in my stomach. I began to feel nauseous. I really did not want the steak. It didn’t look good at all. It looked weird. I scratched my cuticles.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“Eat the steak.”
“I really don’t want it.” I scratched my cuticles harder. The scabs made way for fresh blood,
“I’m not going to ask again. Eat the steak, now.”
I stared at the psychologist. He glared back at me. I really did not want the steak. “Now,” he repeated.
I begrudgingly stabbed the beef with my fork, cut off a chunk, and placed it in my mouth.
“Notice anything?” he asked as I chewed.
I felt nauseous, but forced it down. I placed the fork down and took a large sip of water. I did not want to be here, and I did not want to eat this steak. “No. Of course not.”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Take another bite now. What you have there is a T-Bone steak. That’s an expensive cut, from the short loin and—if the butcher did it right—a tiny piece of the tenderloin. That’s my favorite part of the T-Bone steak.” The psychologist pointed again. “Take another bite.”
I forced myself to pick up the fork, cut off another piece, and chew.
“It doesn’t taste different to you?”
The nausea subsided. I chewed slower. “I suppose I’m enjoying this taste more than I remember enjoying the taste of Father’s steak.”
“So you notice a difference.”
“I suppose I do, yeah.”
“So I’ll just tell you exactly what someone without your condition would notice. He would have immediately noticed that the steak he’s eating now tastes far different from the steak his father fed him. He would have noticed it looked way different, smelled way different, and even felt way different.”
“Immediately. You never liked your father’s steak.”
“But you like this steak?”
I kept on eating. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
The psychologist pressed on, his hands clenched on the table, a weird grin on his face. “Your mother’s body was never found.”
“We can’t even be sure that she was murdered.”
“I already told you. She was murdered. You never had steak for dinner,” the psychologist said. He looked excited. He was smiling.
“Yes I did. I had steak for dinner and for breakfast.”
The psychologist shook his head, smirking. “No. You didn’t. You had steak before your mother died, but after she died…”
“After she died, Father cooked steak every day.”
“No. No no no!” The psychologist’s smile broadened by the second, He looked deranged now. “You never had steak for dinner because you wouldn’t know the difference. The orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages. The clams, well… it’s all the same to the clam. Your father killed your mother. Your father killed a lot of people. You had meat for breakfast and dinner, but it wasn’t beef. No, it was never beef. Your father had a room, your brother’s old room. That room became your mothers. Your father prepared your every meal, every day, but it was never steak!”
I dropped my fork. It clanged on the table. I dropped the knife too. It was hard to breathe now. I missed something.
The psychologist began laughing hysterically. He grabbed his mustache and pulled. It came right off. He took off his glasses. I missed something big. It was hard to breathe. He was laughing so hard. “You still don’t recognize me. You’re so stupid! This disguise cost two dollars!” He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed tears from his eyes. The handkerchief was stained heavily with blood.
“You never had steak! For dinner you had your psychologist,” he said, wagging the handkerchief. “And for breakfast, you had your mother!”