Out of the Box

by V.J. Hamilton

A drawn "lost cat" sign posted on a tree.

Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character. My clothes would always look freshly pressed. Nice and flat, except for a squinchy line or two where I bend my knees and elbows.

And my hair. It would stay the same, unless I’m electrocuted or in a state of great agitation, when strands of hair would shoot out all over the place, and my eyes would pop out of my head although apparently not doing permanent damage to the optic nerve (or the muscles that hold the eyeball in place). Poof, I would go back to normal in the next panel, without needing a visit to the hair salon and ophthalmologist in between.

A cartoon would have a comprehensible storyline. You know how real life is just one damn thing after another? Not anymore; I could rest assured that the cartoonist would see the overall theme to my life. Loveable loser, wry observer, beleaguered wage-slave… any one of those cartoon-hero tropes. I would entertain a small revelation over four panels. Or a bigger story arc over sixteen. What I’m trying to say is that I’m tired of trying to make sense of all the random stuff that happens.

I moved into a new apartment recently. (The cartoon strip would show: truck, boxes marked FRAGILE, and two guys with bulging muscles tossing the boxes between them.)

I dropped by to pick up my key and had to pay a humongous key deposit. (Cartoon strip shows: landlady in cat-eye glasses, dollar signs leaping off paper, my electrocution-style hair and popping eyes).

My cat, Mr. Vandertramp, escaped. (Cartoon strip shows: Me, standing in apartment hallway, yelling KITTEEEE! while doors down a long hallway go SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!)

I looked all around my new place—no sign of cat—and decided to return to the old place and look for him there. (Cartoon strip shows: Lightbulb flashing over my head.)

Meanwhile, a nerdy-looking guy moved into the old place. (Cartoon strip shows: Buddy Holly glasses, opened boxes, and my X-ray vision of cat curled into a box.) In the cartoon the nerd would say: “Nope, I haven’t seen a cat.”

I would say, “No, really, I’m sure he’s here.” (Cartoon strip shows: Me, in nerd’s doorway, calling KITTEEEE! while nerd clamps hands over ears) I would whip out the bag of Kitty Treats and rustle it. (Cartoon strip shows: Pointed ears of cat in box, cat leaping from box with large SPROING! over top.) Final panel would show me leaving with Mr. Vandertramp in my arms.

So, yup, that would be the cartoon version.

****

Real version is, when I’m standing talking to nerdy guy, I don’t have X-ray vision that shows me where my cat is hiding. I also don’t have the bag of Kitty Treats that the cartoonist thoughtfully provided.

“You can come in, if you like,” Quinn says. In real life, I happen to know his name because he’s a friend of friends—the usual network of finding a decent apartment these days. I also happen to know that Quinn’s sister was paralyzed in a ski accident last year. Not the wacky, impermanent run-into-a-tree injury of cartoonland, either. Quinn has dark semi-circles under his eyes and doesn’t look quite as chipper as the first time we met. He says, “You left a couple of uh, things, too….”

Oh right, the spider plant. I shrug. “You can have it,” I say. “It’s good for air quality.”

“Would you like something to drink?” he says.

It sounds polite and a little old-fashioned, the way he offers me a drink. He even looks like the type who might have herbal tea. If I accepted, I should ask how his sister is doing but I’m pretty horrible at this sort of thing, talking about indefinite futures of incapacitated loved ones, so I say, “No thanks, I’ll just get my cat and go.” I start peering into boxes. It’s hard not to look like a snoop doing this. In fact, it’s hard not to snoop. I see old boardgames, mismatched kitchen pots, crummy paperbacks with ruined spines, and a sex doll.

A sex doll—where oh where is my electrocution-style hairdo? Suddenly the offered drink becomes not a can of soda like Quinn has on his desk beside his computer but a rum and Coke that he’s laced with a roofie.

I’m pretty sure it’s a sex doll, because of the size, the nakedness, and the open mouth on an ecstatic-looking face. I don’t look down in the Stygian darkness of the box to confirm other available orifices.

Quinn turns very red, blurting, “It was a joke! My friends….”

“KITTEEEE! KITTEEEE!” I call, my voice sounding so sharp that, if anything, it will scare the beast away.

“What do you expect?” Quinn says, spluttering, “You come barging in here—claiming you’ve lost a cat—poking into all my private stuff!” He’s lifting boxes, putting them down. “And how ‘bout your junk, the box with the old hairdryer and dildo?”

I gasp. A geyser of invective bursts in my mind. (Cartoon strip shows: !&*?! and so on.) I remember the box exactly. It had a bunch of cruddy old metal-and-plastic-type of small appliances. The kinds of things that a person mightn’t use any more, unless there’s a sudden change in fashion or dating status. Things like curling irons, electronic kitty gym—plus, yes, the other item he mentioned.

The dildo is unmistakable, hot pink with five different attachments, one of which looks like a meat tenderizer. “It was a joke! My friends….,” I say, re-using his cartoon-strip speech bubble.

We stand there in a face-off.

“And… it’s called a vibrator,” I say. That appliance had sounded like a plane taking off. No way I could fire it up with roommates lounging in the common area outside my door. Plus, those attachments—what were they all about?

“Oh, a vibrator, then. I stand corrected,” he says. “It was pushed to the back of the towel closet,” he mutters. “You likely forgot all about it.”

I shrug but I can’t deny it. My moral high ground has been destroyed in Cyclone Hypocrisy. My mind is invaded by troops of dolls, marching softly on plastic feet. I think back to the dolls I had as a kid. Queen among them: Cheerful Tearful, who could smile when I moved her arm up or cry real water tears when I moved her arm down. She (sorry, I still cannot call that doll “it”) validated my childish attempts at mothering with her synthetic smile. She plucked my size-6X heartstrings with her extruded tears. Is this really so different from Mouthful Bumful in the unpacked box in Quinn’s apartment?

****

Cartoon strip shows panel saying: “One month later…”

Quinn gets up first in the morning while I lie abed, catching a few Z’s. He starts the coffee and lets Mr. Vandertramp out for a little stroll. The kitchen isn’t cluttered. When we combined households, Quinn and I got rid of a lot of duplication. Chief among them, duplicate coffee-makers, duplicate dishes, and the sex dolls.

In the cartoon version, picture this: the garbage truck collects our old items, and as the truck bumps along into the sunset, Lady’s Helper bounces into some or another orifice of Mouthful Bumful, and stays there. Dare I say, a fitting ending.

We don’t see our friends (the ones who gave those gifts, ha-ha, wink-wink) as much as we used to. I’m not ungrateful, however. Sometimes I try to understand what brought us together: Was it a disgust of our own hypocrisy? a shared fascination with dolls? or our shared repudiation of them? Deep questions remain unanswered in the cartoon version of this story.

Nor do we dwell on deep questions in the real version. Nope, we get out there and live. We’ve got a busy weekend ahead of us, buying cat food, building a ramp, and making a trip to see Quinn’s sister.

Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing