Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C3

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Catbird Press -- Draft 3
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske


Third Draft - Chapter Three


Norman woke up alone on Saturday morning. Gwen had already left for her stupid weekend meeting. He put on some jeans and a sweatshirt and went out the living room. His son was watching an infomercial on television, in which ordinary people were being relieved of profound fatigue by eating an All-Natural Herbal Food Product.

"Where's your sister?" said Norman.

"Upstairs."

Norman watched the man on television make outlandish claims for the food product. "Justin, why are you watching this?"

"It's cool, Dad. This man here says he got rich from taking these pills."

Norman sat down beside him. "You can't get rich from taking pills."

"This guy did," said Justin.

Norman watched for a moment. The man actually insisted that he had suffered from severe fatigue until he began taking this product, whereupon he went from being poor and tired to being rich and energetic.

Norman stood up. "The guy's a squid. Can't you find some cartoons to watch?"

"I don't like cartoons," said the boy. "There's real estate on channel six, a food processor on channel thirteen, spray-on hair on channel---"

"Spray-on hair?"

"Yeah, it's really cool." Justin aimed the remote control at the television, and the energetic rich guy was replaced by a well-spoken and well-groomed woman who was spraying hair from an aerosol can on to the heads of a line of men suffering from male pattern baldness.

The woman explained how important hair was to both social acceptance and professional advancement.

Norman wished Justin liked cartoons, but he didn't think it would be possible to make him. "I'm going to get a shower," he said. "Then I'll fix you some breakfast."


***


After breakfast, Norman tried to call Jacqueline at home. He had some pretext in mind that he would ask if she knew how Tim was doing with the bonuses for the Licensing Department, but he really just hoped she might tell him what happened in Pierce's office after he left.

"I can't come to the telephone right now," said Jacqueline. "Please leave your message after the beep."

Norman didn't leave a message. What was he going to say?


He remembered the moan he'd heard in Pierce's office. For all he knew, Jacqueline might be spending the weekend with Pierce. He piled the kids into the car and went off to do the food shopping. They stopped at the town library and while Justin and Lisa looked over the shelves of recently arrived videos, Norman went to look for the book about the vampire from New Orleans. He wanted something to read, and since Louise had been so enthusiastic about that book, he thought it would be worth looking at.

"Vampire?" said the librarian, a man about Norman's age with an apparently permanent expression of resentment. He furrowed his brow, which resettled his glasses on his nose. "New Orleans?" He tapped something into his computer terminal, managing to invest the action with considerable disgust. "Rock star?" He tapped something else into his terminal, then shook his head.

"No hits that intersect vampires, New Orleans, and rock stars. Here." He scribbled some numbers on a square of recycled paper. "This is the call number for the occult section. Maybe you can find it there."

There was a small crowd in the aisle of the occult section, which seemed to be doing a pretty good business. Norman sidled in among them and peered around people at the titles. There were books on astrology, witchcraft, parapsychology, near-death experience, alchemy, magic, and pyramids. None of the books in the occult section seemed to be novels. But then none of them seemed to be true, either. It was, he decided, a strange section and one not likely to offer anything he might be interested in.

He wanted to take one last stab at Louise's novel, so he went back and found a terminal for himself. When it asked for his search request, he typed "vampire." Without the moderating influences of "New Orleans" and "rock star," the search generated a list of about a dozen books. None seemed to be novels, and Norman realized that the system probably did not organize novels by subject. He would probably have to ask Louise for the title or the author's name. That, he decided, was not an acceptable alternative. He couldn't have his staff thinking he read vampire novels.

Several of the books had call numbers in the occult section. Some of the others appeared to be historical and sociological works. One of them, however, had a call number dissimilar from the rest and appeared to be in another section of the library altogether. It was called The Pathology of the Vampire, and when Norman went to look for it, he found it in the psychology section.

The book looked interesting, so he took it to counter and checked it out. Then he gathered up Justin and Lisa, who said they couldn't find any videotapes they wanted to borrow. As Norman shepherded the kids out to the car, Justin pointed out that the library's video collection ran heavily to ballets, operas, and documentaries---material, he explained, that was favored by squids.

Saturday in the supermarket, with its oppressive crowds and myriad distractions, is not a place where one thinks about anything other than surviving the process of collecting food choices and conducting them safely through a check-out line. The kids didn't particularly want to be there, and Norman had to watch them every moment to make sure they didn't wander away to be kidnapped or do something to embarrass him.

Norman found himself at one point in a brief conversation with his son over a refrigerated display of upmarket cheese.

"Here's one." Justin offered him a chunk of white American cheese in plastic wrap.

"That's not what I need." Norman laid aside a wrapped wedge of sharp cheddar that was a little too large and took a smaller one from under it.

"It's cheese," said Justin.

"You couldn't prove it by me." Norman moved along the cold box and began to pick through the provolone.

"The label says it's American," said Justin.

"I have doubts about its loyalty," said Norman.

Justin laughed, and it lifted the fatigue from Norman's shoulders. Justin didn't expect him to have any ideas or be marked for leadership. He accepted him pretty much for what he was, and he laughed at his jokes.

The crowds and the traffic were so bad that it took nearly the rest of the day to get the shopping done. It was the late in the afternoon when they got back to the house. He sent the kids off to amuse themselves while he tried to call Jacqueline's apartment. He got her machine again, so he gave up and started making macaroni and cheese for dinner. Most people think you just throw a lot of cooked macaroni into a dish with some processed cheese food, but that wasn't the kind of macaroni and cheese Norman wanted for his kids that weekend.

He put a layer of macaroni into the dish, then a layer of freshly grated cheddar cheese. Then he put in another layer of macaroni, followed by a layer of freshly grated provolone cheese. Then he put several dots of butter into the dish. There was plenty of time, so he sat down at the kitchen table with his library book before starting the next layer of macaroni. He stared at the wall of the kitchen and wondered if he wasn't poisoning the kids with all this cheese and butter. It hardly mattered. He couldn't help himself. They loved this stuff. It felt so good to give it to them.

He shrugged and opened the book. The Pathology of the Vampire was a collection of clinical papers about vampirism, which---Norman learned---is an actual psychological disorder, quite rare but apparently easy to diagnose. People that suffer from it compulsively suck blood, sometimes their own, sometimes other peoples'.

The first paper described a man who was discovered to be stealing sugar packets from the coffee room in the ward of the mental hospital where he was confined. He would use the sugar to lure flies, which he captured alive, so he could eat them. He said he was ingesting life. Then he stopped eating the flies but kept them alive so he could feed them to spiders, which he ate. He worked his way up the food chain, through birds and mice. He finally attacked and cut his doctor with a sharpened table knife. When he drew the doctor's blood, however, the man was easily subdued because he lay down on the floor to lick it up. It was all pretty disgusting, and it occurred to Norman that there were whole worlds of bizarre human behavior beyond his experience.

The clinicians who wrote these accounts disagreed on whether vampirism was some kind of illness or just a strange kind of behavior produced by some other illness: schizophrenia, sado-masochism, paranoia, whatever. But they were all agreed that there is a certain small group of people who have a compulsion to drink human blood. Norman shivered. He closed the book and decided he should go to the library again and get another book. This was sick.

His mind wandered back to Jacqueline and the moan he had thought he'd heard as he was leaving Pierce's office. He wondered if he should have done something. No, he was sure that if Jacqueline had been in trouble, she would have said so. That's the way Jacqueline was. The more Norman thought about the incident, the less sense it seemed to make. And he had to admit to himself that he was nursing a little bit of resentment at the way he'd been excluded. After all, he was the manager of the Human Resources Department.

He stood up from the table and walked over to the counter to start another layer of macaroni in the casserole dish. He repeated the cheese grating, the macaroni, the dots of butter. When he finally had all the layers in place, he poured a little bit of milk into the dish and topped it with bread crumbs. As he slid the dish into the oven, he noticed it was dark out.


He did not try to call Jacqueline's house again. He was afraid if he reached her, his resentment might sound in his voice. The last thing a manager wants with an employee like Jacqueline is to let her know he resents her.

He sat down with the kids in the dining room shortly after he took the casserole out of the oven. It was late, and Gwen wasn't home yet, but the kids hardly seemed to notice her absence. Norman ate macaroni and cheese, traded squid jokes with his son, and listened intently to his daughter's description of various acquaintances' transgressions of social protocol at school. It occurred to him, as she described how alliances and relationships shifted in response to things like too much enthusiasm in conversation or wearing white socks on Tuesday, that the social order at her school was at least as rigid as that of eighth-century Byzantium. He wondered if her school weren't in need of re-engineering. He imagined himself reorganizing the place, waving a blank piece of paper, suspending students, and laying off teachers.



Gwen came in the door after they'd finished the casserole and their salad. She had already had dinner with her staff, but she sat down to ice cream with Norman and the kids. She seemed energized from spending the day at the office. She took her turn joking and laughing with the kids, and as the four of them sat at the table eating ice cream, Norman had that funny feeling that he often had with his kids, wishing for their bedtime at the same time he hoped the moment would last forever.

Finally, it was time to send them to their rooms, and he and Gwen were alone at the dining room table.

"Good meeting, huh?" said Norman.

Gwen sipped from her coffee cup. "It was fantastic, Norman. Fantastic." She took another sip. "Fantastic."

Norman got the impression her meeting had gone well. "The kids were good at the supermarket today."

"Norman, what happened at your meeting last night?"

Gwen had gone to bed early and was asleep when Norman got home, and they didn't get to talk about it.

"Nothing."

"Did Jacqueline present her idea to Pierce?"

"Yeah."

"And?"

Norman shrugged. "I don't know. I guess he's going to think about it."

Gwen looked a little impatient with him again. "He shouldn't let you be put in the middle like that."

Norman shrugged. "I don't care very much."

"I guess you don't." Gwen smiled, and Norman thought there was a little sadness in it. "How could I love you so much?" she said.

"Want to get ready for bed?" said Norman.

They went into Justin's bedroom, and Gwen tucked him in while Norman watched. Then they did the same for Lisa, doing her second because she was older and got to stay up a few minutes later.

Norman switched off the light, and as he and Gwen stepped into the hall, she grabbed Norman's hand. She smiled at him as they walked down the hallway. Gwen was a woman of passions. She was passionate about her marriage, passionate about her kids, passionate about her job. She would have done well at Biomethods, Inc. before the acquisition. As it was, she apparently did pretty well at her company, where they prized the ideas and the intensity she brought to her work.

Gwen turned to him as they went into the bedroom and motioned for him to shut the door.

Norman closed the door and walked over and wrapped his arms around her. They kissed and rubbed themselves against each other, then slowly broke away. They each started to undress.

Gwen kicked off her shoes, then she came up close to him again and began unbuttoning his shirt.

"How did your presentation go?" he said.

She smiled broadly. "Norman, it was fantastic. Standing O."

Norman wondered what it was like to give a speech for which everyone in your company gets to their feet to applaud. It must be such events that made people want to be leaders.

"They loved it." Gwen threw off her blazer and unbuttoned her blouse. "I talked with Rod afterward, and he asked me to have lunch with him in the Sky Room next week."

Rod was the CEO at Gwen's company, and the Sky Room was the company's VIP dining room. Norman knew something big was in store for her.

She threw her blouse on the bed and unbuttoned her skirt where it fastened at the hip, then stepped out of it before throwing it on the bed along with the blouse. She stood before him in black bra and pantyhose, which she began to roll down from her waist.

Norman grabbed her and felt her flesh and and the roll of pantyhose around her hips against him. "Do you want to take a shower with me?"

Norman didn't think she particularly needed washing, but in the special code they had created over twelve years of marriage, an invitation to a shower implied an entire ritual. They would shower together, soaping each other gently and then taking turns under the shower head to rinse off. Then they would dry off and climb in between the sheets and make love. It was their way of marking major achievements, and it was part of the ceremony that the achiever was the one invited.

The shower went as he had imagined, and almost as soon as he climbed into bed, her firm, satiny body was all over him. His back was still a little sore, but desire surged through his groin. He stroked her breast, kissed her neck, nibbled her shoulder, and they moved quickly into energetic sex without making a sound. Gwen had always worried about the children hearing, and the two of them had the habit of utterly silent lovemaking. As always, he lost himself in the experience of her, and he was barely aware of her arching her back under him as he exploded in climax. He kissed her neck just behind her ear and then rolled off her. He reached over and stroked her shoulder before becoming comatose.



Norman woke up in the dark to an utterly silent house. He didn't know what had awakened him, but he realized he needed to use the bathroom. He pushed himself out of bed and padded into the master bathroom. His back felt raw. He closed the door and turned on the light, then had to stand without moving for what seemed like a half hour until his eyes could tolerate the light. He finally opened them and looked at his naked body in the mirror. He turned and looked over his shoulder at himself. There were about a dozen scratches in a herringbone pattern up his back. Some of them looked deep. Three had broken the skin.

Gwen had scratched him during their lovemaking. He studied the welts over his shoulder. They were sore.

Why had she scratched him like that? Was she trying to make him hump faster or something? It occurred to him that the scratches were symbolic of their relationship. He loved her, but sometimes he wished she didn't have to always encourage him to hump faster.

After he'd finished in the bathroom and returned to bed, Norman rolled on to his side facing away from her, and thought about his scratches. Sexual activity apparently had anesthetic properties. If he hadn't been orgasmic when Gwen scratched him, he'd probably have noticed she was doing it. He imagined Gwen scratching him under other circumstances---watching television, say, or during a conversation. But he could not imagine himself sitting still for it. In the midst of sexual climax, he supposed he could tolerate just about anything. He wondered if everybody was like that, or if it was just him. But he didn't think about it much before he fell asleep again.


***


Norman often got to work late the first day of the week. He never worried about arriving late, because Jacqueline habitually got there early, and she was perfectly capable of running the office.

He strolled in at nine-thirty. Cheryl and Louise were both at their desks, which were piled with stacks of group insurance change requests. Biomethods, Inc. had four group insurance plans, counting the free policy for accidental death and dismemberment, and none of the company's employees seemed able to live a week without requesting a change from one to the other or making some sort of update. Much of the work of the Human Resources Department consisted of evaluating these requests for change and sorting them into piles of similar requests. That, apparently, is what Cheryl and Louise were doing as Norman walked in. They were both good at this work and could easily conduct a conversation while doing it.


"You could hardly have a better metaphor for the psychopath," said Cheryl. "The vampire moves among us but is not of us."

"Yeah, they look at people and they just see food," said Louise.

"Louise," said Cheryl, "you don't believe in them, do you?"

"Hi, Norman," said Louise.

"Good morning," said Norman. He looked from Louise to Cheryl and smiled, so the greeting would cover her as well. He noticed Louise's hair spray can was not on her desk. It seemed the two admins had patched up their differences, whether permanently or temporarily, Norman couldn't tell. He stood between their desks smiling stupidly and hoping they might resume their conversation and one of them would say the title of the book about the vampire rock star in New Orleans. He was determined not to ask for it.

But they just sat in silence and waited for him to leave. So he turned and walked toward Jacqueline's office. Before he reached the door, Cheryl called to him.

"She's not here, Norman."

Norman shrugged and went to his own office. It wasn't like Jacqueline to be late for work. When he entered his office, he left the door open, and he could hear Louise and Cheryl resume their conversation.

"Well?" said Cheryl. "Do you believe in them?"

"There are more things in this world," said Louise, "than you can learn about in college."

Norman had to admit to himself that he was a little relieved Jacqueline hadn't come in yet. He was nervous about seeing her. He couldn't shake the impression that something irregular had happened in Pierce's office, and it made him feel a little guilty, like he should have been protecting her. He wondered why he felt that way toward the people in his department, like he was their big brother or something. There's nothing in the federal or state regulations that requires a supervisor to be a big brother to a subordinate. Nevertheless, he found himself worrying about her.

Norman's current project was writing a managers' handbook on employment law. The managers at Biomethods were largely well-meaning people, but everybody has some sort of prejudice, and even a well-meaning person could blunder into age, sex, sexual orientation, race, or disabilities discrimination without guidance. Part of Norman's job was protecting the company from the lawsuits that could result from normal managerial behavior.

He had written something over thirty pages of the handbook so far, working from an outline he'd developed a month ago. He sat down at his desk and started up the computer. After it had loaded everything and was ready, he called up the handbook file. He saw that the next section was supposed to describe the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). As he looked around the shelves in his office for his COBRA manual, the conversation out in the reception area drifted into his hearing.

"Think about it, Louise," said Cheryl. "If each one them bites just one person a day and turns that person into one, and then that one bites one person a day, there would be a vampire population explosion."

"You don't always turn into one when you're bitten," said Louise. "Only if you're lucky."

Norman found the COBRA manual and began paging through it, wondering where to start. Basically COBRA is intended to set the parameters by which a company allows departing employees to continue in an organization's group insurance plan. These parameters filled many pages of the COBRA manual, and Norman thought it might be confusing to the Biomethods managers, who were mostly scientists and had a great deal of difficulty understanding anything that wasn't a gene location or knockout. So he decided the COBRA section of his handbook should consist of two sentences.

Make no promises regarding the group insurance plan to departing employees. Always send them to the Human Resources office for debriefing.

"They don't usually kill you with a single bite," said Louise. "They want to keep you alive so they can bite you again and again."

"Like milking a cow?" said Cheryl.

"Sort of like that," said Louise.

"Why don't they save themselves a lot of trouble and just domesticate us?"

"How do you know they haven't?" said Louise.

Norman thought about the poor, demented bug-eater he'd read about over the weekend. Louise was right. There are more things in this world than you can learn about in college. He realized that their conversation was distracting him from his work, so he got up and closed his office door. He hoped it didn't look like he was shutting the door against them, although that was exactly what he was doing. He sat down again and tried to lose himself in the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the Employee Polygraph Protection Act.

It was a quiet morning. Cheryl and Louise were intercepting and apparently dealing with telephone calls, and Norman was able to write without interruption for hours. When he finally consulted his watch, he saw it was quarter after twelve. He stood up and stretched, then opened his office door.

The office was empty and quiet. Cheryl and Louise had apparently left for lunch already. The few large stacks of forms on each desk were now many smaller, neater stacks. Norman walked over to Louise's desk and looked over the stacks. He didn't want to touch them because he suspected Louise had them exactly the way she wanted them.

When he looked up, Jacqueline was standing in front of him. She had approached so quietly that he was almost startled, the more so because she looked awful. Her skin was paler than he remembered, and her face had a drawn look, almost gaunt. Her eyes were rimmed bright red, which gave her bright blue contact lenses an unattractive but slightly patriotic effect.

"Are you all right?" said Norman.

"Fine. I'm sorry I'm late." Jacqueline shifted her leather portfolio from her right to her left hand, then rubbed a small bruise on her neck with the right. Her movements were lethargic in a way that seemed unlike her and her voice was uncharacteristically soft and monotonous. "I didn't feel well this morning."

"You don't look well, Jacqueline." Norman thought it was one of the worst cases of flu he'd ever seen. "Maybe you should go home and rest."

"I'm fine, Norman."

"Really," said Norman. "There's not much going on here today. You can just go home."

"I can't." Jacqueline walked toward her office. "I have a meeting with Pierce."

As Norman watched her go into her office and close the door behind her, Cheryl and Louise returned, still deep in conversation.

"Think how many of them there would be if they all lived forever," said Cheryl.

"They don't live forever," said Louise, "just a very long time."


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