The Tragedy of Perception

A cryptic formula

In which Peter tries to make sense of people’s words.

At 17 Misconception Boulevard, Peter Softly was sitting at the kitchen table, holding Lily Smithe’s letter about her gas meter not being read and everybody drinking her milk. His eyes kept scanning the lines, trying to make sense of them, but though the words themselves seemed simple enough, he could not get to the meaning behind them. He read a few more words but still could make no sense of them. It seemed that wrong ideas must be in there somewhere, behind the words, and he knew he had to find those ideas before he could remove the monsters from people’s heads—for it was those wrong ideas that grew into the monsters that possessed everyone. He tried re‑reading another line.

Sally entered the kitchen and stood beside the table. She seemed to have had another go at rearranging her tracksuit—the trousers were now on right‑side out, but the top was inside out and one of the trouser legs seemed to be twisted back to front. She watched Peter but he stubbornly kept his eyes on the letter (—I know what he’s doing now; look at him—he’s deliberately ignoring me to try to make me think his trick in the living room worked. Well, it hasn’t, because I could see he was only pretending to strangle me—). She looked at her hand, so as to pick out her most emphatic finger, then pointed this at him and said, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to.”

He “pretended” to have not heard her.

She recalled that contorted look on his face as he was pretending to strangle her and she gave her most emphatic finger a good shake and told him, “I can see exactly what you’re up to; I can see it in your face!”

He still pretended to have not heard.

She watched him for a moment, then reflected (—Now look at him; he’s now keeping quiet to make me do all the talking. Well, I won’t say another word; see how he likes it then). She clamped her lips together, determined to never utter another word to him—not, that is, until he saw how stupid he was being and started talking to her. She watched him in silence but he still deliberately ignored her while pretending to read his letter. Why, to look at the way he was frowning at it (she reflected) anybody would think—anybody who did not know him as well as she did—that he was trying to figure out some cryptic formula that could solve every problem in the world.

He shook his head doubtfully, turned the letter over, frowned at the other side, then shook his head again, put the letter aside, picked up another one, opened it and started frowning at that one.

Sally noticed that his hands were shaking. No doubt (she reflected) due to the terrific strain of maintaining this silence.

As she watched him, her head steadily filled with a mass of words that swirled like a swarm of angry bees, until her face began twitching with the strain of holding them in. She reached out to touch his hand but then recalled the contorted look on his face when he pretended to strangle her—just to make it look as though he hated her. But she was not fooled by him, and she now became so enraged with his ploy that she withdrew her hand, stuck out a few fingers instead and violently prodded the back of his hand.

The letter rattled (a little like a basket of test tubes); his eyes glanced briefly up at her, then returned to wandering over the letter’s surface like someone stumbling through a dark mist.

She watched his wandering eyes (—Look at him; he’s still trying to pretend his trick in the living room worked, but it didn’t. And now he’s trying to make me think it did), and she said, “—But it didn’t work; it didn’t.”

He continued pretending to read the letter.

She told him, “Don’t think I don’t know that you can hear me.”

No response.

She shouted, “Listen to me!”

No response.

She snatched the letter from him and he watched it in her hands, now with a seemingly desperate expression, as if he were clinging to a mountainside at night‑time and she had snatched his only foothold from him and he could sense himself beginning to fall, down, down, into the terrifying darkness hovering beneath him.

He snatched back at the letter but she held onto it. He pulled, then she pulled back, then they both pulled and separated, each holding one tattered half of the letter. The front doorbell rang—as if to mark a brief pause in their contest, allowing them to return to their corners and remuster their weapons. He went to snatch her half back but she pulled her hand away, screwed up the fragment, threw it to the floor and shouted, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”

In response he merely looked at her crumpled half on the floor.

She shook her most emphatic finger at him and shouted, “Don’t think I don’t—that’s all.”

He continued pretending to have not heard her.

Her head started trembling like the lid of a kettle coming to the boil and she shouted, “Just you see what you get for this—just you see.”

She turned away but then changed her mind, turned back and—just to make it clear she had got the better of him—she said, “Huh.” But just in case there should be any doubt about the meaning of this “huh,” she made sure to say it in a tone that would emphasize the fact that she had got the better of him; and what was more, she was also careful to say it in a tone that made it absolutely clear that she knew that he knew this.

She was about to turn away again when she noticed he was now pretending to have not heard her “huh.” So, to make it clear to him that she knew he had heard it, she repeated, “Huh,” but so as not to leave any doubt in his mind, she was also careful to say this second “huh” in a tone that summed up every one of her opinions of him. And now being satisfied he knew exactly what she thought of him, she contentedly put her most emphatic finger back into her tracksuit pocket and went to answer the front door.

Peter looked at the remaining half of the letter in his hand. He placed it on the table and smoothed it out—as if half a letter were no less decipherable than a whole one, so what difference did it make anyway. He put this half to one side, picked up Lily’s letter again and resumed his struggle to decipher it.



© Copyright Fletcher Kovich 1995-2016