On: The Nothings by Matthew Thompson


Take it slow. Take it simple. Breathe deeply and please, begin from the beginning. This being something my father would tell his patients, those people he brought home and took back to his study. I never made sense of what he meant by that statement. To begin at the beginning, please end at the ending, take it simple and remember, place the middle just between. Though this is probably why things ended up as they have and is certainly the reason why I’m doing this now. There was a word that they used only yesterday on me. Perspicuity. Yes. Clear headedness. Just so. The end of each essay should feel clearer than before and so start simply at the beginning and end on plain thought.
     To begin with, there was the television. There was a green couch and short table. There was a scratchy rope rug over cold wooden floors and an oblong bookshelf made of dark red wood that climbed up to the ceiling. There was the white kitchen with high cupboards and a hallway to the door. There were the framed photos of my grandmother and my father in his study.
     There were not many lights on. There was no longer my mother. There was a mandolin in a cradle collecting dust by the window and the murmuring voices at the end of the hall. Mostly there was me on my knees at the television. Though many times there was me with my ear to the door, patiently listening to the low tone of my father and soft whistling of someone else.
     These were the Quiet Days, or also the Nothings. They were easy to forget and I grew bored of them quickly. The doorbell would ring and a patient appeared. Good morning, Herr Doktor. Good morning, Tall Lady with White Hair and Hat. Please, come in and shall we go to my office? My father then took them down the hallway to his study; they disappeared behind the door and latched it with a klik. I crept along soon after and crouched at the keyhole, did my best not to breathe, waited as I might at my grandfather’s television and the green glow of its picture slowly blossoming out from a single speck of light at the center of the screen. When, after a few moments, no noise came, I began to get antsy. It felt as if something had busted inside. I stared at the doorknob, put my hands on my hips. Stood there a few moments, then eventually left. Perhaps after I would go to the window and watch the tiny, muted traffic of people and cars, cyclists and busses. Perhaps I paced through the kitchen or went back to the couch.
     Sooner or later, the study door opened and the patient reappeared; they walked down the hall and through our apartment, as if on wheels, not saying a word. By then, I would have lost interest and been off somewhere else. Though, at times, as they were leaving, as they joggled the front door with their backs to me, I stood right behind them and aimed my remote at the base of their skull, clicking and clicking until they were no longer there.
     There were not many Quiet Days, or none that I remember too much of really. Near always when my father was in his study with a patient I heard something noisy – i.e., the breaking of objects, a rhythmic thumping across the floor, a sustained shouting voice being dampered by what must presumably have been the cushion of the couch. These days I called the Loud Ones, or also the City, or also the Loon Farm. I remember them mostly because of how loud they were though also because of their regular occurrence.
     I use the word regular in that noises happened regularly. Not that the noises formed a pattern or were predictable.
     In this way they were unlike the machines on schedule every Saturday morning. Or the weekend weather forecast read between cartoons by Channel Nine News.
     Today: partly sunny with a fifty-five percent chance of shouts through the walls. I mean ninety percent. Though more laughter than shouting. More a kind of a babbling. More like a door that slams itself shut and now that I think about it, I’m thinking mostly cloudy with unexpected rain.
     A Loud One might go like this. The doorbell would ring and ring yet again and already the patient would be shaking the doorknob. Sometimes they yelled, Bernhardt, open up! I’ve got something to say! though mostly just pounded and twisted the knob and kept ringing the doorbell. At this, my father would come down the hall to stand at the door; barefoot and dressed in a worn pair of wool pants, once-fine purple sweater, the same three holes chewed away at its neck and his shaved and stretched face surveying the room as if he were still heavy in thought. Often he spotted me peering out from the couch. With a flat and slow voice he said, My friend, when you are ready to take your time easily, I will be ready to open this door.
     Bernhardt, let me in! Hey, Bernhardt! Herr Doktor! I don’t remember his instructions really working on anyone. Usually they just made the patient more upset and so going into double time with the shaking and hammering of the doorbell. Still, my father stayed in place, simply watched. His long arms loose and relaxed at his sides before one arm lifted to expose a wristwatch at his wrist. He tilted the watch toward him and peered over his glasses, cleared out his throat and began calmly counting each second that passed.
     Two.
     Three.
     Four.
     Five.
     Nine.
     Ten.
     Eleven.
     Twelve.
     And just like that, the way that this stopped them. How, in the span of ten seconds or twenty seconds maybe, each patient slowed down and inevitably gave up. I imagined a bathtub being drained of its water, the striped gates at train tracks lifting up silently. When all became still, my father cracked open the front door with the chain left latched; I could see through the opening to the shadow of a person, shifting their weight, perhaps a bulging eye. He talked in hushed tones. I could never hear what was said, if the patient said anything or if my father did the talking. With a nod, and always with a nod, the chain would come down and the door opened up, my father leading them in.
     Hello Man with Dark Eyelids or Man without Chin, or Lady with Gloves and Always Blue Shoes.
     They shuffled inside with their heads turned away and postures as animals bent down at the circus.
     He stood just beside them, eased the door shut. He pressed them on their shoulder and whispered, Go ahead.
     All right.
     And, as they went, my father would often pull out the black notebook he kept in his pocket, write down some notes. Other times he simply watched them as they walked down the hallway, a small smile on his face, waiting for the easy klik of the study door opening. Even on the days where his patient shook away from his grip, muttered down the hall and swung open the study door, my father appeared entirely fine. He might say something to himself while adjusting his sleeve, There you have it or Just so. One morning I remember him making a small pop with his mouth then telling me I could now go back to my television. Though most often he said nothing. Mostly he made his way on through the apartment, on through his daydream. Drifting along as if on a still sunny day with nowhere to go and nothing to think about, pausing before passing the dusty mandolin beside the window to let his long fingers drag across the open strings.

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Matthew Thompson was born in northern Michigan and now lives in Seattle. His fiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in Unsaid, Everyday Genius, Used Furniture Review, elimae, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, and Hobart, among others. He is concerned primarily with fiction writing and running long distances.