Martin Bremer, a skinny, gray-haired scholar, with a broad, flat face, a long nose and bulging eyes, sits in his shabby armchair reading Malinowski. The essay is familiar: “Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands,” and when he finds the passage he is looking for, he scribbles down a quotation in his notebook. “For some time after his death, the kosi, or ghost of the dead man, may be met on a road near the village. People are distinctly afraid of meeting the kosi and are always on the lookout for—“
A loud knock at the door startles him. Martin groans and shouts “come in!” He has a feeling it is Cap, but it can’t be: Cap the landlord, Cap the boozer, Cap the slob—but Martin’s only friend in the world.
Martin throws down his pen and springs across the room, bumping into his wire shopping cart. (He is a familiar figure on Preston Street, in his second-hand clothes that never quite fit, pushing his cart along, shouting at the kids who insist on smoking in the bus shelters).
Now his cart topples over and his files—which he carries with him everywhere, since the house is such a firetrap—spill out all over the floor. He swears loudly, and grabs for the scattered papers. Suddenly, there is Cap standing in the doorway, his big round face beaming, a cigarette stuck in his mouth, a hammy fist clutching what looks like the day’s mail.
“You here?” Martin asks. “I thought you were in Florida. And don’t puff that thing in my room.”
“I was in Florida, but now I’m back. Got a bunch of mail for you, buddy. From your old girl friends, .right?”
“I never had any, as you know damned well.”
Cap laughs and flicks his cigarette into the sink, then flops on a stool next to the filthy counter, pulls open the fridge door and hauls out a can of beer. “Don’t mind if I do.”
While Cap guzzles the beer, Martin pounces on the letters, flips through them quickly, tears one open, and reads. “Christ Almighty!” he cries, and flings away the paper. “Not even in the top twenty-five percent of the applicants. Christ Almighty! Fifty years old and I’ve never had a single grant.”
Cap ponders this, then shrugs his shoulders. “Still after the government’s money, Marty? A smart guy like you? Be realistic! They don’t give research money to guys living in dumps like this. Spent your welfare cheque already?”
Martin groans. “I had to get my old computer fixed, and buy a pair of shoes. I know the rent’s due, and I’m trying for some contract work. Yesterday I—“
“The rent can wait. But I hope you don’t go out looking for contracts in person, old buddy. No offense meant, but the way you dress nobody would give you the time of day. It’s like me asking money from my old lady. I’m not pouring money into that rat trap—or into your booze—that’s what she’d say to me, in that tight-assed voice of hers. You’re lucky you never got hitched, my friend. There’s no sight more horrible than a scornful woman.”
Martin grits his teeth. “I’ll try the Guggenheim. I think I’m eligible for a Guggenheim . . .”
Cap shrugs his shoulders. “Whatever . . . But to tell you the truth I can’t see why you want to go off to some deadbeat tropical island to study those black mojo boys. Just head to Bank Street and you’ll find plenty of weirdos down there, black and white both. Guys dressing in hula skirts, gals with tattoos. . .”
Martin waves his hands, looking nervous. “Look, Cap, cut it out, will you? There’s a lady from welfare stopping by this morning. They’re questioning my status. I’ve gotta clean this place up.”
“Oh, the welfare cops! A watchdog! Well, then, the worse it looks the better!” Cap chuckles and his glance rests on Martin’s rickety dining table, piled up with apples, oranges, bananas, green and red peppers. “I’ll tell you, though, if you drop some hints about your bad back, and let on that you’re eating nothing but fruit and veggies all the time, she’ll treat you right . . In my opinion, though, you’d be better off to grab a steak now and then.”
Cap squashes his beer can and makes as if to leave, but Martin, furious now, begins to rail at him:
“God! So everything’s wrong with me today! I’m on welfare. I’ve never had a sex life, and you don’t approve of my dress or eating habits! How about the poison you’re putting into your own system? Practically everything you guzzle is loaded with carcinogens, and you’re overweight at that. You drink too much and smoke like a chimney. You’re only sixty and you look like seventy-five. Maybe when you kill yourself you’ll find out what life’s all about!”
Cap hesitates, then wriggles toward the doorway. He shrugs his shoulders, but is unable to resist the last word. “Just pulling your leg, my friend—you know how you’re always complaining that the North American diet has no fibre? What was it you said to me once? Your goal is to move your bowels as many times a day as possible. Me, I’ve got other things to think about. Don’t let that welfare dame step too hard on you, Marty, my boy!”
The welfare person, Jane Wolser, is much younger than Martin expects. Slim, with a posture rigidly erect, she wear rimless glasses, a navy jacket, a plain skirt, and sensible brown shoes.
After a few polite preliminaries, they get fixed on the subject of Martin’s back trouble. When Martin refers to his therapist she misunderstands him.
“Therapist? Is that for your back, Mr. Bremer?”
“No, no! He’s a psychiatrist. I’m trying to get my life straightened out. He’s a very nice man—Chinese.”
“Oh, does he use acupuncture then?”
“Uh, no—he’s a Freudian.”
Ms. Wolser, vaguely sensing that she has been on the wrong track, changes the focus, getting personal, even confessional.
“You know, Mr. Bremer, you’re very lucky, an educated man like yourself. I’ve only been in this job for a year now and I’ve seen some very sad cases. Battered women, abused children—it’s a horrible world out there. You wouldn’t believe it, but I once had my own personal problems. Drugs, booze, bad relationships. I was just ruining my life. It was when I declared for Jesus, and starting taking night courses– that’s when things got better. That’s why I’m encouraging you.”
Martin isn’t sure how to respond to this. He feels misjudged, underestimated, yet he is suddenly finding Ms. Wolser very attractive. It’s a long time since he’s been alone with a woman, and strange thoughts assail him. A naked, drugged Jane Wolser smiling at him, lolling on his bed . . .
But Ms. Wolser’s voice, suddenly impersonal, cuts in quickly, dispersing his lurid fantasy.
“I’ve got some forms for you to fill out, Mr. Bremer. Can we start with the date of your birth?”
That very evening, Martin has a curious dream. He finds himself climbing a steep, barren cliff that, far above him, meets an ominous orange sky. His body is heavy and clumsy, and he has to struggle to reach the distant summit. Stunted trees dot the rock face, trees hung with brightly coloured tribal masks. Dr. Lin appears and whispers to him: “I can’t give the lecture until I hear about your sex life!” A fat, naked woman sitting on a huge boulder laughs. Cap stands up suddenly beside her, grinning and smoking a cigarette.
“What good is that Guggenheim?” he shouts. “You don’t even know your own parents!” His voice reverberates across the stony landscape. “Besides, my friend, you’ve got to fatten up. We’re all dying to see you do it! We’re dying–dying–dying!”
“No!” Martin protests. He is on all fours now, crawling through a jungle of green and gold light. From all sides, baboons scream and threaten.
“They’ll kill me!” he cries—and finds himself in the darkness of his own room, struggling with the armchair, bumping against his wire cart, gaping at the fetid yellow street light filtering in through the greasy brown curtains.
He takes a deep breath. Someone is screaming—it isn’t a dream. Someone is screaming his head off right downstairs.
“Cap!” he cries out, drags himself up, and gropes across the room. He pushes open the door and stands for a minute in the darkened corridor. The screams continue, from the floor below— frighteningly real, they seem. Martin thumps down the stairs to Cap’s room and pounds on the door. More screams assault him, close by now, and frightening. The door is locked.
Somehow Martin finds his way back to his own room, grabs his unplugged telephone and struggles with the wire connector. He tries the plug four different ways and finally gets it right.
He dials 911 and waits for a voice that can help him.
Dr. Lin is a compactly built, smooth-looking man. He has close-clipped oily hair and mismatched eyes–one dark, one flecked with yellow. He is meticulously dressed in a brown suit and knitted green tie, but wearing as always, his low-heeled suede cowboy boots.
Martin faces Lin across the psychiatrist’s enormous desk, on which sits a box of tissues, a pitcher of water and a glass. Behind him, on the wall, Martin can see the framed diplomas, photos of Freud, Carl Rogers, and Chang Yee, the famous progenitor of sandbox therapy. Also, possibly for reassurance, some Lin family snapshots.—of vacations, birthdays and the like.
“Now Martin, I have a prescription ready for you,” the doctor informs him. “But first you must tell me a few things about last night’s trouble. You know the police insisted that I help you, as a condition of letting you off and not charging you.”
“Wasn’t that just great of them,” Martin sneers. He is confused, full of outrage. “They think I’m crazy, but I did hear Cap’s voice. At first it was a nightmare, but then I was awake and I heard it. I know the guy better than I could know my own brother. I did hear him.”
“I believe you, Martin. But how do you account for the fact that no trace was found of your landlord, that as far as anyone knows, he’s still somewhere in Florida? Just what do you make of that?”
“That’s bullshit! I saw him, large as life, yesterday morning. He’s probably lying in some alley here in Ottawa, paralyzed by a stroke or a coronary, and no one believes me. How come they haven’t been able to track him down in Florida? How do you explain that?”
“How do you explain it, Martin?”
“I—I can’t. All I know is that I saw and heard him.”
Dr. Lin sighs and glances about the room. Martin too, sighs; he knows exactly what is coming next.
“I think we should both relax and get down to cases,” Dr. Lin tells him. “Would you like to try the sandbox?”
It sounds as if he has an option, but Martin knows better. May as well get it over with, he decides. He rises, walks across the room to where a low four-by-six wooden box, packed with clean sand, sits firmly atop the broadloom. Martin plunks himself down on one side of the sandbox. Dr. Lin has put on a tape recording, “Music for Zen Meditation.”
“That’s better, isn’t it, Martin?” the doctor reassures him. “There’s nothing like the sandbox for digging below the surface! Now just make yourself comfortable . . . as if you’re a little boy who’s sooo happy to be allowed to play in the dirt. Your father doesn’t mind you playing in the sandbox, does he, Martin?”
“He does mind.”
“Oh yes? Why?”
“Because I might get dirty.”
“But surely your mother will clean you up?”
“Don’t be stupid. My mother hates me.”
“Why does your mother hate you, Martin?”
“Because I never had a woman. She despised me and pitied me. I’d like to have a woman, a sexy woman to roll around with, right here in this sandbox. Without a woman a man’s got no pride, nothing.”
Dr. Lin sniffs and pauses.
“You want to feel dirty, Martin? You associate sex with dirt? With your mother?”
“Holy cow, Marty! Is this guy full of shit or not?
Martin jumps to his feet. He sees Cap, large as life, standing barefooted in the sand, just a few feet away. His old landlord is grinning and sticking his tongue out, dressed in an outlandish feathered dress and wearing bangles and bright rings. His round face is painted in complex geometrical patterns.
“Jesus Christ!” Martin shouts. “It’s him! In the flesh! It’s Cap himself!”
“It’s who?” Dr. Lin’s voice is clenched tight, controlled. “What are you talking about, Martin?”
Martin hears the therapist’s voice as if from far away. He crouches low in the sandbox and closes his eyes, praying that when he opens them the apparition of Cap will have vanished.
“Just relax now, Martin,” Dr. Lin advises. “Would you like to lie down in the sand and tell me about your mother?”
Martin opens his eyes. Cap grins at him, wriggles his hips, and does a little dance.
Martin screams, and shouts: “It’s the kosi!” He springs across the room, bursts through the door, and sprints past the astonished receptionist.
At the last minute he remembers his wheeled basket, turns back and grabs for it, somehow steering it through the outer office door.
Soon he is out of the building, careering down the sidewalk, gazing right and left, expecting any minute to hear the police sirens. It is a nice section of Centretown, but the day has turned cloudy, and the nearby buildings seem wrapped in gloom.
Martin trudges on, a few passers-by stare at him, and he turns down the nearest side street, leaving behind a man walking an imaginary dog, teenagers smoking pot in a doorway, and a rubbie sprawled on the sidewalk. Just ahead, a teen girl, very punk, appears. She is wearing a gaudy orange dress, and a large silver ring in her nose.
It’s the jungle, Martin thinks, Cap was right—this city is a jungle.
He pushes his cart on before him, knowing that if they find him he’ll be in the psychiatric lock-up, the Royal Ottawa, that he’ll never get that grant, never follow in Malinowski’s footsteps and visit the Trobriand Islands. All the same he’s sure now that Cap is dead, that he died suddenly in Florida, and is appearing to him from the other side.
Martin stops, and gazes up and down the sidewalk in sheer terror. The teenage girl comes closer and shouts at him.
“Say, gramps, you got any spare change?”
The ring in her nose glints in the sunshine. Yes, a jungle, he thinks, I’m in the jungle already. He fumbles in his pockets, throws her a quarter and stumbles on, terrified, pushing his cart up the street.
He wheels half a block before it occurs to him: Jesus! If Cap is dead, they’re sure to sell the house, I’ll have nowhere to sleep. I’ll be out on the street.
He stops and looks around frantically in all directions. The only person in sight now is a shabby old woman in a motorized wheelchair, coming straight toward him.
She rolls past him at top speed without giving him a glance.
He shouts at her: “Don’t you hear me, you old bitch? I’ll soon have nowhere to go. I haven’t got a friend in the world! Not a friend in the world!”
The woman pays no attention. She speeds away toward the nearby intersection, and, minutes later, Martin is alone on the street.