It was another New Year’s Eve at my brother-in-law’s house on the lake. Aunt Margaret sent me to the kitchen to retrieve the chocolate-covered strawberries, her eyes glassy and cheeks flushed from champagne.
The kitchen lights were off, but moonlight from the window illuminated the tray of strawberries on the countertop. By the sink, a chef’s knife lay across an unwashed cutting board. I was about to rinse them off and put them in the drying rack, but I was struck by the reflection of icy blue moonlight on the blade. I leaned down for a closer look. The cutting board was slightly damp. It smelled of onions.
Perspiration broke out on my forehead. I teetered momentarily and steadied myself with a hand on the counter. Had I drunk too much champagne myself? After delivering the strawberries to the stuffy living room, I stepped outside to cool off.
Pipe smoke wafted from a corner of the porch. I couldn’t identify the man’s face in the shadow of an overhanging pine but recognized the plaid shirt, rumpled jeans, and thin hands of my brother-in-law’s uncle, Tim.
Tim tapped his pipe on his knee. “Hi, Glen.” He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, and as his face moved out of the shadow of the pine, moonlight glistened on his wet cheeks.
He had been weeping.
So what? Aunt Margaret, just a half hour earlier, had burst into tears of joy when her two-month-old granddaughter, sleeping on her lap, had suddenly smiled and kung fu-gripped her na-na’s finger. “So strong! So precious! And she smells like ambrosia! I can’t stand it!”
But Tim’s tears were different, his face contorted, his eyes evasive.
“The last thing I said to her was, ‘Don’t buy the goddamned light beer this time’,” said Tim. “She hated it when I cursed. She just took the car keys and left without saying anything.”
Consulting my earpiece at that moment would have been rude, so I dredged my brain and managed to pull a pertinent fact from the muck: Tim’s wife had died in a car crash. “Irma,” I said.
Tim’s eyes snapped on to me. “Inga.”
“Right! Inga. It was on New Year’s Eve too, wasn’t it? What, three years ago?”
“Right. She was such a nice lady.” I smiled at him and sat in a patio chair, which creaked under my weight, preparing to reminisce about Inga’s bacon-spiked potato salad and seal-bark of a laugh.
Tim tilted his head to the side and gave me a quizzical look.
I froze. Had she been not so nice, her seal-bark cruel, her potato salad spiked not only with bits of salty pork fat but resentment and vindictiveness? Could my memory be that bad? But then Tim looked out on the lake and sighed, and a word came to me that had been absent from my vocabulary for years, which I had hardly heard spoken since I was a boy.
Tim was sad. He was remembering his late wife on the fifth anniversary of her death, and it was making him feel sad.
I scooted my patio chair a few inches closer to Tim and lowered my voice. “Tim, are you feeling sad?”
He looked back at me. “You do remember.”
I stood up. “I’ll call an ambulance,” I said, tapping my earpiece.
“No, goddammit!” Tim grabbed my arm and pulled me back into my seat. “I want… don’t you see? I want to feel sad right now.”
I studied his pleading face. Was this insanity? Sadness was a disease of the past, one of the worst, responsible for countless deaths and more senseless suffering than any other brain malfunction. It had been cured decades ago. I had gotten the nasal mist when I was eleven years old, and nowadays it was administered to one-year-olds along with their hepatitis A and cold vaccines.
Nobody wanted to feel sad.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself after she died,” said Tim. “I mean, for a few days there were things to do, flowers to choose, an urn to buy. I didn’t have to think; I just said ‘sunflowers’ whenever anyone asked me a question. ‘Sunflowers for the memorial service? Are you sure?’ they asked. ‘Sunflowers,’ I said. ‘Sunflowers on the urn?’ ‘Yes, sunflowers.’ She liked sunflowers, you know? It was something I was sure about.” Tim took a long puff. “Maybe it was the only thing I was sure about. The lawyer… he had a stack of papers for me to sign with little yellow Post-it tabs poking out where my signatures were supposed to go. ‘It’s like a sunflower,’ I said to him. He smiled and nodded. I thought he had done it on purpose. That’s how feeble-minded I was at the time. I thought the nice lawyer had turned the paperwork into Inga’s favorite flower.”
I chuckled experimentally. Tim let out a wheeze that may or may not have been a laugh.
“Anyway, after the remembrances were done, and the papers were signed and filed, and the social media condolence pings had died down, I waited. I sat in an armchair, and I waited. I skipped my lifelong learning group, and I didn’t go to the movies the way Inga and I used to do. I didn’t go for hikes around the lake, even though I could have used the fresh air.”
After a pause, I asked, “What were you waiting for?”
“That’s just it, Glen. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. It was like there was something I was going to do, but I couldn’t remember what it was. And at some point I just forgot that I was waiting, and I resumed my life without ever having remembered what I was going to do. I took an ornithology class, and I bought some binoculars. I became a birder.”
“Yeah, I heard that you—”
“What a dumb hobby that was. If I never see another rufous-bellied thrush it will be too soon.”
“But I met another birder. Carmela. And, you know, sitting all day in a field with your binoculars and your bag of roasted cashews… Between almost spotting some fucking bird or other, it all came out. About Inga; about the light beer; about the yellow Post-its; about the waiting without knowing for what. And Carmela turned to me and said, ‘Maybe you just need a good cry.’ And then she said, ‘Shhh,’ and raised her binoculars, so I couldn’t tell her how batshit crazy she was.”
“No, Glen. She wasn’t crazy. As I sat there thinking, I realized she wasn’t crazy. And then she asked me if I had heard of The Big S.”
“The Big S?”
That was the first time I heard the drug’s street name. It was usually called PIDS, an acronym of a complex, difficult to synthesize, and impossible to pronounce chemical. Some kids in Pittsburgh had been caught taking it.
On the ride home from the party, I leaned my forehead against the window and let my eyelids droop. The Big S. What was so big about it? My conversation with Tim had left me with an impression of something internalized but forgotten, like a dream whose details disintegrate in the morning light but whose pithy emotional core lingers through breakfast. It was enticing and frightening, and it smelled like… onions?
Clearly, I’d drunk too much champagne. I’d even asked Tim to put me in touch with his drug dealer. My wife would not approve.
I leaned towards her. “You know PIDS?”
“You know, that drug…”
“Oh, right. The Big S.” She shook her head. “It’s so—”
“Hey, how do you know it’s called The Big S?”
“What do you mean, how do I know? Everybody’s talking about it.”
“I just can’t believe anyone would want to take it, you know? Imagine, wanting to feel sad.”
I didn’t respond.
“You know?” she prompted.
“Yeah.” I said, while thinking to myself, 1212 18th Street. 1212 18th Street. 1212 18th Street. The drug dealer’s address, whispered by a birder in a bramble of blackberries to Uncle Tim, and passed along beside a moon-streaked lake to me. “Yeah.”
1212 18th Street turned out to be a narrow, tinted-glass door tucked between a Noodles-2-Go and a mattress discount store. Scotch-taped inside the window above the door was an index card with the letter ‘S’ written in black marker, giving me confidence I had found the right place. I pressed the button five times in quick succession, as instructed, and peered into the nearly opaque glass. The door clicked. I pulled it open.
Leading up from the entryway was a burgundy-carpeted stairway, old but well-tended and lined by a brass railing, mottled with wear. On about the fifth step, high enough for her doleful eyes to be even with mine, sat a Cocker Spaniel. “Hello?” I said as I looked for evidence of a human presence. Finding none, I smiled at the dog’s golden fur and long, ruffled ears. “Hey there, pup.”
She turned to climb the stairs and I felt compelled to follow.
Red-paneled walls and yellowish lights gave the stairway a sinister, warm glow. I stopped on a landing after the first flight and the spaniel looked around. “Lead on, Virgil,” I murmured. “Lead on.” What was that from? Hamlet following the ghost? No. Dante, on the way to purgatory? Yes.
I entered a room lit with recessed sconces and furnished in antique cherry. The dog curled up at the foot of a velvet couch and huffed a sigh.
“Hello?” I said.
“Who is that, Daisy?” A silver-haired man entered the room from a dark hallway. “What have you dragged in off the street now?”
“Hello. I was given this address for… to get…”
“Yes, yes. Have a seat.”
He didn’t quite look at me, waving his hand dismissively. I hesitated, embarrassed, and suddenly wished I hadn’t come. It was a bad idea after all. If my wife knew… But I was comforted by Daisy, lying croissant-like by the couch. I sat and leaned down to pet her.
The man reached to verify the existence of an armchair and lowered himself in. Blind, I guessed. He rested his hands on his knees. The cuffs of his shirt looked freshly ironed but slightly frayed. “So, first things first. Did you get the memo? No recording devices?”
“Yes,” I said, distracted by the discoloration of his open shirt collar where it met his creased neck. “I mean no. No devices.”
“No earpiece, no iris implant, no micropod?”
“I left it all at home.”
“Good, good.” His shoulders settled and his face softened. “So, you and Daisy are acquainted. My name is Bartholomew.”
“You came for The Big S, correct?”
“Good, good. How much do you want?”
“You don’t know, of course. You’re a novice. Maybe you’re not even sure you want it at all. Hmmm?”
“It’s okay. Daisy, bring us a ten, please. Daisy, TEN.” The dog didn’t move. “She’ll wait a moment just to prove to herself she’s nobody’s servant, and then she’ll go get it. Watch.” A note of warning entered his voice. “You’re a good girl, aren’t you, Daisy?” She got up and trudged from the room. “Yes, a very good girl.”
“What a sweet dog.”
“You try one, and if you like it, you buy the rest, okay? Simple, simple, simple. Free samples are key. Always. Have you ever sold drugs?”
“You sound a little shocked by the question. Delicate soul. Ah, here’s Daisy.” The dog rattled back in with a bottle in her mouth, which she dropped in Bartholomew’s outstretched hand. “Good girl.” She slumped by the couch again, her body sounding like a small sack of potatoes being dropped on the wooden floor.
Bartholomew turned his face towards Daisy, and they sighed simultaneously. “She’s a sad dog,” he said. “And that sounds like I’m anthropomorphizing, but I’m not. She’s had real sadness in her life.”
“Oh?” I dug into the downy fur behind her ears to give her a good scritch. “Poor dog.”
“What do you remember, Glen?” He shook the pill bottle. “About sadness.”
“Not much, really. Just that…”
“I was eleven when I went to the doctor for the mist, and my mother told me I wouldn’t feel sad ever again. And that made me sad.” Bartholomew raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know why. Then I got the mist and I tried to hold on to the feeling, just to see if I could, but it was gone.”
“Gone. Poof.” He had a wry smile as he raised his hands magician-like in the air. “And what did feeling sad feel like? Do you remember that?”
“I really don’t. That’s what’s been driving me crazy.”
“Ah.” He popped open the bottle and shook a pill onto his palm. “Well. So here we are. There’s water on the coffee table.”
I eyed the pill in the thin-fingered, slightly shaking hand. “How long does it last?”
“An hour, maybe two, the first time.”
“The first time?”
“It builds up, so it goes on a little longer after that.”
“Oh? Is it addictive?”
His hand dropped to rest on his knee, still holding the pill for me to take. “I don’t think so.”
That hung in the air for a moment.
“The Big S,” said Bartholomew, clearing his throat, “has not been approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration. I am not a board-certified pharmacologist. I offer no warranties, no assurances, no scientific studies showing short-term efficacy or long-term safety, no whitepapers, no testimonials beyond what the person who sent you here provided, without which you wouldn’t be here, right?”
“Word of mouth. That’s another key to success in my line of work, along with free samples and making sure nothing gets recorded. But you didn’t come here for drug-slinging advice. What you came for, what I offer,” he shifted in his chair and leaned forward, “is that feeling your eleven-year-old self tried to hold onto but couldn’t. That feeling that’s too volatile, too dangerous, too thrilling,” he closed his fist on the pill and pulled it away, “for society to let you feel it. You came here because you believe your feelings are your own to feel, that you can’t be human without them, all of them, and this one,” he opened his hand back up and pushed it in my general direction, “was stolen from you.”
After a pause, I cleared my throat. “That was a good sales pitch.”
“I’ll try it, of course.” I leaned forward and took the pill. “It’s what I came here for, I…” The tiny white hockey puck rolled on my palm.
My feelings swirled: apprehension, curiosity, embarrassment, excitement. Bartholomew’s creased brow tried to communicate openness and concern but couldn’t hide an underlying impatience. “Never mind. Down the hatch!”
I popped the pill in my mouth and washed it down with water. I put down the glass and settled back on the couch.
“How long does it take?”
“A few minutes. Usually. While we wait, I could tell you about Daisy.” Bartholomew crossed his arms and leaned his head to the side. “I find it helps set the mood.”
“So, Daisy here was born to a Cocker Spaniel breeder in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was a friendly pup, or so I’ve heard, though she had a particular hatred for percolating coffee makers.” He shrugged. “Still does; I switched to French press. Anyway, at eight months old, during her first heat, for reasons that were never explained to my satisfaction, the breeder thought it would be a good idea to breed Daisy with her father.”
At the word ‘father’, I felt an unaccustomed tightening or twisting or burning sensation in my sternum and up around my rib cage. Like a lime being squeezed and the acidic juices leaking into my chest cavity.
“Yes. Her father. Against all recommended breeding practices, moral codes, and plain old common sense, she was bred with her father while she was still, really, a puppy, and she got pregnant, and a couple months later she gave birth to something.”
The feeling in my sternum spread out in thickening waves to my limbs.
“A poor, misshapen little something, that she clutched and cuddled and licked even though it showed no signs of life. When the breeder came to take it away and dispose of it, Daisy growled and whined, very out of character. She bit the breeder, hard, which would have gotten her put down but for the dram of compassion lingering in that breeder’s shriveled heart.”
The feeling grew heavy and warm — fleetingly, inadequately warm — like those lead jackets they used to make you wear when they x-rayed your teeth.
“That night, she howled out her pain, hour upon hour, while the breeder wore industrial grade foam earplugs she kept for just such occasions.”
It was a big feeling. I groaned under its weight. The Big S.
“Daisy was not the same after that. She roamed the house in search of her lost baby. She was ruined for breeding, so she wound up at a shelter in Virginia, where I found her. Four years ago or so.”
Looking at Daisy, watching the rise and fall of her breath, I slid off the couch and began to pet her from the crease in her forehead to the tip of her tail. She lifted her head at first in mild surprise, but then let it drop with a sigh.
“She had a sock. The shelter volunteer told me it had come with her from North Carolina. She would stow it in her bed and lick it in her quiet moments. I think it was her replacement baby. But we’ve lost it, and my socks aren’t good enough for her, apparently. I’ve felt around, under the couches and chairs. It must be… but anyway, how are you coming along there, Glen?”
“Yes, yes. Poor Daisy. Ach, well, I may have embellished the story a bit over the years, but the general outline is accurate. If you do see a sock, a cotton athletic sock… But, you know, maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit. Who knows what’s in that little canine heart of hers?”
My hand paused on Daisy’s back, and she raised her head to admonish me for slacking off. “What if the sock,” I said, “was only a painful reminder?”
“Could be, could be.”
Bartholomew folded his hands on his lap. From my vantage point on the floor his face looked distorted, like an ill-fitting mask. Tufts of salt-and-pepper hair poked from his nostrils. Under the coffee table I saw ratty slippers, toes poking through a broken seam.
I refocused my attention on Daisy and probed the width and breadth and height of my drug-induced sadness. I had thought that I would burst into tears, but that didn’t happen. The feeling was comfortable, familiar, satisfying even, like picking a dried scab on my knee as a kid.
I was eleven again, holding the feeling close, watching my mother’s face as she watched mine. Watching her watch the creases in my brow smooth out. Watching her watch me watch the worry in her eyes fade away.
Remembering her, pre-mist, lying beside me on my bed, shushing me softly, and at the same time encouraging my tears. A boy had pushed me while I was at the urinal, and I sprayed pee on the floor. The other boys laughed like cartoon donkeys. They hated me. “No,” she said. “You’re my sweet little boy. Let it out. It’s okay.” Let it out, get it out, spill it out…
Remembering another night when daddy said mommy was feeling sad. I tried to comfort her the way she had comforted me. “You’re my beautiful mommy,” I said. “It’s okay. Let it out, mommy. Get it out.” Her eyes dry and blank, not letting it out. Her body a lead weight, so heavy I thought I would roll into the well she made there on the bed. Daddy in a chair with his hands on his face, dragging them down. “I love you,” he said to mommy, like an accusation, almost.
Let it out, get it out, spit it out, work it out…
I love you, but…
The edge of a bottomless pit…
Visiting mommy in the hospital, the machine with the colored graphs and lights and numbers, the needle in her arm, the smell of medicine and doctors, dim gray lights in the ceiling, watching her watch me watch her watch me…
Daddy, taking her hand. “I should have locked up the pills,” he said.
Locked up the pills…
I love you, but…
Sliding, grasping, flailing, falling… my very own pit… my eyes dry and blank.
Later, after the mist, walking into the kitchen, and daddy saying to mommy, “Well, it saved your life.” He diced onions while mommy stirred something in a pot on the stove.
“Maybe,” she said.
Daddy scraped the onions into the pot. He sniffled and rubbed his eyes. It was the onions. It was just the onions that made that happen now. He placed the cutting board on the edge of the sink and laid the knife across it, its blade flashing.
I realized that this memory had been an unanswered question lodged in a crevice in the back of my mind all these years. What had saved her life? The mist?
“Bartholomew, what about sadness that is too strong or lasts too long?”
He had been sitting stoically, hands folded on his lap, hairy-knuckled thumbs twiddling. How much time had passed? He opened his mouth but paused a moment before answering. “It’s a risk, but I haven’t heard any complaints.”
I scooped my hand under Daisy’s body as I stroked her from head to tail, head to tail, head to tail. Her eyelids fluttered. Little by little, the sadness lifted, until I found myself cooing and chirping, “What a nice dog you are, Daisy.”
“So,” said Bartholomew, “what do you think?”
I blinked at him. The feeling was gone, but the dark cloud of memory lingered. I got up and sat back down on the couch and eyed the pill bottle on the coffee table between us.
“Quite an experience, right?”
“Yes. Wow. Quite an experience.”
“So, I accept Q-bucks or Singaporean Aphids.” He leaned down and retrieved a card reader from a drawer in the side of the coffee table.
“You can start with the ten, or I do have the thirty-thirty deal — 30 percent off a bottle of thirty. That’s three times the experience for only twice the ‘phids.” He tapped the card reader on the edge of the table.
“You don’t what?”
The leaden weight; the eyes watching, hoping, fearing; the slippery-edged pit. “I don’t think I want them.”
“You don’t think?”
“I mean, it’s quite an experience, as you say… but for me, it’s not a good idea.”
“Not a —” The card reader clattered on the table as Bartholomew leaned back and crossed his arms. “Daisy, bite him. Bite Glen on the ankle for wasting your master’s time. Go on. Daisy, BITE.”
Daisy rose and yawned nervously. She looked from Bartholomew to me and back again.
“She won’t bite you, will she? She thinks she’s not my servant, doesn’t she? But who feeds you? Huh?”
Daisy sniffed my pant leg and nudged my hand with her nose.
“I should have stuck with smack and weed.” Slapping his knees and rising, Bartholomew sang under his breath. “Weed and smack and a little bit o’ crack. The good ol’ days.” He left the room, knocking his knee on a chair and cursing softly, bitterly. “Fuck.”
I rose to apologize, to say goodbye, to say something — maybe to say I’d buy the pills after all. Nothing came out of my mouth. Instead, I knelt down to pet Daisy some more.
“I’d better go, Daisy.”
I wanted to get out before Bartholomew came back. With Daisy at my heel, I headed for the stairs. By the door, a rolled-up sock behind a vase on an eye-level shelf caught my eye.
“Oh. A sock. Could this be…?”
I lifted it off the shelf, and Daisy tensed. She sat and pinned the sock with her gaze.
I had theorized earlier that the sock had been an unwelcome reminder. Maybe it would be better for Daisy if I put it back on the shelf? But with her intent, pleading eyes drilling a hole in my hand, that was out of the question. Would it dredge up sorrowful memories of unfulfilled motherhood, or would it soothe the ache of a barren womb? If she could speak, could she explain it? Would I understand? Or did she only know she wanted it?
And what about me, retreating, tail tucked, to a present of forgetful bliss?
I held the sock in front of her snout, and she enveloped it in her mouth. I let go, and she rushed behind the velvet couch and out of sight.
“You’re a brave soul,” I said, turning to descend the stairs.