c Charlie Messing 2013
Except for my cat, I've lived alone here in Montpelier since my son graduated from High School and moved out. I have had this third floor apartment twelve years, and in the hallway, every day I pass two second-floor apartments. For three years, Morton Fletcher lived in one of those apartments.
I greeted my new neighbor when I first saw him in the hallway. He was mild-mannered and average size, with glasses. He wasn't rugged; he was more of a nerd - a guy who looked like he might hang around the library. But he dressed in the latest department-store athletic styles, and so was clad in brilliantly colored synthetics. He smelled of Old Spice. He had a wonderful, deep resonating voice, like that of a good FM radio announcer. I invited him in for a cup of coffee a day or two later, and he told me about himself.
He was a former patient of the Vermont State Mental Hospital, supported by monthly disability checks. He had gone into the hospital directly after leaving his first and only steady job as a carnival sideshow barker - an expert at luring folks out of the crowd to play games of chance. He enthused about his former life, the years spent traveling with shysters and hookers. He later wrote a story about being seduced into the carnival life by a group of sideshow strippers at the Champlain Valley Fair, back when he was a teenager.
He was now thirty. He had married a local girl named Camille, who had divorced him after he left the carnival. She was disappointed with the way his life was going. He had tried to return to school when he got out of the hospital, but that proved impossible. Morton and Camille still got together on a regular basis, though their relationship seemed uncertain and unstable. I was introduced to her a few times, and had seen her out the window, parking her car and walking around to our door. She was big, and very conservative; she looked like she went to church weekly; I knew Morton did not go. He several times confessed to me his wish to reunite with her, but as far as I could tell from the way he described their relationship, he might just as well wish for anything.
Morton was given anti-psychotic medication by the outpatient services of the mental hospital. He took pills every day, and periodically the doctors would change his medicine. He said he was a guinea pig for all the new psychoactive drugs, and in that sense, it was hard to tell how much of his weird behavior was, strictly speaking, his.
We talked many times. My brother and I were publishing a literary magazine for two of the years Morton was my neighbor, and he gave us a few prose contributions. The pieces were very good. He showed a real talent, of which he was not in control. He told me he wanted to write, draw, and exercise regularly, but either his quirks or his medicines made him unable to do any of those things, most of the time. The carnival sideshow barker of his subconscious was expert at seducing him into wasting his time on various idle pursuits, instead of staying on the straight and narrow and accomplishing something in the real world.
Having a regular job would have gone a long way towards putting Morton in touch, but that was out of the question. Though he did at times look for work, he was always preoccupied with impractical spirals of thought, and it seemed to me that he'd most likely last about a week anywhere he got in. He wanted to fit into society, but so far had failed to realize that ambition.
Sometimes he would act as if we were the best of friends, and other times, as I passed him in the hallway, he'd look at me as if we were feuding, though nothing had taken place between us that could possibly explain it. He apologized for these moods when they faded a few weeks later. He just couldn't help it; he was like a passenger in his own head. Over the course of three years, I saw Morton go through many cycles, from apparent sanity and regularity of good habits, complete with an articulate grasp of his condition, to uncontrollable paranoia and bathrobe-all-day sloth.
New haircuts and clothes were included with each monthly weekend-long visit to his parents, who lived thirty miles away. During most of those months, his hair would change: it would have been shaped and cultivated to suggest a new persona, a deeper character which was finally surfacing; then, overnight, it would change back to assertively, aggressively normal. He tried a number of styles, always giving in to his parents and forsaking the new style during his visit, returning home with a clean new haircut. And new clothes.
Everything he wore was new, or almost new, and he was the only person I've ever known who would return from the laundromat with clean clothes, acting re-burdened rather than renewed. It really got him down. I guess once he washed them, they were old.
He seemed to associate self-discipline with military discipline. He had a fascination for the military, but because he could never focus long enough to obey orders, or have a strict daily routine, he would never be able to participate in it. He often spoke of the nearby military college in which he had attempted to enroll. (That must have been an interesting interview.) Sometimes he dressed to resemble a military trainee. For a while, he wore a black sweatshirt with the word "Cadre" printed boldly on his chest (meaning an elite officer training corps). It was funny in conjunction with the bouncy, studied nonchalance of his downtown street persona.
Yes, for me the oddest Morton experience was to run into him downtown, where he thought everyone was watching him. I always said hello, and sometimes he acknowledged my greeting in a casual fashion, but basically he would try to glide by, waving like a hero in a ticker tape parade, smiling as he went past. Sometimes he ignored me, eyes straight ahead, completely engrossed in the momentum of his own plot line. The strange thing was: he was totally absorbed in his own world, not getting any kind of input; and at the same time, not caring what other people were thinking was the furthest thing from his mind.
One day he mentioned that Greg Moran, a friend of mine, had once been his creative writing teacher in the adult degree program of a nearby college. When I next saw Greg, I told him that Morton was my neighbor. Something troubling seemed to pass before his eyes as he said, "Yes...Morton Fletcher..." I said, tentatively, that Morton seemed to have a compulsion to disappoint, and that being his teacher might have been frustrating. Greg's eyes widened, and he said, "Yes, something like that. A need to disappoint."
Morton could usually find a way to set things up and knock them down. He started new disciplines and routines, and gave speeches about them, without ever following through. I learned that I could basically disregard any statement about what he was going to do. His familiarity with failure was long-standing. He disappointed his parents at every turn; they wanted this, they wanted that, and he dutifully failed them. He disappointed himself most of all, in every serious endeavor, as if it were the largest part of his identity. I had wondered at first, while supplying advice to Morton, whether I would have a good influence. After a few tries, I relinquished the idea of being the wise neighbor.
He liked to talk about his mental state, and about how the authorities were screwing him around. Often I could not get him to talk about anything else, though I urged him to move on, to speak of other things. But he had a lot to say about it: he didn't want them to tell him what medicines to take. Though he had no self-control, he wanted to control his intake of drugs. One of his favorites was Dexedrine, to which he'd been introduced at the carnival. The boss had wanted him to work all night, so he had slipped it into Morton's milkshakes. Nice guy.
At one point, Morton persuaded one of the doctors in his outpatient program to prescribe Dexedrine, and a few months later he wound up detoxing at the hospital for two weeks. His escapades with this stimulant, which had been prescribed to focus his mind and facilitate his creative abilities, quickly spiraled into paranoia and the black abyss of depression. Before they took him away, he sat in his Easy-Boy recliner with his coat on, in a sleeping bag, eyes wide open, for a week. When he got back from the hospital, he told me that he'd been afraid to move because he was convinced that the sound of the wind tapping on the road sign across the street was the click of electronic relays in machinery recording his exact behavior by means of laser beams which penetrated the walls of his apartment, beaming all the information to a satellite high above, controlled by the CIA.
By the light of such lofty but useless trains of thought, it was easy to see that Morton was too smart for his own good. His mind was forever whirling and revving like a car engine when you step on the gas without putting it in gear.
Sometimes Morton would ask to borrow books or magazines. The last good magazine I lent him was returned the following day with a page missing. After that, I lent things I could afford to lose. He got interested in a yard sale book about the Green Berets, and I let him have it. As he went out the door, he said, "I'll decode this and bring it back tomorrow."
One year the river got choked with ice, and overflowed through the main streets of town. It was March, and it was raining hard. Our house was on a hill, so we were only wet with rain, but we could see high, rushing water one short block away. When I awoke that morning, I looked out the window to see a policeman on the corner, redirecting cars away from the street full of water behind him. Many people walked back and forth in the rain. I decided to go out as soon as I dressed and had coffee. I had the day off. Morton knocked on my door and I set down my coffee to answer. He was agitated, and anxious. He said, "Charlie, the police have surrounded the house, and I didn't do anything."
I said, "Morton, it's not you - there's a flood. The river is blocking the street. The cop on the corner is just dealing with that. He's directing traffic." Somewhat soothed by my alternate analysis of the situation, he turned and went back downstairs.
A few minutes later, I went out walking around the newly-created island with my mouth open, along with other numb, dumbfounded inhabitants. When I came back in, I climbed the stairs to see Morton dejectedly standing in his kitchen. "Can't walk downtown, can't buy any groceries...I'm having a really crazy day." I stood there, wondering if I could help. Behind him on the floor, I saw a video camera in a box. I thought - why not record history? "Is that a video camera?" I asked. He nodded vaguely. I said, "Why don't you go out and take pictures of the flood? There's some great stuff out there today." He looked back at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about. I left him staring blankly down at the useless camera.
He played the radio a lot, after I loaned him an old boom-box with a broken cassette deck. He listened to it almost constantly for days at a time. He loved the most popular music: the top ten. He often blasted it with his door open, which caused me on occasion to ask him to either turn it down or close his door. He always acted a little brought down, as if he felt that I, as a representative of the world, the world which so oppressed and intimidated him, should allow him to make this one grand gesture of exuberance. After one of his all-nighters, I had to go ahead and ask him to keep it even lower between midnight and 6:00 A.M. He reluctantly agreed to do that.
Sometimes he took care of two cats for his ex-wife, both very big with long hair. One day, I opened the door to answer a knock and found Morton there, one of the cats at his feet. "I brought my cat up to meet your cat," he said. He must have thought that cats like to pal around with each other in the same manner as dogs. I stopped his cat from darting past me into the house, and then my cat came up behind me and, in defense of her territory, howled and tried to pounce. I held her back. She took a vicious swipe at my shoes and hissed as the other cat slunk downstairs. Morton, shocked and bewildered, apologized and followed his cat.
One day, Morton started to talk about moving. He asked if he could have the classified ads when I was finished with the Friday papers. He was planning the whole thing with his parents. He was looking for a bigger place, possibly with a roommate. His parents were taking care of all the details. I couldn't tell if moving was his idea or theirs.
Then one day he knocked on my door and said, with hale and hearty pride, "I'm moving in a week." I congratulated him, since it was a step in some direction, and a week later he was gone. He was quite a character, possibly the craziest person I ever saw daily for years. I was pretty sure he hadn't invented his tales of the midway. He probably never thought about me once since he moved out. I can't blame him, though - if I had to take all that medicine, I too would be adrift with no oars. Bon voyage, Morton.
His apartment promptly became sparklingly and spotlessly empty, due to the efforts of his parents. They came in early the last morning and cleaned up after him, as they had for so long. Periodically, over the years, Morton's mother had come over to do a complete cleanup. She was so thorough, throwing out anything that wasn't to her mind necessary, that he never acquired artifacts as normal people do. She would cleanse his lair to the point of obscurity, anonymity, to the point of sterilization. It would be as if he'd never manifested a thought of which she would ever have disapproved. It would be as if all were well.