(for PKD, of course)
Those who have been following know that I have been on a major Philip K. Dick kick lately. This short story is the grand finale of my obsession, at least for now.
The first time Sophie met Philip Gray, she had a flower tucked behind her ear. Who knows what, but clearly something compelled her to pluck the blossom from the bush outside the café where she worked weekends.
It was the end of August and school had just resumed. That day, a group of serious-looking college boys with long hair and dark clothing pushed together three tables in her section. They didn’t pay any attention when she bent over to clear their table, but that’s why she wore shapeless sweatshirts and baggy jeans, so she could stack the dishes and eavesdrop on their earnest, sputtering conversations anonymously. She studied the author’s portrait on the back of one boy’s book, a black-and-white photograph of a man holding a cat. The sun on his face shone so brightly that Sophie could see into his eyes like windows.
Then one young man looked up over his glasses and said, “Hey! Look! She’s wearing a pink flower just like Gray’s dark-eyed girl.”
They all swiveled their eager, earnest eyes her way. Sophie touched the flower and froze in that position, as though stillness could render her invisible, her gaze locked on the author’s name printed boldly across the front cover of the book–Philip Gray–until another guy said, “But it’s not the right kind. Is that a cosmos?”
She shrugged without looking up.
“It has to be a cosmos,” he declared, and they turned their faces away.
She was walking Rosie around the block when it happened again: facing her on the curb next to a trash can, propped open atop a cardboard box, stood the same book she had seen at the café. It was simply too extraordinary to be merely coincidental. She picked it up with trembling hands and carried it home.
Her mother was banging around in the kitchen. Sophie hung the leash on its hook, walked quickly to her room, and twisted the deadbolt 45 degrees to the left. A cursory glance at her meager personal items told her no one had been snooping around in her room today. She lay on the taut, faded quilt of her narrow bed, opened the yellowed pages soft as skin, inhaled the scent of toasty old paper, and started chapter one.
The man on the page lies in bed with a book in his hands and his gaze turned out the window to where thick fog mixes with sunshine, blanketing the view with a haze of brightness. A fresh day, clean and wet, but still emerging, like a photograph just pulled from the tray. Over the top of her book, Sophie’s eyes flick to her window where, beyond the metal safety bars, the ubiquitous late summer fog mutes the darkening sky, then turns back to the page where the man pets his cat and observes his neighborhood awaken to the smell of bacon, muffled car doors slamming, and engines coughing awake, a frumpy bathrobed neighbor skulking out to her porch to retrieve the paper.
Her mother’s knuckles tap the door. “Dinner’s ready. Are you in there?” Sophie opens the door and Monique fills the jamb with her rumpled suit and sausage-colored stockings, her large face puckered with concern. The room’s hazy warmth is effaced by the tang of cooked cabbage.
Monique’s eyebrows point to the ceiling. “Why did you lock the door?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you been talking to boys?”
“What are you reading?”
“That looks like trash, Sophie.” Monique plucks the book from her hand. “Where did you get it?”
“I found it on the sidewalk.”
“Of course you did.” The book dangles between finger and thumb. “Why are you bringing home strays when we have a bookshelf full of excellent literature from which to choose?”
Sophie edges past her mother and heads toward the kitchen. “What’s for dinner?”
“Oh!” She claps her hands together. “We’re Irish tonight.”
They sit at the rickety table beside the stove, with the dog perched on the stool between them, begging for handouts. Monique recites her daily complaint, tonight with an Irish accent– her co-workers are dull as spoons, the boss is a wanker–while Sophie stabs potatoes with her fork and steals glances at the book at the edge of her mother’s plate. The cover illustration is simple: a female silhouette in a doorway, indigo and pink, with white text below, as plain as a suggestion. She clears the table, grabs the leash, and walks out the door, whistling for Rosie.
Outside, fresh air. She slides the book from her waistband and the fading sun glows just enough to read while the dog pulls her along the sidewalk past neighbors on their knees pulling weeds, boys playing football in the street, and the smells of dinners cooking. The narrator is all-knowing but clearly male. He writes with understated humor and simple words. He pulls her into his world with a gentle, firm hand. He makes her feel like she could see the pattern, if only she could fly.
Sophie never met her father. He was a professor named Walt or a television repairman named Francisco or some anonymous guy who went door-to-door selling bibles or encyclopedia or newspaper subscriptions, because the only sure thing about her mother Monique is her love of drama. Sometimes he died of a stroke or in a car crash, others he escaped on a train or with another woman, one who looked like Marilyn or the queen of England, depending on her mood, but it’s always a precautionary tale and the moral of the story is, you can’t trust anyone. The only picture of him she’s seen is of a blurry man standing on an indistinguishable sidewalk in a trench coat, face hidden under sunglasses and beard. Sophie rubs the paper between her fingers and turns it over to see the date printed on the back, 03/02/82, her birthday. It seems legit, but you never know.
At school, she reads as she walks from class to class and during class if the teacher doesn’t mind. She finishes one book and gets another from the library. In his stories, she begins to see a pattern: ideas matter most, everything is meaningful, and people just want to understand. The main character is always the same– a good guy who’s just trying to do his job, blue collar, endearingly flawed. The love interest is beautiful, dark-eyed, and melancholy. Each new setting has the same old fixtures–the same small semi-urban dwelling, supporting characters who seem familiar, and the same twist: just when you settle into the story, reality shifts 45 degrees to the left, and when you acclimate to the new center of gravity, it shifts again, over and over, in a pattern of instability, predictable chaos, until the chaos feels like home.
One Sunday at work at the café, she’s standing at the cash register with her face in a book when a customer clears his throat. “Sorry.” She glances at the bespectacled college boy standing in front of her, then quickly away, because if eyes are the windows of the soul, you should never look at anyone. “What can I get for you?”
“Are you a fan?”
Fan is not the word for it, but if she answers, she will have to find words for the magnitude of her feeling. If she doesn’t answer, she might be shy or paranoid or snobbish. If she does, he’ll think he can ask another. She takes his drink order, pushes his change across the counter, picks up the book, and doesn’t look up again until he’s standing at the counter again.
“What do you want?”
“Um. Hi. Can I get a bagel?” He fiddles with his glasses. “Are you reading for school or for fun?”
“Toasted? Cream cheese?”
After work, her mother meets her at the front door, brows arced in double circumflex. She’s still in her long flannel nightgown and fuzzy white knee socks. Before Sophie can squeeze past, Monique grabs her with her large, soft arms and hugs her tight. “Where have you been all my life?” Her breath smells like wine. “I wish you didn’t have to work on my days off.”
Sophie waits for the arms to loosen. “I’ve got to walk Rosie.”
“Come sit for awhile.” She beckons toward the dusty, shapeless sofa and holds Sophie’s hand while she talks about her day, what she ate for lunch and how the mailman flirted. She giggles like a girl. “Let’s have a little party tonight. Let’s paint our toenails!”
“I’ve got stuff to do.”
“I’ll let you try on my sexy underwear. We could talk about boys.”
“You won’t attract a boy with a sour puss like that. You need a makeover.” As Sophie is closing the front door behind her, Monique calls out in a voice pinched tight: “You’re not still poisoning your mind with that trash, are you?”
Sophie doesn’t have to look up from the book while Rosie guides her along their customary loop, counter-clockwise, pausing to investigate smells along the line of little houses with tidy gardens on Curtis, turn left on Cedar and then a left at the bakery onto San Pablo where the cars careen past the auto repair, health food, pet store, and the liquors. Across the street from the café where Sophie works they turn left again, only this time someone is blocking their way.
“Hey there!” She looks up reluctantly to find that college boy kneeling down, petting Rosie. He smiles like they’re old friends. “I’m just going for a cup of coffee. Are you on your way to work?”
He stands up and taps the book in her hand. “You probably already knew that he lived here. On this street.”
“No, really. Right there–” he turns to point at a house just up on the right, the yellow one with white trim. “If you want to join me for a cup, I’ll tell you all about it.”
“No thanks.” She smiles her thanks and skirts past him so she can see it better, the house she walked past every day for years but never really noticed: two stories, gabled, with two single-paned windows facing the street. It looks like all the other houses only perhaps more mysterious, set further back back from the road and hidden behind a garden.
The next day, instead of heading to school, she walks toward the library with a detour past Phillip’s house. Daylight reveals a yard tangled with weeds, a front porch littered with take-out menus, and the windows’ blank expression. Writers live in their own worlds and are too busy to bother. From her backpack she pulls pen and notebook and has filled the page front and back before she can stop herself so she flips a new page and starts again:
Dear Mr. Gray,
Finding you is the most important thing that has ever happened to me.
She slides it under the mat.
She spends the day at the library amongst the homeless people with her face pressed into his pages and returns home at the usual time. Monique is in one of her foul moods, the one where she sobs and breaks things, so Sophie grabs a box of crackers from the kitchen and bolts her bedroom door. Later, she sneaks out to walk the dog and check on her note, still under his mat.
The next day, school is still an unbearable notion so she repeats her pattern of itinerant devotion, her pilgrimage–to Phil’s with a note (I think you know who I am. I have so many questions, signed the girl with dark eyes), to the library, home to discover Monique’s mood du jour and eat dinner, walk the dog around the block, check the mat (the notes are still there), and the next day (I just want to talk. Do you have a minute to talk?), and the next (You’ve been watching me, haven’t you? You must look out your window when I walk by), and the next (Our neighborhood is exactly how you say only the view from my angle is uglier, like it’s covered with a layer of dust), and the next (I notice you always use the past tense. You already know what happens while I’m stuck in the present, feeling as I go), and the next (Am I trapped in the wrong reality? How can I shift 45 degrees to the left and break through to where you are?)
One Saturday, the college boys are at the café again, pushing tables together. While taking his order, she looks the familiar one in the eyes and smiles briefly–he’s a friendly character now, an assistant with a sympathetic purpose. Aside to his friends he says, “This is her,” then turns his earnest face back to her. “I told them about you. I hope that’s okay. Could you join us at our table?”
She shrugs, fixing her eyes on the counter. Happiness is like a wave washing over her; it never lasts long so she stands completely still, feeling it while it lasts.
When she gets home, she pushes past Monique, heads straight for her room, and locks the door. She starts wearing a flower behind her ear and carrying a notebook so she won’t have to write her questions in the margins. She hasn’t been to school in more than a month but she walks by Philip’s every day, then twice a day, then by the hour, every half hour, every fifteen minutes.
Perhaps if she asks a question out loud and then turns on the radio or television or opens the nearest book to a random page and points, she will get an answer. Maybe if she stands still in the center of her bedroom in the puddle of sunlight seeping through the dirty window, screws her eyes shut, spins until she’s dizzy, and changes her mind, when she opens her eyes, she’ll find the truth. She studies the shape of leaves on the sidewalk, looking for a sign.
Sophie doesn’t bother trying to hide anymore; she reads at the dinner table while her mother tells racist jokes and does the hula, anything to grab her attention. When Monique catches Sophie doing dishes with a smile, she threatens to break them one by one unless Sophie tells what’s so funny. Monique tries the silent treatment and only speaks to the dog, insisting that Rosie is the only one who understands. She steals Sophie’s hairbrush and uses it to scrub the tub.
But Sophie doesn’t notice. She spins until she falls onto the floor, grinning and blinking hard. The window, a bright square of light, twitches back and forth before her eyes. You see me, you really see me, you’re watching me now. When the dj plays the Doors, she understands the reference to the cover of book she found on the sidewalk and rushes to the front door to be there when he knocks. The dictionary tells her that “fulminant” is an adjective that means “developing suddenly and rapidly” and is listed just after “fulmen,” which means “a thunderbolt, thunder and lightning, esp. as in an attribute of Jupiter,” which clearly means that he will come into her life very soon, and with a bang, like god.
One day she wakes up and looks out the window. The fog has evaporated and big puffy clouds have been rolled in to replace it, the kind that explode with golden beams that jut like heavenly spotlights. A delivery truck for the Daily Planet is parked across the street and the delivery man is whistling a familiar tune. All signs manifest the full, sensuous ripeness of the day.
She puts on her prettiest things, packs a lunch, walks to his house, perches on the top step, and cracks her book like she’s opening a window. She is peripherally aware of the electric buzz of insects and birds and leaves vibrating in the breeze, air alive with charged particles careening and colliding and rippling her skin, warmth throbbing up from the cement, while Philip Gray murmurs in her ear in a rhythmic, swelling fervor. She eats her lunch and listens with every muscle. His voice tugs but she doesn’t know what to do and as the world turns by degrees, inching toward darkness, her apprehension grows–the light is fading, the door is closing, and suddenly she can no longer interpret the house’s expression, it could be absent or sleeping or stupid or careless or deadpan or extinguished, and as fear grips her heart and squeezes, a form detaches itself from his yellow house and moves slowly toward her, a fragment of light in the shape of a large orange cat.
Slinking through the weeds, holding her in his yellow eyes, rubbing his cheek on branches.
She holds her hand out and calls but he just smiles and stares like a buddha, blinking slowly, taking his time, until at last, when her fingers find the soft fur behind his ears, it’s a revelation.
Of course, his fur smells exactly like the pages of her book.
One Friday after spending the day with the cat, Sophie goes home at 3:00 to find Monique waiting at the door. She says, “The school called and told me everything.” They sit stiffly on the sofa and Sophie searches her mother’s face for a cue. Finally, the corners of Monique’s mouth curl up in a smirk. “I’m going to look at the bright side. This just means you’ll have to repeat the year, that’s all. No biggie, right?” She holds her empty palms up to the ceiling and pulls both shoulders up in a gesture of frozen helplessness. “But you weren’t ready to go to college anyway, right? Let’s be real. Did you see yourself going to college at all? No. Realistically, no. So it’s decided. You’ll stay right here with me.”
The next day when the students come into the café, Sophie looks the familiar boy boldly in the eyes.
“Are you okay?” he ask
“No. I live with my mother. My mother is driving me crazy.”
“Oh. Well.” He blushes and adjusts his glasses; her sudden candor is a surprise. “I’m afraid I can’t help with that.” But before she turns her red-rimmed eyes away, he stammers, “Do you have anywhere else to go?”
“I’m going over to hang out at Phil’s. He always understands.”
He laughs until he sees that she’s not laughing. “You’re joking, right?”
“Do I look like I’m joking? But it’s only platonic.”
“But Philip Gray died years ago. Like in 1982.” He glances at the boy behind him for confirmation. “Yeah, 1982.”
Her features freeze in place. “How do you know?”
“Everybody knows that.” He smiles back at his friend. “It’s not exactly a mystery.”
Her dark eyes are like camera lenses swiveling wildly, seeking focus. She blinks once, leans over the counter, and aims one finger. “You don’t know everything. In fact, you don’t know anything about it at all.” She turns around and walks behind the pastry display. “He’s realer than real. I felt his fur with my own hands,” she whispers to the bagels and doughnuts. “He’s realer than all of this put together.”
Girl in the Hat is looking for new obsessions: Ideas, anyone? What’s your current fascination?