With the big race looming, my anxiety got so bad I went to see my old fourth grade teacher Ms. Jane, who’d quit teaching for the motivational therapy business.
“What exactly is motivational therapy, Ms. Jane?” We sat on the balcony of her new apartment overlooking the park because everywhere else was filled with moving boxes.
“That’s Doctor Jane these days, Robbie. Anyway, most therapy proceeds cautiously through incremental advances whereas I focus on short term goals where a quick fix is beneficial, like this competition of yours.” She studied me a moment. “To be honest, I’m surprised you’d take part in a footrace. I don’t remember you being gifted athletically.”
“That hasn’t changed,” I admitted. It was Sara Q. who’d decided that my onetime friend James and I would run through the park, to determine which of us would be her lover until the end of time.
“My gosh, little Sara? What’s James up to these days?”
“He landlords properties in the art district.”
Dr. Jane frowned. “There’s been a spate of evictions recently. Artists are being forced out into the cold, including friends of mine.”
“That’s James, all right. He wants to upscale his buildings which he says will pave the way for real progress, economically speaking.”
“Progress for who, I wonder?”
“Good question, Dr. Jane.”
She opened a legal pad. “Let’s begin, Robbie. What are your deepest fears and insecurities, and to what extent can we attribute them to parental overindulgence or childhood spankings, bed wettings, silent treatments, et cetera?”
The silent treatment wasn’t part of my parents’ disciplinary repertoire but it had been an effective tool of Dr. Jane’s back in the fourth grade. “That’s easy, Dr. Jane. Being alone has always terrified me.”
“It goes back to a trip to the art museum when I was nine. I wandered into an exhibit of papier-mâché trees and I guess I had a reaction to the chemicals. Somehow, I got the idea I’d been abandoned in a real forest.”
“Wait a minute, Robbie. Wasn’t that our class trip in the fourth grade?” Her expression grew thoughtful. “I recall that you climbed one of the trees and did considerable damage. The artist was furious. We were banned from the museum until the end of time.”
“It was the fumes, Dr. Jane,” I explained.
“Mm-hm.” Dr. Jane jotted down a few notes. “We need to speed things up here, Robbie. Let’s go inside and try some old-fashioned therapies.”
Once we’d squeezed in between the boxes, Dr. Jane handed me a pair of box-cutters. “Imagine there’s an invisible cloak hidden in one of these boxes, Robbie. When you find it and put it on, a new you will awaken, one who lacks the frailties and timidity of the real you.”
Intrigued, I began slicing experimentally. As the cardboard parted, each box gave a small, satisfying exhalation. Soon time was passing without me really noticing it.
After a half hour all I’d found was Dr. Jane’s old teaching dresses and a hoard of unsorted origami sculptures, mostly small woodland animals that crumbled at a touch.
“Robbie, how about some cocoa?” She was transferring the dresses I unpacked to closets and a bureau that had emerged.
As we sat sipping cocoa I asked after Dr. Jane’s husband, who’d been an artist of one stripe or another at the nearby community college, if memory served.
“Paul could live on the moon for all I care, Robbie. I imagine he feels the same about me, or so I was led to believe when he started sleeping with his students.”
“That’s terrible, Dr. Jane.”
“I thought so too, but it didn’t stop him from running off with Elspeth, if that’s really a name people are given.” She nodded at a potted plant I hadn’t noticed before. “That’s one of his best pieces.”
It wasn’t a plant at all, I saw, but a concretion of paste and pulp. Papier-mâché! “Say, did your ex-husband know the artist from the museum we visited—the one whose tree I climbed?”
“That was Paul.” Dr. Jane’s tone was bleak. “It was his tree you mauled. That was the beginning of the end for us, more or less.”
“Oh, no, Dr. Jane.”
She sighed and patted the floor. “What’s done is done, Robbie. I did okay in the divorce. Come over by me, and let’s try some lucid dreaming.”
I lay back with my eyes closed.
“You can Om, if you like,” Dr. Jane instructed. “Good grief, not so loud. Imagine you’re a wood-nymph or a forest elf—a pliant creature who’s receptive to external forces.”
“That sounds like me already, Dr. Jane.”
“Hmph. Now, explore your dreamworld in a carefree fashion, but watch out for hidden dangers, trap floors, and boogeymen and so forth.”
Soon, I was traipsing through a succession of garden-variety anxiety dreams with fresh purpose, reshaping each one according to a more pleasing narrative in which destiny rose to greet me with outspread arms. It was working, I thought. And yet; and yet.
“You’re weeping,” observed Dr. Jane. “Try to suspend any sentimentality such as regret or shame, desire, et cetera.”
“Sorry. I dreamt I was back in that papier-mâché forest all over again.”
“For crying out loud, Robbie. That was thirty-eight years ago.”
Dr. Jane lit a cigarette and I coughed until my eyes were streaming. Gritting her teeth, she ground the butt into the soil of the potted plant. It promptly caught fire. “Jesus!” She threw her cocoa on the blaze, which gave a long, wet hiss.
For a moment she gazed at the ruined plant, then tucked it under one arm and strolled out to the balcony, dropping it over the edge. Returning, she slumped in a chair, her expression unreadable.
“Sorry, Dr. Jane.”
She made an indeterminate gesture. It seemed like a good idea to call it a day, so I suggested we pick up where we’d left off in the morning.
That evening I facetimed with Sara. She took the call in bed, the soft pile of her hair fanned out behind her. “Robin! You were supposed to call hours ago.” She seemed distracted, her bosom heaving as though she was recovering from some gentle exertion. Also, Robin was her sister.
“It’s me, darling. Robbie. Are you okay?”
“Oh. Robbie. I might have a cold, actually.” Something happened offscreen and she issued a small sound.
“Should I come over? I’ll make some cocoa.”
“Now’s not good. What did you want, Robbie?”
“I have great news. Dr. Jane’s helping me prepare for the race.”
“You mean Ms. Jane from the fourth grade? She must be in her eighties.”
“Eighty-one. It’s working really well, I’m super motivated already.”
“That’s cheating,” said a voice. The screen darkened suddenly, as if covered by a pillow.
“Sara?” I asked. “Who was that?”
“I’m losing the call, Robbie. Must be a bad connection.”
“But I wanted to share more about my meeting with Dr. Jane.”
“Maybe you and she should move in together,” Sara suggested.
The line went dead and she didn’t answer when I called back. I guess the connection had gone really bad.
The next day, Dr. Jane started us off with some stretching exercises. She seemed concerned by my lack of flexibility. “You’re nearly fifty, Robbie. It’s time you took better care of yourself.”
“You’re right, Dr. Jane.” Gamely trying to hug one knee, I told her about my call with Sara.
Dr. Jane grimaced. “Poor Robbie. If I had to guess, I’d say James was making love to Sara while you were facetiming.”
“Ha, ha. That’s crazy.” I looked away; the day was brighter than I realized. Sunlight streamed through the windows and entered my brain in a hot, white flood.
Dr. Jane tried various strategies to get me out of my melancholy, igniting incense and perforating my skin with floppy needles. “This’ll realign your energy flow,” she explained.
“Ouch. That hurts. Can I open more boxes, instead?”
She plucked out the needles, flapping a hand dismissively toward the box cutters.
This time I tried to visualize the magic cloak as I worked. Because it was invisible, what came to mind was a weightless garment made of thousands of translucent scales, which somehow redirected or warped light.
Soon, my mood was improving. I’d been too down on myself lately. That was no way to go into a big race; anyway, it wasn’t so crazy to think I might win this thing! “Say, Dr. Jane. What do you think about my chances tomorrow?”
She was thumbing through a magazine. “Wasn’t James a track and field star?”
That’s right, he competed all through college. He must have a wall of trophies.
With a poof, my motivational progress reversed itself.
“Easy does it with those box cutters, hon.”
Watching the sunset from her balcony, Dr. Jane tried to pep me up one last time. “Maybe think about re-channeling your creative energy, Robbie. Origami can help. Do you remember when we made ducks and rabbits in the fourth grade?”
“I guess so. Thanks for the idea, Dr. Jane.”
It was a pleasant evening, but I was alarmed to see dots of orange light flicker to life in the park below. The pungent aroma of wood smoke wafted up. “Dr. Jane, the park’s on fire!”
She laughed, going on to explain that the homeless artists were sleeping in whatever green spaces they could find. The nights were getting chilly; those were their campfires.
The next day I got to the park around five in the afternoon. Everything was green and immaculate except for the colonies of homeless artists. Instead of unhappy or desperate, though, they looked relaxed and even contemplative, which somehow depressed me more.
One older couple was assembling some kind of public art installation, dipping cardboard in a powerful-smelling solvent then wrapping the soggy material around a tall frame. I sensed they were the real deal: professional artists who were entirely capable of transforming the ugly reality of homelessness into something true and transcendent.
Passing the duck pond, I dodged the ducks as they lunged their sinuous necks through the barrier and snapped like angry dogs. Sara and James waited by the swings. Just before they noticed me, I ducked behind a sprawling hydrangea and shut my eyes tightly. I lucid dreamed that I had the magic cloak and could walk right up to them, completely invisible.
In my dream, they didn’t have a clue. Sara gazed around tiredly, like she usually did when we were together. James complained about the homeless artists which he should have thought of before he’d evicted them all. He leaned towards Sara. “Do you think Robbie knew I was under the covers while you two were facetiming?”
I wrenched myself awake; Dr. Jane’s techniques were too potent for casual use. “Here I am,” I called, my voice more shrill than I’d intended. “How many laps are we running? James, I should get a head start because of your background in track and field,” I suggested.
“Never mind all that,” said Sara. “Ready?” There was a sharp clap from a little pistol she held. “Go.”
James sprinted off but my shoelace was undone. “Wait, I need a do-over.”
Sara was climbing onto the swings, a distant expression on her face.
“James,” I called.
He extended a middle finger while jogging backwards in a cocky way. A duck stuck its neck out, pecked him on the rear, and James gave a little shriek. Annoyed, he sped away. I couldn’t catch him if I tried. Now, Sara was really swinging. She leaned into a series of steep, plunging arcs.
“Darling,” I cried. “You’re going too high.” I hated how plaintive I sounded. Suddenly, I felt something give—my shoelace had snapped. I had to get away. Casting around, I saw some peaceful fir trees in the distance and ran for them.
The wind sprang up and a few dark clouds chased each other across the sky. The sunshine was a warm gold. I wandered among the trees, catching sight of Dr. Jane’s building now and again. A creek gurgled invitingly but I thought better of drinking downstream from those artist encampments.
I came out of the woods to find I’d arrived back where the older artist couple was working. They had nearly finished their sculpture, a life-sized papier-mâché tree with long, tapering branches and a canopy made of thousands of paper leaves.
“Hello,” I said. “What a gorgeous tree.”
The man nodded uninterestedly but then snapped into alertness. “Hands off the artwork. Yes, you. You can’t climb here. Stop him, Elspeth!”
I scampered up the tree into the cool shade of the canopy. All around the leaves shimmered in a lovely way.
“Are you okay up there? Would you like some water or a fruit bar?” Elspeth shaded her eyes with one hand.
“Don’t make him feel welcome,” the man hissed.
They argued but stopped at the sound of someone approaching.
“Hi there,” said a familiar voice. “I’m in the market for some classy outdoor art for a building I own downtown.” Looking around at all the fake plants everywhere, James said, “You know? I can’t stand these fake plants everywhere.”
“It’s not for sale,” Elspeth explained. “We’re protesting the unfair evictions. Each leaf represents a homeless artist.”
“Well, not yet, anyway,” said Paul.
James was in his running gear. “That’s cool. Hey, is someone up there?”
Paul waved angrily. “We’ve got an uninvited guest.”
“A squatter, huh?” James chuckled. “That’s a problem I’m quite familiar with. We could smoke him out, if you want.”
Paul hesitated. “Let’s try it.”
“What? No.” Elspeth was horrified.
They dipped a piece of carboard in the solvent and James produced a lighter. Acrid smoke billowed up. I coughed and choked, desperate to breathe. Tearing off a branch, I fanned the air.
“He’s messing up your protest tree, man,” said James.
Paul gave a shout of outrage. I felt funny, like clinging to a single balloon. Luckily Dr. Jane had taught me to self-soothe. I pulled off a leaf and folded it into a little rabbit, then tore off another leaf and folded that one into a duck. Again and again I folded up little forest creatures and let them drift to the grass below.
Elspeth picked up a paper chipmunk. “Paul? He’s making origami with the leaves.”
Paul kicked the tree, wild with fury. “It’s happening again. Get out of my tree, you son of a bitch.”
James joined in, kicking and laughing. I think he knew it was me up there.
“Out, out, out,” screamed Paul.
James delivered a gleeful flying karate kick and the tree lurched. Elspeth covered her face.
“Wait,” Paul gasped as the tree tilted. “Stop kicking!”
The papier-mâché cushioned the fall. I lay in the wreckage for a while, just relieved to breathe fresh air.
Peeking through tangled branches, James giggled and flipped me off again. “Loser,” he said. “I need something a little stronger for my building,” he mentioned to Paul then sauntered off.
Elspeth gave me a bottle of water. “Are you okay?” She took Paul’s arm. It was dusk. Dull-eyed, he let himself be led away.
After a while I made myself get up, stepping carefully on shaky legs. In the distance came a yelp—Paul and Elspeth were walking past the duck pond.
I hadn’t gone far when some homeless artists waved me over to their campfire.
“Pull up a seat, man.”
“Thank you.” I collapsed criss-cross-applesauce. The artists were watching the embers in a companionable silence. Maybe they thought I was a homeless artist too.
The fire waned. “Anybody got any kindling?” someone asked.
I was glad for the chance to help. “I know where there’s some.” Heading back to the wreckage, I gathered some big pieces of Paul’s papier-mâché tree.
There was scattered applause when they saw me returning. “Plenty more where this came from,” I said proudly, dumping the branches on the coals.
I’d forgotten about the solvent. As the fireball subsided, the artists rolled around patting at the flames. “Oh, jeez,” I said. “Oh, man.”
Nobody seemed badly hurt. A middle-aged woman in paint-spattered overalls leaned toward the flames, an unlit cigarette in her lips. She screwed her eyes shut. “Do it again.”
The laughter lasted a while. Feeling better, I pulled a leaf from my pocket. It seemed like a good time for some origami.
“What’s that, hon?” someone asked.
I held the paper rabbit up, but too close to the fire. It burst into flame. For a second I juggled it in my cupped hands. As it burned away to nothing, the artists oohed and aahed.