I frowned as if I could feel the spilled orange juice searing the black, gold, and brown speckles of the granite. I ran. I got to the pantry fast and grabbed a fresh chamois cloth from the neatly folded stack in the plastic bin. I charged back into the kitchen, towards the breakfast bar pass-through. I wiped. I wiped twice, three, then four times. I ran back to the pantry, and did it all over again.
I went to the deep and gleaming sink, turned on the water, used dish detergent to make the orange-colored sponge soapy. I squeezed out the excess liquid. I shut off the water. I turned it on again. I used the dish detergent to make the orange-colored sponge soapy.
I concentrated. I heard the heels of Dr. Jacqueline’s peep-toe ankle boots tapping hard across the marble floor of the living room. Angeline sidled over to me. Her younger sister and brother were already gone. She was late for school. Tall and plump, she was wearing very tight indigo jeans with soft leather boots all the way up past her knees. The yoke of her emerald-green blouse was cut square and low. I squeezed the sponge once more. I ran the water once more.
Angeline pressed against me. She whispered into my ear, “Tommy,…” There was a pause, and then she said with a sighing sound, her cherry lips open, her eyes peeking from under her sparkled, starry lashes, “Look at me, Tommy.” She abruptly yanked her neckline below her bulbous and pink-tipped breasts.
“Angeline, you will get yourself under control this instant!” It was Dr. Jacqueline, her voice rasping like an aluminum spoon stirring a steel pot. “You are five minutes past your window of opportunity to get to your first class on time!”
“Oh Mamma,” Angeline said, giggling, then sobbing. She pushed back her sleeves and held up her scarred and scabbed arms, dancing around the kitchen like a ballerina in a music box. “I’m gonna get me some, I’m gonna get me some,” she chanted.
“There are rules, young lady,” her mother responded in a monotone. “You will not twirl about like that. You have exactly to the count of three to stop!” But Dr. Jacqueline didn’t start counting, and instead I felt her glare bore into my back between my shoulder blades. “Tommy,” she intoned. “You have prepared that sponge exactly six and half times. Concentrate! Redirect your thinking! You must follow my instructions. You will maintain your self-discipline, and keep this house running according to schedule.”
We live in Chapel Hill; this place has five bedrooms, three baths, and a Jacuzzi. It’s spacious and stately with pale yellow siding, teal shutters, and an expansive veranda on the outside, marble floors, maple trim, and crystal chandeliers within. I have to keep every surface, facet, and curve spotless. Each object of this household is in the exact spot Dr. Jacqueline demands. It is my job to maintain her world. This is my “therapy.” According to her, we’re in a therapeutic relationship. Dr. Jacqueline says the symptoms of OCD can be controlled, channeled, put to good use. She is very exacting. She has no patience for failure or imperfection. Sometimes I think, neither do I. We are very similar in that way. The difference between us, however is, that Dr. Jacqueline doesn’t believe she ever makes mistakes, and I’m afraid I make them continually. Which is why I switch each light or appliance off and on repeatedly before and after use. And I run the microfiber dust mop back and forth and around the same corners seven times. And when I clean the windows, I take from dawn well into the night, as I lather up the panes with my cleaning solution, and squeegee from the top down, until all the glass is shiny and clear. And then I start from the beginning all over again.
Disruptions began today, as Dr. Jacqueline was leaving for work in the morning.
I was at the sink when I heard her clicking across the kitchen-floor tiles, towards the door that leads to the garage. I listened as the steps stopped behind me, and I turned. She looked younger than her age; she was wearing a turquoise jersey blouse tied in front, a thick strand of turquoise beads stuffed inside her cleavage. He salon had done a good job making her look like a natural honey-blonde. I looked down at her four-inch heels marring the terra-cotta squares. I would be on my hands-and-knees, polishing in her wake.
“Tommy,” she said, “Thomas, look at me. Look at me now!” I raised my chin reluctantly and kept my head slightly bowed as I gazed at her. Her gray eyes were like laser beams, her keys and dark glasses dangled from the fingers of her right hand. She clutched the handle of her designer briefcase in the other. “Did you review the lists I left you?” she asked, her nose pointing upward.
“Yes,” I answered. Many lists. And rules. And inspections to see if we’ve all abided by her commands. I watched her as I invariably did, each weekday, seeing her off to her job as a professor of psychology and director of the Parent and Child Institute. She was in the process of raising her large and mottle-framed sunglasses to her face … but then, she froze. Her eyes went round, her brows jumped, her teeth were bared, her perfect makeup stretched and new lines formed in her cheeks that I hadn’t seen before. “What in the fucking hell is that!” she growled.
I followed the direction of her horrified stare, and saw what she saw. It was on the floor. It was scudding in a straight line between us. It was small and brown, ovoid shaped with wings and antennae. I remained expressionless. It wasn’t just any roach, it was a palmetto bug.
“Get it, get it, you loser. Kill it, get it!” Dr. Jacqueline shouted, her chest heaving.
Later that day, I warned Austin first, when he and his baggy khaki cargo pants shuffled through the front door. His middle-school bus left him off before his sisters. “There was a roach in the kitchen,” I explained. “Your mother saw it.”
“Cool!” he said. His pinched face appeared flushed, his white-yellow hair — buzzed above the ears, longish on top — gleamed. He dropped his books on the pale upholstery of the smaller sofa in the living room.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said.
“What’re you gonna do about it, asshole,” he answered.
I didn’t respond. I am technically his guest, living with them, considered a part of the family. But he’s still the only son, and man of the house. Even if his favorite thing to do is torture, dismember, and kill small animals, including pets. This is something that I know, but Dr. Jacqueline refuses to believe. Or rather, she refuses to let it be true. When Austin was tested at her own Institute, she coached him ahead of time, so he could skew the assessment and distort the results. It will be interesting to see if his mother considers Austin had something to do with the appearance of the insect in her immaculate kitchen.
“I spent many hours checking the corners, the edges of the baseboard,” I said to him.
“Yeah, I bet you did,” he responded, and trotted off with a bounce in his step, to the back stairway, and up to his game room.
Leigh Ann showed up next. She’s a freshman in high school. Her appearance is always remarkable. Today her hair was dyed black and purple; teased and tousled, sticking out like paper-mache. Her complexion was darker, almost orange, this afternoon — she must have used the instant-tanning cream again. Her eyes were sunken, her painted fingernails broken and eaten away. She was wearing patterned leggings, a puffy, black satin skirt, and a blouse that had no apparent sleeves but resembled a chevron-striped kite draped over her torso. Leigh Ann lives in terror — she claims aliens from other worlds live in our community, and abduct her regularly and spy on her. She also believes demonic entities torment her at night. She mostly keeps to herself and has no known friends.
“Leigh Ann,” I said, greeting her at the door, “Your mother saw a palmetto bug in the kitchen this morning. Be prepared.”
She glanced at me as she passed by, her face twitching. “They fly, they fly! The flying monkeys of the south!” she shouted, and ran for the stairs. She didn’t come down for dinner.
This evening was difficult. The cook Mrs. Ramirez, and I, spent most of our time after the meal, pulling every object out of the cabinets and the pantry, checking every nook and cranny in the kitchen, laundry room, family and great room. Dr. Jacqueline marched to and fro, supervising us, giving us instructions, waving her index finger at us as she described what she wanted us to do. In my case, what she commanded was done exactly seven times.
The last few days have been hectic. Dr. Jacqueline ordered the entire house inspected by a pest-control company, and the furniture was draped, the valuables protected, while we were fogged. The humans stayed in a rental house, which is why I haven’t been able to record any updates. But we’re back. Except for the cook, Mrs. Ramirez, who quit, despite the fact that she was being treated for bipolar disorder in exchange for her services. I cannot cook. Dr. Jacqueline is bringing someone new from the Institute today to try out for the job.
It’s Saturday, and Dr. Jacqueline is becoming increasingly agitated. I’m glad for the privacy of this garage-apartment, although I expect her to be up here, poking around, before long.
Today, there were a variety of small disturbances which upset our routine. (1) There was a half-eaten cookie on the countertop of the kitchen island. (2) A dirty, rumpled towel was left in the downstairs powder-room. (3) A footprint of mud appeared near the French doors that lead to the upper patio. (4) There was a smear of chartreuse lipstick in one of the sinks of the master bathroom suite. Dr. Jacqueline only uses a deep dark red called “Sunset Boulevard.” (5) Four picture frames in different parts of the house were crooked and/or askew. Dr. Jacqueline found all of them in a few minutes. She accused me of negligence. I protested, telling her, “I’m getting better, and only cleaned twice today. Don’t you want me to get better?”
Later, one of the hand-carved mahogany chairs was pulled out of place when the family filed into the formal dining room for supper. I defended myself to Dr. Jacqueline: it could not have been my fault. I positioned them, and repositioned them, seven times after I cleaned the floors, to make sure all the furniture was precisely where she wanted it to be. Perhaps I overlooked that one chair, I admitted. “But haven’t we been working on my self-esteem and lack of confidence,” I asked her. “Change my thinking, change my behavior — shouldn’t I be confident that I got it right the first time?” “You obviously didn’t get it right at all,” she answered.
But the most unsettling event today was when Dr. Jacqueline’s iPhone became misplaced. When she isn’t using it, it’s supposed to rest charging in an exact north-south alignment lying on a Lalique-crystal plate that rests atop the antique sideboard-server in the two-story foyer. We spent the entire evening searching for it. Dr. Jacqueline stalked back and forth, her heels clacking, informing us about the rules and the need for order. She followed Alyssa — the new cook — and me from room to room as we hunted for her device. She ordered her children to descend from their lairs, and line up in the kitchen, where she interrogated them one after the other. The smart phone was eventually discovered on the floor beside a recliner in front of their 55-inch LED TV.
Dr. Jacqueline spent the day observing me, as she suspects I’m responsible for the anomalies. She watched me as I mopped the upstairs hallway bathroom floor for the seventh time, and backed out moving to the side in the exact same way, again and again, upon completion. I changed the linens on the beds twice. She never once said, “Concentrate,” or, “Change your thinking!” So, I did, out loud. “Concentrate!” I commanded myself, knowing she was pinning the back of my head with her eyes. “Redirect!” I said, after folding bath towels, stacking them, and unfolding them again repeatedly.
After supper, while Austin was supposed to be doing his homework and was probably silently viewing snuff porn on the Internet, and Leigh Ann was locked in her room, from which boomed unusual deep-bass groans and a crackling electronic wail, and Angeline was naked in the Jacuzzi with some friends, Dr. Jacqueline finally gave up her surveillance and retreated to the butler’s pantry wet bar in the family room.
Alyssa and I were scrubbing and swabbing the kitchen for the night, when we heard something between a scream and a shout. “That’s Dr. Jacqueline,” I said calmly to Alyssa, whose eyes flicked back and forth while her complexion blanched. Alyssa is currently taking Depakote and an antipsychotic, so her moods have definitely evened out. We heard the distinct sound of glass with liquid shattering.
When we reached her, Dr. Jacqueline was like a hunched statue, her legs apart, her fists extended in front of her, her facial features twisted and pursed. When she noticed us, she straightened and her affect blanked with obvious effort. “My bottles are out of order,” she said. “My liquor has been mixed up. Who could have done this?” She focused on me. “You could not possibly have done this….” But she continued to peer at me, her lids squinting almost shut.
I shook my head. I said, “No.” I said, “No” several more times. I shook my head again.
Alyssa and I spent an hour cleaning. We carefully removed the glass shards, then wiped the liquor with a damp mop. Then I made poultices of powdered detergent, bleach, and water and set these on the marble floor, after which we rinsed and patted dry. I only did everything once. It was very late and I was tired.
“I only did everything once. It was very late and I was tired….” Dr. Jacqueline read aloud again. She held the blue-gray binder open, resting it on her upturned forearms. Her face, her perfect coiffure and form-fitting linen pantsuit appeared chiseled from stone but her dangling gold and amber earrings quivered, revealing the enormous force of her rage.
Tommy, tall and slender, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, folded his arms. His lips formed a pleasant smile.
She raised her head up and down, up and down, inspecting him from the toes of his black-and-white athletic shoes to the neat part of his brown hair. “You are not really obsessive-compulsive, are you,” she stated. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
He casually gazed at the wood paneling behind the kitchenette table where his books and notes were haphazardly stacked beside his computer keyboard. “This is a very nice garage apartment,” he said.
“Answer me!” she demanded, her voice grating between her clenched teeth.
“I could have OCD,” he said. “Then again, I could be a student of experimental psychology.” He met her stare directly. “Or something else entirely.”
“I’m calling the police,” she spat, slamming the notebook shut.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I knew you’d come snooping in my apartment. I calculated it would take you two weeks, and I was right.”
She cocked her head slightly as she tucked the notebook under one arm. “Why? What is your point? What are you doing?”
“I could be a student who needed treatment for OCD. I could be doing research on the genetic patterns of personality disorders in families. Or — and this is why you won’t call the police, or say anything to the university for that matter — I could be an undercover detective investigating how you use patients and students for personal servants….”
“And?” she barked.
“Which of these alternatives is you, exactly?”
“You’re the psychologist, you tell me,” Tommy answered. “My work hasn’t concluded yet,” he added. “I need another week or two. So I expect you to tolerate me, and I’ll continue to play my part as I progress. Concentrate! Redirect your thoughts! Change your behavior!”
Dr. Jacqueline pulled the binder out from under her arm like a magician pulling a card from her sleeve. She lowered it, let it drop a few inches, back to its position beside Tommy’s computer, on the Formica surface of the table. She narrowly missed toppling an empty, dirty glass that had once held something yellow and green that smelled like crushed grass. She stretched her dark-red lips and nodded once. “I see,” she said.
“I don’t think you do,” Tommy responded. “But carry on.”
She abruptly became a charming and flirtatious Southern-belle. “Thomas, honey,” she said with a thick accent, returning his pleasant smile and fluttering her lashes, “in this family, there are so many ways to skin a cat.”
He continued to study her, his face became flat. “A threat, expected and acknowledged,” he said. “We certainly have a lot to do. But you know, observer evidence and analysis may be the best way to get to the bottom of this.” He grinned. He checked his watch. “You like your world to run like a clock, with you in control, so we’d better get back to the house. It’s time for you to go to work.”