I am Robert Moulthrop
Four words in an e-mail subject line.
Possibly a test, sent days before, but forgotten.
Haven’t you done that? Sent an e-mail to yourself? You’re sitting, writing, occasionally not writing by playing Free Cell or Hearts, then going back, forcing words, then stopping, then starting, but hoping the room will burn down, when you notice an absence of the e-mail ping. It’s now two hours, and you haven’t received even a cleverly disguised sex enhancement pitch. No travel bargains. Has the world stopped? Have I been forgotten? Should I call Bangladesh to see how Scott or Tim feels about the situation? Is everything suddenly Junk? So, you send a test message. Usually I put “test” in the subject line. Sometimes, if it’s been a really slow day, I’ll send two tests. So the second one is “test 2.” But I might have slipped, I think. I might have been mindlessly idle, a Hamlet-typing monkey. I might have typed “I am Robert Moulthrop” while I thought I was typing “test.” I might have thought I was typing “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy red dog.”
- [Picture the green field, a child’s book illustration, something around the corner from the original Winnie the Pooh or down the road from Charlotte’s Web. A pleasant field, full today of buttercups and white butterflies, a meadow, if we had meadows in the U. S. of A., which in most places we don’t, all gone to strip malls. But a pleasant green landscape, with a rail fence, and the yellow flowers and the white butterflies, blue skies, and white puffy clouds gently moving across the sky because Mr. Wind is out today, getting some early practice for next week’s storm.
And there’s Mr. Lazy Dog, he’s an Irish setter, that deep color red, with those sweet, brown eyes and lopsided grin. See him there? In the shadow of the tree by the fence? He’s so lazy. That’s why we call him Mr. Lazy Dog. And look out. Here comes Mr. Quick Fox. Usually foxes are red, but this one is deep, dark brown, as if his mother had been a grizzly bear and his father a mink. And Mr. Fox is very quick. Hence his name. He’s here, he’s there. If you saw him across the meadow, you’d barely be able to keep track of him…he runs so fast. He comes around the corner and sees his old enemy, Mr. LD, and Mr. QF thinks it would be fun to show Mr. LD a few tricks this time, to tease him good for all the times Mr. LD has chased him around the meadow. This time he will jump over him and call him Lazy Dog! Lazy Dog! as he does it. So Mr. QF sneaks up behind Mr. LD. But as he begins the jump, Mr. LD turns, opens his mouth, finds the soft spot on Mr. QF’S neck, and snaps it with one clean clamp of his jaws. There is blood, of course, and in the warm afternoon, the dog suddenly discovers that he likes the liquid’s taste—sweet and sour—and the thick way it sits in his mouth and the smooth way it slides down his throat. So he stands on all fours, shakes himself awake, and moves from the shade of the tree out into the meadow in search of other animals to kill.]
Or maybe instead of doing that “use all the letters” exercise, I typed “I am Robert Moulthrop” and clicked Send. Could have happened that way. But then I saw that, in the reading preview pane, there was an actual message, one I knew I wouldn’t have typed if I had been sending a test.
I’ve thought about this for a couple of days. Two to be exact. Three days would, of course, be a triplet of days. If it had been three, I would have said so. The derivation of couple, I believe, is from putting two things together, like coupling the freight car to the oil car, or vice versa, the oil car to the freight car, on your electric train before your father takes it away from you. Two things. Not three. Or four. Bound together by something as common as circumstance—the sinking of the Titanic, a road crash in the fog—or as fragile as love or the inward workings of the body that produce children who move us forward through time and, if we’re lucky, carry our name.
I’m avoiding the obvious, I know. “What,” one asks, “was the message?” You, Gentle Reader would be the one who is asking. Dear Reader. Constant Reader. We tend not to speak to each other that way these days. We write short, clipped sentences. We get to the point. Keep things short, digestible. And above all, we’re admonished not to talk down to those who might be reading one’s prose (in the same fetid breath we’re told to not split infinitives, not to split, split to not, slip knot not). Readers hate that, don’t you? Being talked down to. Called Gentle or Dear. Those are wuss words. Pussy words. No one wants to be talked to like that. I’ll try my best.
Or—sorry, I can’t help it. Constant Reader. Sounds as if you’re just sitting, eyes focused on some pages in a book or pixels on a screen. Anyone watching would say, aloud, “What are you doing? Don’t just sit there. It’s a beautiful day. Go outside and do something. Play with your friends. You’re not doing anything.” These days they might say, “There’s no action, no interaction, no place for feedback. Get yourself a game, at least. Or some Wii. Play air guitar, learn a new tennis stroke.”
“Reading is so passive,” they say, the ones who say everything.
Reading. Move your eyes, move your eyes, move your eyes. That’s action. Taking in what I’m saying, that’s action. Are you listening? You did, after all, ask me a question. It was you, wasn’t it? Just a few sentences ago? At the beginning of that paragraph up there?
So, yes, two days later, I went back to my inbox, delved, scrolled, moved through the blur of subject lines until I found my own name. Robert. Six letters. Moulthrop. Nine letters. An easy six. A difficult nine.
Robert is a regular Joe name, a glasses-wearing nice-guy name, probably a studious name. With thin hair and a pinched smile at the ready. Not me. I don’t look like that at all. Just the name is all I’m saying.
And then Moulthrop. What kind of a name is that? English sounding. Complicated to spell when paying for an artichoke where they should know my name or ordering a carving knife over the phone. A whole alphabet of people has to come into play. “M, like Michael.” “L, like Louis.” Tedious. One sometimes wonders, I sometimes wonder, Gentle-Dear-Courteous-Constant Reader, who they are. Are they friends?
- [Hey, Mike, how the hell are you?
Louis Louis Louis. Haven’t seen you since Grant was a cadet! How’re they hanging?
Getting’ by, getting by. How ya doin’?
Pretty good, pretty good.]
Whoever they are, they’re not very bright, not very good conversationalists. Maybe I should introduce them to Marvin and Melvin, to Ulale (she’s a hoot!) to Lancelot and Lawrence (that couple with the witty repartee). Tom and Harry, of course. And Peter. It’s a good thing Mike and Louis have each other for company. I don’t think anyone else would ever want them for friends.
A strange name, Moulthrop, therefore, generally easy to find. I could have organized the subject lines alphabetically. But I wanted to take the time to sift through the subjects that were there, review the last few days, postpone arrival at the message. If I’d clicked in the area for falling alpha, I would have missed the accumulation of notices, offers, pleas, ads, and the few actual letters, one from my son, who has stopped using the name Moulthrop, for reasons he has never shared. I have yet to respond. To his name change. To the letter. There would have to be another time for that. Now, after a couple of days, I was ready for the “I” in the subject line.
It was there. Waiting.
I decided to click on it without looking at the preview. Just dive in. Be strong. There was the subject line. My hand felt clammy on the mouse. But i did it. No, I did it. I. Did. It.
Click. And there was the message:
“Now there are four of us.”
I stared at those six words and tried to parse the meaning, dive beneath the black curves of the letters into the white depths.
Now. That word means there was a before, a time when there might have been three or two or one. I knew about the one. That was me. Me. I. Was I now I I I I? But I am here. I exist. I write as I am writing now, through space and time. I am energy, I am me. I have the me-ness of myself. I am unique. I can say that. I have my own chromosomal structure, my own DNA twirl strands interlaced with quadrants of polarities. But my Now is not the Now of this e-mail. This Now means there must have somewhere been a two. A duad. A twin. A doppelganger. An other. One other. Or more than one. Because, as the poet says, “Now there are four of us.” Like the mirror when you’re trying on a new suit, standing on the stool, looking into the mirror while the tailor pulls down the pants, prepares to cuff you, cuff them, them them them them. Not you. Prepares. And in the mirror in front and the two mirrors on either side, there are suddenly three of you. You You You. But there are really four. You You You You. Because the you standing there is the real You. Or should be.
Unless, of course, you’re not. Which is absurd. Glass coated first with tin chloride, then silver, other chemicals, copper, then black paint, then turned to face you, face your face, face-to-face, see your face, but the mole is on the wrong side, the nose tilts the wrong way, the bad tooth is hidden in a different part of the mouth. Evidence, true evidence, I say, that the mirror person, that none of the mirror persons, is the real person at all. They are fakes. In the mirror. The other is, of course, not.
Four of us. Us. Four Robert Moulthrops. Even assuming the unique properties of my own DNA, and therefore the unique property of the DNA of others, there must, I felt sure, be similarities. I didn’t know much, but what I did know was there needed to be action.
Here would be the place for me to get my act together, forge ahead, unearth the server from which the e-mail was sent, track down the Sender and in my own Lazy Dog switch, find a way to assure that I remained the only person who could claim to be Robert Moulthrop. This could take the form of a ripping yarn, a good old-fashioned Noir, if I’m lucky, maybe coming close to Highsmith.
- [He swiveled to the phone, picked it up, and dialed the number he knew too well. As he waited for her answer, he lit a cigarette, exhaled and watched the smoke caress the bare light bulb above his head.
“Darling Agency, Effie speaking.”
“Effie, sweetheart,” he said, smiling at the sound of her voice, syllables that promised everything, but offered nothing. “This one’s easy. Just need you to track down the server on this wild e-mail I just got.”
“Wild’s our specialty, Mr. M.,” she chirped. “You know that.”
“Got a pen, baby? You’re the best.”
I knew she’d help me. Some ex-wives really are the best. And I knew I could take off, get wherever I needed, and be back before I was missed. Pick up whatever I needed to get the job done when I got there. Improvise. Leave fewer traces. As for the two others, I’d take care of them later. It was a good plan. What could go wrong? Get off the plane, use the stolen credit card to get the rental car, show up at the front door for the face-to-face confrontation.
“Hello,” I say. “I’m me.”
“No, I am me.”
“We can’t both be me,” I say. “One of us is you.”
Sorry, Dear, Gentle Reader. No. No can do. I know I’m sounding perhaps a little too familiar, but you’re so far along here, we’ve been together for a whole seven minutes, don’t you agree it’s time we moved to more intimate terms, whatever your sex, whoever you are? Ridiculous for us not to get along better. You can call me Robert.
If this were a story about a killer, it would have to be a serial killer these days, or cereal killer, or surreal killer, or sir-real killer—and all of those are too cliché—worse than turning this into a vampire story, which is maybe where you thought it was headed, the phrase about how the dog found he liked the taste of blood. After all, you are my Terrific-and-Interested-Reader, and you noted that phrase, pulled it out, kept it on file. You’re swell.
But Sorry! Again. No assumptions, okay? Remember, if you assume it makes an ass out of you and me.
- [Jack and Jill were walking up that hill for the fourth time when Jack found a stone, brightly polished, and gleaming in the sun. “Put that down,” said Jill. “We have work to do, this pail, this water, or have you forgotten the way you did it the first three times, breaking your head open, making me trip over you. Try to get it right, Jack, for once in your life.”
“But it’s really lovely,” said Jack, turning the stone over and over in his hand. “I think it’s a wishing stone. Something this bright wouldn’t have been left here if it wasn’t important, especially in this story.”
“You’re always making assumptions,” said Jill, grabbing the stone from him. “You are such an ass.”
And Jack immediately turned into a donkey with very long ears and began to bray. Jill could tell by the look in his eyes that the donkey really was Jack, and she began to laugh, because she could tell he was terrified and wanted to get out and be Jack again. But he couldn’t, he wasn’t, and he never would be again.
Of course what should have happened next was Jill saying, “Oh, Jack, I feel like a fool; I’m such an ass,” and then her turning immediately into a donkey so they could frolic over the meadow and find the dead fox, now buzzing with flies while black crows gathered and a single vulture circled in the sky.
But she didn’t say those words. She didn’t say anything. She stood for several moments, relishing the silence between the donkey’s brays, noticing the blueness of the sky, the whiteness of the clouds, and the feel of the wind across her face and budding breasts. Then Jill pocketed the stone, picked up the pail, and walked up the hill to the well.]
Shows you should never make too much of what’s in a story. After all, it’s just a story. Even if you parse it, meta-size it, supersize the crit with fries on the side, hold the catsup, even if you do all that, what’s still left on the page, what the words fall into, after sentences, after paragraphs, after pages, what is it?
It’s good old Oedipus, is what it is. It’s Grimm. It’s A is for Apple and Z is for Zebra and Die Harder Than That Dammit and Leave Me Alone. All we want to know is: What happened? What happened then? What happens next? What happens now?
Now. Now there are four of us.
I know I am, but what are you? I know I am, but who are you? I know I am, but why are you? I know I was Alice when I got up this morning, but I think I’ve been changed several times since then.
Sometimes it’s more important to look at what’s left out. What happens in the space between the period at the end of a sentence and the next capital letter. Or even between the last letter of a word and the first letter of the next word. White space. Silence. Open invitations. White [space] White [space] White
Silence. Becomes tiresome after about five minutes. Then you want some noise, right? Another murder might do it. Another blot. More blood.
Three others. Not clones. But unmistakable resonance of DNA. A nose. A smile. A look. A way of laughing. Like offspring. Or relatives. He’s got his daddy’s looks all right. Look at that—she’s the spit and image of Aunt Mildred on her death bed.
What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Call me Peony.
You is you. You sit there, reading this, solid, breathing, inhabiting a space. Sitting in that chair at Starbucks or in the library or on the subway, where instead you might be standing, holding on to a pole as the rattle-clack pulse of time escorts you home to your lamb chop, or earlier inward to your desk, secure in your You-ness, pleased to be unique, even if your day has been shit, made you terrorized because he’s left, she’s yelled, the milk spilled, the diagnosis came, there was blood in the toilet or the carpet frayed. Any one of a hundred thousand grains of irk and rocks of consequence that grind against what someone’s termed happiness.
Even then, You are you. Lucky You.
Whereas I am one of four who can say I am Robert Moulthrop.
The others? Maybe a Dentist, a Barkeep, a Butcher, a Grandchild, a Baker. But only three. Others. And all secure. Because they don’t care. They didn’t get an e-mail. One of them sent it, but none of them got one. None of them left their house two days ago and saw the sign.
You would. Written in magic marker on the plywood face of the building two doors east, the building under constant renovation as if, like San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, the developer assumes he will keep himself alive as long as he’s hearing the construction sounds of saw and hammer and sander, the rise of fall of Hispanic voices molding plaster, teasing brick, mixing mortar. He had them put a fresh piece of plywood up on the surround after the drug gangs tagged it as their own. But then, on the new piece, someone wrote YOU WOULD. Like that. Bold capital letters, but unadorned. Not graffiti the way we have come to know it, with its glorious swirls, pictures, pictographs, pictoglyphs, art. Just a two-word message. You would.
If I could. But now, I am a quarter of my former self and that vanishing, like a cake of soap, frothing into a lather, washing over bare toes, swirling around the tub, words draining down my chin, joining the self-lather, two imperative word stones whirlpool-eddy-whirling- forcing draindown.
You would. Incomplete without if you could. You would, if you could. But even those five words demand completion, cannot rest on their final dentalized consonants.
Come on, finish up, Bob. I don’t want to. Do it. It is imperative that the thought be completed.
- You would, if you could. But you can’t. So you won’t.
[One day a grasshopper met a pig. The pig ate the grasshopper, but choked on its fluttering wings and died. The pig lay rotting in the sun of the hot meadow until the red dog, lazy no more since he had tasted blood, found him and ate him.]
I am Robert Moulthr
Robert Moulthrop’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, Eclipse, The Griffin, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Old Hickory Review, Portland Review, Prime Number (a one-act play), Quaker Life (non-fiction), San Jose Studies, Sou’Wester, twenty-four hours (e-zine), Reed Magazine, Rio Grande Review, River Oak Review, and Willard & Maple.
In March 2011, he was awarded an e-Chapbook publication of a collection of seven short stories (“Grace”) by Wordrunner; and in 2010 he received first prize in the Literal Latte fiction contest; he has also received a grant for prose fiction from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. In 2005 he was awarded the New York International Fringe Festival’s Outstanding Playwriting Award for my original full-length drama, Half Life, about what happens to a family and community when dad—a convicted pedophile—comes home from prison. A second play, T. L. C., garnered the 2006 Fringe Outstanding Performance award for the tour de force 80-minute solo turn by its actress. In 2008, nytheatre.com called his Fringe play Lecture, With Cello “a tantalizing puzzle of a play … a remarkable feast for the intellect, brimming with ideas that help us look at what we take for granted in art in new and compelling ways.”