It began with subtext; the scripture and soul of the faithless Bilkins. Over and over Bilkins had stressed the importance of subtext, the role it played in our society, the stupidity in overlooking it. To hear this man talk, you'd think the world was a novel, full of illicit cravings and underground messages which must be carefully excavated, and then analyzed. He spoke of it so much that, more than once, Kelly would, with painstaking order and method, write a date at the top in the holy Blue Binder and then draw a simple green line through the middle, with the single word there, in that distinctive green ink.
Eventually, my curiousity was aroused, and I asked Gina about it, for she was better versed than I in these sorts of things.
"Geen," I said one morning, as we ate a quick breakfast before dashing off to our respective employments. "What's subtext?"
Gina was distracted at the moment; not looking up from a large book in her lap, she murmured:
"What's subtext?" I repeated, waiting for her ultimate enlightenment. It was my experience that women, and Gina in particular, preferred English more so than men, and so were more apt to remember stupidity like that. Bilkins, of course, was the exception that proved the rule—he was always the exception.
"You aren't serious," she said, and she sounded a little irked. "Henry, for God's sake, use a dictionary."
She didn't understand; I didn't want a neat and tidy Oxford definition. Had I wanted that, I could have saved myself a heap of trouble and just gone to Kelly. What I wanted was an explanation with life and verve in it—two things Gina lent involuntarily and without fail to anything she spoke of.
"You're my dictionary."
She let out a breath slowly, and swept her long red-blonde out of her eyes. Her left shoulder twitched, and I could see that she wanted to give that contemptuous, amused-at-the-world shrug; I was impressed that she refrained.
"Alright, fine. Subtext is something just below the surface—hence sub—of a work—hence text—which, when discovered, adds deeper meaning to the work in general. Why do you ask, Hen?"
I did my best to just shrug carefully, as if it didn't mean much to me; to be honest, it had become a frequent topic of conversation for Kelly, who would sit and muse over the nicotine-infused enigmas of his patients, and, while I accepted my place as a mere assistant, it bothered me to be so completely ignorant.
"Kelly's been talking about it."
She actually laughed then—not the scornful half-laugh which irony often elicited, but a true peal which made me look at her funny. Gina rarely laughed like that.
"Kelly? What does he know of subtext? He wouldn't understand an allusion if it whacked him across the face."
"For your information, Bilkins has been bringing it up, not Kelly," I retorted coolly. "Apparently it's one of his ruling obsessions."
"Bilkins—that's the strange patient, isn't it?" she inquired, as one corner of that deft, lovely mouth curled up in thought.
"Yes, that one," I said drily. "The one who's been nothing but trouble. Kelly says he talks all the time of either little girls or subtext—and he frequently ties the two together."
"He sounds like a dear," she said simply, and her eyes returned to her book. Frustrated by her lack of attention, and feeling a sort of blank gulf widening between us, I tried to draw her back into conversational waters.
"Geen, c'mon, I wanna learn something. Give me an example. Whaddaya do with it in real life?"
I have always maintained that Gina must have been partially an English teacher, or perhaps was so I another life, for the way her erect creamy self stiffened in rare indignation, and the sharp look she gave me from eyes which needed only horn-rimmed spectacles to complete the picture, could not have come from any source. With a toss of her head, she said, with that always unruffled coolness:
"Why must everything be used in 'real life'? America today undervalues literary beauty. But yes, since you ask, it can be used in real life, and a lot of idiots use it to interpret dreams."
She was sharp that morning, was Gina, and I, a little surprised by her acidic reply, ascribed it to female troubles—for women, in my experience, were always going through some kind of biological agony, the likes of which my sex could only hint at in off-color jokes.
I began to frequent the library—an errand which gave me no pleasure but that of knowing I'd outsmarted the economy and had, instead of paying for a book, managed to utilize it for free. Of course, when I mentioned this to Kelly, he, as devoid of tact as he was of humor, observed that since libraries were buildings funded by the public, I had, in all reality, paid for it indirectly, and it had cost a good deal more than the book itself. I was a little annoyed after that; I hated it when Kelly pointed out something unpleasantly obvious. Most men prefer to live in a world that is half illusion, a world wherein they are masters; Kelly has never understood nor catered to this mentality. In his world, there is no illusion, just as there are no jokes. To Kelly, everything that is real is real, and everything that isn't doesn't even enter his realm. But as I said, I made good use of the shabby library near my apartment, and Gina was startled to find me reading a book on Freud one morning in bed.
"What the hell is that?"
"This?" I said casually, looking over the top of it at her, just to highlight how immersed in it I was. "A book."
"Quite so," she said drily. "Of what nature?"
"Of a Freudian nature," I said, my tone matching hers. Gina hated when I manifested intellectual interests; she said they were insufferable in me. I always thought she liked the knowledge that she was more sophisticated than I was.
"Sigmund Freud?" she specified, one of her thin yellow eyebrows lifting. "I didn't know you were such a fervent admirer of the human psyche."
"I find it kinda fascinating," I said, trying to imitate that pretty, graceful shrug. "I'm reading right now about catharsis."
"Catharsis?" she repeated, and there was a strange look on her face. "Hen, what the hell do you want with catharsis?"
"I'm curious," I told her, and I knew I sounded superior. Gina frowned, and there was a look of annoyance on her face; she suspected I wasn't being entirely truthful, and, per usual, she was right. Gina had, I found, a tendency towards being right; it was just one of her talents. This tendency, however, failed her miserably on the subject of Kelly—he, I thought rather smugly, was her weakness, it was he that confounded her. He confounded us all, did Kelly. A few minutes later, I, just to be positively annoying, just for the pleasure of bypassing Gina's cool, confident, cynical correctness, set the book down and murmured, as would any sated, yet intrigued intellectual:
She rolled her dark eyes at me, and impatiently pushed me onto my pillow. Unlike most women, Gina was never shy about getting what she wanted. She would have been a God-awful diplomat.
"What's fascinating?" she said, impatiently slipping out of her old robe and draping her superb creamy body on top of mine.
"The concept of 'deduction of one's innermost desires via the analyzing of dreams'", I replied nonchalantly, quoting the pedantic author as one might tell a mediocre joke. "I'll have to try it."
I had aroused her scorn again, and she laughed, pulling me on top of her. I had found long ago that some of Gina and I's best discussions occurred whilst nude and in bed; there was a surprising amount to talk about, and, as I have said before, Gina rarely made noises.
"What do you plan to deduce, Hen?" she asked, that pink mouth curling in quizzical sarcasm.
"Whatever I see fit," I said—and, for once, I was the victor of the discussion.
I started the next morning, and, in the interest of being as calm and insightful and scientific as possible, bought a cheap notebook with dingy lined paper and, immediately after opening my eyes, got up and recorded my dreams with as much accuracy as possible. Gina snorted at my efforts.
"I see you dreamt of intimate relations with a woman," she said, her hair tickling my shoulder as she leaned over me, warm and naked and pretty damned desirable, even at this hour in the morning. "Very unusual."
I ignored her; women, I found, were rarely helpful in scientific pursuits.
"She was blonde," I murmured thoughtfully, scribbling this detail down and straining to recall yet more.
"As am I; I'm flattered you dreamt of me."
I could not have told her whether she was right or wrong; all my memory supplied was the dim light toying on a blonde head, and of course my own masculine cravings.
"Yeah, I guess it was you," I mumbled, and closed the book with a vague gnawing on the back of my mind, disappointed. Intimacy with Gina contained no subtextual elements; everything to be seen there was shining on the surface, depressingly normal. Mediocrity is a saddening thing to makind; even the most pedantic wretch expects himself to gleam, to be the needle in this Earth's haystack. I have related as much to Gina, but she only smirked and told me that philosophy rots the brain. I couldn't tell if she was serious or not; with Gina, jokes and solemnity are closely intertwined, the one barely recognizable from the other. It's a helluva lot of trouble living with a woman like that, but I always maintained that it was worth it, even if just for the sex.
A word on religion. I was what one might call—and I was tempted to call— a deist; I believed vaguely that there was a Being, supreme and almighty, who dwelled in a region invisible to man, and that this Being was conveniently called God. Further than that I dared not venture, and satisfied any spiritual cravings with a quick, mumbled prayer, addressed to a Hearer unknown, with the hopes that this would secure what Gina called salvation. Gina herself was a Catholic, and I enjoyed this about her, even when it annoyed me; Catholics, I found, were tremendously easy to make fun of. She was not much of a practicing Catholic—Sundays were usually spent in bed with sinful me rather than in the ugly stone church down the street—but nevertheless she knew the catechism like a child might know the wares of a candy shop; it was unthinking, immediate. We used to debate certain issues like all hell—priestly celibacy, for example, was always a good way to push Gina's buttons when I wanted to rile her out of her floating, shrugging indifference. It was amusing to me how quick she was to rise to the celestial bait, and, even if her arguments stung me with the acidic tang of defeat, I was at least able to garner a strange sort of pleasure from how seriously she took the whole thing. Kelly, meanwhile, along with the obedient Sandy, was a Protestant, or maybe an Episcopalian—I forget which one was a broader term than the other. He was a devout one too, whichever it was, and every Sunday one would see the Kellys, modest and correctly attired in their Sunday best, driving in Kelly's nice, well-kept, mildly expensive car to their ugly stone church down the street from the ugly stone Catholic church. I don't imagine he was very popular there; from what I saw, the congregation of that particular church was mainly comprised of old ladies, and I knew from experience that Kelly and elderly biddies rarely mixed well. He was too cool, too brisk, too unsympathetically businesslike for their tastes, and too oblivious of his own appalling tactlessness. Whenever they would attempt to secure his sympathy—they being unaware that, as sympathy requires some modicum of imagination, Kelly had very little of it—they would catch him as he left and, ostensibly speaking to the smiling Sandy, they'd overload him with tragic stories of their cruel, ungrateful offspring—and clever, socially ignorant Kelly, seeing only the plain facts of the matter, and tasting none of the heavy, salty bias of the story, would quite unabashedly make some factual remark which pointed out, quite simply, some redeeming quality or saving grace of said offspring. But nevertheless, popular or otherwise, Mr. and Mrs. Kelly were regulars at their church, and Kelly, almost systematically, said his prayers nightly. I confess it amuses me to imagine Kelly's prayers; I always thought that they must be a little like a mix between a store-bought thank you card and a list of petitions. Gina, rather irreverently, once said that she was sure Kelly bored God to tears, and she nearly pitied Him for having to sit through those tedious nightly images. I couldn't help but agree; religion, in my mind, required some degree of aesthetic appreciation, some mystical quality which deviated from the hammering blows of Fact, Fact, Fact—and Kelly had no such quality. Yet he was the most devout among the bunch of us—accepting, of course, his meek Sandy—and I used to tease him—not that he understood it—by calling him Kelly the Pious. Thus it seems strange that religion—not, understand, the creed or spiritual element itself, but more so the idea of religion—would play a role in Kelly's undoing.
I would like, if I may, to present several entries from this scientific journal, this recording of my dreams, all copied word for word from the original and all as detailed as my memory would allow. The following are taken from the week after I began this tedious experiment, Monday-Friday.
Monday. In bed with the blonde woman again. Enjoyable. Smelled like that stuff Gina's got—sandalwood perfume. Then the door opened and the whole thing was gone.
Tuesday. Eating an apple. Wanted one growing on nearby tree. Reached for it, but it went higher up each time. Stupidity, the whole thing. Spent a good hour reaching for it. Never got it.
Wednesday. Stupid apple dream again. Reached for it, reached for it, reached for it—got it this time. Elated. Bit into it—and the thing tasted sour and bitter. Almost rotten. Disgusted, but didn't throw it away—just sat and stared at it sadly. Complete stupidity. Maybe Gina's right.
Thursday. Bed with the blonde. Door opened, and everything vanished. What a let-down.
Friday. Interesting dream last night, even Gina admitted so. Dreamt I murderedKelly—actually crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back, and watched him fall to the ground. His eyes were open the whole time, and he stared at me, and his expression was almost accusing. Very disturbing, all in all.
I wonder what it all means.
It was because of Bilkins that I began this trek into the grody world of subtext, because of Bilkins that I began to copy down my absurd dreams, because of Bilkins that—but I'm getting ahead of myself. Though none of us realized it at the time, Bilkins was the silent force in the background. He was like gravity—he compelled and controlled everything in his grasp, yet did it so that no one was even aware of his foul interference. Bilkins was the finger that set the dominoes into play—and, as anyone can tell you, once they begin to fall, there is no salvaging the rest of it.