Erin Entrada Kelly
124 Was Spiteful
My husband's name is Richard, but he thinks his name is Ishmael. He walks around the apartment muttering "Call me Ishmael. Call me Ishmael." I do not call him Ishmael because I know his name is Richard Rhinewald. Dr. Rhinewald, as he preferred to introduce himself, because my husband wasn't the sort of guy who said, "Oh, just call me Richard." He had no nicknames, like Rich or Ricky or Dr. R. He was Dr. Rhinewald, PhD, English professor of American Romanticism. A knower of Coleridge, Emerson and Poe—the authors of all things that came back to haunt him when his mind, once a busy and efficient wheel outfitted with sturdy and polished bolts, became unhinged in a steady decline that started a year ago. That's when he woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that a murder of ravens was perched outside. They want to carry you away in their talons, he whispered. We have to go. Go, go, go.
"I thought a group of ravens was called a flock," I said, bleary eyed. "A group of crows are called a murder. Are they crows or are they ravens?" Then I realized what he'd said and I was wide awake, saying, "Wait – what?"
He repeated himself.
I rolled over and yawned. "You're talking in your sleep, Richard. Go back to bed."
He didn't. Instead, he opened the window and yelled "Go! Leave us! LEAVE US!" so loudly that it took me a moment to realize it was him. Dr. Rhinewald never yelled. He preferred to degrade people through smug logic and wry sarcasm. When I sat upright and asked what he was doing, he looked at me as if my question was ridiculous. It was a familiar look. One I'd seen as early as our first date, when I offered my own political philosophy and he'd said, 'You don't really think that, do you?'
"I'm scaring away the murder," he said, and went back to screaming.
• • •
His vocabulary dwindled to virtually nothing over the succeeding months and now it mostly consists of three words: Call me Ishmael. Call me Ishmael. I wonder what is happening in his brain, what the wheel looks like now. He'd read Moby Dick, obviously, but it wasn't one of his favorites. It wasn't one that he'd droned about over dinner or drinks. Yet he'd sacrificed every other word in his Columbia-educated vocabulary and left himself with Call me Ishmael.
It makes me wonder what famous first sentence I would leave myself with, if given the chance. Would it be Orwell? It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. Something more stately, perhaps. Dickens. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether this station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. Perhaps I would go by way of Vonnegut: All this happened, more or less.
But my husband – this man, who liked to make steeples with his fingers when he thought he was sounding intelligent; who squinted his eyes condescendingly at most people he met; who wore blazers with elbow patches – had reduced himself to a disheveled hollow of an intelligent man, blazers hanging in the closet, loafers un-loafed, muttering Call me Ishmael and daring me to do it.
"Call me Ishmael," he would say, looking directly at me, with saliva collecting in the corners of his mouth.
"The nurse will be back tomorrow," I would reply. "Tell her to do it."
Then I'd light a cigarette, because he always hated them, and blow the smoke into his face until he walked away.
• • •
Pretty soon, he started limping.
I told this to the doctor.
"Why is he limping?" Dr. Sullivan asked. "Has he hurt himself?"
"No. It's more Moby Dick nonsense. The captain loses his leg in the book."
Dr. Sullivan sighed. "You know what you need to do. This has gone beyond an at-home nurse. Actually, it passed that point several months ago."
"I know." I looked up from the phone to find Richard sitting in the recliner, glaring at me. This was an unfamiliar look. My heart thumped. I cleared my throat and said into the phone: "I will, Dr. Sully," because unlike my husband, Dr. Sully was the type of guy who said things like, 'Oh, don't call me Dr. Sullivan. It's far too formal. Everyone calls me Sully.'
"It's possible that he could get dangerous. I've told you that, time and again," Dr. Sully said. "He might start thinking of you as a whale. You never know."
"Thanks a lot."
"You know what I mean. All this Moby Dick stuff."
"It's Ahab who hunts the whale, not Ishmael."
"What's Ishmael do?"
"He's the storyteller."
"Telling the story about how he lost his leg?"
"Not exactly. Ahab is the one who lost his leg, not Ishmael."
"Then why is Richard limping?"
"Hell, I don't know," I said. My heart thumped again. The weight of Richard's glare dug into my skin. "I haven't read it since freshman year of college." When I was a student in Dr. Rhinewald's class. When I thought he was sophisticated and sharp and clever. Before the days when he'd tap my forehead with his index finger and say, "Duh, Duh," when I said something that he considered naïve and foolish.
Richard glared. Then he lifted that same index finger toward me and said, "You."
I thought of another first line. Toni Morrison.
124 was spiteful.
I brought the phone closer to my mouth and said, "Send the van tomorrow."
• • •
I left Richard in the living room and locked myself in the bedroom so I could sleep. Something about that glare was unsettling. Something about that word, 'You,' and the way he'd said it. Leaving him in a living room was a stupid move, though, because all it took was a hairpin and the doorknob clicked open. I heard the click at ten minutes after three. It's funny how he remembers some of the little things, like how to make toast or how to unlock the bedroom door.
I sat up in bed and saw exactly what I expected to see. I knew him well, even in his madness, and there he was with a makeshift spear, except it wasn't a spear at all. It was a yard stick from the garage. He was also completely naked. I'd been with Richard for years and with others before him and the sight of a naked man still made me want to giggle like I did when I was sixteen.
"Call me Ishmael," he said, pointing the yard stick at me. "You whale. You, Moby Dick."
I slipped out of bed. Slowly. Deliberately.
"Ironic," I said. "People have always thought of you as the dick."
His face didn't change. The wheel wasn't working properly enough to understand jokes. Not that he ever got mine anyway.
"You're Ahab, then? Not Ishmael?" I said, standing. "Ahab dies, you know. He goes down with the ship. The whale lives."
Richard made a quick movement and I crouched down with my hands out, like a sumo wrestler. This was quite a match. One-hundred-twenty pounds of sanity versus one-hundred-sixty pounds of madness with a yard stick. I imagined him whacking me with that yard stick. I glanced quickly around the room for a weapon, but there wasn't one. Our home was sparsely furnished. There were books, of course, but none of the slim volumes closest to me would serve any purpose. The Stranger. Catcher in the Rye. Great Gatsby. I needed Ulysses or Atlas Shrugged, but those were in the fancy bookcase in the study.
"Ishmael, is it?" I said, still crouched. "No more Dr. Rhinewald?"
Richard's eyebrows went up.
"Ishmael," I said again.
He lowered the yard stick.
"Call me Ishmael," he muttered.
I thought I heard the wheel of his brain creak.
"Ishmael," I complied.
He dropped the yard stick. Nodded slowly. Bent down to the carpet and sat there.
He sighed deeply, hung his head and said, "'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'"
I had written my thesis on Tolstoy, even though Richard said American romanticism was where the true grand works of literature existed.
I picked up my phone. Looked for Dr. Sully's number.
Maybe he could send the van now.
Or an ambulance.
Did they send ambulances for this sort of thing?
Richard buried his face in his hands and cried.
I remembered the time that he'd called me an 'ignorant waif' until I cried. When I did, he plucked the side of my head and said, 'This is the reason women haven't advanced beyond men in the past ten-thousand years – they blubber.'
I dialed Sully's number. As his phone buzzed, I watched my husband whimper.
When Sully answered, I said: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."