An Excerpt from She Sang to Them, She Sang

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from an unpublished novel titled She Sang to Them, She Sang. While reading this section, which comes from a chapter titled “Like in the Movies,” I was reminded of both Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, especially the latter’s eccentric scenes with therapists and his penchant for using clause-trophobia to reflect an unwell mind.

So he enacted the following plan: he stopped going to church, started wearing nothing around the house but Metallica and Iron Maiden-type t-shirts he obtained two-for-a-dollar from the Sally Ann and underwear he teased out from the very bottom of his dresser drawer—and this in a house where the dress code normally resembled something like a 1970s high tea in rural Wales. He also stopped combing his hair, abjured shaving, heeded his parents’ imprecations concerning his bodily odours, and yielded to their pleas that he bathe only every fifth, sixth and finally seventh day—an experiment which led to the discovery that, contrary to all previous evidence to the contrary, he could indeed exercise the power of his will, even if in this instance only in negation, and even if the execution of such an act of sheer volition resulted in disgusting himself as much as it revolted his parents.

But sacrifices had to be made, and, once Manny had located and tapped the source of his inner strength, he decided to up the ante several notches: he began to steal even more money, bills this time, from his mother’s numerous purses. Then, like many people, assuming that fiction was not only utterly useless but also, somehow, wildly dangerous, he unsuccessfully Googled ‘depressing novels’ on Bing before bending the ear of a Boomer librarian who trotted out the usual Sartre, Camus, Kerouac and Burroughs for him, which he left splayed open around the house as if to worry his parents that he had started reading again for the first time since the fifth grade, which he erroneously assumed would no doubt alarm his pragmatically philistine parents, (who, blockheads that they were interpreted his ‘reading’ as a some kind of sign that he was starting to take an interest in the real world once again) more than any of his other tactics. The latter included such brainwaves as carelessly coating the walls of his room with a single coat of cheap maroon paint, which he paired with three-layer blackout curtains, velvet-covered black light sensitive posters (Darth Vader, a heaping pile of skulls, the ‘Grim Reefer’) and a blue lava lamp, all purchased online with his mother’s credit card. He also swapped out the heavy metal garb he’d been wearing (but not allowing his mother to wash) for whatever random bits of clothing the Sally Ann had in solid black—this after setting out all of the tailored dress shirts, pants and jackets that his parents had brought him neatly folded on the curb on garbage day. If this last gambit had brought tears to his own eyes (for who could part with such high thread counts, such tailored precision willingly?) it had

almost killed his parents, for they understood the symbolic value of this gesture: Manny was now wilfully torpedoing any chance that he might have of real-world advancement, which they understood to be the acquisition of wealth, and for which, (for Manny’s sake) they were prepared to sacrifice anything, even Manny. Yes, it was all painfully delicious to watch, but it also happened to work: they eventually bought his dropping-out story, and sat him down one afternoon over a plate of his beloved Kadaif to tell him so.

But if he thought that this meant that they would also thereby let him be, well, he was sorely mistaken, and had seriously misunderestimated his parents: their capacity to absorb those disappointments that life had in store for them, to sublimate (literally: to make sublime) said baser emotions (centred upon those perceived slights that Manny’s actions—but, chiefly, inactions—had brought into their honest, hard-working and yet proud home) into golden parental concern and worry was beyond his imagining. For they had talked to friends at church about it, who had brought Manny’s case up with a dozen or so of their own friends (one of whose cousins had also been consulted, the neighbour of whom, a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital for the clinically insane, claimed to have heard of cases similar to Manny’s once or twice before, who had told his neighbour to tell the cousin to tell the friend of the friend at church to tell Manny’s parents to consult their parish priest and perhaps even their GP, for the consensus was growing in the community was that Manny was experiencing a crisis of faith, one that might require not only pastoral but also perhaps even medical intervention. The nursing assistant even had even employed the term ‘clinical depression’ (the first part of which, to Manny’s parents’ ears, sounded much more respectably legitimate—invoking as it did a vague assortment of paraphernalia [stethoscopes, tongue depressors, white coats…] of a soberly remunerative profession—than the second, which was obviously no more than a code word for having consumed a sinful cocktail made up of such easily avoided—according to Father Gregory—intoxicants as acedia and tristitia, that combination of spiritual sloth, lack of humility and instability of the soul which can only lead to a life of despair, shiftlessness, and, most likely, suicide or chronic unemployment—or both! So Father Gregory got Manny’s parents in touch with a church-approved GP right away. It was times like these that Manny’s parents counted their blessings, and cursed the day that they had sold up in Toronto and moved to a city such as Orangefield, which was not only mostly Protestant but which was also wholly lacking in those cultural and communal ties that made life in this vale of tears almost, at times, less manifestly tearful. But they would seek help for their erring son! And he might yet prove their friends, friends of friends, cousins, fellow parishioners and former neighbours wrong—God willing!

On their way to the strip mall on Lawrence East in Toronto (which also the site a rather splendid Armenian grocery store, one which housed the quite excellent little café where Manny’s father would wait and kvetch with old friends while Mother would escort Manny to his appointment several doors down), Manny fell to thinking that this whole process of faking dropping out had taken a lot out of him, had expended a great deal of his reserves of will power (such as they admittedly were), and had actually left him feeling, well, to be honest, a little depressed. So, even though ‘existentialist crisis’ had been the word the librarian had taught him to give to the whole tenor of the thing that he had been aiming for (he had even taken to wearing a black beret, but one worn in a style that made him look more like Sous-chef Toad at Toadstool Restaurant than like a proper left-bank intellectual) maybe Dr. Barsamian might prove to be of some use to him, for in addition to the dark cloud of melancholia that he now seemed unable to shake, he had also been recently beset by a strange dermatological condition, in which his skin had seemed continually prone to be needed to be peeled away, as if coated with layer upon layer of rubber cement, this perhaps on account of a not-too-recently adopted mono-diet of dry Alpha Bits cereal, eaten straight from the box and alone in his room—but not, not ever when lying in bed, of course. Manny did have some pride, after all, and fully knew where to draw the line.

The GP dispatched him in seconds with a referral to a psychiatrist back in Orangefield and a prescription for some impressive-sounding ointment. Sensing the game was back on, Manny bided his time and then, on the day before his specialist consultation countered with the suggestion that he decamp to take the cure at a posh Arizona rehab clinic he’d found in Fast Company magazine. When they attempted to call his bluff he called theirs, and skipped out on his appointment, going out the back door and down to the amusement arcade, where he spent the money his mother had given him for hospital parking (at $8 per 15 minutes, a not insignificant sum) on uncountable hours on the ancient video game of Joust. After they finally found him, took him home and waited 72 hours for him to get out of bed (he had fooled them both by taking an empty Nestea bottle with him as a chamber pot—along with a full bottle as well, so as not succumb to dehydration, but in the middle there at some point, which bottle was actually which became somewhat confusing to him) they reluctantly climbed down from psychiatry (which had the virtue of being properly medical, as well as being free of charge) to psychology (which was whatever nebulous thing that it was, but most grievously of all involved actual outlays of money), the first practitioner of which gently proposed a non-invasive, ten-session course in cognitive therapy, which he immediately dismissed out of hand and raised the stakes by saying that he would pack his bags and depart while his parents slept (slept too through what remained of their pathetic little lives, slept through the dark night of their souls, but not him, sir!) for upstate New York, where there was a Zen Buddhist monastery, which would not only take him in and feed him free of charge, but which would both understand and support rather than undermine and suffocate him!

This gambit brought about a triumphant caving-in by his father, but regrettable tears from his mother—and thus, subsequently, from Manny himself. After many hugs and caresses and as the new day’s dawn approached, he dropped his guard and consented to seeing a mutually agreed-upon counsellor, and finally left decamped from room to take a much-needed shower. Over coffee and croissants (chocolate, his favourite, which his mother had ventured out in her coat and dressing gown to fetch for her little boy), however, there then arose some dispute as to which kind of counsellor they could all live with. Manny had read the first few results provided by Bing, but his parents had never heard of Carl Jung, and didn’t warm to the fact that the local Jungian also did Tarot readings, and after looking it all up on Wikipedia were concerned about the time horizon (and thus expenditures) involved. Advised all along the way by Father Gregory, his parents also rejected Freud (Manny’s first choice, but he had cleverly disguised it as a fall-back position) out of hand, both for the latter reason as well as for his pessimism regarding the roles of family and religious support while in treatment. Manny then flat-out refused the counter-proposal proffered by these three: that he seek the counsel of Father Athanasios at Orangefield’s Greek Orthodox church (which his parents attended three weeks out of four, as they could not get away to Toronto more than once per month), since it would negate the only part of this game that Manny was actually enjoying—i.e. no longer having to accompany his parents to church, the worst part of which was not the actual mass itself but meeting his parents’ (that is, his mother’s) acquaintances on the church doorstep afterwards, which involved making that weekly apologia pro vita sua, confessing to the assembled matriarchs every single one of those shameful reasons as to why he was not yet the man that his mother had promised them all that he would no doubt have become before the Good Lord took her away from this earth, which was no doubt very soon indeed, as their friend’s son was swiftly killing her with such shame!

All of this was such exquisite torture to him that Manny even resisted his mother’s attempts to sweeten the pot with proposed weekly lunches at Café Yerevan and trips to Anak Fine Foods, where she would no doubt stock up on precisely the kind of Armenian delights (not only the sweet Nazouk, Gata and sugar fingers, but also the savoury Boregs and ready-made Lahmajoons) that his mother knew would normally drive Manny to his knees in abject submission.

But these were hardly normal times, and Manny bravely held fast, kept a firm resolve, stared his mother down (almost remorselessly) with a poker face that was almost the equal of his father’s. No matter how she railed or pleaded, bribed, threatened or cajoled, he would not be moved. There would be no ecclesiastical involvement in any treatment programme that he would sign on to, which by now was becoming decidedly less fictional, he soon discovered: for her clever rejection of the quite sensible Dr. Pozolochenyshyn on account of his Ukrainian heritage (which in his mother’s eyes inescapably branded him a closet communist, even though Manny vainly attempted to convince her that Dr. Pozolochenyshyn’s family had fled the Ukraine because of actual persecution by the Soviets) was followed by her blithe statement that she had, at any rate, already made arrangements for him to see a Dr. Chrysopoulos, since the entire theatrical production staged by this disappointment who called himself her son had just about dragged on as far as it would be allowed to go. She had had enough of this entire charade, and Manny would just have to discover his backbone, something that Dr. C’s practice in abuse therapy was famous for inducing in those patients who survived it.

This news terrified the poor boy into getting a suitcase ready, but not for the reason that his mother would have guessed—and she was a world class guesser, and had the ability to plumb your depths to the very nethermost regions of your viscera with but four or five (even, sometimes, merely three!) artfully oracular and only seemingly random questions shot from her hip and aimed at your unarmoured auricle: No, Manny was packing lest his whole cover would be blown, as Dr. Chrysopoulos was also the owner of the town pool hall, and it was to the Dr.’s own son that Manny had lost the majority of his (mother’s) money. This dirty laundry was sure to come out in the wash, Manny figured, if the good doctor connected even a few of the dots, well, then Manny’s ship was surely sunk, wasn’t it, going down like a rusty cargo ship captained by a cowardly sonuvabitch, crewed by incompetent homebody landlubbers and loaded with container after container of mixed and putrefying dead metaphors, damn it!

Manny then quickly performed some research, and typed ‘therapist Orangefield’ into the address bar of Internet Explorer version 8 on his mother’s computer. After he closed the twenty-three or four inevitable pop-ups, he discovered that Bing had for once found just what he needed, and (wasting no time, for he had precious little left to squander) dialled the first name on the list, and asked about availability. Owing to a strange slew of last minute cancellations they were wide open on that very day, and Manny could be seen in sixty minutes’ time, so Manny then released the household’s sole telephone to his attentive mother, she who at any rate had been looming over him for the duration of the call and who had been twisting the receiver with her considerable grip strength (honed over the years from opening jars, etc. that no man in the house would have wasted his precious time upon) trying to partially turn it away from his ear so that she could rightfully listen in. Ha, why not let her grill the unfortunate receptionist with her patented silly questions!

When she was satisfied that Dr. Bael was neither a Freudian, a Protestant, a dispenser of LSD or of mary-jew-auna, an interferer of little boys, a member of the provincial or of the federal New Democratic or Liberal parties (both of which supported a woman’s right to choose to be damned for all eternity, i.e., a woman’s perverse ‘right’ to be anti-life with both the capital and the lower case ‘L’), a lesbian (he was a he, assuredly), a Yazidi, Russian or (of course) Turk, she finally gave her consent, but insisted upon waiting until the following morning—when, as luck would have it, they could have the time slot of their choice.

And, miracle of miracles, that was when Manny, never much of a reader, finally managed to turn a page in the poorly edited, cheaply bound and self-published book that was his life: not on account of Dr. Bael, of course, who was a doctor only in the sense that Pacific Breeze University of Burbank, California had granted him a doctorate in Quotidian Eudaimonics in exchange for his five hundred word thesis (‘Selfie-Propriety: Experiential Attitudinal Modulation and the Autonomic Weltanschauung in The Age of Instagram’, which he successfully placed in the Pacific Breeze student annual The North-North-Westerner) along with four quarterly instalments of $124.99 (plus shipping) on his credit card. Almost simultaneously (and though it added considerably to his financial worries and to the severity of his sleep deprivation), he started his counselling practice by obtaining home office space from a ‘start your own business from home’ multi-level marketer whose only product was a kit that one could sell to clients that would teach new clients how to find clients of their very own to sell a ‘how to start your own business from home’ kit to. They also shared (in every sense of the word) a receptionist, twenty minutes with whom, and for a reasonable but mutually agree-upon surcharge, they hinted that (Manny now on his second and final visit) Manny might find considerable therapeutic benefit from as well.

But on his first visit Dr. Bael had gotten right down to business and had made it absolutely clear that if Manny were to have any hope of ever having a ‘normal’ life of any kind, then he would have to learn to cure himself. When Manny did not dispute this (as so many other temporarily engaged, irresponsible and self-deluded patients so evidently had), Dr. Bael seemed to warm to him somewhat, poured him a tumbler of whiskey, sat him down in the doctor’s own chair, and, after directing him check off which three of the good doctor’s proprietary series of Binaural Beats™­ (brain-syncing Muzak-esque CDs containing both sub- and sur-liminal lectures on how to conduct business when out of the office and out of body on the astral plane) that he would like to collect from the company warehouse (a conveniently-placed garage that was attached by a breezeway of sorts to the physical plant of the home office) at the end of his session, he then plunked himself down on the imitation leather Swedishy couch (that Manny, in his ignorance of just how the cure effectuated itself, had imagined would be his own to lie down upon) and proceeded to read to Manny from his (­­©Bael State University Press) very own life story—a thoroughgoing appreciation of which was, Manny soon discovered, but one of the Three Pillars of Insight™ that undergirded the whole Autonomic Cure™ itself.

It all started back in upstate New York in 1946, where the good doctor was raised to be a modern day Ethan Allen by a metalworker father who made knives, forks and spoons all day, and who either presciently dreamed that his only son would escape such a life of physical drudgery or wanted to be well shot of him before the age of school leaving, as he sent young Dr. Bael to one of the private military academies associated (in the same manner that a tick is associated with a hunting dog) with West Point—not as a student, mind you, but as an indentured apprentice to one of the bat boys there. Of course, the future Dr. Bael soon went AWOL, as it became almost immediately clear to him that (‘Manly, yes!’) West Point and its numerous (‘But I like it too!’) understudies were but way stations on the road to inscrutable, unwinnable Viet Nam (which France had recently hot-potatoed onto America’s all-too-willing lap), which itself was but a gateway to sudden and violent non-livability, which was why our good not-yet-doctor got himself the first bus ticket north he could get his fortunate little hands on—north to Niagara Falls, Canada, before some uniformed functionary thought to buy him his ticket to the afterlife, to a face-plant in a rice paddy, to Nowheresville, in short, and…and….

And then Manny must have suddenly awoken, because a hardback book had been thrown, current evidence suggested, at his face. Yes he had fallen asleep, and, yes again, had dropped his tumbler of booze on the shag carpet, and, well, guess what? As part of Manny’s individualised Theragnosis™ schedule, the Bael Institute’s latest therapeutic protocol, Dr. Bael was now demonstrating how to get very angry at unanticipated occurrences such as this—anger which Manny would need to tap into if he were ever to self-effectualize out there in the real world!

The book that Dr. Bael positively hucked at him bounced off Manny’s nose and fell into his lap, and Manny unthinkingly latched onto it and wielded it like a shield while Dr. Bael initiated the modality of chasing him about the room, out the door, through reception and partially down the street before ‘giving up’ (a patent-pending and still experimental technique—necessitating requisite exploratory surcharges—whereby the therapist permanently transfers a measured dosage of his own real-worldly energies to the patient, by giving him or her what appears to be the old heave-ho, but which in fact—initial findings somewhat cautiously suggest—imbues the patient with much-needed inter-reliance on the part of his or her previously non-cooperativizing and thus holistically incoherent, perhaps even fractured Componentry of Selfdom™) and going into one of his (off-schedule and therefore unbillable) extempore coughing fits.

When he was sure that he was safe and that this highly unorthodox but strangely affecting session with Dr. Bael was over for the day, Manny slowed to catch his breath, and noticed that he still had the book in his hands. So when he got home, having nothing better to do and not wishing to have to confront his mother and explain the black eye and cut nose from the treatment, he locked himself in his room and started in on the book, reading though the night, swallowing Joe Silverman’s message of pragmatic honesty-to-self hook, line and sinker, and by morning he was caught, and reeled himself in, gave himself a little shake, and released himself back into his own life, which now meant the gathering, cherishing and deployment of those very Success Forces which lay in the interstices of ‘Life’s Little Details’: thus, before his mother even awoke he had cleaned up his room, had ironed his clothes (those treasures his mother had retrieved from otherwise certain oblivion on Garbage Day), and had fixed the three of them a splendid little breakfast by defrosting some of his mother’s frozen sweet Keta and warming up some of the previous morning’s leftover Kalagyosh, crumbling some appropriately stale Lavash on top of it, too—just as his mother liked it.

To say that his mother embraced her reborn son would be stretching an already heady tale of redemption almost to its breaking point, but since Manny thereafter kept inculcating his Success Forces, and managed to pass the exam for his real estate license (after securing an unpaid internship at the local brokerage of Archibald & Aiken, whose patriarch had taken a shine to Manny whenever Manny—always dressed for opportunity in his suit and tie—bumped into him on his rounds delivering the local free paper), she had come to address him with grudging respect, no longer appending ‘Dinj soikha’ (‘limp [Donkey’s] prick’) to his name whenever she called out to him, always from another room.

The rest, as the feminists say, is history, his story.

W.D. Clarke is a writer from Ontario, Canada. His first novel White Mythology, published in 2016, can be previewed here.

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