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The Shovel Mental Contagion
Conversations with other human beings

Paul Friedman Chicago, IL
speaks with Gene Dillon

Paul Friedman is a voice in Chicago that you may recognize. He is often gregarious, usually funny, occasionally surly, and always my friend. Paul's extensive works of fiction can only be found in the "sent mail box" on the corrupt hard drive of an 11 year-old Mac Performa in his leaky basement.

PF: Recently I have been fascinated and repulsed by a series of size-shifting moles that have cropped up on my back, in the pattern of the constellation Cassiopeia, the Giant W in the sky. Since I was a child, when ozone plentifully dripped heavily from hot city skyscrapers and belching dump trucks, I wore protection against the sun. It was merely sunburn we feared as children. So I was surprised to notice several weeks ago, at the beginning of Winter - these moles, spanning scapula to scapula.

It was a coincidence that I became even aware of these, at the time, tiny spots, as a large mirror on the ceiling happened to come dislodged and fall directly behind where I was standing shirtless in front of a full-length mirror on a door. Having landed on its end and amazingly enough, not shattering into a million pieces, the mirror simply came to rest on my back. As I gathered my mostly relieved thoughts and while turning to carefully push the mirror off of me, I couldn't help but see the heretofore unnoticed pattern of tiny blackish-grey dots. Being somewhat of an amateur astronomer, the pattern was clear.

Not wanting to alarm my wife, who had the day earlier returned from the hospital with our infant child, and not believing there was anything beyond a superficial significance to my discovery, I made no mention of the moles. I only spoke of the mirror above crashing down somehow, and that I was lucky to have escaped with my life!

The next morning, waking before dawn by the crying infant, I found a mirror, looked again and became rather alarmed at the size to which the moles had grown overnight. Instead of dark specks the size of large freckles, they had become transformed into purple wheals, each about the size of a quarter-dollar, with a bulbous nipple-like growth from each of them. In a state of sleepless confusion and anxiety, I went to find my wife, who was just putting the child back to sleep.

I told her about the moles and hesitantly asked her to look at them, removing my robe. Being irritable and not in a playful mood, she looked at my back and told me to stop worrying about a few freckles and insisted that I return to bed; then she stormed quietly out of the room. Incredibly, the moles had shrunk back to the size of the previous afternoon. After convincing myself that I must have been hallucinating because of stress and exhaustion, I climbed back into bed and fell asleep a short time later.

Out of the darkness of sleep, I was stirred by the combination of an unusual sound and odd tugging sensation from my back. In vain, I tried to ignore it as yet another manifestation of my weakened mental state, but the sensations would not abate. The more I reached towards consciousness, the more I became aware of another physical presence in our bed behind me. Almost awake, I understood that the presence must be responsible for both the sound and physical sensations that were now impossible to dismiss. Then, in an instant, the restlessness of night was broken by my wife's screams as my eyes flew open to see in the mirror above me, our unnamed infant having mysteriously moved from the sanctity of its crib in the next room, suckling comfortably, its mouth full of colostrum, taken from the centermost mole on my back.

GD: I can remember when my first child was no bigger than a fist. He slept for seven and a half minutes at a stretch, after which he awoke with a screech not unlike the sound that a bobcat makes when you poke it with a long stick. My wife perfected a very effective nursing system involving an elaborate grid of body pillows, heavy-duty earplugs, and a breast pedestal that she had custom-built for her by a tool-and-dye specialist here in Boulder. Her ingenuity paid off in spades. She never woke up, and the boy never went hungry. He was generally a fat and happy infant, but for the screams.

The screams...

We had our problems. One set of glands and pipes dried up completely, leaving my wife visibly disproportionate. At social gatherings, she would attempt to thrust the minor breast up and forward, to hide this discrepancy, and her efforts eventually led to a series of slipped discs in the fourth through the seventh vertebrae. Our tool-and-dye man felt personally responsible. Overwhelmed by guilt, he drops by the house at least twice a week with new blueprints for artificial disc replacements.

My own struggles in those days had everything to do with sleep. I tried the earplugs and the eyeplugs and all sorts of pills. But the shrieks and the shifting-about going on in the center of my bed was something I could never quite get used to. During the third week of my child's life, I logged a total of four hours of sleep in the span of six days. Tossing and turning late one night, I got up to take a pee. From a standing position, mid- stream in my business, I passed out. I remember nothing of this. Just blackness, interrupted by flashing undulations - the red blobs of light.

When I came to, my head was embedded in the wall. Not just part of the way, but completely. It was as if a contractor had entered the house, cut an oval-shaped hole in the drywall, placed my head inside, and then taped and mudded up the edges, leaving my head completely sealed within the wall.

In pitch darkness, I called out. On the outside, in a standing position, my body flailed, stomping, kicking, and thumping the wall with the open palm of my left hand. I ranted for hours. No one could hear me.

Eventually, I stopped. And stood in my place. I had enough air to breathe. It was sort of peaceful. This was a place where I could sleep.

Morning came, though I cannot say this for sure, as my head remained in total darkness. I could hear my wife making coffee and toast and eggs. Classical music on the stereo. I was strangely comfortable, so I decided to wait for her to come into the bathroom and take care of her morning things. She would find me, and pull me out, and we would laugh and laugh and laugh. She did come. She showered, brushed her teeth and got dressed, but apparently she did not notice me standing there with my head sealed into the wall. She left our condo with baby in tow, to run some errands. I heard the mailman come and go. Sprinklers. The man with the knife-sharpening cart. People coming home from work, and finally, my wife and child returning as the sounds of the end of a day crept in.

Life continued on like this for three days.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I suddenly realized that I had been holding a ballpeen hammer in my right hand the entire time. I pounded away at the drywall, freeing myself at last.

I showered, and cooked some dinner.

So, Paul.... Last time I was in town, I noticed that your mother had given you some sea monkeys. How is that working out?

PF: They are ebullient, most often, but not entirely.

Some time ago there were guests where we live, whom we had invited on a whim because of their nondescript physical characteristics. There were 20 of them all plodding through unnecessary conversation in the kitchen. One was particularly droll and he remarked to me about the shade of lacquer on a family heirloom teapot on a high shelf.

"I've seen better." He smirked. "If you consider that an heirloom, I'd hate to see what other shit you have in this dump."

That's what we get for inviting strangers, I thought.

His prattle continued on for some time, attracting more and more of the guests, who must have fancied him as some sort of Hollywood type.

All the time I felt quite blindsided by the accumulating rudeness and turned away from where they were, towards the window where the sea monkeys lived. My focus became more thorough on their little tank, shaped like a glass egg. Soon the hurling insults faded out as if my ears were full of insulation.

I didn't know if this was a coincidence or not, but in a moment I saw the King. He wore the prerequisite crown of gold, encrusted by the tiniest of jewels. I thought they might be merely grains of sand, only why would they be so proud to wear sand?

They all had anthropomorphically detailed faces, the King's wife had pretty eyelashes, like those of a woman in a magazine from around the time that jet travel became popular. Even the sea monkey's children had attributes of mankind. A baseball bat, a doll, a small sea monkey pet with a face like a happy dog. They gathered together and took their traditional poses inside the shimmering thimble which was their palace.

On this day, the King seemed labored. He addled along the bottom of the glass egg, using his many fingers to collect the algae and stuff his mandibles. Because of the magnified optics the glass egg lent itself to nicely, I saw his expression of worry. He stopped and removed his crown to rid himself of perspiration, as if the eating was burdensome. Then he stopped moving entirely. It was for a time long enough for my concentration to be broken and these strangers in my house continued to fawn over Mr. Asshole.

What am I doing?

"GET OUT!" "ALL OF YOU!!!" "Take yourselves out of here, at once!"

The nondescript guests got the message sure enough and gathered their coats while mumbling invectives directed my way. At last they were gone, but the King still had not moved. I began to get concerned. With my pinkie finger nail, I tapped on the egg near where the King stood motionless. A faint hi-pitched ring was the only sound. At once the King disappeared.

In time, they nominated the King's son to take his rightful place on the throne and after a period of due grief, the sea monkeys returned to their playful pursuits.

I guess that just happens.

GD: I have never owned a pet - we weren't allowed to have them in the house. But my two sisters were always bringing home injured animals that they had found. When my father came home from work, he would instruct them to take the animal immediately to the empty lot near Lombard Avenue, next to the highway, and leave them there so that their mothers could find them before it became dark. One day I saw them pelting a robin's nest with rocks. This would explain why so many birds and squirrels had been turning up lame on my block. I think they expected my dad to be more sympathetic if a poor stray thing had some sort of head trauma, and they would be allowed to keep him.

But injured or not, ALL animals of this earth, including some humans, caused my father to become asthmatic and break out in large puffy hives. I once brought home a goldfish from the annual Reptile Fair at St. Catherine's. Even though the clear plastic sandwich bag was double-knotted and air-tight, the allergens attacked his sinuses the moment I crossed the threshold. He ballooned up to a point where we had to cut the clothing away from his body.

One summer's day, my older sister came home from the park on her bicycle, riding cautiously with a blanket covering up something in the wicker basket attached to the front of her handlebars. She dismounted, put down the kickstand, and ran inside to brush the hair on her giant Barbie head. I was alone on the front steps with only my baseball mitt and my curiosity. What now? A kitten with a torn ACL? A fruit bat with missing teeth?

Something squirmed beneath the tattered, yellowing blanket. I stood up, and took three cautious steps toward it. With each approaching step, the creature became more and more agitated. I was a little bit frightened, but I was also worried about the poor thing. Did she have to brush the Barbie head NOW? What if this thing is dying, and I can help it?

I reached a crack on the sidewalk where I was within an arm's reach, and the blanket was now churning like a pot of water on a rolling boil. I reached toward the blanket, my hand shaking like an alcoholic at breakfast. Closer... Closer....


I ran away and sat back down on the steps.

Wait - a stick!

I found a nice long stick, and reached over carefully to lift up a corner of the blanket... It had stopped moving. It was dark under there, and hard to see what it was... No... No way!


The thick brown beast uncoiled and sprang at my face -I ducked, and the worm wrapped itself around my left arm, and started burrowing into my infielder's glove. I dropped it, and the worm continued inward, burying itself deeper and deeper into the fingers and the thumb, until at last it disappeared completely, as if it never existed. The mitt shuddered and twitched for a few moments, and then fell still.

I left it on the sidewalk, and bolted up the steps. It was 3:30. Johnny Socko, channel 44.

I remember, vaguely... during the commercials, I thought I heard those neighbor kids, Frankie and Guy, playing catch outside... Wait a minute... They only owned one glove!

Wasn't that the summer that their family quietly moved away in the middle of the night?

Hey. I heard that you have a new hobby. Is it true?

PF: I've been learning slowly how to fly a blimp. It all started on the back of a pack of matches, with a 12 digit number scrawled in red ball point pen ink. On a whim, I found the nearest pay-phone and finding a number of coins in my pocket with little purpose, I deposited them all and called the number.

The phone ringing sound only sounded once before a recording began,

"O balloonist quis aprender? Informação nesta tendência crescente e como você pode juntar forças e se transformar o comandante seguinte de sua própria vida. Se seu número de telefone for recebido você estará chamado."

Ironically, I had learned several words and phrases in Portuguese while hopelessly attempting to remain relevant to an old girlfriend who went into the Peace Corp to get away from me, and realized that I had stumbled upon an experience that I couldn't pass up.

Balloonist lessons!

Even in the depths of miserable stomach flu's, I always had a weakness for flight, and now I had stumbled on what claimed to be the experience of my life. I waited for the message to end, and after a longish beep, I left my number.

Now, I was very excited and walked several city blocks toward my compartment, when I realized that I had forgotten the matchbook. Not knowing if I would need the number again and worried that somehow I'd lose out, I ran back to the phone booth but it was gone, melted by some kids with a glass pail of gooey gasoline stuff. They must have seen the matches and out of their wicked minds hatched a plan of vandalism. They were scattering like three ants by the time I made it there.

My only hope was that my message had not yet been returned. Turning back, I ran home with a sense of resolve. Opening the door, I looked at the answering machine - no calls. I sat around the rest of the afternoon trying to fill my time with small chores like patching the bedroom screen, or splicing my uncle's home movies together, or tuning the musicbox. Hours passed and still no calls. I decided to call it a night and turned in.

The next day was one of those days where the soap never really comes off of anything, not from you or the coffee maker. I knew this was an omen. It was already one quarter after eleven, when finally the phone rang.

I knew it was the balloon people from the same rime-coated sound of the voice from the vandalized phone.

"Você é chamado e apronta-se para voar um dirigível?"

"Eu sou inglês pesaroso por favor." I said back haltingly and with improper pronunciation.

"You are called and ready for fly a blimp?" said the rime-coated voice man.

"Yes," I said.

"You are not a one with many sharps?"

After a moment of failed comprehension, I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"No, no SCARS, you are not the one with many scars," he said impatiently.

Not wanting to make him more mad, I said, "No."

After that, he was much better and gave me vague directions to the blimp hangar. I realized after hanging up the phone that there was a hangar along the old road, which I had passed on many trips to Aunt Sarah's house, but never really noticed it because it was across the way from the X-rated drive-in movie theater.

I got on my adult tricycle and headed off.

It took me over 3 hours before I reached the old road. The drive-in was in disrepair with Amazonian-like kudzu vines having inundated the screen, the filmhouse, concession stand and each of the speakers. It looked as if it were some ancient Mayan ruin.

But there on the other side of the twisting road was an open fence with a hangar in the distance. As I rode up the path, I saw a relatively small dirigible being pulled out of the hangar by two men, with one supervising. The grayish blue blimp was about 3 stories high and about 100 feet long. Underneath, was a white gondola that could easily contain 4 or 5 adults. I parked my trike and was about to introduce myself, when the supervisor said, "You must be Paul," in perfect English.

I said, "Yeah, this looks really cool."

"Well, let's get started then."

GD: Wait a minute - is this the same road with that old triangular cafe made out of school buses, two yellow and one blue? The one run by Mennonites, that serves only soft-boiled eggs and yerba matté?

PF: No, no, it's just past the old SAC B-52's at Wright -Patterson along the arc of road that runs from west to south. For a while there, the planes were always in the air, sometimes breaking the sound barrier. Aunt Sarah's glass doors to the patio would rattle, and I would stand there, eyes opened wide with childish awe, wondering when the next time would come to bring thunder on a sunny day.

GD: I am proud of you for bothering to learn how to do something.

Seems like every January, I try to learn how to be a Unitarian, and I write down a to-do list that always includes "bagpipe lessons". As time marches on, and I cross off everything else on the list, and add the inevitable things that pop up, like "clean the cat", "re-attach passenger door on geo", and "toenails", the bagpipes get pushed further and further down, until the ink falls off the bottom of the page.

You are an inspiration. What will you do when you finally get your license?

PF: I always say I will jig like a bagpiper as like you, but sometimes I feel so lachrymose. It's like I never want to do anything with my studies. You know? Sometimes suffering takes on a winsome pleasure. Where it's okay to feel bad about yourself, almost like a relief or some kind of yoga. Mostly though, my determination proceeds like Chinese army men, slogging through a marsh of disillusionment. It's not how you slice it, it's what you drink or eat or smoke, most of the time. I'm beginning to believe much more like Alice in Wonderland - the door couldn't be that small, right?

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers