A Small Thing
Ten years is a good long time; well not always good, but long and mostly good. Ten
years married today. I get ready, slip on my black shoes, and click my heels together once
quickly. Together once quickly, T.O.Q. How true.
Is a rose the right gift for the tenth year? The calendar on the closet tells me to ‘Eat
Chinese,’ and below that I see the traditional gift for ten years is aluminum, not roses. If it were
our forty-fourth, I could give her a bag of groceries.
She lies half asleep in our bed, and her eyes close every time I look at her. Last night she
said she feels invisible. Is this her way of proving it to me? Here, I think, wrap yourself in
anniversary aluminum — you’ll reflect the sun. I am quiet leaving the room. I forgot to get her
At the bedroom door, I kiss my pointer finger once, twice, and blow into the air towards
the bed. I imagine the kisses swirling through the air and crashing gently on her cheek. You are
not invisible. I see you.
There is a red dress hung over the kitchen chair, a flowing satin thing with a slit up the
side where the legs would go. The breeze from our kitchen window sways the dress slightly as it
rehearses for a gala evening. Tonight we’ll dance until our legs go numb.
I check the lock on the front door three times as I go off to work. It’s secure.
When my company announced their new corporate rules I imagined an employee
uprising, secretly planned meetings, a victorious overthrow, but to my knowledge none of this
has happened. The shortened cigarette breaks, the eat-in lunches, and the mandatory shrink visits
have all taken effect without a single sign of protest.
This morning is not only my anniversary, but also my first visit with the doctor. For me, I
don’t smoke, and I sure wouldn’t eat in the restaurants around here, so the first two stir no great
rebellions in me, but the shrink visits… They throw a sizeable shark in my fish tank: I have
secrets to keep.
After a few key questions he hits on it — Congratulations, Doctor! — You got it, OCD;
I’m cured. A red rose lies across my palm as I sit on the edge of his thick leather chair and hold
myself upright. My legs twitch to an exacting rhythm, in sync with the doctor’s pencil tapping
and the clock’s ticking. I finger the rose petals, trying to arrange them perfectly.
“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” he explains.
Obsessive compulsive disorder, O.C.D. Together once quickly, T.O.Q. How true. One
petal falls from its stem and spirals down to the psychiatrist’s floor. I don’t bother chasing after
it. Will she accept such an imperfect gift? I wonder. My calendar made no mention of this.
“Your compulsions,” the doctor says, “these habits, they’re just ways of dealing with
fears and obsessions.”
“Right,” I answer.
“Has this been getting in the way of work or your relationships?”
“No. Will this be discussed with our lab manager?”
“No,” he assures me. “This is totally confidential, but do you understand what I’ve been
telling you about breaking the cycle?”
“Yes, October Charlie David—break the cycle. Got it.”
“What’s that?” The doctor asks.
“October Charlie?” He repeats.
“David – Nothing,” I say, but the doctor leans his head sideways slightly, a delicate curve
and roll of the top vertebrae, the way you might look at a dog you had just caught pissing.
“Let me save you the trouble Doctor. I’ve been in therapy before. I get it.”
“Yes. What you’re saying is interesting, but I have ways of managing it. I assure you my
work does not suffer.”
“No?” He asks.
“No. And speaking of work, I need to get to my lab.”
“Sure, OK. We’re about ready here,” the doctor agrees and then throws in, “We can
really help you.” He stands from his seat and stretches his arm to me. I wince slightly as my hand
meets his. Is this man not a doctor? Doesn’t he know about communicable disease?
The doctor notes my hesitation on his pad. “See you next week then?”
“Right,” I answer and walk out to the Men’s room.
I scrub my hands and soap-away germs I cannot see, but I know enough to know they are
there. These visits are going to be trouble, but we must have rules. Can’t have lunatics working
here, God knows that. God knows that, G.K.T. October Charlie… “Shit,” I yell, breaking my
pattern. The damn shittin rose lies in a puddle of water on the narrow ledge of the sink; the color
begins to run. I could just pick it up, but then the thought will linger. I repeat: God knows that,
G.K.T. October Charlie David, O.C.D. Together once quickly, T.O.Q. How true.
I snatch the rose from the water and poke my head under each stall to be sure no one
overheard me cursing. I watch my image in the mirror while waiting for the bathroom door to
open. What does she think of you? I ask my reflection. She must regret marrying you, you damn
The air all around me is still. I am keenly aware of the walls and the tiny pools that have
collected along the tiled floor. The empty space is closing in on me and disappearing with time; I
have work to do. I move my feet to dry ground and eye the fingerprints on the door knob. Open
the door, I tell myself. Open the door.
Finally the janitor enters the bathroom and whistles his way past me. I quickly wedge my
foot between the exit door and the frame. Balancing the rose in the crease of my arm, I stretch
over to the sink and wash my hands once more before I leave.
I walk down the hall towards my laboratory, my eyes squinting against the glowing white
of the walls. I brush the hem of my lab coat with the back of my fingers, making sure it is
smooth and even.
As I enter the lab I let a deep sigh escape my lips. I am at home here: the animal cages
stacked neatly against the filing cabinets, the documents laid and ordered upon the desk, the
clipboards perched on a nail beneath each cage, my assistant working tirelessly, eyes strained
and strangled by wire-rimmed glasses, her chair butted against mine, forming a base. All this
sits well with me.
“Sir?” My assistant calls.
“I have entered all of the numbers and referenced them with yesterday’s.”
“Yes?” I place the rose in a cup of water.
“I have that thing to do today,” Jane says.
“Oh yes,” I remember.
“We talked about it yesterday.”
“Right,” I say. “Go.” I scan the room: the drawers are all closed, each clipboard is in
place, heat lamps off, cages locked.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Don’t forget the water bottles or the cabinets,” she says.
“And especially your anniversary,” Jane warns. “I won’t be here to remind you.”
“Yes, right. I won’t.”
I work with three mice; dainty little limbs struggle in my fingers. I poke and cajole them
into mazes and shoot them with vaccines. Would tumors collapse and reverse? I wonder. Would
they give up a good meal? Can we make you sick little cancers?
I move over to the cage cautiously marked Bubonic Plague and slide the thin pin that
holds the cage door shut, letting the small things run onto a table. The table sits beneath a heat
lamp, and the mice scurry from one end to the next. At each end the mice come against a wall
and turn. Two of them search and move systematically.
“Where is the cheese?” I ask.
The third mouse, the smallest, sort of waddles along as if each leg is determined to go in
a different direction. A wave of fear whirls up from my stomach and sinks back down. A failing
vaccine? We must file and trace the strain. My mind wanders in all directions: What is the
traditional gift for the tenth anniversary? Rock, paper, scissors? The mouse should be put down,
but will my wife forgive another no-show? Not tonight. No time. Please not tonight. Please not
tonight, P.N.T. God knows that, G.K.T. Break the cycle? Damn it, not tonight. I repeat: Please
not tonight, P.N.T. God knows that, G.K.T. October Charlie David, O.C.D. Together once
quickly, T.O.Q. How true.
I quickly set the three mice back into their cage, whispering good luck to each of them -
whispering because I don’t want the mice to hear - whispering because I know luck has no place
in the halls of science, let alone the mind of a scientist. Then I rush to the business of locking
down: I check each cage three times, straighten every clip board, askew or not, twice, and click
each filing cabinet drawer just once. I scan the room: drawers all closed, clip boards in place,
heat lamps off, cages locked.
I grab the rose from my desk, pull the door shut behind me, and listen to the latch click.
Good luck everyone. Good luck everyone, G.L.E. Please not tonight, P.N.T. God knows that,
G.K.T. October Charlie David, O.C.D. Together once quickly, T.O.Q. How true. I think this
through, careful to enunciate each word for fear I might have to start over. I’ll never get home
that way, having to repeat it until said perfectly. What would the shrink note in his pad if they
found me here in the morning?
My heels click along the linoleum floor, but my thoughts stay back in the lab: Is the pin
on the cage set properly? I wonder. The mice, being of above-average skill in searching and
moving, might systematically make their way around the cage until they discover the pin can be
loosed by banging against the bars. The pin, a small thing really, might bounce along the floor
and lead the mice to believe they should follow it.
I speed along the highway into the dark night. If I pull another all-nighter at the lab, I’ll
be reported. The shrink visits will be increased. My tires kick up a trail of mist from the wet
pavement and I imagine tomorrow’s headlines.
NO THREAT TO THE PUBLIC: Three mice gone missing from a local lab. According
to a lab technician the mice had been infected with a strain of the plague, but all were vaccinated,
and none have shown any signs of disease. Signs of disease, S.O.D. Good luck everyone, G.L.E.
Please not tonight, P.N.T. God knows that, G.K.T. October Charlie David, O.C.D. Together
once quickly, T.O.Q. How true. Not true. We lied. We lied to the press. Would we do that? Yes, I
guess we would, if the mice escaped.
I continue down the road, my foot deep into the gas pedal, and my mind solidly on the
small pin of the little mouse cage. My wife is waiting at home in her red dress. Her leg is peeking
out of the slit, and she is slowly disappearing.
Can never be too sure. Be too sure, B.T.S. Signs of Disease S.O.D. …
I grip the wheel tighter—Good luck everyone, G.L.E. Please not tonight, P.N.T.—My
Joseph Thayer's work has appeared in Slow Trains Literary Journal, Ramble Underground, and
knuckles turn a bloodless white.— God knows that, G.K.T. October Charlie David, O.C.D. — I
pop the clutch and turn the wheel a hundred and eighty degrees. Together once quickly, T.O.Q.
How true. The car spins as the rose tumbles from the passenger seat and crashes against the
Outsider ink. He was recently awarded third place in the New Letter's Annual short story contest.
He is a Brooklyn expatriate, hiding in the hills of North Jersey with his wife and daughter. When
he is not writing, he is happily entangled in that triangle.