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Bathing the Lion

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Bathing the Lion

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Author: Jonathan Carroll
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2014

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Magical Realism
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In Jonathan Carroll's surreal masterpiece, Bathing the Lion, five people who live in the same New England town go to sleep one night and all share the same hyper-realistic dream. Some of these people know each other; some don't.

When they wake the next day all of them know what has happened. All five were at one time "mechanics," a kind of cosmic repairman whose job is to keep order in the universe and clean up the messes made both by sentient beings and the utterly fearsome yet inevitable Chaos that periodically rolls through, wreaking mayhem wherever it touches down—a kind of infinitely powerful, merciless tornado. Because the job of a mechanic is grueling and exhausting, after a certain period all of them are retired and sent to different parts of the cosmos to live out their days as "civilians." Their memories are wiped clean and new identities are created for them that fit the places they go to live out their natural lives to the end.

For the first time all retired mechanics are being brought back to duty: Chaos has a new plan, and it's not looking good for mankind...



Most men think they are good drivers. Most women think they are good in bed. They aren't.

She'd said that an hour earlier, apropos of nothing, as he was walking out the door with the new sled under his arm. Sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of fragrant coffee in her hands, she spoke while staring out the window at the snow.

"Am I... Am I supposed to respond?"

"No. I was only making an observation." She did not look at him while speaking, but that was nothing new. Sometimes she spouted these non sequiturs while staring into the distance, as if she were addressing an invisible audience out there in the ethers.

Impatient to get going, he was nevertheless tempted to ask if she would like him to write down her remark for posterity. She had high opinions of both herself and her insights. Part of their recent trouble was he did not.

These days the couple coexisted uneasily in an edgy state where both knew a separation was inevitable and imminent but neither was brave enough to say so. They were in the almost-terminal stage where trivial things the partner does are keenly noticed and continuously resented: how they wipe the kitchen counters after a meal, the messy state of the bathroom after their shower, the toilet seat up, the toilet seat down. Things routinely ignored before, much less cared about, now glimmered like they were Day-Glo purple, or stunk like milk gone bad.

It was why he liked the sled. Months before on first seeing the ad for the Alurunner Sports Sled in a magazine, he whistled in admiration at its incredibly sleek all-aluminum body. It looked like a toboggan on steroids and had an overall allure that somehow touched both the boy and man in him. It said, "You wanna go fast? Get on and I'll show you what fast is." One extremely cool object. But who would pay so much money for a sled? Later he made the mistake of telling her about it. She looked at her husband as if he'd said he was buying a nuclear submarine. "A sled? Why would you want a sled?"

"To go sledding. That's what you usually do with them."

She smiled wanly at him. "At least you don't want a Porsche."

"What do you mean?"

"Most men want to buy Porsches when they're going through midlife crisis. But you only want a sled. Peculiar, but at least you're not a cliché."

"Do you think I'm going through a midlife crisis?"

She smirked. "A textbook case. You shouldn't worry though. Women have menopause, men midlife crisis and Porsche envy. The joys of middle age, partner."


Turning slowly now, he leaned his new silver sled against a wall. Then he squatted down with his hands resting on bent knees and looked at her. "This isn't working between us anymore. Both of us know that and it's time we talked about it."

She pressed the cup hard against her lower lip and continued staring out the window. They had been together twelve years, married nine. Sometimes he tried to pinpoint exactly when their love had turned from solid to liquid to steam to thin air. Sometimes he wondered when she had stopped loving him. At this stage he didn't care.

"What do you want to do about it?" She looked at him. Her eyes were gray-green, beautiful and expressionless.

"I don't think we like each other anymore. It's that simple. Why live with someone you don't like?"

"You don't like me?" Her voice came out somewhere between a statement and a question.

"No, not often. Do you like me?"

She blinked several times and then silently mouthed no.

He nodded, unaffected.

She tried to swallow; her mouth had suddenly gone dry. "Wow. I guess that cat's out of the bag now." She was deeply impressed he had finally said it.

"Yes, it is. And now we must talk about it."

Leaning forward she put the cup down. "Wow." Placing both hands flat on the table, she lowered her head between them until her right cheek touched the cool wood. Her heart was pounding. She could feel it pulse up through her outstretched arms. "This sounds dumb, but I don't know what to say now. I'm an absolute blank."

He remained silent. She always had something to say. It was just a matter of time before it came.

His cell phone rang. The shrill sound was a reminder that a normal world existed nearby where people not teetering on the edge of their lives did things like make telephone calls and wait for them to be answered.

They were glad his phone rang a long time. It gave them both a chance to breathe a little and think about what next. But the ringing eventually stopped. Looking at each other, they waited to see who would speak first. Even in the few minutes that had elapsed since he spoke, important things had already begun to shift between them. A completely new and different light now lit this person who had slept peacefully beside them last night.

"It's so bizarre--I think I should cry or shout or something, but I only feel empty. You want us to separate? To divorce?"

He nodded. "I think we need to talk about our options."

"Like when? Very soon?"

Gesturing over his shoulder he said, "Do you see my sled? I thought I bought it because it looked so great and just the idea of sledding again, do something I loved so much as a kid, after all these years, was really appealing. But you know what I like most about it now? I do it alone. It's just me out there with nature and speed and those great pungent winter smells we always talk about.... But you have never even asked where I go when I do it. Not once."

She lifted her head a few inches off the table. "You go to the park. The big hill there--"

"Wrong. I never go to the park, never. See? We don't interest each other anymore."

She stiffened and venom seeped into her voice now. "How do you know? Because I don't ask where you go sledding?"

"Cut the crap; don't be facile. You know exactly what I'm saying."

"No, not really. I guess I'm just too stupid. Maybe you need to spell it out for me. Maybe after twelve years together I at least deserve clarity."

"You can spell fine." He rose slowly. Looking directly at her, his face gave away nothing. She was so used to his face, so used to the familiar expressions and wrinkles there. They usually showed her what he was thinking. Now his face said nothing except pay attention to what I'm saying. He had gone from being her husband of a decade to a stranger in less than ten sentences.

"I'm going sledding now. Then I'm going to stay away from here for the rest of the day. It's better I do. It'll let us both think this over alone. When I get back here tonight we can talk about it if you want."

She was dismayed. "You're going out now? How can you, for God's sake? You said it yourself--we have to talk about this."

He took his sled from the wall. "And we will. But first we should think about it alone. Then we can talk. I'm sorry if you don't like it, but it's what I want to do." He stretched out his left arm and looked at his wristwatch. "It's 8:30 now. I'll come back tonight around 8:30 and we can talk more then."

"I cannot believe you're doing this, Dean. I can't believe you're walking out of here after saying those things." Her voice was as sharp and mean as a paper cut. She used the tone whenever she felt wronged or morally superior.

"Believe it." He shifted the sled in his arms to balance its weight better. "What did I say you didn't already know, something new? Did I suddenly break new ground in our relationship? I don't think so.

"Stop playing the wounded victim here, Vanessa, because you're not, not by a long shot. Both of us have to deal with this; you're not the only one.

"I don't believe we like each other anymore--plural. The ground has shifted and we've got to deal with it now. We've both avoided it because it's ugly and scary. But it's true and it's here: We don't like each other anymore." He waited for her to reply: to say something typically snide, cutting, or self-pitying.

"Okay." She put her hands in her lap, swallowed, and straightened up. She looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. "Twelve hours. Okay."

Surprised at her reaction, he didn't move. He was curious to see what came next.

She waved a hand toward the door. "Go. What are you waiting for?"

"Five minutes ago you said--"

"That was five minutes ago." She stood, walked over to the stove, and poured herself more coffee from the pot.

"Okay." He started for the door, passing near her, heartened she appeared to be all right with this.

"But what if I'm not here when you come back, Dean? What if I decide to leave in those twelve hours?"

He closed his eyes and scowled. He knew it was too easy. "Why would you want to? Don't you think we need to talk this whole thing over when we're both calmer and clearer in our heads? Let's have a day apart to put our thoughts in order and then come back and talk it through."

Without warning, she abruptly flicked her hand out at him--as if throwing a Frisbee. A long ribbon of hot black coffee flew through the air and splashed against his chest, the silver sled, and his bare hands. Burning drops hit his face. The sled clattered to the floor when he threw up both hands to his stinging cheeks. Luckily he was wearing a thick ski jacket so the coffee that hit his body did not burn him.

Aghast and thrilled by what she had just done, Vanessa didn't want him to see her face because she had no idea what expression was there. It might have been delight, because it was definitely part of what she felt. Hurrying from the room, she put her head down so her chin almost touched her chest. Fleeing, she brushed him and he jerked away from the contact.

His fingers on his face trembled. Bringing both hands down quickly, he was someway ashamed to be shaking then. He didn't know what to do. Her action had been so unexpected and shocking. Did she really hate him so much? What had he said she didn't already know and feel? Did the truth out loud set her free, or simply free her inner bitch?

When the electric air of alarm and disbelief had lessened, he wanted to know only one thing: Had she done it to hurt him? Or was it only an unplanned emotional act, a lightning bolt of sudden madness or fury she'd take back now if she could? An oh shit moment in life where you wish you could rewind time back ten seconds and do it again differently or not at all. Did she wish it now or was she happy to have flung scalding coffee at him? Was she somewhere in this house grinning and thinking, yes, I'm glad I did it?

It was all he wanted to know because it was the only thing he cared about now. He did not care if she was angry or hurt by what he'd said. Her act put them way past that. He had a temper too. Sometimes he flared up and acted rashly without thinking. But he would never do what she had just done. When he read accounts of domestic violence, he questioned himself and invariably came to the same conclusion--no, I couldn't do those things even if I were furious. If a situation ever got so bad, I'd leave. Get out of the relationship while you both still had your sanity and dignity. You did not act like that toward another person, especially not your partner, no matter how angry you were.

His instincts now said go find her and ask what the hell she was thinking. But it might have been exactly what she wanted, her way of making him stay at home now. He wasn't going to give her anything. Looking at his watch again, he was surprised to see only four minutes had passed since he last looked at it and told her he would return in twelve hours. Standing there with coffee still dripping down his coat, he reviewed the last few minutes. Perhaps there was something he had missed or forgotten about their confrontation, a word or significant sentence gone unnoticed before or after the violence of her gesture.

No, he was not going to try to find a logical, acceptable reason for her act. What she'd done was wrong--out of limits, way over the line wrong. He hated how people always searched for reasons to justify others' bad behavior. Because sometimes it isn't justifiable--it's only bad: period, end of discussion. Sometimes people are just shits and their acts prove it.

He went to the sink, wet a sponge, and brushed it briskly across the front of his jacket. Then he tore off a paper towel and patted the jacket dry. He was wiping her act off his body now, not the coffee.

An incident from a few nights ago came to mind. After working late at the store, he stopped at the town diner on the way home for something to eat. The place was almost empty so he noticed the other customers. In a booth directly across the room a couple were eating hamburgers and horsing around. Probably twenty years old, they were obviously crazy for each other and their happiness was as thick as the smell of spring lilacs. They ate and talked with the liveliness and intensity of children. You forget what it is like to be new in love. You forget how you want to tell your flame everything and hear everything they have to say. It does not matter what it is, so long as they keep talking.

His food came and he ate while sneaking glances at them whenever possible. He didn't want to be too obvious so as not to embarrass the couple or make them feel self-conscious. What he liked most was, neither of them was trying to be cool or aloof. Even from this distance he saw the flurry of goofy loving expressions on their faces, the constant touching, the giggling and talk talk talk. They weren't trying to impress or play superior. They were wholly comfortable showing each other their joy. It was lovely to see. After his meal he ordered a cup of tea he didn't want just so he could stay a while longer and watch them some more.

Eventually the young man stood up and walked to the toilet. Almost as soon as he disappeared behind the restroom door, the girl began crying. Sitting there alone, her face tightened and then the tears came. She cried silently but made no attempt to hide it.

Dean couldn't believe it. Why was she crying? Moments before she'd been laughing and flirting, touching her boyfriend's arm and slapping a hand over her mouth in giggly delight. Now her face was tight as a fist and red in anguish. Why? Had something been said? Or had she waited till her boyfriend was gone before showing her real feelings?

Fascinated by this disturbing change, he could not stop staring at the distraught girl. In the end she noticed Dean and looked over at him with hatred in her eyes--as if he were to blame for her tears and sadness, whatever the cause. He was so flustered and distressed by her glare that he threw some money down to pay for his meal and left.

Standing now at the kitchen sink, he looked at the damp white, brown-stained paper towel in his hand. Had the same thing happened to his wife? Had she thrown the coffee at him because he mentioned separation, or because of other things in their past building up over time to this boiling point?

He would love to have known why the girl in the diner suddenly started crying. He could find out right now why his wife had tried to hurt him.

"Vanessa?" He waited for an answer but none came. Dropping the towel in the garbage beneath the sink, he went to find her. A few steps out of the kitchen, he heard a car start and knew by its signature sound it was hers. He stood in the hallway while a picture of him racing out the front door and trying to stop her glided across his mind like a news ticker at the bottom of a television screen. But the image evaporated because it was wrong. Why should he run after her when she had hurt him? Come back come back--I'm sorry for making you burn me. She wanted to leave? Fine. He'd return in twelve hours and if she was here, they would talk. If not, he would deal with it then.

What kept him standing there was the sudden realization he felt no curiosity about where she was going now, absolutely none. He had not been curious about her life for a long time. What she did with her days, what she thought about things, what mattered or distressed his wife... he was indifferent to all of it now. It was ambient sound to him. Granted, some of it was louder and some softer. Generally though it was all just background noise, or the soft tune playing in an elevator as you ascended to your floor. Familiar and trivial, the most effect it had was to stay in your mind a few seconds after you'd left the elevator. Perhaps you whistled a few notes of it before moving on to what mattered, but no more. For years she had been one of the most important parts of his life. But in recent times what she did, what she thought, where she went, or what left her lips was like hearing the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" for the 2,000th time.

He walked to a window with a view onto the street and saw her red car moving away down the block. It stood out vividly against the background of white snow everywhere. He was certain she would have music playing. Classic rock and roll or dance music, most likely Jagger singing "Gimme Shelter," or something up-tempo from The Brothers Johnson. She played fast, fist-pumping-in-the-air music when she was upset. Whenever he'd walk into their house or get into the car and she was driving, if there was dance music on loud he would not know what to expect. It generally meant something bad had happened and she was playing it to lift her spirits.

Some people want you to share their moods, feel their pain, hate or rejoice or get drunk along with them. Others want your sympathy, a foot rub, their hand held, or a cup of hot tea. His wife, Vanessa, wanted none of those things. Give her space and silence and be sure to leave her alone. If you happened to be around when she was unhappy, the best thing to do was retreat to the other side of the house and ignore her until she showed she was ready to communicate again.

Locking his hands over his head, he stared out at the snow and wondered if telling her how he felt had been wrong. But what was the alternative? Going on for more months or even years in a house full of barbed wire conversations and too many instances when it was very plain neither of you wanted to be in the same room together? He assumed she felt the same way, especially judging by how she had acted toward him the last six months. Someone once told him most people would rather die than change. At the time he thought that was generally accurate, but now? Sometimes death came if you didn't change. Not the stopped heart/no pulse/flatline kind, but the death of curiosity, optimism, and desire.

On impulse, he put out a hand and touched the window. Feeling the cold beneath his fingertips, he slid them around and around on the glass as if they were skating. "I have a question. Can I ask you a question?" He did not think it odd to speak out loud now, although his wife was not there. He had a question he wanted her to answer. He knew she was gone. He watched her car move away down the street. "I have a question for you."

Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Carroll


Bathing the Lion

- Graham Vingoe


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