Without the Bark Ladies

by Diane Sigman

The Crayons are talking to me again. They like to give advice, especially Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna. They’re, like, the Ann and Abby of crayons or something.

      Right now I just have a sixty-four box. I used to have that big box--you know, the hundred and sixty-four, all laid out on Styrofoam, but it was so goddamn noisy I finally had to pitch it. I’d be going to use the Brick Red, or whatever, and the Lavender would shout, (and you’d never expect Lavender to be so strident) “Don’t use that! Use Pink!” (Or Gray, or Magenta, you get the idea.) I’d finally end up just sitting there, doodling with a pencil.

      Another time I got those flesh tone crayons, the type schools get so beige kids don’t feel left out during “draw your family time.” (Although these days probably everybody feels left out during “draw your family time.”) I had to pitch those too; all this mumbo jumbo about people of color and some dame named Camille something. And they were expensive, too. Though it doesn’t really matter. My father is loaded. I was not a wanted child; he pays me off not to exist in his breathing space. My mother, who had the temerity to get knocked up after menopause, wills me from her mind with alcohol and regular visits to spas where seaweed is attractively presented as both edible and beneficial to the skin. Eighteen months ago, I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Therapeutic Recreation. The only major more idiotic at my alma mater was Family Environmental Sciences, a fancy name for more high school home economics courses. I chose Therapeutic Rec over Family Environmental because I actually got good grades for rappelling, whereas in FES I would’ve had to learn about nutrition amidst the lingering glances of girls wanting nothing more than gold bands cradling a perfect diamond. The girls in TR were outdoorsy, no make-up types who, if they ever bothered to wear a ring, would sport a silver dolphin bought at a crafts fair. I slept with a few of these confident, bark-smelling women until they began hinting at “committed relationships.” The siren call of the biological clock. Outta the tent and bungee down that mountain, baby, thanks. At any rate, I completed thirty units of rappelling, tent building, and roughing it over and above fifteen units of general education, collected the parchment, and returned to the same apartment I’d rented four years earlier. My parents did not attend commencement ceremonies.

      Naturally, I could not find employment in my field, unless I cared to be a Nepalese excursion leader. I did not. Nor did I care to accept a leadership position in a car rental chain or department store, the only other professions happy to accept a college graduate with an asshole major. So the Bark Ladies have rappelled to boys agreeing to “committed relationships”, leaving the ladies longing but giving the boys a reliable Saturday night fuck, and I am here with a nice monthly sum from a man happy so long as I stay away, and a large box of crayons for company. There are worse set-ups.

      So, like I said before, the crayons were talking to me, and I was just listening, you know, trying to piece it all together neatly. The pastels and fluorescents were analyzing the political strategies of Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich. Talk about pundits! But that’s okay. I like to be informed, and these crayons were better than NPR.

      So there’s this knock on the door. I wasn’t expecting anybody, so I just sat there while a pale yellow expounded on the Haldemann Diaries. I figured some of God’s Chosen had decided to drop by. But the knocking got pretty insistent. Finally the Periwinkle said, “Aw, what the hell, open it.” And upon my threshold stood two of America’s finest, resplendent in navy blue.

      They were pretty friendly, too. “Hi! We’re Officers Bleh and Blah. (I didn’t catch their names. I’m bad with names. This trait got me into trouble a couple times with the Bark Ladies.) Mind if we come in to chat a minute?”

      Clearly they were not on a mission from God. Mentally I scanned the apartment for ashtrays or telltale illegal smells. Then I remembered my contact, a fellow tent survivalist, had indeed become a Nepalese Mountain Climbing Guide, or something of the sort. He had the misfortune of being named Jared. I have a real thing about these weird names Yuppies saddle their kids with. I had a girlfriend named Bree for about ten seconds. I couldn’t stand it and decided to call her Jenny. She got pissed. At any rate, Jared was very far away, in a place where English was not the native language, which likely ameliorated his name trouble, and he hadn’t exactly been in touch. So my supply of Humboldt County’s finest export was long gone. I held open the door. I don’t mind talking with people now and then. As long as they aren’t God freaks. God freaks are worse than Girl Scouts. So the cops ambled in and looked around. I should explain about the walls here. Remember the hundred and sixty-four box I disposed of? Well, the night before I planned to dump them--I had a Long Beach dumpster in mind--they somehow got wind of my plans and became quite truculent, threatening to “tell” if I refused to negotiate. “Tell what?” I kept asking, but they just laughed menacingly. Capitulation seemed like a good idea, so I conferred with Thistle in what felt rather like a United Auto Workers against Big Bad Corporate Culture negotiation. (I never did mention my father’s source of income: he’s a big shot at an American car company. Preferring a car that ran, I purchased a Japanese car. With his money, of course.) Thistle, a sort of purplish-pink, acted as the mediator until we arrived at a compromise: I acceded to their wish for immortality by creating a wall mural using every color. This took all night, but the effect is startling and definitely unique. Incidentally, I believe the Spring Green in the sixty-four box tipped them off. I’ve always hated that color, and never used the crayon. Thus, the Spring Green sports a perfect tip among sixty-three variously worn colors. It’s incredibly jealous and tends to behave like the last ugly sister to get married.

      Like people, Crayons aren’t without their psychological problems. For example, commonly underused colors, like White, (and if you disagree, think back. Did you use White in your coloring books?) sometimes develop a heretofore unknown syndrome where they fear having the paper peeled from them. In more advanced cases, sharpening elicits terror, and gone unchecked, the afflicted color may even break. Tragic, unnecessary, a waste of wax and the consumer’s dollar.

      Frankly, I harbor my own suspicions regarding this sad malady. Consider this: the Crayon Schizophrenia strikes only those colors lying in disuse. But the symptoms, i.e., fear of peeling, sharpening terrors, breakage, are things occurring in high use Crayons. Pretty fascinating, huh? I wrote to the NIH, proposing a study, but they never responded. Evidently a guy with a Therapeutic Recreation Degree is not to be taken seriously in matters Crayon. Their loss.

      Bleh and Blah stood just inside the doorway, their walkie-talkies crackling noisily. The Orange began moaning. It hates noise.

      “Wow,” said Bleh.

      Blah didn’t say anything. He flipped a notepad open and began patting himself for a pen. No dice. “Mind?” He asked, reaching for the Silver crayon. The Crayon began shrieking and really carrying on. Blah was oblivious. Maybe he’s hearing impaired. All that gunfire without ear protection. Meanwhile, the Pink’s going, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” like some impatient third grader. I handed it to the cop. “Use this one.”

      “You know why we’re here?” asked Bleh.

      “Nope.” I answered cheerfully. The Purple and Magenta began arguing. They have an extremely fractious relationship. It fuels gossip all over the box.

      Blah lays this amazing story on me. Turns out my landlord asked the Donut Kings to drop by because he hears me talking to myself day and night. Poor bastard. He ought to look into some care of the pharmaceutical sort.

      “I’m not talking to myself! I’m talking to them.” I pointed to the crayons. Purple and Magenta were really going to town. Magenta thought Purple was coloring with the pastels. Purple was laughing sarcastically.

      Well, you’d have thought, based on the cops’ expressions, that the worldwide Crayon population was mute. Blah asked if I’d mind hopping a ride down to the station to chat with a buddy of his.

      Actually, I did mind. Leaving the apartment is not primo on my list these days. Those of us without government issue belts holding weaponry in specially-made loops feel a bit jumpy on the street. But then again, I would be with two dudes with some major belt happening, and “I don’t wanna go,” generally doesn’t fly with cops.

      The Donut Mobile was interesting, tricked out with all kinds of gadgetry that beeped and blipped and flashed. I asked a lot of questions about the car. It was American, of course, and I asked how they could engage in car chases with such an unreliable vehicle. They laughed. “We wonder ourselves sometimes,” Blah replied. Sure makes you feel protected, eh?

      When we got to the station, Bleh and Blah split. I sat around for a while, bored. No magazines. I guess the police figure the arrested are too overcome by their situation to want the National G with that picture of the terrified girl on the cover. Finally this bald guy showed up and began questioning me: did other objects converse with me or did my TV tell me aliens were coming, and how was my relationship with my mother? No, No, and never mind.

      “What is the problem, anyway?” I asked after about ninety minutes.

      Bald made a notation on his pad. “We’re concerned for your safety, Mr. Stiles.”

      Safety? I didn’t have any enemies. Bree was pissed, sure, but not enough to go to the cops. She just found another guy who could contend with her name.

      “I, um, don’t think anyone is out to get me, sir.”

      “Mr. Stiles, we feel you may be a harm to yourself.”

      What the hell? “I don’t have a gun.” Famous last words. I couldn’t help remembering the last guy who offered that protest.

      “Mr. Stiles, I know this is difficult. It would be best to remain calm.”

      I pretended I was climbing a rock face. I was going along smoothly, finding toeholds, moving upward at a good pace. I visualized a sudden rain, and myself in yellow lycra moisture wick-away, clinging, not allowing the water to cause a slip.


Now I’m at this place, nothing but the very best, of course, though my father, who considers himself a gourmet, would be amazed at how bad the food is. The insane, even those in possession of degrees, are deemed unworthy of edible food. (The chronically mentally ill are highly impressed by the ability to complete an action, much less an entire college education. Repeated explanations that my degree is basically in outdoor fun are dismissed. But you have a degree! they cry. Arguing with the insane is pointless.) They’re giving me pills they say will keep the Crayons quiet. That one hundred sixty-four box wasn’t kidding. It did tell. I don’t understand. If they want to shut up the Crayons, why are they giving me the pills? I am told Crayons don’t talk, and instructed by my doctor, who likes to be called by his first name, a plainly sensible Paul, to recall the time when the Crayons didn’t talk to me.

      I think back, back to Bree/Jenny, and before her, Amber, then Cheri, back some more to my first girlfriend, Trina. The memories are warm and smell good, girl smells of flowers and baby powder. Did the Crayons talk then? Asks Paul. I don’t remember. The meds make me fuzzy. I am overmedicated. This does not improve the food. Back some more, to high school. What did I think about? Cars, I think. Cars, getting into them, driving away from being unwanted. Being driven away? Suggests Paul. Who said Freud was over? Blame everything on strict toilet training and the wish for mother, who of course does not visit. No group therapy for the Stiles family. I don’t remember, I say. What difference does it make? If I had better parents. If I’d decided on a committed relationship with Bree/Jenny or Cheri, a reliable Saturday night fuck, a managerial position at Friendly Rentals, camping on weekends, marrying the right Bark Lady in a church ceremony, Dad footing the bill and finally patting me on the back.

      Paul says I will be ready to leave here soon, but will always need medication to silence the Crayons and whatever else might suddenly acquire the powers of speech in my damaged mind. The meds do silence the Crayons, leaving only a high, buzzing whine and Paul’s soft, invading questions. He is a man beholding a tree, brandishing a pair of tweezers, which he thinks he may use to pluck away the rotted bits, leaving new, healthy growth, fertilized in a bath of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. I am the tree, rooted but growing at an angle, gnarled and wrong, newly smooth-trunked, resisting climbers, offering no loose bark to fall away with an easy kick, allowing a toehold.

Copyright © 2002 by Diane Sigman


Diane Sigman’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Seal Press Anthology Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture, Postmodern Lives, and the Chicago Review. She lives in Oakland, California.

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