The dirty white spot was an irregular hexagon or heptagon about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, with jagged edges. It was located on the sidewalk directly in front of the door to my apartment building. I presume it had once been a facial tissue that fell from someone’s pocket as they reached for their keys or a glove. For three months, I watched as rain, snow and passing feet turned the tissue into the spot. If our super or anyone else had ever thought of picking it up, it was too late now.
As winter slogged on, the dissolving spot became fixed in my mind’s eye. One day, it followed me from my building to work, then back up to the apartment when I returned. After that, I would gaze at the imagined spot all evening. When it had shepherded me into Morpheus’ arms, it would finally leave me alone. But it was waiting when I woke up to use the toilet, and then again in the morning.
It also invaded the workplace. While I was writing a report, I would find myself fending it off, and if it got the better of me, I would fumble over the words. In the middle of a conversation with my supervisor, I would go blank and have to ask her to repeat herself. One day, at my wit’s end, I mentioned the spot over lunch, which consisted of a sandwich and a bottle of water at my desk, in the big, noisy office.
“I just can’t seem to get that spot out of my mind,” I said, having already described it.
“Oh?” I replied politely. “Why not?”
I laughed. “That’s not a simple question.”
“ ‘Out out, damn spot!’ Or is it ‘brief candle’?”
“Don’t be funny. The spot is a nuisance, I can’t get rid of it.”
“Why not?” I repeated.
“Well, I’m not sure.” All the while, we kept eating and drinking. “Maybe, the spot is a collection point for the nagging worries in my life.”
“Oh, it’s a long list, I don’t want to bore you.”
“Okay, you asked for it: gun violence, a detested young cousin who is now a multi-millionaire, war, my neighbor’s barking dog, disease, my other neighbor’s loud music, the prevalence in our language of euphemisms and obscenities, polar bears marooned on shrinking icecaps, the death of solitude, social networking, the absence of…”
“I get the idea.”
“You shouldn’t have asked.” We finished the meal in silence.
As the seasons changed, so did the spot. By mid-March, it had been reduced to a gray shadow on the darker gray sidewalk, leading me to imagine it might be completely gone in time for my birthday, in early May. When the Big Day arrived, I breakfasted –over the spot, as usual– then got ready and left the building. Sure enough, it was gone. Although I could still imagine it sitting there on the sidewalk in its usual “spot” (sorry), there was no physical trace.
About a week later, I decided to try to expunge the spot from my mind’s eye. At first, it seemed indelible, but I gradually figured out a way. Every time it cropped up, I would gently push it aside and replace it with something I liked to look at: a favorite painting, the face of a girl on whom I had had a crush in high school, the light shining on a lovely old building on my block.
The effects of this image substitution were salutary. For one thing, I found myself lunching less by myself, more with colleagues. I could approach my building on the way home without a quickening heartbeat or tightened stomach. I even slept better, perhaps because when I stopped worrying that I would see the spot when I woke up at night, I woke up less.
One soft June day, I told all this to a sympathetic young colleague at a luncheonette to which I had invited her. Blowing on her soup, she said, “Well, that’s wonderful. Good for you. I wish I could get rid of my obsessions that easily.”
“Thank you.” I took a bite of my sandwich, chewed and swallowed.
As she sipped her soup, a concerned expression crossed her face. “I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but what about all the worries that used to collect in the spot?”
I answered her question with two questions: “Don’t you have those, too? Doesn’t everyone?”
“Of course I do –we do.” She crunched her pickle and drank more soup, this time without blowing. I liked watching this young woman eat. She managed to enjoy her food without being messy. “And I bet I have spots of my own –ways to mask worries, concerns, and obsessions. It’s a matter of displacement. The trick is to find the right amount and kind of displacement.”
“You sound like a psychiatrist.”
She laughed and put down her spoon. “You guessed my secret. After college, I started taking Science courses at night, but the road ahead seemed so long and arduous that I gave up.” She smiled. “What did you want to be before you settled for the office?”
“A lot of things: a cowboy, a fireman, a mailman who wrote at night. But I didn’t really want to be anything. Not much.”
“That may be related to your spot.”
We finished eating and, after a brief tussle, split the check, then walked back to the office together. It had rained the previous night, and the air was sweet. She suggested we “do this again,” and, over the next several weeks, we did.
The proof, of course, was in the pudding. Arriving home one evening during a late-summer mist, I noticed an incipient new spot a few inches to the left of where the old one had been. The new one looked like a piece of paper towel, and a messy residue of dog droppings checked my impulse to remove it. Instead, I went up to my apartment, found a plastic bag, and hurrying back down, scooped up the still fairly intact piece of paper, walked to the corner, and dropped it into a trash basket.
That night it poured, making me glad I had taken the trouble to deal with the proto-spot. The next day, at another lunch date, I told my friend what had happened. As usual, our fare was soup and sandwiches.
“Good,” she smiled, “that was very proactive.” Not a word I liked, but never mind. “It would probably have become another spot.” She drank some soup and dabbed at her lips. “Why does your spot remind me of the line from Hamlet: ‘Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt.’ ”
“So you think the spot is an intimation of mortality? The deeper meaning?”
“Yes. And, if you don’t mind my asking, do you think the new spot would have obsessed you as much as the old one did?”
With the sandwich at my lips, I froze. “I’m sure it would have,” I admitted. “I guess that means…”
She looked at me with compassion. (Or was it pity?) “I’m afraid it does.”
Fiction by Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has appeared in many publications. He has published seven books, and his work has twice been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Currently, his serial thriller, Geistmann, and his serial farce, The Parents We Deserve, are both available at jukepopserials.com. Forthcoming is Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders.