The session has begun. “Let’s see now,” the woman says. “Where are you?” The woman sits opposite Penny Hasbro in a condominium suite on the 54th floor of the Carmichael on Lake Shore Drive. Penny looks around the room. A painting on the wall shows a peasant woman washing the feet of a peasant child. A bookcase boasts the Bhagavad Gita and the complete teachings of Freud, Jung, and Danielle Steele. Audible are the chirpings of three caged birds. Three finches.
Penny Hasbro answers the woman. “Well … I suppose I’m … here.”
“No, no,” the woman says, bringing her hands together under her heart. “Here. Where are you … here?”
Penny takes this into consideration.
“Well … here … I … suppose I’m … in sort of an … empty lot.”
“Yes, good, and what’s around you?”
“Well … it’s an empty lot.”
“And what comes to mind?”
“Yes … an inferno. Brilliant. I think I can help you. Tell me, who gave you my name?”
The caged finches flit and chirp about in the excited way that predicts a ringing phone. The phone does ring. “Maumie Cummings … ” Penny watches her answer. An excessively thin woman in her early 40s with bleached and brittle hair. Some might call it distressed. “Oh hello, Gretchen,” she says. “Yes I’m lovely, how are you?” Maumie Cummings clicks her glamour-length silk-wrapped nails against the lamp table next to her. “He’s a frightened little worm, I tell you,” she says into the phone. “He’s calling our bluff. Well, tell him to hire a lawyer if he wants to bandy this about. The birdie’s in our court, I tell you. This afternoon he’s in at three. I’ll call you tonight, Peanut, someone’s here.” Maumie returns the phone to its cradle. “Now, where were we? Right. You were saying who gave up my name.”
“I’m responding to the ad.”
“Oh that. Yes, of course. I … suppose you have the coupon.”
Penny Hasbro hands Maumie Cummings the $50-off-first-visit ad she’d cut last Sunday from a page of Womanews.
“We get so many wackos walking up from the street,” Maumie says. “Somebody’ll say they forgot the coupon. Well, maybe we’ve forgotten our training. Now tell us … what are we in for?”
Burglar bars on the windows seemed overly sensible so far up a high-rise condominium when Penny’d first seen them. Now the bars appear just this side of reasonable. Penny tells Maumie that what’s brought her in is what she’s been hearing about the rape camps.
“What rape camps?”
Penny says all rape camps in general, she supposes, but in particular the rape camps that are popular these days along the Adriatic: “I thought they were famous by now.”
“Oh yes, those. Well, darling, those camps, as you call them, happen wherever there’s a war. What is it in particular that bothers you about them?”
Penny’s eyes hold still on the burglar bars. The three caged finches flit, then chirr and cheep and the phone rings again. “Maumie Cummings … Oh, hello! Good thing you’ve called.” Maumie covers the speaker of the phone with her hand and looks up. “Listen,” she says, taking note of the name written on an index card, “Penny, darling, I’ve been waiting for this call. Do you mind.” Maumie glances to the door and tilts her head in that direction, making a strong, silent suggestion that Penny take a moment’s leave. But from the hall Penny can hear.
“Listen, Lovebird, retreat! Retreat! … Yes, she’s just called. She’s got herself a lawyer, that’s all I know…. Oh, some … Herbert Bandy, attorney-at-law…. No, I’ve never heard of him either. Listen, she might be calling our bluff, but she’s got the goods on you. Plan B. Plan B!” Penny smells Maumie lighting a cigarette. “Meet me next Tuesday at Mardi Gras. I’ll be wearing a suit with a bird head and the tail of a cat…. Hmmm? Oh … well, I’m staying in the Garden District at the Dew Drop Inn … but don’t. No one must see me with you.”
Off the hall, in the guest bath, Penny finds a cat box in the shower stall. The cat-box scooper is a large kitchen spoon one might otherwise use for serving, say, certain chili dishes or stews. On the counter are trays and trays of cheap cosmetics. Coty, Tussy, Flame-Glo. Avon decanters bring the space together. There’s a can of spray potpourri on a shelf and, next to that, a can of spray spring meadow.
Maumie Cummings finishes her call. “Penny,” she says out loud, “I think we’re ready now…. Miss Hasbro?”
A fat, billowy cat follows Penny back into the room, where Maumie is looking into a compact mirror, tweezing hairs from her chin. “There you are, fluff-butt,” she says, clamping the compact closed. “We’ve been looking for you.” The three caged finches quit with the flitting and freeze-clamp their beaks shut. Maumie says, “There you are, Fluff-Butt Mrs. Jig-a-Willow!” The cat hops up onto Maumie’s lap. “Now … we were talking about your fear of camp,” Maumie says. “What is it exactly about camping that bothers us?”
“Well, it’s not really … ”
“Please, Penny, answer the question. Let’s not work harder than we have to on this. Resistance furthers no goal, Penny, remember that. Let the answer rise up from the body as if you were the earth. ‘Camping.’ What fear does the word invoke?”
“Well … I … suppose I … don’t like snakes.”
“Certainly not. Neither do I,” Maumie offers. “I sometimes wonder though. Maybe I really want to be a snake but can’t come to terms with that, let’s say, underbelly side of me … that part of me that has the name of that word I cannot utter.”
Penny asks Maumie how long she’s been practicing psychotherapy. “Oh, this isn’t psychotherapy, darling. No, this is psycho-enhancement. If you like I’ll show you the small print on the coupon. I’m not a therapist. I’m an enhancer. Now … let it all out, Penny, I’m here to help. What else about camp don’t you like?”
“I’m not really terrified of snakes.”
“Well, no, neither am I. Who is? But Penny, it’s rather old news that certain experiences can leave their impact. For instance …” Maumie tells the story of a horse she saw when she was 12 while camping with her family. Exploring away from the others, Maumie’d seen the horse in the shade of an orchard eating apples straight from the branch of a tree. Maumie remembers the hot flash she’d suffered at seeing the horse, who was, she says, “showing me quite vividly what he was made of.” Later Maumie confided in her older sister what she’d seen, and the older girl ran, terrified, to her mother, saying Maumie’d been making up dreadful stories. “Stoolie!” Maumie says. “But Penny, darling, do you see how we’re all connected? To this day I despise camping and all it represents. Betrayal of trust. Exposure. Ostracism. I imagine if we dig deep enough we’ll find similar experiences in your little closet. Let the feelings rise up, Penny, don’t fight me on this.”
A pigeon lands on a window bar outside. “Oh, I love those bars on the windows and how they attract the birds. Because we are all trapped inside a cage inside a cage inside a cage,” Maumie says. “But we do have our feathers to enjoy.”
Penny says she’s bothered by her own lack of rage at the rape camps.
“Yes, well, rape,” Maumie says. “Big word. Big word. First let’s ask ourselves, Penny, ‘How am I raping myself?'”
The three caged finches again predict the phone will ring, and when it does Maumie makes an apology. “Couples enhancement,” she says, “you’ll excuse us.” Penny follows the plastic runner into the front room, where she sits for a short time. It looks like a mail-order business has been started in the dining room, and boxes of junk mail crowd the buffet. From the kitchen Penny can hear Maumie yelling into the phone, which she’s switched on to speaker.
“Well, I apologize if I’ve misunderstood your reality,” Maumie says.
A tiny muffled voice escapes from the speaker phone into the space shared by Maumie and her birds to where Penny stands between the stove and a chopping block on a single square of black tile.
“Your job is to understand my reality,” the muffled voice says. “Are you listening?”
“I’m listening. And now you listen to me. Are you coming in here and signing this check, or am I going to have to forge your name again? Don’t make me break the law.”
“I’ll be in. But no reverse-meaning exercises. No can’t mean yes.”
“All right. All right. Ca-peesh! But I don’t appreciate these odd little criticisms of my method.”
“And how is it these little misconceptions are mine?”
“Because, Lester, I’m the enhancer.”
Fluff-Butt Mrs. Jig-a-Willow moves up against Penny’s leg, leaving a trail of cat hair. On the floor Penny sees the cat’s toy bird, an actual parakeet that has died and now been stuffed.
“Penny, darling,” Maumie calls out from the other room. “Where are we?” Penny can hear Maumie calling from the corridor outside the suite on the Carmichael’s 54th floor. “Have we decided how we might be raping ourselves? Penny!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Dan Grzeca.