Slow afternoon. Dr. Grambling sat in his office, hunched over his desk. He leaned his head against his arm and gazed into the pattern eyes of a puppet, his fingers caressing the side of its bumpy, cloth face. He leaned back in his chair and sighed. He stared into the buzzing fluorescent light until his eyes watered. Behind him on the wall hung his psychology license and what looked to be ancient, framed magazine covers of Psyche Today and New Therapist. The covers of these showcased a much younger Dr. Grambling and his star patient, Larry Wilkes. The headlines read things like, "Breakthroughs in Puppeteering and Child Psychology" or "Grambling and the Puppet Method." The magazine covers aged about like the doctor himself, all wrinkles and discolorations.
Puppets were strewn across the room: one limply hanging on the child-sized patient's chair, two leaning against each other on the floor, one on Dr. Grambling's cluttered desk, all lifeless, mouths gaping, their cloth eyes open and fixed, like a grenade had hit Sesame Street. The doctor sat in his chair, rocking back and forth and thinking. He set the puppet in an open drawer and had just pushed it closed when a buzzer sounded.
"Larry Wilkes here to see you," the receptionist's nasally voice issued from the speaker.
"Send him in," Doctor Grambling said, holding down the talk button. He let out a deep sigh and set down his pencil. He had been seeing Larry Wilkes off and on for close to twenty years now. He was his breakthrough in the puppet method, the first patient to ever be advised solely through puppetry. By now, Larry was well outside of the doctor's optimum patient age—he was thirty-six according to the chart. But Dr. Grambling saw him anyway. Larry's visits were not routine; he would not even make an appointment. He would just show up and wait until his doctor had some spare time. It was roughly once every year, and when he came, it was usually just to check in, say hey, how are you, good to see you, and back out the door.
The door opened and Larry walked in. He was balding, and the bags under his eyes sagged halfway down his cheeks. He wore a white, short-sleeved collared shirt that was buttoned to the top, the collar buried deep in Larry's fat neck. To Dr. Grambling, it looked like Larry had not slept in about a week. It reminded Dr. Grambling of the first time he saw Larry, when Larry was eleven, right after he had left his parents and moved into his grandmother's house. He had been locked in his room, stranded for over a week before anyone found him. He was set free only to find out that his father had killed his mother and then himself. During their first few appointments, Dr. Grambling feared that Larry would be one of his hardest patients. He was young and bitter, so angry that he would start crying in the middle of their conversations. At first, they would not talk at all. The doctor would just watch Larry cry, all the while panicking, not knowing how to get him to stop.
"Larry, good buddy, how are you?" the doctor asked, standing and reaching a hand out towards his patient.
"Not so good, Doc," Larry replied, shaking the doctor's hand and sitting down in the child-sized patient's chair. He squeezed his rear in between the armrests and leaned forward, his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. "Not good at all, really. That's why I came by. I need an opinion."
"Why, what's happened? You're not in trouble, are you?"
"No, no. It's nothing like that."
"Well, Larry, by all means, tell me about it."
"I'd rather not, Doc. No offense, but I'd rather talk to Dr. Procter."
The doctor sighed and scooted his chair back. He hesitated before he slid open his bottom desk drawer. When his hand came back up, he was holding a puppet in medical garb. His nametag read "Procter, M.D." in broad, faded red letters. He set the puppet on the table. "Now, Larry, you remember that Dr. Procter is not real, right? He is a part of our imaginations, just a tool to help us tell our feelings to one another."
Larry smiled. "I know, Doc. It's more for old time's sake, really." Dr. Grambling nodded and inserted his hand up to the wrist into Dr. Procter.
"Larry," the puppet said, "It's good to see you again." Dr. Procter's voice was a few octaves above Dr. Grambling's normal speaking voice. It came rasping from the back of his throat in what sounded to be a part British, part German accent, with maybe a tinge of Scandinavian. He had begun his use of puppets about twenty years ago, and this is roughly how he began every session with a patient. A bad boxer in his youth, Dr. Grambling's facial features were unpleasant—contorted and flattened by his opponents' blows. At first, no child would talk to him. They were all too scared of his face.
Larry looked straight into the puppet's black, cloth pupils and told his story. "I woke up about six months ago with a speck in my sight. A tiny speck, almost like a tiny crack in a car windshield, was lodged in my field of vision. Kind of up and to the right." He held his thumb and middle finger like he was holding a needle just above his brow. "It didn't hurt or anything, so I didn't think too much of it at first, but after a week or two, the crack had stretched a good bit. It kept growing, so I decided to go and see the eye doctor. He couldn't find anything wrong, so I went to see some kind of specialist—I don't know his name, maybe it was a Dr. Green. He ran every test he could imagine on me, all with negative results. I went home pissed off every night, and every morning when I woke up, the crack was a little longer." He paused and reached for one of Dr. Grambling's business cards that were piled on his desk. It was a plain card with "Dr. Greg Grambling" written in balloons and a smiling puppet in the bottom corner. "Well, that crack formed a line that kept going all the way across my entire field of vision. Yeah, I went to see different doctors, but the whole time I got no results. Got damn close to spending all the money I had."
He would not look at Dr. Grambling or the puppet. Larry just shook his head, hunched over his knees and staring at the floor. "Go on, Larry," Dr. Grambling said, peering over his glasses.
Larry cleared his throat. "So the line was there, but then, the space above it started losing its clarity, its color. Hell, everything. The entire space above that line turned into a thin fog and then to absolutely nothing. Nothing. I was blind in the top half of my eyesight. I kept going to different doctors—nobody could find nothing." He spun the card around in his fingers. "Well, this whole time, I was learning to live with it, I guess. No use in worrying about something that's not gonna change. I could still see out the bottom half, so I just craned my head a little bit and just started looking a little higher than what I was used to. I had gotten along fine until last week. Last Tuesday, while I was eating some turnip greens, the entire darkness on the top half of my sight got bright. Somebody turned a light on. I could see an office, not too different than this one we're in right now. There was an aluminum desk and a swaying light chain. A door was closing in front of me, the heels of whoever had switched on the light just out of sight when it clicked shut. That happened last week, and I knew that I needed to come see you."
"Larry," Dr. Grambling said, laying his doll face down on the desk, "before you go on, you need to know that I am a certified child psychologist. I can give you my opinion, but I have to strongly suggest that you see a doctor who specializes in your type of problem when you leave my office. Is that clear?" Dr. Grambling stopped himself from saying go see somebody who knows what they're doing.
Larry nodded his head. "I just want to know what's going on," he said weakly. "It ain't normal."
"So, let me get this straight—"
"Uh, doc. I'd rather hear it from Proctor, if, if that's all right."
"Fine, Larry," Dr. Grambling replied as he slid the puppet onto his forearm, again trying to hide his disappointment. The doctor continued in his puppet voice. "Half of your field of vision, the bottom half, is completely normal, right? Everything is just how it has been your entire life?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"And the top half. The top half is an—"
"Office, now. A year ago it was normal, then complete black. Now, I see a tiny office."
"Okay, an office. I must admit, Larry, this sounds peculiar, at best, if not entirely unique. Let me ask you this. Is there anybody else in the office that you see, you know, besides the person who turned on that light?"
"No, not right now. But sometimes, a man comes in the room."
"A man," repeated the puppet. "And do you recognize this man?"
"No, I've never seen him anywhere besides in the office."
"Hm," Larry thought hard as Doctor Grambling waited patiently, face rigid, his wrist cocked to make Dr. Proctor look like he was awaiting an answer. "I guess it's about once a day now, but it could be at any time, breakfast, supper, it doesn't matter. He'll show up."
"What does he look like?"
"Well, he's a good bit older. And, uh, he's, ah—naked." Larry swallowed hard. "Yeah, naked except for some plaid socks he's got on."
The doctor opened Larry's thick file with his free hand and started scratching notes on a clean page. "Does he ever talk to you? Ever tell you that you need to do anything?" the puppet asked.
Larry stared at the carpet. "Sometimes," he started and then changed his mind.
"It's fine, Larry. Take your time," Dr. Grambling said, scratching his forehead, giving his puppet voice a break.
"He talks, but he watches, mostly. Sometimes he tells me what to do, but not very often. The first time he said anything I was, ah, in bed, actually, with a—with a woman. He told me," Larry broke off, as if looking for the exact words. "He told me he could see me. He said he could see what I was doing."
Larry watched as the doctor made notes on Larry's file. "Did he say anything else?" the puppet asked.
"Well, yes." Larry looked straight into the puppet. Dr. Grambling could feel the heat of Larry's stare on his palm. "He told me he loved me."
BIO: Schuyler Dickson grew up in Mississippi. He lives with his wife in Chicago, where he's working on his MFA at Northwestern.