Thursday, March 20, 2014

Frustrated Objective

Frustrated Objective
Juan Carlos Catala

He knows numerous different ways to tie a knot. His old profession, which demanded a lot of daring, requires it. He became an expert, not only in tying but also untying every single knot that he'd encounter every moment in his career. That's why this trick has been carefully planned. It's the first time he's attempted it and he doesn't want to fail.

Several years have passed since the last time he had to tie an important knot. Now his hands are executing this task once again. Although his fingers move with absolute certainty through the damp rope -- made this way to increase its resistance -- his slow reflexes betray his commitment. His nervous system also delays him. But he has already made up his mind.

All of his body weight is placed on a wooden table with long, metal legs that lifts him four feet off the floor. The table is three feet in diameter. He kneels and balances himself, trying to stay stable. His ankles and arms are tied together behind him. His body is contorted into a triangle.

As he prepares, there's no audience to applaud him. Cries and cheers are not heard. In his not-so-distant past, the yells resounded: 

"That's nothing for you, Zor!"

"That is easy!"

"That's no challenge!" 

This time silence surrounds him. 

He's not on a stage or in a stadium, nor two thousand feet above the ocean. He's in his own apartment. He resides in a lower Manhattan neighborhood where boarded-up windows and broken glass on the streets and sidewalks are common. Graffiti is scrawled on brick and cement walls: "Jennifer loves Pedro," "Latesha + Tommy"…along with the usual four-letter words. Hope left this hood a few decades ago.

He is completely alone.  Today Zor has no assistants to help him.
No paramedics will arrive to rescue him if something doesn't go as planned, which happened during his last two shows, when he was advised to retire for his own good.

He knows the risk. But he has decided it's worth it for what he wants to take. His…own life.

A life plagued with frustrations, losses and disillusionment that he doesn't want to continue.

For this reason, the natural-colored, one-inch-wide rope he's using to do the procedure suspends from the ceiling of the small studio apartment. Two ancient metal hooks that once held two 75-pound chandeliers are nailed into the ceiling, a few feet away from each other. They are conveniently placed for his final performance. That's why the rope starts with a knot drawing his hands and feet together, toward the back of his body, then runs in a forty-five-degree angle up to the ceiling. It passes the first hook, goes to the other one, and drops vertically down to his head, ending in a large hangman's noose which floats half an inch away from his face. He hits the noose softly with his forehead as he looks over his shoulder to examine the knot in his hands, reassuring himself that everything is ready. As he moves, the rope sways slightly back and forth.

Now he places his head inside the twelve-inch-wide noose, proceeding to lower his body at short intervals and adjusting the rope around the skin of his neck.
Ending this ritual, he takes a deep breath and holds it for a few seconds, then lets the air puff out of his mouth. He's resigned. "All I have to do now is throw myself to one side and end this," he thinks.

Seeking a few seconds of relief, the man closes his red, exhausted eyes. Tears well up in each eye but take a few seconds to escape his eyes and trickle down his cheeks. He can't believe he has a single tear left to shed.

He's spent several hours without sleep or rest, drinking rum instead. He's passed hours in delirium. Blurry images fill his mind, confusing him even more. He can't concentrate on one thought for more than two seconds. He's ready to end it once and for all.

With his sight still hazy, he manages to focus on a poster tacked to the wall. He sees a photograph of himself, covered from head to toe in ropes, chains and padlocks. The title at the top reads: "ZOR, the Escape Magician." A tiny smile comes to his lips for a few seconds. Then it vanishes as if the smile was never there.

Feeling nostalgia wash over him like a spring rain, he scans the 900-square-foot apartment. Bright-colored outfits are spilled all over the floor. A black leather sofa he and his wife bought 20 years ago at an upscale furniture store and two brown recliners with threadbare arms and dark stains from his shoes also occupy the room. A body-sized, wooden trunk, painted gold but with noticeable paint chips in several spots, sits unused in a corner. A few of his magic tricks still inhabit the interior. A thirty-six-inch by twenty-four-inch, silver-colored box several months ago held at least fifteen gold-plated and pewter awards, plaques and other trophies which recognized his art. Baffled, he sees the empty box but doesn't know where they are now; nor can he recall that he sold them.

On the otherwise-bare, dusty living room wall hangs a five-foot-tall poster of his wife Rita. She smiles during their honeymoon days on Antigua, where they stayed in a small cabin just a half mile from the Caribbean Sea. He is standing beside her, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. His eyes look at her, absorbed in her beauty. He'd asked a 14-year-old island boy to snap the photo. But now the picture hangs askew, with shattered glass showing where he's thrown projectiles at it with anger and frustration. He grimaces now when he thinks of Rita.

For years, Rita had warned him that if he wouldn't quit drinking and stop throwing temper tantrums, she would leave. One day, she packed her suitcases because she had found a shiny, new love with his agent, of all men.  In his delirium, they talk through this photo since the day she left. He's fuzzy on how many years have passed.  She used a lawyer to communicate with him just once. He refuses to sign the divorce papers but even so, she vanished from his life.
Now he appears very different than he did on his honeymoon, thanks to the copious gray hair that sprouts from his head and two-thirds of his face that he hasn't trimmed in a long while. His beard has numerous knots and a couple of food particles enmeshed in it. His body once weighed a trim 180 pounds, now, though, it's at least 60 pounds underweight. His gentle face is covered with veins and redness that demonstrate his love for the demon rum. He looks much older than he should. Now he thinks: "Fifty years of life are too much. Going on living the way I have been is not only insane but shameful."

Thanks to the bottle, he has lost his wife, most of his old friends, his artistic abilities and gigs, his relatives and even the notion of whom he'd once been. Depression and despair have taken not only his self-esteem. His assets, including a five-bedroom condominium, were all confiscated because of the debts he's amassed. A newspaper hasn't mentioned his name for at least ten years, when he suffered a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Although his name was once known throughout the English-speaking world as one of the greatest escape artists ever, hardly a soul would recall the name Zor now. Is that a cartoon character? many people would ask. His own mother wouldn't recognize him, even if he hadn't been orphaned when he was eight years old. 

But he's not reminiscing about his traumatic past and how he's come to this rock-bottom end. The alcohol flowing in his bloodstream doesn't allow him to think clearly. He can't remember the last time he concentrated on anything for more than 30 seconds. Except, of course, for making this knot.

He stares down at an empty rum bottle on the floor; he feels that emptiness in his heart. The bottle seems to stare at him as a witness. He has piled other bottles into a dusty corner of the apartment. Most of them are covered with dust, with the liquor in brown drops congealed on their sides. He has spent more time with them than anything else the last few years.

On his scratched, pine dining room table, he's placed a tarnished silver candelabra, an oversized bouquet of silk purple hydrangeas, dusty white plates and silverware and a few cloth napkins. All of them are in disarray, as if a child pushed them aside during a fit of rage. Wrinkled, torn envelopes and letters complete the tabletop tableau.

On top of these items lies an eviction notice to vacate the apartment. He had more than enough time to leave but couldn't do it by himself. His electric, gas and water bills all scream "last notice" in red ink. 

Angrily and with a sigh, he dries his tears with the shoulder of his faded, gray tee shirt. Then he throws his head to his right side. He begins to count: "Ten…nine…eight... " Images pass through his mind quickly, some from his childhood and others from his adult years. 

His life has become a nightmare, playing like an endless tape, starting each morning at dawn and ending in the oblivion of restless sleep. The present days have dimmed any joy he had yesterday.

He's attempting a trick that he knows will be definite. This time it's not an act. It's his final escape.

It is nearly six o'clock in the afternoon and his apartment interior grows dark. Outside of the brownstone building, people move quickly to their destinations. New York City's traffic is heavy as people leave their office buildings and spew onto the sidewalks of lower Manhattan, heading to the subways, taxis or to walk home. Voices rise; laughs and shouts ring out. 

Inside his apartment, however, all is silent. Zor breaks it with a soft sob. A drop of mucus oozes from his nose.  

"Seven…six…five…" He resumes counting down. He realizes that it won't be long now. He has made the last decision he'll ever make. "Four…three…" He's distracted by the sweat trickling down his cheeks and involuntarily he raises his shoulder slightly and jerks his head to the side, trying to swipe it. He glances toward an upper corner of the room, towards the rail adorning the top of a battered oak armoire. 

In that precise moment , through the rail, he espies a hidden bottle of rum. Because of the armoire's height, he couldn't see it from the floor. From his position kneeling on the table, however, he can focus on the clear bottle filled with orange-brown liquid. He feels a sudden, incredible urge to drink from it. His saliva glands respond automatically.

With rapid clarity, he recalls one of the arguments he had with his wife about his drinking. This rum bottle had disappeared without a trace. Although he searched for it for several days afterward, he never saw it again. Now he convinces himself that he had not once opened and tasted it. Rita will never know it but this seems as if she's trying to help him one more time.

He sees her eyes staring at him from the poster, making him feel  ashamed. He starts to shake and loses his balance. Trying to regain it, the table slips out from under him. Abruptly he finds himself in the air. The rope violently yanks up his head, hands and feet while his belly plummets to the floor. His body contorts into a grotesque horseshoe. His stomach stops just six inches from the wooden floor.
The table bangs on the floor, obscuring the sound of an aching sigh trapped in his throat. The rope tightens around his neck as gravity takes effect.

Although everything has gone according to plan, he's been taken by surprise. He panics.

He used to stay calm because he had to act quickly to escape death. This time, though, he's so frightened that his mind is blank and incapable of transmitting the tiniest coherent message.

Furiously and feebly, he tries to untie the knot on his hands. His inebriation delays his reflexes. He violently pitches his body between the two ropes, only inches from the floor. His belly grazes it as gravity pulls his body even further downward.

As the rope forcefully squeezes his neck, his face turns red. Blood accumulates in his veins and his eyes pop open, straining against his eyelids. His brain receives images but they are only shapes. They don't make any sense. The rope increases its pressure and narrows, pulling against the hooks on the ceiling.
Everything is working perfectly. His body hangs grotesquely with his head pulled several inches backward by the rope, and the weight of his hands and his feet. The man considers whether he has any chance of stabilizing his position and saving himself. But that's out of the question. The rope breaking would be his only salvation.

Quiet grunts buried in the lower part of his throat are unable to escape his lips as his face burns a burgundy red.

The struggle intensifies. He realizes how desperate the situation is. His eyes feel as if they'll explode but they seek the rum bottle on top of the armoire. Still this vision is secondary to the lack of oxygen. He's realized, too late, that he is not ready to die.

He opens his mouth, trying to inhale the precious air he needs but the rope around his neck continues to tighten. His tongue is forced out as the area is constricted. His mind no longer controls his  movements. The nervous system has taken charge.

Uncontrollable spasms roll through his body. Exhaustion starts to take its inevitable toll. His hands no longer move, his eyes no longer see images. Instead, everything in the room becomes dark. Bloodshot eyes quickly roll upward, a notice that their job is finished. Little evidence of a struggle remains. 

One final spasm occurs, followed by a deep, internal groan that indicates the end has come. The man's body relaxes. 

Silence creeps into the apartment. Everything is ended. In reality it had ended many years ago. Just now… life…is gone.

The End


Bio:  Juan Carlos Catala. I'm a writer and musician. Born in 1962, I'm one of nine children. I was raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, a suburb of San Juan. But I've also resided in New York City and Tampa, Florida; now I call Clearwater, Florida, home.

I was inspired to write this story after two close friends committed suicide by hanging themselves.