“Tangled” by Gary Carr

When I think about it, none of this would have happened if Roger weren’t such a slob. 

After Roger left for the gym, I decided to vacuum the apartment and clear up the crap, all of which was his doing. Copies of Men’s Health tossed in the corner, popcorn under the couch, and a madeleine stomped into the carpet just outside the kitchen.  It took the better part of an hour to clean our one-bedroom, one-bath, kitchen, living room/office apartment, which we considered a bargain at $3,200 a month.

Before I could fire up the vacuum, I had to untangle the bird’s nest of knots the electric cord had gotten itself into.  While I pushed and pulled to suck up the debris, I thought about how a sweeper cord, a clothes line, a gold chain necklace can tie itself in knots after simply being dropped on the floor or the bed.  My grandmother used to blame it on gremlins who sneaked into the house at night.

We were meeting George and his new husband at six for drinks, so I had time before showering and ironing my jeans.  I wound the vacuum cord around my elbow and the gap between my thumb and forefinger like my Grandma taught me and dropped the coil on the floor.

“There, tie yourself in knots,” I said.

I stood over the coil and watched it for a few seconds, mentally daring it to tangle itself. 

After I came back from the kitchen and my afternoon B-12 pick-me-up and a banana, I started to put the vacuum away when I noticed the coil seemed to have changed shape.  I grabbed the plug end of the cord and walked across the living room with it.  Once it was stretched out, there it was, a knot in the middle of the cord.  “Awesome,” as Roger was far too fond of saying. 

I had to get to the bottom of this, my homegrown Gordian knot in the middle of my apartment.  I untied it and laid the cord down, still stretched full length from the vacuum to the plug end.  I kept my eye on the cord as I backed out of the room on my way to the shower.

By the time I finished in the bathroom and got dressed, I had completely forgotten about the cord.  When I got back to the living room, there it was, stretched out and knotless.

“So, you can’t do it from square one, from a standing start.  You’re a fake,” I shouted.  I was merciless in my mockery.

Roger burst in the door and went in to change his shirt.  Thank God he’d showered at the gym, or I’d have had wet towels to pick up before we left.

“Aren’t you going to put the vacuum away?” he called from the bedroom. “One of us could trip over the cord.”

Well, there was a case of the pot and the kettle.  I put the vacuum in the closet and once again coiled the cord around my elbow and thumb and carefully placed it on the closet floor where it wouldn’t touch anything else.  I thought I’d check the cord when Roger and I got back.

Drinks at The Bear Pit with George and his husband, whose name was Dusty, turned into dinner at Chez Randy, and then more drinks at La Tour d ’Argent.  It was hard to hold up my end of the conversations, since I couldn’t get the vacuum cord out of my mind.  Dusty was a hot number, which Roger noticed from the start.  At Chez Randy and again at the Tour, I had to elbow him and whisper, “He’s married, you know.”

Once we got home, Roger tumbled into bed with everything on but his shoes.  Five white Russians will do this to him, and I was thankful he didn’t have a sixth in his effort to appeal to Dusty.  The last time he had three Russians, I was up until dawn cleaning up the puke.

Roger immediately went into full-blown snore, so I kicked off my shoes and went over to the closet to check the coil.  Even though I had laid it so gently on the floor, there it was.  Despite the half-light, I could tell it was a wiry mess.

I took the tangled mass, with vacuum still attached, over to the couch, where I sat down and spent the next ten minutes untangling it.  

“You have a life of your own, don’t you?” I whispered.  I didn’t want to risk waking Roger, highly unlikely as such an event might be.

This time, I laid the cord out on the floor in a large spiral so that it looked like a mini-labyrinth.  A mouse could have walked it to get to a lump of brie in the center.  For all I knew, we could have mice, since our cat met its end a month ago.  Roger left the bedroom window open and Mr. Whiskers jumped out in pursuit of a fly.  A four- story fall is too much even for an athletic cat, which the obese Whiskey-poo definitely was not.

I stared into the depths of the labyrinth until the rusty nail I’d nursed at the Argent got the best of me.  When I woke up, the vacuum cord looked like the snaky head of Medusa.

Roger was still asleep when I went into the kitchen to make some coffee.  I had untangled the cord and laid it out in a more elongated spiral, like the shape of a paper clip. By the time I got back to the living room with my cappuccino, the cord was a mess again, and now Roger was stirring and calling for Advil.

For the next few days, I rushed home from work and took up my vigil watching the cord.  I experimented with laying it out on the floor in various shapes, a square, a triangle, the letters “M” and “G.”  The one time I let the cord touch itself was when I formed it into a “Q.”  I discovered that, as long as I remained looking at it, nothing would happen.  But, as soon as I nodded off or ran to the bathroom, there my carefully laid-out shape would be, tangled and knotted once again.

To keep Roger from thinking I’d gone full-bore bats, I told him when he got home that I was into a new form of Kundalini Rope Meditation and was using the vacuum cord in place of the rope.  He bought it completely, and after dinner would retire to the bedroom TV to watch Netflix, leaving me to focus on The Tangler.

After a few nights of “meditation,” the glimmer of a solution appeared to me.  The self-tangling of the cord occurred only when I was not watching, or in the dark, when I could not watch.  I needed to be able to see in the dark while the little devil worked its magic.  And how would I do this?   The solution was within my grasp―night-vision goggles!  Roger had a friend who knew a guy on the city SWAT team who might be able to lend me the goggles for my research.  The only danger was that Roger had had a fling with this guy a few years ago, which eventually led to his profuse apology and him taking me to Cabo for a week.

I explained to Roger that, in order to reach the seventh level of Kundalini Rope Enlightenment, I had to be able to pierce the veil of darkness “by whatever means possible,” according to the teachings of Master Komchu Kumchukarataru.

Roger was only too happy to agree to talk to his friend, and two days later came home with a set of night-vision goggles, along with the instruction manual and the proviso that he had to get them back in three days.

That night, after Roger was in bed, I began my vigil.  I should note that I was keeping a journal detailing my experiments with the cord: configuration, in daylight, in lamplight, in darkness, in the closet, on the living room rug, on the kitchen tile, in the bathtub (dry or submerged).  The results were always the same.  While I was watching, the cord remained as I had placed it.  But if I left the room, or fell asleep, it turned itself into a cat’s cradle.

I began the night by closing the blinds and drawing the drapes, flicking off the light as I left the room to put on the infrared goggles.  I tiptoed back into the living room and took my place on the couch.  Through the goggles, I could see the cord perfectly, just as I had laid it out in the shape of a “6.”  I had stretched the cord from the vacuum end toward the couch in a straight line, then curled it back and around to form the loop of the six, careful not to let the plug end touch the cord at any point.

After a few minutes, I could see the plug end move slowly across the carpet and cross over the cord about three feet from the plug end.  Then the whole cord quivered as the plug end began weaving itself up the straight part of the cord toward the vacuum cleaner.

I don’t know if I cried out in joy and surprise, but I must have jumped to my feet, because my elbow hit the table lamp, sending it crashing to the floor and shattering the faux-Tiffany shade.

Roger, normally a heavy sleeper, woke up.

“What the hell are you doing out there?”

I dropped back on the couch when Roger stumbled to the doorway and flicked on the living room overhead.  The vacuum cord had stopped moving but remained half-braided on the rug.

“What’s going on?  And why are you wearing those goggles?”

“I told you, I’m trying to reach a higher level in my Kundalini meditation.  Sorry, I bumped the lamp.  I’ll clean it up.”  I couldn’t resist zinging him with, “Like I always clean up everything.”

Roger snorted in that annoying manner he has and turned to go back to the bedroom.

“While you’re at it, better wrap up that cord and put the vacuum away before someone trips and breaks his neck.”

I waited until I heard him get back into bed before I began recording my observations of the cord movement in my journal.  I figured to wait until the next night to run another experiment.

The following day at the store, the hours just dragged along.  I had my assistant, Myra, take care of the floor while I stayed in the stockroom and took inventory.  I had to give myself something to do that would help take my mind off the experiment I had planned for the evening.  Right after lunch break, Roger called to say he’d be working late at the law firm and would be going out for drinks and maybe dinner afterward with his boss and a new client and I shouldn’t wait up.  Normally, I’d be pissed at Mr. Roving Eye’s flimsy set-up for staying out all night, but this time it was a godsend.  Just me and my goggles and the vacuum cleaner cord.

It was December and already dark by the time I got home at six-fifteen.  After gulping down a Red Bull, I set to work.  Blinds and drapes drawn, cord spread out in the shape of a “6” (based on last night, my lucky number) night-vision goggles on, and notebook next to me on the couch.

I sat forward on the edge of my seat.  The goggles worked perfectly.  I could make out every detail in the pattern of the faux-Persian carpet, as well as the lotus-shaped wine stain near the bedroom door (Roger’s doing, of course).

Time seemed to drag on, measured by the ticking of the wall clock in the kitchen, which had never sounded so loud before.  Then – yes – a tiny movement at the plug end of the cord, just like the night before.  The cord quivered all down its length, from plug to vacuum cleaner.  Then the same slow braiding movement as the cord wound around itself, zig-zagging up its own length.  The plug end moved over and then under the straight part of the cord until it reached the other end and disappeared into the upright handle of the vacuum cleaner itself.

All movement stopped.  I was wearing my old watch with the luminous dial that I’d dug out from the back of a dresser drawer. The whole braiding process had taken two hours and twenty-six minutes, and it was now ten forty-five.  I realized that my concentration had been so strong that the passage of time, which had dragged before the cord began to move, now leaped ahead once the braiding started.

The quivering began again and grew steadily stronger.  Soon – I say “soon,” but now my body clock could no longer track time, and I was too mesmerized to look down at my watch.  The braided cord began to buck and whip itself against the floor in a series of thwacks.  Dust began to rise from the carpet..  The whipping motion grew stronger until the braid yanked itself loose from the vacuum cleaner and sent it flying across the room where it crashed into the glass doors of the étagère, dumping Roger’s collection of antique fishing reels (which he never dusted) onto the floor.

The braid now stood upright on one end and stretched itself until it touched the ceiling.  The violent movements ceased, and the braid settled into a slow undulation that was almost erotic. My close examination of the braid through the infrared goggles revealed something even more striking.  The braid had taken on the shape of a double helix.  It was, for all the world, a giant DNA molecule.  

It was alive.

This now wildly animated thing danced mockingly around the room, sometimes on end, spinning like a top, sometimes rising and falling across the floor like a child’s slinky.  It seemed unaffected by the force of gravity, as it slinkied around the walls and across the ceiling.  It bounced toward me and sat next to me on the couch for a moment.  I could swear it looked at me, even without any sort of discernable eyes. It turned away and crawled across the floor, up the wall, and curled itself into a ball on the ceiling above the front door.  Up there, all movement ceased, and it came to rest.  I looked at my watch.  It was one-thirty in the morning.

I felt a dull ache in the back of my head and realized that my neck and shoulders were stiff from the tension generated by the thing’s performance.  I took off the goggles and was rubbing my eyes when I heard Roger’s key in the lock. He threw the door open, slamming it into the wall, and a shaft of bright light from the outer hallway cut into the room.  Roger lurched in, nearly losing his balance, and let out a shuddering belch.  Once again, he was shit-faced.

The next few minutes were a blur.  The braid changed shape from a resting ball to an S-shaped coil that shot from the ceiling directly toward Roger.  The upper half of the braid wound itself around his neck, and he dropped to his knees.  Roger’s eyes bulged. He grabbed the braid with both hands and struggled to tear it loose.  After a moment, he went limp, and the braid tossed him aside and with what seemed like a sigh, curled up next to the broken étagère.  Roger’s face was as blue as the postmaster’s coat in the van Gogh painting.

*  *  *  *  *

I’ve been here, by my calculation, for seven months, alone except for the staff.  All of them are nice enough, but distant in an official way. They keep me supplied with books, which they replenish as I finish them.  Nothing current or controversial and no newspapers or magazines.  I just finished Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and might start on One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I think they put in my stack just to irk me. 

I’ve been doodling wolves in the spiral notebook they left me, along with some cheap Bic pens.  I think they are waiting for me to write a confession.  

The braid had disappeared by the time George showed up at the apartment to see why Roger hadn’t come to work that day. The old electric cord lay in a tangle next to the vacuum cleaner.  I let Roger’s cell phone and mine ring dozens of times, but I chose not to answer.  I stayed on the couch with my goggles around my neck until George came in. 

I blame George for tipping off the agents who arrived a few minutes after he made a call.  Obviously, they were either CIA or goons working for the International Pharmaceutical Conglomerate.  The first thing they did was take my notebook, which described my experiments in detail.  Either or both the CIA and Big Pharma saw the security breach.  Both had to be working on self-generating DNA, one for eventual big profits, and the other to create a cadre of warriors to defend the homeland.

Let the staff have their fun.  Once I tidy up my room, I’ll stop doodling wolves and start diagramming helixes.  One of them will be quite long, with one end wrapped around a man with a very, very blue face.

Gary Carr is a writer of plays and short fiction. His work has appeared in Lightwood, The Call, SFist, Callboard, and The Journal of Irreproducible Results. His collection of short fiction, The Girl Who Founded Nebraska. was published by EXIT Press (San Francisco.) His book on one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten,” was published by UMI Press (Ann Arbor.) Produced plays include Bocque’s Blues, and Jenny Gets Her Wheels On, about a wheelchair-bound stand-up comic. He has just completed a novella, The Girl with the Topaz Ring. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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