by M. Shaw
We caught a gnome in our house, in a trap we had set out for the raccoons who kept getting in the basement.
“He’s adorable!” said Jean, and we put him in a cage. A big, old birdcage, it had belonged to my late grandfather’s parrot, who had finally died the previous year. The little fella didn’t seem to mind. He slept a lot, and then he did these little kicky dances and made all these noises that sounded like words, but weren’t. “Dow-tee hoy biddo! Funger hoo tee hoo!” That sort of thing. It had a pseudo-Irish sound to it, but we didn’t think he was a leprechaun, because of the hat. His was cone-shaped, definitely more the kind of thing you would associate with a gnome than a leprechaun.
“Do you think he, you know, has intelligence?” I asked Jean after a couple days, while we were watching him in there. He had completely replaced the TV at that point, in terms of how we spent our time.
“All animals have some degree of intelligence,” said Jean, “so it depends what you mean. Human intelligence? I doubt it. I mean, look at him.”
“He’s wearing clothes and everything,” I pointed out. It wasn’t complicated clothing, just some baggy trousers and a shirt. It looked a bit like pajamas. And the hat. No shoes.
“So is Princess Diana,” said Jean. That was the name of our Bichon, who was, after all, wearing a doggy Christmas sweater.
I still wasn’t sure that they counted as the same thing. We watched him for another five or ten minutes, and then it hit me. “But we didn’t put the clothes on him,” I said.
“I should make him some little outfits,” said Jean. “On the sewing machine.” I couldn’t tell if she had misinterpreted the point I was making, or if she was ignoring me completely.
I lost a lot of sleep thinking about this. Was that a good measure of intelligence? To be able to not just wear clothes, but to put them on yourself? Did that mean that, when my parents dressed me, when I was little, I wasn’t fully human? What if I became quadriplegic, or developed some kind of dementia, and couldn’t do it myself anymore?
We gave the gnome some steamed chicken and carrots, but he showed no interest. We gave him some canned dogfood, and he wasn’t interested in that, either. He seemed to never need to eat or go to the bathroom at all. I asked Jean if we were sure he was really a living creature. The lack of eating or pooping would seem to indicate no. But again, he slept. And when he slept, you could see his torso rise and fall, breathing. And he had a beard, and the beard was grey, suggesting growth and age.
“I think maybe he’s a filter feeder,” said Jean, cutting out pieces of a sewing pattern. “Like a sea sponge. Or maybe he does photosynthesis.”
“In the basement?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know, Todd, I’m not a scientist. What do you want me to do about it?”
I didn’t want her to do anything about it, so I said nothing. I was just worried about the definition of life. Honestly, sometimes I worried about whether it applied to me, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the gnome.
“I’m thinking of naming him Bernie,” she said.
This caught me off guard, and I still said nothing. She was thinking of naming the gnome? Somehow, I thought, that seemed untoward.
“How does that sound to you?”
“What if he already has a name?” I said.
“Why don’t you ask him?” she chuckled.
He was asleep when I went downstairs, but I tried anyway. “Hey buddy,” I said, “what’s your name? You got a name?”
He didn’t wake up, and it occurred to me that he had never directly acknowledged me in any way. In fact, I didn’t get the sense that he was aware of his surroundings at all, except for the cage, which was a physical limitation. But as far as his behavior went, the cage might as well have been in the middle of a corn field. Or on top of a skyscraper. Or in the area with the high crime rate. I might as well have been anybody, to him. Hell, I might as well have been nobody.
We never saw another gnome. We had an exterminator come out, to figure out how he had gotten in. The exterminator fiddled around the basement with her tools. Wrote some things on a pad with carbon paper. Looked at the gnome.
“Funny little critter, isn’t he,” she said.
Have you ever seen one before, we asked.
“Can’t say I have.” She shook her head. “Can’t say I have. But, what are you gonna do? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things,” she repeated, “have happened.”
I didn’t think that was true, but she said it with such confidence that I couldn’t disagree. She made some suggestions about the chimney, about caulking and insulation and things like that. She also sprayed some poison, and I still wonder if there are dead gnomes in the walls of the house. We never smelled anything, but maybe they don’t stink when they decay? Maybe they don’t decay? They just lie there, little lifeless rubber dolls?
The gnome did not seem worried about his comrades.
One day, Jean called me over. “Todd, look at this!” From the basement.
I went down there, to find that the gnome was now wearing an outfit she had made
“He didn’t mind me putting them on him,” she said. “Didn’t make a fuss, not even a
He was wearing a black fleece pullover and dungarees. It looked like he was wearing little black sneakers as well, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be baby booties, made entirely out of linen but sewn to look like sneakers. She had taken the hat off and, what do you know, he was completely bald underneath.
“He’s dressed like you,” she explained.
“No he’s not,” I said, in a whiny tone of voice that embarrassed me immediately. I didn’t even own a black fleece pullover, which was the worst part, because it still seemed like the kind of thing I would wear, even though I had never actually worn one, as far as I could remember. Or maybe the worst part was the shoes, because I did own black sneakers, but mine were real sneakers. And this was like, these might as well be your sneakers, Todd, even though they weren’t even close, really. I’m not sure how the dungarees could have been the worst part, but maybe they were too.
He absolutely was dressed like me, is what I’m saying, and I hated it. Not exactly like
me, but like me.
“Why did you do this,” I said.
“It’s cute!” said Jean.
It was cute, and there was nothing I could do about that.
I decided to sell the gnome on the internet, secretly. I didn’t take any photos, but a few days after I posted the information about him, a guy came over to take a look while Jean was out with her friends at the roller derby.
“Wow,” said the guy, watching the gnome dance in his cage. “It does this all the time?”
“He actually spends a lot of time sleeping,” I said. “But apparently he doesn’t mind if you change his clothes for him.”
“You ever let him out?”
“Of his cage?” I said. “No. No, we never have.”
The guy nodded. Princess Diana, wearing a tiny dog-sized cape with a Wonder Woman symbol, licked at his shins. “If I can ask just a really honest question,” he said, “is it legal to--well, I mean, not legal, but like--okay--I mean, to have a person, well, not a person person, but you--as a pet, or whatever--I--uh--like, is it kosher, you know?”
“I’m not Jewish,” I admitted.
He rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’ll give you thirty-nine dollars for it,” he said.
“Well,” he made a wobbly motion with one hand, “thirty-seven.”
“Actually, I’m not interested.”
“You can have him for nothing,” I said. But the guy had already left. He really had turned on his heel and walked right out of the house, as if he suddenly found the whole thing appalling.
Jean never found out that I had tried to sell the gnome. She came home from the roller derby and went directly downstairs to visit him, sleeping in his cage. When he first showed up, she and I would usually watch him together, and she would react to what he did by cooing or giggling or adding color commentary. Gradually, though, I had stopped spending much time watching the gnome, and she had transitioned into watching him silently. Like a vigil. But, that’s the way a lot of people watch TV, so I didn’t think it was all that weird.
I spent weeks mentally destroying myself over why the guy who had initially wanted to buy the gnome became so upset. The gnome wasn’t doing anything wrong, so it must have been me, right? He must have found something repulsive about me. Maybe he noticed that the gnome, who was still wearing the fleece pullover outfit at the time, looked so much like me, which made it seem like I was trying to cast out this little simulacrum of myself. It would be like a kind of suicide, from his perspective. I wanted him to take away a facet of myself.
The gnome was not a facet of myself, but the guy didn’t know that. And, from an outsider’s perspective, if the gnome and I seemed that similar, wasn’t that what mattered? There was no difference between me and the gnome, because a visitor to our house, who didn’t know me, couldn’t see one. And if that were true, then all the stuff I’d been thinking about, about life, was just wrong. Being able to put clothes on yourself, or have a name, that didn’t matter. It was all about how other people, with no connection to your abilities, thought of you. Which would mean that being intelligent, or being a person, had nothing to do with you. My body and my mind couldn’t be a person; only the idea of me could. Was that what the guy thought? Was that what everyone thought?
I started watching the gnome with Jean more often, in silent vigil, the way she did. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. If he was a person, in her eyes. If I was.
She made him a little dinosaur costume, from a children’s Halloween pattern. “It’s October,” she explained. We had found the gnome in July.
At that moment, I remembered that the guy had also asked whether we ever let the gnome out of his cage. Maybe that was the problem: that we kept him in the cage all the time, never letting him leave.
When I thought of this, I felt an unexpected stab of resentment. Why should anyone be concerned about whether the gnome was being let out? What about me? Was anyone going to let me out?
What am I talking about, I thought. Let me out of what?
“We should take him trick-or-treating,” I said.
Jean wrinkled her nose. “Jesus, Todd, he’s not our child.”
This was true, of course, but then, what was he? “Is he, like, a pet?” The guy had used
that word, after all.
“I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I guess I have fun with him. He’s entertaining. And he’s harmless. He’s more like a,” she twirled her finger around in the air, “a toy, or something. Well… eh, the attraction is that he’s not dependent on me. That’s really the key piece. A child, or a pet, they need you. You have to do all these things to keep them alive and happy, feed them and clean up after them and whatever else.”
“What about a husband?” I said.
She didn’t seem to have heard me. “Whereas he’s basically alive and has a little personality, but he pretty much does his own thing. There’s no responsibility. I can rest.”
“But you do all these things for him,” I said. “Making clothes. And spending all this time watching him.”
Jean said nothing. It must not have registered as a contradiction.
“Is that what you want?” I asked. “Someone you’re not responsible for, at all?”
She nodded. She didn’t look at me. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
I could see the gnome, then, as I thought she must have seen him: as an ideal version of me. A person wearing my clothes, and living in her house, but with no needs at all. A harmless me.
We decided that, instead of taking the gnome trick-or-treating, we would move the cage near the front door, so that trick-or-treating children could see him, dressed as a dinosaur, and be horrified or delighted. There weren’t very many children in our neighborhood, so we usually spent the trick-or-treat time eating candy out of a bowl, watching television and occasionally answering the door, often seeing kids dressed as the very characters we were watching on TV.
This year was different. Jean sat in a chair, facing the front door, the gnome in the cage by her side. Not eating any of the candy. Just waiting. When the doorbell rang, she would exclaim delight over the children’s costumes, then say, “And look at this!” And look at the gnome. He was almost always asleep, and she seemed no less excited for it.
“Is that a bird?” one kid asked.
Weird, said most of them.
“It’s baby Jesus,” said another one, with a completely neutral facial expression and no trace of emotion.
Others simply ran away.
For the first bit of the evening, I stood slightly behind Jean, out of a sense of obligation. I felt it would be disrespectful to do anything else. Eventually, I took a break to feed Princess Diana, which had to be done. After that, nostalgia getting the better of me, I adjourned to the living room and turned on a show I’d been watching. She had no reaction. I looked over at her every so often, but didn’t get up. It didn’t look like she needed anything.
I wondered if this was how things were going to play out from now on: Jean watching the gnome, inviting herself to be watched, watching the gnome; me, off by myself, watching TV. She with her perfect, harmless version of me, and me doing my best to be as harmless as possible, as much like the gnome as possible. I closed my eyes, using the sound of the TV as background for picturing this as normal. In the vision I made for myself, I was doing my best to disappear, or at least, to become invisible. I could sit here, in front of the TV, all day if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t be bothering Jean, because she would be with the gnome. I imagined myself wearing very large, linen facsimiles of sneakers, imagined what the linen would feel like on my feet all the time. I saw myself sleeping all the time, never needing to eat. I heard myself talk, and I heard what I said mean nothing. And what else is a house, but a very comfortable cage?
I was asleep, is what was going on by the end. Jean woke me up late, with all the children long since gone home with their candy.
“Todd,” she said, “it’s time to take Bernie back downstairs.”
“Okay,” I mumbled, “I’ve got you. I’ll help!” I wondered how long she had sat in front of the door, waiting for another costumed kid to show up, after the last one had left.
“You fell asleep on the couch,” she said. “Are you okay? How are you doing?”
“Good,” I said. “Really good.” I stood up, did a couple shallow knee bends, getting ready to carry the cage.
M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. Despite the best efforts of some, they STILL live in Arvada, Colorado, where they run the micropress Trouble Department. Their website is mshawesome.com. Their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.