Perched on the kitchen island stool, the lady would read The New Yorker and listen to the little man in the refrigerator.
Usually it would be some opaque newyorkerish poem and suddenly the man would begin drumming his knuckles politely against the door, tapping so as not to disturb those who may have been reading or breakfasting nearby. His knock seemed to say, “Excuse me, excuse me? Could someone let me out? The thing is, I seem to have gotten stuck here, and it’s rather cold.” The lady always listened with great interest but she never thought to let him out, never really thought he existed, even after the most persuasive of knocks (“Please… anyone?”) Had there been visitors to the kitchen, they might have wondered if the man in the refrigerator knew about this steady, intentional deferral of his petitions. They might have imagined him–“that little man”–presiding vigilantly among the cheeses, perhaps clambering over the cabbages, assuming the ideal stance from which to call to those outside, barely audibly: “Excuse me, excuse me…?”
And maybe all the while knowing he was trapped until someone needed cheese or cabbage.
A particularly sonorous knock interrupted a reading of the May 4th New Yorker.
“I beg your pardon?” the lady said, raising her eyes from the magazine. “Is someone there?”
“What? Oh! Yes, yes! Yes, I’m here!” said the man in the refrigerator, overjoyed that he had finally been heard. “I was beginning to think you could not hear me!”
“I beg your pardon? Is someone there?”
She stepped off the island stool and pressed an ear to the refrigerator door. The machine’s unfaltering hum was the only sound she could discern. Then suddenly, and clearly, another knock like the first one.
“Yes! I am here! Haha! You’ve heard me. I am here!” The man in the refrigerator was already beaming with gratitude. “Now if you could just open the door and extract me out of here. You’ll find that I am situated in the very back, behind the mayonnaise.”
The lady pressed an ear and a cheek against the stainless steel and listened more intently.
“You haven’t gone, have you? Oh, I hope not!” continued the man in the refrigerator. “My problem, if I may, is that you have been ignoring the items at the back of the top shelf for quite some time and now I seem to find myself trapped in the coolest part of the refrigerator. Really, it is quite cold back here. If you’d be so kind as to let me out, I’d be happy to move to the cupboard.”
“There is a voice coming from inside the refrigerator, albeit a tiny one,” the lady reasoned. Yet this recognition at the same time frightened her: how could it be that a little man was in there, presiding among the cheeses? Perhaps even clambering over the cabbages?
“Hello there! Actually, I’m behind the mayonnaise!”
“The mayonnaise?” she asked. “Is that what you said? The mayonnaise?”
The man in the refrigerator, to the extent that he could leap (situated behind the mayonnaise as he was), leapt for joy. “Yes! The mayonnaise!”
The lady considered his claim carefully. “I don’t even remember the last time I had mayonnaise in the refrigerator.”
For a moment the man in the refrigerator felt his spirits deflate. Then a brilliant retort: “Well now, isn’t that just the problem! You seem to have forgotten about the mayonnaise altogether. It’s really unpleasant stuff, I can understand, but it’s been my only sustenance as of late, situated as I am behind the jar, with no room to wiggle around it. Frankly, I am beginning to feel as if my body is beginning to take on the anatomical structure of the mayonnaise, so much of it have I ingested recently.”
“You mean you’ve become a liquid within a liquid?” she asked.
“That is what I mean precisely. A liquid within a liquid. Until this stuff begins to rot. Then who knows what ghastly shape my molecules might take thereafter.”
“Indeed,” his interlocutor said meditatively, thinking back to the poem, which, among other words, contained the word “molecular.”
“Indeed!” echoed the man in the refrigerator.
A brief pause settled between them. He thought his opportunity to free himself might be slipping away with his attendant’s attention.
“Excuse me? Miss? Certainly I’ve communicated the gravity of my situation here–that is, my situation behind the mayonnaise jar?”
“Mmmm,” she mumble-hummed, having switched her focus entirely back to the poem, which, as it were, also contained the word “gravity.” Another knock interrupted the reverie.
“My, the volume of your voice has augmented marvelously since I discovered you!” she commented. “How is it that a man small enough to fit into the refrigerator has such a loud voice? And one stuck behind the mayonnaise at that? You see, I’ve been reading this poem, and, well, it’s so opaque…” Her utterance ended in a natural ellipsis.
The man in the refrigerator took this as another opportunity to arrange his rescue.
“A poem, you say?”
Excited, he tried to wiggle his shoulders into a more upright posture so as to better project his voice towards the outside, though as he did so he could feel his ribcage being wedged forcefully against the jar, pinning his arms to his sides. He then tried to readjust his legs but found that this only positioned his right knee between the back wall of the refrigerator and an abandoned bottle of mustard nearby, leaving the entire leg half-lifted and immobilized. After all this activity he had, for the worse, pinned his body inextricably against the mayonnaise jar and the nearby mustard, with no wiggle room at all in any direction. If he had not been so before, he was now, ostensibly, stuck behind the mayonnaise. He remembered the poem.
“You. Mentioned. The. Poem…?” he grunted as politely as he was able, given the circumstances.
“I mentioned the poem, yes. A rather opaque one. I believe containing the words molecular and gravity. In The New Yorker…”
Since her mind had begun wandering some moments before, she had withdrawn her ear from the refrigerator door and begun to contemplate whether this little man’s voice she had been hearing was not just a distortion of the refrigerator’s irregular humming. The further she drew away from the refrigerator, the more distorted and doubtable the voice grew. She decided to test her hypothesis.
“Is anyone really there? In the refrigerator? Really?” Her voice lowered sarcastically.
“Absolutely. Yes!” screamed the man in the refrigerator, practically breaking a rib with the outburst. He gasped at the pain crunching his abdomen. “Boy. Am. I. Ever. HERE!” The last word in the sequence rattled his chest and lungs. He drew a shallow breath. “And wouldn’t you know it, I’m a poet! A prize-winning poet! And a literary critic! Trapped in your refrigerator, behind the mayonnaise!”
“Now this indeed is curious, certainly something worth thinking about,” she thought. She retrieved her coffee mug from the counter and refilled it to the brim, deciding to abstain from the half-n-half, which she would have had to fetch from the refrigerator. She took a seat once more at the island stool, sipping the black coffee and looking askance at the poem in the May 4th edition of The New Yorker, which still lay open on the island counter.
“Shall I begin reading the poem?” she shouted between sips.
“Oh yes, do read!” said the poet in the refrigerator. “And if you’d please raise your voice, while taking care to enunciate. Sound gets lost in the cold…”
She scooped the magazine into her hands and let it lay flat across her spread-out palms, as if to cradle it. “My bifocals,” she began.
“WHAT?” yelled the poet in the refrigerator. “HOW does it begin? (Brrrr, it’s cold!)”
“Ha! Sorry about that,” she replied. “I was just commenting that I had forgotten my bifocals. I’ve been reading this magazine for an hour and I couldn’t see a word! Imagine!”
“Awfully hard to imagine,” said the refrigerated poet. His jaw tightened conspicuously.
“Regardless, I won’t be able to read a word without my glasses,” she said. “Tell you what, though. I’ll open the door just a crack and slip the open magazine into the refrigerator. That way you can dictate the poem to me and interpret it simultaneously. Saves time and energy, okay?”
The violence of the poet’s reaction to his interlocutor’s statement nearly freed his body from the whole predicament. Set in its ways, however, the mayonnaise jar stood unmoving in its original position as adjacent accomplice to the abandoned mustard.
“What if you instead opened the door and lifted me out so that I could read for you from a more comfortable location?” he offered. “Honestly, it is difficult to do the work of an interpreter in my situation. Tremendously difficult, I assure you. No doubt as difficult as reading The New Yorker without your bifocals. Therefore, if you wouldn’t mind…”
A portly cat belonging to the neighbors entered the kitchen in the middle of the poet’s petition. It addressed the lady in the room, paying no heed to the sentient being in the refrigerator.
“Pardon me, madame, but you have been talking to this refrigerator for the last ten minutes. I simply had to intervene,” the cat said, swishing its tail.
Bewilderment tightened its stranglehold on the entire room. First there was an outburst from the poet in the refrigerator, a veritable shouting spree that might as well have shook the stainless steel refrigerator door off its hinges. Then the lady screamed shrilly, defending the honor of her imagination in front of this horrible accusation. Her face grew pink with fury.
“I wouldn’t be simply CONVERSING with a refrigerator,” she bellowed from the depths of her diaphragm, “any more than would I be CONVERSING with the neighbor’s cat as if it were ‘Uman!”
The cat, cackling till its blunt teeth were exposed, flourished its tail in a continuous looping motion for several seconds. Then it said: “Please, madame. Don’t be foolish. I’ve planted a sentry outside your window–that small sparrow, if you care to look–and he has been watching the entire scene unfold, taking copious notes regarding your behavior. We are going to publish our results as an anthropological feature in the next edition of The New Yorker.”
“Since when did The New Yorker do anthropological features?”
From outside the kitchen window a small brown bird chirped, seemingly in accord with the cat’s declaration. Its lofty perch on a faraway branch lent a certain authority to its vantage point. Furthermore, a notebook and pen were clearly in sight and in use by the very same bird.
“Copious notes,” said the cat. “It’s going to be an outstanding article. Our methodology has been excruciatingly meticulous…”
A cockroach, which had previously been lying on its back underneath the sink–looking quite dead but really only asleep–jumped onto its many feet and pitter-pattered towards the lady.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind another interjection, I’d like to give my opinion on the matter. I have a lot of experience in your kitchen. In fact, I’ve raised several hundred of my most beloved children here over the past few weeks. It’s a place I’m fond of and in which I might be considered a large stakeholder. That being said, I intend to systematically falsify the aforementioned claims made by the cat about the bird. If there is a poet in our midst, it is not the man in the refrigerator–although I cannot speak for him or his work–but rather that very same bird of whom the cat spoke, of whom I often hear reciting poetry in a singsong fashion to any and all with ears, from over there, just outside the window. It’s the drollest drab you’ll ever listen to, but the bird is pleased to have an audience, and frankly, there is too much food around here for me to consider moving on account of having a bad poet for a neighbor. If I were you, I would not take this cat seriously. Keep working away at that poem in The New Yorker. It’s likely you’ll find it infinitely more rewarding than the rubbish you’ve been subjected to by that… animal.”
With that, the cockroach, with considerable pomp and circumstance, turned around and walked back into the cupboard under the sink. As he closed the door behind him, he added: “I have no patience for false cats.”
The cat lifted its prosperous neck in the air and cackled.
“False cats! Ha, poppycock! From the cockroach!”
Then, turning to the lady, the cat said, “Look for my piece in The New Yorker!” and left the room.
Silence settled over the kitchen. A flutter of leaves, prodded by a stiff breeze, drifted into the kitchen through an open window above the sink, settling onto the counters and weathered tile floor. Several weeks’ worth of unattended dust tumbled around in the hidden corners of the room. The opening of the cupboard under the sink momentarily disturbed the peace, and the cockroach which had spoken earlier peeked out its feelers, as if to sniff the kitchen air for any lingering false cats, before withdrawing into the cupboard and closing the door again.
The man in the refrigerator, meanwhile, was sifting through what he believed he had just witnessed. He addressed his lady interlocutor:
“Excuse me? Ma’am? I do hope you haven’t gone. I was hoping we could talk about the cat and the cockroach and possibly renegotiate the terms of my rescue from the refrigerator. You see, after all this, I am still wedged precariously behind the mayonnaise.”
A beat of silence, then: “Ma’am?”
Distantly but clearly, the man in the refrigerator heard a door (“the front door?”) slam shut (“by force of the wind?”), and then he heard it reopen (“ah, must be the wind”) with a protesting screech (“mm, the sound of an un-oiled door hinge”). Pressing his ear against the cool glass of the mayonnaise jar, he meditated on the vibrations around him, furrowing his brow in concentration. Very concretely he could discern the hum of the refrigerator, wind stirring up old dust, leaves rustling across hard tile. There was also the sound of a tree branch retracting after a bird’s sudden takeoff, assorted pitter-patterings of cockroach feet, and the blank, waveless droning of a silent house. The man in the refrigerator’s tightened muscles contracted in unison with the pulsations of his inner ear, yet for all these efforts he could identify no echoes of footsteps, no puffs of heavy breath, no ruffling of magazine pages to signify the lady’s presence.
“Excuse me? Ma’am? Really, it’s a simple petition I’ve put forward, isn’t it? Ma’am, are you feeling alright? Have you fallen asleep while reading? Well, if you have, or if you are pretending to sleep, do remember that I am still here when you awake. You’ll recall we have several things that need attending to, most namely my rescue from behind the mayonnaise–a substance which, I have decided without a doubt, is festering in its own double liquidity–but also, and I do not for a moment belittle its importance, we need a suitable explication of that opaque poem that has been puzzling you all afternoon. Ma’am? I don’t mean to bother you, but it is awfully cold in here. Excuse me?”
And with that the man in the refrigerator recommenced his knocking.