The Habit-Catcher

Posted on September 5, 2008

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Sadek’s face was angular and changeable, distinctive, yet oddly difficult to pin down.  When dealing with his customers he often kept his expression bland, as bland as the door to his company’s offices, as bland as his business cards, as bland as things needed to be to mask the extraordinary services he provided.  The sign on his door did not even announce what kind of services these were; it simply displayed the company name.  The kind of customers he served preferred him to be discreet, to offer his product in unlabeled brown paper packages so to speak.

Well, why not.

Sadek was a habit-catcher, which was in him both a state of being and a profession, much as it is with an artist or an athlete.  The offices where he practiced were stocked with numerous machines, intriguing in design, shiny, modern, mysterious, and without immediate practical purpose.  He needed no devices to do his work, even if such devices had existed: he could do what he did without mechanical or electronic aid.  The machines were only a blind, a kind of disguise to hide Sadek, the habit-catcher.

It was Friday, nearing half past four, and the day’s final customer was let into his office.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Copley.  Won’t you sit down?”

The customer was a well-dressed man of about twenty-five, intelligent-looking but nervous.  He sat in his chair and his fingers found and fiddled with his watchband.

“I’m not sure if you can help me, really,” Copley said, speaking quickly.  “A friend told me about your clinic.  He was saying that you could cure smoking.  Smoking, that is why he came to you.  Smoking, or overeating, or nail-biting, or. . .or talking too much.”  Here the customer smiled.  “Sometimes I talk too much, I confess.  I suppose. . .well, never mind that now.  My friend said a lot of things about you, most of which I don’t remember.  But he impressed me with your versatility.  He said-perhaps you could correct me in this-that I could even turn in an old habit and get a new one, God knows how.  Now I find that far-fetched, no offence.  But as for the rest, I hope it’s true.  You see, Mr. Sadek, I have an important interview next Tuesday, a very important interview.  Is four days enough?  Have I left you enough time?  I hope so.  I have some mannerisms that I would dearly love to be rid of, I must be rid of, before the interview.  They become worse, you see, under pressure.  Can you help me, Mr. Sadek?  I know the time is short, but I can’t stress to you too much how important this interview is to me.  My whole career. . . My friend was assuring me. . . .”

“We can have you ready by Tuesday, Mr. Copley,” Sadek said. “There will be a small surcharge because of the short notice, of course.”

“Of course,” said Copley.

Promptness-along with the already mentioned versatility-was one of the habit-catcher’s most valuable commodities.

For instance:

An actress came to Sadek’s office that morning.  She had been involved in one role for too long, a role that she’d studied and perfected, until, alas, she could do it without thought.  She played a tautly-strung and angry woman, and, over the course of several theatrical seasons, a role which had begun with skill had declined into ritual.  When she invoked anger, her cheeks and mouth and brow always tumbled into the same expressions, her voice rose and fell and shifted through the same series of intonations, she agitated and clenched her hands with the same rhythms and the same rigidity.  Her theatrical anger had become like an old melody replaying over and over again in her mind, which she found herself helplessly humming although it filled her with a vague disgust.  That morning the habit-catcher had erased it all away, eliciting the actress’s gratitude and his fee.

Sadek required no more than one brief session to assist the actress, unusual as her case might have been.  He could as easily rid Copley of his unwanted mannerisms in a similar brief session-or in four days, with a small surcharge for the short notice, of course.

Sadek took the young man on a tour of the machines.  To the habit-catcher they were only camouflage, yet they were functioning instruments as well, although they did not ultimately do what Sadek pretended they did.  One machine measured brainwaves, another pulse rate, a third the electrical conductivity of the skin.  A favourite of Sadek’s was a device, which, by means of sonar, could chart a person’s internal structure and display a picture of it on a screen.

“See.  That’s actually your heart beating, Mr. Copley.  It gives us a much broader picture of your body systems, for instance, than the old-fashioned stethoscope could.”

Once ushered from the habit-catcher’s private office, the customer had shed any signs of nervousness.  He watched on the screen the eerie flexing of his heart, and listened to the liquid sound of it pumping.  He quietly followed his host from machine to machine, nodding at their names and purposes, and meanwhile looked around the offices with an observant eye.

The clinic was uncommonly busy, but the activity wasn’t always to much purpose.  A woman tapped a pencil on her desk, and crossed and uncrossed her legs; a man ran his fingers through his hair, paused, ran them through again; another man sucked air and spittle through his teeth, and made sudden but repeated motions with his left shoulder.  People rubbed their hands together, shuffled their feet, twitched, scratched their necks and backs, and chattered to each other in giddy conversation.  The amount of noise and activity in the clinic was actually unsettling.

Copley made a comment.

“Yes, it always is loud, this time of day,” said the habit-catcher.  “My staff gets restless.”  He noticed the customer was blinking.  “They go out onto the balcony and start smoking too much, too.  Does it bother you?”

“A little.”

They were near the door of the mentioned balcony, and the door had been propped open.  Copley could see at least half a dozen employees or more, coatless, smoking cigarettes, and, one of them, a cigar.

“We have rules that no one is to smoke too close to the door or vents.  But when it gets warm in here in the afternoon, and that door gets propped open, and especially if there’s a little breeze, those rules are not very effective, I’m afraid.”  Sadek glanced at him.  “You don’t smoke.”

“No.”

“Much of our business is given us by the tobacco companies.  For example, your friend.”

“He was glad to have quit.”

“I’m not surprised.”

There was a pause.  Copley pondered something, bending his head a little sideways and reaching with his hand to massage the muscles on the back of his neck.  He flicked an eye up towards Sadek and saw himself being watched.  The habit-catcher was neither smiling nor frowning, but he had the appearance of expecting something.

“There’s a question you want to ask, I can tell,” said Sadek, after Copley’s eye had flicked away again.

“Well, yes.”  Copley’s head straightened and his hand fell from his neck.  “I don’t know how to bring it out. . . .Mr. Sadek, why do so many of your employees smoke?”

The habit-catcher nodded.  “There’s a reason.  It’s better that I have a chance to explain rather than your going away doubtful.”  He reached out to an exotic-looking instrument and caressed it.  “To put it simply, it comes of being around these machines all day, a side-effect.  I haven’t pinpointed the exact cause.”

“Uh, I’m not sure.  Do you say the bad habits rub off?”

“They seem to.  It means that we have a rather unique employment policy.”

“What’s that?”

Sadek smiled slightly.  “We hire only smokers.  And cure them, of course. As part of the employment package.”

The customer laughed.  “Of course.  They can’t sue you for side-effects if they’ve already got the habit.”

“No.  They can’t.”

“That’s good business.”

“Yes.”

“But. . .I still don’t understand.  You said you cured them.”

“Cured them, and still they smoke?” said Sadek.  “Oh, we do, we do.  There is no one on that balcony in the mornings, except customers who occasionally slip out there from the waiting room-those who know about the balcony.  Soon after my people leave the office in the afternoon, you see, all the bad effects wear off.  Everyone calms down.  The cigarettes are put away.”

“It must be a strange place to work.”

“You get used to everything.”

Copley stopped and peered about him for a moment.  The habit-catcher did so as well.  His eyes found a fat man idling by a machine, and a chubby man searching in a drawer of his desk. The chubby man had once been fat; the fat man would eventually be merely chubby.  These were his nervous eaters.

Sadek’s eyes turned elsewhere, found a woman sitting by the door biting on her pencil, and a man leaning back in his chair taking sips from a styrofoam cup.  The man was almost certainly drinking whiskey, probably from the bottle of blended scotch in his drawer, purchased on his lunch hour.  The man and woman were his drinkers.  Neither had been alcoholics when they came to work for him, but they had indulged heavily.  They’d been hired for their bad habits, just as the eaters and smokers had been.  There were, you see, smokers and eaters and drinkers, even alcoholics, among Sadek’s customers.

For instance:

A business executive had come to the clinic that morning, perhaps an hour after the actress had left.  It was his eleventh visit.  He’d discovered that Sadek could alleviate his need for alcohol for three weeks, perhaps a month at a time.  He could then have a cocktail with his clients and there was no embarrassing necessity to decline a drink.  Nor the worse embarrassment of compulsive drunkenness, if he did not decline.  It was much easier for him to give money to the habit-catcher than it was to confront his thirst, than it was to stay forever away from his wine and Cutty Sark.  Sadek could not cure him, but he could, temporarily, put the businessman’s addiction aside, could allow him to function as he had to as a businessman.  Sadek could keep him from ruin, which was enough to convince the man to pay his frequent visits and take his temporary cures.  So he came and spat his terrible compulsion into the vessel that was the habit-catcher.

Sadek’s services were quite genuine, but he had become aware that his customer doubted him.  Copley had a shrewd eye.  He’d noticed the unusual amount of nervous activity in the clinic.  He’d seen the excessive smoking.  And of course he’d seen the contradiction.  This customer would not return to Sadek’s clinic unless he was given compensating evidence, evidence that Sadek could do what he claimed.  Sadek understood such skepticism.  He would provide the evidence which the customer needed.

“Would you like a demonstration, Mr. Copley?” the habit-catcher asked, his voice as bland as his expression.

The customer glanced at him curiously.  “Of what?”

“Our techniques.  What it involves is very simple, although perhaps not so simple if you don’t know the theory.  I assure you that we’ll reverse it all afterwards.”

“What do I do?”

“You sit right here.  You see, Mr. Copley,” said Sadek, beginning an explanation while clicking certain switches and making subtle adjustments to his battery of machines, “there are many kinds of things that a person does which he takes for granted, which in fact he doesn’t even think about.  For instance, tying shoelaces, shifting gears when you’re driving, shuffling cards.

Each of these operations is made up of a series of coordinated actions, which, brought together, constitute habits.  As such, we can remove them, any kind of habit.”

“Really?”

“Yes.  Are you interested in trying it?”

Copley hesitated.  “What exactly is involved?”

“Just sit down in that chair.”

“That’s all, eh?”  Copley’s fingers strayed to his wrist, shifted his watch, adjusted his watchband.  “Well, I suppose, no, there isn’t any harm in it.”

“I assure you, none whatsoever.”

Copley sat, and Sadek leaned over a console, adjusted a dial.  Then he touched a switch with his index finger and tapped some other keys in random order.  The machine emitted a brief sequence of noises in response.

“Our demonstration is pre-programmed,” Sadek said.  “It makes everything simple.”  He moved a lever until a light began to blink, then turned the machine off.  “There.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.  How do you feel?”

The customer thought for a moment.  “Exactly the same.”

“Then try to unbutton your jacket.”

In a moment, Copley saw that he wasn’t the same.  He took hold of a button between finger and thumb, then stopped, puzzled.  He looked at the habit-catcher, then back down at his hand, unsure of what to do next.  The button had to go through the buttonhole, he knew that, but his fingers had forgotten the tiny but necessary manipulations.  It should’ve been simple, he should’ve managed the job easily, except that he had to think about it.  He had to do consciously what he hadn’t done consciously for at least twenty years.

The customer fiddled with the button, twisted it, tried to push it through the hole.  Then he reached with his other hand and tugged at the fabric of his jacket.  Finally, the button came free.  But he was impatient by the time he reached for the second one.  It came off in his hand, slipped from his fingers onto the floor.  He bent to pick it up.

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Copley,” Sadek said.

“By God, I really don’t know how to do it.”

“I think we have some thread somewhere,” the habit-catcher said.  “One of my assistants will sew it up for you.”

“How the devil, how in God’s name, could I forget something as simple as that?”

“The techniques we use are very effective.”

“I believe you.  Now, please, you do it.”

“Pardon me.”

You do it.  You unbutton your jacket.”

“All right.”

The customer watched Sadek’s fingers carefully, then attempted the task again himself, using only his left hand as Sadek had done.  Half a minute later, he said:  “Sh-show me again.”

* * *

When Copley left the clinic that afternoon, the full use of his fingers had been restored to him.  He walked out the door sucking on his lip, and buttoning and unbuttoning his coat.  The habit-catcher locked the door after him, then stood there and vigorously flexed his own fingers.

It was always strange to take a habit into himself which was already there, which he already had.  It was like a neural parking violation.  What he’d just done with Copley, though it was merely an exercise, had made his own fingers tingle, had made them want to twitch and dart about.  But over time he’d attained an extreme degree of control.  He could even unbutton his jacket with a habit double-parked.

Sadek stood at the door and looked around.  He saw his employees getting ready to leave, gathering up their things, saw one of them patrolling the machines to make sure they were turned off.  Somebody threw the master light switch, perhaps accidentally, and in the sudden but only relative darkness in the part of the office furthest back from the windows, there was a squeal.  The lights came back on again.

A man spoke:  “Hey, is someone afraid of the dark?”

“What was that?” another asked.

A third man said:  “Maybe somebody got goosed.”

Sadek knew who had called out.  The clinic was filled with nervous-seeming people, but there was only one today who’d be afraid of the dark.

He knew because:

A man had come to the clinic early that afternoon.  He was obsessed with fear.  One time he had been dragged into a dark place and beaten.  Fists and boots and sneering voices had attacked him out of the shadow.

Fag!  Fag!  Pervert!” Blows, kicks, indistinct faces.  Pain.

Since then the man’s ribs and broken limbs had healed, his bruises had faded, but that dark place still followed him.  The habit-catcher could not deal with the whole of the man’s terror because that ran too deep and inhabited another part of the man’s brain.  But he could arrange it so that he had only to face one fear at a time.  Sadek had extracted the nightmare, the peculiar association of pain and darkness, sucked it into himself, lodged it uneasily in his own mind.  Then after the man had gone, he’d turned and spilled the nightmare into the eyes of one of his employees.  It was that employee who had cried out when the light switch was thrown.

Sadek walked into his private office and took his overcoat off the hook.  Then he went and joined his staff where they were congregated at the back door.  It was nearly five o’clock; the office was closed; but it still wasn’t time for any of them to go home.  The habit-catcher had one last task to do.

“I wonder where it’ll be this time,” a woman whispered, as everybody began filing out the door and down the back hall.

“I dunno.  Some dive.”

“They seem to get worse and worse.”

“Think of it this way,” a man said.  “Everyone should do some slumming.  It makes you realize just how smelly the inferior classes really are.”

“Oh, Christ!”

It had been a busy day for the habit-catcher, as many days were.  He’d taken into himself the role of an actress, the thirst of an alcoholic, and the nightmare of a frightened man, as well as the tobacco yearnings, and the tics, and the nervous mannerisms of a score of other customers.  He’d taken these into himself, and as quickly emptied them out into his workers, who were the vessels in which he stored the psychic flotsam of his clientelle.  But like other vessels, these vessels became full.  So in the afternoons he had to take them out and empty them.

There were two minibuses parked in the alleyway behind the office.  Everybody got into them, and they started off, with Sadek driving the vehicle in front.  In the one behind, someone asked:

“Can’t we shake these guys, say we got lost, and go home?”

“Sorry,” the driver said.  “I know where we’re going.”

“Think of it this way,” said a man who had spoken earlier, “you get time and a half to drink beer.”

“I told my wife that, you know, and she called up the boss to make sure.”

“No one believes it when I tell them.”

“I wonder what his fascination is with these sleazy bars?”

Sadek served the wealthy because they paid him well, and also, at some basic level, he understood them better.  This meant that he could reach into them and sort through their souls that much easier.  This is not to belittle his skills, because in fact he could work with anyone.  But it was easier and more rewarding to work with the wealthy than with the poor, so the poor were rarely among his customers.

Sadek’s minor difficulties in dealing with certain classes of people did not extend beyond the process of isolating a habit. Once he had extracted a habit from one of his customers, he could then move it around from himself to another, and thereon to a third person, with no more problem than handing around a parcel.  And, insofar as the ease of the process went, it didn’t matter at all who he was handing it to.

Of course it mattered in another sense.  Sadek was basically a fair dealer.  He could not without sharp practice first create a problem, then offer his services as the solution to it.  He could not, therefore, spill out all the bad habits of his rich clientele upon the rich themselves.  That would not be fair dealing.

But his work created a sort of psychic wastage, which he could not leave with his workers.  He had to find a dumping ground, a place where the least damage would be done.  Therefore, at the end of each business day, he went among the poor and the drunken and the lost, and he brought his workers with him.

A woman stepped aside and let a group of strangers pass her on the sidewalk.  After they’d gone by, she turned and stared after them.  They were not the sort of people she often saw in that neighbourhood.  That evening, the woman had an argument with her lover.  She clawed her hands and shook them in his eyes, stretched her lips back from her teeth, and sent her voice through a vivid series of modulations.  But he laughed, refusing to take her seriously.  This almost made her angrier, adding a more personal edge to her fury.  But then she realized that she wasn’t taking herself seriously, either.  It was just a foolish, inexplicable game, and she had somehow been caught in it.

An old man looked up from rummaging for bottles in a trash bin.  He saw Sadek and his people go by.  After they’d passed, he felt the return of an old craving from long ago, an old thirst which he had battled once before and won.  He searched in the bin a moment longer, and then through his pockets, and with what he found-and with what he bummed on the way to the liquor store-he bought a bottle a wine.  Then he returned to his hotel room and began to drink.

A young brown-skinned man with long hair walking out of a hotel lobby encountered the habit-catcher as he and his employees were entering a bar.  The young man felt then the faintest intimation of evil.  But he had met with similar feelings before in that city, in that neighbourhood. It was only when night fell that that evil grew strong enough to touch him, and shadows and danger began to haunt the dark places.  Then he escaped home and remained there, thinking of the darkness entrapped within walls, hidden under the buildings and the stones.  With the unshaded light burning above him, and the night leaning up against his windowpane, he sat on his bed, shivering.

The bar was quiet when Sadek and the others came.  Most of the people who were there hadn’t been there long enough to get drunk, and the main crowds hadn’t yet arrived.  Sadek selected two tables, and ordered beer for his party, then sat down and began unloading his employees of their bad habits.

He worked quickly, giving to one man a nervous laugh, to another a stutter, to numerous people the need for a cigarette.  He caused a woman at the table next to him to twitch her shoulder, and the man she sat with to shuffle his feet and rub his hands together.

“I wish you’d stop that,” Sadek heard the woman say.

“Stop your damn twitching, then,” said her companion.

“I can’t help it.”

The cigarette machine became suddenly busy and there were several orders for sandwiches at the bar.  People shifted in their chairs, wagged their fingers, rattled them on the tables.  One homely, middle-aged man became taken with an irresistible urge to wink.

“Don’t wink at me, you old fart,” said a portly lady as she passed him.  She spat, then looked in surprise at the spittle on the floor.

Sometime before six p.m. Sadek had already completed his objective.  His people were calm, almost free of mannerisms, when he sent them home.  They recognized it themselves, interpreting it as relief that another work week was over.  The ungraceful burdens they left behind were assumed ungracefully by the people in the bar.  By the time all of Sadek’s party, including himself, had left, the bar was noisy and nervous.  There were several fights later that evening, but of course the habit-catcher and his employees never became aware of them.

Monday was another busy day at Sadek’s clinic.  In the afternoon, when he saw Copley in the waiting room awaiting his appointment, Sadek didn’t have even the time to greet him.  There was a woman whom he had to cure of a shrill uncomfortable voice, and a man who had the tendency to swear, and a salesman who had several dull but persistent figures of speech.  And there was the usual assembly of smokers and overeaters.  But eventually it was Copley’s turn.  The habit-catcher placed him in a chair, and, for his customer’s benefit, entered into a set of manoeuvers somewhat more complex although no more useful than those he had used with Copley before.  His fingers toyed with his machines, and meanwhile Sadek swallowed up Copley’s bad habits.

“All right, Mr. Copley.”

“It’s finished?”

“All the little nervous habits are gone:  those you described to me and others as well.  Try playing with your watch.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s lost its charm.”

Sadek grasped a dial between thumb and forefinger and adjusted it invisibly.  “Those other habits, by the way, are only those distinctly related to the ones you wished to be rid of, no more.  No unnecessary surgery here.”

“So long as I’m ready for my interview.”

“We can’t guarantee that you won’t be nervous, only that it probably won’t show.”

“I feel calmer just knowing that.”

“Many people do.”

Copley reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. “Where do I pay?”

“Give your cheque or credit card to the woman at that desk over there.”

“All right.”

The habit-catcher stepped back and made a movement as if he were about to fetch his next customer, but Copley caught his eye.

“Yes?” he said.

“I wanted to ask.  Just what do you do with all these bad habits you take from us, Mr. Sadek?”

Sadek smiled.  “I give them to the poor.”

Copley hesitated for a moment, then said:  “To the poor, eh?”

And they laughed.

© 2008 by Theo G. Collins.  All rights reserved.

Illustration © 2005 by Haisla Collins