I should say – by way of disclaimer? of apology? – that I’ve never held particularly strong political beliefs. In this I take after my father, the postmaster of Sheffield, Connecticut…. I shared with him a special appreciation for the beauty of the impersonal gesture. An old woman in Topeka receives her Social Security check every month not because anyone loves her or even remembers her name. The crossing guard stopping traffic in front of the elementary school need not recognize a single child that scampers past. One’s human inadequacies are not the point. Efficiency, permanence, and careful design, I would have said, are the basis of real human charity and kindness.
Here is another astonishingly good story. And I don’t think I know the half of it. At the most straightforward level, it’s a portrait of a man devastated by loss, without realizing the extent of his devastation until twenty years later. It’s about what any of us might do under the right circumstances. Guilt, innocence, forgiveness. Detachment. Safety. And coming apart. It’s about a lot of things. Including Wittgenstein, an area in which I am very deficient.
The unnamed first person narrator runs the publishing office of the NSA in DC. He’s not a spy, but he deals with highly sensitive information and has “come to appreciate that behind every word on a sheet of paper is a vulnerable human body.” His eight-year-old daughter is killed in a boating accident in 1984 and becomes the focus of the media for a while, until something else happened, he doesn’t remember what: “…the world was full of unexpected calamities. Mercifully, we were forgotten.”
He briefly tries therapy, and approaches it with an intellectual analytic precision that I recognize. Wittgenstein is invoked. I did a quick look at Wittgenstein (logic, language – he revoked his earlier treatise later in life); I think I might find additional depths to this story if I understood Wittgenstein better. Not that I don’t find enough in it as it is. The narrator finds he must always be listening to music. He buys a Walkman, which he wears most of the time, forcing his secretary to slide notes in front of him at work: “It was as if, by degrees, without noticing, I’d become deaf, and everyone around me was too polite to point it out.”
A year and a half later, while Charles Ives plays on the radio, he hears a news report about a homeless man who froze to death on the street.
“I began to think about procedures, systems, chains of command. Whose job it was, for example, to write the rules that dictated to the Capitol Police when they should and should not patrol the streets for the sleeping homeless. I never doubted that there was such a policy. We are extremely good at writing policies in this city.”
He has a vision of faces hiding in the walls of his house, screaming in pain: “If I were given to hyperbole I might say that I had looked through a window into the world’s wounded soul.” But of course he is not. The music shifts to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze“: “Someone is responsible, I thought. Someone knows why this has happened, and I will punish him.”
He brings some canned goods to a homeless shelter, and watches a girl unpack the items: “Her expressionless competence. Someone had told her that the world could be saved this way.” He asks the director what can be done, and learns about a bill to include funding for homeless shelters in the HUD budget. The Secretary, an Idaho Republican named Frank Murphy, is against it, though, so it’s a lost cause, but he can write a letter if he’d like. This is 1985. Reagonomics. If you’ve read And The Band Played On, you know how the CDC, trying to pinpoint the cause of what would become the AIDS epidemic, couldn’t afford a virology textbook or a simple centrifuge. Don’t get me started on Morning in America.
He comes up with a plan. He buys a gun, and waits for Frank Morris outside his home. He’ll shoot him; if he’s caught, he won’t resist, he won’t plead innocence. This scene is terrific. It’s a combination of goofiness and suspense and tragedy that’s stunning. As a way of getting closer to Morris, he says he’s looking for his dog, makes up a name, and they start calling out, “Trixie! Trixie!” Morris extends a handshake, and the narrator accidentally knocks his gun out of his waistband. Morris keeps his cool, advising him that DC is not the place to carry a concealed weapon. The narrator leaves without consummating his plan. “I drove away feeling, for the first time, defeated, and relieved, by the world’s sheer unrelenting ugliness.” This line is one of the many things I’m unable to fully parse in this story, but it’s tantalizing and beautiful nonetheless.
Flash forward twenty years. Our narrator has retired, and his wife, Rachel, formerly an art librarian, has become in demand as a museum consultant. She’s in Berlin, helping plan the Unification Museum. They talk on the phone.
It’s possible, when you’ve been married for twenty-five or thirty years, when your children have grown up and moved away, to keep coming across the tail ends of conversations you started in a different decade, and to realize that whole areas of existence have lain dormant all that time, like seeds in an envelope.
Rachel tells of walking in Berlin and suddenly thinking, Sorbibor, and bursting into tears in the middle of the city.
Maybe it happens all the time here. Maybe Berliners are used to seeing strangers sobbing on street corners….I just didn’t understand how they do it, how they can look around and not feel everything just steeped in blood.
She tells him a story a colleague told her, about someone whose uncle was in the SS and how he was relieved when the man died. He told her, “It’s a terrible thing, to think of yourself always as innocent. Because you see the world, as it were, from the air. You can’t help it. There are the innocent like you, and then there are the others, the terribly, terribly guilty.”
Rachel tells her husband she was grateful the man didn’t invoke more recent and American outrages, and that of course, she didn’t tell him what her husband had done for a living. He thinks of Wittgenstein again. And again, I wish I understood more. Rachel goes on: “Innocent people commit the most terrible crimes, she said. Sometimes without even lifting a finger. Don’t say you don’t know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean.”
I don’t know what she means. His work, which included publishing reports on El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola? Or is she referring to the abandoned murder? Or even the death of their daughter, and the withdrawal he experienced afterwards? I’m not sure. But the idea of “none of us are truly innocent” resonates with me tremendously. Everyone demands lower taxes – and homeless shelters (public health, arts and sports in schools, etc etc) go unfunded; news stories about childhood obesity abound while schools invite McDonald’s in to make up budget shortfalls, and the Frozen Food Council gets legislation proposed to make pizza a vegetable. Sally Struthers, as annoying as she is, was right – we’d rather have a latte venti than feed a child in some far-off country; the scary thing is, we’d rather have an iPhone4 than fund real food for school lunches. Where do we draw the line? Probably where our own houses and cars and the lifestyles fall, and everyone with a better house-car-lifestyle is greedy. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Seth Fried lately. Or maybe I haven’t been reading enough until now. And I’m ranting.
None of that is really the narrator’s problem, though. It’s a lot more real than that.
But given the right circumstances, I thought, in those same months, I could have done almost anything. Set off a car bomb. Worn a dynamite belt. I had been, in my own small way, a fanatic….It was one aspect of my life that had evaded all suspicion.
None of us are truly innocent. What would any of us do to protect our child?
He thinks this is the time to tell his wife about the gun, but he’s got a pizza in the oven and a drink poured and she’s half a world away.
This was the converse of history, I thought, the secret unwritten history, of men yawning late at night, too ashamed to tell their wives who said what about the nuclear test or the planned assassination of the prime minister, and dying fo a stroke the next day.
Then comes a little coda I don’t understand. I consulted Ann Graham, who commented on this story, but I still don’t feel like I’ve “got” it. He takes a framed photograph of his daughter, slices open the paper backing with a razor blade, takes out the glass “so no one will be injured,” and throws it away. I’m not even sure what he throws away – the picture? The glass? The frame and paper and mat? I have no idea. I don’t understand why he does this. I get the symbolism of the razor blade, especially since he repeats it. And I think I mostly get the last sentence:
In my life I have been the shepherd from the air, praying, don’t look up, don’t let me see your faces, for who knows what I’ll do to the world if I lose you.
Sort of ties the whole thing together, doesn’t it? The emotional distance, the photograph, the near-shooting, the faces in the walls, the lyrics from “Sheep May Safely Graze” (which might not be what you think; while “the good shepherd” has religious overtones, it’s a secular aria from Bach’s “The Hunt Cantata” and praises the Duke for protecting his constituents). I hope I someday learn enough to fully understand it.
But that may never happen. After all, he had a multi-layered story in mind all along. His comments on the Random House blog (publisher of the PEN/O.Henry volume for which this story was also selected), he explains how the story was conceived and written:
I was in the car, looking for a parking space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I began to consciously make up a story, piece by piece—something I’ve never done before. The premise was so strange and outrageous that it didn’t seem like something I would ever bring to the page. And I still think the story, though its tone is so sober and controlled, is deeply, deeply odd. Its layers came together by accretion, over several years, and it was a tremendous effort to find an ending that would cut through and expose all those layers. (If I’ve in fact succeeded in doing that).
I’m always surprised to discover many of these stories were written over years; sometimes failed drafts were tucked away and reworked much later, and other times, as with this, it just took that long to gather all the elements together and find a way to make them work. It gives me hope. Even though I haven’t written fiction for some time, maybe there’s still a chance something will click some day, and I’ll be able to bring an abandoned draft or failed story back to life. In the meantime I keep reading.
Reading stories like this one makes the meantime astonishingly good.