EDITOR’S NOTE by Sven Birkerts
I don’t, as a rule, examine envelopes before opening. Back in the labor-intensive era before e-submissions, going through the stack that was several days’ accumulation had certain assembly-line aspects: open, extract, examine to gauge general caliber, sort into one of several stacks. Return, return with note, look closer, pass to trusted readers… I did not have a category called “David Foster Wallace.” At least not until one morning, and then only that once. I opened, extracted, started to examine to gauge, and then did the slight mind-clearing shake of the head that is my version of a double-take. I recognized the right-leaning caps on the cover-note — we had, years before, had some bit of correspondence. I looked for the name and there it was. And then I sat back and exhaled.
Context: I was assembling material for my very first issue of AGNI (#57). I did not know from editing, having taken the position just a short time ago after my friend, founding editor Askold Melnyczuk, accepted a teaching job at UMass Boston and by contract had to leave the journal at Boston University. I’m trying to remember what I did when I first stepped in. Did I put out the word to writers I knew? I must have. How else explain the contributors listed in the TOC (Maureen Howard, Margot Livesey, Rick Moody, Paul West, Dan Chiasson, Seamus Heaney, Rosanna Warren… ) Good lord, I’m thinking, I should do this more often! Though, of course, reaching out to the admired ones short-circuits what I have come to believe is one of the central joys of editing: its surprise-party aspect.
In any case, I took great delight at every response from writers in the community. But this particular double-take stood out a bit. For I knew the Wallace legend, knew what writers as well as readers thought of him; knew, too, that he was at a place in his career ascent where he could have put almost anything he wrote right into the pages of Esquire, Harper’s, The Paris Review. And here I was — by this point I was palming it, weighing it, looking to see how many pages it ran — holding a new long story. I hadn’t read a word, but I was already imagining the typewritten pages converted to font, reading the title “The Soul is Not a Smithy” in bold… I indulged myself this way because I knew Wallace enough — from meeting him, from reputation — to know that there was no writer out there who was harder on himself, who was less likely than he to send out work before its time. And I had read the man’s work. I knew the level at which I admired it. I knew that his sensibility was deeply in synch with what I was wishing the journal to be.
Then I read. I took myself away from the desk. I found a private place with decent light and no phone; I did whatever one does to narrow the beam of attention down from wide-angle receptivity to full-on focus. And I made my way into a density that was, at every step, forbidding — those sentences, the micro-obsessiveness of the narrating voice, the slow unfolding of suggestive implication that Henry James, title-holder in this category, would have applauded. There was no question. This was top-drawer DFW, completely sui generis. I only wish I kept better records, that I remember what I wrote to him, or what he wrote back.
I have to say that on this score there is a mystery. Where is the edited copy of the story? Where is the correspondence file? One of the first things I did, years later, when I heard the terrible news of Wallace’s suicide, was to go looking for the file. Nothing, anywhere. There had been edits and fact-checks, proofing and re-proofing. Interns were involved who have since scattered to the winds. And not long after that issue, AGNI moved its offices. Things were boxed and stacked and — long story short: long story (and everything pertaining thereto) gone.
“Smithy” has a special place in my editor’s heart, I won’t deny it. Wallace sent it to us as a way of wishing Godspeed — it was an act of kindness, one that we have since done everything we could to try to deserve. There is no flash summary possible, no shortcut I can offer through the bramble of it. I can only testify, as so many others have, that it is vintage Wallace, breaking expectation, compelling devoted attention, repaying in the way that the best art does: by letting us feel at the end that something has been rearranged and at a deep level.
The Soul is Not a Smithy
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TERENCE VELAN WOULD LATER BE DECORATED IN COMBAT IN THE WAR IN INDOCHINA, AND HAD HIS PHOTOGRAPH AND A DRAMATIC AND FLATTERING STORY ABOUT HIM IN THE DISPATCH, ALTHOUGH HIS WHEREABOUTS AFTER DISCHARGE AND RETURNING TO AMERICAN LIFE WERE NEVER ESTABLISHED BY ANYONE MIRANDA OR I EVER KNEW OF.
This is the story of how Frank Caldwell, Chris DeMatteis, Mandy Blemm and I became, in the city newspaper’s words, the 4 Unwitting Hostages, and of how our strange and special alliance and the trauma surrounding its origin bore on our subsequent lives and careers as adults later on. The repeated thrust of the Dispatch articles was that it was we four, all classified as slow or problem pupils, who had not had the presence of mind to flee the Civics classroom along with the other children, thereby creating the hostage circumstance that justified the taking of life.
The site of the original trauma was 4th grade Civics class, second period, at R. B. Hayes Primary School here in Columbus. A very long time ago now. The class had a required seating chart, and all of us had assigned desks, which were bolted to the floor in orderly rows. It was 1960, a time of fervent and somewhat unreflective patriotism. It was a time that is now often referred to as a somewhat more innocent time. Civics is a state-mandated class on the Constitution, the U.S. presidents, and the branches of government. In the second quarter, we had actually built papier mâché models of the branches of government, with various tracks and paths between them, to illustrate the balance of powers that the Founding Fathers had built into the federal system. I had fashioned the Doric columns of the Judicial Branch out of the cardboard cylinders inside rolls of Coronet paper towels, which was our mother’s preferred brand. It was during the cold and seemingly endless period in March when our regular Civics teacher was absent that we had our Constitution unit and perused the American Constitution and its various drafts and amendments under the supervision of Mr. Richard A. Johnson, a long-term sub. There was no recognized term for maternity leave then, although Mrs. Roseman’s pregnancy had been obvious since at least Thanksgiving.
The Civics classroom at R. B. Hayes consisted of six rows of five desks each. The desks and chairs were bolted securely to each other and to the floor and had hinged, liftable desktops, just as all primary classrooms’ desks tended to in that era before backpacks and bookbags. Inside your assigned desk was where you stored your no. 2 pencils, theme paper, paste, and various other essentials of primary school education. It was also where you were required to place your textbook out of view during in-class tests. I can remember that the theme paper of that era was light grey, soft, and slippery, with very wide rules of dotted blue; all assignments completed on this paper came out looking somewhat blurred.
Up to the 6th grade in Columbus, one had an assigned homeroom. This was a specific classroom where you kept your winter coat and rubbers on a hook and a rectangle of newspaper, respectively, along the wall, a pupil’s specific hook designated with a piece of colored construction paper with your first name and last initial printed in Magic Marker. It was under the lid of your homeroom desktop that you kept your central cache of school supplies. At that time, the most grown-up thing about Fishinger Secondary School across the street seemed to be that the upperclassmen there had no homeroom but went from room to room for various classes and stored their materials in a locker with a combination lock whose combination you had to memorize and then destroy the slip of paper on which the combination was given so that no one could break into your locker. None of this is directly relevant to the story of how the unlikely quartet of myself, Chris DeMatteis, Frankie Caldwell, and the strange and disturbed Mandy Blemm were brought by circumstance to coalesce into what became known more informally as The 4, except perhaps for the fact that Art and Civics were the only two classes for which we left our homeroom. Both of these classes used special facilities and materials, so both had their own quarters and specially trained teachers, and the pupils came to them from their respective homerooms at specified periods. This was, in our case, second period. The single file line in which we proceeded from homeroom to Mrs. Barrie’s and Mrs. Roseman’s respective Art and Civics rooms was silent, alphabetical, and closely supervised. The very late ’50s and early ’60s were not a time of lax discipline or disorder, which made what occurred in Civics on the day in question all the more traumatic, and caused several of the class’s children (one of whom was Terence Velan, who was perhaps somewhat effete for a boy of that era, and sometimes wore sandals and leather shorts, but was extremely good at both soccer and kick-soccer, and had a father who was a hydraulic engineer from West Germany who had attained American citizenship, and could also roll his eyelids up in such a way as to disclose the mucous membranes of their insides and then walk around the playground like that, which lent him a certain cachet) to transfer out of Hayes Primary for good, as even just being back in the building caused traumatic, preseverative memories and emotions.
Only much later would I understand that the incident at the chalkboard in Civics was likely to be the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life. As with the case of my father, I think that I am ultimately grateful not to have been aware of this at the time.
MY SEAT WAS, TO WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN MRS. ROSEMAN’S CONSIDERABLE CHAGRIN, NOW NEXT TO THE WINDOW.
Mrs. Roseman’s Civics classroom, which had portraits of all 34 U.S. presidents evenly spaced around all four walls just below the ceiling, as well as pull-down relief maps of the thirteen original colonies, the Union and Confederate states circa 1861, and the present United States, including the Hawaiian Islands, and steel cabinets filled with compelling additional resources of all kinds, mainly contained a large metal teacher’s desk and black slate chalkboard at the front of the room, and 30 total bolted desks and chairs in which we, Miss Vlastos’s 4th grade homeroom class, were alphabetically arrayed in six rows of five pupils each. Mr. Johnson being a sub, we had amused ourselves by altering Mrs. Roseman’s normal seating chart and reversing our assigned rows’ east-west placement in the classroom, placing Rosemary Ahearn and Emily-Ann Barr in the first desks of the row nearest the west wall’s coathooks (which were always empty, as Mrs. Roseman’s Civics classroom was not anybody’s homeroom) and classroom door, and the latter of the Swearingen twins at the front of the easternmost row, next to the first of the east wall’s two large windows, whose heavy shades could be lowered for filmstrips and the occasional historical film. I was in the second to last desk in the easternmost row, which was a logistical error that Mrs. Roseman would never have allowed, as I was classified as unsatisfactory in Listening Skills as well as its associated category, Following Directions, and every full-time teacher in the first several grades at R. B. Hayes knew that I was a pupil whose assigned seat should be as far away from windows and other sources of possible distraction as possible. All of the school building’s windows had a reticulate wire mesh built directly into the glass in order to make the window harder to break with an errant dodgeball or vandal’s hurled stone. Also, the pupil to my immediate left in the next row in the ersatz arrangement was Sanjay Rabindranath, who studied maniacally at all times, and also had exemplary cursive, and was perhaps the single best pupil to sit next to during tests in all of R. B. Hayes. The wire mesh, which divided the window into 86 small squares with an additional row of 12 slender rectangles where the first vertical line of mesh nearly abutted the window’s right border, was designed in part to make the windows less diverting and to minimize the chances that a pupil could become distracted or lost in contemplation of the scene outside, which in Civics in March consisted mostly of grey skies and bare trees’ chassis and the ravaged edges of the soccer fields and unfenced ball diamond on which Little League was held each May 21 to August 4. Behind, and much foreshortened — being occluded by Taft Ave. and occupying only three squares at the window’s lower left — was the fenced and regulation-size Fishinger Secondary ballfield, where the big boys played American Legion baseball to keep themselves in peak condition for the highschool season. A handful of our school’s windows were cracked by vandals each spring; there were several exposed rocks in the soccer fields, of which at least half or more could be brought into calibrated view from my seat without any discernible movement of my head. Nearly all of the empty and forlorn ball diamond could be seen with one or two subtle adjustments as well, the infield now mud wherever there wasn’t snow. I am someone who has always possessed good peripheral vision, and for much of Mr. Johnson’s three weeks on the U.S. Constitution, I had primarily attended Civics in body only, my real attention directed peripherally at the fields and street outside, which the window mesh’s calibration divided into discrete squares that appeared to look quite like the rows of panels comprising cartoon strips, filmic storyboards, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Comics, and the like. Obviously, this intense preoccupation was lethal in terms of my Listening Skills during second period Civics, in that it led my attention not merely to wander idly, but to actively construct whole linear, discretely organized narrative fantasies, many of which unfolded in considerable detail. That is to say that anything in any way remarkable in the view outside — such as a piece of vivid litter blowing from one wire square to the next, or a city bus flowing stolidly from right to left through the lowest three horizontal columns of squares — became the impetus for privately imagined films’ or cartoons’ storyboards, in which each of the remaining squares of the window’s wire mesh could be used to continue and deepen the panels’ narrative — the ordinary-looking C.P.T. bus in fact commandeered by Batman’s then-archnemesis, the Red Commando, who in an interior view in successive squares holds hostage, among others, Miss Vlastos, several blind children from the State School for the Blind and Deaf, and my terrified older brother and his piano teacher, Mrs. Doudna, until the moving bus is penetrated by Batman and (behind his small decorative mask) a markedly familiar looking Robin, through a series of acrobatic rope and grappling hook maneuvers each one of which filled and animated one reticulate square of the window and then was frozen in tableau as my attention moved on to the next panel, and so on. These imagined constructions, which often took up the entire window, were difficult and concentrated work; the truth is that they bore little resemblance to what Mrs. Claymore, Mrs. Taylor, Miss Vlastos or my parents called daydreaming. At the time of the inciting trauma, I was still nine years old; my tenth birthday would be April 8. Ages seven to nearly ten were also the troubling and upsetting period (particularly for my parents) when I could not, in any strictly accepted sense, read. By which I mean that I could scan a page from From Sea to Shining Sea: The Story of America in Words and Pictures (which was the mandated textbook for all primary school Civics classes statewide at that time) and supply a certain amount of specific quantitative information, such as the exact number of words per page, the exact number of words on each line, and often the word and even letter with the most and the fewest occurrences of use on a given page, for example, as well as the number of occurrences of each word, often retaining this information long after the page had been read, and yet could not, in the vast majority of cases, internalize or communicate in any very satisfactory way what the words and their various combinations were intended to mean (this is my memory of the period, at any rate), with the result that I performed well below average when tested on homework assimilation and reading comprehension. Much to everyone’s relief, the reading problem reversed itself, almost as mysteriously as it had first appeared, somewhere around my tenth birthday.
MR. JOHNSON, ORIGINALLY OF NEARBY URBANCREST, WAS LATER REVEALED TO HAVE NO RECORD OF MENTAL DISTURBANCE OR CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR OF ANY KIND, ACCORDING TO PRESS ACCOUNTS.
It had last snowed in early March. The classroom window’s eastward view, in other words, was primarily mud and dirty snow. What sky there was was colorless and rode somewhat low, like something sodden or quite tired. The ballfield’s infield was all mud, with only a small hyphen of snow atop the pitcher’s rubber. Usually, throughout second period, the window’s only real movement was litter or a vehicle of some sort on Taft, with the day of the trauma’s exception being the appearance of the dogs. It had happened only once before, earlier in the Constitution unit, but not again until now. The two dogs entered the window’s upper right grid from a copse of trees to the northeast and proceeded diagonally down towards the northern goal area of the soccer fields. They then began moving in gradually diminishing circles around each other, apparently preparing to copulate. A similar scenario had unfolded once before, but the dogs had not reappeared for some weeks. Their actions appeared to be consistent with those of mating. The larger of the two dogs mounted the other’s back from the rear and wrapped its forelegs around the brindle-colored dog’s body and began to thrust repeatedly, taking a series of tiny steps with its large rear legs as the other dog attempted to escape. This occupied slightly more than one square of the window’s wire mesh. The visual impression was of one large, anatomically complex dog having a series of convulsions. It was not a pretty sight, but it was vivid and compelling. One of the animals was larger, and black with a dun chest element, possibly a Rottweiler mix, though it lacked a purebred Rottweiler’s breadth of head. The breed of the smaller dog beneath it was unidentifiable. According to my older brother, we had had a dog for a short period when I would have been too young to remember, which had chewed on the base of the piano and the legs of a spectacular 16th century antique Queen Elizabeth dining room table our mother had discovered at a rummage sale, which was worth over one million dollars when appraised and caused the family dog to have disappeared one day when my brother came home from nursery school and found both the dog and the table missing, adding that my parents had been very upset about the whole business and that if I ever brought the dog up or asked our mother about it and upset her he would put my fingers in the hinge of the foyer closet and lean with all his weight on the door until all my fingers were so mangled they would have to be amputated and I would be even more hopeless at the piano than I already was. Both my brother and I had been involved in intensive piano instruction and recitals at that juncture, though it was only he who had showed true promise, and had continued twice a week with Mrs. Doudna until his own difficulties began to emerge so dramatically in early adolescence. The conjoined dogs were too distant to ascertain whether they had collars or tags, yet close enough that I could make out the expression on the face of the dominant dog above. It was blank and at the same time fervid — the same general expression as on a human being’s face when he is doing something that he feels compulsively driven to do and yet does not understand just why he wants to do it. Rather than mating, it could have been one dog merely asserting its dominance over another, as I later learned was common. It appeared to last a long time, during which the dog on the receiving end underneath took a number of small, unsteady steps which bore both animals across four different panels of the fourth row down, complicating the storyboard activity on either side. A collar and tags comprise a valid sign that the dog has a home and owner rather than being a stray animal, which a guest speaker from the Public Health Department in homeroom had explained could be a concern. This was especially true of the rabies vaccination tag required by Franklin County ordinance, for obvious reasons. The unhappy but stoic expression on the face of the brindle-colored dog beneath was harder to characterize. Perhaps it was less distinct, or obscured by the window’s protective mesh. Our mother had once described the expression of our Aunt Tina, who had profound physical problems, as this — long-suffering.
MARY UNTERBRUNNER, KNOWN ALSO BY OEHMKE AND LLEWELLYN’S GROUP ON THE PLAYGROUND AS BIG BERTHA, WAS THE ONLY OTHER GIRL WHO SOMETIMES EVER PLAYED WITH MANDY BLEMM AFTER SCHOOL HOURS. MY BROTHER,WHO WAS IN THE SAME CLASS AS MANDY BLEMM’S ELDER SISTER, BRANDY, SAID THAT THE BLEMMS WERE WELL KNOWN TO BE A DISTURBED FAMILY, WHOSE FATHER ALWAYS STAYED HOME ALL DAY IN JUST HIS UNDERSHIRT, AND THEIR YARD LOOKED LIKE A JUNK YARD, AND THEIR GERMAN SHEPHERD WOULD TRY TO KILL YOU IF YOU EVEN CAME NEAR THE BLEMMS’ FENCE, AND THAT ONCE, WHEN BRANDY DIDN’T CLEAN UP THE DOG’S DROPPINGS,WHICH WAS APPARENTLY HER ASSIGNED CHORE, ALLEGEDLY THE FATHER CAME ANGRILY STAGGERING OUT AND MADE HER LIE DOWN IN THE YARD AND PUT HER FACE IN THE DROPPINGS; MY BROTHER SAID THAT TWO DIFFERENT 7th GRADERS HAD SEEN THIS, AND IT WAS WHY BRANDY BLEMM (WHO WAS ALSO SOMEWHAT SLOW) WAS KNOWN AROUND FISHINGER SECONDARY AS THE SHIT GIRL, WHICH SURELY COULD NOT HAVE FELT GOOD FOR A GIRL IN HER EARLY TEEN YEARS TO BE CALLED, NO MATTER HOW MUCH SHE DID OR DID NOT HAVE ON THE BALL.
The only other time at which Mr. Johnson had substituted for the real teacher in any of my classes had been for two weeks in 2nd grade, when Mrs. Claymore, our homeroom teacher, had been in a traffic accident and came back with a large white metal and canvas brace around her neck which no one was allowed to sign, and could not turn her head to either side for the remainder of the school year, after which time she retired to Florida with independent means. As I remember him, Mr. Johnson was of average height for an adult, with the standard crew cut, suit jacket and necktie, and eyeglasses with scholarly black frames that everyone who wore glasses in that day and age wore. Evidently, he had subbed for several other grades and classes at R. B. Hayes as well. The only time anyone had ever seen him outside school was one time when Denise Kone and her mother saw Mr. Johnson in the A&P, and Denise said his cart had been full of frozen foods, which her mother had associated with the fact that he was unmarried. I do not recall noticing whether Mr. Johnson wore a wedding band or not, but the Dispatch articles later made no mention of his being survived by a wife after the authorities stormed the classroom. I also do not remember his face except as it existed in a Dispatch photo afterwards, which was evidently taken from one of his own student yearbooks several years prior. Barring some obvious problem or characteristic, most adults’ faces were not easy to attend to closely at that age — their very adultness obscured all other characteristics. To the best of my recollection, Mr. Johnson’s was a face whose only memorable characteristic was that it appeared slightly tilted or angled upwards in its position on the front of his head. This was not excessive but only a matter of one or two degrees — imagine holding up a mask or portrait so that it was facing you and then tilting it one or two degrees upwards off of normal center. As if, in other words, its eyeholes were now looking slightly upwards. And that this, together with what was either poor posture or a problem involving his neck like Mrs. Claymore, caused Mr. Johnson to look as if he were wincing or slightly recoiling from whatever he was saying. It was not gross or obvious, but both Caldwell and Todd Llewellyn had noticed Mr. Johnson’s wincing quality, too, and remarked on it. Llewellyn said the sub looked like he was scared of his own shadow, like Miles O’Keefe or Gunsmoke’s Festus (who we all hated — nobody ever wanted to be Festus in recreations of Gunsmoke). On his first day substituting for Mrs. Roseman, he introduced himself to us as Mr. Johnson, writing it on the chalkboard in perfect Palmer cursive as did all teachers of that time; but as his full name recurred so often in the Dispatch for several weeks after the incident, he tends to remain now more in my memory as Richard Allen Johnson, Jr., 31, originally of nearby Urbancrest, which is a small bedroom community outside of Columbus proper.
According to my brother’s own flights of fancy in childhood, the antique table we had possessed before I was old enough to be aware of anything that was going on had been burled walnut, with a large number of diamonds, sapphires, and rhinestones inset in the top in the likeness of the face of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603) as seen from the right side, and that the disappointment of its loss was part of the reason our father often looked so unhappy on coming home at the end of the day.
The easternmost row’s second to last desk had a deep stick figure with a cowboy hat and much oversized six-shooter gouged deeply into it and colored in with ink from some previous 4th grader, obviously the product of much slow, patient effort over the course of the year. Directly ahead of me were the thick neck, upper vertebrae, and severely bobbed hairline of Mary Unterbrunner, whose neck’s pale and patternless freckles I had studied for almost two years, as Mary Unterbrunner (who would later become an administrative secretary at the large women’s detention center in Parma) had also been in my 3rd grade homeroom with Mrs.Taylor, who read the class ghost stories and could play the ukulele and was a great deal of fun as a homeroom teacher so long as you didn’t get on the wrong side of her temper. Mrs. Taylor once hit Caldwell on the back of his hand with her ruler, which she carried in the large kangaroo pocket of her smock, so hard that it swelled up almost like a cartoon hand, and Mrs. Caldwell (who knew judo, and who you also did not want to fool around with in terms of her own temper, according to Caldwell) came down to the school to complain to the principal. What teachers and the administration in that era never appeared to see was that the mental work of what they called daydreaming often required more effort and concentration than it would have taken simply to listen in class. Laziness is not the issue. It is just not the work dictated by the administration. For the sake of the visual interest of the narrative that day, I wish that I could say that each panel of the story that the window generated from the view of the two dogs either mating or struggling for dominance remained animated, so that by the end of the class the window’s wire mesh squares were all filled with narrative panels like the pictorial stained windows at Riverside Methodist Church, where my brother, mother and I attended Sunday service each week, along with my father when he felt up to getting up early enough. He often had to work at the office six days a week, and he liked to call Sunday his day to try to glue what was left of his mind back together. But that was not how it worked. It would have taken some kind of mental marvel to hold each square’s illustrated tableau in his memory throughout the whole narrative of the window, not unlike the backseat game on trips where you and someone else pretend that you’re planning a picnic, and he says one item that will be brought, and you repeat that item and add another, and he repeats the two mentioned previously and adds a third, and you must repeat and then add a fourth which he must remember and repeat, and so on, until each of you is trying to hold a memorized string of 30 or more items in your mind as you each keep adding further to it by turns. This was never a game I excelled at, although my brother could sometimes perform feats of memory that amazed my parents and may even have frightened them a little, given how he eventually turned out (my father often referred to him as the brains of the outfit). Each square in the window’s mesh filled and recounted its part of the story of the poor unhappy owner of the brindle dog only while that particular square was attended to; it reverted to its natural state of thick transparency once the entire panel was actuated and filled and the story moved on to the mesh’s next square, in which the little girl whose young and unworldly brindle-colored dog, Cuffie, had dug its way out under the shabby back fence and escaped down to the banks of the Scioto River, wearing a lemon colored pinafore, pink hair ribbon, and shiny black patent leather shoes with polished buckles, was sitting in her 4th grade Art class making a Playdoh statuette of Cuffie, her dog, all by touch, at the State School for the Blind and Deaf on Morse Rd. She was blind, and her name was Ruth, even though her mother and father called her Ruthie and her two older sisters, who played the bassoon, called her Ruthie Toothie because they were trying to convince her — we see this in three consecutive panels where the sisters, who are older and have the disagreeable expressions and akimbo postures that cruel people in cartoons always have — of how unfortunately homely she is due to her terrible overbite, and of how everyone can see it but her, and there is nearly a whole horizontal row of panels of Ruth in dark glasses with her little hands over her face, crying over the older sisters’ remarks and chants of Ruthie Toothie, your dog has gotten loothie, while the little girl’s poor but kindhearted father, who works as a groundskeeper for a wealthy man in a white metal and canvas brace who owns a lavish mansion in Blacklick Estates with a wrought iron gate and a curving driveway over one mile in length out past Amberly, is driving the family’s old, battered car slowly up and down the cold streets of their shabby neighborhood, calling Cuffie’s name out of the open car window and jingling the brindle dog’s collar and tags. A series of panels in the very top row of mesh squares, which is often reserved for flashbacks and back-story elements that help fill in gaps in the window’s unfolding action, reveals that Cuffie’s collar and vaccination tags have gotten torn off as he wriggles under the Simmons family’s yard’s fence in excitement over seeing the two stray dogs, one black and dun and the other predominantly piebald, that have loped up to the cheap wire fence and urged Cuffie to come join them in some freely roaming dog adventures, the dark one, who in the panel has angled eyebrows and a sinister pencil mustache, crossing his heart over the promise that they won’t go far at all and will be sure and show the trusting Cuffie the way back home again. Much of the specific day’s storyboard, which extends like arms or the radial spikes one often sees around a cartoon sun, involves the split narrative of small, pale, blind Ruth Simmons (who is not bucktoothed in the slightest, but is, understandably, not a very good Playdoh sculptor) sitting in her Art for the Blind class wishing desperately that she could determine whether or not her father has been successful in finding the dog, Cuffie, who is Ruth Simmons’ faithful canine companion and never chews on anything or makes any trouble for the household and often sits devotedly under the small, wobbly desk the father had found in the trash of the wealthy manufacturer he works for, and had brought home and nailed empty spools onto the drawers of for drawer handles, and Cuffie often sits under there resting his nose on Ruth Simmons’ patent leather shoes as she sits in her dark bedroom (it doesn’t matter to blind people whether the lights in a room are on or not) at the desk and does her homework in Braille, while her sisters practice the bassoon or lie in the light on their bedroom’s plush carpeting talking pointlessly about boys or the Everly Brothers on the princess telephone, often tying up the phone for hours at a time, while the father moonlights at his night job of singlehandedly lifting heavy crates into the rear of delivery trucks and the family’s mother, an Avon Lady who has never successfully sold even one Avon home product, spends every evening lying splayed and semiconscious on the living room couch, which is missing one of its legs and is propped unsteadily up with a phone book while the father tries to scavenge the right kind of wood to replace the leg, Mr. Simmons being the kind of poor but honest father who makes his living with physical labor rather than poring over facts and figures all day. The top row’s back-story of the window’s large, black and dun dog is somewhat vague, and consists of a few hastily sketched panels involving a low cement building filled with dogs keening in cages, and a back alley in a seedy district in which several garbage cans are overturned and a man in a stained apron is shaking his fist at something we cannot see. Then, in the main row, we see the family’s father getting a demanding phone call from the wealthy owner of the mansion telling him to come back and start priming the large, expensive, gas-driven industrial snowblower for the mansion’s long driveway with lines of small colored lights all along its length like a runway, because the owner’s personal meteorologist has said that it’s getting ready to snow again like the absolute dickens. Then we see Ruth Simmons’ mother — whom we have already seen take several pills throughout the day from a small brown prescription bottle in her handbag, by way of another upper row’s back-story — relieving the father and driving the battered family car aimlessly up and down the seedy neighborhood’s streets, very slowly and weaving a bit, as a dense, persistent snow begins to fall and the streetlights begin to glow and the panel’s light turns ashy and sad, the way late afternoon in Columbus so often makes the ambient light seem sad.
ESSENTIALLY, I HAD NO IDEA OF WHAT WAS GOING ON.
Just which specific aspects of the U.S. Bill of Rights were being covered by Mr. Johnson while this story of Ruth Simmons and her lost Cuffie filled in panel after panel of the window I cannot say, as by that point it is fair to say that I was absent in both mind and spirit. This tended to happen throughout this period. To be fair, this was the reason why Mrs. Roseman and the administration were determined to keep me away from distractions of all kinds — prohibiting Caldwell and I from sitting near each other, for instance. I do not remember even noticing just when it was that the exterior’s dogs broke off their initial attachment and began moving in circles of somewhat different sizes, sniffing at the ground and the mud of the ballfield’s infield. The temperature outside was an estimated 45 degrees; it was melting that winter’s second to last snow. I do remember that it snowed heavily the next day, March 15, and that, as school was closed on the day after the trauma, we were able to go sledding after several interviews with the Ohio State Police and a special Unit 4 psychologist named Dr. Biron-Maint, who had a strangely configured nose and smelled faintly of mildew, and that later on that day Chris DeMatteis’ sled had tipped to one side and struck a tree, and his forehead had had blood all over it while we all watched him touch his forehead and cry in fear at the reality of his own blood. I do not remember what anyone did to help him; we were all quite likely still in shock. Ruth Simmons’ mother, whose name was Marjorie and had grown up admiring herself in different dresses in the mirror and practicing saying,‘How do you do?’ and ‘My, what a funny and amusing remark!’ and dreaming of marrying a wealthy doctor and hosting elaborate dinner parties of doctors and their wives in diamond tiaras and fox wraps at their mansion’s beautiful burled walnut dining room table in which she looked almost like a fairy princess under the chandelier’s lights, now as an adult looked puffy and dull-eyed and had a perpetually downturned mouth as she drove the battered car. She was smoking a Viceroy and had the windows rolled up and was not even rolling down the window to call ‘Cubbie!’ as the kindly, long-suffering father before her had done. There was back-story above, in which the blind infant Ruth Simmons was lying in her bassinet in her tiny dark glasses holding out her arms and crying for her mother while the mother would stand with a glass with an olive with a toothpick in it and a downturned mouth looking down at the blind baby and then turning and looking at herself in the room’s ancient, cracked mirror and practicing giving a bitter, sardonic little curtsy without spilling her glass. Usually the baby would give up and stop crying after a while and just make small whimpering noises (this occupied only two or three panels). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Ruth Simmons’ Playdoh figurine looked almost disfigured, less like a dog than a satyr or Great Ape which something heavy had then run over. Her beautiful little snow white face with its dark glasses and hair ribbon is seen tilted upwards several degrees as she offers innocent, childlike prayers for Cubbie’s safe return, praying that her father has perhaps spotted Cubbie huddled inside a tire in one of their seedy neighbors’ unkempt yards, or has spotted Cubbie loping innocently along the side of Maryville Rd. and has stopped the car in the middle of traffic on the busy thoroughfare and knelt down with open arms by the side of the road for the dog to come running joyfully into his arms, her blind fantasies’ thought-bubbles occupying several of the panels that had previously been taken up by the actual scene of a frightened and limping Cubbie being harried by the two hardened, feral adult dogs along the seedy east bank of the Scioto River, which even in 1960 was already starting to smell bad above the Griggs Dam and had rusty tin cans and abandoned hub caps scattered along its east bank along Maryville Rd., and which my father said he could remember being able to fish right out of with a string and safety pin circa 1935, in knickers and a straw hat, with his parents in their own straw hats picnicking behind himself and his brother (who was later wounded in Salerno, Italy in World War II, and had a wooden foot that he could unstrap and take right off with its special enclosing shoe provided by the GI Bill, so the shoe was never empty even when it was in his closet when he went to sleep, and worked for a manufacturer of cardboard dividers for different kinds of shipping containers in Kettering) in the shade of the many beech and buckeye trees that thrived along the Scioto before the University unduly influenced the city fathers into building the Maryville commuter road to more conveniently connect Upper Arlington to the West Side proper. With the faithful dog’s lustrous brown eyes now moist with regret at leaving the yard, and with fear, because Cubbie was now far, far away from home, further by far than the young little dog had ever been before. We have already seen that the puppy was only one year old; the father had brought him home from the A.S.P.C.A. as a surprise on the previous Good Friday, and had allowed Ruth to bring Cubbie along to Easter services at St.Anthony’s Catholic Church (they were Roman Catholics, as poor people in Columbus often were) in a small wicker basket covered with a checkered cloth from which only the dog’s wet, inquisitive little nose had shown, and he had been every bit as quiet as Ruth’s mother had said he better be or else they were all going to have to get up and leave even if it was right in the middle of the services, which for Roman Catholics would have been a terrible sin, even though one of Ruth’s elder sisters had surreptitiously kept poking at one of its paws with a hat pin to try to get it to cry out, which it didn’t, none of which Ruth had had any idea about as she sat on the hard wooden pew in her dark glasses, holding the basket in her lap and swinging her little legs with gratitude and joy at having a puppy for a companion (as a rule, the blind have a natural affinity for dogs, whose eyesight is not very good either). And the two feral dogs (whose fur was matted, and their ribcages showed, and the piebald one had a large greenish sore near the base of its tail) were hard and cruel, and showed their teeth at Cuffie whenever he faltered, even when they went through pools of half frozen mud and sludge that plashed into the river out of the mouths of huge cement pipes with curse words written on them with spray paint, and even though Cuffie was just a dog and didn’t have thought-bubbles as you or I do, the look in his soft brown eyes spoke volumes as the piebald dog suddenly leapt up into one of these huge pipes and its matted head and tail with the big sore disappeared, and the larger, black dog began growling at Cuffie to follow into the pipe, which was not gushing but had a trickle of something dark orange and terrible smelling (even to a dog) out of it, and in the next square Cuffie was forced to put his little forelegs up onto the lip of the cement pipe and try to pull his hindquarters up into it with the black dog growling and chewing at his tendons. The illustrated expression said it all. It conveyed that Cubbie was very frightened and unhappy and wishing only to be back in the fenced yard wagging its brindle tail and waiting for the tap tap sound of Ruth’s miniature white cane coming up the sidewalk to greet Cuffie and bring him in to rub his stomach and whisper to him over and over how beautiful he was and how wonderful his ears and little soft paws smelled, and how lucky they all were to have him, as the black dog leapt easily up onto the lip of the trickling culvert behind Cuffie and, with an ominous look to either side, disappeared into the round black mouth of the pipe, completing the horizontal row.
Meanwhile, in the inception of the real incident, Mr. Johnson had evidently just written KILL on the chalkboard. The most obvious flaw in my memory of the incident as a whole is that much of the trauma’s inception unfolded outside my awareness, so intently was I concentrating on the window’s mesh squares, which in the narrative I was filling the next row of with panels of the unhappy mother, Mrs. Simmons, weaving the family auto slowly down the snow filled streets of the neighborhood while she plucks at various grey hairs that she is trying to find and get a grip on with tweezers in the rearview mirror, as well as scenes of the father, outdoors in the falling snow, operating a large, gas-operated appliance which looks a little like a power lawnmower but is larger and has twice as many rotating blades, as well as being the distinctive bright orange that sportsmen and hunters normally wear, which is the mansion’s wealthy owner’s company’s trademark color, and is also the color of the special snowpants the owner makes the stoic and uncomplaining father wear, beginning to push the machine through the dense, wet snow of the mansion’s driveway. The driveway is so long that by the time the father has finished snowblowing the whole thing, he will have to start back at the beginning again, as the snowfall (which you can also see in the background out the mesh window of the State School for the Deaf and Blind classroom, even though little Ruthie obviously is not aware) is becoming heavy and turning into a real snowstorm, with the father’s thought-bubble in one panel saying, ‘Oh, well! It is not so bad, at least I am lucky to have a job, and I am certain that good old Marjorie will find Cubbie in time to bring our pet home in time for Ruthie’s return from school!’ with a patient, uncomplaining expression on his face as the loud, heavy appliance (which the mansion’s owner had patented and his company manufactures, which is why he makes Mr. Simmons wear the undignified orange pants) erases the driveway’s white like a chalkboard being cleaned with damp paper towels by someone serving out an administrative detention. It was thus that I did not literally see or know what began to unfold during the Civics class, although I received the full story so many times from classmates and authorities and the Dispatch that in memory it almost feels as if I were present as a full witness from the very beginning. Dr. Biron-Maint, the administrative psychologist, gave his professional opinion that I was a full witness, but had been too traumatized (shellshocked was his stated term; each child’s parents received a copy of his evaluation) to be able to acknowledge the memory of it. However crude or erroneous, my role in all legal proceedings after the incident was thus limited by Dr. Biron-Maint’s diagnosis, which my mother and father assented to in writing. Such is adult memory’s strangeness, though, that I can still recall in great detail the sight of Dr. Biron-Maint’s nostrils, which were of noticeably different shape and size, and can remember trying to imagine various things that might have happened to his nose in life or even in his mother’s stomach as a baby to produce such a marked anomaly. The clinician was very tall, even by adult standards, and I spent much of the required interview looking up at his nostrils and lower jaw. He also smelled the way someone’s bathmat can smell in the summer, though I did not identify this scent as such at the time. To be frank, the consensus was that Dr. Biron-Maint gave many of us the willies far more than Mr. Johnson, although having to watch something like that would obviously be traumatic for anyone, least of all young children.
LATER, MR. DeMATTEIS WAS FORCED OUT OF THE WHOLESALE NEWSPAPER DELIVERY TRADE BY WHAT CHRIS DeMATTEIS SAID WERE ELEMENTS OF ORGANIZED CRIME THAT WERE MOVING DOWN FROM CLEVELAND AND TAKING OVER ALL NEWSPAPER AND COIN OPERATED VENDING MACHINE BUSINESSES IN THE STATE, FORCING MR. DeMATTEIS TO TAKE A JOB AS A TAXI DISPATCHER, BUT AT LEAST CHRIS STOPPED HAVING TO GET UP SO EARLY THAT HE COULD NOT STAY AWAKE IN HIS CLASSES, AND LATER DISCOVERED A NATURAL TALENT FOR MANUAL MACHINE OPERATION IN MR. VAUGHAN’S INDUSTRIAL ARTS CLASS AT FISHINGER, AND IS NOW A SHOP STEWARD AT PRECISION TOOL AND DIE, ONLY A FEW BLOCKS FROM MY OWN FIRM’S OFFICES.
In the midst of writing on the chalkboard, illustrating that the phrase, due process of law appears identically in both the Vth and XIVth Amendments, Mr. Richard Allen Johnson inadvertently inserted something else in the phrase, as well — the capital word KILL. Ellen Morrison, Sanjay Rabindranath, and some other of the class’s more diligent pupils, copying down word for word what Mr. Johnson was putting up on the chalkboard, discovered that they had written due process KILL of law and that that, too, was what was on the chalkboard, which Mr. Johnson had stepped one or two steps back from and was looking up in evident puzzlement at what was written there. At least, many classmates later reported this as puzzlement because of the way, even though the sub was facing the chalkboard and thus had his back to the class, his head was now cocked curiously over to the side, not unlike a dog’s when it hears a certain type of sound, and he remained that way for a moment before shaking his head slightly as if shaking off some confusion and, using the board’s eraser to erase the KILL of law, replaced it with the correct of law. As usual, Chris DeMatteis had his head on his desk in the second row and was asleep, because his father and older brothers ran a newspaper delivery service for newsstands and retail vendors covering over a third of the city early in the morning, and often they made DeMatteis get up as early as 3:00 in the morning to pitch in and help, even if it was a school day, and DeMatteis often fell asleep in his classes, especially if it was a sub. Mandy Blemm, who most of the other children at R. B. Hayes knew very little about in terms of the realities of her personal life or history (both I and Tim Applewhite had been in Miss Clennon’s slow readers class with Blemm in 3rd grade. Applewhite later got bused to a special school in Minerva Park, as he just could not read at all — he really was a slow reader, whereas Blemm and I were not), rarely ever even took her book or pencils out in class, and always sat looking at the desktop in a withdrawn or sullen manner, and never paid attention or ever completed any of her assignments until the school authorities reached a point where they became so concerned that they began making plans to have Blemm transferred to Minerva Park as well, at which time she would abruptly begin completing her assignments and being involved in classroom goings on. Then, as soon as the administrative heat was off, she would once more revert to sitting staring at her desktop or biting dead skin off of the sides of her thumbnail very slowly for the whole class period. She had also been known to eat paste. Everyone was a little afraid of her. At the same time, Frankie Caldwell, who now works in Dayton as a quality control inspector for Uniroyal, had his head down and was drawing something on his theme paper with great precision and intensity. Alison Standish (who later moved away) was absent again. Meanwhile, the Xth Amendment (the first I-IX are what comprise the familiar Bill of Rights, although the Xth Amendment was adopted simultaneously in 1791) contains the phrase, The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, and so forth, which Mr. Johnson, while at the board, according to Ellen Morrison and every other pupil taking notes, wrote as, The power not delegated KILL to the United States THEM by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it KILL THEM to the States, at which time there was again, evidently, another long classroom silence, during which the pupils all began looking at one another while Mr. Johnson stood with his back to the room at the board with his hand with the yellow chalk hanging at his side and his head again cocked to the side as if he were having trouble hearing or understanding something, without turning around or saying anything, before picking up the board’s eraser once again and trying to continue the lesson on Amendments X and XIII as though nothing unusual had taken place. According to Mandy Blemm, by this time the room was deathly quiet, and many of the pupils had an uneasy expression on their face as they dutifully crossed out the THEM and KILL THEM that Mr. Johnson had initially inserted in the quotation. At this same time, in the window, a terrible series of events were transpiring for Ruth Simmons’ father, who in a diagonal series of panels in the protective mesh was stoically and uncomplainingly clearing the long black driveway of snow with the enormous Snow Boy-brand device that the owner’s company engineers had invented in his R. & D. laboratories, which was why he was now so wealthy. This was just the beginning of the era of power lawnmowers and snow removers for ordinary consumers. Meanwhile, Mrs. Marjorie Simmons’ car was stuck in the street’s heavy snow and was idling with the windows sosteamed up that the observer had no idea what she might be doing in there, and Cuffie and the hardbitten feral dogs were presumably still traversing the lengthy industrial pipe that ran from the Scioto River to a large industrial-chemical factory on Olentangy River Road, as for several consecutive panels there are depictions of the cement exterior of the pipe but no visible activity or anything exiting the pipe at either end except for the ominous orange trickle into the river. The whole Civics classroom had become very quiet. The total number of words on the chalkboard after the erasures was either 104 or 121, depending on whether one counted Roman numerals as words or not. If asked, I could probably have told you the total number of letters, the most and least used letters (in this case, a tie), as well as a number of different statistical functions by which the relative frequency of different letters’ appearance could be quantified, although I would not have put any of these facts in this way, nor was I even quite aware that I could. The facts about the words were simply there, much the way a knowledge of how your tummy feels and where your arms are are there regardless of whether you’re paying attention to these parts or not. They were simply part of the peripheral environment in which I sat. What I was, however, wholly aware of was that I was becoming more and more disturbed by the graphic narrative that was unfolding, square by square, in the window. While dramatic and diverting, few of the window’s narratives were ever gruesome or unpleasant. Most had upbeat — if somewhat naive and childish — themes. And it was only on days when there was enough time before the bell rang for the end of Civics that I got to see how they ended. Some carried over from the prior day, but as a practical matter this was rare, as it was difficult to hold all the unfolding details in mind for that long.
IN CHILDHOOD, I HAD NO INSIGHT WHATSOEVER INTO MY FATHER’S CONSCIOUSNESS, NOR ANY AWARENESS OF WHAT IT MIGHT HAVE FELT LIKE, INSIDE, TO DO WHAT HE HAD TO SIT THERE AND DO EVERY DAY. IN THIS RESPECT, IT WAS NOT UNTIL MANY YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH THAT I FELT I TRULY KNEW HIM.
In terms of the precise order of events in the Civics classroom, something was now evidently wrong with Mr. Johnson’s face and its expression as the presentation moved on to Amendment XIII. In this same interval, in a series of panels several rows down, the large, orange, gas-powered Snow Boy device, which removed snow from driveways by means of a system of rotary blades that chopped the snow into fine particles and then a powerful blower that enhanced the vacuum of the blades’ rotation to throw the snow five, eight, or twelve feet in a high arc to the side of the man operating the machine (the distance of the arc could be controlled by adjusting the angle of the chute by means of three preinstalled pins and holes, not unlike the Howitzer Mark IV artillery used in Korea and elsewhere), stalled. The blizzard’s snow was evidently so heavy and wet that it had clogged the rotating system of eight razor sharp blades, and the Snow Boy’s self-protective choke had stalled the engine (whose turbine was also the blades’ rotor) instead of allowing the engine’s cylinders to overheat and melt the pistons, which would ruin the expensive machine. The Snow Boy was, in this respect, little more than a modified power lawnmower, which our neighbor Mr. Snead was proudly the first on our street to get one of, and had turned it over for the neighborhood children’s inspection after disabling the spark plugs — he emphasized several times that one must disable the lawnmower’s spark plugs if you were going to place any part of your hands near the blades, which he said rotated at over 360 r.p.m. of torque and could slice a man’s hand off before he even knew what was happening — and the window’s side panel’s schematic view of the Snow Boy’s moving parts was based closely on Mr. Snead’s explanation of how his power lawnmower was put together to mow his grass with only a featherlight touch on the controls. (Mr. Snead always wore a tan cardigan sweater, and beneath his surface bonhomie was palpably sad, and our mother said that the reason he was so friendly to the neighborhood children and even gave each of us a Christmas present for several years was because he and Mrs. Snead couldn’t have any children of their own, which was sad, and which my brother said privately was due to Mrs. Snead’s back alley abortion as a roundheel teen, which at the time I don’t believe I understood enough to feel anything other than sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Snead, both of whom I liked.) As I recall it now, the Sneads’ lawnmower had been orange as well, and much larger than its modern descendants. I did not, though, initially recall the window’s narrative including any explanation of what fate befell the smaller, subordinate dog, with the sore, whose name was Scraps, and had run away from home because of the way its owner mistreated it when the tedium and despair of his lower level administrative job made him come home empty-eyed and angry and drink several highballs without any ice or even a lime, and later always found some excuse to be cruel to Scraps, who had waited alone at home all day and only wanted some petting or affection or to play tug of war with a rag or dog toy in order to take its mind off of its own bored loneliness, and whose life had been so awful that the back-story cut off abruptly after the second time the man kicked Scraps in the stomach so hard that Scraps couldn’t stop coughing and yet still tried to lick the man’s hand when he picked Scraps up and threw him in the cold garage and locked him in there all night, where Scraps lay alone in a tight ball trying to breathe. Meanwhile, in the main narrative row, his mind distracted by concern over his blind daughter’s sadness and the hope that his wife, Marjorie, was OK driving in the blizzard to look for Cubbie, Mr. Simmons, using his blue collar strength to easily turn the stalled Snow Boy device over onto its side, reached into the system of blades and the intake chute in order to clear them of the wet, packed snow that had gotten compressed in there and jammed the blade. Normally a careful worker who paid good attention and followed directions carefully, this time he was so distracted that he forgot to disable the Snow Boy’s spark plugs before reaching in, as the schematic panel with an arrow and dotted line at the intact spark plugs showed. Thus, when enough of the packed snow had been removed to allow the rotor to turn freely, the Snow Boy sprang into life on its side while Ruth Simmons’ father had his hand deep into the intake chute, severing not only Mr. Simmons’ hand but much of his forearm, and badly splintering his forearm’s bone all the way down to the bone marrow, with a horrifying full-color spray of red snow and human matter jetting at full force straight up into the air (the Snow Boy being on its side, its chute was now facing straight upwards) and completely blinding Mr. Simmons, whose face was right over the chute. My shock and alarm over what was happening to Ruth Simmons’ father, whom I liked, and felt for, created a sense of shock and numbness that distanced me from the panels’ scene somewhat, and I remember being distanced enough to be able to be on some level aware that the Civics classroom seemed unusually quiet, with not even the little sounds of whispering or coughing that usually made up the room’s ambient noise when the teacher was writing on the chalkboard. The only sound, except for Chris DeMatteis clicking and grinding his rear molars in his sleep, being that of Richard A. Johnson writing on the chalkboard, ostensibly about the XIIIth Amendment’s abolition of Negro slavery, except instead it turned out that he was really writing KILLTHEM KILLTHEMALL over and over again on the chalkboard (as my own eyes would register just moments later) in capital letters that got bigger and bigger with every letter, and the handwriting less and less like the sub’s customary fluid script and more and more frightening and ultimately not even human-looking, and not seeming to realize what he was doing or stopping to give any kind of explanation but only cocking his already oddly cocked head further and further over to the side, like somebody struggling might and main against some terrible type of evil or alien force that had ahold of him at the chalkboard and was compelling his hand to write things against his will, and making (I was not conscious of hearing this at the time) a strange, highpitched vocal noise that was something like a scream or moan of effort, except that it was evidently just one note or pitch maintained throughout, and stayed that way, with the sound coming out for much longer than anyone can normally even hold their breath, while he remained facing the chalkboard so that no one yet could see what his expression looked like, and writing KILL KILL KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM DO IT NOW KILL THEM, over and over again, the chalkboard’s handwriting getting more and more jagged and gigantic and spiky, with one part of the board already completely filled with the repetitive phrase. What most credible witnesses seemed to recall most vividly at this point was the classroom’s resultant confusion and fear — Emily-Ann Barr and Elizabeth Frazier were both crying out and holding on to each other, and Danny Ellsberg, Raymond Gillies, Yolanda Maldonado, Jan and Erin Swearingen, and several other pupils were whipping themselves back and forth in their bolted seats, and Philip Finkelpearl was preparing to throw up (which in those years was his response to almost any strong stimuli), and Terence Velan was calling for his Stepmutti, and Mandy Blemm was sitting up very rigid and straight and staring with an intently concentrated expression at the back of Mr. Johnson’s head as it cocked further and further to the side until it was evidently almost touching his shoulder, with his left arm now straight out to the side and his hand forming a kind of almost claw. And while I was not conscious or attentive to any of this directly — except perhaps that the back of Unterbrunner’s freckled neck in the seat ahead of me at the left periphery of my vision had gone very white and bloodless and her large head was rigid and still — in retrospect, I believe that the atmosphere of the classroom may have subconsciously influenced the unhappy events of the period’s window’s mesh’s narrative fantasy, which was now more like a nightmare, and was now proceeding radially along several rows and diagonals of panels at once, which required tremendous energy and concentration to sustain. Both the Art class’s deaf children and the other blind children (the latter of whom could not see the statuette, but whose sense of touch was very acute, and could, in a manner of speaking, see with their hands, and had passed the malformed statuette hand to hand) were ridiculing the statuette of Cuffie and laughing at Ruth Simmons, the cruel blind students laughing in a normal way, while the cruel deaf students’ laughter was either an apish hooting (those deaf people who are not mute tend to produce a hooting sound. I do not know why this is, but when I was very small, one of the boys who lived on our street had been deaf, and had played with and sometimes gotten into terrible fistfights with my older brother, until eventually their home caught fire in the middle of the night, and several of the family suffered burns and smoke inhalation, and they moved away even though their insurance had covered all expenses and repairs, and he had made the characteristic hooting noises) or the mute and uncanny mime of normal laughter’s gestures and expressions, while the school’s Art teacher, who was both deaf and blind, smiled idiotically from her desk at the front of the classroom, unaware that Ruth Simmons was at the weeping center of a laughing, mocking, hooting, cane-waving circle of deaf and blind children, one of whom was tossing Ruth’s figurine up into the air and swinging his cane at it like an American Legion coach hitting fungoes for outfield practice (though with considerably less success); while, in another series of panels further down, Mrs. Marge Simmons’ idling car was now just a large, throbbing, and only vaguely car-shaped mound of snow with a peculiar greyish cast to it, as a result of the snowstorm’s piling snow having clogged the worn old car’s exhaust outlet and diverted the exhaust to the car’s interior, where, in an interior view, sat the late Marjorie Simmons, still behind the steering wheel, with her mouth and chin smeared all red as she had been applying Avon Acapulco Sunset lipstick when the carbon monoxide of the vent began to attack, forcing her hand into the shape of a claw that smeared lipstick all over her lower face as she gasped and clawed at herself for air, sitting rigidly upright and bright blue and staring sightlessly into the auto’s rear view mirror while, outside the idling mound, women so bundled up that they could hardly bend began shoveling easements for their returning husbands into their driveways, and distant sounds of emergency sirens and ambulances began to approach the scene. At the same time, a single, traumatically abrupt panel appeared to depict Scraps, the subordinate, piebald dog with the sore, being attacked in the industrial tunnel by swarms of what were either small, tailless rats or gigantic, atomically mutated cockroaches as Cubbie, nearby, stands frozen with his paws over his eyes in instinctual shock and terror, until the tougher, more experienced and dominant Rottweiler mix saves Scruffie by dragging him by the scruff of the neck into a smaller side tunnel that serves as an escape hatch and led more towards the area of R. B. Hayes Primary and the Fairhaven Knolls golf course that lay just beyond the copse of trees at the window’s rear right horizon. The tableau, complete with the unfortunate dog’s mouth open in agony and a rat or mutated roach abdomen protruding from his eye socket as the predator’s anterior half consumed his eye and inner brain, was so traumatic that this narrative line was immediately stopped and replaced with a neutral view of the pipe’s exterior. As a result, the lone, nightmarish panel appeared in the window as just a momentary peripheral snapshot or flash of a horrifying scene, much the way such single, horrible flashes often appear in bad dreams — somehow the speed with which they appear and disappear, and the lack of any time to get any perspective or digest what you are seeing or fit it into the narrative of the dream as a whole makes it even worse, and often a rapid, peripheral flash of something contextless and awful could be the single worst part of a nightmare, and the part that stayed with you the most vividly and kept popping into your mind’s eye at odd moments while brushing your teeth or getting a box of cereal down out of the cereal cabinet for a snack, and unsettling you all over again, perhaps because its very instantaneousness in the dream meant that your mind had to keep subconsciously returning to it to work it out or incorporate it. As if the fragment were not done with you yet, in much the same way that now, so very much later, the most persistent memories of early childhood consist of these flashes, peripheral tableaux — my father slowly shaving as I pass my parents’ bathroom on the way downstairs, our mother on her knees in a handkerchief by a rose bush out the kitchen’s east window as I fill a water glass, my brother breaking his wrist in a fall off of the jungle gym and the faroff sound of his cries as I drew in the sand with a stick. The piano’s casters in their small protective sleeves; his face in the foyer coming home. Later, when I was in my 20’s and courting my wife, the traumatic film The Exorcist came out, a controversial film that both of us found disturbing — and not disturbing in an artistic or thought-provoking way, but simply offensive — and walked out of together at just the point that the little girl was mutilating her private areas with a crucifix similar in size and design to the one that Miranda’s parents had on the wall of their front sitting room. In fact, the first moment of what I would consider true affinity and concord that Miranda and I experienced was, as I recall it, in the car on the way home from walking out of this film, which we had done mutually, with one quick glance between us in the theatre confirming that our distaste and rejection of the film were in perfect concordance, with an odd thrill in that moment of mutuality that was itself not wholly unsexual, although in the context of the film’s themes the sexuality of the response was both disturbing and unforgettable. Suffice to say we have not seen it since. And yet the lone moment of The Exorcist that has stayed so emphatically with me over the years consisted only of a few frames, and had precisely this rapid, peripheral quality, and has obtruded at odd moments into my mind’s eye ever since. In the film, Father Karras’s mother has died, and he has drunk too much out of grief and guilt (‘I should have been there, I should have been there,’ is his refrain to the other Jesuit, Father Dyer, who is removing his shoes and helping him into bed), and has a dream, which the film’s director depicts with frightening intensity and skill. It was one of our first unaccompanied dates, not long after I had started at the firm where I still work — and yet, even now, the interval of this dream sequence remains vivid to me in nearly every detail. Father Karras’s mother, pale and dressed in funereal black, ascends from an urban subway stop while Father Karras waves desperately at her from across the street, trying to get her attention, but she does not see or acknowledge him and instead turns — moving with the terrible, implacable quality that other people in dreams often have — and descends back down the subway station’s stairway, sinking implacably from view. There is no sound, despite its being a busy street, and the absence of sound is both frightening and realistic — many people’s recollected nightmares are often soundless, with the suggestions of thick glass or deep water and these media’s effect on sound. Father Karras is an actor seen in no other film of the time, so far as I know, with a brooding, Mediterranean cast to his features, whom another character in the film explicitly compares to Sal Mineo. The dream sequence also includes a lengthy, slow motion view of a Roman Catholic medal falling through the air, as if from a great height, with its thin silver chain undulating in complex shapes as the coin rotates as it slowly falls. The iconography of the falling coin is not complicated, as Miranda pointed out when we discussed the film and our reasons for leaving before the exorcism proper. It symbolizes Father Karras’s feelings of impotence and guilt at his mother’s death (she had died alone in her apartment, and it had been three days before someone found her; this type of scenario would make anyone feel guilty), and the blow to Father Karras’s faith in himself as a son and a priest, a blow to his vocation, which must be rooted not only in faith in a god but a belief that the person with the vocation could make some kind of difference and help alleviate suffering and human loneliness, which now, in this case, he has blatantly failed to do with his own mother. Not to mention the classic problem of how a supposedly loving god could permit this terrible outcome, a problem that always arises when people to whom we are connected suffer or die (as well as the secondary backlash of guilt over the buried hostility we often feel towards the memory of parents who have died — an interval of backstory had shown Father Karras’s mother forcing some kind of unpleasant medicine down his throat with a steel spoon as a child, as well as berating him in Italian for causing her to worry, and once walking silently past the window when he had fallen on rollerskates and skinned his knees and was crying desperately for her to come out to the sidewalk and help him). Such reactions are common to the point of being nearly universal, and all of this is symbolized by the dream’s slowly falling medallion, which at the sequence’s end lands upon a flat stone in either a cemetery or untended garden, full of moss and spiky undergrowth. Despite the bucolic setting, the air through which the coin falls has been airless and black, the extreme black of nothingness, even as the medallion and chain come to rest on the stone; just as there is no sound, there is no background. But spliced very quickly into the sequence is a brief flash of Father Karras’s face, terribly transformed. The face’s white, reptilian eyes and extrudent cheekbones and root-white pallor are plainly demonic — it is the face of evil. This flash of face is extremely brief, probably just enough frames to register on the human eye, and devoid of sound or background, and is gone again and immediately replaced with the Catholic medal’s continued fall. Its very brevity serves to stamp it on the viewer’s consciousness. My wife, it turned out, did not even see the rapid splice of the face — she may have sneezed, or looked away from the screen for a moment. Her interpretation was that even if the rapid, peripheral image truly had been in the film and not my own imagination, it could be readily interpreted as a symbol of Father Karras subconsciously seeing himself as evil or bad for having allowed his mother to (as he saw it) die all alone. I have never forgotten these frames, though — and yet, although I privately disagreed with Miranda’s quick dismissal, I am still far from being certain of what the rapid flash of the Father’s transfigured face was meant to mean, nor why it remains so vivid in my memory of our courtship. I think it can only be the incongruous, near instantaneous quality of its appearance, the utter peripheralness of it. For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness. Its significance for the story of how those of us who did not flee the Civics classroom in panic became known as the 4 Unwitting Hostages is fairly obvious. In testing, many schoolchildren labeled as hyperactive or deficient in attention are observed to be not so much unable to pay attention as to have difficulty exercising control or choice over what it is they pay attention to. And yet much the same thing happens in adult life; as we age, many people notice a shift in the objects of their memories. We often can remember the details and subjective associations far more vividly than the event itself. This explains the frequent tip-of-the-tongue feeling when trying to convey what is important about some memory or occurrence. Similarly, it is often what makes it so difficult to communicate meaningfully with others in later life. Often, the most vividly felt and remembered elements will appear at best tangential to someone else — the scent of Velan’s leather shorts as he ran up the aisle, or the precise double fold at the top of my father’s brown bag lunch, for instance, or even the peripheral tableaux of little Ruth Simmons gazing blindly upwards while a circle of peers castigates her for the Plato figurine and — contiguously in the window but elsewhere in the actual narrative — in the woods along the driveway of the estate of the wealthy manufacturer, of Mr. Simmons, her father, staggering blindly in and out of view while holding the stump of his amputated hand, groaning for help as he runs in his vivid snowsuit, and all too often running blindly into the forest’s trees due to his own hurled blood and particulate matter’s having rendered him blind, and the whole highspeed tableau is grainy and imperfectly seen because of all of the trees and spiky undergrowth and the driving blizzard and huge drifts of wind driven snow, which Mr. Simmons finally bounces headfirst off of a tree and falls headlong into one of, a massive snowdrift, and disappears all the way up to his boots, one of which is moving spasmodically as he tries to struggle for stable footing, unaware in his shock, pain, loss of blood, and blindness that he is even upside down, while, meanwhile, diagonally down and across, a C.P.D. technician is kneeling on the dilapidated front seat of the Simmons family’s car, drawing a body outline around the place behind the wheel where the rescue team had found the bright blue body of Marjorie Simmons, whose frustrations and disappointments were now all over, and whose body — still holding its lipstick, which made a lump in the white blanket that covered it — was being loaded in the blizzard onto a large ambulance stretcher by two orderlies in white gowns while a C.P.D. detective with snow on his hat talked to the heavily bundled housewives who had been shoveling out their driveways and were now all leaning tiredly on their snowshovels talking to the detective, who was taking notes in a small notebook with a very dull pencil, and whose own fingernails were slightly blue in the cold, and the driving snow made everyone’s eyelashes white, and the two Columbus Public Works workers in large yellow boots who had shoveled Mrs. Simmons’ car out of the igloo sized mound stood together next to a towtruck, blowing into their cupped hands and hopping slightly up and down, the way people who are both cold and somewhat bored do, facing away from the street and the blanket with the lump over the stretcher with just two small boots with fake fur fringe at the ankles poking out, and the single family house that the two bored C.P.W. workers (one of whom has a red and silver Ohio State U. ski cap on with a buckeye shaped fluffball at the top) are facing without even really seeing it is one of the houses whose backyards (this one’s has a swing set whose swings each have a large, brick-shaped block of snow on them that has accumulated) abut the copse of elm and fir trees at the edge of Fairhaven Knolls that separates the neighborhood homes from the R. B. Hayes school ballfield in which even now the dominant Rottweiler is again trying to mount the Simmons’ lost dog, in the actual field through the classroom window, miming the position and expressions of mating, exhorting the defenseless, long-suffering whelp to sit still and endure it or else something terrible would happen.
IN THE LIGHT OF THE POLITICAL SITUATION OF OUR LATER ADOLESCENCE, ONE OF THE MOST TROUBLING AND MUCH DISCUSSED ASPECTS OF THE TRAUMA FOR THOSE OF US OF THE 4 WAS THAT MR. JOHNSON HAD NOT APPEARED TO CONFRONT, RESIST OR THREATEN THE ARMED OFFICERS WHO CAME FORCIBLY INTO THE ROOM THROUGH BOTH THE DOOR AND THE EAST WALL’S WINDOWS, BUT MERELY CONTINUED TO WRITE KILL OVER AND OVER AGAIN ON THE CHALKBOARD, WHICH WAS NOW SO FILLED THAT HIS NEWER KILL, KILL THEM’S OVERLAY AND OFTEN OBSCURED HIS EARLIER EXHORTATIONS, FINALLY RESULTING IN LITTLE MORE THAN AN ABSTRACT MASH OF LETTERS ON THE BOARD. WHILE THE JAGGED LENGTH OF CHALK, THE BROAD ARM MOTIONS, AND THE PROXIMITY OF MR. JOHNSON’S BRIEFCASE ON THE DESK WERE CITED AS THE PERCEIVED THREAT TO HOSTAGE SAFETY THAT JUSTIFIED THE SHOOTING IN THE EYES OF THE C.P.D. BOARD OF INQUIRY, THE REAL TRUTH IS THAT IT WAS CLEARLY MR. JOHNSON’S FACIAL EXPRESSION AND SUSTAINED HIGH SOUND, AND HIS COMPLETE OBLIVIOUSNESS TO THE OFFICERS’ COMMANDS TO DROP THE CHALK AND STEP AWAY WITH BOTH HANDS IN VIEW AS HE COPIED HIMSELF WITH EVER INCREASING INTENSITY ONTO THE BOARD’S VERBAL CHAOS, WHICH PROMPTED THEM TO OPEN FIRE. THIS WAS THE ONLY REAL TRUTH — THEY WERE AFRAID.
Of the so-called 4 Hostages, it was Mandy Blemm and Frank Caldwell (who would later, at Fishinger Secondary, attend both Junior and Senior Prom as a couple, maintaining a steady dating relationship throughout those years in spite of Blemm’s reputation, after which Caldwell enlisted in the U.S. Navy, eventually also serving overseas) who were attentive and aware enough throughout the first part of the incident to recount for DeMatteis and I later how very long it was that Mr. Johnson remained facing and writing jaggedly on the chalkboard while emitting the high, atonal sound while the classroom behind him turned more and more into a bedlam of surreal and nightmarish terror, with some of the children crying and quite a few (Blemm later named them) reverting, under the strain, to early childhood coping mechanisms, such as sucking their thumbs, wetting themselves, and rocking slightly in their seats humming disconnected bars of various lullabies to themselves, and Finkelpearl leaned forward over his desktop and threw up, which most of the pupils closest to him appeared to be too mesmerized with fear to notice. It was in this interval that my own awareness finally left the window’s mesh’s tableaux and returned to the Civics classroom, which to the best of my memory occurred right after the chalk in Mr. Johnson’s hand snapped with a loud sound and he stood rigid with both arms out and his head to the side, the sound he produced rising higher and higher in pitch as he turned around very slowly to face the class, his entire body trembling electrically and his face … Mr. Johnson’s face’s character and expression were indescribable. I will never forget it. This was the first part I fully saw of the incident the Dispatch first called, Deranged Substitute’s Classroom Terror — Mentally Unbalanced Instructor Stricken at Blackboard, Appears ‘Possessed,’ Threatens Mass Murder, Several Pupils Hospitalized, Unit 4 Board Calls Emergency Session, Bainbridge Under Gun (at that time, Dr. Bainbridge was Superintendent of Schools for Unit 4). Philip Finkelpearl throwing up was also a factor. There is something about someone throwing up anywhere within a child’s earshot that serves to direct and concentrate his attention with an almost instant force, and even when my awareness returned in full to the classroom, it was Finkelpearl’s vomitus and the associated sounds and odors of it that I first can recall being struck by. The final frame I remember was when it was revealed in mid-air, during the ridicule, in a close up, stop-action view as it rose end over end in the air and the wicked boy prepared to swing his cane, that the true subject of the clay statuette Ruth Simmons had fashioned was, in reality, a human being, who in her distraught distraction she had given four legs instead of two, despite the crude human features, creating a somewhat monstrous or unnatural image as in Greek myth or The Isle of Dr. Moreau. The import of this detail in the narrative I do not remember, though I recall the detail itself very clearly. Nor can I remember for just how long the Civics classroom remained like that, with Mr. Johnson in extremis with both arms extended outward at the chalkboard (when you’ve been intensely preoccupied, coming back to what is actually happening around you is somewhat like coming out of a movie theatre in the afternoon, when the sunlight and sensory press of the street’s activity nearly stun you), looking simultaneously electrocuted and demonically possessed (there is no other way to describe the way his upturned face was transformed, with its look of both suffering and ghastly exultation, or rather it may have been that the two different expressions alternated so rapidly on his uptilted face that in the mind’s perception they became conjoined), and making that sound, with what Ahearn and Ellsberg and others in the front row said looked like every single hair on Mr. Johnson’s head, neck, wrists and hands standing straight up, much as Boy’s Life had said people’s can do when they are preparing to get struck by lightning, and the children in the classroom sitting bolt upright with many of their eyes bulging out and rolling around and around in their heads like cartoon characters’ eyes with sheer terror. It was in the midst of this scene that Chris DeMatteis awoke in the rear of his row with a small plaintive shout — which is how he sometimes woke up when he had fallen unconscious in school. In retrospect, my impression is that Chris’s absently panicked cry of awakening is what started the class’s other pupils openly screaming and rising from their desks to begin an hysterical mass exodus from the Civics classroom (rather the way one random infantryman’s firing his weapon will precipitate the start of a battle when, up to that point, it had been just two tense and ready armies facing each other with weapons drawn but not yet fired); and what wrested my attention from the sight of Philip Finkelpearl’s vomit hanging in strings and clots from the side of his bolted desktop was the sudden simultaneous mass movement of the class’s pupils as all of them except Chris DeMatteis, Frank Caldwell, Mandy Blemm and I began running for the door of the classroom, which was unfortunately closed, and the mass of children behind Emily-Ann Barr and the fleet Raymond Gillies (a Negro) and the others who had reached the door first and were clawing hysterically at the knob of the door drove the first children physically into the door with such force that there was a gruesome sound of the impact of someone’s face or head against the thick, frosted glass of the door’s upper half; and as the door (like all classroom doors of that era) opened inward and there was a rapidly growing mass of panicked children in the way, it seemed a very long time before it was forced open by someone bulky enough — in hindsight I believe this to have been Gregory Oehmke, who at age 10 was already well over 100 pounds and had a neck the same width as his shoulders, and who would also go on to serve overseas, though I base this belief not on directly seeing Oehmke do it but only from noting the brute savagery with which it was yanked open, hitting and scraping several children with the edge of the heavy door as it was forced open and causing one of the tall Swearingen sisters in roughly the middle of the herd to lose her footing and disappear and presumably get badly trampled in the subsequent exodus, for when the noise of the screaming children receded north up the hallway and the door was slowly closing on its pneumatic hinge, and two unidentified sets of hands reached quickly in to grasp Jan Swearingen’s ankles and pull her from the Civics classroom, she did not move or in any way revive as she slid facedown on the checkered tile, leaving a lengthy smear of either her own blood or someone else’s that was already on the floor from some other mishap at the door, the long braids both Swearingen sisters tended to play with and even to chew on when distracted or tense trailing behind and missing by just inches getting trapped in the crack of the slowly closing door.
IN THESE LATER DISCUSSIONS, IT ALSO EMERGED THAT FRANKIE CALDWELL HAD HYPERVENTILATED AND BRIEFLY LOST CONSCIOUSNESS DURING THE MASS EXODUS. OF THE 4 UNWITTING HOSTAGES, IT WAS ONLY WE OTHER THREE WHO WERE CLASSIFIED BY THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION AS DEFICIENT OR SLOW. THAT FRANKIE NEVER PROTESTED AGAINST THE PRESS’S ERROR IS TESTIMONY TO THE DEEP EMBARRASSMENT THAT HE, TOO, MUST HAVE FELT AT HAVING BEEN SO AFRAID.
For my own part, I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven. I knew, even then, that the dreams involved my father’s life and job and the way he seemed when he returned home from work at the end of the day. His arrival was nearly always between 5:42 and 5:45, and it was usually I who was the first to see him come through the front door. What occurred was almost choreographic in its routine. He came in already turning in order to press the door closed behind him. He removed his hat and topcoat and hung the coat in the foyer closet; he clawed his necktie loose with two fingers, took the green rubber band off of the Dispatch, entered the living room, greeted my brother, and sat down with the newspaper to wait for my mother to bring him a highball. The nightmares themselves always opened with a wide angle view of a number of men at desks in rows in a large, brightly lit room or hall. The desks were arranged in precise rows and columns like the desks of an R. B. Hayes classroom, but these were all more like the large, grey steel desks that the teachers had at the front of the room, and there were many, many more of them, perhaps 100 or more, each occupied by a man in suit and tie. If there were windows I do not remember noticing them. Some of the men were older than others, but they were all obviously adults — people who drove, and applied for insurance coverage, and had highballs while they read the paper before dinner. The nightmare’s room was at least the size of a soccer or flag football field; it was utterly silent and had a large clock on each wall. It was also very bright. In the foyer, turning from the front door while his left hand rose to remove his hat, my father’s eyes appeared lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his at-home persona. He was a kind, decent, ordinary looking man. His voice was deeply pitched but not resonant. Softspoken, he had a sense of humor that kept his natural reserve from seeming remote or aloof. Even when my brother and I were small, we were aware that he spent more time with us and took the trouble to show us that we were important to him a good deal more than most fathers of that era did (it was many years before I had any real idea of how our mother felt about him). The foyer was directly off of the living room, where the piano was, and at that time, I often read or played with my trucks outside of kicking range beneath the piano while my brother practiced his Hanons, and I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air. I remember the foyer as dim and cold and smelling of the coat closet, the bulk of which was filled with my mother’s different coats and matching gloves. The front door was heavy and difficult to open and close, as if the foyer were pressurized. It had a small, diamond-shaped window in the center, which we moved before I was ever big enough to see out of. He had to put his side into the door somewhat in order to make it close all the way, and I would not see his face until he turned to remove his hat and coat, but I can recall that the angle of his shoulders as he leaned into the door had the same quality as his eyes. I could not convey this quality now and most assuredly couldn’t have then, but I know that it helped inform the nightmares. His face was not at all like this on weekends off. It is in hindsight, now, that I believe the dreams to have been about adult life. At the time, I knew only their terror — much of the difficulty they complained of in getting me to lie down and go to sleep at night was due to these dreams. Nor could it always have been dusk at 5:42, though that is what I recall its being, and the inrush of outside air he brought with him as cold, and scented with burnt leaves and the sad way the street smelled at twilight, when all of the houses became the same color and all of their porch lights came on like bulwarks against something unnamable. His eyes when he turned from the door didn’t scare me, but the feeling was somehow related to being scared. Often I still had a truck in my hand. His hat went on the hatrack, his coat shouldered out of, then the coat was folded over his left arm, the closet opened with his right, the coat transferred to right hand while the third wooden coathanger from the left is again removed with the left hand. There was something about this routine that cast shadows deep down in parts of me I could not access on my own. I knew something of boredom by then, of course — at Hayes, and Riverside, or on Sunday afternoons when there was nothing to do — the fidgety type of childhood boredom that is more like worry than despair. But I do not believe I consciously connected the way my father looked at night with the far different and deeper, soul-level boredom of his job, which I knew was actuarial because in 2nd grade everyone in Mrs. Claymore’s homeroom had had to give a short presentation on what our father’s profession was. I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk, and I knew that it had numbers in it because of the documents that were visible in his briefcase when I got to pop its latches and open it for him, and my brother and I had had the building that housed the insurance company’s HQ and my father’s tiny window in its face pointed out to us by our mother from the car, but the actual specifics of his job were always vague. And remained so for many years. Looking back, I suspect that there was something of a cover-your-eyes and stop-your-ears quality to my lack of curiosity about just what my father had to do all day. I can remember certain exciting narrative tableaux based around the competitive, almost primitive connotations of the word breadwinner, which had been Mrs. Claymore’s blanket term for our fathers’ occupations. But I do not believe I knew or could even imagine, as a child, that for almost 30 years of 51 weeks a year my father sat all day at a metal desk in a silent, fluorescent lit room, reading forms and making calculations and filling out further forms on the results of those calculations, breaking only occasionally to answer his telephone or to meet with other insurance men in other bright, quiet rooms. With only a small and sunless north window that looked out on other small office windows in other tall grey buildings. The nightmares were vivid and powerful, but they were not the kind from which you wake up crying out and then have to try to explain to your mother when she comes what the dream was about so that she could reassure you that there was nothing like what you just dreamed in the real world. I knew that he liked to have music or a lively radio program on and audible all of the time at home, or to hear my brother practicing while he read the Dispatch before dinner, but I am certain I did not then connect this with the silence he sat in all day. I did not know that our mother’s making his lunch was one of the keystones of their marriage contract, or that in mild weather he took his lunch down in the elevator and ate it sitting on a backless stone bench that faced a small square of grass with two trees and an abstract public sculpture, or that on many mornings he steered by these 30 minutes outside the way mariners out of sight of land use stars. My father died of a coronary when I was sixteen, and I can acknowledge, despite the obvious shock and loss, that his passing was less hard to bear than much of what I learned about his life when he was gone. For instance, it was very important to my mother that my father’s burial plot be somewhere where there were at least a few trees in view; and given the logistics of the cemetery and the details of the mortuary contract he’d prepared for them both, this caused a great deal of trouble and expense at a difficult time, which neither my brother nor I saw the point of until years later when we learned about his weekdays and the bench where he liked to eat his lunch. At Miranda’s suggestion, I made a point one spring of visiting the site where his little square of grass and trees had been. The area had been refashioned into one of the small and largely unutilized downtown parks that were characteristic of the New Columbus renewal programs of the early ’80s, in which there were no longer grass or beech trees but a small, modern children’s play area, with wood chips instead of sand and a jungle gym made entirely of recycled tires. There is also a swingset, whose two empty swings moved back and forth at different rates in the wind the entire time I sat there. For a time in my early adulthood, I had periods of imagining my father sitting on the bench year after year, chewing and looking at that carved out square of something green, always knowing just how much time was left for lunch without even taking his watch out. Sadder still was trying to imagine what he thought about as he sat there, imagining him perhaps thinking about us, our faces when he got home or the way we smelled at night after baths when he came in to kiss us on the top of the head — but the truth is that I have no real idea at all what he thought about, what his internal life might have been like. And that were he alive I still would not know. Or trying (which Miranda feels was saddest of all) to imagine what words he might have used to describe his job and the square and two trees to my mother. I knew my father well enough to know it could not have been direct — I am certain he never sat down or lay beside her and spoke as such about lunch on the bench and the twin sickly trees that in the fall drew swarms of migrating starlings, appearing en masse more like bees than birds as they swarmed in and weighed down the elms’ or buckeyes’ limbs and filled the mind with sound before rising again in a great black mass to spread and contract like a fist against the downtown sky. Trying thus to imagine remarks and attitudes and tiny half-anecdotes that over time conveyed enough to her that she would go through hell and back to have his grave site moved to the premium areas nearer the front gate and its little stand of blue pines. It was not quite a nightmare proper, then, but neither was it a daydream or fancy. It came when I had been in bed for a time and was beginning to fall asleep but only partway there — the part of the featherfall into sleep in which whatever lines of thoughts you’ve been pursuing begin now to become surreal around the edges, and then at some point the thoughts themselves are replaced by images and concrete pictures and scenes. You move, gradually, from merely thinking about something to experiencing it as really there, unfolding, a story or world you are part of, although at the same time enough of you remains awake to be able to discern on some level that what you are experiencing does not quite make sense, that you are on some cusp or edge of dreaming proper. Even now, as an adult, I still can consciously recognize that I am starting to fall asleep when my abstract thoughts turn into actual pictures and small films, ones whose logic and associations are ever so slightly off — and yet I am aware of this, aware of the illogic and my reactions to it. The dream was of a large room full of men in suits and ties seated at rows of great grey desks, bent forward over the papers on their desks, motionless, silent, in a monochrome room or hall under long banks of high-lumen fluorescents, the men’s grey faces puffy and seamed with adult tension and wear and appearing to hang slightly loose, the way someone’s face can go flaccid and loose when he seems to be staring at something without really seeing it. I acknowledge that I could never convey just what was so dreadful about this tableau of a bright, utterly silent room full of men immersed in work. It was the type of nightmare whose terror is less about what you see than about the feeling you have in your chest and stomach about what you’re seeing. Some of the men wore glasses; there were a few small, neatly trimmed mustaches. Some had grey or thinning hair or the large, dark, complexly textured bags beneath their eyes that both our father and Uncle Gerald had. Some of the younger men had wider lapels; most did not. Part of the terror of the dream’s wide angle perspective was that the men in the room appeared as both individuals and a faceless mass. There were at least 20 or 30 rows of a dozen desks each, each with a blotter and desklamp and file folders with papers in them and a man in a straightback chair behind the desk, each man with a subtly different style or pattern of necktie and his own slightly distinctive way of sitting and positioning his arms and inclining his head, some feeling at their jaw or forehead or the crease of their tie, or biting dead skin from around their thumbnail, or tracing along their lower lip with their pencil’s eraser or pen’s metal cap. You could tell that the particular styles of sitting and the small, absent habits that individualized them had evolved over years or even decades of sitting like this over their job’s work every day, moving purposefully only once in a while to turn a stapled page or move a loose page from the left side of an open file folder to the right side, or to close one file folder and slide it a few inches away and then to pull another file folder to themselves and open it, gazing down into it as if they were at some terrible height and the documents were the rocks below. If my brother dreamed, we certainly never heard about it. The men’s expressions were somehow at once stuporous and anxious, enervated and keyed up — not so much fighting the urge to fidget as appearing to have long ago surrendered whatever hope or expectation causes real people to fidget. A few of the chairs’ seat portions had cushions made of corduroy or serge, one or two of them brightly colored and edged with fringe in such a way that you could tell they had been handmade by a loved one and given as a gift, perhaps for a birthday, and for some reason this detail was the worst of all. The dream’s bright room was death, I could feel it — but not in any way you could convey or explain to my mother if you cried out in fear and she came in. And the idea of ever trying to tell my father about the dream was — even later, after it had vanished as abruptly as the reading problem — unthinkable. The feeling of telling him about it would have been like coming to our Aunt Tina, one of my mother’s sisters (who, among her other crosses to bear, had been born with a cleft palate that operations had not much been able to help, besides also having a congenital lung problem) and pointing out the cleft palate to Aunt Tina and asking her how she felt about it and how her life had been affected by it, at which even imagining the look that would come into her eyes was unthinkable. That these colorless, empty-eyed, long-suffering faces were the face of some death that awaited me long before I stopped walking around. Then, when real sleep descended, it becomes a real dream, and I lost the perspective of someone merely looking at the scene and am in it — the lens of perspective pulls suddenly back, and I’m one of them, one part of the mass of grey-faced men stifling coughs and feeling at their teeth with their tongues and folding the edges of papers down into complex accordion creases and then smoothing them carefully out once more before replacing them in their assigned file folders. And the dream’s perspective’s view slowly moves further and further in until it is primarily me in view, in close-up, with a handful of other desks’ men’s faces and upper bodies framing me, and the backs of a few photos’ frames and either an adding machine or a telephone at the edge of the desk (mine is also one of the chairs with a handmade cushion). As I can recall it now, in the dream I look neither like my father nor my real self. I have very little hair, and what I do have is wet combed carefully around the sides, and a small van Dyke or maybe goatee, and my face, which is angled downward at the desktop in concentration, looks as if it has spent the last 20 years pressed hard against something unyielding. And at a certain point in the interval, in the middle of removing a paperclip or opening a desk drawer (there is no sound), I look up and into the lens of the dream’s perspective, and stare back at myself, without any sign of recognition on my face, nor of happiness or fright or despair or appeal — the eyes are flat and opaque, and only mine in the way that an old album’s photo of you as a child in a setting you have no memory of is nevertheless you — and in the dream, as our eyes meet, it is impossible to know what the adult me is seeing or how I am reacting or if there is anything in there at all.
STILL LATER, ANOTHER SHARED AND COHESIVE DISCOMFORT AMONG WE WHO COMPRISED THE UNWITTING 4 WOULD CONCERN THE INTENDED MEANING OF THE WORD THEM IN THE REPEATED IMPERATIVES THAT MR. JOHNSON HAD FIRST INSERTED AND FINALLY EFFACED AND OBSCURED THE BOARD’S LESSON WITH. THROUGHOUT THE INCIDENT AND ITS AFTERMATH, EVERYONE CONCERNED HAD ASSUMED WITHOUT QUESTION THAT THE CHALKBOARD’S THEM REFERRED TO THE CIVICS PUPILS, AND THAT THE INVOLUNTARY REPETITIONS WERE EXHORTATIONS FROM SOME DISTURBED PART OF MR. JOHNSON’S PSYCHE TO KILL US EN MASSE. TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION, IT WAS MY OLDER BROTHER (WHO BY THAT TIME HAD ENLISTED IN THE ARMED FORCES BY TACIT ARRANGEMENT WITH THE FRANKLIN COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, AND WENT ON TO SERVE IN THE SAME REGIMENT IN WHICH TERENCE VELAN WOULD DISTINGUISH HIMSELF THREE YEARS LATER) WHO FIRST SUGGESTED THAT THE IMPERATIVES’ THEM MAY NOT HAVE REFERRED TO US AT ALL, THAT IT MIGHT, RATHER, HAVE BEEN US WHO MR. JOHNSON’S DISTURBED PART WAS EXHORTING, AND THE THEM SOME OTHER TYPE OR GROUP OF PEOPLE ALTOGETHER. JUST WHO, THEN, THIS THEM COULD HAVE BEEN MEANT TO BE WAS ANYONE’S GUESS — THE SUB WAS HARDLY IN A POSITION TO ELABORATE, MY BROTHER OBSERVED.
I have only general, impressionistic memories of Mrs. Roseman’s classroom itself, which did not, even when nearly empty after the mass exodus, seem overtly large. There were either 30 or 32 desks facing due north, and on the north wall was the chalkboard with its jagged mass of 212 overstruck KILL THEM’s and fragmentary portions of same, as well as the teacher’s assigned desk and a grey steel cabinet just west of the blackboard in which were kept art supplies and Civics-related audiovisual aids. The east wall was partly comprised of two large rectangular windows, the lower half of each was hinged along the sill and could be opened slightly outward in mild weather. In the absence of any imposed tableaux, the reticulate wire mesh gave the windows an institutional quality, and contributed to the sense of being somewhat encaged. Also, there was the chronological series of U.S. Presidents running above the windows’ upper sills up near the ceiling. The ceiling itself was an institutional drop unit comprised of white asbestos tile, numbering 96 total plus 12 fractional tiles at the south end (the tiles’ dimensions did not divide evenly into the classroom’s length, which I would estimate at 23 feet). Two long fluorescent banks of lights hung a foot or so beneath the false ceiling, supported by struts that I imagine must have been secured to the same metal grillwork on which the drop tiles rested. All acoustic tile of that era was asbestos. The interior walls’ composition appeared to be cinderblock thickly overlaid with multiple coats of paint (possibly as many as four or more coats, so that the uneven texture of the cinderblocks underneath was very much smoothed and occluded), which in the classrooms was an emetic green and in the hallways a type of creamy beige or grey. The tile floor’s pattern was an irregular checkerboard of off-grey and green as well, though a subtly different shade or hue of green, so that it was not clear whether the flooring had been selected to complement the walls or whether the entire thing was an accident. I know nothing about when R. B. Hayes was built, or under what arrangements — it was, however, razed during the Carter and Rhodes administrations and a new, supposedly more energy efficient structure put up in its place. On the Civics classroom’s south wall (which no one but the teacher was able to see because of the way the pupils’ desks all faced) were the room’s clock and attached bell and the P.A. speaker, whose cabinet was wood and its face covered in what appeared to be some kind of synthetic burlap, and was attached to the Public Address system in the principal’s office.
The classroom’s westernmost wall — on which were arrayed the unused coathooks, and against which just lately all of the terrified pupils had been clambering over one another to flee the room as Richard Allen Johnson stood frozen and transported, holding out the cuspate length of chalk like a toy sword — also featured, towards the back, two more freestanding cabinets containing spare or damaged copies of From Sea to Shining Sea …, various testing forms and supplies, construction paper and a large jar of blunt scissors, two wide boxes of film strips on governmental and legal systems, and several white woolen wigs and velveteen waistcoats in dark red or plum, with white ruffled plastrons safetypinned to the lapels, together with a stovepipe hat, a lensless pair of wire spectacles, a collapsible wheelchair and lengthy cigarette holder, and over a dozen small, hand-held American flags (these latter out of date as they contained only 49 stars in the corner), all for use in the annual President’s Day presentation that Mrs. Roseman organized and directed every February, and in which the previous month Chris DeMatteis had portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Mrs. Roseman had felt ill and faint and had had to direct the entire show sitting down on the little set of steps leading up to the gymnasium’s stage, and in which I had had a dual role, playing a flagwaving supporter of democracy in the audiences for Thomas Jefferson’s 2nd Inaugural Address and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as the thunder in the thunderstorm in which Philip Finkelpearl as Benjamin Franklin held a construction paper kite with a piece of string with a large skeleton key on it while Raymond Gillies and I stood just offstage behind the curtain and rolled a large piece of industrial tin with pieces of green felt taped over the sharp edges back and forth with a motion reminiscent of one snapping out a blanket to make it lie flat on the bed, producing a sound much like thunder if heard from the gymnasium’s seats, while Ruth Simmons and Yolanda Maldonado stood with adult supervision on the catwalk above the row of colored lights for the stage and dropped blue and white bolts of construction paper lightning that we had spent an entire class period using rulers to trace the zigzags of and cut out. My father got permission to leave work early in order to attend the presentation, and while our mother was again not feeling up to par and could not join him, we had a good time later recounting for her all that went on, with Terence Velan in stovepipe hat and woolen beard having memorized the Gettysburg Address and reciting it perfectly while his long beard’s glue detached at one side and began slipping further and further down until the beard came off altogether at one side and was swinging in the breeze of sixteen furiously waving little flags, and Chris DeMatteis forgetting (or never having had the chance to even study, as he claimed) the bulk of his lines and opting to simply thrust his lower jaw and empty cigarette holder out further and further and to repeat ‘Fear itself, fear itself’ over and over (my father claimed it was dozens of times) while, backlit on the stage behind him, Gregory Oehmke and several other boys who had access to their fathers’ helmets and tags charged with broomsticks and aluminum foil bayonets (Llewellyn also brought a sidearm that turned out to be real, even though he claimed the firing pin had been removed, and afterwards he got in trouble, and his father had to come in and talk to Mrs. Roseman) against the papier mâché bulwarks of Iwo Jima.