I played hide-and-seek over Thanksgiving with Rachel’s three youngest nieces, ages five, five, and three. I totally kicked butt.
First round I hid in the utility closet. Little kids don’t like looking in dark places so this kept them busy a good ten minutes, an eternity in this game. Finally Samantha opened the door, no doubt praying I wasn’t in there. Suffice it to say, that’s the last time she looks for me in that closet.
Second round I sat in the living room while they headed the way they always head, clockwise from the pantry. Then I snuck back to the pantry (the pantry’s where the “seekers” count while the “hider” hides). Sydney, when she finds me, is like “How did you do that?” so I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Without us actually saying anything.
Third round I dominate. First I’m in the middle bedroom on the top bunk of the bunk beds, behind a bunch of towels. The girls come in three, four times, but never think to look behind the towels. I wait until they’re out of earshot, then move to the laundry room and from there to the dining room where I sit next to Charles, the father of two of the girls, and read the Wall Street Journal. Hannah, his three-year-old, runs up saying, “Daddy, Daddy, help us find Michael,” so I say, “Where have you looked, sweetheart?” and she starts telling me where she’s looked but then realizes… hey, what the…? and can’t say anything. She tries but nothing comes out.
Bad scene in the Fulton Street station. A “police action” knocks the 4/5 train out of service at rush hour, stranding thousands. I end up in a corridor packed with commuters, many of whom are trying to make their way back to the 2/3 train, having waited in vain for the 4/5. My group, a smaller group, dreams of reaching the Brooklyn-bound J train via a stairwell on the 4/5 platform. We have time to dream too, for we’re moving at about five feet a minute, about a third of the speed, as I figure it, of a crawling baby.
Remarkably the vibe is mellow. Some scattered Jesus-Fucking-Christ’s can be heard, but overall the crowd is composed and orderly and even a bit philosophical, for a crowd. Impressive. But then this guy comes up the stairs and starts pushing through the crowd because he needs to BE SOMEWHERE, in contrast to the rest of us, who are merely loitering in the corridor, and for no other reason than that we enjoy standing groin to butt with our fellow New Yorkers.
He’s tall, perhaps six-five, and broad. Also, violent, evidently. I recognize him immediately. He’s the guy who drives like he’s playing a video game, weaving between lanes at ninety miles an hour.
“Friend,” I say, “we’re all going the same place.”
“Yeah, well, fuck you,” he says.
“Yeah, well, fuck you,” I say.
Actually I say no such thing. I say nothing. I don’t want him to smash me in the mouth.
My step-grandfather Andy was an astoundingly stupid man, likely the stupidest person I have ever known. It is not surprising, then, that Andy died in the manner he did. However Andy’s death was not merely the result of stupidity but rather stupidity combined with stubbornness, senility, and remarkably bad luck, although the latter is open to debate.
Here is what happened: Andy pulled into a service station to get gas but in doing so failed to park close enough to the pump for the pump to reach the gas tank. Not realizing this, he got out of the car, tried to use the pump, discovered that it didn’t reach, then got back into the car, presumably to move it closer to the pump.
Unfortunately Andy neglected to shut the driver-side door before starting the car again. This was his fatal mistake. Well, it was either this or his decision to drive with his left leg partly outside the vehicle. It depends how you look at it. In any case it is undoubtedly true that the location of Andy’s left leg forced him into an awkward spread-eagle position, which made it difficult to control the vehicle as he pulled forward – or rather as he careened forward, for that is what Andy did: he careened.
One can always claim that luck either is or is not on one’s side. Andy’s death is a case in point. For while it is true that he avoided hitting any oncoming motorists, it is also true that he struck a succession of parked cars. A glass-half-full person would say that Andy was lucky to kill no one but himself; however a glass-half-empty person would consider Andy’s death proof of grave misfortune. For the purposes of this account, I will stick to the facts and leave such determinations to you, my reader.
After smashing a final parked car, Andy jumped over a curb (or rather his vehicle did, for there is some question as to volition), then sped across a series of lawns, leaving toppled fences and broken ornaments in his wake.
Oddly I cannot recall what Andy finally crashed into. I suspect it was a wall of some kind. At any rate Andy was no longer inside the vehicle when this crash occurred, and thus it may not be correct to say that it was he who did the crashing.
Also I have always assumed that Andy fell out of the car by accident. Certainly this is how the story was told to me. However, it occurs to me now, as I consider the final moments of Andy’s life, that his so-called fall may in fact have been a jump. Unable to swing his left leg into the car, Andy may have decided to abandon ship, as it were, and follow the leg out.
Whatever the truth, and perhaps it is better that we cannot know, Andy died in a seemingly impossible manner: he ran himself over.
I cut my fingernails as short as possible and have done so since childhood. I don’t know why I started doing this, other than that I liked how it felt, particularly a day or so after cutting. At a certain point I realized that I could cut the hardened skin under the nail, which made it possible to cut the nail further. Then I discovered that the hot water of a shower made the skin under the nail soft and puffy, which allowed me to cut further still.
I’ve cut my fingernails this way for so long that they’ve become freakishly short, perhaps a quarter the length of normal fingernails. They’re also oddly shaped, growing at the ends but not in the middle, which means that if I ever stopped cutting them, the corners would grow into the skin.
As a kid I had an overwhelming fear, a phobia, that one of my nails would be bent back. I don’t know where this came from. No doubt it concerned control, or the lack thereof, but beyond this I’m stumped. From my earliest memory I’ve cut my nails as short as possible, and for reasons that have always felt self-evident.
I’m often asked if it hurts. It doesn’t, because I’m careful. Once in a while (this is rare now), I go too far in one of the corners – invariably with a middle or ring finger – and draw a speck of blood.
Twice such cuts have become infected. The first time this happened I went to a doctor. After examining me, the doctor said that she needed to lance the infection, and offered two options: a local anesthetic via a needle, or no anesthetic at all. Both would hurt quite a bit, she added.
Bluntness, I feel, is a winning quality in a physician. I told her to skip the needle. She immediately pulled out a scalpel and made a steady incision halfway around the fingertip.
Earlier, as she examined me, she turned to the nurse and said, “Chronic such-and-such.” That hit home. I was doing something chronic to myself.
Having watched the doctor, I lanced the second infection myself, using a sterilized razor blade. It took some time to gather the courage to cut that deep. I would cut a little and stop, cut a little and stop.
The other thing I’m often asked is how I feel about it. I feel sad. Sometimes I look at my fingernails in disbelief. Why did I do this to myself? It’s not the worst thing I could have done – my fingers are perfectly functional, not counting the difficulty I have when opening pull-top beer cans or picking up coins from the floor – but it’s a stupid waste and an ongoing humiliation. An ugly part of me is forever exposed, right there at the tips of my fingers.
Dean and Gail are in love. Their love is of the pass-the-puke-bucket variety – my favorite kind.
Thing is, I’ve never met these people.
Dean writes textism. I like textism. Last August Dean announced in textism that he was moving to the south of France to, as he put it, “spend languid days and nights with a beautiful, ludicrously smart woman” with whom he was “deeply, irrevocably in love.” The words “ludicrously smart woman” linked to Gail’s website, openbrackets. This is how I came to know Gail, or rather her writing. (I wouldn’t pretend to know Gail, nor Dean for that matter, nor anyone, really, merely through what he or she wrote. It is not enough. Bowling. I have always said this. Bowling is the best way to know a person. Also, sex and poker. Bowling, sex, and poker: the holy trinity of knowing.)
There were sixteen days between Dean’s announcement and his actual move. He used this time to finish his final projects, sell or abandon the bulk of his possessions, and be feted by friends – events he related with bitchy and characteristic wit.
Gail, meanwhile, swooned. The day after Dean’s announcement, she posted her own brave declaration. I became a fan on the spot and read the entirety of openbrackets. Along the way I discovered an entry from July 14, “Love and the turning year,” unquestionably addressed to Dean:
Thunder. My heart trembles.
I lift my head from my pillow and listen.
It is not a chariot.
Fu Hsuan (217-278)
I can no longer untangle my hair
I can no longer untangle my hair.
I feed on my own flesh in secret.
Do you want to measure how much I long for you?
Look at my belt, how loose it hangs.
Anonymous (Six Dynasties)
Translations by Kenneth Rexroth
On August 28, Dean posted his final To Do list. It consisted of twenty-five items, beginning with “Call bookseller” and ending with “Print last set of proofs,” and included, in the middle, the mysterious “Sell kitchen to Bev.” Gail’s list from that day was different, as befit her different circumstance:
4) Run grinning like a simpleton through a crowded airport and jump into his arms.
Oh, come on, 1 out of 4 isn’t bad…
My heart went out to Gail who had nothing to do but wait while Dean mocked Kate Winslet’s breasts and sold his kitchen to Bev. On August 24 she reported on the effects of this waiting:
Found the remote control in the fridge this morning.
Promised a client that I’d do something right away. Remembered to do it three hours later.
Walked into town to post some letters. Forgot to bring the letters. Went back home, got the letters and, back in town, noticed I hadn’t put stamps on. Laughed out loud, raising concerns among villagers’ about my current mental state. Begged 9 F credit from post office.
Read the same sentence 15 times before deciding to skip to the next one.
Contemplated new chair.
Charred the brioche.
Sighed a lot.
It’s 3 am.
George Bernard Shaw observed that newspapers cannot distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. I feel like a newspaper sometimes, particularly when it comes to love. Dean and Gail posted nothing for two days. Silence. I told myself they were probably too busy fucking, etc., to attend to their readers. Which is understandable. Life is to be lived. But then I fretted that all was not well, that the build-up had been too much.
Truth is, I had fretted all along, for each had given indication, here and there, of ambivalence, of difficulties. Not with each other, but with love. Dean in particular concerned me. In his original announcement, immediately after saying that he was “deeply, irrevocably in love,” he wrote: “Still a little unclear on this happiness business.”
I take back what I said about not knowing someone through their writing. I feel I know Dean. He’s pissy and opinionated, a man who abhors half-measures. Isn’t love, the lived version, a half-measure? Sometimes I think it is. And I would venture that Dean does too, or did, previous to Gail, which would explain his uncertainty about “this happiness business.”
In their first posts post-move, each described driving through the countryside on their way from Paris to her home – now their home – in the south of France. The two descriptions formed a two-panel portrait of the experience:
Him: “Bombing at midnight across the countryside in her decrepit Ford, grinning like fools, the air hot and rich, the streets narrow.”
Her: “Up out of the city, Mediterranean midnight wrapping itself around us as we speed deep into the country. Only wide curves of dark tree-lined roads lit by high beams, fragrant air passing over us. Heat lightning flashes red revealing sudden contours of the landscape. And we’re speechless.”
Each is present in the other’s description. And the two perspectives form… I don’t know what they form, but it’s really lovely, no? the two of them in her car, and so happy, thinking, This is it, holy shit, my god, finally.
I believe that the parting is always contained in the greeting. I believe that one knows from the beginning why a relationship will fail, that the problem is plain and yet one pretends not to see it; or perhaps one admits to seeing it but downplays its significance. The flush of love, or attraction, or hope, is a powerful hallucinogen, one that makes us see things that are not there, and fail to see things that are. A relationship does not begin in earnest until the effects of this drug have worn off.
I don’t think the effects have worn off for Dean and Gail. Or perhaps my theory does not apply in their case. Time will tell. Meanwhile there are the periodic declarations. This one and this and this and this. I collect them. I don’t know these people, but I care. No doubt for personal reasons. If it can work for them, it can work for others. For me, for example. For me and Rachel.
I was being charged for collect calls I had not made, so I called the phone company to complain. After some difficulty, I was finally transfered to someone in customer service. I explained the problem in careful detail, hoping to demonstrate through the reasonableness of my tone and the clarity of my language that I was a decent person with a legitimate grievance. When I finished, the agent surprised me by saying that he would connect me to customer service (I don’t know where he worked, but clearly he didn’t work in customer service), only as I was waiting to be connected, I received a call on the other line from an operator who said that she had a collect call for me from Michael Barrish.
I said: “I can’t be getting a collect call from Michael Barrish, because I am Michael Barrish. In fact I was just on the other line with someone else from your company, making a complaint about a collect call I never made.”
“Does this mean you won’t accept the charges?”
“Well, yes, obviously.”
“Okay, I’ll tell him that,” she said, and was gone.
Switching back to the other line, the one in which I was waiting for customer service, I was greeted by the same operator, the one I had just spoken to, the one I had told that I would not accept the collect charges. She reported that my collect call could not go through because Michael Barrish would not accept the charges.
I said: “Look, I’m Michael Barrish. I’m the same person you just talked to. And I’m not trying to place a collect call; I have a complaint.”
Here she said the only thing that followed the logic of all that came before and yet trumped that logic, rendering it null and void, much like the ladder Wittgenstein speaks of at the end of Tractatus, the ladder that must climbed in order to be discarded.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll connect you to customer service.”
I’ve lived in exactly forty-two forty-four houses and apartments. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. One thing led to another until I found myself here, in Brooklyn, with forty-one forty-three places behind me.
I could say what prompted me to leave one place for another, forty-one forty-three times, but that wouldn’t really explain anything. What’s there to learn from a series of turns?
In the back flap of my address book, I keep a list of all forty-two forty-four places. The list includes the dates I lived at each, rounded off to the month. Between certain entries I’ve noted places I’ve stayed or trips I’ve taken after leaving one place and before moving to another. These have dates as well. The dates are important. I refer to the list whenever I want to know when something happened.
I feel that I’ve always been the same person, even when I lived on Tremont Street, even before my sister was born, and yet I’m suspicious of this feeling. One forgets. One creates a past that makes sense in a present that continually changes.
Maybe it’s different for different people. My sister, for one, seems to remember nearly everything, and with matter-of-fact clarity. For her the past is neatly printed and arranged into chapters, with a first-rate index and four-color photography. For me it’s an enormous room strewn knee-deep with undated papers that have long since yellowed or smeared to the point of illegibility.
Naturally I’ve forgotten when I first complied the list. Whenever it was, I remember having to call my sister to fill in several dates from my childhood.
In the last ten sixteen years I’ve added eleven thirteen more places. Each time I’ve been struck by how the last place on the list always ends with the word present, how this word keeps sinking, anchor-like, to the bottom. Of course in the final list, the one I won’t be around to update, present will be replaced with a date.
Certainly it’s mesmerizing – a bizarre combination of banal and lurid. When you click on an inmate’s name, you see a page scanned from his death row file, presented as a single, enormous image. These pages (many of which are poorly three-hole punched, the little holes often breaking the edge of page) contain identifying information, a pair of mug shots, and a summary of the inmate’s crimes. The summaries are horrifying, the horror enhanced by the dry-as-dirt language. For example:
Convicted in connection with the deaths of sisters Grace Purnhagen, 16, and Tiffany Purnhagen, 9, in south Montgomery County. The bodies of the two girls were found along a pipeline in the Imperial Oaks subdivision on Rayford Road. Grace’s throat had been slashed and she had been sexually assaulted with an object later found to have been a beer bottle. Tiffany had been strangled with a rope found around her neck. Grace’s former boyfriend, Delton Dowthitt, then age 16, confessed to killing both girls following his arrest in Lousiana four days later. He later recanted, saying he killed Tiffany at the order of his father, who he said had actually killed and sexually assaulted Grace. Delton led police to where his father had disposed of the knife. Police also found a bloody bottle and rope at Dowthitt’s auto sales business in Humble.
Elsewhere on the site you can access gender and racial statistics, final meal requests, and other handy death row facts. I learned a lot about lethal injections, the current execution method employed by Texas. (Previous to 1977, the state used electrocution, and before that, from 1819 to 1923, hanging.) In Texas, a lethal injection consists of three drugs:
Sodium Thiopental (lethal dose; sedates person)
Pancuronium Bromide (muscle relaxant; collapses diaphragm and lungs)
Potassium Chloride (stops heartbeat)
Texas is a stickler for details: “The offender is usually pronounced dead approximately seven minutes after the lethal injection begins. Cost per execution for drugs used: $86.08.”
$86.08 for the drugs. Thank you, Texas. Elsewhere I learned that the cost per day per offender is $53.15 and that the average time on death row prior to execution is 10.58 years.
If I remember my Foucault correctly, he said that public torture restores the state’s sovereignty (which had been violated by the offense) by displaying infinite force on the body of the prisoner. Here we’re dealing not with force but disclosure. Since we no longer witness executions, all we’re left with is the paperwork. Well, that and a USA Today-like obsession with factoids:
shortest time on death row prior to execution: Joe Gonzales, 253 days
longest time on death row prior to execution: Excell White, 8982 days (24.6 years)
average age of executed offenders: 39
youngest executed offender: Jay Pinkerton, 24
oldest executed offender: Cydell Coleman, 62
And then there’s Mike Graczyk of the Associated Press, a man who has made a career out of watching Texas death row inmates die, having witnessed 234 out of 253 executions since 1982. Thus we know what Mike will likely be doing on on November 14: He’ll be witnessing the execution of 41-year-old Jeffrey Tucker of Parker County, convicted in the July 1988 robbery and murder of 65-year-old Wilton B. Humphreys of Granbury. Texas doesn’t tell us what Tucker has requested for his final meal, but we know that the last inmate executed, Gerald Mitchell of Harris County, asked for a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.
Sadly, Odell Barnes, Jr. of Wichita County, executed March 1, 2000, never received his final meal. I know this because he requested justice, equality, and world peace.