Every morning and every evening I take my dog for
a modest walk around a nearby public park where, in the waning
days of summer, teenagers throw frisbees or play hackie-sack.
It is a small act of discipline, both theirs and mine, not requiring
much, charms perhaps, to keep at bay what Conrad calls the Horror.
For the past several weeks I've noticed a man sitting in a car
on the east side of the park, a large black man. The car is always
there whenever I pass by and he seems always inside, either stretched
out asleep, or upright, reading the local daily newspaper. We
have never made eye-contact, never spoken. Initially I was concerned.
Who is this man and why does he never leave his car? The days
are pleasant, the grass inviting. Perhaps he is a pervert, a
voyeur. Should I call the police? Or perhaps, as I now tend to
think, he is harmless, an isolation junkie who finds solace within
the confines of his car, who considers, perhaps not consciously,
his space holy. Like Wordsworth's nuns, he does not fret his convent's
narrow room. Could this be true?
He reads the local paper, not hurriedly and selectively,
as I do but completely, starting with the teasers at the top of
the first page about sports and weather, and working through the
headline features, looking at each word carefully so as not to
miss anything, reflecting on its meaning, its connections to other
stories and events, and then turning the page, going on to consider
the weather in detail, noting the temperatures around the state,
around the country, the world, their highs, lows, precipitation
chances, the lunar phases, (the moon will be full tonight) taking
in the color-coded national map and digesting its surface and
depth meanings. From there he peruses the first set of advertisements,
starting with a seemingly plain square with a black and white
characterization of a woman clinching her fists in rabid excitement
and saying "Yes! Wallpaper in Stock." Does he consider
buying some wallpaper? Does he imagine the various patterns available?
Does he note the varying sizes and pitches of type used in the
ad? Does he think about doing electronic typesetting? Does he
believe he could have advertised the wallpaper more forcefully?
And so, in this manner, he proceeds from page to page reading
as the ancient scribes must have read the holy books, with rapt,
religious attention, investing hours as he moves from tale to
tale, statistic to statistic, from news to editorial to sports
to classified ads, seeing in the text he reads not the merely
historical and ephemeral detritus of the parochial but the abiding
and enduring signs and symbols of eternity.
He arrives at page five of the newspaper. He does
an initial scan. The section is titled "Region" and
consists of seven news stories and four advertisements. A grainy
photograph depicting what appears to be two people and a sleeping
bear is in the upper right hand corner. Reading clockwise, the
advertisements are for a realtor, a chiropractor, an investment
banker, and a boat named "Sea-Doo." The chiropractor
ad carries a small photo of a pleasant, smiling woman and a strange
symbol which at first appears to be a mutant insect but on further
inspection turns out to be a crude representation of Leonardo's
universal man, his arms and legs stretched out to suggest that
he contains the universe. The photo in the boat ad shows a man
steering a small boat and a woman hanging on to his waist. They
are both smiling broadly as they zoom through the water. The ad
says the boat is "now just $4,599."
He then turns to the news stories. One is a very
short piece about an eleven year old boy, Colter Walhood, who
went out to bring back a horse to the family barn but was instead
dragged to death by the animal. Does he reread the line "Walhood's
father, Clarence, found the child, unresponsive, near the horse"
many times, noting its simplicity and starkness, its heroic refusal
to succumb to sentiment and emotion, its fidelity to saying nothing
more than the truth? Is his soul shaken by the word "unresponsive"
fatally enclosed in commas? Is the unnamed writer of the story
a hack? Or a genius of tragic understatement? Does he wonder
why the article is listed under the category of "Briefs,"
along with tales about the recovery of two drowning victims, one
23, one 59, each in different rivers and is he puzzled by the
cryptic remark from the local sheriff that the older man seems
to have drowned rather than died of a heart attack as previously
thought. Is something strange going on here that should be investigated
further? Does he recoil when he discovers that the bear he thought
was sleeping is in fact dead, being hoisted from the bed of a
pickup with a hydraulic lift? Although the photo's caption identifies
the man in the white shirt standing behind the dead bear as a
farm supervisor, why does he look to the Reader like a Nazi functionary?
Does he then go on to read about the sixteen year old girl shot
in the head in a North Dakota hotel and about the folks on the
state's border cleaning up after a storm that "ripped apart
trees, tore off parts of roofs and destroyed crops"?
Does it then occur to him that mayhem, death, carnage,
destruction, are the topics of each of the news stories on this
page? And does he ask himself why, in the face of all this horror,
do the man and woman in the photo-ad for a five thousand dollar
boat grin so gleefully? Eventually, after examining various
stock market reports and clothes specials from the Bon Marche´,
he comes to the obituaries. There are five fresh deaths. He reads
each carefully, but is struck by the account of the demise of
Homer "Skinny" Thigpen who passed away yesterday at
the local nursing home. He is held captive by the skeletal information
of Skinny's life, that he was born in Texas on March 11, 1912,
that he married Marjorie L. Jones in 1936 who preceded him in
death along with a daughter, Peggy, age 5? Does he think about
Peggy and why she died? Was it an accident? A disease? Does his
chest begin to heave thinking of five year olds everywhere who,
in the solemn, formal, and precise language of obituaries "precede"
their parents in death? Does he think how unnatural for a parent
to bury a child? Does he picture the terribly maimed body of
Colter Walhood lying, like Euripides' Hippolytus, unresponsive,
in the woods? Does he think about Hecuba's great speech over
the dead body of the tiny Astyanax in The Trojan Women? Does he
hear her saying, "you are dead; and all was false, when you
would lean across my bed, and say: 'Mother, when you die
I will cut my long hair in your memory, and at your grave bring
companies of boys my age, to sing farewell.' It did not happen;
now I, a homeless, childless, old woman must bury your poor corpse,
which is so young"? Does he wonder how he can go on in a
world like this, on a senselessly spinning planet where Peggy
and Colter and men aged 23 and 59, cannot be saved from unwarranted
And does he think it odd that so much in the text
he is reading seems to be intimately connected with the dark dramas
of an ancient Greek tragedian?
Does he regain his composure and continue the obituary,
filling in the lacunae, imagining when and where Homer was given
his nickname? Will he think about going to the funeral in Henderson
Texas and then reject the notion because it would hard on the
tires, the brakes, the transmission? Will he send flowers? No,
for the obituary explicitly states that in lieu of flowers, memorials
may be sent to the local Baptist church. Does he consider that
perhaps he and Skinny might have been friends? Would people have
called them Laurel and Hardy? Unless of course Skinny was not
skinny at all but fat, like himself, the nickname a cruel joke.
Does he think long about that possibility? Does it make him laugh?
Does he peruse the Police Reports on the same page, noting the
boy who stuffed a package of cigarettes down his pants and was
caught by the supermarket detective? Does he linger over the account
of the finding of an active 81mm artillery shell in a vacant field,
wondering how it got there and what would have happened had it
gone off? Does he grieve for the woman who was transported by
ambulence to the hospital after being administered oxygen by firefighters?
Does he wonder why oxygen is always "administered" in
the language of journalists and physicians? Does he read the "correction"
item which says that the newspaper had incorrectly reported that
Holly Hausman was convicted of trapping cats at large when in
fact she was convicted of simply owning a cat but not of trapping
Does he work methodically through all microscopic
sports statistics, noting for future reference that the Chicago
Wolves named Brian Pitts assistant director of media services?
Does he turn the last page, exhausted from his massive
hermeneutical efforts, and place the paper over his face and fall
into a deep sleep? Does he then dream that he is wandering through
a vacant lot, bearing a bouquet of flowers which he had bought
for Skinny's funeral, stepping lightly lest he chance upon an
active artillery shell, rehearsing in his mind the line, "Holly,
my dear, you have been cruelly maligned?" And in this dream
will he find himself in a small room in the Baptist Church?
Will he then hear from the slightly opened solitary window the
sound of galloping hooves and the terrible music of lapping water?
Will he awaken from his dream to find that while
he slept, the sun had disappeared and been replaced by an immense
full moon just as was reported? Will he look out the window of
his car and see the night sky as a vast vaulting wall decorated
with undulating animals? Will he notice how these infinitely complicated
replicating patterns appear to revolve around the central image
of a dying bear? Will he be terrified at the spaces between the
stars? Will he realize that he must preside over this Wallpaper
as its Interpreter, its Reader, without whom no one would know
how to live or what to do? Will he be undaunted by the enormity,
the huge impossibility, of what he has to do, to begin again,
the next day, and the day after that, with a new paper, new stories
and new pictures which he must scan and sort, digest, connect,
And as, the following morning, he begins to Read,
will he notice the man walking his dog stopping and bowing slightly
in his direction, as if before something abiding, something enduring,