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412

What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence
(missing author)

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5
notes

by John Edgar Wideman, from Harper's Magazine

? (2004). What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence. In Moore, L. (ed) The Best American Short Stories 2004. Mariner Books, pp. 412-495

412

I have a friend with a son in prison. About once a year he visits his son. Since the prison is in Arizona and my friend lives here on the East Coast, visiting isn't easy. He's told me the planning, the expense, the long day spent flying there and longer day flying back are the least of it. The moment that's not easy, that's impossible, he said, is after three days six hours each of visiting are over and he passes through the sliding gate of the steel-fenced outdoor holding pen between the prison-visitation compound and visitors' parking lot and steps onto the asphalt that squirms beneath your feet, oozing hot like it just might bum through your shoe sales before you reach the rental car and fling open its doors and blast the air conditioner so the car's interior won't fry your skin, it's then, he said, taking his first steps away from the prison, first steps back into he world, when he almost comes apart, almost loses it completely out there in the desert, emptiness stretching as far as the eye can see, very far usually, ahead to a horizon ironed flat by the weight of blue sky, zigzag mountain peaks to the right and left, marking the edges of the earth, nothing moving but hot air wiggling above the highway, the scrub brush and sand, then, for an unending instant, it's very hard to be alive, he says, and he thinks he doesn't want to live a minute longer and would not make it to the car, the airport, back to this city, if he didn't pause and remind himself it's worse, far worse for the son behind him still trapped inside the prison, so for the son's sake he manages a first step away, then another and another. In these faltering moments he must prepare himself for the turnaround, the jarring transition into a world where he has no access to his son except for rare ten-minute phone calls, a blighted world he must make sense of again, beginning with the first step away and back through the boiling cauldron of parking lot, first step of the trip that will return him in a year to the desert prison.

breathtaking opening paragraph

question: why frame it as something told to him? what does that add?

—p.412 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago

I have a friend with a son in prison. About once a year he visits his son. Since the prison is in Arizona and my friend lives here on the East Coast, visiting isn't easy. He's told me the planning, the expense, the long day spent flying there and longer day flying back are the least of it. The moment that's not easy, that's impossible, he said, is after three days six hours each of visiting are over and he passes through the sliding gate of the steel-fenced outdoor holding pen between the prison-visitation compound and visitors' parking lot and steps onto the asphalt that squirms beneath your feet, oozing hot like it just might bum through your shoe sales before you reach the rental car and fling open its doors and blast the air conditioner so the car's interior won't fry your skin, it's then, he said, taking his first steps away from the prison, first steps back into he world, when he almost comes apart, almost loses it completely out there in the desert, emptiness stretching as far as the eye can see, very far usually, ahead to a horizon ironed flat by the weight of blue sky, zigzag mountain peaks to the right and left, marking the edges of the earth, nothing moving but hot air wiggling above the highway, the scrub brush and sand, then, for an unending instant, it's very hard to be alive, he says, and he thinks he doesn't want to live a minute longer and would not make it to the car, the airport, back to this city, if he didn't pause and remind himself it's worse, far worse for the son behind him still trapped inside the prison, so for the son's sake he manages a first step away, then another and another. In these faltering moments he must prepare himself for the turnaround, the jarring transition into a world where he has no access to his son except for rare ten-minute phone calls, a blighted world he must make sense of again, beginning with the first step away and back through the boiling cauldron of parking lot, first step of the trip that will return him in a year to the desert prison.

breathtaking opening paragraph

question: why frame it as something told to him? what does that add?

—p.412 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago
413

I was surprised on numerous counts. First, to learn the friend was gone. Second, to find he'd considered me significant enough to have me informed of his passing. Third, the personal note. Fourth, and now it's time to stop numbering, no point since you could say every event following the lawyer's letter both a surprise and no surprise, so numbering them as arbitrary as including the sluggish detail of peanut-butter sandwiches, "sluggish" because I'd become intrigued by the contents of the manila envelope and stopped masticating the wad in my jaw until I recalled the friend's description of exiting prison, and the sludge became a mouthful of scalding tar.

the voice is very engaging

—p.413 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago

I was surprised on numerous counts. First, to learn the friend was gone. Second, to find he'd considered me significant enough to have me informed of his passing. Third, the personal note. Fourth, and now it's time to stop numbering, no point since you could say every event following the lawyer's letter both a surprise and no surprise, so numbering them as arbitrary as including the sluggish detail of peanut-butter sandwiches, "sluggish" because I'd become intrigued by the contents of the manila envelope and stopped masticating the wad in my jaw until I recalled the friend's description of exiting prison, and the sludge became a mouthful of scalding tar.

the voice is very engaging

—p.413 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago
415

Seeing a stranger in the mirror, I was afraid I might be suffering from the odd neurological deficit that prevents some people from recognizing faces. Who in God's name was this person staring at me. Who'd been punished with those cracks, blemishes, the mottled complexion, eyes sunken in deep hollows, frightened eyes crying out for acknowledgment, for help, then receding, surrendering, staring blankly, bewildered and exhausted, asking me the same questions I was asking them.

How long had I been losing track of myself. Not really looking when I brushed my teeth or combed my hair, letting the image in the mirror soften and blur, become familiar and invisible asfaces on money. Easier to imagine the son than deal with how the father had turned out, the splotched, puffy flesh, lines incised in forehead and cheeks, strings dragging down the corners of the mouth. I switched off the light, let the merciful hood drop over the prisoner's face.

—p.415 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Seeing a stranger in the mirror, I was afraid I might be suffering from the odd neurological deficit that prevents some people from recognizing faces. Who in God's name was this person staring at me. Who'd been punished with those cracks, blemishes, the mottled complexion, eyes sunken in deep hollows, frightened eyes crying out for acknowledgment, for help, then receding, surrendering, staring blankly, bewildered and exhausted, asking me the same questions I was asking them.

How long had I been losing track of myself. Not really looking when I brushed my teeth or combed my hair, letting the image in the mirror soften and blur, become familiar and invisible asfaces on money. Easier to imagine the son than deal with how the father had turned out, the splotched, puffy flesh, lines incised in forehead and cheeks, strings dragging down the corners of the mouth. I switched off the light, let the merciful hood drop over the prisoner's face.

—p.415 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago
417

Some mornings when I awaken I look out my window and pretend to understand. I reside in a building in the bottom of somebody's pocket. Sunlight never touches its bricks. Any drawer or cabinet or closet shut tight for a day will exude a gust of moldy funk when you open it. The building's neither run-down nor cheap. Just dark, dank, and drab. Drab as the grown-ups children are browbeaten into accepting as their masters. The building, my seventh-floor apartment, languish in the shadow of something fallen, leaning down, leaning over. Water, when you turn on a faucet first thing in the morning, gags on itself, spits, then gushes like a bloody jailbreak from the pipes. In a certain compartment of my heart compassion's supposed to lodge, but there's never enough space in cramped urban dwellings so I store niggling self-pity there too, try to find room for all the millions of poor souls who have less than I have, who would howl for joy if they could occupy as their own one corner of my dreary little flat. I pack them into the compartment for a visit, pack till it's full far beyond capacity and weep with them, share with them my scanty bit of good fortune, tell them I care, tell them be patient, tell them I'm on their side, tell them an old acquaintance of mine who happens to be a poet recently hit the lottery big time, a cool million, and wish them similar luck, wish them clear sailing and swift, painless deaths, tell them it's good to be alive, whatever, good to have been living as long as I've managed and still eating every day, fucking now and then, finding a roof over my head in the morning after finding a bed to lie in at night, grateful to live on even though the pocket's deep and black and a hand may dig in any moment and crush me.

whoa

—p.417 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Some mornings when I awaken I look out my window and pretend to understand. I reside in a building in the bottom of somebody's pocket. Sunlight never touches its bricks. Any drawer or cabinet or closet shut tight for a day will exude a gust of moldy funk when you open it. The building's neither run-down nor cheap. Just dark, dank, and drab. Drab as the grown-ups children are browbeaten into accepting as their masters. The building, my seventh-floor apartment, languish in the shadow of something fallen, leaning down, leaning over. Water, when you turn on a faucet first thing in the morning, gags on itself, spits, then gushes like a bloody jailbreak from the pipes. In a certain compartment of my heart compassion's supposed to lodge, but there's never enough space in cramped urban dwellings so I store niggling self-pity there too, try to find room for all the millions of poor souls who have less than I have, who would howl for joy if they could occupy as their own one corner of my dreary little flat. I pack them into the compartment for a visit, pack till it's full far beyond capacity and weep with them, share with them my scanty bit of good fortune, tell them I care, tell them be patient, tell them I'm on their side, tell them an old acquaintance of mine who happens to be a poet recently hit the lottery big time, a cool million, and wish them similar luck, wish them clear sailing and swift, painless deaths, tell them it's good to be alive, whatever, good to have been living as long as I've managed and still eating every day, fucking now and then, finding a roof over my head in the morning after finding a bed to lie in at night, grateful to live on even though the pocket's deep and black and a hand may dig in any moment and crush me.

whoa

—p.417 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago
419

A woman greets me and introduces herself as Suh Jung, Attorney Koppleman's paralegal assistant. She's a tiny, pleasant Asian woman with jet black hair brutally cropped above her ears, a helmet, she'll explain later, necessary to protect herself from the cliche of submissiveness, the china-doll stereotype people immediately had applied when they saw a thick rope of hair hanging past her waist, hair that her father insisted must be uncut and worn twisted into a single braid in public, her mother combing, brushing, oiling her hair endlessly till shiny pounds of it lopped off the day the father died, and then, strangely, she'd wanted to save the hair she had hated, wanted to glue it back together strand by strand and drape it over one of those pedestalled heads you see in beauty shops so she and her mother could continue forever the grooming rituals that had been one of the few ways they could relate in a household her father relentlessly, meticulously hammered into an exquisitely lifelike, flawless representation of his will, like those sailing ships in bottles or glass butterflies in the museum, so close to the real thing you stare and stare waiting for them to flutter away, a household the father shattered in a fit of pique or rage or boredom the day she opened the garage door after school and found him barefoot, shitty-pantsed, dangling from a rafter, beside the green family Buick.

—p.419 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago

A woman greets me and introduces herself as Suh Jung, Attorney Koppleman's paralegal assistant. She's a tiny, pleasant Asian woman with jet black hair brutally cropped above her ears, a helmet, she'll explain later, necessary to protect herself from the cliche of submissiveness, the china-doll stereotype people immediately had applied when they saw a thick rope of hair hanging past her waist, hair that her father insisted must be uncut and worn twisted into a single braid in public, her mother combing, brushing, oiling her hair endlessly till shiny pounds of it lopped off the day the father died, and then, strangely, she'd wanted to save the hair she had hated, wanted to glue it back together strand by strand and drape it over one of those pedestalled heads you see in beauty shops so she and her mother could continue forever the grooming rituals that had been one of the few ways they could relate in a household her father relentlessly, meticulously hammered into an exquisitely lifelike, flawless representation of his will, like those sailing ships in bottles or glass butterflies in the museum, so close to the real thing you stare and stare waiting for them to flutter away, a household the father shattered in a fit of pique or rage or boredom the day she opened the garage door after school and found him barefoot, shitty-pantsed, dangling from a rafter, beside the green family Buick.

—p.419 missing author 1 month, 2 weeks ago