Barbara told me this story.
Several years ago, Barbara, along with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, took a trip to an amusement park in central Ohio. They were all excited that afternoon, because they had not spent time together in quite a while, and, on top of that, it was recently announced that the sister and her boyfriend, Tim, were getting married in the spring. Tim, in celebration, decided to pay for everyone’s admission, which amounted to thirty dollars. Everyone was having a great time, Tim and Barbara shared some cotton candy, and the sister sat on a bench feeding birds while the two of them went on the roller coasters, which she did not like.
That day, after lunch, while Tim and Barbara were riding the Orient Express, the sister witnessed a very unusual spectacle. Two friends, one fat and one skinny, were taking turns climbing into a small opening in the center of the roller coaster’s spiral, so that when the coaster came around the track it would pass first on the right of the man, then on the left, then again on the right, very quickly around the spiral, but the man in the center would be left unharmed.
The two friends did this, one at a time, three or four times, but on the fifth time, as the skinny man nestled himself into the spiral alcove and just as the roller coaster was approaching, the fat man jumped on top of his friend. Both were horribly maimed. But the story does not end there. Barbara’s sister passed out from the shock, a pool of blood spread out beneath her, and she was immediately rushed to the hospital where it was discovered that, because of the depth of her attention to the tragedy, track marks from the rollercoaster actually appeared on her body, piercing the skin and muscle and nearly fraying the bone.
This affected Barbara as well, because she and her sister were close, but she was actually more disturbed by what followed. Later, after the sister was recovering in the intensive care unit, and Barbara was keeping an all-night vigil in the waiting room, she happened to overhear two nurses chatting in that perfunctory way, so Barbara said, the way that people do when they are on intimate terms with pain.
“If only she” said one of the nurses, referring to the sister, “could distance herself, like the rest of us, she would not suffer so much.”
“Or laugh a little, not be so serious,” said the other nurse, while peering into a microscope.
Later that night, after Barbara had gone home and fallen into bed, she had a dream in which she peered, not into a microscope, but a hole in the center of her sister’s head. Inside she saw a smaller version of her sister, diminished, but still alive, potting a few plants.
Letter from Rosaline
I have just received a letter in the mail from my friend Rosaline, who works at the same company as me.
She had gone out for the evening, to a movie, so said the letter, and at a certain point, towards the end of the film, she had the distinct feeling that a man was reaching into her purse.
She felt in the dark under the seat where her purse was stowed away, the soft leather of the purse and then the soft flesh of a hand, but when she screamed, and jumped to her feet, and spun around in the darkness, there was no one behind her, no one to the side of her, except for her friend, whose popcorn flew in all directions.
Someone shouted, “Sit down!” and so she did.
But the story does not end there. Later, when she arrived home, things were not right. The flowerpot that normally concealed her house key was overturned and also smashed into bits; the doormat was not in its usual spot in front of the door but pushed off to one side and upside down.
She reached into her purse to see if the hand was there, but it was not there. Someone had been in her house instead.
She reached for the knob but the door was locked and the key gone so she had to call a locksmith to get back into the apartment.
The locksmith did not come for several hours, and when he did he popped the door open in an instant and began a triumphant procession through the apartment. Rosaline suffered through this performance while sitting on a stool in the middle of the living room.
That night she dreamed that she and the locksmith were cleaning the rugs of an enormous cathedral, dragging each rug by hand to the vestibule, cleaning them, then moving them back into place.
Rosaline wondered, as she held the rug in one hand and gazed off in the direction of the altar, whether it was the locksmith’s hand in her purse, whether the locksmith had also invaded her apartment, and whether he would now reveal his true identity to her.
He did not.
Instead, Rosaline awoke in her own apartment. The thief or thieves had not stolen anything and had kindly deposited the key in her mailbox, which she found the next day.
Besides the broken flower pot, Rosaline had suffered no material loss and closed her letter by saying, “People say it is horrible to think of a stranger being in your house, but actually I feel exceptionally safe.”
A Little Sea Parable
We were taking aerial shots somewhere over the Pacific. I can’t say where. It was a project set up by the U.S. government after WWII. They wanted a photographic map of the entire ocean, which at that time had to be done frame by frame, and so my colleague and I, who were neither professional photographers nor professional cartographers, but trained pilots with a crash course in aerial photography, were selected for the task.
We were living on a tiny, unnamed island half-way in between the California coast and Hawaii that no longer exists because of rising sea levels. We had a sea cruiser with a landing pad and a helicopter that we would use in tandem to get the shots. Every day, before dawn, my co-pilot and I would wake up, eat breakfast, and drive the sea cruiser out to our destination for the day. Then we would load all of the equipment into the helicopter and fly directly above our destination. My co-pilot would man the controls and I would maneuver the camera and take the picture.
The helicopter was specially designed for this mission. There was a little metal door in the center of the floor. If you opened it up, there was a hole where you could put the lens of the camera, so you were essentially bent over this camera that was stuck face-down in the floor. It was a panoramic and could easily photograph up to a square mile at that height.
What we found from day one was that the vibration of the helicopter made it almost impossible to get a clear picture. I was leaning over the camera, sweating and squatting. My co-pilot was getting impatient.
“Just take the damn thing,” he said.
But I could see those beautiful, blue waves and wanted the map to look just like that. Finally, I said:
“Cut the engine.”
“Are you nuts?” he said.
“Do it!” I said.
I was his commanding officer, so he did it.
For a second, just for a second, the helicopter was completely still. I clicked the shutter. I knew it was perfect.
Then we were in free fall. The helicopter torqued in mid-air and I slammed into the rear wall. But my co-pilot was strapped into his seat, and was able to regain control of the aircraft.
We zigged, we zagged, we rose and plummeted, but eventually we returned home safely.
The next day, my co-pilot was gone. He had taken the sea cruiser state-side. They sent another one, and then another, but it was always the same. No one wanted to do the work.
As for me, I could see how each wave was unique and thought the world should know the difference.
After ten years and three thousand co-pilots, the work was finished. We were all invited to the White House for a private ceremony. All of my co-pilots were sitting at one table and I was at another. After the meal, we went out to an airplane hanger to see the map. All of the pictures had been laid out on a grid, just as we had taken them.
The trumpeters trumpeted, guns were fired, and a giant red curtain parted to reveal my masterpiece.
I took out my glasses and examined the work. Much to my surprise, each shot looked exactly the same.
Jack the Dwarf
I once knew a man named Billy who suffered from extreme anxiety. At other times he was extremely fearless.
His sister was married to a rich man who owned an enormous house in the city. It was odd because both Billy and his sister had grown up in a little house in the hills. Their mother and father had died when they were very young.
When Billy went to visit, he insisted on sleeping in the attic. He didn’t like large spaces and didn’t want to impose on his sister’s family. His sister’s husband smiled and said that the upper rooms of the house were haunted.
But Billy insisted on sleeping in the attic. He thought he was being polite.
He was lying in bed for a while when he heard the window rattling. The teacup on his table started to wobble from side to side. He saw a shape emerge from the closet.
It was Billy’s father, but he didn’t recognize him at first. The father wanted a kiss from his only son. That’s what brought him back from the grave.
Billy leaned over and kissed his father on the mouth. His breath smelled horrible, but Billy lingered there for a moment.
The next morning, Billy, his sister and his sister’s husband were sitting in the sunny kitchen eating pancakes. Their children were running by the table waving brightly-colored streamers.
“Dad came and kissed me last night,” Billy said.
His sister and her husband looked at each other and smiled uncomfortably.
“Time for school!” his sister squealed.
The next night, Billy insisted on sleeping in the attic, despite the best efforts of his sister and her husband to dissuade him.
As he was falling asleep, he could hear someone creeping toward the bed.
This time a dwarf came to the edge of the bed. Billy looked at him for a long time.
“You’re a good boy,” the dwarf said. Then he did a little dance and jumped out of the window.
The next morning, Billy dressed and rode his bike out to the house in the hills where he grew up. He could hear talking coming from inside. He threw open the door and saw his father and the dwarf playing cards at a table.
“Come on in,” they said together. Billy took a chair in the middle and drew from the deck.
His mother’s face was in place of the queen’s. His father was the king and the dwarf was Jack.
Jack gave himself completely to the task. He was almost sweating.
“What does Jack do?” Billy said.
“He completes the family,” Jack said.
Billy woke up in the attic with his sister, his sister’s husband and the children standing over the bed. They were still waving brightly-colored streamers.
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