Posted by ricardo marcenaro | Posted in Short Stories: David Foster Wallace - All that - Links to more Short Stories | Posted on 10:56
Once when I was a little boy I received as a gift a toy cement mixer. It was made of wood except for its wheels—axles—which, as I remember, were thin metal rods. I’m ninety per cent sure it was a Christmas gift. I liked it the same way a boy that age likes toy dump trucks, ambulances, tractor-trailers, and whatnot. There are little boys who like trains and little boys who like vehicles—I liked the latter.
It was (“it” meaning the cement mixer) the same overlarge miniature as many other toy vehicles—about the size of a breadbox. It weighed three or four pounds. It was a simple toy—no batteries. It had a colored rope, with a yellow handle, and you held the handle and walked pulling the cement mixer behind you—rather like a wagon, although it was nowhere near the size of a wagon. For Christmas, I’m positive it was. It was when I was the age where you can, as they say, “hear voices” without worrying that something is wrong with you. I “heard voices” all the time as a small child. I was either five or six, I believe. (I’m not very good with numbers.)
I liked the cement mixer and played with it as much as or more than I played with the other toy vehicles I owned. At some point, several weeks or months after Christmas, however, my biological parents led me to believe that it was a magic and/or highly unusual cement mixer. Probably my mother told me this in a moment of adult boredom or whimsy, and then my father came home from work and joined in, also in a whimsical way. The magic—which my mother likely reported to me from her vantage on our living room’s sofa, while watching me pull the cement mixer around the room by its rope, idly asking me if I was aware that it had magical properties, no doubt making sport of me in the bored half-cruel way that adults sometimes do with small children, playfully telling them things that they pass off to themselves as “tall tales” or “childlike inventions,” unaware of the impact those tales may have (since magic is a serious reality for small children), though, conversely, if my parents believed that the cement mixer’s magic was real, I do not understand why they waited weeks or months before telling me of it. They were a delightful but often impenetrable puzzle to me; I no more knew their minds and motives than a pencil knows what it is being used for. Now I have lost the thread. The “magic” was that, unbeknown to me, as I happily pulled the cement mixer behind me, the mixer’s main cylinder or drum—the thing that, in a real cement mixer, mixes the cement; I do not know the actual word for it—rotated, went around and around on its horizontal axis, just as the drum on a real cement mixer does. It did this, my mother said, only when the mixer was being pulled by me and only, she stressed, when I wasn’t looking. She insisted on this part, and my father later backed her up: the magic was not just that the drum of a solid wood object without batteries rotated but that it did so only when unobserved, stopping whenever observed. If, while pulling, I turned to look, my parents sombrely maintained, the drum magically ceased its rotation. How was this? I never, even for a moment, doubted what they’d told me. This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence. They have forgotten.
The point was that months were henceforward spent by me trying to devise ways to catch the drum rotating. Evidence bore out what they had told me: turning my head obviously and unsubtly around always stopped the rotation of the drum. I also tried sudden whirls. I tried having someone else pull the cement mixer. I tried incremental turns of the head while pulling (“incremental” meaning turning my head at roughly the rate of a clock’s minute hand). I tried peering through a keyhole as someone else pulled the cement mixer. Even turning my head at the rate of the hour hand. I never doubted—it didn’t occur to me. The magic was that the mixer seemed always to know. I tried mirrors—first pulling the cement mixer straight toward a mirror, then through rooms that had mirrors at the periphery of my vision, then past mirrors hidden such that there was little chance that the cement mixer could even “know” that there was a mirror in the room. My strategies became very involved. I was in kindergarten and home half the day. The seriousness with which I tried must have caused my parents no little anguish of conscience. My father had not yet even received tenure; we were barely middle class, and lived in a rented house whose carpets were old and thin—the mixer made a noise as I pulled it. I begged my mother to take photographs as I pulled the mixer, staring with fraudulent intensity straight ahead. I placed a piece of masking tape on the drum and reasoned that if the tape appeared in one photo and not in the other this would provide proof of the drum’s rotation. (Video cameras had not yet been invented.)
During Talk Time, before bed, my father sometimes told me stories of his own childhood adventures. He, an intellectual, had been, according to his stories, the sort of child who set traps for the Tooth Fairy (pyramids of tin cans at the door and windows of his room, string tied from his finger to the tooth below his pillow so that he would wake when the Fairy tried to take the tooth) and other “mythical” figures of childhood, such as Santa Claus. (Talk Time meant fifteen minutes of direct conversation—not stories or songs—with a parent as I lay tucked into bed. Four nights per week Talk Time was with my mother and three nights with my father. They were very organized about it.) I was, at this age, unfamiliar with Matthew 4:7, and my father, a devout atheist, was in no way alluding to Matthew 4:7 or using the tales of his fruitless childhood traps as parables or advice against my trying to “test” or “defeat” the magic of the cement mixer. In retrospect, I believe that my father was charmed by my attempts to “trap” the mixer’s drum rotating because he saw them as evidence that I was a chip off the block of ad-hoc intellectual mania for empirical verification. In fact, nothing could have been farther from the truth. As an adult, I realize that the reason I spent so much time trying to “catch” the drum rotating was that I wanted to verify that I could not. If I had ever been successful in outsmarting the magic, I would have been crushed. I know this now. My father’s tales of snares for the Easter Bunny or strings for the Tooth Fairy often made me feel sad, and when I cried over them sometimes my parents guiltily believed that I was crying over my frustration at not being able to catch sight of the rotating drum. I’m positive that this caused them anguish. In fact, I was crying with sadness, imagining how devastated my father would have felt as a child had he been successful in trapping the Tooth Fairy. I was not, at the time, aware that this was why the Talk Time stories made me sad. What I remember feeling was an incredible temptation to ask my father a question as he delightedly described these traps, and at the same time a huge and consuming but amorphous and nameless fear that prevented my asking the question. The conflict between the temptation and my inability to ask the question (owing to a fear of ever seeing pain on my father’s pink, cheerful, placid face) caused me to weep with an intensity that must have caused my parents—who saw me as an eccentric and delicate child—no little guilt over their “cruel” invention of the cement mixer’s magic. Under various pretexts, they bought me an exceptional number of toys and games in the months following that Christmas, trying to distract me from what they saw as a traumatic obsession with the toy cement mixer and its “magic.”
The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life. The question, which I (sadly) never did ask, was what my father proposed to do with the Tooth Fairy if he were ever successful in catching it. Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed. I wept for them far more than any of the three of us knew at the time.
I, of course, never “caught” the drum of the cement mixer rotating. (The chassis and cab of the cement mixer were painted the intense orange of real public-works vehicles; the drum was painted in alternating stripes of the orange and a deep green, and I often envisioned the hypnotic swirl of the stripes as the drum rotated unobserved by me. I should have included this fact earlier, I realize.) I pulled the cement mixer around so much that my mother, after giving up on trying guiltily to distract me with other toys, banished me to the basement with the cement mixer so that its wheels would not wear further grooves in the living-room carpet. I never found a way to observe the drum’s rotation without stopping that rotation. It never once occurred to me that my parents might have been putting me on. Nor did it ever bother me that the striped drum itself was glued or nailed to the orange chassis of the cement mixer and could not be rotated (or even budged) by hand. Such is the power of the word “magic.” The same power accounts for why the “voices” I heard as a child never worried me or caused me to fear that something was wrong with me. And, in fact, the free rotation of an unpowered and securely fastened drum was not the “magic” that drove me. The magic was the way it knew to stop the instant I tried to see it. The magic was how it could not, not ever, be trapped or outsmarted. Though my obsession with the toy cement mixer had ended by the next Christmas, I have never forgotten it, or the feeling in my chest and midsection whenever yet another, even more involved attempt to trap the toy’s magic met with failure—a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence. This was the year, at five or six, that I learned the meaning of “reverence,” which, as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena, the same way that “respect” and “obedience” describe the attitude one takes toward observable physical phenomena, such as gravity or money.
Among the qualities that made my parents see me as eccentric and mysterious was religion, for, without any prompting or even understanding, I was a religious child—meaning I was interested in religion and filled with feelings and concerns that we use the word “religious” to describe. (I’m not putting any of this well. I am not and never have been an intellectual. I am not articulate, and the subjects that I am trying to describe and discuss are beyond my abilities. I am trying, however, the best I can, and will go back over this as carefully as possible when I am finished, and will make changes and corrections whenever I can see a way to make what I’m discussing clearer or more interesting without fabricating anything.) My parents were intellectuals and devout atheists, but they were tolerant and largehearted, and when I began to ask “religious” questions and to express interest in “religious” themes they freely allowed me to seek out religiously oriented people with whom I could discuss these themes, and even to attend church services and Mass with the families of other children from school and our neighborhood who were religious. If you consider the usual meaning of “atheism,” which, as I understand it, is a kind of anti-religious religion, which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination, my parents’ open tolerance of my religious interests and my regular attendance of services with the family next door (by this time my father had tenure, and we had our own home in a middle-class neighborhood with a highly rated school system) was exceptional—the sort of nonjudgmental, respectful attitude that religion itself (as I see it) tries to promulgate in its followers.
None of this occurred to me at the time; nor did the connection between my feelings for the “magic” toy cement mixer and, later, my interest in and reverence for the “magic” of religion become apparent to me until years later, when I was in the second year of seminary, during my first adult crisis of faith. The fact that the most powerful and significant connections in our lives are (at the time) invisible to us seems to me a compelling argument for religious reverence rather than skeptical empiricism as a response to life’s meaning. It is difficult to stay on what feels like the “track” of this discussion in an orderly, logical way. Some of the adults my parents allowed me to approach with religious questions and issues included teachers, a religion professor whom my father knew and respected from an interdepartmental university committee they had served on together, and the father and mother of the family next door, who were both deacons (a type of élite lay minister) in the church two blocks from our home. I will forgo a description of the issues, questions, and themes that my parents allowed me to discuss with these religious adults; they were entirely unexceptional and universal and average, the sorts of questions that everyone eventually confronts in his own time and his own individual way.
My surfeit of religious interest also had to do with the frequency and tenor of the “voices” I regularly heard as a child (meaning up until roughly age thirteen, as I recall it). The major reason that I was never frightened about the voices or worried about what “hearing voices” indicated about my possible mental health involved the fact that the childhood “voices” (there were two of them, each distinct in timbre and personality) never spoke of anything that wasn’t good, happy, and reassuring. I will mention these voices only in passing, because they are both not directly vital to this and also very hard to describe or convey adequately to anyone else. I should emphasize that, although “make-believe” and “invisible friends” are customary parts of childhood, these voices were—or appeared to me as—entirely real and autonomous phenomena, unlike the voices of any “real” adults in my experience, and with manners of speech and accent that nothing in my childhood experience had exposed me to or prepared me in any way to “make up” or combine from outside sources. (I realized just now that another reason that I do not propose to discuss these childhood “voices” at length is that I tend to fall into attempts to argue that the voices were “real,” when in fact it is a matter of indifference to me whether they were truly “real” or not or whether any other person can be forced to admit that they were not “hallucinations” or “fantasies.” Indeed, one of the voices’ favorite topics consisted in their assuring me that it was of no importance whether I believed they were “real” or simply parts of myself, since—as one of the voices in particular liked to stress—there was nothing in the whole world as “real” as I was. I should concede that in some ways I regarded—or “counted on”—the voices as another set of parents (meaning, I think, that I loved them and trusted them and yet respected or “revered” them: in short, I was not their equal), and yet also as fellow-children: meaning that I had no doubt that they and I lived in the very same world and that they “understood” me in a way that biological adults were incapable of.) (Probably one reason that I fall automatically into the urge to “argue for” the voices’ ”reality” is that my “real” parents, though they were wholly tolerant of my believing in the voices, obviously viewed them as the same sort of “invisible friend” fantasies I mentioned above.)
At any rate, the best analogy for the experience of hearing these childhood “voices” of mine is that it was like going around with your own private masseur, who spent all his time giving you back—and shoulder—rubs (which my biological mother also used to do whenever I was sick in bed, using rubbing alcohol and baby powder and also changing the pillowcases, so that they were clean and cool; the experience of the voices was analogous to the feeling of turning a pillow over to the cool side). Sometimes the experience of the voices was ecstatic, sometimes so much so that it was almost too intense for me—as when you first bite into an apple or a confection that tastes so delicious and causes such a flood of oral juices that there is a moment of intense pain in your mouth and glands—particularly in the late afternoons of spring and summer, when the sunlight on sunny days achieved moments of immanence and became the color of beaten gold and was itself (the light, as if it were taste) so delicious that it was almost too much to stand, and I would lie on the pile of large pillows in our living room and roll back and forth in an agony of delight and tell my mother, who always read on the couch, that I felt so good and full and ecstatic that I could hardly bear it, and I remember her pursing her lips, trying not to laugh, and saying in the driest possible voice that she found it hard to feel too much sympathy or concern for this problem and was confident that I could survive this level of ecstasy, and that I probably didn’t need to be rushed to the emergency room, and at such moments my love and affection for my mother’s dry humor and love became, stacked atop the original ecstasy, so intense that I almost had to stifle a scream of pleasure as I rolled ecstatically between the pillows and the books on the floor. I do not have any real idea what my mother—an exceptional, truly lovable woman—made of having a child who sometimes suffered actual fits of ecstasy; and I do not know whether she herself had them. Nevertheless, the experience of the real but unobservable and unexplainable “voices” and the ecstatic feelings they often aroused doubtless contributed to my reverence for magic and my faith that magic not only permeated the everyday world but did so in a way that was thoroughly benign and altruistic and wished me well. I was never the sort of child who believed in “monsters under the bed” or vampires, or who needed a night-light in his bedroom; on the contrary, my father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.
The specific instance traceable as the origin of my religious impulse after my interest in the cement mixer passed (to my parents’ great relief) involved a nineteen-fifties war movie that my father and I watched together on television one Sunday afternoon with the curtains drawn to prevent the sunlight from making it hard to see the screen of our black-and-white television. Watching television together was one of my father’s and my favorite and most frequent activities (my mother disliked television), and usually took place on the couch, with my father, who read during the commercials, sitting at one end and me lying down, with my head on a pillow on my father’s knees. (One of my strongest sensory memories of childhood is the feel of my father’s knees against my head and the joking way he sometimes rested his book on my head when the commercial interruption occurred.) The movie in question’s subject was the First World War and it starred an actor who was much lauded for his roles in war movies. At this point my memory diverges sharply from my father’s, as evidenced by a disturbing conversation we had during my second year at seminary. My father apparently remembers that the film’s hero, a beloved lieutenant, dies when he throws himself on an enemy grenade that has been lobbed into his platoon’s trench (“platoon” meaning a small military grouping of infantrymen with close ties from being constant comrades in arms). According to my father, a platoon is usually commanded by a lieutenant. Whereas I remember clearly that the hero, played by an actor who was noted for his portrayal of conflict and trauma, suffers private anguish over the moral question of killing in combat and the whole religious conundrum of a “just war” and “justified killing,” and finally undergoes a total psychological breakdown when his own comrade successfully lobs a grenade into a crowded enemy trench and leaps screaming (the hero does, fairly early in the film) into the enemy’s trench and falls on the grenade and dies saving the enemy platoon, and that much of the rest of the film (albeit constantly interrupted by commercials when I saw it) depicts the hero’s platoon struggling to interpret the action of their formerly beloved lieutenant, with many of them bitterly denouncing him as a traitor, many others holding that battle fatigue and a traumatic letter from “Stateside” received earlier in the film exculpated his act as a kind of temporary insanity, and only one shy, idealistic recruit (played by an actor I have never seen in another movie of that era) secretly believing that the lieutenant’s act of dying for the enemy was actually heroic and deserved to be recorded and dramatized for posterity (the shy, anonymous recruit is the narrator, in “voice-overs” at the film’s beginning and end), and I never forgot the movie (whose title both my father and I missed because we didn’t turn on the television until after the movie had begun, which is not the same as “forgetting” the title, which my father jokingly claims is what we both did) or the impact of the lieutenant’s act, which I, too (like the shy, idealistic narrator), regarded as not only “heroic” but also beautiful in a way that was almost too intense to bear, especially as I lay across my father’s knees.
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