JOHN HASKELL

Three Quick Lives

 

      In 1871, Eadweard Muybridge, the man who would be called "The Father of Motion Pictures," thought he was happily married.  He had created a career for himself, a life for himself, and also a name. He was born Edward Muggeridge, and when he came to America he changed it, first to Mugbridge, then to Muybridge, and it wasn't so much that he wanted to change who he was; he wanted control, over who he was and what his life would become.

      He met his wife, Flora, when he was forty-two and she was barely twenty, and shortly after they met, they married. She'd been married before so she probably wasn't as innocent as she may have seemed. She certainly wasn't as innocent as Muybridge, who, because of his ambition or disposition, was probably an inattentive husband. Even after his wife gave birth to a baby boy, he was preoccupied with his photographs, searching distant landscapes for a natural beauty he could capture. 

      Because Flora was young she needed a little more attention than she was getting, at least from him, and to find it she started visiting a man who, according to accounts, was a bit of a dandy. I say "visiting" because no one knows what their visits entailed. One day Muybridge found a photo of his child, or what he thought was his child, with a strangely intimate dedication to this other man. Suspecting that his child might not actually be his child, Muybridge found the man, shot him in the chest, and was put on trial for murder.  Although he pleaded insanity, because of a skilled defense attorney, in the end he was found neither guilty nor insane.

      And he probably wasn't insane. He just didn't know how to act. "I loved that woman with all my heart and soul and the revelation of her infidelity was a cruel and prostrating blow."  That’s what he wrote. Because that infidelity didn't fit into his carefully laid-out plans, murder was a natural step. The life he'd imagined and controlled and thought he possessed had been taken away, and in his mind the only thing to do was what he did. You wouldn't have said, at the time, "He's in touch with what he's feeling," because he wasn't. But he acted on that feeling, and that feeling turned out to be fear.

 

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      In 1951, William Burroughs was living in Mexico City with his common-law wife, Joan. They had gone to a party, and we don’t know what kind of drugs were there, but Burroughs was feeling good. Not just good, he was feeling invincible. He announced that he and Joan would perform their "William Tell act." Joan walked behind a low white sofa and stood against the far wall. It was a white wall, not too far from a door. The people at the party who'd been drinking and talking stopped talking. They stood up and moved away. Burroughs held his gun, a revolver.  Joan picked up a glass with the water left over from a melted ice cube and she placed the glass on her head and stood very straight and very still. It's possible that Burroughs was performing the trick for his own amusement, and for the guests at the party, but it was probably more possible that he was feeling something like pain, like the agony of not living honestly in the world. "You soy muy amoroso," Burroughs said. Or maybe he said, "You soy muy peligroso." Full of love or full of danger, either way he aimed the gun.  They had both done the trick before, and they both knew what was coming. He aimed the gun. When he checked to see if the gun was loaded he probably realized he was drunk, but because he was drunk it didn't mean anything. He aimed the gun and he fired. And he missed. Instead of shooting the glass, he shot his wife. And because he was aiming for the glass on her head we can only imagine that he must have shot her in the face. The glass fell, broke into shards, and she died. "The death of Joan," he later said, "maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

 

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It's 1963 and I'm walking up the stairway, up the concrete steps to the 6th floor. The wooden floors are worn smooth. Against the brick wall are shelves filled with boxes of books and loose books, textbooks mainly, stacks of books on the floor. It's where I work, and it's a fire hazard, but it's not my business. My business is to go to the window. I've figured out which window I'll be using and I stand in front of that window, making sure I can see through the trees down to the street below. A crowd has already formed along the banks of the street. I pull the disassembled rifle from its woolen blanket, reassemble the pieces and set it on the windowsill. I probably seem a little methodical. But this is the moment when everything I've practiced and thought about, when all of my powers of concentration, need to be focused. I look around at the various boxes and I choose some empty ones and slide them close to the window. Part one is setting up a barricade.  Once I've got myself barricaded, then I concentrate on my nest. Although I know I'm safe, the habit of fear and the expectation of fear are useful tools.  As I arrange the boxes I'm listening to the watchman. The building employs a watchman and I can hear his footsteps echoing out of the stairwell. I turn a large box on its side, crawl inside of it, cut a small opening with my pocketknife.  I can hear my breath, but the guard is far enough away; he won't hear anything, and he won't see anything, and I remember that my rifle is on the windowsill. Nothing I can do. I'm crouched in the box, my face pressed against the cardboard — I can smell the cardboard and the ink from the books — and I would like to be able to see out the opening I carved with my knife but either I've shifted position, or the box has shifted, and the only option I have is to wait.  That's what I'm good at, waiting. The footsteps seems to be getting closer, the floor vibrating with each slow step the man takes.  He's expecting nothing to be amiss and he's finding nothing amiss, and although my leg is starting to hurt, I don't move. I can put up with pain, and in fact, the throbbing in my leg is strangely satisfying. Fear, like a poison, has entered my system and it makes the pain not only bearable, but necessary. I'm doing the right thing, right? Yes. It's not even a question. In the darkness of the box I can hear the footsteps, and I imagine the guard in his big black shoes, looking at the open window. There is nothing I can do but stay enclosed. Keep quiet. And even when the black footsteps turn and walk away, back to the door and back to the stairwell, I still don't move. I stay in the box, listening, fixated on the possibility of a ruse or a trick or of some kind of danger, a thing to be afraid of.  So I stay, my eyes adjusting to the darkness, and my body not quite adjusting to the box. And I say not quite, because, enclosed by the box, I feel my need for safety satisfied, a safety I both crave and hate.

      A sharpshooter needs something besides the ability to control the involuntary muscle movement; he needs a rifle with a telescopic sight. When I put together my Mannlicher-Carcano, the last part I connect is the telescope. I sit back from the open window, looking through the lens of the scope down onto the street, and the asphalt of the street, and the faces lining the route the motorcade would follow. I can see the painted lane dividers on the asphalt, and because of the scope, which cuts off my peripheral vision, what I see are the details: the gnarled bark of a tree, the ears and noses of people standing and walking on the grassy embankment. I practice aiming at various heads, specifically the foreheads of spectators waiting for what is coming.

      This, I suppose, is what I've always desired: the cessation of struggle and disappointment.  You could say that this particular time in my life, not my whole life, but this particular moment, is marked by fear.  But there is also a desire to alleviate fear. To act or not to act, that's not the question. There is no question. I have no choice but to act, to take arms against this thing that has so far defeated me, and although I don't enjoy waiting, I'm satisfied now, and ready now.  My mind, which isn't always clear, is clear now, my nerves relaxed, following my thought which follows my desire, around and around and I don't know how it happens but at some point, in the middle of my waiting, I change position. I've been sitting, staring down the barrel of my rifle, and now I stand up and place the rifle butt gently on the floor. I am straight and the rifle is straight and I get down on my knees. The tip of the barrel fits under my chin. I can feel it against my neck, and I don't embrace the rifle but I hold it close to my body. One hand — as if the rifle was a body — slides down toward the butt. What is happening is not what I expected to happen, but, as they say, I have no choice. I came to get rid of the fear and I will. The metal isn't cold anymore; it's warm, like me.  My finger, the one that will pull the trigger, is ready.