Settled things make for explanations not for good stories. Instead, these are more often situations or people or memories that are troubling, things we want to work out and understand for ourselves and invite others along for the ride. It’s kind of a game we play with ourselves. This piece is based on an exercise from a book in college psychology.
The Game of Without Within
John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman.
Sit down in the middle of a quiet place,
one with little furnishings is preferred.
Spend a few minutes in silence, know-
ing that you’re both going to speak and
to hear. Listen for the slightest sounds.
Prepare for your peacefulness to end.
Say your own name out loud. Articulate
it distinctly and then repeat it insistently
as if hailing another who’s away in the
distance who can’t see you, on a boat
or in a foggy field. You’re calling some-
one who’s remote in a mysterious way.
Lengthen vowels and stress syllables,
exaggerate.Continue the calling of your
name, twenty, thirty times until you start
to get the feeling that you, yourself, are
being called. Keep calling. Yes, this is
your voice but it is also something more.
It’s you who are calling, you don’t know
for whom. It’s you who are being called,
but you don’t know from where.The one
who’s calling is the same, and yet not
the same as the one who is called. Feel
the strangeness of this so familiar name.
Only other people call you this. Go on
do it more. The goal is to produce the
slight, but not necessarily unpleasant,
sense of unease, when self becomes
unstuck from self. To escape and close
the breach, simply say, “Here I come!”
John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman. (pause) Here I come.
John goes to the desk, sits and turns on the gooseneck lamp. He types a few words on the old typewriter then pulls out the sheet to check what he apparently has been working on. He reads the title and the piece:
The Girl Who Washed Her Hands
Let me see, it was a few years after college. I got a teaching certificate and found myself with a position as an English teacher in a poor high school in Michigan. Most of the kids had no interest in classes, but I did have one student who was not only cute but very bright. My ex-wife and I even got to know her parents. They were old-fashioned radicals from the forties, and this was a very conservative, fundamentalist area.
Mary also had an older sister, Jeannie. She was smart too, but psychologically troubled even at that young age. These were happy times for me. My wife and I had our first house, a little bungalow a block or so from the lake. The first years of teaching were demanding, but summers were free. Then it was back to full days of classes, and evenings and weekends correcting papers.
Anyhow, one day this student’s mother stopped at the school late in the afternoon. (slow) She was a small woman with very short, cropped brown hair—a head like a coconut. She asked to come into my classroom and she shut the door behind her. I had no idea what this was about, but I pulled a couple of student desks around so they faced each other and motioned for her to sit down. Without further introduction, she said, (John leans forward in a whisper) “I have a terrible, family secret to tell you.”
And what was her secret?
I don’t know. She bent forward in the desk toward me, speaking in hushed tones. So much so that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. You’ve done that, haven’t you? In order to be polite, pretend to hear or be interested in something inaudible someone says to you?
Later, I thought, perhaps, she’d said she was suicidal or that she had been molested by her father. But at the time my first reaction was that this didn’t have anything to do with the girls. My next one was, why is this woman telling this secret to me?”
Jeannie had a weird boyfriend but she received good grades and graduated to go on to college. Mary blossomed, too. She was a straight `A’ student, a top vocalist, had poems published in literary magazines–and remember she was only a high school student—starred in school plays, was an active environmental organizer, etc., etc. But no boyfriends! Even though she had naturally blonde hair and a wonderful smile. A wonderful, seductive smile. Boys were intimidated by her because she was so far beyond anyone else her age in accomplishments. And I’ll admit, to me she was more like an interesting peer than a student. But at that time I didn’t allow myself to think if it was anything other than that.
Senior year, Mary suddenly gave up everything for religion. Some kind of charismatic Christianity. She was living like a Bible-story virgin who’d delivered herself over entirely to God. She got a full scholarship to the University of Chicago to study theology and that was the last I saw of her until three years ago. She was eighteen when I was her teacher and now many years later, she was thirty-six. Of course I was old enough to be her father, but when she telephoned I was still trying to come to terms with my separation, and to hear this warm, familiar voice…well, I was very pleased.
I forgot to say that I’d heard she had had a nervous breakdown that first year at the University. A student who was a photographer for the yearbook—I was the advisor—had a brother who worked in a mental institution. Mary was taken there after the breakdown. (slower) The brother said she couldn’t stop washing her hands. Two hundred, three hundred times a day she would wash her hands. The other thing I learned, and I don’t remember how, was that Frank was not really the girls’ father. He had married the mother when she’d already had the two young children.
Can we re-create ourselves like motivational books and tapes lead us to believe? Or is it fate? Are we doomed to always repeat the past in some superficially different form?
Whether the past is a treasure worth reclaiming or some kind of stigma that marks us and turns ordinary things we do into penance, it’s always there, isn’t it? And sometimes it surfaces as unexpectedly as a phone call. A phone call in the middle of the night from Chicago.
Mary called out of nowhere late one night. She had found my name through an Internet search. I’d just come home and hadn’t even had time to turn on the lights and there, over the receiver, was her voice in the dark, coming out of the past.
I pictured those thin white arms and animated hands, her full mouth and wavy blonde hair. I could almost smell Lake Michigan and feel the trudge of walking barefoot in the sand of the lakeshore dunes. It had been almost twenty years since my first wife and I’d packed up the kids and left Michigan for a new life in Wisconsin. A life of frustration and financial hardship that had ultimately driven us apart. But now, in the sound of Mary’s voice, there was promise bubbling up like an underground spring.
Mary and I talked for an hour and a half. Her parents, Elsie and Frank, had died five years earlier within months of each other. Her sister, Jeannie, had not married her boyfriend but a rather conservative businessman. She’d been on medication for depression, but last summer decided not to take her drugs anymore. Like Virginia Wolfe, one night she walked out into Duck Lake until she drowned. Now Mary Briggs—`Briggs’ was her married name—was alone except for her husband of a year. He too had left her but then he’d come back, she said, providing she agreed to “certain conditions.”
Anyway, she wanted to see me…had to see me. She wondered if that would be possible. As it turned out, I needed to schedule a business trip to Chicago within the next two weeks. I told her I would call the following day after I’d pinned down a date.
But something was strange right from the start.
When I called her the following night, she said, “Hello.” I gave my name, but then as I started to talk about what day I’d be in Chicago, without saying a further word, she hung up.
I called again thinking that I might have dialed the wrong number, but the same thing happened a second time.
She phoned the next morning with absolutely no explanation for what had occurred the night before, telling me that she’d be overjoyed to meet with me. We set up a time and place, though when I hung up the phone, I had a vaguely unsettled feeling.
I arrived in the Old Town section of Chicago—where we had arranged to meet—about an hour early. I thought I’d have trouble finding parking, but as it turned out there was a spot just behind the restaurant. It was a warm late- afternoon in June and I sat at a table outside.
I have to admit I did have a few beers while I waited. I’d grown up in Chicago and the afternoon was awash with memories. As a kid I’d taken the el to this part of town and explored its shops and coffee houses. During my college breaks I’d hit one or more of the clubs to catch folk music acts and sometimes get a little intoxicated. And now, here I was again, at this new stage in my life.
The meeting lasted less than a minute. What I remember most is mumbling some excuse, then walking, almost at a run, through the restaurant, past the kitchen and out the door to my car parked in back.
I was sitting at that outdoor table looking down the street when I heard a voice. It came from the sidewalk behind my back. It said, “Mr. Lehman?”
I turned slowly not knowing what to expect. It had been many years since I’d last seen Mary but I still half thought she’d look the same. She stood in front of the setting sun and I was blinded by it at first. I could only make out the shape of her body and her golden hair. The blonde around her head glowed like a rim of sun around the moon in a solar eclipse.
When Mary came forward—as she bent down toward me out of that halo of sun—I saw that it was not the sweet face I’d remembered, but the shriveled face of her mother’s coconut head…
…and from its pressed lips came a whisper. It said, “…I want my secret back.”
With this last sentence John turns off the table light again leaving the room in complete darkness.
Another reason we hesitate to share stories is that they may seem too personal for listeners to become involved with it? Had I identified Mary’s secret in this story, it might the ending might have been less interesting. It’s like with that poem, “The Handout” we all believe there is some key to life’s mystery just beyond our grasp. We’d like to believe this truth is universal, applicable to everyone equally, but maybe it isn’t. Perhaps each of us has our own secret theater in our imagination showing films we create especially to fit only us.