Faith, sir, as to that matter, I don’t believe one half of it myself.
Diedrich Knickerbocker In early June of 1990, the Navidsons flew to Seattle for a wedding. When they returned, something in the house had changed. Though they had only been away for four days, the change was enormous. It was not, however, obvious-like for instance a fire, a robbery, or an act of vandalism. Quite the contrary, the horror was atypical. No one could deny there had been an intrusion, but it was so odd no one knew how to respond. On video, we see Navidson acting almost amused while Karen simply draws both hands to her face as if she were about to pray. Their children, Chad and Daisy, just run through it, playing, giggling, completely oblivious to the deeper implications. What took place amounts to a strange spatial violation which has already been described in a number of ways-namely surprising, unsettling, disturbing but most of all uncanny. In German the word for ‘uncanny’ is ‘unheimlich’ which Heidegger in his book Sein und Zeit thought worthy of some consideration:
DaJ3 die Angst als Grundbefindlichkeit in sotcher Weise erschlieJit, daflr ist weider die alltagliche Daseinsauslegung und Rede der unvoreingenommenste Beleg. Befindlichkeit, so wurde fruher gesagt, macht offenbar
wie einem ist.x. In der Angst is einem flunheimlich
. Darin kommt zunachst die
eigentumliche Unbestimmtheit dessen, wobei sich das Dasein in der Angst befindet, zum Ausdruck: das Nichts und Nirgends. Unheimlichkeit meint aber dabei zugleich das
Nichtzuhause-sein. Bei der ersten phanomenalen
Anzeige der Grundverfassung des
Daseins und der Klarung des existenzialen Sinnes von In-Sein im Unterschied von der kategorialen Bedeutung der.lnwendigkeit wurde das In-Sein bestimmt als Wohnen bei Vertrautsein mit… Dieser Charakier des In-Seins wurde dann konkreter sichtbar gemach durch die alltagliche Offentlichkeit des Man, das die beruhigte Selbstsicherheit, das selbsrverstandliche Zuhause-sein in die durchschnittliche Alltaglichkeit des Daseins bringt. Die Angst dagegen holt das Dasein aus seinem verfallenden Aufgehen in der Welt zurlick. Die alltagliche Vertrautheit bricht in sich Zusammen. Das Dasein ist vereinzelt, das jedoch als In-der-Welt-sein. Das In-Sein kommt in den existenzialen Modusc des Un-zuhause. Nichts anderes meint die
Rede von der Unheim1ichkeit. [32-Declared Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Frankfurt Am Main: Vittorio Klostennann, 1977), p. 250- 251.]
[33-And here’s the English, thanks to John Macquarrie and Edward Robinsons’ translation of Heidegger’s Beina and Time, Harper & Row, 1962, page 233. A real bitch to find:
In anxiety one feels uncanny. Here the peculiar indefiniteness of that which Dasein finds itself alongside in anxiety, comes proximally to expression: the “nothing and nowhere”. But here “uncanniness” also means “not-being-at home.” [das Nicht-zuhause-sein]. In our first indication of the phenomenal character of Dasein’s basic state and in our clarification of the existential meaning of “Being-in” as distinguished from the categorical signification of ‘insideness’, Being-in was defined as “residing alongside…”, “Being-familiar with · ·.”This character of Being-in was then brought to view more concretely through the everyday publicness of the “they”, which brings tranquilized self-assurance–‘Being-at-home’, with all its obviousness-into the average everydayness of Dasein. On the other hand, as Dasein falls, anxiety brings it back from its absorption in the ‘world’.
Everyday familiarity collapses. Dasein has been individualized, but individualized Being-in-the- world. Being-in enters into the existential ‘mode’ of the “not-at-home”. Nothing else is meant by our talk about ‘uncanniness’.
Which only goes to prove the existence of crack back in the early twentieth century. Certainly this geezer must of gotten hung up on a pretty wicked rock habit to start spouting such nonsense. Crazier still, I’ve just now been wondering if something about this passage may have actually affected me, which I know doesn’t exactly follow, especially since that would imply something in it really does make sense, and I just got finished calling it non-sense.
I don’t know.
The point is, when I copied down the German a week ago, I was fine. Then last night I found the translation and this morning, when I went into work, I didn’t feel at all myself. It’s probably just a coincidence-I mean that there’s some kind of connection between my state of mind and The Navidson Record or even a few arcane sentences on existence penned by a former Nazi tweaking on who knows what. More than likely, it’s something entirely else, the real root lying in my already strange mood fluctuations, though I guess those are pretty recent too, rocking back and forth between wishful thinking and some private agony until the bar breaks. I’ve no fucking clue.
das Nicht-zuhause-sein [not-being-at-home.] That part’s definitely true.
These days, I’m an apprentice at a tattoo shop on Sunset. I answer phones, schedule consultations and clean up. Any idiot could handle it. In fact the job’s reserved for idiots. This afternoon though, how do I explain it?, something’s really of f. I’m off. I can’t do a fucking thing. I just keep staring at all the ink we have, that wild variety of color, everything from rootbeer, midnight blue and cochineal to mauve, light doe, lilac, south sea green, maize, even pelican black, all lined up in these plastic caps, like tiny transparent thimbles-and needles too, my eyes catching on all those carefully preserved points and we have hundreds, mostly #12 sharps, many singles, though plenty in two, three, four, five, six and seven needle groups, even a fourteen round shader.
It depends on what you need.
I don’t know what I need but for no apparent reason I’m going terribly south. Nothing has happened, absolutely nothing, but I’m still having problems breathing. The air in the Shop is admittedly thick with the steady smell of sweat, isopropyl alcohol, Benz-all, all that solution for the ultrasonic cleaner, even solder and flux, but that’s not it either.
Of course no one notices. My boss, a retinue of his friends, some new inductee who’s just put down $150 for a rose, keep up the chatter, pretty loud chatter too, though never quite enough to drown out the most important sound of all: the single, insistent buzz of an original “J” tattoo machine logging yet another hundred stabs a minute in the dimple of some chunky ass.
I get a glass of water. I walk out into the hallway. That’s a mistake. I should of stayed near people. The comfort of company and all that. Instead I’m alone, running through a quick mental check list: food poisoning? (stomach’s fine) withdrawals? (haven’t been on a gak
or Ecstasy diet for several months, and while I didn’t smoke any pot this morning-my usual ritual-I know THC doesn’t create any lasting physical dependencies). And then out of the be-fucking-lue, everything gets substantially darker. Not pitch black mind you. Not even power failure black. More like a cloud passing over the sun. Make that a storm. Though there is no storm. No clouds. It’s a bright day and anyway I’m inside.
I wish that had been all. Just a slight decrease in illumination and a little breathing difficulty. Could still blame that on a blown fuse or some aberrant drug related flashback. But then my nostrils flare with the scent of something bitter & foul, something inhuman, reeking with so much rot & years, telling me in the language of nausea that I’m not alone.
Something’s behind me.
Of course, I deny it.
It’s impossible to deny.
I wanna puke.
To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here. Now take a deep breath. Go ahead take an even deeper one. Only this time as you start to exhale try to imagine how fast it will happen, how hard it’s gonna hit you, how many times it will stab your jugular with its teeth or are they nails?, don’t worry, that particular detail doesn’t matter, because before you have time to even process that you should be moving, you should be running, you should at the very least be flinging up your arms-you sure as hell should be getting rid of this book-you won’t have time to even scream.
Of course I looked.
I looked so fucking fast I should of ended up wearing one of those neck braces for whiplash.
My hands had gone all clammy. My face was burning up. Who knows how much adrenaline had just been dumped into my system. Before I turned, it felt exactly as if in fact I had turned and at that instant caught sight of some tremendous beast crouched off in the shadows, muscles a twitch from firing its great mass forward, ragged claws slowly extending, digging into the linoleum, even as its eyes are dilating, beyond the point of reason, completely obliterating the iris, and by that widening fire, the glowing furnace of witness, a camera lucida, with me in silhouette, like some silly Hand shadow twitching about upside down, is that right?, or am I getting confused?, either way registering at last the sign it must have been waiting for: my own recognition of exactly what has been awaiting me all along-except that when I finally do turn, jerking around like the scaredshitless shit-for-brains I am, I discover only a deserted corridor, or was it merely a recently deserted corridor?, this thing, whatever it had been, obviously beyond the grasp of my imagination or for that matter my emotions, having departed into alcoves of darkness, seeping into corners & floors, cracks & outlets, gone even to the walls. Lights now normal. The smell history. Though my fingers still tremble and I’ve yet to stop choking on large irregular gulps of air, as I keep spinning around like a stupid top spinning around on top of nothing, looking everywhere, even though there’s absolutely nothing, nothing anywhere.
I actually thought I was going to fall, and then just as abruptly as I’d been possessed by this fear, it left me and I fell back into control.
When I re-enter the Shop things are still askew but they at least seem manageable.
The phone has been ringing. Nine times and counting, my boss announces. He’s clearly annoyed. More annoyed when I express some surprise over his ability to count that high.
I pick up before he can start yammering at me about my attitude.
The call’s for me. Lude’s on a pay phone in the valley with important info. Apparently, there’s some significant doings at some significant club. He tells me he can guest list my boss and any cohorts I deem worthy. Sure,
I say, but I’m still shaken and quickly lose hold of the details when I realize I’ve just forgotten something else as well, something very important, which by the time I hang up, no matter how hard I try, I can no longer remember what I’d meant to remember when whatever it was had first entered my head.
Or had it?
Maybe it hadn’t entered my head at all. Maybe it had just brushed past me, like someone easing by in a dark room, the face lost in shadow, my thoughts lost in another conversation, though something in her movement or perfume is disturbingly familiar, though how familiar is impossible to tell because by the time I realize she’s someone I should know she’s already gone, deep into the din, beyond the bar, taking with her any chance of recognition. Though she hasn’t left. She’s still there. Embracing shadows.
Is that it?
Had I been thinking of a woman?
I don’t know.
I hope it doesn’t matter.
I have a terrifying feeling it does.
Nevertheless regardless of how extensive his analysis is here, Heidegger still fails to point out that unheimlich when used as an adverb means “dreadfully,” “awfully,” “heaps of,” and “an awful lot of.” Largeness has always been a condition of the weird and unsafe; it is overwhelming, too much or too big. Thus that which is uncanny or unheimlich is neither homey nor protective, nor comforting nor familiar. It is alien, exposed, and unsettling, or in other words, the perfect description of the house on Ash Tree Lane.
In their absence, the Navidsons’ home had become something else, and while not exactly sinister or even threatening, the change still destroyed any sense of security or well-being.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, we discover along with Will and Karen a plain, white door with a glass knob. It does not, however, open into the children’s room but into a space resembling a walk-in closet. However unlike other closets in the house, this one lacks outlets, sockets, switches, shelves, a rod on which to hang things, or even some decorative molding. Instead, the walls are perfectly smooth and almost pure black- ‘almost’ because there is a slightly grey quality to the surface. The space cannot be more than five feet wide and at most four feet long. On the opposite end, a second door, identical to the first one opens up into the children’s bedroom. Navidson immediately asks whether or not they overlooked the room. This seems ridiculous at first until one considers how the impact of such an implausible piece of reality could force anyone to question their own perceptions. Karen, however, manages to dig up some photos which clearly show a bedroom wall without a door.
The next question is whether or not someone could have broken in and in four days constructed the peculiar addition. Improbable, to say the least.
Their final thought is that someone came in and uncovered it. Just installed two doors. But why? And for that matter, to quote Rilke, Wer? [34 -Neatly translated as “Who?” which I happened to find in this poem
“Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.” The book’s called The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. 1989. See page 53, Vintage International.]
Navidson does check the Hi 8s but discovers that the motion sensors were never triggered. Only their exit and re-entrance exists on tape. Virtually a week seamlessly elided, showing us the family as they depart from a house without that strange interior space present only to return a fraction of a second later to find it already in place, almost as if it had been there all along.
Since the discovery occurred in the evening, the Navidsons’ inquiry must wait until morning. And so while Chad and Daisy sleep, we watch Karen and Will suffer through a restless night. Hilaiy, their one year old
Siberian husky, and Mallory, their tabby cat, lie on either side of the 24″ Sony television unperturbed by the new closet or the flicker from the tube or the drone from the speakers-Letterman, new revelations regarding the Iran-Contra affair, reruns, the traffic of information assuring everyone that the rest of the world is still out there, continuing on as usual, even if two new doors now stand open, providing a view across a new space of darkness, from parent’s room to children’s room, where a tiny nightlight of the Star Ship Enterprise bums like some North Star.
It is a beautiful shot. In fact, the composition and elegant balance of colours, not to mention the lush contrast of lights and darks, are so exquisite they temporarily distract us from any questions concerning the house or events unfolding there. It seems a perfect example of Navidson’s unparalleled talent and illustrates why few, if any, could have accomplished what he did, especially toward the end.
The following day both Karen and Will pursue the most rational course: they acquire the architectural blueprints from their local real estate office. As might have been expected, these blueprints are not actual building plans but were drawn up in 1981 when former owners sought permission from the town’s zoning board to construct an eli. The eli, however, was ultimately never built as the owners soon sold the property, claiming they needed something “a little smaller.” Though the designs, as they appear on screen, do not show a room or closet, they do confirm the existence of a strange crawl space, roughly four feet wide, running between both bedrooms. [35- In Appendix Il-A, Mr. Truant provides a sketch of this floor plan on the back of an envelope. – Ed.]
Alicia Rosenbaum, the real estate agent responsible for selling the Navidsons the house, gives the camera a bewildered shrug when Karen asks if she has any idea who could be responsible for “this outrage.” Unable to say anything useful, Mrs. Rosenbaum finally asks if they want to call the police, which amusingly enough they do.
That afternoon, two officers arrive, examine the closet and try to hide the fact that this has to be the weirdest call they have ever made. As Sheriff Axnard says, “We’ll file a report but other than that, well I don’t know what more we can do. Better I guess t’have been a victim of a crazy carpenter than some robber” which even strikes Karen and Navidson as a little funny.
With all obvious options exhausted, Navidson returns to the building plans. At first this seems pretty innocent until he gets out a measuring tape. Idly at first, he starts comparing the dimensions indicated in the plans with those he personally takes. Very soon he realizes not everything adds up. Something, in fact, is very wrong. Navidson repeatedly tacks back and forth from his 25′ Stanley Power Lock to the cold blue pages spread out on his bed, until he finally mutters aloud: “This better be a case of bad math.”
An incongruous cut presents us with the title card: 1/4
Outside the house, Navidson climbs up a ladder to the second story. Not an easy ascent he casually confesses to us, explaining how a troublesome skin condition he has had since childhood has recently begun to flare up around his toes. Wincing slightly at what we can assume is at least moderate pain, he reaches the top rung where using a 100′ Empire fiberglass tape with a hand crank, he proceeds to measure the distance from the far end of the master bedroom to the far end of the children’s bedroom. The total comes to 32′ 9 3/4″ which the house plans corroborate-plus or minus an inch. The puzzling part comes when Navidson measures the internal space. He carefully notes the length of the new area, the length of both bedrooms and then factors in the width of all the walls. The result is anything but comforting. In fact it is impossible.
32′ 10″ exactly.
The width of the house inside would appear to exceed the width of the house as measured from the outside by 1/4″.
Certain that he has miscalculated, Navidson drills through the outer walls to measure their width precisely. Finally, with Karen’s help, he fastens the end of some fishing line to the edge of the outer wall., runs it through the drilled hole, stretches it across the master bedroom, the new space, the children’s bedroom and then runs it through a hole drilled through the opposite wall. He double checks his work, makes sure the line is straight, level and taut and then marks it. The measurement is still the same.
32′ 10″ exactly.
Using the same line, Navidson goes outside, stretches the fishing line from one side of the house to the other only to find it is a quarter of an inch too long.
The impossible is one thing when considered as a purely intellectual conceit. After all, it is not so large a problem when one can puzzle over an Escher print and then close the book. It is quite another thing when one faces a physical reality the mind and body cannot accept.
Karen refuses the knowledge. A reluctant Eve who prefers tangerines to apples. “I don’t care,” she tells Navidson. “Stop drilling holes in my walls.” Undeterred, Navidson continues his quest, even though repeated attempts at measuring the house continue to reveal the quarter-inch anomaly. Karen gets quieter and quieter, Navidson’s mood darkens, and responding like finely tuned weathervanes the children react to the change in parental weather by hiding in other parts of the house. Frustration edges into Navidson’s voice. No matter how hard he tries-and Navidson tries six consecutive times in six consecutive segments – he cannot slaughter that tiny sliver of space. Another night passes and that quarter of an inch still survives.
Where narratives in film and fiction often rely on virtually immediate reactions, reality is far more insistent and infmitely (literally) more patient. Just as insidious poisons in the water table can take years before their effects are felt, the consequences of the impossible are likewise not so instantly apparent.
Morning means orange juice, The New York Times, NPR, a squabble over the children’s right to eat sugared cereal. The dishwasher moans, the toaster pops. We watch Karen scan the classifieds as Navidson toys with his coffee. He adds sugar, milk, stirs it all up, stirs it again, and then as an afterthought adds more sugar, a little more milk. The liquid rises to the rim and then by a fraction exceeds even this limit. Only it does not spill. It holds -a bulge of coffee arcing tragically over china, preserved by the physics of surface tension, rhyme to some unspeakable magic, though as everyone knows, coffee miracles never last long. The morning wake-up call wobbles, splits, and then abruptly slips over the edge, now a Nile of caffeine wending past glass and politics until there is nothing more than a brown blot on the morning paper. [36-Easily that whole bit from “coffee arcing tragically” down to “the mourning paper” could have been cut. You wouldn’t of noticed the absence. I probably wouldn’t of either. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t do it. Get rid of it, I mean. What’s gained in economy doesn’t really seem to make up for what you lose of Zampanö, the old man himself, coming a little more into focus, especially where digressions like these are concerned.
I can’t tell you why exactly but more and more these days I’m struck by the fact that everything Zampanô had is really gone, including the bowl of betel nuts left on his mantle or the battered shotgun bearing the initials RLB under his bed-Flaze appropriated that goody; the shotgun, not the bed-or even the curiously preserved bud of a white rose hidden in the drawer of his nightstand. By now his apartment has been scrubbed with Clorox, repainted, probably rented out to someone else. His body’s either molding in the ground or reduced to ash. Nothing else remains of him but this.
So you see from my perspective, having to decide between old man Z and his story is an artificial, maybe even dangerous choice, and one I’m obviously not comfortable making. The way I figure it, if there’s something you find irksome-go ahead and skip it. I couldn’t care less how you read any of this. His wandering passages are staying, along with all his oddly canted phrases and even some warped bits in the plot. There’s just too much at stake. It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it, it’s mine.
Zampanô himself probably would of insisted on corrections and edits, he was his own harshest critic, but I’ve come to believe error5, especially written errors, are often the only markers left by a solitary life: to sacrifice them is to lose the angles of personality, the riddle of a soul. In this case a very old soul. A very old riddle.]
When Navidson looks up Karen is watching him.
“I called Tom,” he tells her.
She understands him well enough not to say a thing.
“He knows I’m insane,” he continues. “And besides he builds houses for a living.”
“Did you talk to him?” she carefully asks.
“Left a message.”
The next card simply reads: Tom.
Tom is Will Navidson’s fraternal twin brother. Neither one has said much to the other in over eight years. “Navy’s successful, Tom’s not,” Karen explains in the film. “There’s been a lot of resentment over the years. I guess it’s always been there, except when they lived at home. It was different then. They kind of looked after each other more.”
Two days later, Tom arrives. Karen greets him with a big hug and a Hi 8. He is an affable, overweight giant of a man who has an innate ability to amuse. The children immediately take to him. They love his laugh, not to mention his McDonalds french fries.
“My own brother who I haven’t talked to in years calls me up at four in the morning and tells me he needs my tools. Go figure.”
“That means you’re family” Karen says happily, leading the way to Navidson’s study where she has already set out clean towels and made up the hideaway.
“Usually when you want a level you ask a neighbor or go to the hardware store. Count on Will Navidson to call Lowell, Massachusetts.
Where is he?”
As it turns out Navidson has gone to the hardware store to pick up a few items.
In the film, Tom and Navidson’s first encounter has almost nothing to do with each other. Instead of addressing any interpersonal issues, e find them both huddled over a Cowley level mirror transit, alternately taking turns peering across the house, the line of sight floating a few feet above the floor, occasionally interrupted when Hillary or Mallory in some keystone chase race around the children’s beds. Tom believes they wifi account for the quarter inch discrepancy with a perfectly level measurement.
Later on, out in the backyard, Tom lights up a joint of marijuana. The drug clearly bothers Navidson but he says nothing. Tom knows his brother disapproves but refuses to alter his behavior. Based on their body language and the way both of them avoid looking directly at each other, not to speak of the space between their words, the last eight years continues to haunt them.
“Hey, at least I’m an acquaintance of Bill’s now” Tom finally says, exhaling a thin stream of smoke. “Not a drop of booze in over two years.”
At first glance, it seems hard to believe these two men are even related let alone brothers. Tom is content if there happens to be a game on and a soft place from which to watch it. Navidson works out every day, devours volumes of esoteric criticism, and constantly attaches the world around him to one thing: photography. Tom gets by, Navidson succeeds. Tom just wants to be, Navidson must become. And yet despite such obvious differences, anyone who looks past Tom’s wide grin and considers his eyes will find surprisingly deep pools of sorrow. Which is how.’ know they are brothers, because like Tom, Navidson’s eyes share the same water.
Either way the moment and opportunity for some kind of fraternal healing disappears when Tom makes an important discovery: Navidson was wrong. The interior of the house exceeds the exterior not by 1/4″ but by 5/16′.
No matter how many legal pads, napkins, or newspaper margins they fill with notes or equations, they cannot account for that fraction. One incontrovertible fact stands in their way: the exterior measurement must equal the internal measurement. Physics depends on a universe infinitely centered on an equal sign. As science writer and sometime theologian David Conte wrote: “God for all intents and purposes is an equal sign, and at least up until now, something humanity has always been able to believe in is that the universe adds up.” [37-Look at David Conte’s “All Thing
Being Equal” in Maclean’s, v. 107, n. 14, 1994, p. 102. Also see Martin
Gardner’s “The Vanishing Area Paradox” which appeared in his
“Mathematical Games” column in Scientific America, May 1961.]
On this point, both brothers agree. The problem must lie with their measuring techniques or with some unseen mitigating factor: air temperature, mis-calibrated instruments, warped floors, something, anything. But after a day and a half passes without a solution, they both decide to look for help. Tom calls Lowell and postpones his construction obligations. Navidson calls an old friend who teaches engineering at UVA.
Early the following morning, both brothers head off for Charlottesville.
Navidson is not the only one who knows people in the vicinity. Karen’s friend Audrie McCullogh drives down from Washington, D.C. to catch up and help construct some bookshelves. Thus as Will and Tom set out to find an answer, two old friends put an enigma on hold, stir up some vodka tonics, and enjoy the rhythm of working with brackets and pine.
Edith Skourja has written an impressive forty page essay entitled
Riddles Without on this one episode. While most of it focuses on what Skourja refers to as “the political posture” of both women-Karen as exmodel; Audrie as travel agent-one particular passage yields an elegant perspective into the whys and ways people confront unanswered questions:
Riddles: they either delight or torment. Their delight lies in solutions. Answers provide bright moments of comprehension perfectly suited for children who still inhabit a world where solutions are readily available. Implicit in the riddle’s form is a promise that the rest of the world resolves just as easily. And so riddles comfort the child’s mind which spins wildly before the onslaught of so much information and so many subsequent questions.
The adult world, however, produces riddles of a different variety. They do not have answers and are often called enigmas or paradoxes. Still the old hint of the riddle’s form corrupts these questions by reechoing the most fundamental lesson: there must be an answer. From there comes torment.
It is not uncharacteristic to encounter adults who detest riddles. A variety of reasons may lie behind their reaction but a significant one is the rejection of the adolescent belief in answers. These adults are often the same ones who say “grow up” and “face the facts.” They are offended by the incongruities of yesterday’s riddles with answers when compared to today’s riddles without.
It is beneficial to consider the origins of “riddle.” The Old English rFde1se means “opinion, conjure” which is related to the Old English r&don “to interpret” in turn belonging to the same etymological history of “read.” “Riddling” is an offshoot of “reading” calling to mind the participatory nature of that act-to interpret-which is all the adult world has left when faced with the unsolvable.
“To read” actually comes from the Latin reri “to calculate, to think” which is not only the progenitor of “read” but of “reason” as well, both of which hail from the Greek arariskein “to fit.” Aside from giving us “reason,” arariskein also gives us an unlikely sibling, Latin arma meaning “weapons.” It seems that “to fit” the world or to make sense of it requires either reason or arms. Charmingly enough Karen Green and Audrie MeCullogh “fit it” with a bookshelf.
As we all know, both reason and weapons wifi eventually be resorted to. At least though for now-before the explorations, before the bloodshed-a drill, a hammer, and a Phillips screwdriver suffice.
Karen refers to her books as her “newly found day to day comfort.” By assembling a stronghold for them, she provides a pleasant balance between the known and the unknown. Here stands one warm, solid, and colorful wall of volume after volume of history, poetry, photo albums, and pulp. And though irony eventually subsumes this moment, for now at least it remains uncommented upon and thus wholly innocent. Karen simply removes a photo album, as anyone might do, and causes all the books to fall like dominos along the length of the shelf. However instead of tumbling to the floor, they are soundly stopped, eliciting a smile from both women and this profound remark by Karen: “No better book ends than two walls.”
Lessons from a library. [38-Edith Skourja’s “Riddles Without” in
Riddles Within, ed. Amon Whitten (Chicago: Sphinx Press, 1994), p. 17-
Skourja’s analysis, especially concerning the inherent innocence of Karen’s project, sheds some light on the value of patience.
Walter Joseph Adeltine argues that Skourja forms a dishonest partnership with the shelf building segment: “Riddle me this-Riddle me that-Is all elegant crap. This is not a confrontation with the unknown but a flat-out case of denial.” [39-Walter Joseph Adeltine “Crap,” New Perspectives Quarterly, V. 11, winter 1994, p. 30.] What Adeltine himself denies is the need to face some problems with patience, to wait instead of bumble, or as Tolstoy wrote: “Dans le doute, mon cher… abstiens-toi.” [40
-Something like “When in doubt, friend, do nothing.” War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, 1982, Penguin Classics in New York, p. 885.]
Gibbons when working on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would go on long walks before sitting down to write. Walking was a time to organize his thoughts, focus and relax. Karen’s shelf building serves the same purpose as Gibbon’s retreats outside. Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of “not knowing.” Of course not knowing hardly prevents the approaching chaos. Turn vero omne mihi visum considere in ignis Ilium:
Delenda est Cartha go. [41-Know what, Latin’s way out of my league. I can find people who speak Spanish, French, Hebrew, Italian and even German but the Roman tongue’s not exactly thriving in the streets of LA.
A girl named Amber Rightacre suggested it might have something to do with the destruction of Carthage. [42-In an effort to keep the translations as literal as possible, both Latin phrases read as follows: Then in fact all of Troy seemed to me to sink into flames” (Aeneid II, 624) and “Carthage must be destroyed.” – Ed.] She’s the one who translated and sourced the previous Tolstoy phrase. I’ve actually never read War and Peace but she had, and get this, she read it to Zampanô.
I guess you might say in a roundabout way the old man introduced us.
Anyway since that episode in the tattoo shop, I haven’t gone out as much, though to tell you the truth I’m no longer convinced anything happened. I keep cornering myself with questions: did I really experience some sort of decapacitating seizure, I mean in-? Or did I invent it? Maybe I just got a little creative with a residual hangover or a stupid head rush?
Whatever the truth is, I’ve been spending more and more time riddling through Zampanô’s bits-riddling also means sifting; as in passing corn, gravel or cinders through a coarse sieve; a certain coed taught me that. Not only have I found journals packed with bibliographies and snaking etymologies and strange little, I don’t know what you’d call them, aphorisms??? epiphanies???, I also came across this notepad crammed with names and telephone numbers. Zampanô’s readers. Easily over a hundred of them, though as I quickly discovered more than a few of the numbers are now defunct and very few of the names have last names and for whatever reason those that do are unlisted. I left a couple of messages on some machines and then somewhere on page three, Ms. Rightacre picked up. I told her about my inheritance and she immediately agreed to meet me for a drink.
Amber, it turns out, was quite a number; a quarter French and a quarter Native American with naturally black hair, dark blue eyes and a beautiful belly, long and flat and thin, with a slender twine of silver piercing her navel. A barbed wire tattoo in blue & red encircled her ankle. Whether Zampanô knew it or not, she was a sight I’m sure he was sorry to miss.
“He loved to brag about how uneducated he was,” Amber told me. “I never even went to high school’ he would say. “Good, that makes me smarter than you.’ We talked like that a little, but most of the time, I just read to him. He insisted on Tolstoy. Said I read Tolstoy better than anyone else. I think that was mainly because I could manage the French passages okay, my Canadian background and all.”
After a few more drinks, we ambled over to the Viper. Lude was hanging out at the door and walked us in. Much to my surprise, Amber grabbed my arm as we headed up the stairs. This thing we shared in common seemed to have created a surprisingly intense bond. Lude listened to us for a while, hastening to add at every pause that he was the one who’d found the damn thing, in fact he was the one who’d called me, he’d even seen Amber around his building a few times, but because he hadn’t taken the time to read any of the text he could never address the particulars of our conversation. Amber and I were lost to a different world, a deeper history. Lude knew the play. He ordered a drink on my tab and went in search of other entertainment.
When I eventually got around to asking Amber to describe Zampanô, she just called him “imperceivable and alone, though not I think so lonely.” Then the first band came on and we stopped talking. Afterwards, Amber was the one who resumed the conversation, stepping a little closer, her elbow grazing mine. “I never got the idea he had a family,” she continued. “I asked him once-and I remember this very clearly-I asked him if he had any children. He said he didn’t have any children any more. Then he added: ‘Of course, you’re all my children,’ which was strange since I was the only one there. But the way he looked at me with those blank eyes-” she shuddered and quickly folded her arms as if she’d just gotten cold. “It was like that tiny place of his was suddenly full of faces and he could see them all, even speak to them.
It made me real uneasy, like I was surrounded by ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts?”
I told her I didn’t know.
“I’m a Virgo, what about you?”
We ordered another round of drinks, the next band came up, but we didn’t stay to hear them finish. As we walked to her place-it turned out she lived nearby, right above Sunset Plaza in fact-she kept returning to the old man, a trace of her own obsession mingling with the drift of her thoughts.
“So not so lonely,” she murmured. “I mean with all those ghosts, me and his other children, whoever they were, though actually, hmmm I forgot about this, I don’t know why, I mean it was why I finally stopped going over there. When he blinked, his eyelids, this is kind of weird, but they stayed closed a little bit longer than a blink, like he was consciously closing them, or about to sleep, and I always wondered for a fraction of a second if they would ever open again. Maybe they wouldn’t, maybe he was going to go to sleep or maybe even die, and looking at his face then, so serene and peaceful made me sad, and I guess I take back what I said before, because with hi-8 eyes closed he didn’t look alone, then he looked lonely, terribly lonely, and that made me feel real sad and it made me feel lonely too. I stopped going there after a while. But you know what, not visiting him made me feel guilty. I think I still feel guilty about just dropping out on him like that.”
We stopped talking about Zampanô then. She paged her friend Christina who took less than twenty minutes to come over. There were no
introductions. We just sat down on the floor and snorted lines of coke off a CD case, gulped down a bottle of wine and then used it to play spin the bottle. They kissed each other first, then they both kissed me, and then we forgot about the bottle, and I even managed to forget about Zampanô, about this, and about how much that attack in the tattoo shop had put me on edge. Two kisses in one kiss was all it took, a comfort, a warmth, perhaps temporary, perhaps false, but reassuring nonetheless, and mine, and theirs, ours, all three of us giggling, insane giggles and laughter with still more kisses on the way, and I remember a brief instant then, out of the blue, when I suddenly glimpsed my own father, a rare but oddly peaceful recollection, as if he actually approved of my play in the way he himself had always laughed and played, always laughing, surrendering to its ease, especially when he soared in great updrafts of light, burning off distant plateaus of bistre & sage, throwing him up like an angel, high above the red earth, deep into the sparkling blank, the tender sky that never once let him down, preserving his attachment to youth, propriety and kindness, his plane almost, but never quite, outracing his whoops of joy, trailing him in his sudden turn to the wind, followed then by a near vertical climb up to the angles of the sun, and I was barely eight and still with him and yes, that the thought that flickered madly through me, a brief instant of communion, possessing me with warmth and ageless ease, causing me to smile again and relax as if memory alone could lift the heart like the wind lifts a wing, and so I renewed my kisses with even greater enthusiasm, caressing and in turn devouring their dark lips, dark with wine and fleeting love, an ancient memory love had promised but finally never gave, until there were too many kisses to count or remember, and the memory of love proved not love at all and needed a replacement, which our bodies found, and then the giggles subsided, and the laughter dimmed, and darkness enfolded all of us and we gave away our childhood for nothing and we died and condoms littered the floor and Christina threw up in the sink and Amber chuckled a little and kissed me a little more, but in a way that told me it was time to leave.
And so only now, days later, as I give these moments shape here, do I re -encounter what my high briefly withheld; the covering memory permanently hitched to everything preceding it and so prohibiting all of it, those memories, the good ones, no matter how different, how blissful, eclipsed by the jack-knifed trailer across the highway, the tractor truck lodged in the stony ditch Off the shoulder, oily smoke billowing up into the night, and hardly deterred by the pin prick drizzle, the fire itself crawling up from the punctured fuel tanks, stripping the paint, melting the tires and blackening the shattered glass, the windshield struck from within, each jagged line telling the story of a broken heart which no ten year old boy should ever have to recollect let alone see, even if it is only in half-tone, the ink, all of it, over and over again, finally gathered on his delicate finger tips, as if by tracing the picture printed in the newspaper, he could in some way retract the details of death, smooth away the cab where the man he saw and loved like a god, agonized and died with no word of his own, illegible or otherwise, no god at all, and so by dissolving the black sky bring back the blue. But he never did. He only wore through one newspaper after another which was when the officials responsible for the custody of parentless children decided something was gravely wrong with him and sent him away, making sure he had no more clippings and all the ink, all that remained of his father, was washed from my hands.
Karen’s project is one mechanism against the uncanny or that which is “un-home-like.” She remains watchful and willing to let the bizarre dimensions of her house gestate within her. She challenges its irregularity by introducing normalcy: her friend’s presence, bookshelves, peaceful conversation. In this respect, Karen acts as the quintessential gatherer. She keeps close to the homestead and while she may not forage for berries and mushrooms she does accumulate tiny bits of sense.
Navidson and Tom, on the other hand, are classic hunters. They select weapons (tools; reason) and they track their prey (a solution). Billy Reston is the one they hope will help them achieve their goal. He is a gruff man, frequently caustic and more like a drill sergeant than a tenured professor. He is also a paraplegic who has spent almost half his life in an aluminum wheelchair. Navidson was barely twenty-seven when he first met Reston. Actually it was a photograph that brought them together. Navidson had been on assignment in India, taking pictures of trains, rail workers, engineers, whatever caught his attention. The piece was supposed to capture the clamor of industry outside of Hyderabad. What ended up plastered on the pages of more than a few newspapers, however, was a photograph of a black American engineer desperately trying to out run a falling high voltage wire. The cable had been cut when an inexperienced crane operator had swung wide of a freight car and accidentally collided with an electrical pole. The wood had instantly splintered, tearing in half one of the power cables which descended toward the helpless Billy Reston, spitting sparks, and lashing the air like Nag or Nagaina. [43-Nag and Nagaina were the names of the two cobras iii Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Eventually both were defeated by the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.]
That very photograph hangs on Reston’s office wall. It captures the mixture of fear and disbelief on Reston’s. face as he suddenly finds himself running for his life. One moment he was casually scanning the yard, thinking about lunch, and in the next he was about to die. His stride is stretched, back toes trying to push him out of the way, hands reaching for something, anything, to pull him out of the way. But he is too late. That serpentine shape surrounds him, moving much too fast for any last ditch effort at escape. As Fred de Stabenrath remarked in April 1954, “Les jeux sontfait. Nous sommes fucked.” [44-Fred de Stabenrath purportedly exclaimed this right before he was ki[xxxxxx part missing xxxxxxxx] [45- Zampanô left the rest of this footnote buried beneath a particularly dark spill of ink. At least I’m assuming it’s ink. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s something else. But then that’s not really important.. In some cases, I’ve managed to recover the lost text (see Chapter Nine). Here, however, I failed. Five lines gone along with the rest of Mr. Stabenrath.]
Tom takes a hard look at this remarkable 11 x 14 black and white print. “That was the last time I had legs,” Reston tells him. “Right before that ugly snake bit ’em off. I used to hate the picture and then I sort of became grateful for it. Now when anyone walks into my office they don’t have to think about asking me how I ended up in this here chariot. They can see for themselves. Thank you Navy. You bastard. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi with a Nikon.” Eventually the chat subsides and the three men get down to business. Reston’s response is simple, rational, and exactly what both brothers came to hear: “There’s no question the problem’s with your equipment. I’d have to check out Tom’s stuff myself but I’m willing to bet university money there’s something a little outta whack with it. I’ve got a few things you can borrow: a Stanley Beacon level and a laser distance meter.” He grins at Navidson. “The meter’s even a Leica. That should put this ghost in the grave fast. But if it doesn’t, I’ll come out and measure your place myself and I’ll charge you for my time too.”
Both Will and Tom chuckle, perhaps feeling a little foolish. Reston shakes his head.
“If you ask me Navy, you’ve got a little too much time on your hands. You’d probably be better off if you just took your family for a nice long drive.”
On their way back, Navidson points the Hi 8 toward the darkening horizon.
For a while neither brother says a word.
Will breaks the silence first: “Funny how all it took was a fraction of an inch to get us in a car together.”
“Thanks for coming Tom.”
“Like there was really a chance I’d say no.” A pause. Again Navidson speaks up.
“I almost wonder if I got tangled up in all this measuring stuff just so
I’d have some pretext to call you.”
Despite his best efforts, Tom cannot hold back a laugh: “You know I hate to tell you this but there are simpler reasons you could of come up with.”
“You’re telling me,” Navidson says, shaking his head.
Rain starts splashing down on the windshield and lightning cracks across the sky. Another pause follows.
This time, Tom breaks the silence: “Did you hear the one about the guy on the tightrope?”
Navidson grins: “I’m glad to see some things never change.”
“Hey this one’s true. There was this twenty-five year old guy walking a tightrope across a deep river gorge while half way around the world another twenty-five year old guy was getting a blow job from a seventy year old woman, but get this, at the exact same moment both men were thinking the exact same thought. You know what it was?”
Tom gives his brother a wink.
“Don’t look down.”
And thus as one storm begins to ravage the Virginias, another one just as easily dissipates and vanishes in a flood of bad jokes and old stories.
When confronting the spatial disparity in the house, Karen set her mind on familiar things while Navidson went in search of a solution. The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. They denied the paradox by swallowing it whole. Paradox, after all, is two irreconcilable truths. But children do not know the laws of the world well enough yet to fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable. There are certainly no primal associations with spatial anomalies.
Similar to the ingenuous opening sequence of The Navidson Record, seeing these two giddy children romp around is an equally unsettling experience, perhaps because their state of naïveté is so appealing to us, even seductive, offering such a simple resolution to an enigma. Unfortunately, denial also means ignoring the possibility of peril.
That possibility, however, seems at least momentarily irrelevant when we cut to Will and Tom hauling Billy Reston’s equipment upstairs, the authority of their tools quickly subduing any sense of threat.
Just watching the two brothers use the Stanley Beacon level to establish the distance they will need to measure communicates comfort. When they then turn their attention to the Leica meter it is nearly impossible not to at last expect some kind of resolution to this confounding problem. In fact Tom’s crossed fingers as the Class 2 laser finally fires a tiny red dot across the width of the house manages to succinctly represent our own sympathies.
As the results are not immediate, we wait along with the whole family as the internal computer calibrates the dimension. Navidson captures these seconds in 16mm. His Arriflex, already pre-focused and left running, spools in 24 frames per second as Daisy and Chad sit on their beds in the background, Hillary and Mallory linger in the foreground near Tom, while Karen and Audrie stand off to the right near the newly created bookshelves.
Suddenly Navidson lets out a hoot. It appears the discrepancy has finally been eliminated.
Tom peers over his shoulder, “Good-bye Mr. Fraction.”
“One more time” Navidson says. “One more time. Just to make sure.”
Oddly enough, a slight draft keeps easing one of the closet doors shut. It has an eerie effect because each time the door closes we lose sight of the children.
“Hey would you mind propping that open with something?’ Navidson asks his brother.
Tom turns to Karen’s shelves and reaches for the largest volume he can find. A novel. Just as with Karen, its removal causes an immediate domino effect. Only this time, as the books topple into each other, the last few do not stop at the wall as they had previously done but fall instead to the floor, revealing at least a foot between the end of the shelf and the plaster.
Tom thinks nothing of it.
“Sorry,” he mumbles and leans over to pick up the scattered books.
Which is exactly when Karen screams.