There is no accident at the core of this so-called “essay.” Ok, there is, but it’s not what you think. What do you think? That there’s been a calamity, an event, someone hurt, the writer, I sustained an injury in this event and—. “Sustain” is a good word, so is “I.” I kept it going, I gave it sustenance. A bruise, pressing on, onward. My truck, an old Chevrolet, 1966, I’m looking underneath by the passenger door, I don’t remember now what for, but I notice this big round dent in the sheetmetal below the door. The door’s fine, but the dent is like, those near-boulders for landscaping—that kind of diameter. From the surface rust, I see it’s been there a while, a few months maybe, but I hadn’t had cause before to notice it. This is a big bash in 1966 steel, the real thing, and the rigidity added by the tight curve where vertical goes to horizontal below the door, that’s not nothin’. So this real big dent, bam, the truck would’ve rocked off whatever made it, and how did the truck land like that anyway? The dent is a hollow, a bowl, an even curve, like a gaunt cheek or more a hip socket. When it happens what is it. I’m sitting in the cab driving and bam, the truck leaps up then bounces down, what does the wheel do, the brakes, or maybe I gun it from sudden wakefulness or maybe I’m already that storm of the thirteenth big drink, stiff Spanish coffee and the recrystalline sugar on the rim tips my blood full forward so the drive home is just a breeze. Was anyone injured? Is that the question?
Injury, Latin jur, right, law; plus in, not, the negation, as in indestructible, inhospitable, indirect. Injury: not right, against the law. When I first started drinking, I thought I’d found the answer. I thought it corrected me. I thought, if I had an intravenous alcohol drip I’d be like everyone else. So I’d started out dislocated, and drinking located me. That was the idea. A summer when my mother is visiting from Baltimore, she shows up by my elbow around ten while I’m eating pot stickers at the Candlelight with a malty rye whiskey they have there and that I’ve taken to. She’s staying with me for a week, in the half-renovated house I’d bought soon after divorce, and I’d called at six from my truck outside a job site to say I was on my way home. The job is residential, a big wall with a fireplace converted to gas and a flat screen TV to be installed above it. I’m sort of paneling the area with squares of matched-veneer ply, between each of which are half-inch strips of stainless steel. That part’s a little exacting, but what makes the job is the wide panel that covers the TV and is raised to watch it. When it’s down, the panel just takes its place in the pattern of veneer with the rest of the panels; when it’s up, it does this too, fits right up above, you wouldn’t know either way that there was anything to move up or down, a camouflage panel, as if one minute, there is no TV, then blink, there it is, a screen. It’s one of those things took some real doing to make simple. It’s easy to make things hard. In this case, after some days, I had finally thought: A window, the old kind with counterweights and sash cord, when those are working right there’s nothing better. So I engineered a finer version, scaled down the parts, took a small steel pulley and rigged it with vinyl-coated 3/32” aircraft cable, looked up a weight-per-length table for inch-square steel solid stock for counterweights, which sit behind the paneled wall, and the rest of the apparatus you really do not notice unless you know to look for it. You take one finger to underneath the panel, take it all the way next to one edge if you want, lift up and the panel rises, stop and it stops then stays, it stays right there where you left it. I know I’m the one who made it, but I have to say, it’s fuckin brilliant, and to borrow a technical term of the trade, it’s totally cherry. So anyway, I leave the site in my truck at 6:00, and a few blocks from home, I stop for a drink—I never drink while working, and I’m not going to drink around my mother, so when else can I—and besides, it won’t take long, what’s ten or twenty minutes. The Candlelight has a long, long bar, and it’s mostly just me and the bartender, who knows my drink and when I lift my glass to her she pours another and a beer back. I’m checking the clock, of course, and every twenty minutes or so, I mean, what’s another drink, there’s really no difference between 7:40 and 7:55, for example. I’m hungry and I don’t know what time it is. I mean I know what time it is, but I sure as hell don’t even know what time it is. Located, but not located. There are three of nine pot stickers left when my mother shows up at my elbow at ten. Raffie, she says, standing in her stillness, arms slack at her sides, face loose too but concentrating, brow unfurrowed but eyes intent. I’ve seen her search another’s face, peer first into one eye then quickly switch to the other, trying to see, trying to see. No searching now though. Recognition. Her eyes don’t waver. Oh hi, I say, as if I’m happy for the surprise encounter. And I am, that’s the thing, and the pot stickers are really good so I ask her if she wants any. They’re really good, I say.
While writing this essay, I’ve been reading a John Berger collection, Understanding a Photograph. In the essay “Appearances,” Berger highlights certain concepts about photographs by contrast with “a lived past”—with memories. He notes that, in photographs, “an instant of the past is arrested so that…it can never lead to the present…. Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.” This abyss creates “a shock of discontinuity.” Not so with memories, according to Berger: whereas “a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant,” memories reside in the flow of a “lived past”; they are “the residue of continuous experience.” For Berger, then, memories (or, “remembered images”) fit into the meaningful narrative we make of our lives. But I’m not so sure: not sure experience is continuous, and not sure memories slip neatly into it. We might be narrating machines, we might automatically try to weave a story of whatever appears before us, but that doesn’t mean we always succeed. And some memories might forever lie outside our narrative capabilities. Some memories might be dropped stitches. What did I mean when I said, a couple pages ago, “when I started drinking”? I had drunk before, after all, had gotten drunk before, had drunk myself sick. But that wasn’t drinking the way I mean it now. I mean as an activity. As its own reason. Something to spend real time at. To work at. Become better and better at it. Expert. Not corollary to something else, not additional, neither cause nor consequence necessarily. Drinking is a hurricane. Drinking doesn’t care about you. So injury is a good word: not right; not law. Because what are storms but natural events that wreak havoc on what we want to be right, to be lawful, to be true. To true a line, to true a blade, a table, a beam. To true a self. And yet. And yet—by what measure does one true oneself, and what imaginary stasis—ephemeral, human—does a storm disrupt? I went off course, we say about our lives’ rough spots, or I took a wrong turn, as if we’d neglected to consult the map in the glove-box, or ignored Siri’s companionable directions. So perhaps injury is not the right word at all. On holidays, my wife, Barbara, doesn’t like to drive in the evenings: amateur night, she says. Not even part-timers, out on the roads. Amateurs. Amare. Lovers. The sweet first kisses. They don’t know how to drive.
One afternoon, early in sobriety—a year and a half, maybe; Barbara and I had started up, I think she’d already moved in—I’m ripping ten-foot boards of rough-sawn 4/4 mahogany to blank out door parts for a long row of floor-to-ceiling cabinets. They’re for the bedroom of a condo where I’d already built out the kitchen, bath, and office. When the bedroom’s done, so is the whole job. It feels really good to be almost finished. It can be real physical, woodworking. Ripping a board is cutting it lengthwise, and in this case I’m trimming each rough plank with the tablesaw, leaving slim offcuts that often taper down to a thin ribbon. Push with your right hand, guide with your left. I’ve nearly cleared the blade with the end of one board when bam, a three-foot length of offcut has speared my left hand, or more precisely, the middle finger, entering at such a low angle it sits now along the bone, with the finger’s flesh, surprisingly elastic, holding it close. Jesus, Christ. I look away.
This is my first job for a new builder, who I’ve hooked up with because I needed to expand my client list—I’d been relying too much on work from one contractor, a French Canadian named Michael Broccocki, who’d literally managed a circus before turning to contracting. He’s very charismatic, Michael, a big guy with a scar on his lip I never ask him about, a guy who runs too many jobs and the first time I meet him he’s on the phone convincing a painter to leave off another job to take on his, then turns to me and says, I’m such a user. One time on the phone he tells me, You have become indispensable to me, Raphael. I have become indispensable to him, I tell my therapist. Oh Raphael, she says. The last time I see Michael, we’re sitting on a low wall outside my bank, and he’s asking me to tell him how much to write the check for, he can’t remember, would $500 do it, or is $5,000 better. My truck is loaded with most of what I need for the next job, and the suppliers are waiting to get paid. Michael has been in the hospital for depression and he’s just been released, the doctors or insurance deciding he’s good enough to go. A few days later, his wife calls me, she’s calling contacts in his phone, which she had found on the dining table the day before. He never does return: he is found in the woods near his girlfriend’s house. He has shot himself with her gun. I imagine him, I hold him in my mind’s gaze, in the woods. Against a tree, back to a tree. Seated. Legs outstretched? Or crossed? Neither, probably: knees up, or, perhaps, cavalier, genteel, one knee up and the other straight, resting on half-composted evergreen needles. Is he weeping? Shoulders hunched forward? Sternum drawn back toward his spine, down a touch toward his kidneys? That can’t be right. Because listen. One day, Michael tells me a story. He’s a young man, still in Canada, and a dog is hurt. Is that the story, that the dog is hurt? He takes the dog into the woods. He doesn’t have to, but he does. He takes the dog and a gun and he shoots the dog. A pistol. He takes the dog and a pistol into the woods. My God, he says. Can you imagine? Can I? How does a dog stand. The dog is standing. Lots of smells. So its nose is down. Then up, as the light breeze shifts and the humid vale is brought to its attention. Michael stands. My God, he says.
Unlike memories—according to Berger, in “Appearances”—photographs are “irrefutable as evidence, but weak in meaning.” This is because, in Berger’s view, “Photographs do not translate from appearances. They quote from them.” Without translation, without interpretation, no meaning: just facts. “An X-ray photograph of a wounded leg,” writes Berger, “can tell the ‘utter truth’ about whether the bones are fractured or not. But how does a photograph tell the ‘utter truth’ about a man’s experience of hunger?” This one guy in AA—not quite an old-timer, I guess, he didn’t carry himself that way, though when he spoke he presided, he was a biker and in Vietnam had been a marine sniper—he would say, Just because you get sober doesn’t mean everything’s fuckin wonderful. Thirty days, ninety, six months, stuff comes due, child support, rent, the mortgage, car breaks down, you lose your job, girlfriend leaves, collections knock, nobody give you a prize for being your sober fuckin miserable self.
So maybe that was it, a mortgage come due, and now it’s there stuck along two-thirds of the middle finger of my left hand, flesh tight around its long fibers, sharp end poking out the edge of the pad closest to the palm. What house had I staked, and to what bank? Mother fucker, I yell. The one other person in the shop at the time, Kris, comes rushing over and I’m crouched to the floor, could you get me some water, I say, and she thinks I mean to clean with, but I say no, a glass of water to drink, so I don’t pass out. The stick of mahogany, three feet long, is an eighth of an inch thick and one inch wide at the point where it potrudes from my finger. Any amazement at how the thin skin of the finger can stretch so much, so tight, is overshadowed in that moment by nausea, especially when the spear moves and I feel its heft along my bone. I look at it only once, then wrap it in the clean shop rag Kris hands me along with the glass of water. Another shopmate, Ben, arrives and together he and Kris begin to escort me out of the shop. I’m holding my pierced hand above my head, with my other hand steadying the upright stick of mahogany so it won’t rip my flesh like a letter opener slices an envelope. But as we step to the hallway, the mahogany hits the bottom of the open metal rollup door. I turn and say We have to cut it shorter. So we three woodworkers approach the chopsaw. I lay my hand on the sawbed about six inches away from the blade’s path. Ben reaches for the saw’s handle and pushes the stick against the fence. Use a block, I tell him: I want to be sure the stick doesn’t jump when the blade hits it. I’m older than Ben and I’m known in the shop for overcaring about perfection. You’re telling me right now to back this up with a block? he says, then does just that and makes a quick slice. In line at the Urgent Care intake desk, I keep both hands above my head, bloody rag with the mahogany, like a stubby paint-stirrer, sticking up diagonally. At the counter, the intake nurse gets my name, then asks, And what are you here for? This piece of wood that’s stuck in my finger, I say.
As a fuller example of Berger’s idea that photographs “quote” from appearances and therefore are “weak in meaning,” he points to a photograph by Andre Kertesz, captioned “A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919, Budapest.” In the center of the image, a soldier and his wife face each other, a few feet apart. The woman holds a small child. The three are surrounded by a few onlookers, including us, the viewers of the photograph. Berger writes, “Everything in it [the photograph] is historical: the uniforms, the rifles, the corner of the Budapest railway station.” And by “historical,” he means history in general, the kind of history that sweeps individuals up in its flood, history with a capital H. If that were all that this photograph entailed, then the figures in it would be mere “objects of history,” Berger notes, and as such, any meaning to their image must be supplied by the viewer’s general knowledge of the historical facts before and after June 1919, Budapest. Any number of like photographs, then, could tell us the same story.
In the exam room, the ER nurse is a bit alarmed, then curious, then tentative. She takes X-rays to get a handle on the situation. She doesn’t want to do something damaging. While we wait for the X-rays to develop, Barbara arrives. She kisses my forehead, squeezes my shoulders, then steps back and takes pictures with her cell phone of my wounded hand with the stick still in it.
The story Kertesz’s photograph tells, Berger notes, doesn’t stop at mere History. That’s not all the photograph entails, all that it holds. Berger goes on to say that this photograph also “opposes history.” How, why? Because the soldier and his wife look intently at each other, they share a gaze, one which no onlookers share with them. And with that gaze, that “act of recognition…each hopes to take away an image of the other which will withstand anything that may happen.” The figures in the photograph transport themselves out of their capital-H, historically-bound frame. This element that “opposes history” and that seems to inhere in the photograph as much as it needs a viewer to observe it, is much like the ideas of Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, about what he calls the punctum, “that which pierces me,” that exists in some lucky photographs. Punctum, Latin for puncture, a little hole, a piercing—as opposed to studium, a general ground which one might well like but not love. The punctum, writes Barthes, is a small detail in a photograph that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces” the viewer and “is poignant.” The punctum causes the viewer to “animate” the photograph and to be animated by it. Figures in the photograph continue to live outside the photograph’s frame: and the viewer, too, is transported out of the frame of his or her own life. Contact with alterity, then, with otherness. A mystical relation to the world. Perhaps this is meaning, John Berger, and perhaps it is strong. One morning, early in my drinking career, I go outside and have an epiphany. I’m thinking I won’t drink that evening, but then I think, it doesn’t matter if I do or not: what matters is that I’m thinking about it, that I’m trying to decide, to choose; that the drinking is there whether I do it or not. Several years later, my friend Kristin drops me off at home after picking me up from the airport. I’d called her drunk the week before and as she’s getting back in her car to leave, she tells me not to call her drunk again. Oh, I say. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think it mattered. Yeah well, she says, pulling up her leg to shut the car door, next time, think about it. It matters.
When the X-rays come back, the ER nurse takes my hand in one of hers, and with her other hand, she tugs on the mahogany. It stays put. She tugs again, for a long few seconds. Nothing. Hmm, she says. She goes to get the hand specialist, who strides in, grips my wrist, steadily tugs, until finally the stick does slide out of my finger. Oh!, says the nurse, just pull harder! Back home, stitched up, my finger soaking in a bowl of warm water, I look at the piece of mahogany that I’d been so close to. That Which Pierced Me is now in a clear baggie with an orange BIOHAZARD sticker on it. The dried blood will turn from the color of rust to a more muted brown, and finally almost black, as the wood too oxidizes and turns a richer, deeper brown.