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Something Happened 1
"ENDLESSLY FASCINATING ... Maintains Heller in the first rank of American writers.... The vision we get is one of chilling recognition. What is revealed is not really the hero at all, but ourselves. Me. You. Them."
--William Kennedy, author of Ironweed
"HELLER HAS DISCOVERED AND POSSESSED NEW TERRITORIES OF THE IMAGINATION, and he has produced a major work of fiction ... ambitious and profound, a brilliant commentary on American life that must surely be considered the most important novel in at least a decade!"
"CONVINCING AND COMPELLING!"
--Rust Hills, Esquire
"[In CATCH-22] Heller took on the military system. This time he's undoing the American Dream."
--The Philadelphia Inquirer
"AN EXTRAORDINARY REVELATION ... enriched by some of the best dialogue written in English today."
--Chicago Daily News
Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
I Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
New York, New York 10017
A portion of this book appeared in Esquire.
Copyright (c) 1966, 1974 by Scapegoat Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. For information address Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, New York.
Dell (r) TM 681510, Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
Reprinted by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
First Dell printing--February 1985
I get the willies
The office in which I work
My wife is unhappy
My daughter's unhappy
My little boy is having difficulties
It is not true
There's no getting away from it
My boy has stopped talking to me
Nobody knows what I've done
Other Books by This Author
I get the willies
I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just plain nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why.
Something must have happened to me sometime.
Maybe it was the day I came home unexpectedly with a fever and a sore throat and caught my father in bed with my mother that left me with my fear of doors, my fear of opening doors and my suspicion of closed ones. Or maybe it was the knowledge that we were poor, which came to me late in childhood, that made me the way I am. Or the day my father died and left me feeling guilty and ashamed--because I thought I was the only little boy in the whole world then who had no father. Or maybe it was the realization, which came to me early, that I would never have broad shoulders and huge biceps, or be good enough, tall enough, strong enough, or brave enough to become an All-American football player or champion prize-fighter, the sad, discouraging realization that no matter what it was in life I ever tried to do, there would always be somebody close by who would be able to do it much better. Or maybe it was the day I did open another door and saw my big sister standing naked, drying herself on the white-tile floor of the bathroom. She yelled at me, even though she knew she had left the door unlocked and that I had stumbled in on her by accident. I was scared.
I remember also, with amusement now, because it happened so long ago, the hot summer day I wandered into the old wooden coal shed behind our redbrick apartment building and found my big brother lying on the floor with Billy Foster's skinny kid sister, who was only my own age and even in the same class I was at school. I had gone to the shed to hammer the wheels and axles from a broken baby carriage I had picked up near a garbage can and use them on a wagon I wanted to make out of a cantaloupe crate and a long plank. I heard a faint, frantic stirring the moment I entered the dark place and felt as though I had stepped on something live. I was startled and smelled dust. I smiled with relief when I saw it was my brother lying on the floor with someone in the sooty shadows filling a far corner. I felt safe again. I said:
"Hi, Eddie. Is that you, Eddie? What are you doing, Eddie?"
And he shouted:
"Get the hell out of here, you little son of a bitch!" And hurled a lump of coal.
I ducked away with a soft moan, tears filling my eyes, and fled for my life. I bolted outside into the steaming, bright sunlight in front of my house, where I scuttled back and forth helplessly on the sidewalk, wondering what in the world I had done to make my big brother so angry with me that he would swear at me like that and hurl a heavy lump of coal. I couldn't decide whether to run away or wait; I felt too guilty to escape and almost too frightened to stay and take the punishment I knew I deserved--although I didn't know for what. Powerless to decide, I hung and quivered there on the sidewalk in front of my house until the enormous wooden door of the old shed finally creaked open toward me and they both came out slowly from the yawning blackness behind. My brother walked in back of her with a smug look. He smiled when he saw me and made me feel better. It was only after I saw him smile that I noticed the girl in front of him was Billy Foster's tall and skinny kid sister, who was very good in penmanship at school but could never get more than a seventy on a spelling, geography, or arithmetic test, even though she always tried to cheat. I was surprised to see them together; it had not entered my mind that he even knew her. She walked with her eyes down and pretended not to see me. They approached slowly. Everything took a long time. She was angry and said nothing. I was silent too. My brother winked at me over her head and gave an exaggerated tug to the top of his pants. He walked with a swagger I had never seen before and knew at once I did not like. It made me uneasy to see him so different. But I was so grateful for his wink that I began wiggling with happiness and excitement and began giggling at him almost uncontrollably. I was giddy with relief and started jabbering. I said:
"Hi, Eddie. What was happening in there, Eddie? Did something happen?"
And he laughed and answered: "Oh, yeah, something happened, all right. Didn't something happen, Geraldine?" And, smirking, nudged her playfully on the arm with his elbow.
Geraldine pulled away from him with a quick, cross smile of annoyance and moved past both of us without looking up. When she was gone, my brother said:
"Don't tell Mom."
He knew I wouldn't if he asked me not to.
Later, when I began to visualize and dwell upon (I still do fantasize and dwell upon that episode when I look back, and I look back more and more often now) the many wet, scratchy, intense, intimate things that probably had happened on the floor of that coal shed that day, I was amazed and almost marveled out loud at the idea of my big brother joined in sex with Billy Foster's skinny kid sister, who was even a few months younger than I was and had big teeth and was not even pretty.
There was so much more I wanted to find out then about him and her on the floor of that shed, but I was never bold enough to ask, even though my brother was normally a mild, helpful person who was very good to me while he was alive.
Today, there are so many things I don't want to find out. I'd really rather not know, for example (even though my wife and I feel obliged to probe), exactly what kind of games are played at the parties my teenage daughter goes to, or what kind of cigarettes are smoked, or what color pills or capsules are sniffed or swallowed. When police cars collect, I don't want
to know why, although I'm glad they've arrived and hope they've come in time to do what they've been called to do. When an ambulance comes, I'd rather not know for whom. And when children drown, choke, or are killed by automobiles or trains, I don't want to know which children they are, because I'm always afraid they might turn out to be mine.
I have a similar aversion to hospitals and the same misgivings and distaste for people I know who fall ill. I never make hospital visits if I can avoid them, because there's always the risk I might open the door of the private or semiprivate room and come upon some awful sight for which I could not have prepared myself. (I'll never forget my shock in a hospital room the first time I saw a rubber tube running down inside somebody through a nostril still stained with blood. It was tan, that tube, and semitransparent.) When friends, relatives, and business acquaintances are stricken with heart attacks now, I never call the hospital or hospital room to find out how they are, because there's always the danger I might find out they are dead. I try not to talk to their wives and children until I've first checked with somebody else who has talked to them and can give me the assurance I want that everything is no worse than before. This sometimes strains relationships (even with my wife, who is always asking everybody how they are and running to hospitals with gifts to visit people who are there), but I don't care. I just don't want to talk to people whose husband or father or wife or mother or child may be dying, even though the dying person himself might be someone I feel deeply attached to. I never want to find out that anybody I know is dead.
One time, though (ha, ha), after someone I knew did die, I braced myself, screwed up my valor, and, feigning ignorance, telephoned the hospital that same day to inquire about his condition. I was curious: I wanted to see what it would feel like to hear the hospital tell me that someone I knew was dead. I wondered how it was done; I was preoccupied and even titillated by this problem of technique. Would they decide he had died, passed away, succumbed, was deceased, or perhaps even had expired? (Like a magazine subscription or an old library card?) The woman on the telephone at the hospital surprised me. She said:
"Mr. _____ is no longer listed as a patient."
It took nerve to make that telephone call, it took all my nerve. And I was trembling like a leaf when I hung up. Certainly, my heart was pounding with great joy and excitement at my narrow escape, for I had fancied from my very first syllable, from the first digit I dialed, that the woman at the hospital knew exactly what I was up to--that she could see me right through the telephone connection and could see right into my mind--and would say so. She didn't. She just said what she was instructed to say and let me escape scot-free. (Was it a recorded announcement?) And I have never forgotten that tactful procedure:
"Mr. _____ is no longer listed as a patient."
Mr. _____ was dead. He was no longer among the living. Mr. _____ was no longer listed as a patient, and I had to go to his funeral three days later.
I hate funerals--I hate funerals passionately because there is always something morbid about them--and I do my best to avoid going to any (especially my own, ha, ha). At funerals I do have to attend, I try not to speak to anyone; I merely press palms and look overcome. Occasionally, I mumble something inaudible, and I always lower my eyes, the way I see people do in movies. I don't trust myself to do more. Since I don't know what to say when somebody dies, I'm afraid that anything I do say will be wrong. I really don't trust myself anymore in any tight situation whose outcome I can't control or predict. I'm not even happy changing a fuse or an electric light bulb.
Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur. I dislike anything unexpected. If furniture is rearranged even slightly (even in my office) without my prior knowledge it is like receiving a blow in the face or a stab in the back. I dislike everything sudden. I am angered and hurt by surprises of every sort; even those surprises that are organized to bring me pleasure always end with a leaden aftertaste of sorrow and self-pity, a sensation that I have been planned against and exploited for somebody else's delight, that a secret has been kept from me, that a conspiracy has succeeded from which I was excluded. (I am not the easiest person to live with.) I loathe conflict (with everyone but the members of my household). There are many small, day-to-day conflicts with which I am simply unable to cope any longer without great agony and humiliation: a disagreement with a repairman who is cheating me out of service or a small amount of money, or a conversation of complaint with one of those blankly elusive people who work in the business offices of telephone companies. (I would sooner let myself be cheated.) Or the time the mice got into the apartment before I became a minor executive with my company and began earning enough money to move out of the city into my own home in Connecticut (which I hate).
I didn't know what to do about those mice. I never saw them. Only the cleaning woman did, or said she did, and one time my wife thought she did, and one time my wife's mother was almost sure she did. After a while the mice just disappeared. They went away. They stopped coming out. I'm not even sure they were really there. We stopped talking about them and they seemed to be gone, and it was just as though they had never been there at all. They were baby mice (according to all responsible accounts) and must have squeezed their way in through the small squares in the grille covering the radiator. I didn't mind the mice too much, as long as I didn't have to see or hear them, although I would often catch myself listening for them and occasionally believe I did hear them. But they gave my wife the creeps and kept her in a constant state of fright. She wanted me to do something about them.
So every night I had to set traps for them. And every morning, while my wife and children watched fearfully over my shoulder, I had to open each of the closet and cupboard doors, peer behind each of the sofas and beds and corner armchairs, to see what new and ugly surprise was lying in wait for me to help launch that particular day. Even no surprise was a shocking surprise. It bothered me to have my family standing around staring at me in such grave absorption and suspense, because two of my children are high-strung and insecure to begin with and were already scared enough. My other boy has brain damage and doesn't know anything. And I wasn't so sure even then that I liked my family well enough as a group to want them pressing upon me so closely in such a tense and personal situation.
I never knew what I would find when I opened the doors to inspect my traps or looked behind the furniture, stove, or refrigerator. I was afraid I would catch the mice and find them dead in the traps and have to dispose of them. I was afraid that I wouldn't catch the mice, and that I would have to go through the same repulsive ritual of setting and inspecting the traps night after night and morning after morning for God knows how long. What I dreaded most of all, though, was that I would open a door in the kitchen and find a live mouse crouching in a dark corner that would hesitate only long enough for me to spy it and then come bounding out past me beneath the thick, rolled-up magazine I always gripped in my sweating fist as a weapon. Oh, God, if that ever happened. If that ever happened, I knew I would have to make myself hit it as hard as I could. I knew I would have to force myself to swing at it with all my strength and try to bludgeon the poor thing to death with one solid blow, and I knew I would fail and only cripple it. Then, as it lay there before me still struggling on its smashed and broken legs, although I would not want to, I knew I would have to raise the heavy magazine and club it again, and then again, and perhaps then again, until I had killed it completely.
The possibility of finding a live mouse behind every door I opened each morning filled me with nausea and made me tremble. It was not that I was afraid of the mouse itself (I'm not that silly), but if I ever did find one, I knew I would have to do something about it.
The office in which I work
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding ov
erlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.
All these twelve men are elderly now and drained by time and success of energy and ambition. Many have spent their whole lives here. They seem friendly, slow, and content when I come upon them in the halls (they seem dead) and are always courteous and mute when they ride with others in the public elevators. They no longer work hard. They hold meetings, make promotions, and allow their names to be used on announcements that are prepared and issued by somebody else. Nobody is sure anymore who really runs the company (not even the people who are credited with running it), but the company does run. Sometimes these twelve men at the top work for the government for a little while. They don't seem interested in doing much more. Two of them know what I do and recognize me, because I have helped them in the past, and they have been kind enough to remember me, although not, I'm sure, by name. They inevitably smile when they see me and say: "How are you?" (I inevitably nod and respond: "Fine.") Since I have little contact with these twelve men at the top and see them seldom, I am not really afraid of them. But most of the people I am afraid of in the company are.
Just about everybody in the company is afraid of somebody else in the company, and I sometimes think I am a cowering boy back in the automobile casualty insurance company for which I used to work very long ago, sorting and filing automobile accident reports after Mrs. Yerger was placed in charge of the file room and kept threatening daily to fire us all. She was a positive, large woman of overbearing confidence and nasty amiability who never doubted the wisdom of her biases. A witty older girl named Virginia sat under a big Western Union clock in that office and traded dirty jokes with me ("My name's Virginia--Virgin for short, but not for long, ha, ha."); she was peppy and direct, always laughing and teasing (with me, anyway), and I was too young and dumb then to see that she wasn't just joking. (Good God--she used to ask me to get a room for us somewhere, and I didn't even know how! She was extremely pretty, I think now, although I'm not sure I thought so then, but I did like her, and she got me hot. Her father had killed himself a few years before.) Much went on there in that company too that I didn't know about. (Virginia herself had told me that one of the married claims adjusters had taken her out in his car one night, turned insistent, and threatened to rape her or put her out near a cemetery, until she pretended to start to cry.) I was afraid to open doors in that company too, I remember, even when I had been sent for by one of the lawyers or adjusters to bring in an important file or a sandwich. I was never sure whether to knock or walk right in, to tap deferentially or rap loudly enough to be heard at once and command admission. Either way, I would often encounter expressions of annoyance and impatience (or feel I did. I had arrived too soon or arrived too late).