We donated my dad’s eyes. They were very pretty. What eyes aren’t? Somewhere, I suppose, they still are very pretty. The Eye Donation Bank sent a note thanking us for our gift, the eyes, creating an idea of a gruesome jewelry box. The Bank wrote that they are not allowed to share the name of the recipient. A good policy as chances are high that I would have tried to find the person who got my dad’s eyes, catch a glimpse again, probably even tell that person the things my father saw with those eyes: the Minnesota railways, the Korean War, two marriages, six babies, cancer, so many books.
During a trip to California I convinced myself that a stranger’s damp, blue eyes had originally belonged to my dad. I followed him around the vineyard where he worked. He was a tour guide, so I alone knew I was stalking him. I enjoyed the communion.
I looked for my dad in a lot of crazy places after he died. I even looked for him on the horrible Internet. Despite its awfulness, the Internet can fool me into thinking it’s immortal, infinite. In reality, a good number of volumes are missing. When I looked for my dad there, I found little to no evidence of his full life. He hadn’t survived long enough to make a dent in the digital realm. He was a much more material man. His absence was a really good sign that the Internet sucks.
In The Book of Nightmares, Galway Kinnell writes of wearing secondhand shoes, and of reanimating the foot smells of the departed. In the tenth nightmare he writes:
This is the tenth poem
and it is the last. It is right
at the last, that one
walk off together,
walk off the end of these pages together,
walking away side by side with the emptiness.
Death as a perfect 10. The book ends. Though I don’t imagine Kinnell was thinking this, the 1 and the 0 are also binary code. That other place where the book ends.
In college I convinced my housemate to drive a handful of hours with me to Sheffield, Vermont. We parked outside Galway Kinnell’s house to see what he was up to. As a young woman living in the state of Vermont, Kinnell was problematically fascinating to me. The white linen suits. His salt and pepper hair. But mostly I admired the way he thought about death. Nothing happened outside Kinnell’s house (I think there was a sheep nearby?) We eventually drove home. You say stalker, I say writer.
This is the way our eyeballs actually work. Seeing tiny bits, leaving our brain to assemble those bits into something that makes sense. Where is The Dark Dark? It’s those moments between the specks of seeing, the spots of sense.
This is the way our eyeballs actually work. Seeing tiny bits, leaving our brain to assemble those bits into something that makes sense.
In 2004 Canadian artist Janet Cardiff and her partner Georges Bures Miller created a work of art that changed me. It is a sound walk through New York’s Central Park, completed with headphones and a small packet of photos. Cardiff’s voice leads the way.
Try to walk to the sound of my footsteps so we can stay together. And then go down the stairs. All the way to the bottom. There’s a woman below talking on a cell phone . . . Walking is very calming—one step after another, one foot moving into the future, and one in the past. Did you ever think about that? It’s like our bodies are caught in the middle. The hard part is staying in the present, really being here, really feeling alive. Stop.
All the while, because of the binaural recording system used by Cardiff and Miller, a walker hears Cardiff’s footsteps right behind her, just at the back of the brain. “I keep thinking I hear someone behind us,” Cardiff says after a silence. “But we can’t look back. It’s one of the rules of today.” Every time I took the walk, despite the sunshine, despite the crowds of the city, this moment chilled me. I always had to look back. And every time no one, everyone, was there.
Cardiff follows the path of a woman with long, dark hair, a woman who exists in three photographs once taken in the park and tucked into the audio set the walker wears. The dark haired woman walked this path. Cardiff later followed her. I, and thousands of other New Yorkers, later followed Cardiff. The piece is built in overlapping layers, like memory, like thought. The walker keeps walking, keeps listening through them all.
CARDIFF: Go to the left . . . We’re following the course of an old stream that they put underground when they began building the park. They uncovered human bones buried a hundred years before.
A YOUNG MAN: You will come to this my queen, after the sacraments, when you rot underground among the bones already there. But as their kisses eat you up, my beauty, tell the worms I’ve kept the sacred essence, saved the form of my rotted loves.
AN OLDER MAN: The spring afterwards, in 1850, I escaped again. Chased by dogs. Hiding by day in the bushes and moving north by night. After three months walking I made it across the border into Canada.
CARDIFF: Follow the road to the right. While Harry Thomas made his epic nighttime journey across America, Baudelaire walked the streets of Paris. I like to imagine that at times their footsteps lined up as if they walked together.
I made the walk multiple times, laying down tracks on top of my own histories even. Imagine one day my walk was dark blue, another day yellow-green. I started to believe that Cardiff found the photos of the dark haired walker in a junk shop, by chance. Now, so many years later, I wonder where I got this idea. Did Cardiff make it up? Did I make it up? Could it possibly even be the truth? Do I care?
Cardiff’s walk is the truest walk I’ve taken.
Her Long Black Hair doesn’t exist anymore. The work has been taken down so my memory has had its way with it, misremembering bits. I can’t say any longer what is Cardiff’s and what is mine. An intimacy so tangled with a woman I don’t even know. The best metaphor is ashes, dirt.
When I was looking for my dad on the Internet, I found another Walter Hunt, the man who invented the safety pin. I never knew my dad shared a name with this essential inventor, yet I’m sure he knew this himself. It is just the sort of alignment that would have tickled him.
My dad has no grave. My mom kept his ashes in a briefcase under her bed until she started dating again. Then she moved my dad to the hallway. She’s waiting for her own death so that we can release them together. I used to think that was a good idea.
My dad has no grave. My mom kept his ashes in a briefcase under her bed until she started dating again.
Walter Hunt of the safety pin is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery not too far from Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. My father must have planted this joke years before he was born for me to find one day, years after he was dead. The safety pin and the sewing machine. It makes me laugh every time.
One of my daughters asks for help pinning an item of clothing. She presents me with that ingenious tool invented by Walter Hunt. I take it in hand. Piercing P (the past), I, (me) and N (now) with a sharp stick. My dad holds onto the granddaughters he never did get to meet, even if he can’t quite see them.
Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, The Seas, earned her selection as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Her novel, Mr. Splitfoot, was an IndieNext Pick. The Dark Dark, her book of short stories, was published in July. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, Tin House, A Public Space, and many other publications. She lives in upstate New York.