1 12:23 A.M.: I tried to swallow a handful of tacks. 1:54 A.M.: I’ve poured kerosene over myself. Tell me why I shouldn’t light the match. 2:08 A.M.: I’ve got a banana stuck up my rectum. It’s not a joke. Trust me. 4:32 A.M.: I’ve just found my father. He’s hanging from a rafter in the garage, cold to the touch. My mom’s been gone for days. My brother’s still sleeping. I just want to go out the door and keep running. 2 You’re trained to speak slowly, as if all of it were perfectly natural; to treat scrubbing kerosene from your body or pulling a piece of fruit out of your asshole as no different from any of the other nearly impossible tasks life asks of us. So you wait till the young woman’s washed the kerosene from her hair and has come back on the line. You persuade the young man that there are worse fates than getting fruit stuck in your rectum and get him laughing till he’s relaxed enough to let his body solve the problem on its own. For the boy whose father’s hung himself, you make your voice stern, you take his address, you keep him talking till there’s someone at the door. You tell the girl with the tack caught at the back of her throat that she is not to move any more than is necessary. You make your voice as steady as a flashlight shone into a dark place. 3 A boy dresses in his mother’s lingerie, or a girl can’t keep down any of the meals her mother spends so much time cooking. Maybe to eat them would be to subscribe to your mother’s version of what a woman should be? You make everything you say sound like a guess. Maybe you’re not crazy. Maybe we are, the men who are so afraid of trying on something sheer, something so silky the belly and buttocks fall in love with it. Yeah, he laughs. Yes, she says with a sigh that means she didn’t believe there was anyone who had a clue how she felt. How many of us spend our lives traveling back and forth between the harm we inflict and the good we want to do? Between the words we hope will heal and the hurtful words that felt so right we had no intention of taking them back? 4 As soon as I say what I want to do, you’re going to think me a monster, even if it’s your job not to. It’s the very thing I can’t bear to imagine, so it’s all I can imagine. I think of it so often I’m afraid I’ve actually done it. 5 There was no mistaking the voice. It woke up the city every morning with banter, trivia, quizzes that everybody won, weather reports told with a sweet irony, ball scores turned into verse, songs so intelligent in their good cheer it was hard for even a cynic to dismiss them. Turn to 850 on the AM dial, and there he’d be, singing so off-key, inviting everyone once again to laugh at themselves no matter what crises they faced that day. The whole metropolitan area had changed diapers and drunk coffee and ridden to work with this man. What they needed to hear in the midst of traffic he had said. How to comfort a man who’d brought comfort to millions? Words can only do so much. 6 A girl’s dressing her dolls and then she’s picking glass out of her hair and a man is telling her to shut up, the very same man who just gave her the dolls. Or maybe a boy gets up the nerve to take a chance on love, as the song says, and a year later he’s so sick no one dares drink from the glass he puts down. A woman, a good mother, is singing her child to sleep and the next day her child is dead. The woman hadn’t been drinking; she’d just happened not to look back, one time only. Something is on fire: that’s how you felt, all day at your teaching job, no matter how many times you phoned home, no matter how annoyed your son got or how patiently your daughter checked the stove, the fuse box, the hair dryer. You could smell the world burning, as if its brakes had been ridden too hard, or there were a dump so huge that no matter where you drove, you couldn’t escape the fumes, the burning plastic. As if the wrong wires had been crossed in the universe, or the whole planet were spinning out of control from all its inhabitants’ wanting too much, the sheer combustible energy of just being alive. What had you ever learned that would help you now? 7 The Mutilator, the Havoc Wreaker, the names you give your regulars so their pain doesn’t swallow you up. After a day of bad jokes and pointless remarks, of taking messages and giving instructions, of teaching what you’ve taught a hundred times before, it’s a relief, on the phone, at 2 A.M., to say as little as possible, to be nothing more than the shade of a tree, a brook making small comforting sounds under all your callers’ words. Mr. What’s The Use. Ms. Why Shouldn’t I Kill Myself. The voice like someone trying to open a stuck window, or the voice like a car that keeps conking out. Words. Silence. Words. The girl who’s like a bird flinging herself into song and then shutting up as if she’s suddenly thought twice about trusting the air. Think of the burden the air has to bear, all the words broadcast over it, all the high frequencies required for people to say what they need to say, all the silence necessary for them to say it, all that cannot be said.