David Foster Wallace Alive and Well In the Caribbean
BY ERIC DOVIGI
On your daughter’s eighth birthday she will fall down a well.
It will be dark in the well. The water will be cold. She’ll plunge deep, feet first, come back up for air and gasp. She’ll feel the slick stone walls covered in algae, thin and slippery. High above, a blue circle will peer down at her like an impassive, immovable eye.
She will start to panic. She will think about how she is panicking. That’ll make it worse. She’ll say help me, quietly at first, then louder. For a long time she will tread water. The blue eye will turn grey, and little flecks of rain will fall into the well.
Then, inspired by an idea, your daughter will tuck in her knees, curl her body, and pull herself through the cold water to the bottom of the well. She’ll pass her hands over the pebbly floor and will find the handle. She’ll turn and pull the handle and put her arm slowly inside a dark shaft of water that angles around and out of sight. Glittering fingers, scaly and nacreous, will suddenly grasp her wrist; she’ll expel the rest of the air in her lungs in an aqueous scream.
Your daughter will crawl out of a sewer grate down the street, dripping, as the rain falls, clutching a bloody plastic bag.
On her return home, she will profess to hate you. This will continue through her teenage years, during which she will read long books and raise chickens. Every time she comes home, from school, a friend’s, the park, when she gets up in the morning and trots happily downstairs, she will greet you with those three words: “I hate you.”
Upon her departure for college you will weep fragments of chicken claw that will cut your cheeks so badly you’ll need a constellation of stitches and staples, which you will be unable to pay for, resulting in a garage sale where you will sell a first edition of your favorite novel to a someone who will years later sell it to a book dealer from Istanbul, who will in turn trade it for an old clay tablet containing a text in Sanskrit, Egyptian, and Linear A.
In his excitement, the book dealer will drive too fast and collide with a bicycle.
On that bicycle, standing up on the pedals to get a better look at a billboard bearing the words “David Foster Wallace Found Alive and Well in the Caribbean,” in Turkish, which she will learn from the Turkish boyfriend you will never meet, will be your daughter. Lying on the pavement, soaking in water spray from a dislocated fire hydrant, her plastic bag fluttering in the wind, your daughter will think about a small circle of water, and dim unplaceable guilt.
Your daughter will be wearing a locket. Her mother will give her the locket, which is heart-shaped. Your ex-wife, the Anthropologist who will give your daughter half her genetic material and later live in Trinidad, will explain to her the origin of the heart symbol over a cup of chamomile tea mixed with another kind of tea.
“The shape of the heart symbol comes from the peepal leaf. Indus River Valley civilizations used the peepal leaf and other plants as abortion inducers.”
Your daughter will take a sip of tea. She won’t be thinking of you. She will not think about you a single time that whole week. Not where you are, what you might be doing, not even a stray image, like your nose, which she will inherit (and which you inherited from your grandfather), or your whiskers, which you will rub on her face to make her laugh when she’s a child.
“Wild carrots, too,” the Anthropologist will explain while blowing into her own tea, which will be only chamomile.
“Take this,” the Anthropologist will say, pulling out a grocery bag from her coat pocket. They’ll be meeting in Moscow. Your daughter has not yet gone to Turkey, she has not yet met the man who will give her the bicycle and the job at the bookstore. She has not yet had her first orgasm, which the man will give her because his circumcision will make it difficult for him to climax. She has not yet had many of the experiences she will get to enjoy in her short life.
Your daughter will be studying in Moscow on a Fulbright Scholarship, which you will help her apply for over the phone. Tedious, but it’ll be the only way you can hear her voice. Only something practical like an application will get her to call you. Also, this will be the last time you speak to her. You won’t know that at the time. All you’ll be thinking about is the new quick way of talking that she has developed and the fact that she says “huh” now instead of “you don’t say,” which, you will remember, used to charm you when she was little.
It’ll be winter. Moscow in winter will drive your daughter into depression. It does that to a lot of people. This depressive episode won’t be as bad as the one you will have in 1998, but it will be pretty bad, and it will be one of the reasons why she’ll call her mother in tears asking how to get an abortion in Russia without getting herself killed. Her mother will get the next flight out.
Out on the street below, in whirling snow, dark figures pass in and out of doorways. Watching from the window your daughter will see unreal shapes, scales in the sewer grates, flame light in alleyways.
Her apartment door will swing open and in will come her mother, red faced, her curly hair half frozen. Stepping down into the living room, it is as if she hoists herself off a stallion.
From out of the plastic bag her mother will take a heart-shaped locket. Your daughter will receive the locket and put it around her neck.
Her mother the anthropologist will say, “People in the Indus River Valley had to get abortions too. That is why this locket, which I am giving to you because I love you, is shaped like a peepal leaf and not like my heart.”
Your daughter will share your birthday. Somewhere in Massachusetts, you will be drinking a glass of whisky with a small cadre of friends while your daughter locks herself in her bathroom and starts to bleed. Happy birthday, her mother will whisper through the door at the same time as your friends sing happy birthday to you.
Your daughter will wake up late the next evening to find her mother already gone. The bathroom will be clean. Four steaks will be in the fridge. She’ll eat all of them quickly and then crouch over the toilet, bringing them back up. Then and only then will she spare a thought for you, staring into the toilet bowl, watching the red water swirl down the drain and disappear.
From Moscow, she’ll go to Turkey. She’ll meet her Turkish boyfriend. She’ll start working at the bookstore. She’ll hear mermaids gurgling in the storm drains, and her guilt, which has been following her ever since that day in the well, will bubble up. She’ll start spiking cedar trees by Turkey’s southern border and even go across the border into Lebanon to spike trees there. Some bad people will be trying to cut down these trees, and your daughter can’t let that happen.
Your daughter will take one book and her laptop in a backpack to the cedar forests and nothing else. Briefly she will connect to the internet when a passing airplane, which is just testing out its new inflight Wi-Fi system, passes low overhead, but all she will be able to download is a single news story: David Foster Wallace dead at forty-eight. Suicide. Hanged himself from the rafters knowing that his wife would come home to find him. Which, according to the news, she did.
Your daughter will lie awake all night, wondering. Did he leave a note for her? Did he paste it to the front door? “Dear ___, Don’t go inside. Call emergency services. You’ll find a longer letter in the dresser drawer. I love you.—David.” Or did he just leave a few words on the kitchen table for her to find, close to where his legs swayed back and forth? Or did he not say anything at all? Could this man, whose compassion for his fictional characters was unbounded and complete, be so callous as to have killed himself without taking measures to prevent his wife from finding his body? Maybe she was traveling for work and he was certain that the authorities would find him well before she did, but maybe she came back early, a fluke. Or maybe the whole story is one big lie, a cynical ploy to sell copies of Wallace’s unfinished masterpiece. Maybe it was against his will. Maybe his publishers grabbed him and shoved him in a car and shipped him off to the US Virgin Islands to be a tropical prisoner, alive and well, but publicly deceased.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, about to die, he thought only of himself.
Your daughter will go back to Istanbul in a daze of grief, pouring over a certain book, searching anywhere, in any line, on any page, for some piece of irrefutable evidence that David Foster Wallace would have been too compassionate to allow his wife to see his dead body hanging from the ceiling. This book will never leave her side for the remainder of her life.
She will see you doing something you shouldn’t be doing, once, too.
This will be when she’s in high school and you are in that horrible funk of 1998. For you it will not be rope and rafters, but it amounts to the same thing. Your daughter will come home from school to find the bathroom door open, the tub running with you in it and you playing chicken with your wrist and a letter opener. Without a word she will shut the bath off, unplug the drain, and take the letter-opener from your hand. Then she will go from room to room, table to table, desk to desk, throughout the house, looking for a sheet of paper. Something with your name at the bottom. Dear ___, Don’t go inside. Call emergency services …\\ Love, Dad.
It’ll be summer. A sunny day when people should be outside. There is no letter. Empty handed, your daughter will walk out the back door and approach the well at the far end of the yard. She’ll lift off the heavy lid and peer down at the water that glimmers on the stones. A scaley hand will reach up out of the water and gently take her own. It’s not pulling down; hers is not pulling up. She will stand there in this détente of consolation when a sudden summer rain soaks the neighborhood. She can hear the drops in the well-water. There is no message in the sound. An arc of sunlight shines horizontally through the rain. There is no message in the sunlight.
Your daughter will suddenly sense the presence of every drain, every well, every subterranean pipe in the neighborhood and the water that courses through them carrying every human color. The hand around hers will grip tighter. A scaly, glittering body will rise up out of the well water, put its other hand on the stone lip of the well, and pull itself out into the air. Your daughter’s eyes will grow wide. She will be afraid of this gorgeous secret thing. It will lean its head close to hers and whisper something. Then it will crawl back down into the well and disappear under the water.
Your daughter will stand there for a long time, alone in the yard, while in the house you are preparing dinner in a long-sleeved shirt.
One bright afternoon years later the bookseller for whom she works will be driving too fast. The tablet sitting on the front seat is a new Rosetta Stone. It will catapult him to fame and finally decode one of the last uncrackable languages: Linear A.
Your daughter will be bicycling distractedly. Running late to work at the bookstore, she’ll peddle vigorously. In her right hand, she’ll hold a plastic grocery bag containing a heavy book filled with notes in her thin, illegible hand. Each tree she passes will be spiked, each face she passes will be her mother’s, each storm drain she passes will be a portal to another world.
Then, it will happen: she’ll look up, spot some text on a billboard, stand up on the bike pedals to get a better look. Around the corner will come the bookseller in his sedan. Your daughter will lean just a bit into the road.
The bookseller will sideswipe your daughter at forty miles an hour, turning her hip bones to powder, her upper leg muscles to putty, her ribcage to pulp. One of your daughter’s rib bones will puncture her heart, which is not shaped like a peepal leaf.
She will lie on the road. People will rush up to her. She will try to get a look at the billboard between them and glimpse only the words alive and well. Water from the fire hydrant will pour over everyone. In great foamy arcs it will shoot up into the air, catching and prisming sun. The bloody grocery bag will flicker in the wind. In a moonlit villa in Port of Spain, across the ocean, an anthropologist will suddenly feel anxious. In Massachusetts, you will be asleep.
Your daughter will slip out of consciousness holding the hand of a stranger.
You will know none of this until a week later, when the Turkish boyfriend, who has finally gotten hold of your number, will struggle the truth through the English your daughter taught him.
There are so many things you won’t know. But today you have nothing to worry about. Today you are eight years old. You’re standing outside with red cheeks, by your grandfather, chipping ice that has formed on the lid of a well.