THE FORGIVENESS MACHINE
(based on an interview with Karen L. Green on her late husband David Foster Wallace)
I started with your old tires. Your car was going to be impounded anyway because I couldn’t look at it for another second but, like the child I now am, I wanted to keep a little piece of it. So I kept the tires. I stripped them into eight long rubber pieces and hung them in my workshop. They dangled there like creepy octopus limbs for a while. This was before I had the fully formed idea of the machine. It was still a baby, cradled in the back of my skull. It was the way you described your grief— always there, but not ready to come out yet.
For weeks I couldn’t work. I sat on the couch with the blankets pulled around me and knees curled to my chest. I didn’t even cry. I sat there and stared at the box sets of The Wire and thought of you next to me watching it with your feet on the coffee table. And then I made noises like crying but nothing came out. My body felt mechanical, metal, empty, like a machine. You could’ve knocked on the side of my head and it would have made a ringing sound. My mother made me so many lasagnas. I wanted to laugh with you about it.
Your parents came over and sat around the couch. They looked at the pictures of us on the bookshelf and at your messy desk, scattered with papers and manuscripts and dog-eared books. I still hadn’t touched anything—the idea of putting your stuff in boxes was unimaginable. Your mother walked over to your desk and picked up the last piece you’d been working on. I asked her if she wanted to read it and she said “no” and her voice sounded dead. You found practically everything funny but that you wouldn’t have found that funny. There was a time when I would have worried about telling you things like that—when all I cared about was protecting your feelings, your fragile eggshell mind. I don’t care now. Your mother was so angry. Your father was crying quietly on the loveseat.
After the tires came the plastic. This was when my emptiness was starting to thaw and all I could think about was how much I hated you for what you did to us. For what you did to me. For how selfish you were and how selfish you made me feel. I took your desk chair—the expensive one that you were so proud of, that molded to your back, that you said let you write for hours without cramping up, and I smashed it into pieces. Then, I took the plastic chair that you’d stood on that day and I smashed it too. The neighbors peaked outside and then looked quickly away. Like you always said, people get away with crazy shit in New York City. I melded the plastic together and circled it with your tires. I was building some sort of monster out of my grief. My grief was building some sort of monster out of me.
At this point, some of your stuff was in boxes. Your mother went through your things when my eyes were closed. She never touched your work, though. Nobody did. Your family called and your agent sent flowers and your publishers sent emails and our friends always glanced at it when they shuffled in but I didn’t let anyone touch it. I knew you wouldn’t have wanted them to—it was still naked, unpolished. I was the only person who ever got to see it that way. I suppose that should have made me feel special but on your bad days you’d try to rip your manuscripts to pieces and I had the full responsibility of stopping you. Even when fans sent letters, I never thought of you as some famous author. I never thought of myself as your muse. God, I hate that word. People praised you for your humor, your wit, your candor, but you, in your eggshell, never saw any of that. I never thought of you that way. I just as well could have been married to a sweet schoolteacher.
Next, I attached the vacuum. When we were married I always used to half-joke about how it was a symbol of oppression and, even worse, made me feel like my mother. So you would vacuum and I would watch TV or sit at the table, sketching the fruit bowl or the neighbor’s houses or charcoal stick figures of your body in motion. I did the dishes and you vacuumed and we both cooked and it was fair. That is, until your bad days when you would lie in bed with the blankets wrapped around you like a shroud and I would do it all. After you died I couldn’t stand the sight of that goddamn vacuum so I ripped it to pieces–a common trend, it seems—and attached it, with a long tube, to the front of my monster. Which was now starting to look more like a machine.
This was around the time that your fans started to leave flowers at our doorstep. Some left poems and letters and even artwork of you in your trademark pageboy hat—the one you always said kept your head from exploding. I still don’t know how they figured out where we lived. The most hardcore fans would even ring the doorbell, and my mother would have to go shoo them away. You would have hated it. You called our little house our cave and you loved it that way, just the two of us. You wouldn’t have wanted your readers to know where you lived or to know me and you definitely wouldn’t have wanted to know what they looked like. If it had been up to you, you would have written under a pseudonym and would never have had your picture printed. My little hermit, I called you.
I’m embarrassed to say I yelled at some of your fans. Especially the pretty girls that came over, the ones younger than me, with their letters and tears and lipstick kisses on the envelopes. I couldn’t stand that they would have connected that way with your work. He was mine! I wanted to shout at them. I think I may have. I was so mad—so, so mad. More at you than at them. You were mine! I wanted to shout at you. How could you take you away from me?
The reporters had been calling from day one. They weren’t usually interested in people like authors but you were interviewed in the New York times and celebrities knew who you were and yada yada and I’m a relatively well known artists and yada yada and they offered their condolences and if I could just answer a couple questions— about two calls in, I stopped picking up the phone. I knew those sharky bastards didn’t care about you or me but worst of all I knew they were going to ask me why. Why you did it. Why why why—the same question I’d screamed into my pillow. Why?
It took me almost a month to finish the machine. I’d been working on it like crazy—with that feverish intensity I had always craved to find before you were gone, the kind that makes you feel high and alive and exhausted all at the same time. I was so feverish I didn’t see all your things being packed up, or all our friends petering away, or all the lasagnas molding in our refrigerator. When I finished, I lied down next to my big, bulky, grotesque baby made of plastic and tires and metal and glue and I cried, finally. Then, my friend from the Pasadena gallery called and asked if I could still put on my show that month. And I said yes.
People don’t know what to make of my machine. They’re confused the way you were whenever I made you look at abstract art. I have to stand in front of it and explain it to them. It’s a forgiveness machine, I say. They shift uncomfortably, look at their shoes, look back at the machine. How does it work? They ask.
I give them paper and pens. I say, write a letter. To your parents, to your boss, to your ex-wives or ex-husbands—to whoever hurt you. To the person you need to forgive. Then, stick it in the vacuum. And they do. And some of them cry. I stand there, watching them watch their grief sucked up in the mouth of the machine and expelled from the back in a cloud of white, like snow.
Aren’t you going to do it? The gutsy ones ask. They don’t pretend to not know who I was to you—some of them, probably, have just come because of you. I guess I should, I said.
So I wrote you this letter. And here goes. s