From Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Returnby Martin Riker
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is out next month from Coffee House Press.
“So you were telling your story. Your death story? The story of how you died.”
In fact I had not been telling that story before Phil’s plan had interrupted me. Rather, I assumed this was Phil’s awkward way of asking me to tell it. But it was too personal, that story. Too depressing. So instead I started talking about my childhood. Then about Abram and Emily. Then about my son and what an impressive young person he had been from the start, how I had struggled to be a good father to him, and how more often than not I had failed. In other words, I told Phil many of the things I have already told you, some of which I had already told him on our previous trip down this same road. And it was only after I had spoken my way through a great deal of this history that I realized I had in fact been easing myself into the deeper waters of memory, and that I’d arrived, as if unknowingly, at the story Phil wanted to hear.
“It was after Samuel had gone to bed,” I said, my voice grown waxy and distant, as it seems to whenever I speak of the past, “and I was watching The Andy Griffith Show. If you know that program, you know it stars a friendly sheriff, Andy, in the funny small town of Mayberry. A sweet program, but this particular episode was strange. An article about Andy had been published in a national magazine, ‘The Sheriff Without a Gun’—because Andy never carried a gun—and a television producer who’d read the article had brought his film crew to Mayberry to make a documentary about Andy’s life. Throughout the episode they talked a lot about guns, a topic more serious and ominous than I expected from Mayberry, and which gave the episode a surprisingly threatening tone. On top of which, it turned out the television producer was not even a real producer, but a con man planning to rob the local bank by pretending to film a robbery scene. And since I had always thought of Mayberry as a sort of television version of Unityville, innocently tucked away from everywhere, this ominous tone of guns and crime unsettled me and made me question for the first time whether Unityville itself was safe, and whether anyone in town kept a gun, questions that in hindsight were eerie premonitions of what followed . . .
“Well, but it was more than that,” I went on, staring out at the illuminated portion of road, which disappeared beneath us as the car sped forward and new road rolled into the headlights, but which looked so similar from moment to moment that it might have been the same road over and over, spinning beneath us on a giant wheel. “Over the years, thinking back to the events of that night, including the events of that television program, I’ve come to question whether the guns and violence were only the obvious threat, the apparent source of my ominous feeling, but not the only source, or even the most profound. Because there was something larger going on in that episode of Andy Griffith, something I was unable to fully articulate for myself at the time. The idea of making television on television, of making fake television on real television—or, technically, faking making fake television on real television—and in Mayberry, the last place you’d imagine television being made . . . for some reason this idea caused a great disruption in my sense of normalcy. I started to have thoughts, strange disorienting thoughts, though they were soon interrupted by the tragedy that followed, and by all the chaos that followed that, and I didn’t think back to them, the thoughts, for a long time after . . .
“But later, much later, I did think back to them—not once but many thousands of times. Indeed, over the years I’ve thought about that night in extraordinary detail, about the tragedy, but also about my feelings during that television program. And among the many things I’ve noticed . . . I was going to say ‘about that episode of Andy Griffith,’ but of course it’s not the episode I’ve noticed anything new about, only the feeling it gave me, the disturbance it stirred inside me. And yes, it’s possible that in reality I did not feel all of the feelings or think all the thoughts I’ve remembered, or any of them for that matter, but only invented memories in light of what came after, planting in my past not just my understanding of my feelings, but even the feelings themselves. For when you look at the sheer amount of detail I’ve ‘remembered’ from that evening, the breadth of what I’ve ‘discovered’ in my memories, it does start to seem improbable that, for example, in the midst of watching Andy Griffith and wondering about guns and so forth, my mind would also stop to consider the more theoretical issue that any program produced by characters on my television program (such as the con man claimed to be producing on that episode) was presumably also viewed by characters on that program (that is, by Andy and his friends), yet this is exactly the sort of thing I ‘remember’ thinking. It would be their program to watch, but also still mine, since my reality contained their reality, and my television their television. This thought leading, then, to an obvious follow-up, that if a program could be produced and watched in Mayberry that reflected Mayberry’s reality as fictionally yet faithfully as Mayberry reflected mine, it further followed that there could be, or in theory undoubtedly would be, television producers inside that television program producing their own shows, perhaps set in other small secluded towns. Such a program’s reality being contained within Mayberry’s, of course, which was still, for the same reasons as before, contained in mine. And wouldn’t the people on that program—that is, on the program inside the program inside the episode I was watching—wouldn’t those people, too, be perfectly capable of watching a program inside the program inside the program inside my own? And so on, a potentially endless sequence, programs inside programs all the way down, an improbable image that for some reason has taken hold of me more often than any other, over the countless hours I’ve spent reliving the events of that evening, and looms largest in my memory, regardless of whether I thought it then or only invented it after the fact. Larger and more recurring than the actual scene of my actual death is this image of me sitting before that episode of Andy Griffith, my mind spiraling out from my sofa-bound body, chasing a chain of strange logic forward or inward through an endless tunnel of television programs, one after another, each taking me farther from reality, but actually taking me nowhere at all. There I am falling forward through generations of programs, or variations of programs, through version after slightly different version of essentially the same thing. Until finally—as I picture it—I stop and look around. I look back through this enormous line of television screens, this endless corridor of programs, only to see, at the far end, a tiny face staring into the first screen way back at the beginning, which is now the last screen from where I’ve arrived. And that face is mine, of course. I left it only moments ago, despite how many screens and programs have passed between us in that time. It’s my face, it looks just like me, I’m there and I’m here and I’m no different at all, except for one difference, there’s one decisive difference, that back there playing beside me on the sofa is—”
“This is the story of how you died?” interrupted Phil, at the height of my reverie.
He was right, of course. I had fallen into this memory too intensely, and the point of the story was getting lost in the process.
So I told the rest more directly: about hearing shouts outside—“Samuel Johnson!”—and running out to the crazed long-haired man with the gun in one hand and my son in the other. About the struggle, the shot, the instant darkness. About looking down upon my own dead body before my soul flew toward the town, not knowing, at that point, that I had transferred into my killer’s body. About the pickup truck and seeing the lights on in the houses, and the voice in my head shouting “Samuel Johnson! Samuel Johnson!” About the highway and the Susquehanna and veering into my second death, and how looking down upon the dark Pennsylvanian landscape, I had thought I was finally done. I had said goodbye and told myself that my son would be safe. And how, no sooner had I made my peace than I turned and saw I was not bound for heaven at all, but had simply been transported to an airplane passing overhead. How, once I had realized I was not departing this world, my belief in Samuel’s safety had vanished, and I have never been able to regain it. How I have long felt that if I could just die, I mean die in a real and lasting way, if I could just move on somehow from this unending slog of ineffectual attendance, I was sure everything would be fine for my boy. Which meant that on some level my constant worrying about him was more for my own sake than his—which at any rate was entirely obvious—that my worrying did not help him and that nothing I could do would ever save him from anything at all. That it was essentially a self-serving desire, my desire to return to him. That I was essentially a self-serving person. That surely a self-serving person was not a good father—was, in fact, the precise opposite of a good father. That—
“Slow down,” said Phil, and I took a breath. “Nah,” he said, “I mean the car.”
Frazzled, I did as he said, and only when we’d gotten down under twenty miles per hour did I bother to wonder why we were slowing. Before I could ask, though, Phil cried out “Once more unto the breach!” in a very dramatic voice. He laid his hand upon my arm.
“Once more unto the breach!” He had the look on his face, the pained warning look. “From a movie. At least I think it’s a movie. Something I always imagined saying. And I’m afraid, friend Samuel, it’s finally time for me to say it.”
“Phil . . .”
“You’re a good dude, Samuel. Far as I can tell, you’re even an o.k. dad. Worrying must count for something. Anyways, au revoir!”
“Phil . . .”
And then my friend Phil Williams, the only real friend I have ever known, smiled the largest smile I have ever seen, and hollered, as fearlessly as I have ever heard, while casting himself and Blossom out of our slow-moving vehicle into the predawn darkness: “Once more unto the breach!”—and rolled away.
MARTIN RIKER's fiction and criticism have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, London Review of Books, TLS, Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, and Conjunctions.