I wanted to get my watch fixed before I hung myself. The battery had run out weeks before, and I hadn’t the energy to replace it. Nor the money. And then I worked all month painting walls, loading trucks and folding shirts until the holidays came. I made some deliveries and held a sign on a street corner. I still couldn’t cover the rent, but at least I made enough to get my watch fixed. At least I’d know what time it was I died.
There’s an old Jew with a kiosk at The Farmer’s Market near my apartment. I handed him the watch and asked if he could replace the battery. He told me he was busy on account of the holidays and I should come back in a couple of hours. It was 1:50 in the afternoon. If I came back in two hours, I’d still have plenty time to hang myself before Intimate Relationship #9.5 came home from work. A body needs to dangle a good fifteen minutes for there to be no chance of resuscitation, and I didn’t want IR#9.5 getting worked up trying to save me. I felt no malice toward her and only wanted to be out of the picture so she could return to her family and raise our unborn child in a better environment than I could provide.
I decided to see a movie to kill time. Nothing interested me at the multiplex, but I bought a ticket for Blood Diamond because it was about to start. It was a terrible film. The story felt like it had been concocted by mooshing together three articles in an issue of Vanity Fair: an expose of the diamond industry, a report on ecotourism destinations and a fluff piece about a Hollywood star who cares. The star is, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio, who hops and jumps about the frame with the frenetic grace of a wet marmot. Though better suited to playing a disgruntled figure skater, DiCaprio is somehow cast as a Rhodesian mercenary, who, over the course of the film, goes from being a racist soldier of fortune to a hero who will sacrifice his life to save a young black boy and bring down the biggest diamond company in the world. And in case we don’t know what we should think of this unlikely scenario, the director, a talentless hack by the name of Ed Zwick, forces his actors to indicate what they are feeling at all times while providing a soundtrack that tells the audience exactly how it should react.
Blood Diamond is the kind of movie Hollywood makes in order to raise awareness about an issue. Or so they claim. In this case, the issue is conflict diamonds: stones used to fund both sides of various civil wars in Africa. According to the film, diamond companies mix conflict diamonds into their store of regular diamonds and release them into the market without notifying consumers of the blood spilled between their mining and their distribution. By making Blood Diamond, the actors, producers and Zwick get to show that Hollywood cares about the content of its movies and strives to educate audiences about parts of the world that hold our natural resources. I believe their motives, like those of Angelina Jolie and Madonna, are sincere in their desire to raise awareness. What I don’t believe is that raising awareness is worth a rat’s ass.
While watching the movie, I began to wonder when in the backsliding values of our country the definition of altruism became so watered down that it no longer involved sacrifice. In their attempt to raise awareness, the producers, actors and Zwick risk and sacrifice nothing — especially not their eight figure salaries. They change the names of the diamond companies in the movie so that no slander suits could be levied against them. They don’t shoot where it takes place in Sierra Leone, thereby supporting the local economy, because it would have been too dangerous and therefore uninsurable. They don’t even take the time and effort to make the movie with artistic integrity or believable characters. In fact, it can be argued that movies like Blood Diamond do nothing to raise awareness about an issue because they place that issue in the context of a fantasy world where heroism is rewarded, good triumphs over evil and everything works out in the end.
“You’re just a cynic,” cries the voice of protest to my argument. “You think it’s better to make movies out of comic book characters? Or art films composed of empty formalism? Or would you rather do nothing but sit there and criticize?” Quite the opposite. So angered was I by this film, so inspired to action by the drivel I had been subjected to in these final hours of my life, I decided the only sensible recourse was to use the last four hundred dollars in my checking account to buy IR#9.5 the biggest fucking conflict diamond I could find.
I approached the old Jew at the kiosk and made my demand. “I want a blood diamond,” I said. “I want a stone that came into your possession at the expense of an African village. A gem that was mined by limbless children and trafficked by unsavory arms dealers. I want the bloodiest diamond my four hundred dollars can buy.”
Behind his long gray beard, the old Jew, tall and rotund, frowned at my request.
“If you are looking for a cheap stone,” he said, “I can show you some synthetic gems that only the most practiced eye could discern.”
I told him that I was not looking for a cheap stone so much as I was looking for a stone with history. “A history of suffering,” I said. “Because in these, the final hours of my life, I have come to realize that value is not determined by color, clarity and carat, but by risk, sacrifice and the shedding of blood.”
The Jew smiled, revealing teeth that were yellow and rotten with decay. “I recognize you as a connoisseur,” he said, “though of something much more perverse than precious stones. And whereas I do not do business in the kind of gem you are looking for — at least not to my knowledge — I do believe I have something that might be of interest to you.”
He motioned to his wife to watch over the kiosk while he bent down to unlock a file cabinet behind the counter. Inside I could discern the first steps of a staircase that descended into the ground. It seemed too narrow a passage for the Jew’s girth, and yet he maneuvered his body inside with great ease. “Come,” he said, and I followed him into the darkness, spiraling beneath the market with one hand on his shoulder and the other grasping at the damp, stone wall. “A little further,” he said, as I listened to the sound of his footfalls and a steady dribble of water on rock. “A little further,” he said, as I became lost in the circular motion of our descent, wondering if we were actually moving downward, deeper into the Earth, or just spinning blindly in a pitch black room. “A little further,” he said, as we reached the final step, where a faint light from a gas lamp revealed the contours of a room cluttered with antique furniture, curtains and tarnished Judaica. “A little further,” he said as he took up the lamp and led me to another room, and then another, unlocking door after door to reveal more rooms filled with books and scrolls and broken tablets made from rock. “A little further,” he said, and the old Jew handed me the lantern as he stooped to lift the sheet from a cracked wooden desk that stood at an angle on two uneven legs. He opened a drawer that was so small, it could only fit the bit of cloth the old Jew pulled from it.
“Have a look,” he said, as he unwrapped the cloth to reveal an indistinct diamond, half the size of my pinky nail. “Hold it,” he said, as I took it from him and rolled it about in the tips of my fingers. “Let me show you in the light,” he said, as he held the lamp near my hand. “Now sit,” he said, before collapsing his weight onto a dusty couch. I sank down onto a chair that seemed to slide beneath me the moment I considered sitting.
“I will tell you nothing of the cut, color or clarity of this stone,” said the Jew, “since it is apparent such information would be wasted on you.” He took the diamond and set it down on a low table between us. “I will, however, tell you something of its history, as much as I know, for remember, a stone such as this exists for millions of years before human eyes ever set on it.”
“My father,” said the Jew, “first came into possession of this stone in Warsaw before the war. He bought it from a gentile who had a reputation as a gonif but who always dealt fairly in business, selling pieces for a fraction of their worth, so long as no one asked how he came to possess them. For many years, my father and the gonif did a good business together, and neither man ever felt cheated. One day, however, it was revealed that the gonif had raped and murdered a young girl who was about to be married. She was the daughter of a well-known poet in Minsk, and according to the papers, the gonif had cut off her finger with a length of wire to remove the ring from her hand.
“My father had bought this ring from the gonif the day before he learned of the murder. Needless to say, he was upset and burdened with terrible nightmares. Furthermore, he was frightened about what would happen to him, his family and all the other Jews of Warsaw if this gonif should confess from his cell to whom he sold his goods.
“Believing it was too dangerous to return the pieces to their rightful owners, my father decided instead that everything he still had from the gonif should be wrapped in a cloth and hurled into the Vistula as soon as possible.
“Now I was a young boy at the time, and to my mind, it made no sense that we should be throwing away such valuable merchandise. Why not melt it down or bury it until the people forget, I asked. But my father wouldn’t hear of it. He wrapped the gonif’s jewels in a cloth and handed it to me with strict orders to throw it in the river. What would be the harm, I thought, if I pry this one stone from the ring and keep it in my pocket? Everything else I threw away, but this one stone, far from the most valuable in the cloth, was the only one that I kept.”
Here the Jew stopped for a moment and picked up the diamond from the table. He looked at it in quiet contemplation, scratched his beard and continued with his tale.
“I was staying with family friends in the countryside at the time the Germans invaded. My father’s shop was taken from him, and he was killed along with my mother and two sisters. The family I lived with smuggled me to Cyprus, and from there, I moved to Israel where I began a new life. I lived on a kibbutz where we grew watermelons, and I fell in love with a beautiful Sabra named Shoshanna. She had been a teacher to the refugees, had taught us Hebrew, and it wasn’t long before she told me that she was pregnant with my child. One day, I left the fields to see if I could buy her a ring in which I could place this stone which I had kept with me since that day at the river. And after having it set, I returned home to discover that while I was gone, the Arabs had killed everyone in my kibbutz including my Shoshana and our unborn child. If I hadn’t gone to buy the ring in which to place this stone, then I too would have been amongst the dead.”
The Jew paused again and looked down at the diamond as if seeking some hint as to how he should go on. Perhaps this was not a story he had told before.
“To survive, I was forced to take a job in Ramat Gan working for a jeweler, a survivor of Auschwitz, who had competed with my father when they were living in Poland. He was a terrible man who had always despised my family, and for years, he worked me like a slave, paying me a pittance of what I deserved, until one day I agreed to marry his daughter. She was a meeskheit shrew of a girl, but she came with a dowry, which we used to move to America and open a pawn shop in the Bronx. For our engagement, I gave her the ring I had meant for my Shoshanna.
“It was the 1950’s then, and my wife and I worked hard to establish ourselves in this strange, new land. We had a beautiful daughter, whom I cared for at the store while my wife worked as a nurse at the local hospital. She became interested in politics, spending time with young artists and revolutionaries, arguing for radical action on behalf of the common man. She became enamored with free love, drugs and jazz music. One day, she told me that what I did in the pawnshop was an evil business and that she had no choice but to leave me for a Nicaraguan communist named Carlos. She and Carlos would send our daughter and me postcards from South America, with pictures of them in the jungle with rifles slung over their shoulders. Years later, we received a package with some of her belongings: her fatigues, some letters from our daughter and the ring that carried this stone.”
The Jew became excited. He stood up and paced about the room as he continued his tale.
“In ’68, the pawnshop burned to the ground when the schwartzes decided to riot. My daughter and I moved to Los Angeles, where I started my life over for a third time. I married again, this time a woman whose father was a rabbi. I had never before been a religious man, but the rabbi convinced me to study Talmud and Torah. He convinced me to live in the old ways, to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath.
“My wife and I opened a shop downtown in the jewelry district and had a son who was diagnosed with Tay Sachs disease. For years, we struggled to care for him and eventually sold the store to cover the costs of his medical expenses. He lived to be 12 years before he finally succumbed.
“Afterwards, I used this stone and some others as collateral on a loan to open the kiosk here at the Farmer’s Market. My wife and I have worked here for the last twenty years. Business has never been particularly good, and we never did have another child. Eventually, though, we did pay off our debts, and I was able to get back this fakatka stone.”
His story was finished, and he looked up to see if I approved.
“What do you want for it?” I asked.
“What do you have?”
I told him I had four hundred dollars to my name. He said he’d take it.
I told him I also needed a ring and asked if he could throw one in for free. He said he couldn’t, so I offered him my watch in exchange. He looked at it closely.
“This watch is broken,” he said.
“It is,” I said. “You’ll notice the hour hand points west of the 12 even at five past. It was that way when my father gave it to me. It had been given to him as a gift, but he didn’t want it, so he offered it to me instead. He took it out of his pocket, and said, ‘You want this?’ I was 20 at the time, home from college for winter break. ‘Sure,’ I said. Words seldom passed between my father and me, and those were the last we ever exchanged. After giving me this watch, he walked out the door and never came back.”
The Jew took an interest in my story. He sat back down and fixed his gaze on the watch as I continued.
“After he left us, my family’s debts were more than we could handle, so I dropped out of school to take a job for which I was paid by the hour. I remember being late my first day on account of this broken watch, but after a while, I learned its idiosyncratic way of keeping time. I learned to stare at this watch and count the hours I had worked and the money I had earned. And in between the hours I had worked, I dreamt of a brighter future. I had big dreams. Enormous dreams I planned to fulfill as soon as I got my family out of the mess my father left us.”
I took the watch from the Jew and rubbed it in my fingers, hoping that it could give me some clue how to continue the story I had begun.
“As the years went by, I realized that my debts weren’t getting any smaller – but my dreams were. In fact, they were becoming mundane. Whereas I used to dream of a house in the hills, now I dreamt of having enough money to cover the rent. Whereas I used to dream of falling in love, now I dreamt of getting laid in a brothel. My dreams became embarrassing to me.”
The Jew’s face showed a great pain in hearing me say this, but he urged me to continue nonetheless. I put the watch down and leaned forward in my chair.
“I didn’t have any Holocausts. No great tragedies. No illnesses or accidents. I never lost anyone special because I never got close enough to anyone for it to warrant tears when they died. The broken pieces of my life have been parceled out in broken hours for wages that never covered their worth. Some months ago, after knocking up a girl I never liked and hearing that she was going to have the baby, I realized that those parcels were spent and not invested, and there would be no interest returned.”
I paused to think of how I’d end my story and bring it back to the watch. After all, I needed to convince the Jew that the thing held value.
“My old man gave me this watch not as a father gives a gift to his son, but as a poker player sheds his cards to make way for a better hand. And yet I’ve worn it all these years and lived by its time. And that’s my story.”
“I’ll take it,” said the Jew.
It was around five by the time I got home, which only gave me an hour to type up a suicide note before IR#9.5 came back from work. I deleted several drafts before coming up with something I liked. Here’s what I wrote:
Will you marry me?
I printed it out and stuffed it in an envelope along with the ring that held the Jew’s stone. I attached the envelope to my sweater with a large safety pin. Lacking a rope or the means to buy one, I was forced to use an extension chord to accomplish the grim task of a death by hanging. Though an aesthetically displeasing instrument, the extension chord does contain a certain umbilical reference to the information age which seemed apropos of my failed career as a writer / actor of electronic media. In order to find out how to tie a noose, I had to turn on my computer and look it up online. First, however, I checked my email.
There was nothing in my inbox other than a forward from Arty that showed a clip of an amateur stripper falling head first off a pole. I checked my myspace account as well and took comfort in the fact that I’d never have to answer another email. Then I googled and discovered there are a variety of knots that fall under the category of “noose.” There is the simple noose, the strangle snare, the gallows knot, also known as the scaffold knot, the hangman’s knot and several others. I decided to go with the hangman’s knot more for its look then its effectiveness. Wikipedia recommends six to eight coils for a good hanging though I didn’t have enough slack to do more than four. Per their instructions, I used Vaseline to lubricate the chord so that it would tighten smoothly and cut off my breathing from the instant I fell. It was probably around 5:30 by then, which gave me half an hour before IR#9.5 would return home.
Allotting time for the ten minutes it would take to die by strangulation, I decided to spend one last fifteen minute session engaged in the only activity that ever really brought any pleasure to my life since I first discovered it at the age of fourteen. I dug my favorite video out of the closet, cued it up to a fantastic menage-a-trois scene and rubbed out my final load. I must have been in a rush when I finally took the chair from my desk, climbed up to the light fixture atop the living room and tied the chord to a bolt that seemed as if it would hold. With everything in place, I dispensed with ceremony, tightened the noose, and kicked away the chair in order to get the job done as quickly as possible.
Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a suicide by hanging has probably wondered what a person thinks in those final moments as he hangs by the neck with his mortality being squeezed from his body. Having lived through it, I can tell you, it is not some childhood memory that flashes before your eyes, nor some last regret, nor even a white light beckoning in the distance. The only thought that went through my mind was the startled realization that I had forgotten to turn off the porno on my TV set after I was done rubbing one out. The very next thought was that I had left a jar of Vaseline on the ottoman and a note attached to my sweater that said nothing about suicide. Thus it occurred to me that whoever should find my dangling corpse would believe that I had died not by suicide, but by the incompetent commission of an attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation. Einstein himself, had he died in such a manner, would be remembered as the village idiot, and I had no intention of allowing my meager legacy to be overshadowed by such a disreputable act. Instead, in what I believed would be my final struggle on this Earth, I began to swing my legs violently toward the ottoman in an effort to kick the Vaseline across the room where no one would find it. Having accomplished this, I then set to work at swinging toward the television set in order to destroy it or at least turn it off so that no one would see the two women on its screen who were taking turns pleasuring a man dressed in the black robes of a judge. Inevitably, my legs were too short, and the swinging pendulum of my body couldn’t reach the set. I swung harder and harder, pushing against the ceiling with my hands in order to lengthen the chord, an act which had the correlating effect of tightening the noose and thus bringing me closer to an ignoble death.
By the time IR#9.5 entered the apartment, I was whirling around the living room like a rhesus monkey, becoming more and more light headed as my toe finally grazed the glass on the screen. She screamed, of course, not knowing what she was screaming at, but recognizing that she was a witness to the uncanny in all of its emotional, spiritual and metaphysical terror. The last thing I remember was the failure of the ceiling bolt which allowed my body to careen forth into our home entertainment system, knocking the television, stereo and VCR to the ground as I collapsed unconscious in a heap of broken components.
When I awoke, I was engaged.