I am an Earth Ball, also known as a cage ball, a large inflatable ball residing in a junior-high-school locker room in suburban Baltimore. I have recently experienced an ordeal, the details of which may shock and sicken you. Brace yourselves.
A month ago, without warning, two men I had never seen before appeared suddenly at the door of the locker room. “There,” the tall one said, pointing. The short one nodded. They began to walk in my direction; the tall one covered the distance in just a few steps. Suddenly four hands were on me, pushing me toward a closet, and then into it. Before the door closed I could see a third man, even shorter than the short man, rolling a new Earth Ball into the locker room. I shut my eyes to bear the pain, and when I opened them found that it was still mostly dark save for a crack between door and frame that let light through. I saw in the dimness that I was not quite alone. A mop was in there with me, and a bucket. To give you some idea of the bleakness of my incarceration, the mop was named Mop and the bucket Bucket. “Hello,” I said to Mop and to Bucket. “Hello,” Mop said in a flat and uninflected tone. Bucket just nodded. “Hello,” Mop said again. I called for Coach Parker, my friend, but he did not come. When I recovered enough self-possession to gaze through the crack into the locker room, the full horror of my plight came clear. There was a new Earth Ball out there: shiny, red, with dual inflation valves. Where I had been, I was no more.
This is a sob story you will hear from all objects and, if you listen closely, all beings. Existence necessarily includes expiration. The only difference is that living beings experience this expiration as oblivion: as death, and the nothingness that lies beyond it. An object—an Earth Ball, say—might go on forever, witnessing its own death-in-life, suffering time’s erasure. This is not a thought I would have had while I was in the locker room, but confinement has a way of sharpening your sense of both meaning and meaninglessness.
Confinement has other benefits. Just as it, by removing me from the outer world, evolved my inner world, it also, by taking most of my sight, enhanced what little I could see. By that I mean everything that occupied the crack between door and frame, which consisted of two things, basically: the new Earth Ball, and Coach Parker’s computer screen. Since I could not look at the shiny red interloper without experiencing a vertiginous dread, I spent most of my time looking at Coach Parker’s screen.
I had always considered Coach Parker a man of broad interests, but after days of staring at his computer screen, I came to see his limits. He liked checking sports scores. He liked shopping for camping supplies. He liked playing a game where you click on rows of colored diamonds. That was about it. They say that a computer screen is a window to the world, but the world that Coach Parker’s screen showed me was even narrower than the crack between door and frame. There were never beautiful images on his screen. He never played music. And there was rarely even any pornography. Coach Parker had Coach Ortega, who was his girlfriend again, for that. He would stroke her hair and say “You are something.”
Other than Coach Parker’s time with Coach Ortega, though, what I saw in the locker room was so dull and unrewarding that I soon affected a kind of blindness, and came instead to depend on what I heard. In the closet, this was nothing, or next to it: Mop might say “Hello” in his flat and uninflected tone and Bucket would nod, an arid bit of vaudeville that got old fast. But the locker room had it all: the scrape of a chair leg across the floor, the slamming of a locker door, the easy and almost lyrical profanity of teenage boys. Those sounds were like brushstrokes that came to color the broader canvas of the locker room. Unfortunately, there was a dark spot on this canvas: the voice of Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity, of course, is a man who hosts a daily radio show (for three hours) and nightly television show (for one hour). For years, I had heard his voice, but I had heard it in the company of Coach Parker, who despised him, and who I respected. When my respect for Coach Parker waned (on account of his computer habits), my pleasure in experiencing Sean Hannity, however perverse, ebbed nearly to nothing. And yet, I could not escape him, for he was noise, and noise was the kingdom I had made.
Sean Hannity spends most of his time these days disparaging Barack Obama, who he says is an ineffectual president who will not take responsibility for his own actions or inactions. Sean Hannity has also mocked Barack Obama for relying too heavily on a teleprompter, and for being unable to articulate his own thoughts. There are other criticisms, many of which center on Sean Hannity’s sense that Barack Obama is a threat to America’s future. One day recently, Sean Hannity was discussing the plot to blow up a car in Times Square, and how the man who confessed to the attempt was foolishly read his Miranda rights by the Obama administration. Coach Parker was waiting for Coach Ortega to come by so they could begin to plan the Summer Carnival, and when Sean Hannity mentioned Miranda rights, Coach Parker idly moved his computer over to the Miranda page on Wikipedia. Then Coach Ortega came by, wearing a beautiful orange skirt I saw for only a second. “You really are something,” Coach Parker said, and the two of them left without turning off the radio.
A minute later a man called to criticize the entire Miranda process as a sop to liberals, and Sean Hannity tapped on the brakes of the conversation. He wanted to be clear that he supported the rule of law, even as he questioned its application in this case. Sean Hannity then began to give his account of the Miranda decision. “It was enshrined in U.S. law,” he said, and I frowned. “Enshrined” was not a word I had ever heard him use, and I had listened to him for thousands of hours. It was puzzling. Then I noticed the solution to this puzzle, which was right before me: the Miranda decision Wikipedia page began by noting that the event was “enshrined in U.S. Law.” Sean went on “remembering” what he understood of the decision, but he was just reading the Wikipedia entry that was, obviously, on his computer screen. Worse, he staged this recitation as if it was actual recollection, never giving credit, pretending as if the thoughts and phrases were being retrieved from his own head; at one point, he said “the year, if I recall, was 1966.” He went on to read the first three paragraphs word for word. Well, almost word for word. The Wikipedia page said “Miranda was subsequently retried,” but Hannity said “Miranda was subsequently retired,” a phrase of the senseless.
I could not believe it. I hopped up and down. I tried to scream. I told Mop and Bucket about it; they didn’t seem to care. I was incensed not because this was an especially consequential outrage, but because it typified the kind of petty dishonesty and posing that is as central to Hannity’s character as urea and dissolved salts are central to urine. What kind of a man pretends to recall something, even theatrically searching around for the next word, when it is right there in front of him on a computer screen? And wasn’t Hannity’s deceit particularly irritating given his incessant criticism of Obama’s teleprompter dependence? I wasn’t under the impression that I had discovered a smoking gun that would expose Hannity as a thoroughgoing hypocrite, but I had taken a soil sample, and it had come up toxic. Or, to adjust the metaphor, even if an Earth Ball is not fully inflated, it is still indisputably an Earth Ball, is it not? It may not have been everything, but wasn’t it something? I guess I had asked the question out loud. Bucket nodded.
About an hour later, when Coach Parker returned, I was still hopping up and down, to the best of my ability. I even spun a full half-turn, which meant that I could not look through the crack in the door but instead faced a rust-encrusted sink. I was beginning to worry that my outrage had done me in when suddenly the closet door opened. “There you are,” said Coach Parker, and his hands went to my sides and lifted me out. “Forecast calls for rain, so I think we’re going to need two Earth Balls in the locker room tomorrow.”
I said goodbye to Mop, who said “Hello.”
It did rain, and I was needed, and I was happy as a result. After that, I wasn’t returned to the closet, but rather left in my old spot, near the juice machine. The new earth ball was right there next to me, and when I was brave enough to look at him, I saw that he was not as intimidating as I had once thought: his color was closer to coral, and the stitching around the inflation valves was shoddy at best. I could still see Coach Parker’s computer screen, though it didn’t dominate the scene like it did when I was incarcerated. He had moved over to the Wikipedia page for Ring Toss. I guess he was reviewing the rules for Summer Carnival. Ring Toss, of course, is also known as Quoits, and it’s a traditional game that involves the throwing of metal, rope or rubber rings over a set distance, usually to land over or near a spike (sometimes called a hob, mott or pin). If I recall.