4.09 Now, Later

Kate Doyle

The path forward is obstructed. And backward, memory: the beep beep bah beep of a transmission in Morse code. In fifth grade, this was the subject of Helen’s school project: Samuel Morse, the invention of the telegraph. Innovation, technological progress, communication across great distances, the promise of the future. In the laundry room, her father helped her build a rudimentary telegraph machine from instructions she found in a library book. They mounted it on a block of wood.

She remembers sourcing supplies at the hardware store, then how they constructed it in the course of several evenings, side-by-side—using, for a work surface, the tops of the white metal washing machine and dryer. She remembers the long wire they coiled painstakingly around a large screw. And the single, unvarnished dresser-drawer knob, which came in a plastic envelope from the craft aisle. With her father’s help she affixed it to the conductive strip of tin: a button on which to tap-tap out a message. Telegraph key was the technical term, said the library book. Beep beep bah beep.

In middle school she prided herself on academic success of this sort, pinned her whole identity on it. Studious. Accomplished. Now looking back, she can see the lie: meritocracy.

The year she built the telegraph in the laundry room, she and her younger siblings had been transferred out of the public school in the wealthy town where they lived. Their parents enrolled them in a Catholic school in the more working-class neighboring city. The wealthy town boasted some of the best public schools in the country, and yet: Too much sitting around in a circle on the floor is a rationale her father eventually offered, years later, for transferring them. Overemphasis on feelings. Not rigorous. We wanted you to experience discipline.

Helen had assumed that to be from a different town would serve as an interesting fun fact about herself in this new environment. Her first day of school, she kept telling people, but noticed how it seemed to be received as something fundamentally dubious. In time, the other kids at Holy Trinity made comments. Rich kids. White kids.

In this year when they transferred schools, their mother could often be overheard saying to other adults—after playdates, for example—that Holy Trinity School was the real world, and the affluent town was not. By this she seemed to mean diverse—a euphemistic word. Their mother always had a frightening temper and could at the smallest provocation be driven into towering wrath about the ways she perceived Helen and her siblings to be protected, insulated, coddled. And this feels true, looking back: so much at their disposal. Helen and her siblings all agree about this now, years later, when they review the circumstances of their upbringing. Dinners in expensive restaurants, ski vacations. Personally I don’t need very much to be happy, their mother would sometimes say confidently, though she wore a Tiffany watch and always dressed in what Helen later understood were expensive clothes. She said, Your father wanted all this, not me: I wanted you to be normal.

Naiveté. Helen, in fifth grade, looked it up in the dictionary they kept on a table at the top of the stairs: lack of experience, wisdom, judgement. The things she and her siblings did not know about the world, or didn’t know they didn’t know, could not know, failed to know.

Your lives are easy, their mother said bitterly, again and again. Her own childhood had been troubled, and easy was her refrain, an accusation. It gave Helen the curious sense that her own personal lived experiences were artificial, dissolvable, lacked real meaning or import, perhaps had not actually occurred. Any time she felt sad, angry, disoriented, she understood: she was scratching the surface of actual hardship, grief, rage. She was experiencing nothing of normal life, nothing tangible or real. Her life was a set of protections. It had no stakes. This was her childhood: a meaningless exercise, a trial run. Devoid. Lucky. Fortunate. She could mess up anything with no actual result.

She can begin to see this over the years, and now. This is the necessary work, you have to try to see it clearly. Beep beep beep beep beep ring HELLO? You need to start the conversation now. A bond is being tested, what are you going to do about it? Do you see now what you have been a part of? Do you accept the charges leveled against you?

Once, before they had children—when her mother’s life was beginning to become easy, when she had married someone who was making all this money—Helen’s parents spent a year living in France. At some point Helen demanded to know, longed for some explanation: why exactly did they ever come back? Why did they choose the bland affluent town over living abroad? Because in America there is real upward mobility, said her father. Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In Europe you are trapped in the circumstances you were born to. I missed that sense of opportunity for everyone. I hated the sense of predetermination.

But this is a lie. She keeps trying to help him understand, now. Propaganda, mythology. Fundamental dubiousness. She was predetermined to get an A on her telegraph project, her mother to wear a Tiffany watch. We are an exceptional country, he says. Communication across great distances, promises of the future. We aren’t, Helen says. We aren’t, says her mother. We aren’t, say her siblings. Do you see now what we have been a part of? Can you see it?


The Wikipedia entry for the theme, collect call, includes the phrase: It is generally possible to make a collect call from a landline by dialing "0" and following automated prompts; this felt like a small invitation to apply certain automatic generative processes that I’d been experimenting with. a combination of randomized prompts, timed writing, and collaborative source material. When I do this with other writers, we choose a theme, write down related memories/thoughts/images, and throw them in a big bowl together. Then as we write we draw bits of inspiration from the bowl, and consequently from each other.

In this case, I tried to build a small system to return repeatedly to This Is A Call as I wrote. I used a random number generator to create ten random timestamps. From these specific moments, I wrote down the audio in the film, which I printed and cut up. I pulled these randomly as I wrote.

Some of the audio has stayed in my final piece in its original form: the beeps and rings, the word naiveté, the phrase do you accept the charges? Others underwent certain transformations: my life was a set of interests, as spoken by the first narrator in the film, became her life was a set of protections in my story. Other lines of audio were ultimately cut, but they undergird the resonances between This Is A Call and Now, Later, such as the experience of school as a child, or considering one's father, or wrestling with differences between one's own family and other families. In both pieces, the limits of the personal provide the imperfect lens through which individuals think about society.

Creating a strict creative procedure like this offered a way to enter complex material. I was intimidated by translating the themes of This Is A Call, which it elucidates through a chorus of intimate, spoken, firsthand accounts. I thought often, in the week I was writing, about how the filmmaker seemed to have sourced from a range of voices; in contrast, according to the limits of my own medium, I would be sourcing from my own experiences. I write fiction that operates adjacent to real life: Helen is a character I return to often, someone who is like me and also not me. I wrestled with the ethics of translating the chorus of voices in This Is A Call into such an apparently personal medium. I often worried that for me as a white artist to translate this choral project into my usual art form would inherently amount to centering whiteness. This translation seemed to stress the limitations of my form.

Like all of the artists, I scheduled my time to contribute months in advance with tele-, but in spite of the best laid plans, I ended up unexpectedly moving and and being approved to adopt a dog the week it was my turn to translate. Amidst these distractions, working with the important themes of This Is A Call sometimes felt like a project I would fail at. I struggled to reconcile the velocity of the tele- process, the necessity of keeping everything timely and on track for the next contributor, with the sensitivity of the material, the importance of taking the time to get it right. I am thankful to both Andy Sanchez and Alyx Cullen, who read this for me and helped give essential shape to it as the clock ticked down. In the end, the strange timing became a reminder that reckoning with these themes is always ongoing and imperfect work, whether or not the timing is convenient.
—Kate Doyle


Kate Doyle’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Wigleaf, No Tokens, Anomaly, Cordella, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She received an MFA in fiction from NYU, where she was a graduate fellow at NYU Paris. Kate also studied in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown, and her work has also been featured in readings at Books Are Magic, McNally Jackson, and the Franklin Electric Reading Series. As a theater artist, she collaborated on creating the theater training program Shakespeare Academy @ Stratford which emphasizes collaboration and ensemble principles. She currently lives in Ithaca, New York and is at work writing a story collection and a novel.

@sometimes_k8 (Twitter & Instagram).

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