From The Dead Are More Visible
Social visibility is a double-edged sword. Not being seen can be painful if the alternative would mean a degree of validation or self-worth: characters from Ralph Ellison’s invisible man to Chicago’s Mr. Cellophane can attest to the anguish of being looked through or passed over in a crowd. But the other side of being seen – as anyone who has been on the wrong end of a Twitter mob can attest – is being vilified or attacked. Once you’re visible, you’re vulnerable.
This is a lesson Ellen, the protagonist of the title story from Steven Heighton’s 2012 collection, learns on the job when she comes into violent confrontation with a trio of drunken punks.
Ellen, a tall and “sturdy” (her ex-husband’s disparaging word) forty-six-year-old, spends her nights flooding the rinks at Skeleton Park in Kingston, Ontario. The park is so called colloquially because it sits on the site of a former graveyard. All the headstones have long since been removed, “pulled from the earth like broken teeth over a century ago.” The only monument left standing is an obelisk commemorating the final resting place of the local minister, dead by age thirty.
From the jump, Heighton sets the mood, plunging readers into the jet blackness of an Ontario winter night and insisting on death as both subject and metaphor. The second word in the story is “graveyard” – as in “graveyard shift,” which Ellen works for time-and-a-half – underscoring the notion of mortality that is directly referenced in the story’s title. (And serving as an embedded joke: given the ice rinks’ provenance, literally every shift is a “graveyard” shift.) Ellen spends much of her down time on the job (while the water for the ice freezes) reading novels – her preferred genres are romance and horror. While eros and thanatos have long been associated in the cultural psyche, Heighton underscores this with reference to Ellen’s failed marriage: “Why did horror and romance so often overlap?” Ellen wonders toward the end of the story.
The question is also germane to the structure of Heighton’s piece, which is broken into two separate sections, the first of which resembles a kind of Gothic romance, complete with a dark and brooding stranger, while the second contains elements of horror that could arise out of a novel by Stephen King – not incidentally one of Ellen’s favourite writers. (This is also evidence of the fact that what a Heighton story seems to be about at the outset is rarely what it ends up being about.)
The stranger in question is a vagrant – possibly homeless, certainly mentally ill – who attends the rinks by night and watches the obelisk from a distance. “It has to be moved,” he says to Ellen one night in a voice that is “mild, reasonable.” (The ironic descriptors are unexpected and, in retrospect, absolutely appropriate.) The drifter is upset that the tombstones of the cemetery’s other occupants – either 24,000 or 30,000 of them, depending upon whom the reader trusts – have been removed, leaving only the “phallic” marker of a town notable, a gesture the man finds “undemocratic.”
“The dead are more visible than we are,” he tells Ellen, giving the title its resonance and also emphasizing the second pattern of symbolism that runs throughout the story: that of eyes and seeing. Like the blind seer Tiresias, the man’s perception comes through what Ellen assesses as an “eyeless stare,” his eyes being obscured in the dark by the brim of his hat. When Ellen is set upon by a trio of young toughs – all of them sporting hoodies that lend them a “Grim Reaper look” – the confrontation gets out of hand, leading to one of the men losing an eye, an injury that is symbolically consonant with the trajectory of the story.
Heighton, who died on April 19 at the age of 60, wrote novels and essays, but his best writing appeared in his books of poetry and short fiction, two forms that allowed him to demonstrate an ability to pack an extraordinary amount of meaning into a small space. One of his finest short stories, “The Dead Are More Visible” is a masterpiece of concision and density, evincing Poe’s dictum regarding single effect while also providing an empathetic portrait of a series of marginalized – read: invisible – characters, each of them struggling in his or her own way to be seen.
Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Ellen. At forty-six, she has lost whatever youthful glow she once had and has resigned herself to a more or less post-sexual existence, at least in the eyes of others. When she intervenes in a confrontation between the stranger and the three ruffians, the leader of the gang calls her a “goof,” which she is knowledgeable enough to recognize as the most egregious insult it’s possible to hurl in prison. “He knew how to use the word,” Heighton writes:
But the use of the word bothered her, enraged her, for another reason altogether and now she jerked the control ring fully open and turned the hose on him, narrowing the mouth with her gloved thumb so it sprayed even harder. Bitch she would have preferred. A bitch at least was female. Fat bitch, even. Bull dyke. Anything in that line. This was worse than being looked through or past, which happened all the time, and so be it, she could take it, a small, daily heartbreak – things could be far worse.
This is perhaps the key passage in the story, the one that cleaves most closely to Ellen’s sense that, as a middle-aged woman, she has been made invisible by a society that prizes youth and beauty above all else. Her rage – and she admits she rarely gets angry, preferring to approach every conversation in a more cordial manner – arises precisely out of the dismissive nature of the insult, a way of verbally rendering her both asexual and insignificant.
“Sometimes life seemed little else than a struggle to win the attention, the gaze, of others,” Ellen thinks after hunting around on the partially frozen ice for the eyeball she inadvertently poked out of the lead punk’s head with the nozzle of her hose – a scene that contains elements of horror but is also exploited for its mordant comedy. When she goes to tend to the injured young man, she notices his remaining eye fixed on her. “He was seeing her now, really looking.”
Violence, Flannery O’Connor insisted, is a useful tool for an author, because it is in moments of violence that people reveal who they truly are. In this moment, Heighton reveals the “Grim Reaper” wannabe gangster as little more than a frightened, insecure boy, while Ellen – so aloof and sure of herself elsewhere in the story – is shown to be longing for some connection, some recognition of her worth or, at the very least, her mere existence.
The dead are more visible than we are because they have grave markers attesting to their time on the planet. What the wounded delinquent and Ellen manage in a moment of terror and danger is a fleeting connection during which they truly see each other. It’s a subtle reversal, of the kind that only a writer of Heighton’s calibre could pull off with such apparent ease.