Monday, June 8, 2009


Footnote: An event of lesser importance than some larger event to which it is related.
Or perhaps: An annoying detail that must be referred to for honesty's sake.
Or even: A matter of debatable interest that should not detract from the primary focus of the text.

I started thinking of footnotes a while back. I was researching the life of the French painter Maurice Utrillo, whose days seem to have been an endless series of footnotes, and shortly after that a friend asked me to read her master's thesis which was, as it should be, festooned with the things. It struck me then that the majority of our existence is spent being footnotes in other people's lives.

We are brief romances vaguely remembered--one or two pleasant rainy afternoons in a month of doldrums--, the bringer of a gift that still adorns a coffee table, a meal with a particularly good bottle of wine, a conversation that left something behind. And we expand a lot of energy being footnotes, because really, each and every footnote would like the opportunity to become be a full book, a meaningful discussion, a thing that really matters. But, by their very definition and every letter in their spelling, they are lesser creations, afterthoughts there to amplify a greater truth. And a footnote, even if it has every right to ask, "Why am I here?", will not necessarily get an answer. It simply is there.

A footnote cannot exist without a more important text, but the reverse is not true and sometimes preferable. Footnotes may be annoying ankle-biters, but were they alive and breathing, they would tell you entire texts hinge on their very existence. Footnotes, no matter how brief, are very important in their own minds, and they echo the old saw: I may not be much, but I'm all I think about. They add a hit of excitement, a tint of the forbidden, something secret with which we've have gotten away. They can be clandestine, joyfully mysterious to others, even if there's an uneasy relationship between the footnotes and the writing they complement. And of course, they can be sad: there is something tragically complete and finite about them. Footnotes do not have footnotes of their own. They stand alone, often overlooked by anyone but the most erudite readers, and, lest we forget, in much smaller print and thus much harder to see.

But here's the radiant side: while they are happening, footnotes can appear to be life-changing epiphanies. They have an intensity that dims only after the page is turned, when reality becomes, well, reality. And let's face it, life without footnotes would be salt-less and boring.

Next week I'll write about semi-colons. No. I won't.

Here's installment 95 of Wasted Miracles.

Comfort was ready. He took a last, brief look around the efficiency apartment, went into the kitchenette, removed the icetrays from the refrigerator and dumped the ice into the sink, unplugged the appliances. It seemed like the right thing to do. He had cleaned the place meticulously and doubted anyone could find a trace of his tenancy. He was going home after a long time away and did not want to leave behind so much as a speck of himself. He wasn’t quite sure why this was important to him, but it was.

He sucked his stomach in, patted his shirtfront. The wads of bills taped to his stomach and back didn’t show and he would quickly get used to the minor discomfort. He removed his watch, satisfied that this was the last item he wore that might set off a metal detector. The zipper of his pants was plastic–he’d bought the slacks with that specifically in mind-and even the eyelets of his shoes were non-metallic. Change still jingled in his pocket, but he’d get rid of that in the Friends of The National Zoo box at the airport.

He drove to Dulles airport in a 1991 Dodge Colt bought for the occasion from a Nigerian acquaintance who never signed the title over and would declare the car stolen in a week.

Everything was wonderfully, magnificently in place and he could forgive himself a small smile that grew and turned into a grin, into a quiet, delighted laugh.


The one thing Mollie Catfish had gotten from trying to work the steps of AA was an unshakable belief that if one tried to make luck happen, it would.

She never gave a second thought on how she’d contact the two women whose names she’d written on the piece of paper she was now cupping in one sweaty palm. During the cab ride to the dock, she’d gazed at the passing scenery with feigned interest but was actually concentrating hard on making her luck work, and it did. When she got to the pier, the covered passageway from ship to shore was guarded by a Royal Scottish Line sailor who told her that, no, she could under no circumstance go aboard. She looked at the man, he looked at her and grinned, his right hand went out. He rubbed his thumb against his index and forefinger in the age-old sign. She understood immediately, did not bother to act aggrieved, dug in her bag and brought out a twenty dollar bill.

She found a pen in her purse, asked him for a piece of paper, wrote, “For Passengers Clare Drake and Jennifer Jamieson. I’m a friend of Herbie’s. I’ll wait for you tomorrow morning at 10 in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. It’s very important.” She’d seen the hotel on her way from the airport to the ship.

The sailor nodded, put the piece of paper in his pocket. She shook her head, found another twenty. “Now.”


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