What would you be willing to do to save someone, perhaps someone you loved? On a moment’s notice, for instance, would you lunge between that person and an assailant’s knife strike? In that same situation, what would you be willing do for yourself? And what if there were nothing, ultimately, to be done?
These and other such questions live in the untouched minutes—questions most of us are, fortunately, never compelled to answer, though the media exposes us daily to the stories of those who are. In February 2001, on what started out as a typical Sunday afternoon, Donald Morrill and his wife Lisa Birnbaum became the victims of a home invasion and found themselves faced with the specter of ultimate contingency. In The Untouched Minutes, Morrill recounts and examines the events of that day and its aftermath as well as the circumstances surrounding the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Suzanne Zantop, which occurred the same week.
Set against the unfolding drama of post-9/11 America, The Untouched Minutes explores how violence and the threat of violence color and recast one’s assumptions and can plot the course of people facing the unknown, the unknowable, the irredeemable. Morrill presents a memorable portrait of what it means to take back the life that, finally, wasn’t taken, and in the process he offers a powerful meditation on terror and security, home and travel, art, race, luck, and our individual places in the wider world.
Those minutes had beggared Don, and so he needed to understand what that begging had been for. His life was part of it—most vividly and elusively the life he had been allowed since that afternoon. But as an answer, it was clearly insufficient.
Months later, a way to begin came to him.
Today, I understand, in yet another way, why lights burn all night in certain upstairs bedrooms. I fathom anew what it means to be frightened by a towel or a tumbling seed. I’m re-introduced to the absurd sturdiness of a bubble, and the persistent hiding game of broken glass and the timbre of its breaking. And so much else. And not enough else. I understand that these things result, partly, from begging you for my life, though I’m sure you don’t remember that moment as Lisa and I do.
Today is September 14, 2001. Tropical Storm Gabrielle (first known as Tropical Depression 8 ) has come ashore near Sarasota, tossing the trees and throwing the blossoms. The rain caroms from the roof of the shed across the patio in jagged panes of spray, as though from the bridge of a ship. To watch the rain now plunging, veering sidewise, dashing at each new unsuspected angle is to feel almost that the world is jutting upward, swooping, jerking this way and that, buffeted, confused. And the trees’ shimmying makes the day appear as though everything is coming loose bit by bit.
Maybe it is. In New York, at “the pile” that was the World Trade Center until three days ago, the rescuers are casting away debris in buckets, still hoping for survivors, though it’s raining there, too, bringing the dust to earth but now weighing everything down—more weight to the weight—and making it colder and slicker, and less likely that anyone trapped below the rubble can survive. On the radio, the reporters tell us about what they think they know, or what they believe it is responsible to tell us. Congress is giving the non-elected president money and sanction to go to war against terrorism, for the sake of future generations. The winds are gusting.
You, too, must be watching this storm and these broad events. We’re being told by various pundits that we are New Yorkers, that the destruction on Tuesday wounded us, too. (Would they agree the reverse was true—that what transpired between you and me and Lisa makes New Yorkers into Tampans?) The war now seems obscure because the enemy is obscure, and the battleground far-flung and yet near. Many are shocked that the attackers in New York and Washington, and on the plane that was forced to crash in Pennsylvania, could have understood beforehand they would be killing themselves as well as so many innocent bystanders. Who wants to believe that humanity could offer such possibility? About this, you must have known better, even if you’ve never actually articulated it. You must have known for a long time that each of us holds the other’s fate, most of all if he is willing to trade his fate for it.
So what is our correspondent begging for here?
On February 4, 2001, a Sunday, at 4 p.m., Don and Lisa lay dozing in bed when they were roused by a sound resembling the chime of a bud vase nudged from a shelf by one of their cats—except they no longer had indoor cats. Lisa stirred and peered down the hallway.
“Someone’s breaking in!” she cried.
Don grabbed the phone and shouted “9! 1! 1!” as he punched the numbers madly over and over because the battery was low and the thing slow to respond. The intruder must have stepped back and then lunged through the door because there was a detonation, a shattering and brittle ripping, and with a few quick steps up the hallway—his nylon pant legs scuffing each other, his shoes clacking on the hardwood floor—he stood before the couple.
He—Gregory—was black, perhaps in his mid-twenties, broad, stuffed into a thickly-padded jacket, and he wore no mask.
“Put the phone down,” he said, and Don, naked, tossed it on the bed. “Get down,” he said, and they crouched.
“I’m homeless,” he announced, almost annoyed, “and I need money.”
He asked if they had a gun. They said no.
“I don’t have a gun,” he declared. “But I have the means to strangle her if you resist.”
Lisa, wearing only panties, tried to slip on Don’s shirt that had been lying on the floor beside her.
“Take it off,” he commanded, and she did.
Lisa and Don live in a refurbished, coral-hued bungalow built in 1926, an early tract home now a “historic” house, as some people are wont to say, given the newness of most Florida structures. Their street adjoins one of the most fashionable old neighborhoods in Tampa, though their district is “in transition,” given its motley of picturesque rehabs and new Spanish Med townhouses amid faded cinder block rentals and moldy hovels. Their street has been on the way up for several years. Ranch-style houses built in the forties and fifties have been torn down to make way for condos daubed with postmodern flair. Two blocks over, a playground for the new gentry—restaurants and bars, fashionable shops and luxury apartments—gleams at evening. Don and Lisa resent the increased traffic this transformation has invited but savor what it has meant for the property values. They had rented the house next door for seven years and were unable to buy until recently—in their mid-forties—thanks to the happy confluence of their moderate means and the grace of a neighbor who, selling out to retire to the beach, gave them a good deal. Coveted bungalows make up most of the block, but they are the only owners who live on it, they with their modest piece of the American dream. Nearly all their neighbors are younger professionals renting as they did, waiting for their deal.
When Gregory came down their alley and tore the lock off the gate of their privacy fence and crept across the cedar decking toward their back door, this was the neighborhood he’d been roaming, area 160 on the Tampa Police Department crime grid.
At the back door (that vain French door Lisa and I both loved), after you had broken out a pane to verify that there would be no electronic alarm, you heard our shouts. You knew we were there. Yet you came on. You had decided. Could we call this determination “courage,” “madness,” “the deepest drug hunger”?
The click-click of your heels on the hallway floor—how many times my own heels clicking there had pleased me.
The wired loneliness in the paused air as we seemed to wait for you to come through the bedroom doorway. Three seconds, at most.
You were about to enter the room. You knew we were there. That’s why we thought you had come to kill us.
There was at least one other reason such a thought might have occurred to them—though, for all its vividness, it would have been obscure at that moment. Earlier the same week, Half and Susanne Zantop, professors at Dartmouth, were stabbed to death in their home in New Hampshire. Despite Lisa and Don’s initial revulsion at this sensational crime—accompanied by a grim identification with the victims (with whom they shared the same occupation)—their attention, like that of most of the country, was soon redirected by personal and professional obligations. In their case, this involved an unusually demanding round of appointments at the office and the hosting of house guests, a couple (old friends) and their small son. Two nights before, the boy had blown bubbles from a plastic pipe Lisa had bought for him. The house had glistened as those rainbowed globes bobbed and crashed. Later, after everyone else had gone to bed, his father and Don had sipped their whiskies and remarked on how several bubbles had come to rest intact on the floor and lamp stand in the dining room. They’d wondered, with calm disinterest, how long the bubbles would survive the foot traffic, even the movement of air.
According to one of the news reports—which Don can still barely bring himself to read, though they pile up on his desk—“Half Zantop had defensive wounds on his hand and died from a stab wound to the heart even before his throat was cut. Susanne Zantop was stabbed in the right side of her head and face, and her throat was slit, apparently from behind.”
Gregory stood at one corner at the foot of the bed, Lisa and Don kneeling side by side at the other. Don’s head sank—an involuntary gesture of mourning for what was about to happen, for the absurdity of dying this way. He saw with astonishment—with absurd coherence—that they were going to die and that it seemed preposterous, and yet this is the way these things happened. The astonishment that pressed down on him, he later realized, surely must have visited those others whom we come to know, fleetingly and yet repeatedly, from the headlines of murder stories. No one thinks he is among the chosen—like those in the plunging airliner or the sinking ship, introduced, briefly, to their new status . . . .
After the astonishment, he went slack—the capitulation of snagged prey about to be devoured—then terror returned.
His hands flapped. Though she didn’t mention it to Don until months later, Lisa remembers Gregory standing directly over him. Don was calling him “sir” and asking him to take whatever he wanted.
For at least a couple of years before that afternoon, worry used to wake me in the night. I had come to a point in my life (mid-life?) where I would lie in the darkness imagining the roots of the ancient cherry laurel beside our house cracking the foundation, breaking the sewer main. I’d revisit what I’d said in a meeting at the office the day before, suddenly certain I’d mishandled the matter. I’d cringe at the stock purchase I’d made, or hadn’t made, months before. I’d lie embarrassed to simply be alive, acting as I act, having the job I have and so on. My pathetic life . . . and I too cowardly to describe myself as I really was. (It all seemed unworthy of what I’d once assumed I was and what I would become.)
Also, on occasion, I would be confronted by the vision of coming home to find Lisa dead or murdered . . . or of picking up the phone to find she had been in an accident. When she rolled out of the driveway in the morning, I would sometimes call to her, “Be careful!” echoing the ferociously anxious aunties of my adolescence.
Worse, in moments of stillness—while lying in bed or driving down the interstate or sitting in a meeting of the committee on frittering—scenes of violence would rise into me, as if to assert again the vulnerability of each thing, and demand a wince at the chaos loaded into every plan.
Why such dread? Stress at work? Exhaustion of a hectic social life? A lifetime of grisly headlines/ Perversity of my nature? A furtive form of self-regard? Or is it that one cannot elude certain conclusions after enough mortal illnesses among friends and family, enough catastrophes borne on the ordinary?
Most, I believe, would describe me as easy-going, a happy man. I would have added: lucky.
Crouching beside Don, Lisa saw Gregory glance toward the bed. She could also see that Don, with his head down, absorbed by his terror, had left her alone.
Six months later, she acknowledged to him that she realized then she had to watch out for herself, though what kind of vigilance that might require was unclear. She imagined Gregory knifing Don. She imagined Gregory forcing her to suck his cock. She imagined him taking her to an ATM, emptying her account and then compelling her to drive to the dead end of a remote road.
Later still, she recalled that as Don had tried to contact 911 and the back door had exploded, the urge to crawl under the bed had swept through her, though not even a small child could find room enough to hide there.
Several months after that, she remembered thinking that she might hide in the closet but had not done so because it didn’t seem fair to Don: “This was happening to both of us, and I had to face it, too. I also thought Gregory would be angrier and more violent if he knew I was there, trying to elude him. I had no hope I could be more knowing. His assumption of power took that away, even my knowledge of our own house.”
Lisa had rarely, if ever, been afraid at home. As a girl, she had been the little sister who’d volunteer to discover for her older siblings the source of the noise in the downstairs darkness. As an adult, she had lived alone in several cities, and she felt no qualms about being on her own when Don was out of town. She’d never had an interest in “getting a rush from horror,” in haunting her imagination that way, as it seemed to her many people did, and so she often refused to view what she considered gratuitously brutal imagery, declining to see a new movie, for instance, if advised that it was particularly violent. Partly to that end, she and Don didn’t keep a television in the house.
Of course, you can hardly care about that, or anything else in these fragments I seem to be writing to you—if I am writing to you at all, here in some sort of tropical depression of my own.
“I don’t want to hear about him anymore,” Lisa says today. “I don’t want to think about it. You, it seems, want to make something beautiful out of something ugly.”
I stifle my reply, though I do wonder why any writer would want to make something beautiful out of something already beautiful.
I suppose I would like to make out of what occurred between us something that is just. But that’s much more difficult. Perhaps it’s impossible, for all the claims of literature.
“You act as though nothing bad ever happened to you before,” Lisa says.
She doesn’t say (though I believe she thinks it): You seem to be treating this as some great opportunity.
She’s partly right. But am I wrong for that?
She’s not beyond invention herself. After all, she named you less than a week after you busted in on us—named you without provocation as we drove down the interstate, again tearing at the details of you. (Gregory, she announced, is the name by which your family, but no one in your street life, knows you—since you’ve concocted a thug handle to fit your criminal persona). She also gave you a mother who is ill and yet still “believing in you,” still asserting that you’ll at last give up your mighty pleasure in flashing a roll of bills for your friends and breaking heads, that you’ll take a regular job and settle down as you were taught to do.
Lisa was playing with her disturbance about our encounter with you, seeking some command over it. She—a writer,too—needed to tell the story of what came before and after that day with you, since neither of us believes you’ll be caught. She needed to make you into someone other than a stranger in our bedroom. That’s why she decided you permanently injured your shoulder when you crashed through our door, and why she later said you were blown away by the owner of the next house you invaded. The day she named you she wanted me to play along, but I wasn’t up to it. In passing, months afterward, she told me she regrets her inspiration since now we mention you as though we know you.
I’ve often preached to my writing students, “Experience doesn’t matter just because it happens to you,” or, “Your experience is of interest because it is experience, not because it is your experience.”
But experience is unique, since all actions are incommensurate, despite their effects, and their beginnings and endings are obscure. You can never know another’s bliss, or sorrow. You can never know the other side of the eye. By definition, all experience is the experience of a survivor: experience must be survived in order to become experience. After all, could you really call being murdered an experience?
I seem to want to break you into a hundred reflections (like the broken glass of our back door), and I want to break those minutes into a hundred other experiences, as though that time and our actions were not only ours in themselves, or not only themselves. Do I want more survival?
I certainly want revenge, though there is no revenge, no eye for an eye because of what each eye has seen. Revenge craves an approving god. But there is only the inspiration of further consequences.
And maybe this writing is some kind of punishment, no longer even autobiography transformed by meditation. No one is safe from another’s hands, or his own.
You surely have to laugh at me, you motherfucker.