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Full Circle


Ellen Degeneres is a genius. Her comedy routines–especially the HBO specials–have been a strong influence on my writing. The Neil Klien case is no exception.

I’ve watched Ellen’s specials so many times that I know precisely when to laugh, which doesn’t make her any less humorous: I know when I’m going to laugh and now I know why. Familiarity has actually allowed me to appreciate the subtle architecture of her story-telling. To be more precise, it isn’t knowing when to laugh; it’s knowing where, because her stories are cunningly crafted journeys. We know the destination from the outset, but the path isn’t always clear and the side-trips are unexpected. The surprise is that we inevitably come home, return to the point of departing, often suddenly, and are changed by the experience. Thomas Mann was wrong: you can go home again. It’s there waiting; you’re the one who’s changed.

Whether Neil wrote those editorial comments is immaterial. He had reason to hold at least one of those opinions and I’m hardly in a position to gainsay what may have been his few moments of personal retribution. That story is incomplete and I feel certain Howard will follow through. But there is another circle here asking for it’s own sort of closure. Neil Klien’s story needs to come home, to come full circle, even to be transformed.

Klien’s solitary life was shorter than it ought to have been. He died in 1961, in the middle of the Cold War and his own personal version of it. He also died on the job, digging a grave in a newer part of the cemetery. It was August, a hot day, and he should have known better than to dig at high noon; better to have waited for the cooler early evening or to have begun before sunrise. He walked to a nearby tree for some shade, leaned his shovel against it, sat down and never got up. He was fifty-two.

Klien left his estate to the animal shelter–fitting for a stray like himself to provide for fellow creatures without a home. Whether by accident or intent, his shovel stayed leaning against that tree, less than twenty feet from where they buried him. Eventually the weathered tool had become his memorial. Karl Wasserman decided to make it a permanent fixture among the cemetery’s many and various monuments: he took it out to the college and cast it in bronze, adding these words to the blade: “NEIL KLIEN–1909-1961. We were there at his beginning. He was there at our end.”

I’m actually feeling pretty good about this.

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