Courtney Miller Santo is the author of two novels, The Roots of the Olive Tree and Three Story House, published by HarperCollins. Her works have been translated into German, Italian, Hungarian, Korean, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, Turkey, and Slovenian. She teaches writing at the University of Memphis, where she is the Editor-in-Chief of The Pinch and director of the River City Writers Series. She is also chair of the MidSouth Book Festival. Her essays, fiction and poetry have been published in Shark Reef, Belief and Literature, the Los Angeles Review, Green Briar Review, Memphis Magazine and Mason’s Road among others.
Society of Jumpers
We are different now.
You don’t believe me—I can see that you are hardly listening. Already you’ve begun to think of how perfect the heat of the afternoon will feel on your skin after the artificial chill of this hospital room. It is because of your youth or maybe it is a change in your generation’s DNA—your minds are always ahead of you, conditioned to expect that what comes next will be better than what is now.
Still, I must explain.
The young have come to think of it as a courtesy, like holding the door for the person coming behind you, but it isn’t about politeness. It’s about being human. Those of us who are now becoming the jumpers remember when we expected the young to sacrifice their futures, or even worse, when we were all arrogant enough to suppose that someone other than ourselves would be the unlucky one. We used otherness as a fortification against tragedy.
Our inexperience with calamity moved us to classify and correlate the events. You could protect yourself by knowing that the killing sprees were done by lone wolf types who wore long coats and wrote manifestos, but then what to make of the mother who smiled at the border troops before detonating herself, or the Eagle Scout who opened fire in the church basement? We tried to place them in categories to say a difference existed between death in the civilized and uncivilized world. The man with the ax had done his killing in the Congo which is different than here, we said. And although we thought it sad when the boy in China burned the preschool and all the children and all the teachers, we didn’t see our faces in their faces and that somehow protected us. Others, even now, are trying to say what really matters is why—but belief in an afterlife is as dangerous as nihilism. It has taken us too long to understand anyone might decide not to be human.
You see how we didn’t have a choice. That I didn’t have a choice.
Yes, it is better now that we erase them. Scrub their countenance, their digital footprints from existence. That was the age of middle names—we called them by their full names because it singularized them. How many hours, days, weeks of time were lost listening to news blabber, absorbing the minutiae of their lives—how much corn syrup they consumed, whether their childhood walls contained lead, what books they read. We craved protection and thought that by know how they were like us and how they weren’t might act as a shield. Of course even after institutional eradication, they remain with us, like the forever shadows of Nagasaki.
When did it change? you ask.
I cannot tell if you want to know or if you want me to finish.
You want me to tell you that it began after 9/11 when all of us remembered our mortality, but it did not. Those of us who were there in the beginning know that the movement grew out of an exercise class held inside one of those globo gyms that became such a profitable business model near the turn of the century. There on a late summer day, the retired bankers, and widows, and stay-at-home mothers waited for their noon class to start. Their eyes on the televisions strung on thick wires above their heads, watching a young man, trying not to smile because he understood the seriousness of the events he’d participated in, but his dimples, as if they were Morse code, kept appearing in the baby fat of his cheeks telegraphing his excitement.
I knew there were two ways to die, he said to channel 45. There were two ways to die, he said to channel 8. I might have died two ways, he said on channel 2. I could die a hero or I could die a coward, he said to us.
And that was it. That was all it took. The exercisers carried that message with them into krav-maga, (which previously they’d only done to get their heart rates up) with a newly-found sense of purposefulness that surprised their instructor. Watching them practice palm heel strikes the ex-mercenary saw for the first time how his pupils could be strong. And then, when they were all standing around with sweat-flattened hair, one of the older women, who had buried two husbands said loudly, but not to anyone: Really it’s the old people like us who ought to be stopping these fucking shitbags. Her classmates nodded.
Over the next few weeks, they dispersed her idea to their friends, relatives and neighbors. They only spoke to those who were old enough to remember the moon landing. Some of them—those with grandchildren who forced them to keep up with the world—posted these idea on the internet. On pages visited by people who had wrinkles and dentures, they said: Let it be us. Let us sacrifice. Let us stop the sprees.
And that’s how it was for a few years, until an attractive, older woman with the sort of grey hair that makes mothers in their forties want to stop dying theirs posted a snapshot of herself holding a grenade and a sign that read I’ll jump on it. There was a call to action, too, but nobody read that. Instead the elderly posted copycat photos in every language across every country.
As they used to say, it went viral. And people began calling them the society of jumpers,
They made tshirts with stylized grenades on them, and then when that became too visible, they moved onto rings, which were discrete and easy to mistake for signet jewelry that people of a certain age used to wear. Now, they don’t need the trappings of a secret society. Everyone over sixty is a member. It’s like the AARP.
We used to believe that there was no difference between killing one person at a time and killing as many as possible at one time. But that was before man became god. It is different now.
Jumping became more than stopping the attacks. It became a dance, a ritual performed to prove that you were happy with the life you’d been given, or the one you’d taken. I still haven’t figured out what I believe. But when you are watching for ghosts, you see the world differently.
At its best, it stops time and makes the world smaller for you. It balances the world between action and reaction so that no imbalances can remain. It removes purposelessness.
You are patting my arm, as if to tell me that you know this part of the story. And maybe you do. They must teach you about this in university. I think maybe you want me to explain my own story, but I don’t want to. It is part of theirs and that’s all that matters.
The Society’s first big success came in Thailand, when a retired optician and his wife followed a young boy into a hotel because they thought he looked wrong—his vest too heavy for his thin frame. There’s a recording of the moments before it happened—captured by a honeymooning couple filming their brunch. Maybe you’ve watched it. You see them, lift the child by his arms and drag him into the bathroom and then there is nothing for one, two, three seconds. Silence between people taking their next bite of food and then, boom followed by the billowing of sheetrock dust in the air.
Their children, who were quite photogenic, appeared red-eyed and defiant on all the screens speaking about their parents’ undeniable bravery. The police conjectured that fifty or more people had been saved because this couple jumped in.
What? You’ve seen their statue. Yes, it’s a well done bit of public art. They were from Memphis, where your Mother grew up. She might have known them, but you know we all claim such things every now and then.
Something else started to change too. At first it was barely noticeable. The world went back to giving up their seats on busses to anyone with crow’s feet. Those with canes or wheelchairs were often ushered to the front of long grocery store lines. And perhaps most telling of all, cemeteries began to change. People visited more often, and relatives stayed longer. They put in slides and swings to keep the children happy.
Being old no longer was an embarrassment. Respect returned to us.
Well, of course fear, too.
The young are afraid because we can stop them.
No, I don’t mean you. I raised your father and he raised you and that’s enough for me to know that you will be good. But for the others who even now are thinking they could outwit a subway full of elderly jumpers. Or like the man I stopped at the velodrome.
Now you are interested. Both feet on the floor leaning across my bed. Yes, it is hard to speak, but you don’t stop me.
The man walked alone, already a ghost and looking to see if the other ghosts could feel pain. When he moves through the velodrome, the air behind him shimmers as if supercooled by his shadow. The ghost wanted like to find other ghosts, but he can’t and so he decided to make ghosts.
He ran—sprinted really—to the inside lane and steps out onto the thermosplastic. A number of other people saw him, but they are preoccupied with their obligations and did not understand that he should not be there.
The velodrome is large and I am there volunteering. I am supposed to tell the riders where to go after they are done. Yes, I know that you were there, but you didn’t see what I saw. You were flirting with all the boys coming up to you to buy beads and also you don’t know how to see the ghosts—the humans who are already dead inside. The jumpers see them. It is sometimes all we speak about with each other. How to spot the ghosts. There are games on our phones designed to test our skills. You know they blink less often? That they typically put more weight on their left side of their bodies so that their movement is off, like a lame horse.
Yes. I saw him and I knew, as if I’d already been shot, that the ghost meant trouble. I grabbed his sleeve and yanked him back and he blinked, telling me he thought we didn’t attend to such events. That we preferred tennis and other old sports. I knew he was distracting me and I didn’t let what he had to say change my goal to get him out of there and away from everyone as fast as possible.
And then, what? I don’t remember. Only that I awoke here and have been cold ever since and that you are here and that you normally are very far away from me. And that your parents have been here.
They will run the scenario through Mimesis. Maybe they are doing it at this very moment, working to tell us how many people might have died. I always wondered why they cast it in that light. I see all of those spheres hanging from the Museum of Consciousness and I think of lives saved. You are too young to remember the debates about formulas and factors and even whether or not we ought to use the mortality simulator. But they did, they do and now we have the spheres. There must be ten thousand now. Maybe none of us were meant to be special.
Here you are leaving. Putting your lips against my forehead and blessing me, telling me not to die just yet. You move to the door, insulated from the risk of random mortality. Your confidence reassures me. We have done alright in the end. On the bus, you will smile at everyone and not notice the man in the turban, or the young mother holding a rosary or the scowling teenager. You will see the old man, bent at the spine who surveys the space around him as if he were a man on a high wire above a chasm. As he is. As we are.