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Authors: Howard Buten

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When I Was Five I Killed Myself

BOOK: When I Was Five I Killed Myself
9.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Published in paperback in the United States in 2014 by

The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

141 Wooster Street

New York, NY 10012

For bulk and special sales please contact
[email protected]

or write us at the above address.

Copyright © 1981, 2000 by Howard Buten

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Buten, Howard.


When I was five I killed myself / Howard Buten.

p. cm.

Original title: Burt.

1. Boys—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3552.U8245B8 2000 813'.54—dc21 00-026887

“I'll Walk Alone” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.

© 1944 Morley Music Co. © Renewed 1972 Morley Music Co.

International Copyright Secured. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Book design and type formatting by Bernard Schleifer

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

ISBN 978-1-4683-0887-7

This book is dedicated to Frank.



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21


I wrote my first novel when I was eleven. It was a war epic about the German resistance during the rise of the Third Reich, a saga of two friends torn apart by the horrors of war and conflicting ideologies. It was sweeping. It was heartbreaking. It was
The Mortal Storm
, a Jimmy Stewart movie I'd seen the night before on television. (A scandal! No one would publish my novel! What did they mean, it had to be typed?)

I'm an ingrate. It's a personality trait I have. Ever since I was a child I've thought that the world owes me a living.

The book you hold in your hand was originally published in 1981 by a major American publishing house under the title
. As a tribute to my genius the publisher decided to use it as the object of an innovative marketing experiment. It was sweeping. It was heartbreaking. If the world owed me a living, I was obviously going to have to settle out of court. And out of town… way out.
wound up being published in France, in French, under its present title. It became a cult bestseller, a sort of French
Catcher in the Rye
(If you believe statistics,
When I Was Five
… has been read by one out of every ten French people who know how to read.) The translation by Jean-Pierre Carasso is a work of genius; my five other novels have enjoyed success; I've even been made a
in the
Ordre des Arts et des Lettres

But I'm an ingrate. It's a personality trait I have.
When I Was Five I Killed Myself
is an American novel that I wrote in English to be read in English.

One day a man named Nicolas Hansen, a German publisher, was talking to Peter Mayer, an American publisher. Peter remembered having read the book back in the days of the marketing experiment. It is thanks to him that you are holding it in your hand.

Like everybody else who's been writing novels since they were eleven, there are things in print that I'd write differently now. The republication of
When I Was Five I Killed Myself
(written over four years when I was in my early thirties) gives me the chance to do this. But I've been prudent in the fixing. There has always been something in the novel that floats above the page, something that I never put there on purpose. I still don't know how it got there, but I know it when I see it. I kept my hands off.

Books are like babies. They come out from inside you, and once out you want people to hold them in their hands. They don't have to love them, just hold them in their hands. People holding my books makes me happy. It's a personality trait I have.


Paris, January 2000



I was waiting for Popeye who comes after the News. He has large wrists for a person and he is strong to the finish. But the News wouldn't end.

My dad was watching it. I had my hands over my ears because I am afraid of the News. I don't enjoy it as television. It has Russians on who will bury us. It has the President of the United States who is bald. It has highlights from this year's fabulous Autorama where I have been once, it was quite enjoyable as an activity.

A man came on the News. He had something in his hand, a doll, and he held it up. (You could see it wasn't real because of the sewing.) I took my hands off.

“This was a little girl's favorite toy,” the man said. “And tonight, because of a senseless accident, she is dead.”

I ran up to my room.

I jumped on my bed.

I stuffed my face into my pillow and pushed it harder and harder until I couldn't hear anything anymore. I held my breath.

Then my dad came in and took my pillow away and put his hand on me and said my name. I was crying. He bent over and put his hands under me and lifted me up. He did this to the back of my hair and I put my head on him. He is very strong.

He whispered, “It's ok, Son, don't cry.”

“I'm not,” I said. “I'm a big boy.”

But I was crying. Then Dad told me that every day somebody gets dead and nobody knows why. It's just the rules. Then he went downstairs.

I sat on my bed for a long time. I sat and sat. Something was wrong inside me, I felt it inside my stomach and I didn't know what to do. So I layed down on the floor. I stuck out my pointer finger and pointed it at my head. And I pushed down my thumb. And killed myself.



I am here for what I did to Jessica. My nose is still bleeding but it doesn't hurt, but my face is black and blue on my cheek. It hurts. I am ashamed.

When I got here the first person I met was Mrs Cochrane. She came to meet me at the desk where I was with my mom and dad. Everybody shook hands but me. I had my hands in my pockets. They were fists. Mrs Cochrane took me away. She is ugly. I could ralph looking at her and she wears slacks even though she is old. She talks very quiet to me like I am sleeping. I'm not sleeping.

She took me to my wing. It has six beds in it. No curtains, no rugs. No dressers. No television. The windows have bars on them like jail. I am in jail for what I did to Jessica.

Then I went to see Dr Nevele.

His office is that way, go down this hall and go
through the big doors and then go this way and then that's where. He has hair up his nose, it looks like SOS pads. He told me to sit down. I did. I looked out the window which doesn't have bars and Dr Nevele asked me what I was looking at. I said birds. But I was looking for my dad to take me home.

There was a picture on Dr Nevele's desk of children and there was a picture of Jesus Christ which is phony I feel because they didn't have cameras then. He was on the cross and somebody hung a sign over him. It said INFO. That means you can ask him directions.

Dr Nevele sat down behind his desk. He said, “Now why doesn't Burt tell me something about himself, such as his most favorite things to do.”

I folded my hands in my lap. Like a little gentleman. I didn't say anything.

“Come on, Burt. What are your very favorite things to do, say with some of your friends.”

I sat. I didn't say any answer. He looked at me with his eyes, and I looked out the window for my dad only I couldn't see him. Dr Nevele asked me again and then again and then he stopped asking. He waited for me to talk. He waited and waited. But I wouldn't talk. He stood up and walked around the room and then he looked out the window too, so I stopped looking out it.

I said, “It's night.”

Dr Nevele looked at me. “No it isn't, Burton. It's day outside. It's the middle of the afternoon.”

“It's night,” I said. “When Blacky comes.”

Dr Nevele looked at me. “Is the night named Blacky?” he said.

(Outside the window a car parked and another car went away. My brother Jeffrey can name you any car, any car, man. He is an expert at cars. But when we ride in the back seat of our car we get yelled at due to horseplay.)

“At night Blacky comes to my house,” I said, but I didn't say it to Dr Nevele. I said it to Jessica. “When I am tucked in tight. He stands outside my window and waits. He knows when. He is silence. He doesn't say any noise, not like other horses. But I know he is there because I can hear him. He sounds like the wind. But he's not. He smells like oranges. Then I tie my sheets together and lower myself out the window. It is a hundred feet down. I live in a tower. It's the only tower on my block.

“When I ride him his hooves make the sound like baseball cards in bicycle spokes and people think that that's what it is. But it isn't. It's me. And I ride Blacky out to where there's no more houses and no more people. Where there's no more school. To where they have the jail where they keep people who didn't do anything wrong, and we stop next to the wall. It is silence. I stand on Blacky, he is very slippery but I never slip. And I climb over the wall.

“Inside are soldiers, they have white belts crisscrossed on them like safety boys only with beards. They are sweaty. They are sleeping. One of them is snoring, the fat one who is mean to children.

“I sneak down to the jail part where the windows have bars on them and I whisper to the people inside, Are you innocent?' They say yes. So I unlock the bars with my pointer finger and let them out.

“Just as I am climbing back over the wall the fat one who doesn't like children wakes up and sees me, but it is too late. I just wave at him and jump. It is a hundred feet down. Everybody thinks I am dead. But I'm not. I have a cape on and I hold it out like this and the wind comes and it fills up the cape and I like fly. I land on Blacky and then we go and have cookies and milk. I dunk them.”

Dr Nevele stared at me. “That's very interesting,” he said.

“I wasn't talking to you.”

“Who were you talking to?”

“You know who.”


(Outside a little boy like me played with a ball, he bounced it on the parking lot and laughed. His dad came and took him away from The Children's Trust Residence Center—home, where he played with trains that really go.)

“Burt, I want us to be pals. Pals that tell each other things. Because I think I can help you figure out what your problems are, and then help you solve them. You're a sick little boy. The sooner you let me help you the sooner you'll get better and go home. Help me, ok?”

I folded my hands up in my lap. It is correct for
sitting. It is good citizenship. No talking, no gum. Dr Nevele stood in front of me and waited but I didn't say anything. I listened to the noise from out in the hall at The Children's Trust Residence Center, of children crying.

BOOK: When I Was Five I Killed Myself
9.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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