Previous Chapters: 1
As a child I remember running. It seemed as if the terrain was made of sticky taffy and every movement was caught on the trees or the streets or the grass. I couldn’t move without trapping myself, suffocating at the heart of the world.
I ran through the fields and valleys of an idyllic childhood, pages flipped across the lens of my memory. I can’t see the details because the edges are blurry and the light is soft and bleeds through the cracks, but I was young and alive.
There were abandoned industrial pipes set down in a lot near our home. I pushed through the long tubes like a worm, struggling and straining to reach the light. There was fear, naked crazy fear and a nascent claustrophobia. There were no words for these things in my mind but I had known dread long before I understood restraint.
The mountain vales were green and the waters that trickled across the rounded algae-green rocks were quiet and peaceful. It was a simple and unaffected childhood in many respects, marked only by my clean determination to learn and to understand, a determination that marked me beyond my years.
But aside from these scattered scenes of idyllic youth, the dominant note sounding through my childhood was panic, a sheer and vertiginous lust for stability and control that belied my age. Ever since the fever had taken me at such an early date I had been unable to dream. As I slept I drowned in sweat, soaking my sheets, starting bolt upright and sober as the clock struck three throughout an empty house. There was, from very early in my perceptions, an acknowledgment that something was wrong with me. Something was missing and I had no idea what it was.
So I reached further into solitude and parsed my own way through the mysteries of existence. The primal fears were unassailable, but I could at least try to come to grips with the daily agonies. The spectral images of my fever had been seared onto my brain, and I had to be ready in case they ever returned.
After graduating college I returned home and resumed tenancy under my mother’s roof. It was time for the wedding preparations to begin.
My wedding to Connie had been in the stages of perpetual planning for years, since before college. I entered into the theoretical compact with great trepidation and an inhuman dread. I had simply erred on the side of caution, unwilling to hurt Constance and, as a result, unable to make my feelings known at any juncture.
So we had left for college and placed the matter on the back burner. It made perfect sense to imagine that in the course of four years the engagement would be forgotten and nullified by the passage of time. How often do these things last? What are the statistics?
Of course I lacked the strength of convictions necessary to break the engagement myself. Constance dutifully sent letters on a weekly basis, letters I rarely read. Constance visited my school and made the acquaintance of my friends and peers – they all commented on how lucky I was to have found such a beautiful and intelligent companion.
I couldn’t tell them, of course, how much I truly loathed her - and how much I loathe her still, if the truth be told. My animosity had been precipitated by nothing specific she had ever done or not done, but simply by virtue of her copious virtuosity. She was very beautiful - intelligent and compassionate. She thought I was joking when I told her how much I wanted to kill her, to do anything necessary to take her out of my life and absolve myself of this persistent responsibility. She would laugh and giggle and hug me, pulling me closer to her in the bed.
So I took to walking the campus in the middle of the night, navigating by the light of the moon. Sometimes I carried an air rifle under my coat. There were a lot of rats in the neighborhood of the college and I enjoyed trying to kill them – but, in my defense I will also say that I was a horrible shot and they usually got away.
One night as I was stalking through the darkness on the periphery of the Life Sciences building I overheard a whispered conversation around the corner of a concrete abutment. There were two figures standing in the shadows across the stairway.
The first of the shadows was taller and seemed to be angry at the second shadow. They were arguing and were having a hard time keeping their voices down – words echoed swiftly through the crannies of the hollow concrete architecture.
“Jean’s got these,” were the first words I heard from the taller shadow.
“I don’t care what Jean has, Axel asked for these,” the second retorted.
“Jean’s got these,” the first shadow repeated. “And you don’t seem to understand that Jean doesn’t want any more of these. Jean is very unhappy with these.”
“Yeah, well, you tell Jean its not my fault, she needs to talk to Axel – or better yet, tell her to talk to Carter and see how she handles that.”
The first man stiffened visibly. I could see how angry he was even from the safe distance of my dark corner.
“Jean is not going to talk to Carter. Ever. You’d be good to think twice before you speak like that. You could get yourself killed.”
“Shut up,” the second shadow said. “You just shut the fuck up, no one's gonna get killed.”
“Wait a minute,” the first shadow stopped and put his hand on the second shadows arm to still him. “I think I heard something.”
I froze in my tracks and tried my level best to turn invisible. I had no idea what was happening but I knew that I wanted no part of it.
There was a moment of tension before I saw what happened next. A policeman stepped from the fog on the opposite end of the square and started yelling at the two shadows standing in front of the Life Sciences building. They turned their heads and in that moment I saw disgust, fear and anger on both of their obscured faces. The cop was already climbing the stairs towards the two men by the time they reached into their coats and pulled out two large handguns. They were firing their weapons at the officer before I had a chance to register what was happening – I saw the policeman fall as the two men fled into the night.
I fled too. I had no idea what had just happened and I had no intention of finding out. However, it was not to be. The night failed to swallow me as assiduously as I had wished. There were sirens and lights everywhere across the campus and I hadn't made it home before the police spotted me skulking through the underbrush.
“What are you doing, boy?” the policeman called out to me.
“Nothing, sir, just going home.”
“What the hell are you doing out here at this time of night?”
“Nothing, sir, as I said.”
The cop grunted. “Put your hands on the wall,” he said. I did so and he began to pat me down.
“What’s this?” he said after a moment. He reached into my coat and found my air rifle. “What the hell is this, boy?”
“Its an air rifle, sir.”
“Well, so it is . . .” the cop replied, surprised. He fingered the bolt and a handful of BB’s fell out of the gun and onto the ground below, landing with a dry metal crack. “I’m not even going to ask why the hell you had this on you at this time of night.”
The cop pulled my hands down from the wall and slapped handcuffs around my wrists. They were tight and sharp and I began to feel very claustrophobic. He opened the back door of his cruiser and pushed me inside. He threw my gun on the passenger seat and sat down behind the steering wheel.
There was someone in the back of the cruiser with me. I turned and saw a dark-haired boy, probably my age or a little younger, slumped over unconscious with a little bit of vomit on his shirt. He came awake with a jerk and opened his eyes wide to see me.
“Duuuuuude . . .” he began, slowly and cautiously. A stupid grin spread across his blotched face.
The policeman was quietly talking to his dispatcher on the radio. It occurred to me that I had seen my new companion somewhere before in my life.
“Duuuuuude,” he repeated, more forcefully now.
“Do I know you?” I finally asked. It was really beginning to bug me.
“Shut up,” the cop said from the front seat. I gave the officer a mildly forlorn look before we settled into our seats, him again blissfully unconscious and myself deliriously unperturbed. I had been through worse in my day, it was merely a matter of not letting the walls get to me.
And so it then occurred to me with the help of my inebriated companion that my generation lacks any sense of purpose or destiny. For the first time in forever the sense of history had been lost. History was in the past, a finite process that had somehow stopped completely in the last decade or so. Everything, or so the assumption went, was going to continue pretty much exactly as it has been for the rest of our natural lives with no real noticeable alterations in the fabric.
So when the towers fell there was a long fugue, a state of shock that gradually melted into brittle denial.
And I wonder just how much suffering the average person experiences in the course of their lifetime. Has my drunken friend ever had to experience the death of a sibling or a parent, madness or imprisonment, been the victim of a violent crime or a horrible life-threatening illness? I don’t know. Somehow as much as I would like to tell myself otherwise I can’t seem to decide whether or not that would impart any deeper meaning to the act of being piss-sloppy drunk.
I’ve been young and it feels like I’ve been old but at the moment I’m riding in the back of the police cruiser with my drunken friend and the surly cop I feel of a strangely indeterminate age, as if the future and the past had failed to crystallize in that one magic moment, leaving me adrift and alone on the shores of an eternal opaque now. I wished with a sudden and painful wistfulness that I had remembered to bring a blotter of acid with me.
When we reached the police station my friend and I were led through the most intimate corridors of the building until reaching the jail. Our pockets had been emptied and our photos taken and our names recorded and we were ready to be forgotten until the proper authorities could be notified as to the nature of our heinous crimes. I gave my name as Randall McMurphy, and my drunken friend slurred something incoherent from between his foaming lips. Undoubtedly he would have given them his actual name if he had had the wherewithal to form syllables.
But I was Randall McMurphy, at least in my mind, for the duration of the stay. I had developed the habit of hiding my real identification whenever I left my dorm or, later on, my apartment, on the principle of protecting my anonymity in the event of sudden and violent death.
My drunken companion stumbled the three feet to the hard bunk and passed out immediately. He was in rough shape and looked as if he was going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning. Periodically he moaned or mumbled something, which would be just barely audible out of the corner of my ear. He was tormented by something, conscious of blind assailants chasing him through his stupor.
To my surprise we shared the cell with the two shadowy figures with whom I had earlier made my hidden acquaintance. In the harsh medicinal glare of the halogen bulb they were immediately recognizable by the shapes of their bodies and the language of their posture, but they seemed strangely shrunken, as if the obfuscating fog of darkness had previously endowed them with a terrible authority that broad daylight - or a reasonable facsimile thereof - could never hope to match.
But they were punks. Punk kids - older than me, but kids nonetheless - with frayed leather jackets, and who looked in over their heads. They looked dreadfully, deeply afraid, morbidly distraught. Possibly high.
The cell was small and dry. There was a slight draft whistling down the hallway,
just enough of a breeze to chill the room. There were no shadows.
The bed where my inebriated companion had settled to sleep was little more than a metal plank jutting from a concrete wall. We weren’t trusted with bedrolls or pillows, apparently – which made sense, I suppose. Certainly the drunk kid barely noticed.
There’s a dream where I’m falling down a dark hole for an indefinite period of time. The air is hot and fetid and damp. I reach out to touch the walls but all I feel is something wet that gives but slightly to my touch – something like a lung or a chest cavity pulled inside-out.
I’m falling through the dark and I can smell something deep and old, something that was born before the stars were lit and something that makes my sleeping body recoil in horror.
Eventually I reach the ground. I don’t hit the ground with a great impact, somehow I merely touch the ground and begin to walk, to explore whatever strange underworld in which I’ve found myself. I’m in a cave and I can see the walls vaguely flickering like the vestigial memory of a flickering pre-digital nickelodeon. I continue walking for what seems like forever, with surging flotsam around my feet, my body borne along by strange faint breezes from further down the tunnels.
I’m lost and I can’t seem to see anything but the ground immediately in front of me. Its dark and the waters are rising and I am slowly aware of noises, loud and tremendous, filling the air and echoing through the living corridors of the maze.
Sometimes when I’m lying in the hazy netherworld between sleeping and awakening I imagine that I’m going to be wandering through hell for the rest of my life. I’m choking on shit and I try to move my arms to grasp at the walls but I’m asleep and I can’t move, I’m paralyzed and my limbs only respond in sharp imprecise jerks.
We were in the cell for the better part of an hour before the violence began.