Archive for May, 2010

Chapter 2: Barry

May 19, 2010

It was now Monday and Barry’s sneezing persisted throughout the previous night and into early morning. The poor fella barely got a wink of sound sleep, and neither did I for that matter. His situation seemed to have gone from bad to worse as a dry, stuttering cough now accompanied his older symptoms. I had placed a fan facing outward in front of the open window in hopes of drawing out any searching particles, yet to my anger (rather than surprise), the window appeared to have gently slid down and silently closed itself during one of my rare moments of sleep. Of course it had. When I noticed this around 4 am, I held my tongue from revealing my annoyance and opened the window once again. It was harder to open this time, but it eventually gave way and I propped it open using the fan itself. The fan gave me a slight stinging shock, but I continued to ignore these prods and settled back for an uncomfortable couple hours of truncated sleep. When a blast of spit carried on a hot wind peppered my face, I awoke to Barry’s leathery nose roughly 2-3 inches from my face. It was time to get Barry to the doc.

I have known Barry for 12 years now and he is the best friend I have. I do not know what happened in the first six months of his life, but this guy hates the vet. Once there, it is incredible the fury and strength he throws forth, not too mention whatever fluids or solids are contained in his body at the time. I always assumed that Barry either had a real nasty experience at the vet that scarred him like a cattle brand, or he simply thumbs his nose at science and thinks that all doctors are hacks. I could see both, as Barry can hold a grudge if you piss him off bad enough and he is also one of the cockiest dudes I have ever known – he thinks doctors and hospitals are for the weak. Unlucky for him, I snuck up on him and caged him. I need him at full strength if we are going to do what we said.

Dawn, the lady who brought us together, and nearly tore us apart, picked him up at an animal shelter out in Salem, Massachusetts when he was just a few months old. I always got a kick out of the fact that he is a black cat from Witchtown with some serious fire. I sometimes wonder who this guy really is and what other things he has seen. There are few people who knew Barry in his early days, and fewer that I have spoken to, but one guy who did know him hinted at the possibility that Barry’s mother died during kitten birth. According to the shelter records, her litter only yielded two kittens and no information was given as to the whereabouts of the sibling or mother, only that Barry was the second born. This theory could make sense. Perhaps Barry harbors an inner anger that his birth caused his mother’s death or he blames the doctors present for letting her die. I have never let Barry know that I have heard such a story, and don’t know if the right time will ever present itself.

I went back to the same shelter a few years later looking for some more pieces to Barry’s puzzle, when my eye was snared by a mysterious black kitten. She was slight and beautiful with luminous yellow eyes. Her coat had a slick sheen and her head cocked slightly to the right. I was entranced. Her name was Lois and I immediately forgot why I had come back to Salem. She gently cooed as I filled out the paper work in a daze. We were ten miles from the city on that cold, clear December night when I realized that I had just taken in another cat.

Barry was pissed. I never knew if he was mad because he was now not the only cat in the apartment or if it was because I did not get his say in the matter. He has never been clear with me about his true feelings towards Lois, but despite all his macho posturing, he too fell in love with her. Lois worshipped Barry and he treated her like dirt. I do not know if his cold confidence made her jelly in his paws, but despite his moodiness and bursts of anger, she always loved him unconditionally. I can’t say what went on when it was just the two of them, but pretty soon after her arrival they were oftentimes entangled in a warm knot of black fur. Barry hates when I bring this up, but it is true, the cat is capable of tenderness and love.

As I suspected, Barry was a complete terror at the Hospital. He was rage incarnate, spitting and howling. They put us in the same room where they had put Lois in what ended up being her final visit to the hospital. Her final visit anywhere really, at least for here on Earth. I did not like being in that room and knowing she was gone. Flashes of Lois dragging her poisoned body along the floor blinded me. Barry could sense it. But this hospital was not in Maverick, our accursed city, and it seemed far enough away to remain unmolested by the creeping tendrils beneath the soil – for a little while, at least.

The doctor was a very patient woman. She appeared to be about my age, perhaps a bit older, with dark, oily hair pulled taught, streaked with gray and flecked with dandruff. She had a young, blond-haired assistant with her who looked fresh and happy. They both wore full-length white frocks, reminiscent of Army nurses from World War I or the Flu Epidemic of 1918. Their movements were smooth and slow, as though they were on silent wheels with well-greased bearings. The fluorescent lights caused a gauzy blur that surrounded and softened their bodies. They handled Barry with respect and liberal amounts of caution. They smiled honestly and sadly. The hint of melancholy did not seem a result of Barry’s condition, but rather a distant pain in their eyes, as though they were remembering something from ages past. In spite of Barry’s twisting and writhing, gnashing teeth intending to kill, they continued to smile and examine him thoroughly.

The doctor’s eyes were a very clear, wet, slate blue and she held them directly on mine as she told me her recommendations. Her voice was sweet and strong and her locution was direct and clinical – it seemed to juxtapose the depth and history in her eyes. If she had any knowledge of our mission or the events of the past that have brought us here, she made no mention, save that strangeness in her eyes. She prescribed a mild antihistamine (which I knew he would never take) and suggested that I steam Barry twice a day. I liked telling people that I had to steam Barry, which meant keeping him enclosed in the bathroom while the shower runs hot to help him get some moisture into his sinuses. Barry didn’t think it was very funny, but there was very little that Barry thought was funny, especially these days.

While we waited in the lobby for his prescription to be filled, Lois’ doctor saw me. She was such a sweet woman. She was very young for her incredible breadth of knowledge. She was strong when she had to be and generally very caring and soft when needed. I feared that Lois’ case was going to break her, but she remained vigilant throughout every descending step her condition took. She examined every possibility and potential cure and in the end she stayed with me while I cried, holding Lois’ stiff body in my lifeless arms. Her name was Dr. Helmbold, and when the situation felt right, she let me call her Elizabeth.

Elizabeth walked around the bench where we sat and caught me by surprise as she approached from behind my right shoulder. She was tender, as always, and asked how I was doing. I first told her that I did not want to alarm her when I brought Barry in, and having heard my stories about Barry’s behavior, I did not want to add any further stress onto this gentle woman with a face-to-face encounter. She was tall, over six feet, with soft, peach colored hair. She said that she heard that I was here and was anxious to see how I was doing and if everything was alright. I lied and told her that I was doing ok. I cared for her. She had done such a wonderful job, despite losing Lois, and she had for all intents and purposes seen me naked. She saw me in my most vulnerable and raw and that put her in a very small company.

I explained Barry’s symptoms and diagnosis, although she had already spoken with the other doctor. She got on her knees to peer into Barry’s carrier, which was placed on the floor. I thought that she may have been eager to meet Barry, for he was so close to me and she, in a way, was so close to me. She peered in and said a few soft introductory words and Barry just stared back, nervously, from the back of his cage. He did not know how hard this woman had worked, how much compassion she had showed me. He knew enough not to hiss or growl, but he remained seated and cautiously observant. Dr. Helmbold, appeared to do the same. She held her silent, searching gaze for what felt like a few seconds too many, and then rose. She assured me again that I could call her for any emergency and was glad to see me. I felt like I should shake her hand, a firm, business-like handshake. I also felt like I should hug her, like friends who haven’t seen each other in years hug one another at a funeral for a mutual friend. And I felt like I wanted to cry in her lap, as I had done once before. In the end, I remained seated and just looked into her eyes and thanked her again as I tried not to cry.

As Dr. Helmbold disappeared behind the swinging doors that led to the lab, Barry’s name was called and I settled up with the front desk. Barry rode shotgun as I told him we were on our way back to Maverick. He did not know that we were going to make one more stop. It had always been my plan, and best now that I had him in the car, that we were going to see the Shaman. The Shaman lived only two blocks from us, up a slow hill and next to the elementary school. He operated a bodega of sorts in a small stretch of four or five shops and lived in a room in the back. I don’t know how he made his rent and why he rarely bothered to have much filling out his dusty, stained shelves, but he knew me and he knew I was coming, even though I had not told him.

Back Hair: The Pioneers of The Body

May 10, 2010

Before I stepped into the shower the other day, I took a look in the mirror above the bathroom sink. I am not sure what I was looking for exactly, but probably just giving a little “hello” to myself. I noticed an errant hair, about an inch long, rooted comfortably on my right shoulder. This fella was a long way from his home to the south on my chest, yet although he was young and thin, he seemed quite comfortable in the barren surroundings of the northernmost peak of my shoulder. I relieved this hair of its post guarding the summit of my right arm and felt a strange sense of sadness as I left him in the basin of the sink. I identified with this hair. Feeling too anonymous, too constrained, too strangled in the hairy metropolis of my chest, he sought the hard, lonely journey to greater, uncharted pastures. I recognized this desire. I even empathized, as much as that is possible.

In a slightly more somber mood, I began to step into the shower when it occurred to me that my shoulder may not have been this hair’s ultimate destination. Perhaps he was still on his travels across the landscape of my body? Perhaps he was going to meet others who were already waiting for him? Removing my foot from the bathtub, I turned again to face the mirror. Slowly twisting my torso to the left while turning my head to the right, I examined my shoulder blades to find a very small, wispy, young colony of thin auburn hairs residing in relative seclusion. Pioneers. Settlers.

It is widely recognized that back hair carries a heavy stigma of revulsion from the opposite sex, and even the same sex (excluding “bears”). I have never quite understood this hatred as such things are only natural and people should not be ostracized for physical attributes that are genetic. I will admit to being relatively vain and enjoying being naked or shirtless as often as I can and it would be a sad blow to the confidence to discover that me in my natural state could somehow offend.  For many years now my shoulders have been sheltered beneath a curtain of hair from head, leaving the tenants of my blades to slowly grow their community away from the eyes of the landowner, me. But how long have they been there? Do they have squatter’s rights? How many hours had a lover of mine tried to count them as I slept, oblivious, because of my propensity to face away when I sleep? These hairs are, if not yet aesthetically, bold. I have to admire their pluck as much as I have planned for their eradication.

Hank suggests that I tell women that my back hairs are the beginnings of angel wings. Through Hank’s reasoning, only under very special circumstances does one become an angel at a young, relatively hairless age – martyrdom, the accidental death of the innocent child, death through saving a life, etc. In these rare cases, wings are immediately provided to the deserving recipient. In most traditional angel cases, it takes a lifetime of good deeds to earn and therefore grow one’s own set of wings. The few, soft strands pushing their way through the skin protecting my scapula, like tender, young blades of grass in spring, are really the beginning stages of angel wings, growing with the years and good that I bring unto others. This could charm the ladies, especially if I tell them about all the good I will be doing unto them, although they will soon figure out that this scenario means I will be “earning” more hairs back there. If nothing else, maybe I can hope for a laugh.

But what I truly feel is that these back hairs are the pioneers of the land that is my body. The body is Earth and the hair represents its population. In the beginning, the Earth and my body started out completely bare, except for a few primitive life forms – trilobites and baby hairs. Throughout our life span, these life forms have changed, grown and strengthened in body and in population. The need eventually arises to seek new, less crowded areas, and as the pioneers of the colonies headed west, the pioneers of the thickly settled chest and stomach have ventured to seek wider plains and open postures on my back. The cramped city living on the sternum makes it hard to stand out and be noticed and dominates one’s gaze with an endless forest of more hair. These follicle settlers, with a handful of their family and friends, have traveled to uncharted territories to enjoy more freedom while cultivating and populating the back.

Back hairs are rebels. They are hard to see and keep in check in their unorthodox surroundings, yet hold a strong power of influence over how people view you. As the pioneers of the west before them, hundreds will die along the way and never see the new land that they have fought for – the difference being that their fate lies in between my index finger and thumb. They are risk takers who just want a better life for themselves and their offspring and for that they should be more respected than chest hair.

If the Earth is my body, then shaving, waxing, and tweezing are the equivalent of natural disasters to hair – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, etc. These catastrophes (deemed only such by the recipients) are an excellent means of keeping the population in check, for just as a nation rebuilds and repopulates after a disaster, so does the hair eventually return and usually in greater numbers. The hairs thicken and toughen with every razing as we humans toughen and adapt with each disaster that befalls us. Some areas, i.e. the face and nethers, are often kept in a constant state of regulation or the population would explode and begin to take over other regions. The pubic region in particular may be most akin to living in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the climate being warmer and more humid, this is an area where frequent hurricanes are a regular part of life and constant grooming is a regular part of life, if you follow my logic.

Some populations die out naturally, and for the world of the hair, it is most frequently those that reside on the scalp. Some of these populations try all within their power, through rituals, religion, medicines and incantations, to prolong the vitality of their dying people, in the same way that people today may look to Rogaine or Propecia. Most would argue that baldness and extinction have a Darwinist bent and such populations should die out naturally, where the counter argument is that the world would not look, be perceived and therefore act the same without this group, and it is in the best interest to all to keep this group alive, and with luck, repopulating.

In the same way that the hairs of the chest have begun to seek new lands, as the population of the world continues to grow, people are forced to find new lands. As the numbers ever increase, and it will throughout the life of the body and the world, hair and human are forced to find uninhabited spots. Lands once deemed uninhabitable now become desirable for their complete vacancy. By the time I have reached the final years of my life, I undoubtedly will have a healthy clan of hairs growing from my ears, just as in the final years of our planet there will be groups of people living on the northern and southern ice caps. Over-population will drive them to such extremes and they will survive for they are the distant heirs of rebel hairs.

So I suggest that we celebrate the spirit of the back hair. If society deems these hairs abhorrent, unattractive afflictions, they must turn the mirror on themselves, for they are insulting the drive and the determination within all of us that made the world great. Back hair should be an ever-present reminder that humans are risk takers and adventurers and are always on a constant pursuit of happiness. We all enjoy a space that we can call our own and strive to include our friends and family within that space. Back hairs have an inspirational devotion to the betterment of the self and one’s surroundings and should not be chided nor ostracized for their unconventional choice of a homeland. The back has been claimed by the struggles of many valiant and sturdy follicles and I will salute every single one of their strong, dark brood – as I watch them fall from my fingers into the drain.

Catnap

May 7, 2010

Being recently unemployed, I have been awarded with the gift of time. Time to sit at my desk staring at a computer caught in a dizzying cycle of Word, Facebook, and email, only to turn slightly to my left to grab an acoustic guitar and write something new or continue on a particularly wiggly song that does not want to be wrangled in by the likes of me. As I face my desk, to the left is a standing lamp, a large brown plaid-tweed 1970’s chair complete with ottoman (my especially favorite piece of furniture) and a Woodsy the Owl stuffed animal (who is constantly reminding me not to pollute), my bed (simple and soft, with blankets of ivory and brown, big enough for two, but probably not for three – never tried it), my night table containing a clock radio I was given when I was 12 which now serves as merely a clock and an excellent place for stacking books, a small globe-like lamp with a dimmer switch, and a large window with a seat of sorts that looks out into the crumbling beauty and deafening cacophony of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Although I angle my computer slightly to the right, so as to keep a peripheral watch on my door which I always leave slightly open, my majority of movements are to the left. I focus forward when writing lyrics, which I do on legal pads, and for scheduling and booking, as I keep large pages of the calendar months strewn about my desk – constantly shuffled and misplaced and ever growing fuller. As mentioned earlier, I most often turn to the left to pick up my guitar, which I keep on a stand between the desk and the chair. This motion is repeated 10-15 times a day throughout a 10-12 hour span and has provided me constant glances of Hank, my cat, most peacefully asleep on the bed.

I had no idea how much this cat could sleep. It is awesome. With every slight shift to the side I am immediately drawn to this bloated pot roast, covered in dusty black fur. Usually splayed to air out his belly, which resembles the balding head of an 80 year-old man (with eight nipples, at last count), Hank’s accompanying snoring is an exact impression of air whining out through the stretched lips of a balloon. He is my hero. His sleep is only interrupted for very economical trips to the water dish, food bowl and litter box. Sleepy and content, he quickly falls back into one of his resplendent poses, as litter gently falls from his toes and into the sheets.

I imagine Hank as possessing the qualities of the corpulent French and British kings of old – remarkably charming, quite handsome and athletic in their younger days, but now fat, gay, extremely hungry and very sleepy. There is something regal about this cat. His confidence astounds as he merely lifts a sleepy eye to see which point in time he has awoken to now, not caring that he is no longer in heavy velvet robes, turgid from a banquet feast, but instead naked in 21st century Massachusetts, catching a nice breeze carried aloft by sirens, staring at a semi-naked, rather hairy man hunched over a keyboard. He contentedly drifts back to sleep while stretched along creamy sheets of a particularly high thread-count given this follicly-rampant man’s lack of income.

Hank is the king. I often find myself in awkward social situations, feeling outnumbered or just unconfident, and I have to think, “What would Hank do?” In that moment, a wave of cool washes over me as if Arthur Fonzurelli just remembered that he had his jacket with him the whole time, he casually slips it on and becomes, “The Fonz.” I head straight for the food table and am not bashful about trying whatever looks good, and maybe sniffing or nibbling at whatever looks suspicious. I begin to circle around unsuspecting lady’s legs and before I know it, they are stroking my hair and telling me that I’m such a gooooood boy. Gladly, eyes closed, I accept such attention until I become bored or restless and without warning set off for a nice comfortable place to curl up for awhile. When I awake, I repeat the process – food, attention, rest. This method works pretty well unless Hank shows up at the same party and then I just hope that he talks to me.

But these days Hank is happy to just relax and dream and visit all the lives he has lived. Never before have I had the opportunity to witness how he spends his days, and the look of bliss upon his face allows me to enjoy this with him. I guess I would place Hank as a combination Henry VIII, The Fonz and The Dude – regal, large, cool and lazy. I wonder if he thinks I’m cool, too, other than the fact that I clean his litter box and let him eat from my plate, drink from my cup, and seduce my lady friends. I think, like The Dude, Hank is taking it easy for the rest of us while we try to “achieve.” So every time I turn to the left and see this charming, sleeping beauty, like an engorged Brando of the 80’s, I think to myself that right there truly is one cool cat.

I’m sorry, did I wake you?

The Fog

May 6, 2010

It always seems to start with the same recycled thoughts, the incanted images of vaguely haunting inexplicabilities. And why to keep these thoughts? They’ve been moved from one apartment to the next. Countless cities, friendships, hours, years, have dragged these memories and their poorly lit theories around, like a letter pressed amongst books or old receipts.  And these things hold a childlike thread of explanation, attached to a spontaneous piece of art to add a depth that may or may not be there. The first of these images is dead people in the walls. An ever-thickening smell further compounding the horror of something trapped, seemingly inextricably, in the structure. Mortality and mystery, I guess, history and reconciliation. Living with what we cannot change and the struggle with the idea that it is all just a conjured metaphor.

From time to time, we find ourselves in a mist. A seemingly opaline blanket on the cold, dark stretches of route 89 somewhere between Burlington and Montpellier. It is 2:46 in the morning and you are trying to convince yourself that the whiskey you drank (hours ago) is gone and you are alert and capable. You know that you must be sharp, but you also know that you are not. There are deer and other lives at stake – more so your sleeping friends than an approaching car. Yet, you enter the fog and it is scary, but you cannot ignore its siren like quality. Despite the potential of impending doom, you are pulled along and down into a further trance. Most often people feel these somnambulistic times lasting for a week or so. This short duration in no way diminishes the reality, or even super-reality, of the fog, but in many cases the fog can last years.

The real mystery of the deep fog is that one has a nearly impossible chance of finding exactly when they entered the fog. For in most cases, the sinewy, damps strands work exactly as one imagine it should – gently kissing the tips of the toes, tenderly winding its exaggerated, milky fingers along the feet, slowly massaging ankles and calves as the tide and pull begin to rise.  By the time the engorging stream is densely packed around ones knees, years may have passed. As we start to become aware of the dangers of the thick fog, we flick on the brights (knowing full well it will be magnified by the water droplets). We try illuminating the matter to test its potency and perhaps for a smidge of perverse amusement, and such attempts to gain power over the ether prove only to reflect its greatness – its perfection as a fluid parasite that dopes us up and takes us hostage.

It may very well be the searching for the exit from the fog that keeps us there. The direction, you know, is correct, but all else is up to chance. Fog clears, but we are in a different place when that happens. Same car, same road, same type of trees, but it is later. There is so much mystery in the fog. All the infinite possibilities of what exists within that are not part of this particular moment. You don’t see these things, but they are there, and without tiring yourself with all the imaginable theories, you must concede that you will never know and life continues to move forward.

Forward has the heavy title bestowed upon it of implicit progress. However, the forward motion of time is its own deity – free from good, evil, the tangible and the extraordinary. It just is and we must accept it. It is at this point that I surmise that we never accept it, and those of us prone to the foggy limbo wage the biggest battle – the largest futile war known to man.

"Time is a river without banks" by Marc Chagall

Gunplay

May 4, 2010

I have had a gun pulled on me twice. Once, it was even fired. It wasn’t loaded, but the triggerman did not even check before he squeezed. Neither incident caused me to panic or try to replay my life in a matter if nanoseconds, but both have remained like a planter’s wart on the bottom of the foot – unobtrusive, invisible to almost all, yet always there, ever so slightly shifting your step. There are thousands of kids who fall in the line of unintended or misguided fire, and I have survived, twice.

Rifle

The first incident occurred at summer camp when I was 12. I was able make myself enough of a nuisance as to have my parents budget in at least 4 weeks each summer for me to be sent away. My older sister had masterfully convinced my grandparents to fund just such a thing for her some years earlier. When I saw the pictures from her first summers there I immediately longed for such new experiences and wild environs. There was a brother camp to the sister camp, and finally at the age of 10, I was allowed to go. In this picturesque, secluded camp I relished my freedom so much that I eventually convinced my parents to up the stay to 8 weeks for my final two summers. It was a tough sell, as my first summer saw me placed on a mild probation for having such a masterful command of profanity that my parents were called to help “correct” my verbal irresponsibility. Such contact was a rather big deal, as children and parents were only supposed to correspond through letters, unless, of course, there was an emergency. And upon my second summer, I apparently created an emergency.

At the age of 11, and very much immersed in all things hard rock – Zeppelin, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, the mullet, cheap cigarettes (the kind where the tobacco spills out the front), and girls with denim jackets and feathered hair, I had decided that the missing piece to complete rock n’ roll transformation was an earring. By piercing my own ear I was assured to capture the hearts of all the unsuspecting ladies with my fearlessness, style, and accompanying ability to play “Rock You Like A Hurricane” on an over-sized acoustic guitar. Yet every rocker needs a band to enhance his own majesty, and I skillfully convinced a friend of mine to let me pierce his ear, too.

After lunch one day, during our letter writing time, I numbed our ears with ice cubes, sterilized a needle with a match, and forced a simple gold stud into each of our left earlobes. Piercing one’s own ear is rather difficult with small, chubby eleven year-old hands, and my small, golden emblem of the unbreakable spirit sat a bit off center and low from the desired target. As my earlobe pulsed angrily, I calmly took a nice young lady out on the lake in a rowboat to display my roguishness while remaining cool and detached, “Oh this? Yeah, I always had an earring, but it closed up before I came to camp. So, yeah, I just pierced it again earlier today. It didn’t hurt. I pierced Justin’s, too. He’s never had one before.” The truth being that I had begged my parent’s to get my ear pierced for over a year and they had denied me. I waited until I was hundreds of miles away from them to live out my rock n’ roll fantasy.

As with most fantasies, reality swooped down like carrion fowl, and I did not make it more than a couple of hours before I was summoned to the office. This time my parents were coming in and I was facing expulsion for performing “minor surgery” on another camper. I did not crack under the impending doom and gave no names for the councilors who may have aided in my procuring of the necessary supplies for my “surgeries.” When my parents arrived the next day, it was an uncomfortable meeting with a pleasant ending. Perhaps out of guilt for not allowing me to have something as harmless as an earring or out of fear of losing their summers alone together, my parents did a masterful job of reprimanding me while also taking responsibility. They adeptly convinced the jury that I loved this camp and such actions were because of the freedoms of expression I have enjoyed while being there. However my happiness may have been perverted, the weeks spent at camp were what carried me through my miserable months of the school year (I added the miserable part). Earring removed, I was allowed to stay and my new position of Resident Badass remained for the rest of the summer. When I returned home, I was taken to The Piercing Pagoda and allowed to get a proper piercing. This time, it was dead center.

When I returned the following summer, forever on the “Most Wanted” list, I was somewhat of a changed man. I had grown a couple of inches, I had a great crew of friends awaiting me there and I had a school year’s worth of cute girlfriends and terrible bands. This was to be my sister’s final summer as a camper and she had chosen a whack-job of a boyfriend, Fergus.

Fergus was a wiry, sandy haired boy of 14 who had a smile that could stun, but a mouth that spewed forth the most awful, insulting, racist and generally disturbing bile that one could imagine. All who witnessed his sickness gave him two years before he would end up in jail, most likely for pummeling someone to death. What my sister saw in him, I will never understand. He was cute, I guess, with clear, young eyes and a sly, dark charm, but this kid was bat-shit crazy and full-on dangerous. I had steered clear of this menace for my previous two years, desperately trying not to look him in the eyes or engage any of his insulting prompts, lest he have the split second he desired to put down a child much younger and smaller than him. When I learned that my sister had taken up with this future felon, I could not understand her motivations and I deeply feared for her.

My gang counted four and our main concerns were cracking penis jokes, making out with girls, and causing minor amounts of trouble, i.e. bribing councilors to buy us various forms of “contraband.” Fergus recognized this small seed of insubordination within our crew and attempted to take us under his wing, at one point offering me pot for the first time (which one of the gang would not allow me to take under penalty of friendship termination. Incidentally, the two of us would smoke pot together for the first time a couple of summers later.) No one was comfortable with Fergus’ advances, and as the summer wore on and his malice slowly revealed itself, the gang decided to finally stand up to him. One of the members suggested that if provoked, or even through merely defending oneself, Fergus would not actually fight – he was all mouth and no teeth. This theory was soon put to the test when one of our crew of similar build to Fergus responded to an insult with a very direct, “Fuck you.” Fergus faced him and gave him one final chance to back down, but our man stood his ground and was subsequently pushed very hard onto that very ground. That was the extent of the incident, and although it did turn slightly physical, it was deemed manageable.

The gang were now persona non grata for having rejected Fergus’ protection and a hatred began to boil in me as he was still dating my sister and growing ever more cocky and unpredictable. I was too small to take him physically and he never traveled without his lackey, who was a short, squat fellow with amazing strength and a temper that exceeded that of his captain. When I did come to confront Fergus, I was blind with anger and fearless. This emotional combination is mostly likely why I failed to hesitate on that humid August morning when Fergus came over the hill carrying a 22-caliber rifle on his way to the range. He greeted me with some putrid barb and I let forth a torrent of obscenities not heard at that camp since the summer of my 10th year. Stunned, infuriated and unable to attack, for I was his girlfriend’s little brother, he raised the rifle to his eye and held me in its sight. I cannot remember being afraid. It was not within the sheltered reality of this serene summer camp to ever imagine that death would or could enter, let alone by another camper’s hand. The action was pathetic to me and I felt strangely proud for defending my sister and friends. I later alerted someone on the staff of the incident and Fergus narrowly escaped being expelled, but was kicked off of the riflery team and basically put on parole for the rest of the term. He did not return the following summer.

I rarely think back to that incident and wonder, “What if the gun was loaded? What if he did not know it was loaded, but it was? What if his finger slipped? What if a bee landed on him and startled him and the gun went off?” I never feared for being killed intentionally, which is perhaps why I was not afraid to stare down the gun, but intentions aside, a bullet does not care how it gets to its destination. Perhaps it would have been deemed a noble death, sticking up to a bully, or perhaps it would have brought further fodder to the gun safety campaign (which falls on deaf ears, anyways), but either way, my life would have been over. The incident would be declared an accident or a bad decision and his life would be over in a way, too. I don’t think that dumb SOB ever thinks back for one second about how he almost figuratively shot himself. Action, accident, consequence are too much to process when you have a problem with rage – it is going to make you look like a killer whether you intended to shoot or not. If you have the inclination to lift up a gun and point it at someone, you are telling me that you have the ability to pull the trigger.

Revolver

My second encounter with a gun was three years later. The immediate similarities to this story and so many on the news or in print are something that I only let myself examine in small, regulated bursts. There is not much one can do except move on after narrowly escaping a potentially fatal incident, but the “what ifs” always tend to remain, flitting about one’s brain like tiny moths, slowly nibbling away at the fabric. My recollections nowadays make me angry. I am particularly angry with my “friend,” but also angry with myself for not somehow confronting him about the seriousness of his actions. I cannot remember much of the remainder of that evening, but our friendship soon turned tepid. That event caused a current that sent us both drifting apart and neither one of us wanted to try and steer back towards the other.

His story, Rich’s, is sad, but not necessarily worthy of sympathy. We were friends since birth, really, as our mothers were old friends. Rich was the only child to ever have bitten me, and although we were not more than three at the time, the primal rage that he unleashed into my arm has never left my memory. Even at that age I knew that what he did was wrong, strange and scary. We continued to be casual friends until around age 11 when we discovered that we shared the same interests in baseball, girls and cigarettes. By 12 we added rap music to the mix, at 13 we added liquor, and by the summer I turned 14 we added weed and hip clothes. Rich fancied himself a full-fledged gangster.

Rich had it all when he was younger and he subsequently had to watch it all slowly unravel as he entered his teens. His father was a thriving lawyer and the family had two ski houses, drove a BMW with gold hubcaps, and vacationed seemingly every other month, yet everything seemed to fall apart just as it reached its apex – his father lost his money, his job, and finally, his wife. I was around Rich during all of this and we mainly just fished at the little pond down the street, set off fireworks, hit golf balls into the woods and smoked cigarettes. He seemed to have as little of an idea about what was really going on as me, or if he knew something, he did a good job of hiding. Yet the shock to Rich’s pride concerning his family’s rather public fall from grace seemed to push him further and further into an outsider mentality. He was still cocky and very handsome, with a cocoa complexion and large, dark eyes, but now his rebelliousness frequently turned misogynistic or violent. As he felt increasingly alienated from the upper middle class surroundings, Rich transitioned further into the gangster life that he felt he now understood. There are things that I know about Rich that I have held secret and I will continue to do so, but suffice to say that he played up every real and fictionalized trait thrown at us in movies, music and magazines, short of (to my knowledge) murder.

Rich’s parents divorced and moved into small apartments on the edge of town and we spent our lazy summer days either in the city or playing basketball, smoking weed, looking for parties or chasing after girls. I can safely say that all such activities for me where not a means of escape, but rather entertainment, where Rich seemed bent on a path of going as deep as he could into the darkness while still being trapped in the light of the suburbs. We generally spent time at his father’s place as he was the most permissive and usually never around.

Rich had spent the summer that we turned 15 in Atlanta and picked up some pretty bad habits and a whole host of experiences that would take another 5-10 years before I would come across. The beginning of that school year, our sophomore year of high school, saw Rich running through unsuspecting girls like tissues and entering the world of small time drug dealing. It was an early fall Friday night at his father’s empty place when Rich asked if I wanted to see his dad’s gun.

I have never been fascinated with guns. I enjoyed riflery and achieved a moderate level of recognized success in the sport, but handguns have held no allure for me other than during child’s play in the woods with cap guns. The fact that Rich had a gun in his possession made him feel as though his initiation into the world of the OG was complete. Reaching under a stack of sweaters on the top shelf of his father’s closet, Rich pulled out a shiny, snub-nosed revolver. With no time to ogle at its craftsmanship or sleeping evil, Rich aimed at my stomach and pulled the trigger. Click. I instinctively flinched and jumped to the side, but all would have proved fruitless had the gun been loaded – or had it jammed? Out of perhaps another self-defense mechanism, after screaming at him over his delighted laughs, I convinced myself that he would not have done such a thing unless he was assured that the gun was not loaded. I tried to ignore the searing reality of the situation and asked to feel the gun. It was heavier than I had imagined it would be, but other than that, it felt cold and lifeless.

But what if his father had loaded it? What if there was one in the chamber? What if… What if Rich had intended to shoot me? Was he jealous that my family remained stable and together? Angry that we were spectators to his family’s spectacular fall from opulence? I was reminded of the bite. He had intended to kill me with that bite, or at least leave me with a scar that will forever remind me of his anger and fury and ability to enact vengeance. The pulling of the trigger on an unsuspecting target was exactly the same motivation – fear, anger and retribution.

The description of Rich’s life up until that moment provides a greater depth to the category for which my death would have undoubtly been selected, the all too classic, two boys alone in the house, one says, “Hey, you wanna see my father’s gun?,” gun goes off, child dies, horrible tragedy, lesson learned, and then it happens a few minutes later somewhere else in the country.

The two conclusions I draw from both of these encounters is that if you pull the gun, you are capable of killing. If you are not capable of killing, then you still possess an anger and rage large enough to block your judgment in the most final of conflicts. I have dodged a bullet twice now, and neither one I truly saw coming, yet had I, too, slowed myself in the moment, I would have been able to see the potential harm I was putting myself in the way of. The simple lessons that I failed to heed are: Don’t argue with someone with a gun in their hand, and when someone says, “Hey, you wanna see my father’s gun?,” say no. I consider myself both very lucky and very stupid that I am able to sit here and write this.