Put Your Head in This Barrel

We were sitting below them. They were up on the rocky outcropping that stuck out over our heads. The outcropping would have provided shade at some other point in the day. The sun was on its way down now, so we were like, “we don’t need any shade.” We didn’t say that, but it was true. Sometimes it’s good to tell nature what you do or don’t need from it. Nature can get a little cocky.

The spot drew sunset viewers to it. You had to walk a hundred yards from a nothing little turnout on the highway, and then hike a slight grade. It wasn’t a major investment or anything, but you had to do it. Nature invited us all to come check it out. Way off we saw a lightning strike. Nature was making a big deal about nature.

This is the kind of thing Lacey likes to do. Stop the car, stop forward progress, and experience nature. It’s also the kind of thing that I hate to do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like to do things that Lacey likes to do. I like to do things that Lacey likes to do, even if I don’t like to do them. That’s the core of a relationship, deciding to let their complex of concerns influence and dictate yours.

From several hundred yards down the highway we could see the mesa or whatever it was. Lacey said, “Oh. We should pull in there and watch the sunset.”

“I’m going to pull in there for you,” I said, “if you really want to.”

Lacey looked directly at me. Her face wanted to let me know that she wasn’t annoyed but could be annoyed.

“I really want to,” she said.

“I’m just thinking about rattlesnakes,” I said.

Then this silver volvo zipped past us and pulled into the turnout before we got there and walked up the grade and got to the rocky outcropping first. We pulled in. I watched them hike up, holding hands, and I could tell that they both wanted to watch the sunset and avoid rattlesnakes, together.

Still way off in the distance I saw a couple lightning strikes and could hear just a slight rumble.

It made me want to not hold Lacey’s hand, because that suddenly felt dishonest. The couple in the Volvo was the image of a couple in harmony. Or not even harmony. They were like the same note at an octave. They got to be that picture and Lacey and I would have to be a different picture. So I decided not to hold Lacey’s hand, even though I love Lacey.

Several other cars stopped too. This mesa was a magnet for humans. It wanted us there.

The Volvo people ascended rocky outcropping, using these authentic looking mountain climbing moves, and sat up there. There was only room for two. We just hiked up and stood there. The sunset looked beautiful. I don’t have to describe it. That sounds like I’m being flippant about the transcendent experience of viewing a sunset. I’m not. They’re incredible. But I’m not going to waste your time not describing it in moving terms, not getting it right. That’s why they’re transcendent.

Other people accumulated on the shelf with us. A family with three kids. Several guys in Chacos. I put my arm around Lacey.

Lightning struck quarter mile away. I worried that it would bring the rattlesnakes out, but I didn’t tell Lacey.

And then lightning struck the rocky outcropping over our heads. Like the sunset it feels stupid to describe this. It was like I put my head inside an oil barrel, and then someone shot the oil barrel with a cannon at point-blank range. Rock debris scattered, and I felt a sting in the back of my neck. I put my hand back there and then looked at my fingers. Even a small amount of blood can be a surprising amount of blood. I was surprised.

Everyone had either ducked low, or been knocked down a bit. I stood up first and wheeled around. The couple on the rock outcropping were just dead.

The lightning stopped after that.

It wasn’t graphic, but it wasn’t a question. I boosted one of the Chaco guys up there. He knew CPR. But they were gone. They were holding hands, which is a sickly sweet detail to add, but a true one.

We waited until the first responders got there, and gave statements. When we were answering questions, that was when I thought about whether any of us had any thought about the situation being dangerous. Obviously not enough to act on. I didn’t feel like we should have done anything different, except for the fact that apparently we should have.

Then Lacey and I got in our car and drove away. We had turned off the highway, been present at the death of two people by lightning strike, and then driven away. What else were we supposed to do? Nature was being a real bastard.

I felt very in love with Lacey and I told her that, after we’d been driving for fifteen minutes.

Put Your Head in This Barrel

We Take a Wrong Turn in Reading, PA

Wrong Turn in Reading-01I can’t remember the name of my first community college professor, and wouldn’t use it if I did, so I’ll call him Mr. Bork. He taught English at Reading Area Community College. His experience of life centered around keeping himself “fat, dumb, and happy.” He’d accomplished amazing things in fatness. He told stories of growing up in a single-parent home, never traveled any distance without a copy of the Portable Dorothy Parker, and talked a lot about Judy Garland.

His weight, thrift-store-button-up shirts, and community-college teaching job conspired to hide his homosexuality from me. I didn’t put it together until eight years later, as I told my wife about him. I heard myself quote him talking about the “divine Judy Garland” and felt my mind shed pounds of naiveté. I stopped my story and said, “Oh. He was gay.” My wife looked at me quizzically, clearly thinking, “How could there have been a question?”

He required revisions on papers, which I’d never experienced before. I handed everything in as a first-draft and late. Teachers in high-school had never penalized me for this, but in Bork’s class the revisions were built into the process and tardiness meant a full letter-grade demotion. Grades in humanities classes equaled a precise method of evaluating my self-worth. Mr. Bork was playing me against myself.

He set the last day he’d accept a revised paper on a Friday, and since I hadn’t finished by our Thursday class period, I had to drive to Reading on an off-day to hand it in. I still lived at home, so I asked Nathan, my thirteen-year-old brother, if he wanted to ride with me, and then get mall Chinese food. Of course he would. We were going to drive the Peugeot, the sportiest, Frenchest car we’d ever owned. It had a sun-roof. The day was hot.

As we drove we listened to Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ Live at Luther College. Dave Matthews asked, “Could I have been a parking lot attendant?” and I thought, “Good question, Dave Matthews.” Dave Matthews asked, “Could I have been your little brother?” and I thought “See, it’s about identity.”

Dave Matthews then got suddenly tired of this line of thought and mentioned that he felt dark sometimes, but then, we had to assume, Dave Matthews worried that this might sound too dark, and reassured us that he’d work it out. I felt reassured. “You will work it out, Dave Matthews,” I thought.

We dropped the paper off and got back on the freeway to drive to the mall.

We played CDs in the Peugeot through a Discman to tape-deck arrangement. Nathan held the Discman on his lap.

“What should we listen to next?” Nathan asked.

I kept an approximate eye on the road and looked through the CDs we had on hand. We had five Dave Matthews’ CDs. We had one Phish CD (Dave Matthews had opened for Phish). I couldn’t find the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly CD. I looked up at the road again. A greatest hits collection, the Rolling Stones album had “She’s a Rainbow” which I’d been listening to a lot (Dave Matthews had opened for The Rolling Stones as well).

I looked up at the road. I kept one hand on the wheel, leaned forward a bit, and patted under my seat. I felt the edge of a CD case. As I brought it out, I saw a familiar looking offramp. I turned onto the offramp as I handed the CD to Nathan. As soon as the CD left my hand, my attention freed up, and I wondered if I’d taken the wrong offramp. We stopped at the sign at the end of the offramp. We realized that we’d taken the wrong offramp, and at the moment this dawned on both of us, the city of Reading heard the crack of the thought crystalizing in the space between our minds.

The offramp was a magic portal to Mexico. But not a portal to Secure Resort, Swim in the Ocean, Can’t Believe How Cheap the Liquor is Here, Mexico. It was a portal to I Found Six Human Heads in the Gutter in Front of My House, Mexico.

On at least one of those lists of the top-ten most dangerous cities in the US, Reading, Pennsylvania hovers fifth or sixth place for populations between 75,000 and 99,999. We didn’t know this, and we didn’t need to. We felt the danger, like Bambi’s mother. Residents had moved “not littering” way down their list of priorities. Trash papier mache’d the streets. Our tires didn’t touch pavement. This was an entire neighborhood you could feature on Hoarders.

It still impresses me that we just needed to see a high volume of trash to know that we shouldn’t be there. It tipped us off instantly.

When you’re trying to drive slowly and thoughtfully you feel that the car itself has taken on your attitude of concern and timidity. It feels like observers outside of the car don’t have to look at the operators of the vehicle to gauge their confidence. The car tucks its tail between its legs, and anyone can tell that.

We drove past two guys on the corner and they stared.

We’d taken a right onto the offramp. We’d now taken a right at the end of the offramp. If we took one more right, we’d be heading back where we’d come from. I turned right onto a one way street, going with the flow of traffic, incredibly. The buildings here were pure public-housing.

As soon as we turned, we saw three cars stopped up ahead of us. A van with its flashers going sat at the head of the bottle-neck. I don’t recall whether or not going around all three cars was impossible, but I reasoned from inference that it simply wasn’t done.

I hadn’t spoken since we’d taken the offramp. Neither had Nathan. We sat there in silence. I flicked the door locks, and Nathan shivered at the noise. He stared straight ahead.

I tried not to move much, out of the apparent belief that maybe this neighborhood’s inhabitants had vision that relied on movement. In my peripheral vision, I saw lots of kids. The kids weren’t paying attention to us.

We had no idea what was going on with the van. To the cars in front of us, nothing could have been more normal than what we were doing right then, sitting motionless in our cars in the heat, behind a maybe abandoned van.

After five minutes, a woman came out of one of the buildings on our right, ducked into the van, emerged with bags of groceries, and headed back into the building.

We were waiting for someone to unload their groceries. We were white kids in a predominately hispanic part of Reading, and a predominately terrifying part of Reading. I’m not saying that it’s right that we believed that the individual attributes of “hispanic” and “terrifying” were related, it’s just how we felt at the moment.

The kids began to move nearer to the car. We hadn’t put our windows up. Now I decided we needed to put our windows up. The kids watched as the windows went up. They came nearer.

I remember them pointing at us and laughing. I’m not saying it happened. It’s entirely possible that my memory just boiled the situation down into clichéd TV beats, but we felt like they were pointing at us and laughing.

At this point, we couldn’t conceive of this ending. We’d now sat motionless for ten minutes. Stopping here at all was unthinkable. Stopping here for ten minutes stretched the mind to its limits. We continued to sit.

And then the door to the building moved again. The woman came out, grabbed more grocery bags. The door to the van shut. The woman waved to the driver. The van’s flashers turned off. We were about to move.

Then—thwap—one of the kids’ hands slapped against Nathan’s window. Another hand slapped the trunk of the car. A kid popped up next to my window, his knuckles appeared, the skin flattened, the glass sounded. More noise from all around the car. Then the cars in front of us began to move. I drove forward. The noise stopped. We found our way out of the neighborhood. It was easy. We put on another Dave Matthews CD. We shuddered and breathed deep. We got mall Chinese food.

I don’t like that story, and I think I know why. I don’t like the idea of being that afraid about that little. I don’t like the idea of being as inherently xenophobic and pseudo-racist as that story makes me look. I don’t know what the active choice in that situation could have been, but I don’t like thinking about how I didn’t take it.

I had a dream about this happening again, several years ago. Nathan and I get stuck in the same bad spot in Reading. But this time, when they knock on the windows, we roll them down. They hoist us out. They drive the Peugeot off. They carry us over their heads like groups of mice carry bound cats in cartoons. They take us up into that woman’s apartment.  She helps them cut us into pieces. It gets better and it gets worse. They eat us. But our severed heads observe all of this, and observe all of it happily. We suffer the ordeal without fear. Our severed heads smile. When I have this dream, I snap awake. But I’m not sweating or screaming or worried. Even though it’s 4:30 AM I feel rested and energized.

I raise myself up out of bed and go make breakfast.

We Take a Wrong Turn in Reading, PA