By Mike McGrath  

So it went, then, during that time back there, in the shadow of political histories and social mysteries. It was my golden age, the time of my contentment, and I wore my leafy crown and my smug armor in every weather, through all the seasons. I would move back and forth from my bed to my car, from my car to my work space, from there back to my car, and from my car back to my bed, passing points of passing interest between one set of wan rooms slightly to the south of someplace and another set, even less well-defined, just to the north of someplace else.

I was a quiet young man, I think. Yes. Gloriously quiet. Life hugged me.

* * * * * * * *

I would get my hair cut once monthly at a subsidized barbershop located on one of the basement sub-levels of the otherwise serious building where I spent my putty-colored workdays. It wasn't truly necessary for me to have to deviate from any of my established routes or routines, but I can still recall the puckish glee with which I tacked on an extra fifteen minutes to my allotted lunch hour.

* * * * * * * *

In case you’ve never been there, let me tell you that it gets just plain hot on the western shore of the state of Maryland in the summer.

Now, I realize that summers nearly everywhere are generally pretty hot. Still, there among the gentle, old hills outside Laurel, the particular combination of relentless heat and squelching humidity make it a season of exquisite discomfort that reduces even the most keenly acclimated of urban grunts to wilted messes. Late afternoons gauze over in a cloying, laze-inducing fuzz of wet fever. All day, armies of corporate and private atmospheric conditioning systems furiously hum and churn and whir, keeping the indoors sealed away and livable, but as a by-process, they then billow forth an oven must of particulate, municipal offal. Yard upon cubic yard of exhalations and sweat and mechanically heated perfumes are heaved heavenward until, by the end of each day, the smell and awful moisture are actually visible, hanging over all the towns and cities and the fallow fields and shaved hillocks along the interstates and backroads. It invades the spaces between office buildings in the cities. It oozes up from the lawns and greenbelts between the houses and rows of apartments and condominiums in the suburban neighborhoods. It hovers over the horse pastures and farmers’ fields, filtering the light of the sun and the color of the sky behind a steaming slurry of suspended, wavering goo.

In this hellish mix, the people of the region move from hermetically sealed office to hermetically sealed car, with their clothes sticking to their skin, their skin sticking to the seats of their cars, and the tires of their cars sticking to the tar that percolates up between the pebbles of the macadam roads. The day’s cloudburst usually begins between the hours of 6 and 7 o'clock in the evening, but it is a rain that does not cool or quench. It merely marks the close of the business day.

* * * * * * * *

I was sticking to my clothes and my car on just such a day, on my way to my living room from my UZ-gak, passing through that very just-before-the-cloudburst atmospheric grime toward the relative respite of my aqua-colored couch, when it happened.

It was my custom to forsake the car’s air conditioning system in favor of simply opening the driver’s window. I was a happy slug, used to sticking, and I drew comfort from the sound in my head of the ticking of the imaginary meter that kept track of the money saved by not taxing the cooling systems of my fine, four-wheeled friend. I had placed my photographic identification badge safely in its clip under my car’s sun visor and, feeling particularly bold because of a fresh haircut I suppose, had sportily thrust my elbow out my window, one-handing the steering wheel.

Hoo-hoo! I was asking for it.

* * * * * * * *

An article I once perused reported that, in the time before he ascended to attention, Arthur Bremer had been undecided as to which of two public figures he would try to assassinate. According to the texts gleaned from his somewhat disorganized journal, he had winnowed out all but two, final possibilities: then-President Richard M. Nixon and then-Governor George C. Wallace.

* * * * * * * *

A little boy's shoelace works itself loose as he crosses the street. An attractive woman, behind in her morning’s pre-professional domestic schedule, forgets to take a package of chicken out of the freezer to thaw for the night's dinner. A squirrel instinctively seeks shelter from what it senses is the summer afternoon’s coming downpour through a small gap in the base of the block wall of a remote power substation. A honeybee rests on a car’s dashboard, nearly dead, having pummeled itself against the inside of the windshield all day in the furnace heat of a plain, practical and decidedly used coupe parked in the cruel summer sun outside a tall, serious government office building somewhere in Maryland.

* * * * * * * *

It was really the damnedest thing, embarrassing. I still have no idea how in the hell it got in there, or how in the hell I missed it when I got into my car and placed my identification badge in its home above the visor. In the time that has passed since then, I catch myself trying to minimize it, to regard the precursory events of that afternoon as comparatively short in the whole of the sequence of jerky, sepia-toned frames I play back in my memory. I would like to think I was drawn to where I am now and that my place and circumstance has everything to do with a larger plan. I want to believe that everything is not the result of the actions of some little insect and certainly not the result of my surprise at its having awakened.

* * * * * * * *

She absolutely hates this. The store is always especially crowded at this time of the day, always packed with wives and husbands desperately trying to just make it through the goddamn lines and out of the goddamn parking lot and home before they have a chance to feel guilty about having placed getting to work on time or staying at work late ahead of taking care of the goddamn kids’ or the goddamn wife’s or the goddamn dog’s most basic needs. By this time of day, there is an annoying lack of available space for parking or courtesy, especially with these feelings all packed so close, trying to legitimize themselves among the rest of the day’s little failures.

The phone chirps, obscene. This occurs just as she reaches the apogee of the turn-off from the boulevard into the hive of over-sized luxury tanks vying for position among each other and the moving maze of shopping carts in front of the store. The slump-bumping that her own es-you-VEE makes as it passes through the depression in the pavement between the road and the parking lot trampolines the phone, still ringing, off of the seat and onto the floor on the passenger’s side.

“It’s probably John, wondering where I am with dinner,” she thinks, casting a fleeting glance to fix the device’s landing spot so that she can retrieve it when she has her first chance, which will hopefully be before John’s hung up without leaving a message and getting so irked the way he does. He has programmed her phone to play a frighteningly electronicized snippet of an aria from La Loca. If she doesn’t pick up before it rings again, it will begin to vibrate like a giant, mad bug.

She absolutely hates this.

* * * * * * * *

I remember that I flinched, uncontrolled.

In the lone car on the road, as I remember it, I had been rambling between thoughts over the day's office brouhaha and the numbing prospect of the evening’s dinner. At first, I relegated the sound of its resurrection to the din of the road and the wind in my ears. When I did finally distinguish the stuttering brrzzz, bu-brrrzz from the back noise of the road and my own thoughts, it was too late. Having spent the day baking in the vertex of my car’s windshield and the dashboard, now compelled by the last, most basic of survival instincts, the bee or hornet or wasp—I never found out what it actually was—shot across the space from where it had been dying and my neck like a homing bullet.

I do not think that it was intending to sting me or that it was trying to protect itself or any hive or territory. Its behavior was natural, and can we really attribute such primitive compunctions, baser than anything sexual, with the complexities inherent in true aggression? No. I was simply in the way. I sat directly in the path toward what it had been trying to find all day there, in the heat of the car in Maryland: purchase to freedom, simply to live, to exist absent restraint. I was merely the final obstacle, akin to the glass of the windshield against which it had been beating itself maniacally all day.

Of course, when stung, one does not take time to think all this through. One simply swats. One is as expedient as one can be in trying to persuade the insect to desist. Contemplation is a luxury requiring time. I had been stung. I was simply under attack.

What happened next took place over the course of less than a minute’s time, I would estimate from here, but it changed everything.

“Ow! Ow! Dammit!” I yelled. I think I yelled something like that. I swatted at the sting in my neck. I was hurt and surprised and scared and afraid that my reflex retaliation had missed the assailant and that the damned little monster was still somewhere on me, on my person, getting ready to sting again.

Until that instant, it had been many, many years since I had last flinched.

* * * * * * * *

I wonder if anyone ever asked Richard M. Nixon how he felt when he found out. What ran through his mind when he was first given the news that Wallace, his challenger in the race for the presidency, had been shot? Or even better, what were his thoughts, what did he feel when he came to understand the entirety of the plot to vault Mr. Bremer to notoriety? Did he feel somehow vindicated by the fact that, weeks earlier, Bremer had scrubbed his first attempt while in attendance at a similar event in Canada, and that simply because he had not been able to achieve the necessary proximity to the candidate, that Nixon was opted out in favor of the more accessible Wallace? Did he feather his cloak with righteousness that his ability to remain aloof, his desire to expedite government by separating it from the governed, his campaign to legitimize modern aristocracy by exemplifying the efficiency of leading from a distance, from somewhere above—did he smugly harrumph (to himself) that his philosophies had likely saved his very life? I wonder if he ever reflected upon that summer’s events among all the other things that happened during the intervening time between that infamous spring of 1972 and the equally tawdry departure from his office into his own shadows in the fall of 1974, or between that end-time and his eventual death on the other side of the country; if he even remembered the incident at all in the “grand” or middling scheme of things.

I wish I knew. Interesting man, Nixon.

* * * * * * * *

Was I allergic?

First, I launched myself into the throes of an odd little contortive dance there, hurtling down the highway in the seat of my steady, faithful car. Hurt, but not hurt enough to stop, in turns I stretched up and craned my neck around so that I could see the site of the sting in the rear-view mirror, and then I hunkered down and whisked my hands over the legs of my pants, looking for the horrid creature that had hurt me. Then I repeated this. Up crane, down whisk, up crane, down whisk. Ow. Ow. The degree of my unfamiliarity with pain and its ability to occupy so much of my attention still alarms me today.

Nearly all thoughts of home and dinner and my imitation leather sofa were rapidly crowded out by a mental recitation of every fact I could remember regarding insect stings. I knew full well that a bee is capable of leaving just its one, angry mark. The problem was, however, that I had not been paying close enough attention to know if it had actually been a bee that had stung me. Hornets and wasps, jumping spiders, certain types of flies—these can keep biting, or stinging, or hurting you until they can be killed. Moreover, I did not know whether or not I was allergic to any of these species of predators, bees included.

While thinking all of this over, I subconsciously began to monitor my personal vital operating parameters for signs of deviation from the norm. “Shit,” I thought, and I almost never cursed, “what if I pass out, out here on this road?”

So at that point, I added a subroutine to my unconscious little exercise. The addition consisted of my checking for signs of civilization along my route on that safe, familiar backroad between work and home. In case I did begin to experience any of the symptoms of anaphylaxis, I decided that I had better preemptively seek the quickest route toward some form of aid.

Since that day, I have often marveled that so many people live in the state of Maryland, in and around the city of Baltimore and outside the city of Washington, D.C., and yet that it was my odd experience that there were still many routes which were customarily vacant or nearly so at certain times of the day. I have also marveled that I could take that same, safe Maryland backroad every day, day in, day out, for as long as I had during that time without noticing whether there were any houses or farms or businesses or anything along the way.

And then I did begin to feel sick. Maybe I was allergic. It could also have been a combination of the heat in the car and the anxiety I had levied upon myself as a result of the attack, but my stomach began a slow, ill roll. My sticking shirt felt suddenly clammy cold against the skin of my back and neck. Sweat rivulets burst out from under my hairline. Was this getting worse? My vision blurred.

Finally, the combination of all my flinching and dancing and checking around and becoming nauseated instantiated a direct and decidedly negative effect on my ability to conduct the car in a relatively straight path down the highway. What began with my first flinch as a small aberration quickly transmitted itself through the steering, suspension, and tires of the vehicle, resonating and sinusoidally amplifying itself so that in short order, the wheel was jerked by the forces of basic mechanical physics from my hand and my course toward where I thought I was headed was rendered hopelessly and ultimately unmanageable.

I lost control.

Many of the roads in the state of Maryland and other states along the eastern seaboard of this country are bordered with ditches that are used for drainage and, in some cases, for the temporary, albeit perhaps undesigned, storage of snow removed from the surface of the byway during the winter months. They are generally primitive, concave affairs; usually nothing more engineered than fairly sizeable channel-shaped depressions running parallel along side the various roads. They vary in depth anywhere from just a few feet to upwards of ten feet, when measured from the level of the roadway itself; and in addition to their giving the plowed snow a place to go and melt, they function quite well year-round as catch-alls for the detritus and chaff of the road.

The sound that snapped me out of reverie and broke the rhythm of my little dance was the first few seconds of the noise of the left-front wheel of my car skidding through the roadside gravel. It was not unlike popcorn popping full-bore at the concession counter at the theatre. Though I’m sure that at that point I tensed and gripped the steering wheel with all my might and pressed both of my feet hard against the black puck of the brake pedal, the unheeding little car lurched off the level surface of the road and down to my left into the ditch and began its roll.

I lost control. One minute a simple, quiet drone, slipping down through my life’s course, creating barely a ripple in the areas in which I moved, the next minute careening, screeching tires, flying bits of metal, shattering glass and scattering road gravel everywhere, I lost control of everything.

Heat lightning is actually just ordinary lightning whose accompanying thunderclap is simply too far away for those who see the light to hear. What appears as a mystical, phantom flash, out past the horizon in the gathering gloom of the coming storm, is really nothing more romantic or portentous than the storm itself, still off a ways, taking its time getting to you. Its noise is there, was there, at the time of the light’s flash, away out beyond the reach of any other of your senses for the instant that you saw it.

Notably, having seen it, you cannot prove that you did. It is gone long before you can point it out to anyone. Try explaining its occurrence to a fellow traveler or storm-braver who has never seen or heard of it. There is no evidence of its passing. Lightning without thunder? No. You and your friend, if you can get him to trust you, must go on faith that the rain is coming and that you should seek shelter. You both must trust your having felt the thing; you both must trust your memory of having seen it, and you yourself must use only that memory to convince others that it occurred, though neither of you can see or feel it any longer.

The last thing I remember sensing with any clarity after the gravel popcorn sound was two flashes of heat lightning. I heard nothing. I caught sight of them just out of the corner of my eye, out on the edge of the periphery of my sight, as all darkness and light whirled around me and closed in to black as if being sucked down a drain.

It was like distant childhood memories of the instant during a ride on a swing, just at the point before I let go and flung myself out, over the yard; or it was like a long, high dive into a very dark pool, again, just at that instant before I struck the surface of the water. In it, in that instant, it seemed to me that time was stretched out like taffy pulled slowly away from my clenched teeth, all the way to the absolute extent of my reach. And I am reminded now, at this distance, from the outside, of a musical instrument long stored in the dark reaches of the attic. Perhaps this is fanciful, this addition of feeling to so crunched an instant in time; but now, today, I remember a feeling of this instrument, this antique, kept in close by the rafters of an old house, catching up its breath as its case is pulled from the shadows and pried open by some investigating someone clearing things out; its strings, not yet plucked—not yet—but somehow quivering supersonic on the intense, absolute edge of perception.

* * * * * * * *

Later—I don’t know how much later—thunder boiled, low and away to the west, beyond the distant, purple-gray drummonds slumping under the hot haze to the west. I stirred.

I had been away for…seconds? …minutes? …hours? These things I knew right away: It was still light. The rain had not yet begun. It had been long enough for the blood and sweat and greasy dirt on my face to dry to a tackiness, but not long enough for the tingk-tingka-tingk sound of the various parts of my car to have quieted as they heated up in the sun and cooled down at rest. In the background, the hissing whine of crickets and cicadas wheedled into my consciousness as I creaked open my eyes.

The first thing to come into real focus was me. My photographic identification badge, suspended from its lanyard, looped around the sun visor, now twirled slowly before my face. In it, my laminated countenance hung, upside down. I leered there, on the badge, rotating slowly like an evil clown, dancing to unheard music, as though I was enjoying or had just enjoyed the ride. I was terrible at smiling.

Blinking hard, I was able to discern the sheet of green diamond crystals that my windshield had become, and beyond that, the dying gray-brown plants in the ditch. Next, I realized that I was upside down, and that my arms were dangling above—or below—my head. My hands were resting supine on a cruel bed of broken glass and shards of plastic scattered everywhere on the headliner. When I tried to bring them down/up to my sides (out of habit, I suppose, or perhaps in a futile attempt to restore some small semblance of normalcy to my perception), they were very, very heavy. A trail of blood had cleared its way down each of my arms and had begun to dry in a coin-sized pool in the palm of each hand.

My shirt was ruined.

I caught sight of the reflection of my own eyes in the skewed rear-view mirror. I had only seen eyes like those in cartoons, full of blood and squinting in deep concentration or rage.

When I was able to access the release for my seatbelt and to press it, I fell like a pitcher of lemonade bumped off a table, all broken bits of cold ice and shards of glass and wedges of fruit and pulp splattering out across what had been the ceiling of my turned-turtle little car, my poor old friend. My feet, wedged in the wiring behind the steering column, stayed put while I wuffed to earth. I was all akimbo, like a child’s doll abandoned into the trash, smashed, my face dirty, my eyes rolling alternately back into my head and down, into the world, my hair clumped in matted, tangled burnt shoots on the smooth, sooty pate of my scalp. The glass gravel fragments where my hands had lain ground mercilessly into the soft tissue of my shoulder, which bore the brunt of my coming down. I remember “hearing” sounds from inside my body of bone on bone, like the fugitive kernels of a dry breakfast cereal or the uncooked noodles of macaroni accidentally crunched underfoot on a kitchen floor.

After a few minutes spent awash in the new symphony of pain in me, I worked my feet free and inched across the bits of glass and broken plastic out through the window I had last been using so jauntily to reinforce my air of cavalier. Outside, I was able to wiggle around and prop myself up against the door jamb and to face out over the lip of the ditch, away from the road, toward the swath of state-planted buckwheat and weed situated between me and the border of a cool forest. After even just this small series of efforts, I needed to catch my breath. Before me, the grass, now near fall’s fruition, was tanned yellow-brown and smelled thick as too-long-cooked barley soup or the hops they roast to make beer.

Dinner, needless to say, was going to be late.

Blood from a gash on my head spread out slowly and flowed down the sides of my head and into my face and down the back of my neck like molasses. The stones and translucent green gems I brushed gingerly from my hair tinged and speckled my shirt like sequins. Still, I had woken up and therefore guessed that I was not allergic to whatever had stung me. The welt on my neck was no longer painful unless I touched it. Now though, it had a nice little headache and a few other persistent physical concerns with which it could keep company. There was grit in my mouth and eyes, bits of glass and teeth, and I unconsciously worked my tongue around so that I could spit, and I blinked with abnormal ferocity almost constantly. I was sweating and tearing profusely, trying to focus. Heretofore unnamed bones and muscles and connecting fibers of all kinds turned traitor in their customary and right places inside my body and scratched at me from my insides when I moved. It appeared to me that my right ankle or leg or knee was either broken or very badly sprained.

I supposed that I would be missing work for at least the next couple of days, and I wondered if someone would assume that since my car was not in its usual place that the parking space was to be considered available. Mixed with the otherwise normal smells and sounds of that time of day and that time of the season was the distinctive odor of burned rubber-on-asphalt mixed with gasoline fumes. Cricking my neck to look toward the rear of the vehicle and seeing the damage to my car, I supposed that, at least for the near term, their assumption would be correct.

The small, yellow cardstock cutout of a pine tree that I had hung from the never-used cigarette lighter some weeks before lay in the gravel next to my left leg. Searching for some connection to the world I had left behind above me on the road, I picked it up gingerly and smelled it, and it responded meekly with a suggestion of one or another tree or perhaps a cleaning solvent.

Tingk, tingk, ti-tingk.

* * * * * * * *

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January 30, 2003
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