[ Note: From 2008 to 2013, I kept a writing blog, which I then took down. Now that I am starting a new blog in 2018, I will be adding some older posts backdated to their original publication. Many of these were obviously written by a young, naive, perhaps foolish person, with prose ranging from overblown to just plain shitty, but they illustrate my journey as a writer and a person, so I think it is worth the embarrassment. ]
SCREAMS AT THE DOOR
The persistent yapping of my mother’s dachshund continued even as it faded from my consciousness. A shadow enveloped the periphery of my perception and I was only aware of the slender window, no larger than a hardback book, that floated in the door before me. Through this I saw the hunched form of a shirtless, tattooed, hairless man in his late twenties, bent with his hands on his elbows, rocking in distress. My first impulse was to lock the door and run for the shotgun, because here was what could only be a meth-head in some strange state, and he was more than large enough to hurt me with his hands. Before I could reach the lock, he looked up at me and screamed, “Help! I’ve been burned!”
Particular scenes from A Clockwork Orange jumped immediately to mind, but nonetheless I opened the door, electric caution in my stomach. Even as I saw the pink puckered wounds that covered his left half from waist to neck, there was a moment of disbelief, and I marveled at how much like movie makeup it looked, the strings of skin stretched like cobwebs over the divots of burned out flesh. His face was untouched, but a full half of his torso, from chest to back, was melted in sloughs and blisters. The agony in his face was unimaginable, and I quickly ushered him in.
“I’ll get an ambulance,” I said, and ran into the kitchen, picked up the phone. He followed me in, unable to stop moving, pacing erratically until he fell on his knees. Shudders and screams escaped him in starts, and he fell to the floor and began writhing—literally writhing: I gained new understanding of the word—while I dialed nine-one-one. Growing up, I had that number driven into me, and though I had never used it, I always thought I would feel a special thrill, a spike of forbidden pleasure, when I did. There was none of that. I barely registered doing it. As I spoke with the operator—I was transferred once, interrogated, and had to give all my information twice—the man kept screaming for me to do something to stop the pain. He stood in a moment of lucidity and begged me to ask if he could get in the tub. I asked, and the operator said yes. He ran to the bathroom, and as soon as the fire department would let me hang up, I went to help him.
The door was shut, and I could hear him screaming as he splashed water on himself. I knocked and asked if I could do anything for him, and he asked in a barely discernible voice: “Cup of water, no ice?” I ran to get the cup of water, musing as it filled that such a simple, domestic expression, that request for “no ice,” could find its way into a situation such as this. When I returned with the water, he opened the door in his underwear and took it, closed the door again. I told him I’d be right there if he needed anything, but I had to run to the door to check that the ambulance didn’t miss our drive. Outside, there was no sign of anyone.
When I returned, he screamed for a towel. There was one left in the laundry room. I took it to the bathroom, knocked, and opened the door a crack to offer it to him. I didn’t really think it was a time for modesty, but I didn’t want the man to be embarrassed by my seeing him naked: a ridiculous compunction in retrospect, but another of those daily social observances that leak in as absurdity in times of emergency. As I glanced in, I saw his blistered form shaking as he struggled out of the tub to accept the towel, and I felt like an absolute bastard for making him do it. I stepped in and handed it to him, he fell back into the tub, and I stepped out.
At this point I was worried that the police hadn’t gotten the right address, and I ran out to check the road a couple more times. No sound of sirens or anything. I went back in and he shouted for another towel. There were none in the laundry room, but I remembered the others in the bathroom closet. I told him that, opened the door, and went in. I can’t remember if the water was still running, but the curtain was back and he was standing in the tub, shaking against the tile, crying and hugging the limp wet rag. The closet was immediately to the right of the entrance, and I opened it and took one of the towels and handed it to him. The clearest image I have of the encounter is in that moment: his hand outstretched, face red, a stranger standing naked and shuddering with pain as I press the dry white cloth into his hand, he a man I would at any time fear, helpless and crying before me.
As he staggered out of the bathroom, clutching one towel to his chest and the other over his groin, I ran ahead and cleared off a couch, told him to lie down. Once he was down, I said, “I’ll be right back. I’ll get you another cup of water.”
He said, “Yes! Please!” as I went into the kitchen and filled another glass for him, brought it back. He was horizontal but couldn’t stay that way, kept wiggling and sitting up, breathing fast and letting out short, panicked screams. I handed him the cup and said, “Try to take deep breaths, drink slowly.” The words came out with calm, but I felt completely useless: I’ve been trained in basic first aid, but he was so bad I hadn’t a clue what to do. The only thing I could think was to try to calm and reassure him.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. “You’ll be alright. They’ll be here soon. They would have warned me if anything bad would happen, so you’ll be fine.” The logic wasn’t exactly spotless, and I do wonder whether it just annoyed him, but all I could do was make soothing noises. The pain seemed to hit him in waves, and he would stand and pace around, screaming and stomping. In the midst of this he suddenly froze, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I’m sorry.” I could only look at him and say, “You’re fine, man.” Then he was back into a frenzy, and he dropped on the couch and looked up and said, “A cop—a cop’s here.” I turned to the window: the sheriff was stopped at the entrance to our drive, looking around. I ran out and waved him in.
After the burned man left in the ambulance (he had asked them to strap him down as they loaded him in, which I thought was odd) one of the deputies asked me where his clothes were. I told him. His reply seemed strange: “I’m gonna go smell them!” With that, he ran inside to do so.
It took me a moment to figure it out. The deputy wasn’t a pervert—he was smelling for chemicals. He bagged the clothes and took them outside, where a ring of police and volunteer firemen stood with their hands on their hips, discussing the event. I stood awkwardly, half in the circle, a twenty-one-year-old bookworm who looked fifteen, surrounded by burly self important men who wore sunglasses and chewed gum.
“Where did he come from?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He just showed up beating on my door.”
“What do they smell like?” one of the firemen asked the deputy.
“No ammonia,” he said. “Clorox, maybe?”
One of them walked to the crossroads and pointed down a road. “I think I see his truck.”
It turned out my first impression was correct: he was a meth-head. He had rigged up a roadside lab about a mile down, just a few feet from the street, set in a dry ditch. In the middle of mixing a batch, something went wrong, and it exploded, burning his shirt off in addition to some flesh.
Learning this, I was reminded of an anti-drug plan of which I had heard: to release directions for making meth on the internet, only with an added step that makes everything explode and kill the maker. It had seemed clever before, but it cannot now.
My perspective has shifted. I have never been a squeamish person, and I was always skeptical of claims from people who had witnessed violence that it had affected them in any deep and lasting way. I grew up reading horror novels and watching horror films, and I’ve seen many gruesome photos and videos that were actually real. The concept of real world violence disturbed me, but I didn’t think much of the impact of seeing injured people. I’m of a fairly scientific mind, and I always expected to remain detached and rational.
It turns out that I did while the event was going on. This occurred just before English class, and I went and attended with no issues. It seemed vaguely strange to me, but that was all. I watched, talked, laughed as normal. Then class was over, and I went to the library.
Let me be clear that what I witnessed was not that gruesome. It was disturbing, especially in the screams incited in the man, but there are innumerable, exponentially more horrible sights and sounds all around the world every day. I don’t claim any scars or post-traumatic stress.
Still, it was distracting. I found myself stopping mid-sentence as I read and analyzing everything I’d done, everything I’d seen. I replayed the scene at the door, examined my impulse to throw the lock, remembered vividly the movie-set strangeness of his wounds.
Worse later, as I tried to sleep. My brain would not shut down: it kept returning to those scenes. More than anything, that look of anguish as I handed him the towel. Had I done the right thing? What if he had hurt me? Gone insane? Fled the police? Died?
The next morning, it was back. I had a strange feeling of disappointment, a sinking thought of, “Oh. It still happened.” All of this for a burned stranger! I can’t imagine the effect of witnessing a death, let alone of someone I knew.
EMPATHY AND SUFFERING
That, in essence, is the matter of my shift. It is not that I have been permanently shocked. It has only been a few days, and I slept just fine last night.* I have not had one dream or nightmare. (Which says a lot, because I have dreams about math from doing calculus.) It is only that I have somehow extended my sympathy, taken my academic awareness of the pity of violence and given it emotional impetus, even for people I don’t know and am inclined to despise.
If a burn is that bad, what of a missile driving debris through your body? Or even of burns: what of the suppurating phosphorous wounds still open in a Palestinian years after he was hit by Israeli munitions? Sticking to meth addicts: one of the responses to my story was from a man who said, “If a toasted meth-head showed up at my door, I’d pour salt on him to increase the pain, then lock the door and call 911.” If that were truly his response to seeing another human being in absolute agony, pleading for his help, I’d be ashamed to say I knew him.
Helping that burned man did not dramatically alter my core philosophy of life, but it did bring into clarity the reality of human suffering. Whether one be a war criminal, meth addict, murderer, or rapist, every person when hurt or tortured cries forth with the sound of a child, and in that cry is the voice of our entire species, a representation of our pain, brutality, and love. This may be a product of my naiveté, and the universality of the sensation of suffering only to be taken as a necessary ingredient in the wars and prosecutions of our existence, but I know that I will never be able to take the harm of another impersonally, to write it off as due justice or the price of anything worth having, without confronting the image of a naked man sobbing as I hand him a towel.
* This was originally written in September of 2010.