Nobody will understand. It's practically useless to explain how this all happened. More than that, no one will believe it. Not that I'm one of those habitual liars who will claim ownership of a major share of Jet Blue, an uncle on the Supreme Court, or holding Master's Degrees in seven professions while sitting in prison for panhandling. No, I've just had a run of bad luck most of my life and this has to be the worst. I guess it's best to start where all the trouble began. Don't worry; I'm usually not long winded.
It all began that night in DC when I was running through alleyways for my life. Imagine. Me, a Coney Island whitefish boy, sprinting through fetid filth and slum spoor, with no clue where to find safety. I had this gut feeling sanctuary would be denied no matter which direction I looked, no matter how fast I ran.
At five foot ten, tipping the scales right under one seventy, we're talking about a long, lean side of beef known most recently as the high school track team's Mercury. This is not vain boasting. Five or more years out of graduation garb, Russell Mason's name lives on in a slew of trophies and state records for track events. Running at a fast clip has never been difficult. The tough part was trying to maintain top speed for any protracted length of time. My Dad, Russ Senior, used to goad me with lines like, “Reward goes to the fleet of foot.” Right, Dad. You try sustaining “fleetness” for an hour or two, fat ass.
Maybe it's not nice to talk ill of the dead, but sometimes the old man pops up in my thoughts when least expected, mostly when it comes to sports. “Big Russ” pushed me hard to do anything athletic, yet he was never there to witness my achievements. He played a significant role in forming my desire to fly, though. Usually “Little Russ”, the family's ne'er do well, would break a window, put chili powder in his sister's cereal, or something equally innocuous, which would result in a Keystone Kops chaotic chase between Big and Little. Of course, of the two Russes, the big man always won, and his “long arm of law” eventually was applied to my seat of judgment. It would have been preferable, in my opinion, to receive punishment from someone who could remember to stop before the offender passed out…or someone who, when finished doling justice, did not find it necessary to discard the guilty with the same nonchalance of tossing trash into a distant garbage can. (It was common for the aforementioned garbage can to be the basement floor, situated at the end of a flight of stairs. He was the one who first joked that I was given free flying lessons.)
Sorry for sloughing off into a tangent. I'm not normally as long winded in speech as I am in track. Running from the old man, I guess, is what might have prepared me for track events, as well as this aforementioned impromptu DC decathlon. Business dumpsters, homeless bodies and unrecognizable debris were hurdles I maneuvered around and over while shedding my feverish followers. Hate to admit this, but they were determined and gaining. It amazed me that they were still so hot on my heels after more than a half hour. My feet were beginning to throb with pain. Every so often, a doorway or dumpster provided enough cover to catch a few shallow breaths and gain momentary reprieve. Then, the chase restarted.
During a fox hunt, men, horses and hounds seek the fox relentlessly, with the fox well aware his life is in the balance. What separated me from that creature is familiarity with its surroundings in which he is being pursued. He knows most of the places that offer cover and concealment, where next to go in order to snatch desperately needed gulps of air. I, on the other hand, was totally a fish out of water, both figuratively and in appearance. Several times, clinging to grimy garbage cans, inhalation was an explosive shard of relief that shook me more than a bayonet's thrust. Each time my thoughts quieted to invite the illusion of safety, a footfall followed soon by several, alerted me to the hunt once again afoot.
Pumping for all I was worth, fire seemed to be coursing through my legs. This was not the fire of the gods, or some miraculous second wind, this was a signature of heat applying its name on the dotted line invisibly laid out from ankle to Adam's apple. The thorny quills were dipped into sufferable steam's deepest inkwell, affixed with a heavy, trembling hand. I tried to extinguish this from my mind, prayed to replace the loud church bells clanging against my ribs, the acid burning my lungs, and only coming up with my last great escape. Life’s faucet of thoughts does not flow linear, the memories drip in any direction they wisih.
Brian and I were about twelve years old when we both discovered a mutual love for pumpkin pie, mischief and Amy Pryor. The first two you may be familiar with, but Amy was a novel creature who appears only once every century, possibly even more rarely. At least that’s how my recollection paints her memory. To me, she was a garland of smiles, summer’s finest day, a breath of brewed ambrosia, and my destiny. Yeah, maybe too many soap operas, or too little exposure to adolescence, something like that. All I knew was, first look at her, innocently sashaying on the sidewalk, and my life changed. The other girls who were giggling along with her paid no mind to the two scrawny geeks approaching.
Brian and I could have passed for twins. We both were smallish enough to pay child admission prices at movie theaters, and dressed like refugees from Nerd University. With blue jeans tucked into high-top basketball sneakers, long sleeved plaid shirts and spectacles that looked too goofy to be real, our appearance was made complete by virtue of crew cuts only our mothers could love. Disregarding how awkward we must have looked, we approached the trio of teen temptresses. I can’t say who Brian had his eye on, but Amy was my magnet, drawing me, voiding recognition of everything. Not even a speeding locomotive could have interrupted this attraction. Nothing at the time could explain it, either.
Brian and I were best of friends since elementary school, going back to second grade. Neither of us knew anything about the mysterious wonders of girls, never having been on a date, and mere minutes before, had been animatedly reflective on their “yuckiness”. Sure, it’s not a word, but that’s what we’d said. And, here we were, pulled by unseen strings toward two of those ‘yucky’ creatures, and, of course, Amy Pryor.
If only I knew then what I know now. Sure, I probably would have gotten in more trouble, but Amy, in my eyes, was worth it. Still is, or would have been. Forgive my skullduggery, please.
Amy was about an inch taller than me, thin but not anorexic, shoulder length blonde hair, with a face that seemed to be a more polished version of my sister’s Barbie doll. Looking back, I would say Barbie’s face was generic, deserving a G rating. Amy’s was very similar, but there was an inscrutable PG-13 quality to her dark eyes, a definitely R rated aspect to her lips. In my virgin bewilderment, the only ratings system adhered to was “Got to talk to her”.
Instead of being laughed at, hearing the geek boys getting told to get lost, I somehow managed to lose the others. I remember holding her schoolbooks, walking her home, and at 17, kissing her on the front porch. Of course, much more happened in the intervening years, and many more changes evolved in my wardrobe. But, I’m getting too far ahead of myself. As Amy would say, I tend to go too fast in explaining myself, and on dates. “Slow down, Speed Racer,” she would teasingly request. “Keep running so fast, and you’ll miss the races, or trip on your laces.” Sometimes I understood her without a word, and other times I could never get enough of just being in her presence. I was a solar panel powered by her sunshine.
Amy was patient with my transitional acclamation from jerk to jock, always providing the inspiration lacking in my family life. She was not intentionally a substitute for parents. She was, as stated before, my destiny, yet transition never is easy. A painful lesson learned after first meeting Amy. Poor Amy...poor, pitiful Amy...poor me.
Brian and I chalked it up to growing pains, agreeing girls were still taboo, rekindling our second grade bond of brotherhood with planning pranks related to the upcoming holiday. Fast approaching Hallowe’en meant Mister Kren’s pumpkin patch was to remain a very easy and tempting traditional target. An annual visit to his farm perfectly suited our nontraditional methods.
After dinner, our stomachs as full as the rising moon, we met on the outskirts of old man Kren’s property. In years past, we had graduated from “borrowing” a few gourds for home use, to hurling them at motorists as they exited the Firth Sterling underpass. This night, our pockets overflowing with M-80’s and cherry bombs saved from July Fourth, we anticipated creative destruction and wonderful future memories. Until reaching the pumpkin patch’s border closest to his house, everything was going as expected, without a hitch. Brian had one orange prize winner under each arm, navigating back to our hideout near Naylor Road. I was bending down to gain possession of my second target. Mister Kren was sneaking through the fields close by.
I only say this now in hindsight, since at that precise moment, the only living creatures Brian and I were aware of for miles, were us and the crickets. In an instant, that all changed, which could easily have been said about our vocal range and clean underwear. I’ve read somewhere that Julie Andrews and Leo Sayer, at the pinnacle of their careers, could comfortably vocalize within seven octaves. I’m not sure about Brian, but I definitely surpassed that range with my shriek when the shotgun blast pierced the night’s stillness. It remains debatable whether the muzzle was pointed skyward or to ground. One thing for sure, our reaction was equivalent to lightning striking within an inch of our feet. Only one unspoken thought motivated our scared carcasees: RUN! More than fear of parental abuse, one shotgun blast, mingled with unintelligible threats from an enraged farmer, inspired us to outrun the speed of light. It was similar to a blast of grumbling thunder.
Here I am, decades later, running again. This time, my feet aren’t plodding through cow patties and road apples, but flying across cement sidewalks and feculent freeways of every form of garbage, humane and otherwise. Each foot lifted feels like fish hooks embedded in my ankles, hips being yanked in opposite directions, each step made sending sharp tremors through my bones. What Prometheus experienced was a stroll in the park in comparison. My inner coil spring, if wound any tighter, was bound to snap. That’s when I heard the initial burst of gunfire, resounding thunderously against the surroundings.
It never dawned on me to look around to determine how close my pursuers were, or how many they were in total. At my rate of progress, barring miraculous intervention, it would all come to a shattering end, and very soon. Music was playing nearby, discordant, overanplified, live music. Taking a huge risk, I ran out into the open, with daring speed crossing the late night traffic’s crawl, pouncing across a car hood, almost colliding with Hard Rock Café’s main window. All businesses were closed now, save Ford’s Theatre, Hard Rock and a few nightclubs blocks away. In this immediate area, only one place would have live music capable of carrying this far – the 9:30 club. Still running, partially limping due to muscular fatigue, Ford’s Theater blurred past on my right. In an effort to reduce the risk of permanent damage, my pace slowed for a few seconds. A few halting breaths frenetically sped through me as a glass entrance previously unnoticed appeared. Between the historic theatre and a sparkling white garage, what seemed to be an incongruous office was fitted with a desk and a snoozing night watchman. Breathing less labored, eyes more focused, the door’s lettering became more legible. Stage Door Entrance was prominently painted, below which hours of entry and admittance policy clearly outlined that this place was off limits to me. Out of curiosity, I tried the door… locked! I’d wasted too much time anyway. Time to move.
Up to the next intersection, turn right, and try hiding inside the club by blending in with the crowd. Doors locked. Stepping back to observe, the marquee announced the worst news ever - a dark night - no show tonight. Possibly a rehearsal was going on? Scrambling to the side alley, I checked for alternate means of entry, still staying on my toes for any sign of the hounds. This fox had to run to live another day. One side checked, all points of ingress locked or otherwise barricaded.
Off to the rear service entrance I scampered, a flurry of motion and thrown trash missing me by inches. Jumping back from the possible line of fire, the source appeared to have been feline dumpster divers, frightened by my approach. They scurried away as I prayed their din hadn’t been noticed by others in my wake. The music I heard earlier was unbearably loud now, positively coming from this location. The door was locked from the inside, so I peered through a greasy window, discovering a rehearsal indeed was in progress. The clamorous quartet, though abusively loud, would no doubt question my arrival, and I had no way of covering myself should security happen to be present and ask for too much information. My course of action consisted of staying hidden in the dumpster’s amorphous ashes.
While waiting, my body began to relax, most aches dwindling to minor irritations, a calm breathing rate prevailing. Initially rendered inexorably blind, clumsily jostling among this unfamiliar territory, my body became relaxed, comforted by preternatural silence. Nearby traffic noise diluted by alley acoustics, the quartet either on break or momentarily departed, thick eddies of hope began to engulf me. I contemplated adopting this spot to purchase a few hours’ rest while gazing at my past’s ghosts. To the extent possible, I fashioned a place to recline, slowly drifting into a much needed respite. Weary from chase, reeling with what might lie ahead, life’s pictorial essay unraveled, blending the evening’s events, with my history of running. And that sound of thunder.
Guns...I’ve always hated those impersonal ego equalizers that influenced empty headed braggarts to write verbal checks that their puny intellects couldn’t cash. With a weapon in hand, the most insignificant wuss quickly became a feared rival, and innocents fell ruthlessly victimized. Slow dancing among my skeletons were images of guns being misused for monetary gain, and weapons assumed to be empty being proven otherwise with fatal finality. Farmer Kren’s threats narrated a scene that recently set my mind on fire and took Amy away. Everything that hurt physically was healed, but torturous dreams inflicted deeper wounds. Sleep comes at a price.
Mister Pryor never approved of me; chances are he connected the dots quicker than my family. Popularity in high school athletics did not magically bring national wealth. Explaining how the eldest of four unemployed sons of a taxi driver always dressed in finest fashion, and always drove the latest model car, seemed easy to him. I was, as he often told me, “New trash from old trash”. We regularly traded words, at the end of which I would humbly admit he was right, accept his decree that I would amount to nothing, and in compromise promise to return his only child at a decent hour. I hated him, he hated me, but I loved his daughter. I would do anything for his daughter, absolutely anything. Hey, at least he didn’t hide his hate like Dad did, who would lure me into a consoling hug in order to get me close and then…
This night was different. Our argument went way too far. Amy was upstairs preparing for our night at the theater when the discussion heated up for the umpteenth time. The ritual was so boring that the words didn’t really matter anymore. What made this exchange different was that Mister Pryor decided wielding a shotgun would give more emphasis to his stance. Its presence in his hands amplified his determination, and made me feel like I was outnumbered. He was speaking in lower, measured tones, using the weapon as an extension of his fist, pointing it and sticking it in my ribs. While I was trying to remind him that he was not my father, he repeated how we would never be related. And then Amy came down the stairs, looking more radiant than any angel ever dreamed or dared to. We shared a smile that was innocent, packed with shared emotions, and she blew me a soft kiss that lit my heart like lightning. Her golden locks framed the image I will take to the hereafter; almond eyes, ruby lips, a silver twinkle in her eyes, the shadow of love reflected in them, I thought. Absorbing the image, I realized the reflection in her eyes was from something else. Below the lemon chiffon dress, I could see her right hand gripping the banister, yet there was something metallic in her other hand, something that looked vaguely familiar.
I looked at her father, smiled and began to agree to whatever terms he proposed. He did not smile in return, instead pointing the gun at Amy and began shouting. Amy had her arm around my shoulder, trying to pull me to the front door as I began shouting at him. Amy began crying. The gun went off before I even realized it, and the next thing I knew, the wall behind Mister Pryor’s desk looked like the pumpkin patch after Brian and I ran through it. I couldn’t tell where his face was anymore. I was so scared, so I ran. I first tried to convince Amy to run away with me, but she stood, not moving, looking at what remained. She was looking for his face while I ran, never looking back. She was still trying to put her father back together.
Once I made it across the DC line, my ability to participate in the Indianapolis 500 was seriously tested. I failed, of course, and figured by the time the car’s remains were traced back to me, I’d be long gone. I could never be so wrong. Within the hour, they were on my ass. I was lucky as hell to have made it this far. Now sweating, cold as could be, shivering like a heroin addict in withdrawals, one thought formed. “What did I do to deserve such a fate?”
That noise... I knew I heard it…a shoe on glass, a slow, sneaking foot coming in to the alley, from F Street. It entered my universe louder than a reveler’s report, its reverberant waves washing over my suffering. Its harsh crescendo riveted me in place. I couldn’t stay here, that much I was sure of. Calmly crawling on my belly, trying to become one with the grungy murk of the inky alley floor, I made my way towards the back door to Ford’s.
I cursed myself for not trying this door earlier. As I grabbed its handle, I was spirited inside without any resistance or alarm sounding. The troops seemed to be converging on me, almost as if on wings. Luck seemed to be changing, except that upon entering, a broad shaft of light broadcast my presence and position. It soon became evident that the footstep heard was connected to a well-armed tracker. Thunder verified my suspicions. Haste in escape rocketed me onto the stage, and I smelled burning flesh. Less than a second passed when I heard furious knocking on the door I’d just entered. Someone was shouting to be granted entry. I did not stick around long enough to discuss economy or politics.
A play seemed in progress, a period piece, and I had fortunately entered behind a large piece of scenery. Not that it mattered, but I happened to notice the initials O A C on the back of several painted canvasses crowding my newfound hideaway. As I panted, welcoming a surge of heat, voices separated only by a fire exit on one side and false walls on another, battled for attention. Strutting about a spot lit kitchen, a thespian clad in eighteenth century gentry garments delivered a soliloquy, projecting loud enough to be heard in the nosebleed seats, and equally ample to suffocate any noise emanating from where I’d come to rest.
Nobody will believe or understand what I’m about to tell you. I’m not making it up as I go along, it’s just that, well, it’s all so new to me. I’ve tried to tell others. Some people just don’t know how to listen.
A barrage of sounds, a farrago of fierce tumult unfolded in my previous privacy. Evidently, the cavalry summoned reinforcements. Placing my ear against cinderblock aided interpretation very little. The minimal degree of interpretation afforded by this effort was negligible. I was able to discern only the statement “Man down”. Maybe he said “Officer down.” Apparently, in their impetuous rush to flush me out, converging Cossacks simulated a circular firing squad. Laughing quietly to myself, I tried to maintain composure and remember I required a sense of urgency to stay one step ahead.
No klieg lights flooded the stage performers. Lighting as well as costuming was in place to emulate a specific time period. Not being overly familiar with theatrical intricacies, my take on this was a consortium of conspirators, no doubt aristocratic movers and shakers, got a high class, high octane kick out of such frivolous tripe. Me, all I know about theater is what I catch on the silver screen. Russell Mason is not a performer unless it involves shorts, sneakers, a headband and a quarter mile oval. The only reason this struck me as uncommon was it reminded me of a show I’d seen on HBO a few years back. Vaudeville was the topic du jour; great detail went into explaining lack of microphones for voice projection. The ham on stage before me was going broke. What he knew about vocal projection could have put those vaudeville hacks to shame, and he did it without any strain. I felt like applauding, but didn’t dare.
Cautious not to creak a floor board or give away my presence in any respect, I skillfully made my way out to stage right, closer to the orchestra pit. Upon arrival, I looked into the crowd, and felt a disquieting twinge of confusion. Not one patron was out of character. The entire audience was decked out in the same duds as the performers. It would seem that Russell Mason was the butt of an elaborate joke, the only spectator to a coliseum of dramatists. Or was I in the limelight?
I found myself inside the main foyer. Unlike movie houses, this place had no concession stand or soda machine for its patrons. Above the doors hung a huge timepiece; to the left and right were two doorways and one staircase. A doorway and staircase to the left were locked, so I ventured up the staircase on the right. It was shut, but its locking mechanism seemed to practically melt with my touch. Laughter filtered down form the auditorium here like spectral wisps of cotton, dripping on the stairs like blood. I heard footsteps entering the stairwell behind me, which prompted a swift assessment of available escape routes. Continually moving forward, no manner of avoidance greeted me, leaving no option other than outrunning this unwelcome visitor. No sooner had I increased my pace, when he passed me. Stunned, a trembling right fist firmly planted on a wooden rail, I estimated less than twelve inches clearance from my frame to the curved walls. With disbelief, knowing this could not be, I shook my head, looked all around, then continued. The footsteps that so recently trailed me were now ahead of me, and I felt drawn to this figment of imagination, as if sucked in to a wind tunnel. He, too, was dressed in ancient clothing. From my vantage point, he looked accustomed to this place, marching with dedication, each step’s progress resounding within this enclosure in suffused gravity. Maintaining several steps distance, I watched him withdraw something from an outer coat pocket. Holding it at his side, his free hand opened the balcony door. A brass plate affixed to this door was engraved “Box 7”. He closed the door partially, apparently not planning on using it again.
Moving faster than anyone I’ve seen, he raised the object to the left shoulder of a tall man seated in that balcony. Covered by an uproarious audience response to hilarious onstage antics, the muzzle flash and accompanying burst went unnoticed, until the tall man slumped forward. My stairwell companion then stabbed one of the victim’s body guards and jumped, aiming for the stage below. Whatever possessed me to dare heroism, I can’t explain. It wasn’t in my character to help someone I did not know, and it didn’t seem possible my efforts would help matters. Nevertheless, I reached out to grab this assailant. His shoe slipped through my fingers. Or did it? He landed on the stage awkwardly, cursing (at me?) in Latin, then limped toward the fire exit.
Turning around, I saw the tall man, swimming in his own blood, holding his head in his lap, mumbling or groaning. A woman I took to be his wife was sobbing, screaming for help. I tried to follow the gun man, but as I reached the alleyway, he fled on horseback, withering into cloud armies.
Nobody will understand, especially me. Even I don’t believe it, and I was there the whole time, watching it unfold before me, around me.
Stuck between the alley and stage, my attention was drawn to the crowd, screaming in horror. All eyes fixed on the man who was transfixed between this world and the next. Their faces faded smoldering into laurels of twilight. Box 7’s occupants withered as well, leaving behind a mausoleum of memories. Looking back to the vaporous trail taken by the gunman, the alley’s transformation left me helplessly insensate.
Dumpsters, asphalt, every surface visible became erubescent, thanks to revolving roof mounted ambulatory illumination. A man was being loaded into an ambulance, his entire body covered with a white sheet, huge flowers of purple blush blooming in several spots. A frazzled police officer lifted an edge of linen to glimpse, then shook his head ruefully. In a notepad, he jotted acknowledgment of a paramedic’s question with a grunt.
I wanted to get a closer look as well, but couldn’t. It didn’t make sense to me. I was watching all of the activity, yet I could not open the stage’s fire door, nor could I leave the confines of the theater. Trust me; I’ve tried…many times... more often than I’ve tried to be forgiven. Once in a great while, I get a front row seat to watch Our American Cousin. I never have seen the end of it yet. I’ve heard it’s to die for.
Over the years I’ve learned my limitations, and how to get away for a few hours. I’ve learned digital manipulation and rudimentary communication techniques. What I’ve yet to learn are answers to questions that came to mind as I watched the ambulance slowly drive away.
Didn’t you put that gun in my hands, Amy? Which one of us fired? I would have done anything for you Amy, but why?
It haunts me how Amy failed to get me calmer in dealing with her father, and how she explained karma to me. Come to think of it, the sound of her voice is getting clearer. Maybe I’ll ask her about all of this myself. Strange footsteps approaching. I think she’s coming to visit.