Broken Trajectory

            A lone bullet shell lies at the center of the open space in my room.  It is detached completely from any sort of narrative, any before and after, or beginning and end.  I do not know why it is there, but I do know that I hadn’t seen it there the night before.  Perhaps it fell out of my sweatshirt pocket, the one I wore at the shooting range on the beach a few months prior.  I ignore the fact that I’ve worn the sweatshirt multiple times since, deciding that it must have rested unnoticed in the one of the front pockets.  I instinctively pick it up and hold it over the trashcan in my room, before placing in a box where I store important items that act as tokens for memories I don’t want to forget.  I decide that it is important enough to keep, but not important enough for me to think about any further at the time, or even add to my own narrative.  Perhaps this is because it makes little sense to me.  I move on.

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“Every bullet tells a story.”  I imagine a grim-faced actor with a slight smirk wearing a designer rain jacket meant to look like something you’d find at a yard sale.  This is a quote I’m sure I’ve heard stated multiple times on multiple different television shows and movies, but as is often reflected in the obscure connections in Real Life, I have no anchor to tie to this quote, no fictional name to attribute it to more than an archetype protagonist grinning at his own clever statement, just 42 minutes shy of solving that particular bullet’s story.  He will neatly tie together that story after a series of red herrings and false alarms, unless, of course, there’s a “To Be Continued,” in which case it will take at least another 42 minutes or so to follow the winding trajectory of this bullet’s sordid past.

I’ve had little occasion to trace the story of a bullet, and aside from one hunting experience, I’ve failed completely.  I once shot a gopher in the head and felt bad for it, until my hunting buddy told me that it was “vermin” and a “pest,” and that I potentially saved some plants with my heroic deed.  If following the bullet’s backwards path from out of the head of that gopher who was someone’s friend, someone’s son or daughter, you’d find a young man who was trying to relate to the likes of Hemingway, rather than a hunter who felt empowered by the feel of a steel trigger.  In the end, the gopher wasn’t a lion, but it was dead and I had decided its fate, and was finally justified by my friend’s harsh eulogy that summed up the destructive life of that slender rodent.  And by the end of that adventure, a bullet represented something tangible, a story with a linear path that could be traced back to a beginning, and whose end meant very little.

I can’t remember if it was before or after the death of my dad that I found the lone bullet shell on the floor of my room.  I did not own a gun, nor did I notice the shell lying in the center of my floor before I woke up that morning.  The only explanation I could offer, and one that I immediately accepted, was the aforementioned trip to the shooting range.  That allowed a plausible structure, something I realized I had always craved and even expected.  I quickly dismissed any misgivings I had about the phantom shell, but kept it as a memory of something that had no origin, no story, no anchor to tie meaning to despite its potential knack for destruction.

As a bullet nears its final destination, I imagine that it either fragments or condenses.  The whole breaks up into parts, and those parts lodge into their separate places and cause enough disorder to make the whole seem immune to unity.  Or perhaps the bullet remains intact and everything smashes together.   In that scenario, something that was once whole remains whole, but in a different form.  Either way, despite the bullet’s trajectory, the object itself changes.  Were a television stereotype sent to discover its story, the pieces of the puzzle would have to be put together with the deformed bullet, reshaped in such a way that figuring out its meaning would be a more difficult task than just 42 minutes would allow.  That episode would remain unsolved in the hopes that the show wouldn’t be cancelled before the mystery of the deformed, possibly fragmented bullet, was solved.  The broken pieces would remain that way until someone swept them up and made sense of them, if that could even be accomplished.

 

I’ve always wanted to tell stories, always been fascinated by the telling of them, and perhaps this is because I’ve imagined myself as part of one.  Perhaps the motive was as simple as wanting to fit in, allowing myself to be attached to narrative, telling stories to entertain but also to remind myself and contribute to a structure that felt controlled.  I recall roaming the playgrounds alone in order to re-enact scenes from various stories I’d imagined during class, which usually involved giant spiders taking over the earth and I, the one who owned tarantulas as pets, was the only boy who could rescue the school from the dangerous creatures that society simply didn’t understand.  “No, Carrie,” as I place my hand on her quivering lip, “They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.”  These stories generally involved me saving a girl from the monster or the more human monsters that we deemed “bullies,” ironically mimicking the very situation that I hoped would take place in order for my practiced and potential bravery to become something more kinetic.

In order to respond to my Mom’s calling to organize the massive amount of sentimental junk I had hoarded in her garage for almost three decades, I recently unearthed multiple boxes consisting of treasures the family had refused to part with before individually sorting first.  The goal was to decide what to keep and what to throw away, to determine which memories were worth saving for my storyline and which ones weren’t.  In this mass of bug-infested relics, I found drawings and journals from childhood on, outlining stories I had wanted to write but never had.  One of them was a sketch of a movie cover with a large spider outline placed neatly in the center.  Above it, the title: 8 LEGS.  Below it: STARRING Tommy Lee Jones and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  Other relics indicated a fascination with more age-appropriate movie stars: a flashlight I used to carry around my house in order to find E.T., and a toy jeep I would have used to determine my preferred methods of escape as a T-Rex attempted to eat my sister and I.  Whether creating them on paper, or imagining myself in them, story was my sport and though I couldn’t throw a ball to save my life, I could write myself into any situation and win.

There were also dozens of sketches for a theme park I had created in which my guests could live out the stories I would develop for them.  There were standard lands consisting of holiday themes (who wouldn’t want to live out Christmas all year long?), prehistoric worlds, and even a Space Mountain knockoff, all located around a giant sandcastle entrance to the park that everyone would enter by way of a large boardwalk.  It was designed so that guests felt as though they were exiting the world for a Narnia-like walk into a magical reality, leaving their cares behind.  I thought this escape an interesting concept at the time, though only one ticket was ever created, and that for a Doubting Thomas who verbally stomped on my dream during lunch.  The ticket I created for him is not redeemable for cash, but for one fond memory of what life was like before Reality, the academic synonym for Pessimism.

The memories reminded me that I once lived in a world of endless possibility.  Nothing concrete ever happened.  No life-changing choices were made, so there were always opportunities for new ones.  Difficulties in life remained ones that consisted of difficult decisions regarding which college to attend, which girl to date, or whether I should read my Bible or do homework in the morning.  Story was always possible, because even my greatest actions kept me internal, watching life from the inside of a barrel as it revealed various directions I could go, various outcomes that I could be a part of.  As the years passed by, I knew I still had choices and a future that was as bright, exotic or exciting as my imagination would allow.

 

 

Faith in God has lent itself heavily to feeling as though I am part of something much bigger, something planned, something pre-ordained.  Those concepts always acted, on some subconscious level at the very least, as synonyms for structure and order.  No matter what happened to me, there was a story arc consisting of exposition, rising and falling action, a climax and a denouement.  Every act in life, whether good or bad, lent itself to the massive collection of tales that made up who I was.

My stories always consisted of good triumphing over evil, and to the extent that I crafted various protagonists triumphing over some very immediate and thwarting sort of evil, that was what I not-so-subconsciously expected out of life.  My faith added to this controlled order: I was a priest, a warrior, a sufferer of injustice who would triumph in the end through Christ.  Suffering and pain were given meaning and direction.  Chaos was given honor, while any action of mine considered contrary to what was Right was given pardon.  The more I invested in this faith, and the more I invested in creativity and story, the more I expected the same out of my own life.

The Bible stories I grew up with were often depicted on flannel graphs in Sunday School.  A fuzzy Elephant and his wife, both smiling, make their way up the gangplank of Noah’s Ark, humming their way past the drip-drip-drip of the raindrops that begin their descent in order to drown the whole world.  A happy Daniel, renamed Balteshazzar by the Babylonians who had conquered and displaced him and his people, gleefully praises God as he is tossed in a den of hungry lions.  Joseph, sporting a colorful coat, accepts the actions of his murderous brothers and the lies of Potiphar’s wife, while visions of authority and power reside in his distant future. The backgrounds of these various stories consisted of pastels, soothing colors to calm the sugar-rushed nerves of our childhood veins.

What these didn’t give credit to was the lack of outcome these heroes of the Bible possessed in the moment.  Even now, I take the great faith of Abraham for granted, knowing that he set out on a seemingly fruitless journey with little knowledge of where he was going or why.  I excuse the sins of David, who suffered severe consequences but continued the line of Christ by his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.  I forget that even the greatest stories of the Bible are made up of men who are grappling with various hardships, and whose wavering faiths eventually led them to the stories we know today.  Even Hananiah, Meshael, and Azariah (renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego by the Babylonians) didn’t know the outcome of the their fate at the fiery furnace as they were being tossed into it: “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (ESV, Daniel 3:17-18)  The great Job, often hailed as simply faithful in the midst of the worst trials, spent thirty-four chapters questioning why he was even born, not knowing, in the middle of his story, why his fate seemed to be so bleak.  Whether considered True, true, or simply Fiction, what we don’t spend time considering while listening to these profoundly influential stories, is that these people did not know what we know now.  Even many of the prophets did not seem to know where their personal narrative was headed until it had already happened to them.  They were in the midst of story, but felt disconnected from it, not always knowing how their situations fit into the larger order of life.

 

 

I was sitting on the steps of our two-story home reading a book while my mom and brother were out running errands.  It was at night, and not long after they left, the doorbell rang.  I reasoned that it must have been one of my brother’s friends from the neighborhood, as none of mine would show up unannounced.  The bell rang, but I continued my story, entranced by the mystery of what the next few pages would hold.  After a few moments, the knocking stopped and I was able to continue on unhindered, probably holding the amount of pages I had left to finish the chapter I was on, a compulsive habit I’m still slave to today.

The knocking started up again, but this time louder.  I decided to get up and check the door, but by the time I approached the peephole, the knocker was gone.  Given my obsession with horror, my darker sensibilities replaced my instinct, and my imagination kicked in.  I reminded myself that this instinct had been proven wrong time and time again, so I sat on the stairs and reasoned with myself.  My mind filled the empty silence with the slamming of the door as a serial killer kicked it open with a chainsaw, sucking up all the potential energy that led to that moment in a mad, kinetic shrieking that meant my imminent death.  And then I reprimanded my foolish expectations, reminding myself that it was most likely the little, harmless blonde boy from down the street trying to reach my brother in order to play street hockey.  It wasn’t him.

The doorbell began ringing over and over again, while someone beat the door rapidly and violently.  I didn’t move, and the sound eventually stopped.  To describe how I felt would be a list of clichés one could find in any amateur beach read suspense novel, but it wasn’t long before my imagination grew to fruition and the side gate rattled.  Moments later, the beating that had previously taken place on my front porch was dealt out to my back door.

I ran upstairs to my dad’s closet.  Not knowing anything about guns, I took a shotgun out, glanced at the box of bullets on the top shelf, and hoped that one had already been loaded in the weapon I carried.  I called 911, frantically told them my address before abandoning the phone, and looked out of our second story window at an unrecognizable SUV parked in the driveway.  “These guys aren’t subtle,” I thought.  I wondered if perhaps my dad had more secrets than I knew, and if maybe some angry associate was here to collect.  I had never been clear about what he did for a living, and whenever asked, I would simply revert to mumbling words like mortgages, loans, speaking, manager, and travels a lot.  His job wasn’t simple like Fireman, Cop, Lawyer, Doctor, or Preacher.  His role in life was erratic, undefined, always changing, never satisfied.  This is why we moved so often, even if it was local.

I decided to hide in the back of my parent’s closet.  Gun in hand, I waited as the outsider attempted to break in.  I remember the blinding fear of knowing that my story may end sooner than expected.  I chastised myself for running upstairs like the doomed protagonists in the films I loved.  I remember making deals with God that I would never watch horror movies again, somehow making up for the few things I counted as sins up until then.  I wondered if I should run downstairs and confront the outsider with the shotgun I held, hoping he or she or they wouldn’t call my bluff.  Hoping they wouldn’t see my hands shaking and notice the inexperienced manner in which I held the gun.  Hoping that they would not figure out that the magazine was empty, and that my story was in fact theirs to determine.

The back door suddenly stopped moving.  Feeling like I was underwater, I waited to hear footsteps on the stairs.  I slowly moved the barrel to a position that faced the entrance of the closet, but no sound emitted from anywhere in the house.  Standing up, I fought the instinct to hope, believing it to be a snare in this sort of situation, a trap that allowed for foolish mistakes just before the protagonist was caught and brutally killed.  I allowed myself to catch my breath, to quietly stand, to move out of the closet, and to look through the window only to see a man talking to the police.

It was my dad.

I had felt foolish afterwards, but allowed myself some leeway, since I hadn’t seen my dad’s rental car prior to that night and hadn’t known he was coming home from his business trip so soon.  Of course, he felt terrible, so I apologized for the string of obscenities I had let out in relief as I came outside to explain the situation to the police.  His impatience had severely threatened my view of story, and had I known more about guns, could have prematurely ended his.

That night, crisis averted, I met my friends to go watch the re-make of Psycho.

 

 

My dad loved to fish.  He used to take me to the mountains and show me how to double up the worm at the end of a hook in order to make sure it stayed in place while floating in the water, slowly succumbing to its purpose, its sacrifice, its story.  I used to love fishing because it was the sort of sport that allowed multiple possibilities, both in result of the catch and in the aftermath of fires, food and fellowship.  Given his love for the sport, this was also a method of relating to my dad.

The older I got, however, the more I felt bad for the fish.  Sure, according to the Bible, they were meant for food.  But holding my breath for even thirty seconds was painful, and I couldn’t imagine what these fish must have suffered during their tormented minutes of writhing.  After all, every fish was someone’s friend, someone’s son or daughter.

So one fish, the last fish, I decided to have mercy on.  I caught it, took its hook out and let it writhe in the sand.  I knew we needed something to eat that night, so I decided that this one wasn’t going back in the water.  I quickly fished my Swiss Army knife out of my pocket and pulled out the largest blade of the many options I had.  It was now or never.

Like a human guillotine, I brought down the tiny blade again and again, surmising that a fish instantly without a head would be a happier fish than one without breath for an extended period of time.  Over and over again, I stabbed at the neck, realizing that I had never factored in the slippery scales and the undulating movement of a fish that now most likely would have preferred to be gasping for air than suffering its bloody fate under I, the Grand Inquisitor of fish.

After a few minutes, it was finished.  We ate, but I stopped fishing for good.

Twenty years later, on his deathbed, my dad said that the first thing he would do when he beat cancer would be to go fishing on a quiet lake.  No statement during that time affected me more than that.  I regretted the years of not fishing, of not spending more quality time with the man whom I was made after.  I watched him slowly writhe in pain for months before he decided to take his own life with one single bullet, performing the mercy killing for himself that nobody else could accomplish even if any of us had given up hope.  He was someone’s son.  He was my dad.

 

I met my friend Caleb for lunch two days before it happened.  I don’t remember how we ended the conversation, but I do remember telling him that I felt like the potential energy of my story was coming to an end, like an event was coming that would change me.  I told him that every unique incident that year had felt different somehow, like God was building me up to the climax of my personal story.  We talked about how my younger cousin had passed away exactly a year before, and how my dad had been given the news that he had contracted cancer only three months before.  Given these facts, my hindsight clairvoyance isn’t something to marvel at, but it is something to take note of.

My dad had already had brain surgery, lung surgery, and radiation treatment. He had been a motivational speaker, a leader in the local church, and an athlete.  Before the first surgery, he was upbeat and positive, open about his nerves but certain of his trust in God, in good, in story.  If he was to die, it would be God’s will, His plan.  It would leave, in the place of tragedy, something to be gained that would contribute to a triumphant denouement.  Even on the day I was at lunch discussing my fate, doctors said, despite the overabundance of conflicting medication and the lack of response and motor skills that now defined my dad’s condition, that he would make it.  They said things were “hopeful.”

On my way home that day, I decided to go out of my way to my parent’s house, where my dad was on bed rest, and drop off some paperwork that I had planned on delivering at the end of the week.  It wasn’t guilt or love that drove me to running this particular errand, but being task-oriented, I simply wanted to check this off of a list of things to do.  I remember very little about this visit, but I do remember that I hugged him and said, “Love you too, Dad,” before walking away.  Those were my last words to him.

Even though we told people it was cancer and still believe it was to a certain extent, a bullet was what ultimately ended my dad’s life.  This bullet’s story came unannounced, unexpected and in the quiet and stillness of the night.  Nobody heard it, but three hours later, its result began to spread like wildfire, cutting not only into its target destination, but directly through the storylines of all those affected.  When its potential was reached, the kinetic energy attained and its story revealed, its shell lay on the floor of my dad’s room that smelled of sickness.  That one, and the gun that discharged it, reside in bags in Downtown Fresno, waiting until their time expires and they are to be recycled, forgotten, dispersed.  It is perhaps this lack of tangible closure that led me to keep the lone bullet shell that was found on my floor, a morbid and almost sacrilegious reminder that story isn’t always east to interpret or organize into categories.  Story isn’t something you can list and manage easily, and if it is, perhaps it isn’t finished yet, or perhaps there’s little Truth to it.

 

 

Were it personified, a bullet can do all it wants in vain to push itself forward, and by lack of perspective, it can surely convince itself that perhaps it is making some progress towards the window it sees through all of its life.  Through one long, narrow passage, it sees a view that is and always has been its reality, and that reality can move.  Through a periscope of new images, it learns and grows in the context of the jacket it resides in until Something Greater moves it forward.  It can define the Something Greater in various ways, and will perhaps even be set in motion to justify its Greater.  At any rate, whether it is simply meant for a paper target or something more alive, and even if it misses, it has purpose.  And even if the wait from design to final destination is long, its story ends quickly once it is set in motion.

I imagine that when a bullet enters the human brain at close range, it doesn’t fragment, but condenses.  Of course, the outcome depends on the weight of the jacket, the length of the bullet, the length of the gun’s shaft, and the velocity and distance from target, but for the purpose of imagination, and for the lack of details I have or want to have, this is what I must know for the sake of understanding that which cannot be understood.  So everything smashes together but the bullet remains whole, though in a different form than it had been in when it remained in a position of potential energy.  When it becomes kinetic, it shows itself for what it is, its purpose made known, though perhaps not to it.  That bullet would travel, compelled by Something Greater, to leave one long, narrow passage for another.  One is cold, the other warm.  One could have aimed any direction, the other revealed all only by looking behind, as the potential has passed and the reality of life’s effect becomes evident in its journey.

 

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