From Mainstream 12, copyright 1987 by Jerry Kaufman and Suzanne Tompkins; reprinted by permission of the author.
In August of 1985 I went running on the beach at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon. The Sun was low and red and I muzzily watched the crumbling, thumping waves. I was running barefoot on the sand. I paid no attention to the small crowd forming up ahead and so when the first shot came it took me completely by surprise. I saw the teenagers scattering and the man in his twenties poking the small silvery gun at them, yelling something I couldn't make out. I wondered if the gun was loaded with blanks because it wasn't very loud. The man started swearing at a kid near me who was moving to my right, and I was still automatically running the same way so when the second shot came I was just behind the kid and the round went tssiiip! by my head.
Not blanks, no. I did the next hundred meters in about ten seconds, digging into the sand and turning to look back only once. A third thin splatting sound followed me up the beach but no screams, just more swearing from the man who was backing up the gray concrete stairs and trying to keep the pack of kids from following him. I stood a hundred meters away and watched him fire one last time, not trying to hit anyone now but just keep them at bay, and then he turned and ran up the remaining stairs and onto the street beyond.
I ran back and asked the kids what had happened and got a lot of conflicting stories. Then I ran on down the beach and at main beach in Laguna saw a cop. I started to tell him what had happened and he said he had been sent down there to block this route, since the police were trying to track the man down in the streets. It was evidently a drug deal gone bust and the kids had started jazzing him around and he got mad.
Walking home, I thought about Churchill's saying, that there was nothing as exhilarating as being shot at and missed. I felt a touch of that, and remembered a similar time-compressing moment in June. I had been visiting my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, and with my father was on the way to the reception after that morning's church service. It was a mild sunny day in Fairhope, Alabama, and I was lazily breathing in the pine scent as my father stopped at a stop sign. He started off and from the corner of my vision I saw a sudden movement. It was a car that a nearby telephone junction box had hidden from view, coming from the right at 40 miles per hour. I yelled, "Dad stop!" and he hit the brake and the other car smashed into our front end. Our seat belts restrained us but somehow coming forward I smacked my head into the roof of the car. Getting out, I realized dimly that if my father had not stomped down on the brake they would have come in on my side of the car and probably through the door. It was that close. The other people were more shaken up than we were. The woman was driving without shoes, the car was borrowed, and she had broken her hand when their car went off the road and into a shallow ditch. My father took it all quite mildly and it seemed to me I could smell the pine trees even stronger now. The surge of mixed fear and elation came as I paced around, looking at the smashed cars.
In late September I was making my final plans to go to India when I developed pains in my stomach, high up. My children had the same symptoms, a standard flu that was going around, so I stayed in bed a few days and expected it to go away. I had to fly to northern California for a conference on Friday. On Thursday I was doing pretty well, running a little fever, though the pain had moved down some. I was getting used to it and it didn't seem so bad. My plane tickets were ready and I picked them up. I went into the university and was sitting in my office at noon when the pain got a lot worse. I couldn't stand up. It was pretty bad for half an hour. I called a doctor near the university and made an appointment for two o'clock and waited out the pain. It subsided by one o'clock and I began to think things were going to be okay, that I could still travel. But in the doctors' office I showed an elevated white count and a fever and some dehydration. When she poked my right side it hurt more. She thought it might be appendicitis and that I should go to an emergency room nearby. I thought she was making too much of it and wanted some mild pain suppressors so I could fly the next day but on the other hand thought it might be good to check into matters. I wanted to go to the hospital in Laguna, where I knew a few doctors. She started to call an ambulance but I was pumped up by then and went out and got into my car and drove very fast into Laguna, skating fast down the canyon road. I stopped at home to tell Joan and she drove me into the emergency room.
It was the real thing of course and soon enough I was watching the fluorescent lights glide by as the anesthetist pushed me into the operating room. He said I must have a high tolerance for pain because the appendix was obviously swollen and sensitive. I asked him how quickly the drugs took effect, he said, "well...," and then I was staring at the ceiling of my hospital room and it was several hours later.
I had a good night, slept well. In the morning my doctor told me his suspicions had been right, that when the pain got bad in my office it had been my appendix bursting. By the time they opened me up the stuff had spread. I asked to see the appendix and they brought it up to me later, a red lumpy thing with white speckles all over the top of it. I asked what they were and the aide said casually, "Oh, that's gangrene. It's riddled with the stuff."
The doctor said there was a 60% chance the antibiotics would not take out the gangrene that had spread throughout my lower abdomen so of course I figured I would be in the lucky 40%. By the early hours of the next morning, Saturday, I knew I was wrong. I became more and more feverish. I had stood up and walked around in the afternoon but when the night nurse tried it with me again I couldn't get to my feet. I was throwing up vile sour stuff and the orderly was talking to me about inserting some tubes and then the tube was going in my nose and down my throat and a bottle nearby was filling with brown bile, lots of it, a steady flow.
I couldn't sleep, even with the drugs. There was talk about not giving me too many drugs for fear of suppressing my central nervous system too much, which didn't make much sense to me, but then, little did. Things began to run together. The doctor appeared around 6:30 and said the antibiotics weren't working, my white count was soaring. A man came by and reminded me to use the plastic tube with a ball in it that the nurse had given me the day before. You blew into it and kept a ball in the air and that was to exercise your general respiration. It seemed dumb to me, I could breathe fine, but I did it anyway and asked for some breakfast. I wasn't getting any, they were feeding me from the array of bottles going into my IV, and wouldn't give me more than ice chips to suck on.
There were more people around by that time and I realized blearily that this was very much like the descriptions in a short story of mine written a decade before, "White Creatures," and what these quickly moving white-smocked beings were doing was just as incomprehensible to me as it had been to the character in that story. My fever was climbing a degree every two hours and Joan was patting my brow with a cool cloth and I wanted some food. I didn't see how they could expect a man to get better if they didn't feed him. All they did was talk about stuff I couldn't follow very well, they spoke too fast, and added more bottles to the antibiotic array. They started oxygen but it didn't clear my head any. My IV closed off from vascular shock. A man kept punching my arms, trying to find a better way in and it hurt so I told him to knock it off if he couldn't do better.
Then they were tilting me back so the doctor could put a subclavial tube in close to my heart. It would monitor the flow there and provide a big easy access for the IV. Then I was wheeling beneath the soft cool fluorescents again and was in a big quiet room that was in the Intensive Care Unit. I laid for a time absolutely calm and restful and realized I was in trouble. The guy with the breathing tube and the ball was gone but the nurses made me do it anyway, which still struck me as dumb because I wasn't going to stop breathing, was I? If they would just give me some food I would get better.
But after the gusts of irritation passed I saw in a clear moment that I was enormously tired. I hadn't slept in the night and the tubes in my nose tugged at me when I moved. They had slipped a catheter into me, surprisingly painless, and I felt wired to the machines around me, no longer an independent entity but rather a collaboration. If I lay still with my hands curled on my chest I could maybe rest and if I could do that I could get through this and so I concentrated on that, on how blissful it felt after the nurse gave me another injection of morphine, how I could just forget about the world and let the world worry about me instead.
I woke in the evening and then the next morning the doctor startled me awake by saying that I was better. They had called in more exotic antibiotics and those had stopped the fever's rise, leveling it off at 105 degrees, where it held steady for a day and then slowly eased off. The room was still prickly with light but Joan came and I found her presence calming. I listened to tapes on my Sony and every hour or so called for an injection and lifted off the sheets and spun through airy reaches, Mozart on morphine, skimming along the ceilings of rooms where well dressed people looked up at me with pleased expressions, interrupted as they dined on opulent plates of veal and cauliflower and rich pungent sauces, rooms where I would be again sometime, among people whom I knew but had no time for now, since I kept flying sedately along the softly lit yellow ceilings, above crimson couches and sparkling white tablecloths and smiles and mirth. Mozart had understood all of this and saw in this endless gavotte a way to loft and sweep and glide, going, to have ample ripe substance without weight.
When the doctor took the stitches out a week later he said casually, "Y'know, you were the closest call I've had in a year. Another twelve hours and you would've been gone."
In November I went to India anyway. I hadn't fully recovered but it seemed important to not let the calm acceptance of mortality I had now deflect me from life itself. My fear of death was largely gone. It wasn't any more a fabled place, but rather a dull zone beyond a gossamer-thin partition. Crossing that filmy divider would come in time but for me it no longer carried a gaudy, supercharged meaning. And for reasons I could not express a lot of things seemed less important now, little busynesses. People I knew were more vital to me and everything else seemed lesser, peripheral--including writing.
In Agra I arose at dawn to see the Taj Mahal by the rosy first glow. It shimmered above the gardens, deceptively toylike until you realized how huge the pure curved white marble thing was. The ruler who built it to hold his dead wife's body had intended to build a black Taj also, across the river which lies behind. He would lie buried there, a long arcing bridge linking the two of them. But his son, seeing how much the first Taj cost, confined his father to a red sandstone fort a mile away for the last seven years of his life. There the old man lay on a bed and watched the Taj in a mirror in his last days.
On the broad deck behind the Taj the river ran shallow since it was two months after the monsoon. On the right was a bathing spot for devotees. Some were splashing themselves with river water, others doing their meditation. To the left was a mortuary. The better off inhabitants of Agra had their bodies burned on pyres and then the lot was tossed into the river. If one could not afford the pyre, then after a simple ceremony the body was thrown off the sandstone quay and onto the mud flats or into the water if the river was high. This was usually done in early morning.
By the glimmering dawn radiance I watched buzzards picking apart something on the flats. They made quick work of it, deftly tearing away the cloth, and in five minutes had picked matters clean. They lost interest and flapped away. The Taj coasted in serene eternity behind me, its color subtly changing as the sun rose above the trees, its cool perfect dome glowing, banishing the shadows below. Somehow in this worn alien place everything seemed to fit. Death just happened. From this simple fact came India's inertia. I thought of Mozart and heard a faint light rhythm, felt myself skimming effortlessly over a rumpled brown dusty world of endless sharp detail and unending fevered ferment, and watched the buzzards and the bathers and felt the slow sad sway of worlds apart.