The Ones That Never Knock
The ninth and final time they fire me from my job at the Fox Theater, my friend Danny turns up in the lobby to ask if I want to go with him to visit his brother Dave’s family in the mountains, spend a couple of weeks up there. I’m nineteen, out of a job, and out of ideas– lighting out for the mountains sounds like a great thing to do.
Danny’s brother Dave is a policeman, and Dave’s wife is someone I can talk with all night long. I was fifteen the first time I’d gone with Danny to stay for a month with them, and we’d returned for several more summer visits. Now, as we make the long drive up, Danny tells me that we’ll be staying in a camper parked in Dave’s spacious back yard. He tells me that he’s decided to become a policeman, like his brother Dave. When we were twelve, we’d all wanted to be cops, Danny and me and all of our friends– blame it on Robert Blake as “Baretta.” But now we’re nineteen, and Danny is completely serious.
When we finally arrive, it’s late at night and Dave is annoyed: he’d arranged for Danny to go out with him on patrol, and they pretty much have to leave right away. Danny shows me the small camper we’ll be staying in– I’ll sleep in the bed on the floor; the back wall has a curtained off area that hides a raised cavity where Danny will sleep.
It’s been a long day; I get into the tiny bed and eventually fall asleep. When I wake up, the entire camper is shaking– I open my eyes in the dark and hear the sounds of a terrible struggle; harsh exhalations of breath, the impact and friction of total mayhem– I get up and face the curtained wall from where the noise is coming, a battle to the death in there, and I can’t think of what to do; “Okay, stop it,” I shout, “I’ve got a gun!” but the pummeling continues, and I reach my hands past the curtain into the dark and catch hold of thrashing limbs, gathering as much bulk as possible before pulling straight forward, bringing my friend Danny crashing to the floor, his blanket wrapped around his neck, his hands gripping both ends of the blanket.
“Jesus, Danny,” I say. There’s the reek of whiskey pouring off of him, and as my fingers find the overhead light, I see that he’s pale as chalk, harsh red around his eyes. “Jesus,” I further intone, helping him undo the knot of blankets at his neck. Much lighting of cigarettes and preliminary stammerings follow before Danny fills me in on the night he’s just had, a night which had culminated in Dave taking a call from the dispatcher about a man who’d killed himself in his home, alone; when he and Danny had arrived at the scene, Dave had decided that Danny should fingerprint the corpse. And then they’d gone out drinking. And then they’d come home. And then Danny had met up with the fingerprinted man at the bottom of a horrible dream.
There’s a moment of complete disconnection here, at this point. I’ve known Danny since we were both nine years old; neither of us has ever been nearer to a dead person than at a church funeral; I’m suddenly aware of the great distance my friend has traveled while I’ve laid fitfully sleeping, but I lack the ability to catch up to where he is now. Except to say that I’m right here, and he can tell me whatever he needs to, and we can go from there…
Danny wants to go back to bed now, and he does; I ask him to keep the curtain open, but he slides it back in place as if he hasn’t heard me. My mind is full of lurid visuals from his story, fueled by the seething afterburn of bad adrenaline. I turn on the nightlight next to my bed and find the Richard Bach paperback, Illusions, I’d purchased at the grocery store some hours previous along with our other provisions. Illusions: The Adventures Of A Reluctant Messiah. I read every word of it that night, finding in it what I need most: a sense of spiritual well-being; of sane, calm, human balance and equilibrium. It’s a book I’ll purchase for many of my friends in the years that follow for their own darkest nights…
I finish the book and turn off the light, wondering how long until dawn, thinking the word “home” over and over again, noticing for the first time its similarity to the meditative word “Om”… How am I going to break it to Danny that I’m ready to go home after just one night? Sleep comes eventually, and when I wake up late in the morning, Danny tells me we’ll be going home now; I tell him I think it’s a capital notion. I’ve barely gotten to speak to Dave’s wife and Dave is already back at work; Danny and I eat some hastily scrambled eggs and drink many cups of coffee, and then we’re off; we’re out of there for what turns out to be the final time.
On the road, Danny expresses shame for his own reaction to the events of the night; I excoriate Dave’s shitty judgement in having Danny jump into the deepest end of the pool so soon in his apprenticeship– I can’t tell if it makes Danny feel better to hear it, or if it only makes him feel more isolated with his newly acquired burden; he’s decided not to become a policeman after all… was that how Dave wanted this to turn out?
Later that night at home, on my own, I put on a recently purchased Songs Of Leonard Cohen album and play it repeatedly while I draw Cohen’s portrait from the photo on the cover. I disappear, disappear, disappear into the music and into my drawing. In the months that follow, I’ll receive literature in the mail advertising the Colorado Institute of Art and never know how I got on their mailing list, but I’ll end up enrolling there, and my future will largely be connected to that; Danny will marry his high school sweetheart and go to work for the city we were born in, for a while driving around as a “water cop”– keeping an eye out for violators of water restrictions during the long, dry summers that see us drift further and further from each other and into the new chapters of our lives.
But there’s a darkness to that final night in the mountains that seems bereft of any light save the one we were able to give each other, and a bottomless despair that neither of us will forget, that marks the point where our teenage years came to a sudden end and our lives as young men began; mine was met at the gate by the words of Richard Bach and Leonard Cohen; I can only hope my friend Danny met up with equivalent counsel at some point…
Jul 10, 2009