There was a story in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago about some weird horrible shit that’s been going on in the hills of Malibu and here’s one particular anecdote that I’ve been recounting to people:
A guy goes camping in the hills of Malibu because he wants to commune with nature for a while. So he goes up on a rock, way way out there, and he sets up a hammock. He starts dozing in the hammock. He slings an arm over his face to block out the light of the stars and the moon and after sleeping for a couple hours he wakes up to a sound that he can’t identify. When he wakes up he finds that his arm is slick with blood and when he looks at his tricep he sees a constellation of tiny punctures.
Now: What he also knows, apart from general camping stuff, is that there’s a certain kind of bat that hangs out in Mexico and sometimes wanders up into California. This bat is nothing to fuck with.
And these punctures on his tricep look like they mighta come from that bat.
So he goes to the ER and the doctors are kinda baffled but they say sure, let’s treat you for rabies.
The rabies treatment is brutal, but he endures it, cuz you can take preventative measures against rabies but, like a big dog’s bite, it doesn’t let go once it’s got you. You’re a goner.
But so our camper gets the treatment and he goes home and his life carries on as usual. The little punctures on his arm are beginning to heal but he’s noticing that they’re turning dark around the edges. Like a bruise blooming on the skin.
Then one day he’s playing with his young kid and when he bends his arm really fast he feels a pinch in his tricep, and hears a little noise.
He’s bleeding suddenly, and there’s a strange piece of metal on the floor.
He goes to the hospital for an x-ray: turns out there’s like a dozen pieces of birdshot in his tricep.
Somebody walked up to his hammock while he was sleeping and tried to shoot him in the face.
It’s a fucking crazy horrible story, as surreal and gripping as any urban legend except that it’s real.
But here’s the thing: it has commandeered my imagination. I’m thinking about it constantly. Both in terms of dread, because of the cruel American reality that you cannot go to any single place on any given day without contending with the high probability that someone will shoot you in the face (the movies, the grocery store, the concert, the office party, the high school and middle and elementary school, the college classroom, the mall–it’s everywhere), but it’s also a brilliantly swervy story, this camper’s saga. So well-told in the article. I like to tell it to people and see their face shift when we get to the big reveal at the end.
Occasionally, though, I’ll tell the story to someone, or to a pair of someones, and they just look at me flat. Like, “Why would you bring that up?”
Part of it is that I’m always enthused when I wanna tell this story, awful though it is.
It makes total sense that everyone around me is just as burdened by the horrors of an American news cycle and they don’t need or want to hear about anything else that’s horrible. It makes sense and there’s no real reason to take it personally.
But it’s occasionally pretty isolating.
Take for instances My Good Friend Pavel Klein: he’s a sensitive guy like myself except he wears it on his sleeve a little more openly and one of our biggest bonding points is that we’re both interested in stories. Good stories. However they’re told. So I can break a silence in our workday by slapping my palm on the desk and saying, “Holy shit! I forgot to tell you!” and then I’ll recount some fascinating but totally miserable thing I just saw on reddit, or that somebody told me at the bar the night before.
And with My Friend Pavel Klein, the same thing always happens: he emotes appropriately at the story, grimaces at the end, digests what I’ve just told him…and then he’ll moan. A noise of bereavement. And he’ll concede that it’s interesting but he’ll ask if I really needed to tell him that before lunch. Like, immediately before he goes to eat.
Hearing it from Pavel isn’t alienating because I know that he sees at least where I’m coming from and he understands how this little anecdote or piece of trivia rubs some shading into my view of something. Some big system or something.
But I’m wondering why I’m so interested in these awful stories to begin with.
Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: I hear some story that reaffirms whatever horrible impressions I might have about life or humanity but instead of dwelling on the horror of the story, I celebrate the skill of its telling. Or its narrative potential. How I might use it.
Like picking up broken glass and using it to play with the light.