In a nearby town, late at night, a woman plays her stereo louder and longer than her neighbors can bear. At last, they call the police.
The woman who has cranked three hours of CDs is drunk and uncooperative, no surprise to the police, but she also owns snakes, and when the police enter her home, intending to subdue her, she uses them as a weapon, hissing “Back off” as she brandishes her copperheads, two in each hand, like automatic weapons.
The situation becomes a stand-off. They were responding to a simple disturbing the peace complaint, but now the two policemen keep their distance for a curse-filled hour.
Other police arrive. The call’s description of the stalemate has made them curious, and finally the room is dotted with uniforms.
Though religion isn’t a force in that room, the woman repeating blasphemies, she has the faith of those churchgoers who decide which of them is saved by their ease with snakes. Her pets, naturally, are leery of the small congregation of law.
Finally, she’s bitten, and more than once. She disarms herself by dropping the snakes back under glass. “It wasn’t surrender,” she’s quoted in the next day’s newspaper’s account. “Just a truce.”
“You own snakes like mine, you learn your poisons,” she says. “I knew I could still be saved, and those cops, they listened to me as if they’d accidentally shot me.”
One of those policemen agreed that even with that woman reduced from criminal to patient, he, at least, kept a space between himself and her as if she might lunge and strike. “Self-defense,” the woman says. “That’s all it was I was doing.”
For self-defense, my mother recommended the power of positive thinking. Until I reached sixth grade, she read passages to me from books and magazines about believing in myself, how it improved the immune system of both the body and the mind, keeping sickness and sin at bay.
“Hush now,” my mother would say. “Headaches are no worse than pimples. Get busy. Forget the pain.” She worked and drank coffee to subdue hers, swallowing the home treatments of busyness and caffeine.
At my grandmother’s house, in the living room where there was a television, something we didn’t own during that time, my mother arranged chairs from the kitchen like three pieces of a straight-backed pew. My sister and I filed in behind her with reverence, because on Sunday nights Bishop Fulton Sheen would take half an hour to improve us.
“Life is worth living,” he repeated, sounding just like the minister I’d listened to ten hours earlier. Like a teacher, he wrote words and phrases on a backboard: Self-confidence breeds self-improvement; eternal success is heaven’s joy.
Didn’t I see, my mother would say, that the best self-defense was faith? That I could influence eternity by heeding Christ? When I closed my eyes I saw the shows my friends had told me I was missing on other channels. While Bishop Sheen flourished his robed arms into a brief drama of blessing, I thought of the bus ride to school the following morning, the chatter of my friends, and how I would look out the window as if anything that might be seen along Route 8 was more interesting than a summary of jokes and crime-solving from the night before.
In 1957, the army produced The Big Picture, a program for television to lessen the fears of the public about nuclear explosions. My family owned a television now, and we watched.
The Big Picture unrolled like a group photograph from summer camp. It said dusk on the desert is a reflective time, this particular one, perhaps, a bit more than most. It said the awesome was ready and able, but in the minds of some men, fundamental questions remained.
The Big Picture showed a chaplain who preached the gospel of a fireball ascending into heaven. I listened as he said the cloud had all the rainbow’s rich colors before it turned into a beautiful pale yellow mushroom.
The Big Picture silenced us and held our breath. It turned so bright we remembered staring at the sun.
The Big Picture argued that the right answer for safety near the blast was wearing regular clothes. It wanted men exposed to the pressure of a forced, post-blast march. It followed those men to Ground Zero and assured us the soldiers were adequately informed.
The Big Picture went to commercial when the men lost composure. It stayed mum about terror. Like Jesus, it taught us we needn’t be afraid.
Because it was something the weak did, the first time I used an inhaler I heard my father criticizing a boy who wheezed in church until he was led, at last, from a front pew by his mother’s hand.
I could see Sharon Rogers at the dance she invited me to in eighth grade, her pale skin and her beige-colored inhaler, the first I ever saw. She made me think of the girls Poe wrote about, the beauty of someone young and vulnerable. My father, when I recounted the evening, said nobody, as Sharon had told me, could be allergic to dust. “How could you live?” he said. “It’s everywhere, like air.”
Because my own three children were young, a night light was on in the bathroom where I stood holding the plastic tube like a handgun I might press against my temple. My breath whistled its warning of possible silence, yet I spent another minute examining my dim self in the mirror to mark who I’d become at thirty-eight, someone who relied on medicine for self-defense, someone ashamed of his dependence.
At last, I inhaled that mist, holding it in my lungs, repeating the dose twice for relief. I walked barefooted through the drawn-drape darkness of my living room, daring the furniture to be out of place or toys scattered like tacks on the floor. I could hear my father repeating “Sick days” like a synonym for shit. I believed my future, now, was warm and small, waiting in a thicket for darkness because there was nothing worse than weakness.
A swarm of ants had somehow materialized on the counter by our kitchen sink. My mother said she would explain, “Just this once, so listen,” giving advice on keeping ants at bay:
It’s too late now, but ants have cucumber allergies. Bits of skin will clear the places where they swarm.
It’s too late now, but ants hate chalk. They will seldom cross a thick line that circles around something that you love.
A little lemon juice can be a moat. See how I’m soaking the doorway and the window sill?
But now that somebody’s let them in, soak this sponge in sugar water. Leave it on this plate while I heat some water. It won’t be long before those ants congregate like pigs. See? Let them do exactly that before you use these tongs to pick up that sponge and plunge it into the boiling water.
You’re not finished. Wash that sponge out and wring it hard. Begin again. There are always stragglers.
You know what ants do? They point out our carelessness, a crowd of them teeming where dessert was dropped, a bit so tiny some people don’t bend for it. Something like pennies on the sidewalk, so little to be gained some people leave them like litter. Think about that. And make sure you don’t forget these old remedies I’m handing down. The ants will stay outside where they belong.
Like oatmeal, spinach, and bread crusts, blunt talk put hair on your chest and grew the muscles you needed to take care of business. It separated heroes from cowards, and Coach Czak used it like an open hand, clapping boys who took a charge on the back, saying “Hell, yes,” to the players who earned floor burns diving for loose balls.
Blunt talk was Coach Czak saying, “Having that time of the month?” when someone was tired. He was getting us ready for the world or the army where, either way, blunt talk would show us exactly where we stood. In business, the hesitant were losers; in Vietnam, the cowardly would get you killed. The 1960s were ripe, but we weren’t, not yet, and Coach Czak would help us grow. “Just wait,” he promised, “When we’re finished here, you’ll all be different,” and we were, clearing our throats for the first barrage of blunt talk, trying it out on the weak and quiet, ready to work our way up like boxers, ready to be serious contenders.
In college, one night, a friend told me I needed to learn the self-defense of boxing. “With a mouth like yours, somebody’s always going to want to pound your face,” he said, and I had to agree.
I was a trash-talker in basketball. I yammered condescending insults at strangers who struck me as pretentious or stupid. In short, I was a fool for obnoxious phrases, and yet he sensed that I was, in short, “a pussy.”
We were alone in the recreation room of our fraternity house. He handed me a set of padded gloves. I was taller than he was by three inches, but he outweighed me by twenty-five pounds. With those gloves loosely tied on my hands, I felt like Stick-Man.
He showed me jabs and hooks, weight-shift and how to bob and weave and keep my arms in and hands high. “Go ahead,” he said, “try to hit me. I’ll give you a little while before I fight back.”
It seemed like an easy lesson, my friend just backing off a step or moving from side to side, gloves up and absorbing all of my half-hearted punches, all of them right-handed. “You have a left hand,” he said, pointing out the obvious. I threw another right, discouraged, beginning to prepare a short speech full of promises to practice keeping my mouth shut.
He deflected that punch and said, “You ready to block now?” I nodded, trying to mimic what I’d just seen him do. I didn’t even see the first hook. I hadn’t thought about anybody using his left hand for anything but jabs and defense.
Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. The rhythm of his punches against my head came with the comic book sound of World War II machine guns. I was suddenly afraid he wouldn’t stop until I went down, and then, holding my breath, I covered my face with my forearms and abandoned the soft parts of my body.
I was pounded. I was slammed. I was hammered. There was a dog whistle trilling in my head. I took two steps back and was thrilled when he didn’t follow so I could work the gloves loose and let them drop to the floor. “You can’t close your eyes like that,” he said. “You can’t hold your hands like that and expect to live.”
I wanted to say something interesting and settled for “Screw this.” The headache he gave me lasted two full days.
Once, the father of a girl I was dating led me outside of the house he owned that had six times the floor space of my parents’ house to explain the advantages of natural security. “Some people use beehives along their borders,” he said. “Some have tried seven-scent mint because it releases a powerful smell when stepped on by anybody who’s trespassing,” making me understand that the gated driveway was the only acceptable entrance.
He told me there were 4.7 acres he could call his own. He showed me around, describing what he owned, and guided me, finally, toward what I took to be the outermost edge of his property because there was a wall of head-high hedges. “Touch these,” he said, showing me the stiletto thorns. “Look how thick,” he said, and I took his word, seeing nothing beyond the tightly clustered leaves and branches.
“People who need protection should look into trifoliate orange,” he said. “It grows to twenty feet if you let it, a wall so thick it stops a jeep.”
I touched one four-inch spike and didn’t mention the time, when, eleven years-old and running after dark, I sprawled, hands flailing, into the ordinary waist-high hedge of a neighbor. I had scratches but nothing near my eyes, a sprained ankle, but not a shattered leg. And I had time, lying there, to note the wire strung calf-high a foot from that well-maintained hedge, as if whoever lived behind it and its sparse, small thorns expected boys like me to run through his bushes, as if he owned a country so valuable there were invaders perpetually ready to cross that border.
The one time I hitchhiked with a girl we were offered rides more quickly than I’d ever received them on my own. I was in graduate school. She was eighteen, a freshman, who I’d told over a pitcher of the 3.2 beer she could legally drink in Ohio, that hitching was the way I got back and forth to Pittsburgh where, by coincidence, she had a boyfriend she wanted to see.
Returning from our weekend trip, it had taken six rides to approach Columbus, so it was a relief when, as twilight settled in and we climbed into the back of a car, that the two men in the front seat said they were going to Kentucky, meaning this ride would take us almost a hundred miles and leave us at an exit less than half an hour from Oxford.
I relaxed and watched the landscape turn rural as it rolled by in the gathering darkness. After it became too dark to see much of anything off to the side, I began to drift until the radio skidded up to near roar level. I sat up, recognizing Led Zeppelin just as the driver jerked his head around and said, “This tune gets me going.”
I nodded, but the girl I was with suddenly looked apprehensive, as if the radio’s volume signaled something threatening, and for the first time I calculated the difference between one man and two in the front seat of a strange car.
When the Zeppelin song ended, the car began to slow, and a moment later we were rolling onto an exit ramp that looked remote, not even a gas station waiting near the upcoming stop sign. “What’s out here?” I managed to croak.
The driver swiveled almost completely, and this time, grinning, he said, “Dinner. The best hamburger you’ll ever eat.”
He rolled through the stop sign, accelerating at once onto a two-lane that twisted into forest. “Pictures of Lily,” a song by The Who that was supposed to be about masturbation came on, but I searched along the floor with my shoes, hoping to touch something heavy and hard. I needed a weapon, and that car was immaculate with emptiness. The fingers of the girl’s right hand dug into my thigh. She was staring over the driver’s shoulder, reading, I imagined, the speedometer for the first small increment of deceleration.
The thought came to me that these guys might shoot me before they raped and strangled that girl. My next thought was that there would be a moment as the car slowed down when that girl and I could open our respective doors and throw ourselves out, getting to our feet and running. That might save me, but I couldn’t imagine the girl outrunning them.
The woods thickened, trees running right down to the shoulder. Before long, I became certain there would be a dirt road turning off, and I’d know where I was going to die. I searched along the floor with my hand as if something valuable had escaped the notice of my shoe. I wondered if she carried a curling iron in her small, overnight bag that sat on the seat between us, whether my set of three keys might be fashioned into a weapon.
“Eight Miles High” came on the radio, the Byrds at speaker-threatening volume. I had the record in my apartment. The guy in the shotgun seat turned and stared back at us so pointedly that the girl brought her arms up in front of her breasts. “Isn’t this the greatest song ever?” the man said.
I saw a break in the woods, a turn off, and I braced myself, watching for what would be in the man’s hand when he lifted it higher than the back of the seat. The car slowed. I could hear the girl’s breathing as she strangled my thigh. I tried to focus.
And then the car drifted by the turn off, rounding a bend to where a diner sat back off the road within a grove of trees. The driver pulled in and said, “Here we are,” leaving the motor run until the Byrds were finished. “Perfect,” the shotgun seat man said. “Absolutely perfect.”
I had to agree. I was as happy as I’d ever been, and I climbed out and followed them, pausing only when I was in the doorway to look back to where the girl stood near the car like a small child who’d been hoping for McDonald’s.
The driver waved her on. The three of us waited until she walked toward us. Fifteen minutes later I was relaxed over what proved to be an excellent hamburger complete with cheese, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce.
When we finally arrived in Oxford, that girl didn’t say anything except, “Do you remember what those men looked like or what they were wearing?”
I was quiet for a moment as she slapped the overnight bag against the side of her leg. “No,” I said. I could name every song that played on the radio and what both men had ordered on their hamburgers, but I didn’t remember anything about them except they were clean-shaven and white.
“You acted like you were happy while you were eating,” she said. “What did you think, that those guys were our friends?” Her look let me know she’d decided I was a fool. As she walked into her dorm, her tight jeans made me remember the exact shape of her thighs and hips. I never saw her again.
This morning I read the instruction for how to rid your house of ghosts. To begin, it said, politely, but firmly, ask them to leave. They’re not to blame for loitering. Convince each one that the physical world is no place to hide from elder spirits who will, with time, forgive their sins.
The ghosts of your family are docile, except those who died young. Naturally, they are quick to anger. Don’t you be angry too. They’ll feed on it. Likewise, don’t show fear. Ghosts are animals who smell opportunity in weakness.
No luck? Try smudging. Open the windows in each room and walk holding a pot of burning sage throughout. Tell them, “Spirits leave.” If you’re embarrassed, professionals will do this for a fee.
Listen, there’s reason for their restlessness. You may have outlived some of the ones you know by fifty years, so they’re rightfully sick of your breathing and the terrible leisure of language. All your uneventful days are enough to anger anyone. If it wasn’t for knowing that horror is a certainty, they would bury their phantom teeth in you. Safety is as tenuous as cupping the groin against fists and knees. What matters is believing in your words. When the house feels empty, bless it in the name of God.
During my first semester of college teaching, I had a student who was a Vietnam veteran. He wrote a stunning essay about being ambushed and surviving while dozens of his comrades were killed. It was 1969. I was using my new job to avoid the draft, and I didn’t say a word to him about my snotty anti-war attitude about Vietnam.
A few years later, shortly after I was old enough to store my draft card in a drawer as a souvenir, the local newspaper carried a story about a son killing his father in self-defense. The father ran a karate school. He was a certified and much-decorated expert, and he had seen to it that his son was an expert as well. When their argument went out of control, they fought, using all of their karate skills, and the son, the student who’d written that essay, had finally strangled his father with nunchucks because, he explained, “My father would have done the same to me.”
I reread the story as if I could discover something I’d missed about what sort of disagreement would lead to a father and son fighting hand-to-hand to the death. According to the story, they’d battled for nearly an hour because their mastery of self-defense was so evenly matched.
By then I had a wife, an infant son, and a small house that was surrounded by nothing more than rhododendron bushes. I felt so smug in the safety of sitting with a newspaper and a cup of coffee that I walked to where the two of them were sleeping and listened to all of us breathing.
Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of The Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.