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Shot In The Head

  • Fiction by D.V. Glenn

You are here again, Jarrid, in this déjà vu of darkness, the ambient diapason of voices snarling with testosterone and booming through powerful high-tech speakers. Your ears throb with a chorus of tires shrieking like a bow sliding sideways over violin strings, your eyes riveted to geysers of metal and flame as cars collide and their collisions produce a gritty midnight of smoke and fumes. You can taste soot and gasoline coating your tongue and as a countermeasure you suck short bursts of Sprite up through your straw, your throat muscling the prickly liquid down. Everything is a rich tangle of cuts and dissolves and close-ups and dizzying pans, intestines of images almost spilling glossily into your lap as though the screen were a stomach split open. You slump low in the seat, letting this putty of relentless action smear itself into the holes and cracks and craters in the graffiti-strewn wall of your life. You’ve seen this movie twice and you don’t even remember the names of the actors, even though they’re mega-stars who are household names. You don’t care about that. What you want is what’s at the heart of the stories themselves, which is pure potential and possibility.

In the same way that you’re able to clearly see the workings of fate in the lives of characters on the screen, you conclude that your own life, from an different vantage point, must too display a pattern. The observer of the pattern in your life isn’t God but something closer to a cosmic motion picture camera, far enough away to take in the entire picture, see where everything is headed, see the end of the story. Without the cosmic motion picture camera, Jarrid, the story sinks into darkness. You’re certain that if the motion picture camera had been invented thousands of years ago, there would have been no need to invent God.

Of course that’s not the way you would explain it because you’ve decided that explaining yourself is too much trouble. You know what the right words are, it’s just that putting them together requires too much energy. You always struggled to get passing grades in English, even though your composite score on the Stanford-Binet IQ test was nearly two standard deviations above average, a score attained by only about 2.3% of the population.

You are twenty-four, Jarrid, with both everything and nothing unspooling before you.

You had just enrolled for your second year at the local community college when you decided to drop out and devote all your time to the band you played guitar in, Boy Storm, a band you were certain was destined to crack the local music scene wide open. Jarrid, it breaks your heart to admit it but your parents were right about your pursuit of the hip hop stardom fairy tale.

You did exactly what your mother, an overworked teller at Wells Fargo, advised you against and “put all your eggs in one basket.” And you ignored the embittered counsel of your father who, working all his adult life as a bus driver for City of Los Angeles Public Transportation Department, tried to communicate his experience as a hapless blue-collar worker contending on a daily basis with the ignorance of the general public and the ignominy of a paltry pay check. Both of them tried to dissuade you, maintaining that the lack of a college education for a young black man was a virtual death sentence in these days when bachelor’s degrees were a dime a dozen.

“You can’t get a job pumping unleaded without a BA,” your father, with his blackboard-dark face emphatically pushed close to yours, prophesized darkly. “Ask me. I should know.”

But you didn’t ask him, did you? And when Boy Storm crumbled like a boulder of glass struck with a sledgehammer only three months after the band’s inception, you moved in with your girlfriend Akema and her grandmother rather than admit defeat, acknowledge your parents’ prescience, and resume your education.

None of that matters now anyway. This is the third time you’ve seen this movie and your favorite scene is coming up. One man presses the barrel of a gun against the temple of another man and pulls the trigger. The back of the head ruptures and the camera lingers on shards of cranium, welts of gray matter, a pulpy bolus of blood plastered against the wall.

How does it feel to be shot in the head? You can’t answer this particular question, but there are other related questions based on what happened earlier today that you may be uniquely qualified to answer.

As you sip your drink, you notice your hand is shaking, Jarrid, because certain thoughts are threatening to nudge their way back into your awareness. Those thoughts want back in. They’re like wide-eyed children pressing palms and faces against the window of a store displaying alluring dangerous toys.

You decide not to fight the direction your mind wants to move in. Close your eyes, Jarrid, just for a few seconds. Your eyes are sprinkled with a grainy pepper of fatigue and you need to close them.

  • .

Earlier this evening you’re sitting in the disheveled living room watching television with Akema and her grandmother. The broad doughy elfin face of game show host Regis Philbin dominates the screen, his eyes twinkling conspiratorially he awaits a contestant’s fretful assessment of multiple-choice possibilities for the correct answer to a question concerning the average cranial circumference of female anthropoid apes.

Grammy DuPont sits in a recliner whose lank shabbiness reminds you of a weeping willow tree, although living all your life in a part of the city that has been held up as a paradigm of American poverty and crime, you have never seen a willow tree. From what you’ve observed on the Discovery Channel you think you could perhaps relate to nature if for some reason you were actually out walking around in it, although the only thing nature seems to be good for are catastrophes and natural disasters, and as far as you’re concerned the world would probably be better off without nature at all.

Occasionally Grammy scribbles with the nub of her pencil in the boxes of the crossword puzzle grid in the National Enquirer. From time to time she comments approvingly on some aspect of the quiz show luminary’s appearance or comportment.

“That Regis is not half bad looking for a man his age. Now, for me to go out of my way and say that about a white man, well, you know he’s got to have something on the ball. But irregardless of how much charm Regis is got, I say something’s wrong with that Kathy Lee for staying.”

“Kathy Lee? What does she have to do with anything?” asks Akema.

“Well, I say Kathy Lee is a damn dumb bitch for staying with Regis after what he did, just couldn’t keep that nasty old wrinkled ding dong of his in his pants, and all that public humiliation he put that poor girl through.”

“You mean that other guy, not this guy,” you say, then without waiting, you explain further. “You mean Kathy Lee should have left what’s-his-dude’s-name, Frank Gifford. This dude on this show here, that’s Regis.”

“Is he married?” Grammy asks, vigorously rubbing the Enquirer with one of those bubble-gum pink block erasers you haven’t seen since you were in grade school.

“If he is, it’s not to Kathy Lee,” you say.

“Well if Regis was married and cheated, his wife would be a damn dumb bitch to stay with him, even if he is well-preserved for a man his age and he knows how to make a good impression,” Grammy says, and though you’re able to swallow the lumpy oatmeal of her logic, it takes a moment to digest it.

You sit on one end of the sofa and on the other end Akema reclines with a pillow under her head, her good leg stretched across your lap. She had earlier removed the wooden peg attachment that had been purchased from a pawn shop and modified to accommodate the stump of her right leg and now it leans with piratical rakishness against the television set where she placed it. She absently massages her hip and with a sly look takes advantage of Grammy’s preoccupation with the crossword puzzle by pressing into your crotch with her heel. The soft mass coiled between your legs stirs tentatively and those familiar golden pins and needles of sensation threaten tumid arousal, but you preemptively nudge her foot away.

“Grammy?” Akema says, and you know by the quaver of resentment in her voice what she’s about to say. “What about my leg? You promised.”

“I’m working on it,” Grammy says vaguely without looking up from the crossword puzzle.

“You promised. You said you’d hook me up months ago. I lost my fucking leg for you, Grammy.”

“I don’t appreciate that kind of goddamn language in my home from somebody who’d be nothing but a everyday street urchin or a little whore in training if it wasn’t for her grandmother’s pity and how I let her live off my good graces.”

Akema has admitted to you many times that she would have become a ward of the state were it not for Grammy DuPont, who took her in two years ago, but for some months now she’s been complaining that the old woman’s mean-spiritedness has been escalating slowly to something bordering on dictatorial cruelty. Akema had been fifteen when her mother one evening two years ago left the tiny apartment to drop some clothes off at the dry cleaner and never bothered returning.

Shortly after moving in with Grammy, Akema had accompanied her to the Social Security office downtown to resolve some problem the old woman was having with her monthly check. While they had been walking along the sidewalk, a lanky teenaged boy with thorny blonde hair had crept up behind them and snatched Grammy’s purse. As he took off running he tripped and the purse had cartwheeled out of his hands and landed at Akema’s feet. She bent down to scoop it up and when she stood up the thief had returned and with a sweep of his arm managed to grab the dangling strap. She held the purse and he pulled. She fell to the ground and held on, encouraged by Grammy’s hysterical exhortations not to relinquish her grip.

“Don’t give it to that dirty white trash punk, I got all my money in it!” she cried.

Akema held on even though she was dragged across the sidewalk, over the trash-strewn curb, and into the street while she desperately splashed the sonorous acid of her screams for help into the faces of onlookers. There was the blast of a horn and a pneumatic crush of brakes and the youth let go of the purse and leaped aside as a city bus rolled over Akema’s right leg and crushed the bones into animal-cracker bits and pieces.

Now you try to change the subject and extinguish the fuse burning down into Akema’s powder keg of resentment. “Hey Key, that sounds like a question you’d know the answer to. It’s an animal question.”

“Yeah, but the cranial circumference of female anthropoid apes of what average age?” Akema asks irritably. “How can you answer that question without knowing what age?”

“They said something about that already,” you contend.

“No they didn’t,” she insists, “I’ve been watching it.”

“Well then you missed it.”

“You are an asshole,” she says, “who never pays attention.”

You’re about to respond to this essentially playful accusation, but the matter of the cranial circumference of female apes strikes the neat triangular formation of your thoughts with the bowling-ball impact that only synchronous events and situations can, Jarrid. Apes, cranial circumference, skull, and once again, head.

Everywhere you look you see that a particular form of violence stands out from the usual assortment of violent acts reported or portrayed in the media. What you mean – and you’ve explained this to Akema while the two of you sit at Starbucks in the late evenings having discussions that skate in looping figure eights over the slippery floor of topics ranging from the goofy to the sublime, she sipping café au latte and nodding, on the verge of understanding you but not quite there, as when you are both having sex and she is momentarily framed and suspended in that narrow window of opportunity that separates imminent orgasm from no orgasm at all – what you mean is there seems to be a strange trend in how people are choosing to kill each other.

Lately you’ve noticed what you call the shot-in-the-head thing. Reports of people shot in the head, dramatizations and depictions of men or women with their heads agape and extruding vivid watermelon-red: a gag of images so profuse that they can’t be swallowed or digested, an endless barrage of references and reportage in newspapers and magazines, to say nothing of the glut of fictionalizations on TV or in the movies. And don’t forget computer games, theater, sculpture, toys, the Internet. You saw a man wearing a T-shirt the other day with a cartoon picture of Elmer Fudd slanting the barrel of his shotgun against the head of Bugs Bunny, who shuddered in incontinent fright.

You’re more than idly curious about this, Jarrid. What exactly is going on?

You have managed to put together a modest collection of shot-in-the-head photos and images from serendipitous browsings through books, magazines, newspapers, websites downloads, videotape scans, and so on. The photos, neatly clipped rectangles, adorn the walls of your and Akema’s small bedroom. Your feeling is that perhaps with solid information at your disposal you could arrive at certain conclusions that would increase your understanding of society in general and your place in it, the role you’re expected to play. And what role are you expected to play?

There is the role of the embittered black kid who’s not smart enough to gracefully accept his intellectual inferiority to anyone with white skin. There is the role of the black kid trying to find a way out in the world of professional sports or music – this is the one you played with the intention of tweaking, right, Jarrid? There is the role of the black kid engaging in acts of destruction, clinging to vestiges of jungle savagery, the inability to adapt to civilized society. Irresponsible absentee deadbeat father, Uzi-toting drug pusher, misogynistic bejeweled flagellator of low self-esteem, crack-addicted streetwalkers. The only remaining option is to create your own role through sheer audacity, stupidity, genius, or some combination of all three, a risky business, you suspect, whether black or white, resulting in ostracism, persecution, incarceration, insanity, death – or fame.

But you’re getting off the track, Jarrid.

The shot-in-the-head thing. It must be significant in some way, at this unique time and place in history, in this media-generated reality that surrounds you and holds you tightly in its embrace. You’ve wondered what it would be like to shoot someone in the head or to be shot in the head yourself. How can you not wonder?

“How can you not wonder? In a way,” you explain to Akema, the two of you having left the house to escape an evening of Grammy’s headachey non sequiturs and the side of her personality that morphs into viciousness without warning, the two of you sitting now in Starbuck’s and drinking café au latte, “it’s like society approves of it because to be against something is in a weird way to approve of it.”

“Maybe not approve approve,” Akema says.

“Okay, right, not approve, but … you know.”

“Not approve of this whole shot in the head thing you’re talking about, but more like society has acknowledged it, made it legitimate in a weird way. It’s all over TV all the time. I mean, forget about you are what you eat – you are what you watch. Okay, so it’s a part of us, right? But what are we supposed to do with it? Resist it, accept it, what? I mean, all along you’ve been right about this shot in the head stuff. It’s a part of the zeitgeist. Cool word, huh? It was on Oprah.” Akema looks down at the tabletop and lowers her voice. “They put it there, and the question is, what do we do about it, Jarrid?” Her eyes, still fastened on the surface of the table, seem to bore deeper into it. “Can we use it to our advantage?” When she looks up the pupils of her eyes widen like drops of ink hitting the still surface of water in a glass. “Maybe we should get serious about what we talked about.”

For Akema, it’s all connected to getting a real prosthetic leg. You’ve even researched various manufacturers’ products with her to show her how supportive you are. You’ve both decided to go with the Mauch knee unit for its high quality machining and the greater overall mobility it would deliver, the Total Shock Pylon by Century XXII, (narrowly usurping the less wieldy and heavier Otto Bok torque absorber after much comparative analysis), and the Vari-Flex model foot, reputed to be more forgiving on uneven surfaces than the Flex-foot VSP. She attempts to make the best of the current situation, decorating her peg leg with plastic army men, costume jewelry, condoms, coinage, candy canes, key chains, dog whistles, and other intricate eye-catching trinkets and colorful ornaments, but she’s getting tired of that.

When you moved in with Akema, you promised to help her raise the money to buy a customized prosthetic.

Boy Storm had just broken up, and you had decided you wouldn’t return to your parents’ home. Remember how it was before Boy Storm had turned against you, when the group practiced in the drummer’s dank mildewy garage, the four of you chain smoking cigarettes and arguing over how “political” the band should be, the kind of image to establish, the lyrics and chord changes (you maintaining that the keyboard player should refrain from using extensions like 9ths because the harmonic structure of the songs became too “jazzy”)? Those were good times, Jarrid, perhaps the best days of your life.

Girls in the neighborhood began hanging out on the weekends to listen to the rehearsals, 16-year-olds with apocalyptic tattoos and tongue studs and dyed hair, girls with thin angular coat-hanger bodies and haunted eyes who wore bulky utilitarian boots, leather wristbands, T-shirts too small to cover their coquettish navels. Some of these girls were singers who hoped to win auditions with the band. Others were looking for someone or something to absorb the furious bravado and glittering empty energy they radiated, something or someone who would allow them to escape for a time the growing bewilderment that was beginning to overshadow their days and prefigure the unhappiness of impending adulthood.

These girls were cookie cutter replicas of one another, walking representations of some marketing teams’ concept of youth and style. They had a generic quality about them and were devoid of imagination and you had no interest in them, Jarrid, none at all.

There was a girl though who appeared one day and hung on the fringes of the more aggressive girls. There was something about that girl, wasn’t there, Jarrid? When you saw her you felt something strange was happening and you were drawn to her laid-back aura of hostile arrogant disengagement. Talking to her you discovered that she had her own completely unique jagged vision of life that grew out of what she had suffered in her one-leggedness. You recognized that her outlook on life had been drastically changed by her consciousness of herself as an outsider. When you told her about your observations and findings and how you were spending more and more time in movies theaters watching the screen run red with cranial explosions she didn’t laugh.

When the band occasionally had practice sessions that were closed to outsiders you began inviting her as though she were your girlfriend. When you were alone with her she sang to you and you thought she had an incredible unearthly voice. How to explain it? It was as if her throat were lined with blisters and the blisters were being scraped off with a razor when she sang. The raw emotive power of her voice made you think somehow of a female monster of some kind singing a monster lullaby to its monster baby.

You tried to explain this to the band but their ears hungered for aural pabulum, a sound smooth and palatable and innocuous as Gerber’s baby food. In fact, they told you she sounded like shit and impugned your motives, suggesting that you were a pawn whose judgment had been clouded by sex.

“Listen, what you do with your dick ain’t none of my business, but who would be sick enough to want to screw a one-legged bitch anyway?” Scratch or Fontelle, you forget which one, blurted out during a band meeting where you nominated Akema for the female lead singer spot. “Are you fucking nuts? How pathetic would that be, some peg-legged bitch hopping around on stage trying to dance and shit?”

You picked up your Fender Sratocaster and became the calm center in the airless storm of rage that descended on you and you smashed your instrument into a pair of expensive Alesis studio monitors stacked on a shelf next to some empty Pennzoil cans. You walked out and kept walking and Akema said, “I want you to live with me and Grammy,” and so you did.

You owe her something, Jarrid. As you reach across the table at Starbuck’s to take her nervously flitting hand in your own, something in you swells in appreciation of all she’s done for you. You can’t say that you love her because you do have this much self knowledge: you have no idea what it means to really love anyone. You love things, yes, but not people. For example, you love television, the movies. In fact it seems to you that what you see on a screen, any screen, is colored by an energy and life more vital and vivid and multi-dimensioned than your own. Perhaps it’s not love but the two of you are together now and she believes in your guitar playing and has encouraged you to do something with your observations on the shot-in-the-head thing, though neither of you know what that might be.

And so in answer to her question “What are we going to do about my leg?” you squeeze her hand and say, “We’re going to get you that leg, Key – I mean, if you’re serious about what we talked about.”

“She gets my disability check and she’s got power of attorney over it just because I’m under eighteen. It’s not fair. She’s got her own Social Security every month. I lost my leg because of her. I mean, I love her and everything but fuck that. She doesn’t give me shit. She doesn’t give us shit.“

The two of you finish your café au latte and return to the apartment. You and Akema stretch out on your usual spots on the couch and watch TV. In the middle of an HBO movie she says in a dreamy voice, “You know what I just figured out? If you’re not famous, you’re not real.”

You feel the camera that’s with you at all times panning to emphasize the commonplace bathos of the living room. It hesitates knowingly on the solitary crack in the wall over the doorway to the kitchen and the very act of lingering transforms that tawdry fissure into an image for the pain beneath Akema’s glibness. What would be a good image for your own pain, Jarrid? The Goodwill end table holding the fishbowl with the dead goldfish floating on the nacreous surface of week-old evaporating water?

Grammy is sleeping. Her snores seem to drift out of her bedroom in cartoon dialogue-balloons. Akema puts her finger to her lips and rises from the couch, balancing expertly on her one leg. Finger still slanted across her lips, she hops to the bedroom doorway, leans there against the frame, then gestures for you to follow her as she slips through the partially opened door into the dust-stale darkness of the bedroom. The numerals of a small digital clock on a bedside table throw a soft emerald phantom of phosphorescence onto Grammy’s face.

The camera zooms in, Jarrid. Framed now are two hands, yours and Akema’s, jointly gripping a .38 revolver. Your larger hand, a rind of flesh inside of which her own childlike hand is a pod of clammy warmth, steadies and cups hers, and both your index fingers curl lightly around the trigger’s curved tusk. You stand behind Akema and she flattens the feathery weight of her upper torso into your chest, balancing stork-like on her leg. The two of you lean forward in a perfectly nuanced ballet of slow motion, extending the gun through some thick special-effect medium of aborted time until the barrel almost kisses Grammy’s forehead, and it’s as if you’ve become one with the camera as it begins to pull back and slowly up – as if, when the trigger is pulled, you’re not a person so much as a nameless presence commanding a perspective that someone else will edit and unify into a whole at a later time.

The final action sequence is over. The music is a percolation of strings mutedly plucked, nervous dabs of percussion, asyncopated rhythms, ricocheting snippets of atonality, skittish atmospheric jabs and sweeps, cool raindrops of metallic resonance. You wish Akema would get here.

When it was all over you had both changed clothes. On the way out you kicked in the door to make it look like B&E. The plan called for the two of you to separate for a few hours. You would go to the movies and Akema would go to her best friend Diane’s house. Akema had already told Diane everything and Diane had promised to testify to the police that you and Akema had spent all day and evening with her. In a few hours Akema and Diane would meet you at the movies and then the three of you would return to the apartment and call the police as though you had walked in on the scene.

When you and Akema left the apartment the dimly-lit streets seemed to be tunnels carved crudely through the surrounding darkness and the few people lurking around looked like gang members or drug dealers who, if they had heard a shot, would be disinclined to volunteer information to authorities. She kissed you tenderly at the corner when you separated.

“Now we’ll be able to get my money,” she whispered, “and we can buy me my prosthetic, and you a new guitar.”

Over the past months when you had both fantasized about shooting Grammy in the head Akema hadn’t explained how it would be possible for her to collect her monthly disability payments as a minor, but she always implied with a confident wink that this was a small detail.

You don’t know yet what you’ll be able to add to the shot-in-the-head thing now that your knowledge is first-hand. But it wasn’t what you expected it would be, Jarrid. What you’ve seen hundreds of times on the screen was far richer, more intense, the technicolor blood more urgently red, the lifelessness of the corpse more stark and existential and horrible. You wept when it was over, Jarrid, standing over the bed and looking down at Grammy’s alphabet-soup face. Akema put her arm around your shoulders and told you how very sweet you were to shed valedictory tears and tried to comfort you by pointing out what a long life she led, but you didn’t tell her that it was disappointment and not sorrow spilling from your eyes – disappointment at the thin pallid watered-down nature of life as it was experienced every day, moment by moment.

But that’s all right, Jarrid, that’s okay. You have a treasury of observations, they just haven’t coalesced into jewels of insight yet, that’s all. For example you’ve noticed that stray bullets often strike innocent bystanders, puncturing the lungs liver spleen and so on, and that such errant bullets strike the head. Why is that? Why would a bullet seem to be magnetically drawn to the head. Everything that enters a person from the world beyond the thin but impermeable demarcation of skin does so through the eyes the nose the mouth the ears, all of which are portals residing in the head.

You don’t know what to do with this information but you may write a song about it – one so powerful that it would compel the reunion of Boy Storm.

But it’s okay, Jarrid. And it’s just possible that whatever insights are spawned by all of this might shed light on the condition of your twin brother Alan, who less than a year ago was shot in the head by just such a stray bullet and now floats with fetal obliviousness in the womb of a coma, buoyant in unseen liquescence. You don’t count on it but anything is possible.

Someone taps your shoulder behind you. You turn and it’s Akema leaning forward over the back of the seat. “What’s up?” she says, smiling. “Diane’s outside. Let’s roll.”

Your Sprite is empty and you bend down and place the cup under your seat. You don’t turn around to look at the endless column of credits as the two of you walk up the aisle, nor have you ever understood how some can sit staring raptly at a meaningless list of strangers’ names rolling by so rapidly as to be almost invisible.

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