A Strong Premonition of Death Struck Me This Morning
Originally published on the Electric Velocipede blog, July 20, 2009.
It did. You can roll your eyes or laugh or make apparent your disdain however you like, but it did. I am not a man given to premonitions, and until I felt one I would have scoffed too. But there is no arguing or rationalizing away the utter certainty that falls from a clear blue sky, transforming you in a heartbeat with the knowledge that death is at hand.
I had taken my third cup of coffee out to the deck at the back of my apartment. The morning was cool but suffused with that loamy smell that even in the city means a pleasant, bearable heat is coming. The only clouds overhead were flat, ridged, and orderly, like giant, rough-woven welcome mats. Birds flitted around the feeder in the tree in the landlady's small back yard below. The dog had followed me out with a tennis ball in his mouth and I was just reaching for it whenI knew. I knew.
Nothing had changed. The morning was just as glorious as before, but I knew. Death stood at my shoulder like a swift shadow, vanishing when I turned my head but present nonetheless. I met the hopeful eyes of my Black Russian terrier, a large and powerful beast with a ball of green fuzz clamped in his jaws, and I began to tremble. I took a sip of coffee, but it tasted like oil in my mouth. I began to realize how exposed I was on my deck, how very many perils threatened me there.
My wife and I were relatively new to the neighborhood. I didn't know which of our neighbors, with their little squares of yard marching off in each direction, might hoard a secret cache of guns and decide that sunny morning to get in some target practice from the vantage of his own second-level deck. Our own deck was newly rebuilt; some member of the railing I leaned against might choose that moment to give up the struggle for immobility and give way, sending me tumbling backward to break my neck on the stairs below. A squirrel could dance chattering across the high-wire at the back of the yard, and Ivan, heedless for once of my commands, might bolt down the steps and into the alley where, as desperately I followed trying to keep him in sight, some reckless driver in a salvage pickup might run me down like a cat.
Cooling coffee sloshed onto my hand, and I gripped my mug more tightly to still the shaking. The crosstalk of the birds was deafening. I could not stay outside, where the open, yawning sky could at any moment hurl down a scrap of metal torn from the fuselage of a jetliner on its descent path, or a flaming iron meteorite, to throw me out at home. I shooed Ivan inside, his rear half wagging uncertainly, and locked the door behind us.
My wife had already left to catch the bus to the train, but my design job was not so rigid in its demands. Still, I had rarely missed a day, even if that day started at ten. Ignoring the breakfast dishes in the sink, I found the cordless phone and called in sick. Then, as I found I could not stop shivering no matter how I chafed my hands or hugged myself or swaddled my hunched shoulders in another flimsy blanket, I ran a bath as hot as I could stand. Ivan watched all this activity with head cocked, raising first one eyebrow then the other like signal flags requesting clarification. I stripped and settled by degrees into the bath, and the dog settled down on the mat beside the tub, furry black head resting on his paws.
The water provided some relief from my chill, but not for long. The heat soothed my eyelids into relaxation, and I sat bolt upright as my lashes met. It was as if the shadow behind me had tapped my shoulder. Ivan, sodden, barked. I couldn't stay in the tub; what was I thinking? I would nod off, slip beneath the surface, and drown. I might slip standing up and crack my skull like a rotten coconut on the edge of the sink. The weight of all this water would be too much for the old floor joists beneath me and they would give way, dropping my tub into the apartment below, if not all the way to the basement, where I would fracture my spine on impact, if, that is, the recoil of the torn and flanged copper pipes I passed on my way down didn't disembowel me, or severed power lines not electrocute me before I could roll clear of the bathwater torrent.
I dried and dressed in a panic, upsetting the dog, I'm afraid. The brilliant sunbeams reaching like fingers through the curtains only reminded me of the myriad ways death could strike there: carbon monoxide poisoning, gas explosion, prosaic housefire, food poisoning, home invasion, dog going crazy, the list went on. I could not stay inside any more than I could stay outside, but at least outside would put me far from Ivan when the inevitable came.
I shied away from driving the car that lurked like a trapdoor spider in the alley garage. Instead I wandered the streets, fearful every moment, hesitating to cross at intersections, flinching from every bird shadow and backfire, hungry but not hungry enough to risk choking, despising the happy passersby in the warm city sunshine too wrapped up in their own cocoons of delusion to pay heed to the swarming shadows at their own backs, or mine.
How the day passed without mishap I cannot say, but by early evening I'd meandered so far that I would not reach home again before dark if I remained on foot. I considered just continuing vaguely southeast, as loath to expose Martina and Ivan to the time bomb I was as to vanish without ever seeing them again. In the end, torn with indecision, I ascended to a crowded rush-hour train platform, thinking to end the debate by letting the shadow push me in front of an oncoming train.
The warm evening air was heavy with weariness and the anticipation of home, with the promise of cool hours to follow. I shouldered my way gingerly through the throng toward the edge of the platform. A train was arriving, and already I was picturing the vision of asphalt far below through the elevated track, the last thing I would see before the sizzling wheels cleaved me like a sausage. But that vista was not yet in view when I stumbled on someone's foot, or briefcase, or shadow. I flung a hand out. Was it to grasp the arm of the woman in the red blazer whose back loomed in front of me? My palm struck her square in the spine. I pushed.
Did she see the view I had imagined, the squares of street between suspended railroad ties? I don't know. I did not even see her face. All I know is that as the brakes shrieked, as commuters screamed, as metal buckled, I landed facedown on the splintery planks of the platform, and the shadow did not land with me.
I see you don't believe me. I see you think I'm crazy. That's fair. But after my pilgrimage today through the valley of the shadow, after six hours in a hot interrogation room, after winning back my life, do you think I'm handing anything over to some punk with a knife in an alley? Do you really think that's my name inscribed on your blade?
If you don't, these shadows aren't keeping you here.
But if you do, then come on. Try me.