the book

I do not know what it's like to be murdered, but I can tell you what it was like when I thought I was about to be murdered. It happened December 28, 1995, in Norwalk, California, at around seven-thirty at night.
     There have been lots of times when I was convinced that I was about to die. I've had several major car accidents, including one in which a gangbanger doing sixty hit my car from behind at a stoplight and knocked me forty feet into the intersection, right into cross traffic. When the Northridge Earthquake hit in 1994, I stood in the doorway of my bedroom and waited for the bouncing, thundering house to collapse and smash me flat. And I was on a DC-10 that landed at Chicago's O'Hare International in the middle of a blizzard. That was quite a ride, as if a giant gorilla were trying to slap us out of the air. The windows were turning blue-white from the lightning strikes, the cabin walls were flexing visibly, the overhead storage compartments were dropping open, the engines were bellowing hysterically, the man sitting next to me asked to hold my hand, and the flight attendants--the flight attendants--were screaming every time we went into another five-second free fall.
     Those situations were nothing compared to what I felt when I was sure that somebody was going to deliberately take my life.
     My brother Tim and I were unloading a U-Haul truck in the parking lot of the secondhand bookstore where we worked. We were exhausted and short-tempered and not paying attention to our surroundings. Our seventy-two-year-old boss was helping us. He helped by sitting and blaring monologues about all the terrible things that had been done to him in his life, interrupting himself to give contradictory orders. When he was around, we tuned everything out. It was a recipe for the disaster that we got.
     The work was a mind-numbing cycle of carrying books from the U-Haul, piling them on two wheeled carts, transporting them into the loading dock of the store, and shelving them or stacking them in the aisles. As I was coming out of the truck for the thirtieth or fortieth time, I noticed a car parked in the alley behind the building, next to the open roll-up door of the loading dock. It was idling quietly, the brake lights on. For some reason, it gave me a chill. It was only five yards away, but I hadn't seen it because there was only one spotlight on the rear of the store. I grabbed Tim's arm and said, "Look! There's a car right there!" He shook my hand off and said, "Well, don't worry about it."
     Like I said, we were short-tempered. I got so angry at my brother that I decided to do what he said and not worry about it. Fine, whatever, I thought, and as I took a step toward the carts, a man popped out of the alley in front of us. He was dressed in black--ski mask, heavy jacket, pants, boots, and gloves. He was also wearing body armor, the bulky flak vest that commandos and SWAT cops use. I could see his eyes very clearly; they were dark and twinkling and slanting downward in a nest of laugh lines, as if he were about to tell us a really good joke. He lifted his right hand, and up came this enormous gun. I know about guns; this one was an Intratec TEC-9, an assault weapon with a perforated jacket over the barrel and a long clip that holds thirty-two nine-millimeter bullets. Basically, it's a one-handed machine gun. You can fire off those thirty-two bullets in about six seconds.


     The gunman started weaving and feinting like a boxer. It looked so unnatural that all the blood in my body froze. I could feel my veins everywhere, like ice-cold wire coat hangers. My brother said, "Oh," this little sound of total comprehension--he knew exactly what was happening, and suddenly I did too. It set off a delirious babble in my head. I remember it perfectly: There he is. I knew you'd come. Here we go. He's here. This is it.
     The man pointed the gun at my face. He looked two-dimensional in the orange light, like a cardboard cutout outlined in black Magic Marker. Heat waves emitted from his body, some kind of visual distortion caused by the thirty gallons of adrenaline dumped into my system. The darkness intensified until all I could see was the gun aimed at my right eye. The muzzle was less than two feet away.
     I went completely deaf, but I could also hear a strange cacophony, almost like a Tibetan religious ceremony, with gongs and horns. Everything around me seemed to have been sucked away, leaving me in a vacuum. At the same time, there was a tremendous sense of imminence, as if the air itself were about to burst wide open. When I used to play with firecrackers, there would be a fraction of a second after the fuse had burned all the way down, a pregnant pause right before the explosion. That's what this was like.
     The circus, my mind gibbered. Ferris wheel. Boston Pops. Happy New Year. God save me. Orson Welles. Nazi bastards. Christmas lights. Pinwheels.
     "Don't fuck with me, man," the gunman squealed. "Hah? Hah? Don't fuck with me!"
     That broke the spell. I heard YOU ARE GOING TO DIE as clearly as if someone had spoken it out loud, and then my body took over. Without conscious thought, I turned and ran, dropping my books. Deep inside my head, in an isolated bubble of calm, a countdown started.
     I glanced back over my shoulder. The man in black was pelting after me, still pointing the gun.
     I was running so fast that the wind whooshed past my ears. It seemed like I was covering twenty feet with each stride. The world tilted as I leaned to the left, sprinting around the back of my boss' van. I'm a motorcycle, I thought. Zoooooom. I wasn't moving fast enough, though. I wasn't moving at all. The sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt was a dainty chip, chip, chip, chip in the whooshing but dead air. Directly behind me, I felt a gathering, an expanding force that was catching up to me. The Tibetan music turned into an orchestral swelling like in the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." I knew that it was the sound of my life ending. I had only seconds to live.
     High above me in the cloudy sky, from somewhere off to the right, I heard someone wailing, "I'm not fucking with you! I'm not fucking with you!" It was a shrill, hopeless, pleading screech that echoed across the empty parking lot. That's me, I realized. I'm screaming because I'm being murdered. Another part of my brain spoke up, inventorying my surroundings as they flew by like stark Polaroid images: Burnt-out street lamp. Store front. Stars. Clouds. Tree.
     Goodbye, street lamp. Goodbye, clouds. Goodbye, tree.
     When the countdown reached One, the gunman would shoot me in the back of the head. I knew it with complete certainty. When it happened, I'd see teeth, bone fragments, and pieces of my brain spray out in front of me. I'd feel it too. It would feel like water up my nose and an electric shock, but it would also be cold and crunchy. It would be pulpy and probing and intimate. That was the amazing thing about being murdered: It was so intimate, much more intimate than sex. And sad. I was incredibly sad that I was going to die in such an ugly way.
     On the back of my head, directly above the nape of my neck, a dot of supersensitive nerve endings awoke in preparation for the bullet. All the sensation in my body concentrated into that tiny disk of skin. The slug would pass through my head so quickly that I would still be alive as I flopped across the asphalt, my skull mostly empty, the cool night air burning into the rawness. I would feel the pebbles gouging my palms, my knees, and my cheek, and then I would be gone. It was just about to happen.
     Lab rat! Marshmallow pie! I love you, Jackie! Sapphire! Golden rod! Welder's fees! Samsonite! Here I go! Here I go! Here I go!
     Overhead, an airliner swooped in toward Los Angeles International Airport. The passengers were safe, unaware of what was happening to me. I was being murdered right under their feet, right under their big fat safe rear ends, and they didn't even know. They would all get to live. I hated their guts. I wanted the plane to explode in a ball of flame.
     I closed my eyes.
     You didn't why there's no teeth alive what
     The gunman hadn't shot me.
     That surreal, emergency time-expansion had clearly come into play because I had all those thoughts during the two seconds it took to circle my boss' van. When I came around the front of it, I caught a glimpse of my brother in midair, leaping like Mikhail Baryshnikov over a pile of books. He plowed into me, the top of his head smashing my nose and knocking my glasses off. We untangled ourselves, scrambled into the store, and slammed the metal front door. I'm ashamed to admit that we forgot about our boss. We left him in the parking lot with the gunman.
     While I turned all the lights off, Tim dialed 911. I remembered that the loading dock was still open and ran to the back to close it. That was much more terrifying than the initial attack because now I knew what was out there. It's not possible to accurately convey the fear I felt standing in the loading dock, totally exposed as I rolled down the door, waiting for the bullets to rip into me. It was more than fear, actually. It was a level of despair and negativity and hatred of my fellow humans that I can't afford to ever feel again. And since I didn't have my glasses, I couldn't see a thing. I didn't know if the gunman had slipped into the eight-thousand-square-foot store and was hiding in the aisles with his assault pistol, ready to hunt me down. I didn't know if my boss had been shot or was about to be shot. I couldn't think. I didn't know if I was still alive.
     The police took fifteen minutes to come. During that time, my boss ambled in through the front door, unhurt, shouting that he was too angry to be scared. The gunman and his driver had apparently left when Tim and I dove inside the store, but they returned twice and cruised by the enormous front window, close enough for me to make out the blurs of their faces. We called 911 three times. A police captain later told me that the tapes of the calls were unnerving because of all the screaming. When the cops arrived, the gunman and his associate were gone. My brother and I gave a report to a couple of uninterested officers who said, "If I were you, I wouldn't stick around here any longer than I had to, okay?" and took off. So Tim and I finished unloading the U-Haul in the dark parking lot. Then we quit. We turned in our keys, apologized, and left our boss to fend for himself. He did fine, believe me. He was indestructible.
     Having a gun shoved in my face turned out to be one of the defining moments of my life. It changed me into someone entirely different. For one thing, I've become a wholehearted supporter of capital punishment. That's very surprising, given my mostly liberal inclinations. I now believe that murderers deserve to die. I can settle for life imprisonment without parole, and I don't get into debates on the topic. I don't try to change anybody's mind. But objectively speaking, murderers deserve to die. They don't deserve to be "rehabilitated." Not unless they can un-murder their victims.
     I've also discovered that Vietnam War-style flashbacks are real. I've had several. When young men have looked at me with a certain twinkling, challenging expression, I've run out of the room or store or theater. In 1997, two overweight gun lovers screwed up a bank robbery in North Hollywood, and the resulting fire fight was televised live. Like an idiot, I watched it. There they were, all in black, with ski masks and flak vests, spraying bullets, and suddenly I was back at the bookstore. My mind went into meltdown again. I almost let loose with wailing, blubbering pleas for mercy again. It didn't matter that the two hogs were soon beautifully dead on the street--I was shaky for days.
     I am so inconsistent about all this. After the North Hollywood shoot out, I stopped watching all TV news, local or national, but I still compulsively read newspaper accounts of murders. I can't get swept up in the rollicking fun of movies like Fargo or Pulp Fiction because whenever somebody gets murdered and dies screaming, it makes me want to start screaming too. Yet I watch most of those reality shows with the video footage of convenience store robberies. The one sensible reaction I've had is that I don't listen to talk radio when the topic is guns. I'm tired of all the hand wringing and flapdoodle about guns. It's time for us to be honest: We love guns, we love what they do, and we're not going to give them up. According to some surveys, three out of four Americans are gun owners. School massacres, office massacres, home massacres, dead wives, dead girlfriends, dead kids, dead shopkeepers, dead police officers--they're all just the price of freedom. Twenty-five thousand gun deaths a year, give or take.
     I eventually had to do a few paintings of the Norwalk gunman. That's how I usually get someone or something out of my head. I also went back and reread the dream diary that I used to keep, and I found an entry dated November 26, 1995.
     In the dream, I was lying in bed. It was dark in my room but sunny outside the window. As I started to fall asleep, something under the bed tried to yank the blankets off. I yanked back, knocking whatever it was against the wooden bed frame, and it start crashing around like it was having a tantrum. It was horribly strong and kept changing from small and scrabbly like a rat to hard-shelled and clicking like a crab to massive and gloppy like a manatee. I was terrified and indifferent at the same time. I looked out my open window saw my brother Tim strolling around in his garden, wearing a brightly colored bandana like a shower cap.
     "Tim! Timothy! TIMOTHY!" I shouted, but he ignored me. I went on yelling, half-frantic and half-bored. Finally he said, "Yes? What is it?" He was so calm that I got furious.
     "There's something under my bed, you know," I roared. "It's pulling off all my covers!" The bedclothes were given another powerful yank, this one so violent that I almost went under the bed. I yanked back as hard as I could and saw something like a scorched-black fetus fly up into the air, attached to the edge of the blanket by its teeth. It landed on some cardboard boxes next to my bed, flopped onto the floor, and thrashed back under the bed. I knew that I had to get up and run out of the room, but I just lay there, wondering why I wasn't taking the situation seriously. I yelled at Tim again. He didn't answer again. He was watering his plants with a slight smile, his eyes closed.
     "TIM! TIM! TIM!" I screamed.
     "Yes, I know," he said. "There's something under your bed pulling off all your sheets. I know all about it."
     He wouldn't look at me, and suddenly I found it impossible to look at him, my head refusing to turn in his direction. It was as if invisible hands were holding it in one position. I struggled and strained until something snapped and I was able to wrench my head over to see him, but his face was blurry. Even though this scared me more than the thing under my bed, I was still so bored that I just wanted to go back to sleep. It was all was my fault for not leaving the room when I'd had the chance, and besides, I was just making a fool out of myself with the fishwife-y shrieking.
     As I was about to tell Tim that everything was my fault, the thing under my bed started hissing like the air brakes of a diesel truck. I was really in trouble now; I had to get out of the room immediately, but since I still didn't care what happened to me, I just lay there and waited. Then I woke up.
     When Tim and I got home after being assaulted by the gunman, I didn't go to sleep until three in the morning because I was afraid of the nightmares I knew I'd have. I eventually nodded off and dreamed that I was interviewing G. Gordon Liddy in a busy hallway. He was patient and sympathetic as I fumbled through my questions. I reminded myself that he represented so much of what I hate about American culture, but the more he spoke, the more I liked him. After he gave me a particularly sensitive answer, I said, "Why, you're not at all the bugaboo you're made out to be in the press!" He lowered his gaze, blushing like a teenager, and I felt a blast of love for him.

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