We die in October.

As an upcoming minor surgical procedure date approaches, I can’t help worrying about what might go wrong. This year so far I’ve managed to beat cancer, leave cigarettes behind and dodge all the Breaking Bad finale spoilers going around. So a teensy, tiny half-hour procedure should be no sweat, right?

But with anesthesia there’s always a risk. And I’m feeling every inch of that risk this time, because in my family, we seem to have an eerie habit of shuffling off this mortal coil in the month of October.

For many, October is 31 sweet days of cool weather, Charlie Brown specials* and free candy. But for me and the other Ratliffs who have survived it, October is the month we remember the passing of my father, my grandfather and at least two uncles. It’s not a particularly morbid month—we don’t dress in black and mourn for weeks, or anything. I mean, there is still free candy to look forward to. But you can bet we are driving a little more slowly around sharp curves and, when possible, not scheduling any hospital visits, no matter how minor.

Until now.

It’s a weird thing to confront death. I mean, we all know we are going to die, eventually. But you don’t know it the same way you know it when you are half naked in a doctor’s office and she says the word “cancer”. This year, for the first time ever, I had to really think about what it means to stop living and I did not like it one bit.

My whole life, up to this point, I have approached every crossroads and tackled every dilemma using a “worst-case scenario” filter. When I’ve been unsure whether to take a new job, move across country, date a guitar player or worse,** I made myself imagine all the possible conclusions:

“What if my new job falls apart?”

“What if I hate the new city I move to?”

“What if the guitar player uses the word ‘tunes’ when he means ‘songs’ and I have to murder him?”

This process helps me determine if I can live with the consequences, even if the outcome is the worst. If so, I am free to move forward with whatever terrible decision I am about to make. I’m never afraid to fail, because I know that whatever happens, I’ll be okay.

Until now!

My own mortality was one “worst-case scenario” I could not win. I literally cannot live with the consequences of my own death. I will not be okay with “whatever happens!”

(For the record, YOU’LL be fine. So relax. The world will keep turning and life will go on for you and for everyone—except me. I’m not saying you won’t be sad. Obviously you will mourn the profound loss of me with lots of booze and sex, and then go on to compose a concept album about me, or write a biopic screenplay or one of those “oral history” nonfiction books that are so popular now. I’m just spit-balling, here. You do what you have to do to mark the passage of the Internet’s foremost authority+ on Keith Gordon movies and vegetarian casserole recipes. Just know that you are a survivor in this scenario.)

I’m just having a hard time dealing with the fact that there’s a situation I will absolutely have to face, that I have zero control over, and with which I am totally not cool. And with no afterlife in my immediate post-death future, I’ve got no way to turn my mortal frown upside down. I can’t find a way to put a silver lining around this sad cloud.

Bummer!

I guess I’m mostly worried that I will miss out on something. I hate that! Remember in the seventh grade when the cool kids had their first co-ed party? At that one girl’s house with a swimming pool? And after sunset, when it got a little chilly, the party moved into the basement? And her parents were upstairs watching TV, so it kind of turned into a makeout party? And you had to hear about it third-fucking-hand because no one invited you? Because you are the new kid (with glasses!) that no one even knows, much less invites to a potentially scandalous co-ed seventh-grade makeout pool party?

Well death is like that, but forever.

Frankly, I don’t want to go until we ALL go. I mean, I know it’s selfish, but I kind of hope to live to see the end of the world. When that tidal wave hits, or that alien death ray explodes the Empire State Building, or that monkey flu becomes a bird flu becomes a people flu, I will surrender, peacefully, knowing that at least you guys won’t be having any fun without me.

Or maybe I will not surrender and somehow survive with Jake Gyllenhaal in a library, burning stupid law books and keeping the ice and the wolves at bay! Either option is cool with me!

Here’s the option that is NOT cool with me: having some weird fluke reaction to anesthesia during a routine procedure and dying on the operating table in the month of October. That is the-opposite-of-Fonzie not cool with me. If death in October is the well-traveled road, I’m happy to trek the dirt path on the other side of the fork. Even if it’s merely delaying the inevitable, I’ll take the scenic route, thank you.

So I submit this article as a way to jinx death. With this piece, I hope to negate the weird could-have-been of my dying in the same month as two generations of Ratliffs before me. I’m going to look Croaktober in the face, shake it’s hand and tell it to have a nice life. Then I’ll knock on wood three times and see y’all in the recovery room.

Otherwise—if something does happen to me next week—this post is going to get sooooooo many hits! Right, you guys?!! You know you are going to leave comments below about how crazy it is that I predicted it all right here, and how totally cool I seemed, and how you WISH you had invited me to your seventh-grade co-ed makeout pool party. And then you are going to “”Like” this on Facebook and share the link in an email to your mom and your best friend with a note about how you should get together more often, because “life is short” or whatever.

That is totally something you would/will do!

My advice is: don’t wait. Do all that stuff now! Send this link to your mom and make plans to hang out! Invite me to your makeout pool party! Life can be short! Carpe diem, for reals!

“Don’t forget-to-Like on Facebook tomorrow what you can remember-to-Like on Facebook today!”
–President John F. Kennedy

Most importantly, do not wait until November; especially if you are related to me.

 

*”The Charlie Brown Specials” is totally my new band!)
**Keyboard players. (Just kidding, ‘Boardies!)
+Flagrant exaggeration!

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.