Im bartending tonight. Today two kids killed thirteen people at Columbine High School in Littleton, about half an hour away. Its like Ive got two layersone thats the physical expression of emotion, laughing or crying, and one that feels emotion thats being expressed. Theres a distinction between the two layers because when I first saw the news reports I cried. But then again, I cry easily these days. I dont know why. I dont feel like crying, but I cry watching long-lost reunions on Rikki Lake or seeing footage of Kosovo refugees. But I dont feel anything. Thats the second layerthe one that really feels. The one that should feel but doesnt.
Morgan comes into the bar with a crazy look in his eye. Thats not hard for Morgan. He looks like a skinheadwife-beater tank top, suspenders, black steel-toed boots, and jeans with the cuffs rolled upbut hes not. Hes got a rat tattooed on his shaved head and an entire woodland scene across his chest, with squirrels, rabbits, skunks, and a chipmunk. His right arm reads "This machine kills fascists" in bold black ink running from shoulder to wrist.
Were watching the nonstop coverage of the shootings on the news. A man has just found out that his twin sixteen-year-old girls are dead, and now Morgan really does look psychotic. Hes pasty white, his eyes are deep set, and his stare is fixed. With his shaved head and dark monobrow he looks a bit like an angry Muppet, his mouth hinged at the neck. I tell him I guess Im just reasonably desensitized to this sort of thing. He doesnt appreciate my comment. He drinks a tall vodka gimlet, four shots of Stoli, and a splash of lime juice, and stares past me, past the television, the wall, the walk-in cooler, the dumpsters in the alley, to a place only the fruitcakes can see.
Only Morgan is not a fruitcake. But tonight he sees it.
Christian, who owns the sub shop across the street, comes in as he does twelve times a day for a shot of Rumplemintz and a tall Captain and Seven, only this time he doesnt leave because hes reached that magic level of consumption that turns the bar into your living room and strangers into friends. "Its four-twenty!" he declares and sparks a bowl right there at the bar. Dick the doorman is having none of it and confiscates the pipe immediately. 420 or not, its still not yet legal to smoke pot in a bar.
Dick and I go in the walk-in cooler and take a couple of hits. Even inside the cooler we can hear Christian talking about how today is Hitlers birthday and thats why those kids shot all those other kids and then themselves, and its a damn shame that on top of everything else Hitler had to mess up 420, April twentieth, the one true pot smoking holiday.
When I come back out Christian is talking a bit too loudly for comfort. He tries to convince me that high school jocks will probably think twice from now on about picking on the weird kids because you never know whos going to pull the trigger next. I tell him hes wrong. He makes a logical argument but violence is illogical. Violence breeds violence.
I catch Morgan puking in the bathroom. Its a good sign. Throwing up can be life-affirming, and Morgan seems better afterwards. He tells me about Nietzsche and how he wrote that to have the power to do something, and then not do it, is the greatest power of all. But then again, Nietzsche wrote this because he was a powerless little man who never did anything.
Christian tries again to make some point, and I have to get up and leave on the pretense that the bar needs to be wiped down for the hundredth time. But the bottom line is that I just dont care. I am, after all, at work and when youre at work nothing is truly important until you are off work. I dont care about what Christian has to say and I dont really care that thirteen kids got gunned down at a high school a half an hour away. At this very moment their bodies are lying in the school library, yet it doesnt have anything to do with me.
We watch the TV and we feel connected. The surrogate feelings we get from the little glowing box become real to us, so we begin to believe that this is feeling when its just a shadow of reality, a detached substitute feeding our need to be important. Two kids shoot thirteen other kids on Hitlers birthday. Its utterly senseless, meaningless. Why should I care? Its meaningless.
I am not more powerful simply because I dont give in to homicidal impulses. My life goes on unchanged. My girl and my dog wait for me asleep in bed. I am a happy person. And thirteen kids are dead in a library a half an hour away.
I had a list of things to do today: mail the rent check, play basketball, go to the bank, place an ad in the paper for a roommate. It was a substantial days work for a writer. Now I am pleasantly stoned and cruising down Broadway at an even twenty-five miles per hour, Marley on the deck. The afternoon is washed out by an oblique sun, the pale light of a nondescript day; the air is like water fish prefer to swim in, matching ambient body temperature so it is hardly felt. The mountains are a sight.
The mountains are always a sight. The Flatirons are gray today, huge slabs of rock thrusting up from green pines. I glance at them casually, one hand on the wheel, but I am weary of their power and do not stare too long. The truck bounces comfortably. The University of Colorado campus is to the right. Another powerful sight: acres of red tiles roofs over Spanish archways and wispy blond girls strutting with purpose and possibility. I ash my cigarette out the window.
Ahead is a crosswalk with two sets of tanned legs waiting to cross on either side. Since Im traveling slowly and in no hurry, I stop at the crosswalk even though traffic in front of me flies right through it. I succeed in stopping the right lane of traffic and the girls smile at me in appreciation. I smile back, but they arent looking. They step tentatively into the crosswalk. Suddenly there is the screeching of tires as a red Subaru Legacy in the left lane realizes I have stopped for pedestrians and skids halfway into the crosswalk. The girls wag a naughty finger at him as the Subarus front bumper is not far from their slender shins. And then there is another screeching of tires and a loud crunch as a Chevy Blazer rear-ends the Subaru. The girls in the crosswalk laugh. They look at me and I shrug. No one appears hurt although it is impossible for us to know for sure.
As the pedestrians take their hard-earned passage across the street, my mind races. Do I need to stay? I am a witness. In fact, I directly caused the accident. If I hadnt stopped at the crosswalk, this wouldnt have happened.
The girls keep walking. They have nothing to worry about. A pedestrian in a crosswalk is the most powerful person on Earth. You could be smoking crack buck naked with an AK-47 slung over your shoulder, and if youre in a crosswalk, youre worth six million dollars if someone hits you.
I contemplate the issue for a good half-second and then take off. Im stoned, and Im not talking to any cops. I get a block up and realized that nobody has stopped to be a witness; in fact, the other cars seem to be fleeing the scene faster than I am.
The rest of the day I look over my shoulder. Of course I dont think Im legally responsible. Some in Boulder may even call me a hero, defender of the crosswalk. But for the two motorists whose days are now ruined, I am to blame. And as I shoot baskets, go to the bank, mail the rent check, and call the paper, I think about how rare it is for me to have an effect on anything, and how scary it is.
I wont be stopping at any more crosswalks.
Heather and I have a two-year-old yellow lab named Xochitl who has unmistakable human qualities. Its our fault really. We got her when she was eight weeks old when we lived in Salida, a small hick town in southwestern Colorado. Part of the problem was isolation. We were poor and lived in an apartment above the bar where I worked. We paid a hundred and thirty bucks a month, and we got what we paid for. The roof leaked so bad that once during a summer thunderstorm, the water pouring through our ceiling filled a fifty-five gallon trash can until it overflowed and leaked through the floor into the bar below.
We took Xochitl out whenever we could, but growing up in a room with little livable space and no other dogs around, everything Xochitl learned, she learned from us. She is a happier reflection of us. Now that we live in the Boulder suburbs and her isolation is complete, her world is one of human emotions and manipulations. She is a fat, juicy ball of pure love. When I come home at night she wiggles and grunts and licks because she loves. Big wet eyes and floppy ears when we eat dinner in front of the television, pouting indifference and sideways glances if I dont let her lick my plate. At night she sleeps under the covers, her head on the pillow, spooning with Heather. Its not enough for Xochitl to sleep on the bed; she has to sleep under the covers because thats what we do and she simply cant comprehend why she shouldntthat shes different from us. If we kick her out of bed she gets deeply insulted. Besides, slipping into bed next to Heather and the dog (both softly snoring, radiating body heat) is truly sublime.
A few days ago Heather and I took Xochitl down to the pond, as we often do at lunch time. Swimming is her passion. Shell swim the frigid rapids of the Arkansas River in the dead of winter if an enticing stick catches her eye, and shell dive into the pond by our house for no reason at all.
There was another couple at the pond. They were trying to teach their eight-month-old golden retriever to swim, but the dog absolutely refused to go in the water. Of course, Xochitl was happy to dive in after the sticks they threw in for their dog, and in this way we made our introductions. They were friendly, good-natured people, as people tend to be.
We suggested throwing their dog into the pond to get her to swimthats how Xochitl learnedbut they were reluctant. Clouds were threatening, and the day was not as warm as it had once been. They had to be going soon, but they were happy to have met us. They were new to the neighborhood and had been wanting to meet people.
We watched a small muskrat or chipmunksome kind of rodentswim up to the muddy bank. It was a funny little thing, paddling on its belly up to shore, leaving a tiny wake. It poked its head up and sniffed, rubbed its face with its arms, and then burrowed into the soft wet earth. Heather called Xochitl over for a look.
Heather is twenty-one years old, six years younger than me, and I dont always understand the things she does. Im not sure if she thought the dog would watch it with curiosity or if she figured Xochitl would never be able to catch the thing, but the dog stuck her head into the mud up to her ears and came up with the little guy twitching and convulsing in her jaws.
Heather snatched away the muskrat and held it in her hands. We could all see the four red puncture wounds in its furry belly. Xochitl stood at attention, tail ridged, ears up, muscles tensed to pounce. We stood around awkwardly. I had to distract Xochitl so Heather could bury the thing without the dog digging it up and eating it.
"Well, we wont do that again," I said as they walked away.
"He was like a little kid who just got a brand new bike that hes been wanting for like... forty years."
-- Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith on John Elway winning the Super Bowl
John Elway announced his retirement a couple weeks after the shootings. He gave his respects to the families of the victims and then asked for a minute of silence. I sit in silence, but my mind doesnt stop. Im studying Johns hair, thinking about the meaning of ticking seconds, seeing the dust on the television screen, digging my feet into the dogs warm underbelly, and there are detached flickers of thought about the Columbine students
And then John is speaking. He cries. I choke up a little. Ive watched John every Sunday in the fall since I was nine. They show highlight clips of John in Super Bowl XXXII, diving into throngs of bloodthirsty Green Bay Packers. Bob Costas describes Elway as a throwback, a guy who wanted to win for the sheer thrill of competition, a noble warrior sacrificing his body for a higher cause.
I cant stop crying now. But then again, I cry easily these days. And then I realize that this deserves a good cry. Johns gritty determination, the long-lost reunions on daytime talk shows, the Kosovo refugees, the Columbine shootings... they all deserve a good cry.
Josh Edelstein clings to the dingleberries of society in Boulder, Colorado. He is slowly stalking a Master's Degree in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and writes novels, screenplays, and short stories on a variety of subjects including cannibalism, the modern malaise, and cattle mutilations.