Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Standoff

 
The vehicle appeared in a field, in the frosty blue glow before dawn. It seemed somehow a natural part of the scene, a painterly composition – not quite dead in the center of the field, but off to one side. I remember my friend in high school who took art class bragging about how her teacher had praised her for drawing objects not in the middle of the sheet but nearer to an edge. I remember thinking I would have probably drawn them in the center, taken the obvious, disappointing tack.

I consider myself to be a sort of Joan Didion of local law enforcement – she wrote: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” Most are polite to my face but make it clear in other ways that they don’t think I’m right for this job. I’m an enigma; they can more easily see me doing something mousy in an office.

I don’t prove them wrong with bombastic bravery and pluck, like an inspirational character in a movie. I make myself indispensable in boring ways – by showing up on time, by doing the homework, by never saying no. I’m game for any assignment, not because of bravery so much as a perverse kind of nihilism, or possibly an unexamined death wish. Or a feeling of being immune, that nothing will ever really harm me – the kind of feeling that comes along with being a privileged member of a society.

I was driving alone, which is my preference. I saw the car in the field. It looked so natural that I almost kept driving. But it was my job to check. The car faced the highway, as if poised for a getaway. I had to drive onto the grass to approach it. Years into this job and still driving on anything besides the road feels thrillingly naughty.

Mist hovered just above the grass like a hem, and the atmosphere was the blue light of dreams. I half expected to see a unicorn go galloping by. Somewhere in the distance the traffic was starting to warm up but not here. Here everything was asleep.

The first thing I noticed when I drove closer to the car was that I couldn’t see through the windows. They were completely frosted over, opaque. The sight spooked and intrigued me. There could be someone inside, or not. A sleeping or dead body, or two Romeo and Juliet kids with noplace else to fuck. Or there could just be emptiness.

I pulled up so my car faced their car. My headlights lit up an out-of-state license plate. I ran the number through my system; it turned up nothing. No easy answers.

I took the key out of the ignition – lights off, silent, no reason for a circus just yet – and opened my door. I stepped onto the slick overgrown grass. The blades bowed as I crushed them. I stopped maybe twelve feet – two graves’ lengths – from the vehicle and stared at it.

There was no wind, just a hush. The sun didn’t seem in a rush to come up – just this blue glow forever.

The edges of the frost on the windows were scalloped, like a doily in an old lady’s house. I remembered looking at snowflakes on the window as a kid, amazed that something so intricate could just occur in nature, without a human brain to design it.

How long could this last? I felt the accumulating chill.

I couldn’t see in. Could they see out?

Take a step. You have to take a step. You have to get outside of your head and do things. You took this path because it would force you to do things.

I took a step.

Beneath me the wet grass bowed. Nature bows to action.

A moment later the driver’s-side door opened. It opened slowly with a prolonged creak, dramatically, as if it were the Phantom of the Opera inside about to appear in a velvet cloak and maudlin mask, to orchestral swells.

Instinctively – no, because it was my job – I drew my weapon, as my colleagues say. As I would say it: I took out my gun.

But no one came out.

My pulse throbbed to life and my head swarmed with options. Run. Stay put. Holler for the person to come outside. Fire a warning shot if they did not.

You took this path because you wanted to do things.


It’s not in my nature to do things.

I decided to wait it out. I stood staring at the vehicle, now with one door hanging open like the ramp of a UFO that invading aliens are about to descend from. I held up my gun but not convincingly; for me it has always been a pose. I surrendered to whatever might happen.

Que sera, sera.
A painterly composition.


I had the sense that I had been hypnotized by the loveliness of the eerie scene, that I didn’t want to disturb it with a burst of gunfire or yelling. Or maybe I felt safe in the silence. It was more like a dream this way. “Dream logic,” they call it, the rules by which dreams occur.

I stood still, forever.

What came out of the car was not a face but a hand with a gun.

I can’t see in but they can see out, through that grandma’s doily of scalloped ice.

I know I was supposed to fire, or at least run. But why resist when you’ve recognized your destiny – that your whole life has been building toward this?

Nature bows to action.

Take me, take me onto your spaceship.

Recommendation

The space agency created a special committee just to review the flood of applications that came in for the new program. The criteria: old age and a happy life. 

The reason for old age was obvious. There was only enough fuel for a one-way ticket to Mars. Classic cocktail-party question: "Would you go?" If you answered yes, you were adventurous; no, you were boring but pragmatic. 

There was no then-conceivable way to bring more fuel for a trip home; the cost and logistics boggled the genius scientists' brains. Maybe someday they could do that, but right now this was the best they could do.

The reason for requiring the applicants had lived a happy life was less scientific, more superstitious, and formally objected to by more than one member of the normally staunchly rational committee: the agency didn’t want any ghosts on their hands, moaning about unfinished business from beyond the grave. 

(It was also a PR thing: The mission was to be seen as a glorious sending-off, a tearful hero's farewell complete with YouTube montage set to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World"; sticking an embittered curmudgeon in the ship would send the wrong vibe.)

One-way ticket, no coming home.


Yet they received a flood of applications.

Even from young people. They would die young but be immortal. These applications were discarded as soon as the reviewers looked at the DOB.

An English professor was brought in to scrutinize the life stories. A psychologist, too. Who had lived the happiest life? Who had seen enough, done enough, to be ready to go?

After months of reviewing applications in a top-secret room, amid speculative reports in the news, the committee issued its unanimous recommendation: No one was ready to go. Each candidate still had life to live. They would send no one to that glorious but certain death far from home.