Sunday, May 29, 2011

Words Raised By Wolves

The Time I Didn’t Meet Christopher Walken
By Martin Mundt

I’d just gone into the 7-11, the one right down the street from where I live, on the corner maybe half-a-block away. I go there pretty regularly, so I had no reason to expect that this trip would be any different from any other trip, but on that particular day – and I don’t even remember any more exactly what I’d gone there for – but on that particular day, in that particular place, I found the metaphysical intersection of All days and All places.
I found Truth.
And by the end of the story, you’ll see what I mean.
So, anyway, I walked in, and I don’t think I’d even stepped off the floor mat onto the tile before these two guys charged through the door behind me. The first one practically pulled my shoes off by stepping on the heels, he was so close and in such a rush. I don’t know how I could’ve missed seeing them outside, but I did somehow. I often think now how my life would have been changed had I seen them, had I not gone into the 7-11. But I didn’t, and I did, and I don’t know if any change would have been for the better, or the worse.
So, anyway, the first guy through the door wore these big, baggy jeans just long enough to cover his knees, and so wide they made his calves look like chicken bones. He wore a huge t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of some video game or rip-rap music band; I think there was an eye, and a woman, and definitely a knife. Maybe a motorcycle. Or a Stairmaster with tires. A word floated in and around the images, but the letters were tangled and intertwined with each other like the branches of bare trees, so I couldn’t read it. I don’t know what the young people listen to or watch these days, so I can’t identify it any more exactly than that.
The guy was in his mid-twenties, and he had shaved his head, leaving his scalp glossy, almost waxed. And he wasn’t the kind of guy who should’ve shaved his head, either, at least not in my opinion, since he had a profusion of angles in his skull, like he’d spent his years as an infant standing on his head on a waffle iron. He wore a boomerang-shaped kukri knife stuffed into his belt, a heavy, foot-long blade at least, a style of weapon native to the Indian subcontinent. His personality seemed neatly encompassed by the blade – crooked, dangerous, and as intelligent as brightly-honed steel; it stuck out of his belt as if he himself came equipped with a handle, the better to be easily gripped and wielded by others.
The second guy through also wore the short, baggy jeans – I guess it must be the style these days – but instead of a t-shirt, he wore a black wife-beater, the better to display the many tattoos covering his shoulders and arms. Most of the tattoos, like Wafflehead’s logo, flowed into unrecognizable shapes as far as I could tell, but one I remember with perfect clarity. He had a photo-realistic reproduction of his driver’s license tattooed across his sternum, in a Gothic script that looked as if each letter had been cut out of a Gutenberg Bible and then pasted together like a ransom note. He had a goatee and sideburns below his chin in both the license photo and in real life. According to the license, his name was Dexter Robey.
“This is a robbery!” he yelled.
Did I mention they carried guns? Automatic pistols so big they looked more like clubs than firearms. Well, the guy behind the counter and I had already figured out the robbery part, from the drawn guns, before Dexter had even said a word. Oh, and I think you will have noticed from my description so far that neither of them wore a mask, or any sort of disguise. I began to sense a grave and probably dangerous lack of planning in this robbery, which might lead to their downfall.
Unless, of course, they planned on leaving no witnesses.
At that moment, I began to regret my trip to the 7-11.
“This is a robbery!” Dexter yelled. Again. You should understand, I only repeat this because he repeated it. I don’t know why he repeated it. Perhaps he wanted to make sure we didn’t think he and Wafflehead were there to sell their pistols to us. And now, of course, I will never know.
So, anyway, Wafflehead shoved his gun in my face, holding it tipped over on its side like in the movies, and said, “Don’t move.”
I hadn’t moved up to that point, and I saw no reason to start, so I did what he said.
He smiled; I remember one gold and many yellow teeth. And then we all stood there for a few seconds, not moving. They didn’t pursue their advantage. I don’t know why. Maybe they had expected resistance, or heroics, or guard dogs, or a 16-ton weight falling on their heads when they entered. I can’t say for certain, but once again, I detected the whiff of poor planning. Or maybe they were just the kind of people who didn’t know how to handle success. In which case, I could sympathize with them.
Anyway, that’s when Christopher Walken walked in.
You know Christopher Walken: the star of Pennies from Heaven, Prophecy, and Annie Hall. Raise your hands if you know him. Don’t be self-conscious. Good. Well, I want you to picture him in your minds; I want you to summon up all your memories of him right now, everything, the way he looks, the way he smiles, the cadence of his speech, his particular personal scent if you are familiar with it. I want you to feel the beat of his heart under the skin of his wrist, and then I want you to put all of that … that life right into your cerebral cortex, right between your eyes, front and center and in the now; I want you to do all that while I’m telling you this story; I want you to filter the Christopher Walken of my story through the living, breathing, glowing aura of pure personality that you’ve just conjured up in your minds and let the colors and textures of your own personal Christopher Walkens suffuse your experience of my story. Can you do that? Good. Then back to the story.
He walked in, and he stepped between Dexter and Wafflehead, so close that he brushed the matte-black muzzle of Dexter’s pistol as he passed, and which he seemed not to notice at all. He wore a gray suit and a white, French-cuffed shirt unbuttoned at the neck. A neon blue tie dangled from his jacket pocket, as bright as an arc of electricity sparking across the gray fabric.
And his hair! How do I do justice to his hair? His hair perched on his head like a small, prize-winning dog waiting for a treat, all the time radiating the thrill of anticipation, attuned to the vibrations of the universe, perfect in its tonsorial imperfections. Envy was not even possible when confronted with such lush and luxuriant and unique hair, only admiration. I thought Wafflehead might start crying for what could have been.
Anyway, he passed between Dexter and Wafflehead and went straight to the counter, passing close by me, and I can tell you that I am now privileged to know, from first-hand experience, Christopher Walken’s personal scent. He smelled of rainbows, and of love, and of the sea. I can describe it no better. I felt lightheaded upon inhaling his subtle but intoxicating scent, but I forced myself to remain focused. He stopped at the counter, but didn’t speak. Instead, he glanced at all the impulse buys spread around the register.
You will have noticed by now that the logic of our situation, by which I mean the robbery – you remember the robbery, don’t you? – had begun to unravel. Dexter and Wafflehead had begun with a frayed and tattered rag, to be sure, but now it began to fall to pieces right in their very hands.
Because we couldn’t take our eyes off Christopher Walken. The robbery now became a secondary or tertiary consideration at best, its importance quickly fading to complete insignificance. Decisions and actions that had seemed vital, even life-defining, only moments before, now seemed only the shadows of life, lines written by others, parts played and then left scattered upon a stage. Christopher Walken was the actor, and yet we were the ones stumbling over our lines and missing our marks. He seized life, the now, the moment. We had stared what we thought were the ultimate questions of life and death in the face, until he ripped our attention away from petty bullets and blood and death – to himself.
“How much … is gum?” he said to the clerk.
The question sounded like a test, filled with hidden meanings and secret possibilities. The clerk hesitated, suspicious, not wanting to give an incorrect answer, and then whispered, “Depends on which gum.”
Christopher Walken thought about that. We could all see him working the information around and around inside his head. He is an actor; he displayed his internal life on his face, like tattoos from one to another, for all of us to see. None of us could take our eyes off of him as he mulled over the clerk’s answer. His lips moved, and we trembled on the verge of revelation. An eyebrow arched, and we held our breath. The eyebrow relaxed, and we sighed in relief. A cheek ticked, and we cringed in sudden fear. One eye squinted, and we spun dizzily, cast adrift from lifelong certainties. He ran his right hand over his hair and down the back of his neck, replacing one type of perfect tonsorial imperfection with another. And then he seized a package of gum with one hand, so fast it was as if he had had the package in his hand from the moment he had entered. I gasped. Dexter flinched. Wafflehead merely blinked, his mouth hanging open.
“How about … this one?” he said, holding the gum up for the clerk to see.
“Sixty-nine cents,” said the clerk. He said it half as a question, almost as if he thought that a thing he knew to be a fact could somehow be wrong. And then a look of panic exploded in his eyes as he realized that he was wrong. “And tax,” he hurried to add.
Christopher Walken put the gum back. “Thank you,” he said, and he turned around.
We watched. No TV or movie screen diluted the power of his presence. Rainbows and love and the sea walked past me a second time. He turned into the snacks aisle, and suddenly, I too became interested in snacks. And so did Dexter. I saw it in his eyes, in the tensing of his muscles, as if he could hardly keep himself from following. Wafflehead merely salivated down his chin.
He mesmerized us. All I can say is that he is a celebrity for damn good reason.
He stopped, picked up a 99 cent bag of potato chips, held it up to his ear, and shook it. His expression soured; he didn’t like what he heard, and our mood soured as well. We didn’t like what he didn’t like, regardless of why – we didn’t know why, and we didn’t care. He replaced the bag on the shelf and picked up the next, shook it, and listened to the chips rattle inside as if he were listening to the tumblers of the combination lock to the Gates of Heaven. But the sounds of this bag too failed to woo his interest, failed to yield up to him whatever a bag of chips was supposed to yield up to him. He put it back. I mentally cursed the chip manufacturer for his clearly defective product. We began to get nervous. What would happen if he didn’t find what he was looking for? Would our lives never be the same again? He shook a third, then a fourth, then a fifth bag. He shook every single bag of potato chips on that shelf, regardless of brand or flavor, but only the 99 cent bags, and not the corn chips, or the Cheetos, or the Doritos.
Does all of this strike you as odd? I can understand that. But you weren’t there, under his spell. And think about this: we watched him shake every single bag of 99 cent potato chips on the shelf. We held our collective breath while we waited for each successive decision he made about the mysterious, elusive sounds of shaken potato chips. As if those decisions might somehow fill a yawning void in us, in our own souls, when and if he found what he was looking for. My god, how I yearned to know exactly what he was listening for! My soul groaned, empty with a hunger that I felt only the right potato chips could fill. Dexter and Wafflehead stopped pointing their pistols, their arms hanging limp at their sides. Mystification glazed their eyes.
What the hell was he doing?
He is a celebrity. I cannot stress that enough. What he did mattered, no matter what it was. His actions were important because he was a celebrity. We all felt it. He compelled our fascination. He placed meaning inside every one of those bags by his actions and reactions. Hope blossomed inside each of our hearts as he picked up each bag, and disappointment crushed our hearts when he rejected it. Our lives disappeared into his life. Our concerns faded. He reached inside our souls and replaced our aspirations with his.
And then he finished with the bags, and came back to us empty-handed, as if he had walked out onto the shimmering waves of a tumultuous lake, and now returned to us from where we had been unable to follow. He looked at each of us in turn, as if for the first time.
“What on earth … was I looking for?” he said, looking into each of our eyes, one after another.
“Potato chips?” tried Dexter.
“Yeah, yeah, potato chips,” said Wafflehead, his chin glossy with spittle, and then he squinted and sucked and shook his head. “No, no, not potato chips, not potato chips. Something else, yeah, something else inside the potato chips, like, like, a prize or something, yeah, that’s it, a prize, right?”
And then Christopher Walken looked into my eyes.
“I … don’t know,” I said.
He grinned. “That’s good,” he said, and I felt stupidly pleased that I had managed to be clever in front of Christopher Walken. “Because,” he said, “I don’t know what I was looking for either.” He winked at me, still grinning. “But I’ll know it when I find it.”
And then he looked past us, at the register.
The clerk had disappeared. The door behind the counter, into the back room, was ajar. Christopher Walken picked up the same pack of gum as before, then looked right and left behind the counter, holding the gum, waiting for the non-existent clerk to ring him up. After a moment, he turned to us again.
“How much … is tax, do you think?” he said.
“No!” Wafflehead screamed, shaking his head. I imagined cobwebs breaking apart and drifting across the vast, empty wastes of his brain. “No! It’s a prize!”
His existential howl seemed to shake Dexter out of his reverie. His eyes focused for the first time since Christopher Walken had entered.
“This is a robbery!” he yelled, raising his pistol.
“A priiiize!” wailed Wafflehead like a maimed howler monkey. “Like Crackerjack!”
His mind had tasted, and then spit out the concept of knowing what he didn’t know being the beginning of wisdom. He did not want abstractions; he could comprehend only little plastic toy whistles.
And guns.
He jerked his pistol up, pointing it at Christopher Walken.
Danger and dread flooded back into my brain; my medulla swelled as it prepared to take over my actions. But I didn’t care for my own self-preservation. The first thought that flashed across my mind, even as adrenaline was dumped into my bloodstream like a toxic mixture of hydrofluoric acid and amyl nitrate, was to throw my body between the gun and Christopher Walken. I almost welcomed the threat, and the honor of sacrificing myself for a celebrity.
But Christopher Walken proved faster than any of us.
He snatched the kukri knife out of Wafflehead’s belt, so fast and so unexpected that I don’t think any of us even realized exactly what he had done until the blade began to cut; and then two hands, each holding a pistol, thumped to the floor, and two tattooed stumps pumped out sprays of blood.
But he didn’t stop there; the knife kept flashing through the air, so fast it was as if the blade flew of its own accord, like a killer hummingbird, slashing and hacking through flesh and bone as easily as if Dexter and Wafflehead had been made of nothing more substantial than origami, so sharp and fast that blood didn’t even stick to its steel. He did things to them with that knife that I didn’t think were humanly possible. Let me be clear about what I mean here: I never for a moment imagined that a human being who had feelings which could even tangentially be called ‘human’, who had ever had even a stray feeling, however faint, however fleeting, which could be called in any way ‘compassionate’, could possibly do the things he did to another human being. In fact, I maintain that he went about his business like a super-intelligent, robot, insect god.
And then I blinked, and it was done. Dexter and Wafflehead lay in unintelligible, anti-jigsaw pieces on the floor. Christopher Walken gripped their decapitated heads, one in each hand, Dexter hanging by a fistful of hair, and Wafflehead upended as if he were a bowling ball, the kukri buried up to its hilt in his neck.
My adrenaline thudded to a stop.
“I don’t like guns,” he said. “But knives … “ He shrugged. “Knives are okay. Now go on, get out … of here. I’ll take care of … all … this.” And then he winked at me again and grinned. His eyes twinkled, as did the drops of bright-red blood splattered across his grin.
What could I do? I started to leave, but before I reached the door, he spoke to me one last time.
“Oh,” he said. “One more thing.”
I didn’t turn around.
“You don’t … know me,” he said. “I … wasn’t here.”
I couldn’t speak. I wondered why the kukri hadn’t finished me too. I was still a witness.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
I nodded and walked out the door.
I read every word in every newspaper for days. I watched every news show on TV that I could. I listened to the radio. I searched the internet, but – nothing.
I never found any mention of Dexter, or Wafflehead, or any problem of any kind at any 7-11, including the one down the street from where I live. Or about Christopher Walken and a kukri knife. Go and look for yourself. You’ll see. There’s nothing. Not a mention of the incident exists anywhere.
But I know that somewhere, out there in the city, somewhere in the quiet basement of an old, decrepit factory; or in an empty lot on a lonely street of condemned houses; or at the bottom of a sluggish sewage canal; or in the corner of an old, abandoned rail-yard, under a pile of forgotten railroad ties, lie two unmarked graves.
Graves filled by Christopher Walken.
Or maybe more than two, somewhere, for all I know. Who can say? Not me. All I can say is that he taught me a powerful truth – that celebrity possesses an energy, a vitality, a qi, if you will, that can be terrifying in its naked power to stupefy, or uplift, or kill. I was lucky. I was uplifted. But be careful if you are ever confronted with a celebrity outside of the public spotlight; touch that energy if you must, but touch it with reverence and awe and humility, or else … well, let me just leave it at ‘or else’.
Because celebrities are not like you and me.
They are much better, and much, much worse.
Oh, and by the way, Christopher Walken never cut two men to pieces with a kukri knife in the 7-11 down the street from where I live, saving my life in the process, because I don’t know him, and he wasn’t there. Treat this entire story as nothing but a metaphor, or a parable, or even a treatment for a film. As anything but reality. Because, in fact, I know nothing at all about Christopher Walken.
I’ve never even heard of him.
And that is the beginning of wisdom.

- The End -

1 comment:

  1. I really love this story -- especially the satire about our culture's cult of celebrity.