The Look of the Place – a short

I was nineteen when I should have died. I say that now in light of everything that’s happened since, and because of the look on the face of the boy who could have pulled the trigger. It was the look of a place, not just a person. It happened somewhere far away – or at least it’s far away from where I am right now. I won’t tell you where. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself. It’s one thing to read a fictional account, another thing to go there and see the look of the place for yourself. The look where everything is telling you in the clearest of possible terms to go away right now and never come back again ever.

I should not have been there in the first place. If destiny is the path you’re on, then destiny can be mistaken sometimes too. It is not immune to the conditions of existence. Sometimes destiny screws up and there you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know it’s true. I don’t believe in the chain of events. I am in fact against, in principle, the laws of cause and effect. This opposition doesn’t do me any good, but I take my stand nonetheless. One thing may or may not lead to another. It’s possible that one thing and another might collide quite randomly instead. This is what happened to me.

It wasn’t really a trigger the boy could have pulled. It was a knife, and he did pull it. And there wasn’t just one boy. There were two of them. And they were not alone. There were two men too. Another time it was just two boys. And another time it was just one man. And one time it was an actual trigger that belonged to a machine gun that was cocked against my skull. One time it was a group of kids, no knives or guns, just hands and feet. All of them conspiring to send the message of the place, wearing the look, and saying the words in a foreign language.

I was just passing through. This is the excuse of the innocent bystander. I say it and immediately I want to take it back, because it sounds like one thing leading to another. I was one place, I was going somewhere else, and I was just passing through along the way. The truth is I really screwed up. I made mistakes. It wasn’t just me. Other people were involved. People I trusted when I had no reason to. At nineteen I didn’t understand that you just can’t go around trusting people or believing what they say. People will hurt you for the hell of it and they don’t give a shit. They stand around and laugh. They say what the hell. They say fuck him, who gives a damn? Some people at nineteen know these things.

Apparently I didn’t, and yet I’d been on my own awhile by then. I wasn’t just some rookie or rube that wandered off and got lost in the big bad city. I knew my way around. No one could tell me anything. Do somebody a favor, they will owe you one. Give and get. Put a deposit on faith and get a bonus award on credit. That’s why I would do the things I did. Help a poor ex-leper. Take some money to the bank. Help an old lady cross the street.

This lady had warned me once and did I listen? No. She had the look of the place and I didn’t even see it. I didn’t come to recognize that look until a long time after the facts. The look was the last bus leaving just before you got there. It was the blank page on the passport where the rubber stamp should have been. It was the ticket home waiting in a suitcase in a closet in a city far away. It was the look of railroad passengers ducking beneath the seats while the bullets shattered windows and the workers fell on the tracks outside in the rain. It was a jail cell they charged you for, top dollar.

Listen. When they offer to sell you cocaine, and you don’t know who they are, you should probably not say yes. Or when it’s two kids with switchblades hanging out in the hallway you should probably stay inside. Or when somebody wants you to cash in counterfeit bills at the National Bank, you should probably just say no. Or when they bring the gun up to your face and politely ask for all the money in the drawer, I would give it to them, really. Does anyone have to be told these things? Well, me for one. At least when I was nineteen.

The look of the place was something like laughing at a joke that isn’t funny. You laugh to make the jokester feel stupid, to make him know how funny it wasn’t, you laugh with hostility and pain. The look of the place is to shut you up and to put you down, to chase you out and make sure you don’t come back. It’s the way the place has of killing you without the bother of actual death. The way that children kill each other every day with the little hurts they do, and the way that grownups around the water cooler at the office or at the picnic in the park or on the phone late at night or in the privacy of your thoughts. The look of the place is the door that closes behind you. It’s the person you used to know.

When I should have died, I didn’t really know what was happening. I guess I was too surprised. I felt the knife at my throat. I felt the gun at my head. I felt the shock of the moment, but only for a moment. After that I froze. I remember walking away in a daze, every time. I remember shaking for a long time afterwards. I remember a sense of disbelief, that such a thing could have happened, to me of all people, and there of all places. Then I forget, and for a long time go on, from one thing to another, one day to the next, in the chain of events, in the cause and effect, until something changes, and suddenly I see the look of the place, and it takes me right back.

I saw it today, in the face of a friend. It was all about saying goodbye.

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