All Be Changed
It’s been decades since I was anything that could remotely, and then only with a great deal of finessing, be called a Christian. But as far back as I can remember I was drawn to stories about the end, the end of everything, the parade of humanity before the face of god in the final hours of the world’s long history of soil and flesh and bone. The church I was taken to espoused a literal reading of the King James text, which in its dramatic details and implications frequently seems the least likely thing imaginable. But fundamentalist faith often insists on belief in contradictory ideas at once—a perfectly benevolent creator who would purposely immolate those of his own creatures who didn’t love him; a physical body shaped by god, in god’s image, somehow filthy and venal in its basic and thoroughly ordinary needs.
I didn’t mind stories about death and destruction, and I really don’t remember fearing them except abstractly and at a distance, as you might a prediction of thunderstorms. Even as a child I gravitated to them. I was a bookish kid, the son of a librarian, and I spent what time was my own reading what I could get into my hands. Stories were how I made sense of the world, and even violence, well-narrated, made sense to me. Each time the thrice-weekly sermons I was taken to centered on the book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, I listened to the voice at the front of the room delivering the stories of the lake of fire, the figures of clay and brass, smoke and darkness, the rising up and falling down, and I hoped more than anything for new and vivid details. Even as its narrative particulars seemed outlandish—the oral recounting of every beneficent and selfish act in every human life throughout history; the voice of god at last taking the form of nothing more unearthly than common sound—the part of me that understood anger and vengeance wanted it to be true. That every accounting would come to zero. That we’d all be paid. In song or in agony.
My earliest attempts to move past my body’s limits were sensory. I didn’t drink alcohol until I was eighteen years old. My family, every single one, were teetotalers. But starting at fifteen, I ate and smoked and inhaled a buffet of chemicals in what became a recurrent attempt to break up the signal, to interrupt the narrative my body told me of the world. I worked after school at a small drugstore, the sort of mom-and-pop establishment that changes in the pharmaceutical industry’s legalities have now put out of commission. Very little of the inventory was counted in any meaningful way. I looked up dosage recommendations and side effects, and I stole drugs and then I ate them. It was a variation, I think, of the same impulse that once made me fold my arms in and roll down hillsides, or whirl in a circle, to feel the world tilt and slip at an angle when I finally came to rest.
I never, never once, accepted the notion of the body as a temple. I believed in the body, my own body anyway, as a carnival, an amusement park. I wanted to be strapped in and blown around a curve at a sudden high rate of speed, then flung up and suddenly thrown down and hurled around again. I was taken with speed and slope and angle, the pressure of a high hard turn when the blood collects on one side and just at the farthest point you slow and return to ground. That was the moment I liked. The farthest point.
The usual ancillary trouble followed—cuts, bruises, vomit, confusion regarding distance and velocity, at the very farthest points the loss of speech and motor skills. I really didn’t mind any of it. Early on I knew I didn’t want to die without scars, and even before I could articulate it this way, I thought the lasting evidence of the body’s harm the unavoidable result of simple mileage. A bad bloody scuff under the chin when I missed a drunken climb into a top bunk; two fractured middle knuckles on the fingers of my left hand that reshaped them into slight parentheses. I didn’t mind damage, and I didn’t mind violence. And soon I began chasing them for their own merits, without the mediation of chemicals.
At fourteen I was badly stomped by two men in a truck who accosted a group of us coming out of a late movie downtown. As we stood on the street corner just after midnight and the truck rolled through the intersection under the amber wash sodium arc lights I did something, made some elaborate motion with my hands as part of some ongoing joke or routine my friends and I were running. The truck went about a half-block farther, then hooked a U-turn in the middle of the road and pulled up beside us. Two men got out. They looked old to me then, though likely they weren’t much older than me, late teens, early 20s. One got right up in front of me. Who you givin’ the finger, boy? I told him I hadn’t. Yeah you fuckin did. He slapped me once, then, hard, across the face.
I stood silent, head down. I’d been told all my life not to fight; I’d avoided fights throughout school by figuring out how to make people laugh. I stood very still. He hit me again, in the side of my head near my right eye. He stepped back, kicked his boot-tip up into my belly. I went down like all my strings had been cut. I hit the ground hard and stayed there, folded inward, my knees against my stomach. All the air left my body and didn’t come back in. My gut locked tight. One of my friends stepped up, not to fight, but to try to calm the two men down. He was, of course, knocked to the ground by the second man. My friend kept getting up, stupidly, and getting sent back down. I stayed on the grass by the sidewalk. No other cars passed. Eventually the men left. We walked back to the theater to call our ride home. As we waited at the streetside phone box, behind the glass door of the locked theater entranceway a janitor mopping the floor pointed at me and grinned, and quickly shadowboxed his own face. You got your ass kicked, boy.
There had been rehearsals, of course, before that night. The first fight I ever remember getting into wasn’t really a fight at all, more a performance another kid and I entered into for the benefit of a group of onlookers who egged us on in our argument over something. I was nine or ten, something like that. We were in the alleyway behind the elementary school. Something happened to kick it off, and we grabbed each other at the shirt collars, pushed and pulled, but without any real force. It felt dishonest and, after only a few seconds, vaguely embarrassing. We began gripping each other the way we’d seen pro wrestlers do on television, but weakly, lightly. During a close clinch I caught his eye. We were both grinning broadly, the way nervous kids do when they’ve committed to a public action but already more or less decided it’s pointless, and given the choice they’d back out of it or, even better, disappear entirely. We grappled for a bit, then separated, making a loud show of not being bothered by the hurt we pretended we’d inflicted on each other.
Our man threw the first punch, I think, and we all fell in. This is how fake narratives of violence will lie to you. I’d seen that move in dozens of movies throughout the years, but the moment I tried it myself, the moment the cue cracked over his shoulders, I knew I’d been jobbed.
Harder hits followed. In 1995, in one of the poorest decisions of my life, I broke a pool cue over the back of a man during a multi-participant bar fight. I was in grad school and a group of us were at a local establishment, well-oiled. Another patron, his own crew tagging along behind him, began harassing the girlfriend of one of our group, and when the boyfriend moved into position nearby we all followed. Our man threw the first punch, I think, and we all fell in. This is how fake narratives of violence will lie to you. I’d seen that move in dozens of movies throughout the years, but the moment I tried it myself, the moment the cue cracked over his shoulders, I knew I’d been jobbed. Of course it had no effect on him: It was a pool cue. He came at me madder than he’d been a second ago. Luckily I was also wearing steel-capped boots, which was my preferred choice of footwear in those thrilling days. I swung twice, missed once, connected once with a fist and once with a boot, and the fight gradually collapsed into retreating flanks. At some point we were all simply backing away from each other, and we got the hell out of there and away down the street in different directions before the cops could show.
The public violence in my life has largely been this way—halfheartedly committed, the result of thoroughly avoidable situations that happened to escalate badly. Most of the serious violence, the kind I knowingly, gladly threw myself into, has been private or self-directed. It’s visible still when I lift my hands or survey my body in a mirror. The permanently swollen right middle knuckle, the result of a series of four stupid punches slammed directly into hardwood furniture. A slightly flattened fingertip, its rounded edge sliced away entirely with a knife. The thin straight scar at the base of my left thumb, and the ragged one down the center of middle finger on the same hand. The divots in my chest from the days when I was in my twenties and full of rage and lifted weights to exhaustion, until I couldn’t form my hands into fists anymore, and I went at myself with a knife in short strokes at the shoulder and the arms, then sat on the couch filling myself with booze and smoke.
Punched walls, broken glass, blood in the mouth. And later, on some occasions, the erotics of violence, the bedpartner who described to me exactly where and how and for how long she wanted to be made to feel pain, and of what sort; and my own wary agreement, because as accommodating as I wanted to be, and despite my utter lack of concern over how people choose to attain their private joy, I also knew with perfect clarity that this was a thing, erotic or no, that I was easily capable of, the imposition of force, and I knew how taken I could be with it.
Part of a violent life, any violent life, is inherited from without. The human history, our American history: race and violence, god and violence, money and violence, sex and violence. Bombs blow, churches burn, drones pass overhead. We’re the ones who make it so. Often it seems our default setting, the only strategy we finally believe in. But most of my own has been my own choice, a rejection of nonviolence as a tactic and practice because I wanted it to reserve force as a tool for self-protection, for pushing my own limits of endurance and stamina. Maybe for transformation. Maybe what I was taken with, what I’ve always been taken with, isn’t the precarious wobble on the farthest point at all, but the lasting changes that came to me there. For years I bragged that I’d never gotten myself into anything so deeply, drugs or love or trouble, that I couldn’t get back out under my own strength. But another way to say that is that I’ve always looked for opportunities to get myself into drugs and love and trouble. Time and again. To balance at the far end, to waver, and to come back scarred, sick, a small part ruined.
It’s been decades, as I said, since I’ve felt anything that could be called religious faith at all. But some months ago I had a dream, the most vivid I can remember having in years. I was in my own home, on the porch, in a summer evening, standing with a friend from years ago, a man who in life I haven’t seen since we were in our twenties. The sky was dark, the air itself was dark, but somehow transparent for all that: a deep and vivid cobalt blue. In the dream I’d prepared meats: a tray of kebabs, heavy hunks of red muscle big as fists, threaded onto a half-dozen steel skewers, bleeding slowly onto the metal pan on the porch table. On an adjacent plate lay a seasoned loin, wet from its brine bath, under a loose tent of foil. In the first instant of the dream I looked at the prepared meats and thought I should have chilled these, they’ve been sitting in the air, they’re going to go bad. And exactly when the thought came I saw, near the pan, a huge hornet hovering just above the table. Another crept lazily on a chair back. Two more hummed with a thrum like hot wires in the air above me. A lighter, irregular series of clicks came near my feet, and I turned to see two beetles—what looked like beetles, but squat and wide as soup bowls—one on its flat back, its serrated legs churning slowly and stupidly as it tried to flip itself, the other upright and mobile, scuttling over the coarse carpet of the porch.
A low grunt then, sharp and heavy, a sound I seemed to feel deep in my chest. I looked from the porch through the blue air. In the street two fat mottled hogs stood at angles to each other, one common and ordinary, the other, impossibly, winged. Its wings were folded against its sallow bristled sides, translucent and segmented like a dragonfly’s. The hogs swung the burden of their great heads from side to side, peered into the windows of the houses on the block. The winged one shook his shoulders and rose slowly into the air. He tucked his hooves beneath his body in a manner strangely gentle, elegant. The common hog stood, unconcerned, and took no apparent notice of his companion’s rising.
We stepped from the porch then, my friend and I, across the sidewalk and into the roadway, as did my neighbors, unlocking doors and spilling into the open spaces. And now I saw the sky for the first time, a boundaryless roiling of clouds thick as oil, rolling over and across each other at a wild mix of altitudes. I looked overhead, directly above, where a shaggy spiral of cloud had torn itself loose and begun to rotate clockwise, like a whirlpool in a fast river. When I lowered my eyes, I saw a clutch of vaporous tendrils had begun to pour from the sky and funnel into a nearby lawn, ghostly tethers tunneling down and down, beneath the grass.
And I looked again. Far away, as it might have been miles in the distance, a bright orb broke and lowered through the scudded sky and hovered there, high above the world, for a long moment. The orb blinked once and was gone. In its place came a soft, weak column of light, whose source was within the clouds. We walked in the street wearing our various faces, and a slow echoing note began. And I thought, Here it is. I knew then what we seem to have to learn over and over: that the impact, however it arrived, would not take the shape we’d been taught to expect, but would change us nonetheless. We stood then, all of us, in the skins we’d been born to, and waited, still and patient, for what would come: the emptying of our known bodies, the long thunder tone, the solemn recounting of the damage we’d done to ourselves and each other, the forms we would assume in response.
Eric Waggoner's academic research, cultural criticism, and creative writing have appeared in many venues, including the Hemingway Review and a/b: The Journal of Autobiographical Studies; the Village Voice, New Times, and Metro Times newspaper chains; and Magnet magazine, where he has been a Contributing Writer since 2007. He is the founder and Managing Editor of Latham House Press in Buckhannon West Virginia, where he also teaches in the MFA Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.