My heart was thrashing. Both ears throbbed and felt wet with either blood or sweat. The last time an ear hurt like this was when I got hit in the ear by a right hook in a boxing match. It was blood then. This time it was both ears. My normal rest pulse was 45. I was at 90 on my health monitor watch. My attention focused on controlling my breathing, not hyperventilating. Dizzy. Lost, alone, and in the dark—and I was supposed to be leading the gang of us out of trouble. I had taken a risk to lead them out. Now I was in the soup myself.
Coyotes howled in the distance across the shallow hills. Animals didn’t scare me. I had killed wild dogs with my bare hands just to make it to school in one piece growing up in South Philly. I wasn’t afraid of wild animals; they should be afraid of me. I can handle myself, better than most. Were they coyotes? I’m a freaking city boy. I know what rats sound like, what the nest of cockroaches under the church sounds like, but I’m not a coyote expert. The nature channel seemed to be all Africa all the time, never anything about the creatures in bumfuck, flyover country, USA. Commie bastards.
“Breath in quick, count to four when you let it out. Pause before breathing again,” I said to myself, as if I were a victim of a housefire whom I was administering first aid after pulling the out of a fire.
It was flat to me, but they called it hill country. They called it the black hills of North Dakota. They looked purple to me against the sunset a few hours ago, not black. Now everything was black. It was cold as a witch’s tit. Maybe they were raccoons? What noises did raccoons make? The Beatles song was about rocky raccoons in the black mountain hills. Sad how little I knew about this place.
Growing up in South Philly was growing up in the great indoors. The two-story row houses had a common wall on either side and were separated from the row house across the street by less space than a courtyard in the big houses on the north side. You could hear the neighborhood couples arguing about nonsense, filling the empty spaces so they wouldn’t have to think, with the reflections off the windowpanes and stucco acting as a night light. If the wind blew hard enough, the winter snow skipped some streets in the winter. You wouldn’t believe it unless you had been there. The wide-open space was overwhelming. It was like stepping into nothingness. If Shakespeare was right and all the world was a stage, this was backstage and off-world, freaking lost in space.
I had never been seasick, not once. Is there such a thing as land sick? I threw up a little, in my mouth. I started to spit and thought better of it and swallowed it back. It might attract something that wanted to eat it. I don’t know if I can fight off wild animals while choking on my own vomit. Dammit, pulse up to 100. I had to stop looking at the stupid watch, it didn’t help and was ruining my night vision, making things worse.
The cacophony of maybe-raccoon, maybe-coyote noises were increasing and getting closer. Maybe it was bigfoot. If you eyeball the abyss, the abyss eyeballs you.
I had learned something. City dark was not dark at all. I didn’t know what dark was. This was what Nietzche meant by the abyss, and it was surrounding me, looking into me on all sides, above me, below me, behind me. Nietzche said when you look into the abyss, it looks into you—don’t look into it! Yet it surrounded me.
The faintness of the milky way danced around me like the ghosts of zombie fireflies, giving the illusion of a cloud of them that could be touched if I would just reach for it. Milky way always seemed like a dumb name for a bunch of stars, why name a couple stars after a piece of candy? It made some sense now, in the moment. I felt like I was falling, falling up, falling sideways, unstuck in space and time. I staggered like a drunk.
I am not afraid of anything. I run where I want to run and dare the gang bangers to stop me. I challenge my physics professors because they can’t do anything to me if I get the right answers, it is more thrilling to make them give me an A because I earned it and not because I kissed their asses like my classmates. They say I like being disagreeable. This is because I challenge them and make them earn their pay and do their jobs. I go where I want to go in the world, say what I want to say. Before I went to college, I fought fires. When others rush out, I rush in. I felt something new, something foreign. Trepidation? Fear? I am not afraid of anything. Humbled I have learned I am afraid of nothing, the great nothing, the abyss.
I was shaking. It was from the cold, yet I was sweating. My bottom itched, maybe from the seeping cold sweat inching down my back like a spider. I told myself it was just from the cold. Suddenly I was rescued from the moment by something sinking its teeth into my left forearm. It was excruciating, wonderful, grounding pain, an old friend from the world of light and things. I pinioned the back of the creature’s neck and head with my other forearm and forced it toward me, crossing my arms over my chest like a punk rapper saying “wassup yo” only with this beast jammed between my forearms, its gagging mouth popped open and hissing as its jaws let go with my forearm jamming it open further, my right forearm providing isometric pressure on its neck. I was surprised to see it was a wildcat of some kind. Maybe the biggest housecat I had ever seen. Perhaps a lynx? Who knew? Not me. It smelled like when you run over a dead skunk, but not as strong. Big cats tended to hunt alone in freaking Africa, which was good if cats were the same out here. I dispatched it quickly, choking it to death, as my pulse slowed, and dizziness disappeared. Serves me right for going out on my own. I am sure I would find the others in the morning.
“Excellent idea,” I chided myself out loud with deep sarcasm. Go off on my own, free climb the big cliff rock and do some recon—only I got lost going back to them, like an idiot. The climbing gym workouts in the city had given me more courage than sense. “More courage than sense,” carve that on my tombstone, the story of my life. I would have been fine if the sun had stayed up a little longer.
Calmed by excitement, I could now appreciate the beauty of the stars, whiling away the time until dawn. I wasn’t right. I knew that. Normal people didn’t get it, how you could be calmed by the excitement. Growing up in a certain type of chaos makes you used to it, addicted to it, like a drug. When things are calm, you know the truth—you are missing where the bullet is coming from.
The calm is like the abyss, where you just can’t see what’s coming, because it’s never calm, not really, calmness is an illusion. There is only the danger you can’t see, the deadliest danger of them all. The other shoe hadn’t dropped yet. I grew up in a tough neighborhood where attacks were common. It cheered me, calmed me to plan how to kill everyone I might meet. You can’t plan in total darkness, in the abyss.
There was a light, in the distance. Was that a meteor on the horizon?
It didn’t burn out like a meteor but grew larger in the now growing predawn effervescence on the horizon. Was it a comet? Larger still, perhaps it was of some terrestrial origin. I was exiting the abyss and entering the world in which I belonged, technology, math, and my beloved physics. It had to be people.
“Hey!” I hollered when I heard the music. I had never heard any music quite like it. There was blues guitar, there were horns, a fusion thing going on…I didn’t care, any port in a storm.
It might be a plane? No, I would hear plane noise, not music, and awfully low for a plane. No, I could see them now, a purple glow of the underlighting on a tripped-out convertible, with three people in it, three of the strangest looking people I ever saw. This wasn’t a desert and it was night, so it wasn’t a mirage. It went by 20 feet off the ground, a regular, late model car.
It was a red corvette convertible with the underside lit up in purple, with three guys in it. Was I crazy? Did I hit my head climbing down? It would explain a lot. “Hey!” I hollered. “Yoh!” I was giddy with stupid, panicked confusion. Crazy would explain a lot. I never cried, never was afraid, now I was having panic attacks. The laws of physics hadn’t ever let me down, not once, and there was a flying car driving on some invisible road. This was too much.
The car looped around, in the sky, descended on a luminescent road that extended a few feet in front of it, and disappears behind it. It screeched to a halt in front of me.
The driver was a slender man, long dark curly hair, a purple jacket, and big dark eyes made darker with make-up. The man in the backseat had on a headband with a feather in it, and smudges of red and black war paint on his face. He was shredding on an electric guitar but to himself, as the radio was blaring on the car, possibly playing along.
The driver said. “Where you headed. Are you the dumb ass?: he said matter of factly, like a native American Joe Friday. “The one who climbed demon rock?” the other two laughed. “Your friends said we might find you out here.”
I scratched my head and looked at the ground.
“Uhm, yes, that would be me.”
They let me in.
The man in the passenger seat was wearing a black t-shirt with an impressionistic painting of an Indian on it, like what you might see in a gift shop at a national park. He was smoking a tomahawk peace pipe.
“Smoke?” he offered.
“No. I don’t smoke.” Every Western movie I had ever seen said I was supposed to smoke to make nice. Making nice wasn’t my way and I don’t do drugs. I was already crazy; I didn’t need to get crazier.
I said, “excuse me friend, but are we flying?”
They all laughed and could not stop laughing. “We are high as kites, flying!”
I once again fought to control my breathing. “The car is flying!” I observed. They thought I meant were they flying high on controlled substances, so I clarified things.
The one with the war paint on in the back seat laughed and said, “You have had enough already I see!” Then he reached down on the floor and handed me a can of Coors Light. “You look dehydrated. This will help. I am Notu Bee.”
“I’m Red,” I said. “Driving is Purple Rain, the spirit walker for the nations. Next to him is Done Crazy.”
“Purple rain like Prince’s purple rain? Good album.”
“Yes, the shaman was a childhood friend of Prince, played basketball with him, and ghostwrote many of his songs. He took it to be his Indian name before Prince wrote the song. Prince, Purple Rain, Miki Free who we are listening to on the radio all played basketball together often. Prince made his famous pancakes for everyone afterward.”
In my mind's eye I picture the crying Indian from the pollution commercials in the ’70s, as he was so unlike these Indians. I bit hard on the inside of my cheek, for the refreshing pain. It hurt, and nothing changed. I was awake, I thought, and the pain meant I wasn’t drunk. I had never been high but assumed it worked the same.
“Good story. What about done crazy? Is there a good story to that Indian name?”
“He just done crazy!” he said.
“We aren’t really flying; it is the trickster.”
“The trickster?” I asked.
“Iktomi, the trickster god of the Sioux nations,” said Notu.
“We go through the peyote ceremony and drive around, gaining insights from the spirit world. We aren’t really flying, except in our spirits and with excellent tunes, from Miki Free, Prince, and our little band. Sometimes we play along”
I saw a Bison disturbed by some predator trotting by under us in the predawn light.
“So how do you know we aren’t really flying?” I asked.
“State highway patrol has pulled us over a few times in the past couple of months.” Said Purple Rain. “They don’t fly, and the ticket we had to pay, but usually they let us off with a warning, being Indians.”
They were driving very slowly, rocking out to the Miki Free bluesy jam on the car radio. They explained to me how Iktomi was the Sioux god known as the trickster, who lived to play tricks on people and do funny things.
“Why do they call you Red?” asked Notu. “You are a white man. We are red, native American.”
“I have red hair,” I said.
Notu considered me carefully, leaned close, and said, “I know why you think we are flying.”
“Why do I think we are flying?”
“That Iktomi, he is a trickster. He likes you. He only messes with people he likes.”
“So we aren’t flying in a car above the ground,” I said.
“No.” said Done Crazy this time.
I needed to get a grip. We couldn’t be flying. This would violate the laws of aerodynamic, thermodynamics, hydraulics, conservation of energy, all of everything I know. There had to be something wrong with me. This had to be a dream, a fugue state. I had to find some way to snap myself out of it.
“Tell me again we aren’t flying.”
I knew what I had to do.
“We aren’t flying.”
I vaulted up and out of the convertible, anxious, confused. I needed to shake myself out of this crazy, be again rescued by pain and excitement. I vaulted up and out to put my feet on the ground outside of the car. It felt like I hung in the air for just a second, like Wile E Coyote in a looney tune, and then sank into the ground I couldn’t see, kept falling. I was falling, then nothing.
I awoke sometime later with the sun in my eyes. My friends were standing around me, with the three Indians, and the red corvette convertible. I was on the ground, bathed in sunlight, surrounded by things I could understand, like the moisture from the cup of water that had just been poured on my head to wake me up. It felt good.
“What happened? We must have been flying, I fell”
Notu laughed. “Or you jumped out of a moving car and knocked yourself out.”
“Dumb ass,” said Purple Rain.
Done Crazy said, “We could have been flying.”
Purple Rain chimed in “Iktomi is a trickster. It could be flying. I was walking with spirits, and would not know, or care.”
“How do I know?” I asked. “I want certainty!” I screamed.
“There is no certainty in the night,” said Notu. “Certainty is a thing of the imagination.”
“Done Crazy, tell him.”
“I teach physics at the university,” said Done Crazy. “ I can teach you some physics, the quantum nature of reality. There is such a thing as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The very presence of light changes reality.”
“I am a physicist!” I shouted. “We were flying or not flying.”
Done Crazy looked confused. “I thought you said you were a physicist.”
“The photons have a particle nature and a wave nature. When the photon particle collides with something for us to observe it in light, it changes that thing.”
I had argued with my professor about this many times. I told Done Crazy what I told him.
“Let me tell you where you are confused. First, even believers in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which I am not, would tell you that the light hitting a car has no real effect on the car’s speed vector or position. Second, uncertainty can’t be a principle! I agree with the science but disagree philosophically on calling it a principle! I wrote a paper once titled the Dumb Ass Principle—” before I could finish my metaphor of how stupidity couldn’t be a principle, Done Crazy said:
“That sounds like the kind of paper you would write. Love to read it.”
Done Crazy held out a hand and helped me up. Trevor and the others from our dead SUV were trying hard not to laugh out loud and failing. I always said I feared nothing. I am not afraid of anything. I am afraid of nothing, the great nothing, the abyss. Now I was humbled and knew what that meant, “nothing” scared the hell out of me. “Done Crazy, I think we might have a thing or two to learn from each other.” In a joltingly good imitation of Humphrey Bogart, Done Crazy put his arm around me and said “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”