Jan 24, 2011
Sam Turner rebounded from his inner musings and a sweat sprung from his forehead. His reaction – his foot slamming onto the brake pedal – was delayed and exaggerated. He realised his mistake immediately and released but, the effect was already in place.
Had he not been lost in his thoughts, he would have noticed the delivery van in front of him start to swerve sooner. The fact was, that it was not a good day to be on the highway, at all. During the night, the temperature had dropped precipitously and, exacerbated by a vicious north wind, all of Toronto and the surrounding area was gripped in a deep freeze. The highway was icy and, occasionally, snow covered. The bright sun only made visibility worse and necessitated constant attention to the windscreen or it would cover in spray from the road surface.
The van started to sideswipe and Sam's Jeep – legendary for its tendency to flip over – closed the distance. He pumped the braked and slowly corrected his own vehicle's deviation. The van had come from behind only a few moments earlier and Sam had barely been conscious of it. The driver, despite the miserable road conditions, was clearly hell-bent to make a timed delivery and had been dodging from lane to lane to overtake the more cautious drivers. When he pulled in front of Sam, it had been too abrupt for the weight of the vehicle and, inevitably, the wheels had lost traction. In the periphery of his vision, Sam noticed another driver over-react, spin 180 degrees and stop safely on the shoulder no doubt shaken but otherwise unharmed. Sam knew he should have called and asked for a postponement of the meeting that had brought him out on the road.
In what seemed like a never ending, slow motion replay but was really only a few seconds, somehow the driver of the van corrected the big vehicle's path and continued on recklessly. Sam had managed to slow the Jeep to a crawl and regain control of it. What had threatened to turn into a very serious, multi-vehicle accident was, by the hand of whoever, averted. Only moments later, the van was lost to sight. Sam slowly accelerated and moved cautiously into the right lane promising himself to stay there and pay better attention. However, after he took a sip from his coffee and relaxed back into his seat, his thoughts, never peaceable and quiet, returned.
It was the 'by the hand' comment that had stirred them from their temporary distraction over more pressing matters. At their return, Sam's face creased, disturbed by the content and recollection, and his gaze grew distant.
The knowledge had come to him, not by direct association but, instead, through a network of friends and acquaintances. It had stunned and disconcerted him in ways for which he had not been prepared – even though, he was aware, it was a phenomenon that happened far too frequently. A girl, of whom he had been aware, and either, driven by demons incomprehensible to the many or pursued by an inconsolable past, had made a choice from which, it seems, there is no returning and, by her own hand, decided to conclude her life. In the end, she was successful. Sam shook his head sadly and, becoming more aware of his space and the traffic around him, took a sip from the coffee that had, long since, cooled. He flicked on the radio and then, grimacing at the sound of Enrique Iglesias and PitBull, slapped the button again to extinguish the annoying sound. He returned to his uncomfortable thoughts.
Sam referred to them as 'the lost' – people that, by whatever mechanism intrinsic to them or externally imposed, simply lose the vital attachment to self and life that, for the majority of people, are entirely unquestioned and remain, more or less, unwavering through the span of time that is human existence however long or short may be its imposition.
In a city the size of Toronto, what Sam referred to as 'the lost' were everywhere. His concept of who and what they were was far from clear but, gathered on street corners, sleeping on vents or, even, walking home with sacks of groceries, he seemed to encounter them. That same morning, Sam had an odd exchange. He had exited his regular coffee shop; in his ears, some relaxing, focusing 'morning music' was playing. The fellow on the sidewalk in front of him had said something.
“Sorry?” said Sam, removing an ear-bud with gloved fingers. The other had stopped dead and regarded him.
“Sorry?... sorry?... sorry?...,” continued to repeat the man. He looked at Sam, cocking his head, parrot-like.
“Oh!” said Sam, already feeling like an intruder. “I just didn't hear what you said,” he offered in self-conscious explanation. The eyes of the other man were penetrating and clear.
“I just wanted to say, 'have a good day, sir',” stuttered the other, instantaneously correcting his behaviour. He smiled just a little but it was awkward, tense. Sam realised that the man had been talking to himself all across the parking lot. Sam also recognised that the guy was cognizant of his madness – maybe even struggling against it.
“You have a good day as well,” responded Sam. He smiled as politely as he could and scurried back to his office. As he walked away, the guy was waving his gloves in the air and gesticulating fervently. His hands must certainly have been cold.
It was true that Sam had pondered these questions before but, never, in his own experience such that it was, of having been confronted, even indirectly, by the fact of it. Those questions would, he knew, remain definitively unanswered because, by the inevitable outcome of such actions, there would never be any solid explanations, either individual or universal, that would allow others to nod their heads in sympathetic understanding and say, 'thank you – now I get it'. There was, instead, only the silence of lost communication and, finally, the grave – equally silent.
One thing that Sam had returned to, time and time again, was the idea of a psychological defect although, likewise, he did not know if it was reasonable to say, so simply, that there was something wrong with the person. That seemed to him far too pat whereas, in all likelihood, there was a system of factors that came to bear and, like a weakened immune system will result in a flu, a weakened system of coping mechanisms and psychological buffers will result in a cascading breakdown effect that may or may not impinge on the survival mechanism.
Sam took another sip of the syrupy, cold liquid in the cup and made a face. He thought to pull off and fetch another but, judging by the time, he would already be late. He also thought to retreat from the bumper of the car in front of him. He lifted his foot slightly and the speedometer dropped gradually back from 90 to 80 km/h. He relaxed a little and shifted in his seat, feeling more than a little road weary from the unaccustomed, early morning drive.
It was that issue, he thought to himself, that was most perplexing – that the survival mechanism became, by inexplicable means, overridden. He was aware that most animals and, even humans, would fight to the death, tooth and nail, for survival. At the same time, he acknowledged, all kinds of self-destructive behaviours did occur. Sam, himself, did not smoke much but, he knew that by evening, he would have one; he was also aware of the potential and probable effects to his health over the long term. There was also, he reasoned, a difference between a passive – call it what you will – flirtation with 'death by vice' and, instead, an active process, guided completely by volition and will, designed to, in brief time, bring the extinction of life.
Inasmuch as he did not want to impose upon those who might be suffering the idea of 'defect', he realised that there must be a kind of switch that, once thrown, tuned off in an individual the sort of connection to the world and life which is also instrumental in maintaining life; without it, the person could simply drift away from the world – allowing death through neglect and decay or by direct action.
He thought of a phrase he had once read and its simple message had remained with him: 'dreams never die – only the dreamer'. In it, he perceived a connection to his current train of thought. To Sam, it expressed the idea that life continues in spite of the actions of any single individual. Anyone can, at any moment, find their life truncated and that is why life is to be lived. It also remains true that the sun will rise tomorrow and the day after without any one of us. The lost, it seemed to Sam, lost nothing as, without cognition, one is simply dead, a void. Instead, he reasoned, those who remain suffer the loss; the loss of human potential that resides in each person. It is the living who have the recognition of loss and the ones who have lost.
“We are 'the lost', not they,” whispered Sam in the midst of his reverie.
The Jeep bumped and, immediately, the colour drained from Sam's face.
At 85 km/h, the Jeep collided with the concrete piling of an overpass; the steel reinforced concrete was undamaged. The Jeep, instead, accordion folded in on itself and Sam Turner was killed instantly.
Sam Turner, disturbed by the voice of the television, nodded awake where he was crumpled onto the plush cushions of the couch.
'The Ontario Provincial Police today reported over 75 accidents on the 401 highway west of Toronto during the morning rush. One of these closed the westbound lanes at the Milton overpass for about three hours. The single occupant was pronounced dead at the scene and the identity of the driver is being withheld pending notification of next of kin. Police are advising all motorists that driving continues to be treacherous due to weather conditions throughout South and Central Ontario and extra caution is required.
'In other news, Toronto Police at Central Division are asking for help from the public in locating persons of interest after a shooting death at a downtown club in the early morning hours of Sunday. At about 1:30, three men allegedly entered the 'Club Paradis' on Queen's Quay and opened fire, fatally injuring one and wounding four others. The victim, say police, appeared to be targeted. Anyone who may have information is asked to call Central Division Homicide or CrimeStoppers at the numbers on the bottom of your screen.
'And now to the weather. Bill, it's been cold – can we expect any moderation?'
Sam, yawning, pushed the button on the remote and the image faded from the screen. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, feeling confused and worn out. His stomach rumbled impatiently. He looked at his watch, squinting to focus. It was just on 6:30pm.
“I must have fallen asleep as soon as I got home and turned on the news,” he conjectured, out loud, to the empty apartment.
“It's just as well,” he said and rose to sitting. “There's never any good news anyway.”
Not feeling desirous of movement but, nevertheless, conscious of the hour and his need for some supper, he rose to standing and tottered, still not fully awake, to the brightly lit kitchen. There, with the familiarity brought on by habit, he turned on a stove element and, opening the refrigerator, retrieved a large, stainless steel pot heavy with the hearty beef stew made fresh on the weekend. He removed the plastic wrap over the top and replaced the lid and then slid the pot carefully onto the element. As he placed it there, it rattled – the sound tinny and metallic - and Sam realised how much his hands were shaking.
“What the heck is wrong with me?” he wondered, studying his quivering fingertips.
One thing that was clear to him as he stood, leaning against the counter and with his unsure hands shoved deep in the pockets of his warm, baggy sweats, was that he had awaken with a very uncomfortable sentiment upon his mind. He could not, however, precisely identify what that sentiment was. It had an edge of fear – a kind of primal tension as when an animal, placed in a situation of threat, will either fight, if so driven, or flee to safety. That it was also tinged with nervousness – the anticipation of something unpleasant or undesirable of which there was a reasonable expectation - did nothing to mollify his agitated state. Another symptom was that his hands and feet were cold and clammy, verging on numbness. He removed his hands from his pockets and rubbed them briskly together while wiggling his toes enclosed in thick wool socks. Yet, standing in his quiet and comfortable apartment with, behind him, the pot on the stove beginning to burble and emit its aromas of garlic and rich broth, he could perceive no threat nor did he expect there to be any.
“Maybe I'm just hungry,” he pondered, reflecting on his own state. “It's been a long day and I'm tired. I just need some good food and some rest.”
Not lost to him was the fact that his mind had been full of thoughts of late causing him to drift off – often unaware of himself – into pensive reveries. His own dissatisfaction was an issue for which he knew he would need to either find a solution or, as they say, 'suck it up'. The incident of the girl who had died by her own hand had, it was apparent, disturbed him in ways that he had not yet plumbed but intended to do so. Moreover, in his own mind, he seemed to find some hidden nexus between the two – some connexion that would present a truth or, more probably, what might be a truth not necessarily valid for all but, most certainly, valid for him since he felt that, in essence, we all live in private universes with only very limited windows on those occupied by others - 'truth' could be an extremely relative case.
Feeling a little less chilled but not terribly so, he opened a drawer and removed a long spoon. With it, he stirred the thick concoction in the pot and savoured the perfumed steam that was emitted. Wanting to get something good and hot in his complaining stomach, he decided to leave it to heat another few minutes. His free hand removed a deep bowl from a cabinet and, first licking the spoon, he placed it in the bowl on the counter.
Why he felt there needed to be a connexion between his own state and the fatal attempt of another, relatively unknown person, was, to him, as perplexing as the thought of it. That he was unhappy was apparent but, between that and the thought or action of self-harm, there seemed to reside a gulf. Then, he pondered, why the anxiety?
In his heart, Sam recognised the power of personal choices in life. He knew that it was by his own actions – positive or otherwise – that he had come to his present condition in life. He could not, nor would he ever, be one to find the fault in others or lay blame for where he led himself in his own life. Fundamental to all of it was to have the independence and intelligence to encourage what was positive – cultivate it – and, in the negative scenarios, find solutions, either proximate or long term, in order to move in a more positive direction. Intellectually, he understood that.
It was not happening. That was the distressing part.
Somewhere, like a package left on a seat in the subway, Sam had misplaced his forward momentum and, instead, picked up another package; one that was heavy, daunting and awkward – inertia. It was what, months after having being led to recognise in himself a fundamental issue of direction, also led him, now deep in the cold month of January, to be idly and ineffectually pacing the same path while the knowledge hovered like a threatening cloud over him that, without aspiring to create change, absolutely none would happen. He knew that no one, not in his wildest dreams, would come knocking on his door saying, 'Sam Turner, we need you!' That was the essential fact; we are all, in some way, redundant. Indeed, it had become a battle every morning just to get up at a decent hour and get moving. With an important business meeting and long drive to get there for tomorrow, he was not looking forward to getting up an hour earlier.
Sam sighed heavily, still leaning on the counter. The pot on the element was hiccuping with radiating heat and, feeling slightly queasy for where his thoughts were going, he turned off the stove and began to ladle the stew carefully into the bowl. He dared not fill it to the brim because his shaking hands threatened to send some or most of it onto the floor. He filled it half-way, promising his hungry stomach to come back for a second or a third. He placed the bowl on the table. Then he partly filled a glass with some red wine and sat to eat. The stew was heavy, hot and comforting but not nearly enough.
“It's me,” he thought with finality while washing down some stew with a sip of wine. “I'm as lost as she must have been.”
The conclusion, emerging as it did – coalescing like a drop of oil in water - was not a comfortable one. Sam saw it as a concern involving, in tandem, direction and action. When the two work synchronously toward a positive finality, then there is necessarily also positive movement even if the result is not identical to the expectation. However, where the direction in which the action is effected is in err or the action itself is not properly considered, then chaotic or unpredicted – possibly destructive - results would occur. Without either direction or action, only stasis or worse, decay, could be the result.
Sam found that his stomach, empty though it was, was closing, refusing food. He took another sip of wine and leaned back in his chair. The warmth from the stew already consumed was beginning to pervade his body and he felt a little better from that standpoint.
“It's two sides of the same coin, isn't it?” he suggested to the air around him.
He thought of the horrible finality of the actions of the girl, misdirected though they were, and wondered if, in the end, his own lack of directed action was, effectively, different or only on a scale that went from one negative to a different kind of negative but with results that were, in a perverse sense, similar.
He managed to finish the bowl of stew but, judging by the unruly protestations of his stomach, he decided that would be all. Sam rinsed the bowl in the sink and rolled up his sleeves preparing to do the washing up.
“Only I can make the changes I need,” he affirmed positively to himself, beginning to run hot water into the sink. He soaped the sponge.
The words sounded good but, even in uttering them, he doubted their conviction and his own.