· ESSAYS

Bruce Bauman

My son had not died of a terminal disease, been run over by a drunk driver, taken an overdose of drugs or been slain by his own hand.

No, on a seemingly ordinary Thursday in mid-May, an hour before going to Hebrew School, three and a half hours before I was to leave the ER to meet him for a night of pizza and watching the Knicks playoff game, because Sarah was attending an opening at her gallery, he and thousands of other students rushed or ambled or dawdled into the sunny spring daylight after another day at Stuyvesant High School. Waiting outside were Rusty Kickham, Mitch Tabaldi, Bobby Skirpan and Sheila Graper. How well I have come to know those names repeated in my head like an evil mantra. They screamed at their fellow students “Niggers, Jews and Spics - prepare to die!” “Fuck the chinks!” over and over as 400 bullets rocketed and ricocheted from their automatic weapons. When silence resumed on West Street, twenty-one people lay dead, 33 wounded and my son, Castor, lay atop the body of Mary Sweedlow, his unrequited fantasy of lust, with two bullets lodged in his failing body.

In the vapors of the first night, a 101-degree temperature adding to my delusional state, with the creeping, visceral passing of time I missed my home and suffered hallucinatory tropes of my American innocence dying. Of my barely remembered grandmother happily stirring the mixed greens of her matzo ball soup and the wispy consternation on my mother’s lips as she tried vainly, even using the same fifty-year-old pot to emulate my grandmother’s cooking; of grand games of playground Ringalevio and my father slumping out from the dank claustrophobia of the store’s back room and taking me to now extinct NYC candy stores; as my parents and I vacationed in Montreal and I imagined Wolfe and Montcalm in the Canadian snow, heroes in the French and Indian War who merged into my teenagehood and the unheroes in the wrecked carnage of rice paddies and the limping American behemoth; as Sarah shook her head in dismay as I became emotional while staring at an original copy of The Declaration of Independence as she scoffed at my same watery eyes when we visited the ivied covered baseball fields of Chicago, which then seemed as far way as India, and I fulminated over the uncelebrated May Day Chicago massacre.

And I imagined parochial schoolgirls who would not look at me once they knew I was an other; until college and Cathy, parochial no more, and we dreamed our male-female duet in a high octane jalopy ride like Ginsberg, Corso and Cassady flying across the beat up imagination of Kerouac’s America; of the magical mystery music of the Beatles who became the stars of Lonely Heart World, USA; of East Village nights and Mudd Club mornings and a fifth anniversary at the Rainbow Room with Sarah sparkling in a cocktail dress and a smile I thought would never end as we came home tipsy, swilling a 3 AM breakfast of strawberries in champagne while listening to the Fitzgeralds, Ella on the stereo and Scott from my lips, like a cracked morning in America commercial, as I read to my baby as he slept.

Of our last anniversary at the River Café, where we fretted that Castor, in no time, so young would be going off to college and Sarah wondered if we should try for another child and I, looking forward to enjoying our lives together, traveling, maybe leaving New York, and feeling so content, said, no, not now.

Of the day Castor, Sarah and I drove across the Arizona desert which hid conspiratorial bombers and we emerged from Highway 10 and onto Pacific Coast Highway, and we, even I, the sunset misser, became engulfed in a sunset of gold - not the gold of Sutter’s Mill or the dyed hair of Louis B. Mayer’s harem - a golden sunset that enchanted Balboa five hundred years ago. My foot tapped with adrenaline and I pushed harder on the pedal; the car rushed towards the edge of the physical America and the beginning of the new, imagined America.

Sarah searched for something on the radio to drown out my off key singing of “California Sun” as Castor cringed and laughed in the back seat and in an electromagnetic epiphany out came the wave-crunching chords of Dick Dale - the man whose guitar sound is LA - blasting out “Hava Nagila.” Which jump cut into Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred singing “California, Here I Come.”

And then, in the midst of this vast American panorama of color and money and hope at the end of the twisted manifest destiny, I saw the black and white newspaper faces of Oswald, Bremer and Chapman, the isolated, insane assassins wandering through the streets like a single bullet that ricocheted from Kennedy to King to Lennon in a perverted 6-4-3 triple play and then ripped through thousands of others and, and finally… landed in my son’s back..

Bruce Bauman started writing And the Word Was, his 2005 novel from which these passages are excerpted, in 1998, before the Columbine shooting.

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