A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
And now I am a man-killer.
We live with the consequences of our choices, and we cannot fail to live with all the consequences of all our choices. Sic semper nobis, sic etiam mihi. Thus always to us, thus even to me.
Your money? Or your life? Your mind – the means of your life? Or your life – the end of your mind’s devising? Lie or die? Can any such choice be made? And if it can’t – what then?
What if you choose neither?
I got mugged, that’s what happened. Or almost mugged, anyway. On New Year’s Eve of all days, the very last day of the bloodiest century in human history.
I live on the edge of a world you barely know about, that place you read about in the newspaper, that fetid cavern that seems to house everything that is vicious and venomous and vile. I’m not interested in vice except as the object of derision, which is why I’m on the edge of that world. But I know the price of living where you do instead, and I choose not to pay it.
So I was out on New Year’s Eve. Not out partying, not out driving drunk, not out shooting off fireworks or shooting off my mouth. I was out because that’s where I am almost all of the time, out walking the empty streets.
Since before Thanksgiving I had been wandering within a mile or so of a big-city shopping mall. Not for any reason, but simply because I lacked the reason to go somewhere else. I see your story in what you do, in how you behave. If your story interests me I will stick around to watch you. Until I understand you. Or until I think I do. Or until I get bored.
This is a fact, and it might be news to you: Stray dogs don’t stray far. The population of vagrants who infest the neighborhood around a big-city shopping mall is pretty stable. Homeless people, winos, addicts, runaways – you think they come and go. But in fact mostly they come and stay. They might sleep in a different place every night, but once they get to know the merchants and the restaurants and the dumpsters, they’re not quick to move on to the unknown.
So it was no surprise to me that my would-be, wanna-be mugger was known to me. Not a friend, not even a nodding-acquaintance, but someone I’d seen again and again in the past weeks.
He was a tweaker, a methamphetamine addict. Just a kid, not even twenty, but he was dying. Even before he tried to mug me he was dying. He had an uncontrolled infection in his right leg, an immense pus-filled edema. Like all tweakers he was as thin as a ghost, but his right leg was swollen, from his ankle to his thigh, to the girth of a trash basket. He walked that way, as if his leg was embedded to the hip in a trash basket.
I had been watching him, catching sight of him when he was there to be seen, because I knew he was going to die. He needed to be in an ambulance. He needed to be in an emergency room. He needed to be in a hospital. Instead he was dragging his swollen leg from parking lot to parking lot, from dumpster to dumpster, from ecstatic high to crushing low, from the shivering cold to the endless shivering sweats. He was going to die, and I was going to let him. So were you.
But each of us is master of his own fate, and thus it was even for him. He mugged me, or tried to, at the shrine of St. Mary outside a Catholic church. And there did he die, his face lit in his last moments by the flicker of votive candles. Sic semper tyrannis. Thus always to tyrants.
I was lighting candles for my dead, sitting cross-legged on the concrete before the statue of Mary. There was no one around, of course, and the shrine was out of sight from the street. He came upon me from behind, and it wasn’t much of a sneak attack considering that he had to drag that trash basket of a leg behind him with every pace. He stopped right behind me, and it was only when I heard him pull back the hammer of a revolver that I began to be concerned.
Without turning, without taking my eyes away from my candles, I said, “Go ahead.”
“Go ahead. Kill me.”
“Hey, man, I don’t wanna kill you. I’m just rippin’ you off.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not what you’re doing. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t let you steal from me.”
“You won’t let me? How are you gonna stop me?”
I smiled, though only the Blessed Virgin could see my face. “Just like this.”
“Just like this. I will not permit you to steal from me. I will not despoil myself in your behalf. I will not pretend that your will is mine, that your mind can cause my behavior. I will not cooperate with you.”
“You pretend that your gun controls my behavior. That because you’re holding that gun, you can control my behavior. But you know this is false. That’s why you have the gun. If you could control my behavior, you wouldn’t need the gun. We both know the truth: Only I control my behavior. And I will not volunteer to affect to pretend to believe that the truth is untrue. I won’t lie for you, to buttress your insane illusions.”
“But— I can fucking kill you!”
“Sure you can. Go ahead.”
“Go ahead. Kill me. Be a killer. Be a murderer.”
“But… Don’t you want to live…?”
“Not like that, not ever.” I spun myself around so I could look up at him. He was filthy and feral, of course, his clothing more rags than fabric. The seam of his right trouser leg was ripped up to the waist, and the great swollen mass of that infected leg was right in my face. “Look at me,” I said. “What do you see?”
To this he answered nothing.
“Do I look like a straight to you?”
“Do I look bent?”
“Not really. There’s something different about you.”
“That’s exactly right. I’m not straight and I’m not bent. There are only two choices, and I choose neither. So what am I, if I’m not straight and not bent? Am I a circle? A spiral? Maybe I’m a coil, bouncing from place to place. Refusing to lie, refusing to die. Refusing to kill, refusing to be killed. Refusing to enslave, refusing to be enslaved.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about choices. The choice is to lie or to die. To pretend that people with guns can control my behavior, or to let them kill me. The straights choose to lie. The bents choose to die. I choose neither.”
“I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll do it if I have to!”
I shifted my weight onto my left hip. “This is your argument: Rather than die, I should prefer to live knowing that I have groveled before the likes of you. I won’t do it. I will not lie for you.”
That was one twist too many and I knew it. He would never have become a killer, not in a world of cooperative victims. But he was swinging the gun around to aim it at me, and I did not hesitate to punch him hard, right in his infected leg. It was so swollen that it burst with a splash of pus, and he collapsed, screaming. And as he collapsed he squeezed the trigger on his gun and it went off, tearing through his own intestines.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” he groaned.
“I told you. I choose neither. I won’t lie for you and I won’t die for you.”
“So now I’m going to die!”
I didn’t say, “And whose choice was that?” Instead I said, “If we can get you to the hospital, you should be okay.”
“No. Three weeks in the hospital. Three months in County. Then three years or more in prison…” He was sobbing, doubled over in pain.
I didn’t argue with him. I leaned my back against the edge of the shrine, then pulled him over to lean against me. I put my arms around him and said the Glory Be over and over again.
“Are you Catholic?”
“Sometimes. When it matters.” I switched to the Hail Mary, because it seemed twice appropriate. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
And there did he die, embraced by the man who had caused his death, vaguely lit by the candles in the shrine of Holy Mary. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let light everlasting shine upon him. I kept saying the prayers even after I knew he was dead, only getting up when the New Year’s fireworks erupted into the sky.
I propped him up against the shrine, then went to call the police from a pay-phone. I told them where to find the body, then I walked away. And I just kept walking, my clothes smeared with pus and blood. What used to be a community is now more like a concentration camp, and reporting a crime is a good way to get sent to jail – especially if you look bent to a straight.
So I kept walking. I am among you, but I am not one of you; I will not yield to you. I was ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of myself. Will be until I die. I never wanted to cause a death, not even to avoid my own. But we live with the consequences of our choices. Thus always to all of us. Thus always even to me.
But my wanna-be killer died on the very last day of the bloodiest century in human history. By the time I had reported his death, it was a new year, a new century, a new millennium. And that, at the last, is what I’m writing about.
I’ve been doing this, walking this nation and writing about what I see, for more than twenty years now. In that time, I’ve evolved four rules for these stories, the Willie stories, and this one breaks three of them. First, a Willie story is almost always short, and this one isn’t. Second, a Willie story is almost never self-revealing, and this one is. Third, every Willie story has at least one joke, and this one has none.
But the fourth rule stands: Every Willie story is about you. You think they’re about the people I’m making fun of, but they’re not. They’re about you, about people who are basically honest and decent, but who come to be complicit in everything that is vicious and venomous and vile. Not from loving vice, but from failing to love virtue.
Your mind or your life, lie or die. That’s the demand at the bottom of your tax return. Lie or die. That’s the threat they issue to your son, compelled to register for military enslavement. Lie or die. That’s the threat they make to your employer with thousands of pages of regulations. Lie or die, all day, every day, everywhere you turn. Lie or die, again and again, for every day of your life.
And every day of your life, you choose the lie. You choose to cooperate and to pretend to surrender control of your life, to insist by your actions that some other mind can control your behavior, but your own cannot. You lie and you lie and you lie, and millions of innocents die. And you yourself persist only by refusing to acknowledge your groveling. Your mind – the means of your life, the awareness and memory and anticipation of your actions – becomes the enemy of your survival. To be aware that you have desecrated the glorious gift of human sovereignty is the path to self-slaughter, so you must slaughter self-awareness instead.
This is a mistake.
The worst, most loathsome, most vicious tyrant on the Earth is no different from my late, unlamented non-mugger. He is nothing without your cooperation. Without your active voluntary cooperation. Even I am apt to say “compelled this” and “coerced that,” but in actual fact, human behavior cannot be coerced. Only human bodies can be coerced, pushed around like mannequins. Human behavior can only be initiated by an act of will originating within the person acting. It cannot be caused or controlled from the outside. If you refuse to cooperate with the tyrant, he cannot cause your cooperation. He can push you around, even kill you, but he cannot cause you to initiate any purposive action.
You live in chains. In this awful century just passed, more than 150 million innocent people died in chains. And yet every person ever born was born free – unalterably, inviolably, immaculately free…
And the tyrants know it. That’s why they have guns. That’s why they want to take away your guns. Again and again they demand that you lie or die, and they never for a moment doubt that you might choose neither. And they bluster and brag that you never will, and they toss and turn in sleepless nights, because they know someday you shall. Sic semper tyrannosauris. Thus always to dinosaurs.
Choose neither. This is my wish for the Third Millennium. Choose neither, that we might finally become a fully human race, neither killing nor being killed, neither enslaving nor being enslaved, neither seeking to control others nor pretending to surrender to their control.
Choose neither. Because this is the only human choice.
Choose neither. And the dragons will be slain.
I wish you peace,
William Francis Xavier O’Connell