“Door’s open!” Russell yells.
“When’s it not?” Geoff and Sarah push on into his foyer, absorbing the faint sound of an intricate minor key wailing. They navigate past the huge brass Sri Lankan oil lamp standing front and center topped with a crowing rooster. After hanging her coat on a hook, Sarah turns and stares the rooster in the eye.
Cool, Sarah thinks. Ragnarok. Wrong culture, I know.
The softly urgent tones of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qwali singing through some device pulls them into the vast living room, three full walls festooned with prints and fabrics, pictures and friezes, batiks, painted mandalas, the mood feeling all archeological, a constantly shifting palimpsest. Remembering some other evolving version of this incredible tableaux visiting “Uncle” Russ years before, Sarah just wanders around slowly with a close, comforting hearth of delighted intimacy and curiosity in her heart.
Russell gingerly rises from a broad rattan armchair before the big picture window. Geoff gives his old friend a hug, then he and Sarah sit close on an expansive divan covered in handloom. Carefully reseating himself, leaning back against the pillows, Russell curls one leg up under him.
Geoff’s bodhisattva turns to gaze out the window. A screen of forest, a skein of undergrowth, damp and mossy. This is the way many of their meetings have started over the decades. To Geoff it feels both distant and the specter of a familiarity of what he has experienced in Russell’s presence in general, like a little ceremony, a kind of quiet, calm clarity no matter how loud the subsequent conversation or dissonant the surroundings.
Bodhisattva. Sarah’s attached this word to Russ for as long as she remembers her dad talking about his deepest friend.
Filtered sun shines off Russell’s burnished and still supple skin just as it did years before. Turning, his expressionless face still the same, but rounder now. Hair gone save for wisps about his ears. Paradoxically, even when they were young, Russell had always appeared to Geoff to strangely resemble this pudgy 14th century Chinese sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park they once saw called “Dragon Tamer Luohan,” a kinetic monk summoning a life-giving dragon by concentration alone. It sort of seemed his de facto emotional posture. . .
Geoff is used to this silence and waits until Russell raises his hand and says, “I’m expecting a visit from a redemptive power but I’m not sure who yet.”
Geoff looks at Sarah. “Could it be us?”
Russell regards them with his pleasant smile. “Could very well be. Or maybe it’s really you, Sarah, and your dad’s just baggage. It’s so great to see you! How’ve you been?”
“Doing well, Uncle Russ, it’s wonderful to be back, and great to see you! Your place remains awesome as always!”
“Thanks. Sometimes awesome can be overwhelming.”
“Indeed, it can,” Geoff interjected. “Russ, do you remember calling me yesterday?”
“Yes of course.”
“About—an anxiety attack?”
Russell regards this. “No. . .”
Separated by so many distances, years and experiences, Geoff is still so tethered to Russell that as he heard that calm voice on the phone draw out those words, he knew that it was both—or just Russell—who was in trouble. Anyone would be when their personal bodhisattva wakes them up calling with an anxiety attack. And then apparently forgets about it.
“How can a clean-living, recovering-Carolinian Seattelite like you have anxiety attacks?” Geoff asks Russell. “What’s the matter with you, man, that’s my gig!”
Do bodhisattvas have anxiety attacks? Sarah thinks. It’s been a long time since she’s seen Uncle Russ, probably eight years she figures since graduation and the move. A passage she once read from one of her dad’s articles or memoirs or something from decades ago described Russell—
“—if you pulled abreast of him in your car, looking over in anonymous, random traffic, he’d appear to be a good old boy with three names like Billy Lee Taggert or Bobby Ray Kilmer, but he has you wondering where he really came from. A good old redneck who taught me everything I know about dharma, the chakras, and what’s possible with moksa, he once rolled a BMW in a triple corkscrew down a Montana highway and crawled out the back without a scratch. An aircraft mechanic par excellence, a personal saint-cum-confessor. He moves with a delicacy and intent most people reserve for handling heavy crystal and lit candles brimming with hot wax. His body is as broad and solid as a logging truck. His facial features are like polished, translucent quartz—but smooth, clean angles with the promise of illumination. Immobile flecks of hard experience frozen in the golden amber of his skin.”
—in a way that seemed to her to be as true then as the avatar sitting before her now.
“You know,” says Russell, “three-quarters of bodhisattvas are fake.”
“I thought it was sadhus,” says Sarah. “Three quarters of sadhus are fake.”
“Three quarters of everything is fake.”
“Seriously, Russ, how are you keeping? You did call it an anxiety attack.”
Sarah looks at Geoff in some suppressed alarm, but the look in Russell’s eyes reflects for Geoff a knowing smile, a jibe, a hint of smarm, that sense when he knows Russell is either kidding or testing him. “I guess I blame it on a curiously resurrected question I hadn’t thought about for years.”
“Why did you say it was an anxiety attack?”
“Thought that would get your attention.”
He smiles at Geoff who frowns back, muttering, “Jesus, Russ, for fuck’s sake…” Sarah detects a hint of his latent English accent when he’s upset.
Russell frowns at this point and gestures to Sarah. “How long are you back in-country for, Sarah?”
“Just a few more days, spent a week in DC staying with friends, check in at the office, and now taking some vacation here with you guys!” Sarah’s generally perky demeanor Geoff and Russell both know to be a tossed-off distraction; she shifts on the divan and scrunches over, elbowing Geoff. Sarah’s only five-foot-five but muscular and has presence when she enters a room.
“How’s the experience going?”
Sarah knows Russell means more than her job. Working with organizers for the Swatantra Women’s Union in Ahmedabad, India, was precisely the kind of thing her father should have expected her go to into but was thus incessantly irritatingly worried about her—in part because he knew plenty, rather than too little. Nonetheless—
“Oh my god, it’s amazing, Uncle Russ, thanks so much for connecting me with Rani! Being able to work with these organizers—the women are like in the worst jobs you can imagine, and the SWU is helping them organize themselves, like getting them community services, government safety net schemes, gaining some power—”
“Well, I didn’t know you were coming until a couple of nights ago.”
“But I didn’t say she—” Geoff stops as usual.
“Geoff, you remember that crystal-hunting trip we took up Swauk Mountains way?”
Geoff’s eyes cast sidelong at Sarah. “What, twenty-some years ago? North Bend?”
“Right. . .”
“Sarah, you were five, maybe six I think then,” Russell says, startling Geoff. “What do you remember of that day? You know the day I’m talking about?”
“The convenience store and what happened after?” asked Sarah.
Sarah nods as well, a grim chuckle aimed at her father. “Yeah, I remember that.”
“Russ, what did you see on the news? Did you see something on the news yesterday?”
Geoff looks at Sarah, half laughs and turns to Russ, his eyes narrowing. “You really don’t—you didn’t catch the news yesterday?”
“Does the name Sten K. Larssen ring a bell?” Geoff asks.
“Shit, isn’t that the guy—”
“Of course,” says Russell.
“He was released on parole yesterday.”
“Really. . .” It’s a considered statement.
Geoff first met Russ when his plans went awry because of course they did. This apprehension of chaos that could erupt at any moment became some conceit of a leitmotif Geoff felt cursed enough to nurture all his life, to the chagrin and now managed frustration of Sarah and to the occasional amusement of Russ.
As usual he had it all planned, very organized. He saved all year to go on his high school’s English class trip from Seattle to Ashland, Oregon, for the Shakespearean Festival in 1973, but instead, through a series of accidents and some direction beyond his control, found himself thrown in as Russ’ tentmate curtained by rain at an ancient Makah tribal archeological dig up at Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, the northwestern-most corner of the continental U.S. They were seventeen and had never met, and in those few days realized they’d known each other forever.
“See?” is Sarah’s sarcastic response to his risk-aversion when this story comes up. “And how did that turn out?”
“Constantly being on the move, from country to country, no fixed idea of home” is what Geoff throws out even unprompted when the topic of his catastrophizing—and often in conversation fixed on Sarah—comes up. Though for Sarah, she’s impatient with her father especially since her own upbringing and life now is exactly this same rootless and open expanse she finds exhilarating.
Now that he’s opened the box of that day in 1989, Geoff remembers even the lead-up details vividly, framed now as a lesson he’s been desperate to learn for years.
“So, when do you leave for India?” Russell had asked him, handing him coffee and little Sarah a juice box. A hint, an almost inadvertent smile played briefly across Geoff’s lips as he watched Sarah approvingly wander through Russell’s living room, transfixed by the art. Russell pointed at her with his chin. “How old now?”
“Five. And for India, pending my visa approval, just two months away,” Geoff had said, peering through the kitchen window at the swaying leaves and berries through to the screen of bruised mountain ash and a wall of pine forest. Geoff’s big shot was a contract from Oxford University Press to turn his master’s thesis at Kings College on press-state relations in modern India into a book and articles for paying publications. Thoroughly planned out, he felt it was all in the bag.
“What about Sarah?” asked Russell.
“I’m taking her with me.”
“You? Have you thought perhaps you’re just a masochist with boundary issues?”
“All the other options are gone now.”
“You know her. Decamped back to Mother England.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Geoff shrugged. “No life of academic poverty for her. . .”
“Married to a penuried professor in two disciplines. . .”
“—right, also says she was tired of having fiction written about her.”
After that, Geoff remembers going on verbally into that habitual self-flagellating place with Russell, first spilling out details that turned to concerns that morphed into worries and descended into catastrophizing—
“—so we’ll be traveling around a lot, Delhi, Varanasi, Calcutta, trains, bajajs, maybe motos, I mean how can I—how are we going to manage that—”
“Lots of people do.”
“And then there’s the whole host of agents she’s never been exposed to before—cholera, dysentery, diphtheria, dengue—”
“So, get shots. You’re getting shots, aren’t you?”
“It’s worms, parasites, they’re in the water, all over the place, burrow into your brain, pulpy mass of your eyes, blind you and you don’t know you’ve got ‘em until years later, when your eyes turn to mush—”
“Boil water. Drink coke. Beer’s good.”
It went like that as they gathered some tools from the garage, got in the car and headed out of Puyallup toward the Swauk and Cascades beyond. Geoff perseverating on Maruti car windshields with no safety glass that shears into shards on collision, drastic consequences from an overturning auto-rickshaw, looking the wrong way crossing the street, with Russell absorbing and saying enough to assuage Geoff somewhat.
Then they hit the convenience store in North Bend.
As Geoff remembers it…
They stopped to get gas and some picnic supplies. When Geoff walked up to the checkout line, he was holding Sarah’s hand and Russell had the basket.
Directly in front of them was a growing occupational hazard of working in taverns or retail in the ‘80s. The deinstitutionalization of people with mental and emotional illnesses and no support meant more and more random moments of chaos. It was one of the things that tempted Geoff to think about following Emma and decamping to the U.K. as well—where cracks were appearing in the rigid class system, but Geoff didn’t perceive that with Thatcher’s guiding hand the land of his birth unfortunately was about to emulate the maw of the crude, vicious, social Darwinism in America that privatized people’s despair, hopelessness and phantom dreams, dashing them against their fellow citizens.
In this case, it was a middle-aged guy, apparently a local, with a long mackintosh and a big cart of groceries who felt compelled to lucidly share some particularly paranoid political nightmares with his last remaining friends in town. They continued to calmly ring up his purchases as he went on: “That’s probably right, Phil,” said the clerk amiably.
The Mackintosh Man’s deepening voice grew suddenly louder, “But it’s the news media that’s the real culprit, I’ll tell ya, Eric. If it’s not on the air, man, we don’t know what to think. If it’s not on TV, we just don’t give a goddamn, you know? We can’t imagine it.”
“That’s right.” Eric smiled his three-day-old-bread smile and kept on bagging, food leaping from hand to hand.
“You know what it is, Eric?”
“No, I don’t, why don’t you tell me, Phil?”
When the Mackintosh Man started browbeating the clerk, Geoff realized things were getting tense.
“It’s symptomatic nerve gas! It’s everywhere!”
“Don’t know about that, Phil.”
“It’s in the air, permeating our lives, changing the way we live and think.”
“That’ll be forty-eight bucks and forty-eight cents.”
“Symptomatic nerve gas! Coming through the TV! It controls you, me, it’s changing everything!”
“Come on, Phil, forty-eight forty-eight, you’re holding people up.” The clerk began nervously tapping the counter and it was at that point Russell subtly nudged Geoff from behind. “Forgot something,” he said quietly. Geoff remembers looking in the basket, said something like “We got everything—” and Russell’s eyes gained the weight of ancient stone that said, “No. We’re leaving now.” Then he swiftly moved Geoff and Sarah out of line toward the exit.
“You got the controls right there!” yelled the Mackintosh Man, pointing at the cash register. “The gas controls our minds, our imaginations are too dangerous, don’t you see—"
Russell dropped the basket and ushered them out the door. “Nothing here we want.”
Geoff remembers the shots erupting mere seconds after their feet hit the asphalt outside. Russell threw them to the ground as the market’s plate glass window shattered onto the sidewalk like a splintered Maruti windshield.
Sarah’s memories of that moment are just fragments, but she remembers diving next to their car across the parking lot and hearing shots. Big people in dungarees and down jackets running. She remembers a small Latina woman next to her in line making a fearful sign of the cross. She didn’t think the adults had seen it. Geoff and Russell trying not to crush her huddled on the ground. Then more shots. Bundled into the car, driving away, careening onto the floor in the backseat.
“I heard the safety click off and he cocked that fucker in his coat, and I had heard that sound and a rap like his enough to know what might be coming next,” says Russell. Staring again out his huge window on the world.
“Why didn’t anyone do something to stop it?” Sarah’s thought about this a couple of different ways over the years.
She smiles, remembering a few years later she was, like twelve or thirteen, and wondered why people didn’t just use their phones—“Use your—”
“Seal training?” Geoff asks.
“I did what was within my power and protected the most people closest to me as quickly as I could.”
She remembers reading how an employee wounded Larssen and disarmed him. Six people had been shot but no one died. Years later in her work with poor Indian women, another phrase occurred to her that fit that situation: “Rob them of their power.”
During a gluten-free vegan lunch that nonetheless fulfills Geoff’s protein requirements, they idly speculate about what Larssen—and the State—did and would do next.
“Why would they release him now?” Sarah asks.
“Met parole, I guess.”
“He was mentally ill to begin with,” says Geoff.
“Would they have treated him in prison?”
“Probably,” says Russell.
“So, even with his ranting and shooting up the place, he didn’t plead insanity?”
Russell shrugged. “Wouldn’t have fit with his worldview.”
Geoff laughs derisively and shakes his head.
“What’s the point then?” asks Sarah.
“The point is to be seen to be doing something to protect the fine citizens of this great country—”
“Cut the bullshit, Dad. Do you think he got any counseling, any treatment in prison?”
Geoff looks to Russell who shrugs.
“He must have, right? Deemed no longer a danger to society?”
Geoff watches Sarah roll her eyes in the silence and decides she must be thinking they all should have decamped long ago.
“You know what your problem is, Sarah?” says Russell with an amused smile. “You are way too busy assigning meaning to things.”
“Things have meaning,” protests Geoff. “Don’t try to out-bullshit a semiotician.”
“Oh, they have their own meaning of course.”
As Geoff’s driving Sarah to the airport two days later, a Corvette sporting Q and Thin Blue Line flag bumper stickers radically cuts in at 85 miles an hour nearly clipping a car ahead. Geoff loses it, honking and flashing his lights furiously, egged on, Sarah knows, by his apprehension of the apparent sociopolitical leanings of the driver. Even before anything happens, Sarah yells, “Dad, no!” pulls out her phone and starts quietly recording.
They get off at the same exit and the light’s turned red. Cars pile up in lanes behind them. The guy in the Corvette immediately gets out and comes back to yell at Geoff.
“Shove off!” Geoff backhands his two fingers.
“Fuck you!” screams the Corvette Guy.
“Dad!” A terminally exasperated Sarah.
The Corvette Guy turns and heads back toward his car as the light changes.
“The light changed, get in your car, you yob!” yells Geoff.
“Dad! Shut up! He’s going!”
Corvette Guy stops and turns. “What’d you call me?”
Horns blaring behind.
“Yob! Means fuckin’ arsehole in English!”
Corvette Guy flings open the door, reaches in, grabs a gun. As soon as Sarah spies the pistol, she whips up her phone, taps it furiously, starts streaming.
The video opens that second as Corvette Guy advances with the gun and Geoff sees her raise the phone and leans in to grab it or deflect her.
“Stop it!” she screams as she fends off her father and keeps the phone on the advancing figure now pointing a pistol at their faces.
Holding the phone steady in one hand like an icon against evil she bats off Geoff with the other.
In the event, Sarah remembered seeing Corvette Guy point the gun at them through the camera. She held it as a talisman hoping to deliver to him a benediction, an epiphany, if she could just hold the phone still enough.
He’d surely see she was recording him. At the very least he must choose his own survival because the evidence of an attack would be clear.
Everyone agreed on the postmortem that the camera deflected the bullet but when it shattered, the fragments destroyed the sight in her left eye. Miraculously, the rest of the abrasions from the shattered windshield were superficial because of safety glass. Not everyone agreed on what would have happened had Sarah been able to hold the camera still. One computer simulation suggested the bullet would have killed her.
Though no one, and certainly not Sarah, blamed Geoff for the split-second fantastical odds and chaos that took only the sight in her left eye, Geoff’s internal debate, the rancorous, consuming self-loathing he put himself through went on for years.
Sarah couldn’t convince Geoff not to decamp as well, but he eventually did.
Before that moment in the car, Sarah’s social media feed amounted to about a hundred “friends” across every single-named messaging platform and a lot through international nongovernmental job site networks. By the end of the week the video had streamed 824,000 times. Within a month it was 1.7 million. Sarah and the women she worked with were highlighted for years. Her eyepatch became its own icon.