On Groundskeeping

For one glorious summer, back in 1994, I was the assistant groundskeeper at the same utopian suburban paradise where I was collecting questionable sexual experiences.

I wasn’t a very good groundskeeper, but that was okay. The job consisted of a three hour run to Montgomery Doughnuts in Rockville every morning and a three hour run to Elbe’s Beer & Wine in Wheaton every afternoon. For lunch, I’d eat steaks with the groundskeeper and we’d watch the previous night’s Letterman episode.

It was the best job I’ve ever had, and probably ever will have. And though I looked up to my boss, a quirky and dangerous lunatic, and held him as a sort of surrogate father-figure, I think, looking back, that he despised me. Which is okay, because he was kind of an ass. Regardless, it was with him that I had my most human moment. One of those brief seconds of near-death clarity where I felt close to the Earth, close to humanity, and in touch with myself.

The company truck was a donated pick-up that fishtailed in dry weather and appeared to have some sort of rudimentary awareness. It could tell who was driving and, like some twisted, maddened animal, it would attempt to harm drivers it didn’t like, such as my boss. He, in turn, would take it off-roading and “punish” it in fields and down forest paths and along the bike path late at night, roaring through the canopy of Rock Creek Park with the headlights off and a fierce, suicidal gleam in his eyes. My boss was the first person to tell me that death wasn’t to be feared. After all, death meant that “it would all be over. No more credit cards, no more nagging women, no more grappling with a diseased childhood, no more fucking sub-humans crawling up your ass all day and plotting your demise all night.”

Death nearly caught up with us on a rainy July morning as we willed the cantankerous pick-up through morning rush hour on our ritualistic doughnut run. A dozen doughnuts, always the same mix. Coffee, in those tasteless cinnamon roast days. Then a slow drive through side streets, along parkways, and finally back to the property to stare through the windshield at work undone and the deer creeping slowly through the treeline.

In the rain, the pick-up was a true demon. It roared and whinnied, and every tap of the breaks would result in a hair-raising slide. At no moment did it feel like my boss was in control, and a straight line could only be maintained by wildly flinging the steering wheel from side to side.

We hit Democracy Boulevard, coming down too fast along Old Georgetown, when the lights went orange and my boss foolishly hit the brakes. With only the driver-side wiper working, and the windows fogged up, we went into a blind free-fall and I found myself unable to speak or blink or think at all. My boss muttered something that didn’t register and then reached over and grabbed my hand. We slid through the intersection amid blaring horns, indistinguishable swerving shapes, and squealing tires, holding each other’s hands in stunned, horrified silence.

My life didn’t flash in front of my eyes. I had no great revelation. But I had lived 20 years unloved, untouched. Nobody hugged in my family, nobody said anything kind. Signs of weakness, you know. In hard days one must be hard-hearted to survive. That was the lesson given to an only child, a latchkey kid, who, at 12, was abandoned by his father and, at 18, estranged from his mother. I had raised myself, I was paying my way through college. Life was not something to enjoy but, instead, something to defy.

That wall was shattered in those few heartbeats where we slipped, out of control, between and around cars. A neglected 20 year old and a crazed, bi-polar 40 year old holding hands at the moment of death.

I’ve secretly craved human contact since that day, but have never fully grasped how to go about it. I have difficulty meeting new people, I feel cold and distant in relationships, and any first impression of me is that I’m a soft-spoken, stammering fool. Or, as I’ve been described, a modern day Bartleby. And, always, as I try to fade into the background, I daydream about grabbing someone and riding through an intersection and sharing that final moment with them. Tyler Durden in a stolen car: “Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died?”

Though that experience in 1994, and my craving for it through today, doesn’t have that same sort of nature or message. I key in on what my boss said of death – freedom from want and fear. Relief that it’s all over. That’s what happened to me there in the passenger seat of doom. There were no thoughts. No worries. There was fear, but it was of a sort that burned bright enough to sear away everything else. Not these foolish, nagging, idiot fears that pursue us through our normal days. There was purity in those moments. The brain stopped. I was reduced to a self-aware lump of all too vulnerable flesh. Nothing else was important. Nothing mattered. Hatreds were gone, resentment had no place, bitterness and fear were burned away. Friends, lovers, and family – and everything they had done or said – were cast out.

The opposite, in fact, of life flashing before my eyes. My life, and everyone in it, and every experience, meant nothing in the greater scheme.

Then it was over. We reached the other side of the intersection, my boss let go of my hand, wrestled the wheel, hit the gas, and we righted ourselves in one fluid sweep and were off with a stuttering howl of an angry engine and a rusted-out exhaust system.

As I sat dazed by the experience, I turned to my boss, looked at her feverish eyes and maniacal grin. He started cackling, then shouted, “Whoo boy! I think we just earned a bottle of Wild Turkey!”