The gun was small and snub-nosed. It looked heavy, though, attached to the lanky arm of my mugger.
Imagine it. Me! With my very own personal mugger. Because in that moment, he was mine and I was his, alone as we were at the moment. Swear to God, the gun looked heavier than the kid wielding it. Its barrel was cool against my head in the muggy Savannah night, so that wasn’t so bad. Did he keep the gun in the fridge? This was the same year my cat died. The first year I had ever lived alone after my girlfriend of nine years had left. The week after I’d been let go from my teaching position.
Sometimes the world just loves to pile it on.
“Your wallet,” my mugger said, as if I had promised him something earlier, and he just knew that I was holding out on him. I almost felt guilty.
The next day, amid phone calls of concern, I would be asked how I managed to deal with the situation so easily, so casually. He was a kid, I’d explain. No older than my youngest students. And while that made me sad, I never felt like I was in any real danger. This was never about sending my brains across Broughton Street. But mentally I was some other place.
Growing up in an army family, my father took us everywhere. By the time I was eighteen, I had moved roughly 800 times. That’s how it felt, anyway. Army brat life taught me a number of things. It taught me to be self-reliant. It taught me how to deal with people of every stripe and how to make friends wherever I went. It taught me the proper way to load a U-Haul. And it taught me about the rule of 34 feet.
We moved to one military base a total of three times, more than any other place my family had ever lived. What shocked me the most about these repeat residencies were the memories. The fact that I had any at all, I mean. It wasn’t exactly a small town that I’d grown up in, but it still provided shades of the past that my disposable lifestyle just wasn’t equipped for. We’d drive here, walk there, all the time recounting nostalgia as if we were a normal family instead of military nomads.
I got my first kiss on Cavalry Road just before curfew, snugly hidden in the plastic tunnel of an old swing set. The girl in question, Samantha Dweezle, was the daughter of a Master Sergeant, and had fake canines attached to her retainer. I knew this because every now and then she’d remove them to catch my reaction, which was the same reaction I’d give if she were to remove any piece of her body without warning.
I got suspended for the first time at J.J. Rogers Middle School in the surrounding town. The kid I fought got suspended for fighting all the time: for him, it was just routine. For me, it was not. The fight was over a volleyball game during PE, though the details are still hazy. I remember my dad coming to pick me up, and how kind his face was when he saw me bawling. I wanted to look strong in front of him. Like a man who was used to the dull ache of a black eye. A street-tough twelve-year-old with bleeding knuckles and a callous demeanor. Instead, in the face of my father—my role model for manhood—I cried. He was dressed in his BDUs and boots: the camouflage uniform of a soldier. This man had fired rifles and shoulder-mounted rockets. He had read The Art of War. I wore Hawaiian print shirts over a soft, untested body. I read adventure stories and drew comics in my notebook when I was supposed to be taking notes, leading to the nerdiest way to fail Algebra anyone had ever heard of. Dad was the warrior: not me. He put a large hand on my shoulder and patted it gently.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
We drove home, the windows rolled down to let my father’s cigarette smoke escape. The bellowing of the passing air did its best to hide my quiet sniffles. He had come to the school thinking he was going to pick up my little brother, who was well known for getting into the occasional scrap. He was athletic and confident with a courage that I envied, even if I was two years older.
“I knew one of you was going to get suspended for fighting one of these days,” Dad said, checking the rearview mirror. “I just can’t believe it was you.”
Any time I’ve returned to base, I remember all of these events in much the same way anyone from a civilian life would. I’ve since made friends with clusters of people who have known each other since they were too young to control their bowels. This fascinates me. Getting nostalgic in a place I’ve lived in more than once should feel normal, but it never does.
But the memory that sticks out the most are the jump towers. We’d drive past them to and from the commissary, and my dad would grin wistfully at them.
“I trained on those towers,” he’d say. The towering monstrosities were made of wood and steel and had stairs that went back and forth the whole length of them, the way a fire escape might. At the top was a box that, I supposed, was meant to resemble the body of a plane. A door was cut out of the side, and prospective paratroopers lined up in full gear. Lines of camouflaged men and women zigged and zagged all the way up the tower until they came to the makeshift door. They were tired and strong and very young. They leaned against the frame of the door and waited for the signal. Then they hooked up to a zip line and jumped out of the tower, riding the line down, down, down to earth. Sometimes I would see them jump, and even from the relative safety of the jump towers, I envied their courage. Now I look back and wonder how many of them weren’t terrified and desperate to go home.
“The towers themselves,” my father told me, “are only 34 feet tall.”
I frowned. Thirty-four feet didn’t seem like that tall of a drop.
“It’s very specific,” Dad said. “You’re more afraid of jumping from a ten-foot jump than a five-foot jump. You’re more afraid of a twenty-foot jump than a ten-foot jump. But once you get to 34 feet, that’s the max. You’re just as afraid of 34 feet as you would be of a thousand feet. The brain simply doesn’t process any more fear past those 34 feet.”
It seemed unbelievable at the time, but in my later years it would make more sense. Once you reach a certain peak, the brain just can’t handle any more fear. Perhaps because it can’t. Perhaps because it doesn’t want to. Maybe your brain is trying to protect you from something: the way you find yourself pondering the fact that one day you’re going to die and something in your head says, “Okay: enough of this” and suddenly you’re trying to remember the words to a jingle from the ’80s. Whatever the case, the idea was set into reality each and every day a grunt was trained and then finally sent to fall from the sky.
Years after my father told me that story, I would find myself on the humid streets of Savannah with a loaded gun pressing an indention into my forehead. I would think of the 34-foot drop and the limits of fear. I’d think about my ex and the man she’d unceremoniously fallen in love with. My dark, lonely apartment that I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for. And my cat: a little grey tabby who had died the same week that my school’s principal informed me that they were making cuts, and you know the old rule: “Last ones in, first ones out.”
It wasn’t a terrific year.
The gun in my face had officially sent me over my 34 feet. Was I really afraid of being murdered in Savannah over the forty dollars in my pocket?
But for whatever reason, at that moment it didn’t register. I smiled at my mugger and handed him my wallet. He transferred it to his pocket calmly, as if he’d misplaced the billfold and I was simply returning it.
“This is going to sound weird,” I said, laughing inwardly at how much this felt like the small talk of a date. My mugger arched an eyebrow. The gun wasn’t against my forehead anymore, but it was most certainly aimed in my direction. Was it my imagination or were the edges of his lips just starting to curl? As if he too understood the absurdity of this whole situation for whatever reason?
“My credit card’s maxed out, and I don’t have anything left in the bank.” This wasn’t strictly true, but true enough: there wasn’t enough money in there to warrant figuring out a PIN. “And you don’t want to use my cards anyhow, because that’s how the cops find you.”
I wasn’t sure how true this was, either. But it sounded right. I held my empty hands up in the universal sign of No Funny Business as I concluded my pitch.
“I don’t suppose you could take the cash and give me back my wallet? Save me a trip to the DMV?”
My mugger considered this for a moment and then retrieved the wallet. He took the two twenties from inside and tossed the synthetic leather billfold my way and turned away, escaping into the dark. And it might have just been my imagination, but I swear the last look he gave me was a cautious smile of commiseration. Perhaps some recognition of how frayed I must have been to make such a stupid request. Maybe a grudging respect for having the gumption to ask, even as he pointed a gun at me. Or maybe it was some uncomplicated moment of unspoken sympathy from him. As if to say, “Yeah, man: waiting at the DMV sucks. You have a nice evening.”
Phil Keeling is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. His work has been published in The South Magazine, Five Out of Ten, Drunk Monkeys, and All Roads Magazine, with upcoming publications in The Pinch, Scare Street’s ‘Night Terrors’ series, and the anthology 42 Stories. His plays have been performed all over the country, including the 13th Street Repertory, STAGEStheatre, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, and Theater by the Grove. His play ‘Suprema’ was a finalist for the 2020-21 Reva Shiner Comedy Award. He is the co-host of Pixel Lit, a podcast about video game novelizations.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #39.