“Death Walks and Devil Horns” by Aaron Wolfe

This is the latest in Aaron Wolfe’s Lines & Notes. To go to the column page, please click here.

Audio Player

“Strangers” by The Kinks, performed by Aaron Wolfe


Mortality is easy when you’re 18 and the biggest worry is how to scrounge a few cents together to buy an aerogramme so you can send a few lines to your parents half way across the world. It’s easy in the middle of the summer when the days feel like weeks and the weeks like months and the girl that you’re crushing on is crushing on you and it’s just impossible to believe you won’t be 16 forever. It’s easy when you’re 12 and time stretches way out in front of you, and 18 feels like 30, 30 like 60, and 60 like 100. And yet, throughout those days I always had these flickers of fear.

Amit and I called this one quarter-of-a-block stretch between my house and his the “death walk.” We were best friends and made the walk dozens of times a week and almost every time I’d suddenly be gripped by the sense that one day it would all be gone, that time would cease to exist and nothingness would be the rule. I’d panic and run as fast as I could, trying to outpace the creeping horror that was grabbing at my Chuck Taylors and my hands and my face. I’d show up at his door panting and sweaty. He’d say, “Death walk?” and I’d nod gulping down ice water in his kitchen.

Sometimes I’d hang a left at the last minute racing through a stranger’s backyard leaping over a fence into Jun Takahashi’s large garden. I’d cut past his backdoor, through the narrow alley that led just beneath his living-room windows to the street and then down the block to Amit’s. I imagined his shirtless father emerging from the back door with a shotgun and a rising sun headband ready to slaughter the trespassing whitey. But my mildly racist terror was much more manageable than the prospect of infinity that waited me just past the elementary school on Oakdene Avenue.

More than once I woke in the middle of the night, sweating, heart racing, the world seeming too slow for my hummingbird tempo. I ran to the bathroom hoping it would pass. I remember splashing water on my face staring at the mirror begging myself not to die. I sat on the toilet staring at the tiles on the floor — white and black hexagons that I could turn into three-dimensional cubes by a function of my astigmatic eyes. I hallucinated wild geometric patterns undulating in front of me stretching out in every direction. As the patterns ebbed and flowed number sequences burst into my brain. I was lost upon a sea of numbers and grids, and then I understood: the numbers were ascending and when they got to a certain number I’d die.

But as these things do, the numbers eventually slowed down. And my heart rate eased.

I stood up, able to walk again at a speed fitting your average biped, and slouched into my parent’s room tears staining my cheeks seeking comfort from my eventual demise.

“It’s just a fever breaking” my dad said. Close enough.

It’s odd, though. In moments of true danger I’m fine. Put me on a plane – a perfectly safe means of transportation – and I’m gripping the armrest completely and utterly aware that if I relax my thighs for a second the plane will plummet out of the sky. But I happily zip around NYC on my motorcycle. The chaos can still creep in at any time and whisk me off, but somehow if I’m behind the wheel it’s okay.

A final thought:

I worked at a bike shop for a few months when I was 22. I lived in Long Island City and would ride my bike to the Upper West Side every day. On my way home, one afternoon, I took my familiar route through the industrial parts of the neighborhood. There was this beautiful concrete ramp that I wanted to launch my bike off of. I had been avoiding it for a while but felt like I was up for it on this particular sunny day.

I pumped my pedals as hard as I could, building speed, closing the distance. Then I hit it, yanking hard on my handlebars and kicking my feet back to control the height and keep level to the ground. I was flying. Then I was tilting. I landed front wheel first. And then I was flying again, but my bike was no longer with me. I landed on my front shoulder and skidded across the concrete. When I finally came to a stop I laid on my side staring up at the Queens sky. “Lot of sky in Queens,” my dad liked to say.

Blood streamed from my bare shoulder — the tank-top I was wearing having offered exactly zero protection from the ground.  As I picked up my bike, wincing in pain and dripping blood on the ground, I looked up and saw that I wasn’t alone: two young skaters —no older than 13 — stood watching.

I nodded at them and they nodded back. The short one let out a low whistle. The taller one gave the devil horns. I threw my leg over my bike and headed home. Three of us equally aware of and unconcerned by our own fragility.

More of Aaron Wolfe’s Lines & Notes at Used Furniture.

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