Killing a Southern Belle

Helping a friend unload amps out of the back of his van and into a dark theater, I looked over the street at some serious blue in the air. Magic hour mist glows cobalt in LA. “Look at the blue,” I said, pointing. Killing a Southern Belle was blasting out of the van windows, so my friend couldn’t hear me, but he turned around anyway and repeated back, “Look at the blue!”

I mean, it was very striking.

“I’m done panicking now!” he shouted over the music. Reaching in the passenger side window, I turned it down so I could hear him. “Blue is better than scared,” he added quietly.

I never thought of him as a panicker. A thinker, but not a panicker. He was kind of my hero in this regard, being able to think without panicking. “Blue is way better than scared,” I agreed. “What were you panicking about?”

He grinned. “Everything! Turn Elliott back up.” I did and, listening, he meditatively took a guitar in each hand, then put one down to light a cigarette, calm as all hell. I tried to find the panic in there…couldn’t.

Sudden screaming brakes, then two cars collided next to us, slowly crunching together, their metal pliable with the force of impact. We watched, as did some dog walkers, a couple matching jogger ladies and a cyclist. The cars slowed to a stop but no drivers emerged, nobody did anything. “Just when I was starting to feel safe,” said my friend through the smoke around his face. “Trying to, anyway.”

“Safe?” I asked. We all know people who are born safe, and others who are helped along by kind childhoods or boring lives, but does trying to feel safe work? The cars sat, scrunched together on the pavement, half a tire up on the sidewalk. The dog walkers sat, too, the joggers slowed to a stop and the cyclist took off his helmet. Witnesses to an accident, they had become sidewalk people. “Yeah, safe,” said my friend, putting his cigarette out on a guitar case and lighting another.

“Write a safe set list,” I suggested and he nodded, then shook his head. “An unsafe set list’ll give me bigger muscles.” He smiled and rolled his eyes. “I’m such a pussy,” he added.

“So am I,” I told him, which is true. Silhouettes of passengers in the dented cars wiggled around. “But we’re safe.”

He dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out with his foot. Taking a second to look at me like I was nuts, he lit another cigarette. “Ya think?”

I guess what I meant was, if we aren’t safe, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t say that; he was on his third cigarette. We watched the car accident still life and I wondered what the repercussions of panic might be. An impression of safety seems necessary in order for some of us to do the right thing. Not just when we feel like it, but always. Keeps fight-or-flight style self protective measures in check. So is morality a luxury? We ask it of everyone, but there are those who seem ill-equipped. “You’re right,” I told him. “We’re not safe.”

“Nobody is.”

But it doesn’t matter, I thought.

We squinted into blue as the two drivers climbed out of their cars, both on cell phones. The dog walkers and dogs moved toward them. I’d assumed the cars contained shaken, annoyed people, but really, no one had even honked a horn in this accident; two metal boxes just melded. The drivers shook hands and laughed. A cop pulled up, waving. She was smiling, as were the sidewalk people. Also? My friend, whose three half-smoked panic cigarettes lay on the ground at his feet. I picked them up when he grabbed his other guitar and ran into the theater to practice unsafe songs in private and grow stronger muscles in public. I don’t even want to breathe, sang Elliott in the van.

I don’t either, I thought, taking a deep breath.

Posted in: words on May 29, 2017