Saturday, July 14, 2012
When asked after the incident, both Seth Lax and Marian Kolchek said that they knew someone was going to get shot that day. Neither of them knew each other before July 12th, 2012. In fact, they only met five minutes before they stood on the Hennepin Avenue bridge with two guns pointed at them.
Lax doesn't believe in fate or luck or premonitions or anything with the slightest twinge of the supernatural. "There's nothing that isn't in this world," Lax said. He is well read and has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) where he wrote his thesis on George Berkeley. He is a semi-truck driver for a big box store chain and on the hours, days, and months he spends on the road he listens to books on tape.
On July 12th, a Thursday, he wasn't listening to a book on tape, but instead to an album his girlfriend had given him for his birthday. It was The Black Keys' Brothers, which he didn't much care for. It was loud enough, anyway, with a good blues rhythm that made sixty miles an hour pass in a hazy beat.
He was tired. He hadn't been able to sleep the night before. "St. Louis," he said, "something about St. Louis makes it so I can't sleep. I always end up in that city over night."
Lax has never spent more than eight hours in St. Louis. He has never felt compelled to see the town. To him, it's just a delivery destination or an interstate hub, but never a place to see. Small college towns are more his style, places just big enough for character and with very little traffic that deserved the name.
Like every other St. Louis night, Lax hadn't slept well. He hadn't been sleeping well for weeks and so the work was particularly grueling. At thirty-nine, he was beginning to wonder if he'd crossed that barrier from a young man into that just sort of "man" area -- he said this in a fake, British accent, imitating a sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Maybe it was time to move on. You couldn't do this forever.
July 12th was the day the heatwave almost broke. The entire country boiled for weeks, far earlier than these things are supposed to happen. Some blamed global warming, or El Nino, but mostly global warming. The second majority, those that didn't believe in that global warming, liberal bullshit, said, "It's [here]. Just wait a few hours and it will change."
Change it did. A sunny morning gave way to a cloudy, lukewarmth that looked like rain. Those with allergies cringed and coughed, cried, and sought refuge. Lax doesn't suffer form allergies. He suffers life. And he'd had an argument in St. Louis with the motel clerk that morning.
There was no coffee in the dispenser in the cramped lobby that looked so much like every motel lobby Lax had ever seen. He had long since grown used to feeling like he'd been here before. "Life on the road is deja vu," he said.
But there was no coffee. He told the clerk, a skinny woman in her forties whose whole body seemed to be supported on the crutch of her arm planted on the counter.
"So?" she said. She did not look bored, tired, or disinterested. It could have been an act, Lax thought, but it seemed like she genuinely didn't know what to do with the problem with which she was presented.
"Could you refill it?" he asked.
"We're out of coffee," she said.
"Yes, I know. That's why I want you to refill it."
"No. I mean, we don't have any more grounds. We have no grounds to stand on," she said.
That's when Lax decided she was playing games with him and it was too early for this and he had to be on the road and before she said something else he wanted to get the hell out of there. So he put his room key on the counter and said, "Checking out," and turned to leave.
"What's the room number?" she asked him.
"Two-oh-six," Lax said, reaching for the door.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"There is no room 206."
Lax turned around. "I assure you, that's the room I was in."
"What's your name. We'll figure it out," said the woman, turning to the computer.
"I've already paid."
"What's your name?"
"Are you sure?"
Lax stared at her. She looked up from her computer. "Are you sure?" she asked again. When he didn't respond, she said, "Because no Seth Lax checked in last night."
There was a copy of Kafka's collected short stories sitting on the counter, heavily ear-marked. Lax sighed deeply. He hated English graduates, especially bored ones.
"Lady," said Lax. "I know that you hate your job and probably your life, too, but that's just rude." He then turned, walked out the door, and drove to Minneapolis.
Marian Stanczyk believes in nothing but luck. Fate, too. In fact, he said, "I give everything the benefit of the doubt. We know nothing. Who are you to say that you are where you are when you are because of choices. Nobody chooses anything."
Five years ago, Stanczyk made his own Tarot deck. This was the culmination of several years' obsession that started with a lucky silver half dollar then progressed to dice, cards, astrology, and finally a fixation on Tarot. He carries the deck with him everywhere, even now, and consults it for most major decisions. Multiple major decisions happen every day.
"It's embarrassing, I know," Stanczyk confessed. "As I understand it, the way I treat it is sort of like functioning alcoholism. Most people didn't even know that I carry a deck of cards around with me everywhere until the journalists got a hold of that. It sounds so much more interesting in a newspaper. Really, I just go off somewhere private, read the cards, interpret, and then go back to what I was doing."
Interpretation is Stanczyk's life and calling. He went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for his BA in history and followed this trajectory to receive his PhD from the Tulane University. His specialty was American occultism. But, he had a problem: he hated teaching and so, at that time thirty, he decided that he needed to change life paths in the only environment he knew: academia. He got his law degree from University of Iowa and set out looking for work. And didn't find any. On July 12th, Stanczyk wondered what the hell he was doing working as an assistant store manager at Barnes and Noble and where exactly debt is supposed to go.
That day, though, he had an interview. He was on his way across the Hennepin Avenue bridge and he was just barely on time. It bothered him, though, that tomorrow was Friday the 13th and no matter how well this interview went, tomorrow was going to hurt. That much was certain, to an extent. There was always room for doubt, Stanczyk knew, and he could be wrong. It didn't help, this bad feeling, this foreboding, this sense of impending doom. Just because his doom sense was never wrong didn't mean that bloodshed and tragedy was certain, but it always seemed to happen that way.
Then, traffic stopped.
Up ahead, two seconds earlier, going the same way across the bridge, someone cut Lax off. It happens all the time. In rush hour traffic, it was to be expected. But this one just felt wrong. A BMW, new, white, brilliant even in the overcast gloom, pulled right out in front of his rig.
"Like he didn't see me, or didn't care," Lax said later. "Don't people realize how dangerous those trucks are? There was no danger of me running him over, I had enough time to stop. But that stupidity... It occurred to me that a person like that just doesn't understand the world around him and I could just run him over. And that's when I got out of the truck."
So, Lax applied the brake, killed the engine, got out of his rig, and leaned against the truck, leaving one lane free to crawl around him. At first, people drove by, giving him a curious look. Finally, Stanczyk, got out of his car and walked up to Lax.
"Can I help you?" Stanczyk asked.
Lax shook his head. "No. I'm good."
"Is your truck stalled?"
"Is there something wrong with it?"
With sudden inspiration, Lax said, "It's not my truck."
This gave Stanczyk pause. Finally he said, "Then where's the driver?"
"Would you please move? I have to go to an interview."
"There's another lane."
A young woman dressed in a blue suit walked up to Stanczyk and Lax. Her name is Yvette Ray and she was on her way out of town for a long over-due and well deserved vacation, she told the police later. She was twenty-six and was doing fairly well for herself already as an accountant. She said, "Can I help you?"
"This is familiar," Lax mused.
"Is there something wrong?" Ray said, looking back and forth between Stanczyk and Lax. She seemed to by trying to strike a combative, non-confrontational tone.
"The driver won't move the truck," said Stanczyk.
"Why won't you move the truck?" asked Ray.
"It's not my truck. I'll be happy to tell the driver to move the truck as soon as he arrives," said Lax. He was beginning to enjoy himself.
That was when Stanczyk said he had an epiphany. He felt like he was in some sort of trance, staring at this man, this guy with his hands clasped behind his back, leaning against the truck with one foot propped up, grinning serenely. It was the upside down Hanged Man.
"You're the reason everything in my life has gone wrong," said Stanczyk.
That got Lax's attention. "That's a bit harsh. And fatalistic."
"No, I'm not angry with you," Stanczyk said, waving his hands. "I'm very glad to have met you. You see, I can't get ahead. Metaphorically and, in this case, literally. I've got an interview and now I'm late, so that door is now closed, but it's not really my fault, because you stopped on this bridge right ahead of me out of dumb luck. It's fate."
"That's contradictory," Lax said.
"Yes, I'm sorry, I'm having an epiphany right now and articulation is difficult," said Stanczyk.
"Take your time."
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Ray shouted.
"We're having a conversation," said Lax.
"Please stay out of this," Stanczyk said, and then turned back to Lax. "I can see that you've had a rotten day and that you are clearly the driver of this truck. Independently, you stopping in the middle of the road would have just been an article in the newspaper. But you had to stop in front of me, because that's the way the world works. I'm sorry for dragging you into this."
"No, no, it's all right," Lax said. Great, he thought, another English major. But at least he was better than Ray screaming a few feet away. "But what if you'd been ahead of me? Then you would have just gotten to your interview on time."
"But I couldn't have been ahead of you, that's the point," Stanczyk said excitedly. "And you know that's true, too, or you wouldn't be standing here right now denying that that's your truck. You can't get ahead either."
Lax opened his mouth to say something and realized that this was actually a good point.
A mob had formed. Several people, including Ray, began shouting, then screaming, "Get in the truck!"
"No," Lax called to the crowd. He looked back at Stanczyk and he found himself saying, "It's just... St. Louis..."
"Yeah, fuck that city," Stanczyk agreed. "But that's just a metaphor. Don't you realize that both of us have clearly been pushed over the edge by forces we cannot control? We are without agency. We are--"
"Fuck you both!" screamed Ray. She then pulled out her Beretta, which she never leaves home without, for situations not exactly like this. She was one of 103,000 Minnesotans registered to carry a concealed weapon, but one of the few who exercises her right on a daily bases for "personal protection."
"You never know what situation you might find yourself in," Ray confided to a friend days earlier.
The mob surrounding her immediately fled.
Lax looked at Stanczyk who wearily gestured toward Ray, "You see what I mean?"
"Freeze!" someone yelled from behind them. Both Lax and Stanczyk whirled around to see a gray haired, uniformed policeman pointing a gun at them. This was Rudolph Plame and he was just twelve months from retirement, and counting, and this was exactly the situation he had been praying not to find himself in.
Lax and Stanczyk looked back and forth, from Ray to the Plame. They raised their hands slowly. Plame and Ray stood their grounds.
"This is probably going to be a funny story in five or ten years," Lax called out. "It's not going to end well, but I don't think anyone's going to die. I mean, who wants that? Life goes on, right?"
Lax looked up at the sky and shouted, "But, I'm not getting back in the goddamn truck!"