by Steven Church
They cut streets in the rough approximation of a human body—carved out of the loam and humus and clay, sculpted with a crown in the middle, sloping down into shoulders on each side—and somehow this fact seems wondrous to me, as all good facts can be, because it gives language and life to the common street, because it can give depth to the concrete and asphalt. Here’s the thing: I always think about the bodies of streets. Especially the shoulders.
Most accidents on a street or highway happen in motion, speeding between the lines marking crown and shoulder. Most accident recovery and response on streets or highways, however, occurs on the shoulder, arrested in that liminal space between public and private, that in-between zone of vague boundaries and shifting definitions where motion is halted and disrupted, where we are invited to watch—but only for a moment. Most of what we witness, what we read, absorb, laugh or fear on the road occurs on the shoulder or just beyond its hazy penumbral boundaries. We pass by in our lane between crown and shoulder, brief patrons to a fragmented movie of moments; yet some of the most sublime and tragic, taboo, bizarre, desperate, scatological and lonely scenes of our lives and the lives of others zoom past us on these shoulders of streets, receding it seems into the irrevocable past of our memory—and it’s troubling because the faster you try move past them, the more such moments stretch and blur into the present. This is the great paradox of rubbernecking: everything moves faster the closer you get. We slow our cars down to try and compensate for this. But the closer we get, the easier it is to see the details, the less time we have and the harder it is to see the whole picture.
When the Queen of England knights a man in modern times, she taps him first on the right shoulder with the broad side of a sword then raises it up and over his head and taps him on the left shoulder, again with the broad side. An embrace sometimes follows this ceremonial swordplay; and it is believed that these formal and mostly benign actions evolved from a more aggressive conferring of accolades. William the Conqueror, for example, is known to have knighted his son, Henry by punching him squarely in the face.
Crown means tooth, cap and skull, and means bestow, award, or honor; it is climax and triumph; it is the top of the head, a strike to the head, something golden and bejeweled you wear on your head; and in other intransitive verb forms as in a forest fire, to burn rapidly through the tops of trees, and as in pregnancy, to appear at the vaginal opening. My forest-firefighter friend once told me that when a fire crowns, it roars jet-engine loud, trees boil from the inside and explode like giant roman candles, raining sparks, flaming debris and melted pine sap. It is, he tells me, quite a show. Sometimes he just stands there rubbernecking at the terrifying beauty of it.
The neighborhood where I lived briefly in a famous poet’s house is a tree- filled county island surrounded by the rest of Fresno. It’s a strange anomaly, patrolled by Sheriff’s deputies instead of local Police, a fiercely independent neighborhood that has steadfastly refused to join the city surrounding it even as it has been swallowed up by sprawl. As a county enclave, the neighborhood doesn’t have street lamps or sidewalks, the shoulder improvements that municipal tax dollars provide. Because of the darkness, it’s a little dangerous to walk there at night. But it’s also one of the nicest neighborhoods in town, filled with large homes on massive double or triple lots, most of them surrounded by the biggest, most regal eucalyptus, cedar, and redwood trees in the whole city. People like to walk there. It’s almost like a suburban mall in the mornings, teeming with packs of active older men and women in sweat suits. You’ll sometimes see a man walking with his bird, a large green and read Macaw perched on his shoulder. At night or early in the morning the walkers wear reflective clothing and headlamps or carry flashlights for safety. One woman straps headlamps to her dogs and the troop-of-them totter around in the pre-dawn, their lights bouncing manically as they take up an entire lane or two of the street. In other neighborhoods, street shoulders are defined not just by the buzzing orange glow of street lamps by also by sidewalks, those purposeful, sheltering slow-flow lanes of traffic that separate you from the push and howl of cars. In this neighborhood, where there are no lights and rarely anything at all besides dirt or encroaching grass and oleander shrubs, the pavement typically just drops sharply into the gutter or a ditch, or slumps into broken edges, ragged and rutted muddy patches, and trenches. Trees encroach on the public, tilting over the streets, green threatening to overtake everything. Still the pedestrians stroll, joggers jog, and people walk their dogs. Each year, hoards of tourists parade and stare at elaborate displays of Christmas lights twinkling in the redwoods; but they do all of this in the street and the lack of significant shoulders, sidewalks, or street lights often feels oddly dangerous to me, amorphous and undefined in its boundaries, especially when I’m walking with my kids, and I find myself craving a consistent shoulder, something solid and broad, even and dependable, something to clearly separate the pedestrian experience from the driving experience.
Other intransitive verbs include to rubberneck, to sleep, or to die. Jesus died on the cross after being crowned with a wreath of thorns and I have to admit I always liked this touch to the story. I appreciate the statues and paintings where Christ’s blood is captured mid-trickle snaking down from the crown onto his forehead and face. The gorier the Jesus, the better. Again and again as a child I wanted to hear how the Romans nailed him to the cross—one in each hand and one through both feet—and ran a sword through his side; but most of all I loved the irony of the crown of thorns, the not-so-subtle jab at his followers and at those who would inspire future followers. I thought the Romans had a pretty wickedly comic sense of punishment; and believing this still, I sometimes imagine that because they really wanted to make a spectacle of Jesus, they nailed him up like a billboard, next to a roadway, perhaps on the shoulder of a major thoroughfare where the travelers could pause to gape at the sight of their King of King’s death. It probably means I’m a terrible person, but I can clearly see the foot and cart traffic backed up for miles, donkeys braying in the heat, cursing merchants and some poor soul at the back stuck in the rush hour and a victim to the rubbernecking instinct of weaker souls.
Sitting in a church pew on Sundays when I was a boy, I could almost feel Jesus’s crown of thorns in my own scalp. But that might have just been the unrelenting boredom that I assumed was the definition of worship. Perhaps it was my own personal experience with the pain of religion and thorns. Church time came and went. But hedge-apple thickets, protected by an armor of thorns, grew dense around the creek in the back of our house. I dealt with thorns every day, and one winter my little brother crashed his snow-sled into a thicket of them. When I raced down the hill and found him, a long brown thorn had pierced his nose from the side. He looked at me wide- eyed, then cross-eyed at the thorn in his nose, then back up, imploring me for help, but I just sort of shrugged. There wasn’t really anything I could do. He barely made a sound. I told him to be careful. And I watched as he calmly tugged his flesh loose from the tangle. There was hardly any blood at first but the thorn glistened a little wetter than the others. Afterward my brother staunched the wound with his glove and the two of us trudged home together through the deep snow.
Grief is an island, they say. In the intransitive form, to grieve, there is no object. In the passive voice, I am grieving and there’s still no end. Or grief is Gilligan’s Island; and no matter how many Cosmonauts crash land in the lagoon, I never get to leave. They never take me with them.
Or grief is more like a virus that lives in your blood, something much more insidious than Ginger and Mary Ann, the Professor, Skipper, and the Howells. It’s something you have to shoulder forever, despite the false promises of closure. I know about viruses and how they can sneak up on you. In the summer of ’99, camping in the mountains, I was stung by a mosquito. This mosquito carried a strain of viral meningitis; and two days later back at home, a fever washed over me. I vomited until my stomach was empty and didn’t keep food down again until they hooked me up to an IV bag in the hospital a week later. In the midst of it, the meningeal layer between my brain and my skull flushed with infection and swelled, squeezing my brain until it felt like my eyes were being pushed out from the inside. I couldn’t think straight, could barely talk or eat, and only managed to stumble from the couch to the bathroom to vomit and curl up on the floor. It took weeks, maybe months for my brain to recover. I lost over thirty pounds, and I lost my summer job waiting tables and tending bar at a Mexican restaurant because I tired easily, lost focus on the simplest of tasks, and couldn’t remember the most basic order. Angry and confused at the outside world, I lost connection to people, retreated into my own head, a place still rocked and recovering from infection; I retreated into books and the written page. But this wasn’t new for me. As a child I’d suffered febrile seizures that rendered me catatonic, nearly dead. I have vague half-remembered, half-conjured images of waking in my father’s arms in a cold shower, the streams of water hitting me like cold pellets. My parents recorded temperatures of 105 degrees or higher and the doctor’s told them that I most likely lost some brain function that I might end up being epileptic; and it’s true that my seizures shared with epilepsy the terrifyingly euphoric rush of an unleashed mind speeding beyond time, but thus far the only affliction I can connect to my brain injuries is the writerly pathology, that peculiar push to see mystery in the mundane, an inflammation of perception I’m not sure I ever want to cure. Some days I wonder where I contracted this sickness. Other days I’m sure I know.
Many head injuries occur not because of direct impact of an object or fist to the skull but because the neck, rendered rubbery by the forces of gravity, snaps noodle-quick and the skull hits a hard surface like the tip of a bullwhip. The brain rattles around inside the boney cage like a clapper in a bell, which may be why in football, when you get hit really hard, they say, “you got your bell rung.”
My father, a broad-shouldered man with an ursine presence, told me once, as an explanation for his support of suburban sprawl, “If they’re not cutting streets, I don’t have a job.” At the time he worked as the manager of an asphalt plant owned by the same man who’d employed me as summer help many years ago in his excavation business. In a short time, Dad turned a money-losing operation into a profit-making operation. He spent his days in a modular trailer-turned-office and went to the bathroom in a port-opotty. It was a job he described as “at the top of his physical abilities and the bottom of his mental abilities.” When he started a business-consulting firm and I asked my dad what exactly he did for work, he tried to describe his professional talents and skills. “I understand systems. Systems of all kinds and how things—information, products, whatever—move through that system. And I understand where they bottleneck, where the traffic clogs, and I understand how to fix those clogs.”
To rubberneck is morally problematic partly because the intransitive action illuminates a conflict between the physicality of driving and the psychology of witness. It is more than morbid curiosity. To rubberneck is to indulge in subjectivity, into action without an object. It is morbid curiosity in motion, as if when confronted with a reason to rubberneck on the highway, we move from the light of objective reality into the darkness of subjective meaning- making and our senses instinctively dilate, gape open fish-mouth wide, and take in all the light possible before it’s gone again, before we have time to really process what we’ve seen.
I’ve destroyed my shoulders. They’re weaker than they used to be—worn down over time. The first obvious injury occurred during basketball practice my junior year. A sophomore guard stole the ball from me at the top of the key and raced down the court. I ran him down and as he laid the ball up, leapt into the air and pinned his shot against the backboard; but my momentum carried me underneath the basket, wrenching my arm back and behind me. I fell to the floor in agony and, for over a week, I couldn’t lift my right arm without using my left one. I most likely tore my rotator cuff. While snowboarding a few years later, I regularly had to catch myself from falling by extending my right arm out and kind of stiff-arming the snow or the occasional tree. Though I don’t remember a specific injury, one night I removed my shirt to find a huge bruise leaking down from my shoulder, underneath my arm, and stretching its blue paint almost to my elbow. I still can’t lift my arm over my head without some effort; and at night if I lie on my right side too long, my arm falls asleep. Sometimes my hand will go numb and tingle because scar tissue has impinged on my ulnar nerve. My nerve tunnels, the roadways for neural messages, are pinched and wounded, narrowing like a bottleneck of traffic, and it hurts sometimes when I try to lift my daughter into my arms.
You cut a street with a crown so the water will drain off, on to the shoulder, into the gutters. You cut crowns with a CAT brand or John Deere diesel- powered scraper, a machine descended from the original Fresno Scraper, a bladed street carving tool named after the Central California town where it was invented, the city where I live. Fresno, California, is a place where crystal meth, homeless camps, car thefts, and foreclosures now make the national news, but where it’s both so much better and so much worse than anyone sees in such stories. Lately, many of the streetlights dotting the shoulders of the wealthier suburban neighborhoods have been rendered useless, casting vast stretches of city into darkness. The culprits, wire-thieves desperate for the money they can get recycling, open the light pole’s access panel, snip the wire, and yank out as much copper as they can carry.
You shoulder a burden. The power. A responsibility. The load. The weight of things unsaid. The darkness.
The head of a table is located at one chosen end, perhaps beneath a glowing glass cabinet of crystalline dishes and delicate porcelain figurines like a halo of stars. Are the sides then shoulders? Is the other end the ass of the table The foot? The idiomatic phrase “giving the cold shoulder” refers broadly to an icy or unwelcoming reception and seems to come specifically from a passage of Sir Walter Scott’s describing the dinner gift of a cold shoulder of mutton How often have we admired the poor knight, who, to avoid the snares of bribery and dependence, was found making a second dinner from a cold shoulder of mutton, above the most affluent courtier, who had sold himself to others for a splendid pension! [“No Fiction,” 1820]
Our bodies are built with shoulder blades. Our roads are cut with blades into crowns and shoulders. The Hormel Corporation makes SPAM, a pinkish canned meat product, from pork shoulder and ham. Today, the intransitive activity, to SPAM, means to flood email inboxes with unsolicited content, with images and advertisements that have no relevance to your life or interests. And it is often morbid curiosity that pushes the user to click on those links, those pathways to viral infection and worms that will shut down your systems or turn your computer into a zombie host. My email program has a “Report Spam” button that allows me to report suspicious emails to some mysterious SPAM filtering authority. But the canned meat product for which this contemporary phenomena is named debuted in 1937; and if you visit the spam.com website you can find extensive details on the product’s history and significance with colorful graphics, games, music, recipes, SPAM-related souvenirs, and even links to a local chapter of the SPAM fan club, where you can find information about SPAM festivals in your area, all of it unfiltered and un-ironic in its sincere love for canned meat.
SPAM is especially popular in Hawaii, where numerous “local” dishes feature it. I’ve never been there, but my father once traveled on business to Hawaii for an Asphalt Pavers Convention. He went there because it was Hawaii and he wanted to scuba dive; but he also went there, though he probably wouldn’t admit it, to reconnect with my younger brother.
Matt had fallen love with the place during a High School science trip and always dreamed of returning. My dad, perhaps inspired by this, even bought into a time-share on the Big Island; and though he has since given up the time-share because of the prohibitive cost and time required when travelling from Kansas, I still have a sentimental affinity for Hawaii and a desire to visit, if only for a few days. Part of it is also Joan Didion’s work. I love much of her writing, but for me her essays don’t get much more densely packed, dark and wonderful than her sublime meditation on the living dead, “In the Islands.”
One day on the 99, returning from the City, the intransitive to slow took on greater meaning. I slowed to a crawl in traffic. The kids were in the back seat, occupied with a movie or a toy. What was the hold up? Construction Something on the shoulder? Cars creeping in both directions. Everyone rubbernecks like it’s a bad accident, slowing to crawl for no real reason other than morbid curiosity in motion. But there weren’t the ambulances you expect, the fire engines, just a couple of highway patrol cars, a cop in the street, and an overturned truck, its trailer tipped over. A big yellow bulldozer shoved a pile of something. A pile of mud. A pile of sod. I saw the sod, the mud. Spilled on the highway. Spilled from the truck. But it wasn’t mud or sod. It took me a second or two to realize. It was cows. Hoofs and heads. A pile of them. Thick black bodies, liquid as mud in their new death; and the bulldozer plowed them all into a roiling heap, a scrum of limp bovine bodies tumbling behind the insistent blade. Beyond the horizon of the pile, the silhouette of the overturned cattle truck loomed, wheels arrested mid-motion. And everyone slowed their momentum to witness the spectacle, slowed knowing they’d seen something sublime, something that can never be repeated or recreated, could barely be described with words. In such moments, time becomes a function of thought. Time slows, warms to your intentions, becomes flexible and distends with meaning, inflating these moments in your memory until they are grotesque and monstrous with resonance.
Things that are seen on the shoulder of highways: cigarettes, piss bottles, fast food wrappers, shoes, underpants, bodies, dogs, cats, skunks, deer, red-tailed hawks in California, eagles in Alaska, evidence, secrets too heavy to carry.
My father and I have both worked in the street-cutting business. In the summer of 1991, I took a job at the excavation company owned by a friend of my dad’s, the same man for whom he would later work when he ran the asphalt plant. I spent most of my summer with the company driving a flatbed pickup with soft brakes and a temperamental starter motor, carrying a huge tank of diesel gasoline that I used to fill up all the company equipment. When I wasn’t refueling, I operated a shovel and a wheelbarrow; if I was lucky maybe the CASE Uniloader, a small bulldozer used for a variety of odd jobs. Some days I’d spend hours working with the road scraper and operator, using survey stakes and a laser-level to measure the grade from crown to shoulder. The scraper would carve and I’d follow in the Uniloader, bringing loads of dirt to fill in low spots the operator pointed out to me. Some days, the rattling hum of the Uniloader diesel engine would lull me into sleep and I would drift behind the scraper into the clay-orange-brown dreamscape of unfinished streets stretching out before me, houses sprouting amidst the promise map of a new neighborhood, new world, new reality, until some sound or shake would jolt me upright and I’d just miss crashing into the dirt, taking out the survey stakes and lines, ruining the soft shoulder.
When I say to grieve, I mean my response to the intransitive, to die. I mean my brother was killed on the shoulder of a road in Indianapolis, Indiana. He died there. And I mean the object, the transitive form of the verb. I grieve his death. I grieve the moments just after he and some friends had left the latest installment of the Lethal Weapon movie franchise and moved fast into the night, the moments just before his car skidded out on a turn, drifted across the crown line of the carved road...drifted over the white edged shoulder...and slammed into a tree. My brother’s head snapped on his neck, slammed into bark and wood, his bell crushed, brain bruised and battered beyond repair. His friends survived with mostly minor injuries, but my brother died there in his car on the shoulder of some strange street in Indiana, his brain starved or flooded out. I don’t really know the exact cause of his death.
I wonder how many people passed by that road shoulder that night, May 16, 1992 in Indianapolis, slowed and turned their eyes to the scene. Who witnessed what I’ve only imagined? I can sometimes hear the noise of it in my head as clear as if I was there. But the images elude me. What was the rubbernecking like at the scene of my brother’s death? What kind of tree killed him? Did it drop leaves or nuts or fruit on his car? How did he scar the bark? Was the light more orange-tinted or the bright white of halogen lamps? What could you see there in that theater of moments? These are terrible things to wonder. But still...I wonder how many people paused to consider the scene of my brother’s death on the shoulder that night and what it means to die or to grieve, and how many others turned their heads away, back to the road ahead and kept moving, knowing what it meant to rubberneck. Was it you? Was it I? Wasn’t it always?
Though its etymological origins are unknown, it’s possible that the scapula became shoulder blade because in ancient times, when a body had been rendered to bones, the scapula was then used as a digging tool. The bone-shovel turned the loam and clay then just as the steel plow does today. Blades from bodies, fruit from soil, green from the rot.
I tell people all the time that my little brother was much smaller than me but always larger than life. I realize this is a cliché. I’m trying to be nice. What I should say is that my little brother had huge shoulders. He could carry loads I couldn’t bear. But sometimes it’s easier to speak in such ways to others about loss, to traffic in the low commerce of sentimentality. Such clichés become, I hope, at their best a kind of shared acknowledgement of the failures of language to adequately explain its own deployment in the name of essaying, exploring...just trying to make sense of things. I tell people that he was larger than life because the meaninglessness is an expression of the frustration I feel trying to explain my work, my writing or this essay, perhaps at my inability to stop rubbernecking at the past.
A reiki therapist once told me, as an explanation for nagging shoulder and hand pain, that the right side of my body was heavier than my left, told me this might explain all the scars on the right, the unblemished left, told me that we carry the burden of grief in the right side of our body. As she said this, I felt something snap and uncoil inside, as if her words had lifted the weight, if only for a moment. When I look in the mirror I’m sometimes convinced that my right shoulder is higher than the other, bound up and knotted like I’m still carrying something there.
Some days I understand that everything I write is in some ways about my brother and his death. I realize in these moments that I’ll never fully shake the weight of the loss, the object of the transitive form, to grieve. The essays may take on new forms, take new paths—this one trying to follow crowns and shoulders and rubbernecking, trying to be about physical injury—but they often (or always) end up back at the same old secret emotional engine, the humming grief that fuels so much of my creative life. I’ve shouldered the load for so many years, I forget it’s there sometimes. My brother died on the shoulder of an Indiana street, crushed his crown against a tree; and I should have known that all of this essaying would tumble back down to this root, to his death, and that no matter how many digressive gymnastic leaps I made, how many fancy roadside attractions I built for you, no matter how cans of SPAM or other distractions I dropped before you like shiny baubles in the margins of this essay, I can’t escape the inevitable pull of gravity from crown to shoulder.
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published in AGNI, DIAGRAM, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, The Pedestrian, Colorado Review, and others. He’s a founding editor of The Normal School and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.