“The barbed wire will keep them apart.”

By Nick Lyons | A couple of days ago I walked out of my city apartment to the raw sound of a car honking. It was not your run-of-the-mill honk. Someone had both hands, or feet, on the horn and was pressing them down as if her life depended upon keeping them there.

There was a car double-parked in front of the building and it blocked another car, in which the grim woman was honking, flush against the curb. She had somewhere to go and couldn’t go there. That was all. I’d heard the sound 10 minutes earlier, while I was turning out our apartment lights. It was a raucous, steady, angry sound, full of impatience and loathing, and it made you feel uneasy, right into your gut, like chalk does when scratched across a blackboard. Three blocks away we still heard it—my wife and I—though the faint sound at this distance was merely plaintive, and troubled us less. “She’s not supposed to do that, you know,” Mari said.  I said I knew, as we walked out of the range of the rage. “She just can’t help it.”

I once saw an offended cab driver take a mallet from his trunk and begin to demolish a sky-blue Cadillac. Inside was a young man who, for some offense I had not seen, had slapped the taxi’s fender with a flat hand, making a sharp sound only. “Hit my cab, will you?” the cab driver kept saying, as he methodically whacked out each of the headlights, then smashed the hood, then splattered the front window behind which the bewildered young offender had thought to take refuge.

Some degrees worse was the fight I saw a few years ago between two guys on 111th Street, one with an ax handle, the other with snow chains. Both were bloody, sinking to their knees, shouting hoarsely, reminding me for all the world of the terrifying Goya painting of two enraged fellows doing almost likewise, half submerged in muck, or perhaps quicksand, but not yet dead and so still hauling off at each other.

What could have caused such rage? And were there no other outlets for it? These people were so far from reason, so distant from any sensible way of settling a dispute at this late moment in human history.

You would have thought that with just about everything to gain—peace, a safer and more fecund life, a future of any kind—some of the endlessly raging parties on this tightening, fragile world—in the Mideast, on the African continent, almost everywhere, even in our own political realm—would be able to find paths wiser and more practical than to insult, bomb, burn, shoot, and blow themselves to smithereens along with everyone else.

Though perhaps, if some ineluctable and tragic gene is at play, they cannot help themselves any more than those mammoth black bulls, big as railroad cars, scarcely human, we once watched in a Montana field. They were separated by a barbed-wire fence, and though they looked at one another with menace, we thought, “The barbed wire will keep them apart.” It didn’t.  Their faces already thick with blood and dripping snot, they saw only each other as we approached. What a calm summer day it was, with bluebell skies and space that went on forever. There were no other cattle. There were no other creatures except these two. There was nothing to goad them on.  

Did they have a history? Clearly they did not like each other. It looked so easy for one or both of them simply to back off. I even thought about how I could explain this to them.  Each had his own territory. Neither could trouble the other if only they’d back off and chew on some grass. But they didn’t see it that way.  With all their force, each bull reared back, snorting blood and mucous, and rammed into the other with every ounce of vehemence it could muster, right through the barbed-wire fence, cutting their faces even more deeply before backing off and then smashing together again and again and again and again.

And then, torn enough and somehow circumspect, they had no more stomach for it and turned, each to his own affairs.

Nick Lyons W’53 has written infrequently for the Gazette over the past 20 years.


Notes from the Undergrad The bare essentials
Alumni Voices The mad gene
Elsewhere Pole position
Expert Opinion Value all families

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