(A true story)
by Lion Goodman
It happened during the summer of 1978. I was traveling through the Southwest, selling jewelry and giftware, Austrian crystals to feather earrings. On my way toward Los Angeles from Las Vegas, I stopped to help a motorist whose car had broken down in the Mojave Desert. He was down on his luck, had no plans, and nowhere to go. So I invited him to travel with me.
His name was Ray, and he looked to be in his early twenties. He was small, muscular, wiry, and slightly gaunt, as if underfed. I felt sorry for him, and in the three days we were together, I grew to trust him. I sent him on small errands while I visited stores to sell my wares. At one point, I gave him some of my clothes, and it pleased him to have something new to wear. He seemed calm and mostly satisfied.
The third night, we were camped out next to Puddingstone Reservoir east of Claremont. I was sitting on the floor in the back of the large van, moving things around in the cupboards to make more room for my clothes, books, food, boxes of samples, and Ray’s duffel bag and travel gear.
There was a loud explosion, and I felt a sharp, searing blow to the top of my head. Had the gas stove exploded? I looked up, but it was intact. Then I looked at Ray, sitting in the driver’s seat, and I saw the black gun in his hand. His arm was resting on the back of the seat, aiming the pistol at my face. A bullet had hit me! At first, I thought he was warning me – that he was going to rob me. That suddenly seemed fine. “Take it all,” I thought. “Take it all. Just leave me outside and drive away.”
Another explosion shook me, and my ears rang with a terrible, high-pitched whine. I felt blood dripping down my face. The top of my head throbbed. He’s not warning me, I realized. He’s going to kill me. I am going to die.
There was no place to hide. I was stuck in an uncomfortable position surrounded by cabinets. There was nothing I could do. I heard myself whisper “Relax. It’s out of your control. Breathe. Stay awake.” My thoughts turned to death, and to God. “Thy will, not my will, be done.” I let my body go, and I relaxed, slumping back against the cabinet. I watched my breath flow in and out, in and out, in and out….
I began preparing for my death. I asked to be forgiven by anyone I had hurt. I offered my forgiveness to everyone who had hurt me throughout my life. It was a full-color fast-reverse movie reel of my entire twenty-six years. I thought about my parents, my brothers and sisters, my lovers, my friends. I said goodbye. I said, “I love you.”
Another explosion shook the van, and my body pulsed. I was not hit. The bullet missed me by a fraction of an inch, penetrating the cupboard to my right. I relaxed back into the reverie of my life review. My luck could not hold out. If he held a revolver, there were three bullets to go. I hoped that the gun wasn’t a semi-automatic with a full clip.
Nothing mattered at that moment but to be at peace. My van, my money, my business, my knowledge, my personal history, my freedom—all became worthless, meaningless. In the face of dying, it was just dust in the wind.
All I had of value was my body and my life, and that was soon to be gone. My attention was focused on the spark of light I called my Self, and my consciousness began to expand outward, extending my awareness in space and time. I heard my instructions clearly: STAY AWAKE AND KEEP BREATHING.
I prayed to my God, to the Great Spirit, to receive me with open arms. Love and light flowed through me, spreading out from my heart like a lighthouse beam, illuminating everything around me. The light itself grew inside me, expanding my awareness like a huge balloon until the van and its contents seemed small. A sense of peace and acceptance filled me. I knew I would soon be leaving my body. I could sense the timeline of my life, both backward through my history and forward to my death, and beyond. I saw the next bullet – a short distance into the future – leave the gun, jet toward my left temple, and exit with brains and blood on the right side of my head. I was filled with awe. To see life from this expanded perspective was like looking down into a dollhouse, seeing all the rooms at once, with every detail in sharp relief, so real and yet so unreal at the same time. I looked into the warm and welcoming golden light with calm and acceptance.
The fourth explosion shattered the silence, and my head was pushed violently to the side. The ringing in my ears was deafening. Warm blood rushed down my head and onto my arms and thighs, dripping onto the floor. But strangely, I found myself back in my body, not out of it. Still surrounded by light, love, and peace, I began looking inside my skull, trying to find the holes. Perhaps I could see light through them? I did a quick check of my feelings, abilities, thoughts, and sensations, looking for what might be missing. Surely the bullet had affected me. My head was throbbing, but I felt strangely normal.
I decided to look at my assassin – to look death directly in the face. I picked up my head and turned my eyes toward him. He was shocked. Jumping up from his seat, he shouted, “Why aren’t you dead, man? You’re supposed to be dead!”
“Here I am.” I said quietly.
“That’s too weird! It’s just like my dream this morning! I kept shooting at him, but he wouldn’t die! But it wasn’t you in the dream, it was somebody else!”
This was very strange. Who was writing this script? I wondered. I began to speak slowly and calmly, trying to settle him down. If I could get him talking, I thought, maybe he wouldn’t shoot again. He kept yelling, “Shut up! Just shut up!” as he peered out the windows into the darkness. He nervously walked closer to me, gun in hand, examining my bloody head, trying to understand why the four bullets he had pumped into me hadn’t finished me off.
I could still feel blood oozing down my face and could hear it dripping onto my shoulder. Ray said, “I don’t know why you aren’t dead, man. I shot you four times!”
“Maybe I’m not supposed to die,” I said calmly.
“Yeah, but I shot you!” he said, with disappointment and confusion in his voice. “I don’t know what to do.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I wanted to kill you, man, to take this van and drive away. Now I don’t know.” He seemed worried, uncertain. He was beginning to slow down, becoming less jumpy.
“Why did you want to kill me?”
“Because you had everything, and I had nothing. And I was tired of having nothing. This was my chance to have it all.” He was still pacing back and forth in the van, looking out the windows at the black night outside.
”What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man,” he complained. “Maybe I should take you to the hospital.”
My heart leapt at this opportunity, this chance – a way out. “Okay,” I said, not wanting to make him feel out of control. I wanted it to be his idea, not mine. I knew that his anger sprang from feeling out of control, and I didn’t want to make him feel more angry.
“Why were you so nice to me, man?” he asked plaintively.
“Because you’re a person, Ray.”
“But I wanted to kill you! I kept taking out my gun and pointing it at you, when you were asleep or not looking. But you were being so nice to me, I couldn’t do it.” He seemed forlorn, as if he were a little boy, disappointed in himself for failing.
My time sense was altered. I floated in a zone of ultra-reality, with no idea of how much time had passed since the first bullet. After what felt like many minutes, Ray came up to me, still in my crouched, locked-in position, and said, “Okay, man, I’m going to take you to a hospital. But I don’t want you to move, so I’m going to put some stuff on you so you can’t move, okay?”
Now he was asking my permission. “Okay,” I said softly. He began taking boxes filled with samples and stacked them around me. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay. A little uncomfortable, but it’s all right.”
“All right, man. I’m going to take you to a hospital I know of. Now don’t move. And don’t die on me, okay?”
“Okay,” I promised. I knew I wouldn’t die. This light, this power inside me was so strong, so certain. Each breath felt like my first, not my last. I was going to survive. I knew it. Ray lowered the pop-top of the van, secured the straps, and started up the engine. I could feel the van backing up on the dirt road, finding the pavement and moving forward to my freedom.
He drove on and on – to where, I had no idea. Were we bound for a hospital, as he said, or toward some horrible fate? If he was capable of killing me with a gun, he was capable of lying, or worse. How did he know where to go? We were in Claremont. Los Angeles was more than an hour away. As I sat alone in the dark van, I re-played the scenes and analyzed the past three days, trying to understand what had happened, and why.
After an hour or so of deep contemplation and questioning everything in my life, I felt the van slow, pull over and stop. The engine was turned off. Silence filled the space. I waited. It was still dark outside. We had not pulled into a driveway. There were no lights. This was not a hospital.
Ray walked back toward me with his gun in his hand. He pulled away one of the boxes and sat down on the platform bed, turning toward me. He looked distraught. His head hung down. His words cut deep through my cloud of hope. “I have to kill you, man,” he said calmly.
“Why?” I asked quietly.
“If I take you to the hospital, they’ll put me back in jail. I can’t go back to jail, man. I can’t.”
“They wouldn’t put you in jail if you take me to the hospital,” I said slowly, still feigning injury, passivity. I knew that I might find an opening, a moment when I could surprise him, overpower him, take away his gun. As long as he didn’t know I was okay, I had an advantage.
“Oh yes they would, man. They’d know I shot you, and they’d lock me up.”
“We don’t have to tell them. I won’t tell them.”
“I can’t trust you, man. I wish I could, but I can’t. I can’t go back to jail, that’s all. I have to kill you.” He seemed forlorn. This was not where he wanted to be. He wasn’t making any moves. His gun hung limply from his hand, pointed down toward the floor. The boxes were still stacked around me. I couldn’t judge how much strength I had, whether it would be enough to push out and wrestle him down. He was small but strong. Was he still full of adrenaline? That would make him even stronger. My strength lay in words, in verbal swordplay. If I could keep him talking, he might not take stronger action.
“Maybe I could go into the hospital alone, Ray. You wouldn’t even have to be there. You could get away.”
“No, man,” he said, shaking his head. “As soon as you told them, they’d come find me. They’d track me down.”
I was silent. That didn’t work, I noted. What could I do to escape this danger? The only answer I could find was to stay present in the moment. Keep breathing. Be awake to everything.
He said, “Why aren’t you dead, man? I shot you four times in the head. How come you’re still alive and talking? You should be dead! I know I didn’t miss.” He looked again at my head, taking it in one hand and turning it to the left and right. “Does it hurt?” he asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, it hurts,” I lied. “But I think I’m going to be okay.”
“Well, I don’t know what to do. I can’t take you to the hospital. I can’t just let you go, because you’ll go to the police. Why were you so damn nice to me, man? No one’s ever been that nice to me before. It made it harder to kill you. You kept buying me stuff, and giving me stuff. I just couldn’t decide when to do it.”
Not if, but when.
“What would you do with all this stuff if you had it, Ray?” I asked.
“I could go home and be somebody, I could do stuff. I’d have enough money to buy my way out of there, man.” Ray began to talk, weaving his sad tale. I listened deeply. He talked about his home in East Los Angeles, the poverty around him, his anger, the schoolteachers who made him feel stupid, his father who drank too much and beat him, and being a tough guy on the streets. He talked about joining the army, how that was supposed to make it work, but he couldn’t stand being told what to do all the time, so he went AWOL. He talked about dealing drugs, and drug deals going bad, and how he ripped off his dealer buddies. That’s why he had to leave L.A., because they were looking for him. He talked about stealing his father’s gun and money before he left. Then his car broke down, and he realized there was no place to hide. He decided to turn back. He could do one more rip-off and get rich. He just needed one hit, one sucker. If his target was rich enough, he could pay off the dealers and start over. So he decided to kill whoever stopped. Whoever came by to help him. I volunteered.
The night was turning to morning, the sky shifting slowly from dark indigo to deep blue. The sound of chirping birds was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I was grateful to be alive.
“I’m pretty stiff and sore, Ray, I’d feel better if I could get up and stretch.” I was still in the same position I had been locked in for six hours. Dried blood was plastered to my hair and face, my shins hurt from being pushed against the edge of a cupboard door, and my lower back was throbbing with a deep ache. My head felt like I had been hit hard with a baseball bat.
“Okay, man, I’m going to let you up, but don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“Okay, Ray. You just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
Remind him that he is in control. Don’t let him feel out of control. Look for an opening.
He moved the boxes from around me, stepped back with the gun in his hand, and opened the door. I crawled slowly out of the van, stretching upright for the first time. How beautiful the world was to my new eyes. Everything shone as if made of sparkling crystal.
We had stopped on a residential street near an embankment with a small pond at the bottom. He gestured down the dirt trail that led to the water. As I walked down the steep incline I thought, “Is this death again, tapping on my shoulder? Will he shoot me in the back and push me into the water?” I felt weak and vulnerable, yet simultaneously immortal and impervious to his bullets. I walked erect and unafraid. He followed me to the water’s edge and stood by as I squatted down and rinsed my bloodied hands and face, splashing cool, fresh water on myself. I stood up slowly and faced Ray. He looked at me curiously.
“What would you do if I handed you this gun right now?” he asked, holding the gun out to me.
My answer was my first thought: “I’d throw it out into the water,” I said.
“Aren’t you mad at me, man?” he asked. He seemed incredulous.
“No, why should I be mad?”
“I shot you, man, you ought to be angry! I’d be fucking furious! You wouldn’t want to kill me if I gave you this gun?”
“No, Ray, I wouldn’t. Why should I? I have my life and you have yours.”
“I don’t understand you, man. You are really weird – really different than anyone I’ve ever met before. And I don’t know why you didn’t die when I shot you.” Silence. Better left unanswered. As we stood at the water’s edge, I realized that Ray had undergone as profound a transformation as I had. We were both different people than we had been the day before.
“What should we do now, Ray?”
“I don’t know, man. I can’t take you to the hospital. I can’t let you go. I don’t know what to do.”
We continued to talk, seeking a solution to his dilemma. We explored the possibilities – what could we agree to? I made suggestions, he told me why they wouldn’t work. I made other suggestions. He listened, considered, rejected, and relented. We sought a compromise.
Ultimately, we found a bargain we could agree to: I would let him go, and he would let me go. I promised not to turn him in or report him to the police, but under one condition – he had to promise that he would never do anything like this again. He promised. What choice did he have?
As the sun rose over the hills, we climbed back into the van. I sat in the passenger seat and he drove to a place that was familiar to him. He parked, and turned off the engine. I gave him all the cash I had – about $200 – and a couple of watches I thought he could pawn. We got out of the van and walked together across the street to a bus stop. The sun was shining. It was early in the day but already warm. He had his army jacket and sleeping bag under one arm, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Somewhere in the bundle there was a black gun.
We shook hands. I smiled at him, and he continued to look confused. Then I said goodbye and walked away.
In the emergency room of L.A. County Hospital, a doctor scraped away small bits of metal, skin and hair, and sewed stitches into my scalp. He asked me how it had happened, and I told him, “I was shot, four times.”
“You’re a lucky man,” he said. “The two bullets that hit you both glanced off your skull. You have to report this to the police, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
He called me lucky, but I knew it was more than luck – I felt blessed. I didn’t go to the police. I had made a promise and had received a promise in return.
I kept my promise. I believe that Ray kept his.
About the Author
Lion Goodman is an “Evocateur” (one who evokes the best in others). He is a successful businessman, executive coach, and seminar leader. He teaches workshops around the world, including a program on manifestation called Creation is Ecstasy!, and The BeliefCloset Process, a new methodology for changing beliefs quickly and permanently. He coaches adults, teenagers, and couples, helping them fulfill their dreams and their life purpose. He is passionate about developing leadership and resiliency in young people, and in sharing his understanding of transformation with coaches around the world.
This story was first published in the book, I Thought My Father Was God…and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project, edited by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, October 2001), and is the basis for the short feature film, “The Kindness of Strangers,” directed by Claudia Myers, which won “Best Film” at the Rosebud Film Festival. To view the film, visit www.EverydayAwakening.com/video.html.
© 2008 by Lion Goodman. All rights reserved.