During the summer of 1978, I was working as a traveling salesman. I drove through the southwestern states, wandering through cities and towns, selling jewelry and giftware to stores along the way.
I had just completed a productive week in Las Vegas, where I made many sales. I felt pretty good. My next destination was Los Angeles, just hours away.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, I saw a motorist staring helplessly into the engine of his stalled car. The sun was beating down in 100+ degree heat. As was my habit, I pulled over to offer him assistance. His car was dead, and he was frustrated. He had no money to fix the car, and no way out of his situation. I felt sorry for him. So I invited him to travel with me. I was headed into L.A., his destination, and I had room in the van.
His name was Ray, and he looked to be in his early twenties. He was small, muscular, wiry, and slightly gaunt, as if underfed. He traveled with me for three days, and over time, I grew to trust him. I sent him on 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.
On our third night of travel, we camped out next to Puddingstone Reservoir, outside of Claremont. I was sitting on the floor in the back of my large van, moving things around in the cupboards to make more room for all the stuff that was piled up – my clothes, books, food, boxes of samples, and Ray’s duffel bag and travel gear. I was in a practical frame of mind, focused on my task, listening to the music that Ray was playing on the radio at the front of the van.
There was a sudden, loud explosion. I felt a sharp, searing blow to the top of my head. Had the gas stove exploded, I wondered? I looked up, but it was intact. Then I looked at Ray. He was sitting in the driver’s seat, and I saw a 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! My first thought was, “He’s warning me – he’s going to rob me.” That suddenly seemed just 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 a soft voice in my mind say, “Relax. It’s out of your control. Keep breathing, and stay awake.” I began to breathe slowly, assessing the situation.
My thoughts turned to my inevitable death. There was nothing I could do to change the sequence of events. So my attention turned to God. “Thy will, not my will, be done,” I thought. I let go of my body, and my tension, relaxing and slumping back against the cabinet. I watched my breath flow in and out, in and out, in and out….
I began to prepare for death. I didn’t want to die angry, upset, or incomplete. I began by asking for forgiveness – from all those I had hurt during my 26 years of life. I then offered my own forgiveness to everyone who had hurt me throughout my life. This began a full-color fast-reverse movie reel of my life, back to my birth. I thought about my parents, my brothers and sisters, my lovers, and my many good 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 wood cupboard to my right. I relaxed back into the reverie of my life review. My luck could not hold out. If the gun was a revolver, there were three more bullets. 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 ideas, my freedom — all became worthless, meaningless. In the face of death, it was just dust in the wind.
All I had of value at that moment was my body, and my life, and those would soon be gone. My attention was focused on the spark of light I called my Self. My consciousness began to expand outward, extending my awareness in space and time. I heard those instructions again: STAY AWAKE AND KEEP BREATHING.
I prayed to my God, to the Great Spirit, to receive me with open arms. Love and light flowed into me from that Source, 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 to my birth, and forward to my death. I could see 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. I was floating above the van, as a point of consciousness, like looking down into a dollhouse, seeing all the rooms at once. Every detail was in sharp relief, both real and unreal at the same time. I looked into the warm and welcoming golden light with calm acceptance. I was going Home.
The fourth explosion shattered the silence, and my head was pushed violently to my right side. The ringing in my ears was deafening. Warm blood rushed down my head, into my eyes and onto my arms and thighs, dripping onto the floor. But strangely, I found myself back in my body, not out of it. I was still surrounded by light, love, and peace. “That’s interesting!,” I thought. “I’m still alive!” I began to look inside my skull, trying to find the holes. Perhaps I could see light through them? Knowing myself well, I began to inventory my feelings, abilities, thoughts, and sensations. I was looking for what might be missing. Surely the bullet had affected me. My head was throbbing, but I felt strangely normal.
At that moment, I realized that I wanted to to look at my assassin – the bringer of death – directly in the eyes. I picked up my head and faced him. He was shocked. Jumping up from his seat, he shouted, “Why aren’t you dead, man? You’re supposed to be dead!”
I didn’t know the answer to his question. “Here I am.” I said quietly, still in my expanded state of consciousness.
“That’s too weird! This is just like my dream this morning!”
“What dream?,” I asked.
He was now shouting. “In my dream, I kept shooting this guy, but he wouldn’t die! But it wasn’t you in the dream, it was somebody else!”
This was very strange. “Who is writing this script?,” I wondered. I knew that if I could keep him talking, he might not shoot again. I began to speak slowly and calmly, trying to settle him down. 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 four bullets hadn’t finished me off.
Blood continued to ooze down my face. I 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. “Now 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, less adrenalin coursing through his veins, less jumpy.
“Why did you want to kill me?” I asked.
“Because you have everything, and I have nothing. And I’m 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, Ray?” 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, quietly. I didn’t want him to feel out of control. It had to be his idea, not mine. I knew his anger sprang from feeling out of control, and I didn’t want to make him 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 was a little boy, disappointed in himself for failing. Ashamed.
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 stacking boxes, filled with samples, around me. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay. A little uncomfortable, but it’s all right.” He was expressing genuine care. I quieted the hope springing out of me.
“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 strong, and 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 back up on the dirt road, find the pavement and move forward into the night – toward my freedom and salvation.
He drove on and on – to where, I had no idea. Were we bound for a hospital, as he said, or toward an even more 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 more than an hour away from Los Angeles. As I sat alone in the back of the dark van, listening to the sounds of the highway, I replayed the scenes, one by one, analyzing the past three days. I was trying to understand what had happened, and why. It didn’t make any kind of sense. I had treated Ray only with kindness and respect, and he turned on me. I had welcomed a crazy person with a gun into my life.
After an hour or so of deep contemplation and questioning everything, I felt the van slow, pull over and stop. The engine 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 sat down on the platform bed next to me, and turned 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. “Oh shit,” I thought. I tried to remain calm.
“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.”
Back in jail? Not only was I with an armed madman, but an ex-con as well.
“They won’t put you in jail if you take me to the hospital, Ray,” I said slowly, still feigning injury, passivity. I realized that an opening might occur, a moment when I could surprise him, overpower him, and take away his gun. If he didn’t know I was okay, and strong, 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 sad, and desperate. This was clearly 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, or whether it would be enough to push myself 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. What could I do to escape? 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 expressed genuine 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 as he talked about growing up in poverty in East L.A., with poverty everywhere around him. He talked about his anger at the schoolteachers who made him feel stupid. He talked about his father who drank too much and beat him. He talked about becoming a tough guy on the streets, and how he found a way out. He joined the Army. That was supposed to fix everything. 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. That’s why he had to leave L.A., because they were looking for him, to kill him. He told me that he stole his father’s gun, and some money, before he left. Then his car broke down, and he realized there was no place to hide.
He had decided to turn back. If he did one more rip-off, he could get rich, and pay off the dealer. He just needed one hit, one sucker. If his target was rich enough, he could start over and be somebody. So he decided to kill whoever stopped to help him.
I had apparently volunteered.
The night was turning to morning, the sky shifting slowly from dark indigo to deep blue. I could hear the sound of chirping birds, which 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 told him. I had been sitting in the same position 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. 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.”
I wanted to remind him that he was 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 was shining, as if made of sparkling crystal.
We had stopped on a residential street next to an embankment, which led down to a small pond. He gestured with his gun that I should walk down the dirt trail that led to the water. As I clambered down the steep incline, I wondered, “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 at the same time, immortal, 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 him. 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 there, into the water.” I pointed to the center of the pond.
“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! Are you sure you wouldn’t want to kill me if I gave you this gun?” He held out the gun again, as if inviting me to take it, and kill him.
“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. I don’t know why you didn’t die when I shot you, man.”
Silence. That question was best left unanswered.
As we stood at the water’s edge, I realized that Ray had undergone a profound transformation – as profound as the one I had undergone. 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, as we walked back up the hill to the van, where we sat together, seeking a solution to this dilemma. We explored the possibilities – what could we agree to? I made suggestions, and he told me why they wouldn’t work. I made other suggestions. He listened, considered, rejected, and relented. We sought a compromise. A way out.
Ultimately, we found a bargain we could both agree to: I would let him go, and he would let me go. I promised not to turn him into the police, or report the incident, under one condition – he had to promise that he would never do anything like this again.
He promised. We shook hands on the deal.
What choice did he have?
As the sun rose over the hills, and the heat of the day began, we climbed back up to the front of the van. I sat in the passenger seat. 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 two watches I thought he could pawn. We got out of the van and walked across the street to a bus stop.
The sun shone down on us. 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 one final time. I smiled at him, and he look confused. 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 from my scalp, and sewed stitches. He asked me how it had happened. 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 said I was lucky, but I knew it was more than luck. I felt blessed. I was still full of love, and light.
I didn’t go to the police. I had made a promise, and had received a promise in return.
I kept my promise.
And I believe that Ray kept his.
. . .
About the Author
Lion Goodman is an author, teacher, coach, and healer. He shares his wisdom through his Clear Your Beliefs program, and teaches his methodology to coaches and therapists around the world through the Clear Beliefs Coach Training. He is the author of numerous books, including Clear Your Beliefs, and Creating On Purpose (with Anodea Judith).
Lion provides personal, transformational coaching and healing to people worldwide. He helps them clear what’s in their way so they can fulfill their dreams and manifest their life purpose. He works with entrepreneurs and business leaders through the Luminary Leadership Institute, helping them hone their virtues and embody their True Self. He also loves to work with young people, like Ray, who are seeking a better life, and he often lectures at San Francisco State University, Yale Summer Explo, and San Quentin Prison.
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). It was used as the basis for a screenplay for the award-winning film, “The Kindness of Strangers.” Directed by Claudia Myers, which won “Best Film” at the Rosebud Film Festival in Virginia. The 20-minute film can be viewed here: www.EverydayAwakening.com/video.html.
I would enjoy hearing your feedback or questions. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 by Lion Goodman. All rights reserved.