There was a crowd in the street the night I thought I saw a man kill another man in Virginia Beach, Va. For years I have carried the image with me: the man sprawled on the concrete, the young people gathered around him. For years I haven’t been certain who of all those people was supposed to die, or what sort of death they were supposed to have. But I think of it often.
It was August 2008. There were four of us: a rising NYU senior, a rising sophomore at a southern university and two high school graduates. I was one of the latter. We didn’t know when we’d be together at home in Ohio again. We sensed we were at the edge of something new and terrifying. So we decided to run from it.
Three of us sped out of Cleveland at 4 a.m. We swerved through a channel of concrete barriers in the dark and watched the sunrise from the car in the foggy Appalachians somewhere above Pennsylvania. We crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. We ate waffles for breakfast. At sundown we rolled into Cape Hatteras, N.C., a beach village just south of the Outer Banks’ frenzied tourist zone.
We had a lot in common. All three of us were ending major phases in our schooling. We were also ending long-term romantic entanglements. We were single men. We faced a new world.
We camped beside the glassy expanse of Pamlico Sound, a lagoon that sits between the Outer Banks and the Carolina mainland. Mosquitoes bit us in the evening. It was the only time I’ve seen the Milky Way.
We met the fourth — the sophomore — in Virginia Beach a few days later. The only place we could afford to stay was a $90-a-night motel with broken door locks. It was jammed between a highway and a muddy river. I slept with a knife nearby.
The next day we moved to a campsite near a naval base. F-16s roared overhead. Somehow it felt safer.
At night we took a trolley to the city’s main drag — an ocean-side sliver of bars, trinket shops and sideshows. Musicians and magicians performed for tips on street corners.
We passed a preacher, a gigantic man. “Turn back from your Bob Marley ways,” he shouted. His sidekick, a much shorter man, brandished a sign on a tall pole. The sign bore a list of sins: fornication, adultery, lying, etc.
We walked on, but halfway down the street, we turned. The preacher was arguing with two men. One did all the talking; the other watched, smoking a cigarette.
The preacher was full of shit, the talking man said. He said he was in the military. They were yelling at each other.
You better hope you don’t go to Iraq then, the preacher said. You better hope you don’t get killed by an IED.
The preacher turned his back on the men and shouted something to the clumps of people passing on the street.
The smoking man stepped forward and punched the preacher in the back of the head. I heard a crack. The preacher fell and lay motionless. When paramedics carried him away, there was a small pool of blood on the concrete.
For years I thought the preacher had died. I marveled at the sick justice. Ready your soul for unexpected death, he had — in effect — told the two men, even as he insulted them. Was he ready for his own?
In June 2010 I discovered an online network of street preachers. They had written about the Virginia Beach attack. The preacher’s name was Mike. According to a blog post, he had survived.
“He was hospitalized for brain hemorrhaging and a broken nose FOUR DAYS later,” the post from September 2008 reads. “The local magistrate kept Bro. Mike in jail without a bond for four days on charges of disturbing the peace. So much for the Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech!”
The post ends: “Welcome to Communist China!”
One of my friends had a different take: “He antagonized and provoked an enormous drunk marine. What did he think was going to happen?”
We live in different corners of the country now. New York City, Shepherdstown, Las Vegas, Chicago. We talk when we can. It isn’t often.
Sometimes we mention the preacher. But we never talk about the deep current of fear he touched. The soldiers’ fear of losing their friends in war. The preacher’s fear of dying with an impure soul. The fear of sudden demise.
We feared growing apart. I fear it even more now. It is a small demise, but it would smash me like a punch to the head. Yet I’m ready for it. And I hope we’ll find good in it. Someday we’ll reconvene as better men.