I have a vague memory of watching a killing in the early eighties and wondering if it was a healthy way to pass the time.
I do not recall the perp, one of the dozens of scar-and-leather bad boys no doubt, smoking unfiltereds and squinting behind wraparound shades. We embraced the style of the crime without really caring about the substance, part of the zeitgeist of having an aloof distance between one's self and the visceral reality. One dull blade in a neon-lit rainwashed alley was just like another.
Christ, we thought we were so cool.
Anyway, the thought had struck me back then that maybe this was unhealthy, and by that I mean the repeating pattern of watching the machinations of death and then deconstructing them. We who had developed an appreciation for the homicidal arts had taken such an indifferent stance in the name of bohemian conceit that we threatened to make the whole thing irrelevant, to gradually press all the meaning and significance out of the art. The more deranged the madman, the more we yawned in polite dismissal.
How twisted is that?
This memory bobbed to the surface briefly while watching Karl Vargas' latest work, only because the whole piece revolved around the concept of relevance and how it impacts each of us. Some homicides reach for scope and magnitude, others try in vain to somehow ennoble the victims, but Vargas fosters an agenda of singular ballast.
In a killing season dominated by poor revivals of century-old slayings and troupe-based avant- absurdity (see last week's review of the Guilty Frogs latest spree.) Vargas brings a touch of sincerity to the proceedings. It is no secret that I have been a Vargas fan since his slash-and-gash enfant fatale days. His Bristol Street Bridge stabbings still hold up after almost thirty years, as does his meticulously plotted Angry Angel project, which claimed close to thirty victims over the course of six years. That level of commitment to the craft is, and always has been, a rare commodity. He has spent the last ten years executing quieter but no less intriguing work, drawing a smaller following for his series of exacting murders, each tinged with an originality that invigorated, and a subtle casualness bordering on elegance. To coin a phrase, Vargas made it look easy. His body of work since Angel stands on its own as evidence of contemporary genius. So when the nostalgia-crazed mainstream started talking about this being a "comeback" for "The man from Montville" (he's actually from East Jessup) I cringed. This was obviously a bookmark between trends, a nugget of novelty to chew on until the Holiday rush, or until Sara Van Houser's much-anticipated release from incarceration next spring. He was treated like a has-been trying to recapture past glory. There was no mention of the newlyweds hung from the skeletal scaffolding of the old drive-in movie screen, or the local TV station's Phantom Diner being pushed from her penthouse apartment, or the visiting orthodontist gutted in the rafters of the convention center. All poignant masterpieces. All forgotten.
It did my heart good to see a moderate turnout. The Riverside Industrial Park has outdated lighting, and enough shadows lined the buildings by early evening to hide an army. I was fortunate enough to get a good spot near the shipping depot beside a man who claimed to have seen Vargas in the Bristol Street Bridge days. I've heard this often in this line of work, usually from posers. This guy seemed to be a genuine fan amongst the trend-followers. Almost all the shadows were occupied by the time full night fell.
About five minutes before Vargas arrived word was passed from person-to-person that no recording or photography was allowed of the performance. I wondered who had originated this message, and pictured Vargas nearby, whispering the words into the ears of those around him. He has always been a master of controlling his environment, never depending on such variables as weather or season to stage a new project.
There was sweep of headlights that struck all of us against the depot wall. The car that rounded the corner came to an abrupt stop as if startled by the sight of so many people doing nothing in the dark. The driver's side door opened and a flashlight beam struck us.
"What the hell're you people doin'?" came the voice. The man stepped forward. I waited for him to aim his light into the other shadows, but he didn't. I could see him clearer now. He was a security guard, a rent-a-cop working the overnight shift. His face was sullen, lips slack and eyes ringed with darkness. His collar was unbuttoned. A rolled-up magazine jutted up from his back pocket. Countless keys hung from an oversized chain. He stared at us. Nobody responded to his question. The silence lasted almost a full minute.
I watched this man stand there and do nothing. Nothing. This sad being whose sole function was to patrol the driveways between these dark quiet buildings, whose purpose and productivity was to govern the inactivity of the industrial park, who spent his days sleeping so he could perform his rounds night after night, chasing off the occasional bum or necking couple, gazed at us without moving. I looked at his face in the half-light. He stared at us blankly. Our presence was inexplicable to him, and he was not programmed to respond.
The Genuine Fan beside me shifted his foot, and the guard's light swung to him. Then I saw the movement. From the shadows across the driveway a figure emerged. Striding quickly and silently, crossing the distance to the guard in seconds, the figure came up behind him. Large hands wrapped around the guard's throat. The flashlight fell. The guard's body was lifted off the pavement. He shook in the terrible grip, his hands prying at the fingers squeezing his neck, his mouth in the shape of a scream. In a few seconds his corpse was tossed atop the still-running car. The figure stood and looked around. I couldn't see his face but I felt his eyes as they passed over me. He was reading us. That lasted about half a minute, then he walked away. Nobody followed him.
The story on the morning news gave the victim's name. He had held the job at the Park for twenty-six years. He was a widower, his wife having died of leukemia eleven years earlier. A story in the paper quoted his neighbors who said he was solitary and unassuming, partaking of no known hobbies or vices. Some independent sources informed me that the police search of his house found very little. No collections, no travel photos, no sentimental memorabilia, just an organized life lived in an orderly fashion. Vargas had killed a man devoid of idiosyncrasies.
I have heard some say that this was Vargas' way of demonstrating that death is a random force, or that he was protesting the inherent unfairness of mandatory retirement laws, or that he himself was getting older and chose an easier target. A few detractors have accused him of exaggerating the tenuousness of the human condition. Personally, I think about those unseen eyes reading me, I think about how he read everyone present, and I think about the guard and his uneventful life. That was why Vargas killed him, because he was irrelevant. He had negligible impact on the world around him. He took no chances, achieved no joy from life. He performed pre-set motor functions at appointed times and never strayed from his course. There was no ambition in his soul or wonderment in his heart. He was nothing, and by his own choice at that. At the moment when that man turned that corner and was faced with an unexplained gathering of people, his uneventful life jumped the rails. His heart must have been racing when Vargas stopped it.
There are thousands of him in this city alone. Thousands. Karl Vargas knows that.
This was an arraignment of mediocrity, a recondite warning to those who day-trade in safety and complacency. Vargas has opened the season on those who do not sprint through life navigating its daily taints and maelstroms, who chose not to rise to the challenge with dagger in teeth and black flag unfurled.
The irrelevant shall become the erased.
2001 Bad Day Studio