Kimberly Sinclair Ghaphery
“Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.”
Did Karl Wallenda scream right before the fall? Does anyone know? It seems important. You see, I was in love with Karl Wallenda. The last I knew personally of Karl Wallenda was the night I watched him cross the wire at Wheeling Island stadium. One careful slide of foot in front of foot from one podium to the other, his long balancing stick teeter-tottering with precision one inch in each direction. No moon that night. No net. An occasional hop just to amp the adrenaline. My occasional breath-holding inhale. I sat tentatively next to my mother. The last I saw of Karl was when he pulled out of town in a red circus wagon. The next time I would see him was on the half page spread of the Weirton Daily Times; Karl had fallen to his death. We were sitting in her blue Chrysler Valiant when my grandmother handed me the paper. I couldn’t tell you what really happened that day, what went wrong, but I remember that picture—right before the fall… Einsteinian hair. Legs slightly bent. Black and white. Frozen on a wire. Silent.
I would never allow myself to watch that video; I left the room the night his grandson Nik crossed the Grand Canyon live on TV. Karl had come to him in a dream urging him to go. Old feelings die hard or so the saying goes. But after forty years, I needed to know what happened that day. Most of the YouTube videos are silent, and even in the ones that do contain a sound track, I can tell you that I never heard Karl scream.
* * *
Last night I watched a movie with my husband. Some random girl at some random drug cartel party spots the bloodied body of some kidnapper on the floor of the elevator, just as the elevator opens to the penthouse party. The random girl does what any action star bimbo is obligated to do in an action film—she screams and drops her wine glass on the floor. It is that cliché blood-curdling type of scream like one might hear in a zombie movie or maybe a “slasher” movie where Jason lurks with a machete behind some pine tree at a summer camp in Maine. But, quite simply, as soon as someone screams in a movie—no matter how good the movie—and no matter how convincing the scream—it loses its credibility with me. Oh give me a break, I said to my husband last night, does everyone have to scream? And now, look at the red wine stain on that white carpet—someone will have to clean that.
I guess I am a realist of sorts. I have always prided myself on being a fairly fearless-type with the exception, of course, of riding roller coasters. But let’s face it, isn’t screaming a prerequisite for roller coaster riding? Maybe it is the screaming and not the fear of the coaster itself that is the greatest deterrent. But I digress. I started out by trying to decide when it was that I have ever been so scared that I screamed. I think now of Mike Wazowski and Sully in the Disney-Pixar movie, Monster’s Inc., sneaking across the hardwood floor of a simulated scream chamber. They roar at the crash dummy child asleep in the makeshift child’s bedroom. The dummy arises in a scream so loud it practically breaks the screamometer. The object is to capture that scream in a canister as proof of their “scarability.” But I realize that their efforts would be lost on me. The closest I have ever come was a guttural noise—like the type my cat makes when our tom gets close—that rose from the Dante’s Inferno of my gut when my husband sneaked up behind me while I was running the vacuum.
I guess you should know that this is not simply a matter of personality. I am an actress of sorts, having done school plays and community theatre on and off my whole life. This does not boil down to mere dramatics. In fact, I usually get the grand character roles when I perform with gross over exaggeration. Histrionics have never been lost on me, and it is the deliverance of a good joke and not the joke itself that tends to create the best response. I am a great joke teller. But sometimes I picture the director, complete with director’s chair, handle-bar mustache and striped shirt barking out the command through a large white megaphone: Give a long, loud, piercing cry or cries expressing extreme emotion or pain. I am not sure that I could carry this one off. I played a witch once in children’s theatre and managed a pretty convincing cackle. But the thought of having to scream? Well, that’s in a different league. I have never screamed. Not even during childbirth with no anesthesia. Never even tried to scream. Never even had to trap a scream that threatened to escape me. I am devoid of screams.
But there is help for actresses that are screamless. Oddly, I don’t seem to be the only actress or actor with a screaming issue. I can borrow a good scream from Sheb Wooley from a movie effects soundtrack created in 1951. “Man getting eaten by an alligator and he screamed” contains six agonizing screams that can be used when a movie character is shot, blown up, or falls from a cliff. This iconic scream has been used for fifty years and by great directors like Lucas, Spielberg and Tarantino. It’s the “go-to” scream. The Wilhelm scream even found its way into the Monster’s Inc. film. But it’s not really the particular scream I am looking for anyway. It’s a man’s scream and a pathetic one at that. No. It is that high-pitched, elongated, mouth-open-tonsil-bearing scream that I crave. But it seems that even those types of screams are not hard to come by; rumor has it that there are over fifteen as of yet unnamed stock screams from which to choose. And although I have never looked into it, I am sure there is an app somewhere that would allow me to scream right from my iPhone.
But I can only imagine that such simulated electronic screaming does not meet the criteria of the real scream. I want visceral. I can only wonder about the cathartic effects of screaming. I believe it must come from the chest area. Does it start at the lungs? Is it like molten lava or steam in a pressure cooker? The pinnacle of pent-up fear charging like the Light Brigade toward an open orifice? Or maybe it is more cerebral than I imagine. Maybe the scream gets ignited somewhere in the ridges of the brain where it starts sending out rapid S.O.S. messages via Morse Code to the erector pili muscles of the skin: some tiny neuron feverishly and frantically tap tapping his fingers. But I can’t help thinking that maybe it starts down at the toes and works its way through the very essence of the screaming individual like a full-fledged menopausal hot flash. I sigh. Am I jealous somehow of one’s screamability? But screaming can’t possibly be a pleasant sensation. Then again, neither is getting shocked on an electrical outlet, but I sure am glad I experienced that one. That tingling weird feeling that can only be explained as—“a shock”—nothing else seems to do it justice. How does it feel to scream?
Sometimes I try to visualize what it must be like to scream. The screamer is always some twentyish blonde bombshell with a great set of—teeth. I picture the shoulders rising first, drawing the hands only half clenched to shoulder height; head scrunches down, golden locks shake—sometimes in slo-mo if it is one of those adolescent boy summer movies—eyes squint a tad. Sometimes the head draws back from the scream stimulus. Always the mouth is wide, usually sultry and slathered in clear lip gloss, the scream in high octaves is loud and transferred directly to the listener’s spinal column where it traverses like electricity along dendrites. But I am fifty. I am boyish and brunette. I have age spots and wrinkles and a sturdy frame. I simply cannot picture myself in any stage of “screaminess.”
And I do have to ponder whether screaming might be necessary: the body’s built-in system for allying assistance. After all, one good scream from a bimbo in an action film and everyone comes running. And if I am all alone on a deserted street or someone is dragging me by the hair through a desolate neck of the woods, hatchet in hand, what choice would I have? But yelling for help still seems more pragmatic than a guttural scream. Maybe that is where the dilemma comes in. I have thought this through. I really have. Never in any scenario do I scream; instead, I set up negotiations with my predator. Or, I go though my list of self defense moves, most of which I have forgotten except for the chop-chop to the larynx or the eye-gouging technique. I say such things as: You can have the Lenox there in the china cabinet…oh, and here’s my diamond ring, you can have it, too. And I must tell you that I lost my tennis bracelet, but if you can get that big screen in your car, it’s yours, Mac.
Maybe, the truth is, I have never really been faced with a need to scream. Maybe fear has only come my way in subtle packages. There is the wolf spider, like a small rat that landed on my shoulder as a kid—right at the moment that I had changed out of my shirt—its eight legs felt more like a gargantuan silverfish as it scuttled its thousands of legs across my six-year old skin. There is that first ride on a roller coaster at Kennywood Park, hanging upside down and backwards in the loop-da-loop believing that death was eminent—“I’m going to die,” I repeated over and over—but still no screaming. And there was last Sunday morning when, dog on thigh, coffee in snow-man mug, I cracked open the Sunday paper to find a black widow curled like a shriveled old woman in its crease, tucked away neatly in a tiny cotton candy cocoon. Or that split second—that hair-raising nanosecond—when you start to pull into the passing lane and realize that another car is right there in your path. There is that fear when you can’t find the term paper that is due in one hour. The fear when your kid didn’t call when he was supposed to be in by midnight and you can’t get ahold of him. The fear when you find out that your father has less than two years to live. I guess these simply don’t warrant screaming.
Maybe they do warrant screaming, but I have been programmed differently. Is it nature or nurture? Was I born without screams just as I was born with detached earlobes and the ability to roll my tongue? Or am I the descendent of Zeno; a child prodigy of stoicism? Sitting cross- legged in a toga in another life, I learn to honor self-control, to rely on logic and develop distaste for the emotive. Maybe I am a diluted stoic, a product of my fundamentalist upbringing, third generation mutation of the “children should be seen and not heard” version of stoicism. I mean, Jesus “cried out” in the Bible, but I don’t recall that he ever screamed. And I don’t recall ever hearing a grandparent or a parent scream, so I most assuredly never learned through example. Maybe I long for the intellectual ability to overcome the perversity of emotional response. Maybe I see screaming as weakness; the inability to act, the inability to take action. Don’t just stand there screaming you bimbo, do something!
When most people scream, my body takes a different approach. A disconsolate calm overtakes me. I feel myself get taller, stronger, braver than anyone else. Superhero. Herculean. I am the take-charge person. I iron the shirts before the funeral. I fix your flat tire on a desolate road. I slam my fist against your stilled chest. I bandage your bleeding wounds. I duct tape your faulty Apollo space-capsule. You call me in the middle of the night.
For me, there is no screaming. Screaming is garish. Screaming is brash. Screaming is hyperbole. An outward manifestation that has lost its power by the time it hits the vocal cords. Fear is more chemical, more toxic if you will. Fear gathers its resources—heart racing, hair-raising, blood-pressure rising, adrenaline demanding, incapacitating, stifling biochemistry. It demands you to take action. It leaves you teetering right there on that wire, like Karl Wallenda that day in Puerto Rico—right there after here and before there. And you’ve gotta find the balance. Do it quickly. Clean the wine stain before it becomes permanent. Jump up and down until the scuttling on your skin drops to the floor and scurries behind the nightstand. Grab a shoe and whack the hell out of the newspaper until you hear that squish. Jerk the steering wheel an eighth of an inch in the other direction while relishing the momentary pinpricks that race down your forearms. Grab the arm of your boyfriend who assures you no one has ever died on The Jack Rabbit. Lift up the Elements of Literature book and find the term paper right where you left it. Call a friend or a friend of a friend until you get ahold of your son. Hold your father’s hand while an IV drips chemo into his left arm.
Still, sometimes, the wind is against you. The wire too taut; the balance not right. And, you just can’t grab the wire. You face the fall. So, you just watch the YouTube video, for the first time in all these years and say the words of reassurance you said that night when you watched Karl cross that wire…you can make it, you can make it. Clench your jaw. Watch through the spread fingers over your eyes. Believe. Rewind that video to just before the fall. Listen for the scream that never comes. And dangle there in that split second—that hair-raising moment when Karl Wallenda must have felt fully alive.