Marszalek, the manager, cornered me on my lunch break to talk to me.
He kept fucking around with the scissors on my counter.
Eventually he said, "So, Clark," [eyeing me] "I see you're on lunch." He flipped the scissors around loudly, looking down. "Alright let me get to the point then. I began a crossword puzzle in the back yesterday and had it roughly two-thirds completed when I left. Now, someone has finished it. Permit me to be blunt but did you finish the crossword puzzle I had already almost entirely completed? Or should I look elsewhere for the bandit."
He held the scissors up and contrived a long inspection of the blade.
"Are you asking me if I took over on your crossword?"
"Yes, Clark. I am almost convinced it was you. I'm simply here to allow the opportunity for private reconciliation. I think I owe you that, even if you did finish the crossword puzzle. Also, I have another question."
"Which would you like answered first?" I looked at the security camera and wondered how in so many cases I probably existed for others in forms I know nothing about or over which I have no control. A woman entered the store and pulled her son by the arm—towards us.
"Let's toss the crossword thing for right now."
"What does it mean when my car kind of screeches when I start it? Is that bad or good? Or maybe nothing to worry about?"
"I don't really know anything about cars. I have a customer."
He walked away and waved to the lady and her son; I noticed there was a large amount of sweat around the ass area of his khaki pants.
"Excuse me," she said, "I need to make some color copies."
"I'm actually on lunch right now."
I hit the CANCEL button on the register three times to make it look like I was doing something.
"Why are you behind the register?" The kid looked over the counter at me, his mouth full of skittles, bag pinched between two fingers.
"To be honest, I didn't feel like going anywhere. I figured, instead of eating my lunch in the bathroom stall, alone, then walking around the store for the other 25 minutes acting like I have something to do—I figured I'd just stand here for half an hour."
"Ok whatever," she said, shaking her head‹back to terseness. "I need three of these in color and one in black in white."
The kid fidgeted and she tugged his arm. He grabbed a Halloween pencil from a bin nearby and held it up to his mom. I silently hoped for some wonderfully abrupt break from this conversation. For the woman to just pick up her papers and take her kid by the hand and walk away. Get smaller as they both exit the door and figure out something to do with their day, leaving me here, behind my counter, tapping random buttons on the register.
"Put it down, Nathan."
He put the pencil back and sighed. Behind him, a plastic witch started singing monster mash. The witch was motion detecting. That means it can see you. I should mention that to Phillip. It would probably terrify him.
"God, that's annoying. You hear that all day don't you?"
She slid the photos over the counter then began filling out a copy form, trying the friend routine. Sometimes I act like I'm checking the form and then I tell the customer they have to write down how tall they are. Right next to the fax number box. And they do it. And I laugh. Inside. But then the laugh dies down and I feel stupid.
"Yes, I do hear it all day. And I'll start those copies in six minutes as soon as lunch is over."
Her eyes rose at me from beneath her brow.
The witch began her song again, eyes moving side to side.
"What are you talking about? Just make the copies. Put it down Nathan."
"I will in six minutes."
She read my look. Her shoulders fell in annoyance. The witch kept singing.
"Put it down Nathan—now. Let's go."
She pulled the kid away and his shoes bounced over the tile. He resisted and tried to sit. The witch started the song over.
Phillip rounded the corner. He smiled at them. "Make sure to have a spooky Halloween. But not too spooky because—"
The woman picked up her kid and slapped his face. The skittles flew out of his mouth, covering his shirt in colored spit. Phillip backed around the aisle again and left. I could trace the quick cowardice through the snap of his tie. The kid just sat there in impotent indignation—his body quivering slightly as mom walked away.
I disliked the kid right away—right after the candy left his mouth. He coughed out some thick rust colored phlegm before crying. He clenched his fists but he just didn't get it. He coughed and cried. It revolted me. Lunch was over. But I didn't have any customers.
I got off of work at 5 and the bus picked me up out front. I sat behind Shane, the driver. He leaned forward on the wide but thin-handled wheel, measuring traffic. Shane wore glasses like the ones you're supposed to use when cutting wood. Thick and smoky gray. I looked back and there were only two other people in the bus, sitting on the backbench. They were wrapped in their coats. Just eyes beneath a brow.
Shane made a left and continued on, only moving to adjust his glasses periodically. Along with the blown up picture of him and his registration number, there was a series of pictures, meant to acquaint the passengers with certain restrictions. One picture was a cigarette, with a line through it. The next, a cartoon drawing of two kids carrying skateboards. They had neon colored clothes on and one was saying, "Radical" a line through both of them. The third was a hamburger with eyes, a line through it as well. The fourth and last was a rendering of the sky full of hot-air balloons and a line excluding them.
"Shane why are the no hot air balloons allowed on this bus?"
"No hot-air balloons damn it."
The two people swathed in their coats got off.
He waved, "Have a good one folks." Then he turned to me. "I think it means no hot air."
A woman came in holding a little boy wrapped in a blanket. She shook clots of sleet from its folds. They sat across from me.
"Hey, howdy," Shane said to the woman and the little boy then nodded to them in the overhead mirror. "Cold huh?"
I interrupted, "Shane you don't look anything like your picture. Why don't you look like your picture man?" Then I turn to the woman, "I hope you didn't bring any hot-air balloons on board." I shook my finger at her. We were at a stoplight. She ignored me. Shane squinted through the windshield's growing fog, jeweled with streetlights and headlights.
The boy across the aisle climbed up the woman and put his mittens against her ear. She looked down by her feet intently then smiled at him. She undid the scarf around her head, letting blond hair tumble out.
"I do remember. I do," she said to him and he curled up with a smile.
She lifted him onto her lap. Their raincoats swished against each other.
"And do you remember what he says?" she asked him.
I intervened. "What who says?"
The little boy looked at me then shrank in embarrassment. He ducked beneath her and searched me through her armpit.
"Uh, actually a parrot," she answered, nodding steadily.
The kid poked his head out, and I watched two small lips say, "A sad parrot."
"Yes, a sad parrot," the woman reiterated with a smile. "Whenever we walk by this one pet shop, there's always this parrot in a cage in the window—and my son thinks he looks sad."
The kid leaned out again, nodding, "Yeah, he's the saddest parrot ever."
"And what does he say?" she prodded him.
He smiled and straightened himself for performance.
"He says, 'Quaaa-aaaawwwww.'" The kid moaned a slow, sad squawk. "He's sooo sad."
I smiled at the boy. "Quaaaa-aaaaawwww," I said.
Shane turned in his chair at a stoplight, "How do we actually know the parrot's sad? What if that's his happy quaaw? Sometimes I let loose a happy quaaw."
The woman and her son said nothing.
I got off at the next stop. The sleet melted in my eye and I wrap my coat around my body a little bit tighter.
The Dunkin Donuts in the strip mall across the street had a payphone. I walked in to use the bathroom and buy some coffee, and break a five. There was woman at a table with her daughter. The daughter was showing her mom how to perform 'Stop, Drop and Roll.' She had just finished explaining 'Stop'.
"What's the second thing?" asked the mom, prodding.
The girl stopped and wringed her hands, "Stop—I know it—I know it."
Then she paused, and dropped to the floor.
"Oh sweetie, get off the floor."
"But that's the second thing."
"Sweetie," the mom said imploringly and picked her daughter up.
I left the five on the counter and went to the bathroom. Someone ripped out a picture of the president and put in the urinal. I pissed on it. I would probably pee on a picture of any of the muppet babies too. And anybody from the kkk. Probably people that just didn't look nice either. Oprah. Bob Barker. Boy George. Shit, I'd piss on a picture of myself too.
I left the bathroom, then grabbed my coffee and went outside. I set my coffee on the sidewalk and picked up the phone. The phone was cold against my ear. Steam unfurled from my coffee. I clinked quarters through the slot as a silent version of 'Stop, Drop and Roll' played to me from the other side of the window.
I imagined the girl covered in flames. Her My Little Ponies shirt would drop in smoldering pieces but she'd live. She'd stop, drop and roll. After you learn to tie your shoes, you have to learn how to keep from dying. How to stay away from cars, killers, rapists, fires, and whatever else will kill you. I sat with my back against the building. Los picked up and said he'd be there soon. Then he asked me if I was alone. I watched the steam leave the cup and become the air.
~ ~ ~
We traveled Lake Shore Drive in quiet. Los in the driver's seat, and his brother in the back with someone I didn't know. I sat in the passenger seat and felt uneasy. Los blew out some smoke from his cigarette, his hand against his face, the one lightly attending the steering wheel. Lit by the lights on the dash, but only partially.
The land seemed empty—though it fought with lights and rushing cars to prove it was still alive. We went to an abandoned school on the South Side. Los parked on a side street and everyone got out.
"Where're we going?" I asked and checked all their faces for an answer.
"Come on," Los said, following behind his brother and the other guy.
We crossed the overgrown playground. Los's brother spun the tic tac toe panels as he walked by. The school had a stately look, lit with cotton moon runoff. There were arches and the acute sensation that the building was just asleep. Rising up into the air with silent windows and purple bricks. Los and the other two disappeared into the black doorway and I followed, looking behind me. Los's brother held his lighter out in front of him. Then he put it out when we found a room, strewn with boards and garbage, the streetlight affording us some visibility. There was a man sleeping on the ground, hair and beard dreadlocked, shoes flapped open. He lay on his side, dirty coat over his body like a blanket. The ground was thick with a carpet of filth. His body displaced a streak.
Los kicked the guy lightly, his toe jabbing the decal on his sweatshirt. The sweatshirt read 'Greatest Dad in the World'.
"Hey, wake up," Los said.
The Greatest Dad in the World tensed and sprawled out, put his hands on a garbage-bag nearby.
"Relax, motherfucker, I don't want your cans. Just get the fuck out of here."
The Greatest Dad in the World collected his things and clapped out of the room on his broken shoes. He glanced over his shoulder at us and blended into the outside. The outside ate him. We silently said goodbye to The Greatest Dad in the World.
The guy I didn't know set down his backpack and kneeled down. The angle hid his face. Los and his brother kept their eyes on me. The inside reeked strongly of some dead vegetable smell. Clipped grass. The man rummaging through the backpack took his phone out of his pocket, spreading the blue glow over the concrete floor—over the leaves and oil stains and condoms.
Los sat in a desk, in the edge of the room's light and stretched his back, looking at me from under his eyelids. His brother came close and I gave him the money in a big fold with a rubber band around it.
"So how's school big guy?" Los's brother asked. His eyebrows are raised a little. He steps towards me, hands by his sides.
"What? I don't go to school anymore."
"You don't go to Lewis?" his brother said. He shifted his feet and folded his arms displaying a Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo.
"Nah man. I went for a year and then stopped."
"What'd you do man?"
"Mr. Clark did airplane shit," Los intervened, looking at me. He ran his hand through his hair and winked at me. The mole above his eye jumped.
I put my hands in my pockets and breathed out.
"Airplane shit huh?" his brother said.
The brother lifted up his Sox hat and scratched his head. He ambled around the room scratching his head. "What does 'airplane shit' mean?"
"Mechanics," I said.
The guy I don't know got up and came forward. All three looked at me. I was triangulated. He extended his hand to me. In his palm, a black nine mm. Heavy. Our hands were on it at the same time. The serial number was gone. Like I'd thought. Clip for eleven. Chipped cylinder. Nice but I guarantee someone was already killed with it.
"Yeah? Working on airplanes, right? That's big shit man. Big shit. When am I gonna be on a plane and here Ol' Captain Clark on the p.a.?" He put his hand up to his mouth, mimicked the sound of a scratchy speaker. "This is, Captain Clark, on the p-fucking-a. Just wanted to let you assholes know, we're passing over something or other and it's fucking cool. Over." He lowered his hand, smiling. "You white guys say 'cool' right?" He laughed a little and the light above him bounced off his skull at me.
I joined his laughing and blew into my hands. "Yeah we do say 'cool,'—you're right."
"You cold?" Los asked.
I rocked back and forth, at the whim of some nervous energy.
"No." Pause. "I mean, yeah."
He looked at me, his head framed by the window. Outside the factories pulsed smoke. The guy put the money in his pocket and Los's brother materialized from the dark, suddenly close. "Well, did you wanna leave man?" he asked.
He stood right in front of me, mouth slightly open. The steam hit my face.
There was an old map on the wall. Torn and hanging. It waved slowly with a breeze edgewise through the concrete window. I traced the Atlantic along the land. The U.S., faded and dusty. Los stood and kicked at the floor—the dust languished.
He spoke to me. "Give him the money."
I handed his brother the money. He passed it to the other guy. The other guy counted the money in front of me. We left the building and got back into the car. We idled in the parking lot. I sat in the passenger side. Everyone was quiet. Los rolled down my window.
"Hey man, can you wipe off that frost I can't see out that window."
I undid my seat belt and leaned over. I put my arm out the window and rubbed the frost with my sleeve. It was a tight fit.
"Roll it down a little more so I can reach out farther."
He rolled the window up on my arm. I tried to pull it out in time but my elbow bone caught. It stretched and hurt. The window clamped my arm and I could feel my pulse shouting.
I went to yell but choked. "Shit, what the fuck?" I said finally, grabbing it with the other arm.
Los's brother leaned back, I caught him in the rearview. He lifted his shirt and pulled out a sawed-off from his waist. Then he rammed it straight into my face. A lower level of quiet pervaded the car. My fingers buzzed. They throbbed coolly.
"Don't fucking move. Don't fucking move if you want to leave this car."
I ground my teeth and moaned and tried to move my fingers.
"Do you want to leave Clark? Do you want to leave? With all your blood?"
"Fuck—Yes, please. I guess," I coughed and shivered, "—fuck."
"What do you mean, you 'guess'? What're you guessing about man? Huh?"
The barrel breathed into my face. It brushed against my cheek; he pressed it in hard when he said 'what'. My skin tightened and pimpled.
One misstep and I'm dead.
I watched his skinny, wizened face over the barrel. He had black eyes with little tangles of maroon veins by the pupil. The lines on either side of his mouth were deep. The anger was in his mouth. Nowhere else. Only calm everywhere else.
Blood dripped into my throat and confirmed a broken nose. It felt torn along the bridge where barrel had collided. Numb. My arm became numb too, and stopped recognizing the wet sensation of the snowflakes hitting it.
"What do you guess?" he asked slowly.
He pushed the gun in again. He cocked it. I watched someone ride their bike across the street outside. They had a light on the front of their bike. And I traced the foggy beam's escape. Then I looked at him again. He continued.
"I want you to listen to me. Are you listening? Huh, Captain Clark?"
My first attempt at a word manifested as a sour bubble of air in the back of my throat.
I tried again.
The vent blew heat into my face. The blood became gel in each fold and pore.
I moved my fingers slowly and watched them through the window.
"Clark, I want you to hear this. Hear me Clark."
Blood dripped into my mouth, through the thin crease between my lips, brackish with snot and dispersing into the wet inside.
He spoke through clenched teeth. "I want you to get the fuck out and leave. Then turn one way or the other and keep walking. Are you still hearing me Clark? Did you hear all that? Walk home." The guy I didn't know said something to Los.
Los said, "That shit is yours now motherfucker. My name is gone. You don't know any of us."
I nodded. The pain moved to my shoulder.
"Good. Now fucking walk away," his brother said.
He rammed the barrel hard against my cheek and the force pushed my head against the window. Blood swirled the window, trimming a pool of fog. I raised my knee and pressed my face against my pants. I wiped the swollen wound, against the constant influx of tears in my right eye. The car blurred.
"Beat it, faggot. And stop bleeding on the car."
His brother pressed his shotgun further in as he reached his other arm into my pants retrieving the nine.
Los lowered the window and I swung my arm back in. My arm fell into my lap—heavy and hesitantly growing again warm.
I got out and the car turned into the darkness where only a properly tuned headlight could discover.
The snow fell in large flakes and turned clear, sinking into the ground. My chest was a snowstorm of calmly proliferating energy—moving outwards through my skin. Out through the playground I perforated the snow, looking up and down the road, then into the purple mist of the sky. The flakes fell heavy and slow.
My blood slackened.
Warmth returned to my arm.
I looked around for a target but found only space. Everywhere exactly the same. The structure held. Everything was where it was, like me—a pile of condensed material grower denser and denser. I couldn't tell the difference between things.
I began to walk, supposing my home probably the whole night away, but still there.
At an overpass, I walked beneath the bridge and sat, high up on the dirt incline my head inches from the road above.
The traffic rushed by right above my head.
I sat in the wet dirt, holding gun with my half-numb hand. There will always be a tool for what you need to do, I thought and looked at my broken finger. No tool can undo itself but always another. I made it home long after the sun. The way home was beneath my feet.