by Joe Engel
I listened to Matt as I stared through my own reflection in the window. Everything was in a dark autumn glow. The lounge was lit by wall mounted lamps and candles in the kind of oblong holders you might find at a pizza parlor. My rust colored beer was getting warm and Matt, a coworker, tried to convince me that I wasn’t crazy.
“That bothers me,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with you. I think you and I are the only sane ones at work.”
“I don’t think wrong is the word. I’m just telling you.”
“Ok,” he said, “tell me how you’re crazy.”
“Crazy’s not the right word either. ”
“Of course it’s not. You’re sensitive, life is overwhelming.”
“I take medication. I’ve been in the hospital a couple times.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything. It sounds like you’re trying to prove something to me, George.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t know what it is. I don’t mean it’s like I’m locked in a cage, I’m out here with you. But I’m trying to say there’s more to it. If anything I’m trying to say I’m not crazy.”
“Ok, Now you’re contradicting yourself,” he said, “you’re fine. My mom worked in a state hospital. I would go into work with her some nights when she couldn’t find a babysitter and take naps on the table where they used to give electro shock therapy. The men on that ward looked at you from some far off place, stranded there. They would light a cigarette and then forget they ever lit it as it burned all the way down to their fingers, down to their skin. They didn’t even feel it.”
“They had to restrain me.”
He looked at me. I noticed the deep craters on his face where acne had been. “If I can get through my problems, you can get through yours.”
“Really,” I said, “What are your problems?”
“I’m just saying they’re there and I deal with them. I don’t see doctors or therapists. I just deal with it.”
“What are they?”
“Personal,” he said and motioned at the waiter, “I’ll admit I drink a six pack every night.” The band was on a set break and the drummer just sat down again, now with sun glasses. I tried not to smirk.
“What?” Matt asked.
“The drummer put on sunglasses.”
“Oh,” he said, “you know, musicians.”
I looked at the window again, this time only seeing myself. “My parents called 911 on me when I was in high school.”
“Ok. I’m sure that was hard. You were a teenager,” he said. “High school is different. If you’re happy in high school, your life will probably be a disappointment.”
Our waiter appeared and Matt ordered a beer. “I’ll have a water,” I said. He nodded and I watched him glide away to the bar. The staff looked satisfied with what they were doing. Maybe it was the music. I glanced around at the well dressed crowd. Or maybe it was the tips. Matt stared at the table, his shoulder length hair hanging over his cheeks. I only knew him from work, but I sensed I could trust him. He lived alone like me, and had invited me here. He had recently dropped out of grad school, disillusioned by what he had said was the competition. He was an art and music appreciator and often took his breaks from the library to buy albums and books at the second hand store across the street. He wanted to own these things, to go back to, I imagined as part of his own therapy. He always came back amazed. He found a book of Basquiat prints once and kept exclaiming how lucky he was to find them.
Our drinks appeared with only a slight glimpse of our waiter and Matt lifted his up. “Cheers,” he said. We clinked glasses and gulped. Trustworthy or not, I was drinking water out of caution, my words had already come too easily, my second beer, half drunk, still in front of me. Matt set his down and looked at the stage. “I’m not impressed with the band. They don’t sound like they practice.”
I looked at him. I could see it now, some tragedy. “What happened Matt?” He shook his head and quickly took another drink. He looked at me, through me, with big wet eyes, brown like his hair.
“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. But I’ve told you some pretty personal stuff.”
He wiped the sweat from his beer off the table then looked at the candle. He turned his drink a quarter turn then looked up at me. “My step dad molested me.”
My mind looked for a way around that confession. I heard leaves scratching down the street. Matt finished his beer, pushed his glass in towards the middle of the table and put down a ten dollar bill. Then he backed out his chair, and left, head down, but something in him was still alight. He moved faster than I could sputter up a reponse. He didn’t need it. He became part of the autumn air before I spoke. I breathed out and looked back at the band. They were putting their guitar straps over their shoulders. I didn’t want to hear their refrains anymore. Instead of my water, I finished my beer, then, like Matt, ducked out the door. The warmth of the the evening had vanished into the dry night air, like a hoax for those of us that had to walk. I didn’t go after Matt, I hardly knew him, only as a coworker. As I walked I was chased by another another man’s past.
I wandered. Two women came toward me propping a small drunk man between them looking like a criminal they dragged off to a cell, beaten. I stepped out of their way and looked at the moon so I wouldn’t stare as they passed. They were coming from a strip of bars. I didn’t want to go home where I knew I would think about Matt’s confession in the tight, dank space of my efficiency; a converted basement corner of an old stone mansion. The day before I pulled back my bedding and found a cockroach scrambling out from the sheets. When it landed on the floor I smashed it. That’s the price of cheap rent. For the most part, I just sleep there. But I knew tonight I would just think Matt’s adversity and brief exit.
I heard yelling and laughter coming from the King Street bars and swerved another direction, left, towards the bike shop. That was where a girl pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. What was her name? We had been coming from the Wisco Tap where I had drunk enough to tell her about my life, to look her in the eyes. We didn’t go farther than that kiss. I remember insects like mist around the street lights.
I stopped on the corner. At a bank across the street, an American flag snapped, highlighted in the dark by a white spot light, rolling in and out of its own shadows. I’m a sucker for symbols; horseshoes, doves, black cats, rainbow flags, iron crosses and wedding rings. I like to wonder how such a huge number of people came to a certain agreement, accepted the same meaning, all concluded or converged on the same importance of things. As I watched the flag, a man approached from across the street, smoking and strolling. I stopped him and asked if I could buy a cigarette.
He looked me over. “No,” he said, “A man as skinny as you must be broke, here, you can just have one.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. He chuckled.
“I see you have an appreciation for the flag.”
“I like the way it waves in that light,” I said.
“I have a son your age, you should join the navy. Then you’ll get some real waves.”
“Can’t,” I said.
“I’d rather not say.”
“Fair enough. Well, it would help you walk a straight line,” he said as he patted me on the shoulder, satisfied, and meandered away up the block. I thought he might whistle.
A leaf fell out of the night and brushed the side of my face. I jumped. It felt like fingernails. Then I noticed another guy across the street watching me. I wasn’t trying to make friends at this corner. I lit my cigarette and blew a puff of smoke into the air. He held a grocery bag rolled up into a handle at the top and continued to gaze, so I turned back towards the bars. He followed me on the other side.
“Hey man,” he yelled.
“What?” I yelled back.
“Come here, I’ve got something you’d like.”
I looked down the street. I could just slip into one of those bars and get a drink. I noticed he was shorter than me and about my age. He had dread locks. Rastafarian, I thought, peaceful maybe. I heard someone shouting from a tavern and knew I didn’t want to deal with a crowd. My feelings on that hadn’t changed. I lead him into clear light on the next corner, in view of a crowd. I crossed over.
As I came up to him the expression on his face didn’t change. He held out the bag. I noticed his dread locks were blonde, he seemed to have a deep tan with freckles, and green nylon shorts. His eyes were clear.
“Here,” he said, seriously, “you can have this.”
I got a chill and the hair on my arms stood up.
“Look inside,” he said.
“No thanks.” I started to back away, though the ground felt like it was moving forward.
I waved him off and turned around, started to walk. I didn’t hear his footsteps following. “Don’t you want to see what it is?” I kept going. He said, “It’s free. You can do whatever you want with it.”
“I don’t need it.” I picked up my pace.
“It would suit you.” I kept going.
It was like the time my brother caught a garter snake and held it behind his back as if it was a popsicle. “I’ve got something for you,” he said. He kept it through the afternoon and every time he approached I would tremble and scurry off, eventually confining myself to my bedroom, door locked.
I finally slowed my pace after four blocks. I noticed my cigarette had gone out and sat on the steps of an office building, lit it and breathed. I peeked down the sidewalk to see if he had pursued me. There was no one but a man sleeping in the park across the street. It looked idyllic, sleeping underneath a tree, open to the breeze. I knew it wasn’t. I took another drag and my shoulders relaxed. If it was weed in that bag, I didn’t need it. Whatever it was, the man across the street needed it more, unless it was a snake.
I felt a chill, a real one, from the breeze. I finished my cigarette and lobbed it toward a sewer drain where it landed precariously on one of the grates. I thought about kicking it into the darkness below but decided to let the wind or traffic determine it’s course. Then I felt the fullness of my bladder and prayed my nerves were strong enough to hold.