He rode the city bus one evening. The AC was broken but the windows were open.
“I know this sounds crazy. I know how it sounds.” The young man spoke with a thin, breathy voice; an unused voice. He took up the whole bench seat at the rear of the bus. Sometimes he laid out on his back. Sometimes he lolled over his knees and tapped his feet. The other passengers were afraid. Not for his physical presence, he was petite and well dressed in a simple t-shirt and slacks. It was his mind they feared. His mind was broken. That much was clear. How, why, when it happened, none of these questions had obvious answers but he was clearly lost in a maze of unreality.
“I’m telling you, I saw that Impala earlier. It was outside my home. I saw it. And then it’s right there. Come on. They’re not even trying to hide themselves,” The man continued. He stared intensely at a teenage girl who tried desperately not to notice. “And not just the Impala. See that one, the red one?”
He pointed out the window at something. No one else turned to look.
“That one was outside last night. I don’t know what kind of car it is, but I’d recognize it anywhere. You see, I know how it sounds. I know you think it’s crazy.” The teen girl pressed the red stop button, and stood up to exit. The broken man didn’t seem bothered. He instantly switched his gaze to a thin Indian man rigged out in mechanic’s blues. “I’m not crazy. If I were crazy would I know how I sound?”
The mechanic looked at the ground. His tensed shoulders gave away his discomfort, but still the broken man didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Ahhhhhhhh,” he cried. He stood up, but at that moment the bus jolted forward from the teen girl’s stop and the broken man was tossed back into his seat. “Ahhhhhhhhhh,” he seemed unable to contain the noise; like an eruption from his chest. He fell to his side. “There’s no point. There’s no escape. That’s what’s going on,” his voice pitched into a lower register, a comforting, deep whisper. “Now you see it,” he told himself. “In a situation like this, there’s just no more choice.”
He launched himself, half sideways, at the bus door and began to bang and scratch. He tried to jimmy it open with his fingers but it wouldn’t open. He was aggressive but he wasn’t strong. The bus driver looked back through the mirror and stopped the bus in the middle of the road. He opened the door and the broken man stumbled out, tripped and fell to the ground.
He had time to look up wildly before the doors shut. He caught the mechanic’s eye. Fear. They both felt it, and then the bus thrummed away. The moment was brief but it was enough.
Later that night a pool player walked drunkenly home from an underpass where he’d bought new shoes. Once a month, a grouchy, middle aged woman and her sheepish son sold shoes from the trunk of their car. They always parked in the same spot beneath the underpass. All the local players would show up to see what was in stock. Usually there was something to catch the eye. This time he carried home a pair of genuine snakeskin Air Force 1’s. While he walked, he tried to find a way to hide his treasure. He took off his button up and draped it over the shoebox like a magician trying to cover a trick. It was stubborn however and he struggled to get the shirt in order. With his attention hung up on his prized shoes, he didn’t see the man laid out across the sidewalk. The pool player fell hard; box and shirt flew forward and his mouth struck the cement with a ‘dink!’
Even through the alcoholic numb he felt his front tooth splinter. “Ahhhhh, ah, ah, ah,” he said slowly.
Over his own moans he heard a thin voice. “Get away from me. You with them? I have nothing. You understand! Nothing.”
The pool player rolled over and looked at what he’d tripped on. It was a slight, simply dressed man.
“You piece of sssit!” He slurred. “What you in the walking way for, man?”
“You can’t take me back. You can’t! I’ll fight. I won’t go down easy. No!”
The broken man hopped to his feet but the pool player got up more shakily. “You lyin’ on the sidewalk. I chipped a tooth! Sssit.”
“Raaaaahh,” the broken man barked and rushed forward with his head outstretched and his hands back. The sudden action startled the pool player and he fell hard on his tailbone. It hurt but his adrenaline was up and this time he quickly scrambled for his box and shirt as if to protect them from theft. But the broken man didn’t seem to care or notice the pool player’s prize.
“Yeah, that’s right. Cowards all.” The broken man sneered. “Yeah, that’s it. Come for me again and I’ll fight.”
And then he bolted.
Bewildered, the pool player watched him disappear into the dark. He glanced over his shoulder to see that no one was coming; no one was there to take advantage of him while he was down and rob him of his new shoes. Satisfied he was alone, he gathered the box and shirt and hurried for a distant metro stop.
Just after three in the morning a traffic light changed and cast a group of high schoolers in its red glow. The boys took casual stances and uncomfortably sucked on their vape pens. A lone girl scrolled on her phone.
“Look at that guy,” one told another. They all peered across the boulevard to a corner where the street lamps didn’t quite reach. A man emerged from the shadows. He wore a simple tee-shirt and dirty, tan pants. He angrily stomped forward and backward, one threatening finger pointed at an unseen foe.
“If you wanted me so bad, you had your chance!” he shouted past his finger. “You had me when I was weak, yesterday, at home, yesterday was the time. Now I know you. I know your heart. I know that you can’t touch me.”
“The dude’s crazy,” one boy said.
The broken man kicked a trash can mounted to a light post until the metal bottom fell out. He picked it up and threatened his mystery attacker with it before quickly throwing it away.
“I know you’re not the only one, obviously I know that. You think I’m stupid. That’s your problem, no respect. No respect for humanity. No respect for people. That’s why you do what you do.”
The high school girl recorded the broken man on her phone. Two of the boys crowded behind her to watch through her screen. When the man across the street slipped on a plastic bag and nearly fell, the high schoolers cackled with delight. It caught the man’s attention.
His furious eyes snapped in their direction and then he stormed across the street. His shoulders hunched and his legs pounded the ground with a loud thwap, thwap, thwap. Before they could react, he’d seized the girl’s wrist and tried to wrench the phone from her. “You with them? One of their spies!” he screamed. One boy ran and the other stumbled sideways in an attempt to get between them. A third rushed in and struck the man hard across the jaw. The girl freed herself but let go of the phone.
The broken man fell to the ground and snatched it up. He tried to run with it, but he crashed directly into one of the boys. They both went down. “Ah you can’t have me! NO!” The broken man continued to scream. “You can’t have my mind. That’s mine. You can’t have that!”
And then the boy who initially retreated ran forward and stomped down hard. His heal glanced off a shoulder and crunched solidly into the broken man’s neck. For a moment, everybody went very still. When nothing happened, the boy on the ground pushed himself free and stood up. The girl ran to her phone and collected it from the pavement.
“Come on,” she said. “Get the fuck away from him. Come on, let’s get out of here.” None of the boys needed to be convinced. They all ran away together.
But the broken man stayed on the ground. He didn’t move at all. For several minutes no cars rolled by, no pedestrians passed. It was late at night and the streets were mostly empty. The broken man laid alone.
The next morning a chartered accountant boarded the metro and found a seat. She lived in the suburbs and there were always open seats this close to the beginning of the line. She settled her backpack on her lap and removed her phone to read the news on her commute.
The broken man’s mugshot appeared. He looked mildly confused. She tapped the article and began to read. ‘Local man, well known to the police, was taken to the intensive care unit after suffering head and neck trauma in apparent drug deal gone wrong. Police say the man is well known to them and they’re treating it as a single incident in a history of minor crimes. His condition is uncertain. Wendy Truly, a resident of Cedars Towers, a block of subsidized living units near where the man was found, says “this sort of thing happens all the time. When will they get the police to patrol around here? They’re not serious about helping the folks around here.” Drug related crime is up 12% from last year according to the Police Department’s statistical review. More on violent drug related crimes can be found here. The chartered accountant tapped the link and the mugshot disappeared.