On the street outside the hospital, Jimmy waits. He scratches his head, watches the dead skin fall, tips a bag to his mouth. He knows he is there for a reason, but the beer is running strong, and in brief intervals of buzzed fogginess, he forgets. He forgets and then he sees, sees Leroy walking through the daylight, leaving hospital property, lighting his last cigarette--and what a feeling it is! To be relieved again of that large-scale loneliness…
“Leroy!” he shouts. The sound bangs off the hot concrete.
Leroy, hearing, approaches. “Hi Jim. Can we go home?”
“Nowhere to go. They found us out last month.”
Leroy sniffles. “I thought we had it settled.”
“Squatter laws, man. They make no goddamn sense. They’re changing by the hour.”
Without a plan, they stand there sweating on the concrete, saying nothing, the high of new chance already fading. “Well shit.” Jimmy finally says. “We better start by getting you some shoes.”
“I don’t need shoes,” Leroy says, slipping off a sock to reveal a base layer of nerveless tissue, of cracked and discolored skin. “I get around just fine.”
“You’ve been inside all this time, and your feet still look like that.”
“You need shoes, man. Everyone in the world needs shoes.”
As they walk down south, they determine that, between the two of them, they possess four dollars. Three of which--along with a collectable X-Men wristwatch and a pack of Camels--were returned to Leroy upon his dispatch from the hospital. The fourth was slipped into Jimmy’s boot as he slept the night before.
“How much you think a pair of shoes goes for these days?” Leroy asks.
“Around five. Can't be more than that. Not the kind we’d be seen in, anyway.”
“So, we need a dollar.”
“We need two dollars. You have to account for the tax.”
Leroy smiles. Jimmy was the smartest man he’d ever known, one of those whiz kids who could’ve graduated high school with colors had life been a little bit kinder. “How about it, Jim. Should we go to the subway?”
Jimmy makes a hateful sound. “We aren’t going to the damned subway.”
“Why not? We could dance. That’s easy money right there, Jim. Folks give money to people who dance.”
“Not welcome, man, don’t you remember the last time?
Leroy’s shoulders fall. “I remember.”
“Weren’t for the cops, you would’ve ended us all. And I don’t say that lightly. They had no choice, those cops. Had to drag your ass off. They were actually in the right. Cops, man. In the right. Think about that.”
“I remember, Jim. Hey.”
“And you know what? You were gonna do it, too. I could see it, was in your eyes, man. You remember that? You were about to take that nice young lady down with you onto the tracks. Said it had something to do with the way she looked at me. I’m saying. I’m saying the cops got it right.”
Leroy’s face goes tight, then wet. He wipes his eyes with purple-tipped fingers. “I said I remember. I said it twice. I agreed with you in advance.”
“Well alright then,” Jimmy says. He scans the area, sees faces that look away sharply, faces that surely won’t help, and softens. “You really think you can handle it? If we go to the train, I mean. You aren’t going to try anything funny?
“I swear, Jim. I’ll stand right beside you, just like you told me to. Wait right there till the train’s stopped and everything.”
“You have to promise me that’s what you’ll do.”
“I promise, Jim. I promised before you even asked me to.”
In the station, they vault a turnstile and catch a downtown A. Jimmy feels his twisted face tainting the air with unease. All those tired passengers around him--the nurses, the suits, the school kids huddled in uniforms. All are making eyes, passing glances.
Jimmy can feel it, but Leroy cannot.
“Hello everybody,” Leroy says out of nowhere, untouched by it all. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just got out of the hospital, and, you see, I don’t have any shoes. If you could spare a dollar, a quarter, anything, really, I’d appreciate it a whole lot.”
The faces recede into their phones, their periodicals, their books and gadgets and laps. Jimmy stands two feet from Leroy, feigning detachment, staring into an inky-black window that recasts his image in shutters.
“Before I get started,” he continues, “can anyone please play some music? They took my boombox away from me the last time I was on here and I still have no way to play it.”
Silence. Naturally, silence.
“Well that’s okay,” he finally says. “I’m just going to perform without it.”
Leroy begins to shift his body in rigid motions that loosely align with the rhythm of the train’s dull murmur--little shrugs of the shoulders, taps of the feet. Tension swells all around him, but fuck if Leroy can feel it. He’s on fire, blazing, and as horrifying as it is for the people around him, Jimmy can’t help but smile. Everyone else could get fucked, could be stabbed through the heart with a million infected needles, but not Leroy. Jimmy sees the looks Leroy’s getting. He could slaughter them all, could do it without a shred of remorse. And his friend looks so alone up there, completely oblivious, and it’s sad, so sad, so the only thing left to do, Jimmy feels, is dance.
And then he, too, is up, dancing, his body moving less freely than Leroy’s, but he is doing nevertheless, living in spite of whatever shame is buried within him, and yes he feels in his heart a deep and unkillable guilt, a guilt for the life he’s lived, for the act he’s committing, for being the source of fear and discomfort for all the surrounding passengers--but by God, it feels right. For a moment it all feels right. To make ends meet, to do it all over again.
But then Leroy stumbles over himself and lands with a thud on the lap of a man who is not the sort of man you want to stumble over. This man is big, fat, tall, with hard eyes and a bulbous nose and unkempt eyebrows that say Do not fall on me.
The man pushes Leroy off of him in an abrupt and scary way, and Leroy, his big soft body, is thrown against the hard sheet metal of the opposite door, his lower back banging against the cold pole beside it. Jimmy blinks and steadies. Although he is a small man, Jimmy, thin and malnourished, he is a fighter. For eight years, before things really went sideways, he had worked for a butcher, carrying cargo into a freezer, and during this time he’d spent long hours punching the frozen carcasses of upside down cows, those that hung from the ceiling. He developed muscles, became strong, became the sort of man that a woman could see and smile at and think of the life they could have together. And though it had been some years since he’d punched those sorry dead cows, and though his muscles had lost their vigor, he feels again--as his sickly friend nurses himself back to health on the dirty floor, rubbing his back, moaning--the urge to inflict pain. He takes three steps toward the big ugly man and winds up, ready to cause real damage, ready to punch a hole through this fucker’s skull. The big ugly man then puts his arms over his face so as to shield himself from defacement, for he knows that the man he has insulted has nothing to lose, and on top of that is completely off of his rocker, and that his, the big ugly man’s, best course of action is to take cover, to wait for this crazy man to leave.
But then, at the apex of his windup, Jimmy’s thin toned fist is yanked back, and through the cracks in his arms, the big ugly man sees Leroy on his feet, almost surreal like, battling gravity and torque, pulling against the arm of his friend.
The car screeches, stops; the doors slide open. “We have to go, man,” Leroy says, panicked in a way he rarely is. “We got to get the fuck out of here.” He twists Jimmy’s arm and they slide out of the car.
Off and alone, surrounded by strangers, they stand for a moment on the platform. They say nothing and pant, looking ahead, once again, into nothing. “I didn’t like that, Jim,” Leroy says. “Could’ve handled that myself, is what I’m saying. And now we have no money to show for it.”
Jimmy yawns. “There’s always another train.”
“Fuck the next train, man. You were right. Train isn’t the place for people like us. Besides, I said from the beginning. I don’t need any shoes.”
Without another word, a robotic voice sounds from the car and the dual doors begin to shutter. But before they can close completely, they are stopped by a swollen stub, pink and scarred, which was probably an arm at one point.
A shrieking falls over the platform--it is rangy, hollowed out. It comes from the owner of the stump, a woman deep into her 50s.
The doors open. She walks out.
“Are you okay?” Jimmy asks.
The woman has gray hair and a thin pink nose and a waist whose size does not quite correspond to the shoulders above them, but in other ways, Jimmy thinks, she’s doing quite well for herself. She looks like the sort of person who has spent a lifetime on these trains, and yet the shine in her eyes remains hopeful.
“Wait!” she calls out.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Leroy says.
“I was waiting there with my money, didn’t you see me? I was waving it at the end of the car, ready to put it in your hand. I would’ve walked over, if you didn’t see me, that is. But I knew you would, except you didn’t. You didn’t see me. It was a funny thing, too, really caused me to consider, does anyone see me? But after concluding this consideration, I considered something else: I considered for many seconds whether I should get off of the car and hand it over to you. But then I decided, yes, as a matter of principle, I should. I thought it over very deeply, you see. And then I got off the subway. See--are you listening?--I have a great deal of money, a whole great deal, and now that I’m here, giving some of it to you.”
From the smell of her trench coat it is clear that she does not, in fact, have very much money at all, but nevertheless she pulls from her pocket a wrinkled, damp-ish five and hands it over to Leroy. “I think you’re a fantastic dancer.”
“Thanks, ma'am,” Leroy says, beaming.
The woman hacks up a cough--something guttural, hard, probably terminal--before limping off, up the stairs and out of the platform, receding back into the little, vast, unseen corner of the world behind which the rest of the city seems to operate.
Leroy’s eyes widen. “I told you folk like that give money to dancers.”
Jimmy snorts. “Folk like that, Leroy, they’ll do anything to catch a glance. How else would they get one, if not for paying a buck?”
“She paid five, Jim. Look at it.” Leroy holds up the bill, high in the air, as if it’s a championship trophy.
Jimmy rolls his eyes.
“Say, how about we hit that old Cowboy bar uptown? Buy the crowd a drink. I’ll walk in like they do in the movies, say, ‘round’s on me today, boys,’ and I’ll really do it. I’ll really buy the crowd a drink.”
“Place’s been closed for years, man. We’ve been over this. Went over it last year and the one before it.”
Again Leroy’s shoulders sag, his neck extends. He watches the next train screech to a stop in front of him. “Right. I remember.”
Jimmy drops a hand on Leroy’s shoulder. Leroy flinches. “Relax, man, Jesus. Don’t you remember why we came here in the first place?”
Leroy’s crazed eyes fix back on the train--the sliding doors, the ant-like motion of people moving in and out.
“There’s this discount shop down on 18th, right?” Jimmy says. “With the money we have, we’ll get you something real nice.”
“The nicest thing we’ve ever had.”
Outside they limp down side streets at a standard but precarious pace, fast enough that they fear at any moment the imminent collapse of their bodies--the sudden breaking of bones, the shouting for help and relief. But the old feelings are in them, and they can’t be bothered to slow down yet.
“It’s right here, man,” Leroy says, tilting his beer in the direction of the massive window before them. “You think they’ll let us in?”
“Don’t see why not. We have the money right here.”
Jimmy coughs into his arm, spots some blood on his sleeve, tries to suck it off, and leaves a yellow stain. It’s been years since they’ve been in an actual store, a store that takes actual money--a decade, maybe--so along with these feelings come nerves rolled back in their minds, nerves left to die long ago. “Fuck man,” Jimmy grumbles. “I can’t do it. You were right what you said before, let’s find a bar.”
Gently, Leroy rests his hand on the small of Jimmy’s back. “You said it yourself, Jim. I really need some shoes.”
Jimmy scowls. He sees the bodies in the store, silhouettes in a window, the entire world right there, judging him.
“Come on,” Jimmy says.
They walk into the store.
Fluorescents drown their skin in light from above, revealing their scars, their dirt-packed pores, all the nasty little qualities that make them who they are. It’s surgical, diagnostic. They look at each other and wince, seeing for the first time the condition they’re really in.
They look away very quickly.
“These aisles run on forever,” Leroy says, directing the conversation away from themselves.
“They don’t start or stop.”
“Have they always been so long?”
“Not a chance.”
“Where are the shoes? I see everything in the world but shoes.”
“The shoes are here.”
“Where are they? I see the purpose of the assembly line put in crystal terms. There’s everything that’s ever been made, but no shoes.”
“The shoes are here. They’ve got to be.”
Noticing their arms are brushed up against one another, Jimmy snorts and scoots to his right. He wants to appear sane and at ease.
A tall lanky man in a company uniform with bad posture and a dirty goatee slides into frame, dragging himself along as if his torso were a suitcase in an airport he didn’t wish to be in.
“Yo man,” Leroy shouts too loudly. “You know where I can find some shoes? Money isn’t a factor, just point us in the direction, please and thank you.”
The company man rolls his eyes over the two men, seemingly looking for assistance or divine intervention, and then points in a direction that may or may not be the direction in which the aisle of shoes is located. “Aisle, uhm, twenty,” he grumbles, before walking off absently, as if this wasn’t a terribly inconsiderate thing to do at all.
Unbothered, the two men stroll down a well-lit aisle that runs perpendicular to the rest, scanning in terse movements for signs of disturbance, of unrest.
“How do you feel?” Jimmy asks.
“Good. I feel good. Solid. Top-notch. You?”
“I feel like we’re coming up on something.
“Like this life is coming around.”
“Like our luck is running strong.”
“Like it’s finally on our side.”
“That’s it. That’s exactly what it is.”
“Like these shoes are going to change things.”
“Take us places.”
“Take us all over the world.”
“A stretch, don’t you think?”
“At least to the docks and back home.”
“They took our home away from us, remember?”
But then they’re beneath it: a dazzling hedgerow of vari-colored boxes, all of them new, shiny, fresh and unopened.
“Just look at it, Jim. It’s like Christmas. You remember Christmas? Like we’re back at the family home and it’s Christmas time and--and remember when I got that dog, Jim? You remember that dog. It was just sitting there under the tree with a bow on its head, sleeping like it owned the place, like the tree was its home and we were its family. Like it really belonged there, just there, with us.”
“You sat on that dog, man. Smothered it before it even grew up.”
Leroy’s eyes go cloudy as he wheels back against the fog of remembrance. “I loved that dog.”
“Well hey now.” Jimmy pulls a box from the rack and opens the lid. An aroma rises--leather and rubber and glue and all the components of a genuine piece of footwear: the four mechanically sewed on stripes, the tongue that sticks out just right, the little patterns on the sole that distinguish its steps from the rest. “How about these?”
Leroy removes one of the shoes from the box, brings it to his face, and smells the sole and the laces. He grabs from within the balled up bits of paper and stuffs his nose inside. His heart tightens. It is clear from a distance, to everyone who cares to look (which happens only to be Jimmy), that he’s been chasing this feeling all his life. “This is it, Jim. This is the one.” His voice is hushed, froggy.
The two men smile and limp to the counter, turning over in their heads the great future awaiting them.
They place the shoes on the belt by the register.
“Where should we go first? Leroy asks.
“I’d like to go to the park.”
“The park, man. It’s where you go to hear the world talk back to you. The people on benches, they’re watching: they sit around and judge by the clothes you’re wearing, the hair on your head, the kind of life you’ve lived.”
“Oh,” Leroy says.
“And I want to hear what they’ll say about us now.”
“Now that I’m wearing shoes?”
“Now that we’re just like them.”
The cashier picks up the box, examines with narrowed eyes the two men before her, and shoots the barcode with a strand of red light. “Eleven dollars and forty four cents,” she says.
For a second there’s silence, the sounds of fallen chests, nothing else. Then Leroy says: “But we only have nine dollars.”
The cashier exhales. “What do you want me to say?” she asks, curling her lips.
“Listen, lady,” Jimmy says, trying to make himself large. “We’ve gone to Hell and back to get this money, and I don’t know what your problem is, but we’re leaving with them today. And what do you think gives you the right to speak to two good men in such a harsh and cruel way? You think we don’t have feelings too?”
By the half-dead look in the cashier’s eyes, the two men know at once that Leroy would never, not for a heartbeat, wear the shoes on the belt.
Quick as they’d returned, the old feelings were gone.
But the cashier wasn’t done yet: “You want to talk about Hell? Everyday you people come in, wanting, buying out of your means. You know how many of you have the cash to buy what you put on this register? Exactly zero. Zip. Cero. Nil. That’s the truth. And it’s the same story every time. And you have the gall to ask what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me is I’ve built a life for myself, and that life entails dealing with sad little nobodys like yourselves.”
Leroy sniffles. “You didn’t need to say all of that. We were leaving. We weren’t even going to argue.”
The cashier snorts, visibly upset by the smell drifting off them. She inhales in terse snorts. “Can you leave, please just leave, before I call security.” She sounds tired, the sort of tired that no amount of sleep can fix.
The two men stare at the cashier for a few moments longer, perplexed, having everything to say, nothing to say, before turning and leaving forever, off solemnly down that long ugly aisle with the skid marks that seems to run into eternity, into nowhere, into the rest of their sorry lives.
Although the day is fading, the air is glassy, hot. Above an orange sky burns. It is a sky that defies the tone of the day, a sky that dips over the horizon of people and streets and sets the town on fire, a sky so infallible it seems an unlikely sky.
But here they are, beneath it.
“Man,” Jimmy says.
“What was she trying to do back there? Eat our hearts out?”
“It wasn't a nice thing to say.”
“I mean, she didn’t have to give us the shoes. I understand that. It was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, to refuse us those shoes. It was a thing I could accept. But that--”
“They never give us the shoes, Jim. They never have.”
“But to refer to us as ‘those people,’ man. Like we’re nothing at all. Like we’re just anyone else in our position.”
“We’ll save up some money to get those shoes, Jim. I mean, look what we did today. Spent, what, three hours looking for cash, and what’d we get ourselves? Five dollars, Jim. We got five bucks just today, our first day back together, really trying.”
Jimmy looks ahead into the buzzing plain of cabs and billboards, of movement and cyber capital. But mostly he’s looking at people: all of them poised, neurotic, thoroughly deadened to whatever pain was in their hearts at that moment. “It’ll take us a lifetime to make that money,” he says. And then he takes a long breath and picks up his pace.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Leroy asks.
“The 7/11. Get some beers. Been enough of a day, don’t you think? We can each have a twinkie for dinner, call it a night. Figure the rest out tomorrow.”
Down south, they hit Union Square. The air in the park is thicker than before, wavering lightly over the pathway like a mirage, throbbing, blurring the line between what is really happening and what is really not.
From their bench they see it all: the old trees dancing in the breeze calligraphically, the police reclining against a metal fence, the squirrels, the lonely roll of the sax. They have beers in their hands, and shared between them, 23 cents. They’re broke, yes, but drunk. Drunk at least.
“Days like these,” Leroy says, looking up into the clear sky where a crescent moon rests, stretching his long arms over the back of the bench and folding one leg over the other. “They don’t come so often as they used to.”
“You seeing this guy?” Jimmy asks.
“This guy across from us. He’s been giving us looks.”
“The one in the fancy shirt?”
“So you do see him.”
“It’s a nice shirt.”
“It’s giving me a funny feeling.”
“How about the girl he’s with?”
Jimmy swallows. He’d seen her already. She hadn’t seen him. That’s the power she had over him.
“Girl like that’ll change your life,” Leroy says.
“Girl like that’ll never be in your life,” Jimmy corrects him.
The problem wasn’t that she was drop-dead gorgeous. She wasn’t. That would have been digestible. The problem was this: she was just like anyone else, her teeth not quite straight, her stomach not quite flat. And yet from the perceived glances coming from the boy by her side, aimed their way, Jimmy sensed a distance where a connection had once existed—a recognition, a tacit trust, an awareness that the other, at the very least, was human. But that was a long time ago. Longer than Jimmy could remember.
There is nothing of hers that Jimmy wants in particular. He wants it all.
He takes a pull from his bottle and, feeling a pain in the back of his mouth, reaches in and pinches a chipped and blackish tooth, a bicuspid. He feels it crumble. His tooth--this object that remains in the heads of bygone species until they’re found and dug up--has disintegrated, gone to dust. It slides down his throat and he swallows. And he wonders, as he wondered quite often, what exactly he did to deserve this.
“You should get that tooth checked out, Jim,” Leroy says. “You know how many people die every year on account of their teeth? The dentist from the hospital told me once. Crazy number. Can’t remember it though. Ha-ha. You should really get it checked out, though.”
“You going to pay for the dentist?”
“Hey, Jim. I’m just saying.”
Jimmy closes his eyes, exhales hard, and attempts to center himself, a thing his PO or social worker or someone had told him to do. And as he does this he hears from across the way the boy in the fancy shirt saying to the girl, “What’s wrong with this guy’s stomach?” which, Jimmy feels, can only be in reference to Leroy’s bulging lump, the result of a hernia gone unchecked.
And then a warmth circulates through Jimmy, blood pumping, a twitch behind the eyelids.“I’m going over there,” he says.
“To do what?”
“Have a word.”
“Are you sure?”
Jimmy isn’t sure. Not in the slightest. But in him is an anger so feral that, frightened as he is, he feels he has nothing to lose. Nothing to lose; he considers the statement--its silliness, its harsh objectivity. He has his life to lose, after all, but soon enough he would be under a bridge, or beneath scaffolding, or in the industrial part of town perched atop a pile of broken brick, wheezing, snorting, coughing up blood. And then there would be coldness. And then, probably, nothing. Maybe there would be heaven, but probably there would be nothing. So the statement seemed appropriate. He had nothing to lose.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m sure”
“Okay,” Leroy says, seemingly unaware of the gravity of whatever’s unfolding before him. “I’ll come with you, I suppose. I wanted to ask him where he got his shirt, anyways.”
Here is Jimmy’s plan:
Seconds later they’re in front of the couple, speaking. Leroy has the first word: “Are you, like, French, man?”
The boy, a tall skinny kid with square glasses and an oval face, is taken aback. He has that look about him that lets you know from the jump: he’s the sort of kid who’s never questioned, has surely never considered, the extent to which he’s seen by the strangers who sit in the park.
“The reason I ask,” Leroy continues, sitting down on the bench beside him, “is that you’re looking mighty French in that shirt. I have to ask, how much did you spend on it?”
“Uhm,” the boy says, glancing at the girl by his side, smiling incredulously. “I’m not French, man. I’m like Italian or something. And I have no clue how much I paid for this shirt.”
Clear to Jimmy is the notion that this boy does, in fact, know how much he paid for the shirt, and only as a matter of upscale principle was he feigning otherwise. It only makes Jimmy madder. “His shirt blows, man,” he says.
Jimmy had hoped, albeit distantly, that the girl would suddenly widen her eyes when she saw him, that she’d hear his voice and, like a daughter upon her father’s return, forget her anger and sadness and grief, and just--give in; but it never came. Instead she stares, body tense, into her phone, saying nothing.
“Let’s get out of here, Leroy. Fuck these guys.”
The boy smiles in a scared, superior way. He’s decided who they are, and Jimmy’s halfway sure that he’s right.
Jimmy figures: the boy himself may someday become a banker, a doctor, a jump-suited man washing the high-up windows of skyscrapers. He could be anything in the world, but he’d never be where Jimmy is now.
“Easy, man,” the boy says. “Can’t you see she’s tired?” He gestures to the girl by his side. “Give it a rest, for her, won’t you? We’ve been out all day and--”
“I like him, Jim” Leroy interrupts. “I think he’s a good guy, taking care of this girl like that. I really think we should leave him alone now. After he tells us where he got that shirt, I mean.”
Jimmy sits down by the girl. Her shoulders stiffen. Jimmy snorts. “You know he’s full of shit, right?” Jimmy asks. “Boy’s never lived a day in his life. You know that, I know you do. You have to.”
“I am full of shit,” the boy interjects. “She knows it too, I told her so.” He smiles languidly and sits back against the bench, reaching an arm around the girl.
Jimmy stands up, and as his body straightens, he realizes the degree of his drunkenness: quite. And he has to catch himself from stumbling. In doing so, he catches a glance of the boy’s shirt. Leroy had been right. It was nice. Nicer than anything they’d ever owned. He feels something rise from beneath him, from the gut, and decides in spite of himself to say more: “You must know he’ll let you down, this guy. He’s really not the sort of guy you want to get mixed up with. He says it himself: he’s full of shit. You see that, don’t you? I mean just look at him.”
The girl squirms.
“Hey, Jim,” Leroy says. “He’s got nicer clothes than you do. Why don’t you cut him some slack?”
“Yeah, man,” the boy says, chuckling. “Why don’t you cut me some slack?”
Jimmy grumbles. All there is left for him now is to find a place to sleep.
As he walks away he hears from a distance the simple words of his friend. “Don’t worry about him, he’s had a hard life. I just wanted to say that I like your shirt and--wait, that’s a pretty nice watch. Where’d you get it?”
And even more distantly the boy’s response: “Not sure man, but you won’t find one of these in a dumpster.”
Leroy takes no offense—he sits down next to the boy and informs him, “Well try this on for size. I got mine in a dumpster, and guess what? It’s a hell of a thing, this watch. Jimmy and I looked it up, the value and all, and guess what? It's a collectable. Goes for fifty a pop, no less. There were only fifty thousand or so made in the country.”
—but Leroy is enraged. The way the dig so effortlessly married contempt and understanding, how it indicated so subtly that their lives were wasted things, doomed to fizzle out predictably, comically, rendering them worthy of ridicule. There was no code of recognition. Nothing at all but an awareness of the boy’s own superiority. Jimmy looks into Leroy’s eyes and sees no sign of worry or anger, just blankness, and feels an unquenchable pity for the lives they both were living.
But the boy is having fun with this. Jimmy thinks he might tell his college buddies about it back home, might have a good laugh, impressing them all with his adventurous charm and wit, his willingness to engage with such people as Leroy and himself.
The girl clamps the boy's hand, as if pleading with him to make this stop, to end it all, to just take her home. She does not see Jimmy’s vision. “Listen guys,” the boy says, taking notice. “I have to get these groceries to the fridge, but it’s been real. It really has. Maybe we can do it again sometime. Grab drinks.” He winks and nods at the bottle in Jimmy’s hand. His sarcasm bites. He checks his Rolex and snickers. Maybe it isn’t a Rolex, but it isn’t a goddamned X-Men watch either.
“Go, then,” Jimmy says. “Get out of here, you prick. Get the fuck out.” He straightens his back and spits, sick with rage, and cocks back his arm in a mock-punching motion. The boy does not flinch, and Jimmy smirks, knowing he’s lost. Lost again. Drunk and lost in the middle of the park, mad, then madder because why was he even mad? He was mad about nothing, it seemed, except, of course, for who he was and what he had become. “I saw you staring at us, man, you were making fun. How do you think that made us feel?”
“Let’s go,” the boy says to the girl.
She stands up, their hands still pressed together. They walk away in lockstep.
“How do you think that makes us feel, man?” Jimmy repeats a bit louder. “How do you think that makes us feel?”
“Hey Jimmy, it’s okay,” Leroy says. “He’s a fine guy. He really is, I’m sure he meant nothing by it.”
But Jimmy isn’t satisfied. He stomps after the boy and grabs his shoulder. “I asked you a question, man.”
Quicker than Jimmy expected, the boy turns to face him. There is venom in his eyes. “I didn’t say shit, dude. Didn’t even see you. Ok? I was looking at the fucking squirrels. We both were. Were having a nice time, too, before you came along.” He spits on the ground. “But whatever. Good luck with...whatever it is you do. Take care of yourself.”
A stunned Jimmy can do nothing but stand there, stumbling, watch them fade into the sun. He feels low and then lower. And then he lunges, double stepping, and pulls the boy down by his shoulders.
“What the fuck?” the girl shrieks, hands to cheeks, like it’s really a scene from a movie.
But unlike a movie the boy is silent at first, motionless, disbelieving entirely what is happening to him. Jimmy wonders comically, as he presses his knees into the boy’s neck, if it’s the heat that leaves him incredulous; Jimmy smiles. He is winning. Winning! Winning at last. And because he is improvising, he digs his teeth into the boy’s neck. He feels the empty slot where his bicuspid had been, but it doesn’t matter now. He’s doing it, is on top, and even when the boy begins to scream and shake and make these horrible gurgling sounds, Jimmy knows that he has won. He hears Leroy calling behind him--the muted cries to stop, the pleading, the uncertainty of Leroy’s future being borne right before him--but Jimmy doesn’t care. Not now. He digs his teeth deeper, he tastes nickel and iron, the blood of good upbringing. This is what it tastes like. It tastes like this. And whatever injustice Jimmy has faced, and whatever luck this boy has come across, it is all behind them now. The boy is dying. Oh, he is dead. He has to be. He will bleed out in a matter of minutes, despite the air-lift, the medical presence in the dozens, . It would all be futile, and the boy would die.
The attack is elegant, glorious.
Just as the police hurry their way, hands to hips, Jimmy thinks about Leroy: what would he do now? He had nowhere to go, no prospects, nothing.
The police tackle Jimmy in a violent effort. It is a predictable affair. They stomp on his face and club his chest and back, and before long Jimmy is put to rest by the blessing of unconsciousness.
When he awakes he’s strapped to a gurney, facing the sky, being folded into the back of an ambulance.
“He’s up,” an officer says.
Through the Northeastern fog that has come over the sky, Jimmy makes out a second officer, and further behind him, Leroy, his hands in his pockets, his feet bare and disgusting. Leroy looks at Jimmy as if he’s waiting for something, and then Jimmy sees it; he’s waiting, as Jimmy had waited before, for him.
He’s Leroy’s mother, and he’s finally starting to see it.
It would be months before he saw Leroy again. Years, maybe. There was always the off chance he’d be found innocent for some asinine reason—a glitch in the system—but this time, he felt, was different. That chance was slim as none.
And there’s Leroy, hopeless, waiting. He’s Jimmy’s age, but only in years. His heart is decades behind. And what do children do when they're left on their own?
The second cop’s radio buzzes from his hip, and he drifts off, out of Leroy’s line of sight. Left are Jimmy and Leroy.
Leroy walks slowly over to the ambulance.
“How’d you do it, Jim?”
“I just did,” he says. “Sometimes it’s what a guy’s got to do.”
“Did he say something?”
“It wasn’t what he said. It’s what he was. What we are.”
Leroy looks past Jimmy, beyond the bus, nowhere in particular. “You shouldn’t have done that, Jim. It really was a crazy thing to do. I hardly blame the cops on this one. I mean, I don’t like it anymore than you do, but I really can’t blame them. It was a crazy thing to do, Jim. Really. I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“I know that, Leroy.”
Leroy sniffles. “Well now what?”
“Now I go away. To the hospital or to jail, but in any case, away. And you enjoy your Summer. It’s just getting started, after all.”
In Leroy’s face Jimmy senses unease. Leroy had never been left unattended, not since they were young. Jimmy was all he’d ever had, and now he was gone, gone for who knows how long. And Leroy would be alone.
“What am I going to do, Jim?”
Jimmy’s face tightens, and strapped as they were, his hands begin to shake. “Look ahead, man. Look at the park. Are you looking? Look. You can sleep there tonight. On the bench by the maples past the two-plied section of benches, you’ll see it. A ways down the path. Stay there for the night. After that, you’re on your own.”
Leroy continues to look away from the park.
Jimmy sees the cops coming near. The first has just finished taking a report from the girl, who, from Jimmy’s angle, looks mangled and broken and maybe, he hopes despite himself, a little relieved. The second is off of the radio and lumbering toward them. “Hurry,” Jimmy says. “Take off my boots.”
“Before they stop you, take off my boots.”
“But what about you?”
“We’ll find me more when I’m out.”
A little reluctantly Leroy walks over to Jimmy’s feet, and with a tenderness Jimmy doesn’t expect, he begins to unlace the boots. “Jesus, Jim. When was the last time you took these things off?”
Jimmy doesn’t respond. He doesn’t have to. He’d found Leroy his shoes, and for a time that’s all that mattered. Whatever else occurred down the line, Leroy had shoes on his feet.
Leroy wrenches the crusted up boots off of Jimmy’s feet and places them onto his own. “They fit good, Jim. Good as I could’ve imagined.”
“I didn’t even like those sneakers from the store, anyway. You know that, right?”
“Sure you didn’t, man.”
“But what about when you get back?”
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“But what about it?”
“I suppose we’ll have to find me another pair,” Jimmy says with a bite of irony that seems to fly right past Leroy. But he doesn’t feel pity. Not now.
“Me and you?”
“You and me.”
And then, and then: silence. Naturally, silence. They’d said all they had to.
The officers return. They close the ambulance doors and drive off with Jimmy inside. Out of the dual-windows behind him, through which the last golden beams of dying light shine, Jimmy watches the standing image of Leroy fall back into time. They blink at each other across the widening space. There is no wave, no kiss blown. None of that was necessary, for by winter the people would be inside. Yes, all of them but Jimmy and Leroy. They would be out, looking for shoes.