THE GLORIFIED PILLOWCASE
I'm a glorified pillowcase. Four feet of useless flesh clad in a horrid floral pattern.
My child-sized loafers caked with dried muck pass the lone, skinny gate dangling to the ground from a broken hinge; and into the bombed-out part where the sparse, browning grass faintly reeks of pee.
Some fifty feet inside, the dirt-tracked footpath slithers through a handful of powder-white concrete benches with arched backs. Well, it fits the mood. There is nowhere more appropriate to peaceably mourn. I waddle toward the only bench with the backrest intact, and climb atop it.
Between the medley of scuzzy stains, the seat crams with scratched-in names and phone numbers. My mouth pinches. These people are animals, and then they wonder why God provides them imbeciles for leaders. Anyway, it's this, or I find a cozy spot among the cow pies on the grass. My backside grates over the knobby surface to a somewhat unviolated patch.
I don an overcoat of dust and grit from the long trek through town, though my costume eases the embarrassment: bold flowers, wheat-and-tan, etched on a tacky red shirt, and matching pants, baggy and with tapered hems. It's a goddamned travesty, even for a bottom-feeding clown. My calloused hands fussily brush over the lumpen attire.
The sticky white-and-blue face paint prickles my sun-kissed cheeks; and a floppy bucket hat with torn edges, also red, chafes my mussy shoulder length locks. I drag two fingers across the paint and mop them on my thigh. Then I pluck off the hat and plop it beside me.
A gauzy film of clouds floats over the hazy, dusking sky; and before me, an oblong sandbox encloses a playground slide—sans the slide—and a seat-less swing. The box litters with faded plastic wrappers and crumpled juice cartons. My doppelganger: a soulless shell. I slouch on the seat and rub my eyes.
Another canceled gig. People don't want clowns anymore; they're entertained enough by the fools running this country. How am I going to pay the rent this month? My organ-grinder uncle says I'm still young. He'll loan me a streetwise monkey and I need only blow into a flute. And salute precisely when the monkey does: he knows the business. People are charitable here, uncle says, but more than a laugh, they crave a sense of superiority. Fair enough, there's nothing to laugh about these days.
I kick off my loafers and scour my pocket for a pack of cheapjack smokes and a bent matchbook. On the pack, above the ornate crest, imprints a gruesome image: blackened, puffy lips and a mauled mouth. The result of a lifetime of cigarettes, the label says.
Mother-lovers, just stash some rat poison beside the sticks and let's be done with it. I snort, and at once a hacking cough seizes me.
The spicy aroma of fried samosas wafts from the grungy open-air stall across the road, and I salivate. Later, should I buy one samosa and two oranges, or the other way round? Two samosas will tide me till tomorrow afternoon, but they'll cramp my tummy. And I must wake early to go beg the circus manager for work. Then again, a judicious toot or two may help clinch the gig.
I tear off a stem from the matchbook and light up a lung rocket. A deep drag and my chest tingles. Speaking of later...
I tip sideways and reach inside my pants for the sewn-in pocket. A slim, gray tin box: square with round edges. Inside, a solitary oval pill, the shade of oatmeal, clinks round. In either hand, I balance the pack of smokes and the box.
Now, what's heavier? Limping through life hoping for a do-over, only to find a slow, torturous death? Or ending this here and now? I look skyward and shout, "What say you, cosmic joker?"
CAW-CAW! A dark, waxen silhouette sets on the far side of the bench. Under the buzzing, flickering streetlamp's amber glow, a most black crow with a collar of pewter-gray tufts.
I flinch and swallow hard. "You scared the crap out of me, owl-spawn."
He perches on the backrest, and fixes on me with inky, glinting eyes as his missile-shaped beak jabs back and forth. My brow knits as I straighten on the seat. Shouldn't this dunce be home and lullabying his kids?
I draw in the final millimeter of moldering tobacco and lob the stump sideways. Then my hand outstretches and I flap my wrist a few times in his direction. "Get lost now and let me mope in peace."
The crow eyes me, unblinking, and picks at its slick, Stygian feathers. Figures, a Pakistani. He needs a hefty twig to the noggin. My cheeks puff out and I exhale. Then I lean forward and browse the grass below my overhanging feet.
He angrily caws and pounces on me asudden. My breath catches. You fiend, I'm not food. I jerk backward and my hands shield the face.
He lands a few inches from me and claws at my hat with his scythe-sharp talons. My ears mightily throb. Bah, a swine like the others. Hmm, since when does a crow have ivory feet?
His beak cinches my hat and abruptly sweeps it off the seat. Then he simpers and squawks. Goddammit, now dumb birds think they can bully me. Okay, I'll holler and thrash my arms round. If that doesn't scare him, he's the Tipu Sultan of crows.
My lips curl as I inch to my feet and grip the backrest for support. I outspread my arms, ready to mimic Maula Jatt, but choke on the war cry.
A creaky sound punctuates the noisy grinding of wheels. What owl-spawn is biking here at this time? Can't these people leave me be? Hands on hips, I squint at the footpath ahead.
A battered wooden pushcart, cedary and with rubber-mounted slabs for wheels, plods toward us. The old-timer inside must be a beggar. He sports a scruffy, bib-length beard under a shabby newsboy cap, and straining the cart forward with his hands, gaily whistles.
Humph, why's this wretch so happy? My nose crinkles and I suspire.
The crow eyeballs the man and rocks on his scaly feet. Soon he flutters his wings, voices a soft snarl, and zooms into the sky.
I gulp. The hobo scared him? The horizon holds no clues of his retreat.
"Hello there, midget. I'm Yaya," the beggar says, cheerily waving at me.
Midget? Sigh, what's the use? My jaw unclenches and I exhale. "Good timing, geezer. Ever heard of a psychotic crow?"
Yaya trundles within spitting distance and halts. He props upright, outthrusts his chin, and tugs on the lapels of his garish inside-out jacket.
How do these lowlifes do it? Find meaning in their sad lives. I stare at him, incredulous.
"I've run into a bloodthirsty goat or two, but a crow, eh?" he says, coiling the corkscrews in his beard. "What's your name, son?"
Why do you care? For all intents and purposes, I'm just midget. I lower myself to the seat and pocket the cigarettes and pillbox. Then I hop to the grass and replace my shoes. "Bakshu."
Yaya chuckles and twists round to grab a dimpled aluminum bowl jangling with coins. "Such cruel parents. Named you 'God's gift' of all things."
My face flushes crimson. Hardy-har-har, even the bastard-spawn beggars in this town are comedians. I best skedaddle before the crow returns with his other insomniac friends.
The hat slaps back on my head and I scowl. "All right, see you around," I say, curtly.
Unconcerned, he counts the coins with his tongue sticking out sideways.
Sure, ignore the midget. I about-face and tread toward the gate.
"What's the rush?" Yaya shouts.
I hesitate and then glance over the shoulder. "More wisecracks, geezer?"
He jiggles the bowl with a toothless grin. "I made a profit today. How about tea, eh? I'm full of riotous stories."
Profit? I've clearly wasted my life. With painted on scars and an arm sling, people would unquestioningly pity me more than him. I wheel round to meet his stare and my face shapes into a crooked smile. "How's the hobo life these days?"
Something swooshes overhead. In a halolike circle, the sable form streaks above us.
I blanch. God's wrath, is the crow back? My notched fingernails dig into my palms.
Yaya gazes skyward with a bemused smile and scratches his temple.
My hand holding down the hat, I spin round and sprint toward the exit. He'll be fine; the bird can't snatch him away. But I risk turning into a late-night snack for his hellish brood.
On the cruddy wrought-iron fence that links to the gate and slopes backward, feathers ruffle and deep rasps sound. On its edged posts seats a battalion of coaly birds with bicolored eyes and chalky feet.
I pull up within sniffing distance and goggle at them, my legs twitching from terror. Impossible. Where'd they come from?
Their bristly, wedge-shaped heads bobble as they close ranks and glare at me. Goddammit, what sin am I paying for today? I backtrack in small, unsteady steps.
CAW-CAW! A piercing squawk rings through the night and straightaway a pained howl follows.
My blood chills. Not good, not good. I swivel toward Yaya.
His palms shielding his now capless head, the hobo bobs and weaves to dodge the dive-bombing crow. And each time the fiend's talons rip into his naked flesh, he whimpers.
Ports ablaze! I face the gate, quivering, and peer beyond the birds to the street outside.
A row of shops alight with shimmering, polychromatic signs; and the throng of idle chatterers grows thicker.
My hands cup over the mouth as I lift my chin. "Help us," I yell.
Not a soul glimpses in my direction. Can they not hear me? I warily step forward. "Please help," I yell again.
The coaly villains ominously beat their wings that glisten purple. Spooked, I scurry toward the bench and cower behind the seat.
Yaya's sobs louden as the crow flitters overhead and mechanically stabs his arms and neck. "Save me," he cries weakly, and his bowl clangs against the cart's side panel and thuds onto the dirt.
My legs quake in the crouch. How do I escape? But what about the wretch? Should I try to save him? No, people disappear in this city every day. What's one more bum?
I widen my stance for blood circulation and right away my toes bump into a chunky rock. Wincing, I feebly cuss. Shit, I can try, but I'll never nail the crow with my spastic aim.
The geezer bawls and the crow cackles. My chipped teeth grit. For once in my life, I must go down swinging. Hmm, it's gone quiet.
My fingers enlace the rock and I raise it to my waist. Then I creep out into the open and peek round.
In the cart, Yaya sags broadside: motionless. The crow roosts on his stubbly dome and leisurely pecks.
My pulse hastens and I blink on repeat. Is he dead? And here I did nothing, goddammit. The legless fool even offered me tea.
The coaly thugs studiously stand guard on the fence and track my every move. I can't stone my way out of here. Never going to happen.
I double-back to safety behind the bench and sough. My chin droops and the rock spills to the turf. I slot a cigarette between my parched lips and strike a match against the caramel sandpaper.
It sizzles and bursts into a pale orange flame. My heart ba-dumps. Fire. What beast isn't afraid of fire? I rap my forehead and ransack the pack.
Half the cigarettes couch in its folds; enough to produce a blaze I can swing at the crow. It's a shame to waste them, but I'll lift more later. Now, how to save my hands from scalding? The plastic will burn right through in seconds.
I slip the unlit stick inside and shift my weight from one foot to the other. The pillbox jangles in my secret pocket.
This might work, but I can't afford to lose the pill. I could stow it sans the box, but what if I tumble and it crushes? A painless death doesn't come cheap. I pinch the pill up and stick out a serpentine hand to rest it on the bench.
Then I array the cigarettes in a neat bunch and tuck them between the flaps. The pack clamps between the two squares of tin and I tiptoe to the edge.
The crow silently seats on Yaya's head and his beak rakes his feathers. My fist curls. You will pay for preying on the poor, you scum. I grip the contraption away from my face and strike another match.
The smokes instantly crackle and set aflame. Hurry, Bakshu, before the damned thing melts your hands.
I mutter a prayer, and with a steely face, bound out in plain view.
The crow ceases his loafing and zeroes in on me. He unfurls his wings and grimly clucks.
Adrenaline bolts through every sinew. The flame waves above me and emits milky fumes that singe my nostrils. I rush headlong toward him, roaring.
Unperturbed, the crow stays put until I'm mere steps away. Then he uplifts, cackling, and whooshes skyward.
Sweat sprouts on my forehead as I wheeze. The murky, moonless night shows no telltales of his next blitz. He'll be back, I know it. I pirouette toward the fence.
An excruciating minute goes by, but the birds remain stoic observers. How to wheel out the geezer before they swap for the crow? I lean toward Yaya and jolt his limp shoulder, but the geezer only dips further to the side. Sister-lover, now what? I wipe my clammy brow.
There's not an orb of light in the park's periphery, beside the faint outline of the far-side fence. Can I shinny over? Or should I ram it with the cart? Given the condition, a good shove may level the entire neighborhood. They'll thank me later.
A bustle of beating feathers. The birds rise as one and soar into the night, screeching. I slump onto the ground and breathe deep.
At the roadside, patrons lounge round the foldout tables and feast on cut-price snacks. None of those losers heard the commotion? Snorting, I unclamp the seared pack and kick away the slag.
To my rear, a low, bestial growl and champing. A shadow slinks toward me from some twenty feet away: blending in the darkness, beside the twinkle of fearsome choppers.
I yelp. For the love of God, what nightmarish portal opened tonight to unleash these monsters? I get to my feet inchmeal and put up my fists.
The strapping quadruped crosses into the streetlamp's radiant spread; a lustrous obsidian coat and pointy ears above a long, twitchy snout.
It's no use. I can't outrun or battle this. Should I surrender? My arms drop and I stagger backward.
Slobbering, the hound pads toward me and Yaya is still comatose.
My heart pounds out an S.O.S. I'm not confident I can save myself, much less push the nearly departed out of harm's way. Think, Bakshu, think.
My hand shapes into a hammer and wallops my ribs twice. Then I plant my feet wide and puff my chest out. "Aaarghh," I thunder, driving my dukes into the air.
He halts and eyes me keenly with his mailbox-wide head sloping to one side.
My dry cough returns with a vengeance. That's it, goodbye shitty life. Hope we never meet again. Heaving, I crumple cross-legged to the grass.
He uptilts his jaw and gazes overhead; his ears taut and spasmodic. Then he gnarls.
Something scares the scourge after all. Now's my chance to...
CAW-CAW! Black wings scud past my shoulder and their piked nibs clip my ear.
I quail. Oh no, he's back. Now they'll join forces to gorge on my flesh. I do a belly flop and stare ahead, horror-struck.
The hound hunkers down and his eyes shrink to slits following the crow's flight. Why's this big lug with the deadly fangs scared of a puny bird?
A faint mechanical whine knells in the distance, and every few seconds, something sputters. The sky pulses with pinpricks of light. Is there a landing strip nearby?
The crow lunges at the dog, and with his talons scrapes the face. The beast cries and unleashes a long-nailed paw that slashes empty air.
The crow hovers teasingly out of reach and soon spears the hound's flanks with his beak. In response, the hound bays and gyres on the spot.
Again and again he leaps, his powerful jaw snapping, but the bird expertly evades him and pecks at his peepers.
Time to exit while the monsters occupy themselves. I sit upright and knead my torpid calves. Then I scamper over to Yaya, yank him upright, and fold his arms over his lap.
I speedily collect the strewn about coins and stuff the aluminum bowl between his lotus-posed legs. My stiff fingers clasp the cart's loose back-panel and I push hard. The wheels creak and bump forward an inch, and then another.
Above me the whining amplifies, and there's a new whirring sound.
Okay Bakshu, remember the time your father tossed you out the rickshaw? This will hurt much less; hopefully.
My shoulders hunch and my forearms cord as I plow the cart on ahead. Every few steps, the grass skins my low-slung knees.
Behind me, the hound yowls from pain and the fanatical bird ferociously crows. Yaya mutely sways in the cart, while the nutty aroma of samosas and stewed meat makes me swoon.
Happy thoughts, Bakshu, happy thoughts. You're halfway there. Remember the peach-flavored popsicle from yesterday? Though past its shelf life, didn't it taste delicious?
A discordant sputter cuts through the whining.
Round me, the park pinwheels. Happy thoughts, Bakshu.
Paws gallop near, and my chest draws taut. Bakshu, don't look back.
In a flash, the hound zips past me and out the gate.
He's gone? Where's the crow? I pause and mop my muggy cheek. The whining and sputtering bayonets my ears.
My eyes squinch. A few yards to the exit. I flex my wrists and onward I muscle the cart.
An engine, definitely an engine. It screams and its spotlights blind the path before me. Son of a mother-lover. I duck and try to swallow the universe-sized lump in my throat.
A sleek, single-engine plane slams into the samosa stall and erupts into an inferno. The shock wave flings me backward, and spine first, I smash down onto the turf.
An eerie, overlong silence, and then a chilling orchestra swells: hysterical voices, hustling feet, and the distant shrieking of sirens.
Ports ablaze, is the world ending? Concussed, I stab my elbows into the dirt and raise my head.
The plane's scorched tail is barely visible through the voluminous shafts of soot. Some feet away, the cart pitiably topples onto its side.
I should pop the pill. It's time the earth splits in half and evil geckos emerge from its bowels. Limb by limb, I arise, and sweep down my clothes with a palm.
Then my skull prickles. Wings flutter and my gut churns. Sister-lover, not again. I cringe and thresh my hands above the head.
The crow glides over to the cart and casually perches on an airborne wheel: a small, oval object cinched in its beak. My pill! I reach out a shaky hand. "No."
He swallows it, and staring at me, softly caws. White heat blinds me. Infidel, is nothing sacred to you? My face scrunches in fury and my coiled fists tremble.
The cart quivers and someone deeply yawns. Yaya clambers out from behind in two layers of tatty pants rolled halfway up to the knees.
He can walk? I scrub my forehead with mouth ajar.
Looking away, he arches his back and stretches his arms wide. Then he squats to scoop up his cap and neatly fits it onto the head.
I shuffle up to him. "You're alive."
Yaya duck-walks two steps ahead to grab his bowl and pokes the ground for coins. "Whew. They're all here," he soon blurts. He chucks them inside the bowl and flashes me an impish grin. Then he rises and pats the crow on the head.
Humph, these mother-lovers are in cahoots. My nostrils flare and I snort.
Sad-eyed, he gazes at the bedlam on the street. "Pity. We must do tea another time."
Three sinister shadows, suspiciously resembling the hound, teleport round the blast site. They sniff about the debris, and with their teeth snap out strips of mist with human faces.
I shudder. Are these reapers? I hug myself to stop the tremors. "W-what's going on?" I ask, keeping a wary eye on the crow.
Yaya wears a stony face. "Tch," he says, pulling his jacket tighter round him. "Damned Legion, no class whatsoever."
Then he meets my slack-jawed stare. "Ah, right," he mumbles, and folds his arms behind the back. "The crow saved your life, you know?"
I wring my hands. "You see anything worth saving?"
He holds his belly and chortles, and in chorus, the crow hoots. "No clue. The bird has a mind of its own. Sometimes he aids plucky fellows, even when they're destined for no-good."
No-good? Is there a future past this train wreck? But what about the bills, all those goddamned bills? I'm not even halfway through paying off dad's loan...
I lower to my haunches and suck in a lungful of stinging air. "Yeah?" I ask, snatching a fistful of dirt.
"Oh yes," he says sunnily and extends a knuckled hand. The crow soars to his forearm and affectionately rubs his pate against the jacket sleeve. "The key to life, son, is hanging on."
My eyes shut tight and a tear dribbles to my nose. "I'm not sure I can anymore."
Footsteps shuffle away and I hear snickering. "You will after you meet the turbaned man tomorrow."
Yaya dissolves into the park's umbra as I vault upright. "What man?" I cry.
The ambulance klaxons are deafening, and so are the lachrymose voices.
A glorified pillowcase. Maybe, somehow, I won't forever stay a glorified pillowcase.