This story first appeared in the literary journal, “Apollo’s Lyre,” in December, 2010.
I was late. Sometimes it is just so hard to leave the office—I was about to say ‘on time’—but I never leave the office ‘on time’. I just leave—usually—no—always, late. My cubicle looks pretty much the same without me in it.
I had a headache. By the end of the day, I always have a headache. You probably would too. Day after day of meaningless minutia. Numbers. Numbers. Big numbers. Small numbers. Change the numbers. Move the numbers. Manipulate the numbers. “Hey, they’re not my numbers. Do what you want.” Manipulate the numbers.
Four. It was my son’s birthday. I can’t manipulate that one. I’d missed the first three. He was too young to notice—right? My wife doesn’t agree. She called me an hour ago and suggested—I say suggested because she didn’t yell—her parents were listening in the other room—that I make it home in time for cake and ice cream.
Red light. A low-rider pulled up beside me. Four-beats-to-a-measure. The pulsing bass matched the pounding in my head. Doesn’t that just drive you crazy? When the 10 billion-watt sound system in the car next to you is louder than the screaming talk-radio host in your own car—with the windows rolled up.
Wait. The flashing red hand began a count down from twenty. The low-rider must have been to the drags. For two counts, the engine roared louder than the subterranean thumping. Ten, nine, eight…
There he was. I saw him at seven, stepping off the curb, slowly—well, slowly isn’t exactly the right word. Does a snail move slowly? Is there such a thing as live action slow motion? He was going to cross the street. Seriously! He waited until seven, to cross the street. What was he thinking? Not only that, he wasn’t running. He wasn’t hurrying. He was barely even moving. Three, two, one.
Greenlight. The thumping beside me was gone. The pounding inside me wasn’t. Take a step old man. My head’s going to explode. I don’t think I have ever seen someone walk so slow. He’ll never make it across. The light’s going to change.
Basketball shoes. He’s wearing basketball shoes. That’s funny. Like he needs them. You know, Air Jordan’s or some expensive brand like that. Where’d he get shoes like that? They look brand new. I played basketball in high school. My Dad never bought me a pair of Jordan’s. I could have used them, too. I might have gone on to play college ball. I could have made some real money. Instead, I’ve got this Eight to Seven, sixty-five hour, give it up for the team, sleep deprived, all consuming cubicle. That’s rich. I’m not. He doesn’t even lace them. His pants are tucked into the tops.
Dickies. The pants that never wear out. My Dad used to wear those pants. What do they make them out of anyway—some kind of bullet proof kevlar cloth? This guy had on Dickies. I think they were the drab green kind. Although, they could have been navy. I’m not sure. He might have been an auto-mechanic at one time too. But, they didn’t have holes in them. You’ve got to give them that. He could be the poster old-guy for Dickies pants. Everything else wears out. They never will.
Honk, Honk. The car behind me hit the horn in two—cut time in my head. What do you want me to do, run over the guy? Believe me, I’d like to. He’s taken—what—three steps? I guess you can work up quite a sweat moving that fast with a downless, down jacket on. He must be trying to lose weight. It might make it easier to carry the backpack. Or, the brown paper bag.
Hiking. That’s it. He’s been hiking. I’m sure of it. I had a friend in high school that hiked the Pacific Crest trail all the way from Canada to Mexico—he and his dad. It took them all summer. Junior year. He showed me pictures. They asked me and my Dad to go. My Dad thought they were crazy. “What-in-the-hell would you want to do that for?” My Dad wasn’t much for the outdoors. He was pretty good about carrying the brown paper bag though. And, he did take a hike.
Red light. Again. The old guy stopped. He’s not moving. He’s staring at his feet. What? Got a rock in your shoe? Get your scraggly beard caught in your zipper? Come on, Dude, move. The sun’s going down. It’s your turn. I’m not going anywhere.
Leather. His face. I’ve seen that look before. It hurts. It really hurts. He must have spent way too much time in the sun. I went to the beach once and got so sunburned it hurt just to move. I couldn’t sit down for a week. My Dad’s belt looked just like his face.
Three, two, one. He’s staring at me. Those eyes. Haunting. I’ve seen those eyes.
I’m not going to make it. Am I? The headache was gone—well—not gone, exactly. Just misplaced. I knew it was there, somewhere. I couldn’t find it right now. But, I knew I would, pretty soon. Cheap wine doesn’t last that long. Leaves a pretty bad fruity aftertaste too. I could smell it though. The taste in my mouth matched the sickeningly sweet, fermented odor. I never even really liked the stuff. It just made the pain hide for a little while. Trouble is, it was the other stuff I could never find afterwards.
Where have I seen that face before? On the other side of the glass. On the other side of the street.
I wanted to cross. I wanted to move my feet. I just couldn’t. So, I stopped traffic. I got in the way.
It was my son’s fourth birthday.
The light turned green. He made it. I was late.