I was doing the thing where my mom was on the phone with me so I was walking laps around the neighborhood. I get pretty sick of being in my apartment. And I need the exercise.
I hadn’t been home in months and months and months and Mom was telling me about how my dad fell in the pond and couldn’t crawl out because he’s got bad knees. It’d be funny and kind of sad if it weren’t for the fact there was a six-foot alligator in there. Dad tries to scramble out of the pond and he keeps sliding in mud and meanwhile, the alligator floats, all scales and prehistoric eyes, just watching.
I laughed, passing construction site after construction site, old buildings going down and new condos going up, expensive condos no one was actually going to live in. Hundreds of empty condos all over the neighborhood.
“But the real problem is you can’t call animal control on an alligator,” Mom was saying. “Trust me, I tried it. They told me the state budget was cut and they no longer have the equipment or the manpower to wrangle alligators. Can you believe that?”
Mom sneezed. She works in an old government building and she always has a sinus infection.
“There’s practically a dinosaur living in the pond, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There’s no one to call. And you certainly can’t kill it. You know your daddy hates shooting things.”
I cut down a side street I don’t often walk down. It’s an ugly chunk of sidewalk covered in busted bottles but it always has the best graffiti, usually Polish because that’s who most of the people in the neighborhood are. There’s this one Polish guy named Brutus who always talks about how he’s a mutant because he grew up thirty miles from Chernobyl. Brutus wears urban camo and has a ponytail down to his ass. He’s six foot ten and he probably is a mutant but I like him. He’s a good guy.
Mom went on and on, the grey unfinished twelve-story tomb-homes for future tech guys, or no one, looming above me. I felt like an ant walking through a graveyard. Up above was a smear of clouds over that one purple spotlight that always makes it look like aliens are coming. It’s my favorite thing in the whole neighborhood.
That’s what I was thinking when I saw this guy walking toward me. Tall, hoodie down over his face, hands in his pockets. Walking awfully fast. Straight at me, not veering. The green plywood marking off construction sites to my right, the street deserted except for me and this guy.
Mom was working to a pitch, the volume on my earphones peaking: “Speaking of guns, your cousin has been out shooting the deer again. Shooting them! There are children who play in those woods.”
The man in the hoodie came closer and closer, his eyes down to the pavement, hands by his side, heavy boots stomping the pavement. He was tall, and there seemed something off about him, a weird fury to his walk.
“It’s fine if he wants to go deer camp and blast away, but not on the family land. Like I said, there are children. If he wants to hunt so bad, why doesn’t he just shoot the alligator?”
Just as we passed, the man in the hoodie turned toward me and grabbed my shoulders and threw me against the construction wall. I hit my head against the wood, knocking one earbud out.
“What are you doing?” I said.
He slammed me into the wall again, pinning me against the wood.
“George,” my mom said. “George, what’s happening?”
I tried to fight him off, to push him away, but he was bigger than me and stronger than me. It was like falling off something tall and waving your arms on the way down, there was no stopping what was about to happen.
“Let go!” I said. “Let me go!”
The man reared back and punched me. I thunked against the wall, and he held me there with one fist.
The man dropped his hoodie. He was blonde, very pale, and his eyes were cracked and a yellow-rimmed, lizardy. He gazed at me, half-smiling, half-grimacing. His eyes couldn’t seem to focus, his head nodding a little, leering at me as if I were some animal he’d just yanked out of the bush.
“What’s happening?” said Mom in my ear. “George, please tell me you’re okay!”
The man let go of my jacket and pressed his right hand on my chest, just above my heart, and pressed down hard.
“Take my wallet,” I said, blood on my lips. “You can have it.”
The man kind of grinned at me, pushing harder on my chest, the full weight of him on my ribs.
We made eye contact, and he held my gaze, his eyes shifting into focus. I knew he could feel my heart beating against his hand, that he knew just how afraid I was. The man smiled at me, leaned his face close enough to bite me. The saliva on his teeth.
“Jesus help my baby!” screamed Mom in my ear. “Jesus help my boy!”
I stuck my foot against the fence and pushed, shoving the man as hard as I could. He caught his boot against a NO STANDING sign and tripped. I watched him fall, the hugeness of him tumbling off the curb in a freefall backward to the pavement. I watched his head hit the ground and bounce. He let out a cry, an almost animal wail.
I took off running, harder than I ever have in my life. I ran and I ran until the end of the block.
I only looked back once. Saw him there on the street, moaning out into the night.
Almost like he was crying.
I rounded the corner and ran until my side stitched. I only stopped when I saw another person, a tiny woman pushing a baby carriage, her hood down, fur lining her collar. She made googoo noises and the kid clapped his mittened hands.
“George, honey!” screamed Mom. She’d never stopped screaming. “George, are you dead?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said, out of breath. “Just a crazy guy harassing me.”
“You need to call the police!” she said. “I’ll call them for you! I’ll call them right now, from Mississippi!”
“I said I’m fine Mom.” I might have yelled it. “One hundred percent fine.”
There was a pause for a second, maybe ten, maybe thirty, I don’t know.
“Well okay,” she said. “As long as you say so.”
I heard the hurt in her voice, the worry.
“I’m going to go now,” I said. “I need to catch my breath.”
“If you’re okay…”
“Thanks for praying for me,” I said. “I mean it, Mom.”
There was a moon out, but not any stars. There are never any stars here.
I made it to the bar. It was only two blocks away. My stool was waiting for me, my own personal mug too, #46. It’s corny, but there’s something nice about it. Being so far from where you came from, not knowing anybody really. But there it is, your stool and your mug.
I thought about telling the guys, Sweet Roger and Polish Arnold and Blake and Bird and Old Man Juan, but nobody was talking much. A hockey game was on. I watched a guy smash another guy’s face into plexiglass.
Bill brought my mug of Budweiser with a shot of tequila on the side. I downed the shot and sipped at my beer. I pretended to watch the game. My lip stung where the guy popped me, but it wasn’t bleeding anymore. I could still hear Mom screaming to Jesus in my earphones. My heart was still pumping, all my blood cells running laps inside me.
“You okay?” Bill said, after my second round. “You look a little spooked.”
“Yeah,” I said. “My dad fell in a pond today. There was an alligator, but he got out okay.”
“I always forget you’re a fucking redneck,” he said.
We laughed. Then he left me alone. Bill’s a good bartender like that.
But something didn’t feel right to me. I had another and another, and I couldn’t shake it. The man’s hand on my chest. The sad yellow of his eyes. The way his breath smelled, like turpentine and spent cigarettes. The alien purple of the bridge lights against the clouds, the shivery moon, the empty buildings, the graveyard of everything.
It was his hand on my heart, the only person who had touched me in months. Who shoved me into a wall and looked me in the eyes.
And I left him there alone, crying in the streets.
Where are you, brother, and will you come back for me?