“It’s just a story. Fiction I invented.” That’s what the man said. But I didn’t believe him. I think he was trying to cover his ass, just in case.
I had brought my six-year old nephew Nicholas to the public fountain to run under the water spouts. Sitting on a nearby bench I was watching him when a man sat beside me. Nick glanced my way to see if I remained vigilant. He waved, laughed, ran with other children through the water as it gushed into the air.
“Is that yours?” the man asked, grinning as Nick tried to keep the water from spewing, his small hands clamped firmly upon the sprinkler.
“Oh no. He’s my brother’s child.”
The man nodded. “I don’t have any either,” he said. “I just come down here to watch people.” He paused a moment, but the moment felt full of potential. There was something to be had from it.
“The way life looks normal in public,” he said. “It’s not really that way. We just make it look that way by the light of day.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. What did he mean? Perhaps his life was so rotten that anything in public appeared idyllic to him. That this ‘light of day’ was something he needed on occasion to get him through rough nights.
He appeared several years older than me. Fifty-ish, I thought. I glanced at him, but returned my attention to my nephew, who now stood under a deluge, arms raised, head down, smiling and catching water in his hands.
That’s when he said it. An oral rendition of Pandora’s box. The thing he could not take back.
“I killed someone,” he said. I glanced at him, but quickly returned my attention to my nephew. Maybe he was trying to scare me. But why would he do that?
Perhaps a confession he could not give to the local priest.
“I never set out to hurt anyone,” he continued. “And it’s not like the guy meant anything.”
I thought it best not to look at him directly. That would make it real. An acknowledgment of his crime perhaps. A threat.
Nicky stood at the side of the fountain area now, talking it up with a little girl, pointing to the water spewing up over their heads. She was a beautiful dark-headed child, dark eyes, dimples. Both children showed surprise when a squirrel crossed in front of them, then a dark figure, hawk or owl, I couldn’t tell which. Fast and deadly, it snatched the small animal up and was gone.
“He was an old drunk. A bum,” the man said. As if he had not noticed the incident with the squirrel. He had been leaning forward, arms against his knees, but now he leaned back, a leg over the opposite thigh. Just relaxing in the sun.
“When I first saw him lying there in the alley, I didn’t realize a person was even there, he said. It was all old rags and dirt. Then his face came into view. Grimy and bearded, grinning wildly. The face of a scoundrel.
“He had old food in his beard. Disgusting. I turned around and headed the other way. I don’t even remember why I was in that alley, but I know I didn’t want to deal with his kind.
“Then he called out. “Hey Mister,” he said. “Help me. I need help.” I thought maybe he was ill or hurt. I stepped back to him, wishing I would have been quicker to leave. I didn’t want to get involved. Looking around, I hoped his attacker was not nearby. “What happened,” I asked.
“He grinned at me. Most of his front teeth were missing. Those remaining were rotting brown. Human filth, I thought. I didn’t want to be associated with this guy.
“”I need a cuppa dollahs,” he said. He said it in that way. With that accent, like he was from New England.
“”I don’t have any money. If I did I wouldn’t give it to you.” Then I started to walk away. I was done. I could have just stepped back into my life, none the worse.
“”Fine, ya little fag man!” That’s what the scoundrel yelled. Loud enough that a woman walking along the sidewalk, peered into the alley to see what was going on.
“She saw me standing there and him lying in his bed on the ground. Before she averted her eyes, I saw that look. The one that said she knew what went on there.
“I wanted to call her back and tell her nothing happened. The bum had just wanted money. I was there by accident. Just an innocent bystander. But she walked faster, away from us.
I chanced a glance at him. Running a hand through his thick hair, he avoided my eyes, but continued talking, as if he were just shooting the bull with an old friend.
I wondered how long ago it had happened.
“That’s what set me off. That woman. The look she had. If she hadn’t looked at me like that, none of this would have happened.
“The old guy was laughing. No, not laughing. More like chuckling and coughing. I wished he would choke on his words.
“”You fucker!” I yelled at him. He continued with that hoarse laugh. Uncaring. Getting a kick from my discomfort. “You’re nothing,” I yelled. I moved closer wanting to scream in his face. Then I kicked him. I didn’t mean to. It came from nowhere–that kick–it was just there. I don’t know how it happened.
“He started to get up, screaming all the while. “You little piece of shit, think you can kick me! I’ll show you what happens to little guys like you.”
I knew if he got up, he’d probably kill me, so I kicked him again. This time in the face. His head hit the brick wall behind him. I heard a thunk. That’s what it sounded like. A big empty thunk, like nothing was in there.
He went down and lay there, real quiet. I knew he was unconscious. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t dead, so I leaned over and felt the pulse in his neck.
It was there. Strong.
Nicky and the dark-eyed girl ran through the sprinklers holding hands. They appeared angelic. If I had a camera with me, I would have taken a shot right then. To preserve that moment in time, so later I could show Nicky beautiful moments in life, too easily forgotten, could be preserved. We needed these moments.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said, shaking his head. A tone of regret sounded in his voice.
“You know, they say there’s a moment when a person makes a choice between right and wrong. That there’s a line dividing the two and we make a conscious decision to cross that line, or not. I don’t think so.” He shook his head again.
“Nope. This is what I think.” He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “I think when I put my hand over that man’s mouth and pinched his nose closed, it was not a conscious decision. It happened as if it had already been written in the book of life and I was fulfilling the promise of that moment.
“It wasn’t me. That’s what I think. But when I stood up and saw what I had done, I ran away. I never looked back, because I knew that something else was still there. Whoever had killed that man, still lingered there watching over the body.”
The man leaned forward again, looked toward the fountain, watching the children run through the sprinklers, the normalcy of life. He grinned, glanced at me, averted his eyes. “I hope you liked my story,” he said.
I looked at him directly then, but remained silent.
“It was just a story,” he said. “Fiction I invented.”
I stood up, called to Nicky. His little cherub face turned to me. He waved. I stepped over to him. “We have to go,” I said.
I did not look back at the man until we were far enough away that I felt safe. Nicky’s little hand in mine, I wanted to be far away from the beast.
He still sat there on the bench in his rags. Old food hanging in his filthy beard. Grinning as he watched us walking away. Grinning with that horrible rotten, scoundrel grin.