story #16

simon harridan 
In February of 2010, I flew from Boston to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras and got in a fight with a man whose name I never heard and never learned. He was enormous with skin the color and consistency of fatback and he pounded me mercilessly in the street. I can’t remember entirely why—I doubt I gave him any sort of good reason. I was checking my reflection in the tinted window of a Chevy Chevelle one moment, straightening my hair (I had excellent, slightly wavy hair that curled at my ears), and the next moment a hand the size of a skillet was mashing my cheek into the fender, and boots that must have had steel toes were slamming into my stomach. I would have screamed, I think, if I’d been able to breathe. But I couldn’t breathe. Two of my ribs were broken. My jaw and cheekbones were fractured. I was barely conscious. I tried to curl away from the man between kicks, and finally they stopped and I heard him unzip his pants. As he urinated on my face and head, all I could think, absurdly, was how lucky I was to be a toilet instead of a roach squished lifelessly, eternally into the asphalt. Why had I gone to New Orleans? Everyone there was crazy. Better to stay up north. To stay safe.
            I was twenty-one-years old at the time, tall and muscled thickly from years of playing squash at Harvard. By no means (in my estimation) was I a weakling, by no means frail, and I made a quick recovery after a ten-hour surgery and a return flight to blessed Boston (two weeks delayed). Rather sadly, my hair had the worst go of it—turning gray. But it still curled, and there were upsides: Bouncers and bartenders stopped carding me and I did rather better with women than I had before. I adopted the look and air of a silver fox, of a man wise beyond his years, and in 2012 when I moved to New York City, I was as proud as ever.
            A strange thing happened then: I had just started working at a well regarded restaurant in Carroll Gardens when I noticed the giant from New Orleans walking toward me on the street. I have met plenty of people coincidentally in my life but this was the most unexpected and unwelcomed such encounter. I nearly panicked. I nearly turned heel on Degraw Street and made haste back to the F train. Instead, I walked boldly toward the giant, locking eyes with him. As we neared each other, we slowed. Carefully, I slid my right hand inside the knife satchel slung over my back and felt for my eight-inch utility knife, an expensive, extremely thin instrument. I felt that if I could jab it quickly into the giant’s abdomen and slice laterally, I might have time to spring away before he comprehended what had happened—before he even felt pain. He was unlikely to recognize me, after all. With my hair so different, I looked nothing like I had. I was pulling the knife from the satchel when he smiled apologetically and, taking a transit map out of his pocket, asked if I couldn’t help direct him to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Howard Gilman Opera House. They were doing a Louis Armstrong tribute and he just had to catch it.
            With some bewilderment and as if overhearing a conversation in which I had no physical part, I listened to myself tell the giant to simply head over on Smith Street to Atlantic, jog right to 3rd Avenue, then just keep on past the intersection with Flatbush Ave. I even drew a line on his map with my finger. What was wrong with me? Here was the man who had nearly ended my life, a stranger, a monster, and I was making sure he wouldn’t miss his precious jazz? As he walked away, I ran my hands through my hair and with a slight tug decided to call in sick, to follow this creature, to see where exactly he would lead me afterwards. Didn’t I have to confront him?
            I started walking fast to catch up and nearly tripped over a raised slab of concrete in the sidewalk. My shoes scuffed loudly as I caught myself and the man turned and stared at me.
            “I wanted to tell you to make sure you head over on Smith,” I said. I sounded like a ninny of a child. “Or Hoyt. If you try to get all the way to 3rd on Degraw you’ll get stuck at the canal.”
            “Your directions were perfectly clear.” His words were muffled and honeyed and he sneered slightly as he appraised me. I could feel that he was judging me by my hair—trivializing me because I was so gray so young. He added, “I’m not a faggot.”
            What was I to make of that? Perhaps I should have stabbed him without another moment’s hesitation. Perhaps I should have turned and gone to work and done my best to forget him. Instead, I stuck with the plan—I tailed him (more carefully this time) to the opera house and then, after the show, to the subway and finally to a cheap hotel on Ludlow Street off of Rivington in the Lower East Side. I had never followed anyone before and was nervous and swore at myself when I noticed that absently I was futzing with my hair and now it was all perfectly straight, hanging like a worn mop atop my head, getting in my eyes. No matter. It would spring back in the morning after a good shower—and it did, though not with the same zest of curl I had anticipated and grown accustomed to.
            Over the next days, I followed the giant as he hit up Katz’s Deli, The Frick, MoMA, Staten Island, and Coney Island. He shopped with all of the other silly tourists on Broadway in SoHo, oddly spending an hour in Uniqlo of all places (a man his size!) and doing such other mundane things as taking in a show on Broadway (Porgy and Bess) and waiting in a frighteningly long line to go to the top of the Empire State Building (something I myself had never done). A week passed. Then two. I stopped calling into work. I stopped bathing. Now and then as I waited for him to leave a restaurant or bar, I would be sitting against the side of a building with a cap over my hair (which had become an embarrassment) and passersby would toss coins to me. I had no cup or sign, and I felt that these offerings were disdainful, that I had become a receptacle for unwanted nickels and loathsome pennies. I never expressed my disgust, however. Instead, calmly and unabashedly, I picked the little metal discs off the ground and thrust them into my pockets. Later, I told myself, I would surely give them to a real charity or a church. Maybe St. Patrick’s. I was thinking about the spires that decorate that cathedral when I fell asleep.
            An hour or so passed, and I was awoken gruffly by a police officer who told me to beat it. I protested that I was merely tired, that I had an apartment, that I wasn’t some bum. But I realized, as I counted my day’s change, that I had lost my studio in Sunset Park and that I hadn’t enough money for anything but street food—and only just enough for that.
            I lost track of the giant that night and was quite upset with myself as I sat on a park bench with a copy of the Post wrapped over my body for warmth. I knew I could put myself back together. I knew I had only to make the effort. What was stopping me? The giant, of course. It was always the giant and my lack of resolve in confronting him. If I confronted him, surely then, I told myself. Yes, then. Then I would get on with things. Then I would find another job. Then I would have the money to put a first and last toward rent. All wasn’t lost. I’d pawned away most of my knives but still had a paring knife in my pocket. Well, I would put it to use.
            The next morning, I awoke with the sun and trudged from Prospect Park over the Brooklyn Bridge, praying that the giant hadn’t yet left the city. A midnight blue Chevelle was parked outside the hotel where he stayed, and I found that rather fitting. I leaned my back against it casually as I waited. I took off my cap and slicked my hair. It was surprisingly thin and greasy and I knew I wasn’t doing it any favors touching it all the time. Had I been pulling it out without noticing? I dug my hands deep in my pockets, clenching the handle of the knife. Then he appeared, gargantuan and pale and appalling, taking up the doorway. I wanted to spring forward but the sight of the youngster at his side stopped me. Did he have a son? A nephew? I had no idea how the boy was connected with the giant, but his presence was, for me, an impossibility. Why hadn’t I seen this boy before? Why had he come here to ruin my life? I screamed and they looked at me with dumfounded wonderment.
            I smashed my hands against my temples. I shouted, “I forgive you! I forgive you! You did this to me”—I pointed at my limp, ashen hair—“and I still forgive you.” With both hands, I grabbed hold of what little hair I had left and yanked it hard from my scalp. The pain seared down my spine and again I screamed. As I walked away, I heard the boy say to the giant in a thick Louisiana drawl, “There are just too many crazies in this town. That’s the thing about New York. Too many crazies.”
– Thomas McCafferty
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