I’m listening to the Prairie Home Companion guy recite poetry over the fuzzy sound system at the shithole convenience and liquor store where I work. I’m not sure if it’s good poetry or bad poetry (I dropped out of high school before we got to poetry) but it sure is long.
Corporate says we’re supposed to play jazz music in the store, a special kind that speaks to some secret part of your brain and makes you buy more. But my manager insists we play NPR. He says it makes us seems more sophisticated to all the students. I’m fine with that for the most part, but I know it doesn’t work. Student’s wouldn’t care less if we’re sophisticated or not, they’d come here if we played jazz music or pop music or banjo music or Hitler speeches. We’re just a distasteful barrier separating them from cheap Vodka.
Speaking of which, here comes one right now. I could tell even if he weren’t wearing the school sweatshirt, even if his shopping cart weren’t loaded with plastic bottles of clear liquid that I should check his ID for but don’t. It’s something in the way he holds himself, the way he walks, the prep school inflection in his voice as he tells me to ring it up. They did a piece on modern day mystics, people who claim they can see auras or read palms or predict celebrity breakups, last week on This American Life, and this guy’s aura is smart and loud and above average in IQ and BAC.
I put the alcohol into two overstuffed bags. “You having a party?” I ask.
He laughs a little, nervously, then notices the guy at the register to my left, who is bagging up some middle aged woman’s groceries. “Hey! Vick! Seriously, you work here?”
Vick, if that is his name, looks at him blankly for a moment, then hands the woman her receipt and stares at the white tiles on the floor.
A few hours later I’m on break. My manager won’t let me smoke in the break room, so I have to stand out in the tiny alley between the back of the store and a chain link fence. It’s close to midnight, perfectly dark. Snow is falling, melting on my shoulders, soaking through my uniform, chilling my bones.
Somehow, I know someone is watching me. Common sense would say I heard his breathing. The mystics from last week’s show might suggest I felt the cry of a wounded human spirit calling out for help.
I turn around and see the guy from before. Vick, I guess. He’s gangly and has black hair that goes past his neckline.
He stares at me, wriggling his closed mouth like he wants to say something but can’t. For a second I worry that the spit between his lips froze, then realize that’s stupid.
“You smoke?” I asked, holding out my pack to him, maybe because I want to disprove that frozen spit theory. It’s probably not his brand since cigarette preferences fall cleanly along socioeconomic lines—another fun fact from NPR.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever done it before.”
This is strange. Smoking is like sex; People start to forget individual instances after their fifth or sixth time, but the first is always a permanent memory.
“Well, I don’t mean to get you hooked, but if you want to try, be my guest, Vick.” I extend the pack so it almost touches his chin.
A moment of sullen silence. “I’m not sure what my name is, but I don’t think it’s Vick.”
I glance down at his nametag which is blank. There’s a bit of texture across it, tiny white lines where the name should go. Probably he scratched it out with a knife or painted over it with whiteout.
I think about asking, but he’s back in the store before I can even put the pack back in my pocket.
On my way home I notice Vick (or whoever he is) under a bus stop bench. His legs are snug against his chest, his arms wrap around his knees and hands clasp in the middle, like he’s hugging himself. The wind has picked up, blowing gusts of snow into his little homeless home.
I take a knee and put my hand on his shoulder, as gently as possible. He wakes with a start, jerking his head up and whacking his hand against the seat of the bench.
I say, “You’ll freeze to death out here.”
“You sound like a mom. I’ll be fine.”
Funny phrasing there. Not my mom, a mom.
“No, seriously, get up.”
It’s like watching a ghoul emerge from a coffin, one absurdly long limb stretching after another until he drags out his torso and head. He’s wearing old jeans, a hole in the left knee, and the red employee long sleeve t-shirt.
“There’s a homeless shelter in a church basement two blocks that way. They’ll give you a cot and a place to stay until morning.”
Maybe the right thing to do would have been to offer him a place at my apartment, but that’s barely big enough for me.
He just stares me down for a moment. Then, “all right. Thank you.”
“Why aren’t you staying in a dorm?”
“A dorm? You know, at the college.”
“I don’t go to college.”
“Oh, sorry man. I just thought- hey, how did you not know about the homeless shelter until now? They’ve got a big sign outside the church.”
“I’ve never seen the church.”
“But it’s only two blocks away from where you work!”
“I’ve only been here for two days.”
“Two days- what happened before then?”
“Just foul dreams and dead memories.”
Foul dreams and dead memories. That’s how I know he’s a student or he used to be. Real people don’t talk like that.
Getting home after the graveyard shift, I’m usually gone before I hit the mattress. But it just doesn’t work like that tonight. I spend hour after hour staring out at the sickly orange light coming from the streetlamp outside my window and wishing I had blinders.
I think about that kid in the fetal position under that bench. My mind’s eye adds little details to make him seem more pathetic. A faint shiver in his shoulders, extra tears in his jeans, some small sobbing washed away by the wind.
I keep on thinking. What if he doesn’t find the homeless shelter? Or what if there isn’t room there? What if he’s seriously going insane?
Of course I worry about him, but at the same time, I enjoy pitying him. To know that there’s someone out there more depressing than me, and a college student to boot.
There should be a word for this.
Thank you, NPR.
The next day I skip my shift at the dry cleaner’s and hang out in the college’s courtyard. It looks too perfect, stone spires on ancient buildings, bundled up students shuffling off to class, foot high snow drifts filling the grassy spaces between sidewalks. Snow looks good on the campus, makes the warm lights peeking from behind dorm room curtains look even more inviting. In the city, snow just makes it look like a frozen shithole instead of a regular old shithole.
A girl walks up to me. She’s a little slip of a thing, weighed down with a puffy down jacket, hat, mittens, and scarf that look hand-knitted, and arm-fulls of textbooks.
“Do you need something?” she asks.
“Um, yeah, I’m looking for a buddy of mine. Vick.”
“Is he a janitor with you or something?”
Damnit. How does she automatically know I’m not a student? I’m about the right age, I wore a relatively clean jacket, and there’s no way she could have memorized the faces of every last student. Do they teach telepathy here?
“No, he’s a student.”
“Oh.” She sure sounds surprised. “Do you know his last name?”
“No, but he’s tallish, has a big mop of black hair.”
“You must mean Vick Webelo.”
“Yeah, that’s him. What do you know about him?”
“I thought he was your friend.”
Really should’ve thought that through.
I pull out a wad full of bills, a ten on top with three ones underneath, and point them at her. A pathetic bribe by any standard, but it works, she takes the money and starts talking. Probably just out of politeness. Or fear. She knows I’m from the city, and maybe somewhere in the back of her forty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year mind she assumes someone capable of bribes is also capable of threats.
“He’s a theater major. From a small town in Massachusetts, Squeg Valley, I think. He’s a freshman.”
“Has he been in school in the past few days?”
“Not to my knowledge. I heard that he was freaking a while ago out because his grades were starting to flounder. And when his roommate tried to calm him down, Vick threw War and Peace at him. I think he gave the roommate a concussion because I haven’t seen Greg for a few days either.”
“Greg’s the roommate?”
“And you haven’t seen Vick since the incident?”
“I’m not even sure if there was an incident. It’s just gossip. Probably Vick and Greg have been inside all this time, studying. It is finals season, after all.”
I nod and take the quickest route away from campus, which happens to be through the snow drifts. It might’ve been more dignified to thank the student for her time or something, but being there gave me this subtle, cold pain in the back of my neck, something that doesn’t leave until I’m out of sight of the college. Maybe it was just a chilly draft. Maybe it was just all in my head. But I can’t shake the feeling that someone was watching, an unseen eye that knew I didn’t belong.
There’s one pay phone left in town, a drafty little box of cracked glass covered with phallic drawings. It stinks of urine, probably because it looks like a port-a-potty to the hopelessly inebriated. The thing can’t be making money anymore, the city must just leave it in out of laziness. Or spite.
It’s one degree too cold for snow, so it pours. Outside the freezing rain pounds the snow into slush and washes it down the street. Inside the water bleeds through the cracks in the glass and drips from a little hole in the ceiling down the back of my neck.
Earlier, at the library, I’d Googled “Webelo Squeg Valley Massachusetts phone number” and got the landline for one Mary Theresa Webelo. I dial her up, she answers on the third ring.
“Hi, I think I might have some information about your son.”
Is she gasping or sobbing? The phone line translates it all into a vague buzzing noise.
“Vicky? You know where he is?”
“Yeah, he’s working at the Red Ribbon Liquor and Foods, about a block away from the college.”
“Do you know where he’s been staying?”
The image of him freezing under that bus stop bench flashes across my mind.
“No, I don’t. But I’m pretty sure he’ll be working a shift tonight from five to eleven. If you could drive down get him that’d be great.”
“Thank you so much! How is he?”
“Not that best. He told me he doesn’t know where he is or who he is.”
She murmurs to herself. “Sounds like dissociative fugue.”
“That’s a brain disorder, right?”
“A mental disorder, yes.”
“I’m not sure that’s it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean-,” I take a deep breath. This woman is probably wealthy, definitely educated, maybe even a psychologist herself. At any rate, she sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. Who am I to question her? It’s against the natural order of things. But I can’t help myself. “When I talked to him, he was going out of his way to tell people he couldn’t remember stuff. Like he was playing a role and trying to get people to notice and it wasn’t working. I heard something on the radio once about that multiple personality disorder-”
“You mean dissociative identity disorder.”
“Okay, dissociative identity disorder. A lot of doctors think victims are just really good actors who convince themselves they’re someone else to deal with the problem or draw attention to it.”
Silence for a few moments. I know she’s on the other end, I can hear heavy breaths that come out on my end more as patterns of static, but no words. Then, “No point talking about it now. The best thing is to get him home.”
My hands are shaking, rattling the plastic against my ear. Like my brain is telling my lips to say goodbye, my hand to put the phone on the receiver and leave it at that, but some other force hijacks my body, keeps my feet stuck to the increasingly wet floor…
“If, I might ask, was there something that happened to make him go crazy?”
Poor word choice there. I try to reverse course, speaking rapidly. “I mean, anything about him flunking or throwing a book at Greg or-”
I swear I hear the phone shatter as she slams the receiver.
The clouds parted sometime in the afternoon, now there’s a clear sky for a crisp, cold sunset. The sun hovers just above the street that separates the historical splendor of the college from the sprawl and filth of the city. I wait for Vick and absentmindedly wish they’d build a wall, like the wall they built around Oxford. Then Vick couldn’t have gone crazy in the streets and I wouldn’t have to put up with selling cheap alcohol to entitled brats and we wouldn’t have to play NPR in the store so I wouldn’t have all these random, useless, pretentious trivia stuck in my head, like the fact that they built a wall around Oxford.
You’d think I’d recognize a guy as distinctive as Vick, but I don’t catch him until he’s close enough to trigger the motion sensors. The door slides open with that annoying little beep, but I make sure he doesn’t make it inside. I grab his wrist and squeeze, hoping that he’ll wince. He doesn’t.
I start walking away from the doors and he follows. The doors slide shut. He stares at me, his expression stoic, strange for someone as flaky as I know he is. His cheeks are gray like the blood inside has been sucked dry. I wait for him to talk. He doesn’t. He just stares.
“You’re an asshole, you know that?” I say finally.
“How do you know I’m an asshole,” he says with a flat affect. “Even I don’t know if I’m an asshole. I don’t know who I am and-”
“Stop that bullshit and listen up, you little prick.” I talk fast now, fast and quiet and burning. “You have no idea how lucky you are. You get the chance to go to college, to live in this palace. And, okay, you fucked up. Everyone fucks up. I know I would have if I got the chance. But I wouldn’t have thrown a tantrum and run away, like a coward, like a bitch, like a…a…”
There’s a moment of silence as he stares at me and I stare at the wet asphalt of the parking lot, trying to come up with another insult. There aren’t any. It’s like I burnt up what was left of my brainpower in that pitifully short speech and now my mind is blank, just dead dreams and foul memories.
My grip on his wrist is loose, and he shakes it off without much trouble. Then he grabs my shirt with both hands and hoists me up. I look down, the asphalt is far below my feet; I look at him, his dead face level with mine.
Now I’m flying backwards towards the brick wall of the liquor store.
I’m not sure if I black out or he just runs inhumanly fast, because when I come to Vick Webelo is nowhere in sight. No, I must’ve blacked out because the sun is gone.
There’s a plump woman in the parking lot, yelling at the manager. Just a normal customer or Mrs. Webelo? I can’t tell. My hearing is as fuzzy as the speakers inside the store and the figures look like moving inkblots. I put my hand to the back of my head and feel blood between my hairs and fingers.
I wonder what it would be like to take a cue from Vick. Just throw what little I have away, lose my name, start anew.
At the moment it sounds like a pretty good deal.