Insomniac, part 3
Centre St. Grace Ave. Columbus St. Sunset Ave. Covert St. Lynch Pl. Penn Circle. Keep St. Bleecker Ave.
Tariq had to struggle to keep up. He knew the street names, but in his head they were a jumble and he couldn’t remember how one connected to the next, where each connected with the street that came before it.
All around him were brownstones and vacant lots. Homeless men slept like accordions braced in doorways. Barred windows protected cracked glass. Streetlights flickered.
Tariq walked quickly, but struggled to keep pace with the masked man whose legs moved with grace and ease. Every block or two, the man would stop outside an apartment building to take the lid off a trash can. Every time, Tariq would freeze. This was his opportunity to approach. He could return the fake weapon and ask the stranger what he was doing, who he was. But every time the man stopped, Tariq became self conscious.
“Here’s your sword. Who are you?” seemed like such an inadequate greeting given the late hour.
Instead, Tariq would watch as the man held his mask steady with one hand to reach inside the trash can with the other. Then the stranger would replace the lid and skip onwards. And Tariq would wonder why he didn’t say anything.
Outside a grocery store, the stranger pulled a bag of grapes from the trash. He spun the bag and studied them carefully. In the alley beside a bakery, Tariq peered around a corner to watch as he retrieved bagels and muffins, boxed quiches and flattened doughnuts.
Standing in the dumpster in front of a building labeled “Canal Street Casket Company,” the stranger lofted a long, white sheet and a long, black sheet. He held them up with outstretched arms and let them hang down as if checking the length. He wound the black sheet tightly and tucked it into the back of his jeans. It seemed to form into a thin tail. He shook his ass and the tail swatted at the air.
Tariq stood at the chain link fence of a used car lot as secret voyeur to the stranger’s scavenging. Trash bags were piled high all around. He steadied himself against a No Parking sign.
The man wrapped the white sheet around himself. He bent at the waist and flattened his back, so the sheet hung to the ground. When he raised his neck, suddenly the mask with the long horns made sense to Tariq. The man had disappeared and, in his place, there was a white bull with a paper-mache head. It dug through the dumpster with a hoof and let out a low bellow. Its nostrils flared.
Tariq’s brain swirled at this magical performance. He felt like the world was tilting and he was about to slide off. With a cry, he let go of the signpost and careened backwards into the fence. He rolled off it and down into a pile of garbage bags. The wooden sword smashed into his thigh and splinters burrowed into his skin. He turned on his side and struggled to regain his breath.
Across the street, the bull stood on its hind legs and lifted its forelegs to its head. Then the mask was gone and then the bull was gone and a man stood in the dumpster. He looked down at Tariq. His face was young- no older than 19 or 20- with a sharp chin and long eyelashes.
Tariq stared and the stranger stared back. For a moment, neither moved, neither made a sound.
Then Tariq tried to speak, tried to say, “Excuse me” but his words came as a fit of coughing.
And then he was aware there was something moving on the other side of the fence. Tariq turned to see a beast’s slobbering jaws as the thing raced at him. He saw mangy fur. He saw yellow fangs. He saw spittle spewing in every direction. But mostly he saw the two heads on a single torso. The guard dog slammed against the fence less than a foot from where Tariq lay. The chains bulged under its weight. One head growled. The other howled like a wolf.
Tariq felt his mouth open to form a scream, but the sound was drowned by the unearthly barking.
Then there was another sound, issuing from somewhere in the refuse around him. It was a voice, withered and commanding. It said, “What are you doing here?”
And Tariq didn’t know how to respond. He felt like his lungs had collapsed in his chest.
The barking was frantic. He couldn’t concentrate.
“What the hell do you think you’re you doing here?” repeated the voice.
Tariq’s muscles tensed. He wanted to roll over. He wanted to get up and run, but instead his body balled up, making him smaller.
Somewhere down the block another dog began to bark. Its high pitched “yip yip yip” pierced the beast’s cacophony.
“I…” said Tariq. “I…” and he couldn’t say anything more. He began to shake, spasms wracking his body. He was cold. He was terrified. He couldn’t tell whether or not he dreamed.
There was a crunch of garbage as someone raised himself up from the trash. Feet shuffled. Bags crinkled. Tariq could smell decay.
Tariq tried in vain to explain himself, “I didn’t mean…”
And then the figure was standing over him like a specter. Old, gray shoes with flapping leather and no laces. A short length of pipe clenched in squat fingers. A wiry beard.
“I asked why you were here.”
Tariq knew the old man. Or, at least, he’d seen him around the neighborhood enough to have dubbed him “Santa Claus.” Tariq used to see him collecting bottles in a sack and he’d say to Shelly, “Looks like Santa’s giving you your neighbor’s recycling this year.” Shelly would laugh and tell him to be quiet. She had a good laugh.
Tariq didn’t want to be thinking about Shelly. He wanted to answer Santa. Tariq said, “I don’t know.”
If he were still with Shelly, she would probably be kicking him in her sleep right now. She had violent nightmares. Tariq once woke to her biting into his hand like it was an apple, like she was trying to tear the skin off.
Santa leaned down. His face was wan and wrinkled. He exhaled a cloud that stank of ether. “Child, this is not your world and you are not welcome.”
Tariq closed his eyes. His mind shut out Santa, shut out the hardness of the concrete beneath his head, shut out the barking of the bicephalic dog, shut out the gripping cold.
He thought instead about work. He thought about his boss and about Brad. He wanted to hug them. He wanted to massage their shoulders and say, “Fuck it.” He thought about his parents. He wanted to tell his mother that he was okay, that he was happy. He wanted to ask his dad to tell him the old story about how he immigrated at 21 knowing only three English phrases: “Hello,” “thank you,” and “I can work.”
He thought about the bull mask and the pretty face underneath it.
Metal thudded against his ribs. He opened his eyes. Santa beat at him with the pipe.
“I told you to go.”
The old man’s eyes were oily and cruel. He slammed the pipe against Tariq’s sternum.
Tariq was full of hate. Before he could think about what he was doing, Tariq was on his feet. Blood rushed into his arms and they felt hot. They felt like someone else’s arms, moving by some other instinct.
Tariq felt as if he were watching himself as his hands reached for the plywood sword in his pants. He felt like a thing possessed as he menaced it at the cracked, homeless man who bore the uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus.
And then he struck the weapon against Santa’s skull and things broke apart. Shards of wood and scraps of silver paint sprayed into the wind. Flecks of red blood spattered across the pavement. Half of the board that would have been the blade clattered to the ground. Santa’s big frame collapsed. His head led his torso down into the curb. Scarlet strings wept from his temple. His eyes peeled back and closed. His mouth went slack and hung open. Air escaped his lungs in wheezes. His pipe rolled into the gutter.
Tariq gripped his broken sword tightly. Santa gurgled. Tariq couldn’t tell if the old man was conscious, but he wasn’t getting up.
Tariq scanned the street. The stranger with the bull mask was gone. The two-headed dog continued its barking, but Tariq felt now like he was seeing a desperate, caged animal. He pitied it and turned away.
He looked up one block and down another. He didn’t know which way to go. Picking a direction at random, he ran.