The Tired King of the Concrete Jungle

Like faded blank street signs the two men stood poised on the corner, wondering what they signified. Vacant, they gazed down at the chalk outlines on the sidewalk in which they were planted–not planted, but rather sprouting up like some weeping weeds buried alive by this postmodern mausoleum, not fighting their way up, nor towards any sun, only struggling for some breathing room.

One sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup, his face puckering into a wrinkled, contorted mask after each sip, bringing to mind Mr. Hyde, and then resculpting itself once the fluid was shoved down into his engorged blister of a belly. He was always aware of his fat belly, and of the comical awkwardness in his mein and his stiff, weeblic manner of meandering, and of the comments and stolen glances. The snickers and whipsers fell into corners of his eyes as he would order his third slice of pie. (He resented the sterotype that cops lived on donuts, for he adored all pastries indiscriminantly.)

But he walked nonetheless. He drank his obviously tongue-wrenching coffee, probably syrupy and stale, and he puckered and he swallowed and he walked. He stomached the poison, in hopes of immunity. There were more important things, after all, than his fat belly and his vampire penguin walk and his mumpy mug; there were more important things even than what he thought, where he shat or hung his hat. There were unborn babies in sterile rooms thrown away without names, there were clean-shaven wisemen in suits who carried small dogs and chuckled ebulliently, but whom you could not look in the eye, and there were grotesquely comical chalk lines on sidewalks, looking like a clumsy puppet ballet in pantomime, paused for a sandwich, reduced from animation to just that–a sandwich, the dregs of desperation flattened into two colorless dimensions as onto a TV screen. (He would have liked to switch it off, he wished it was in him to look away, to shut his eyes.) A sandwich on which rain would fall in cold torrents, in blind suicidal faith, washing only the frame of this image away, forming dusty puddles in which children witnessless would play hours later while their mothers slaved and prayed, worked and cursed.

"Sometimes I think I know," said the fat man.

"Say what?"

"I can just put everything aside and I don’t see nothin an’ I don’t think nothin, and yet I jus’ know."

"What the fuck do you know?" said the other man, a much thinner specimen, his hair pulled back in a greasy yet dry beaver’s topei. All women admired him, becoming uncontrollably ignorant in his presence, and the fat man knew this. He knew how this made the slicked-back thin man feel, too. But it did not matter. To the fat man, he was still just a man–a man in a beaver’s topei–who could pass a smoking, emaciated youth who is coughing out obscenities, on his way to the corner cafe, and God would just decide ot paint over him. He could one day look drab on the wall and God would just paint over him, or around him with white chalk.

"I know what it’s all about," the fat man reiterated without further explanation.

"You laugh and make jokes and drink coffee and smoke and cough over dead bodies, and you think you know anything?"

"I wasn’t joking. I was actually very serious," said the fat man, diffident but cautiously defensive.

"Don’t play dumb, fatso."

"I may be dumb, but I was serious."

"I know guys like you. I know what you’re like and I know when you’re playing dumb."

"I’m not playing–"

"Actually," slick interrupted, "I don’t think you’re smart enough to play dumb. But the fact is I heard about you. I heard about how you wack little kids with squirt guns and then laugh and joke with your partners and shit. And how you thumb-wrestle and twirl a yo-yo at murder scenes and then wipe the blood off on your pants, and listen to Bob Marley and shit in your car. Right after a fuckin’ drive-by. Yeah, I know about you, fucker. You don’t know shit. You don’t know, and you don’t feel. Look at you. Standin’ right over a fuckin’ ghost’s bed and sippin’ coffee and talking about what you know."

The fat man stared at his coffee cup and said nothing. He shuffled his feet slightly, put his empty hand in his pocket, and said nothing.

"How can you do that shit, man?" the thin man persisted. "Make jokes and laugh out loud with blood on your hands and under you shoes."

"Sometimes it’s the only way I get through the day. Sometimes hours for me are days, and it’s the only way."

The thin man’s face was serious for a few seconds. His eyes remained transfixed on the golden badge on the fat man’s plump chest, digging into the scratches there, as if trying to form new ones out of spite–spite for the fat man, and spite for himself. it should be polished . . .

Then he laughed–a breathy, snickering scowl of a laugh–his mind seemingly giving up on reason finally and slapping his eyeballs awake, back into reality, a reality he had to pretend to understand, just to get by. Just to get through the day.

"You ever have anybody bust into your house at night? Somebody who doesn’t know who you are? I bet I know what you do, too. Bury em’ in the fuckin yard, or beneath the porch. But, then you don’t have to. You boys stick together, don’t ya. I know you, man. I can see you tellin’ your grandkids about how you wacked this black fucker right in your own livin’ room, about how you grabbed the .45 from under the very lamp shade that shines on their little faces, and you’d see their intermingled fear and admiration and you’d feel real fuckin’ good about yourself, and then you’d make a joke, to cover up yourself. Like a blood-soaked blanket. I can see it."

The fat man said nothing. He looked up from his coffee cup at the face that spewed mortification at his own, like a cat blowing into a fish’s face. The beaver topei had been blown away with the thin man’s breath, the breath of the cat in a toilet. All that was left was his face, and then that too evaporated. It was only his eyes. The fat man, for a moment, floated on those eyes. Yes, he was certain. He knew the man’s face. What was more, he knew his eyes. They were his own.

"I can’t talk here, James. Not anymore," said the fat man. "Let’s go across the street, to the cafe."

"You’re in the wrong line of work, you know that shit, Bushmann?"

The fat man took one more swig of his cold coffee, but did not finish it. His face puckered, and a nauseous feeling overcame his gut. Soon it would not matter. Soon all his troubles would be gone.

The thin man turned and started across the street towards the cafe, hands in pockets. The fat man followed. He put his right hand on his piece, and unsnapped the leather latch on his holster. In his left hand he held the paper coffee cup. Old, cool fluid spilled from it casually onto the fat man’s shoes. He smiled. It was difficult to believe, after all this time, he had finally made up his mind to do it.

"A skeleton. That’s all that I have ever been. The skeleton of a sleeping clown. Am I the only one that sees through the makeup?" he thought to himself, and then even this final thought was gone. But he did not mind. Tomorrow, it would not matter. Tomarrow, nothing would matter. Life would go on without him, and nothing would matter.

He looked at the dry grease in the hair of the beautiful thin man. "Maybe I should tell him first. No man, even a clown, can die like that. It’s only fair that someone must be told. He should look in the lion’s throat. Yes, him I will tell. He will not dissuade me, but I will tell him," thought the fat man. His hand tightened on his pistol. Still he held the coffee cup.

He thought about wives and about kids, about sandwiches in refrigerators with masking tape labels on them that would never be eaten by the "pants-wearer." He thought about toilets that were never flushed. Each step he took was a day. But soon he would be better.

For a second, he thought the thin man knew, and that he was not looking back because he knew and did not want to look in the lion’s throat, but just to let it end, knowing there was nothing he could have done about it. Quick, just one blink of justice for a man who had watched it fail all his life. So what if he knew.

He gripped his pistol tighter, and stared at the dry grease in the thin man’s hair. "Just a man," he thought. "Just a man like me, with makeup and big shoes and a sandwich sitting at home in the refrigerator with a masking tape label. But it’s not for everyone. Not everyone has to get through." In his left hand he still held the empty coffee cup. But there were more important things. Like tales and children and chalk lines on the floors of cafe’s in which people ate sandwiches because they were afraid to step foot in their own homes. And astronauts and ozone and Bob Marley and Jesus.

And, after all, Jesus, too, was a lion.


Copyright 1995 by dustin hansen