It was another cold night, but at least it wasn’t yet raining, thought Marco. He rubbed his hands over the makeshift garbage-can fire that he fed with newspapers and empty cartons. While buses roared and taxis swerved by, Marco beheld the city’s flickering lights, its majesty and heard its sins, its secrets. He felt its sorrow.
He heard the clicking of a woman’s heels. The woman nearly passed by him, but then turned around, opened her purse and lay a five dollar bill in his cardboard box. “Please Help Me Eat Today” was written in thick red marker strokes. They then locked gazes, her blue eyes twinkling in the lapping flames of the garbage-can fire. First, she curved her mouth down in a gesture of empathetic despair, then smiled as if saying “there, there.”
“God bless you,” said Marco, as the woman spun around and walked away. Her heels clacking like a clock ticking out the moments of his life. The woman resembled his ex-wife, he thought. Down to the primness of her purse, so dainty and smart, matching her slim light turquoise shoes.
His ex-wife taught him about rejection – what it feels like to be given less priority by someone. She insulted him for not being ambitious.
“Why do you insist on pursuing your Ph.D. even when’s it’s destroying us,” he asked, one night, pathetically, holding his whiskey glass close to his chest. She’d taken extra night and weekend classes without discussing it with him first. It didn’t matter how much it cost, or how it sucked the life out of them.
“You’re not doing anything with your life, so why shouldn’t I make use of it,” she answered. And as cold-hearted, as that answer was, it was true. She devoted every last moment to her research. Her hunger was limitless and savage. She’d eat the raw heart out of his chest to complete her studies. She would run a tractor over his head if it got in the way. Putting him down like that became the impetus for him to get his Master’s degree and earn an A in every class. To do something with his life. This was when the whiskey started to burn through his heart. This is when he began to understand how fragile and wounded a person could be.
The phrase “not doing anything with your life” festered and grew in him like cancer. He heard it sometimes first thing in the morning. Or it’d wake him like a bolt of lightning in the dead of night, leaving him in a cold sweat. There were days he repeated, “not doing anything with your life” in his head until it ground him into a state of paralysis. He saw the phrase written in a puddle of whiskey at the bottom of the glass.
Then one day he found himself sleeping on the streets, penniless, unable to make the simplest plan. He inhabited the phrase, like an insect in a cocoon.
Lost in reverie, two men stumbled by him. They were talking loudly, shoving each other, obviously drunk.
“You don’t have any guts,” the tall one shouted, laughing.
“I couldn’t ask her out,” the short, portly one replied. “She didn’t want to talk to either of us.”
“You just don’t know how to talk to women,” slurred the other, then noticing Marco.
“And what do we have here?” barked the tall one.
“Just another street bum,” answered the friend, snarling. “Another homeless pig lurking in a dark alley, looking for a hand-out.” He then reached into his pocket and threw coins at Marco, some of them hitting him in the face.
Marco said thank you anyway. And then of course for a few seconds, he fumed with hatred. These idiots didn’t know that he had gone to undergraduate school on a scholarship. And that he graduated with near-perfect grades. That he could recite Shakespeare Sonnets, Milton, and Yeats upon request. I bet they can’t recite Beowulf in Old English, he thought.
Then that other feeling came over him. That feeling of dread, of a bottomless sadness. It rushed in on him like a wicked wind and washed over his body, making him quake with chills. Marco’s mind was flooded with the images and cries of an unknown man hiding under his living room table, clawing out his eyes, and curled up like a frightened animal. The man begged for mercy, pleaded to be left alone, not to be whipped or stabbed again. Who was that man? That man, Marco knew, was every man, every person. That man was these men. And it was him, too. That man was every woman ever raped, ever child abused, or abandoned, and every soldier murdered in war.
Marco was alone again. The two drunk friends had long moved on.
While the city fell asleep, its muffled howls swallowed behind closed doors, its silences raged like muted thunder, clapping and cracking. As the rain began to fall, Marco’s eyes teared. Every tear contained the heart of a defeated soul, brought to the brink by disaster, by failure.
Each tear ran slow and thick down his cheek like blood.