Midnight Peripatetic

 
             He’d have drowned, without me.
                             -Carl Phillips
 
 

They kept saying leave nothing out, I can still hear them saying
leave nothing out while I went on talking without a break
about the incident in the parking lot behind 7-Eleven.
Not really a parking lot, not the main one anyway,
but a lot behind that lot, behind the store, where clerks unloaded
palettes, broke down boxes, smoked cigarettes and weed and, yeah,
I remember, parked their own busted-up cars. So it was a lot,
sort of, and next door something #5. Not right next door, but
a little down the hill, to the left, if you are in the main lot
for customers, facing the 7-Eleven, to the left
maybe thirty-five or forty yards, like a good breakaway
run by a halfback, not half the length of a football field but close,
China Palace, no, China Garden, China Garden #5.
They had cats in that lot, by the dumpster, at least two litters,
coon cats and dirty tabbies, mackerels and spotteds, to be exact,
and some of the clerks said they, the Chinese, fed those cats so
they could then feed them to the customers, call it duck or chicken,
sweet and sour, stay or to go. Really, just one clerk said so: Jimmy.
Jimmy, I’ll get to Jimmy. But behind that lot, and behind
the lot of 7-Eleven, behind the other lots
of our little town, of the laundromat and package store and
the boarded-up Italian bakery, there was a drop-off,
a little cliff, a kind of ledge, something you could stand at the edge of
or even lie down on, your elbows right on the lip
of the precipice and you could stare out. Or down, into
the Mad River, flowing underneath the lights of the town
and the sky at night like some thought you thought you’d buried years ago.
That’s where I pushed him. Where I shoved him, I should say, after
I hit him. Sucker-punched him, to be fair. With my right fist, though
I’m left-handed. I never understood that part, even when
they said leave nothing out, nothing, I said I struck him
with my right fist, but the fact is I’m left-handed. The fact is
he would have drowned, without me.
                                                           I have to walk in order to think,
I’ve always been this way, I told them, since that seemed important,
me needing to walk in order to think, and not just about
the incident but also about my girlfriend, school, my grades,
very good that year, all A’s and one B, in art, an elective
my senior year, something for fun and a nagging interest,
something to not have to think about too much, or if you are walking
and thinking about something else, there it is, the sudden and strange
thought, I would like to try my hand at painting, or college
is not for me, or I would like to kiss Abby who is not
my girlfriend, and I hate the Beatles and all my parents’ music
and I will tear the “Imagine” poster off my wall as soon
as I get home. It seems like you should get an A in something
that won’t hurt anyone. I told them this, and even though they said
leave nothing out I knew they would soon have my report cards,
my one speeding ticket, my karate trophies, my condoms,
my journal I had stopped writing in for no apparent reason
in the third grade. But I had kept the journal. I told them
this but they said get back to the incident. We were inside
a small room, not as I had imagined it, just an office,
like my father’s, a few university degrees and photos
framed on the wall, a coat rack, a desk lamp with a gold chain
and green sheath. The sergeant sat next to me, instead of behind
the desk, so that when I tried to say everything I could
remember it felt like some invisible judge was in the chair
behind the desk, and the sergeant, sitting beside me, talking
directly yet softly, with full eye contact, his knees touching
mine, once or twice, just brushing them in his pleated navy
police pants, was deferring to this unseen presence, this absence,
doing only his duty of questioning and transcribing,
in a yellow legal pad that was almost out of paper,
there were maybe three or four sheets left as he was writing
quickly, leaving nothing out, the pad bent a little as he wrote,
pressed the Bic pen into paper, and I wondered what would happen
when he got to that last yellow sheet, to the bottom of it,
a phrase he in fact said, when they had first brought me in, uncuffed,
I wasn’t sure why, they wanted to get to the bottom of it
and so I should leave nothing out, what would happen then, the last
sheet flipped and the legal pad bare, just a flimsy piece of cardboard,
the burgundy chair behind the desk tall and empty and oiled
in the dim light?
                          And so I walked in my mind, I mean, in my mind
I walked, in order to think, but I did not walk behind
the 7-Eleven, or anywhere along the embankment,
the ridge, nowhere near the Mad River, but instead in my mind
I walked around Nig’s Pond, a horrible name, I knew, I know,
it wasn’t until junior high that I understood the name,
the pond called Cumberland Pond until the early ‘70s
when a black boy drowned there, in the pond, no suspects, an innocent
drowning, so they said, they say even today, though no witnesses,
no investigation, no coroner or D.A., the boy’s
parents and sisters moving away, just days after the wake,
though some say there was no funeral, not in this town, anyway.
I walked around and around and around Nig’s Pond, which I still
call by that name, if only in my head, to be honest,
to not look away, to leave nothing out and in fact that is where
I met the man I later struck. The preacher man,
the people in the town called him, those who called him anything
at all, though most called him nothing, as if he weren’t there,
though he was, had been for years, decades, no one seemed to know
his family, his age, not even his Christian name, the preacher man.
He wore dark denim jeans and a jacket, a suit jacket, I mean,
and he carried a briefcase in one hand and a Bible in
the other, under the arm, the right one, I believe, the Bible,
and maybe that’s why he said, I heard him say, though he was talking
only to himself, as he walked around and around Nig’s Pond
he said don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,
or was it, is it, the other way around, it’s from the Bible,
I know, and the Bible the preacher man carried he carried
under his right arm, tucked into his armpit, I do remember,
and was he saying to not let the Bible know what the briefcase
was doing, or had he gotten it backward, gotten it wrong,
was it don’t let the briefcase know what the Bible was doing,
what important documents did the preacher man carry
in his briefcase, what old photos of family, what passages
had he bookmarked in scripture, for when he sat down,
the one time he sat down on one of two benches on the gravel
path that circles Nig’s Pond, one bench facing the other, at the tips,
the narrowest parts of the pond, for it’s an oval, not really
a circle, he sat on one bench and I sat on the other,
and to pretend I wasn’t watching him I looked at my watch,
11:58, p.m., it was almost midnight
and I’d taken a walk to think, not a habit newly formed
but unexamined, until now, as the preacher man began
to rifle through his Bible, he sat on the bench directly
opposite mine, facing me, except his face was in the Bible,
he was looking for something, I could see he had dog-eared
and bookmarked various passages of scripture, his favorites
or maybe his least favorites, those passages that tormented him,
that kept him awake at night so that he must reckon with them,
but he couldn’t find what he was looking for, and he mumbled,
he muttered, he stammered, I was too far away to hear the words,
maybe fifty-five or sixty yards, but I could hear the struggle,
across the pond, not an echo, for there was nothing to echo
off except me, not substantial enough, too thin, not having
eaten for days, no, the sound carried like bird calls across the pond,
across the water, I don’t know the name, echolocation
maybe, though that may not be the sound but rather the detection
of the sound, by birds, or bats, circling in the air, in the dark,
and the preacher man had stood, I hadn’t noticed, and he was circling,
or ovaling, we could call it ovaling, to be exact,
he had resumed his ovaling of Nig’s Pond, and instead of standing
too I kept my seat, I don’t know why, and in four or five minutes
he was passing me, as if I weren’t there at all, just an empty
bench, he passed the bench, briefcase in one hand, Bible in the other,
not in the armpit but now at the hip, his work boots, I noticed
he was wearing Timberland boots, caked with dirt, saying to not
let one hand know what the other is doing.
                                                                    Do not walk away
early enough and it is suddenly too late and you
can no longer walk away. Jimmy was smoking in the lot,
the rear lot of the 7-Eleven, breaking down boxes,
and as always, at least on these nights I’d found myself walking
to think, at night, as always he starts up with the insults, insults
made to sound like flattery. Tell me everything, he says, knowing
there is nothing to tell. Tell me, did you eat that pussy last night,
did you hit that pussy, did you hit it, he asks, knowing my eye
has already strayed from Alexis and there is no sex
to speak of, not for a couple weeks anyhow, but he passes
me the joint and I take it, into my lungs, and I know the night
is just beginning. Jimmy works graveyard, he worked the graveyard
shift, high-school drop-out though he was close, so close to graduating,
to an athlete scholarship at a D-2 school down south,
he took the graveyard shift instead. His family a good family,
not wealthy but not poor, blue collar, as my father might call it,
though Jimmy’s collar was green, 7-Eleven green, the reddish-
orange logo over the heart, or near it, he says he’s sick
of bitches and why don’t we drive out to the beach this weekend,
not the beach we normally go to, high school parties and bonfires,
but the beach over the border, in Massachusetts, no more
bitches, he says, or not these bitches anyway, get ourselves
some pussy, he says, holding in the smoke, deep in the lungs,
then breathing out a long plume into the cold night air, some new
pussy. Dirty language, son, dirty language, the voice behind us.
It’s the preacher man. Oh snap, it’s the preacher man, says Jimmy,
taking another toke, the preacher man, says Jimmy, like he’s
some old friend, a late-night pal, expected to show up at this hour,
normal, a routine hang, out in the lot behind the lot, Jimmy
looks over at the Chinese restaurant, sloping down maybe
thirty-five to forty yards, its lights off except for a rear light,
security light, lighting up a few empty crates and also,
a little, the dumpster, but no cats are to be seen, must be
inside, says Jimmy, inside the dumpster, or inside the restaurant,
boiled and skinned and boned, wrapped in plastic in the walk-in,
General Tso’s Cats, he says, laughing, get away from these bitches,
he says, some new pussy, he says, and you, he says, looking me
up and down, as if the preacher man were no longer there, or
was always there, why you started dressing like a wigger,
says Jimmy, I mean damn, tie your shoelaces, and look at your hair,
you got zeked, he says, zeked. Ezekiel, says the preacher man,
son of Buzzy, despised by the Jews, may God strengthen him,
says the preacher man, no son of his own, no heir, his young wife
dead, but then the cherubim, four pinwheeling swords of flame,
says the preacher man, and today we have the bread, if nothing
else, unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils and millet
and spelt, Ezekiel, chapter four, verse nine. The air had changed,
and so had Jimmy’s face. I looked closely at the preacher man,
the ragged sharkskin jacket, the dark denim jeans, the muddy
Timberlands, and before it was suddenly too late to walk
away the preacher man walked away.
                                                              Thus, the first incident.
I record it to leave nothing out. Yet there was a second
incident, which is the incident they insisted I recount
in the office, the green light, the burgundy chair empty
and waiting to make its judgment. But to leave nothing out,
after the preacher man left, I followed him. Down past the dumpster
behind the Chinese restaurant, a skunk skulking around
the bushes, the preacher man calling it by name, Smiley,
past Smiley the skunk and the lot behind the laundromat,
then a ways, maybe seventy-five to eighty yards past
the laundromat until we, the preacher man and I, stopped,
near a heavy plastic tarp weighted with rocks on one end
and the other flap tied to a shopping cart filled with milk jugs
filled with water. I could hear the Mad River, flowing below
even in winter, even in the freezing cold the Mad River
flows. Only once, I remember, the surface glittered with ice.
He talked to me then, about school, my grades, if I had a girlfriend,
as if he were my father, or, rather, someone else’s father,
a friend’s father, making normal small talk. Then he turned to me,
took a seat on a log stump, and then situated another
log stump, very smooth, very polished, almost like something bought
at an art gallery, an antique shop, something my mother might
put in the den, just to have it there, the preacher man positioned
this other log in front of him, and before I could take a seat,
just assuming, I am embarrassed to say, assuming it was
for me, to sit and tell him about my grades, and karate,
and how I’d rather kiss Abby than Alexis, the preacher man
takes a fishing tackle box from under the tarp, opens it,
and places a spoon on the smooth top of the stump, takes a hammer
from the tarp and starts hammering on the spoon. He does this
for a minute or so, a steady hammering, but just thudding,
a bass line, nothing shrill, the hammer must have had a rubber head,
it must have been a mallet, like at the doctor’s office, and each time
he hammers the spoon, at least the first few times, it jumps, a little,
like a knee, or, rather, the leg below the knee, a reflex,
a little jolt, and then after a minute or so he looks up
and says, Well, here you go. He hands me the spoon, and I have to walk
closer to him, still seated on his log, and I take the spoon,
now curled, curled in on itself. A ring. Try it out, he says,
and I know that means to try it on each finger until I find
the best finger, and I do, and it’s my pointer finger,
or index finger, the more proper name. I delight in weakness,
he says, in insults, he says, in hardships, in persecutions,
in difficulties, for when I am weak, says the preacher man,
then I am strong. This part, said the sergeant, his knee brushing my knee,
leaning close, is this a direct transcript? Is this what the victim
actually said? And I thought, before I spoke, victim, he called
the preacher man a victim, and yet, if he, the sergeant, had listened,
or had he ears to listen, as the preacher man might have said,
he would have known the preacher man was strong, in his weakness he was
strong and so he was no victim, despite what happened after
he gave me the spoon, the ring. What happened is that Jimmy started
laughing, Jimmy had followed us, had followed me following
the preacher man, twenty yards behind me, if I were to guess,
and here he is saying isn’t this the fucking best, how special,
is that like some sort of friendship ring, some sort of engagement
ring, you a couple fags now, what is this that I’m looking at?
Dirty language, says the preacher man, dirty language, son.
Jimmy approaches, gets close enough to blow smoke in my face,
if he still had his joint, but he doesn’t, he doesn’t blow smoke
in my face, his hands are empty, and so, now, is his face,
the way it looked at the end of the first incident, and now
in this moment I know this is the second incident,
and that these incidents are one, this night is the incident.
Spelt and barley and shit, spits Jimmy, toward the preacher man.
I can dig that. But tell me, he says, tell me why they gotta
force this hippie shit, this granola crap, on people, if I want
a Wendy’s burger I’ll have a Wendy’s burger, if I choose
to eat my breakfast at work, a hot dog and Slurpee the end
of each shift, fifteen minutes with the door locked, a few minutes
to myself, some quiet, the only fucking time in my life
I get to think, then who says I need to eat lentils and barley
and spelt? But, by this time, the preacher man has already stowed
away his hammer and tackle box, his log stumps, sliding each
under the tarp, and he has begun to walk away, his Bible
in his right hand, his armpit, toward the brush and sparse winter trees
on the embankment, the ledge, overlooking the Mad River.
And we follow, though, this time, Jimmy follows the preacher man,
and I follow Jimmy.
                                   Jimmy has continued the discussion
about granola and flax and is yelling, arms stiff at his sides,
on the ledge, the edge of the precipice, and the preacher man
is no longer interested, no longer listening, it seems,
staring out, over the Mad River, maybe toward the next town,
the Still River, an illogical name for a river,
impossible, really, he seems to be staring beyond this town,
this world, and then Jimmy pokes him in the shoulder, from behind,
not rough but also not friendly, almost the way you might poke
a mannequin, uncanny in its likeness, so realistic,
or a wax figure in a museum, when no one is looking,
to see if it might move, even though you know it won’t, it can’t,
the preacher man will not budge, but he does say, to the water
below him, looking down, he says, Son. That’s all. Son. Jimmy turns
the preacher man around, taking both shoulders, swiveling him
around, and says, I ain’t no one’s son, you crazy bum, and that’s
when I lunge. Without thinking I lunge to punch Jimmy, to clock
him but I slip, in the mud, my shoes unlaced and tripping,
tripping forward, and my fist, the left one, though I am right-handed,
catches the preacher man in the temple, his left, to my right,
and though I barely graze him, the ring on my left hand grazes
his face, Jimmy steps forward and pushes him, the preacher man,
and he stumbles backward, tumbles, into the night.
                                                                                As I did,
out of my chair, the room no longer dimly lit but black, then
my eyes open, my father standing over me, his open hand,
his left, before him, my face burning as if held in ice water,
submerged, dunked, my father saying leave nothing out, nothing,
what about Jimmy, he’s the one, my father says, my father
who had been standing in the doorway the whole time, now sitting
in the burgundy chair, his back rigid, saying Jimmy is
the one to blame, just say it, he struck the old man, he has nothing
to live for anyway, he’s trash, just say it, but the sergeant
now has my father by both shoulders, the sergeant is telling him
to calm down, he is speaking both directly and calmly,
almost whispering, saying calm down, saying we’ll take care of this.
The office is dimly lit, the sergeant’s office, in his home,
I realize, at that moment, he’d taken me to his home, after
the incident, the second incident, after I’d pulled
the preacher man from the Mad River, carried him up the hill,
over my shoulder, I’m not sure how, after I get him up
the hill, over the embankment, Jimmy nowhere to be seen,
after I get him back under his tarp, with his logs and tackle
box, the preacher man’s home, he now lying on his back, I hear
him, as I lie on my stomach, right beside him, breathing now,
steadily, just a bit of blood, beginning to cake, at the temple,
and above the eye, the preacher man says, just once, Son, go,
he says. And so I walk, the mile and a half to the police
station, trying to think, walking in order to think but nothing,
there is nothing there, I barely remember that walk, except
that once I get to the station, just as I open my mouth,
the sergeant takes a look at me and tells me to stop, he holds up
a hand and says stop, then takes me away, uncuffed, in a car
without sirens, without lights.
                                               You can lie down, on your stomach,
stretched out with your face in your hands, and stare out. What would you see?
If looking left to right, swiveling your head, slowly, like a coin-op
camera for tourists, or these days a phone, in this panorama
you’d see houses, ordinary white houses, and above, white
steeples of the first Methodist church, then, swiveling slowly,
the VA clinic, houses, more houses, trees, of course, spiny
in winter, maples and oaks mostly, maybe a pine or spruce
here and there, the sky, of course, often gray, usually gray, but now
suddenly blue, if you keep looking, looking harder and deeper,
the boarded-up KFC, off the interstate, bad location
but now they say it might become a medical marijuana
operation, or hospital, no one is sure, more houses,
to the right past the highway, swiveling, the new high school,
the new football stadium, then a family farm, been there
generations, hogs and chickens, a field of alfalfa,
then the dam, built in 1955, after the hurricanes,
after the flood, they dammed up the Mad River, to keep us safe,
though some say the river is now a cesspool, unsafe, to drink from,
of course, but also to swim in, to wade in, though, if its name
is dramatic, ominous, the Mad River, even dammed
it is maybe five feet tall, or deep, I mean, where it runs through
town it is five feet at most, shorter than most men, full-grown men,
and even if it were shorter, or shallower, I mean, say
four feet, or three, or four inches even, three inches, a baby
can drown in that, they say, in an inch of water an infant
could drown, face first, and that’s how I found him, the preacher man,
in maybe six inches of water, the shallowest part
of the river, though, therefore, the most dangerous, to be face-
first in the rocks and trash, beer cans, twigs, broken glass, and so when
I pulled him by the shoulders, the chest, trying to get him onto
his back, when I finally got a good look at him, his face,
he was cut everywhere, it seemed, his face bloody, blood in his nose,
his eyes, his mouth, and so I took the sleeve of my hoodie,
the whole forearm of it, all I had, and wiped his face, and wiped,
until I saw he was only cut in one or two spots,
above an eye, the left, his right, and at his temple, his face
looked older, at least sixty, maybe sixty-five, someone able
to get discounts at the movies, at restaurants, at grocery stores,
if he ever dared enter such a place, ask for such charity.
As he did today, after all these years, fourteen to be exact.
I was finishing up some paperwork in the office,
and was about to check on the new clerk to see if she’d changed
her register, her shift was over, but she’d begun the habit
of talking with the next cashier, a boy about her age, maybe
a little older, I’d seen it before and there was no harm
there, but of course I’m the manager, the night manager,
and if we’re going to keep this business open all night
we need to keep things moving, keep things on schedule, corporate
says this is a trial run, we need to prove we can stay
twenty-four-seven, in a town like this, the population
just enough to qualify, for corporate to take a chance,
we need to exceed all expectations, they like to say,
and there I am, on the wall, framed, Manager of the Month,
February, I try not to look but I do confess some pride,
a little, and so when the old man came up to me, from behind,
and poked me in the shoulder, I knew right away who it was.
He had seen my photo on the wall, and recognized me,
age thirty-one and already going bald, but he still crowned
with a full head of hair, silver as his jacket, but, of course,
it wasn’t him. The preacher man had passed, yes, he’d died,
several years after the incident, and though there had been no wake,
no funeral, no witnesses to the death, just a dead man
under a tarp, which was left there a few days then taken down,
the Chinese restaurant buying the lot, opening a new
business, a Mexican restaurant, same owners, Mexican-
Chinese menu, the preacher man was cremated and I offered,
to the puzzlement of the crematorium, their nonchalant
handing over of the box, not even an urn, I offered
to take it. I threw it on a winter’s day into the river,
the sky blue and the next town over, where I had done my time
at the juvie, six months, on the fourth floor overlooking
the Still River, then a year of community service, I’d
insisted on that, though my father and the sergeant had kept
their eyes on me in that dimly lit room I’d kept my left hand
in the pocket of my hoodie, as the preacher man had advised,
I had not let them know what my left hand had done. I had thought
that was the right thing to do, for Jimmy, I mean, he was trash,
as my father said, the whole town thought so, and that is the kind
of incident that could have defined him, his entire life,
but not for someone like me, or so I had thought, and so I did
my time, I had insisted, and Jimmy went off to college,
after all, I have heard, and here I am, walking in order
not to think, late at night, early in the morning, aisle #9.
The old man comes up from behind, and if he reaches out because
he feels something, something radiating from me, or if he only
wants to find some simple item for his home, a picture frame
or garden hose, I do not know, I will never know, for the night
clerk, the one who needs to change her register, the one I have
sometimes imagined as a daughter, or even someday, a wife,
I confess, has already come between us. She must have seen me,
while chatting up the boy, at her register, #5, starting
to get her bills and receipts in order, her silver and copper
coins rolled, she must have looked up and seen me, suddenly standing
alone, at 3:55 a.m., in aisle #9,
a hammer in my hand, a rubber head, what’s called a mallet,
and, even from that distance, saw that I was overcome.
 
 
 

Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO, 2014). His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, New England Review, Indiana Review, McSweeney's Quarterly, The Collagist, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. He cofounded and coedits the literary journal Waxwing and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with his wife and daughter.