Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mean Time

you should know is that he lives with fear now. It has a hand in every public act. It is the unspoken assumption between himself and everyone else. In his mind the next violent act had already occurred and was only waiting, lurking, before it took a temporal and spatial form and became real, more real.

He starts with 100 and is huffing and red-faced but not yet sweating, all the body water sealed inside and boiling. He faces the mirror and hates what he sees, softness and confusion, fear in the eyes while he pumps the dumbbell. With two hands he grasps the bar outside the weight and pumps, curling the metal and beating it against his chest on the way up, leaving red marks on his chest, until his arms cramp up and stop midway. He smiles and feels his body through the pain for the first time in years. It becomes the morning ritual. He feels it gives him some small edge he didn't have before, a measure of readiness to confront violence, the violence that is out there, that is sure to be out there.

He sees it in the faces, in faces everywhere, in the eyes mostly. A brazen stupidity, a look that reveals the despair of lives not worth living. In the bodies of the people on the train every day, in the streets and in stores, he studies them for signs of weakness, disgusted by their misshapen forms, the bodies of those who quit fighting back.

He studies the bodies of the strong and appreciates these, and in contrast hates the great herd of bodies even more, sees the softness in their neglected bodies, like out of shape slaves. He sees the self-hate it took to quit on themselves.

Most of all he knows they too are victims, and he hates sharing this status with them. He is in no way like them. They were victims and would be victims again. It was logical. In a city of victims, a city filled with victimizers.

The detective motions for him to sit down. He is at the precinct to look at mug shots. The detective goes to a green metal cabinet and comes back with three huge black looseleaf binders. He sets them down on the desk.
"Take your time," he says, "maybe you'll get lucky. All I ask is that you're sure. We can't pick him up unless you're certain."
He opens the first book, containing white males picked up for assault. A small radio is set to an oldies station, playing Doctor My Eyes: I have done all that I could, to see the evil and the good...

The faces in the pictures frighten him to a surprising degree. The color is startling in the photos taken at flashpoint, the expressions frozen yet animated. He forgets which face he came to look for. He takes his time with each photo, searching for some kind of meaning behind the faces. About half of the men are bleeding or scratched. Street fights, he figures; two people get into a scrape and the loser charges the other with assault when the cops come.

The faces are sneering, simpering, class clown types. They are petrified, stricken, blinded by the light of the camera and the graveness of being arrested. Eyes are bloodshot, shirts are ripped, hair is matted down with sweat or crusted with blood.

Halfway into the first book he sees a face he knows. It's an old schoolmate--no, a former teammate from little league baseball, waiting here to be discovered, to complete some shared circle. The image looks back at him, pleads its case, its reason for being here among the nameless faces, and that is enough for him to flip the page and continue.

Sometimes he goes back to spend more time with faces that haunt him, that demand another look.

He wants to find the face he came here for, but the faces are terrifying. They frighten him individually, they frighten him en masse. There are hundreds and hundreds, four pairs on each page, and page after page, book after book. Containing those who have been arrested, it hits him; not the ones who were never caught, lurking here in this borough, animals who prey on the weak and defenseless, these white males arrested for assault. Assaulters.

They are all guilty, he feels it. All of them. It's on their faces and he reads it, tuned into their meanness, their savagery, and he is overwhelmed. He pushes the book away from him and his head is in his hands, overcome by this world within a world his life his opened into.

He feels worse a day later. It has been a weak since the Incident, and the more he plays it out in his mind, the more he is sure he acted cowardly. The more he wishes he had thrown at least one punch back.

When he relives the moment, the whole image in his mind brings tears to his eyes, the senseless viciousness of it.

He is hit and screams and falls to the ground. He never sees the punch coming. He is stunned and yells at them.

It eats at him.

If he had to do it all over again, he's pretty sure he would have gone after one of them. If it had been two, or even three, but it was four of them...

He visualizes it often, the punches he would throw, the first good one and then a flurry to finish him off. He sees the naked fear in their eyes but doesn't stop, can't stop. His hands are hurting and his knuckles sore, and everywhere there's blood, but still they haven't stopped smirking, and until they do he can't stop winding up and driving his fist into the face of the one who hit him.

All he remembers is the scream, then falling, his red blood everywhere, their smiling faces as they walk on, looking back and laughing. He punches now to drown out the scream, to stamp out the smirk forever.

If the Incident goes unpunished, he reasons, then the crime is compounded.

On Sundays, he waits in front of his house with a baseball bat, hoping they will come by again, completing the circle.

Daily life, he discovers, swims on all around him, not realizing that everything has changed.

He took it with him from the precinct, this feeling he was surrounded by blissful meanness, outnumbered statistically and allegorically by wolves in men's masks. He is down and withdrawn and sunken, but the next day he keeps his appointment anyway, a blind date with a friend of a friend.

He knows he will be disappointed as he sits at the bar of a place near work, full of suits and cutout faces dancing in fake delight above them, barking out orders for drinks and smiling eerily in the dark glow.

He sees his friend come in and she is there with him, walking stiffly. She is short and dark and he doesn't like her right away. He sees the night stretch out before him and he can't imagine how it will be saved.

They go and sit and it is crowded and the music too loud for their voices to carry even the short distance across the table, and so they are saying everything twice. Names, where they work, where they live and how they know each other, what time they get out of work and what time they have to be at work. The drinks arrive and cigarettes are lit.

Her mouth is way too big for her face and it is a dumb mouth, cruel even, and her words are thankfully lost in the music as she sits across from him. They are asking him, who does this song? and though he knows he just sits there out of spite. He looks around the bar and studies the faces, squinting to make out the features better, spotting the victim types. Pink, doughy faces perched ludicrously on thin necks.

He wants to tell them of his pain but they are smiling at him when he turns back. Cruel thoughts of his own are forming in his mind as he watches her, imagining her mouth as it might scream in terror, her face contorted, her eyes frozen in a flashpoint of fear.

It is a long time since he spoke last, and they are watching him more intently now, expecting something from him he just can't give.
"He's real quiet," his friend tells her.
"I knooooow!" she says. "Are you all right?"
He picks his drink up and looks into it for just a moment before throwing it at her face. She shrieks as he expected and throws her hands up, rising halfway from her seat and stopping, statue-like.
"You're a real asshole!" she shouts, and his friend is standing across the table, pushing him.
"What'd you do that for, schmuck?"
He is the only one smiling now as he grabs for his friend's shirt, ripping the buttons open. The music continues but the bar is still now as the punch comes, square on the chin, spilling him onto the floor. He looks up into the face of his friend and then to where she is sitting, her face shaking with laughter as she hides her mouth with her hands.

-- BW

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