Posted on 01 April 2009.
When my friend Emily and I left the movie theater, it was after eleven. The streets were still crowded despite the sub-zero air that changed with my breath, a visual reassurance to myself and others that yes, we were still breathing. Still alive. I pulled on my gloves, tan leather ones that my mom gave me for Christmas last year, and almost walked into a short, brown-eyed, Hispanic man in a puffy navy coat who stood on the sidewalk outside the old theater doors.
“Please,” he was saying.
We locked eyes immediately, this puffy-coated man and I, and it seemed he was waiting there just for me. As if I had met him, had known him before. Emily and I had been talking lightly about the movie, a biopic that—as always—seemed too neat to be accurate, readying ourselves for our imminent parting of ways. And then there was this puffy-coated man.
“Please, does anyone have a phone I can use?”
He said “anyone” but was looking directly at me, so I touched Emily’s arm softly, suggesting that she stop with me.
image courtesy of flickr.com user D’Arcy Norman “Yeah, sure, here.” I pulled out my cell phone, a bright blue, sleek thing that my brother picked out for me over the summer. My brother had a matching one, but in white. It slid open sideways to reveal a qwerty keyboard, and I often texted him silly nonsenses, mostly about our mother. Sometimes I saw our phone—in blue and in white, and in green too—in Sprint commercials on TV, which was exciting because I’d never had a phone whose company thought it was worth advertising.
“All right, all right, all right, thank you,” the puffy-coated man said. “Don’t worry, I won’t run off with it.”
“Are you walking back home now?” I turned back to Emily.
“Um, yeah.” She seemed taken aback by my split-second decision, unsure how to address it just then. Her tone indicated that I would be hearing from her later. “Yeah, I’m going this way.”
“I’m headed in the other direction anyway,” I explained. “I’m supposed to meet some people at Circus. Karaoke night. But I’ll catch you later?”
“Yeah, have fun.” She didn’t believe me, I could tell, and her eyes searched my face for some indication that I was still in my right mind. She didn’t seem to find it, but I hugged her anyway, resting my chin on the top of her head. She was probably the same height as the puffy-coated man.
“Keep warm, sweetie.”
She paused for a moment longer, and then walked away, leaving me alone in a crowd with the puffy-coated man.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I decided that English was the puffy-coated man’s second language. He probably learned it very young, maybe when his family moved here as migrant farmers like so many other Mexicans in southeastern Michigan. Apple picking in the fall, corn in the summer, cherries starting as early as spring. His language had the informality of a native speaker but the distinct shortness, the almost over-precision, of a tongue that is more comfortable talking much faster and filling up all that empty space in between words. In his mouth, English seemed so bare, so insufficient.
“There. Thank you.” He handed me back my phone. “Thank you so much. I was standing out here a long time.”
“Not a problem.” I nodded my head at him, dropped the phone back in my pocket and started heading west down Liberty, toward the bar where my friends were already waiting for me.
Awkwardly, the man started in the same direction.
“Would you like to walk with me?” I asked him, pausing so he could catch up. “Where are you headed?”
“Oh, this guy I met, the guy I had to call on the phone, he’s meeting me on Main Street,” he said. “His car got a flat tire and he said if I could come up half the money to get it fixed, he would give me a ride.”
“Well I’m walking that way, too. I can take you to Main Street.” I had to slow my stride considerably to keep pace with him. I introduced myself.
“Mickey,” he answered.
“Nice to meet you, Mickey. So where are you off to tonight?”
Mickey needed to get back to Canton, to an apartment where he took care of his mother who suffered from PTSD. She was raped years ago, he said, and she has never been the same. She only worked part-time as a waitress—everything was a strain on her condition. He was a comfort to her now, he said, and they ate dinner and watched Jeopardy! together in the evenings. In spite of myself, I tried to imagine his undoubtedly tiny, probably a little overweight mother sitting in a Red Wings T-shirt and black sweatpants, watching TV and nibbling on a sandwich. I reluctantly wondered what this woman thought about while she waited for her son to come home, which shows she was ignoring to worry about him. Half-self-consciously, I let myself get sucked into Mickey’s story. He was a jester juggling for the good grace of the court, a street musician playing for a few spare quarters, a bard singing for a meal. A novelist writing a best-seller—we all have our own ways.
I was pretty certain that Mickey’s story wasn’t true; he gave it away too easily, those little pieces of himself. If it were true, it wasn’t too dear to him, the plight of his mother living in her worst nightmare—maybe he had become accustomed to it, as sad as that was, or maybe it was a part of his past that he didn’t think about much anymore, just used when he thought he needed to. It must be a slippery business, though, singing for your supper. I hoped he had something that wasn’t a commodity, something that wasn’t sad words for a stranger’s sympathies and a few minutes on her phone.
I changed the subject.
“What are you doing out this way then?”
“I got in a fight with a friend,” he said. “We visited some people here, some people who used to work with us—I work at Belle Tire—they had a party, and we came to visit. But then me and him, we got into a fight. It was stupid, but I am very stubborn, and I don’t like people talking…bad about me. You know?”
“He shouldn’t be disrespecting me like that,” Mickey went on. “I shouldn’t have to be quiet when he disrespects me like that, no matter who’s driving the car.”
The few streets between State Street and Main Street were sparsely lit. There were shops, yes, but most of them looked closed. There were a few university buildlings, but those were dark on a Friday night as well. The street lights reflected unevenly off the torn-up flesh around Mickey’s mouth. His lips were so chapped I could just barely make out the white scar in the top corner. Just like mine, it lighted up an angry white against pink when he smiled or made the long E sound. Just like mine, which I got taking a diving stick to the face at our public pool. I wondered how Mickey got his.
“I can’t believe he just left you here,” I offered when he became less forthcoming about his situation. “Are you going to see him when you get back home?”
“Oh, he better hope not, you know? You can’t just leave someone someplace far away without no way to get back. Man, I tell you, I don’t know what I’m gonna do to him if I see him again.”
Mickey didn’t sound very angry, but the vagueness of his description suggested that we were skirting something truthful here. Something important. His eyes were soothing, black coffee on a chilly morning. Round and cozy and earnest like dark buttons sewn into the head of a child’s doll, set in his bubbly face whose age I couldn’t guess. His eyes reminded me of an encounter in a book I was reading, Saturday by Ian McEwan, whose neurosurgeon protagonist casually meets the gaze of a street sweeper. He feels strongly bound to the sweeper, connected by a string or a seesaw maybe—I couldn’t remember which. I knew that feeling the neurosurgeon had, that discovery of myself in people I brushed past on the sidewalk, in the halls at school, in the movie theater. A million little reflections, like snowflakes capturing moonlight.
Mickey wasn’t going to tell me what his fight was about. Curious as I was, I was relieved about that.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” I said. “My temper sometimes gets me into trouble too. Mostly with my sister. I once stuck gum in her hair, in the back really close to her head so that she couldn’t cut it out without taking out a huge chunk. She has this really long, really straight, shiny, auburn hair. Really pretty. I thought she was going to kill me.”
He laughed, more relaxed now, no longer feigning anger. “Yeah, family can get like that. The first girl I had a crush on, she lived down the street from us and her name was Nicole, she and her sister were always playing pranks on each other. Ripping each other’s dolls heads off and hiding stuff from each other and all that. I would always help Nicole and sometimes she blamed it all on me, but I didn’t care. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Well, when I was seven. You kind of remind me of her, but you don’t look very much alike.”
“Huh. Funny how that happens,” I said.
“Yeah.” He paused, looking down at his feet for the first time since I met him. Mickey hadn’t intended to include Nicole in his song and dance. I wondered if she had been involved in the fight with his friend who drove the car. “So did your sister have to cut off her hair?” he asked me.
“No. We actually got it all out with cold water.”
“Wait, you helped her get it out?”
I looked at Mickey, realizing for the first time this absurdity in my story. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Now that’s funny.” He looked down at his feet again and chuckled into the puffy coat.
Main Street was all of a sudden upon us, and we tried to wrap up the conversation tidily.
“Well, I turn here,” Mickey said. “That’s the car, right up the block. Would you like to walk a little farther?”
I thought about it. “Nah, I’d better not. People waiting for me. You know.”
I extended my hand toward him. “It was nice to talk to you, Mickey. Good luck getting home.”
“It was nice to talk to you too, Erika.” My glove was lost in his black mitten, but his grip was soft, gentle. He crossed the street to the right, and I watched him from the corner, waiting for my light to change.
“Oh, Erika.” I was sitting at a table in a loud bar on First, munching on stale popcorn and sipping PBR from a bottle. A friend of mine was singing a Billy Joel song on the stage and almost everyone was dancing on the crowded floor. Only the Bens sat with me, my own personal audience of disapproval. “Oh, Erika. Bad idea.”
The Bens were a funny pair. They had both gone to Kalamazoo College with me, two years ahead. I had known the first Ben from the student dance company; the second Ben had grown up in the same town as I did—we were born on the same street—but we didn’t meet until orientation week at Michigan Law. We became fast friends. The second Ben was dark and thin and very odd, prone to getting lost in discussions about Battlestar Galactica. The first Ben was light and a little less thin but just as odd, though he was much better at hiding it.
“No, it wasn’t like that,” I explained to the first Ben, the back-and-forth movement of his freckles making me a little dizzy. The second Ben cocked his eyebrows, twisted up his face skeptically. “He was very sweet, he told me about…”
I stopped myself.
“He told me about his mother who has PTSD. He had quite the sad story.”
“I’m sure he did,” the second Ben said.
“Just don’t do that again,” the first Ben said.
“No, of course not,” I said, trying to smile prettily. The corner of my top lip tugged a little with the exertion, lighted up angry-white I’m sure, but, in the half-light from the karaoke stage, I doubted the Bens could see it.