Too Old to Throw a Ball This Heavy
“That darned crazy Jack,” I said, laughing and shaking my head. “I wonder where in the world he can be. He ought to know I’d come in some place like this and wait for him.”
“He probably had an accident,” she said. “In fact, I think I read something about it.”
“Huh? But you couldn’t — “
“Uh-huh. He and a young lady called Jill. You read about it too, didn’t you, Bert?”
“Yeah.” The bartender kept on staring at me. “Yeah, I read about it. They’re all wet, mister. They got their heads busted. I wouldn’t wait around for ’em much longer, if I was you.”
I played it dumb — kind of good-natured dumb. I said I certainly wasn’t going to wait very much longer. “I think I’ll have just one more beer, and if he hasn’t shown up by then I’m going to go back to the city and catch a plane.”
He slopped me out another beer. I started to drink it, my eyes beginning to burn, a hedged-in feeling creeping over me. They had my number, and hanging around wasn’t going to make me a thing. But somehow I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t any more than I could have walked away from the Burlington Bearcat that night years ago. The Bearcat had been fouling me, too, giving it to me in the clenches, and calling me all kinds of dirty names. He’d kept it up — just like they were keeping it up. I couldn’t walk away from him, just like I couldn’t walk away from them, and I couldn’t get him to stop, just like I couldn’t get them to stop.
It came back with neon-like clarity. The lights were scorching my eyes. The resin dust, the beerish smell of ammonia, were strangling me. And above the roar of the crowd, I could hear that one wildly shrieking voice: “Stop him! He’s kicking his brains out! It’s murder, murder!”
Those are the words that Jim Thompson, the elegant and brutal poet of the violent doomed, wrote in After Dark, My Sweet to describe the trapped feeling of his protagonist, the short-tempered ex-fighter Kid Collins, when he couldn’t find a way out of a situation that didn’t come from his fists. And, in one of those chilly coincidences that make art leap into the sticky jaws of life at the strangest moments, those were the words I was reading when a cloud of trouble gathered on the 74 Express today on my way home.
A bunch of kids had gotten on at the University Street stop, and, like me, they headed to the back. All African-American kids; about six girls, teenagers it seemed, and a few older boys, rank of herb and in that unpredictable netherland between mellow and hostile that comes from doshing the weed with chemicals. “Kids wanna ride the back — what kinda shit is that? Nowadays niggas can’t wait to hit the back,” came Del’s lyrics, flitting across my brain — “Let me stand in the front with the elderly so those other cats won’t raise hell with me.” But they wanted to raise hell, so hell was going to be raised.
The first salvo came when, while shifting position, my shoe barely brushed that of one of the girls. She hollered at me from two feet away: “Excuse me.” I know the sound of a fight waiting to be picked, so I said nothing, but nothing wasn’t good enough: “What happened?” her friend asked.
“This motherfucker kicked me,” she spat.
“Hey, hey, hey,” her friend chimed in, waving a rolled up newspaper in my face. “You kicked her.”
“Sorry,” I said, remembering them old words about discretion. “Didn’t mean to.”
They started laughing, a tinkling, sweet sound that belied their aggressive demeanor. “Uh, sorry, bitch, he said,” her friend choked, mocking my bourgie tone. “Sorry, bitch.”
Had that been it, well, that would have been it. But there is something that makes people push, when they’re all uncomfortable and feeling like hell, and they’re in a place that’s taking them from one bad news to another, so she pushed. Prodding the biggest of the young men, a burly, rough-looking guy with a bandana across his face, she started whispering to him, and he looked down at me. “Hey,” he said, bringing himself into the part of my space I couldn’t look past. “Hey, where you from?”
I said nothing, and he inched closer, coming within centimeters of putting his knees to my chest. “Where you from, motherfucker? I said where you from?”
Getting no response, he upped the game: “You say something to me, bitch?”
I had not, but I was thinking. I was thinking about those old days, those old and angry days, because that’s what the devil in you wants when you’re in that situation. The devil in you wants you to think back to when you were young and cocky, like the young and cocky kid who was right there in front of you, and how there was a time when you would have said, you know what, fuck this guy, and you would have pushed, pushed back, pushed harder, and you would have fought, not because he made you fight, but because you made him make you fight. And for a second there, for a second that lasted a long time, like a car-crash second, there seemed to be no way out for me, too; but I’m not Kid Collins and this guy was no soft, dull bartender. This would have ended with me on the ground puking up my battered guts, or in the back of a squad car, or something else equally dismal, a failure on every possible level. I would be doing the worst thing I could possibly do, not because something or someone or even some idea needed defending, but because I let a stupid angry kid make me even stupider and angrier than he was.
“Huh? You say something to me, bitch?” I didn’t say a goddamn thing. My ugly past was screaming at me: you are being a fucking pussy. And my right-now, that part of me that wants to not be stupid once in a while, that wants to be better tomorrow than it was yesterday, was screaming even louder: be a pussy, then, motherfucker.
I wish I could say who won. The truth is that I didn’t do what I would have once, which is stand up to my full height and dare him to keep moving in the direction he was moving. But I did rear my neck back and give him a death look. It’s only luck that he was no longer looking at me, because he lacked the one thing I had: patience. He’d decided to turn things into a race hassle, and was now dropping beef on a cluster of Asian kids just ahead of us, closer to his age. “Hey, Bruce Lee, where you from, motherfucker? Where you from, Ching Chang? You from Vietnam, bitch?”
Lucky for me, or unlucky for everybody else, the Asian kids were decidedly of a mind to engage him as the bus pulled up to my stop and I slid past. Just as I was waiting to hop off, the tallest and thinnest of the lot, a sneering cat with an electronic cigarette who was high as creation and beating the walls down to give the black kid what he was looking for, started yelling: “SHUT UP, CRIP! SHUT THE FUCK UP, CRIP!” He jerked his head arrythmically back and forward, making ‘C’ shapes with his cupped hands, his pals helping him surge forward. I stumbled onto 42nd Street feeling stupid, mean, lucky, white, guilty, relieved, all the sour jumble of emotions that clot up your bloodstream when it’s been infused with adrenaline that you no longer have anything to do with.
What happened, I wonder? Probably nothing. Nothing is usually what happens in situations like that, which is what I would have told myself to begin with, if I was smart.