A Homeless Man In The Side Mirror by Chris Wilkensen

Last week, I hit a homeless man. Okay, I hit him a few times. He didn’t hit back, only helplessly yelled, “stop, stop, stop” like a poorly timed chorus in a punk-rock song. I finally did stop when I heard more honking cars than I had my whole life. They sounded the same, all too high-pitched to be taken seriously, all operated by people too pussy themselves to stop what I was doing. I rushed back in my car, blew a red light and turned the wrong way down a one-way street but kept going, focusing on my rearview the whole way until I heard another honk. Then, I instinctively, immediately stomped on the brake pedal, for my own safety.

I wanted to do it again, but I needed to be more careful. I spotted another bum on an off-ramp by the Harlem Avenue exit. I parked in the liquor store lot where he and his cardboard sign were in my sight, at 11 PM. I waited an hour in anticipation, afraid at times that some of the patrons getting booze were gangbangers. He started walking away when traffic wasn’t whistling by him anymore. No one was out at midnight on a Tuesday. I remembered the park a few side streets away from the highway ramp, and that had to be where he was going.

I drove down Harlem Avenue and parked on the residential street two blocks away. Seeing all those nice Oak Park houses gave me urgency, since a beat-up Oldsmobile only belonged on this street to deliver pizzas. Once, not long ago, but long enough, I drove a nice, new Nissan, but it was impounded several months ago. Going to prison took more from me than I can ever really know or keep tabs of.

As quietly as I could, I killed the loud, ancient engine and didn’t even shut the door completely, only using enough force to make the interior light go off, making the interior as black as it was outside. I walked swiftly and carefully, watching my step as if I were in a live-action video game.

I never used to watch my back until a certain night, a night as unpredictable as any other. Every three or four steps, I turned my head over my left shoulder. I was cautious, not afraid. In a neighborhood like this, if there were dogwalkers on the green grass or headlights on the perfectly paved street, something was off kilter. Then, I reached the park.

My eyes searched until I figured he wouldn’t be visible. I walked on the grass, close to the bushes. The keychain I held in my right pocket had a multi-purpose tool on it, but I wasn’t ready to use it just yet. It was just in case he had some steel too.

From what I remembered after staking him out, he hadn’t shaved in who-knows-when. His purple hat had a hole in it to keep him semi-warm from this unusually nippy March. The rest of his getup had tears in random places like the middle of his arm sleeves, which could’ve come from scraping his elbows against concrete. He probably had a better idea of what this was going to be like than I did.

I continued to look through the bushes for the incognito bum dressed in dark clothing, lying or sitting close to the dark dirt. He could’ve camouflaged himself by throwing more dirt on his already filthy face. The park lights were off, and that made it even harder to look. I circled the interior of the park and was about to leave.

A bottle of beer lay naked on the wood chips. I wasn’t getting my hopes up. It was probably dropped by teenagers. My life once used to be sipping on lukewarm Budweisers in cold bars while talking to hot harlots, just as many other 29-year-old guys spent most nights. I didn’t do that since baseball season, but it would be a possible last resort for the night.

Slowly, I walked off, full of disappointment and decided a drink wouldn’t hurt me. Then, I smiled. I used to do some dumb shit, but this was by far the dumbest. It definitely wasn’t as stupid as trying to hold up the 7-11 two hours away. I would never go to that town again after that failure. So, in hapless frustration and optimistic realization, I was ready to hop in my car to see how many bars were on Harlem Avenue. I used to kick my car doors when I was mad, so instead, I chose to put half my force into the slide. I got lucky when I heard the plastic slide vibrate all places but one. He was at the top of the slide.

“Is someone there?” he asked in a voice that had been shot to shit from Marlboro Reds and Jack Daniels.

“Sir,” I said strongly, as if to warn him.

“What the fuck? What? Who’s there?”

“You have to leave,” I said.

“I got nowhere to go,” he said. “Are you a cop?”

“No.” If so, I would nab him on at least a few drinking charges.

“Then, who are you?”

I hesitated. Who could I be, really? Why would someone else be here now?

“Aaron.”

“Who? What do you want?”

“I want you to leave.” I paused and waited out the silence to prepare for my voice for the yelling. “Find somewhere else to go before it’s too late!” I actually didn’t know what I wanted anymore.

“Go away,” he said from the top of the slide. It sounded like God Himself talked down to me, that I was in the complete wrong and stop that second. But I didn’t. I heard God talk to me before, through a doctor, and His holiness would never tell me to do anything but follow Him and be with Him. Oh, Jesus, maybe that constant talk about God rubbed off a little bit on me.

“I’m not fucking around,” I yelled, pretending to be homeless too. “Get the hell out of here. This is my spot.”

“I called ‘here’ weeks ago. Get lost.”

I hesitated to say anything because that night infested my mind, as it did daily. The night that sent me to prison, then rehab. The night that cost me my precious office job. The night that made my parents and yuppie friends talk about how they thought they knew me but couldn’t have been more wrong.

I saw it in fast-forward mode, like usual. There it was. The alley downtown where I left Shelley, my love, while I went to pick up drugs in November. I had been there several times to give my friend the money I owed him, and other junkie-slang, and nothing ever happened, until that night. I told her to stay out of view from the street and headlights, so she sat behind a dumpster. She was in tears, at the same place I saw her sit. I opened my mouth about to ask what happened, but I was tackled from behind. When my hands were brought behind my back in an uncomfortable way, I knew who it was.

Shelley’s hands covered her face, while she babbled like she did all the time when she discovered what I was really doing when I said I was “going out with the guys.” The pig got me up and walked me down the alley. Then I heard voices.

“That’s him. That’s him. Fucking addict going into my spot. Where’s my reward money? Where the fuck is my reward money?” Before my high went away, I was in the car and getting my picture taken. A fucking hobo turned me in. I got a good look at him and his missing teeth, his sad, red eyes and his brown beard.

After that, Shelley visited me once and said she never wanted to see me or talk to me again .If I tried talking to her, she would put a restraining order on me. My parents then told me to get help, that they saw this coming, that I was a disgrace. In their eyes, they were supportive. They told themselves whatever lie they wanted just so they could sleep soundly at night.

It was back to reality. I climbed up the fifteen-foot slide. I saw the bum use his gloved hands to back his body up. No, this could not have been the particular hobo I wanted to get my hands on, the one who ruined everything for me. I looked at him closely. He was only a few years older than I was, but he looked like he was twenty years older, just like shit.

He put his hands up in the universal “don’t hurt me” gesture, arms in an X over his chest, head down. He was in the opposite corner, maybe six diagonal feet away. He should have hopped down the wide stairs when I made it to the top of the slide, for his sake. I kicked him anyway. He stayed still. Then, I knelt down to punch him, and again he stayed still. I got up and kicked him again, harder. I laughed to myself at how easy this was.

“Stop or I’ll call the cops,” he cried. I never heard that homeless people had cell phones. Laughing, I looked again at his possible escape route. There was a black backpack sitting on the second step down. I opened it up, and it smelled so foul that I had to drop it. At that second, I got out my keychain and Swiss army knife and withdrew it. I snatched up the back and retreated until my back was against the steel railing. I saw rolling tobacco, papers, and another hat at first glance. I felt around the pockets where water bottles were supposed to be contained, and, sure enough there was a cell phone, an antiquated Nokia.

“Just go away. I didn’t do anything to you.”

There was no way I could hurt this fuck-up anymore than he hurt himself, how much he hurt his family just because of a habit. He was the example of how I could’ve been and how I wasn’t so bad after all, aside from my petty violence. My mind had been trained to not even conceive of the drug’s availability. Each temptation was a new nightmare, until tonight. I dropped the backpack in an instant, fearful of what else was in it. I gazed at this pathetic street warrior.

“You need help, man. No joke.” He was out of breath. “There’s a hospital close, you nut.”

“I just got the help I needed,” I said and turned away from him and slid down proudly, like firefighters before a call. He was laughing at my antics. In rehab, I told myself I was fine, and after crying wolf so many times after my relapse, everyone thought of me as a crybaby, not an immature shepherd. So, I believed it again: This time was going to be different. I stopped to ponder this common revelation in my mind.

“I’m going to call the cops on you,” he said. “You better run.”

I looked back at him, and he held the cheap phone up in the air like it were a trophy. Then, I took mine out and did the same thing in a mocking manner. He put it to his ear and smiled. I looked at my phone, unsurprisingly no missed calls, texts, e-mails or anything to make me feel part of this world.

Then, I glanced up at him and darted off to my car. I wasn’t running from him, and I surely wasn’t scared of the cops. I checked my phone for the time I had to leave a watering hole with something to show for my money, but my cell phone must’ve been broken. It sounded like such a better time than attacking helpless homeless men for some sort of unwarranted revenge. The drugs destroyed some of my conscience, but not its entirety.

In the past year, I had done a lot, nothing to be proud of. I knew I could fuck up a lot, but that didn’t stop me when I was halfway down the spiral staircase of addiction. Sex was a drug too, the therapists told me. Tonight I would pretend I was a homeless addict looking for nothing more than a warm bed other than my own for the evening.

When I got to the car, I saw a homeless man in the side mirror, just like the one at the park but much taller. Then, I got scared and dug in my pocket for my knife but reached my cell phone first, thankfully. That was a better idea anyway. He was still behind me. I opened the door and checked again. My cell phone was no longer in my hand either. It changed into a dollar-store calculator.

I checked the rearview but didn’t see anyone. I did notice that I didn’t shave in a while and that I should probably wash up before the bar. I stared up the car and turned my head to look out the back window just to be sure. No one was there, but I noticed a ragged blanket and pillow in the backseat. Shit. I remembered.

That man, one of my kind, got to sleep like a hero because he defeated the thief, me. He got to sleep like a victor because his cause was just. My plan for the night changed slightly, so slightly that it became impossible. I had to find somewhere to sleep where I belonged. I needed to find a bed where I would not be an intruder.

*

Bio: Chris is a 23-year-old writer from Chicago who teaches English in South Korea. While briefly studying journalism in college, he has been published twice in College News, a magazine focused on the experiences of students. His fiction has appeared in Combat! Chicago, a literary magazine. His fiction-focused blog is reesesfeces.tumblr.com, and his Korean-influenced blog is sojusickness.wordpress.com. He his written a novel, titled “Chats with a Charlatan,” that he is looking to publish. He is in the process of writing a second novel and beginning graduate school in English next year.

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