The words "I lost my way. I lost my way. I was in a dark wood and I lost my way" keep repeating themselves in his mind as John pushes the McLaren stroller across the Sheep Meadow. The night clouds look like torn and shredded by the top of the Grace Building. The lights on the Plaza's upper floors are a code he can't quite discern. A couple of hundred empty cans of Sprite, Diet Coke, and Muggs Root Beer jostle along noisily in clear blue recycle bags in the stroller.
These last three months have been a long slide down into the inevitable. He's still not exactly sure when he officially became one of the dispossessed. He just knows that everything only makes sense in light of what came just before it.
The job went first. Right after he crashed the train he was driving, there was a week of administrative hearings, overnight psych evaluations, and drug tests before the MTA got around to firing him.
Half of him was defiant and ready to get his delegate revved up for a long raw-knuckled fight. But the other side was secretly relieved.
The next morning, he sat on the end of his bed with the shades drawn and the day stretching out before him like an endless road without signposts.
Everything looked the same. His wife's lipsticks and tampons were still in the bathroom cabinet. Her boxes of chamomile tea and Lemon Zinger were still in the kitchen cupboard. The refrigerator still rattled as if someone was trapped inside it. The breakfast table still wobbled. Water still whispered through the pipes and the shadows from car windows still moved slowly across the ceiling. But a kind of stunned silence hung in the air, making it all into a foreign film without subtitles. Cookie Monster lay on the blue carpet in the middle of his daughter's empty bedroom, cast adrift on a cold sea.
He should've gone out right then and applied for unemployment. But the long lines and extra drug tests daunted him.
Instead he turned on the set, trying to find a way to get on top of his situation. On Channel 2, a professional homemaker was explaining how to make a birthday dinner for forty with duck-filled beggar's purses, caramelized shallots, and stuffed fillets of beef with poached leek ribbons. "Oh my God," he said. On Channel 13, a group of squat little furballs with TVs in their stomachs and antennae on their heads were running up and down what looked like a poorly appointed golf course, twittering at each other in high-pitched giggles. Something convulsed inside him. Back on 2, the homemaker was bringing a pan of water to a boil. A tear clung to the rim of his nostril. For a few minutes, he switched back and forth between the hairballs and the homemaker, laughing and crying, until he turned to channel six and just watched the riot of photoelectric cells.
Drugs were clearly the answer to the question he couldn't begin to ask.
He still had the Haldol prescription from Psych Services. But he knew that the little white pills would give him a stiff neck and precisely the clear mind that he didn't want at the moment.
The other option was to kind of saunter downstairs as if he didn't have any particular direction in mind, maybe wander past the bodega on the corner, and lazily catch the eye of that big ox in the Lakers jersey and doo rag as he mouthed the word "smoke."
He switched back to Channel 2 just as the professional home maker revved up a Black and Decker chain saw to carve an ice sculpture. Then he decided to go get high.
The next day he decided to get a little more disciplined. He went out to buy crack before the homemaker and the hairballs came on. He wasn't falling into a real habit he told himself. Just regrouping a little. He had $1200 in the bank. There was still plenty of time to go out and look for work.
But in the back of his head, a tinny voice was starting to recite the opening of that book he'd read back in high school. I lost my way. I lost my way. I was in a dark wood and I lost my way.
By the middle of the next week, he'd arranged most of his daily schedule around getting high. Two $5 bottles before the homemaker and the fur balls in the morning. Two more bottles to reward himself for waiting until noon to get high again. Two more to get over the mid-afternoon slump. And then, of course, one before dinner and one after just like a suburban businessman with his cocktails. Which still left time for a nightcap or two when he couldn't get to sleep.
He'd find himself crashing by the windowsill, staring down at the traffic going by on Bailey Avenue, right where she'd been the last time. Sometimes, he'd see her waving at him again, ready to come running across the street with her arms flung open and that toothless besotted look of ready delight. And in the night when only garbage pick-ups, hip-hop buggies and ten dollar skeezers troubled the boulevard, he'd ask himself why God would tempt him with a vision of such perfection only to snatch it away.
At the beginning of the next month, Mrs. Gordy, the landlady, sent up Curtis the handyman.
"You gonna make the May rent?"
"No problem." He opened the door only halfway, so Curtis wouldn't see he'd already sold his TV and microwave to pay for drugs. "I got a few things lined up. The worm is about to turn."
Curtis looked doubtful. He was a tired man with skin like an old autumn leaf and the eyes of a trucker who'd seen too many white lines go under his wheels. "Then I guess she'll be hearing from you."
But he knew she wouldn't. He was in the throes of some psychotic need to screw up absolutely everything. He missed his face-to-face and fell off the public assistance rolls. By the end of May, the haunted refrigerator had been sold and he was out of the apartment.
He tried staying with friends but things always seemed to break down after a night or two. Deep down inside, he knew that all he wanted was to find an edge to fall off. And so as the weather warmed, he started spending more and more time outdoors, exploring the park with its thousand little backpaths and knolls where nobody could see what you were up to.
The night before Independence Day he stopped by the Great Lawn, trying to cop with a dollar fifty in his pants and the stroller full of clothes. No one was selling, but a group of homeless men were arrayed like beat-up luggage on the crescent of benches under the vapor lights. They all had Hefty bags full of empty cans and bottles. He remembered how he used to watch bums straggle on to his train with loads like these and wonder how a man could fall so far.
He noticed a clear spot at the end of one of the benches and put his things down. So much for pride. Pride doesn't fill your stomach or ease your mind. It just makes everything harder. The stars above were God's eyes staring down blindly.
"You Fonz, what's up?"
A voice snaps him back to reality. He finds himself by a lamppost, surrounded by four boys and two girls in baggy clothes, smelling from blunts and malt liquor. Bunch of wannabes without enough money to get into a club on a Saturday night.
"Yo Fonz, give us a quarter," says the nominal leader, a lanky boy with a chipped front tooth, muscles like boxing gloves on his shoulders, a caterpillar moustache, and the kind of cheap off-the-rack shirt you throw away when the police have a description of what you were wearing. John tilts his head, trying to adjust to life at an angle.
"Yo Fonz. I asked you something."
"I'm sorry, sir. I wasn't listening."
"Who you calling sir?" The kid's tongue flicks against the jagged edge of his tooth. "Do I look like a old man to you?"
The rest of the crew giggles. John sees just what the kid is doing. This could've been him twenty years ago. Before love dulled his reflexes and stripped all that muscle clean off the bone.
"I just meant it as a sign of respect."
"Oh, yeah? But how can you respect me if you don't know me?"
"I dunno. " John watches more of the kid's tongue poke through the slant-hole in the teeth, a pink speckled nub bulging at the opening. "Look, it's just an expression..."
"Oh, so now you don't respect me?"
He sees the idea of a punch forming in the kid's shoulder. "I..."
They all start imitating him in unison. Separately, they'd barely the nerve to look him in the eye across a subway car. Together, they're as bold as the Roman legions.
"What's the matter? You got a stutter?"
"No, I'm just a little nervous."
"Why, 'cause you've got so much respect for me?" The kid prods the baby stroller with a snow-white Fila. "Say, what's up with all the cans? You like a Diet Coke fiend?"
"Well, ah. No. Not exactly."
"Not exactly. And where'd you get the stroller from? You steal it from that playground?" The kid points to the nearest tot lot.
"No, it's mine."
"Yeah, right." The tongue snakes through the hole in the teeth.
Get to zero, he tells himself. Offer zero resistance. Don't make them feel they have to prove something. "No. Really it's mine."
"Then where's the baby?"
John just looks at him, feeling his three layers of clothes go tight as if someone's pulling them from behind.
"Man, that's low, stealing a little kid's stroller to pay for drugs. My sister's a babysitter and she works around here. So you know what I think, Fonz? I don't think you even know the meaning of the word respect. Look at you. You a bum."
"You're entitled to your opinion."
"Yes, I am. And my opinion is you just a crack-smoking stroller-stealing, diet soda drinking bummy bum. You even smell bummy. You don't even respect yourself."
The kid kicks the stroller over and it sounds like the world aluminum market collapsing. John stands there, shaking his head and looking at the scattered cans gleaming in the grass.
"You didn't have to do that."
"How do you know what I have to do. You God or something?" The boy takes a pink Zippo lighter out of his pocket and flicks it at the side of John's face.
The smell of scorched air and seared flesh straightens him up. His cheek feels raw, his ear throbs in alarm.
"You know what, Fonz?" The kid rights the stroller and grips the handles. "I think I'm going to take this mess back and find out who it really belongs to."
"Get away from that, man. I'm not playing with you." John reaches into his pants pocket, feeling around for his box cutter.
"Oh so now you the mack daddy?" The kid shoves him hard. "Man, just get outa my way before I stick my foot so far up your butt you all have athlete's mouth."
Almost in slow motion, John sees the box-cutter coming out of his pocket. The blade sliding out and catching the light. Slashing at the kid's forearm. The lighter flipping end over end from the boy's hand. A little geyser of blood spurting.
The boy shrieks and sucks his arm, his eyes suddenly watering. And all at once, the rest of the crew moves away from him a little, like horse players tearing up losing tickets.
"Just get away from my ride before I cut your friggin' throat," John says, suddenly springy and alert, up on the balls of his feet.
The boy starts to back up, flexing his hand to see if he can still make a fist. His crew is deserting him, drifting one by one across the Sheep Meadow, until it's just the two of them left standing in a pool of light, Good Night Mrs. Calabash-style.
"Look what you did." The boy shows off his wound. "You oughta be ashamed of yourself."
"Yeah, tell me about it."
The boy scampers after his friends, and John bends down, starting to gather the cans in his arms. All this time, he's been sure he wanted to die. But the strength of his own resistance has surprised him. Something finally pulled the rip chord.
He finishes piling the cans back into the stroller and starts to push it along the lamp-lit path. The Plaza looms high above the tree line, only now he's beginning to discern there's a pattern to the lights. And then it hits him: These are God's eyes too. Maybe God is at the Plaza tonight. Maybe he's up in a penthouse, drinking champagne, bored and channel-surfing. And maybe he just happened to look down during an ad and catch sight of his wretched son John through the trees and on a whim decided to spare his miserable life.
So maybe the problem all along is that somehow he'd gotten out of God's line of sight a while. And all he really needs to do is start moving around to stay in it again.
© Peter Blauner