This story is by Kenneth Thompson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I had taken the 0600 run on the Downeaster to Boston for both my monthly appointment at the Jamaica Plain VA center and the first job interview since I separated from the army. Fifteen months ago I was dead, though the medical records minimize that pesky detail, instead documenting the patient’s unlikely survival. If I lied to myself each morning, I could even admire the large, deep purple, jagged memory etched into my chin and ignore the throbbing leg. IED’s are guiltless. Physical therapy was on track now, but it far outpaced the emotional healing I sought.
Incidentally, I fucked up the interview.
I was hobbling toward the train station, my knee complaining, reminding me of that life altering event. I hesitated, leaning up against a store front’s display window to ease my discomfort.
“No chance that guy gets the job” I thought, glowering at the sullen, pathetic, image staring back at me in the reflective glass. It was obvious, those frozen, soulless, eyes would hinder my search for employment. What had started out as a day of hope and opportunity was collapsing. Again.
A clerk from the store came outside, interrupted my wallowing, and in mid-sentence he decided, upon seeing the cane, not to confront my loitering. In fact, he wondered aloud if I would like to come inside, sit down, and rest. Quick thinker, he was.
I appreciated this pause and accepted a cup of coffee from the thoughtful youth. He knew what an Eagle Cane was, thanked me for my service, and, with neither emotion nor elaboration, mentioned how his father had not been so lucky. I glanced around the premises. It was an old time haberdashery. I was a hat guy, after all, even if in my past the opportunities for wearing stylish head gear had been limited. My eyes came to rest on a mannequin wearing a smart black suit, not unlike my own, and a derby hat. I smiled. I had secretly longed for a hat just like that very one. My previous hat, made of Kevlar and composites, which I seemed always to be wearing, left little opportunity for the jocularity of a Laurel and Hardy style head cover. Though, it had saved my life.
The clerk, surprised with my interest, found a black derby hat that was my size and matched my suit. Except for my height, I resembled Charlie Chaplin, cane and all. With my new purchase rakishly planted atop my six and a half- foot frame, I walked down the street with an ebullient smile stretched across my face. I actually noticed, for the first time in months, smiles and playful expressions from passersby. It felt good to laugh at myself. For the first time in months, I felt good.
When you feel whole, life’s challenges seem so much less daunting. I was crawling toward that realization in my spiritual journey, discovering that some days my understanding and engagement in life was easy and other days it was quite impossible. That morning it had been impossible, yet just hours later, after purchasing my new festive hat, everything held unlimited promise. I looked forward to the day, when standing in the path of darkness, I wouldn’t have to remind myself to function, but would be able, calmly, to assist the black energy in its self evaporation. I wanted to avoid solving problems with the rigid force of my past. I had a lot to learn.
I made my way back into North Station and sat wearily on one of the wooden benches scattered about the large waiting area. I caught myself beginning to perseverate about the morning and my failures before I brought my mind back to the present. Busy people swirled about checking off items from their “to-live” lists. I felt the air move slightly as someone sat down near me. I was pleased to notice that zephyr, that fragment of life.
A woman’s voice, apparently coming from the person who had seated herself near me, on my bench, said with a bit of mirth, “You’d better close your mouth or your drool is going to ruin that handsome suit”.
Looking to my left at her for explanation, my eyes asked, “What?”
She glanced to the person who had silently appeared seconds before directly in front of me. When I finally realized that I had been caught staring, transfixed by a complete stranger, my bench-mate smirked at my awkward embarrassment. My heart’s intense beating caught me by surprise. The woman standing in front of me was simply the most beautiful woman I had ever rested my eyes upon. In fairness to me, nearly every person within the waiting area was hypnotized by this enchantress.
My eyes darted about returning repeatedly to stare, I imagined discreetly, at this revelation. In one of my averting gazes, I noticed two transit officers slow their pace nodding in her direction. They then glanced toward the passengers scurrying from the most recent train arrival and back again toward her. They, paused and watched, focused on one figure headed toward us.
“What the fuck are you staring at? Freak.” The guy centimeters from my face screamed, spittle frosting his words.
I recoiled and tensed. I attempted to stand. Even as I struggled to rise, my assailant shoved me backwards onto the bench again. I heard the beautiful woman screaming something about a restraining order. He punched her away grazing her face and yelling at her to “Stay, the hell, out of this.” In his moment of distraction, I was able to gain my footing, adjust my position away from the bench, and press up against a structural I-beam in defensive preparation should the attack escalate.
Again my assailant bellowed into my face, “I said, what the fuck are you looking at.”
My answer, “Earl, I had been looking at the most beautiful woman I have ever laid my eyes upon on seven continents and these fifty states until you interrupted my view,” was apparently not the answer he wanted to hear. He grabbed my tie with one hand and cocked his right fist. My cane was a useful tool at that moment to put on his chest to encourage him to reverse course. What I thought was a slight nudge to get him out of my face may have had a bit more energy than I had intended. He stumbled tripping down to one knee. It was on now. He righted himself and charged in full throttle . Head lowered, his rage erupted into incoherent monosyllables. I stepped to my left unbeknownst to his downcast eyes. The full brunt of his headlong tackle was absorbed by the cement covered I-beam against which I had moments before been leaning. A cacophony of screams erupted from the assembled witnesses. The two transit officers intervened and dragged me away to a holding cell as medics attended to Earl.
I was released without charges after the surveillance footage was reviewed and my interrogation completed.
On the train ride home, I began to think of “the what- ifs,” “could-haves,” and “should-haves.” I did wonder, now, just who the young gorgeous woman was, how she was, and how she could possibly extricate herself from such a destructive relationship without herself being destroyed. I wondered.
I tried for several months to get more facts about the incident and especially about the young woman. With privacy protocols rigidly in place, I repeatedly confronted a stone wall, gaining scant news about the melee. No one was willing to give me information. I did find out that Earl would no longer be a threat to anyone. Ever.
During that period, the spiritual work, the formal counseling, and the new job, all began to produce encouraging results in my psyche. I began to visit regularly with others who were attempting to make heads or tails out of life. Sometimes, I would absentmindedly trace the etchings on my face with the fingers of one hand while simultaneously twirling my newest hat with the other. This life’s journey was in my hands, I thought philosophically. Perhaps this derby was the unsung hero after all. I felt the shackles of my mind loosening.
On a warm August day, the summer after the North Station Brawl, I was touring Nantucket Island. Whilst leaning on my cane, on Steam Boat Wharf, I was lost in the pleasure of a large maple walnut waffle cone. In mid lick, I shuddered to a halt. The voice coming from one of a trio of people walking toward me said, “You’d better close your mouth or you are going to drool all over yourself.” Locking eyes with me, she continued, “It is not difficult for the most beautiful woman on seven continents and all fifty states to notice Adonis standing licking an ice cream cone under the shadow of that handsome derby hat.” She wiped a drip from my scarred chin with her finger, tasted it, and she smiled.