By R. Leib
You might as well call me Noman. That isn’t my name, but the reference will do for the purpose of our exchange. I never had a girlfriend or a wife. That’s just as well. I’ve always lacked that kind of higher feeling, even for myself. I’d say that I regretted that, but you’ve got to experience good to appreciate bad, and I’ve been a stranger to both.
Exactly what’s wrong with me, you don’t have to know. It isn’t important, and it’s none of your business. Knowing that isn’t going to make my story any more understandable. So, keep the questions to yourself. It’s enough that you know I was in pain. Not the everyday kind of pain that you’ve experienced, but the twisted, nasty kind you hear about others having and you’re too ashamed to admit you’re glad it isn’t you. Don’t deny it. You might try to hide it, but I know. I can see it in your eyes just like I see the disgust I have for myself every time I pass a mirror or catch my reflection in a storefront window.
What I did for a living before becoming useless, doesn’t matter, but I’ll give you a hint.
There once was a quantum mechanic
The Universe wanting to span it.
So entangled he was
In string theory buzz
That he fielded a unified panic.
As you can tell, I had anger issues on top of everything else that’s wrong with me. Part of my problem was that there’s no one and nothing to be a suitable target. Just me. It’d be easier, if I had another focus for the hatred, some sort of outlet, but I didn’t.
Maybe you’ll get it, or maybe you won’t. It doesn’t matter. I’m not telling this for you. I’m doing it for me. You’re just along, because there’s no point in telling a story, if there’s nobody to listen to it. You can humor me or don’t. I won’t give a rat’s ass either way. (Not that I have one of those to give or would even want one. Yuck.)
My cane leaned beside the old chair. It’s never far from me. I used to need it to walk, but I’m past that now. Not for the better; for the worse. I moved on to crutches with worse to follow. Unless I succeed. I tried forever, but I always fail. You don’t understand. That’s okay. It’ll all fall into place by the end, or it won’t. That’s more up to you than to me.
The cane. Ah, yes. The cane. Its handle’s a flower. Not your ordinary rose or mum or pansy, but a Penstemon. The tube of the flower formed the handle. Its flared opening cradled the heel of my palm. But this cane wasn’t a simple prosthetic. A twist of the handle and it separated. One part was a wooden sheath with a rubber tip and the other a brass handle at the end of a steel blade. The blossom’s a lie; the sword’s the truth that blooms from it.
After years of suffering, I decided that I’d had enough. But suicide’s so pathetic, so demeaning, so self-indulgent. I wanted to create something to be remembered by, some magnificent work of art, an engaging story penned in the bold prose of a new Hemmingway or an opus of insightful philosophy that would set Hegel on the shelf. My only problem was that, without exception, I lacked the talent to do any of those things. Even if I had another lifetime to devote to bringing them into existence, they were just not in me. No. If I was going to make a lasting contribution, something memorable, it would have to be born of some other gift.
I was in a race, a race with my own body. It wouldn’t serve my purpose to set my heart on climbing K2. The steps leading up to my front door were more than a challenge already. What could I do that was still within my grasp? After weeks of mulling it over in my mind, it occurred to me. I’d let the depravity of the city be my canvas, its filth-infested alleys my studio, the sword my brush, and rain my easel.
For months, I practiced with the sword cane. In time, I could walk with it a few yards without falling down. I became deft at giving the handle a spin, freeing the blade and then tucking it under my arm. This transformed my elbow from a blunt object into something more like a bayonet. Finally, there was the thrust. I knew that the human body was deceptive. It would take more force than you might think to do the kind of damage I intended. But I had Newton’s three laws of motion working in my favor. Or as I like to call them, “Sloth”, “Stubborn”, and “Spite”. (Sloth – A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Stubborn – A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Spite – Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.)
I needed to find a way to practice the moves necessary for my purpose, until I could execute them flawlessly.
A two-inch wooden dowel wrapped it in layers of towels until it was eight inches thick became my ersatz victim. Around this I wrapped a heavy plastic tarp in seven layers. Over and over again, I executed my kata, twist, tuck, and strike, until it became part of my being and the blade left deep indentations in the wood beneath its buffers.
Then I waited for an overcast to threaten.
Night after night, the skies were clear. The stars stared down, as if taunting me. It was like they knew my plans and did not want to let anyone else in on the conspiracy we shared. They winked, arguing that the weather’s lack of cooperation was due more to perverse humor than to any disapproval of my intentions.
Finally, there came a day when the morning sky wore red tinged clouds like a feather boa. All day long, I waited to see if its scowl would dissipate, but the clouds only deepened and darkened. It was as if the sky was angry with the earth and invited me to join in its tantrum.
As the day drifted into dusk, my heart beat to a new, more insistent rhythm. I knew that tonight I’d test fate and myself, and one of us would fail. Either way, there would be escape for me, forever or for just a moment. It didn’t matter which.
In an anonymous yellow slicker, I walked the parts of the city that were unsafe. It was difficult to cultivate the aura of a victim, but only a well baited hook would do to snag the kind of predator I sought as my prey.
That first night, nothing happened. Disappointment bolstered my pain, until I felt empty and ridiculous. I dragged myself home, hung up the slicker to drain over the tub, and leaned the cane against the chair. There would be other nights and other chances. By now, the adrenaline emptied from my body like soiled bath water down the drain, leaving me all the worse for the analogy.
I didn’t have long to wait. The rainy season was upon us. Hot droplets soaked my hair and ran down the back of my shirt. It was as if the sky had adjusted its taps to give me a perfectly tempered shower. I pulled the hood up and began stumping through the alley.
I thought my heart would crack through my ribs, when I heard the man behind me croak, “Don’t turn around. Your wallet. Be quick about it, and no one gets hurt.”
There was a moment, when indecision gripped me and I almost complied. Then I remembered the pain, and trepidation evaporated with the curls of steam rising off the puddles in the street.
Twist, tuck, strike.
The blade left its scabbard silently. It almost turned on its own until the last three inches of its length extended beyond my elbow. I could feel it strike bone and glance downward. It was completely different from my practices. They had been a complete waste of time, not preparing me at all for the reality of this moment.
I turned to see what, if any, impact I made. A grayish man in shapeless clothes stood behind me. His right hand hung down by his side, a gun pointing harmlessly toward the ground. My thrust had caught him in the collarbone and deflected down into his shoulder. He stared, eyes bulging, at the steel as a slight trickle of blood ran down its length. For a second, we both were mesmerized as drops of black blood fell from the sword in time with the rain forming a moiré pattern on the ground between us.
I knew that I should do something, but it was as if I was paralyzed. He broke the spell with a scream. I squinted and braced myself, expecting him to raise his weapon and finish our encounter. Instead, he backed away. As the point left his body, a thin gush of blood shot out from him. (Later that night, I checked a medical book. I guess I might have nicked his subclavian artery.) The blood left an arc across the front of my slicker and a thick puddle on the ground next to me.
And then he was gone.
“Come back. We’re not done. You’ve got the gun. Now it’s your turn. Don’t leave yet,” I cried to the night air and the hammering droplets. It took the deluge only a few seconds to erase the last remnants of what had just transpired. My blade, the raincoat, and the asphalt appeared virginal again. It was as if it had been a dream or a mirage or maybe it was just a nightmare. By the time I got home, I wasn’t certain whether the memories of the night were reflections of reality or of my desperate imagination.
For days, I wondered what happened to that man. He became like a shadow caught in peripheral vision for an instant, never quite recognized, and then completely vanished. Did he die? If he had, where was the story in the newspaper? Then I realized that I had no idea whether the papers considered the death of a street person newsworthy. Was it possible that I could have taken a life, and that transgression went inexorably unacknowledged?
Trusting to the streets was just too random. I needed to take my search for a serviceable executioner to a more reliable source. But where? I couldn’t just lie down for some low-life sociopath. I needed to feel that I was striving for something, something worth losing. To leave life by some pointless act of malice was unacceptable.
I began stalking the superior courts. I watched the scavengers and their carrion filter through those chambers, until they merged into a porridge of anger and despair. Justice swallowed some miscreants, and I made note of their sentences to estimate when they would be back on the streets and available to me again. Others slipped through. Those piqued my interest. They were there for me now.
I realized that I started to catch the eyes of bailiffs and judges. The people who spend their time in the courts were noticing my presence. This did bother me a little. But if things went as planned, it wouldn’t matter long enough to make a difference.
Then I got my first look at Rolls Roy. He was the height of darkness. The moment he was escorted in, the courtroom seemed encased in shadows and several degrees colder. Even in cuffs, he seemed more menacing than the officer who tried to bully him. With a single glare, the prisoner backed down his harpy and sat behind the defendant’s table on his own. He was graceful in a sinister way, never bothering to hide his contempt for those who would judge him.
“Your Honor, as elucidated in my Habeas Corpus brief, my client has been denied due process by the state and should be released forthwith,” the defense attorney said, glancing occasionally at his notes and never at his client.
“Mr. Finlanger. Does the District Attorney’s office have a response to this filing?”
“I am afraid that we have been caught unawares by this development. We will need a stay to prepare our response.”
“If I may, your Honor?”
“Yes, Mr. Crensette?”
“Since my client has been denied due process already, any additional delay would constitute a further violation of his rights.”
“In that case, I see no alternative than to dismiss the charges and release the defendant. The police will have to re-arrest Mr. Roy after the DA’s office straightens out this mess and refiles.”
“Your Honor! This man is a threat to the community. It would be a travesty to release him,” the ADA protested. Rolls Roy produced a crooked smile and leaned back in his seat.
“I’m sorry. The law is quite clear. I will not chastise you before the bench, but I suspect that your superiors will have a few words for you on the subject.
“All charges against Mr. Rolls Roy are dismissed without prejudice.
“Bailiff, call the next case.”
I found my man. Even better, he was walking out of the courtroom with a compelling reason to go to ground, right where I wanted him. All I had to do was keep tabs on him and wait for the next downpour.
A week or so later, I followed Roy into an alley. Refuse was everywhere. Cardboard, tin cans, cigarette butts, and cat feces all contributed to its nauseating ambiance. He wended around dumpsters and loose heaps of trash with the fluidity of a snake. I followed every step waiting for the right moment to confront him.
In silence, a woman on the ground struggled with a man on top of her. Sweat and rain dripped down from his head into her eyes. Rolls Roy walked right past them, as if they were just more of the grotesque scenery. (In following him, I observed that malevolence seemed to spring up in his steps like hellish flowers from the touch of evil spore.)
The man held his hand over the woman’s mouth as he ripped at her clothing. His face craned down against hers. He whispered horrors into her ear that widened her eyes and fueled her struggles. Her resistance fed his delight and encouraged him to increase the intensity of his taunts and assaults.
Caught between two devils, I had to choose one to confront and the other to let run his course. At least for now. The circumstances decided it for me.
I stopped behind the rapist and let him hear the blade scrape against the inside of its cane scabbard. He raised his head to snarl at me, “Get lost.”
I spun on my good leg. My eye followed the point through a high arc and into the top of his skull. There was a small snapping sound, but the weapon only penetrated a fraction of an inch. He let out a grunt and pawed blindly for the blade. Before his hands could touch it, I pressed all my weight against the handle driving it deeper until it bottomed out. The rapist started to panic, flailing his hands above his head. Twisting the sword, I felt for the opening. It took a few moments, but I found it and pithed him like a frog in biology class. He stopped moving, and his eyes lolled to one side.
With all my strength, I yanked the blade upward until it came free with a sound somewhere between disgusting and ghastly. The force of the sword’s release drove me back several steps until I slammed into the opposite wall. The corpse sat there motionlessly straddling the women. The three of us froze in time for what seemed to be forever. The deluge continued unrelenting.
The woman broke the spell between us. Gasping for air and with the look of a trapped animal in her eyes, she threw the man from her. He was so immobile I thought for a moment that he would shatter against the ground like a porcelain figurine. Instead, his shoulder thumped and his head thwocked. Rivulets of water ran past his hollow eyes, running through paths of blood matted hair. She crouched for a second eyeing me with fight-or-flight indecision coursing across her face. I sheathed the sword and waved her off.
In an instant, she was gone. I don’t even remember her getting to her feet. For all I knew, she escaped on all fours. I was alone with my handiwork. There was no uncertainty here. This one I killed.
And the rain was everywhere.
I stepped away, longing for the comfort of my crutches, avoiding the invading pool of diluted blood. Somehow, the rain seemed to pound harder against my head, drumming a distant rhythm that tried unsuccessfully to communicate with me on some existential level.
That night, I slept. I slept through the morning. It was eighteen hours, before I woke. I should’ve felt something, but I felt nothing. I had taken a life. Was it the surreal aura of the event that made it seem less than real to me? No. It was real. I knew it. I breathed it. It wafted up to me from the faint streaks of blood that I wiped from the blade. As I watched the cloth burn, the blood called to me.
For a while, I could not place how I was different. I knew that if I killed, it would affect me. I expected to be different. Just not like this. What was it? Then it came to me. I’d never felt nothing before. There’d always been at least a background of feelings, of attachment, of connection. Now there was only a calculated nothing. I had lost something that I’d never known I had and never appreciated until it was no longer mine.
If I were a religious man, I’d call it a soul. But had I lost it or was it only cowering somewhere inside me ashamed of what I’d done, of what I’d become? I didn’t know, and, for the moment, I didn’t care. What did matter was that it’d been almost an entire day since I’d let the pain win. Something was growing inside me. It was evil, pervasive, and reaffirming all at the same time. I could no more separate its benefits from its detriments than I could divine the meaning of life.
It was a cold and dry evening, and that was fine with me.
Sometimes, I think about an old joke. It goes like this:
A girl ran up to a campsite. She was obviously upset as she stammered to one of the campers, “You’ve got to come with me. My brother fell into a mud pit, and he can’t get out. Please, hurry!”
“How far in is he?”
“Up to his shoelaces.”
“Okay. Take me to him.”
The girl dragged and pushed the camper with increasing panic.
“You said that he was only up to his shoelaces. Why don’t you calm down? We’ll get him out.”
“You don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“He fell in head first.”
Sometimes I feel like that’s what we’ve done, all of us, all of humanity. We’ve fallen in head first.
I looked for Rolls Roy again, but I always seemed to be a step too slow, a moment too late. On rare occasions, a miscreant presented himself for remedy, and I obliged.
There was this old man. I thought he would shatter, but the blade going into him sounded like a shovel cutting into a sack of concrete. He sagged against the steel as if he was a deflating balloon. I should have felt something on taking a life so fragile, but I still felt nothing. Shearing them like rows of grain became a habit, ordinary and unfulfilling. It occurred to me to stop, but the course of my existence had become an insatiable current that I could barely resist let alone redirect.
I kept waiting for the one who would best me and end both of our sufferings, but, as my ability with the sword grew, the chances of that dwindled.
I thought I’d found the one, later that month. He was a young man with wispy curls of hair where a beard might grow someday. He must have pulled back slightly as I struck. The blade went completely through his neck, the point creating a slight peak where it barely protruded out the other side. We stood face to face for a moment. Slowly, he brought his pistol up to my forehead. A trickle of blood ran back the spine of the sword, diluted and erased by the transparent rain.
I drew the blade from him. At first there was just a hole like a rip in a cloth. Then dark blood coursed down to form a swell in the collar of his shirt.
“Go ahead. Do it,” I told him, closing my eyes. The bullet never came. When I looked again, the gun was in his belt. He pulled at his shirt to get a look at the spreading stain. Then he looked back at me and glared. He tried to talk, but nothing came out. He alternated coughing and trying to spit, but that did him no good. With a hand clasped on the wound as if to keep himself from leaking out, he staggered away.
Some mornings, I woke up without realizing that I was different from before. I was just me, that was until the memories flooded back. It was becoming more and more important to me to know how many I killed. There was no way of really knowing. As often as not, I left them or they left me, before things were…well…let’s say settled. I have no idea why it nagged me. No matter how small or large that number might be, any stain renders clothing rags, inappropriate for all but the basest of occupations. It could be one or a hundred, and I would feel the same. Nothing. And the debt I owed remained interest due.
One night, I walked that alley where I once followed Rolls Roy, looking for some trace of him. There was nothing but stillness and garbage. The rain poured down my collar cooling my back and soaking my clothes so that they clung to me like living armor.
“It’s you,” a voice behind me gasped. I turned my hand, instinctually twisting the handle of the cane. The man behind me was a complete stranger. His clothes were worn but respectable. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” Without another word, he pulled the collar of his shirt aside to show me a small rectangular scar just under his collar bone. “I tried to rob you, and you gave me this. Don’t be afraid. I have no interest in revenge. When I lost everything, I was angry. I felt I was owed something. I took it out on the people I robbed. I took more than money from them. I thought I was having my revenge, but I was the one who lost the most. The moment you turned the tables on me, made me a victim, I knew that something had to change. I changed. I don’t do that anymore, and I wanted to thank you. Thank you. I’m going to go now. I just wanted you to know that it’s all right. What you did to me, it was a good thing.” With that, he turned and walked out of the alley and into the brilliance of the street lights.
That night, I sat at home and thought about what I’d done. There was a glimmer of hope. For all the pain and confusion, one thing had turned into an accomplishment, had turned out positive. I felt like Dorian Gray straining to see some glint of honor and decency in his tormented portrait. I could walk away from the sword. My ledger could be considered balanced. This was another chance for me. All I had to do was stay home with my pain, let the rain be just weather, and forget that the cane was anything more than what it seemed. Was it possible that I could feel again? There should be some simple test, some sign in the mirror.
There was a knock at the door. I grabbed my crutches and answered it. Rolls Roy stood on my porch like a long lost acquaintance waiting for a warm greeting and an invitation to come in.
Cold sunlight reflected off the barrel of his .38 caliber revolv…
R. Leib tells about himself: In high school, the writing bug hit me. I pursued that avocation through college, but then needed to find a regular job. My experience operating a keypunch machine in college led to employment as a programmer trainee. I worked for 30 years in the computer industry as a software programmer and a quality assurance technician. Most of that time was spent in the Paleolithic ages of data processing. Computers were million-dollar behemoths with slow processing speeds, and a terabyte of data filled an entire floor of an office building. I saw the advent of CRT display monitors, personal computers, computer games, computer generated imaging, and the Internet. I have seen my world miniaturized and the unimaginable fall of IBM from dominance to irrelevance. When I retired from working in the computer industry, I returned to writing.