Chapter 4 – Encounters
As he shuffled along slowly, passers-by looked briefly up at him with differing mixtures of curiosity, pity, and revulsion. The large man simply noted that it wasn’t as bad here in Westport as in some other portions of Kansas City. It was July and characteristically hot. More than a few denizens of the sidewalks in this neighborhood wore black T-shirts which revealed tattooed arms and necks. Black denim pants were also part of the uniform, as were odd hair styles and body piercings. Against this visual backdrop, his own appearance did not stand out as much, but it still drew attention. With the heat making him sluggish, he drifted into wondering about individuality, conformity, and whether there was really any difference between the two.
Gradually, he became aware of a voice. Starting softly, it repeated itself and grew louder, penetrating his inward deliberations. Rousing himself, he turned toward its source. Walking next to him was a somewhat provocatively dressed woman of about his age. Her hair was dyed black and white, and her clothing – tight, form-fitting, and inexpensive – matched.
“There you are,” she announced coyly. “For a minute there, I thought you were deaf.”
“Did you ask me something?”
She winked. It struck him as slightly absurd.
“Not yet. I just said hello.”
“Hello,” he deadpanned. “What do you want?”
Her manner made him suspicious.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m coming on to you. We could make it. We match.”
“Exactly. You know what that means, right?”
He stopped walking, and they turned to face each other.
“I suppose I do. You think we match, huh?”
“So you can listen. We match, and we could make it. That’d be cool.”
“You mean I can be tonight’s fashion statement,” he snapped. “When you get bored with it, you can change your hair color, but I’ll look like this for the rest of my life. You’re nothing like me. Go home, and play with your toys.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she inspected him disapprovingly. He stood at an imposing height of six feet and seven inches, and he weighed two-hundred and eighty-five pounds. His shoulders were broad, his arms thick, and his hands large and powerful. Loose fitting jeans hid the muscularity of his legs. He balanced himself on big feet shod in construction boots. A gray and out of fashion, short-sleeved shirt with a collar covered his expansive chest. Despite his bulk, he carried not an ounce of excess fat on his body. The man, twenty-five years of age, looked ponderous and uncoordinated in his unstylish attire.
But the physical features which set him apart, the ones that drew so many furtive glances, were his complexion, his hair, and his eyes. Blonde hair, straight and fairly long, was interspersed with black, kinky shafts, the patches of which were napped and unruly. His beard, eyebrows, and lashes were similarly variegated. His right eye was blue, his left brown. What was visible of his skin was almost reticulated like the hide of a giraffe, only more finely and more irregularly. Territories of white and black skin looked to have established borders maintained by an uneasy truce. Added to his formidable bulk, his chimerism produced an overall impression which was almost monstrous.
“You don’t have to get conceited about it,” she shot back. “With looks like that, you probably don’t get too many offers.”
“But when I do, they’re always the same. Women who proposition me want novelty now and a story to tell friends later. You’re not being original. Find someone else to star in your freak show.”
She looked shocked, and he felt a pang of conscience. Checking himself, he continued in a softer tone of voice.
“Look… I’m sorry. It’s not your looks. You’re pretty and all, but depending on where I hang out, this kind of thing happens to me more than you might think. Every time I say yes, I end up regretting it. What you’re asking for just doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Her expression changed to one of confused irritation. The conversation had strayed well down a path she had not anticipated.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you mentally insane or something?”
Whatever was coming next, be it further ridicule or outright disgust, he gave up. This had gone past a point where he cared what his antagonist thought. He eased forward into her personal space.
“Not really. You see, it’s like this. Basically, I just like to hurt people.”
She started, looked up at his sullen face, and scurried away rapidly, checking over her shoulder a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t following her. He turned and resumed walking. The trick had worked as expected. It always worked.
To get out of the heat, he popped in and out of some stores and pretended to look for items in the aisles. He was careful not to stay too long in any one place lest proprietors and their customers should grow nervous. By now, these considerations were reflexive, almost unconscious. Sometimes, people’s reactions amused him as sadly ironic. Then there were the dark moments when that slow, subterranean rage waited for the right challenge or threat to bring it roaring to the surface.
The mottled man wandered haphazardly until the sun was lower in the sky. His shift did not start until later that night, and he was bored. Feeling for a few bills in his left pocket, he decided to head toward the nearest coffee shop. The staff had grown used to him and a plethora of other strange characters as well, so this was an atmosphere where he could relax as long as he purchased something to drink.
On reaching his intended destination, he opened the front door and walked in. The air conditioning was on but set economically. As he waited in line, he noted that the temperature was enough on the warm side to discourage much movement. When it was his turn to order, he opted for iced tea. Drink in hand, he headed toward the back wall and searched for a table at which to sit. The establishment was reasonably full, and the décor was minimal, with no isolated, soft chairs. At least one person was at every table, so he picked his preferred location.
Observant and pensive by nature, the young man preferred sitting along the back wall where he could see the entire interior and watch humanity on parade outside the storefront window. In his peripheral vision, he spotted an attractive woman seated at a good location. The chair on the opposite side of the small table was unoccupied. He sat down then sipped slowly and intermittently for a few minutes, expecting her to get up and leave. She did not, and this surprised him. Strangers usually moved away from him after what they considered a polite delay.
He looked down and to his left and noticed that she was reading a paperback copy of The Divine Comedy. This in itself was different. In a room of laptops, electronic tablets, and smart phones, she was reading a hard copy of a book – and a classic, at that. An attempt at conversation was merited.
“Pardon my interruption,” he started, “but you’ve got a good book there.”
“Have you read it?”
He could not tell if she was testing him, but her response gave him an opportunity to look at her more directly. The first thing that caught his attention was that her appearance was as beautiful and natural as that of a child even though she must have been in her twenties. Her blonde hair, cut short like a swimmer’s, was clearly its real color. It matched her eyebrows and eyelashes, for she wore not a trace of makeup. It was atypical for a woman with such fair features not to darken her eyes, and, aside from the fact that she was unassumingly stunning, he found it compelling that she had such confidence. Her example made him wonder what it was in society that made so many beautiful, little girls grow up into insecure women.
As for her complexion, it was clean and unblemished. What arrested him most, however, were her eyes. The irises were pale green with thin threads of blue and gold radiating into their delicate musculature from her pupils. Beyond these physical impressions, the expression on her face was inquisitive and honest. She genuinely wanted to know the answer to her question.
“Twice,” he answered. “How far along are you?”
“I’m in purgatory. So what did you think of it?”
“No,” she giggled with soft maturity. “I mean the whole work.”
“I liked it enough to read it twice. What about you?”
“I read it before in a more literal translation. I heard this version was really good and that it tried to follow a scheme something like the rhyme and meter used by Dante. It was translated by another poet named John Ciardi. I like all the footnotes explaining the historical and cultural references. They help me make more sense of the poem. Of course, I have to wonder whether I’m reading Dante or Ciardi in some places.”
“But did you like it?”
“Oh,” she exclaimed in mild surprise, “I suppose I enjoyed the ride, but ultimately it didn’t take me where I wanted to go.”
“And where would that be?”
“That’s the real question. I’m afraid I haven’t found out yet.”
He looked into an imaginary space above her head.
“Purgatory’s still interesting” he stated. “Beatrice showing him around heaven was kind of a letdown.”
She smiled enigmatically.
“So what other literature do you like?”
She thought for a moment.
“I enjoy lots of genres – mostly the serious stuff, I guess. I’m a fan of John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath was so insightful. It really made me think. I was kind of surprised at how he could write about such a grim subject and inject a sense of humor in the right places.”
“Okay, your turn.”
“Fair enough. I’m attracted to sarcasm and humor, especially if the author has a serious point to make. Since we’re on Steinbeck, have you ever read The Short Reign of Pippin IV?”
“Yes. Don’t you think he has such a grasp of how things fit together, how they work?”
“Exactly. The man understood cause and effect – that and human motivation.”
“Do you have a favorite book?’
He was finding the exchange enjoyable. In his case, this kind of thing was an extremely rare pleasure, especially with a member of the opposite sex. Some propositioned him, as had happened earlier that afternoon, but the majority normally avoided him. In response to her query, he had no trouble making up his mind.
“Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder. The structure of that story really impresses me, and I love how the main character interacts with the snobs that surround him. I just finished reading that one for the third time. So what are your favorites?”
“It depends on what I’m into at the time,” she replied. “Something calls out to me, and I read it. Right now, I’m just trying to get out of purgatory. You seem to be pretty well read. Did you go to college?”
“Me?” he laughed. “Not exactly. I didn’t finish high school. So you’ve been to college?”
“Yeah, I graduated three years ago. My major was – guess what – literature with a minor in philosophy. But where did you get your exposure? Most people don’t read much of anything, let alone the books you’ve mentioned.”
He picked up his cup and scrutinized it for a moment.
“Hmmm. To begin with, I don’t own much of anything, but I like to stay stimulated. My job involves late hours, and it’s only part time. After sleeping in, I like to go to the public library in the late mornings or early afternoons. My pay lets me live hand-to-mouth, and I don’t get any benefits. Reading is some of the only entertainment I can afford. Television doesn’t take long to wear me out.”
She smiled approvingly at that last sentence.
“I never watch television. How about your job? Does it work for you?”
He frowned and shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s a job. I can eat and rent a cheap room. That’s about it. Right now, I might have enough to pay for meals until I get paid next week. My employers don’t keep tax records on me, so they don’t deduct for social security or income tax. It’s cash under the table, as the saying goes.”
“That sounds kind of like my situation,” she followed wistfully. “I hate my career, but I’m devoted to it.”
“I don’t get it. Why?”
“It’s too important for me not to be.”
He wrinkled his nose slightly.
“What could be that important?”
“I’d rather not say. Why didn’t you complete your education?”
“I’d rather not say. I’m not proud of it.”
She reached into her bag and looked at her phone.
“Oh. It’s been nice, but I have to get ready for work.”
She gave him a trace of a smile. It betrayed a sense of sadness and longsuffering.
“Something like that.”
“Wait,” he implored. “You didn’t mention your name.”
“No, I didn’t.”
She patted him lightly on the shoulder.
“Thank you for talking to me about books. Men don’t usually do that with me.”
He watched her go out the front door, turn right, and disappear beyond the margin of the window. Her departure left an ache he did not recognize. Someone seated at the table to his right had left a laptop unattended to go to the restroom. While thinking this rather foolish of the owner, he stole a glance at the time in the lower right hand corner of the screen. He had far enough to go that if he started walking now, he could arrive at work before his shift started.
The encounter had been a refreshing break from his customary isolation. Most people saw him as intimidating, frightening, repulsive. Whether from a distance or at close quarters, he lived as a social phantom, an apparition looming on the fringe of society. With an annual income which was below the taxable limit, and laboring for an employer who did not issue earnings statements, he had never filed an income tax form or applied for assistance of any kind. Although he was a citizen of the United States, his government barely knew he existed. A social security number had been assigned to him while he was in the system. He had no investments, no bank account, health insurance, or credit cards. On those few occasions when he was sick, he simply persisted in his normal routine until he got better.
It would be two days before this unique man would encounter the mysterious, blonde woman again. She occupied a fair amount of his waking thoughts, and this perplexed him. Women typically failed to impress him, so why did he find her so compelling? It was more than her facial beauty or her graceful physique, even more than the fact that she had spoken openly with him and without reservation. As he inquired within himself, no enlightenment was forthcoming.
Seemingly by accident, she wandered into his place of employment one night. It was a less than reputable bar in a rough part of town, and the customers were typically male. He couldn’t remember her attire from their last meeting. It had been subdued, but tonight she wore black tights, a pair of beige loafers, and a bright orange tee shirt with three-quarter length sleeves. A black biohazard symbol was printed prominently on the front. The words “NAGA CHILD” were in small letters at shoulder level across the back.
Her presence there simultaneously pleased and alarmed him. He had been carrying a case of whiskey in from the storeroom when he saw her sit down in a corner booth. It took him a few minutes to set the case down behind the counter, unpack it, and place the bottles on a shelf behind the bartender. While accomplishing this task, he kept an eye on his recent acquaintance. Some customers with whom he was also recently familiar and for whom he did not care were leering at her steadily. In hopes of discouraging them, he walked over to check on her when he was done. She did not look at all startled as he approached.
“So this is where you work,” she announced.
“Such as it is,” he confirmed. “Have you made it out of purgatory?”
Not as accessible on this occasion, she went oddly vacant.
She held up empty hands.
“No books, no distractions.”
“You’re a long way from Westport,” he commented.
“What has that got to do with anything?”
He looked carefully at her trying to discern her thoughts. She did not strike him as being naïve despite her innocent demeanor. Something was definitely going on in there, and she was acting like a different person than the one he had met previously. Attempts to bring up topics of common interest were not having the anticipated effect.
“I’m pretty sure you’re aware this is a rough joint. You really shouldn’t have come in here.”
She sighed almost imperceptibly.
“My work takes me all over the city. I had to be in this area tonight.”
“What kind of job would require someone like you to be anywhere near here?”
She examined him blankly, making it obvious that she did not intend to divulge any more information. Feeling awkward, he looked down at the table in her booth.
“Whatever your reason for choosing this place, you didn’t come in here to drink. You haven’t touched your beer since you set it down.”
“It’s just a prop so I can sit in here for awhile. I need to keep my head clear. I’m getting ready to go to work.”
“If that’s the case, you’re working an even later shift than I am. Last time we talked, you left for work a lot earlier.”
“The hours are flexible,” she explained in a peculiar tone of voice, “but you’re on right now. Won’t you get in trouble for talking to me?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
It struck him that she was being unfair, asking him about his job while refusing to identify her own. He considered not telling her, but her manner was honest and unassuming. Was she putting him off? No, this struck him as unlikely, for she seemed devoid of malice or guile.
“Waiting for a fight,” he responded. “I do menial things – whatever’s needed – but I’m also the bouncer.”
“How do you know there’s going to be a fight?”
“There usually is. I’m paid to end it quickly and prevent damage.”
“That’s your job description,” she commented unemotionally.
“Right, but I can’t start anything. The owner doesn’t want any trouble that would lead to the police being called. His customers frown on that. I’m supposed to walk softly and throw the last punch. It’s one of my many talents.”
He briefly looked over his shoulder.
“Which leads me to the four goons at that table over there. They’re a problem waiting to happen, and they’ve given me just enough grief not to get themselves thrown out. They haven’t exactly been looking at you with good intentions.”
Her pupils constricted, but not in fear.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “I noticed.”
The young woman thought for a moment as if delaying a decision.
“There’s another story by Steinbeck,” she offered vacantly in the manner of someone trying to buy a little extra time. “It’s especially meaningful to me.”
“Which one is that?”
“In Dubious Battle. He named it after a phrase from Paradise Lost by John Milton.”
He inhaled sharply and flashed an angry look at the ceiling. Although his hands were momentarily under the table, she could tell from the contraction of muscles in his forearms that his fists were clenching.
“I read that one, too,” he said in a low tone. “It’s interesting, but it made me mad. Why do you like it?”
“I didn’t say I liked it,” she snapped softly. “I said it’s meaningful. It has this theme about fighting against impossible odds without any chance of winning.”
His eyes settled on her without blinking.
“I know that feeling,” he responded sullenly.
After staring at the tabletop for a few seconds, she made up her mind. She pushed her chair back, rose quickly, and slid it back up against the table.
‘I’d better get going. I’ll be on soon.”
With graceful strides, she passed where the ruffians were sitting. Their heads turned to follow her as she headed for the door. Not one pair of eyes was above waist level. The men looked at each other while she went outside, scooted heavily out of their seats, and sauntered out in pursuit. They had not paid their check. The bouncer made up his mind. He paced quickly to the door, causing the bartender to shout after him.
“Where you goin’, Tommy? Boss pays you to stop trouble in here, not out there.”
“Those punks just skated on their bill,” he called back hurriedly.
Bursting onto the sidewalk, he looked up and down the street, but nothing was moving. At regular intervals, street lamps reflected off of the windshields of a few parked cars or shined small ellipsoids of light onto the pavement below. Where could they have gone? He rounded the corner on which the bar was situated and stopped to listen. Suddenly, he could hear the sound of a scuffle nearby but out of sight.
“Stop it! Leave me alone!”
It was her. The sounds of ripping fabric and male voices laughing coarsely dissipated into the darkness. They were in a depressed business district nearly deserted at that hour of night. Many of the buildings were unoccupied, some with broken windows. No other help was available. The disturbance was emanating from an alley that ran behind the bar.
Despite his considerable size, the splotched man was agile and astonishingly quick. He sprinted into the alley and saw the four toughs in a ring around their intended victim. They had been pushing her back and forth between them and issuing salacious and belittling taunts. The left sleeve of her shirt was torn at the shoulder, and her handbag was at her feet with some of its contents spilled. Pushed from behind, she fell awkwardly onto her side.
At the sight of beauty roughly handled, he instantly directed his mind toward the concentrated anger which was never difficult for him to find and summon. Terrifying yet familiar, it focused his attention and facilitated his actions, and it made him feel more in control of his emotions than he really was. Springing forward, he fell upon the assailants in a calm fury as they advanced on their target. Four blows were delivered in no more than a couple of seconds. The rhythm of the impact was similar to that of an old-fashioned typewriter. In surreal echoes, four unconscious bodies of above average size fell like bowling pins, landing with dull thuds on the broken concrete. The lopsided altercation had ended before his adversaries could become fully aware of his presence.
Surveying the aftermath to make sure that all threats had been eliminated, he turned to the fallen woman and offered her his hand. Something did not feel right. She looked annoyed, not frightened or grateful, as she refused his hand and pulled herself up by gripping one of his pant legs. Standing with her hands on her hips, she stared intently as he politely placed the scattered items back in her bag and handed it to her.
“Come on,” he offered. “Let’s get you out of here and call the police.”
“No police,” she whispered angrily. “I won’t press charges if you do, and then you might get arrested for knocking them out.”
Slightly stunned by her insistence, he began walking. There was more to her personality than he had gathered through his first impressions. This made him uneasy, but it also rendered her more intriguing. She walked next to him, fuming inwardly. When they reached the mouth of the alley, she stopped and whapped his shoulder with her bag.
“You moron!” she scolded. “I didn’t need to be rescued back there. I was hunting.”