The man asked him for four Canadian dollars. He gave him fifty cents. I stood silently by.
"I need eightteen dollars for the fare to the hospital, and I only asked for four. You only gave me fifty cents."
"The rest is American. That's all I have," he replied.
He got closer to his face, hunched over, angry. My friend looked to the sidewalk, scanning. I took a couple steps backward, urging him to follow. He shifted forward, parrying the man. Sideways, he met the man's gaze for a moment and then took a step toward me. The man looked over his shoulder and scurried away, his hair bouncing.
We walked to the corner, and once there, he said, "I thought I was going to have to fight him."
In the fall of my first year at university I'd come up with the idea to save beer and soda cans and take them to Michigan to receive fifteen cents apiece. My roommate agreed to save his used cans if I'd promise to give him a few dollars when I recycled them; I happily complied.
Brian liked the idea so much that he decided to save them himself. We worked out a deal only after he found out that he could purchase a keg in exchange for milk jug of aluminum can tabs. He'd give me his cans if I'd give him my tabs.
By December I had three garbage bagfuls of uncrushed cans of former carbonated miscellany. I asked Victoria if she would take me to Michigan in return for twenty dollars. She asked for thirty. I was making around fifty dollars from the whole thing, so I asked if she would settle for twenty-five. She did.
Later that month, I asked around my hall for used cans. Most of them generously handed me their refuse. Within two weeks I'd gotten five more bags of cans. I accumulated over one hundred dollars on the venture, some seventy of which I kept.
Brian had only filled his jug a quarter full, so he invited a dozen people over for drinks one night. We brought our own beer and stayed past midnight. After all of the guests had left, only Brian and I remained. I helped him clean his squalid flat, and then we ate leftover Chinese food on paper plates and sat in his impromptu furniture, a lawnchair and a blow-up sofa.
"I have to work six nights this week," he said.
"What do you spend your money on?" I asked.
"The woman, beer, cell phone."
"Why," I inquired with obvious distaste at his lavishness, "do you need a cell phone?"
"I just do," he replied.
When I was about to leave, I remembered I needed to pay my phone bill the next day. It was quicker to walk to the ATM from his place than from mine, so I did it that night. In a limbo of orange sodium lights and trodden, wiry grass, I felt floaty and thin. I thought about Brian. He thinks he is treated so unfairly. If he only rationed, he'd be okay. And I could tell that he wanted to borrow some money. I acted as if I didn't pick up on his intimations because I knew he'd never pay me back. Maybe it was some karmatic reaper that had struck him with financial troubles, I mused and quickly discarded.
A woman in gray shawls carrying grocery bags hijacked my thoughts midstream and pervaded my consciousness. She appeared to be walking to the ATM as well, I saw as I took a lazy first step onto the bank parking lot. Suddenly I lost my balance and nearly slipped on the icy-slick igneous pavement. When I regained equilibrium, the woman had gone. The silly little boy in me said she was an apparition, her body long recycled but her essence forming and dissipating like a swampy mist.
I entered the 24 hour kiosk
and withdrew forty dollars, for the bill and to ride for the next week. A blurred figure stole my periphery. The door opened. I expected to find the old woman, but instead met the countenance of a man, a head taller than me and twice as bulky. He asked me to please give him my money. I did, but he was disappointed at the small sum. He told me to withdraw all the money from my savings account.
I looked him in his dark eyes, surveyed his mahogany-splotched purple face for a second before doing so. I turned and took out the other eighty, my savings from the cans. Handing it to him, he nodded and ran off. Shaken, embarrassed, I walked dejectedly home.
Brian never did save enough of the tabs to cash in. When I asked him about it, he acted as though he had never had the idea.
"So, what about your money?" he asked me during one of these evasive spells.
"You're going to give up like that? Why don't you call the police?"
I explained to him that I had, that the police didn't catch the man.
That seems a little half-hearted to me," said he.
"I'm doing all I can. I'm not going to storm through the city trying to find him."
"It's over. I'll take the loss."
"These niggers and freeloaders. Think they can do as they please." "You remember," he said and fumbled with his keys. I sat, waiting for him to go on. "Remember that bum in Canada who asked me for money. There's an example. Take and take."
"He may have had a hard life. I can hardly blame him for begging."
"Yeah, but, I get by. I work. He was looking for a handout. And he gets upset when I say I don't have any more. The nerve."
I didn't have anything to say. I was looking at a marigold painting on his wall. It was a picture of a wheat field. I wanted to be there, not listening to his ranting.
"Remember what you said to me after that?" he asked.
"Yes. What did you want to say about it?"
"Well, you said something like what you're saying now. About him dealing with things the only way he can. About how I shouldn't get all, all..."
"--How you shouldn't get angry about it. Let it go. You getting pissed off and going back and pushing him around didn't help. Just like later when you got angry because that bouncer wouldn't let you in the bar. What happens, happens."
"So you take everything with that calm resignation, that 'quiet desperation'? That isn't a very good way to live."
"I'm not resigned. I just think that my energy is better spent making myself happy than trying to change the ways other people act."
"Ooooh!" he exclaimed mockingly. "You're so condescending. Always such a prick."
"No. Look, I have to go to work. I'll talk to you some other time."
Around six in the evening, me and my father sat on our back porch watching the neighbor's dogs play. A huge Doberman was chasing a white toy poodle. The poodle didn't want to play, but the other persisted. I breathed deeply the scent of the grill mingling with the first spring breeze. Buds were just visible on the trees.
"This is my favorite time of year," I said.
"Gorgeous," said my father. "After this winter, we need it."
It had been one of the harshest winters I remember. It was nice to be outside in short sleeves. I was barefoot. I like the way the cold cement feels on my feet when it's about sixty degrees outside. It's crisp and invigorating.
"Honcho, get that chipmunk!" he yelled to our dog. Honcho perked his ears and tail, his back hairs stiffened, and he sniffed at the ground. When he heard the neighbors coming over, he wagged his tail. My neighbor Mike and his father from across the street, ignored Honcho and sat in the wicker chairs.
"Home from school, already?" Mike asked.
"I'm going back tonight."
"Oh, spring break over?"
"It's over just when the weather turns nice," he said.
"Yes. But I'll be out for the summer soon enough."
His father got out of the chair to pet Honcho. "How old's he now, Bill?" he addressed my father.
"That dickhead," he joked, "he's about six."
Wes, Mike's father, put his hands halfway into his pockets and began to walk back to the maple trees.
"Would you like a steak, Mike? Burger, beer, anything?" my dad asked.
"No thanks. If I don't get the ribs going soon, I'll be in trouble."
Wes, hands in pockets, walked easily back to the porch. He had a very gentle, peaceful gait. His face was old and tired, impish.
"How's college?" he asked me.
"It's fine. Good grades. Great atmosphere."
"He got robbed," my father added.
"Yeah, I got robbed at an ATM," I said.
"Aww, that's horrible. Let me guess, a black?" Wes asked.
"Yes," I answered.
His face contorted and he traced an arc in the grass with his foot.
"Dad's an old-timer," Mike remarked. "He won't have it any other way."
He can have it his way, I thought. I looked into the field and gazed at the tangerine sunset.