One brutally hot summer's morning, Paul Trilby—ex-husband, temp typist, cat murderer—slouched sweating in his t-shirt on his way to work, waiting behind the wheel of his car for the longest red light in central Texas. He was steeling himself for a confrontation with his boss, screwing up his nerve to ask for a raise, but his present circumstances were conspiring against him. His fourteen-year-old Dodge Colt rattled in place in the middle of the Travis Street Bridge, hemmed in on all sides by bulbous, purring pickup trucks and gleaming sport utility vehicles with fat, black tires. The electric blues and greens of these enormous automobiles reflected the dazzling morning glare through Paul's cracked and dirty windshield; they radiated shimmering heat through his open window. Waiting for the light, the fingers of his left hand drumming the scalding side of his car, the skin of his forearm baking to leather in the heat, Paul felt less like a man who deserved more out of life than a peasant on a mule cart trapped in the middle of an armored division.
"You're paying me as a typist," Paul said aloud, practicing, "but you're working me as a technical writer."
In the heat, and in the rumble of idling engines, this sounded especially feeble. Paul sighed and peered ahead, where a homeless man was walking through the waves of heat between the lines of hulking trucks and SUVs, turning slowly from side to side as if he were lost in a parking lot looking for his car. Unlike most panhandlers, he didn't carry a hand-lettered sign on a piece of cardboard, telegraphing some tale of woe; even more strange, he wore a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie instead of the usual sun-bleached denims and filthy t-shirt. The bluntness of his large, egg-shaped head was exaggerated by a severe buzz cut and a pair of wire-rim glasses, and his body was egg shaped as well—he looked unusually well fed for a homeless guy. Indeed, in his white shirt and polyester slacks, he looked like a caricature of a middle manager from some draw-this-puppy matchbook school of art, one large oval topped by a smaller one. The shirt and tie are a mistake, Paul thought, he needs a sign-WILL TYPE AND FILE FOR FOOD. But that cut too close to the bone for Paul; he was only a paycheck away from panhandling himself. And anyway, it wasn't his job to offer marketing advice to the homeless. I've got my own problems, he told himself, and he lifted his gaze through the heat shimmering off the trucks ahead and saw, at the far end of the bridge, the time and temperature endlessly chasing each other across the shadow side of the Bank of Texas Building. It was just barely eight o'clock, and already 85 degrees. In the morning glare the bank's brass logo along the sunlit side of the building blazed as if it were burning.
"Bot," said Paul, pronouncing the bank's acronym aloud. "Bee. Oh. Tee." Sweat trickled down his breastbone. Both front windows of his unair-conditioned Colt were rolled down, in the unlikely event of a breeze, and his own dress shirt was tossed on the passenger seat so that he wouldn't sweat through it on the drive to work. A racket like someone violently battering a cookie sheet came from the undercarriage of his unevenly idling car and was reflected back at him by the enormous, neon blue Trooper to his left.
This is not the climate for ambition, Paul thought, and at the edge of his consciousness flickered a retort from his former, more politically engaged persona as a university professor: that this kind of thinking was prejudiced and possibly even racist. Old buzzwords flickered dialectically at the back of his brain like heat lightning along the horizon—colonial/postcolonial; First World/Third World; North/South—but Paul was only barely aware of them. During this moment of distraction, each of the red numerals streaming across the bank at the end of the bridge had grown by one. Now it was 86 degrees and 8:01, and Paul was late for work.
The egg-shaped man had come closer, only a couple of vehicles away. All the other drivers on the bridge sat high up behind their tinted windows, ignoring the man in air-conditioned comfort. Paul had come to think of these more affluent drivers as "the truckoisie," middle-class state employees who faced, at worst, a forty-minute, stop-and-start commute every morning, but who did it in vehicles capable of fording a jungle stream or hauling half a ton of manure. These vehicles had names that bespoke Spartan virtues, a semimilitary asceticism—Explorer and Pathfinder and Samurai—but within, even in the cabs of the pickup trucks, the vehicles were as comfy as suburban living rooms, where the truckoisie drank from huge plastic flagons of specialty coffee, talked on their cell phones, and listened to hyperventilating, drive time DJs on the radio or best-selling self-help books on tape. Paul's own tape player had long since choked to death on a cassette of Jan and Dean's greatest hits, stuck at last on the screeching tires of "Dead Man's Curve," and the FM band on his radio no longer worked, leaving him with only the shrill democracy of AM—jammin' oldies, oompah Tejano accordion music, and Dr. Laura. At this moment he waited with the radio off, his car noisily juddering itself to pieces beneath him, and he sat smelling exhaust, his own sweat, and the nitrous aroma of bat shit rising off the sluggish green river below.
"I'm not a typist," muttered Paul, trying to focus on the matter at hand, "I'm a goddamn tech writer."
Suddenly the egg-shaped man was at the Colt's bumper, swiveling his spectacles in Paul's direction. Paul averted his gaze, trying to avoid eye contact. Too late. The homeless man came up to Paul's window, his eyes huge behind his glasses.
Paul glowered straight ahead, his train of thought derailed. This was a breach of panhandler decorum. The way it was supposed to work was, you waggled your sign, if you had one, and scowled in a guilt-inducing manner; the object of your attentions ignored you; you moved on. Paul sighed ostentatiously and lifted his eyebrows at the traffic light, just barely visible above the tall rear end of the Pathfinder ahead of him. Still red. Over the stink of exhaust and hot metal, he was certain he could already smell the homeless man's riparian scent. But for the heat, Paul would have rolled up his window.
Don't meet his eye, Paul told himself. Pretend he isn't there.
But now Mr. Egg was bent at Paul's window like a highway patrolman. Paul allowed himself only the tiniest roll of his eyeballs to the side and was surprised to note that the man's tie featured some sort of astronomical theme, lines of right ascension and declination and signs of the Zodiac against a background of twilight blue. Still not meeting the man's eye, Paul performed another leftward, double-take bounce of his eyeballs. The tie was faded but tightly knotted and clipped to the man's shirt with a dull, silver tie clip, upon which an eroded engraving read "...OF THE YEAR." Paul risked another eyeball bounce at Herr Egg, then another. The white shirt front was smudged, and the narrow points of the man's collar were frayed, but astonishingly in this heat—Paul himself perspired like an overweight prizefighter—there were no sweat stains on the shirt. Monsieur Egg wore two pens; the lower end of one poked through a hole in the bottom of his breast pocket. Across his other breast, inches from Paul's nose, was a smudgy, creased, blue-and-white paper name tag, the sort with a sticky backing that conference goers wear. It read, in blue sans serif and large, block hand lettering:
Hello! My name is
Paul twisted sideways in his seat and looked the man in his egg-shaped face. "Go away" he demanded.
Senor Egg's face from temple to chin was one long, smooth, hairless curve. His skin—another p0first for a homeless guy in Texas—was pale as a slug, almost albino. His milky scalp gleamed through his stubbled hair, but even this close to him Paul saw not a drop of sweat. The man—Boy G, why else would he wear a name tag?—had a small mouth and a rounded nose, and his tiny, pale eyes were magnified by the bulbous lenses of his wire rims. He was not looking at Paul, however, but past him, appraising the contents and the state of Paul's automobile. His fishy eyes noted the S-shaped crack in the windshield, the greasy dust on the dashboard, the foamy rents in the upholstery. The driver's side sun visor was long gone, torn off in a rage, and the armrest on the passenger door hung by one screw. Behind the front seat a rising tide of Coke cans, crumpled Taco Bell bags, and empty Big Gulp cups cluttered the foot wells.
Paul stared at the man openmouthed and gripped the steering wheel, his stomach tight with anger. Could this bum be judging him? Was it possible that Paul Trilby, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., almost a Fulbright, did not meet the exacting standards of the homeless? Boy G's small mouth curved down at either end, either the beginnings of a smile or a condescending frown, and Paul braced himself for some hoarse obscenity or just an indecipherable grunt. He frantically sought for something cutting to say to forestall this asshole's street witticism.
But Boy G spoke in a whisper, his breath betraying no trace of alcohol nor of anything else for that matter.
"Are we not men?" he said.
Paul's retort caught in his throat. "What?" was all he managed to say.
"Are we not men?" repeated Boy G, with the same ghostly inflection.
The driver of the Ram Truck behind him honked her horn just then, startling Paul, and he glanced in the rearview mirror, then ahead through the windshield glare at the traffic light. It was green, and all the gleaming trucks ahead of him were in motion; a wide gap had opened up between his front bumper and the receding wall of SUVs and pickups. Paul jerked his foot off the brake and the Colt rattled forward. Then he remembered the homeless guy so close to his car, and he hit the brake again. He turned to the window as Ms. Ram Truck leaned on her horn.
"Watch it!" said Paul to Boy G, but there was no one there.
The Ram Truck roared around him and raced through the yellow light. Paul cursed and hit the gas, then jammed the brake almost immediately as the light turned red. His threadbare tires screeched; his arthritic shocks groaned. He lurched against his seat belt, and from the passenger seat his shirt and his lunch slid to the floor; behind him the midden of cans and crumpled bags rustled. Paul pounded the wheel and twisted in his seat, looking right and left, forward and back, for the egg-shaped man. But all he saw were the six sun-baked lanes and the concrete parapet of the bridge, and another fearsome brigade of Troopers and Scouts coming up from behind. Boy G had vanished.
Copyright © 2004 by James Hynes. All rights reserved.