It is October 2017. New York City. The Borough of Queens.
I’m on a stone path which leads to the train station, the Long Island Railroad. I’m smoking a cigarette. A man approaches.
“Money. Give it to me.” He says.
I look up and I see his eyes, narrowed yet wide and unhinged.
“Brother, I’ve got $14 in my pocket and I need it for cigarettes. I’ve had to write a bad check for rent three months in a row. What are you gonna buy with $14?”
He slumps slightly and straightens back up again; his brows furrow and his lips purse. I can see his heart rate heighten and I can hear his fists clench tight. His knuckles crack. Though he doesn’t take a step.
“I’ll give you a cigarette. Here, here’s two cigarettes. Now leave me alone. Come on.”
“I’ve got a knife. $14 to me is $14 to you. Give it to me.”
“Don’t be an asshole. Sit down and smoke with me. Come on, we’ll even share a pipe.”
He sits. I hand him a cigarette. I hand him another cigarette. I reach into the back pocket of my blue jeans and retrieve a small, metal one hitter. I hit it once and pass it to him.
He says, “Thanks. I’m sorry. $14. I don’t know. I’m broken. The world is broken. I’m broken. $14.”
“I know. I’ve been there. It’s alright. Hit that pipe and hold the smoke in your lungs for as long as you can. Exhale. Hit it again.”
“I know how to smoke weed. Shut the fuck up.”
I smile and he sees me and the lines around his eyes show through his papery skin and I can sense the years of struggle and sorrow break from his thoughts. He winces. He hits the pipe and doesn’t exhale. Doesn’t ever exhale. Stops breathing. Turns red.
“Okay, but the smoke can’t just stay in there. You told me you know how to smoke weed. And you told me to shut up about it.”
He coughs and chuckles but averts his eyes from mine and I look away and light my cigarette and a slow smile reaches from my gut, up my windpipe and past my teeth to my lips, which curl and curve. I wince. And look back in his direction, but not at him and certainly not in search of his gaze.
“Do you want to know a secret?” I ask him.
“I guess. $14…”
“The secret is that this life is a fucked up, meaningless, bullshit of a situation and we have to look out for each other. I wish I was a rich man, then you wouldn’t need to rob me. I’d happily work to make sure you get the shit you’re looking for. Maybe not everything. But I’d feed you if I could. I’d bathe you with my tongue if we were feline. I’d look you in the eye as you stabbed me for what the more I was holding in my bank account, and I’d know for certain that you aren’t who they say you are. I’d know that you’re more. I’d know that you’re everything right with the system we’ve built. But I’d know for sure that it is because the system is constructed to call numbers into play; zeros; hard paper or coins. If I were a rich man, I’d happily die at your hand. But I’m a poor man. And I refuse to die tonight or any night for the system that fucks us both on purpose.”
I stand up and hand him a book of matches. He hits the little metal pipe again and doesn’t exhale. Doesn’t ever exhale. Stops breathing. Turns blue. Looks at me and smiles.
“You can keep that pipe.” I say.