By Cullen Corkery
At some point, the noise and rhythmic thumping of a bass-boosted stereo became too much, despite the coke we’d snorted earlier in the bathroom upon arriving, and despite the vodka cranberries I’d been guzzling half the night. I focused my eyes and found Ray a couple yards down from the balcony where we had both perched up for the night.
‘Let’s get out of here, man,’ I shouted to him as I approached. ‘My head’s fucking pounding and I need to get something to eat before I start hurling everywhere.’
Ray looked at me with a concern that was unlike him. ‘You want some more?’ he asked, patting his jeans pocket.
‘Nah,’ I shook my head. ‘I just need to get out of here. I don’t feel right.’
For some reason unknown to me, he looked around the club, even though just he and I knew each other. Then he pounded back his drink. ‘Let me get one more, then we’ll shove.’
I followed behind him as he went to the bar and ordered a beer that he quickly chugged back, his burp lost in the music wavering around us. We pushed our way past the crowded bar and left the club, the bass and stamp of feet fading quickly behind us.
Despite being near two in the morning, there was still a surprising amount of people on the street. Cars rolled slowly along in the road, the errant honks of horns and screeching tires ringing throughout the city. A group of people, two guys and three girls, were huddled in a circle outside the club, passing each other a joint that looked close to burnt out. Across the street, a restaurant crowd was thinning out, stragglers hugging and kissing each other goodbye at the door, while the waitstaff piled chairs on top of tables and wiped down food-crusted surfaces. Some building lights were still on, either lighting the weekend cleaning crew or burning the oil for unlucky junior executives stuck in the office for the weekend. The fresh air of the night provided me a clarifying, almost awakening, awareness of the city. My headache seemed to subside almost at once upon stepping out of the club, and the nausea that had been riddling me was also quietly dissipating. I didn’t say anything to Ray, however, because I knew he’d want to go right back into the club.
‘You think you’ll be alright?’ he asked, lighting a cigarette, mostly to stop him from grinding his teeth on the way home. The level of concern Ray was showing was somehow disconcerting. Normally if I’d approached him in a crowded and energetic club, a setting he seemed to almost thrive on, he’d wish me luck on the walk home and go back to scrounging for his night’s lay, but his concern and acquiescence to my wanting to leave was wholly unlike him.
‘Yeah, some fresh air will probably do me some good. Let’s walk for a bit.’ I pointed down the street toward the city hall, despite our apartments being toward the river the opposite way, and we started walking.
‘You want a cigarette? Might help ease your anxiety. You probably just did too much in the bathroom.’ He handed me a cigarette and lit it for me. I sucked hard and let the thick, acrid smoke coat my lungs. ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ve been there before. Once in Miami, when I was down for some dumb ass party my parents were having, I did way too much. Swear to God, I thought I was having a heart attack. I remember sitting on the dock in the marina and desperately trying to dip my toes in the water.’ He laughed and I figured it would be okay to laugh too. ‘I guess that I thought the water would somehow help.’ He patted my shoulder, almost paternal-like. ‘You’ll be alright.’
We walked together in silence for a bit, passing closed shops and dwindling restaurants, crowded bars and bustling nightclubs that the music seemed to reverberate underground from. I finished my cigarette and flicked it into the street.
‘Have you talked to Tatum recently?’ I finally asked.
Ray glared over at me, the look of anger and suspicion I was so used to finally coming back. He breathed out the smoke of his smoldering cigarette through his nose and let the butt drop to the ground. Ray and Tatum had been an on-and-off thing in our friend circle. Without his answer, I could tell it was clearly in the off stage. ‘No,’ was all he muttered. I decided to say nothing else, at least not until Ray chose to speak.
‘How’s the job been going?’ he asked, fishing around in his pocket absent-mindedly. For a second, I was worried he’d pull out the baggie of coke, but he pulled out a joint instead. He rolled it in his hands, then lit it. The pungent odor quickly engulfed the both of us as we continued walking forward.
‘It’s been good,’ I said. ‘I like it,’ I lied. ‘It has been taking some getting used to, though. Waking up every morning at six fucking sucks, and then not getting back home until at least six also sucks. Sometimes it feels like I’m wasting most of my day doing nothing, then when I get some free time, I’m too tired to do anything but eat and go to bed’
‘I don’t know how you do it, man. There’s not a snowballs chance I’d be able to do that kind of routine.’ He inhaled sharply and gritted his teeth while exhaling.
‘How’s the trust fund holding up anyhow?’ I asked, motioning for the joint figuring it might help mellow me out some.
‘Ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. Plus, the apartment’s paid off and the roommates all chuck in about a grand a month to stay, so I got that extra money coming in which is nice. Right now, all I’m caring about is getting laid and trying to get my demo out to some of the record company’s up in New York.’ Ray was currently a wannabe DJ living off an interminable trust, his days spent sleeping and his nights getting drunk and high at various clubs and bars in the city. I’d never actually seen him DJ anything, but he talked about it constantly.
‘Any luck so far?’ The joint tasted horrendous and each puff I took was followed by a hacking cough filled with thick phlegm. Ray took the joint.
‘Not yet, no. Gonna keep trying though. We’ll see.’ He looked straight ahead, avoiding my gaze. I knew better than to keep asking questions, so we stayed silent for a bit.
Turning the corner near a CVS, we nearly bumped into a fetal-positioned homeless man laying over a subway grate. When we sidestepped him, he poked his head up, his mangled and greasy mane of hair falling into his sullen and bloodshot eyes, and snarled something at us. I didn’t hear exactly what it was he said, but Ray seemed to have understood him.
‘What was that?’ Ray asked sarcastically, wheeling back, the joint falling from his lips and the smoke streaming behind it.
‘Give me some money, you almost hit me,’ the man grumbled, looking away from us as he scratched at his arm.
‘I ain’t giving you shit. Shouldn’t be laying in the middle of the fucking sidewalk if you don’t want to get stepped on.’ I could see the anger rising in Ray’s face. The night getting cut short, my asking him about the failed demo, the homeless man berating him; it was a perfect storm for one of Ray’s outbursts.
‘Fuck you, buddy. Fuck you, give me some money. Almost hit me, you, almost…’ The man trailed off, still not looking at us.
‘Go die in the gutter you waste of fucking air,’ Ray spat.
‘I’ll kick your ass, fucker. Don’t nobody talk to me that way.’ The man stood up and puffed out his chest. His shirt, stained with various colored marks and torn up near his shoulder, clung to his thin chest. His dirty jeans, several shades darker than when he must have got them, hung low on his waist and were chopped up at the hem. The worn boots on his feet were unlaced and the sole of one was separated.
‘Is that so, huh?’ Ray asked. He began to walk toward the man, his shoulders slumped forward and his balled fist white with anger. I reached out and feebly touched his shoulder.
‘Ray, leave it, man. The fucker’s just nuts. Probably on meth or something. Come on, let’s keep going,’ I pleaded, trying to hide the fear in my voice, not a fear of the homeless man, but fear of what Ray may do to him.
Ray looked back at me. His face was blank and his eyes seemed to stare right through me. He rubbed his eyes. Then he smiled. ‘Hey, buddy,’ he said, turning back to the man. ‘Listen, sorry about that. We weren’t watching where we were going.’
The man slunk back, unsure of Ray’s sudden change in demeanor. ‘I just need money, man. Just a couple dollars.’
‘Down the block on the next corner is an ATM. Follow us and I’ll take some out for you.’ Ray took off down the block. I hurried behind him, not quite believing what was going on. The homeless man hesitated, then skulked slowly behind us, his left foot dragging slightly behind him with each step he took.
Like Ray said, there was an ATM about a block away. I didn’t even take notice of which bank it was, instead keeping my gazed fixed on Ray. His current calmness and the quick switch between anger and affability unnerved me.
The homeless man moved closer toward Ray as he went up to the ATM with his wallet in hand, looking over Ray’s shoulder, his grimy hands hanging idly by his sides.
‘How much you want?’ Ray asked, but before the homeless man could answer, Ray, with a speed and ferocity that made me physically move back, almost into the street, grabbed the thick mat of hair on the man’s head and threw him face first into the metal number dial. Blood immediately sprayed out over the screen and keys as his face made contact. The man’s knees buckled and he fell to the ground, not making any noise save for a strange chortle that wheezed through the broken cartilage of his nose. Blood poured out of the smashed nostrils, dripping onto the wet pavement. His arms waved crazily in the air and his eyes went wild with a mix of shock and confusion. Ray again grabbed a handful of the greasy hair and threw his knee into the homeless man’s face with vicious force, almost knocking himself off balance. The man’s body seemed to seize up and he collapsed onto his back, silent and still. Ray stood back and looked at me. There was an expressionless gaze on his face. Blood was gushing out of the homeless man’s now sideways bent nose and both his eyes, now involuntarily closed tight, were rapidly puffing up. Ray went to stomp his face, but stopped himself. He opened his wallet, then closed it and stuffed in back in his jeans.
‘Fuck you, shit-head,’ he snarled. ‘Find your own damn money, you worthless piece of shit.’ Ray began walking away. I stared at the homeless man, silent on the ground as his blood began to pool around his face. His legs were horribly twisted and the little breath that came to him was shallow. My own breath was caught in my throat, and an immense wave of unease crashed over me. I shook away the anxiety and nausea that was growing in me as I looked at the bloody heap of the homeless man and followed Ray.
Before we turned the next corner, I looked back. Ray was telling me something, but his words were muddled and bounced right out of my brain. The homeless man was still motionless on the ground. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. The bright light at the top of the ATM shone down on his un-moving form, illuminating the pool of blood and his pulpy, mangled face. We walked home as the city chugged along around us.
Two days later, with my hangover having finally subsided and the homeless man still fresh in my mind, I decided to go out and get some dinner at a tiny Pho restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment. The weather was getting chillier out and I popped my jacket collar high around my neck as I braced myself against the rising wind. I hadn’t spoken to Ray since that night. At my apartment’s entrance that night, he’d smiled at me and told me to not worry.
‘Nobody gives a shit about a wastoid like that guy. I might go back just to count how many people walk over him,’ he laughed. Leaning back in the elevator up to my floor, my eyes shut tight in a feeble attempt to avoid throwing up everywhere, I wondered whether he was serious or not.
I sat by the table looking out on the street while I waited for my food. Tired people trudged along on the sidewalk as they made their way home from work.
Then I saw him.
Across the street, the homeless man trudged along with the tide, his left foot dragging behind even more as he limped forward. His face was swollen with deep purple and blue bruises blotting his mottled skin. His nose was still bent at an awful angle and his top lip was split near the right corner of his mouth. The man was wearing the same clothes as the night we had crossed paths, though he was also now wearing a pea-green bomber jacket. The stains of now-dried blood were too apparent on his shirt and pants. He stopped walking and slumped down on the subway grate on the sidewalk, curling into the same fetal-position in which he’d been that night. The back-and-forth tide of people walked around him, side-stepping without a word, nor giving even a cursory glance of annoyance, all of them simply avoiding looking at his ugly and beaten face for too long.
My food finally came and I left the store. I watched him for a bit from across the street. He didn’t move. Finally, I pulled my jacket collar up again and walked back home.
(Bio: Bio: Cullen Corkery is a writer who lives and works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. )