The stench hit me the moment I opened the door. I actually froze for a moment in that pressure differential of warm fetid air being sucked through the doorway out onto the streets, before catching the imploring look from the barista and closing my umbrella to enter and seal the chamber.
It was him. I recognized him immediately. That same murky gray hoodie that might have started out a dark shade of green or brown. His face obscured by the matted tangle of dreadlocks, and thick pants that looked like he had rubbed cigarette ash into them for an eternity. I had never spoken to him or learned his name, but he had been an almost permanent fixture outside my apartment building since I moved in last fall.
I’d often returned from work with the intention to prepare more food than I needed and deliver the leftovers to him. But by the time I got out of my dress and into my workout clothes any possibility of going back out into the cold was abandoned in favor of white wine and yoga with Adrienne. Besides, the man never held a cup, or even made eye contact for that matter. It was assumptive and privileged to think that someone who was on the streets needed or even wanted my help. If he asked, or had a sign I would be happy to, but to just assume would be pretentious.
At least now I knew he had somewhere to get out of the elements for a while during the day. But it certainly did come with a cost to me, and everyone else here. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as I made my way up to the counter, suddenly realizing that there were four small tables and only one empty beside him.
Shit. I’d have to take my coffee back to the office. Yes, I’d have to endure Creeper staring at my exposed ankles in the break room. That or try to enjoy my break by listening to Carol’s inane banter with clients at the front desk. But the smell was just unbearable. Like someone was burning baskets of year-old armpit hair in a clay oven.
I sighed, accepting my fate and ordered. Asking for extra cinnamon just to give me a strong scent to make up for the smell of the man’s unwashed body.
“Kaitlyn.” I spelled it for her. If they were going to put my name on a cup, it was going to be my name. I nodded over to the corner where the homeless man was hunched, frantically scribbling in a small book. “Really nice of you by the way.”
She leaned to peer over my shoulder for a minute before responding. “What’s that?”
“Nice of you to let him stay inside, with the weather and everything.” I looked back and confirmed that he didn’t have a coffee in front of him.
“Uh yeah,well that’s my roommate, and the other two women come in pretty much every day. And hey, If you buy a cup, you can stay and drink it for free…. that’s the company line anyway. Be right up.”
I turned again, and by accident inhaled through my nose once more. There was no mistaking the two-hundred-something pound black indigent man by sight or smell. Was she messing with me? Maybe teaching some “woke” lesson about how we can all ignore the obvious and treat everyone the same?
I caught myself openly staring at the man’s hands as he wrote in his journal. The strange ashen color of his hands. The flakes and scraps of torn dead skin around his fingernails. And the bugs. I wanted to look away but found it impossible. There were tiny bugs crawling out from his straggly sleeve, moving in several lines over the backs of his hands and fingers as he wrote. My stomach turned and I felt my face start to curl at the sight.
Then I looked up and found him openly staring dead into my eyes. His hands were still moving, scratching the pencil in tiny fluctuations across the page, but he was locked onto me. Holding my attention fully in the most intense stare I have ever been assaulted by. And his eyes. I had never seen them before. They were green, but seemed to turn a dark yellow at the edges. And shift, as if lights were moving over his face.
He stood, still staring. I put my hand behind me grasping the edge of the counter behind my lowe back. There was no danger, I told myself. We were in a public place. It was 11an on a fucking Tuesday. Even if he wanted to yell at me for staring, or rant at me in some incoherent tirade, fine. It would be embarrassing but nothing to feel this fearful about.
I watched as he raised a hand, the one that had been holding the pencil, extended a finger, and pressed it into the back of the woman’s head beside him. Into the back of her head, not against. The tip of his pointer finger actually disappeared further into her hair than was possible.
Then everything happened quickly. The woman let out a yelp, immediately cut short as she pressed her palm over her right eye and fell onto the floor. Everyone else shot up and then stooped down around her, some prodding at her, others calling out for her to respond. She did not.
We were all asked to stay, citing that someone would want to speak to “the witnesses”, and shortly the EMT and then police arrived. I was last to be interviewed. When I was, I simply parroted the information that everyone had given before me. She just grabbed her face in pain and fell over. That’s all. We were told it appeared to be an aneurysm, thanked for our information, and given license to go on our respective ways. The barista even gave everyone free $10 gift cards on the way out. I don’t think I’ll ever use mine.
Six blocks back to my office was nowhere near enough time for me to make sense of what I had seen, hell what I had smelled, that apparently no one else had. By the time I was two blocks away I was just mentally repeating the mantra “I saw an invisible homeless man kill a woman. I saw an invisible homeless man kill a woman.” Somehow this became oddly comforting. It was a statement of fact, at least.
Then I saw him sitting on the steps outside my office building. No longer stooped over with his face hidden by his hoodie and hair. This time staring directly at me again.
Fuck. No. Absolutely not.
I left and walked for half an hour through the park, back to confirm he was still there, then up and down the street to think before returning to the sidewalk opposite my office building.
I made a choice. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I could not afford to risk this job, I had just started a month ago, and had already taken a week off when I thought I had Covid.
I dialed the front desk and explained that a strange man had been following me, and asked them to send security across the street to escort me inside. I hated how helpless I sounded, but it was the only way I was ever going to walk past those steps.
It was a stupid plan to begin with. It didn’t even occur to me until the glass doors were opening that the officer would be no help against whatever that man was. He wasn’t going to be stopped by a rent-a-cop with a taser, even if the guy could see him, which no one else seemed to.
It was moot. Before I had time to rethink my plan or call out, I watched the indigent monster stand and give the man a small push. I could hear his leg snap when the cab hit him from across the street. Then everyone else could hear his cries of pain before the crowd assembled around him, pulling him up onto the sidewalk and calling emergency services.
Not dead, just injured. But there was no way that I was going to stay longer to find out more. In a snap my heels were off and I was running down the oily streets toward my apartment.
He was there too. Just as I had seen him so many times before, but again, unlike before, I had his rapt attention.
The sun is setting now. I’m in the park a few blocks east of my place. My cell phone has about 20% left, but I have no one to call anyway, which is why I’m writing this. Even if I could call James, or better yet David from the gym, it would only mean injury or death for them, and the same predicament for me.
I tried going to a hotel. I tried going to the library when it was still open. Even tried the train station to get the hell out of town. Each time, every time, he was there waiting. Staring. This park is the only destination I have found where I cannot spot him. I need help. I need something, someone.
If you see what looks like a very recently homeless woman sleeping in Fallow Park tonight, please help.