From “Street Life”


The Witness



 I should have said "No, I don't know them, never did." Even though their stare through the liquor store window still haunted me, hollowed eye sockets, mouths silently begging me, their faces so full of despair they might have seen right through me. They the whispering, shuffling figures in the night capable of killing me, hanging outside every door, like crumbling brown leaves blown here and there.

 The street is full of villains like them, poverty stricken, violent, arguing amongst themselves as to what they will do with me once I wander too far away from a well-lighted door.

 I had come in for a pack of cigarettes and information, asking the proprietor behind the bullet proof glass if I could use a telephone, or how I might go about getting road service, only to have him laugh and shake his head, and tell me "No Phone," "No tow service," he seeing the men outside as well as I did, knowing how the thick panes made him immune. He knew how I feared to walk outside again, feared they might pick up my trail and follow me as I sought a cab.

 I could almost hear the safety as they readied their guns. I could almost smell the gun oil, so sickeningly sweet.

 I had seen them before, like wolves picking up my scent when my BMW broke down, as if they knew I had few options as to where to go, and that people in this neighborhood would no more take sympathy on a person dressed like me than a rat.

 Then, the owner motions for me to leave, mouthing the word "closed" with his eyes laughing at me, knowing that my wallet full of credit cards won't buy me out of this situation. Perhaps, he wonders why I don't carry a cellular phone like the rest of my kind, or how I came to wander out of my own neighborhood around the Grove Street Path into the Greenville section of Jersey City, where I don't belong.

 To explain my wrong turn off the turnpike extension would take too long and he would have no more sympathy for me at its end than he had before, he thinking I would not have paid him attention to him if I was not desperate, and he's right. Until this moment, I would have felt repulsed by his smell, thinking how little it cost to buy deodorant, less than the bottle of alcohol from which he clearly drank.

 Then, with the door closing behind me, I found myself on the street again, and those two sets of eyes now without glass between us. I could hear the two of them giggling, and saw the tall one with the cruel smile clutching something in his pocket I knew had to be a gun.

 The click sounded in my head, the smell of gun oil reached me, even though they were not close enough for me to hear that sound or smell that odor.

 But they came fast, their whispered step rushing at me so quickly I barely had time to turn before I found one pushing a pistol into my face while the other riffled my pockets.

 "Where is the money?" the smaller of the two asked. "Where is the money"

 I grew distant from them, their voices echoing, as if my head was an empty drum.

 I did not feel them strip my wallet from me; I felt only the blow to my head when they hit me and I fell.

 The next moment, I police officer is helping me to my feet, asking me if I would recognize the two if I saw them again, and me, so grateful for their arrival I would have said anything, nodding my head as they put me into the car and drove me along the street, and when we came upon those two thugs again, asking me if that was them, and me telling the officers, yes, yes, it is them.

 And then, time passes, the daily routines, me back at my Grove Street condo, coming and going from the Path, hardly thinking of the date I have to appear in court, and then, appearing in court, smelling the foul smell of sweating bodies as people crowd around me, then, me, alone, sitting in a chair, one lawyer asking me about what happened, then another, me telling them about the break down of my car, about my walking alone, my begging for help, my beating, and then, as if on top of it all, finding my car gone when I got back, the thieves capable of starting it and stealing it when I could not find a tow truck in time.

 And the whole time, those two stared at me from their chairs, hands clenched into fists, their gaze enraged by my statements, they in their silent way promising me to never forget, telling me the next time they will be less kind than to leave me bleeding from the head yet clear-headed enough to pick them out of a lineup and put them in jail.

 The next time, their gazes promise, they will find me wherever I am and make sure I can never witness against them again. And I tell the judge and jury, yes, it was them, only to hear the judge suspend their sentence, if they promise to be good.


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