I am safe enough.
The outlands are hardly as dark as people on the inside always imagine. It has its terrors. They are less frequent than most people presume.
It’s the human tragedy that unnerves me and maybe testimony to my time in college, as if one had nothing to do with the other. If I could find rent as cheap as up in the hills I would move there is only not to see the pain.
Things were different when I first got here, when I did not
see it even though I walked through it daily. That was Leo’s doing. He was an odd old man who I first set
eyes upon while I was reading near the bridge.
He was a dirty man with bad breath and dirty clothing, who is trying to read the spine of my book. His olive green knit cap was incrusted with leaves which suggested he had been sleeping in the park.
But that is a terrible book, he said, shaking his head. You shouldn’t be reading it.
Can you imagine my indication at this bum telling me what I should read.
Look, why don’t you mind your own business, I said, and tried to go back to reading, by which time I knew he was staring again.
Rather than make any issue of it, I folded the book closed and came home, vowing to look out carefully for the character before I set out to be there again. There is no way to tell what’s wrong with his kind. With some it is drugs. But the local mental hospital let loose lots of so-called safe people into the outlands. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were mass murderers.
But that was not the last of the character. I saw him again a few weeks later at the library somehow he had slipped through all the detection equipment making we believe someone in authority had let him and, despite rules against characters of his ilk occupying the library. He recognized me immediately, greeting me from across the silent room as if we were long-lost friends.
Of course, I ignored him, pretending he was talking to someone else or even himself. But he came over and looked at the books I was taking out.
No! No! No! He shouted when he saw the titles. They have it all wrong.
Embarrassed? I was mortified and the librarian did think we work together. She motioned to the security team who came in with weapons drawn. They were mean men, who did not want to hear my side of the story. They put us both out telling us not to come back.
At this point, I was so peeved, I could’ve killed him!
But I carried no more lethal a weapon and then typical sprays and electronics devices. I could not afford heavy armor even. Let alone a weapon capable of killing.
But I did give him a tongue lashing saying he had nerve associating with decent people like me, getting people like me tangled with his heady schemes. What did the men want from me money? Was that why he was bothering me?
I told him I had no money. This was not far from the truth. I told him I was working my way through the community college, hoping to make something out of myself.
I did not have to explain even to him, how small of chance I had of escaping the outlands through my books.
I told him it was difficult enough getting by without some lazy man like him trying to take from me the little I’ve earned.
I went on and on mercilessly.
Anyway, he took it badly. A lot worse than I thought he would. He actually looked hurt and turned away with expression of betrayal. I was so upset that I immediately caught up with him and said I could afford him a cup of coffee if he wanted.
He took me to a little coffee shop where he apparently hung out. There were others like him there dirty and sad, acknowledging our entry with grunts. Even the owner grunted and brought us coffee, black, and Leo, that was his name, he talked about books the whole time.
He was like a man possessed. He spewed out titles and his opinion on their contents. A small portion of which I had even heard of. So much later I came to appreciate those of which he approved.
It was late, I asked questions about him. After he had wandered off, most of the men in the little shop had nothing to say, but others had more than enough for all.
He thinks he’s special, one of the men said, though what he meant was less harsh than it sounded. Different was more the word. No one seemed to know much about Leo which made him a subject for rumor and speculation.
A lot of this centered around the small army pouch which Leo carried constantly. Several men suggested Leo was actually independently wealthy.
The bags full of bankbooks, one said, while the others repeated that tell he heard involving the police Chief’s daughter. The tale claimed Leo had had sex with her, for money. Yet on one point all the stories seemed to agree. Leo had been an important man once and a stroke had brought him down. Since then I confirmed this with a local doctor friend who ran the clinic. The doctor who had treated Leo numerous times over the years described the distortions of Leo’s face and the disabled the right hand which clung to his pouch as symptoms of a stroke. This stroke had also put him on another track, which did not quite meet up with modern reality. But seemed to give him a strange immunity as he walked outside in the outlands. Gangs did not attack him, fearful of some strange magic he seemed to possess.
I went looking for him to tell him how sorry I was or maybe I just wanted to ask him more about himself and why he hated the books I was reading. He did seem to have a preference for more classically oriented things like literature and philosophy, as opposed to psychology and sociology which I was studying.
Maybe that was comment enough.
I couldn’t find him not at the library, coffee shop, bridge, and no one I talked to saw him either.
A few days later, the local roundup on cable television reported that the police patrol had found a body frozen to the ground in the river. He might have died first and frozen later, no one could say. But the cops showed up at my door later and gave me his bag
They say you are close to him, they told me. There were no bankbooks inside. The rotting cloth only had a broken glass framed certificate of graduation from Harvard bearing Leos name.