An idealist and a realist are sitting on a city bench. They are, respectively, Peter and me. We are analyzing everyone we see and deciding what their lives are like.
We look down over the railing behind us at two boys skateboarding, one filming the other with a comically large video camera. They are about 10 years old.
“I bet they’re named Jamie and Tyler,”* I say.
“Oh, totally!” says Peter. “And look, they’ve been working on this trick for hours. Their persistence is going to continue to a be part of their lives when they’re older.”
“Kids don’t have a good sense of time. Like dogs.” Peter suddenly looks disappointed, so I backpedal. “But yeah, maybe they’re just really naturally persistent people with bright futures.”
Just then we notice a man walking towards us. He is wearing a tattered gray sweater and has a wild gray beard. As he gets closer I notice the tiny cuts on his mouth. I figure out why when he comes right up to us and starts to speak—his unusually sharp teeth must prick his lips occasionally. He asks us for some change.
We spent almost all of our money at the thrift store earlier, and gave most of what was left we gave to a bedraggled man on the highway who told me I had beautiful hair. All we have now is $4.50 between the two of us. We give half of it to the bearded man, who stares at it for a beat then looks up at us.
“Excuse me, but can I have some more?” he says. “Do you have a five?”
Peter looks flustered. “Are you looking for work?” he asks the man. “I used to wash dishes at this place that’s looking for a new—”
“Come on,” the guy says, cutting Peter off. “What the fuck can you get for two bucks?”
Peter’s eyes dart to his wallet. We both know there are still two dollars in there. He looks at me and I shrug.
“Come on, kid,” the man says. “I tell you what, if I ever see you again, I’ll give it back to you.”
Peter looks unsure. “That’s so improbable, though.”
“No it’s not,” the man says.
Peter finally decides to give him the money, and the guy sits down on the bench opposite our own. Peter asks him about his life.
“I was born in the year 1960,” the guys says. He has a Rhode Island accent and he might be drunk, because he’s slurring his words. “I was a normal kid. My mother raised me. I went to school. It all went bad when I turned 17.” He stares at us for a minute. “How old are you kids?”
“Fifteen and eighteen,” Peter offers.
“OK, well, I was 17, and that’s when it all went bad. That’s the year I killed my father. It was 1977. He was a drunk. My mother raised me, and my dad just drank and slept in the house. Nobody knew what mental abuse was back then. If you weren’t being beat, you weren’t being abused. It didn’t exist. But my father was a mental abuser to my mother. I loved my mother more than anything, and my father was abusing her.”
He tells us that one night he woke up to hear his father sexually assaulting his mother, but he didn’t feel safe going into their bedroom and trying to stop him. “I just cried and cried,” he says. “And I never cried. I’m a man, damn it. But on that night I cried for my mother. I didn’t know what else to do until the morning.
“I waited until my mom left for work. He was sleeping, as usual. I took his gun and I woke him up by pushing it against his head. I said, ‘Dad, this is the last thing you’ll ever remember,’ and I shot him three times in the head.
“So then I did what any kid would do. I cleaned off the gun and hid it, got dressed, and went to school.”
We sit there stunned for a minute. Then Peter asks, “How did it feel…to kill him?”
“I didn’t feel a fucking thing. I was just glad there was one less scumbag in the world. Now I’m gonna keep telling my story.”
According to him, police came to his school that day and arrested him in front of all his friends. In court his mother testified against him. “She said he’d only just done it once,” he says. “On the stand, I cried again. I told the judge that the sick bastard deserved it. Anyone who’d do that to a woman deserves to die.” He turns to Peter and gestured toward me. “For example, if I saw you abusing her, I’d kill you right here.”
“Fair enough,” Peter says.
The man tells us that he was sent to prison for 35 years. “I spent the prime of my life behind bars,” he says.
“What was jail like?” I say.
“It wasn’t fun. But it wasn’t too bad. Back then it wasn’t too hard to get weed in there. It’s not as bad as people tell you. When they let me out, the judge asked me if I learned anything and guess what I fucking said? I told the judge that all I learned was that if it happened again, I’d put nine bullets in his head. My name’s Mike, by the way.”
We introduce ourselves to him, and take turns shaking his hand, then the three of us sit in silence for a few moments, looking at the ground. Finally, Mike gets up. “I hope you kids have a good life,” he says, giving us a peace sign.
“I hope your life turns out good, Mike,” I say.
He laughs. “It won’t be good,” he says, shoving the four dollar bills and change into his pocket as he walks away. ♦
* The quotes in this piece are were not transcribed verbatim, but they are reproduced here as faithfully as I can remember them.