© 2000 Philip Stone
So I met this guy on Kedzie Avenue, all messed up. Went like this...
"Gimme a cigarette."
"Scuse me?" I said.
"What's up with you, freakshow? Learn some friggin manners," I said.
"Oh...piss off then," he said. Dude had broken glasses, black electrical tape holding 'em together. Gauze on both hands---black electrical tape wrapped 'round 'em. Fresh scab under his eye. Scars on his neck. More black electrical tape carelessly slapped across his open wounds, pulling them shut. Brand new friggin shoes, though. Matched his leather belt.
The man walked away from me.
"Hey, what's your problem?"
Man kept walking.
"You get hit by a train, smokey?"
"All right! Come here! Smoke this."
The man came back, smiled. Ugly ass mouth. Teeth missing all over the place, blood stains on the ones that were still there. As he parted his lips, a bridge of saliva and blood and mucous and whatnot grew in his smile. Nasty.
"Good lord," I said.
Bloody man popped a pill.
"You got problems."
"It's Vitamin E," he said.
"Promotes healing," he said.
"Quit saying that," I said.
"What'd I just say?" I asked.
"What'd I just say?" he mimicked.
"How'd you like a punch in the mouth?" I asked.
The man opened his mouth, then stopped. Chest heaving. Sweat dripping. Electrical tape peeling. "Yeah," he said.
"Yeah, you'd better," he said.
"Please," he said.
"I have a problem," he said.
"I was...rude," he said. "So...yeah. Please."
"Make me feel better," he said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It was wrong of me to antagonize you. Please forgive me."
"Gotta light?" he said.
"Sure." I lit his cigarette. He held it in the gap between his top teeth. Dude inhaled...deep. Started coughing, cigarette shot passed me. Blood and mucous and spit and whatnot flew out. Almost hit my shoe.
"Hey man," I said.
"Otto," he said.
"What?" I asked again.
He wiped the spit and the blood off of his chin, panting.
"What's your problem, buddy?"
"OTTO!" he said.
"What...how do you know my name?" I asked.
"I don't," he said. "I'm telling you mine, genius."
"Wait...uh...what do you mean?" I asked.
"Figure it out, Pointdexter," he said.
"Your name is Otto, like mine?" I asked.
He started clapping. Quiet-like becuase of the elextrical tape and gauze.
"And you were telling me your name," I continued, "but I thought you were asking me something?"
He stopped clapping and started rubbing his forehead. Kinda too hard, if you ask me.
"That's pretty wild," I said. Laughed a short little laugh.
He lowered his head and ran his hand through his hair. Big scar running across the top of his head, ear to ear.
"So...Otto," he said. "You see where that cigarette went? Otto?"
"Went over there...Otto," I added.
"Thanks...Otto." He walked over and picked it up. Broke right at the filter. "Son of a fu..."
I stopped him. "I'll tell you what, Otto," I said. "You come with me to that grill," I pointed, "and answer my questions and I'll give you..." I lifted the lid on my pack and showed him ten, twelve cigarettes,"...the rest of this pack of smokes."
Otto laughed hard. Turned red, turned brown. Laughed more. Took off his glasses, wiped away tears. Laughed and drooled. "I'm not homeless," he said. He took out his wallet, opened it, showed me ten, twelve bills. Twenty's. "I can buy cigarettes," he said. " I just don't have any now, Otto. I wanted one NOW."
"Oh," I said.
"Oh," he mimicked.
"You're mean," I said.
"So?" I repeated.
"You're right...sorry Otto," he said. But I think he was kinda joking. "Okay Otto. I'll tell you what. You come with me to that grill," he pointed, "and listen to me talk and I'll buy you lunch."
We sat at the window. Like a bar. Next to each other, not facing each other. Otto didn't say a word. THat is, not until he slurped away his last spoonful of soup through his mangled teeth.
"So," he said. "You familiar with the Old Testament?"
"What do you mean by familiar?" I asked.
"Heard of it," I said.
"Well, Otto, I've read it. Actually, you could say that I am unusually familiar with it," he said. "Spent most of my life reading it. Studying it. Trying to live my life in accordance with its teachings."
"You're a priest?" I asked.
Otto laughted, coughed, laughed. "No. I'm not a priest. I own a restaurant. Actually," he wiped his brow, "I owned a restaurant."
"That's too bad," I said.
"There are worse things," he said. "Divorce is worse. Losing your children is worse."
"Probably," I said.
"Getting hit by a bus and knocked through a plate glass window into a children's clothing store is worse. Coming home from the hospital and finding your house is on fire and a tree laying across the top of your car is worse."
"Whoa doggy," I said.
"Worst three days of my life," he said.
"Three days," he said. "Not including today."
"And today?" I asked.
"Today..." he said, "Just you."
"Left my hotel this morning, tried to eat some breakfast, but I just vomited it all up. Sat on my knees in the restroom at this restaurant, staring at my vomit, crying, swearing, praying, and... well...mostly just swearing. For over an hour."
"Damn," I said.
"Got up, walked around the neighborhood, cursing at people. But I haven't talked to anyone, really, since I felt the hospital. Just you," he said.
He laughed. "God...I don't know. Because you annoy the piss out of me. Because your name is Otto."
"What do you mean?"
"Because," he said, "and don't take this the wrong way, but not tearing your throat out has been the most difficult thing I've had to resist since I lost my virginity. And you can guess how that turned out."
"Hell yeah I can," I said.
Otto laughed, coughed again. "God...you believe in God, Otto?"
"I dunno," I said.
"You don't know? Well that's your thing. You don't know, don't want to know. But I do. I believe. In fact," he said, "I know God. I know Him. You understand?"
"Otto, look at me." He displayed his wounds, electrical tape. "Do I look like a guy who has been blessed?"
"Damn straight. God punishes. God tests. You do wrong," he said, "you pay. You do right, you get blessed."
"So you've done wrong?" I asked.
"The blessings are not always recognizable. They may not come right away, or in the form you expected. And you better believe that God has made me pay for my sins in the past. And I still stand with Him. Beside Him. Understand?"
"Otto," he said. "You may not for awhile. You're young. Everyone gets tenfold what they lost...tenfold."
"Tenfold," I repeated.
"Remember that," he said. "Remember that and God bless." Otto dropped twenty-five bucks on the table and walked out the door before I had a chance to say anything.
I watched him walk away from inside the grill. And here's the weird part. Homeless dude walked up to him. Gym shoes, no socks, white dress shirt turned yellow like an old newspaper. Held out his hand asking for change or whatever. Otto said something to him. Real short, real quick. Didn't hardly look at him. Crossed the street, got to the curb, stuck his thumb and index into his mouth, grabbed a tooth and twisted it. Back and forth, back and forth until, snap. Otto stared at the bloody tooth in his hand. Blood on his sleeve, all over his chin, whatever. I jumped up, ran out the door, crossed the street, and, "Yo Otto, what the hell?"
"What, Otto?" he said, blood spraying all over.
"Your tooth? What's up with that?"
"Your tooth. You're okay?"
"Oh...you saw that?" he asked.
"You saw that bum jump me?"
"What?" I asked.
"Knocked my tooth out. Punched me in the face, took my money," he said.
"He jumped me," Otto said. "In broad daylight."
"My luck is un-friggin-believable," he said. "Oh well. May God be with him."
I scratched my head. Looked at Otto. Blood, scabs, electrical tape, broken glasses, missing teeth, new shoes, electrical tape, gauze, scratches, vitamin E, blood, electrical tape. Electrical tape? No bandages, no casts.
"Otto?" I said.
Man...didn't even know what to say
to this guy. "Take care of yourself," I said. But that seems
really silly now that I think about it.