If Susan Johnson had noticed the old man sleeping in the bus shelter she might have kept walking. He was slumped over just out of sight on the bench, however, and she didn’t see him until she rounded the corner to sit down.
She looked at him with a mixture of concern and irritation. Concern because he was lolling back with his head against the clear plastic wall, eyes closed and a little patch of foamy spittle at the corner of his mouth. He looked like he might be dead – or at least dead drunk.
The irritation was in finding a grubby tramp in the shelter in the first place. Why did this old geezer have to flake at the stop where she caught her bus home, she wondered? It was bad enough waiting for transportation in the ghetto each night, particularly now that it was winter and the sun went down before she left her office. Having to share the bench with an elderly alcoholic who might be sick or dying made it intolerable.
If the place where she worked paid her decently and her apartment building offered parking, she’d seriously consider buying a car. But it was a non-profit, which meant the director got around $200,000 a year while the staff received minimum wage.
She studied the old man closely, afraid to sit down until she was certain he was still alive. His position in the corner made it hard to tell how tall he was: his legs were drawn up underneath the seat and his head was tucked down in the collar of his shabby Army field jacket.
He was black, his leathery skin drawn tightly over the bones of his face in a way that looked like he had spent most of his life under a blazing sun. His hair was almost shaved, its steel-gray nap short enough to expose a network of ragged scars on his scalp. He clearly hadn’t shaved in several days, and the square chin above the wrinkled chicken flesh of his throat was covered with coarse white-tipped stubble. His hands were open in his lap, palms up, almost in a gesture of supplication. One of them twitched involuntarily and he snored loudly, then smacked his lips and hunched against the shelter wall, seeking a more comfortable position. As he did, he left a smudge of saliva on the glass.
Well, at least I don’t have to call nine-one-one, she thought with relief. He’s still breathing.
She sat as far from the old man as she could and glanced at her wristwatch. It was nearly five thirty. The bus was either running late or it was early and had already stopped at this shelter.
Susan hoped it was the former. If she’d missed her connection, the next coach wouldn’t arrive for another thirty-five minutes or so. Of course, if the bus was late, things might not be much better. She’d waited as long as fifty minutes on this line when coaches went off schedule.
She shuddered at spending an hour in the cold and dark, sitting at a bus stop with a wino. If he woke up, he’d probably beg her for spare change. The only thing less appealing would be to get a visit from the three street corner thugs who passed every day around now, looking for someone to hassle or rob.
For a moment, she considered heading for the stop four blocks north. She’d walk it without a moment’s hesitation if her knees weren’t sore from carrying clients’ files up and downstairs at the office all day.
The old man started to snore, gently. Susan took a deep breath and released it in a weary sigh. She was sleepy herself. Mr. Bones, the Abyssinian cat who’d adopted her at the pet shelter, would be waiting impatiently for her to feed him his supper. She was looking forward to joining him with a package of Jenny Craig from the freezer and a glass of Chardonnay. Then she planned to take a nice hot bath, rub some arnica salve on those knees and turn in early.
She looked at her watch again. One and a half minutes had passed – 130 seconds. If time flies when you’re having fun, it seems grounded by adverse weather when you aren’t.
“Yo, yo! Pretty lady,” someone said behind her.
Susan turned to look without thinking about it, realizing as she did that responding to a stranger in an urban setting is a poor way of maintaining a safe social distance.
The realization came too late, however. By the time she knew she should ignore the caller, the three young men approaching the bus shelter were laughing, pointing at her and slapping fives with each other.
She snapped her head to the front again so fast it hurt her neck, though she knew the damage was already done.
“Yo, Blondie,” said the tallest of the trio from the front of the pack. “I like the way you look, honey. You date, girlfriend?”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and shuddered involuntarily.
He wore baggy trousers, a glossy black tank top with “Notorious B.I.G.” printed on its front and a team jacket so large that two of him would fit inside with room to spare. There seemed to be a pound of gold chain hung around his neck in an artless loop that looked cheap and gaudy regardless of how much it had originally set him back. A black watch cap was pulled down to the lobes of his ears.
The tattooed tarantula on the side of his neck finished off his creepy outfit. He looked as if he was costumed to stick up a liquor store, and there was an excellent chance he would do just that before the evening ended.
His two comrades caught up and joined him, hemming her in. Susan turned her eyes forward and said nothing. If they couldn’t provoke her, she thought, maybe they would find somebody else to harass.
“Hey, baby!” tank top said, squatting before her so she had no choice but to look into his eyes. “Cat got your tongue? I wouldn’t mind gettin’ some of that tongue action myself.”
His sidekicks snickered at the crack. He was clearly their leader.
“Whachew got here?” he asked, snatching her satchel before she could stop him. “If you won’t give me any of your sweet sugar, maybe you’ll share some of your cash.”
“Hey!” she said, grabbing for the bag and missing. “That’s mine!”
“It was yours, blondie,” he replied. “It’s mine, now.”
He rummaged in the purse while she stood in red-faced rage. When he withdrew his hand he held up her Android so his companions could see it.
“She got a smart phone,” he said, jamming the device in his jean pocket. “That’s a start, anyway.”
He grunted as his hand found another item in the purse. He held up her wallet.
“Aha!” he said, grinning. “Now we gettin’ somewhere!”
“Those are both mine,” Susan said, close to tears. “Please don’t take them.”
“What’ll you give me for them?” he asked, giving her a wink and grin. “How about some of that sweet sugar?”
Her lower lip quivered with fear and frustration. “It’s mine,” she insisted. “You’ve got no right to take it.”
His manner became colder, more brutal. “Don’t worry, baby,” he said with a sneer. “I’ll leave the credit cards and stuff, all we want’s your cash and phone.”
Susan whimpered. She had stopped at the ATM that afternoon when she stepped out for lunch. There was close to a hundred dollars in the wallet and if she had to make another cash withdrawal, she wouldn’t have enough for her rent.
He spotted the money. “That’s a nice chunk of change,” he said as he riffled through it. “Maybe we gonna walk you up to the mom and pop on East 21st and see how much more you can get out the teller machine there. What you think ‘bout that, baby?”
She began to fear that if he continued to paw through the carryall, he would find the keys to her apartment. The notion of him dropping in whenever he felt like it made her numb with fear. If he took her keys, she’d have to get a new lock installed. More expenses. That car was looking more affordable every passing moment.
“Hey, shithead!” came a gruff voice behind the leader of the three toughs. “Give the lady back her stuff and haul ass out of here before I make you sorry you were born.”
The punks turned and looked at the old man slumped at the end of the bench, now awake and alert. He was staring straight at them in the way an exterminator might examine a pile of mouse droppings: with disgust, not fear.
For a moment nobody spoke. Then one of the thugs gave a braying laugh like a donkey and the other two joined in.
“Very funny, pops,” their ringleader said. “But I think Ima hold onto this stuff if you don’t mind. Why don’t you go back to sleep now? Ima try to pretend you didn’t just piss me off.”
The old man straightened up slightly and coughed, a dry hacking sound that seemed to emerge from his lungs. He continued to cough convulsively for a couple of minutes while Susan and the thugs watched in silence.
When his spasms subsided, the old man glanced at the ringleader and cleared his throat, then spat an evil-looking green wad of sloppy phlegm that landed on one of his two hundred dollar athletic shoes.
“Oops!” the old man said, grinning up at the ringleader. “Sorry about that. It’ll probably come off with soap and water, a little elbow grease. Y’all should be able to clean up a throat oyster; you look sorta like one yourself.”
The ringleader looked at the lump of mucus on his shoe and then at the geezer.
“I think Ima have you lick it off, you crazy old bastard,” he said hotly. Nodding toward one of his companions, a slightly built man with a thin mustache and a scarf binding up his hair, he added, “Mannie, get this old fart down on his knees and make him lick that nasty shit off my foot.”
The shorter man grinned and reached down, grabbing the old man by the lapels of his field jacket to pull him off the bench; but the geezer came up faster than his opponent was expecting and drove the front of his forehead into the mustached man’s face with a crunch that pushed him back two steps. As the mustache fell straight back, his eyes rolled up. The head butt had smashed his nose and teeth, and a worm of blood curled out of his nostril, joining the smear that had started to ooze from his crushed mouth.
The old man was on his feet now. He was taller and heavier than he’d looked snoozing: more than six feet and 250 pounds.
He slipped his jacket off and dropped it on the bench. Susan could see that his shoulders and upper arms were massive under his olive green T-shirt and seemed to be the product of regular sessions using free weights at a gym somewhere. There were tattoos on his huge biceps but she didn’t have a chance to see what they said.
That’s because the ringleader’s other companion was turning to look at the old timer. It was too late: the senior citizen struck like a snake, driving his right hand into the second thug’s throat up to the knuckles.
Wheezing through his crushed larynx in an effort to draw wind, the second man sagged to his knees and heeled over onto his left side, his breath making a ragged whistling sound through the wreckage in his throat. His hands feebly gripped his neck as he fought for air.
The old man turned to the ringleader, his feet in a T, fists in a fighting stance, chest high and about eighteen inches apart.
“Y’all want to give this lady back her phone, wallet and money now, you jive motherfucker?” he asked.
The ringleader’s jaw pulsed with anger and adrenaline. He pulled a switchblade out of the pocket of his jeans, snapped it open with a theatrical flourish and shuffled forward, swinging the point up toward the old man’s abdomen.
Susan gasped, certain she was about to see someone die; she was – just not the one she thought.
The old man stepped inside the ringleader’s swing and grabbed his wrist about six inches above the blade. He swung the man off balance and brought his right knee up sharply against the ringleader’s elbow with a crunch that made the man with the knife gasp. Then he drove his knee into his opponent’s groin twice and jerked the man up against his body so quickly Susan could barely see him move.
“Hunh!” the ringleader said, his eyes widening as he stared at the old man with disbelief. The geezer released him and he staggered backward. He still held the knife in the arm the old man had broken, but the blade was buried in his chest, driven home when the old fellow pulled him into his body.
Slowly the ringleader collapsed, his lips moving noiselessly, death clouding his eyes.
The old man bent and went through the ringleader’s pockets then offered Susan the billfold, smart phone and little wad of twenties.
She took the items and put them in her purse, then took a close look at the tattoos on the old timer’s arms.
The one on his right bicep was a circle with a stylized skull inside. Above the skull were the words, “God will judge our enemies.” Below it were “we‘ll arrange the trial.”
His left arm featured a detailed rendering of a dagger ripping through a beret. Arching over it were the Latin words, “De Oppresso Liber;” while below was the label, “U.S. Army Special Forces.”
She realized where he had learned to defeat three younger men so quickly.
“Y’all may want to move down to the next stop, miss,” the old man said as he pulled on his jacket. “Y’all stick around and you’ll have to answer a bunch of questions from the cops. I can handle that myself. No reason for you to spend the rest of the night talking to them.”
Susan smiled shyly. “Thank you,” she said, taking one of his hands in both of hers and giving it a squeeze. “Thank you for everything.”
As she walked away, she could hear a siren in the distance. Someone had apparently called the police.
It occurred to her that in the future, she was going to have to work harder at not judging people by the first impression they gave.