A homeless MENSA applicant comes up with a crazy, wonderful, brilliant plan
Brilliant!— That's what it was, a brilliant plan, oh I tell you it was an ever so clever and brilliant plan, and why not? Brilliancy isn't solely the property of the well-to-do, you know. Men such as I, clever resourceful men, are often brilliant. I may live in a cardboard box - actually I wish I had the box. The box was lost in a rainstorm. Forget about the box. It’s irrelevant and sad- However, what is relevant and less sad is that even though I used to live in a cardboard box, I was also once qualified for MENSA. You know, that club for super geniuses? Yup. Tested an IQ of 162, woohoo. And look where I am. Wall Street? No, I'm on 4th Street, or rather under it, under the bridge that bisects the bayou, feeding the mosquitos my precious inner fluid, my essence, the sacre sangre of a bonafide genius.
But none of that has anything to do with the plan, the plan that would fix everything, my coup de grâce, my magnum opus. God bless the French and their ability to bombast the shit out of language! No, no, no, it was an excellent plan, but when the police arrived on the scene, their eyes bulging and their heads shaking in mystified stupor, they didn't understand. I recall hearing precisely what one officer reported into the crackling radio on his shoulder.
"Ya, this is unit 401 responding to a call on Union Square, we got, well to be honest, I don't know what we got. This is some of the strangest… Request two more units ASAP."
They thought I was crazy, nonsensical even. Can you imagine? And the doctors at the hospital agreed! But listen, oh listen dear friends, I know it was an excellent plan, one that could cut away the blinders and make them see with their eyes, yet to understand it, to fathom it's true delicacy and complexity beyond the comprehension of these white coats and their laminated certificates and PHDs in psycho babble, you must understand how the plan began, my moment of inspiration and all events prior to and after as I attended to the execution of it. Then, and only then will you see the genius that is the plan.
So where to begin? How about the day the world left me to die.
The setting of this tragedy is not fair Verona oh eclectic chums of mine, but rather my favored spot of operations, a place I call the courtyard, known by some as Union Square. It sits smack dab in the middle of Houston's CBD, towers clinging to its every side like a giant canopy of trees, it’s surface all stone slabs and marble inlay, quality stuff, calidad as the Mexicans say. On this fateful day, I approached the fountain at its center, within which a statue of a bare-breasted Greek, a nymph or siren of ancient mystery, burbled out her sweet song. In front of this empress of fortune, I plopped down and rested my back against the rim of the fountain’s edge. Then I set out my vintage Astros hat supinate on the ground before me, it’s gaping maw ready to receive any offerings of human charity in sacrifice to the wretched God that was I.
All that was left to do was wait for the five o’clock rush. That part was kind of boring. I mostly spent it smoking a few half finished cigarettes I found on the sidewalk, feeding the pigeons some crumbs, pocket lent, and the leftovers of said cigarettes, and giving names to a few of my favorite avian brethren. To this day I am sure that Bosco, a proud male pigeon with a glorious chest-full of russet plumage, was their ringleader. Wherever he capriciously decided to peck at dirt, the others indefatigably decided to follow suit. He had all the little chickies following him. Bosco was the man.
But that’s irrelevant jibjabery. Point is that five o’clock kept pacing steadily towards me, until just minutes separated us. Then the air became charged with energy, the kind that gets up underneath your fingernails and buzzes there. In the last moments before five, Bosco and his loyal wingèd flock scattered in the air, up and up into the blue blue sky, and then came the rush.
Every doorway of every building exploded into motion at once, as the businesswomen, businessmen, accountants, lawyers, CFOs and CEOs launched out into the afternoon. They approached me like a tidal wave of Armani suits, their strides long and powerful, confident in the knowledge that they had somewhere to go and somewhere to be. They were magnificent animals of purpose, and I shook in terror at their splendor.
Soon the wave descended on me and I was among them, so close that I could smell their colognes and reach out and touch the expensive fabrics of their suits if I so had the inclination. And yet, and this here is the important part, so listen close, and yet not one of those people really looked at me. I mean sure, some threw me a bill now and then, and that was all well and good and kind of the point of my being there, but nonetheless, no one looked at me. They just swarmed around me, eddying around my solid lumpy self like a river around a resolute stone, brushing past and diminishing me one particle at a time by the sheer mass of their bodies in proximity to mine.
Let me just take a moment to say, you have never truly been alone until you’ve been alone in a crowd, where the smallest shred of kindness, the smallest glimpse of recognition that passes between one human and his or her fellow, could spare you from it.
Well, I know I'm not that pretty to look at, what with the scars and the missing eye. A couple years back a stray bullet from a drive-by caught me in the side of the head, almost in the temple, swear to God. My eye got scrambled and my face kind of crumples like old paper on my right side now, so I'm no George Clooney, but that isn't the reason they refused to look at me. If that were the reason, I would understand and be on my way, tra-la-la-ing in fine flippancy, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”
But no. I know for a fact that this was not the reason. It was more than my looks. See, it was the idea of me that made them turn away, and that makes all the difference. They did not want to be reminded of what could have been, what might still be. For at any given time, each of us is only a step away from madness. Just a step. Before the plan, I perceived this but did not acknowledge it. It pressed against my brain like a tumor, and, unbeknownst to even me, began to provide the momentum for what would be the plan.
Yet at this point in our narrative, their avoidance I heretofore ignored, accepting it as simply a hazard of the trade. It’s no easy life being a bum. If it was, everyone would do it. So I sat, quite contentedly, in this sea of successful people, watching as my hat filled with coins and bills.
And then it happened. A hand dipped down to drop in a few cents, and as I watched I saw a gold gem studded cufflink slip loose of its sleeve and plop right down into my hat. The man to which it belonged, for it was a portly man with snow white hair, began to withdraw none-the-wiser and continue his purposeful walk.
What to do? On the one hand, I knew of a place where that hunk of metal and precious stone could fetch me forty or fifty bucks, easy. I could do a lot with that kind of dough. On the other hand, there would be a sleeve, and that sleeve would be missing a cufflink. I figured that for bad karma. In the end, it was my Goddess of fortune, the Greek statue, who convinced me. She stared down at me with her loving stony eyes, and I knew it wouldn’t be right to take that cufflink. So I fished it out of my hat and stood up abruptly.
“Sir,” I called out to his back. “Excuse me, sir, I believe you’ve misplaced your diamond link in my possession. Sir.” The man half turned, but I doubt he could hear me quite right over the roar and shuffle of the crowd. When he saw that I was following, however, horror struck his features and be began walking faster, disappearing into the mass of bodies.
“Sir!” I called out again, “I assure you my intentions are entirely-“ I stopped speaking then, but not of my own volition. I stopped because at that moment I found myself incapable of speech. I reached out to the disappearing back of the man, and tried to form the words, but they would not come. What came instead was a headache unlike anything I had ever known. The wave of suited people suddenly doubled in number, and the directions of the world, of up and down and side to side, stopped making sense. I spun, I reeled, and then my left leg gave out and sent me sprawling. In the midst of this, the cufflink went skittering away in the rush of feet, never to be seen by me again.
I didn’t care. My world was pain. I could hardly breath. About all I could manage to do was call out in a numb gurgle a semblance of the word “help” and reach a hand towards those passing by.
Yet it was as it was before. They would not look at me. I cried, I gurgled, I even tried to grab a pant leg or two, but they kept on moving, stepping around me, sometimes stepping over me, and all the while they did not look at me. Minutes, maybe hours of this passed. It was purgatory. It lasted forever.
I slipped into to a semi-conscious state at some point, and found myself thinking about my father for the first time in many years. He appeared to me, clear as day. He was wearing a seersucker suit and stripy fedora, leaning on the edge of the horse track’s railing, the warm rays of sun hitting him hard in the chest as the wind blasted up from the stands. The crowd screamed and he held up his ticket in a white knuckled fist. He was so excited! His horse pulled to the front of the line, and he roared like a lion, turned, and looked at me with a smile on his face and the fever in his eyes.
“Today’s the day, kiddo. Today we catch a break,” he said. “What we going to do after the races?”
I smiled, because I already knew the answer. “Ride home to mom in Mercedes Benz,” I said.
“That’s right, kiddo. That’s right.”
But I knew his horse wouldn’t win, because I could remember this particular day that my subconscious mind, for whatever reason, decided to replay for me. His pick was a scrawny little pinto, the underdog of all underdogs, the kind only a man like my pops would ever bet on. Still, it put up one hell of a fight. It had pizzaz, real get-up-and-go of the old sort that kept it neck-in-neck with the front runners, but in the last stretch it started to burn out, then stumbled, and the next thing we knew it was laying on the ground heaving, the white bone of its foreleg broken and jutting out of its skin. The other horses passed right on by, hardly even shying away from their fallen comrade as they rushed on down to the finish line. I remembered thinking back then, with my childhood logic, that if only those other horses would have stopped, maybe things would have turned out alright. Maybe then the men in white coats wouldn’t have had to come and put the horse down.
Eventually, I must have passed out from the pain. I awoke some time later in the same spot. It was night. I tried to move, but only succeeded in flapping around a little bit. My entire left side was numb, but I sensed how the skin there hung loose off my bones like rags. I don’t really know how to talk about the next hour I experienced. I don’t remember it except in glimpses and bursts. What I can tell you is that somehow I crawled to the bus station, and somehow I got onto a bus and made my way to the hospital.
Once there, they plugged me up to beeping machines, feeding machines, and some unmentionable machines that I’d rather not get into at the moment. Luckily, I was too whacked out on pain and whatever powerful drugs they pumped into me to care. In my waking hours, I was plagued by visions of leather shoes walking over and past me, and whenever I’d try to look up over the shoes, there would be nothing besides pairs of pants. No people in them, just an endless army of walking shoes and pants.
When night fell, I dreamed of horses. They were the horses from my childhood, those twitching blocks of muscle and veins stuffed into skin two sizes too small. It was always cold in my dreams, and the when the horses exhaled it looked like vents of steam were escaping from their nostrils. I watched them from the stands as they neighed to each other in their blue aluminum starting gates. Somehow, I could understand what they were saying. They were talking about what these crazy monkeys on their backs were doing, and how stupid dangerous it was.
One Arabian with a rich dark coat pawed the ground and bellowed, “And if these damn monkeys screw up, it’s going to be us, not them, that gets the one way ticket to glue factory.” The other horses snorted in agreement, while a proud golden palomino flicked its tail in righteous indignation.
“I have an idea,” said the palomino. His tone suddenly became conspiratorial. “The next time those monkeys get on our backs, we’ll let them without a fuss. We’ll even leap out of the gates like they tell us, but as soon as we are out of those gates, I say we throw those monkeys off our backs and stomp them to death with our hooves.” All present neighed in agreement, with the exception of the scrawny little pinto. He seemed to stay back from it all, and just look at them with his sad brown eyes.
The horses’ plan was set and ready, but when the riders came they brought with them blinders. With those little bits of leather strapped onto their heads, blocking their peripheries, the horses became brave and competitive. They couldn’t see the danger of the monkeys anymore. The plan was forgotten. Every night, I dreamed that the horses planned another rebellion, yet in the end, over and over again, they always ran the same race.
After days of drifting between delirium and these dreams, I recovered enough to think properly. This prompted a beautiful blonde lady doctor to come visit me in my rather posh accommodations at the hospital. I had my own room, my own bed, a counter, and toilet pan, and all of it was on Uncle Sam. Not bad.
“How we feeling today, Edward?” the doctor lady asked.
I tried to say, “Like a million bucks,” but since half my lips were limp, it sounded more like, “liff’ a miffin buffs.”
The doctor lady looked down at her clipboard and scribbled something down. “Yes, the speech impediment is going to take some getting used to. There’s going to be a lot of new things you’ll have to get used to, but we’ll talk more about that later. For now, I’ll just give you the bad news and we’ll move on from there, okay? Edward, you’ve had a stroke.”
“No fuffin’ shit,” I said, but she ignored me.
She went on to explain that I was partially paralyzed on the left side of my body. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and there was room for improvement, especially in the first year. However, even after extensive rehabilitation, I would never walk without assistance or speak right again. She said that if I had gotten to the hospital sooner, then maybe- but ifs and maybes are cruel words people use to distract themselves and others from what is. They are very dangerous words. If it weren’t for the tauntings and teasings of ifs and maybes, my compulsive gambler of father might have known when to stop, my mother might not have left him, and he might not have died trying huff a car-full of carbon monoxide as a result. If it weren’t for ifs and maybes, I might not have sunk into depression after depression, gone batshit crazy, and dropped out of college. But all these things are ifs and maybes too, so it’s best not to dwell on them.
I’m sorry. I’ve become distracted, and you, my faithful friends, have not come here to listen to my whining. Let me reassure you, however, that this is not a story of pity and sorrow. Nor is it one of revenge for that matter. I must emphasize that. I do not blame those people in the square for leaving me there to die, no more than I can blame the horses for not stopping in the face of one of their own’s misfortune. They are all creatures of motion, bred and trained not to look back. How could I expect anything more from them than that?
No, my little personal tragedy is only important insofar as how it relates to the plan, for you see, this was the catalyst for its inception, the bite of the gadfly that sparked the lazy ass into motion and set events tumbling recklessly towards their destination, one that was not of tragedy or of retribution, but rather of glorious liberation and illumination. And it all began because of this horrible fluke of fate in the form of stroke, which brought about the singular moment that occurred as soon as that beautiful blonde doctor left my room.
I can’t explain how it happened, or why, or what it felt like precisely, but it was a moment when everything that had happened to me in my entire life came boiling out into one solid lump. The horses thundering hooves, my father’s yells, the clip of leather shoes, and the doctor’s unsympathetic monotone, all formed a beat, a pulsation in my head that gave way to a sudden revelation. They were all moving so quickly, thrumming, bada bada bada, so fast, too fast for anyone to see anything. Life was flying away before their eyes, as they ran, as we ran towards the end. And I knew then the plan, what it was in all of its delicate intricacy, its poignancy, its refinement veiled in crudity, spawned from that locked off section of the mind accessible only to artists and madmen, and, in this instance, I was the artist. I knew then that some omniscient being of infinite wisdom put me on this earth for one reason, and one reason only. It was elegant in its simplicity, and devastating in its effect. It was right, and I knew without a trace of uncertainty what must be done.
What I did next, I’ve been told since, was medically impossible. I walked out of that hospital.
It wasn’t pretty, oh no siree, it certainly wasn’t. I leaned on walls, bumped into numerous other patients, and fell down on my face on more than one occasion. The whole time, it felt like my brains were dragging in my feet, but I would not be stopped. I walked out into the bright sun despite it all, and what’s more, I did it without a single nurse noticing me leave.
Alleys and backstreets made up my surroundings as I stumbled my circuitous route back to the spot, the courtyard, Union Square. The only thing I wore was the thin hospital gown, which was somewhat breezy through the gaping slit down its backside. Yet all was well between I and the universe. It seemed to know the holiness of my quest, its genius and intent, and it sent emissaries to help me complete my task. Here was a bit of red ribbon on the ground, almost entirely unstained, there were some bits of shiny metal, and over there was a tangled spool of electric wire. I collected all these things gleefully, aware of their celestial origin and necessity. Nearby one dumpster I even found a complete role of duct-tape. Unheard of! Simply unheard of, for who would throw away such a useful thing? I knew it to be further proof of divine intervention, and I used it to great effect. Each of the little godsends I found before and thereafter were taped to my trembling, lopsided frame, added to me, augmenting me, bolstering me, replenishing me, making me one with the city itself.
As I neared my destination, my armor was almost complete. In addition to the various and countless accoutrements that were pasted onto my every surface, a carton of cigarettes formed a vambrace around my left forearm, a tin plate acted as a spaulder for my right shoulder, and a pair of ripped and torn rubber fishing dungarees were my grieves. Empty cans of Campbell’s Soup were taped to my chest like a bandolier of grenades, and around my neck was a necklace of discarded shoes, which I donned like trophies of war. Soon, I was a soldier of the streets; it’s crusader and conqueror. I was glorious.
Yet there was one part that was still missing, and I recognized it as soon as I saw it. It was attached to a sign atop a dingy bar that was tucked away in one of the most forgotten corners of the city. The sign read, “The Bucking Bronco,” and on one of its sides there was a cartoon of a half naked woman. But I didn’t care about her, or the smutty bar, or the letters of the sign. What I cared about was the large silhouette of a horse’s head that stuck out of the opposite end of the sign’s cheap plywood face. I knew I must have it and make it part of me. The plan depended on it.
The only problem was that it was some ten feet off the ground. The solution to this problem came in the form of a fire escape. It was nearby, on a building opposite the sign, and I had to rely almost solely on my good arm and leg to climb up it. Huffing and puffing, I ascended, until I was fifteen feet off the ground, and some five feet horizontally away from the sign. I pulled myself over the safety railing, calculated the angle descent and guestimated the strength of my good foot as an impetus for movement, and found them both to be sufficient. I jumped.
My aim was true. With an oomph I crashed chest first into the horse’s head, snapping it off the sign, and plummeted to the ground, where, upon my arrival, I heard the loudest cracking sound of my life. Briefly, ever so briefly, I blacked out, and when I came to again, I felt a new type of pain add on to the general discomfort of my post-stroke riven body. This pain was hot and liquid, and pushed against the sides of the rubber dungarees around my right ankle, swelling there like a sponge full of microwaved soup. Hematoma, most likely. A solid break in my good leg, though whether it was the tibia or the fibula I couldn’t say. All I knew is that the shock was fading fast. My vision was starting to darken, and I was sure that if I laid my head down again for a moment the plan would fail. I might have also died, but that was a secondary concern.
So I gathered my strength and used the last of the duct tape to fasten the horse’s head securely to the side of my own skull. And then I felt it. Lo and behold, I was complete. The perfect symbol for the perfect plan. I was ready. Galvanized by this realization, I felt a heroic surge of energy and I used it to push myself up and stand! Then I teetered, and promptly collapsed into a mud puddle. Heroic energy can only do so much.
So I dragged myself for the next quarter mile, until I made it to Union Square. This, I was later told, was also medically impossible. This was a fine day for the medically impossible. I attribute it to divine purpose, which, when given to a man who has lived his life in purposelessness, is not something to take lightly. Again, the universe favored me, for I arrived in time. Bosco and his ilk took one good look at me crawling towards them with my junk besieged body, and said, “well fuck that noise.” They took to the skies like bats out of hell, and I doubt they’ve come back since.
I made it to the base of the fountain and my Greek empress just seconds before five. The air filled with the electric charge that precedes moments of extreme turbulence. The clock struck five, the doors exploded open, the Armani suited wave approached. To them, I must have seemed in the distance to be a hunk of garbage and nothing more. They came at me, unwary, unknowing, lost in their own worlds of thought. One hundred feet away. I waited. Fifty feet away. I waited. Twenty feet away. I still waited, and then, when the swarm of bodies was just ten feet away, I knew it was time.
In every human being, there is a place that only few have accessed. It is a reservoir of desperation, an ability to surpass every known limitation. This is the place of miracles, that allows a boxer to push himself to brink of death in the tenth round, that allows a samurai to slow down time to the nanosecond before the swords collide, that allows a mother to lift a two ton car off her endangered child. It is the kind of power only accessible to those who have utterly and terribly lost regard for their own lives in the pursuit of something greater. This was what I used then.
I leapt to my feet in a clangor of motion, and began. I flailed, I wailed, I beat my chest, yelled at the sky, stamped on the ground, roared like a lion, barked like a dog, squalled like a baby, and wept like a child. The pain in my leg was ferocious, but I didn't care, I used it, this was art, the stuff of passion, and it only made my act more convincing. My misery was my muse, and oh, how I danced to its squalid tune.
And it happened, just I had imagined it. All of them stopped and looked at me. Fear showed in every face, bled from every pore. Mouths gaped, newspapers and hands rose to shield their eyes, but the blinders were gone, the motion, stilled, and in that moment of profound quiet, I collapsed at last. My last sight was of my Goddess of fortune. My vision may have been blurred, but I swear that she was crying. The question that haunts me even now is this: was she crying tears of joy in the face of my triumph, or tears of sorrow?