There is a moment when we all turn to view our past, but instead find our future.
Menagerie of Life
Menagerie of Life
Silence ruled the streets as I found myself alone in a desolate world, abandoned by my kind and kindred. Just two years before, I led the life of a successful advertising executive on his way into his own firm. "The Kid-Genius," who everyone sought to topple while clambering over each other to replace him. But they never could.
Every project I worked on proved "Golden." The bookshelves in my office overflowed with award trophies and plaques, all plastic, coated with gold leaf. It was all great until the glistening gold eventually peeled away to expose the dull monotony underneath. Looking back, I guess that was an omen of what awaited me in my future as the glitter of my life peeled away.
Chicago was a vast city where dominoes of gossip toppled swiftly, flushing my reputation down the drain. There was a cold look in everyone's eyes, telling me I was a damaged commodity, which no one wanted in their portfolio.
Instead of trying harder, changing my ways, I found comfort inside a tiny glass tube filled with white powder. That powder pulled me into a warm, comfortable fantasy existence. But the illusion was always just inside my head, and every time I ventured out, the world outside felt colder. I found it impossible to maintain my fantasy and regain that brilliant carrier. So I shucked the cloak of ambition and watched that dream dwindle into the black pool of reality.
At first, nothing changed. My previous successes garnered me enough savings to finance months of self-inflicted delusion. I convinced myself I was the center of the universe regarding advertising. Everyone needed me, even if they first refused to recognize that fact. Initially, the accolades of my achievements brought opportunity bursting through my door. I ignored those beginning offers, awaiting the creme that would undoubtedly follow. However, months turned into a year, and I discovered all money had evaporated. Most of it coated my sinuses. Then I was evicted from my apartment, with nowhere to go, no friends, no relatives, and no retreat from cold empty nights.
That's how I got here in a cardboard shelter in downtown Chicago's back alleys. My cardboard home was nearest the end of the line at the Soup Kitchen, where a steaming bowl of soup stood between we rabble and our graves.
Today, my desperation urged me to borrow someone else's property with hopes of transitioning that "property" into a magical awareness. Provided by magic powder. I called it magic, while upright citizens of society called it an "illegal substance."
However, even those upright citizens began to see things my way. Because they established "safe places," where I gave myself injections or snorted. Not long after, they issued my "magic" from clinics and even supplied me with a place to sleep it off. Isn't society beneficial and benevolent? Get it? B&B.
Those "promising" days proved less than adequate, though, and I found myself in a "bad" way. Every part of me shook while my brow sopped with sweat, although I stood in knee-deep drift snow. My brain burned and ached with a fever. The pain stole my ability to sleep, and my thoughts thickened, becoming more difficult for me to uncongeal.
One night, I found myself standing inside a reaching shadow that fell from tall buildings around the alleyway, where I shivered. I peered out from the throat of that alleyway and across the street where store windows lined a sidewalk. My interest kept returning to a jewelry store at one end of the lane. There were cameras at every crossing signal light, but I avoided them by timing my pace to coincide with the seasonal shoppers. It would take hours for the cops to answer a call for shoplifting at this time of year. Christmas, huh. I would have a couple of hours of a headstart, at least.
A quick snatch-and-run would end before the owner noticed and had time to react. Owners were usually too busy cleaning and straightening in this part of town. They seldom hired much extra help for the Christmas rush. Besides, as I said, people like me passed unnoticed inside the Christmas crowds.
This particular owner was a big guy. If he noticed me, he could hold me until the cops arrived. So I turned, searching the alley for anything that might dissuade him from grabbing me. I found a piece of metal with a ragged edge. The momentary shock of pain, and the resulting confusion created by its jagged edge, ripping through his flesh, should permit my escape. I wouldn't be caught once I achieved a head start.
Once I sank into the village of tents, sleeping bags, crudely fashioned cardboard huts, and mounds of paper that the wind piled against the alley's brick walls, I could curl around my treasure and sleep. When I sat upon the crest of the hill, I called that place a "menagerie of low lives."
Now, I found that menagerie of life was my home.
With my plan thoroughly thought through, and my actions examined repeatedly, I gathered courage. It wasn't easy ignoring pitfalls because the pangs of withdrawal assaulted my confidence at every turn, causing me to re-examine every step of my attack strategy. Worries crashed into every hidden corner of my plan inside my fog of apprehension.
The confusion fueled my desire for that temporary, chemically-induced ecstasy and caused my "needs" to override my careful preparations. I discarded caution. I stood at the alley's mouth, gathering my desperation into resolve until momentary courage propelled me onto my ill-gotten path—a path along which I found no option for retreat nor the need thereof.
Before crossing the street, I fashioned the rough scrap of metal into a shiv by scrapping it on the pavement. Then, I sharpened the metal's edge by burnishing it against the smooth concrete along the sidewalk. That crudely fashioned weapon was integral to my plan. The storekeeper's reaction would allow for my escape with just a slice of that edge. "No harm, no foul, and I would be on my way to the healing effects of a euphoric reward."
No one understood how much my body and soul yearned for that euphoria. It was essential for my existence. Those brief periods of joy enabled me to attain my true potential, if only briefly. Inside its warm embrace, I was immortal. My mind expanded around every nuance of my existence, clarifying and freeing my imagination to unimaginable heights. It opened all possibilities and allowed me to regain control over my universe. At least inside the confines of my skull. Those cravings rocked me into a frenzy from where I rose to my feet, grabbed my shiv, and marched down the snow-covered sidewalk to the jewelry store.
The proprietor crouched behind the counter, arranging the goods inside one of the glass casements. His hand shot up with a wave from beneath his counter, "Make yourself at home; I'll be with you in a minute." A bell sounded as I stepped through the door, so I froze. I searched for another clerk, but none was visible. He must have been at lunch with all the shoppers if he had a helper.
The streets and sidewalks had emptied between waves of seasonal shoppers. Snow fell from the sky into a silent blanket, buffeting the store, the keeper, and myself from the rest of the world. I was safe from their reach, their laws, their disapproval. My hand sank into my pocket and found the blunt end of the shiv, then a rush of courage raced through my veins.
As I closed the door behind me, the jewelry store owner stood from his cleaning and arranging of the display cases to smile, "Good afternoon. Can I help you?" At that instant, he noticed my shabby attire, and his demeanor transformed. "Get out of here. I don't give charity to the likes of you. You're not able to afford any of my jewelry, so I don't want you in here because you don't belong in my place of business!"
My anger gathered under his retort, bolstering my courage. I grinned and almost whispered, "I need something." My head bent, then my eyes hardened, and my glare raised into a stare, "And that need is greater than my fears," I said as I lifted the shiv from my pocket. Then, I spoke again from within the comfort afforded me behind the blade in my hand. "Please, give me just a little of your money. That's all I want—just a little. I don't need much and don't want to hurt you. But I will if I have to--I will!" I said as my anger frothed. "My need is greater than yours at this moment. Please don't force me to use violence."
His eyes gathered into thin crescents, revealing only a slit where the blue shined through. "Get out of here! I'm calling the police. I'm not kidding. They'll be here in about two minutes if I push this button."
Two minutes, I thought. I run for just enough time to empty the cash register. I ran, pushing the storekeeper backward against the display case, then turned toward the cash register. The owner grabbed me, and I slashed at his arm. Blood spurted, and I turned back to the cash register, grabbed a handful of bills, and ran through the door toward the street.
At the bottom step, my mind filled with an image of the owner just after he grabbed me. I watched as he clutched his wrist, where I slashed, and blood gushed between his fingers, then cascaded to the floor in a red ribbon. With one foot still on the last step, I froze, fixed inside a quandary.
Only seconds passed, but as it happens in the movies, I held that image for what seemed an eternity. I must have imagined a dozen scenarios ending the same way. The owner was going to die. He had already lost enough blood that the color in his face drained into a plaster-white apparition of the cheerful greeting that came my way as I stepped through his door. I tried but failed to pull my foot from that last step. Then I covered my eyes with the palms of my hands.
When I pulled my hands away from my face, I stood over the owner, where he lay on the floor. I dropped the stolen bills, and they fluttered over his unconscious, prostrate form. A pool of blood engulfed his left arm and shoulder. Blood still seeped into the puddle as I fell to my knees, pulling a length of rope from my belt loops and wrapping it around his upper arm. I tied the twine into a slip-knot, tightening it until the blood ceased spurting. Then I secured the knot. Taking a pencil from his shirt pocket, I slid it between the cord and his flesh. I twisted the pencil until blood no longer dripped.
I found a diamond-studded, gold broach amid the merchandise scattered across the floor beside him and slid it under the knot. That added pressure kept the blood from trickling from his wound. His breaths came at a weak but steady pace, so I stood, anxious to make my escape.
As I turned, the cops burst through the door.
The owner lived, and I was incarcerated. Hey, at least I ended up in a warm bed. The nurse at jail started me on some medication that eased the symptoms of my withdrawals to a tolerable level. After a few weeks, the pangs faded, then disappeared.
That was when the owner bailed me out of jail and got me a lawyer. I worked the lawyer's fee off in his store, and we became close friends. I eventually created an advertising campaign that grew his business into twenty stores and landed me a new position with a firm in Birmingham, Alabama. The "snow" wasn't a problem in Alabama, and I found my "magic" inside the gentle curves of a tiny face holding a set of angelic baby blue eyes. Of course, that was over a year after I found her mother sobbing atop a crumpled bicycle on a cycling path through my apartment complex.
But then, that event began an entirely different story within my new and magnificent "menagerie of life."