There is a moment when we all turn to view our past, but instead find our future.
Menagerie of Life
Silence ruled the streets, and I felt alone in a desolate world, abandoned by my kind and my kindred. Just two years before, I had been a successful advertising executive on his way to his own firm. "The Kid-Genius," who everyone sought to topple and then clambered over each other to replace.
Every project I worked on became "Golden." My office bookshelves overflowed with award trophies and plaques, all plastic, coated with gold leaf. Until the gold eventually wore away, leaving white plastic exposed underneath. Looking back, I guess that was a portent of what awaited me in my future.
Chicago was a vast city where the dominoes of gossip toppled swiftly. My reputation seemed to always beat me to my next interview. There was a cold look in their eyes, telling me I was a damaged commodity that no one wanted in their portfolio.
Instead of trying harder, I found comfort inside a tiny glass tube filled with white powder. That powder pulled me into a warm, comfortable fantasy. But the illusion was only in my head, and every time I ventured out, the world outside had gotten colder. I found it impossible to maintain that fantasy while regaining a brilliant carrier, so I shucked the cloak of ambition and withdrew further from reality.
At first, nothing changed. My previous success had garnered me enough savings to finance months of self-inflicted delusion. I had convinced myself I was the center of the universe when it came to advertising. Everyone needed me, even if they refused to recognize that fact at first. Eventually, the accolades of my achievements would bring opportunity, bursting through my door. However, months turned into a year, and soon all the money was gone. Most of it coated my sinuses. Then I was evicted from my apartment, with nowhere to go. No friends, no relatives, no respite from the cold and precarious nights.
That's how I got here. In a cardboard shelter, on a back-alley in downtown Chicago. My box was the one nearest the end of the line at the Soup Kitchen. Where a steaming bowl of soup stood between the rabble and their grave.
Today, my desperation urged me to borrow someone else's property, with the hopes of transitioning that property into some magic. Magic-powder, that is. I called it magic, while those upright citizens of society called it an "illegal substance."
However, even those upright citizens had started to see things my way. They established "safe places," where I gave myself injections or snorted. It wouldn't be long before they issued my "magic" from clinics and supplied me with a place to sleep it off. Isn't society beneficial and benevolent? Get it? B&B.
Those hopeful days were not upon us yet, though, and I was in a "bad" way. Every part of me shook, and I was soping with sweat, although I stood in the snow. My brain burned and ached. The pain robbed me of the ability to sleep, and my thoughts were hard to pull together.
I stood inside a reaching-shadow, near the throat of an alleyway across the street from a sidewalk lined by store windows. My interest kept returning to a jewelry store at one end of the lane. There were cameras around, but I could avoid them by timing my pace to coincide with the seasonal shoppers. And in the aftermath, the cops wouldn't answer a call for shoplifting during this time of year, in this part of town. Not for a couple of hours 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, like I said, people like me passed unnoticed inside the Christmas throngs.
However, this 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 ragged edge, ripping through his flesh, should permit my escape. After that, once I achieved a head start, I couldn't be caught.
Once I sank into the forest of tents, sleeping bags, crudely fashioned cardboard huts, and mounds of paper that the wind piled against the brick walls of the alleys, then my invisibility would be assured. I used to call that part of town a menagerie of low-lives. Now, I thought of that menagerie of life as my home.
With my plan thoroughly thought through and my actions examined over and over, I gathered my courage. It wasn't easy because the pangs of withdrawal assaulted my confidence at every turn. Worries crashed into every hidden corner of my plan until I found myself lost inside a fog of apprehension. But my desire for that temporary, chemically-induced ecstasy caused my needs to override my trepidation. I discarded caution. I stood at the alley's mouth, gathering my desperation into resolve until a bit of momentary-strength propelled me onto my ill-gotten path. A path along which I found no option for retreat.
Before I crossed 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. With just a slice of that edge, the storekeeper's reaction would allow for my escape. "No harm, no foul, and I would be on my way to the healing effects of my euphoria."
No one understood how much my body and soul yearned for that euphoria. It was essential for my existence. Those brief periods of elation 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 once again attain control over my universe. At least, inside my head. 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 was 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 I was in luck because, if he had a helper, he must have been at lunch with all the shoppers.
The streets and sidewalks had emptied between waves of shoppers. Snow drifted 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 stepped inside, the owner of the jewelry store 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 obviously not able to afford any of my jewelry, so I don't want you in my place of business!"
My anger gathered under his retort, bolstering my courage. I grinned and almost whispered, "I need something. And that need is greater than my fears," I said as I raised the shiv from my pocket. Then, from within the comfort afforded me by the blade in my hand, I mellowed, just before I spoke again. "Please, give me just a little of your money. That will do. I don't need much, and I 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. If I push this button, they'll be here in about two minutes."
Two minutes, I thought. Just enough time for the cash register to be emptied, then I run. I ran, pushing the storekeeper backward against the display case, then turned toward the cash register. The owner grabbed for 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. I froze, with one foot still on the last step, fixed inside a quandary.
Only seconds past, but as it happens in the movies, I held that image for what seemed an eternity. I must have imagined a dozen scenarios, and all ended 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. I fell to my knees as I pulled a length of rope from my belt loops and wrapped 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 busted through the door.
The owner lived, and I was incarcerated. Hey, at least I ended up in a warm bed. The nurse at the jail started me on some medication that eased the symptoms of my withdrawals to a tolerable level. After a few weeks, the pangs faded.
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 because I found my "magic" inside the gentle curves of a tiny face, which held 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 a new and magnificent "menagerie of life."