Previously published in the Summer 2019 issue of CultureCult Magazine.
There was something wrong with the sunlight. Yellow and unhealthy, it came through the windows like it were partially obscured though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a bad omen. A mysterious force was warning me not to leave my apartment today. But it always did that.
I locked my door behind me and proceeded down the hall. I walk well. I’m 75 years old but I get around fine. I don’t need pills or medication, though I suspect that I’m coming down with alzheimer’s. I find that some days I think things, remember things, that couldn’t have happened. I’m not old enough to have been in World War II, for example, yet I have developed distinct memories of killing a young blond man on a rainy field in France. Sometimes I see things that can’t be there, hear voices when I’m alone. I guess it’s my isolation speaking. I’ve been on my own for a very long time.
On the first floor of my building there was a black man with a dirty white beard rooting around in a trashcan. When I came into the room he looked up at me and grinned.
“I lost my phone,” he explained. “Wanna help me find it?”
“I’m busy,” I responded and walked past him. There weren’t many white people like myself in the building. We are used to being subject to derision, hostility, and intimidation.
I walked outside into a busy landscape of auto traffic and winter coats. A woman speaking loudly into a cell phone looked at me as she passed by as if I were something she’d scrape off her shoe. But she and her kind were the dirty ones, unwashed folk. They had no right to look at me like that. I had no choice but to live amongst them. I would never go to a retirement home. I would much rather die alone and independent, even if it meant being surrounded by people like her. I have too much pride for the alternative.
The bus stop was on the corner, in front of a liquor store and across the street from a brick grocery store. There were two young men near the bench; gangsters, idling violently, feigning a sense of ease and relaxation while in fact sparking with nerves. One of them smiled at me when he caught me staring. I guess I was nervous. I was always nervous stepping foot outside. I spend most of my time reading on my beat-up old easy chair. I remembered the young man I had killed. I wondered if these young men had ever killed anyone. Probably not, but you never know. East Oakland is a violent place.
I walked to the bench and took a seat. I watched the traffic. A homeless person trundled past me. He took some time to look at me. They were all looking at me. Why were they smiling? And why did their smiles conceal such visceral anger? Was it directed at me, a harmless old man? They’re jealous of me, I guess. I had less to fear from the police, and that was the difference. A cruiser passed down MacArthur while these thoughts crossed my mind, as if on cue. A yellow face looked out the window at me.
Was paranoia a symptom of alzheimer’s? Delusions of grandeur? I held no such conceptions about myself. I was a failure, useless in all senses but to spend my Social Security check on rent and food. I had no friends, no children, and had never been married. I was a waste.
I knew from the last time I’d taken the bus, over a year ago, that I could be waiting a while, and that it was a long jog downtown. I didn’t live near a BART station, but rather further up the hill, off of MacArthur Boulevard. Some people called this neighborhood the Killing Fields. People died here regularly. Just like on that field in France, death was a common denominator, a constant presence and a defining source of identity for those who witnessed it or became its victim. Some days you could feel it even through the walls of a locked and fortified apartment.
It was on days like this, outcast to this nether-region of anger and poverty, that I lost my spirit, my will to live. I’ve heard this is common amongst people my age. Socially isolated, hopeless, what reason was there to get out of bed in the morning? Some days I just stayed there. Some days it felt appropriate. When up and about I got the newspaper from the newspaper machine in front of my building. Meals on Wheels brought me my groceries. Of course there were sometimes responsibilities that forced me outside. Today there was a mistake on my Social Security check. I was going to their office downtown to see it rectified.
The two men near the bench were quiet. True societal outcasts, who, I imagined, thought they were doing what was expected of them. It’s dangerous to get to know people like that. Anything could happen.
The sunlight still struck me as strange. The whole day did. It felt like there was some large, nebulous entity watching me. I told myself that this was impossible. That it was just my over-active imagination that conceived stories of death and destruction. But who’s to say what’s real and what’s not? If you remember something, if you feel something that affected you, changed you, had an impact on your life, then it’s as good as fact, isn’t it? To live under mistaken beliefs is the reality for many around the world. After all, what else is religion if not a collective delusion?
“Wey’s coming by soon,” I heard one of the gangsters say. “Nigga’s always late.”
“Don’t know what on time mean.”
I scratched my head. Were they talking about drugs?
I looked over my shoulder at them, I couldn’t help myself. One of them was grinning right at me.
“What you think about it old man?” he asked. “What you do if yo’ patnah never show up when he supposed to?”
I turned forward again.
“I’m talking to you old man,” I heard.
I shook my head and looked down at my hands. Maybe I should answer him.
“Dumbass cracker,” I heard. “What you living in a black neighborhood for anyway?”
I still didn’t respond.
“I see your ass every day, when you get the paper. You the only white person around here.”
“Come on man,” his partner interjected. “He ain’t nothing.”
“I know he ain’t nothing. That’s why I’m talking to him.”
“Ain’t no gentrification from that motherfucker, for real.”
My heart was beating fast. I put a hand on my chest to hold it in. Despite the cold a sweat was breaking out on my forehead. I felt the grip of mild panic, and told myself to calm down. There was nothing to be afraid of.
I looked at my watch. I’d been here ten minutes.
The gangsters had fallen silent again.
I put my hands on my knees, massaged the muscle above them. I was lucky to be able to get around so well. A lot of people my age were homebound, not be choice, like myself, but by bad health. I had a few good years left in me, to spend reading Shakespeare in my easy chair, reflecting on my failed past. There could be worse fates, I suppose.
I looked down the street and saw the bus, the big eighty-four, trundling down MacArthur. It pulled over to the curb a few blocks away. It looked dirty and rusty and gaseous.
“Looks like your ride’s here, my man,” I heard from behind me.
“Come on, leave him alone.”
“I do whatever I fucking feel like.”
I got to my feet, keeping my back to them.
“Hey! I’m talking to you motherfucker!”
I turned around and saw his leering face, his eyes twin beams of anger.
“I know you’re talking to me,” I said.
“You better get on that fucking bus before I kick your fucking ass!”
“I’m going to,” I said.
“And don’t you pick up your paper in the morning no more. I don’t want to see your stupid white ass.”
“It’s a free country.”
“Not for you no more it ain’t.”
I heard the wheeze of the bus approaching. I turned around again.
“Dumbass motherfucker. You ain’t got no idea how to deal with people.”
“I know better than you do,” I muttered under my breath, but then I figured the young man had a point. I could have handled that situation better. It was this fucking neighborhood that got to me: So much anger, so many monsters; everywhere, creatures of despair. There was no fresh air to be had in a place like this.
The bus arrived and the door opened. I got on. The bus driver, another hostile-looking man, watched me pay my fair, then cranked the wheel to the left and pulled out into the street. I grabbed the closest purchase to keep from falling over.
The bus had eight or nine passengers: four or five black people, several Latinos, an old Asian woman. They were scattered about, some looking out the windows, some seated at the aisles, and two of them in the front of the bus in the two rows facing each other, where senior citizens are expected to sit.
I made my way down the bus. I’m a tall man. I can reach the overhead commuter rails easily. I switched sides with my hands as I went. The bus driver was rude and reckless. Even though I’m in good shape I had to be careful not to lose balance. I know the risks of a person my age falling.
I reached the back third of the bus, past the back door, where the double-seat rows facing forward are interrupted by twin rows lining the bus walls, like in the front. I sat down at one of these, closest to the seats facing forward. There was a young man sitting in the middle of the very back row. He looked like the young man that had accosted me in front of my building. He wore baggy black jeans, a pea coat and a black Oakland Raiders beanie. He smiled at me when we made eye contact.
I checked my watch. It was 10:00 AM. I expected to spend most of the day taking care of this errand. I would fix myself a sandwich when I got home. I’d had breakfast of eggs and toast. My appetite could hold itself.
The bleak scenery of MacArthur Boulevard rolled past as I stared out the window. We passed Castlemont High School. More young people got on, making fools of themselves, laughing it up, playing music on their smart phones. There was a young woman accosted by two young boys, her hair playfully pulled, the two dancing around her. She snapped at her attackers and told them loudly to “Leave me alone!” They didn’t listen.
“You better stop!” the young girl yelled.
“I ain’t doing nothing,” said one of the teenagers, putting his hands up.
“You hella stupid.”
She sounded like she was only half tired of it.
Soon we made it to the Laurel District, one of the more fashionable parts of East Oakland. The sidewalks were more crowded, full of people of all ages and colors, even some white people. A middle aged woman, a little fat, dressed in a hoodie and sweat pants, sat across from me and there was no cheer in her eyes when hers met mine. She wished that I was somebody else. Sometimes I wished the same thing. I hated people like her for making me feel that way.
Before long there were white people getting on the bus too. Dressed and made up casually, I supposed that these were what you call ‘hipsters’. They looked so soft. There was something about them that inspired me to stare, as if I was so used to being on the receiving end of it that I’d grown to think it normal. I know it’s not normal. There was just something fascinating about all the folks I saw, the multitudes of categories they fell under, the menace, good cheer, or deliberate neutrality they exhibited. I hoped that the young man who had harassed me in front of my building wouldn’t be there when I got back. But who knows how long a person like him would keep up with his nefarious activities.
The bus left East Oakland. We circled sparkling Lake Merritt via Grand Avenue and arrived downtown. I got off at 14th and Broadway. According to the phone book the Social Security office was just a few blocks away. I was struck by the smell of urine. There were businessmen with brief cases and there were drug addicts yelling at each other. It seemed like there was something going on, but it was obviously just a typical day.
I didn’t know this part of the city very well, but I had been to the Social Security office before.
I started down the street. At one point a suit-wearing man brushed past me hard enough to cause me to stumble. I put a hand on the nearest building to steady myself, then shouted invectives at the man’s retreating back. He didn’t turn around. His hostility was impregnable. I continued on my way.
The Social Security office was on the first floor of an office building from the 1920’s that also housed Oakland’s unemployment services. I followed the signs to the office I was looking for, which was just off of the lobby. Cheap, ugly fluorescent lighting illuminated the place. There were rows of chairs with about ten people seated in them, facing a row of desks bisected and divided from the public by a wall of transparent plastic glass. There was a short line of elderly folk waiting to be serviced.
The line took about fifteen minutes. I watched a soap opera on mute that was playing on a television built into the ceiling corner. When it was my turn to go forward I took my latest check and stub out of my pocket.
“How can I help you?” asked the woman with stringy brown hair behind the counter as she idly stapled together a packet of papers and slid them into a drawer.
“There’s a problem with my latest check,” I said, sliding the paper into the plastic-glass’s opening where it met the desk.
“Can I see your ID and your Social Security card?”
I took them out of my wallet and slid them under the glass also.
“What seems to be the problem?” she asked, considering my identification and then looking me in the face.
“You got my name wrong.”
“We did what?”
“Look. See?” I said, pointing at the check. “My name is William Jassden.”
“Yes,” she said, looking where I was pointing.
“That’s not what it says here.”
“No it’s not.”
“So that’s the problem. How am I supposed to deposit my check if the name’s wrong?” I asked, smiling congenially.
She looked at my identification, looked again at the check.
“But sir,” she said, “the names match.”
“The name on your Social Security card, on your state ID, they match the name on your check. Dominic Fredericks.”
“Dominic Fredericks, sir. And you sure look like the picture on your ID to me,” she said, pointing to the picture.
“Dominic Fredericks,” I mouthed, and looked down at my ID. Indeed, there was the face I’d seen so many times in the mirror: drawn, lined, weathered, bald at the top with a fringe of white hair. And there was the name, Dominic Fredericks, which, now that I thought about it, sounded altogether familiar.
“William Jassden,” I mouthed the phantom name. “How on Earth…?”
I felt embarrassed, as if someone had played a trick on me. I had come all this way for nothing. I had forgotten my own name. I guess it had been too long since I’d heard anyone say it.
“William Jassden,” I repeated. “I must have read it in the paper or something.”
“It’s the name of our State Senator,” the woman explained, still smiling.
“Senator Jassden,” I mouthed. “I know I’m not that.”
I reached for the paperwork and the woman slid them under the glass toward me.
“I wish I could help you,” she said, and sounded like she meant it. “At least it’s a problem we don’t have to fix,” she offered.
This struck me as too much. She was trying to commiserate with me, as if I needed commiseration.
“It’s a problem no one can fix you dumb cow,” I said. “Now give me my things and let me out of here.”
“Don’t you call me names, sir,” she said pointedly.
“I’ll say whatever I damn well feel like,” I said, now looking her in the eye, shoving my identification back in my wallet, the check back in my pocket. “I fought in the war, ma’am. I’ve earned the right to some respect.”
“No one’s disrespecting you.”
“Damn right!” I said, quite ineffectually. “This society’s forgot the people they owe something to.”
“You’re the one that made the mistake, sir.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I thundered. “Okay. I’m done here. I wish I hadn’t come all this way in the first place. A man my age shouldn’t have to take care of these things alone.”
“I’m in complete agreement with you, sir.”
“Goodbye. Thanks for your consideration,” I said, ironically.
The woman’s smile stayed steady on her face.
I left the Social Security office in a daze, crossed the street and found a bus stop that had the number eighty-four. But how could I be sure that it was the right number? Everything was suspect now. I sat on the bench with my head down and my hands in my pockets. No one could see, no one could tell, but tears had come to my eyes. How had so many years gotten away from me? I’d worked in the Civil Service. I’d attended college. I’d fought in the war. I remembered all that. But since retirement everything was a blur, the passage of days, weeks, and months indistinct and shapeless. They say the number one killer of old people is retirement. Was I living proof of that?
The bus arrived. I boarded. A fat white man with a mustache and a green and gold A’s cap on his head was sitting behind the wheel. He watched me pay my fare, and then I walked into the bus to take a seat by the window about half the length back. The bus was pretty full. As it snaked its way through the streets to MacArthur Boulevard it lost and gained passengers at a steady rate, and, the inverse of what happened on the way here, the average skin tone of the riders became darker and the clothes cheaper. I was returning to my netherworld, away from anyone who looked like me, from anyone who acted like me, from anyone who was educated like me or appreciated literature like me, evicted from hospitable shores. How had I ended up here? I couldn’t remember that either. I think it had something to do with government subsidies.
We’d reached the Laurel District, and stopped across the street from the Oakland Ballet School. I watched a little white girl and her little black girlfriend get on the bus. They were beautiful, the one with frilly blonde hair, wearing a skirt and leotard, the other with a cascade of dark curls flowing from her head to the middle of her back. They took their seats in front of me and started talking to each other but I couldn’t quite hear them over the bus’s engine. Smiling animatedly, they were turned toward each other as if they were going to play a game of patty cake. I felt something like jealousy looking at them, their whole life before them, the freedom to decide and experience what they wanted to become. They were so beautiful, so pure. I couldn’t look away.
The bus was emptying out. The little girls kept talking to each other, childish smiles on their faces, oblivious to the miserable people around them. I wished I could be so lucky. Unfortunately I was only too aware of the feelings of those who didn’t appreciate associating with a person like me.
The bus kept on exchanging passengers, one to two blocks at a time. I was trying to listen to the girls, as I found their innocence a sort of antidote to everything else. But then, when the bus pulled over at fifty-fifth avenue, I saw a very particular kind of man get on.
His skin was dark, but so grimed over it was almost grey. He wore a large Raiders puff coat, torn and ragged and dirty at the shoulders, like it had recently spent time smeared into the ground. He had a dark green backpack slung over one shoulder, and a mottled, salt and pepper beard that blurred the lines of his chin and neck. He paid his fare, transferring the change from his pocket one coin at a time, then patted the bus driver on the shoulder and turned towards the rest of the bus. Taking no time to survey his surroundings he lurched down the aisle. He walked in fits and starts, and was obviously drunk. His stink assaulted my nostrils. Like me, it was probably little more than habit that kept him going every morning. But, unlike me, he was dangerous. You could tell by what was in in his eyes. A few moments later I saw those eyes settle on the girls.
The bus pulled out into the street.
The man looked about himself like he was about to do something he didn’t want anyone to see. I was reading him like a book, but had he seen me? Our eyes hadn’t locked, and I was staring right at him. I suppose next to the beauty of the girls, still facing each other, smiling and laughing, I was hard to see. Even in my white skin I didn’t stand out as much as they did. He knew what wasn’t like him, what needed defiling. It was a compulsion, resulting from long-endured feelings of irrelevance, that I recognized.
He continued down the aisle. He crashed into the seat across from the girls. The black girl was closest to him, and she looked over her shoulder at him a moment before turning back to her friend. The two shared a giggle, hiding their mouths with their hands.
“What you laughing at?” I heard the monster say in a low, gravelly voice.
I sat up. My heart was racing. I recalled killing the young man in France.
“I said what you laughing at?”
“Nothing mister,” the black girl said over her shoulder. “We’re just playin’ around.”
“I ain’t nothing to laugh at. You girls should know better.”
“Hey!” I said. “Leave them alone.”
The monster looked at me hollowly.
“I’ll speak to whoever I damn well feel,” he grumbled.
The girls turned around, noticed me, then turned and faced forward, not speaking to each other any more.
“You don’t want none of this old man,” said the gray man, staring me down. “You don’t know where I been my whole life.”
I didn’t answer him, but I returned his gaze. I wanted to draw him away from the girls, whose attention he clearly craved.
“Where you two headed?” the monster said, facing the girls again.
The girls didn’t acknowledge him.
“HEY!” he called out, causing a stir from the passengers further ahead on the bus. “I’m talking to you!”
“Really mister, we’re just on our way home,” said the white girl, leaning forward to look past her friend.
“What you doing living around here? This ain’t the neighborhood for two little girls like you.”
“I could have told you the same thing,” I interjected, drawing the monster’s attention once again. The girls continued to ignore me.
“What you want old man? I ain’t talking to your cracker ass.”
“Nothing,” I answered. “Just to ride in peace.”
“I ain’t riding no other way,” he said.
“Something going on back there?” I heard someone up front say. The gray man appeared not to notice.
The girls were talking to each other in whispers. Then they stood up.
“We’re getting off here,” said the black girl. “You two have a good day.”
“What’s that?!” called out the man. “You don’t need to leave on account of me.”
The girls walked past him. He turned his body towards them as they passed.
“This is our stop,” said the white girl quietly.
“Well guess what,” he said, standing up. “This my stop too.”
“No it’s not,” I said, standing up along with him and blocking his access to the girls.
“Hey you leave them be!” someone called out.
“Old man, you best let me pass.”
“Or what?” I said. “You’re gonna hit me?”
The bus came to a stop.
“What the hell’s going on back there?”
“There’s two men fighting.”
“I’m calling the cops.”
“Break them up first! There’s children back there.”
The gray man walked up on me. He was probably in his 50s. He was solid, well built. His eyes were wide and flat, emotionless and purposeful.
“Open the door please!” The white girl called out.
“Don’t you two girls go nowhere!” the man suddenly shouted and lunged forward, pushing me aside. The girls screamed. The bus erupted with roars of disapproval.
The man grabbed the white girl around the waist. I in turn grabbed him around the neck and tried to put him in a headlock. The door of the bus opened and the man started down the stairs, taking me and the girl with him.
“STACY!” called out her friend.
“HELP ME!” the little girl screamed.
In an attempt to answer her call, I tightened my grip on the man’s neck and bore down. I heard him choke. After a moment’s struggle (we were all still on the bus) he let the girl go and she ran screaming onto MacArthur Boulevard. I watched her go and felt a ray of pride beam down on me because I had just done something good.
“Motherfucker!” the man coughed through my arms, then took hold of them from around his neck and pried them loose. A moment later I was flattened on the floor of the bus after a wet, crunching strike to my nose.
The man fled down the stairs, but, I saw, ran in the opposite direction down MacArthur as the girl had.
I was breathing heavily from the struggle. I smiled. When was the last time I’d done something like that? I couldn’t remember. But my heroism had not been without cost. A throbbing pain afflicted my nose, made its way to my chest and my brain. Maybe I was going to die.
“The motherfucker’s gotten away,” I heard someone say.
“Call an ambulance,” said someone else.
I opened my eyes. I saw the little black girl back in her seat looking shell-shocked, but also filled with appreciation for me. I might have spared her friend a terrible experience or worse. Seeing such a look was truly a foreign sensation.
A crowd of passengers had gathered around me.
“You okay, sir?” I heard someone say.
I closed my eyes and nodded.
“Maybe I’m not so useless after all,” I said.
“You seen that man before?”
I shook my head.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“Little girl’s frightened to death.”
“They went different ways though,” someone else said. “At least he’s not still after her.”
“You okay sweetie?”
There was no response.
“Okay! Everyone off the bus. The next eighty-four should be about twenty minutes from now.”
I opened my eyes but the world was swimming.
The bus driver, his silhouette illuminated from behind by the yellow sun coming through the windows, was kneeling down next to me.
“Don’t worry, sir. I’ve called an ambulance. They should be here soon.”
“Where am I?” I wondered out loud.
“You’re on the eighty-four bus. MacArthur Boulevard.”
“Am I dying?”
“No you’re not.”
But my head and heart hurt something fierce.
“Did the little girl get away?”
“I think she did. I didn’t see the whole affair.” He paused, then said: “Did you get a good look at the man who attacked you?”
“But I attacked him.”
“You can tell the police that when they get here.”
I closed my eyes and drifted off. When I opened them I was being loaded onto an ambulance. I supposed that this day hadn’t been for naught after all. Even people like me could sometimes have purpose. I hoped I would never see the gray man again, but I wished the opposite in regards the girls. I will never forget the look on the little black one’s face after I’d saved her friend. I hoped neither of them would ever forget me.
On the way to the hospital I drifted into sleep. They told me later that I’d suffered a broken nose, and they fitted me with a metal and plaster bandage I was to wear for the next two weeks. My life continued as it had before my trip. I continued to collect the newspaper from the sidewalk and read books in my easy chair, but I felt different. Now I knew I was capable of tangible good deeds, even despite my advanced age and lack of connection to the rest of the world. But, as the days came and went the memory receded further and further into the past, and I found with some horror that, once again, I’d forgotten my own name. I picked up names from the television and the newspaper, but it wasn’t me. I couldn’t trust my own memory.
I took the bus to Highland Hospital to get my nose worked on. They removed the caste, and I took the bus back. It was quite rare to see little children on the bus alone. What I had seen was an example of faulty parenting. Unfortunately I would, most likely, never have to rise to such an occasion again.
I tried to maintain what I knew was a tenuous grip on reality. Maybe I would just die and get it over with. What else was I living for, anyway? I had to continue to remind myself what was true and what wasn’t, like my name, Dominic Fredericks, which was real, and that field in France, which wasn’t.
I suppose there are things in the world worth holding onto. Illusions are not one of those things. It’s better to be honest with yourself, even when honesty is inconvenient or hurtful. People tell themselves things that they wish were true; they see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. I was no different. But maybe, just maybe, as time passed I would find another chance to do something right. After all, good things come to those who wait, and that was one thing I knew I was good at: waiting. I could wait my whole life, and be ready when the moment comes. At least now, after the gray man and the little girls, I knew that I had it in me. I would live one day at a time with more purpose, and wait for another such situation to present itself. Anything was possible, right?