I was glad to see Issue #3 of Riggwelter appear yesterday, with my “Intersection” among the stories.
I pulled up a to a light in my pickup, which sputtered and coughed like a two-pack-a-day smoker. I never knew if the old green Chevy was going to stall. I always felt anxious at a red light because anything could happen there.
It was after my divorce, and between alimony and child support and rent and groceries, there wasn’t much cash left for car repairs. So you could say the Chevy was a casualty of my inability to form lasting relationships, if you want to use that kind of psychobabble.
That light seemed to last for years. It was the middle of the day, a busy intersection bounded by gas stations and stores and offices, with traffic lights timed to maximize drivers’ frustrations as they waited in their air-conditioned metal coffins. Except that my pickup’s air conditioning had gone the way of all sinners.
So I waited and I looked across a traffic island toward a shopping center on the other side of the road. I saw this poor guy on the corner, all ragged and dirty, not doing anything really, he looked to be in a stupor of some kind. I stared at him for a while and then I realized I recognized him through his scruffy beard and wild ginger hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap he had no business of wearing on a humid overcast day in August. He was sitting with his legs splayed on the sidewalk and his back resting against one of two thick wooden stakes supporting a sign that read Now Hiring. I recall laughing about the sign. It wasn’t clear who was hiring and what they were hiring for, but there it was, Now Hiring.
Frank Bidwell was the ragged guy’s name. He and I had worked construction some years before and I remember I didn’t like him. He showed up drunk a lot and I knew from second hand talk he was into cocaine and other stuff. He was a wife-beater too, and I knew that partly through rumor and partly because I saw his wife Rosie one day at a Walmart. I’d known Rosie in high school, and I noticed she had a bruise under her eye. I looked at her, she looked at me, and without a word passing between us, I knew what the bruise meant and she knew I knew.
So, Frank Bidwell, a nasty piece of work who now sat, apparently homeless and gorked out, watching nothing in particular as my Chevy idled at a red light that had overlooked a simple fact of life, namely that it had to turn green at some point. I remember not feeling all that bad about Frank. Some people get their comeuppance, and I guessed Frank was among them. Still, my conscience stammered like an engine with two-hundred thousand miles on it, and I remembered something my mother used to say, There but for the grace of God go I.
Next thing I knew Frank was surrounded by a group of guys, three or four of them in their twenties maybe, completely normal looking if my recollection serves me, like they worked in one of the nearby insurance companies or real estate offices. I saw polo shirts and khaki pants and black loafers and regular incomes and savings accounts.
They started beating on Frank. One of them had a truncheon or something and the other a baseball bat. I had my window open and even with traffic noise I could hear the blows make sickening thwacks on Bidwell’s body. They were beating and kicking him, not saying a thing but going about their business calmly and professionally, like satellite-TV repairmen. Soon Frank’s face ran red, and still the men didn’t stop, not even when the Now Hiring sign was splattered with blood. One of the men picked up an old shopping bag Frank had with him and scattered stuff about. There were crushed tin cans and some clothes and a few yellowed newspapers.
I don’t believe I thought much about what I did next. I may or may not have looked at the light. I may or may not have turned off the ignition, but then I didn’t have to because once left unattended, that old engine did pretty much what it pleased anyway. I reached behind me and took my rifle off its window rack. I got out of the truck, walked to the traffic island, and aimed it across the street and at the guys. I told ‘em to get lost, or something like that, and leave the guy alone, you got no business beatin’ up on him.
The guys didn’t even look at me, they were still staring at Frank, maybe considering what further damage they could do. Next I heard a siren and then screeching tires. A police car pulls up right in front of me as I lower my rifle from my shoulder. So between me and the guys and bleeding Frank there’s a white and blue SUV with rotating blue lights on the roof. Two policemen explode out of the car, point their service revolvers at my heart. They yell drop it and get down, and next thing I know I’m cuffed with my face smashed against cool grass on the traffic island and the cop is calling in the incident on his shoulder microphone.
I couldn’t see Frank and I couldn’t see his attackers. I remember a lot of police chatter on a radio. But what I remember most at just that moment was that people were honking and yelling. The light had turned green and my pickup was sitting there and I could see a line of Hondas and Buicks and Volvos behind it.
Some words stick with you even when they’re buried in a heap of unwashed memory. Hey, jerkoff, we got jobs to get to, someone yelled. A woman rolled down her window—I think she had two kids in the back seat, mind you—and she yelled, Serves you right, asshole, keep your nose out of other people’s business.
I sat at the police station for hours. They questioned me and wanted to know what I planned to do with the rifle and if I had suicidal thoughts and whether I was an Islamic terrorist, and I said Jesus Christ at one point, and so they made me stay the night and then released me and told me they came this close to charging me with assault. Instead they ticketed me for disturbing the peace and let me know where my Chevy had been towed. I seriously considered not retrieving the truck, but finally I got an ex-girlfriend to give me a ride to the auto yard where it was impounded because what other transportation did I have?
I heard later that Frank Bidwell died in a hospital, and the Polo Shirts and Khakis were never even brought to trial. Sometimes I think that a dark cloud of cruelty descended on that intersection for a short time that day and Frank and me and the police and the murderers and the people who shouted from their cars were caught up in it. It was like some perverse reality lasting no more than a few minutes had intruded on the everyday world, which then switched back to normal mode. But then I glance at a newspaper and I say, no, that’s how it is everywhere now.