It hit staggeringly as the iron doors shut. Fetid. It would be a smelly ride. I almost wouldn’t investigate, even considered turning back, but the prospect of a peanut M+M’s heist convinced me. I braced myself and shoved my girth into the claustrophobic box. He can’t stay here.
I pressed the ground floor button—the dungeon level, as the kids called it. The circle lit up dim orange, clashing with the spongy yellow wall pads. The official inspection certificate was just as sulfuric, printed on a crumbly paper, probably outdated, and certainly no assurance of any safety. That was the scariest thing on my mind at the moment. As for the situation downstairs, I hoped for the best, but only for convenience rather than fear. I didn’t want any trouble, but was confident I would more imposing than anyone down there. An 80-pound drug addict in too many clothes didn’t stand a chance against six-and-a-half-foot ex-lineman with a blistery birthmark. I’m the bogeyman here. I smirked as the car plunked down on the basement level.
It was cold, so the dingy space gave off a mechanical furnace hum. It added to the effect. I held my nose. It wasn’t a large room, with every part of it visible from the elevator except the electrical alcove tucked behind a pillar to the left of the doors. The only light came from that same corner, a flickery ceiling lamp that cast yellowish shadows on the spare chair stacks and dusty tables. The kids upstairs had been warned against coming to this floor. There wasn’t necessarily anything dangerous besides circuit breakers and the odd rat, but they didn’t need to be leaving rehearsal for those adventures. Besides, they thought there were zombies down here; the paint on the walls looked eerily like blood and handprints. I shivered as usual.
Alright, where are you? I surveyed the empty room. My phone flashlight probed the cobwebby corners from the elevator’s mouth and found no shriveled figure. There was nobody crouched under the tables. The folding chairs remained empty as always. Forgetting momentarily the electrical alcove, I jolted at the crinkle of a plastic bag. Usually I care little for the sound when carrying produce or blowing across a parking lot. It was the abnormal setting that made my neck prickle. I rounded the concrete column and found not a fetal position, but a colossus in a thick blue coat.
I yelled and jumped backward, covering my face naturally. For a second, my left hand felt the hardened bubbles on my lower eyelid. They felt ugly, dark maroon on my German skin, but familiar in their misplacement nevertheless. I’m used to kids scampering up to nervously inquire and parents giving hushed whispers of accidents and scars as they passed. Birth scars, more like it. I lowered his arms to find nothing prettier.
Seven feet to my six-and-a-half, the man stood with one hand reaching back for the corner behind him and the other holding a Hannaford shopping bag. Faint outlines of two silver tallboys were visible through the label of bread and fruit and plenty. The stench got stronger after he entered the alcove, mixing with the rays of ruddy light coming from the decrepit lamp overhead. The man was breathing heavily, chest rising and falling noticeably even under the puffy jacket. Tense silence left the two of us eagerly awaiting the other’s move. Standoff. He’s got height. I’ve got bulk.
Men have distinct fears. Standing in front of me, back against a grey brick wall, was a wounded animal. Huffing in contemplation, any momentary weakness would be its time to strike. I made sure to use his bulky figure to its full intimidating potential, standing wide and bracing my lumberjack arms to apprehend any sudden knife or fist. Worse, I pictured the druggy chemistry set those blue pockets surely held and shivered at the thought of a needle in the eye.
Then I saw his eyes. They were pried wide open, shining brilliantly in contrast with his black skin and scruffy beard. The left one was cemented in a gnarled scab descending from his brow. It wasn’t actively bleeding, but clearly nobody had taken him to the hospital. The dark figure looked frightened, like his eyes were locking on the barrel of a loaded gun. Now was no different, except the rifle was almost 300 pounds and sporting nasty blemishes around his eye. Still, the man clung to the wall as if it would ground the recurrent vertigo in his throbbing head. Is he more scared than I am?
“Hey, man,” the figure sounded out in a raspy grunt. “Hey, look, I’m not looking for any trouble.”
I’m not either. How do I get him out without it? The man sounded tired and hoarse, but not notably intoxicated. Whatever kind of junkie he was, the high must have worn off.
“I’m just trying to get warm, man,” he continued. “‘Sbeen real cold out lately.”
“Yeah, I get it.” I responded. “But you can’t stay here. Look, I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t have a heart. You just can’t.”
I do have a heart. Half of me wanted to let the man stay. After all, who was I to sentence him to the Chicago wind this time of year? Then I pictured the theater upstairs. The lobby sat in dim nighttime lights, decorated in reds and greens and silvers and golds. Balls of glistening metal on tinsel chains linked the vibrant walls. In just under 24 hours, the scoured countertops would bear stacks of concessions, Fritos nestled behind rainbows of Skittles—my favorites. And of course, behind the box office desk was the register. Locked by flimsy key for soothing worries, it wouldn’t really keep out an addict’s hunger.
Besides, the stage was set with a glimmering tree, where the childrens’ choir would carol on opening night. I was their director, but also their protector for the short time they spent in this rather dinky building. White kids, wealthy kids—nice kids, but kids who wouldn’t handle this man’s appearance very calmly. They expected pure holiday cheer, and likewise their parents would clap and stand and boo-hoo from the audience for a little boy in a Santa suit singing proudly:
What child is this
Who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthem sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping
It wasn’t the place for this man in his own blue Santa suit. There was only so much sympathy to give, and the smell was quickly becoming unbearable.
“What happened to your face? Are you alright?” I asked the man.
“What happened to yours?” he retorted with a half-smirk.
“Birthmark,” I said, taken aback by the man’s quip.
“Sorry?” Great, he’s on the run. That cop will probably come by to look for him.
“Resting on the corner one night. Pig said leave.” The man swayed back and forth as he recounted the incident. “I was on my way, too, gathering up my clothes and shit. Told me I wasn’t quick enough. Gave me this to ‘speed me up.’” We were silent. The man had relaxed a little and removed his hand from the wall behind him. He now turned, placed down the bag, and began to fold up a large piece of cardboard behind him.
“How long have you been here?”
“Three days, man.” The room seemed remarkably clean for that amount of time. Wondering how the man had found it without detection, I checked the chain on the far side door. It was missing, and the tight barrier it usually established swung just enough to let in light from the street. The kids were right—zombies had found a way in. But relief sank in. Thank God he didn’t go through the lobby.
As the cardboard peeled off the floor, I saw the dampness it had covered. The poor guy’s been pissing where he sleeps! I searched the space behind him for anything else. Nothing. No needles, not one syringe. The silver tallboys were the only thing shining in the sickly lamplight. Indeed, it seemed he hadn’t strayed from his little corner at all. Still, there were chairs and tables just feet away, far cushier than his corrugated square. He had clearly been cowering long before discovered. Would poking his head around the column really have been too risky?
“Hey, look man. I ain’t no dope fiend, I swear it. Just please don’t call the cops. I’ll be out of your building.” The man finished with his cardboard and sandwiched it under his arm, a damp suitcase to complement his Hannaford bag which he grabbed again. He stared again with his wide eyes and parted his large lips slightly. There was the faint aura of pleading there.
The presents upstairs came to mind. I had just finished wrapping them, some final stage prep before locking up. I imagined my hands smoothing down the sparkly wrapping paper. Their creases were intensely sharp: they had to be, with my attention to detail. I had fastened each one carefully with bows of gossamer loops and arranged them in four piles around the stage. Small gifts poured out of the largest boxes, falling into cairns all about. Four little cornucopias. Bread and fruit and plenty.
I imagined Peter, the little soloist Santa suit boy. As he bowed to the roaring crowd and prepared for his second number, the look on his face would be invaluable. A toothy grin would peep out from his spectacled face as he recognized his parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins. He would start triumphantly anew:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
“Look, I know it’s cold out, but there are kids here, man. I can’t let you stay. I hope you understand.” I motioned the way out the un-bolted door. The animalistic fear had left the man’s limbs. Maybe he believed a peaceful intention by now. Perhaps the will to fear had simply evaporated. Less jittery than when cornered earlier, he passed by around the column and made a lazy trek to the door. In all his squalid parcels, his luggage of cheap beer and soaking urine, there wasn’t food. Perhaps there were some wrappers in his pockets, but his jacket was as silent as his countenance. Finally, when he had shuffled to the far end of the room, he chuckled.
“Y’all sure do have a lot of decorations in that playhouse up there.” I walked to meet him at the door. Shock probably showed on my face, for the man added, “I like to look. Never touch.” From out of a loose blue sleeve darted a right hand. He took it after a pause.
“My name’s David. Merry Christmas.”
The door flitted tentatively shut and hung in languor. After the furnace banished the stinging wind, I pictured again Peter bowing, then clearing his throat for a final song:
Do you see what I see?
Do you hear what I hear?
Do you know what I know?