Forty Things are Following You
by Tim Dicks

Tuesday night I tried to ride the city bus and the city bus didn't come. I stood on the sidewalk and then sat on the curb and then after fifteen minutes I started walking. I thought I might wave at the bus if it came later but the bus stops were empty and the streets were empty and if the bus came it would be in a rush of breeze and lights and it would be there by my side and then gone.
Still I wondered what would be the most dignified way to signal the bus if it did come, and imagined yelling, running. I was coming home from a theater festival and wondered if anyone I knew would drive by and see me and considered how few people at the festival would recognize me here, alone, in the dark. A few shiny cars rolled by and made me think of my own car, parked quiet, so far away, and then later a cluster of emergency vehicles hulked bright around some unseeable and unfortunate center. A few blocks after that an older man on a bicycle wobbled uncertainly through several empty lanes. “I’m so fucked up!” he called.
A while later I walked past a bar with which I was familiar. There were drinks inside, I knew, a variety of draft beers. There was a restroom. Somebody had set up a food cart on the patio and happy drunks stood around, my age but better dressed, in clusters. Some of them held hot dogs. I stopped on the sidewalk and felt like a creeper, sweating from the walk, the heat, from my leather bag banging against my back. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, had realized at lunch that I wasn’t hungry and later as the sun fell that I still wasn't hungry. I’d been laid off a few weeks before and had lost most of my interest in food along with my job. I had passed from joy at my daily freedom to terror at my draining bank account, and now the thought of spending four dollars on cart sausages or on poured beer when I wasn’t even honestly hungry seemed absurd, wasteful in the worst way, a tossing of money at an urge that didn't even want to be satisfied.

I walked maybe two blocks from the bar and the bicyclist appeared again, and came close now, and didn’t stop but slowed. “I just wanted to let you know,” he said. “About forty things are following you. Don't look back there but.”

“Oh,” I said.

He circled and rode back the way he’d come from, the only figure in the streetlights ahead. I thought about the bar behind me and wondered if anyone was really following, if forty anyones might be after me, if anyone had mistaken me for someone else or if anyone had really recognized me, if anyone from the school that had laid me off had seen me walk by outside, if another employee or a student had seen me go by. Of course I didn’t expect footsteps to pound up behind me, and none did.

I thought about how nice it was to have the luxury of this long walk, to predict getting home after two, to know I'’d be able to sleep in, to know that I could go back for the hot dog and the beer if I wanted. If I'’d still had my job I could have afforded a tab without feeling guilty and twisted, but then I wouldn'’t have time to run one up, to even be walking now, to move down the long sidewalk on the side of Mills Avenue with forty things coming up behind.

The bicyclist was gone for a while, then he wobbled back. “All dogs go to heaven!” he yelled, and when he got closer he added, “And you know what?” He stood on the pedals and pushed past me. “I’m going to work. I'’m actually going to work right now.”

“It'’s so late!” I said.

He circled around. “Yeah, I know,” he said, when he faced me again. “But I have to get there before the black guys. You gotta get there early to get to the good cars. But yeah.” He looked back the way I'’d come, and his eyebrows came together in concern. “They really are following you.” He laughed a little. “Yeah, they are definitely after you. Watch out.” He circled around one more time and said, “I have to get to work,” and he went off ahead.

A few cars passed. I didn’t turn to look behind. At the first major intersection I saw a building far off that was close to my apartment and imagined the water faucet inside, and the bed. The bicyclist was here, next to an SUV stopped at the streetlight. I walked through and thought I'’d left his territory but he rolled up and stopped and leaned on his handlebars and was noticeably relieved. “Hey,” he said. “It'’s cool. I checked and they're still following you but they'’re okay.”

“Oh,” I said, and imagined these shadows stretched behind, ghosts or quiet drunks, mummies, who knew what.

“Yeah, they'’re looking out for you.” He pushed his pedals and moved away.            

“Thanks for letting me know,” I said, and meant it.

photo by Jackie Rhoades