Like a ghost.
Jason’s hands tightened around the slowly cooling coffee cup, clenched in his palms. His breath grew shallow and his throat tightened. He found himself having difficulty breathing. The smooth hardness of the porcelain rolled between his fingers. He clutched at the indifferent cup like it was a talisman, an anchor that kept his body from floating away. Briefly, Jason panicked at the thought of drifting up, up, up to be sucked into an air vent. Or battered to pieces by the whirling blades of one of the dusty ceiling fans that hung overhead. A fitting end, he mused, to a life lived in the folds of indifference. Eyes unfocused, staring to some point on a horizon he could not see, Jason didn’t see Bobby Sack come creeping up the sidewalk; Bobby’s eyes were fixed on Jason and his grossly chapped lips cracked into a grotesque grin of black holes and the distant memory of a dentist’s care. He hastened up the sidewalk and smacked a grime coated hand on the glass, just inches from Jason’s face.
“Hey, Jakesy!” he shouted, his voice muffled by the glass, “gotta dollar, or smokes?”
The impact of Bobby’s hand cracked like a low gunshot, startling Jason out of his desperation-filled daydream. Jerking spasmodically, he flinched and hot coffee slopped over the rim of the cup to pool at the base of his right thumb. Jason swore softly at the burn and stuck the tender flesh in his mouth. The younger truck driver sitting next to Jason suppressed a grin and asked “Buddy of yours?” He gestured with his chin at the dreadlocked apparition waiting expectantly on the sidewalk.
Jason sighed. “Not a buddy, exactly. I don’t know why he likes me, except I’m one of the few people that doesn’t tell him to fuck off and go away most days.” Jason glanced over quickly at the driver: standard issue urban delivery man boots, trousers and shirt. He had a slight stubble and his brown driver’s hat hung back at an angle that Jason found irritatingly jaunty.
Truck Driver grunted and brushed crumbs from his chest, a toasted snowfall from the half-eaten club sandwich on the plate in front of him. He grinned and said “Like a puppy, man. Maybe you ought to throw him a bone.” He turned his attention back to the sandwich, chewing noisily and squinting at the newspaper at his elbow.
For some reason, Truck Driver annoyed him. Bobby Sack maybe was scary looking and possibly insane, but he wasn’t a dog. His annoyance increased looking through the window to see Bobby standing there grinning, waiting patiently and expectantly for Jason to respond. Like an eager puppy waiting for a treat, Jason thought. Damnit. The image filled Jason with shame and faint anger. He didn’t really want to go outside to give Bobby the two quarters that lay on the counter, shielded from Bobby’s view by Jason’s hands. And Kemal, the surly owner of the coffee shop, sure as hell wouldn’t allow Bobby inside. In fact, Jason was pretty sure he could feel the daggers of Kemal’s stare whisking past his head, as if the very pressure of the gaze would keep out the “feelth”, as Kemal was fond of saying. Jason thought about telling Kemal to piss off, but didn’t want the hassle today. Kemal’s nickname was “Mad Turk” for a reason.
He sighed again. Bobby was the only person in the word that called him “Jakesy”, and Jason still had no idea why. They had exchanged names months ago, the first time Jason had given Bobby a bag of leftovers and a cup of coffee. Bobby had looked back at him with those rheumy eyes and said “Nice ta meecha, Jakesy” then laughed as if that were the funniest joke ever. Jason had given trying to correct him after the first five or six tries. Bobby Sack was just not going to get it through his head.
Looking up at Bobby, Jason shrugged extravagantly and mouthed the words ‘Sorry, bro, no dollar. No smokes.” He shook his head broadly to emphasize the point. The effect was instantaneous. Bobby’s face collapsed into a small mural of disappointment, and he dropped his head. He looked up briefly, hopefully, but Jason shook his head again. Bobby slumped away slowly, drifting down the sidewalk and disappearing into the steam rising up from the grates, for all the world like a barge fading into fog.
Jason waited until Bobby was gone from sight, invisible in the gray background of the city block outside the coffee shop window, and then took another swallow of the increasingly harsh coffee. There was a pang in his heart, a brief stab of pity he felt for a life lived invisible as Bobby seemed to have done forever. Who could live like that? Who could spend their days scraping by, near begging for attention, or at least for some change and a cigarette?
Who could stand being constantly passed by, nearly walked on and through, like a human-shaped cloud of mist? Jason wasn’t sure Bobby was aware of the gaze of judgment that washed over him. The polished stockbrokers, the well-scrubbed moneymen, the self-satisfied arrogance of the well-fed. The polished marble of their eyes dismissive of those that offended the aesthetics of the clean and neatly dressed. Jason swallowed hard on a curious mix of guilt and relief when he thought back to how he had been callous at first and then thankful that he, Jason McKenna, one of the smartest guys in the room, did not have to live that way to earn his daily bread.
No, Jason said to himself, at least I’m not invisible. His mouth turned up in a faint grin of self-satisfaction. The white porcelain turned in his hand as he lifted it to drink. Over the rim of the cup, he looked out the window through a wan pair of eyes staring straight back at him. It startled him. There was a heaving sensation in his chest, cold and liquid. He gasped, thinking of dark, cold slimy things rolling over in the mud at the bottom of the ocean. The coffee burned as he struggled to choke it down. Placing a hand over his mouth, Jason writhed discreetly, squirming on the stool. He lowered his head in an effort to control the spasm and the dizziness.
Below him on the counter, the quarters shone greasily in the yellow light of the overhead lamps.
Jason coughed and sputtered as the full force of his ignorance and denial burst over him, the dam breaking and sweeping him away in a torrent of caustic realization. He choked. Tears flooded his eyes, tears of pain and shame and self-loathing. It finally came clear, the denial and avoidance that had been his life. “I’m not one of the smartest guys in the room, Jason muttered, “I’m a tool. A huge, stupid tool.”
Who could stand being constantly passed by, nearly walked on and through, like a human-shaped cloud of mist?
A stifled sob of shame, and Jason’s cheeks flared bright red. The awful reality of the sham that was his life was clear and scalpel sharp as it tore at his heart. My god, he thought, I have been invisible. I told myself it was normal, that it would pass, to be patient. And I was dead wrong.
The studied indifference of his bosses. The coworkers who always seemed to forget he was in the office. The rare and late promotions, the small raises when they came at all. The trouble people had remembering his name. The feeling that in the Organizational Chart of Life the box where his name should be would just be a blank. Or worse, just a question mark. Because he was invisible, and he let people treat him that way.
Jason finally saw it for what it was. He had been nice to Bobby Sack because Jason had recognized a kindred soul. A person who was treated like vapor, like smoke, to be avoided or ignored, and had given up on anything being any different. Jason was simply acting like he wished others would act towards himself.
Jason propped his elbows on the counter and put his head in his hands. He knew it had happened because he had let it happen out of timidity. And the universe had obliged. The bulge in his throat tasted like bile and felt like shame. Through his fingers, the quarters burned like the eyes of a damnation preacher demanding Jason repent or burn.
Repent or burn. Repent or burn.
It was time for this indifference to end. A deep breath cleared his head as he scooped the quarters off the counter. Jason looked up, leaned forward and struggled to see if Bobby was anywhere in sight. No luck.
Jason grabbed his hat, stood up quickly and bolted for the door. Maybe, maybe, he could find Bobby before he got too far away. Jason ran down the sidewalk, a grin crooking his lips while he pushed his way through the uncaring field of people crowding the concrete. Salvation jingled softly in his pocket, drowning out the background roar from a city full of sinners.