Beat

I hear a car door slam and tires screech. A dust cloud of exhaust, gasoline, burnt rubber fills the air around me and makes the cuts on my face and head seem to sting more sharply. Then the car is gonetail lights, a turn, then goneand I’m left lying on the ground bleeding and beaten, still clutching my guitar case like an idiot.

For a long moment there’s nothing. Only the sound of my own breathing, heavy and fast. It’s cool enough that I can faintly see my breath rising in the streetlamps.

I sit up.

People begin to stir on the periphery, trickling out from apartment buildings and gangways, mumblings and whispers. I don’t look, but start to see blurry human shapes in the corners of my eyes.

“That boy just got his ass whooped!” I hear from behind me, and wince. My head feels like a jar of bees and my glasses have been knocked off somewhere, making it difficult to figure out exactly the scene unfolding around me. I squint and gingerly look from side to side.

There are eight, maybe 10 people gathered around, none closer than 10 or 12 feet away. They’re just standing in a few different clusters, talking amongst themselves. No one makes a move toward me. Fucking bystanders.

I finally release my grip on the handle of the guitar case, stiff fingers reluctant and aching, and leave it resting on the ground beside me. Then, turning my head to the opposite side, I let loose a big bloody glob of spit that splatters satisfyingly on the street.

“We called the police,” I hear a woman shout from a window two stories up.

I glance around the ground hoping to spot my glasses, but don’t see them. For half a second I think of standing, but as soon as I begin to summon the strength a wave of pain radiates across my skull that makes me stop and catch my breath. Temporarily I abandon any thoughts of rising and settle into an inventory of what hurts.

Though shaken, I think I’m mostly alright. My mouth’s busted up, but I’ve got all my teeth. My head, covered with bumps and nicks, hurts pretty goodparticularly behind my right ear, where I think he must have first hit mebut I don’t think I’m concussed. There’s a cut on the bridge of my nose, and my left hand and wrist are sore and scraped up from some combination of fending off blows and bracing my fall. But nothing’s broken.

The guitar should be fine but I want to see it. Something could have happened in all the commotion and jostling. I reach over, undo the latches on the case, and lift the lid. There it is, just as it should be, and a rush of relief rolls over me. I close it back up.

I get the sense that more people are joining the onlookers already on the scene. I’m aware of increased chatter and commotion, but everyone is still keeping their distance. I don’t know quite what to do. I want to find my glasses, but don’t want to crawl around on the ground in front of the gathered spectators searching for them.

I decide to crawl a few feet to the curb and sit down there, then grab the guitar case and pull it over right beside me. I reach into my pocket for a bent up, nearly empty pack of cigarettes, and light one up. It stings like hell the minute the cigarette hits my busted, swollen lower lip. I try to shove it in the corner of my mouth. It hurts there too, but maybe a little less, and I commence with the smoking.

I just need to take a minute to sit and get my head together.

It’s quite a fucking life, this. In some twisted way, what pisses me off the most is I don’t think the guy even took anything. He didn’t ask for my wallet until about halfway through, and it seemed like an afterthought. I was holding the guitar with one hand and trying to keep from being punched in the mouth again with the other, so I couldn’t reach for my wallet just then and told him to take it. But I don’t remember him ever reaching for it.

I check my pockets and find the wallet’s still there. Keys, cigarettes, lighter… and I’ve still got the guitar. He didn’t get the guitar. The fucking guy just kicked my ass and split.

It’s incomprehensible to me. If it had been a robbery it would be easier for me to get my head around. Some desperate guy driven to desperate measures by desperate economic circumstances… that would almost satisfy as a justification and make some kind of cosmic sense. But this wasn’t anything like that. This was random aggression, bad mojo, senseless violence. This guy beat the shit out of me for no reason.

That’s when the police car comes rolling slowly up the street with the blue lights going. It stops a few feet from where I’m sitting on the curb.

“Did someone here get attacked with a guitar?” a cop asks from behind his halfway-rolled-down window.

You gotta be kidding me. “I got attacked,” I reply from the curb and flick away my cigarette. My voice is high and loud and the sound of it makes my head ache and irritates me. “I was just walking by with my guitar and I got jumped.”

“We got a call someone was being attacked with a guitar,” the officer insists, and I think I detect a hint of disappointment.

“No. I was walking home from band practice, carrying my guitar, and some guy jumped me for no fucking reason and beat the shit out of me. Nobody got hit with a guitar. I was carrying a guitar and got jumped.”

“OK.” There’s a pause while the cop speaking to me confers with his partner. “Get up over here and tell us what happened.” The squad car idles expectantly in the street in front of me.

I can’t believe these dicks are going to make me get up.

I give it a second, take one last unsuccessful look about for my glasses, then, painfully, I stand and rise from the curb. I’ve got the guitar case in my right hand. Not altogether steady yet, I take a few clumsy steps toward the squad car. My goddamn head is killing me. It feels hot and sore as hell behind my right ear. I wipe blood from the bridge of my nose and away from my lips, and then let fire with another mouthful of blood and spit that lands on the pavement beside the squad car.

“What happened?” the same cop asks me again. I can see him a little better now. Little smug white guy with dark, short hair and big flaring nostrils. He’s looking at me harder than I deserve.

“I was just walking by and some guy jumped me and split.” I’m trying my best to be cool but I’m really shaking like a goddamn leaf and I’m sure the cops can see it.

“That guy got walloped!” someone nearby yells out to a general murmur of approval. That begins a landslide of comments from the bystanders:

“They were in a black Dodge.”

“Headin’ west.”

“I seen that boy that jumped him hangin’ around here. He’s always coming out that building across the street.”

“I think his girlfriend lives there.”

“Slut.”

“She ain’t no more than 16.”

“Still…”

“That boy with the guitar didn’t do nothing.”

“No sir.”

“Just got whipped.”

There’s more, but I’ve stopped listening. I wish I was home curled up in bed. I tighten my grip on the handle of the guitar case. I can feel myself teetering. For just a second I think I might throw up, but it passes with a deep breath.

“What’s your name?” the cop with the nostrils asks me, convinced, finally, that I am the victim. We do the whole name and address spiel, the cop looking at the clipboard in his lap the entire time. There’s never even the slightest hint of compassion or concern in his voice.

So now I have to tell him the details.

“I was just walking home minding my own business. I could see a man and woman were up the sidewalk in the direction I was headed, and they were having some kind of argument. Very animated, but nothing violent or anything. I figure, none of my business, I just put my head down and walk right by them.” I pause, as if to let him catch up, but then notice neither of these fine officers is writing this part down.

“I get two steps by the guy and he punches me in the back of the head, right behind the fucking ear. By the time I turn around the guy is on top of me just swinging for the fences. No reason whatsoever. The guy didn’t say a word to me. He asked for the wallet about midway through, and that was it. I couldn’t reach it because he wouldn’t stop hitting me, and I had one hand in front of my face trying to protect myself and one hand holding on to the guitar.”

“You held on to the guitar the whole time?” the cop asks, with what I think is the hint of a grin on his face.

“Yeah.”

There’s a pause. I hate this fucking cop.

“So then what?” the pig asks, looking back down to his clipboard and jotting down a few fleeting thoughtsa grocery list or dirty limerick he’s been working on, I’m sure.

“The girlfriend’s screaming the whole time ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ and after a minute the two of them jumped into a carI think there was at least one other person already in the carand sped off. The car was dark in color, maybe 10 years old. I didn’t get a good look at it.”

“Did you get a license plate number?”

I just fucking said I didn’t get a good look at it, didn’t I? “No, I didn’t.”

“Can you describe the guy?”

“It all happened so fast, I couldn’t really tell. I don’t think I’d know him if I saw him on the street.”

The cop jots down a few more notes. Maybe a haiku he’s been toying with. “So how much was in the wallet?”

“He didn’t take my wallet! He didn’t take anything!” I can’t fucking believe this guy. How can I make him understand? “He just kicked my ass! I couldn’t reach for the wallet and he never took it from me. I don’t think it was ever about the wallet. It just seemed like he was pissed off at his girlfriend and hit me instead.”

The cop’s staring at me. His nostrils, impossibly, seem to flare wider. “He… didn’t… take… anything…” He never looks away from me, but his eyes narrow. Then he reaches down to his clipboard, grabs the form he’s been scribbling on, and slowly and deliberately crinkles it up right in front of me. Tossing the old form to the side, he starts rifling through his papers looking for something else. He pulls out a fresh form, a different color than the last.

“Name?” he asks hard and loud.

For a second I’m confused, but then I get it. The pig’s pissed off at me because he’s been using the wrong formhe’s filling out the robbery form, but this isn’t a robbery. I guess I was supposed to make that more clear at the beginning. This isn’t about money. This is only some guy beating me. We have to start over.

Sorry copper, that must have been awful for you.

“Can’t you just take that information off the other sheet?” I can’t believe this guy. I’m at the end of my rope. He’s acting like he’s the injured party, sitting there in his squad car while I’m standing here bleeding.

The cop sighs at me, exasperated. “Name?”

Fuck it. That’s it. I don’t care. I’m fucking done in for the evening. Beat. I just give him my information like a machine. He jots it all down like a machine. There are no more details, just the generic stuff. Then he tells me to be careful, and says if I see the guy in the neighborhood not to approach him myself, but do make sure to call if there are any further problems.

So that’s it. Good night.

The squad car takes offtail lights, a turn, then gone. I’m getting chilly from having stood still so long. Everything aches and hurts. I’ve still got a few cold and lonely blocks to walk before I’m home, and that prospect doesn’t exactly fill me with great joy.

I take a moment, a deep breath, to steady myself. Then just as I’m about to turn to walk toward home there’s a voice behind me.

“Sir?”

I flinch, not expecting this, and turn around. There’s a young man standing there in a blue wool coat and black knit cap, and in his outstretched hands he’s holding my glasses. “I found these over there,” he says pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. “Careful, one of the lenses popped out. It was lying on the ground nearby.”

God bless this guy. I thank him and take the glasses. I set the guitar down by my feet for a second and pop the lens back into the frame. They’re bent up and dirty. I do a little fiddling with them for a second and slip them on. They’re still crooked, I can tell, but at least now I can see.

The guy who brought the glasses is still standing there, looking at me. “Do you want me to call an ambulance or anything?” he asks me.

“No, thanks. I think I’m OK. I just want to get home.”

I notice some of the other bystanders are still gathered on the periphery. Fewer than earlier (maybe the cops scared a couple of folks off), but still maybe six or eight people. This is the only guy who’s made a move toward methe rest are still keeping their distance.

“Can I give you a ride or call you a cab?” Call me a sucker, but this guy seems genuine. I’ll bet he’d drive me home, safe and sound, and is just trying to help. I honestly believe that.

But I’m not about to take a chance. No way. And I’m not waiting around here for a cab.

“Thanks. I’m fine. I’ve just got a few blocks. The walk will do me good.” It almost makes me feel bad. I think this guy’s just trying to be a good person, do the right thing, and it seems ungrateful of me, somehow, to turn him down. But how can I trust him?

I turn away and, guitar in hand, start to head home. I’m anxious to leave the scene behind. It’s kind of embarrassing standing in front of a crowd of people who saw you get your ass kicked. I just want to be alone, safe and home. I want to look at myself in a mirror and see how bad my battered face looks. I want to get out of the cold and out of these clothes and into bed. I want to wake up tomorrow morning and have all this behind me.

I just want this day to end. One foot in front of the other, the end gets nearer and nearer.

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