Favor for a Neighbor
“Is it worth entertaining my insanity for a day?"
The garbage truck empties the dumpster on the corner, making its usual racket. Without checking, I know it’s 4 A.M. on a Wednesday.
I was already awake and go back to wiping down the kitchen counter. My sleep schedule wasn’t what you’d call regular. I rinse out the sponge in the sink and rub my hand over the dial on my watch. 4:02. Knew it.
My apartment is drafty. The ceiling leaks on rainy days, the hot water is more of a suggestion, and sometimes I hear rats scurrying in the walls. But on disability, it’s all I can afford.
I spend the rest of the pre-dawn cleaning. Can’t abide clutter; the last thing I can afford is to fall and break a bone. I’m finishing up when I catch a whiff of frying sausages. I smile and head for my front door, slipping my wrist through the loop at the back end of the cane leaning against the wall. It brings back a muscle memory of grabbing the handle of a baseball bat in another, better life. Then I leave my apartment in search of that holiest of holies—a free meal.
I walk two doors down and knock. An old voice, stale, like last year’s dry leaves underfoot, answers: “It’s open.”
I can smell fresh-cooked sausage and egg as I enter. The kettle is whistling as I use my cane to bypass the ottoman into the kitchenette. Plates in the cabinet overhead, silverware in the first drawer down. I’m almost as familiar with Herbert’s kitchen as my own, and it helps they’re both laid out the same way.
I set the table. Herbert approaches from the stove, spooning sausage and egg hash onto the plates. I dig in as he pours us each hot tea.
Herbert’s been living here for… who knows how long? He goes out less than I do, even before the pandemic. I use part of my disability to buy him groceries and he cooks.
Herbert is both senile and crazy but I enjoy his company. Plus, he does tell the most fantastic stories.
Herbert claims to be almost 150 years old. He tells stories about things that happened decades ago, a century ago, longer, and he does it with a vibrance and a presence that make them sound like they happened yesterday. Watching Jack Johnson defend his world title by knockout in California. Cheering on the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series in 1942. Being in Dallas when Kennedy was shot.
Herbert sits with a sigh and starts today’s story. It’s his wedding anniversary. His wife died in 1933. Children? Also dead. Grandchildren, too.
He asks me if I want to know his secret to long life. Before I can answer he just starts talking, starting with the war. Probably not the war you’re thinking of… no, this is the Spanish American War. Herbert had been sent to Cuba, where he took up with a woman who turned out to be a bona fide bruja.
That’s Spanish for witch, he says.
They fell for each other, so Herbert deserted and joined her in the jungle. For five years, she taught him all about “black magick”. He pronounced “magic” funny, using a long “a”.
Herbert isn’t done. After his travels, he says he settled here in this little college town to study. The university library, he tells me, had plenty of resources on the occult.
I feel something get set on the table. “I have finished, my friend. All my studies, contained in my moleskine.”
“What’s a moleskine?” I ask.
“A journal,” he says, then pauses and adds, “I need a favor.”
Herbert needs the moleskine delivered to a colleague in the city, to inspect it. “This is very important cargo. Can I trust you?”
“Why not mail it?”
“It’s too dangerous,” Herbert says. “Damn virus fouled up the mail. If someone should see this book …” he trails off.
“What could happen?”
Herbert ignores my question and says he’s bought a round-trip bus ticket leaving today and returning in the morning. Then he drops the boom. Deliver the book and he’ll pay me.
“How much?” I ask.
He tells me, and I try not to choke on my eggs.
This sounds crazy, and I tell him so.
“Of course,” Herbert says, amused. Now he asks a question: “Is it worth entertaining my insanity for a day to possibly become a rich man?”
Herbert knows my answer before I even open my mouth. He rattles off an address in the city. I nod and commit it to memory. Still nothing wrong with my memory.
That afternoon I sit down on the bus. I’ve got the ticket in my shirt pocket and my wallet in my front pants pocket. Pockets are a must when you can’t see but need to remember. A folding knife is in my other front pocket. Can’t take any chances. The moleskine is in a drawstring bag with my overnight kit.
I hope the subtle back-and-forth rocking motion of the bus soothes me to sleep so the four-hour ride passes fast. Sleep eludes me. No surprise. Like I said before, my standard 24-hour clock vanished a long time ago. A doctor once called it degradation of the circadian rhythm—fancy talk for saying I can’t sleep at night like normal people.
That was when I feel it. A pulse. I feel around in the seat beside me, thinking maybe someone had left their phone on the bus and it was vibrating as someone tried to call.
I’m trying to will myself to fall asleep and instead I start to experience a prickling feeling that seems to come from inside my head. My mind gets drawn back to the worst day of my life.
I signed a pro contract in 1985 and got sent to a rookie-ball team three states over. It’s a beautiful day in July, a tied game in the bottom of the sixth, and I’m standing in the coaches’ box behind third. Skip liked to have us kids coach the bases from time to time, especially those who wanted to coach themselves one day, and I did. Ronnie Delacroix takes a lead off second, as I signal Brett Kinsman at the plate to set up the hit and run.
I look back toward home plate and hear that CRACK as Kinsman makes contact. I never see the ball coming. I wake up that night in the hospital with a Grade 3 concussion and a weird grey haze on the periphery of my vision. That grey haze grows to a giant fog cloud in the coming days. The doctors tell me the impact ruptured blood vessels and would lead to a bilateral loss of vision. In normal-people language, this meant my optic nerves had begun to starve from a lack of blood supply, leaving me permanently blind within a week.
My unwanted trip down memory lane starts to fade, until the images start appearing in my head again, unprompted. Only this time with more details. New details that I shouldn’t know. The ball immediately knocked me unconscious but I feel the sharp pain from the impact. There’s a coppery taste as my mouth fills with blood because I bit through my tongue on reflex. I find myself looking down from above as I twitch (pulse?) on the ground. No one ever told me I had a seizure.
No matter how I try to shift my focus, my mind keeps returning to that moment. Each reliving of my blinding is more detailed than the last. It makes for the longest bus ride I ever had.
I can’t get off the bus quickly enough. My guts are churning as I enter the station and I think about asking someone for the bathroom. Instead I feel a rush of fresh air and feel compelled to follow it out to the street. That sinking feeling in my stomach returns when I reach for my Braille map and find it missing. It was in my bag… wasn’t it?
I stand outside the station rummaging for the map. Before long I feel someone grab my arm.
“You all right there, fella?”
I try to answer and no words come out.
“Damn dude, you’re covered in sweat. Here, let’s get you out of this sun.”
I feel a hand firmly grip my arm and after a few paces can tell we have stepped into the shade. I put my free hand out to feel bricks. It registers that we’re in an alley just as the hand holding my arm twists it into a hammerlock and shoves me against the wall.
“Now, let’s see what you’ve got!” the man says as he delivers a punch to my kidneys and the wallet comes out of my front pocket. In my pain and fear I’ve forgotten all about my knife and feel my mugger pulling at the bag and have a sudden, overwhelming thought:
Let him take it.
The kidney shot leaves me unable to speak and he man yanks the bag off my shoulder. I hear rustling, murmuring, as he turns pages.
“What do we have here?...It’s a it’s a itza itzaitzaitzaitza—”
My mugger lapses into incoherent babbling. I hear him hit the ground. I get down on all fours and search the only way I can. As I reach out with both hands, a godawful gurgle is coming up from the ground under me and I smell something foul. I stick my hand into a puddle of something sticky and hope it’s spit or even puke. The searching feels endless and I keep waiting for a shout from someone that sees us. Nothing but more gurgling, which subsides into a bubbling, like the fizz of a fresh opened Coke can. Finally I find my wallet, bag, and the moleskine. I hesitate before shoving the moleskine back into the drawstring bag and returning to my feet, using the cane for leverage. I reach back where the mugger’s foot should be but don’t feel anything now but an empty shoe.
I leave the way I came. I make my way back into the station and find the map at the bottom of my bag. A quick call on my prepaid phone delivers a taxi, and within 30 minutes, I leave it idling behind me as I slowly navigate a sidewalk until my cane touches a step. Grabbing an adjacent rail I climb the porch steps and knock. A woman answers and I explain who sent me and why.
“So that there is no concern of someone reading…” she says, taking the moleskine from my hand. “Herbert was always too clever by half. Thank you.”
She says farewell and shuts the door in my face. Fine with me. I immediately return to the station and turn my ticket into a seat on the next bus back.
At home I’m ready to confront Herbert and use the knife, if necessary. My knock goes unanswered. I return to my apartment and kick an envelope that got slid under my door. The next day I go to my bank with my $20,000 cashier’s check. Most of it goes in the bank but a little into my pocket. I slip $100 of my new wealth to the landlord to unlock Herbert’s apartment. I know from the moment I step through the door he was gone for good. It smelled empty.
I have the money to move but I stay in my shitty apartment. I’ve never been religious but I know enough to know what a penance is and this is mine. I keep thinking about that book. How it made me relive the worst moment in my life. How that mugger just glanced at a few pages and … I think about it every day. What else could that book do?
I still can’t sleep. But it’s not circadian rhythms.
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