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July 04, 2022

Seconds

By Frederick Foote

It's thirty degrees outside at 7:30 on a Saturday morning when I see the body wrapped in layers of blankets lying on the ground next to the schoolyard fence. I'm on my way to get coffee and doughnuts for my wife, Magda, and our boys, Mark and Matt.

I drive to the body and stop about a car length away. I approach with caution.

There is a patch of brown chin and nose visible through a soiled, torn scarf.

I kneel at arms-length from the body, "Hey! Hey, are you okay?"

There's no response. Fuck!

I try again, and the body kinda shrugs.

"Are you okay? Speak to me. Let me know you're okay."

A mittened hand pulls the scarf from a blurry, bloodshot eye. He squints at me. "Humm. Achoo! Umm ... ahh ... Okay, okay."

"Did you spend the night here? You must be freezing. Are you hungry?"

His eye closes. He swallows, rubs his chin. "Ahh, ahh, hungry ... Yeah ... Oh, yeah." He uses his scarf to wipe his runny nose.

"I can take you to eat. Do you want to go eat?"

He tries to sit up. Fails. Tries again.

I help him sit up against the fence. The effort leaves him breathless, coughing, and shaking.

"My name is Chester Mann. What's your name?"

He looks at me, smiles, showing perfect white teeth. I'm as shocked as if he had fangs. I step back away from him.

"I'm. I'm Too Tall, Too Tall to reach ... Too good to be true ... Achoo!" Too Tall's voice is halting and weak.

"Okay, Too Tall. Do you think you can get in the car? Can you do that?"

Too Tall studies my car for a moment before he speaks, "Audie. A6? I'm ... I'm too messed up to, you know, ride in that. Too much grunge ..."

"It's okay. It's all right. I have boys, eight and ten. This car is experienced. You can't hurt it, okay?"

I slowly help Too Tall up and into the car. The effort exhausts him.

"Whew, gee, wow! I, I like, like your ride ..."

"Where do you want to eat?"

"I don't, don't got much ... McDonald's ... please ... if you will."

"I'm buying. Anything you want. You can eat any place in the strip mall or on this section of the Hebron Highway, all right?"

He nods, drifts off to sleep.

I call my wife. Tell her I'll be a little delayed. I don't explain why.

I grew up hungry. My mother, brother, and I were homeless for a minute. Family and friends rescued us.

Our mother died two years ago. My brighter than a quasar brother, Mark, didn't want to stay rescued. Today, he's homeless in Washington, D.C.

Too Tall looks black and could be anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-five. He flinches, mutters, drools -- stinks. I should take him to my house. Let him bathe and wash his clothes and blankets, feed him home cooking. But I'm not a true humanitarian. I just don't want his death on my hands.

Too Tall relishes the heated car as we drive to McDonald's. Still cocooned in his blankets, scarfs, and caps, I help him shuffle into a booth.

He requests and I order, hotcakes, sausage, hash browns, a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, and coffee. I get a coffee for myself and sit with my guest.

Too Tall sheds three layers of gloves to reveal green cotton gloves with the fingers cut off.

He sips and then gulps down his black coffee. He chuckles with glee, removes garments to reveal his thick, dreadlocked head and thin shoulders.

I pass him my coffee as he attacks his food.

He pauses to wipe his lips and stare at me.

I stare back into space as vast and infinite as the night skies. I'm lost, confused, terrified. Insignificant. A club descending, blood flashes. Sounds of a cracking skull. A death rattle. A blinding flash a mushroom cloud. I can't breathe. I grab snatches of memories of Magda giving me the evil eye and my son, Mark, learning to ride a two-wheel bike and Matt falling asleep ... me, my mother, and my brother sleeping in our car ... I lurch my eyes away, escape, sweating, and shivering. I look down at the floor.

"You okay, Mr. Mann?"

I try to nod yes, but my body is on strike or shutting down or, or dead.

I'm rocking in my seat, concentrating on the floor, on my family on hope. I hope I get to see them again.

I know what I want to say, but all I can stutter is, "Sec ... Secon ... Second. This is the the ..."

And I'm overwhelmed with a sadness, a sense of loss, waste, despair. I can't stop my tears as I stumble back to my car with his message burnt into my brain.

I tell Magda and the boys what happened to me.

Magda holds my hand. The boys look stunned, confused.

Magda touches my forehead as she speaks, "You have a little fever. Do you really think it was, was, you know?"

I swallow hard and nod yes.

Mark tugs at my shirt sleeve, "Dad, it was just a homeless guy. Right? Jesus is not a beggar sleeping out in the cold."

I place my hand on Mark's shoulder. "I don't know. I just know he was no ordinary person. He -- I never experienced anything so powerful."

Matt scoots closer to his mother and puts his arm around her waist. "What if it was trick like we saw in Las Vegas? You know, like when the magician made the elephant disappear? Remember?"

Magda nods in agreement. "Or just a hallucination. You have been working awful hard and --"

I interrupt. "He said we didn't have much time -- that humanity didn't have much time left. I believe him. I, I -- just -- I mean, if, if he's right -- what would we do? What could we do?"

Matt shouts, "Warn people."

Mark snarls, "Nobody would believe us. They would think we're crazy. They would be right."

Matt yells, "Dad's not crazy. You're crazy for saying that."

Magda intervenes. "No shouting. Please. No one here is crazy. Understand? I'm sure some people would believe your father. I don't know if that would be good for them or any of us. If we assume the man your father met was prophet or, or a spiritual being and that his, its prediction was correct. There is literally nothing we could do stop what's coming."

I interrupt, "That's not the point. Assuming he's right? How are we going to spend our last months, weeks, or days? That's the question."

We squabble over the issue without resolution. We decide to go out for breakfast and talk again later.

Later we compromise. We agree to take an early vacation in two weeks and visit Washington, DC and try to locate my brother.

The next Saturday, as I open the door for my donut run. My brother, Mark, is there dressed in hiking boots, jeans, and a parka with his fist raised to knock. He hugs me, I feel his tears on me neck.

I hope we have time for breakfast.






Article © Frederick Foote. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-09-07
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
Lydia
09/09/2020
01:38:56 AM
As always a richly layered though provoking tale. Thank you for sharing.
Alex
09/09/2020
08:21:37 PM
When I read your works, I always feel like I am experiencing something relatable, well known, easily understood... then you take a step sideways and leave me re-examining everything.
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