On a city street where thousands tread in routine and commute lived a former boxer who went by the name of Otis. In the alley he lived, there were no trophies nor belts that forebode a fighter’s past for that past was no more than a memory long overlooked by names he cared not to know. Twenty years have gone by. What keepsakes remained of his battles fought long ago were still and all effigies of lonesome nights accompanied by a bottle of wine cradled to his chest like a lost pup frightened by the echoes of the city and its unpromising dim light. He whispered and mumbled and hummed to the wrapped bottle as if to say something of the strangers that walked past the mouth of the alley like inky ghosts heedless of his presence. A member of the shadow. The bottle’s response was to never turn away.
A rush of cold wind rolled past the alley and brought a chaotic shepherding of garbage bags and papers and wrappings of sorts that tumbled and somersaulted in the same direction like a dancing herd sharing a destination secret to all man. Gusts of wind blew heavily in the streets and a frigid draft crept in from above and filled the alley in like a cup and when the chill surrounded Otis he knew the summer’s expedience would soon slip away.
“Shit it cold,” he exclaimed. He threw his head back and took a big swig and wiped away the dark streams of red rolling past his chin. “Damn, it is cold.” He wobbled to his feet and headed out to the sidewalk. “Newspaper,” he whispered with a lisp as he scanned about. “Newspaper, where are you when I need you?”
Three men came around the corner side by side, laughing and bickering as they unknowingly approached Otis. He stood straight at the sight of them and used his sleeve to clear his face.
One of the men noticed Otis and pointed to alert the others. “Look,” his lips read as his teeth grinned through the dark. They laughed as their chins raised.
“Hey, fellas,” Otis stopped to greet, “you guys wouldn’t have a few extra dollars to help a brotha out?”
The tallest man spat. “Nope, ‘thir’,” he said, an eccentric mimicking sound of Otis’ lisp. “Look at him. What do you want money for?” They weren’t slowing down as they neared to him. “Get a job how about, ‘thithta’,” he continued.
Otis backed away, holding out his hands as he looked mercifully to each shadowy face. “I don’t wa-want no trouble,” he stammered, “please, fellas.” He tripped as he shuffled backwards and when he managed to his feet they had him circled.
The tall one looked down at Otis. “You ain’t gettin’ shit from us, you dirty bum.” He pushed Otis into the man opposite of him.
“Get off me, you filthy old nigger,” said the voice that shoved Otis back to the tall man.
Otis imitated that he was falling from the push and used the plunging force to swing his arm like a snapping catapult, his knuckles striking the tall man’s temple with sharp impact, causing him to fall board stiff onto the concrete. The two others grabbed Otis and one put him in a choke hold while the other tripped him at his feet and they proceeded to kick and swear and stomp and growl at the helpless man as he lay covered up. Stuttered breathless cries of agony echoed through out the empty street.
Across the street, a teenage boy and girl stood in shock as they witnessed the two men overwhelmed the curled body. The boy shouted to them and ran across the empty road towards the altercation, leaving the girl standing alone, her hand falling to her side after an attempt to grab him.
“Call the cops,” he yelled out to her.
The attackers froze for a moment when they heard the boy’s request and looked to their unconscious friend then at each other, to the street, and back to their friend. As if they had contemplated leaving him abandoned. They sneered and scoffed as they lifted the tall man to his feet and took up sides to hoist his limp stature and carried him away. “You’re lucky, bitch boy,” one of them muttered before they faded into the streets.
The boy carried Otis onto a near bench and pulled out a bandana from his backpack and used it to wipe the blood pouring from Otis’ swollen nose and lip. The girl made her way across and stood a few feet away with her hands over her mouth. Wary of getting too close.
“Be careful,” she muttered in her palm. “He might have something.”
“Really?” he said in disbelief. “Just go if you want.”
She didn’t move.
They heard police sirens wailing nearer and nearer.
“We should go,” she said.
The boy left his bandana in Otis’ hand and studied his frailty. The boy shook his head and swore under his breath, looking to where the sound of the sirens swelled. He pinched at Otis’ thin, tattered t-shirt and sighed deeply. His breath pluming in the air.
“C’mon,” the girl begged as she ran off.
He finally stood and, after the last examination of Otis, followed her to some hesitation.
Otis awoke, staring blankly ahead to bright, golden lights blindingly hang above him like the heavens and the sun and he heard thousands of extolling voices applaud and roar. Soon the ambience faded into cries of sirens. The bright lights transcended into blue and red flashes among the dull yellow street lights in the foreground. Two dark figures appeared within the light. Policemen. He shook his head and slowly rose to his feet and stumbled hurriedly to the alley.
“Stop,” the police shouted and tackled Otis to the ground, struggling to cuff him as he squirmed in detest. With the point of their knees, they pinned his head and body to the sidewalk. “You’re under arrest. Stop resisting.”
Otis swore to the cement, his cheeks pressed against the cold. “I didn’t do anything. Let me go,” he repeated as they lifted him to his feet and shoved him in the lit panel.
Otis was released from the holding cells the next day. He clutched his broken rips as he limped through the city for near an hour before arriving at the familiar street he called home. Repulsed faces scorned his presence. A mother drew her child close. Passersby pressed their nose close with their forehand. And nearly all contrive to pay no mind. And although he may on no occasion find comfort in so much as walking down a sidewalk he put his mind to the bright and warm day and so it was Otis who saw through the faces of disdain.
He arrived at the alley and saw a lumping figure of a man laying in the shade of his cardboard covered spot. Otis called to him and swore and hobbled quickly over and grabbed the man by his collar and slapped his hairy face with conviction. Otis winced from the sharp pain of his sudden movements, ribs aching. “Hey,” he exclaimed, “get yo’ ass up befo I whoop it.”
The bearded man was perhaps in his late sixties although it was difficult for Otis to make out for certain. As life on the streets had a way of rushing the age of flesh and the mind sooner than nature’s intent. The stranger raised a thick brow but his eyelids didn’t follow.
“Get up,” Otis demanded and slapped the old man again.
The man mumbled and a white foam spewed from between his crusted lips. His face gaunt and pale and sweaty. Otis threw the man to the opposite of his area in vexation and snubbed him off as he lay in the shade.
It took Otis short of two hours to collect the money for a bottle of sherry as his wounded stature played a part with the public’s empathy. Essentially obliged to offer their change readily. He hurried back to the alley and saw the old man shivering in the spot he was left. Otis nudged the man’s bony shoulder with his scrappy shoe. He thought briefly. “You’re not right,” he said and bent low, “oh, no, you ain’t.”
He drug the man by the arm pits adjacent to the pile of cardboard and newspaper. The old man nodded circles in a daze and spoke under his breath as if blindly addressing a crowd below. Otis turned his ear to him.
“They know better,” the old man blabbered.
“Who better know what?” Otis replied.
The old man looked through a thick lash beneath a protruded brow. “Who are you?” the man asked softly.
“Who am I?” Otis raised straight, offended. He pointed out his finger. “Who is you? Look at this cat. Coming into my zone. Stinkin’ the place up worse than it already is. Man. Who are you?”
The old man coughed and spat towards the street and postured up to examine about. “Where am I?” he said. “Is this downtown?”
“Yeah, you downtown. In my spot, man. My joint. What’s wrong with you? Find your own ground, man.” Otis wondered if the man stirred in confusion understood him. “Are you okay or what?”
The bearded man reached for Otis’ bottle, his face pled for a drink. “I’m sick,” he proclaimed and coughed miserably.
Otis pulled the bottle to his backside. “Hey, hey, first you sweat and stink up the place and now I got to front you?”
“Sorry,” said the man and dropped his hand and looked elsewhere. “I’m just thirsty.”
“M-hmm, I’m sure you are.” Otis sat down and thought for a moment and looked to his bottle and then he drank it down to half and passed it over. “Where you from? Why ain’t I seen you around here befo?”
“I’m not from this place. Not sure I got here, though. Maybe they put me here.” He drank and coughed and as the liquid went down and he offered it back but Otis refused. “Thanks. I’ll make sure you’re rewarded. I’m not feeling too good. I think they got me sick.”
“The government. They want me because I speak to others. Others from another planet.”
Otis gave him a halfhearted nod and grin. “Okay, snowball. Okay. I got it. You got a name?”
“Friends call me Fritz. Commissioner of the Outer Dimension Alliance. Keeper of peace and the chosen messenger between the others and earth,” he proclaimed in such a way one might believe it then coughed.
Otis shook his head. “Okay, Fritz, all right. Well, drink up that medicine,” Otis said as he watched the man take a swig. “They won’t get you now,” he laughed to himself.
Hours passed. The sun gradually sunk into the steel and concrete pillars. That evening in the alley a frigid breeze lifted dust into minuscule whirlwinds spinning aimlessly in the vicinity of the ingress. Trash twitched along the muddy corners like buried, odious souls coming to life at the slow inception of nightfall. All was still in the alley apart from Fritz’s limbs pointing and waving to obscurity beyond the brick wall like a preacher.
“When the government killed my aunt,” Fritz explained in a hoarse whisper, “they also tooks my rights to their place. I was their only family so it belonged to me, I’d say.” It was difficult for Fritz to mutter more than a few words without some degree of guttural coughing.
“Why the government so entertained by you, fool?” Otis inquired.
“Like I says, I know what they did. Back in Nam.” His stubby index finger pointed to the stone wall. “Raped and killed. Aborted. The wives and mothers and the children. Raped and killed. The bastards turned a blind eye. They lied about it. Not me. I seen it and everybody else did. My uncle seen it. And I know what they did. I’m telling you, brother.”
“No one cares about that shit anymore, man,” Otis laughed.
Fritz looked to him. “About what?”
“Old war stories, man. Nobody cares about things that happened a long time ago to some people they don’t know. Nobody cares about that, man. You think any of these people walking by right now crying out a tear or two, caring about that shit? Boo-hoo, JFK is dead. No, man.”
Fritz’s brows scrounged in dismay and he ran his fingers through his smokey beard as he looked to the ground. “You think?”
“Yeah, sorry to say it, man. But that’s just how it is.”
Fritz shrugged and looked to the bottle. “At least the wine’s good.”
Otis scoffed. “Shit. Must be nice.”
“I got abducted a few times, did I tell you that?”
“They came to me,” Fritz’s eyes lit, “they talked to me and everything. After my aunt died, they took me. Figured I’d be pissed enough to give them some dirt and I shit you not I did, ha! Got the government by the balls.” His hands could have held two baseballs. He took a long drink. “And I still do, Otis. Someone’s got to give a rat’s ass or else us decrepit corpses’d be buried long ago.” Fritz was interrupted by his own violent cough that prolonged a short while. “They better know to thank me. Can’t kill me. Even got me GPS coordinates of documents that’ll prove my every word.”
“GPS coordinates,” he whispered doubtfully, amused. “You believe all that, don’t you?”
Fritz pulled the bottle away from his lips. “Believe it? It was my ass they probed. I know it. But you don’t got to believe me. I’ll make sure they reward you anyways, my brother.” He lifted the bottle feebly to the air and took a drink.
“With what? A probe in my ass?” Otis joked, shaking his damn head.
Near midnight, the alley dimmed to pitch black. Fritz had taken his last drink from the bottle and fell asleep sitting up. Otis rested his head gently on a portion of the cardboard foundation and covered the shivering man in a sheet and then himself. “Crazy old coot,” he laughed, closing his eyes.
At the dawn of light, Otis stood over Fritz and saw that his sweaty and pale condition exacerbated in the cold and so he took to the streets and held out a tin cup until he collected what looked to be about ten dollars in silver coin. He went back to the alley where Fritz had woke.
“Is that a cold you got?” Otis asked.
Fritz turned to him like a spooked animal. He used the top of his wrist to wipe the syrupy layer of sweat from his forehead. “I’m fine, brother. I’m fine. Got anything to drink?”
Otis shook his head. “Hey, man. Where was that tattoo or GPS thing you were talking about?”
“Huh?” Fritz looked at him in confusion. “Oh,” he realized, “on my rib cage. Here, let me show you.”
Fritz lifted his shirt up past his chest and there in his flesh over his skeletal ribs were two rows of random numbers embossed of scar tissue carved meticulously like serial numbers on some piece of machinery or codes on a plastic bank card. Otis scanned the sheer flawless imprint of numerals and punctuation marks in awe.
“See,” Fritz said and put his shirt down.
“You did that?”
“No, of course not.” Fritz cleared his throat.
“That’s crazy you’d let someone do that, man.”
“I asked them to,” Fritz insisted, “for the better of mankind.”
“I’m going to need more than Advil,” Otis said, shaking his head.
Fritz coughed and spat a pulp of blood and phlegm onto oily grime of the alley floor like a surgically removed organ. “I could use a drink.”
“Shit that nasty. Uh-uh. No, sir. I’m going to get you some real medicine. That ain’t right.”
“No,” Fritz grumbled, “no. I just need a drink. They won’t get me. A drink, please. Don’t worry. They won’t get us.”
“I ain’t playing, Fritz. No aliens gonna save you. Possessed lookin’ old man,” Otis waved him off and left. “Gonna get you some damn Tylenol or something. Crazy old goat.”
“No,” he growled to Otis’ back, “goddamn you. No. They’ll get us.”
Otis walked to a drug store along the street. In it, the clerk’s face rose to him and his pupils followed Otis’ every step. “Stay away from the mouthwash. And hairspray. I’m not selling you any of that. Lucky I let you in here.”
Otis simply disregarded the watchful clerk and went to where he saw a shelf full of bottled capsules. Allergy relief. Headache and pain relief. Arthritis relief. And near the top of the shelf, he found it. Extra strength cold and flu relief. He grabbed a thumb sized container of the value brand, to save some money for later, and walked to the checkout counter.
He placed the container down for the clerk and took out the change from his pocket and scattered it and the man counted each coin with his finger tips like a blind old man dialing a telephone.
“Just so you know,” the clerk looked at him as he took the exact amount, “you can’t snort this.” He shoved the change at Otis.
“Oh, shit,” Otis nodded, “you tried?” He slid the silver in his pocket.
“No, of course not. I just know.”
“Damn. Well, could you point me to what I could snort? I got this real nasty chest cold, you know?” He faked a quick cough. “I need that shit to go right to the head, you know? Need it to work. Could be SARS. It’s bad.”
The clerk’s face scowled. “Get out,” he muttered, pointing to the door.
The wind picked up considerably by noon. Clouds rolled over the mountainous buildings and smothered the sun’s array and a greyness fell upon the world below. Dark like a fading evening. The mouth of the alley from a distance appeared as if a gateway to another place entirely. A place abandoned by all hope and moral ambiguity. A black foliage of its lonesome shadow corrupted the fridge of the crevice like a festering wound. As Otis came through the entrance he saw that Fritz was resting still. He shook the bottle like some cheerful morning alarm a mother would do to rouse a slumbering child. He shook his shoulder and told him to wake, rattling the bottle by Fritz’s ear but he didn’t do so much as flinch. Otis put the pills to the ground and scooped up Fritz’s head and saw that he was no longer sweaty nor hot nor breathing. He was pale and green-like save his eyelids, veins dark violet. Otis felt the cold from his friend’s cheek and turned a gander at the street and rested Fritz’s head to the cardboard and covered his entirety with a sheet.
Later in the day red and white lights blinked and sporadically lit the alley. A crow yapped on the power-lines crossing the alley’s gap and flew over the people who stopped and casually returned to their business at the sight of the homeless men among the crowd of pediatrics and coroners and policemen. One of the officers asked if Otis knew Fritz’s birth name to ascertain information for his death certificate. They explained to Otis that they had records or documents as well as no known relatives on file. Otis told them as much as he could recall of Fritz’s story, as much sense as they could make of it.
“His aunt and uncle and brother passed away some years ago,” Otis recalled to the policemen. “If you look at him, he’s got this tattoo or something with a bunch of numbers on it. Said it’s some sort of map or something. Maybe it’ll tell you more. But I think he was just a little bit of a basket case. He was a good man, though. I hope ya’ll figure something out.”
He looked to Fritz’s peaceful expression the last time as the coroner’s hand brought up the zipper that enclosed him in the blackness of the body bag. They lifted the stretcher and rolled him into the back of the coroner’s van and soon after they drove off into the grey city and as they vanished into the busy streets Otis couldn’t help but think that Fritz would soon be buried without a single friend or family member at his side. The priest would be the only patron to lay dirt upon his casket. More solemn was the thought of that which a man would be buried without a name. As if he had not existed at all. He tipped his head farewell and left.
That afternoon he bummed enough change to buy a jug of Branvin Apera and a pack of value cigarettes and he sat on a bench near the end of the street where he watched sports highlights and news through a window display at an electronics store. His football team had won. “I’ll drink to that,” he cheered and took a drink from the paper bag.
His attention was most fixed on the commuters he requested change until he squinted at the TV screen flashing over the shoulders of the walking crowd. A female reporter talked mutely through the showcase. Examining the flashing images of the women, his footsteps slowly and automatically brought him through the crowd before the glass, leaning forward to get a better glimpse of her clear image. She resembled his daughter whom he had not seen in decades. Only in his dreams. Though by her fair and young complexion, he was certain it was not her. Her name appeared on the screen. Aubrey Campbell. She shared his maiden name. He looked to the ground after her report and then to his wine through the steel spokes of the bench. The beating of his heart could the break ribs inside his chest.
Night after night in his shivering slumber he dreamed of his daughter. Ora was her name. He saw her in a locker room standing level to his face as his cloth wrapped hands covered hers and she smiled and kissed him on the cheek and they hugged. He kissed her goodbye before he sent her off to her mother standing in the doorway. All was silent save the muffled chant and applause that came through the stone walls. Ora’s mother stared at him without expression as her hands brushed the little girl’s shoulder before she disappeared into the halls. He looked away and hung his head. His boxing shoes tapping.
He awoke to a cold morning. He waited for the day to warm up at noon and stumbled through the street and saw that there was a bend in the walking path ahead where crowds moved around to avoid a camera operator’s view. He looked across the street and directly from the bend was a van with the same logo as Aubrey’s news team. He paced through the crowd and surrounded by spectators was the girl who reminded him of his own daughter. She held a brief smile and then pulled the mic down to her side and the operator pointed the large camera to the sidewalk.
As Otis neared, the operator gleefully complimented Aubrey’s broadcast.
“Thanks,” she said. “Let’s go eat now.”
“Oh, hell yeah,” the operator agreed, turning to the road.
“Aubrey,” Otis called as he showed himself out of the crowd. He brought his hands to his head as if to remove a hat.
“Hi,” she said with a quick grin.
The operator kept a watchful eye over his shoulder.
Her open hands fell upon atop her lap. “Well, I got to run.” She looked to the cameraman and shrugged with a hidden smirk, baffled.
“Wait,” Otis said.
She turned to him for a moment then back to the road.
“Is your mother Ora? Ora Campbell?”
Aubrey and the man froze before turning back to him. “What?” Her face stirred from curiosity to concern. “How do you—do I know you?” Suddenly she shook her head as if to rid the thought she may recognize him.
“Ora Campbell,” he repeated as he moved in enough to share his stench of wreaking wine and foul breath.
The operator moved to her guard.
“Don’t worry,” Otis assured. “My name is Otis. Otis Campbell. I’m Ora’s father.” He saw the moisture in the young lady eye’s thicken. “Do you know her?” he stammered.
Bewildered, the man whispered in her ear, “is everything okay?” He put his hand over her shoulder. “Should we go?”
She was catatonic briefly before blinking out her tears and looking to the operator. “Yeah.” She wiped her face. “Yeah. Let’s go,” she said and sniffled and motioned to the edge of the sidewalk.
Otis watched as she waited for a clearing. “Aubrey,” he begged, his hand reaching out, “please.”
She didn’t look back.
As she took the first few steps towards the empty street Otis saw a glimpse of an officer at the corner of his eye and seconds later he was under arrest. He shouted to her and she turned and saw him struggle as two policemen cuffed him and drug the distressed man into the busy crowd. There was a moment of clarity as Otis discovered her sombre gaze. All sound of the world and the world itself around her had disappeared, then he was taken out of sight.
He stared blankly ahead at the white cement of the holding cells. The wine came out through his pores and his hand begun to shake restlessly over his lap. A stream of sweat rolled off his brow and puddled on the floor. Soon after he slept. Blackness only came for but a second. In the blink of an eye, he went from the holding cells into a boxing ring surrounded by thousands of electric witnesses cheering and lauding as they filled the stands. Across from Otis was his opponent. A fair haired white man. Not an ounce of fat to mar his definitive physique. As his opponent circled and changed levels like some lanky and evasive beast of a different kind Otis’ undying will to hit the man was obscured by an invisible entity. Otis’ opponent slipped his dogged punches with utter ease. “He’s done. Finish it,” the words of his foe’s corner echoed. The opponent threw out his lead hand like a blunt spear crushing Otis’ nose and not a second later came a flash of a right glove, the sight of sweaty, red leather larger the arena behind and then the memory vanished as Otis awoke to the thunderous sound of the cell door sliding open.
“Mr. Campbell,” said an officer, “you can go now. C’mon.”
He came out into the blinding morning, an arm up to shade the seething light. During his return, he panhandled for a small bottle and went about drinking it and when he wasn’t occupied by the sensational liquid he bothered incoming traffic for expendable money. His aimless stroll was halted by the sight of Aubrey’s lit face on the television screen through the electronic store’s showcase. Without volume to her voice, he assumed her report had been about the economy or something of that nature. “Thriving Economy Boosts Housing” the headline read beneath her microphone’s logo. He walked into the store and saw that the clerk was busy and quickly scuttled to a row of flat screens displaying the broadcast, bending below the height of product shelves.
“…and though the mayor was unable to comment officially, he did quickly mention that is great news for the city and believes it’s only a first step to success. With Global News, I’m Aubrey Campbell. Back to you, Susan.”
“Thank you, Aubrey,” said the anchorwomen as it cut to the newsroom. “And now in the bizarre swing of things, up next we have a story about leaked information of possible government war crimes revealed upon a homeless man’s death. All that and more coming up on Global News.”
As Otis’ head bobbed back and forth with a crooked, blank stare, he belched profusely. “Crazy conspirators. Everywhere,” he grunted, drunk and hiccuping as he walked out the store.
The evening was cold. Otis bottle was empty and there was no one walking about. He walked into the abysmal alley and in the darkness his shouting voice echoed. “Where is it?” he exclaimed. “What have they done?”
He scanned wildly, weaving and twisting his stare as he tread back and forth. His cardboard foundation, sheets and blankets were gone. “No, no, no,” he cried, stomping at the filthy asphalt. There was nothing to be found but gravel and trash. He ran out to the streets and turned to each direction again and again like there would be someone making a joke of it somewhere. His fists clenched at his side, digging into his palms, and the sound of bones cracked.
“This ain’t right,” he shouted and fell to his knees and sobbed to the infinite darkness above.
On a cold night, Otis was sitting on a bench somewhere in the city. His chin was tucked low as he shivered and snored. His light breaths were plumes soaking into his tattered shirt. The teenage boy came to him and waved his hand in front of Otis’ face and when he didn’t wake he slid off his backpack from his shoulders and pulled out a coat and put it over Otis like a small blanket. He was still snoring. The boy took out a pair of hikers and measured them to Otis’ duck taped runners and nodded contently. He put the boots on Otis’ lap and ran off.
Otis awoke stretched across the bench on his side. A coat over him. He sat up and examined it. Then he noticed a pair of hikers by his feet. He picked them up and looked around. Nobody appeared to object his claim. He slipped off his runners and slid his worn wool socks into the boot and wiggled his toes and grinned.
“Damn,” he said and tied it snug. “Did you do this, you old crazy goat?” He looked up into the shapeless clouds scrolling through the blue.
Mid-day. He crossed the street to a crowd that surrounded a young man playing guitar. As he neared the man’s voice become more apparent. Deep like an old story teller’s. Pain and rasp in the high notes. Reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s early work. Raw and smooth in its soulful concord. Otis stood among the crowd as the man plucked the Cort’s copper strings gingerly with his long finger nails so that they danced and swayed, ringing in perfect unison with the sound of his voice as he sang to the sapphire heavens. Otis smirked pleasantly. A member of the captivating vibe.
“Shit that nice,” he said and took a drink.