Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story
by Marc Vincenti
It's late at night in the city. Rob Doud, age 52 and on foot, turns onto a quiet side-street.
Though in good shape, walking quickly, he's unfamiliar with these surroundings, which are dark and tall. But he's away from the traffic, the doorways are empty and the windows dim, no one's in sight, and the steps to his walkup are only half a block ahead -- or at least he thinks so. He's just a renter here with a room for the summer, far from the wife he loves and misses. He's got a brief job with a company in the city; he consults on websites, and likes to stay late in the office on his own.
For a second, Rob stops under a streetlight in the cool air, near some parked cars, wondering whether he's taken a wrong turn. Putting his hands into the pockets of his old college jacket, he deliberately takes his time, reviewing his route and the tricks his mind might have played -- which is intriguing and useful to him, because he specializes in helping people navigate online, find their way around a site. Rob's work-life is devoted, in fact, to helping visitors feel welcomed, guided, supported.
He thinks he had it right, and that a slanted glimmer up ahead, another minute's walk, is where he should be going. Cars beep, back where he turned. Closer in the dark, a dog barks. All at once a midnight cyclist, dressed in bright gear, spins past in the narrow street. And then two noisy men who weren't there before, who must have come from an alley but seem to have emerged from the sidewalk, appear in the gloom between Rob and his destination. He decides to wait, pretend he's preoccupied, keep his distance from their voices and his hands in his pockets. He remembers an article he read about street-crime, and how his wife told him to stay safe, when she hugged him.
One man's bigger than the other, and they're talking urgently. Rob studies them. The big man has a squared-off haircut, and in the throat of his black jacket, jewelry glints. The small man has his hood up and is holding out an upturned, visored cap with both hands.
Both men sound somewhere around thirty. Rob has never called anyone names like that in his life or worn slippers in the street; he's startled. He moves away from his street-lamp into darkness.
Then as if he were hurling a pitch in softball, the big man swings a vicious underhand fist into the lifted hands of the small man, causing a spray of coins to pick out the light and then jingle down into the street where suddenly, too, the small man is sprawling beside his cap.
Rob is shocked. Whether or not he wants to be, he realizes, he's already a party to this encounter just because he's there. He's alone, breathing lightly, hands stuffed in his jacket. He could choose to do something now, or wait, or leave. As for taking a side, there's no choice: one man is big and tall, and the other man is face-down, in the street, in slippers.
The dog barks again. Straining to turn his hooded head, the small man fingers the surface around him. On the curb, the big man pulls something tiny from his pants pocket, up toward his lips -- and then the tiny bottle gleams and he swings toward Rob because some oncoming headlights, having veered down the street, are growing suddenly brighter and coming on with the rush of a car. Its horn blares and it swerves, barely missing the small man, then it speeds up and races on toward the next cross-street.
The big man yells out, "Nice try!" and begins to guzzle.
But he hasn't seen Rob -- whose heart is racing too now, racing as if to make him act. But his hands clench and his feet feel unsure. In his life Rob has visited people lying in hospitals, jumped into a pool for a child, helped talk a neighbor out of suicide; but he was calm then and there seemed to be no choice. In the darkness, now, he could decide to flee, or shout for help, or run into the street and wave his arms. Maybe he could drag the fallen man off. He doesn't move though and his hands are still clenched. Ahead beside the hydrant, the big man rolls his head as if to loosen up. What he's capable of, or intends to do, Rob can't say.
Back behind Rob, traffic sounds. The man's hood turns against the pavement and the bottle clinks past it. "Nicer try!" With the flash of a bracelet, the big man's fist punches the air happily, then he throws two more punches with one hand, rotating him toward Rob. His eyes widen, then squint.
Rob flushes hotly in anger.
The man rolls a shoulder and slowly grins. "What? You a spy? You a pervert?" He makes an open-armed gesture toward the small man, who is pushing a toe against the pavement. "Join the party." He begins to repeat the gesture, as if greeting new arrivals.
Somewhere a car honks. Rob's hands are squeezed tight, and his heart is pounding. He looks on the ground for an object to throw, but there's nothing. He's not only angry at both men -- the small man is accomplishing nothing -- he is now furious with himself.
The man stares. "You not a party animal?" Almost philosophically, he places a fist under his chin and his rings glitter. He nods, smiles. "What? You a parasite?"
Rob's fingers are sweating. He knows he's no special hero but he's also never been a coward. To his knowledge he's always, always been dependable, and by any measure he's ever thought of, a human being.
The dog barks. And then a street-level window grates up and open, spilling out a shaft of light toward the big man, followed by the voice of a commanding, older woman who yells out, "Inside, baby man, or I'll disown you!" and then spits reprimands until the man shrugs at Rob and bursts out laughing -- then says not to worry because he's not going anywhere, and disappears through her apartment's doorway.
Rob sprints forward, gathers up the small man, scrapes him to the curb, and helps him to sit. Feeling only pity now, wanting to do everything possible, he kneels and talks to the man reassuringly, scans his hooded, pale face, ascertains he's not injured. The man asks for his coins, but Rob pulls out his wallet and a large bill. "This one's on me."
Licking his lips, smiling with soiled teeth, the man accepts it. "My lucky day."
Rob catches his breath and looks around. The big man is gone, the street empty again. Everything happened all at once and now it's all over. Even the dog is quiet, and everything is calm except Rob's heart. At the intersection ahead, the light changes.
Rob studies the man's filmy eyes. "Tell me where you are."
The man looks up and down the block, and so does Rob -- who realizes that he himself can't remember, can't answer his own question right at the moment. Far away a siren wails. All Rob feels for a second is this isn't where he usually lives.
Then the man says a street name and it's the right one, Rob knows. The man points at his cap in the street, Rob retrieves it, and then he does the easiest things -- wishes the man well, watches him go, listens to the slippers as they fade.
Rob remains there, though, as if his hands had never left his pockets, as if he'd never moved at all. He's tired all of a sudden, almost numb. Remembering his nearby rented room, its bed, he feels as if they're somehow still a long walk away. And already he knows the one thing he'll never be able to forget about tonight: that terrible moment of being at the end of deciding, on the edge of his bearings, when someone else in him -- a stranger, the person he would have become -- was about to choose his fate.
Ellen Sussman on "Encounter"
This story takes the reader into a frightening world – where we can't trust what we see or what we know. But we can trust the writer to deliver the goods. I loved the writing, the suspense, and the gripping sense of drama.