No Man's Land
Danny Wilson slammed on the brakes so hard it snapped his head backwards. The red bike and its rider had suddenly swooshed in front of his car from out of nowhere. He was driving one of those new Hyundais that made a beeping noise to warn him right before he hit something, but the girl on the bike had run the stop sign on the corner so quickly he barely had time to stop before running her over. He started to scream out an angry obscenity, but before the word had completely escaped his lips he noticed who the bike rider was and stopped before putting the final syllable on the word.
It was Shrek, not the cartoon character, but a local female who had huge shoulders and looked a lot like the cartoon character. He had always felt pity for her because of the way the kids of town constantly teased her about her looks. From kindergarten into high school it got so bad that she finally dropped out of school midway through her sophomore year. Her dad, who loved her dearly did his best to protect and mitigate her suffering, passed away that year and left her alone with her mother, a lady whose elegant presence seemed to exist only in order to draw a stark contrast between her own grace and her daughter's outward appearance. Ironically, the girl's real name was Grace, and she had none. Her mother proceeded to die of cancer and left the girl completely alone just in time to face the onset of adulthood. She had to be in her late twenties, but for some reason, Danny always thought of her as a tormented young girl even though he didn't use the name.
He sat in the middle of the street for a moment and watched her as she coaxed her bike up onto the curb that outlined the community park. She never even looked back once. He had almost killed her, but she didn't seem to have even noticed, or maybe she just didn't care. He watched he as she guided her bike toward the path that led through the park and then proceeded on his way
The little park she had entered, a small clump of trees and grass with a few brightly painted benches, was officially named the James Margosian Community Park after the businessman who had erected most of the buildings on Main Street. It was a one block square oasis located right in the center of the town. Now, most of the townspeople called it No Man's Land because during the Covid shutdowns it had been overrun with homeless and looked more like a bomb shattered war zone than a park. A multitude of multicolored tents, surrounded by red shopping carts, broken furniture, bicycle parts, and piles and piles of trash dotted a landscape populated by a small community of society's misfits, discards and refugees. They were mainly drug addicts and alcolholics, but also included some drug dealers, sneak thieves, and a few who were just emotionally broken casualties of existence. Most of these inhabitants weren't local people and came from other places where they had been given some money and a train ticket to Concord, where according to the rumor that had somehow gotten around the hospitable townspeople were sitting at the train station with big grins waiting to receive them all with open arms and baskets full of goodies. They usually come from the larger cities of California where the populace had voted in a bunch of maggots in shiny shoes who professed to care so much, yet devised a solution to a homeless crisis that involved catch them as they were leaving a jail or courthouse and putting them on a train to Concord.
When Danny arrived at the Olympia Restaurant where he ate breakfast everyday, he assumed his seat in a window booth from which he could observe the goings on in the park, and as Carmela, in Danny's opinion the greatest waitress in the entire world, brought him his coffee with Hazelnut creamer and a glass of ice water and took his usual order, he could see the girl dismount the red bike, put the kickstand down, and slowly make her way toward a slovenly blue and white tent in middle of the eastern side of the park next to Van Buren Street. Relying on the information he had received from a member of the local constabulary, he knew that was the tent that belonged to a hard case meth dealer who had somehow found his way to Concord from a courthouse in the Los Angeles area.
Watching the girl enter the tent made him feel sad, but not sad enough to forgo his daily routine. He sat there with a large coffee cup in one hand and an opened copy of Rollo May's The Courage to Create in the other. He had started the book right before he had showered and shaved. It was his habit to rise at 6:00 AM and sit outside and read for an hour. He was struck by a passage where May, referring to what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness, said, "We are called upon to do something new, to confront the no man's land, to push into the forest where there are no well worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us." On the following page, he had read the passage he had been mulling over when the the girl had suddenly appeared across his path, "People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage - it is essential to our being."
From his perch inside the restaurant, Danny could not see what went on inside the blue tent; he did see the girl hesitate slightly before she ducked inside, but he had no way of knowing how fearful she was of having to confront the Dealer who reminded her of the villain of the Mel Gipson movie where the bad guy chases the hero across a dangerous jungle landscape. He couldn't know that she summoned up her courage from looking at the transaction as if she were participating in some ancient ritual where the worshipper had to confront the God or Goddess of Death in order to achieve some kind of salvation. Danny was munching on his bacon as the Dealer looked into eyes as dead as stone and yet detected their beseeching intent. Danny was wiping his lips on a napkin as the Dealer's eyes guided the girl to her knees on a ugly, dirty, small tan rug before him. He also could never know that the thoughts inside the Dealer's head as the girl abased herself were of the night he consummated his marriage with his beautiful, young wife who had died in a car accident on Interstate Five just one year into their marriage.
When she finished, she stood up and anxiously watched as the dealer leaned over to his left, took a .45 automatic pistol from off the top of a small locked green metal box. He unlocked the box with a key that hung from a chain around his neck, reached in and picked up a small glass vial and tossed it to her, and then without a word, back-handed gestured for her to leave. She stumbled over the lip of the tent and was outside before she paused to examine the contents of the vial. It wasn't much, only a few small pieces; she hoped it would be enough to do the job.
The people inside the restaurant were very lucky they didn't have to witness the skin and bone hideousness of the exchange. Danny had turned his thoughts instead to something else he had read that morning in a book about the great Russian thinkers, it had something to do with Tolstoy's view of history, "We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand. We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it. For until and less we do so, we shall protest and suffer in vain, and make sorry fools of ourselves into the bargain." He liked the passage because it reenforced one of his own thoughts, something that he had arrived at the day before while he was driving on the road home from Bel Vista and suddenly realized that problem with the human race was that it no longer understood that it occupied a space in an infinite universe where every fragment of being, every personal incident, and every moment in our shared history was connected in some strange, hidden way to an infinite variety of possibilities, perspectives and interpretations. Most likely, he thought, humanity had never understood this relationship with the infinite at all
He paid his bill and walked outside after stopping to talk to a few of the regulars, and while stretching, looked across the street and saw the girl exit the tent, pause to look at something in her hand and mount her bike. She left the park heading south towards the outskirts where she lived alone in the house her mother left her. Stopping at the stop sign on Main Street, she impatiently waited for the traffic to clear. She looked over toward him but quickly averted her eyes back to the traffic. For a single second, in one of the greater mysteries of life, they had both thought the exact same thing at the exact same time, and that was maybe that it would have been better for her if he had not braked in time. Danny didn't like the thought at all, in fact, it made him angry, and he quickly shook it from his head, but the girl was more comfortable with it and only let it go because of her hurry to get home. The last car cleared and she started pedaling south finally disappearing behind the convenience store across the street.
When he arrived home, he thought about watching some football but decided against it and went and sat down on the sofa and stuck his nose back into a book. This time the book was titled Acid Dreams and was about how the American government had been responsible for creating the 60s culture by promoting the use of LSD. He had just finished another book entitled Weird Scenes in the Canyon where the author inferred that the government had also been behind the creation of the youth culture of the period. The book detailed how the top musical acts of the 60s had a strange relationship with the intelligence community and the top musicians of the era had all suddenly gravitated to Laurel Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles and established a small but very influential colony of artists centered around a secret movie studio ran by the government. The Sharon Tate murders occurred directly across the canyon from the studio.
He couldn't focus on the reading as his thoughts kept going back to the girl. He felt guilty about entertaining the thought that she might have been better off if he had hit her with the car. It was such an unwarranted assumption that her life was devoid of meaning because of how much she had to suffer. He thought, "Fuck, I've suffered too and I don't want to die." The thought occurred to him that he had never seen her smile. From that his thoughts drifted to the night that his ex-wife Jenny had honed her words so sharply that they ripped through the flesh and bone and filleted his heart as expertly as Sushi chef sliced raw fish. "Life is fucking hard," he whispered.
Unbeknownst to Danny, the girl was still thinking about the incident too. She sat and wondered about why she was so unconcerned with the idea of being obliterated by an automobile, and yet would go to such extreme efforts to gets her hands on some Meth to make herself dissolve for a few moments. She was sitting in a comfortable brown EZ chair with a glass pipe in her left hand and a blue Bic lighter in her right, and with every comforting puff of the pipe she remembered the day when she was a child and had fallen off her bike and ran into the house and jumped into her father's lap as he sat in the same chair, and he sang to her and rocked her back and forth until her tears dried. She also remembered her mother's focus had never left the crossword puzzle she was working on.
About noon, Danny's oldest daughter called to tell him that she couldn't go to lunch with him that day because she was going to work at food pantry handing out groceries to the poor people of Freeport, a city about a mile north of Concord. She told him that if he wanted, he could go with her. He thought about things for a moment then lied and told her he was going to watch a football game with friends.
Early the next morning, he went uptown to buy some Gatorade. Entering the store, he looked to his left and saw the girl selecting a water bottle from one of the iceboxes in the rear of the store. As she came forward, they met in the middle of an aisle, and he had to turn slightly to let her get by him. She didn't look at him, but he said, "Hi, Grace." She took a step past him and paused for a moment like she couldn't believe that someone had spoken to her, then kept going. Danny went to the icebox and pretended to decide what color Gatorade he wanted. The girl was going out the door when he went back to the front to pay. He pulled out a twenty dollar bill and sat it on the counter.
"I'm sorry." The girl had stopped halfway out and turned back to apologize, "You know, about yesterday."
"No biggie, " he shrugged and smiled weakly, "Glad you're okay."
As the cashier rang him up, he looked out the window behind the resister and saw the girl riding toward the park. She almost got hit crossing Main.
"You okay, Sir?"
He turned and looked at the Cashier who held his change in her outstretched hand.
Confused, he touched his cheek, and it was wet. He wiped his fingers on his shirt, took the change, stuffed it in his pocket, and walked out of the store.