Code of Violence

On the subway, I see a boy who is about 10 years old; he’s with his father. Both of them have red hair, but the boy has Asian features—a round face and pointy eyes. His father has a long face and Western eyes. Maybe this boy is something like me, a halfling.

“Do CIA agents use switchblades?” the boy asks his father.

The father makes no reply, and the boy says, “I think they carry hidden knives.”

Gatewood-VandalsPlayground
photograph by Charles Gatewood

The boy continues, “There was a gun called Hitler’s Buzz Saw. It fired three shots per second.”

Again, the father doesn’t respond.

“Are there still people with Ebola in Texas?” the boy asks. “Why don’t they just make them drink poison? That would get rid of them.”

“Let’s move to the back,” the father says, and the two of them head for the seats above the bus’s engine.

“Can you believe Hitler’s Buzz Saw was that fast?” the boy asks.

I wonder if this is a typical boy, or if he resembles the young Adolf Eichmann. Is this boy a killer in the making? Or is he just a normal kid?

He looks like a normal kid.

*

After I get off the bus, I walk between buildings that house faculty for the local university. The well-lit street is lined with trees. Two young men are walking toward me. Perhaps they are students, going to meet a professor.

They are stumbling as they walk; they are off balance. I look one of them in the eye as I pass; then I look away. He reaches out with the arm closer to me and strikes the side of my head with an open hand.

“Hey!” I say. “Why did you do that?”

He comes at me with both arms hanging, gorilla-like, in front of him. At that point, his friend—if he is a friend—steps in and hugs the aggressor, pinning his arms at his sides. The first man struggles, says, “Let me at him.”

“Leave him alone,” the supposed friend says.

I hold my hand to the side of my head as I walk by.

*

I arrive at a club to have dinner with a friend of mine. It’s the kind of place I’d never visit on my own, but I’ve been invited. Inside, men wear jackets. My friend takes off his jacket to go to the rest room, and I take off my jacket, too, but I don’t leave the table. A wait staffer comes over almost immediately and tells me to put my jacket back on. “You have to wear it at all times,” she says, “but we’ll make it cooler here for you.”

I suppose she is going to adjust the air conditioning in our corner of the room. As time passes, however, I feel no more comfortable than I did.

I tell my friend about the head-slapping incident.

“You were just walking by and he hit you?” my friend asks.
“Maybe I looked at him the wrong way,” I say.

“I don’t know what I’d do if that happened to me,” my friend says.

My friend is a big guy, and I wonder if he means he would hit back.

“I might do something,” he adds as he makes a fist on the table.

Near the end of the meal, an older woman who is sitting near us comes over. She knows my friend—they are both members of the club—but she wants to talk to me. “Let me see your left hand,” she said. “Are you wearing a wedding ring?”

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to find someone for my daughter,” she said. “I’m looking for a man of about 50.”

Maybe I look like I fit the part. It doesn’t matter, though; I don’t want to be matched up with anyone.

“She’s right here,” the woman says.

Sure enough, there is a young woman at a nearby table. She is standing to leave. Her mother motions her over, and the daughter shakes my hand and says hello.

“She’s a lawyer,” her mother says, “but she doesn’t practice. She works pro bono.”

The daughter is attractive, younger than 50. Any bachelor in the club would be a good candidate for her.

Unfortunately, I’m wearing a ring, and I show it to the mother. After that, I know I’m not going to get a business card or a phone number for her daughter.

*

I take the subway to get home. On my way, I don’t see the usual musician on the platform. The older man who plays a wooden flute and makes notes that sound like wind through trees isn’t there. Instead, I see a man who has a poetry display. He has a cardboard table with papers on it and sign that says, “Published Poet, New York Times.” Another sign is propped on the concrete floor. It says: “Watch TheLivingPoet on Youtube.com.” The small text says he’ll write poems on demand, for a fee.

When I walk toward him, he says, “I’m the poet.”

I ask if he’ll write a poem about violence.

He says he won’t. “I’m a poet of peace,” he says.

I offer to pay him.

“You should pay for peace, not violence,” he says. “Where are you from, anyway?”

“I’m from Pennsylvania, but my mother is Chinese,” I say.
“She was a Chinese person living in China; she wasn’t an American in China.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” the poet says.

“Some people don’t understand,” I say, “so I have to clarify.”

*

Later, I tell my wife about the potential match-up.

“Do you think they were playing with you?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “I think they were serious. I could have called one of them, the mother or the daughter. I could have made a date.”

“You’re going to give me bad dreams,” my wife says.

*

The next day, when I go to the subway, I look for the published poet, but he is gone. The stairs where he lives and writes are swept clear. Apparently, it is not permitted to live and write poetry in the subway.

I wonder if he’s gone deeper into the tunnel network. There’s an unused station halfway to the next stop—I’ve seen it when I ride. No trains stop there, but some dim lights illuminate the platform. The walls are covered with graffiti. It might be a good place for a poet who doesn’t want to be disturbed.

I look down the track from where I’m standing, and I think I see the glow of that ghost station. The published poet might be living there.

–Thaddeus Rutkowski

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