This work by Jonty Kershaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
This work by Jonty Kershaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
There was a honking of horns outside and Angry Boy rose to the day from dreams of sex and water. He scratched around on the floor next to his mattress and found what he was looking for; a pack of cigarettes with a lighter tucked into the cellophane.
His morning ritual took a half-hour or so. Smoke a cigarette in bed. Find his flipflops. Shuffle outside to find somewhere private to urinate. Climb up to the roof of the squat to smoke some more, eat the cold, greasy fries from last night’s bag of dinner, and watch the city.
He couldn’t have loved his city more. Every morning as he sat on the roof in his green-and-white plastic lawn chair, he felt like he was watching his own private parade. The whinos on the corner, and the pizza restaurants run by Israeli immigrants. The constant wail of official vehicles trying to keep up with a few hundred thousand social disasters, and the excited collection of screams and laughter from the rec center playground. The gang violence on Third and Brewer, and the window boxes full of flowers and the constant smell of Mexican food frying somewhere nearby. It all gave him a sort of peace he had never found growing up.
It had rained the night before, and by the time he left the roof the seat of his shorts was damp. Angry boy made his way down to the fifth floor and what had once been the shower room for whatever business his warehouse had held. The water still ran at one of the sinks for some reason and he spent some time washing whichever parts he thought looked or smelled the worst. He spent some time cleaning his teeth with a finger and his own saliva, and checking the results in the least-scratched areas of the giant steel mirror above the sink.
Saliva was something Angry Boy had always had plenty of. Saliva just poured out of his ducts faster than he could swallow it. The constant gulping and his permanently-damp collar had been a source of disgust and amusement for the other kids while he was growing up. In elementary school, they had come up with an assortment of not-so-original nicknames for him before settling on Saliva Boy. This was his official name for years, until his mostly-absent mother noticed his crooked teeth one day. With a full mouth of braces, he could no longer keep his lips together, and new names had to be chosen that properly described his new characteristics. Windex, or Car Wash, or just Spray Boy. One of the more imaginative kids had called him Nozzle, but just once.
When he was done washing, Angry Boy headed out to the main street and sat on a bus stop bench for a few hours, waving on the buses that stopped to pick him up. He just sat there leaning against the signpost and watching the normal sights of midmorning in a depressed city. People with shopping carts but no groceries, and dinged late-model cars with no hubcaps. He spent almost an hour watching an endless ribbon of unspooled audio tape blow by in the gutter.
His pack of cigarettes was done, and so he fished around in his back pocket for the baggie where he kept his cash. There wasn’t much left; just enough for lunch and a few cigarettes from the bodega on the corner. Angry boy sighed and sucked saliva through his closed teeth. Much as he hated to admit it, it was time for him to go to work.
* * *
Getting to work was an involved and complicated process for Angry Boy. It required a change of disguise and several bus and subway changes, but hiding was necessary for him to maintain his anonymity. He’d been followed home a few times in the past, and had had to abandon some pretty comfortable squats. He didn’t know exactly who they were – government scientists, or maybe from the private sector – but he knew what they wanted and what they were willing to do to get it.
By the time he had made it to the clinic a few borroughs away, it was almost evening, and he had changed into a baggy old brown business suit with oversized collar and a wrinkled yellow shirt. His dreadlocked hair was tied back and pulled up under a wool hat even though it was Summer.
The clinic was sandwiched between a diner and a laundromat. It, like the entire neighborhood, had not seen better days for a long time. The people loitering out front were filthier and more despondent than Angry Boy’s squatmates.
“Good Lord, Lucas!” Dr. Ridley, the doctor who was cursed with the job of running the clinic, stood up from his ratty desk in the ratty lobby. “Where have you been?”
Angry Boy shrugged and looked at the floor.
“It’s been three months. Do you know how many people have come through here in that time?”
Angry Boy just counted the floor tiles and sniffed, rubbing his nose.
Dr. Ridley was a 60ish black man with a bald head and a salt-and-pepper goatee to hide his vanishing chin. He ran the clinic with the help of four part-time nurses. This was the clinic where the hardest-luck cases came, usually to die, and the stress of holding it together on its tiny budget was aging him too quickly.
When he calmed down, he seemed genuinely pleased to see Angry Boy. Lucas wasn’t Angry Boy’s real name, just something he had made up along with a few other background details that he occasionally allowed Dr. Ridley to squeeze out of him. Dr. Ridley clapped him affectionately on the shoulder. “Never mind. I’ve got about twenty patients here for you. That’ll get you four hundred even.” He looked at the hand on Angry Boy’s shoulder and said in a thoughtful tone of voice, “Man, that shirt is pretty nasty. How about I give you a smock to wear, and I’ll have my nurse wash your clothes while you work?” He waved his other hand in the direction of a serious-looking woman in her late thirties who was sorting through paperwork. She scowled at both of them.
Angry Boy jerked away and nervously glanced toward the exit.
Dr. Ridley raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Or not. It’s no big deal. Come on in back.”
* * *
Dr. Ridley led Angry Boy back to the main ward of the Clinic. Everything looked poorly used. The sheets, the curtains, even the walpaper had smudges and tears and patches. The small supply of genuine medical equipment clearly had been handed down from somewhere with a little more money, and could well have been manufactured in the Seventies.
Beds lined the walls and Angry Boy was led to the one nearest the door.
“Lucas, this is Mrs. Shapiro.” Mrs. Shapiro, a stocky 70-ish woman of Old World stock, smiled at them both. “Mrs. Shapiro has been staying with us for a week, now.”
“I don’t want to be any bother, Doctor. I was just a little tired. I really should be getting back home now, anyway. My husband cannot cook even toast right, and anyway he won’t remember to feed the cats.”
“Oh, you’re no bother, Mrs. Shapiro.” Dr, Ridley showed Angry Boy her chart. He didn’t recognize the name of the disease, but he knew what the red checkmark at the bottom of the page meant. A death sentence. “You’ve been a model guest. Anyway, Lucas here has come to help you with your little problem.”
Mrs. Shapiro gleamed at Angry Boy. “Oh, let me take a look at you.” She reached out and, before he could react, placed a hand on each cheek and pulled his face closer to hers. “Oh, such pretty eyes. You look so much like my little grandson.”
Angry Boy moved closer still until their faces were inches apart. Then his face screwed into a violent grimace.
“Bitch!” he spat.
* * *
Angry Boy was not by nature an angry person. He had taken the name to commemorate the moment he had discovered his gift.
He had taken all the years of ridicule and abuse at the hands of the other kids and the neglect of his parents with a kind of grace. He had never spoken back when someone had called him a name. He had hardly ever harbored a grudge against kids who made a joke at his expense. Whenever someone had put him down he had just lowered his head toward the book he was reading and pretended to ignore them, or perhaps smiled weakly and good-naturedly.
Until, that is, one day in the tenth grade.
There was one kid in the high school of his tiny Midwestern home town that he was truly thankful not to have to be. Samuel Davenport had transferred in the year before from a city somewhere. He weighed about eighty pounds and had to move around in an electric wheelchair. None of the other kids was quite sure what disease he had, but it had wasted him to almost nothing. His head permanently tilted to the right, and he would have to struggle for breath to speak a single sentence.
Before history class one spring day, the future Angry Boy was slouching in his chair reading a novel of high fantasy and getting into it. In fantasy novels, the invisible and the abused discover their destinies and become praised and loved as heroes. During the climactic final battle, he became so excited he pumped the air with one fist and let out an enthusiastic “Yesh!” Spittle flew from his mouth in a fine spray that settled across two desks in front of him.
He looked around in abject horror. Everyone, even the teacher, was staring at him. He prepared himself mentally for what was to come.
Before anyone else could say anything, however, the silence was broken by the whir of Little Sammy Davenport’s electric chair as it turned to face him. The crippled boy began to wheeze as he worked a few breaths to build up to the one word he spoke:
From anyone else, this wouldn’t even have been funny, but from the mouth of Sammy Davenport it was divine. The popular kids cheered. The unpopular kids laughed. Even the teacher smiled a little. Little Sammy Davenport had achieved his moment in the sun, and he beamed as he turned the chair slowly around in a circle.
The one certain comfort in his world had been stripped from the future Angry Boy, and he did something he had never done before or since. He snapped.
Launching himself from his desk, he wrapped his hands around little Sammy Davenport’s wasted shoulders, knocking the wheelchair over, and shook him. He howled like a beast, “Shhutch upf! Shhutch upf! Don’tch laugh atch me, you.. you little cripple! You’re nothing!” The words and the shaking and the scratching went on for almost a minute before he was pulled off by a couple of teachers.
Angry Boy was taken to sit outside the principle’s office, and was subjected to weeks of psychological testing. Samuel Davenport was taken to the County Hospital for physical and emotional trauma, and didn’t return to school for three weeks. When he did return, he weighed 140 lbs and he was walking.
* * *
Angry Boy had run away a few months later. He had used his little trick at various clinics around the country for $20 a pop, only working enough to stay in food and cigarettes, and always moving on when the authorities started asking too many questions.
He had never, not once, been angry since that defining moment of his life, but he needed the ritual to disguise the true nature of his gift. So here he was, going from bed to bed, swearing and cursing at complete strangers. “Cunt!” “Asshole!” “Degenerate!” The storm of foul language traveled around the ward. Angry Boy made certain to swear at each patient for at least half a minute. Dr. Ridley followed, allowing a faint smile to pass his guarded expression. The patients were shocked, angry, or in tears, but he knew they would all walk out of the clinic in perfect health. Half way around the ward, Angry Boy was getting hoarse, so he offered him a cup of water, which was turned down.
When it was all over and Dr. Ridley had convinced the last patient with a cellphone not to call his lawyer, he met the boy back in the lobby.
“Well, that was twenty-one patients, so that’s $420. Let me get my wallet.” Dr. Ridley grabbed a pack of chewing gum from his desk and popped a piece in his mouth. “Mmm. That’s better. Would you like a piece?” He held out the packet, his eyebrows raised.
Angry Boy spoke through his teeth. “I need to use the bathroom.” The scowling nurse cocked her head and looked at him narrowly.
“Of course. You know where it is. Ahem, the plumbing’s broken, again, so just don’t flush it when you’re done.”
In the bathroom, Angry Boy started working the window open. He knew what was going on. The offer to wash his clothes, the water, the gum, and now the plumbing, were all attempts to collect his bodily fluids. He was halfway down the alley before he heard the banging on the bathroom door.