A Fool is Paid in Full
A fool's lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating.
Tonight is perfect. Tonight is like you’ve done something right for the world and this is your reward. This is the first beautiful spring night of the year. The last snow came two weeks ago, April 16th, and felt like a dentist’s hook off one of your roots, and so tonight was welcome. The breeze was cool and soft on my face and the sky was clear and black behind the orange glare of the street lights. Sitting and leaning against the wall, I think maybe this is the first time today I've just sat down. No reports, no spreadsheets, no e-mails. Just sitting. The church’s concrete steps feel cool, and that’s good too. The rough wall grabs at my jacket when I shift. This street has the red brick sidewalks and the just-painted-for-spring lampposts. There's a couple of nice bars and restaurants. It's always been one of my favorite places. Tonight is a perfect night to be out, grab a few beers, people watch.
But sometimes life sucker punches you. It's not fair, especially when you’re trying to live right and do the right things. Those are bad times because you never know when one is sneaking up on you. One night last summer Ryan, my roommate who who’s a therapist and does some martial arts, told me that attacks had slowed down for him. He said it's like they say on TV, that the pitches look like they are coming in slow motion to a good baseball player. Then he laughed and told me he started doing aikido to defend himself if one of his clients ever got a little violent. “Problem is,” he said, “if someone just ups and hits you. No warning, no nothing, calm one minute and then ‘Bang!’ There’s no defense for that. In my job, there’s not a whole lot between me and the person I’m talking to, and sometimes, you just don’t know what’s going to set them off or how. It’s all a crapshoot.” Which is what happened to him a couple of months after he started and why his nose is crooked. A guy he was interviewing just jumped up and broke his nose. When life does punch you in the face, it just happens no matter how much you prepare. “As it’s written,” he said, “All is vanity and a striving after the wind.”
The night started out pretty pleasant. I worked late at the office and was about to go home when a few of the guys called me up. They said I should meet them and put some solid descending 20 ounce curls. Since we hadn't gone out the last the couple of weeks like we usually did, I was up for it. We were starting late, but if we hurried, we could catch up quick. The brew pub was pretty full when we got there and we watched as the place started to empty out little by little until we closed the place down. We ran through the whole beer menu and then circled back for one or two of our favorites. By the time we left, we were feeling pretty good. I was beginning to feel a little more centered in my life again. Sometimes, after things have not quite gone your way for a while, you hope that things settle down. I hoped this was the beginning of that.
Not that things were bad at the moment, not like you lost your job, or girlfriend broke up with you and stole your money. No, nothing like that. More like you’re trying, you’re working hard, but you screw up. Like you forget to do some stupid little thing like fill out a form or something and the boss is on you for being late, but it was an honest mistake. You say you’re sorry and move on. But those kinds of things keep happening. Then you miss the bus. Or you forget an umbrella during the worst rain in years. Or that trout you were freezing your ass off in the river for gets away. Or your promotion doesn’t go through because you forgot to fill out that stupid form. Not bad, but crappy. You’re trying to do the right thing, but the wrong results keep coming. You don’t know why. You try hard to wrap your head around it, but it doesn’t work. Nights like tonight are good for those. You’re not drowning the badness away, just taking the edge off.
Tonight was a good night. Since we were regulars, we sometimes got the “wrong” orders sent back for one reason or another. Tonight was smoked salmon fish and chips. Kind of a waste of smoked salmon, but it was free and it was tasty. Picking a scrap out with a toothpick, I decided this wasn’t one for me. Wrote a note to that effect in the little blank book I keep in my back pocket for just such an occasion—to remind me of what I liked or not.
After we left, we didn’t get more than a block away when we heard this guy screaming. At first, I didn’t even notice. My ears felt like I was in a pool. My brain felt thick and liquid, but his screaming began to cut through. There was this girl standing there sobbing and he was right up in her ear screaming and yelling. The only thing I could make out was what he punctuated his rant with, which either was “You hear me?” or “Fuck!” Mostly, “Fuck!” He was running himself hoarse. When she’d turn away from him, he’d rotate around to face her or yank on her arm to wheel her back to him. When she hunched her shoulders and raise her hands to cover her face, he got closer and louder. This went on for a minute or so. At first just a sliver of sound, and then his hoarse, crack, nasal, punk voice floods into my head. That voice. That voice began echoed in my head like a bell has been put over me and someone is just banging away. I couldn’t take it.
“What’s his problem?” I asked the others, but no one paid any attention. I wondered if I said something out loud, so I said it again louder.
“It’s not you’re problem,” Ryan said. “Leave ‘em be. He’ll just yell a little while longer and then they’ll stumble off somewhere else.”
“Nah,” I said, “I think he’s trouble.” So I barreled right up towards him and said, “Hey! Asshole!” I said it a couple of times. He could hear me. He was trying to piss me off by ignoring me. Then I thought, “Fuck it,” and I grabbed his shoulder. Pulling on his jacket, I said, “What’s your problem?” and that’s when he turned and stuck me. At first, the blade moved slow but at full speed, so I thought, “No problem.” But something was wrong. My brain screamed for my hands to move and my body to twist, but the thoughts are moving like molasses. They are moving fast in slow motion. It’s a weird feeling, kind of “out of body.” But my body wasn’t moving fast enough. I’m moving slow at full speed too. All I could do was watch as the blade move inside me. He was strong, and he hit me strong. I lost my breath and my legs buckled. At first, there’s more shock than anything else. “I’m hit!” I thought, and then again, and again. He pulled it out, and time returned to normal. I felt like puking. He looked at me for a second and took off with the girl right behind. My friends grabbed me and sat me down on the church steps. One of them was about to chase after them, but one of the others told him to go to the convenience store up the street and get the cops in front. One of them called 911.
So here I am. “What the hell?” I think to myself. “What the hell? I was only doing the right thing. I wonder if I’m going to die.” My head is filling with weird thoughts. I remember someone telling me that not a lot of people die from single stab wounds. Hope that’s right. But who knows? “Take it easy,” Ryan says to me. He’s got his hands over mine which are on my stomach. “You shouldn’t have done that. He might have had a gun.”
“Yeah,” I mutter, “I kind of get the point.” I try to laugh, but it comes out bad. My hands are wet. Maybe not as wet as I thought they could have been, but it’s bad enough. Ryan puts his jacket behind my head.
“I was stupid, wasn’t I?” I say, but he ignores me. I wish there were more stars outs. “I should have just asked him for the time. Or maybe directions to the subway. Or something.” Muttering that over and over, there must have been a better way. Life isn’t like the movies and sometimes it can lay you out with one punch. This isn’t crappy; this is bad.. I can hear an ambulance somewhere and wonder if it’s for me. I wanted to do the right thing. This was the right thing. What was so wrong? I should have done something. I did do something. Did I do the wrong thing? No, I did the right thing. Was this the right thing? I should have asked him for the time.
Daryl Muranaka holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. He currently lives in the Boston area, after a few years of moving around from Spokane, Washington to Japan to Hawaii and finally to Boston. During that time he worked in the JET Program in Fukui Prefecture in Japan and traveled to several other countries such as France, the Philippines, and Korea. Part of this essay takes place during the time he was living abroad.