It was just after eleven, and Gerard was outside having a cigarette. Two fifteen-minute breaks, they were supposed to get, but that shitstain Richardson always looked personally pained whenever Gerard grabbed his jacket. Richardson. A little man with little problems. That morning Carol had used a pencil instead of a pen when she initialed the timesheet, and Richardson was still riding her about it.
Since Richardson got pissy when people hung out in front of the store, Gerard walked to the end of the block, past a cell phone place with the same old special offers, a dollar store, a fast food joint, and a storefront of discount appliances. It was a discount sort of street. A discount sort of town.
Cloudy day. Moderate traffic. Friday tall on the horizon. Gerard lit his cigarette.
A car turned off the main street, heading west. Dark green Corolla, rolled-down windows, crumpled fender. Gerard wouldn’t have looked at it twice if he hadn’t heard a pop, and then the crunching of glass.
The car had run over a Snapple bottle. The driver slowed down momentarily, then continued on his way, leaving the shards where they lay.
It was nothing.
On the opposite corner, a man waited to cross. He looked down at the broken glass.
He was a thin man in his thirties, wearing a gray cord jacket and faded jeans.
Stepping off the curb, he bent down and gathered the biggest pieces of the broken bottle. There was no trash receptacle on his corner; the closest one stood a couple of feet from Gerard, next to the light pole. The man crossed the street with care, his hands cupped.
“Hey, yeah,” Gerard said, nodding. “That’s pretty dangerous.”
“Yes,” the man said. “Not just for tires. I was thinking about kids.” He dropped the glass into the trash bin, then brushed one palm over the other.
“Absolutely,” the man repeated. He glanced at Gerard.
Gerard smiled politely.
“Or, you know,” the man said. “Somebody could do this.” He showed Gerard his right hand. He pinched the skin at the base of his third finger, then cut it. There was no way he could have used a sliver of glass. He’d emptied his hands, brushed them off. The man continued the impossible incision, on and on to the wrist, and beyond, slicing the sleeve of his jacket so that it fell away, slicing the skin underneath, his movements as casual as if he were drawing a line with a crayon.
“It could happen,” the man said, drawing his line past the elbow, up to the tip of his shoulder. “You know. People get tempted.” He tugged on the skin, exposing bloodless gray flesh. A second later, red began to well. The man kept on cutting and tugging, until the skin of his arm hung down like a second bisected sleeve.
Gerard had dropped his cigarette. “What the fuck?”
“Only showing you.” The man raised his arm slightly. The whole of it was wet now; the crimson had a reflective sheen. Blood dripped onto his jeans, and onto the sidewalk, but not nearly as much as there should have.
Gerard backed away from the man; the cigarette lay, still burning, by the guy’s foot. But the distance between them was much too small. The other bridged it with a smile.
“Put it back on,” Gerard said, which was nonsense, which was ridiculous. “Why do you want to show me something like that for?”
“I thought I could.” The smile wavered. “You looked at me. We spoke. You sounded like you understood.”
The man was standing in front of him. Gerard couldn’t remember how he’d gotten turned around.
The red was very shiny.
The man looked away. “I thought I could talk to you. Sorry.”
The man’s arm dripped and dripped. Gerard’s head swam.
“I’m always making this mistake.” The man’s voice shook, but his face went still, except for a tremor in the corner of his mouth. “Sorry,” he said again. He touched Gerard lightly on the shoulder and walked away, up the street and gone, leaving Gerard lost in the shiny red, so bright and so shiny that he could hardly breathe.