The Great Society

by Jason A. Beineke Todd initiated the shut down on his desktop and rubbed a hand over his face, feeling the fatigue of the day suffuse him. He glanced at his watch and winced. It was late, really damn late. The kind of late that allowed a person to make it home on the freeway with hardly any traffic. He checked both his cell and his office phone. There had been no messages from Peg. That was both good and bad. Good in the sense that he had not wanted to hear from her in the first place. Bad as in his repeated late returns to the house were no longer a cause for concern. Of course, the girls hadn’t called and left a message, either. They would either be vegetating in front of the television, on the phone with their friends or online and doing Lord knew what. Truth be told, Todd wasn’t looking forward to going home. It was like sentencing oneself to Siberia on a nightly basis. Peg had become cold as frozen fish lately and the girls had time for everything and everyone except their father. It seemed as though he was little more than a puddle in the road for them to negotiate their way around. The father/daughter closeness that had been there when they were prepubescent had long since disappeared. He doubted they would understand how painful that loss was to him even if he tried to explain it to them. And if he did, they would feel guilt-tripped and obligated. As for Peg and himself, well, you could rent a dozen Hollywood movies and get the whole story in two hours or less. It was that mid-life time period when everything goes to shit for no apparent reason other than being bored with each other. Even as that period in their mutual lives was sneaking in on them the firm had finally seemed to truly recognize Todd’s abilities and contributions and handed him more responsibility and work. He tried to think of it as a positive thing, and not that the nonsexy shit was simply being shoveled onto him. Either way, he was making good money, he just wished he had the time to enjoy the money. The way things were going, not spending it was doubtless a good thing. He would probably have to spend it on a good divorce attorney in the future. If not that, there would always be the college costs for the girls. Heavens forefend if they supplemented any of their sex and booze adventures with a little work while studying general humanities. “Geez, Todd, bitter much?” he asked himself as he caught his glaze in the dark computer monitor. His eyes wandered to the pictures of the girls and of Peg on his desk. Smiles and sunshine and something wonderful in those pictures. Now--, now it was North Dakota in January. He shuddered at the thought. He wouldn’t wish that on most North Dakotans. He quit the office in a hurry and said his goodnights to the few other people who were camping out in their small offices and the building cleaning crew who were watching soccer in the break room. A few of them waved and he gave a quick wave back. Then there were shouts as some field maneuver got them excited. It was funny, the cleaning staff could be a lot friendlier than his own family at times. Too bad he

didn’t speak Spanish and he found it hard to tell one Guatemalan from another. He didn’t dare say that out loud, though. The car garage was lonely as he spiraled his way downwards. The street was lonely as well with no one walking and hardly anyone driving. Scanning, he could see where the parties for the young and hip were happening in the city and where they were not. He found himself the pub where the clientele were more his own age, who were easier to understand and get along with. Fish and chips, greasy and no tartar sauce or malt vinegar, at the bar, proper American sports on the television, lots of bullshit back and forth with the patrons, a bit of politics thrown in to keep things properly mixed up. Guffaws, cheap shots and ribald humor warmed his way out the door as he waved back at the crowd and the staff. The waitress that night was a college girl who had already seen too many tire treads laid down over her self. She had that guarded look to her, but Todd was pretty sure that she understood that while most of the guys in the pub would love to fuck her brains out, they would also kill to keep her safe from another abusive boyfriend. Todd would definitely have liked to fuck her brains out, more than once if at all possible. There was something attractive about her, though she would never work any fashion show runways. Her breasts and her face were unexceptional; her hair was a standard pony tail of straight brunette hair. Her eyes, though, with their guarded expression and smoldering intensity hinted at a dangerous thrill. The tongue on that girl, damn! She could take the best from any of the boys at the bar and return fire that cut to the quick. The really naughty part of Todd’s mind wondered what it would be like to have her tie him to a bed and make special use of her tongue and mouth… Since he had more than a few drinks in him he decided he would do the “drive like Grandma” shuffle home. All straight lines and no speeding. To get to the freeway, he took the back streets, not wanting to get himself tangled in the downtown party crowds. He gave a shudder as the late autumn cold bit through his jacket. The drunkenness didn’t help matters. Those first drinks made you feel warm and flushed, everything thereafter just cooled you off and sent you down. That was why wandering drunks and blizzards did not go well together. He stuck to the plan and crept along, always looking twice, maybe thrice, and pissing off the kids with their trust fund sports cars, who would roar around him, hooting and hollering at him. “Yeah, well kids, you can afford to get that DUI while still young and not suffer too many consequences, so long as you don’t kill anybody doing it. At my age, you don’t want to have the local PTA muttering about it at their meetings…” He shook his head and put on a classic rock station. He would have loved some Led Zeppelin or classic AC/DC, but there was none to be had. Still, he let the music play. The part of the city he found himself in on the way to the freeway ramp was suffused in red as the stop lights blinked their slow, patient eyes. Red on, then off, red on, then off. Another carload of young twentysomethings revved through the lights, squeals and cheers dimly rising from the car as it swept by Todd. If only all of life consisted of such shallow challenges, speeding along an industrial street at night, betting that no one was going to be turning into your path from a side street. “Just wait, kiddies, until that rosie glow fades and you find yourself with kids, mortgage and college loans to pay. Then you gotta pay your kids’ college costs, too.

And you never know when the economy is going to take a dump on your face. And you wonder why we older farts lose all our hair…” The blue-white halogens of his Nissan caught something down an alleyway, a touch of sky blue where there should only have been brick and cement. Todd slowed a bit as he drove by and looked down the alley. Two sets of human eyes regarded him back for a moment. A man, probably no older than Todd, but his eyes were sunken and his cheeks hollow, a face radiating despair. The child wrapped in the blue blanket regarded him with guarded eyes, expecting nothing from Todd and from the world. Then Todd was past and he was shuddering and panting. There was no ghost sitting next to him or a glimpse of the coming apocalypse, just the pathetic scrapings of humanity slapping him upside his head. He sped up a little, suddenly desperate to get home. In the back of his mind he found himself thinking with a cynical bite, So much for the Great Society… ***** Todd couldn’t get to sleep that night. The bed was large enough that he didn’t have to press up against Peg. That was a relief. On her side of the bed lay the Arctic and he didn’t wish to have his nuts freeze off just yet. Grumbling silently, Todd turned onto his side and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to force himself into sleep. Instead, it just managed to wake Peg. “What?” she asked, neither concern nor amusement in her voice. “Just…stuff on my mind,” Todd mumbled. “About work?” Peg asked quickly. Oh, wants to make sure that I’ll be able to pay alimony, huh? “No, saw a homeless father and his son on the way home tonight. Hoping they’ll be okay.” There was silence for a bit from Peg and Todd wondered if she had simply decided to go back to sleep. “Well, I’m proud of you, Todd, that’s very caring of you.” His eyes snapped wide open at this, hardly believing what he was hearing from her. “So you going to be Mother Theresa for Halloween?” she said as a follow-up. Todd had never wanted to hit a woman so badly in his life. The Arctic chill descended once again, freezing him solid. ***** The next day continued in the same course as the day previous, with Todd finding himself among the last to leave the office. Passing the break room the Guatemalans waved to him as they watched a telenovela while waiting for the last of the firm’s employees to leave. As the Nissan exited the garage, Foghat’s “Slow Ride” playing on the oldies station, he paused, considering his options. Should he take the arterials to reach the freeway or go back through the warehouse and red light district? He knew what waited for him in the red light district and it wasn’t prostitutes. He shuddered a bit as he turned the wheel to the right and eased onto the street. Tonight the city was quieter, more still than the previous night with fewer youths acting like hoodlums and fools. Todd couldn’t help but think that maybe the city was holding its breath, waiting to see what he would do.

The district was bereft of human bodies, all of them seemingly hiding this night or knowing of a calamity to come and not wanting to be caught up in it. Drab buildings and dark windows were illuminated at regular frequency by the flashing red lights. The man and his son were not in the alley that he had spied them in the night before and he let loose a pent up breath that he had not known he had been holding. If they were unseen then he did not have to feel the guilt, the uncertainty, the crystallization of all of the different stresses and pains that were swimming about in his breast, diffuse and directionless. He came to the turn that would take him to the freeway ramp and there was the patch of sky blue, floating in the air. Todd slammed the brakes at the first glimpse of it and would have plowed into the man and his son as the man stood on the edge of the corner. But Todd corrected the car and stopped, the red light pulsing above him. The man turned his sunken eyes towards Todd and regarded the Nissan and its driver with dispassion, almost like a lifeless mannequin. The boy was held in the man’s arms, small arms loosely around the father’s shoulders, the blanket wrapping the child, hooding his head. With the squeal of the tires the child lifted its head off of its father’s shoulder and twisted in the man’s arms to look towards Todd. “Jesus!” Todd bleated as he saw the eyes of the boy. There was nothing supernatural in those orbs, they looked as human as anything Todd had ever seen. Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name” began to play on the oldies station. I’m waiting in my cold cell, when the bell begins to chime. Reflecting on my past life and it doesn’t have much time… Even the most normal of human eyes had the ability to convey the depths of a darkened soul so as to make men quail and pee their pants. ‘Cause at 5 o’clock they take me to the Gallows Pole, The sands for me are running low… No hope, no future, no tomorrow filled with park swings and laughter. Little or no food, no bed to lay one’s head; no mac ‘n cheese for dinner or fish sticks dipped in ketchup. No cartoons 24/7 and no video games to drown all the pain away. Those eyes bored into Todd and laid him bare, took a critical look at his life up to that moment and then seemed to say to him, “You think that’s so bad?” Todd swung the steering wheel wide to give the two as wide a berth as he could while still making his turn towards the freeway ramp. He wanted away from them, from those eyes and their cold, shadowy depths. The anemic looking man didn’t follow Todd’s passage but the child under its blue blanket hood did before settling his head back on his father’s shoulder. ***** The clock declared it to be 1:00 a.m. Once it would have been early to Todd when he was a college student, binging and card playing, video gaming and getting into the sorority bedrooms for the night. Now he was a middle aged man and 1:00 a.m. was an unnatural time of the night to be awake. Meat packer hours his father would have

once said. That was silly, most meat packing was done like any other job, during the daylight. Yeah, there was the overnight shift, but big deal. Peg was snoring lightly next to him, her back once again turned to him. Even the girls in their bedrooms had probably turned off their laptops by now and clambered under the warm covers of their beds. Todd was not just awake, he was too many coffees too late at night awake and he hadn’t had any coffee in the past twelve hours. The eyes of the little boy were still boring through him, having burned themselves a nest in the depths of his mind. There had not been any demands made of Todd by either one of those two, not even a pleading look. Still, they had hooked him, heart and soul. He heaved a quivering sigh, wanting to cry and not knowing why. His mind began doing an inventory. In the refrigerator downstairs were the remains of a roast, lunch meat, grapes, vegetables and orange juice. What happened to him and Peg, dammit? Was it something he did, or didn’t do? He had never cheated on her, was she cheating on him? Had the grind of work taken all the vibrancy out of him and now she was pleasing herself with a vibrator during the afternoons while he was at his desk and the girls were in school? In the pantry were partial loaves of breads, buns, breakfast cereal, snack chips, juice containers that had not yet been put in the fridge for chilling as well as uncooked pasta and canned fruits and vegetables. Had he neglected to show up at all the girls’ games and school functions? As a kid he would have been embarrassed for his parents to be at all of his events. It was good to have them there sometimes, but as a teenager he was desperately working on proving that he could do great (well, maybe not so great…) things on his own. Was he not there to help the girls with homework and assignments? Did they even have homework? There were extra blankets in the hallway linen closet and towels in the basement storage closet. Maybe even a pillow or two in one of them. The girls’ outgrown jackets and winter coats might be around somewhere as well. Peg didn’t throw things out and she didn’t give to Goodwill. The funniest thing was that Todd would really like to get a dog. He hadn’t had one since the early days of his marriage to Peg, before the girls had come along. They had discussed having a puppy for the girls at one time but the idea had never really gone anywhere. A dog, at least, might have unconditional love for Todd… He slid out of bed and pulled out heavy sweats from his closet and a sweat shirt. No socks, but he slipped on his old running shoes without any problems. Then he was out of the bedroom and beginning his ransacking of the house. It was nearly an hour before he had finished packing the grocery bags in the car. He had been stealthier than he had imagined he would be and there was never a stirring from Peg or the girls. He had been sneaky smart and left a note on the kitchen table stating that he had gone to the local all-night restaurant to work out some project ideas that were not letting him sleep. Actually, it was rather silly, but he felt better for doing it. It took time to get back downtown, even in the middle of the night, but it was still faster than if he had made the drive during daylight hours. The occasional patrol car went by or sat on the shoulder of the freeway, waiting for the freaks to race by and be picked up by the cops. Assuming the cops were actually awake in their warm vehicles.

At first he couldn’t find the man and the boy. Had they found shelter in some building or even a mission house and he had wasted all this effort? He would be a middle-aged fool for having done so, but he didn’t think he would give a shit. If all else failed he would go to one of the shelter houses and drop off the items that they would be willing to take. Fuck them if they asked what he was doing at 2:30 a.m. making a charity run. As the radio began to play the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, Todd finally found them crouched in the corner formed by a dumpster pushed up against a wall. Thankfully, this was not the restaurant district so the dumpster didn’t smell too bad. Still, it was horrible to Todd to see the anemic looking man and his blue wrapped child sitting there in the cold, their breaths frosting in the air. Todd parked at the end of the alley and got out of the car, filling each arm with a grocery bag. He hurried down the alley towards the man and the boy, both of whom were staring at Todd with more than a touch of perplexity. The boy was still hooded by his sky blue blanket and his eyes looked out from the emotionally closed face, but they weren’t as scary this time as they had been earlier in the night. “Uhm…” Todd tried to say, then pausing and wondering what he should say to them. He licked his lips and noticed that he was scuffing the ground with his running shoes. What did you say in a situation like this? “C-could you use some help?” he finally said, his voice just a little timid. The man and boy continued to simply stare at him and Todd set the bags down on the pavement quickly. “I’ve got food if you’re hungry, and, uhm, some extra blankets and there are a few old jackets that might fit your boy…” By not looking at them he was finding it easier to speak. Still, he really hoped that they would say something soon before he lost his nerve. Then the man was setting his son aside, the boy still bundled up in his sky blue, and rose to his feet slowly, weakly. The man, who was not only anemic looking but thin as a reed, shuffled over to Todd and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” the man whispered. “It has been proving…difficult to care for my boy.” Todd looked at the hand on his shoulder. It was a dirty hand where the grime seemed to have caked itself into the creases on the man’s skin. There was the expected dirt under the nails as well. Like many who had lived on the streets or in dire circumstances for extended periods, the hand looked bronzed, though in truth it would be much paler if scrubbed clean. What really got Todd’s attention, though, were all of the needle marks on the underside of the forearm, starting from the wrist and disappearing into the man’s shirt sleeve. A junkie? Todd thought. He was totally surprised by this. He had expected that a man who was caring for a small child on the streets would have the sense not to become an addict. It would explain the thinness and anemic look, though. He was on a heroin diet. The kind that got semi-cute, but pallor skinned, teens ad jobs with Calvin Klein once upon a time. “Uhm, how is your boy?” Todd asked, not really sure what else to say to broach the sudden quiet. The man had dug out a butterscotch pudding cup from the bag and ripped off the lid. He slurped out as much of the pudding as he could, then began dipping his fingers

into the cup and sucking the pudding off of the fingers. Todd wondered how much of the grime was coming off of his fingers and going down the man’s throat. But he didn’t say anything. It wasn’t as though Todd had remembered to bring silverware or other utensils with him. “He’s hungry,” the man finally said as he continued to scrape out the sides and bottoms of the pudding cup for every last bit. “Well…” Todd started, “I’ve got some bread and lunchmeat and that kind of stuff if he’d like.” “Thank you,” the man said. “But that will not give him sustenance. It will only make him sick.” “Huh?” Todd said at first, without thinking. “Does he have an eating disorder?” The homeless man gave a good natured chuckle as he dug into to the shopping bag for the next portion of his feast. “No, nothing like that. I’m not sure you would believe me if I told you.” That was an odd thing to say. Todd looked back at the homeless man, eyebrows knitted and waiting for the next comment. When it did not at first come Todd pushed ahead. “Try me.” The man regarded Todd for a long moment, sizing him up with his stare. Then he undid the cuffs of his short and rolled back both the jacket sleeves and the shirt sleeves. As more and more of his forearms were bared Todd gave an audible gasp. Then he covered his mouth in embarrassment, but was unable to keep his eyes from going wide in horror. Up the entire length of the man’s arms were tracks, some layered over previous ones. The skin was a puckered moonscape and Todd wondered how a heroin addict like that was still alive, not to mention how his child was still alive. “I am not a junkie, as you might think,” the man said slowly, raising his eyes to look at Todd resolutely. “These are not needle tracks. They are bite marks.” Todd blinked, then shook his head. He remembered one of his toddler daughters giving him a painful bite many years ago. It looked nothing like this. These were puncture wounds, not the front teeth of a child. They were not shaped in the twin horseshoe shape of a typical bite mark. “When the moon is both red and full even the dead may become heavy with child,” the homeless man was now saying in a voice that was both low and deep and horrible serious. “What?” was all that Todd could manage to respond with. The man pointed with his chin towards his son and Todd looked over at the boy, whose face was still impassive and set. His brows had furrowed a bit again and the look in his eyes was starting to harden again into the frightening quality that Todd had witnessed earlier that night. Then the boy pulled back his lips, not in a smile but more of a rictus grin, devoid of emotion. Todd’s hand flew to his mouth and he took an involuntary step back as he looked at the cause of the man’s tracked arms. “Im-impossible,” Todd breathed. “Next, Christopher Lee is going to pop out and tear my head off or something.” “She didn’t sparkle,” the man continued, now feeding himself bits of cold pot roast in a greedy, famished manner. “But damn she was a looker and she took an interest in me that night. She must have been in heat or something from the moon. I passed out

that night from blood loss. She was gone in the morning and I had thought I had dreamed the whole thing. Hell of a dream, I thought. Then nine months later she was back and she wasn’t happy. She shoved our son into my arms and disappeared again. She wasn’t really the mothering type. My means were limited then and they only got worse.” He looked at Todd and there was a hard resolution in his eyes. “But he’s my son and I love him,” he continued in a soft voice. “I will do whatever I can for him.” Despite the initial shock and fear that had washed over Todd, he took a step closer to the boy. Now, more than ever, he knew that his little child, who looked so helpless in his swaddled blanket, could kill him. When those eyes bore into him, they were holding Todd’s heart and the boy was deciding whether or not to squeeze. Chest growing tight with the fear, Todd lowered himself to the ground just in front of the mound of blanket and child. The child continued to watch him with those hard eyes, the rest of his body not moving or stirring. Closer now, Todd could see the rust colored stains on the sky blue blanket, the grime and dirt, the dull sheen of body oil. The smell was not all that good, either. The man himself stank worse, but there was a lingering part of the man’s smell on the child. Unwashed human, it said to Todd; but it still said human. Todd held out his arms, not too wide and making sure not to create a menacing impression with his gesture. The man was behind Todd and he was silent. It had been foolish of him to allow the man to be at his back, out of Todd’s range of vision. Who knew what he might do? He could sap Todd in the back of the head and take off with the car or something. But Todd wasn’t afraid of the man. The man was not the dangerous one among the three of them, the small child who weighed less than Todd’s leg was. The boy regarded him for a long moment as the chill air continued to swirl about them and the coldness was seeping up from the cement beneath Todd and numbing his legs and butt. Steam formed from Todd’s nostrils when he breathed. No such steam issued from the boy’s nose or mouth. Then the boy rose with a fluid motion, still grasping the blanket about him, and stepped over to Todd. He turned and sat himself down in Todd’s lap, putting his back to Todd’s chest, giving the stranger his trust. Todd was pulling off the left sleeve of his jacket and then pulled up the left sleeve of his sweat shirt. He proffered the exposed arm to the boy and waited. For a long moment there was no movement, no sound, from either the homeless man or the boy. Then the boy gripped Todd’s arm with his two small hands. The hands were much stronger than Todd would have ever expected, despite knowing that this was a night of strangeness. Then came the pressure of the double puncture bite that pressed against his flesh, which then broke through, shooting sharp pain up Todd’s arm. The fangs were withdrawn and the boy started to suckle, greedy and strong, from Todd’s arm. The pain continued like a dull fire, flowing out of his veins and through the flesh of his arm. Todd brought the knuckles of his right hand to his mouth and bit down to keep from crying out. Along with the burning pain was now the dull ache of the cold that was seeping into him from the pavement and the cold that was being left behind in place of his body heat as he felt his own warmth passing out of him, through flesh and shirt and jacket and straight into the boy.

A tear rolled down Todd’s face as he brought his right arm around the boy and held him close. One would have easily thought the tear to be the product of the pain he was feeling as his face was screwed up and contorted with the torment of the experience. The truth, though, was that he was happier than he had been in a long, long time.

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