“I’m an urban shaman.” He said, nodding a thin, pocked head. A truck must have passed above us, over the highway, as his metal trolley shook from the cresting roar, dislodging some pigeons that burst over our heads and out into the city.
He lifted the rickety folding table, placed it on the uneven concrete between us. I put my clipboarded questionaire on it, and waited- I hoped he would say more things. Shaman or not, I was caught in his spell. With translucent hands he placed on the table, a large, flat bowl, marred with ash and scars. Inside he placed, in the flat of it, a circular piece of cardboard, full of indented spaces at regular intervals. The faded imprint of a company logo was riddled with the indentations, obscuring the original brand, leaving only “fragile” and “this way up” still legible.
He turned and ducked into multicolored shipping bags, up and down like a bird. The hissing ceased when he froze to say, over his shoulder: “I learned to read the signs. In order to read the signs you have to learn to let go, you have to train till you have the soft eyes. I had to learn to listen to my insides.” The hissing would resume, and he would withdraw in turns, a clay elephant with a broken trunk, three pencils with their outer paint stripped away, an apple wrapped in cellophane, and a white box, with a rounded top black markered with an X and I.
He scratched at the cellophane with black nails, till he found a way in. Tore into the apple like a wolf. He would stop chewing, cheeks bunched with apple pieces, to speak. His mouth full, somehow deepened his voice, imbuing him with gravitas, despite the way his consonants warped: “You sheem like you have shum here, lookying for something. You are lost. That much is clear.” His gesturing hand gathered up the underpass, the unlit trash cans, the other homeless people, the slashes of light that flanked us, the rumbling highway above, the city, the obscured, sky; the whole time he kept staring at me, the apple unchewed, rotting by imperceptible degrees in his hand. “You hash a good ear. I can tell. Yer a listener, what they shuh call an empath. An empath.”
Empath. He said it louder. Or it echoed in my head. I do not know.
He resumed chewing. The question tumbled out of my mouth: “Are you crazy?”
The chewing stopped. “Batshit nuts doritos off the top? Wigga wamma woohoo? What do you think?” He rolled his eyes with such unaffected condescension that my face got hot. I waited for him to finish the apple whilst I tried to read the upside down questions on my discarded clipboard. When he finished he began to unscrew the plastic box; “Used to be cold cream. My daughter would eat the stuff. Never tried it myself.” He must have been at least fifty, maybe less. Hard living aged most. Inside he took the bundle of marbles into his hand, and threw them in a mad musical clatter, into the bowl, all the while he said: “Harummmm.” And the m’s stretched, and stopped, all at once,when the marbles came to rest- many on the edges of the cardboard, a few on it, in the indentations. The marbles shook gently, as another truck passed somewhere above us. “A moment.” He went back into a purple bag, came up with a pair of glasses, that he licked, then wiped, on his too small scarf.
His head drooped over the bowl.
“Ahhh. Your name begins with a letter. Am I right? Yes. And you were once a young boy. Indeed. Oh, tch tch tch, this is terrible- you will die someday, and your heart will be broken. Again? Yes. Also, if you go to the hospital today you will be forced to kill somebody, and if you do it you will never learn how to use your third eye properly.” He looked up, two fingers aimed at my forehead, impossible tears edging his enlarged eyes. “If you kill this woman, you will put out your own eye, unable to stand the pain. It will be a terrible loss. There are few empaths in the city.”
I stood up, staggered away, tripped, fell. I have never been so scared. I do not know why. Other vagabonds turned to look, the crazy man, he got up, swift, grabbing a bag: “Wait son, I have something that can help, something cheap. Even something free: Blackjack won’t bring you home!” I needed my clipboard. He took it without me saying anything and frisbeed the thing, which I failed to catch, so that it landed on my foot. He yelled: “I don’t even need money for it!” I took the damn clipboard and walked away. The spell had broken, I must have been hypnotized, or something. “I can’t prove I’m anything special!” He yelled. I felt embarrassed now, for him as well. I said, under my breath
“I suppose I should have picked a number between one and a hundred.”
And I heard him yell: “SIXTY TWO!”
Which stopped me. I had not thought of a number. I looked at the clipboard, the only answers filled were ‘name’: “Tom O’ Bedlam.” And ‘profession’: “Invisible.” I tore out the paper, hesitated then scrunched it into my pocket. I went to the nearest bustop and waited. The first bus to arrive was the number 62. The destination said: “ST LOR CHLD HOSPITAL”
I went back and Tom handed me a plastic bag in exchange for the melting snickers bar in my pocket. Once on the bus I saw it contained a large, dirty, prescription pill bottle, the label scratched illegible. It rattled. I clenched my fist, felt like a fool, and remembered that the children’s hospital had a bus terminal, and there I could catch the twenty-one to the central homeless shelter. Ought to finish my quota that way. Or I could go home, lie down, and wait till the fear passed.
Casually popping open the top of the bottle, I felt that plastic satisfaction as the lid came off. A couple of metal oblongs inside, smooth, oily when I dug for them with a finger tip. I rolled one up to the edge of the lid, could see the golden sheen. I’d never touched or even seen in real life, a bullet before.
I covered the bottle with two shaking hands, clenching the medicine inside a sweat soaked fist.