Sometimes the guy knew. Sometimes, he didn’t.
I can’t say what the difference was, what changed about things from one night to the next, but it was our nightly ritual. I’d come out the front door from the apartment complex, headed wherever, and there he’d be, invariably on the stoop, surrounded by empty cans.
“Hey, Mr. Pop Top,” that’s what I called him. Hell else kinda name should I give him? “Where’s she at tonight?”
He’d squint up his eyes real good for a second and, on the nights he knew, say, “Playin’ checkers off 7th”or“Singin’ Bessie Smith ‘tover at Sugars.” Nights he didn’t know, he squinted real hard and then just shrugged.
I don’t know if he’s crazy or what and I don’t know who She is. Our routine is the only communication that I’ve ever gotten out of him. He’s just kind of a character in my life, doing his thing while I do mine. We’re cool with it. I’m not one of those people who need to analyze everything. Sometimes a mystery in your life is a good thing. Not for solving, just to keep things interesting. Lets me know that I and no one else have all the answers.
But tonight, something set him off in an entirely different direction.
“Yo, Mr. Pop Top, where’s she at tonight?”
He stood up in my path.
“I want to come.” He said matter of factly.
“I, uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m going to a club. Ya know? Loud music, dancing, drinking. It’s not – I’m just saying, I don’t think you’d like it.” I dug around in my coat, looking for any reason to break eye contact with him. I found some gum.
“I want to come.” he repeated.
I slowly opened a stick of gum and popped it in my mouth.
“Look, hey, you do what you wanna do. You dig clubs, too. Okay, I get it. Alright, I’ll – I’m just gonna walk this general direction,” I gestured with a head nod, “and you feel free to come along. Or not. Whatever you want.”
We started walking.
Two blocks down and he hadn’t turned around. Mr. Pop Top was coming to a club with me.
“So…are you an R and B guy?” I asked, pushing my hands down deeper into my coat pockets, “Or, how about – any hip hop?” He didn’t answer. “Probably not. I’m good with all kinds of music, really. Play a little. Keyboard. Mostly Techno.” I was running out of small talk. “I was at a rave once a few years back – this was when raves where cool – anyhow, and this dude told me that my playing spoke to his colon in waves of neon Kool-Aid. I’m not sure what that meant, but I took it as a compliment.”
Mr. Pop Top just walked along beside me, looking down at his feet. We were six or seven blocks from the club.
“Hey, so, who is this She that you always talk about?”
No answer, just kept his eyes down.
“I only ask because –”
Suddenly there were two guys in front of us. One had a gun.
“Money. Now.” The gunman said. His buddy took a step toward Mr. Pop Top.
“Hey, easy –” When I tried to get between them, the gunman brought his gun level to my head and slapped me with it. I fell to the ground, hard.
The second mugger grabbed Mr. Pop Top by his coat.
“Are you deaf, old man? He said give us your money.” The gunman kept his gun on me.
I’m not sure what happened next. I mean, I know what happened, I just don’t really understand how it happened. The gunman’s gun kind of…dissolved into his hand. His scream was piercing. The smell was worse. He ran back into the alley. The other mugger, the one who had grabbed Mr. Pop Top, he just sort of…flew away. Straight up, into the night.
Mr. Pop Top was looking up into the sky after him. I sat there on the sidewalk for a few minutes. This kinda thing, you don’t just – can’t just, witness and go on your merry way. I had to wrap my head around it. I know, I just got done telling you that sometimes a mystery in your life is a good thing, but I finally asked,
“Mr. Pop Top?” he looked down at me, “Where’s she at tonight?”
He looked back up into the night sky.