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The Gauntlet

Friday Afternoon, August 19th, 1994; My 36th Birthday
I exit the courtyard door from the apartment building which is my last sanctuary. August’s last blast of warmth smites me as I step onto the world of sunlight. It’s high noon in Cudahy, Wisconsin. I feel the radiant heat off the sidewalk and my eyes squint in response to the intense afternoon sun. My shadow aside me, like a sundial, indicates the time.

I cast glances around me, much like chased prey in the wild. The ominous realization of what’s to come jolts my consciousness to immediate, mortal time. Northward, I pace the treeless sidewalk towards the diner down the street. My shadow pulls me, as a parent holding its child’s hand, forward. My shadow is the only sign of shade. The constant rumbling tremors; coming from the steel stamping plant - the pride of Cudahy, Wisconsin - cadence rhythmically with my strides. The diner is getting closer now and I feel safer as I near its entry door. I take deep breaths to replenish my sense of security.

I open the door, clamoring the hanging bell which announces my entry. I spot a vacant booth and I elect to sit there. The booth provides an embrace of privacy. I’m relieved not to have to display myself like some department store mannequin. The diner is even safer now since I don’t have to take a table. An old man, with skin ravaged from years of hard work, sits at the counter, taking eye rolling glances at me. He turns his face away and resumes his lunch hesitantly.

Ellen, smiling from ear to ear; pops through the swinging cafe doors that separate the kitchen from the dining room. I’m relieved to see her today; the other waitresses are often catty when dealing with me. The pounding of my heart eases as she meanders between the tables towards my direction.

--“The usual late breakfast?”-- she asks.

I nod and reach into my bag for the novel I’m anxious to finish. Ellen turns, jots the order on her pad, and returns to the kitchen.

A few moments later, Ellen sets my plate before me. I place my book down as Ellen takes a respite taking a seat across me at the booth.

--“Off to work I suppose?’-- Ellen asks as her eyes patrol the booths, tables, and the counter.

--“Yes”--, I reply, adding: --“Thankfully it’s Friday”.--

--“You’re lucky you have weekends off. Me, I’ve got Saturday all day and Sunday lunch here.”—

I hold back a giggle as Ellen foretells me of her weekend. Ellen’s not so much a homebody as much as she likes to let her tipping customers know when she works. This diner is a typical mom and pop establishment, one that doesn’t provide the crowds necessary to make a living on tips.

--“My husband wonders when my next weekend off will be. I think he gets frustrated at having to watch the kids. He finds it hard to concentrate on them and the Packer game at the same time”,-- Ellen continues on.

--“I don’t think the Packers are going to do much this year. So he should have much more fun watching the kids”--, I reply, mildly sarcastic, for no other reason but to just keep the relaxing conversation going. Ellen and I often share laughs at her husband’s expense. --“How are Matty and Mikey?”—

The old man at the counter holds his coffee cup in the air, much like a drunk at a bar with a beer mug, to signal he’d like more. Ellen gets up from the booth to pour him some. --“Matty should be coming back from day camp anytime now.”-- She calls out from the counter. --“He’s been fawning lately with some girl. The other day he gave her a dandelion believing them to be flowers.”--

As if on cue, Matty charges into the diner. As Ellen heads back towards the booth, Matty races over and lands on the bench beside me in a slide.

I put my book back into my bag, resigned to not being able to read it here. I turn to Matty, whose beaming smile and eyes which gaze at me with a youthful exuberance that is so fresh and innocent.

--“I hear you have a new girlfriend, Matty.”-- I say teasingly at the same time soaking in his excited state.

--“Oh yes, Nadia!”-- Matty goes on, cheerfully through his toothy grin. --“Her name’s Elizabeth. She and I shared lunch today. I gave her my sandwich ‘cause she only had peanut butter and jelly.”--

--“You do know how to charm the ladies, Matty. I supposed that means you’ll no longer love me anymore, Matty.”-- I say with a teasing, feigned sigh.

--“Oh no, Nadia!”-- Matty responds with surprise and shaking his head. --“You’ll always be one of my bestest friends.”--

--“Aw, Matty!”-- I call out, reaching my arm around his shoulders, giving him a hug and pecking a kiss on top of his head. --“You’re too sweet for words, little man.”--

Taking note of the time, I continue my dining. As I continue to eat, I savor the comfort of being with my two friends, as well as the peace, knowing its life will be short. I soon will once again have to encounter the outside world. My thoughts return to the commute to work, hoping against all odds that it’s peaceful. Recognizing that it probably won’t be since the schools haven’t reopened yet and won’t for another week. Even though it’s my birthday, there won’t be no party, no gifts; it’ll be just another day. Silently, I pledge to myself that by this time next year, I’ll have a car so I won’t have to endure this everyday.

My dining now done, I glance at the check, place the amount and twenty percent upon it and rest it on the table. Waving a farewell to Ellen, I arise from the booth, collect my bag, and receive one last disapproving glance from the old man at the counter. A chill races up and down my spine at seeing his quiet hostility.

The hanging bell on the doors’ threshold announces my departure. On the now even hotter sidewalk once more, I will my body not to perspire from the oppressive heat. I gaze to the south in hope that the bus is about to arrive. No bus is seen, as usual, only the oppressive intensity of the August sunlight. I opt to walk to the stoplight only because, if I don’t, then I’m a standing marked target. Moving, I feel safer. Moving, I have more escape options. I know in my mind, the Gauntlet will make its appearance again. The Gauntlet is much like a stalker, which will make its presence, in stealth, for it knows my schedule. The only question is, when and where, will it raise its ugly heads?

The half mile walk seems like an endless, sun baked corridor. Today there is no refreshing breeze from Lake Michigan, a mere three blocks away. Fearing what may come again today, I sympathize with death row inmates as they make that last walk towards the end. No one will be there to rescue you. There will be no eleventh hour phone call. Like the inmate, I’m alone in the world; no one will care of any demise that might perish me. The only contrast is that instead of death-row’s clock, it is August dog day sun that looms watchfully. Its intense rays press against me with every stride. My eyes dart about. My eyes seek not the passing homes and store fronts; they seek the first sighting of the Gauntlet and escape routes from it when it makes it presence.

Pedestrian traffic now increases as I approach Layton Avenue and the stoplight. More witnesses now appear to make me feel safer from the forthcoming Gauntlet. Though in my mind’s rationalization, I know it’s only a mirage of security. I approach the intersection and take one more glance to the south for a sighting of the bus. Again, no bus is seen. I take a seat on the bench at the curb.

I reach into my bag for my keys and a cigarette, for as anyone in Milwaukee knows, if you want a bus to come right away, just light a cigarette. I move my keys to my left hand and place my cigarette between my lips. I reach back into the bag to get my lighter and then light my cigarette. The bus apparently ignores this, for its still nowhere to be seen. At the same time, I place the keys in between the webs of my fingers and clench a fist; I keep the lighter in my right hand and clench a fist with it as well. Both of my hands make their way onto my lap taking defensive positions.

The race commences now between the bus and the Gauntlet. I sit in wait at the finish line. I glance once more to the south to see if the bus stands a chance of winning the race. No bus, again it’ll find itself as the long shot. My muscles tighten, my thoughts flicker about. Anticipation of a showdown consumes me.

The Gauntlet takes on many disguises. Some days it’s a car, some days it’s a pickup truck, one day it was a motor scooter. The Gauntlet on some days elects to walk. In any form though, it’s the same hideous creature.

The stoplight marks the time in ninety second increments, yet time today will seemingly stand still.

Today the Gauntlet makes its appearance in the form of a station wagon. Today it reveals five heads, two suspend from the side windows, and the other two through the roll down back window, and the fifth head remains within, controlling the movements of the beast. Any sudden moves by the Gauntlet, and the four suspending heads would fall onto the asphalt below. The din of the traffic and the surrounding goings on suddenly take on a vacuumed silence. Movements convert to slow motion. The showdown has come, my hands clench my meaningless weapons, and my hands shake and pound my lap. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, I stare straight into the Gauntlets’ faces.

--“Good afternoon, queer,”-- commences Head One. The remaining four heads share canned laughter.

--“Hey! Are you a guy or a chick?”-- Head Two follows, to more canned laughter.

--“It’s neither, it’s just some queer freak,”-- chimes Head Three. Again, the sarcastic laughter.

--“I told ya,”-- Head Five shouts.

--“Want me to save you some cash? I can cut it off for you if you want; they call me “The Psycho Doctor”,-- as Head Four joins in.

I press against the bench peering through them. The onslaught of the Gauntlet stings my ears. My stomach tightens. Passersby now shoot glances at me. Darting glances of Judgment. Their cold stares and chilling glances which indict ME for this disturbance. Disdainful glances of disapproval. Cavalier glances that long ago took sides.

On the opposing corner, one of Cudahy’s Finest sits and watches from the air-conditioned comfort of his squad car. Ignoring my pleading stare in his direction, he speeds off like a frightened coward. --‘Why should he be bothered?’-- I ask on his behalf. After all, it might require getting out of the car and actually do something.

The stoplight changes to green. Still, the Gauntlet remains still for there is nothing behind him to compel him to move forward. The heads of the beast continue to snarl. Their cantations blur with one another. The stoplight returns to red. Others waiting for the bus now move back from me. Still others on the bench relinquish their seats. My human shield is gone, it’s just me and the Gauntlet now left to duel.

--“How about if we rearrange your face?.”-- Head Two threatens.

--“If I got my hands on you, you’d wish you were a dead queer!”-- Head One joining the assault.

--“Look around you! Nobody would care! Just another cadaver for the morgue!”-- shouts Head Four.

I continue my voiceless stare. My being tenses; first from anger, then from fear. I clench my fists tighter and brace for attack. My skin compresses against my bones. I feel every wrinkle. The Gauntlet has never been this brazen before.

Other cars now file behind the Gauntlet. My cavalry’s arrived. I glance at the stoplight once more to find it green again. The Gauntlet yields to a draw. The Gauntlet drives away.

As the files of vehicles continues their flanks in every direction, the bus approaches from the south. I reach into my bag for the pass. Stopping and opening its flapped doors, showing the way to its cool, air-conditioned haven. I alight showing my pass to the driver, my unwitting rescuer, as the others now parade behind me. I find and take a seat behind the driver. As the others board, they look away from me with intent and none say a word about what they saw. The only sounds within the bus are the vibrations of its engine and wheels.

I sit and try to calm down, I take deep breaths to soothe my nerves. I’m safe once more and get to live in peace for another half-hour, when I’ll have to connect with another bus.
Paper still has a great future
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