The broken man sat on the bus stop bench, his gray coat hanging in threadbare strips, his face the color of a gravestone. As soon as I walked by, looking anywhere but his face, he snatched my arm and pulled me close.
“My stories,” whispered the man, his putrid breath warm in my ear. “I lost my stories.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
The man’s bony fingers dug into my wrist, as if feeling for a pulse.
“Give them to me,” he said. I cringed, trying to squirm away, but no one can escape a dead man’s grip. “Give me your stories.”
He was reaching for my throat with his free hand, cloudy eyes suddenly focused. I struggled and writhed, wishing I’d given him a wider berth as soon as I’d seen him. I tried to think of something to say.
“Wait,” I gasped. “Wait.” There was no one else on the street. I tried to remember something, anything, and found myself thinking of home.
“When I was little,” I began, turning toward the sidewalk, searching for salvation in its cracks, “I thought my uncle was a hero. He would visit us on Sunday afternoons, in the house behind the old church. I’d sit on his lap, and the dog would lay at his feet, and he’d tell me stories from when he lived out east.”
The broken man paused, no longer reaching for my throat. I took in a shaky breath.
“My uncle was an artist. He would paint murals, in alleys and on the walls of abandoned buildings. Once, he said, he was working on this painting of a whale, a sperm whale, I think, along the boarded-up side of a railroad bridge no one ever crossed anymore. It was a huge painting, took him weeks. He was just finishing the whale’s tail when he heard someone behind him, a woman with wild hair and a broken bottle in her hand. He thought the whale might be his last painting. The woman looked out at the whale, at its immense length and its bumpy chin and shiny black eye. She shook the broken bottle at my uncle and said, ‘How dare you? How dare you try to make something beautiful somewhere so ugly?’”
I swallowed, saliva thick in the back of my throat. The broken man gave me a shake, and I felt the world tip, fear pulsing in my tongue.
“My uncle told me he looked at his whale mural and just started crying. He said he tried to stop, but couldn’t help it. The woman with the bottle stared at him, and they just waited there, the three of them, on the bridge. Finally, my uncle tried to explain to the woman, but all he could say was, ‘I love these places.’ He meant the abandoned places, he explained to me, because those are where you can see love the most, the places that have lost their people and their colors, the forgotten corners of cities that aren’t part of people’s stories anymore. I didn’t really get it — I was only eight. But I did understand that uncle was trying to save the places with his colors and his whales, and I always thought he was a hero, even later when my dad told me about the drinking and all the money uncle never paid back. I don’t know what the woman thought. When I asked, uncle said she just walked away, whistling an old sad song, and didn’t say anything else.”
I gritted my teeth, waiting. The broken man made a low sound, and I peered over my shoulder and saw that he was trying to laugh. His grip on my arm loosened, and I tore away, rolling on the cement and darting across the empty street. I didn’t look back until I was blocks away, at the riverfront market, surrounded by people, by colors, by an abundance of stories.