CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|No One Can Name the General
It’s winter: the season of hunching, the season of sleeves and long jackets, of hands in pockets, of woolen caps, flipped-up collars, and darkened streets. You can walk down city sidewalks on winter nights wrapped and folded, just another figure walking about alone, wrapped and folded. The air is cold so your breathing steams, and most people stay in from the cold except for me and the several other figures walking the city blocks. The gapping is right, the season is right—the corners are right, and the dark. Winter’s the season; I pass a figure alone, wave him down, and tell him, “Excuse me.”
The man looks up from his walking.
I tell him, “Hand me over your money.” I take my hands from my sleeves and one of them grips a knife.
The look the man gives me is crestfallen, which is how most of them always look. (Well, not the women. The look that women give me is a different look of alarm.)
The man reaches under his coat. You never know what lies under a coat. You try to stay ready; I try to stay ready. For what winter brings, for come what may. The man tilts forward as he reaches, his crestfallen look tilting toward the sidewalk. You measure the distance, you measure the man. For whatever else might come what may.
His hand emerges with the square of his wallet firmly in his fist. When he hands it over he looks both crestfallen and pissed. It’s a look he should be proud of. Don’t ever be ashamed of that look. It’s better than those who give you a final look where it looks like their eyes are pleading. Which is a pathetic look to wear—especially on men. Please—don’t go weak. For all things holy—show some kind of spine.
I take his wallet and take my leave around the corner down out of sight: just another figure hunched and walking about through the night. I unfold his wallet and wad out the cash, toss the rest into a trash can. If he knows the first thing about anything, the first place he’ll look is the trash cans. If he’d handed me only the cash I would have taken it. Pleading or not. But better not. The sidewalk’s empty; the rush is finished. The air is cold; I hunch; I walk for the bus stop; my breathing steams; it’s winter night: this makes the season and hour when luck makes every promise.
(When I was young, I used to apologize. I don’t know why when you’re young you apologize. But when I was a young man, after the mugging was finished, I used to apologize to the muggee. I used to offer my condolences. I used to explain my present situation. I used to justify. People need to eat, people need to live. That’s what I used to say. People: disingenuous. Because when I said people, I meant actually me. Then later I would go on: Some people are good at some things when they aren’t so good at others. Then: You see what I’m saying? That was always the worst. You see what I’m saying? How patronizing. What a waste of youth, what a waste of effort. As I got older, I shut up. As you get older, shut up more. Shutting up should be the obligation of anyone who ever gets older.)
Rain is a boon. Rain is the emptier of blocks and tunneler of vision: everyone steps with eyes downcast from rain to watch and dodge the puddles. Everyone steps with lowered umbrellas or hoods pinched closed in an oval so they won’t see anything around them that isn’t rain. Opportunity.
A man in a baseball cap and an upturned collar turns towards a corner (he’s too far away). A woman chats on a cell phone (distracted, but audio witness). Another runs gripping bags along with her umbrella (she’s flagging a taxi; not even a chance). Two boys nod with separate headphones in their ears (they’re preoccupied but there’s always the question of numbers). The light goes green and cars drive the street, ripping fresh rain from the asphalt, every driver behind every wheel a possible witness.
Rain isn’t the only luck.
Cite my age or my upbringing, but I still prefer to mug men. To this day and age I still find something unseemly about mugging women. Although I will. And always have. What luck delivers is what you receive. If it turns out your subject’s a woman, then by God go mug a woman. Don’t turn cowardly. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t shy. If it’s a woman who’s presented, then it’s a woman who’s presented, and no one is served by any hesitation. Deliver as you have been delivered. Mug as anyone else would have mugged.
Ah, the sweet spot! There’s a feeling of crisp attention when all the wheels of luck and circumstance spin together to unveil a mugging opportunity: winter and night and rain, stoplights red up and down the street, no cars driving, no people walking except one woman hunched in a hood. She’s even walking in my opposite direction, there’s even a corner not too far where I can turn when the mugging is finished, where after I’ve mugged I can take my leave. The woman, she jams both hands in her pockets and her hood is flared past her eyes in perfect blinders. I’m certain she’s a she: women’s boots. Plus her sash is tied around her coat—there’s no mistaking the tuck of a waist like that. Her head is downcast and her bag is slung beneath one elbow. Just before we pass, I say, “Excuse me,” and hold out my palm. (Without touching. Excess touching while mugging makes for bad form.)
The woman stops and looks at me through glasses wet with rain.
“Hand me your money,” I say. I show her my knife.
There’s that shock and alarm. She looks upset, maybe a little ashamed that she’s been cornered while walking alone. As a woman. After a delay, she says, “Oh, God.” She unzips her bag and digs out her wallet. “Please,” she says. She hands me it. “Just take my wallet and leave.”
By philosophical right, it’s unfair to feel guilty for mugging a woman just because she’s a woman, but life’s unfair so I feel guilty (although I’ve never not taken the money). I take her wallet in full (I always take what I’m handed in full) and she gives me a wounded look through her glasses spotted with fallen rain. She’s slight even for a woman, and it kills me, my guilt at mugging a woman—at mugging this woman—and taking away her cash.
She might have a cell phone on her—probably does—but it doesn’t matter; I’ve unclasped her wallet already, poke through for cash (not a lot, but not too bad). The cash goes folded down in my pocket and the wallet goes up my raincoat sleeve. I leave around the corner toward the traffic sizzling the wet on the busier streets.
So a boon is modern cleanliness: there’s a trash can on every corner. At the nearest I push my sleeve in through and drop the wallet in. The deal is done, though not the guilt: I’ve never made a natural mugger of women. But still: the mugging is done and it was tight and clean and finished. The rush is finished. The sweet spot is gone. My breathing steams. I’m not a prodigy of mugging—no prodigy of mugging would notice the difference between mugging men and women—but over the years I like to think I’ve learned to mug quite well.
(Years ago, an almost-rainy night, on a mugger’s night clouded over to hide whatever light might shine out from the moon, and the moment was right, and the timing was right, and the dark was spot on, and the traffic, too, escape routes laid out and prioritized; walking up on a man, I showed him my knife. Which was when the walking man lifted his arm to show in his grip a knife of his own. He gave me a smile and told me, “Shit—we’re at an impasse.” I had to laugh. He laughed, too. And just like that, the sweet spot was gone. “Happy hunting,” I said. “Happy hunting,” he said. And with that, we kept on walking. Who knew—but we knew—you know your own. And it’s a given you don’t mug your own. Exception to rule makes the nature of nature.)
Today the rain smears the glass of the window and pings the fire escape. The thick of another wet season has arrived. It’s pouring outdoors in droves, in throngs, in armies, and here is the exception to the boon of rain (whose boon is never steady): once it rains too hard, the boon is finished. The more it rains the more people stay indoors, by which when I say people I mean potential subjects. And fewer subjects mean fewer opportunities. Usually to the point where there’s no one left to mug. And since the act of mugging is a waltz (where the mugger leads and the muggee follows) without a subject there’s no one with whom to waltz. Which means the waltz becomes impossible since the nature of the waltz is it’s impossible to dance by yourself. So when it rains too hard I abandon mugging. Which is less than I’m after but not terrible, either, since let me tell you firsthand: mugging’s no fun in the rain.
But still: the problem when you don’t mug—when I don’t mug—because it’s raining becomes—because you don’t do anything (as I don’t) you’re left with nothing else to do. But think. And here’s what I think: that it’s winter. Once again. Another winter. Which isn’t the problem, winter, but another. It’s the another that makes the problem. One more winter season staring out the same rain-smeared glass, hearing the same rain ping against the fire escape. Another rainy evening that’s too wet to leave and mug, another rainy evening wondering if the rain I’ll stomach is less and less every year.
As a young man I was mugged. As a boy, actually. I don’t have sons, so I don’t know how things now stand (everything stands differently if you wait long enough). But back then if you were mugged it didn’t count. If the mugging was done by other boys. Even if the other boys were older. Even if there were more of them than you. Which they were. There were three of them—a team of three—a trio of muggers. Not necessarily bigger than me, but that’s how I remember them. They might as well have been. There were more of them than me so it didn’t really matter.
I didn’t recognize any of them. They went to some different school in some different neighborhood—they must have if I didn’t recognize even one of them. And I was given the opportunity. They allowed it. They came at me head on so I could watch them, but when I watched them, they were blanks. First and family and brothers’ and sisters’ names were blanks. Watching me, they must have thought the same about me and judged me a chance.
I didn’t stop walking until I was surrounded. One of the boys shoved me in the chest. I fell back against another boy who shoved me back upright.
“You better be rich,” said the boy in front. “Hand me your wallet.”
The boy slapped my cheeks while the others held back my arms. The boy leaned down to my face. “Your wallet, your wallet!” he yelled.
“I don’t have one!” I screamed, which was true. Wallets weren’t so common in your pockets back then if you were only a boy.
“Uh huh,” said the boy. “I bet. We’ll see.” He grabbed the hair on the top of my head and yanked me forward until I fell face first on the sidewalk. My forehead smacked the pavement. “Ow,” I said. They turned out my pockets.
When they finished, they rolled me face up. The first boy was wadding my dollars and shaking them at my nose. “Is this it?” he yelled. “Is this it?”
He punched me in the ribs. “Baby says what. Is this everything?” He punched me again.
“That’s it, that’s it!” I screamed. By now I imagine I was crying, which I used to do back then as a boy.
“He’s poor!” They laughed. “Now we’ll have to take whatever.” They unstrapped my watch, which was a Christmas gift from my uncle. They also took my jacket and my shoes. Which at the time didn’t make any sense—back in those days a jacket and shoes were just a jacket and shoes. At that time wearing a jacket and shoes had no meaning beyond clothing. This was back in the days before brands and fashions and labels began to stand for something. Or maybe they did back then and I just didn’t know.
That afternoon when I walked home after being mugged my mother said (this was back in the days when you might still have a mother who stayed home and said): “Where are your shoes?”
“I was mugged,” I said.
Her face worked up a fury. “You were what? By who?”
“Some other boys.”
And her fury dropped mostly all the way. “Which boys?” she said. “Name them. I’ll have a talk with their mothers.”
“I never saw them before.”
My mother said, “Well. So let’s get you cleaned up then.” And that was that. That was the day I learned that if you were a boy, you couldn’t be mugged, that mugging could only be done to you as an adult.
The wind howls between the buildings; the lamps all dim, then blink out. Through the smears of the rain against the glass I can see the lights outdoors are burning. The streetlights are on, the traffic lights are on, so the outage can’t be general. I feel my way from my chair and shuffle to the hallway and up to the front door. I duck to peep out the peephole: the hallway outside looks black. I unhook the chain, turn back the bolts, unlock the knob, and open the front door. Past the other apartment doors by the stairwell the emergency lamps shine on. The outage isn’t only me—somewhere one of the master circuits has popped.
I shut the door, turn back the lock, leave the bolts unbolted, leave the chain unhooked, and feel my way back down the hallway towards my kitchen. Against the fire escape the pinging’s slowed; the rain has eased; I feel for the drawer, pull it open, and grope until I find the flashlight. I click it on. Now I can find my keys. And once I find my keys, I can find my coat, and once I find my coat, I can step downstairs. At the utility room I can unlock the door, open the panel, and snap the breakers back. The circuits, they trip all the time in this building. The smallest surge, every light goes dark. I step out and lock my door. The circuits are a welcome distraction. Now that they’ve tripped, I don’t have to listen and think in the rain. Which is the worst thing about rain: the remembering. When the rain comes down, you can’t help but mull. And I’ve mulled my life and years more than enough for any man. Rain is a curse. Memory is a curse. Both make the same as everything: both a curse and a boon together.
(I have never stood on the southern hemisphere. I have never wet my feet in the Mediterranean. I have never seen with mine own eyes the Himalayas or the Alps or Kilimanjaro. Except on postcards, I have never seen the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. I have never slept one night in the woods beneath the stars. I have never once paddled a canoe. I have never learned how to sail a sailboat or even stood on one under sail. I know how to swim but have never swum in a flooded quarry. I have never set foot nor eyes on a real beach made up of black sand. I have never, as far as I know, met any woman born in Paris. I have never worn a ring for marriage, nor offered a woman a ring for the same. I have never crossed state lines for the purpose of love. I have had neither a daughter nor a son. I also have neither a niece nor a nephew (although I never could, since I was born an only child). I have never been to a family reunion, nor a reunion for any school. I have never met even one of my four grandparents. I have never not been a mugger since age seventeen, and since that time I have tried to never look back. But in this regard I have never been altogether successful. Because it’s your nature (it’s my nature) and you can’t help (I can’t help) waking up to think how your life stands in the rain.)
The weather breaks—the streets are wet but the air is dry, at night more people step outdoors, among them me to scope out opportunities. Puddles abound where the gutters have clogged, where no one has raked them clean, rippling the orange light from the streetlight light against the clouded sky. I’m early—the nights have been shrinking as the season has been shifting toward spring, but since the rain has been keeping me indoors for days, I submit to the urge to step out early. There’s still a mild tint to the sky down low behind the buildings where a hint of pink still shows behind the clouds.
At this hour there are too many subjects (or too few, depending on how you count them). Too many witnesses walk or drive the streets in light enough to identify. Although I’ve heard tell that there’s a tipping point where if enough witnesses witness a thing, you can walk scot-free because no one wants to stick out as a thumb. In a big enough crowd the anonymous desire, the want for anonymity takes on a priority it wouldn’t take on if it weren’t so crowded at all. En masse, no witness wants to step forward, no person wants to speak up, no one wants to stand up and point, to hold themselves up for any scrutiny. So I’ve heard tell of muggers bold enough to mug in naked daylight on jam-packed streets and take whatever they want before burying themselves in the crowd. And everyone sees, but no one says; everyone mixes in with the throng: the anonymous mixing in with the anonymous, the silent mixing in with the silent. Although that would require a mugging in more of the snatch-and-grab style, which was never the style for me (I try to compose my muggings more). So I’ve never mugged anyone like that: full naked view, full come-what-may. Although I have to say: to mug like that would be glory.
Still—I can spy. Even at this hour, I can earn the feel. Nights have a sense and crowds have a mood you can judge (and should, if you want to go mugging). Tonight I’m getting the sense of hurry that comes with a break in the weather and impending spring, the break in the cabin fever that sets in on winter’s tail. Everyone wants to push outdoors, to escape their walls, to see from edge to edge, and the collective want is a mugger’s plus. The collective want drives attention from you. Or me. Or whoever’s the mugger. If it weren’t for so many people out on the streets, so many of these subjects would look tempting.
But patience is the virtue. As thins the light, so thins the crowd. With passing minutes the gap and the moment for mugging circles closer. More and more I see one man, one woman stepping alone who looks like they might be worthy of mugging except for the timing and luck of a witness.
The stoplights burn. She carries an umbrella, long and closed beneath her elbow. A driver’s hand punches the keypad at a garage—the overhead gate rolls open. The woman with the umbrella pinches her cell phone from her pocket, reads the screen, then puts it back. Full dark has fallen; the moon is new. Behind her shoulder she hoists a midget backpack with straps and buckles. The garage gate shuts. She passes iron gates crisscrossed locked in front of storefronts.
It’s a break in form—you should never hurry—but I’ve been held back by the rain, so I break my form and jog to catch up. “Miss, excuse me,” I tell her.
The woman with the umbrella looks up and keeps on walking.
I head her off and say, “Hand me your money.” And then I show her my knife.
She looks past me, looks across the street. The sidewalks are empty. The street is empty, which I know because as a mugger I’ve already looked.
“Oh, shit,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “This is as good as things will get. Your money.”
“Okay, okay,” she says. She swings her backpack under her arm, and here is something that should have given me pause: her backpack. Her backpack comes with a mob of flaps and ties and drawstrings and buckles and straps that stretch out the time it takes for her to open it. Which is a risk I missed. And which is the sort of risk you should never miss as a mugger. Especially a basic, elementary risk like that. Because the longer the time from the moment you mug until you’re carrying their cash is the longer the time there’s evidence that you’re guilty.
Of course, I could just walk off with her whole bag, but then I’m in possession of a lady’s backpack which I would still have to spend minutes rummaging through for cash. Which lengthens the risk even more. But now it’s too late—I’m already committed. And, yes, a little ashamed: my form is suffering tonight. But that’s how some nights go—you just can’t help but suffer. Tonight I suffer. But what can you do—once you suffer, you can’t unsuffer. I lay the blame on the practice and comfort I’ve lost to the heavier rains. Every night is only as good as that night is going to get.
But still—even so. Although my head is missing and my edge is dull and I’m not as young I used to be, the woman with the umbrella isn’t quick enough. Slow as the night, slow as I am, I see her pull her hand from her backpack with not a wallet or a purse, but a tiny metal canister. Before she can hold it at arm’s length, I’ve already palmed the front of the can and gripped her fingers so when she sprays, the nozzle sprays my palm. Now her look is of panic and alarm. And I’m pleased by her look—not guilty. If her aim was retaliation, she should have retaliated with good form.
My hand starts tingling. It won’t be much, just a bit of a warning, just a little reminder that time’s not golden, that life’s not golden, nor anyone’s chance, nor anyone’s luck. Except for the luckiest among us, we’re none of us masters of circumstance, so I fold back her elbow and finger a little spritz at her face.
As the woman with the umbrella’s done everything tonight, too late she shuts her eyes. “Oh, God!” she cries. I take the spray from her fingers. She presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. Her umbrella clatters to the sidewalk, her backpack spills out all its contents, and she falls back to the pavement. “Help me, help me!” she cries. “Oh, God! Somebody help me!”
And up and down the street: not a figure, not a soul. Not one shadow walks the pavement—not one headlight shines the asphalt. Across the street no windows are lit—in each doorway each door stay closed. Away from around the buildings further traffic hums, but none of it sounds any closer. At the corner the stoplights switch green, but no cars were waiting at the line. Between the woman and me, privacy has been granted.
“Help!” the woman cries. She reaches for her pocket for her phone, which I pull from her. She curls sideways on the sidewalk. “Please,” she cries. But she cries for nothing—she curls for nothing. Some nights that’s how nights go. Some nights just aren’t your nights for protection or rescue.
I pick through the spill from her backpack, turn up her wallet. I finger it open, slide out the cash, and the total is only twelve dollars. Measly. You long for the days—I long for the days—before credit cards, when cash was king. When a dollar meant something. Assuming a dollar, cash or otherwise, ever meant anything. Which I guess doesn’t mean much of anything at all. I don’t know what that says about me or my age when I long for that. Or what that says about me or my age when I don’t want to change what I long for.
As a matter of form, I salvage the money and drop her wallet back onto her backpack. The woman’s in tears, still saying, “Help me,” but she’s not screaming it out anymore. I leave her phone there, too. She’s not even saying it—she’s reciting. New drizzle starts. Which means she refuses to even admit what she knows. I wipe my swelling palm overhead against the wet flap of an awning. She won’t come clean that what she wanted is not what she received. The wiping doesn’t help. She won’t admit that what she’s been granted is no different than from what anyone else is granted. I duck through an alley toward the busier streets. That the world at large is the world at large—nothing more and nothing less. Some nights aren’t made for mugging. That the act of thinking good thoughts doesn’t by the act of thinking good thoughts turn any of those good thoughts into truths. Some people aren’t made for anything else. That things have gotten as good as they are ever going to get. I want soap and ice—the palm of my hand is burning.
(The general sits astride his horse watching soldiers on the parade ground drill. His chest is decked with medals and ribbons that Napoleon’s lieutenants describe. This decoration for that battle. That emblem to honor this victory. Such a ribbon a symbol of his education in the tactics and strategies of war. And, too, they speak of the general’s history and upbringing, of how he honors his father and grandfather, both of them officers of not small distinction in their own days as well. But with the general himself the most advanced in rank. Himself a man at his pinnacle. But one of humility, who is a student of all the great commanders of old. One who can recount in detail all the masterful schemes and judgments exercised by Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar at Tyre, Cannae, or Avaricum. And how each might today stand ranked in opposition with each other. To which Napoleon listens while he watches the general watch his men. But when Napoleon’s lieutenants turn silent, he turns to them and says, “Very good. But tell me—is the general lucky?”)
Elmo Lum lives and works in San Francisco. He has completed one novel for which representation is pending, and is presently working on a new book.