UNITED STATES—Yes, then and there, after I saw the Slavic blondie beat up the cheeky young Black kid, I vowed never to go back to the smoke shop with the green cross ever again. It actually turned out quite the contrary. The whole unexplained incident with the weight of a mystery. The isolated moments witnessed, taken together, surpassed my personal burden of proof. The sassy Black young man had made a lewd suggestion to Blondie. Now how do you do that in these special times with everyone hid behind plexiglass panels and faces in masks. Who knows?

Last year during the first part of the special times I caught sight of Blondie at the falafel place around the corner, during a break. They were extra busy at the smoke shop, people lined up bumping against each other, too many people for my comfort. But it was nice to see a familiar face in a new context. And he was there flirting with the Armenian girls from the hair salon and then all the dourness fled and the blue light in the eyes would turn on.

I feel safe in saying there were no surprises in the Russian guy, yet part of me craved certitude where certitude is so lacking. Maybe they were wrestling on the ground when the boy gave blondie a big Bugs Bunny Kiss. But wait, he was already chasing him to the curb when I had the unfortunate fate of walking by. Then again the Black boy could have lured him outside by stealing some wrapping papers from the smoke shop. No, too complicated.

I went off from the scene of the lopsided fight between the Russian and the boy with the burden, that weight of wanting to know. My kinder, pre-special period self would have never gone back to the store with the green cross; simply out of not wanting to inflict the pain of remembrance on the skirmish. He had crossed and line and knew it. Now I went back, in a reversal, rather to inflict that slight seizure of discomfort by continuing to patronize the smoke shop. And, what’s more I got to feel like a good human again, by greeting that dumb oaf of a security guard, full of fleeting cheer and the new ganja and Jasmine Dawn cookies in my palm. Pursuit of happiness and sanity.

The sanity was getting frayed and I was aware of being poised on a cliff, deprived of all the connections and contacts that keep me together.

There was the Russian, his eyes remained cast down as he rang up my sale for “the usual.” There was no shaking loose of any additional flake of information, to cast additional light on the running outside, the fight on the gutter with the boy, who left with a sassy come-on that seemed intent on pouring salt on previous insults.

I kept walking up to the smoke shop with greater frequency and I paid for it one night when another employee was there. It was, honestly, a relief not to face the Russian but a stranger who did not throw in the edible cookies and magic honey straw. Instead of going once a week, I was going to the smoke shop three times a week and spending a good deal of my income. More was going out than was coming in, which was beside the point.

It was therapeutic to embrace the punishment of visiting the scene and the dour Russian, as a masochist might press a thumbtack slowly into their thumb to gradually become accustomed to the pain of seeing the lout. Also, I had to practice avoidance of the question “Why?” That simply wasn’t done, but I wanted to hear from the Slavic guy’s on mouth why he had whaled on the boy. It would be palliative for the rampant doubt that crowded around these special times.

I was quite pleased with myself for managing to go to sleep before a late run to the smoke store for some ganja. Later in the morning I found written on an envelope:

I already measure life

by the number of times

the questions wake me:

Who am I?

Where am I?

Who sleeps in the other room?

How many times do I want to vomit

broken glass?

I’m going to light up and get high. . .

Hope the dog calls me by my name.

To be continued…