by Douglas A. Wright
THE BODHISATTVA OF BROADWAY moves with the universe, swept up in the radio waves and comet taillights, the neon cereal daydream of luminant visions checkering the monoliths in Times Square. A ragfish swimming in the frequency math, flailing tendrils of sweaty black fabric like a maypole, through the anonymous sea of strangers who stare and try not to stare at the invisibles sleeping on the granite steps, under the overpass, in the entryway of boarded tenements, towered over by the shadow of luxury high-rises where no one lives but money. Under the symphony of bright lights, they are swaddled like orphan children in dirty wool, tents mangled from the raids, shopping carts full of bagged clothes and toiletries, sneakers with holes melted straight through the sole, a sideshow in the carnival bazaar in the greatest city on earth, their misery on display with cardboard signs: Anything helps, god bless. Lost and hungry. Trying to get back home. Please be kind.
The Bodhisattva carries no sign, asks no mercy. During the daylight hours in the flooded streets, he wanders uptown, downtown, cross borough, rummaging through trashcans for scraps and wolfing them down before anyone can stop him. He feels the eyes upon him, impervious to their disdain. A desultory shaman following the epiphany of hope, revelatory signs in the sidewalk cracks, the divination of gum spots baked on the concrete like a holy tableau, like a map of a foreign land. Looking for someone to help. An elderly lady crossing the street with her faith and her grocery cart who recoils and shoos him away when the light flips green and he rushes out to guard her from traffic. A businessman who loses grip on his umbrella, flopping away in the wind, and turns to thank him before he sees the wild greasy hair and shredded rags.
The Bodhisattva is friend to all and befriended by no one. The other invisibles ignore him, refuse his offerings. Half a tinfoil sandwich, construction netting, a moldy teddy bear, a soggy playbill. They glance up, perplexed by the ragged madman who puts a nickel and three pennies in their cup. At night, the sky darkening with his mood, he gnaws on broken glass and mutters to himself, a mantra of survival. What went wrong, what went right. Did he follow the signs? What has he learned today? What is the universe trying to teach him?
He waits out the dark night, behind a dumpster on 28th street, stuffed with discarded rolls of cloth from the fabric shops in the Garment District. His stomach is at war with itself, a hunger fierce with phantom pangs, metallic shivers from where the stitches left scars of memories. He wraps his quaking body in a soft trimming of purple velour like a cape, his mind fixated on the red pulse of a traffic light, a beacon that travels through the darkness and finds him alone with his thoughts. It reminds him of the defunct smoke alarm in his childhood bedroom, all those nights warm under the covers but terrified of the dark and its imagined monsters. He remembers her, gentle hands mussing his hair, while trying to erase him and his tall shadow in the doorway. He remembers how proud they were when he enlisted, 17 years old, determined to make something of himself, serve his country and maybe even go to college, how they called him a hero when he came home, shell shocked with the cold ghost of shrapnel stuck in his abdomen, like a nightmare he could not exorcise, haunted by with the guilt of friends who never made it home, the strangers they could not save, the strangers they shot dead in the desert.
What do you do when you haven’t slept in three days and the pills have numbed out the pain but disconnected your electricity and the only comfort is a bottle like an old friend, and you drink to forget and you drink to remember and you drink to feel without fear, vulnerable but invincible…was it a choice to leave? The wink of the traffic light, home, his mother had asked him not to go. Red like the shiny ball ornament when he was a toddler that Christmas, when he bit into it like an apple, its thin glass shell cracking in his mouth, and how his mother heard the screams and lifted him up in her arms, holding him with a whisper that everything was going to be alright, her baby boy.
Douglas A. Wright is a fiction writer, journalist, and screenwriter living in Brooklyn, NY. He was the runner-up for the Nancy D. Hard Grove Editor’s Prize in Fiction 2021 and his stories have appeared in Jabberwock Review, Oyster River Pages, The Offbeat, and Popular Science among others. He is the founding editor of EXCERPT, a literary arts magazine (excerptmag.com). He can be found via the interwebs at Twitter @mythosvsrobot and Instagram @mythosvstherobot.