The man walked out of the bushes as Paul was walking at twilight along the ravine, the one that ran north toward the Rose Bowl, a mile or so distant. Covered by the stretching shadows of the oak trees, Paul had turned back in the direction of his car, a 1/4-mile away, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the man alter his direction.
Paul didn’t like the young man’s appearance: scrawny, wearing a blue tank top (somehow Paul already imagined giving the police an All Points Bulletin), and dark-skinned, with knotted black hair spun like cotton candy off his skull. Paul increased his stride though his right knee, the one he had injured in high school thirty-five years ago and never fully healed, had begun to ache, the reason why he had turned back to his car in the first place. The man shouted something from behind. He was asking for money, maybe, for a cigarette or yelling from the depths of his hostility or madness. Paul’s heart pumped panic to his limbs as he speeded up his walk and clutched the switchblade in his pocket, the one he carried just in case.
The man’s shrill laugh pierced. He was getting closer. It was a nice neighborhood but quiet at this Sunday, twilight hour. Cars passed infrequently. Paul steadied himself for the encounter that followed. He imagined the response. Paul would not hesitate. The knife would penetrate the man’s flesh. What Paul imagined was the man’s look of surprise and panic filling drug-altered eyes, a second before the pain registered. Oh yes! Paul could imagine it clearly. Oh, he would love to show the punk that a middle-aged white man—somehow he saw the punk as Hispanic or black though he’d only gotten a glimpse in the gloaming—could be crazy too. Oh yeah!
When Paul couldn’t stand the wait any longer, he turned holding the knife.
The man was not there. He was some fifty feet behind Paul and talking on his cell phone. He didn’t notice Paul. “Yeah,” he said, as Paul turned away, “I was fucked up! Fucked up royally on that shit!”
Slipping the knife back in his pocket, Paul turned away, relieved and quizzical, asking himself, Who did the man remind me of? And then he had it, his brother-in-law, Rudy. He was Mexican too. “Hispanic,” he corrected Paul, the first time they met. Rudy had married Paul’s sister, Cindy. They had two kids, Ronnie and Maria, the delight of their grandmother. Cindy had gotten the looks, athletic ability, and ambition: She was a corporate lawyer, the Mexican husband was a high-school administrator. They were cogs in the success machine that had not included Paul.
The kid laughed again, loser, he shrieked.
Loser. It was the word he called himself, pushing fifty and unemployed, drinking on the sly, and watching cable with his mother. His favorite program was Dexter. He never missed envying a guy who had it all, looks, girlfriends, good job, and he could kill anyone he wanted, something that Paul sometimes envied, not that he wanted to be a serial killer, but he could definitely compile a list, beginning with his mother. “I could rent the room for a lot more if you weren’t my son,” she had said, resentfully. He’d kill her then he’d shank his ex-wife, who had cheated on him before leaving him. His father died years ago.
He realized he had been walking in silence for a couple of minutes now. He turned and looked back down the curving street and realized that his pursuer no longer pursued. The kid must have cut east at the narrow cross street. Paul walked another couple of minutes until he reached his car. He saw himself going home and didn’t want to think after that. Starting the car, Paul wondered if the kid wasn’t going to attack someone else, obviously discouraged by Paul’s fast walk and the knife he’d flashed. He drove to the narrow, rising road, and parked. He got out of the car and waited. It was night now and the houses were all quiet, most separated from the street by walls and hedges. A car passed, and Paul crouched down so he wouldn’t be seen. The kid was getting near. No other car was coming. Paul waited. The knife was in his pocket, just in case he wanted to step out and strike and then run away. Just in case he wanted to do that.