The street stank of garbage and sweat,
but it was still early. Later, as the day warmed up, the smells of garlic and
bacon would seep out of the corner diner. Traffic splashed through spring
puddles. The last white patches of winter still resisted the glare of the sun,
but if this was not their last day, it would be their last week.
The bag lady shuffled painfully along
the sidewalk, pushing an overloaded shopping cart with one broken wheel. She didn’t
walk as much as she staggered. She was a shapeless lump, an ambulatory heap of
clothing, new layers added on top of the old, sweaters, sweatshirts, torn
coats, a blanket, another coat, the whole stuffed with old newspapers for
insulation—she was an oblate spheroid of rubbish and rejection. Her swollen
ankles made it difficult for her to move, even harder to push the cart. Her
feet were wrapped in more layers of dirty cloth.
The woman’s skin was leathery and
lined, burned and scoured, eroded by the relentless weather. Her graying hair
was a tangle of greasy ropes. If she’d ever had a name, she hadn’t heard anyone
speak it in years. Her eyes were rheumy and bloodshot—wherever she looked, she
seemed to be staring at something on the other side of reality.
Several people passed her by, none of
them saw her. She was invisible to them, not even scenery. Oblivious to her
anguish and embarrassment, they hurried on about their business—exhaling puffs
of breath like human locomotives, they chugged along the unbreakable rails of
The bag lady didn’t care. She had more
important matters to attend to. She did not often push her way onto this
street; the business owners frowned at her, turned their hoses on her, chased
her away with epithets and sometimes even threats of violence. But today—
She frowned, she sniffed, she looked
up the street and back again. Something wasn’t right. No, not here. Not there,
but close. Something in the universe smelled wrong. And it wasn’t her.
And then, she spotted it—
The dirty van, the dirty dark gray
van. A panel van parked at the curb. No windows at the rear or sides. The front
windows were tinted dark. No markings to identify the vehicle, no bumper
stickers, no ads painted on the side. Just a featureless block.
It smelled wrong.
She looked down the street, all the
way down to the end of the street, where a little girl in a pink winter coat
had just come bouncing around the corner. She glowed with innocence—the world
was still bright and beautiful to her. She was singing and skipping, trailing
one mittened hand across the frosty store-fronts, leaving sketchy streaks in
And as it always did, the moment
clicked into clarity. The bag lady made a decision. She pushed her heavy cart
forward. She put all her strength into the effort, squelching desperately
Finally, unable to move any further,
she stopped, her cart inconveniently blocking the passenger door of the van,
her reeking body blocking the sliding panel door on the side. Someone on the
inside made a noise, It sounded like a curse.
The bag lady grunted in sudden
annoyance. She leaned against the panel door of the van for balance, her
wrinkled hand sliding and leaving an ugly smear—and then a stream of urine ran
down her left leg, puddling at her feet, steaming on the icy pavement.
The moment was perfectly timed. The
little girl came dancing by, her song abruptly stopping as she glanced over.
She made a face, an expression of disgust and disapproval, and then she broke
into a run and scampered on toward school.
The bag lady still leaned against the
van, frowning, concentrating on something more than her own body now. The left
taillight of the van abruptly shattered. No repair shop would ever be able to
make it light again. Every police cruiser that noticed would pull this vehicle
over to cite the driver for the broken light—but no, that wouldn’t be enough.
She needed to do more.
She muttered a few words—barely
finishing the curse before the van pulled angrily away. The greasy handprint on
its side would not wash off—not easily and not for a long time. But the
handprint was only the smallest part of the spell. The van and its unseen
occupant were now afflicted with a fetid malcharisma. They would never go
unnoticed again—it might be enough. The bag lady couldn’t be sure.
In the great grand scheme of things,
this little shift of possibility was so small as to be infinitesimal in its
reach—but to the little girl in the pink coat, the unknowing recipient of this
reversal of entropy, it was an unknown coup, a victory of life-changing
proportions—simply because she would live to see tomorrow.
But for the bag lady, it was going to
be a very expensive triumph. The avalanche of entropy is unforgiving and the
effort to shift it even a millimeter would cost her dearly.
Already, she was groaning with new
pains. She grabbed onto the handle of her shopping cart to keep from falling.
It was so heavily-loaded it was an anchor to her sudden dizziness. For a
moment, she did not know who she was or where she was. She knew only pain, the
bottomless well of icy fire that gnawed at her gut, the first warnings of the
waves of despair to come.
Somehow, she managed to make it across
the slippery sidewalk to the nearest doorstep, where she sank down to her
knees, collapsing in her rags, sagging against the frame of the door. She knew
she couldn’t stay here long. She knew the proprietor of this shop was an
unforgiving tyrant, a small and petty excuse for a human being, interested only
in amount of commerce he could attract, never in the people he might serve.
Soon he would come bursting angrily out of his sacred warmth to chase her away.
But right now, she was overcome with
the simple effort of breathing. In. Out. In. Out. She gasped for breath, strove
to regain some sense of herself, but failing. This was going to be a bad one.
Very bad. She couldn’t help herself, she had to see. Still puffing, she began
laboriously unwrapping the coils of cloth around her right leg, around and
around, all the way down, until she finally revealed the mottled skin of her
left foot. It was stippled with ugly blotches of green and yellow, blue and
purple. There were new sores appearing, pus-filled boils, inflammations that
grew even as she watched. Blood oozed from old scabs.
She searched desperately for the first
telltale signs of gangrene, but was quickly disappointed. As eagerly as she
hoped—no, not yet. This wasn’t the one. Not even close. Not big enough. Not
yet. She was going to survive. She was going to live another day. She wept.
She could remember another time—so
long long ago—a time of naïve ignorance, but that was before the flashes began,
before the smells and the flavors and the clamoring sense of wrongness
overwhelmed her with a terrible compulsion to do something—anything—that
might restore even a small balance to the world.
“It isn’t fair! Why me?” she wept. “Why
me? What did I do to deserve this—?”
But even as the words dribbled out of
her torn mouth, she already knew the answer. Because. Because. Because she’d
brought it on herself—with her own outraged scream of anguish at the universe. “Why
doesn’t somebody do something?”
And the universe had answered: “Why
So tomorrow, just like today, just
like yesterday, just like all the days and years before, freezing through the
unrelenting winter, burning and baking beneath the heavy blanket of summer,
nevertheless she’ll lever herself up again, every day paying the ugly price of
her compulsion one more time. She has no choice—
The bag lady will pull herself up from
the unforgiving pavement, stumble to her feet, wheezing and groaning, her bones
crackling resentfully, all stiff and resisting—racked with pain and hunger,
driven by desperation, she’ll go out and search the streets and the alleys,
looking for the big one, hoping, always hoping—every day hoping that today will
be the day she can finally earn her death.