This week, I reached into the very back of my alphabetically-organized rejection list folder and pulled out this slip, from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Zoetrope” magazine:
This is for “Monster in My Pocket”, a story I never did sell. Stylistically, this one reminds me of “Love and the Tides of Darkness” and “Rush Hour“, although I think “Tides” is a better story and “Rush Hour” is a better … what? Parable? It doesn’t have much of a plot so I’m not sure I would call it a story. Anyway, here is the full text of “Monster in My Pocket”, so you can decide for yourself.
Monster in My Pocket
The old man understands that he smells. He’s not blind; he sees the way people wrinkle up their faces when he approaches. Maybe this is one of the reasons nobody will help him: they think he’s just another crazy, stinky street bum. But he isn’t; he used to bathe once a week in the fountain at the park. He can’t anymore, though.
Now he has a monster in his pocket.
It hasn’t changed his daily routine of trudging up and down the crowded sidewalks, trying to get the attention of people who make a point of not noticing him; except now he’s not looking for money, but for someone who’ll take the monster away from him.
He wanders past an outdoor café, its customers separated from him by a black iron fence growing out of the cement. In the buzz of conversations, one statement catches his attention. “Sure, this is a great place to live and you can buy anything you want anytime you want it, but you have to see the other side too: the poverty, the homelessness, people on the streets with no one willing to help them. It gets you down.”
This sounds promising. He shuffles toward the person who said it, the male half of a young couple sitting at a corner table up against the fence. They are both clean and beautiful.
“You have to consider why they’re homeless,” the female half says. “Are they people who just can’t find jobs, are they crazy, are they on drugs? You can’t just feel sorry for them without knowing …” She trails off, staring at the old man. Her companion hasn’t noticed him yet, but then she nudges him and he turns to look.
“Can you help me?” The old man pats one filthy hip, where his oversize trousers bulge. “I have a monster in my pocket.”
“Oh my God,” the man says. The woman’s face wrinkles up in disgust.
The old man reaches into his pants. He feels the monster’s hard, scaly hide against his fingers. “Please, will you take the monster and get rid of it?”
The woman shouts, “Pig! Get away from us!”
Two waiters begin weaving quickly through the tables, coming toward them. They’re both big, like weightlifters. “I’ll have to ask you to leave, sir,” one of them says loudly. The old man walks away as fast as he can. Behind him he hears the young man complaining to the waiters about allowing derelicts to hassle customers, and he realizes that he mistook political statements for compassion.
The monster will have to stay in his pocket a while longer.
Later he encounters a family of tourists, a father and a mother and a little boy, all of them clean and beautiful. He can tell they are tourists because they walk around looking up at the tall buildings and taking pictures of ordinary things. Sometimes tourists are nicer than the people who live here, so he follows them for a while, trying to decide if they’ll help him get rid of the monster.
The family stops at a little park with a big splashy fountain. The old man has bathed in it once or twice, before he found the monster.
He decides to approach the little boy first. That will give him some idea what the parents are like.
While the grownups are taking pictures of the fountain, the old man shuffles over to the boy and says, “Can you help me? I’ve got a monster in my pocket.”
The boy turns and looks at him. “You smell,” he says.
“It’s because of the monster.”
“What kind of monster?”
“It breathes fire, like a dragon. I want to get rid of it. Will your Mommy and Daddy help me?”
“I don’t know. Mommy!”
She glances at them and goes white. “Dale!” she shrieks, running over. Her husband’s head snaps around and then he follows at top speed, but she arrives first. “Get away from my son!” she cries, pulling the boy away.
“He says he’s got a monster in his pocket,” the boy says. “He wants to know if we can help him.”
Her husband arrives and looks at the old man with narrow eyes. “You old pervert,” he says. He looks like he wants to use his fists, but his wife stops him, whispering that he might catch something. The old man backs off, realizing that he has chosen badly again.
The husband takes a challenging step forward despite his wife’s efforts to restrain him. The old man turns and shuffles quickly away, looking back over his shoulder. The tourists’ angry gazes stay on him until he turns a corner and puts a building between them.
Disappointed, he thinks again that he could just let the monster out and leave it somewhere. But then someone else would pick it up, and what if they weren’t as good at controlling it as he is? People would get hurt. It would be his fault. He doesn’t want that to happen.
He could throw it in the river, but the river is so far away, he would never make it there and back before dark. He doesn’t like to be out walking at night. The strange people come out then, and some of them might try to hurt him.
He’ll just have to keep looking for someone willing to help.
Evening. The old man has returned to the place he stays at night, a cardboard box halfway down an alley, right between a Chinese restaurant and a laundry. The hot air from the dryer vents keeps him warm, and the restaurant often throws away serviceable food. The people at both places know he’s there and have never tried to chase him away. If they knew about the monster, though, they probably would; so he doesn’t ask them to help him.
Someone is cutting through the alley. This is not unusual, but the person doing it isn’t a street person; he’s an apartment person, a young man wearing nice clothes and a warm jacket. He is clean and beautiful.
“Can you help me?” the old man says from his box. “I have a monster in my pocket.”
The young fellow stops. “What did you say?”
“I have a monster in my pocket and I want to get rid of it. Will you take it?”
After a moment the young man says, “A monster in your pocket. Man, that’s rough.” He shakes his head. “Where’d you get it?”
“I found it. I found it.” The old man is getting excited; maybe he’s finally found someone who will help. “I found it lying on top of somebody it killed, and I took it, and now I can’t get rid of it.”
“Tell you what, come on up here a ways and let me see it.” The young man gestures at the back doors of the businesses. “You don’t want your landlords to see the monster, am I right?”
“Right, right!” This fellow understands perfectly. The old man comes out of his box and walks up the alley with the apartment person, his plastic-bag shoes scuffing through papers and trash. They go around the bend in the alley, out of sight of the restaurant and the laundry and the street.
Then the young man grabs him and shoves him against the building and holds him there easily with one hand around his throat. He raises his other hand in front of the old man’s face. He’s got a little piece of plastic; then there is a click and the plastic suddenly has a long, gleaming blade.
“I don’t like winos,” the apartment person says. “You know what I do to ‘em? I cut their throats and leave ‘em in alleys. How’s that sound, old man?”
The old man feels a flood in his pants. “I thought you were going to help me,” he whispers.
“Oh, sure I’ll help, you dumb old fuck. Show me your monster, I’ll cut it off for you. Come on, show me. Show me!”
The old man reaches into his damp pocket and pulls out the monster. He lifts it up and points it at the young man’s chest and squeezes its belly.
The young man says, “Hey—”
The monster spits fire. An ear-splitting roar echoes up and down the alley. The young man flies back and hits the opposite building and slumps to the filthy pavement, legs pointing in different directions, eyes staring, blood pouring from his chest. The acrid stench of gunpowder mingles with the smell of stale garbage.
The old man flees up the alley. He has to find a new place to stay now. The people from the laundry and the restaurant will come running to see what happened.
But sometimes, it’s not so bad to have a monster in your pocket.
Don’t forget to vote for the January scene-of-the-month, coming up next week!