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by Steve Passey

He’s an environmentalist protesting the construction of a pipeline and handing out pamphlets. He hands me a pamphlet. It’s called Where Were You While the World Burned?

Namaste, Broseph, I say.

I am just like every other person I know while the world burns. I shouldn’t have my window rolled down. I am somewhere between the dead and dispossessed in Syria and the Sudan and the people wealthy enough to buy their own islands and wait it out. I can’t live by the ocean? I don’t dream of living by the ocean.

I am parked in front of a discount grocery on the North side where I am approached by panhandlers twice in ten minutes. Sorry bro, I lie to each in turn, I only have plastic. The panhandlers believe me, they think I am telling them the truth. They limp away, trying to find someone who has more than plastic. I know that limp. All mendicants now run a little lame. There is violence in the squatter’s camps, with improvised weapons of wood and wire, so there are stitches, slings, and crutches too — and pain balmed only by fentanyl.

I watch a man with a fistful of twenty-dollar bills in his hand punch a wall and scream “fuck” twice before he went off. Carmelita is in the store; I hope she does not come out while this man is there and cross his path. I don’t care about anyone else who crosses him, just her.

Another man, older than dirt and pushing a stolen grocery cart, was fishing through the garbage for empty cans to return for the deposit. I counted out four as he picked through the trash. His hands shake and he cannot stand up straight. The cart is his crutch. By the time I leave he will be asleep at a bus stop. Someone will have taken his cart and his empties and he’ll just sit there with his eyes closed and his chin on his chest.

Inside the discount grocery store, in amongst the yellow labels, Carmelita ran into a friend from high school. He tells her he is out now, he’s come out as gay, and did she ever think that he might be gay? She told him that yes, they all always knew he was gay. Then how come no one told me, he asked with a laugh. This is how she missed the man with the methamphetamine amygdala who believes he can punch through walls of hollow concrete block and acrylic stucco.

I need to make a little more money little faster now so that Carmelita can work a little less, because she’s started to have some health issues and not all of her pharmaceuticals are covered by insurance. Ain’t no one got all that much money now, ain’t no one getting any younger. It’s not so safe parked out in front of the discount grocery store anymore, and now they tell me the world burns, too.

Puschart and Best of the Net Nominee Steve Passey is from southern Alberta. He is the author of the short fiction collections Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017), The Coachella Madrigals (Luminous Press, 2017) and many other things.