You Shouldn’t Breathe This In, a Short Story by Stan Kempton


Brevity and small encounters are how I would describe my relationship with Mr. Freeze. I nicknamed him like a pet, there in my limited contact, tenderly tucked within the confines of my car. In those brief moments before the light changed and I would have to commute down that same worn path into work, I would drink him in, all of him.


The first time I noticed Mr. Freeze, he had been asleep, stretched upon the naked concrete without a pillow or blanket insight. He wore secondhand clothes like an afterthought, shoes as an option. With his eyes closed, I could shamelessly study the creole hue of his skin and try and guess what countries had fused this man together. But it was his wild and unruly hair that the name Mr. Freeze had emerged. It was hair so coarse, it stood straight up like a frayed eraser, and come wind or rain, come the cold in winter or the humidity of summer, his hair never seemed to move or grow but remain as constant as the place he occupied on the sidewalk, under the bridge, at the intersection, in this city on his one good acre.


That was the reality of it; brevity and those small encounters, so it only made sense to keep the details about Mr. Freeze just as concise. When he wasn’t asleep, it was that curtain on madness in how he stood facing the fence, both hands raised as if preaching, telling stories, defending himself against the empty parking lot and all those invisible people who intently listened. Then other times the mania would swing the other way. I could tell he was depressed during those visits. Mr. Freeze would be awake but listless, sitting upright, legs drawn into his chest. He looked out onto the world toward the fuss of the intersection and beyond those dull illusions. Only once did our eyes meet. I had nodded, but to keep the secrets of his soul to himself, he despondently turned away.


Another time he was standing at the corner. If he was begging for money, he was doing a horrible job of it. He didn’t even fly a sign describing his plight. Didn’t wave or make eye contact. A part of me wanted to park the car and teach him how to properly fleece a dollar out of the drivers. I would have told him that it was guilt which made us hand over the money, not this, facing in the opposite direction, holding up an expired driver's license, muttering how you need to decompose, or did he say decompress? Are you some kind of time traveler, Mr. Freeze? I would sometimes think. A time traveler just emerging from the depths, suffering from the bends, trying to bring evidence back to what we still could be without the tragedy of blame?


For a month, I didn’t see Mr. Freeze at all. I figured the cold weather had chased him away to his winter home in the islands, and the irony brought a smile to my face. But then he appeared where I didn’t expect him, seeking shelter from the rain. You’re not supposed to be this far over, Mr. Freeze, I thought, not on the acre near me. Not at my building where there are entry codes and gated parking, not where there are cameras and people with careers, people with plenty of stuff and who sleep on mattresses and have discernable taste in clothes where shoes were never an option.


The alcove of my building was open to the sidewalk but was fenced off by thick wrought iron near the atrium. He faced how he always did when proselytizing to the congress of invisible people, but now he faced me, gripping the bars, shaking them as if shaking my conscious, telling me to hold my breath. “Hold it! Can’t you see…I’m contagious.” In a sudden burst of fear and anger, I rushed directly at the fence to look into his eyes and steal his secrets like I’ve attempted to do so many times before. But it was he who stole my secrets, only to give them back unopened as he laughed, pointed, and laughed again.




 

Stan Kempton’s alter ego holds an MFA, grants and writing sabbaticals to the Parisian countryside. The reality, Stan took the old school route as a writer: devoting time in the Marine Corps overseas, as well as finding an understanding partner who can tolerate the adventurous whims of having ten different jobs. His stories have appeared in a visual art montage called Spirits of the Dead, New Author’s Journal(For Poetry), Double Dealer, The Wisconsin Review (For Fish Fry), and in the fall, (The Victim, The Criminal) will be published in Seems edition #54. Other pieces have been shortlisted at Glimmer Train and at Faulkner Word and Music Festival, to include second runner-up for the novella, Breeding in Stockholm. Now residing in New Orleans, it’s all about happy hours, biking through the French Quarter, and during hurricane season, nervously watching the sky.