Brendan Praniewicz

I stepped outside Albertson’s grocery store and observed an oncoming disaster. A homeless man, known as Earthquake Brad, heaved toward us, pedaling his rusty bicycle, twenty yards out. His nostrils dripped in blood and snot. He punched himself in the face and spewed obscenities as he zigzagged between shopping carts and parked cars.

“Jackass,” Brad shouted in a gritty voice. “You Goddamn jackass.”

One hand gripping handlebars, he launched his other fist for his nose. His knuckles crashed into his forehead, but he shook it off. Face twisted in a demonic expression, he seemed to ward off an invisible swarm of bees.

The crowd parted as he zoomed between us. Brad’s bike tilted, his knee scuffed the ground, and he crashed before me. He sprawled across the concrete as he choked himself with two hands and squealed for air.

Cranking his head to the side, he glared at me. His fingers dug into his throat. Brad’s left eye, clenched shut. His other eye peered at me like a disgruntled bird behind bars. Then he wheezed his first words to me.

“Don’t just stand there, jackass. Help me.”

Last summer, Earthquake Brad and other homeless people moved into my neighborhood. With downtown San Diego expanding, they arrived in our rural neighborhood in droves. They pushed clanky shopping carts down sidewalks and howled drunkenness into the night. But, not all of them created disturbances—some garnered sympathy. One poor soul, Old Man McKenzie, wore yellow rain boots and whistled hymns. Every morning he worked odd jobs at gas stations in exchange for tuna sandwiches and chocolate milk.

Brad stirred paradoxical feelings of both empathy and irritation. No one knew how he received his nickname, but he’d introduce himself, “Hey, I’m Earthquake Brad.” He binged between stages of drug-induced mania and benevolence. Sometimes he scribbled Bible verses on slips of paper and placed the creased notes under car windshield wipers. On Halloween, Brad was arrested for stealing jack-o-lanterns from the rich and distributing them to low-income section of our town. On Thanksgiving, a pawnshop owner provided frozen turkeys to the poor. Earthquake stood at the end of the line, scratching his beard, complaining, “What am I supposed to cook this in? A Goddamn barrel? Have you ever tried to cook a turkey in a Goddamn barrel? You gonna give me some free lighter fluid too?”

No one felt generous enough to offer Earthquake Brad free lighter fluid on Thanksgiving, and no one knew what became of that turkey.

I often encountered the homeless population while working fast food. With one dollar tacos and a bus stop out front, Jack in the Box became an attraction for the misplaced. I learned many were once foster kids who aged out of the system—no home to return to and no home to begin with. Others, once successful, lost everything to wildfires, the death of a loved one, or downsizing. Living in a trailer in my aunt’s backyard and working fast food since the age of seventeen, I often wondered, at the age of twenty-five, if my own future lead to the streets. On one hand, I felt empathy for my homeless customers, but Brad terrified me.

I knew right when he stormed into Jack in the Box because the whole restaurant grew quiet like a Western showdown—the icemaker even stopped crackling. I’d try to appease Brad by slipping him free fries or coke. Too high to notice, he’d chat with his imaginary friend.

He’d slump against the counter and stare at the menu with his mouth hanging open. Brad would scratch his crotch and mumble, “I’ll have a Jumbo Jack. With cheese and Bob? What did you want again?”

Glancing over his shoulder, he’d converse with the air, shifting his dime-sized pupils back and forth as if following invisible hand gestures.

Snapping his neck, Brad would focus back on me. “Bob wants a taco, jackass.”

He’d lounge in the back of the restaurant, next to his ghost friend, and feverishly discuss the Padres, attractive women strutting by, or his favorite topic—jackasses. As the conversation progressed to nowhere, Brad would gaze down at Bob’s taco and say, “Uh, so. You’re not hungry? I’ll take your taco. If that’s cool.”

Luckily, for everyone, Bob always complied.

One afternoon my coworkers bet ten bucks that I didn’t have the guts to sit and chat with Brad for the duration of my ten-minute break. My nerves flooded with apprehension, but I never backed down from a dare. As my coworkers conspired, we peered over the stainless steel counter, protecting us like a bunker. Brad hunched over a red table. He wore a camouflage jacket, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and hunter-orange shorts sagged across his bony hips. Instead of yapping with Bob, he held a watermelon on his shoulder and pressed it against his ear. Mouth gaping, Brad stroked the green stripes and listened to the melon with the intent of a doctor hearing a heartbeat through a stethoscope.

My coworkers pep-talked me, patted my back, and shoved me in Earthquake’s direction. My breath shallow, I sank into the booth without asking permission. Brad hardly noticed as he palmed the melon, intent on listening for something deep inside. I passed him a burger, and his pink eyes followed the yellow wrapper as it slid off of the table and into his lap. He gently set down the watermelon, tore the wrapper from the steamy bread, took a sharp bite, and snapped his head side to side. He devoured the burger in three bites and grinned.

“You ever read Slaughter House Five?” he asked.

“Huh?” I shrugged.

Slaughter. House. Five.

Cold sweat ran down my ribs as I took a sip of orange coke. Slaughter House Five? I remembered high school, English class, Kurt Vonnegut, the bombing of Dresden. His question drifted from my mind as I stared at pink scars shredded down Brad’s forearms. He looked like a refugee in a magazine, with a tattered Army jacket, the name Miller, patched above his pocket, and warped dog tags slung around his neck. Caked dirt and sunburned skin masked his age. I noticed Brad’s nose had a fresh gash across the bridge, and his knuckles, layered in scabs. His index finger, wrapped in dirty tape, appeared broken, probably in a fight, probably with himself.

“You read it?” Brad asked again.

“I did, but I don’t remember much.” I gazed down at salt crystals scattered across the table and crushed granules with my thumbnail.

Earthquake Brad rocked back and forth with excitement. “I read that book eighty-four times.” He drummed the watermelon on his lap. “You know he’s right about aliens, about time travel, about being abducted with porn stars.”

I overheard my coworkers snickering in the background.

“Aliens look scary at first, but they’re nicer than the jackasses down here.” Brad raised his finger to prove a point. “No one on Tralfamdore has ever thrown a rock at me.”

I expected Brad to continue on aliens, but he exhaled a long sigh. Silence bridged between us. He stroked his watermelon and gazed out of the window. Brad bore an expression of hunger and longing, as if a UFO might rescue him at any moment.

I stood as the last second of my break ran out. As I turned to leave, Brad’s voice strained for my attention. “Jesus Christ was homeless. Jesus was an alien. People threw rocks at him too.”

I straightened my Jack in the Box shirt. “I have to go.”

As I turned my back, he caught my wrist and dug his fingernails into my skin. I spun around in anger but suddenly froze as Brad lunged his scruffy face towards me. He stopped abruptly as our foreheads nearly touched. Heat streamed from his nostrils, his breath reeked of chaos, and his red-rimmed eyes burned into my soul. I wondered if he’d bite me, stab me, strangle me—but he whispered, “When Jesus Christ comes back. You’re gonna kill him again.”

Brad released me. I backpedaled until I smacked against a wall. I stared at him wondering if he’d attack. But, Brad stood trembling. He looked like a lost child searching for parents. Around the restaurant, whispering teenagers, mothers and fathers huddled around children, and homeless patrons gathered at safe distances. Earthquake pointed his broken finger at the crowd and howled, “When Jesus comes back. You’re gonna kill him again.”

He raised his voice. “You’re gonna kill him again,” three more times before becoming quiet and distant.

I rushed to the register, where coworkers greeted me with pats on the back and the measly ten bucks I didn’t need. They riddled questions. What did he smell like? Why didn’t I punch him? What did he whisper? Instead of answering, I looked over their shoulders and saw Brad cradle his melon in his scarred arms and limp outside into the scorching heat.

A few weeks ago, a group of skaters found Brad’s body behind a dumpster. A pizza shop owner, furious over the homeless congregating in our town, discovered Brad digging through his garbage and stabbed him thirty-three times.

Brad left this world without a funeral or obituary. The local press ran a five-sentence paragraph under “Public Safety,” and the article focused more on the murderer than Earthquake Brad. But, lately our town is tremoring with so many humorous memories about him, stories that could fill up the Sunday Times. The man who rumbled our town with fear and bewilderment has become legend. The sad part of the matter, we coexisted with Brad for nearly a year, and no one knew anything substantial about him.

Every day I watch our homeless neighbors hobble barefoot down the sidewalk, pushing janky shopping carts filled with everything they own. I see them line up at the recycling center, hands spread open for change. Every day I silently cheer for Old Man McKenzie as he attempts to get his life together, one tuna sandwich and chocolate milk at a time.

Some nights I lie awake on my aunt’s roof, curled up in a mildew-scented sleeping bag. I rest my head against gritty roof shingles and search the heavens from vast constellation to tiny star. I like to think there’s a U.F.O. filled with porn stars and Earthquake Brad. I want to believe he’s off to a gentler and more caring world than down here.

Author Portrait

Brendan Praniewicz resides in Lakeside, California. He teaches English Composition and Creative Writing at Grossmont and San Diego Mesa College. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University in 2007. Currently, he is working on a fictional novel about a protagonist struggling with sex addiction, who enters recovery programs and becomes a stand-up comedian. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, hiking, surfing, and spending time with his dogs.