Idle Hands

Published by Cogito in the blog Cogito's blog. Views: 531

This is in response to another challenge, that it would be impossible to write an interesting story about a man walking down the street twiddling his thumbs.


Despite its name, Broadway at half-past nine on a Tuesday morning closes in on you. Matt paid the vendor for his breakfast, a foot long hot dog with onions, mustard, and sauerkraut, and took his first bite. Around him, people hurried past in nearly every possible direction. Even with the density of the crowd, there was almost no jostling. Men and women in suits, with briefcases or shoulder bags, hurried past bronzed and bearded laborers in dungarees and printed tees without making physical or even eye contact. Smells constantly swirled past as well. Pungent body odor gave way to a whiff of patchouli, followed by a passing cloud of cigar smoke. A strong fragrance of perfume gave way a moment later to a nearby toke of weed, and all around was the aroma of varied foods from the line of vendor carts along the curb.

Matt wadded up the empty wrapper and dropped it into the nearest trash receptacle. The air was already turning muggy. He stepped out into the thick of the crowd, and began walking slowly up the street. He causally laced his fingers in front of him, and started to roll his thumbs.

The crowd changed almost instantly. A bubble of open space formed around him. A gray-haired woman with a lavender silk scarf and a conservative medium grey suit glared at him as she shifted her path to avoid him. A thin man in a black jacket and jeans, and a glowing Bluetooth earpiece, paused from his loud stream of Spanish and caught Matt’s eye. Then he quickly looked away and stepped to the side, nearly colliding with a muscular black youth with a shaved head and half a dozen chain necklaces.

Something struck Matt’s shoulder from behind, and he stumbled but did not fall. A stocky, heavily-inked biker with greasy black hair and a bushy beard swept past without looking back.

Matt took a deep breath, but kept on twiddling his thumbs. He drifted over to a produce stand in front of the Commerce Bank, out of the main flow of pedestrians. But he was not beyond their notice. Faces turned toward him in contempt, while others turned pointedly away from him. An aging drag queen with frosted curly hair and heavy makeup winked lewdly and blew him a kiss.

“Wassup with you, man? You high on sumpin’?” A man with stringy hair, badly in need of a shave and some new clothing was grinning at him through broken yellow teeth. “Got any to share?” He laughed wheezingly and shuffled away.

Matt varied the twiddling, sometimes rolling his thumbs forward, sometimes backward, sometimes alternating every second or two. He kept what he felt was a harmless expression, or maybe it was just a vacant stare.

“Hey you!” Matt turned toward the voice. The produce vendor, a short Asian man in a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts, was facing him with his hands on his hips. “Get outa here! You’re scaring away my business. Now move it!”

Matt smiled and nodded his head, and joined the crowd again. He found a new spot in front of a Borders book store, where a standing sign easel left a void in the flow of the crowd. He glanced at a clock across the street. Not even ten o’clock yet. The crowd was beginning to thin somewhat after the peak morning rush. A youth with blue hair and a face full of metal body art stared at him from across the street for several seconds, then hurried away.

A street performer approached him, and began mimicking him with exaggerated motions. Matt ignored him, and after a few minutes, the performer shrugged broadly with a shake of his head, and instead followed a shapely redhead, copying her every move as she window shopped. She caught his reflection in the window of a jewelry store, and laughed. She reached into her purse and dropped a dollar bill into his proffered hat, and they walked off in different directions.

The blue-haired youth returned with three of his friends. They started twiddling their thumbs, too, and stepping in front of passers-by, blocking their path. Within less than a minute, an impatient woman they confronted gave one of the boys a shove. One of the others, a round-headed young man with his black hair cut to a dense fuzz, grabbed the woman’s arm and shook her. A moment later, a patrolman was on the scene.

Matt dropped his hands and slipped through the crowd. He looked in vain for a Metro entrance, and instead hurried into a crowded deli, his heart thudding. He joined the line for the espresso counter, and pulled his cell out of his pocket and dialed. Frank answered on the second ring.

“What the hell did you do, Matt, start a riot?”
Matt kept his voice low. “Never mind. You won the bet. I couldn’t go the full hour.”

Frank laughed. “I’m surprised you made it this far. I’ll bet another twenty you get arrested before the end of the hour.”

“I’ll take that bet. See you in thirty.” Matt snapped the cell closed, and planned his next move.
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