The Most Priveledged Man in the World
“My breakfast sure isn’t going to answer itself!” Malcolm says—for the fifth time in as many minutes.
From his wheelchair, he appears giddy, smirking his junk food-yellowed teeth up at me, even if we both know the DoorDash app will ding his cellphone—like the DoorDash app always dings his cellphone—when his breakfast shows up.
Yet he persists: “My egg sandwich! My Carmel Frap! If I choke on a gob of congealed cheese, I swear to God, just know it’s your fault!”
Living all those years with his mother, I often try and remember, Malcolm hadn’t learned to deal with much lag-time, that those neural pathways must be particularly hard-grained. Or, perhaps, there’s an underlying disorder that’s been left undiagnosed. Or Malcolm’s simply seeking the wall-to-wall attention he’s lost. Either way, regardless: I forgive him. For everything. It’s never been his fault. When your bones are made of glass, you can commit no wrong, right?
Then: an explosion, a barrage of knocks. Over Malcolm’s shoulder the front door becomes this shuddering square of horrific magnesium light.
A heavy-handed Jehovah!? some disgruntled drunk landed at the wrong house!? a roving gang of drug addicts desperate for the narcotics in the lock box!? I cannot guess. I only know for certain: there’s no way that’s Malcolm’s DoorDash.
However, Malcolm exhibits little doubt. “You going to answer that?”
I don’t budge. There is a limit to what I’ll submit myself to, if you can believe that. And the sustained intensity of the knocks add to nothing but imminent violence. Ruin. Debasement. I might’ve stood there forever, back pressing against the kitchen’s peeling red wallpaper, had a gruff voice not said: “Police! Open up!”
Then what choice was there? Three wind-breakered police breeze past me into the house. Their eyes, sharp and unacknowledging. Their combat boots, creaking off. But toward what exactly? Malcolm? It seemed unlikely. At twenty-five, he still acted like a child. And like a child: he toed the line but rarely crossed it.
Not to mention, his frail body wasn’t built for crime: The first day he arrived at Lexington Home, he sneezed and nearly fractured his face off.
“Did you guys see a DoorDash order out there by any chance?” he asks the cops. But they’re already breezing by him, also. They’re entering his bedroom with uncanny precision, as if they knew the layout of the house.
Here, they begin unfolding cardboard boxes. They empty the clutter of each of Malcolm’s desk drawers into them: chaos of wires, notebooks, paperclips, loose change, thumb drives. Then, for the coup de grace, one officer rips Malcolm’s desktop computer from the wall.
Meanwhile, Malcolm watches all of this: still smirking, still giddy. A truly perplexing vision when you stopped to consider the juvenile venom he often spat upon my entering his room uninvited—to tidy up or with a folded hamper of clean laundry, to open the blinds.
“So I guess I’ll take that as a big no on the DoorDash?” Malcolm says.
Unbelievable. The scene is too surreal, so totally unmoored—when a police stops pretending that we don’t exists and swings his aviator sunglasses at me, in their reflection I appear as a ghost that’s drifted for centuries unnoticed until now.
“Sorry to frighten you, ma’am,” he says. “But there’s a protocol. An element of surprise to these type of things.”
“What type of things?”
No answer. Maybe I am a ghost, I wonder. Or maybe I’d whispered and the police hadn’t heard. Maybe he’d reconsidered, decided I was one of the developmentally disabled residents, too. It wouldn’t be the first time—
Regardless, swiveling away from me, he hugs Malcolm’s desktop computer to his chest—no more explanation offered, no more sense to be made.
The front door slams behind them. The chortle of their police cruiser starting and receding down the street into nothing—until it’s just us again: Malcolm and I, as we were two minutes prior. Only not really. Not at all.
Who was this person sitting before me? What dark thoughts hummed within his brain unbeknownst to me this entire time? The worst kind of crimes, it seems, are the ones committed by your eyes.
Before I can formulate any of this into a question, Malcolm’s cellphone pings with an update. His hair consists of a nest of greasy black locks, and when he shakes his large head dandruff snows down.
“Unbelievable. They cancelled my order,” he says.
“They’re always messing my orders up,” he says. “Hang on, though. Maybe there was a glitch. A solar flare or something. Maybe they delivered it anyway? Can you go out and check the stoop real quick? Would you do that for me? If I choke on a gob of congealed cheese—”
“You swear to God? Now I know you’re kidding.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding you?” He points at his little smirk.
“I’m not going to answer that.”
“At any rate, the police probably spooked the driver.”
“Those were cops?”
“Now I know you’re kidding.”
“You’ll know when I’m kidding,” he says, still smirking his yellow smirk at me. “I’ll just grab something at the food court, then. You ready?”
“Ready for what!?”
“The Crossgate’s Mall. Remember we had plans?”
“The police just arrested your computer, Malcolm.”
“I don’t think so. I’d remember something like that. I didn’t see any handcuffs broken out.” He begins tapping at his cellphone again. I can see how smeared the screen is from here.
He holds the phone to his ear. “Yes, hi, hello there—”
“Malcolm—” I say.
“My ride fell through, and I’d like to request a Star Bus from the Lexington Home on Myrtle to the Crossgate’s Mall—”
“Just wait a second, Malcolm… Relax. I need to think... Calm down... Can’t I just… Ok—never mind… I’m serious… I just want to make a few calls… Ok, ok, ok... Stop doing that… I’ll drive.”
Malcolm’s high-tech wheelchair maxes at ten-miles-an-hour (it’s a state law). But on the buffed linoleum of the Crossgate’s, he whirs along much faster. Dangerously so.
At a dead sprint I can’t even catch him to urge caution, and eventually my legs refuse to try, although the elderly ex-cop security guards don’t seem to mind. They hoot and holler and pump their knobby fists as he passes like NASCAR race. And when he starts playing tunes from his portable Bluetooth speaker, nobody tells him to quiet down.
As usual, he starts with classic rock. Today, it’s Def Leopard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me, and at top volume—what acts like a calling card for the mall’s Spandex-ed mothers to gather their children in their arms and stand along the second-story railing to cheer his one-man parade on.
The moment should be a heartening one. Why just a week ago, given the moment, I would’ve basked in their smiles. Did Malcolm aggravate me? Sure. Did I hate him? At times. But given his disease, his situation at home, the fact of his whole world of carefully calibrated comfort recently collapsing, I never gave those thoughts a second thought.
But I’m dubious now: Could a random gene mutation really lead you to watch a snuff film? Could child pornography be an extension of your mother’s smothering love? Could the metal rods in your legs lead to a dirty bomb?
I press my cellphone to my ear, hoping for answers. Lexington Home’s Musak fills my brain, a fifteen-second loop of a classical piano track, as I power-walk to keep Malcolm, at the very least, in my sightlines—
A brace-faced teenage girl at the pet store sets a cute Corgi puppy in Malcolm’s lap; then he pulls up beside a pack of roving children at the Build-a-Bear to ogle the churning drum of cotton; he slips one, two, three hunks of Kung Pao chicken off toothpicks in the food court, more than the stern teenage Chinese girl surely ever allows.
All the while: Musak itches at my brain.
Reaching the far end, Malcolm loops back around, zooms off in the other direction. His eyes pass over me without acknowledgement, through me, really, as his tunes echo off the domed glass ceiling that contains a gray sheet of pregnant rainclouds.
Then: a click, a shuffling. The Powers-That-Be says, “Ok, ok—what’s the problem now?”
“That’s what I was hoping to find out.”
“I’ll leave it at this,” she tells me: “I’ve been made aware of the situation. I’ve talked to the police,” she says. “I’ve considered the variables, and with his condition, the recent developments of his life, the limited dangers he poses to the other residents, I’m not sure what can be done to him.”
“The shape of this thing,” she says. “Exactly. All considered. What can we do to him? Pressing charges on something like this would be reprehensible, wouldn’t you agree?”
Then, before I can respond, the Powers-That-Be—the head honcho, the boss of it all hangs up, and I’m adrift at the Crossgate’s again. Had been adrift at the Crossgate’s this entire time. Only more so. Much more.
After a few hours, he’s had enough. And, as always, Malcolm plays himself out with Country—slow, pandering ballads about loving America, what hard work and perseverance can bring your way. “Until next time! So long, so long. Au revoir,” he calls up to the security guards, the new batches of mothers and children lining up at the second-floor railings to wave him goodbye.
The automatic doors yawn open for him—onto the last dry moments of a lovely spring day. And even this rain feels delayed for his passage, another kindness in the series of kindnesses that have insulated this man from any consequence for his entire life.
Crossing the parking lot, Malcolm doesn’t wait for the traffic, and unsurprisingly, not a single horn sounds. As I load him into the passenger van, the frenzied swarm of shoppers are happy to sit and wait—in penance, naturally, for the crimes the natural world’s committed upon this sick, sick, sick man.
The promise of rain is fulfilled as soon as I begin to drive: Fingers of creeping fog on the windshield, the wipers slapping haphazard time. It’s a moment of peace I might draw strength from, I realize, find a new purchase from which to reinstate Malcolm’s lifetime hall pass:
“A random gene mutation screwed with your collagen,” I try and remember the history given in his case file. “The doctors said if your mother took you to term, you might break your back during birth. A decision needed to be made, and quickly. Your mother moved in slow motion for years after your father left, feeding and cleaning you, bicycling your legs and arms to build strength. Then: a children’s wheelchair, a neck brace and metal rods. When the time for school came, your mother decided against it. A curriculum was drawn up, then abandoned to better enjoy your days: reading books, playing games, watching movies, and hitting the mall. For two-and-a-half decades, up until her death, there was no greater importance than the ways in which you’d find your joy—”
But then: our eyes meet in the rearview, and my attempt falters: There’s that horrific yellow smirk again, that giddiness: “You know what I’m thinking?” he says.
And of course, I know what he’s thinking: He’s thinking he’s in the mood for a shake from Shake Shack; for a Rodeo burger from Burger King; a chocolate shake from DQ; he’s in the mood to bring the entire feast home and eat it in front of the jealous residents, grunting his pleasure at every bite; after which, he’ll want to shower, want to shower RIGHT NOW; he will want to coach me through the entire process, directing me where to hose him and for how long, when to calibrate the temperature of the water as the hot water slowly dies, to wipe his ass over and over, making me show him the wet wipe every time—and so much more, and much worse, just like every other time.
Only now as he watches me in the rearview, his smirk curls higher, too high, into a gummy smile whose magnitude confesses everything: How he knows, and I know: there’s another layer here, a darker world in which he rules all.
His pale tongue glides across his junk-food yellowed smile as if to acknowledge this, a gesture that appears to ask and answer its own question, simultaneously: “Worship me? You fool, what other choice do you have.”
Harris Lahti's debut novel, Foreclosure Gothic, is coming out in the spring of 2025 with Astra House Books.