The Man In the Gray Coat

Adam McCulloch


His gray coat always smells but that’s okay, he doesn’t mind. The wool hangs heavy as a blanket and always retains some fragrance from its previous outings. He lifts his sleeve to his nose. Today it smells faintly of some girl’s cigarettes and tonight it will smell of movie theater popcorn and next week something else entirely.

He pokes thick buttons through the rows of eyes and takes a moment to appreciate the way the coat renders smooth his profile. His wallet contains the bare essentials: license and a Metrocard and a twenty dollar bill which is just enough for a movie ticket and a large popcorn. Microwave popcorn gives him the heebie-jeebies. If the Diactyl butter flavoring doesn’t give you lung cancer the bag wax will make your pecker drop off. No sir. No one is putting that shit in his popcorn without his say-so. The only safe popcorn comes from the movie theater.

His favorite is in the Financial District because you can watch a movie and still hear yourself think. Plus the same people have been working there for ages so they know what they’re doing. Tonight the guy who tears the tickets, whose name he thinks is Jefferson, will have been validating movie tickets for ten years and thirteen days. He collects the first stub of every new film and has all the X-Men stubs and even Woody Allen, though he doesn’t much care for that creep’s films. Tonight Jefferson will tear two hundred one ticket stubs, which is not bad for a chilly Monday night. He will take them from a couple of distracted teenagers and a nursing mom and a man in a coat who seems to need a good comedy to cheer him up.

The man in the gray coat ambles the seven blocks to the G, but the train is always late so there is no hurry, not really. He judges at the silver arm of the turnstile, listening to the ratchet mechanism count him in. Does it know who he is or is it just counting numbers?

At the cinema Jefferson will pretend to take a ticket from the homeless man he calls Benji on account of his shaggy-dog hair. Benji will nod appreciatively (a routine they have performed a hundred times) and go directly to the least-used bathroom, where he will occupy the last stall on the left. Benji will know where the cleaner’s sign is and he will place it at the entrance of the bathroom.

The G is late but the man doesn’t mind. His coat will soon smell of popcorn.

Benji will strip down and gather his ruined underpants and threadbare socks and wash them in the sink with plenty of hand soap. He will dry one pair on the hand dryer and use more hand soap to wash his body, hair, and face. Then Benji will put on his other shirt (his interview shirt, for when he had use for such things) and sneak into whatever comedy is playing. Five minutes later, Jefferson will pretend to take a bathroom break and collect food from the candy bar (but not so much as to be accused of anything) and slide the bag under the toilet door for Benji to take with him after the movie is over.

The man in the gray coat watches two rats chase each other along the train tracks. He wonders why they never seem to touch the third rail.

Benji’s usual seat will be taken by a woman holding a baby. Her name will be Maddie. Benji will sit against the wall near the busted sconce that he might or might not have broken himself. Benji will make himself invisible like a moth. Maddie will not see Benji looking at her and she will undo her top, exposing her breast so the baby can feed. The baby will be called Adam. It will be ten years since Benji has seen a woman’s breast and he will stare. Maddie will have left her glasses at home when she rushed out of the apartment, right before her boyfriend got really mad. Maddie will look around to see if anyone can see her and will only see the teenagers in 17F and 17G. They will be called Alexis and Jay-jay, but they will be too engrossed in their phones to pay her any heed.

The subway wind scatters the rats and tugs at the man’s hair. The G comes barreling into the station, making up for lost time. The man positions himself where he thinks the door will stop. It’s like roulette, but with trains and he is the ball. The train door stops at his feet, so that means he wins today.

Alexis and Jay-jay will text each other during the advertisements for pizza-by-the-slice and easy-divorce lawyers, both of which are located conveniently closely. They will text each other all throughout the movie. One of Jay-jay’s texts will read, “This message has gone to space and back,” and it will be true. It will travel from Jay-jay’s iPhone in 17F to a satellite where nothing lives and then back to Earth and to Alexis’s iPhone in 17G. It will make Alexis love Jay-jay a little more, as if Jay-jay had navigated the mission to space and back himself.

The man in the gray coat stands all the way from Brooklyn, even though there are plenty of seats and none of them are covered in spilled milkshake or something worse.

The film will have already started when Georgia will sneak in clutching her overstuffed purse. She will be old and cranky and will need to take a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark so that she can look for her usual seat. She will smell the washed-dog funk of Benji and sit in her second choice of seat. It will be behind Alexis and Jay-jay and she will immediately regret her second choice because she will be able to see the glowing screens of their iPhones. Georgia’s purse will be heavy because she will always carry a Ruger for self-defense.

The man in the gray coat climbs the blackened steel steps from the G. At the turnstile he shoulders the mesh door with the sign that reads ALARM WILL SOUND but the alarm doesn’t sound and the MTA officer in the booth doesn’t even look up. He taps his finger against the glass so she knows that he came through the gate and that the alarm is not working.

On the street it’s cold and he’s glad he wore his coat. The cinema makes popcorn all week, but the kid on Saturday doesn’t make it right because he adds too much salt and lets the old popcorn burn in the hopper. Tonight on Monday nights the girl makes the best popcorn by far. He decides to walk in the street to avoid the people who are annoying, and the cars beep their horns but it’s not too many, not really.

Benji will not mind what movie he watches as long as its a comedy. He will even watch Adam Sandler films but he prefers if the film is funny. If his life is good one day in the future and he has no cares in the world then maybe he will watch something depressing like Schindler’s List but not today. Today he will watch any comedy playing and he will make sure to laugh. He especially loves it when the cinema is full and his laughter mixes with the laughter of the other people and no one can tell if his laugh is homeless or sad underneath it all.

Benji will stay until the very last credit that reads copyright Warner Bros. and then wait until the house lights brighten. Maddie will see Benji’s drab form flattened against the wall and regret exposing herself in the cinema. She will bundle Adam into her arms and hurry home to the boyfriend whose hatred for her will have softened somewhat and she will never tell him about Benji.

A yellow cab beeps at the man in the coat and the driver yells something he doesn’t hear. Sometimes the man thinks it must be great to be deaf like the girl who makes popcorn on Monday nights. She gets to ignore all the bullshit people say and just do things right. She never burns the popcorn or uses too much salt, and always notices when the butter nozzle is clogged or empty. She must see more because she can’t hear. That must be nice sometimes.

Alexis and Jay-jay will walk out of the cinema with their hands in each other’s hip pockets. Jay-jay will blow his last twenty dollars on a cab to Alexis’s father’s apartment and pretend like it’s no big deal. Alexis’s father will not be home and Jay-jay will lose his virginity on her single bed and Alexis will pretend it is her first time, too.

Georgia with the Ruger in her bag will not laugh throughout the entire film in spite of it being funny. She will be too annoyed by the smell of Benji and the texting of Alexis and Jay-jay and the rudeness of Maddie bringing a breastfeeding baby into the cinema of all places. She will not want to seem defeated by them so she will stay for the entire movie to make a point and then storm out just in case someone is still missing the point she will be trying to make. She will vow never to come to this cinema again.

The man in the gray coat pushes open the plate glass doors and is met by a gust of popcorn-scented air. He rides the escalator to the first and then the second and third floor to where the cinema is.

When everyone is gone Jefferson will let Benji forage for coins as long as he helps clean up a little. Benji will forage far too long underneath Maddie’s seat, inhaling the scent of women and babies and imagining what it might be like for Maddie to open her blouse for him alone. He will clean up the spilled popcorn from Alexis and Jay-jay and then he will find a purse. It will belong to Georgia, the woman with the Ruger in her bag. It will contain five hundred fifteen dollars and twelve credit cards and Georgia’s license and a slip of paper with all her pin numbers written on it in miniature handwriting. Benji will put it in his jacket and walk to her house located not far away. He will put on his best shirt and wait in the lobby. Benji will return her purse and everything in it and Georgia will offer him money, but he will ask her to listen to his story instead. She will listen and it will take a long time. It will take so long because no one will have listened to his story in a long time and there will be much to tell. When Benji is finished, Georgia will ride the elevator to her apartment and bring down some of her dead husband’s clothes (his name will have been Floyd). She will give Benji a dark suit and seven pairs of underpants plus as many socks and some really good sturdy boots and brogues and a warm jacket. She will also offer him a job. Benji will cry.

Benji will visit the cinema dressed in his new clothes and Jefferson will not recognize him dressed up all fancy. Jefferson will hug him and ask his real name. Benji will say Franklin Wilson and it will sound strange on his tongue but he will be correct.

At the ticket window the man in the gray coat buys a ticket to a movie but it doesn’t matter which. He goes to the candy bar but the deaf girl is not there. He figures she must be taking the cash drawer to the office. He’ll come back later. He finds cinema six and presents his ticket to Jefferson.

“You’re gonna love it.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“The movie. It’s funny as hell.”

The man reaches into his coat pocket for his Bauer Automatic pistol. Jefferson looks up as if he’s about to ask a question. But he will not ask anything or tear the man’s ticket. He will not collect a small amount of food for Benji. He will not have any opinion of the next Woody Allen film or the one after that.

The movie has already started. The man can tell by the laughter that this is a comedy, but he figures action movies are better anyway. Once, the man in the gray coat went target shooting in the winter and the barrel of his gun was hot and steaming and when he finished target shooting he had a hard-on. He figured it must have been the vibrations. The man in the gray coat had pulled out his dick in the middle of the forest and made it so he came on the barrel of his gun. The man watched it sizzle and dry up. It had made him feel calm.

The man in the gray coat put the Bauer Automatic pistol in the belt of his jeans and takes off his coat and folds it carefully. He un-slings the Bushmaster AR-15 from his shoulder and steps into the cinema.

The man had thought of many cool lines he could say right now but he figures he’ll say nothing. Only Benji comes in so it makes sense to start with him.

Benji’s laugh will never swirl around in the cinema and join the laughter of other and pretend it is not sad underneath at all. Benji will never find the bag of stolen-but-not-really candy hidden under the toilet door. He will never stay behind and help clean the cinema and find Georgia’s purse and tell his story to her and cry a little in her fancy lobby while the doorman watches. He will never dry socks on the hand dryer.

Everyone in the cinema turns to look at the man who is no longer wearing his gray coat and they are all smiling because they expect to laugh at something in the movie but the sound of the gun has made them jump.

Jay-jay runs across the top of the seats towards the emergency exit. He holds his glowing iPhone which makes him easy to aim for and makes it six full rows of seats before he falls. He will never get up. He will never send a text to a satellite in space where no one lives and have it return to Earth. He will never spend the last of his money on cab fare and lose his virginity.

The man looks for Alexis among the rows of seats but he can hear her crying so there is no challenge in it. Alexis will never receive a text message from space or love Jay-jay a little more for it. She will never kiss Jay-jay in the back of a cab and ask him upstairs or be both excited but also slightly disappointed at seeing him naked.

Maddie is hunched over her baby Adam, who is screaming. They are both screaming really. Maddie holds Adam to her naked breast to stop him crying but it doesn’t matter, not really. Adam will never need another breast. He will never have a first word or first step or know anything else except what he knows already. Maddie and Adam will never get old.

The man climbs the stairs checking each row. In row 25, Georgia is crouched in the aisle holding her Ruger. Her hands are shaking a lot. She will never pull the trigger. She will never storm out of the cinema to make her point a second time. She will never lose her purse and meet Benji and hear his story that will take such a long time to tell just right. She will never have a job to offer him.

The man leaves cinema six and walks to the candy bar. The popcorn girl returns from emptying the cash box. He points the gun at the popcorn. She is shaking as she scoops the popcorn into the bag but she doesn’t do a good job or even fill it to the top, but she hands him the bag of popcorn anyway and her watery eyes show that she is scared. She tries to smile and turn to leave as if this is a normal day and she has something else to do. The man shoots the side of her face and she falls on the floor but she’s still moving. Her eyes are gone and the bridge of her nose is all busted out but he figures she’ll live. He closes his eyes and with all the ringing in his ears he cannot hear or see and neither can the popcorn girl and he thinks they are pretty much the same if you really think about it and it makes him laugh a little.

He eats a handful of popcorn and it tastes good just like always and he figures that after today everyone will know his name. He figures he killed six people or maybe seven if you count the baby and he wonders what else these people might have done on this, any ordinary day.



Adam McCulloch is a NATJA award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Australian, Men’s Health, Reader’s Digest, and Lonely Planet. His screenplays have been listed for The Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, Page International Screenwriting Awards, Scriptapalooza, and BlueCat Screenplay Competition. His fiction and poetry have been published by Easy Street and in the forthcoming anthology A Gigantic Book of Tiny Crimes by Electric Literature.