The Jock and the Madman
Adam Bruckner’s parents split up when he was five, about the time he took up soccer. Soon after, he started to feel compulsions, random but undeniable, like an index finger poking at his brain.
As a boy, he felt compelled to pick up all the scraps of paper on the soccer field — candy wrappers, receipts, ticket stubs — and stuff them in his sock. At the game’s final whistle, he carried a bulge in his sock the size of a grapefruit.
By the time his team won the state championship in Wisconsin when he was 12, the game and the disorder had become interwoven, indistinguishable, one. Was the disorder growing, feeding on the game? Or was he winning because of the disorder? He never knew to call it obsessive-compulsive disorder because he kept it secret, and never saw a doctor. “I had this weird river running through me as a kid,” he said. “A river of energy.”
He went on to play college soccer, and eventually decided to try out for professional teams. He drove around the country — to Louisiana, to Michigan, to Maryland, to Pennsylvania — and lived mostly in his car. He saw homeless men and women everywhere, scratching in the dirt of the Midwest and drowning in the soot of the cities.
All the time, his obsessive behavior continued: Touch the wall right foot, left foot, right hand, left hand. Count taps on the desk with alternating fingers, onetwothreefourfivefivefourthreetwoone, walk backward, touch. … A never-ending stream of orders issued from the dictator in his brain.
One night in 2000, in Baltimore, Bruckner was walking in front of a building when the order came down, or in, or up, or out — wherever they came from — and it said: Go touch the lamppost across the street.
Bruckner looked down at the sidewalk, the curb, the street, the lamppost. Out and back: lamppost, street, curb, sidewalk. Voyage and return. Wind and unwind the mind. A treacherous maze of mental landmines, demanding vigilance. Agility. Obedience. Otherwise he would suffer the consequence of … what?
No answer came. His mind took a turn it hadn’t taken before. It searched for a consequence, and found none. The absurdity of his behavior washed over him. “I realized nothing in the universe would change because of my obsessive behavior,” he said. “Nothing bad would happen. And nothing good.”
It was a spiritual moment, he said, as though God had spoken his illness away. It came clear and real, almost mythological, like when Zeus reached down to free Ulysses from his captors.
A couple of years later, Bruckner signed on with the Philadelphia Kixx, an indoor soccer club, to play defender. He played superhuman soccer compared to the average guy, but in the realm of pro sports, he never stood out as the greatest. Pro soccer players — unless they’re in the upper echelon — don’t make a lot of cash, but Bruckner didn’t care. His priorities lay elsewhere.
Almost immediately he started a program handing out food to Philadelphia’s homeless. That’s when he met Red Colt and Angie, who soon took up their on-the-run romance.
Life carried on. During the off season, the Kixx hold summer camps for kids, and Bruckner coached there each morning. In the evenings, he kept up his work with the homeless.
Then in July of 2002, the police came around, asking questions. They wanted information on a dead woman. Her body had, ah … turned up. She was heavyset, they said. A light-skinned black woman, or maybe Hispanic. Hard to tell, the shape she was in.
The cops also asked about someone named Darryl, a homeless man who slept near the spot where the body was found.
For days Bruckner pondered their description of the woman, as he cheered kids through soccer camp, as he handed out hot dogs to the homeless, as he lay awake at night. Then one day he remembered Red Colt and Angie, on the run from their mystery pursuer. He had assumed the chase was imaginary, the delusion of two homeless lovers on the lam. But come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Angie in a while.
He took his memory down to the police station, where detectives told him that the body had turned up in five pieces, in five plastic bags, tied to a tree overhanging the Schuylkill River.