I just couldn’t catch a break that day. First I’d got up early, and made it down to the day labor office by five in the morning, waited four hours, but never got called. That seemed to be happening all too often these days, and money was in especially short supply. Then I discovered that I had somehow lost the pack of cigarettes I’d had in my shirt pocket, along with my bus fare, which was tucked inside the cellophane wrapper.
It was a frigid January day, but I didn’t mind the four-mile walk home as much as I minded not having my smokes. Whenever all else fail me, cigarettes offered me solace.
The sky above had the light gray cast of deep winter. There was no wind, and my breath lingered in the cool air in jolly wisps. My boots crunched over the snow that had been trodden solid in front of the small stores whose owners failed to shovel and salt. The green field jacket I was wearing, less winter lining, was barely enough to keep me warm, but only if I kept moving.
Before I had traveled two blocks, I was in the midst of a major nicotine fit. It was maddening: I had only worked six shifts in the past month, at home my refrigerator was bare and on the kitchen table was a cheery red cut-off notice from the gas company-- and, even now, some stranger was smoking the cigarettes I’d lost.
I paused for a red light, and the cold air began to infiltrate my field jacket. I watched the cars and trucks pass through the intersection. I didn’t envy the drivers their vehicles, in which they sat cozy and warm, listening to their stereos. But I was quite piqued to see, now and then, one of them sucking on a cigarette. That just didn’t seem right.
The light turned green, and I continued on my way.
If there was an art to knowing what to do when there is nothing to do, I never learned it.
I considered stopping at an outreach mission where I could get a hot meal. It came with a price, though; you had to endure the preaching. Not that I had anything against prayer and those who resorted to it; there was just something that wouldn’t allow me to believe I was desperate enough to need prayer. Then, too, the people who ran the mission generally frowned on smoking-- it seemed those people frowned on everything that can offer a person true peace and serenity.
There was a group of people standing at a bus stop. I paused to try to bum a smoke. It wasn’t easy anymore; smoking was so frowned upon these days. If anybody saw you smoking, they regarded you with sneers. If you asked for a smoke, they looked at you as though you’d reached the height of depravity; wanting to smoke, it seemed, was infinitely worse than actually smoking. Most of the people ignored me. One elderly woman, who weighted about three hundred pounds, primly informed me it was bad for my health. One guy dropped his eyes to the snowy ground, and reached protectively inside the pocket of his ski jacket-- definitely a non-sharer.
I continued down the street.
I reached my apartment building, a seventeen-unit monstrosity made of ugly dark brown bricks badly in need of tuck-pointing. There were four retail stores on the sidewalk level. Three of the storefronts were shut down, their front windows painted black. The fourth, and largest, was occupied by a diner. It had many names of the past few years. Oddly enough, although the diner changed hands, the employees always remained the same. It was now known as Uncle Charlie’s.
I decided to stop in to see if Roz was working. She was one of the waitresses. I could always count on her for a free cup of coffee when I had no money. She was just a friend, though-- no more. Not that I didn’t think she was attractive and likeable. She just carried around too much baggage, having gone through a long series of boyfriends, every one of which ended up abusing her. She ought to be in the Guinness book of world records for the person most often the victim of domestic violence. I felt sorry for her, but I could never get romantically involved with her. I just wasn’t going to dance into that kind of minefield-- no way.
I sat on one of the stools in front of the counter, which was chipped and scratched here and there. I was the only person at the counter, and the only other customers in the place were a group of old guys who were sitting in one of the booths back by the bathroom.
I looked through the opening in the window, and saw into the kitchen. The cook-- some new guy I didn’t know-- was rushing around as though the place was busy.
Then Roz walked from the bathroom. She had long wavy black hair. A white apron hung from her waist. Her uniform, a light blue shirt with a collar, was stretched tight across her breasts.
All in all, she was looking pretty good, like a beautiful park in which I could never play.
When she saw me sitting at the counter, she tipped her head slightly. That was all she showed. She never smiled at the sight of anybody, but approached everybody in a guarded way, as though she was always expecting something bad to happen. I couldn’t blame her for being that way-- what with everything she’d suffered.
“Coffee?” she asked, as she slipped behind the counter.
“Well, I don’t know, maybe,” I said.
“So it’s like that?” she asked.
“Pretty much so.”
She still poured a cup of coffee, and set it on the counter before me. After she placed the pot back into the coffee maker, she walked back over to me. She crossed her arm before her, watched me sip some coffee, and asked, “Why don’t you just start applying for regular jobs?”
“I’m not a regular guy,” I said, and set the cup down on the saucer. “Hey, you got a smoke?”
She rolled her eyes-- it was most expression I ever saw from her.
“Had to give it up,” she said. “Just too much of a dent in my budget. Besides, you can’t smoke in here anyway now.”
That was right. The state had passed the new law about smoking in public places. If I ever laid my hands on another cigarette, I’d probably have to crawl down into the sewer to smoke it.
Roz was looking out the frosted front window at the cars and trucks passing down the snowy street. She always seemed to look away like that whenever she talked and the conversation took an awkward turn.
“I lost my carfare,” I mentioned. “Had to walk home. Lost my smokes, too-- almost a full pack.”
She grunted, still gazing out the window.
Just then a bunch of people enter the diner, talking loudly, and stamping the snow off their shoes on the doormat.
Roz flinched at their sudden appearance. Her eyes showed a flash of panic, and then, after she seemed certain all the newcomers were safe, she reached beneath the counter, pulled out a stack of menus, and set about handing them out.
Bushy Bob heaved his bulk onto the stool next to mine. I hadn’t seen him come in, and wondered how I could have missed him; he was, after all, a good three hundred pounds, and tended to wear colorful mismatching outerwear. Everybody called him Bushy Bob because of his eyebrows, which didn’t look like eyebrows at all but like a couple caterpillars that somehow strayed onto his moon-shaped face and taken up residency above his eyes.
He was like me in many ways-- almost unemployable, pitifully poor, and often scorned by females of all sizes and ages.
He now made a big, noisy deal of pulling a newspaper from his coat pocket, and spreading it out on the counter. When he found the page he was looking for, he smoothed it out with his big hammy hand, and started to read.
Finally he said to me, “What’s your sign?”
“Yeah, your sign,” he said.
“I don’t know-- I always kind of like No Parking, I guess.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “Your astrological sign.”
I looked at him dully. I was never interested in that kind of thing.
“Well, when’s your birthday?”
“Ah, a Gemini,” he said knowingly, and looked down at the paper in a way that suggested he needed glasses. “It’s says the time is right for romantic interludes--”
Just then Roz, passing by behind the counter, didn’t ask him if he wanted coffee; she just set a cup on the counter next to his paper. Bob always wanted coffee.
“Thanks, darling,” he said, not looking up from the paper.
Roz asked if I wanted a fill-up on my coffee. He told her no-- because I felt bad I wasn’t paying for it-- but she murmured “Shut up,” and filled up my cup just the same.
After she’d gone to wait on the tables, Bob asked, “You doing anything with that?”
“You know she likes you,” he said, and looked straight at me for the first time. His chubby cheeks were still pink from the cold outside. “And it says here it’s a good time for romance-- what did it say now-- romantic interludes.”
“Yeah,” I scoffed. “What else did it say? I’m going to win the lottery?”
Bob squinted down at the paper. “It’s says you can expect a visit from one of your relatives.”
“Impossible,” I said.
“Well, you never know.”
“Bob, all my relatives are dead. If I get a visit from any of them, I’m going to be calling Mulder and Scully to investigate, you know.”
“Maybe you have living relatives you don’t know about,” he suggested.
“If I did I doubt they’d have anything to do with me. Did it say I would lose my cigarettes?”
“No,” Bob said certainly. “Nothing about cigarettes. Why, did you lose some?”
“Almost a full pack.”
“Ah, that’s a shame,” he said, sincere-- or at least he sounded very sincere.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke on you, would you? I’m dying.”
“Sorry, no,” he said. “I quit a long time ago. I mean, look at me: I’m fifty years old, I weigh three hundred and forty pounds, and I’m asthmatic and diabetic. I figured I already had enough nails in my coffin, so I quit. Besides, you can’t smoke in here anyway-- not any more.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
The door swung open, and I felt a waft of frigid air.
Some guy was stomping his feet on the doormat. It seemed he was stomping them for a bit too long, as though he was trying to get the attention of everyone in the place.
Then he started toward one of the booths, near where the old guys were sitting, and, unzipping is parka, loudly called out for a cup of coffee.
It was pretty rude, really, the way the guy was acting. Though I didn’t see it, I could imagine Roz nearly jumping out of her skin at the sound of his big mouth.
I turned on my stool to watch as she poured the coffee for the guy. Her hand was actually shaking. The guy just stared up at her in a way I didn’t much like. I also didn’t much like the fact that the guy had a fresh pack of cigs sticking out slightly from the pocket of his flannel shirt.
“Who is that guy?” I asked Bob.
After looking casually over his shoulder, he murmured, “I don’t know. Trouble, maybe.”
“You remember those people got mugged last month?” he said, looking down at his paper, as though he was reading and not saying anything to me.
“Well, I think that’s the guy did that. You know, three of those people were customers here. That one day I left here, I saw him and it looked like he was following the guy who walked out just before me. I don’t know if that guy was one of the people got mugged, but it really didn’t look too good-- the way he was shadowing the guy-- it looked suspicious.”
I grunted. I didn’t ask why he didn’t report it to the cops. Bob wasn’t that type-- neither were most of the other people who came in to the diner; half the customers were pretty shady themselves, the other half just disinterested.
“You just watch yourself,” Bob advised. “It’s payday, you know. Nobody knows whether or not you got paid-- you might end up getting you’re head cracked open for nothing.”
I glanced over at the guy again. He didn’t look like much-- hair too long, face somewhat pinched-- actually he looked sort of like a rat. There was definitely something sneaky about him. The fresh pack of cigarettes poked up over the edge of his shirt pocket almost as though the guy realized that I was having a world-class nicotine fit and he was trying to rub my nose in it.
When I turned to face forward, Roz was again standing behind the counter and looking out the window. I wondered what she found so fascinating outside. Everything out there was so blank, so white. I turned my head to stare out the window, too, to see what she saw, but after a moment my eyes got all bleary and I had to shut them until the ghostly afterimages faded away. It felt as though somebody had just flashed off a camera in front of my face.
“What do you see out there, Roz?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing…” she said vaguely. She looked at me then; she didn’t have to blink her eyes clear or anything. “You want some more coffee?” she asked.
Bob cleared his throat, presumably reading his paper.
When I hesitated, she leaned toward the counter and whispered, “Don’t worry about it. I got it,” and headed to retrieve the coffee pot.
As I looked after her, I caught the sour, disappointed glance Bob was giving me.
“Never mind,” he muttered, and looked back down at his paper.
“That would be nothing but trouble.”
“If you say so,” he said.
“Why’s it so important to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and turned a page of his paper. “Maybe I live vicariously through you, and maybe it ain’t much like living lately.”
“Vicariously? What does that mean?”
“It means get a dictionary.”
Roz appeared, then, and started to refill my coffee. While she was pouring it, the big mouth in the booth bellowed out, “Hey, how about a menu! I left my crystal ball at home.” At the sound of his voice, Roz recoiled so sharply she overfilled my cup and splashed hot coffee across the countertop. Bob narrowly saved his newspaper, and Roz grabbed a towel from under the counter, and started sopping up the mess. She was apologizing the whole time. Her eyes didn’t look up at me, but were riveted on the countertop, and there was a pained, wincing, expression on her face, as though she was afraid she was about to be hit.
Then the big mouth called out, “I mean, after you finished drowning the guy, you think I can get a menu?”
I started to turn to get off my stool, but Bob reached over and laid a huge paw on my forearm.
“Don’t,” he said sharply, still pretending to read the horoscopes. “I don’t have enough money to bail you out.”
Which pretty much stopped me.
“I hate big mouths,” I muttered.
Roz, looking about ready to cry, fetched the guy a menu, and then disappeared into the woman’s bathroom.
I glanced over at the big mouth in the booth. I was reading his menu, which lay flat on the table before him. Every now and then he absently reached up to push his pack of cigarettes deeper in his pocket, but some reason it kept working its way up.
“You sure that’s the guy who’s been mugging people?” I asked Bob.
“I wouldn’t turn my back on him,” he commented, and then, making a paper-crackling din, he turned a few pages from the horoscopes to the obituaries. He seemed always fascinated with the obits, often going over them several times, as if examining the small print of some suspicious contract.
Roz returned from the bathroom. I could see that her eyes were red, and it looked like she touched up her make-up. She looked away from me, as she approached the counter. No sooner did she stop behind the counter in her favorite spot, from where she had a good view of what was happening outside, than the big mouth called over to her that he wanted to place his order.
She pulled her pad and pen from a pocket in her apron, and scampered off to take the order.
“Is it just me, or is that really annoying?” I asked Bob.
“Is what annoying?” He was pretty absorbed in the obits.
“The way she ran off like that-- like-- like a little puppy afraid of getting a beating for not obeying, or something.”
“No, that’s just you,” Bob said, without hesitation. “The problem is you just can’t admit you like her. Why don’t you ask her out?”
“I can’t,” I said. “She’s, like, ruined.”
“Ruined? Everybody’s ruined in one way or another. You’re ruined, too.”
“So what? So two negatives make a positive?
“I’m not talking life-long commitment, here-- just ask her out once. See what happens. I think you would be good for her.”
“Sure-- you’re an unremitting loser, but you would never hurt her. I think she would appreciate that.”
“Again, a dictionary,” Bob advised with a sigh. “Besides, haven’t you ever taken a good look at her? She’s pretty and--uh-- healthy. I notice things like that. I notice all the things I can’t have-- healthy females, chocolate, red meat, beer…”
By now Roz was bringing food to the big mouth. She had set the plates before him on the table, and now the guy was saying something to her. He was saying something low-- I couldn’t hear it-- but I could tell it wasn’t good because I noticed the stiff way Roz was just standing there and listening. Maybe the guy was complaining about something. I didn’t much like it, though, and I didn’t much like the way the guy kept fingering the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Everything about the guy seemed to be mocking me.
I tried to ignore it all. I sipped my coffee, but it was getting cold. My nicotine fit was raging worse than ever.
I asked Bob to watch my seat, told him I had to get some fresh air.
He just grunted, not looking up from the obits.
It seemed colder outside than I had been when I first entered the diner. Maybe it was just my imagination. Maybe it was just from having dealt with people.
The snow seemed unnaturally white now, and I found I had to squint to protect my eyes. I walked round the corner to the side entrance of the building and went inside. The stairwell was narrow and too warm and the air inside it was musty. Every one of the stairs creaked as I ran up to the second floor.
My place was a study of personal economic decay. In the living room, there was a small sofa and chair, but they didn’t match. A wooden orange crate standing on its end next to the chair acted as an end table, on which was set a garish green lamp that I had found in an alley. The orange crate held my record collection-- real albums made of real vinyl that I couldn’t play anymore because the motor of my phonograph burned out a long time ago. I kept the phonograph in the bottom of my closet, next to a box of eight-track cassettes that were awaiting the day the superior audio medium was again in favor. There were no dishes in the kitchen; whenever I ate at home I either ate directly out of the can or off paper plates. In my bedroom there was an old mattress and a dresser whose drawers were cracked and saggy. There was a large pile of dirty clothes in one corner, waiting for me to come up with enough money to take them down to the laundry mat. There was a five-gallon plastic bucket in the other corner. It was half filled with copper joints I had snagged little by little when I had done some temp work at this plumbing warehouse. The copper had to be worth about thirty, forty bucks at the going rate, but somehow it seemed I never had a chance to lug it down to the scrap yard.
I sat on the mattress and held my head and tried to clear my mind. My life was just so messed up. I couldn’t understand how it got that way. I’d started out just like everybody else, but I ended up here. How? Why? Everything bad that could happen, always happened. It simply wasn’t fair. It seemed like a cruel magic trick. And now I had to suffer it all without the comfort of a single cigarette.
I stood up, suddenly antsy, the way a person gets antsy when they know they have to do something but don’t know exactly what to do.
I pulled out one of the saggy dresser drawers, and fished out a white tube sock. I went to the plastic bucket in the corner. I grabbed a handful of copper elbows and sleeves, and dropped them into the tube sock until the end of the sock bulged with a good pound of copper. Then I balled the sock up, and shoved it into the pocket of my army jacket.
Not having a clue what I was doing, I headed back down to the diner.
Bob was still sitting at the counter and reading the obituararies, and Roz was standing behind the counter and staring through the window. She didn’t give me a second look as I walked back into the place, but when I sat down again, I discovered that there was fresh hot coffee in my cup.
I sipped coffee, Bob read obits, and Roz stared outside. Nobody said anything. We could have been three people trapped in a painting, or something.
Then Bob, suddenly, folded up his newspaper and jammed it in his coat pocket. He tossed a couple singles on the counter.
“Have to get to my doctor,” he announced. “Have him count the nails in my coffin…. Think about what I said.”
I didn’t know what to say, so said nothing, just watched as he lumbered out the door and into the icy white world.
Roz didn’t say anything, either, didn’t even make a move to pick the bills up from the counter.
Then the big mouth in the booth yelled for his bill.
Roz nearly jumped out of her skin. Then she paused and looked at me. She actually looked me straight in the eye, and it was strange to realize that, although I had known her for months already, she had never before looked at me in such an unguarded way. And I could see that there was much hurt within her, but there was also something pleading inside, too, something that acknowledged the hopelessness of her situation and begged for release-- maybe the same way I, at times, I understood just how messed up my life had become and wished it wasn’t that way. For the first time I started to think maybe Bob had been right, maybe Roz and I could find some common ground on which to exist.
Then that look was gone, as though a steel door shut, and Roz hurried off to give the big mouth his bill.
After the guy paid his bill, he pulled on his jacket and went outside.
I slipped off my stool and followed him.
He was lingering in front of the diner, looking up and down the snowy street, as though he forgot where he’d parked his car.
I stopped on the sidewalk, not too far from him but not too near, either. I didn’t pay any attention to him. I unzipped the collar of my jacket and pulled the hood up over my head, and then paused as though I had nowhere to go-- which was pretty true.
“Cold one, huh?” he said, just a guy on the street trying to stike up a conversation.
“Yeah,” I said, although at the moment I really didn’t feel very cold.
“Well, at least it’s payday,” he sighed.
I grunted. “It would be better if the currency exchange didn’t charge so much to cash my check.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, and then fell silent. For a moment he seemed to be fascinating on the puffs of smoke that were coming from his mouth and then dissolving in front of his face. “Could you use a lift?”
“Come on, my cars out back,” he said, and as soon as he said it, I knew that Bob had been right. Nobody ever parked their car behind the buiding; all that was there was a short, cut-off alley whose only traffic came once a week when a garbage truck backed in to empty the dumpsters.
I followed the guy round the side of the building, toward the alley, and somewhere along the line that got reversed and he was following me. He kept talking, rattling on about this or that-- I guessed to keep me distracted.
I walked dumbly into the alley. It was perfectly obvious that there was no where to park a car-- the back of the building was to the left, a high security fence was to the right, and straight ahead the alley ended at a chain-link fence in front of which sat the two dumpters for the building-- but I didn’t turn round and say anything to the guy. He must have thought I was the biggest idiot in the world. I just walked ahead of him, pretending not to notice there was no car, and listening to his voice so that I had a good sense of his position-- just a little to my left, about five, six feet behind me.
I slipped the tube sock out of my pocket, let it hang down in front of me, so that he couldn’t see it. The copper fittings tugged down pretty heavily at the bottom of the sock.
As we neared the dumpster, the guy got really quiet. I figured I better do something before he did, so I spun quickly round to my left, and whipped the sock round as hard as I could.
The guy’s eyes bugged out-- making him look even more like a rat-- and then the copper laden end of the sock caught him in the left side of his head. He let out a hideous sound, like a mixture of grunt and squeal, and fell to the snowy ground. He struggled to get back up to his feet, but he kept shuffling sideways and falling back down, as if there was something wrong with his balance. I couldn’t help laughing, because the guy looked like he was ragingly drunk. Finally I lashed him again with the sock. On impact with his skull, the sock ripped open and copper fittings flew all over the alley. The guy ended up flat on his back, not moving, and there was blood splattered across the packed white snow round his head. He let out a soft moan, just enough so that I knew he was still alive.
I knelt down next to him-- the way I imagined he’d done dozens of times before-- and started going through his pockets. He didn’t have a wallet or any kind of identification, which, for me, confirmed he had been up to no good. I found in his jacket a sizeable wad of cash, which I quickly snagged and pocketed.
I started to leave the alley, but then remember the pack of smokes the guy had in his shirt pocket, and so I went back to grab them.
I walked back round to the diner, and started to go inside, but then figured what was the point. I’d had my fill of coffee, Bob had left, and all Roz would do was stare out the window. I had nothing to offer her, anyway-- I had nothing to offer anybody-- and I had the feeling all she could offer me was more misery. That was the way things were, and I didn’t believe it would all change.
As I lingered in front of the diner, I pulled out the pack of cigarettes that were now mine. They turned out to be my brand, and I was half-expecting to see my carfare tucked inside the cellophane wrapper.
I slipped one out of the pack. I lit it, and took a deep drag. As I exhaled I started to feel better, a lot better. It really made all the difference in the world.