A cigarette burned defiantly against the enclosing darkness trying to swallow its light. The cigarette struggled in vain to illuminate the shadows lurking and waltz across the sated man's sweat slick skin. The young woman's fingers made quick spider-like movements across his stomach. He couldn't even remember her name, though she was so out of it she probably didn't either. Whether she was just really drunk or had gotten some Special K he didn't know, nor care. Nonchalantly he brushed he hand off and inhaled deeply. Responding to her attempts to kiss him by irritably shoving her away. The same thing every night, the girls and the drugs blended together. Nothing mattered except that next can of beer, that next lay. Everything was surreal, there was no past and there was no future.
As she indignantly snapped up she slurred some words in his direction, obviously attempting to berate him for his actions. She looked even paler by the feeble light that managed to climb over the green and white plaster facade. Street lamps in the shopping center parking lot gave off a harsh white glow, but up on the roof it was softened and weakened. Along with the light smells of grease from the fast food place below wafted up to tantalize the pair with thoughts of salty foods.
As his heart began to slow, he was forced to consider helping her down or just leaving her there to sleep it off. After grinding out his half finished cigarette he lay back and contemplated the summer sky. Minutes slipped by and she gave up trying to string together a coherent sentence, or maybe she thought she had. Laying down beside him she put her head on his chest and drifted off making his choice for him.
People murmured beneath and cars drifted past, the city's lullaby was comforting only in its familiarity. He held her close and his nose was attacked by the sharp scent of strawberries. Tucking her hair behind her ear before gently caressing her cheek he rose to his feet, taking care not to wake her. Replacing her clothes and then his own he drew an arrow pointing to the way down and then followed his own directions.
Gravel crunched beneath him as he landed with a faint trace of grace born of practice. He began making for the line of trees separating the alley from the people living nearby. Branches nagged him, she would never how she got there or with who. He should go back, but, he had learned long ago how to shrug off his moral obligations. He focused of the fact that she would know why she was there to soothe his nagging conscience.
Unsure of what to do he checked his cell phone for the time. It was nearly two in the morning, perhaps he should get home. His shoes were becoming damp from the dew that had already formed on the grass. Trudging through the overgrown grass he arrived at the bus stop. He didn’t know where he was going but was rather sure he would know when he got there.
Climbing aboard he straightened out his dollar then slid it into the machine before taking his seat. Everyone carefully didn’t look at him, or each other. A young couple sat in the back moaning and groping each other, everyone deliberately ignored them. An elderly hobo, with a holes in his knit hat had random bits of white hair sticking out, was staring intently out the window. The obese woman’s eyes frittered around looking at everything but what she was really interested in, her orange fingers stained from Cheetos darting between the bag and her mouth.
These are the people that rode the bus this early in the morning, these were the people that weren’t sleeping. The dregs of society that hadn’t drank themselves into a stupor yet. The girl in the back hit the boy’s arm and said, “Not here,” as if she had any modesty. The hobo took a long draught from a bottle in a paper bag and the bus slowed in front of a grocery store. A tired man in a rumpled business suit got on with a random assortment of items, presumably going back to the office. The obese woman trundled off towards the food.
Everyone had their fix, some just didn’t know it. The boy slid he hands where he wanted regardless of her half-hearted protests. The business man popped some caffeine pills, everyone had their fix. He motioned to the hobo, asking for some of the drink. They began passing it back and forth. Each swallow burned, but his throat was used to the pain of his self-medicating.
Twenty minutes later he was stumbling off the bus and into a movie theater, selecting a movie that had already started he sat down and saw a man being serviced. He closed his eyes and tried to make everything go away.
“Hey, hey, hey buddy. Wake up dude the movie’s over,” the janitor wanted him to leave. Groggily getting to his feet he meandered out, he was always going somewhere. He couldn’t stop anywhere very long. Always had to keep going, had to find something to do. He asked the cashier for the time, “Three forty seven,” came the response.
He bought some soda and wished he had something to spike it with. He made some calls to see who was up, no one was. Walking along he lit another cigarette, the smoke scratching his throat with its fiber glass feel. “Isn’t it odd how emptiness can fill you?” he lamented to the night. He walked into a McDonalds and read the clock, four twenty three. Picking up a week old paper he read the comics.
A man wearing a blue dress and hat with a large fake flower on top walked in and ordered something. From the opposite entrance a hobo with bits of straw in his hair came in and proceeded to take a leak in the trashcan. Everyone carefully ignored both, eyes studied food, menus, ceiling tiles, anything so that they could pretend the outlandish customers didn’t exist.
The best way to be unseen was to be ugly, the best way to be ignored was to stand out. Eternal youth was impossible, but everyday is the same what’s the difference? He didn’t know the date or the day of the week. School hadn’t started yet so it didn’t matter. His thoughts moved sluggishly, but they managed to suggested that he go home and sleep.
Taking a bus to the latest house he was watching, he unlocked the back door and let himself in. Dropping his keys on the counter he noticed that Ed was rubbing against his leg, trilling, asking to be picked up. He idly picked the cat up and scratched his ear. He walked to the small dorm fridge and pulled out a bottle of Dos Equis. After several more he eyes slowly wandered to the clock, the numbers didn’t compute, but the brightening of the sky he guessed it was around six. Refilling Ed’s food bowl he crawled into his sleeping bag and was blessed with a dreamless sleep.
The alarm clock blared at him, it was eleven, time for him to get up so he could show the latest newly married or arrived couple looking for a house. The alarm clock’s noise hurt his hung over head. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt like it had swollen to big for his mouth. It felt thick and fuzzy, an unpleasant taste filled his mouth. The trouble with this house getting sold was that this was to nice a house to be right off the highway. Which meant that he could keep this job for awhile, the only thing better than a house that wouldn’t sell for awhile was a rich family on vacation. That meant furniture, better facilities, and he got paid to sit around instead of be on call from noon until eight.
He went about his morning grooming rituals, showering, shaving, brushing his teeth, and then taking some aspirin. He waited for someone to show up, sitting in front of the TV without watching it. The doorbell rang, a couple in their thirties, a kid that was six or seven. These were the basic details, what he might remember tonight when he was drinking. He wouldn’t remember that the kid had braces, that her father had a gap between his two front teeth. He wouldn’t remember that he could smell the father’s cologne but not the mother’s perfume.
Extending his hand to each of them he said, “Good afternoon, my name is Alex and I will be showing you around this lovely house today.” And with that he began spouting lies that he could do in his sleep, which was a good thing since this habitual speaking was often mistaken for confidence. If you were confidence you could get away with most anything. The secret to telling a good lie was to believe it yourself. His mind drifted in and out of his tour.
Drifting in he found himself saying, “…and look at this flooring, solid oak. This won’t squeak for years and will look great with a runner connecting the kitchen to the great room.” Solid oak, it was pine with an oak stain that he had had to apply. He had told the owners that he was making the house easier to sell and was changing the flooring. No one looked to hard if you were confidant in your job. All these little things he had learned in time spent being homeless.
Because that what he and many other business men were. If you live out of a suitcase then you are homeless. The only difference is that he got paid to be homeless and he lived out of the back of a pickup.
After eight he made some calls and went to a party; after several drinks, a couple of hits, and some talking he wandered off with some girl he had just met. An endless routine, but it didn’t matter. His routine was safe, it was consistent. Nothing changed, nothing threatened him. He was going nowhere, but where he was was just fine.
“Father, I realize now that I was lost. I understand that I was hiding in a routine, I was protecting myself from choice. I felt the walls of life closing in on me and I just shut down. I know what you are thinking, ‘How can someone so lost call himself a man?’ Right? Well its like this, I don’t think that you magically change over night on your eighteenth birthday. I don’t think that its age that defines a man, I think that its maturity. I know what maturity is, I know what loss is, I know what love is. I think that knowing these things is part of being mature. I think that maturity is also accepting the consequences for your action, I think that it is taking the right way instead of the easy way. I know what these words I use mean, not just the textbook definition but Life’s definition as well. Father, I don’t believe in God because…”
“My son, if you do not believe in God then why are you here? Why do you come to me instead of a psychiatrist? Surely they would be able to help you better than I.”
“No, I can’t see a shrink, they don’t work. They sit there with their degrees and they try to solve all problems like they are the same. Many shrinks have many different approaches but every shrink only has one. No, I don’t need judgment, and I don’t think I need guidance. But, I do need someone that will listen. Someone like you Father, someone who will hear me out. Do you understand?”
“Yes my son I understand, but why are you so against psychiatrists?”
“Because they don’t work, they never do.”
“Have you ever been to a psychiatrist?”
“Then you don’t know that they cannot help you.”
“Yes I do, I have seen what they do. The only thing they can do for you is give you pills. I am done with drugs, you can only crawl into a bottle for so long. Whether it’s the clear glass of a hard liquor bottle or the yellow orange plastic of a prescription bottle.”
“How do you know this?”
“My mother tried shrinks, many different ones they didn’t do anything for her.”
“You are not your mother, everyone is different. However, you brought her up. Why don’t you tell me about her?”
“It started when I was a little boy…
He had grown up with her, she was there for all the owies, all the booboos, every “watch me”, always there to congratulate him, and always there to comfort his fears. Or so he thought, in sixth grade Mommy got sick. She had to go the hospital, but stupid little boy didn’t catch on. Mommy seemed fine, whenever he went and saw her she seemed fine.
He wondered if she was faking it so that she didn’t have to do mommy stuff. Like pick him up at school. He remembered the first time she didn’t do it. He sat there waiting for hours until the teacher walked him home. It had been a short day that day, he remembered. Mommy was home drinking beer laying on the sheet over the prickly dead grass. She had flowers in her hair and was sorry she forgot him.
But, he forgave her, she was sorry. She wouldn’t do it again, she wouldn’t leave him. The little boy had dried his tears and quickly began to laugh as she played with him. The incident was forgotten until he sat up at night trying to figure out what was wrong.
He kept waiting for Saturday when he would sit in the car for an hour then get to see her. He would hug her so tight she could never get away, she could never leave him. She was his life, she kept all of his memories for him. Then a little while later it would be time to go home, sit in the car for another hour. Summer came and he defined it by the times he got to see her.
Grandmothers came to take care of them while their father worked. At the end of that summer a great thing happened. Mommy came home. Mommy’s mommy was there taking care of them. He remembered, he remembered that it was Mommy’s very first day back that they found out she was still sick.
He remembered that it was Sunday, that Grandma was wearing a shirt with red and white horizontal stripes. He remembered the smell of chocolate-chip pancakes. All of this he remembered, he remembered what everyone was wearing. That the gooey chocolate-chips were hotter than the pancake so he had to be careful.
He remembered wanting to go see Mommy, to give a hug good morning before church. Today was Sunday was church day, but they had been told to leave Mommy alone she still wasn’t all better yet. Then Daddy sent him to go ask her if she wanted chocolate-chips in her pancakes, the stupid little boy was so proud that it was him that got to go see her. But he was the biggest, of course Daddy could count on him to be extra special quiet.
He knocked softly on the door before slowly opening it and walking in, making sure to extra special quiet. Mommy was all tucked up like she was cold, like babies were. The blankets were only over her feet. He shook her gently and got no response, he shook her harder saying, “Daddy wants to know if you want chocolate-chips in your pancakes.” Still nothing, he decided that Mommy was sleep. Since she was sick she needed her sleep. The stupid little boy pulled the blanket up on her and tucked her in.
Then he went over to Daddy and told him what happened. Daddy went to go check on Mommy, to make sure she would get up on time he said. He was gone for a little while, the little boy ate the rest of his pancakes, put his plate in the sink, and then went to get dressed. When he came back up Grandma told him to get he jacket on, they were going to get Slurpees.
But today was church day he said, they needed to go to church. Grandma told him to do it, so he did. He, his three sisters and climbed into the car and departed for Seven Eleven. The stupid little boy sat there in silence as the car as it took him away. Thoughts of the flashing lights filled his mind. Whirling, spinning, as strident wails filled the morning air.
Staring at his shoes which were wet from the dew he robotically went about. Picking out as Coke as the others found their purchases. After his Grandmother paid they went to the park. The boy sat at a bench kicking his feet in the air