Miriam swirled the swizzle stick around the naked ice cubes in her rocks glass, cigarette clamped in her teeth, mind a million miles away. The left side of her mouth twitched upward in a distant cousin of a smile as she pondered whether she’d spent more of her life on this very bar stool or out in the rest of the world.
The bar stool was the likely winner.
She squinted her eyes against the smoke curling upwards from her mouth and held her glass aloft. Greg nodded in her direction, and she set the glass back down on the bar, exactly in the ring of condensation staining the cocktail napkin. He finished swapping the pint glass in the sink and dried his hands on the towel tucked into his waistband before grasping the neck of the half-empty bottle of house bourbon.
“Only the best for my gal. How ya doin’ tonight, Mir?” he asked, talking as he poured. “Sorry I didn’t get a chance to catch up when you came in.”
The half smirk returned to her face. “It’s alright, Greg. I saw you were busy. But you know I’d rather wait a few minutes for you to pour me one than tip Joe. He’s been here a year if he’s been here a day, and he still can’t remember my name.”
Greg chuckled. “He’s been here less than three weeks, and he can’t even remember my name, Mir. Sometimes I’m not so sure he remembers his own.”
Miriam shrugged and took a slug of her bourbon, baring her teeth and hissing at the liquor’s harshness. “They all look alike to me, Greg. You’re the only one that’s been here near as long as me. You and ol’ Chuck over there,” she added, raising her glass to the mounted deer head hanging over the cash register.
“You’re probably right,” he agreed, refilling her glass again.
“Thanks, Greg. Maybe something stronger now?” she unexpectedly asked.
He reached up to the top shelf. “You betcha.”
Stan and David rested for a few minutes, recovering from their close call with the janitor and finishing their suckers together in silence. David was the first to crunch the last bit of candy from his stick and stand up, brushing the dust from his school uniform.
“Is it time yet? Mr Mills is gone home for sure by now,” he said, hopefully.
Stan nodded and chewed up the last of his own cherry-red lollipop. “Don’t forget your backpack,” he reminded his friend.
David scooped up his bag as they headed for the classroom door. The soft snick of the lock disengaging was the only sound to be heard aside from their rapid breathing. Their excitement was a nearly palpable presence in the air.
“C’mon, David, it’s this way,” Stan beckoned him to the right, down the hallway away from the front doors of the school.
David stayed close behind, not wanting to take the slightest chance of missing out on any part of the adventure they had planned. Stan stopped abruptly in front of an unlabeled door, and David nearly ran him over in his haste.
“I thought this was a broom closet or something,” David remarked.
“Nope. Check it out.” Stan wiggled the doorknob at just the right angle, and it unlatched, allowing the door to swing wide, revealing a stainless steel ladder bolted to the wall.
David goggled at the sight. “Holy cow!”
“I told you it was awesome.’ Stan smirked to himself before stepping into the closet of a room and starting up the ladder, David on his heels.
It felt like they climbed for hours, but about only minutes later, Stan pushed open the heavy door above them, and he nearly fell off the ladder, taking David with him, when it slammed open onto the roof, letting the sunlight stream in.
The two boys scrambled out of the hole in the ceiling and stood up to look around.
“I can see the whole town from up here!” David exclaimed.
“Look over there!” Stan pointed. “It’s your house.”
They spent at least half an hour seeking out sights to show each other, buildings and landmarks that they’d known since birth, but only from ground level. Everything looked so different from the grand height of three whole stories.
Finally tiring of that game, the boys took off their backpacks and used them as pillows to lie on their backs and find pictures in the cloudscapes above.
Which is where they fell sound asleep, and where the police found them, hours later.
Begun with TBP OLWG #34
Not often, but sometimes Jeremy would exhibit signs of being a cat. Oftentimes, this illness exhibited itself in the form of stealthily knocking full glasses of water off the coffee table and staring his mother in the eye as she waited for him to take responsibility for his actions.
At other times, he would poop in a box he kept in the corner of his bathroom full of kitty litter. This was his mother’s least favorite.
Sometimes he enjoyed batting a small piece of plastic around the linoleum of the kitchen floor, especially while his mother was trying to cook dinner.
Rarely, he would lie on the kitchen counter, roll casually to one side, and expose his belly for an indeterminate amount of belly rubs before he would widen his eyes, bare his teeth, and go for blood.
Doctors eventually gave up on conventional medications and recommended a flea collar.
“Come here, child, let’s have a talk,” she said, patting the couch cushion next to her.
I was an obedient child; I sat next to her immediately. “What are we talking about, Grandma?” I asked her, curiosity getting the better of my patience.
“What do you think about the way things are?” she asked me.
I was very young, probably five or six. I had no idea what she was asking me, and I said so.
“I mean, how we live here, and how your friends from school live, and how other people in other parts of the world live,” she explained.
I wasn’t really getting her point just yet, though I struggled to understand and come up with an acceptable answer. “It’s good, right? I mean, I have toys, and my friends have toys, just about everyone has toys, don’t they? Doesn’t Santa bring everybody toys at Christmas?”
“Not everyone, sweetheart. Some people lock their doors and their chimneys so Santa can’t get in.”
I was taken aback at this thought. I couldn’t imagine a world without Santa, or a world in which Santa didn’t visit every child in the world, as I had always believed. I didn’t know what to say to that, and so I didn’t say anything. My grandmother took that as her cue to continue her lesson.
“We are very lucky people. We have everything we need, and then some. Do you know there are people all over the world who don’t have anything at all? No home like we have, no clothes, no food, and no toys.”
This was even worse than imagining no Santa. Dirty people, running around with nowhere to eat a dinner they didn’t have. My little mind boggled, and as the boggling began to slow, the horror began to kick in.
“Why don’t they have anything, Grandma?” I asked her.
“A lot of reasons, honey. Sometimes it’s their own fault, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s because of a bad choice they made or because of a bad choice someone else made. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t think it’s fair at all, Grandma. And I think if they don’t have anything, then Santa should definitely visit them, especially their children,” I offered.
“I think you’re right, but that just isn’t the way the world works,” she told me, shaking her head sadly.
I wanted to talk more; I wanted to ask a million questions and get to the bottom of this, but I didn’t know what to ask or how to ask it. I sat there quietly, waiting for my grandmother to offer me the solution.
She never did.
Dogsbody blinked slowly in the elevator as the doors closed again in front of him. His collar lay limply against his shoulder, his hand not even reaching for its comfort and safety. Perhaps Mr. Walker could change things for him, after all.
The receptionist smiled at him as he strode from the elevator bank to the revolving glass door, but Dogsbody didn’t even notice her. This was quite unusual; Dogsbody had a sixth sense for knowing when anyone was looking at him, and he would automatically cover his face in shame and embarrassment. This only caused the receptionist to broaden her smile with pride that she worked for an employer who could enact such drastic personality changes so quickly.
Dogsbody froze before he reached the exit and spun to study the painting just to the left of the receptionist’s desk. The man depicted stared so boldly back at him that Dogsbody’s hand began fumbling at his lapel before his brain could register that it was simply a painting, and not a judgmental fellow human being. He kept his hand up just in case, and backed through the door behind him. Fortunately no one was in his path.
He took a sharp right and tried not to think about the sixty-one block walk ahead of him. The weather had abruptly changed for the chillier, and he could see his breath puff into wisps ahead of his face as he walked. Dogsbody tugged his collar securely in front of his scars and carried on.
The minutes dragged by, piling on top of each other, but soon enough, Dogsbody was in front of the post office. He climbed the seven steps to the front door and pulled the door that said pull. He let his collar slip down a bit as he clumsily dug through his front pocket for the small key Mr. Walker had given him. The key slipped easily into its hole on post office box 716. Dogsbody turned it, and opened the door to a medium-sized bundle of letters. He pulled the stack of letters out and closed the door, re-locking it before returning the key to his pocket.
Dogsbody flipped quickly through the mail and threw the two obvious pieces of junk mail-from phone companies-into the nearby trashcan before stuffing the remainder into an inside pocket of his trench coat. Hands free once again, he pulled his collar to its preferred place in front of his mouth and turned to leave the post office.
AS he headed for the door, a large woman who seemed to be in a hurry shoved the door open and ran straight into him. The two of them went sprawling on the floor, and Dogsbody frantically tried to gather up the mail that had fallen from his pocket before she could touch any of it. She kept apologizing, and managed to grab one small letter that Dogsbody snatched out of her hands before running from the post office in a panic.
The woman never knew the reason for the nightmares that plagued her for the rest of her life, but it was that single glimpse of Dogsbody’s ravaged face.
It was nearly two hours before Dogsbody was able to calm himself enough to return home to the alley off Fourteenth Street where he had been sleeping for the past month. The sewage lines had burst here too many times, and none of the other homeless people of the city enjoyed waking up to the smell of dirty water in their hair and clothing, but Dogsbody didn’t care; he’d lost his sense of smell, and had yet to become sick from the waste that often overflowed the alleyway. He valued the privacy that was his only luxury.
After wrapping Mr. Walker’s letters carefully in plastic, Dogsbody lay down to sleep, heedless of the sharp drill bit poking into his upper thigh. Nothing could hurt him more than he already hurt, and that was a fact, Jack.
Helen felt the bedroom walls closing in on her, and she pressed her pillow tightly to her face in order to scream without alarming the neighbors. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, but the sandpaper feeling wasn’t ready to go away just yet. Too many tears, too little time.
She twisted in bed to pull the comforter over the lower half of her body, the cold part. That only lasted half an hour or so before her feet started sweating, but it was too much effort to kick the cover off. So she dealt with it. That’s just how it is now, she thought. Sweaty feet and screamy pillows. The left side of her mouth curved in the biggest part of a smile that she could manage.
The inside of her eyelids was made of wool. They felt like that sweater her aunt had gifted her when she was nine years old, the one her mother forced her to wear to the family get-together, the one that left her welted and red for days afterward. Her corneas felt abraded.
But her eyes still worked. She turned her head and looked at the jewelry box on top of her dresser and thought about the pearl earrings inside. The gift from her other aunt, her favorite aunt when she still had favorite anythings. Helen reached up to fondle her earlobe, wondering if she could even still wear earrings. It had been years since she’d bothered to pretty herself up at all.
Depression is a bastard. Helen had never gotten over that trip to Venezuela, but that wasn’t the cause, simply the trigger. Helen felt the bedroom walls closing in on her, and she pressed the pillow tightly to her face.