If you are reading at night, maybe you should stop. This isn’t a story to be read lying down if you are seeking peace in the late hours of the day. Tucked into the confines of a down comforter and an advanced-technology foam mattress, you may miss the over-worn tread on the bottom side of her shoes, the thinner material at the elbows of her sweater, the holes forming at the upper thighs of her jeans due to walking, and not the kind of walking she counted the steps of on an fit-bit, she didn’t have a phone, and today she is hungry.
She sat outside the third archway of the lightest brick building on Second Avenue, it was alcove leading to some apartments and a mediocre lawyer’s office. Most of the tenants who lived here had jobs which started late and ended early, jobs they never dreamed childhood dreams about, and the lawyer, who defended this type of night-living subhuman, he didn’t show up until about 11am each day and he still left at 5, so the alcove was an early morning go-to if she slept on this side of town. She hated her body, like most women, but because her ribs were now protruding and her breasts had diminished greatly this past year. Only the padding of her second-hand, stolen bra brought femininity to her shape. She hadn’t taken it off in a week and a half and it had been chaffing her half of that time. It was raining and her feet were soaked and painfully indented from unclean and thrice air-dried dried socks. She didn’t think of her feet, she collected the rain water with carefully placed plastic water bottles she tried to harvest as soon as a indoor dweller discarded it. The best ones were the ones which originally held water. All the other ones tasted of diluted beverages they once held, and the juice ones were useless, as the caps would mold.
The heavy rain would fill her bottles, she knew and she could skip the chore of filling them in a public bathroom that was okay for non-customers to use. She had no need to defecate and she had relieved herself of liquid waste with dignity under a tree planted in a cement cut out on 90th earlier this morning before the night creatures came home and before the earliest go-getters rose. She sat soaking in the alcove and was thankful that the rain didn’t bring with it a cutting wind. Her stomach whined and gargled in protest of her neglect. Scavenging in dumpsters was not as fruitful in the rain. The rain made everything passable soggy and more undignified than she could bear, until maybe tomorrow. She had stopped begging three years ago but on days like this she wondered if she could bring herself to do so again.
The rain ceased some and became a piddling drizzle. Michelle collected her bottles of rain water, each of the five about a quarter full, and she consolidated them carefully. She left the emptied ones again, a little hidden by street objects so that she could retrieve them later. The ones she had filled were put carefully into her backpack where she kept most of her belongings. In the front zipper pocket, she removed one of the clean plastic trash bags she managed to pilfer from freshly changed cans in Tompkins Square Park. She secured it over her backpack. She started to walk. She passed the Lawyer. He never waved or recognized her from the last pass. She saw him 3-4 times a week.
A tourist with an umbrella passed her just then. And as the younger woman touched her shoulder Michelle couldn’t remember the last time she had been touched gently by a stranger. “Are you ok?” The woman asked. “Thank you, just fine.” Michelle said. The woman looked at her unconvincingly and put the umbrella over Michelle’s wet head. “I’m already wet, Ma’am”, Michelle offered, trying to save the woman’s time, but the younger woman persisted. The umbrella-owner had now changed her direction to match Michelle’s march for breakfast. “Are you hungry?” Asked the woman. “Yes” said Michelle. It’s all she could answer. The woman, out of the kindness of her heart smiled and was full of joy at the ability to help. She said, “I just had the most wonderful breakfast yesterday! Follow me” Michelle was thankful, but her head lowered. The tourist called a cab. The yellow cab pulled over and the driver starred at Michelle with the small rearview affixed to his windshield. Morning traffic started to clog the narrow Manhattan streets. The do-gooder was asking Michelle questions, “Where are you from?” “Where is your family?” “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” Michelle answered the usual questions, allowing the good Samaritan stranger to penetrate her private life in exchange for warm food. Not many restaurants feed her unpaid. If Michelle showed up alone, she would be cast out. A meal and pity was administered to homeless persons with paying escorts. Still, Michelle was thankful. The cab pulled up to a curb.
The Janey-be-good paid the cabby who never once removed his eyes from Michelle. It was a marvel how he drove while looking behind him the whole twenty-minute ride. Her stench, she was sure, would have shared a third of the fare, had either of them been paying. The restaurant had no wait and Michelle was again thankful. She wasn’t familiar with the neighborhood where the cab had halted. She stepped out of the cab. Along with the young woman, she walked up to the heavy glass doors of the breakfast bar.
The innards of the cafe sparkled with the effects of renovation. Smooth yellow plastic material had been stretched over booth seats that had wooden bases distressed with years of use. A central counter U accommodated the many single persons who no doubt dined there and the seats of each mounted bar stool was also a canary yellow. Michelle felt like the coal fumes that killed the bird.
They were seated quickly and the server brought them water. The girl across from Michelle smiled, asking Michelle if she would like a beverage besides water. Michelle ordered black coffee. Her sopping pants wetted and pooled on the impermeable material of the booth’s seat. The server politely smiled during the entire interaction. When drink orders were taken the waitress walked away, “I’m going to use the restroom” Michelle said, and got up. The smell of frying pork made her sick and she and her backpack heading toward the restrooms. Her host, still kindly waiting at the primary-colored booth, was skeptic of Michelle taking her garbage-bag pack with her to the bathroom. Once she was in the safe confines of the clean stall, she knelt to the floor and vomited. Her puke clouded the crystal clear water of the bowl under her face. It had been at least a year since she had ridden in a cab. She hurled and her abdominal muscles contracted tightly and she forcibly discarded liquid. The main door opened. “Are you ok?” A strange voice inquired. “I’m ok” she replied unconvincingly. She heard murmuring some of which was: “She just came in and now she’s throwing up, do you think its drugs?” Get up get up get up get up get up get up get up get up Michelle chanted to herself but all she could do was remain a pile on the floor. It was unclear to her how long she had been in the bathroom. Had she fallen asleep? Maybe the good Samaritan would buy her breakfast to go she could eat later.
“Ma’am?” Another voice asked louder.
Get up get up get up get up get up get up get up get up Michelle begged her legs.
“Yes?” Michelle asked with controlled fear.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes. I’ll be out in a minute”
“Your coffee is getting cold” she heard the good Samaritan say.
Her obstinate legs trembled as she stood up. She wiped her mouth with some toilet tissue and flushed the throne with her left shoe. A small crowd awkwardly stood at the propped door of the women’s bathroom as she washed her hands. Michelle scooped her backpack sack from the floor and walked to pass them. All of them looked into her face, first, a large man, probably on dish duty, owned the foot which held the door ajar and whose face had no humor left, second, a woman working in some degree of authority at the restaurant wearing a face of thinly hidden distain, then Michelles own waiter, a girl of about 17 with a tint of guilt on her rosy face, and lastly, her good Samaratan, holding a paper bag. I guess I will have breakfast to go Michelle thought. How long was I in there? “I hope you like veggie schmear. The do-gooder wished thoughtfully and apologetically, let me help you. Her hand reached for Michelle’s elbow. Michelle allowed her elbow to be grabbed. They, arm in arm, exited the restaurant. The woman hailed another cab. Michelle felt watched. It had stopped raining.
A yellow vehicle pulled over to the curb and the woman opened the door for her.
“I’m not getting in” Michelle said matter-of-factly.
“Well I need to take you back.”
The young woman looked anxious to get out of her self-inflicted charity.
“What am I supposed to do with you, then? Leave you here?”
“Yes, I live here.”
The young woman was confused and sat into the cab.
“May I have the bagel please?”
The young woman handed Michelle the bag, shut her cab door, and left.
Michelle walked across the street and then to the left. She walked without turning around for at least four blocks. She hoped dearly she was heading in the right direction: back to her territory. This was a highly redeveloped area. People starred. She didn’t see a bench this whole twenty minutes since leaving her breakfast provider and she still felt sick. She knew her face was pale.
Ten minutes later, she saw a bench and rejoiced. She sat down slowly, her pants had dried most of the way. She set her bag down, removed the plastic bag cover and folded it carefully and placed it in the front pocket. Michelle took out one of her water bottles of cloudy rainfall. She removed her shoes and slowly peeled off her socks. She put one strap of her bag around her foot and the bag under the bench where she sat. She put the socks on top of the bag and her shoes underneath the bench next to the bag. Michelle used some of the rain water to rinse her hands. She opened the bag. TWO BAGELS. She smiled. She pulled one out. It was heavy. She slowly opened one corner of the foil wrap. It was an everything bagel with a thick green cream cheese looking spread and with vegetables; the bagel itself was toasted and the sandwich had egg white on it too. The sandwich was cut in half. Michelle’s mouth was slick with anticipatory saliva. She picked up the first half and raised it to her mouth and bit into it. Warm and crunchy, the spread was salty and creamy and cold, then the hot egg in the middle met her mouth too. She closed her eyes and enjoyed it. No activity around her was noticed. She took a second small bite and the experience had lost no joy. When half of one bagel was gone she wrapped the remaining one in the same foil as carefully as the restaurant had. She sipped her water and packed both back into her bag. She tucked the damp socks into a stretchy string on the bottom of the bag made for a bed roll. She put her shoes on without socks for a short walk back to familiar ground.
As she walked though the neighborhood, she started to recognize it: she was on Avenue C. She used to live over here with Raleigh when she first came to the city. Wow, what the hell have they done to this side of town? She wondered. She passed a coffee house and saw people smiling at her. One young man was smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone. He quickly extinguished it and ran inside. By his leather apron, she assumed he was an employee or even the proprietor. She almost passed the spot but the cigarette was still lit. She picked it up and straightened it from its crumpled discarded state. It had not landed in a puddle. Only one side of it was damp. The cherry had fallen but she picked it up with the reconstructed tobacco stick and took a long drag. Her day was looking up. Should she try the cup? You’ve had a pretty good day so far said her inner voice so she picked it up. FULL?! It was completely full. The handsome man glared at her from inside and she walked away with the full cup and almost a whole cigarette. She puffed and puffed and smiled and sipped. The sun peaked out of the clouds. Michelle smiled an Oscar-winning smile.
She used the day to saunter back to the Upper East from East Village, occasionally stopping and nibbling on the other half of the bagel. When she arrived at the steps of St. Jean’s she saw Allie there waiting. “Where have you been?!” Her friend asked. “I got you something” Michelle pulled out the other bagel. “Nice!” Said Allie and she set the sandwich down and gave Michelle a hug. They watched the sky grow dark on the steps of the church. Allie ate her gift. They heard the doors bolt around 8 and they took out their bedrolls from a green-space shrub. In the alcove of the church they shared their days and wished tomorrow had no rain.
Kristie M. Hendricks
January 26, 2019