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Walking the Streets on a Cold Fall Night: A Short Story
Nature’s darkness has fallen, giving way to the artificial daylight of neon signs.
I am restless.
The four walls of my third-floor studio are doing an anaconda on my psyche. The crying baby in 3A, the endless arguing in 3B, the dripping pipes, the smell of vomit, piss and rotting food wafting up from the alleyway below, all have me on edge, man, and I can’t watch one more minute of reality tv without going postal on someone’s ass. That shit on the tube ain’t reality. This is reality. They should film a day in the life of yours truly, but that would probably kill their ratings.
I need to walk.
The windblown, frostbitten streets of the city are calling me.
I grab my Army surplus coat, tug the stocking cap over my ears, walk down battle-scarred stairs and step out to face a north wind that immediately invades my threadbare clothing. The calendar says October but it feels like deep December. I make my way over to Fourth, searching for I know not what, hoping to recognize it when I find it.
Some rag tops have started a fire in a garbage can and are warming their hands while singing do-whop. I nod as I pass them. They return the street greeting, wary eyes immediately categorizing me as no threat. It’s too damned cold to get into it unless pride is at stake, and I’m just one of them, walking the perimeter of their lives.
Ikem leans out his apartment window and yells down at me.
“Hey, Billy the Kid, I’ve got some Freight Train up here if you want a swallow. I’m watching a rerun of Super Bowl Ten. Get your ass up here and join me.”
I wave him off. “Maybe later, Ikem. I need to stretch it out and clear the cobwebs.”
He’s a good man but maybe a few bricks short of a load. He’s been out of stir for over a year now. Paid the full ticket for a convenience store robbery. Never snitched out his partner. That kind of stand-up will earn you some respect on the streets. He gets by on military disability and the occasional pot deal.
Just up ahead is hooker row. Paula and Mindi are providing a glimpse of the future for anyone with a spare twenty, their high heels clacking on the cobblestone, their wares on display for all to see. They’re passing a cigarette back and forth when they spot me. Paula smiles.
“Shit, Mindi, it’s Billy the Kid. What’s the haps, Billy? You keeping out of trouble?”
It’s hard not to smile at Paula, no matter your mood. She’s the momma bear for the girls on 4th, the protector of those who lack the common sense to protect themselves, and the dispenser of street wisdom for anyone who will listen. She’s the old lady of the hooker’s union at thirty-eight. She still looks damned good, a living testimony to the benefits of a drug-free life. She was once a banker if you can believe that shit. College degree, life in the fast lane, then screwed over by a husband who should have been flushed with the after-birth. Lost her home, lost her job, lost her reputation and now spreads her legs and dreams, flat on her back, of the restaurant she wants to own somewhere down the road of life. She’s my friend and I like her a lot.
“Momma Bear, how’s it hangin’? It’s too damned cold for any Johns tonight. Your nips look to be frozen solid. Why don’t you and Mindi grab a burger with me over at the all-nighter and we’ll all warm up?”
“Love to, hon, but the landlord don’t give a damn about cold weather. He just wants his scratch. And don’t you be looking at my nips.” She laughs. “Next time, Sugar, okay? You stay out of trouble now, you hear? Keep it in your pants where it belongs.”
We all have dreams on the street, except those who don’t, and they’re just waiting for the end to arrive. I wave to Paula and Mindi, turn right onto Main and keep walking off the dis-ease of unease.
The Sounds of the City
The closer I get to downtown central the louder it gets. Horns are honkin’, trash cans clanking in alleyways, the constant symphony of sirens, some close, some distant, playing a melody of someone else’s misery. Movie-goers are out, shoppers are out, dinner parties are out, the freaks and the sleeks, all compressed together and marching to nowhere. The tattoo parlors and titty bars fade from view as department stores dominate a few blocks. A cleaner crowd here. Oh sure, the occasional panhandler can be seen, but by and large the undesirables know their place and it ain’t on the corner of 8th and Main.
Bright lights promise entertainment, great food, an escape from reality for all who can pay the price. A long line waits to enter a popular nightclub, held back by two monster doormen and a velvet rope. One of them spots me approaching.
“Billy the Kid,” he says with a gold-toothed smile. “I ain’t seen you in months, man. Where you been hiding?”
His name is Jerome, former tight end in college, a torn Achilles his personal Achilles, that and a fondness for crack, now he’s just shuckin’ and jivin’ with the rest of us, visions of a pro career dead and buried.
“Keepin’ a low profile, Jerome. A few people want to talk to me and I really don’t want to talk to them, if you get my drift.”
“Shit, man, talk to you? More like kick your ass for that stunt you pulled last week. Keep your guard up, Billy, cuz the man’s got a thousand eyes.”
I fist-bumped him. “You got that right, big man. Stay cool and I’ll catch you later.”
Never show fear. That’s what my old man taught me. Never show the assholes you’ve got concerns. Stare them in the eyes, tough it out and always, always hit first.
Buy this, buy that, look better in this, save money here, get cash there, bail bonds, salvage, pawn, reds, oranges, whites, blues, all the colors of the rainbow speaking to me in flashing neon as I leave upscale and enter The Inferno. You won’t find this neighborhood in the Chamber of Commerce brochures, and heaven help any poor sucker who takes a wrong turn off the I-90 and ends up fresh food for the piranhas. The only safe place in this area at this time of night promises a bowl of soup in exchange for a sermon listened to. Jesus saves you, and you, and you, no color barrier here, no social class ladder-climbing, just a hot meal for a ticket to heaven, dispensed each night by the Reverend Thomas and his devoted wife, Sister Sarah. Whatever grievances there may be on the streets, they are not allowed in the blessed, puke-stained halls of salvation, a demilitarized zone in the heart of the city.
Reverend Thomas has done his time, twenty in Raiford, a hell-hole if there ever was one, and he’s respected by the mules, the jewels, the tweakers and the spinners alike. Rumor has it a sawed-off shotgun rests behind the pulpit, but to my knowledge it’s never been used.
The Rev spots me coming in and strolls over to meet me, his gap-toothed grin welcoming me before the words escape his mouth. “Billy the Kid, you’ve really stepped in it this time, haven’t you? I told you that pecker would get you in trouble and this time it has. Didn’t your daddy ever tell you to keep it in your pants when Ivan the Red’s daughter is in the neighborhood?” He roared at his own joke and slapped me on the shoulder.
“My daddy wasn’t one to dispense advice on those matters, Rev. I’m just going to lay low for an hour or so, if you don’t mind, then head back home. I was feeling the walls close in, my man, and I needed to stretch it out.”
“Listen, I can talk to Ivan if you want? He owes me a few favors. He’ll call off the dogs if I ask him to, but you need to stay away from that girl of his.”
“Dammit, Rev, ask me to pledge allegiance to your church but please don’t ask me to ignore that young woman. Have you seen that body of hers? It’s to die for, Rev.”
“It just might be, Billy. It just might be. Go grab some soup and stay as long as you like.”
I ate my soup, hugged Sister Sarah, and listened to thirty minutes of salvation from the Rev. He seemed to be talking to me, stories of sinners and winners, the righteous and the dead-enders, embrace the loving arms of Jesus and walk the golden path.
But he never explained how you find the golden path on an unpaved, dead-end road where good intentions are a dime a dozen and the weakness of the flesh is more powerful than the gospels of men long-buried.
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)