The man took his seat and leaned his head back to soak in the sun and smell the fresh ground coffee sifting in the wind, which, lifted his white hair with its gentle touch. He thought of his wife, whose soft fingers had the same chilling effect of loving care when they used to make love. He adjusted to the seat, leg muscles already stiffening. It felt good to claim the seat. If he were Columbus, he would’ve stabbed the chair with a flagpole and yelled, “This is mine,” while he stood triumphantly spitting into the wind. There’s nothing like a man who can claim something as his own. Especially when that man has nothing.
The man, call him Gary, he pulls a crinkled, out-of-date pack of Winston cigarettes from the inside of his dark flannel shirt, the kind of shirt your old man would wear to the racetrack if he wanted to look like the type of guy who doesn’t mind losing every race. Gary was that kind of guy. Except that instead of looking like that guy, he was that guy.
The one cigarette left in the pack of Winston’s was crinkled as the pack itself, worn like the frayed sleeves of his checkered shirt and the wrinkled knees of his corduroy pants. Aged, this cigarette looked under the harsh sunlight, all signs of comfort that only a cigarette could provide were gone. The cancer stick felt light, soul-less. Like Gary’s face, his nose, his forehead and his knuckles, the cigarette appeared aged and sun-dried, worthless. But this cigarette, like Gary, had one thing going for it: it was the last in the pack, the survivor. Almost too good to smoke, but of course, be smoked it would be in a matter of minutes. It’s the cigarette you never give away, the one that tastes the best no matter where you smoke it, or how, or when. It’s the kind of cigarette that tastes like you’ve just fucked an 18-year-old prostitute with lips like sugar and an ass like smooth, buttery, milk cascading out of a crystal carafe: empty, but good for something. Gary liked that kind of cigarette.
He lit it with the one match left in the book, and tossed the still flaming tool to the concrete. He shoved the empty matchbook into the crinkled cigarette pack, and closed the new package in his fist. He put it back in his pocket. You never know when you might need an empty pack to store another smoke, or a bit of crumbs for a rainy day. Anything means everything to a guy like Gary. When you’re on your last legs and trying to avoid the cracks that cover the sidewalk of Main Street America, in these days of uncertainty and unwarranted criticism when only asking for a bit of help, the only thing you can do is stockpile bits of false hope, if only to breathe another day and suffer. If only to feel just that much closer to the human being you once were, and one you can be again.
Gary sucked on the cigarette and yanked it from his lips. The sun beat down on him, and he looked straight up at it. He dared it, dared the sun, playing chicken to see who would blink first. Gary didn’t give a fuck, because Gary, at his age, with his experience, could look a panther in the eye, and the panther would shit its furry little pants until it melted into the ground.
Gary squinted at the sun, and finally backed down. Not because he wanted to, or because the sun was stronger, but because there was a commotion. A group of young men and women, the Yuppies, the coffee guzzling, cologne dousing, skin cream oozing, BMW-ers who worked at the agency, or the company, or the bank, they sat down at a table just across from Gary. A few glances in his direction, and it would only be a matter of time. Gary flicked the bit of ash from the end of his smoke, sucked another dose into his lungs.
Guys like Gary, they don’t last long. Not even in this chair, the chair that Gary claimed for himself only moments ago. But at least he had his cigarette. He squinted in the direction away from the Yuppies. Give them their peace, their quiet. Give them the world, and they want the sky. Give them the sky, and they want the clouds, too. Give them the clouds—but don’t touch the sun. The sun is Gary’s.
He stared at the sun again, and before long he had to look away. The fucking sun with it’s fucking gaze. Gary hated when people stared, but the sun usually never gave him a problem. Maybe it was the heat, too, that made this time much worse. The heat that the sun tried pouring into Gary’s eye sockets, trying to pry into his soul, into his secrets.
Gary had no secrets, so let the sun dig and dig. Everything Gary had, he was wearing. Every part of Gary’s story, he wore on his sleeve. A badge of honor, the last remnants of an old life. A wife no longer alive, a child who died as an infant, and a job which deserted him when things couldn’t get much worse. And then this cigarette. Gary’s skin was dark, burnt through by the sun. The white scruff on his chin seemed to glisten, moist with sweat, and tears, and who knows what-all kinds of substances.
He rubbed his pant-leg, trying to wipe off his hand. Some time ago, Gary couldn’t remember how long, a bird had shit on his hand. It was wet, and drippy, and flowing down to his wrist as he was crossing the street. But he didn’t wipe it off. Bird shit is good luck, he once heard someone say to someone else, sometime ago. But today, things were already turning down for Gary.
The sun had beaten him. Twice. The Yuppies were becoming restless. He could see them out the corner of his eye. They kept glancing in his direction with every gust of wind, trying to hide their daggers behind sunglasses, their disgust behind fake smiles and conversation about the state of the free world as we know it. We’re a country trying to spread freedom and equality and tolerance—but fuck that guy in the chair. Fuck him and his checkered shirt, and his scruffy face. Fuck him and his thousand yard stare, trying to get us to back down. Fuck him and the shit on his hand, the cigarette flaming in his fingertips. Fuck him for his lack of public decency.
Fuck him for the smell of urine that is cast our way every time the wind decides to blow.
One Yuppy, the one with his sleeves rolled up, call him Fred, he gets up and walks inside the shop. Gary watches, and takes a long, hard drag. He tosses the cigarette to the concrete, still holding in the smoke before letting out a slow stream. His last one, and who knows for how long. With no money, there’s no way to keep up the habit. But when a nickel and then a dime roll into your hands, you just have to have that one last cigarette. Just one more to get through the day, and then kick that shit and get on with life. My miserable, lonely, dirty, mangy, disgusting waste of a life, kicked to the wayside, forced to sit in my own urine, to shit on the sidewalk and blame it on the dog, ashamed to wear the same damn shirt without a shower or a wash for three weeks in a row.
But I can claim this fucking chair, or my name isn’t American Citizen Number One.
Yuppy Fred comes out of the coffee shop, and manages a glance to Gary. Their eyes lock, and of course Gary won’t look away. Once upon a time his baby blues could hold a girl’s heart long enough to love her for a night, and she would love him back. And then Gary would blink, or fall asleep, or simply look down to find his underwear, and whatever spark he had begun with only his eyes burnt out without so much as an afterthought.
Fred nods a bit, and holds a curt smile. Gary reciprocates, nodding and grinning. He utters a “Hello,” but it’s under his breath, and Fred has no response. Gary turns toward the sun—to find a shadow blocking it.
For a stunned moment, Gary has won, has beaten the day and the sun and the fucking Yuppies who had the gall to nod and smile that fucking smile. But then a voice says: “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
On “leave,” Gary is out of his chair. “Leave, yeah, okay, you got it. Say no more.”
There is no need to say more. Like a fucking dog, a trained dog who is told to get off the Goddamn couch before you stain it. Leave the room, you’re bothering the guests. They are allergic to your smell, your presence is causing a disturbance, your existence is sparking conversation and debate, and pity, and anger, and moral outrage. Please leave the premises, we need no men like you here. Men who have tried, and almost beat the system, but had to stand down.
Gary walked on down the road, feeling for a back pocket that wasn’t there, that had left a long time ago along with his wallet, his cash, his car, his house, wife, cat, job, reasonable neighbor who cooked him a dinner once a week, the soup kitchen that no longer had soup to give, or beds with sheets, or a room bigger than a refrigerator. Gary checked his hand, where a small smudge of a stain remained in the crook between his thumb and index finger, the leave-behind of a discourteous bird from earlier in the day. Good enough, for now.
He rounded the corner of the coffee shop and tried to walk on, but couldn’t do it. He had to face something down. Having lost to the sun, there was nothing else to do but wait for the moon. In the meantime, how about an ungrateful jackass, an example of the human being and his strive for greatness that will never quite be that great, but would put up a fight anyhow?
Gary turned and walked back along his tracks on the sidewalk, over the cracks and the destroyed ground beneath hsi feet, just outside the section of concrete designated for the tables of the coffee shop, designed, it seemed, to keep out people like Gary from those who could afford the decent cup of coffee. The Yuppies, having a barrel of fun—yuck-yuck, eat ‘em up. He stood just next to a bush, believe it or not, and listened to their conversation.
Woman: “So your tea is better now?”
Fred: “Now that I can taste it, sure.”
Yuppy Man: “Well now, someone is a little hostile.”
Fred: “Can’t help it, man, every time the wind blew, you know?”
Woman: “That smell. It was urine. Wasn’t it urine?”
Fred: “Certainly smelled like piss to me.”
Yuppy Man: “Still, what else can you do, I guess. It’s a shame—“
Fred: “Hey, the guy knows he can’t just sit there. Buy a drink, maybe, but even then, man, you can’t be causing a disturbance, know what I mean? You make me uncomfortable, and you’re out.”
Woman: “I think with you, uncomfortable is an understatement.”
Fred: “I was disgusted, alright?”
Man: “I’m disgusted, too. People like that…they need some kind of help.”
Fred: “Are you kidding me? The man knows nothing of hygiene, or decency, or respect.”
Woman: “Certainly no hygiene.”
Man: “Well, he probably gets beaten and taken advantage of every day, with nothing much to live for. I think a little respect to the fact that he is still breathing.”
Fred: “How can you breathe with the smell of piss crowding all around you…”
Gary began walking again, thinking that either he found a new ally in the Yuppy Man, or the world is cruel and he was hearing things again. He turned around, and paced a bit. He was near the street, a crosswalk, and as people came and went, they were sure to go around him. He felt his mouth and his lips moving. He heard his own words, questions and answers to the questions. What’s the point of asking if you already know?
Half the people walking by were talking, lips moving and words forming, with little glowing pieces coming out of their ears. Even people alone in cars were talking, with no one listening in sight. And Gary is the crazy person in this scenario? Hundreds of people, crowds, all standing shoulder to shoulder, walking in packs of two, four, ten, and all of them talking with these little devices, not looking at each other, not making eye contact with anyone else.
Gary leaped over the set of bushes and sat down again, at the opposite end of the area from the chair that used to be his. It was still unoccupied, but the butt of his unfiltered cigarette was still fizzling out on the ground below the seat. He made eye-contact with Fred, and Fred looked away, fast, putting his sunglasses back on. A victory for Gary, small, but a victory nonetheless.
He looked at a puppy sitting at its’ owner’s feet, an older woman with a love for her scarf, not holding tight but not letting go, like a carefree child with a favorite blanket who just wants to know it’s there, it’s close by, and there’s no chance of being alone. Gary reached out and pet the dog. The woman, she could be Bessie, she looks at Gary, and then her puppy. For a moment, her hand tenses on her scarf.
Gary was enamored by the dog. He pet it and it licked his hand, briefly. Gary noticed the stain, and pulled his hand away from the dog’s mouth, back to its head. No sense in poisoning the dog beyond his own natural body chemicals. Save the rest for the birds. He pet the dog, scratched its’ ears. Gary looked into the dog’s eyes, the young, playful eyes, and neither of them could look away. It was as if there was a connection, an unspoken rule, that when you are having a down day, a bad mood, there will be a dog for you somewhere that will pay attention, listen to your thoughts, and wag its’ tail to say that everything will be alright.
“Pronto.” Bessie had a smoky voice, but her smile was genuine.
Gary looked at her as if she were a Martian.
“His name. Pronto.”
Gary nodded, and continued to pet the dog. Bessie stood, held her scarf tight, and walked into the coffee shop. No one ever trusted Gary alone with anything they owned. How could you? As Pronto tried to hop into his lap, Gary had to push it away. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to be caught “in possession” of the animal. It was that the animal was clean, smooth, soft. Pronto was perfect, and happy. Gary was not.
The thought entered his mind, briefly, to take the dog, to run down the road and try to sell it to a stranger, perhaps a woman with pink shorts and a pink hat, holding hands with a daughter of five, a daughter who had never had a pet before and could use the lesson of taking care of a dog, in order to further take care of herself.
Bessie emerged from the coffee shop with two cups of coffee, in mugs, not paper cups, and set them down on the table in front of Gary. He smiled at her. He nodded. He reached for the pack of Winstons, knowing it was empty, but seeking the comfort of the feel of the pack. His hand closed tight around the pack, and he held it, close to his heart. Maybe he hoped the nicotine would seep into his skin, as if he were a crazy, addicted amphibian unfamiliar to this land of strange odors, of strange people who were kind when the rest of the world fell on its’ ass.
He let go of the pack, and sipped the coffee. Coffee, Gary remembered at this instant, is very, very hot. He let it dribble out of his mouth, down his chin. He wiped the dribble away with his sleeve, licking it as he flicked his wrist. His tongue was burnt, but that didn’t stop another taste after a brief breath to cool it off.
He looked to the woman, but she only caressed Pronto’s furry little head, and let her eyes wander to the street beside them. Cars. Endless, expensive, and full of people who appeared to talk to themselves. What a world they all live in. What a world that is traveled by those who don’t even have to walk anywhere, if they choose not to.
Gary loved walking. But he adored sitting, claiming a seat as his own, and as he sat with Bessie and Pronto, flicking his fingers out once in a while to touch the hair on Pronto’s back, he realized that he loved coffee, and dogs, and women. Not all women, not the plastic chicks who drove by and swore at him while chewing gum and checking make-up.
No, Gary liked real women, like Bessie. He liked women who could smile and give the time of day, and didn’t quite leave right away. He liked women who would have a conversation with you because it was fine, and good. It’s good to hear a voice, it’s good to feel the warmth of dialogue, of words, to make the hairs in your ears stand on end and wave back and forth, to keep your brain warm and working.
He smiled as he raised his mug, and Bessie smiled back. She sipped at the same moment. Behind her, Gary noticed, Beetlehead sat in the chair that Gary had claimed as his own not ten minutes ago. He watched Beetlehead peel off his shirt, running napkins up and down his sweaty arms and body. Fred lowered his sunglasses briefly before heading into the coffee shop. It would only be a matter of time.
Beetlehead was a skinny black man who had been on the streets long before Gary ever became an evicted human. Beetlehead never said more than two words a day, far as Gary could tell. But he survived nonetheless, walking the streets and soaking in whatever he could to eat and survive in the non-changing seasons of the West Coast.
As he watched Beetlehead, Gary figured he could do one of two things. He could sit here with Bessie and enjoy his coffee and the relaxation and protection of this woman, this lovely lunch date, and ignore the situation that was about to occur with Beetlehead. Or, Gary could walk over and confront the Yuppies while pulling Beetlehead away from the whole mess. This would make him a hero to Beetlehead, if no one else, and for the rest of the day he would have someone to talk to. But at what cost? Dog petting and the taste of good coffee, or Good Samaritan?
As he debated the issue, Gary stared up at the sun. He stared and stared, squinting his eyes tighter and tighter. He didn’t close his eyes, not even to blink away the tears forming in the ray of brightness which invaded his brain. He stared and stared. He felt his eyes suddenly opening wider, and though his vision was distorted from the image of the sun painted into his mind, he saw that the sun was now hiding behind a cloud. Completely. Gary marked that down as a victory, and chugged the coffee out of his mug, allowing the drops to fall to his tongue.
Having defeated the sun in a staring contest, Gary could take on the world, even if that meant turning into a manic wrestler and pounding a bunch of Yuppy kids to a pulp. He could eat them for breakfast, regardless of the few teeth he had left.
He stood, but Beetlehead was long gone. He was halfway down Wilshire as Gary stared after him. He looked around, and realized that everyone else out here was now staring at him, as if he were a firecracker about to blow. He nodded to Bessie, which was the only thank you he could muster, and gave a brief wave to the Yuppies. Bessie may have said “take care,” but Gary tuned out the world in this small moment of victory over the sun.
Gary made his way down Wilshire in his worn-out, hole-filled loafers, walking after Beetlehead. He pulled the Winston’s pack out of his pocket, and as he waited for the light to change so he could cross, he fiddled with the pack. When the light turned green, and the signal appeared to OK crossing, Gary stared at it until it became the flashing red hand. He dropped the Winston pack in the corner trash can and jogged across the street. He pulled a small twig from a bush on the far corner, and stuck it in his mouth. Gary smiled and squinted at the sidewalk ahead, chewing on the twig, the people passing by in their own conversations, all talking with little devices in their ears. He smiled, not at them, not at the sun or the ground. He smiled looking straight ahead, chin up, and walking into the wind.