My sweaty, damp wad of sleeping bag with my troll-doll hair sticking out of it sleeps during the day. It’s safer, better to be trampled by a crowd with the sun shining, than to be surprised by something worse at night.
The city is the sort of place where no one believes in God until I’ve written him out on a cardboard sign in the same breath as a plea for money. The other kind of belief puts you here with me, foretelling a world that we already live in, though, only the troll-doll sleeping-wads can really see it for what it is. If they can see. If they can think right.
I read when I can, which isn’t often if I’m going to be eating. People don’t want to give their money to someone who reads. You’re not at the end of your rope if you have time to use a newspaper for something other than home-decorating. It’s even worse if you’re reading something academic, like I am. I don’t like stealing, but when I found a library card on the sidewalk, I tried to look my cleanest, and spent a whole day inside, reading the backs of things. I took out five books, read them all long before they were due, and returned them on time. I can’t afford late fees. After that, I took out five more. The library staff knows me by name—someone else’s name, but by name.
Today, I risk reading in day light, on one of the more populated streets. All the city noises blend together, so it’s easier to concentrate. Likewise, people may not notice the book, if they notice me at all. According to the clock tower, it’s mid-afternoon when one of the voices jumps out of the blender. Over the edge of the page, I half-see the blurred outline of dark-skinned legs.
“Hey guy, what’s that?” the legs go, “Hey guy!” again.
“A book, probably,” I say, not looking up from it.
“I know,” the legs say, “What book?” I turn the book over in my hands as if I’ve forgotten the title (I haven’t), and then turn it back around, holding it up for the legs to see. “What’s that word there?”
“It’s called ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra.’ It’s from German,” I sigh.
“Is it good?”
“I think so, yes.”
“What’s it about?”
“That’s a little hard to explain, really.”
I put the book down, and stare at these dark brown stalks poking out of yellowed socks, which in turn spill out over the top of dirty gray tennis shoes like under-cooked muffins. I ask why she’s bothered to ask all these questions of the sidewalk troll-doll. If I were looking, I’d see her shrug, but instead I open the book up again.
“Oh, Neechee! He’s the one who said ‘God is dead’ right? Like, in that Nine Inch Nails song?” She starts singing a bit of the song before I respond.
“Yeah, Nietzsche said that in this book.” I try to brush my hair out flat with my fingers, realizing that this conversation may go on longer than expected.
“Do you think so? I mean, do you think God is dead?”
“I think I do, that is, I think he is. Yeah, I agree, I guess.” I look back up at the crinkled, dry skin of her knees.
“Hm…” they jerk, “I’ve got to go now,” they say. “I’ll see you around,” she says. I don’t answer.
The truth is that God is dead because not enough people clapped their hands. That sweet, old, bearded, glowing, cumulus cloud that can only be seen outside of the city is dead. A city’s sky is bleached grey, and it pisses acid onto the patchwork houses and roofs made out of cardboard. If God lives in that sky, God hates the city.
The truth is that even outside of the city, we’ve replaced God with the lamp post, the street light, with science. So, God is dead because we don’t believe in fairies. We don’t have to anymore.
The night is wet and hot, and steam comes out through the long vents in the sidewalk above the subway system. This is when I’m most alert. When all the stores have closed, I don’t feel tempted to spend what little money I have. So I wander the streets in the dark, pretending that every place lit by lights is a place that belongs to me. Everywhere else is dangerous.
The most dangerous things in the city at night are not vagrants. They’re the bar-hoppers, the clubbers, the groups of wild-eyed twenty-somethings who wouldn’t think twice about kicking the shit out of a person like me who looks at them in a way they don’t like. Sometimes, there are worse things, though.
Tonight, I walk as far as the docks and back. It only takes a few hours, even if I stop to look at things. The underside of an overpass has the words ‘stay down, low man’ written on it in sprayed on lettering. Even the graffiti artists are conservative these days, maybe. I make for a park on the west side of town with lamps running all the way through it, casting a white-blue haze over benches and damp, mowed grass. I figure it’ll rain later this morning, so I curl up on one of the benches, staring off into the darker shadows of the night, hoping the silence and safety will last.
I wake up when I hear the first thunder clap. Not long after, I feel the first splash of a raindrop on my cheek. The water makes my stubbled chin itch. The rain here comes in only one variety, which is torrential. The combined effect of smog, humidity, and wind tunnels makes summer rain in the city dirty, warm, and very heavy. I run back through the streets to ward my usual spot. I’m heading eastward with rain pelting my dirty face, sending streams of grey-black down my chin and shirt. My clothes stick wet to my arms and legs as they flail with my running. Times like these are good for me. I try to stay clean if and when I can. Even if the rain is dirty, it makes me feel better, cleaner—except my clothes stay damp after the rain stops. Dodging between the few people on the streets in the early morning, I can’t yet see the clock tower. It’s about seven in the morning though, by its last chime.
I drop my pack beside my untouched sleeping bag and sit cross-legged in the middle of it, placing a dirty Big Gulp cup on the sidewalk next to me. Shifting my weight around, I try to pull out my sign from underneath myself, and rest it against the wall behind the cup. On a Sunday, if it is a Sunday, there's more money to be made from guilt-ridden pedestrians. Unfortunately, on a Sunday, there are fewer pedestrians in the first place, as all the stores are closed. The hours that lead up to the noonday chimes are uneventful, and yield about fifty cents. That's half of a sawdust cake from McDonald's. The afternoon sun squeezes sweat from my forehead and chest, soaking through my clothes again, after the sun had dried them this morning.
With the heat and sunlight burning my face, I let my eyes close and lie back onto my sleeping bag, hoping to sleep and wake up hours later with a full cup. Instead, I wake up to the same fifty cents and the side of someone's thigh. Sitting beside me is a short black girl, with a face that could pass for any age between seventeen and twenty five. Her hair is tightly woven into two braids which hang down either shoulder, framing low, chubby cheekbones and a turned up nose. She's got my sign in her lap, and she's sleeping with her chin buried in her chest. My own stirring causes her to wake.
I ask what she's doing here, why she's holding my sign, if she's stolen my money.
“What do you think I'm doing?”
I fall back onto my sleeping bag, “I don't know. That's why I asked.”
“I'm keeping you company, I guess.”
“I was asleep.”
“So was I.” I suppose that's as good a response as any. I sit up, and balance myself against the wall beside her, recognizing her knees and not her face.
“Did you finish your book?”
“No, I'm just partway through.”
“I was going to ask if I could borrow it.”
“Well, I got it from the library.”
“Hm...” She crosses her feet at the ankles, and straightens her back against the wall. “So, you live here? Right here?”
“Where do you go to the bathroom?”
“Where I can, I guess.”
“Gross, guy.” She makes a face like she's imagining me shitting in a cup, and hiding it in the bottom of a trash can, hoping that the garbage collectors won't find it. She's not far off. I secretly hope they do.
“What about you? Do you have a home?” I ask, noting that she has the same dirty tan pair of shorts on, and probably the same pale blue T-shirt, though I hadn't bothered to look at it yesterday.
“Something like it. It's rent controlled in the same sort of way that a cardboard box is rent controlled, but it's better. It has a roof, anyway.” Her lip twitches as she says this, and I know better than to ask much more about it.
“Do you have a name?”
By six o'clock we have three dollars and eighty-five cents in our cup. I offer to pay for dinner, since my stomach's too small right now to eat a whole $3.85's worth of food on my own. Inside the McDonald's we can see out the window at the intersection and the street cars running along their spiderwebs. The inside of the restaurant is nearly as dirty as the street outside, and for that reason, we aren't thrown out.
Summer takes a bite of her burger and as she talks, a mayonaise coated chunk of bread rolls down her bottom lip, which hangs down with every vowel.
“Hm, it might rain tonight,” she says.
“You could stay with me tonight. It has a roof, like I said.”
“I don't know you.”
“Well, you bought me dinner.”
“Fair enough,” I sigh, “Are you going to murder me, and rob me of my possessions?”
“What possessions?” Another gob of burger drops in her lap.
“Fair enough. I suppose I don't have much to lose.”
“So, will you come?”
“I suppose. Is it far?”
“It's a walk, and you've got time to take it.”
“Fair enough.” I return to my burger, and we don't speak again until we're done eating.
Once we get back out onto the street, she takes my hand and leads me south toward the lake. Her hand is sweaty, or mine is. Between the tall buildings I see dark rain clouds forming. Further west, I can see that we're headed for one of the less populated areas. In the shadows of these derelict buildings hide some of the more desperate people in this city. I'm not sure I want to be here, and I tell her so.
“It's okay. Just don't look at them. Don't look.” She's referring to several pairs of red-rimmed eyes following us from the other side of the street. Their gray clothes match the gray of everything else here.
“You live around here?”
“It's out of the way. No one goes there.”
“Is it safe?”
“No one goes there. Don't look.”
Her eyes are blank, and I can tell she's used to this kind of fear. The fear that comes with the realization that people are dangerous, especially when they're addicted to heroine, half-crazy, and not bothering to conceal a knife or a gun.
It's darker now, and the fog that rolled in from the lake has found its way to us, and I'm feeling claustrophobic with the thought that not being able to see these desperate red eyes is worse than seeing them, and I stick close to Summer, who's dark skin makes her more easily visible.
“A little further,” she says, turning another corner that I can't see, and pulling me behind her by the hand. She drags me through an alley to the back of what appears to be an abandoned drug store, and from there to another alley. Occasionally we quickly pass
by a lump of red-eyed desperation, and every time, Summer says “Don't look.” By now, it's raining, and I just shut my eyes to keep the water out. One last turn, and we're behind a tall brick building with a thin, rusted, black fire-escape leading up to a door on the upper floor.
Summer runs up the stairs ahead of me, and I follow, trying not to trip on the wet steel steps. At the top, she thrusts with her weight against the door, and it screeches rust and metal against the door frame as it falls open in front of her. I step through, and scan the room slowly, hugging my arms tight around me to keep warm after getting out of the rain. The floors are unfinished hardwood, with fat square beams jutting up from the floor and into the exposed rafters, which show signs of deterioration. A window on the other side of the room lets a little light in through broken shutters. Summer heads toward the window, which provides enough light to see a sleeping bag and a pillow against the wall beneath it. Across the room, one corner escapes the light. Squinting in the dark, I see that the shadows hide a small metal bucket.
“Don't go over there,” she says, “nothing you want to see in there.” I stumble to her side on the floor beneath the window.
“See, no one comes here.”
“It does have a roof. I'll give you that.”
“No one comes here,” she repeats.
“What are you doing in this place? There's no reason for a girl like you to be out here. Those people out there... they were...” I trail off, and stare at my hands. My fingernails are filled with black dirt, and my knuckles are white.
“I ran this far, and I guess this was where I stopped.”
“Been here long?” I ask.
“A while...” I can tell she's uncomfortable. “Let's sleep now,” she says.
I've reached the point at which I have so little energy that I could sleep anytime, or just stay awake forever, so I opt for sleep, under the circumstances. She opens the sleeping bag up, and crawls in, and I crawl in beside her without asking. Her eyes close, and she rolls onto her side, facing away. Drifting off, I find myself staring absently at the bucket in the corner before my eyelids fall.
There's a hand on my chest, and it drags its fingertips from my neck to my abdomen. Opening my eyes reveals that it's not yet morning, because I can't see anything. The rain hasn't stopped. The hand belongs to Summer. In the dark, I can make out her eyes looking back at me. The white edges around their dark irises gleam. They plead with me, but I can't tell for what. Then she kisses me.
It's a wet kiss, and her breath is worse than mine because I can smell it. Her tongue bumps into my teeth and cheeks before I let her have mine. Awkwardly, I place a hand on her hip, and trace the curve beneath her shirt to her stomach. Her abdomen is fleshy and my hand is lost in folds of dark skin. She props herself up on one arm, and straddles me within the sleeping bag before pulling the shirt over her head. The light through the window reveals her face, and the faint outline of her torso. Her eyes are closed, and her lips are parted slightly, with the lower one drooping down, like she was saying a word with a hard 'o' sound. She places my hands on her breasts, and writhes against me, though I'm not moving them. The nipples are hard and barely visible, being darker than her skin, the stippled ridges and bumps of them feel strange against my fingertips.
Before long she's begun to undo my pants, and is reaching into them, massaging me. I remain motionless, and focus on my hands. She keeps her eyes closed, but she gets up out of the sleeping bag and tugs down her shorts. Returning to me, she lowers herself onto me, and I feel a warmth that gives me an unpleasant and unfamiliar tingling in all of the hairs on my arms and neck. I close my eyes as well, and let her move freely, slowly rising and falling against me. The only sound is the rain, and our breathing which becomes more staggered and harsh with each moment. Her pace quickens, and my skin feels hot. Her fervour begins to hurt me, but I just hold my breath. As she bucks violently, I find myself instinctively reciprocating. With a shudder, she clamps down, letting out a quiet squeak as she does. I can't help but ejaculate inside her. She slumps, and rolls off of me, to the side, and faces away. I feel like saying something, but I don't say anything, and the only sound is rain again. I let the sound empty my mind again, and fall asleep.
The sun wakes me up, coming through the window. The shutters have been opened, and the light is overpowering. I rub my eyes, and adjust. Summer is gone. Her clothes are still in a pile beside me, and I look around the room for her. She's not here. My eyes move from one end of the room to the other, following along the walls, until resting on the only other object in the room: the bucket. I climb out of the sleeping bag, and crawl across the floor weakly. Getting closer brings on a bad smell. It's like rotting, but not rotting. As I wake up a little more, the sound of flies buzzing and bumping into each other slips in to my ears. I crawl closer, gagging from the smell. I can taste the smell. It's meat, or shit, or something. I hold my face above the bucket, and wave away some flies, half expecting to see a makeshift chamber-pot. I don't know what this is. A wad of red and brown and black half-dried wet thing is crawled over, eaten, shat on, by hundreds of flies. I gag, and have to hold my hand over my mouth to keep the flies from getting in.
Backing away, I hear the reverberative clank of metal on wood, and I realize that I've bumped something with my hand. Under my hand is a thin metal wire, bent out of shape. I grasp it, and crawl back to the window, for a better look. It's a bent coat-hanger. I turn it over in the light for a moment before noticing the reddish brown flakes on my hand. Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh shit fuck.
I reflexively fling the coat-hanger out the window in horror, and back away. My breath gets shorter and shorter, as I creep back to the bucket. Blowing the flies away as best I can, I tip the bucket toward me so I can see. I have to vomit. I want to get up and run away, but I just sit here feeling bile and acid coming through my mouth and nose onto my lap, into the bucket, on the floor. I sit there, dry-heaving and crying, knowing that Summer's not going to come back.