++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ the Lunch Line Chapter One 3170 words Henry Pashkow Maurice walked out of prison and on for a few blocks and stopped, and was amazed to find there were no prison guards or uniformed personnel or anyone else with the right or authority to detain or search him. For a while, when inside, he’d thought they’d always be around. But they weren’t within sight; nor was there a long walk down the corridor surrounded by cells with a locked gate at the end of it. He set his knapsack on the ground and rocked back and forth on his feet and threw a few punches in the air. He was on a typical city street: a stream of row houses (some boarded up) and parked cars, and a few quickly moving passers-by intent on business of their own. Silently at first, under the brisk October breeze, under a warming sun, he declared himself a free man. He’d have said praise the Lord; the adults in the fractured family he grew up in might have said it, but he was no longer much of a believer. So he declared what he perceived of as the truth: first in a throaty whisper; then, giving it voice, he shouted it out to give ballast to the declaration. The physical process of speech production and articulation was a thrill to him, as was any physical process. Shouting it out was exuberance itself. There was no one within hearing range. He’d have faced down anyone who questioned it. The chill in the wind was typical of October; it was one that picked up when the sun snuck behind the passing clouds and plunged him into the shadow. If there was any doubt he was free, he had the proof. He patted the carefully folded discharge papers in his pocket to assure himself it was still there. The prison warden had told him about a job opening at the shelter a month before his discharge. It was open to any homeless man, but special consideration was given to recently released convicts who’d served their time. The core duty was to keep order in the lunch line, where men had a tendency to get out of hand. It was said there were few applicants due to the difficulty of keeping them under control. The warden, who knew him fairly well, told him to keep cool and not go spouting off about his plans to work out and train to box during the interview. Just keep cool, they kept on saying. The pay was minimum wage plus room and board at the shelter. He couldn’t dally, though, because the deadline was looming.
2 But Maurice was too caught up in the joy of the moment to go right over there. He couldn’t tolerate warder or caretaker; nor could he be one to others, not straight away, not after two years of confinement and constraint. Freedom, to him, meant following an impulse. First he’d trawl through his old stomping grounds, and let fortune dictate where to go next. It could have its way with him and then he’d grab it by the ears and beat it into submission. If the job was gone when he got there he’d just have to re-think his next move. He now realized he was way on the other side of town from his neighborhood, and there on the ground was his own knapsack, full of clothing. He hoisted it up and strolled to the next corner and waited for the bus, the first of two that would take him to familiar ground. Getting on and looking out on the world from the window of a moving vehicle not returning to lock up was like getting high. There were older folks loaded down with groceries, mothers far too young and ill-equipped to bear up under the burden of whiney kids; and young boys strutting around wearing pants slung low, shouting big time threats at the mirror image of their own demons. Some of it was outside on the street, some inside on the bus. Few people looked content and free of conflict, free of serious obstacles to their desires, but that was no different from before. The recession had ended and a recovery was underway, according to newspaper accounts; that was true for some. Maurice didn’t consider the difference between recession and recovery as significant, having but scant acquaintance with recovery. When he got to the corner of 33rd and Diamond he stepped off the bus and into the warming familiarity of the neighborhood he’d grown up in. He tarried a moment to take in the sight, adjusted the knapsack, and hit the free ground in a celebratory jog. He trawled down 33rd street looking around and taking it all in, his body humming like a tuning fork finding its pitch. A few more new houses had gone up in pockets of development; a few more houses got boarded up along the side streets. No one he knew was out there. The knapsack felt heavier and slowed him to a quick walk. On Girard Ave he turned left and stopped for a sandwich and walked towards town. There was new construction on the main drag, the clang and din and percussive thump of machinery: old derelict buildings coming down, new ones springing up. The men working out there belonged to something, were part of some forward moving force; were in fact instruments of change. He felt left out of all that was going on. But he didn’t know any other feeling. The side streets there were like the one he’d grown up in, some run-down house, some guys with blunts hanging from their lips, a couple of girls bopping by full of sass; and moms out
3 there or behind closed doors, trying to keep their kids from getting caught up in the ceaseless energy and crushing inevitability of life in the street. That was the source of his energy and also what had dragged him down. The sun faded behind thickening clouds and the temperature dropped. By nightfall the knapsack felt like a burden he had to drag around with him. As the spontaneity he’d felt earlier on faded away his street sense was reawakened. He’d made no plans for the night. Too late for shelter; he’d be on the street, and on the lookout for any threat lurking in the shadow, or behind a building. It started drizzling and the cold cut through his windbreaker; and when the wind picked up the rain stung like pinpricks. He didn’t know how long he’d been huddling in the recessed doorway, one of several set back from the street, when the girl sashayed by. She had on a wide brimmed hat and an old trench coat, and twirled her fold-up black umbrella like a baton. She gave him the once over and snuggled into his space. She was thin, under the coat, older than him so really a woman, but not frail, and not too worn-through looking, nowhere near wrinkled. Her bright red lipstick covered nice, full lips; they were seductively parted; and she put one hand on his cheek, the umbrella dangling, and ran the other hand up his leg. It gave him a jolt like an electric shock. He’d had an enforced two year dry spell. He counted his money and offered her ten out of the fourteen he had left. At first she laughed a raucous, brittle laugh. She curled her lips and hissed through her teeth. “You think I’m out here doin’ this for sport?” She smirked and spun and ran the back of her hand lightly over his cheek and flicked open her umbrella and strutted off on shaky heels. He looked down the street at her departing form, past the empty lot that separated his doorway from the next building over. There were no street lights; darkness, emptiness, was all he saw. He settled down on his knapsack, careful not to drift into reverie. It amazed him that her simple touch bandied around like a throwaway gesture could arouse him so. Women could summon up real power when they wanted to call on it that way. He counted his money again, shook his head; nothing would alter the numbers on those bills. He’d be left out again. Maybe he’d be better off going right to the shelter in the morning. It might have been a half hour later when she reappeared, shaken. She quick-stepped into the recess and pressed herself against the door behind him, and he got to his feet and peeked out. Two guys were coming down the street, canted forward, shoulders hunched. He didn’t get a clear
4 view of their faces, but knew they meant business. One was tall and thin and wore a deep brown leather coat and grey pork pie hat; the stockier one had on a rain coat and a light-colored Stetson. “You know those guys?” Maurice asked her. “One of ’em,” she said. “I owe him.” Maurice frowned. “You expectin’ me to get you outta this?” She stared straight ahead, and shrugged. To Maurice, women had a hard time saying what they really wanted. But he was motivated as much by the prospect of action as by helping her. Combat was seductive, an antidote to feeling like a throw-away. He wasn’t carrying a weapon; even so he stepped out from the doorway and let his hands drop to his sides. They were about thirty feet away, and when they saw him they slowed. The tall, thin man strolled loosely along curbside, right hand in pocket, jutting out. The stockier man loped into the dark of the empty lot and drew up quietly, alongside the building. “Nothin’ here worth fightin’ over, far as I can see,” said Maurice, looking to his left at the tall one, who came up first; and then over at the other, emerging from the shadow. “So why don’t you just take what you feel entitled to.” It was more an opening salvo than a proposal, and Maurice was quick to move on the thinner man, catching him hand in pocket, flatfooted, with a hard kick to his ribs, knocking him back against a parked car, from which he fell forward, reaching, pathetically, out for balance, catching a hard right to the solar plexus instead. The man collapsed uselessly to the pavement, in utter defeat. Maurice reached into the man’s pocket and found a knife. He’d been hoping he wouldn’t find a gun. The stockier man was tussling with the woman and finally gripped her from behind and twisted her arm back. Her head was arched back, tight as a spring. The stocky man also had a knife, which he held to the woman’s throat. But he was a little unsteady. And there they stood, Maurice, knife in hand, pointed right at the other two: the stocky man, shielded now by the woman with the knife at her throat. They all looked on in rapt silence, as if beguiled, and waiting for an interpreter. “You cut her and I cut you,” said Maurice. “This ho ain’t worth it,” said the stocky man. “You got to the count o’ five,” said Maurice. “Fucking little skank owes me,” said the man, brandishing the knife, but away from her throat.
5 “You got to think about whether this is worth dyin’ for,” said Maurice. “I’m up to three.” The man’s eyes shifted uneasily to his companion, still on the ground, now struggling to his feet. His eyes shifted back to Maurice. He didn’t like what he saw in Maurice’s face. He didn’t like Maurice’s size, either. He loosened his grip on the girl’s arm. “You ain’t comin’ after a brother, are you?” asked the stocky man. “Not if I ain’t got no reason to,” said Maurice. He’d killed a man once, because he’d had to. He’d do it again only if he had to again; though he’d never backed down once he’d made a move. The man folded his knife and walked off. The other man walked off a moment later. Maurice watched him go and turned to the woman. Each had a world of feelings burgeoning up, some to talk about and others they couldn’t find the words to start off with. “You waitin’ for an invitation,” she asked, looking at him with barely concealed contempt, thinking he’d have let her die. She started off through the trash-filled street without waiting for him. He walked a half-step behind. They came to a dilapidated three storey row house a few blocks away, near a building site. There, they trundled up two dingy flights of stairs smelling of mold and decay. She opened the door and flicked the switch, and under the glare of the single bulb the roaches scattered for cover across a floor of rough pine. There was plenty of old furniture for them to hide under. On one side there was an old chifforobe with a chipped surface that had been painted over before. Next to it was a crib where a baby slept. There was a sink and an under-the-counter refrigerator and a hotplate on the counter under the window looking out on the trash filled alley. Some papers and a few unopened envelopes sat on the chifforobe. She threw her coat and hat on top of those. Once he sat down on the sagging double bed it threatened to draw him down through a long eye-closing tunnel into the depths of sleep. She stripped off her pants and top and strutted around the room in slip and panties to get him aroused. Within him, sexual need took up arms against fatigue. “Get started,” she said. “This ain’t no fuckin’ hotel.” He took off his pants and she eased him down supine and stopped, as if reconsidering the taste of what came next. She went to the cabinet over the sink and brought back a bottle and glass and set them down on the night table and poured herself a drink. “I don’t get none?” he asked. “You get what you pay for.”
6 “What’s your name?” “Champagne.” He laughed. “Come off it.” “I don’t need to tell you shit.” He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out four ones. She eyed them closely as he spread them out on the bed. She snapped them up and went to the cabinet and stuffed the bills into a jar and came back with another glass and poured him a drink. It made him wince. He hadn’t tasted anything similar in quite a while. “Don’t like the cheap stuff, do you,” she said. The irony was not lost on him and he repressed a smile. “Well, I don’t need to come in your mouth if you don’t want it that way.” She stared at him with furious repudiation, disgusted by the thought of it. Right then he didn’t care if he did or didn’t, because what she was doing felt mechanical, though nothing different than what he was used to. “What did you need to know my name for?” she asked. He shrugged. “Baby over there makes me nervous,” he said, inclining his head towards the crib. “He knows things.” Maurice knew this out of his own personal experience because his mother had walked the streets. “That baby didn’t do anything to you.” “Cool down. I ain’t sayin’ he did but it’s just that he might know.” “You tellin’ me this matters to you? What the fuck is all this about?” “Girl, I didn’t do anything to you but save your worthless ass.” A smattering of pain ran across her face. He couldn’t understand why women always shut down like that, turned off the joy, or the possibility of it, and retreated to a dull nothing. He didn’t quite know what he was trying to get to himself, beyond a hint of warmth he might latch on to. But that was a long time in coming, if it came at all. “Pour me another.” Her eyes darted over to his pants pocket. He reached into it and came up with a five, and she grabbed it and stuffed it into her bra, giving him the impression she’d gouge his eyes out if he tried to take it away from her. Blame her or not, it quelled his urge, brought him limpness at the most inopportune time. Girls he knew just wanted to get down to whatever the business was,
7 and he’d had that experience often enough to know it and try to get used to it. But he just couldn’t accept it. He downed his drink, and was momentarily caught up in reverie, so she had to ease him down in preparation for what she was going to do. Now she set to work with the bare assurance that this wouldn’t be any worse than what she’d gone through before. But then he raised himself up and lifted her face and tried to kiss her lips and feel her tits. At first she thought he went for the five and pushed him off, but a split second later, she knew exactly what she was dealing with. It wasn’t hard to hold him back and shake her head no. Here was another lonely, useless nigger, as if there weren’t enough of them already. So when he tried to run his hand over her body again it was no problem to nudge his hands aside and continue working. She let him come and went to the bathroom and spit it out and came back and sat on the bed. He sat up, but barely. “I hope you don’t want me to go,” he said, “because I ain’t got nowhere to go.” He didn’t hear any response. A moment later he was asleep. He could have slept standing up. The morning light streaked through the Venetian blind when he woke up, to the clamor from the job site. She let him shower and when he got out she was feeding the gurgling baby. Her eyes were soft and limpid and her mouth worked wordlessly in time to the spoon’s movement into the baby’s mouth. She hummed a tune, totally absorbed. He looked on, with more than a trace of longing for the little he knew about intimacy and the rest he thought he knew, though he had never really experienced it before. She glanced up at him with a puzzled frown and dandled the baby and swayed to her own inner rhythm. She had too much on her mind for anyone who needed space in her life. One thing was the eviction notice sitting on the chifforobe. He fiddled with his windbreaker and finally put it on and looked like he was struggling to find the right words before leaving. “Thanks,” she said, “for what you did. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it.” He placed the knife on top of the chifforobe, on top of the eviction notice in one of the envelopes. He figured maybe she’d need it one day soon.