A work in progress...
A work in progress...
Chapter One - Night Vulture
Through the dark recesses of the night I wander, searching for a reason to stay awake. The last vestiges of excuses have withered away and I am left with a bleary patch of semi-consciousness to wallow on my inevitable path to the softness of the pillow and the terrifying prospect of another day.
Yes, there is no hope for me, with every rising of the sun, I can feel the great gaping hole in the ground pulling towards me, and I crave nothing but another day to smell the newly cut grass and bask in warm sunshine.
But as the clock drifts into the region of the hopeless hours, the time in which all vestiges of redemption dissolve, I wander, rubberized shoes making little or no sound on the cracked sidewalks. Occasionally a vehicle rumbles by, usually a banged up pickup truck, but the silence is almost complete, and I can hear the city breathing shallow intakes of air and rasping out its exhaust into the night.
I’m heading for a place that will be starkly lit, with coffee as stale as the fetid air that has never been cycled though any conditioner.
Who frequents places like these in the dark hours? Who doesn’t have the sense to lie down at sunset and rise with the sun? People who are like me: hopeless, helpless, out of sync with their souls.
As I reach the main drag, the street lights cause a ripple of tension along my spine. It is so much brighter on this one street. It doesn’t make any sense. But then, not much does these days.
I’ve been walking for a bout half an hour. I’ve drifted into a comfortable rhythm. My arms swing gently at my sides. I have on a light windbreaker that at first was not enough to make me feel warm but now is an encumbrance.
Up ahead I spot the Triangle Lunch Shop, a twenty four hour joint. Even at a distance, through the plate glass windows I can see there’s three or four people hunched over cups and plates at the counter.
I swing open the glass door and slide into the antechamber, about six square feet of incredible heat. For someone coming in from a mildly chilly outdoor atmosphere, this is a shock. I hadn’t realized I was hunching over a bit, but now I could feel myself straightening to full height. I couldn’t get into the coffee shop proper fast enough. Inside, the temperature was at a normal level. Why in the world were they shooting all that heat into the little box in the front of the store?
I had my choice of several vacant tiny two-seater tables and several more at the counter. I chose the counter. Sliding onto a backless stool, I look to my left and right. To my left is a snaggletoothed elderly woman with both hands wrapped tightly around an oversized cup of coffee, as if she were warming her hands. She is staring intently into the cup. To my right a wild-eyed man with thatched grey hair curling out from under a faded baseball cap was running his finger along the page of a thick paperbound book.
Keeping his finger on the page, he looked up at me and said with utmost gravity, “have you looked inside the book and made the claim to see your name? Will you sit at the feet of the heavenly seat and tell all the story of eternal glory? Yea, verily, yea, verily.” And he stood suddenly and strode to the door, clutching the book. I could see the letters N.A.D.A in large letters printed on the cover. The woman on my left had not moved a muscle.
An ancient man hobbling on a cane staggered from a table up to the counter and took the vacant seat. He spoke loudly the word “Pie!” to the emptiness behind the counter and within moments a heavyset man in an apron materialized, sliding a plate with a slab of blueberry pie onto the counter in front of the old man.
The man behind the counter made eye contact with me but said nothing. I said “hot tea, please, with lemon.” And the man slipped noiselessly away.
“Tea drinker, hey?” the old man spoke, fixing me with a baleful eye. “How can you stomach that bellywash? Tea’s not bad as medicine, I guess. You sick?”
“Not with anything that tea could cure,” I replied.
“What you got?”
“A dead heart. It’s sunk to the bottom of my insides and it’s dragging me down. I’m all bottom. There’s no top to me.”
“All right, buddy. Get out your T.S. card so I can punch it for you. There’s no sympathy to be found in this joint.”
“I suppose everybody’s got their own problems. What carefree person would be hanging out here at this time of the night?”
“It aint trouble that brings us out. It’s restlessness. I ache in every joint, but I gotta keep moving. I don’t know how much time I got left and there’s so much that needs to be done.”
I looked on the counter and there was my tea. I used the spoon to help squeeze the juice from the lemon wedge into the tea and took a sip. It was potable. “so what’s your name, old fellow?” I asked.
“James Slimnarski,” he said, extending a bony hand. “Everyone calls me Slimjim.”
I shake his hand firmly. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Call me Vulture. I’m the Night Vulture, I eat up the darkness of the dead hours.”
Slimjim turns back to his pie and tucks it into his mouth steadily with tiny forkfuls. I sip at the tea, which quickly cools to a drinkable temperature. Soon my cup is empty and Slimjim’s plate is bare. A trace of a smile plays across his face as he says “Vulture, want to make yourself useful?”
“Walk along side me as I try to make it back home. If I fall down, I might need help getting back up. A guy could lay in the street for a long time waiting for a helping had this time of night.”
“I can do that,” I said reaching into my pocket and fishing out a dollar to lay on the counter. The old man shuffles towards the door without a backwards glance.
“Aren’t you going to…”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got direct un-deposit. This joint is wired to my bank account. I’m here so much, they charge me rent.”
The way Slimjim moved you would have thought that we were out on a small boat in the ocean, buffeted by huge waves. He had his had out to reach for the handle of the door to the diner a good three steps before he made contact with it. I caught up to him and held the door open as we both were quickly enveloped by the heat of the antechamber.
“Feels good, don’t it?” asked Slimjim, and I nodded my agreement. “Let’s soak it in for a moment and then head North up the street to my place.
After a few heartbeats he reached a hand out for the outer door, but I was able to get to it first, open it wide and hold it wide while he shuffled out into the night.
Nothing had changed during the hour I spent in the coffee shop. If anything the gloom had intensified. It was late, but still not late enough for streaks of light to begin their crawl across the sky.
Wordlessly, Slimjim made it clear that he did not want me to hold onto him as he shuffled along the sidewalk. He leaned heavily on his cane and always appeared on the verge of going ass over tea kettle, but somehow managed to keep himself upright. I stayed close by his side, my right hand never more than a few inches away from him.
In the distance a train whistle moaned. Shortly after it died away, Slimjim broke the conversational silence. “You a working man?”
“I got a job. Nine to five. In an office. Nothing to write home about. Pays the bills.”
“How you gonna get though the work day, staying up like this?”
“I’m stronger when I stay awake. I feed on sleeplessness. My energy is like those crackling electric wires across the street over there” I said, pointing.
“I haven’t worked in years. I take the Social Security, and just manage to make do. Lots of folks I know can’t manage on Social Security alone, but I do. Cut every corner known to man. I don’t need all that much to get along. I’m pretty healthy for my age, cept for the loss of balance now and then.”
“Where’d you work?”
“Well, for a while I lived up north and help build the mountain railroad. That was hard work, dragging those ties around. We had a good crew though, and it was a party every night. Lotsa laughs. Lotsa beer. Then the railroad got all built and we were turned loose on urban civilization. Moved down to this city and found a guy who needed help delivering ice all around the immigrant neighborhood. After a few years people bought them refrigerators and we were done for. Got a job clerking at a hardware store, installing carpet and linoleum, doing anything that the store owner needed. He kept me on long after I was all that useful to him, but I finally realized that I was old and I quit.”
We reached a street corner and paused to let a large grocery truck rumble past.
After we crossed the street he said, “Not much further. It’s in the middle of the block after next.”
The wind was picking up again as we reached the door to his apartment building. He dragged a keyring out of his pocket and used one key to unlock the outer door. This let us into a small foyer with a wall of mailboxes. There was a musty smell that told of ages of unmoved dust. He used another key to unlock the inner door. The musty odor was more intense within.
“Elevator’s broken,” he said, angling towards a steep flight of stairs. “I’m up three floors.”
Climbing the stairs was a slow, torturous process for Slimjim. It might have gone faster if I carried him up on my back. I wasn’t sure I could have managed, or I would have offered to carry him. He had a system which involved reaching as far up on the railing as he could and pulling himself up while pushing down on his higher foot. Despite the snail-like pace, he made steady progress and I was in no particular hurry.
In the fullness of time we reached the fourth floor. Slimjim stood on level surface for a time, letting his breath fall back to normal. Then we push off down a corridor and stopped at around the fifth door. “Thanks for seeing me home, Vulture. Want to come in and rest a bit before you consume the rest of the night?”
I nodded my assent and he unlocked the door to his apartment. It was reasonably warm inside and the rooms smelled much cleaner than the hallways. Slimjim’s domain consisted of a large room, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom. The large room did not have a bed, but did have a blanket spread out in one corner of the floor.
“No bed?” I asked.
“Safer that way. Can’t fall out. Also better for my back. Haven’t slept in a bed in years.”
There were a couple of threadbare overstuffed chairs in another corner of the room. He flopped into one of them and motioned me to take the other.
I sat. He was silent for a time, studying my face. Finally he said “So what do you think of this Middle East situation?” I could tell he didn’t really want me to reply as much as he wanted to give me his appraisal. So I merely murmured “Hmmm…” and stroked my chin with my fingers.
To be continued...