by MEREDITH KURZ
Sleeping on a Concrete Bed by 2C2K Photography | Flickr
It’s 8:50 p.m. and the Eternal Flame Diner closes at nine. Although the lights are still on, they seem to dim as the last customers head out. Saint Louis waits outside for that moment between near closing time but not too close to lights out. She’s smoothed down her pants and plucked up her shirt collar. A tall woman with a good collar gets respect. She’s wiped her teeth with her finger, run a hand through her short hair. On the way uptown she washed up, giving her armpits and shirt pits a scrub, drying both under the blower. She puts on a little smile, because a full smile would seem aggressive and also reveal all the crevices of blackness, of missingness there.
The boy, it's always some young boy, gets ready to throw away the bakeries behind glass and the milk that's stood all day on the coffee accessories bar. Louis gently opens the diner door and says, "If you're going to throw those away, I'd sure appreciate them." She stands far away from him, from his worry.
Lyudovica’s hasn’t heard her given name, her Christian name, this old-world martyred saint’s name, since she left home. Her brutish brother anglicized her name, and before he disappeared taunted her with the nickname Saint Louis which stuck. She speaks Russian, some Spanish and of course English. How many Americans speak three languages? Louis will tell you, looming too close if she’s in her cups, “Four percent!” “Cuatro por ciento!” “Chetyre protsenta!”, like a benediction of the Trinity. Then, wearied by her sudden, futile and spent fury, exhale a long sigh.
She can't afford to go too deep in her cups because she'll end up like Mr. Steves, who sleeps on the grate on a piece of cardboard. Mr. Steves is frequently mistaken for dead as he reposes against the warming brick of the afternoon sun-glared CVS store. She’s not going to end up like Mr. Steves, swallowed up by the sidewalk.
She remains at a distance from the boy, arms by her side, body still. She commands the moment and watches him shake open a paper bag. The sound of shuddering paper sounds dangerous in the empty space.
"You keepin' that milk there?" she asks, knowing it's The Law that makes this underaged, underpaid, cash-under-the-table boy throw it away, knowing he wants to go home and no one's there to defend him, and he wants her to go. This will be his last week, she thinks, perhaps his last day. He will quit this job because of Louis, because of all the Louises. Then another boy will be here, next time, which is good.
"Just give me a cup," she suggests, giving him an answer to his dilemma. “You can empty out the milk in it, and then I’ll go." She gives him that small smile, a grin with a raised right eyebrow, and finger combs the hair near her right temple, then flicking a stray strand over her ear. This used to get her dates when she was young, but she ain't so young any more, is Louis.
He hands her the cup and the old muffins and croissants that plop plopped in the bag. She nods her thanks, not touching his hand as she takes his gift.
She eats this dinner as she heads to the 4,5 to Wall Street to tuck in. She needs get there when it’s busy, to jump the turnstile. Eyes slide past her.
One of the cops that works the Wall Street told his buddies St. Louis's dad died on 9/11. We don't know if that's true or not, but this keeps Louis safe from harassment on her bed of wooden seats as the trains wail by, wail by, wail, wail, then gone, and Louis slumbers there, her knees bent over the wooden arm, her neck twisted back, jaw open.
Morning brings the hustle, and she rides up to Times Square, shaking the now empty milk cup through the cars. When she arrives she cadges a cardboard sign from a still-sleeper. "I NEED $37.50 FOR A BUS RIDE HOME!" The exclamation point wobbles a little, is larger and more stabbed into the cardboard than the rest of the words. She sits on a busy corner, head low, shaking cup arm up. People give more money if they don't have to make eye contact.
Who puts a dollar in her cup? Not suited city folk, smirking at her familiar sign. Sometimes a tourist will squeeze out some small change, but the bills come mostly from working guys, hardhat guys. Maybe they’re someone who's had Hard Times, or knows Hard Times. She doesn’t stay too long because the Times Square cops don't have that September 11th rumor (it could be true). She’s herded, told to move along, get going.
She delicately pinches lunch from a spewing trashcan outside the Burger King. Excited tourist children barely touch their meals. ‘Perfectly good,” she tells herself. Afterward she’ll head to the Bryant Park bathroom to spruce up before walking the few blocks towards Penn to see Squido.
Squido’s a large bellied, cigar left side of a women-lipped mouth, furious eyebrows, arms like a hog leg of a man. He gives Louis a fist of fake Madison Square tickets and a New York Rangers jersey. "You stain it, you pay for it,” Squido warns, chewing angrily on the unlit stogey. Louis hawks her tickets, avoiding the country of cops milling the MSG crowd. As the fans enter the Garden she peels off the shirt, trotting back to Squido. Later an angry buyer, denied entry, will run outside grab a cop to help look for some "cock sucker son of a bitch" in a Rangers shirt. The cop pretends to scan the crowd for less than ten seconds then shrugs.
The air has turned and without the extra clothing Louis thinks of her one friend, Mr. Steves. She just may visit and share that grate where the subway heat rises up, blows warm, and it’s quieter than her subway crib. This kind of cold makes Louis realizes she may not get out of the current rut she’s in, the rut that's been going on for a few years, admittedly a decade or more. It's a bitter taste in her mouth. She needs something to wash that away.
She's got some coin and paper chattering in her pocket. She plays with it as she ponders what, what, what to drink, but she already knows. This is a game she plays with herself and she gets her New Amsterdam vodka and catches the 1 train to Columbus Circle, heads to 10th Avenue near Mt. Sinai’s, far enough away from the hospital to avoid the boot, close enough in case, well in case.
She's going to change it all around tomorrow, she's saying to herself. "I'm going to change it all around tomorrow." She's talking out loud now, footsteps tapping out a less confident, less rhythmic beat on the night pavement. If she doesn't eat again for a good long while this buzz will carry her through the dark.
She almost falls over Mr. Steves, who is lying on his back, his belly exposed. Steves looks like he's holding his crotch under his pants and Louis grins wide and laughs a bit, giving him a gentle nudge kick, but Mr. Steves doesn't respond.
Mr. Steves has moved up from the minors, from liquor to the killer sport; heroin. Louis looks down at him, and still grinning, kicks him again, a bit harder, but gets no response. Looking around first, Louis reaches into Mr. Steves' right and left pockets. Empty. In his back pocket she finds a soiled tissue and a broken toy car. She kicks Mr. Steves extra hard, but then losing her balance collapses next to him. The bottle’s almost drop empty, then surprised, is empty. She leans against Mr. Steves, using him as a chaise lounge. She idly weaves her finger under Mr. Steves' nose to see if there's any warmth there.
She is not going to end up like Mr. Steves here, she thinks. "I am not going to end up like you, Mr. Steves. You have gone too far. Too far," she says out loud. Then she slides down, and spooning him, falls asleep.
Meredith Kurz is a features writer. Her NYC articles range from interviewing a jet pilot discovering his parachute’s faulty in mid jettison, jury duty for a $12 Million Diamond Heist (oh yeah, guilty), to ribbing with Central Park baseball players whose game’s gone on since the 1940’s. An interview with Ira Sherman, master jeweler and mechanical savant, is due out in late August. Kurz's fiction, like her nonfiction, favors the what-if, where sights and smells are never completely pleasant.