Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Ending, Another Beginning

With installment number thirty-one, Spare Change comes to an end for now. I'm much happier with how this one turned out compared to Mossy's.

I've got another story in the works but that will have to wait for the new year. Happy holidays all, see you in 2009.

- Marc

Spare Change #31

The morning traffic outside the window must have woken me. It takes me a few moments to remember where I am – I’m still getting used to this room, this apartment, this life.

I look over at the alarm clock; eight am, that means it’s Sunday and that means I have a long day of peace and quiet ahead of me. I slip out of bed and find my slippers, a house warming gift from Karl, with my searching toes. Such an extravagance, slippers. I would never have thought I’d own a pair, much less receive them as a present on the occasion of moving into my own apartment.

“Rise and shine sleepyhead!”

Sorry, our apartment.

“I don’t even want to know what time you got up,” I say in the general direction of the kitchen where, from the smell of things, TJ has been hard at work. I stretch my arms over my head and let loose an appropriately large yawn before shuffling out to join her.

“Do you always sleep in this much?” I think she’s actually serious. I open my mouth to protest but she carries on. “Anyway, I made scrambled eggs and toast, help yourself. I think there’s a bit of juice left in the fridge.”

I shake my head and wisely keep my mouth firmly shut as I grab the plate with the second fewest chips and cracks in it; TJ already has the best one, the one with reindeers and Christmas trees on it. I throw the remaining breakfast on my plate and join TJ at our wobbly kitchen table.

“I like your hair like that,” I say around a mouthful of eggs. She has it tied up in a short ponytail with a few curly strands hanging down the right side of her face. “You should wear it like that more often.”

“Living together three days and already he’s telling me what to do with my hair,” she mutters but I can tell she’s pleased. “You sleep okay? You were tossing and turning quite a bit last night.”

“Just the usual bad dream,” I reply. There’s no need for further explanation – I’ve been having the same dream every night for the last two weeks. If I close my eyes right now Tommy and Ashes would be there waiting for me; Tommy with his gun, Ashes writhing on the ground like a wounded animal.

“It will stop sooner or later,” TJ says tenderly. “It just takes time. You still haven’t heard anything from Tommy?”

I shake my head and take a sip of orange juice. The man had disappeared into the night like a ghost; the police still haven’t found the gun. I don’t think we’ll ever hear from him again but Tommy is full of surprises so I guess I can’t count him out just yet.

“Maybe it will be better after the sentencing,” I say with a shrug. “Knowing Ashes is out of my life for a set amount of time, hopefully years, can’t hurt.”

After a few minutes of silence TJ gets around to asking the question she’s wanted to voice for at least a week. I’m glad to be done waiting for it.

“Do you think Tommy did it on purpose, letting her live?”

I close my eyes and go back two weeks in a heartbeat. Ashes' screams echo off the walls as she presses her hand into the gunshot wound in her right shoulder. Tommy walks over to her slowly, keeping his gun on her while I remain rooted to the ground.

“What do you think J?” Tommy asks me casually. “She seems like she’s in a lot of pain – should I put the bitch down?”

I open my eyes to find TJ’s concerned eyes on my face.

“The first shot I’m not sure about but I think he just missed,” I say slowly, not wanting to remember. “The second shot I have no doubt about – he just wanted her to suffer. At five feet he could have put that bullet anywhere.”

TJ nods and returns to eating her breakfast in silence. A few more minutes pass before she changes the subject.

“So DJ is hooking you up with another part time job?”

“Yeah, if things work out I’ll do three days a week at the music store and three days a week at his buddy’s book store,” I say. Right now I’m working at DJ’s six days a week but he can’t afford to keep paying me for this much work so he’s trying to split the load without me losing out. I owe my new life to him.

And to the woman sitting across from me.

“That will be so great,” TJ says with a captivating smile. “It’s a brand new world out there J.”

It really is. Change has finally arrived and it’s not nearly as terrifying as I expected.

It feels… good.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Spare Change #30

It was the last thing I expected. I was still ten or fifteen feet away from Tommy, my legs were on fire and refused to carry me any faster. Ashes was closing the distance, her knife held hard and low by her side, full of sinister promises.

And Tommy just stood there.

He was not frozen by fear or shock or anything like that. He looked at me and then slowly turned his head to watch Ashes approach but he made no move to run. I was about to yell at him again but then he said the one word I least expected, the only word I could not have seen coming in that moment of madness.


I stumbled to a stop; his words had planted a brick wall in my path. They did not, however, have a similar effect on Ashes – she kept coming, a hideous snarl forming on her lips.

Where his words failed, his next action did not: he pulled his gun out of his jacket pocket and levelled it at her head.

She skidded to a halt without a word, I stood panting shocked white clouds and Tommy stood like a statue, not an inch of him wavering. And now here we are, in a poor man’s Mexican standoff: words against a knife against a gun.

“Tommy... don’t do it man... this isn’t the way to end this,” I tell him, my voice hoarse from disuse and the cold.

“I have to say I disagree J,” he tells me without looking away from her face. Her hatred is plain to see, I don’t know how she’s keeping it all inside her head – mine would have split open by now. “I have to say that this is the most perfect, most fitting, most just way to end this nightmare.”

I can’t pretend that this is not a deeply tempting solution, the only one that would ensure Ashes never interfered in our lives again, but I can’t let Tommy become a murderer. Obviously a good case could be made for self-defence but right now this would be cold-blooded homicide.

“We need to get the cops, get her locked up and finish this the right way man,” I plead but I can tell already that he won’t listen to anything I have to say. His eyes are flat and determined, there is no anger there: only certainty. “Tommy if you do this they’ll put you away instead, that’s not how this mess should end up!”

“I’ve got places I can hide,” he says from a faraway place. “If they ask, you were never here... tell them you were with TJ, she’ll cover for you... I’m sure Karl would too. You’ve got people that look out for you; I hope you know how lucky you are.”

Ashes remains silent – that’s the only thing I’m grateful for right now. One word from her could set this powder keg off... but I can’t see a way to get out of this without that gun going off and ending two lives. Hell, it might end mine as well – I bet Officer Cruz would jump all over this chance to get me behind bars: he’d find a way to prove Tommy and I planned this together, he might even put my finger on the trigger.

What can I say, what can I do... I should have brought Karl with me, he would know the right thing to say to bring sanity to this situation. I should have brought the cops here yesterday, maybe they could have staked it out, caught Ashes before any of this could have happened. I should have –

“Get out of here J, get somewhere you’ll be seen so that you’ve got an alibi,” Tommy tells me the same way he would tell me to go get a bottle of tequila from the corner store. Calmly, confidently, matter-of-factly. “I don’t want you to get caught up in this -”

Tommy is cut off by Ashes’ feral scream as she rushes toward him with teeth and knife bared. My heart stops beating, my lungs stop breathing. Tommy blinks once, twice, then pulls the trigger.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Spare Change #29

Her face is partially obscured by long, greasy black hair that shines weakly in the moonlight but I can see a pale nose, black lips pressed tightly together. Gloved hands carry two plastic shopping bags filled to bursting, swaying gently back and forth at knee level.

There is a knot tightening my stomach, blood seems to have abandoned my head and the struggle to remain still is making my legs tremble. So this is Ashes. Or is it? Maybe Tommy has found some new companionship already. That doesn’t seem very likely though - the experience with my half-sister should have sent him packing to a monastery, not into the arms of another woman.

I let my held breath seep out slowly through cracked lips, wishing the white puffs would dissipate faster. Is she just going to stand there, waiting for Tommy to show up? No, she has to check inside to make sure he isn’t there already... unless she knows he’s not. I’ve got no way of getting out of here without being seen and I don’t trust my legs to carry me at more than a limping jog at this point.

Ashes swings her head from left to right, lank hair reluctantly mirroring the motion. She cocks her head to one side as though listening for something, then turns her gaze to my hiding spot.

The urge to run is overwhelming. I hold my breath again, ignoring the protests of my lungs and join the staring contest. A weak breeze crinkles her shopping bags and burns my cheeks and neither of us moves.

A movement at my feet breaks the standoff and I look down to see a rat chewing on my shoelaces. A choked, coughing scream escapes me as my whole body tenses. I hate rats, oh my lord I absolutely despise these filthy creatures.

I whip my head up to see Ashes drop her bags and reach inside her jacket with her right hand before the terror of an unseen rodent at my toes brings my eyes back down. Get away from me you disgusting beast, get the hell away from me!

I sneak another glance at Ashes and my eyes go wide – she is striding towards me with a very, very big knife in her hand. She’s almost halfway here already. I need to run but my body is frozen in place. By cold. By fear. By shock.

The rat places its front paws on top of my left sneaker and I’m forced into action. I flick my foot and send it fleeing into the light, towards the advancing maniac. I shift my weight, legs shrieking in protest, and prepare to run. But a scream stops me short.

I look up to see Ashes backing away with a horrified expression painted on her face, her eyes locked on the rat scurrying around in circles between us. I guess at least one thing runs in the family.

She backpedals to her bags, slips her knife inside her jacket and shakes her head furiously. She gathers up her things and, with another quick look around, disappears into Tommy’s place. Now is my chance to escape but I don’t move. I can’t let Tommy return home to this psycho, I need to warn him.

But what if I can get to a telephone booth and call the cops before he shows up? They would have Ashes behind bars and we could both rest easy again. The stress and fear would be gone, I could stop looking over my shoulder every ten seconds. This could all end tonight.

My eyes are glued on the dark entrance to Tommy’s place, straining to detect any movement, a pair of eyes waiting for me to reveal myself. I need to make a decision – wait for Tommy or go now. Could I live with myself if Ashes kills him while I’m away? Can I pass up this chance to lock her up and be free of her?

Tommy’s arrival takes the decision out of my hands. As soon as I see him at the corner of his building I step out of the shadows and move quickly towards him. He stops short but relaxes once he realizes it’s me. I put a finger to my lips to forestall the question forming on his and risk a quick glance at the entrance to his place.

I almost trip over my feet when I see Ashes climbing out of the darkness with her knife in her hand and a crazed look on her face. I swear and break into a stumbling run.

“Run!” I scream at Tommy. “She’ll kill us both!”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Spare Change #28

I’m waiting outside of Tommy’s place, keeping to the shadows of the building next door where I can see his entrance without too much worry of being seen. I’m going to have to be careful not to spook him when he shows up - I don’t know if he’s carrying that gun around or not.

My breath slips out in white clouds as I try to shrink into my black wool coat; along with a pair of old jeans and a few long sleeve shirts, it makes up my new wardrobe from Chateau Karl. I’m going to have to find a wool hat to go with them – my ears are freezing. This is a night I’ll be grateful for the extra blankets he gave me as well. Maybe I’m getting soft, maybe I’m getting too old for this street life.

Work went flying past today - I can’t remember ever being so busy at any point in my entire life. Between the arrival of three boxes of new albums that needed to be shelved, regular visits from Officer Strickland, more customers than any two previous days put together and getting things ready for DJ’s return I don’t know how I found time to breathe.

It’s probably... no, it’s definitely a good thing I was running around all day. It kept my mind off of Ashes and Tommy and kept me focused on what was right in front of me. Even when Officer Strickland came by we only talked about the store and music, I even suggested a few albums for her to check out when she was off duty. Officer Cruz stayed in the car, to everyone’s relief.

Karl came by to help me finish stocking the shelves after closing and then escorted me to the bus that took me here. He had offered to accompany me but it was a token offer – we both knew I had to convince Tommy to talk to the cops on my own.

The air is getting colder, the night darker and still no Tommy. Maybe he’s abandoned this home in favour of one that Ashes doesn’t know about. I couldn’t blame him if that was the case, I know I would have done the same if I was in his ratty sneakers.

That is one of the perks of living life the way we do – if you need to move, you move. No mail to worry about, no change of address forms to fill out, no notice to be given. Just pack up your things and find a new place to settle down. If this thing with TJ works out that might be the only thing I miss.

While TJ took her turn in the shower this morning I was finally able to ask Karl about the money. He was pretty relieved to hear I finally had a plan for it... I bet he was figuring that money would gather dust and never see the light of day again. But it sounds like, if I can get some sort of steady work with DJ when he gets back in two days, it will be enough to convince a landlord to rent a place to me and TJ.

Which is a bit of a scary thought... and a bit of an exciting thought... and...

The sound of gravel being disturbed by slow, steady footsteps brings me back to the moment. I remain hidden as I wait for the source of the noise to appear, knowing there’s no guarantee it will be Tommy. I damn well hope it is though, I’m ready to go home and crawl under all the blankets I can find. Maybe stop for hot chocolate on the way.

A figure veiled in shadow appears around the corner of Tommy’s building and pauses to look around. I hold my breath and stay still, pushing away an urge to call out his name until I know it’s him. Then the person steps out of the darkness and everything slows down, until time is frozen and all my thoughts are silenced. Except for one.

Is this woman Ashes?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Spare Change #27

Dipping warm, buttered bread into a bowl of homemade chicken soup – how can such a simple act bring such great pleasure?

“This is wonderful TJ,” Karl says around a dripping spoonful of broth. “I should have you two over for dinner every night.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replies with a poor attempt to conceal her pleasure. “Just a little something my mother taught me a lifetime ago; I’m surprised I remembered it, to be honest.”

We’re sitting at Karl’s small square kitchen table with Mozart serenading us from the stereo in the next room. It’s a meal deserving a fine wine as a companion but we’re all sipping water – two of us out of fear of a slippery slope, one out of support.

“That sweater suits you J, and it’s a pretty good fit,” Karl tells me. “After dinner we’ll go through my closet and see what else works for you.”

“You’ve already done too much for me, I can’t -”

“I haven’t done nearly enough,” he interrupts softly, shaking his head. “I’ve got too many things in there anyway, I hardly wear half of it.”

I shift uncomfortably in my chair and take another bite of bread. I’m not sure why I can accept charity from strangers but not friends; maybe it’s the intimacy of it that upsets me. Rather than reply I look around his home again.

It’s a good size for two people, a bit cramped with three. There are a few paintings by local artists on the wall, some postcards stuck on the fridge with a random sampling of ceramic animals and comfortable, well-worn chairs and recliners scattered around the kitchen and living room.

I feel out of place in a proper home but I could get used to hot showers and working plumbing. Maybe getting a place with TJ wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. I’ll have to talk to Karl about my money situation later, when we’re alone.

“You’ve got a lovely place here,” TJ says. “Could use a woman’s touch though, if you don’t mind me saying so. You got any prospects lined up?” Ah TJ, Queen of Subtlety.

“Work is taking up too much of my time and energy to even think about dating,” he says with a sad smile. “But we’re trying to find room in the budget to hire me an assistant; even a part-time one would make an incredible difference.”

“That’s great,” I say, my eyes flicking involuntarily in TJ’s direction. “What sort of work would you want them to do?”

“Oh, mostly office work – it’s ridiculous how much of my day is spent faxing and photocopying and filing.”

“Well isn’t that something,” I say while looking at TJ. “It looks like you’ve got an ideal candidate right here in your kitchen!” TJ blushes and takes another spoonful of soup, keeping her eyes on the table directly in front of her.

“Is that right? Well the money isn’t guaranteed to be found for the position but if it does you’ll be the first to know,” he tells the top of her head. She looks up and flashes him a quick smile before returning to her soup.

We finish the meal in happy silence, three people enjoying the peace and warmth of a good meal with good friends. It feels like my life is turning an important corner; I can’t see what lies ahead just yet but I’m not afraid of whatever is waiting for me. Something suspiciously similar to hope is growing inside me.

What a lovely, encouraging evening. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’ll be spending tomorrow dealing with Tommy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Spare Change #26

I exit the police station to be greeted by the subdued glare of street lights and a cool evening wind that pushes my sweater against my body. The air here stinks of car exhaust and greasy Chinese food; there are three Asian restaurants on this block alone and they seem to be in a perpetual battle for the worst food in the city.

I step to one side of the doors, lean my back against the wall and close my eyes. It feels good to be alone at last, to have room to think and to breathe and … to just be.

The events of the day flash by in my mind like one of those terrible movie trailers that show all of the important scenes. I used to catch a matinee when the weather got too bad to be outdoors but it’s been a while now. Maybe I should start doing that again.

During a pause in the playback of today’s story I realize two things: the first being that there are two people having an animated conversation just around the corner from me; the second being that I know both voices.

I peel myself off the brick wall and step around the corner of the building so that my eyes can confirm what my ears already know. The sight of Karl and TJ sitting on a bench, carrying on like old friends, is momentarily disorienting.

“Oh good, you managed to avoid getting locked up for the night,” Karl says with more relief than I want to hear. He stands up, his hands hidden inside the deep pockets of his heavy coat, his eyes frowning at my outfit. “The weather is turning, we need to get you some warmer clothes.”

I give him a weak shrug but before I can reply TJ is in my arms, her cheek pressed against my chest. She smells like a campfire.

“Good to see you too,” I mumble into her hair. She says nothing, just hugs me tighter. My eyes find Karl’s and he smiles a whole-hearted, happy smile. “This is TJ, but I suspect you already know that.”

“She came by the store just before closing looking pretty peeved that a certain someone hadn’t returned her call,” he says. “Once I explained the situation she insisted on joining me in your retrieval.”

“And had a little get to know each other session while we waited,” TJ says into my sweater before pulling away slightly to look into my face. “So what’s next, are we off to find Tommy?”

“That can wait until tomorrow,” I say. “I’m ready for sleep right now.”

“Well you’re not sleeping at the store again,” Karl says. “I’ll set up my guest room for you… for both of you if you like.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I reply while looking at TJ, sharing a memory of peaceful nights spent in each other’s arms. “I’ll take you up on your offer; TJ can make up her own mind.”

“That sounds great Karl, thank you very much,” she says over her shoulder. “Can we stop at a store on the way there to pick up something for dinner? I’d like to cook tonight to pay you back.”

“You don’t have to do that, please don’t feel obligated…”

“I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t,” she says with a sparkling laugh. “Now let’s get J out of the cold.”

Friday, November 7, 2008

Spare Change #25

“State your name.”



“No, just J.”

Officer Cruz gives me an ‘I’m in no mood for this crap’ look but says nothing. This is not off to a good start and I expect it’s about to get worse.

“Last name?”

“I don’t know.”

He stares at his computer screen for a good minute without so much as blinking. I try to get Officer Strickland’s attention but that’s pretty hard to accomplish when you’re under the impression that you’re one wrong breath away from being shot.

“You don’t know your last name?” I can almost hear his teeth grinding and his pulse is visible in the vein protruding from his right temple. It’s kind of like a cartoon character… except nobody is laughing.

“I was six years old when my father died,” I tell him slowly – but not too slowly, I don’t want him to think I’m patronizing him. “If he ever told me I’ve long since forgotten and I’ve never even seen a birth certificate… not mine, not nobody’s.”

Officer Cruz mulls that over and decides to let it go; either he doesn’t care enough to dig deeper or he knows he has no way to figure out if I’m lying or not. I’m just glad he does.

Before our fun little chat can continue we’re interrupted by the jarring ring of his desk phone. Cruz rips the wireless from its brown dock and just listens, no greeting required for this call. He hangs up with an electronic beep and glares at me briefly before standing up.

“Don’t move,” he tells me, “I’ll be right back. If I find a paperclip out of place when I get back you’re spending the night with your buddies in the drunk tank.”

He storms back the way we came and I let him go without a reply, back to playing the good, humble little bum. Any citizen of the street worth his cardboard knows the rules: keep your head down, never speak out of turn, never get angry and you might just stay out of trouble.

Alone for the first time since I got here, I can finally take in my surroundings without threat of violence or jail time. The voices are constant, both quiet and loud; a symphony of keyboards; the floor tiles have been scrubbed so clean they reflect the harsh overhead lights back up at me; it reeks of really cheap, really bad –


“Yeah, I mean no, no thank you,” I tell the coffee pot bearing Officer Strickland. “A glass of water would be great though.”

“Sure thing,” she says and then, with a conspiratorial wink, “Officer Cruz gone to get the welcome wagon?”

“He didn’t say but that must be where he’s run off to,” I tell her with a quick smile. “I don’t suppose you could take my statement in his place?”

He’d be none too happy about that,” she says with a quiet laugh. “I don’t need that headache today, thank you very much.”

“That’s funny – I was getting the distinct impression that he would like nothing better than me being taken off his hands.”

“Officer Cruz can surprise you sometimes; now hush up honey,” she says with a previously unheard hint of the South, “here he comes.”

She fills his coffee mug to the brim before returning to her desk, my water seemingly forgotten. Cruz sits down with a creak of leather and a resigned sigh. He inspects his desk closely, his dark eyes examining every inch before they turn back to his monitor without comment.

A mighty crack of his knuckles and then: “Alright, Johnny Boy – start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out, not even the smallest detail.”

So I begin with the meeting with Tommy in his alley and tell him everything I can, and almost everything I should. Because every good bum knows that telling the cops everything is never a good idea.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Spare Change #24

I haven’t been in the back of a police car in a very long time, maybe five and a half years? I guess most people would not think that was a very long break from this kind of experience but it’s all relative.

Relative, relatives…

No. There will be more than enough time for those thoughts all too soon.

We hit a red light and I slide further down my seat, feeling like a criminal even without handcuffs. People see what they expect to see, they don’t ask questions; cops go in the front, crooks go in the back.

I glance up to see Officer Cruz smirking at me in the rear view mirror. Anger flares up but I decide to stare at my shoes and keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to give him any excuses to lock me up.

Last time I took this lonely ride there were handcuffs and ankle restraints; I had been quite the handful. I wasn’t such a good citizen of the streets back then, still had too much pride.

I don’t remember the face so well, but I remember his words: you should all be rounded up and shot – you’re all worthless.

I have blurred images in my mind of tackling him to the ground and punching his face until someone managed to drag me off. I do have several crystal clear pictures though: two broken teeth on the sidewalk; a white business shirt stained cherry red; the look of disgust on a young mother’s face.

That little incident got me a month in jail and six months in rehab. The prison time had the bigger effect – never wanting to go back there was enough motivation to keep my anger and pride in check ever since.

And now here I am, one wrong word from going back.

We turn into the police station parking lot as a light rain begins to fall. Officer Cruz stops the car with a jolt that almost sends me head-first into the plastic barrier between us.

I catch a glimpse of his partner flashing him a dirty look before she climbs out and opens the door for me. I give her a quick nod of thanks and join her in the rain and the smell of wet leaves. The feeling of relief is immediate and overwhelming. I’m tempted to make a break for it.

Officer Cruz’s arm on my elbow, guiding me into the station, ends that thinking in a heartbeat. The lobby is pretty quiet, the calm before the evening storm of drunks and addicts. A few heads turn as we pass through but nobody can be bothered to say anything.

The two cops bring me to a room filled with desks piled high with paperwork. A few officers are busy typing away at keyboards, one is yelling into his phone, the remaining desks are empty.

Officer Cruz helps me take a seat by a desk near the back of the room, none too gently. After a whispered conversation with his partner he sits down across from me. Damn it.

“I’ll be taking your statement,” he says with a flat stare. He pulls out the keyboard tray and logs into his computer while I try to find a believable excuse for needing to tell his partner my story. I don’t even know her name but I’ve seen enough to know she would be more sympathetic than this guy. I’m pretty sure a rhino would be too, for that matter.

“I’ll be over here if you need anything,” she says and begins to turn away before pausing to put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m Officer Strickland by the way; don’t worry, we’ll get this all sorted out for you.”

“Tina, please.” I want to punch him so badly. I say nothing, busy myself with examining the floor tiles.

“Relax Rick, it’ll do you some good,” she says with a smile and slips away before he can reply. I look up to see him glaring at me, jaw muscles clenched.

This is not going to go well.

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Birthday Present To Me

Is to take this week off. See you next Friday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Spare Change #23

My whole body feels numb, my thoughts move like icebergs in the still waters of my mind. The two police officers gave up on asking me questions shortly after they arrived. She seemed to understand; he looked like he wanted to toss me behind bars.

They are at the counter with Karl, listening to the message over and over and over again. I don’t hear the words anymore, just the voice. I can’t even remember what exactly Ashes said, just the general idea – but it’s enough. Too much, maybe.

I’m sitting on the floor at the far end of the store trying to figure out how my life ended up here. I’m trying to work a job while my half-sister torments me; trying to stay clean and make things right with TJ. Life was easier without hope.

Karl keeps looking my way to make sure I’m okay… I don’t know why – I’d think it’s pretty obvious that I’m not. He told the cops that I started showing signs of shock shortly after he had called them but I don’t remember when this cold, dull ache set in.

I rest my head on the display case behind me and close my eyes. Having one less sense giving me input seems to help so I plug my ears with my index fingers. A thought appears on the horizon that says I probably look like a lunatic right now. I smile.

I open my eyes to find Karl’s face inches away. I have no idea how much time has passed… had I fallen asleep? I unplug my ears.

“They want to take you to their precinct to take a statement,” he says slowly, like he’s talking to a child. “Do you think you’re up for that?”

“What about the store?”

“I’ll cover for you, I’ve already called the office to let them know I won’t be in today.” He eyes me with concern before continuing. “If you’re not ready I can take you there tonight, we can run the shop together today.”

“I’ll go now. I’ll be fine,” I tell him before he can object. “Besides, I can’t go later – I’ve got a date tonight.”

He raises an eyebrow at this but lets it go without comment. He helps me to my feet, nice and slow, before turning to tell the cops that I’ll go with them.

“What about the other one?” I’m starting to really dislike the male cop.

“They’ll need to speak with Tommy as well,” Karl tells me quietly. “He’s the only one who can give them a physical description of Ashes and he can back up your story. Can you tell them where to find him?”

“Did you tell them about the gun thing?”

“The gun… that’s one way of putting it,” Karl says with a laugh. “I had to. But if you don’t press charges and that couple remains just happy to be alive then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Or his drug problems? He can’t be considered a very reliable witness – he couldn’t even tell me what color her hair was,” I whisper as the male cop starts making impatient noises in the back of his throat.

“Tommy is all we’ve got to go on – it’s better than nothing.”

I take a few seconds to absorb his point. He’s right, of course, but I don’t want to get Tommy arrested. And I wouldn’t be doing him any favors if I brought the cops to the front window of his less than legal home.

“Tell them I’ll come now to give them my story,” I say, “then I’ll come back later with Tommy as soon as I can convince him to go.”

“I don’t think he’s going to like that,” Karl says after a quick glance over his shoulder. “Officer Cruz seems like he usually gets what he wants, one way or another.”

“So tell his partner and let her deal with him, I’m sure she gets plenty of practice.”

“Alright,” he says and looks me up and down. “You sound like you’re feeling better but you still call me when they’re done with you and I’ll come pick you up.”

I nod and he turns away to pass on the news to our guests. Having something useful to do is pushing the numbness back but I can tell it’s only temporary.

“Let’s see how long I can make myself useful then,” I mutter and move towards the cops. Good thing I got some sleep last night; it looks like it’s going to be a while before I’ll be able to get some more.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spare Change #22

I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling. Where am I? I close my eyes and listen for clues, hoping to hear a sound that will help me to get my bearings.

A car? Muffled though, like there’s a wall between us; voices, muffled again, I can’t make out what’s being said. Not my place then, I can say that much.

I sneak a finger out from underneath my blanket and touch the floor. Tile… triangles… like at…

“DJ’s,” I mumble and it all comes back to me. The back room, the blanket and pillow TJ fetched for me before placing a goodnight kiss on my cheek, the deep sleep that followed soon after. What time is it?

I struggle to my feet, wearing the blanket like a kilt as I stretch my arms above my head and stumble to the front of the store. I feel like I slept for a month and I could easily sleep for another.

A flick of the switch brings the lights to life and I find the clock on the wall – ten minutes to opening. Perfect timing, that was lucky. The message light is blinking on the answering machine, maybe the phone woke me.

Deciding to save that for later I shuffle to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and brush my teeth. The toothbrush and toothpaste were gifts from DJ that I had tried, without success, to accept graciously. He had smiled and said something about every little bit helps.

My stomach grumbles a little as I return to the counter but not too loudly – I should be able to make it to lunch. I sit down on my stool and stab the message button with my finger.

“I hope you had a good sleep J.” TJ’s voice is warm and comforting… when was the last time I thought that? “Give me a call later and maybe we can meet up for dinner tonight.”

I smile and listen to her message again before deleting it. The scrap of paper with her work number on it is still in my pocket – that had been another surprise from last night. I can’t picture her doing filing and photocopying but she probably had a hard time imagining me here.

The machine beeps again and another message begins to play but this voice is not such a welcome addition to my morning.

“Rise and shine, little brother – the store opens in fifteen short little minutes.” Ashes’ voice scrapes across my nerves like broken glass. The warmth of last night is quickly replaced by icy dread. “You don’t want to have angry customers banging on your door, do you? So up and at ‘em sleepy head – who knows what today has in store for you.”

The click at the end of her message is like a gun being cocked. After a moment I listen to the message again but this time I focus on her voice. Ashes sounds like a career smoker with a job on the side as a heavy drinker. There is bitterness and hatred there, but also some laughter, like she’s enjoying herself.

I save the message, I’m not sure why. There’s nothing there the police would care about, she had made sure of that. Scrolling through the caller ID list I arrive at her call to find ‘Unknown Caller’. Of course.

So – empty threat or deadly promise? She could have called from across the street or across the country. I’m not in a gambling mood so I reach for the phone and dial the number from memory.

“Hi J, what’s going on?” Karl asks.

“I need a big favor from you,” I say. “Can you come by the store right now?”

“I can be there in fifteen – what’s the problem?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here. Knock four times so I know it’s you – the door will be locked.”

“I’ll be there in ten,” he says before hanging up.

Nine minutes and forty seconds later the four knocks on the front door signal his arrival. I let him in and lock the door again. He hands me a muffin and waits for the explanation.

Between bites I fill him in on the details. The food calms me down as much as talking does. I’m learning quickly that a shared burden is easier to carry.

“I’m calling the police,” Karl says as he moves to the counter. “Keep the door locked.”

“Will they care about this?” I can’t believe that they will. Karl looks up at me as he finishes dialing the number.

“I’ll make them care.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

Spare Change #21

This is the longest day in the history of days. Seconds feel like hours, minutes are weeks and I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep.

I can’t stop yawning, my blinks are nearing nap length and I can’t seem to concentrate on anything. I tried putting out the new stock earlier but the alphabet handed me a dominating defeat.

I could really use a customer to talk to but the last one left two… oh man, only one hour ago? If I could stand the taste of coffee I would’ve ordered a keg of the stuff by now. I wonder if I could get a family sized hot chocolate delivered…

I rummage through DJ’s record stash trying to find the most upbeat, energyful album… no, that’s not right. What’s the word… energizing… energetic! There we go.

“I am not going to make it,” I tell the clock. It mocks me by moving even slower. “Stop doing that you son of a -”

The sound of the door opening cuts me off – luckily for that arrogant time keeper; I was about to really let it have it. I turn to greet my newest customer, reminding myself not to scare them away by being obviously desperate for company, but my words die a strangled death in my throat.

“Hi J, how are you doing?” TJ asks from the doorway, glancing around the empty store. I can’t think of a good reply so I settle for shrugging. “That good huh… looks like you could use some company.”

I nod and sit down on my stool, waving her over. My thoughts are refusing to form a sensible sentence so I wait it out, hoping she’ll take the conversational lead.

“You look like a dog’s breakfast; are you coming down from something?” Oh that TJ, never one for subtlety.

“I haven’t slept at all the last two nights,” I say – coherently, I think.

“You must have taken some nasty stuff J – you gotta be careful, the scene in this city is getting dangerous,” she says with… concern? I blink a few times, trying to make sure I heard her right. “Do you want me to call a doctor?”

“No, I’m just tired TJ,” I say. I consider re-thinking my next words but give it up as too much effort. “I’m clean, by the way – for a couple weeks now.” Has it really been that long?

TJ frowns slightly, her eyes scan my face. It takes me a few seconds to realize she’s trying to figure out if I’m lying to her. Anger is too big an effort right now, so I attempt a scowl instead.

“That’s wonderful J, I’m so proud of you!” She leans over the counter and hugs me hard; my scowl melts into a goofy grin. I manage to tone it down to a satisfied smile before she backs off and holds me at arms length. “Is that why you’re not sleeping, has it been that hard for you?”

“It’s been okay, actually. A weak moment here and there, but generally good,” I say. “The sleepless nights thing is a long story.”

“I’ve got plenty of time and you’ve got no customers,” she says with one of her more captivating smiles. “So tell me.”

So I do. It feels really good to get it all out of my head, to set my worries free from the confines of my exhausted mind. It’s like… therapy, I guess.

When I finish the tale TJ is silent for a long time, but it’s comfortable, like old times. We used to sit on sidewalks together and just listen to the cars, the people, our breathing for hours – I had forgotten how much I enjoyed that.

“So you’re gonna sleep here tonight… you got a pillow or blankets?” she asks after a few minutes.

“No but it’ll be fine – just being in a secure spot will be enough to knock me out. I’m pretty sure I could sleep on this stool… if I haven’t already.”

TJ laughs a laugh that lights up her eyes and I can’t help joining in. Once I start I can’t seem to stop and before we know it we’re both laughing like fools, gasping for enough air to fuel the spasms.

After a long, long time we regain control. We sit and chat and listen to music and we are left to ourselves as the night settles onto the city outside these doors.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Spare Change #20

Elbows resting on the dust covered window sill, I watch the sun creep over the horizon of single storey buildings and towering trees. There is no glass in this window, no curtain to hold back the breeze moving past me and into every corner of my room.

“I need some sleep,” I tell Phakov as he leaps onto the ledge beside me. His eyes are full of curiosity as he scans my face – probably trying to understand why he found me awake for the second straight morning. “Early to bed, early to rise, just like you.”

The truth is that I haven’t slept, not a single minute, since I read Ashes’ note two nights ago. No use telling Phakov though, I don’t need him losing sleep over this crazy woman too.

I’ve tried to forget her threat, the danger she poses to my continued breathing; I want to close my eyes and find relief in dreams or nightmares or nothingness. Oh lord how I need a break from this madness.

But I can’t sleep. My ears hear menace in every creak, every breeze, every unseen noise; my eyes see guns in every window, in every car, behind every door. How can I sleep?

Phakov nuzzles my forearm, the closest thing to affection I have ever received from him. I reach over to give his head a scratch but he jumps down before contact can be made and struts across the carpet and out the door. So much for that.

I return to looking out over the trash filled courtyard, the sunlight is slowly stripping away the shadows to reveal the destitution dotting the ground. This isn’t a view I often indulge in but I’ve been unable to tear myself away the last couple of days.

A movement at the edge of my vision causes my chest to clench and my heart to skip a beat… but it’s only Phakov taking his leave. He glances up at me before stepping around a discarded tire and disappearing around the corner.

“I need to get out of here,” I mutter as I turn away. “I need sleep.”

I gather my things and head for the stairs, doing my best to not jump at my own shadow. Maybe I should sleep at the store tonight – DJ would understand, wouldn’t he?

Well, I’m not sure that I’d want to give him the full explanation. But if I don’t lock myself in there it’s gonna be another long, sleepless night and my brain is about ready to shut down right now. DJ wouldn’t want a zombie running his store, that’s for sure.

I reach the ground floor and pause to look around before stepping into the exposed outdoors. If Ashes doesn’t kill me, this paranoia will.

I take a deep breath and start moving again, walking only a little faster than usual, my shoulders just a bit more hunched. There’s an itch between my shoulder blades that feels like a pair of eyes watching my every step but I refuse to look. This is getting ridiculous.

I arrive at my bus stop with too much time to spare. I sit down. I stand up. I pace back and forth. All the while my eyes are darting in every direction.

“God damn it!” I yell at the morning – I consider it a small mercy when it doesn’t respond. I sit down again and stare at my shoes, determined not to look up until my bus comes around the corner.

To keep my mind busy I start to count my breaths. In one, out two, in three…

I’m up to one hundred and six when the familiar rumble of the bus’ engine reaches my ears. I feel calmer and a touch more sane but I’m still eager to get on that bus and surround myself with people.

The doors clang open and I step on board. I toss some change in the dispenser and take my ticket and my worries to the back of the bus. I sit down and try to relax but my nerves are too shot, I can’t sit still. I’m exhausted, strained, rattled – I can’t take much more of this.

“I need some damn sleep.”

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spare Change #19

Tommy – I knew you’d be too weak to pull the trigger,” Tommy reads the crumpled note out loud in a dangerously flat tone. I’m glad I managed to convince him to stash the gun before coming to his place – I’ve had enough gunplay for one day.

“It’s probably for the best that she’s gone,” I tell him. “I think you’ve gotten into enough trouble today.”

He doesn’t reply, he just keeps staring at the scrawled writing on the otherwise plain white paper in his hands. He had found it stuffed into the top of his sleeping bag when we had arrived just a few short minutes ago. His silence is making me uneasy.

“Tommy, don’t beat yourself up over this; you couldn’t have know that -”

“She was a lying whore?” he interrupts, his words so cold they should’ve had icicles dangling from them. “No, I guess not. Maybe if I wasn’t doped out of my head for the last year I would’ve had a brain cell or two left to see through her game.”

“You’ve got enough left to not shoot me, that’s all I care about.”

“Er, yeah,” Tommy says, finally looking up, embarrassment clouding over the icy hatred. “Look man, I’m -”

“Forget it,” I say with a shake of my head. “You weren’t yourself and in the end nobody got hurt. And you might have even learned a lesson!”

“Yeah: drugs plus women equals bad news,” he mutters.

“Or maybe its just drugs equals bad news.”

“Not right now man – we’ll have that talk later.”

“Fair enough,” I say, “but we are having it, and sooner than later.”

He makes a dismissive gesture and returns to reading the note – hoping that it’s magically different this time? I don’t know but I leave him to it.

I stroll around the basement of this condemned house and try not to think about when the two floors above us will collapse. A fire gutted everything above ground but left the basement with only a few patches of smoke damage. A few rooms are carpeted, the main living area is bare concrete and there are even a few posters on the brick walls. It’s a pretty nice find for Tommy – until the city gets around to leveling it.

I glance out the door/window and feel the cool night air on my face, listen to the city going to sleep. It’s good to be alive; I don’t remember the last time I truly felt that way.

“It’s getting late,” I tell Tommy as I return to his side. “I’m gonna head out, it’s gonna be an early start tomorrow.”

“You sure you don’t want to call the police about Ashes? She’s got it out for you man.”

“I don’t think the cops would care too much about a little homeless sibling rivalry,” I reply. “Besides, she’s long gone – I ‘m not worried about her.”

“Don’t underestimate this psycho,” he says, holding up the note. “I did and look what happened to me… what almost happened to you.”

I laugh it off and begin to turn away.

That’s when I see the writing on the back of the note.

“Give me that for a second.”

Tommy hands it over, confusion stomping all over his face. I turn the note over and the words that greet me make my blood go cold.

“What is it?”

It takes me a moment to find my voice. To find my footing. To find the confidence that was just with me. I read the words aloud in a hollow tone.

J – Don’t think this is over. I’m not done with you yet.”

Friday, September 12, 2008

Spare Change #18

“What, did you really think you were Daddy Dearest’s only bastard?”

Down here, on all fours and staring at the floor while wheezing like an asthmatic, it’s hard to say what I had believed. If I was being honest with myself, I’d have to admit to not giving the subject much thought. Before tonight anyway.

“I guess… I was too busy… staying alive… to think about it,” I manage to squeeze out between agonizing breaths; he really caught me with a good one.

It makes sense though – the old man bedded (or couched, or dark alleyed…) any woman that would have him. He watched over me until diabetes finally overwhelmed him when I was six, but for as much of those years as I can remember it was a revolving door of disinterested pseudo step mothers.

“If I wasn’t the only one,” I ask as the pain begins to recede, “why did he only look after me? Did he know about the others?”

“Oh, he knew,” Tommy says with disgust, “but you were the only boy.” I begin to laugh – it hurts but I can’t stop. “What’s so damn funny?”

“What was I,” I gasp, rolling onto my left side, shaking with laughter, “the heir to his trash can kingdom? His poverty palace?”

“He wanted a son to carry on his name,” Tommy says as I collapse onto my back and howl with laughter. This is all too much; I’ve even almost forgotten about the gun in his hand. “What is it now you lunatic?”

“That was a noble cause, to be certain, but he’s failed to achieve even that much,” I tell him. “I don’t know my last name!”

“No problem there,” he says. “She does.”

This brings me up short. I lay still for several moments, letting this new tidbit bounce around in my head. Do I want to know? Does it matter anymore? Did it ever?

I push off the floor and return to my feet. The gun follows me up but I try to ignore it. I’m starting to see a way out of this but I need to concentrate. If I approach this the wrong way I’ll set Tommy off and the gun would surely follow his lead.

“So pops made some attempt at taking care of me but he abandoned the girls,” I say in a thoughtful tone. “I bet they weren’t too happy about that.”

“You think? Two of them died before their first birthday and a third didn’t make it past five,” Tommy snaps at me. “Ashley is the only survivor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about Ashley? How long have you known her, known all this?”

“It doesn’t matter. Oh, she prefers to be called Ashes,” he says. “As in: rising from the.”

“Cute,” I mutter as I trace out my next steps. “I think it does matter how long you’ve known her though, so could you at least tell me that?” Tommy sighs and looks annoyed, but he tells me.

“I dunno, like three months?”

Three months are like three years on the street; you trust people after that much time together. I decided to assume they’re sleeping together instead of asking for confirmation – there’s no need to have that fresh in his mind when my next words arrive.

“So Ashes carries this grudge around all her life, then one day she meets you,” I say. “She gets to know you, finds out you and I are tight; you tell her all about your buddy J and she figures out who I am. Sound about right so far?”

Tommy scowls, he glares, but he nods, the slightest twitch of his head.

“So she hangs around, gains your trust,” I continue steadily. “She’s found a way to get some revenge but she needs you on her side first. So she tells you all about our ‘Daddy Dearest’, how lucky I was -”

“Enough!” Tommy shouts, the gun shaking in his hand. But I can’t stop now.

“And then finally she has her chance – she laces your dope with God knows what, steals your stash and puts the blame on me! I have to admit, that’s pretty impressive -”

“Enough,” Tommy mumbles, the gun falling to his side. “No more.”

“Tommy,” I say gently as I move slowly towards him, “I think it’s time for a family reunion.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

Spare Change #17

“Tommy, let’s just talk this through, okay?”

He swings the gun back towards me and I can’t help but flinch. I don’t think he’s ready to pull the trigger yet but I can’t be too sure of anything right now.

“Shut up J,” Tommy says casually, “before I shut you up.” His calm demeanor is more terrifying than the crazed ranting I faced in the alley the last time we were together. I worry that this is the calm before the bullet storm.

Satisfied that he’s obtained my silence, Tommy brings the gun and his attention back to the couple huddled together on the floor next to the register. They haven’t moved since I told them to get down when I saw Tommy arrive. Was that only ten minutes ago?

“I didn’t mean to involve you in this,” Tommy tells them, “but now you are and I can’t just let you go. You’d go yap to the cops and they would insist on interrupting my business with J here.”

“What are you going to do with us?” the man demands. He’s trying to sound tough and brave but that’s a hard thing to accomplish when a madman has a gun leveled at your head.

“Haven’t decided yet,” Tommy says, “but I’ll thank you kindly to keep your mouth shut ‘till I do.”

“If you keep telling everyone to shut up,” I say from the door, “you’re gonna be the only one talking. That doesn’t sound like a good way to resolve this.”

“You wanna talk J? Fine, let’s talk. How about you start by explaining why you stole all my dope?”

“What are you talking about? If your drugs are gone it’s because you smoked them all in one go, then decided it was a good idea to go buy a gun.” I want to scream at him, I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him, I want to unlock the door and make a break for it and to hell with the couple I would leave behind. But I keep my voice even, I stay still, I pray we all make it out of here alive.

“You know I never do enough of anything to lose control, man. But it’s all gone and the last person I was with before it disappeared,” he says as he walks over to me, stopping inches away, “was you.”

I look into his eyes – they’re clear, focused and very, very angry. Oh God, he’s clean… whatever he was on in the alley has left his system. The alley…

“Tommy,” I say softly, “were you with anyone in the alley before I turned up?”

“What does that matter?” His eyes narrow and he jabs the barrel of the gun into my chest. My heart skips about five beats. “You want to dump the blame on someone else?”

“Listen to me.” These could be my last words – I better make them count. “When I got there you were already smoking something. Whatever it was, it was messing you up big time. We’ve known each other almost two years now and I can say, with complete confidence, that wasn’t you I was speaking with that day. Who gave you those joints?”

Without a word Tommy slams a fist into my abdomen. I double over, gasping for air, as he turns and strides away. My vision goes blurry as I put a hand on the floor to steady myself; but my hearing is fine. I hear him stop and turn to face me. I hear the gun being cocked.

“I will not listen to you smear her good name.” Her? What is going on here? “She has done more for me than you ever have. She would never steal from me. Not like you did.”

“Tommy, I have no idea who or what you’re talking about.”

“Save your lies for the devil J – you’ll be seeing him soon enough.”

“This woman of yours is the one spoon feeding you lies, Tommy! She poisoned you, she stole your drugs and now she has set you on me! Open your damn eyes!”

“How can you say that?” Tommy screams. “How could you say something like that about your own sister?”

Friday, August 29, 2008

Spare Change #16

It was all going so well

There had been a steady stream of customers since lunch and most of them had bought a record or two. I was working the register like a retail veteran, making change was getting easier and easier, everyone was being so friendly.

First-time customers were even asking for, and valuing, my suggestions and advice! It was pretty odd to be treated with respect by a group of people who only last week would have only felt pity or disgust or would have just ignored me entirely.

It’s been a long, long time since I felt respected by anyone who had a job and a home. I didn’t even recognize it at first; it was like a long forgotten face appearing suddenly out of a crowded room.

It was all going so well.

Yesterday had been easy, not too many people coming in, a nice way to ease into this new responsibility. Today, day two, it was a lot easier for me to unlock the doors in the morning. I felt good about that, it gave me some confidence. I remember thinking, “two unlocks down, five to go!”

Maybe I should have just left them locked today. Or closed early, that would have worked too. But I could never have seen this coming and it was all going so well.

I had my first female customer around two o’clock and she was a real beauty: wavy brown hair brushing her slim shoulders, librarian glasses, snug sweater, knee-length skirt and leather boots. If this is what she looks like in fall I’d love to see her in summer. We talked music for almost half an hour; TJ would have killed me if she had seen the looks we were giving each other.

But I was feeling good since things were going so well.

Karl came by at five-thirty to drop off a home cooked dinner. He watched over the shop for me while I went to the back to shovel down the mushroom soup, butter covered bread and yam fries.

He stayed for a while and we talked about the job, the money, the future.

“I’m really feeling good about this for you,” he said as the sidewalk and street became more and more congested with the after work rush. “I never would’ve dreamed things would turn around so quickly.”

“Me either man,” I had replied. “But it’s only Tuesday, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. I’ve got a long way to go, nothing is guaranteed.”

“No, of course not. But you’ve found the path, you’re walking down it and you’ve got support. Speaking of which, have you told TJ that you’ve gone clean yet?”

“Not yet,” I had said, “I want to do that on my own for a while. To see how strong I really am. If I start to falter, I’ll have you both to turn to.”

“How long has it been?” he had asked as he flipped through DJ’s personal record collection, nodding his approval regularly.

“Five days.”

“And so far so good?”

“So far so good,” I had told him as another customer came into the store.

Karl had offered to stay until closing but I told him to go home, I’d be fine. I wish now that I had let him stay.

But it was all going so well.

I was ringing up my last two customers at quarter to seven, a nice couple who I had seen in here a few times before. Regulars, like me. They were telling me a great story about DJ, about how when he first opened the store there was a pimp who thought DJ was moving in on his territory. DJ kept telling him that he just wanted to sell records but the pimp didn’t believe him, didn’t think anybody sold those any more, it had to be a cover. Threatened to burn the store down.

DJ had had enough, so he called a few friends in social services and by the end of his first week of business every single last one of the pimp’s ladies had been picked up and put into support groups all over the city. The pimp never knew what happened; he just knew he was out of business.

We were feeling good, we were laughing, I felt like an equal. Like I belonged. It was all going so well.

Then Tommy showed up with a gun.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Spare Change #15

This was a big mistake.

I can’t do this, what was I thinking? Nobody spends almost six years in a row begging for breakfast, lunch and dinner then starts running a store on a couple hours of training. There are reasons why people are on the street instead of working a proper job.

I shift slightly to my right to avoid the inventory binder stabbing me in the back. Sitting here, behind the counter and out of sight of sidewalk window shoppers, I stare at the clock and pray that it stops, or better yet goes backward.

But it continues on, tick, tick, tick, and now it is only five minutes before the store doors are due to be unlocked. Oh do I ever need a drink or ten right now.

Other than right now, going clean has been a lot easier than I was expecting it to be. Well, I guess this is the first moment I’ve had to face where my usual response would have been to get wasted.

My finger traces the outline of the store key, traveling its peaks and valleys like a lost explorer. I’m so lost right now, completely out of my element; I’m not a fish out of water – I’m a fish in outer space.

The phone rings and I jump just enough to crack the top of my skull on the counter. Swearing loudly, repeatedly, I let it ring and listen to the answering machine’s greeting. After the beep a familiar voice begins to leave a message.

“J, pick up the phone. I know you’re there,” Karl says. “Well, you better be there anyway. If you’re not you better be halfway to Mexico.”

“Hey man,” I say into the receiver. “What’s going on?”

“Oh good, you are there. I just wanted to see how you’re doing on your big day.”

“My big day? Thanks man, I really needed some more pressure right now,” I tell him. “You caught me just in time though – I was just about to see if there’s a back door I can sneak out.”

“It can’t be that bad,” he says before hesitantly adding, “can it?”

“I can’t handle this kind of responsibility, something major is going to go wrong and I’m not going to know what to do,” I say as panic begins to creep into my voice. “People are going to ask questions that I can’t answer, I’m going to give the wrong amount of change, I’ll forget to lock up before I leave, I’m -”

“J, take a deep breath man,” Karl interrupts. “In fact, take ten. Don’t say another word until you do.” I do as he says since I don’t know what else to do. Following instructions is so much easier than thinking for yourself.

“Alright,” I say when I’m done and feeling much calmer, “now what?”

“You can do this J, this will be the hardest part. It’ll just get easier and easier after this,” he says with a confidence I’ll never know. “DJ is counting on you, don’t let him down. Don’t let yourself down.”

“What if,” I begin but he cuts me off gently.

“You’ll handle it. And if you can’t, give me a call and I’ll help you figure it out. What time do you close?”

“Tonight? Seven, I think. Yeah, seven.”

“Alright, I’ll swing by around quarter to seven,” he says. “I’ll bring ice cream.”

“No food allowed in the store,” I say automatically.

“See?” Karl says with a laugh. “You’re going to be fine. Call me if you need me.”

“Thanks,” I say then hang up. I look up at the clock to see that it’s one minute past opening. I take a few more deep breaths then walk across the empty, silent store to the door. I stand there for another minute, staring at the deadbolt.

“Here goes… everything,” I say and unlock the door with a resounding thunk. And then… nothing happens. I open the door just wide enough to poke my newly-shaven face out and find an empty sidewalk.

“Idiot, of course there’s nobody out there,” I say as I pull my head back into the store’s shell. “Who would be waiting for a music store to open on a Monday morning?”

I stroll back to the counter, pull a record out of DJ’s personal stash and put it on. As the first guitar strings play on the store stereo I sit down on the cashier stool and wait for my first customer to arrive.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Spare Change #14

There are so many empty bottles around me that there’s hardly room to stand, much less walk. Bud, Coors and Michelob clink together indiscriminately when I shift my foot, like someone just made a celebratory toast at an important gathering.

Which I guess this is, in a way. Empties, loaded thoughts, one life-altering decision and me – perhaps not the most impressive guest list ever created, but an important gathering it is.

I roll the last unopened bottle of Bud between my hands back and forth, back and forth. The stained sink reeks of spilled beer, with a hint of the dark rum that was the first liquid to go down the drain. I almost take a deep whiff before stopping myself, wondering if that would be cheating.

I thought this would be the easy part, a way to ease into flushing the two plastic baggies of weed in the back pocket of my jeans. If this is like pulling teeth with rusty pliers, I don’t want to think about how the dope is going to go.

“This is all your fault TJ,” I tell the empty room; it’s coming up to noon so Phakov is long gone. Have I really been at this for five hours? What is that, like four bottles an hour? This is pathetic, I’m stronger than this, I don’t need this poison.

I rip off the twist cap and the familiar sound sets my mouth watering. One last sip, a final toast, then down the pipes with it.

No, I’m done with this crutch. This break will be clean, I won’t do it halfway. I tip the bottle sideways and as the first drop splashes down my hand begins to shake. How embarrassing, I’m glad there’s no one around to see.

By the time the bottle is empty I’m shaking so bad I can barely hold on to it so I throw it on the floor to join his dearly departed brothers. I grip the edge of the sink with both hands as I fight the sudden urge to vomit. Do I know how to throw a party or what?

Once the waves of nausea subside to more manageable swells I try to gather myself for the next stage. As if this wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge on its own, the toilet here stopped working in the 70’s so I’ll have to go to the gas station two blocks away to finish the job. Two blocks to freedom… so close yet so very, very far.

I push away from the drunken sink and make my way slowly through the graveyard of the life I hope to leave behind. No, that I am leaving behind. The first steps have been taken, I’m on the road and there will be no turning back. I wouldn’t survive the return trip.

Down the barely there stairs, out into the shaded courtyard, the momentum is building. I head west for the gas station at a brisk walk, swinging my arms like wrecking balls, smashing down the wall standing between me and a better tomorrow.

Half a block from the station the weed in my back pocket turns to cement and tries to drag me down to hell. My pace slows but I refuse to stop. I’m going to walk into that stall, throw the junk in, flush it down and walk out. No thinking, no delay, just a quick, clean cut and I’ll be done.

I enter the store at the front of the station and grab the washroom key from beside the cash register. The clerk thinks about saying something but decides to keep quiet. I can’t blame him, I probably look like I’m on a serious bender.

I go back outside and stride to the side of the building. My hand shakes as I try to slide the key into the slot. God damn it. After scrapping a few paint chips off the door I finally get it in. I rush to the toilet and throw the weed in, bags and all. As my right hand reaches for the lever, my left hand reaches in and grabs the dope.

“Oh come on!” I yell. It’s hard to have faith in yourself when you’re standing in a dingy gas station washroom with two bags of weed dripping with toilet water in your hand. I guess you really do learn something new every day. “Just throw it back in.”

Still as a statue I stand, although no one would be foolish enough to commemorate this scene with an actual statue. Well, never say never with art these days; maybe “Bum on the brink” would be a big hit.

“I don’t need this garbage,” I say as I stare at the past sitting in my hand and try to see the future in my head. Then I finally get it, it finally sinks in at last: “I don’t want this.”

I drop one bag into the bowl, then the other. The slap of the plastic meeting the water seems amplified, like this scene is playing out on the big screen in the movie theatre downtown. I resist the urge to look for a camera and focus instead on the cracked lever sticking out of the right side of the toilet.

I reach out and my hand is steady. I press down and my demons are sucked noisily away… for now. I know this is not the end. But it is a start.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Spare Change #13

I place the strawberry smoothie on the table in front of TJ then slide in across from her and take a sip of mine, blueberry of course. The diner is pretty quiet and the counter girl seems to be enjoying the brief break between the lunch and after work rushes.

“You’re looking well,” I tell TJ and mean it. Her short curly black hair looks recently washed and cut, she looks alert and well rested. Same dirty white t-shirt as always though.

“Thanks, you’re… not,” she says with the smallest hint of a smile.

“Well share your secret and I’ll start catching up.”

“I’ve been clean for a while,” she says while stirring her drink with a straw.

“I guess that would do it,” I admit. “How long?”

“Since the day after I last saw you,” she says matter-of-factly. I let that stir around in my head for a few seconds before replying.

“You saying you couldn’t have done that with me around?” I try to keep the anger out of my voice with limited success. This is typical TJ, always blaming me for the choices she makes.

“I’m saying, J, that it was a lot easier without constant temptation to -”

“I never forced you to do nothin’!” I say in a harsh whisper, jabbing a dirt covered finger at her. I’d yell but I like this place and want to be able to come back. “I never paid for your dope, I didn’t say I’d leave you if you went clean, I -”

“J lower your damn voice,” she says in her best high school teacher tone. “I’m not blaming you for anything, okay? I’m just too weak to get clean when you’re not. Besides, this isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. Sit down.”

I didn’t even realize I had stood up. I glance around and slump back down, glad the diner is still mostly empty. Why do I let her work me up so easily?

“Alright, so what is?” I ask quietly.

“I heard you got yourself a proper job -”

“Oh, you need money, no wonder you -”

“If you can’t keep your mouth shut for five seconds,” she hisses at me, “I won’t waste anymore of my time here.” I glare at her for a full minute, exactly sixty seconds. Counting the seconds out, that’s how long it takes me to settle down enough to speak calmly.

“Fine, say what you’ve come here to say.”

“Thank you. Now, with a proper job comes proper money,” she says as I nearly draw blood by biting my tongue. “And with proper money comes some pretty serious temptations in our world. Do you have a plan for that money? I care about you J, God knows why, but I do. I don’t want to see you dead in a ditch because your new money got you into trouble you couldn’t handle.”

“I’ve got an idea or two,” I reply. I haven’t told her about the account with Karl and I’m in no mood to do so now. “I’m not planning on buying so much of Tommy’s dope that he’ll be able to retire, if that’s your concern. Although a hut on a warm beach somewhere might be exactly what he needs right now.”

“J this could be your chance, what you’ve been wanting for years,” TJ says, giving me an uncomfortably intense stare. “A chance to get off the streets.”

“How do you figure that?” I squirm a little in my seat but manage to maintain eye contact. This crazy cow will be the end of me.

“Just think – you keep this job for a while and maybe you find a landlord that’ll rent you a place. A steady job, a roof over your head, hot water, a bed… if you went clean you’d never see the streets again.”

“Sorry, what was that last bit again?”

“You could do it J,” she says, leaning across the table, close enough to smell her strawberry breath. “I’ll help, if you let me. We could do it together – support each other in the weak times, celebrate the successes. Be a real couple.”

I’ve heard enough. I stand up, leaving my glass half empty… or is it half full? I don’t trust myself to tell up from down right now.

“Please don’t leave J. Sit down, let’s talk this through. Let me help you.” She’s practically begging. God damn her.

“I’ll see you around TJ,” I tell her and walk away.

“What are you so bloody afraid of?” she yells after me. It’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for it. Not yet, anyway. I just need some time, some space, this is all too much.

“When I figure that out,” I call as I walk out the door, “you’ll be the first to know.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Dozen Days, A Dozen Ways

Homelessness action week will be October 12th to 19th this year and in the twelve days leading up to it the Stop Homelessnes site will be featuring an idea a day on how to help solve homelessness. They've put out a call for submissions, so head over there with your best idea and let them know what you've got buzzing around in your head.

They've linked to this here page of mine in their Friends section, which I thought was pretty cool. So if you get here from there, welcome and I hope you enjoy your stay.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Spare Change #12

“Does this purse go with these shoes?”

“For the last time, yes baby. Let’s go grab some burgers for lunch.”

“Burgers, you know those things go straight to my thighs!”

Ah, Saturday at the mall – it’s been too long. I’d forgotten the teenagers who don’t have a dime to spare for me but have a few hundred bucks for Nike. I’ve missed the seniors who either jab their canes at me or drop bills in my hat; thankfully I’ve seen more of the latter than the former in the last three hours.

Three hours and no sign of TJ. I’m in our usual spot, just to the left of the east mall entrance, just far enough from the bus stop to avoid confusion about my purpose here. It took a few weekends before we finally found the sweet spot where we no longer got asked if we needed change for the bus but could still work the traffic going in and out of the mall.

Waiting here may not be the most efficient way of finding TJ but at least I’m making money doing it. In that area it sure beats checking the shelters and wandering the streets. If she doesn’t show today, I’ll come back tomorrow. If she still doesn’t –

“What would you do,” a man asks, leaning in much too close. How can I describe his proximity? Imagine you have a tiny hair in your eye. Now picture yourself stepping outside yourself and turning to face your body. Imagine how close you’d lean in to find that elusive hair. That’s how close he is.

“What would you do,” he repeats, recognizing that I’ve figured out how to describe his closeness and have rejoined him in the moment, “if I gave you ten thousand dollars right now?”

What a stupid question. I’d do what any man in my position would do: go down to Cherry’s, pick out the two hottest strippers (Doll and Candy, for the record) and ask what ten grand would get me. Well, nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six dollars and sixty-nine cents, after the mandatory drinks.

But something in the look of this guy says he just might have that kind of green and I don’t think that’s the answer that would convince him to hand it over.

“Well,” I tell Blue Eyes (for what else can I name him but what takes up 90% of my field of vision), “I’d probably start by getting some new clothes, then I’d splurge on a motel room for the night. I’d take the longest, hottest shower in recorded history, order some pizza and then sleep until checkout.” Or until 7 am if Phakov found me; I’m pretty confident he would.

“Is that right?” he asks, only his lips moving as his eyes burrow into my skull. I can smell his breath – there’s a trace of fine wine, of a three course lunch, of a life I’ll never know. “You wouldn’t get drunk or high?”

“I don’t do that garbage, man.” Not this early in the day anyway – a man’s gotta have limits. His eyes narrow, his nose twitches as though he can smell the lie.

“You know what I think?” he casually asks as he straightens to his full height. “I think you’re just saying that in hopes of getting my money.”

“Why should I even believe you’ve got that much money at all, much less on you?” I ask, trying to swerve the conversation around that nasty pothole. He stands there, unblinking, trying to decide which of our questions should be pursued first, when a well dressed redhead appears at his side.

“Darling, are you being mean to the homeless again?” she purrs.

“Of course not dear, we were merely discussing finances,” he says with a stiff pat on her arm. She sniffs daintily and looks away, losing interest already. Having no idea what to say, I remain silent. “He doesn’t believe that I have ten thousand dollars on my person.”

“Oh stop being silly darling,” she says without looking back, “nobody carries cash these days.”

“Sad but true,” he murmurs as he reaches into his front pocket, pulls out a five and drops it into my hat. They turn together and stroll away, arm in arm, never looking back.

“Making new friends J?” a voice asks from my right. It’s been a while so it takes me a moment to recognize it. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, open them again.

“Hello TJ.”