Tuesday, April 5, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Seven, Louis Shalako.







Louis Shalako


If you couldn’t sleep there was no place to go. Without money there was no point in going anywhere anyways.

Thumps, thuds, bangs and booms resonated all through the place. It went on all night long. 

By his reckoning, it really didn’t get started until eleven o’clock. There was a peak around one-thirty or two a.m., and then it slowly petered off until shortly after dawn, when things finally got quiet.

This was right about when the morning rush outside was just reaching a crescendo.

Since he couldn’t sleep, he had plenty of time to analyze. His life wasn’t going anywhere at this rate. That was one voice.

Give it half a chance, some other little voice said plaintively…

One more night on the floor. The bed was mostly full by bedtime, and Mark had shut the taps off. The water in the hose was dead cold, and he wondered about that hot water tank. If people liked to shower before bed, he wasn’t going to be too popular. Tired as he was, he couldn’t stay up any later. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, so he went to bed, or the floor rather. You couldn’t sleep on a cold waterbed. It would suck the heat, and the life, right out of you. Or so they said. Almost anything had to be better than using your shoes and rolled-up jeans for a pillow.

The bed still seemed awful cold. If only sleep would come.

After life in the state-run hospital, with its freezing temperatures in winter, huddling on the parka and whatever other clothes he could spare was almost a luxury. Freedom wasn’t ever free, it came at a price. It was more than a clichĂ©.

He’d never really known that before, but he sure knew it now.

Whatever it takes, I suppose—

We’ll do it.

With his suitcase in the front closet—he didn’t even have a coat-hanger, he’d brought his horn out into the living room as a kind of furniture. The oddly-shaped case was a kind of dark sculpture. He could lay on his left side and look at it, sitting there in a patch of cold moonlight.

The nights were still freezing. The windows were closed and hot water gurgled and ticked in the radiators. One minute he was cold, and the next minute hot. It was just one of them things.

That horn meant a lot to him.
The music meant everything to him.

He couldn’t tear his thoughts away from Amy. Her body, lithe and small, pale and perfect in its proportions, with her surprisingly hard nipples and that smelly bush, was much like any other woman. He’d known a few, not many. She’d allowed herself to be kissed, and he had surprised himself by reading the signals correctly. It had been a long time. She’d stood up and peeled off the little sun-dress, staring into his eyes as he marveled—simply marveled as she proceeded to pull off his socks and his jeans.

It was the farthest thing from his mind and yet it had happened.

At some point his eyes opened and that was it. There was nothing else for it, the floor was hard and unyielding. The building was very quiet and it was light outside. It was time to get up and make a stab at another day. His left hip was wearing a hole in itself and his neck wasn’t too good without a pillow. His erection would go away, hopefully, for he had to piss something fierce.

Mark got up, stretched, went and looked out the front window. Without television or radio, he had no idea of what the weather was supposed to be. It was an odd thought, one for this century and no other. He actually smiled to see traffic, pedestrians, the good old city bus, puffing black smoke as it accelerated away from the stop across the street. Duke was right, he had to get some noise in there. Otherwise, he would always be at the mercy of others. When it came to making a racket, as the third person that morning clomped down the stairs from above, they weren’t all that considerate. Working people, not unnaturally, hated those who didn’t work or have a job. They didn’t much care whether it was by choice, the necessity of sickness or disease, or even just old age and retirement. They also hated the rich, but not nearly so much. The rich were at least successful, possibly even industrious in most cases. 

They were at least inventive. The rich at least had money, which excused much in people’s minds. The other thing was that people just didn’t care.

As for crazy people, they were barely tolerated, being seen as a nuisance and nothing else. 

Amy, at least, had looked a little deeper.

Turning around, he found the cat sitting in the bedroom doorway, looking sleepy-eyed. It lifted a paw, and started licking its armpit or whatever cats called it when you were all covered in fur.

Putting hot water from the bathroom sink into his cheap aluminum Army-surplus mess tin, he set that on to boil. He had two coffee mugs, two plates and a bowl. It was a start. He could live without saucers. That’s what he told himself. Two level spoons of sugar and a slightly-heaping spoon of instant coffee went into one.

Hey everybody, look at me: I’ve got a spoon, all my very own.

He went in and had a look at the bed. They were taking the water from the kitchen, because there was a screw-on fitting on the faucet, unlike the taps in the bathroom sink.

As long as he didn’t trip over the hose, he’d be all right. It was early yet, how early he had no idea. Laying on the floor the night before, he’d been aware of a thousand noises. It was deathly quiet now. Sooner or later, he’d have to buy an alarm clock. A watch would be nice, but also a luxury. That one could wait.

He sat quietly on the toilet, thinking.

He had one good suit, hanging in the bedroom closet. That was something, anyways.

Someone, even at this early hour, went down the stairs, coming down from the fifth floor up under the eaves. He strained his ears and caught a few other noises. Folks were up, all right.

Who were all these people? There had to be forty people in the building, and there were times when you really knew it.

At this exact moment in time, it wasn’t so bad.

They were just people.

Back in the kitchen, he turned on the water, nicely warm, to keep filling the bed. Mark might want to have a shower before the place really got going. There was only going to be so much hot water. Let the party animals and the late sleepers and the real pigs suffer.

Not me.

No more.

Never again…

Not if I can help it.

“Okay, little buddy.” If the cat kept coming around, he’d have to find a better name for it. “Son of a bitch.”

He put a little milk in a saucer and set that on the floor. The cat was right on it. He could hear it purring ten feet away. It didn’t spare him a second look, secure in its conquest of the human heart.

It was just Mark’s luck. He’d been adopted or maybe he was just being tolerated. Cats being what they were.

Taking his coffee, wearing nothing but his jeans, Mark went and put it out of the way near the farthest corner. That would be the southwest, he thought. On a hunch, he went and unlatched the deadbolt and took the chain off the door. His feet were a little cold but the socks weren’t too good either. They weren’t going to last too long at this rate. He had exactly two more pairs of socks and two more pairs of underwear, courtesy of the Salvation Army.

Sitting cross-legged in the centre of the floor, facing the windows, the room was pleasantly warm. Although, there was a draft coming from somewhere, probably under the door and in around the window frames. Every frame in the building, probably.

Earth…wind, fire. Air, water and metal.

Clouds and sun, meat and potatoes, man and woman.

Black and white.

Being and not-being.

Gravity and time, and space.

Flying above the world.

Being in two places at once, nothingness.

Shape, and dimension, and duration, time above all else.

Centre.

Be gone with you.

For surely all is vanity, my young friend.

His arms floated up, and his hands were palm out to accept all the positive energy in the universe.

His eyes closed, he could smell the coffee from way over there. Footsteps came this way and he tried to visualize the layout, all five floors plus the basement.

That would be Duke, I presume…

Another bus pulled away from the stop, this time on his side of the street, going off to the right and there were children playing fifty or maybe even a hundred yards away. There were a lot of starlings about. He knew them by their many curious calls, whistles and other utterings. 

They flew like the very blazes, dropping vertically from the forest of antennas, straight down onto the rooftops where they would forage among the weeds, the insects and the vermin.

There was a knock at the door. The cat was there in the kitchen doorway, watching him with some interest.

Expecting Duke, hoping against hope that it might be Olivetti, he took a quick glance out the peep-hole.

The face was vaguely familiar. He opened the door.

“Yes?”

“Do you have a laundry basket?”

“Ah, no.”

“Shit. I was going to pull your laundry out of the dryer and bring it up to you.”

“What?”

“I said, I was just going to bring your laundry up to you.”

The laundry room was in the basement. The guy obviously wanted to use the machine.

“Sorry, man. I’m not doing any laundry.”

And who in the hell are you?

“What? Then whose laundry is that?”

Mark snorted.

“How in the hell would I know.”

The guy stood there regarding him with suspicion. Tall and thin, he had a bald pate and a pencil-thin mustache along his upper lip. Errol Flynn he was not, in the yellowing undershirt and sky-blue Bermudas. His shoes were undone, not dressed for going out apparently.

The man’s eyes slid back and forth as he sought answers.

"...what do you mean, no laundry basket?"
“I wish I could help you, I really do.” Mark was stiff and sore from lying on the floor. 
“Sorry.”

His mouth was still dry, that early morning tackiness took a while to go away. He needed that cup of coffee real bad.

Slowly, not wanting to be rude, and not having a lot of patience with the brain-dead, he closed the door firmly in the guy’s face.

Bending, he had a look out the peephole.

Slowly, the fellow turned and shuffled away. He went to the left, there was only one other unit there. Mark could hear him knocking on the door just up the hall. The doors were offset from each other, otherwise you wouldn’t have any business of your own.

Still, Mark didn’t even have to strain his ears.

“Hello?” It sounded like one of the black people, a mature woman by the sound of it.

The accent sounded like Nigeria or Uganda or something.

“Yeah, hi. Do you guys have a laundry basket?”

Weird. It struck Mark that he didn’t much like the stupid. They were only marginally better than the crazy.

After or perhaps below that came the just plain ignorant.

He’d seen more than enough of the stupid in his time. Hell, he might even be one himself.

***

Mark was taking his time, sipping away at the coffee. He was stretching and doing some simple Tai Chi exercises when the familiar rap came at the door. Yeah, that was definitely Duke. It was interesting how self-conscious one could be with no curtains, and yet across the street it was all blank upper stories. It was all lofts with grimy windows and no curtains or blinds. The interiors were oddly blank, it was so dark in the rooms behind.

“Come in.”

Duke entered as Mark did a few kicks and lunges, air-punches and swipes with the open hand.

“Hey, dude. Cool. Were you in the war?”

“Ah. No. What’s up?”

Duke shrugged.

“Nothing.” He shrugged again. “It’s just that I hate the war. It’s Sunday morning and the liquor store doesn’t open till noon either. Bummer, eh.”

Mark sighed as Duke’s hand went to the pocket of his shirt, a Robin’s-egg blue western one this time, with shiny pearl buttons. Duke at least had his socks on. He wasn’t planning to go too far either, by the looks of it.

“What time is it?”

“Ah…maybe ten after eight.”

Pulling out a banana-shaped joint, Duke gave it a lick and hit it with the lighter.

"Hey, man, were you in the war?"

“How’s the bed coming?”

“Shit.”

Mark turned and nipped into the bedroom to have a look. It seemed about right so he went into the kitchen and turned the water off. Judging by the feel of it, it would be warmed-up and all set to go by tonight.

He would give it a try and adjust the water level and the temperature accordingly. The thing to do was coil up the hose and put it in the bathtub, or somewhere, for the moment. The filler-plug in the mattress was important. Plastic, if he over-tightened it, it might be a bastard to get off again.

“So why do you do that shit, anyways?” Duke meant the exercises.

“Hmn. I don’t know. I guess it just helps me to clear my mind. I try and let a whole bunch of bad shit go, and take in as much good shit as I can. That’s the chi, or spirit. Some say the chi is a dragon, long dead.” Mark had basically made that part up, a couple of years previously, just to amuse his own mind and to baffle others.

He was tempted to ask Duke the same question—why do you do that shit?

Why bother asking a pointless question?

Duke’s eyebrows crept upwards.

“And, uh. How’s it working so far?”

Mark grinned.

“Well, I don’t know. It seems to be going okay.”

So far, so good.

It was a kind of freedom. It was self-discipline, which made many things possible.

No one could imprison the mind—or so Mark had heard somewhere. Among other things, it killed a little time and got the blood going first thing in the morning.

A series of loud, pounding thuds rocked the building, and the floor moved under his feet.

Mark’s mouth opened, but there was this sound

“What in the hell is that?”

“Ah…that sounds like five-oh-three.” Duke puffed furiously, his head practically disappearing in the cloud of acrid blue smoke as the sirens going by in the street out front temporarily, for all intents and purposes, drowned out the hellish racket from above. “Dude kind of has a bad day once in a while. She’s nice, though.”

“A bad day, eh?” Bummer.

That one seemed self-explanatory.

The sirens faded away, and the pounding went on…and on. They sure were going at it.

“Oh, my God. What the hell is that? Is he beating her up or something?” It was eight o’clock in the morning.

Duke shrugged, accepting the joint back from a dumbfounded Mark.

“Yeah. Probably.” His eyes came up with that innocent look. “Why? What do you want me to do about it?”

Mark shook his head. There was just no winning with Duke. People were bouncing off the walls up there by the sounds of it.

Was the guy throwing his fucking wife around?

Jesus, H., Christ.

“So. What’s your big plan for the day?”

“Honestly? I was thinking of going for a walk—a long walk.” That wasn’t such a bad idea, it might even help to shake Duke off.

Duke didn’t impress as the athletic type. He had a life of his own, (presumably), and a business to run.

Mark could have lived without the fifteen joints a day. The threat of beer, always on the horizon, was another thing. Drinking early in the day was a good way to kill the day entirely. 

So far that had been more or less true. They didn’t need to prove it again.

The other thing was a chair—if Mark was lucky, someone would be throwing out an old chair by the side of the street. If it wasn’t too heavy, or too ratty, he’d grab it, turn around and come straight home. Hell, he might even take the bus. It was time to become a scrounger. He was way out of shape, but a little pain might be worth it. It struck him that being a bit stoned might actually be an advantage under certain circumstances.

If nothing else, it would kill an hour and maybe even two.



(End of Part Seven.)


Here’s a link to The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series, also by Louis Shalako.


Thanks for reading.

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