My wife left me about a year ago. Unfortunately, our kids and her father didn’t, and I use the phrase “our kids” with some skepticism. Lucy and Bernie are definitely mine, they’re thirteen and eleven respectively and I’ve seen inclinations toward addiction and crime in them for years. Peter and John are seven and five. I’m not sure about them. They are listless and depressed, but so are a lot of kids. It’s too early for them to be this way, but I can’t blame them.
My wife Susan, she was always unpredictable, untrustworthy. From the start I had the feeling she was a fair-weather sort of wife and it certainly stacks up that way, but there is plenty of blame to go around and more than enough to spare in my direction. Some forms of adversity I can handle, but when they pile up on top of each other I become desperate and resigned at the same time.
Susan’s dad George had turned into a zombie over the last couple of years, a sad old monster we’re stuck feeding and looking after. He goes outside every afternoon wearing just one shoe and a bathrobe and stumbles around the neighborhood looking for half finished cigarettes. He has no job, no friends, and nowhere to go, but he spends an hour each morning washing his face and shaving. He doesn’t shower much and smells terrible, a mix of body odor and cheap cologne. He goes through this ritual every morning, hot water running at full blast for an hour. The kids have started calling him the aquatic ape. After he shaves he pulls on some filthy sweatpants and few layers of dirty t-shirts. Then he’s off to some nearby bench or stoop. I see him sitting out there, never more than a block or two away, eyes closed with a lit cigarette in his hand, near sleep but occasionally jerking awake. None of us can stand him but I just don’t have the energy to boot him out.
I had a job at an advertising agency that went out of business. I had been there for 10 years. I tried getting new work, then going back to old work, but the old work paid about a third less than it did 10 years ago and there were never enough hours. Waiter, legal proofreader, labor temp, I was doing all three and getting maybe 20 hours a week, earning about $300 a week if I was lucky. Not even enough to take care of myself.
Most of the time I could live with being broke and miserable. None of us were starving yet, but we were getting there. I was already $30,000 in debt but I had given up on that debt. As a result all of my credit cards had been canceled. It seemed inevitable. Jail or homelessness for me, the looney bin or homelessness for George, and jail or orphanages for the kids. All I wanted was one last decent Christmas, one good day for all of us with enough food for the kids, a little booze for me, and a bit of whatever the hell George needed or wanted.
Most of the people in our building were section eight, mentally or physically disabled, living on reduced government subsidized rent. Most of them shared a few common bathrooms. We had our own bathroom, but it was split in half. The toilet was in my room next to my bed and the bathtub was in the kitchen. I could never sleep with people wandering through to crap and piss at all hours.
The common bathrooms were tiny, most just had a toilet. They were so small our neighbor Mike had to leave his wheelchair outside whenever he had to take a dump. I lurked around until I heard him grunt his way in and stole his wheelchair to go out panhandling. Mike was alright and I felt lousy, but there was nothing I could do about it.
I wheeled myself out of the neighborhood, far enough away to avoid anyone who might know me. Most broke people stay within their ghetto, within a few blocks of their project. All of NY is a subway ride away, but most of the people in my neighborhood are born on the block, live on the block, and die on the block or in prison.
For once in my life things were going well. I had parked myself in front of a deli and made about $38 in five hours, most of it in nickels and dimes. It was nearly 2:00 AM, I should’ve quit and liberated Mike from the toilet. I had enough to buy a bird and a bag of potatoes and stuffing, and maybe a few Chia Pets and some other assorted crap from the 99 cent store. I wanted to reach $40, but as usual my reach exceeded my grasp. On the verge of shutting down a cop stopped by to get some coffee. As it was the holiday season and I was in a wheelchair he was more friendly than he’d probably usually be. Instead of getting back to his beat he loitered with me to smoke cigarettes and shoot the shit. He couldn’t have been older than 22 or 23.
“What happened to you? You a vet or something?”
“Just bad luck.”
“Tell me about it. I got a wife and a kid on the way and we may have to move in with her parents. If that happens I’m falling down a staircase. Only responsible thing to do. I’d probably do better in a wheelchair.”
I gulped. He took a drink of coffee and sniffed the air. “Do you smell that? What the hell is that?”
This neighborhood, like all of its ilk, was under the constant assault of sewer vapors, urine, vomit, but there was a strong smell of gas.
“It smells like a gas leak.”
There was an explosion in the apartment above the deli and fire flickered from the blown-out windows. The cop was knocked on his ass and I was pushed out into the street and fell over onto my side.
“Holy shit!” yelled the cop. He tried to stand up but fell back down. One of his ankles was busted. We heard some screaming from above, a kid was in the apartment next to the one that had exploded. He was outside his window trying to get the ladder on the fire escape to descend, but was too light to break the rust holding it in place.
The cop grabbed his radio and yelled into it, our address and some numbers, then louder and angrier “The building is on fire! There’s a fucking kid up there!” He looked at me.
“These radios stink and our dispatcher is a retard, I can’t fucking believe this. You OK?”
I had a strong inclination to push myself up and wheel away, or maybe even just stand up and run away. My entire life up until that point had convinced me that I was a coward and cursed. If I somehow managed to improve the situation I’d end up in prison or stuck with another kid. Leaving by wheelchair was my best option. I could say I was going for help. If they looked for me they’d be looking for someone in a wheelchair. They’d get me soon enough, but I’d have a shot at Christmas.
“I’m OK.” I tried to push myself up. “How long till someone gets here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
That meant too late as usual. Right across the street was an abandoned firehouse, shut down just a year or so ago. We were in what was considered to be a lost neighborhood. A lot of people, even in the neighborhood, thought a good cleansing fire was the only option. Just burn it all down and try again.
I got up and ran into the building as other people were streaming out. The cop yelled after me.
“You can walk! It’s a fucking Christmas miracle!”
I woke up in the hospital handcuffed to my bed. The cop was sitting beside me. His foot had been taped up.
“You OK?” I asked him.
“I go into surgery once they check my credit rating.”
“I get the kid?”
“You got the kid.” The cop pulled a flask from his pocket and took a long pull, then handed it to me. I sniffed at it and drank. Georgi vodka. The kind that comes in plastic half gallon bottles.
“What am I looking at?”
The cop laughed as I handed back his flask.
“Your neighbor Mike. Someone called in a complaint about him. We found him screaming on the toilet. You’ve also got a couple bench warrants out on you. Nothing major.”
“The kids okay?”
He nodded and took a long pull from his flask, then handed it back to me. He stared at the wall and told me his name, then reached over and shook my free hand. He pushed his chair closer with his good foot and started laughing as he uncuffed me, then opened up his wallet and gave me $22.00, everything he had.
“Get the fuck out of here. Somebody will probably pick you up in a few days. No one wants to do paperwork during the holidays, so you’re safe until the 27th. Maybe even through New Year’s.”
“What about you?”
How was he going to explain this?
“What about me? Fuck me. And fuck you, too.” He took his flask back and finished it off as I got out of bed. “There are some scrubs in the closet across the hall. The slippers should get you home and you can take my hoodie.” He pulled it off the back of his chair and tossed it to me.
As I was about to leave he grabbed my arm.
“Try and take a wheelchair for Mike, too. His is going into evidence and one of the wheels is fucked up anyway.”
The slippers and the hoodie were too big for me and the scrubs were too small. I looked like a goddamn clown, but I managed to steal another wheelchair and get back to my neighborhood at around 7:00 a.m.