I’m leading my platoon through high grass in choking heat, green and black paint mixing with the sweat on my face, wondering if the next step on foreign soil will be my last in this world. I hear shots and drop to the ground, putting my hand up to halt the line. So, this is the bright future of a grad student who majored in English literature and had a passion for the stage, I think as I spit in a bush.
Jolted by the nightmare and the freezing cold, I push off my makeshift quilt, a Sunday edition of The New York Times patched together with duct tape. The clacking of high heels signals the approach of a passerby. I stand with effort, lifting a discarded Starbucks cup to a woman in a black wool pea coat. She looks past me.
I slip back under my shell of newsprint and scowl bitterly, shouting after her: “A man may see how the ... this world goes with no eyes!”
Chilled to the core by a damp cold, I can no longer feel my fingertips. I press my ear down on the gritty cement and listen to the world beyond the blanket of newspapers. Feet on pavement, laughter, conversation, the sound of taxis honking, and a pain in my stomach prevent rest. I reach into my pocket, remembering the remnants of a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich I stuffed there yesterday. The plastic sandwich bags work as makeshift gloves; they block the wind a bit. Sleeping out in the street is hell, but it’s still safer than the shelter I was in last week.
God, it is so cold out here, I think, as I drift off from exhaustion. In my mind’s eye, the tear-stained face of my ex-wife, Helen, appears. I have five children who won’t see me. Everything I ever valued, every blessing was sucked into a bottle and I am forever thirsty.
“Lewis. Hey there, ole’ man. Wake up!”
The little punk who works in this deli that I sit in front of is shaking me. He thinks I’m crazy and I like messing with his head. I'll just pretend I’m sleeping and maybe he’ll go away.
“Hey there!” You have ta get up and move ya-self somewhere else. You can’t sleep here outside the business.”
Last night I saved his ass while he was closing up. Some thugs came in and tried to hold up the cash register. I started screaming “fire” and they ran off. It seems like the kid knew the lousy bastards, or else he would have reported it. I sit up and read the boy’s name badge aloud like a ballpark announcer, just to piss him off.
“Taheem Lashard, Deli Associate Trainer!”
The brat smirks at me. We have an understanding now.
How dddost, my boy? Art cold?.... I am cold mysssself.” I shout.
"What-eva ole' man. The police are gonna haul in your sorry Shakespearean ass.”
Then the kid points to the woman in the pea coat who is on her cell phone in the deli. She’s calling the cops on me.
“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fffools!” I yell into the passing crowd.
“Come on soldier, Move!” The kid lifts me up by the arms and drags me around the back of the building.
He pushes me through a door sprayed with numbers and satanic images and into a damp bathroom. I sit down against the radiator. There is another blanket near the back wall and a filthy pillow. Then the kid reties his apron and leaves me there. I get a whiff of freshly brewed coffee, sweet pastries and warm bagels. I imagine the feeling of holding a hot cup of coffee in my hands. I smile. Maybe the kid is going to kill me later, or hand me over to his drug lords. I wonder, but the pipes against my stiff back are too warm to let me worry about the future.
“I ...will die BRAVELY, like a sssmug bridegroom.” I mutter.
I hear Taheem shut the lights in the front of the store. It’s closing time. Time for me to get kicked out or die maybe, I think, but the kid comes into the bathroom and grabs the blanket and dirty pillow. He crawls into a corner.
“Goodnight Sergeant Lewis.” He whispers.
It has been a while since I felt warm enough to cry.