03
Feb
09

Fate Pays The Rent (Second Installment)

Clement looked up at the third floor center window. There was still a light on. The rest of the business park was dark.
“Geez. This guy oughta get a life. Who the hell would still be there at 11:30? You couldn’t make somebody still be working, huh?” He rotated slowly, eyes on the ground, checking in his peripheral vision that no one was looking at him looking at the building. Near his feet was the cardboard wrapper from a pair of one-size-fits-all fishnet pantyhose. He had a garbage bag in the car but the car was three blocks away at the restaurant.
“There could be anything in the world on this.” He kicked the wrapper. “Besides, a guy walking around is one thing. A guy walking around advertising he’s got fishnet pantyhose is something else.”

Clement ripped open a fourth packet of sugar, dumped it into his coffee, and stirred it hard. The waitress reappeared.
“Can I get you something to go with that”-she looked at the pile of sugar packets adding “Sweetie?” Clement sighed.
“No. Uh-no, thank you. I just want to sit here and drink my coffee.” He held up a hand. “And please don’t top it up. If I do think of something I want, I’ll send up a flare.” The waitress set the coffee pot on the table with extra firmness, dropped the bill beside it then galumphed away.
“I see no tip in your future,” Clement said, holding the bill to his forehead. He finished his coffee, placed the exact amount on the table, and pushed out the door heading for 164th Street.
The third floor center light was still on.
“Does he always leave it on? Nobody said anything about that and he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who thinks he’s the electric company.” The fishnet hose wrapper was still there too and Clement kicked it again. “Now what the hell do I do? I can’t just stand out here all night.” He took a step back and nearly collided with the metal pole holding up the bus stop sign. The semi-enclosed shelter had been removed years before to discourage transients and anyone else from peeing in it.

As he drove along 164th looking for a gas station that still did car repairs, he checked the bus schedule.
“Okay, so the 12 runs all night till 3 then it starts up again at 5. Probably gotta hose out the buses. Geez, this is stupid. It’s like the guy from Apple that always wanted to do things amazingly brilliant and this is the opposite of that.” He parked the car and felt around in the pocket on the back of his seat for an envelope. He found a bowling pencil, bit the end so some graphite showed, and wrote on the back of the envelope “Possible steering problem. Whenever you get to it. No rush. Will call later.” He slipped the car key off his key ring and into the envelope, slid the note through the slot, locked the car and sighed as he shut the door.

The airbrakes hissed and the bus doors popped open, releasing a fart of warm cheese-smelling air. Clement took a step back then climbed aboard. A woman wearing a babushka- she was the cheesy one Clement realized- sat behind the driver; the front of the bus was otherwise empty.
“How much is it?” Clement asked.
“One dollar and twenty-five cents,” drawled the driver. She was a large Black woman and Clement noticed she too smelled but it was more of a fried eggs and old coffee combination.~ He fished in his pocket and found a twenty, a five, and four pennies. “Then I guess I’d like to buy one of those books with the tickets in it. I’m going to be doing a lot of riding tonight. Aren’t there ten tickets or so in those?” He smiled.
“Are you crazy? We don’t sell those things on the bus. I can’t be carrying around stuff that’s worth money. And I’d have to have change. Uh uh. No way.”
“How about if I just ride around with you for a while? If something was to happen, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable with a man on the bus? Maybe somebody else will think you have the ticket books or some money and try something.”
“First of all, I do this job five times and sometimes six times a week. I do it by myself. Sometimes this lady here rides along with me- after she pays her fare- and sometimes I’m all alone. I’m not just a big girl, I’m strong. Ain’t no one gonna try anything if he’s got brains because I will just take him out.” The woman behind the driver nodded. “Second, don’t think for a minute that I believe you’re concerned about my safety. I think you’re trying to run a line. Now I don’t know if you’re stupid enough to think you’re gonna play me and get somewhere or if you just don’t have any change.”
The woman in the babushka nodded again and said, “Yes, he is a player. I can see this.”
“What I suggest,” the driver said, “is that you take your twenty dollar bill and your five dollar bill and all four of your pennies and you go get yourself a cab.”
“I don’t want to take a cab. I want to ride the bus.”
“Then if you really want to ride the bus take yourself on over to the Bi-Lo Foods and buy yourself some jalapeno poppers and a big bottle of Coke and get some quarters so you can ride on the bus. And don’t be thinking you’re gonna be bringing that food on here neither.”
“That’s right. No food on the bus, Mr. Player.” Both women laughed, Clement climbed down, the doors thwumped shut and he was alone. He looked at his watch.
“1:15 in the morning. Probably been twenty years since I was out on the streets at 1:15 in the morning. And I wasn’t alone. I definitely wasn’t walking along 164th. Why the hell should I be alone now? I should call Jeff and have him out here with me. He’s the author of this goat-screw. I should call him up and at least make him bring me the dollar-twenty-five.” Three cars passed him going either direction in the half-dozen blocks to the store but there were five parked outside. There were bars on the windows and behind the bars the windows were nearly covered with posters advertising cigarettes, beer, and the weekly specials. Despite the number of cars outside, when Clement’s eyes had recovered from the operating room brightness inside he was surprised to see it seemed to be filled with young people. The cashier was young, short and dark, with a pink Red Sox T-shirt and a dragon tattoo. Two young men were reading magazines. Another lounged against the stand-alone freezer case that held Dove bars and drumsticks, drinking a Liquid Charge. Clement walked past candles with Saint Jude and Our Lady of Guadalupe on them, Hudson’s Bay blankets, energy drinks with Cyrillic printing to the hot foods case.
“Excuse me; I have a question about these jalapeno poppers.”
“Which is what?” The question came from a kid- Clement thought of him as a kid although he was probably twenty-five- who was vigorously loosening his dead back skin with a monkey’s claw on a long stick. Clement looked at the cashier.
“My question- for the man who works here- is how fresh are those poppers?”
“You think he’s gonna poison people who come in here? You think he’s gonna have a job very long if everybody comes in here and gets the food and dies or has to get their stomach pumped? You think that?”
“I think he’s probably very conscientious. I also think people have busy lives and busy nights and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the little things. Like when the last time was the poppers were changed.” A kid in a sideways Cowboys cap stepped forward.
“Those poppers are so fresh, man. I ate those poppers myself. I’m still standing here, right? You don’t see my hermanos taking me to the hospital.”
“The gentleman in the pastel Red Sox jersey- does he talk?”
“He don’t have to talk to a pendejo like you,” Monkey Claw said. The other young men laughed.
“Damn straight.” Clement walked to the cold drinks case and took out a Yoo-Hoo and a Coke. He placed them on the counter beside the register then added a cherry Hostess fruit pie. He handed the cashier the twenty.
“Two-fifty in quarters, please.” He studied the cartons of cigarettes on either side of the cashier’s head in a great attempt to avoid either making eye contact or turning to see what the men behind him were doing. Silently the cashier rang up the drinks and fruit pie, placing them in a bag, the quarters in two piles and the remainder of the change on the counter. Clement heard footsteps moving towards the back of the store, a door opened and shut. There was a strong smell of cologne as someone leaned past him to add something to his bag.
“I wasn’t kidding about the poppers being fresh, man. A gift,” said a voice in his ear. Clement scooped up the money, dropping it into his pocket, hefted the bag onto one hip and walked to the door. Pushing it open with his free hand, he turned in the doorway.
“Good night, gentlemen.” As soon as he was out of sight of the door, he took the poppers out and dropped them into the trash. “Geez, you’re stupid. Why the hell would you go into a place like that when you see there’s a million cars out front? Since when do you drink Yoo-Hoo? And why would you get cans of something?” He looked down the street for the bus or the group of young men. Neither was coming so he ripped open the fruit pie and began eating it, carefully peeling the wrapper down as he ate so as not to get any of the crumbs on his jacket. “I can feel my arteries hardening right now.” He cracked the can of Coke and tipped his head back, feeling the acid and caffeine running down his throat and rushing into his veins. A car slowed as it passed him, the passenger-side window sliding down.
“A little something for your poppers, man.” A small lidded container- grape jelly- hit the sidewalk beside Clement’s shoe and burst open. He continued to drink, refusing to look at his shoes until he could no longer hear the car. Most of the jelly had missed him and he used the cardboard from the fruit pie to scrape off what hadn’t. He drained the remains of the Coke and put the empty can, the pie wrapper, and the full can of Yoo-Hoo into the trash on top of the poppers. He walked the four blocks to the bus stop trying not to rub the last bits of jelly off his shoe with the back of his pants leg.

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