Disclaimer One: All of these characters belong to me.
Disclaimer Two: This piece may be hard to read because of the subject matter. I consider it to be an angsty piece. It also contains two women who are drawn to each other both emotionally and physically. They will express that, so if it's not for you, then you know the drill. I have also changed around Atlantic City to fit my liking, so don't get offended.
Summary: Two people down on their luck and the world in general find each other. As their bond gets stronger, they change each other and restore hope.
Dedication: To my one and only. You keep me going, Camille.
Copyright© Minerva 2000
Chapter I: Introducing Sly
I've lived in New Jersey all my life, and right now, I have a love/hate relationship with the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Today, I hate it. Don't get me wrong. I love the smell of the ocean, and despite it being the middle of Summer, it's not too hot. Living by the beach helps. I'll get to that in a minute. The seagulls and terns are minding their own business because fascinated tourists aren't throwing soggy McDonald's fries and left over White House subs at them, so their sticking to the water and doing the occasional flybys, shitting on the heads of unsuspecting strangers. It's not any of that. I actually find the seagull thing pretty entertaining.
It's the fact that I'm sitting here on a bench watching the people all walk by like there isn't a thing wrong in the world. They don't even turn my way. These people almost sprint to get to the casinos with their gaudy lights, tacky shows, and fixed money. I get the occasional kid gawking and pulling on his or her mother's shirt asking who the funny looking woman is. Then there's the men that trip out of the casinos late at night or early morning drunk and smelly, offering me a fifty for a blow-job. I did it once, but the guy smacked me when I accidentally bit him. I hit him back. Hard. They are the only ones that really see me. I sit and watch as hundreds of old people walk by in a hurry to spend their life's savings. They laugh, oh, and ahh at the fake Taj Mahal or replicated New Orleans, but they don't see me. I'm a part of the city too, but not one of its attractionsI don't want pity or a hand out. Sometimes, I just want somebody to turn, smile at me, and say "hi". It could happen one day, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm one of what the liberals and sociology text books call 'invisible people.' I'm not dumb you see. When I can, I read the occasional newspaper, and I've even read about those kinds of people in high school and college. Oops, I almost forgot I meant my kind of people. Anyways, yep, I went to college. Got a degree too, but you know what? They lied. A college education didn't ensure me the American Dream. It was all one big fat lie. I want my money back. Well, my parents' money back. I'm sure they feel like they wasted it anyway. To them, I probably got what I deserved. I'm not only a pervert now. I'm a homeless pervert. Yeah, I can say it. My parents disowned me because I like women. I know what you're thinking. Why the blow job I just told you about? Oh, come on! The guy offered me fifty bucks! That's all I'm saying about it.
Anyway, that's not why I'm like this. I had a job. A good one, but because my stupid ass decided to be noble I lost it. I have a degree in Accounting, and I worked for one of the casinos. Guess where? Yesss, in accounting. Had a nice condo in Longport, where I lived with all the other bougie rich white people, a nice car, supposedly great friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend. Shit, I had a lot of other stuff too that kept me happy and occupied. Needless, to say I lost it all. Even Maggie left me before the ink was dry on the court document.
It all started simple enough. Caught a fellow accountant stealing. Yeah, he had his hand all the way up in the barrel, taking out handfuls. I told him that I would give him time to turn himself in, but do you know what the bastard did? I gave him two weeks to get himself together. During all that time, the fucker framed me: planted money in my desk, forged my signature, and messed up my books. Then to top it all off, he went and told, on ME! I tried to kill the little rat. It was all over the news and the papers They showed me being taken away in handcuffs on the 11 o'clock news! Let me see if I remember. They said, and I quote, "Sometimes beauty isn't everything. Money is more." I mean, come on. Isn't that the suckiest of all lines you've ever heard? Then they went on to show a terrible picture of me. Yeah, I know that's not the point.
Anyway, with the way I was living, I didn't really have any money saved. My parents--safely tucked away in Trenton-- refused to help, so I had to sell my car and use whatever money I could get my hands on by selling my belongings to make bail and find a lawyer. Hell, they had convicted me in the press before a trial was even set. All I can say is thank God or whoever that I had a semi good lawyer who had the sense to investigate all this stuff. They found that the signatures weren't mine and that my computer had been tampered with. I got off before the Grand Jury even convened. I mean that would be front page news right? Oh, it was but not that way. They arrested Sam, but still didn't really exonerate me.
Okay, this is the funny part. Instead of saying that I had been found innocent, the press reported that the evidence was inconclusive and that I might have been a partner to it all. I wasn't arrested again, but I had nothing and nowhere to go. No one would hire me, and I do mean no one. I cried and screamed until my throat was raw. It didn't help. I still had nothing, and tears weren't going to fix it. I just had to face it and get back on my feet the right way that meant no drugs, no hooking, no hustling. But, oh man I wanted to. The temptation was great until I saw a pimp beat the crap out of one of his girls. I would have probably ended up in jail for murder this time.
So, I had the clothes on my back and a few other things that survived my selling spree. I took it all to the local homeless mission. I wasn't too proud. I had to have somewhere to sleep, a roof over my head, and food. I had seen commercials and advertisements about the Mission. They all said how the people who worked and volunteered there were so helpful and how the environment was thriving. I'll tell you what it was thriving with: thieves. I slept there for a week, and all those other things that I told you about were gone. It wasn't anything much, some books, shoes, clothing, a portable radio, and some other knick knacks. Do you know what one of those oh so helpful volunteer/workers told me? "We're not responsible for stolen items." I wanted to smack her just for smiling while she said it. These were all the things I had left in the world, and I couldn't let them go that easily. I was determined to get everything back.
Hell, I saw a wino listening to my radio; a couple of women wearing my shoes, and a mother wearing my clothes who was reading one of my books to her kid. Now, I don't consider myself a fighter, but when your malnourished, dirty, and sick, a six foot tall, semi-muscular woman with wild blue eyes and long jet black hair has got to be intimidating. It was. Still, I had to smack the wino to get my radio back. I was even able to save good old J.D. Salinger from becoming someone's pillow. Here is another funny part. I got caught and they threatened to kick me out for stealing!
Like I said before, I'm not really prone to violence, but I was going to make an exception that day until something just settled over me and calmed me down. I was able to get out of it with a snide remark, "You guys won't take responsibility for my stolen belongings, so I did!" I shouldn't have to tell you that I left that place. Hold on, I do go back everyday to take a shower, brush my teeth and get meals, but that's about all. I have to say that I'm probably the cleanest homeless person you would ever meet. I may only have three changes of clothes, but I still like to be clean.
Now, back to the living by the water thing. I had to have someplace to go. For the past two years, The Boardwalk has been my home. No, I don't sleep on the bench that I'm sitting on. I sleep under the Boardwalk. You see, The Boardwalk, is like a long stretch of wide sidewalk where vendors, restaurants, and the casinos are located. People use it to get from casino to casino, restaurant to restaurant or even for exercise purposes. I've seen many a bike rider and jogger. The good thing is that this sidewalk is built so that it is lifted off the ground by poles, panels or whatever you want to call it.
There is a lot of space, width wise, but the openings are just high enough for us 'invisible people' to crawl through and sleep in. I have a little room closed off with some cardboard. It's probably about the size of your average dorm room. A couple of blankets that I got from the Mission are pretty much all I need in the Summer, and it has ample space for the rest of my belongings. I don't have to worry about anything being stolen there even though other people live around me. We have this code where we look out for each other and share what little we have. So, whatever is taken, I know will eventually find its way back to me. I hope that this doesn't sound easy because it wasn't. I almost got my ass kicked by some of the guys protecting their territory. I even had some that wanted to fuck me in return for a spot. Couldn't do it. If I wasn't going to sell myself for money, I wasn't going to do it for a piece of sand. I did end up sleeping on benches a few nights until I actually found some humane people in between the Taj and Resorts. I've been there every since.
It's been two years, and I'm just biding my time. Everyday I used to ask myself, "How did I get here?" After a few months, I only asked that question once a week, but now, I don't ask it at all. I've tried to get help, but the Mission is just that, a homeless shelter. Adult services is a crock of shit. They play with people's lives by deciding who they want to see and who they want to help. How can someone making 24,000 a year be on a power trip? Suffice to say, I never got to be one of the chosen few. I've tried to get a job, but what do I put down for an address? Using the Mission was a big no-no. Some newbie volunteer forgot to give me the message about a job interview! A lot of that happens there. Still, I'm just biding my time. Something will happen. Something will change. It has to because I'm getting too tired.
Regardless of it all, here I sit on my bench, hating the Boardwalk, the topside anyway. There are just too many people who see me as invisible; who aren't going to speak to me; who aren't going to give me a chance. I don't even want to look at them anymore today, so I turn my head only to see Gert heading my way. She smiles, and I see blackened teeth, the paper she's carrying under her arm, and the bag she's holding from here. I wave her over. She's an old woman, early sixties with no family. I think that she's probably mentally ill too, but that's okay. We take care of her just the same, and I make sure that she doesn't sleep far from me. I can smell before I see the gray work pants that have long since dulled and turned a dirty black and the ratty sweater covered with an overcoat of the same dank color. All of that's no big deal. I've gotten used to it, being one of them now. As Gert sits down, I hear her grunt as bones crack, and I wait patiently while she unfolds the paper.
Quite a morning ain't it, Sly?"
I grin. She coined that name for me after my little fiasco at the Mission. Word gets around. It's stuck with everyone and me since then, but the real name is Sloane Ford. "Yeah, it is. Too many people though. Makes me feel crowded."
"Stock market is up. That's why they're here. They got money to spend. I tried to call my broker to tell him to buy fifty shares of Wal-Mart, but they never listen. He hung up in my face. Damn kids!"
Yeah, old Gert was crazy alright. I patted her on the knee. "Next time you have to make him listen, Gert. It's your money."
"Yeah, maybe you can talk to him next time. He'll listen to a pretty lady."
All of a sudden her face lights up like a child with a present.
"Was over there on California Avenue, and I found you some of those shoes that all the kids are crazy about these days." She fishes them out of the paper bag near her feet, and I give her a quirky grin as I take the new pair of shoes: white Nike and black Reebok. She maybe crazy, but she was thoughtful. "Thanks, Gert. I'll add this to my collection." The old woman had been finding me shoes for the past year. It only meant that if I had shoes, so did the others.
At that moment a stomach chose to growl. I couldn't tell if it was hers or mine. It doesn't matter because it's time to eat. "Come on, Gertie. Let's head over to the Mission and get some breakfast."
Her voice changes from sure to hesitant. "Sly, it's twelve blocks. I-I can't walk it this morning."
"Arthritis acting up?"
I grab her hand anyway along with my change of clothes. "Well, come on. Let's go down to the arcade and see if we can pick up someone's lost quarters. We'll get a jitney and get you some Tylenol."
Chapter II: Abbie
"Be courteous, but not condescending. They're human too. You need to have a thick skin around here because most of the people who come here are regulars, and they don't like new people. Be prepared to get yelled at, and if someone attacks you, please don't retaliate. Just call for help. We know how to deal with them."
I watch her lips move and I hear some of what comes out of her mouth. What is her name again? Jan, yeah that's it. So, I nod my head and say, "Yes, Jan," when I hear her sentence taper off. My eyes wander around as I follow her from room to room. For a heavyset woman, she moves quickly and with a lot of grace. I have to almost power walk to get my little legs to catch up. It only serves to speed up my heart more. We stop in a large room full of single beds and cots. They're almost wall-to-wall, with belongings stuffed under beds and in the corners. I follow her to three more rooms like that. " We do run out of room sometimes, but we try to never turn anybody away. We put pallets on the floors of the kitchen and cafeteria." I shake my head again, "Yes, Jan."
How the hell did I get myself into this? A twenty-dollar bag of groceries cost me five hundred hours community service that's how. I'm not a thief. I know I'm not, and I have never stolen anything before. I was so hungry, and I just couldn't take it. My mouth felt like cotton wool, and my stomach clenched and ached every time I moved. The 7-11 was only a block away from me. I had to do something.
I walked in with my backpack just like I always did and said hello to Sid. They know me there. It was crowded with kids, and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity. Grabbed some spaghetti, tomato sauce, chips, small box of cereal, a couple cans of tuna, and a package of oreos. I was quick about it too, but Sid saw me in the hidden camera. We'd known each other for four years, so I figured that he would at least wait until the store was almost empty before calling me out. No such luck. He's not a big guy, but he's bigger than me. He used his extra bulk to push his way through the isles and grab me by the arm. He said something in Indian or whatever language people from Pakistan speak. Then he said it in English, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I'm calling the cops on your thieving ass!" To make this short, I ended up in jail, but got out the next day because the judge didn't see me as a flight risk. I ended up with a court appointed attorney who was nice enough to make a deal. I got five hundred hours of community service.
"This is the cafeteria. As you see, we've already got breakfast going. People should start coming in within the next hour or so." This is where I'm doing my community service, and I'm scared shitless. I feel like a hundred eyes are on me, mocking me, reminding me that this is what I'm a step away from. I can feel my heart beat faster. I don't want to see this. I don't want to be this, and I don't want to do this. A man reeking of alcohol walks by us, but I look straight ahead. He sees me anyway. He smiles and rotten teeth greet me. I swear that he's going to lunge for me, so I move to the side, hiding beside Jan and her thicker form. It's hard for me not to scream. He does nothing but walk on by, and Jan doesn't even notice my reaction. "You can start here by serving breakfast. If you like it, consider serving your job from now on."
This could be me. How can I have a job and have nothing? It wasn't at all my intention when I first came here to Atlantic City. I used to look at this as just a trial that I had to go through as a price for being young, but I'm not that young anymore. I used to ask myself if I would be better off working at some mill in some part of Indiana. That used to be the tape I measured myself by. I'm not better off either way. I think deep down I know this and that's why I left Gary when I graduated high school. There was nothing for me there anyway. I didn't have many friends since I pretty much kept to myself. Had a couple of boyfriends who told me I was different from other girls. I believed them, so I gave them what they wanted. Those little boys turned out not to be so different from other boys. Either way, I didn't feel a thing.
Parents were dead, and foster homes were useless after I turned eighteen. College was simply out of the question. Didn't have the grades or the money. How did I end up here? It's simple really. It was by word of mouth. A friend of mine-- I use that term loosely since I never liked her--had a cousin who told me that jobs were a plenty here. The casinos were booming, and they were hiring for every position that you could ever think of. The pay was weekly, and it was good. Like a fool, I listened and didn't ask questions. I've been working since I was fourteen and had pretty much gotten used to it.
I bought my own clothes, shoes, and sometimes my own groceries. I just didn't feel right living in stranger's houses and taking their things. I was able to save some money, and with the little bit I had, I jumped a Greyhound with eyes full of hope and wonder. When I got here, the casinos looked so big and glamorous. Looking at them took me places that I knew I would never get too. There would be no Rome or Taj Mahal for me. Those casinos were as close as I was going to get. The first thing I did was find a place to live. Thinking it would be good luck, I went for a room in a building on Indiana Avenue.
I gave Mrs. Tilly five hundred of the eight hundred dollars I had, so that I could move into the furnished room right away. When I say room, I do mean room. There was a bed, dresser, a closet, a table, a kitchenette that consisted of a hotplate, and a cable hook up if the tenant had a TV. Using up all most all I had left, I went and bought a new TV. Only to end up getting three channels. Cable was extra. The bathrooms were down the hall with the pay phones. It is a hundred eighty dollars a week for this lap of luxury.
The good thing was that I didn't have to pay utilities. I ended up getting a job in housekeeping, on the overnight shift, at one of the lesser casinos, The Claridge, because I didn't hear back from the others. Here is where the fool part comes in. My friend's cousin neglected to tell me that only the licensed casino jobs paid the good money. I got saddled with two twenty-five a week before taxes , lousy tips, and stepped over for promotion four times. I could have gotten one of those jobs but they took money out of your check for the license. I couldn't afford that. You do the math. I was left with pennies to eat with. Indiana avenue didn't end up being so lucky after all, since I've been stuck here for the past few years.
I look around to see Jan pointing at some guy she called Mike I think. "Okay, Abbie. He'll take care of you and show you the ropes."
Even though my head feels like it's going to fall off, I nod again. "Yes, Jan."
Mike gives me a toothy grin, and I immediately think that he's got to be a volunteer. He seems to happy and too clean. His blonde hair is cut in the perfect blow dry position, and he smells like leather. Mike towers over me, and his chiseled face crinkles when he smiles. I try to smile for him, but it only makes my face feel warped. Without being offered, his hand engulfs mine. "Hey, don't worry. I know it's scary the first day. I'll hang out with you as much as I can to make sure everything turns out."
I immediately feel like a heel for making assumptions about him. I do the best that I can and grin.
He laughs, "See. They're going to love you here with a smile like that. Makes your eyes greener. It will probably brighten most of their day."
I changed my mind about assumptions and add cliché to the list. I took my hand from his. "Thanks. I appreciate you hanging around. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing."
"All you do is dish out some food, but you have to take it to the ones who have trouble walking." I see him look up and around, and I turn to see what it is. The place is filling up. Where the air was cool and scented with overcooked food before, it now smelled sweaty. I tried my best not to wrinkle my nose. I swallowed when several sets of eyes turned in my direction. Hadn't Jan said something about not liking new people? I watch them turn back to each other and whisper. I try to swallow again and find that I can't, so I turn to look for Mike and see him walking away.
There's a pressure on my chest, caving it in and making it hard to breath, and I feel sweat beads running down my t-shirted back. The whispers seem louder now like a buzzing I my ear. Mike is getting further away. Feeling like I don't have any other choice I scream out his name, and he comes running. I'm oblivious to the continued stares now. Clutching at my chest, I feel him grab my hand again as I croak out, "Bathroom."
Pulling on the little cord above the sink, I watch the light come on. This has to be the employee bathroom. It's way too clean. Finally, I turn back to the mirror and see who I guess is me. I run my hand through short cropped blonde hair to try moving the bangs sticking to my forehead, and enlarged green pupils stare back at me as I take in flushed cheeks and chapped lips. With the loss of one paycheck, this could be me, and nobody would care. I let the fear come, and I even have the courage to watch it wash over my face, making it a bright red. Deep breaths don't help my shallow breathing, so I turn on the sink instead and run water over my wrists. It's not enough, so I splash some on my face. There's a knock at the door. "Abbie? Are you all right?"
I clear my throat before answering him, "Yeah, Mike. I'll be out in a minute." Glancing back in the mirror, I see the fear still there. Maybe it's what I need today. Maybe it will get me through this. I can't be them. I will never be them. Abigail Sims, get it together. You've gone through too much crap to let this beat you. I whisper it like a mantra, and hopefully, it'll work.
Chapter III: Meeting
We didn't find enough change to get Gert some Tylenol, but I figured once we got to the Mission the staff would help her out. Finally, they were able to do something for somebody. I grab a tray and get at the end of a long line, and I hear Gert shuffle up behind me. "Nothing like a big scoop of pretend eggs in the morning, huh, Gert?"
"Oh, you know the sausage is fake too. I tell ya they're trying to kill us with the chemicals and pesticides. The only real meat you can find around here is out of the dumpster by Danny's restaurant."
I cringe. I don't want her to go dumpster diving. It's too dangerous in this day and age with dead bodies showing up everywhere and it's damn unsanitary. I bring her here to prevent just this. "Listen, Gert, I'm gonna call your broker and have him liquidate some of your assets. You won't need to go in the dumpsters anymore." I hear someone call my name, so I throw a wave in the general direction. Gert's wrinkled face creases up in a smile. "Bless you, Sly. You're the best."
The line moves slowly, but we finally get up to Mike and the bacon, or whatever it is. As a hello, I give him a small smile and a wink. The boy really is too good to be true. He has the blonde good looks of a surfer, but the things that come out of his mouth are just. . .well, weird for lack of a better word. It's like he studies a book of quotes, or what do you call them? Clichés. Yeah, that's what I mean. I just keep waiting for him to say, "A stitch in time saves nine."
Hey, Sly. We have a shower stall all waiting for you. You know that being clean outside makes the inside feel better too."
See what I mean? "Yeah? What will I get for brushing my teeth? Maybe the tooth fairy will grant me a couple of wishes." The people in front of me snort with laughter. Old Gert, in a moment of lucidity, cackles. Mike grins, and his surfer boy charmed oozes out. I still ended up getting an extra strip of bacon out of it. My eyes squint as we go further up in line. I'm standing in front of big container of faux eggs, as I like to call them. Looking at the little blonde girl serving them, she's way too young to have to see this, but it doesn't look like she's able to see anything at all with her head down like it is. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I had to satisfy it. I stop in front of the girl and give her the silent once over, hoping my presence will at least make her look up. No such luck. Used to the mechanics of the situation, I automatically hold my tray up, and luckily, she already has a scoop prepared. Maybe my natural charm will work. "Hey, kid? You're new here aren't you?" I hear a sniff then an almost imperceptible "yes."
I look over at Mike, poised to give him a piece of my mind. "Ah, hell Mike what is she doing here? She looks all of sixteen and scared to death. What are you going to do if old Charlie gets a hold of her? You know how ornery he can be.." He pokes out his chest, and I barely resist the urge to roll my eyes.
"I'll protect her. That's what I'm here for."
I catch her looking up, just a little, and stormy deep green eyes peer back at me from under blonde bangs. Whoa. Something drops in my stomach. I was wrong. She's not a kid. I grab on to my fork as I feel it slipping out of my hand. No, she's not a kid at all. No one young could have eyes that empty and scared at the same time could they? I swallow and open my mouth to speak again. I stop because I feel them, those eyes, zero in on my mouth, as if waiting. "Um." Ohhh, that's good Sly. You've invented a new language. The blonde's head tips to the side slightly, still waiting. This time my stomach is tying itself in knots. I can actually feel my insides go through the ringer. It's a sign. All of a sudden, I had to hear the real voice that went with those eyes. "Uhm, sorry about the kid thing, but I was right. You are new here?" I found myself holding my breath, not wanting to miss any intonation. Please say something. She finally lifts her face all the way up, revealing her features.
Good God! I try to swallow again, but the lump is entirely too huge. One word, "beautiful", resonates through my head. The eyes were only one part of the package. They sit in a cherub-like face, soft and flawless, with a nose that I bet turns up when she smiles and a full-lipped mouth with tiny lines fanning the sides as if she smiles or frowns just a little too much. I'm so intent that I almost miss her response until the mouth I was studying begins to move. My gaze returns to the feature that first caught me. Her eyes question my scrutiny, while she finally speaks, "Yes, just started this morning." Her voice is soft and fluid. It makes me want to close my eyes, and listen to it like the most classical of music. I start to grin and say something else, when groans from behind stop me. "Hurry up Sly! Damn fool woman! We wanna eat too!"
"Yeah, talk to your new friend later."
I usher Gert out of the way and glare at the two men behind her, hoping that I add the right amount of ice. It is enough because it works. They hang their heads and turn with just a few slight grumbles. I do have a reputation to uphold. Everyone knows that I take no shit. Feeling that the situation was properly handled, I turn back to the blonde to find her head hanging again and a flush covering what I could see of her face. I feel my forehead scrunch, and I know that it has to go along with the confusion that I'm feeling.
The urge is strong to reach over and lift her chin. To compensate, that damn word comes out of my mouth again, "Um." Someone taps me on the back, and I turn to see Gert pointing toward our usual table. That seems to be enough to get my motor skills running. "In a minute. Why don't you go on over?" She smiles and walks gingerly over that way. I find myself moving to the side to let the next guy up, but I still feel that there is more left to say. Going by instinct alone, I stick out my free hand. "They call me Sly."
I bend my knees and tilted my head to the side hoping to get a look at her. My chest flutters, when I see a ghost of smile form then just as quickly disappear. I observe as she sits the scoop down, rubs her hands on her apron, and then reach out to me. "I'm Abbie." My hand swallows hers in electric warmth. I ignore the grumbles, gawks and stares of the others behind me, and there are plenty. The roughness of my hand makes me feel the softness of hers. I believe in universal truths. I am living one at this second of this minute, and the truth of the matter is that I don't want to let go. Her eyes look into mine or should I say look through? The intensity of the gaze makes me want to turn away. I feel swallowed up and wide open, but something in me holds on enough to notice her pink flush and warbly, crooked smile. Her nose does crinkle, and the little lines around her yes and mouth expand, giving her face character.
I want to say something to show that I am utterly charmed. I can feel unfamiliar words bubbling up just waiting to get out, but they don't. We both jump at a loud crash and raised voices. I, myself, turn to see Gert squatting on the floor throwing food back on her plate. I spun back with an apology on my lips, but again I have seemingly lost her attention, glancing at her bowed head. The sound of Gert's voice moves me closer to the disruption. I feel the calluses of my own skin again as I pull my hand back. It was time to go see what trouble is brewing.
Here I am in a line just like they are, but I'm giving instead of taking. Of that, I can be grateful. It still unnerves me: the smell, sound, and the feel of them around me. I don't think I can look not even one in the eye. Them. They. I know they're human beings just like me, but it is something that separates us. I have to keep that in mind, but I can't make eye contact. They'll be able to see my fear, my disdain, and my relief that I am in the giving line. I hear a woman talking to Mike, and I have to literally will myself not to take a glance. I feel her eyes on me, curious and unsettling. Her presence sits over me like a heavy blanket. Maybe if I look up, she'll let me breath again. She asks me a question, and as if on auto pilot I answer, but even then I try to remain as small as possible.
She speaks again. Kid! She calls me a kid. The anger is quick to come and quick to go as I realize I am like a kid in a lot of ways either that, or I'm trying to hang on to some kind of innocence that has deserted me long ago. I think it left when I moved here. Obviously, Mike still thinks that I have that kid like quality coming from his remark. I don't know whether to be flattered or affronted. Her voice drones on. Within the last minute, I discover that I like listening to it. It's smooth and a little rough like the two sides of velvet. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I have to peek. Her eyes are just as wide as mine as we gaze upon each other. My first thought is she doesn't belong here. Nothing that beautiful deserves to be living in the gutter. My thoughts on her beauty unnerve me to say the least, but she disturbs me more. I see pique, fire, and intelligence in her eyes. They are a pale blue that seem to glow from inside. Incandescent. Is that a word? If it is, it is the perfect one for her.
She doesn't look like the others. Her hair is so dark it shines blue, and her face doesn't have the dusty pallor. Her face is chiseled with angles and slashes but made softer by the fullness of her lips and roundness of her chin. Even without make up, she looks as though she could pose for the next cover of a famous magazine, with her exotic, model-like beauty. She even seems to be one step away from clean where the others look as though the hardest water wouldn't penetrate. I think her clothes are the only thing that gives her away because they are well worn with small, tattered holes.
Her mouth opens to speak again, and I am somehow drawn to the full lines of it. The apology she gives me is sincere I can feel it. She's the type of woman to admit when she's wrong. I am taken aback. She seems flustered. Is it by me? I haven't said a word. I am compelled to say something just because she seems to be affected by me somehow, so I tell her what she wants to hear. Someone yells at her from behind, and with a different fire in the pale blue, she turns to them. They either respect her or are scared because the yelling stops.
Her hand takes mine as she introduces herself. Sly. Yes, somehow the name fits. It's rough, tumble, and expressive. I feel like mine pales in comparison but I give it anyway. She embarrasses me with her scrutiny. It feels strange, so I lower my head hoping to make the new feelings go away. I have only felt fear or nothing for so long that this new feeling startles me. It startles me that I feel anything at all. Still, I can help but smile slightly with her attempt at cuteness. A loud crash distracts us both, and she turns to investigate.
The friend that I hardly saw is at another table in trouble. Sly turns back to me as another sincere apology leaves her lips. Part of me is glad she's leaving. I need to understand this . . . whatever I am feeling. As best I can describe, I felt warmth, safety and comfort in a place that I felt was going to be the death of me an hour ago. She just made my day a little better. There is something else that I can't identify. It must go on the back burner for now with the commotion going on.
I shake my head, trying to put the blonde in the back of my mind so the rest can focus. I see Gert legs shaking with the strain of bending over, so I pick up her tray so that she can stand. "Gert? What happened?" She looked up at me with frightened eyes.
"Charile said he was gonna kill my broker and steal my money. Then he took some of my food and threw the plate away."
Anger made my blood boil. Charlie had gone too far this time. He's a vet, who got hurt in one of the wars. From what I heard, his wife left him and took everything. Now, he's mad at the world and gets back at the people in it whenever he can. I could hear him chuckling behind my back. I'm not a fighter, but I've picked up a few things living like I do. I know how to intimidate with a smile, with my voice, and with a glare. Only an idiot wouldn't learn to protect themselves, but I need to protect Gert from any real or perceived threat. A crowd has formed, and they somehow know a fight is about to break out. Jan, Mike, and a couple of other guys come running. I glare at them.
"Now, Sly. Don't do anything drastic," Jan says to me.
I give her a smile that I'm sure is ice cold. "Me? I wouldn't do that. I'm just going to help old Charlie out of here."
I hear him cackle again, and my temper goes up a notch. I turn quickly and lean over the table supported by my hands. We're face to face. He flinches but recovers fast. "You think you can beat me, girl? I'll have your ass suckin'----"
I make sure that he doesn't finish his sentence. His breath is putrid, but I push on. Filling my eyes with menace, I looked him straight in the eye as one hand came up to find its place on the rim of the food tray. Without even a blink and a little push, it flew off the table and landed with a crash. His eyes widen but I continue to stare into his scruffy face. One of his gnarled hands reaches up to scratch his beard. I smirk, realizing his nervousness. In a low, scratchy voice, I finally answer his question. "You listen to me little man. I'm not sucking anything on you, but I will kick it. Which part would you prefer? Me kicking your head in or kicking your ass?"
I study his Adam's apple and see it bob. He glances from side to side at the hushed crowd. Then at Gert, who has moved to another table to sit and eat quietly. His eyes come back to mine, and he chooses his own alternative. "I don't have to take this shit. I'm leavin!" Charlie pushes his chair way back, trying to get away from me and lowers his eyes to probably escape the crowd's scrutiny. Leaving a horrifying stink in the air, he heads for the hallway. I can't help myself. I have to add the cherry. "Psst! Hey Charlie!" He turns, and I spot more than a little fear in his eyes. "Pull this again and shit will be coming out of you both ways." He snarls through his nose then finally disappears down the hall. I hear a snicker from the crowd, then a clap. More laughter follows. Some of the others pat me on the back and I hear, "That's our Sly." Like I said, I have a rep, and it extends to protecting my friends.
A lot of the others have left, and Mike told me some time ago that one of my duties was to clean tables. I'm doing that, but my eyes keep returning to a certain table where a certain brunette and her friend are sitting quietly. I decided after the little disruption that they all respect her. There are only a few that fear her, and I guess that Charlie guy was one of them. What is it about her? Why am I looking at her? Why do I want to? It could be the simple fact that she's one of the most attractive women that I have ever seen, or the feel of the instant connection between us once our hands touched. I'm not ready to dive deeper into the reasons why, so right now, superficial answers will do. She was the first one to really speak to me, and Sly is so different from the others. Maybe that's why I reacted to her positively and not the rest of them. Maybe.
I glance upward to see Mike staring at me in an al-so-familiar way. I don't smile or acknowledge him in hopes that he will get the hint that I'm not interested. He waves anyway. My eyes scan the cafeteria once more only to zero in on pale blue. My breath catches as her scrutiny continues. Unable to break the gaze, I move to the next table, which just happens to be closer to her. She lays down the velvet again. "I'm really sorry about what I said earlier. It was a bad assumption. You just looked so small and shy. I didn't think you belonged here."
I pick up the towel that I'm cleaning with and fiddle with the frayed edges. It's a nervous gesture I know. I want to run away from her, and the feelings that are so alien. I can't help myself. I want to continue to hear her talk and see her smile, so I make a comment to her statement. "What do you think now? Do I belong here?" Her friend sitting next to her whispers something then gets up to leave. I watch her go and swallow. We're almost alone. Sly's attention is back now, on me. It literally feels like we are alone.
"Honestly?" I nod my head. "No I don't think you do. You could barely look me in the eye, and I bet the others scared you shitless."
I'm taken aback by her bluntness, but I should have expected it. Part of me wants to tell her why I was scared, but I know it's too soon. I try to change the subject. "They don't seem scared of you." She gives me a smirk. The curl of her lip makes me think that she holds many secrets.
"I've known them longer than you, and I had to earn their respect."
I lick my lips and contemplate that for a minute. "Will they treat me well if I have their respect? How did you--" She held up a hand.
"I fought, yelled and helped who I needed to in order to get it. I don't think that's for a little bit like you"
I feel my cheeks warm upon hearing the nickname. I like it, a lot. It takes me a minute to compose myself, and I look down at my fingers as they pull at the towel threads. "Um, well, I'm not here because I want to be. So, is that a strike against me already?"
"No," Her voice is low and husky. "You're here so you already have my respect."
My composure leaves again and guilt comes. If she knew why I was here. . . I take a step back, but she reaches out and grabs my arm. I feel the calluses brush against my skin and so does the warmth from earlier. "Let me help you." Her eyes implore me.
"Let me introduce you to some people. If they think you know me, maybe it will get rid of some of your fear and their dislike."
Only, if she knows why I am afraid. She probably wouldn't even be talking to me, touching me. I don't want this to end: this connection and these feelings. So, I hear myself saying, "Yes." Her smile is striking.
"Good! In a little while, I'm going to go get cleaned up, and I'll introduce you to the few people here who are worth knowing."
I stare at her, and one hand lifts up to cover my mouth, showing that I'm confused by all of this. "Why are you helping me?" Where there was warmth in her touch and her eyes, she takes them both away. "I'm just trying. . .look, I don't want anything from you."
I didn't mean to make her upset, and I try to show my apology through my tone of voice. "I-I didn't mean it like that. I just wanted to know why?"
I get to see the blue fire again, but not her touch. "Because I want to. Because it looked like you needed a friend," she whispers. A smile forms. "I hope I didn't sound too much like Mike."
I return her smile with a grin. "No, don't think so." For some reason, I think if she's here every morning these next couple of months will go by better and quicker. "Um, are you a regular here? I mean, will you be here everyday?"
She gives me a little chuckle. "It's not like I have anywhere else to go. I come here for all my meals. Do you stay here all day? Or. . "
"Oh, no. I can only do this a few hours probably in the morning. I work during the night at one of the casinos."
It's her turn to look confused. "I don't understand. Why?"
"Like I said before, I'm not here by choice. It's just complicated." I try to say it in a way that won't require further questions.
Her eyes squint to slits. "You don't want to tell me your story Little Bit?" Sly's lips turn up in what I assume is a teasing grin. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours." She pulls my hand into hers again. "Why don't you sit down? There's nobody around.' I watch her push out a chair across from her with her foot.
I give the cafeteria another quick sweep, but she seems to be right. I throw the towel on another table and sit down as graceful as my nervous limbs will allow. I hope I don't look mechanical.
"If it will make it easier, I'll go first?" Blue eyes look at me expectantly, so I nod. "It all started with a man, but then don't most of these stories? Let me rephrase. It starts with a crook of a man, some money, and the media."
Her story was a horrible tale of injustice, but I found myself laughing at the way she told it. Laughing is something that I haven't done in a while. It sounds rusty to my ears, but apparently it doesn't to hers as she chuckles with me. It's almost as if she's amused by it now. I have to ask, "It doesn't bother you? All the wrong things that happened to you?" A muscle ticks in her jaw, but her eyes still shine with warmth.
"It bothered me at first," she answers quietly, "but it's been two years. I can't live like this and be sane if I let it get to me now. I'm not going to lie. I haven't accepted it fully because there's something in me that believes that if I wait things will change for the better. Rules of the universe I guess." Sly pauses for a minute. "Have I broken the ice enough for you to talk to me?"
I smirk at her nervously, and I feel her staring at it, my lips. That flusters me more because I like the feeling. I haven't talked to anyone about my situation in so long that I have gotten used to it. It's hard to let it go, usually, but she has made it so easy that I feel the meat of the story falling from my lips before I know it. I try to keep eye contact while I'm telling her, but the understanding unnerves me so my eyes lower. "So, I work, but I have nothing to show for it. I can barely eat, and that's how I ended up here." She squeezes my hand. That's when I realize that the whole time we were connected. I look at our linked hands then slowly glance back up at blue eyes. They hold empathy and sadness. How could I not think she wouldn't understand? Wouldn't all of them understand? Haven't they been there? I realize that in my fear I have been missing something all morning. I'm not just a step away from being them, but they used to be me.
We talk for what seems like hours, and I finally let her go clean up as a people start to refill the halls. I am even able to meet a few people, and where before I cringed, I found myself shaking hands. Sly stuck around until after lunch when her and the older woman left. It is kind of lonely now despite Mike's attempt at good company, so I found my way to my room, to my bed.
My hands find their way through my hair for the thousandth time tonight. The smell of the salt air does not calm me the way it usually does. Neither does my little get away spot in between the beach patrol stations. The stairs are low, very close to the sand, and extend outward toward the water. The only things I can hear are the lapping of minute waves and hushed conversation of those passing by at this late hour. So much happened today, and I could have sworn it was going to be like any other. It was until I saw her. She looked so fragile, so vulnerable that I had to reach out and touch her, talk to her. It looked as though she was dying for contact. The feelings were instantaneous. I have to protect her and know her. I did it the only way I know how, by pushing my way through. Her eyes. I could see in them that she wanted to tell me everything, so I helped. Her story broke my heart. No one that innocent deserves to go through what she has to. I don't think the universe cares who it is cruel to.
I couldn't stop touching her, looking at her, talking to her. Her skin is the softest. . .God. Those eyes. I just felt like I could drown in them. I'm even drawn to the way she smiles. It's crooked, full of secrets, and sadness. I had to offer my help, even if it was just a pretense to be close to her. Two years. . .all my life really, and I have never felt anything like this connection; this need to protect; this need to know everything. I stayed half the day sometimes just watching her while she walked. I like the way her hair bobs and rights itself when she turns. I hate the slump in her shoulders, and something inside me knows that I will do anything to get it out. Even when I left, for the rest of the day I stayed distracted. Where it is mainly used for exercise, I walked further than I usually do, and my stint at people watching was blown today. Every blonde blurred together into her.
I went from the bus station, train station, to the convention center in a fog. I know that I talked to friends in these places, but I don't really remember what about. I met up with Gert at our usual place on the Boardwalk around 9pm. I knew that she was tired, so was I. Still, I was also restless. We walked the short distance to our home, ignoring the looks of disdain and the whispers that made my ears tingle as we walked by. We finally got there and took the steps down into the sand. I gave a wolf whistle to let them know it was us. Pauly was the first to crawl out. Then there was Stevie. One white man, the other black who both possessed similar stories. They are older men in their late fifties, ignored by their families, who refused to take them in when the jobs disappeared for the middle-aged. It's something that I will never understand. They helped to raise children. Why can't their children help care for them? Karma is a wicked thing, and I know they will get theirs.
"Hey you two," Pauly smiles. I didn't need light to know it showed off his missing teeth. "Yall, finished paintin' the town red?" He laughed at his own joke. "Me and Stevie spent the day runnin from the po-lice. Old George saw us take some nanas from his stand."
"You guys alright?" I looked from one to the other. Stevie was the one who answered.
"Sho, sho, old Pauly looked after me."
"Why didn't you two go to the Mission?"
"We did, but sometimes it just ain't enough for a man. You know that Sly," Pauly replies. That's when old Gert decided she was feeling left out. "Crazy Charlie tried to take my money, but Sly fixed him up good." The three of them laughed while I pretended not to roll my eyes. "Sly you somethin' girl." That time I didn't pretend. I shook my foot as sand filtered into the holes in my shoes, and I knew it was probably happening to the others too. "Get out the slide, so we can get Gert to bed. Her legs were hurting today."
Gert mumbled that she was fine as the other two walked off to the far left. The slide is what we use to get Gert under the Boardwalk. With her knees, there is no way she could bend and crawl under such a low space. I don't know how she did it before I came here, but when I saw her struggling one night, we all went to go look for cardboard, wood, and any kind of string. Putting together several layers of cardboard under each other, we tied them off. Laying it flat and horizontally, we lowered Gert onto it. She laid down while we crawled inside our little den and pulled her through. Pauly gets one end, Stevie the other, and I get the middle. The smooth surface of the cardboard makes it easy to slide right over to her blankets. Then she just scoots over in them.
I got her settled and put the cardboard back up around her to try to block off any cold wind that blows off the ocean. I hear Pauly and Stevie laughing and talking about George's red face as I open the make shift door to my space. The sand is hidden by blankets that are held down by shoes, books, and my radio. They're scratchy, but I got used to that long ago. I hardly even had the chance to sit down before I hear Gert's snores. They remind me of a fire engine, but I've gotten used to that too. We have a strange relationship,I think, but one that works. They are like the grandparents I never had, and I guess to them I'm the granddaughter that acts the part.
There's no pajamas for me, just what I have on my back. I don't even take my shoes off anymore. Less chance of a bug invasion that way. Lying on my back with my hands behind my head, I close my eyes, hoping that sleep will come, but all I see is Abbie. I closedthem again to wallow in it, but Pauly stops that.
"Hey Sly? Put on some tunes will ya?"
I didn't bother to answer. I just feel my way around and flicked the switch. The Mission is kind enough to furnish me with cheap batteries when I need them. I turned the tuning knob to a station playing James Taylor, and I figured it lull them to sleep. I knew then that sleep wouldn't come for me anytime soon, so I inched my way out.
Now, here I am still feeling restless. I glance up at the moon as it hovers over the water, and I have to laugh as my thoughts inevitably turn dark. Everything around here changes. It's like the whole city is perpetually under construction. The moon changes as does the waves. The only ones that linger constantly is us. No one gets out of this life. More just fall into it. Am I stupid to even think that anything can change for me? I know I'm a fool for feeling the way I already do about Abbie. She feels something too. I saw it in her face, in her eyes.
I can do nothing for her, except bring her down. I can't be her friend. Friends aren't supposed to do that. I can't be her lover. I laugh because that is too obvious for me even to comment on. She has a chance even though she doesn't think so. So, what do I do with what I'm feeling? Squash it? Even I know it's not that easy. I feel nothing for so long and then BOOM! It wasn't like I didn't want to feel. I just didn't. I have to do something, because there's no place for it out here. I know that I need to be there for her simply because she has nobody, and it's the descent thing to do. Who am I kidding? I don't know how to turn her away, but I know how to not feel. I just have to learn again for both our sakes. I taste the tang of blood as I bite the inside of my cheek, and my hands find their way back in my hair for the thousandth and one time. It's going to be a long night.
I pull the sheets sporting a big wet stain in the middle from the bed, but I don't even have the energy to wrinkle my nose. Couldn't sleep. All I could do was think---about her. Confused, ashamed, and many others, I felt them all tonight. How could it happen? How could a woman make me feel like no man ever has? When she left, I felt charmed and cherished like some princess being courted by the handsomest royalty. I opened up to her and told her how I felt about just about everything. The words spilled out like I had been waiting for her. I don't feel dirty or sinful. For the first time, someone paid attention to me, listened to me, talked to me, and touched me. It was all safe and warm, sitting there with her. I've never been this way with any other woman. Even the ladies here, tried to befriend me, but something held me back. I didn't trust them, and I didn't want to. I just wanted to do my job and go home.
Tonight, I found myself speaking and smiling at them. They all seemed surprised to say the least. This is her doing. Sly. She fixed something in me today. Either that or she did a hell of a patch up job. I want to know her. Some parts of me crave it. That alone scares me. What does she want from me? She claims nothing. I can be her friend, and just because her touch burns doesn't mean I can be anything else. I am curious. Sly's opened my eyes, and I want to see how wide they can get. I finish changing the bed and cleaning off the bedside tables, sticky with some fragrant oil. So, I make my way into the bathroom. Upon seeing it, I sigh at its state. The tub is full of murky water that has sloshed all over the floor, along with hotel towels. I look closer to see obviously used condoms floating in the water. I sigh again. All this and no tip. I head back to the bedroom area to get a change of gloves out of my cart. I look up surprised when my name is called. I smile tentatively at Lola, one of the other housekeepers.
"Hey Abbie? We are goin to lunch in thirty minute. Do chu wanna come?" Her accent was thick and very Puerto Rican.
I found myself smiling wider not only at her, but at my sudden urge to go. "Yeah, sure, but it's going to take me a while to get this one done."
She walks in and waves her hand in a dismissive gesture. "Is nothing. I'll help."
Yes, I have learned a lot today if this is what I get for opening up even a little.