by Johnny Mateu
The glowing red cherry oh his cigarette was the only light left in the room when he violently pulled the last tug of smoke out and dropped it into the almost empty beer bottle on the table. A nightly ritual that seemed like more of a burden than a relaxing experience. The butt sizzled out a with a hiss as he twisted the handle on the front door, yanked it open, and stepped out into the hallway, determined. With a swagger and disposition that only tells others "I've been drinkin','" he made his way to the old elevator at the end of the hall. He pressed the button to summon the elevator with his hand in the shape of a gun, dropping the hammer and firing an imaginary bullet into the down symbol on the glowing, white, weathered button. He counted the bells dinging as the elevator made it's way up from the first floor to his. He counted five dings. After swinging the thick heavy metal door open, he slid the rusty, squeaky, old gate open and hopped into the metal box that would transport him to ground level.
Outside, the wind howled through the streets and into the core of his bones. It was a clear, dark, February night and our man was walking proof that the great north eastern chunk of our country can house some very unforgiving winters. "Hello" he said, to a woman he passed as they both walked down the same center city street, in opposite directions. His salutation and her nod back at him, was like a conversation that two war veterans would have together. Both of them understanding the other's pain so well in this torturous, very real situation. He nestled as much of his face as he could into the flipped up, zipped up collar on his black leather jacket and jammed his hands as far as he could into his jacket pockets, almost ripping the liners.
His right hand wrapped around his pack of cigarettes as his left hand thumbed the wheel on his bic lighter. He contemplated firing up another cigarette. "Would I have time to finish the whole thing by the time i got to the bodega?" He asked himself. "Would it make me colder to have one of my hands out of my pocket while I smoked?" "Am I running low on cigs? Maybe i should conserve, or just buy another pack?" He settled on smoking the shit out of another cigarette and probably buying another pack when he got to the bodega. He would have to wait and see though, it all depended on how much change he would have been getting from whatever purchase he would be making on the newest batch of beers that he would be slugging. He never really could tell what he was gonna get. He would tell himself it was gonna be a Pabst 40oz. on the way there, but he knew that could very well be a lie. He was well known for standing in front of the tall shining doors of beer and malt liquor and changing his mind three or four times before deciding. Sometimes he fancied himself a conoissuere of belgium brewed, green bottled beers and other times, felt that micro-brews were just about the hippest thing you could wrap your lips around, besides the dick of the guy who invented the fixed speed bike.
He was startled when his cell phone vibrated his leg. He shot his hand into his pocket and rushed to pull it back out. Who knew who's name might appear in the small window, on the front of his silver razor phone? As he read the answer to this mystery, he laughed with a hint of sarcasm. "Whatsup mother fucker?!" He said with a smile. "Oh yeah? Well it's about 8 fuckin' degrees here and I'm treckin' to the beer store like a fuckin' voyager in antarctica!" After a long pause and a sigh of frustration, he said "Well, damn dude, eat a coconut for me and tell the gulf of Mexico I said Hi. When are you guys coming back again?" Three beeps were all he heard in response. Puzzled, he looked at his phone. CALL LOST was all it read, with a blinking indicator of time spent on the conversation at the very bottom of the screen. He slid the phone back into his pocket and hopefully thought, "Maybe they'll call me back." As much as he pretended to be bitter, or angry at the fact that he was in subfreezing Philadelphia and all his friends were in Florida, living it up at a bay front time share, he was really glad that they had taken the time to call him and rub it in. That was pretty much the highlight of his night. The visions of beautiful blondes in red convertibles, water bluer than the sky, salty sun-drenched skin, and cold beers washing down big bites of steak and lobster made his heart swell with fascination. Like someone imagining all the things they would do if they won the lottery. He saw it all swaying and dancing in front of him instead of the cold, grey, wet, and windy urban terrain that confronted him, all as Bob Marly and the Whalers skewered the air like the metal spike that held the whole tropical shish-kabob together.
That wasn't his reality. He snapped back into it when he spotted a familiar bum, yelling into the night, down the street. The bum was a young man and reminded him of someone he knew once, or perhaps never met. The bum's hair was long and thick and black as the night. His shoulders were relaxed as he shouted upward into the cold night sky. His tattered, blue, unzipped, winter vest flapped in the stunningly cold wind. The temperature didn't seem to effect him. Maybe it was because of whatever he just smoked, snorted, shot, or shoved up his ass? Whatever it was, it did the trick.
Our friend, who will remain nameless until further notice, recalled a time when he saw that same bum in a very sad, lost, hopeless state of mind and body. It was when the weather was warmer and he was on his way to the same beer store. As he was approaching the bum, that summer, the bum shouted to him "Yo, you got a dollar before i fuckin' kill myself, man!?" With his hands raised over his head as if to say "I've tried everything and I just can't do it!" Our friend replied "No. Sorry, man." The homeless, downtrodden man then replied "Your not sorry, man. You not sorry! I'm gonna kill myself right here on this street corner!" He then plunged the dirty tip of a long syringe deep into his skinny, pale arm. As he shot the large dose of heroin, our friend stared in horror. He had never been that close to that sort of thing before. "Just standing this close, to something like that was enough to infect you with raging AIDS!" he thought. "Get away from here!" He thought, in a panic. "What if this disgusting bum flips out and jabs that needle into your neck three or four times?!" As much as he panicked on the inside, he stayed cool on the outside. He starred into the syringe as it squirted it's poison into the creature standing before him. He was soothed and fascinated by the amber color of the contents. The blood and the freshly cooked dope created such a beautiful hugh. It reminded him of long nights in the arms of his true love. He would never forget that night.
This time he knew to steer clear of this mad man. He was obviously not living anymore, just existing. Our friend just stuffed his head deeper into his jacket, which reflected the lights of the city off of it's strong leather surface, and continued on his journey. He flicked his cigarette butt into the street behind him. "If the bum decides to follow me and rob me, maybe he'll find this cigarette butt, still smoking, and decide to stop and smoke the rest, instead of pursuing me and running me down for drug money." He thought.
As the bell hanging above the bodega entrance jingled and our friend shook off the cold, he looked up and gave a friendly smile and nod to the young asian boy behind the bullet proof glass. This boy was here every time. His father owned the place, and that fact can be assumed by the way he ordered his son around, in their native language. The young boy always seemed kind of bummed to be working such long and tedious hours. Our friend felt particularly sorry for him, some nights, especially because of their likeness in age. The asian boy was probably about 18 or 19 and our friend was 20. In all the interactions that had occured in this store, at this counter, so much as a name had never been mentioned. That would change tonight.
He stood there, dumbfounded once again, by the slew of bottles and prices scribbled on stickers that were slapped on the windows like exclamations from the small asian man who owned the bodega. He settled on a Hurricane 40oz. for two dollars and fifty cents. That would surely leave him enough change to be able to afford a new pack of Marlboro Mediums and ensure a sweet buzz tonight. He plucked the tall bottle of malt liquor from the rack and headed to the checkout as the door slapped shut.
"Hey, how's it goin?" he popped. As if the asian boy was about to go drink this 40 with him. "Two fifty" is all the asian boy responded. Our friend's friendly smile and nodding head melted back into a disappointed demeanor. He slid him a ten dollar bill through the whole in the bottom of the glass. Suddenly he remembered..."Oh yeah, and i need a pack of Marlboro Mediums." The young asian looked up, then selected the pack of smokes from the cigarette pack feeder. The young asian then looked down the counter, to the back of the store, to see his father standing there. "Do you have I.D.?" he asked. "Yep." Our friend said, sliding his fake I.D. across the counter. As the asian boy studied the piece of plastic, our friend thought he'd take another stab at friendship with this young man. "Hey man, I'm Johnny." he said, like he did a million times before..."what's your name?" "It's Jim." The young asian quickly reported. Johnny's brow lowered and a puzzled look appeared on his face. "Hiss-chim?" Johnny asked, being sure to pronounce the name as authentically as he thought Jim had just previously done. "It's Jim." Jim said again, looking directly into the eyes of a tuned up, excited to make a new friend, Johnny. Slower this time, Johnny asked again..."Hiss-chiam?" Thinking now, that he was really on to pronouncing this culturally rich name, he stated..."Hiss-Chiam." making sure to excentuate the last A sound in "Chi-am." Finally, fed up with this young, dumb, spoiled, drunk, white american standing in front of him, Jim said "It's Jim, dude. My name is Jim." "Oooohhh...Jim. Just Jim." Johnny realized. "Welp, nice ta' meetcha, Jim!" Johnny remarked, as he scooped up his cigarettes and beverage. "See ya' next time Jim. Have a good night." Johnny said, completely blowing off any embarrassment or awkwardness. With a wave, he turned around and tried really hard to hold in his childlike laughter. He took a deep breathe in, and prepared himself to venture back out into the cold, windy night. Back to his studio apartment, at the end of the long hall, on the sixth floor of the building at the end of the street, in the center of the city where he would find it still smelled like the swill of his last beer mixed with the toxins and cigarette smoke of the butt he dropped in there before he left. At least he had a new friend in that big. cold, lonely city, and his name was Jim.