Bobby Curtis woke up in his hallway a little bit earlier than usual this morning. It wasn’t the alarm on his cell phone that woke him up, however. Instead, it was his worst fear, or at least the closest thing Bobby had to a worst fear: an intruder. He heard the glass of the double doors bang against their steel frames, as it usually does when it opens, and immediately sat up to listen better.
At first there was nothing. By about the count of five he had calmed himself a bit and was about to lay back down, thinking it was just a gust of wind–as it sometimes was–when he heard the footsteps begin to descend from the top of the stairwell. He sat there while his brain tried to process this new information, clinging to his blanket as tightly as he could. The footsteps became more audible as the intruder walked down the first half of the steps, then, at the pivot, a tall man of about forty appeared.
“Morning,” said the man at the top of the stairs. “Whatcha doin’ down here?”
Bobby decided to go with the truth. “I used to live in this apartment here,” he said as he pointed at a large door with the emblem 2 on it. “I’ve been down on my luck lately and Neil said it was alright that I sleep down here for a few weeks. I just need to save some money so I can get a place.”
The man frowned in disapproval, shuffling his feet and pulling his pants up. “Well, kid, I’m sorry to break this to you, but you can’t sleep here anymore. Neil was fired, you see; I’m his replacement. There’s been complaints about people breakin’ in and hangin’ out down here. It’s partly why Neil got canned. Lettin’ people sleep in the abandoned hallways, you understand, is serious business.”
Of course Bobby understood. After all, he wasn’t stupid. But “breaking in”? That was a little dramatic for his taste. The glass doors that lead to the hallway haven’t been locked for at least two-and-a-half years, when Bobby moved in to his old apartment. The hallway was always deserted. Since he moved in the only person who used it, to his knowledge, was himself. He deduced that, due to the seclusion of the hallway and the fact that there were no cops present, he wasn’t in any legal trouble. He stood up, already dressed (Bobby thought he would feel vulnerable if he slept down here comfortably), and started to fold up his blanket. “OK, I’m sorry. I’ll leave now and I won’t come back.”
The man pondered this for a few seconds and replied, “Alright. I’ll give you a half hour. If I see you here again I’m gonna call the police.”
“OK, thank you, sir.”
After standing there in silence for a few seconds the man turned around and marched up the stairs, this time noticeably louder than when he came down them. Bobby listened to him leave, and when the glass doors banged shut he let out a well-deserved sigh of exasperation. He reached into his front left pocket and pulled out his Nokia pre-paid phone to check the time: six thirty-seven, about an hour until the bus came. He snapped his cell closed and took a good look at his hallway. It was T-shaped and made up of two sections, both connected with a faded, tattered, baby-blue carpet that was thinner than most beach towels. The first, an eight-by-eight foot square which made up his sleeping place. There was an old boarded up door on the right side, if looking from the angle of one who is coming down the stairs. It was slightly rotted with mildew and covered in dark spots of moisture. On the opposite side, under the first tier of stairs and right next to the second, was an old broom closet for which Bobby used to keep his things: two small, black trash bags full of clothes; a small plastic baggie containing the usual bathroom necessities; four paperback suspense novels; three blankets, one of which was still on the floor; one pillow, also on the floor; one backpack. The far wall ended directly across from the closet, where it continued to the right to make up the near-side wall of section number two, a small corridor of back doors that led to the apartments. On the left end was apartment number one, Bobby’s old neighbor, Stanley. A few feet from Stanley’s place was Bobby’s old place, number two, which has not been renovated since he moved out. Fifteen feet to the right, at the other end of the corridor, was apartment three. This one was abandoned; it served as a storage unit for Neil’s tools, various cans of paint, and plenty of wooden boards, planks, and the like. Bobby used that particular end to take a piss when he had to go late at night. He went in old beer and soda bottles that he’d find while walking home when it was late, and he’d always throw them out it the morning. Better pissing in bottles than taking the risk of someone seeing you leave and then walk right back in. Thinking of this made him have to urinate, but he decided to go somewhere else after he leaves. No need to fuel the fire, he thought.
He stood up and walked to his closet. Feeling no need to bring all of his stuff with him, he emptied both trash bags and in his backpack shoved two pairs of jeans, two white T-shirts, two collared button-up shirts, and all of his socks and underwear. In the small compartment he put the bag of toiletries, minus his toothbrush and toothpaste, which he put in his back pocket. The rest, including the novels, he would leave. It pained Bobby to leave the books behind. They were his only companions for the last six weeks, each one of them read numerous times with an interest one would have in reading love letters from a special someone. They were what kept him sane during this hard time; they were all he had. To leave them behind would be like leaving his only friends. But alas, Bobby thought, it must be done. This was his specialty, anyway: leaving everything that is expendable, including clothes, books, friends, family, and anything else he didn’t absolutely need for his travels. After hoisting his gear over his shoulder he took another good look at his hallway. As usual when Bobby begins a new adventure, he felt glad to leave it behind. The hallway had served him well. It provided him shelter from the past October and November nights, sure, but he only planned to be here until the first, anyway, and that was in three days. He wouldn’t miss the yellow stains of what were likely spit, piss, semen, and snot that so elegantly decorated the cement walls. The lingering odor or urine and dirty laundry would soon be a distant memory. He felt a sense of excitement rush through his body and aloud he said, “You will be missed, dear hallway. But not that much.” With that, he turned around and walked up the stairs, ready to begin his day.
The sun shined on Bobby and put an optimistic smile on his face as he exited the hallway. There were a few clouds in the sky, but for the most part it was clear and very blue. He habitually scanned the project’s parking lot to see if anyone was watching him leave (not that it mattered; he had no intention of ever coming back, thank God). Outside the “A” building to the right was completely deserted, save for a small brown alley cat lapping up a puddle of collected rain-water from the previous night. On the opposite side of the lot, right in front of the “C” building, were the same two Puerto Ricans that were there every other morning, and, like today, never noticed him walk out of the rear entrance of building “B”.They sat there looking up and down Conner Street for customers and cops, smoking cigarettes and trying to act natural. Bobby nonchalantly walked through the right side of the lot and turned in to the alley between buildings A and B, hid his backpack behind the dumpster, and continued on to the Shell gas station that was right next to the projects. He walked in and was greeted by Linda, his usual first-face of the day.
“Mornin’ baby. Need to use the bathroom?” She said this as she was reaching up to stock the cigarettes and Bobby saw her shirt come untucked from her black Dickie’s. Linda was fat–not the sort of fat that could be lost with some exercise and a healthy diet, either. She was five-foot even and weighed, Bobby estimated, about three-hundred fifty pounds. Her belly rolled in waves of flesh as she reached and he felt a sadness for her. Poor girl, he thought. She’s got it bad. Jesus, being homeless is better than being obese.
“Yes, please. How are you today, Linda?” He watched her struggle getting down the step ladder, taking one step at a time and proving it to be an arduous task for her. The folds in her knees became visible, forming creases in her pants and making her legs look like rump roasts tied up in butcher string.
After what seemed like an eternity to Bobby, Linda finally made it to the floor. She inhaled deeply and let out a big, long sigh. “Eh, you know. Same shit, different day.” She got the key from the register and handed it to him. “Here ya go, handsome.”
“Thanks, doll. Be right back.” He made haste and hurried outside and around the corner of the gas station to the door located on the side of the building. He almost forgot how badly he had to go until Linda gave him the key. “Piss knows,” he said to himself. “Piss knows when you get close to the bathroom.” Steadying his hand to get it in the first try, he inserted the key, turned the handle, and walked in the bathroom.
Like most gas station commodes, the one at Shell was nothing short of repugnant. It smelled like a million shits, and it looked like it smelled. The floor was the color of rust, with too many chips in the linoleum to count, and it was complimented with a most distasteful phlegm-colored green painted on a bodily-fluid-stained canvass. Bobby locked the door at once, then pulled his pants down swiftly and emptied himself. He sighed with relief and watched the fluorescent urine stream out of him. It reminded him of the drug tests he had to take when he was on parole; how you should drink a few gallons of water a day to clean out your system if you used a couple of days prior to the test. If it’s clear, you’re in the clear; if it’s dark, you should have drank. He shook out the last few drops and then took off his pants completely, followed by the rest of his clothes. There was a half hammered-in nail in the door on which he used to hang them. Once his clothes were safe from the floor he faced the sink and looked in the mirror, remembering what Linda called him: handsome. This was true of Bobby Curtis. He had a young, narrow face that concealed his real age of twenty-five when he shaved, making him look five years younger. His eyes were a fantastic bright green and were accompanied by thick brown eyebrows that almost connected, making him look somewhat troubled by something when he squinted. He had a large mouth that exposed a nice, straight set of teeth which were almost perfectly white. It was a smile that could warm the heart of someone who was having a bad day, and he used it, in that respect, advantageously. He thought his nose was a tad too big, but not big enough for people to associate him with having a big nose. His ears fit his face perfectly, the tops aligned with his eyebrows and hung to the latitude of his upper lip. And his hair…how Bobby took pride in his hair. It was a full, thick light brown with no signs of balding or going gray. He usually kept it a bit messy to comply with current fashion trends and styled it with glue every other day. Bobby was convinced that his hair was the key to his success.
He turned on the faucet and let the water run until it was luke warm. The pink, granulated soap poured into his hand as he pressed the container’s release button. He mixed the soap with some water and rubbed down his upper torso, creating a lathery film across his broad chest. Next were his belly, legs, and privates. Then he rinsed, turning the bathroom into a grimy lagoon that glistened in murky shades of greens and browns. Bobby usually did a good job at getting most of the water in the sink, but there was still always the inevitable mess, and today was no exception. He used up almost half of the cheap brown paper towels to dry himself, then the floor. After putting his clothes back on he took out his toothbrush and toothpaste and gave his teeth a proper how-do-you-do, rinsed, and put his dental hygiene supplies back in his pants. He looked at himself in the mirror once more then went to return the key.
“Here you go, beautiful. It’s a fine morning- think I’ll enjoy myself a coffee while I wait for my chariot to arrive.” Bobby delicately placed the key in Linda’s dimpled pocket of a hand and bowed as he said this, making himself look like some sort of lower-class Casanova. “Last time all you guys had was skim milk…do you have any whole milk today?”
“I think so, unless the four customers before you killed a half gallon between ’em”. And even if they did, sugar, I’ll just go ahead an’ open up a new one for ya. Why didn’t you just ask last time?”
Bobby started walking toward the coffee section. “I didn’t want a coffee that bad last time, I guess. Just wanted something to wake me up. I rarely do that: drink coffee to wake up. Doesn’t work for me, not the right kind of energy. I like to be woken up slowly by time. I expect to drag ass for about forty-five minutes after I wake up. So I leave for the bus stop in the morning and let the fresh air stimulate the ol’ brain, ya know? If I have a coffee before I leave the house I start shaking on the bus. No one can tell, but still, it’s uncomfortable and I’m self-conscious about it. But today…” He grabbed a small-sized cup and flipped it into the air, catching it with his other hand. “Today is a perfect day for a French Vanilla coffee and a pleasant bus ride. It’ll give me a little motivation to go grocery shopping.”
Linda said, “Well, that’s nice, hun. Me, I can’t do nothin’ till I’ve had me my cigarette and coffee. Speaking of, I’m gonna go have me a smoke right quick. Will you watch the store, sugar? That coffee’ll be on me.” She pulled out a pack of Newport 100’s from her purse, flicked the box open, and plucked out one of three-and-a-half of the Newps.
“Sounds like a deal” Bobby said.
“Alright, be back in five. If a customer comes in just say I’m in the bathroom.” Linda duck-walked through the employee’s hallway and out the back door.
Bobby got right to work. He leaned over the counter and hooked his arm up to where the cigarettes are kept. The first brand he landed on was Newport 100’s…jackpot. He snatched three packs at a time and stuffed them into his pants’ pockets, stacking them on top of each other in two columns of two packs: four per front pocket, two per back pocket. Next to fill was his jacket. He managed two more packs of the 100’s but put them back, not wanting to leave the slot obviously empty when Linda rang up the inevitable sale that would come, likely in the next fifteen minutes, given the time. He moved his hand to the stack to the left and got regular Newport’s…not 100’s, but just as good as the first. He took six packs of the regs and put three in each coat pocket, then hopped down and started enjoying his coffee seconds before Linda walked in.
“How’s the coffee, sugar?” she asked.
“Perfect. Just what I needed to kick this day off. How was your smoke, butthead? Did you get your fix?”
“So good, honey, that I wish I had another.” She made her way behind the counter and toward the deli meats, or as Bobby referred to them, “fancy bologna”.
“Well,” he said,” I’d offer to hold down the fort for ya one more time, but I’ve got to catch my bus. You workin’ tomorrow?” He started for the door as he said this, keeping his hand jammed with the cigarettes in the left front pocket of his jeans. With his other hand he shielded the right pocket’s bulge with his coffee, slightly tightening his stomach and chest muscles as to make him seam slightly bigger than he really is.
“Yep. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.” She dried her hands and bent over to pick out a large block of American cheese to slice up for sandwiches, or so Bobby assumed.
“Alright, then. I’ll see ya. I might even want another coffee tomorrow, being as how this one tastes so damn good. Enjoy the day; it’s gonna be beautiful.
Linda smiled warmly at Bobby. “You, too, sugar.”
Bobby brushed the door open with his coffee hand and took in a good, long smell of the November morning. Crisp, he thought, and full of opportunity. He walked back over to the dumpster and threw his coffee inside, then he began pulling the packs of cigarettes from his pants. Once his pockets were emptied he reached behind the dumpster for his backpack and jammed all but one pack of butts inside, wedging and positioning them so the zipper would have enough room to connect. When it did and the bag was closed he made his way back around from whence he came. He noticed the cat had moved from the puddle to underneath the front end of a Buick Skylark and was looking at him indifferently. Bobby made a left and walked toward the Puerto Ricans in front of the “C” building. They didn’t notice him until he was about three-quarters of the way there, about twenty feet away. If these guys are doing what I think they’re doing, they better keep a closer eye out than that, he thought. Jesus, they ought to wear a sign.
He slowed down as he walked by them. The guy on the left had a red bandana wrapped around his right wrist, letting the cloth ribbons dangle from their knots fashionably. To Bobby it made the guy look feminine. He wore large blue jeans that looked like they were pressed ten minutes ago. The other guy had black jeans with his bandana tied at the right knee. They both had red hoodies and all-white Air Jordan’s.
“Sup, Papi. You good?” inquired the guy on the left.
“Yeah, I’m straight. I got cigarettes for sale. Newport’s and Newport 100’s.”
“Oh, yeah?” He made a face of approval. To Bobby he looked like Scarface, only without the scar on the face.
Bobby pulled out the pack from his coat. “See…brand new. 100’s.” He put the pack back in his pocket.
The drug dealer made the same face, looking at his partner, who was making a similar one. He looked back at Bobby. “You got more?”
“How much?” He pulled out a pack of his own cigarettes and took one of the two remaining bones, then lit it with a damp match that surprised Bobby as it caught aflame. He wasn’t surprised, however, to learn that this man prefers to smoke Newport 100 cigarettes.
“Five bucks.” Bobby felt a mild jolt of excitement rush through him. He liked the sound of five bucks. “It’s better than paying eight bucks at Shell.” He pointed in the direction of the gas station, which was right behind the building at which this little pow-wow was taking place. Bobby had an urge to smirk but tried very hard–and succeeded–at keeping it behind the surface. Better than paying eight bucks at Shell…priceless.
“Five bucks…OK. How many?”
“How many do you want?”
The guy thought this over for a second, taking a long drag of his cigarette as he did so. Bobby wondered if he was trying to look intimidating, like a gangster. He exhaled slowly and said, “I’ll give you forty for a carton.”
“That’s fifty dollars, man.” Bobby shook his head and frowned as he looked at the ground for a second. What can you do? the expression said. His eyes instantly went back to the drug dealer’s, who was taking another drag of his bogey.
“Come on,” he said. “Gimme a deal, yo. I’m buying ten.”
“This ain’t heroin, yo. Cigarettes. Cigarillos. Five dollars a pack is a deal. Sorry, but fifty bucks.” Bobby started walking away slowly.
“Wait, yo! Hold up…I gotchyou.” He took out a large knot of twenties from his back pocket, then thumbed through them and said, “Damn…you got ten bucks? All I gots is twenties.”
Bobby patted down his pant legs and shook his head. “Nah, man. I’m broke as a joke.”
The guy looked at his partner. “Yo, da mi peso.” His partner shook his head and patted down his own pants. “Damn. Aight, then. Gimme twelve.”
“Twelve, OK. Come over here.” Bobby didn’t like doing stuff out in the open like these two morons did. He led them to the hallway. He figured he still had about five minutes before his half hour to leave was up. Besides, it was kind of nice to him, the idea of showing somebody the secret he kept this past month and a half. It’s not like he would ever sleep there again, anyway. They all got through the double doors and that’s as far as Bobby took them. He wasn’t dumb enough to increase the chances of being robbed by leading these guys out of sight from the rest of the parking lot. Anybody could see right through the glass doors, easy as pie. But it was less conspicuous than being out in the parking lot like an idiot, to say the least. He turned so his left side was facing the doors, holding his backpack away from his customers. This way if a knife came out all he has to do is bump his hip against the door and run into the safety of the public’s embrace. Then he put out his hand, palm up. The drug dealer slapped sixty dollars into Bobby’s hand, which Bobby then stuffed into his jeans. He reached into his backpack and began handing the cigarettes to his customer. When he zipped up the bag the guy said, “Yo, that’s only eleven.”
“And here’s twelve.” He handed him the promo pack from his jacket pocket, then looked at each of them briefly. “Aight, fellas.” Bobby pushed the door open with his left arm and slung his backpack over his right shoulder, heading for the bus stop. He took the sixty dollars from his jeans and put it safely in his wallet, next to the two tens and one single that made up the rest of his cash.