My wife left me about a year ago. Unfortunately, our kids and her father didn’t, and I use the phrase “our kids” with some skepticism. Lucy and Bernie are definitely mine, they’re thirteen and eleven respectively and I’ve seen inclinations toward addiction and crime in them for years. Peter and John are seven and five, I’m not sure about them. They are listless and depressed. It’s too early for them to be this way, but I can’t blame them.
My wife Susan, she was always unpredictable, untrustworthy. From the start I had the feeling she was a fair weather sort of wife and it certainly stacks up that way, but there is plenty of blame to go around and more than enough to spare in my direction. Some forms of adversity I can handle, but when they pile up on top of each other I get desperate and resigned at the same time, and like my parents and theirs before them I tend toward crime and addiction when things get too tough for me, and I’m not nearly as tough as I used to be.
Susan’s dad George had turned into a sort of zombie over the last couple years, a sad enormous monster we’re all forced to live with. He wanders outside sometimes wearing only one shoe, stumbling around the neighborhood. He has no job, no friends, nowhere to go, but he spends an hour each morning washing his face and shaving. He doesn’t shower much, he smells terrible, a mix of body odor and cheap cologne. He goes through this ritual every morning, hot water running at full blast for an hour, the kids have started calling him the aquatic ape. After he shaves he pulls on some filthy sweatpants and few layers of dirty t-shirts. Then he’s off to some nearby bench or stoop. I see him sitting out there, never more than a block or two away, eyes closed with a lit cigarette in his hand, near sleep but occasionally jerking awake. None of us can stand him but I just don’t have the energy to boot him out.
I had a job at an advertising agency that went out of business. I had been there for 10 years. I tried getting new work, then going back to old work, but the old work paid about a third less than it did 10 years ago and there were never enough hours. Waiter, legal proofreader, labor temp, I was doing all three and getting maybe 20 hours a week, earning about $300 a week if I was lucky. Not even enough to take care of myself.
Most of the time I could live with being broke and miserable. None of us were starving yet, but we were getting there fast. I was already $30,000 in debt but I had given up on that debt. As a result all of my credit cards had been cancelled. It seemed inevitable. Jail or homelessness for me, the looney bin or homelessness for George, and jail or orphanages for the kids. All I wanted was one more decent Christmas, one good day for all of us with enough meat for the kids, enough booze for me, and enough of whatever the hell George needed or wanted.
I didn’t have enough energy to pull off a heist or enough money to buy into any scheme, so I did what any rational man in my position would do.
Most of the people in our building were section eight, mentally or physically disabled, living on reduced government subsidized rent. Most of them shared a few common bathrooms. We had one bathroom, but it was split in half. The toilet was in my room next to my bed and the bathtub was in the kitchen. I could never sleep with people wandering through to crap and piss at all hours.
The common bathrooms were tiny, most just had a toilet. They were so small our neighbor Mike had to leave his wheelchair outside whenever he had to take a dump. I stole his wheelchair two nights before Christmas to go out panhandling. Mike was alright and I felt lousy about it, but people have a right to eat and maybe even get gifts at least one night a year.
I wheeled myself out of the neighborhood, far enough away to avoid anyone who might know me. Most broke people stay within their ghetto, within a few blocks of their project. All of NYC is a subway ride away, but most of the people in my neighborhood are born on the block, live on the block, and die on the block or in prison.
For once in my life things were going well. I had parked myself in front of a deli and made about $38 in five hours, most of it in nickels and dimes. It was nearly 2:00 AM, I should’ve quit, liberated Mike from the toilet. I had enough to buy a bird and some potatoes and stuffing for Christmas, pick up a few Chia Pets and some other assorted crap from the 99 cent store. I wanted to reach $40, and as usual my reach exceeded my grasp. On the verge of shutting down a cop stopped by to get some coffee from the deli. As it was the holiday season and I was in a wheelchair he was more friendly than usual. Instead of getting back to his beat he loitered with me to smoke cigarettes and shoot the shit. He couldn’t have been older than 22 or 23, still just a kid.
“What happened to you? Why you in a wheelchair? You a vet or something?” he asked.
“Just bad luck.” I replied. Anything more and he might have gotten suspicious.
“Tell me about it. You know what a cop makes in this city? Not enough to stop crime. I got a wife and a kid on the way and we may have to move in with her parents. If that happens I’m going to eat my gun before I shoot them. Only responsible thing to do. I’d probably do better in a wheelchair.”
I gulped. He took a drink of coffee and sniffed the air. “Do you smell that? What the hell is that?”
This neighborhood, like all of its ilk, was under the constant assault of the stink of sewer gasses, urine, vomit, but there was a strong smell of gas.
“I smell it. Smells like a gas leak.”
An apartment above the deli exploded, burst into flames. The cop was knocked on his ass, I was pushed out into the street and fell over onto my side.
“Holy sh*t!” yelled the cop. He tried to stand up but fell back down. One of his ankles was busted. We heard some screaming from above, a kid was in the apartment next to the one that had exploded. He was out his window trying to get the ladder on the fire escape to descend, but he was too light to break the rust that held it in place.
The cop grabbed his radio and yelled into it, our address, some code number, then louder and angrier “The building is on fire! There’s a fu*king kid up there!” He looked at me.
“These radios stink and our dispatcher is a retard, I can’t fucking believe this. You OK?”
I had a strong inclination to push myself up and wheel away, or maybe even just run away. My entire life up to that point had convinced me that I was no hero, that I was completely screwed. If I somehow managed to improve the situation I’d end up in jail or living with another kid. Leaving by wheelchair was my best option. I could say I was going for help, if they looked for me they’d be looking for someone in a wheelchair. They’d get me soon enough, but I’d have a shot at Christmas.
“I’m OK.” I tried to push myself up. “How long till someone gets here, the fire department, cops?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
That meant “too late” as usual. Right across the street was an abandoned firehouse, shut done just a year or so ago. We were in what was considered to be a lost neighborhood. A lot of people, even in the neighborhood, thought a good cleansing fire would be the best option.
I got up and ran into the building as other people were streaming out. The cop yelled after me sarcastically “You can walk! It’s a fu*king Christmas miracle!”
I woke up in the hospital handcuffed to my bed. The cop was sitting beside me. His foot had been taped up.
“You OK?” I asked him.
“I go into surgery once they check my credit rating.”
“I get the kid?”
“You got the kid out.” The cop pulled a flask from his pocket, took a long pull and handed it to me. I took a slug.
“What am I looking at?”
The cop laughed at me as I handed back his flask.
“Your neighbor Mike, someone called in and complained about him. We found him screaming on the toilet. You also have a couple bench warrants out on you, nothing major.”
“I just wanted one last decent Christmas. For something to go right for once, to make things right, feel like a human being, buy my kids a couple Chia Pets, a bird, maybe some chocolate.”
The cop took a long pull from his flask and handed it back to me. He stared at the wall dumbly. He told me his first name, reached over and shook my free hand, then pushed his chair over toward my bed with his good foot. He started laughing and took my cuffs off. He opened up his wallet and gave me $22.00, everything he had.
“Get the fuck out of here. Somebody will pick you up in a few days. No one wants to do paperwork during the holidays, you’re safe until the 27th, maybe even through New Year’s. ”
“What about you?”
“What about me? Fu*k me. Fu*k you, too.” He took his flask back and took another pull as I got out of bed. “There are some scrubs in the closet across the hall. You can take my shoes and my hoodie. Have a merry Christmas.”
As I was about to leave he grabbed my arm.
“Try and take a wheelchair for Mike, too. His is going into evidence and one of the wheels is fu*ked up anyway.”
The shoes and the hoodie were too big for me, the scrubs were too small. I looked like a clown, but I managed to steal another wheelchair and get back to my neighborhood at around 7:00am.