Swing for the Heart

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David had new acquaintances. He wouldn’t call them friends, but buddies, maybe. They lived in public buildings, some sat through the night while riding the transit there and back, at least until the last night-time train and before the first morning train, and others still became invisible in multi-level garages. He knew already who kept sort of a rhythm and avoided those who slept haphazardly. David now oriented himself in this new world.

Sometime a longer walk for an overnight lodging paid off. David no longer felt a sense of propriety and inhibitions like he used to. He knew he had to keep warm through the night. On the second of January, right after a terribly cold night in the shed, David went and grabbed one of the Styrofoam boards from the warehouse shelf, and without asking around too much, threw it behind the door. After he’d finished his shift, he came back for it, suitcase with clothing and books in one hand, and the light board in the other. David began his trek. The wind jostled the desk in all directions, but he didn’t care.

It was a frigid day on the second day of January in the year two thousand, and David went in search of new shelter. He wouldn’t last a third night. In fact he knew already where he was headed. David felt grateful for the happy coincidence when, recently, he’d r discovered a pound lot full of decommissioned ambulance vehicles. He counted twelve of them.

With resolve in his step, David walked from the warehouse on Forty-Eighth Street, turned at Peamong Drive and then continued towards Twenty-Sixth Avenue. Some passersby turned around, most didn’t care. David continued down the hill through the park, on to Burgund Way. He reached the end of the residential area and, against the frosty wind, walked on towards the parking lots and industrial yards. David was tossing his suitcase from one hand to the other; all his belongings were inside. He hasn’t shaved in two days and didn’t feel like himself because he hasn’t had a chance to take a shower since New Year’s Eve. His armpits began to itch uncomfortably. Soon he would be there.

One last turn between the yards of Crown Freight Ltd. and Emerald Corp., and he would be where he wanted to be.

It was four-thirty in the afternoon and the yard grew dark. David didn’t see anyone else around and knew that the yard was guarded only by a fence. There they were. The ambulances he’d dreamed of. He opened the rear door of the first one, and out fell some sort of a board that was propped inside. Right away, David saw that the front side of the entire patient-space was broken in and the wall ripped open. So this vehicle was out of the question. The next car didn’t have the rear door at all. David put aside his Styrofoam board and suitcase, and continued in his search. The sixth one fulfilled his expectations. He brought over his light and, most importantly, his insulating board and suitcase, and settled in. A little off to the side he also finally relieved himself, and then resumed his search for valuable materials. He knew that ambulances often have blankets. He’ll surely find one. He also discovered a pillow that had been forgotten in one of the cars. Together David found three blankets, though he immediately threw out the first one that was stiff with dried up blood. The other two, on the other hand, were brand new, still in their packages. Again, David felt lucky and had to smile. The stretcher from one ambulance also had a red mattress, which he, too, brought to his ‘battle ship’ number six. The perfect hotel.

David’s cell phone let out a sound. Only now David realized that he had been charging his phone in the warehouse, which he now hasn’t had a chance to do since the last day of the previous year. The battery was almost empty. It was five, and Alice expected his call around eight. David decided to call right away.

She picked up immediately.

“I was just thinking of calling you. How is it over there, David?”

“How do you mean?”

“I read today that one wing will be closing for renovations. Can you still stay there?” David had to think quickly. Why is he lying so much to her? He has to; the truth would be a greater trauma for her than for him. Such a ridiculous and senseless situation. It could be described by the popular Czech saying: ‘I’m holding the wolf by its ears.’ An untenable situation but impossible to let go.

“Yes, yes, that’s the one section,” he was sitting in the seat near the stretcher designed for respiratory assistance, staring into the cold darkness, “we’re in the other half.” He had no idea something was going on at Superb Accommodation.

“Do you need anything, David?” A gust of freezing wind and snow blew into the vehicle and David was considering his options. The night might be cold.

“I don’t think so. I’ll probably buy…nothing,” he almost started thinking out loud.

“What do you want to buy?” Alice knew that small cash wasn’t a problem. In her eyes he was staying in the dormitory for free, to be able to save up for a down-payment. But still, she was constantly thinking about him and didn’t like living alone with Kačenka in the comfort of Mrs. James’ house, while he was in some social services’ dormitory.

“Nothing, I’m just thinking out loud. Another textbook.”

“This time it’ll work out. I know it will, David.”

“For sure. I’ll turn off my phone now, I have to charge it.”

“You can leave it turned on, no?”

“Probably, but if nothing important is up, I’ll just turn it off and get some rest. That’s why I’m calling you now.”

“Ok then, lie down and cozy up, make yourself some hot coffee, it’s awful outside.” They said their goodbyes.

David looked at his watch and evaluated the night that lay ahead. From the paramedics’ bench he grabbed his suitcase and brought it outside. He looked around in the darkness and then pushed it deep underneath a pile of discarded metal bed-frames. He himself wouldn’t find it there. For complete disguise, David covered it with a sheet of roof-top paneling and was satisfied. Things were working out for him and David felt glad. He realized that he didn’t really need the Styrofoam board. He’d dragged it unnecessarily all the way, and now it gleamed brightly in the dark like a signal for the UFO’s. So he took it to another ambulance vehicle, maybe someone else will find it useful. Books. Where to hide his books? He can’t lose those, in March he’ll write the exam again. Maybe he can hide them underneath the bench where they usually keep extra oxygen. David leaned down and pulled out a flashlight. Turned on the switch and a smile spread over his face. It lit up as brightly as a new one! Luxury. He put it back and knew he was rich and the night wouldn’t be bad at all.

David slammed the rear door, rolled up his collar and started walking. He new that Home Depot would still be open and that it wasn’t far. He didn’t want to look like a hobo but it was difficult to prevent it. Sprouting stubble makes anyone look neglected. Maybe he could’ve tried shaving without water and cream. He’ll have to fix it tomorrow. Actually, who would judge, if David simply said that they currently have no hot water at home and that he’d be taking showers in the warehouse after work? In the end, that’s why the showers are there. As a matter of fact, why shouldn’t he take advantage of those showers?

David continued walking in the cold evening, and grew confident that everything had a solution. Shower, charging of his phone, maybe even laundry. The phone battery was almost dead now and he knew that soon it would shut off. It didn’t matter.

He started up the hill, taking a shortcut across Warren Road and around the strip-mall, all the way to the main road where he soon saw the glowing orange façade of Home Depot. Suddenly his phone rang in his pocket. Before David could introduce himself, he recognized the voice.

“Would you like to join us, then?” He started cheerfully and without introduction.

“Gladly. Really for sure. It’s so nice to hear your voice and thank you for the invitation. And where do you play, Kaz?”

“Every Friday we….” The phone went silent. David looked down on his darkened display and stopped in his tracks. How could he make that mistake and fail to find a way to charge his phone sooner! They’re playing somewhere and Kaz was calling him. David Říha still believed he had luck on his side. When he charges his phone tomorrow, he’ll check his call-display. Kaz could’ve called later in the evening and maybe he wouldn’t reach him at all. Perfect. Tomorrow David will find out more and soon he’ll play his sax again. It was another signal that the New Year would be a good one after-all.

Cheerfully, David stepped out into the warm, large space of the store.

He bought a small gas space-heater, it was even on sale, and was returning home. He also added two extra propane tanks, at the grocery store’s deli he filled up a Styrofoam cup full of hot mushroom soup, threw in two buns, and was on his way. Home, to his very well set up living space. He turned the corner and headed to the yard with confidence in his step. He was looking forward to it. A feast, warmth, and with the flash-light he can even study. But he’ll have to seal all the gaps that may reveal him.

Without even realizing it, David had developed the instincts of an animal in the wild. Something was different. He looked around, stopped, everything was silent. Like a wolf that picks up a scent, he stood immobile in the shadow of a decommissioned trailer and acutely observed his surroundings. Nothing all around. But still there was something in the air. He slowly began walking and with his soup and space-heater he sat down on the metal frame of an industrial press. Nothing was happening, in the warehouse yard was nothing but dirty sluggish snow and silence. He reached underneath the metal bed skeletons, pushed away the tar paper and pulled out his suitcase. Quietly, he brought it over to his ambulance and was ready to open the rear door. From the dark stepped out a man. David screamed, spooked. He was dressed in a dark coverall, long-unshaved, with messy hair and clutching a wrench in his hand.

“What do you have in there?” he asked roughly, without introduction. Říha got a whiff of his heavy breath and felt faint.

“It’s mine. That’s my…clothes. It’s all I have.” His cell wasn’t working; David had bare hands and was just hoping nobody else would turn up.

“I want a shirt and pants.”

“But I…this….”

“I want a shirt and pants. This is my yard. If you want to stay here, I want a shirt and pants. And a hat. Do you have shoes?”

“I don’t have shoes.” Both men peered at each other with the determination and combativeness of animals, each defending its territory. Unshaved chins aggressively pointed forward, a foot apart, the vicious eyes of two beasts. Who would look closer, however, would see the helpless eyes of two people, one pair brown and the other blue.

“Then T-shirt and pants,” commanded the man in the ripped work coveralls, “and a hat. Do you have it?” After a short hesitation Říha nodded, put down his suitcase and opened it. Kitchen knife, thermos, pants, another pair, home slippers, two sets of utensils, four pairs of socks, a cup with the picture of Prague, two oranges, four T-shirts, a jar of pickles, towel, three ties, a toothbrush, five pairs of underwear, CD of a Moravian folk-band, an apple, a knitted tuque, a photo of the Říha family in Pisa, music scores of Glenn Miller, blazer, a small pan, alarm clock, bent calendar with pictures of castles and forts, a bag of ground coffee. David kneeled and pulled out a pair of sweatpants. Then a T-shirt that said ‘Innsbruck’ and a tennis head-band and passed it all to the man. He put the wrench in his pocket and took all the pieces of clothes. The band he immediately put on, pulling it over his ears. He gave a wide smile, showing his rotten teeth. David watched as he disappeared in a dark corner of the yard. In the shadow he couldn’t make out what was going on there. But he recognized that the man took off his coverall. David couldn’t believe his eyes. The man had nothing underneath. From the distance he could see that the old body was completely naked. He took David’s sweatpants and pulled them on. Then the T-shirt ‘Innsbruck’ and on top his coverall. Říha was not mistaken when he thought he’d heard the man happily squeal in a high-pitched voice, then twice quickly outstretch his arms. He returned to David and was grinning like a child.

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