It was 12:56 on a Thursday morning, and Santolla was scraping the remaining peeling paint from a windowsill. The evening’s torrential rain had seeped through the window and stripped most of it off. That chore could have waited for a more convenient time, but the unfinished task was nagging at him and sleep wasn’t coming. The previous night he had filled the dents in his walls with spackle and the night before he had taken apart his bathroom sink trap to clear an obstruction because he was tired of lying awake in bed. He preferred the look of bare wood, but decided to paint his windowsill just to keep busy. While fetching a can of white paint from a closet, he considered repainting the apartment’s walls. Maybe the fumes will knock me out.
Every month, half of his earnings paid to rent a studio apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. It had porous windows, rickety floorboards, and house centipedes so large he was afraid to step on them. He left voicemail messages for his landlady concerning these and other grievances, but her unresponsiveness was the reason why he kept adding items to his toolbox. Owning a dog would give him someone to come home to, but his landlady would evict him for harboring anything larger than a goldfish.
He kept the toolbox in a closet that shared a corner with a battered guitar case that was covered in death metal band stickers. It contained a black Flying-V electric guitar with two broken strings and a cracked body. It hadn’t seen daylight in over a year. Santolla didn’t play an instrument nor could he dance. He had tried to learn how to do both enough times to accept that they would never be part of his skill set. Regardless, he had made the preservation of the guitar in its present state a reason for his existence.
He had over one hundred books that he kept in boxes or piles on the floor. He would have bought shelves for them if he had the money. Most of them were horror or sci-fi and his favorites were Batman and Wolverine graphic novels because he understood their rage and admired their sense of righteousness and determination. Tape (carton-sealing, scotch, and duct) bound the spines of a dozen of them. The reason why they needed to be repaired was because he kept dropping them on the subway. His inability to fall asleep when he needed to would cause him to nod off while reading in public.
Sleeplessness made him look as though he had just been in a fistfight. Taking naps in the driver’s seat kept him functional, but resulted in backaches. The pain was a reminder of how fragile his body was becoming. He had once been proud of his cruiser-weight build that poor sleep and dietary habits had atrophied. He had given up on insomnia medication after five different types of over-the-counter and prescription pills failed to knock him out. When he did sleep, it wasn’t always restful because of nightmares.
His second-floor apartment stood on top of a rowdy Irish tavern named Journey’s End. It was the reason why his studio smelled like cigarette smoke (though smoking in bars was banned in New York City) and stale beer. The jukebox downstairs blasted Them Two’s soulful “Am I a Good Man” as drunks who didn’t know the words attempted to sing along.
“Am I a good man?
Am I a fool?
Am I weak?
Or just playing it cool?”
What he hated more than listening to drunks bastardize classic soul was silence. If he didn’t have a distraction, he would hear the knob of his front door rattling and windows being pried open all night. Sometimes, he would hear loiterers outside of his apartment, step outside to confront them, and find no one there.
His apartment windows faced Queens Boulevard, a twelve-lane thoroughfare that had been known for decades as the Boulevard of Death. The memorials found at crosswalks (flowers, photographs, candles…) were in honor of victims of fatal vehicular crashes. It always ruined his day when he saw a teddy bear sitting at the base of a lamppost in memory of someone’s child.
At one am, his alarm clocks began screeching. Hearing them sound after a sleepless night came with some disbelief. This shit can’t be happening again. One clock radio was on top of the bureau and the other was on a windowsill. He kept them far from his bed to prevent himself from shutting them off in his sleep and needed a backup in case one failed him. He always had them face the wall because knowing how late it was would make him too anxious to sleep.
After turning them off, he noticed that his palms were bleeding again. Throughout his day, without realizing it, he would clench his fists until his nails broke skin.
He inspected his reflection in a full-length mirror and wouldn’t leave without ensuring that his shirt was long enough to conceal the clip-on holster tucked into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. The holster was inconspicuous, but pressed a painful imprint into his skin, wouldn’t stay in place, and clung to his weapon when he drew it. He also made sure that his collar covered the aluminum ball-chain necklace he wore tucked into his shirt.
On his apartment’s doorstep, he found a brown paper bag that contained a burger, a bottle of beer, and a handwritten message. The note’s cutesy handwriting resembled the type of lettering found in comic strips. It was written in bright blue ink with a felt-tip pen on yellow squares of unlined paper torn from a notepad. It read: SORRY ABOUT THE NOISE - FRISON
The beer went in the fridge with the three others that Journey’s End had left on his doorstep that week. Since he hadn’t been in the mood for anything celebratory or therapeutic, he would keep the beers until they expired. He tossed the note into a kitchen drawer with the others he had collected during the past several months. The burger was coming with him.
Santolla was sure that Frison was a woman because men never cared about the quality of their penmanship (at least he didn’t). He hoped that she was the female bartender who spoke with an impenetrable New York accent and would curse out the drunks when they got out of line (which was every night). In the year that he had been living in his apartment, he hadn’t met her nor had he visited the bar. During some of his lonelier nights, he would lay awake, listening to her bellow, and imagined what she looked like (fiery red hair?).
Whenever he left his apartment building, he would glance at Journey’s End, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He would at least wave hello. Tonight there was no one standing in front of the tavern, but there was a doughy arm hanging out of an open window, holding a cigarette. It belonged to a middle-aged woman and had a prominent tattoo of a 1950’s pin-up model.
The shimmering pavement was slippery with rainwater and the worn soles on Santolla’s boots didn’t provide enough traction. They were also worn and his socks were wet. He could have replaced his boots weeks ago, but couldn’t trust himself with his own money. His checking account was overdrawn and he dreaded looking at his bank statements.
Today was the first day of spring. Last week, a pair of late-winter blizzards had cracked open potholes all over the city. He would have to serpentine around them to save his tires and suspension from needing to be replaced. It was two am and the garbage trucks occupying the streets and sidewalks were groaning like sick animals. They were the reason why the neighborhood smelled the worst after midnight. Even if it hadn’t rained there would still be puddles of dumpster runoff. It was unpleasant, but Santolla had missed the stink when he was away from home.
After passing through a turnstile on an elevated subway platform, he encountered the closest person he had to an enemy. Santolla smelled the hostile but starving man before he saw him. His hair was sticky with filth and all he owned were his threadbare clothing, a discarded paper cup, and the change he had collected in it that night. He sat on a staircase because he wanted to be an obstruction. Straphangers couldn’t ignore him if he was in the way. Santolla wanted to punch him in his narrow chest as the vagrant eyeballed him.
A slender blonde descended a staircase that led from the Manhattan-bound subway platform to the lower level of the station. Most of the blondes Santolla would meet in his part of town were Slavic immigrants who spoke with a pleasant lilt. He loved listening to them, even if he couldn’t understand their language. She saw the vagrant and walked around him on her way down the stairs. Though she had done nothing to provoke him, he stared at her as though she had insulted him.
“Hey, Miss! What are you doing up this late?” the vagrant shouted at the blonde’s back as she walked away from him. She shuddered when she heard his voice and started walking faster. He rose from the stairs and began following her. “I’m talking to you, bitch.”
He caught up with her, swiped his hand at her from behind, and batted her pony tail. She panicked and ran from him. She fled through a turnstile and down the stairs to the sidewalk. She didn’t notice Santolla as he marched past her and toward the vagrant. He hurried toward the bum as though he wanted to collide with him. Though the blonde lady wasn’t in danger anymore, he still felt obligated to intervene.
“Fuck you staring at, faggot?” the vagrant shouted at Santolla.
“I told you what would happen if I caught you bothering people again,” Santolla said. He wanted to frighten the homeless man with his angry gaze and tone of voice, but they didn’t seem to be having any effect. That had been the second time that Santolla had warned him against harassing women. In both instances, the ladies fled and there was no need for Santolla to spring into action as he had hoped.
The vagrant responded to Santolla’s attempt at intimidation with his own rabid stare. Part of Santolla feared that the vagrant would bite him and infect him with whatever he had. Though he wanted to look aggressive, Santolla didn’t hate him. Illness, starvation, or exposure could kill the wretch before Christmas. What could Santolla do to him that life already hadn’t? Kick over his cup of change? Santolla couldn’t help but take pity on him. He’s probably an addict. I wonder what led him to this type of life.
He decided that the bum wasn’t worth another second of his time and walked away. Santolla climbed the steps to his subway platform while the vagrant continued shouting homophobic slurs at him. His attempt at standing up for someone hadn’t gone as planned, but he was proud that he at least tried to be a hero.
Within the past year, most of his attempts at heroism hadn’t worked out. He watched a mid-sized stray dog fall victim to a hit-and-run while trying to chase it back to the sidewalk. After he had dozed off on the train one morning, a woman’s uninhibited sobbing woke him. He offered to help her, but she was too incoherent to speak with. Months earlier, a bleeding cyclist who had fallen off of his ten-speed rebuffed Santolla when he offered to call him an ambulance.
One morning, however, while he had been returning home from work on the subway, a fourteen-year-old girl placed a pack of rose-scented tissues on the empty seat next to him.The note attached to it read: "I am selling these to raise money for my family. I have a sick mother, no father, and two younger siblings."
If Santolla had had any money on his person, he would have given it to her. What he did have was a burger from Journey’s End that he hadn’t had time to eat during his workday. He was famished, but gave it to her instead. Totally worth it.
“There is no excuse for unlawful sexual contact on the subway.” Every day he would hear that announcement on the train’s loudspeakers admonishing straphangers against violating other passengers. He had never gotten used to it. So, this is it, huh, folks? Millions of years of evolution and we still need to be reminded not to grope someone on our way to work.
After dozing off on the train, he regained consciousness and saw a man a few feet away from him leaning face first against an open sliding door that led to an adjacent subway car. Santolla shook off the grogginess and realized that the man was urinating. He didn’t fault the other six passengers riding in the car with him for refusing to get involved. He could have snapped a photograph of the pervert and reported him to the cops, but he was too resigned to care anymore.
Like Santolla, Roy Kronheim, fifty, didn’t have much to look forward to. Four years ago, his career as a junior high school chemistry teacher had come to a scandalous end. He lost the respect of his colleagues and students. The former still considered him a disgrace to the profession and to the latter he was the bogeyman. He had founded a popular afterschool computer workshop wherein he taught children how to code. Now he was an ex-con who swept floors in a Long Island paper factory and had no hope of ever earning a promotion, substantial raise, or friends he didn’t have to lie to concerning his past.
As a subway pervert urinated in front of Santolla, Kronheim pulled into his driveway after working an eleven-hour shift. He had had to stay an additional three hours to clean up after an office party ran late. It was pot luck, the theme was Middle Eastern food, and he would have loved to have attended. Too bad for him his days of being invited to company and even family get-togethers were years behind him.
His car was the reason why he dreaded winters. The battery couldn’t stand up to subzero temperatures and he knew he couldn’t ask his neighbors to help him jumpstart it. He parked beside his exposed-brick house in Bayside, Queens. Wind from tonight’s rainstorm had peeled three shingles from his roof that landed in the hedges. Fetching them would have to wait until tomorrow when the bushes were dry. Though he had been nodding off behind the wheel during his drive home, he couldn’t sleep until after he mopped up the rainwater that had leaked into the basement. Heavy rainfall guaranteed at least an inch of grayish-green water on his cellar floor.
He had lived in that house his entire life. When he had been a child, his mother had security bars installed on all of the windows. They were forged in the shape of tree branches and filled his childhood with nightmares because from inside it looked as though a scary tree were trying to eat him. Now that he had real threats to fear, he was grateful that his house had them.
Kronheim was in front of his concrete stoop, having his last smoke of the day. Cigarettes gave him stomach cramps and were turning his teeth the same gross color as his reddish-brown hair. Regardless, the respite of a cigarette break gave him something to look forward to every day. If he had anything else in life (a new hobby, a better job, a friend he could trust…) he would never light up again. Quitting smoking would have been easier if he hadn’t been afraid that it would lead to further weight gain. He tore a pocket while squeezing his hand into it to retrieve his lighter. They were still his best pair of jeans.
It had become his late-night ritual to have a smoke while inspecting his house for acts of vandalism. Four years after his arrest, juvenile delinquents would still spray paint “RAPIST,” “PERVERT,” or similar epithets on his house. Though he would paint over them in brick red, the profane messages would remain legible. Tonight he didn’t find anything and hoped that the neighborhood vandals had moved on to a new target.
As he did every night, Roy flicked his lit cigarette butt over his neighbor’s fence and at his front lawn. His name was Rocky, he had lived next door to Kronheim for decades, and he had been an old man for as long as Roy had known him. After he had returned home from prison, Kronheim discovered that his neighbor had replaced the four-foot-high decorative picket fence that separated their properties with a six-foot-high chain-link fence with a privacy screen.
While easing his fat fingers into his split pants pocket to fish for his house keys, Kronheim heard a woman sniffling. She was walking toward him under a dense canopy of tree branches. Her extra-large boys’ varsity letterman jacket swallowed her upper body. It gave her the appearance of a teenage girl wearing her big brother’s clothing. When she came close enough to make eye contact with Roy, he saw her tousled, bright copper hair and black streaks of mascara on her cheeks.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” Roy asked. “Do you need me to call the cops?”
“My piece of shit boyfriend just kicked me out of his car. I live out on Long Island and I don’t even know where I am,” she said. “I left my cell phone in his car. May I borrow yours?”
“I don’t own one.” After he had received a long series of threatening calls, he cancelled his cell phone service.
“Do you have a computer? I’m sure I can find a friend online who’d be willing to give me a lift home.”
He was worried that a neighbor might be watching and would shout a warning at her to not enter his home. “Sure, come on in.”
A weary but relieved smile broke through the smeared make up on her face. As he ushered her in, he couldn’t help but catch her scent—it was a blend of drug store cosmetics and nervous sweat. He forced that thought from his head and flexed his thigh muscles to deflate his erection (that was a trick that his prison psychiatrist had taught him).
He looked away from her while turning on his twelve-year-old laptop on the living room desk. Though he wanted to update his computer (it took forever for it to boot up and had no additional room for new programs), he couldn’t afford to. He didn’t want to look at her because he was afraid that glancing at her would make her uncomfortable. Regardless, he peered over his shoulder at her when she nudged the front door with her elbow to shut it and saw her slipping on a pair of batting gloves. They watched each other as she locked the door.
“I-I think you should leave,” he said. Though she was a small woman, she still made him break a sweat.
Alvelais pulled out the single-action revolver that she had concealed in her oversized jacket and aimed it at him. This embarrassing antique was the best weapon within her price range and made her feel like she was sticking up a saloon in the Old West. After she had bought it at a pawn shop that didn’t run the required background checks, she fired several test rounds late one night under an overpass. Three times out of five, it didn’t jam. She had also duct-taped a makeshift suppressor fashioned out of a disposable water bottle to the muzzle, which she also had little confidence in. Her hand was shaking and Kronheim was afraid she would shoot him inadvertently. She was trembling because she hadn’t had a drink all day.
He raised his hands in surrender and was afraid to look at her. “Take whatever you want.”
“Look at me,” she said, but he was frozen.
He shuddered when she cocked the pistol. It was a sound that he hadn’t heard before in real life and had hoped that he never would.
“Look at me!” Her voice was a whispered growl and it felt like an icy wind to Roy.
Cowed, he kept his head lowered and rolled his eyes toward her. She no longer resembled the young woman he had met a moment ago. She looked prematurely aged as though she had been surviving on the streets for a long time. Roy wondered if she was a junkie or unstable. It occurred to him that she could have been a victim of his from years ago that he didn’t recognize because she was now all grown up.
“Toss me your wallet,” she said. He crammed his hand into his pocket, splitting it further, and threw his wallet at her feet. She kept her gun trained on him while crouching to retrieve it and searched it for a picture ID with her free hand. All he had in that imitation leather husk were four singles and his parole officer’s business card.
“Where’s your driver’s license?” she asked.
“I don’t have one anymore.”
“Do you have any type of photo ID?”
“All I have is a social security card; it’s upstairs.”
It had to have been him—who else lived there? She had seen his face before multiple times. His photograph appeared online on the New York State Sex Offender Registry and in various news sources following his arrest. She had been stalking him for weeks, but still needed to be completely sure of his identity.
“What do you want?” he asked. She felt as though his question had cornered her. She put a bullet in his skull. The muffled gunshot sounded like the crack of a bat. Kronheim’s head lay on top of an expanding puddle of blood that was saturating the carpet. Standing over him, she gazed into his lifeless eyes to confirm that she had killed him. The first thought that came to her was He offered to help you. Her conscience had to have its say.
She searched the house, beginning with the living room, though she wouldn’t know what she was looking for until she found it. On top of an upright piano was a collection of framed photographs that had been taken at a lesbian wedding, a baptism for a wailing baby, and a birthday party for a laughing 106-year-old man. Alvelais wondered if any of the people in the pictures still considered Roy a member of the family. Even if they had forgiven him, did they trust him with their children? Or had he resorted to having conversations with himself, pretending that his loved ones were there, as she did? She left the living room when she felt the eyes in the photographs becoming accusatory.
On the kitchen table was a covered dish that smelled of cold chicken and congealed grease. That worried her. If he had prepared a meal for himself before leaving for work, wouldn’t he have left it in the fridge? Had someone cooked it for him while he was at work? Who else was there? Until now she had never been inside of his home. While she had been stalking Kronheim, she didn’t see him interact with anyone nor did she see anyone, other than him, leave or enter the house.
She went upstairs to search the bedrooms. The lights were out on the second floor. There were two bedrooms and guttural snoring was emanating from one of them. The door was open a few inches and the snoring sent vibrations through the air. It sounded as though a fat guy with fluid trapped in his sinuses had fallen asleep face-up with his mouth open. She stood by the entrance and smelled a combination of lotion and outmoded perfume that reminded her of her grandmother’s hugs. Alvelais peeked inside, but it was too dark to see Kronheim’s sleeping three-hundred-pound mother. She thought that she had given him her closest scrutiny and was shocked and angry with herself for not knowing about her. She must be a shut-in. How could she still be asleep after a muffled gunshot had been fired in her living room? If the snoring was all an act, she was doing a convincing job.
Alvelais crept into the silent bedroom, slipping into the narrow space of the open door and closing it behind her without making a sound. She could still hear his mother’s snoring. She turned on her mini flashlight and began rifling through his closet and bureau. All she found were bed linen and menswear that looked as though Kronheim had culled them from clothing drives. His desk drawers contained bank statements, tax forms, and pay stubs.
She had to search every room including his mother’s or risk leaving empty handed. She sneaked inside and the snoring stopped. The rhythm of the fat woman’s breathing became irregular and her body shifted. Afraid of being spotted, Alvelais crouched behind a bureau and remained still. She listened to the mattress creaking as the fat woman squirmed and kept her hand inches from the handle of her weapon. While waiting to be convinced that she was asleep, Alvelais wondered if Roy had been his mother’s sole source of financial support and human contact. Was that monster all she had?
Louie and Derek were engaged in their favorite workplace pastime: shirking their responsibilities. Though they had better things to do than exchange stories and non-work-related ideas, their coworkers found them too likable to complain about their laziness. They were the night and assistant managers respectively at Lombardo’s: a beloved Brooklyn retail/wholesale bakery that had been a fixture in the neighborhood since the Great Depression.
Derek was a twenty-one-year-old college dropout who wanted to return to school the moment he found a lucrative field he was passionate about. His job would sometimes require him to handle trash and work outdoors, including during inclement weather, but nobody ever saw him wearing scuffed kicks. If you gave him twenty bucks, he would return with a fashionable outfit and change—that was his talent. Tonight his ensemble was a fading pair of dark-blue jeans that he was phasing out of rotation and a second-hand t-shirt with a graphic of blues great Leadbelly in prison stripes.
Louie was forty-three, bald, and had an overflowing gut. Eva, his girlfriend of fourteen years, assured him that she found his paunch sexy, but he was sure she would have preferred a six pack. Though he loved her, he didn’t see himself joining a gym any time in the future. Most nights, he would spend his breaks smoking weed in the bakery parking lot with Derek. That wasn’t a well-kept secret and he knew he was setting a bad example for his subordinates, but it made him feel young to be able to bond with someone less than half his age.
Louie was leaning back in his creaky swivel chair behind the desk in the bakery’s office, imbibing the free but funny-tasting workplace coffee. The room smelled like a twenty-pound paper bag of breadcrumbs. Nobody felt the need to replace the worn office furniture or update the twenty-year-old computer, printer, and fax machine. Several of the fluorescent tubes had burned out and one was flickering. Derek, animated as always, was pitching an idea to Louie that he wanted to develop into a business. Louie couldn’t do much for him other than offer uninformed feedback. Derek gesticulated and paced while speaking because it helped him think.
“It’s not going to be just another social networking site; it’s a movement—an anti-trolling movement,” Derek said.
“What’re you gonna call it?” Louie asked.
“Help Me Like This.”
“Or dot net. I don’t know what the difference is.”
“Do we really need another website or app or whatever?”
“Ever watch a movie or a TV show or listened to an album you had high hopes for, but found disappointing? It wasn’t terrible; you were just hoping for more.”
“Of course not, everything is always great.”
“What about those post-Wu-Tang Forever Wu-Tang Clan albums?”
“They aged well.”
“But it took a while for them to grow on you, right? The purpose of my web service is to speed up the process by having fans on the Internet convince other users to start loving decent but borderline mediocre stuff instead of badmouthing everything.”
“Do you think it’ll make you rich?”
“Why not? That Facebook dickhead is a billionaire; my idea should net me at least a few grand.”
“What’re you gonna do with your money?”
“I’m gonna have my entire body covered in tattoos, and whatever I can’t fit on my skin I’ll have done on a little person who will follow me around everywhere.”
“Why a little person?”
“He’ll make me look taller.”
Santolla entered the office fifteen minutes early. He walked with his shoulders stooped and his hands in his pockets, but also swiftly and with purpose. Though they didn’t bother Louie and Derek, the scant lighting was too harsh for Santolla’s sleep-deprived eyes and caused him to squint and furrow his brow. The twenty-minute nap he had taken on the subway hadn’t refreshed him. However, he did have a stiff neck from dozing off with his head tilted against a train window.
“Captain America reporting for duty,” Louie said to Santolla.
“Cap needs his Super Soldier Serum,” Santolla said while pouring coffee into a paper cup.
“And it just started.”
“If you need to take a sick day, Derek can cover for you.”
Derek was willing to fill in for Santolla at a moment’s notice.
“Any big plans for the weekend?” Santolla asked to change the subject.
“Louie and I are gonna hit up some bars. Maybe meet some femmes. You’re welcome to come along,” Derek said.
“Won’t your ladies get mad?” Santolla asked while fetching invoices for the customers he delivered bread to from his inbox.
“Eva’s coming, but Sarah bounced on Derek. She took the dog and everything,” Louie said.
“I’ve been petting a stuffed animal to help me recover from the loss, but it’s a poor substitute,” Derek said. “You comin’?”
“Bars aren’t really my scene. Sure you don’t need me to work weekends? I’m available.” He had considered getting a part-time job stocking shelves at a big-box store. Not having much money gave him few options in terms of hobbies and he couldn’t walk into a shop without wondering if he should apply for a job there. Apart from the additional income, it would give him a convenient excuse to avoid his friends. His inability to overcome his antisocial tendencies made every weekend a bummer.
“I’ll let you know if we do. In the meantime, get some rest,” Louie said.
“I’ll be in the parking lot getting the truck,” he said before leaving. That was one of Santolla’s quirks: he never left a room, not even to go to the bathroom, without announcing where he was going. Though he knew it was irrational, part of him always feared not returning.
On his way to the truck, Santolla parsed through his part of the conversation to confirm that he hadn’t offended anyone. He didn’t want to be rude, but was aware that he could be curt without realizing it. He found it easier to remain taciturn, but even that could be misinterpreted as disrespect. He had no reason to think that he had slighted anyone, but he did feel that he could have been more affable. Though it was just small talk, he regretted not having anything important to say.
His truck ran well enough, though the fenders were dented, a gang named the Local Vengeance Killers spray painted their logo across it, and it had never been washed. Splintering wooden shelves reserved for inventory lined the interior walls. Four months earlier, a loose nail had torn a hole into his pinky that he hadn’t realized required stitches. Since he didn’t have a first aid kit, he had to improvise and fashion a bandage out of rubber bands and napkins. At least it’ll leave a cool-looking scar.
Louie, a longtime friend of Santolla’s, had hired him a year ago. Santolla needed a career path and ended up making the mistake of growing comfortable with being a truck driver for a company that wouldn’t give him paid sick days. If there was a job out there that he was better suited for, he had no idea of what it could be.
While approaching his truck, invoices in hand, Santolla glanced to his right and saw a swarthy kid crossing the middle of the street, walking toward the bakery parking lot. The kid was about fifteen and wearing a tracksuit. Santolla thought nothing of it because it was just a kid. As he climbed into the truck, Santolla noticed that the kid was coming closer and staring right at him. The kid didn’t frighten him; Santolla assumed that he might need directions or perhaps wanted to inquire about getting a job. When the kid came close enough, Santolla saw a round, bleeding bullet hole in his forehead. With shaky hands, Santolla locked the truck’s doors and started the engine.
Santolla looked at him again and the kid became a thirtyish migrant worker who was wearing an identical tracksuit and reporting for his graveyard shift at the bakery. He walked toward the employee’s entrance in the rear of the shop in a wide arc to avoid Santolla because his horrified stare was giving him the heebie-jeebies.
Santolla produced the pen and notepad he kept in his jacket pocket and wrote down a detailed account of what had just happened. He was in the habit of recording and studying his hallucinations so that he could understand what triggered them.
An hour later, Santolla parked his truck in front of Coffee and Cigarettes in Rego Park, Queens. It was one of the many twenty-four-hour convenience stores that lined Queens Boulevard. At that hour, most of the customers were nightshift workers who needed caffeine to start their day, were out of smokes during a break, or wanted to pick up a beer before returning home. The rest were unemployables who would haggle with the clerk over a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor and/or a pack of menthols until they were yelled at to leave.
Carrying three wide boxes that each contained a dozen Kaiser Rolls on his shoulder wasn’t enough to keep Santolla from scanning the rooftops for snipers that weren’t there. With his free hand he opened the door to Coffee and Cigarettes and walked in with the order.
Coffee and Cigarettes was a new customer and Santolla hadn’t met the proprietor Yusuf, a Moroccan gentleman in his late forties, yet. The owner was engaged in a spirited conversation in Arabic with his employees Tariq and Mustafa, both were eighteen-year-old college students. Yusuf was imparting his own brand of wisdom, but the kids weren’t interested in hearing it.
“Your generation doesn’t know the first thing about patience. Today, young people want to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble,” Yusuf said.
“Pardon me, sir,” Santolla said in Arabic. All heads turned toward him. He was the first American they had met who spoke their mother tongue. “Where should I leave these?”
“On the counter in the back,” Yusuf said in Arabic.
Santolla did as Yusuf asked and placed the boxes on the counter beside the deli display case toward the rear of the store.
Tariq continued the conversation. “She’s not even my type—too skinny. And she thinks she knows how to tell a joke.”
“You’re just mad because she won’t throw you a pity lay,” Mustafa said.
“What does he know? The last time he had sex that bank across the street was a Blockbuster Video,” Yusuf said. Everyone including Santolla laughed at his jokes. “Who am I kidding? It’s been so long since I’ve had sex, it wouldn’t surprise me if I ejaculated rust.”
Santolla handed Yusuf an invoice. Yusuf paid him and, in Arabic, asked, “You studied Arabic in school?”
“Iraq,” Santolla said then immediately regretted it.
“As a soldier?”
“Let me get a coffee, please, with cream,” Santolla didn’t want one but he needed another caffeine fix.
Yusuf served him the coffee. Santolla took a buck out of his wallet to pay for it. “No charge, buddy,” Yusuf said.
“I insist, sir,” Santolla said, hoping that he wasn’t
being rude. “This is a business.”
Santolla left the deli with his cup of coffee and noticed Rodney standing beside his truck. He was a lanky homeless guy with clear eyes and a pleasant smile. His frizzy hair and unkempt beard made it difficult to guess his age.
“Hey, man, you want to help out a fellow vet’ran?” he asked Santolla.
“You’re a vet?” Santolla asked.
“Hell yeah, 138th Infantry. We were guarding checkpoints in Fallujah.”
“No shit. Let me buy you breakfast. There’s an all-night diner a block from here.” Santolla was leading the way there. “How did you know I was a soldier?”
“I heard you speaking to that guy in Arabic.”
“Did you learn Arabic while you were deployed?” Santolla said in Arabic, hoping that Rodney would understand him.
“You know they don’t teach us languages and all that in the army.”
Santolla resumed speaking in English. “Yeah, tell me about it. I taught myself Arabic when I needed to kill time while I was deployed. How did you get cars to stop if you didn’t speak their language?”
“I had to rely on the universal symbol for stop.” Rodney held up his hand with his palm facing outward.
Santolla stopped walking and started fuming. Rodney became nervous. “In Iraq that means hello.”
Rodney didn’t have a response; he knew that Santolla had caught him lying. Santolla felt robbed because he had thought he met someone he could have commiserated with.
“You’re a goddamned liar,” Santolla said.
“I didn’t do it to fuck with you. I’m just trying to survive out here another night.”
Santolla gave Rodney all of the cash he had in his wallet, forty bucks, though he was still offended and angry
with him. “Don’t let me see you out here again.”
Santolla, still in Rego Park, set two large paper bags of semolina heroes on the counter of a pizzeria that was closed for the night. Customers gave Lombardo’s drivers keys to their businesses so that they could leave their deliveries indoors after closing time. If a driver lost them, it was up to him to ask each individual customer for a new copy, which was embarrassing. He locked the store’s front door, lowered the security shutters, and returned to the truck.
The pizzeria was two doors down from a busy nightclub named Frantic. Though the neon sign above the club’s entrance read OPEN, the place didn’t feel inviting to Santolla. The glass front doors were tinted black, beaded curtains covered the windows, and he had to crane his neck to look the bouncer standing behind the velvet ropes in the eyes. The bouncer’s all-black attire and gruff exterior made him look as though he was about to stick up a dice game.
The partiers in front of Frantic were smoking, vaping, hailing cabs, and/or engaged in drug-addled conversations. Crowds made Santolla nervous and these kids made him feel out of place. He became angry when a drunk who wasn’t watching where he was going bumped into his shoulder without apologizing. Santolla watched the lush weave away, hoping that he would stagger back his way and give him a reason to punch him.
Santolla couldn’t help but eye a couple of sexy, twenty-year-old, female club-goers standing along the curb. One of them was wearing aviator sunglasses (at night for some reason). The other one had enough tattoos to render her unemployable for any occupation other than tattooist, sideshow act, or stripper. A third woman passed him on her way to join them. She was the same age as the other two, had blue hair, and was wearing a vintage Guns N’ Roses t-shirt that she had bought at a thrift store. She noticed Santolla checking her and her friends out and smirked at him before the three of them piled into the backseat of an SUV. Until that moment, he hadn’t realized that he had been staring. He felt like a creep.
A couple of jackasses wearing platinum chains and medallions over their basketball jerseys entered the front of the SUV. The driver had a jagged pattern that resembled lightning bolts shaved into his beard. The idiot sitting shotgun had the ESPN logo tattooed in prominent letters on his neck. Their age, both were twenty-three, and appearance led Santolla to assume that they had either rich but irresponsible parents or maxed-out credit cards. He was jealous enough to throw a brick through their rear window.
There’re other fish… he thought and turned toward the nightclub. I could mingle for a few and still make my deliveries on time. Just don’t get drunk.
There wasn’t a line to get into Frantic. He stepped over the velvet ropes to get to the entrance. The bouncer intercepted him and extended a hand toward his chest. Santolla wanted to grab his wrist and use it to pull the bouncer down to the ground. The bouncer, sensing Santolla’s anger, used politeness to deescalate the situation. “Sir, I need to pat you down.”
The bouncer held out his palms to frisk Santolla. He was relieved when Santolla, an undesirable, walked away. If Santolla hadn’t been armed, he still would have felt unwelcome. He saw his reflection in the tinted doors. His slouching posture didn’t inspire confidence and he smelled like the inside of a bread truck.
He went back to work.
At ten am, Santolla parked in front of a Jackson Heights Indian restaurant named Shekhar’s. He had to wait for the owner, Ms. Desai, to open the place because she didn’t trust anyone with the keys to her business. That didn’t offend Santolla; he ate there at least twice a week. He had other customers who were just as wary and he wouldn’t fault anyone for being mistrustful. The incident with Rodney reminded him of the importance of skepticism.
He made a game out of indentifying the flags and written languages he saw on storefronts and food carts. This was one of the poorest neighborhoods he delivered bread in, but he liked it there. Everyone looked as though they were either working or on their way to work. Their lives have purpose. According to an article he read, 167 languages were spoken in this neighborhood. The cadences of people speaking in unfamiliar tongues were like music to him. I can hear you, but I don’t know what you’re saying. You could be telling me to go fuck myself and I’ll never ever know.
Santolla had thirty minutes to kill. That meant he had time to pursue his favorite hobby. He fetched the worn sketchpad and the bundle of colored pencils he kept on his dashboard and started scribbling.
His hands were so unsteady he needed to use the edge of his cell phone to draw straight lines for comic book panels. His best drawings were little more than frowning faces and stick figures. His lack of artistic talent embarrassed him. Regardless, he respected the medium and creative process and wanted to do his best. Though he liked the idea of having his work published, and wanted to find an artist to collaborate with, he didn’t think that he could write as well as a professional could. If no one ever appreciated his efforts, it would still be his preferred outlet. Samurais wrote haikus; I have this.
His protagonist was the Wanderer: a man with a skeletal build and a flame burning inside of his head that was visible through his one vacant eye socket. The flame couldn’t consume him, but it kept him angry and could not be extinguished. All he had were his threadbare shirt and a pair of tattered pants, but had no recollection of acquiring either. He had no memory at all.
The Wanderer was crossing the desert. He was trapped in a sandstorm, on his knees, and protecting his one remaining eye. The storm abated. He wiped the sand and tears from his irritated eye with his raw, shaky hand, but remained hunkered down.
Santolla wrote the narration in caption boxes:
"He was afraid that this was just a calm between storms. He rolled his eye upward and looked into the distance. He saw something he recognized, though he didn’t know how he knew it."
Miles away was a crumbling city. Many of the buildings were leaning on sinking foundations. The tallest high-rises were broken, liked felled trees, with their top portions resting against neighboring skyscrapers. Overturned, mangled cranes and antennas lay on rooftops and exteriors were stripped of their glass facades. Collapsing scaffoldings encaged skeletal edifices that would never be completed.
"The Wanderer began his long trek to the city in search of shelter."
Santolla knew his break was over when he heard the Indian restaurant’s security shutter rolling upward. Though he wished he had had more time, it had been enough to be cathartic. He tossed the sketchpad and pencil on the dashboard, picked up two ten-pound paper sacks of breadcrumbs, and exited the truck with them. This was his final delivery for the day.
An hour later, Santolla was climbing the stairs to his apartment. At the end of every workday, he was sore from spending most of his day in a truck seat and was dusted with breadcrumbs. Though he had enough time for several hours of shut eye, the pressure to break his streak of sleepless nights made him anxious.
Ivy hugged him with one arm the moment he walked in. She was hiding something behind her back. She was thirtyish, curvaceous (with convincing breast implants), and wore her blond hair in a ponytail. She had on yoga pants, a tank top, and a necklace with a gold mandala pendant. She had been burning sweetgrass, which she found soothing and he pretended to enjoy for her sake. She smelled like she had been exercising; not that it bothered him.
“Somebody missed me,” Santolla said.
“I did.” She spoke with a thick New York accent. She stuck the unsealed pack of cigarettes that she had concealed behind her back in his face. “What the hell is this?”
Santolla remembered that he had bought the pack of smokes a week ago at a corner bodega after an evening that entailed a six-pack and no human contact. After that much alcohol, everything seemed like a good idea to him. (I haven’t listened to Nas in years. I think I’ll listen to EVERYTHING by Nas.) He smoked half of one cigarette and called it a night. The following morning he couldn’t find the pack and assumed that he had thrown it away. “I looked all over for that. Where did you find it?”
“Under the futon while I was in downward dog,” she said referring to the yoga pose. “You said you quit.”
“If you promise to let this go, I promise to not get mad when you go through my cell phone without my permission. Deal?”
“When have I ever done that?”
“The night we met. That’s how you gave me your number. Remember, you asked to borrow my phone because your battery died and you wanted to locate a friend of yours?”
“You asked to borrow my phone because you wanted to find a burrito place that was open late, but were too drunk to use it, so you ended up singing into it.”
“Don’t act like you don’t love that smooth voice.” He deepened his voice in a comedic attempt to sound sexy.
She threw the pack hard at his face and it struck him in the eye.
“Goddammit, right in the fucking eyeball.”
An hour later, Ivy had finished showering and was getting dressed beside Santolla’s futon. He was naked in bed with his eyes closed, trying to fall asleep. He couldn’t look at her after they had sex. She found his shyness cute. A client called her cell phone as she rolled up her yoga mat. She glanced at Santolla’s closed eyelids and assumed he was asleep before taking the call.
She conversed with her client in her actual voice; she spoke with a Slavic accent. “Hello… I’m not available at five… Tuesday? I’m booked solid… Fine, Wednesday at four… Okay, bye.”
After hanging up, she looked around the studio for the envelope of money Santolla owed her for today. Santolla heard her opening drawers, which he had not given her permission to do. “It’s in the desk, the bottom drawer. Sorry, I forgot to leave it out in the open.”
She returned to speaking with a New York accent. “I thought you were asleep. I’m not supposed to break character.”
“You don’t have to go so soon.”
“I can stay, but it’ll cost you extra.” She fetched the envelope from the desk drawer, counted it, and stuffed it into her purse. It was what she earned for giving Santolla an hour of the girlfriend experience.
“May I make you lunch instead? You’ve never tried my fritadas?”
“Thank you, but I’d rather do the walk of shame before the bar downstairs opens.”
Santolla never trolled the streets looking for hookers because he wasn’t the type. Every night, while working, he would see them offering themselves in dangerous neighborhoods and feel sorry for them. Instead, he had found Ivy on a website for an escort service that offered “outcall massages.” He called the brothel and she arrived at his apartment as though she were from a car service. The website featured photographs of ladies posing in lingerie with their faces blurred. Her concealed identity made him feel like he was paying to have sex with an informant in the witness security program.
Though he enjoyed Ivy’s company, depression and self-revulsion would follow every visit. He was sure she didn’t like him as much as he liked her. Someone as beautiful as she was must have had plenty of potential suitors and her prettiness made him feel so ordinary. He treated her with respect, and she would describe his sexual preferences as “plain vanilla,” but exchanging sex for money made him feel creepy. Worse, his bank statements were no longer proof that he could handle money. What am I saving up for anyway?
Having sex with her on a regular basis also meant being disqualified from donating blood. He had been in the habit of giving blood every two months because it was the easiest and most affordable way of helping to save a life. During the screening process, the New York Blood Center would ask on their questionnaire if the donor had had sex with prostitutes. He couldn’t lie to them and was too embarrassed to tell the truth. He had considered denying it and giving blood anyway because there were always shortages and they test all donations for diseases. The other day, he had found the key chain he had received when he registered as a bone marrow donor. That had been a year ago and he hadn’t heard back from them. He had imagined that the organization had circulated his picture to potential recipients and they all said, Ew, no thank you.
He also missed the days when he hadn’t feared HIV tests or worried that he was exhibiting symptoms of herpes. He would rehearse what he would say to himself if he ever became infected. You’ve done enough fucking for one lifetime. Good times weren’t going to last forever. It’s not like you were planning on having kids someday. You could always fuck someone with your condition because having the same disease is a solid basis for a long-term relationship.
Sex with Ivy never felt completely right. Something was always amiss. There was no denying that she exiting. She was toned and voluptuous and enthusiastic and talkative in bed. However, a visit from her couldn’t replace a real date. Dates were fun in part because Santolla didn’t know how they would end. The lack of mystery made fucking Ivy feel as routine as a doctor’s appointment. He would experience buyer’s remorse while still inside of her. Regardless, he would prefer self-loathing over tedium and at least had the illusion of intimacy. Their sessions would end with post-coital conversations and snuggling. It was what he enjoyed most about being with her.
“Do you need these back?” she said, holding up a spare set of keys to Santolla’s apartment. He had given them to her because the fantasy of having the perfect live-in girlfriend wouldn’t have been complete if she weren’t waiting for him when he arrived home from work. He trusted her because he had nothing worth stealing, excluding the handgun he hadn’t told her about.
He was dying to ask her to return them to him and tell her that he couldn’t see her anymore because he had a girlfriend. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings; he just wished it were true. “Hold on to them.”
Ivy pocketed the keys and left his apartment. “See you next time, handsome.”
It was one am the following morning and Santolla’s alarm clocks sounded. He was already wide awake and lying in bed. The previous several hours had been a blur and he had no idea if he had slept at all. If he could convince himself that he had, his mind would function well enough. Placebo sleep would keep him alert behind the wheel.
The barflies downstairs sang along to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Their choice of song and somber tone made Santolla wonder if they were lamenting the departure of a tavern regular. He hoped that no one had died.
He got out of bed feeling fatigued and dizzy. It was as though someone had blindfolded him and forced him to stand inside of a moving train for hours. He also felt the nauseating guilt he would experience after a visit from Ivy. Anything that he could interpret as a symptom of illness would convince him that she had infected him with HIV.
It was his habit to silence both of his alarm clocks before switching the lights on, but he found only one. It felt as though the walls in his apartment had rotated while he slept. He shut the alarm clock on the windowsill off, but the window seemed farther away from his bed that morning. The second one continued screeching, but he couldn’t find it or the bureau he kept it on in the dark.
He turned the lights on. The second alarm clock was lying on the floor on its LED display where the bureau had been. It fell when the furniture was moved. His futon had been moved further away from the window where he kept his other alarm clock. His bureau, desk, kitchen table, and chairs were clustered around his front door, blocking the exit.