That night Rex takes me to a homeless shelter in Boys Town. It’s in a church basement, and there are a handful of young guys and girls, some sad and depressed, some laughing and joking around with one another. There are four rows of cots, about twenty total, and soon after Rex and I grab ours, they are all filled up. The basement smells like dirty socks and burnt marshmallows. It has brick walls that are painted over a sandy brown color and cement floors. They feed us spaghetti. I try my best to eat around the bits of meat, doing everything short of wiping each noodle off with my napkin. Rex laughs at me and shovels spoonfuls of saucy noodles into his mouth.
After dinner, a few kids get into a fight over a pillow, an old potato sack stuffed with clothes, which is barely a pillow at all. They came in together, right behind Rex and me, but we quickly discover that they are nowhere close to being friends, as the taller, lighter skinned black boy shoves the shorter, chubbier, darker skinned one forcefully in the face. They both get escorted out by the two large middle-aged gentlemen, deacons of the church, who help facilitate the place. Those boys don’t look any older than Rex and me.
Lights go out at ten o’clock—everybody scurries back to their cots and tucks themselves in. The elder church lady who had served us spaghetti earlier in the evening says a quick prayer over the room and closes the door behind her. I’m curled up on a hard, musty cot between Rex, who is nearly asleep, and a strange looking white lady with a toddler resting across her chest. I look up to see her peeking over at me, sheet pulled up to her chin. She smiles, her yellow teeth nearly florescent in the dark, and her hair, a powdery black color, matted to her scalp in certain sections. Her little girl, nearly two, no older than three for sure, has smudges of dirt on her cheeks and is wearing mismatched socks on her tiny feet, a thick dirty white sock on one foot and a thin pink and blue striped one on the other.
The scattered sounds of sniffles and coughs soon turns into my own little lullaby. I close my eyes and roll over. Facing Rex, holding tight to my bag under my head, I open my eyes again, letting them adjust once more to the darkness. Rex is stretched out on his back, his long legs hanging over the bottom of the cot and his long skinny arm draped over his eyes like a mask. I watch his chest rise and fall a few times before deciding to turn over to my back, in hopes that perhaps he had perfected the way to sleep on these rickety old things. The little girl next to me begins to whimper.
“Shut her up,” a voice orders from across the room.
I glance over as the woman sits up in her cot and begins rocking the little girl slowly, attempting to coax her back to sleep before she wakes the entire room. I close my eyes and listen to the hauntingly soothing sound of her humming her little girl back into a slumber. A slight smile involuntarily creeps over my face as the tune grows more and more familiar, more and more comforting—a mash up of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Jesus Loves Me, songs that I’d learned in preschool and from some of the Christian kids on the back of the bus. Before long, I drift off into a desperately needed sleep.
I wake up when the morning bell sounds at six o’clock—being homeless is almost like being in the military, only more dangerous. Rex is already upright, sitting on the side of his cot, his feet planted firmly on the floor, knees nearly reaching his ears.
He holds his face in his hands and yawns. “How’d ya sleep, Dough?”
“Okay,” I say, stretching my arms out above my head. Mid-stretch, I realize my purse is no longer under my head. I jump up, frantically searching, just to find it behind me on the floor, ransacked. I look over at the cot where the woman and toddler had been sleeping, they’re gone. I grab it, shove my hand into the side pocket, now unzipped and empty. My money is gone.
“What’s wrong?” Rex asks.
“It’s gone,” I say, dumping the remaining contents of my bag out onto the cot, sifting through the clothing.
“My money. She stole it.”
“The lady. The one with the baby.”
I stand up and look around the room. Everyone is standing around, stretching and welcoming the morning along with the smell of coffee. The exit door is open, allowing us to wander in an out at will. I don’t see her anywhere. I search the surface of the sea of heads, jumping up on the cot to get a better view, frantically looking for that matted mess of hair I had slept next to that night.
“Fuck,” I say, a little more loudly than I had intended. Everyone’s eyes are on me.
“What’s the matter,” a soft, sweet voice speaks up from behind me.
I turn around to see the praying spaghetti lady standing at my feet.
“Someone stole my money,” I tell her, stepping down off the cot.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she says. Her face is very welcoming, like a chocolate bunny, her skin holding itself together quite well for a woman of her age and occupation. Her eyes are deep, dark brown, and wide, like two buttons belonging to a warm winter coat.
“It was that lady with the kid,” Rex says, placing his skinny fingers on my shoulders. “The one with messed up hair and a dirty face.”
“Reagan?” The lady asks, shocked almost. “You sure it was her?”
I shake my head, “No, ma’am. I just assumed—”
“Well, she left hours ago. She’s here once or twice a week, wakes up with the crows, though. Real sweet lady, just a little down on her luck is all.”
“This sucks,” I say.
“You want some breakfast?” The lady asks.
Rex, who is still scanning the crowd to see if anyone looks like a suspicious thief, someone like him, nods. “Yes, please.”
After breakfast we take off walking again.
“It’ll be okay, Dough, don’t worry,” Rex assures me, sensing the stress now permeating my body. “You don’t need money.”
“Don’t need money. Really? This coming from the professional pick pocket.”
“I could teach you to do it.”
“I’d be in jail within an hour.”
“You probably right,” Rex laughs.
“It’s not funny,” I say.
“Is it gonna make it any better if ya cry?” He asks.
I stop walking and stare down at the crumbling sidewalk beneath my feet, thinking about his words for a moment.
“If that’s what you need to do, cry, I’ll wait. But I promise you, when you done, the money’s still gonna be gone.”
He is right. I inhale the cold morning air, shove my hands into my empty pockets, and continue walking all the way to Nancy’s. I wave goodbye once again to Rex, see him disappear into the crowd of people, and make my way down the dark narrow staircase.
While I read, Nancy rests her eyes, rocking back and forth as her cat sleeps soundly on the display case. Today I choose from the shelves right under the window, where I sit catching the pale flood of natural sunlight. I thumb through a few pages of titles and authors I’ve never seen before until I come across something that catches my eye—Stranger In A Strange Land. Lucy had tried for years to get me to read science fiction. And a human returning to Earth after being raised by Martians would have been a dream come true for her.
Nancy begins to stir around noon. She stands up and scoots her way around behind the counter, causing her furry friend to stir as well. He stretches and purrs, annoyed by the way the sun is now directly shooting into his eyes. It stands up slowly, arches its back into yet another satisfying stretch, hops down off the case, and makes its way toward me. I’ve never been much of cat person. I’ve never been much of an anything but Lucy person, but as the cat gets closer, I find myself reaching my left hand out to it and stroking its soft, dense coat.
“Want tea?” Nancy yells from behind the counter, still out of view.
“Sure,” I say. “Thank you.”
She comes around the corner holding a thin, silver tray, balancing two tea cups and a tea pot. I jump up and run over to help her.
“Can I help?” I ask, reaching out for the tray.
“Yes, dear,” she says, gladly passing the weighty tray over to me. I hold it and follow her as she makes her way around the corner of the middle bookshelf towards a wobbly table on the other side of the room. “Just set it here.”
I set the tray down as she asks and watch her wrinkly old hands meticulously pour the tea into the two cups and drop two cubes of sugar into each. She lifts a saucer and cup and turns to give it to me.
“Thank you,” I say, accepting it with both hands.
“Yes,” she says, turning to retrieve her own cup.
She walks back to her rocking chair and I make my way back to my corner, sit on the floor, and sip from my little, pale blue porcelain cup, determined to finish the second book of the day. Rex takes a little longer. It’s nearly one o’clock before he sets the chimes in the stairwell in motion. I jump up and take my cup over to the tray still sitting on the table. Nancy has emptied her cup and has it resting on her lap, resting her eyes once more. I grab my bag, look back over at her. “Bye,” I whisper.
“See you,” she says, without moving an inch.
I chuckle and head up the stairs.
“What’d ya read today?” Rex asks, scratching the back of his neck.
“I read about Martians and sailboats,” I say, buttoning my coat.
Rex nods in approval and takes off walking.
For lunch, we stop at a pretzel stand near Navy Pier. Rex buys us both an order of nachos and a Coke. We sit on a bench at the entrance of the pier, eating and watching random people wandering about.
“So, is your face gonna end up on a milk carton?” Rex asks in between bites and chewing.
“God, I hope not,” I laugh.
“Maybe we should start poppin’ in a grocery once a week, just to make sure.”
Rex tells me he is taking me camping that night, and we end up sleeping on newspaper blankets under a smelly overpass. To my surprise, of the three locations I’ve slept in the past three nights, this is by far my favorite. The hums of the passing cars resonate under the concrete structure like ocean waves, when I close my eyes of course. It smells like urine and burnt rubber but there is no wind, no nappy headed strangers, no fear. Rex and I lay on our backs, staring up the shit stains left by the pigeons and play Twenty Questions.
“Is it a person?” Rex asks.
“No,” I say.
“Is it a thing?”
“Is it near us?”
“Is it in this city?”
I pause. “Depends, I guess.”
“You have to answer yes or no.”
“Well yes and no.”
“Dough, you really suck at this game,” he chuckles.
“You never asked me if I was good, you just asked if I wanted to play it.”
“Have you ever played before?”
“What kind of games did you play?”
Rex sits up and turns on his side to face me. He rests his head on his hand and smiles. His teeth light up the shadows. “You never played any games?”
I roll over to face him, rest my head on my hand, mirroring him. I stare into his eyes, trying to search them for my own childhood memories. Lucy and I were talkers and builders. I dug holes in the sand, mostly trying to dig my way out of my back yard. I hung upside down on the monkey bars and read Lucy’s freckles like some sort of code. I plotted my escape. I counted the hours. The minutes. I did a lot of action verbs, but play was never one of them.
“Nope,” I say. “No games.”
He stares at me silently, searching my eyes, maybe for an explanation, but all I offer is the same empty response. He smiles. “Lame.”
I laugh and roll over to my back.
There is something about Rex. The way he speaks, the way he carries himself, somewhat effeminate, somewhat dominant, and always animated. He speaks with his hands, he holds them up and out as if he is presenting a priceless gem, and waves them about like flaming napkins at other times. He is confident and adventurous, open and upbeat.
“Good night, Dough.”
I close my eyes and try to breathe through my mouth so not inhale too many putrid fumes. “Night.”
The next day, Nancy has muffins. And the next day, she has these little cinnamon raisin things. I’m in love. She doesn’t talk much, but her cooking says it all. She has tried it all and managed to find what works. She puts it all together, she figures it all out. I want to ask her how. I want ask her how this little cinnamon thing could transport me to places I’ve never been before. I want to ask her how she manages to squeeze every memory, every happiness, every hurt, into a swirly pastry, but all I can manage is small talk about her overweight feline.
“Aushwin is his name,” she says, stroking her thin, ringed left hand across his back.
I look down at the chubby feline still fast asleep, in paradise, on her lap. “I’m Cookie,” I say.
Nancy nods and smiles. “Nice to meet you. I’m Julie.”
Julie? The confusion clearly written on my face.
She smiles. “Nancy was my sister.”
“Was?” I ask.
Julie nods. “She died many years ago. When I come to America, my husband buy me this store, and I named it for her.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say, taking another bite of bread.
“All these shelves, all these books, remind me of her, have our memories, it’s okay. It’s like she’s never gone.”
I look around the room, at the dusty shelves that have become so familiar to me. Their muted colors and years of dust take on a new meaning. I know all too well the importance and strength of memories, but none of my memories are tangible. Even the bag of Lucy’s stuff tucked safely in my purse feels empty. I can’t see the stars. I can’t go bowling. Everything that reminds me of her no longer exists, at least not in this city. Not to me. Not anymore. We have only one photo, the one tucked safely into my wallet. That is all I have. That is all that’s left, all I have to show for a decade long friendship.
The lanes were quiet as usual. Arnold was nodding off by the ball rack. During the weekdays, Arnold ran the whole place; lanes, food stand, game room. Granted, during the week, he probably only saw five or six people, including his own shadow, trickle in and out of here a day. I don’t know how he managed to stay open all these years. It could have been the fries?
I moved unconsciously over to our stools at the end of the food stand. Arnold saw me and moseyed my way. I sat down in my seat, put Lucy’s bag in hers, and slid my elbows up on the bar.
“Is it Sunday, already?” Arnold joked. He made his way around the counter. He walked with a limp. But a cute limp, not a creepy gimp limp like the people in scary movies have. It was more like he was trying to hide a long cane in his left pocket, so he could bust it out for a magic trick or a dance sequence. He went over to the sink and washed his hands. “Two lemons and a plate of strings,” he yelled out; our order.
I didn’t speak.
He turned to look around. “Where’s Red?” he asked. Red was the nickname he gave Lucy. He’d just started calling her that one Sunday, for obvious reasons, like she was one of his old army buddies, and it stuck. It took him a little while to start referring to me at all, but one Sunday, I became Snipe.
Arnold turned around, thrown off by the lack of giggling and random conversation that was meant to be coming from that corner. He looked at me. I stared past him at the inspection certificate hanging in its plastic cover over the deep fryer.
“Hey there, sad face,” he said limping towards me, “why so glum?”
I looked up at him, his pale, wrinkled face drawn up with all sorts of worry lines and laugh lines and whatever other kinds of lines come to your face after you’ve lived the kind of life he’s lived. He had five kids, four of them boys, from three different wives, fought in two wars, and ran for mayor of Murphy City once. He’d led quite an extraordinary life.
“Cat got your tongue, Snipe?”
“Red’s always been the talker, anyways.”
I nodded again.
“Where’s Red?” Arnold asked me again.
I looked down at her bag. “She not coming.”
“She will be.”
Arnold looked around and whispered, “How ‘bout a lemon, on the house, since ya didn’t get caught?”
“That’s it, Snipe.” He wobbled over to the slushy machine. “Nothing like a cold lemon slush to clear your mind after a long, hard day.”
My eyes were drawn to the machine, I watched as the yellow slush whirled around inside. That’s exactly how I felt. Like I was spinning helplessly, mere seconds away from being sucked up and devoured. Only, the clock was standing still. Being devoured would have been too great a blessing at that point, for me at least.
He slid it in front of me. “Green,” he said, tossing the green straw in like a garnish on a five star dish. “Bon appetit.” He spoke French, horribly. Kind of a post-war trauma that everyone else around him suffered through.
I wrapped my dry lips around the straw and drew in the tangy goodness of that first chilly sip. It moved down my throat, slow and smooth, like dew dripping from a petal. I felt it slide all the way to my stomach. I hadn’t eaten in over eighteen hours.
“So, what brings ya here on a Wednesday, Snipe?” Arnold pulled up a stool behind the counter and sat in front of me.
I took another sip and tried to remember how to hold a conversation. “Just needed to go.”
“I know the feelin’.” Arnold started tapping his knuckles on the countertop. He had large, arthritic-looking hands. They looked like a topographical map, with blue rivers of veins and red highways of broken blood vessels and brown and purple liver-spotted mountains. His hands had lived. I looked down at my hands: cold, tan, weak.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Snipe,” Arnold made his disclaimer, “but you look like right good shit.”
“There it is.” He smiled. “Nothin’ like a nice insult to bring a smile to your face.”
Arnold knew all the “nothing likes” in the world. It was almost as if he had personally tried everything for everything and knew exactly what worked.
“Ya wrestle a bear?”
“Escape from prison?”
“That’s the one.”
“I see. And you chose me, a poor, withered old fogey, as the one to go down for harboring a fugitive.”
I nodded and continued to slurp up my slush.
“Are you takin’ me hostage? ‘Cause I be damned if I survived Pearl Harbor and D-Day to get taken out by a 5’7” brunette and a…” he paused. “What are ya packin’? Springfield? Johnson? Browning?” He referred to his artillery.
“A Howitzer,” I said.
“Holy smokes.” Arnold slapped his knee. “Is that what you got in that bag there?”
Having been subjected to many Sunday night history lessons, I’d become accustomed to joining in on Arnold’s military banter. I learned more from our Sunday chats with him than I ever did in the classroom.
“I won’t go easy,” Arnold grumbled.
“And I probably won’t be good ransom either,” he laughed at himself. He looked over at his fry vat. “How ‘bout some strings?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t say no.”
He rose to his feet and rubbed his hands together, like a praying mantis. “Let’s just flick ole Delia on here.”
Delia was the only non-military piece of equipment that Arnold had ever given a name. The only hunk of metal he cared more about than his arms collection or the Patton he manned in the Cold War.
“Who’s Delia?” I asked as he clicked the button on the machine.
“You know Delia,” he sneered.
“I know. But why? Why Delia?”
Arnold grew silent. He twisted his lips, which was something he did whenever he was thinking really hard on something. He grabbed a bag of frozen fries out of the deep freeze, still silent, walked over to the counter, and sat the bag down with a loud thump.
“You ever wonder why I call ya Snipe?” Arnold grinned.
“Yeah, I just never got around to asking,” I told him.
“Snipes are one of the most difficult birds to catch. They keep themselves near the ground, all blended in, peckin’ for food in the mud and dirt in the woods. They fly around all crazy-like. They’re what gave rise to the term sniper—precision. Stealth perfection, one shot, not called often, but when called upon, always hit the target. You never see it comin’. That’s you—camouflaged, wild, mysterious.”
I looked at Arnold, his woody brown eyes searching mine.
He chuckled, slid his hands in his pockets, and looked over at Delia. “The first thing I ever did on purpose,” he grinned. “You can spend a lifetime livin’, making choices, and yeah, many of ‘em end badly. They hurt ya, but every once in a while, you do somethin’ right. Delia was the first thing in my life that I’d ever gone after on purpose and got right the first time.”
Arnold came and sat down in front of me. “A buddy of mine, Irvin Pritchard Williams—back in France we we’re bunk mates—used to run the town causin’ all sorts of trouble. Well, he used to tell me, ‘If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to do it again.’ And sure, most of the time it applied to making bunks and knockin’ mugs out with one clean blow, but when I met Delia, I knew right away that she was right.”
He sucked on his bottom lip and stroked his chin. “Okay. I lied. Maybe not right away,” he giggled. “She was a fireball, and I hated her, but I couldn’t get enough of her. I loved her despite everything. I fell in love for all the right reasons. I did it right that first time. We started a family. And then she died.”
Arnold stood back up and went over to the counter. He cut open the bag of fries, dumped them in a frying basket and dipped them into the boiling grease. “Everything else after that was just everything else,” he said. “I got married again, because my kids needed a mother, but I couldn’t love ‘em like I loved Delia, so they left me. My dad died and saddled me with this place.” He looked around the bowling alley, the neon lights and the pine floors, around at the tacky multicolored plastic seats, the aged, neon-stardust carpet, and the 1960’s pinball machine. “Looks just like he left it, except for Delia, of course.”
He rested up against the prep counter. “Same friend, Irvin, came out to visit once when I started runnin’ the place, gave me some more good advice. Said, ‘Arnie. Folks gotta eat!’ So, I went out and bought Delia here and finally got this food stand up and runnin’.”
Delia started screaming. I looked over at her and was forced to close my eyes. That sound, the same sound I heard last night, was haunting. It stopped and I was able to convince myself to open my eyes again.
“You okay, Snipe?” Arnold asked.
I shook my head. “Just lightheaded.”
“Folks gotta eat!” he laughed.