Home for Christmas: 2P France and Reader: Contest Entry:
His stomach told him to go forward, get up off his tail and search for food other than dumpster scraps and dropped liquor bottles drunks didn’t care to pick up. It had been a long time since he had, had a warm home cooked meal, let alone slept in a bed rather than stealing a soggy piece of cardboard from some other unfortunate half-breed.
But the deadliness of sloth was more tempting, keeping him in the small alley and leaving him to shiver in the dirty snow. His belly was rumbling with raw hunger that weakened him and fed the temptation for him to close his eyes so he could fade into nothingness and leave behind nothing but a shell.
He wasn’t ready for that yet and let out a curse, forcing himself up from the dirty ground and out of the dark alley into the florescent light that bathed the sidewalk, just as the sun dipped low in the sky and dyed it a soft manga orange and the same color of violet as his shirt.
Yet unlike his shirt the sky didn’t have holes or rips. There weren’t any dirt stains in the sky or crusty patches of blood. There were only puffy white clouds that slowly drifted through the sky, later to fade away into the air and then come back as stormy rain clouds that would wash away the dirt of the street.
Grey clouds were overhead. Now he was desperate for a smoke; his one gate way from this life that cost five-dollars a pop. That was petty change for some people but a whole night’s work for him. It was hard to get a job when he not only looked like, but also lived in a dumpster.
Cooks didn’t like filthy people washing their dishes, but if he was lucky they would throw some food at him so he would go away. Either that or he could swallow his pride and go wait in line with everyone else at the homeless shelter. At least then it would be warm and he would get a pleasant smile from a volunteer who actually thought they were doing good by sacrificing their precious time to help the poor.
Being poor, he had all the time in the world. There was no family to take care of, no job to go to, and no food to eat. If only he could be rich, then he could have power and time all in one, but neither was attainable at the same time.
He looked down the streets, left then right. The only thing in sight were tall clean apartment buildings, the more posh part of the country, where people didn’t care if they threw out half a lasagna and didn’t bat an eyelash if they saw someone crawl out of a trash can. It was the perfect place if you played your cards right. His ruined shirt was actually made of silk. The jacket was easily worth a months’ pay and was warm, a comb and razor in its breast pocket. His pants were firm and expensive Egyptian cotton, the pockets stuffed with stolen “free” mints and hand sanitizers, and his shoes had been expensive and still held some shine.
He used to live that kind of life, care free, as he frivolously spent his money on cigarettes, wine, and books. All of them finished by the day’s end to be renewed the next with more money that slowly drained away, along with his boss’s patience.
He wasn’t a stupid man, he was an escape artist. Using cigarettes to escape the anxiety, books to escape the world, and alcohol to escape consciousness, to finally escape daily life, work, and the bills that had piled up on his desk that was probably in the scrap yard, buried under the same junk he was surrounded by.
With a sigh he made his way down the street, choosing the right side, musing that is was the “right way”. The smell of dinner had started to drift from the houses, either from open windows where savory pies cooled, or from grills started by men brave enough to bundle up and step outside to roast juicy steaks and chicken.
The cold didn’t affect him anymore. His fingers were numb and stuffed in his pockets most of the time. His lips, dry and crackly, could easily be soothed by melted snow if he was lucky enough to find a match box.
He glanced into some of the houses. Some lights were on and shades up in the dining rooms, as if the home owners were teasing him as they set out turkeys and stuffing, along with hot buttery rolls and mashed potatoes.
Was it already Thanksgiving? It had been months since he had glanced at a calendar, let alone buy a paper. He didn’t even know what time it was unless he strolled down to the park and checked one of the clocks on their shinning posts.
For some reason that made him frown. He never cared for the holidays. He didn’t have any family to spend them with and where he was from they didn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving.
After a while he could see the edge of town. From there, there would be farmland and then hundreds of stores and restaurants. He was close to giving up, already planning to find a tin cup and a piece of cardboard, snagging a pen from the bank, and finding a place to solicit or a job to take. If that didn’t work he would head off to the nearest Italian restaurant and going diving, looking for scraps of pastas and meat. It was better than the sweaty soup kitchen that served watered down celery soup, which he guessed contained only water, celery, and garlic.
He glanced back at the houses one more time, but hissed when bright headlights blinded him as a sleek red car pulled into a drive way. He watched for a moment, ready to give the person a few rude gestures, but reconsidered as a woman stepped out with a frown that could match his own carrying an abundance of grocery bags.
She caught his eye and looked stun, eyeing him over too many times as she stood frozen in place.
“May I help you?” she asked, sounding tired and a bit sour.
The corner of his lip raised in disgust, she was pretty, but in a subtle way. The only reason she should be upset was if her boyfriend didn’t buy her a big enough diamond, but she also looked tired. Dark circles were under her puffy red eyes and her shoulders were slumped in defeat, her clothing looked too casual for someone in this neighborhood.
Then she said something that interrupted his assessment of her, “Are you alone too?”
Too, meaning also. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. Instead she was heading toward her door; her heavy duty boots crunching in the snow and keys jangling in her hand as she struggled to keep the bags from falling.
“Of course I am,” he answered. Wasn’t it obvious that he was homeless? He shaved in the park in the dark for Pete’s sake, wanting to avoid policemen who chased off solicitors. He had plenty of rough patches to show for it.
“Do…do you want to come inside?” Her voice had gone soft, sounding gentler and showing how tired she was. “It’s not nice to be alone on Christmas Eve.”
It was Christmas Eve? He thought it to be Thanksgiving, but didn’t really care. It was just another day to him. Then there was the fact that she trusted him so easily, inviting him inside though he was a scruffy looking man with an appearance that would send off alarm singles in anyone else’s mind.
But he only had to think about it for a second. He wasn’t that kind of guy and his stomached had rumbled to egg him on. She was probably going to make dinner, something big and scrumptious from the looks of the bags. She wouldn’t be able to eat all of it.
He scratched his patchy chin, “I guess so,” he said.
She gave him a cheerful smile and butterflies were in his stomach, not because the woman was smiling at him, but because someone was smiling at him, noticing him for something besides trash. He followed her inside and felt glad he did.
Her house had a homey feeling to it. Some walls were light blue while others were soft yellow. Upon entrance he could see into a small library which held hundreds of books and a comfy couch pushed against a back wall with a lamp beside it, and if he looked down the long hallway littered with various pictures of family and friends, he could see a small kitchen that was instantly filled with light when she flicked on a switch and set the bags on the counter.
“Welcome…I guess,” she said with a weak smile. “Would you like to clean up before dinner?”
“A shower would be nice,” he thought, but shrugged his shoulders; she probably meant washing his hands and face.
She took that as a yes, “I’ll grab you some towels,” and ran upstairs.
He was now left alone in a strangers’ house. He glanced around again, eyeing pictures of loved ones and looking into the dining room that held a table and only one chair that looked eerily empty as if no one had sat in it for a while.
His attention then went back to the bookcases. It was obvious that the room was used a lot. The couch had a dent in it and there was a basket beside the lamp, spilling over with glossy library books with bookmarks sticking out.
He dared to go into the room and scan over the shelves, finding several he was familiar with and slightly shocked that she enjoyed them enough to buy them and not be ashamed. He also spotted several books most children enjoyed and others about how to write. His hands trailed over the bindings of other books, and slipped them out of place. It was nice to look and hold a book again, his eyes scanning over the pages as he dove into a new world.
A new world that was interrupted when the woman came back downstairs, no towels in her hands but an amused smile on her face, “Do you like reading?” she asked.
He slipped the book back into place, “It’s a hobby,” he admitted.
Her lips twitched into a more genuine smile, “I laid the towels on the bathroom counter, and it’s the second door on the left. You can use any products you want.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and he stood in a daze. Why was she being so kind to him? For a moment he cared, and thought about it as he climbed the stairs up to the bathroom, but it was forgotten when he undressed and started the shower, letting out a content sigh of relief as the hot water pounded on his sore muscles, and washed away the dirt and grime of months of living on the streets; watching as it slowly leaked down the drain.
She had said use any product, so he ended up grabbing the shaving cream that claimed to smell like strawberries and dug the razor out of his jacket pocket, finally getting a nice clean shave after months, but now he could see the bags under his blood shot eyes, darker than the stains on his shirt.
He sighed again, something he had been doing a lot lately. He dressed in his dirty clothing and opened the door, instantly smelling food drifting from the kitchen and throughout the house, sweet tomato sauce, crunchy garlic bread, and sweet pecan pie, but it was probably the premade stuff.
Though he was, for once, surprised that it was home made. The woman, who he now thought as either mental or extremely kind, scooped out a large pile of spaghetti and meatballs on to his plate. He wasn’t one to compliment, but his mouth watered and his stomach grumbled.
“That looks delicious,” he said, sitting down at the table and reaching for the fork beside his plate. He noticed it was plastic. Most times it wouldn’t matter, but he glanced at the woman who had metal utensils and was trying to act nonchalant. So she wasn’t stupid.
He returned to his meal, even if he hadn’t had food for a week he would still would have thought it was delicious, the sauce was thick and sweet, the bread crunchy and buttery, and to finish, she even popped open a bottle of earthy red wine with a nice tang.
For once he was full, warm, and clean. The woman across from him tried to make small talk, mostly discussing her daily life and trying to get answers out of him, but they were simple questions he didn’t care to answer, rather he focused on eating his food so he could grab seconds. It would probably be his last warm meal for a while.
But it was during the pecan pie that she asked a question that made him pause. Again it was a simple question but it was more striking than her other questions.
“Where do you live?” she asked, scooping out an extra-large helping of pie and ice cream onto his plate.
Of course he didn’t live anywhere, but he didn’t care. As long as he had food and cigarettes it was as good as a house, but it finally struck him that he was homeless. As simple and obvious as it was, for once he cared that he wasn’t in a home. In the past few months he had just been surviving, not making any effort to actually get out of the gutter.
He picked at his food before answering, “I live a few blocks down.”
She smiled at him. “You should visit again sometime.” She cleared the dishes and rinsed them in the sink, drying her hands on the towel before she disappeared into another room. “Do you want to watch some TV?”
He was still starring at the place where the food had been, knowing that tomorrow the familiar feeling of hunger gnawing at his stomach would return and he would probably go hungry. He was sick of it, he enjoyed a warm shower, a nice meal, a room full of books, and with the size of the house there was probably an empty room with a nice soft bed.
He stood, grabbing his coat off the chair and shrugging it on. “I’m leaving,” he called out, already heading toward the door.
Suddenly she appeared behind him, grabbing his arm and holding him back. “Wait! Do you want to take some pie with you?”
He turned to look at her. She was a few inches shorter and looked up at him with pleading eyes, her grip loose on his arm but still pulling him back. He shrugged her off and walked toward the door. “No thanks,” he said, before he left her with a look of shock and worry, scrambling around her house for supplies.
The hot water scolded his hands redder than a drunken man’s face, but provided him with more warmth for the night and a roof over his head for a while longer. He could easily ignore the clattering of dishes and the yelling cooks in the back ground. All he cared about was the twenty he was paid at the end of the night.
He wanted more than a cardboard box. He wanted a hot meal, a warm bed, and an actual life. That sort of thing had never clicked with him before, but now he actually wanted to put some effort into life.
Though he would have to spend many more nights in the alley before he could get back on his feet; twenty wasn’t enough for a night in a dirty motel, but it was enough for a good meal at a fast food restaurant, getting an egg sandwich to eat in the morning so he could scour for people in need of employees willing to work on Christmas.
He returned to his refrigerator box, tired, full, and for the first time in his life, a little bit hopeful as he climbed into the box and fell asleep, awakening to a bitter wind the next morning that bit his cheeks and made his nose run, but surprisingly the rest of him was warm.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes he sat up, a plush blanket had been laid over him while a soft pillow had been stuffed under his head. He didn’t have to wonder who left them when he saw a thermos of soup and a note tapped to the lid. His stomach grumbled and he gulped the soup as he read the letter, crumpling it in his hands when he was done.
It seems she liked his company and wanted the thermos back. The pillow and blanket belonged in her empty guest bedroom and she was having turkey and mashed potatoes for dinner, but would have too much and dust was collecting on her dining table chairs.
He took the hint and stuffed the note in his pocket. When he was homeless he thought he had all the time in the world, now he had only a few hours until he would be home for Christmas.