by Ladee Caid
A blob of gum travels the city.
|The bell rang, and Johnny burst out of the school's front doors whooping and hollering. He ran to the bicycle he’d dropped against the chain link fence that morning. The handlebars were twisted, and the faded orange rubber grip had slipped through the gap in the fabric of the fence. Johnny yanked and grunted until his bike pulled free. The fence twanged, and the grip bounced to the ground on the other side. He shoved his bike aside. With his tongue out to aid concentration, Johnny wiggled his fingers through the fence, but the handlebar grip had rolled too far away. He frowned, kicked the fence, and hopped on his bike. Instead of turning down the street he lived on, he aimed his front wheel toward the heart of the city. He wasn’t supposed to go without an adult, but he figured his mother would be sleeping, so she would never know.
Johnny screeched to a halt in front of the penny candy store. He ogled the posters of goodies in the front window. Swallowing, he wished he had just one piece of chocolate or a root beer barrel, but he had no money. He could dig in his mother’s purse, but she probably didn’t have any either. Johnny thought about Reginald in the cafeteria. He always had extra pizzas, cookies, and tacos. His family was rich; both parents worked. Reginald would give him money, or he would punch him until he did.
He hopped off of his bike to walk it across the busy street. The line of cars was long. Johnny harrumphed, shifted his weight, and looked around. A rotund woman waddled down the sidewalk in house slippers. Her large flowered dress draped over her ample bum swished with each step. A curtain sucked out an open window and flapped against the stone wall. A soft plop caught Johnny’s attention. A bird had pooped on the parked car’s window beside him. Johnny chuckled then scrunched his nose when it started to run. The string of cars was near its end. To be sure-footed, he checked the curb. Dull silver peeked from under a wrapper in the gutter. His eyes grew large, and his heart pounded. He couldn’t believe his luck. Serrated edges and the wing of an eagle lay waiting for him. His bike clattered to the cement. Little Johnny ran back to the store and flung open the door.
A chime tinkled, and Mr. Buckle the store owner stepped through a beaded doorway. The cool dim chilled Johnny’s sweaty skin. He inhaled the store’s musty sweet scent. The wooden floorboards creaked as he walked to the jars that held the penny candy. He eyed the containers trying to decide which two he wanted most. The Tootsie Rolls made his mouth water.
Why does penny candy have to cost ten cents?
Old Mr. Buckle watched Johnny’s every move. He knew how these hooligans were. If you weren’t looking, they would stuff a handful in their pocket but only pay for one. But, because the widow Fausnaugh had visited him that day, he was feeling generous. When Johnny slapped his purchase on the counter, Mr. Buckle threw in a piece of bubble gum for the five cents that was left.
Johnny picked up his bike. He started to head home but was feeling too good to go where he would either be alone or punished for an unknown offense, so he rode in the opposite direction. He traveled down street after street weaving around pedestrians and munching his treats. He stopped only to unwrap the gum. He chewed, blew bubbles, and avoided gaps in sidewalks where tree roots had raised the cement. A cat strolling across Johnny’s path made haste. Seeing a moving target, Johnny aimed his bike wheel toward the feline, but it was quicker. Johnny rode on.
Shadows grew long, and Johnny became anxious. His mother was probably awake and wondering where he was. He didn’t want her to know of his sweets, so as he rode past the courthouse, he spat the wad on the sidewalk and peddled away.
The paralegal walked mere inches behind the lawyer as they made their way out of the courthouse. Yesterday had been a sunny, exciting day: full of hope. Today, it was stormy. The clouds had burst, and the lawyers lost their case because of a technicality. The senior lawyer was annoyed. She was professional enough not to show it, but Robert had worked for her long enough to read her stiff, sharp movements and the slight closure of her normally bright eyes. Robert thought about all of the research he’d done.
I should have been more diligent.
Under the overhang, Robert watched the senior lawyer look to the street and pull her leather binders close. He shifted his notebooks, and with a thwack an umbrella was open. He covered his boss’s head not caring if he had enough room under it for himself. The two figures trotted down the steps and to the curb where her car waited.
Robert opened the door to the back seat and moved out of her way ever mindful of the umbrella’s position. She slipped in looking up at Robert.
“I will see you tomorrow at the office,” she said.
Her eyes traveled to his shoes with a look of disdain.
“And buy yourself a new pair of shoes. I pay you enough.”
She slammed the door, and the car pulled away.
Robert looked down at his scuffed shoes looming from under pristine black trousers. They were faded, cracked, and scratched.
His shoulders drooped as he made his way to the parking garage.
His footsteps crunched wet grit, slapped across the puddled concrete, and then a squish. He stopped and looked at the bottom of his shoe. Stuck to the sole was a big pink blob of goo. He rolled his head and growled. Robert gasped when his umbrella flipped inside out, and a spray of rain hit his face.
“What does it matter? I’m wet anyway.”
Robert drove to the shoe store around the corner in one stocking foot. The engine whined as he crammed the accelerator to grab the spot with an unoccupied meter in front of the door. He slipped on his gummy shoe and heel walked into the store.
It didn’t take long to find a sharp pair of black leather laced shoes. He smiled at his feet, straightened his jacket, thrust his shoulders back, and strolled to the checkout counter. He was a proud paralegal desiring to be looked at and admired. A young girl in heavy makeup behind the counter snapped and popped her gum as she gave Robert change. Robert frowned.
“You make sure you throw your gum in the trash, not on the sidewalk, when you are done with it.”
She blinked as if trying to figure out why he’d said that then smiled.
“You have a nice day,” she said.
He grabbed the bag containing his old, cruddy shoes and left the establishment.
It had quit raining. The sun was peeking through holes in the clouds. Robert disposed of his old shoes in the nearest waste can. With resolve, he climbed in his car.
Benny woke. He scratched his scalp through tangled, dirty hair then dug into his beard and scratched his chin. The rain the day before had brought cooler weather, and the sun was not quit up to warm things. He slipped on the stained suit jacket he used as a pillow. On hands and achy knees Benny crawled out of his soggy cardboard box. He gave his shopping cart a pat on the metal basket.
The cart moved.
“I’m sorry you had to stay in the rain. You’re a good friend to me.”
With the help of his buggy, Benny grunted into a standing position. He moved the dirty, blue tarp aside in the cart’s carriage to examine his belongings. The clothes on the bottom where pounding rain had splashed through the weave of the basket were wet, but the ones on top were dry. An oily, red sleeve poked out of the middle. Benny pulled it from the pile. It was the Hawaiian shirt he’d found on the beach. It was ripped up one side and would probably flap in the breeze, but he decided to wear it anyway. He pulled the too small, gray polo shirt he was wearing over his head. It caught on his ears, and Benny thought it would take his head with it. His bare chest shivered. Quickly, he donned the red flowered shirt. The hem of the shirt on the left hung lower than on the right. He yanked to make them even, but it didn’t work.
“That must be why they didn’t want it,” he mumbled.
He slipped on his jacket, looked down at himself, scratched behind his ear, and smoothed the front of himself with grimy hands. He threw his arms open and modeled for the cart.
“How do I look?”
Benny heard the cart say, “You look quite smart Benny buddy.”
Feeling pleased, Benny and cart rattled down the alley making their way over rubble and through pot holes.
That part of the city had died making it a haven for the homeless and runaways. The police didn’t wander back there often. They had more pressing issues than rousting the vagrants from an area no one wanted. It was Benny’s home. He felt he had been blessed the day he and his cart wondered here on a subzero winter’s night. Surrounding buildings buffered freezing winds. Other occupants huddled under filthy blankets, newspapers, and in old boxes. Benny knew it was a good place to shelter.
Benny’s stomach grumbled as he sat in the alley on the bakery’s cold rock doorstep. He chatted with his cart until he heard the lock on the door behind him turning. Benny groaned to his feet to get out of the way. He and his cart clattered behind the dumpster and peeked
around the corner.
The clerk poked his head out. He looked left and right. All seemed safe, so he swung the door wide. He hoisted a black trash bag onto his shoulder and snatched a smaller one sitting just inside. Next to the dumpster, the boy tilted his shoulder and let the bag fall to the ground. He sat the smaller one on the step. He heaved the trash over the lip of the bin, brushed his hands together, and went back inside.
As soon as Benny heard the tumblers in the lock, he hurried to the sack on the step. Inside were day old donuts, bagels, muffins, and a frosty pint of milk. There was enough to keep his stomach full all that day. Benny stood beside his cart eating a Boston Cream and watching traffic drive past the end of the alley.
Something white stuck out of the trash can like a beacon near the corner where the sidewalk was interrupted by the alley. Benny’s eyes were transfixed. He reached behind him and pulled his cart to inspect. The object of Benny’s obsession was a white plastic bag. He swung his cart alongside the can, scratched the side of his head, and looked inside. He removed a shoebox and lifted its lid. His eyes became as saucers and a tickle erupted in his chest. Inside was a pair of shiny black shoes. He pulled one out and surveyed it. He held the shoe for his cart to see.
“Look. Shoes. And they are practically brand new.”
Benny looked around and stuffed the shoe back in the box. He tucked the box under clothes before someone took his treasure. As briskly as his body would allow, he moved back into the alley.
Benny sat on the rock step. He took his own duct taped shoes off and opened the lid once again. Benny felt giddy. He couldn’t believe his find. He slipped the first shoe on. It was a little big but looked great on his foot. Benny smiled, pulled the other shoe out, and looked it over. He examined the bottom then held it up for his cart to view.
“Look, there is gum on this one.”
Benny and his cart traveled the city feeling wealthy that day. He looked sharp in his crooked Hawaiian shirt, stained suit jacket, and new shoes. He pushed his cart along smiling and cracking his gum.