$11.22 | Our Town | Chicago Reader


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He gets out of the car and I start to worry about being double-parked--the one-way street he lives on is narrow--and how I am going to get through the day. Before me is a rope that I must pull myself along, hand over hand, through time, which is more resistant than water. I can't move. There is no going up there, after him. I know how these things turn out. I'll wait. Then anything is possible.

So I wait. But waiting I become empty and can only sit still with it for so long. Like hunger it rouses me. I drive three blocks to the Jewel, thinking go to fucking hell, I've had enough. But my anger is weak. I try it out loud in Yiddish, gay in draird arrein: literally, go into the ground. But by the time I reach the parking lot I've lapsed into worry about money. How much can I afford to write a check for?

I don't see the man until he's right on top of me. Before I'm fully out of the car he's waving at me with both hands, stooping to get level with my eyes. "It's all right, it's all right," he says. My heart sinks. "I'm not..." he says. I start to apologize. I've recoiled. I wipe my mouth with the back of my glove. Don't say it.

He's better dressed than I am, creased, pressed, clean. I'm ashamed of my old yellow coat. It's torn. I no longer bother to clean or mend it. I tell myself it would fall apart.

"How you doin'?" he says. He shows me a picture ID. He says he works for Edgewater hospital. Payday isn't until Friday. He needs formula for his eight-month-old daughter. He jerks his head in the direction of the drugstore across the street.

I ask how much the formula is.

He says it's 11 dollars and 22 cents. He says I don't have to believe him. He'll take me to meet his wife. She's waiting for him. They live right there. He points to the brick apartment building at the edge of the lot, behind the chain-link fence. It could be nice inside. In this dirty, treeless light it's hard to know. His wife is as real as I am, waiting. It doesn't matter if there's a baby there.

Maybe she's watching and laughing, thinking "sucker," as real as the woman playing three-card monte with the huckster on the el. "You got eyes like a hawk," he told her. Then he sighed, "This woman gonna make some money off me." I didn't look up from my book. He got off at the next stop. She was a few steps behind him. On the platform she ran to catch up with him.

"I don't have it," I say.

For the first time he stops looking at me. His eyes sweep the parking lot behind me. "A couple dollars," he says. "I can't go 'round asking a lot of people about this. You understand."

The other day I avoided certain corners in the Loop the way I might have stepped around standing water. I was remembering what a friend had said, that her husband never gave money to street people, that it used to horrify her, but now she saw the sense in it. So I would bypass the legless vet on State Street and the man without toes a half block to the north. I first noticed him in January sitting on the sidewalk with his socks in his hands.

I had forgotten, however, about the woman on the window ledge on Carson's Wabash side. On the ledge next to her was a plastic cat carrier, sky blue. I couldn't understand what she was saying--"help" or "please" in a screech that peaked and subsided and repelled. With one hand she was working the ears of the little black-and-white cat on her lap, half-covered by a blanket. I gave her a dollar and stroked the cat's head and the woman's voice dropped. She thanked me and said, will you give something to my girlfriend? She pointed to the corner. The only person I saw was a wraith of a woman at least 60, pacing from the cornerstone to the curb with a tin cup, a light, reedy Stanley to this woman's dark, round Ollie. Her hair was like a dandelion gone to seed. I told Ollie, yes, I will, yet in the middle of the block I crossed the street to avoid her.

I come out of the Jewel and scan the parking lot. I spot him and wave him over. "C'mere," I say. I hand him a ten and a single. "You're beautiful," he says. He's going to kiss me. I stiff-arm him. Before he can recover there's confusion and hurt in his eyes--their immaculate, varnished surface has admitted some light, or a flaw. Maybe that's all I wanted, to be seen. I accept his hug.

"Now if only," he says. "All I need is ten more dollars."


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