Mud in the Gutter
22 Saturday Jul 2000
Written by J. Abram Barneck in Short Stories
No tags :(
I wrote this as a homework assignment in college sometime in either 1999 or 2000. I just stumbled across it. I’d thought I’d lost it. Not sure it is any good.
The curb was muddy after the recent rain. Trash, half buried in the wet dirt, stuck out in the gutter. The rusty grate over the drain was almost plugged up with trash. Though everything was wet, there was no longer water flowing into it. The air held a blue tone created by the dark clouds that still blocked out the sun. The streets were littered with people, walking back and forth busily. Some wore bright yellow coats, but in this weather even yellow appeared dull and faded.
The view from the ally didn’t inspire Thomas to get out of his cardboard covered bed. The large dirty coat he wore kept him warm from his waist up but the rest of him had been penetrated by the wet cold. It didn’t matter what day it was. He was pretty sure it was September as all the newspapers he picked up recently had September dates.
Yesterday he had eaten at the shelter, but today they were serving something with chicken in it. He was allergic to chicken, so he would not eat today. He wondered if perhaps he might beg a dollar from someone but when people are cold they are in a hurry. He didn’t expect anyone to stop long enough to drop him some change.
He was suddenly aware of the others that shared the alley with him. They were like roommates in way. There were four of them that slept within view. They were drinking already, letting the alcohol warm them and distort them at the same time.
Thomas drank a lot though he was not an alcoholic. He didn’t like being drunk and he hated the taste of beer and whiskey. He drank because it was expected of him. After all, he was a bum.
He slid out of his cardboard box, muddying his pants and hands as he did so. He stood up and felt the stiff weakness the cold caused in his legs. He couldn’t feel his toes but he could feel the boots failure to keep them warm.
He yawned and shook off a wave of shivers that extended the length of his body before walking out of the ally and sitting down. Even though it the sun was hidden behind dark clouds, it was still brighter on the street than in the alley, but it didn’t seem to be any warmer.
The wall facing the street around the corner of the ally was his wall. He sat there everyday. He didn’t spend the entire day there, but he spent hours at a time. The rush of pedestrians wasn’t as thick as normal. Maybe it was Saturday or Sunday. It had been a while since he checked the date. He felt a strange desire to orient himself with the calendar so he stood up and walked to the newspaper stand at the end of the street. He stepped close enough to the papers to read them. He didn’t want the attendant to shout at him to leave. It took only a second to locate the date at the top of the front page. Monday, September 4, 2000. He almost missed that it was Labor Day but he caught the words before someone crossed in front of him to purchase a paper. Thomas turned and walked back to his corner and sat down. He didn’t feel any better to know it was Labor Day. That was a holiday for the working force, and he was not included in that exclusive group.
After watching the general populace cross in front him for about and hour he caught site of a father and son that had stopped on the street corner. The boy wore a Boy Scout uniform but his dad wore casual business attire that included a warm sweater and kakis. He was holding a gray suit and black sack. They had been there a minute or two and kept looking his way. They were talking and the father didn’t seem happy to be too exited to be with his son. The boy was smiling and looked curious.
They began walking his way. For some reason a fear raised up in Thomas’s breast. He knew they were going to stop but he hoped they were going to keep walking on by. He kept his head down and didn’t look for a minute. When two pair of shoes stopped in his view directed at him. He looked up.
“Hello, sir.” The child offered. He looked about eleven or twelve. Thomas stared and didn’t say anything. He could tell what the boy was doing and he didn’t want anything to do with it but at the same time he couldn’t turn it down either.
“Excuse us.” The father said. “We don’t want to interrupt but my son is a Boy Scout and today is Labor Day. My son has a goal of getting one “homeless person” off the street. He chose you.”
“I might like it here,” Thomas said.
“Please I want to help,” he responded quickly.
“What makes you think I want…” He stopped. He could humor the boy. It wouldn’t hurt anything. And from the looks of it, he might get a suit out of it. It had a white shirt and a tie with it. He wasn’t sure what was in the sack the father held but he could see the shape of shoes. He sighed and asked, “What do you want from me?”
“I knew it.” The boy said as he broke into his smile. “Let me explain. I was in scouts and I asked my scout leader what you people need to be able to get a job and get out of the streets. He said that you couldn’t get a job because you didn’t have a phone or an address or clean clothes. He said you need a place to shower. See I made a list.” The boy was holding a piece of paper. On it was the list of needs. There was a checkbox by each item.
“What the boy is saying is that we have everything on that list and we are giving it to you.” The father cut in. “Here is the key to a P.O. box. It is for the Post Office just over there, two blocks.” He pointed east. “Here is a suit with a white shirt and tie. This bag has shoes, a twelve-pack of socks and a bathroom kit. Take this card. This will get you into Gold’s Gym.” He pointed again but this time he pointed south. “They have showers. You can clean yourself up.” He hesitated before handing him his business card. “This is the address to my work. We have a telemarketing section and it has high turnover. You clean yourself up and show up there and you have a job. If you ever show up, we can work out more permanent arrangements.” His tone of voice suggested he never expected the man to show up.
“I’ll take your stuff.” Thomas said. He had no intention of using it the way they had suggested but he accepted it graciously. The father passed everything down to Thomas and turned to leave but the boy stayed.
“What is your name?” The boy asked.
“Thomas.” He replied.
“Why are you homeless?”
“That’s not something you ask,” the father snapped and grabbed the boys hand. “We have done what we can. Let’s go.”
Thomas watched them walk away. They boy looked back at him and the hope in his eyes was visible. It caught Thomas off guard to see eyes that believed in him. He cursed at the boy under his breath. Where did he get off? Acting like it was that simple to get off the street. Like a bath and clothes was enough. The list was so incomplete. It included socks but not underwear, clothes for shelter but no money for food. It was a good idea, but not good enough.
No one could get off the street this easy.
Three hours later he was still holding the items given to him and still thinking about it. Constantly he thought of going to the pawnshop and seeing what he could get for everything but he couldn’t do it. What would he look like in a suit? He had never in his life worn one. He had worn slacks and a white shirt and tie before, but not a full suit. He could use a bath too. Some of the boy’s ideas were good. He had at least a month worth of soap and shampoo. He had a place to shower. The gym card didn’t expire for three months and it had a locker number with a combination written on it. The boy had thought of more than he had given him credit for.
He smiled as he began to walk towards the gym. He was going to shower and shave and dress in that suit even if it was just to pretend for a day.
It wasn’t long before he walked out of the gym clean, shaven, and dressed in a suit. He had stared in the mirror at how young he looked after taking the shower and shaving. He felt a strange power, a confidence that he had not felt since his youth. He began walking towards the Post Office. The sun was out. The dark clouds had broken and parted.
He wasn’t sure why he was going to the check his new P.O. Box. Perhaps it was curiosity. He was flirting with the idea of trying to follow the boy’s plan but he wasn’t comfortable accepting that yet. He lied to himself, thinking he was going on mere curiosity.
No one looked at him strange when he walked into the Post Office. He couldn’t remember the last time people didn’t recoil when he entered a public place. There were so many boxes. It took him a while to find his. His hand started to shake as he pulled out the key and used it to open the box. Inside was a note, obviously written by the boy. It read:
You have made it. Here is some money to get some food and anything else you may need. Don’t forget to go to my dad’s office so he can give you a job.
Boys Scout of America
Thomas looked farther back in the box and took out a gift card worth one hundred dollars. It felt more like a reward than a gift. Had he not showered, dressed and taken the effort to come to the Post Office, he would not have earned the money. Maybe there was another surprise at the father’s office. He quickly looked through his pockets of his suit for the father’s business card but didn’t find it.
He put the gift card away in a dirty, old wallet where he kept his drivers license and his social security card. He looked through the bag of his old clothes and didn’t find the father’s business card their either. He left the Post Office quickly and made his way back to his wall next to the alley he shared. He looked around, hoping the card was still there. He saw some white next to the wall. The card was their, but a little wet, with blots of grime. He picked up the card and memorized the address before heading towards it. It was a few blocks away but he made good time.
Chase and Lynn Finance Inc. was a four-story office building. The outside was mostly glass but he couldn’t see through it. He stopped at the door. He lifted his hand to push the door, but his arm froze. Then it started to shake. A rage of fear welled up through him and he turned and walked away. Before he calmed down he was standing at his corner again. He had almost sat down till he realized he still had the gray suit on.
He wanted to sit down. He considered taking off the suit but he didn’t want to walk over to the gym. Besides, he liked the suit and wasn’t done with it yet. He walked over to the fancy coffee shop east of his alley. He had tried to go in there once before and had been kicked out. He could still here the bald manager shout: “We don’t serve bums in here. Get out!” Thomas remembered leaving immediately but before he left he had shouted back, “Whatever, baldy!”
The same manager was behind the counter when Thomas walked in. Thomas chose a booth and sat down. He wanted to have a waitress serve him. He hadn’t forgiven baldy yet.
The waitress was there in moments with a glass of water and a menu. She set the water on the table and asked, “You just here for coffee or are you eating as well?”
“I’ll eat,” he replied and accepted the menu from her.
“I’ve never seen you in here before.” The waitress commented. “We usually get the same customers everyday. Are you new around here.”
“I have been here once before a long time ago,” he replied.
She smiled at him. She was average in height and just big enough you wouldn’t call her thin. He allowed himself to think she was flirting with him, though he really knew her smile was a standard customer service smile.
“I’ll give you a minute to order and then I’ll be back. My name is Jenny and I’ll be your waitress when you’re ready.” He watched her walk away before he took time to look at the menu.
He ordered a steak dinner though it was only early afternoon. He stayed well after it her finished eating as if by staying he could somehow savor the meal.
The waitress came back continually asking if he needed something else. Finally she asked him a direct question.
“Are you just waiting here for me to get off?”
Thomas didn’t answer. He didn’t understand the question at first but now realized what his waiting had insinuated.
“I get off in half an hour. I’ll let you take me out if we go to the movies.” Thomas nodded and Jenny smiled and went back to work.
* * *
The next morning as sleep faded Thomas realized something was wrong. No, not exactly wrong just different. He wasn’t cold. He was warm. The blanket was warm.
Thomas snapped awake. Disoriented he tried to remember where he was. The room was slightly lit by the dawning sun through the closed blinds.
“Go ahead and shower, I’m still sleeping.” Jenny mumbled.
Thomas jumped. He had spent the night here with Jenny. The memories of the night before came back to him.
“Hurry or you will be late for work,” Jenny mumbled again.
“For work?” Thomas asked confused.
“Your new job at Chase and Lynn Finance Inc.” She replied. “You seemed excited about it last night.”
Thomas remembered telling her. They had talked all night. Most of what he said was fabricated. He wasn’t sure of everything he had told her and questioned himself.
He used her bathroom to shower and put his suit back on. He was anxious to leave. Nervous. She forced him to have some breakfast before he went. He pretended to decline but he couldn’t pass up free food. It went against his soul that still remembered he lived in an alley.
As soon as he escaped Jenny’s apartment he found his way back to his wall by his alley. He bought a newspaper from the corner and set part of it on the sidewalk near his wall so he could sit without dirtying his suit. He read the comic page to pass time.
Time never went so slow. It went faster when he wasn’t clean. He was trying not to think about the night before but he couldn’t take his mind off it. He had gone on a date and spent the night with Jenny. He hadn’t even seen a girl smile at him for years. He wanted to see Jenny again but he didn’t dare. If she found out he was a bum, it would ruin everything.
“Thomas! That you!” One of his alley roommates stood at the alley’s entrance staring at him in disbelief. “I almost didn’t recognize you in that suit. You’re going to have to explain that one.” His words slurred as he spoke.
Thomas was slightly revolted by his roommate’s stench. He was drunk, and had been since they had met. It hadn’t bothered him yesterday. He didn’t understand why it bothered him today.
“Go back to your box, Julian. I’m thinking and your interrupting me,” he snapped.
“Oh, I see how it is.” Julian sounded even more drunk. “You get a suit and now we ain’t roommates no more. I dig, I dig.” He faded back into the alley out of view.
Thomas literally was in a state of shock. His world had changed in twenty-four hours.
“That damn kid.” He said out loud. Some of the passersby gave him a curious look in response but they quickly moved on.
He got up and went to the gym and changed back into his old clothes. He returned to his wall where he spent the rest of the day before retiring to the cardboard box that he was currently using for his bed and shelter.
He woke up freezing the next morning. Everything smelled so bad and his legs were once again too cold to move. His first thought that morning was to go put the suit on and go see Jenny. He couldn’t help it. She had provided him with his first bit of affection in years and it had rejuvenated him.
He got up and went to the gym, showered and changed into his suit before going directly to the coffee shop. He stood outside the door for fifteen minutes, too afraid to go in. What was he going to do, lie some more? He cursed at himself for believing this was possible. He heard himself swearing at the boy under his breath again. He was still cursing the boy’s name when he arrived at Chase and Lynn Finance Inc.
He walked through the door with a strange emotionless feeling that left him empty. Numb. He didn’t feel nervous or exhilarated but the best part was that this temporary emotional block meant he didn’t feel the conquering fear that stopped him from entering before. He walked straight to the receptionist, showed her the card that had Mr. William Lynn’s credentials on it.
“You’re here to see Mr. Lynn?” She asked.
“He asked me to come in. He said he would give me a job.” Thomas answered.
“One moment,” she said as she picked up the phone.
Thomas heard her speak to Mr. Lynn. What if he forgot? Fear flooded back into Thomas like water out a broken damn. He gulped and broke into a sweat. He eyed the exit but the fear held him frozen. The secretary turned and told him that Mr. Lynn would be right down but that didn’t calm it. It only terrified him more.
“Are you all right?” the secretary asked. He looked at her and didn’t answer. He was breathing heavy. The secretary mentioned something about water and moved behind him. Thomas was still frozen in place. Seconds later she was back placing a cup of water in Thomas’s hands. Thomas took it.
“Sit down,” she suggested. Had she not grabbed hold of his arm and directed him to a chair he would have still stood there breathing heavy but sitting down and drinking the water relaxed him.
He didn’t leave the Chase and Lynn Finance Inc. until four in the afternoon. Mr. Lynn, though grudgingly, helped him fill out the paper work to get a job in their outbound sales department before leaving him to the manager to be trained.
He had spent the day working. He walked confidently to the coffee shop. He would need to lie to Jenny. Once inside walked to the same booth and waited for Jenny. She saw him and came over right away.
“Hi,” she said, with a grin and red cheeks.
Thomas just looked at her. It had never occurred to him that he had to think of something to say.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Jenny looked confused. “I thought we had the standard one night stand. You’re ruining it.”
“I’m sorry.” He got up to leave.
“No,” she said and put her arm on his should so he didn’t get up. “I . . . I didn’t mean for you to leave. I’m flattered.” She already wide grin somehow widened at him. “I work until later tonight. Stop by my apartment around eight o’clock tonight?”
“Ok,” he said.
“Oh. Were you going to eat?” she asked.
“No. I was just here to see you.” His voice quivered with insecurity.
“See you at eight then.”
“Yeah. See you at eight.” He was out the door and halfway down the street before he even realized what happened.
When he arrived at his wall reality set in. He was a bum with no place to live. He looked around for a newspaper to set under him so he could sit down without dirtying his suit but he didn’t find one. He almost just sat down anyway but he was planning on showing up to work tomorrow. He would act out this charade as long as he could pull it off.
The next five days passed rapidly. He saw Jenny twice more during that time, on both Friday and Sunday. She didn’t let him stay the night again. She said if he wanted more than a one-night stand he had to treat her like she was more than that. So he said goodnight to her at her door both times. All five nights he slept in alley.
Friday he stopped at the Salvation Army and picked up a clean pair of Dockers, a pair of Levis, two polo shirts, and boots. All for about twenty-five bucks. He also stopped by Target and bought some underwear. That gave him two casual wardrobes to go along with his suit. He wore a different outfit for Jenny both Friday and Sunday. He had wanted her to notice, but she didn’t.
He arrived at work late. No one said anything at first. Then he was called in to see Mr. Lynn. He walked in ready to be fired, after all he was late on his fifth day at work. He remembered how scared he had been before getting the job and realized that after a week he was more scared to lose the job.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Lynn said as Thomas walked into the office.
“I am sorry I was late. It won’t happen again,” Thomas blurted out.
Mr. Lynn looked at him confused. Then said, “I don’t like you Thomas. But you sure have held up your end of the bargain. I guess that means I have to hold to my word. After all, I did promise my son.” He looked smugly at Thomas. “I know you aren’t going to change. You are mud in the gutter to me. But I told my son I would give one of you a chance so I will keep my word to him.”
Thomas didn’t know what to say. He wanted to tell Mr. Lynn to go to hell but he something kept him back.
“Here is your insurance information and a information on your 401k,” Mr. Lynn handed him to manila folders, “and here is your key.”
“Key?” Thomas asked. He was holding the manila folders awkwardly. He had no idea what to do with them.
“Yes. I’m giving you an apartment. I’ve covered first month, last month, and your deposit. Which you will repay out of your salary. It is in my name so I can take back from you if you decide to return to your dirty alley. You will live in Winfield Apartments. I believe it is number two. It’s on your key. If you want to stay there you will pay your own rent from now on. This company’s done far more for you than you deserve.”
Thomas hesitated. “Thank you,” he commented after an awkward, silent moment.
“Don’t thank me. Thank my son. I could care less. You’re excused.”
Thomas got up and left. He wanted to hate Mr. Lynn but he couldn’t. He was too excited. So much had been given to him in so little time. He wasn’t returning any of it, either.
* * *
Thomas walked with Jenny to the Post Office. They had been married for the past five years and had one son two years old that was in Jenny’s arms. Thomas checked the P.O. box, the same one he had since he was homeless. He had a couple bills, some junk mail, and his paycheck that he received every other week. He opened it to make sure it was correct. It was actually just a stub since he had set up direct deposit.
He then pulled a folded envelop from his pocket.
“I know we could use this money but I have to do this,” he said to Jenny. He’d purchased a money order for three thousand dollars. He put it in an envelop and addressed it. The addressee was Bryan Lynn. The address was that of a local college where Bryan studied. Chase and Lynn Finance Inc. had just gone bankrupt and though he didn’t work there anymore, Thomas heard about it. He also heard from a former coworker that Mr. Lynn had been forced to declare bankruptcy as well and his son was considering dropping out of college. Though he had only met the boy a few times, he figured it was about time someone paid the boy for his efforts in cleaning up the mud in the gutter.
July 24, 2014 at 12:38 pm
i liked this story very much…thanks for sharing