Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

On The Nickel

A cruel sun broke hard over the city skyline, giving no quarter to the hope of a gentle birth to this new day. Ripples of heat shimmered along the pavement, releasing the acrid stink of urine that carpeted the ground with a low-lying fog and in the tents, lean-tos, cardboard boxes and draped tarps, life rumbled and coughed, stretched and farted, sneezed and cursed, as Fifth Street awakened, or at least regained consciousness from having survived another long, desperate night. Soon, the air was filled with shouts and accusations, cries and curses, the language of poverty’s jungle.

Crows sat upon the power lines overhead, cawing their accusations, their judgments, to whatever ears might be listening, fixing their eyes on the sleek, glistening rats that meandered through the gutter, picking through the accumulated garbage for a few scraps of food. The crows watched the rats intently; if a choice piece of anything looked promising, they would drop down and take what was theirs. If the rats didn’t scatter, they might find themselves plucked from the earth and taken for food, for the crows knew to take a rat high, so high, and then simply let go. After gravity had taken its turn, the burst-open carcass made for a fine breakfast.

On the Row, or The Nickel, as it was called, there was no easy transition from night to day, no gentle awakening; rather, the scramble for sustenance began anew, for there were aching bellies to be fed, and dangerous habits demanded attention, life-or-death cravings that demanded fulfillment, needs that must be sustained, old grudges and hurts that defied time and reason, that started anew, their pain and resentment digging ever deeper into the shattered mind of the bearer.

In amongst the maze of makeshift habitats, inside an old military surplus tent that seemed impossibly old, Crying Mary blinked away the crusted dirt at the corners of her eyes, although she hadn’t slept. She lay under a filthy blanket, sweating already as the morning sun turned the canvas shelter into a convection oven, her head resting on the chest of the man lying next to her, rising and falling with his fitful breathing, listening to the staccato rhythm of his heart, her hand tracing an intricate and familiar pattern on the bare skin of his abdomen, fingernails wet with blood as she quietly, calmly, dug into him, so gently as to not disturb his restless slumber. Her nails, so sharp, passing through each layer of skin, then into the spongy yellow fat, pausing for a moment before making her way into the tougher muscle.

As with most drifters this man, whatever his name, had a fair amount of muscle hidden below the fat, the result of so many fights and flights, decades of hard living, and countless beatings. This was a man who had slept on concrete for much of his life, whether on the street or in a cell, and living like this toughens a person, makes the meat rich and dark. The man stirred, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or, more likely, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but had yet to announce itself. Mary froze in place, eyes open and watching his face, looking to see if he would awaken and, in doing so, ruining this most intimate of moments. For what he had done with her that night, for what he had done to her, he had earned this many times over. Soon enough, he settled back into slumber and she continued.

Her fingernails like scalpels, Mary slipped through the striated layers of muscle, delicately working her hand into his abdominal cavity, feeling his warmth, his electricity, her forearm gradually disappearing into him as she gently, so very gently, made her way upward to the center of his being, the engine of his damnable machine. Delicately, with all the care of a mother cradling her newborn, her fingers encircled his heart.

It was then that Crying Mary smiled, an unsettling sight under the best of circumstances. Her long, dark hair was matted and wild, as though it had never known comb or brush. Falling from the corners of both eyes were tattooed teardrops, too many to count, cascading down her cheeks like rain, jailhouse tattoos from an eternity of transgressions, thousands of nights spent without sight of the moon, the screams and cries of other inmates poorly taking the place of the crickets and bullfrogs of her youth, so many lifetimes ago. Opinions on Mary’s tears varied: some said each tear represented a prison stay, while others claimed the tears indicated lives taken, while still others claimed that the tears were symbolic of much darker deeds, things that go unmentioned even among this salty and seasoned group of travelers. That each tear was a different color only added to the depth of the impromptu mythology that had sprouted up around her.

One thing upon which all agreed was that one would never dare look directly at Crying Mary’s tears; to do so, it was rumored, would wreak a fate worse than those who dared gaze upon Medusa, that turning to stone would be preferable to being caught staring, and to stare would be the most common and understandable reaction to seeing Mary, especially for the first time. To add to matters, Mary stood well over six feet and her man, the whereabouts of whom was also cause for great speculation, was rumored to stand even taller. Some, who claimed to have met him, said in hushed whispers that Dead Henry, as he was called, was older than time, and others murmured that he himself was a demon, ejected from Hell for being too wicked.

Mary’s face also carried scars, as did her left arm, from a night long ago when two frat boys on a dare, drove into the Row, and looked for a homeless person to set fire to. For their sins, they had made the mistake of picking Mary, whose peace had been interrupted with the sharp stink of gasoline, a moment before the match dropped. She had burned, but her pain was nothing compared to the hell she unleashed upon the drunken boys. She had lost her mind during her assault on them, and had landed in the county mental ward for almost a year, all but braindead under the barrage of drugs being pumped into her system. Eventually she was pronounced ‘better,’ and released back onto the streets, all of which led, as they always will, to the Nickel. Still homeless, burned and broken, still alone, in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

In moments like this, Crying Mary’s heart longed for Henry, a yearning that stretched across a broken landscape of miles and an ocean of tears, and when she took a person, as she was about to, it was bittersweet in that she would not be able to share it with him. She was stronger than any ten men, and never forgot this simple truth; however, she felt incomplete without Henry, he was the one who made it all make sense. One day, she told herself.

One day.

Her fingers wrapped around the sleeping man’s heart, and she tugged lightly, causing him to stir. As his eyes opened and looked toward her, Mary stroked his forehead with her free hand, whispering quietly to him.

“Let this be a day of wonder, as I make this sacrifice to myself and my kin and as this man finds his way to the other side, let him know the true meaning of pain and fear, that I have held his heart and known the darkness it hides, that I have seen the things he has done, and that what comes next he has earned many times over.”

The man’s eyes opened wide at her words, the cold reality slicing through his mind, through the hazy years of drugs and booze, with a sobriety that shocked and horrified him. “Hey, wait – you wanted that stuff, you said so, afterward at least. I just did what you told me.”

“Hush now,” Crying Mary said, a beatific smile gracing her face. “This is what happens; it’s already done.”

She delicately slipped her middle finger between the aorta and pulmonary artery, gripped firmly and, with a single, savage motion, tore the man’s heart from his chest. When she held it before his eyes, it was still beating. “Your poorly-lived life can still have value,” she said quietly as comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes, even as the light of life faded from them.

Mary stuffed the dead man’s heart into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing whole chunks as if it were the first food she’d had in years, as blood spilled from her lips and down her chin, savoring the coppery taste upon her tongue. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Later, after Mary had packed him away in a dumpster and rolled up her tent, she stood on the stained and filthy sidewalk of Skid Row, breathing deeply and tasting myriad scents that the street offered up, dark and delightful, reeking and filled with sin. She stuffed her tent deep into the shopping cart she used to carry her belongings and, for a moment, looked up at the crows perched on the power lines above, and winked while pressing a bloody finger to her lips.

Singing quietly off-key to herself, Crying Mary shuffled down the street, pushing the cart in front of her, into the bright light of a new day.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but I always will be true, and when your mama’s dead and gone, I’ll sing this lullaby just for you…”

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