“Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest; and despair most sits”
“It’s almost four,” Fabio said absently, “kitchen will open soon. Shade said I could bring you back something ’til you feel better. She won’t do it for long so you got to get better.”
“Shade?” I asked.
“She runs the kitchen,” Fabio said incredulously, “don’t you know anything? You’re lucky I found you.” He was shaking his head as he headed off beyond the bridge supports. He acted like the whole world knew about the kitchen.
I lay on the cardboard mattress feeling physically better than when I woke. I closed my eyes and saw my flawed vision of Dolapo. “I miss you baby,” I whispered. The vision didn’t improve. I had already lost perfection and I knew it would only fade more over time. My grief returned and I wished Fabio hadn’t left. I needed his simplicity, as strange as it was.
Fabio returned as the sun began to set. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed because my watch was in the bottom of the river. It was kind of nice not caring what time it was. I have spent my whole life watching a clock. All that happened was time ran out for Dolapo and me. Now time could just suck itself.
“I got you some fried yam and a sachet water,” Fabio said as he handed me the food in some old newspaper sheets. Strangely, it seemed like a feast. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I smelled the cold yam.
“Got to eat out here,” Fabio pointed to the cement. “Don’t want flies feasting.” More homeless wisdom. I crawled out and sat up slowly. I was starting to figure out how to move with the least amount of pain. The lower left side of my back felt like it had been hit with a sledge hammer. If I kept myself tucked a little to the left, I could withstand more movement.
“Thanks, Fabio,” I said sincerely, “I owe you.” Fabio smiled and nodded. I was getting the hang of this favour thingy. Just acknowledge the debt and pay it back in kind in the future. If only the rest of life were that simple. I dug into the yam and it disappeared quickly. Even cold, the seasonings in the stew partied with my tongue in a snappy way. I was kind of wishing there was more. I emptied the sachet water in one swoop. I made a ball of the newspaper sheets and looked around for a waste can or something. Fabio laughed and grabbed it out of my hand, walked down to the river and threw it in. Pollution was obviously not part of his ethos.
It was four days until I could stand and walk properly. Fabio said I had one hell of bruise on my back. I guess I was lucky, or unlucky depending upon your point of view. I was certainly happy I didn’t have to crawl down to the river to relieve myself anymore.
Fabio and I became good friends. I liked him better than anyone else I knew. I liked his philosophy. There was no way I was going back to my old life, not without Dolapo in it. Jumping off a bridge didn’t appeal to me any more either. I was losing weight, something I always wanted to do. I couldn’t care less what time it was and there was absolutely no stress. My home, job, car and old friends would do nothing, but remind me of what I had lost. A week ago, I would have never guessed I could live without all my stuff. Now, I couldn’t care less how full my notifications on my social media accounts- twitter, instagram, facebook, whatsapp were or whether I had checked my email. I was dropping out and going off the grid.
Fabio was a brilliant teacher. He had been on the streets for over twenty years. He dropped out when he lost his factory job. He couldn’t find another even close to what he had been earning, his wife deserted him and couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation any longer, so he hit the streets. For him, it worked. He really didn’t care how the world turned and had no desire for the finer things in life. I wasn’t sure how long I could hack it, but, after four days under a bridge, I was feeling pretty free. I didn’t have any obligations to clutter my time. Grief would visit, but never stay long. There was nothing under the bridge to remind me of Dolapo except my own thoughts.
“I guess you could make it to the kitchen today,” Fabio said, “it’s almost four so we better get started if we want more than scraps.” I looked at him strangely. His time-telling skills were gnawing at me. He wore no watch, but he always had a good sense of the time. Even when it was cloudy.
“How do you always know what time it is?” I asked with a smile. Fabio was always proud of his secret knowledge of the streets. It’s one of the reasons why he liked me. I always made a point of drawing it into the open so he could show off.
“Traffic,” Fabio answered, pointing to the bridge, “I can hear rush hour starting.” He was beaming and I gave him a small bow in praise, which caused a little pain. I had ignored the traffic, but he was right. You could almost count the tires crossing the breaks in the pavement. In his own way, Fabio was a genius.
I followed Fabio into the streets for the first time in four days. I am sure I looked a mess. I hadn’t shaved or even combed my hair in all that time. I received a few disgusted looks from suited professionals, but most people just ignored us. I felt invisible and found it exhilarating. I am sure my smell wasn’t invisible, but Fabio didn’t seem to be offended.
The kitchen was in an underprivileged neighbourhood. It looked like it had been some kind of factory at one time. It was a three story brown bricked building with large windows, mostly boarded. There was a large sign above a double set of doors that said ‘City Kitchen.’ One of the doors was propped open, but a line had already begun to form just before the two steps that led to the doors. There was no indication why we couldn’t just go inside.
“Can’t go in until ‘I Need An Angel,'” Fabio said as we got in line behind an old woman. “Jummai, this here is Frank.” Jummai turned, her face was wrinkled like elephant skin. She smiled, nodded and turned to face the line again. I greeted but I don’t think she heard me. She was humming to herself and it wasn’t offensive, almost like she could carry a tune.
“‘ I Need An Angel?'” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Fabio smiled. I waited with everyone else as the line got longer. I let Fabio have his fun. I learned in four days not to get anxious about anything. Patience was a way of life on the streets. It was the cost of the freedom.
Fabio seemed to know most of the people in line. A week ago, I would have never thought of them as people at all. It’s strange how jumping off a bridge could change your perspective. Not all of the people looked like they hadn’t showered for a week or more, and I was surprised at the number of kids in line. There was one mother trying to reign in three young boys who seemed very comfortable with the whole process.
The civility in the line was the most surprising aspect. No one seemed to mind the wait and there wasn’t any attempt cut in or form a new line. I was expecting more of a herd mentality instead of the practiced order being displayed. It went against everything Fabio stood for.
“It’s so…orderly,” I said. I almost gave it a questioning tone.
“Shade don’t take nonsense,” Fabio replied. Jummai stopped humming and turned around.
“You cause trouble, you don’t eat,” Jummai said accusingly. She raised her finger and pointed at me with a scowl. I smiled at her, trying to prove I was a good person and deserved to eat. She turned back around and continued her humming. Shade must be a beast of a woman to invoke such discipline in everyone. I imagined her huge being swinging a rolling pin with deadly force. I didn’t intend to cause any trouble, so I wasn’t too worried.
I heard an electric pop followed by a hiss of speakers firing up. “Four o’clock, here we go,” Fabio said patting me on the back. The line started moving forward just before the music started. The song ‘I Need An Angel’ wafted through the open door. I realized that was the tune Jummai had been humming the whole time. Everyone moved forward calmly; there was no pushing or arguing. I have seen ruder people entering high-priced theatrical productions. But it seemed Shade packed some bouncers, of course there was nothing of such.
The line moved forward slowly, but steadily. I patiently waited my turn to head into the door. I smelled the aroma as I neared the door and my stomach growled. I was hungrier than I thought. I know I hadn’t eaten well in the last four days, but it really didn’t bother me until that wonderful smell hit my nostrils. Inside the door, the line continued down a short hall and took a turn to the right. The music was more pronounced inside and Jummai was bouncing to the beat. Maybe she was a deadhead from way back.
I turned the corner just as the song ended. The clashing of plates replaced the music. There was a stainless steel cafeteria line ahead, manned by people who looked like they would fit comfortably in the line. The first station was being handled by a large woman wearing a white apron over mismatched jeans and shirt. Her hair, black with streaks of grey, was pulled back and covered in a white scarf. She was filling bowls with food and handing them over with a smile that was missing a few teeth. I assumed she was Shade. She was definitely imposing enough.
“I haven’t seen you before,” a female voice to my right said as I entered the dining room. The room held a good twenty long tables with chairs. My eyes followed the voice to a woman dressed in a flowing red flowery skirt. Her hair was held in place by the same white scarf with the lady with imposing stature was wearing.
“No, I guess I’m new,” I replied, a little lost for words. I wasn’t expecting to be greeted. The woman’s eyes crinkled when she smiled. She was petite, at least a hand shorter than I. Her cream-colored blouse was practical, but sharply ironed. She stood with both hands clasped behind her back. She looked completely out of place, for one thing, she had all her teeth.
“Shade, this is Frank,” Fabio chimed in from behind me, “he’s the one I told you about.” Shade didn’t look anything like I expected. She was maybe in her mid-thirties and not physically imposing at all.
“Welcome, Frank,” Shade said, and used her hand to direct me toward the cafeteria line. A small gap in the line was created when she greeted me and I think she was intent on seeing it closed. Something about her manner made me hustle to fill the gap. “You owe me five days, Fabio,” Shade called as we moved toward the food to be served us.
“Five days?” I asked Fabio for clarification.
“Yeah, I have to work the line,” Fabio said, nodding to the line, “if you eat a lot, you owes days to Shade.” He smiled as he picked up a plate off the stack. “It isn’t bad work, it’s just she makes you clean up, you know, before you touch the food and stuff.” Fabio obviously cherished his grime. He wasn’t quite as free as he claimed.
…to be continued