Darn kids! Ellington Elementary is on the other side of the park, and their screeches wake me up every morning. I pull my cap down over my ears, but it only makes that ocean sound inside my head louder. I think I must live inside one of them shells they sell down in Florida, but nobody would want to listen to me. I smell worse than low tide.
I use the back of the bench to sit up. I swing my feet to the ground, and they start to come to. Little ants rush through the insides of my toes, the biting kind. Got to get me some anesthesia before they thaw and start to throb again. I fish around under the bench, but instead of finding the bottle, my fingers land on something rectangular. I look down to find a lunchbox decorated with a purple monster emerging from a pastel jungle.
Inside it there’s a sandwich in one of those nifty, reclosable bags I keep finding in the garbage, a thermos with a matching monster and purple lid, a waxy red apple, and two quarters. Has milk gone up that much? I drop the coins in the inside pocket of my coat with the change I made last night in the subway. I inspect the sandwich—a peanut butter and jelly on white minus the crust that’s been cut into four squares. I unziplock it and sniff. Just the smell gives my teeth a jolt that brings tears to my eyes. I set the lunchbox down and feel around for the bottle.
My hand starts disobeying as soon as I get the cap off, and I use my free one to keep the bottle steady enough to get it to my lips. The first sip is cough syrup. The second makes it all the way down to my chest.
“What’s with you today, Benny?” a woman’s voice yells. Down the path a ways, I see her, yanking along a doughy looking little boy in a down jacket and mittens. “What did you do? Leave it on the kitchen counter again? First you pour my coffee down the sink, now this. Well, you’ll just have to make do. I’m late for work already, thanks to you.”
The boy looks like he’s tripping over the tails of the woman’s navy wool coat. His head is cranked around, facing me, and his mouth is hanging open. His cheeks look slapped silly by the wind. He gives his nose a rub with his mitten, then waves it in the air and smiles at me. What’s he think I am, a zoo monkey here to give him a show?
“What’s with you today?” the woman says. She gives the boy’s hand a tug. “Don’t stare.”
“Jus’ wanted to say hi. You said I should always say hello to people.”
“Not strangers.” I watch her leather gloved hands squeeze the strap of her purse, and her eyes move from my hat to my toes. On her way back up to my face, something distracts her and she squints. Then she kneels down in front of the boy and starts whispering something I can only hear the rhythm of.
I unscrew the bottle and take another sip, leaning my head back far enough so that I can get the last few drops to fall. Al’s won’t open ’til noon, and the change in that pocket won’t get me more than a can of beer.
I remember the thermos again and wonder. It just might be my lucky day. When I unscrew the thermos, little wisps of steam flutter from the top, bringing with them a distinct odor of coffee. But there ain’t no Irish to this coffee, and as much as I love that smell, it’s the last thing I feel like drinking. Sometimes I accept the Styrofoam cups those guys with the red jackets hand out at the station just to keep my hands warm for a while. The outside of the thermos is icy though.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” the boy’s saying and blubbering. The lady in the navy coat is still staring at me, but not really me, I realize, but what’s sitting beside me.
I reassemble the sandwich and thermos and shut the box. Then I stand, test my feet, and start heading toward them. The woman jolts upright and grabs hold of the sleeve of the boy’s coat. “We’re late.”
“Lady. Wait,” I say.
I can see the woman is hesitating between making a run for it and acknowledging my approach.
“This yours?” I say, holding the lunchbox out in front of me and nodding to the boy.
The boy gives his cheeks a wipe with the sleeve of his coat. He nods.
“Can’t have you going hungry.” He’s got my little brother’s curly kind of hair, the kind I like to muss up, but I doubt such a gesture would go over well with his mom, so I stuff my hands inside the pockets of my coat.
“But what about you?” the boy asks me.
“I’m allergic to peanut butter.”
The lady checks her watch, sighs, then fishes around in her purse. Her gloved fist comes out later and lands in my hand where it opens up to unveil a folded over twenty. “Buy yourself something you’re not allergic to.”
So it is my lucky day.