Running on Empty

A citrine night sky. Ironic, or may be fitting, that a city with a soul so dark would have such a bright night sky. The colour of the sky, a reflection of her cataract ridden eyes, hidden behind the spectacles whose thick lenses haven't been cleaned in days. Callused hands smudge the soot caked over the lens as she takes them off and carefully wipes them on her clothes. Trembling fingers unsteadily perch the cleaned yet now dirtier spectacles on the bridge of her nose. Uncertain eyes focus on the blurry image of dirty fingernails reduced to jagged stubs. They find their way to waiting mouth that hasn't tasted sweet or sour in too long. The gritty texture of the dirt beneath her fingernails hurts her sensitive teeth as she bites into it. Her exploring tongue feels the shard that's broken off into her mouth, pushes it against the back of her teeth trying to delay swallowing it. She finds the gap that was once occupied by a tooth made of solid gold. The tooth that her son had pulled out.
Her heart jumps at the metallic taste of blood that floods her mouth. Her nails tearing her tender gums, adrenaline pumping, making her tongue seem swollen and numb. Suddenly being bathed in the red of the traffic light shocks her back into the present ... time to go to work. The once straight walking stick creaks under her weight as she hauls herself up and limps to the nearest car, hoping that she'll get enough money to sleep with something in her stomach. To sleep ... to dream ... to wake the next morning.
She watches her reflection reaching towards her, hears the soft chime of coins held her in her precious cloth bag. She mouths her plea to her own reflection in the window of the car, unable to see her hopeful benefactor. The window is unmoved, the reflection is unmoved. Onto the next soul. A few people make her richer by a few pennies, a few spurn her for what she has become, oblivious to see what she has been ... a mother spurned ... a wife widowed, her identity lost leaving a fragile shell behind.
The signal turns a shady amber, telling her to start moving back to the sidewalk. Limping slowly towards a destination that seems to be retreating from her, she holds her wrinkled hand up against the rearing monsters facing the starting line hoping that they'll heed her prayer. The light turns, the monsters charge, she hears a screech, all she can make out is a blur ... something large coming towards her.
"Out of the way, you hag!!"
She moves, fast as she can to the safety of the sidewalk. Too old. She's too old for this. Panting, she leans on her walking stick hoping that it won't break under the weight of her feeble frame. She makes peace with the thought that she'll go to bed hungry. A little more money and she might just be able to eat the next day ... the cloth bag jingles in agreement. Just a few minutes ... a little rest. She feels her stick being kicked out from under her.
"Am so sorry! Was in my own world. Didn't see your walking stick. Am so sorry!"
A deep voice from a blur that moved.
"It's alright, son. No harm done ... Could you spare some change? I haven't had anything to eat in days. Please ... "
Maybe he's sorry enough to give her some money.
"Um ... I don't have any change ..."
The genuine sound of regret in his voice.
"Oh, alright. It's just that I haven't had anything to eat ... Thanks, anyway"
The sound of soft footsteps walking away. She settles back down on the sidewalk. Just a few minutes ... just a little rest.
"I'm sorry. But I've had enough bad luck to know that you sometimes need a helping hand. How about I get you something to eat?"
That deep voice again ... Her smile takes in all of him ... the stubble on his face, the large crumpled envelope under his arm, the rumpled coat, the dirty sneakers ... all of it. She tries to get a good look at him ... tries to remember the way he looks ... one of the few kind people she's met, like the woman who had given her the coat she was wearing.
They move towards the closest restaurant ... she limping, he shuffling along. She tells him about her son, her husband who passed away, the street urchins who throw stones at her and call her a hag ... her life.
The shady establishment is identified only by the sign above the olive green door saying 'Restarant'. The greyish paint on the walls peeling, the dingy interiors lit by four bulbs spreading barely enough light to read by.
"So, what would you like?"
She names dishes that she's eaten ... that she's cooked ... that she's heard of but never seen.
"Can I get a sweet too?" in the most innocent voice she can manage.
"Ha Sure, why not."
"And could you please have it packed ... I'd like to eat at home ..."
"Are you sure? It looks like it's going to rain."
"It's ok. I live close by."
He just nods and places the order. They wait and watch the drizzle turn into a downpour. He listens as she rambles about the time she was accused of stealing, about a grandchild she can't remember anymore, about the streets and how they treat her ... about her life.
A child dressed in a dirty vest and even dirtier shorts brings him a white plastic packet and runs off towards the dim outline of a door in the back of the small hall.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay here until the rain stops?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I live close by. Don't worry."
He offers her the parcel. Her trembling hands slowly reach for the parcel as though scared that it might disappear if she touches it. She seems genuinely surprised by the warmth that escapes through the plastic.
"Thank you, son! Thank you so much! May God have mercy on me and give my remaining age to you!"
A sharp intake of breath followed by a sigh.
"Thank you. You don't know how much that means to me."
They pass through the olive green door once more and turn to face different directions. They part ways with a nod and a smile ... one limping, the other shuffling along.
She limps under the awnings of shops, under the cover of trees, clutching the white packet to her chest. She enjoys the contrast in temperatures, the warmth of the packet against the cold of the rain.
A turn into a narrow dark alley puts her in front of a large concrete pipe, its mouth partly covered by a large blue plastic sheet. She moves the rock on the pipe firmly anchoring the sheet in place so that it covers the whole mouth. Home sweet home.
She lights a candle to make out the blurs before her, unpacks the still warm parcel and stares at the food, still unable to believe that she's about to eat, still expecting it to disappear in a puff of smoke at a touch. The lack of a spoon doesn't bother her. She sticks her hands out in the rain but thinks twice about wiping them on her clothes. The contrast in temperatures becomes conspicuous as she puts her wet fingers in the warm rice. She savours each morsel of her supper ... the sweet, the sour, the pungent, the bitter, she tastes it all ... she feasts.
She stares at the empty dishes trying to remember what they looked like when they were full. Hoping that the memory of a feast will sustain her until her next meal. She blows out the candle. To sleep ... to dream. The cold of the night seeps into her bones.
--
The young man lived for a year longer than the doctors said he would.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This one surely touched my heart!:-)

rosh said...

beautiful peice of writing...especially since uv given quite a gap since the last one... and for once i have been checkin ur space regularly in case u had updated it. neverthless i see it was worth the wait... :)..

'Smee! said...

Makes me squirm with guilt.