As soon as I see her step out of her car, I know exactly what she’s going to do, and I’m already mad. So mad I think about going up and saying something to her, but know it’ll just end poorly for me if I do. Sure enough, as soon as she steps out of her car, the first words I hear her say are “It’s so hot out.”
Listen, I want to say. If you’re not poor, you are not allowed to complain about the heat. Plain and simple. I’m tired of it. Tired of seeing you step out of your fancy cars in your shorts and your little sun dresses. Tired of watching you put on your ridiculously oversized hats that blot out the sun, fanning your faces as you prepare for the two block walk to the yuppie ice cream parlour that I know is the only reason you’d venture into this part of town. But most of all I’m tired of hearing you call out “Oh my god, it’s so hot,” as though you’ve struck upon some novel insight. Sister, you don’t know heat.
See, I don’t have anywhere else to go. For me, the outdoors isn’t some waiting room, some mild inconvenience between air-conditioned places. I live out here. I’m stuck with whatever whims Mother Nature gives me. If she’s cold, I’m cold. If she’s hot, I’m hot. And for god knows how many days now, it’s been damned hot. I don’t even have the luxury of putting on a pair of sunglasses like you, so that you can live in your private bubble of shade. People like to talk about “rose-coloured glasses” as if they’re describing some rare artifact, to which ordinary sunglasses don’t apply. Bullshit. It’s all the same to me. The world ain’t fair, and I’ve got to see it the way it is. No sunglasses for me.
The woman and her friend walk off - in the direction of Scoops, didn’t I tell ya? - and there’s something about the way they look at me as they pass, like I’m just some discarded piece of garbage lying here in the street, and I can’t stand it anymore. I’ve got to move. Cooking out here in heat like this will drive anyone mad. I scoop up my sign and soup can, the can scorching from the midday sun, and stuff the few coins into my pocket. There were few people out in the heat today, so I didn’t get much. I walk across the street, dumping the can in a nearby trash bin, and enter the convenience store on the corner. Bells above the door jingle as I enter, and my skin immediately prickles at the rush of cool air. The owner knows about my situation, so I’m glad he’s not at the register when I walk in. He’ll kick me out as soon as he sees me.
I know I should keep my head down, hide out in the candy aisle to maximize the time until he sees me, but from the back of the store I hear a gentle hum. The siren call of the refrigerators, drawing me in. It’s only a matter of time before I get kicked out anyway, might as well make the most of it. I open the door to the fridge and stand close to the soda bottles inside. If the air-conditioning was enjoyable, the refrigeration is ecstasy. Cool air envelopes my body, and I lose myself in the fridge’s meditative Om, certain that this will be the best part of my day.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Like a refrigerated Icarus, I know I’ve pressed my luck too far. I guess heaven ain’t forever. The owner stands in the doorway to the backroom, holding a large cardboard box.
“If you’re not grabbing anything shut the door, you’re letting all the cold air out,” he says, reminding me that I am worth less than a can of coke. When I close the door and he recognizes my face, he becomes even more stern. “And if you’re not buying anything get out. You can’t just hang out here. No loitering.”
He calls it loitering, I call it living. But I know arguing the point will end things worse for me than him, so I take one last breath of air-conditioned air and carry it with me outside. Immediately, the hot air rushes at my skin, trying to steal what little cold and comfort I have. In school they told us that cold is just the absence of energy, and so getting warmer really means you’ve gained energy, and yet I still feel like I’ve lost something. Suppose I’m just used to it. Losing things, that is.
I dab at the sweat that’s already building on my forehead and look down the street to see Dave hobbling towards me like a lame camel in the desert. Great. Probably got some new scheme he wants me to join in on. Dave’s always scheming. Like that time he said he was going to get us rich on a loophole he found in lotto tickets, whatever that meant. Or when he wanted us to pretend to be tour guides, for whatever unsuspecting tourists he imagined visited this trash neighbourhood. I don’t want to listen to him, but he’s seen me now and it’s too hot to avoid him.
“Dave,” I say as he sidles up next to me, scratching at his neck. Most of Dave’s body is covered in thick, purpled scars. He says he got them back when he was in the military, but I never know what to believe with him. Regardless, the scars speak for themselves.
“Heat’s killing me with these damn burns,” he says. “Can’t sweat anymore, so I just get so itchy.”
And just like that, he’s taken from me my ability to complain about the heat. I guess there always is a bigger fish.
“Hey, I think I’ve figured out a way to get us out of this heat.” He says. “For the night at least.”
There it is. I knew he was looking extra scheme-y today. I feel at the pocket of my jeans, and the last cigarette I have stashed there, deciding whether I prefer to burn up from the outside-in or inside-out. I don’t say anything, but I know that won’t stop Dave from spilling the plan he’s literally itching to tell me.
He steps down off the curve so he’s standing directly across from me, and holds his hands up like a magician preparing me for the grand reveal.
Yep, definitely going to need that cigarette. I pop it out of my pocket and into my mouth, feeling a small satisfaction as I spark up my lighter. What’s a little more heat in a world that’s already burning? I take a long drag as Dave stands, stuck in his jazz-hands reveal pose.
“What the hell are you talking about, Dave?”
“Wendy’s! The restaurant! You know, burgers and fries? I’ve been watching the one on Fifth St. the last couple nights. They’ve got this new guy closing, and I guess he must be forgetful or something. The past three nights he’s left, he forgot to lock the door. I’d see him drive off, then come back a few minutes later to check if he’s locked it.”
“Right. Well, listen man, as great as it sounds to sleep in a fast food joint, it’s not gonna work. I’m sure they’ve got cameras, and I’m not looking for another arrest. Plus who knows, they probably don’t even keep the AC on at night.”
I hadn’t even finished speaking and Dave had already started shaking his head vigorously.
“No no no no no, you don’t get it. We sneak in, and go to the back, where they keep the food. They’re not gonna have cameras back there.”
“What, like the freezer? Dave, I’m sick of the heat too, but I’m not looking to get hypothermia either…”
“No, you don’t understand!” Dave says, throwing his hands up and stomping around in an exasperated circle. “Wendy’s! ‘Fresh, never frozen.’ They’ve gotta have one of those big walk-in refrigerators for all those burgers. That’s where we go. The fridge.”
“Goddamnit, David,” I say, taking one final pull on the cigarette before crushing it underfoot. “You’ve really thought of everything this time.”
We find a shaded bench across the parking lot from the Wendy’s and watch as the day stretches from the afternoon into evening. At first I’d come here just to placate ol’ Dave, but as I sit here, watching the sun set behind the restaurant, I find myself really wanting this plan to work. During the day, the heat was bad enough, because at least you could look up at the sun and find someone to blame. Curse the bastard for what he’d done to you. But at night, when the sun set, it didn’t feel like it got any cooler, and you didn’t have anyone to blame anymore. Something about that bothered me. That sourceless heat.
“I’m going to get a frosty.” Dave said.
“I thought we said we weren’t going to steal anything? Just go in, spend the night, leave before the morning crew.”
“Yeah but… I’m sure they won’t miss just one frosty’s worth. I’ll get a small one.”
“Fine,” I said, keeping my eyes trained on the restaurant’s windows. “You can get a small one.”
As the evening transitioned into night, fewer and fewer people visited the restaurant. Employees finished their shifts and left, until just one remained. Our forgetful friend. I watched through the windows as he started closing down the store. Twice, while he was sweeping the seating area, he looked in the direction of our bench.
“We gotta move, Dave.”
“Why?” He says, scratching a dry spot on his elbow, sending flakes flying off into the wind. “He’s almost done.”
“He’s onto us. C’mon, follow me.”
We get up from the bench, and stroll as casually as we can around the back of the store. Well, I stroll. Dave stumbles along behind me, gawking through the windows, scratching the whole time. It’s a wonder no one calls the cops. I almost wish I was alone for this. It really is a one-man job, but it was Dave’s scheme so I have to keep him along.
At the back of the restaurant is a small, square fenced corral, just four walls and no roof. I peek over the fence and see two dumpsters inside. Perfect. I go around the front of the square and try the gate, but it only rattles the door. Locked. I return to the back of the square and gesture towards it.
“We gotta hide in there, boost me up.”
Dave lowers down and I plant a foot in his interlaced hands, and with a grunt he pushes my up and onto the fence. The smell up here is terrible. I extend my hands down to Dave and start hoisting him up the wall. His apparent “military training” is failing him and he’s struggling halfway over the fence when I hear the back door of the restaurant begin to open. I grab Dave under the armpits and pull, sending us both tumbling back onto the ground, behind the dumpsters. I feel a rank wetness seeping into the back of my shirt.
“Why would they lock up their garbage?” Dave says.
“Because of people like us.” I hiss. “Now shut up.”
Mr. Forgetful walks over towards the corral where we’re hiding, whistling to himself. He doesn’t seem to have noticed us. I hold my breath, for the smell and the anticipation, as he opens the gate, expecting him to yell at us to get out from behind there. He doesn’t. Instead, he tosses the garbage into the nearest dumpster and walks back into the restaurant, leaving the gate slightly ajar. Forgetful indeed.
We wait, the heat trapping the smell of garbage down in here with us. A few minutes later I hear the back door open again, followed by footsteps and a car door slamming shut, before he drives away.
We burst out of the corral, charging towards the restaurant. Dave reaches the door first and pulls the handle. It opens. For once, one of his schemes appears to have worked.
I step inside and see we’re already in the kitchen. I scan around the room. No cameras. To my right is the grill and the fryers, and although I’ve just spent half an hour sitting in the discarded outcomes of these machines, my stomach grumbles. No stealing, I remind myself. That’d just raise suspicion, if I didn’t clean up properly. Get in, cool off, get out. Hell, play our cards right and maybe we can come back tomorrow night.
To the left, I see a thick white door, with a large silver handle. My sweaty hand is slick on the handle, and I have to pull hard against the suction of the door. It releases and I swing the door wide, feeling the breeze as cold air rushes out to meet my warmth.
“Quick, inside.” I say to Dave. “Before he comes back to lock up.”
I step inside the fridge, and lift my arms, letting the coolness cover as much of me as it can. Breathing deeply, I feel the air begin to cool me from the inside. Dave steps in behind me and closes the door. The room is fairly small, maybe 10 feet on both sides, but I shift some boxes around and make myself a spot to sit down. I can feel my body giving away all its heat and energy to the cold air, and with it go my frustrations. My stresses. Breathe in, out. Still cool. On the ceiling, a small light in a little metal cage provides just enough light to see. From the upper corner of the room, the giant refrigeration unit hums steadily.
“You really did it this time, Dave,” I say
“We did it.” Dave says, surveying the room. “I can’t believe it.”
He looks up at the refrigeration unit.
“That noise might get annoying though.”
“Really?” I say, as I close my eyes and lean my head back, feeling the cold wall against my skull and imagine the cold seeping into my brain. “I find it rather peaceful.”
“Om,” replies the refrigerator.