That’s the thing about this city: it’s built on lies. I didn’t realize that for a long time, but I know it now. Actually, no, that’s not right. I knew a degree of its falsehood at a young age; the success promised to me by my parents and teachers was never meant to be. I saw the real me back then, and I see him now in the broken mirror. This person was never destined for success. This person was born to send a message to the city that wronged him.

           The only problem is that my message will never be heard by anyone capable of acting on it.

           Anyway, it wasn’t until recently that I recognized the true depth of the lies that befoul this city. “Forget that test, we don’t need good grades if we’re all together.” That’s what Jimmy Corkshire said to me one day, about twenty-nine years ago. That was our plan: we would all stick together and make sure no one ended up on the streets. That was our plan, until one day Jimmy was arrested for murdering his own wife at twenty-four years old. After that, Kevin Smith announced he was fed up with this lifestyle and returned to school to become an electrician. Trevor and Arman stuck with me for a few years; I worked a job at a grocery store downtown, Arman worked at a golf course, and Trevor sold whatever drugs he could. Then, on June thirteenth, 2017, I was fired after some of Trevor’s drugs were found in my locker at work. As the summer floated by, I applied at whatever stores were hiring, but most already had enough staff and the others inevitably discovered my reason for being fired. I was still applying when winter arrived and reaped the grassy slopes of the golf course, putting Arman out of work for the season.

           Of course, our lack of employment began to weigh on Trevor’s shoulders, and one night that winter he pulled his gun on Arman and I.

           “I can’t keep up with rent alone,” he said. “You lazy bastards need to get new jobs or I’m kicking you out.”

           So, a month later when Arman and I were still unemployed, Trevor tossed us out into the cold. I brought with me the clothes on my back and Jimmy’s hockey stick, signed by Wayne Gretzky. I’ve carried it with me since his arrest, and I intend on keeping it until he’s released.

           The night Trevor kicked us out, Arman and I stayed at a hotel, but it wasn’t long before our bank accounts ran dry. A few days after we resorted to the homeless shelter, Arman left when I was sleeping and never returned. I’ve been living at the shelter ever since. I’ve had time to think, and now I see how many lies this godforsaken city really told me. It told me I would never be alone, but here I am. I’m still waiting for Jimmy to be released, I’m surviving, but I’m lonely. My eyes are sad in the shelter’s bathroom mirror, and my mouth is twisted in disgust at my own stench. I haven’t showered in months―how could I when the lake is frozen over?

           “We’re closing for the day!” a voice says. “Everyone out until eight PM, please!”

           I hastily dry my hands with the rough paper towels and exit the bathroom, Jimmy’s hockey stick in hand. I follow the succession of my fellow tramps out the front doors and into the frigid air. My eyes are swollen from yet another sleepless night and I wish desperately that the shelter workers would allow us to stay a little longer.

           The morning is the worst part of the day. The volunteer workers kick us out at eight and most of us wander downtown. On the way, we have to pass the elementary school where children stare after us with unforgiving contempt, whispering to their friends about how they’d just kill themselves if they were in my position.

           “Don’t listen to them, don’t listen to them, don’t listen to them,” I say to myself as I pass the school. “Don’t listen.” I notice a young girl pointing at us. “Oh, my god, shut up. Shut up, kid. You don’t know what this is like. Shut up, shut up.” I never say these things too loudly, only to myself. A psychologist might declare it anxiety.

           “What’re you staring at?” a man braver than myself says. His name is Leo, and he strides toward the girl. She retreats with a timid whine.

           Two blonde boys who look about fourteen are walking my way. As I come closer, I hear one say, “…a hockey stick down the road,” and they both laugh. I growl quietly as I pass them.

           None of the people from the shelter ever speak to each other during the day. Instead, we embark on our own individual journeys until dusk unites us once again. You’d think some of us would have formed relationships by now, but that’s not how things work here. In fact, things work quite the opposite. No one in the shelter likes each other. I suppose you could come up with plenty of explanations for that, but the fact of the matter is this: all of us hold a secret hatred for one another in our hearts because we remind each other of ourselves and of our failure. When we pass each other by and wrinkle our noses at the stench, we must remind ourselves that we don’t smell any better. We cannot judge anyone in the shelter because we are in the same position, and that makes us angry, deeming us a faction of antisocial loners who trudge throughout the streets with empty stomachs all day long, driven apart by our own shame.

           Over the years, many people have asked me why I don’t just find another job, but the implied simplicity of that is yet another lie spread by this wretched city. You see, the hidden truth of employment is that you need to have money in order to gain a supply of money. Without currency, I can’t buy nice clothes to give potential employers a good impression, and without an address I can’t receive cheques from them anyway. I’m stuck in a living hell and, no matter what people say, there is no way out.

           I walk briskly down the snow-covered sidewalks, trying my best to ignore the shameful looks of those driving by. “Shut up,” I mutter. “Stop looking at me. Shut up, shut up, shut up. Oh, my god, just crash your car already.”

           I wander around the streets for a while. There’s no destination in my mind other than the shelter, but I can’t go there for twelve hours. I stop at a traffic light and tuck my face behind my decaying jacket as the vehicles roar past. When I’m able to cross, I decide to turn left and head for Food Basics. The wind bites at my face, blistering the skin as it does everyday in the winter. By the time I get to the store, I’m worrying about frostbite.

           I don’t have any money, as you know, but I still take a stroll around the store―mostly to warm up. I count four store clerks on my walk around. I wait until two of them withdraw before making a trip down aisle four. I crouch by the chocolate bars and pretend they’ve been pushed back. I reach deep into the shelf and smoothly slip one into my sleeve. With a false sigh, I stand and exit the store. I don’t like stealing from them, but what choice do I have? The bowl of oatmeal I ate at the shelter won’t keep my stomach full for the whole day.

           “Excuse me, sir?”

           I turn around. There’s a police officer coming out the door with a bag of groceries. “Yes, officer?”

           “Are you going to pay for that?”

           “Hmm? Pay for what?”

           “The chocolate bar you have in your sleeve?”

           I whirl and sprint away. The officer shouts at me and gives chase. My legs don’t work the same as they did back before Jimmy was arrested, but I’m still fairly quick. I force myself to move faster and dash behind the building. I run through the back parking lot, past the transport trucks delivering their morning loads, and down a pathway that leads to a public playground. I risk a glance over my shoulder; the officer is still pursuing me.

           He gives up when I reach the end of the playground’s property, but I don’t stop running until he’s lost in the distance. I slow to a trot and make my way downtown with my hands in my pockets. I peek nervously over my shoulder every few seconds, expecting to see the blue-uniformed man come running over the hill.

           I notice a dirty man wrapped in a blanket outside a Chinese restaurant. He holds a sign that reads need money and food please. I scoff. That’s one thing that makes me different from most homeless people here: I don’t beg or play music for money―the people who do that are a burden to society, something to feel bad about on your way to wherever you’re going.

           “There she is,” I gasp. I wave at a passing SUV, piloted by a lady with beautiful golden hair that shines brilliantly in the morning light. She sees me, waves, and slows to a stop on the roadside. I hurry across the street, grinning to myself. “Hello, Jaquelle,” I say as she climbs out of the car.

           “Good morning, Levi. How are you today?”

           “Oh, you know, cold and tired, but there’s no use in complaining. God doesn’t listen too well these days, anyhow.”

           Jaquelle chuckles. “Well, I’d say differently. Maybe he’d pick up the phone if you called once in a while.” Jaquelle pulls a brown paper bag from the center console and hands it to me. “There’s a ham sandwich with cheese and an apple for you.”

           “Thank you so much, Jaquelle. You don’t have to do this.”

           “It’s no big deal. Stop making such a fuss about this, it’s the least I can do.”

           “No, it’s really not. Seriously, thank you. I don’t deserve you.”

           She laughs again and tells me she’ll see me tomorrow. I wave goodbye as she drives away, then begin inspecting the paper bag’s contents. A ham sandwich and an apple, gifts from the lady I often think of as my hero.

           Jaquelle and I met back in the third grade. She lived just down the street from my house and we played together everyday after school. Then high-school came and we moved to different neighborhoods, but we stayed in contact. Even now, while she’s working a job at city hall, we’re friends. She’s the only person in this city who has any empathy left in her, and she’s the only person who doesn’t leer at me with judgement in her eyes.

           Ten minutes pass before I’m tired of the cold and decide to retreat inside another grocery store. I hasten to their public restroom and lock the door. I lay Jimmy’s hockey stick on the cold floor and sit against the door. I stay there, staring at the painting of a forest on the wall, until someone knocks aggressively on the door.

           “Hurry up in there, would you? I’ve been waiting for ten minutes.”

           “Sorry,” I say. I climb to my feet, muttering, “stupid ungrateful piece of trash. This is my bathroom, you use the one at home.” I open the door and smile at the man. “Sorry about that, sir.”

           “Frickin’ hobos,” the man grumbles as he closes the door.

           I return to the blustery winds and continue my day. I walk along the same streets I grew up on until night opens the shelter’s doors and the volunteers welcome me with forced smiles. Then I eat my bowl of oatmeal and lie awake for hours, listening to whatever arguments are disrupting the silence tonight and obsessing over what this city’s more successful residents must think of me.

           I awake with Jimmy’s face in my mind. It’s been twenty-three years since he was locked up, which leaves only one more year in his sentence. But is that even a good thing? Wouldn’t it be naïve to think Jimmy would come back to me after so many years? Who’s to say he won’t go off to find someone else in the group? Someone who’s not living in a homeless shelter?

           I hit the road with his hockey stick that morning anyhow, holding my head down against the chilly gales. On my way past the elementary school, a boy says hello to me. I stop and gawk at him, surprised by his courage. He looks to be no older than eleven. “How did you end up like this, mister?” he asks.

           I suppress a giggle and say to him, “the city did this to me. The smiles here are fake, and whatever words you hear spoken are words of Satan, the Prince of Lies.” I continue walking, and I can feel the boy’s wide eyes following me. My mouth twists in a smirk of amusement and I turn back. “Don’t listen to your friends, kid. They’re going to leave you.”

           Behind the boy, a burly man with a reflective jacket approaches. “Sir, this is school property, may you please make your way past?”

           “Idiot,” I whisper. “I was just answering a question he asked,” I say.

           “Okay, well, if the question’s answered you can move on now.”

           “Yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”

           “Then get to it. You had your chance to go to school, so move on.”

           “Excuse me?”

           “I said you had your chance at school, but you wasted it―clearly―so get going.”

           I curse loudly at the man, and he gestures for the kids to move away. “Who the hell do you think you are?” I demand. I walk right up to the man’s face, pointing a finger between his eyes. “You have no right to speak to me that way. If you knew what it’s like for us to walk past this building everyday and feel you watching us from inside your warm offices and classrooms, judging us, you’d have a little more respect.”

           “But I don’t know what that’s like, because I decided to do something with my life.” He pushes me back a step. “Nobody needs to get hurt here. Let’s just call it a lesson learned and go our separate ways.”

           Seething, I nod my head. “You’re right,” I say quietly. I begin to turn around, but then I twist and swing Jimmy’s hockey stick virulently at the man’s face. It connects with the side of his head and he stumbles back. A hysterical fury burns within me and I cackle as I swing at him again and again. He holds his hands above his head and begs me to stop, but I don’t. When he collapses to the ground, I bring the bottom of the stick up over my head and jam the wooden weapon into his face. It goes through his mouth, knocking loose a few teeth.

           The spectating children are screaming as they run away. I watch the other people from the shelter hurry down the road, no doubt in fear of being caught up in the legalities of this altercation.

           “Stop,” the man chokes. He spits blood into the white snow and struggles to his feet. “I’m calling the police.”

           I smack the hockey stick against his skull again and he topples back into the snow. I’m rearing back for another blow when somebody tackles me to the ground and lands a hard punch on my face. Another punch brings blood from my nose, and I realize a teacher is on top of me.

           “Mr. Allen, are you alright?” The teacher leaves me bleeding in the snow to check on Mr. Allen, who is in no better condition.

           “Call the cops,” Mr. Allen sputters. “You’re being charged with assault.” I snicker at his accusing finger, thinking how nice it will be to have my own heated jail cell.

           The police arrive a few minutes later and toss me into a cruiser without cleaning up my bloodied face. At the station, I convince the officers to keep Jimmy’s stick safe until this ordeal is over. I’m sitting in a cell by nine AM. An officer informs me that I will remain here for the next four months.

           “I’ll be out in time to meet Jimmy,” I chuckle to myself. “And when I get out of here, and when he gets out, we can send my message together.”

           Mr. Allen is wrong―I haven’t wasted my life. Not completely, anyway. I still have my message to send. I still have a difference to make. I have a community to save and to speak for. There’s no reason why we should all be divided like this. Even if the city won’t accept us, maybe we can learn to accept each other and stop hating ourselves. This city is too cruel for people to be alone, and I’m going to show that to everyone as soon as I’m out of jail.

           “You better not leave me, Jimmy,” I say to the ceiling. “I hope you’re different than the others.”

           I hope it, but I don’t dare believe it. Here in the City of Lies, believing is how you get hurt.

March 19, 2021 03:30

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