He wanted to stop by the office of the Gotel and
pick up his papers, but when three unmarked police cars lurked
in front, Mel decided that discretion was the better part of
valor. He walked all night.
In the morning, after papers had been signed and
keys handed over, Mel was sipping OJ out of a brown paper bag
in the alleyway next to the Motor Gotel, watching the world
pass by and trying to extort a little bit of cash out of the
Gotel's few gullible repeat customers. It was called the Motor
Gotel because people tended to motor on in, stay about an hour,
then "Go" before anyone saw with whom they arrived.
It was a pretty good arrangement for people who knew how to
be relatively discreet. But Mel had kept his ears open over
the years, and had heard enough whispered indiscretions between
the bumping and the moaning to keep him well supplied in the
blackmail racket for years. Unfortunately, even Mel lacked the
finesse to get payoffs from anyone by standing in the alley
with a bottle, his breath showing as the first flakes of snow
spat down from the gray sky.
Mel had to go to the Mission. It was horrible.
Some old geezer, half his face clean-shaven and half sprouting
a long beard, asked him if he was into sex. "No," Mel said.
"Are you into a good ol' American boot in your ass?" The
old man wandered off mumbling, and Mel got a bowl of vegetable
soup from a churchy lady with pursed lips, her gray hair done
up in a white paper cap.
Mel's pockets held all that he owned in the world:
a Swiss Army Knife with everything but the corkscrew gummed
shut, a pawn ticket for his watch and a little black book which
was actually dark blue. After his scanty inventory, Mel left
the mission and went on with the business of finding a place
to crash. He knew the porch of the Gotel was no good, because
someone would find him and a hole in the awning would let in
the snow, which was falling heavily -- small flakes that would
continue for a while. Crossing his arms and hugging himself
into his bright red sweatshirt, Mel headed in the general direction
of downtown. He turned a corner where a bunch of punks were
huddling against the courthouse wall, taking turns dry-humping
a statue of John Quincy Adams. A couple of them, under a foot
of spiky hair, sneered at him. Mel sneered back and they looked
away. That's right, Mel thought.
Pounding the pavement just was not worth it, Mel
decided after about an hour of searching. His friend Richard
wouldn't answer the intercom to his apartment at first. Then
Richard's elderly mother came on and wouldn't acknowledge him
even though Mel had met the old bat more times than he cared
to remember. Down the block was a girl he'd shacked up with
a long time ago. He didn't have much luck there either, because
the girl, Jackie, still seemed pissed about something Mel didn't
even remember. He left her place feeling pretty bad, and came
back to the courthouse square with no place else to go. The
punks were gone, back to their mansion or something. Mel hunkered
down in front of the coffee shop there, waiting for a second
wind and thanking God that at least he wasn't an old fuckin'
pervert with half a beard.
The wind blew pretty hard, and Mel wished he could
spare-change the price of a cup of coffee like those punk kids.
Young people were just better panhandlers.
Mel felt a tap on his shoulder, and a ray of light
broke through the clouds of his shitty day. It was a real cute
girl with a green apron and a cup of joe. She was smiling, of
all things, and Mel grinned and took the coffee. She had clean,
shiny red hair, and a button nose. "Thanks," Mel said.
"No problem," she replied, and went back into
the coffee shop. Mel sipped the hot coffee and stamped his feet.
He knew he wasn't handsome -- though he'd never admit it. But
his face was just too harsh and scarred, his hair a color of
bright yellow that was too ridiculous to call blond. Somehow
he knew that the coffee the sweet girl had given him wasn't
just cold-weather charity. Things were picking up.
Mel jumped onto a downtown trolley and rode as
far as he could without paying, which was just far enough that
he didn't have to hump more than a mile to the trainyard. His
sweatshirt was just too damn red to conceal him anywhere, so
Mel figured he'd crash somewhere conspicuous. He made a circuit
of the trainyard and station a couple of times before realizing
that there was a space big enough for a man inside the heating
system that overhung the station's front façade.
After watching and waiting, holding a ticket
envelope that he had found in the garbage, Mel got his chance.
He dropped all appearance of being a train passenger when he
began climbing the wall of the station. The brick façade was
built like it had been designed by Laurel and fucking Hardy
construction. There were bricks that had been mortared so that
they stuck a rough edge out, like handholds for burglars. He
was up to the heating system in no time, and as he was now faced
with it, he saw that the space was actually only big enough
for a twelve-year-old.
No problem, Mel thought. He grunted and
groaned as he tried to fit his legs in first and failed. Then
he tried headfirst, but no dice. Mel gave it one last shot and
somehow ended up in the fetal position, dragging himself into
the sheltered space with his fingers. The metal was hot, but
not too hot because of the wind and snow, and Mel allowed himself
a smile as he decided that things were working out after all.
He closed his eyes and fell asleep in no time.
Had anyone actually been looking for him, they
would have seen Mel right away. His red sweatshirt and bright
yellow hair were amazingly bright against the gray galvanized
heating unit. Anyone actually looking up at all would probably
have noticed him. Luckily, no one did. Mel was able to get a
good night's sleep. It would be eight-and-a-half hours before
he'd wake up, another hour before he got breakfast, and another
hour before Mel would meet Dimpe.