Authors: Carol Lea Benjamin
A Rachel Alexander Mystery
FOR EVELYN ABRAMS,
Eunice saw the can of Chicken of the Sea lightâ¦
I leaned against the wall opposite the mailboxes and closedâ¦
Eunice, leaning into the never-ending snow, walked west, toward theâ¦
I met the soldier, Eddie Perkins, for the second timeâ¦
We sat in the bar area at Osteria del Sole,â¦
I called the precinct in the morning and asked forâ¦
Eunice's leg was bothering her again, all that damp, allâ¦
There was a policeman standing against the wall when theyâ¦
Sitting on the floor under the stairs at Penn Station,â¦
If there was any possibility at all that Florida wasâ¦
Claire Ackerman had agreed to talk to me at work,â¦
There were only a dozen or so people in theâ¦
Standing out in the snow on the corner of Littleâ¦
“Can you talk?” I asked.
Elizabeth Mindell had said she'd talk to me at home.
Eunice tried to remember all the places she could goâ¦
I called Speedy Messengers at nine on Monday morning, sayingâ¦
I checked my notes on the way to the clothingâ¦
The snow had started up again as I made myâ¦
I stopped under a canopy and pulled out the notepadâ¦
Tuesday was the day I'd set aside to look forâ¦
Eleanor met me at the door to GR Leather, immediatelyâ¦
I hadn't had the chance to do more than introduceâ¦
“This was Gardner's favorite tea. He read somewhere it wasâ¦
I picked up the Times from where the delivery ladyâ¦
Richard was in when I arrived in the morning. “She'sâ¦
I stood for a moment outside Eleanor's door, then changedâ¦
I waited until right before closing to go back downstairs.
Sitting at my desk, Dashiell snoring on the office daybed,â¦
After waiting across the street from Elizabeth Mindell's building forâ¦
When I was back in the Village, I remembered thatâ¦
I turned right when we got to Fourteenth Street, stayingâ¦
When I got to Greenwich Street, I pulled out theâ¦
Richard looked up when the door opened, surprised to seeâ¦
Eunice was a block north of the old warehouse thatâ¦
Things don't always work out the way you want themâ¦
Eunice saw the can
of Chicken of the Sea light tuna in water at the same time the rat did, but he was closer to it and got there first. She thumped the trash with her stick, once, twice, but the rat didn't even look up, his tongue snaking around the jagged edge of the lid, looking for a way in. When they take it all the way off, you can get in easy, Eunice thought, watching the rat work at the can. You don't have to poke in something skinny and sharp. You don't have to pry the lid up. But then things get in the can and you have to pick them out and when you do, sometimes there isn't anything left, not even enough for Lookout, though he'd always lick the tins she gave him anyway, not stopping until they were clean as new.
Lookout came from a Dumpster, too, like most of his meals and hers, but he hadn't been diving, he'd been pitched, inside a plastic bag, like a used diaper, the handles knotted twice. She'd heard him, a small cry, maybe a kitten, or a baby, Eunice had thought, digging into the trash until she'd found the bag, felt how warm it was and opened the knots. She'd saved his life, freeing him, then using the change she'd begged for that day to buy him milk and bread, tearing the bread into small pieces and letting it sop up the milk before she gave it to him.
Just a few weeks later, only a short time after Eunice had felt
Lookout's beating heart through the plastic bag, someone took her cart, stole it while she slept. He'd barked, the high, squeaky bark of a puppy, he'd tried to help her even then, but by the time Eunice got her head out from under the blankets and newspapers, the cart was gone, only the broom that had stuck out like a flag thrown down on the sidewalk and left there. What was she supposed to do, all her clothes gone, the lamp, the picture of a tree in a blond wood frame? Everything. Like her store. What was it called? Eunice had wondered. She'd picked up a piece of sandwich wrapped in foil and torn off a small bite for Lookout, holding it up to his face at the opening of her jacket, the two of them keeping each other warm right from the beginning.
He was big now, his bark an explosion, and even with his muscles hidden under three sweaters, the red one, her favorite, in the middle to keep it clean, you could see he was a dog you wouldn't mess with. If Eunice had a cart now, no one would take it. But Eunice didn't even have that can of tuna and the noise from the fire trucks was giving her a terrible headache.
She peeked over the top of the Dumpster, Lookout waiting on the sidewalk, wagging his tail when he saw her, find anything? find anything? find anything? He was hungry, too. Maybe they'd do better later, after the restaurants closed, leftover bread in the trash, sometimes even raw meat. She knew where to make a fire, how to cook the meat on the end of a stick, thinking maybe that's what happened across the street, the squatters cooking up dinner or trying to keep warm, the fire getting out of hand, the whole building glowing against the dark sky, the ladder of the fire truck sticking up like the beanstalk going to the giant's castle, smoke, like a cloud, around the top of it and just a glimpse of the fire fighter up there, Eunice wishing she could have a coat like that, black with yellow bands, a coat that would keep out the rain and snow, a coat that would keep her warm. Lookout still did that, his body as hot as a furnace when he curled against her inside a cardboard box or under some piece of plastic, newspaper stuffed inside her coat and
shoes, the wind still whipping at her face, stinging, making it burn with cold.
Eunice climbed out of the Dumpster and crossed the street. Maybe it would be warmer there, nearer the fire. That's when she saw the soldier for the first time, but he wasn't a soldier now, he was homeless, just like Eunice, what little he owned on one shoulder, hanging from the remaining strap of his lumpy khaki backpack. She stood next to him, watching the fire, a waiter from the diner down the block there, too, shivering in his white shirt and black jeans, a woman in a leopard coat, or maybe it was fake fur, the spots too even for it to be real, the woman shaking her head, close to tears. There was a man with a scar on his face a few feet away, shaved head, earrings, boots, a diver's watch on his wrist, checking the time, all of them looking up at the fire, the smoke coming through the roof as red as the fires of hell.
The soldier turned and looked at her. “What's your name?” he asked.
“Eunice,” she told him. “What's yours?”
“Eddy,” Eunice repeated. “Whirling water.”
“No,” he told her. “Eddie Perkins.”
What if he asked her last name, Eunice thought, because she didn't know what it was and thinking he might ask made her head sweat under her watch cap, made sweat run down between her breasts, because they'd asked that time the paramedics found her, after she had that fall, and Eunice saw the way they looked at each other, two men, one young and fat, the smell of pizza on his mouth, the other one around forty, dark hair, pointy nose, acted like he was a fucking doctor and Eunice knew what that look meant and even though she'd hurt her leg, she got up and ran, Lookout following her, ran before they got her into the ambulance and took her away, leaving her dog on the street to fend for himself.
But Eddie Perkins was looking up at the fireman on the roof and he didn't ask her anything else, not just yet, Eunice hoping
maybe it could be the other way around, that she could ask him some questions, starting with where everyone would go now that the abandoned building they'd been sleeping in had burned to a shell, her luck, as usual, hearing about the place that morning, getting to it now when being here was worse than useless.
She could tell the soldier about the diner, how they put their trash out at night and how there might be burgers in it, sometimes with less than half missing, overcooked or maybe not cooked enough, a fine point no homeless person would consider but the customer, not having to worry about where his next meal was coming from, hadn't bothered to send it back, just left it there and then it became something Eunice could find and share with Lookout.
She needed to put food into her stomach soon, bread, a piece of cheese, anything to stop it from talking so loud, to let her sleep, if her box was still there, because sometimes you set it up just right and when you go back, it's gone and you have no home, nowhere to sleep, just the hard, wet, cold ground. Like the people who had been living here, before the fire. Eunice wondered if this were all of them, the soldier, the bald man in the wheelchair, the woman with the shopping cart full of cats, the tall man with white hair, not white like an albino, white like Lookout underneath the sweaters, the young girl with the ring in her nose who couldn't be more than seventeen, even younger than the soldier and, finally, the black man, as big as a building himself. He was standing off to the side, a book in one hand, and his lips were moving. Eunice wondered if he was praying or just talking to himself like every other crackpot on the streets of New York, homeless or not. Hard to tell the crazies from the others now, people talking on their cell phones nonstop, the phones nowhere in sight.
Eunice walked closer to the truck, all shiny and bright and red, and then one of the men noticed her and flicked his hand at her, telling her to move back, but Eunice stayed there, looking up at the roof, the way everyone else was doing, a woman with a little
boy, her face hidden behind a striped muffler, blue and yellow to match her gloves, pointing at the truck, or maybe she was pointing at Eunice, telling him things that made him nod, the boy very excited to see the fire and the truck and, most of all, the firemen, the woman with her arm around him, taking care of him, protecting him but too old to be his mother. Or was she one of those professionals who waited until the last minute, then had a kid, having to keep up with a five-year-old with menopause on the way? And then Eunice noticed the tall man in the leather coat, the one who looked like a cop, nothing on his face, as if he were standing on the bus waiting for his stop instead of watching a building burn to the ground, men with hoses and axes running in, risking their lives for what, she wondered, someone probably going to collect a bundle once the ashes cooled, the insurance man could come and take a look-see.
Was it a bakery, Eunice wondered, the store she used to have? Sometimes she thought she could smell the yeasty odor of bread baking, even when there was no bread nearby. Cookies, too, she thought. Was that it, a bakery?
More men than women watching the fire, Eunice thought, thirteen people in all, not counting the ones across the street or the ones looking out of their windows, staying inside where it was warm but enjoying the show anyway, someone else's misfortune serving as their entertainment. And then the one near the truck told her to step back, to move away, the way people always did when they saw her, thinking she was a thief instead of just down on her luck. She put up her hands in surrender and took a step away, turning back to see where the soldier had gone, seeing him standing in the same spot, still looking up, the smell of charred wood filling the air now, the smoke gray and wafting away, the fire finally out.
But the fireman was still yelling at her, something she didn't understand, something about the hose, Eunice finally looking down to see she'd stepped over it, he couldn't fold it up, get it back onto
the truck, but before she had the chance to move away, he yanked it hard and Eunice went down backward, her stick flying out in front of her. In no time, she could feel the snow, the cold coming through her worn-out coat, the wet, too. And then there was no sound, only smoke coming up from the roof and blowing north and the smell, burnt wood, and then a hand in her face, two pale fingers sticking out of the torn glove and when she looked up, it was the soldier. He pulled her up and then he leaned close and whispered, “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?”
Eunice didn't answer him. She stood there staring, not knowing what to do and then she did.
She said, “That's my name, too.”
And he said, “What is?”
Eunice said, “Perkins,” pointing to where his name was written over the pocket of his camouflage jacket. It looked warm, the soldier's jacket. He had boots, too, the kind that come up over your ankles and make your socks creep down until your bare heel is rubbing against the inside of the shoe, but Eunice thought he was pretty lucky because she heard that if your feet are warm, your whole body stays warm. Or was that your head, not your feet? Eunice pulled her cap down tight, just in case.
A coat with your name on it would be harder to steal, Eunice thought, smiling to herself at the cleverness of it.
There'd been a name on the fireman's coat, too. Logan. And on the back of his hat, that one written on masking tape and stuck on, Eunice figuring maybe he'd had it stolen a few times, thieves everywhere, especially where you least expect to find them. She'd find a Magic Marker, put her name inside her coat. Better safe than sorry.
The soldier was still with her. If he thought it was weird, two strangers having the same last name, he hadn't said so. Eunice figured it was better this way, better than saying she didn't know her last name, better than having the soldier think she was completely crazy when the plain truth was, she was just a little bit forgetful
sometimes, no big deal, because she knew if she found something to eat, she'd remember the right name, the name of the store, too, and a lot more. It was, she knew, just a matter of calories and then the soldier was talking again, but he wasn't talking to her, he was talking to Lookout, asking him if he had a place to sleep, a soldier with a one-track mind and here Eunice had worried that
“You lived here?” she asked him, stepping back, away from the truck, the soldier following her. He couldn't have been more than nineteen, she thought, wondering if she'd made a mistake asking that question because standing next to him like that, he didn't smell like a homeless person. He smelled like soap.
“Sometimes,” he told her.
“The tall guy,” she said, “the one with white hair, he lived here, too?”
“Used to. No one lives here now.”
Eunice nodded. He had a gift for the obvious, this kid. Eunice didn't mind. It beat having him ask her questions. Eunice liked to ask questions, but she didn't like to answer them.
“He been here long?”
Eddie shook his head. “Only a week. Or maybe less.” He shrugged. Maybe he'd lost track of time. Maybe his Palm Pilot needed to be charged. “Laid off. Lost his apartment.” Eddie shrugged again, a shit-happens shrug, and Eunice couldn't argue the point.
“What about the huge one, the black one, the one who's talking to himself?”
“Came from down south.”
Eunice nodded. “Just?” she asked.
But the soldier didn't answer her.
“Did he just come? He new?”
“Yeah. He's new,” the soldier said.
“Coming from the South to this,” she said, holding her hand out to catch the snow. “So where they all going tonight?”
“Subway maybe, ride out to Brooklyn and back. Or Penn Station,” he said. “But not Snakey. Snakey's going to a shelter.”
“The one in the wheelchair.”
Eunice bent down and picked up her stick.
“What about you?” he asked. And when she didn't answer him, “I know a place. It's not much, but at least you won't get beat up or robbed.” And then, “I have a few places,” as if they'd met at a cocktail party at Trump Tower, as if he might be referring to his home in the Hamptons, his Park Avenue penthouse, the ranch in Colorado, as if he was Brad Pitt instead of a homeless person watching the warehouse, where he'd been squatting with a bunch of bums, burn down. “It's this way,” and he pointed west, Eunice wondering what he had in mind in this weather, a fucking igloo, her stomach talking even louder now, and something else, something tickling her right hip.