Three Hours Until Kindness
Dan A. Cardoza
I look around. Eye my usual seat next to the fractured window. The chairs are always empty, too cold.
The interstice is a way in, a high-tech portal for everything we fear. It enters uninvited.
Once seated, I situate my flea market egg-timer directly in front of me on the chipped '50s Formica. I know every cut in the grey tabletop, some sparkle. To the left of the timer, I allocate space for a shredded paper-back novel. It can wait, it's been around forever. I've read it countless times. I admire and situate a perfectly glazed plated maple bar directly in front. I complete my episodic, ternary place setting. Unfortunately, it's the second time this year. I'm back to make a decision that's a matter of life and death.
Squaring my shoulders is something I do to dodge attention. I've been known to slouch like a mouse as I'm warming. Years and street concrete do that to you.
Here at Happy Donut, I'm a regular, though I remain anonymous if that makes sense. Down on Van Ness, at least on my end of town, we're nobodies, just bodies. Most times, I find it quiet in here, far away from the scurrying tourists.
I'm out at the beginning of the night because it's convenient. It's when you can loiter, piss the sidewalks, and throw down a needle. I know what you're thinking, I'm disgusting and worthless. If I could squeeze out a laugh, I'd be empty. The onerous years have a way of stealing your breath away from you.
Here we all have reasons for hardship, our self-imposed exile. If poor of everything else, at least we own that. My story is mostly pedestrian, based on what I've been told.
I'm nearly homeless because I was too busy, too lazy, too, whatever the fuck. I had a wife and a beautiful baby girl, Tara. My wife divorced me.
So I forgot to pick-up the pool gate lock from Johnny Hardware, at Ace in Eugene. Ok, more than once. A frayed-yellow nylon loop was a good-enough make-shift latch, at least until. If you live long enough, there is always going to be, until.
Ever since, I've been downriver riding the currents from Oregon to California, mostly underwater. Along the way, I picked up work to keep from starving, so I can afford the bottom of a bottle.
During my travels, I rode me some John Steinbeck #-tag tracks through Rosenberg. Did some log chocking there, damaged L-3 lumbar vertebrae.
In Medford, Oregon, I picked me a bunch of summer pears. Some workdays turned into night, ate dinner with a headlamp in a tree.
I busted snow chains, in Weed, California for rich folks passing through. Now there's a name for you. In Weed, the wind blows in on frozen sheets, once they're ripped, it leaves.
Got confused in Roseville, that damn town is nothing but railroad tracks. But it's a kind city. Even the homeless offer you something. Finally, I made it here to San Francisco.
Lost time is a slow-motion bullet, but it still tears straight through your guts. Bang!–a funeral–divorce–addictions–injury-unemployment–failed suicide attempts–. I couldn't save myself. Why should anyone else want to?
You might ask, "There's always family?" But they're the ones that take pleasure in salting the wounds. And remember, a family has the right to ask questions that strangers won't. And with any open cut, it remains just that, it never heals. Picking it won't make it scab over.
Obsessing in silence makes your pain and suffering more obvious. I see it as setting yourself on fire and expecting just about anyone to put you out. Because you can't hold a job, pay the rent, sustain yourself, it's easy to let others murder your self-esteem. It's a slow death by minnows when all you pray for is just one damned Great White.
Continued existence makes you earn your bad thoughts, rehearse your well-deserved demise. But as always, the end is never soon enough for cowards.
I have one hour left––on the timer. My maple bar displays crescent moons, halfway down.
I turn to page 123. It's from there the prose sizzles my grey matter like a cattle brand, "Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage." Simple words that leave me horrified.
Happy Donut is my go-to donut shop here on Pacific Street. It's saved my life more times than I care to admit. I'm not good anymore with street names, but there's another one in the Tenderloin.This one is my favorite.
There was a time when you couldn't force me to forget streets, directions, but now all I see is fractured pavement. Boulevards wash muddy with free-floating anxiety. Now, most roads remain nameless.
Thoughts become thoroughfares full of hazards, stabbed with blank metal guideposts. Bus yellow, tin triangles advertise dilapidated passages. Gone are the familiar Avenue's of New Beginnings, and Last Chance Interstates, one mile ahead. All that remains are oxidized, cheap tin dead ends.
Inside my skull exist sparse intersections that crisscross synapse topographies littered with emotional decay. The barren landscape is empty except for the haunted playgrounds and empty rusted, tethered chained swings. If you could envision the demolition in my head, you'd think of me as exquisitely pathetic? It's ok though, that's how I see myself, unworthy of gentrification.
The ding on my egg-timer startles me, just not enough–it's time. My maple bar has shredded more crumbs. Doughy stars litter an early twilight against the grey tabletop. I need to get up, head back to my single-room rent.
Ding, ding, I shut off the fire alarm.
I can't miss my date with a Saturday night special. Right now, she's painting her nails and puffing her bangs in the air. I won't make her wait. She's loaded as fuck, wants to go out with a bang and Tango. She's dressed in blood red, dying to dance. I'm all in.
Before I can straighten, there's a voice.
"Is that Tuck Everlasting you're putting in your coat pocket, sir?" I look at him, I freeze half bent. I can see the young man standing tall near the register. He's dressed up, as if he has somewhere to be, where a certain someone might be waiting.
"Me?" I say, stabbing my chest with an index finger. Then I flop back in my seat. By now, the book is buried in my coat pocket.
"Yes, that book?" He points again at my pocket and smiles his biggest Golden Gate. The gentleman asks if he can buy me another donut, perhaps a cup of coffee, or just about anything.
I say, "Sure!" square my shoulder, and settle back in my chair. I pull out my egg-timer, buried in the shallows of the other overcoat pocket, and place it back on the table. My tattered novel is situated right next to it as usual.
Only this time, I don't set the egg-timer. I dare to think about how I'm going to make it through another cold Frisco night. At least until I can see the morning sun.
Dan A. Cardoza: "My fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have met international acceptance. Most recently my work has been featured in Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Entropy, Gravel, Montana Mouthful, New Flash Fiction Review and Spelk. Twitter Handle: @Cardozabig"