I can’t tell you how many times I’d seen him. Maybe a hundred times, over the last nine months or so. He was just a boy – much younger than me, maybe nine year old, if I was forced to guess. Though, he could have been older; that’s how malnourished he was.
I didn’t know his name, and I never asked. Even though I was sure that I knew him as soon as I saw him, I couldn’t possibly have. This boy and I would not have run in the same circles. It didn’t really matter, anyway, he was just “the boy”, in my head. Skinny, gaunt. Runt. His hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in months and it probably hadn’t been. Maybe not even in years. And the boy, he smelled, too. Stunk actually… Still, that wasn’t his fault and I did what I could for him.
The first time I saw him was in March. I owed my friend money for a bar tab from spring break. A bar tab, I might add, that got absolutely out of control that night. We were in Miami for the week, Amanda, three of our other friends, and me. I kept taking the drinks, but I wasn’t the one ordering them. I didn’t even want them. I took them to be polite. Eventually, I drove home by myself because they refused to leave. I didn’t want those drinks, but still Amanda wanted me to pay. It had been her card behind the bar.
But, luckily, she didn’t have my schedule for that semester so she couldn’t stalk me on campus. She did, however, know where I lived and sometimes she’d wait in my lobby to catch me and hound me for her $230 dollars. I told her I hadn’t even wanted the damn drinks and I had left earlier than the rest of our group. Still, she wanted me to pay. I’d left them stranded at the bar without a car. She was pissed. I told her I was drunk and tired, and they wouldn’t leave. She said that was no excuse. So I owed her the money.
Amanda’s family is richer than mine so I don’t understand why she put so much energy into getting the $230 dollars. But she did.
For that reason, and that reason alone, I started using the backdoor of my complex. I didn’t want to be ambushed by Amanda again. It was embarrassing! The back door was only accessible from the filthy alley behind the building, but I was desperate.
I saw him the first day I used the back entrance. He was sitting against the wall, covered in ratty clothing and staring down at his hands. And he had a little cup with holes it in set in front of him. You know, the kind you get from casinos and arcades. This one said “Palm Coast Games” on it in dark blue. Such a little cup. And so empty.
I don’t know why the boy wasn’t out on a main street, where people could see him and put money in his little, hole-y cup. Maybe he was hiding from someone. Or maybe he just wanted some respite from the sharp, spring wind that snaked through the city, tearing coffee cups and train tickets out of frigid fingers.
But, for whatever reason, that’s where he was – against the wall in my dirty alley, hidden away from everyone, including Amanda. Everyone but me. So there we are – two stowaways from reality, hiding in the filth.
I tried to walk by him without looking that first time. But I couldn’t help it. He was such a small, scraggly thing. The boy caught my eye, and you know, once they look at you it’s so hard to keep on walking by, ignoring them.
So, he caught me unaware, made eye contact with me, and then watched as I dug into my purse and pulled out the few dollar bills I had. I didn’t carry cash very often, because cash is dirty. People don’t wash their hands or they clothes as often as they should; there are germs all over every dollar bill you see. That’s the nature of paper currency. I prefer plastic, to be honest, so I rarely have cash.
See? I wasn’t lying to Amanda about that. I don’t like cash. I never had any when she came by. Hell, I’d barely had enough on me to get the car out of valet that night.
I dropped the few bills into his cup. He didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either. I kept walking and went upstairs. I slept well that night. It’s nice to do something for someone else.
When I came back down the next morning, I used the alley door again. The boy was still there but the money in his hole-y cup was gone. We didn’t make eye contact that morning, so I just walked by.
The boy wasn’t there all the time, but I always tried to have some coins in my purse to drop into his cup for when he was, just in case we made accidental eye contact. Sometimes I don’t think he even wanted it. Because he didn’t always look up at me.
Some days he just stared down at his filthy, mismatched shoes, or his grubby hands. He tried to hide them from me, but I saw. I knew he was embarrassed. And as the weeks went on, I noticed he only looked at me for eye contact when he seemed truly desperate.
That made me sad. I put more money in his cup when I was feeling sad. That made us both feel better. We were connected that way.
Summer rolled in and my boy took to wearing less clothing because of the heat. I’d still bring him spare change when he caught my eye. It was a sweltering summer so I even started bringing him the half empty water bottles that sat in my car during the hottest months. I think he appreciated that, and it made me feel good, too. One time, I even brought one down from my apartment for him.
“It’s supposed to get over 90 today so here, take this. I haven’t even opened it yet. It’s cold, straight from my fridge.”
Our first words to each other. I felt that blooming connection between us again. A bond growing. I think he felt it, too.
But even with that binding thread, that zing of recognition, he never spoke to me again. He never held out his hand. He never even looked at me for more than a handful of seconds. And I rarely saw him trying to make eye contact with anybody else. I think he was just for me. An insane thought, but one I had. He was my boy.
But, realistically, I knew he wasn’t mine. I knew, because my boy wasn’t always in the alley. And when he wasn’t there, it would bother me. He left me. Where did he go? Where was his family? Did he panhandle for them? Or was he truly homeless?
You probably think I should have called someone, or taken him in myself. First of all, I did call someone. They could never find him. He was avoiding authority, they told me. He was hiding. He didn’t want to go home or be put in foster care. Whatever waited for him at the end of official processing – he didn’t want it. And he was clever, so he hid.
To your second point – I couldn’t take him in. I had a one bedroom apartment, and my friends frequently slept over on my couch. It was no place for a child.
And finally, you probably think I should have given him more money. Believe me, I wanted to. I didn’t have it. Why do you think I couldn’t pay Amanda for the Miami bar tab? I had enough to live on, cloth myself, eat, get coffee, go to the gym, gas, and make my car payments. That’s all my parents agreed to pay for. If I was getting a discretionary fund like Amanda, I would have given him more. I would have. But I was broke. So what could I do?
Classes started in September and the weather turned bitter again. My boy had been in the alley for six months now. I’d finally paid Amanda back a few weeks before. I didn’t have to use the alley, anymore, but I did. Because it was something we shared. And someone had to put coins in his cup.
The autumn days grew colder and colder. The wind was starting to slip between the buildings and dumpsters and tear through my boy, trying to rip him away from me just like those train tickets back in March. It caused him to shake and shudder. Then a thunderstorm came. It lasted two days, and my boy didn’t spend them in the alley. I don’t know where he went. After the storm, things got even colder in the city.
Around this time, the boy and I began to make eye contact more often and for longer periods. We started to share knowing looks. His clothing was threadbare. His scraps of blanket were inconsequential to the dropping degrees. We looked at each sadly. We both knew what was coming. He wouldn’t survive the winter. And when our eyes met, we agreed about that.
I brought him blankets. You know I did. I even skipped getting coffee for three days so I could bring him hot cocoa. He used it to warm his hands but he never drank it. So I started bringing him hot water instead. And croissants. And sometimes those little cake pops. He never ate any of it, but it made me feel better that he had it.
I started leaving the back door to my apartment propped open, just a little, just in case he wanted to come inside and get warm. He watched me the first time I did it.
“You can come inside whenever you want. Sit on the stairs. It’s warmer in here.”
He stared at me, but he never responded. We shared a deep connection, a recognition. We spoke to each other with our eyes. Until we didn’t.
I don’t think he ever did come inside to get warm.
In the beginning of November, my boy stopped making eye contact with me entirely. It broke my heart. I still put quarters in his cup, but he never looked up from his mismatched shoes. Never spoke to me, or acknowledged me at all.
He started sleeping more. I would see him two days in a row and the quarters from yesterday would still be in his cup. And then he stopped leaving the alley entirely. He was there every time I looked for him, even at night. Maybe he was too cold to travel, maybe he had no where to go. Or maybe, he just wanted to be close to me.
So, I gave him more blankets. Thick ones.
Then it snowed. And it snowed again. And again. The temperature plummeted even more. But he was still there. Bundled up in my blankets. Not making eye contact, not spending the money I gave him. Maybe he knew it was hopeless. Maybe he knew there was a date circled on some celestial calendar that said “the boy freezes to death today”. We both knew it was coming.
I started bringing him hot cocoa again. But he stopped reaching for it.
The circled date ended up being the 11th of December, a Thursday. I checked on him before class. Brought him hot cocoa and adjusted his blanket tighter around his shoulders. He wasn’t shaking even though it was freezing. I thought that was a good sign. I smiled at him as I left for my film noir class but he just looked away from me. I frowned. Was our connection slipping?
The day itself was bright and sunny for December. It didn’t snow. I wasn’t worried about him. Because it was such a nice day, I agreed to go out drinking with my friends from AP Soc. Amanda was there, having forgiven me for the delay in paying her back, and the damage to the rental car from that trip.
We tied it on, tight. I was dressed in a cute green and white striped skirt and a red sweater. It was festive and I was repping my Christmas spirit. It really wasn’t a warm enough outfit for the time of year, but I’d driven my car so I wouldn’t have to walk home in the cold. Plus, it looked hella cute. I hardly paid for any drinks that night.
Between the shots, and the dancing, and the body heat, I was warm. Hot even. I spun, I gyrated, I flirted, and, when it got too hot, I dipped outside for a few minutes to sneak a cigarette with Amanda and a random guy.
It was freezing. I could feel it deep in my bones immediately. The sunny day had turned into a blisteringly cold evening. As I shivered out behind the bar and sucked down that cigarette – menthol, my least favorite – I remembered my boy. And I began to worry about him.
I gave Amanda and the rest of AP Soc a bullshit excuse to leave. I needed to check on him. She made fun of me, just like she did in Miami, and I gave her the finger. I couldn’t afford to be polite and drink the drinks I didn’t want this time. I had to see him. Make sure he was okay.
I got my car from the valet, stiffing them on a tip. Those precious few dollars in my clutch were for my boy. I found street parking easily. It was still relatively early and everyone was out. I knocked into a garbage can as I pulled in but there was no rental company to get mad this time.
I didn’t know it right away when I turned down our alley. Yeah, it was ours now. The boy’s and mine. It was our alley, but I didn’t notice I was alone in it. Not at first.
He was huddled into himself as always, but there was something about him that was different. His face was not buried in his jacket. It was looking across the alley, at my building’s back door, the one I always used. The one I usually propped open for him. The one I hadn’t, that night. I’d been too excited for my night out.
I dropped onto my knees next to him, hissing from the coldness of the ice on the bare skin of my legs.
I stared at my boy and, for the first time since I’d noticed him all those months ago, I thought he was beautiful. Absolutely stunning, actually. His greasy hair was now clean – sanitized by the intense freeze blanketing the city. And he didn’t smell, not at all; the cold air was too thin to hold the heavy odors that had drifted around him through summer and autumn.
I reached out to touch him. His skin felt smooth. So smooth I sat down against the wall next to my boy so I could reach him better. I leaned against the brick and ran my numb fingers over the smoothness of his cheek. It was hard. Like marble. As if his alabaster face had been lovingly carved from a solid block of priceless stone. Carved by a master.
Yes, he was beautiful, but it was his eyes that got me. He was looking up, across the alley at the back door, his expression defiant. As if he knew today was the end, and he faced it, his head raised, tilted back, proud. Or, perhaps, he had just been waiting for me to come through that door. And I never had.
My frozen boy was dead. And there was no blood, or broken bones. No face twisted in agony.
The cold air settled around us, quiet and still, protecting and preserving his beautiful end. And it was beautiful. And tragic. I don’t think you can have beauty without tragedy. Every story needs both. And this was ours, his and mine. But I wasn’t sad. I’d always known he was familiar to me. We were connected. Always.
I dropped my hand from my frozen boy’s face and leaned my head against his shoulder, cuddling up to his stiff body. And I stared at the door, like he did. His clothes weren’t comfortable to lean against. The were hard. Crisp.
I stayed with him there in that alley, just my frozen boy and me. As his body grew more rigid, I began to cry, lamenting his circled date on that celestial calendar. Lamenting that it was this day. My boy hadn’t been able to rescue himself from this end. And I hadn’t been able to either.
The longer we sat, the stiffer he got, and the warmer I became. Eventually, I stopped shivering, which was nice. I cuddled into him tighter. And then, I started to feel a comfortable warmth, like a blanket wrapped around you straight out of the dryer. It was relaxing.
But the air around us started to get hotter as the hours ticked by. At first, it was a comfortable heat…and then it burned. It burned so bad, I peeled off my jacket, and then tucked back into my boy. He was still stiff.
As light finally began to streak through the mottled gray clouds above us, the air became scorching. So blazing, I wanted to take my clothes off, feel cool air on my skin. But I didn’t want to leave my boy, not for a moment, not even for that. And my limbs weren’t responding to me, anyway. So I didn’t move. I cuddled closer. I wouldn’t leave him. We were connected. My boy and me. Always.
He kept looking at my door, and I kept feeling stiffer. I looked at it, too, only I suddenly couldn’t remember why we were looking at the door or who we were waiting for to come through it. I forgot why I was so hot. I forgot why I was so cold. I couldn’t remember where I was, only that it was familiar to me. I knew only that I was supposed to sit here with this boy. That we were in this together, him and I. I just forgot why.
One thing I finally did remember, though, was how I knew him. This boy – he had always been familiar to me. He was there, that night in Miami. I skipped out on the bar tab. I stiffed the valet. I drove home, tired. And drunk. I hit a little boy on a deserted street and I didn’t stop. He was dead. I knew he was, and I was scared. So, I kept driving. But I saw him. It was this boy, the dead one sitting next to me.
But he wasn’t there. No one was sitting next to me. I was alone in the alley, in the cold.
I always had been.
I felt my brain start to panic, but then I forgot why I was upset. I forgot everything, except the door. And when the light from a cold and distant sun finally made it into the dark depths of our filthy alley…I was frozen and beautiful, too.