In A Soft and Fading White


            At last the best time of year had arrived. The snow was melting, the streets were muddy and dark, and a cold, misty rain held sway over the city. Eugene loved the end of winter.

            In his Army-surplus poncho and Salvation Army parka Eugene walked the streets of Erie, Pennsylvania all but impervious to the weather. His hands were cold, but then, they were always cold. “Occupational hazard,” he often joked to the fellas in the park and they laughed every time. He could barely feel his fingertips right now, but if he wiggled them around in the thick fingers of his rescued snowmobile gloves the skin prickled in response and he knew everything was okay. He only really worried about his fingers and toes in December and January and February when the snow piled up and the temps on the bank clock hit single digits damn near every day. He didn’t have to worry about that now, though. It was April, and today was only tough because of the rain.

            Eugene much preferred rain over snow. Sure, snow usually started out nice, but eventually it was like the sand he remembered from when he was a kid, when his mom would take him to one of the grimy beaches on the curled pinky of a peninsula that protected the city from the ravages of Lake Erie. No matter what, every time they went to the beach, sand would get everywhere and into everything—even the sandwiches in their plastic bags. Eugene transferred that distaste from childhood to adulthood, from sand to snow. Just as beach sand got into everything in the summer, snow covered everything in the wintertime and, as a scavenger, Eugene hated that. It wasn’t the cold or the ice, or even the slush that comes and goes as winter lolls through. No, it was the snow. It was the snow and the fact that it seemed to fall every day just to spite him, just so that he had a much harder time finding the trinkets and treasures he loved, the hits and misses of urban jetsam that afforded him his meager livelihood. Whenever he’d see people excited over the first snowfall and how everything got covered in that soft, powdery white, making the town “beautiful” as they said… well, Eugene cursed them out every chance he got. He cursed the snow too, the minute it started falling, every time without fail.

            Eugene never cursed the rain, though, and he never would even though his friend Lolo did all the time. Lolo was from California, so it didn’t really count. Not in Eugene’s mind. Lolo had never grown up with the cold so he had never gotten used to it, never developed much of a tolerance for it. For the life of him, Eugene couldn’t understand why Lolo didn’t just up and leave this town if he hated the cold so damn much, and he said as much to him on nights they happened to share a space together in the shelter over on French Street.

            For years Lolo assured everyone that he was indeed planning to leave town, he just had to tuck away a little money first. In the meantime, he’d just have to muddle through as best he could going from odd job to odd job, collecting few dollars and spending too many on his omnipresent pint of whatever was on sale. This is what he and Eugene had in common, what they talked about on those long winter nights in the shelter.

            “Did you ever think about giving it up?” Eugene asked Lolo their first night in the shelter together. “Have you ever even tried?”

            “Sure, yeah. Lots of times,” Lolo admitted then paused, reasoning. “But never again,” he said decisively. “It’s the shakes, man, I hate ‘em. I hate ‘em bad. And when I quit, I hate that I miss it. No, I’ll never quit drinking again—but I’ll tell you this: it don’t run my life and I know I can control it. Some days I’ll drink a little more, sure. But some days a little less too. It all balances in the end, y’know? Who cares, anyway? I ain’t a violent drunk, I don’t hurt nobody, y’know?” Lolo looked pleadingly into Eugene’s face. Then he looked away. When he looked back at Eugene again, his eyes were squinty with soft suspicion. “Why? You thinkin’ of taking the pledge?”

            “Nope. No need. I don’t drink.”

           “Sheeeeeeeiiiit…” Lolo exclaimed, drawing out the long E sound, laughing. “Whatever, ese! I bet we go out to your cart right now we find at least one half-empty out there. Matter of fact, I could use a little sip of somethin’ right now. Come on, get your coat. Let’s go.” Lolo stood up and clapped Eugene on the arm.

            Eugene remained seated on his cot. In the dim light of the shelter he looked around at the dozen or so bodies lumped underneath a dozen sets of handed-down industrial bedding, donated afghans, and surplus wool blankets. Most bodies were sleeping, some were still trying. He was afraid his conversation with Lolo might wake one of them or keep someone awake. 

            “No. No sense in it,” Eugene said in a windless voice. “I got nothin’ on that cart.”

            Lolo stopped in his tracks, a sly, disbelieving grin on his face. “Serious?”

            Eugene nodded. “Seriously.”

           “You don’t got nothin’ on that cart? Not a bottle, not a beer, not even un poco bit of vino?”

            Eugene shook his head no.

            “Mouthwash?”

       “Sit down,” Eugene gestured towards Lolo’s cot. He arched an eyebrow at his new companion. “Mouthwash?” he asked with an incredulous grin. “Seriously?”

            Lolo’s own smile slid into a suspicious scowl. “Not too many vatos out here that don’t take a little somethin’-somethin’ now and then, y’know?” He eased back onto the cot. “What makes you so special?”

          Usually Eugene was more guarded with his life and his history. He preferred to keep himself to himself. He didn’t like telling the story. But something about the cold winter’s night, the need for a warm bed and the fact that he had to take one here, in the sterile hospitality of the shelter eroded a bit of that guardedness and Lolo seemed as likely a friend as anyone. Eugene had a feeling Lolo could be a good guy. Worth the risk.

            “Well, people who used to know me called me a mama’s boy,” Eugene began. “Probably still would. My mom died about 14, 15 years ago, though. Exactly when I can’t remember. Can’t even remember what time of year it was, let alone the date, even though I should. That’s what drinkin’ll do.” He expected some kind of reaction from Lolo and he even paused slightly in order to let it come. Lolo was silent.

            “Anyway, I was all she had and she was all I had and between the two of us, it really didn’t add up to a whole lot.” Eugene’s gaze was fixed on the floor. “I was in school at the time. ‘Late bloomer’ she called me, but I could tell she was pretty damn happy about it. I was gonna be a teacher.” He paused again. To his credit, Lolo merely sat motionless, eager for Eugene to continue.

            “It took a long time for her to die. A really long time. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pay the doctor bill or the hospital bills and I knew it wouldn’t matter in the end ‘cause she was just going to die anyway. So I drank. By the time she finally died, I was nearly dead myself and I didn’t care a bit.”

            “So you were in college and you quit?”

          “No, not really. Like my mom in the hospital, my college career just kinda withered away and disappeared. I stopped going to classes, never took the time to formally withdraw. I basically just never went back. So I drank even more.”

            “Damn, ese. That sucks. So how did you stop with the booze?”

            Eugene smiled a wry smile. “Yeah, that’s the question, isn’t it? Well, the easy answer is that I lost everything, as you can plainly see by my humble surroundings,” he opened his arms and gestured toward the slumbering men in cots. “But even when the house was gone and the car was taken and the last of the savings account cleared out, I still had my mom with me up here, you know?” he tapped his head, sighed. It took a while before he spoke again. Lolo didn’t want to say anything. He waited. “Then I drank her away,” Eugene finally said.

            “What?” Lolo didn’t understand. “What do you mean ‘you drank her away’?”

            “Have you ever blacked out from drinking?”

            “Yeah, I guess. Once or twice.”

         “I used to black out a lot. Lose whole nights and then, eventually, entire days. I even got arrested once when I woke up in a lawn chair on top of a school bus in some Catholic school parking lot. I had no idea what I was doing there or how I got there. Worse, I didn’t know what I was doing to my brain. Not that I cared, really, like I said. But I started to care a whole lot one day when I realized I was rambling around in a cemetery that was not the one my mom was buried in.”

            “¿Que? Why?”

            “I couldn’t remember where she was.”

            Lolo’s eyes opened wide. “You couldn’t remember where she was buried?”

           Eugene wasn’t looking at him any more. “Still can’t.” He turned and looked Lolo in the eye, emotionless. “I drank her away, man.”

            Lolo shook his head. “You don’t even remember now? Don’t you have anybody you could ask? There’s gotta be somebody, ese, que no? What about the funeral home?”

            Eugene exhaled long and slow and could only manage to shake his head slowly back and forth. “It was the one over in Little Italy, on 18th between Cherry and Poplar. I go by there three, four times a week. Couple of brothers ran it way back when, hired their nephew to take over when they started getting on in years. Turns out he was a crook. Rotten to the core. Swindled me and half of Little Italy I guess, which is why the building is now boarded up. They sent him away to federal prison and his two uncles died within a month of each other. Neither had a cent to their name. By the time I heard about it all from that guy at the bakery next door… oh, what’s his name? Bill, I think. By the time the bakery guy told me the whole story, just about every thing was gone. So no. I got nobody.”

            A sudden bluster of wind socked Eugene out of his reverie and he shook himself back to the street. He’d caught himself staring and thinking again and now he figured it was time to wonder where Lolo and some of the other fellas might be hiding on a day like today. Most likely holed up at McDonald’s, Eugene thought, knowing that he was essentially meandering his way there now without really being aware of it. It had been a good day so far, thanks to the rain: nine quarters, three nickels, three dimes. The standard smattering of pennies. On a day like today he could look forward to enjoying a cheeseburger with his coffee. He sighed as he changed direction. “All right then,” he said to himself. “Let’s see what we can turn up over that way,” and he steered his cart through a right hand turn to head north on Chestnut Street. “Three and three,” he said, noting the number of blocks he had to walk up and over to get to Mickey D’s. “Three and three.”

            He’d only gotten halfway up Chestnut when he rolled past the first shoe. It looked nice. Brown leather, brass grommets on the eyelets for the laces, thick soles with solid, unworn rubber on the bottom. Not a sneaker, not a dress shoe, but something like a cross between the two. A hybrid. He’d seen them a lot lately on a lot of them college kids that ran around so much of his part of town. Always admired them kind of shoes. Seemed honest and simple and utilitarian, he thought. He liked that. Useful and good-looking shoes. He’d always wanted a pair like that.

           He raised an eyebrow and paused, looked around to see if anyone was looking. He almost snatched that shoe up, but just as quickly rejected the idea, no matter how nice it looked, no matter how much he’d wanted shoes like that. Eugene was a practical soul and there was simply no use picking up a single shoe. Not when he had two feet. Cart only held so much, after all. But just as he was dismissing the idea, he looked to his right and there sat the other shoe, toe down and upended half in/half out of a pile of melting snow by the street. “Right where they probably set their garbage out,” Eugene thought. Now he stopped walking. Two shoes, then. Hmm. Hard to look past two shoes, especially ones like these. Chuckling at his good fortune, and with a quick prayer in praise of the rain, Eugene stepped over a large puddle and straddled the dwindling snow pile, reached down between his feet, and prepared himself to have to wrench the shoe from the snow. Just as Eugene was about to work the shoe back and forth to get it to wiggle free, the grainy, icy snow around it crumbled and Eugene lost his balance. He fell to one knee atop the snow pile and nearly fell over trying to stay upright. He was glad he’d been wearing his snowmobile gloves.

            Shoe in hand, he ignored his wet knee and pushed himself up off the filthy, crystalline snow to walk the four or five steps back to where the other shoe lay on a patch of bare grass. “Look at that,” he said, reaching for it. “Wonder if they’ll fit…” Instead of lifting the tongue of each shoe or looking at the bottom to see if there would be a number 9 or higher, he leaned against his cart and raised his right foot, resting it against his left knee. He put the sole of his newfound right shoe against the sole of his battered snow boot. The comparison certainly made the shoes look promising. Definitely worth a stop at the Laundromat, he decided. “Shop-N-Save first, though, right after we have a quick look around,” he said to the shoes.

            Stashing the shoes under a vinyl flap at the front of his cart, Eugene turned his attention to the crumble of exhaust-encrusted snow where he’d found the second shoe. He thought he noticed his knee hitting an odd lump of something when he’d stumbled, but righting himself and securing the shoe had taken precedence. Now he could give the lump his full attention.

            His eyes were focused intently on the ragged oval indent his knee had made in the mound. That’s where he knew he’d have to dig. Again he was glad he had his snowmobile gloves on. His chunky fingers plunged easily into the icy snow and it only took a moment before he’d exposed the first bottle—Jacquin’s Rum. Lidless and upside-down, the bottle was completely empty, but that wasn’t what mattered to Eugene. He was thrilled at this little bonanza because he knew of a certain college dropout girl on Eighth Street who used this kind of thing for art. Might not gain him a dollar but he certainly wouldn’t turn down a hot bowl of soup or a cranberry muffin. Maybe even a grilled cheese. The aromas from her door alone would be almost worth dropping off the bottle. It was turning out to be a hell of a day.

            A few more swipes at the ice revealed a jackpot he couldn’t have imagined. Three more half-gallon bottles (easily three more trips to the artist’s shop; he knew better than to blow it all in one visit), a smaller one the size Lolo usually carried, two regular-sized empties (a clear bourbon bottle and a gorgeous green Jägermeister) and there, almost lost in a stretch of ice near the curb, was the most amazing find of all—a fifth of Stolichnaya vodka with the cap still on and about a third of the bottle left. Eugene’s mind turned immediately to his friend. This would be a gift for Lolo, a “hell of a surprise for a hell of a guy” he would announce grandly, though he knew it would only be the two of them. Eugene loved sharing his finds with the people he liked.

            To business first, however. He still had to clean and dry his shoes before he could tuck them away in his cart. Fortunately for him, the Shop-N-Save grocery was right next door to the little plaza that housed his favorite Laundromat. He liked Ali-B’s Laundry because it rarely had an attendant and even when it did nobody really bothered him too much those days when he would just stop in for a bit of warmth and a magazine article or two from the Reader’s Digest. Recently the owners had installed a small television, which excited Eugene at first. After a while, however, it turned out to be more discouraging than exciting because the only channels that were ever left on were the ones that showed Mexican soap operas or people talking about Jesus. Eugene didn’t really have time for either of those things, but it wasn’t so intolerable a thing that he felt he had to avoid it altogether. Besides, the days he found something on TV that he liked made him appreciate the TV that much more.

            He slogged his cart through the wide parking lot of the Shop-N-Save, cursing the size and frequency of the potholes that got in his way. He worked his cart through the craters, the asphalt rubble, and the surprising expanses of standing water in the parking lot. He rolled up to a small box bolted to the wall near the front door of the grocery. A faded green banner splayed across the front of the box said “Recycle!” in faded yellow letters that were all but unreadable amid the graffiti tags of the local gangster wannabes. Tufts of Shop-N-Save’s trademark green plastic bags peeked out from a hole in the bottom, shivering with each breath of wind. With a glance around, Eugene tugged a handful of plastic shopping bags from the box and stuffed them under his parka before quickly pressing on with his cart.

            At Ali-B’s Laundry Eugene was happy to discover that he had the entire place to himself. Even better, the television was tuned to CNN, which always made him happy. He liked watching the news. He felt like it helped him stay connected to the world even though, when he watched too long, it reminded him of the time he felt he would be a Social Studies teacher in a high school somewhere, at a school that needed him so much he would help coach the wrestling team in winter and softball team in spring and maybe, if he was lucky, lend his voice to the football team five times each autumn as the announcer for the home games. That particular melancholy wouldn’t set in for hours now though, not ‘til after he’d given Lolo his gift. He was too tired and he’d gotten too old for the regret to take hold of him so quickly.

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