Cracks in the Sidewalk

“Hey, damn hot out today.”

He was about her age, twentysomething; he was also, somewhere under his filthy clothes and exploding dirty hair, good-looking. Handsome even. Drug addict, she concluded. Any second her Uber would be here. It would be totally inconvenient to cross the street; she’d have to text the driver she moved. She turned her head away from his words; her hand shook as she pulled out a cigarette.

She took a deep drag from the cigarette, trying to justify the smoke swelling in her lungs. It really wasn’t that big of a deal; after all, she just had a yoga class and an organic juice. She was super healthy and a vegan—well, mostly—and she hardly ever got a cold. The smoke flew out of her nostrils, her hand beginning to relax. She’d quit smoking when she hit the supposed danger zone age of thirty-five. Of course, if she stayed in really good shape, ate only organic, she could stretch it to forty.

She popped an aspirin in her mouth, a sour aftertaste mixed with the tobacco. Behind her, a row of empty buildings and bare lots looked like a wrecking ball had attacked. The only building to survive: a drugstore. Luckily, they had aspirin.

Banners on chain-linked fences waved at her, announcing soon-to-be million-dollar homes. The hot winds sent flyers with sketches of three-story homes, gourmet kitchens, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, wet bars and pools from their acrylic boxes. It looked like a snow flurry of papers descending on a sidewalk hot enough to fry an egg.

The homeless seemed oblivious to the impending gentrification creeping up on them as they pushed their Jenga-like plastic bags, of who knows what, in fair trade grocery carts. Others stopped along the crumbling buildings to find a sliver of shade, to lay down their ratty blankets or cardboard, to fall asleep or pass out. She registered it all, like cracks in the sidewalk, something to be avoided.

Unfortunately, he didn’t understand her philosophy about the homeless. He moved closer to her, his long eyelashes opening and closing rapidly in the bright light. It seemed so strange to see someone without sunglasses. “Man, I could really use one of those. Damn roommate locked me out. Crazy son of a bitch.”

She flicked an ash onto the hot sidewalk, then pulled out her cigarette case and handed him one. She just gave a homeless guy a cigarette that cost her sixty dollars a pack. Maybe she’d earn some karma points. He stared at the cigarette and then began to roll it around in his fingers. “Strange shit, this cigarette.”

At least he wasn’t so high on whatever, he was able to recognize she just gave him something special. “They’re from England. Hard to find here; well, actually, they’re hard to find over there too. Limited gold edition.”

He made a hand motion indicating he needed a light; she reached into her cross-body bag and pulled out the silver engraved lighter her ex-fiancé had given her. She berated herself every time she used it. Why did she hang on to this? She should just give it to this guy. Let go; release. Didn’t they always say that in yoga class? She tucked the lighter back into its special pocket. Damn it.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead as he sucked in the cigarette, holding it tight in his lips. It was the strangest thing she’d ever seen, like he was riding a bike with “no hands.”

“You don’t sound like you’re from England, no fancy accent.”

She got a peep from her phone; the Uber was close.

“No, I’m not, just did a semester of college there.”

She stepped closer to the curb so the Uber driver would see her. She was getting the feeling this guy was hitting on her. A drug-addicted homeless guy who thinks he has game. Unbelievable. She did have to wonder, though, how such a young, good-looking guy was so messed up and living on the streets.

Thank God she had no vices. Well, sure, an occasional cigarette and sometimes a fried carb, but that was it. She winced; the ember from her cigarette burned the end of her finger. She flicked it off her hand and dropped the butt of the cigarette. Damn, he had distracted her so much, she wasted half of it.

The Uber car pulled up to the corner; she looked in the passenger window: harmless, nerdy, Volt dude. The driver put the window down. “Viola?”

She nodded.

A smoke cloud followed her as she walked toward the backseat door. “Viola, huh? Never heard a name like that, pretty interesting. Damn, I’ve been walking a long time, trying to get to this friend’s apartment over on Wilshire. Guess I’m doing some couch surfing for a while. Crazy roommate, remember?”

Okay, this was where she cut him off: He had his cigarette; she was not giving him a ride too. “I’m only going seven blocks, more toward Beverly Hills not the mid-Wilshire District.”

“What street?” He flashed her a grin.

“Gotta go, I’m being dropped off at least fifteen blocks from there.” Be firm; what are you doing, taking on charity cases? Charity. Last night in meditation class, the teacher discussed giving back to the world community. Maybe she’d donate to Kiva when she got home, much better to help an accredited organization than some guy who was trying to pull a scam.

She opened the car door and jumped in; his fingers gripped the door case.

“Hey, I’ll take a few blocks away. Damn hot out, he’s got the air blasting in here, feels dope.”

The Uber driver turned around with a deep crease between his eyebrows, a look she took as disapproval.

“Okay, whatever, come on.”

She couldn’t believe she just said she’d give him a ride. As he sat down next to her, he still had his cigarette in the thumb and forefinger of his hand. The smoke swirled between them.

The driver, what was his name on the app, John or Kevin, was beginning to crinkle his lips in a matched pattern to his creased forehead; he looked like he was about to call 911. “Hey, put the cigarette outside.”

Her new charity case nodded at the driver, opening the door and throwing it away. He smelled of sweat, cigarettes, and pot. Of course—a pothead; this was a no-ambition guy who mooched off everyone. Probably hitched a ride from Portland and somehow got to East Hollywood.

“So you do yoga, huh?”

She looked down at her mat in its case. She nodded yes, deciding to not engage him in conversation.

“Yeah, that’s cool. Lived with some yoga teachers. They were like, you can turn your life around just by breathing. Hey, you know, good for them, you too, but by breathing? Sorry. Just couldn’t get into that shit.”

She saw the sun catch the blue-green in his eyes. There was a tint of gold. “Guess I’m one of those, whatcha call, skeptics about life. Everyone back home told me, you’re a young Brad Pitt type, you should be a movie star, so I thought why not go to Hollywood? Caught a bus, landed here. I did the acting thing; it’s a whole buncha bullshit. Agents get you crap auditions, tell you, get an acting coach, headshots, reels, websites: Shit costs a lot of money. Then you gotta get some stupid job to pay for it all.”

She nodded. Yeah, young Brad Pitt, clean him up, maybe even cuter. Stop it, this isn’t a makeover project.

“I finally got a gig, horror film; it was the worst, more like soft porn shit: naked actors covered in mud crawling out of the ground at midnight, some kind of zombie shit. Yeah, more like 3 a.m. on a beach, fucking freezing. I’m thinking, man, I bet Brad Pitt didn’t get where he is this way. Hell, I just finally said, this sucks, and walked away.”

The car pulled up to her street. She couldn’t let him know it was her apartment building. Think of something to say, quick. He looked up as they stopped. “Hey, nice place, Viola, you’re not a yoga teacher livin’ here. God, my throat is dry, this heat. You don’t think you could maybe give me a glass of water before I walk to Wilshire?”

John or Jerry, what was the Uber driver’s name, was staring at her from the rearview mirror like she was insane for being with this guy. She tapped at her cell phone, tipped the driver, and got out of the car.

She started to walk away as fast as she could, but his steps matched every one of hers. “Oh man, I’m being so rude, my name’s Chase.”

Chase, really, such a movie star name, probably his stage name. He grinned at her. It was just water. God, just go get him some. “Listen, Chase, you can hang out by the front door of my lobby. I’m going to go up and I’ll come back down with a bottle of water, okay?”

“Sure. Thanks. Damn hot.”

She nodded back, making sure she didn’t smile, no encouragement.

She watched him sit down on the floor as she pushed the elevator button. What if someone saw him and called the cops? The LAPD might think he was a thief; god knows what could happen.

“Okay, just come up with me. But first, I need you to empty your pockets before we go upstairs.”

He laughed; she just stared him down. “Oh, okay, sure, it’s cool; you don’t know me.” He pulled out a ripped-up wallet with his ID. God, his name really was Chase. He showed her two dollars and two quarters from his other pocket.

The elevator opened and she pointed for him to go in. As the door closed, she flooded with fear. Stupid. Sure, he had no weapons, but he was stronger than she was. Her heart started to race. She felt dizzy. Don’t faint.

He looked at her, his eyes widening. “Oh, hey, man, listen, it’s cool, I would never hurt you.” He grabbed her hand. “Seriously, some water and I’m out of here. Going to this dude’s place for a couple of nights, then I’ll be out of this Hollywood shit by next week. I’m thinking Colorado, Utah, I don’t know.”

She nodded; the doors opened. God, all she wanted to do was look at her Instagram and make a kale and cucumber juice in her Cuisinart. She was definitely going to call her life coach for a calming mantra.

She put the key in the door. “Listen, sorry, I don’t want to be rude. Could you just hang out here? I’ll get the water.”

She closed the door behind her, quickly locking it. If she met him through a friend or at a club, would she have let him in? Did just being dirty make him any more dangerous than anyone else? She was being prejudiced, judgmental. No—she was being smart, cautious. She grabbed a water bottle out of the refrigerator; she should really stop using plastic, but it was so convenient.

She slowly opened the door to see him lying on the carpet. “Here you go.”

He didn’t move; a long breath fell out of his mouth. Is he snoring? “Chase? Chase, wake up.”

She leaned down to shake him but then moved away. When was the last time he had a shower? He had patches of dirt and grease on his clothes; his hair was so tangled, she was pretty sure it hadn’t been combed in months.

She looked along his arms sticking out from his T-shirt. No needle marks. Chase jolted awake and stared at her. “Oh man, I fell asleep, didn’t I?”

She handed him the water. He cracked the cap and started to guzzle it down. He stopped halfway for a breath. “Hey, I appreciate this. Shit, okay, truth, it’s kind of been a week since I’ve found a place, but this dude, I’m pretty sure he’s going to work it out with me.”

“You’ve been sleeping on the streets for a week?”

“Kind of. The cops harass you—and a lot of people on the street, they’ve got their spots, and some of them, you come near them, they freak out. They’re seeing something not real, they come at you swinging. Best place: under the streets.”

“Under the streets?”

“Yeah, quite a few tunnels under the roads, hidden, supposed to be closed, but you can get in, certain manholes get you there. Not good if it’s raining. Hell, then you’d fly down the damn drains and be gone. Lucky, it doesn’t rain much. If I had my tent, I’d sleep along the freeways in the brush, but some asshole stole it.”

She looked at the scrapes along his ankles. “You’ve been living outside for more than a week.”

Chase stared at her. “Maybe three weeks, a month, I don’t know. Guess I’m kinda losing track of time.”

“Are you a drug addict or alcoholic?” She sat down across from him, wondering what her neighbors would do if they saw her sitting here.

“No, man, not an addict. Sure, someone gives me a joint, a beer, I’ll take it. It’s when I did that film, I lost my stupid day job. My agent never paid me, closed up shop, who knows where he went. Couldn’t pay the rent, my roommate kicked me out. Couldn’t pay my cell, didn’t have an address for a new job. So I decided to get some quick money. This guy paid me to deliver some drugs to some production types. Got caught, ended up in jail. Happened so fast. I don’t know. Shit, suddenly you’re on the street.”

She stared at him. Was it just a good sob story, out-of-work actor-type sponging off whoever bought it? She didn’t know. But looking in his eyes, she believed him. What if she gave him twenty dollars, maybe fifty; if he had a hundred, he could get a decent tent.

“Why don’t you take a shower at my place? I’ve got some food, not a lot, tend to eat out; I usually juice at home—toxin cleansing. You can call that guy about the couch.” She stood up and motioned for him to follow her.

He moved nearer to her. She could feel his breath, sweet with the English cigarette. His lips moved close to hers; she felt herself jerk back. His face turned red. “Yeah, um, listen, thanks. I’ll be okay. I’m sure that dude with the couch is gonna work out. Really.”

As he pushed the elevator button, she wanted to yell, stop, but she couldn’t. She was relieved.

“Chase, hey, if it doesn’t work out.”

He nodded and waved as the elevator door closed.

She walked back into her apartment. She had a place to sleep, shower, food if she wanted it; Chase had nothing.

She opened the refrigerator and took out kale and cucumbers, peeled the cucumbers, and threw them in her food processor with the kale, ice, and lemon. Her cell rang with a reminder. She’d forgotten, she had a sound bath meditation in an hour. Was it all a lie, everything Chase said? Did he go to Wilshire?

She threw on leggings and an oversize T-shirt that said, Just Breathe. She put on her new black obsidian crystal necklace and matching bracelets. As she ordered an Uber, she sucked down the juice she made and grabbed her Gucci backpack.

She glanced in the mirror as she threw her hair into a high ponytail. What happened to Chase seemed unbelievable. If it was true, it must be some type of self-sabotage, what else?

Waiting for the Uber she opened the cigarette case. Technically, she only had half a cigarette before. Why didn’t she at least give Chase a few more of these? A small SUV pulled up; she held up her index finger for the driver to wait as she finished the cigarette.

The driver put down the window. “You should order a smoker’s vehicle. I don’t usually let someone in my car who’s smoking.”

She nodded. “I’ll tip you extra for it, sorry.”

The woman gave her an evil stare as she stepped into the backseat. She avoided the driver’s eyes as they wound around hilly side streets to avoid rush-hour traffic. As the car slowed down at a traffic intersection, Viola’s eyes drifted over to a nearby church. An older woman screamed at a row of hedges. Her skin was thick and cracked like a bronzed statue. The woman squatted, creating a stream of wetness down the sidewalk. The woman’s wild eyes met hers. She shuddered, looking away, grateful the light had turned green.

The driver sped through several more blocks until they reached the studio. She practically fled the Uber, almost tripping over a man asleep on a piece of cardboard, she quickly covered her nose from an unbearable stench. It had to be karma, people with past-life issues. She anxiously opened the studio door; the block seemed so nice just a few days ago.

A sound of bells mixed with ocean waves and the scent of lavender enveloped her as soft voices and smiles greeted her. She slipped her sandals off and nestled herself into a meditation chair. The teacher raised her hands into a prayer clasp as the beat of the drums and the low chant of om made her drift into happiness. She would pray for a better world. There must be a solution for people like Chase.

She felt her heart chakra vibrate and open as the teacher rang tiny bells. Maybe she should get shelter information. She could carry flyers around with her, then place them near the homeless.

The drumming became silent; her eyes opened. She smiled at those around her as she got up to get her sandals. She caught the eye of a guy with his hair up neatly in a bun, nothing like Chase’s dirty tangles. His face was smooth, immaculate, as if he maintained it with weekly facials. He smelled of sandalwood, and a silver om symbol on a black braided leather chain hung across the V-neckline of his T-shirt. A T-shirt she knew cost at least a hundred dollars.

“Hi, I’m Willelm. I was thinking about getting dinner; there’s a great vegan place a few blocks away. Would you like to go?”

She smiled: His clothes were clean; he had money for food, for T-shirts, for class. “Yes, I would.”

He asked her what she did for a living. She looked for gold flecks in his eyes. “I blog. I’m working on branding myself as a health guru. I used to model.”

He nodded. “I used to model for a while. I’m studying to be a sustainable woodworker and a vegetarian chef, looking to open my own restaurant someday. Not sure if I will go the urban route or rural.”

She smiled weakly. He was perfect, absolutely perfect. As they walked out of the studio, her foot caught on a manhole she couldn’t move. Was Chase down there? She looked up at the dark sky, searching for rain clouds.

She held onto Willelm as she pulled the sandal out and put it back on. He nodded his head toward the left. A woman or man, she couldn’t tell, was moaning in a parking lot, tugging at their pants, trying to pull them up.

“You don’t want your bare foot on that sidewalk here. Pretty unsanitary. They say it will be another year before this entire area is completely renovated. It’s a shame.”

She crossed the block with him as they walked by another manhole. “Yes, it is. I didn’t realize what’s been going on; I never really looked.”

He nodded and smiled. “Just one more block to the restaurant. Yes, all of the nastiness on these blocks will be completely gone; the whole area will have green housing, organic restaurants, yoga, Pilates, more meditation studios. It’s going to be really beautiful.”

Yes, there will be no ugliness, no people that you have to run and hide from, or avoid. The homeless will absorb themselves into the hills, underground, wherever, as long as she and Willelm didn’t have to see them. After all, it could never happen to her, Willelm, or anyone like them. Could it?

A shadow passed by her, attached to a cigarette ember, and the smell of pot. Her heart started to race. She turned away, choosing to ignore, forget, as the door of the restaurant opened to a smell of asparagus and yams.

Lynne Pickett has more than a dozen stories published in literary publications online and in print.