“You got some smokes?” Manuel Rodriquez’s voice drifted from the cold stillness that autumn morning. I was getting my newspaper on the front porch-the paper boy had come earlier and collected his funds for the newspaper, and I looked out and saw my friend pleading with a white guy wearing a red bandanna. His chest bulged. His eyes bulged, and were hollowed out. They hung from his sockets and he looked half-dead. I don’t know anything about him. I didn’t know where he was sleeping. It bothered me. A lot of things bothered me.
“Manuel,” I said sharply. “You know better than to talk to them.” He was seventeen. “Come inside, brother, I will feed you.” His clothes smelled like smoke. He had been buying cigarettes instead of spending it on food. He was an idiot. I knew a lot of those.
“No, Mama,” he said, and shook his head. “I don’t take nothing from women.”
“Nothing?” I raised my eyebrow. “How long you been skipping school, Manuel?” I glared at him. He deserved better than what he got. He didn’t really have anything. No parents, no other family, no siblings. Well, a half-brother in Detroit, who wouldn’t speak a word to him. Everyone was afraid. Everyone was offensive. It would never change. Like this was the way to be polite. I shook my head sympathetically.
“Years,” he answered. “You got a problem with that?”
I nodded. “I do. You need to be learning to read, Manuel.”
“No time for books,” he scoffed. “Making money from drugs-that’s where it is at.” He nodded as if he knew all about living in the streets. I’d been living from day to day, barely surviving on rent enough as it was. No one was polite anymore. Perhaps we didn’t know how to be.
He left. I went to work. It was a slow day. Only sold two dozen socks; and we were getting a workload of baby hats this week. It was getting to be cold. The wind was blowing.
Halloween was around the corner.
I thought about Manuel often. Once, a cat came up to my steps and I patted him and offered him a glass of milk. He skirted away, yowling down the street. Manuel was a lot like the cat-afraid of everything, too afraid to admit to the fear.
I had enough money for rent and I was happy. I wouldn’t be pushed out of the apartment like the Robertson family was upstairs. I could hear them yelling as they packed. The oldest son, Bartholomew, was graduating from high school and was getting a job at the deli down the street. He had black hair and pointed ears.
I saw Manuel the next night. He was smoking with his buddies-it wasn’t cigarettes, it was pot. That was the kind of thing that made me afraid, made me wonder what the government had gotten us into. It was like no one had a will of their own, that they couldn’t think for themselves. The human race had been flopping for a long time. We didn’t know how to stop.
It wasn’t the fact that Manuel did drugs that bothered me-it was the fact that he didn’t have a college degree that really irked my tomatoes.
I ran a small business shop that sold baby socks online; and had been for seven years now.
I lived in a small, but moderately furnished, apartment on the West Side of Missouri, and had a boyfriend named Maxwell who had an obsession with music. He dreamt of becoming a superstar one day, but as he became older and balder and fatter, he realized his dreams were to be smashed into a tiny million pieces by the big name businesses of the Upper East Side. I didn’t have a best friend, or any kind of friend. I used to have one, a long time ago, named Margo Westley, but she had become too interested in potheads to be of anymore use to me. I didn’t want to give her anymore money. I didn’t want to become a part of something I was trying to fix-the inability to overanalyze current situations. The current situation was my money problem. I borrowed money from my grandmother and from the bank; I stopped eating fast-food.
No one understood my need to sell socks, but it was there, quick and sure, and undetermined in its realizations.
I didn’t know what it was that I couldn’t know, but the score had to be settled between me and the Big Bad Government. My uncle is said to have died in Vietnam, and later it turns out he turned up in Vegas, always on the slots. I didn’t like gambling. It didn’t suit me.
Everyone had a problem with my need to be good-this was in ‘87, and I had a lot of thinking to do.
In the far back corner of my mind, I remembered school. I remembered nasty Nathan Holligan; I remembered the elementary school principal; his fake mustache and eyes like glass.
He was interested in cars, they were his favorite thing to talk about and he mentioned them to the students as much as he could. Being a principal copped some bad mojo.
The teachers and students and everyone shunned him, but he had his gang of friends and his business outside of school. I loved business and wanted to own a major corporation one day.
Manuel did drugs. He smoked pot and sometimes I saw him at the Pizza Train outside of the apartment building late at nights, pleading for drugs, trying to sell his cocaine. I asked him multiple times where he got the cocaine, but all he could do was stare bug-eyed at me, his Adam’s apple bobbing and a strangling sound protruded from him. He wanted me to buy his drugs.
I said no way, no thanks. He vanished a month later, probably found some gangbangers to cling to. He had no parents.
His mother abandoned him when he was three. His father was a druggie. All the teachers ignored him, and he was a whiz at math. He tried taking a college course but failed because he had panic attacks and they wouldn’t give him SSI. His main job was selling drugs. I offered him a job, but he refused to take it, saying he didn’t want to intervene in friendships. I guess I saw it from his standpoint. I guess I saw it from his point of view.
Politics were getting worse. They were far worse than they ever had been, in the fall of ‘89. Nothing was good as it should be. George Bush was president. I didn’t pay attention to that bullshit, but then again, I didn’t have a television set.
“Manuel,” I said. I saw him again that afternoon. He had bought a suit; his hair was slicked back till it shone. “What you doing? Where are you going?”
“I’m leaving the state,” he answered, smiling at me. “Leaving the state, finding a new job-one without drugs.” He nodded happily. “I’m getting a job, you’ll be proud of me. You’ll see.”
“What about your family? They could help you.”
“No,” he answered. “I’m going to live with my cousin. She had a baby when she was fifteen and she’s real happy. I’m going to live with her. She’s going to help me. Thanks a lot, thanks a whole lot.”
He stuffed his hands into the pocket of his jeans, and went off down the street, whistling a tune I hadn’t heard before.
A door swung open and the whole street was quiet again.