Fiction by Whitney Lawson
Beads was entering his second year as a man without a roof, but he had a good racket. He knew you had to be careful not to wear out your spots. Beads had several in rotation, but his favorite was a corner near a highway exit where North Tulsa bled into gentrified coffee houses and farm-to-table restaurants. He would arrive there by seven in the morning and, sitting on an overturned cat litter tub that doubled as furniture and container, take out a bible and marker he’d lifted from Wal-Mart, and begin underlining passages in the text. The gold-edged pages glinted unmistakably in the rising sun, and windows rolled down with a satisfying whir, disembodied, pale hands beckoning him over to collect a bill. He was only studying scripture, not asking for anything.
Today, near the stoplight, Macy and Cot, a newcomer from Kansas, raised cleanly-lettered and earnest signs. Macy’s was even on a neon orange poster board like a school project. Beads usually made more though, without trying. One morning, a lady in a flowing tunic even exited her SUV, still running at the light, and handed him a twenty-dollar bill and the handwritten address to her Baptist church. The trick was in knowing your audience, Beads told Macy afterward.
Cot liked to dance to something only he could hear and Beads thought that doubled as a good way to keep warm, but the man’s jerky movements and matted gray beard might be off-putting to commuters idling in their cars at the stoplight. Windows weren’t coming down, and Beads resented him. You had to look as normal as possible, present like some unforeseen set of circumstances had thrown you here and a few dollars was all you needed to dig out. If he made ten dollars by noon, he would walk across the bridge to Dong’s Liquor, pick out ten airplane bottles, and settle into a warm alcove outside a shuttered strip mall for the rest of the day, his throat and belly lit up.
Beads liked to drink and had from fifteen on, though without a steady income enough alcohol could be hard to come by, and this had probably prolonged his life to thirty-seven years that hardly seemed achievable. He’d seen some dry, itchy weeks when the bible racket didn’t catch. He hoped it did today; this late February Wednesday had turned off bitterly cold and there was much talk of the weather at the corner outpost. If you weren’t already too addled by whatever put you here, you were making plans. The shelters and churches were pretty full, Beads heard, but he wasn’t too worried. He didn’t like them anyway, not the Christians or the noise.
Across the street, there was a nice grocery store Beads had been asked to leave a few times, and he eventually gave up highlighting in the bible and watched the parking lot fill and empty and fill again. The sky looked like mottled, dirty wax, and the wind picked up, whipping Macy’s ratty Dallas Cowboys scarf around her square little body. She did not have any gloves, and her hands were cracked and blistering red against the sign she held. Beads had gloves, but he wasn’t about to turn them over to her, though he was a little in love with Macy.
Macy had a bad story, but everyone did. Nothing had started out right for Beads either, not even his name. He knew his mother, a bad drunk herself, meant to name him after Saint Beade, having gone through a short-lived Catholic sobriety during her pregnancy, but she was confused by the spelling or the nurse didn’t hear, and, somehow, the name stuck.
He’d had some bright spots, too, though; a couple of sober years, one girlfriend with daddy issues and a solid brick house he lived at for a while, until she figured him out. Besides, there was some freedom to this life. Beads’ father worked as a high school janitor until he died from a massive coronary at fifty, calluses on his hands from holding a dirty mop. Beads wasn’t beholden to anyone, not like his father or his mother, a waitress at Jalopy’s Diner when she was steady enough to lift a tray of pancakes. Both dead young and believing some great reward waited in heaven, high above this poor place.
Beads watched Macy bounce from one foot to another. She had a string of fresh sores along her jaw line, but she’d put on a little red lipstick today, a slash of color amidst all the gray surrounding them. He’d known Macy before they both hit the streets, ran into her years ago at a wild party with everything on the menu. They knew a few of the same people. He remembered her then, maybe twenty-two, leaning against a folding table laughing, the color in her cheeks bright and high. She had a long brown braid tossed over her shoulder like a greasy horse’s tail, but her features were delicate and young. Her face now was puffy from wind and the Suboxone she received from the place downtown, hair shorn short and grown thin enough to reveal her flaking scalp, but he could still see the shadows of her loveliness. Beads heard she was with Cot now, but he recalled one humid summer when they walked all over this city together, and the feel of her small hands on his back.
Trucks roared by in white clouds of exhaust. Now the wind was cutting, stinging his skin, and though his brain was softened by years of drink, Beads still feared what they all did—freezing under a bridge, found by the police, and no one to claim you. Tulsa was good for the way he lived because the weather stayed fairly warm, year round, and he knew some folks who had bussed all the way down from Detroit and Denver for the weather alone. He didn’t have much to go on for—just the want for alcohol, refined into a hot, ferocious thirst over the years. Yet with only a swig of a neighbor’s Burnett’s to start the day, his senses were sharper than he’d have liked, and Beads could feel that old primal fear of death and pain kicking in his belly. There was some part of him that kept moving forward, something still burning inside him like a guttering blue pilot light.
As he watched darker clouds snug against the downtown skyscrapers, Macy came over to Beads and squatted down next to his cat litter box. He was happy to see her. He wondered if she was holding anything.
“Girl, are you just using me to get out of the wind?” he asked.
“Yessir.” She still had some country twang to her voice and a hoarse, braying laugh.
“What about this cold, huh?” he asked, trying to keep it light.
“The weather says it’s going to be the coldest day of the year,” she told him.
“How do they know that, then? The year’s just started.”
Macy shook her head somberly, as though she were holding far more information in her hands than Beads, and that was probably true. He remembered that she was pretty smart and had even taken some classes at the downtown community college once.
“They just know,” she said. “They have all this technology now.”
They were the bigger world, Beads thought, the people making the rules and the infrastructure that he climbed all over like a jungle gym.
“It’s not going very good this morning,” Beads said, as though she could have failed to miss the fact that they’d all probably taken in three dollars among them. “You and Cot staying out here or finding someplace else to pass the day?”
“I think we’re gonna try that new church on 15th. They’ve been feeding people, and I heard they’re setting up some beds since it’s so goddamn cold. And the food is supposed to be good. Not like the Baptists downtown that just give you a potato and banana, like you could do anything with that.”
Beads remembered the potato people, and he recalled the shame of carting his one raw potato down the street, until he pitched it into a parking lot. He would rather try to lift some yogurt or something from a grocery, maybe find some free cheese samples to pocket.
“Come with us then,” Macy said. Beads wanted to; she was a touchstone from another life, back when drinking was still wild and fun, instead of a full-time job that required constant planning. He was lonely, most days. But he looked up and saw Cot watching them. He’d heard Cot carried a big knife in his jacket and the man’s mood was uneven. He’d better not get himself into any kind of trouble, not when the weather already promised plenty of it.
“You go now,” he told her. “I may stay another hour, try to catch the lunch rush and put on them puppy dog eyes.”
“Meet us there later,” Macy said. “I worry about you, you know?”
“Yeah,” Beads said. He looked down at her feet in old Nike’s, probably children’s shoes. Her hands were shaking wildly, like white moths. She didn’t have anything on her, and he didn’t ask. He watched Macy and Cot neatly bundle up their things like soldiers changing camp, and started thinking about relocating, too.
He packed his bible and marker into the litter tub and closed the lid. Often, Beads started walking because that’s the only thing he could do, and he didn’t know if he was going toward something or running away or both at the same time. The snow finally began to fall, hard, sharp flakes that were more ice than anything, peppering his face like gravel. The cold had gone too far inside him now, and he felt himself begin to tremble involuntarily. He could still see Cot and Macy ahead of him, ambling down the sidewalk with their possessions toward a gas station.
He didn’t know where else to go, so he grabbed his things and followed them after all. They were a slow pair, and it didn’t take him much time to catch up, coming abreast with them on the sidewalk.
“Changed my mind,” he said, smiling at Macy. He looked at Cot, who was still chanting something under his breath. “Beads,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you. Mace said I could tag along with you.”
“Son of a bitch,” Cot murmured.
“Okay,” Beads said.
“Don’t worry about him,” Macy said. “He got fucked up in the army. It ain’t you.”
“That makes me feel better,” Beads said. “Listen, if ya’ll are headed to this place for the night, what about pooling our resources first, stopping by Dong’s? I’ve got a couple bucks.”
“We don’t have a lot,” Macy said, looking at him nervously. Theft was always a problem even, or especially, among friends.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Beads said, though he was worried about it. He put his head down against the wind. They were approaching the big art museum, a collection of cowboy paintings housed in an oil baron’s mansion with white columns and lush formal gardens. The lawn was dead and brown, but Beads remembered going with his mother to an exotic plant sale there as a kid, seeing speckled yellow orchids and alien-looking staghorn ferns under great striped tents.
“I’ve been in there,” Macy said as they walked by the museum. “They had these big-ass Doberman statues inside.”
“They’ve got a waterfall back in the garden,” Beads said, remembering from a long way off. He imagined it frozen into white folds of ice, now.
They had to pass by the museum parking lot to continue on their way, and Beads could tell they were making a young woman standing next to an SUV nervous. She was rifling around in her purse, keeping her eyes down. She had a bumper sticker that asked “do you follow Jesus this close?” and another from the nearby private college. Her hair was an expensive-looking white blonde, and she wore leather boots to the knee.
Beads nudged Macy.
“Tell Cot to hang back a minute, and come on with me,” he said. “I want to try something.” Cot did wait near a bus stop bench; Beads was finding he was entirely docile when Macy asked him to do something. Beads and Macy sped up and approached the girl.
“Excuse me,” he said, “could we bother you for a minute?”
The girl lifted her head, wild-eyed and silent. Beads noticed dark lipstick feathered at the corners of her mouth.
“My wife and me are trying to get to Texas for some work,” he said. “And our car broke down. There any way you might be able to help us out?”
The girl squeaked something incomprehensible. She seemed frightened, and Beads felt a little bad. She pulled a folded twenty from her bag and handed it to Macy, who began to thank her, over and over.
“You have a good day now!” Beads said, and they retraced their steps to find Cot dozing at the bus stop. They sat down on either side of him, the wind buffeting the cracked plastic portico over the bench.
“Well, we’re cooking with gas,” Beads said to Macy, eyeing the fist she made around the crumpled bill. “What do you want to do with it? Should we leave him here to sleep?” He had some idea of abandoning Cot and going with Macy to buy something halfway decent, but she was already pulling at Cot’s jacket sleeve to rouse him.
“We can stop someplace if you want,” Macy said, “but I’m not walking all the way to Dong’s. We need to get inside before it gets real dark.” The clouds were low and charcoal, but the sleet had stopped at least, Beads thought. The weather was usually an exaggeration, anyway; this part of the country didn’t get snow like it used to when he was a boy. He was more concerned about spending the twenty than the weather, yet he knew the city better than any GPS and, on his internal map, the locations of liquor stores pulsed and glowed.
“I know somewhere close,” he said. They got Cot to his feet and Beads struck out first, with the others following in a compact line.
He could have been wrong about the weather, Beads thought, as they rounded a corner and a gust of icy wind funneled between two office buildings nearly knocked him down. He could feel blisters on his heels rubbing and bleeding against the old pair of boots he wore without socks. The air seemed strangely thin, as though he couldn’t quite get a decent breath, and there was a stitch between his ribs. Even Beads’ cat litter tub seemed heavier than usual, thudding against a sore spot on his leg as he walked, and he wished he could stow it somewhere, but he’d lost his things this way before. He’d feel much better once he had something to take the edge off, he knew, and he listened to the swish of Cot’s big jacket moving and kept his eyes on the sidewalk.
A man in a puffer jacket, walking a black dog on a retractable leash, passed around them. The dog tried to loop back to see Beads, who had always been well-liked by animals, but his owner pulled sharply on the lead and quickened their pace. Beads wished he hadn’t. He’d have liked to pet the dog, feel its wiry fur.
“Are we fucking there yet?” Macy asked behind him, the wind swallowing pieces of her words.
“Yeah,” Beads said, and they were. He could spot the little liquor store up ahead, sandwiched between a kolache place and a steak restaurant. Just a block more, he thought, his stomach roiling.
Though Macy had promised him snow, there was only ice again, coming down at a slant and sticking immediately to the sidewalk in black patches. It might have been pretty, Beads thought, if you were looking out a window. He had almost hoped for snow, wanting to feel the soft give of it as he walked. When he was a child, on the rare days that there was snow on the ground, his mother would wake him up with the same rhyme, snapping on his bedside light and saying “hey, Mr. Rabbit, your tails all white; gosh, by golly, it snowed last night!”
“Let me see that money,” Beads said, turning to Macy as they walked into the parking lot of the store. He noticed some Mercedes and Audis parked there and knew they would have to be quick and careful.
“I’m going in,” Macy said. He didn’t know where she’d secreted the bill, and, in his current state, he had half a mind to grab the jacket off her and run.
“Let me do it,” he argued. He could hardly see her through the ice beading on his brows and eyelashes, and he couldn’t stand to be out a moment more.
“You really think they’re gonna let either of you in there?” she asked. “I’m the best looking one here. And a girl.”
It was true, Beads thought. She did look the most put together. That was the right way to play it, but he wanted to look at the gleaming bottles himself, surrounded by central heat. He took Macy’s things to hold while she was inside.
“Hurry up,” he said.
“Watch Cot for me,” she told him. “Make sure he don’t wander off.”
Jesus Christ, Beads thought.
All he’d wanted was a drink and a quiet evening and here he was standing in the middle of an ice storm, babysitting a grown man for a woman he still had some designs on.
To escape the wind while they waited, Beads led Cot to an alley around the side of the building, and they posted up against the cold brick side-by-side. Beads looked down and saw a legless Barbie doll at his feet, her synthetic hair in a helmet of ice.
“So how did you hook up with Macy?” Beads asked, desperate to break the silence between them. Cot lifted his head from the big collar of his jacket. Cot was far younger than he’d thought, Beads realized. His face was surprisingly unlined, his beard only prematurely gray.
“At the McDonald’s,” Cot said. Beads knew the one, and he could imagine Macy striking up a conversation with him in the parking lot after buying her dollar cheeseburger. She was a friendly girl, especially when she was high.
“Why did you come here from Kansas?” Beads asked.
“Got kicked out,” Cot said flatly.
“Of Kansas?” Beads asked. But Cot only buried his head back in his jacket, and Beads was relieved to hear Macy coming around the corner. He’d held her things less out of kindness and more to ensure that she wouldn’t take the money and disappear.
Macy was holding a big brown paper bag and he could hear glass clinking inside it as she came closer. Beads felt his muscles relax a little, no longer bracing and tightening against the cold. Where could they go, he wondered, to relax undisturbed?
“Ya’ll can’t stay back there,” a man’s voice boomed. Through the scrim of falling ice, Beads saw a shopping center security guard moving toward them at a clipped pace, waving his hands in the air, as though trying to scatter stray cats. It was always the same line, Beads thought. You can’t stay here. You need to go on.
“All right, sir,” Beads yelled back. “We’re going.” He noticed that Cot seemed agitated, looking at the security guard with fear. Macy placed her hand on his arm to guide him.
“That overpass near downtown?” Beads asked Macy, and she nodded as they set off into the driving storm, loaded down like arctic explorers, the bottles tinging together as Macy walked. She knew that overpass because they practically lived there when he was with her, Beads thought. Their summer home, they called it then. The summer chateau.
The underpass had steep concrete banks with some Latin Kings graffiti, but there was a good, wide berth on either side of the road. Beads had seen tents before, but they must have been cleared out recently; there was no one else. He remembered going to the movies as a kid and getting a theater to himself once. This was nearly as good. There was only some trash left behind, and he noticed a child’s sock, wadded up fast food bag, and water bottle full of something murky and brown. Macy had some thin blankets in her tote, and she unfurled them as if for a picnic.
Beads opened the paper bag and found two screw top jugs of cheap vodka. She’d made the money go pretty far, at least. The silver eagle and red stripe on the label looked a little soviet in design to Beads. Gut rot, but effective, he thought, taking a deep, glugging drink that lit the sores in his mouth on fire and burned a hot trail down his esophagus. He gagged a little, but kept it down, and soon the edges of things were softened, and his eardrums were no longer throbbing with cold. He sat on the blanket next to Macy and leaned back against the concrete walls. He could feel the vibrations of semis rattling along the overpass, down through the supporting beams and humming into his spine. The light was waning, and only a few cars crawled by them, hesitant on the slick black road. Strings of ice fell at the mouth of the underpass.
“The day turned out, didn’t it?” Beads asked Macy. He handed her the bottle. Cot wasn’t drinking, and he’d fallen asleep again.
“Sure did,” Macy said. She’d knocked back a lot quickly, Beads thought, and her voice already sounded muddy. “I wish we had something to eat,” she said.
Food didn’t always occur to Beads, and he couldn’t really remember the last time he ate. His body seemed to run like a car now, on only liquid fuel.
“We’ll get something in the morning,” he told her. It was easy to sit beside Macy again; she was helpful and companionable. The drink made him feel like talking.
“So is this a thing you’ve got going with Cot now?” he asked.
“I guess,” she said. “I like him. He has trouble in his head, but he don’t ever use anything. I’ve been doing a little better since I started going around with him.” She looked down at the jug held between her legs and laughed with a sadness that made Beads’ chest hurt a little. “Or at least until today, I was.”
“Didn’t know you were clean,” Beads said. The recent sores on her face had told him otherwise.
“I’m not. Not really. But I have weeks where I am, and then I get cold or angry or bored and I mess up again. When was the last time you were?” she asked him.
“By choice? Hell if I know. Maybe three years,” he said, and then it was only for a few nights when he had a seizure in a Walgreens and was loaded up in an ambulance.
Macy didn’t look well, he realized. She was pale and shivering, her eyes and cheeks dark and hollow as headlights flashed on and off her face. Beads stood up unevenly and offered her his hand. He felt a surge of energy rush through him.
“Have a last drink if you need to,” he said. “I’m taking you to the Baptists.” He prodded at Cot with his boot, a little too hard.
“Come on,” he said. “We need to get your girl somewhere warm.”
There was no honor among thieves, Beads thought, and, though he was worried about Macy, he also knew that if he got them into a shelter for the night, he could have the rest of the vodka. Macy was too checked out to notice or care, and he packed her bag for her, rolling up the blankets as he’d learned in boy scouts. As he did, his fingers hit a fat manila folder, wedged in the corner of her nylon duffel.
He looked over at Macy, who was leaning her weight against Cot, liquid and ungainly as a foal struggling to get her legs beneath her. He peered inside the bag and opened the flap of the envelope to find more money than he had seen anyone carry on the street, at least a few hundred dollars in flattened bills, damp from the weather. Beads couldn’t imagine where they had come from, but the bills were small, mostly ones, fives, and some tens, and he thought she surely must have earned them on the corner with her poster board. He couldn’t believe no one had taken the money, but more unbelievable still was that Macy hadn’t spent it on the pills she liked, the ones she said stole away every ounce of pain you’d ever experienced, smoothed it all away like strong water over stone.
She was keeping the money for something, he knew. Maybe even a place to stay with Cot. He felt a rush of anger at her for this and at himself. Crazy as he seemed, Cot had inspired her to get to higher ground. He wished she had saved the money for him, for them to escape together. He wished he had the ability to do it himself—it was a strength he didn’t have, probably wouldn’t ever have, he realized. Keeping his hands in the darkness of the duffle bag, he peeled a thick chunk of bills off the top. Maybe fifty or a hundred, he wasn’t sure, but more than he had held in years. Beads crumpled them into his palm and smoothed the bills into his jacket pocket. He would take them to the shelter, Beads thought, make sure they were both safe. If she even noticed what was missing, she would assume the theft happened in the shelter, as it so often did. And he needed the money.
He straightened up, conscious of the lump of bills in his pocket. His arms and legs felt numb, and his bladder was heavy. He could hear his own teeth chattering loosely in his skull. But at least he had the bottles, one still full, and enough to get him through the cold. He took a deep, fortifying drink before stowing them both in his cat litter tub.
“She’s not doing too good,” Cot said to Beads. He was running his hands briskly over Macy’s shoulders as if trying to start a fire. Beads was astounded to hear Cot express such a coherent thought. He could feel his heart beating too loud and fast, skipping around and pounding in his eardrums, and he wasn’t sure if it was the cold or impending loneliness.
“Let’s go,” Beads said, and he led them out of the tunnel.
The world glittered, and their footsteps crunched over the ice as they cut across an empty park and made their way toward the bright, art deco skyline, Cot half-carrying Macy each time she tried to sit down. Beads was feeling good now, and almost too warm from the walk. He took off his jacket and gloves, draping them over his arm. They walked past the 24 hour adult entertainment store, neon sign still blinking, and the big community college building. Maybe Beads was a little drunk; the downtown streetlights glowed in giant, blurry orbs. He kept catching the toes of his boots on cracks in the sidewalk, weaving just a little. Yet he knew the city by muscle memory, and when they arrived in front of the small shelter, it was as though he had sleep-walked there.
“I’ll wait here to make sure you get a bed,” Beads told Cot.
“You not coming inside?” Cot asked.
“Nah. Got too much drinking left to do tonight,” he laughed.
“Take good care of yourself,” Macy said, patting his elbow. Through his blurred vision and the orange cast of light pollution, he thought, for a moment, that she looked just like the girl he remembered, her face unlined and hair long again. He looked at her small, pale face and remembered the cash in his pocket.
“Hey, could I have one of those extra blankets for tonight?” he asked. She nodded, slinging the duffel bag toward him. He knelt and removed a blanket, dipping in his jacket for the bills and stuffing them into the envelope again. Neither of them seemed to notice, and he handed the bag to Cot.
“It’s important you don’t lose this while you’re in there,” he said, and Cot folded the duffel into his chest.
“We’ll see you at the corner spot,” Macy said. They opened the door, and Beads stood for a moment in the light and heat that spilled out. He waited ten minutes, then twenty, and the door did not open again. He was glad Macy was warm, but he felt a yawning ache for her.
Beads had planned to make his way back to the underpass, but the evening was clear and lovely, after the storm. He was tired of carrying his container, so he stashed it behind an ornamental tree next to the sidewalk, taking the bottles with them. He felt a little disoriented. A few blocks ahead, he could see a tall, thin spire, rising high above the buildings surrounding it. He couldn’t recall what the spire was, and he began moving toward it to find a landmark, growing warmer and more sluggish. Where the hell did that come from, he whispered. Surely he had seen it before, but he still wasn’t sure where he was.
At last, he came to the base of a great church. Beads saw glowing terracotta sculptures of angels, men on horseback balanced across the building and, at the very top, what seemed to be stylized hands reaching toward the heavens. Beads thought how he didn’t hurt at all now, standing in the cold that felt crisp and pleasant. He couldn’t even be sure that he was still in Tulsa; maybe he had walked into some other town, some parallel plane. He wasn’t thirsty, and his mind felt still as the frozen streets. He stared up until he found the dizzying top of the spire and raised his own hands in prayer, trying to touch the dark bowl of sky.
|Whitney Lawson recently won The Chattahoochee Review‘s 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction. Her fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, This Land, Barely South Review, and Blunderbuss Magazine under the name Whitney Ray. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and currently lives and teaches in Tulsa, Oklahoma.|