In the spring, Shane found himself unemployed and living at the mercy of a girl whose face he couldn’t recall. Candace had a cheap walk-up in Columbia Heights, two rooms with a microwave and a toilet and neighbors whose culinary cultures insisted they cook cabbage or beans or curry night and day, reminding him of the turnip greens and fatback on his grandmother’s stove and the first time he realized where that fatback came from. School released its wards early one cold March day, and Shane returned home to find his father and uncles with a chainsaw, carving a pig strung between two trees, creeks of blood snaking through the dust in the yard and pooling under the porch of his grandmother’s trailer.
The hallways of Candace’s building smelled like that: sharp and cold. Trapped in a dingy, ferric corner of the world, Shane couldn’t move out: no job, no money. Candace worked as a security guard for, Shane was certain, one of the less prestigious office buildings downtown; otherwise, they wouldn’t hire a woman barely five feet tall who weighed close to 200 pounds. But they paid her enough to rent an apartment that included electric and water so that Shane could leave the lights on all night and flush every time he took a piss, and no one complained.
Shane took his paper plate with an egg solidified into a gelatinous mass through the magic of microwaves and sat at the small table pushed into a corner under the kitchen window. From the apartment next door, a low moan: Mrs. Ritch again. Mrs. Ritch, almost 90, pushing her grocery cart through the city, leaning on it like a walker, refusing to leave for assisted living or a quiet apartment in the suburbs. Shane had little patience for the woman with her wheezing lap dog. Now she’d started moaning. Her moans, a low hum really, at first came only at night and only once or twice a week. Now, she filled most days with her long curlicues of sound. Once, near the beginning, Candace knocked on her door to check on her. When she came back, she reported that Mrs. Ritch didn’t even know she was doing it. “She’s starting to go, poor thing,” Candace had said.
She had a soft spot for the miserable and took Mrs. Ritch microwaved eggs until Shane caught her. He threw an entire carton of Grade A Extra Large eggs on the floor and stomped them until every one was smashed, the floor and his shoes were covered in slime. They were Candace’s eggs – she paid for them – but Shane didn’t care. Better that there be no eggs in the house than her giving his dinner away to people who might have more than they did, people who would probably just take advantage of the generosity of a fat woman who attracted the misery of others, who collected and petted it. Shane could have seen himself as the drum major of her parade of charity cases, but he didn’t. He was once a contributing member of society and that view of himself stuck, even though he’d been unemployed for almost six months and had long since stopped looking for work.
Shane’s days passed; he looked out the window. “Better than any damn TV,” he once told Candace when she asked him what he did all day, after arguing with her about the question. “Is that your womanly way of asking me why the dishes aren’t done, or why my Fruit of the Looms are on the floor? How I spend my days, in what lawful pursuits, so long as I’m not sneaking out on you, bringing in the crabs and whatnot, is my concern.” He could tell she was getting frustrated with him and so, to ensure his continued access to the apartment, he’d had to bed her then, which he tried not to do very often. The way her breasts swung if she was on top, Mrs. Ritch next door breaking into a moan – he was sure he wouldn’t be the only man repulsed.
Shane watched the young men go in and out of the unnamed Korean liquor store across the street; the only sign above the door announced Donuts, Coffee, Beer. Fists clutching the cold necks of malt liquor bottles – never doughnuts – regularly appeared at the 6 a.m. opening, though the prostitutes at the end of their shifts preferred vodka, which they enjoyed in peace on the steps of the Masonic temple until the police waived them away like flies before the commuters arrived.
After the morning rush, after the construction workers building the new middle school on Columbia Road bought their breakfast beers and filled their coolers with lunch beers, the Korean liquor store quieted. The owners waited behind bullet-proof glass, but in the late morning and early afternoon, the only customers were young mothers buying orange juice and milk.
Shane watched the liquor store every morning for at least as long as it took him to eat his egg. It was like watching the news: when the economy was good and housing starts were up, the construction workers bought more – and higher quality – beer. When the specialized economy of K Street was booming (which didn’t necessarily bode well for the rest of the country) and the lawyers and lobbyists were flush with cash, the prostitutes switched to Grey Goose.
Sometimes things happened, sometimes they didn’t. Like today: tail-end of the morning rush hour, a man – young, good-looking, French cuffs – passed Shane’s window in a convertible Porsche, top down. The man looked cocky, did not look like a nice guy. In fact, Shane thought, he looks like he does something bad at work to make the money to afford that car. The driver was going bald – a little scalp showing on the back of his head. It made Shane happy. The light turned green, but the Porsche remained stopped at the intersection. At first Shane thought the driver didn’t want to inch into the intersection because the traffic was heavy, but then he noticed the two black guys standing in the crosswalk in front of the Porsche. They wouldn’t let him pass. And there was nothing the driver could do.
Shane left the apartment and stood outside the liquor store, watching. One of the young men jumped and sat on the hood of the Porsche, landing with a loud crunch. His compatriot doubled over laughing. By this time the driver had raised the roof, creating a cocoon in which he sat and sweated and hoped that the young men would just go away. They did, but only when a Metro bus pulled up to the light beside the Porsche. The driver, a thin older man with gray dreadlocks, slid open his window and said, “Get on out of her e, now.” The hood-sitter eased down, and the two men sauntered across the street against the light, daring the other drivers to honk or accelerate. The Porsche driver touched his forehead in an informal salute to the bus driver who ignored him and continued looking straight ahead.
Shane lit a cigarette and watched the Porsche pull away, tires screeching. But the show was over too quickly with no cursing or fighting, and nothing was going on outside the liquor store. Through the glass door reinforced with steel bars, Shane could barely see the owner and his wife sitting on stools and eating noodles out of white bowls. A small television was on. Shane walked back to the apartment via the grassy median dividing 16th Street rather than the sidewalk – easier on the feet and less vomit. Across from the apartment building he stopped to wait for a car to pass and noticed a brown leather wallet on the grass. He slid his foot over the wallet, hoping to keep anyone else from spotting it. Then he patted his back pocket (where his own nylon wallet thinly sat), shook his head (hoping the shake seemed authentic), and put the wallet in his pocket with his own.
Finally, something was happening. The long days of having nothing to do but watch other people interact with the world were over. Shane could imagine all kinds of scenarios. If the wallet had cash, even $100, Shane could walk out on the fat girl, get a room – for at least a couple of nights – at one of the hotels catering to homeless people, maybe look up some old friends who would be happy to see him for a while. Credit cards would be even better: a room at a real motel (the motels for the homeless would know better than to take a credit card), dinner out, some new clothes. Shane started making lists of things he wanted, things he could buy to exchange for other things he couldn’t get with a credit card. An uncashed paycheck would present more difficulties, but Shane was sure he could work around them.
Shane waited until he got just inside the apartment building and heard the front door close behind him. Then he looked. No one had followed him. He took the wallet out of his back pocket and looked at the leather: expensive. He closed his eyes and held the wallet between his palms, warming it, visualizing the joy and good fortune he was about to receive. “About damn time,” he thought. Then he touched the wallet to his forehead and opened his eyes.
The wallet was not the lottery ticket Shane had been waiting for. It contained exactly $11; a driver’s license belonging to Kathleen Tipp, age 24, HT: 5’6”, WT: 145 (though from her photo Shane guessed she’d fibbed a little on that 145), address on Q Street Northeast; and a birth certificate dated five years earlier for a kid named Kaiti Tipp, whose photo was not included.
Shane waited for the anger to come, but it didn’t. Instead, he climbed the stairs to the apartment and tried to think about what he would do next. He’d been certain that he had spent his last night hugging the left side of Candace’s double bed, trying to keep her from snuggling up next to him and breathing her hot breath on his neck.
Candace was already at home, back from work and sitting on the edge of the bed soaking her feet in a yellow plastic pail filled with Epsom salts. The television was on and turned down so low she couldn’t hear it, which usually infuriated Shane (why have it on at all?). But it was the background hum she needed, not the programs or clanging commercials, and she wasn’t even looking at the screen, which shone a hazy gray. Instead, she peered down at her feet blistered from walking in too-tight brogans, hand-me-downs from the last person to have her job who had walked off in the middle of a shift, barefoot.
Candace didn’t look up when he opened the door; she just sat and stared at her legs disappearing into the pail’s milky water.
“I’m tempted to not even show you this while you got that sour puss look on your face,” Shane said, his voice curling like a fist.
“What you got there?” Candace looked up quickly, giving Shane a hopeful smile. Shane held out the wallet.
“You bought me a wallet?”
“Nah. I found it.” Shane watched Candace’s face relax as she began to realize that finding a wallet was even better than buying one: the found wallet wouldn’t be empty, at least not as empty as her own.
He wasn’t sure how to reel her in, now that she was interested, now that he had something she might want. Eleven dollars wasn’t much. He waved it over her head, she grabbed at it, and pretty soon one or the other of them had turned over the plastic pail, its opaque flood rushing over and into the cracked linoleum. But Shane was pretty sure it was her fault because it was her feet supposed to be holding down the pail, so he hauled off and swatted her one, right across the face. That calmed her down some. Candace got their bath towels and tried to mop up the water, mopping and sniffling in rhythm.
“Oh, honey, don’t be like that, that little pat didn’t hurt you none. It was just a love pat.” As the assurances mounted that he hadn’t meant it, that it couldn’t have really hurt since he didn’t draw back and sock her full force because you aren’t supposed to hit women, see, Candace’s crying slowed until the water on her face and on the floor dried.
Jesus, Shane thought. It was more trouble to get her to stop crying than to make her do it in the first place. So he showed it to her: the wallet itself (pointing out the leather and the “Made in Italy” stamp), the driver’s license, the birth certificate. But not the eleven dollars. While Candace mopped, Shane slipped the money into his back pocket: it wasn’t enough to share.
It hadn’t taken Shane long to hit on the idea of a reward. The girl in the photograph on the license was almost 30 and well-dressed. She didn’t scowl at the camera. She wore small gold earrings, not the big ghetto hoops all the girls seemed to be wearing that spelled out their names. Shane didn’t know exactly where her address was, but it was downtown, near the new convention center and likely in a building converted into condominiums to house folks who got paid way too much to sit in air conditioning and talk on the phone all day (that’s what Candace told hi m they did. When she was on rounds, she saw the office people in their offices: talking on the phone or typing into a computer or sitting in meetings trying not to fall asleep while someone stood pointing at charts. It looks so boring, Candace had said. It looks like money, Shane replied). She was probably one of those people, desperate to get her wallet back, and happy to give them a reward, Shane explained.
Except Candace wasn’t convinced. “Where did you find it again?”
Shane had to think. “Outside here, near the liquor store.”
“Here? Was there any money in it?”
“I already told you no.” Shane got up for a drink of water because his face sometimes turned red when he told a lie.
“But why here? Why would a rich girl who could give us a reward be over here?”
Shane was struck with an inspiration. “Maybe she was robbed. They took the money out and then dropped the rest here. One of our neighbors did it.” The scenario seemed likely enough to Candace. Her apartment, with nothing in it but a few dishes and thrift store clothes, had been broken into twice before Shane moved in and, in his unemployment, became her security system.
The subway would take them within a couple of blocks of Kathleen Tipp’s address. They put on their best clothes and pooled their quarters for the fare. Shane held her hand on the walk to the subway and smiled: his luck could be changing, and he was watching it happen.
The address was easy to find, but it wasn’t one of the new buildings with doormen and granite countertops: It was one of the last public housing projects left downtown, and its time was almost up; the city had sold it to a developer. In the meantime, however, the residents tried to forestall the mandatory evacuation as long as possible. Tenants who could find another place to live took the $5,000 the city offered and left. Those who couldn’t move stayed, though the city had turned the water and electricity off weeks before.
They stood on the cracked sidewalk and looked at the building. Most of the windows had been boarded up.
“You better go by yourself,” Shane said.
“There’s not going to be a reward.” Candace surprised Shane by looking at him, straight in the eyes, something she did rarely.
Shane thought a minute for his best excuse; he didn’t want to go in, but he wanted to see what would happen if Candace did. “There will, too. If she can afford a wallet like this, she’ll give you a reward. She probably has a drug-dealer boyfriend.”
“I’m not going to where there’s drugs. It’s a wallet.” Candace whispered the last word, cutting her eyes at the few tenants lingering in the doorways. “It’s not worth it.”
But Shane pushed her, his hand on her back, a little shove right between the shoulder blades, and Candace walked up to the door that had once had glass but was now just a metal frame and went inside. “I’ll watch; you’ll be okay,” he told her. “She might be uncomfortable if a man shows up.” But the apartment was upstairs, and Shane couldn’t see what happened from the street. He didn’t care anyway. He was certain there would be no reward. If the woman had any money, she wouldn’t be living in this dump. No, he just wanted to see what would happen, whether Candace would return intact. For months, he’d been watching other people’s lives out the window. Now something was happening to him. He leaned against an abandoned picnic table to wait, the benches too filthy with smeared feces for sitting.
Ten minutes passed before Candace reappeared. Shane dropped his cigarette and crushed it beneath his shoe, disappointed that she hadn’t come out of the building running and screaming. He watched her approach and looked for signs of a struggle, but there were no tears, no torn clothes, no cheeks red from a good slap. All he noticed were her puckered lips, something she did when she was thinking hard. He couldn’t wait any longer.
“She was happy to get it back, right? Did you get us a reward?” Candace brushed past him without answering and headed back in the direction of the subway.
“Hey!” Shane grabbed her arm. “What about the reward? Where’s my half?”
Candace shook her arm to loosen his grip, and the unexpected move threw Shane off balance. He took a step back.
“Did you steal that wallet?” she asked him.
“What are you talking about? I found the damn thing, like I told you.”
Candace nodded her head toward the apartment building. “She said there was money in it.”
“What kind of money?”
“Big money, she said. Big.”
“Look at this place; how could there be big money? She probably has no idea what big money is. Besides, she was robbed, right? Like I said. And whatever was in it, they got.”
“No. She said she dropped it outside our building, that her kid was yanking on her arm and she reached down to slap her good and it probably fell out of her purse. Right where you said you found it. And there was money in it.”
“There was no money. I showed you the wallet.” Candace started to walk away, but Shane blocked her path. Nothing had happened yet. Kathleen Tipp hadn’t come out of the apartment to scream at him; she hadn’t sent her brother or boyfriend or next door neighbor down to threaten or beat him up. Candace came back no worse for the adventure except being a little pissed off. Even the punks on the corner had gotten tired of watching them argue and had gone inside.
“The damn wallet was empty. What do you want? Besides, look at this place. It ain’t likely she had a whole lot of cash, anyway, right?” Shane squeezed her upper arm tight and dug his fingernails into the soft flabby skin.
Candace closed her eyes. Shane waited for her to start crying and was reaching for her other arm when she leaned her head back and started moaning. Loud moans from the gut, not like the thin wispy moans of Mrs. Ritch: loud and creepy enough to attract attention if she didn’t stop soon. Shane shook her arm. “Stop it, Candace. Stop it.”
But somehow she got louder. Shane dropped her arm and looked around to make sure no one was coming to see what cow had gotten itself skewered in the middle of the city. Candace immediately opened her eyes and began backing away. When she realized he wasn’t going to follow her, she hurried down the sidewalk towards the subway.
Shane spent the night in the alley behind Candace’s apartment building. He waited until he saw her leave for work the next morning, intending to take what he could out of the apartment – her television for one thing – to sell and compensate himself for the wallet fiasco. Outside her apartment door, he felt a brief moment of fear that she had had the locks changed overnight, but his key still fit. He turned the key, but the door would open only two inches: the chain was on. Shane pushed against the chain and tried to peer inside with his face squished against the door. A few seconds later, Mrs. Ritch’s hairy chin looked back at him. As he fled down the stairs, he heard Mrs. Ritch shout “Asshole!” and slam the door.
Shane took the eleven dollars, his reward, to the liquor store and bought some doughnuts and eggs.
Kellie Isbell’s fiction has appeared in Sanctuary, in The Duck and Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide, and online at elimae and Pindeldyboz. She is prohibited by her employer from telling you anything about her work life. From that, you could assume that her work is important or interesting. But you would be wrong.