Abner woke to the harsh reality of his smelly pillow. It and the newspapers were the only things between him and the cold, hard cement. The pre-dawn chill was actually warmer. Abner unfolded himself from the fetal curl, stretched lazily and pulled up on his trusty shopping cart until he could feel the blood trickling through his lower extremities again.
He took a tentative step away from his cart. Then another. After the third step, he was confident that he would not stumble from the spindly perch of his tingling legs. He continued to the curb, stepped down and tottered across the cobblestoned street. It was time to feed his pet rock.
The vendors paid him no mind. They were setting up their stalls in advance of the crush of morning commuters that would descend from the 8:03 to City Hall. Abner remembered his days as part of that human wave. He had always stopped at one stall or another, on the lookout for a new delectable treat. His favorite stall was Holly’s; she didn’t waste space with bothersome fruit or villainous veggies. Her offerings were sweets.
This early, Holly had yet to set out the treats. She was fussing with the hotplate as Abner approached. “Tea or coffee?” She gave him her signature smile, even as she viciously smacked the side of the hotplate.
“Tea, please. And one of those pink, purple and black cakes with the chocolate dripping down.” Abner’s stomach growled appreciatively.
“Sorry, Abner, that dessert fail is not for sale. I added too much sugar to the frosting.”
“No worries, it’s for my pet rock. He loves sugar!”
Holly laughed, struck the hotplate again and handed Abner a slice on a napkin. “Sure, Abner, whatever. Give me ten minutes on the tea, this stupid hotplate is on its last legs.”
Abner took the treat, set it on the stall and offered to fix the appliance. “I have a screwdriver.”
“No, that’s okay. You’re bound to go into diabetic shock, as it is. Just come back in a few minutes.”
Abner took the hint and his cake back across the street. In two bites, the cake was gone. He didn’t want the rock to know how little Abner was giving him. Ignorance, like crumbs on the napkin, was bliss. As he approached the shopping cart, he started whistling tunelessly. He knew the rock would recognize his pitch and not fling itself upon Abner’s head when he picked it up.
“Hey there, Ulysses. Rejoice! I’ve brought breakfast.” Abner gently lifted the slab of granite, placed the stained napkin in the cart and lowered the rock upon it. “Bone appa teet!”
A rumbling thunder announced the arrival of the 5:43. The first train of the day disgorged the lowest caste of workers, along with an ungodly amount of grit from the rusting, crumbling flyover. Abner resisted the urge to look up. Instead, he focused on the stairwell, looking for the regulars as they trudged, lemming-like, down the steps and past the stalls. He noted the absence of Santa Claus, the white-bearded fellow who always walked faster than his cohorts. Wait! There he went. Santa had a cane today.
Abner felt horribly for the old guy. To be robbed of his gait, yet still forced to attend to the needs of the city, smacked of cruelty akin to stepping on industrious ants without killing them outright. He wanted to do something for Santa, but Abner was at a loss. Besides, he was certain that his own appearance would be off-putting, negating any benefit he might have conferred upon the old man. Abner contented himself with silently wishing the man a happy day.
Now contemplative, Abner decided to send the daily missive to his imaginary friend, Pogo Kelly. He rooted around in the shopping cart for his Intensely Positive pen, so named because he found that it still wrote after he had fished it from the fountain at City Hall. He found a reasonably clean sheet of paper and began to write:
“My Dear Pogo,
“How are you this morning? You’ll never believe it, but I’ve been banned from Starbucks for washing my hair in their toilets!
“Seems you have to buy their shampoo, first. I tried to tell them that their shampoo is much too hot and expensive.
“The manager called the cops and, when they arrived, I could tell by their glazed looks that they had just been rousted from Dunkin Donuts.
“I was unceremoniously frog-marched from the premises and ordered to shampoo my hair elsewhere.
“Have a glorious day! I shall write again on the morrow.”
Abner carefully folded the letter into a paper airplane and gently tossed it down the street. The constant breeze through the flyover underpass lifted the plane into a little eddy of swirling leaves and debris, up and out of sight. Abner sighed, returned the pen to his cart and went back across the street for his tea.
Just as he reached the opposite side, the 6:03 screeched into the station. Dozens of fishmongers, baristas and sandwich makers descended to the street, swarming to either side of Abner as if he were a jetty. For his part, Abner smiled and greeted each person whose eyes he caught before they could discreetly look away. Most ignored him, or mumbled “g’day” in constipated tones of discomfort.
When the throng had subsided, Abner made his way over to Holly’s stall. “Didja fix it?”
“For now.” Holly handed him a Styrofoam cup.
“Thanks, Holly. I am glad you have not caved to the waxed cup consortium.”
Holly smirked, “The what, now?”
“You know, Lily, Solo and Dixie. The LSD of the paper cup industry. I used to work at Sweetheart, before Solo bought them out and made me redundant.” Abner took a sip of tea and sighed appreciatively.
“Oh, I thought you were a reporter. I used to see you in the Café Demi Tasse.”
Abner sputtered, “Ack! That was nearly seven years ago!”
Holly smiled. “Ari was my mentor. His desserts were so-so, but the beverages were out of this world. I like to think that I improved the pastries during my time there.”
“He signed up for that SpaceX thing, didn’t he? Started to believe his own hype about the origins of his beverages.”
Holly shrugged, “Per aspera ad astra.”
Abner squinted, secretly annoyed that he had no idea what she meant by that. He quickly changed the subject to hide his embarrassment. “I told Pogo about the ‘Starbucks Incident.’ ”
Holly frowned. She was a champion of fairness, dignity and not using coffee as shampoo. She patted Abner on the arm. “Listen, we must always #Hunt4AFreshPerspective. And that goes double for coffee!”
Abner nodded agreeably. “Say, have you seen my new tee-shirt? I found it in the dumpster behind Moe’s.”
“No, you got it on underneath all that?” Holly wiggled her fingers at Abner’s torso.
“You betcha. Gotta protect my investment.” Abner lifted his crusty outer garments to reveal a white shirt with large, black letters splashed across the chest.
Holly chuckled, “Cute. Joke’s on you, though. Now go on, git! I have to finish prepping.”
Abner tucked in his various garments, finished his tea and wished Holly a magnificent morning. As he scampered back across the street, he decided to take another crack at the mysterious book he had found along with the shirt. He reached his cart, muttered a few words to Ulysses and shoved things around until the book was visible.
“Ah, let’s see,” Abner held up the book for Ulysses. “Maybe a random page, this time.”
He turned to page 42, a silent tribute to Douglas Adams. Three symbols stood at attention—a silent tribute to Douglas Hofstadter—though Abner was unaware of that, as he was not able to decipher the glyphs:
He grunted in frustration. The thick book seemed too dense for the subject matter, even with the large font of the symbols. Idly, he wondered if the book contained an index. He flipped to the back of the book and began to riffle the pages. There it was! Excitement mounted briefly, until Abner realized that, although the pages were plainly numbered, the entire index was encrypted, as well! It was as if the author knew a clever person might try to use the index as a decryption key.
Dejectedly, Abner tossed the well-guarded book back into his cart. He barely noted the arrival of the 6:43 to City Hall. A gaggle of giggling secretaries—the advance guard of the white-collar cadre—tapped tapped down the street towards the professional buildings. He would see them when they came dashing back in two hours to fill their bosses’ breakfast orders.
Abner was soon revived by the welcoming distraction of a catchy tune bouncing around in his head. Modulated by his ever-present tinnitus, the tune took on the warble of a warped phonograph. Abner amused himself by flexing his jaw, which caused a high-pitched ringing to overlay the imagined synthesizer.
Eventually, the tune wriggled out and left Abner alone. No sooner had his head quieted than his bladder began to protest. He scampered to the entrance of the flyover, scrabbled up the embankment to the platform and skip-walked to the restroom. The sleepy ticket taker waved lethargically as Abner passed the window.
“Good day, Thomas! Holler at you in a minute!”
“Be right here, Abner.”
A relieved Abner returned to the ticket window.
“One-way passage to San Francisco, pal.”
“That was a ship. Which reminds me, it’ll be one way to San Quentin for you if the seat is wet, again.”
“Oh, man, you ain’t never going to let that go.”
“I can’t, Abner. You know I try to be as regular as the trains. This diet I’m on has me going every half-hour.”
“Hm, well, you got me beat. I’m on the seafood diet. Whenever I see food, I eat it.” Abner pulled a crumpled bag from one of his pockets.
“This right here, though, is the strangest food I ever ate. Somebody tossed it out behind Moe’s. It was nearly full!” He shoved the snack bag through the ticket window.
Thomas held the bag up to the dim bulb in his booth. “Not bad. It has four times the fiber of potato chips.”
“Well,” Abner quipped, “potato chips have four times the taste of these things.”
Distant screeching interrupted their chat. Thomas looked up at the clock. “7:03 is right on time. I’ll talk to you later, friend.”
Abner waved, then playfully reached in and grabbed his bag of snacks. He backed away from the ticket booth as the train pulled in. He never understood why the Transit Authority made Thomas work in the morning. Not a single person was on the platform. For Pete’s sake, it was the penultimate stop.
For kicks, he squeezed on as the low-level clerks shuffled off. Nearly all the passengers were white males and Abner felt like a sparse chip in the cookie. He nodded to a Black fellow who had brushed past rather rudely. “Have a nice day, brotha!”
The doors whispered closed. Abner found a seat in the middle of the train, where he could sit and observe the few remaining passengers at either end. He was glad he had washed up just a few minutes ago, but he was sure he still offended some of them. Ha! A wrinkled nose. He shrugged slightly. What did they expect?
The train sailed underground to City Hall. Abner stood at the middle doors. Again, people avoided him by going to the ends of the car. He got off first, headed toward the east tunnel, where Starbucks lay—a dark, lifeless monolith waiting for the blood of humanity to flow through it.
Abner reached into the trashcan and felt—nothing. Damn. The janitors had decided not to goof off, today. Belatedly, his stomach rumbled in protest.
“Shut up. You just had most of Ulysses’ breakfast. Wait your turn!” His stomach, thus chastened, quieted. He walked to each trashcan along the corridor: Panera Bread, Yogi’s Yogurt, King Garden, Subway. All clean. Abner thought back to the time he’d scored a Kung Pao Chicken platter and a Hero sandwich.
That coup had never been repeated. His much-notched belt was a testament to the relative scarcity of food in this booming metropolis. A poster for the USPS Food Bank caught his eye. His stomach gurgled sardonically. Time to go to work…
…Abner hustled up the tunnel to street level. A couple of quick right turns and he was heading down the service alley, back towards Panera Bread. Ah, the pallet was there. He quickly ripped through the plastic and grabbed a bagel. Just then, the back door opened.
“Dang, Abner! How many times I gotta tell you, man! Just come on in here, ‘fore the po-po see you!”
“Thanks, Mitch. I thought you were off, today.” The lie, feeble as it was, was allowed to clatter to the floor of the kitchen.
“Naw, man, I pulled an extra shift. I got time to make you a panini. My boss ain’t coming in ’til this afternoon. Some kind of area managers’ meeting. I think they are going to raise the prices, again.”
Abner chewed on his purloined bagel. “That’s a shame.”
Mitch quickly assembled the cheese sandwich and shoved it into the press. “It is, it is. Them yuppies, though, they got it like that, you know? I read where their idea of recreation is to go to these oxygen bars.”
Abner guffawed. “No, wait! Did you hear about the fool who nearly blew up that spot on Market Street? Around the Moon. This jackass went in, got his oh-two and then started vaping!”
Mitch howled. “Oh, hell, no! Really?”
Abner nodded, wiping a tear from his eye. “I kid you not. Ever since then, I only scavenge on the east side.
Mitch cracked up. The press beeped. He served the hot sandwich to Abner, along with a small bottle of orange juice.
Abner took the grilled cheese, gratefully. The half-eaten bagel was shoved into a safe pocket. “You know, I was just talking to Holly about the good old days. Café Demi Tasse.”
Mitch grunted. “Yeah, I was only there for a minute. Ari did not like me. Nuh-uh. He was always looking for a way to fire my ass.”
Abner looked shocked. “Ari? No way, man! He was a curmudgeon, but he was good people.”
Mitch shook his head, “Oh, he loved the customers. Ask Holly about the time he docked her for spilling a gallon of soy.”
Abner waved his hand dismissively. “Ari was alright with me. I’m sorry y’all didn’t get along.”
Mitch changed the subject. “Yeah, whatever. How ’bout them Eagles? They finally did it, man.”
“Yessir, my cart is still flying the colors. Speaking of which, I better be getting back up the way.”
Mitch gave him a high five as he opened the back door. “Be safe, brother.”
The walk from City Hall to the flyover used to be 300 hundred trees. When the count went down to 275, Abner suspected that his memory was following his hearing and weight. But when it got to 260, he had decided to ask someone about the trees. A nice old lady finally answered him. Turned out, the city was fighting Dutch Elm disease. So sad.
On this trip, he counted 241 trees. Too bad he couldn’t afford to play the lottery. That was the last three digits of his Social Security Number.
Back under his bridge, Abner squatted upon a milk crate next to his cart. He swigged his orange juice, watched the vendors clean up after the first rush of the morning. Holly’s treats were half gone; between the 8:03 crowd and the subsequent rush of subservient secretaries, most vendors were ready to pack up. Holly usually lasted until she caught the stragglers from the 9:03.
Abner closed his eyes. A full stomach, good company and a mysterious book to puzzle over. Life was good.