Volume 20, Number 4

Nothing to Lose

James Tyler

I love to smoke. I’m out of cigarettes, which kills me. I’m a chain smoker when I have some. There’s a five-dollar bill in my pocket, and I have to walk all the way to Joe’s Market to get me a pack and maybe a cold beer. I have a toothache. It’s somewhere in the back of my mouth. I can’t pinpoint which one it is, but what the hell. Hopefully it will rot and fall out. I can’t afford a dentist. It’s been over twenty years since I went to one.

Downtown Nashville streets are cold and windy. It makes my toothache hurt even worse. I make my way up the sidewalk to Joe’s. Business people fill the walkways going to lunch. I’m hungry, but I’d rather have a beer and cigarettes. Jenny will give me some money later, and I’ll be able to buy a candy bar. That will suffice.

I make it to Joe’s. The store is empty except for the fat cashier, Amy, standing behind the counter. I go to the cooler and open it up. I find my favorite beer and pull it out and close the door.

“Will that be all?” says Amy when I put the beer on the counter.

“Nope,” I say. “I’ll take a pack of your cheapest menthol cigarettes.” I love menthol cigarettes.

Amy searches through the rack and finds a pack that I assume to be the cheapest. She comes back to the cash register, and I put my five-dollar bill on the counter. She takes the bill and punches the buttons. I’m handed back some change, and she puts the beer in a paper bag that fits the beer just right.

“Have a good day, Bill,” she says. She knows my name. I come into Joe’s all the time.

“You too,” I say.

Back on the streets. The wind still bites. I fight to light a cigarette, but the wind blows my lighter’s flame furiously. Finally the cigarette catches flame, and I inhale the smoke. It tastes so good to me. I’m an avid smoker.

I open the beer despite the law, which makes that illegal. I take a sip of beer, and the coldness of it irritates my tooth. “Damn,” I say. “I wish the fucker would just fall out.” If I knew which tooth it was I’d try to yank it out.

I make my way back to the small park located directly across from the library. My friends sit in the park and go into the library for its warmth.

When I arrive I see Macy. She’s missing one of her front teeth. When she smiles you can see the darkness where it used to be. She carries a black kitten named Midnight with her and shares cans of tuna with it. I like her because she’s funny. She could be a comedian. That’s what I tell her, but she just laughs and calls me silly.

“Have you seen Jenny?” I say to her. Jenny’s my girlfriend. She’s also a crack whore. I don’t mind that because she shares her profits with me. At least those profits she doesn’t use to buy her crack. She’s missing several teeth, probably because of her habit, but she can give great head.

“I haven’t seen her,” Macy says. “Could you watch Midnight while I go to the bathroom?” The bathroom is in the library, and she can’t take Midnight with her.

“I’ll watch her,” I say.

Midnight has a red leash, and I take it from Macy. She kisses the kitten and tells it she’ll be right back.

I sit down on the bench and zip up my coat. I’m damn cold. Midnight shivers in the wind, and I feel sorry for her. A kitten shouldn’t be on cold streets. It deserves to be in a warm house with a family and a little girl to play with.

The sky is cloudy. It threatens to rain or maybe snow. I pray that it does neither one. Being homeless sucks if the weather is inclement. Perhaps Jenny will score a john that will buy her a hotel room. If that happens she’ll come get me, and we’ll spend a nice night in warmth.

Midnight meows. I’m sure she’s hungry, but what can I do? Maybe Macy will have a can of tuna for her. Macy’s black backpack sits on the bench next to me, and I’m tempted to look through it. But I decide not to. She wouldn’t appreciate that. I wouldn’t want anybody to search through my pack, which is sitting on the ground in front of me. All it has in it is a change of clothes and a notebook where I write poetry and doodle.

Macy returns from the bathroom. “Thanks,” she says. “I was about to go in my pants.”

“No problem,” I say. “I think Midnight is hungry.”

“Yeah,” she says. “It’s been a while since I fed her.”

Macy opens her pack and pulls out a can of tuna. “Last one,” she says. “I’ll have to go to the store and buy another one.” She has a plastic spoon and scoops out a little tuna. She picks Midnight up and puts her in her lap. Midnight licks at the spoon.

“You want a bite?” Macy says to me.

“No thanks,” I say. “I don’t like tuna.”

Macy takes another scoop of tuna, but this time she takes a bite of it. “I wish I had some mayo.”

I see Thomas on the other side of the street. He’s just come out of the library.

“Thomas,” I say loudly. He’s heard me and waves. He crosses the street and almost gets hit by a car. Thomas is very absent-minded. His teeth are brown from years of smoking and not brushing.

I light another cigarette and flick the spent one into some bushes. I know it’s littering, but I don’t care. I also take a sip of my beer. Thomas will want to drink some, so I want to drink as much as possible before he comes.

“Where’ve you been?” Thomas says when he comes up to me.

“I’ve been walking around,” I say, “clearing my mind. Smoking. Drinking some beer. Trying to stay warm. Where’ve you been?”

“I’ve been in the library,” he says. “Playing on the computer. Damn it’s cold out here.” He rubs his hands together and buttons up his coat. “Hey Macy.”

I take a puff of my cigarette and a sip of the beer.

“Can I have some?” Thomas says, which I knew would happen.

“You can have the rest,” I say.

I feel lousy. I want to see Jenny and go to a hotel. I don’t look forward to sleeping in the bus depot again, especially with it being so cold. I’ve worn out my welcome at the men’s mission for stealing. Yes, I’m a thief. I usually just steal food. I don’t hurt anybody. I’d never hurt any innocent person. I’ve been in jail for stealing, but I didn’t mind it. Three hots and a cot.

I’m banned from the library for stealing DVDs, which I sold. I’m also banned from several stores for stealing. I’ve never stolen from Joe’s, though, because I know Joe, and he’s a kind man. When I want something from a store I either go to Joe’s or get Jenny to go into a store and get me something.

I have to piss. There’s no place I can go to. The restaurants on Commerce Street don’t allow the homeless to use their facilities so I have to go in the alley. Usually it’s no big deal. I used to have a hard time going in the alley because I was scared of getting caught, but now I can go with no problem.

Once I’m relieved I return to the bench where Macy and Thomas are sitting. Thomas is playing with the kitten, and Macy is finishing the can of tuna.

Tonight the Methodist Church is serving a dinner for the homeless. I already know it’s going to be spaghetti with salad and bread. At least I’m not banned from that. My stomach rumbles when I think of it. People will start lining up for it at four o’clock. It’s served at half past four. Two more hours.

I see Barbara coming up the sidewalk. She pushes her shopping cart along. It contains her clothes and bags of cans she plans to sell to the recycling place. I used to collect cans, but I don’t anymore. Too much work.

“Hey Barbara,” I say. She’s a skinny black woman with buckteeth. I think she does heroin, but I’m not sure. I don’t ask.

Barbara halts her cart and looks at me. She doesn’t speak because she’s not too friendly. She’s very introverted and scared of people. She sleeps in an alley somewhere. I saw her there one night, shivering in the shadows.

Barbara waves, which she doesn’t do very often, then moves on.

“Bye,” I say, but she doesn’t say anything back.

There is a glint of sun shining through the clouds. I take it as a good sign that the weather might hold.

Jenny arrives. She’s carrying a yellow plastic bag with her and has her backpack on. She smiles when she sees me.

“What’s in the bag?” I say.

“Just some makeup.”

“Did you make any money?” I say.

“I made seventy-five dollars, but I spent fifty on my fix and ten at the store.”

“That leaves us with fifteen dollars,” I say.

“And I have a surprise,” she says.

“What?” I say.

“I scored us a hotel room on Dixon Pike,” she says.

We hug, and she gives me a kiss on the mouth. I can smell beer on her. She likes to drink too.

“How’s your tooth?” she says.

“Hurts,” I say.

* * *

Four o’clock. Time to eat at the church. Jenny and I are starving. Thomas comes with us, but Macy stays in the park with the kitten. We promise to bring a plate to her.

The line at the church has already started, and it’s long. We’re freezing, but it will be warm inside. Just thirty more minutes.

“I’m hungry, baby,” Jenny says.

“Just a few more minutes,” I say. My tooth is still killing me.

“There’s something I have to tell you,” Jenny says. “I don’t know a good time or place to tell you, so I’ll go ahead now.”

“What?” I say. I’m a little frightened.

“I went to the doctor this morning because I’ve been sick almost every day,” she says.

“I thought it was the crack,” I say.

“Well, I did too,” she says. “But I found out I was pregnant.”

“Pregnant?” I say.

“Yes,” she says.

“You’re going to have a baby?” I say.

“That’s what I’m saying,” she says.

“Who’s the father?” I say, almost trembling.

“Honey, I don’t know,” she says. She starts crying. “I’m so sorry.”

“Of course you’ll get rid of it,” I say. “Have an abortion.”

“I want it.”

“But we live on the streets,” I say. “We can’t raise a baby like this.”

“We’ll work it out,” she says.

“No,” I say. “We can’t.”

The glint of sun I noticed earlier disappeared. The clouds were getting darker, and the wind was blowing harder. I was glad we had a room for the night.

“Thomas, what do you think?” she says. “Should we keep the baby?”

“That’s not up to me,” Thomas says.

“I can make money,” says Jenny. “No more crack. I’ll save all the money I get from turning tricks and save up. We can get a trailer and live in it. You can get a job, and we’ll put our money together.”

“No,” I say.

We wait in silence, and finally the church doors open. The line moves, and we go inside. My appetite is ruined from Jenny’s news, but I know I need to eat. We walk through the serving line and get our food. Jenny, Thomas, and I find a table where we can sit together.

“I’m starving,” Jenny says.

“Before we eat,” a man says using a microphone, “we’ll say a prayer.”

The room grew quiet.

“Thank you,” the man says. “Lord, let this food nourish our bodies …”

The man continues to pray, but I don’t care. I eat my spaghetti. It tastes canned, but it’s eatable. I look at Jenny, and she has her head bowed, no doubt praying for the child growing inside her.

The prayer ends, and I continue to eat. The food makes me feel stronger, but I’m depressed. I don’t want the child.

“You’re afraid,” Jenny says. “You think you’ll have to be responsible, and you will.”

“The damn thing might not even be mine,” I say, my mouth full.

“Don’t call it a damn thing,” she says. “It’s my baby.”

“Just think it out,” I say. “We can’t take care of it.”

“I can do it with or without you,” she says.

My tooth hurts. I have to chew on the left side of my mouth. We eat without talking. Thomas doesn’t even dare to speak. Before we go I get Macy’s plate, and we leave the church.

As soon as we’re outside in the cold I light a cigarette. I look at Jenny’s stomach, but she doesn’t notice. It doesn’t look any larger, but in my mind I can see it growing larger, which it will be in a few months if I can’t convince Jenny to lose it. I have no expectations of becoming a father.

We walk to the park, and Macy is sitting on the bench with Midnight. Davis is there as well. He has a big smile, and his teeth make him somewhat resemble a jack-o'-lantern.

“I have some big news,” Jenny says. “I’m pregnant.”

“What?” Macy and Davis say in unison.

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m having a baby.”

I give Macy her plate.

“Thanks,” she says. “What are you going to name it?”

“I don’t know yet,” Jenny says. “I don’t even know if it’s going to be a girl or boy. I’m so excited.”

“I’m trying to get her to get an abortion,” I say.

“You know it’s up to her,” Macy says. “It’s her body.”

“But we’re homeless,” I say. “We can’t raise a baby on the streets.” I feel a sprinkle of rain.

“Shit,” Davis says, “it’s starting to rain.”

“We should head to the bus station and get the bus to Dixon,” Jenny says.

“What’s on Dixon?” Macy says.

“We’ve got a hotel room,” Jenny says.

“Lucky sons of bitches,” Thomas says. “I’m going to the mission tonight.”

“So am I,” Davis says.

“I don’t know what Midnight and I are going to do,” Macy says. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“You can come with us,” Jenny says. “We have a room with a king bed. All three of us can sleep on it.”

“Thanks,” Macy says.

“Let’s go on,” Jenny says, “before it gets nasty.”

We walk to the bus station. While we walk Macy eats her spaghetti. We are all quiet, but I can tell Jenny wants to talk about the baby.

* * *

It’s shortly after midnight. Jenny and Macy and the kitten are sound asleep, and I’m wide awake. I can’t stop thinking about the baby inside Jenny. I decide to walk down to the 24/7 Café for a cup of coffee. I get out of the bed, slip on my shoes and coat and go over to Jenny’s purse. Somewhere inside is her wallet. I find it and take out five dollars. I put the wallet back in and zip the purse closed.

The door to the room is creaky, so I open it slowly to avoid waking Jenny and Macy. I’m outside in the cold now and don’t look forward to the walk ahead, but I’d rather be in the night air than the dark room. I pull out a cigarette and light it.

The streets are lit by streetlights. Dixon can be dangerous. There are lots of whores and drug dealers hanging around in the shadows. I take a draw from my cigarette as I walk through the nearly empty parking lot. I don’t see any cars on the street. Usually there are johns looking for the ladies of the night and cops looking to find trouble.

I get on the sidewalk and continue to walk. The 24/7 is a few blocks away, so I walk fast, trying to avoid meeting strangers. Ahead I see a woman standing on a corner. No doubt it’s a whore.

“Hey honey,” she says as I draw closer.

“Hello,” I say.

“You want to party?” she says.

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m just walking down to the 24/7.”

“You’re missing out,” she says.

“All I have is five dollars,” I say. “I’m going to spend it on a cup of coffee.”

“You mind if I join you?” she says.

I’m surprised at her question. For a second I’m speechless. A whore wanting to join me for a cup of coffee?

“If you want,” I say, not sure why.

“I need to get out of the cold,” she says. “I haven’t had any luck tonight. The johns don’t like the cold.”

We walk together on the sidewalk. I feel kind of glad to have some company even though she’s not the best kind of company. She smiles in the streetlight, and I can see that she’s missing one of her front teeth and one of her bottom, no doubt from smoking crack. Crack whores are notorious for missing teeth.

“I really need a fix right now,” she says. “I haven’t smoked any since yesterday. I’m about to go crazy. Some caffeine might help.”

I don’t respond. I’ve finished my cigarette and light another.

“Can I have one?” she says.

I open my pack and give her one. She has her own lighter and lights the cigarette.

“Thanks,” she says.

Again I don’t respond.

“You’re kind of quiet,” she says.

“I have a lot to think about,” I say.

“Like what?” she says.

“My girlfriend’s pregnant,” I say. “She wants to keep the baby, and I want her to have an abortion.”

“Why can’t she have the baby?” she says.

“Because we’re homeless,” I say.

“That’s a tough situation,” she says. “Maybe you should let her have it. You know it’s her body.”

I don’t respond again. We finally arrive at 24/7. I open the door for her, and we go inside. It’s warm and smells like waffles and bacon. We sit at a corner booth, and I look out the window into the darkness. I still have my cigarette and continue to smoke, trying not to make eye contact with the whore.

“What’s you’re name?” she says.

“Bill,” I say.

“I’m Sparkle,” she says. “But my real name is Caroline.”

The waitress comes to the table. “Good morning,” she says.

I can see that she has a golden tooth on the right side of her mouth.

“What can I get you to drink?” she says.

“Coffee,” I say.

“And you?” she says to Caroline.

“I’ll have coffee too,” Caroline says.

“Coming up,” the waitress says.

I feel kind of dizzy from lack of food and sleep. I hope the coffee will make me feel better. Caroline is looking out the window into the darkness and smoking her cigarette. She has high cheekbones and is very slender. Her breasts are small. They remind me of Jenny’s.

“What do you want to talk about?” she says.

“I kind of just want to think,” I say.

“You’ve got a lot on your mind?” she says.

The waitress arrives with the coffee. “What can I get you to eat?” she says.

“We’re just having coffee,” I say.

“That’s fine,” the waitress says.

I take my coffee black. Caroline puts cream and sugar in hers.

“Where are you staying tonight?” she says.

“I’m staying with my girlfriend and our friend at Red’s Inn,” I say.

“I’ve stayed there a lot,” she says.

I drink my coffee and smoke another cigarette. Caroline bums another one and lights up.

“You know, you’re kind of cute,” she says. “You remind me of my ex-boyfriend.”

I laugh.

“What’s so funny?” she says.

“Nothing,” I say. I clear my throat and try not to laugh again.

I finish off my cup of coffee and light another cigarette. I look at my watch and it’s almost one o’clock.

“Do you want to go back to my trailer for a little?” she says. “I won’t keep you long.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’d better get back to the hotel.”

“Please come with me,” she says.

“Ok,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I don’t really want to go, but I’m feeling lonely and Caroline isn’t necessarily bad company.”

“Let’s go,” she says. “My trailer park is just a block away.” She takes her last sip of coffee and brushes out her cigarette in the ashtray.

I go to the register and pay. The waitress smiles, and I see her golden tooth again.

“Have a nice night,” she says.

“You too,” I say.

Caroline and I leave the 24/7, and we’re back in the cold.

“Will you hold my hand?” she says when we get to the sidewalk. “My hands are cold.”

“All right,” I say. I take her left hand and we walk together. I wonder if Jenny and Macy have noticed that I left the room.

“This way,” she says. We walk up a small hill, and there are trailers on both sides. I wonder which one is hers.

“Here we are,” she says. The trailer is white and black. I lived in a trailer at one time. It wasn’t too bad, but I liked it better when we moved into a house. I haven’t always been homeless. At one time I lived with a normal family, my mother, father, and little sister. I even went to college and got a degree in English. I thought I had a fulfilling life ahead of me, but that was not to be.

Caroline opens the door of the trailer and we go inside.

“You still up, mom?” she says when we get inside.

Caroline’s mother is fat and has large breasts. She keeps her mouth closed, and I can’t see her teeth. She’s holding a baby.

“Bill,” she says, “this is my mother, Janice, and my baby, Silvio.”

“Hi, Janice,” I say.

“Caroline,” Janice says, “you know what I said about bringing johns home.”

“Bill’s not a john,” Caroline says. “We had coffee together at 24/7.”

The baby starts crying.

“He’s been up all night,” Janice says. “I haven’t gotten to go to sleep all night. I’m exhausted.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Caroline says. “You can go on to bed.”

“You sure?” Janice says.

“It’s my baby,” Caroline says. “He’s my responsibility.”

“Thank you,” Janice says. “I thought I was going to have to be up all night.”

Suddenly I want to leave. Babies make me nervous. I remember when my sister was a baby, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. I’m tired now and just want to leave, go back to the hotel.

Silvio is crying now. Caroline takes the child from her mother.

“Good night,” Janice says.

“Sleep well,” Caroline says.

“Wake me up if you have any problems,” Janice says. She kisses Silvio on the forehead and turns to go.

I look at the child and start shaking. Crying babies do that to me.

“Silvio,” Caroline says, “this is my friend, Bill.”

Silvio is still crying.

“It’s ok,” she says. “You’re such a beautiful baby. Don’t you think so, Bill?”

“Yeah,” I say. That’s the only answer you should ever give a mother. I want to leave, but something is making me stay.

“Do you want to hold him?” she says. “He likes to be held.”

“No,” I say. “That’s ok.”

“I’m serious,” she says. “Hold him.”

“I’ve never held a baby,” I say.

“Hold him,” she says. She walks up to me and reaches the baby out.

Before I know it Silvio is in my arms.

“There you go,” she says. “See, it’s not so bad.”

Silvio stops crying.

“My God,” she says. “He likes you.”

I look into the baby’s teary eyes, and he smiles. He has no teeth, but babies don’t have teeth.

Janice walks into the room.

“I heard the baby stop crying,” Janice says. “I got worried and came to see what’s going on.”

“It’s Bill,” Caroline says. “Silvio likes him.”

I’m holding the baby. He’s still smiling at me, and I kiss his forehead.

“There’s something special about you, Bill,” Janice says. “Silvio can sense it. Babies know when a person is good or bad.”

“I don’t think I’m that good,” I say.

“You are,” Caroline says. “I promise you are. Silvio knows it.”

“Here,” I say to Caroline. “You hold him now. I’ve got to go.”

“Have a good night,” Caroline says, taking the baby. “Silvio is going to miss you.”

“Good bye,” I say. I open the door and leave. The early morning is cold and dark, but I feel warmth inside me. Suddenly I want to have a baby to hold again. I want Jenny to have her baby.

I want to tell her right now. I want to wake her up and embrace her and tell her she can have it with no protest from me. I can hardly feel the cold air.

“Stop right there, motherfucker,” says a person behind me.

I turn around and see a man with a gun. It’s a tall white man. I can hardly breathe. It’s been a long time since I’ve been mugged.

“Give me your fucking wallet,” he says.

I pull out my wallet and hand it to him. The gun is still aimed at my face.

“You don’t got shit in your wallet,” he says. “I should kill you right here, but you’re lucky. I’m going to let you go.”

He puts the gun back in his pocket. “I’m not going to let you off that easy.” Before I can brace for it he punches me in the nose, and I lose my balance and fall.

Then he kicks me in the stomach. I can’t catch my breath.

“Motherfucker,” he says, and I hear him walk away.

I’m on the ground trying to recover. I can feel the blood trickling from my nose and running down my cheek. The sidewalk is hard and cold, but I can’t get up yet. My breath is slowly coming back to me. I’m happy to still be alive.

“You ok?” says someone, standing over me.

I look up and see a black man. He leans over and touches my arm.

“I’m ok now,” I say. “I just got mugged, but it’s all right. He didn’t get anything much.”

“Do you want me to call the cops?” he says.

“No,” I say. “It’s not worth it.”

The man helps me stand up. My nose is bleeding, and my stomach is killing me.

“Thanks for your help,” I say. I wipe my nose on my coat sleeve.

“You’re welcome,” he says. “Sure you’re ok?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I say.

“All right,” he says and walks off.

I continue my walk back to the hotel. I’m happy to be alive, but my nose and stomach hurt. I even smile when I think of Jenny and the baby.

Finally, I arrive at the hotel. I can taste the blood as it runs down my face. I take a deep breath, and my stomach aches.

I take my key out of my pocket and open the hotel door. It’s dark in there and smells like cigarette smoke. Jenny and Macy are still sound asleep.

I walk into the bathroom and turn on the light. Blood is all over my cheek and lips
and chin. I don’t care. I smile and look at my blood-stained teeth. All can be cleaned off before I wake Jenny. I turn the faucet on and wash my face. Blood flows down the sink, and I look at my face again. It’s almost cleaned off. I take a towel from the rack and wipe my face. I stain the white with red. I look in the mirror again, and the blood is finally gone.

I walk back into the room where the girls are sleeping. I think perhaps I should wait until morning to talk to Jenny, but I want to tell her now.

“Jenny,” I say, nudging her.

“What,” she says in a sleepy voice.

“I want you to have the baby,” I say.

Jenny sits up in the bed.

“Are you sure?” she says.

“I’m sure,” I say. “We can do it together.”

We embrace. I can’t wait to hold my own child.