The Minstrel

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Several miles from where the action was brewing, in a part of town where Victorian Vogue was just beginning to succumb to the domino of abandoned buildings that littered south of there, a young woman called Cindy could be found muttering to herself among the bustle of evening commuters in their Tuesday best, trying to ignore her. She was in bad mood. Not that she was having a bad hair day, or broke her Atkins diet with a potato chip, or any crap like that, though she had found another clump of dark hair on the pavement when she woke up an hour ago. She hadn’t eaten a real meal for days. Whenever she passed by a store window displaying the mannequins in Madison fashion, which was often, she always thought a cadaver was looking back at her; she had never known she had such prominent cheekbones. Maybe living on the streets for the last year or whatever it was had something to do with her rotten mood, but Cindy wasn’t considering that possibility. The weather was getting to her. Another gray day. Same shit different day. Cold. Damp. And it was getting colder and damper with each passing day. Even the fall foliage looked cold and damp in its greyness, not that there was a whole hell of a lot of fall foliage featured as a tourist attraction in this part of the Bronx. With the cold weather descending, maybe she should hitch a ride to Florida. She liked it there, one big beach party where the rum flowed and no one cared about anything but where the next bash was. Besides, she didn’t think that she could take another winter like last year. Ice everywhere. She’d have more fun hanging out in a walk-in freezer. At least there was food there.

That thought led her mind to food. Where could she find it. Could she find it. Even though she knew it was counterproductive, she let herself savor her old life like a good toke of 42nd Street Jonathan’s weed. Bad as life had gotten, food had never been an issue. It had always been there, even in her childhood where they practically lived in poverty. In adolescence, her mother forced her to cook and clean while she whored around with her boyfriends, thinking that she was tricking Cindy into believing she was some high rising career lady. Cindy would pig out on potato chips in rebellion against this burden; potato chips, a small luxury now. Food problems got more high-classed when she was living with her psycho husband. It was like, whether the maid would make her some nice pasta, or would she get stuck with lamb chops again. Within one year of marriage she gained ten pounds, going from five four and one hundred and fifteen to 125, and her six packed husband said she was a whale. So she went on diets, turning food away when all the abundance was right in front of her. There had been so much food in her life that she had to develop self-discipline to refuse it. All that food she wasted; she could use it now. All that money wasted on Jenny Craig and Bally’s. She found the best diet for no money down. Starvation. Homelessness did have its advantages, she supposed. Her stomach growled in fierce agreement.

She stank. Maybe she’d go to the Y and take a shower. She felt too weak to move, but the place was only two blocks down from here. She could rinse her clothes out as well while she was at it, something she didn’t get to do often enough. Public washrooms weren’t cutting it anymore for hygienic practice. It was always a pain in the ass, hanging around until nobody was there, trying not to get caught by some dumb-ass security guard, grabbing a few paper towels, soaping them, ducking back into the cubicle and cleaning whatever body part that was easiest to reach. Repeating the whole process again until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Her skin had never been as dry as it had been since she had to come onto the streets. There were parts of her body that hadn’t seen water, soap, or fresh air for days. Forget laundry service. Her mother would be more reliable. She liked to forget that she’d been wearing the same jeans, underwear, and red shirt for at least two months, but the smell made it hard for her to put it out of her mind. Revulsion went through her. Her own flesh was a decaying rot. The aging process magnified: instead of being old at fifty-five when it was time to trade in for the younger model, she was old at thirty- or was it still twenty-nine? She was so subhuman she didn’t even know how old she was.

Cindy was not a hooker. She stole to survive, though she knew if she ever got caught, she might be sent back from whence she came, like a truant schoolgirl, back to her husband like she was lost property. But she was not into selling herself. Not that she had any real moral objection to the practice, but she had been under the control of men for too long. The risk of jail was the lesser of two evils. Besides, nobody suspected women of stealing anyway, whether it was a wallet left carelessly on a counter or a loaf of bread from a supermarket. They always suspected the black guys for that kind of thing around here. White women’s little brains were incapable of such heinous acts, she supposed, in the lawmen’s eyes, which worked out well for her. She liked stealing bread and fruit mostly, ready and immediate kind of food. Vegetarianism had never been her thing, but it wasn’t so bad when it was the only food that was around.

She had kept herself pretty safe so far. She’d only been beaten up once in the last year, which was nothing compared to the treatment she’d received with her husband. She’d taken the last piece of pizza from a pie that somehow gotten dropped in the street; there must have been a story behind a fresh pizza left in the middle of the South Bronx, especially a supreme. Unfortunately, Cindy had missed all of the action. But she felt damn lucky to be the last one to savor this treasure. Until this old guy with no teeth who’d come just a little too late for the feast had a temper tantrum and took it out on Cindy. She lost a tooth. The old guy got his dues from her. She was sick of being a punching bag for men. She’d punched his head, his stomach, and kicked his balls. She’d called rape. This rich Italian macho guy with buff muscles, moussed hair, gold chains pulled up to the scene in black Corvette like an angel gone suave. He took out the old guy completely in one manicured punch. Cindy had no idea whether the old guy lived or died. The last thing she saw was the rest of the street people gathering around, taking the old guy’s shoes, dumping out his backpack and grabbing at its contents like an open piÑata. There had been woodcarvings, pictures, a stuffed bear, and some money. The last went over well. The stuffed bear got dumped back by the guy’s feet.

What happened to the guy, who cared. That night she got a real four course meal, a real bed, and a nice Italian Stallion to screw. It felt like high school all over again, savoring some really good caramel. She even got some nice clothes, compliments of the guido’s absentee wife who was visiting the Stallion’s mother in New Jersey with the kids. Giving old Tony a break, how nice. Damn, what a break they had, he from the kids and the old lady, she from the streets. He even got her a new tooth the next day. Better than the old one, at least whiter than the old one. Sometimes now, she’d look at it in the subway lavatories. It stuck out like a suburbanite in the ghetto. But it was better than looking like a permanent Halloween decoration. She still wore the clothes, designer jeans and some silk getup shirt and a leather jacket. They’d held up well, but they were starting to go, holes in the ass, stains everywhere. And they weren’t enough to get her through the winter here.

She heard her mother’s voice sometimes. Cindy hadn’t spoken to her for years, didn’t know if she was even alive. But she still heard her voice every so often, like at this moment. Cindy could see her with her fake red nails that never stayed on, black and grey roots stabbing through her tired blond job, clown makeup caked on her face that was supposed to make her look ten years younger but only made her look like a fool. She generally didn’t have much good to say to Cindy, not that she ever did. I raised you with morals. Not to be a slut, her litany would begin. I raised you to be a good girl. To have a man take care of you.

Yeah, yeah, Cindy would retort back All talk and no action, slut. And look what good waiting around for a man did for you. You’d sit by the window telling me what a great guy my dad was, and he was so good I don’t even know who the hell he is. I still don’t know if my last name is your name or my father’s, because I don’t even know if he bothered to marry you. I never met him. But that was what a good girl was, a wuss sitting around waiting for him, a pathetic wimp who couldn’t stand up to him. Then I found a man to take care of me because I didn’t know what it meant to take care of myself, and I wound up just like you, a pathetic mess cowering in the corner. I should have stayed alone the way I was. I would have been better off. I’m better off now that I am alone. Even if I am homeless. Stay away from me with your pathetic way of thinking. Because even though you were willing to give your soul to anyone who had a dick, you wound up alone anyway. Stay away. I need to find my way back to my life. MY life. Stay the hell away from me.

Her mother’s voice slunk away, for now. It would come back, though. It always did. But for now, she was free. Savoring the first moments of liberation was one of the best drugs that Cindy ingested. It was one of the rare moments when she tasted life in her soul.

Cindy disappeared down a dark alley. She was in search of a hot shower and a good meal.

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