The place reeked of hard luck, bad people, and sob stories.
I was in that place, trying to gather up the scraps of what was left of my soul.
There was nowhere for me to be, and no one to care if I got there.
I was sitting on the sidewalk watching the news van unpack some gear.
The reporter was a walking mannequin of bleached blonde and silicone, pretty in the plastic way such people were.
I heard her say, “These homeless people are on the fringe of society,” as the cameraman boldly took a shot of me on my urban perch.
At least now I knew where I was in relation to the rest of the world.
On the fringe. In my mind it was a wet, flapping, fringe growing more slippery the tighter I tried to hold on with a hand full of frostbite, arthritis, and gods-knew-what-else.
I wanted to make her beg.
Beg for what?
Her life? Not a killer.
For me to stop? Not a rapist.
To make her cum? Not a billionaire.
Maybe food. Yeah. Beg for scraps in a trash-strewn alley scented with alcoholic urine, and take some half-eaten pastry at the top of the trash for dessert.
The Homeless: brought out for the holidays like decorations, and tucked neatly away again after New Year’s.
But I digress. That was long ago, but she was that pretty, that annoying, and the phrase just stuck with me: “…fringe of society.”
I was still holding on to that fringe, but I didn’t know why.
Below me was nothing but blackness, full of peace and quiet.
Poe used another phrase that stuck with me: ‘…surcease from sorrow.’
All I had to do was let go, but I was no quitter, either.
You don’t qualify.
The apartment was rented.
I don’t have any money, bro.
Get outta here, perv.
Fuck off, monster.
And the ubiquitous Get a job.
The funny thing is, part of the reason I didn’t give up was pride.
What would it take to actually kill me? I’ve certainly become strong.
Surcease of sorrow/ the sun will come out tomorrow. Not a good mashup, but it’s what I held onto for now.
Ah, at last, summoned before the throne of Her Majesty Civil Servant, the Millionth.
But this voice was different; it didn’t have that world weary tone, and it was actually pleasant.
I rose like Leviathan out of the mud.
The young Lady of the Pleasant Voice favored me with a smile.
Ah, she’s new, and yet believes in what she’s doing. Be kind, and don’t shatter her dreams of making a difference.
“Good morning, Mr. Gilliam.”
“Follow me, please?”
We walked through a Land of Cubicles, strewn with soulless drones vainly trying to stem the tide of hopeless refuse, to reach down and boost up the fringe grabbers like me.
They probably all started out like this young lady here, full of determination and hope, with a noble sense of purpose.
Tilting at windmills…
“Sit down, please, Mr. Gilliam.”
“Alright,” I sat.
She settled herself in, tapping the folder full of papers on the desk to straighten out the edges, put it down, and extended her hand across the desk.
“I’m Tina. Nice to meet you.”
I was so surprised I gave her my name too though she already knew it.
She laughed, but I sensed it was at the moment, not me.
“Sorry.” I found myself smiling.
“Don’t be. Nice to meet you, Kevin.”
I found myself beginning to relax as we released hands.
“What happened to Althea?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, but she got sick and had to resign. She didn’t know how long she was going to need, or …if she was coming back.”
I was sad, but not really surprised. Althea hadn’t been the same in a long time, and I knew what I was looking at after awhile.
“Sooo, they gave me her case file, and you’re in it.” She turned to her computer and fired it up, then went back into the folder.
As it booted, I said “She’d been talking about retiring for awhile anyway. I hope she’s okay.”
Tina gave me a small smile. She had a nice one.
“Last I heard, she was fighting it all the way.”
“Good for her. So you’re gonna help me now?”
“I’m going to do my best.” The computer blipped and the dark monitor lit up, an electronic Cyclops with a blind eye full of wisdom it didn’t understand.
“Alrighty, let’s see…”
She tapped some keys, read a bit, tapped some more.
I slouched in the chair and looked down at my hands.
Tina was young, vibrant, and beautiful; I didn’t want to be a creep like I’d been with the reporter.
I was going to miss Althea; she made me laugh in spite of my circumstances. She never found me anything, but I always left feeling better for a little while.
“—were a professor?”
I looked up. “What?”
“You were a professor.”
“Yes. You had my file…”
“No sir, well, yes, but I got your file so I could get your name; I didn’t get the chance to read it yet. I didn’t see this information.”
We fell into a silence as she read through what I taught, and what happened.
The silence held a mild tension, stretching into awkward, when she seemed to make a decision; she turned her chair facing me.
“I may have something for you.”
I stopped fidgeting. “I’m listening.”
“I’m still in school, taking night classes, and I need help.”
I sat up straight and rolled my chair back a bit, hoping this wasn’t going to take a bad turn.
“Help with what?”
“My research and term papers.”
“How is that going to help me?”
“I’d pay you, Mr. Gilliam.”
“What do you mean, Tina…?” My stomach sank.
She laughed and shook her head at my expression.
“With money, Mr. Gilliam. I’d pay you to help me with my papers.”
My face heated. “Oh! Oh, well, I… Tina, I don’t have a bank account anymore.”
“I can help you with that too. Mr. Gilliam, I’d even refer you to my friends, if this works out.”
She gave another small, somewhat embarrassed laugh and rolled her eyes.
“We all need help. I don’t know if you want to teach anymore, but if you’re willing, will you do it?”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
She sat back, smiling. “I handle the paperwork. If I can’t, I’ll call Althea to find out who can. I won’t do anything to jeopardize you or me. We can set it up as a tutoring service. You’d be self-employed, Mr. Gilliam.”
Her chair came toward me again, her eyes hopeful, her voice quiet.
“What do you say?”
Things got blurry, and at first I wasn’t sure why…
“Mr. Gilliam? Oh! Mr. Gilliam?” Smiling, she handed me a tissue. “Mr. Gilliam, please don’t cry.”
In my mind I wrapped the wet fringe around my fingers. It was a start.
Surcease from sorrow…