The door to Uncle Wiggly’s all night grocery store swished open right at midnight. Right on schedule.
Umberto Solis looked up from a thick volume on The History Of American Literature 1885-1936 and at the homeless man, a classic example of down on his luck dressed in tatters that were literally crumbling to dust with each step, who shuffled uneasily up to the checkout counter. His bloodshot eyes struggled to make contact with Umberto’s. Umberto knew the score. So did the homeless man. He reached his arm forward and tapped his wrist in the time-honored gesture of checking a watch. He held up five fingers. The homeless man said nothing but shambled down a middle aisle toward the deli section.
These were the rules.
The homeless man had five minutes to grab and eat anything he could lay his, dirty, filthy, scabby hands on. Five minutes, give or take, passed and Umberto eased out of his chair and traced the bum’s path. He rounded a corner and found the man slumped on the floor, chomping down on a package of bologna and a couple of fried fruit pies. If it was unhealthy, it was in his mouth. The man looked up at Umberto and staggered to his feet. They both knew it was time to go. Umberto reached out with a going away present, a paper bag stuffed with a couple of apples and a bag of peanuts. The man’s hand shook as he grabbed the offering and slowly but surely staggered out the door.
Umberto moved back to his perch and continued to read. He had kept the man alive for the better part of a year. Yes, he could get fired for this. No, he did not care. Five o’clock rolled around and Umberto clocked out, leaving a note that gave his two-weeks notice. He was being fair to Uncle Wiggly. Most people either upped and quit on the spot or just did not show up. But Uncle Wiggly had been good to him, providing him an hourly minimum wage for a graveyard shift that did not require much more than the ability to keep a seat warm.
He liked this time of the morning, dark going on early sunlight. The gods of Los Angeles had done their damage for one night. He felt safe as he crossed deserted streets and ignored stoplights as he drifted into the shitty part of town. Anybody who would knock him in the head or slit his throat had already nodded out, O.D.’d or was in their own private hell, emotionally gearing up for another day. Umberto made a hard right and found home, a run down boarded up quadplex at the end of a cul de sac.
He fished a key out of his pocket and stuck it in the lock. It was not necessary. It was ajar and had obviously been that way for hours. It was not a good sign. He walked into darkness, not bothering to turn on a light. His mom had long ago stopped paying utilities, preferring to put any money left over from her welfare check toward drugs rather than Con Ed.
Speaking of mom.
There she was sprawled on a ratty couch in the half light. Drool coming out of the side of her mouth, a crack pipe at her feet. The stench and futility were palpable. She was breathing, which was a good sign. That she barely touched the plate of food he had put out for her was not. Mom had not moved in days. Nothing new to see here.
Umberto moved to his room, his refuge. He lit a couple of candles, a stick of incense. He closed the door and surveyed his domain. The bed was made. Primitive board and brick shelves were packed with books to read and notebooks to write in. Umberto sighed as he looked around and contemplated his next move.
He had things to do.
He had graduated with honors from Grayson High School and was selected Valedictorian. But Umberto was not done. The library would not open for another four hours, he reasoned. And he could use a little sleep. Umberto stripped down, braved the horrors of a shower that had not been cleaned in eons and curled up under the covers as the welcome silence played over him.
A rickety wooden desk in the way back of the reference section had been his home away from home for years. Umberto had done his homework there, had busted his ass to get straight A’s, even in subjects he was not thrilled about and was that rare success story in a school that had long been known for its dropout rate. And now he was in the home stretch. The beginning of the end and that first step into the unknown.
Umberto got here by not pulling any punches. His goal was simple. Survive his life and get on with his life. By the time he entered his freshman year, his life was in order, be a straight A student and get accepted to a top college. Getting there had not been easy. He dodged the gang life, the drug life and the 'knock up a girl and settle for a shit job' life. To Umberto’s way of thinking it was no bullshit all the way.
He drew up a list of 20 of the top colleges and universities in the country. No junior colleges and trade schools for Umberto. It was Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley or the highway. His approach was street. Enclosed to prime the pump was his academic record which was above board. Then it was simply his story.
Mom got knocked up at age 15. Never knew my dad. From all reports it could have been anybody. Family took her back, largely to glom onto the food stamps and welfare money that she brought with her. Mom continued to act out. Two miscarriages in three years. Mom turned 18 and out the door we went. Over the years there was a lot of guys in and out. They didn’t stay long enough for my mom to force me to call them dad. Lots of drugs. My mom for drugs became a fair exchange on the street. After one too many trips to the emergency room after yet another guy beat her to a pulp, I finally had enough.
I saw my future and it looked black. When I turned 15, I drew up a four year plan. I would turn a generous C average to straight A’s. I would take any kind of shit job and sock what I made away in a bank. I had a few friends but nothing special. My world became school, the library, a graveyard gig at an all- night market called Uncle Wiggly’s. and pit stops at home to grab a few hours sleep and to clean up the mess that was my mother’s life. So there you have it. I would be a literature major. I like to read. I’ve written some things, some poems, some short stories. Not sure how good they are. I never sent them out in the world. I haven’t been that brave. I’m not asking for much. Room and board and first semester books and tuition. I will get a job to cover the rest.
So that’s my story. Let me know what you think. Umberto out
Umberto was not surprised when Harvard, Yale and Berkeley did not respond. Princeton also passed but at least had the decency to wish him good luck with his life. Then came San Jose State. They admired his courage and honesty and it went without saying that his grades were first rate. Umberto, ever the cynic, was waiting for the 'but' or the 'unfortunately.' San Jose State would offer Umberto a full four year ride.
He filled out the necessary paperwork, talked by phone to a counselor so they could make sure his shit, mentally and emotionally, was together. Umberto smiled and pumped his fist. He would enter as a freshman in the fall.
Over the next weeks, Umberto attended to business. He cashed out his savings account and immediately transferred it to a bank within spitting distance of the campus. His last check from Uncle Wiggly’s would cover a train ride up north. Now came the hard part.
That day in the library he wrote three letters. One each to Social Services, the local police department and to his mother’s family. He was equally to the point.
I will be leaving for college in a matter of days. My mother is a crack addict who could easily be dead by the time you read this. I’ve done everything I can do for her. It’s sad but I’m out of here. If you can help her that would be great. If it’s too late, make sure her next of kin are notified. I will be at San Jose State but, in any case, I don’t need to know. Umberto out
Umberto went about his business that last night with equal parts detachment, sadness, and excitement. He walked through the house with his bags. His mother was passed out on the couch as usual. The only difference was that a syringe and a tie-off were dangling from her arm. She was breathing heavily but she was breathing. He didn’t want his last official act as her son to be to call the meat wagon. He kissed his mother on her forehead and walked out the door for the last time.
Leaving the door ajar.
The last night at Uncle Wiggly’s was the same as every other night. An envelope with his last paycheck and a bit of extra some-some awaited him. Umberto had to admit that that Uncle Wiggly was a class act. At the stroke of midnight, the homeless man shuffled in and Umberto gave him his usual five minutes. When he was finished gorging on crap. He handed the man an extra-large bag full of the good stuff. Fruit, vegetables, some cans of tuna and spam and a couple of small steaks.
Umberto and the homeless man looked at each other. Not a word was spoken. They both knew that this was the last roundup and that the bag was some final parting gifts. Umberto clocked out at five on the nose and walked off into early morning light and to the train station. In his hand was one of those awful fruit pies. He opened the wrapper and began to eat. He had heard they were awful, real artery cloggers.
But this night it tasted pretty good.
Photo credit: Valentin Antonini