The man tiptoes around the bed but his steps are not light enough atop the coarse carpet and she wakes.
Where are you going, she asks.
Go back to sleep, he says.
The baby slumbers in the crib, dreaming of colored horses and shiny stars or so it would seem, judging by a smile that manages to set alight the man’s determination, if not his spirit. He kisses the boy on the forehead and heads for the door. He wants to kiss the woman too, but a hurting pride lies between them and he chooses not to.
Thrushes and robins also wake early, singing away with abandon their songs of work and industry. The dawn light, on the other hand, is just as groggy as the journeying man. This is not a deterrent; he will take care of things (it is expected of him).
There is no car to make his voyage easier so he walks, slowly, in timed strides that carry a rhythm not completely of his own, but one that belongs also to the ever-flowing stream of time and circumstance.
A few steps along the way, or perhaps many, the man digs deep into his pockets and produces ninety nine cents with which he buys a newspaper from a wizened old man that seems to have spent his entire life at the same wizened old magazine stand. Neither man thanks the other, and why would they?
One more batch of cents and the man’s reserves are emptied when he procures a cup of bitter coffee: bad, but he needs it. He opens the newspaper to the section where many look for chances but only a handful find them. Sips and scans, sips and scans.
The coffee is as good an investment as he expects it to be (unlike in days before this). He feels awake, not quite alive, and still the former is something few get to say at this wee hour of the morning. The newspaper, however, works for him just the way it does for many, which translates to not so much, and he feels deep the waste of time and credit. Life is unfair like that, he knows.
More steps and the man finds himself surrounded by pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways. He feels one or two pangs of regret: he has been here before, if not here exactly, somewhere with the same virginal facades, the same high-end appliances; the same hopes for a future where a thousand becomes a million, where four years and peek-a-boo become twenty and a degree. But he is that man no more and regret takes him nowhere.
He forces himself to focus on that unmowed lawn that stands out among the well-trimmed others. He knocks not on the door of man or woman, he knocks on the door of a thing with feathers. And yet is a woman who answers, old and proud, weathered but not withered.
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Sorry, she replies.
This one has scorn tattooed on her face and the apology does not stick.
A few more houses down the road, or perhaps many, a young couple see themselves reflected on the supplicating man (he knows he is not really begging, but it is all the same to them).
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Well, why not, they answer.
These two have pity tattooed on their face.
The sun conspires with the clouds to remain apart for the day and so the man bakes under a full, scorching yoke. Inch by inch (square) the lawn is mowed until it matches the rest of the pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways.
Fate (which equals luck as far as the man is concerned) will not let the sun and the clouds be the only ones conspiring and does some conspiring of its own: when work was all but done, the man accidentally breaks one of the garden flamingoes that adorned the now pretty lawn of the pretty house with pretty fence and pretty driveway. He doesn’t curse; he has done his share of cursing already.
I broke your decoration, he says.
Sorry, they reply.
Sorry is indeed tattooed on both their faces, but still they do not pay.
From suburb to factory, the man draws some more steps, or perhaps many. He feels the tug of hard labour in his bones and muscles, but he bores valiantly through the tunnel of expectancy, wishing.
Do you have work, he asks.
We’re full, they reply. And full they look for at least their bellies have food in them.
Night will soon fall on him, but there is one avenue yet to follow. He walks many steps, or perhaps a few, to a street where men like him (but so unlike him) sit in the curb with cardboard signs. There are pipe workers and wire workers and soap workers and brick and mortar workers. They all await the promised vehicle that will take them to a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway.
Anything, the man asks.
No, the men reply, and no is sadly tattooed on their faces.
A park is the next destination; he has to rest his weary self. For a moment it seems that, after all, luck is not the same as fate and he finds a half-eaten sandwich on one of the benches. He nibbles at it gingerly, savoring each particle of wheat and cream and turkey as if it were a feast.
When he is done with the sandwich (or the sandwich done with him) he heads back. Not towards home, only to something just a tad like it.
Now, here comes a twist that has nothing to do with neither luck nor fate, for it is product of man’s free will.
Someone walks by our man. A man too, well-dressed, clean. The type of man that could live in a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway. Our man sees him and—this happens in a flash—makes up his mind.
Can you spare a dollar, our man asks.
Sorry, the man replies.
Sorry is not tattooed in this man’s face, and our man does not care. What happens next might as well be left unsaid for there is blood and turpitude and not a pang or two, but a lot of regret.
Our man walks a few steps that feel like many, an ill-begotten load burdening him in his path.
A convenience store lies outside the motel and here the man stops, for there is right to be done with what from wrong came.
He buys a Coors Light Lime for him and his aches.
He buys a large bottle of root beer for the boy (he will be thrilled).
He buys two more sandwiches to go with the one he already ate and a gallon of milk to pretend there is still wellness in his family (or that there is a family at all).
The rest of the money he saves for tomorrow’s date with the wizened old man at the wizened old magazine stand and the same bitter, hopeless cup of mud.
The man walks up the stairs, to a room where he is expected. His steps are heavy. So is his soul.