I have it.
I finally have it, after all this time, and its presence buoys me with a confidence like the one a man gets when he has a dollar bill in his pocket. There is no man in the world rich enough not to be lifted up by the feeling of paper bills folded over each other, stuffed into a wallet, so much more tangible than a credit card’s fickle plastic body.
And this is so much more than money.
So it is a skip in my step that propels me down the stairs to the street. The day is a lover with cold hands on my face. Every bird in the world calls my name and I pull my hat down, rakish, like I mean trouble.
I have not been trouble for a long time, but now, I think, I could work my way back to it. It is twelve blocks to my cousin’s, and that gives me plenty of time to imagine how I will break the news of my acquisition to him. My cousin Felix has always been the clever one, quick with words. He’s the man who steps forward with an arm outstretched and a greeting for a woman’s jewelry. I always stand behind him and wonder how it is that he sees their necklaces or their earrings. I see eyes and hair, nose and hands. Felix takes everything else, so this is all I can steal in a glance.
If he were in my place, walking the twelve blocks to me, knocking on my door, triumphant as an archangel, he would make the words bigger than the thing itself.
Maybe I will not have to say anything at all. Maybe he will see it on my face.
Nearby, a boat cries out, the mighty bellow of a broad-chested animal. The pier where the cargo ships come in is only blocks away. Some days it smells like Poseidon’s rotting corpse walks the streets, but not today. Today it is fair and cold and the wind blows me forward. Felix’s money comes in on those ships. His wife calls it filthy money, and she often leaves the room with her arms crossed over her breasts and a mutter behind her teeth, but I see her in the shops on Saturday and his living spends as fast as the clean bills.
She says that I am as dirty as Felix’s ships, and he tells her that he is trapped with both of us. Sometimes it feels my fate is tied in with the ships and their grim cargo, only one of us Felix is happy to see when it arrives.
Oh, but he has treated me well. I cannot speak ill of my cousin. It is his money that puts a roof over my head. I can’t ask for his charity and his respect both. Only now, my pocket, my left pocket, is weighted with this thing I have acquired.
I will have his respect now. He will either give it freely, or I will take it.
A man calls out to me on the street as I pass. He sits with his back against the gray grim stone this city is made out of, and when he shakes his cup at me, it clatters a filthy little tune. He has only one leg.
I do not have anything, and what I do have is Felix’s, but today, I reach into my pocket — not the left, because I do not want to touch it — but the right, and I drop some coins into his cup. “Happy day to you,” I tell the beggar.
“I’ll have what’s in your other pocket,” he says to me. His voice is pinched and high. It’s a boy’s voice, not a man’s, and it gives me an ugly turn. I think he has stolen that voice from someone, and somewhere, there’s a boy with a croak or a whisper in return.
“I beg your pardon?” I ask.
“With that in your pocket,” he shrills, “you don’t have to beg for it.”
My coat doesn’t hang to reveal an outline of the thing in my left pocket, and it’s a mysterious outline in any case, so I am disquieted. I kick the man’s cup over and tell him to close his mouth. He laughs, a woman’s laugh, and I nearly take what I have newly acquired out of my pocket to make him be quiet.
But no, I won’t. It’s meant for bigger things than stuffing a beggar’s voice back into his lungs.
The houses grow shutters and window boxes as I grow closer to my cousin’s. The ones I have left behind stand shoved against each other like passengers on the train. These well-dressed houses upwind from the pier stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, just far enough apart to be professional. Close by choice rather than necessity. Felix’s has a blue door to show his trade. His wife despises it, but she married it anyway. She thinks her children won’t grow up to be blue-door men as well, but she is full of the optimism that’s fathered by pride.
I used to want one of these fine houses that sat just above the scent of sluggish water, but surely now I could do better. Surely now I could have one of the houses on the hill, one with a rakish tilt to match my hat. Maybe I could leave this gritty city altogether. My roots are deep but I think I could live with shallow ones if I had better soil to put them in.
There are steps, here, in the walk, that separate the cargo district from Felix’s district. My thoughts have caught me and so I trip on the first step, unthinking. For a moment, as I hurtle toward the ground, all I can think of is the thing in my pocket and what would happen if it hit the ground, and how it could all be over before it began. It is so much more than I thought it would be, the shape and size of the responsibility, and it is almost too late when I wheel my hands out to catch myself.
I save myself, but only just.
The wind finds sweat on my palms.
Felix didn’t think I could find it. Or perhaps he didn’t think I was really looking. I know his wife thought that I was like so many of the other blue-door’s brothers and cousins and sons. Spending the day insensible in a shared room in the cargo district, living the life that arrived in the ships each day. But I know what I wanted, and I knew where to find it. It just took me a long time.
Now that I have this thing, though, I have to use it. I feel it in my pocket and I don’t know how I can’t.
I stand on Felix’s doorstep. The blue on the door is brilliant, like he just repainted it. It looks as if it would color my finger tips if I touched it.
I smash the knocker down, three times. I hear footsteps inside the hall.
The day is a scavenger, stripping meat from the bones.
I say, “I have it.”
Author’s Note: I like being coy.
Photo courtesy: Christopher Verdier