That’s all we’ve got left,” the shelter director said. “A pair of shoes. I’m a little shocked that thief Barnes decided he had shoes to spare.”
“What am I going to do with a pair of shoes?” The bum said.
“I dunno, slice ‘em up and eat ‘em?”
The director’s lips displayed disdain. The shoes were athletic in nature, which would have been perfect had the bum been an athletic person. He tied their laces together and slung them around his neck. The shoes bumped his chest with pendulum-level regularity as he left the shelter and walked south on the Bowery.
Barnes, who’d stayed at the shelter off and on with the bum, had stolen several hundred dollars from a food cart the prior week. The cell-phone quality pictures in the paper had shown halal meat hitting several pedestrians in the face as the vendor unsuccessfully fought for the contents of his cash register. Barnes’ face was now plastered on light poles and in bus stops, his jaw square, his eyes glittering with accomplishment.
Barnes had money. The bum had one layer of dirty clothing, thirty-seven cents, and a pair of shoes. The bum decided his situation required Barnes-level ingenuity. He turned left, his bare feet padding down the sidewalk.
The apartment building he’d rob was in a neighborhood full of old ladies who could be tricked into believing anyone wanted to deliver them a package. Back when he wasn’t a bum, he lived there with a woman; they had thought they’d get married someday. After he identified himself as the postman or UPS or FedEx and the door buzzed open, he’d walk to the back of the building and climb the fire escape in search of insufficiently locked windows.
FedEx proved to be a magical word. The fire escape was damp with dew. When he slid his fingers under the fourth window ledge he was surprised to feel the metal frame shift in his favor. The change jar on the bedroom desk wasn’t as promising as the jewelry in one of the desk drawers. He stuffed two gold necklaces in his pants pockets. He walked into the living room and flipped on the lights and saw his initials carved into a corner of the wooden floor and remembered doing it nine years before. He imagined himself as he’d been then, younger and cleaner and blissfully oblivious to the possibility of becoming his current self; a man who scaled fire escapes without the threat of fire at his back.
Keys sounded in the lock and he dashed back to the bedroom to leave. Halfway out the window, he impulsively turned to face the entrant. His ex-girlfriend stood before him, her hair gleaming, her mouth a straight, angry slash.
“Get out,” she said, “or I’m calling the police.”
He finished his climb outside and slipped on the damp fire escape stairs. The shoes left his neck when he left his feet and flew into the air. His hands reached for metal but found shoelaces instead. The laces only held him up for a second.
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